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The heels of Himiko’s boots dug very slightly into the woodchips underneath her as she pushed the swing back and forth. Her fingers remained curled around the chains on either side of her, even though in the drizzly late autumn chill, they were comparable to unmeltable chains of ice. She half regretted rejecting Tenko’s offer of a pair of gloves prior to heading out. But she didn’t feel right putting up with all the coddling. Logically Himiko knew that Tenko only fussed that way because she cared (about Himiko’s wellbeing and all those other things) but it was still… annoying.

 

At any rate it wasn’t uncomfortable enough yet that she felt the need to pull her sleeves over her hands, so she considered that a win. The swing was made for children a lot younger than she was-- albeit, Himiko wasn’t a child anymore, having just turned twenty five-- but her feet still barely reached the ground. Her toes brushed against the woodchips every now and then whenever she wasn’t kicking off with intention. As much as Himiko liked swinging, it was far too cold for the mental image of the wind rushing past her face and through her hair to be as pleasant or exhilarating as it would be on a summer day.

 

Or in her own territory perhaps, with Tenko laughing on the swing beside her, or else pushing her herself. Things were so much more complicated with the knowledge of which parts of the city belonged to whom. Himiko grew up aware of the boundaries drawn by cities and prefectures, but aside from differing dialects from region to region and weird, out of nowhere traditions up north, there weren’t all that many differences to her. Sometimes she longed for that innocence to return to her. It would erase the ugly cloud that always hung over her conversations with Tenko as of late.

 

Himiko’s swing slowed to a stop and she parted her lips, puffing out a couple white clouds of wet fog. She watched them drift up above her head and fade into nothing. Her sweater and hoodie kept her warm, but the rain would soak through her layers eventually. Himiko wasn’t sure why she hadn’t left yet. This playground was abandoned; no parent with sense would send a child out to play on a day like today. But there was a sort of tranquility to the emptiness of the place. Gave her room to think in a strange way. Everyone she knew was so loud. Her feelings always got drowned out in the ruckus.

 

In the silence that settled when her swing stilled, Himiko heard footsteps over the woodchips behind her. She didn’t turn around, though. Perhaps it was a stupid thing, but Himiko wasn’t afraid. It was a child, most likely. And if it was a member from a rivaling gang, well… she had Maki’s gun tucked under her belt for a reason. Not that she ever intended upon using it… but it was there, in case she needed it.

 

The swing next to her creaked and sang when someone else dropped into it. A man, Himiko thought. He wasn’t particularly taller than she was-- perhaps an inch or two, though it was difficult to tell while he was seated. His hair was tied back from his face, tucked underneath the hood of a white zip-up sweatshirt, but a few strands of hair hung loose of the style. They glinted purple in the grey light. His profile was childish, his face round. Might’ve been a teenager. But Himiko suspected he was as much an adult as she was.

 

“Y’know,” If he sang, he might’ve been an alto, or a tenor at the lowest. He was drawling, but Himiko thought he might’ve been exaggerating it. “It’s a good practice to be mindful of one’s own boundaries.”

 

Huh. What a volatile thing to say all of a sudden. Himiko kept her fingers curled around the chains, but from the smile that twitched at the corner of his mouth, he likely saw the way her right hand twitched for her gun. It would be stupid, she thought, to start any kind of conflict when it seemed like his only interest was thinly-veiled threats and swinging. Carefully, Himiko replied, “Wasn’t aware there was a big red line drawn around this playground.” She looked cooly down at her leggings, the tear in her knee which threatened to chill her to the bone. “But I’ll be more mindful of that next time for sure.”

 

“Yeah?” He smiled at her now, a full smile. Whether or not it was a real smile was subject to debate. Himiko decided that it wasn’t, though, based on the lack of crinkling around his bright amethyst eyes. He fluttered his eyelashes and tilted his head to the side a little bit. Himiko noticed a black logo on the right side of his chest. Dice. Of course, in this area, there was no questioning which clan he was from, but it made her nervous seeing the logo so up-close and personal. Tenko never let her go out to do anything real. She entertained these notions about Himiko’s life holding more weight than anybody else’s. “I was kinda surprised not to see one drawn around you, considering your status as Chabashira’s one and only.”

 

Annoyed, Himiko replied more quickly than she meant to, and without thinking; “I’m not Tenko’s one and only. Our relationship is--” Weird. Annoying. Uncomfortable. “--strictly platonic.”

 

He laughed. Himiko felt her scowl loosening, and then struggled to maintain it again, because she didn’t want to let her guard down, not yet, not when he was laughing at her, not with her. She had always been bad at picking up on social cues, but she could hear the mockery in his voice. She had been half expecting him to say pet in place of “one and only” just now. Such an insult she might’ve been unperturbed by, since she’d received it countless times in the past. Perhaps it was the insinuation that she was Tenko’s and Tenko was hers that bothered her so much. There was a time where that might’ve been true. Himiko wasn’t really sure of anything anymore.

 

“Anyway,” she continued, heatedly, shaking her head and wishing the cold would scatter the pinkish tint in her cheeks. “Didn’t your mom ever tell you it’s rude to talk to a lady without introducing yourself first?” She knew it was an awfully childish thing to say. The very sort of statement that would make Tenko gush over her the way she used to in high school, and everyone else pat her on the head, chuckling fondly or else rolling their eyes as they walked away. She couldn’t help it, though. The look he gave her was surprised, but not patronising, which provided a sharp contrast to his demeaning little laugh from before.

 

“Oh?” Himiko wasn’t sure why he responded that way. It felt like a strange thing to say to her remark. He seemed almost genuinely curious. “Huh. I figured this was a mutual thing. ‘Kay, then,” he rolled his shoulders, gripped the chains of the swing above him and hoisted himself up to stand on the shaky black surface. His shoes, Himiko noted, were purple rainboots. It provided the only splash of colour on his person, amidst checkered black and white pants and a black turtleneck underneath his sweatshirt. Checkerboard black and white was the symbol of the DICE Clan, so this could hardly be considered a surprise… though Himiko found it strange that he wasn’t wearing a scarf. All DICE members wore that scarf.

 

He relaxed his arms, leaning back on the swing and holding himself up by the chain. The swing began to move, shakily due to the weight imbalance, and when he straightened himself again, there was an odd smile on his face. Himiko gazed up at him. She wanted to ask him, what did you think was a mutual thing?, but she refrained. It felt an obvious question. That aside, she was certain he would answer it on his own in a moment.

 

“They call me-- well, that doesn’t matter much, I guess,” he shrugged, indifferent to the chill despite the wind blowing near through him, as though he was a leaf on a tree. “But my name is Kokichi.”

 

“Your given name?” Himiko asked, raising an eyebrow, for Kokichi was, in fact, a given name. Kokichi smiled down at her. His eyes didn’t crinkle even slightly.

 

“Yup, yup yup! Even if you don’t recognise my super adorable face, you’re bound to know my family name riiiight away. For sure. I’m super high up in DICE, y’know?” He winked at her, jumping off the swing and sliding his hands down the chains until he reached the woodchips. His landing was so light they were barely disturbed at all by his feet touching the ground. “But Kokichi is fine. Totally. There are a lot of Kokichis in the world.”

 

Actually, Himiko had never met one before.

 

“And you’re Himiko Yumeno,” he remarked, seemingly oblivious to her crowded thoughts. Himiko shoved them to the side, hastily. “With the NEO Clan,” Kokichi’s smile was toothy. Himiko likened his expression to that of a shark, right before chomping down. She wasn’t sure if this comparison made any sense; generally, sharks weren’t all that malicious about seeking a meal. Then again… she had never encountered one before.

 

“Sure.” Himiko said quietly. She turned away from his smile, so blinding and fake as it was, and gazed off into the distance. The playground here was a part of a larger park, connected to one of the few forests in this region. It wasn’t a particularly big forest, but in metropolitan Japan it certainly felt like one. Himiko wondered what it would be like to run away into the depths of those trees, find the heart of the forest and lie down there forever. Give herself up to the will of the universe and stop going along with the will of individuals. Or perhaps all she desired was the strength to say no, to anybody, for once in her life.

 

“Hm,” Kokichi’s face appeared about an inch away from hers, his eyes narrowed just the slightest bit. Startled, Himiko jolted back, releasing the chains on either side of her and nearly falling backwards into the woodchips.

 

Kokichi extended an arm though, and he caught her before she fell, a freakishly warm hand cradling the small of her back. His eyes crinkled.

 

“Lemme walk you outta here, Himi-Himi-Himiko,” he suggested in a low voice. (Scratch that, he was tenor for sure.) Himiko swallowed, trying to ignore the proximity, and the dawning feeling that all of a sudden autumn wasn’t all that cold anymore, not in the slightest. “This is no place for a girl with such sad eyes, y’know?”

 

(Himiko found out later, as they crossed the boundary into Tenko’s territory again, and Kokichi gave her a sugary sweet smile, who he truly was. His surname-- OUMA!-- came out of the mouth of Maki Harukawa, who threw an arm around Himiko’s shoulders and told him to stay away, that he was on NEO’s terf. Out of his depth, so to speak. Himiko didn’t remember the name Kokichi but the name Ouma… she would have had to have been stupid to forget the name of the leader of the DICE Clan.)

 

---

 

There were three main Yakuza gangs in the city. Tenko’s, of course; NEO, the misandrist gang of powerful women she took over from Mahiru Koizumi when the woman passed away four years ago. There were the Kuzuryuus, as well, led by Natsumi Kuzuryuu. They didn’t get along, per se, but if they saw a member or two of the opposing clan on their territory running an errand or something, they were more likely to turn a blind eye than start any conflict. Tenko respected Natsumi and was entirely unwilling to start any fights with her. The Kuzuryuu clan was led once by Natsumi’s elder brother, and in those days their gangs fought-- but Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu disappeared with his guard one day and Mahiru was assassinated soon after, and Tenko and Natsumi were eager to get along.

 

They had a common enemy, see. DICE. DICE was comparable to that kid in your class who everyone hates, but nobody really has the energy to provoke. Himiko thought that it was a very strange thing, to dislike such a typically non-violent group of people. They sort of came out of nowhere, though, claiming a large chunk of land as their own and refusing to respect anybody. If members of opposing gangs wandered onto their territory, they were surprisingly merciful about it-- as merciful as a beating could be considered, anyway. DICE always acted like they were lucky to be out with their lives.

 

(They only killed as revenge, but that was a fairly straightforward thing for any Yakuza worth their shit.)

 

Ouma, their leader, never showed his face. Typically his second in command, Angie Yonaga (who Himiko thought she knew, once upon a time), appeared whenever he had to. Natsumi Kuzuryuu thought it was cowardly. Tenko thought he was disgraceful because he was a man.

 

Himiko had heard a lot of rumours about this Ouma man. She heard he was unhinged and violent; a sharp contrast from the mild, playful nature of most of his people. She heard he was ruthless in a fight, faster than a bullet, and cruel too. The sort of person who would kill not because it was convenient to him, but because he thought it would be fun. Himiko wasn’t sure what to believe about him, because most of those rumours sounded preposterous, but she had no way of disproving even one. From what she’d heard, anybody who wandered onto their territory got beat half to death. It was considered an affront.

 

Which was why she couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that it was Kokichi Ouma who sat next to her on the swings that day. He had that dangerous, cunning air about him; Himiko had picked up on that even before seeing the logo sewn into his sweatshirt. But his smiles were empty, in the way that a sad person’s would be. He caught her when she fell out of her swing and walked her back to the border. When Maki threatened him, he merely laughed, spreading his arms. He winked at Himiko as he disappeared around a corner.

 

Perhaps it was a facade. Perhaps he was playing it safe because killing Himiko would have meant war to Tenko. That was probably the most reasonable assumption. One interaction didn’t constitute his being anything different from the rumours. Just because Himiko didn’t see a gun on him didn’t mean he didn’t have one. His sweatshirt was loose; he could’ve had one tucked in against his stomach, or else underneath the waistband of his pants. Tenko’s personal bodyguard, her name was Kirumi-- she kept a gun there. It didn’t sound so unreasonable.

 

Regardless, Himiko couldn’t get it out of her head. Maki didn’t ask her why she had been walking with the infamous Kokichi Ouma and so she didn’t answer. Nor did Himiko ask why Maki was able to recognise Ouma on sight, when he had never made a public appearance before. It was one of those things that would have been shattered if either of them had commented on it. That Himiko was in DICE’s territory to begin with would have been great cause for concern on Maki’s end… but Tenko didn’t find out about it. Maki was a person of few words, who kept her mouth shut when she didn’t think speaking was necessary. She probably didn’t see a reason to bring it up to Tenko.

 

Himiko wasn’t often sent out to run errands or perform tasks. Tenko generally acted as though she wanted Himiko to live some semblance of a regular life, minus having a career since financially she was taken care of by the clan and minus the ability to go wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted to, since being so close to the boss meant having a large red target on her back at all times. When whatever task had to be fulfilled was in Kuzuryuu territory, though, Tenko would sometimes concede. It was as though she didn’t want to risk making Himiko upset by saying no.

 

The tasks were always so arbitrary Himiko half found herself suspecting Tenko only sent her on them so that she’d get to go outside once in a while, but it was alright. Whenever she went she was typically meeting up with a particular member of the gang, a woman named Ibuki Mioda. And Ibuki was the kind of person who was so weird it was hard to believe that she could be someone with any authority in a clan like Kuzuryuu’s. But she moved like a woman who knew how to kill, if she needed to.

 

It was a rare sunny day, perhaps one of the last before winter finally settled in. Himiko had always been partial to warmer weather. She liked the way everything looked when it was sunny, the feeling of warmth on her skin. She didn’t like piling on layers to keep warm. If the weather was like this every day, she wouldn’t complain about it much at all.

 

As she walked, she kicked a can down the sidewalk. There was a bin at the street corner and she intended to throw it in, because it was a sorry sight, litter was, but just before she reached the bin she kicked the can a little too hard, and it rolled out into the street.

 

Or at least, it would’ve, if someone else hadn’t stuck a foot out and stopped it. The sun gleamed off of the shiny purple of their boot, and Himiko’s eyebrows shot up. There were plenty of people in the world with purple rainboots, but… she lifted her gaze, and found, distantly, that her initial assumption was correct.

 

Kokichi’s sweatshirt was purple this time, his pants solid black and his hair free. It was long enough to brush his shoulders, and the ends of it curled up, like it was naturally wavy but too short to really show it. Kaede, an associate (friend?) of hers, her hair did that, but it curled inwards. Himiko looked at him for a long moment, met his empty smile with a more outward eyebrow raise. For some reason her feet moved towards him, and she didn’t care to stop them. She wasn’t nervous stopping about a yard away from him, merely apprehensive.

 

“You’re cutting it kind of close, aren’t you?” Himiko asked quietly. She slid her hands into her pockets. Someone told her once that showing a person your hands would make them trust you more subconsciously. Kokichi’s were tucked behind his back. He eased his heel onto the can, and the aluminum crackled beneath his weight.

 

“Hmmm, well,” Kokichi tilted his head to the side, as though genuinely thinking about what she said. “To be fair, not a lot of dear Natsumi’s people have Miss Maki around to point me out, so I think I’m pretty safe. Besides, what’s the fun in a field trip if there’s no danger?” His lips spread into a grin. His teeth, Himiko noticed, were very white.

 

“That’s what this is, then?” Himiko couldn’t stop a tiny, tiny smile from poking at her face. “A field trip?”

 

“That’s the fun thing to call it. Sight-seeing is such a first world thing, y’know? Not to say that I’m not of the first world,” Kokichi’s smile didn’t fade, but it shifted, turning more wry, and Himiko found that she liked it a lot more that way. It was more lopsided, less artistically rendered on his neatly controlled features. “There’s no fun in a lie if it’s obvious! But I like the word field trip more.” He rolled his shoulders. “I guess you wouldn’t really get it, but the nice thing about anonymity is that you can go whereeeever you want, and nobody will care.”

 

Kokichi said this like it was a good thing, something he appreciated or valued about himself. Perhaps he even meant to convey that he did so intentionally; hid his face from the world to reap some kind of benefit. Himiko was certain that, to an extent, it was intentional. He didn’t want people to be able to pick him off the street. She knew firsthand what that was like. But there was a certain wistfulness about him. It wasn’t that she thought he wanted it to change… she just sensed that perhaps what he said went deeper than his current situation.

 

“So what brings you to this corner of the town?” As he spoke, Kokichi bent down and picked up the bent can. Rather than throwing it away, however, he tossed it in the air and bumped it back up again with his elbow, like he was bouncing a ball up and down on a tennis racket. His gaze tracked the can, and Himiko’s did too for a moment as she considered her answer. “The word on the street is, Chabashira doesn’t send you out to run a lot of errands, y’know? Wants to keep you for herself.”

“That’s not why,” Himiko replied, bristling. “She prioritises my-- safety.” She felt obligated to defend Tenko’s intentions, if only considering who Kokichi was, but he likely picked up on the reluctance in her tone. The spike of irritation that Himiko experienced just no… she didn’t think it was directed towards him. “I go out from time to time,” she added, more quietly. “When things are low-stakes.”

 

“Booooring,” Kokichi bumped the can with his knee, sending it over to her like a hacky sack. Himiko used the inside of her foot to kick it back over to him. He moved deftly, with ease and dexterity that she wouldn’t have expected, giving him nothing more than a cursory glance. His reflexes were good, in other words. There was something captivating about the way he shot the can back over to her. He really wasn’t all that old, was he? “Don’t you wanna wreak havoc? Do some crime? You could totally get away with it, the police are suuuper afraid of your girlfriend.”

 

Sighing, Himiko decided to let the girlfriend remark slide. “No. I don’t care about any of that. I didn’t want into this world anyway.” She shifted her weight to catch the can when Kokichi kicked it to her, kicking it between her feet before passing it back. She wasn’t thinking all that hard about what she was saying-- perhaps because of the can there to distract her-- but she knew consciously that she’d never said any of this to anyone, not even really Tenko. (Though, with Tenko, it was implied, since Tenko was the one who dragged her into it in the first place.) “I’d like to get a house somewhere far away from the city and live alone with a herd of sheep.”

 

“Escapism,” Kokichi grinned. “Classic.”

 

“I don’t have anywhere else to turn to.” Himiko caught the can underneath the arch of her foot. She was wearing flats, so she could feel the sharp edges pressing into the sole of her shoe. “Sorry. I didn’t really mean to say that.”

 

“I’ve heard I’m easy to talk to,” Kokichi shrugged. “That’s a lie, of course-- my underlings fear me, actually. I’m a real scary guy!” Himiko couldn’t help laughing at that. Everything that she’d heard about Kokichi pointed to this being true, but he was so small in person, so… utterly underwhelming in presence. She felt he was charismatic enough that he could fill a room with his personality, but beyond that… “Don’t laugh! I could have you killed!”

 

“You could,” Himiko covered her mouth with a hand, kicking the can over to him like it was a soccerball. It bounced a bit against the toe of his boot, but he stopped it with his foot. His gaze was expectant, strangely. “But I don’t think you’d risk it.”

 

Kokichi was quiet for a moment. He leaned down and picked up the can, crushing it down just the slightest bit more between his hands. Then he looked at her, his expression wiped blank. “I think there are a lot more pressing reasons to refrain from killing you than the politics, Himiko.”

 

He handed her the can, and as he walked away, for some reason Himiko didn’t particularly feel like throwing it away. There was an empty shoebox in her closet at home, and when she returned there, that was where the can would live.

 

---

 

Gingerly, Maki sat down on the edge of the couch, extending her foot and unlacing her boot. From this distance it was difficult to tell, but Himiko thought her ankle looked awfully swollen, and she had been limping when she came in. From the doorway, Himiko watched Maki wrapping her ankle for a long moment, resting the side of her head on the door frame. She wasn’t really intending on moving, or revealing herself, but then Maki looked up and her eyebrows raised, so Himiko suppressed a sigh and entered.

 

“Looks bad, did you trip?” she asked. Maki gave her a dry look but gestured at the spot in front of her, the couch across from the one where she sat. Himiko took the cue and lowered herself down, sitting criss-cross-applesauce as Maki finished with her wrap.

 

“Don’t really know when it happened,” Maki replied, somewhat gruffly. She shrugged. “Guess I wasn’t watching where I was running. It’s just a twist, nothing to worry about.” She scooted back on the couch when she was done to straighten out her leg, resting her back on the cushions piled behind her. There was a tired look on her face. Maki always looked tired. “Was there something you wanted to talk about?”

 

She was always so direct. Himiko folded her hands together and tucked them between her legs. It was a difficult question to ask, one that she was really still on the fence about-- if only because asking it would break that unspoken confidentiality the two of them had been upholding. Still, she had to know. The contrast between the Kokichi she met twice and the Ouma she’d heard rumours about was so, so sharp, she just had to know what that was all about. Maki was the only person she could think to ask. “What kind of person… is Kokichi Ouma?”

 

“He told you his given name?” Maki asked sharply, looking at her with an urgency that wasn’t there before. Himiko averted her gaze, but she wasn’t sure if she necessarily regretted asking. Maki could be scary but she was difficult to disappoint. Non-judgemental in a very understated way. She was so hostile that how relaxed she really was about these matters sort of tended to pass people by unnoticed.

 

“That was all he told me, I didn’t even know he was Ouma until you said so,” Himiko shrugged. “He’s never shown his face in public before, has he?”

 

“He has,” Maki rested her elbow on her bent knee, the one that didn’t have an injured ankle attached to it. “For confrontations. Occasional to hash out details about territories. DICE doesn’t really operate that way, though, so it’s rare. Most people assume that he’s some underling there to report for his clan, and I imagine he doesn’t mind that interpretation any. He’s sneaky like that. Manipulative.”

 

Himiko considered the assessment. Manipulative. She supposed it felt accurate, but it still left a bitter taste in her mouth. “But you know who he is?”

 

“I’ve known him for years,” scoffed Maki. “He’s one of those people who you know for a really long time and then don’t see for a while, but when you see them again, they’re exactly the same as you remember. Kokichi Ouma is probably just as obsessed with his hero versus villain narrative as he was back in high school,” she paused. “But don’t let that fool you for a second into thinking that his immaturity means he’s to be underestimated, because it doesn’t. He’s… brilliant,” she said this somewhat reluctantly, irritation flickering in her red eyes. “But he’s an awful person, Yumeno.”

 

“Hm,” Himiko didn’t give the response that formed on her tongue when Maki remarked this; the testy, he’s not any worse than we are, was probably better swallowed down than verbalised. Maki didn’t appear to pick up on her quiet sulking. “I guess so. I’ve heard he’s vicious.”

 

“Maybe not in the way that people are always describing him as,” Maki allowed. “I don’t know that he’s bloodthirsty. But he’s still sadistic. Does horrible things for fun. That kind of thing.” There was a pause, during which Himiko considered replying but eventually decided against it, on the grounds that she didn’t know what exactly she would say. Maki’s expression was hard to read. “What’s with the sudden interest? You’ve never cared about this stuff. Did he say something to you?”

 

There it was, the closest either of them had gotten to addressing what happened. Himiko untangled her legs and tucked them into her chest instead, resting her chin on her knees. She still couldn’t really meet Maki’s gaze. “No. I was just wondering.”

 

The look she was given was wary. Himiko felt as though Maki was looking right through her. But if there was something she wanted to remark, she kept it to herself, because all Maki did was sigh. “Whatever. Just keep out of his territory and he’ll have no reason to go near you. If he comes here, ever, for any reason, you tell me, and I’ll take care of it.”

 

“Okay.” Himiko said quietly. She drummed her fingers on her knees and felt Maki’s hand ruffling her hair, listened as her friend limped out of the room. She had a strange tightness in her chest that couldn’t be explained away in a hurry.

 

He’s still sadistic. Does horrible things for fun.

 

And he played kick-the-can with her.

 

---

 

There was a gentle breeze blowing outside. It was warm earlier that day, but it was pretty typical for the weather to cool down a bit after the sun set. Himiko listened to the leaves of the tree just outside her window, rustling and shaking in the wind. From inside her house, she felt comfortable and warm. It was soothing enough that it might’ve been able to lull her to sleep. She wasn’t really wanting to fall asleep just yet, though, because she didn’t have any plans for the next day and she felt a bit compelled to keep reading. Not that it was a very good book, at least not remarkably, but it was okay.

 

Back in high school, Himiko had had something of a fascination with writing novels. It had been a career aspiration of hers. She wanted to write a Y/A series, or a couple children’s books, perhaps. She had a concept in her head about a secret society of magic users, a group of people who used their powers for good, to make others smile… of course, any books she tried to publish in current times would be successful because of her name, because of the fear associated with Tenko, and not for any other reason. Publishing companies would see who she was and say yes automatically, regardless of how good her writing really was. She could try to get something done anonymously, under a pseudonym, but after getting sucked so entirely into this world, Himiko lost the desire to write anything so optimistic.

 

She liked reading, though. Not necessarily because it served as an escape; to her, it wasn’t all that effective for that purpose. People always said that they read to escape the pains in their life. Himiko had never been able to do that, nor had she the desire, really, to attempt. She read books for the stimuli, and because the characters were like friends where she didn’t have any anymore, and because they explored problems that she was too cowardly to talk about to the people causing them. Tenko was always a hater of men, but this, this almost… total revulsion of the opposite sex, it was… unbelievable. Himiko wished that she could pinpoint the moment when it got so terrible.

 

As she flipped the page of her book, she was shocked out of her internal monologue by a rock bouncing off of her window. She turned with a start, but her window wasn’t cracked. For a moment she thought it was some sort of accident, or that she had imagined it, but then another one landed on the glass, right before her very eyes. She briefly entertained the possibility that it was some kind of harassment, one of Tenko’s enemies trying to scare her, but… no, they wouldn’t dare. Coming into Tenko’s own territory and getting at Himiko in her own house, absolutely not. Nobody was brave enough to attempt such a thing. Or stupid enough.

 

Before a third rock could be thrown, Himiko moved to the window and drew the curtains all the way, resting her forehead against the glass to peer out into the night.

 

Kokichi was illuminated by the yellowed flickering of the streetlamps on her block. Tenko had offered to have them replaced, but Himiko abstained; she liked the ambiance. From this distance, she saw that he was wearing a black sweatshirt, and skinny white jeans. He had a rock held in one of his hands and a bicycle supported on his side. When he noticed her at the window, a grin appeared on his face, and he waved, as if he wasn’t a complete and total madman for coming.

 

In a bit of a panic, Himiko unlatched and opened her window, leaning out almost all the way to speak to him. “What are you doing here?” she called out, cupping her mouth with a hand.

 

“Careful, Himi-Himi,” Kokichi replied brightly. “Keep a good grip on the window sill. Hate for you to become a Himi-Pancake, y’know?”

 

Suppressing a smile, Himiko cleared her throat. She couldn’t let him distract her from what he was doing. (Though she did scoot herself back a little bit so that there was less danger of her falling onto the pavement. The smile he gave in response was equal parts self-satisfied and pleased.) “That didn’t answer my question, Kokichi.”

 

“I wanted to show you something! Is that a crime?” He pouted up at her, and even at that distance he must have read her skeptical expression because he laughed, tossing his rock to the side and tucking both of his hands behind his neck. “Just kidding! I’m here to assassinate you, and you’re in prime position right now. Stay still for a minute while I grab my gun, ‘kay?”

 

It was a perfectly reasonable thing to assume as his intention, but for some reason Himiko found herself only snorting. “Wait for a minute and don’t be too loud. Maki doesn’t live around here but the neighbours are all our people.” With that she shut her window, closing the curtains again to change into something warmer than her pajamas. She settled for black leggings and a tanktop underneath a large red sweatshirt that she hadn’t worn in years but found when she peeked into her dresser. It still smelled like fresh laundry, which was nice. She tied her hair back too, but only because it was getting longer, and stepped into a pair of slip-ons before heading down the stairs.

 

With her keys and her phone tucked into her pocket, Himiko locked the front door behind her and scanned her driveway. For a brief moment she wondered if Kokichi had taken off, but then she spotted him and his bike leaning against the streetlight. He was gazing up at the sky, his eyes narrowed just the slightest bit. The lightening gave his purple eyes an almost amber glow, deep and multicoloured in the flickering light. He glanced at her as she approached, his eyebrows flicking upwards on his face. “You’re unarmed,” he remarked.

 

“Are you gonna shoot me?” Himiko returned. It wasn’t necessarily cold but there was a bite in the air that was picking up. She wondered distantly if the decision to wear just a sweatshirt was a mistake, but dismissed the concern. It wasn’t a big deal. Kokichi smiled evenly, though his gaze was still curious. And once again the expression refused to touch his eyes. Himiko wondered about that. How often he really smiled, and meant it.

 

“Probably not, depends if you entertain me,” he shrugged, swinging a leg over on his bike and scooting forward to allow her room. “It’s not a very classy method of transportation so you’ll have to bear with me. I think all those other mob mosses are soooo extra with their black limousines and personal guards.” He rolled his eyes as Himiko sat herself sideways on the end of his seat. They were both small enough in stature for there to be plenty of space for her to sit securely, if not comfortably. “I think that’s really lame, y’know? Having people follow you around all the time to protect you. You should learn to protect yourself if you’re gonna dabble in a world like this.”

 

“Did you get a choice?” Himiko asked as Kokichi kicked the stopper off the ground. He pedalled slowly at first, finding a good balance, and then they were off down the sidewalk. He navigated the streets as though he was pedalling through his childhood neighbourhood; with a familiarity that left Himiko somewhat breathless. They dodged the main streets, slipping down through residential areas and past an elementary school, but soon enough they were out of NEO territory entirely, going along in silence, save for the sound of the wheels turning, and Kokichi’s breaths as he carried them both. Himiko took that moment to finish her question. “In becoming a part of this world.”

 

“Does anybody have a choice?” Kokichi’s tone wasn’t bitter, per se. It tended more towards wistful. The type used in a lament. He didn’t really seem like the type to lament, but then. Himiko had been wrong about him before. “You sure didn’t.”

 

“Mmh. What gave you that impression?”

 

“You told me yourself, silly billy. I didn’t want into this world anyway. Edgy, but different for sure. I always took you for a bit of a pillow princess!” Kokichi laughed, but Himiko didn’t. She rested the side of her head against his back out of a lack of things to do, but watched their surroundings pass rather than commenting. She wondered vaguely where they were going. “Of course, that’s not really true, because I figure anyone who is so strongly protected and valued as you are would probably be super duper miserable.”

 

“Is that your experience, Kokichi?” Himiko found herself asking this quietly, but she knew Kokichi heard her because he didn’t reply, pedalled in silence for a while. She could have elaborated but she chose not to. Instead she closed her eyes for a moment, absorbing the feeling of the wind on her cheeks. Why had she gone with him in the first place? She didn’t even think about it, just hopped on to the back of his bike and told nobody where she was going. She didn’t know a thing about Kokichi Ouma, except that he was deft enough to play hacky sack like solitaire and his smiles were empty curves on his visage. His eyes sparkled but at the same time they seemed so flat.

 

And eventually he replied, “No, not really. Anonymity has its perks. I know the feeling, though. Looking at you makes it pretty easy to understand.”

 

Silently, Himiko thought that that couldn’t be the truth, because Tenko looked at her all the time and couldn’t understand a thing.

 

It was difficult to tell how long it had been when Kokichi finally stopped the bike, nudging down the stopper with his toe and pulling a lock out of his pocket. As he did so, Himiko slid off the seat, bouncing up and down to return the feeling to her legs, and looked around. They were definitely in a darker, poorer area of the city. There was one functional streetlight several blocks down, and the rest were flickering weakly, or else completely out. All the buildings lining the street were old and decrepit. The one Kokichi parked his bike in front of was especially so. Two stories and made of wood, it was clearly abandoned; a large gaping hole in the top floor standing in place of a window. There was a rickety old staircase directly to her right, and when Kokichi finished locking his bike, he started towards it.

 

“It’s structurally sound, even if it doesn’t look like it so much,” Kokichi told her, mounting the stairs, and Himiko decided to trust his judgement, since she was already there. The handrail was rusted and cold underneath her hand but she didn’t let it go. The stairs took them up to the second story, and then Kokichi gripped a rung on a ladder attached to the fire escape. It led up to the roof. Himiko regarded this with a touch more wariness than she did the stairs but eventually followed him to the roof as well.

 

It wasn’t very high up, really. Himiko was decently certain that if she fell off the edge, she’d probably survive, provided she didn’t land on her head. Even so, they were level with several deciduous trees, and their naked branches divided the block into puzzle pieces. Himiko rubbed her arms through her sleeves and looked up at the sky. As windy as it was getting, it was a clear night, and despite the darkness from the lack of street lights or tall buildings or passing cars, she could see just fine under the bright glow of the moon. Kokichi stood near the edge of the roof, his hands resting behind his neck in what Himiko guessed was a common position for him.

 

“‘Course, there’s no Milky Way, but you can see the stars a little bit better out here,” Kokich said, tilting his head back to look up at the sky. Himiko remained in her place, looking at him for a long moment. “It’s still my territory, technically. Nobody gets into the semantics with it though because it’s so far out and so poor, no one gives a damn. Someday I’ll have enough money and power to reveal myself to the public, and then I’ll be able to do cool things like large-scale renovations of this old place. I knew a girl once who got hit by a car walking down the street because it was so dark. She was okay,” he added, glancing over his shoulder and meeting Himiko’s eyes. “But still, it happens all the time.”

 

The fondness with which Kokichi was regarding this neighbourhood gave Himiko pause. At least, she thought that it was fondness. Perhaps he was just acting sentimental for the hell of it. She didn’t know him well enough to say so. His tone was soft, though. “Did you grow up in this neighbourhood?”

 

“Nooope, I grew up in a mansion!” Kokichi shook his head. “Yeah, I did. And this was my apartment once, too. The landlord died a while ago and I bought the property. Mostly it’s just squatters who live here now since I don’t get to come back a lot. They have a right to the shelter, though. That’s part of the reason why I don’t go around announcing that I own the place. No biggie. It’s not like I live here.”

 

“You let bums stay on your property?”

 

“It’s very hospitable of me, I know,” Kokichi sighed, resting his elbows on the low railing that looped around the roof. “But don’t call them bums. That’s not why they’re homeless. They didn’t choose for life to dump on them, y’know? Just like you didn’t choose for life to dump on you.”

 

Himiko nodded but didn’t reply. He was right; change the specifics of their situations and Himiko could very well be living on the streets. It was wrong to place judgement on people who were in situations she couldn’t even comprehend. There just wasn’t a good way to respond, so she didn’t. Instead she moved forward and stopped beside him, leaning against the railing to look out over the roofs of other houses. “Why did you take me here?”

 

“You wanna go away from everything, right?” Kokichi tilted his head back, looked up at the sky. “Me, too. If not for everyone who needs me, I’d leave right now.”

 

In a way, that was the biggest difference between them. Perhaps that was the reason why Himiko agreed to come, and why Kokichi asked her to. They were strangers, and yet they had so much in common. Even back on the swingset when they first met, Himiko got that feeling from him. Kindred spirits, that was what it was called. But Himiko had the opposite problem. She didn’t have anyone who needed her, not really. Tenko acted like it sometimes, and they had been so close in high school, but the Tenko who Himiko knew… she was gone. The innocent, just girl with the impossibly high integrity, so naive and well-intentioned and strong… her good heart had been deteriorating for years. Power did that to everybody.

 

And Himiko was just there, she imagined, for the familiarity she provided. Someone who reminded Tenko of where she came from. It was a noble role, an honourable one, and one that Himiko had no interest in taking. She missed Angie and the validating freedom that came with being friends with her. She missed her mother, who she hadn’t seen in years, had no way of tracking down if she was in the position to. Most of all, though, she missed being young and not knowing anything. She missed the innocent, uncomplicated things that came with being a high school student. She missed thinking of the Yakuza as a romantic plot device for books and movies. She garnered no enjoyment from having power over other people.

 

Nobody needed her. But unlike Kokichi, she had no way of leaving. Not alone. Not without a plan. And plans could fail. She knew that better than anybody else.

 

“There you go again with the sad eyes,” Kokichi remarked. He rested his cheek on a hand, gazing over at her like she was a secret of the universe. The moon reflected in his pretty eyes and Himiko met them for a long, long moment.

 

“I think it’s preferable for them to hold sadness than for them to hold nothing at all,” she said.

 

“Hm,” and Kokichi smiled. “You might be right about that.”

 

---

 

Kokichi found other ways to show up in Himiko’s life after the night they spent together on the roof of his old apartment. Perhaps it was a thing of necessity, or perhaps they were just particularly compatible. Himiko didn’t care to psychoanalyse the relationship that was forming between the two of them because it felt so genuinely nicer than any of the other relationships in her life.

 

That wasn’t to say that she didn’t have a couple of nice ones, because that would be far from the truth. Maki was curt but she was levelheaded and sarcastic, making her wonderful to talk to despite her occasional shortness. She could be surprisingly genuine from time to time too, opening up to Himiko about things that Himiko wasn’t expecting her to open up about. Kirumi, Tenko’s bodyguard, was a woman of little words, but she was respectful and kind and her eyes were soft. Himiko knew she was brutal as well, could and did murder people without hesitation if they were to harm Tenko in any way, but she’d never seen that part of her before.

 

Another member of the clan who Himiko saw semi-frequently was Kaede Akamatsu. Himiko didn’t know what Kaede’s role was, but she knew the woman to be friendly and sweet. The type of person who made other people feel nice about themselves simply by smiling. She played the piano once for Himiko while she was crying, and then recorded the piece for her so that she could listen to it whenever she was down. It was the kind of thing that a friend would do, even though Himiko was decently certain that the only reason Kaede was in her life was because of her affiliation with Tenko.

 

It was the kind of situation that had Himiko wholeheartedly agreeing that ignorance was bliss, because in fact… she would have been more than happy to believe that Kaede was her friend simply because she wanted to be. But there were only a few certainties in the life of someone so high up in a clan like Tenko’s, and one of those was that connections were formed out of necessity, not genuine fondness.

 

This could very well have been the case between her and Kokichi, too, except that it was a different kind of necessity than she felt whenever she laughed at Maki’s dry humour or flushed under Kaede’s compliments. People who joined Yakuza clans, who got involved with these kinds of things… there was a sort of underlying knowledge that… they couldn’t possibly be the best of people. It was a power trip. Being a member of a group like NEO. People yielded to them. Men especially, yielded to them. Himiko considered herself a feminist back in high school but she didn’t really consider this to be feminism.

 

And the way it was with Kokichi, he admitted himself that he chose to immerse himself deep into this world, that he chose to start DICE and try to take over, but though he never told her why Himiko got the feeling that it was different for him. It was different for him, because why else would he hide his identity, walk through the city under the cover of anonymity, dressing like just another person in the crowd, acting like a hyperactive young adult at times, or else a guy with a liberal art’s degree? Whatever reason he had for his involvement in all of this, it wasn’t because he thrived off of the power it gave him. Kokichi Ouma had some other, deeper reasons for being the leader of the DICE clan.

 

Reasons that Himiko wondered about at times, but ultimately dismissed, because it didn’t matter. Wondering about it wouldn’t do anything. She would have to wait until Kokichi wanted to tell her.

 

Setsubun came and went, marked by the arrival of the cherry blossoms. All of a sudden the trees in her neighbourhood were brimming with pink, the sidewalks scattered with those pretty pretty petals. Himiko recalled her high school days, the time when she and Angie sat underneath one of those cherry blossom trees and talked about their futures. Himiko told her then about her aspirations, how she wanted to be a novelist if she deemed it worth the effort, and when she asked Angie about her goals, about her dreams, the other girl smiled, spreading her arms out to the sides.

 

“I want to change the world.”

 

Himiko thought it was a very whimsical notion, but a nice one to entertain nonetheless. She was never the type to dream so big. And since Tenko took over NEO, she rarely dared to dream at all. Kokichi was changing that though, little by little-- and she didn’t think that it was an intentional thing? It was just in the way that he carried himself. The way he sprinkled little lies into conversation, waiting for her to notice them. The way his blank stare was so much more expressive than his tears. Sometimes they talked about violence, death tolls and revenge and Yakuza concepts, and he scowled, deep and ugly, and Himiko thought he looked handsome in that way, features so jagged that shadows loomed across his face.

 

She wasn’t always dreaming about him, though. Often she dreamed about living alone, riding the wind. Picking up a pen and writing again, telling stories for the first time in years. Sometimes her fantasies included him, at her side and cracking jokes or else appearing in her life every once in a while. She didn’t think he was much of a Prince Charming, the type to sweep her off her feet and take her away from it all, but she thought he was good as a constant. Someone who was present, if not physically there. Kokichi spoke so much and said so little, and yet Himiko knew, always, what his intentions were.

 

On occasion she wondered if it was a facade-- surely Kokichi Ouma was talented enough to spin a web of lies so complex-- but she didn’t think so. Perhaps she merely wanted to believe, for the first time in many, many years, that something was exactly as it appeared to be. That Kokichi’s insight, his kindness and his rare somberness in the quiet moments, it was all real. Himiko didn’t have any problems with being deluded if she could truly believe that Kokichi was who he acted as.

 

Himiko was being serenaded by the rain one night, sketching a branch of the cherry blossom tree outside her window simply because she wanted to, when a rock thudded against her window. It was typical for Kokichi to try to get her to come down in that way, as they could hardly exchange phone numbers, but when Himiko lowered her sketchbook, she felt as though something was wrong. As she sat there, no additional rocks were thrown; his voice didn’t penetrate the glass of her window. She got warily to her feet and pulled the drapes, swiftly unlatching and opening the window to stick out her head.

 

He was standing there, in her driveway, as he always was-- except that something was horribly wrong because he was holding his side and there was a dark trail behind him, like droplets of water, only that Himiko knew it wasn’t water. It was difficult to see colour in the flickering lights, especially from her window, but she recognised the thickness of it, the way Kokichi’s hand could barely keep it from escaping. And she had seen enough people bleeding out on the floor to understand exactly what was going on.

 

“Hiya,” Kokichi called out, smiling, but it felt artificial, a sugary vanilla sweet that didn’t make much sense for him at all, and Himiko grasped at the window sill to steady herself.

 

“I’m coming down,” she returned, and Kokichi nodded, swaying a bit in place as though he was dizzy. She just had to trust that he’d be alright until then because she couldn’t help him from the window. Himiko didn’t bother closing it, nor changing her clothes-- she found a grey zip-up sweatshirt and stepped into her shoes, taking the stairs down into the foyer three at a time and wrenching the door open, leaving it ajar behind her. Immediately she was struck by how icy cold the rain was but she ignored it, rushing forward and over to Kokichi to catch him as he collapsed.

 

It was a stupid, reckless thing, but Himiko didn’t even think about it; she slung his arm over her shoulders and dragged him into her house. His breaths were gasping and wheezy, though there was a ghost of a smile on his face, and he squeezed her arm as she shut the door behind them, locking it with shaky hands before she guided him over to sit down on a couch. The rain was coming down so hard out there, Himiko was already sufficiently soaked. As for Kokichi, when she ducked out from under his arm, he shivered, tilting his head back against the seat of the couch and clutching his shirt as though it would stabilise him. The pallor of his skin was frightening, though it was usually pale. This went beyond pale and right into pallid. A droplet of water made its way down the side of his face.

 

Himiko wanted to talk, but she didn’t know what to say. She started to get to her feet, and Kokichi’s free hand shot out to stop her, curling around her wrist. She halted because his grip was slack but his eyes were open suddenly, open and fixed on her.

 

“Don’t--” he broke off, breathing laboured. “I don’t have a lot of, time--”

 

“Don’t say stupid things like that,” Himiko scowled. “You’re not gonna die.”

 

“No,” Kokichi panted, struggling to sit up. Himiko reached out to push him back, biting her lip. “Didn’t-- mean it that way. Something like this… not a fitting end for someone as… flamboyantly evil as I am.” He grinned at her through the pain in his eyes, and Himiko winced. “I more mean that I-- don’t have a lot of time to be here, because, they--” he coughed, and his lips tinted red with blood. “They know who I am now, and I’m sure they’ll be looking for me.”

 

As the words sank in, Himiko blinked. She couldn’t quite wrap her head around them and she didn’t have the energy to try. “Don’t exert too much energy, I have a first aid kit in the kitchen,” she told him, in lieu of a proper response, and this time when she stood he let her go. “Keep pressure on the injury, okay?”

 

Kokichi spoke again as she rummaged through the cabinet above her bathroom sink, his voice raised a bit so she’d hear him. “I shouldn’t have even come here, I just wanted to see you for a second, I’m sure Chabashira herself is out for my blood right now, or maybe Kuzuryuu, I dunno, they’re all interchangeable-- I got too cocky, and my dear old friend Harumaki got tired of keeping her mouth shut, and then Miu got involved and I couldn’t let her get hurt.”

 

The first aid kit was small but it would have to do. Himiko bit her lip as she returned to the sitting room, dropping down to crouch in front of Kokichi. She didn’t know who Miu was, didn’t think it really mattered. Could guess well enough, anyway. A member of DICE. Someone who, without a doubt, knew who Kokichi is. That was why she got involved. She probably cared. Himiko swallowed hard and pushed herself up to roll Kokichi’s shirt away from the injury; his sweatshirt was already unzipped, the white stained badly with blood. She didn’t want to think about the injury itself, about the bullet that was lodged in his midsection. She knew she’d have to keep the bullet in there, too, because she wasn’t a doctor and anything that she could do to help would be temporary. He needed real, professional medical help.

 

“You sooo don’t have to do this,” Kokichi rambled on. One of his hands extended and rested on the top of Himiko’s head, as though to pat it. It remained there instead, and Himiko grimaced but set about to clean out the injury with the saline solution she kept. “I’m actually super excited to die, y’know! Of course,” he paused, wincing. Himiko tried to be more careful with her ministrations. “That miiiight be a lie. I’m a little bit scared of death.”

 

“I need to take you to a hospital,” Himiko muttered.

 

“No, that’s not the plan,” Kokichi frowned. “You don’t need to do anything except maybe kick me out. You can tell Chabashira that I was harassing you and she’ll kill me good and painful. It’ll suck to watch, since you’re not for that stuff, but it’ll be the safest thing for you, so--”

 

“Don’t be stupid,” Himiko snapped. “That’s not gonna happen.” Her hands shook as she packed gauze around the injury. “You need real help, and I’m no good for that.”

 

“It’s kinda all over for me by now, though,” said Kokichi softly, wistfully. Himiko glanced up at him, frowning, and tried to figure out how to speak to him when he was being so quiet, but eventually just returned to wrapping bandages around his torso. “Part of the reason why I hid my identity was because everyone pretty much reeeaaally hates me. Even if I survive this, Kuzuryuu or someone is gonna… find some way to kill me. Guess this was a pretty fantastic speed run of life, huh?”

 

Himiko sighed. “Give me your phone.”

 

For some reason, Kokichi complied. He fished it out of his pocket, put in the passcode, and dropped it into Himiko’s hands. “What’s mine is yours,” he said, but at that point Himiko was pretty sure that he was delirious from blood loss, so she didn’t think too much of it. Instead she went into his contacts and scrolled until she found Angie’s name, not thinking before she clicked on it and put the device against her ear. Kokichi watched her for a moment but closed his eyes eventually, leaning back against the seat of the couch. Himiko reached out to take one of his hands with her free one and squeezed gently.

 

Angie picked up on the second ring.

 

“Yoo-hoo! What’s goin’ on, Kokiiiichi? Everyone’s saying you got super mega hurt but that doesn’t sound like you!”

 

She sounded… so much like she did in high school. Himiko swallowed hard and hoped for the best. “Angie, it’s-- it’s Himiko,” she managed to say, clenching her jaw a bit in anticipation of what Angie’s reaction might be.

 

After a moment, Angie said, “Huh. Weird, this isn’t your phone. Well, hello, Himiko! It’s been so long, Angie’s missed you!”

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. “I’d be happy to catch up Angie but Kokichi is here, a-at my house, and he got shot, and I wrapped the injury but I’m not a doctor and I really don’t know-- all the doctors near here eat out from Tenko’s hand and if I took Kokichi to them they’d kill him right away--”

 

“Why is Tenko Chabashira’s beloved almost in tears over Kokichi?” Angie inquired. Himiko imagined her tilting her head to the side the way she used to do back in high school. Kokichi squeezed her hand, as though trying to ease her distress. “Does the word loyalty mean anything to you?”

 

“The only person I’m loyal to is bleeding out in front of me,” Himiko said, not thinking, feeling her voice raise a bit with desperation. “Angie, please, I know it’s been ages since we talked and you don’t have any reason to trust me but I--”

 

“Gimme the phone, Himi-Himi,” Kokichi murmured. He didn’t open his eyes, but he extended a hand, as though knowing instinctively where to reach. “I’ll talk her over.”

 

His sudden cooperation made Himiko feel uneasy, but she passed it over regardless and listened to him whisper into the receiver. He wasn’t saying anything particularly special, just that Himiko was trustworthy, and then eventually reciting her address in the phone twice over, as though making sure that Angie could write it all down. When he finished the call, he dropped the phone to his side and slumped back again, his eyes screwed up and his brow furrowed horribly.

 

She watched him for a moment, in silence, holding onto his cold hand a bit tighter than perhaps she should’ve, but eventually she broke the moment with a whisper, chewing the inside of her cheek.

 

“How are you feeling?”

 

“I’ve been better,” Kokichi’s mouth moved in a half-grin, his eyelashes fluttering. They were very long. Himiko watched his expression for another long moment, her throat dry, and tried to figure out how to speak. Her eyes felt like they were burning. If she started to cry, she doubted he would have the strength at this moment to comfort her. She couldn’t put that on him. Instead she tilted her head forward and rested her face against his knees, trying to figure out how to breathe properly. “Don’t cry, Himiko,” he murmured, and Himiko tried to heed him but she found it difficult. What was going to happen to him now? Would he be okay?

The front door, some ways behind her, slammed open, and a hot spike of panic ran through her at the thought that it was Tenko coming through to visit-- or worse, because she knew Kokichi was here-- however the person who came through the door wasn’t Tenko, but Angie.

 

Her hair was shorter than Himiko remembered it being, though she knew that already from public appearances. Otherwise she was the same, the same walk and the same bright smile, though it clouded with concern when she spotted Kokichi. She was unarmed, Himiko noted, and also-- she wasn’t alone. A man with green hair ducked under the door behind her, a backpack slung over his shoulder and a deep frown on his face, his gaze landing immediately on Kokichi. They both had black and white checkered scarves; Angie’s was in her hair and tied like a bow, and his was around his upper arm. They wore white sweatshirts, too, with the DICE logo on the breast, just like Kokichi’s.

 

When the unfamiliar man moved forward, it was straight to Kokichi, but Angie stopped in front of Himiko, offering a hand. Tentatively, Himiko reached up and took it-- and found herself pulled into a tight embrace.

 

“Angie always got the feeling something was wrong,” Angie murmured. “She never thought Himiko would want a life like this.”

 

“I’m sorry for disappearing on you,” Himiko returned, tucking her arms around Angie and taking a deep breath.

 

“No, no, that was definitely me,” Angie shook her head. When she released Himiko from the embrace, she kept a grip on her forearms, looking into her eyes with a strange intensity. She reached up to wipe a stray tear away from Himiko’s cheek; one that Himiko didn’t notice falling.

 

“I’m not sure he’ll be okay,” Himiko said quietly.

 

“He’ll be fine,” the green-haired man returned, and Himiko faced him, saw that he was carefully pulling Kokichi’s arms over his shoulders and getting to his feet. When he met Himiko’s eyes, he smiled. “Sorry for just walking in without introducing myself, I guess you and Ang are already acquainted. I’m Rantaro Amami.”

 

The name was familiar, but Himiko didn’t pay any mind to it, just nodded tiredly. Kokichi cracked open an eye from where he was slung over Rantaro’s shoulders, offering her a half smile. He looked so exhausted, though, and the pain was still so present and strong in his face, Himiko couldn’t stand it.

 

“We will take good care of him!” Angie beamed. “That is our job, after all! Himiko needn’t worry one second!”

 

It took a moment for Himiko to realise the implications of that remark. “Wait, I-- I want to-- I’m going with you,” she stated, clearing her throat. She knew they were going to do their thing, that they were all associates and that it wasn’t her place to go along with, but the thought of Kokichi leaving her vicinity, of his wellness being indeterminate… it was truly and completely unbearable. Himiko swallowed hard. “Please, I--”

 

“I’m not sure,” Rantaro frowned. “I’m sure you’re a trustworthy person, Himiko, I just don’t know if it’s necessarily something that you can do and then just come back here from.”

 

“Then I’ll just go,” Himiko insisted. “I don’t need to come back. This place is a pain, anyway, and I--” she stopped short, realising that she was talking with more fervour than she ever had, in her life. The thought made her feel strange. “Please, I need to see with my own eyes that Kokichi is okay.”

 

Rantaro still looked unconvinced, but then Kokichi lifted his head. “‘s fine, Himiko can come,” he muttered. “If she wants to come then she can come.”

 

“If you come,” Angie leaned over to look into Himiko’s eyes. “You cannot return. Do you understand this? They will know what happened, they’ll piece it all together when they see the blood on your couch.”

 

Himiko considered what Angie was saying. Was she okay with that? She just said she was to Rantaro, but… there was still time to back out. That was why Angie asked. Could she really leave this place and be alright with it? Could she really leave Tenko?

 

The answer to that question was, of course… yes. Yes, she was okay with that.

 

“I’m coming,” Himiko said. She thought she saw Kokichi smile as they stepped out into the night.

 

---

 

Himiko did end up going back to that house, but only once, and through the window, because she wanted to grab a couple things before leaving forever. It was a dangerous thing, of course, but not nearly enough to dissuade her, and none of Kokichi’s DICE friends seemed to mind, particularly. A very tall man named Gonta even offered to accompany her, but she dismissed his offer. It wasn’t the kind of task that required a guard, she didn’t think. The idea was to get in and get out. Easy as pie.

 

Really, she just wanted her red sweatshirt, the one she wore the night she and Kokichi spent together. It was the kind of thing that she knew she would miss in the years to pass if she didn’t go to get it. She didn’t know what the future was going to hold once she left for good. She wanted to have that teeny tiny reassurance, the article of clothing that smelled like something that was home to her once.

 

Inside of her bedroom, Himiko found that she didn’t really… feel very sad, looking around the place. She spent so much time in there, thinking, feeling, waiting, and yet… she didn’t feel any remorse, to be leaving it. She found an old messenger bag on the floor and grabbed her sketchbook, pulled her sweatshirt over her head, and found her mother’s old bracelet on the nightstand. She pulled it over her hand and rolled her shoulders as she walked over to the closet, carefully turning the handle and opening the door. It was a ridiculous souvenir, and one that she didn’t think was worth spending an excess of time finding, but… her eyes sought out that old shoebox, the one she stashed in the corner, and without thinking about it she flipped up the lid, reaching inside to grab the crushed can that was stored inside.

 

Simple enough. Himiko gave the room one last sweeping glance before she walked to the window, preparing to climb back out again the way she came.

 

“That’s weird.” It was Maki’s voice, sounding from behind her, that stopped Himiko before she could swing her leg out the window. She froze, felt her heart stop in her chest, but refrained from turning around immediately, instead curled her fingers around the window sill and took a breath. She felt like a kid caught stealing candy. “I thought that you would come back here, but I didn’t think you’d just be leaving again afterwards.”

 

At that, Himiko turned her head and met Maki’s gaze. It wasn’t accusatory but it wasn’t kind, either. There was certainly a frown on her face. Himiko bit her lip. “Hi, Harukawa,” she said quietly.

 

Maki’s expression was difficult to read, despite her frown. She always had been. “You’re running off to be with Kokichi Ouma, aren’t you? That’s whose blood was on the couch.” It was hardly a question. Himiko averted her gaze but Maki kept talking. “Chabashira refuses to hear a word of it, but I knew the minute I saw. You’ve been a different person all winter.”

 

“Maybe I am a different person,” Himiko said, a touch defiantly, curling and uncurling her fingers into and from fists at her sides. “Maybe I’m actually a person now.”

 

For some reason, Maki snorted. “I don’t doubt that for a second. You’ve seemed… happier.” The remark took Himiko off guard and so she didn’t respond, but she felt some of the tension drain from her shoulders. Maki’s expression was wistful suddenly, her gaze fixed on the ceiling. “I imagine Ouma’s in a spot of trouble now.”

 

“He said that you outed him,” Himiko murmured.

 

“Yeah, I did. And I’d do it again, too,” Maki shrugged, blatantly remorseless, and Himiko found that… despite this, she couldn’t truthfully resent her, because she was just being honest… and because she hadn’t taken out a gun and shot Himiko in the middle of her chest immediately upon seeing her. “But I’m sorry that he got shot. That was never my intention. It wasn’t one of ours who did it.”

 

“What difference does it make?”

Maki raised her eyebrows, regarding her cooly. The retort seemed to take her a moment to process, but Himiko didn’t regret saying it. She had always thought that way. A bullet fired by a Kuzuryuu was indistinguishable from a bullet fired by a NEO or a DICE. There were no differences; they all used the same kind of gun, anyway. It wasn’t as though wounds from friendly bullets would heal any faster. “None. It doesn’t make any difference at all.” Maki allowed eventually, her brow furrowing. “But I thought I’d tell you anyway, in case you wanted to know.” She shrugged, leaning against the doorframe. “So what’s your plan? You’re going to run off and join DICE?” She appraised Himiko for a moment, frowning. “No, forget I suggested it… I don’t think you’ve ever been particularly enamoured with the Yakuza lifestyle.”

 

“I’ll go wherever he needs me to,” Himiko replied, surprising herself with how firm her voice was. She meant it, she absolutely meant it, it was just… she didn’t realise how true it was until she said it, aloud, to Maki Harukawa. Maki’s lips curled into something of a smile, and she shook her head, chuckling.

 

“You’re in love with him,” she remarked, and Himiko looked away but she didn’t contradict. Denying it would have been… stupid. Really stupid. Even if she hadn’t said it aloud before. “I suppose there’s no use in telling you that he’s not the kind of person who you should go around falling in love with.”

 

“You’re wrong about him,” Himiko told her, even though she already knew that there was no changing Maki’s mind on Kokichi Ouma. And as much as she liked, and had always liked Maki, she didn’t particularly care to try. “I really think that you’re wrong about the type of person Kokichi is.” She twisted her hands together in the fabric of her sweatshirt.

 

“Well,” Maki considered her words. “I guess you’ll be finding that out for sure coming up now, won’t you?”

 

It took a moment for those words to sink in. “Wait, you’re not--”

 

“Telling Chabashira? No,” Maki shook her head. “No point in it. Nothing I could say would stop you and anything else I don’t care to do. It would be selfish for me to make you stay here in a life that’s made you miserable,” Maki shrugged. “And don’t worry about Chabashira, I’ll… talk her ‘round.”

 

“Why?” Himiko frowned. “Why would you do that for me?”

 

“I used to think you were such a brat, y’know,” Maki sighed, looking at her fingernails. “I thought that any person who could, so well and truly, have Chabashira’s love and admiration, and just toss it to the side… was not a person I wanted to be around. But I think I was wrong about you,” she shrugged. “So maybe I was wrong about Ouma too.”

 

Suddenly Himiko understood something. Maybe she and Maki had more in common than she thought. She opened her mouth to speak.

 

“Go, Yumeno,” Maki waved her off. “You only have so much time before Chabashira shows up.”

 

And for the first time she hesitated, wondering if maybe Maki Harukawa really had been her friend all along. But there was a more important friend waiting for her out the window. So instead of saying what popped into her mind, Himiko swallowed hard, and then she went.

 

---

 

Himiko slipped into Kokichi’s room after dinner was over, her sketchbook tucked under her arm. He was awake, fully conscious and even sitting upright, but his gaze was fixed on something outside his window window. His hair was pulled out of his face in a ponytail, the way it was when she first met him. His expression was silent and pensive. He must have heard her coming in, and yet he made no effort to disguise the thoughtfulness in his face as she sat down next to his bed.

 

He was recovering alright. He’d be well again soon. And after that, they’d have to figure out what they were going to do. Himiko had heard whispers of it, but never any actual confirmations. She supposed it didn’t matter what anyone said, except for Kokichi. His hands laid still in his lap.

 

Part of Himiko wanted to break the silence, but she refrained after thinking about it for a moment. She enjoyed talking to Kokichi but if he was thinking then she could wait. Instead, she opened her sketchbook to a fresh page and started sketching the outline of a tree. She liked drawing plants and animals the best; it was soothing. She wasn’t a very good artist (she had nothing on Angie, for example, who drew masterpieces in three strokes) but it was something she liked to do regardless. Himiko sketched out little flowers on the branches of her tree, deciding as she went along that it would be a cherry blossom, just like she was sketching when he showed up at her window with a bullet wound.

 

“Himiko,” Kokichi’s voice was quiet. Himiko looked up at him, but his gaze was still fixed out the window. “If I was to, leave, and never come back… would you come with me?”

 

“Sure I would,” Himiko hummed. “But I think you’d need to be a little bit more specific than that.”

 

“I mean leave all of this. Leave Japan. Get on a plane somewhere and never look back, not even once,” he turned to look at her, an odd intensity in his eyes, lining his face. Himiko didn’t know if she’d ever seen him so serious, or his eyes so affected by his words. “Staying here isn’t an option for me anymore. I can’t exactly fade into obscurity; that’d be super lame of the NEO and Kuzuryuu clans, if they let that kinda thing happen with their enemy. But if I leave right away, I could probably vanish into a crowd somewhere else.”

 

“Somewhere else, huh?” Himiko put her sketchbook to the side, leaning forward to rest her elbows on his mattress and propping her face up on her hands. “Well, yeah. Of course. I’d go with you, if you wanted me to.”

 

Kokichi frowned at her for some reason. His brow furrowed in a rare expression of discontent. “Why? I could be lying to you about everything, y’know? All this could be a ruse, an elaborate set-up to kill you.”

 

“I think there are worse ways to die,” Himiko replied quietly. “My answer is yes, Kokichi.”

 

“I haven’t told you much of anything. You don’t know who I am or why I even started DICE in the first place. Or the real reason why I kept my identity secret, or--”

 

“You’re the one who asked, stupid,” Himiko rolled her eyes.

 

“The answer was kind of supposed to be no,” Kokichi whispered. He blinked, expression flickering a bit, and huffed out a laugh. “I mean, that was a lie, obviously the right answer to those kinds of questions is yes, but I still don’t want you to feel like you have to--”

 

Himiko stood up from her chair and reached out to take Kokichi’s face in her hands, leaning forward and pressing her lips against his. It was an effective method of shutting him up, but more importantly, when she pulled away, his expression was utterly shellshocked. It was kind of sweet. She gave him a small smile. “I’ll run away with you, Kokichi. Wherever you wanna go and whenever you wanna do it. Say the word and I’ll go.”

 

“Are you--” he paused, biting his lip. “Are you sure?”

 

A light laugh was pulled from Himiko at the question. She brushed his hair out of his face. “I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.”

 

The smile that he gave her was awkward, his lips tugging up more on one side than the other, but his eyes, Himiko found, were crinkled by it. Truly and genuinely affected. And she got to feel that smile, that real smile, against her lips when he leaned up to kiss her again.