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Foreordained

Chapter Text

"Satoru. You're wearing glasses."

It was the first thing Yashiro had said to him, in the prison's meeting room.

Satoru was a little surprised when the guard, after leading the man in, left through the door without providing any instructions whatsoever. The way Satoru always imagined them — the Japanese prison rules, that is — strict, unyielding, he'd expected to be given a clear and bold description of his boundaries, or at least the time frame he was given to talk with the prisoner.

And the fact that he left, instead of staying somewhere behind Yashiro's back, was also somewhat disquieting. And, it wasn't because Satoru was frightened by his attempted murderer's presence, after all, they were separated by a wall and a glass; the feeling was more of a piquing unease deep in his gut. They were truly alone here, together, for the first time in nine years, no strangers to eavesdrop, and Satoru couldn't help but feel like he's taken back to that hospital roof in 2003, damp air and the smell of rain and drops of water stuck glittering like marbles in the spider web.

Honestly, Satoru didn't expect Yashiro's starting words to be about his looks. The moment he walked in and Satoru saw his posture — not crooked like most prisoners, but straight and narrow, eyes still as sharp as before — it was obvious, that despite years and years of incarceration, Yashiro was not "broken" in none of the ways most convicts are.

When his cuffs were taken off, he sat, put his forearms on the table before him and waited for the guard to exit, all the while looking over Satoru's sitting figure behind the glass, evident by the way his eyes darted here and there, at his ex-student's hair, his clothes, his face, finally settling on eyes and saying his first words to Satoru since "I can't live without you."

And— with the way Yashiro sat there, mere inches away, a little smile formed on his lips almost immediately after he caught sight of Satoru, back straightened but face relaxed, Satoru thought, what Yashiro might have said first would be something eccentric, something that would get stuck in Satoru's head and haunt him for days after this visit. Yet Satoru's expectations had been defied.

"Ah, yeah. Late evenings working on manga did a number on my eyesight, I guess," said Satoru, compelling his voice to sound calm.

"Your manga, yes. I read it, you know. Quite a fun read it was." Yashiro sighed, almost contently and averted his eyes. The revelation wasn't unexpected to Satoru, he figured, after fifteen years of following his comatose victim around, Yashiro wouldn't change this habit even after getting caught by the said "victim".

"You mean, you read all of it?"

"Yes."

"You were allowed to keep the volumes?" There were quite a few of those. It was his first hit, an instant bestseller, not in spite of his very interesting personal experience, that boosted his name on the manga scene. An anime adaptation was made two years ago as well, pretty popular, though Satoru doubted Yashiro ever got to watch it.

Yashiro interlaced his fingers together and put his hands under his chin. "Well, not all at once. There's a rule in here, to keep six books at most, but I was able to switch out your tomes, so I could keep the four latest ones on my shelf."

Satoru knew, it was a cue for him to ask about the other two books. But Yashiro kept talking, so he let him.

"I always waited until I would get all of the newest ones to read them in one sitting. Of course, I could never pull that off, since I'd spend too much time staring at your artwork before 'reading time' was over," Yashiro looked up somewhere, lost in thought, it seemed, "then I'd have to wait through a restless night and a day full of labor until I'd get my hands on your work again. I suppose, the sweet anticipation made the dullest days bearable."

"Prison is strict, isn't it," Satoru said.

"Eh," Yashiro looked back down on Satoru, smiling tiredly. "It's no vacation, certainly. It gets repetitive."

"What are the two other books you keep?"

Yashiro's smile widened. He was definitely waiting for that question. "You caught on. Well, one of them is my personal favorite, the other is something I like to keep with me at all times, even if I don't read it religiously."

"And let me guess, you're only going to reveal just one of them depending on what I choose?"

Yashiro's smile widened ever more. He hid it behind his folded hands, leaning his head forward a bit to look at Satoru practically mischievously. "Correct. It's more fun that way, is it not?"

There it was. The "game". The little struggle to "win" against the other, the source of Yashiro's thrill. It was exactly one of the things Satoru expected from the man, if not anticipated it.

Satoru folded his arms and gave his options a deep thought, eyes not leaving his ex-teacher behind the glass. A "personal favorite" and "something he likes to keep", huh? He was curious to know both, but for the time being he'd have to settle with knowing just one. Absently, Satoru drummed his fingers against his arm. The second option could be anything, really, whilst the first option had a purpose. It was meaningful to Yashiro. It would allow Satoru to peek into the murderer's mind. Not that he wanted to, not that he needed to. But his natural spirit of inquiry got the best of him.

"Then, what's your personal favorite?"

Yashiro didn't flinch. His body language did not show any signs of distress. "It's a big book. 'A Collection of Japanese Short Stories'. There are many classic stories in there, you probably know some. I'm sure we even discussed certain ones on our lessons."

Yashiro's answer left Satoru unfulfilled. "Ah, I see." A collection of short stories is not exactly something distinctive that allows a peek into Yashiro's psyche.

"It's very convenient too," Yashiro continued. "Instead of having to re-read a whole single book for the past decade, I got to read many various short stories. Not that I'm not sick of them already. Haha." Satoru suddenly thought that his laughter might be a surrogate for the words "I won."

Yashiro's posture finally slackened as he rested his cheek in his palm. "But we should stop talking about me. What about you? How is your life? How's your mother?"

Right, now that he'd "won", he was getting his "reward" - the answers to his questions. Fine, Satoru thought.

"Fine," he said. "Mom's good, thanks for asking. She moved back to Hokkaido after I got my high school degree."

"When did you get it?"

"2009."

"Woah," Yashiro chuckled. "I was hoping I'd see you when you get it. I felt that, as your teacher, I should be there when you reach that pinnacle. By the way, you didn't have a hard time reinserting into the society, did you? With the way you accomplish things I don't think you should have—“

Satoru shook his head, incredulous, "I thought I told you that I—" then it hit him. It was a bait. Yashiro wanted Satoru to acknowledge his time-travelling story.

"You what, Satoru?" the man smirked at him, though his gaze held no malice.

Satoru exhaled, smile tugging at his lips, though he held it back and finally let his arms unwrap and lay on the table in front of him.

"You know, biologically I am 34 years old. Though, many still regard me younger, mentally. They think I'll be turning 20 next month."

Yashiro nodded, the motion so sudden that it seemed eager. "But none of these digits are your actual age, are they?"

"It's not much older, I'll admit," Satoru replied. "If I count out the 15 years of sleep — I'm about 38 years old now, cognitively."

Yashiro mimicked Satoru's exact pose across him — arms folded on the table. "And your overall age is 53, then. Six months older than me! Marvelous. So you're saying, in the fifth grade you were actually 29. Technically my coeval. No wonder..." he trailed off.

"It's my turn to ask now, isn't it?"

"We were taking turns? Sorry, didn't realize." The man's smile was vacant as ever. Honestly, it was somewhat relaxing.

Satoru chose to voice the question that's been quite literally hanging between them since the moment their eyes met. He wanted to ask him this ever since Kenya had orchestrated this whole meeting.
"Why did you confess?"

~

The smile on the death sentenced man's face slowly strained. He changed his posture back to the one with upturned hands supporting his face, now deep in thought as he stared into the blue of Satoru's eyes, eyes that radiated obstinate determination to know the answer.

The truth was, after the roof incident in 2003, Yashiro had been trialed for the attempted murders of Satoru and Kumi, and earned a life sentence. There was no way to prove his involvement in the past cases due to the fact that the cases were considered closed; moreso his accountability would not be questioned due to the statute of limitations still being intact.

Yet a year after the abolishment of statute of limitations for murder, Yashiro had confessed, even pointed out some evidence, which immediately resulted in him receiving death penalty. And Satoru couldn't help but wonder why.

"Satoru, your question is not 'why', but 'what for'. You want to know what I earn from it. Is it a sense of peace in my mind? or a way for me to get freed from these suffocating walls? Frankly, I don't know myself, Satoru. Let me just say, I was sentenced to life one way or another. To wither away steadily inside a cramped room, or get my neck snapped by rope in a few years, it's not that much different, is it? In a way, I consider it to be 'a new starting point' for me."

Throughout his speech he kept the tight lipped smile plastered across his face. Satoru wasn't sure why. "Perhaps by recanting your sins you aim to earn a little discount down in hell?" Satoru said, though he didn't mean to and was just thinking out loud. Yashiro scoffed lightheartedly. "No, not that," Satoru quickly dismissed his own words with a light shake that made his bangs fall in front of his eyes.

After Satoru brushed his bangs off, he witnessed Yashiro winking at him, a gesture much reminiscent of his fake 'friendly Yashiro-sensei' persona, a gesture Satoru so shamelessly and playfully mimicked when Yashiro let him go on that roof nine years ago, the gesture that's supposed to represent a yet another declaration of victory. "My turn now? Tell me about your 'other' life. The one you spent 29 years in."

Satoru huffed, a bit frustrated. The questions he offered to Yashiro were easily dodged, too effortlessly, and he struggled to come up with something that Yashiro could not simply be vague about.

"Well, there isn't much to tell. I was a mangaka as well. Not as popular, obviously..."

"Did you live with your mother?"

"No," Satoru rolled his eyes, "I lived in Chiba, by myself. Then she happened to visit me, and spotted you trying to kidnap a child. She recognized you, so you followed her while I was at work. You know what happened next."

Yashiro considered what Satoru had said, tapping his lips with his finger. Apparently, he had a few follow up questions. "Why weren't you at home? You said you were an unsuccessful manga artist."

"I— I worked part time. I delivered pizzas."

Yashiro grinned and Satoru held back an urge to let out an annoyed groan. "So I still committed crimes in that 'lifetime'. What year was that?"

"2006."

Yashiro nodded. "The year you turned 29, of course. And my plan to murder Kayo? I executed it, didn't I?"

Satoru's fists clenched against his will. "Yes. It was my first 'timeline', after all. I was a child. I couldn't have known."

"Alright. So I suppose, I murdered your mother, framed you for it and you went back in time all the way to 1988. Did you already know it was me?"

"No. And, don't you think it's my turn to ask now, Yashiro?"

The man sat back and sighed, "Ah. Of course, go ahead." He tousled his hair a bit. Satoru didn't note it before, but it was neat though slightly faded, touched with gray at the temples. The bangs laid freely, not slicked back like Nishizono Manabu's did. In a way, Yashiro's hair looked similar to his hairstyle in 1988. Satoru found some eerie comfort in that.

He bit down on his tongue — this was no time and place to get comfortable. The main reason for Satoru to be here, in the first place, was in fact a desire to figure out if Yashiro's confession had been entirely valid and true. Although he already earned a death sentence for merely a part of his crimes, this was far from the "endgame". As Kenya had informed Satoru, the investigative team had doubts about Nishizono Manabu's involvement in some of the 'pre-1988' cases, since the "culprits" in those cases were already caught and had been imprisoned for years. The deserved liberty for these men was what initially brought Satoru to this very room.

"The court papers say you confessed to committing only nine murders. All in the time period from 1990 to 2002. What about the ones before that?"

Yashiro massaged his nose ridge. "This is just what the official documents say for now. They will announce I confessed to those other murders after they deem the confession valid." That was correct. Exactly what Kenya had told Satoru. But then—

"How many murders total did you commit?"

Yashiro rubbed at his eyes, then his temples. After that he leaned forward, his elbows pushed onto the table's surface, head supported by his right hand, and through his fingers he glanced at Satoru. It was probably the most tired look Yashiro had ever given to him. "37," he uttered, almost privily.

Satoru swallowed thickly. Thirty-seven lives taken by this man behind the transparent glass, thirty seven "scapegoats" planted, their chance for an ordinary existence severed and shredded to pieces, singlehandedly by this husk of a man, sitting in the prison robes with the corners of his lips quirked upwards slightly as he's staring at his proclaimed 'enemy', his ex-student, the one he admitted he can't live without.

You've murdered a number of my friends, sensei. But right now, I bear you no hatred. Satoru's own words he'd said up on that roof, flashed in his mind, words surely said on a whim, surely to buy some time, and even though by all means he must disown them, for the sake of those 37 that no longer get to see the light of day, something inside of him is not ready to. As much as he detests what Yashiro had done, he can't denounce his human nature. There's no doubt that there's still a speck of something redeemable about this man. Was it the fact that Yashiro, for his own unrecognizable reasons, decided to spare Satoru's life and let him live all these years? Or was it that obscure emotion — directed at Satoru, meant for Satoru — hidden deep within his dark terracotta eyes?

In this world, the only person who knows the real you...
And, somehow recognizing that he's the one to know Yashiro, on a level deeper than strings of text in the court's final sentence, and simultaneously having to bear with a certainty that this man's life will be brought to naught, felt that much dreadful and grievous on Satoru's part.

"Twenty-six," Yashiro suddenly spoke up, after minutes of silence, "were children."
The revolting chill, that went down Satoru's spine, was enough to snap him out of any hesitancy he might have had.

Yashiro is a child murderer. He showed no mercy for the little souls he blew out like wavering candlelights, so what he gets now, is similar in nature to a "return of his efforts".

"Were they all girls?"

"Yes, they were."

"Why is that?" Satoru asked, turning his eyes to a corner of the room on Yashiro's side. He didn't particularly want to know, but, if he got a reason to be repulsed at Yashiro's sight, maybe that irritable feeling would stagger to a halt.

Yashiro let out a long, heavy sigh before he spoke. "You know, most of my victims came out of pretty unfortunate places. Negligent parents, unstable homes—"

"Don't fucking give me that," Satoru harshly cut him off, voice raised above Yashiro's hushed rumble of speech. "'Killing them out of misery', don't even get started with that fucking excuse!"

The murderer's mouth froze parted as he stared at Satoru's exasperated stature, at the way his arms shot up to cross on his chest, at the way the young man glared at him with an outraged scowl; then Yashiro chuckled, almost fondly. "Sorry, Satoru. I didn't mean for it to sound like an 'excuse'. I just wanted to explain why I chose girls and not boys — because I felt sorry for them more. I couldn't care less if there was a little boy struggling. Though, I won't say that I was above that. If my victim were to be a boy, it would've been due to some specific circumstances."

"Like ruling yourself out of the suspect list?" Satoru's voice still didn't lack some edge, but at least he wasn't yelling anymore.

"I suppose, yeah. In any case, I always picked less fortunate kids because one, it was far more facile to frame someone for their demise, two — it was easier to get to them in the first place. If a girl was supervised by her parents properly, if she had many friends and was overall a healthy and 'full' member of society, I wouldn't even be able to get to such a girl in the first place. I always used peaceful killing methods, I didn't want them to suffer more than they already had—"

"Oh, please. You smashed Hiromi's head with a hammer," groused Satoru.

Yashiro tilted his head. "I don't recall killing a girl with the name 'Hiromi'. Did this happen in my last life?"

"Yes. But Hiromi is a boy. Along with Kayo, you've killed another one of my classmates, Hiromi Sugita."

"...to get myself off the suspects list. So that's what you meant. Yes, I suppose I would do that. In that case, there was a reason I used I violent method. I must've been imitating a murder out of passion. Sugita Hiromi-kun... If I'm recalling correctly, he was somewhat girly, right? If a 'perverted murderer who's after little girls' had mistaken him for one, he surely would lash out upon discovery, wouldn't he?... Are you following, Satoru?"

Satoru was giving Yashiro a stern look.

"Hey now... You've prevented that from ever happening, didn't you, Satoru? Ah, well. Even then, I apologize for killing your friend. You must've felt horrible. I'm sorry."

Satoru rolled his eyes. "Didn't you say that you don't care if there's a little boy struggling?"

"You are a special case, Satoru. It took me a while to come to terms with this conclusion; but as of now, thanks to you I'm no longer plagued by my inner need to execute. It had nothing to do with sexual frustrations, if you suspect that."

"I don't."

"I know. You know me too well to think that, don't you?"

Satoru's steam finally blew off, and he allowed himself to deflate, close his eyes and breathe steadily. Yashiro was— he was scandalizing, by all means, but thankfully he wasn't exhausting. Even after everything that's been revealed, Satoru still felt like they could talk. He decided not to dwell on it and just let it happen.

"So, will you answer some of my questions, in return?"

"Sure."

Such a fast reply from Satoru probably made the killer feel pleased. "How did you come back in time? Did you use a machine? Or is that your 'superpower'?"

At that, Satoru's eyes unclosed. He'd expected some question about death, like Yashiro inquiring about the ways he'd killed Kayo and others in 1988, or more details about Sachiko's death in 2006, yet, gratefully, Satoru's expectations were not met. Again.

"Ah, I— well..." Satoru faltered despite himself. "I guess it's a... thing, that used to happen to me sometimes." He wouldn't dare call it a super power for how embarrassing it felt to be associated with a "superhero". "I called it 'revival', because it always occurred to me after some kind of tragedy, most frequently death. I'd get taken back several minutes before that 'tragedy' and get a chance to fix it. Sometimes I did, other times I'd avoid it."

Satoru fell silent, recalling the events of nearly— how many years, exactly? Did the 15 years asleep even count? Yashiro said nothing, patiently waiting for his ex-student to continue, tapping soundlessly against his knuckles.

"This only started happening to me after Hiromi's death, come to think of it... Well, anyway, after I found mom's body I— I ran, and then I was taken back. Except instead of taking me five minutes before it, it took me to eighteen years before it."

Satoru blinked and felt like the transparent fog in his head brought up by the uneasy memories, faded away in an instant. These few seconds of recalling, he'd suddenly remembered bits and pieces of his old memory, the one where he attended middle school and high school normally, or when he saw a "million dollar sight" on a class trip to Hakodate, or his very first girlfriend whom confessed to him in 9th grade (did she count as his first anymore? or now Kayo did?). The memories of a time that never existed.

"You— you do believe me, right, sensei?" he suddenly said, feeling something in his gut churn at the prospect of Yashiro not believing it, his heart quickened its pace and he felt like he was able to hear his own blood flow in his head, until—

"I believe you, Satoru."

Satoru, who'd been previously staring at his fidgeting hands, looked up at Yashiro with clouded eyes and what he saw was the man smiling at him, earnestly, his gaze was warm and, by the way he looked, it was obvious that the mere thought of not believing Satoru had never crossed his mind. Utter trust practically radiated from his teacher.

First Satoru breathed out through his nose in relief, then shook his head, a bit bashfully. He couldn't contain the smile that spread his lips. "Even Kenya didn't believe me," he admitted, hoping that the waver of his voice wasn't identified by Yashiro.

"That's right," Yashiro nodded, eyes not leaving the sight of his student. "In this world, only I would believe you."

In this world only I know the real you.
Satoru thoroughly ignored the pang that heaved in his chest at sensei's words. Yet the emotions that spilled out of him, couldn't be stopped.

"Sometimes... Sometimes, I wonder if that other life of mine had really been real. Or if it was a dream I dreamt while being asleep. If my suffocated brain somehow fabricated all of it... It's— It gets lonely, just sometimes."

Yashiro exhaled softly, a sound barely audible, but Satoru picked it up nevertheless. It sounded gratified. "Satoru. Do you want to hear my favorite story from that book I mentioned?"

Satoru gawked at him.

"Do you?"

Yashiro was giving him his "reward". Satoru had won.

~

As it turned out, Yashiro knew the story by heart. It wasn't very long, but the way he retold it, maintaining a certain literary locution, phrasing everything very particularly, just the way intended; it felt like Yashiro had the book on his lap and was reading off of it. During the retelling he intently observed Satoru. His gaze didn't feel heavy, though.

Satoru knew the classic short story, as anyone else in this country knew it, but something about the way Yashiro retold it, perhaps the tone of his voice, gave Satoru an acute sense of deja vu.

"I've heard it from you before," Satoru remarked after the man behind the glass had finished.

Yashiro quirked his eyebrow. "Hm, and when exactly?"

"I—" the answer slipped out of his mind. He knew he did, but when, he couldn't recall. "Maybe back in my old life. Sixth grade, maybe? I can't remember."

Yashiro only hummed as a reply, seemingly connecting some dots in his head.

Satoru cleared his throat before his following question. "So that story is your favorite. Any reason why?"

Yashiro's eyes crinkled. "I read it in my elementary school years. Back then, I thought it was thought provoking. I wondered about it on my way from school to home. Thoughts like 'why would Buddha send a thread to him if he knew what would happen all along?' or 'did Kandata change as the result of this?'. I guess it's the one thing that kept me entertained for some time, hahaha."

Satoru made sure to note all the facts mentally in his head. It was the first time that Yashiro was speaking of something that is not ominous with true passion. Although— was it really as harmless as Satoru thought?

"You like the story because you can relate to it, right?"

Yashiro smirked innocently. "I guess you could say so."

"Do you think of yourself as that sinner?"

But at this question, his teacher sneered and tapped his finger several times, saying nothing.

Satoru sighed. Secrets. Right. If Satoru claimed to know Yashiro better than anybody else, he wouldn't have asked that in the first place.

"This story is meaningful to you."

"Very."

They stayed in silence for a few moments. It occurred to Satoru that he was out of things to say. All out of questions. Even though he still didn't know the deepest depths of Yashiro, all questions that were not already asked seemed unfit and misplaced.

"Hey, Satoru."

"What is it?" the younger man shifted in his seat a bit, now that he no longer had anything to say, it was apparent that he was getting uncomfortable in it. How long have they been talking, anyway?

Meanwhile, Yashiro leaned forward on the table, like trying to close the distance between them to talk about something secretive.

"Can you tell me something about yourself? Anything. I want to listen to you. Perhaps, something about your past. Or something that you feel like you want to tell me. After all," he paused and his eyes circled around the room, "I won't be around for much longer. This is the last time we meet."

Satoru really didn't want to face that truth but here it was — all bare and tender for Satoru to see. The person in front of him was a dead man. His ending was inevitable. Satoru knew death row took a while to be executed, but how long would it take, three more years, ten more years? Yashiro would receive his final punishment for taking these lives, and that would be that. No epilogue.

"Actually," Satoru said, "there is one thing. The one thing I can reveal to you and only you."

Sensei's eyes lit up. For him and only him. The ultimate desire, the ultimate thrill of his — to possess something all by himself with no one else to share — what in many ways brought him to commit these murders. It's been something he anticipated to have from Satoru for many years.

"I am listening."

Satoru's throat went dry. He realized he'd wanted a drink, from all this talking, he was closing up. But, not this time, this time he had to do it despite any inconveniences. He came here, for Kenya and Sawada-san and all the men imprisoned for Yashiro's crimes, but maybe, just for this one moment, he came here for himself. And for Yashiro, too.

Satoru leaned his arms on the table in front of him. It was hard to speak, somehow, because he felt that there's a knot stuck in his throat not letting any air in or out.

Yashiro simply waited, eyes keen on Satoru and Satoru only.

"It started when I first went to my evening classes in 2004. I needed to get re-educated, of course, even if I'd already went through normal school in my previous life, in this one I still had to make up for the fifteen years I'd lost in sleep.

"Everything was fine, but then I saw a man. I only saw his figure, at the back of the class, he was staring out the window, back turned to everyone else. I assumed he was one of the students. But, of course it's not what I really thought, not initially. He was wearing a black suit, and I thought, he might be the teacher. I thought so, because he reminded me of you."

Satoru saw sensei's hand clench behind the glass. He held back an urge to smirk — he knew what Yashiro had assumed just then, it felt funny, for the real continuation was so much more complex than "a case of sugar replacing tobacco", but Satoru enjoyed that sensation which reminded him of being eleven again, messing with an adult who thinks he knows everything in advance.

So he made a pause.

"The man was standing there, unmoving. When the real teacher came in — an old and gruff man, Takayama-sensei, a very good teacher indeed — it was when he arrived did I stare directly at the spot where your look-alike had been.

"But it was empty."

Idly, Satoru began to fiddle with the bottom part of the glass that separated them. He traced it incoherently with his finger, like he was drawing something on a steamy window.

"It wasn't possible for him to leave, because I saw both doors and nobody came out, only in. I was scared that he might've jumped out when no one noticed — to think that I was hoping for a revival to take me back to double check — but I didn't see him for the rest of the evening.

"All I saw was his back, and he reminded me so much of you, for no real reason, maybe it was the shape of his shoulders; but in a way, I felt threatened and scared that you might have escaped prison. A silly thought, I know. I convinced myself that I was imagining things.

"But then I saw 'him' again. On my way home, in the train. This time I caught sight of him with a corner of my eye, and it was so scary that I almost fell back, but when I looked directly, no one was there."

Satoru saw Yashiro's hand unclench slowly. He was beginning to understand.

"It happened again in a few weeks. And again, later. And again. I was seeing him in the reflections of the windows, in the crowds of people near Chiba station, on the water surfaces and behind the trees and falling leaves. I was seeing you.

"Never clearly, though, only faintly, that's how I knew it was a hallucination rather than some creep following me dressed up like you. I recognized the hairstyle, it was just like the one you had in 1988, my sensei's hairstyle, and sometimes I saw a glimpse of a red tie, that's how I definitely knew it was you from all those years ago as opposed to your Nishizono self.

"At first it scared me, and I hated that this was happening to me, but in the following years I got used to it. At times, I even anticipated for you to show up. Crazy, isn't it?"

Satoru let out half a chuckle, still poking the glass with his finger, as if clawing at it to disappear.

"Your 'ghost' was following me, especially in places where I had to be without my friends or my mom. It became comforting, eventually. Knowing that I wasn't alone. Knowing that there's somebody near me, boring his eyes into the back of my head at all times. It's— It's fucked up, isn't it?

"But it stopped. After you, the real you, resurfaced last year, I stopped seeing your ghost. So when Kenya offered, I knew I had to come. I knew I had to see you and make sure that you're still real. That you— That I—"

Satoru stilled his hand and for the first time looked up at the face of his teacher.

Yashiro's eyes were enraptured.

He was looking at Satoru like he just saw a divine creature offering him salvation.

Like he just saw a spider's thread, descending to him from Heaven.

"Sensei?"

Yashiro's hand slowly reached for Satoru's behind the window. His fingertips barely brushed against the glass, not really touching, but still there.

"Satoru!"

His voice was wet with awe, or some kind of other unrecognizable emotion, and his eyes, shiny like never before, smiled at Satoru.

"You wouldn't believe it, you surely wouldn't..." he shook his head, blinking off whatever bleariness that lingered in his eyes, turning his gaze back on Satoru sharp as ever. Nearly red. "Would you believe me if I told you... That I have experienced just the same?"

A soft ah noise hitched in Satoru's throat halfway through.

"When you fell in a coma, Satoru. After your mother moved you to Chiba, at first I'd pondered moving elsewhere. Forgetting you until the day you'd wake up. But when I began teaching again, planning to murder someone again... In the classroom, I saw you, Spice!

"I thought it was just some child in the same clothes. Yet I couldn't look directly at him. Only with my peripheral vision would I see you, Spice, in the school's hallways, or on a field track, in the far away sceneries, through the fierce snow. You were following me, as well.

"For fifteen years your childlike figure lingered somewhere near me. It urged me to go towards you. That's why I no longer wished to kill other children. My true victim was you.

"But when I couldn't kill you after you woke up, I'd revisited all my memories, connected it with the things you'd said to me up on that roof, and I realized. The vision of you was a way for my heart to remind me of what I am lacking. You filled the hole in my heart. And I was seeing you, because my heart begged for you.

"And even here, imprisoned, I could see you. No longer a child, but a young man in hospital robes, always somewhere behind the corner, following the steady rhythm of inmates walking, looking at me with those eyes of yours."

The eyes that were looking only at me.

Yashiro chuckled, nearly mirroring Satoru's own sound he made not long ago. "You repeated my thoughts exactly." Ah, so Satoru said it out loud.

They stared at each other, hands close but still separated, and Satoru let all of it sink in. He couldn't believe it. No, he didn't want to believe it. It was so bittersweet that he felt he would retch if he tried to swallow it.

His heart, with that gaping hole inside of it, beat loudly in frail attempts to reach across for the one that was never supposed to etch himself in it. His 'enemy'. His ex-teacher. The one he couldn't live without.

"Why Spice?" he asked in a breathless voice. "I can swear I've heard that nickname before."

"But of course," replied the equally strained one, "that's what I called you whenever I talked to the sleeping you."

~

Chapter Text

Satoru's inherent reaction, was of course, denial.

After having a whiff of fresh, nonstale air, the translucent haze of uncertain longing, peeled off from him just like a candy wrapper.

Or, more precisely, it happened the second Satoru caught a glimpse of Kenya's warm brown eyes, deep concern hidden in them, asking soundlessly are you okay?

"Twenty-six children," he muttered hoarsely and struggled to get away from these walls, from that presence, from his own feelings.

In his mind's eye there was an image of all the people he'd saved, the people who were happy now, for whom he presented a town where he was missing, and, by all means, they should have been enough.

They are the ones filling the hole inside his fragile heart. They are the ones giving him encouragement, living and breathing for him, being happy for him. Not Yashiro.

No. No more of that, he told himself. That name was forbidden, from now on. He would think of him no more. He would refuse to accept that the "ghost" had been real, too. Anything in relation to that man was better off forgotten. That's what Satoru decided.

He would seal away this day and the memories of it. It would be the right thing to do. It was either that, or—

Something Satoru wasn't sure he was ready to face ever again.

~

When Satoru opened his apartment door on the March 2nd, he fully expected to get showered in glitter and streamers as a "surprise" plotted by Airi, who had proudly received a copy of his keys about half a year ago.

What he didn't expect, was to see Satoru's most precious treasures, cheering on in the cramped apartment of his.

"Happy birthday, Satoru!"

Kayo was there, Hiromi was there, their son Mirai as well; Kenya came over too.

"Katagiri-san contacted me and we decided to hold a little party for you and Hina right here," Kenya, who'd still occasionally call Kayo by this nickname, explained. "Here's a little something from me," he handed a rectangular, book-sized present wrapped in blue paper, "and here's from Sawada-san." The second present was paper-thin, an envelope.

"Thank you," Satoru said earnestly.

When he came over to Hinazuki (now Sugita, but Satoru could never get used to her family name), tears welled up in his eyes, he hoped they wouldn't spill in front of everybody. "Happy birthday to you too, Kayo."

"What's with the water works, Satoru? 'Are you stupid?'" She laughed, and Satoru followed suit, wiping his eyes.

Eight-year-old Mirai, who was hiding behind his mother's back (he was a somewhat timid kid, his attitude resembled Hiromi's and Kayo's childhood personalities) offered Satoru a big box, a present from all of their family. "Happy birthday, Satoru-san," he said, eyes averted, eyelashes long.

"Thank you, everybody."

Then Airi came out from her "hiding spot", carrying a huge brown home-baked cake, heartwarming words written on it with white frosting.

They ended up eating it in the kitchen, somewhat crowded, but still cozily, and even used Satoru's laptop to video-call his mother in Hokkaido.

Sachiko was all tears and words of gratitude, she congratulated both her dearest son and Kayo broadly.

It was the day when Satoru's "happiest moment" had updated for the first time since February, as reluctant as he was to admit the importance of that encounter from a month before.

In a way, he was glad to move on from it.

In the evening he finally got his hands on his presents — a Thomas Harris novel from Kenya, an electric water boiler from the Sugita family with a drawing that depicted Satoru in a superhero costume from Mirai (he made sure to attach it to the fridge with magnets), a lover's omamori talisman from Airi (she'd slipped it bashfully to Satoru when nobody was looking — her "official" present was the cake) and a letter from Sawada-san.

"Dear Satoru,

"I have been familiar with your mother for the longest time, I suppose I know her rather well, and that is why I can say with absolute assurance — you are truly deserving to be the part of the Fujinuma family. Your courage in the latest years, and the sacrifice you had to endure all by yourself prove that so.

I have spent years and years trailing after the Ishikari Killer, and yet thanks to you and only you, we have managed to capture him. I would not suggest that the years of life you have lost for this are truly redeemed, for it is up to you to decide, but the success we've had is tremendous nevertheless.

Eighteen (18) convicts for the Ishikari Killer's murders are set to be released on the shortest notice. Trials of two (2) individuals are still in process, undoubtedly, they will be vindicated. Thirteen (13) more were already walking free of charge — those who had already served time for the crimes they didn't commit, at last their names are clear. As for three (3) more victims — there were no convicts, due to the fact that their deaths were orchestrated to look like suicides, or a death of natural causes.

Convict Nishizono worked willingly with the investigators. He was very cooperative in the hearings and in the court. The statements and additional evidence he provided were all proven to be corresponding. Currently, Nishizono Manabu is a convict on death row in Tokyo prison. Due to the abolishment of the statute of limitations in the year 2010 (Heisei 22), all accusations that might've been invalid, no longer lack accountability.

All of this was accomplished in consequence of your involvement. Thank you, Satoru. Thanks to you, the justice is restored. The innocent are free and the responsible are charged. You have my gratitude. Happy birthday.

Best wishes,

Sawada Makoto"

The taste that was left in Satoru's mouth after reading this heartfelt letter from his mother's friend and ex-colleague, didn't exactly match the fulfillment he should have experienced right away.

He sat back and stared out the window, the same one he broke in a faraway timeline over some petty argument with his mother. All he could see beyond, was the darkness of the early Spring's sky, and himself, in the reflection, completely alone.

~

"Hey, Satoru-kun."

He blinked down at the voice calling from beside him, seeing black dots dancing all over the place from staring at the bright sky.

"Oi, I told you not to call me that."

She giggled. "But I am older than you!"

She always says that.

"You always say that."

Airi Katagiri flashed a bright smile, exuberant as ever. "Come on, cheer up!" she emphasized her words with a flail of her half-melted popsicle in Satoru's direction.

"Eh? I wasn't feeling down at all though," Satoru said as he stared indifferently at his own vanilla cone. "Just... wondering about things."

She made a playful exasperated groan, and jumped up from the bench they were sitting on, the camera hanging from her neck dangled slightly. "Then don't! It's your day off, we're here to have fun! Let's go on some more rides. Oh, the ferris wheel!"

She grabbed his hand and urged him to stand up and follow. "What's the fun in riding a slow rotating carriage?" he asked with a small smile.

Airi smirked mischievously, "I'll show you."

Satoru felt his cheeks flare up. He squeezed Airi's hand back, discarding the unwanted ice cream when they passed a trash bin. Just for a second, he glanced at the row of people standing in line for one of the rides in the amusement park, but on this heated July day, none of them happened to be wearing a black blazer.

~

Such days when Satoru was free to do whatever he pleased were rather scarce though. As a mangaka, he had to endure a tremendous amount of work.

Every single day, no weekends, barely any holidays, it was work, work, work. And, Satoru loved it, of course, drawing manga was just about the one thing he could do and would do, any day, any time.

He'd been in the industry ever since he was capable of taking care of himself, practiced since his hand was strong enough to hold a pen. He had been first published in 2006 in Shounen Flight, and he did everything back then, the storyboard, sketching, inking.

Now, after getting an anime adaptation for his debut, he was able to hire assistants. He immediately began fulfilling his next project, and everything went off without a hitch, for three years, every single day, with barely any day-offs, he was working, working, working, seven issues released, and then, something extraordinary happened.

"Fujinuma-sensei, I'm afraid this isn't meeting the publisher's expectations."

Urata-san, his editor, said so one morning when Satoru came up to bring in the monthly chapter for the eighth issue.

"Eh?"

"I don't intend to sound demeaning, sensei, but I've noticed some... changes, in your usual style, is all. I kept silent, thinking it was just my poor judgment, but then the reader ratings came up..."

Satoru tried this approach, that approach; revised the storyboard, changed a few things, yet he couldn't understand what it was that seemed wrong. Eventually he gave up trying to fix something that — according to his judgment — was not broken and submitted the last of chapters.

The editor called to the office the very next day.

"Fujinuma-sensei, you know I adore you, and your style, and the way you—"

"Please get to the point, Urata-san," Satoru said tiredly.

"Alright. So the eighth issue..." The man at the end of the line sighed. "Don't get me wrong, the art style is as good as always, the details are just fine, but how should I put it...

"'It's not enough.'"

The familiarity in these deafening words was striking.

"What do you mean..?" he asked coldly, finger tapping idly against the receiver.

And then Urata-san told him. It was amazing how people tended to pick up the exact same words as they had in the timelines they hadn't lived through. This timeline's Urata-san was always nice, friendly, bubbly. He wasn't the sly, faceless editor of Satoru's very first 2006, the one that told him cruelly: "You're twenty-nine? Are you really doing well in the manga world?"

And yet now, maybe without mockery in his tone, he was reiterating: "It just doesn't express itself well enough. Like the characters' feelings or the story's emotional trajectory, in other words — something is lacking. You have to put more of yourself into it."

"Like you did in your previous work!" he added. "I just can't see your face in this one."

Satoru could've said I'm sorry, I don't know what went wrong. Satoru could've said I'm sorry, I'll do my best to fix everything. Satoru could've said I get it, I know I should dig deep into my heart, but I can't. I'm afraid that I'll find out something unpleasant about myself if I do that.

"We've worked our hardest all this time, and you're telling me it's not enough? Really, Urata-san?" he said instead, venom lacing his voice. Protectively.

"Sensei—"

"No, let me speak first, would you? Me and the guys, we— We've put our all into it, these past months, hunched over our desks ten hours a day, pulling out everything from ourselves to put on the paper, and you're saying 'it doesn't express itself well'?"

"Fujinuma-sensei, you don't have to be angry about it, the work will be published all the same but—"

"Good, I'm glad it will, thank you deeply for not throwing hours and days and months of work into trash at the last minute!..."

"—but the way I see it, your work still needs improving, because the readers need a compassionate story that leaves an impression on their soul, or else we won't sell enough issues, and I'm afraid the contract with you will have to be put on hold!"

Satoru slammed the handset down onto the holder. Fuming, he looked around, seeing his two assistants (currently working on the cover for the newest volume) peek out from their tables coyly.

"It's okay, everyone, keep up the good work," Satoru said in a somewhat shaky voice. He held his wrist so that his finger, still tapping impatiently against the table, stilled.

When he turned to the pieces of uneven sketches scattered across his work table, the phone rang again.

"What now?" he barked into it rather unprofessionally. He was completely sure it couldn't have been anyone but his unspeakable editor, but spite drained out of his voice when he heard who it was. "Oh, Airi."

"Jeez, Satoru, am I calling at a wrong time?" the girl's voice was dripping with concern, but Satoru could swear he heard a little bit of sarcasm somewhere in there. Maybe he was imagining things.

"No, but, well, yeah. Why are you calling the work phone?"

Satoru overheard one of the assistants whisper to the other: "His girlfriend." His finger just about began tapping again, but he focused the anxious energy to go somewhere else, and began rocking his leg up and down instead.

"You weren't answering your regular phone, so I thought, hey, I should call your work phone, what if you left it in the bag and can't hear, so..." Airi said.

"Of course I did. I put it in a silent mode for a reason, you know?" Satoru replied.

There were a few seconds of silence on the end of the line. It felt like a little victory, until Airi spoke up, of course. "Why are you acting this way? What did I do?"

"Nothing. Look, it's just some work stuff. I'll talk to you after."

"Wait, are you okay?"

Satoru sighed. "I'm fine."

"Well, I was meaning to ask, um." She paused and Satoru could just feel the way something arose in him, that blistering energy he felt more and more frequently these days. "I want to do something today. Just you and me. After work, maybe? I miss you, you know, I thought now that you've finished your latest manga volume we could like, have a date, celebrate?" By the end of the sentence Airi's voice turned small. She was sometimes like that, acting all shyly when it came to acknowledging being a "couple", no trace of her usual boisterous self.

But why today, of all days? Satoru and Airi discussed many times, that when it comes to "work", they give each other "space", because it so happens, they both work in their most passionate and beloved fields, so they agreed to not bother each other when they were busy.

And the situation Satoru found himself in, clearly needed full dedication in order to be solved as quickly as possible. There was no time for "dating" or much less "celebration".

"I'm sorry," he said. "Something came up, so I have to stay overtime for today." The vicarious vibrancy sizzling somewhere in the middle of him, soothed out, recognizing that it still wasn't the right time to burst.

Airi was all "oh it's fine" and "I hope you figure things out" and "if something changes just call me, okay?"

When he put the phone down, he noticed the way both his assistants tensed in their chairs.

"Don't worry guys," he said. "The one staying overtime today will only be me. You're free whenever you finish."

One of his assistants, the less reserved one, seemingly relaxed in relief. "Thanks, Fujinuma-sensei."

Satoru nodded, turning back to the faulty sketches, inwardly shushing the feeling that arose its head at the mention of that honorific.

~

Satoru came home next morning, having slept through night at the office, pencil stains still on his cheek after blacking out right on top of his sketches.

What he found immediately after entering, was curry on his dinner table, served for two. His first thought was, mom couldn't have come here all the way from Hokkaido without telling me, then he noticed how the rice and the sauce have dried out, and he realized it was supposed to be yesterday's dinner.

In his bedroom he found Airi, fully dressed and sitting huddled on the floor by the wall, with TV turned on. He didn't even need to shake her awake, because she opened her sleepy eyes almost right after he entered.

"Satoru..."

"Airi, I—"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but when I called you, I was already here, cooking, and I..." She started crying. "I wanted to surprise you I-I guess, and I didn't know that—"

Automatically, Satoru kneeled before her and hugged her head close to his chest, petting her hair, whispering tiny it's okay's, listening to her attempts to explain what she didn't even have to in the first place.

"I guess you forgot, but yesterday, ah, it was our 'anniversary', I guess... We met three years ago, remember?"

The anniversary of their meeting, of course. Airi always insisted that this should be the date people celebrate, instead of celebrating the day of becoming a couple. After all, "a relationship", in all connotations of the word, starts developing on the day you first meet. That's what she always believed in. Or "wanted" to believe.

She always pushed her beliefs, her little rituals and her quirks onto him. Never compliant, always had to have it her way. The qualities that always inspired Satoru, now all of a sudden made him fume.

But no matter how much he wanted to release that baseless fury, he knew it wasn't the right thing to do. He let parts of it slip through the cracks, and here's where he ended up because of that recklessness. On the rocks. He let himself snap. It was his own fault. So he ignored the anger gnawing at him once and for all, and focused on comforting Airi as best as he could, with promises and empty I'm sorry's.

"Satoru..." she whispered, and he could feel the syllables go right through his chest, like there was nothing there to stop them.

~

...It's not that Satoru didn't know where this distant behavior was stemming from. He'd lived for too long — that is, long enough to at least be aware of his own feelings.

This timeline that he'd managed to create with the power of his own will and courage, appeared to be "the true one", or so he had convinced himself. A timeline with no revivals, not even small ones that used to happen during little tragedies — road accidents, house fires, a maniac leading a girl away — as if they were not happening. No oddities to thwart Satoru's peace. A timeline a bit too perfect to be true.

And in an ideal version of his life, he naturally had to pose as an ideal version of himself.

"I can't see your true face", that was right. In his previous life, the life of solitude, he'd been told the same thing. He couldn't express himself well because the feelings, emotions and certain memories, had been locked away deep down at the bottom of his empty heart.

He had been merely pretending to express them. And now, in this new existence, in a constant stream of pleasant sentiments  leading him forward with no disturbances, it became the case once again.

He came back to the habits of his "old self", gradually. "If I keep on acting, I'll become real some day," was what he told himself. What else was he supposed to do? Was it his fault, that even in this seemingly perfect world, his emptiness couldn't be quenched?

Perhaps, something in the core of him had been wrong all along.

In order to maintain a steady and "full" existence, to keep his work, his friends, his girlfriend, he had to be what he was not. So he held back and swallowed any inner "oddity" that threatened the outer "peace".

Yet with that, something inside of him built up bit by bit. With that, birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations, meetings, — all turned into a mush of meaningless events.

But it was easy to pretend they weren't. And on the brighter side — it was amazing just how futile things like conflicts became with that.

He made up with Airi, and moreso, their relationship improved. She promised to be more considerate, he promised it back, their mutual trust was regained and eventually, Airi started making hints about moving in together.

Nearly the same thing happened in his workplace. Urata-san apologized for being harsh, encouraged Satoru to keep up the hard work, and even said that the "new approach" could actually be just what the manga needed.

As long as his act was convincing enough, everything could easily click back into place. As long as everyone else was happy. He had created this world for them, not for himself.

He'd sacrificed 15 years spending them asleep, seeing dreams for everyone's sake. Now he was living a dream — a dream that felt like a lie sometimes, for how flawless it was.

He was a manga artist, as he had always wanted. He was going out with the most inspiring, extraordinary, odd but endearing girl. Everyone (nearly so) in his life have found solace. Even if his own routine consisted mostly of work, he was glad to have it.

If he wasn't working — he was with Airi. They'd go to parks, out to the streets, at times they'd even travel to the farthest ends of the city — all so that Airi could always snap pictures of her sky. She liked climbing trees or sneaking on rooftops, anything to capture the best shots. Satoru accompanying her was a nice replacement for exercise — his own workplace required sitting hunched over the table a lot, and doctors suggested him to move around more. That, and he got to spend time with his girlfriend too.

Their relationship, however, appeared —at least to most people— pretty innocent. They were more like best friends; always going somewhere on "adventures", hand in hand, Airi leading the way, like a pair of kids playing some sort of a game.

They had a "hideout", too. It was Satoru's apartment — where Airi would unfetter, where she'd become gentle and more ladylike. Despite that, Satoru still never considered himself to be "in control". By showing her vulnerable side, Airi empowered herself — at least that's how Satoru always interpreted it. But he didn't mind too much. It felt awkward not to let her lead the way.

Satoru was willing to be led by those he owed his life to. He chose to let them lead him on, yet Airi wasn't the only "leader" that he abided. Such as, when Satoru wasn't with Airi or working, he'd go out with his friends.

It had happened once every three months or so. Satoru, Kenya and Hiromi would all find a day off in their packed schedules to hang out at a bar.

They'd talk about the same things — family and job of course, sometimes they'd reminisce the past. (There were plenty years in-between Satoru's hospitalization and now to talk about, yet Satoru still felt the strain in his chest when memories from his non-existent high school experience would come up in his mind. Moreso due to Hiromi never being present in any of them.)

They never discussed the events of 1988 though. As much as Satoru liked to think it was a beginning of a true decades-long friendship, it was also a very sensitive topic. No one wanted to make Satoru uncomfortable. (Of course it wouldn't hurt him, he'd actually kinda like to talk about it, sometimes he felt like bursting with how much he wanted to talk about it.)

Every three months or so Satoru got his remedy. A balsam to his soul. An occasion which allowed to reunite with the people who were there, who knew what he'd been through, who proved his existence worthy. (The voice inside of him that hissed: they weren't there, they don't know anything, they haven't seen the real picture, was promptly curbed each time.)

Hearing about Sugita family, about Mirai, about Hiromi, Kayo and their newborn, made Satoru's days full of people who didn't know the real him, seem a bit more bearable. (The real me, that voice would murmur breathlessly, longingly.)

Urging Kenya to finally settle with Misato — who was a prosecutor and has met up with Kenya quite a few times — hearing him bashfully dismiss it, gave Satoru an illusion that there was still something beautiful to look forward to, that these aimless days weren't the end of it.

~

On an evening when the horizon was colored like honey and peaches, Satoru walked, a bit tipsy, towards another future where he existed.

There were some things worthy of looking forward to, like coming home to see Airi again — he knew she'd be there, even though they hadn't agreed on meeting up — spending a calm time watching a late night TV show with her, her comments and the show's host and the audience's laughter the only sounds hectic enough to keep him awake; fooling around under covers with her when it's dark enough (only when it's dark, never when their faces are visible) then dozing off, her presence gone fast in the morning because of her desire to capture Venus in the inky purple sky. You know — the little things.

Knowing ahead of what's to come, as if he really could see the future, he plodded along, his gait neither brisk nor bouncy. Perhaps the few shots of saké he downed earlier and the Indian summer were responsible for the shuffle of his feet, the heat in his cheeks and the shortness of breath. Perhaps he felt a lack of oxygen, perhaps that was the cause of that unbearable swell in his chest, perhaps he wanted to cool off and take a breather. Satoru stopped abruptly at a convenience store entrance, the one that he passed every day on his way home, and turned on his heels to face it. He felt compelled to go in, unnaturally so, and he did, but not before looking behind his shoulder — no one was there on the pavement behind him. He was not being followed. The automatic doors slid open with a jovial sound.

"Welcome," muttered a bored clerk. It took a second for the AC to freshen Satoru up. Not only that — the environment pulled him out of a haze. Walking in, he had no intention to purchase anything whatsoever, yet in an instant he knew exactly what he wanted, so he headed straight toward the most familiar aisle — the bento fridge in particular. He used to buy these meals every day sometime ago. Now there was no need to — Airi enjoyed cooking for him. As much as he loved homemade meals, a part of him (that one misplaced and tilted part) still missed the processed taste.

Scratching his cheek, Satoru picked up a single okaka onigiri and went to the cash register. Just this once, he convinced himself. Just this once he'd violate the rule he'd encased himself in. For better or worse, he would let himself remember the old times.

When he approached the counter, something sitting atop it caught his eye. A cardboard stand displayed a variety of colorful lollipops — red, green, yellow, orange, pink and purple; shaped like hearts, stars, animal heads or plain flat circles — semitransparent like stained glass, and so, so familiar.

Satoru stared and before the sentence fully formed in his head he blurted: "Can I take all of these?"

The clerk looked at Satoru and his single onigiri, then at the suckers, then back at Satoru. Perhaps he thought him funny, yet still he grabbed a handful of sticks and started counting.

In a slightly ragged, forceful motion Satoru unzipped his shoulder bag. He reached past a sketchbook which he carried around for practicing (he haven't touched it for a while) and retrieved his wallet.

He soon discovered that he was definitely short on coins. Satoru glanced at the clerk, who patiently counted all the lollies, and couldn't bring himself to tell him that he changed his mind.

The clerk almost rolled his eyes after getting a five thousand banknote and opened the cash register to get the change. Satoru began to stuff his bag full of lollipops, regret for the abrupt purchase building up inside.

He received three one thousand yen bills and some coins. As he was about to put them into his wallet, one bill in particular stood out for it's strange color. Satoru flinched when he felt its slightly crusty texture on his fingers. His gut sank when he saw Noguchi Hideyo's printed face colored in dark crimson.

...It surely must have been irony. An ironic twist of fate to get something like this back for a bunch of candies, tokens associated with one of the worst people to have been born in the Shōwa era.

Satoru put other change in his wallet, but pocketed the off color bill. He ate the onigiri on his way home, thinking that the ominous banknote and the sweets should stay a secret.

~

Without any doubt, at a certain point and time Satoru had fully become an "adult" — both in the minds of others and in his own, and yet, paradoxically, for the first time ever he had discovered something that most people knew by the time they were toddlers.

Sugar was addicting.

Perhaps it had to do with the way Sachiko had raised him — although she pampered him, she in no way endorsed a voracious consumption of sweets, opting to spoil him with "things" instead, like those McGregor gloves that he always begged for, or Wonder Guy merchandise: figurines, utensils, you name it. Sugar wasn't absent from Satoru's childhood, but it was more of a "treat for a special occasion" rather than a consistency.

As such, he hadn't developed a dependency on it growing up. He preferred his drinks unsweetened and when it came to confectionery, something more plain in taste, like almonds coated in dark chocolate.

That had changed ever since he started binge buying lollipops.

It was an impulse. Each and every time. Each and every time he walked into convenience stores, he promised himself he wouldn't make imprudent purchases; each and every time he had a bunch of candies shoved in his bag.

So he started eating them. First on his way home from work. Never at home, never in front of Airi. He didn't want her to question it, or rather — he didn't want to have to answer, should he be questioned. Before it turned into an addiction he considered it to be something trivial, something not even worth fussing over.

Predictably, consuming them only on his way home was not enough. At some point he had ended up possessing a surplus of suckers — he would consider giving them away to some kids if he weren't so disgusted at the mental image of doing so — clearly, he should've thrown them away. But how could he? After all, they were so... Tempting.

It wasn't even their taste that Satoru liked the most. It was the feeling of hard candy against his tongue. Something swelling his cheek, mellowing it, melting in his mouth, his saliva pooling... Being aware of it. His oral cavity, as well as his mind, both occupied. A preventive measure against intrusive thoughts.

Eventually he started sucking on lollipops while at work. His assistants didn't question nor mind it, in fact they gladly accepted whenever Satoru generously offered handfuls of candies on sticks.

Which led to an another discovery, moreso a reminder. People liked small treats.

He recalled those instances in his childhood, when one kid would pull out a pack of gum and suddenly get surrounded by his peers, all begging for their share. That kid, if only for a little while, gained some semblance of common "control".

The same trick worked on adults just as well. Satoru started casually offering candies to his co-workers, to his editor and his co-workers, to fellow manga authors and their assistants, to fans that managed to recognize him out on the streets, even to the people who remembered him only as "miracle man-child SF-kun". Any acquaintance and friend who had not been involved in the 1988 case, was entitled to their share of candy.

It's not hard to understand what Satoru got addicted to. Somewhere along the line, others' smiles and little whispers he'd heard (imagined?) behind his back — what a nice guy! — became far more tempting than the sugary taste and the smooth texture of his lollipops.

That could've been it. If the happiness of his closest people couldn't fill him all the way, then maybe, spreading such simplistic joy could.

That was until the day he met Kumi-chan.

They ran into each other completely randomly. She was 21 — a young thriving university student, all smiley and curious like a cat. Her long beautiful light hair was proof enough of her well-being, but Satoru had asked her anyway, out of courtesy — they haven't kept in touch for years.

"The only fatigue I experience nowadays is from schoolwork," she replied. "But I'm the happiest I've ever been!" that, of course, she was. "I've read your manga, Satoru-san! It's amazing!"

A bashful smile and a wave of his palm — a gesture he perfected after years of those same exact words regurgitated by every single distant friend or close acquaintance.

In the midst of a rainy season, dark cumulonimbus was gathering in the sky. Miraculously, they happened to come across each other during their free time. If this wasn't fate, then what was it?

They went on a little trip down the memory lane in the nearest café. Kumi-chan told all about her life leading up to this point, and Satoru gladly followed suit. They looked so perfect in that moment: Kumi playing with the straw of her beverage, riant and ripe, laughing at little titbits of Satoru's story as he flourished his arms for visual clarity; they looked like a pair of really close friends despite their prolonged separation from one another, and Kumi definitely thought of Satoru as a "friend she could respect".

Satoru's order was a small cappuccino in which he poured four small packs of sugar, and by the time he was done drinking it, he found himself craving the savory taste of pizza.

As they were about to wrap up, the rain began to pitter patter against the outside of the bay window.

"Ah," Satoru gasped. "I don't have my umbrella."

"No worries!" Kumi reassured. "We can walk under mine."

And so they did. Their shoulders kept bumping into one another as downpour rapped against her magenta umbrella, they laughed, and the walk towards the closest convenience store seemed eternal.

"Here we are!" Kumi said after Satoru hid from the rain near the entrance. Drops of water were sliding off the sleek umbrella surface. "What a shower! Well, I'll be going this way. It was nice to catch up, Satoru-san."

Satoru had a mischievous thought just then. "Please, Kumi-chan, just call me 'Satoru'. We're technically coevals, aren't we?"

"Oh yeah, you're actually right!" she said.

"I'm glad we met today. Let's go out again sometime, yeah?"

"Sure thing. Until then, Satoru-sa— I mean, Satoru!"

Reflexly, Satoru reached inside his bag and fished out a lollipop. "Here, have a candy, Kumi."

It's then when her smile froze on her face. She looked at Satoru's extended hand with such weird eyes, expression unchanged, but losing in sincerity in some way. "Ah— Thanks!..." she took the lolly and Satoru noticed the tremble in her fingers. That's when his face fell as well. "Well, goodbye," Kumi said as she turned around and began leaving in a fast pace.

Satoru stood there looking at her back and her flowy fair hair, at her tense shoulders and the tight grip she now had on her umbrella handle. He turned around as well and entered into the doors that opened for him.

"Welcome!" said an overly eager convenience store clerk.

The rack with clear plastic umbrellas was right there, near the entrance. Satoru eyed it and then glanced at the counter top where the cash register was. They were there. Waiting for him. Calling him. Tempting him. Satoru felt sick to his stomach.

He left the store just like that, without buying anything. Chilly rain drops hit him instantly, soaking his shirt through, spattering his glasses. He walked fast through the torrent, realization of what he'd done sinking in and tearing his insides apart.

It'd completely, stupidly slipped Satoru's mind, but she knew him. Kumi-chan knew that man, the man whom she trusted, the man who attempted to kill her, the man who casually gave her lollipops.

Satoru knew that blank, frozen, confused expression. It was the same expression that he saw on his own face, reflected in the window of his attempted murderer's car.

Without realizing it, with his careless gesture, Satoru had reminded her, had triggered a memory that should've stayed buried and forgotten.

No, not just that. For the first time he was faced with the truth — something that he always knew but chose to ignore — that he himself had become the man who offered candies on sticks.

Under merciless deluge of rain, he dumped the contents of his bag into a muddy ditch. Alongside the pile of lollipops, his umbrella which he had concealed from Kumi, fell out.

That very same day, when it was already dark out, he came home carrying a square flat box.

"I'm back," Satoru called out.

"Welcome!" he heard his girlfriend's voice reply from within his apartment. "O-o-oh, what's that smell?"

He placed the box next to the laptop on which Airi was editing her photos.

"You brought pizza!" she sounded excited, but kept her eyes on the screen as she removed noise from a snapshot of a cumulonimbus. "What's the occasion?"

"I just wanted to treat you," he said. "Remember how we used to—" he cut off.

"Used to what?"

"Nevermind," he said and went to wash his hands in the restroom.

When he came back, Airi closed the photo editing software, pushed the laptop away and leered at the pizza box. "Oh! It's Oasi Pizza! I used to work there part-time in high school, did I ever tell you?" she opened the box, releasing the warm steam and the mouthwatering smell. "Pepperoni and veggies! It's my favorite!"

She turned to face Satoru, and her hand flew up to her mouth. "Satoru! Oh my god! What happened to you?"

He looked down at himself, at his slightly damp and sully clothes. "Oh, that? I was caught in the rain. Nothing to worry about. I'll go change—"

"I'll get the bath ready!" she sprung up and ran towards the bathroom. "Jeez, Satoru! Why didn't you go home right away? You'll get sick!" she yelled at him from over there. "And did you buy pizza while looking like this?"

While she was busy, Satoru swiped a pizza slice and stuffed it in his face.

She came back into the room. "With the way you're wolfing it down, I'm surprised you didn't eat it on the way over here!"

Satoru smiled sheepishly. He never thought he missed that line.

Airi sat by his side, took a slice and bit it. She kept scolding him in a caring way even as she chewed.

"...but still, thanks for buying this pizza. I kinda missed it," she admitted.

The mood shifted as she began telling anecdotes from her part-time job, eating slice after slice. The distant sound of the bathtub filling up, her voice and the scent of pizza. Satoru took in every detail.

He leaned on his cheek, watching her munch eagerly, observed her elated expression, her carefree body language, her energy and vigor. He compared all of her features to that of Kumi's earlier today, and imagined a world where Kumi didn't give him that look, where she didn't rencounter Satoru in the first place, where she remained as content and optimistic as Airi was now.

But that reality couldn't be wished into existence. For the first time, Satoru's perfect, "true" timeline had gained a single thin fissure.

~

Chapter Text

On one particular day, Satoru got off of work early, and was surprised to not see Airi's loafers at the entrance of his apartment. He walked around his place like he didn't belong there — it seemed so empty without her presence.

As he munched on some leftover rice, it got him thinking — to have achieved such level of habitude, was this what married life really felt like? Satoru and Airi weren't even close to such a concept (despite Sachiko's monthly calls of courtesy and friendly reminders that a grandchild is the best kind of present she could have), yet the routine they'd adapted to resembled something out of those domestic stories he heard many times.

Airi liked to cook. Despite her usual approaches to tasks at hand, experimenting with food was not her forte — she always followed recipes to a T, providing Satoru stably with most nutritious meals (that, suspiciously enough, resembled his mother's cooking strongly). She also never slacked off when it came to cleaning up, keeping Satoru's apartment neat and comfy at all times. That was to say, she'd also cluttered the place with trinkets, pillows and memorable things and such, so it's not like he could get away with treating his house like a bachelor's shack of sorts. It all felt reasonably familial.

So much so, that coming back home and not seeing her felt downright surreal.

But being home alone like that also meant he could actually do whatever he wanted. On his own. Without Airi. That thought shouldn't have been as liberating as it was.

So, in an effort to "go wild", he couldn't come up with anything better than sprawling in front of a TV, beer can (a frivolous unnecessity they had in store) in one hand and his brand new smartphone he purchased for himself this year in the other. Because trying to pass free time aimlessly much like his mother used to (at least in the life where he got to be teenaged) was not a crime — though it sure did feel like it.

Satoru attempted to get comfortable. This position, that position, a few of those pretty pillows to cushion him — he could get away with it — then click-clicking the remote to find a suitable program. That's lame, this sucks. The TV was only annoying him. He turned it off. But now it felt inappropriate to drink beer. He returned the unopened can to the fridge and went back to his spot. He thumbed with his phone. He still couldn't figure out how to operate it swiftly — was too used to the classic flip phone. Airi always teased him, called him an old man. He took her pillows and threw them into the corner of the room.

Satoru laid on bare floor like this, staring into the phone's screen, squinting, when suddenly it slipped from his hand, smacking his face with its wideness. He almost threw it to where the pillows were as well.

Satoru stared at the ceiling instead. All he could hear was silence, his mind devoid of unnecessary words or images. It suddenly clicked. This was what he needed. He briefly recalled the time when he used to lay down just like this, only on his futon which he never bothered to put away, with his hands behind his head, staring up and engulfed only by his thoughts.

He mimicked that exact pose. At last, the tension retreated. Because that's what it was about — not "going wild" or doing something out of the ordinary, but the exact opposite — to return to that far away "ordinary", to that life before Airi, before any of this. If only for a brief moment.

Strange, he thought. A long time ago, in a life that consisted mostly of solitude and unrealized manga ideas, he considered moments like these as being his lowest — musing, pondering, regretting and reflexing, yet he'd never discerned the comfort that they granted him. Being truly on his own. He, himself and him.

It was barely an occurrence in this life. Even before Airi had moved in, he would sketch in his spare time, always pushing himself to reach pinnacles, too afraid to let time go to waste. That did admittedly get him ahead in life. Yet truthfully, he missed such simple tranquility.

He heard the front door's lock turning, the door opening, a girl entering. If he closed his eyes now, he could fake being asleep. Airi would put out the lights and slide the door closed. She would give him space. And in the space he would stay.

He got up.

"Satoru? You're already back!" she leaped at him and embraced him, like she was so happy to see him. "I went out to take pictures! The clear evening sky is marvelous today, pale blue turning into violet, orange in between, did you see it?"

"No I didn't," he told her.

"Look at these pics," she showed him some on her digital camera. He nodded and she scrolled through them.

"They're beautiful," he told her.

Then he sat on the floor in front of the low table and listened to her chatter as she still fiddled with her camera, knowing full well that she'd start cooking dinner as soon as she finished chewing the fat.

"Oh no. Do you see that?" She showed him one of the pictures.

"The sky?"

"No, no, that spot! The white spot jumping all over the place. Ah! It moved now."

"I don't see anything."

She rubbed at her eyes. "A-a-ah, I hate it when that happens. It's like an optic illusion, every time I try to look at the spot, it jumps to a different place. And I can't tell if it's the camera or me! Can't even look at it directly to tell if the photo is botched or not! Didn't that ever happen to you?"

"No..." he cast his eyes away. He definitely never experienced anything of the sorts.

~

A very good thing about this timeline was that everyone had become what they aspired to be.

Kenya was a lawyer like his father, Kayo was a loving mother unlike her own, Hiromi was a doctor, Sawada-san has caught the culprit and so on and so forth — everyone seemed to achieve a certain level of "happiness".

That included Airi, who had fulfilled her dream of becoming a photographer.

Her pictures, while strange in nature, had gained a following, especially ever since Airi started becoming internet popular.

Eventually her work had been recognized — her pictures were posted in a popular photo magazine, soon enough her name and her brand became known in some photographer circles Satoru knew nothing about; things couldn't go better for her.

Satoru was truly glad. Yet in contrast, his own career year after year seemed to falter. His latest manga was not greenlit for the anime adaptation.

"I don't understand these ratings!" Airi grumbled once, holding up a Shounen Flight issue above her head. "When I read your manga, I love every page of it! Why don't others see your subtle genius?"

Satoru knew it was either her lack of understanding of the manga world, or her feelings for him that clouded her perception, but even he could see the reduced quality of his own drawings. The cliché of his storyline. The blandness of his characters.

"It's my own fault. At first I'd reacted angrily too, you know, and now there's no going back seeing the direction I've progressed this story to," Satoru replied as he peeled a tangerine.

At that, Airi recoiled. "'At first'? So you knew about the ratings?"

"That's right."

At Satoru's apartment while nestled under a kotatsu, Airi pushed upwards on her elbows. "How long has this been going on?! Why didn't you tell me earlier?"

"Ah," Satoru scratched the back of his neck and averted his eyes sheepishly. "I didn't want you to get upset. The first time I received a complaint from my editor was... about two years ago?"

To Airi, that revelation was mind-boggling. Of course, since she was busy building up her own success, she couldn't have possibly taken notice of Satoru's manga situation. Satoru didn't blame her. The only one to blame was him, really.

Yet, Airi decided to take action. (Like she does.) So one thing after the other — she started "training" Satoru to get better at his manga.

He accepted the little game of hers despite not taking it seriously. Since then, he'd drawn Airi daily. It was handy, since the manga's female lead was based off of her both personality and appearance wise.

In his first manga, "main girl" was more of a reserved and aloof type of character, obviously based on Kayo. For this one he'd wanted a cheerful and inspiring character. It all went downhill, but not because of her, of course not.

It was just... him. Him, whose face could not be seen, couldn't possibly portray anything properly.

With the everyday task of picturing Airi doing just about anything, Satoru attempted to return his skill to form. It's not that there was a decline in anatomy or perspective. They were fine sketches, Airi praised each of her portrait, unwaveringly saying that Satoru was improving.

However, as a photographer, Airi's duty has always been to capture "a perfect static image". Her eyes just couldn't see the fact that Satoru's drawings weren't moving. Characters' poses, their placement, their design — they became carbon copies of each other, losing in movement and finesse. There were times when instead of drawing, he would fill the page with speech bubbles, just so the excessive exchanges could hide that flaw.

Beside that, another problem had become apparent after he started "training". Satoru couldn't properly imagine various facial expressions of his characters. Frequently, he had left the faces of his characters blank and relied on his assistants to fix them, actually. Same deal went down when he was picturing Airi — the best he got was when he managed to draw a nose and one eye. The rest of her expression was somewhat jumbled, incorrect, so he erased it.

Yet ultimately, the most critical blow to his manga was its plot. To quote a critique he read up online: "It has a good premise but a bland execution." Or another, less professional but no less hurtful: "boring progression and lame plot, reading this is a hassle, would not recommend". Satoru didn't have his manga planned ahead — he had a rough outline of the events, and built his plot around that skeleton of an idea. It worked out the first time. But now something was... lost.

The characters reduced to caricatures of themselves. Satoru didn't have a clue what kind of ending he would come up with, but he was hoping a cheap dramatic turn could spice it up. For some unfathomable reason, it felt right to let it end on a bitter note. It just did.

But Airi decided to fix that too. She suggested some prompts for Satoru to "flesh out" his characters. She basically offered him to come up with short stories surrounding them participating in certain events. Things like "what would happen if they got locked in a room with no way out". Silly stuff.

One of the prompts Airi suggested was as follows: "what if the characters were people in the real world". The answer to that was plain and simple — the main character would be Satoru, and the lead girl Aria (yes, very original), would be Airi.

When Satoru wrapped his head around it, it was like an abrupt flash of a camera in his face — he understood the problem of his manga immediately. He based his characters on real people, and since Satoru had no idea what exactly was happening to their real selves, he had difficulties with the manga as well.

From Satoru's point of view one thing became clear — if Aria had been real, she would've abandoned the main character for good and moved on with her life. What he would do was a tougher question.

His attention shifted to his real self — what was he doing with this life? What would he do as it progressed? Where would he go? What would he accomplish? Manga was his life, and since his most recent work would barely pay off, what else was there left?

Satoru had lost the grip on what he was best at. He was meeting a dead end — a "game over", so to speak, — something was missing, and he didn't want to admit what it was. Yet he had to come up with some way out. He contemplated several things and before long, one piquing thought had prodded against him (and left marks).

"What if I were to experience a Revival again?"

First off, it would have been pretty annoying, since he'd lived in a world without a single revival for nearly 30 years. To him the amount seemed less due to the time spent in a comatose state, but still. It was a long stretch. One leap backwards was capable of destroying the whole progress that he worked so hard for. It would obliterate everyone else's achievements as well.

So initially he toyed with the idea of a small revival. One that would help him fix a few faults. He thought about returning to the day of his meeting with Kumi-chan — he desired to undo the fatal mistake that led to her never calling him back. Or maybe, just a bit further, back to that day when it became clear that his manga was going astray. How would he change it up? Would he make sure to meet Airi for their anniversary?

Then he thought, what if he returned to the year 2012, to the day before that February event took place? He was treading dangerous territory with that thought. It meant that he was ready to face him again. But maybe, in that case, Satoru would be able to manipulate his questions more precisely. Know more things about him. Simply out of morbid curiosity, is all.

What if he came back to the time when the apparition was still around?

Now that was definitely a bad thought. He shouldn't have, couldn't have — he mustn't have even considered such things.

But he wasn't serious about this, was he? He was just playing around with such concepts. Not real regrets — just excuses that come and go.

Satoru's thoughts had abandoned his manga completely.

The lid of the jar in which he sealed his memories was furtively cracked open.

~

Pop! The cork made that brusque sound upon its release from the bottle. The sparkling liquid gushed out straight into the three flute-glasses.

Ding! The glasses made a gentle clinking sound upon collision.

"Congrats!" said Satoru's assistants in unison. In the almost emptied office, they celebrated the release of the final issue of Satoru's manga. Incidentally, they were also packing things up.

"Thank you for your hard work," said Satoru, dowing the sour drink so that he wouldn't have to taste it for too long.

"Thank you, Fujinuma-sensei! It's been a pleasure working with you."

They ate bitter chocolate truffles from a box that Satoru brought along with the champagne. They recalled all sorts of ups and downs: that incident when Satoru accidentally inked the reverse side of the manuscript, that August day when the AC broke and they had to work in heat for five hours until the repairman managed to fix it, that time when they thought they wouldn't finish a chapter before deadline — and when miraculously they did, or Satoru's brief sweet tooth period which had gone as abruptly as it had come.

"I'm going to miss those candies more than anything," said one of his assistants. "...Just kidding. Thank you for letting us learn from you, Fujinuma-sensei."

Gratitude, what a perennial resource it was. So unlike the fizzy fluid or the powdered confectionery, depletion of which marked the moment of their parting. Through the entryway, both auxiliaries looked back at their sensei with eyes that were full of promise — one of them was going to work for an another famous mangaka, the other was ready to become a mangaka himself.

Parting ways was never easy. Seeing the office like it was now, emptied desks and shelves, remembering the better days he spent here with his team, creating something which he felt passionate about... All alone at his disheveled workplace, sitting atop one of the desks, bottleneck in hand, Satoru cried softly.

After having left his office for the last time ever, he went for a walk.

There was an implicit consolation in that. Truth to be told, Satoru loved this city as much as he loved his hometown. Its multifarious buildings and narrow alleys, the lilt of traffic lights and rumble of passing trains, the smell of asphalt and exhaust fumes twinning with organic scents of cherry blossom and grass, but not without a tang of salt brought in by the sea breeze.

Though Satoru was not intoxicated in the slightest — simply floaty — he could not help a leaden footfall. He gave in, and detoured from his regular route. His legs brought him to the predestined place once more. It couldn't have been anywhere but under the bridge where he took shelter with Airi a long time ago.

He sat on his usual spot and breathed in that slight, damp, earthy petrichor, the smell of wet concrete, the indescribable and elusive under-the-bridge scent that, seemingly, only Satoru came back to.

An amalgam of graffiti on the wall across Satoru suggested otherwise. He noticed the few additions that weren't here the last time. He wondered who the people that marked the walls were, wondered if it was about time for him to leave a mark of his own.

"To leave a mark". Deep down, that was what everyone wanted to do in life, wasn't it? If that really was the case, then... why wasn't Satoru satisfied? The marks he left... Not his manga, but those infinitely more important marks, weren't they enough to keep him complacent?

The oddity... Look for the oddity... Satoru made a frame out of fingers and looked through. Not this, and not that — as he scanned the scenery. Maybe here? He was focused on his bag and noticed that a single sakura petal has landed on it. It must've happened when he passed by the trees. It fluttered by and...

A memory flashed in his mind. A few of them actually, in each an every he perceived a faint fluttering and caught a glimpse of something that looked like...

The oddity...!

Quickly, before the thought was lost on him, he grabbed a sketchbook and a pen from his bag.

Click! The tip of the pen appeared from its bottom and Satoru began writing down something hastily. If ... meant that ... then ... in which case  ...

He had to write everything down before the thoughts slipped away. Before his mind, which he inadvertently trained to block such contemplation, succeeded in doing so.

Satoru finished and looked at what was written with a contented grin. Another piece was added to the puzzle. He was close, real close. He almost had it figured out. If he could conjure up a few more memories...

Satoru snapped the notebook shut. Either way, its contents were a "what-if" scenario. Merely an entertainment, something thought-provoking, a challenge of sorts.

...it's not like he was actually indenting to trigger a Revival.

~

Satoru was seated behind his desk, on which writing utensils and an abundance of similar-looking Sakuruman sketchbooks were piled up. He was leafing through one of them in what appeared to be deep contemplation, when Airi gingerly opened the door behind him, distracting Satoru from his thoughts.

"Satoru? Can we talk?" she asked in a hushed voice, sounding almost conspiratorial.

He closed the notebook briskly and turned around. "Yeah, what is it?"

"Let's talk at the table, please."

Wondering what caused Airi to act this way, Satoru got up and followed her to the kitchen. They settled behind the table across each other.

"What's this about?" questioned Satoru, a bit intimidated. The list of things that Airi would deem serious enough for a kitchen table discussion was incredibly small, Satoru was getting more alarmed the longer he had to guess.

She cleared her throat and smiled sheepishly, looking down at her hands. "So, Satoru. Do you remember, a while ago, when I told you that I wanted to go on a trip someday?"

Satoru breathed out. This wasn't as drastic of a topic as he'd imagined. "Yeah?" he said. Vaguely he recalled a conversation like that taking place sometime in the past.

"So-o-o!" she clapped her hands together. "Now that you're temporally out of work, I've decided that it's a perfect opportunity for us to finally do it!" she looked up into his eyes, hopeful and excited.

"Us? You mean, the both of us?"

"Yeah! I mean, the timing is perfect now. You need inspiration, a change of scenery would surely get your gears going, and I desperately want that scenery in order to capture new unique snapshots... It'll be good for us!"

Satoru scratched the back of his head. "I don't know..."

"Come on, don't be like that," pouted Airi. She reached for his hand that was on the table and grasped it, giving him a puppy-eyed look.

But that trick wasn't enough to melt Satoru's heart. "Where exactly do you want to travel?" he inquired.

She grinned. "I want to go to every. Single. Prefecture!"

Satoru gawked at her. "What?"

"Look, I have it all planned out!" she suddenly pulled out the laptop from beneath the table and opened it to reveal a map of Japan with a red route line crossing its entirety. "I've been working on this for a while now, and I think I've found a balanced route!"

She began to explain as Satoru's unbelieving eyes gazed upon her work. He was surprised he didn't hear about this sooner, given how much thought and effort Airi put into it.

"And then— Okinawa, now, I know what you're thinking, but we can't not visit Okinawa, so here is how—"

"Airi, Airi, wait just a second," cut her off Satoru. "You do realize that this is going to take at least a whole year?"

She didn't miss a beat. "Of course. That's what I meant when I said I wanted to go on a huge trip."

"Okay... So when exactly do you plan to go?"

"The sooner the better, Satoru. We'll be going south first, and the thing is, I really want us to visit Hokkaido in March, when there's still snow out so that I get to see your hometown in its most authentic form, and it's a good opportunity to spend your birthday together with Sachiko-san..."

Satoru sat all the way back and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Airi..."

"We have only about nine months 'till next March so we'd better start packing soon! We'll be going sightseeing a lot, and we've gotta try local foods, and, I'm not sure if we should go hiking? Do you think we'd be wasting too much time? I mean, I don't wanna miss out on anything..."

"Airi, stop."

She paused with her month parted open. Upon noticing Satoru's posture, her own expression fell. "What? What's wrong?"

"This is... A lot to take in," Satoru said.

"I know that," Airi sighed and reached for his hand again. "But it's not that scary. I have it all planned out, it'll be worth it! I promise."

"No," Satoru slipped his hand out of hers. "Airi, listen, I— I don't think it would be very wise of me to spend what little I have left in my savings on a trip like this."

She frowned at him. "What are you saying right now? I'll be paying for the whole trip."

"No, Airi, I can't—"

"Can't what? It was my idea and I'm taking you along with me, so of course I should be the one paying."

"Look, I don't want to be mooching off of you..."

She threw her hands up. "Mooching? So what, me living in this apartment with you for what, like, three or four years without paying, was also mooching? Well, consider this payback, then!"

"Airi, what are you saying—“

"What are you saying?!" she folded her arms and looked away. "If you don't wanna go, then just say so."

Satoru balled his fists. "Fine. I don't want to go," he said.

She scowled and drummed her arm with her fingers. "I know. You'd rather be staying holed up in your room like you have been ever since you quit your job."

"I've not been staying 'holed up' in my room! I go for walks every single day. And I didn't quit manga, I just need some time."

"Well, it's too bad that you'd rather waste all your time imprisoned in this city that's smothering you."

"Wouldn't you know what it's like to be smothering me," Satoru said through his teeth, immediately regretting those words.

Airi shot a look at him that was both appalled and outraged, but kept her mouth closed.

Satoru got up. "I'm going out," he said, simply, and went back to the room to pick up the sketchbook that he left on the desk. He stuffed it in his bag and went to the corridor, not having a glance at Airi as he went past her. He put his shoes on and left the apartment.

Satoru walked without looking, not even knowing where he's headed. He passed by a convenience store, turning away from its bright lights. He went into an alley, wishing to escape the city's noise. He walked until he stumbled upon a bench in a quiet area surrounded by trees.

Descending onto the wooden seat of the bench, Satoru felt defeated. He shouldn't have lashed out, he knew it. Airi was always like this, coming up with some grand scheme out of the blue, or, more accurately, carefully constructing a scheme just for the sake of making a huge reveal at the last minute. But it wasn't even the prospect of a time consuming trip itself that set Satoru off-kilter. Something about her words: "I really want us to visit Hokkaido in March", had him instantly frozen up.

Even now, just thinking about it sent chills all over his body (or was that due to the wind that hit Satoru's skin and made leaves rustle loudly above his head?).

The worst part, was that it weren't the bad memories that had him steer clear of his hometown. (The leaves above were whispering like they knew.)

Satoru's cold fingers digged into his bag. And again, he knew he shouldn't have indulged his past-dwelling thoughts, but he opened up the crumpled-paged notebook all the same.

The wind swished and all the pages flipped through in front of Satoru's eyes. There were no writings on the inside. Only sketches of Airi.

Satoru was running back home in an instant. Blood rushing through his veins, he was heating up in fear of Airi discovering the forbidden rationalizations, convictions and plots.

He calmed a little when the apartment complex came into view. He slowed down, regaining his breath as he convinced himself that Airi had no reason to check through his sketchbooks. He had an apology prepared, and although he still didn't feel mad about that trip idea of hers, he would be willing to let her lead the way. (Like he does.)

He came inside without announcing that he was home, because the prepared words were ready to slip off his tongue. When he entered the kitchen, those words fell apart, as did Satoru's world.

Airi was there, at the table, the exact sketchbook that he wanted to hide from her in her hands, her eyes moving up and down as she read its contents.

She stopped when she saw Satoru's shadow and looked at him instead, gaze glazed over.

"Satoru..." she spoke, "what's this?"

Voice above a whisper but below her usual volume. Satoru never imagined she was capable of talking with an intonation that sounded that close to disgust.

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out, only a short gasp, a beginning of a word he didn't know, an explanation he couldn't offer. He tried again, and this time, a lie came out: "Just my... my manga ideas."

Her eyes looked down at the words again, and the force that had Satoru rooted to the floor untangled from his feet, he made several long steps and reached to snatch the notepad, but Airi brought it to her chest and squeezed it with her arms.

"'Manga ideas'? Really?"

"Give it back, please."

"Now let me clear this up, then, are you creating a manga about your real life experiences?"

"No. Just give me back my notebook, please."

"No? Then how do you explain the names? Kayo-san's, Kobayashi-san's—"

"Give me back my goddamn book please!" he yelled; he shouldn't have; he didn't care.

Airi let the sketchbook go, a trace of fear behind her eyes, which faded instantly and her brows knit.

Satoru seized his possession and forced it inside of his shoulder bag. Airi stood up and stared up at Satoru angrily. When he stopped struggling with the bag, Satoru looked her in the eyes and felt faint for what he did.

"I'm... sorry for yelling."

Airi's lashes were fluttering but she had the meanest scowl that he'd ever seen her have.

"You know that I always believe you, Satoru." Her face puckered and she turned away. "No. I want to believe in you."

Satoru's heart clenched. A tragedy was unfolding, but whoever controlled the Revival wanted no part in it.

"I know for a fact, that Satoru which I know would never use his actual experiences to write a stupid story," Airi said, conviction turning into disappointment mid-sentence.

He had nothing to say. The only explanation he could come up with, was a lie, too, "they're placeholders," he blurted.

She quirked an eyebrow.

"The names. Everything. I couldn't come up with character names on the spot, so I used the names of those who I know." Satoru bit his lip.

Airi no longer looked at Satoru. She stared ahead somewhere, maybe at his chest, maybe right through it. Like she could finally see—

"Alright," she said, suddenly, head snapping up, hair falling in front of her eyes. "Then who's 'Yashiro'?"

In milliseconds, Satoru's eyes darkened. He never thought he'd hear Airi's sweet voice say those syllables. "Nobody," his reply was immediate, "the only name I made up."

Airi knew Satoru's attempted murderer only as "Nishizono Manabu". "Yashiro Gaku" was lost in time. That name was remembered only by those who knew him way back then, never uttered in present time, as if it were a curse.

Airi squinted, trying to read Satoru's face. He held back from gulping and at last, mustered enough courage to speak earnestly.

"Airi, I'm sorry. Can we please let this go? We'll go on a trip, I promise. I just—" he chocked up, "—I just want things to go back to how they used to be."

He held out his arms, not too widely, inviting Airi to hug him, if she wanted to. She gave him one last pitiful glance and descended onto the floor, opening the laptop once again. She closed the image with the route that she'd made, and opened her photo editing software. Satoru's hands fell down.

"I wish things could go back, too," Airi said. "I'm going to work, now. I don't have anything else to say."

Satoru swallowed thickly and retreated back to his room. He closed the door behind him and stood there, taking in everything that's happened.

He opened his half zipped bag and took the two sketchbooks out. He looked at the both of them, their covers exactly the same, but the one in which he'd been writing — a bit more tattered. Satoru threw the sketches of Airi back on the desk. He raised his other hand up, intending to send the notes across the room, but faltered.

Moisture gathered in his eyes. Satoru scrunched his face and shut his jaw tight, willing the tears to go away, while gripping the notebook close to his chest. He lowered on his knees, waiting until he has calmed down.

When Satoru opened his eyes, he had made up his mind. He crawled on all fours towards the drawer where he kept his supplies, and after rummaging through it, retrieved an ink brush.

Settling behind the desk, he opened the first page and began blacking out one certain name.

~

Airi became used to seeing Satoru's shoes at the entrance whenever she returned home. Their schedules seemed to have made a flip — now Satoru was the one staying in, while Airi dedicated herself to her beloved work.

On one particularly successful summer day (successful in terms of pictures, that is), such was also the case. Airi walked in without minding her boyfriend's shoes, without saying "I'm home", her thoughts filled with the relief that the AC was on, as outside had been excruciatingly hot.

Airi didn't call out to Satoru, she simply continued her routine, left her camera on the table, washed her hands, got out some snack (she didn't have time to cook anymore, and Satoru didn't volunteer) and went inside the adjacent room to pick up the laptop — she needed to sort out and edit the images.

Satoru was lying. On his futon, that is. He did that frequently as of late. His eyes were closed. Airi took the laptop and turned off the lights. She closed the door behind her.

...Satoru peeked open his eyes when she left. The curtains were drawn and only a thread-thin strip of light intruded into the room. It lit up the floating specks of dust right above Satoru's head.

His eyes slipped shut.

~

Noises of kitchenware clunking and loud sizzling had stirred him awake.

Airi's making breakfast, was the first thought that had crossed his mind.

What could she'd been cooking? Fried eggs by the sound of it, yet the faint smell reaching Satoru's room suggested it was something else. Beef?

That was weird, since Airi usually made toast for breakfast. He turned over, thinking about it, and then he was hit with a realization.

Airi doesn't come here anymore.

Satoru leaped from his futon in an instant. Airi left her set of keys to him. She couldn't have entered. He slid the door open particularly hard to startle the intruder.

...Not that he didn't already guess who it was.

The crackle of meat frying, the smell of miso soup and the simmering of rice. The nostalgic picture nudged away any discontent he had.

"Good morning, Satoru," his mother said without turning away from the stove.

"Don't tell me you had the key for all these years..."

"Why wouldn't I? I used to live here, you know."

Satoru shuffled past her to the restroom, yawning.

"It's 11 in the morning and you were asleep. I can't believe it, Satoru. Didn't you get enough of sleep in your life?" she said once he returned.

"Oi, don't joke about that. What did you make?"

"Hamburgers," Sachiko turned around, in her hands two plates of hot, scrumptious hamburger steaks with vegetables on the side.

"For breakfast?" Satoru asked but still eagerly settled on the floor behind his low table.

"I like to pamper you."

She set the plates on the table, as well as bowls of rice and miso soup. Her plate had only one hamburger. Satoru's had two.

"When did you buy everything? Actually, when did you arrive, anyway?" Satoru digged into his breakfast.

"I came over pretty early. I was surprised how neat your kitchen is, actually. You're pretty good at keeping house."

Ah, he got praised. Good thing she didn't see—

"...or you're just not using the kitchen at all. Now that Airi-chan's not here." Ouch. He'd forgotten all about her devilish insight in the years that he'd spent without her.

Sachiko was 62, yet she looked as youthful as always. Not a single wrinkle, though Satoru suspected she was exceptionally good at concealing her age with makeup.

Satoru finished his meal. "Thank you. It was really good." He got up and went to his room to get dressed for the day. He guessed sulking in wasn't an option for the time being.

"Satoru, don't you want to talk to me?"

"About what?" he asked from the depths of his dark room.

"You know what. About everything that's happened," her voice got closer, she stood in the doorframe now.

"Oh, that's, well—  Hey, I'm changing, you know."

She was entering the room. "Oh please, there's not a thing I haven't seen." She was reaching for the string on the ceiling lamp!

"Don't turn the lights on!" Satoru pleaded, but alas, it was too late. The room lit up and revealed a huge mess that Satoru had made during the past months of living all alone. Discarded food packaging, unwashed shirts and socks, magazines, mangas and books scattered here and there, all kinds of junk cluttering the space.

In the midst of it stood Satoru, one leg frozen bended as he was about to slide his pants on.

"Satoru!"

~

They ended up cleaning and decluttering his room together, after Sachiko had thoroughly lectured him.

He knew he shouldn't have let it get this bad, but... Things, like feelings, were only piling up, and eventually he stopped noticing their intrusive presence. It hardly mattered what his room looked like when the rest of his life was a greater mess.

Yet for the time being, he abstained from negative thoughts. Not when his mother was here. Besides, labor served as a good distraction.

After several hours of hard work, the room seemed more or less clean. Sachiko sorted the shelves, while Satoru gathered the last of plastic trash bags. He put them in the hallway to take them out later.

"Satoru?" he heard his mother call out.

"Yeah?"

"Can you explain me what this is?"

His heart sank. Not good, not good. Half a year ago he heard Airi say something similar to these words. That event probably was what eventually led them to grow apart in the first place. On that day Airi lost her trust in him.

But how could've Sachiko discovered it? He'd hidden the notebook well, though admittedly, he should've gotten rid of it for good.

He came back into the room and saw his mother, holding a single 1000 yen bill with two fingers, away from herself.

He breathed the pent up air out. "Oh, that. That's nothing."

"Why do you have something like this stored on your shelf like some kind of a trophy?!"

Satoru went out to the kitchen to get himself a glass of water. "Don't be ridiculous, it's not like that."

Sachiko followed him, still extending her arm as far as possible from her person. "Where did you get it?"

"It was given me as change a few years back."

"And you kept it? I'm throwing it out."

Satoru nearly choked on his water. "What? Why?"

"It's a bad omen! It could've been Yakuza money!"

Satoru rolled his eyes. "Mom!"

"No, I'm throwing it out."

She made a step towards the hallway door, but Satoru was quickly beside her, attempting to snatch the banknote. She dodged swiftly, yet his hand followed hers. "Stop it, Satoru!" She pulled her arm back several times in different directions, but he obstinately attempted to return it. The struggle continued until she pushed at him with her other hand. This made the glass of water, that he was still holding, to tip over slightly. A splash went directly on Sachiko's blouse. "Satoru!"

The distraction allowed Satoru to seize the bill from his mother's hands and hide it in his back pocket. The woman crossed her arms.

"Why the hell do you need it?"

Your question is not 'why' but 'what for', Satoru snarkily thought.

"That doesn't make any sense!"

Shit, he'd said it out loud.

"I don't see any reason to throw it out when I've held onto it for so long. It's like, one of a kind, you know!"

"Satoru..."

"And besides, what if I received it for a reason? What if one day I turn it up for a DNA test, and I don't know, figure out whose blood this is? What if that helps solve a crime from many years ago?"

"What if it's the cause of your misfortune?"

Satoru scoffed. "Please. I've been through worse." He looked his mother in the eyes. "I didn't have a million of bloodied yen bills stored in a bank 28 years ago, by chance, did I?"

She sighed. Reached for her bag on the floor. Then pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "Let's talk."

~

It wasn't a breakup, he told his mom. It was simply, a "break". A pause, which Satoru and Airi mutually agreed on.

Though the "reason" for such a break had officially been that lengthy trip along Japan that Airi took in order to take her photos, Satoru and Airi's relationship had become strained long before then.

He still cared about Airi, he wished the best for her and wanted her to be happy. But no matter how much he convinced himself that they were still in love, the distance between them only grew. Satoru couldn't figure out why their daily life had become so— so bothersome.

"When I say words, it feels like they become real once they leave my lips," was something Airi liked to say. That's why Satoru didn't dare voicing his true emotions.

That's why, Airi never told him that she knew all along.

"It happens, Satoru. People drift apart. You've never experienced heartbreak before, of course you wouldn't know that it's normal," Sachiko said, voice heavy as if partly she blamed herself for never telling him before.

He wanted to assure her that it wasn't the case. That he indeed have experienced heartbreak, the worst kind of all. But such things could not be revealed, not even to her.

Instead he talked about his manga. How he lost his grip on that, too. How his latest volumes didn't sell too good, because readers must've seen the shift in quality upon reading his chapters in Shounen Flight.

How the ending didn't satisfy the audience — they wanted the main character to get together with the main girl. They wanted a more satisfying defeat for the villain. They didn't like the deus ex machina cliché that ensured the main character's survival.

Urata-san hadn't been resentful. He told Satoru to take it easy, to gather his old vigor back together. He must've seen right through him, Satoru admitted bitterly.

Sachiko reassured him: "Not everyone gets ahead in their doings quite like you did. You were very lucky to get all the public attention back when your first manga debuted. You consider your second work a 'failure' simply because you've never experienced a worse one. You're doing well."

To which Satoru wanted to reply: "No, mother, I've been at the bottom. Precisely because I have, I know that I'm about to fall right back there."

She wouldn't understand. Her perspective of him, sadly, was just like anyone else's.

She lit an another cigarette, 3rd one in the row. "I know what you're going through, Satoru," she breathed the smoke in and out. "A midlife crisis."

Satoru gave out a stiff laugh.

"What? Why would I have that, aren't I too young?" How old was he supposed to be anyway? "...How old am I anyway?"

"See," she flicked her cigarette into an old chipped saucer that served as an ashtray, "you can't even tell. That's because you've been thrust into adulthood too fast. Your mental age might as well be the same as your physical—"

Wait, it'd been 13 years since he came out of a coma, and he was a 29-year-old when he fell into it, which meant, "...am I past my forties already?"

"If you feel like it."

That was scary. What was also scary, that Sachiko understood. Kind of. In her own way.

Satoru covered his face with his hands. "Wow. I—" God I'm so old.

"Don't say such stupid things!" mom pointed a nearly burnt out stub in his direction. "You only perceive yourself as such. You think that life might as well be over. Now that you quote unquote 'lost everything'."

But... Isn't that so?

"Of course it isn't! Spending some time away from Airi-chan may just help you figure out your true feelings for her. And in the meantime more manga ideas may develop. But you have to figure out what is it that you really want," Sachiko concluded. "Look deep into yourself and spell it out!"

What he really wanted. What he really strived for. What he'd been clinging to for all these years, but never spoke of, for it was too scary to let it become real.

"I want," Satoru said, "to fill the hole in my heart."

~

Chapter Text

In the beginning of the year, Kenya paid Satoru a visit.

Kenya's expensive shoes looked out of place at Satoru's humble entrance. He was dressed in the usual — a light grey suit accentuated by a dark tie, his white shirt's collar and cuffs crisply ironed as always; the faint fragrance of his cologne freshened up the homey smell of Satoru's apartment. He was always giving off an impression of a professional attorney, serious if a bit haughty, but Satoru knew better than to think of him that way, because those kind eyes and an unruly cowlick on the side of his head were dead giveaways — Kenya was the same old ally of justice with a heart of gold.

Normally, his visit would've been considered pretty sudden, but ever since Sachiko had departed not a few months ago, Satoru had suspected her of encouraging (read as: instructing) his friends to regularly "check up" on him.

Satoru stayed in for New Year's, despite the invitation from Sugita family to come along to the shrine together. He did not participate in any celebratory practices, apart from sending out rooster-design postcards. To Satoru it wasn't such a big deal, but to his friends his absence had perhaps been a red flag. They probably assumed he was depressed.

Which he wasn't.

To prove that, he would go as far as to offer anyone to take a look at his apartment — he kept it neat ever since his mother had helped him clean up. He cherished her efforts, and besides, taking out those bags had been a huge hassle.

He even started cooking for himself, kind of. Putting that kitchen to use, so to speak. Taught himself the basics via internet videos and whatnot. He was surprised by how challenging cooking could sometimes be — and Satoru wasn't the type to give up when he had his mind set on something. Preparing meals was a time-consuming and distracting pursuit, which had been exactly what he needed the most.

He was washing the tableware after having treated himself with a satisfying bowl of nishime, when the doorbell rang.

"So good to finally see you, Satoru," Kenya said after he made himself comfortable at Satoru's table.

"It's good to see you too. Green, black?" Satoru casually asked as he opened one of the cabinets where he stored tea.

"Green, please."

Satoru refilled the water boiler (a sign that he'd been using it recently like a normal person) and it hummed, heating up water automatically. Meanwhile, Satoru fished out a traditional teapot and searched for the cups.

"So, what brings you here today?" Satoru asked, even though he already guessed the answer.

"Well, first off, I really wanted to see you, and I thought this time is as good as any—"

"Can I guess now?" Satoru interrupted. "You talked to my mom, didn't you?"

Kenya hesitated. "...Sachiko-san did contact me a few months ago. But, that's not the reason for my coming here. I've got news for you."

Oh, Satoru thought. Could it be, Kenya and Misato are finally?... Well, it's about time they tied the—

Stern voice. "This morning, convict Nishizono was—"

The cup crashed on the floor at the "-shi".

Kenya was at his side instantly. "Damn it, are you hurt, Satoru?!"

"No, it's fine. D-dont—" Satoru swallowed, "don't step on the glass."

He excused himself to get the dustpan and brush — they were in the toilet room. He stepped in and closed the door behind him briefly. His hand flew up to his mouth. Breathe, Satoru. He stared directly into the nothingness of the toilet bowl.

Once he collected himself, he returned to the kitchen. His hands were shaking as he swept up the ceramic pieces.

"I guess there's no need to utter it, then," Kenya's voice sounded dry.

Satoru finished making the tea despite anything. He served it to Kenya as he was supposed to.

After the man took his first sip, silence remained.

Satoru was first to break it. "When?"

"Just this morning. I've only learned a few hours ago and went straight to you."

This morning, he was wondering why he woke up crying, he thought he had a sad dream, this morning.

"Why didn't you tell me earlier?"

"Like I said, I came here as soon as I could..."

"You could have texted me."

"I thought it wasn't—"

"Alright."

Kenya drank some more. Since the other cup lay shattered in the trash, Satoru didn't pour himself any. He doubted he could stomach anything at this moment.

"So, that's it huh."

"Yup. Finally truly over."

Inwardly, Satoru shuddered at these words. "That was kind of fast, wasn't it?"

"What exactly?" Kenya raised his brow.

"I thought— death row inmates spent longer time waiting. I thought so."

"Oh. Well, they've taken into account his previously served sentence, and the severity of his crimes... Maybe his luck played a role as well."

For some reason, none of Kenya's words sat right with Satoru. His chest felt heavy. Or maybe that painful strain was caused by the seiza position?

"You know, he asked to be executed as soon as possible. I guess the Gods listened," Kenya added.

Apparently, they did.

Only the ticking of the clock remained in the room, with Kenya's occasional sipping. With each tick, reality settled in. Satoru was now living in a world without Yashiro Gaku. For the first time.

The hands of the clock boomed. Every sound was becoming too apparent. Surroundings ringed in Satoru's ears. Hum of the refrigerator. Clank of Kenya's cup against the saucer. Faint whistle of the wind outside. A world without Yashiro. Second, by second, by second, by second...

"What are you thinking, Satoru?" Kenya asked. Time was continuously going forward. Passing gently.

"Justice served, I suppose."

"You don't sound all that convincing. It's okay if you're conflicted. You know, for a very long time I knew him only as my elementary school teacher, I liked him, so distancing myself from the childhood memory had been hard at first—"

"I'm not conflicted," Satoru cut him off.

"Sorry," Kenya sheepishly said. "Thanks for the tea."

Satoru took Kenya's cup and brought to the sink. "Sorry that I didn't offer anything with the tea, it completely slipped my mind..."

"Oh, it's fine, I had breakfast!"

"Hey, Kenya," Satoru turned his head to the side as he washed the cup. "Do you happen to know what he had for a last meal?"

Probably some lollipops just to taunt me.

"He had juice and sunflower seeds."

Satoru shut the tap off. "Huh?"

"I know! Such a weird choice."

Satoru stared at his wet hands and the way water dripped from them. Juice and sunflower seeds. Peculiar indeed.

It's not an allusion to Satoru. Well, expecting to get one was certainly aiming too high. But what is it, then? A hidden message?

Juice and sunflower seeds. Even on his deathbed the man managed to concoct a riddle. Tempting Satoru to solve it. Solve him.

~

No, Satoru was not depressed.

Of course he had been somewhat shaken, only briefly. It had been an abrupt piece of news. But overall, his life's pace didn't falter. There was no morose ambiance in the air — quite the contrary — the sky was clear and the weather was pleasant. The food tasted just as good and his sleep remained tranquil and undisturbed.

He was not in mourning. No he wasn't. If anything, he should've been in celebration. The world was freed of a horrible person. The world got rid of Yashiro Gaku—

Although, whenever that name found its way into his thoughts, Satoru had to stop and clear his mind instantly. Otherwise, his body did that thing. When his eyes stared ahead, and he couldn't move nor breathe, because it felt like a cork was stuck in his throat.

But other than that, nothing changed.

Then the reveal became public. And it kind of made things shift a little.

Firstly, he got calls from everyone that knew him. Even those still living in Hokkaido. Even if they didn't mention a thing about that man.

Secondly, the death of "the most vicious serial killer in Japan's history", certainly made some journalists randomly interested in Satoru. They wanted to interview him, or something like that. He declined, of course. (Not that he didn't want to talk about it. Just not like this.)

Thirdly, he got a call from his editor. "Uwa-a-ah, Fujinuma-sensei, you know, as a matter of fact, recently the volumes of your last manga started selling better. You're becoming more popular! By chance, do you not have any upcoming projects?..."

It was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. To top it off Airi was ought to come back to him, suddenly having a change of mind for "no reason".

But, with bitterness or not, he couldn't deny that it was a period of time when Yashiro Gaku had become relevant to Satoru again.

It was a... Justification to look him up.

There was a lot of coverage of his case in media, as it turned out. Not only in Japan — he was listed among world's most heinous criminals. His modus operandi was studied and his psyche dissected by many researchers. Some were seemingly obsessed with his case. There was even a small community of those infatuated with him. Him, specifically, even if they didn't condone his acts.

Satoru wasn't offended. He found it humorous instead — he was reminded of the group of girls in his class who kept following Yashiro-sensei around, who gave him chocolates for Valentine's, and hitched rides to the gym with him.

No wonder the same happened even after his true nature got revealed. His methods had been praised — just like how he'd been praised for his excellence in teaching, how he'd been looked up to by children and adults alike. He was a natural charmer, not only that, Yashiro was quite an attractive man. He looked good in every picture available of him online. He looked good even back then when—

Yes, it wasn't unnatural to find a handsome man handsome. That was all there was to it. Satoru was sure that the grasp of these internet followers had been limited. Of course, these people couldn't have possibly known enough about the man they referred to as "Manabu". And since Satoru was the only one who had the right to know "the real sensei"... It was only natural that he felt entitled to know even more.

The world wide web had proved itself useful after all — stored in abundance was information unbeknownst to Satoru before, namely one on Yashiro's Wikitanika page. Like the fact that he used to have a fiancée, whom he killed in 1983, framing it as a suicide.

A fiancée. Didn't Yashiro once tell him that he'd made "a painful mistake" when Satoru coyly asked him: "Why aren't you married, sensei?", that time when Yashiro picked him and his mother off the road?...

Satoru sat all the way back from his laptop screen and laid on his futon with his hands behind his head. He stared at the ceiling in deep thinking, as he liked to.

Yashiro didn't frame anyone for his fiancée's murder. Instead, he made it look like a suicide. That could mean that there simply wasn't anyone who would serve as a good scapegoat. Yet why did he kill her? He targeted children to fulfill his homicidal urges. Her death couldn't have been a way to update his "happy moment". Then, did he kill her because she was onto him?

"A painful mistake". Was Yashiro simply careless with his words? No, that wasn't the case. On that day he chose to reveal his "approach tactic" which had been genuine. There was no reason for him to lie about one thing, yet be truthful regarding another. He emphasized that he'd been "careful ever since". An obvious conjecture — there was a slip-up, she'd figured him out, and since then he didn't risk having close relationships with anyone.

In other words, Yashiro had been honest. Even if he didn't reveal the specifics, he chose to be candid nevertheless. And it was evident in not just that. Among many other seemingly innocent things Yashiro had told him, in each one's core was hidden a deeper meaning.

And that entailed the following conclusion... Everything that Yashiro had told him ever, borne significance.

Every answer he gave on that fateful February day, too.

The tiny spark inside of him — his desire to know, only grew in size. The key was right there in Satoru's palm. All he needed to do is line it up with the keyhole and thrust.

He sat up abruptly, shaking the thoughts off his clouded mind. There were still intriguing truths in need to be found.

Besides the references to his ex-fiancée, and later on, to his ex-wife — the "personal life" tab didn't consist of much. It mentioned that Nishizono's previous surname had been "Yashiro" and that he lived with his mother and grandfather in Sapporo before enrolling in university.

Was he brought up in a single mother household as well? Satoru's mind filled in the blanks involuntary. He imagined Yashiro as a young boy, going to school, sitting at a desk, studying, playing with friends, doing simple things all children do. He wondered what he looked like, what he wore. A part of him — the part that still, incredibly, refused to acknowledge that Yashiro had been imprisoned for years — couldn't imagine Yashiro not wearing a suit, perhaps, even as a young boy he was well-dressed? He tried to imagine what Yashiro's mother was like. Was she the abusive type like Kayo's mother was? Was she the cause of Yashiro's emptiness? The article mentioned no such things.

What it did mention more broadly, was his involvement with Nishizono-san — the wife he took his second name from. "Nishizono's wife was thought to have committed suicide by overdose on sleeping pills, until his confession in November 2011." Oh, a suicide, once again. He seemed to have used this tactic only on those close to him. Come to think of it, in 2003 it's what he wanted to use on Satoru...

"Nishizono confessed to have commited nine murders. The confession had been proven credible, after a thorough investigation. The incidents had taken place in the timespan between 1990 and 2002. This included the death of Nishizono Shiro, the Chiba county lawmaker. Notable that all of the victims in that period were of legal age." Nine murders after Satoru's incident, all adults. That's right, he confessed in November 2011, but when was the date of his confession to other homicides? And why such division? Almost like Yashiro chose to reveal those he killed "after Satoru" beforehand.

"The follow-up confession in February 2012 revealed his involvement in cases from as early as 1980. Most cases were of child murder-kidnappings, that were considered closed due to..." Satoru's eye movement halted mid-sentence. Something wasn't right here. The article stated that Yashiro had confessed to the pre-1988 cases in February 2012.

They met in prison on a February day. But he couldn't have given a follow up confession before that. Because they met on February 1st.

Satoru grabbed his phone. It couldn't have been so, it was simply a mistake in the article. He dialed Kenya.

The call did not connect right away, yet Satoru was already strung up. He was sure of what Kenya had told him back then. He said that Yashiro confessed the entirety of his crimes. He said that Satoru was needed as a means of reassurance. Satoru was supposed to find out the exact numbers to correlate.

The call connected. "Kenya—"

"Hello, you've reached Kobayashi Kenya, attorney at law. For the time being I am not available. Please leave a message so I can call you back. Thank you."

Voicemail. Of course, it was the middle of the week. "It's Satoru. Call me back when you can. It's— I have to talk to you about Yashiro. Thanks."

Satoru's finger was tapping the back of his phone. The words on the laptop screen blinded his sight. This— this must've been a mistake. He scrolled through the article once more, refreshed the page, but the information remained the same. If it were true, then— no, Satoru didn't want to think ahead. He opted to find more clues while waiting for Kenya to call back.

There was a spreadsheet in the article: "list of victims". Rows listed names, ages and dates of execution. "Twenty-six were children." — Satoru would never forget these words told to him by his sensei. He recounted the columns with ages ranging from 8 to 11 and surely enough — 26 — was the exact amount of underage victims. All executed in the span from 1980 to 1987. So many kids in just seven years...

Nine other victims had to have been adults killed in Heisei era. Yes, they were lined up one after the other after Yashiro's child murders; the murder spree that began in 1990 seemed more practical in nature, the victims were, according to Yashiro's testimony, hindrances — a rival in love, a co-worker aiming for the same position, a doctor whom was opposed to life support (that one hit different), some soul who was getting suspicious and had been too righteous for her own good... The list went on. Yet there still was an another adult victim killed in Shōwa era — Yashiro's fiancée, of course.

That's 36 total. Thirty-six? Once again Satoru was struck with uncertainty. While he definitely remembered the exact amount of children fallen by Yashiro's hand, the total number of victims which the murderer had told him 5 years ago, faded. Was it 36? Was it? Or was the article mistaken again?

Satoru propelled up on his feet. There was a way to check that list's credibility. The letter that Sawada-san sent him for his birthday a month after the meeting! It had the number of men set to be released for Yashiro's crimes. If the total amount turned up a different number, then the article surely was simply riddled with false facts! Edited by ignorant people with no knowledge— the conclusion Satoru was hoping to come to.

As he frantically searched his shelves, he tried to re-enact that day's events in his head. A tired look on Yashiro's face. His posture hadn't betrayed weakness for the entirety of their conversation, yet when Satoru had asked about his murders, the body language had changed.

Was it because... It was an act? Satoru struggled to recall their conversation as papers — mostly faulty sketches of Airi, which he'd torn out of the sketchbooks in a depressive fit after she'd left — piled around his feet.

"The court papers say you confessed to committing only nine murders," Satoru definitely had said. Then, he had asked about other ones. And then, and then...

Yashiro had not been looking him in the eyes when he'd said his next line, — "...They will announce I confessed...after they deem the confession valid..."

It sounded true when the man said so, because, because... Because he'd heard those words before. Because they were Kenya's words.

Satoru's fingers were finally gripping Sawada-san's neatly folded letter. He slowly opened it to look inside. He summed up all numbers.

It was certain that Yashiro hadn't used his surrogates to make up for several murders at once. Because the only time he did attempt such a bold move — was the time which Satoru prevented from happening. The Shiratori Jun framing case, was the experiment, during which the Ishikari Killer attempted to orchestrate several murders in a single town as someone else's serial murder case.

After the failure of that due to Satoru's interference, Yashiro went back to his done and dusted "single murder — single scapegoat" pattern

According to Sawada-san's letter the sum of all the framed people had been 33, but 3 more cases lacked a scapegoat — the "suicides" of Yashiro's ex-partners and "a death of natural causes" of Yashiro's father in-law. Adding them turned up the final number — 36. The exact amount of victims mentioned in the article.

Yet Satoru's memory conjured up a different numeral. He remembered, the way the killer rubbed his eyes and temples, what appeared to be motions of a tired and emotionally drained man. It was like he regretted the number he was about to utter, but Satoru knew better than to believe that.

Because when Yashiro encaged the side of his face with his hand and looked directly at Satoru through the bar-like fingers, though his eye was half-lidded to imitate a weary look, the dilation of his pupil told nothing but an absolute certainty and an ounce of boast in the final digit... "Thirty-seven," Yashiro had undoubtedly said.

He had no reason to lie to Satoru. There'd been 33 scapegoats, 26 children, 10 adults and an another, unidentified victim, killed before 1988, whom was not a child and did not have a scapegoat. An adult whose death was made to look like a suicide.

Fixated in his place, flummoxed beyond belief, Satoru had his eyes fixed on the letter, questions formicating in his head. Who was the mysterious 37th victim? Why didn't Yashiro bring them up to the court? Why did he confess twice, and when was the date of his second confession?

And what did Satoru really come into the prison's meeting room for?

The memories which refreshed in his mind didn't help either. They rose a torrent of forbidden questions. What does "The Spider's Thread" story mean to Yashiro? What about "Spice"? And what about the other book, the one that Yashiro claimed to have kept by his side perennially?

All this time he denied wanting to find the answers, but now, when just about the only person capable of giving them had been gone, Satoru was having second thoughts.

The sound of his ringtone interrupting his racing mind was both disquiet and desired.

~

Satoru was tapping his foot impatiently as he stood in front of the elevator, waiting.

When Kenya called back, Satoru spelled his question right away. It had been bad enough that the line went silent for a few seconds, receiver perhaps unable to catch whatever sound that Kenya emitted, the worse part was that Kenya had called him over to his office instead of giving the answer directly.

Which could mean one thing — whatever Satoru was about to know, had to have been explained in more than just a few sentences.

Kenya's office wasn't too spacious, but it was neat and had that slight disorderly feel to it — it was obvious that the person occupying it was a hard worker — judging by papers and files cluttering Kenya's desk. This kind of look was what Satoru strived to have in his own workplace, when he still rented his manga office, that is.

"Hello, Satoru," started Kenya with a smile when Satoru walked in. As he pulled back a chair to sit across Kenya, the blonde's expression changed. "You look vexed. Is something wrong?"

Oh nothing, only that I came all the way here to talk about my— about the dead murderer of my mother, Satoru thought. "Nothing. I'm, I'm nearly out of cash on my IC card," he said instead, which was true, but obviously not the actual reason for his irritation.

"Oh, sorry you had to go all the way here... I've got a meeting with a client in half an hour, it's my lunch time now, so I thought I'd see you instead."

Great, now Satoru was robbing Kenya of his lunch. "Let's just get this over with quick, then."

"Let's," said Kenya and did not continue further.

Right. "So. Over the phone I asked you the date of Yashiro's confession—"

"Convict Nishizono had confessed on the 11th of November, 2011."

"Yes; but see, I know that, and I learned that he confessed only to a portion of his crimes."

Kenya stared directly at Satoru, expression not betraying anything. There was a noticeable pause before his next words. "And where did you learn that?"

"There's an article on Wikitanika..."

"Ah, the internet. You know you can't trust it even these days."

"Kenya, when did he confess to his pre-1988 offenses?"

Kenya did not say anything. He cast his eyes downward. "In regard to Nishizono—"

"Yashiro."

Kenya's head canted slightly as he looked back up.

"Call him Yashiro. It's his name. And you told me all those years ago that he confessed it all at once and that the investigation for the Shōwa cases was taking place when I came to visit him." Satoru caught his breath before continuing. "And yet I see now that you were not truthful."

"Satoru..."

Satoru's eyes bored into Kenya's, resolve ripe and full.

"Nothing slips past you, does it, Satoru..." Kenya left his desk and approached one of his shelves with box files stacked behind the glass. He came back soon, having retrieved an abundant set of folders. "These are the Nishizono case papers."

"You have them? How?"

"You don't understand," Kenya shook his head briefly, avoiding Satoru's eyes again. "I was his lawyer."

...it almost felt as if time had stopped. Or maybe, it actually did, and Kenya's revelation had unveiled a new time-related superpower in Satoru. Because his body stilled, entirely, and with it so did the rest of everything.

Then, with the tick of the clock that once again started to boom just like back in Satoru's apartment when he'd learned of Yashiro's death, the world stirred.

"You... What?"

"I've been assigned to be his attorney by the court after he discharged others one after the other. I realized that—"

"You what?!" Satoru rose to his feet abruptly, hands slamming onto Kenya's desk, chair scraping the floorboards.

"There's no need to yell." Kenya's voice was impassive. "It's not what you think."

Satoru's head swam. From standing up too fast, from those deafening words— Kenya's voice was barely audible through the loud beat in Satoru's ears.

"It was our chance, Satoru. He was serving life, but he'd most likely get released on parole since his only proven offenses were attempts. One of his previous lawyers nearly succeeded in pulling him out due to 'mental health issues'. I had to seize him."

Which meant that— "You set me up."

"Listen, Satoru."

"You set me up!"

Neither said a word for a few seconds, Satoru's breaths shallow, Kenya's face spiraling in his vision.

At last, Satoru sat back in his chair in defeat. So that was it.

Kenya hushed his voice. "Listen. This isn't something that makes me a good attorney, but— I couldn't not get it out of him. A confession. After what he did to you, after what my father went through..." the man's face betrayed distress for a second, but he regained his posture. "He knew who I am. And we made an agreement."

"No, no, no, no..." Satoru grabbed his head and propped his elbows on his knees.

"We made an agreement. He would confess if I let him..."

"No. God damn it, Kenya!"

"If I let him meet you," Kenya finished. "The November confession served as a down payment. I'm sorry, Satoru! I know I lied and I know you never wanted to see him again but I had to!"

That's not the problem.

"Then... What's the problem?" questioned Kenya.

Satoru said it out loud. Said something he shouldn't have said. No, he didn't just say it, he thought it in the first place.

Satoru rubbed circles into his eyes with his palms. He tried to shut it off — the faucet that kept spilling wrong thoughts into his head. Black dots began specking his eyesight. Too bright— everything was becoming way too bright, way too clear, like the sky itself, like the smile of a beloved person. It's more fun that way, is it not?

"He confessed to the rest of it right after my visit, didn't he. February 2012."

"Yeah," Kenya suddenly sounded beat. "It wasn't easy, getting you two to meet, you know. Had to pull so many strings. Normally only relatives and attorneys are allowed to meet prisoners... And for a lesser time too. He also requested not to be eavesdropped on. We still had soundless cameras set up, so we could interfere if he were up to no good..."

Kenya's voice droned on in the background as the new information settled in Satoru's brain. These facts which he overlooked all made sense now. Why Kenya had so much information about Yashiro in the first place, why he was informed on the day of his death... Satoru had been foolish. Of course the guard left the room after bringing Yashiro in. Of course they'd been given unlimited time to talk. Yashiro knew...

Yashiro knew all along. That's why, when asked about his reasons to confess, he replied with: "Your question is not 'why' but 'what for'." Because the answer to "why" had been simple. “To see you, Satoru.”

So Yashiro would've been released on parole under normal circumstances. Yet he did not wait for that. He chose to put himself on death row. Because he needed Satoru. And he wanted— what did he want?

Why did he sacrifice himself? Just to speak to Satoru? Just to see him? Just to tell him something?

Ah, no good. Satoru's eyes did that thing again. When they stare ahead. When they fill up to the brink.

"Satoru, forgive me. It was for the best," said Kenya, who kneeled before Satoru's chair. Satoru just sat there, facing down, unmoving. "You've saved everyone in relation to him. The men he'd set up. See? You've restored the justice."

Just like Sawada-san had written in the letter. So he knew, too...

"Did my mom know?"

"No, of course not. She wouldn't allow you to meet him. She'd say it was a trick."

Satoru chuckled humorlessly. She would've been right. "A trick" indeed. A trick set up to make Satoru realize that he can't live without Yashiro.

"Kenya."

"Yes?"

"If you were his lawyer, then... Did— did you receive any of his personal belongings?"

~

Satoru came home with the last of what was left on his IC card. The ride on the train had been dull. No thoughts came to his mind. He only wished to get home quickly.

His apartment building, which he grew sick of, looked just like it did in any other timeline. It seemed like fate itself tied him to this place.

He went up the stairs, sound of those metal steps ever familiar. He walked onward, passing the neighboring doors. This is where he met Yashiro in his first timeline; aged 29, an unsuccessful mangaka coming home from a part time job, he saw a man clad in a dark suit, black hat and leather gloves. Perhaps it was the moment when he first witnessed Yashiro's true self, eye glinting red, having killed someone very precious to Satoru only a few minutes before.

Satoru was sick for looking back on that moment wistfully.

He opened his apartment with his key. The door was locked as it should have been, no intruders to overturn his regular life, no oddity to thwart his peace.

Satoru walked in, closed the door behind him. The corridor was dark and empty. No shoes other than his. He turned around and rotated the lock to the door shut.

"I'm home," he said quietly against the door. He earned no reply.

Something in him was about to gush. The turmoil that started accumulating at the bottom of his stomach several years ago, going up and up, avoiding the region of his heart, it just about reached the top of his throat a week ago, and now it seemed to be filling up his head too.

He held it back again. It had externalized itself in different forms throughout these years, was it spleen or overconfidence, a wish to gulp candies one after the other or a strive to keep as many tiny secrets as possible, whichever it was, he at least attempted to suppress it. And it failed to find release time after time, finally replaced by apathy, now.

After taking off his shoes he took off his winter garments, scarf and jacket, and left them on a rack in the hallway. He carefully set his bag on the floor once he entered the kitchen, then went directly to his room.

It was clean, obsessively so. Since he'd stopped sketching, there was nothing else to do but clean and cook. He would've been proud of keeping his word to his mother if other things hadn't been on his mind.

Which was nothing. Nothing had been on his mind. He did not think of anything in particular as he opened one of his drawers and searched for a hole in its underside with his finger pad. Pencils and pens were scattered inside the drawer, one of which he took and pushed through the hole. He learned about this "false bottom trick" from a manga which he considered to be infinitely better than any of his works.

The upper bottom was lifted up — and the secret contents of the drawer were revealed.

Two notebooks. One used to be a sketchbook, repurposed to write notes in instead — unacceptable, forbidden plans which he never thought he'd consider acting upon — and a second book, much thinner, was from his elementary school years, his personal treasure.

The treasure that should've been able to lull this monster inside of him to sleep.

He pulled both notebooks out and returned to the kitchen. He set them on the table, the sketchbook a bit to the side, and went over to his bag. Upon opening it, he retrieved an another thin paperback.

He put it on the table as well, an identical copy of his own. Both were titled: "Mikoto Elementary School, Class 5-4 Anthology, Big Wave, Small Wave". Both were dated November 1987. Yet one was more timeworn than the other. Not his.

"The prisoners on death row are allowed to keep only one book," Kenya had told him, handing the anthology.

Satoru sat at the table and covered his face with his hands.

"I'm sorry," he said to no one in particular. He didn't move for a while, breathing in, breathing out.

Then he decided to check the book that Yashiro kept close to his person for the past 29 years.

It became apparent when he first attempted to open it. The pages slipped, the chapter that uncovered itself was the one the owner looked at the most.

Of course. It was Satoru's essay.

Satoru's hands trembled. "Why?" he whispered. Why did Yashiro put so much emphasis on Satoru? The words Satoru had written 30, no, actually, twice as much years ago, blurred before his eyes: "The moment you suffer a setback — that is your new starting point."

Two drops landed on the greyed paper. Satoru didn't mean to cry. He sucked in a breath and asked again: "Why?"

This time the question was directed at himself.

He checked other pages too. All of them. No notes, no messages. He compared it to his own anthology, no differences found. His heart clenched when in his own copy he discovered the picture of himself and all of his friends which was taken seven years ago in Hokkaido.

"I'm sorry, everyone." He wanted things to turn out differently, but his heart had been set, perhaps long before he could do anything about it. As he wiped tears from his face, his eyes shifted to the sketchbook, which he'd largely abandoned after what had happened with Airi.

Without meaning to, his hand inched closer and closer. Even though it had been a nonsensical "what-if" scenario, it was starting to make sense to Satoru. It was the last ray of hope that he had. It was "the new starting point". Or, most likely, a tipping point.

If he didn't do something about that which overflowed him from within, he was afraid it would spill over and drown him.

~

Satoru fed the copper-colored thousand yen bill to the IC card recharge machine. The money should be enough to get to Ueno in one go, without changing trains.

As he passed the ticket gates, he felt at ease. He decided to call someone while he was waiting for the train.

He scrolled his contact list. It was actually quite big, but full of people that he didn't care enough about — fans that left him his contacts, people from the evening school, many-many acquaintances he gained in this life that he never reminisced about. Satoru decided that calling his mom first would be best.

"Hey, mom."

"Satoru? You're calling at this time of day?" Not even a greeting, huh. "What's up with that? Are you about to cross some boundary?"

She's a demon. Satoru groaned, "Ahh, so you're friendly as usual. 'Cross some boundary'... What's that even supposed to mean?"

"I'm just kidding. I'm always happy to hear from my only son. So, what's up?"

"Nothing is up! I'm just calling because I felt like it."

"Oh, really," Sachiko said, clearly cautious.

"Yeah, really. How's the weather?"

"Really cold in here, you know how it is. And how's yours?"

"Fresh. No snow, but the temperature is low enough to feel chilly." Satoru's words seemed to disperse in white puffs into the air. He watched them go. "The sky is overcast, so I think it might snow, actually."

"Mm, I see. Hey, Satoru."

"What is it?"

"Did you make up with Airi-chan?"

"Is that the only thing on your mind?!" Satoru grumbled. "Like I said, we didn't fight, not really, so there's nothing to make up about. She's probably busy."

"Do you want to call her?"

"I don't know! I'll think about it!"

"Okay. Satoru. You know I love you, right?"

Satoru looked up at the clouded sky. "E-eh? Where did that come from? I love you too."

"Don't forget that!"

"Alright, sure. Is that a cue for me to say goodbye?"

"...If you feel so."

"Then, bye, ma. Next time, I'll be visiting you."

"...Yeah."

She didn't say goodbye in return, so he hung up. Jeez, judging by her tense voice, she probably thought Satoru was about to kill himself. Haha.

The call was fairly short and the train still didn't arrive. He decided to call someone else. His finger scrolled past Airi's name.

...No, he thought. He'd just be bothering her. Instead, he found Kayo's number.

"Hello?" said the gentle voice on the end of the line. He could hear some noises in the background, domestic ones.

"Hey, Kayo."

"Hi, Satoru! How are you doing?"

"I'm doing... Great! I'm doing great!"

"That's nice to hear. You haven't been around lately."

"Ah, yeah, well you know how life sometimes is. But how are you?"

"Mmm, pretty good. The kids are doing fine, Mirai's preparing for his high school entrance exams."

"Already?!"

Kayo laughed. "Yes, I can hardly believe it myself!"

"They grow up so fast, huh..."

"They do."

"What about Kibou-kun?"

"Kibou? He's right there, do you want to speak to him?"

"Alright."

Satoru heard Kayo beckoning her younger son in an even sweeter voice. He almost teared up, thinking about her, her kids and how much she accomplished.

"Sorry, Satoru, Kibou doesn't feel like talking."

"Well, he's just like his brother when he was a kid! In fact, kind of quite like you."

"A-ah, you think so? I was so restrained back then. It's embarrassing."

"Aw, come on, I quite liked you, you know." He let out a small awkward laugh. "Although at first I did think you were the annoying type."

"Huuh? What's that I'm hearing for the first time?" she retorted playfully.

"Sorry! I mean, you used to say ominous things then pretend you were just kidding. My mom does that, it annoys me so-o much."

"Hmm, I can't recall ever doing such things though..." It was good that she couldn't. Satoru was glad she didn't look back at her grim past. "Hey, Satoru."

He had a little deja vu. "Mm?"

"Do you remember that time when we went up the hill?"

"Oh, yeah."

"The pair of foxes, and the beautiful tree, my... Don't tell Hiromi, but I think it was the most romantic moment of my life."

"Ahaha, really?" Satoru gripped his phone harder. He really did tear up.

"Yes. I... I think of these foxes sometimes, when I look at my kids. Kind of like... Like you brought me to them. Without you, I wouldn't have met them."

Without you, I wouldn't have become what I am either, Satoru thought. He swallowed the lump in his throat and said: "Yes, and the giant sparkly Christmas tree was Hiromi, wasn't he?"

Kayo laughed again. He realized that he'll never get enough of that sound.

"How is he, anyway?" asked Satoru, smiling.

Kayo's voice became calm. "He's doing his best at work. Doctors hardly get a break, you know, but despite that he always spends his weekends with us. Hey, you should come over sometime," Kayo offered.

"I'd love to," sighed Satoru. "He's at work today, right?"

"Yes," confirmed Kayo. "But he's usually free on Sundays."

"I'll—" Satoru's breath hitched. This felt like a lie. "I'll try to make it."

He heard the toddler whining, clearly requiring his mother's attention. Satoru and Kayo exchanged their goodbyes. His train would be approaching soon.

But as the call ended, Satoru immediately received an another.

It was Kenya.

"Satoru!"

"Um, what's up?" Satoru carefully asked, a bit perplexed by Kenya's breathless tone.

"Satoru, where are you right now?"

"I'm about to ride a train to Ueno."

"...Ueno? Why are you going to Ueno?"

"I just needed to muster my courage..." he replied idly, grey sky's reflection dulling his eyes. The train began pulling up to the station. "Oh, my train's here."

"Wait, Satoru!"

"What is it?"

"D-dont," his friend stammered, "don't do anything stupid!"

Ah, so that what was up. Sachiko probably alerted Kenya because she sensed something unusual in Satoru's call to her.

"I won't, don't worry. Goodbye, Kenya."

"Sato—"

But Satoru hung up. There was no need to worry. Even if what he wanted to do was definitely stupid, still.

Good deeds and bad deeds are the same in nature, he recalled someone's saying as he found a seat inside. Ah, those words... Satoru resented them with his whole being.

Especially now, when he could finally get it. The exact meaning behind those words, what drove Yashiro, what made him who he is. (Was — bitterly corrected himself Satoru, his thought process halting for a second, unlike the speeding train.)

When Yashiro had confessed, what he did was technically "good", and Satoru, being as slow-witted as he was at the time, naturally questioned his intention — he couldn't wrap his head around Yashiro doing anything "good".

The truth was — so blatant — that it didn't matter whether what he did was "good" or "bad", because Yashiro's intent had always been to make up for his own flaw.

Like a faded film spliced in a haphazard way, the scenes of that day play out in Satoru's head, the words amassing — each and every bearing significance — thanks to you I'm no longer plagued by my inner need to execute; to wither away steadily inside a cramped room, or get my neck snapped by rope in a few years, it's not that much different, is it; this is the last time we meet; in a way, I consider it to be 'a new starting point' for me; Satoru!

The flaw that nobody but Satoru was aware of, had also been a weapon, the whole time.

It took so long for Satoru to realize. He'd lost so much time, even the time he'd considered to be his treasure, was really such a waste.

The time that Satoru spent unmoving, unfeeling, unwavering: 15 torturous years — not only for Satoru's family and friends, but for an another, unnoticed spectator, living and breathing for Satoru, trying to die for Satoru — then 15 more behind the bars while the spice of his life reveled in hollow prosperity.

The punishment wholly deserved for a merciless killer, if only...

If only Satoru hadn't grown just as attached. Gently, gradually, if only Yashiro hadn't found a way to mold himself into an irreplaceable shape in Satoru's heart. If only its manifestation hadn't appeared — and then hadn't disappeared. If only Satoru hadn't succumbed to that dull, ever present ache — which surely, Yashiro had experienced as well, the whole time.

Heartache. That was the word most fit to describe the feeling swelling in his chest. Supposedly, "feelings" were a product of his brain, but they were not contained in his head — his physical heart was actually sinking. Or, rather, it was hollowing.

But only in the mornings. When he had woken up with the same sordid thought that died before he could cognize it, instead reverberating with his heart, making it quiver slightly, every morning.

Only at nights, when intrusive thoughts hadn't allowed him to sleep, when he had covered his ears just to occupy himself with the sound of his own heartbeat. Aching.

If Yashiro had been enduring something along the lines of that, then it's no wonder he reached out for Satoru. An old sinner in the depths of hell, pulling at his only hope — the spider's thread.

In a world where time travel was possible, how couldn't Satoru — who stood for "good" until the end — not help the "bad" that had asked to be saved?

Without "bad" there wouldn't be any point in "good", would there?

And if "good" and "bad" were the same after all... Then what Satoru was about to do would be neither — just a return of Yashiro's efforts.

~

Just beyond his peripheral vision stands a man wearing black suit pants, a cream colored trench coat and a red tie.

Satoru's gaze fixates and he holds his breath. If this is what he thinks this is, then the moment he moves the real world will swallow the delusion whole.

The man's hands are in his coat pockets, his hair is black just like always — no hint of grey, like Satoru expected, because he was convinced that if he were ever to see his ghost again, it would look like his prison dwelling counterpart. But Satoru won't dare to complain.

Everything about the man on his periphery is so familiar that the words "long time no see" come out in a hushed breathy whisper, a smile forming at the end.

Satoru's stomach is now something akin to a jar full of butterflies — they flutter wildly — did one of them escape? because he can swear he just saw it, passing by the apparition's legs, vibrant blue in color.

That barely matters though, because there is one thing Satoru has to make sure of — that this man really is the personification of his empty heart, or rather, a proper demonstration of whom his heart has been missing — even if it means that the phasm will have to disappear again.

Satoru mentally prepares himself to look at the illusion directly, it's so hard to actually do it, to let go of this heady feeling, so he revels in it just one last time, revels in those eyes, that are surely, looking only at him.

If only he could reach.

There is a loud, blaring noise, which echoes loudly, loudly, loudly in Satoru's ears. A-a-ah, how annoying. Did the train make that sound?

It's snowing— wait, snow, in the train? The hue of everything around him has become dark blue and space has expanded significantly. He trembles — from sudden temperature change, from anticipation — and the slight motion forces him to face his ghost.

His pupils widen. There he is — that man, in front of Satoru, finally; it's him, so much taller than he seemed, looking to the side — Satoru can only see his profile.

Beautifully illuminated. His sensei's profiled look of pride.

~