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garden for the ruined

Chapter Text

ONE

And this problem grew deep in him, the roots coiled just so; and upwards bloomed a flower that he couldn't depose. Over his tongue, his teeth, past his lips — the damned thing and its genus became known, and oh, it wanted. It wanted, and wanted.


It was a reprieve, Yuki thought, to breathe in the earthy character of Okamoto Floral. Against the familiar yet permeating smell of the financial district, where the tang of crowded bodies and thin impressions of smoke were permanent fixtures, the shop sat as a small haven some blocks away, on a street where the sleek-faced buildings dwindled and gave way to a quieter section of the city. The foot traffic low, the sky less obstructed. And while his first visit there had been cursory, just a suit buying something nice for his boss, it was on his return to the city that he felt self-aware of himself once again in the crowd. That vague nag returning to ask if he was visible after all. 

He returned to the shop. He breathed in steady the dampened soil and unfinished wood shelves, lined with greenery and laminated tags taped to the edges, handwritten notes of the name and price. The whisper of fresh-cut flowers standing upright and wrapped in cellophane behind the checkout counter, just barely seen through the glare of the shop’s picture window by passers-by. The bursts of sweetness sneaking in from the neighboring bakery, lingering before settling at the door. 

As he returned a fourth, fifth, sixth time, he found these were things he was getting used to. Beyond that, he had begun to associate these things with a small comfort that resided in the pit of his stomach. Something warm and easing amidst the chronic stress. 

And that was a new feeling to him. To wake up on a Monday or Wednesday and feel slightly soothed by having something to look forward to. To go to bed those nights feeling a little more at ease, even if only for a short while. 

It was Friday. Late April, deceivingly sunny as the weather still clung onto a chill. The early afternoon gave way to a light chatter livening the street as the lunch hour continued on. He had been standing at the shelf of peperomias in the far corner of the store, thinking vague and idle about if he should try to keep one, maybe finally make an attempt to brighten his apartment, when that ease was interrupted by what was becoming a lengthy stare into his back.

His shoulders tensed under the weight of it. It was a usual discomfort, but here — well, he hadn’t felt it since his first couple of visits earlier in the month, when the shopkeep and her assistant kept their eyes on him out of a mere curiosity of what he was there for. He hadn’t reacted to it back then. He was a stranger to them. It was a short visit, a brief browse and quick transaction, leaving with the slightest suggestion that maybe they would see him again. He hadn’t even given them his name.

Now, though, the sensation made him itch. And while he knew that it would be the assistant staring at him, with the shopkeeper gone on an errand and the welcome bell having been silent since he arrived, he still felt his brows flinch at meeting the other’s dark eyes lying flat against his own from across the shop, glazed yet unyielding as he continued his post at the cash register. 

Kakeru Manabe was, in simple terms, a nuisance at worst and enigmatic at best. He constantly betrayed his lax posture with the force of his voice, dragging Yuki into conversation only to speak over him and change the topic in waves rolling too fast to keep up with. A friendly gesture from seller to buyer amped to a degree Yuki wasn't familiar with. Not that Yuki was a stranger to customer favoritism — he had been a regular at the corner shop just down the street from his apartment for years, collecting his breakfast and dinner and, until recently, his cigarettes from the same man who had probably been manning the counter before he was born — but since stepping into the shop a third time, Manabe seemed keen to fast-track the process. The natural line from stranger, to regular, to acquaintance, to friend, compressed between his hands and made jagged. All on his terms, all in record time. And though this behavior was off-putting, it was just another part of the store’s character. By far the least charming part of it, but, Yuki admitted, a part of it nonetheless.  

So it was jarring to see Manabe across the store from him, leaning lax into his elbows as usual yet holding his stare in pensive silence. Yuki leveled a stare back over his shoulder to challenge the sensation, and watched as the serious demeanor cleared. With a jump in his brow and a short perk of his head, Manabe reached up to swipe his headphones down to sit on the nape of his neck, and he asked,

“What’s up? You need help?”

“Huh?” Yuki shifted on his heel to better face him, as though doing so would help clear the confusion he felt settle into his forehead. “No, I— sorry?”

“Help,” Manabe repeated. He gestured loose at the shelf of houseplants. “You look confused about ‘em. Honestly, those ones are pretty easy, if you’re worried about killing them. They die if they’re overwatered, so they’re good for people who aren’t home a lot.”

Yuki’s shoulders eased. “Oh, I wasn’t—”

“Although, I never really got that. Like, getting a bunch of plants to pretty up a place that no one ever sees.” Manabe pressed his cheek to his hand, drawing his eyes to squint at the display of garden tools in thought. “I got a lady who came in yesterday who kept going on about business trips and bouncing between boyfriends and saying all this stuff that really just amounted to her using her place as somewhere to sleep and barely anything else, and I wanted to ask her, like, ‘Hey, what’s the point exactly?’ But, far be it from me to keep someone from buying shit, so she took her plants and went on her merry way. But, man, I really wanted to know. 

“And then that made me wonder if she’s one of those people who adopts a dog or something just because they feel lonely, only to have to drop them at a pound because it pissed on their carpet once and they can’t deal. Pretty shitty, but better a plant than an animal, I guess. For all I know she’s just doing it to impress her new fling that she knows will only last a week anyways — her words, not mine. Kind of felt bad saying goodbye to those suckers, knowing their fate, but…”

He lifted his head to wave his hand idly before dropping his cheek back to his palm. 

“Register’s not gonna cry about it, so I won’t either.”

Yuki gaped in the quiet that followed. Finally, he managed, “I wasn’t confused about the plant.”

Manabe brought his look back to him.

“Oh yeah?”

“I thought— sorry, I could feel you staring at me.”

Saying it out loud made him feel a bit irrational, but he stood practiced and still. Manabe, though, only shifted his hands to lay flat on the counter, and he leaned into them, straightening from his daydreaming slouch.

“What, like you just felt me staring?” he asked.

“I think most people can sense when they’re being stared at.”

“Mm, I dunno about that.” Manabe squinted short with skepticism, before directing his look away to check the time on the wall. “I think people like to think they’re being stared at, because they’re, you know, playing off of fantasies and stuff in their heads.”

Yuki felt his face pinch. Stepping forward to ease some of the distance between them, he stood instead in front of a display of ground-cover plants. He brushed his fingers over the short stalks of sedum, feeling the gentle prick of their needles before pulling away. 

“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said.

“Have you never walked down a street at night and automatically thought someone could be following you? Not because you hear anyone, but just because it’s dark?” Manabe swept his eyes to the front door, peering down the street a moment before returning his attention to Yuki. “Or, have you ever stood in a shop having the most boring time of your life buying apples and thought, ‘maybe this could be like my romcom moment, and my true love is standing just behind me, checking me out, and he’ll whisk me away from my loveless marriage and-or corporate hellhole job,’ and you feel the stare, but you turn around and it’s just some old guy buying eggs, and he’s pretty much focused on just the eggs?”

How readily these scenarios came to his mind, Yuki thought. Though he reeled for a response, he realized Manabe said these things as though they were obvious, and normal, and Yuki found himself not for the first time torn over whether this was a general reality he wasn’t aware of or simply Manabe’s manner of viewing things. Two distinct arenas, as he was beginning to learn, but at times they became muddled in him. 

He mulled an answer, until finally, he forced a breathy laugh and said,

“I think you watch too many movies.”

Manabe tilted his head from side to side. His face scrunched for a moment in stubborn reluctance.

“I guess. But, think about it — maybe all media’s here to do is build us all up to be paranoid and lovesick. Always thinking there’s eyes on us, living off their fantasies in the back of our heads just to pass the time. They know most of us are just bored, and, hell, that’s enough to snag some profit.”

He shrugged then, and with another cursory glance at the shop’s door, propped his elbows to the counter and settled his chin back into his palm. There was something oddly quiet in the gesture that gave Yuki pause, and finding himself at a loss for response, he opted to just watch the other man think.

“I mean, personally,” Manabe continued, the air in his voice returning to its usual elevated tone as he looked again at Yuki, “I just wanna be a cool rogue hero that pops in at the right moment and saves everyone’s shit all stealthy-like. Not a big name, just some cool rumor, you know? I could walk in the streets listening to people talk about all the rad stuff I did, and they just wouldn’t have a clue as I walked right by.”

Yuki raised a brow at him. 

“Sounds productive,” he said. 

“Like I said, it passes the time.”

A silence set between them. Yuki tapped a fingertip against the wooden table at his hip, staring down at the small plants. He dragged a finger through a spot of loose soil while, in the corner of his eye, he noticed Manabe sit on the wheeled chair behind the register and slouch in it.

“But anyways, the staring thing,” he started, rotating in lazed semicircles, “that’s good to know, because honestly sometimes I’ll just say your name like, twenty times and not get a single response out of you.”

Yuki stopped his finger. Looking again at Manabe, he forced his face into gentle confusion.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, sometimes I’ll go, ‘Kouta, Kouta, Kouta, Kouta, Kouta,’ and you’ll give me absolutely nothing! I couldn’t tell if it was just because you were ignoring me, or if you actually space out that bad. Either way, it kind of hurts my feelings — you’re the only person I’ve got to talk to here lately, and you really just leave me hanging to rot behind the counter with nothing to do.”

Yuki brought his hand to cup the back of his neck. A sheepish gesture, but he felt the warmth of his panic close in on his palm, and hoped it hadn’t flushed his face. He squeezed his neck lightly in an attempt to calm himself before returning his hand back to the display table. 

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, managing an embarrassed smile. “That’s rude of me. I guess I get lost in thought sometimes.”

“Oh, all the time.” Manabe kicked a foot up to rest on the edge of the cashier’s counter, pushing the rolling chair back and dragging it back in, anchored by the rubber sole of his sneaker locked against the dark mica. “But, now I know I just gotta stare at you long enough to make you turn around. Pretty easy.”

Yuki let out a slow breath to ease his chest. 

“Why were you staring, anyway?” he asked.

Manabe shrugged. “Was just thinking. You were spaced out but, like, barely moving. Kind of freaky! I was beginning to wonder if you had just fallen asleep standing up, like maybe you were raised by horses or something. But, I should’ve known better.” 

“Why’s that?”

“You’re a space cadet, dude. It’s like you’re not even here sometimes. At least it’s more likely than the horses thing.”

Before Yuki could attempt a response, the jangle of the small bell affixed to the shop’s door stole Manabe’s attention. As Yuki followed suit, he was met with the shopkeep, returned from her errand and standing in the entrance somewhat windswept.  

Manabe landed his feet back to the floor with a loud slap.

“Machi! Was wondering where you were. I was getting worried. Like, literally I was about to run out of here to go hunt you down. You really never know what could happen with all these dark alleys and stuff.”

“It’s the middle of the day,” Yuki countered. Manabe looked at him with a frown. 

“And? Villains don’t disappear when the sun comes out.”

Kuragi shifted her thin coat off of her arms. Her brows twinged, but she stayed otherwise mum. 

“Stop slacking, Manabe,” she said. He scoffed in turn.

“I’m not slacking. Look—” With arms spread out, he gestured wide to the shop before him. “Place isn’t burned down, or broken into, or infested with rats.”

She regarded him with an irritated look, but said nothing more. As she moved to turn down the furthest aisle, Yuki made a small noise, stilling her.

“Good afternoon, Kuragi-san,” he said.

She looked at him. As usual, her eyes weren’t cold, but they weren’t kind, either. She tended toward quiet and aloof; unlike her associate, she was proving to be a challenge to get to know, often working outside of the shop making deliveries and keeping much to herself otherwise. From what Yuki gathered, she was more the financial power behind the establishment, while Manabe took care of being the storefront’s personality. 

With a short once-over, she said, “Afternoon, Ito-san,” and with that was quick to turn away her gaze and resume her task.

Yuki followed her with his eyes until she disappeared behind the shelves crowded with foliage and planters. There was the metallic squeak of the backroom door opening, and with her voice raised yet still, she called, “Did you start the order we got this morning?”

Manabe slouched again behind the counter. Though he gave Yuki a withering look, Yuki directed his eyes to his watch instead. It was high time to go.

“Well, I guess I’ll leave you to it,” he said, and with a short wave he made his way to the door. Before stepping out, though, he paused, then threw a final look to the other man, saying, “I might come back about the plants in the back there. They sound manageable.”

“Don’t abandon me.”

“Earn your pay, Manabe. I’ll see you later.”

The door shutting behind him cut off the other's stringing whine. He squinted against the afternoon light as he bore left, returning in the direction of the financial district. 

Once he hit a shaded spot, he stilled at a quiet storefront. He slid his phone from his pocket, typing a memo to himself.  

20 April Seventh visit to Machi Kuragi’s shop. Her errands continue to be typical, but have picked up in volume (normal for season?). Errands seem to be mostly delivery, though visits to vendors are semi-frequent (**follow-up with C-group on validity). Still difficult to make conversation; reserved, but this in itself isn’t suspicious. Relationship with Manabe remains unclear, though seem to be more than associates. 

The assignment was straightforward enough: get more information on Hashitano Corporation’s CFO, Eiji Kuragi. Ascertain if the shop his daughter runs is a front for his private dealings, and if so, what for. Report back and cease contact with the subject unless otherwise directed. 

Dealing with unruly associates was standard. There was the option of settling things face-to-face, or playing the long game and handling things through indirect means. The latter was usually reserved for the ones who could afford to keep their cards close to their chest, where the extent of their businesses were hushed under long lineage and savvy practice. Obtaining information through backchannels — past clients, weak-willed associates, personal acquaintances — became necessary for leverage. Of course, the more issues they had with a single associate, the less potent these exploits became. Anything after the first couple major threats usually fell short.

What exact issues Akito had with Kuragi this time, Yuki couldn’t say. He had been involved in past assignments that dealt with him, all of them miniscule grievances that the Sohma family head either took as personal attacks or warped out of proportion. And while some of these matters had been considered serious enough for Yuki’s superiors to step in and handle themselves, his own ranking as second lieutenant in the family’s hierarchy had left him in charge with much of the rest. 

He had only met Eiji Kuragi once, during the initial dealings that ensured the protection of his side businesses from rivals and the authorities. In return, the Sohmas received a cut of the income, on top of a standard monthly insurance fee. This had started out as a cordial partnership; a year later, though, as it shook under Akito’s claims of backstabbing, unmet dues, or whatever seemed to fuel his paranoia in the moment, Yuki often found himself meeting with Kuragi’s middlemen to settle the drama. Offering apologies on the family’s behalf that Akito would never himself utter, smoothing over the carnage in whatever way was most applicable. Mitigating the threats of putting their trust in a different organization, if only to keep Akito’s fury at bay and to, frankly, keep people alive. 

(Of anything, that was his main goal. Not to keep the Sohmas in this single strand of business necessarily, but just to make sure that no one else died because of his own mishandlings. He refused to have another repeat on his record. That was the only thing keeping him tethered — refusing another accident, refusing to fail again at a negotiation. Success kept Akito calm. Success kept Akito away from him.)

His assignment to gather information from Kuragi’s daughter came as a bit of a surprise. Aside from being a more long-term assignment, the job seemed suspiciously low-risk, and it was strange that Machi Kuragi had so far been an unused source. They had managed to gain information on Kuragi in the past through direct questioning of previous workers and clients, but this assignment was far more covert. When Kureno, the headquarters’ chief and Akito’s mild-mannered attendant, had briefed Yuki in the beginning of March, he passed along Akito’s instructions without so much as mentioning the word interrogation or outright suggesting blackmail. Yuki didn’t ask; Kureno wouldn’t have an answer for him. 

The question of what the catch was remained at the front of his mind as he researched Kuragi’s daughter, a name he only barely recognized from previous dives into the man’s personal and business life. For one reason or another, Machi had never been directly involved in these attempts to collect private information about her father. On record, she appeared to live and work independently of him, despite being his first-born. Twenty-three years old, living alone in an innocuous part of the city, her moderate apartment practically unnoticeable in the shadow of her family’s wealth. The extent of her contact with her parents was unknown, as was her contact with the Kuragi heir, her thirteen-year-old brother Masaru. From what Yuki could gather, she kept her life separate from her family’s reputation, to the point of what looked like estrangement. On the other hand, there was the possibility that she did this in order to act as an underhanded asset to her father, an operation unbeknownst to the Sohmas and, thus, validation for Akito’s paranoia.  

The risk was that no one really knew what her relationship with her father entailed. While the end result of his assignment was a potential win-win — either she was separated and could be a good asset for incriminating information, or she was, in fact, assisting in an undisclosed operation, meaning Akito’s credibility wouldn’t be further damaged — getting to the point of revealing either required patience and tact. It was a delicate act of gaining trust and bringing out the truth without bullying it out of her.

Despite that, Yuki had planned for this to be a short assignment. He had done a number of these espionage jobs in the past, at varying levels of intensity in both what was being obtained and what lengths he had to go to to secure an identity. Some were difficult in both areas, the rest difficult in one or the other. This one seemed… simple, in comparison. An explainable identity, with hardly any need for alteration to his own personality. A job that would probably only require a few basic discussions to determine where Machi sat in relation to her father. 

The bulk of it, he figured, was a matter of putting himself on her radar over a month or two, to present himself as a possible acquaintance, and get to know her through friendly counter talk and lunch dates. Steer the dialogue to encourage her to speak of her father. Play as though he didn’t so much as know the name Eiji Kuragi, and play as though he weren’t Yuki Sohma. In his mind, the whole operation wouldn’t take more than a few months.

What he hadn’t planned for was Machi’s distant and silent disposition, or her penchant for appearing rather impassive towards the goings-on around her. He hadn’t planned to only manage a few sentences to her over the span of five weeks, all of which being some form of hello and goodbye, and didn’t expect her to be wholly uninterested in moving their dialogue beyond that. While he had successfully gotten himself on her radar, little else had been accomplished.

She was a challenge. But, despite his frustrations, he was finding himself to be curious of her. To stay so singularly tracked, as though in her own world while she took care of errands and orders, to be so engrossed in her work that pausing to talk hardly seemed possible… Well, it made him wonder. Maybe a tad suspicious, too.

He visited Okamoto Floral an eighth time in the beginning of May, as the end of Golden Week signaled the return of life to the business district. Under the guise that Kouta Ito was a person who went on vacations, thankful for the week long break from his desk job, Yuki tried to return to the shop with some semblance of ease keeping him light in his shoulders and on his feet. In truth, he had spent the last week at the Sohma headquarters, dealing with the fallout of one of his subordinates suddenly going rogue in the middle of an assignment. While Kouta Ito was lounging serene at his parent’s lakeside villa, Yuki had undergone three days of little sleep, and spent the remainder of the week doling out reprimands and figuring out logistics to salvage what had been compromised.

He was, to put it mildly, exhausted. So it was a relief to step into the shop and find himself eased of Manabe’s nonsensical greetings, and instead see Machi filling his spot behind the register. She was crouched before the day’s lineup of small bouquets to be delivered, her clipboard balanced on her thigh securing a jagged pile of blue forms. As she dipped her head to inspect the arrangements, double-checking them against the orders, her face was partially obscured by her ashy hair skimming over her shoulders. Still, Yuki recalled that look of concentration she held during the rare times he saw her in the store, and imagined much was the case here.

She didn’t so much as turn her head to him when the bell clattered at the entrance. In a final attempt to look refreshed and like Kouta, he took the moment to force his shoulders to relax, before rapping a knuckle gently against the door jamb to announce himself again.

“Good afternoon, Kuragi-san.” 

Her hand froze over her clipboard mid-stroke. He wondered if he had startled her out of her focus, and had an apology waiting on his tongue until she turned her head to look at him. Expression smoothed, revealing little as usual. She gave him a once-over that made him feel as though she was reminding herself of who he was, and she set her eyes on his for the barest moment before returning to her task. 

“Hello, Ito-san.”

She didn’t move to get up. Yuki almost didn’t know what to do with himself, having gotten used to her dashing away on errands as of late, or Manabe readily taking his attention, but he stepped further into the store and wandered slow to the wall display of seed packets that he had practically memorized from browsing in visits past. It was a versatile spot — lending him the position of his back facing the checkout counter and Machi behind it, giving her the space he assumed she wanted, while also being close enough to be easily heard without having to speak beyond a casual tone.

He reached forward to tilt the packet of leek seeds, skimming his eyes over the front.

“Did you have a pleasant holiday?”

Silence. After a stretch, he wondered if Machi hadn’t heard him after all, but as he turned on his heel to face the shelves of succulents to consider instead, he heard a quiet response. 

“It was fine.”

He looked through the shelves to where she was behind the register. He could just glimpse the back of her head as it peeked over the countertop, the half-knot messily tied at the crown stilled as she paused her task.

“Oh?” He thumbed the tag for the onzuka cacti, bringing his eyes back down to the odd plant but keeping her in this peripheral. “Did you do anything fun?”

“Not really.”

He hummed. “That’s a shame. You didn’t close the store at all, then?”

“...I didn’t.” She shifted somewhat, her head dipping entirely below the counter’s edge before returning. She didn’t rise from her spot. Yuki thought she was going to continue, but as another stretch of quiet separated them, he realized that the responsibility of the conversation returned to him.

“I suppose that makes sense,” he said. “It seems to be more of a corporate holiday. Although…” 

He stepped further down the aisle, crossing his arms loose across his chest as he meandered. In the middle aisle, the misters started with a low hiss.

“…I’m sure Manabe threw a fit,” he concluded. “Speaking of, I’m surprised I haven’t seen him.” 

“He’s out.”

“For the whole day?”

“For lunch.”

“Ah.” 

The misters turned off. He stepped into the middle aisle, looking over the plants now left with a gentle sheen. Ahead of him, Machi finally rose, her back to the store as she stood looking out the window into the street turning busy with the main afternoon rush.

He knew that she would decline an invitation to lunch if he asked. But, he figured he needed to leave the suggestion with her now rather than any later. 

“Have you eaten yet?” he asked. 

Her shoulders tensed under her sweater.

“No,” she said. “I will, but…“

He waited for an indication that she would continue. When she didn’t, he said, “Well, maybe we can do lunch together sometime.”

At that, he had expected her to say nothing, or maybe a short and simple rejection. Instead, she turned fast and harsh to look at him, and his attention snapped away from the display of plants to look back at her. She looked somewhere between shocked and confused, as if he had just insulted her. He raised his brows at her in turn, just as taken aback by her response.

“I mean,” he started, feeling the nervous rush as he thought of how to neutralize, “not today, of course. Just sometime in the future, if you ever feel up for it.”

The look she held didn’t dissipate. Yuki wasn’t sure that his own expression had calmed, either. They stood there in an odd standoff for what felt like much too long, and while he knew that to say any more on the matter would just make it worse, with how she was looking at him, he felt he had to say something to clear the air.

He opened his mouth to try again. 

The little bell fixed to the door jangled, interrupting him. He looked, and Manabe stepped in, chipper and not yet aware of the tense air that had formed in his absence. 

“I’m back,” he called, far too loud for the small space. “Sorry it took me a million years, forgot how damn crowded this place can get once all the suits come back from vacation. Look, though, I got you something to repent, so I think you can forgive me for the holdup, yeah?”

He tossed a paper bag onto the counter, stepping in further before leaning against its short edge. Machi snapped her look away from Yuki, turning again to face the line of bouquets set against the window. Yuki shifted his expression back to something he hoped looked calm before the other man could see him properly. Manabe’s attention, though, was turned to Machi.

“Geez, you’re acting weird. What, did someone just confess to you or something?” 

She stood quiet and tense as she slipped a form from the clipboard. He waited for some sort of response, but seeing that he wasn’t going to get one, sighed and buried his cheek to his hand, elbow set against the countertop.

“I mean, I don’t think that would be so terrible — you can have a life outside of this place, you know. Meet some nice people, get wasted on a Friday night like the rest of us. Maybe even go crazy and, I dunno, do one of those weekend raves. I know a place.”

Yuki huffed a laugh through his nose.  

“That sounds terrible.”

Manabe slapped his hand down on the counter, head perking as he turned to look at him.

“Oh, Kouta! Didn’t realize you were here. Long time, no see. I was just telling Machi here that she needs to get a life.”

“So I heard.”

Behind the counter, Machi dipped out of sight before snatching one of the bouquets, signaled by the harsh crinkling of cellophane under her grip. She rose to reveal a new sharpness that had formed in her posture.

“I’m going,” she said, low and curt as she took long strides towards the door. 

“See ya—” 

“Wait, Kuragi-san—”

She was gone. As the door clacked shut with another faint jingle, Yuki felt himself deflate a little. Manabe looked from the door to him, then back to the door, and back to him. Jutting a thumb over his shoulder in Machi’s general direction, he asked,

“So what was that about?”

Yuki meandered closer to him, leaving the display table behind. Manabe straightened himself, only to turn and hop onto the counter, letting the heels of his sneakers kick against the siding with a dull thud. He reached back to grab and root through the bag he had returned with. 

“Well, you did just tell her that she needs to get a life.” 

“Nah, that wasn’t it. I tell her that all the time, and she usually just tells me to shut it or stop bugging her. That—” He gestured again at the door with a jut of his chin. “—was different.”

Yuki tucked a strand of hair behind his ear and sighed.

“I think it was my fault,” he said. “I mentioned maybe going out to lunch together sometime.”

The crumpling of the bag ceased. Manabe sputtered a laugh. 

“Oh, wow. Hah! So she did get a confession. No wonder she looked freaked.”

Yuki’s face pinched in annoyance. “It wasn’t like that.”

“Well, she sure as hell seems to have taken it that way. Ah, well.” He waved a dismissive hand, before returning it to the bag, plucking out a bit of pastry. “Don’t worry about her. It’s not your fault.” 

Yuki returned his gaze to the spot in the street where Machi had disappeared. He was still taken aback by her response, and just how quickly she left the moment Manabe returned. 

He leaned a hand into the counter, where Manabe continued to tap a heel against the front, vague and off-beat to the song playing quiet over the store’s radio.

“If I didn’t know better,” Yuki started, frowning, “I would think that she—”

“Doesn’t like you?” Yuki looked at Manabe, tilting his head up somewhat to meet the other’s eyes in his elevated position. With the silent confirmation, Manabe shrugged. He spoke around the thumb risen sideways to his mouth, voice mumbled a moment as he scraped off the remnants of the treat with his teeth. “Eh. I don’t think she dislikes you, but she’s shy, I guess. I dunno, she’s always been kind of weird like that.”

“You mean, since you started working with her?”

Manabe huffed a small laugh. He wiped his hand on his jeans. “No, I mean she’s always been like that.”

That piqued Yuki. Childhood friends, then, or maybe just a vague knowledge of one another throughout their years of schooling. He moved to ask further, but Manabe was quick to diverge, his face forming something like a pout as he asked,

“Man, speaking of her, why have you never asked me out for lunch, huh? We’ve been talking for like, weeks already.”

“What?” Yuki felt his face fall somewhat. “Oh, I didn’t think—”

“That I wouldn’t want to? Please. I would live inside lunchtime if I could. It’s like a nap, except you get to eat.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“What doesn’t make sense is that you don’t wanna do lunch with me! I mean, come on—” 

Without warning, Yuki’s hand was taken in both of Manabe’s, clutched like a prayer. He was stilled by the other’s stern yet eager eye, dark with an intensity he only seemed to save for the most mundane things. 

“I think we’re ready to go to the next level,” Manabe decided. 

Yuki leveled a stare at him before snatching his hand away. “I think I’m too afraid to know what you’re like in public.”

“Ugh, you wound me.” His hands dropped empty to his lap. “Next week, then?”  

Though it would have been easy to laugh and say no thanks, something conflicted inside Yuki at the invitation. Part of him wanted to say fine, to placate him and avoid the inevitable haranguing. Part of him even wanted to say yes, because if they were going to talk so much during the lunch hour, then they might as well have actual lunch. Maybe it wouldn’t be a disaster to speak outside of the shop. Maybe the food would even keep Manabe too busy to talk much.

And then part of him said no. No, because Manabe was already like this inside his place of work, and it was a scary thought to wonder what he would be like outside of it with the seller-customer barrier fully lifted. No, because things were fine as they were, with their meetings strictly kept to the store, the only place where he — where Kouta, he determined — would allow this sort of thing, this odd relationship that had formed.

And no, because that was just the thing. As difficult as it was to admit to himself, Yuki had unwittingly started forming an acquaintanceship with him, this person adjacent to who he was supposed to be getting to know. Initially drawn by the wily assistant’s hand, Yuki had made no motion to move away from Manabe’s idealistic prospects of friendship. He had doubted it, yes, but within that inaction he now found himself on the tails of a whirlpool he hadn’t even realized existed.

And that was just too much of a liability. Furthering this relationship outside of the shop could only make things worse.

So, instead, Yuki could only impart him with a “we’ll see,” followed by a vague mention of needing to return to work. Manabe waved him off, leaving him with a knowing “see you next week.” As he returned to the streets more readily shrouded by high-rises, he pulled his phone out to tap out another memo. Brow furrowed, but breathing steady. 

9 May — Eighth visit to Machi Kuragi’s shop. Some headway made in dialogue with her, though she continues to be distant. Mentioned the possibility of lunch together in the future, response was negative, but not a no. Manabe indicated that this was normal for her (seems to be more reclusive than initially believed). Also indicated that he and Kuragi have known each other for many

He stopped, suddenly, at realizing what he was about to type. 

Manabe. He was, quite possibly, Yuki’s only key to learning more about Machi, and in turn, her father. Though Machi only expressed a plain annoyance towards him, they spoke to one another with some ease — an ease that came from knowing each other, Yuki now knew, for what sounded like a long time. It wasn’t just the dialogue between coworkers, but something further and more personal. While Machi would never reveal much, Manabe was, in contrast, an open book. No, with how he spoke so freely of things, he was the entire library. 

And depending on just how far back their relationship went, it was possible that Manabe had some new information on Eiji Kuragi himself. A very minute possibility, Yuki placated, and not one to get excited over. But it was possible.  

Yuki knew it was convoluted, having to consult the backchannel to the backchannel. But it wasn’t entirely unusual, and it was what he was being offered. And as far as offers went, this wasn’t the worst one.

And he really almost said no to having lunch with him.

His neck felt hot with a growing annoyance with himself for nearly slipping up so violently. He hurried the remainder of the memo before resuming his walk to his destination: a nondescript corner some blocks away from Okamoto Floral, where a car was waiting to transport him back to the family headquarters in the neighboring city. There, more work awaited him. 

There, he had to think. 

Also indicated that he and Kuragi have known each other for many years. They are not lovers. Past romantic relationship seems unlikely. Future discussions with him about Kuragi to be scheduled.

Chapter Text

Kakeru Manabe was not his friend, and he never would be. Yuki understood as much when he took the assignment, as he understood it when he took any assignment, and he understood it once again as he recentered himself after his last visit. Friends, as far as he was concerned, was synonymous with information source, or business contact. Neither of which were truly friends, and neither of which ever lasted long enough or lended enough truth — in personality or in word — to be considered as such anyway. 

So, Manabe wasn’t his friend. He was Kouta’s acquaintance at best, but beyond that he was just another name in a file that Yuki was unlikely to see again once all was said and done. On the job, he could slip into a place where the other man’s reaches for friendship were casually reciprocated, amusing his bizarre spiels and making talk about nothing in particular. When he returned to reality, though, those moments had to be stripped down to just what was needed — information on Machi, information on the shop, information on Eiji Kuragi. It was simply what the position entailed. Gain their trust, get enough information, and leave their lives as though he had never been there to begin with. 

Before Yuki turned onto the street where Okamoto Floral resided, that navy-painted storefront in the midst of simple whites and beiges, he stopped to level his head one more time. Adjust his sweater, fuss with his watch, smooth down the pockets of his slacks. 

In this moment, Kakeru Manabe wasn’t his friend. In another moment, he would be his acquaintance. By the end of the day, he would be back to being a temporary liaison, and nothing more.

He turned down the street. He visited the shop for a ninth time. 

As he entered, he was quick to notice Machi’s position at the far-end of the store, stood behind the counter where she was focused on arranging an order. Her eyes flashed up to his and away again at a speed that had Yuki convinced that the movement was involuntary, for if she had seen him he was sure she would have made her silent sidestep into the backroom, a part of the store Yuki had never seen but found to be something like her place of sanctuary. The only reason she had been able to speak to her at all last time was because Manabe had been out on his break, and she had been left as its sole defender. 

Now, though, her assistant was there, standing at the center display table with a customer and talking her through her options. He was lively, but Yuki noticed that at times his sentences became clipped, paired with a look at the customer and a beat of silence to let her speak. A practiced reservation that, while perhaps he could stand to use it in his day-to-day, he used for the sake of a sale. To compensate for his stilled mouth, he drummed his fingers fast against his thigh, or reached a hand up to fuss with the piercing that dotted his earlobe. Minor fidgets, made less obvious with a look that feigned interest to keep his customer from feeling pressed by his impatience. 

He had even managed a silent greeting to Yuki as he passed by, sending a small wave and half-smile over the table and returning his attention to the customer once Yuki reciprocated. 

Yuki stood again at the back shelves where he would consider, for the fourth or fifth time, buying a plant to give some life to his apartment. He had also taken to spending a few minutes there to collect his bearings. To exist not as Kouta or even as a Sohma, but to spend some minutes in the no man’s land stretched between the two. Standing at the junction of low-light houseplants and decorative planters, a spot that lent him little in the parameters of his assignment but granted him a place to breathe. It was a little silly, maybe, but he had found the practice almost meditative; standing again in front of that bright blue tag, reading the thick black characters he had become familiar with [baby rubber plant (peperomia obtusifolia) — low light, low water. 990 ¥]. Looking again at the plant’s thick and rounded leaves, and wondering if it would be best suited on the windowsill in the kitchen or the desk near the balcony door. If it would be best suited in a lavender pot, or blue. 

He knew it didn’t much matter. He knew, too, that indulging in this too much would make it harder to part when the assignment was over. It was something he had considered over the past week, as his internal loudspeaker reminded him that making friends on the job was impossible and irresponsible. At some point, the job would end, and he would never step foot into Okamoto Floral again. To get attached to the place was just self-sabotage. 

And yet, he stood there. Debating on which part of his apartment would be graced with a new decoration, and which color pot the plant would seem happiest in. Vaguely aware of the conversation happening behind him, and the shopkeep in the corner of his eye working steady at the bouquet on the counter. A sense of normalcy was all it was. For just a few moments during his week, he could pretend to be the person who existed outside of his family name and his family’s business. Whoever that was, whichever parts of himself were still untouched. Just as that internal loudspeaker told him to focus, there was a smaller voice that rode in the undercarriage of its monotonous sine wave, appearing in the quieter moments of his waking hours. There at the shelves in the back of the store, appearing to him as he stood in checkout lines and every night within the hushed tones of his sleepless two A.M.

You exist, it said. You exist, you exist.

It calmed him. It made him nauseous. 

The conversation behind him moved away, and as Manabe chattered from afar and rang up the woman’s purchase, Yuki was brought back to the present as he felt that twinge of being stared at. He breathed out slow. As he reached out for one of the plants in front of him, he tuned himself again to the shop, checking the thick leaves between a gentle thumb and forefinger as he heard Manabe respond to a question he hadn’t heard.

“I thought you were buying these because of your new guy?”

“I am, I am — I was just curious.” 

“Well, I dunno. Like you said, he’s the pretty type. Probably has someone to come home to, you know?”

“Oh, that’s no judge of anything. Just… Keep him around for me, just in case. Okay?”

“Sure, sure. Next time you come back I’ll have a price tag on him and everything. He’ll have a big old ‘Reserved’ sign around his neck and he’ll be holding the biggest damn bouquet of roses you’ve ever seen.”  

There was a laugh, sharp and scolding, followed by farewells and Manabe reminding her to call if she had questions. The bell clattered as the door shut, and after a beat, the shop’s assistant let out a stringing groan. 

Yuki glanced at Machi, just down the aisle from him at his right. She was writing notes on a yellow form, seemingly unaffected by whatever Manabe was going to complain about this time. 

“She’s a piece of work,” he said, huffing a sigh. “Hey, Ko-Ko, come here so I can pass on the dictionary of compliments this lady just laid onto you behind your back. There are some pretty choice ones — I told you about this one, right? Boyfriend of the week type?” 

Ko-Ko? Yuki turned, plant in hand and brow raised. 

“What was that?”

“Compliments!” Manabe repeated. “Courtesy of—” 

“Not that. What do you mean, ‘Ko-Ko?’” 

Manabe tilted his head, mirroring Yuki’s confused expression. 

“What? It’s cute!”

Yuki couldn’t help but pull a face. “Cute?”

“Yeah!” Manabe righted himself, leaning low into the counter to prop himself by his forearms, and continued before Yuki could retort. “So anyways, I was busy trying to talk to her about these plants she’s deciding on — which she’s getting for her new boyfriend by the way, apparently the same guy from a few weeks ago, but how that’s even possible is beyond me —and you walk in, and, man, it’s like she came head-to-head with nirvana. She looked like she was having an out-of-body experience.” 

All too sudden, a discomfort laid itself into Yuki’s chest. As quickly as his peace had come, it was being swiftly washed away with an embarrassing nickname that he feared would stick, and the unwanted, bloated attention of a total stranger. He wasn’t sure if it was irrational to feel so deeply unsettled by these things, but something in him wanted to recoil and become small. Small enough to escape, to become unidentifiable or simply overlooked.

(And yet, he was just as terrified of those very things.)

He glanced again at Machi, who, though a look of mild annoyance fell over her, still made no motion to engage.

Shifting the plant between his hands, he stepped towards the checkout counter. His palms felt clammy against the black plastic. 

“You shouldn’t exaggerate—” 

“I mean, you didn’t even do anything, you just apparated like usual and she was all, ‘Ah, here it is, my fairytale ending, my Prince Charming.’ She called you that, you know. Prince Charming.” Manabe huffed a laugh. “Wonder if she calls her boyfriend ‘Prince Charming.’ Probably not, if she did she probably wouldn’t have been fazed by you. Well, no, that's a lie — this is her we're talking about. The more she comes here, the more I think she's fazed by anything that breathes."

Yuki placed the plant on the countertop. He could feel his face fall into something troubled, and he bit back the defensive remarks that sat in the back of his throat. He wanted to fuss with the long strand of hair that framed his cheek, but stilled his hands against the counter’s edge.

“She seemed… fine,” he managed. Manabe straightened himself, loosening his shoulders with a sigh as he punched the cost into the register. 

“Trust me, I’ve been friends with girls like her. Viper women.” He said the words with a soft lilt, and Yuki couldn’t tell if it was a playful jab into his memory or something more embittered. He placed the banknote on the counter as the register darted open, and Manabe swapped it for coin change, sliding the ten yen piece forward under his fingertip. Yuki motioned to take it, but the hand didn’t yield to the gesture.

“I mean, they’re not bad people,” Manabe continued, pushing the register shut. “But they’ve got a real way of playing with other people’s hearts and then letting themselves get played. It’s kind of tragic — kind of like watching a dog that’s got its tail stuck in its mouth, you know? They think they’re winning, but they’re just pulling their own hair out.”

Yuki crossed his arms. Something in the way he said it, with no harsh undertones but just with that easy speech that sounded like truth, agitated him. He bit his cheek to quiet himself, and instead opted to stare at his change held hostage.

“Sounds presumptuous,” he managed. 

“Is it?” Yuki looked up again to catch Manabe’s eye, and while the other challenged him to answer, he opted to say nothing. Manabe shrugged and cast his gaze down at his hand. He slid the coin over the counter in small circles and lazy zig-zags, speaking again over the metallic scrape. “Well, it doesn’t matter. They can do what they want, but I’m sure as hell not getting involved. Just sad to watch sometimes.” 

He lifted his hand away from the change. As he stretched his arms high over his head, Yuki pocketed the piece, and for the first time in all of his visits there he felt the distinct want to leave. What had come over Manabe, he wasn’t sure — the chaste arrogance that had always tinted his speech seemed almost cruel just then. Whether he was just trying to be funny, or if he was in a mood, or if this was just who he was once the veil of customer relations was lifted, Yuki didn’t know. But it left a sour feeling in him. 

Behind him, he heard Machi shift the bouquet in her hands. The plastic crumple accompanied by her light-footed walk as she neared the front of the store stilled his thoughts.

And like a shot, the feeling became muted. It didn’t matter. Because Kakeru Manabe wasn’t his friend, and wouldn’t be. And though it might be a pain to continue working with him until the assignment was over, that was a good thing. Finding him unpleasant would make things easy.

Manabe was over-talkative, rude, self-centered, and at times unkind. And that was fine. 

So, he let go of the ugly feeling that sat square in his chest. He formed it into a breathy half-laugh as it left him, murmuring, 

“Whatever you say.”

Manabe hummed in agreement. As they left it at that, Machi neared, stepping behind the counter with a small arrangement of calla lilies and smaller flowers he couldn’t place. She placed the order upright in the rack against the window, leaning just where the sun laid a thick afternoon stripe onto her.  

Yuki's usual greeting to her sat in his throat. He wasn’t sure how she was feeling towards him after his last visit, and worried he would only make things worse by initiating conversation. It was something he had thought over in the past week, too, as he tried to figure out how exactly he could get her defenses to give a little, especially as it seemed that he had only managed to reinforce them. What he had come up with wasn’t all too promising: leave her alone for a little while, at least until the air seemed to settle between them. Get information from Manabe in the meantime, and figure out from him how one would go about talking to her. Extend the mental deadline he had created for the assignment by some weeks, if not another month or two.

It wasn’t a perfect plan. In truth, he was just short of bugging the place, or even her phone if things got really dire, but even that he wasn’t confident would yield much in results. 

She slid the yellow sheet between the arrangement and the cellophane protecting it. The sun hit one of the clasping buttons at the top of her outfit, casting a shine on the ceiling. The stray strands that had escaped her hair elastic became illuminated. Blunted and irregular. The cut of an unpracticed hand. 

Yuki finally brought a hand up to brush the long strand of hair behind his ear. Manabe turned his head to look at her, and then down at the few orders that sat behind him against the window.

“These going out anytime soon?” he asked.

She looked back at him, gaze pointed and brows drawn in frustration. 

“Why?”

“Sounds like a ‘no’ to me! Good, be-cause—” 

He leaned over some to reach for her, taking her forearm and encouraging her to come over with a tug. She gave a relenting step forward as she turned to face him and Yuki, but was quick to direct her eyes at an empty spot on the counter. 

“—you need a break, as usual, and Ko-Ko’s here, which means this is the perfect opportunity for both of you to get what you want-slash-need! I would say it’s a beautiful coincidence, except he comes here, what, literally every week? Would you say that’s right, Ko?”

Yuki darted his look to him, feeling a heat creep over his neck and ears. Somehow, he hadn’t factored in that Manabe would try to push along this relationship between him and Machi. It was as though the other man had read the plan in his mind and was making a concerted effort to put just the opposite in motion. 

“What?”

“Anyways, I think this is the makings of a great friendship, and clearly Ko here does, too — oh, speaking of, I kind of snagged your lunch date with him, since you ended up sleeping on that golden opportunity, but I bet he’d jump on the chance to pencil you in for, what, next week? You could do next week, I’ll even cover for your orders. Or,  we could be really daring and just close the shop for a whole hour and all grab lunch together. When’s the last time you had lunch with me, Machi? Feels like a damn decade. You really know how to wound a person, you know that?”

Machi didn’t respond. Though he had since let go of her arm, she remained still in her spot, maintaining that subdued stare into the dark countertop. Her posture didn’t betray much, but against Manabe’s talk her silence was clear: she didn’t want to be involved. 

Why she stayed, Yuki wasn’t sure — she had never had much problem walking away from her assistant before, or brushing off his tangents with a well-placed reminder of the tasks he had yet to do. Now, though, she seemed to remain out of some unspoken obligation. He looked back at Manabe, who looked unconcerned and ready to launch into his next words without so much as a response from her and wondered if she was staying because of him. Perhaps he had confronted her over what had happened the week prior and challenged her introversion. Or, maybe she had been made to feel guilty over what had happened, and remained out of a sense of needing to appease him, Kouta, as a means of apology.

Whatever the answer, Yuki felt uncomfortable for her. He brought his eyes back to the assistant. 

“Manabe—”

“Oh, speaking of!” He slapped the countertop with his open palm, eyes brightening with another thought buzzing past. “Guess who landed herself in the almighty halls of the emergency clinic this morning? Ding-ding, my mother! I think she has it out for me, seriously, ever since I left home she’s been getting herself into these wacked-up scenarios. Calls me earlier today saying she busted her foot up running errands, doesn’t say how but I guess it doesn’t really matter, says she’ll be staying for observation until tomorrow or so, boo-hoo, yadda-yadda, basically all coming down to me having to jet back home for a week or so to make sure she doesn’t break her whole damn leg while she’s at it. So Machi, sorry in advance if I come in late. Slash, have to bail for a stint during the day. Slash, don’t come in.”

Machi now had her attention on him. Yuki reeled for a moment at the change of topic, his words suddenly scattered between chiding and concerned. How he could be so irritatingly blasé, not just to insult strangers behind their backs, but even towards someone he seemed to care about… 

Yuki didn’t understand it. He couldn't.

He settled on asking, “Is she okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, she’s fine.” Manabe waved the question off, unperturbed. “I mean, she sounded a little freaked, but she kind of always sounds like that. She basically has two settings: wired to hell and dead unconscious.”

So just like him, Yuki thought lamely. What an exhausting household that must have been.

From what he had gathered from brief searches into Manabe’s basic information, he knew that he had grown up an only child. Raised by a single mother in Naniwa, with an unknown or otherwise unclaimed father, noted only so much by the lacking paternity acknowledgement in the family’s registry. He had moved out three years ago, but only north across the river into the Nishi ward. For all he complained of her, he still remained close-by.

Machi shifted her weight from one foot to the other, now looking somewhat uncomfortable as she finally allowed herself to move.   

“That’s… I’m…” Her words came out stilted as she struggled to say anything appropriately consoling. After another moment of awkward stumbling, she managed to say, “Just tell me first.”

Manabe gave her a lazed two-finger salute.

“Aye-aye.”

There was a beat of silence among them. Machi shifted again, turning back to face the window as she peered at the small watchface sat on the inside of her wrist. Considering when she had to leave for delivery, maybe hoping that it would be soon. Yuki couldn’t blame her.  

Manabe, however, seemed unaware of the awkward air that had settled, or at least didn’t squirm under it as Yuki had felt inclined to. As he checked his phone for notifications, tapping out what seemed to be short texts, Yuki forced himself not to bring his hand to his opposite arm. That subconscious self-comfort he had been prone to indulging in since he was a child, so often born of feeling anxious or numbingly shy.

Instead, he placed his hands again against the edge of the counter. Machi turned away from the window, stepping back to the shop’s main floor with a quieted pardon. Manabe set his phone down, drawing his attention back to Yuki.

“So, you ready to go? We’re still on for lunch, right?” 

Yuki checked the clock on the wall. Not because he needed to know, but because he needed a moment to placate himself. 

Just get through it. Just let him talk and see if anything comes out. You’ve sat through worse.

He itched for a break from him. But it would have to wait. So he returned his look back to him, smile insincere yet soft. 

“Sure. Do you have somewhere in mind?”

“You bet.” 

Manabe sidestepped away from the register and made his way to the exit. As Yuki followed, cradling his plant in one hand and realizing too late that he should have waited to buy it, Manabe called loud to the back of the shop where Machi had dipped to hide in the backroom.

“Machi! I’m headed out!”

She didn’t call back a response, or make herself known again. Manabe didn’t wait; he swung the door open, and Yuki followed. 

And like that, Yuki accepted that if anything had been holding Manabe back in the store, chained by work obligation and whatever common sense he had, it didn’t apply here on the outside. Resisting it would only cause more trouble.

Manabe gave a hearty sigh, becoming further animated by the sun and fresh air. Uninhibited, he slung his arm over Yuki’s shoulders, causing him to stumble a step closer. 

“So, do you wanna know what that lady said about you earlier?” he asked. “Prince Charming?”

Though Yuki tensed involuntarily under the sudden contact, Manabe either didn’t notice or didn’t care. He tried to relax his shoulders under the weight of the unwanted arm. 

“Absolutely not.”

“Aw, why not, angel from Venus?”   

Yuki steadied a breath. Manabe shook against him with a laugh.

Already, the afternoon was proving to be far too long.

--

“By the way, what’s with the sweater and stuff? Thought you were strictly a suit guy.”

Manabe punctuated the question with another sip of his drink, a tall and questionable black iced coffee, and the reposition of his elbow against the thin bar table to settle his cheek more comfortably against his knuckles. He sat sideways in his seat to face Yuki, who only gave half as much with his one leg positioned over the side, the other where it belonged at the front. Enough to say I’m not ignoring you, and enough to ignore him in brief doses, letting himself become distracted by the street just before them busy with vendors and open-faced stores. 

In front of the window, severely warmed by the mid-afternoon sun, Yuki fussed again with this sleeves. He had rolled them when they first arrived, partway up his forearms, but didn’t go any higher. 

“I don’t wear a suit every day,” he said. “You just usually see me in one.”

Manabe clicked his tongue. “Weird.”

“It’s not that weird.”

“It’s weird! Suit-Ko is kind of like, mysterious businessman who looks like he’s either there to smooth-talk you into admitting you killed someone, or smooth-talk you to confess that he’s been sleeping with your wife, here’s the divorce papers, don’t take it personal, have a nice life. Like, he could probably end your life, but will at least make you feel like he let you down easy about it.”

Yuki frowned. He brought his hand over to fix his fingers over the top of his mug of coffee, partially sipped at and now lukewarm. Ruined, Manabe had said, with milk and sugar. He twisted it slow and absentminded on its serving dish. 

“Sweater-Ko, on the other hand, is kind of more like…” Manabe gestured vaguely at him, twirling his hand as he searched for his next bizarre descriptor. “Guy you run into in the basement of the classroom building ‘cause he stayed an extra hour after class to talk to the teacher about, I dunno, world news or poetry or whatever. Like, not even related to the class, he’s just one of those people who gets buddy-buddy with professors just because.” He lowered his hand back to his glass and tilted it back and forth, bringing it to him for another sip, before stopping to finish, “And, then he goes home and gets conned by Suit-Ko. Because he’s just too nice to say no.” 

He sipped at the remainder of his bitter drink. Yuki stared at him.

“So what you’re saying is,” he said slowly, “is that I’m nice.”

Manabe hummed loudly in mock-thought. He set his glass down, returning it to the Venn-diagrams of condensation he had left prior.

“Not what I was getting at, but sure! You’re nice. But like, in a shapeshifter kind of way.”

Yuki brought his mug to him, humming short into the small sip he took from it. He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but getting a personality analysis based on what shirt he wore didn’t quite make the cut for what he had wanted to talk about. 

As he returned his mug back to its dish, and as Manabe returned to his lunch, he decided it was time to take the lead in the conversation. Letting Manabe dictate what they talked about had so far led to nothing but tiresome prattling and slightly wounded feelings. 

He let the heel of his shoe catch on the seat’s stretcher as he turned to face him more fully.

“Do you mind if I ask a question?” 

Manabe nodded, giving a muffled affirmative around his mid-chew. 

“It’s about Kuragi-san," he elaborated. When Manabe didn't make an attempt to stop him, he continued. “She seems…” 

Cold wasn't the word, but it panged his tongue for a moment before he settled on, "very serious.”

“Mm-hm.”

“But it looks like she has a lot of clients and vendors." 

Manabe swiped his napkin over his mouth, and from behind it, said, “Inherited.”

“What?”

“If you’re thinking that it’s a mystery that she can sell to anyone, much less enough to run a damn shop — it’s because most of it was inherited.”

He tossed the napkin beside his emptied glass. Yuki sat up a little straighter.

“Inherited? From who?”

“Old guy that owned the place before her. He got pretty sick a couple years back while she was working there — just a side-job while she was in college, I’m pretty sure — and when none of his kids wanted to keep it going, he offered it to her and I guess whoever else was working there.”

“And she took him up on the offer?”

“Well, it’s her shop now, isn’t it?”

Yuki paused. That was something, too, that he had found in his background check of the shop — Saburo Okamoto had been its owner for over thirty years at his time of passing, having opened it himself in the mid-80's after hopping around various desk jobs for much of his adult life. What came as a question to Yuki was why, exactly, Machi had been the one to take his place. 

Despite having an answer, it still seemed off. 

"That's… kind of crazy,” he said. “She was just a part-time worker before she became the owner?"

"Something like that. I dunno, I never really asked her for the whole story. I just called her up one day and, blam-o, she was a shop owner all of a sudden. Asked if she needed any help, and—”

“She said yes?”

“She hung up on me! So then I came down to see what was up myself. Good thing, too, the place looked like it had self-destructed. Helped her patch it up, kind of added myself on the payroll, and, well, here we are.”

Yuki huffed a small noise of disbelief. He glanced out the window, where a small group of young women had stopped to chat. It didn’t make sense. He had thought as much when he had fallen into the rabbit hole of looking into Okamoto’s associates, and his associate’s associates, until his eyes were sore, only to find zero ties to Eiji Kuragi, his businesses, or his people. On the surface, it was just a desperate deal between himself and a part-time worker to keep his shop going.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that it happened to be Machi. She had been there at the right place at the right time, and was coincidentally the only one willing to take the responsibility. Or, maybe it was just part of the plan, and there were things so intricately hidden from record that the only way to uncover them would be to dig at the source.

Why her, though? he wondered. Why did she say yes? She graduated with a degree in finance from one of the top universities in the area, has high connections to one of the wealthiest companies in the country… 

He thought it over. His eyes trailed as the group of women walked away, and he stared for a short while at the spot where they had left his vision.

“I imagine it must be a passion of hers,” he said at last.

“What? Plants?”

Yuki looked back at Manabe, only to be met with his cynical expression. He raised his brows in question. It seemed to be the only thing that made sense, given what he was told.

“Well, I would think so. Right? Why else would she take on the job? She didn’t have an obligation to it like the previous owner’s children.” 

“Beats me.” Manabe’s look softened as he thought on it. “I mean, I don’t think she’s passionate about ‘em, per say. I think she just liked the job and wanted to keep at it.”

“Being a store owner is pretty different than working part-time,” Yuki countered.

“That’s true. But, I don’t actually know. She doesn’t talk to me about that kind of stuff. She didn’t explain why when she first got it, and when I asked, she didn’t wanna say. And that’s fine, I guess. It’s not really my business, and it doesn’t really matter as long as she’s happy with it.”

Is she happy with it? The question sat on the tip of Yuki’s tongue, but he reared it back. That seemed like something Manabe both wouldn’t know the answer to and would get unnecessarily worked up over. 

Yuki rested his arm along the edge of the bar table. He tapped a finger slow against it, just short of where Manabe’s utensils sat. The story just wasn’t sitting right in him. Machi’s motivations were a mystery to apparently everyone but herself, and that made him suspicious. Manabe was only passing on what he had heard from her, and seemed to either trust her or be dismissive of whatever the truth was. 

It would have to be something he asked Machi about directly. Which, he wasn’t sure would ever happen at the rate things were going.

Manabe’s knee shifted near his as he repositioned himself in his seat, and Yuki looked at him, saying,

“You seem to be really good friends with her.”

“Who, Machi?” Manabe swayed his leg from side to side with what Yuki figured to be a growing restlessness. “I guess. I’ve just known her for a long time is all.”

“You started working for her when she needed help. That sounds pretty close.”

“Oh, that.” He waved an impassive hand. “I just needed another job to do. Decided to ditch my old one and had been skimming by on savings and my night job for maybe a week or two before I called her. Talk about divine intervention! It was one of those two birds, one stone kind of deals, especially since we hadn’t seen each other in a while before I came around. College and stuff, you know. She won’t admit it, but I think she missed me. It’s probably why she hasn’t booted me out yet.” 

Yuki quieted his tapping finger. He drew his hand close again, resting it in his lap as he felt oddly subdued by the answer. 

He eyed Manabe’s emptied glass before returning his look back to him.

“Sounds like you keep busy.”

At that, Manabe frowned somewhat. “People keep saying that to me lately, and it’s never in a good way. I just think it’s no fun getting tied down to one thing! Like, no offense, but I think if I were offered to work a desk job all my life or throw myself off a bridge, I’d be plummeting toward the water in a second.”

Yuki huffed a small laugh. “None taken. But, there’s security in it.”

“Ugh, security-schmecurity. You’re, what, a few years older than me?”

“I don’t know,” he lied. “I’m twenty-four.”

Manabe stopped swinging his leg, colliding it harshly against Yuki’s. Yuki hissed, surprised as he drew his knee away.

“Kouta,” he said, tone scolding. “You’re my age! What’s the rush? I mean, shit, you don’t have a secret wife and kids, do you?”

“What? God, no.” Yuki shook his head, rubbing his sore knee with his thumb. “Nothing like that.”

“You’re a twenty-four year old bachelor working as an accountant in one of the richest damn cities in the world. There’s millions of things you could do here, and you just… give up? Like that?”

Yuki’s brows pinched with irritation. It wasn’t even his real job, and yet he felt the harsh pangs of judgement strike him. 

“It’s not giving up—”

“Bull that it isn’t.” Manabe huffed an aggravated sigh, passing a hand over his dark hair. “Tying yourself down to some monotonous, boring-as-hell corporate hellscape that, let’s be real, couldn’t give a damn what happened to you, is just self-flagellation. Where’s the spice in that? Where’s life in that?”

Yuki shook his head, feeling the tips of his ears burn as an argument sat in his chest. 

“Maybe some people don’t see job-hopping as integral to their ‘spice’ in life.”

“It’s not about the hopping, it’s about the job. I mean, isn’t that why you come by the shop every week? Because it’s outside of your routine?”

Yuki bit the inside of his cheek. He knew his look had become insolent, and Manabe mirrored it right back to him.

“I never said that,” he muttered.

He didn’t say anything more, afraid that he would somehow launch into an argument. He looked away from Manabe, reminding himself of his place in the café, where a steady group of patrons continued to chat and eat behind them. This wasn’t the place to raise his voice or cause a scene. 

Not that Manabe seemed to have any concern over that, but, with his lack of retaliation, the other simmered off into a low mumble, slouching and slinging his arm over the back of his seat. 

“Why do you come by so often, then?” he asked. Yuki looked back at him, and while he still looked a bit riled, his cheeks tinged with a flush, his expression was otherwise sincere. 

Yuki let out a steady breath to match his calm.     

“It’s… a nice change of pace, I’ll admit that,” he said, knowing he was proving him right just by saying so and feeling some jab of shame at giving him a win. “It tends to get crowded where I work, so being able to take a break from it is nice, I think.”

It wasn’t a complete lie. Self-sabotage, he reminded himself.

He continued, “I hadn’t initially planned on stopping by so much, but—” 

“Say no more! You stayed for the Manabe charm, plain and simple.”

Yuki scowled. Manabe, however, looked simply smug, and reached over to land a heavy pat on his shoulder. 

“You and everyone else. Man, speaking of the shop though, I’ve gotta head back before Machi starts sending death threats. And you’ve been on break for what, how long now?”

“Too long,” Yuki admitted. 

“Right, right. Let’s go, then. It would suck if we both got fired.”

They returned to the street, where the lunch rush had thinned but continued with a gentle buzz. Yuki kept his plant cupped in his hand, where the soil from the drainage holes fell into his palm. Manabe’s elbows popped as he stretched his arms tall above him.

“Man, I don’t wanna go back to work,” he complained. “I know Machi’s gonna bolt the second I come back to do deliveries. You sure you don’t want to just skip the rest of the day and hang out with me?”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“No fun.”

“Why don’t you do deliveries sometimes?” Yuki asked. “You were just going on about not wanting to be bored, but it sounds like you just sit by yourself in the store most of the time.”

“Hey, most of the time is a stretch. And I’ve asked her, like, a quadrillion times, but she won’t let me! Says she doesn’t trust me to go out and actually come back.”

“Well, that sounds like a fair point. You did say that you could ‘live inside lunchtime’ once.”

“Okay, but how is that off-putting? It’s just a universal truth!”

“Trust me, it isn’t.”

“Oh, right, there’s you.” Manabe jabbed at his ribs with his elbow. “Seriously, are you sure you don’t want to grab a bite? Unless you’re one of those people who can’t eat and walk at the same time, we could spare a couple more minutes.”

Yuki shoved his arm away. “Stop that. I told you, I’m fine. I ate before I stopped by.” 

It wasn’t the answer Manabe wanted to hear, he could tell, as the other huffed a lingering “If you say so.”

“Still,” he said, pointing at the plant cradled somewhat against Yuki’s middle, “if you’re passing by on the way back to work anyway, you might as well stop by and get that thing a pot. Unless having muddy water everywhere is your thing.”

Yuki peered down at the plant. The lines of his fingers were already dusted brown. “Right. It slipped my mind to get one while I was there.”

“I probably should have mentioned it to you. But, hey, maybe this is just the universe’s way of telling us to stick around together some more.”

“Are you saying it’s fate that we’re both forgetful?” Yuki asked flatly.

“No, I’m saying that it’s fate that you’re forgetful, and that I coincidentally didn’t say anything about it when I was ringing you up. Different things, Ko-Ko.”

Yuki bristled again at the nickname. All of his requests to just be called Kouta had gone dutifully ignored, and he worried that come the next time he visited, the full name would be erased from Manabe’s memory bank. Replaced with Ko-Ko forever, or possibly something even more embarrassing. 

He didn’t bother correcting him again. It was a fruitless endeavor. 

Instead, he said, “Sounds like you planned this the moment I forgot to buy it. In that case, I think I’ll just take a different route back—”

“Bad idea!” Manabe grabbed the crook of Yuki’s arm, ensuring they stayed on the same path. “You’ll get water everywhere, sure, and maybe you’re willing to sacrifice a perfectly usable plate to use for drainage anyway. Which, trust me, is kind of a sad sight! Unless ‘rank and depressed’ is your vibe. But you’ll have to repot it anyway so the roots don’t suffocate. Or, die of root rot. Or, grab hold of a mutation that could make it angry and choke you out in your sleep, but usually just makes the leaves squishy and fall off.”  

Yuki looked at him. He couldn’t quite tell if he was lying — his face had this permanent dark mischief underlying what was otherwise spritely and plain. But, he also didn’t know enough about the plant he had bought to refute any of what he claimed. 

He could only offer a look of skepticism. Manabe, in turn, shook his elbow as a means to convince him.

“So, if you don’t want your new plant to die by like, tomorrow morning, you should just come back with me. I need to tell you how to take care of it anyway. Make sure you don’t turn into one of those people who kills what should be a really easy plant to care for in like, three days.”

Yuki had nothing to counter with. He knew that Manabe knew this, but he didn’t want to give in so readily to someone so cheeky.

“...It won’t actually die by tomorrow morning,” he said. He had tried to say it with some air of confidence, but Manabe called his bluff with a small, sputtering laugh.

“I mean, if you’re so sure of that, then by all means.” 

Manabe freed Yuki’s elbow. He gestured to the road ahead of them. Free to go, it said. Have fun killing an innocent being.

Yuki’s footsteps faltered a moment with that ounce of stubborn reluctance he couldn’t seem to shake. Manabe continued walking as normal. He watched his back retreat some steps, and with a low mumble to himself, his face falling into a glower as he looked down at the plant and his hand spotted with soil, he soon resumed his walk in tandem. 

He caught up again to match their strides, saying nothing.

In the corner of his eye, Manabe looked terribly smug.

It was dark when Yuki returned to his apartment. Half-past eleven, drenched in a lonely quiet only the city could promise.

The noise of the evening rush-hour had begun to wane some hours ago, as the horizon line shifted from orange to the muted purple of twilight. Even at the Sohma headquarters, stationed so deep within the walls of the family compound that it bordered on complete isolation from the very city it resided in, Yuki could hear the usual murmurs of people coming home: Sohma children returning from school, the distant calls of friends saying their goodbyes underlying the shrieks of siblings challenging each other to races home. Cars driving in the slow drone of tires against brickwork and asphalt as fathers and mothers wound down from their commutes, and the faraway laughter as neighbors and friends played catch-up with each other’s days.

At least, that’s what he imagined to hear, and what he figured they spoke of. There was still a sizeable distance from the main estate and the homes of the extended family; that distinction of main Sohmas and non, the curated hierarchy of “us” and “them,” that existed as both a physical wall and a barrier built with hushed secrecy and generations of blissful ignorance. It made the headquarters, tucked surreptitious among the homes of those who were in the business, uncomfortably stale. 

He thought as much as he sat in his own silence. The sun drew lower, and it cast steep shadows across his office until he was left, for some time, in the quiet grey of dusk.

He had left as nighttime began to truly set in, when he couldn’t stand to stare at a screen or the pile of records any longer. At first, his journey was on foot in another attempt to walk home, but it was completed by car as a driver once again apprehended him just as he began to leave through the main estate’s looming front gate. It was expected at this point, noted by the polite, pointed laugh of the driver and Yuki using the dark to cloak his sulking in the backseat. Going straight to the front gate was his foil, he knew, but the only other point of escape he knew of — a hole in one of the walls separating the inner and outer family grounds, once hidden behind a rhododendron that lined the main estate’s park — had been long sealed up. And while he wondered if the current Sohma children knew of a new hidden entrance, he had started to accept that if one existed, it would likely be forever unknown to him.

After all, he was supposed to be happy with the escape he was granted. 

The ride was short. He was returned to his apartment, a Sohma-owned building that was once used as a safehouse in the late 70’s but had gone largely uninhabited until he moved in. And while he liked that it sat inconspicuous among the other homes lining the street, the illusion was ruined by the ominous black cars that would routinely wait for him during the day and bring him home at night.

He thanked his driver, who tacked a polite goodnight to the usual reminder that a car would be ready for him in the morning.  

He entered his apartment. He shut the door behind him with his foot, hands preoccupied with the bag of supplies from Okamoto Floral hanging heavy off his fingers and the plant cradled in his palm. The car rolled away, and he stood in the genkan listening for it until it became indistinguishable from the rest of the night.

At that, he finally felt able to drop his shoulders. He toed off his shoes, stepping inside and using his elbows to turn on the lights until he could shove the plant and bag into a semi-cleared spot on his kitchen counter. The path to his bedroom was marked with the subdued colors of his dirty laundry, the scattering of black slacks and dress pants, button downs and undershirts and sweaters that were definitely (definitely, he swore to himself) on his to-do list to get taken care of. At least, he thought as much as he discarded his sweater and toed off his socks, stepping onto and over the outfits of the past couple weeks with the sole intention to get into pajamas and finally put a close on the day.

It was as he was standing in front of his washroom mirror, finally sliding the brown contacts off of his eyes and becoming at least somewhat refamiliarized with his reflection again that his phone started going off, loud and terrible against the sink counter. Finger just poised under his left eye to remove the second lens, he peered down at it with a half-clear vision.

With a small sigh, he accepted the call.

“Haru,” he said, jabbing the speaker icon before returning to the mirror. “Is something wrong?”

“Why would something be wrong?”

His subordinate’s tone was even and mild, and on the surface suggested nothing close to trouble or anything that required rushing back to the estate to manage. It was, however, the same tone he had used to notify Yuki of anything and everything — from accidentally blowing up his own car in the midst of causing a scene to needing recommendations on where to replace his shoes.

Needless to say, Yuki didn’t trust that easily.

“I think it’s a safe assumption to make, considering it’s midnight and you’re out of town,” he said.

“You were always a night-owl — figured I would just adhere to your schedule for once, rather than trying to call you at seven A.M. again.”

“Seven A.M. isn’t a normal hour to hold a conversation.”

“I know, I know. But you get so feisty in the morning, sometimes my heart just can’t help itself.”

Yuki rubbed at his eyes, sore from the lenses having dried some over the day. When he looked at the mirror again, the white of his eyes had become an irritated pink, off-looking against the natural grey of his irises. 

He splashed his face with cold water. He buttoned up his sleep shirt the rest of the way, hiding away the edges of dark ink that colored his shoulder.

“Shut up,” he scolded. “I’m serious. You didn’t get lost, did you?”

“Not really.”

“Haru.”

“I made it to my destination about an hour after I was supposed to. Which, weirdly enough, was actually on time. So, thanks for that.”

“You’re welcome. I figured you were tired of getting slaps on the wrist over being late.”

Yuki meandered out of the bathroom to the kitchen. There, he laid his phone beside the plant on the crowded counter, rifling through the bag of supplies. The way Manabe had described it, it didn’t sound like that much of a hassle to get the thing situated in its new pot, and, well, he supposed it would be better to get it done sooner rather than later.

He set the small bag of potting soil down on the kitchen tile. 

“You sound busy,” Haru said, cutting over the crinkling of plastic. “You’re not still working, are you?”

“No, no.” Yuki crouched to set the pot and its saucer gingerly beside the soil. "I got a plant.”

“A plant?”

"Mm-hm."

"A fake one, or?"

"A real one. I'm about to pot it."

"No shit. Should I start writing it a eulogy?"

Yuki frowned, clicking his tongue in a scoff. From his spot on the floor, he reached up to bring the plant and his phone down to him. 

“Ha-hah.”

“Here, how’s this take: Here lies Yuki’s First Ever Living Companion — gone too soon, due to being put in the care of a boy who barely takes care of himself. May it rest knowing that said boy did not neglect it out of malice, and that it is in the dearest of company with the following: the shirt he bought just last week and already lost, the month-old takeout sitting in the back of his fridge, and all of the half-empty water bottles that he keeps forgetting to finish before opening a new one.”

Yuki reached up again for the bag, dragging it down to him to make sure he didn’t miss anything. All that remained was the square piece of paper Manabe had scrawled simple instructions and a phone number across.  

“Are you done?” he muttered.

“Sh. Moment of silence, please.”

There was silence. Yuki parted the seal on the bag of soil, peering into it.  

“Amen.”

“You’re such a damn pain. It’s not going to die — he said this was one of the easiest ones to manage.”

“‘He?’”

Yuki brought his hands to the soil, cupping it in his palms and funneling it into the pot. He squinted at the dark clumps that fell to the floor.

“The shop assistant. He works for the subject of this assignment I’m on.”

“Oh, right, you’re still on the Kuragi one. You still rocking a dye-job?”

Yuki eyed the dark brown strand of hair that hung in his line of sight. He tried to blow it out of the way, but it was quick to fall back against his lashes.

“Unfortunately.”

“Well, then I’m glad I got put on this assignment. I don’t think I could bear to see you like that again, you know? It’s nothing personal, but you just don’t look like the boy I fell in love with.”

“Do you have to say it like that?”

“Fine, the man I fell in love with. Happy?”

Yuki scooped more soil into the pot, trying to keep any more of it from seeping through his fingers onto the floor and immediately failing. He huffed, patting it down some as Manabe had instructed. 

“Absolutely not,” he said. 

“So, what’s with this guy? Anything interesting?”

“Hardly.”

“Aw, come on. You’ve been on this job for, what, a couple months now? I need deets.”

Yuki’s brows furrowed as he looked at the instructions again, holding the plant carefully in one hand and its plastic container in the other. Slowly twist container away from soil — don’t yank it out by the stems or leaves!!! Selecting this option may result in A HORRIBLE DEATH. 

“He’s annoying,” he confessed. “He talks too much and seems completely unaware of it. He doesn’t know the line between being funny and being rude. He gives people God-awful nicknames, I think just to make fun of them.” He paused, before saying, “He keeps calling me his friend.” 

“Oh, no. You’re already out to break this guy’s heart? That’s so cruel of you.”

“Not yet,” he sighed. “He’s not even the person I should be talking to.” With a gentle hand, he jostled the container. He could feel the soil beginning to give. “The one I should be talking to… I don’t know. She’s very shy. Or, not shy, but just… closed-off, I think. She doesn’t want to talk to me.”

“So he’s your only bet?”

“At the moment, yes. Only because I’m not getting anywhere with her, and he seems to be her only friend. At least, the only friend that I’m able to talk to and get an ounce of information out of. Even if it’s buried under… whatever else he goes on about.”

Haru hummed in consideration. The soil gave, and Yuki cradled the plant, moving it carefully to the pot. All that was left to do was top off the soil around its edges.

“Picture this,” Haru started, to which Yuki immediately felt apprehensive. “Imagine you weren’t on an assignment, and you were just a normal guy doing normal guy things, and you met him out of pure coincidence. Exactly the scenario he thinks you’re in. Do you think you would be friends with him?”

Yuki gave up on not getting more soil on the kitchen floor. As he funneled the last of the soil into the pot, he chewed lightly on the inside of his cheek.

“...That’s a pointless question,” he responded.

“Humor me.”

Yuki sighed. He looked down at the plant, now safely potted in its new home and not looking too worse for wear.  Then, he looked down at his hands, dusted brown and with dirt caked under the long free edges of his nails. As Haru waited in patient silence, he indulged in the private fidget of tracing the lines of his palm. The question had already made him uneasy as he battled it within his psyche, but being confronted to admit anything out loud was just... difficult. 

Still, he made an attempt, if only because he knew Haru wasn't asking out of ill-will. He was asking because, for whatever reason, he actually cared.

“No. Probably not. I don’t know.” Agitated, he felt his brows furrow, and he attempted to clap some of the soil off his hands over the discarded plastic bag. “He’s kind of terrible, but he’s not… the worst.”

He didn’t want to tell him that just a week ago, he had actually found Manabe amusing to be around. Or that his soft liking of him had turned into somewhat of a dilemma in his hours off the assignment. That would just be too much ammunition for his subordinate's game of twenty questions, and he was already barely willing to answer question one.

“He’s just loud, and rude, and...bizarre.” 

Rude and bizarre. Suddenly, a memory hit him, and he winced under the weight of déjà vu.

“Never mind. Definitely not. I just realized he reminds me of someone.”

“Who?”

“I don’t want to say the name.” He stood, taking himself to the sink to rinse his hands. “It might summon him.”

“Ah. Him.”   

Him indeed. He scowled down at his hands, watching the lather turn beige. No wonder he had felt so put-off by Manabe earlier. Something had switched in him, as he decided it was time they crossed over that delicate line between acquaintances and friends, and it had reached into Yuki's subconscious and told him to pull his defenses up. That sudden all-knowing, arrogant, incessant— 

He heard Haru’s voice underneath the running water. He turned it off, shaking his hands out as he apologized and told him to repeat himself.

“I said, it sucks that he got all wrapped up in this assignment. I mean, maybe he’s not your cup of tea, but he sounds interesting to me.”

“Then, by all means, you can be friends with him.” 

“Nah, nah. This is your rodeo. I’m just thinking it wouldn’t be terrible for you to have someone completely different in your life, you know? Someone to shake things up.”

“I don’t need anyone to shake things up. Things are too hectic as is. Besides, you know it can’t happen.”

Haru fell quiet again with a gentle “hm.” Yuki reached down for the plant and, scouting a place to put it, pushed some things aside on the small kitchen table to set it down. Don’t put it in direct sunlight!! It’ll get crispy and possibly DIE. (Light spots on the leaves are ok! Unless they’re brown — means your plant is literally burning.)

“We shouldn’t be talking about this anyway,” Yuki said, feeling some amount of confidence in the plant’s placement to battle what was becoming a tiresome conversation. As he surveyed the floor, he pushed the bag of soil against the cabinet with his foot, pressing its edges together with a toe in an attempt to partially seal it shut. He crouched to grab his phone and the slip of instructions. It was late; the rest of the mess could be dealt with later.

“How’s Mobara, by the way? I should have checked in on you when you were scheduled to get there.”

“Pretty nice. A lot quieter than home, that’s for sure, but I’m not complaining.”

“Well, it won’t be quiet for long, I suppose.”

“Hm. Yeah.”

Yuki shuffled out of the kitchen, dimming its lights low. He kept his back to the dark of the living room as he stepped over the clothes blocking his path to his bedroom. 

“Just stick to the plan,” he said. “For now, integrate. Call me if you need help.”

“Okay.” Then, after a beat of silence, “Hey, Yuki, I need help.”

“What is it?”

“I miss you.”

Yuki tossed back the covers of his bed. He huffed a little, but smiled.

“Tell that to your girlfriend, not me. I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in six months.”

“See ya. Sweet dreams.”

He hung up. Setting his phone down on the nightstand, he looked down again at the note now folded into his palm, slightly dusted still with soil. He skimmed the rest of the words crammed beneath the potting instructions.

Low sunlight — water when soil feels dry — don’t overwater! 

Phone-a-friend: 06 xxxx xxxx

There that word was again. Friend. It almost seemed to taunt him at this point, appearing as those gentle haunts in his mind and over the phone, in well-meaning questions and genuine, misplaced outreaches. He thought of Haru’s question, how it managed to make his skin crawl and, at the same time, draw him to ruminate. 

It was stupidly tortuous. Worse, it was just plain stupid.

Instead of staring at it any longer, he slipped the note into the drawer of his nightstand, burying it between the unused journal and heap of old receipts. Sending it to the place where things went especially forgotten as means of banishment would place it out of sight, and, therefore, out of mind. 

In some days time, he would forget where he placed it. In some months time, this assignment, and the parties involved, would be well on its way to becoming a distant memory. And it would be for the best. He counted on that.

Chapter Text

Assignment ID: 04-43(A)

Assignment description: Investigate possible addition to associate Eiji Kuragi’s business matters, of which has not been disclosed to the Sohma family. Suspect that this addition involves the use of a private business owned by associate’s family member. Private business (Okamoto Floral) under the sole proprietorship of associate’s daughter, Machi Kuragi (subject). Investigate vendors and clientele for affiliations with associate; observe subject and evaluate involvement. 

Type: Covert; interrogation of subject is prohibited. 

Alias: “Kouta Ito”; see initial documentation for description.

Status: In progress (current length: approx. 75 days since initial briefing.)

Status update:

Since previous report, the validity of vendors supplying goods to subject’s business has been examined by C-group (see document ID-C01 for full report). No affiliations were found between vendors and Eiji Kuragi. All vendors were established before subject’s ownership of business; no evidence of affiliation between the previous owner and Kuragi. A full clientele list has not yet been obtained, however clients that have been noted thus far are not affiliated with Kuragi (full document pending).  

In my observations of Machi Kuragi, I have not found any indication that she is involved with her father’s businesses, in either direct, long-term, or temporary means. While she continues to be rather private, discussions with her associate (Kakeru Manabe; see document ID-A01 for full description) have suggested that she is independent to a degree that reflects a detachment from her family, and/or an apprehension to partnerships. 

Though she continues her ties with vendors and clientele out of necessity (and vendor/client loyalty), she prefers solitary work. While previous records of Okamoto Floral cite a small number of part-time employees, she did not seek out employees once the ownership was passed to her (all previous employees had left the shop before and during the transfer of ownership due to a three-month hiatus in the shop’s service). Her associate’s employment can be attributed to their long-term acquaintanceship (relationship of note: conversations have indicated that they have known each other since childhood; his employment seems to be a personal decision rather than purely business). Despite having assistance, she insists on handling the majority of the shop’s work alone, dedicating much of her time outside of the shop to deliver to clients and meet with vendors. While this behavior could come across as suspicious, it is probable that it is influenced by personality, and not due to an attempt to shield her involvement; I have decided to hold my judgement until a complete list of clientele can be examined. 

In addition, a further examination of the Kuragi family has revealed a preference to the youngest Kuragi, Masaru, in regards to his involvement in business-social events headed by (or otherwise heavily influenced by) Eiji and Hina Kuragi. Public statements made by Eiji Kuragi at such events have brought further attention to Masaru. While this is likely due to his position as the Kuragi heir, it must be noted that in the years prior to his birth, Machi experienced a more intense involvement in the family’s business-social events, but was never mentioned in public statement. Machi’s involvement in social events with her family diminished after the birth of Masaru in 2006; her public involvement ended entirely nine years ago. This long-term detachment from her family in the public sphere may indicate a familial separation, however it is just as likely that she ended her public appearances on her own terms in a want for more privacy. Her personal relationship with her family, and her father in particular, is still under examination.

With the goal being to assess whether Machi Kuragi has any business ties to Eiji Kuragi regarding matters that are under Sohma family protection, and so far finding no evidence of such a partnership currently or formerly existing, the remainder of my duties include: (1) obtaining the remainder of Okamoto Floral’s clientele list in order to assess for associations with Eiji Kuragi in any capacity; (2) obtaining more information on Machi's relationships with her father (Eiji Kuragi), mother (Hina Kuragi), and sibling (Masaru, age 13*). In order to assess her willingness to work with her father in such confidence, it is critical to understand the scope of these relationships. Working under the assumption that she may be involved in these practices, coercion of her participation has not yet been ruled out. 

Taking into consideration the nature of the assignment thus far, it is likely that my duties will continue until approx. July 20th of this year unless terminated or lengthened otherwi

“Yuki?”

Yuki's fingers stuttered over the keys in a startle. Twisting in his chair to face the disruption, though, he forced himself to pace his heavied sigh into something more pleasant.

“Kureno. Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Is there something you need?” 

The headquarters’ chief stood in the entrance to his office. He kept his hand on the doorknob, having hardly stepped in and having only opened the door halfway — his usual means to say the visit would be brief, but perhaps to look as though he filled more of the frame than he would otherwise. A sheepish smile softened his serious demeanor, and he dipped his head in a shallow greeting. 

“Pardon the intrusion. Akito-sama is asking for a progress update with the Kuragi assignment.”

Yuki gestured at his desk, at the screen where the document sat almost complete, but before he could explain his superior already looked mildly apologetic. Not for interrupting, Yuki knew, but because his asking directly meant that the family head had cast him out for answers. Either due to the situation with Kuragi becoming dire, or Akito needing something to reaffirm his nerves.

“I was just finishing an update,” Yuki said. “But I’m assuming it’s urgent.”

“Yes. He’s very—”

“I understand.” 

It was a partial truth. Yuki reached a hand out to tap his fingers idly against his desk, and he stared down the text on his computer. Almost three months into the assignment, and he still felt as though there was little to show for it. It wasn’t just because of Machi Kuragi herself, or his own inability to so much as say hello to her without her placing another brick on the wall she was steadily building to keep him distanced. Without knowing exactly what Akito assumed to be going on behind the family’s back, Yuki was left to grab at whatever threads happened to present themselves. The result was suspicions that couldn’t easily be discounted, and vague, open-ended questions that he could only hope would uncover something useful. Even if the time came where Machi would consider speaking to him — especially about something that seemed more and more like a difficult subject — even if he received a resounding no, I’m not involved with my father’s business in any way, he would still have to continue prying for an answer until the no’s wore the assignment down enough to bore a hole through it. 

Without the full question to seek an answer to, it was the equivalent of interrogating the wind. His words carried and dispersed until they eventually returned to him disguised as a whistling breeze. 

A waste of time.

“At the moment,” he continued, airy despite the tightness that had formed in his chest, “it doesn’t seem as though Kuragi’s daughter is involved. There are still some matters to look into, but as it stands—” 

“You’re not certain yet?”

Yuki turned to look at Kureno again. An apology still washed his face, but his superior didn’t shrink back any. 

“...Not yet, no,” Yuki responded, slow and tempered. “It’s going to take more time, unless interrogations are suddenly an option.”

“Ah, no, we can’t interrogate.”

“I figured. For now, then, that’s all I have to say on it. Aside from finding nothing wrong with her vendors, there’s nothing conclusive to show just yet.”

In the doorway, Kureno shifted his weight, falling quiet but searching for anything more to say. The way his eyes landed on Yuki, and then down at his hand on the doorknob, made Yuki’s stomach pinch a little; usually, after getting an answer he would be on his way, back to Akito or back to his own work, too busy and too uncomfortable to linger longer than needed. But now, the pause settled heavy, and Yuki felt compelled to speak again.

“How urgent is this issue with Kuragi, exactly? You never told me the particulars.”

Kureno looked at him again. Perhaps realizing that his expression had become troubled, he smiled. It was small and strained at the edges. His eyes didn’t follow through.

“It’s of high importance,” he said.

“I know, but—”

“If you come across anything new, please let me know as soon as possible. I appreciate that this is a… difficult task, considering the circumstances.”

But you need to work faster, Yuki supplied in the clipped quiet. But you need to do better. But if you don’t hurry up, Akito might— 

The off-smile still hung in place. Yuki frowned at it. 

“I will,” he said. 

Kureno bowed his head, and without bringing his eyes to meet Yuki’s again, he slipped out, leaving just the barest imprint that he had been there at all. His absence made the silence of the room seem over-loud. Yuki slouched, and though a dampered sigh filled the quiet for just a moment, it evaporated too quickly to truly sit in.

He looked at the document on his laptop, now footnoted with a jumbled string of keystrokes. He reached over and shut the lid. Outside of his office, past the long window and over the small stretch of garden that had gone unchanged in the five years he had looked out onto it, everything seemed to be at peace. No breezes, no clouds, no lazy shadows growing soft under the thin magnolia trees. Everything was still. 

Stale, he thought instead. It all seemed very stale. 

A low chill of goosebumps pricked over his arms. Though he tried to placate himself with the thought be thankful, he couldn’t help but imagine Kureno, now making the long and sombered return to Akito’s quarters, relaying the news. That Yuki had found nothing new or substantial, and that he seemed to be spending too much time drawing out an assignment that he had been told was urgent. He imagined the response, that maybe Akito had put too much faith in him — maybe he was still a liability after all this time, where even the gracious allowance to live outside of the family’s grounds wasn’t enough to keep him happy, and the promotion to a position that gave him more than enough to do wasn’t enough to keep him in check. There were freedoms he had been granted, but if Akito thought he was being disobedient, then there would be no hesitation in stripping them back. His old room in the main house still waited for him. And some thin and quiet hallways away, Akito waited for him, too.

This is the catch.  

He stared down at his lap. Throat thick and stomach soured.    

He sat frozen for some time until his cell buzzed harsh against the desk, and his nerves snapped as the noise panged him. As he raised his eyes to the screen lit with an appointment reminder, he forced down a long breath. Straightened his posture, and shook out the feeling that numbed his arms. 

OKAMOTO, 2:15. 

An hour. He had one hour to think of how to move things along. He just needed one solid answer — just one client that had a connection, for Machi to give even the smallest mention of her family that he could work off of. He could swing that. A bluff that Eiji Kuragi was in his office building for a meeting, acting as though he didn’t know the relation and asking out of curiosity. Asking about Manabe’s injured mother, leading to a casual question about her own parents. If she became avoidant, probe. If she tried to leave again, keep her. He had managed to work himself to the good side of people more stubborn than her in the past, and most of them had threatened his life first.  

He was getting caught up in his own caution dealing with her. Perhaps because there was a part of him that genuinely didn’t want her to dislike him, or maybe just that he felt guilty toying with her. She wasn’t even the true eye of the investigation, and beyond that, she didn’t seem like a bad person. Even if she was involved, he was being too kept in the dark to know if that involvement was detrimental. He didn’t like working off the assumption that she was someone to be taken down when he wasn’t even sure what Eiji Kuragi had done to slight Akito, or if he had even done anything at all. To do the job right, he had to stoop to Akito’s perspective, and that alone made him want to hide. 

Your feelings don’t matter, and neither do theirs. That’s part of the job. 

He inhaled slowly and pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. Advice he had been forced to swallow as a child, left as a tarrish pool behind his ribs. It stopped his thoughts as its rings touched him in unsettled waves, and he was guided back to the shoreline where everything was clean and easy. 

Don’t overthink. Don’t look behind you to assess the damage. Follow orders, and be good. 

He exhaled and lowered his hands. His phone buzzed with another reminder. 

With a final glance at the time, he reached over and turned it off. He didn’t want to worry over the possibility of getting a summoning call while he was out, and he couldn’t afford the distraction. 

For good measure, he placed his phone in the desk drawer, and stood as he shut it firm. 

He had to get ready. 

The lunch hour had begun to quiet as Yuki made his way through the narrow streets to Okamoto Floral, and he found small comforts in the familiarity of the path. As he passed the large windows of the high-end stores that trickled out to the edges of the financial district, he glanced at his reflection to check that his posture didn’t truly reflect how he felt — shoulders relaxed though they burned, posture polite and straight though he felt twisted and nauseous, hands idle at his sides despite his terrible urge to cross them and close off. 

He allowed himself to fuss with the sleeves of his shirt. A button-down that Manabe would probably say made him seem haughty, one that Yuki had picked up off the floor that morning after deciding that none of his more casual, slightly-more-Manabe-approved sweaters would make the cut. He rolled the sleeves up some, and felt no relief. Windchimes jangled light at the storefronts as a low, late-May breeze eked over the street, but it did little to soothe the anxious heat that beat down his neck. 

He ran through his options again, as he had been doing for the past half-hour: if both Manabe and Machi are there, then he indulges Manabe in his usual long-winded hello before making an attempt to speak to Machi. He brings up the bluff that her father was in his building that morning and gauges her response. If she tries to leave, stall her, but don’t aggravate her. Manabe will probably try to butt in; let him guide if it’s useful.

If Manabe’s there alone, he asks how his mother’s doing, and leads the conversation to question Machi’s relationship with her father. Posed as a question of innocent curiosity, a simple matter of having overheard his name and wondering if there was any relation. 

If Machi’s there alone, then— 

“Sohma.”

The call was low and discreet. Loud enough to snap Yuki out of his thoughts, but even-toned enough to become camouflaged in the white noise murmurs of the street.

He should have ignored it. Around here, he was only known as Kouta Ito, and he had planned to keep it that way. But before he could stop himself, draw himself out of his looping haze long enough to tell himself to keep his eyes forward, his attention was pulled to the voice. 

Some steps in front of him was a man slouched against the wall of the street’s small barbershop, only a handful of stores down from Okamoto. He was shadowed in part by the alley, but of what was lightened by the mid-afternoon, Yuki couldn’t discern just how old he was — if he was a weathered man his own age, or an older man trying desperately to pass for someone younger. Lax posture, clothes that someone would roll out of bed in, an act that tried too hard to be careless. All paired, though, with a face rather gaunt and dulled with experience. 

Regardless, Yuki didn’t recognize him. And though this other man stared him down with distaste, Yuki brought his eyes back in front of him, saying nothing. He continued his walk forward.  

He sidestepped away from the arm that jutted for him from the alley’s corner. When it came for him again, he grabbed it, and he faced the man that had crept along the wall opposite the stranger — the tired, amateur ploy to take him by surprise, acted out by someone predictably looming. Yuki yanked hard at the man’s forearm, and though he didn’t quite stumble, he lurched just low enough for Yuki to drive a punch to his ear. Not to damage, but to stun; he let go of the man as he pitched to the side, shouldering the alley wall in a pained daze.

Yuki turned back at the stranger. He had expected him to come at him next, but he found that the man had done little else than straighten his posture and lay a condescending look onto his companion.  

A choked curse left the other man, and it rang into the daytime. 

The stranger frowned, leveling his stare back to Yuki. Yuki frowned back. 

“What the hell’s that all about?” The stranger huffed, annoyed, as he made an empty gesture to the heavy muttering in pain. “Making a scene in broad daylight. That’s pretty fucking rude.” 

Yuki knew. His stomach twisted at the sensation of passers-by slowing at the commotion. The leers sat heavy on his back, curious and scolding. 

“I have no business with you,” Yuki said. 

Lazed, the stranger looked out to the street, eyes searching. He scratched his neck with a sigh.

“Right, right. But, see, we have business with you.”

The footsteps neared him from behind. Yuki stood still with a glare weighing him, and as a hand circled his bicep in an authoritative grip he could only feel his ears burn. He couldn’t fight back, not while the street was still busy, and not with the chance that either Machi or Manabe would see him. But there he was, being walked into the dead-end of a shadow by some low-grade delinquents, trapped by nothing but the fact that they were either smart or stupid enough to confront him in the middle of the day. If he was being dragged into a negotiation, or a warning, he had no idea, and it didn’t seem to matter. 

Knowing how these things went, he was sure he wouldn’t be able to return to headquarters without some indication that he had gotten caught up in trouble. A black eye, fractured rib, a short-lived limp. Depending on the damage, maybe it would be something worse, but in broad daylight he suspected they wouldn’t go for anything particularly outstanding. 

Not unless they were actually stupid.

He expected the harsh shove to the wall, and the separate pair of hands holding his shoulders flush against it. He grunted as the contact knocked some air out of him, biting back a curse as he forced himself to stay calm. Struggling and cursing would only make this last longer. Before him, the stranger stood, arms crossed and face pinched with hostility. 

Glancing back down toward the street, Yuki could see the alley’s entrance was being covered by the heavy and two others. The heavy stood straighter now, with his head tilted into a hand. One of them jolted with a laugh. 

“Hey—” A quick snap of fingers in his face brought his attention back to the stranger. “—eyes over here. I brought you back here to talk, didn’t I? Jesus, show some respect and pay attention.”

If he were a fly on the wall, he would have bitten a laugh. Instead, he quieted his annoyance with a bite to the inside of his cheek, and he took in an evened breath before saying,

“I’m listening.”

The stranger moved his hands to settle on his hips. With his jacket pushed behind his wrists, Yuki could see the grip of his gun cut by the waist of his jeans. He wouldn’t use it here. The man’s lower lip jutted as he prodded it with his tongue, and he squinted at Yuki with what he assumed to be the passing thought of wanting to beat him.

Instead, and said,

“I’ll cut to the chase — your family’s gone and fucked up a lot of my faction. I don’t know what the hell it is about you guys, but my boss is all up in arms lately because you damn Sohmas can’t seem to leave shit alone. You come over and start shit, just for the sake of starting shit? Who does that?”  

Yuki stared at him. He almost wanted to answer and say Akito does, not as a means to condescend but to distance. Akito fought nearly everyone: similarly-sized rival families, local up-and-comers, the police on more than one occasion. Anyone that he perceived to be a threat, even if just potentially, got their own case. Ambushes, sabotage, arsons, hits — no reaction was too severe. And as long as there were people in the family willing to execute, and as long as people would still be too afraid to turn away, the mess would continue. 

It wasn’t how things were supposed to be done. Yuki knew that. Most people in the family seemed to know, too. The family was hemorrhaging from its own share of death and the exodus of those brave enough to leave, and instead of trying to bandage the wound, Akito seemed to have his fingers poised on either side, ripping it open further to find the source of the anguish.

But, Yuki couldn’t deny involvement. Even if he wasn’t directly involved, it was probably a job that he supervised on paper. 

“What was the damage?” he asked. 

‘What was the damage?’ Christ. Didn’t realize we were dealing with a goddamn insurance broker here.” 

Yuki started to respond, but was silenced by the thick crack of a fist striking his cheek. The harsh twist of his neck was undercut by the stun of getting hit, but he was quick to come back to when the throbbing seeped low and deep against his cheekbone. 

He returned his gaze to the stranger, silent but glowering as he brushed a thumb over his reddened knuckles. But Yuki made no move to speak again. Not the pity-party type.

“Now,” the man said, huffing a sigh, “we don’t like leaving unnecessary blood trails, unlike some people. We Tsukadas aren’t like that. Because we consider ourselves a good and civilized people.” 

Tsukada. The name didn’t ring a bell right away. And as the swell forming on his face spread to cup his under-eye, he struggled to think further about it. 

Tsukada — he had no other means of naming him — glanced down at his men blocking the alley’s entrance. When he brought his attention back to Yuki, he was quick to bring with it another punch, driving it into the soft spot of his side. Just under his ribs, straight to his liver.

Fuck. Yuki tried to crumple at the knees. He gasped as the air was knocked out of him, but the men kept him up and flush against the wall. The pain spidered through him, a map of thick fuse lines lit and racing, and his gagged at the thought of the blinding, unceremonious pop that waited at the end. His vision blackened at the edges, and he swam in the murk.

As he was held up, he was open to another blow, and another, hits to his center that gave him little time to catch his breath. He wheezed as garbled groans were forced out of him, and even as the blows let up, he was left to feel each fire in his abdomen spread and sear him as they refused him the relief of doubling over. Fruitless gasps for air, a jostle by the men holding him up to shake an alertness back in him — the hazed, aching thought that maybe his lungs would stop functioning for good this time, and what would happen if they were stuck with a dead man on their hands. 

But his lungs kept working. He gasped down in short doses, at times hissing it back through his teeth as his mauled stomach couldn’t stand to extend in a full inhale. Tsukada stood close to him, and Yuki felt dizzied as he spoke.

“Listen, Sohma—”

His breath was acidic. Diet Coke truncated by a wash of cigarettes. Yuki bit down hard on his tongue as the familiar press of a gun barrel was dug into the blow to his side, but he couldn’t quiet the strangled groan that crept up his throat. 

“—you won’t die. Not here, anyway. But the next time we see one of your guys anywhere fucking near us — especially whoever that carrot-topped bitch is — you’ll have wished we had offed you right here and now. You stay out of our goddamn way from now on, and maybe we’ll consider not giving you all a mid-Pacific funeral. Hiroki here was a Navy man, once upon a time. Doesn’t look it, but the guy’s got plenty of useful shit stored up in that head of his.”

He jutted his chin in a vague gesture at the man on Yuki’s right, before scuffing his side with the gun barrel as he drew it back. Yuki hissed harsh through his nose as the pressure lifted. 

“Keep your guys away from us,” Tsukada said. “And I mean every single one. We see one of you cross us again, the name Sohma is as good as gone.” 

Tsukada didn’t ask for an understanding, or an agreement. Without so much as a nod, Yuki was let go, and he was quick to draw a hand to his side, doubling over as he could finally grasp at some relief. He swept his other hand over his eyes, clearing the thin tears that had clouded his vision; in his blurred peripherals, he could see the group retreating. 

All considered, it wasn’t the worst warning he had ever received. The threat itself was bloated at best, and Tsukada had at least stayed true to his word: no blood. As he lowered his hand from the left side of his face, the thud along his cheek blossoming without the pressure, he paused in an attempt to return his heart rate back to normal.

Of the damage, it was just his face he had to explain away, and despite the pain that clouded his mind, he was quick to ramble excuses: Kouta’s absentminded, he walked into a wall while trying to talk to a coworker at the same time. Kouta visited his family over the weekend and his brother accidentally hit him in the middle of a typical sibling spar. Kouta was building one of those IKEA chaise lounge chairs and, well, you wouldn’t believe— 

One of the men paused in his retreat. Yuki looked at him, wary, and watched as the man turned on his heel to face him again.

Yuki straightened himself as best he could, his middle screaming with the stretch, and readied himself to defend against another blow. The man returned to him with long, heavy strides, disquieted with an expression Yuki was too familiar with.

Never mind all that, it said. There’s one more thing.

“Oi, Hiroki! We’re going.”

Hiroki reached out to Yuki, and with a thick hand he slammed him upright again to the wall, pinning him with a weighty press to the top of his sternum. The full extension made Yuki shoot his hand out again to placate his side, but he pried it away as he gripped instead at the man’s arm in an attempt to ease some of the weight off of his collar. Hiroki wouldn't give. Yuki tried a practiced stomp at the man’s instep, but met nothing as the man slid his foot out of the way. He swung a kick to his inner knee, and though it caused Hiroki to gasp and falter some, his weight on Yuki's chest refused to lift.

“Stop squirming,” Hiroki mumbled. He was thick-faced and severe, but his words came out strangely morose. “You goddamn—”

“Roki!”

Down the alley, the remaining gang had stopped. Tsukada called for him again, saying,

“Hiroki, let’s go. We’re done roughin’ him up. We’ve got shit to do.”

Hiroki ignored the calls. His eyes flitted downward, then back to Yuki, eyes bright with a sheen but heavied with sleepless shadows. Yuki continued to grip the man’s forearm in his hands, but wavered as he breathed; he felt ill. His stomach was on fire and he wanted nothing more than to just tell the man to get the next blow over and done with so he could give his body a little peace. 

Hiroki raised his unoccupied hand. Instead of coming down hard on Yuki, though, it disappeared behind him for a moment, and its return was pronounced with the smooth flick of a blade exiting its handle. 

Yuki paled. 

Shit. He wouldn’t— 

“Ah, shit. Hiroki!”

It all happened too fast to prepare for. Words that came out pained yet shy, too wobbled for Yuki to catch; the beckoning for Hiroki becoming panicked and reprimanding, the thudding of footfalls rushing near while others fell distant as the group disbanded; Hiroki raising his arm, target clear, and swinging down as an entanglement of arms thrown around his middle, his shoulders, jerked him back. 

His arm was torn from Yuki’s grasp just as he had started to use it for some leverage. Yuki stumbling forward in tandem with the other being pulled away, his balance disrupted by his conflicting attempt to drive his attacker back with a trapped kick to his chest; the kick falling weak and flat as he connected with nothing and instead found himself in a moment of free fall, his hands suddenly left empty and open, splayed in front of him with an instinctual panic, as Hiroki continued his follow-through.

There was the hot, sharp twang of a blade slicing through skin as Hiroki’s desperate hold on the knife guided an ugly line down Yuki’s palm and, within his moment of falling, the length of his sternum, down to where his bottom ribs met in their crest and gave to his abdomen. Hiroki gave a final, despaired jab to thrust it in further, but it was too late; he was dragged back, enclosed in the cacophony of hissed scoldings and curses as Yuki, somewhat stunned, was left to look down at himself. He pressed his hands against the hurt, and the mottled front of his shirt was quick to soak deep red.

Across front of him, Hiroki continued to struggle in the hold of his companions, making low-noised pleas to be let go.

“Hiroki, you fucking moron, he didn’t do it—”

“—Roki, come on, we’ve gotta go—”

“—I told you guys we shouldn’t have fucking brought him—” 

“—in the middle of the goddamn day, are you fucking insane?”

The Tsukadas retreated until Yuki was left in a hazed silence. He stood doubled over, the blind aches of his stomach battling with the new wound that he struggled to process as anything more than a cold needling sensation spiking through to his core.

Careful, he pulled his hands away, hissing as the pressure lifted. He looked down at them and felt his stomach lurch a little at the thick gush spilling from his left palm. With his unscathed right hand, he patted at his pants pockets, stumbling and rushed with the thought of needing to call for help, only to find them empty.

His phone. He had left it in his office. 

He could feel the trickles of dread beginning to edge on him, but he forced down a long breath, and another, and another. He had sustained worse things, he reminded himself, and this wouldn’t kill him. As a breeze came through and touched his wounds, they burned, and he forced himself to morph the feeling into alertness.  

A phone. All he needed was a phone. He tried to swarm his mind with the thought.

He stumbled for a moment along the wall, keeping his right hand against the brickwork and letting the rough texture scratch his palm and fingertips in an attempt to distract himself. As he stepped again into the reaches of daylight, he leaned into the alley’s corner, scrubbing his eyes. His contacts felt dry. His hand and chest burned with a gnawing throb. His face and abdomen continued to pulse ominous and out of sync, and he realized, then, that the swell on his cheek had forced his eye to squint.

A shrill gasp alerted him, and he felt his nerves jolt as he looked out at the street. The mid-afternoon crowd had dimmed, but was still sizable. There was a thick weight of eyes on him. A rush of voices seemed to crawl over him, then, and he felt the urge to retreat — to where, he had no clue — as a difficult choir cascaded him. 

“Sir? Are you alright?”

“Oh, my God. ” 

“An ambulance, someone call…”

He felt sick. He almost tried to muster a smile and some words to placate them, but he could see with a downward glance that the front of his shirt had taken on more blood, and thought that, maybe, pulling off that act would make him seem delirious. 

So, he tried to move forward instead where, over the heads of those who had stood in the remainder of his path, he could see the dark blue storefront of Okamoto Floral. He flinched as a hand tried to still him in his place, and as he tried to muster the words to more politely convey please don’t bother me, a voice cut through to him over the crowd.

“Ito-san?”

He almost didn’t draw his head to the name, but he looked at where her voice had come from — just behind the crowd, looking as though she had just left the shop. As he caught her eye, Machi came forward, pressing through the circle to reach him, and faltered when she saw the whole of him. 

He swallowed. 

“Kuragi-san,” he said.

Her eyes returned to his, only to depart again as she took his forearm in a firm hand. With a small tug, she urged him to walk with her. 

The circle parted to let her take him. The noise of the small crowd, their eyes digging panicked and too deep into him, made him want to run. But whatever the other people had said to him, she responded, curt and unwavering in his place. 

“I know him.”

“I’ll handle this.”

“Please, don’t overwhelm him.”

He soon found himself back in the peace of the shop, and the noise quieted entirely with the short jangle of the bell overhead. But Machi continued to guide him, to the back of the store and then through the large door of the backroom on the left. The one area of the shop Yuki had never breached, having never found the right opportunity to look inside, and only knowing that it was, at times, a place of respite for her.  

He couldn’t even muster a response to the sheer disaster that the room contained. 

In his haze, feeling all at once alert and clammy and hurried, he almost wanted to laugh. But Machi was quick to guide him inside, just to the right of the entrance and into a desk chair. The desk itself was covered in things he couldn’t even begin to parse, and despite everything, he was bemused by the mess. He may as well have been sitting in his own living room.

In the meantime, Machi reached over the desk, standing beside him as she removed the phone from its cradle on the wall. Yuki picked his head up and watched her punch in a couple numbers, until he inhaled sharp with understanding and lunged up to dig a finger into the cradle’s switchhook. He bit back a groan as his body protested to the movement, and in return, he leaned heavy in the desk as his knees threatened to give.

Machi dropped the phone, startled. It swung by its cord and dangled over the edge of the desk.

“Ito-san—”

“No hospitals,” he managed. “Please."

He was eased back to the chair with a firm hand on his shoulder. He dropped into it again, and when he went to bring his eyes to her, she was gone. Behind him, he heard as she stepped fast over and around piles of junk, mumbling as she knocked into what he assumed was one of the many boxes piled in precarious towers. He spun slow in the chair to watch her, and instead saw her disappear into another room. 

For a moment, his only company was the drone of the dial tone.

She returned with a small white box and a hand towel cradled along her arm to her chest. A first aid kid, tossed carelessly onto the desk once she returned to his side and rooted through in terse silence after a quiet exchange. He took the towel and pressed it to his chest with his mangled hand, sighing with some relief at the pressure against both wounds. Machi squeezed at a bag until it gave with a loud pop, and she held it out to him, hardly looking his way.

He took it, flinching at the unexpected cold but pressing it gingerly to his cheek nonetheless. He said a gentle thanks, and savored, for a few seconds, the distraction the freeze against his skin granted. 

The warmth of blood soaking into the waist of his slacks, though, was quick to pull his attention again, and he spoke as she examined what looked to be a packet of gauze. 

“Kuragi-san,” he said, voice strung. She looked at him, and he could see for the first time that she was speechless in her panic. He tried to ease his expression for her sake, but her eyes maintained their level of alarm. “I have someone I can call.”

“You need to go to the hospital,” she said.

“I can’t.”

“Why?” 

“I don’t want to say.” Then, forcing a swallow, he lied, “It’s…embarrassing. I can’t.”

Her expression shifted somewhat, and once again Yuki found her unreadable. She tore open the gauze packet and, with a flickered gaze to his hand, the rapid soaking of her towel, she held the square out to him.

With some shifting, he slouched some to let the towel lay dormant over his chest, and he pressed the gauze haphazard to the wound on his palm, hissing as the cloth snagged dryly at the raw edge of flesh. Machi reached for the phone still dangling over the desk. Its tone continued to drone quiet and distant.

“I have someone I can call,” he repeated. He stared at the wad of gauze, watching as it began to soak, and peered at the desk in search for something to secure it to free his other hand. He rolled the chair over some to reach at a tape dispenser blockaded with trash. 

There was no response from her. He pulled out a long strand of tape and, dangling it over his palm until settled in the space between his thumb and forefinger, clumsily wrapped the trunk of his hand. The tape crinkled, folding in on and sticking to itself, barely sticking enough to his skin, but with a third wrap-around it would have to do. It left the back of his hand stiff, and his palm uncomfortable as the underlayer peeled away and pocketed around the wet.

He gave a slow, testing flex of his fingers. It would have to be good enough for now. 

As he extended his right hand to her, expectant of the phone, he settled his left again against the damp towel to resume the pressure to his chest. He grimaced down at how much the towel, and his shirt, had soaked, but returned his look to Machi when his hand remained empty. 

She was clutching the phone. Staring down at him with eyes still alarmed but now, he could see, skeptical in harsh questioning. Angry, even, as her shoulders became squared and tense.

He squirmed in an attempt to sit up straight again.

“Kuragi-san,” he said, and though he was stern his words wavered as a pain shot through his center. “I need you to trust me. I need to call someone who can help me.” 

She looked again at his chest. He watched her expression as it faltered for just a moment. Not necessarily out of trust, he knew, but something close enough. Pity, maybe.

Though her hand remained curled around its handle, she laid the phone into his hand. He let out a small, relieved breath, and began to bring his hand light against hers. He coasted his fingers along the curl of her palm, trying to ease her grip, and slowly, she began to loosen her hold.

“Thank you. When I call, though,” he continued, looking up at her again as his fingers edged the phone’s handle, “I think it would be best for you to leave.”

The soft pitying dissipated, replaced by the jagged guise of doubt as she snatched the phone away from him again. He was quick to grab its receiver, wincing as his body protested the sudden jolt, and they stared each other down. Eyes locked on each other’s while the dial tone crept on between their grasps.  

“I can’t do that,” she bit.

“Please,” he said. ”You shouldn’t have to see—”

“It’s my shop—”

“Kuragi.”

She stilled. Her gaze flicked between meeting his eyes and looking at the bloom of red overtaking his middle, the towel now acting as little else than a barrier between the dry air and the wound, but refused to lighten her grasp.

Please believe me, he wanted to say. He wasn't a begging man. But the words sat heavy on the back of his tongue as a botched failsafe.

He couldn’t let his medic see her there. He couldn’t let her see him, either. Of the people in his family, he had no idea who she might have seen over the years, what negotiations or meetings she could have been involved in — and he couldn't chance an encounter. If another Sohma saw her there, the assignment was over. It wouldn’t matter what Yuki said. The incident would be reported to Akito, and with the working assumption that Machi was involved somehow… if Akito latched on to so much as a hint that Yuki’s identity had been compromised… 

Part of it was out of self-preservation. It curled in the back of his brain like a snapping dog. But he didn’t want his own stupid mistake to be the thing that made Machi’s mere existence a liability.

He breathed deep. Giving a quick, harsh dig to his wound in an attempt to re-alert his mind and keep the dread at bay, he settled his tone. He had to get her out of here.

“Kuragi-san. I think you’ve seen enough of… this.” He jostled his left elbow, giving a loose and indirect gesture to his torso. “I understand that you feel you should stay, but I think it would be best for you to—”

“Who are you?”

He froze. 

“What are you talking about?” he asked. He felt breathless. “You know me.”

He couldn’t read her eyes. They seemed altogether angry and anxious, cold and unsure. But regardless, she stared hard at him. Unwavering in her stance and her grip on the phone.

He felt terribly bare. 

“No,” she said, “I don’t—”

Out in the shop, the bell rattled.

“Machi! Sorry I’m so late! Train got stopped for a while. Well, that and I was crazy hungover this morning, you wouldn’t even believe. Mom was pissed that I abandoned her for a few last night and I ended up getting a whole lecture about how she’s unable to function without me around every second, that whole la di da. Even though I totally heard her walking around yesterday, but, whatever, right? What a pain.”

Manabe’s voice rang hollow in the space. Yuki and Machi looked out at the corner of the shop that they could see from the backroom. Its door having swung halfway shut, Yuki could only see the counter that Machi arranged the bouquets at, and the door behind it, leading into what he believed was a stairwell for the apartments that sat empty upstairs. Manabe’s shadow floated along the wall. 

Yuki looked up at her, voice hushed yet harsh. 

“You both need to leave.”

“We’re not going,” she seethed back. 

“Kuragi,” he said, “you run a wonderful shop, but I’m not sure that your neighbors, or your customers, will be so charmed by the knowledge that you refused an injured man the proper assistance, after you had taken him into your shop, in front of a crowd, under the guise of helping him.” 

“Machi?”

“Especially,” Yuki continued, feeling heavied as Machi’s expression grew frustrated under his gross dishonesty, “if that man is not only a customer himself, but a friend of your assistant’s.” 

She glared down at him. Manabe’s footsteps neared, and as she gave another long stare at the thick stain of blood, she relented, releasing the phone with an embittered silence. Yuki took it. With a thick creak, the backroom door swung open the rest of the way. 

Yuki looked up at Manabe. Machi looked away, her back to her assistant as she directed her glower to the dark corner of the room. 

“Kouta?” As his gaze trailed fast to Yuki’s middle, he paled some, stepping in with a startle. “Holy shit, what the hell happened?”

Yuki set the phone in his lap, raising a placating hand as Manabe faltered between coming closer and looking to Machi for answers. He came close enough to stand beside her, but looked down at Yuki, stammering over his thoughts.

“Have you called for an ambulance yet? How long have you been here? Are you hurt?”

Yuki emphasized his hand again, and Manabe stilled with a reluctant pause.

“Calm down. I haven’t been here long. Help is on the way.”

“Calm down? Dude, you’re—”

“I’m aware. It’s okay.” Yuki looked down at himself, where his body throbbed around the wound and the true pains began to eke into its edges. His battered stomach burned. “It looks a lot worse than it feels.” 

“God. Are you sure you’re not just delirious?”

At Manabe’s side, Machi let out a strained breath. Yuki glanced at her — her body strung tight, knuckles white at her sides and trying to subdue a quake — and then, to Manabe, said,

“I can handle this. It might be hard to believe, but I’ve been in a few worse accidents. Don’t ask — I can tell you about them some other time. Okay? But for now, I need you to help by taking Kuragi-san home.” 

Manabe looked to her, the lines of concern on his face making him look sick, and Yuki was quick to clarify.

“She’s not hurt. But I think all of this is disturbing her. Would you be able to take her?”

“And leave you? I—”

“There’s nothing you two can do by waiting here. Help will get here when it gets here.”

“Then we should at least wait with you until they come, right? Won’t we get in trouble if we just, I dunno, abandon you here?”

“I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen. But I want to make sure Kuragi-san here doesn’t end up needing a trip to the hospital herself out of distress.” 

Manabe looked again at his friend, but she had become statuesque in what Yuki understood to be a seething silent treatment. He started to reach for her, but retracted his hand with a second thought, brushing it over his dark hair in a moment of indecision. 

“What about the store?” he asked. “I mean, it’s gotta get locked up, at least.” 

“Leave your key on the counter, I’ll make sure they lock up before we leave. I’ll get it back to you.”

Manabe grew more sullen with each response. Yuki tried to keep his expression placating despite the gnawing hurt creeping through him. 

“No, just… get whoever to stick it under the mat or something… I mean, shit, dude, are you sure you want us to go?”

“I think it would be best to take Kuragi-san home,” Yuki said, picking up the phone and quieting the dial tone with a quick press of his thumb to a button on the pad. “And if you can, go through the back — I’m not sure if there’s still a crowd outside, but I wouldn’t want her to feel overwhelmed by her neighbors. They saw her bring me here, and I don’t think she would appreciate them prying.”

He looked at her with this last point, and with that she turned, harsh on her heel, to exit the room. Manabe stumbled forward a step to avoid getting knocked into, and looked over his shoulder to watch her go.

“Mach? Uh…” He sighed, turning back to Yuki, eyes flitting over the first aid kit splayed open on the desk. He reached over to sift through what remained and frowned as he found nothing else useful. “I mean, yeah, we can go through the back. I was wondering why there were a bunch of people just standing around out there. Thought maybe there was some crazy news alert that I missed out on.”

Yuki gave a small, sore shrug and hummed in response.

Beyond the door to the backroom, Machi returned to Yuki’s vision, jamming a key into the door to the stairwell and swinging it open. Manabe twisted at the noise, and seeing her storm away without him, he huffed an aggravated noise.

“Geez, I should— I guess I’ll go with her, make sure she doesn’t faint or puke in the street or whatever. Um, I’ll put out the spare key near the register, ‘kay?”

Yuki gave a half-nod. “Thanks.”

Manabe made no indication to move. Again, he passed his hand over his hair, face pinched with upset.

“Are you absolutely sure you’re going to be okay by yourself? And that I’m not gonna get into some legal shit over literally leaving you here to bleed out?”

“Trust me, it’ll be okay — it really isn’t as bad as it looks. I promise I won’t die in the back of your store.”

Despite himself, Manabe sputtered a low laugh. 

“Fuck, you better not.”

“I still have the number you gave me — I’ll call later and leave a message, okay? If that would make you feel better.”

Manabe hummed, displeased.

“I guess. Please, though, don’t die in my store, man. Not just because I, you know, don’t want you dead, but that’s a whole liability that I can’t deal with.”

“You won’t get in trouble.”

“I mean, that would straight up look like murder.”

“Manabe.”

Yuki gestured at Machi’s exit with a nod of his head, and Manabe attempted to focus himself with some muttered okays and an emptied fidget of his arms. Still trying to decide if he should stay or not, seeking for anything else to say or do.

But, he at last relented with a stiff wave, stepping backwards as he said,

“I’ll go leave the key out.” And, after some pause, a low murmur to himself. “This fucking sucks.”

And without any goodbyes, he was gone, steps fast and purposed as he went to his task. Yuki released a long breath, and finally, he looked down at the phone, now returned to its tone, and dialed the number.

The line trilled against his ear. He listened for Manabe’s distance, watched his shadow hop along the back wall, and watched as he returned to follow Machi through the back. He gave a look at Yuki through the door’s thin window, and Yuki managed a small, placating smile at him that was returned with a look of hesitance. The knob ticked as he locked it, and with a final questioning look, he turned and disappeared

The line clicked. Yuki’s smile dropped.

“Norway,” he said. He waited. As the line clicked again, he sank somewhat in the chair, his voice dipping back to a gentle quake as he said, “Hatori, I’m in a situation.”

“Where are you?”

“Okamoto Floral. Chuo. Back of the store.”

“Are you alone?”

Yuki looked again at the back door. 

“Yes.”

There was a short demand on the other line. Yuki breathed slow, forcing himself to stay steady as he looked around. He returned to the mess of the backroom, looking at the ceiling-high shelves packed with gardening materials and marred boxes. An impossible array that would come crashing down with one wrong move. Bags of soil patched with duct tape, a small pile spread on the floor just beneath a bag that drooped over the shelf’s edge.

“On the way. What happened?”

Yuki sighed. He fumbled as he tried to press further against the wound, trying to will the towel to soak up more, and gagged a little as he pressed hard into the soft spot below his sternum.

“Yuki?”

“I got stabbed,” he said, trying to appease the wash of dizziness coming over him with a tempered inhale. “Or, sliced. Down part of my hand and chest.”

“How long ago?”

“I have no idea.” He eased the pressure on his chest to bring his taped hand up to swipe at a tired eye. It crinkled with some give, and he sucked in a breath as the gauze shifted and snagged against the wound. “Ten, fifteen minutes?”

Hatori paused. Yuki wanted to throw up. That pause always seemed like a death sentence.

“You should have called sooner.”

“I had to take care of some things first. I’m sorry.”

“We’ll be there in a few minutes. Do you have pressure on it?”

Yuki returned his hand to the towel. It squelched as he pressed into it.

“Yes.”

He stayed on the line in terse silence. He had nothing else to say, but Hatori had made it a rule for him to stay on the phone until help actually arrived. Standard procedure, usually, but thanks to a past reckless accident it was no longer just a guideline for him. Yuki remained on the line, discomforted by his cousin’s quiet presence.

Some time passed before the bell rang at the shop’s entrance. Yuki stilled, suddenly unsure if it was a customer, if either Machi or Manabe had flipped the sign to Closed, but as the line went dead he breathed out. He heard footsteps near in long strides, and the familiar, stony face of his cousin peered into the room where he sat. 

“Hatori,” he said.

“Yuki.” 

Hatori stepped forward, setting his medical bag on the desk and frowning somewhat at it slid along the thick stacks of paper and debris. With a short gesture, he beckoned Yuki to sit up straighter, and turned his back to him to sift through his bag. Yuki winced at the sharp pain that rang through him as he obeyed. He felt little relief as he heard the familiar stretch and snap of latex gloves.  

“You’re lucky we were in the area.”  

“‘We?’”

Hatori was quiet as he removed the saturated towel, giving Yuki only the suggestion of a wary look at its weight, and turned again to place it in a hazard bag. With shaky fingers, Yuki reached to undo the buttons of his shirt that had gone untouched in the attack. As he peeled the front from his skin, he got his first real look at the slash along his sternum.

He grimaced. He tried to placate himself with the thought it’s not that deep. Seeing the brief glimpse of bone, though, made his skin prickle in an instinctual freeze. The wound pooled without the pressure, and he watched as it trailed along the red-stained dip of his stomach before disappearing in the dark fabric of his slacks, heavied and uncomfortable with the soak.

Hatori prodded light at the edge of the gash, pressing and pulling away the gauze to gauge how deep the blade had gone. Yuki gripped the arm of the chair to keep himself from squirming, only for Hatori to tell him to stop holding his breath.

He exhaled. He murmured a small apology. 

Hatori turned away towards the desk, giving Yuki a thick pad to press to the wound before starting to move things aside. Picking up stacks and piling them to the floor instead, moving with a practiced speed that, though he rushed, he kept his poise. Yuki watched him clear a spot, and with another change of gloves, he gestured at him to change seats. 

“Do you know who attacked you?” 

Yuki stood slow with a bitten whine. With some assistance, he sat on the desk, and tried to still himself as Hatori was quick to dot his chest with a needle. He kept his face turned away, focusing instead on a corner of the room where a stack of plastic bins lined the wall.

“The Tsukadas,” he responded. “It was just a warning. One of their men went rogue.”

Hatori told him again to even his breathing. He did. There was a slow relief as the lidocaine eased some of the discomfort, but the ache sat deep. 

“I didn’t think you were involved in that assignment. They’re a small local group.”

“I wasn’t.” Yuki huffed a sigh, drawing his injured hand to his lap as annoyance pinched his features. “Kyo was, apparently. The moron must have been spotted.”

Hatori gave a flat hum. At his waist, Yuki felt the deft packing of gauze along the waistband of his slacks, trapped to catch the blood. Hatori eased his hand away from the pad against his chest, fixing it instead to hold the lower half of the wound.

“Stay still,” he instructed. “They targeted you instead?”

There was a phantom ache of the suture needle piercing him. Though the anesthetic hadn’t had time to numb his nerves in full, he was able to relax some. He unclenched the hand at his side.

“I don’t think I was targeted specifically. It seemed like they just wanted to roughen up whichever Sohma crossed their path first.”

“That’s terribly unlucky, then, that they targeted someone with as high a rank as yours.” He paused, and Yuki could feel the short jab of a stare before he finished, “Or, perhaps lucky that they chose someone who decided not to fight back.”

Yuki felt a burn creep along the back of his neck. He remained silent as Hatori dug into him again, with another stitch and another question.

“Do you think it was a lucky guess,” he asked, “or do you suppose they had figured out your identity while you were here on business?”

Yuki reached a hand up to brush his hair behind his ear, darting his eyes to focus elsewhere in the room.

“They must have noticed that I was coming around here often,” he admitted. “If they followed me, or gave any indication that they were figuring out who I was… I didn’t notice. How they recognized me, I’m not sure. It might have been a lucky guess on their part. But, if they were following me, it’s possible they noticed my transport.”

Before him, Hatori let out a short sigh. He eased Yuki’s hand away from the remainder of the wound, and fell into a brief silence as he focused on the next line of stitches.

Yuki thought he had covered his bases when he had first started the assignment. Every area had its own gangs, from starting-line delinquent groups to the largest families, and it wasn’t safe to assume that they wouldn’t become a bother. But, he thought he could at least avoid anything drastic. His window of involvement in the area was always contained to just an hour, once a week at the most, in the middle of the day; he spoke only to Machi and Manabe, and had kept his visits strictly to the store, except for the single afternoon he had joined Manabe for lunch, three streets away in the direction opposite his usual path. No one there spoke his real name, and his disguise left him much like any other man in the financial district. 

He was supposed to be a nobody. But even these precautions didn’t guarantee protection.

The place he had gone for lunch just the week prior — was it possible that, by some stroke of bad luck, it was Tsukada-owned? Or, was it possible that someone gave him just a glance and, even briefly, thought he looked terribly familiar? 

Or could it have been Machi herself who initiated the strike, he wondered. His stomach twisted at remembering her words, her tired, accusatory question of his identity. Could it have been possible that she was suspicious of him this whole time after all, and that this was a mission of her own: to confirm her doubts, to pretend to save him only to bring out the truth in private? 

Wondering about it made him clench his teeth. His mind whirled through the possibilities, nothing quite clicking, but nothing too far-fetched to be wholly unbelievable.

He was pulled from his thoughts as the needle suddenly panged him, near the bottom of the wound where the blade had pierced deeper into the flesh below his ribs, and where the anesthetic didn’t quite reach in full. He inhaled sharp at the sensation of the suture being pulled through, and chewed his cheek to keep himself from blurting a curse. Hatori said nothing, even as he snipped the last of the sutures and pulled away. Yuki gave a thick exhale when the careful but quick wrap of bandage bound another long strip of gauze to his sternum, and felt some security in its snug hold around his ribs.

He looked down at himself, finally, and swam for a moment in relief. 

As Hatori took his left hand, making the barest of expressions at the office tape wrapped poorly around it, he said,

“You understand that you’re going to be questioned about this ordeal.”

The relief was quick to subside. Yuki frowned.

“I know.”

“And that you’ll have to explain why you were without your phone, or a weapon, or why you didn’t fight back and control the situation.”

Yuki made a noise, about to defend himself, but Hatori continued.

“And how, exactly, you managed to come in here without any interference, and without breaking in.”

Hatori didn’t look up at Yuki as he spoke, busying himself with snipping away at the poor excuse for a bandage around Yuki’s hand, but Yuki forced himself to look calm regardless. 

Though Machi and Manabe had gone, he couldn’t let Hatori know that they had been there at all. It would raise more questions and concerns than strictly necessary. The suspicions of why he refused a hospital, his strange calm, the act as though this was an accident and not a targeted attack — Machi was already on high alert. These questions would sink into her eventually, if they hadn’t already, and if she hadn’t enacted this whole ordeal herself in the first place. Manabe, too, would probably come around to question these things.

There would be confusion and fallout from this between him and them, he knew, but he could handle it. And by no means did he want Hatori, or Akito, to interfere. He didn’t want either of them to get even a drop of concern that things had gone awry, or for them to feel the need to take matters into their own hands.

“Kuragi’s assistant gave me a spare key last week,” he explained, rushing for a probable lie. “He’s been out caring for his mother for the last few days, and I think he thought I would take his job in his place. Or, that I would need to come here while both he and Kuragi were away. His reasons weren’t very clear, but he insisted that I take it.”

He saw Hatori’s brows quirk. 

“That’s careless,” he said.

Yuki hummed. 

“That’s Manabe.”

“And what about Kuragi?”

Yuki attempted to placate himself with a slow, quiet breath. It hitched as Hatori pulled the wad of gauze away from his palm, the cloth having stuck somewhat to the wound’s edge.

“I overheard her saying that she would be out sometime this week to meet with her vendors,” he said. “I suppose that could have been today — she didn’t give a specific date.”

“And is it possible that she isn’t out for this meeting, but is out for lunch instead?”

Yuki gave some pause. 

“Well… yes, that’s possible. She tends to have lunch later in the day, though.”

Hatori fell quiet as he pressed a fresh pad to the gash. He wrapped his hand properly before peering at the watchface lying on the inside of his wrist.

“We shouldn’t stay here any longer, then. We’ll finish up at the estate.”

He peeled the gloves away from his hand and placed them into the hazard bag at his foot, already weighted with the hand towel and the used bandages. Yuki felt his heart plummet.

“Your office?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Is it really necessary—”

“It wasn’t a suggestion, Yuki.” 

Yuki soured light with nausea. He frowned down at his bandaged hand, wrapped stiff in his lap, and he was overcome with the want to run out the back door and never be seen again. Though he knew otherwise, it felt distinctly like a punishment. 

Medical bag packed and the mess mostly contained, Hatori beckoned for him to stand again. Yuki slid off the edge of the desk and found, as he landed on his feet, that it pained him to do much more than hunch into the line of stitches. As he steadied himself, Hatori placed the stacks of things back on the desk, moving around him. Yuki looked at the desk chair and noticed that, while minute, there were small spots of blood on the floor.  

Before he could mention it, the vinegar-tang of hydrogen peroxide muted him. As Hatori stepped aside to handle it, he extended his arm out to Yuki, offering his suit jacket.

“Cover up,” he said. 

Yuki took the jacket. He moved slow as he slid his arms gingerly through the sleeves; it was only to keep from alarming any onlookers, but he felt distinctly small as it hung far too large on his frame. Cuffs hitting mid-palm, the shoulder seam swimming along his bicep. The decade between him and his cousin felt all the more pronounced, then, and as he stood there, waiting to leave yet anxious to do so, anticipating the line of questions and the thick reprimands he was sure would come after, he felt very much like a child.

Insecurity flooded him as he followed Hatori out of the shop. He took Manabe’s key from the counter, and though he locked the store behind him as promised, he slipped the key into his damp pocket. 

Outside, the commotion had settled some. But before he ducked inside the black car waiting for them in front of the shop, Yuki turned to address the lights spinning in the corner of his eye. Further down the street, some ways off from where he had been pulled aside by the Tsukadas, there was a single police car. Its officer was off to the side, speaking to a tall suited man with dark hair, slicked back and brushing low into his collar. 

Yuki scowled at the recognition. He got in the car, sitting behind the driver with a discomforted grunt, slouching against the door. The car jostled some as Hatori shut the trunk where he discarded the bags, and once Hatori joined him, sitting in the front passenger seat, Yuki said,

“You didn’t tell me Shigure was with you.” 

Hatori went to reach for the inside of his jacket. He looked down at his hand as it floated bare above his chest, then settled it, giving a sigh as he responded.

“It wasn’t necessary to say. Where I am, he tends to be.”

Yuki patted along the jacket’s front until he felt the thin, hard square that his cousin had been seeking. He slid out the cigarette compact and, unable to lean forward much to hand it to him, said his name to get his attention. 

Hatori turned, and murmured a low thanks as he took it. As he turned again in his seat, though, he didn’t open it. He thumbed its edge, but eventually shifted to slide it into his pants pocket instead. 

That childish feeling dug into Yuki again. 

“You can smoke,” he said. “I don’t mind.”

“You’ve had a long day,” Hatori said. He glanced into the rearview mirror, looking past Yuki to discern Shigure’s position, and gave a small frown before looking at Yuki in the reflection. “It would be a little cruel.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s been weeks.”

“Good. Let’s not tempt that, then.”

Yuki quieted, lowering his gaze to look out the window. The vibrant deep blue of Okamoto Floral’s storefront seemed rather lonely, then, without Manabe or Machi hovering beyond the window. 

After some stretch of silence, Yuki spoke again.

“We should just leave without him.”

“Tempting. But, he’s already running late for a meeting.”

“So? I thought that keeping other people waiting was one of his favorite hobbies. He would probably thank us.”

Hatori huffed a short laugh through his nose, but made no further comment. Meandering footsteps drew near the car, and soon, Yuki was accompanied in the backseat by Shigure — lax as he sat back with a lighthearted sigh, reaching up to loosen his tie with one hand while the other dug into the inside of his jacket to retrieve a crinkled carton of cigarettes. 

“Ah, Yuki-kun, there you are,” he said. “And looking quite worse for wear.”

The driver pulled down the street. Yuki muttered a half-hearted thanks. Shigure notched his window down some, and, pausing only to draw out a cigarette and light it, continued,

“I would ask what happened, but it seems the whole street was able to tell me.”  

Yuki moved his gaze to stare at the back of the driver’s seat. His skin prickled at the mention. For as every part annoying he found his cousin, he was two-parts someone to be cautious of. 

He was Akito’s senior advisor, after all. And in all likelihood, the very appointment he was late for was with the family head himself.

As Shigure exhaled a drag, the smoke was quick to waft back into the car. It hit Yuki square.

“Yes, as I waited for Haa-san here to bring our fallen man back to life, I thought it would do nicely to get the story. Not that I would have doubted you, Yuki, but, well, call me a creature that needed to be sated until you could tell me yourself.”

“You’re a creature alright,” Yuki muttered. In truth, he could feel the anxiety tightening its vice along his throat. 

Shigure gave a sharp, mocked gasp.

“Harsh! You know, you always get so testy after these injuries. But, I suppose I can understand — apparently you caused quite the scene. Tales of a young business man stumbling through the alley, covered in blood as his attackers disappeared, looking ready to collapse.” He took another drag, sighing with some content. “That is, until he was whisked away by the street recluse.”

Yuki froze. He glanced at Hatori, who had drawn his eyes to the rearview mirror again, pinning a stare on the man sitting behind him. 

“No ambulance called,” Shigure continued, smoke trailing his fingers as he gestured loose with his hands, “the police only just arriving on the scene after us, because a single person had their doubts. Honestly, people do seem to mind too much of their own business these days—” 

“The street recluse?” Hatori asked.

Shigure hummed an affirmative. Yuki pulled his stare out the window again, clasping his hand tight against the still-open wound thudding slow and cold in his palm.

“A few identified her as the flower shop’s owner. Which, if I’m not mistaken, is the little Kuragi in question.”

Hatori fell into a pensive pause. Yuki could feel his stare digging into the marred side of his face, but he refused to return it.

“Yuki said he had entered the shop alone,” Hatori said, slow and pointed. “Both Kuragi and her assistant were out when I arrived.”

Shigure’s stare, too, landed on Yuki. The thought to reach forward and unlock the door, to open it and roll out into the street, overtook him, but Yuki’s manner continued in its immobile state. Rigid despite his slight curl into himself, severe as he felt the dull thudding of his hand eke into his stronghold.

“Oh?” Shigure’s voice remained light, but the pause that followed was leaden. After a moment, he huffed a small hum. “Well, that’s interesting.”

The silence that overtook the car was goading. Yuki didn’t respond to it. He felt cold. 

With a final drag and exhale, the silence was clipped with Shigure disposing the stub of his cigarette in his pocket ashtray. The tool clicked shut with a purposed snap, and Shigure gave a troubled, pondering sigh.

“My, my,” he said. “And here I thought today would be boring.”  

Missed Call: Hatsuharu

Missed Call: Hatsuharu (2)

Missed Call: Hatsuharu (3)

(1) New Voice Message

Yuki sat at his kitchen table. Sundown faced his window and laid thick stripes along the cabinets, jagged with elongated shadows of countertop paraphernalia. It cut across him, warming the dulling ache of his middle, the bandages secured around his chest, the exposed dark ink curling over his shoulder that, though he couldn’t stand to look at it, he was decidedly too pained to cover with a shirt. 

Outside of the light, everything fell to a deep, muted dark. Above the low noises of evening traffic, the wafting noises of people returning home, was a terrible quiet. 

He had spent some hours at the estate. Trapped in Hatori’s office, willing his mind to be anywhere else while he was hovered over and examined again. Eyes closed to keep a creeping trail of bile from reacting to — what, he couldn’t pinpoint. The shade of beige coating the walls, interrupted only by medical charts he found too familiar to be comforting. The daylight cutting through the slats of the privacy blinds over the windows. The section of garden he knew lied beyond that he had come to avoid. 

On the surface, he was numb from the lidocaine spidering through his hand and lower arm, and again through his chest as Hatori double-checked his work. But when his cousin had given him the small paper cup of painkillers, Yuki refused. A polite guise that he could take them later, and that the pain wasn’t too bad, under the blanketed tone that he ached to leave. He couldn’t think to let himself be fogged here. Not when he could already feel the dark and faraway eyes of the family head trying to lure him, down hallways and passing rooms he hadn’t seen since… 

He had wanted to leave the moment Hatori finished stitching his hand back together. He could have been given the details of how to care for the wounds in the car, and he would only have had to half-listen. He could have been safe in the security of his apartment, where he would finally down his medicine and sleep off the day, and deal with figuring out his next steps when he woke.

But he had been kept there. He continued to refuse the medicine. Eventually, the anesthetic wore off, and it wasn’t until he could feel the hurt panging hot and cold down to his core and through his fingers and wrist that Hatori had returned, with Shigure in tow. 

Hatori had dodged the crux of the matter. You’ll be staying home for the next ten days to recoup. Bedrest for the next two days. Avoid doing anything strenuous that could reopen the wounds; they’re not deep, but they’re in fragile areas. Prolonging healing is unnecessary.   

And it was Shigure that said things in plainer terms: And in the meantime, you can put your mind at ease, too —  there’s no need to worry over the Kuragi assignment, or anything else you’re overseeing. Your current responsibilities will be shifted over to someone else while you’re recovering. 

Yuki had asked what this meant for the assignment. 

It’s out of your hands now. Your involvement was deemed ‘no longer necessary.’ 

He was given simple reasons at first. He needed time to heal, and needed time away from the neighborhood to lie low. Any attempt to return too soon would bring undue attention back onto him, either from the Tsukadas or curious shop owners who had been around for the ordeal. These reasons had made sense to him.

What hadn’t made sense was why his involvement wasn’t put on hiatus, or rearranged. He asked. His cousins shared a short look with one another, a silent exchange to dare each other to speak first.

It didn’t matter who spoke. He felt everything within him lurch at the words we’re concerned… 

Hinged on pain and exhaustion, he argued. They stayed steady in their decision — the irresponsibility he had shown in that day alone gave them doubts in their decision to let him work solo again. Uncharacteristic in his lies to protect the subject, his complete failure to control the confrontation. 

We need to re-assess. Shigure had almost seemed apologetic, but not quite. If it existed, the expression was smothered by his usual veneer of distance. You’re smart, Yuki-kun, and diligent. But how quickly it all gets warped by that pride of yours.

Pride. He scoffed at the word, and it left him ugly and bruised. 

The conversation had ended there. Hatori spoke more on the ride back to his apartment of what would happen next. One of his ligaments needed considerable time to heal, and would be a sore spot for some weeks. He would send someone to handle his ruined clothes. For now, he had enough pain relievers and antibiotics to cover him for the next few days; Hatori would come by, or send someone, to drop the remaining dosage off. Don’t soak the sutures. Don’t sneak off. 

It wasn’t until Hatori had come up to his apartment door, assisting him in and leaving him with his medicine and fresh bandages, that he mentioned the possibility of being summoned by Akito somewhat soon. 

Your position is being discussed, along with the matters of the Kuragi assignment. 

Yuki hadn’t had the energy to respond. What followed was an awkward, familial hand on his shoulder — Try to get some rest — and his cousin’s exit. 

His phone buzzed again against his table. Yuki stared as Haru called a fourth time, and, for a moment, he hovered his finger over the screen to accept it. But he laid his hand down again, letting the screen go idle again, and a minute later, it vibrated with another notification.

(2) New Voice Messages

He looked up. Across from him, surrounded by unopened mail and abandoned foods, was the plant. It still sat tall in its pot, reaching mildly for the sunlight as it passed. Its leaves were thick and green and healthy. With his good hand, he reached for it, and dragged it closer to him. He touched his fingers to the soil. 

Still damp. It didn’t need him again just yet. 

He kept it close to him regardless. As he gently prodded its leaves, checking and double-checking for thinned or browned spots, looking at its variegations, he couldn’t stop the little bout of melancholy that bloomed along the back of his throat. 

It was bought under a false pretense, but he found himself growing fond of the thing. It wasn’t aware of what had happened, or what he had done, or what he was supposed to do. It was simply in his care. And for as little as he had to do to keep it alive, it was enough for it to be happy. 

He pushed it back to its usual spot, where it could reach for the last bout of daylight, and looked back down at the table. Beside his work phone was the little flip burner phone he had bought some months ago, one of many in a line of replacements. He looked down at the crumpled, scrawled-on scrap of paper that he dug out from his nightstand’s junk drawer. 

Phone-a-friend: 06 xxxx xxxx

He would have to call, he knew. He would at least have to leave a message at the shop to let them know he was still alive, and that things were fine. He would have to apologize about the key, without giving much mention of when it would be returned. And he would have to apologize to Machi, specifically — in careful words, like “I’m sorry for frightening you,” or “I’m sorry for the trouble I caused,” that he hoped she would understand as him apologizing for things much beyond that.

But he continued to stare at it. Until the daylight fell into a cool blue, and until that, too, began its quick descent to nighttime, he watched the words Phone-a-friend become blotted and indistinct. 

As much as he knew that he would have to step away from the assignment, ignoring the sinking feelings of remorse, or fear, or failure, he couldn’t quite bring himself to make the call. Not yet. He felt off knowing it would be the last time he would ever make contact with them. And if that feeling was born out of knowing it would signify the end of his involvement, a mark of the failure he had desperately wanted to avoid, or born out of that strange, mixed pain that he would never speak to either of them again afterwards, not in the context of friendship, or as a customer, or whatever connection he had made with them — he wasn’t sure. 

But the off-feeling made him grow still. He sat at his table until his kitchen grew dark. Until he could see the yellowed lamplight flicker on along his street, and until even the evening rush home fell to a pocketed hush. He sat until the dark crept on him in menacing tones, until his arms and legs swam with the chill of disquietude.

And he sat longer still.

“We shouldn’t stay here any longer, then. We’ll finish up at the estate.”

“Your office?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Is it really necessary—”

“It wasn’t a suggestion, Yuki.” 

Machi’s knees had grown numb from kneeling. Beneath the stairs, she kept her ear pressed flush to the wall, listening to the muddled and hollow voices on the other side. Her face was cool. Hearing the name again, her jaw set tight.

Yuki. 

Across from her, Manabe was hunched beneath the lower part of the stairs in a crouch. He drew in a breath to speak again, and she flashed him a look to quiet him. Not yet, it said. Conveyed, she hoped, a heady Shut the fuck up.

Frustrated, he gave a dramatic slouch, shoulders drooping as he rolled his eyes. He typed a message into his phone and turned the screen to her: what’s going on??

She drew her eyes back to a spot on the floor, trying to concentrate. For a while, there was nothing but the low noises of moving things around, the sounds of shifting and piling. Manabe drummed his fingers against his knee, and in another bout of impatience, he tried to speak again. 

She could have killed him. She had motioned for him to leave when he first followed her into the stairwell, but he had refused, or maybe pretended to misunderstand, and instead joined her beneath the stairs. The intent to question her — a short inhale, the noise of a word starting to crawl out of him — was immediately cut by her pressing her hand over his mouth. Something she had never done to him before, and, feeling how her palm cradled his breath, decided she would never do again, but its singular instance must have encouraged him to believe her when she motioned for him to stay quiet. It would never work on him again, she knew. She absolved her future self from even trying.

Even so, while she was wound tight and silenced by a bitter validation (she knew something had been off, no one like him just keeps returning to a store like theirs, and not for someone like Manabe of all people, without some motive), Manabe just seemed aggravated. Agitated because he was being ignored, she knew, as neither she nor the stranger he had become acquainted with would say anything to him straight.

But, his impatience was dangerous. So instead, she bit down a sigh and returned the gesture, thumbing a message onto her own phone. She turned it to him, hoping it would satisfy him for a minute longer.

His name isn’t Kouta. They haven’t left yet.

Manabe squinted. He returned to his phone, typed, then in turning his screen to her again, handed the device off to her entirely. 

dude your screen is cracked to shit i can’t read anything lol

She glared at him. He shrugged. On the other side of the wall, the backroom door gave its low creak, and she sat frozen as she heard the strangers walk away. One pair of footsteps plodding in a limp, the other heavier and more poised. Manabe turned his head to the noise and stilled, too, as they became distant.

The bell jangled. And then, as the front door was pulled shut, it gave its ugly clatter.

As soon as all was quiet, Manabe slumped with a huff. He repositioned his stance, hissing as he gave his knees some relief.

“Damn,” he muttered. He sat cross-legged, giving one leg a slow stretch out, past the shadows of their hiding spot. “Okay, now can you tell me what the hell’s going on? If we were just going to hide out here, we could have stayed with him.”

Machi remained still, trying to settle her shoulders with a slow exhale. It didn’t work. Whatever he was here for, whatever organization he came from, she knew it was for just the same reasons as every other time she had been bothered, or stalked, or remotely threatened over the years. It always circled back around to them

With a harsh toss, she returned Manabe’s phone, and she began to shift her legs from under her to rise.

“Hey, careful, geez—”

“I have to go,” she said. She rose, but as she ducked her head to exit the space, she was rooted again by Manabe grabbing her ankle. She shook it off with a jerk of her leg, but she looked down at him, exasperated. 

“Manabe—”

“Would you just hold on a second?”

He shifted, grunting as he brought himself to his feet, and brushed by her as he ducked out from beneath the stairs. She took a step back from him. He leaned back some to peer out of the door’s thin window, but seeing nothing, returned to frown down at her.

“Were you seriously about to bail on me?" he asked, but, perhaps knowing her answer, moved on before she could give her non-response. "Can you just tell me what the hell is going on? Is Kouta okay?”

She sighed, aggravated as she side-stepped away from him and towards the exit. 

“He’s fine,” she said, voice stilted. “But his name isn’t Kouta.”

“What?”

Manabe began to follow her out. He paused behind her, though, in what she assumed to be another peer into their store. 

“That's dumb," he scoffed. Then, after some pause, "What do you mean his name isn’t—”

She pushed on the door's crash bar. The spring air was sweet and mellow as it swam into the stale hall. Manabe began to follow her out, and as his footsteps turned vacant in the empty space, drowned by the noises of life bracketing the back-alley, she stopped to address him.

“His name is Yuki," she said. "That's all you need to know."

Chapter Text

Machi had hardly made it two steps into the back-alley before being stilled by Manabe’s hand on her shoulder and another brusque command for her to hold up. 

The boom of his voice in the stairwell was deadened by the open air and gentle commotion of the mid-afternoon. Still, she glanced hard at either end of the alley, watching the streets for any catches in the attention of wanderers or knowing eavesdroppers. 

“‘That’s all I need to know?’” Manabe’s echo was sharp with distrust. “You’re really just going to leave me with that?”

She shrugged his hand off. Though he relented his hold on her, she remained where she stood. Behind her, he let the door crash shut, and he stepped around her until he stood in her way. She averted her eyes as he did. Casting them off to his side, she instead settled on the neighboring bakery’s trash bins, unassuming and neatly lined across the thin stretch of asphalt. Delivery pallets were leaned against the wall, soft with the dewy days that the late spring offered, and Machi realized that they had been saved for reuse, only to go forgotten once they became bloated and warped with the weather. 

She forced her eyes to follow the sagging slope of a deformed beam as she tread on a response.

"If you had been listening," she started, "you would have—" 

"If I wasn't trying to figure out what the hell your problem is, I would have gone back to make sure we didn't end up with a body in the shop."

Her breath caught at his volume. Though she was rooted by her fists formed tight at her sides, the bite of her nails pressing harsh and present into her palms, she glowered with an intensity that could only otherwise be channeled into her legs pulling her long and fast away from him. She chewed on a plea for him to keep his voice down. But, knowing that in this state he would only respond with spite, letting his voice carry clear to their neighbors still churning the streets with confusion and morbid curiosity, she let the words idle on her teeth.  

In her peripherals, she saw the contortion of his face as he finally gave in to the voice of his irritation. The harsh lines drawn between his brows softened reluctantly, though, as he huffed an aggrieved sigh. He lowered his voice some as he spoke.

“Seriously, Machi, I— the only reason I left was because you looked like you were really trying not to hurl. You left so fast I thought Kouta had called your bluff, and you were just gonna be sick in the middle of the street or something. But it wasn’t that. You’re just…” He waved an empty hand at her before dropping it heavy to his side. “Doing this again.”

Something zipped hot against her chest. That ugly whorl of anger, panic, and dread. It made her flash her eyes up to him, a retort burning hot in the back of her mouth, but he was quick to raise a flat hand to stop her.

“No, look, I get it. I get it. You get stalked once and you can never trust anyone ever again, right? But, shit. It’s one thing to get paranoid about the guy moving in across the street, but to bail on a guy who’s bleeding out? All because, what, you just don’t like him, or whatever your deal is with him? That’s fucked up, Machi. That’s really—”

Her shoulder knocked against his arm as she brushed past him, the ferocity in her chest spiking and stoking her urgency. At her sides, her knuckles burned, and the thick of her palms grew raw. 

He did this on purpose. Always the little tick clinging to her sweater, trying to pry inside wounds otherwise hidden. And like a terrible infection, he clung to this one in particular, gripping it like a victory flag. He was proud, it seemed, that he could at last pin something to her nature, affixing every neurotic tic and strange response to this singular event. Even the way he said the word — stalker — left him like a breeze. As though he were answering a question in class and correcting the teacher in the same confident breath. 

And how cruel she found this pride. How he hung this thing over her, tauntingly coveted, when he was never supposed to know of it. When he in truth knew very little about it.

As she strode away from him, a familiar dredge of embarrassment churned sick at the center of her piquing fury. Sensing his anger still hitting at her back in waves, she was overcome with the wish to double over and disappear.

After all, this was how she contended it would be between them. Him, misunderstanding and frustrated for it, and her, deciding it was better than the alternative. The alternative would raise too many questions, and to unearth all that she had kept in the dark from him would be too troublesome to be at all rewarding. To bare her soul to him felt distinctly like giving up.

No, being misunderstood by him was easier. That conclusion had been made some time ago.

Now, though, stormy in her aggression, haunting in the passing hope that he would hurt enough from it to finally leave her alone, she only ached. Something small but loud in her wondered if this would, in the end, have him hate her. 

The fact that that barbed her made her feel especially ill.

Perhaps knowing that she would react this way, he was quick to bridge their distance by turning and grabbing her wrist. At feeling his hand circle her, she was flooded with the instinct to punch him.

But, she didn’t. Her arms felt strung tight as she found herself frozen in her spot once again, desperate to fight, or run, but all she could manage was a pained glare down at her shoes.

“Wait,” he said. Then, with another labored sigh, he said again, “Just, wait.”

He let her go. She didn’t move. While he fell into a bated quiet, huffing as he tried to amend his temper, her teeth hurt from clamping her mouth shut.

“Look, I’m sorry, okay?" He sounded about as apologetic as he could muster with her. "But, I just don’t get it. All he did was visit every now and then for, what, a couple of months? You barely even talked to each other — and, geez, not for lack of trying on his part, but c’mon. He wasn’t exactly pushy about it. I don’t know how the hell you got creepy stalker out of that guy. I just can’t see it.”

She opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came. I don’t want you to get it calcified in her stomach. You don’t need to know, and I never wanted you to sat closer to the tip of her tongue, and she hushed it. 

It didn’t pass her by, either, that he didn’t ask her to explain.

Behind her, he scuffed his sneaker against the road.

“All he is,” he said, voice hard but quiet, “is a normal guy, bored out of his skull at his dumb office job, who wandered in one day and decided we were worth visiting again. It’s not a crazy conspiracy.”

“It’s not that simple,” she mumbled. She hadn’t wanted to say it out loud, but she did. Manabe clicked his tongue, and the small noise was laden with scorn.

“How would you know? You decided not to trust him the second he walked in.”

A flush of frustration burned across her cheeks. She pressed the cool back of a hand against her under-eyes and found no relief. There was nothing she could say to get him to believe her. She knew this, and had known this as she observed the speed at which he peeled away from his customer service persona to something more aggravatingly himself every time Ito— Yuki came around. That camaraderie of acquaintanceship that he delved into, sinking into it as though it were heat pressed to a sore shoulder, too distracted by the ease and relief to notice how close he was to getting burnt. A practiced carelessness. 

Manabe wasn’t a stupid man. This was an aggravating truth. But what he favored more than intelligence was satisfaction, and what he favored even more than that was stimulation. Neither of which were served very much by his position as an assistant in a small and unassuming flower shop on the outskirts of the city. 

It was a ploy on Yuki’s part, she was sure, to ensure that Manabe wouldn’t believe her. She had seen and known Yuki’s type before — polite enough to be almost forgettable, and charming enough to ensure he wasn’t. Pleasant to talk to, pleasant to look at. He gained trust through nothing more than a constructed mask of gentle mannerisms and sheer genetic luck, but Machi knew that what coursed beneath the skin of his paper-thin persona was something poisonous.

Yuki blinded people. He was able to weave a pretty hand through easy conversation until he landed on what he sought, and it simply had to fall into his palm. There was no asking, or twisting, or plucking, or struggling. He would seek a hint and be given the whole orchard. 

She wondered, then, what Manabe had told him when she wasn’t around. 

She wanted to throw up thinking about it.

“...I’m going home,” she managed. Harsh, she unfurled her hand enough to shove her hair behind her ear. “Stay here.”

“You’re bailing on me now, too?” he bit, and the challenge of it caused her to turn again to face him. Her expression fell severe as she was met with his old, familiar, caustic cold.

Part of her screamed at herself for staying and entertaining him. The rest of her screamed at him, for being blinded, for being careless, for being.

(And beneath that noise, something smaller in her yelped that she did, in fact, help Yuki. As much as she distrusted him, she did not leave him to bleed, not really. But this was long negated by Manabe, and despite her truth, his doubt infected her.)

“He told you to leave, too,” she hissed. “And you did.”

His dark eyes hardened on her. It had struck a nerve, she could tell, and in the moment it sent a wash of vindication through her.

“Yeah, well, at least I feel fucking bad about it. And I did it for you, you know. Kouta was the one worried over you first.”

“His name is not—”

“But, I guess I shouldn’t have trusted him after all, huh?” He crossed his arms, posture laxing as he settled into a tone more definitively arrogant. “Help me out here, Mach: did he send me off after you because he’s a creep, or do you think it’s possible he really did think you needed help, and he was just too nice to notice that you’re actually a huge bitch?”

She reached for him the moment she could sense the word forming. Automatic again in her movements, her instinct not giving her mind a chance to restrain herself, her head grew louder. The aim of her internal vitriol refocused itself on her alone as she felt her knuckles dig severe against his breastbone.

You’re uncontrollable. The voice was her own, frantic and terrible in its ambiguous age. You haven’t known control a day in your life.

She tugged harsh, feeling the exact points of where her knuckles pressed into him, bone to bone. Though he jerked forward some, it wasn’t nearly enough to stoop him, or to make him seem any less looming than he did in that moment. He glared down at her, provoking, and she felt a numbness seize her as her heart raced. 

Machi wasn’t afraid of him. In all her life, she had never been afraid of him. But there was a likeness he carried, so easily cut from the figure threatening the forefront of her mind, that made her blood run cold.

It was her own silence that caused frustration to brew watery and thin along her lashes. As she kept him there, she felt swarmed with what to say. Lungs bloated with nonsense things, empty words, hollowed cries to shut up and listen and please listen despite the exact words refusing her once they crept to the crest of her tongue. And even if they were to leave her, she would have nothing more to say. No words to explain herself. Not to him.

She could only continue to frown at him, brows and knuckles growing sore with the intensity of their hold. He stared back, tundric in his silent dare for her to do anything, until another beat passed and, with a slow exhale, he dropped his gaze. With some gentleness, he brought his hand up to her’s, encouraging her to let go. She drew away before he could take hold of her again and keep her there any longer.

Taking a step back, Machi stared at him. He shoved his hands in his pockets, eyes averted. 

“...I’m going home,” she repeated. She half-turned, bringing her gaze to where he wasn’t, and said again, “Stay here.”

“Fine,” he said, voice flat and tired. Then, once she turned fully, walking fast down the remainder of the alley, his voice rose and followed her into the street as he said, “I’ll call.”

Don’t, she thought, but she turned the corner and left him behind before she could say as much. Not that it would have mattered. Negatives processed in him as personal dares rather than as they were. 

She felt as though she were walking on pins and needles as she skirted through the streets, taking a different route to a different train station further along her line as she escaped the area that had become so familiar to her. The radius of the rumor, she figured, had only crept further and further past her shop’s street. It was likely that it had spread through the immediate area in the form of a warning: Gang violence enacted on a citizen. Motivation unknown. Beware of suspicious persons. 

She walked until her calves were sore, not for distance but for the severity in her stride. She walked until she landed in an area unfamiliar to her, where, as people milled casual and unaware, she finally felt as though she could stop without the possibility of being questioned. If her neighbors had stopped her, or if anyone else remotely aware of her position as the shop’s owner had spotted her, she knew she wouldn’t know how to respond. She wasn’t a good liar. But her default of saying nothing at all in these situations wouldn’t have been an option.

Though she tried to slow her pace some, her pulse thudded thick and nauseating through her skull. The anger she felt toward Manabe had returned to simmering, and her ferocity was instead replaced with something more powerful. Something that made her whole body feel simultaneously numb and hyperaware. How she had felt kneeling beneath the stairwell, ear and cheek pressed to the cool wall, hearing his true name spoken some times over. Feeling her dread manifest into something almost physical as she realized that she had been right in her suspicions all along.

Her father. 

She had to call her father.

As she stood at the platform among a decent crowd, she stared hard at the yellow line running parallel to the tracks. She tried to take an easy breath in, but it entered her stuttering and constricted. She tried again. And again. And again, until at last she could return her expression to something more smoothed and unassuming, if not still somewhat red.

Down the track, the train approached. She took in another breath, strained but normal enough, and it was on her exhale that she felt her phone buzz within her back pocket. 

The train arrived. She felt the paced jostle of people move around her as the doors opened. As she stumbled forward, reaching for her phone and wondering last-second if she was, in fact, getting on the right train, she glanced at the notification on her shattered screen.

MISSED CALL: MANABE (7)

NEW VOICE MESSAGE (1)

NEW MESSAGE (12)

First, she huffed a sigh through her nose. Then, she felt a prickle of unease overtake her, and as she secured her spot in the train’s cabin, she looked at the string of texts he had left her. 

The last handful were laden with just her name, and pleas for her to answer. That, she reasoned, could be anything. She scrolled up.

The messages were from half an hour ago.

Dread unfolded in her belly, quick and cold as a windstorm.

Manabe - 14:42

fuck. 

Manabe - 14:42

i think he took my key.

Machi stood in the eye of her apartment’s storm, surrounded by discarded things: her laundry crinkled and no longer clean, books she couldn’t remember reading, the stuffing of the couch cushions and the tatters of their covers. She stood in a spot that was cleared only by the sweep of her foot against the rubble. 

Something crunched again under her heel as she shifted her weight. Her leg muscles ached, burning from her frantic walk to and from the train, but at the same time they thrummed with the same urgency that had failed to wear off in her since leaving the shop some hours earlier. 

When she had returned home, to her shadowed apartment within the whole of a jagged and demented building that lied along a lesser-walked street in Abeno, she could at first do nothing but pace. Shoes discarded in the entrance against the wall marked with scuffs, bag shrugged off and tossed with a muted thud as it hit some thick arrangement on her living room floor, she powered through with agitated purpose.

She went to her bedroom and circled it. Tossing things aside from the nicked wardrobe and mussed bed sheets, and using her toes to sift through and rearrange her floor’s second skin, she eventually heard the thick clatter she had been waiting for. The item had hit the door frame as she kicked things from beneath her bed, and recognizing it, she snatched it on her way back to the living room. The whole of her apartment had turned grey with the waning afternoon struggling to filter through the blinds.

In her grip was a small, prepaid flip-phone. Dusty, and cracked, and, as she found pressing hard on its stiff power button, not dead. 

She paced the perimeter of her living room for some time. Her feet carved a path within her belongings until they became re-scattered and unearthed, but if there had been anything long-forgotten, she didn’t notice. All that she saw was the phone in her hand, and all she could think was that she had not fully prepared herself for this.

Now that she was home, she struggled to will herself to call the number she had memorized as a girl. She feared now that she would gag on her words the moment the other line was picked up, and, knowing her father, it would be picked up rather quickly. Very few people came up as unknown caller on his personal phone. He had always been selective of his time, and even more rigorous in deciding who was allowed to interrupt it.

She tried to remember if she had changed the number after the last time she used it. She stared at it’s entry in the phone's contacts list, the only one listed, but couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be familiar to her. Her gut wrung with the possibility that she had forgotten. 

It had been two years since she last used it. She had bought it from a small phone supplier two blocks away from Okamoto Floral, during a frigid day in late November. Her legs, she remembered, felt locked and imbalanced as she stood at the counter, and her palms were clammy and over-warm as she held herself up against its edge. She remembered feeling the urge to let herself fall as the cashier swept a nervous glance to her and over her shoulder, where her manager, Kotone, hovered nearby. But instead of giving in, she chewed at the raw spot on her lip, passed the cash across the counter, and left.

Kotone had left her alone once she started to make the call. At first she sat at the desk chair in the shop’s backroom as Machi stood in the middle of the floor, trembling as she rubbed her thumb over the phone’s dial pad. Machi knew Kotone was staying with her more out of a working obligation rather than any real concern, and in that respect, Machi could almost appreciate the gesture. If it had been the owner who accompanied her instead, so frail in health then that he only worked part-time on the weekends, but still overtly warm and unwarranted in his kindness towards all of his employees — even the ones who he hardly saw, and the ones who deserved it the least — if it had been him instead, Machi wasn’t sure what she would have done.

It had been a Wednesday. She had taken an exam for her course in investment analysis only two hours prior, in a classroom building that overlooked the river and the financial district beyond it. She had finished early, and left early, because there was nothing else she had planned to do between her exam and her shift.

And that was when she had seen him. 

It hadn’t been the first time. She had known him only as someone who came around to the shop every now and then, and who she would at times spot on the platform waiting for the train, near enough to her that she knew they would board the same car, but mixed well enough within the crowd that she thought nothing of him. 

She thought he was a friend of one of her coworkers. 

He had never even tried to say hello to her.

“If it’s not the police,” Kotone had said, stern but careful, “then it had better be that friend of yours to come get you, or someone else you can stay with—”

“Don’t call the police.” Machi remembered hating herself terribly for the startled jump in Kotone’s expression and her own desperate want to cry. “And don’t you dare call Manabe.”

With little else to say that could help or persuade her, Kotone left, back to the front of the store where Machi could hear the words “don’t go back there” and “leave her be,” followed by some hissing whispers and the distinct clatter of the front counter phone hitting its cradle.  

She had called her father, then, for the first time since graduating from high school, which then had been some short and curt conversation to settle a wayward expense. It wasn’t often she spoke to her father with anything more than a quiet nervousness driving her, just enough to get her through a call that she knew wouldn’t be more than a minute long.

In the backroom of Okamoto Floral, though, she felt completely overcome. He had answered with a swift displeasure, not knowing at first that it was her, and part of her had wished he stayed that way, to even barely match her, to make her own pain more manageable. 

But, he had smoothed at hearing her. It made him impossible to talk to.

She didn’t like to remember what had been said. But she remembered her voice being small. Despite the distraught boiling in her, overflowing and becoming something much larger than her physical being, her voice still shook not with her upset, but instead a forged timidity.

At the time, she blamed it on the lingering ears in the store. Then, she blamed it on herself for not going home first to call with a more assured privacy.

Now, standing in her dark and musty living room, feeling much the same as she had back then, she couldn’t blame it on either of those things. Nothing could match the volume of what she felt, but it wasn’t that, not really; even now, at 23, now removed from her family through everything but her name, she felt the child in her hide at the mere suggestion of confronting her father.

She toed a thick piece of foam at her foot. She had ripped the couch apart a couple weeks ago with a kitchen knife, when she had come home struck with an immediate panic that her apartment had been bugged. That panic started to rile in her again as she thought of how she never found anything, but she forced herself to lay her focus on the phone in her hand. 

Outside, the sky had dimmed to the thin blue of evening. She knew this only by the grace of the small gaps remaining in her curtains, which she had resorted to stapling shut many months ago.

With a shallow breath in, she dialed. Her thumb glided over the numbers with a years-old muscle memory, and quieting her hesitation for the barest of moments, she pressed the call button. She pressed the receiver to her ear, and within the pause of the call dialing and sending, she heard the shaking rattle of her exhale.

The line rang three times before it was answered.

“Kuragi.”

Machi froze.

The voice on the other end of the line was not her father’s. 

Despite her nerves, she had prepared herself for that voice. Glossy as mercury, calm in its tendency to cut. Gentle in its distance when it spoke her name, the word curling from him as though he had never learned it right. It was not a voice she liked. But it was not a voice that haunted her. 

This voice on the other end of the line, however, was a poltergeist reanimated. 

Machi held her breath. Heat sapped from her arms in a swift, rolling scatter. As she pressed the phone closer to her ear, her body wound inward, slow, a spider's legs atrophying in death. She shivered. Her fingers were cold against her cheek.

There was a moment of silence before her mother scoffed a noise. If it hadn’t been directed at her, it could have been mistaken for a soured laugh.

“Machi. Is that you?”  When Machi’s silence continued, she tried again. “Hello? Machi?”

The way her mother spoke her name didn’t carry the distance of her father’s tone. Though her father’s way of speaking it was biting in its chill, it at least offered the simultaneous comfort of lacking contempt. When he spoke it, it was just a noise, formed by the right press of the lips and tongue positioned just so behind the front teeth. It was a sequence of mouth movements and nothing more. 

The way her mother spoke her name was as though she were reciting an embittered epigraph. It was a precursor to a story she had memorized not for the sake of personal enjoyment, or out of a worthy challenge, but simply because the words had been inscribed on the back of her eyelids the moment she had given her daughter her name. Forced to read it, acknowledge it, in both wakefulness and sleep, until it exhausted her.

Maybe she had once found the name pretty. Now, Machi only sounded like a tired forewarning.

Finally, Machi gave an indication that she was on the line. She cleared her throat. She inhaled, about to form a word, but her mother was quick to speak over her. 

“Oh, there you are. Goodness, it’s been so long, I was beginning to wonder if I was speaking to a ghost. But, you do know it’s rude to just breathe over the phone like that. We’ve talked about this.” 

Hina Kuragi, for all of the pleasantries and casual conversation she managed to string together, could never quite shake this curtness from her. It was present with everyone she spoke to, but Machi had always observed that it was practiced the most severely on her.

Machi was shaken by the overwhelming need to apologize. Her chest felt heavy and spacious. 

“And, I have to say,” her mother continued, and at this Machi could hear a sudden shift in background noise, a low mumbling that became more apparent as her mother repositioned her hold of the phone, “you have always had this incredible touch for bad timing. Your father and I are in the middle of a business dinner.”

Machi was cold. How quickly all of the words she had planned to say to her father drowned in her, pushed underwater by her impulse to apologize, to hang up, to do anything to stop this conversation from happening.

She could feel her lips come apart and come back together in tiny touches. Gaping minutely as she struggled to speak. 

Her mother granted a small moment of silence to let her respond. When there was nothing, she sighed. 

“I take it that you wanted to speak to your father. I’m sure he’ll be happy to hear that you called, but he’ll be disappointed that you didn’t actually say anything. Is there a reason why you called? Even to say hello?”

It was an honest enough question. And yet it still made Machi feel as though she didn’t have the correct answer. 

There was a shift on the line as her mother fussed in waiting. Machi’s chest felt close to bursting when she heard her exhale, quiet and tinged with disappointment. 

“Machi… I’m going to go now. Please don’t avoid us for so long again.”

She lurched at the sound of her mother lowering her voice to that defeated tone. It was the one that panged her the worst. The child in her was frantic to appease it, and in a gasp, she said, 

“Wait.”

Her mother paused. Machi almost expected to hear the line go dead, having gone unheard, but the noise of the dinner continued on far in the background. Having this moment of attention, uninterrupted by her mother speaking, Machi forced herself forward.

“I need to speak to father,” she said. Though it was something of a command coming from her, her voice came out meek.

“...He’s busy, Machi. Whatever you need to say to him, you can say to me.”

Machi shook her head. She clamped her eyes shut in an attempt to distance herself from her overwhelm, but it only seemed more palpable then without the distraction of the mess lying at her feet. She opened them again, staring hard at the tatters of her couch, and tried to speak.

“I don’t…” She chewed her tongue, and tried again. “I can’t— I don’t think…”

It was dawning on her, fast, that she would not be speaking to her father, not tonight, and thus not soon at all. No matter the urgency, she knew her mother wouldn’t pull him away from his work, or let him become distracted by this rare and wayward call. Something pinched at Machi as she thought that perhaps her mother knew exactly what she was calling about, and was being deliberate in keeping Machi on the phone with her alone. 

Machi could never be sure how much her father cared about her whereabouts and her day-to-day matters. Even when she was in high school, living separately from her family but still under their watch, it hadn’t been her father calling her to give him updates on her school life, her grades, the friends she never made. It hadn’t been him scrutinizing her so directly, making sure that even without his presence she wasn’t somehow muddying their family name. 

It hadn’t been him leaving upset voicemails when she decided to ignore a call and never return it.

“Machi,” her mother said, “I appreciate you calling, but this really isn’t a good time. Why don’t you call again tomorrow? I want to hear what you’ve been up to.”

Absolutely not, Machi thought, and her fist curled tight at the thought of trying to do this again, not just so soon, but ever, ever again. By the time she could try calling her father again, surely her mother would have told him about this conversation. The little power, little control she could hold in a conversation with him, taken away before she could even start.

No, knowing that her mother would be expecting a call from her, there was no way—

“You sent another one of them,” she blurted. It came from her as a jumble of nerves, and a quaking sharpness molded her words. When her mother quieted, she tried to calm her tone, but only felt the ache in her throat as she said, “You sent someone to watch me.”

Her mother’s quiet continued. Machi’s heart raced. She could hear the low mumble of the room fall away, the shifting of the phone within her mother’s grasp, until all was completely silent. 

This wasn’t something she had prepared for, either. Not by a long shot. 

When her mother spoke next, her words were frigid.

“I— We have done nothing of the sort. Whatever possessed you to make such an accusation is beyond me, but I will not tolerate it.”

Don’t do this, Machi pleaded to herself, and she felt her jaw begin to quake. Don’t lie. Don’t make me doubt myself. 

“His name is Yuki,” she said, shoveling the words out of her. “He was going by the name of—”

“Listen to me, Machi, because heaven knows I won’t get the chance to say this for another while so long as you keep acting this way: your father and I have been keeping our distance. We thought that you would be able to handle doing things on your own, as you insisted, but— clearly, it’s not working.”

Something seized inside of Machi. Her stomach folded.

“You’re completely erratic these days,” she continued. “You refuse to call, you keep changing your number, we don’t even know where you live anymore. We came by your apartment, only to find it completely abandoned! I just… I don’t understand, Machi. I don’t understand it at all.” 

That flighting panic overtook Machi again. The thing that told her she had to run, further than she had before, until even she didn’t know where she was. To never be found again, to never be her again. To leave, to leave, to leave. 

And at the same time, something died in her, too. An old something, crumpling and giving in. The dead spider. Legs tucked beneath it, a malformed husk of the terrible thing it once was.

She swallowed an apology. Her mother huffed, now sounding distressed, and tried to placate herself with an evened breath. 

“I’m glad that I was the one who picked up, instead of your father. To think that you would have accused him of such a thing… Listen, I really must be going now. I expect you to call me tomorrow. We need to talk about this behavior of yours—”

The panic acted on her again. Before her mother could get near a goodbye, Machi drew the phone from her ear and hung up, cutting her mother’s voice from continuing with a stilling beep. She dropped the phone at her feet, and there, in the middle of her living room, darkened with the muted twilight, she was static.

And she was exhausted. And she was on edge. She was entirely numb, and hyper aware. She felt how each shallow in-breath rattled and constricted her insides, and yet, she felt nothing. She felt nothing. She was nothing. 

She stood there, hands pressed to her face, unable to move yet desperately wanting to escape, until the room went entirely dark through her fingers.

It was her phone ringing — her normal phone, hushed away in her bag abandoned somewhere on the floor — that encouraged her to move. She lowered her arms. Slowly, she crouched, and in the dark had to pad her hand along her belongings before finding the prepaid phone where it had bounced away from her. She flipped the phone back open and, holding her breath, formed a short text to her father. She wasn’t sure if he would even receive it, or if her mother wouldn’t intercept it and delete it before it reached him. 

But, it was an effort. And in some moments, she sent him only the words “Yuki” and “Kouta Ito” before turning the phone off again.

She stood again and tossed the phone into the rubble. She scrubbed at her eyes, hard, and willed herself to move.

She had to eat. She had to bathe. She had to change her number again.

The ringing in her bag stopped. And on her quiet street, some blocks removed from the traffic and life of the city she warily called home, her apartment felt, at last, achingly still.

June began with a dense rain that brought the leaves down from their trees, and ever since, Machi felt some ease. 

Her world was quick to return to its semblance of busied quiet, and soon she was ensnared again by the distraction of her work. In some ways, this happened too quickly: within some hours after the incident, the lock to the shop’s door had been replaced, and with it came a replacement for Manabe’s stolen key. In that time, Manabe had tidied the backroom, a restless habit that battled Machi’s propensity for a room to look anything but, and all that had happened was swept away. There was no period to reflect on the scene, not for her, and she supposed she could be thankful for it. 

In the week following, the neighbors gave her wayward, curious glances, looking ready to ask questions but never doing so, and in some days after, the glancing ceased. She returned to her station in the back of the shop and caught up on orders. People came in to browse and buy. Manabe tended to the shop floor. There, he practiced his usual charm when there were customers to attend to, but once they left, Machi observed as he fell into a rare introversion, seeming altogether pensive and unaware as he let muscle memory guide him. Sweeping the floor, checking the plants for dry soil, opening the ledger to update it, only to spend some minutes staring through it.

On the phone’s voicemail was a short message from Yuki. He was weary, but calm, as he let them know that he was fine, and that he was sorry for the trouble he caused. Machi had only listened to it once. Manabe, after listening to it three times, had asked her not to delete it.

The Monday following the incident, Manabe had handed over his apology in the form of a small castella cake. It was retrieved not from the bakery next door, but from the one they had frequented only a few times together in high school, visited only at his insistence and her lack of good reason to say no. He had left it for her on the desk in the backroom, beside a stack of old and mussed order forms and the rearranged row of office supply paraphernalia, with nothing else but a note affixed to it. The note only held her name.

It wasn’t the plain treat inside that was the real apology, but rather the shop’s red logo sitting stark against the white bag. It spoke to how far he had traveled, that hour’s ride to Kobe and hour’s ride back, for something that was monetarily worth pocket change but, to him, she supposed, heavy in its significance. It spoke to his deliberate, excessive effort, how far out of his way he would go to apologize to her without handing the gift to her directly, or ever once saying the word sorry.

It was ridiculous, and unnecessary. And, as she hadn’t expected an apology from him to begin with, she accepted it with a similar silence.

(It didn’t hurt either, she thought, that castella cake was the only thing Manabe seemed to know for certain she liked.)

Despite everything, nothing seemed to change. Time crept on. Manabe fell back to listening to music during his down time, rather than waiting for a conversation that wouldn’t come. Machi could feel the barest release of tension in her shoulders. The rain continued, at times heavy enough to consume, and other days offering just the barest patter against the window and the street.

It was mid-June, and Yuki hadn’t returned to Okamoto Floral.

Machi couldn’t draw down her guard just yet, not entirely; there was the chance that her parents wanted her to believe they had pulled back in their watch over her. She had no doubts that her mother was more than unhappy with her, far unhappier than she had been when Machi had started to draw away from her some years ago, and had pushed the matter with her father. It gave her a creeping panic, a thin string along her core twisting and growing numb, but she forced herself to hold steady. 

Because, as it were, with each day she didn’t see Yuki, she felt like she could breathe again. Just a little easier. Just a little more full. 

Manabe, she could tell, did not feel the same. 

She knew this when he would stare listless at the door, chin in hand as he slouched over the counter, turned as though waiting but, at the same time, looking unalert. Yuki had fallen into somewhat of a routine with visiting on Wednesdays or Thursdays, with the odd surprise on Monday or Friday, and so on those days during the lunch block Manabe seemed to lie in wait out of what had become a ritual forged into his subconscious.

He didn’t fully believe her still. The theft of his key to the shop was the only thing that swayed him, and even then, Machi could sense him trying to explain it away as an accident. But, he had already apologized to her, and he would at the very least stay loyal to his reluctance in making another two-hour trip for the same offense, so the matter was never spoken by him again. 

Still. He seemed to be waiting for Yuki, despite his ambivalence. 

Machi knew this for certain as she placed another order in the queue along the shop’s front window, fogged from the cooling rain outside. Behind her, he clicked his tongue.

“Man,” he mumbled, “I wish Kouta were here.”

She turned to address him with a small glare, only to find he wasn’t looking at her, but at the front door. When he caught her look, though, he rolled his eyes and huffed.

“Geez, I mean Kouta Kouta, not… Yuki, or whatever.” 

He flipped his hand, aggravated, but left it at that. His eyes went back to the door, then, as he turned again to the counter, back down to his phone. 

It was in the way he said Yuki’s name — a reluctant noise, something closer to uncertainty rather than distaste — that Machi knew he couldn’t believe her entirely. Kouta rolled away from him as easily as he referred to any other one of his friends, people Machi knew only in passing or by word of mouth but knew, well enough, that he kept around out of want for company. Kouta was a brighter noise, a means to keep the name alive even now when the person didn’t truly exist. 

Machi didn’t respond. She returned to her station, and from there, she tried not to feel too sorry for him, and tried to instead become somewhat agitated at what he perceived as a loss. He had other friends. That she was sure of.  

For Manabe, Yuki would be only a stinging memory of a lost potential friendship, and Machi reminded herself that it was a position to be jealous of.

When the shop floor had become washed over with the darkened grey of sundown, Manabe collected his belongings, shrugging his bag over a shoulder and making the usual noises he did to alert Machi that it was time to go. The final check and lock of the register, the open and close of the large metal drawer fixed under the counter, a lively and short beat slapped against the countertop. 

She heard this, and saw him move out of the corner of her eye, but she remained at her spot at the back of the store, standing at her arrangement station with a spread of blue order forms lying in front of her. 

“Mach.” The bell jangled as he pushed into the door, and she peered up at him through her bangs. He gestured out the door with a tilt of his head, covered by the hood of his rain jacket. It pushed his hair into his eyes. “You done yet?”

“No,” she said, and she brought her gaze back down to the forms. They each involved arrangements that called for flowers and fillers that she would have to call around for. Some of the papers she had marked with a thick red X in the corner — two small autumn weddings to consider, a small bouquet requested for a hurried courtroom elopement, and a request for a vague occasion that left all of the floral decisions up to her. Monetary things to consider, preparations for delicate deliveries, a list of calls to make the next day to vendors and people with incomplete or strange requests… 

“I still have some things to do,” she told him. 

She could feel him frown at her from across the floor. The bell jangled again as he let the door close.

“Want me to stick around?”

Passing a hand over the forms, moving some aside until they all but fell to the floor, she pursed her lips at the question. For all his disbelief about Yuki, since the day after their argument and some days before the apology castella landed on the backroom desk, he had started walking with her once they both left at closing, and walked until they reached her train station. It wasn’t quite in the opposite direction from his own, but it was far enough to be out of his way. 

He hadn’t asked her if she wanted him to walk her there. And though she had asked why he was following her when he did it the first time (to which he had only given her a look, still sharp from their argument, and asked if it was so terrible to see one another outside of work hours), she didn’t protest it. 

The first day, they spoke very little. In the days after, following his apology, he did the talking. He spoke of nothing things: shows he caught on TV the other night, a band he liked that was going on tour soon, his mom asking him about how she was doing, leading only into another complaint about his mom and leaving no room for an answer, if she so desired. 

His company aggravated her. And it aggravated her more that she did find some small comfort in it. She carried that comfort until he left her where the tall stairs led up to her train’s platform, with a see you and text me when you get home, will you? A question that couldn’t be answered, and wasn’t meant to be, as he turned and left before she could respond.

It made her feel distinctly like a child. He was only one year her senior, and yet he treated her as if she were… 

“There’s nothing left for you to do here,” she said after some pause. She scribbled a note along the margin of one of the forms: replace with chrysanthemums?  “You don’t have to wait for me.” 

Manabe drummed his fingers against the glass pane of the door. With a cursory glance at him, she met his eye, and huffed a silent sigh at the look he gave her. That little pout that said “I’m bored” or “I’m lonely,” even though her company amounted to little. 

“Are you sure—” he started, but she cut through it with, 

“I’m fine. I still have a lot of work to get through. You should go home.”

She drew her attention back to the forms. After a short pause from him, he relented, uttering a small noise that let her know he wanted to fight her on it, but deciding against it. He relented, saying,

“If you’re sure. Later, then.” 

She didn’t return the sentiment. He didn’t wait for a response, though, and in a moment the bell clattered loud with the door falling shut, leaving behind only an empty silence and a brief chill from outside tangling in from the door down the aisle to where she sat.

Machi was left with only herself, the distraction of her work, and the rain for some small stretch of time. This was until she was jolted from her relative calm by the buzz of her phone harping against the worktop with a new message. A brushed-aside form lit up as her phone sat buried beneath it, and for a moment, she could only glare at the soft blue glow, willing it to go away.

When it did dim, she lifted the paper, intending to move her phone away to where she wouldn’t notice it. But it only buzzed again as another text rolled in. And again, with another. And another. She stared at the notifications flashing to her screen, feeling her brows draw tighter with each one as she read them.

Manabe - 17:17

text me when you get home this time!!

Manabe - 17:18

if you don’t i’ll just have to assume you got eaten by bears or something :(

Manabe - 17:18

do we even make arrangements for funerals for people who get eaten by bears? is there an arrangement you can make that says “sorry your loved one got eaten by a bear”??

Manabe - 17:18

let me know asap it’s very important

She huffed. She silenced the phone and shoved it into her skirt pocket. Even then, in her peripherals, she could see the screen light through the fabric. Dimming again, and lighting again only a moment later.

Maybe it was time she changed her number on this phone, too. 

Machi’s neighborhood was, in its essence, a ghost town. A small block abandoned by the city it was born from, her streets were lined with harrowing buildings where tenants once lived, or, if anyone did still live in them, were marked only by the shadows that shifted behind screen doors and curtains, unrelaxed, uncomfortable. Some places were more obviously abandoned, marred by thick cracks in the windows and stained by eviction notices and No Trespassing cautions that had since molded and pilled on the front doors. Other places, while standing intact, erred on being haunted. Windows that were never lit. Any noise within, muted.

It wasn’t a neighborhood fit for a Kuragi. That was plain enough. 

She had moved there, knowing neither of her parents would want to believe that someone carrying their name could fathom a place so dismal, and there she was known only by her landlord, a spirit of a man who encapsulated something like a laissez faire attitude out of sheer need of tenants, who called her Ono. Ono, because that was the family name she had given through her lease, and Ono, because that was the family name she had decided on in her panic-snap decision to request side documentation from the apprentice of a family acquaintance in Kyoto.

It was a small benefit to being born into the family she had been, knowing who to go to for such things, and having funds tucked away to pay it off and buy absolute silence on the transaction. But, being as it was because of her family that she had to go through such an underhanded trouble in the first place, the matter sat in her as something soured and cancelled out.

She had left the shop late. By the time she got off at her stop, some blocks away from her apartment, in a place where the city still looked lively and lived-in, the sky was dark with the onset of night filtering through storm clouds already grey and overbearing. 

The streets held no lamplight once she reached a certain point in her walk home, where the laundromat and convenience store faced each other off on opposite sides of the street, one shuttered for the night, the other bright with a constant and aching fluorescence. It was past this point that the street grew steadily darker, and by the time Machi made it down to the next corner, she could look back over her shoulder and consider these establishments more like navigational stars in the night. 

Not that she looked behind her. Not tonight, at least, not while she was feeling certain that Yuki had never followed her there and had seemed to stop watching her altogether. Even in the dark, she didn’t hold any fear towards her neighborhood; there was instead a mixed calm in her at sensing that no one there knew she existed. Safe, if not melancholy.

That calm sapped from her when she turned the final corner in her journey home. 

There her apartment stood, that grey and streaky place looming inconsequential on a street that was always empty save only for the downed branches of the evergreens opposite, or her and some unknown neighbor’s footsteps tracking in the mud collected along the curb. Tonight, it was accompanied by the circle of light created by the dim yellow porch light, flickering incessant and forming strobing shadows that created odd haunts in the corner of one’s eye. 

That wasn’t what scared her. 

Deliberately parked within that circle of light was a dark car, waiting at the front steps of her building. Headlights off. Windows tinted. Silent.

She had seen it for only a moment before she twisted herself around to backtrack around the corner. The movement itself was calm, an easy swivel on her hell, as though she had realized she had turned onto the wrong street, but everything inside of her jerked as though ready to escape her skin. That reverberating pang and panic, that immediate scream of they know where you live, that quick and heavy douse of bleach erasing all of the ease she had let carve her bones over the past three weeks.

She was on fire again as she strode long, back along the path she had just walked, back in the direction of the train station where there was no destination other than away. Her mind raced, heavy with the thought that her father had never gotten her message, or he did but decided, too, that she was falling apart. Parroting her mother’s words with this direct and silent siege: you’ve been acting erratic lately. This isn’t working. We can’t trust you to do this on your own. You’re falling apart. We need to talk. You need to come home. 

Come home.

Come home.

Come home— 

All at once, the dark of the street was replaced with a painful white light. It beamed onto her, forcing her to still her pace and bar her eyes. With her momentum, she felt possessed to double-back, but her mind scrambled to remind her of strange car and it’s them and they found you, so she forced herself to become grounded to the pavement. Her muscles ached for it.

She had raised her arm over her eyes on instinct. However, as she heard the easy thud of car doors opening and closing, the noise otherwise silent in a show of expense, she had the crashing realization that there had been others waiting for her. They had expected this of her.

She had been trapped.

Returning to her guard, she lowered her arm. There, encompassed by the stark light, she could see the clear silhouette of a person. Feminine, slight, and timid. Their shadow gave her the barest relief from the lights hitting her square.

They spoke the moment Machi unshielded her face.

“Machi Kuragi… right?”

Machi held her breath. Though she was unable to see the person’s features, she attempted to bring her eye to theirs. Despite her position, with no clear point of escape, no immediate means to fight back, the stranger seemed wholly unwilling to pursue her. Their voice was small and shy, their posture undemanding. As though they were lost and afraid of the dark rather than there to give commands or ultimatums. 

It didn’t give Machi any relief. She was well aware of the use of children and innocent-looking women in these situations, used as props to create a false sense of trust, but she was wary that her father would attempt such a tactic on her. He knew well enough what she knew. For him to use this on her, perhaps to confuse her— 

The stranger — a young woman, Machi assumed, if not just a girl — cleared her throat in a falter. 

“Machi Kuragi,” she said, attempting something more stern and failing on account of her gentleness. “I must request that you come with us.”

Machi’s arms locked up with defiance. To turn around again and go back was to encounter whoever was waiting for her at her apartment. As this seemed to be planned, it was unlikely there would be any speaking involved in her detainment there. There was no exit opposite them, as the other side of the street was barricaded by tall fences that seemed eternally rooted. Maybe they had once indicated new development plans, but now they only stood as a weary gesture not to trespass.

Her mind reeled for a solution. And too quickly, it descended into a gut-churning sensation at the realization that what she was doing — standing completely still, mute, as close to a shadow on this street as she had ever been — was all she could do.

To try and run was to invite more trouble. Even if she did escape, she had nowhere else to turn, and that lack of planning only begged to be caught again. As she slid her eyes over the tall fences, unable to see through the darkness that lay beyond, she wondered how many more of them were lurking in the shadows, in the few places where she could plausibly escape if she were brave or stupid enough.

She had nothing on her as means of protection, and even then, to be hostile in this situation would only harm her. She imagined her mother and father being fed the situation from an operative unknown to Machi’s senses, having their worries confirmed as she fought against what was supposed to neutralize her. Confirmation that she wasn’t to be trusted on her own. 

Proof of insanity.

Ahead of her, the stranger fumbled with the lack of response, and turned at the waist to face the car. She murmured something brief. As she did, her silhouetted hand rose to fidget with a strand of hair, twisting the long piece around her finger, and Machi felt the sting of her nails digging into her palms at the sight. 

The useless gentleness. The nervous mannerisms. She wondered if her father had assigned her a type. 

A noise resounded as a hand hit the roof of the car, but it wasn’t the woman, who instead startled at the noise. Machi realized, then, that her partner had been present, too, watching from behind the spread of the headlights.

“Hey. Are you dumb? She told you to get in the car.”

The voice was cool and agitated, and would have been intimidating if it didn’t cling to some youth. Still, the change of tone made Machi’s pulse rabbit just a bit faster. 

The young woman, however, went rigid. 

“Hiro,” she hissed. “We’re not supposed to be rude to her.”

There was a huffed noise, and within it, a mumble of something like an apology, not directed at Machi whatsoever but in something like deference. The woman turned again to Machi and again smoothed her disposition. 

“Kuragi-san,” she started, and Machi bristled at the familiarity, “I… I understand that this is sudden. We aren’t here to harm you. But you will have to come with us.”

The escalation of her politeness sat like a stone in Machi’s stomach. It didn’t make any sense. A part of her wanted to retch with a correction, to tell her she had this completely wrong, but the thought didn’t sit within her in her own voice.

This wasn’t a tactic, she thought. This was someone who had never done this before. 

She felt herself pale as the scene twined a new unease through her core. Though she hadn’t been on the receiving end of one of her father’s detainments before, she knew how they functioned. Swift, cold, and unkind, with not a centimeter of room to question the authority of those who were sent to do the job. No room for doing anything else other than what they said. 

He was hardly one to fuss with tactics. 

At her prolonged silence, Hiro lowered his voice to speak to his partner. Unaware, it seemed, that in the absolute stillness of the street, it was hard to miss even a passing whisper. 

“Look— Do we even have the right one?” he asked. “Seems kind of dull to be a Kuragi.”

Machi steeled herself. Her voice was sharp as it hit the air, ice biting at skin despite the roiling humidity. 

“Who sent you?”

“Do you really think you’re in a position to ask that?” The counter came fast, dismissive and biting, and without pause Hiro continued, “Man, some of you people have nerve. What does it matter who sent us? Where are you gonna go?”

“Hiro.”

“What? I’m not the one asking stupid questions here—”

“Did my father send you?”

They stopped. With some falter, the young woman turned to consider this question with her partner in a brief silence. The air waned with their quiet confusion, and without receiving an answer, Machi could already feel something in her constrict. 

The young woman turned again to face her. Her words stumbled from her as she tried to find a suitable answer. 

“Um— Well— We work with him, if that’s what you mean—”

Hiro groaned, irritated. She clasped a hand over her mouth at her all-too forgiving answer and looked back at him, apologetic.

“Geez, Kisa, you’re not—” He hit his hand against the roof of the car again, stilling his tirade to instead address Machi again. “Look, Kuragi-san, we’ve got orders to come get you, so you either get in the car, or we’ll drag you in.”

“No, we won’t—”

“And don’t even bother thinking about trying to run. We aren’t the only ones here.”

It was a flat threat. Still, Machi chewed hard on the inside of her cheek. They worked with her father — in what capacity, she could only guess, but she thought of what her father could have possibly done to warrant this type of confrontation. Their orders not to harm her didn’t mean much in terms of the severity of his offense; leverage, she thought bitterly, could warrant her coming in untouched.

Kisa, now a bristling dark wisp, was only further perturbed by her partner’s attempts to threaten.

“We’re not supposed to be rude— Oh, you’re talking too loud.”

Machi knew he could yell as loud as he wanted. With the lack of interference so far, he seemed to know as much, too. 

She wondered then about the agents waiting at her door, and if there were, in fact, any more that lurked in places she couldn’t see, and wondered why these two were in charge. A brief embarrassment overtook her by being captured by an operation so flimsy, but that quieted in her, knowing that her father would never trifle with an organization that seemed anything less than stable.

Which meant that either they were lying about their relationship with him, or that her father was trying to leave.

Her expression must have revealed something, as Kisa suddenly became quick to placate.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” she said, hands raised as she looked, herself, concerned. She lowered a hand to gesture at the car. “Please, we can explain on the way.” 

I don’t work for him, Machi wanted to say. Though it was useless to try, her legs burned again with the want to run. I have absolutely nothing to do with him. 

She remained frozen. At her hesitance, Hiro sighed, and there was the gentle shift of the car jostling, as though being leaned into.

“This is stupid,” he muttered. “No wonder Yuki had such a hard time with this woman, she doesn’t do any—”

“Yuki?”

The name left Machi as though the wind had been punched out of her. The severity of it leaving her tongue felt like a dagger being drawn down its center, a horrible coaxing of the sound that would otherwise force a spit-up of blood. 

It flooded her too quickly. There was no room in her mind for pacification, no means to soothe with it could be a coincidence or Yuki is a very common name. There was only the tumultuous drop of her heart as she realized what exactly had occurred.

She had gotten it all wrong. 

Yuki hadn’t been sent by her father. 

Her parents hadn’t sent someone to watch her at all.

The ground wavered under her as her knees locked. She shifted her footing, but the movement didn’t make her feel any less unstable. 

Across from her, there was a curse. Then, that gentler tone that made Machi want to double over. 

“You know about Yuki-nii?” Kisa asked.

“She’s sure as hell not supposed to.” 

Machi’s jaw was set tight. At her sides, her fists trembled. 

“Where is he?” She gestured back behind her to the car around the corner, throwing her arm back hard as her nerves screamed at her to do something. What the fuck does he want with me, she thought, mind wild with the question. “Why was he—”

“He— He’s on a break right now,” Kisa interjected, looking back at Hiro for guidance, though he quieted at a loss himself. “He—”

“For an injury.” Machi answered her own question, feeling breathless. It didn’t give her any relief. His being there, his not being there — it didn’t matter. Both options made her chest full, ready to burst in a scream, or something ungodly. She swallowed it back, so far down in her it could have borne a child, and still she managed, “I was there.”

Kisa paused. Then, her head bobbed with a short nod, and her voice grew steadily quiet as she spoke.

“Yes, well… that, too.”

Machi felt winded. Over and over, her mind tumbled the thought that Yuki hadn’t been working for her father. He hadn’t been watching her for her father. 

She had no fucking idea what, then, Yuki was there for. She had no idea who he really was. She had no idea what was going on.  

“Who…” She tempered herself with a shuddered inhale, forcing her anxiety purely into the grip of her fists at her sides. She tried again. “Who are you?”

“As we’ve said. We’ll explain on the way,” Hiro chided, and as he opened the car door, Machi could see, for the first time, some of his features cast in the low interior light. An odd ache pitted her heart then, just slightly, that she had been correct: he seemed to be no more than just a teenager. “But, we need to go.”

Kisa only nodded in agreement, but quieted with nothing more to add. Machi looked between them, biting her tongue, feeling only the want to disappear, to go unconscious, to start over. 

Yuki hadn’t been working for her father. At the very least, not directly. And for all that this seemed, he might have even been working against him. 

Feeling altogether overwhelmed, and confused, and wired, Machi fixed her look on Kisa, shadowed as she still was. She didn’t trust her soft-spoken nature, her strange pleasantness, her overall disposition. And at the same time, in the face of her partner, brusque and rude as he was, she felt some ease with her. She didn’t trust her at all, but there was something about her that soothed the premises with just her tone, and her nature.

Very much like Yuki, she realized. She thought of that little honorific — Yuki-nii — and wondered angrily if it was something branded into them. 

“Kuragi-san,” Kisa started, “as I said, we’re not going to hurt you— We can try to explain on the way—”

“I’ll go.”

As she said it, Machi smoothed her hands down the front of her skirt, tilting her face down to her shoes to swallow. Her hands trembled against her thighs. It was hitting her that she was being apprehended by complete strangers, for a reason that was so far beyond her that she couldn’t believe, in full confidence, that they wouldn’t hurt her at all. But, for all their fumbling, and all their weakness, it was best to go with them. 

Whatever her father had done, it had circled back to her. If they had not found her there, in what she considered already as her hiding place, they would have found her elsewhere, just as easily, just as fast. There was no use trying to fight it, and no use testing her luck. 

Whatever they needed her for — as bait, as leverage, as a path to blackmail — she would have to prepare for. This wasn't the time to be foolish.

Before her, Kisa released a sound of relief. Her long shadow left Machi as she instead came closer, where, as Machi raised her eyes, she could at last see her features. 

She, too, seemed terribly young. 

Kisa turned in a way that allowed her hand to hover at Machi’s shoulders, a means to guide her to the car without actually wanting to touch her. Raising her head again, Machi walked forward with her, cautious in her step, but forcing herself to look blank, if not just the barest bit determined. 

She dipped inside the car and felt the immediate chill of leather hitting her calves. There, she felt enclosed, for the first time in a long time, in untouchable expense. 

“Finally,” Hiro mumbled, settled behind the steering wheel. Kisa, in the passenger seat, gave a glance back at Machi, but Machi could only find it in herself to stare down at her hands balled severe in her lap. “Incorrigible woman—”

“Stop it,” Kisa whispered.

They rolled out of the dark haunt of her neighborhood. With some delay, the other car followed. Kisa made a phone call, only to say the words “We have her,” and “We’re coming back.” Hiro, in response, gave an annoyed grumble, a bitter “like hell I’m ever getting talked into this again” out the window.

As they returned to more lived-in streets, a low, prolonged rumble disrupted their silent drive. As a dimmed stripe of a streetlamp crossed Machi’s hands, her knees, the floor and beyond, she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding. 

The rain began to fall around them, thick and relentless. 

In her lap, her hands continued to shake.

Chapter Text

“Oh, by the way, I got you a souvenir — you should clear a shelf for it. It’s something like a precious antique.”

“...I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.”

“I’m not. You know I always get you gifts when I go away.”

Yuki hummed a suspicious note. The noise was directed down to the styrofoam cup of minute miso he held, picked up without thought and regarded idly as Haru spoke with a gentle purpose of nothing things. He twisted the item slowly in his hand and, mindful of the still-protesting sting in his palm, he returned it to the shelf of packaged quick meals. 

“You sound like a doting parent,” he said. Haru gave some soft noise of agreement. “And the last time you got me a so-called ‘antique,’ you ended up giving me a candy necklace and an I.O.U.”

“It’s only a placeholder, Yuki.”

“For three years?”

“Has it been that long? Huh. Well, did you like the candy at least?”

Yuki huffed, but the noise was tinged with the small smile pulling his mouth. 

“I’m pretty sure some ants in my apartment loved it.”

“The circle of life is a miraculous thing.”

Yuki hardly thought as much as he nudged the foremost pack of chips on its hook with his finger. He watched it swing from side to side a few times before stilling it with a pinch. 

In the convenience store, tucked away into the corner comprised of the instant foods aisle and the fridges of frozen meals, he prodded aimlessly at products while his cousin’s call turned similarly meandering. He scanned over familiar shrink-wrapped containers and disposable meal trays, down to his feet shifting purposeless against the checkered vinyl tile, and up again, over topmost shelf to graze over the rest of the store, to the quiet front register and the empty aisles in between. 

Though the early afternoon sun pressed against the large front windows, meshing hot and off with the stark white fluorescents striping the ceiling, he wasn’t there to pick up lunch as the few other customers appeared to be doing. It was what he had told his designated driver-slash-warden when the man had stopped him at the end of his apartment’s walkway, and the lie had left him in much the way that the man’s expression morphed at seeing Yuki leave unaccompanied — easy, graceful, and tinged with pleading.

While he had convinced the man that he could manage a short walk down the street alone, and that it was advised that he get some exercise and sunlight as part of his recuperation, he knew that the man had at the very least tailed him. The familiar creep of the tires and subtle hum of the engine rounding the corner wasn’t lost on him as he stepped inside the store, even if the car had evaded his field of vision. 

It had only been ten minutes. Any longer and the driver would come looking for him, but Yuki wasn’t ready to go back yet. Almost a month of being cooped up in his apartment, at first under bed rest and then what felt more along the lines of house arrest, had left him feeling weighted with a relapse of claustrophobia. He hadn’t felt it so strongly since he was a child, but the sensation of something enveloping him from all angles, something cold, and dense, and ultimately invisible, was too familiar for any comfort. 

So he would stay in his familiarized zone of microwave meals and just-add-hot-water noodles until he was toe-to-toe with that huntsman of a driver if that’s what it took for him to shake the feeling. Even if it only lasted a short while. Even if he knew that, come nighttime, he would return to that feeling as he struggled to fall asleep. Staring at the off-white light of his bedside lamp until his eyes burned from sleeplessness, and the same, few-worded thought — Akito is the only one who can permit you to leave — circling as a phantom whisper in his ear until the morning birds would again interrupt and allow him some rest.

“I’m still trying to figure out if the ducks up here are the same as the ones at home. I want to say yes, but they’re kind of giant and keep trying to chase me when I get too close. Maybe they’re just not used to people. Or maybe it’s a genetic mutation.”

“Are you sure they aren’t geese?” 

“...Ah. Geese.”

Yuki scoffed a laugh. With it, though, came the tickling urge to cough, and he buried the noise into the back of his hand. He winced at the slight wheeze that escaped him.

Before Haru could say his name, he was swift to placate him, saying,

“Don’t. It’s just allergies.”

Haru mumbled a noise.

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“Uh-huh.”

“But now that you mention it.”

“Haru…”

“Are you doing okay?” 

Though his tone hardly pitched, it did just so, in just the way it did when they were children, and during those first long assignments together away from home, and lately in these past few weeks as Yuki had been left to carry much of his physical and occupational wounds alone. There were times his concern was more blatant and pinned to his sleeve, but more frequently, as it was now, it was passed to Yuki like a secret note, folded within the careful curl of his hand and passed along in such quiet that few could be privy to its contents.

“I’m fine,” Yuki said. He looked down at his palm, at what was now just a jagged pink scar hugging the base of his thumb. The line along his breastbone was similarly colored, though thin and and smoothed. “They’re just scarring over now. My hand’s still a little numb, but I think this is as good as it’s going to get.”

“Mm. And what about Akito?”

Yuki quieted at that. He turned on his heel to regard the wall of freezers, where he could direct his voice into the store’s corner. After a deliberating moment, he muttered,

“He hasn’t summoned me yet. I’m still being supervised.”

“Huh. Guess he’s taking his time.”

“I don’t really want to talk about it.”

He really, really didn’t. His past month had only been in some parts comprised of lying in bed and tending his wounds, of being closed in by dutiful Sohma drivers keeping him from trekking out on his own, and, he was sure, more covert staff ensuring he wasn’t up to any runaway business. He had spent a lot of time sitting still, and waiting, and doing close to nothing at all.

Most of his time, however, had been spent lying awake wondering when he would finally get the call. Time that he could have spent decompressing had instead been spent unable to focus on anything but readying himself for the eventual summons to see the family head. Every noise that fell out of place made him freeze, and prolonged silences made him anxious for the expectant phone call or knock on the door or press of the doorbell that he had convinced himself would punctuate the quiet.

It was a bad way to spend his time. He had even broken his streak and smoked the last few of his cigarettes on one of the nights he had stayed awake long enough for sunrise to break through his blinds. It wasn’t until after he finished them that he thought he should have gotten rid of them for good, but it was too late; instead, he ended up digging them out from their hiding spot in the junk drawer of his dresser, almost flattened to disuse in their paper carton, and lowered himself into the habit as a last-ditch effort to bring himself to some state of peace. 

And even then, he could only think about what Akito would tell him, and could only feel something in him shrivel and shrink at the idea of having to say anything in return. 

Haru was aware enough of this. Yuki didn’t have to tell him. Staring into the depths of the freezer, Yuki chewed on the inside of his cheek and tried to ignore the aggravation that pinched him at his cousin asking about it at all.

“I know,” Haru said. “I’m just thinking about you.”

Yuki swallowed. He breathed out, slow and tempered, and said,

“I know. Thank you. I appreciate it.”

“Of course. I’m not the only one, though.”

“Not the only what?”

“Person thinking about you right now.” At Yuki’s bout of confused silence, he added, “Word gets around, Yuki. I have the feeling sensei might have talked about you to a certain someone. My ears have been ringing a lot lately.”

Yuki deflated with understanding. When Shigure didn’t pass sensitive information along to people who had no business knowing, he truly couldn’t say. Groaning low, he brought his hand to sweep his bangs back from his eyes, and he glared.

“This has nothing to do with him. It’s family business.”

“He’s your brother. I’d say that’s family business.”

“You know what I mean.” Feeling petulant, Yuki dropped his hand and diverted his frown to his shoes. He was glad he was alone there. “I don’t want him involved in this.”

“That’s your call.”

“Clearly not, if Shigure’s just going to tell him everything anyway.”

“What I mean is, it’s up to you if you want to talk to him. You don’t have to. But I don’t think he would be the worst person to have on your side right now.”

Yuki closed his eyes. The implication that Haru was getting at struck a bit too close. Another bout of anxiety itched up his throat, and, remembering himself and the line they were speaking over, he said, 

“I should go.”

“Alright. I’ll call later. Remember to say hi to the plant for me.” 

Though he hung up and pocketed his phone, Yuki remained standing in the back aisle of the store, staring down the frozen dinners as he battled with the feeling of needing to leave. He could practically feel the driver’s mounting anxiety with each moment he wasted inside, having spent far too long on what was supposedly a trip to grab lunch, but the longer he stood there alone, the more he realized how sorely he had missed just being able to exist without being so closely monitored. 

Those short hours spent on solo assignments. The few and far between days off where he had no one to report to, and no one to report to him. What had used to be solitary nights, sitting on his back balcony listening to the world creep down to a steady half-slumber. Such small things at the time that, now, he ached for as though they were all he knew. 

He realized in the absence of these small things that such a freedom was still new to him. Thinking of it sent a pang of bitter want down his core, and the sour thought of returning home made him all the more wary of leaving. 

Still, he knew he had to go. The driver would come looking for him sooner or later. He turned again to face the rest of the store, and returning down the aisle to meet the main floor, he made his way to the exit empty-handed.

“Ah— Yuki, is that right?”

Yuki stilled. Surprised, he turned to the kiosk that sat nearest the entrance, and behind it was the cashier who never seemed to go home, the older man he had become familiar with in his past few years of living just up the road. 

At seeing his face, the man’s eyes crinkled with recognition. Yuki turned fully to him and gave a brief wave.

“Sato-san,” he greeted. 

“I thought it was you.” Sato leaned low into the counter on his forearms as Yuki came closer. “Seems like it’s been a while since I’ve seen you around here. How are things?”

“It has,” Yuki said, smiling light. “I was away on a work trip.” 

“Well, no wonder. And I see you’re still playing around with...” Sato raised a hand and gestured a circle towards his own head, his grey hair specked with white. Yuki mirrored him until his fingers touched the ends of his hair, still stained brown while the rest had returned more or less to its abnormal grey. Sato chuckled. “I suppose it’s easier to experiment when you’re young.”

“Uh— right.”

“But, in any case.” The man pressed back away from the counter. He glanced behind him at the wall of cigarettes and similar minutiae, and then off to his left at the coffee machines humming low. “Don’t suppose you need your usual?” 

Recalling the emptied carton sitting somewhere on his floor at home, Yuki was struck with the temptation to say yes. He deliberated for a moment, weighing his fluttering anxiety against his lungs already chronically flimsy, before patting his hand against his pants pocket to check if he had come with any money at all. 

At hearing the small jangle of coins, he said,

“A coffee would be good, actually.” 

The man stepped back with the order. As Yuki fished the change from his pocket and separated the coins in his palm, he almost wanted to tell him to take his time — that he was in no rush. But he had noticed some time ago that there was a particular pace that Sato kept up with, the mechanical rhythm that came with doing the same steps multiple times a day for however many years, and it made Yuki wonder if it would be possible to do slowly after all this time. Or, if pace was pertinent, in the way children pedaling too slow on their bikes would topple over from the lack of momentum. 

He slid the excess change into his pocket. Sato capped the drink. 

Out of the corner of Yuki’s eye, a black car crept slow along his vision, past the window and down the street. He held his breath and waited for it to stop, but even as it passed his line of sight, he could hear it continue on, until its pervasive hum rolled out of his range of hearing, too. 

His stomach clenched emptily. His time was up. The next time the driver came around, he would park right in front of the doors, and there was no saying whether he would grant Yuki the privilege of walking home. There was no saying whether he would be allowed to do this again. Not until Akito summoned him, and even then, maybe not until sometime after.  

It had only been fifteen minutes and already, he was being faced again with locked doors and sitting still.

He had hardly realized he had turned his head to monitor the car’s reappearance until he found himself startling with Sato saying his name. He turned again with an apology on his tongue, but was met with Sato peering around him to look past the furthest window where the car had vanished.

Yuki placed the coins on the counter. He felt a prickle of warmth fall on his neck when he realized how clammy his hands had suddenly become.

“Sorry,” he said, finally. Sato regarded him again as he took his coffee from the counter. “Thanks.”

The man nodded. He looked about to speak but, perhaps reconsidering, he faltered before settling on a simple “Take care.”

Yuki gave a vague smile. It dropped when he turned away to face the front doors. 

He hardly made it some steps forward before turning on his heel to face the man again.

“Actually,” he started, and as he drew his eyes up from their automatic drop to his feet, he found that Sato hadn’t looked away from him as he left. “I’m wondering if you could do me a favor. Is there another exit I can leave through?”

Sato raised a brow. He glanced again out the window, and Yuki strained to hear if the driver was passing by again. At the silence, he forced himself to keep looking ahead.

Sato’s mouth thinned with a slight frown.

“Is there someone you’re avoiding?” he asked.

“Well— yes.” Yuki rubbed his thumb along the edge of the cup’s cardboard sleeve, diverting himself from looking over his shoulder. “I can’t get into specifics, but there’s someone waiting for me outside who I would rather not run into.”

Sato hummed. He glanced again at the windows as he stepped away from his post, until he could step around the check-out counter’s end and join Yuki on the main floor. With a small scoop of his hand, he beckoned him to follow.

Yuki hoped he didn’t seem overeager in trailing behind him. 

“I hope it’s not an ex-girlfriend,” Sato said, before laughing soft to himself. He had pulled a small keyring from his pocket, and he twitched it at his side, forcing the keys to chime in a short rhythm. “Love knows no bounds, and neither does passion. People say you do stupid things for love, but passion — now that’s where the real danger lies.”

Yuki didn’t know how to respond. As Sato continued forward without so much as a glance back, though, Yuki figured this was a rare moment where a response was purely optional.

He was led to the back of the store where, tucked between the end of the refrigerated aisle and the corner of paper products, there was a thick metal door with only a small, rectangular Employees Only sign to indicate its use. Sato pushed down on the lever handle and spread his arm along the door, revealing a hallway lined on either side from floor to ceiling with pallets of boxes wrapped tight in cling film. 

He gestured at it with some instruction.

“The exit’s on the right, at the end next to the delivery doors. It locks, though, so you won’t be able to come back in if you forgot anything.” 

Yuki looked down at himself and his small coffee. There wasn’t anything to leave behind.

He stepped into what remained of the hallway, a thin but manageable space, and looked back at Sato to give his thanks. Sato spoke before he could start.

“Afraid we can’t make a habit out of this.”

Yuki smiled.  

“Thank you, Sato-san.” 

“Take care. I’ll see you soon, I’m sure.”

Yuki nodded, even though he wasn’t sure at all, and turned to navigate the small delivery room. Behind him, the door closed with a heavy thud and clank of the lock, and for the moment, he allowed himself to feel a warmth bloom over his chest.

He hadn’t quite expected to be remembered. 

Finding the exit, he leaned carefully into the crash bar until the latch gave in near silence. He pushed the door open with the barest of weight, not enough to let in any light but just enough to allow a small stream of air through, and he held his breath as he listened.

From his few years of living in the area, he was aware enough that what sat beyond the door was a small side street, compressed almost to the size of an alley if it wasn’t just large enough to allow a mid-size delivery truck to maneuver through. It left the perfect amount of space for a sedan to hide in, and he listened for any hint that the driver was waiting for him there. A hum from the engine, the bare scrape of the tires against the asphalt (this driver, he had noticed, was prone to fidgeting with the wheel as the car idled), or even the off-chance that the man was listening to the radio or talking on the phone with the window rolled down. 

But there was nothing. Nothing but the high breeze rustling the tops of the trees that lined the one-way roads bracketing the delivery street, and a car revving up the street to his right. Far too fast to be the driver. 

There was the chance that the driver was parked there, engine off, perhaps to catch Yuki in the act of escaping or simply to indulge in a momentary act of giving up. These didn’t seem as likely, but still, Yuki cautioned pushing the door open just slightly further to get a visual. 

The left side of the street was empty. The right — the door wasn’t open wide enough for him to see through the space between the frame and the hinges. He sucked the inside of his cheek between his teeth for just a second, just long enough to shuffle through his options, and opened the door wide enough to peer out and around it.

The street was empty. 

He released the breath he had been holding, but stepped back to bring the door nearly shut again, keeping it open just enough to listen for the cars driving along the surrounding streets.  

To his right, another one came by, again too fast and loud to be the driver. He waited, until finally, to his left, there was a slow roll down the road, approaching the side street. Yuki eased the door open just barely so, just enough to watch the latter half of the dark car creep past. It gave no pause as it passed his hiding spot in its return to the front of the store.

Yuki swallowed. When the trunk of the car disappeared, he stepped out into the street, and after easing the door to a quiet close, he traipsed along the wall towards the street his driver had just coasted. Again, he listened, and not hearing anything, he gave a wary peek around the corner. 

The road was empty. The driver had turned onto the street in front of the store, and very possibly had stopped there to finally apprehend his detainee after a twenty minute too-long lunch break turned vanishing act. 

Now was his chance.

Taking in a steadying breath, Yuki looked up the street, a gentle incline that in some blocks led to the main road. He would have to walk fast to make it there before the driver tried to search for him again, but there, he at least had some decent options to hide. 

He exhaled, and finally, he took in a sip of his drink. He started forward.

Just for a little longer, he promised himself. Until the thought of going home is bearable again.

The last time Yuki boarded a train was over a year ago, during an assignment in Nagasaki that had started with a general, yet tedious legal matter involving one of the city’s universities, and had ended some days later in a hellish combination of Haru wandering to the aquarium in the middle of the night, scrambling to quiet his trespassing and self-entrapment in the penguin enclosure with a hefty "anonymous" donation, and a moderate rainshower unfolding into such a storm that, unless they could make it further north, flooded out their ride home, and flooded their persons regardless.

Being on a train platform again, under less harrowing circumstances, left him feeling awkward and oddly underprepared. 

There was no terrible storm leaving all of the passengers looking exactly the same, drenched and unwilling to look one another in the eye. There was no Haru, or other subordinate, or other Sohma at all accompanying him; there wasn’t an itinerary to follow, or a timetable to tack to the forefront of his mind. There wasn’t an assignment telling him his next steps.

As Yuki stepped onto the train cabin and, after some deliberating with his still-sore chest and hand, sat in an empty seat beside one of the exit doors, he thought of how he had never taken a train without an end destination before. He found it childish, in the way that made him feel bittersweet, and his cheeks grew warm with both internal embarrassment and novelty.

For some minutes he felt the anxious impulse to stand and keep guard of himself, to be alert for the sake of sticking to the task. But, without a task, there was nothing to tether this feeling, and so he forced his hand to unfurl against his leg, smoothed down the wrinkle it had left in his slacks, and lamely gave himself the task to just let his eye focus on the window across from him. 

It was by the fourth stop that the tension in his shoulders dropped away, as by then he realized he was much the same as everyone else on the train sitting and standing with him: he was a complete stranger.  

A little buzz in his stomach tickled him when he realized he could simply keep riding and not return. The prospect of disappearing, of getting off at a random station and leaving his identity behind just as he had so many times before, only this time letting the rails take it far, far away from him, rushed him like an old memory. To be someone other than Yuki Sohma — to be anything other than Yuki Sohma — was a thought that made him lightheaded and desperate.

It wasn’t realistic, he knew. But there on the train, as he watched the coming and going of complete strangers who didn't give him a second glance, save for the few who eyed his hair or his face before averting their gaze, he could pretend it was a possibility. He could pretend it was possible for him to unbind his ankle and his wrist and walk away, and walk for as long as and far as necessary for everything to be forgotten. He could pretend that, when it came time to stop walking, there wouldn't be a set of claws waiting to sink into his back the moment his guard was down. To pretend that he wouldn’t be dragged back home the moment he got too comfortable — back to himself, back to Akito's room, Akito's feet, Akito's hand.

To pretend that his trail would go cold if he willed it. 

Overhead, the automated announcement chimed with the next stop. While a number of passengers shifted, drawing their bags higher up their shoulders, gripping the hand rails, alerting their posture, Yuki folded his hands in his lap and idly watched as the next station pulled into view.

He liked the sensation of the low rumble against his feet, he realized. He liked how the sunlight struck the floor and seats, and how the shadows of the early afternoon were stark and shifted slow with the wide, loping turns in the tracks. He liked the sounds that existed in the almost-quiet; the gentle conversation held between two friends at the other end of the car, the hum of the air conditioner that reminded him of its presence with an infrequent click. The hiss of the train stopping, and the low murmur from passengers getting on and striding around one another, until they at last settled in their place and fell to a comfortable silence. 

Across from him, he watched the station drag away through what space remained in the growing crowd of riders. He was aware they were pulling through to Osaka, and he thought, then, that he'd better get off at the next stop and change course, lest he run into people he wasn't supposed to. Hashitano Corp., the Tsukadas, Machi Kuragi— 

Something in the train car shifted. 

It wasn't the car itself, but it was something intangible and familiar. It hit Yuki in such a way that he drew his posture up, until he was sitting as sharp as he had when he first boarded. 

He felt a stare dig into the side of his face. 

He held his breath.

In the hushed crowd, a voice rose and shot clear through him, accurate and serrated. A knife thrown straight into his spine.

"Kouta— Yuki." 

Kakeru Manabe.

Yuki turned his head to look. He shouldn’t have — he should have kept his eyes pinpointed to some nothing spot on the floor, should have ignored his name to give Manabe some doubt, but when he saw the cold fury drawn over the other’s eyes, he realized it would have been futile to ignore him. 

He knew it was him. 

He knew Yuki’s name. 

Manabe stalked forward, letting go of handrails and weaving around passengers that now watched him and Yuki both with some mix of curiosity and ambivalence. A thick air of accusation sat plain in his voice, his thin frown, his stiffened posture that only grew more severe once he was only a single line of seats away from Yuki. Yuki felt his nerves edge in as questions rolled over him, slow waves cresting with the implication that Manabe knew far, far more than he should have, and peaking higher as he wondered how, but he smoothed them down to mere ripples with a careful inhale and a leveled expression.

Just because he knows your name, he rationalized, doesn’t mean he knows everything behind it.

He didn’t stand. In some moments, Manabe stood before him, so close his knees knocked to Yuki’s when the train ran over a poor joint and sent a jolt through everyone onboard. It was a deliberate closeness. A deliberate intimidation formed in the bar of his arms locked to the handrails, the vague crane of his posture as he loomed over Yuki like a creature peering into a cradle. 

Everything about him screamed confinement but his eyes and the pinch in his mouth. It was there, in the boiling dark of his face, that Yuki knew he was being dared to stand up and defend himself. A dare to trap himself in that way and give credence to whatever accusation sat on Manabe’s tongue out of sheer agitation or panic. 

Yuki smoothed his hands flat against his slacks. Calm, he looked up at Manabe from his seat. 

“Manabe,” he said. 

He stared down at Yuki for a long moment. Yuki stared back. He could feel the rest of the passengers watching, wary as they shifted from foot to foot, curious as they waited to see what would unfold.

Yuki noted that his under eyes were gently swollen with sleeplessness. 

Before Manabe spoke, he inhaled slow. Deep. As though he were trying to quell a flame that sat deep in his belly, or perhaps to feed it as he readjusted his grip and it became knuckle-white. Letting the fire spread until it agitated his throat and limbs, until he was incited enough to yell, throw a punch, or both. Like riling up a starving dog before letting it off its leash. 

Yuki prepared himself for a temper. What he received instead was an icy calm as Manabe said at last, 

“I don’t know what makes you think you deserve to show your face here.”

The words jabbed at Yuki in a way he didn’t expect. The tone was so much unlike Manabe that his mind lashed at itself, reminding him in no uncertain terms that he had no idea who this man was beyond his name and a handful of conversations, and that for him to have ever thought otherwise was so beyond absurd it was simply laughable.

But the words themselves, cruel but a bit over-dramatic all the same, left Yuki feeling much as he often had when speaking to him in the past. Confused, and a little offended. A new anxiety brewed in him as he wondered again what knowledge Manabe suddenly had about him, but he placated himself again, realizing he had called him Yuki, not Sohma, and that alone made his stomach ease just enough to allow him to breathe.

He remained level as he looked up at him, but allowed his brows to perk.

“I’m sorry?”

“Don’t play stupid,” Manabe seethed. He adjusted his grip on the handrails only to allow him to leer down at Yuki further, where, now closer, Yuki could see the whites of his eyes were specked red in the corners. “Tell me where she is.”

She?

Yuki’s mind reeled a moment. The confusion drawing over his expression was swiftly met with Manabe looking ready to finally strike him, but as he thought back to when they last saw each other — what he believed would be his final contact with him and Kuragi — he grasped at the only thing that made sense. Manabe was an overdramatic man at times, after all.

“Your shop key, you mean?” he asked. And then, sincerely, “I had intended to get that back to you, but—” 

He was cut off by the fist furling in his collar, and the harsh tug that arched him somewhat from his seat to bring him, at last, to Manabe’s plain-faced rage.

“Bastard— Machi. What the hell did you do to Machi?”

Yuki stilled. For a deafening moment, there was only the rattling of the train speeding over the tracks, and the cold pit forming in his middle. 

“Kuragi-san?” His voice grew hushed, wary again of who else was on the train overhearing them. “Are you saying something happened to her?”

Manabe jostled him, forcing his head to whip back some. 

“Don’t give me that. I’m tired of the bullshit theatrics — who are you, and what did you do with her?”

Overhead, the chime signaled. The automated voice recited the upcoming stop. On Yuki’s right, a man approached, seeming to ask with his eyes for permission to drag Manabe kicking and screaming away from him, at which Yuki raised a hand to stop him. 

“Manabe,” he said. He hazarded placing his hand on top of the fist curled tight into his collar. “Manabe. We can’t do this. Not here.”

The train pulled with the inertia of slowing. Manabe kept his hand twisted into Yuki’s shirt, and though he glowered down at Yuki’s hand on top of his own, he refused to give. Instead, he gave a glance to the front of the cabin where the next stop was dotted with an indicator light, and then, as the train slowed to a halt, he said,

“You don’t wanna talk here? Fine. This is my stop anyway.”  

And at that, he yanked Yuki to his feet, a stumbling movement that was in part due to Manabe’s awkward hold and the train pulling everyone forward with its stop. The line of his knuckles dug directly into the half-healed scar lying just under the buttons of Yuki’s shirt, and Yuki bit his tongue at the tingling pain that shot through his breastbone. 

There was a collective, indistinct murmur as Manabe dragged him off the train onto the platform, and it was once they reached the exit gates that Yuki finally maneuvered his hand to grip his wrist, thumb sliding up to press into the hollow of his palm. Manabe stilled his stride to look back at him, scowl painted fierce, and in return Yuki adjusted his hold in such a way that the fingers curled tight in his shirt loosened.

Manabe’s harshness was interrupted with an annoyed grimace. 

Around them, the current of departing passengers continued through to the gates. 

“Making a scene,” Yuki said, low and stern, “won’t help either of us.”

“I’m not here to help you—”

“Let me rephrase.” Yuki adjusted his hand again, and with a pained hiss, Manabe’s grip loosened entirely. “Making a scene won’t help her.” 

Aggravated, Manabe snatched his hand out of Yuki’s hold and wagged it to disperse the stab of pain it had been dealt. Yuki slid his arms loose over his chest and watched his eyes cycle through rage, frustration, and resignation. Manabe glanced at the crowd still moving with ease around them, and Yuki watched him shake his hand out again, down at his side, as he seemed to come to some quiet, unlikable conclusion within himself.

At last, Manabe spoke, jabbing a finger at him, just barely avoiding stabbing his chest.

“If you try to run, I swear I’ll kill you.”

Yuki had to force himself not to roll his eyes. Instead, he stepped around him, and as Manabe bristled and pivoted to turn into him, he said, calm and practically directed into the other’s cheek,

“Well, it seems I don’t have much of a choice, then.”

As he joined the departees and stepped through the gate, he felt Manabe exit close behind him. His presence felt like a dangerous electric field that repelled him without a single touch.

They walked through the station and out into the streets in a terse silence. As they did, they enacted in an odd and distant dance of stepping ahead and falling behind one another — Yuki, unfamiliar with the area and stopping to let Manabe lead, and Manabe refusing to lose sight of him but acknowledging with multiple annoyed huffs that he had to play captain. Both refusing to walk beside one another, and both refusing to say anything of it.

It was when they seemed to go too far, not many blocks from the station but still too many considering the urgency of the situation looming heavy overhead, that Yuki finally stilled, and forced Manabe, some long steps ahead of him, to do the same with a call of his name. 

“Is there a reason we’re going this far?”

“Don’t be stupid.” Manabe swept an arm out to gesture at the street, where a small handful of people milled about; a line of quiet apartments, save for the small parking garage and the corner bar, nearly noiseless despite the gentle cascade of old rock and a single clatter of a glass. “We can’t talk here.”

And at that, he turned again, stride set, at first leaving Yuki bewildered, and then leaving him annoyed. That he had the nerve to volley his own words back to him, after he nearly made the entire train privy to their conversation, as though he were the one being careless—

Manabe turned partially to land a stare on him. Yuki scoffed and followed. 

Stop being childish, he scolded himself. As he reminded himself that it was a safer bet not to discuss the Kuragis here — a place that, from what he recalled from his brief dive into Manabe’s living situation some months prior, was quietly yet stringently divided over the family’s influence — he forced himself to be grateful instead that some awareness had wormed its way into Manabe’s skull.

He thought again, not for the first time in the past few weeks, of Shigure’s comment to him about pride, and he attempted to leave it behind him as he quickened his pace, briefly overtaking Manabe’s lead.

It was some long minutes later that Manabe finally stilled. He had led Yuki to a small lot at the end of a road entrenched in quiet, standing shin-deep in a stretch of overgrown grass pressed between a house with empty windows and a thick line of gangling hedges, thorny and barring them from a closed-off road dotted with faded construction markers. There was the gentle hum of hidden insects and frogs lurking in the dry green, and yet despite the typical summer humidity, the air felt brittle.

The tension snapped as Manabe whirled on him. Not just in words, a rageful expletive that splintered the stale air, but with a hooked arm and a fist headed for Yuki with only the hope of landing on his body somewhere, unpracticed and imprecise. 

Yuki blocked it with his hand. For good measure, he wrapped his other hand around his forearm and pulled, toppling the weight of his half-twisted stance and tossing him to the ground. A half-second that seemed to leave Manabe momentarily stunned, before he remembered himself and readjusted to sit up.

Yuki stood over him, arms crossed, displeased. 

“I thought we came here to talk about Kuragi.”

“Fuck you,” Manabe spat. He lifted himself from the grass, and as though he hadn’t just been thrown like a toy, he stood defiant, posture taut in a way that Yuki knew meant he would try to swing at him again. “Don’t talk like you care about her. Don’t you dare, you disgusting liar.” 

Yuki’s defenses flared in his chest. 

“I—”

“You lied to me! For months!” Manabe’s arms spread out long and wide from him, gesturing at the great big nothing that laid between the two of them. “I trusted you, and then—”

The lunge and swing came, and Yuki again blocked it, grunting this time as Manabe flung his full weight into him. As he went to discard him to the grass again, though, a hand flew up again to his collar, and he found himself staggering forward with him as Manabe managed to hook his foot behind his ankle and skew his balance. 

Yuki attempted to drop with some grace, but Manabe, not bothering to find a way to break his fall or damper the descent in any way, brought him straight down with him. The thud of his back hitting the ground didn't seem to deter him as he instead wrestled his hands to grip Yuki's forearms.

“Admit that you took her,” he said, and it was the edge of breathlessness that let Yuki know that some of the wind had been knocked out of him. As Manabe tried and failed to swing his weight in a way that would allow him to flip himself upright and pin Yuki to the grass instead, and as Yuki moved to press his knee along his hip to keep him from rising, he let out an agitated noise and said, again, strained and terrible, “Admit it.”

“Manabe—”

“Where is she? Huh? What the hell did you do to her? If you did anything to her, I swear to God—”

“Manabe—” 

“—I’ll kill you.” Manabe unhanded Yuki’s arm in an attempt to reach for his face, or possibly his throat, but Yuki pinned his wrist down with a deft hand. He could feel his heart thudding deep in his ears as Manabe struggled under him. “She didn’t want a damn thing to do with you! Is that why you did it? Did you get pissed because one person didn’t like you? Then you better take me too, because you know what? I hate you. I fucking hate you.”

Manabe shifted his other hand away from Yuki’s arm in another attempt to swipe at him, and again, Yuki pinned it down. He leaned over Manabe, brimming with anger and unease, gripping his wrists tight as he struggled to get a single word in. 

He hated how much the words stung him. To hear those words so vehemently, not for the first time in his life, not by any stretch of the imagination, made him want to fold up and become unreal. To hear them from him shouldn’t have mattered. 

And yet.

He thought of the crumpled scrap paper still sitting on his kitchen table, sitting beside the living reminder of his assignment still thriving and green. How it lived in his line of sight every day for the past four weeks, and how the scrawl of Phone-a-friend was now an over-familiar decoration in his home and in his mind. 

This was where sentiment led him. Every time he dared to hold on to just an ounce of it, it only led him to pain, and anger, and a deep, awful shame that left him lost.

Akito had warned him of as much since he was just a child, and yet he still never seemed to learn. 

“You’re sick,” Manabe continued, kicking a leg out but failing to have it meet anywhere but the ground. “You’re goddamn sick. I can’t believe I trusted you— I’m so pissed that I ever trusted you—”

“Manabe.” Yuki jostled his arms a little, but as he continued on, he said again, with more force, “Manabe— Kakeru.”

Manabe stilled, and in the sudden silence, Yuki could feel just how intensely his eyes burned through his. Yuki could guess what he was rearing himself to say — “Don’t talk to me like we’re friends” — and spoke before he could be given the chance.

“I didn’t take her,” he said. He tried to keep his voice steady, but the way his heartbeat crawled up in him, he feared it wavered. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“How am I supposed to believe that? You were following her for—”

“I’ve been on what’s essentially house arrest for four weeks,” he pressed. “The last time I was out was the last time I saw you.”

Manabe’s brows furrowed. Yuki breathed a short exhale through his nose, and slowly, he released one of Manabe’s wrists to raise his left hand, leveling the ugly pink scar along his palm to the other’s line of sight. 

“When I was injured,” he explained, “I wasn’t just forced to stay home to heal. I’ve been… under supervision. I haven’t been allowed near the shop again.” 

Manabe frowned up at the scar, and frowned differently when he returned his eyes to Yuki’s. 

“You make getting hit with a warning to, I dunno, not stalk someone sound like your mom grounding you for a week.”

“It wasn’t that.” He breathed steadily, then, as his heart began to revolt in him, the truth of it all lying flat on his tongue. He swallowed it back and spoke around it. “There was concern from… There was concern that the people who attacked me would try again if I went back. They’re a gang local to the area.”

A whisper of the truth. He lowered his hand, and Manabe again struggled under him.

“What— Look, get off of me— What the hell do you mean? Concern from who?”

With some caution, Yuki released his other wrist and removed his weight off of his hip. As he did, Manabe let out a hiss, and as he sat up, he pressed the heel of his hand deep to the low right of his stomach. 

“I can’t say,” Yuki said, careful as his heart seemed more than willing to detach itself from his body. He wasn’t sure he could blame it. “This goes higher than me and you, and I suspect higher than Kuragi-san. I can’t say any more than that.”

“The hell that you can’t.” 

They stared at one another. Then, with some noise of complaint, Manabe shifted his legs under him to stand. And though he hunched somewhat into the pressure of his hand, he still managed to bring himself tall. 

Yuki, even as he followed suit, had to admit that this darker side of his stubbornness harbored something surprisingly intimidating. 

“She’s been missing for three days,” Manabe started, “and the only trouble she’s run into lately is you. It’s not a coincidence, and I’m done with you screwing around and trying to feed me some bullshit story again.”

At his side, Yuki balled his hand, feeling the light pinch of his nails burrowing into his palm, and with an exhale, he released, flexing his fingers out. 

Give a little to get a little, he reminded himself, willing his mind to fall steady. Get out of the red.

Slowly, he said, “Kuragi-san — you’ve known her for a long time.” 

It wasn’t a question. Manabe lowered his hand from his stomach and repositioned it with a cross of his arms. 

“So what?”

“So, I assume you know who her father is.” At the short hike in Manabe shoulders, Yuki pressed on. “And I assume that you know at least a little of his business ventures. Especially since moving here a few years ago — it seems like the bidding war on all of that real estate happened right in your backyard. Do people here know the truth of that matter yet, or is it still just a rumor that he had any involvement whatsoever?”

Manabe shifted his weight to one foot, lips drawn thin. Yuki waited. He slid his hand in his pocket and slowly flipped a coin piece between his fingers. What had moments ago felt tumultuous in him had leveled to a deathly calm, the change so severe it threatened to make him feel groundless. 

Finally, Manabe asked, low but even, “Do you work for him?” 

“No. He’s an associate of ours. But, we have reason to believe he’s breached contract with us, so we’ve been investigating other possible associations and venues he’s working through. That included Kuragi-san and the shop.”

A troubled look fell over Manabe’s heady glare. Yuki slipped the coin up his hand until it sat in his fist, and he made himself aware of how the edge dug into his skin.

“‘Associates?’ You mean you willingly worked with that guy?” 

Yuki could practically see his brain speedily redrawing his own conclusions, all far worse than what he had started with. Face reddened, he didn’t allow Yuki to answer as he continued, fevered and repulsed,

“You thought she was working for him? Seriously?”

“It’s not a secret that she’s his daughter. It was an obvious path to consider.”

“It’s not a secret that he’s a giant asshole, either. Did you seriously think she was working for him? Her?”

Yuki shook his head.

“I didn’t think she was involved. I reported as much.”

“Reported to who?”  

“That,” Yuki said, opening his hand so the coin fell out of his grasp, “I can’t tell you.”

“Why? Because you’re lying again?”

“Because it’s dangerous, Manabe.” Yuki gave a pointed look at him, hoping it conveyed enough without him needing to speak. “It’s better for you not to get any more involved than you already are.”

“Not get any—” Frustration boiled high in Manabe’s throat, and with it, his voice grew hot and impatient. “First of all, you used me to get to her, you made me think we were friends just so that you could hang around without seeming like a sketchy creep, and second of all, I’m the only one who seems to give a damn that she’s up and disappeared. I’ve been running around the whole damn city for days trying to get a hint of where she’s at, and now— now you’re laying on me that it’s not because she was kidnapped by some obsessed— molester, but because some moron thinks she’s involved in whatever bullshit her father’s up to?”

Manabe stepped forward, and with a punctuated jab to Yuki’s chest, he said,

“You made me get involved. If you want me out of it, then tell me who the hell you are and where she is, and then I’ll gladly stay as far the hell away from you as possible.”

Yuki swept the hand away from him with the back of his own.

“I won’t tell you,” he repeated, cold and calm. “And I don’t know where she is. I didn’t take her.”

“Even if it wasn’t you directly,” Manabe countered, his rejected hand dropping to a fist at his side, “it was still whoever you work for. It’s still your damn fault.”

Yuki moved to retort, some automatic defense dredging up his chest, but as the words processed in him, he stilled. 

He knew for certain he didn’t take her. That was a clear truth.

He could not say the same for the rest of his family.

His suspension — it had left him cut from all communication regarding his subordinates and their assignments, and his own assignments had been rearranged and relocated to someone else. They had put him in the dark to keep him from meddling. Even Haru hadn’t imparted anything to him in the past weeks — anything business-related beyond a pleasantry was swiftly redirected to something casual. And while much of that was just Haru being Haru, Yuki knew it was also him following orders.

Without any information coming in, he had been left to worry about only himself, his position, and his ever-vacillating footing with the head of the family. Left only to swallow and accept what he had been told, that he had been careless, that everything was now out of his hands, before being left in the hands of surveillance and the nauseating spiral of his own thoughts as the threat of another failure closed in on him.

The Kuragi assignment was still on, they had said. And he had been told over and over again that interrogations were off the table.

But Akito was getting impatient. He had written Yuki’s involvement out.

It was entirely possible that the parameters had changed.

“Shit,” he breathed. 

“What?” When Yuki didn’t respond right away, Manabe repeated, “What? Was I right?”

His caffeine lunch roiled in his stomach as his adrenaline spiked. He was so short-sighted, so self-absorbed, that he hadn’t even once considered that that rules would change once he was shunted to the sidelines. 

And why wouldn’t they, he fumed, embarrassed and vitriolic, when you got kicked off for protecting the subject?

That both Kuragi and Manabe had been present with him when he was injured, and that this was information Shigure and Hatori both knew — that he had lied in some paltry attempt to keep them from questioning his progress with the assignment, which was then read as him solely protecting Kuragi… 

Yuki said nothing. Instead, he turned on his heel, the tall grasses popping as they broke and unrooted underfoot, and as he began to take some long strides away, he said,

“I have to go.” 

There was no way Akito trusted him now. There was no way that any of his work over the past few months could be seen as remotely viable. All of that time wasted, only serving to make Akito more and more restless. And now that he could be read as traitorous—  

“Hey.” 

Manabe’s hand was quick to close on his shoulder, and he was yanked a step back with a pull as Manabe forced his way around him, standing in his way. The hand left him as he spread his arms out in a wide gesture.

“What the fuck? You’re just going to leave me with that?” 

“Manabe,” Yuki said, the cool calm of his tone sunken and replaced with something more urgent, “I need to handle this. I think you might be right.”

“Then why would I trust you to get her back? You were the one trying to screw her over in the first place—”

“Because this wasn’t supposed to happen.” 

Manabe quieted. He lowered his arms. Surprise, confusion, and a return to mistrust fell over his features in a rapid cascade, and Yuki, unable to loiter around any longer, spoke with some finalization.

“I’m not asking you to trust me,” he said, “because I can’t rightfully ask that from you. But Kuragi-san was never supposed to be put in harm’s way, and by extension, neither were you. That’s why I’m telling you not to get any more involved than you already are. I don’t know what their plans are anymore, but in the likelihood that they did apprehend her, it means they’re getting agitated and impatient. You’re not off their radar.”

With that, he stepped around Manabe. As he walked forward again, out of the grasses and into the road, Manabe stopped him again, not with a hand but with his name.

“Yuki,” he said, and when Yuki turned somewhat to look at him, he seemed doubtful. Anger flagging, but not entirely dissipating. “I don’t get it. Who’s side are you on, anyway?”

An answer sat immediate behind Yuki’s teeth. He bit the inside of his lip before responding.

“If I catch wind of anything, I’ll try to let you know.” 

He moved to turn away again, but before he did, he spoke again. Disquieted as a flush of shame crept high up his chest, crushing his words into something small as they left him. 

“And… I’m sorry. I really am. This isn’t how things were supposed to go.”

And at last, he turned away, leaving Manabe behind as he returned to the street with an intense stride. Some blocks away, the train station peered high and white over the ward, and even as he returned to streets more gradually alive with noise, he was pulled only by a single thought. A thought that sat so high and heavy in his mind that it made his entire body ache.

He had to handle this.

He had to confront Akito.

From the end of his street, Yuki could see the black car sitting idle again before his apartment. He had all but forgotten the driver, and, though his mind was strung with an urgency he hadn’t felt in some time, he wondered when the man had given up on looking for him. 

His thoughts paused altogether, though, as he reached his front door and found it unlocked. 

He peered inside, cautiously, at the genkan and the entrance hallway. Besides his own shoes, kicked off haphazard and shoved to the molding, there was a pair of black derby shoes set neat against the step. Somewhat larger than his own, with the barest of scuffs at the toe interrupting the shine.

At recognizing them, he let out a hefty sigh, swinging the door open fully. It was only once he stepped inside and slipped out of his own shoes, padding down the short hall to meet the sliding door of his living room, that he could place the hanging scent of tobacco. 

When he entered, Shigure was there, sitting at the low table and idly flipping through a book Yuki had abandoned some time ago. Suit jacket tossed to his side, tie loose, as though he were sitting in his own home.

Yuki raised a brow at him.

“Shigure.”

“Yuki,” he parroted, stabbing the small stub of his cigarette into an ashtray that Yuki hadn’t bothered to hide. He looked up at Yuki still standing in the entryway. “I would say ‘welcome home,’ but that would be odd, wouldn’t it.” 

Though he looked unconcerned, Yuki knew he was trying to bait him. To ask why and fall into the conversation of why he wasn’t home as he had been clearly instructed. 

Instead, he asked, “What are you doing here?”

Shigure closed the book and placed it back to its spot on the table, on top of some discarded pile of junk mail and half-scribbled on papers. 

“Well, I think it’s worth checking in with my little cousins from time to time. Although, that wasn’t really in the agenda for today.” He readjusted his position on the floor to better look at Yuki, looking at him directly. “It seems whoever was left here to supervise you for the day ran into the little problem of having absolutely no idea where you were. He’s been at the estate for hours trying to explain himself, but, well…”

He gestured at Yuki with an airy hand. Yuki scoffed lightly through his teeth and crossed his arms. 

“Checking in on me seems below you.” 

“And rolling around in the dirt doesn’t seem befitting to you either, but here we are.”

Yuki looked down at himself. On his left pant leg was a grass stain set with dirt, right at the knee. 

Shigure rose to his feet and meandered to the bookshelf by the balcony door. He scanned the titles with light fingers, but didn’t rest on any. This was far from the first time he had been in the place, but Yuki didn’t feel any more at ease by the fact. Really, he always felt distinctly like a child when Shigure was around, a snappish anxiety brewing with the hope that he wouldn’t come across anything that he hadn’t thought to hide, or didn’t realize could be implicating until there was someone else observing the room. 

Yuki looked around. It was too much of a mess to notice if anything was out of place anyway. 

When his cousin continued to dawdle without a clear reason, Yuki asked, 

“What do you want, Shigure?”

“Oh, nothing in particular. Not from you, at least.” He gave up on the books and turned again to face the room, lazing his eyes over their surroundings. “I’m just here to play Hermes. Divine messenger, psychopomp, protector of thieves. Not my favorite job, but there are some requests that even I can’t ignore.”

Yuki felt something heavy and cold drop in his stomach. He shifted his arms to bring one hand to the opposite elbow, giving it a brief squeeze. An old childish comfort that he found did little for him here.

“...What is it?”

“Akito.” 

Yuki froze. The name left Shigure as though it didn’t carry the weight of the world within its clipped syllables, but when it fell heavy and tarrish at Yuki’s feet, he knew that its weight was still real, and potent, as it pulled at and numbed his knees. Whatever had been on his mind — his assignment, Machi Kuragi, how he could possibly go about confronting the head about these matters — was quickly replaced with a tidal wave of nothingness.

There was just an ounce of power in admitting to himself that he needed to confront Akito, but it burned away like a cheap matchstick the moment he was returned to the defense. 

Shigure seemed to pay little mind to Yuki’s sudden quiet. He glanced him over, gaze returning to a more known and subtle unkindness, before delivering the rest of the message. Words he didn’t need to say out loud, as Yuki had been dreading them so terribly that he could hear them in his dreams, so clearly that many mornings he was left to question if he had slept at all. 

The words he hoped would be staved off another day, and another, and another. Even when he knew that, in this family, most hope was lost.

“He’s ready to see you.”