Actions

Work Header

Hero Child

Chapter Text

 


 

Shigeo has come to hate the fall.

Autumn brings a steady degradation to the bright bloom of summer. The leaves gradually lose their luster, withering and falling to the ground in piles that Shigeo has to sweep up during his turn on chore duty, a task he’s left alone to do. It’s not unusual that his partner abandons him, but he doesn’t mind. It’s precious alone time that allows him some self reflection. The silent murmur of wind is the only noise to keep him company out in the cold.

He doesn’t discover himself in the monotonous labor, nor does he find any relevant knowledge in self as he walks in the dull afternoon light. The sun is hidden behind clouds and the dusk comes colorless and empty. Piles of leaves scatter like ash across the asphalt as he walks home alone.

Shigeo sniffs. He’ll have to start wearing a scarf and gloves, soon.

There’s one thing he likes about the fall, beyond the chores and the cold and the dying colors of summer. He likes the way his little brother’s face lights up as life around him withers and dies, like he’s never seen anything like it. Ritsu claims the colors of fall are beautiful, breathes the words wistfully into the air in white puffs, exhalations of amazement.

Ritsu isn’t here right now, though, so his big brother is left hating autumn, no enthralled sibling to keep his spirits up.

“I’m home.”

It’s a small murmur he doesn’t expect anyone to hear, but his mother calls back to him as he toes his shoes off.

“Welcome home, Shige. Where’s your brother?”

“Still at school. A student council meeting.”

“Maybe you should have waited for him? It’s better for you brothers to walk home together.”

His mother’s suggestion is said warmly, but from Shigeo’s perspective in the chill of the shadowed entrance way, it stings. “You’re right,” Is all he manages, sliding his slippers on. He walks past the kitchen without another word, headed up to his bedroom.

Shigeo sets his bag aside and turns the kerosene heater on, allowing its gentle warmth to heat up the room. It’s one of the only objects here, other than his desk and his rolled-up futon. They used to keep it in the living room, but they bought a new one and Ritsu had entered his room on too many occasions and complained about the cold for his parents to simply throw it out or put it in storage. So it’s his now.

He’ll need a scarf and some gloves for tomorrow; he finds them easily in his closet, tucked away where he’d left them last year. He places the mittens on his desk and listens as the sounds of his brother arriving home play out beneath him— his mother greets him with enthusiasm, and his father chimes in, too.

Shigeo sits in front of the heater with his hands out in front of him, cupping them against the warmth radiating from the vents. If he were to reach forward then he would burn himself against the metal. The heat is preferable to the cold; perhaps the sting of his flesh would take away the bite of the wind, create maybe a permanent warmth.

A knock sounds at his door, and Ritsu enters his room. “Brother?”

His little brother pads closer, silent in his socks, taking to kneeling at his side. The touch that brushes against his shoulder is gentle, nearly timid. He looks between Shigeo and his outstretched hands, as if confused as to why. It’s cold, Shigeo wants to say, even if it isn’t anymore.

“Do you want to go downstairs and set the table with me?”

The hand on his shoulder reaches out and pulls his fingers away from the heater. They’re red, and remain warm even as he brings them closer to himself.

Ritsu sighs, defeated.

Shigeo allows his brother to draw him closer by the wrists, inspecting his fingertips. Ritsu makes a noise in the back of his throat and Shigeo feels that same sting in his chest again.

“You would have burnt yourself if you had kept them there much longer.”

Water drips into a cup half full. It steadily fills up inside of him.

“… let’s go downstairs.”

Ritsu is looking at him like he’s waiting for an answer; Shigeo nods stiffly and they stand from the floor together. It might be that he just needs a warm meal. Ritsu turns the heater off before they leave the room.

They have the radio on while they set the table; a rare occurrence. A news reporter drones on about things that don't matter to Shigeo. Ordinarily, they fill the silence in between bites of food with light conversation, but Shigeo doesn't mind—the radio gives less chance for awkward pauses and those stiff, appraising silences. The background noise is a pleasant distraction.

Ritsu drops a bundle of spoons to the ground in a clatter, startling Shigeo out of his daze.

He turns around to watch as his brother murmurs apologies and kneels to gather them up. The reporter’s grim drawl suddenly becomes clear and icy. “—found in a dumpster. The girl’s identity is currently unknown, but the police investigation is currently underway…”

The radio cuts in and out, static coming in erratic bursts. The words sound garbled, underwater. Ritsu searches his brother’s face as he hovers in place, just as indecisive as the receiver.

“Maybe this isn’t something we should listen to before eating,” Ritsu suggests mildly, giving no hint of his distress. His mother frets a moment more before she coincides with a nod, and he gratefully switches the radio off.

They eat in silence; none of them bother with conversation.

Later that night, Shigeo brings the radio up into his room, where Ritsu can’t tell him he shouldn’t listen to the reports. They’re talking about the weather, about the cold snap and about crops, of all things.

Shigeo wonders if they’ve ever found a body in the fields before, and whether or not human flesh would be deleterious to what would have otherwise been a healthy harvest. He rolls over in his futon and falls asleep wondering what rice would taste like, should it have been gathered from soil rich with blood.

School the next day is much of the same. In making their way there, Ritsu says nothing of the ashy piles of leaves nor the gray, sullen sky; he keeps his head tilted down, and Shigeo thinks to look down too, wondering what could possibly draw his brother’s attention to the ground. He finds nothing of interest between the cracks lining the pavement.

Ritsu sniffs.

“Are you cold?” Shigeo asks.

“I’m alright,” Ritsu says, voice wavering as his intense concentration on the ground is broken. They stop walking. Shigeo is already shucking his mittens off, drawing Ritsu closer by the wrists, as had been done to him yesterday. He pulls the blue cotton over his little brother’s trembling fingertips and finds the weariness in his heart lifting as Ritsu’s exhausted expression melts into one of exasperated joy.

“Thank you.”

“They’re too small for me. You can keep them.”

“I’ll tell mom you need a new pair,” Ritsu nods, struggling to flatten out his smile. A light flush creeps up his neck, and whether it’s from the cold or embarrassment, Shigeo doesn’t know. He simply nods. He can tell his little brother is grateful.

Their two worlds are different, and yet the same. Ritsu sees the endless colors of fall—sees reds and oranges that mix together like oil paints, colors that impress so much of the setting sun. Shigeo sees the brown of the leaves and the gray of the sky, sees ice where Ritsu sees fire. But they’re brothers, the two sides of the same coin, and as they walk to school hand in hand, those worlds meld into one.

School is much of the same as the day before, but Shigeo isn’t put on chore detail. For just today, it’s somebody else’s responsibility. He mulls that over in his head and decides he’s relieved to not have to stay late today. Ritsu and he can walk home together.

His last class of the day is Math—his least favorite. He likes it even less than P.E. He’s terrible with numbers, try as he might. In the past, Ritsu had offered to study with him when he had overheard his mother berating his big brother for his low grades, and he had shamefully turned him down.

The teacher is writing things on the chalkboard and Shigeo is gone. Most of the boys in the class are. He finds himself absorbed with the paper of his notebook, staring at the numbers, at what he doesn’t understand. He looks at his hand, his fingers wrapped around his pencil. Ritsu’s had been nearly blue this morning.

The girl seated in front of him is openly dozing, so when the teacher calls out her name she jerks to wakefulness and he repeats the question.

Haruka—he knows who she is. She’s popular. She’s even the girl’s volleyball captain. Shigeo sweats, keeping his eyes down, glued on his book.

She turns her head—just a little—and hisses in a low whisper. “Help me out!”

Shigeo can’t breathe. There’s a lump in his throat; he stares down at the page of numbers and explanations before him and finds it impossible to decipher. He doesn’t even remember what the question was. He gives a tiny shake of his head and she grumbles something as the teacher calls her out for her dozing.

“I’m tired from practice, that’s all,” She mutters underneath her breath. “Thanks for the help, Kageyama-kun.”

He swallows; his pencil is slippery in his hand, so he sets it down. The teacher is looking at him, but the intensity of his gaze is lesser when compared to the heat of her glare.

“Kageyama, can you answer this question? You were paying attention, so you should know it.”

Shigeo looks at his notebook, vision clearing. It’s written down. This is one he knows—it’s just one of the examples with the numbers in a different order.

“U-um, could it be, 32…?”

“You’re right. See, there you go! Paying attention has benefits, Haruka,” He admonishes her without a hint of pity, and the top of her ears go red. A few of the girls laugh under their breath and she ducks her head. She turns her head and he’s shocked to see furious tears in her eyes.

“You did that on purpose.”

“I, I didn’t,” He stammers an excuse, but she’s already turned back around, keeping her head low as she fights off what is obviously tears. The teasing couldn’t have been pleasant, but it’s a situation Shigeo is familiar with. A wrong answer and some scolding results in laughter—it always has.

Their teacher has resumed his lecture, and the children that had laughed are back to dozing off. He doesn’t understand. The rest of the class passes by in a confusing blur, and when the bell rings and everyone stands to leave, he gently taps her shoulder.

She turns to look at him, perplexed and seemingly unconcerned, and the shift in mood startles him.

“What?” She asks, clearly impatient. “I have practice, so if you’re just going to stare at me…”

“I’m sorry for before,” He says, tripping over the words. He can’t let it go the same way she has; she should know he hadn’t meant to do that. Shigeo isn’t the best at understanding situations like these, but her tears had made it clear that he had been wrong in answering the question.

“Don’t worry about that,” She smiles. Shigeo’s tense shoulders slump. “I get it.”

“Get it…?”

“Yeah. I understand, so don’t worry. See you tomorrow.”

She leaves him behind with that and nothing else. Her smile and her reassurance is disconcerting. He must have misunderstood somehow, or been mistaken in what he thought he saw. Maybe those hadn’t been tears at all. A terrible regret lingers at the back of his mind, sitting heavy and bitter on his tongue.

Ritsu is busy with another student council meeting today. Shigeo doesn’t wait for him.

There’s one thing he can stand about walking home alone—there’s a secret path he takes, sometimes, a route that not even Ritsu knows about. Today, he takes that path. It’s a lonely side street that branches off into an alleyway that leads back to the main road.

There’s never anyone else around; a few people might pass him by on his way, an old lady or another child his age, similar in loneliness. But he’s the only one who knows about her.

Shigeo stops in front of the shadowed alleyway, crouching low to the ground. He reaches a hand out into the darkness, murmuring soothingly under his breath.

A black cat ambles out from a cardboard box, bounding toward him on wobbling legs. She’s so little, it’s hard to believe she’s an adult.

The small cat purrs as it approaches Shigeo’s fingertips, unassuming and friendly. She butts her little head against his palm and he strokes her back as she mewls contentedly, comfortable in his presence.

He pulls out an unopened carton of milk from his bag, and his empty bento box, too. He pours half of the milk into it, watching as she excitedly winds her lithe form around his legs, looking up at him expectantly. He sets it down for her. She purrs even as she drinks; Shigeo knows he shouldn’t interrupt her, but he can’t help in patting her head. He sips from what’s left of the carton.

It’s a quiet moment in which two good friends share some milk and in that moment, they’re both happy. Even in this cold alley, in this dark street, where the dusk comes with creeping shadows and a wind that howls and bites, Shigeo feels warm. It starts in his chest and tingles up through his toes to his fingertips, but he supposes that might be the cold after all.

He shoves his hands into his pockets and looks down at the cat that can do nothing but meow at him as he leaves the alleyway. She trails after him, sometimes, but never follows very far.

He wishes he could take her home.

When winter comes, there’s no way she’ll survive out in the cold like this. Each time he thinks to call her closer, to draw her to his home—to perhaps show his parents her sweet, scared face, to beg and say, “We can’t leave her out here like this, can we?”—she turns around and returns to her cardboard box. Ritsu might stick up for him and the lonely, sickly cat, but he hates animals in truth and would resent her for her fleas and her frailty; the meows that fill Shigeo’s heart with fondness would fill his with hate.

He knows he has only himself to blame when he returns home and his mother scolds him again for not waiting for his brother. He tells her he’ll wait tomorrow, then, and she accepts that.

He sits in front of the television that night and watches cartoons with eyes glazed over and mind far away. It’s times like these that losing himself isn’t such an issue as it is like when he nearly burns himself reaching out to touch the iron of his heater. There’s no harm in zoning out to the glory of judicature, a symphony that sings of purity and corruption. He watches as superheroes flatten their enemies against the might of their charisma and their innate goodness. It mesmerizes him.

Shigeo watches as the hero convinces a desperate girl not to jump off the edge of a cliff, although she’s unaware of the assembly of people gathered below to catch her. It’s both a saving from the metaphorical madness she’d been steadily driven into and a very literal death. When she takes his hand and returns down the slope to run into her brother’s open arms, Shigeo wonders if she knew she was going to be saved all along, if her holding out was intended and not predestined.

Shigeo wonders: if there are heroes in this world, then why did that girl have to die?

He shuts the television off and heads up to his room, opening the window. A breeze ushers in a chill, one that snaps around his naked arms like a rabid animal, clinging with teeth and biting to bone. Seconds span into minutes of staring out at a flickering streetlight; he listens to the dying hum of summer, the waning trill of cicadas buzzing like a fly in his ear. It takes a while before he realizes that it’s cold, that the house has drafts, Shigeo. Are you stupid? Is there something missing inside of you?

He doesn’t close the window. He stares out into the sky and seeks out the moon where it flits between passing clouds, big and bright and ethereal.

“Could I have saved her?”

The moon doesn’t answer him. It stares back with a gaping mouth, a broken jaw. Within the confines of a dumpster, her broken body provided nothing. She decomposed into an infertile corpse that was worth less than compost and she didn’t take the hand of a superhero to find her path in life, whether that be to grow into rice or live strong and free.

She died a meaningless death.

Maybe Shigeo could have done something. There’s the possibility he just barely missed taking the path that would have intertwined their fates and labeled him a hero or a savior. Shigeo thinks that it’d be nice—to be called a hero. It’d be nice to save someone.

In the morning, he and Ritsu eat breakfast together with their parents. He doesn’t have a student council meeting today.

“Oh, mom,” Ritsu starts, remembering something. “Brother needs a new pair of gloves. His don’t fit him anymore.”

“Oh, is that so? I’ll have to grab a pair after work today. Just bear with the cold a little longer, Shige.” He nods. He has no problem with cold hands if it means Ritsu is warm.

On their way to school, Shigeo thinks to ask him something.

“Ritsu,” He begins, and his brother immediately turns his full attention on him. It’s only slightly unnerving. “What do you think a hero is?”

“Hm—like a superhero? Isn’t that someone with powers?”

“No,” Shigeo pauses. He struggles for a moment, pinned down by his brother’s curious stare. “Not someone with powers. An everyday hero.”

“Like the police? I’m not sure what you mean…”

“Maybe,” Shigeo murmurs, considering that. He’d only ever seen policemen standing around before. “What makes a hero a hero?”

“Hm,” Ritsu ponders that for a moment before answering. “Well, for me… a hero is someone who delivers justice. He doesn’t care for himself. He prioritizes other’s needs above his own, and…” His little brother’s expression warps as he looks up into the ashen sky. “He protects people.”

Shigeo nods.

“Why?” Ritsu turns his attention back to him. “Why do you ask?”

He doesn’t know why, so he doesn’t answer.

Ritsu tilts his head curiously. “Brother?”

“It’s just…” He averts his gaze almost shyly. “I was thinking, and… I’d like to be a hero. You know, some day.”

“Oh,” Ritsu freezes, like he’s not sure how to respond. After shifting through a few complex expressions that look difficult to make, he settles on an awkward smile. “You’re already my hero.”

Shigeo takes that information—that lie—and seals it away in his heart. He can only nod.

“I’d like to be a hero for everyone,” A pause. “I know I can’t... but I just want to protect something that means something to me.”

Ritsu stares at him openly. “That’s noble of you.”

“It’s not really noble… it’s kind of simple,” He shrugs. “I want to be strong enough to protect things like, my values, and other people… I'd like to protect you, too.”

“Then that makes you a hero.”

Shigeo and he meet each other’s gazes. There’s only sincerity sparkling in the depths of his little brother’s eyes. He accepts it without question.

Chapter Text

During recess, Shigeo chooses to read.

His classmates choose to gossip about the dead girl.

“... it happened so close by. The police aren’t even releasing any more information!”

His attention on the book wavers. Their tones are hushed, but their conversation still dominates the small room, commanding the attention of anyone and everyone. It’s a taboo topic their parents don’t allow them to discuss at home, after all.

“I heard my mom talking about it with my dad. She said that the girl was kidnapped on her way home from school…”

Shigeo shifts in his chair, sweat gathering above his brow.

“What was her name? It was Saki something, wasn’t it…”

“Ugh, I don’t even want to hear it! Does it really matter?”

“Of course it does! My sister knew her friend!”

“Who cares who she knew? She’s dead now.”

A lump gathers in his throat, and he readjusts his grip on his book, palms clammy. This intense feeling is one of anxiety, hot and creeping—he wants to say something, to stand up for the girl underground. But nothing comes out when he turns his head and opens his mouth, staring at the gaggle of girls.

“How old was she… she was our age, wasn’t she? Fourteen, fifteen?”

“She was even younger than that! She was a first year!”

“Apparently, she was bullied, and after all that she was killed. Isn’t the universe cruel?”

Shigeo watches as the girls giggle behind their hands. Haruka is one of them, snickering meanly about a girl who can do nothing to defend herself.

“Is that why they’re sending out notices about walking home alone? My mom keeps nagging me about it!”

“She’s a burden even after dying,” Haruka says, tone tinged with disgust.

“Maybe she was destined for that. It might be scary, but we don’t have to worry. We’re different.”

A numbness crawls up Shigeo’s back as he resolutely closes his book. He wants to be a hero. He wants to protect those who can’t protect themselves.

“You shouldn’t say those things about her.”

Haruka turns to look at him, shock written all over her face. Her smile is frozen and putrid. “Huh? Kageyama-kun, did you say something just now?”

The tension in the air is palpable, but he can’t back down now. Her reaction only emboldens him.

“I said, you shouldn’t say things like that about her.”

“Do you have a problem with me or something?” She asks, and her friends catch on to the danger in the air and turn their gazes onto him as well, razor sharp.

No, I—”

“Seriously? Just come out and say it instead of being vague,” One of her friends butts in. There’s four of them, and only one of him. His palms are wet with perspiration. “Act like a man!”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Haruka says, waving a hand. “Whatever. Let him say what he wants. We’ll just go.”

“We don’t have to,” The girl complains, looking from him to her, scandalized. “ He’s the one with a problem!”

“That’s the kind of person he is,” She shrugs, sending him a disgusted look. The girls don’t say a single thing more to him, leaving with murmurs under their breath. It doesn’t feel good, but he doesn’t regret speaking up.

It’s only later in the day during P.E when Shigeo comes to grasp that he’s made a mistake.

They’re playing volleyball. It’s not an easy sport; Shigeo is clumsy and slow, so it’s all the more difficult for him. Haruka is the leader of the girls’ team, and she takes charge easily. Leadership comes to her naturally—she’s already the captain of the volleyball team, after all.

The boys’ team doesn’t do so well. The girls are winning. It’s midway into their second last round when it’s Haruka’s turn to serve the ball.

Across the court, she meets his eyes.

Her expression seems to say, this is for you , and then she jumps into the air and she hits the ball to where it finds its target with a resounding smack.

He stumbles to the ground and his nose gushes blood. The girls all scream with disgust as crimson leaks onto his shirt and onto the floor, splotches of red a nauseating contrast against white. He raises a trembling hand to stem the flood and it does nothing, just coats his fingers. The teacher runs to him with a cloth and he presses it shakily to his face.

Haruka approaches him with an apologetic pinch to her face. Her lips twitch, amusement barely held at bay. It’s blatant enough for Shigeo to see it for what it is; her pleasure at having hit him dead on is thinly disguised. “I’m so sorry, Kageyama-kun! It was an accident!”

There’s tears in her eyes, again. Only they’re from laughter, this time.

“It’s okay,” he says, voice muffled and thick. His face is throbbing and his nose feels both hot and cold at the same time; there’s pressure building at the back of his eyelids.

He’s lost something, he can tell.

The teacher takes him to the infirmary, where the nurse frets and fusses, but eventually decides it’s no big deal. She sends him to change back into his school uniform.

His classmates stare at him in Math. None of them ask him if he’s okay; and that’s fine, really. He doesn’t expect them to.

“Did you see that shot?” One of them murmurs behind their hand, laughter barely held at bay. “Haruka-san’s got great coordination…”

“It was like—bam! And he went down,” Another replies, both laughing. The whispers continue on throughout class, too quiet for the teacher to catch and scold them for.

The end of the day is slow to come, but it comes all the same. Shigeo waits for Ritsu near the exit he knows his little brother will take. They meet eyes through the glass doors and he claps a hand over his mouth, shocked. Shigeo turns, listening as the door opens, as his brother’s worried voice drifts closer.

“What happened?” He asks, jogging to catch up with him. “Your face… how did that happen?”

“My face...” Shigeo raises a hand to his nose, as if only remembering it. He wonders how bad it looks. “It was an accident.”

“If it was an accident, then how?”

Shigeo is quiet. Ritsu’s worry changes shape, twisting into something ugly. “Who did this?”

“It happened during gym,” Shigeo says instead. “A stray volleyball caught me. It’s okay.”

“Does it hurt?” Ritsu asks, momentarily smothering his anger for his brother’s sake. “It looks painful…”

“It hurt at first, but it’s okay now,” Shigeo lies, ignoring the steady throbbing beneath his skin. It twinges with pain for every beat of his pulse, sometimes drifting, and other times intensifying. It hurts; of course it still hurts.

“... are you sure? Maybe we can put some ice on it when we get home…”

He gives a sad shake of his head. Ritsu purses his lips; he doesn’t push him, but once they get home he does bring a pack of carefully wrapped ice up to him in his room, even if it’s unnecessary.

 


 

Haruka has had her revenge—so Shigeo doesn’t expect it to go beyond the giggling, the teasing. He doesn’t expect it to seep from yesterday into today.

But Haruka isn’t done.

She doesn’t say anything to him in class when she sees him, but she finds her way to him during lunch.

He’s lifting his spoon to his mouth when she walks by his desk; he doesn’t expect anything because she’s hit him in the face and it can’t get much worse than that.

Her hand flies out like a whip, and his lunch—curry and rice—slides off his desk onto the floor, splattering up her socks and across the tile.

Kageyama-kun !” She shouts. When people turn to look for the source of trouble, they see Haruka with curry on her shoes and Shigeo’s outstretched hand reaching for where his food once was, almost as if he’d thrown it at her. “How could you?!”

“I didn’t—”

“Clean this up!”

“But you pushed it.”

“Why would I do that?” She asks, incredulous. The look of outrage on her face twitches, and he’s sure he’s the only one who sees her paper thin mask flicker for a moment as she struggles not to laugh. His classmates are looking at him expectantly, and he realizes what this is.

“Just clean it up, Kageyama,” Someone mutters.

Shigeo can’t protest. Without looking at her, without saying a word, he takes his napkin and crouches at her feet. She stops him.

“Wait—don’t tell me you’re going to waste it?”

That gets him to tilt his head up. His stare is open and blank and she gestures to the food like he’s a idiot or a dog that can’t follow a command. “Eat it. It’s not like the floor is that dirty.”

A laugh ripples from child to child until she can no longer contain her glee. Her smile is brief and wicked; she smothers it with a false rage. “Come on already, just eat your lunch!”

“... off the floor?” Is all he comes up with. It’s hysterical. The laughter in the air is infectious. The muscles of her jaw twitch as she fidgets with her hands, fighting off a laugh.

“You aren’t deaf, are you? You’re making me feel bad. Don’t blame others.”

Her anger sobers the room. Shigeo looks at the curry, splattered on the tile. He looks at her shoes, covered in rice and sauce.

Water steadily drips into an overflowing cup. The pressure behind his eyes throbs in time with the rapid thud of his heart, a dizzying sort of shame overcoming him. Humiliation is the greatest pain to bear. The eyes on him are unmoving and all seeing.

The silence that follows is expectant.

There isn’t any escaping this. No one will speak up for him. No one will tell her to stop. This is his pain to bear alone. The children that would leave him to do the chore work of three students alone are children who wouldn’t say a word to stop his prostration, and they don’t.

Shigeo brings his mouth to the floor and begins to lick.

It’s a unique torture, he thinks. If she had brought him a bed of hot coals to sit on and press his forehead to in dogeza, he’d choose that over this—the taste of curry and dirt is the taste of ignominy, a pain without meaning or reason.

A minute passes. It’s just a minute, but it feels like hours.

The teacher opens the door and sees him on the floor and it ends. Haruka is told to sit down, and he is given the proper tools to clean his mess up with. No one looks at him anymore, but the shame ebbs only like a tide—it returns and it recedes and it returns and it recedes.

Children cannot be heroes, and Shigeo hates that.

The bullying carries over him like a cloud, like a specter, one that clings to his back and follows him home. Ritsu asks him what’s wrong repeatedly and he says nothing is wrong because that’s all the hurt in his heart allows him to say.

The children in his class begin to tease him when they would have otherwise ignored him—a bump in the hallway, a balled up piece of paper to the back of his head. They roughhouse with him when they wouldn’t have before, and it’s normal play for middle school boys so the teachers don’t notice. Some of his classmates watch, but most of them don’t meet his eye for fear of catching his shame—like it’s a disease or a virus, like he’ll pass his indignity onto them somehow.

Shigeo at first believes it’ll pass. That she’ll get bored. That the kids in his class don’t hate him enough to humor her with it for much longer than a day or two. His belief continues on until a week passes, but it only gets worse. It’s not enough for her.

His beliefs change. He begins to believe he’s safe if he’s alone, so he doesn’t eat lunch in class anymore, even if it means he doesn’t eat at all. He asks his mother for change in the morning and goes to a vending machine outside and buys milk.

Haruka catches him in the empty schoolyard, milk carton in hand. She approaches him with confidence, more confidence than he’s ever seen in her. What she’s stolen from him she’s gifted to herself in an ego—he’s never seen a person so pleased in creating misery.

“What’s this?”

She’s talking about the milk in his hand. He looks at it, and then at her.

“Milk.”

“Do you like it?”

What an odd question. He nods. It’s his favorite.

“Is this your whole lunch? … man, that’s kind of sad.”

Shigeo opens his mouth to protest, to defend himself. If they’re alone she can’t gain traction with the power of a crowd and he doesn’t think that she’s like to hurt him when there’s a lack of an audience. But he’s wrong. She snatches the milk from his hand before he can react and opens it, taking a sip.

“Give it back.”

“You want it back? Okay.”

She stretches the carton out so he reaches for it, but she snatches her hand back at the last moment and instead raises it above his head and upends it.

Milk splashes over his face and soaks his shoulders, plastering his bangs to his forehead. He chokes and blinks it away, rubbing his eyes. He’s blind and defenseless, so she takes it a step further and shoves him to the ground.

Shigeo lands in a messy heap.

There’s so much hatred in this world, he thinks, and so little justice. The hate in her comes out in this, in her shoving him to the ground and laughing as he parts his sopping wet bangs to look up at her, feeling the emptiness in his chest like a wound, gaping and raw.

She laughs and he stares and the world continues to turn, based on cruelties like this, like the girl in the dumpster that— what was her name, does it matter, my sister’s friend knew her . Saki. Saki Nishimoto is dead because someone hated her enough to kill her and nobody did anything to change that.

Shigeo is angry. The injustice of it all lights a flame in him that comes to life as quickly as it sputters out and dies. The hate in him builds up and ripples like a cup filled to the brim with water—she pours and continues to pour. It’s there—it’s in his grasp, he can reach out and drown it and then, perhaps, he’ll feel something—

But then it’s gone.

Shigeo doesn’t know how long he sits there in the dirt for, but when he refocuses he’s alone, unmoved from where she’d thrown him. The sun has shifted in the sky.

He stands up. Wipes his hands on his pants. Goes to his cubby. Grabs his bag. He leaves school and doesn’t notice when students passing him in the hall cringe, pinching their noses and waving their hands in front of their faces.

He goes straight to the alleyway to find her.

As soon as she hears him approaching she scampers from her cardboard box to him and he feels fondness bloom in his heart, a terrible contrast to the pain of earlier. He realizes she’s only so eager because he reeks of milk, not because she’s excited to see him. He still crouches to greet her.

For one terrible second, Shigeo raises his hand and considers bringing it down on top of her sweet, small head. He considers continuing the cycle of abuse the world is fueled on. But he doesn’t. She puts her paws on his knee and reaches up to lick his nose and it’s because he stinks but it still makes him smile so much his face feels sore. He rubs behind her ears and she purrs and purrs; he cries but she doesn’t mind one bit. She doesn’t hide from him like he’s a disrepute, defiled thing.

It’s been about a year since he found her curled up on the side of the road, fur matted thick with blood and grime. He had used a bottle of water to wash her, and had taken his jacket off and used it to dry her. It was a sloppy, poor method of care, but he wanted to help her even when he didn’t know how. She had purred even while in pain, and he’d found this box and laid her in it and quietly told her to stay put. And she had.

By the time he stands to leave her and head home, it’s already dark out.

 

 

He opens the door to a crying mother, consoled by Ritsu, who looks sickened. His father is nowhere to be seen.

“Oh my god,” She says as soon as she sees Shigeo, surging forward to bring him into her arms. “My baby. My baby boy. He’s here.”

Ritsu is pale faced and trembling. He approaches Shigeo like he’s a ghost, touching his arm as if to make sure he’s real.

“Brother, you…”

“You worried us sick,” His mother scolds him as she brushes his bangs back so she can place a kiss on his forehead. Like his cat, she doesn’t seem to mind that he smells faintly sour. “Where were you?”

“I was… busy,” He says simply, unwilling to divulge his secret. For just a moment, she seems to doubt that—it looks like she wants to refute it—but she drops it, instead smiling at him and hugging him once again. He doesn’t really get it, but she smells nice and is warm. He wraps his small arms around her and returns her embrace. “What’s going on?”

“The news,” Ritsu says dumbly. “They… just hours ago...”

“They found a body,” His mother says, inexplicably blunt. “Your father went down to the station—Ritsu, bring me the phone.”

Shigeo feels that pain in his chest splinter and break. A body. His little brother brings the phone as asked and he switches places with her, bringing Shigeo close in a hug he’s too numb to return.

“Are you okay?” Ritsu searches his eyes; for what, he doesn’t know. “You… where were you?”

“Nowhere,” He answers immediately. A complex look flits over Ritsu’s face, a look Shigeo can’t understand. He nods after holding his gaze for a moment longer.

“Okay. Do you want to change? You don’t smell very good.”

Shigeo’s stiff frown breaks into a smile. He very nearly laughs, and that —that disconcerts his brother. Caught off guard, Ritsu has no response other than a very puzzled smile.

“I’ll go clean up.”

By the time he finishes washing up, his father has returned home. It’s then that he receives a lecture; for his carelessness, for his leaving class early, for his disregard of his own safety. They ask him again where he was and he lies, says he doesn’t remember, says he just wandered and got a bit lost.

They don’t believe him, but he doesn’t understand why they’re so worried about where he was if he’s here now and is fine.

Shigeo wants to ask about the body, but he can’t bring himself to.

 

He already knows who it is, after all.

Chapter Text

In the morning, his mother gives him a pair of new mittens—pink, soft, and warm. They are brand new.

“You spoil him too much,” His father chastises her as she watches him put them on, smile wide.

“Aren’t I allowed to cherish my children? I have only them, after all.”

“What about me?” He grumbles, scratching his stubble sullenly. Ritsu’s laugh carries from the kitchen and his mother joins him. The nervousness in the air hangs dense and heavy like a fog, latching on to Shigeo and collecting around him in a tension that he can’t shake, not even as she kisses the top of his head. She kisses Ritsu as he comes around the corner, who seems unaffected by the thick, heavy air surrounding them. He smiles brightly and it cuts through the fog, just a little.

“Be quick getting there, and don’t split up. Take care of your little brother, Shige!”

They leave the house together and arrive at school unharmed. Shigeo doesn’t know what they were expecting to happen. He makes sure to take his gloves off and stuff them in his jacket pocket before he heads inside. He’d hate to lose them.

The morning passes with a lumbering sort of uneasiness, and Shigeo can't tell what it is, but something has changed. The dynamic in the classroom isn’t as hostile as it once was, and it’s not until Math as he sits and stares ahead that he realizes why that is.

Haruka is gone.

Absent due to a sickness or an injury, maybe. For whatever reason, she isn’t here today. There’s a thousand logical explanations for her being missing; Shigeo can recount them all with clarity. A family emergency, a sick pet, the flu—but the conclusion that he comes to isn’t logical.

The news is eerily quiet about the murder of yesterday, but they speak seriously all the same. Parents are advised to drive their children to school, to make sure they move in groups, to never leave them alone. The body had been found not but three blocks from his middle school. Not in a dumpster, this time, but underneath a tarp left on the side of an abandoned road.

They don’t mention suspects, evidence or clues; there’s no hint as to who’s doing this or why they’re doing it, just that the girl was aged fourteen and that it’s terrible, how terrible. How horrible for her to have died. What a tragedy.

Shigeo wonders what tragedy really is; he’d always considered it a force majeure against humanity, a thing they had no power over. It’d been to him a natural occurrence, like the untimely death of a loved one or the changing of the season from summer into autumn.

He hadn’t thought tragedy to be the murder of a helpless child—a decision had been made, after all. In the lack of attention given to their loneliness, in the disregard of their safety, and in the cowards that saw all of it but did nothing. There is little strong and true in the world.

There aren’t any heroes.

He doesn’t know what tragedy is and he doesn’t know what it means to be a hero. Ritsu had claimed justice and kindness, but Shigeo had found kindness lacking and that justice brought wrath upon him, and that wrath brought him to where he is now—sat upright in bed listening to the static hum emitting from a silent broadcast. Shigeo, you think too much. Go to bed. The walls are thin.

He turns the radio off.

He sleeps only fitfully, and when he sits down at his desk the next morning the announcements are strangely absent. The classroom has stolen into a solemn hush. Their teacher stands at the front of the room with his hands clasped in front of him and he looks very grim, very pale. The children know that something is wrong.

“Class, I have a very unfortunate announcement for you today…”

Shigeo’s palms are clammy. The desk in front of his is empty.

“It’s concerning Haruka, and the girl they found the other night,” There are murmurs. Their teacher waits until they fall silent before he continues. “I’m very sorry to tell you that Haruka won’t be coming to class anymore.”

He feels his stomach fall to his feet, and then he feels nothing at all.

Shigeo wonders what justice is, then, if not this.

After school, Shigeo waits for Ritsu in the same place as always, but when his brother steps outside, it’s to tell him he has to wait even longer.

“The student council has to design some advisories,” His little brother explains with a fidgeting impatience. It’s clear to Shigeo that he’s stepped away from his duties to tell him this and needs to get back to them as soon as he can. He doesn’t need to say it for it to be obvious. For once, this very small thing is so very clear to him.

“It’s okay, Ritsu. Tokugawa is here today, right?”

“Huh? Yeah, he is, but…”

“Then, he can walk you home, right?”

“He can, but brother—”

“It’s alright. I’ll head home now and see you there later.”

Ritsu looks at him and then back at the school, unusually indecisive. Shigeo thinks the answer is clear—this is easier for both of them, and it simplifies a complicated situation. This whole ordeal has been inconvenient, especially for Ritsu.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Shigeo says it firmly; he even smiles. Ritsu’s shoulders slump and he does another double take between his brother and the door, torn between two conflicting needs, two different paths. Ritsu makes his decision.

“Be careful, brother. Please don’t wander like you did the other day. Mom will have a heart attack if you’re late again.”

That’s the last thing Shigeo hears from his brother.

His feet carry him down the same lonely path as yesterday and the day before that. Leaves crunch underfoot, swept away by the wind, wind that whips and bites through the thin fabric of his school uniform. It’s cold, today.

For some reason, he doesn’t put his gloves on.

The hollow ache that Haruka had left him with takes him away somewhere else, where he doesn’t know enough to care about the fact that the yawning emptiness of these roads creates no longer a solitude, but a danger. It’s enough that he doesn’t feel the eyes that follow him from side street to alleyway, where he crouches and holds out an imploring hand.

No one comes rushing to greet him.

“Hey,” He calls out softly, blinking into focus. She’s not coming. He squints into the shadows of the alleyway, allowing his eyes to adjust. The streetlight doesn’t reach here, so he stands and steps further into the darkness, calling out as he does.

A small lump mewls in her cardboard box.

He drops his bag and falls to his knees. It’s still hard to see, but what he sees is fur matted with blood, small form curled up into a weak ball. It’s like he’s been whisked back a year in time—the situation is the same, but this time the panic inside of his chest is explosive, bottled up only to be broken.

Shigeo hovers over her form and feels helplessness rise like bile in his throat, a dizzying asphyxiation. There had been sorrow and hurt in being bullied, but the ache in his heart then had been slow and controlled, predictable. This is completely different. It’s not him that’s hurting. He doesn’t know what to do to help her; this requires more than a wet cloth and a cardboard box to fix.

He rushes out of the alleyway, looking around for people. It’s rare to see anyone here, so when he spots a man walking by on the other side of the road his heart leaps into his throat. Shigeo thinks that he’s lucky—the right time, the right place, and all that.

“Excuse me!” He calls out, running toward him. The man is tall to Shigeo, who is so little; he is broad shouldered and hunched, unfriendly, face curtained with dark hair. Normally he’d never dare to speak to an adult with such an imposing figure, but the circumstances aren’t exactly normal. The gaze turned down on him is curious.

“Yes?”

“There’s a cat,” Shigeo points to the alleyway, staring up and up and yearning into this man’s dark eyes, hoping against hope. “She’s hurt. I need to—I need your help to help her,” The words come rushed and nonsensical, but he has a feeling this man understands.

He looks between the alleyway entrance and Shigeo, and then nods firmly.

“Take me to her.”

Shigeo hurries toward the alley and the man follows close on his heel. Relief and panic intertwine into a soup of bubbling hysteria. “I—I can’t see in here, she’s…” He points to the box, sitting behind a dumpster, out of the way.

The man takes a phone out, flipping it open to use the screen’s illumination to light a path. They step around the corner together and he shines the light on the cat, who mewls weakly.

Shigeo gasps; she’s hurt far worse than he’d thought. Her leg is bent into an unnatural shape—she must have been hit by a car. The fact that she’d managed to drag herself back to her box is both encouraging and saddening.

“Please, mister, we have to do something!” He turns to face the man, near tears. He can bear his own pain, but hers is odious. She doesn’t deserve this. Even if she dies, she can’t die like this.

“Is this your cat?” He asks, skeptical. “She’s hurt pretty badly…”

“No,” Shigeo blurts, and then backpedals. “She is, kind of. We can’t leave her, please—I need your help!”

Shigeo struggles to see past the stark glare of the light; the man's expression is shrouded, and it's impossible for him to make out. They’ve come to an impasse—every breath he takes standing still and silent feels like a waste of precious time. He can’t think straight but for the intense need to help her.

Between them, the cat meows brokenly.

“Okay,” The man finally sighs. “Alright. My car’s this way—can you carry her?”

“Y-yeah,” Shigeo stammers, dropping to his knees. She yowls as he grows closer, struggling to stand for him. “No, don’t! I found help, so calm down,” He murmurs, hands violently shaking as he grabs the edges of the cardboard box, lifting it into his arms.

“You’re the one that needs to calm down,” The man mutters, shining a light toward the main road. “That way. Hurry, but be careful not to trip.”

Shigeo does as he’s told and he follows behind the man as he leads them out of the alleyway, rushing with frantic steps. The mittens in his pocket come loose and fall to the ground, but he hardly notices.

The man closes his phone with a snap and returns it to his pocket; the street here is well lit by lamps, so they’re no longer in need of it. They head toward a black sedan with tinted windows. He pulls out a key fob and with a flicker of the car’s taillights, the trunk pops open. The man lifts it up and then gestures to the back, where Shigeo carefully slides the box next to a toolbox and a black tarp.

She meows again, crying out weakly. His heart throbs.

“Shouldn’t I sit with her on my lap?” He asks, looking between her and the man who looms before him.

“She’ll be fine there. I can drive slowly, if it makes you feel better. Come on.”

The man opens the back door for him and Shigeo jumps inside, car door slamming after him. He jogs around to the driver’s side and sits down, starting the car with a click of his tongue; he seems to be just as impatient as Shigeo. “Are you okay? Don’t cry. I promise you she’ll be alright.”

“I’m okay,” Shigeo affirms, nodding dazedly. He wipes the dampness from his cheeks with a belated sniff—he hadn’t even noticed the tears spilling from his eyes. “Thank you, mister.”

“It’s Mogami,” A smile unfurls across the man’s face. “What’s your name?”

They drive from the main road onto a narrow side street. In the safety of the car he can breathe, but it’s still a struggle to orientate himself; everything is happening so fast.

“Kageyama Shigeo,” He answers belatedly, looking around worriedly as meows drift from the back of the car. “Will she really—?”

“She’ll be fine,” Mogami interrupts him. “Do you have a phone, Kageyama-kun?”

“I don’t,” Shigeo answers sadly. “I would have called a vet if I could have…”

“Of course,” Mogami shrugs, turning to shoot him a pleasantly amused smile. He looks younger without the furrow between his brows. “You’re lucky you ran into me.”

“Yes. Thank you,” Shigeo gives a stiff nod, hoping to convey his gratitude. “I don’t know what I would have done otherwise.”

“Perhaps run around like a chicken with its head cut off?” He suggests teasingly. “No worries. She’ll be taken care of.”

In the silence that lapses between them, Shigeo sits up properly and looks over the car seat at the front dashboard. The radio system is different, and the knobs and dials are unlike anything he’s seen before.

It’s not a normal car.

He fixes Mogami with a stare both curious and nervous. He notices it; of course he does. Shigeo is nothing short of oblivious to the intensity of his own gaze.

“Is something the matter?”

“It’s nothing,” Shigeo murmurs, gaze wandering to the tinted windows.

Mogami is silent for a beat, glancing at him in the rear view mirror. “Did you notice? This is an unmarked police car.”

“Oh,” Shigeo says, blinking around at the interior. The relief he feels is disconcerting; he hadn’t even realized his own nervousness. “I thought it was strange… but it’s nice.”

“Your seatbelt, Kageyama-kun,” Mogami suddenly sighs, exasperated. Shigeo panics briefly, fumbling to pull the strap over his chest, locking it into place.

“Sorry. I forgot.”

Mogami huffs. “It’d certainly ruin my heroic image if we were pulled over and given a ticket.”

Heroic. Shigeo nods; Mogami is just that. Now that he has time to think, he realizes what a poor decision this was. He should have been more careful. If Mogami weren’t a police officer, he could have been in big trouble.

Shigeo stares out the window and watches the scenery pass by, suddenly remembering something.

“Ah. I left my school bag behind.”

“Did you?” Mogami murmurs, glancing at him in the rear view mirror. “Well, I’m sure it will still be there when you return for it.”

They drive on. Shigeo catches a street sign as they pass it by. This is the wrong road.

He glances warily at the man through the rear view mirror.

“Mister,” He begins.

“It’s Mogami,” He corrects shortly, tapping his index finger against the wheel.

“Mogami-san,” He tries. Mogami smiles and nods. “We passed by the vet in this town just a minute ago. You need to turn around.”

Mogami’s smile is gone. “We did?”

Shigeo nods. “Yes.”

After a moment of consideration, Mogami shrugs. “That’s quite alright. The next town over has a better vet, anyway, and I’m not sure the other clinic is open.”

“But it’s an emergency,” Shigeo softly protests, thinking of her well being, and nothing more. “Shouldn’t we have at least checked?”

“I live in the next town over,” Mogami’s smile is back, this time edged with something unplaceable. “So it's easier to go this way.”

“Oh,” Shigeo says dumbly. Confusion swirls in his head, emotions mixing up as his relief sours. "What were you doing back there if you don't live here?"

Mogami glances at him out of the corner of his eye. "Just picking something up," He says dryly, words laced with amusement. Shigeo is quiet as he absorbs that.

Neither of them say anything as he thinks the situation over again, replaying it from the beginning.

Something is wrong.

He swallows. Underneath them, the car's wheels turn, over and over again. Over and over again. Again and again, carrying them further and further away.

“Her leg was broken,” Shigeo speaks almost sluggishly, tongue feeling leaden in his mouth. A numbness has settled at the base of his spine. “But there’s never any traffic in that area.”

“Oh?” Mogami muses. “If it wasn’t a car, then what do you suppose broke her leg?”

Ritsu’s words replay in his head over and over again. Be careful, brother. Be careful...

“I don’t know,” He admits. “A dog could have attacked her…”

“Yes,” Mogami’s voice is quiet. “It could have been a dog.”

Outside the window is open fields and rolling hills, bathed in red. Evening is quick to fall, casting a darkness across the car. He looks down at his feet before his eyes are drawn back to that sight, as if in instinct.

Dusk seems to seep from the horizon, sun bleeding out across the fields as it sinks and disappears. The soil looks black, burnt. The sky looks red—like blood, he thinks. There is something wrong with what he is seeing—like the broken twist to the cat’s leg, the sight outside of the window is unnatural. It is wrong, and should not be.

Mogami continues to drive down the country road, going nowhere, no end in sight. The city is behind them, now.

“Where are we going?” His voice cracks as he asks that. A hard lump forms in the back of his throat; he swallows thickly. He clenches and unclenches his trembling hands into trembling fists, thinking that he is horribly, insufferably weak. 

“To the vet,” Mogami says simply. “Like I said.”

“This isn’t the way to the next town,” His throat works around the words. “You made a mistake. You have to turn around.”

“My, my. You’re a talkative boy, aren’t you?” Mogami murmurs. "We won't be turning around, Kageyama."

For a moment, Shigeo can’t speak. He’s working everything over in his head, replaying his time outside of the car over and over again, wondering where he went wrong. He’s horribly confused. The threat of danger contradicts with the confirmation of safety he’d felt he’d had.

“You’re… a police officer, aren’t you?”

Mogami meets his eyes in the rear view mirror. “I never said that.”

Shigeo’s pulse roars in his ears as his heart flutters uselessly, a bird trapped in a cage of glass and metal. “But,” He blinks dazedly, stunned. “This car… you said it was an unmarked police car. You’re a police officer, aren’t you?”

“Don’t be so quick to make assumptions. It makes us both look like fools.”

The cruel words are spoken sharply, piercing into Shigeo like ice, like knives. The cold spreads in a prickling wave of fear, turning his limbs rigid and still.

He cannot fight this.

Horror ebbs and flows, a tide of disbelief and dread. The implication of safety is gone, replaced with terror, sheer and thin, ice that cracks and splinters underneath him.

The stiff line of Mogami’s shoulders has slumped, as if whatever had held him fraught with tension is gone. There is laughter in his very breath; pride, satisfaction, in his voice.

“Does this car look lived in?”

Shigeo stares straight ahead. It doesn’t. It’s absolutely spotless.

“For such a smart boy, you’ve made so many mistakes.”

Shigeo’s ears are ringing. The only sound in the car is the indicator and the slow hum of the engine, but both are deafening in the silence that follows.

“I say, I have to wonder what your mother and father taught you. You don’t just get into stranger’s cars, you know?”

Shigeo opens his mouth to apologize, but instead a tiny, broken noise seeps from the depths of his chest.

This is an irreversible mistake.

With trembling hands, he tries to unlock the seat belt without being noticed. Mogami raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t move—he doesn’t do anything. He continues to drive them away from the city into the middle of nowhere.

Shigeo rests his thumb on the button of the seat belt, but his hands feel numb.

He barely moves his head at all as he turns to look for the handle of the door, reaching out to grab a hold on it. If he’s quick enough, he can tumble out of the car and onto the road, or into the fields. They’re flying at eighty miles per hour, but there’s a chance he’ll survive it.

His fingers scrabble useless against the smooth wall of the door. There is no handle to grab. Pressing down on the car’s belt lock does nothing. It doesn’t move under his thumb. Shigeo doesn’t know if it’s by design or if he’s so weak he cannot summon the strength to press something as simple as a button.

“It’s a police cruiser, Kageyama,” Mogami sounds distant, underwater. “I’m not sure what you expected.”

Everything is growing fuzzy. Static buzzes in the back of his mind as he blanks out, realization a bullet to the brain.

This isn’t real. This is just a bad dream. He’ll wake up when his mother calls him for breakfast. Ritsu and he will walk to school together. He’ll wear his pink mittens. Haruka will be there to bully him. In the wrongness of it all, he’ll find something right.

Mogami is talking; has been, for a while now. Shigeo forces himself to come back to the present. “—crying by now, so it’s a nice change. I’m surprised you’re so calm. Ah, but then again, they’re usually out cold. It happens so quickly most of the time.”

Calm. Is Shigeo calm? Is that what he appears to be?

“I thought you were a hero,” He hears himself say, focusing on the back headrest of the seat in front of him.

That seems to obliterate the good mood surrounding the older man. The danger in the air shifts as they pull into the gravel driveway of an old barnhouse. He pulls the key out of the ignition after they come to a stop and turns in his seat to properly look at Shigeo.

Without the hum of the engine, the silence is absolute. Mogami’s eyes gleam like knives in the dull shadow of dusk.

“Did you? I don’t think you ever did.”

Shigeo doesn’t understand, so he looks to meet Mogami’s eyes through a haze of tears. There is an unfathomable darkness in them, and he has to wonder how he didn’t notice it before.

“I don’t think you’re stupid enough to believe in things like heroes, Kageyama.”

“Heroes are real,” His voice cracks, like he can’t bring himself to say it. Numbness encroaches on his mind, steadily winning him over. He wants to think less, wants to let go. Like a bottle of champagne corked and violently shaken, it builds up inside of him, luring him closer and closer out into the tide.

“Are they?” Mogami casts his eyes around the shadowed car, amusement long gone. “That’s funny. I don’t see any here.”

“This isn’t how it should be,” Shigeo breathes, closing his eyes. Tears roll down his cheeks.

“Nothing is how it should be,” Mogami says. “A good, true justice doesn’t exist. Good people don’t exist. Heroes don’t exist.”

“They do,” Shigeo says, and he fights not to lose himself, fights off the waves that soak his shoes and wet his socks and threaten to pull him out, into nothingness. It comes over and drags him out like an undertow, like sleep, whispering over his senses like a blanket. “Some things are good. Some people are.”

The words are as weak as he is. Shigeo cannot will conviction into his voice. He doesn’t believe it himself.

“I thought so, too, at one point. We all want justice,” Mogami sighs, and Shigeo looks at him and he is far away, lines blurred and warped, shifting and fluttering in the light, deep underwater. “I thought I was giving you that.”

“Giving me it,” Shigeo repeats, the words rolling over his head, splashing down around his ankles. They do not make sense, not as they should.

“You got your justice for what she did to you,” Mogami says. Shigeo struggles to understand, processing the words with a sluggish slowness. “I gave that to you.”

“You did,” He repeats again, dizzied.

“This isn’t so bad, Kageyama,” Mogami meets his eyes. “You don’t have to suffer anymore.”

Shigeo sucks in a breath, filling his lungs up with a scream. This is the one thing he understands. When he exhales, it is soft and quiet, a gentle dying whisper.

“I don’t have to suffer anymore?”

“No,” Mogami’s smile slinks back onto his face like a thief in the night. “You don’t.”

The undertow sweeps him away.

Chapter Text

When Shigeo tells him he’s fine walking home alone, Ritsu doesn’t believe it, but he doesn’t have time to worry about it, either. It’s not long after he turns from his brother’s side, leaving him with only a word of careful admonishment before he realizes that he’s made a mistake.

But he doesn’t have a clue what it is.

He wanders through the halls of the school as a voice screams inside of him; it is mindless, gut-clenching fear—brief, like a light that catches in the corner of his eye and vanishes the second he turns to face it.

He sits through the student council meeting and listens dutifully, but hears nothing. He finds himself looking instead to the window, to the frost settling there. He thinks of the warmth in his brother’s eyes and the chill of his own reflecting back at him.

Ritsu returns home that day as though nothing is wrong, but the murmured breath of anxiety in the back of his mind relays to him that there is, invariably, inevitably something wrong.

He opens the door to their small home and murmurs a greeting, like he doesn’t know a thing, as though he is innocent. He hears the hushed murmurs of his mother and father in the kitchen come to a halt. For some reason, he doesn’t take his shoes off today. The place where his brother shoes should sit is shadowed, hollowed out, a picture with a piece cut out from it.

When his mother trips over herself in turning the corner to greet what she expects to be her two sons, he is not smiling. He says nothing. He feels nothing. He meets her eyes, expecting nothing.

Her smile flutters like the shambles of a broken butterfly’s wing, and she clutches at her own chest like she can’t breathe, like Ritsu has knocked the wind out of her. It is then as though the shadow trailing behind him comes into view as he looks behind him, out of the window. He sees his reflection staring back at him, eyes glossy, already wet with tears.

The space beside him is empty, the gloves in his pocket unworn.

He turns back to her. “Where is my brother?”

She claps a hand over her mouth. She doesn’t have to say it. He already knows. He knew hours ago, felt it in his gut. Like a stone dropping into a overflowing cup, his tears spill over his eyes and he drops his bag and returns the way he came, this time at a run.

Ritsu flies from alley to street side, bolting under the flickering lamplight into darkness. The sun set hours ago. He last saw his brother hours ago. Ritsu is not a stupid boy, as naive as he is; he can feel fear at his back, prickling his skin, tingling up his spine like a sixth sense. He knows. He knows it already, but he can’t stop himself from running, like he knows where to go, like if he runs as hard as he can he’ll catch up to the big brother he’d let go.

It is fruitless.

Shigeo is gone.

When Ritsu stops running, it's only because he cannot breathe for the ache in his chest, lungs expanding with air that he chokes on with every exhale.

When Ritsu’s vision clears and he comes to see where his feet have carried him, his heart stops. He can only stare up at the hill that he sits at the bottom of, disbelieving. He’s collapsed in a patch of dry grass. A playpark sits behind him. He’d dragged his feet through the stone and gravel and he’d been too dazed to even realize it. Rather belatedly, he brushes the wetness from his cheeks with the back of his hand, smearing dirt across his face in the process.

This is the park that Shigeo and him had spent much of their childhood.

He looks around at the sound of shoes crunching over gravel and sees his mother, making the same trip. She stands before him for a long moment before she joins him in the shadow of the hill. He watches, eyes wide and blank, as she topples down by his side in the dirt.

She rests her hands in her lap and looks up at the moon above them. Ritsu does, too, wondering if his brother is looking up at the same sky. It’s the same moon they had looked up at together years ago, in the same spot. Only now he holds the remnants of that past like glass in his hands, mother where his brother should be, by his side.

“Ritsu,” She says, voice raw.

He doesn’t so much as look at her.

Guilt creeps close in the dark, kept at bay by the moon of his memories.

“It’s my fault,” He spits the admission free from his chest, like expelling bile. His mother hesitates in disputing that, and that split second of silence is enough to settle the cement of his culpability.

She comes closer to him, and he cringes away. “It is not,” She scolds, insistently soothing him with a trembling hush. In attempts to comfort, she draws him close. The hands that cup his cheeks burn in their warmth, unwelcome and undeserved. He slaps them away and shoves himself to his feet.

“I let him walk home alone,” He buries the glass deeper and deeper into his palms, small hands coiling into fists. Clouds flit over the moon, swathing the two of them in darkness. He chooses penance, deciding that if his mother hates him now, he deserves it. It’s his fault. Shigeo is missing, and that is his fault, solely and only.

Her silence drifts down around them.

“I did this.”

“Ritsu,” She chokes brokenly—and this is punishment also, watching his mother cry because of him. He turns on his heel and leaves her there.

They go home, studiously and miraculously unbroken despite the missing piece that is his brother.

None of their questions are answered that night. When they phone the police to report him missing, they are told to come in to the station the next morning. They do. 

Ritsu sits across from a detective that asks him about his brother. He answers what he can, but he finds his focus waning and drifting, shifting like the sleek shiver of clouds in the daytime sky. He knows he should focus, that there's something more he needs to seek. He knows that he can't accept the fact that his brother is missing so easily, but there's something not unlike a black hole inside of him, eating up every good thought he comes across. It's a sense of hopelessness that weighs on his shoulder, not eased at all by the dim, gloomy atmosphere of the police station's interrogation room.

The officer taking his statement—an older man, world weary but still dragging on despite that—parts from the assiduous role of stern persistence and offers him juice. He doesn’t mention Ritsu’s exhaustion, and so the boy accepts his offer with a polite inclination of his head. He kicks his feet under the table and sips from the straw and thinks about nothing, and feels a bit frustrated with that.

The Kageyamas go home without anything.

Shigeo is gone, but life continues to go on despite his absence. His mother gives Ritsu sidelong glances, here and there, glances that speak of his propitiation. His father’s dryness withers to a terse discomfort in the presence of his very alive son, and Ritsu knows it is wrong, that Shigeo be the one to have gone missing. Ritsu is the favored son, the one with higher marks and better test results—but those are all nothing but numbers, he knows. Shigeo is their only first. 

 

 

It's only three days later that his parents receive a phone call from the police, requesting they come in to the station. It's only three days, but it feels like it's been years since he last saw his brother. Ritsu asks to join them, but is told to stay home. They will bring news back with them, they say. He can’t argue that. He doesn't want to argue that. 

In the empty house, he contemplates.

He finds himself drawn to the chilly wake of an open window over the warmth of the heater. He stays sitting there until the frost threatens to turn his fingers blue. It's unpleasant and uncomfortable, at best. It doesn't make him feel better, and it doesn't help him focus. He thinks and wonders as to why. Shigeo did these small, painful things to himself on the regular—like he was trying to atone for something. Why, and what for? A part of him already knows the answer.

Ritsu wraps his arms around himself and shudders, bone deep, refusing to remember.

Shigeo is missing. He knows this for a fact. There's a murderer in their city and a student from his brother's class was found dead, beaten to a pulp on the side of a road. Dumped there, like garbage, like dirt—dead, life snuffed out. Ritsu can't say he'll miss Haruka, but he knows what she did, and he can't pity a person he never really knew to begin with. For this thought he considers feeling guilty, but it's not quite guilt that he feels. It's more—disappointment. Dread.

Shigeo has been missing for four nights and three days. Missing, like Haruka was, before they so quickly found her. That doesn't mean anything. Ritsu mulls it over in his head, coming to the natural conclusion that Shigeo is alive. His big brother can't be anything but alive. Ritsu stares down into his hands, the soft, unmarred palms, and tries to will meaning into the sting of the cold. A breeze flutters across his skin, biting through his clothes, and he shudders.

Downstairs the front door opens and closes. His heart leaps into his throat. Anxious, Ritsu slams the window closed and rushes to greet his parents, taking the stairs two at a time.

When he comes upon them in the entrance way, he finds them entangled in what looks like a crushing hug. They break away when Ritsu comes to approach them. He flounders at the intimate sight, feeling as if an intruder in his own home. The feeling passes him by, a sensation he can't quite grab a hold on. It's fine; he cares more about what news they might have received.

The wet, breathy sight his mother heaves when she sees him standing at the bottom of the stairs makes his gut tense. He searches the gloom of the entrance way to meet her eyes, and she looks away.

“They still haven’t found Shige yet,” His father says in her stead. “Ritsu, it’s late. It’s time for bed.”

Relief explodes in his chest—missing, that's all he is. Shigeo is just missing. What could he have expected, other than this? He nods firmly, and knowing they won't tell him anything more, turns to head upstairs.

“Ritsu,” His mother begins, faltering and unsure. “It isn’t your fault.”

Her eyes hold some newfound assurance. Whatever they have told her, it has brought her some kind of certainty, some kind of determination, animus reborn into an unfaltering love for the son that remains to her. What glimmers in her eyes is that, and only that.

It confuses Ritsu. He says nothing to that love and doesn’t return it. He goes to bed and dreams about the crops of summer frozen into stiff statues underneath a moon eclipsed by clouds, the world blanketed in snow. When he wakes the next morning, he doesn't remember it but for the sour taste at the back of his throat.

Four days after Shigeo goes missing, Ritsu returns to school.

The other students know about his brother. Haruka went missing before she was found dead, and so they believe the same will happen with Shigeo. Believing what they believe, his classmates don't speak to him. In the past they'd been caught up in insensate cruelty, but now they say nothing. They do not bully him as they had once bullied Shigeo.

He almost wishes they would. It would give him an excuse to lash out at them, to return their abuse—marked not by a child’s innocent indulgence in teasing fun, but by the desire to attenuate them the way they had his brother. His classmates don't bully him, no; instead, they list and wane in his presence, as if burdened.

Ritsu is exempt from the student council meetings—the same sort of meetings that had kept him from walking his brother home. He is as angry as he is regretful when he returns his thoughts to that moment, furious with himself, furious with the world. If he’d been a little more insistent and a touch less flippant, then perhaps things would be different. When he walks home, he walks home earlier than he usually ever would, and walks alone. He doesn't care about the present danger, too absorbed with his own thoughts.

There's something more he needs to do, he knows. He can't sit and twiddle his thumbs and hope—no, simple hope won't gain him anything. Hope won't lead his brother home. 

It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks because he knows that Shigeo is alive.

It's been four days and the police probably believe that he's dead, tucked tidy under a tarp or buried under soil. Ritsu can't believe that. He won't ever believe it. No. The police won't find him. It's up to Ritsu.

It's stupid, blind belief, but he believes that it's up to him and it's as soon as he comes to that realization that he knows he has to take action before it's too late, no matter what that action is. Ritsu knows that Shigeo is alive, knows it as much as he’d known that his brother had been spirited away long before he’d arrived home on that fateful day.

Ritsu knows he's alive, somewhere, waiting for him. He just has to find him.

Chapter Text

Ritsu steals money from his mother’s purse and takes the train downtown.

The day is murky when he first arrives at the police department, storm clouds hanging heavy above his head, ashen darkness threatening rainfall. He keeps his head low, and when he enters the station alone, no one takes a second glance at him.

The secretary he approaches at the front desk is hunched over a keyboard, fingers flying over the keys as she hurriedly works away. He stands in front of her for a solid minute before she catches him in the corner of her eye. Her head jerks up and the pinched concentration between her brow disappears, replaced with a smile so forced Ritsu thinks it must hurt.

“Yes, how may I help you?” She asks, voice pitched deliberately high.

“I want to talk to one of your detectives,” He says. She sits up a little straighter, looking anywhere but at Ritsu.

“Ah, is that so… where are your parents?”

“May I speak to one of your detectives?” He insists.

She takes a closer look at him, squinting almost suspiciously. He restrains himself just barely from scowling. The cheeriness she’d so sloppily faked slips away. “Uhuh, okay. Sorry, we don’t just rent out detectives for kids. Is there a reason why?”

Irritation sends a thrill up his spine.

“My brother is missing,” He snaps, discarding his polite charm. “Can I not report a missing person directly?”

“No, actually, you can’t—”

Tome-san,” An exhausted voice interrupts her, and both Ritsu and she turn to the suited man standing not far from the front desk, headed on his way out. “Relax, would you? You’ll get in trouble again, talking like that to the public…”

Ritsu immediately recognizes him as the detective he’d spoken to a week ago, and his heart leaps into his throat as he scrambles for words. He needs information, and this man might be able to tell him something. “Ah…”

The man—Serizawa, if Ritsu recalls correctly—turns to look at him, and blinks owlishly in surprise. “Oh. It’s you—Kageyama-kun, right?"

“Yes,” He answers, arranging his expression into one of carefully trained despondency. “It’s about my brother, you see…”

 Serizawa grows rather stiff, then, drawing himself up to his proper height. Good. He’s paying attention, then. Better for him to be on edge than not to care at all.

“I was hoping to ask if you had any more information,” He continues, stepping away from the front desk to approach the older man, gazing imploringly into his eyes. Serizawa turns his head away, discomfort clear as day. “We’ve not heard any news since that day…”

“Ah, that’s… well, about that case, we’ve had your parents in since then, I believe. We told them as much as we can for now, so—”

“And what was that?” Ritsu asks, dropping his voice. The secretary makes an obvious show of eavesdropping; despite the fact that she’s turned her eyes back to her monitor, her hands are unmoving over the keyboard. “I wanted to hear it directly from you, detective."

“You came all the way just for that?” Serizawa drops his voice to match Ritsu’s whisper; unintentionally, the boy is sure. “Ah, well…” He mumbles, obviously nervous.

“You can’t tell me?” Ritsu’s face falls, and he watches as Serizawa scrambles to prevent any further hurt.

“No, no, I just thought you already knew,” He blurts, sweat beading on his brow. Ritsu fights not to roll his eyes. “The investigation is, well, it’s going fine, but…”

“But?” Ritsu presses, perhaps a tad too eagerly.

Serizawa simply shakes his head. “There’s not much I can tell you…”

Anger swells in the deepest part of Ritsu’s heart. He resents this man, suddenly, and likens him to a lumbering ogre, big-handed and wide-shouldered, nervous and dumb. He’s the detective in charge of the team looking for the murderer in their town—the man looking for his brother —but he’s nothing more than a joke. “Do you have evidence? A lead? A clue? Do you have anything?”

Serizawa shakes his head. “You’re going through something tough. You should go home for today, and—”

“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what I want to know,” He snaps, throwing away the weak-willed grab for sympathy. “And all I want to know is what you know about my brother!”

Serizawa tenses up, as if an animal frightened. “Listen, it’s not so easy! We don’t have enough evidence, but we’re—”

They both freeze up, realizing his mistake.

Serizawa’s face goes red as he sputters, scrambling to correct himself. “I mean, we do, it’s just that it’s hard to proceed without anything else to go off of!”

“Then what do you know? What are you doing to find my brother?”

“We’re doing all we can,” Serizawa stammers, about to say something more when his mobile phone begins to ring. He slips a hand into his jacket, pulling it free, looking at the screen with a punished expression. “I have to go. Kageyama-kun, it will be alright, I promise you,” He says.

“But—” Ritsu panics. “What do I do, then? I can’t just wait!”

“If you wanted to do something to help, then try making missing person’s posters?” Serizawa suggests, patience wavering as the ring tone continues to cheerily chime, unaware of their plight. “I-I have to go, but please be well. Just know, we’re doing our best."

Serizawa flips open his phone before Ritsu can protest, and then he speeds back the way he’d came, hunching his shoulders defensively, as if trying to hide from the prying boy’s assault.

Their supposed lack of evidence is pathetic—and if it’s true, then what are they doing now? How can they search for Shigeo without evidence? It’s as frustrating as it is saddening. Ritsu clicks his tongue, resolving to return tomorrow. There has to be more he can do. The posters aren't a bad suggestion, but it sours his tongue that he hadn't thought of it beforehand more than anything.

When Ritsu steps outside of the department, the cold air sends him shivering. The ground is wet, asphalt turned a shade darker by the rain that had passed by during his time inside. He shoves his small fists into the pockets of his jacket, huddling into his collar.

Now that the clouds have passed, the sky is a bright blue; the air is startlingly chilly despite the sun in the sky. It won’t last long, he knows. Stepping out from underneath the alcove of the building, he strolls down the city streets, savouring the feel of the sun on his skin. It is an undeserved pleasantry that won't last long.

The train ride home is uneventful, and so is his walk home. He returns to an empty house. His parents aren’t home right now—he shouldn’t be, either. He skipped class to go into town. He knows he won’t get in trouble; they won't scold him for his truancy, not with Shigeo being missing.

He hangs his jacket up and toes his shoes off, opening the closet door to place them inside.

Ritsu freezes, thoughts coming to a grinding halt. For a long second, he stares inside the closet.

His big brother’s winter shoes sit within their place, untouched. Ritsu bites his lower lip, closing the door on the sight.

He settles himself upstairs at his desk, where he pulls out a notepad and a pencil. He pauses in deep thought before he begins to sketch what the poster should look like; simple, with bold lettering. Ritsu isn’t an artist, so his attempts to draw his big brother look childish, drawn with a frigid, unsure hand. He pauses, sitting straight from his hunched position over the paper, considering the features of his big brother.

His expression is well hidden by his bangs, making the blankness of his stare seem scrutinizing. His lips stay unmoving in a stiff, unwavering stillness. It is not unlike the brother he’d seen last, and yet...

The brother of his memories smiles at him with warm eyes and an honest contentment; holds his hand, walks with him to school, listening with rapt attention as he ambles on about the changing seasons. Summer is too hot , he’d professed. I like the fall. It’s cooler now, and the colors are so pretty...

They had been empty words, but the Shigeo of his memories nods, not stiffly, but with a genuine interest, like what Ritsu is saying isn’t redundant. Ritsu believed that if he were to indulge in his own enjoyment of autumn, Shigeo would adopt his views. He believed that they would find pleasure in it together. Shigeo never did.

Ritsu is suddenly sure that all of those moments spent together amounted to nothing.

The Shigeo of his memories warps, suddenly; the rapt attention becomes a tired obligation, and his smile flattens into a tiny frown—the same kind of ambivalence that Shigeo always felt.

This won’t do. He needs a picture.

Ritsu finds himself in front of his shelf, tracing the spine of a photo album. It has pictures from when they were younger. He knows that this won’t help him in his efforts. He knows that the Shigeo residing in these pictures can’t resemble the one he knows now.

But he still pulls a photography album from its dusty place on the shelf into his lap. His hands hover over the cover. He has to know. That the Shigeo from his memories wasn’t always bathed in moonlight, and that if he was, his eyes held no disdain. Not as Ritsu had begun to believe they had.

He opens the album, sucking in a breath that he holds tight. He flips through the pictures of him and his parents, pictures of him and Shigeo together. Pictures of Ritsu alone and pictures of Shigeo, alone. Those are scarce.

He finds a few from Shigeo’s tenth birthday, his and Ritsu’s cheeks pressed close as they hug tightly; confetti scattered in their black hair like stars in the night sky, sticky sweet icing gluing their hands together. He remembers how discomforted he had been by the sensation. Within the picture, his big brother is smiling, wide and unrestrained. Ritsu had been too happy to complain.

It feels like so long ago.

A wetness drips onto the photo, and he startles. He hadn’t realized his tears. He looks up and around, wiping them hurriedly from his face. There is no one around to see them. He is alone.

Ritsu stows the album back in its place. He presses the photo of Shigeo and him close to his chest, slipping it into his desk drawer. He won’t use it, but he never expected to find a suitable photo in the album, anyway.

Shigeo is alive.

He repeats that to himself without pause, like it’s some tune he can’t get out of his head. To himself, he says it again and again.

When his parents come home he has excuses prepared as to why he’s home before them, but there’s no need. They only ask if he’d walked home with someone, ignorant in their worry, and he says yes, mom, I did, yeah, it was Tokugawa. I can call him if you want me to. No?

 

 

Ritsu can’t sleep that night: he drifts in and out of a daze, a not-sleep that he continually drags himself out of with thoughts of what he is to do and what he hasn't done yet. It feels like he's still only waiting.

He is waiting for his brother to come home. He is waiting for news. He is waiting to see his brother in a body bag, to see his marble eyes and look to some faceless man and say yes, this is Kageyama Shigeo, my big brother. Who did this?

The man in his nightmare looks at him with eyes that are cold and blank. You did this, Ritsu. You did this.

Ritsu wakes in a fevered sweat, feeling both hot and cold at the same time. Panic pulses behind his eyes and for a blissful second he believes this has all been a terrible dream, all of it, every nightmarish second of it, dating back to two years ago.

He stumbles from his futon, kicking away his blankets on the way. He throws open his brother’s door. The room is empty, the futon is rolled up, and there is the beginnings of dust settling on the desk.

Ritsu can’t breathe.

He crumples, knees hitting the floor, one after another. The tears come unabated, now, unwanted, but unstoppable. Cotton crawls up from his lungs and forms a lump in his throat, one that he wheezes around, one that makes his hiccups come gasping, desperate. It is as though some unseen force has knocked the wind out of him.

He cries and cries until he is eventually roused from the floor of his big brother’s room by his mother, who holds his cheeks and wipes his tears away with weak hands, hands that lack conviction and yet never fail to comfort. He buries his little face in her chest and she soothes him with a hum, and when that is done she puts him to bed. He has exhausted himself with his tears, and so when she turns the light out he falls into a dead sleep.

The drone of his alarm wakes him; his mother wouldn’t dare to do it herself, probably supposing that sleep would do him better than school. He washes up, dresses into his school uniform and is half way out of the door when she catches him.

“Ritsu? Hold on. I’ll walk you to school.”

He struggles not to roll his eyes. “I’m fine, mom. I’ll be meeting Tokugawa half way.”

“That’s—”

“I’ll be fine, really,” He bites, averting his eyes. He is a good liar, but it still stings, lying to her. “It would be embarrassing.”

“I’d rather you be embarrassed than—” She cuts herself off. Ritsu’s stomach drops. “It doesn’t matter if you’re embarrassed if you’re safe.” She corrects herself.

“Half way is only five minutes from here,” He reminds her and like scalding water over ice, she eventually assents, shoulders slumping and head nodding.

“Just promise me you’ll be quick, and be safe, okay? I wish I could walk you every day…” She continues talking, even as Ritsu turns and heads out of the door. Of course he isn’t meeting up with Tokugawa. He finds the matters of safety trivial, too caught up in fear for his brother to feel fear for himself.

At school, he finds a proper picture of Shigeo for the poster; it is a school photo, and so within it he sits stiffly in place, staring ahead blankly. It suits Ritsu’s purposes better than the toothy smile, the tousled hair, the sticky hands, the memories. This face is the face of his brother now.

He wanders from the library to the color printer at lunch, the one upstairs. No one ever uses this one. He feels stares follow the back of his head, but he’s become used to them in the two weeks since his brother’s disappearance. The wide eyes are as common as the mutters had been for his brother, but they still don’t dare trespass on his sorrow. He doesn’t expect them to.

When they corner him in the printer room, it takes him by surprise.

Three girls enter the room with quiet murmurs and shuffling, unsure feet. The first is blonde, short, and red-faced; the other two are unknowns, and hang back. He turns to them, a stack of posters in his hands, thinking he’s been caught red-handed. This is an illegal use of the color printers, after all. He should have asked for permission and paid.

This will reflect poorly on him. He’s a member of the student council, after all. He doesn’t truly expect to be scolded by the girls, as nervous as they are, ducking their heads with shy, askew glances. Still, he readies himself for a fight anyway.

The blonde one eventually approaches him, her two friends lingering a step behind. He doesn’t know if they intend to tattle on him and he knows he shouldn’t care, but he finds his heart hammering anyway. He also doesn’t know who they are, though he’s certain he’s seen their faces before.

“Kageyama-kun,” She begins, and her sweet smile melts and flubs after just that. He scowls at her, lips puckering like he’s tasted something sour. “Hi, um… I know you probably don’t recognize me, but…”

“I do,” He says, and the words hold a sudden truth. These girls send his stomach roiling for a reason; they were bullies to his brother. “What could you possibly want?”

“I just,” She stammers, and she is bashful, shy and yearning, struggling with herself. It makes him feel sick. “Um… oh! Those posters,” She says, distracting him, catching him again off guard. He clutches them close to his chest, shielding them from her view. “Are those…?”

“None of your business,” He says, businesslike, firm, with little pity to her awkward, meandering ways. “Get to the point.”

She looks away, hiding her shame in her bangs. “I-I wanted to apologize.”

“Apologize?” He asks, arching a brow. Behind him, the printer chimes. “Apologize for what?”

“For your brother,” She spits it out like she can’t stand the words in her mouth, like they sour her tongue as her presence sours his. She ducks her head in a bow, unexpectedly bending at the waist, and holds out a letter. “Our classmates… wrote this, together. I-it was my idea. I said some terrible things in the past, and… it didn’t feel right, after what happened, after all, and—”

“What happened?” Ritsu says, not taking the envelope. He sees his name written on the front, Kageyama, printed neatly with a hand forcefully steadied with the wholehearted desire to make things right. He doesn’t take the envelope: he keeps her held in her bow. “Tell me.”

“Eh?” She glances up, envelope still held out in two sweating, shaking hands. He sees the pink dusted across her cheeks and wonders what secrets the rosy tint withholds. The stage they’ve set is better suited to a confession than an apology. “I only meant… well, him going missing, and…” She flusters further, put on the spot.

“And?” He prompts, daring her to say it. His anger is on a fine tether, spun of silk and lace. It is held together by the weak vestiges of restraint, fighting against the primitive desire to lash out, to retort as though with whip and cane, to give what for.

“And, since, well… after all…”

One of her friends takes a bold step forward. “Please, just take the letter. We’re sincerely apologizing here,” She blurts.

The girl shakes her head, still bent at the waist. He hasn’t given her permission to rise. “Hitomi, it’s fine.”

Ritsu cares little for what either of them have to say, but he continues to string them along. “I’m asking what you’re apologizing for. Isn’t that a part of a formal apology?” Expectantly, he settles the stack of posters behind him, face down on a desk.

“We’re apologizing for the mean things we said and did to your brother, and so…” Her hands extend a little further. Ritsu stares at the white, straining arms of the girl, the bulging blue veins and then tilts his head a little. His eyes sharpen with a cruelty that cuts.

“And so? … I think if you wanted to apologize, you would do so properly.”

The room grows cold. It had been warm, flushed and nervous, but it is zapped of all fevered embarrassment as that statement settles. They suddenly all understand what he means by it, and what he intends for her to do.

Hitomi bristles. “We’re trying to show some remorse!”

“It’s okay,” The blonde girl breathes, withdrawing her hands and the letter. Steadily, and without breaking eye contact, she brings herself to kneel at Ritsu’s feet, coming to press her forehead flat against the floor. “Kageyama-kun… I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”

That wiry thread of self-control snaps, bringing down an iron weight of cold-blooded contempt.

“My loss,” He repeats, tone flat. The human inclination to forgive whispers away, a warmth ripped from him in the cold night. “You’re sorry ?” He breathes, heart pounding rabbit-fast.

The girl slowly raises her head, meeting his cold, empty eyes, forsaken of pity.

“You want me to forgive you?” He snarls, raising a foot to suddenly stomp on her outstretched hand, the hand that still holds that sickening letter. She yelps and tries to rise from her humiliating position, but he grinds down with his heel, putting all of his weight into it, and she can’t withdraw. Her friends can only watch in dumb, open mouthed shock. “Tell me, would you have apologized to my brother, if I had been the one?”

Ritsu releases her hand and she brings it to her chest as she sits upright, trembling. The tears in her eyes bring him a sort of guilty pleasure that punches him in the gut, gives him a heady rush that makes his head spin.

This is terrible. He shouldn’t be doing this.

“I would have,” She hiccups.

Liar, he thinks.

His foot meets her jaw and she goes sprawling across the floor like a sack of flour, a dead weight that can only cry out as he drives his heel into her stomach, where she’s vulnerable, where it will hurt the most.

This isn’t enough.

He forgets sensibility. He grows wild in his rage, grabbing the back of a chair that sits innocently aside from their strife. He raises it and brings it down on her prone form, withdrawing sobs with each resounding smack of metal against flesh. His adrenaline brings him a demonic strength. He slams the chair against her arms, drawn over to protect her weak skull, beating her until he no longer can.

Having his fill of that, he drops the chair, uncaring of the crash it makes as it falls on its side. It is no louder than her wailing sob. He kicks her shoulder with his heel, turning her over on her back to inspect, not unlike a child would overturn a rock in order to observe the frantic scurrying of insects.

It is that childish delight that takes to him now, turned wicked in his outright intent to hurt. It holds no curious innocence. He has never been what this is—impractical. There is no reason for this. It is indisputably revenge, but it is little else.

A tearstained face gibbers up at the sight of him. Snot runs from her nose over her lips, undignified; disgust coils hot and low in his belly, pleasure forgotten.

She had thought to take his brother's dignity.

Shigeo had never cried. He had never so much as grimaced in the face of the torment he suffered from at their hands, no; instead, he held his hands out to the heater, or perhaps nicked himself in chopping vegetables, or submerged himself in a bath run too hot. Shigeo placed the blame on himself, always. But indignity, never. Shigeo withheld everything.

Ritsu had sought that same strength, but his emotions were at times too much. His brother was always somewhere else, lost, mind adrift. He never seemed present; hadn’t, not in years. Contempt rises like bile in his throat; he spits the sweet sourness from his mouth, coats it instead with a new shame. He cannot even reach his brother’s feet.

He is a wretched being and no better than the dead Haruka, no better than the foul thing grovelling before him.

What had taken him so swiftly leaves just as suddenly, a shadow flitting over him as the clouds would pass under the sun. He stares down at her with an empty expression, breathing hard. He then crouches low, picking up the envelope with a careful hand, one unsuited to such violence. He leans close and whispers to her, words dripping with ire. “Just remember. Private suffering is nothing compared to the humiliation of public pain.”

He stands. Dusts himself off, as if he’d suffered some sort of damage in the one-sided fight, and turns to gather up the posters on the desk, shoving the envelope messily into his pocket. The stunned girls say nothing as he floats past them, but when he pauses in the doorway and turns back to them with a hum, they jump.

“I don’t want to hear about this from anyone else. It would otherwise be in your best interest to transfer schools, Senpai. Have a nice day.”

He slams the door behind him, rattling the frame.

He pauses in an empty hallway on the first floor to gather himself, hand clamped over his mouth. He thinks he will be ill, but the nausea passes. A light-headedness makes him stumble from the halls to his empty classroom, and he just barely pulls himself together in time to slide the illicit posters into a folder before the bell rings, signalling the end of lunch. He tucks them into his bag, where he knows they’ll be safe.

After school, he wanders from the busy streets of the city to the lesser known parts. He staples posters to every suitable surface he can find, intent on spreading the message as far as he can. The police don’t care enough to do this themselves, so he doubts they’ll care enough to take them down. He runs out of posters too soon and mourns the loss, walking home with a sullen sadness. His parents are indignant over his late arrival. When he apologizes, he means it.

He broaches the letter.

For a time, he simply sits in the dimly lit ambiance of his room, warmed by the heater. He doesn’t care what the letter says, and yet he finds himself stuck in place, struggling to open the crumpled envelope. He should have torn it to shreds. The memory of her sprawled out on the tile makes him nauseous, suddenly, and he is terribly glad he did not.

He opens it.

Dear Kageyama,

My name is Hojo. I was classmates with your brother. I, Haruka, Rena and Hitomi said and did some horrible things in the past. We do not ask for your pity or for your forgiveness, instead, we simply must apologize for our wrong-doings. We feel terribly bad. We wish you well and hope that your brother returns home soon…

Sincerely,

Tasuki Hojo

He tears it up, then.

Chapter Text

As Reigen skims through a recently reported assault, he realizes he really hates his job.

The perpetrator is a middle schooler. He attacked his upper classmate, and she’d immediately reported it. The fact that they’re only children gets under his skin; what kind of households are they living in, for an argument to escalate to violence so easily? He can wonder as to the job their parents did raising them, but wondering doesn’t change anything.

He hates reading these kinds of reports. It’s a cut and dry case of bullying, and he knows it’ll go nowhere, even if he submits the report. There’s nothing exceptional about verbal abuse, but this is physical assault. He can hope—for the victim’s sake, and for the culprit, too—that he gets at least a slap on the wrist, but Christ. A mark on his permanent record, for what? A schoolyard scrap?

The heavy sigh he heaves gets swallowed up by the hubbub of the office, and he tosses the report aside in favor of rubbing his eyes. This injustice is petty compared to the murder investigation underway. He feels no pressure to put a rush on it, but he knows the sour taste on his tongue won’t go away until he deals with this.

All of their man power is focused on catching the killer, and the grunt work—the incident reports, the claims of suspicious activities—all fall to the other officers, like Reigen. He pinches the bridge of his nose as he surveys the stack of paperwork on his desk; he’s barely a quarter of the way through. He’d attempted to get on the case, and been given a heaping stack of paperwork on top of his usual work to shut him up.

The time comes for him to go on break. Sitting at a desk all day just isn’t his style; the sense of stagnation in body and soul makes him regret his choice in career. It’s not a job he can leave behind when he goes home every night, as much as he’d like to.

Reigen stands from his desk and cracks his knuckles and his back, carrying an ache that goes deeper than just his bones. With a murmured word to his superiors, he flips his coat over an arm and heads out. He doesn’t get far.

There seems to be a confrontation occurring near the entrance. By the front desk stands a child and a senior detective, Serizawa. The two seem to be arguing; Serizawa is speaking in low, hushed tones, while the boy speaks loudly, clearly upset.

Everyone around them is staring openly. Reigen glances around; the boy’s parents are obviously absent. He pauses to watch, idly patting his pocket for his cigarettes. The kid had been here three times this week, and grown steadily louder each visit. Reigen doesn’t know who he is, and he doesn’t care.

“—told me that yesterday ,” The boy cries, stomping his foot in a pitiful display of anger. “You cops are good for nothing! All you do is lie.”

“L-like I said, you can’t keep coming back here like this. If you get your parents to—”

“Why can’t you speak to me?” The boy asks, sounding tender and young. It’s nearly seductive in its grasp for pity. Serizawa wilts. “I’m not stupid. All I want to do is help, and yet, you…” He hiccups, verging on the edge of tears, covering his face with his hands.

It’s then that Serizawa looks up, meeting Reigen’s eyes from across the room. With a jerk of his head, he gestures frantically for Reigen to come to his aide. It’s tempting to continue on his way out of the building, but Serizawa is one of the few good men in this wicked establishment, and Reigen can’t stop thinking about Tasuki’s report.

Knowing what he needs to do doesn’t make him any more eager to approach them.

With a roll of his eyes, he traipses closer to the two. The boy looks up at him as he approaches, and his eyes—suspiciously dry—narrow in distrust.

“What’s the problem here?” Reigen asks, careful to keep his tone nonchalant.

“Ah, Reigen-san,” Serizawa seems relieved, even as he rubs his hands together nervously. “This is Kageyama-kun. He’s been asking fo—”

“I want details on my brother’s case,” The boy says from between the two adults, sulking obviously.

“Your brother? And who might that be?” Reigen asks, thinking fast. Kageyama is a common family name; it could be simple coincidence.

“Shigeo Kageyama,” The boy murmurs miserably. “He’s missing, and you haven’t even taken my statement yet.”

Indeed, and he had been labeled as a runaway. They aren’t investigating his disappearance too deeply, Reigen knows that much.

“We took your statement earlier,” Serizawa sighs, exasperated. Reigen’s sure he’s never seen him so downtrodden before. The stress of the case has been getting to him, Reigen knows; this cannot possibly help. Empathy overwhelms him, and he redirects his pitying gaze to the young boy, who continues to pout.

“I just want to know if you’re any closer to finding him…”

Resolved, Reigen exhales thinly, forcing a smile onto his face. He isn’t sure who this little boy is yet, so he can’t be too hasty. “Getting upset won’t solve anything. I can promise you we’re doing everything we can for your brother. For now, you—”

“Are you going to help me or not?”

Reigen struggles not to heave an exasperated sigh alongside Serizawa. This won’t work. “Kageyama-kun, I don’t think it’s good we stick around in here,” He gives a pointed glance at the people staring at them; to Kageyama’s credit, he straightens up. “Can you wait for me outside?”

He blanches. It seems he’d never expected to get what he wanted. For a moment, he hovers indecisively. “Do you promise?” He asks, and it’s so childishly endearing that Reigen has to laugh.

“Of course. I won’t be a moment. Wait just outside of the doors.”

Kageyama hesitates a moment more, searching Reigen’s eyes for something. Sweat breaks out on the cop’s forehead. When the boy turns on his heel and marches outside, he heaves a sigh of relief. He wasn’t sure that was going to work on him.

After ascertaining that Kageyama is truly following instructions and waiting outside, Serizawa speaks up in a quiet voice. “... thanks for that. I owe you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Reigen mutters, nervously patting his pocket for his cigarettes. He stops abruptly, dropping his hand to his side with a sigh. “Actually, keep it in mind. I’ll have to go deal with him now.”

“I’ve been trying to reassure him for a week now,” Serizawa sighs. “Whatever I say, it doesn’t work.”

“He said he’s that missing kid’s brother, right?” Reigen asks, turning to Serizawa with a brow quirked quizzically. “Why not just tell him a lie to get him to go away?”

“I can’t,” Serizawa falters, reddening in embarrassment. “I’ve tried, but… he’s a lot smarter than I gave him credit for. He managed to weasel an embarrassing amount of info out of me before I realized what I was saying…”

Reigen sighs. Serizawa has always been a poor quick thinker, but what he lacks in wits he more than makes up for in intuition. It’s why he’s a detective and Reigen is not—and although he doesn’t mind the older man, it’s frustrating to acknowledge as much.

“He’s a manipulative brat,” Reigen tells him. “The tears were fake. I don’t know what his aim is, but he wants something. Dunno if it’s what he’s claiming, or something else. I’ll get back to you,” He glances at Kageyama where he stands outside of the doors. “Just sit tight.”

“I seriously do owe you,” Serizawa bows his head. “He’s been coming here daily for the past week…”

“You do owe me, and I won’t forget to capitalize on it. At any rate, I’ll get him to stop visiting,” Reigen pulls his coat on, straightening out his lapels. “I have business with him, anyway, if he is who I think he is.”

Serizawa smiles, baffled but relieved. He wishes him good luck on his way out.

Reigen exits the station and steps out into the bite of the cold autumn air. It’s a welcome refreshment after suffering the stuffy oppression of the office for so long. The sky is still a deadened gray; the sight makes him wilt. After a hard day of work, he’d love to feel the sun on his face.

A few paces from the front door, the young boy mulishly kicks his feet, clearly impatient. When he sees Reigen, a look of relief flickers across his face before he smothers it into indifference.

Reigen sucks in a deep breath, savouring the taste of frost. Exhaling a great cloud into the cold air, he approaches the boy with a cautious smile, still unsure what to make of him.

“I’ve been told you’re a repeat visitor here. Why the insistence?” he asks, trying not to sound too suspicious.

Kageyama looks at him like he’s an idiot. “I thought I made that fairly clear. I’m looking for more information on my brother.” Despite their differences in height, he still manages to turn his nose up at Reigen. “It’s pathetic that you can’t find one missing child.”

Reigen scratches his cheek, considering that. On a bad day, perhaps that would be an affront to his pride. Today, it means nothing to him. “I understand that, but you know it’s not legal for us to give away information like that, right?” he asks.

“I’m not just anyone. This is about my brother.” Unlike Reigen, he seems discomforted by the cold; he huddles deeper into his jacket, casting a wary glance around the wide city streets.

“And how do I know you are who you say you are?”

Kageyama’s cheeks color. “I’ll show you,” He murmurs stubbornly, unzipping his bag in a flurry of movement. Before Reigen can even request to see it, Kageyama’s student identification card is being shoved in his face.

He takes it, eyes flicking over the contents. Just a glance confirms what he’d so desperately wanted to know; that this boy is Ritsu Kageyama, the perpetrator of violence against Tasuki, and the missing boy’s younger brother.

Reigen doesn’t give it back to him immediately; he chooses to squint at it, to rub his chin, to make a show of doubting what he already knows. After Ritsu is truly squirming and his patience is wearing thin, Reigen flourishes it in a grand gesture and offers it back to him. Ritsu doesn’t waste a second in snatching it back.

“I guess you’re his brother,” Is all Reigen says, a hand on his hip.

“I am. I’ve given you proof, so you can—”

“Walk with me,” Reigen says, gesturing as he turns on his heel and strides down the sidewalk. He doesn’t look behind him, but he hears the footfalls of the boy as he rushes to catch up to his side.

“Well ? ” Ritsu’s impatience is clear on his face; his dispassionate mask has cracked clean in two. “What can you tell me? That other detective was useless.”

Reigen barely resists rolling his eyes. He has every right to scold him for his insolence, but the anger that builds in his chest ends up going nowhere, seeping out of him with every cloudy exhale. Beneath the bravado, Ritsu is obviously troubled.

As much as Reigen wants to, he can’t find it in himself to be mad. He thinks about the report he’d received and he buries his hands deep in his pockets, both with the need to do something with them and with an aversion to the cold.

“Useless, huh. I don’t think any of our hard working officers are useless at all.”

Ritsu’s defiance withers tersely as he realizes he’s overstepped. He won’t get what he wants playing that game, and he knows it now. Reluctantly: “...I mean, Serizaw—”

“You know, he isn’t allowed to give away whatever information he wants. Also, it’d probably help if you stopped distracting him from his work by coming to the station every day. It almost seems like you want to hinder the investigation.”

“Of course I don’t want to do that. I just want to know that progress is being made!”

“Geez,” Reigen sighs. “That’s really all you want?”

“Yes. I want to know the specifics.”

Reigen is silent as he pats his jacket pockets down, considering. He needs a cigarette desperately, but now’s not the time. He drops his hands.

Ritsu continues, “It’s not just curiosity. If you’re worried, I’m not going to tell anyone else,” He’s trying to reassure the cop of something. It’s desperate. “And it’s as big a risk to me as it is to you.”

Reigen looks up into the gray sky overhead, thinking, allowing the boy to run his mouth. As smart as Ritsu may be, he’s also just a child. It won’t be hard to weasel the truth out of him—an admission of the bullying, perhaps—and in exchange, he’ll get details on the Shigeo kid’s case. Reigen doesn’t have those details, but can just as well lie about them.

Expectedly unnerved by the long silence, Ritsu continues. “If you tell me what you know, then I’ll stop visiting the station.”

Bingo . “You seem pretty smart, kid. Your crocodile tears convinced the entire station,” Reigen looks back down at him, at his red cheeks, skin smarting in the cold, at the dumb surprise on his face. “It’s too bad you can’t get what you want with that alone.”

“I’ll do whatever I have to,” Dead serious, he looks around and drops his voice, as if afraid someone is listening. “My brother’s life is at stake.”

Reigen carefully unravels all of what he’s learned about Ritsu so far, and then staples a quick label on him: brat . He plays a good game at manipulation, as far as Reigen can tell, but he’s at least earnest in his goals. There’s not the tiniest hint of a lie in the determination Reigen sees painted plainly on his features: he’s willing to do whatever he must.

He has to feel sorry for him, almost. He’s acting a victim himself, easy to take advantage of, a sweet fruit ripe for the picking. If Reigen were a lesser man, then perhaps he’d coax him to his car and suggest a foul exchange. The thought makes his stomach churn, and then he suddenly, violently realizes that Ritsu is seconds away from making that exact mistake.

“Come on, then,” He finally clears his throat, trying out a gentle smile as he smooths out the folds in his jacket, feeling uneasy. “We’ll figure something out. There’s a place just nearby—it’s got great takoyaki.”

“Right...” Perturbed by Reigen’s compliance, but not about to protest, Ritsu nods, following behind Reigen obediently as he begins to walk again, crossing the street.

“Follow me closely. I don’t want to be responsible for you getting lost,” he says, a sickness building steadily in the back of his throat.

“I’m not stupid enough to get lost,” Ritsu replies mildly, just the barest hint of offense in the quick reply. “Is it close by?”

“It is,” Reigen says, giving him an askew glance.

After a five minute walk, they arrive at the douce little shop; Reigen holds the door open for the boy, and he steps inside with a wary glance at him. Caution is fine—expected, almost, but he’s a police officer. Reasonable distrust can only go so far, but then again, he supposes Ritsu has reason to be wary of him. It does nothing to calm his racing heart. He’s glad he’s the one holding the door open for this boy. Inexplicably, he’s terribly, terribly glad.

They sit down at a booth in the back of the restaurant, where their privacy is assured. The boy is sedate, inspecting the restaurant with curious eyes as they’re brought menus and told the specials—Reigen had expected him to begin with questions as soon as they sat down, but it seems he’s in no hurry.

That’s fine. It gives the cop a moment to gather himself, to decide on the best course of action. Reigen folds his hands together in front of him, a polite, quiet way to survey Ritsu without leering. “How far are you willing to go?” He feels a little sick with the implication.

To his credit, Ritsu doesn’t show his surprise in any obvious way—his lips purse briefly as he gathers himself, but he doesn’t avert his gaze or cower. He raises one thin, black brow, and imitates Reigen’s pose. “As far as I need to. I already told you this.”

The waitress comes over and Reigen cheerily orders the cheapest platter of takoyaki on the menu, hurriedly wavering her away. He rolls his shoulders in what could be called a nonchalant shrug, and he leans back in his seat, casually throwing an arm over the cushioned back.

“Don’t make such a scary face. We’ll just trade information. Fair’s fair.”

That much takes Ritsu off guard. It seems he’d expected to face a grave ultimatum, judging by the frustrated scowl on his face. “What kind of information could you want from me?”

“There’s a lot the public knows that the police doesn’t,” Reigen shrugs. “You’re Shigeo’s family. I’m sure you can tell me something interesting about him. That’s what you kept asking for, isn’t it? You wanted Serizawa to take your statement a second time.”

Ritsu opens his mouth to undoubtedly argue otherwise, but Reigen watches him think it over before he snaps his mouth shut and turns away, jaw tight. As arrogant as he is, he can’t refute what Reigen has said.

“I can’t think of anything right now.”

Brat.

“... in that case, I’ll begin with a few questions. You have to be honest, though.” Their food arrives. The waitress looks curiously between them both before Reigen dismisses her with a hasty nod and thanks. As soon as she’s out of earshot, Reigen leans forward, spreading his hands out in an imploring gesture. “Why don’t you trust the police to find your brother?”

Ritsu doesn’t even think about his answer before he replies. “The police are unreliable. I haven’t seen or heard anything about my brother’s disappearance. I don’t know if anything’s being done at all, so I have to do what I can.”

Ritsu regards the plate of takoyaki with disdain as Reigen picks one up with a skewer, blowing on it gently. The steam drifts away in a waft of hot air and disappears. True, Reigen thinks, popping it in his mouth and chewing with a careful consideration. They’re unreliable for a lot of reasons, but not for the ones he’s given.

“That’s admirable and all, but you’re not responsible for finding your brother.”

Ritsu’s eyes blow wide before he grits and bares his teeth. “Then who else is? Something has to be done.”

“Those responsibilities fall to the adults around you,” Reigen continues, as if he hasn’t noticed the way Ritsu’s loose fingers have curled into small fists. “You’re taking on too much work for a kid. Was Shigeo the same way?”

Ritsu looks as if he wants to argue further, but the impudence falls away as he reflects. “My brother was—he’s always been strong. He’s always done more than he has to.”

Reigen notes: the soft sag of Ritsu’s shoulders, the bags under his eyes. How many sleepless nights has he had since Shigeo’s disappearance?

“He must be well missed,” Reigen murmurs, almost to himself.

The emotions that flicker across Ritsu’s face are indecipherable, but they’re gone as quick as they come. “What can you tell me?”

“Fair is fair,” Reigen murmurs, slowly reaching for another takoyaki. “You should eat,” he gestures.

“Stop stalling,” Ritsu demands, apathy turned righteous. “I’ve answered your questions. Now answer mine. Why haven’t you taken action? What’s going on?”

“I’ll tell you if you keep your voice down,” Reigen concedes, mouth full of food. The face Ritsu makes is of disgust. He swallows, and then gracefully draws an arc with the skewer held daintily between index and thumb, pointing at Ritsu. “You’ve heard about the recent murder, right?”

“Of course,” he says.

“The investigators are prioritizing that murder over Shigeo’s case right now, but that doesn’t mean that his disappearance isn’t being investigated at all. They believe he’s still alive.”

Believe? They don’t know? ” Ritsu sounds somewhat appalled.

“Would you let me finish?” Reigen asks, amused. “Anyway, there were several eyewitnesses that saw him walking home that day. We have other evidence that is leading us to finding out where he may be.”

There’s no way for Ritsu to know he’s lying, but the slow furrow of his brow makes Reigen doubt himself. What is unfurling across the boy’s face looks to be utter repulsion. Sweat gathers on Reigen’s forehead.

“We’ll find your brother and get him home, but you need to give us the space and time to do that,” he concludes neatly, casually steepling his fingers, confident in his lies. He grows less so for every second that Ritsu stares at him, black, icy eyes betraying nothing. He remembers what Serizawa had said. “He managed to weasel an embarrassing amount of info out of me before I realized what I was saying …”

Shit.

The older detective owes him, alright.

“You’re lying,” Ritsu mutters. “Don’t bullshit me.”

“You shouldn’t swear,” Reigen returns.

“You shouldn’t lie,” The light above their small booth cast shadows under his eyes, making him look gaunt, ages older than the child he is. “I’ve given you the truth. I expect it in turn.”

“I’ve told you what I know,” He shrugs, waving a dismissive hand. “At least eat and think it over, alright?”

“I know for a fact that you lack eyewitnesses. My brother is out there with a murderer. I’m not here to play games with you.”

Like a drowning man clinging to a liferaft, he grabs hold of the rope Ritsu throws him. “With a murderer?” Reigen’s lip curls. “How do you know that for sure? He could have run away.”

“My brother wouldn’t...” That persuasive arrogance wanes. “He wouldn’t have run away.” Ritsu’s eyes show the tiniest hint of doubt, and that’s all Reigen needs: he pounces like a cat on a mouse.

“You don’t seem very sure about that,” he points at him with a skeptical arch of his brow, taking full advantage of the boy’s hesitation. “Was something going on at home?”

“I…” Ritsu seems ready to argue, but trails off again. At his core, he’s an honest child; he unintentionally communicates his emotions with an open expression that Reigen reads easily. The twitch of his lower lip, the furrow of his brow—it’s clear he’s battling with himself. His anger bubbles into a low simmer as he withdraws, self-conscious. He’s doubting himself now. “Not at home…”

“Then, you’re saying he had problems at school? With friends?”

“He didn’t have very many,” Ritsu admits.

“Then, was he bullied?”

Ritsu shakes his head numbly, biting his lower lip. “... he was.”

“He was bullied.”

Yes!” Ritsu’s voice breaks. “They were awful to him. It didn’t matter what I said or did. He… I even threatened the girl who bullied him—and then, she…”

“You threatened her?”

Ritsu chews at his lower lip. “I wasn’t just going to let her do as she pleased. I tried to warn her, but I might have gone overboard, and...”

Ritsu’s traveling gaze lingers on the tabletop. Hints of guilt peak through the cracks of his shattered mask as his frustration wanes. A child shouldn’t look so utterly exhausted; the face he carries now is a face the detectives in the office wear, and one that belongs there only.

“Don’t worry about that now,” Reigen scolds him as he picks up another takoyaki with a skewer, attempting to remain casual. “You were just trying to protect your family. There’s nothing wrong with that. What happened?”

“She died,” Ritsu says, and Reigen chokes on his food.

After a hearty cough and an intense look of revulsion from Ritsu, Reigen’s throat is clear enough to broach that. “She—died? Not because of what you said. What did you say her name was?”

“Haruka,” Ritsu says, gaze drifting off to linger on the dull lamplight above them, the somber ambiance. It’s quiet in here today. It’s quiet everywhere, lately.

“Haruka Ori,” Reigen croaks.

“Yes.”

Reigen can barely breathe for the excitement that pounds through him at that; this means something. He might not be a hotshot detective, but he can immediately understand there is a significance to this. This is incredibly important information to the murder investigation.

Haruka and Shigeo are connected. One is dead, and the other is missing. He’ll need to revisit the case files, but he’s certain that the time frame between Shigeo going missing and Haruka’s body showing up is miniscule.

The investigators missed this. This is something only Reigen and Ritsu know, now, and Ritsu’s already made the connection.

Shigeo is connected to this case.

Smothering his excitement with a pensive scowl, Reigen leans back in his seat, putting off a complex aura of thoughtfulness. Ritsu seems to be avoiding looking at him, which works in his favor.

“Let me get this straight,” He begins, recapturing Ritsu’s attention. “Your brother was bullied by Haruka, and as a result, you threatened her. After that, she turned up dead. Am I correct?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Just confirming. You know, details are important. If you’re so hasty all the time, you’re bound to miss out on what really matters.”

Ritsu bites his lip and looks at his hands in his lap. Perturbed by the lack of reaction, Reigen raises a brow, expecting backlash. The boy says nothing, so Reigen continues questioning him.

“What did you threaten her with, anyways? A weapon? Words?”

Ritsu continues to sulk. “I told her I’d have her kicked out of the volleyball club.”

“Eh?” Reigen can’t help in his surprise. It sounds so mellow, especially from this blunt, angry little boy—it disappoints his expectations. “Ah… well, alright. I’m guessing this was a potent threat?”

“That club was her life,” Resentment seeps from Ritsu’s every pore. “Her and her friends tormented my brother, so I told her I’d end her carefree life if she kept it up.”

That disappoints him a little less. “What was her reaction?”

“She cried and left,” Ritsu mutters, disgust written all over his face as he recalls it. He had started out seeming guilty, but all Reigen sees now is resentment, raw and undisguised, a wound salted.

Reigen nods smartly, as if he perfectly understands. “When was this—days before her death? Weeks?”

“She went missing that day, and was found the same night.”

“Within the same day… then, you didn’t tell the other detectives this?”

“No. I told them he was bullied, but nothing more.” Ritsu’s eyes flash. “That’s enough. I’ve told you everything. Tell me the truth. What do you have?”

“I told you what we have, didn’t I? That was the truth.”

That same iciness seems to coat Ritsu again. “You didn’t. I know that was a lie.”

“You’re a scary kid, you know,” Reigen stays affixed in place like a statue, arm thrown over the cushion of the booth seat, tapping his fingers across the surface with a hum. The amount of pressure Ritsu exudes makes him sweat. “If it’s a lie, then you better accept it. That’s all you’re getting from me, because that’s all I can tell you.”

Ritsu’s mouth drops open. “You promised me the truth.”

“I said a lot of things, but I didn’t promise you anything. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that you can’t comprehend. The world isn’t so cut and dry. I can’t just spill confidential information to you.”

Reigen didn’t think it was anything other than a metaphor, but Ritsu has definitely been struck speechless. “You’re not serious,” He finally breathes, but when the cop doesn’t assent to that, he turns away, still stunned. “You’re good for nothing. Just like I thought.”

“Sure, sure. I’m a good for nothing cop.” Reigen waves his dissent away, failing to acknowledge the building chill around the young boy.

“Fine, then.” When Reigen locks eyes with him, he sees a cool, assured determination, a sudden sort of causality that marks a very sudden, very stupid decision. “If you don’t tell me what I want to know, then I’ll scream.”

Reigen swallows. “And why would you scream?”

“Because the cop that lured me into this desolated shop decided to molest me. My crocodile tears worked before, right?”

Laughing derisively, Reigen returns his challenge. “How do you suppose that’s going to work?”

“That waitress already seemed suspicious of you,” he glances up, into the corners of the room. “And I didn’t see any cameras when we came back here—”

“This usually works for you.” He states plainly, ignoring the sweat under his pits, the damp dread, the danger of the heat currently licking the back of his heels. He needs to extinguish this fire. “Bullying, I mean. You beat that Tasuki kid, you threatened Haruka, and now you’re trying to bully me. You’ve got a pair, I’ll give you that.”

Ritsu tenses into frigid, unmoving marble. “How… how do you know—”

Chisel and hammer in hand, Reigen rests his elbows on the table, relaxing his chin into his hands. This is his lazy, unrefined art. “Who do you think people would believe? A delusional kid with a mean streak, or a well respected officer of the law? It’s not hard to calculate.”

Is that his teeth grinding? “The position you’re in looks bad. Even… even just the accusation would…”

“I don’t want any trouble with you,” Reigen stretches back, languid and cool, confident, collected. Everything he is not. Ritsu shakes with devastated anger. “If you drop it, then I will, too.”

The boy before him trembles for a breath, and then exhales, slow and steady and calm. He stands from the table, adjusting his coat. There is a defeated acceptance in the thin line of his lips, his white-knuckled fists.

“Then that’s all that needs to be said. I’ll find someone else to help me. Just don’t get in my way.”

Ritsu turns and leaves. The door slams behind him, leaving Reigen and the perturbed waitress with the reverberation of the bell above the door and nothing else.

Reigen pokes a skewer into the takoyaki left remaining to him, and then wonders. That “anything” that he’d do in order to find his brother—would it involve climbing into someone’s lap, or would it involve something far worse? Ritsu is a smart kid, be it in uttering smooth threats or in faking ugly tears, but his refusal to give up compounds the fact that he’s a naive child, incapable of judging how his actions will impact his future.

Maybe it means something else. Maybe Ritsu isn’t going to crawl into some poacher’s net, but instead walk empty streets, parading his lonely vulnerability. Reigen considers that, and then considers a world where he apprehends the culprit they’re so doggedly chasing and fulfills Ritsu’s selfish desire to find his brother. He wonders what success tastes like, what it’d feel like to be promoted.

He secondly wonders of a scenario in which Ritsu is found dead and finds himself sick with the prospect of it.

Reigen hasn’t wondered in a long time. He finds himself flinging a wad of bills onto the table in a hurry, stumbling out of the shop with the frantic, terrible realization that he’s made a mistake.

He spots Ritsu’s small back in the distance, wandering aimlessly down the sidewalk. “Wait, Ritsu!”

Reigen jogs to catch up to him, but Ritsu keeps his head down and his hands in his pockets as he walks, paying no attention to the man following close behind him.

“Ritsu. I said wait, dammit—”

Ritsu turns on his heel to confront him and Reigen grabs his upper arm, yanking him under the alcove of a nearby alleyway and against the wall.

“You can’t do this alone,” Reigen gasps, catching his breath in messy gulps of air. The adrenaline in his veins makes him shake the small shoulders in his hands, and Ritsu makes a tiny, terrified noise. “Don’t you get it? This isn’t something you can do by yourself!”

Ritsu’s eyes fill with tears that are genuine, not put upon, and Reigen’s heart explodes with an overload of guilt. “You won’t help me. There’s no one that can help me do this,” he says, shoulders shuddering under Reigen’s hands.

“We’ll do this together ,” Reigen blurts, a decision made then and sloppily, too—he wants to regret the words as soon as he’s said them, but when Ritsu looks up at him, he knows he can’t withdraw what he’s said. “I’ll help you. But you have to give me the time to figure it out on my end.”

“Why should I trust you,” Ritsu complains, slapping the hands at his shoulders away. “You just want to use me, don’t you?”

“That’s right. Since we’re both selfish people who want to use each other, I think it’s a fair exchange.”

Ritsu glares up at him with wet, shining eyes, and then he turns his head aside. It’s not a rejection, but it’s not acceptance, either. Reigen can live with that.

Harsh and biting comes the brisk wind, a warning for what is to come. Autumn is turning to winter. Winter, to spring. Leaves brush past their ankles in a tumbling spiral. They only have so much time before there is no hope left of finding Shigeo.

“Get away, you’re too close,” Ritsu suddenly blurts, wiping his cheek with the back of his hand. Reigen realizes their proximity and takes an immediate step back. “... I’m not going to say I’m okay with teaming up with someone like you.”

“I guess that’s fine,” Reigen concedes, politely looking away as Ritsu scrubs at his wet eyes, cheeks reddened by the nip in the air and the embarrassment neither of them will mention. “I can take that.”

They stand together, quietly listening to the low howl of the wind.

“... come back tomorrow, same time,” he says, surprising even himself. Ritsu blinks up at him, stare coming stupid and blank. “I’ll get as much information for you as I can. Like I said, it’s not so easy to tell you these things. Adults are really stubborn, and there’s a paper trail I gotta follow up on, too, so… just don’t give up, okay?”

Ritsu nods, just once. “I’ll meet you at the police station, then. Tomorrow.”

He turns and heads on his way. It seems he expects that to be the end of their interaction, so when Reigen doesn’t turn and leave also, he grows suspicious and tosses a scowl over his shoulder at the man behind him. “Why are you following me?”

“Oh, uh—well,” Reigen scratches his cheek. “How did you get here?”

“What?”

“Like, by train, or… is someone picking you up?”

“By train. Why?”

“It’s just...” Reigen gives a look around. “I can’t exactly let you go alone.”

Ritsu’s protests fall away, opening his mouth to defend his independence, only to shut with a snap. He says nothing.

They walk in silence to the station, where Reigen feels comfort come in the form of crowds, bustling chatter a welcome break in tension.

“Your name,” Ritsu says, tugging at his sleeve. “What’s your name?”

“Reigen Arataka,” he says proudly, patting himself on the chest. “The greatest detective of the 21st century.”

Well. He hopes that’s a title he can work up to. For Shigeo’s sake, and for Ritsu’s, too.

Chapter Text

Ritsu is ushered onto the train by Reigen, a man who looks ten years younger under the bright fluorescent lights of the subway station rather than the dark dinge of a sheltered izakaya.

After choosing his seat, Ritsu glances out of the window across from him. Reigen raises a hand in parting from where he stands on the platform, determined to see him safely off. Ritsu turns his head rigidly to the side, defiant until the end. He didn’t need an escort, but Reigen had insisted on playing the part of a gentleman.

Ritsu wonders if the people around him buy his charismatic disguise, and then he supposes they must. Reigen has undoubtedly gained influence throughout his years working for the police, and not for the first time, Ritsu finds himself jealous of that experience.

To be a child is to be powerless. Ritsu lacks the influence he needs in order to win people over—to be asked sincerely and seriously for information by a child incites chagrin in most adults, if not exasperation. It’s a challenge he’s fought to overcome since Shigeo went missing. Ritsu weaponizes his innocence; tears work best, but threats to one’s figure and standing are equally as potent.

In theory, at least. Reigen is impervious to good logic.

Ritsu is loathe to admit it, but the man is sharp. He probably knew Ritsu was bluffing from the beginning, and toyed with him like cat and mouse. That doesn’t change the fact that he's promised to aid him. Reigen is, ultimately, a connection to the adult world of answers. He has resources Ritsu does not, and access to knowledge Ritsu could never hope to get his hands on before today, so whatever Reigen is—fraud or not—he’s useful. Necessary, even. If he felt pliant enough to bend, then Ritsu would say he needs him.

He won’t say that, though.

He twists the handle of his bag around in his hands, fingernails picking at a thread. Their argument in the restaurant had been demoralizing, and though Reigen followed him out with the promise to help, Ritsu still feels as though he’s lost something. The throb inside of his chest stings acutely, reminding him not to find comfort in safety.

Ritsu’s head droops against the cool of the window and his eyes flutter shut as he blocks out the rampaging thoughts threatening to turn him over to tears again. The hum of the train soothes him to a near slumber. He’s exhausted from crying and exhausted from the turmoil of his own emotions. It’s only when the electronic voice chimes out his stop that he jerks back to wakefulness.

He walks home with a lull in his step, trying to process the information he had and had not been given. Instead he thinks of Reigen jeering at him, a machination of stress and distrust. 'He must be well-missed'. Ritsu misremembers Reigen’s smile: all teeth, perversely pleased. 

The chill in the air deepens as he walks home. It’s unsettling, the cold, and no amount of rubbing his hands together can chase the frost from his fingertips. Ritsu craves the warmth of a heater, though not the burn of it. He sours with the thought and hastens his pace.

His mother’s car is in the driveway. He slips inside the house and locks the door behind him, quick to peel off his jacket, quicker to toe his shoes off. He walks by the kitchen where he can hear her cooking dinner and he distinctly does not look her way, but she notices him anyway.

“Ritsu? Is that you?”

Reluctantly, he steps back down from the stairs. “... I’m home.”

“And late,” she scolds, coming around the corner with spatula in hand. She withers when she sees his cheeks, flushed with the cold, and his eyes, rimmed red from both shed and unshed tears. Gentler, this time: “Come help me with dinner. You’ll warm up quick.”

He can’t refuse her, so he follows in her step, head bowed shamefully. She disregards that and motions to the cupboard. “The rice. Could you?”

“Okay,” he murmurs. Ritsu sets to washing the rice and preparing it, well aware the terse, clipped conversation is a sign of withheld offense. Kageyama Asami has always been the type to cry in disappointment of her sons failings, rather than shout—she’s short tempered but too kind to act on anything, and can see too much. It’s an inherent skill of a mother, to see through her children as though they’re glass.

She’s mad, though, he can tell that much. Ritsu has a terrible headache and he’s certain the discussion they’re due to have after dinner won’t help it abate. He works on auto pilot to set the table, and when he steps back, he sees he’s added an extra plate, extra cutlery, all extra, just by one.

Asami turns to set the food down—eel today, what a treat, but she stops when she sees the extra place setting. Pauses. Ritsu’s father walks in from the living room and she sets the dishes down with a clang, sucking in a sharp breath, like she’s been punched in the gut.

“Mom…”

Asami rounds the table to rest her hands on the back of the chair that Shigeo used to sit in, looking down at his place at the table, the empty plate, the empty chair. Ritsu’s skin tingles with anticipation, sensing her anger like he would sense an oncoming storm. He waits for thunder, for the crash of lightning. Perhaps a few plates will fly, the same as startled birds from a tree. They all have to mourn somehow.

“I know it’s hard,” she begins, and Ritsu knows the lecture will come now instead of later. “It’s hard for all of us. Shige isn’t here anymore, and we have to accept that for what it is.”

Ritsu’s impassive role as observer flits away in the breeze, a sheet on a clothesline whipped aside by a storm’s oncoming wind.

“But we have to be patient with each other. We can get through this together,” Asami continues. “We have to wait patiently. For Shigeo to come home.”

“You want to wait?” Ritsu asks, stunned. He hasn’t spoken to them much since Shigeo left, and they haven’t spoken to him. To hear her admit how hopeless she is shocks him. “That’s the same as giving up.”

“Ritsu.” Chiding, but gently. “You know that isn’t true.”

Holding his breath for his own daring, he looks up. “But isn’t it? You probably think it’s easier to wait and stop trying. You don’t want to even look for him.”  

The day with Reigen has wound him up. He knows he’ll regret this sometime later; Asami’s face is the picture of disbelief, shocked by the gall behind his outburst. Such a quiet boy. Such a good boy. He’d prefer to see her angry over impassive, as she has been.

“Don’t talk like that,” she says weakly, hand fluttering against her collar. “Please, don’t say such things. I know you’re hurting, but we all are. You might not understand until you’re older, but this was his choice.”

“His choice.” Ritsu repeats. He has always been made to seem exemplary, even to his older brother. An archetype of success in his ‘accomplishments’: a member of the student council, athletic, good-looking, polite and demure, but not true. Not honest. Shigeo was painfully, exceedingly honest.

He thinks of the satisfaction he’d felt with Hojo at his feet, his attempts to threaten a good officer of the law. He doesn’t care to be considered exceptional; his self image is of no more use to him than a painted porcelain plate.

You should learn from your brother, Shige.

“Ritsu?” Asami prompts, peering at him with concern. Her eyes are wet. She’s always been so quick to tears. In her youth, she’d been quick to confrontation.

“You’re giving up,” he spits, fighting not to wrap his arms around himself, to curl inward. “You want to sit here and wait to find him dead? You’re going to be okay with it if you sat and did nothing? How can you live with yourself?”

Gaining traction, Ritsu turns to his father. He nearly falters. He hasn’t moved an inch from the doorway. He hasn’t spoken once since Shigeo went missing, and that sudden realization does nothing to soothe his anger. “Either of you? How can either of you live with yourselves when brother is out there and—and alone?” His breath catches in his chest, ache blossoming into a steady throb. “He’s all alone and you just want to wait around for something to happen?”

Asami blinks, tears rolling down her cheeks. He knows he’s disappointed her. Ritsu had expected a explosion of relief as he whittled away their expectations and left them with nothing. Instead, his mother is crying, and he’s left to pick up the pieces.

“No.” Those warm hands rest shakily on the back of the chair and grip. “Shigeo ran away, Ritsu.”

“He didn’t run away,” Ritsu shakes like a leaf in the wind. “He wouldn’t have run away.”

“He was being bullied! You told the officers yourself. You told them before you told us. Shigeo was—” her tumbling words catch, hands dancing in uncertainty. “Shigeo was troubled. Troubled for a long time before now. I know you don’t remember much of that day, but...”

“Shut up,” Ritsu snarls, teeth bared in over-defensive outrage. He doesn’t want to be reminded of that. “You don’t know anything about what happened. You don’t know him. You never knew him.

“Then I suppose I don’t know you, either!” Asami explodes, face going red in her fervor. He wants to relish in getting a reaction, but instead his insides squirm, faced with a shouting parent. “You’ve been coming and going as you please, without a care in the world! I suppose you’re trying to investigate whatever it is you think happened?”

She spits investigate out like a curse and Ritsu almost bites his tongue. She sees him plain as day and her knowing is infuriating, makes him feel like a child. It aches, more than anything. With just a word, she isolates his vulnerable desire to do more and then mounts his hurt like a butterfly on a board.

Sputtering, and surely beet red, Ritsu tries to defend his efforts. “At least I’m doing something! You act like everything’s normal, but nothing’s going to be the same anymore! Even if brother comes home, it won’t be like normal—”

Her anger roils like thunder. “Things haven’t been normal for years, Ritsu!” She snaps, words ricocheting in the room like lightning. “I’m trying to keep our family together through this. I thought you were mature enough to understand. Is this really what you’ve been thinking?”

China and artistry, both broken in their own ways. He wants to destroy what she’s said and absolve it from his heart, but her mocking tone resonates over and over again in his head and before he can help it he’s hiccuping with a sob and smothering his face in his hands, not wanting her to see his humiliation, afraid she’ll take that to put on display, too.

“Ritsu,” she breathes, wet and ragged, regretful and afraid. Just as afraid as he is. “Oh Ritsu, baby, please…”

She circles around the table and brings him into her arms. He crumples in her embrace and cries into her chest, wishing he could do more. Shigeo is gone and he feels his absence like he’s been gutted, hollow and aching, gone like a phantom limb, mind fraying over the fact that he may very well be dead.

His big brother could be gone, and the words hanging between them would be left unsaid.

He doesn’t want Shigeo to leave him behind. He doesn’t want Shigeo to forget him.

Asami holds him, running her fingers through his hair. “Ritsu, Ritsu. You know I’m not mad—I’m not mad. I can’t lose you,” she cups his cheeks and pulls him from her bosom, pushing back his fringe. “Okay ? I can’t lose you. I love you so much,” she repeats, kissing his forehead. The shudder of a repressed sob is shared by the two of them. “I only want you to be safe.”

Ritsu nods, because he doesn’t know what else to do. She wipes his tears from his face and smiles down at him, and as he remembered, her hands are warm. The food has long grown cold.

 

 

She sends him up to bed and begins packing dinner into tupperware. Fumio finally moves from the entryway to help.

That night is the first night he ever hears his parents argue. The shouting travels up, as noise does, and he cups small hands over his ears because he knows it’s his fault. He falls asleep with a pillow over his head.

In the morning, Asami drives him to school, and he doesn’t have enough fight in him to argue with her when the memory of her tear-stained face is burned onto the back of his eyelids.

She’s late to work.

 

Ritsu goes to school the next day. So does Tasuki Hojo.

In the early morning when they pass in the hallway, he doesn’t meet her eyes, although he can sense her stare. He acts the same as he always would have and ignores her. It’s uncertain whether or not she’s decided to transfer and that uncertainty sets his teeth on edge. He tries to think about what information Reigen might have for him instead.

She approaches him after the bell rings for lunch. She steps in front of him and halts him from moving forward. It has the added effect of backing up traffic behind him. Intended, of course.

He can admire her impudence for what it is. The nerve of her, to approach him after everything that happened. Ritsu looks on impassively as she stands in front of him, hands propped on her hips, legs spread far apart. It’s a stance that bolsters confidence, he knows. Ritsu wonders what self-help article she read on the internet in order to psyche herself up for this moment.

The bruises blooming across her jaw have soured into a patchy yellow-purple hue. The ugliness suits her. It’s a vindictive thought, but it feels good to have punished someone he knows to be bad. A glance to her legs—she’s wearing black tights. Not out of season. Not suspicious.

“Kageyama,” she begins, boldly. “Did you read my letter?”

She speaks with all the misplaced confidence of a child asking a crush out on a date, as if she’s certain of his answer. The other children passing by slow and stop to watch.

A tendril creeps up his back, a slow sort of chill. He knows exactly what this is. He’s seen it happen before. The impasse they stand at sparks an electric excitement that bounds from child to child, and he knows they’re watching and waiting because they can sense the hostility radiating off of Tasuki like sharks can scent blood in the water.

“Yes,” he doesn’t smile, but he doesn’t scowl, either. He refuses to give in to the volatile atmosphere. “I read it.”

“I’m so glad,” She says, smiling over her shoulder at her friends as they approach, gathering together like a flock of vultures. “I put effort into it, after all.”

“What is this really about, Tasuki-san?” He ventures, tilting his head, pitching his voice to the sweet, demure concern suiting a member of the school council. “Is there a problem?”

“A problem?” She raises her voice. “No problem. If you read it, then there’s no issue at all. Do you have anything to say?”

“No,” Ritsu answers, without hesitation. She wants an apology, then. “I don’t think I do.”

“That’s too bad,” she remarks idly. “I think I forgot to mention something in the letter after all.”

“Care to enlighten me?” Ritsu prompts, unafraid.

She leans into his space, whispering conspiratorially. “Meet me in the courtyard after school, and I'll tell you all about it.”

She makes to leave and he stops her, speaking at full volume. “I’m sorry, Tasuki-san. I have plans after school. If you have something to say to me, you can say it here.”

For a moment, her mouth hangs open, as if she can’t believe he has the audacity to stunt her master plan. “It’s private. You’re a boy; can’t you read the atmosphere?”

“Does it have to do with those bruises of yours? You can talk to anyone on the student council if you want to discuss what’s going on at home, you know.”

His words hit the mark. The children listening in erupt in a peal of laughter. Tasuki shoots them a scathing look as the chatter lulls to hushed whispers. This will undoubtedly travel from the children in the hallway to the rest of the school, including each and every one of her classmates. They so do love to gossip, and without Shigeo, the second years are missing a victim.

He finally grants her a smile, feeling a little sick with his own exhilaration. It shouldn’t feel so good to make her feel so bad.

She storms away without another word, red faced.

The dangerous air disperses as easily as it had gathered. Her friends trail behind her, sharing reluctant looks. Ritsu continues on his way without missing a beat, well aware of the curious gazes tracking his path throughout the hallway.

He wonders if he had been too abrasive, too loud—he’ll admit he might have overdone it—yet he can’t find it in his heart to feel sympathy for her misplaced threat. Him throwing it back in her face is the least she deserves.

He knows that, and yet it’s the knowing that makes nausea swell up in the back of his throat. He knows she won’t stop here. She won’t transfer. It makes him want to hit her, and that thought makes his stomach roil. She told the police about their fight; of course she won’t back down so easily. She tried to tear his reputation to shreds—if Reigen submits the report, then he’ll have the title of delinquent stamped onto his forehead for the rest of his school life, should it go through.

He finds himself sick in the washroom.

The lack of good rest has taken a toll on his body, he knows. Ritsu washes his face and stares at himself in the mirror. The fact that he isn’t getting enough sleep is painted plain on his face—the bags under his eyes speak for themselves. Nightmares wake him and if they do not, then his fear of them does. He looks miserable, and misery is weakness.

Ritsu considers his needs and wants, and decides he needs her to transfer. She is fast on her way to becoming a problem. If he can’t bully her into it with force, then perhaps he needs to read the atmosphere and take a step back to reevaluate his options. Persuading a woman requires a gentle hand; he’s sure the rumors of abuse at home will spread like wildfire and set her alight. That might be enough, but if it isn’t, then he needs to have a back up plan.

 

 

After classes end, he stops by the student council room. He agreed to meet Reigen again tonight, so he can’t linger long; he knows that he’s pushing his luck, considering his mother’s increased concern over his whereabouts, but he isn’t about to throw away the chance to learn more about his brother’s case. Even if they fight again, or argue—he can accept that for what it is.

He can’t accept them giving up.

He contemplates in the quiet, listening to the storm brewing outside the walls of the school. The silence is punctuated by the whistle of wind through flimsy windows and an eerie howl echoes throughout the hallway, empty save for Ritsu. The weather has been awful, lately, with fog in the morning and wind and rain during the day. The first snowfall of the season is far off, but he feels that winter will come early to the city. Lost in thought, Ritsu doesn’t hear the approaching footsteps as they round the corner.

“Kageyama?”

Ritsu twitches; then turns, blinking surprisedly. “Vice president.”

Tokugawa stares at him, apparently equally surprised to find him standing there. “... there’s no student council meeting today. I came back to retrieve my textbooks.”

Ritsu steps aside as Tokugawa unlocks the door, and they enter together. Why Ritsu follows, he isn’t sure, but he’s suddenly certain of something: he needs to rejoin the council before Tasuki reports him to the school.

“That’s unusual; was it canceled?” Curious, but politely so. Not infringing, unsure whether or not he’ll be welcomed back. He was never officially expelled from the student council—rather, told to take time off, not to worry about the burden of work upon work. Since Shigeo’s disappearance, his grades have suffered.

“It was,” Tokugawa concedes, retrieving the aforementioned books from the corner of the room. Unlike him to forget, but Ritsu supposes he’s only human. “Shinji’s older brother came to pick him up early. A few others were unwell. It’s not a meeting with only two of us,” he explains, packing the books into his bag. “But you. Why are you here? You’re supposed to be taking time for yourself. Do you plan on returning to the student council?”

“I do,” Ritsu says simply, hating himself as he twists the strap of his bag between his fingers. Words spill unbidden from his mouth. “If I’m being honest, then I’m restless. I feel as though it would benefit me to return.”

Tokugawa’s eyes narrow, hand stilling on the zip of his bag. “Is that so? I’m not certain you’re ready yet.”

Ritsu’s blood runs cold; he thinks about Tasuki, about the things he’d said and done. He tries out a guileless smile, as if only uncertain of what Tokugawa could mean. “What makes you say that? I appreciate your concern, but there’s no need to worry about me so much.”

“It’s not just you I’m concerned for,” Tokugawa averts his eyes, turning to look out of the window, instead. It’s unusual for him to deflect and avoid; the vice president is the type to get straight to the point. Underneath his uniform, Ritsu sweats. “Tasuki-san came to me this morning.”

“Did she,” Blood thudding in his ears, Ritsu closes the classroom door. At the snap of the lock, Tokugawa shifts to face him.

“What were you thinking? You never struck me as the type to resort to violence.”

“It was impulsive,” Ritsu fires back, both ashamed and nervous. He feels like a cornered animal; it’s difficult to swallow down the urge to bare his teeth. Ritsu desperately tries to explain himself, whispering low and fast. “You have to understand. It was… a mistake, one that I can’t help but regret.”

Tokugawa doesn’t answer him, instead listening attentively, as if trying to see through a lie.

“I was defending myself,” Ritsu continues. “I did what anyone else would do.”

“You beat her. Do you truly consider that self defense?” Tokugawa questions instantly, lips thinning out to a tight line.

“It was justifiable, given the circumstances,” Ritsu drops his eyes to the space between his feet, allowing himself a forlorn sigh, a guilty, askew glance up. Insecure, unsure, and ashamed, he wraps his arms around his middle. It’s almost an act. It’s certainly a performance. “She brought up my brother.”

“She brought up Shigeo...? What did she say?” Tokugawa sounds incredulous. Ritsu knows he has scant traces of sympathy for bullies. Ritsu knows he can turn this around on her.

He bites his lip, as if he’s hesitant to explain, to return to that moment, even if only in passing. “She admitted to having bullied him. She told me he was…” Here Ritsu pauses, as if staving off a sob. “That he was better off dead, that he deserved it.”

Tokugawa inhales sharply, nostrils flaring. It could be in anger. It could be to scent the lie. Ritsu doesn’t know; keeps his gaze fixed firmly on the floor, where he scuffs the tile with his shoe. His crocodile tears worked before. He hopes they work now.

“I still can’t justify what you’ve done with that,” He answers, slow and steady, to keep Ritsu from bolting, maybe, or spilling further tears. “When you attacked her, you made yourself a target. I’m sure you know there will be repercussions.” A pause. Tokugawa is strict to an absurd degree and sticks to the rules like they’re all he knows; on top of that, he isn’t friendly, nor kind. But as he walks closer to Ritsu, he drops his voice to a low murmur, trying his best to cushion the blow. “She didn’t just tell me. She reported it to the police.”

Ritsu tears his gaze from the floor to stare with eyes blown wide, hoping his open distress is enough to convince him of his shock. “No… no way…”

Tokugawa’s hand is gentle on his arm, meant to assuage the panic building in Ritsu’s chest, meant to comfort. “... I can only help you if you promise to help yourself. Be honest, when they ask what happened. Tasuki is a bully; you are not. I hope I’m not wrong about you, Kageyama.”

Ritsu holds his breath, daring to look into Tokugawa’s eyes. It might better impact a blow upon his conscience, to see him teary-eyed and desperate.

“... for now, I still can’t say yes to you rejoining the council. You’re going through something difficult, but… I don’t know if everyone else will agree. I have to tell them what happened.”

His hand drops back to his side. Ritsu feels cold.

“You’re just like everyone else. You think my brother is dead, don’t you?”

Tokugawa visibly grimaces. “That’s not it, and you know that.”

“If you’re not going to help me, then why are you pretending you care?” Icy, but honest. Tokugawa is unused to the cruel cut of Ritsu’s edges, and can only scramble to prevent him from tumbling to the ground and shattering.

Wrong footed, Tokugawa tries to assure him. “I’ll talk to them on Monday, during the morning meeting. We’ll have an answer for you by the end of the day. I’ll… drop by your classroom.”

Ritsu sullenly nods, but doesn’t speak. He doesn’t trust his words won’t waver.

Tokugawa gestures to the door. They both exit, Ritsu dazed, Tokugawa shaken. Though they walk downstairs to the first floor together and leave the school together, they don’t speak to each other. It’s only at the gate that Tokugawa turns to him, hesitating a half beat.

“Is someone coming to pick you up? If you’d like, I…”

“Yes. I’m meeting them halfway.” Ritsu’s reply is short, clipped, and all Tokugawa probably feels he deserves. It shuts him down.

“Be careful,” the older boy advises, and Ritsu leaves him standing there.

A block away, Ritsu changes course, heading to the closest bus stop. From there, he’ll head to the trains, where he’ll take a twenty minute ride into the depths of the city center.

Reigen must be wondering why he’s late.

Chapter Text

A day after meeting Reigen, Ritsu returns to the police station, intent on following up on their promise to meet again. The secretary at the front desk darkens when she sees him approaching; he doesn’t doubt she recognizes him from before. He hopes she doesn’t give him any trouble.

“I’m looking for Reigen-san.”

She gives him a dubious once over, but nods. “He warned me you were coming back. Take a seat. He’s working right now; I’ll let him know you’re here.”

He comes out not ten minutes later, jacket thrown over his arm, hand working at the back of his neck. He seems exhausted; the bags under his eyes and the slump of his shoulders serve as evidence of his hard work, but Ritsu finds himself lacking sympathy. He looks no better. Clearly, they’ve both had their fair share of sleepless nights.

“Hey,” as soon as Reigen sees him sitting there, little legs idly swinging from the chair, his face brightens. His smile is polite, but not imposing—unexpectant, and even. “Good to see you. I almost thought you weren’t coming.”

Reigen isn’t going to scold him for being late, but Ritsu can read between the lines easily enough, and decides to explain.

“The student council meeting ran a bit longer than usual today,” Ritsu feels a touch apologetic for the lie, but thinks it’s easier than explaining the truth.

“Don’t worry about that. I had paperwork to catch up on anyways.” Reigen winds a scarf around his neck and shrugs into his coat, unconcerned with frivolities. Ritsu finds it unexpectedly refreshing. “You ready?”

He stands from his seat and follows the man outside, shivering from the cold as a gust of wind sends leaves tumbling past their shoes. He shoves his hands deep into his jacket pockets, trailing behind Reigen and feeling rather like a lost puppy. “Please tell me you figured something out.”

“I did,” he nods, and then slows his step, allowing Ritsu to walk beside rather than behind him. “We’ll discuss it in private. You’ll eat this time, won’t you?”

Ritsu pulls a face, but diligently follows beside Reigen anyway. Bluntly: “I didn’t like that place.”

“No? Then let’s get ramen. I’ll buy you a beef bowl.”

“... okay,” Ritsu says, hoping the rumble of his stomach isn’t audible.

Reigen knows the city well, if his expert navigation is any tell. They take a quick walk and are seated in the cozy booth of a ramen shop before long, tucked neat and tidy into a quiet corner where they’re sure to stay undisturbed.

They sit and order; a beef bowl for himself, and tonkotsu for Reigen. As they wait, Reigen unwinds the gray scarf from around his neck, peeling off leather gloves alongside it. He rubs his hands together. “Man, it’s getting colder every day! Don’t you have gloves? Your hands must be freezing.”

“It’s cold for autumn,” Ritsu agrees. Not wanting to think of the fuzzy mittens in the bottom of his pocket, he deflects. “You sure know your way around the city.”

“Ah? Of course. I’ve done my fair share of grunt work. Patrol is a pain, but I guess it has its perks. Sometimes I miss it. It’s better than being stuck in an office all day.”

The food is quick to arrive, and though Ritsu is ready to talk, Reigen makes him eat first. “Don’t want you running away like last time,” he says. “That was such a waste! There were three or four takoyaki left… and I overpaid, too…”

“Are you cheap or something,” Ritsu asks on his second mouthful of beef and udon, paid for by Reigen. The cop glares at him openly. It’s a bit more of an honest reaction than Ritsu had expected from him, but it’s more welcome than the constant deception that seeps from his every pore.

“For your sake, I’ll ignore that,” Reigen mumbles, mouth full of pork. He doesn’t wipe his face. Ritsu wipes his own, as if to give him a hint. The older man doesn’t pick up on it. Ritsu adds the unseemly trait on to an ever growing list; lazy cop, conman and now slob.

They finish their meals without forcing a conversation, the tinkle of glasses and wafts of laughter spilling in from the center of the restaurant to fill the silence. Ritsu doesn’t find it awkward. Reigen doesn’t seem to mind, either. It’s disconcerting that eating in silence with Reigen is comfortable. He tries not to think about it too deeply.

After Reigen has finally wiped his face and the dishes have been cleared away, tea left in their wake, Ritsu broaches the subject of what they’re really here for. It’s difficult, when he’s warm and sated, tongue heavy with the sweet sugar of tea, mind and body at ease.

“When we met the other day, you said that you told me everything you knew. You’ve gotten more information since then, right?”

“Yeah. I refreshed myself with the case files.”

“And?”

Reigen takes in a deep breath and holds his gaze, seeming very ready to blow a very serious secret. Instead, he exhales. “They don’t know anything of any significance.” He takes a sip of his tea, and proceeds to burn his tongue.

“What?” Ritsu blurts, more shocked than upset. “What do you mean?”

“Ouch… the information we have is limited. It’s like the killer is a ghost… he doesn’t leave any evidence behind. And we don’t have any leads, either,” Reigen props his elbows up on the table, gesturing lazily, free giving in his transparency. Ritsu is too upset to realize the candor with which Reigen admits this.

He mulls that over, chewing his lower lip. “You aren’t lying to me again, are you?”

Reigen stares at him through the waft of steam coming from his tea, taking a second to blow on it, imparting a cool breath to the hot liquid before taking a sip. He doesn’t seem amused, only placative. “I want what you want, Ritsu.”

Ritsu narrows his eyes distrustfully, provoking him to elaborate.

“Our end goal is the same. We both want to find Mob safe and sound. I’m not going to do anything to endanger that goal, and that includes lying to you. I said we’d do this together, didn’t I?”

“... I’ll listen to what you have to say,” Is all Ritsu answers with, neither accepting or rejecting him. “Those two girls only just went missing. You’re telling me that they have nothing, from either case?”

“Nishimoto Saki, Haruka, and… loosely, Mob’s disappearance. Just three cases. That's not a lot to go off of.”

“Mob?” Ritsu questions.

“Ah—your brother, sorry. It’s a nickname. Anyway, those are all connected, as far as I—uh, we know. They think that he’s a runaway, since he disappeared so soon after the bullying began. That’s probably what they told your parents,” Reigen explains.

His mother’s desperate insistence makes sudden sense to him. “I see. And they refused to tell me directly.”

“We can’t confirm a connection yet, but…” Reigen shrugs. “There’s no way they’re not connected. Haruka and Mob knew each other, and there’s no way this guy doesn’t stalk his victims before he kidnaps them. There’s too many correlations to dismiss it. It’s important, take it from me. Detective’s intuition,” Reigen taps his temple.

“They weren’t just acquaintances, ” Ritsu grumbles, trailing off as Reigen waves a dismissive hand. “And you aren’t actually a detective, are you?”

Reigen ignores that. “There was about a two day lapse between disappearances, but there hasn’t been another missing person’s case in two weeks, and there haven’t been any more bodies. Mob’s probably…” he pauses, throat clicking. “Mob’s alive. The culprit doesn’t have a habit of hiding bodies, and there’s nothing to suggest he’d stray from his usual pattern. Mob might be special to him. I’m sure you would have mentioned it, but did he have any older friends…? Anyone he went to visit? Did he have any secrets?”

Ritsu sucks his lower lip into his mouth and chews on it, shaking his head. He can’t recall any such relations. “No. My brother didn’t hide things from us.” He resolutely doesn’t think of how Shigeo avoided answering questions the night Haruka was found. “What about in other towns? If he’s taken brother away from the city, then…”

“That’s possible…” Reigen murmurs, tapping his chin. “I’ll have to look into it. There wasn’t anything on the news, was there?”

Ritsu deadpans. “Shouldn’t you be telling me that?”

“You have more time than me to check the news,” Reigen says immediately, pointing at him. “The guys here might not necessarily make the connection, you know, if someone were to go missing in another town… you’re still in school, right? Heard any rumors?”

There’s too much wrong with what Reigen has said for Ritsu to point it all out; the most he manages is a sigh before he answers the single direct question. “I haven’t heard any rumors.”

“Keep an ear out for any, then,” Reigen decides. “I’ll be paying close attention to what goes around in the station, too, of course.”

Ritsu heaves another long suffering sigh. “We haven’t made any progress. We can listen to the news, but if we don’t take action, then… we’re not going to get anywhere.”

“This is the beginning of a thorough investigation. We can’t afford to waste time, but that also means we can’t afford to miss out on any details. We don’t know what is important; narrowing down what is useful information and what isn’t takes time… as much as I’d like to charge out to find Mob right now, I’d probably just get lost going in circles.”

“So we do nothing?” Ritsu bites, frustration returning to him in full. “We sit around and wait ?”

Reigen’s brow creases. To his credit, he shows no sign of frustration, hiding his exasperation with a firm shake of his head. “We need evidence before we can find your brother—like, clues . You know. Have you never watched a detective movie before? They’re pretty accurate...”

“What if he’s already out of the country?” Ritsu asks, dread overcoming him at the sudden and terrible thought. “We could be running in circles for—”

“He isn’t,” Reigen holds up his hand. Ritsu stares at him, chewing his lower lip. “He isn’t out of the country. Don’t say such things. You’re panicking. There are issued alerts for Mob, since he’s a missing kid. Even if they went to a different town, they wouldn’t be able to leave the country.”

They stew in silence for a long moment after that. Ritsu wills away the blind upset in his heart, allowing Reigen’s words to assuage the panic pounding through his veins.

He numbly shakes his head.

“... if you’re so desperate to do something in the meantime, then why don’t you try asking the people on your route home if they saw anything?” Reigen asks, face completely blank. What the man is thinking, Ritsu can’t tell.

“Haven’t you already done that? It’s the least the police can do,” Ritsu protests.

“Well, they have, but you never know. It couldn't hurt, as long as you're cautious. Take a friend or something if you do that. At any rate, nobody is forcing you,” He shakes his sleeve aside and looks at his watch, eyes growing wide. “Ah, shit, I have to get back to work...”

“So soon?” Ritsu mutters, wondering if this is an evasion tactic. Reigen motions to the waitress, requesting the cheque.

“Well, yeah. Adults have to work, you know. Breaks only last so long.”

“When can we meet again?” Ritsu ignores that, passing over it with a trained disdain. Adults have the inclination to lecture him at the drop of a hat, too. “Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow isn’t so good… Monday, okay? That sound alright?” The waitress returns with the cheque and Reigen takes the proffered bill, pulling his wallet out of his jacket pocket. Ritsu recalls with a sudden horror Tasuki’s report, and consequently panics.

“There’s one last thing I wanted to talk to you about,” Ritsu blurts, hoping he sounds controlled, rather than desperate. Reigen looks up from the yen in his hand and blinks owlishly at him. “That report…”

“The report? You mean that girl’s? Hm-hm…” The question delays his exit. He stands, but he seems in deep thought, tapping the money against the table. “... if I recall, I lost it. I have a lot of paperwork, you know, and that sort of thing isn’t exactly my priority right now.”

Relief and panic contradict, uncertainty melding them into one. “So, then…” Ritsu mumbles, hoping for a straightforward answer.

“I doubt it’ll resurface until this case is closed,” Reigen rolls his shoulders in a nonchalant shrug, as if it’s of no concern to him. “I have to get back to work—can you get yourself to the station, or...?”

“Of course I can.” Ritsu interrupts, confused by his own relief, perturbed by Reigen’s kindness. He’s glad to be given a reason to be irritated with him. “I can take care of myself.”

“Is that so?” Reigen’s lips twist, seemingly amused by Ritsu’s petulance. His patience is confounding. “Ah. One thing, though. I can leave that report at the bottom of my drawer, but I can’t do anything if another one comes in. You get that, right?”

Ritsu’s throat clicks as his swallows. He nods, a vexing thought coming to him.

“What… what do I owe you?”

The cop tilts his head down at him as he wraps his scarf around his neck, puzzled. “For?”

“This,” Ritsu gestures, unsure. Their meeting today is worlds away from the careful manipulations and subterfuge of just the other day. It has Ritsu wrong footed; he doesn’t want to be indebted to Reigen, not when he can’t tell what kind of person he is anymore. Kind enough to pay for his dinner, cruel enough to threaten him. A liar and a cheapskate—a thief playing pretend under the safe masquerade of authority.

Reigen smiles down at him, and when his eyes glint, it’s with knowing.

“I’ll let you know next time. Until then, be careful. See you on Monday.”

Reigen turns on his heel, leaving him with the jingle of the bell above the restaurant's door and the promise to meet again.

 

 

It’s Saturday.

Ritsu spends the time after morning classes to run track. The cold keeps everyone else away, but it livens him; each gasping breath brings clarity to his muddled mind. The school empties out over the afternoon hours and the sky darkens; he continues to run, exhausting himself until he collapses on a nearby bench, boneless and worn. He prays the exertion will bring him a dreamless sleep tonight.

He’s alone. Tasuki finds him easily.

He notices her in the distance, watching as she draws nearer. He wonders if she plans to hurt him how he’d hurt her—if she plans to push him in the dirt, as Haruka had Shigeo, and spill milk over his head.

Ritsu saw what she did to his brother. After she walked away, he cornered her in the shadow of a vacant hallway and told her what he would do, should the bullying continue. Haruka cried, of course, and ran away; Ritsu always assumed that she went straight home.

It strikes him now that he was probably the last person who spoke to her; that after he shoved her against a wall, she was bludgeoned to death by a man whose name and face remain a mystery to the world.

It would make an interesting novella. The reality of it just makes Ritsu queasy.

“What was so important yesterday that you couldn’t meet me after school?” Tasuki asks, sitting a respectable distance away from him on the bench. If she’s here to bully him, it’s a shockingly amicable stance to take.

“None of your business,” he gives a simple answer, uninterested in playing games with her. “We’re not friends, Tasuki-san.”

“I liked you,” she blurts, surprisingly forthcoming. Ritsu suspected it initially, but never thought she would come out with it. “I was going to ask you out. Before… before Haruka went missing. I never agreed with what she was doing.”

“But you played along well enough.” Ritsu states, refusing to turn to look at her. He knows what he’ll see: teary eyes, reddened cheeks. A stare begging for forgiveness.

She doesn’t hesitate to rebuke that. “I regret what I did. What I wrote in that letter wasn’t a lie. You did read it, didn’t you?”

He almost tells her no, just to refuse her the satisfaction. Instead he closes his eyes, wishing for the rain to come drive her away. “Yes.”

“She’s dead now,” Tasuki states plainly, as if Haruka wasn’t a friend. “I’m sorry about your brother. She got what was coming to her.”

Ritsu grits his teeth, willing the sting from his heart, the throb of an ache long past. “I hurt you.” A simple reminder, an eye for an eye. She hurt Shigeo. He hurt her.

He feels her shift closer rather than sees. “I know.” He keeps his eyes shut tight, praying this will soon end, preferring the heat of an argument over a calm discussion. She continues on, as though they’re two friends chatting over afternoon tea. “... I got what was coming to me . I deserved it.”

“You told the vice president of the student council,” he tips his head back, opening his eyes to the ashy expanse of sky above them. He wonders if it will snow. “Because of that, I don’t know if I’ll be able to return.”

“I can take it back,” she answers, too quick, a lie. Ritsu knows it like Reigen knew he was bluffing when he said he would scream. “We can still smooth this over. I don’t want to be your enemy.”

“You told the police, too.”

She doesn’t vocalize her surprise, though he’s certain she’s staring at him, wide-eyed. “How… did they already—”

“What do you want from me, Tasuki?” He asks, finally looking at her.

“A date,” She has enough sense to look somewhat contrite as she admits it. “For us to be friends, at least. I can take it all back. I’ll tell Tokugawa-san and Shinji-kun you noticed my bruises before anyone else and I got embarrassed and blamed it all on you.”

“And the police?”

“The same thing,” she shrugs, heaving a hot breath and watching the white cloud that forms before her face and so quickly dissipates. “They questioned you, right? What did you say? You didn’t admit to it, did you?”

“If you say you got those bruises from home, then they’ll investigate, and things will get worse for you. That’s the only alternative.”

Tasuki laughs. It startles him, the noise. In the dreary shadow of the afternoon darkness, it sounds eerily out of place. “Are you worried? That’s why I always liked you. You were always so kind. I can forgive you for hitting me.”

Ritsu’s resolve to stand firm splinters. He rises from the bench. The sweat that has cooled on his skin will bring him a fever tonight, if he doesn’t take care of it soon. “You bullied my brother, and now you think you can take advantage of the situation and blackmail me. I don’t like you, Tasuki-san. I never will,” He pauses, considering his next words. “So do whatever you want.”

His words catch up with her, but only when he turns and walks away.

“Fine! Then I’ll make your life a living hell! You’ll be expelled, and you won’t be able to get a job, and you won’t even finish school!”

Ritsu listens to her stomp her feet and rage. Her anger is meaningless, hot air dispersed in great white gouts of steam that go nowhere but up, into the gray of the sky. Ritsu doesn’t feel a thing for her; no anger, gone with the wind, no sympathy, nothing. There’s a void in his heart where he felt worried before, scared, maybe. But he knows now just how pathetic she is.

Recalling Reigen’s advice, Ritsu knocks on a few doors on his route home, questioning whether or not they might have seen Shigeo. He receives a few pitying looks, but nothing of substance. He pauses by one of his posters, stapled onto a telephone pole, and fixes it where it has come loose.

His sleep that night is dreamless. In the morning when he wakes before his parents, he takes a moment to listen to the birds chirp, enjoying the serenity of their song.

For just a moment, he convinces himself that things are normal again. He walks by Shigeo’s closed door and pretends that he’s sleeping. He starts breakfast for his parents and when they wake, blearily stepping into the kitchen, he smiles and gestures and they eat together.

It’s a respite; a return to the sensation of normality, a Sunday locked in a bubble of mendacity. Ignorance is, as they say, bliss.

On Monday, reality returns.

They find another body.

Chapter Text

Monday morning is as gloomy as ever; the sun stands still, tucked behind sheet-white clouds, and the rain relentlessly pours down on Ritsu on his way to school. He arrives early for chore duty and ignores the fact that his partner is missing.

By the end of classes, his nerves have frayed to their roots. As he sweeps the floor and takes out the trash, the student council decides his fate, and Reigen taps his foot in waiting.

His tension ends unrewarded.

When he opens the door to the student council room, Tokugawa stands to greet him. Kamuro’s eyes flicker with interest, and then grow dull.

“Kageyama,” Tokugawa begins, and by the tenor and drag of his voice, the slow lilt of each syllable, Ka-ge-ya-ma, he knows his streak of good luck is over. “Unfortunately, we—”

“It’s been a while,” Kamuro interrupts, smile soft, teasingly kind. Intended to provoke, maybe. “How have you been?”

Ritsu’s hair stands on end. “Very well. You aren’t allowing me to return?”

Kamuro’s steepled hands fidget on the tabletop, rearranging themselves palm up, placative. “Unfortunately, yes. The decision wasn’t made lightly, I’ll have you know,” Kamuro pauses, reading Ritsu’s open expression and continuing on. “Don’t misunderstand. It’s not a punishment. You’re going through something terrible right now, and grief changes people.”

Grief changes people. Ritsu wonders: is he changing?

“It’s not permanent,” Tokugawa adds. “In the future, you may return, but for now—”

“—For now you need time to yourself,” Kamuro finishes. “You don’t need any more stressors. For your own sake, please take the time off to reflect.”

Kamuro notches arrow after arrow, each finding its mark with a lackadaisical precision. Humiliation sears the back of his neck, the implication of instability branded into his skin, all soothed with overkind sympathies. He manages to word it in such a way that him telling Ritsu to get out makes him sound like a saint.

Ritsu forces himself to meet Kamuro’s eyes and is taken aback by what he sees. He’s become a marvel at sorting out other’s emotions since Shigeo went missing; the other boy’s eyes lack the twinkle of amusement Ritsu expected to find.

The fire of anger is lit, but it is too weak to withstand a gentle breath, gone with an inhale and an exhale.

“Of course,” Ritsu says. “I understand.”

Quiet settles over the room, and then Kamuro straightens, shuffling through papers.

“I think that’s all for today,” he murmurs, and the members stand, gathering their things, tucking loose papers into binders and binders into bags. It’s a methodical scramble to get out as soon as possible; in a second, the room is empty of all but Kamuro, Tokugawa, and Ritsu.

They leave together, but Kamuro doesn’t speak openly until they’re outside of the school.

“We know that you’re under duress, Kageyama. This isn’t an attack… we don’t want to punish you. Not when you’ve already suffered as it is.”

Ritsu doesn’t respond. Kamuro turns to him at the gates, smiling sadly.

“I have to go. My brother’s probably upset that I’ve kept him waiting.”

That perks Ritsu’s interest. “Your brother?”

“Ah…” Kamuro looks between Tokugawa and Ritsu, and then shrugs, smile haphazard. “He insists on walking me home from school now. Funny, how such a disaster can bring people together. I’ll see you two tomorrow,” He says, departing from their side with a wave, cheeks flushed from both the cold and pleasured embarrassment.

Ritsu watches him go, envy twisting his stomach into knots.

“... his brother and he used to fight,” Tokugawa explains. “From what I know, it was bad. Their relationship has improved, since then. I know it’s hard, but… please don’t resent him for it. He finally has someone on his side.”

“I see,” Ritsu murmurs icily, noting the somber atmosphere that envelops Tokugawa as he speaks about it, as if he’d very well lived it himself.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to convince them,” the older boy murmurs. “But as sorry as I am, I can’t say I disagree with their decision.”

Ritsu doesn’t even look at him. They walk in silence from then on.

When they approach Tokugawa’s street, Ritsu gestures toward it. “Your house is down that way, right? We can part ways here.”

Tokugawa’s steps falter, displaced by the rejection. Ritsu continues on without pause. “I’ll see you tomorrow. My mother will meet me halfway, so don’t worry.”

“Only if you’re certain. Be careful on your way.”

“See you.”

Ritsu waits until he’s certain he’s not within sight, and then ducks down an alleyway, taking a shortcut to the bus stop.

 

 

 

The sky is an endless white.

The train into downtown is crowded and bustling. He hates the close contact with so many strangers and the heat of too many bodies packed tightly together.

When he steps free from the stifled car into the cold air, he stares up into the expanse of the sky above him, watching in awe as fluffy flakes of snow drift downward.

Fleeing from the cold, he enters the police station with a grateful sigh, rubbing feeling into his cold fingers. He hopes he isn’t too late.

He approaches the secretary; she looks up at him and rolls her eyes before he can so much as greet her. “Is Reigen-san—”

“Reigen’s not in right now. If you want, I’ll leave him a message.”

“But…” Ritsu scrunches up his face, confused. “He said he’d be here.”

“Well, he isn’t. Just go home, come back tomorrow. He’ll be here then.” She looks back down to the papers in front of her, signing something idly. When she looks up again and Ritsu is still standing there, she heaves a tired sigh. “Go on, go home.”

“But I—”

“He isn’t here,” She says, with a deadening finality. The look she gives him is mystifying; he’d done nothing so extreme so as to earn such disdain. Some sort of revelatory urge forces him to push.

“He said he would be,” he continues to protest. “Can’t you contact him and tell him I’m here?”

“I can’t do that. I said I can leave a message. That’s all I can do for you.”

“I’ll do it myself, then. He must have a phone. If you give me this number, then I’ll—”

“You have no relation to him and you’ve come here harassing us daily for the past two weeks,” She bites back at him, surprisingly brash. He never expected such a fierce reaction from a public servant. He glances at her name tag. Tome Kurata. “You won’t get help with that attitude. Get lost, or I’ll call security.”

“On a child?” He can’t help himself from the scathing remark. “That’s pathetic.”

“And here we go, I have the number right here—” She rips a sticky note from the side of the monitor on her desk, and then pauses. “Oh, or I could just yell for one of the many armed policemen around?”

“All I need is his number,” Ritsu pleads, voice low.

Tome doesn’t budge. “No.”

“Please.” He adds stiffly.

“Too late for that. I’m telling you to leave already. I’ll tell him you were here, but he wasn’t in yesterday and he wasn’t in today, even though he should have been, so fat chance he’ll be in tomorrow.”

Hesitation seeps in around Ritsu’s ire, and his scowl flattens in his confusion. “Huh?”

Tome seems to regret having spoken so freely; she grimaces. “Just come in tomorrow or the next day, I don’t know. He hasn’t been in. I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.”

“Give me his number, and I’ll forget about it.”

“Don’t you get what I’m saying?” She whispers, opposed to being overheard. “The station’s already been calling him like mad, and he won’t pick up. That’s that. Can you get over it for a day?”

“He’s disappeared, and you haven’t gone to look for him?”

“I’m on secretary duties!” She blurts, indignant. “I can only do so much. Go on, get! Come back later on in the day if you’re so worried. I’d tell you to call the station, but it might not be me that picks up, and we’re not allowed to tell just anyone about the officer's personal business.”

Ritsu opens his mouth to argue, but he realizes he can’t protest any further. She has broken rules in telling him these things, and although he wants to kick and fight until he gets his way, there is nothing more that he or she can do. If Reigen isn’t here, and if he isn’t picking up his phone, then there simply isn’t any way for Ritsu to contact him.

He can’t do anything more than this.

“... I’ll be back,” Is all he says, and he turns around on his heels to plod outside.

A thin buildup of snow has settled on the sidewalks and the roads, and with the steady fall comes a fog, settling over the town like a blanket. He wanders through it to find himself back at the train station, perplexed. There is a startling lack of anger in his heart, gone with the wind; what more can he do, other than return tomorrow, as instructed?

He boards the train, this time unbothered by the smothering atmosphere, the heated press of bodies fit too snugly, like sardines in a can. Outside, the passing buildings are obscured in a thick fog, shrouded in murky grays and whites. He arrives at his stop and he is the only one to disembark.

He shivers in the damp air, traveling through the empty suburb streets with an unease that follows in his shadow. His paranoia is exacerbated by the slow-growing darkness of evening. Something flits in the corner of his eye and he turns, finding an alleyway basked in fog and the shadowed form of a passing stray cat. He exhales shakily.

Ritsu arrives home undisturbed, but he locks the door behind him. For some unknown reason, he is alerted to every shift in the house, every groan of pipes, nerves on a hair-trigger. The floorboards creak underneath his feet, and when he walks, he feels followed.

Halfway up the stairs, his mother shouts for him, rounding the corner. “Ritsu! Get down here. Now.

He obeys meekly; he had expected this from the moment he sat down on the train today and checked his wristwatch.

“Where have you been? It’s getting dark out. You can’t tell me you were still at school?”

“The student council meeting ran late,” Ritsu lies, and he averts his gaze this time, knowing he’s too exhausted to hold up the facade for long. The day has sucked from him both energy and soul; the last thing he wants to do is argue with his mother. “I’m tired.”

Asami gives pause at the admission. She fidgets, dithering on punishing her son or excusing him, and she eventually decides to motion him closer. He walks down the stairs with heavy footfalls, as if over encumbered.

“Help me with dinner,” She decides, figuring that to be forced to sit and eat at the dinner table is punishment enough.

He helps her prepare dinner, and when he nicks himself cutting carrots, he can do little but watch the blood well up and drip onto the cutting board. She makes him rinse his hands and sit down on the couch to wait until dinner is ready.

He hears his father come home and his mother shushing him when he raises his voice. When Ritsu sits across from him at the table to eat, he smells the overbearing scent of alcohol. What was left of his appetite withers.

There’s nothing right about it, but nothing is amiss, either. Not in the Kageyama household.

 

 

That night, he sleeps fitfully. And then it is Tuesday, and he realizes he cannot wait all day, not for Reigen to not be at the station again. Laying in a bed warm with his body heat, sweat beading sticky on his forehead, he makes the swift decision to go to downtown instead of to school. He flies to dress.

Ritsu mother is awake and preparing for work; his father is already long gone. The money Ritsu has is barely enough to cover the train fare there and back.

Peeking around a corner, he watches as Asami braids her hair in the washroom and wonders how she hasn’t noticed the missing cash yet. It’s not like it was any significant amount, but he needs more. He glances at the side table and her purse there, silently calculating.

Ritsu wanders into the entranceway, steps purposefully loud. When he opens the closet and pulls his jacket on, she follows after him.

“Just wait, honey. I’ll drive you.”

“I have a student council meeting this morning. I’m already late,” He carefully works his fingers over the buttons of his jacket. “Tokugawa is meeting me halfway. I can call you when I get to school?” He suggests mildly, knowing she’ll wave him away. 

“You insist on being so careless,” She snaps. “Be like that, then!”

She storms upstairs. In a moment, she’ll rage back down and insist on carting him around; he needs to hurry. He masks his footsteps easily underneath the hum of the morning broadcast his father left on in the living room, sneaking into the kitchen, empty but for the droning hum of the radio.

The reporters are discussing the coming winter with some obvious trepidation. It seems they suspect that this winter will be Japan’s coldest in years. They switch casters over to the news, and Ritsu tunes them out, prying money from his mother’s purse with a practiced hand, rolling a wad of cash up and into his pocket.

He turns on his heel to leave and pauses.

“... as we understand it, the police have no suspect in the case yet. Just two weeks ago was the murder of a young girl, and found yesterday…”

Ritsu freezes in place, blood running cold.

“... the body of a young boy, identity unknown. Police reports tell us that the victim suffered multiple stab wounds, and that diagnostics will—”

The door slams behind him.

Ritsu’s feet carry him to the train station at a run, and despite the adrenaline surging throughout his body, he feels numb. Sweat clings to the back of his neck, and it’s fear that makes it run cold, though his skin is feverishly hot.

It’s difficult to catch his breath.

When the train arrives, he is the first one on, and the first one off.

It can’t be his brother. It can’t.

He runs to the police station, bumping into shoulders and arms as he plows through the busy morning crowds, deaf to the angry muttering that follows him. His heart is in his throat, and when he reaches the station he throws the doors open, approaching the desk at a walk, struggling not to draw attention.

Tome looks up at him when he approaches.

“Where is he?” Ritsu gasps, short of breath.

“He hasn’t been in,” She says. Her voice is a touch softer when she speaks next. “I’m sorry.”

Ritsu spins on his heel, running back the way he came. He pauses outside of the police station, looking around in the fog that blankets the town. The people that pass by him on the street don’t spare him a single glance, and his panic builds up in his chest like a bottle of champagne.

No one has a clue what has happened.

He doesn’t know what to do. Hysteria drives him against a mental block and he struggles to think, to come up with a solution. He doesn’t know a damn thing, and it’s a punch to the gut, the reminder of his helplessness. He turns around in circles, running his hands through his hair. Tears come unbidden to his eyes, and he blinks them away, furious with himself for not knowing what to do.

“Over here!”

He turns and sees Reigen’s head peeking from the open window of a car.

Ritsu almost sobs with relief as he runs toward him. Reigen jerks a thumb to the seat beside him. “Go around, get in. We’re going somewhere else.”

He obeys without a single ounce of hesitation, opening the door and flinging himself down beside Reigen. He slams the car door, and Reigen grimaces. “Hey—”

“Is it him? The body they found, is it him?”

Reigen casts an affronted glance at him as he starts the car, pulling into the main road. “Relax. We’ll talk when we—”

“Tell me!” Ritsu shouts, pounding his fists against his own legs, wild. “Just tell me!”

“It isn’t Mob.”

“It’s not,” Ritsu repeats, stunned. He feels almost let down with that information. He's not disappointed. It is merely anticlimactic. Distrust immediately sours his relief. “What, and you saw the body? How can you be so sure?”

“Yes, actually. Put your damn seat belt on,” Reigen grumbles, and Ritsu yanks it over his chest, securing it with a click. He returns his frantic eyes to the cop’s weary face and startles, finding it heavy with exhaustion. The dark circles under his eyes seem puffy, and the whites of his eyes are red.

Ritsu bites his tongue. They drive in silence from then on. The traffic today is heavy.

Eventually they find themselves on a quieter road. Reigen pulls over and parks in front of an office complex. “We’re here,” He announces blandly.

They get out of the car and Reigen leads the way inside. They take the elevator up and stop at an unmarked door. Ritsu says nothing, even as Reigen tiredly fumbles with the keys. He can’t seem to get it in the lock. Impatiently, but not unkindly, Ritsu takes the keys from his hands and unlocks the door for them. Reigen just blinks as Ritsu goes on ahead.

“What is this place?” Ritsu asks, as Reigen sits down on the couch in the middle of the room. It seems to be freshly moved into; cardboard boxes sit stacked in the corner, and cellophane covers what looks to be an oak desk, shoved hastily against the wall on the far side of the room.

“My new office,” Reigen sighs, rubbing his eyes. The coffee table in front of the couch is also wrapped; he tosses the keys there and heaves another sigh, like he’s trying to expel some great burden. “Sit down.”

Ritsu hesitates. There is no place other than beside Reigen, and he realizes what kind of situation he has placed himself into. If Reigen weren’t a police officer, Ritsu could have been in big trouble.

“Do you want me to fill you in or not?”

“Of course,” He mutters, sitting down hastily. “Where were you, yesterday? Kurata-san mentioned—” He shuts his mouth with a snap, realizing it might get her in trouble. He remembers that he doesn’t care. “She mentioned you weren’t in for a few days. You look terrible.”

“Oh?” The look that Reigen turns on him is curious—amused, almost dryly so. If he’s displeased with her or with Ritsu, he shows no sign of it. “Well, I was busy.” Casually, he corrects his slack posture; he sits up straight and adjusts his tie, smoothing out the creases in his suit jacket. It seems he’s only realized his dishevelment.

Ritsu bites the inside of his cheek. “Busy doing what?

“What would I be doing, other than investigating?” Reigen turns the question around on him, a predictable loop and lure, manipulation as smooth as caramel. “Anyway, the body was found yesterday. Here I was, hoping that maybe he’d stopped for good… I guess that was a naive hope.” The cop heaves a sigh. “I took the call for the initial report, since I was already in that area—and I got in trouble for it, of course. I saw the body myself, and it wasn’t your brother.”

“How can you know for sure?” Ritsu can’t help blurting, doubt an infestation to his senses, coiling around his rationale like a snake.

“The kid had different physical characteristics. I’ve seen pictures of Mob. A civilian found him near a public park. No identity yet, but it’s not your brother, I can tell you that much.”

Ritsu slumps slowly, like a deflated balloon, tension leaking out like hot air. “... it wasn’t him, then.”

“You should trust what I say. I haven’t let you down yet, have I?” The older man points out his hypocrisy with a toothy smile, scratching at his cheek. Ritsu notices the stubble, then, and in his relaxation grows curious.

“Are you going to tell me what you were off doing?” He asks. “There’s more than this. You aren’t telling me the full truth.”

The smile falls off his face. Reigen levels his gaze with him, not bothering with his usual bravado.  His silver tongue grows leaden when faced with Ritsu, who seems to see through him as though clear, crystalline water. He breaks eye contact with a sigh, rolling his shoulders as his head tips back, speaking sarcastically to the ceiling.

“Ah, man, kid! You should be a detective when you grow up! You’ve got a knack for putting on the pressure. It really feels like I can’t lie around you!”

Ritsu says nothing. His silence is as equally as dangerous as his words.

“I was in the capital before this happened,” Reigen admits, finally. But he still doesn’t look back at Ritsu. “And I stumbled on the crime scene on my way back.”

Silence is an easy way to build pressure, Ritsu finds. Reigen deals poorly with it.

“It was a bit sneaky, but I contacted the prefectural police myself. I got their attention—I think… which means that they should be sending investigational support to us here.”

This time Ritsu is too surprised to speak. Reigen keeps going.

“I just hope whoever they send isn’t a prick,” He says, finally returning his gaze to Ritsu. “That enough? Oh, and I rented this place since it’s closer to the station. I figure that we’ll be spending more time investigating, and I’d prefer not to spend thousands in take out every night.”

“Good idea,” Ritsu remarks idly, taking a glance around the room. “We never know who’s listening, after all.”

Reigen’s surprise is open. “Are you actually agreeing with something I’ve said?”

Ritsu’s glare is icy; he regrets saying that. “What else can you tell me?”

“I’ve told you everything. These things take time! I’ve put the pieces into place, but it’ll be a while before our efforts bear fruit… heard any rumors in school?”

“None,” Ritsu answers. “I asked around about my brother, and I didn’t get much information...”

“You did what?” Reigen turns a perturbed gaze on him, confused, and after a solid second of that, realization dawns on him. “Oh, that. Well, every bit of awareness counts.”

“Did you forget?” Ritsu asks, raising an unimpressed brow. Reigen sweats, averting his gaze.

“No, I didn’t forget, geez. I was the one who suggested it, wasn’t I? I’m exhausted, so cut me some slack.”

“You do look tired.” Ritsu admits. It isn’t a question; it is a statement, a fact obvious to both of them. “If you have nothing more to tell me, then it might be for the best that I head to school and you contact your work. Kurata-san seemed… concerned.”

“I can’t believe you’re lecturing me. What about you? Can’t sleep? You don’t strike me as the type to stay up really late.”

Puffing out his cheeks, Ritsu turns away. “... it’s not important.”

“You’re a stubborn kid, you know that?”

He misses the movement beside him as Reigen reaches out to him. A hand rests on the top of his head and musses up his hair; affectionate, but invasive. Ritsu is too shocked to retaliate, and Reigen gives him no time to.

They both flush in embarrassment and Reigen stands abruptly, a hand on the back of his neck. He clears his throat, for the first time appearing lost—awkward, unaccustomed to the situation. Ritsu would lash out at him, but he can’t quite find the words, not when his cheeks feel hot and his stomach tight. He keeps his head down, unsure what to say.

Reigen moves on easier than he. “Oh! I almost forgot.”

Ritsu looks up, curious, as Reigen digs in his pocket. He pulls out a mobile phone, extending it to Ritsu who looks on curiously, prompting him for an explanation. “Uh… well, since I couldn’t get in contact with you to tell you I wouldn’t be around yesterday, I thought this might help us coordinate. Someone’s bound to get suspicious if you keep dropping by the police station, and it’d be better if you don’t form a pattern someone can easily track—I mean, if someone were to watch you…”

The man continues to blabber on, but Ritsu phases him out, focusing on the phone. It is an extension of kindness, he knows; if Reigen is offering it then he will be footing the bill, and it opens only a door of inconvenience for him, should Ritsu decide to abuse it.

It is an offering of trust.

Ritsu takes that trust. He doesn’t need to say it, but as he lifts the phone out of Reigen’s nervous palm, the man shuts up, suddenly, and Ritsu feels he should. “Thank you, Reigen-san.”

It is the most genuine thing he has said to date, and they both know it. The awkward atmosphere intensifies, and Ritsu finds it foolish that they flounder like this when nothing is particularly awkward at all, except for the pat on his head. That, he will ignore.

“My number’s already in there, so if you ever need to contact me for anything else, that’s also okay...” He trails off, tilting his head down at Ritsu, who holds the phone as if it is a jewel, a precious thing. That reverence passes, and his appreciation dies in favor of training Reigen with a practiced disdain.

“We’ll meet here next time, then?”

“Yeah,” The older man shrugs. “Anyway, we better get out of here… isn’t school on, right now? Hey… you didn’t skip, did you?”

Ritsu stands, and they exit the office complex with Reigen lecturing him all the while.

“You know people are going to ask where you were, right? There’s rules for stuff like this, and you shouldn’t miss your classes to meet up with me. If you’re going to get in trouble, just phone me instead. Geez. They’ll call your parents, you know.”

Reigen drops him off close to the school, departing with a wave from the window and a promise to meet again.

Ritsu heads to school, checking his watch. It’s lunchtime; he supposes he can lie about the missed classes. When Shigeo had first gone missing, he had believed in his ability to lie with utmost faith, sure that any excuses would be accepted. It’s clear that’s no longer the case.

He runs into Tokugawa at the school gates.

Ritsu’s heart hammers away in his chest, and he hopes the fleeting panic that surges throughout him doesn’t show on his face. He greets him with a polite bow of his head. “Vice president.”

“You weren’t here this morning,” Tokugawa comments, and Ritsu hastens his pace, not wanting to linger by the older boy’s side for too long. He catches up to him, strides swift. “You’re awfully late.”

“I am,” Ritsu agrees, allowing the partition of icy courtesy to shut him off from the older boy. “Something came up at home.” He says nothing more than that, and does not intend to say anything else, not until it is expected he do.

“Is that your story?” Tokugawa asks, unyielding.

Ritsu turns to address him with a witless smile. “I apologize for not being here this morning.”

“There’s no need to force yourself,” Tokugawa immediately says, and Ritsu’s false smile flutters. He seems strict even in professing a curiously kind sentiment.

"I'm not forcing a thing,” Ritsu says, adjusting the strap of his bag on his shoulder. What he wants to do is to take his coat off, but Tokugawa has him wrapped up in this pointless conversation. “There’s no need to worry so much.”

“Then tell me something, won’t you?” Tokugawa narrows his eyes, and Ritsu realizes that there is something more than kind concern behind his approach. His blood thuds in his ears.

“Okay?” He asks, unable to disguise his unrest.

“Who was the man that dropped you off just now?”

Ritsu freezes, blood turning to ice in his veins.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” He speaks slowly and cautiously, as if Tokugawa is some wild, rabid animal he’s afraid to set off.

“Don’t play dumb. It doesn’t suit you.”

Ritsu takes a step back, turning away. If he were to run, would Tokugawa give chase?

“I’m not playing dumb,” He blurts, fumbling to undo the buttons of his jacket. “I don’t owe you an explanation."

Tokugawa crosses his arms. “Are you in danger?”

The tension in the air twists taut as Ritsu bristles in offense. Anger sparks hot in the pit of his stomach, and he forgets himself. How dare you pretend to care, how dare you.

"Whatever danger I'm in is my own business. It’d be better if you didn’t get involved with me, Tokugawa-san. I can’t promise it won’t bring you trouble.”

Ritsu stuffs his jacket into his cubby and changes from his outdoor shoes to his indoor shoes. Neither of them speak. The wire they balance upon trembles with the weight of their silence.

"... I'm not concerned about what trouble it might bring me. I'm concerned about you."

“I don’t understand why you would," Ritsu snaps. "Care to enlighten me?”

“You’re making yourself out to be a victim,” Tokugawa bites in return, finally slipping from calm and assured to frantic, nearly angry. But he calms quickly, and tries to find a balm for Ritsu’s hurt. “... I’m certain you believe you’re alone in this. You aren’t alone. All you need to do is be honest, Kageyama.”

That stuns Ritsu. For a moment, all he can do is open and close his mouth, unable to find the words he feels he needs to combat this. Tokugawa’s concern is unwarranted, and entirely undeserved. He’s caused him nothing but trouble. His honest concern vexes him.

Ritsu can’t understand why Tokugawa would want to help him.

After a long contemplative silence, Ritsu turns to him.

“How am I supposed to trust you?”

Tokugawa smiles weakly, as if dealing with a stubborn younger sibling. “Your mother phoned my household last night. Questioning whether or not we walked home together, I believe.”

The reminder of his lie is a cold slap of water to the face.

“I lied for you. I don’t want to regret that, but having seen you with that man… I’m having second thoughts.”

“Are you just curious?” Ritsu blurts, turning to him. He suddenly has to know. “I know it’s fun to gawk and stare at me now that my brother’s gone, but I’m taking this seriously, vice president. It’s not a game to me.”

“It is concern, not simple curiosity. Do understand that I take it as seriously as you do. I believe you’re a good person. I don’t want to be wrong about that. I don’t want to have lied for someone who doesn’t deserve protecting.”

All Ritsu comes up with is: “Then it is curiosity,” said flatly, holding no emotion. “You want to know if you were right in lying for me, sticking up for me, and defaming Tasuki. All so you don’t have a guilty conscience.”

The cruelty is a last ditch effort.

And yet, Tokugawa stands firm. “... if that’s what it takes for you to trust me, then believe what you want.”

A little more than taken aback, Ritsu isn’t sure how to proceed. He hadn’t expected Tokugawa to possess such perseverance. “Is there a student council meeting after school?”

Tokugawa blinks stupidly at him. “There isn’t, but—”

“Then we’ll meet here and walk home together at the regular time,” Ritsu looks from Tokugawa to the clock on the wall, nodding pointedly. “Lunch is almost over. I’ll see you then.”

He leaves Tokugawa standing in the entrance way, mouth agape. Ritsu is glad to be turned away when his eyes begin to sting; he couldn’t bear to break down in front of the vice president.

There’s something insurmountable when it comes to the truth, something inherently shameful in opening himself up after weeks of subterfuge. Like breaking open a strongbox and staring down at his deepest secrets.

It’s revelation, and it’s dizzying to be so seen by another.

Ritsu goes through the motions of the day with anxiety clawing at the pit of his stomach. When he sees Tokugawa standing obediently by his cubby at the end of the day, he’s tempted to bolt in the opposite direction.

But a promise is a promise.

They walk together, and it’s only a block away from the school and in the vacancy of a side street that Ritsu speaks.

“You can ask any questions you want. I’ll answer them.”

“Is that so?” Tokugawa murmurs, obviously hesitant to trust Ritsu’s sudden candor. “Then I’ll ask you again—who was the man that dropped you off?”

“A police officer,” Ritsu states. “His name is Reigen.”

“What is your… relation, to him?”

“We’re trading information. He tells me what I need to know about my brother’s case, and I tell him whatever I can—anything I remember that could be relevant.”

“You intend to investigate the murder case yourself, then? Alongside this Reigen?”

Tokugawa sounds awed. Ritsu tries not to feel proud. “Yes.”

“That’s foolish,” He says, and that pride vanishes in a puff of smoke. “You could get into trouble doing that. Tasuki was already a risk.”

“I didn’t plan on that,” Ritsu snaps. “She brought up my brother, and I… lost it.”

“... I understand that it wasn’t premeditated. So? I’m assuming that the time you’ve been missing was spent with Reigen-san.”

“You could say that,” Ritsu murmurs, focusing on the shadowed road ahead of them. The sun is setting earlier in the day, now, a sure sign the coming winter.

“Then you were with him this morning as well.”

“You did see him drop me off.” Ritsu concedes, thinking it only fair to admit the obvious.

Tokugawa hums in thought. “Is what you’re doing with him dangerous?”

“What do you consider dangerous?”

They meet each other’s eyes as they pass underneath the shadow of a tall willow tree. Tokugawa seems unmoved. “I think you know what I’m asking. Are you using yourself as bait?”

Ritsu feels cold. It isn’t the chill in the air that makes him shiver. “What if I were?”

Tokugawa doesn’t think twice about his response. “Then I would be forced to inform your parents. It seems informing the authorities wouldn’t change a thing. Tasuki’s report is being withheld, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“You’re obstructing justice.” Tokugawa points out plainly, without any heat.

“I don’t care how many laws I break if it means my brother returns home safe, vice president.”

They continue walking. It won’t be long until they reach the Kageyama household, so they slow their pace to a crawl.

“You know everything now. What are you going to do?”

Tokugawa looks up at the murky clouds above them, considering. “If you’re worried I’m going to report you, I won’t. Not to your parents or anyone else. You still seem to misunderstand me.”

“What am I misunderstanding?”

“My intentions. I only want to help you.”

“I don’t understand why you’d want to. You’re breaking your own rules if you do.”

“Your older brother was a good person,” Tokugawa says. “And so are you, though you seem intent on proving otherwise. It seems you barely know yourself.”

He pauses, hesitant. Unsure. The child he is.

“I think your brother is alive, and I think you’re capable of finding him. That’s all.”

Ritsu pauses at the gate to his house. Confused, he wonders—is he to give thanks to Tokugawa, for his misplaced faith? “That’s my belief as well. I’ll find my brother because I have no other choice than to do so.”

“I’ll keep my silence, for now. On a few terms.”

“What are they?” Ritsu asks, still not turning to face him. It’s incredibly unsurprising that he wants to set down rules.

“Stop trying to use yourself as bait. You have to remember there are things you can’t do on your own. I must insist I walk with you, in the mornings, and the evenings. Even if you’re…” Tokugawa pauses, here, unsure. “Going to meet with that man.”

Ritsu grits his teeth, realizing that to agree is to relinquish his control. The little control he’d had, in sneaking away. Tokugawa wants to monitor him like a child, and has cornered him into a situation in which he cannot refuse that.

But there are bigger things than his pride at stake here.

“Fine.”

“You agree?”

“I’m agreeing,” Ritsu snaps, failing to hide his irritation as he turns a scowl on the smiling vice president.

“Then that’s that, isn’t it? I’ll see you tomorrow, Kageyama.”

He leaves the way he came.

 

 

That night, Ritsu brings the radio up into his room.

The local station is openly discussing the case; although they hide it under the guise of polite intrigue, it’s clear that they’re rattled by the latest murder and the apparent brutality with which the crime was committed.

“... the boy was stabbed to death, wasn’t he?”

“Yes. Police are uncertain whether or not it’s related to the past two cases and haven’t given any statements yet,” A man explains, smooth charisma mellowing out the tinge of disgust in his tone. “But it occurred so close to where the girls were found. I find it hard to believe they’re not related.”

“The body was found in Obusa park, right? That’s fairly close to Hinokita.”

Obusa park. Ritsu mulls that over. Reigen hadn’t disclosed the location to him. Obusa park was the same park Shigeo and he had so often visited when they were younger.

“I hope the police are able to find out who’s doing this sooner rather than later.”

“I do, as well. It is unfortunate for the victims families, and the local communities are terrified.”

They amble on with light-footed conversation, tip-toeing carefully over the topic with polite words and kind sentiments.

Obusa park.

The victim had been stabbed repeatedly.

What with?

 

 

Honeyed light spilled through the tops of the camphor trees, coating the two boys in a golden glow. Leaves skittered across the paved sidewalk with the gentle breeze, crunching underfoot as they made their way across the park together, hand in hand.

The air was pleasantly warm for autumn; it was sunny, with light cloud cover. It was a quiet day. It was an ordinary day. The city was at peace and so were Shigeo and Ritsu, playing together at the park. They sat on the swing set and competed to see which one of them could go highest. They scrambled after each other in a game of tag, stomping up the metal stairs of the play structure to the top, where a metal slide gleamed proudly in the afternoon light.

Even in the midst of their game, Shigeo noticed as soon as the boys entered the park. He saw before Ritsu did that they held beer bottles, noticed their slurred speech, their drunken amble. He told Ritsu to stay quiet, and they held their breath together, intertwined their fingers together, and when Ritsu began to shake as the boys cursed and kicked at the gravel and began to look for them, Shigeo comforted him.

He knew one of them. Ritsu knew Shigeo knew one of them and knew that their violent anger could only escalate from that point on. Ritsu stood on trembling legs and shouted for them to leave. Shigeo scrambled to tug him back down to his knees, but Ritsu ignored his pleading whisper and allowed his own anger to rear its ugly head. It was impulsive. But Ritsu’s anger had been driven always by fear, and it was both obstinacy and that terror that made him stand and shout.

Take from a brave man his courage and you find yourself a fool. Two years later, and Ritsu knew he was mistaken in challenging them. The boys roared with drunk laughter and climbed up to drag them down kicking and screaming. He thought he could run for help, and he supposed screaming would draw attention to their plight, but he was capable of neither. Thought became a distant thing in the face of fear and pain.

The boys didn’t want him. They wanted Shigeo. They kicked Ritsu aside and his head knocked against the solid cement of the sidewalk and black stole over his vision.

It felt like he was floating. The sound of glass shattering tinkled in the recess of his mind, pleasantly dampened by the reach of unconsciousness that threatened to blanket his senses.

A terrorized wail was what brought him back.

Ritsu crawled onto hands and knees and looked for his brother, the throb of worry and fear in his gut far removed from a sense of self. He worried for Shigeo, for the source of that noise, and struggled to raise his head to find either or both but praying one was not the cause of the other.

Shigeo stood so close. Close enough that if Ritsu could stand, he could stumble to his side in a few staggered steps, come to his aide. That was what his heart demanded he do before he recognized what he was seeing.

Numbness came quicker than even the kiss of unconsciousness. This kind of fear was of a different breed.

Blood coated Shigeo’s front in a messy splatter. There was only one boy, the other two having fled; just the one, face down at Shigeo’s feet, gurgling wetly as a pool of red spread across the pavement underneath him.

He spluttered and coughed, fingers working against the cement, as if hoping to grab onto something. Death overwrote his gurgling cry and silence engulfed the park, a roaring silence, a silence that thudded with the rolling beat of Ritsu’s heart. Just that. Only that.

Shigeo dropped the broken glass bottle and turned to him. The gore had reached even his face, and coated his cheek in a mockery of face-paint.  

“Ritsu?”

 

He jerks awake with a gasp, disoriented and shaken. Asami crouches before him, hands gentle on his shoulders. “Honey, calm down. I’m here. You’re alright.”

She strokes through his hair, brushing back his bangs. Breath after breath. Slowly, steadily, and surely, Ritsu’s heartbeat returns to normal.

“Another nightmare?" His mother asks, and he peers up at her face, hair caught by the light of the moon, face shadowed.

Ritsu nods.

Just another nightmare, two years past.

Chapter Text

The world outside of the city is a quiet one, and the world inside of Mogami’s car is quieter still. It is far different from the bustle of activity within the city, almost colder—a world inverted, a world reversed. Shigeo would find the solitude comfortable, but here the silence thunders with the promise of danger.

Mogami turns back around in his seat and pockets the keys before he opens the car door, slamming it behind him. Shigeo jerks as though struck, listening to the muffled crunch of gravel underfoot as Mogami rounds the vehicle to the passenger side. He blinks away the tears clinging to his lashes and peers down at the white scar tissue in the center of his palm. He wonders if this is retribution, and if it is, why it took two years to reach him.

The imminence of death frightens him more than the memory of it ever could.

Beside him, the car door opens.

Mogami stands watching him for a time, silence stretching on until the weight of it threatens to drag Shigeo under. The man is waiting for something, and he doesn’t know what. If there is an expectation to be met, then he is failing to meet it.

The stale scent of iron carries on the breeze. It cloys like a bitter taste at the back of Shigeo’s mouth, and he swallows, throat impossibly dry. For a moment, he is uncertain if it is a memory of a day long past or real, and that uncertainty dizzies him.

A sigh. Mogami draws Shigeo’s full attention with that, just that subtle exhale. He stiffens as Mogami leans in and across him to unlock his seatbelt and when he lingers, Shigeo smells the faint scent of tobacco clinging on to his long-worn jacket.

He holds his breath.

Mogami withdraws, shadow falling over Shigeo where he sits, unmoving, staring straight ahead. The horizon behind him bubbles into a low light, sun seeking rest. It’s quiet but for the distant cry of cicadas.

He feels so very cold in Mogami’s shadow.

“Come.”

Shigeo opens his mouth to answer the command, but words fall short of him.

“Kageyama-kun.” The slightest hint of impatience, now.

Something electric is humming underneath his skin. His mouth opens and closes; he can’t seem to get enough breath to speak. “Please,” he finally croaks. “Please don’t do this.”

Mogami doesn’t dignify that with a response. Instead, he wraps his hand around Shigeo’s upper arm and tugs his limp form from the car, grip bruising and strong. The sudden violence shakes Shigeo out of his daze and he stumbles to gather his feet underneath him, but his legs refuse to obey him. Mogami releases him and he falls to the ground in a heap.

Shigeo curls into himself as Mogami walks past him. From his position on the ground, Shigeo hears the release of the trunk hatch as he opens it, then the thump of plastic and the crinkle of a tarp. He hears second the long, drawn out yowl of a cat. He struggles to hands and knees, pushing himself onto his feet. The impulse to bolt rockets up his spine and he stumbles forward, mind blanking as the cat’s cries resound in the open air, a plea for help.

Her wail is cut off as Mogami slams the trunk shut, and before Shigeo can turn around to face him, his hand is around his arm again. He yanks him along, and Shigeo feels upside down, disoriented and lost. There is no reason to this—it is insensate cruelty, justice skewed on a weighted scale.

Nishimoto was thrown into a dumpster and left to rot.

Haruka was left on the side of the road.

Shigeo doesn’t want to know where Mogami will leave him.

“Wait,” he chokes, looking back at the car. “She still needs help.”

Mogami pauses in his step and glances down at him. Shigeo flinches away before their eyes can meet, avoiding his gaze instinctively. It’s then that he sees what Mogami is carrying, tucked into the crook of the arm opposite the one he holds Shigeo: that toolbox, the same one he’d seen when they’d put her in the trunk.

Cold. He feels cold.

“Peculiar,” Mogami mutters after a moment.

“Please,” Shigeo begs, looking back over his shoulder at the car, gleaming in the low light of the setting sun, at the long stretch of road, at escape. Mogami considers him for another moment, chews and mulls over the begging, and then shrugs his broad shoulders nonchalantly.

“She’s going to die either way. Come.”

Shigeo’s heart seizes up. He digs his heels in, protesting for the first time. “No. Please, if you just—“

Mogami’s grip tightens around Shigeo’s arm, giving him a shake, and terror gurgles from his throat in a low whine. “Enough. This is how it ends, for both of you.”

“I thought—I thought I was allowed one wish.”

"A dying wish?" Mogami drags him up the hill, hefting the toolbox against his side as he opens the door of the house. He drags Shigeo into the foyer, dropping him and then the toolbox. “It seems you will believe in clichés until your very last breath.”

The dusk bleeds out across the wood flooring, bathing the house in red. Shigeo holds his breath and tilts his head back to stare up into Mogami’s face, curtained by dark hair, and feels a shudder rock his frame. He looks for anger, for bared teeth, but sees thin lips and a blank, leveled gaze.

Shigeo has always lacked the sensitivity needed to read the atmosphere of a room; he has defied expectations his entire life, be it in failing to laugh or sliding the sheer green glass of a broken bottle into the stomach of a boy threatening his life. He knows not to anger Mogami, but he knows nothing more. Shigeo is a scared child, but not a mute.

“Please.”

He pleads without expression.

Mogami strides close, considering him. The sun withers at his back, the burning tide of dusk ebbing around his silhouette, expression shrouded. He looms impossibly tall; even when he sinks to a knee, his presence continues to smother.

“That can't be all you want.”

“It’s my fault.” Shigeo’s gaze drifts to the corner of the ceiling, to the cobwebs spread like fingers throughout the rafters. This close, he can smell the tobacco on Mogami’s breath, and it makes his head swim. "It's all I need."

“Look at me when you’re talking to me.”

Shigeo’s eyes find Mogami’s and his lungs constrict with panic. He sees pupils blown wide, sees himself reflected in the abysm before him, and he doesn’t understand. He could never understand. He opens and closes his mouth, unable to speak.

“Can’t speak?” Mogami tilts his head, dark hair shining gold as it catches the failing light of day. He shifts from anger to amusement quick enough to stun. "You can't believe I'll leave you here alone."

“I won’t run,” Shigeo blurts, grasping for control, struggling to find a balance. “But if you’re going to save her—”

“I have to hurry, right?” Mogami prompts. "Don't misunderstand me. I don't trust you, but neither do I resent you. If I do as you ask, I imagine you'll promise me something in turn."

Shigeo thinks he may swallow his tongue. He nods, heart fluttering in his chest. He feels faint.

“You’re going to wait here. You'll do as you are told.”

Shigeo swallows, throat working around the rise of bile, the fear, the anticipation, the want for life. “Yes,” he croaks.

“I’ll tie you up, and you won’t move a muscle from where I place you.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t dislike animals,” Mogami says, the change in tone a jarring shift. “I could keep her, or I could leave her at the shelter. She would be euthanized eventually. Do you still think that would be worthwhile?”

“She won’t have to suffer,” Shigeo answers immediately and without hesitation. “Please. She doesn’t deserve to die like this.”

Mogami’s expression blanks, the sharp quirk of a smile falling flat. Shigeo wonders if he has said something wrong. In that moment, he doesn’t fear for his life; he fears having made a mistake.

Slowly, Mogami rises to his feet, glancing into the corner of the room. “There are ropes there.” Here he gestures. Shigeo twists around to look. “Bring them to me.”

Shigeo scrambles to do as told, standing shakily and hurrying to gather them up in his arms. They smell faintly, and dust clings to their wiry surface. As he returns to Mogami and offers them up, he wonders if they will chafe his skin. He doesn’t meet the man’s eyes again, afraid of what he will find staring back at him.

“... you continue to surprise me,” Mogami says, suddenly. “What a shame.”

The words don’t make sense to Shigeo, who processes them with a sluggish slowness. Mogami doesn’t sound angry; instead, he sounds almost disappointed.

“Turn around,” the man instructs, and so Shigeo turns around, grimacing as the rope is wound tight around his wrists. It chafes. “Do you feel nothing at all?”

The question makes his stomach drop.

“I can feel you shaking,” Mogami says, tying off the knot. “For all of your fear, you’ve barely cried at all. It’s strange. Miss Haruka fought until I put a dent in her skull.”

Shigeo wants to feel disgust. He wants to taste bile at the back of his throat.

He feels nothing. He cannot believe himself.

Shigeo cannot see Mogami, back pressed his front, but he can feel his breath on his neck, can hear the curious smile in his voice. “Tell me, Kageyama. What do you think will happen to you when you die?”

He shifts away. He crouches to the ground, unlatching the toolbox he’d brought with him. Shigeo’s mind spins in place, a record that repeats the same word, over and over again, over and over and over again.

“Please, stop.”

“That’s not very convincing,” Shigeo hears the gurgle of liquids in a bottle as it is tilted, but does not hear the clash of metal on metal. “Well?”

“I’ll forget everything,” Shigeo breathes. “And everyone will forget me.”

The floorboards creak and scuff under Mogami’s shoes. Shigeo has a feeling it is on purpose.

At his back, Mogami pauses. Shigeo stiffens under the scrutiny, chords in his neck straining.

“What a lonely world,” Mogami sighs, pressing a rag against Shigeo’s nose and mouth.

Shigeo jerks back to escape the foul scent of the cloth, but Mogami’s hand is firm against his face, and his body is solid and unmoving behind him. The smell is chemical, an overt and powerful smell. It makes his eyes sting. Every panicked gasp sends his head spinning, and so he panics further and breathes in quicker than he should.

In a few short breaths, his limbs grow heavy and fall slack; it is all he can do to keep his head up and his eyes open. Shigeo can’t tell down from up, and he wonders if this is what it feels like to die. A sense of weightlessness washes over him, and there is the distant sensation of falling, and then there is nothing but black.

 

 

Shigeo wakes to the flutter of white curtains and the smell of flowers carried on the breeze.

He sits on the edge of a hospital chair, hands bunched in the sheet of a bed that doesn’t belong to him, but belongs to his brother. Shigeo raises his head, blinking in his surroundings with the belated realization that his entire body throbs with a bone-deep ache. The hospital ward is silent but for the hum of machinery, blinking and beeping in a soothing lull.

Shigeo tilts to look at Ritsu and his stomach lurches. His little brother’s skin is a pale white that blends with the sheets, and the gauze around his forehead makes him look different, somebody else.

Ritsu stirs, lashes fluttering.

“... brother…?”

He wishes he could pretend that the broken boy laying across from him isn’t his brother. He wonders if that could absolve him of guilt.

“I’m here,” Shigeo croaks. “How are you feeling?”

It won’t. He can’t pretend.

“My head hurts,” Ritsu answers, pale, so pale, paler than a ghost. “But I’m okay. Brother, your hand…”

Shigeo startles when he glances down at his palm and finds it covered with gauze. The dull throb of the cut expounds when he focuses on it, so he shakes his head and pulls his attention away from it, smile numb.

“It’s fine,” He mumbles dazedly. “You said your head hurts… should I call the nurse?”

“No,” Ritsu’s voice cracks on the high note, hand flying to snatch Shigeo’s wrist before he can fumble for the call button. “No. I don’t want that.”

“Should I get mom and dad?” Shigeo asks, remembering their presence on the other side of the room, asleep on couches.

“No,” Ritsu repeats, plaintive, nearly begging. “Brother, that teenager… who was he? Why did he attack you?”

“Who was he?” Shigeo repeats, startled. “I… don’t know.”

He doesn’t want to remember.

Ritsu urges him to lean in close, and Shigeo obeys without a word, not wanting to listen, not wanting to answer. His whisper is secretive and low. “Is… is he dead?”

Shigeo could lie. It would be the easy way out. He knows that, but he also knows his little brother trusts him to tell the truth. He owes him it. Lying to Ritsu is an impossibility he never would have considered before now.

“I think so,” his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth, trepidation making his words catch. “I think.”

Ritsu accepts that. He sinks back into the pillows behind him, and it strikes Shigeo, how small he looks. He takes the hand that Ritsu offers, squeezing cold fingers between his own, colder still.

“What happens to you when you die?” He asks.

Shigeo considers that. The answer that comes to mind discomforts him. He speaks before he can stop himself. “You forget everything.”

“Everything...? Even you?” Ritsu presses, and his lips are blue, skin pale. Cold.

“Yes, even me.”

Ritsu’s chest rises and falls in a rapid spiral downwards, and he cries so easily, his sweet little brother. Shigeo cannot comfort him, and so he cries and Shigeo watches him wipe the tears away, holding his hand knowing that this is what he has done, that he has caused these tears, that he has done something unforgivable.

“I don’t want to die,” Ritsu hiccups. “If it means I forget you, then I don’t want to die.”

This, he cannot reverse.

Shigeo had locked those words deep into his heart, a memory stored at the back of his mind that had been left to dust.

He remembers.

 

 

It takes him longer than it should to realize that the weight behind him is not Mogami, but the floor; that the black swathing his vision is not the brush of unconsciousness, but a night time darkness; that it is cold, and he is trembling from it. He realizes last that he is still alive, though alone in the house.

Shigeo sits upright and nearly topples over onto his side, balance askew with his wrists bound behind his back and his ankles tied in front of him. He shivers in the cold, squinting through the darkness. His eyes are slow to adjust, but they adjust eventually. The toolbox is gone, as is Mogami.

Mogami is gone.

Shigeo is alive.

It is difficult to gain his bearings in the darkness. He can barely tell down from up. It hadn’t felt like a long time had passed between him falling unconscious and waking, but it could be any time of the night. He strains his ears, listening for the faint whisper of cloth or the subtle exhalation of breath, the murmurs of someone in hiding. He hears nothing.

He begins to struggle with his bindings, and finds that there is only the barest possibility for him to escape with his movements restricted.

He takes a second to look around at the abject nothingness that dwells in the abandoned house. A blue glow creeps across the floor as the moon peeks from the clouds, brightening the immediate area and lighting a path to an open doorway. He shuffles until his back is pressed against the wall, using it as leverage to stand; every movement is achingly slow, and he is puffing with the effort by the end of it.

He shifts his weight back and forth on his feet—the rope binding his ankles is tight enough that his movement is limited to tiny increments. The awkward shuffle draws attention to the fact that he is missing shoes. Mogami must have taken them.

It is a painfully slow journey to the adjoined room, and he nearly loses his balance several times, but he manages it. The window here is bigger, the room brighter, and the decay significant. Shigeo nearly stumbles down the two steps by the door, but he sees them in time to sit, scooting down one by one until he can stand again.

Across the room stands a door that Shigeo guesses must lead outside. The building is falling apart; the walls are of a crumbling brick, the floor a dusty concrete, and the window—just the one—is cracked in places.

Shigeo forgets himself. In his distraction and in his haste to explore, he stumbles over the uneven ground and crashes to the floor, jaw striking hard concrete. It rattles him, and for a minute, the most he can do is groan against the ground, body throbbing with the impact.

Tears of frustration bead at the corner of his eyes, and he twists onto his back, bending his legs to his chest. He stretches his arms as far as he can, past his behind, chin tucked to his knees, and then all at once pulls them over his feet and in front of him, sprawling out with a wheezing gasp. Relieved and exasperated, he heaves air into his lungs, arms shaking from the strain.

Shigeo pushes himself up with his hands, using the ground as leverage, and then reaches to explore the knot tying his feet together. If his legs are free, then he can run, even with bound hands. There is a lot Shigeo doesn’t understand about this situation, but he understands that time is of the essence.

Shigeo works his fingers into the knot, and the rope loosens with each tug outward. It surprises him how easily it comes loose. As soon as he has enough space between his ankles, he slips free and kicks the rope away, not caring to untie it properly. He scrambles to his feet and sways, hit with a spell of dizziness that nearly knocks him back to the ground. The freedom of movement is astoundingly relieving.

He tries the door first, of course. When he finds it locked, he rushes to the entrance and tries that door, as well; and he wonders for a key, for a lock, but finds neither in the short once-over he gives the area. The windows, then.

He doesn’t bother looking for a latch or a key, this time, because he knows he will find neither.

Instead he pries a loose brick from the crumbling wall and heaves it at the glass.

It shatters easily. Its integrity was weak in the first place; the brick sends glass scattering outward. A large shard remains, and so Shigeo slides it between the rope binding his hands, sawing back and forth. It cracks and falls free with the effort, but the rope is loose enough for him to slip the bond; Shigeo uses his teeth to keep it in place as he tugs his hands free. His skin burns, but he doesn’t notice, doesn’t care. Doesn’t feel it.

Shigeo is free.

When he exits from the broken window, he does so on tiptoes, wary of the glass shards twinkling in the grass. He hugs the wall of the house and creeps to the back. Down the yard stands a gated fence.

Further, a field of rice sways in the wind, stalks grown tall after years of neglect.

The sight makes his blood run cold. It is a vision he had grown accustomed to, but only in his dreams. To see it in the waking world stuns him.

Shigeo remembers a time in which Ritsu and he left the family campgrounds to explore the surrounding forest. During their carefree exploration, they had lost track of both time and where they were. The cold wash of dread he had felt then cannot compare to the fear he feels now, stood at the top of the hill.

Right now, he would rather be lost than found. He doesn’t have any other choice but to face his fear.

Shigeo stumbles down the grassy hill and reaches the gate, heart thundering in his chest. He must run far, far away, beyond the reaches of Mogami. He swings open the gate and turns to close it behind him.

The beam of a car's headlights leak from the windows of the house, and Shigeo knows his time is up.

He bolts.

The long stalks of rice whip against his face and arms as he tears through the field, heedless of direction. His body thrums with adrenaline, and he’s certain that without it, he would have crumpled to the ground in a heap.

The thrill wears off after the initial burst of energy it grants him and his muscles scream in protest, knees threatening to give the longer he pushes himself. Shigeo is not agile. He is running, but he is not fast, and his lungs are weak. It is in less than a minute that he is gasping for breath, but he does not stop running, determined to put as much distance between he and Mogami as possible.

He trips.

Something catches on his foot, and he goes sprawling in the dirt. He continues, crawling hands and knees before flipping around, breathing hard, squinting through the darkness.

Peeking from the soil is a human hand.

Shigeo claps a palm over his mouth. The white of bones stands out in the darkness, caught by the moon as the clouds part. A roiling horror builds in the back of his throat, and a strained scream slips through his fingers.

Distantly, Shigeo hears another person’s soft footfalls in the dirt, the whisper of hands brushing back rice grain.

Shigeo rises to a crouch, shaking hard enough that his teeth chatter together, a noise that seems to resound in the open emptiness of the field. He stifles as much of his breathing as he can, hands over his nose and mouth.

Fear has frozen him over.

“Kageyama,” A voice calls.

He doesn’t scream, not again. He won’t be so stupid to repeat that same mistake. He rises from his knees, and then turns and bolts.

The rice thins out, and then Shigeo bursts from the field into a small clearing, where a smaller workhouse stands not far away.

Shigeo chances a glance behind him, watching the tall grains of rice shift in the distance, brushed aside as someone moves through them at a steady pace. His blood thuds heavy in his ears, and he turns forward, hurrying on light feet. The door is unlocked, and he opens it a crack, just enough to slip inside. He closes it behind him, searching for a lock, but unable to find one.

With the door closed and there being no window inside, he cannot discern his surroundings. He sees the outline of objects, their shadows hazy in the dark—sacks of grain lay slumped against the wall not far from a broken combine harvester, and sickles and hammers sit on shelves. Aside from that, he can barely see anything at all, but he does see the outline of a door at the end of the building. He goes there, finding a storage cupboard. He slides inside and settles beside a sack of rice. He closes the doors, peering through the slatted shutters.

He crouches in waiting.

As the door to outside creaks open, light spills across the dirt covered ground. Shigeo sees faintly the shadow of a man, ringed by the silver glow of the moon. He closes his eyes.

He has been trapped and cornered.

Mogami doesn’t have to search for very long before he finds him.

When the storage cupboard door creaks open, he doesn’t open his eyes. He screws them shut tightly, as though a child hiding from the boogeyman. It is an absurd attempt to hide.

Mogami sighs.

“Kageyama.”

Shigeo buries his face into his knees, tiny hands fisting the fabric of his pants. He shakes his head.

No.

He doesn’t want to die.

“Please,” he croaks, and then he sobs, tears an overflow that he cannot hope to stop. “Please, don’t, please, I don’t want—”

“It doesn’t matter what you want,” Mogami thunders, voice rising above Shigeo’s panicked sobbing. “I'm disappointed. I thought better of you.”

To this point, Shigeo has remained in control to a degree. That tenuous control slips away as Mogami grabs his upper arm, dragging him from his hiding place. Stricken with horror, he screams, hands flailing out, lashing him with weak punches, legs kicking out against the ground, a furious spasm of action that earns him Mogami’s immediate and devastating anger.

He throws Shigeo to the ground. The boy crawls to hands and knees and to his feet, only for them to be knocked out from under him.

As he lays sprawled out on his back, Mogami strides past him. Shigeo hears the scrape of metal against concrete—the sound of something heavy being dragged.

“No,” he breathes, flipping around as Mogami drags a sledgehammer close, and this is irreversible, this world inverted, a vision of a nightmare he can’t escape.

Mogami hefts it up.

“No!” Shigeo shrieks, scrambling backwards, because he cannot understand it and he cannot believe it.

The hammer rockets down on the jut of Shigeo’s knee, the cap popping and tearing muscle. White-hot flashes of pain blind him; the sudden and powerful force rips a scream from his chest, and he thinks he will pass out.

“Hold on,” Mogami clicks his tongue. “I’m not done yet.”

The second swing of the hammer clips its intended mark, but it does enough damage to break skin. He is certain something has shattered. Shigeo’s teeth clack together, mind blanking. Agony ripples up his spine, wave after wave of energy that builds under his eyelids, pouring out of his mouth in wailing gasps. Mogami stomps down on the tender flesh and the bulb behind his eyes pops.

The light behind his eyes flickers out, leaving Shigeo in the dark.

Mogami drops the hammer.

Chapter Text

Reigen breaks from the evening for a smoke in his car. As he watches the delicate curlicues of smoke melt into the empty draw of the evening sky, he contemplates the stolen case files in his lap.

He flips open the folder and skims over the autopsy reports. Epidural, subdural, subarachnoid hemorrhages, asphyxia, exsanguination. He tries to imagine a person capable of killing children. He thinks of men like Serizawa, with broad shoulders and thick fingers, voice rumbling like the aftershock of thunder. He thinks of men estranged from society, lonely enough to exploit the vulnerability of a child so they can feel something more. Reigen sucks on his smoke and taps the cherry off on the lip of the car window. He wonders endlessly, fruitlessly, and frustratingly, but he can't imagine a person capable of killing children with such ruthless cruelty. These are not the actions of a man, he thinks, but a monster.

No evidence of defensive injuries. Clean toxicology reports, yellow-purple skin, broken teeth, a split skull. For Nishimoto Saki, death was prolonged through resuscitation. He brought her back from the brink over and over until finally letting her die. Children found by children, the bloody tarp slung over Haruka Ori's body hiding just enough for a set of siblings to curiously peel back the cloth. With his eyes shut tight, Nishimiya Ken’s bloodied corpse follows him like an afterimage, branded onto the inside of his closed eyelids.

His autopsy report isn’t in the files. It’s too soon, maybe, but he doesn’t need it to know how he died.

Reigen wonders and wonders, dragging on smoke after smoke. It could be the sleep deprivation that makes his hands shake as he presses his lighter to the end of a fifth cigarette from a third pack of smokes, or it could be the beginnings of dread. The nicotine might have fried his nerves, but that doesn't stop him from lighting up.

His head swims in a disorienting haze as his imagination takes him through shadowed alleys and houses empty save for the wash of dying sunlight. The reality that they might find a fourth or fifth child is unreal. He imagines Mob face down in a ditch, smothered somewhere, body laid barren from exposure, carrion for the crows.

Nauseated, he casts the folder aside, tossing it haphazardly onto the seat beside him.

It feels like he’s been spinning his tires for days, wheels stuck in the mud, going nowhere. Frustration burns in his lungs alongside the last, hasty drag of his cigarette, tossed out of the window to smolder against cold concrete. Reigen's out had been a call to the NPA and a drive to the prefecture’s capital, but that was a last-ditch effort. He has to deal with things on his own from now. He has to wait.

Reigen has taught himself patience over the long years of his life. It comes with the charm of being a snake oil salesman. For just a minute, he allows the hum of the crickets outside the parking lot to wash over him like a lullaby, slumping in his seat. His frustration ebbs and wanes: for a second, he thinks things might end up alright.

He rouses to check the time on his watch: 12:11. He's held onto the files long enough to commit every detail to memory. It's about time he return them to Serizawa's office. No evidence, no sympathy, no intimacy. He won’t forget any of it.

A burst of laughter ricochets in the emptiness of his car and he slaps a hand onto his thigh, tearing up. “Ridiculous,” he chokes, exasperated, pinching the bridge of his nose in an attempt to steady the oncoming throb of a headache. It's hilarious that Ritsu is a bad influence. It’s hilarious that Reigen has been influenced by a child at all. He’s an adult, after all, and has a will of his own.

As he looks across to where the stolen files lay, the futility of that imprints itself on him. Reigen drags a hand across his face, heart seizing up at the thought of abandoning Ritsu. Things won’t get any easier as the investigation proceeds, but he can’t resent the kid. It’s times like these that he wants to run away from his responsibilities. There’s a lot more at stake here than his career.

The shrill chime of his cellphone startles him, and he scrambles to answer. He relaxes when he sees the incoming call is from Ritsu.

“Speak of the devil,” he mutters, flipping it open and pressing it to his ear. “Hey, Ritsu.”

“Ah,” Ritsu breathes, as if shocked Reigen answered at all. “Reigen-san?”

“The one and only.”

“Good evening,” Ritsu speaks with a practiced stiffness, the formality sounding bizarre considering their precarious arrangement. “Did I wake you up?”

“Nah, I’m still working. It’s pretty late. Don’t you have school tomorrow?”

“No, it’s Sunday. Besides, that’s not why I called you,” The roll of Ritsu’s eye is audible; the boy’s impatience withers. Reigen could reply with equal disdain, but he settles with tucking a cigarette between his lips. “It’s about something else.”

“You want to know when we’re going to meet next?”

“We can discuss that after.”

“Don’t tell me. Are you in trouble for missing your morning classes or something?”

“I’m not in trouble,” Ritsu scoffs, insulted by the insinuation. “I made up an excuse for that. Anyway, it’s not my parents who noticed something. It was one of my upper classmates.”

Reigen presses his cell between his ear and shoulder, holding the flame of his lighter to the end of his cigarette. He pulls in a breath and stifles the urge to sigh. “What did he notice?”

“... are you smoking?” Ritsu asks, scandalized.

Reigen can’t help but be impressed. “Nothing escapes you, huh.”

“I heard the lighter.” In the pause that follows, Reigen imagines Ritsu’s expression: lip curled in disgust, brows knit together. He hates conversations over the phone because it’s difficult to gauge someone with their voice alone, but he can imagine Ritsu’s expressions clear as day. “He saw you dropping me off.”

His nausea peaks. Reigen has dreaded something like this happening, but he knows Ritsu isn’t finished explaining. “And?”

“He made me agree to a bunch of stupid stuff. I ended up telling him about what you and are I doing to keep him off my back. He would have told my parents, otherwise. He doesn’t seem interested in sabotaging our investigation, but… I thought you should know.”

Ritsu thought he should know. Reigen almost doesn’t believe it. “It doesn’t sound like he’s trying to bully you.”

“No.” Ritsu hesitates, nervousness bleeding through the line. He has to give the kid credit: when he speaks, his voice betrays nothing. “No. I don’t think so. He... mentioned my brother.”

“What did he say?” Reigen urges.

“He said he wanted to help me,” Ritsu sounds repulsed and disbelieving, like he can’t understand the logistics of a friendship. “He brought Tasuki up, too.”

Reigen switches the phone over to his other ear, wiping a clammy hand on his slacks. “He knows about that?”

“She went to him. He’s the vice president of the student council.”

Reigen leans back in his seat, taking a long drag of his cigarette. “He didn’t rat you out to the principal, though.”

“... no.”

“There’s no additional assault report, so he didn’t go to the police, either. You’re in the clear, but you don’t want to trust him.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

There’s a lapse of silence as Reigen contemplates that, wondering why, then, Ritsu decided to phone him after professing his distrust for him several times. It takes him longer than it should to connect the dots—he’ll attribute that to his sleep deprivation. Reigen flicks the embers off the end of his cigarette, flattered with the implication.

“You told him the truth about what’s going on and he didn’t tell your parents. Didn’t tell anyone, judging by the fact that I still have a job. By the sounds of it, he isn’t shunning you, even though you beat up a classmate. He seems like a good judge of character,” Reigen remarks dryly, intending to incite.

Ritsu’s indignance rises to meet Reigen’s provocation. “I didn’t plan for that,” he bites, frustration burning hot. Reigen takes a steady drag, thinking of what he’d say to himself in the same situation. Their relationship is rocky enough that he isn’t sure what will work on the kid, but he knows that Ritsu values honesty, even if it cuts. He decides to try and push his luck.

“Does that mean you’re regretting it now?”

Ritsu doesn’t hesitate, the practiced answer rolling off his tongue with an uneasy ease. “It was a mistake.”

“Admitting that it was a mistake doesn’t mean you regret it.”

One second, a minute—time blends together, the quiet resounding with a thousand unspoken words. It is with anguished humiliation that Ritsu answers him, words roiling with an undercurrent of anger. “I do regret it.”

He’s impressed with the boy’s frankness; if he were in the same position, it would have taken him a lot more to admit to his mistake. “It’s not a bad thing that he figured you out, but you were lucky this time. If your parents figured out the same thing—”

“It would ruin everything, I know. I get that.”

Anxiety makes Reigen nauseous, but so does the crisp sting of smoke. Ritsu’s anxiety has no outlet other than schoolyard scraps. He doesn’t have any cigarettes to relieve his stress.

“You’re a kid in a tough situation, so you have a great excuse for blowing up like you did. Most adults have less self control than you. It probably feels horrible, right? You know you’re not a violent person at heart, so stop acting like you are.”

A dead silence descends on the other line, and the only sign that Ritsu is still there is his quiet breathing. Reigen looks at the case files across from him and wonders: who’s more adult out of the two of them?

“What are you supposed to use force for, Ritsu?”

“... protecting yourself,” he replies, after a beat of hesitation. “Or others.”

“Exactly. You were wrong to lash out, but everyone makes mistakes. You exploded. It makes sense. You wouldn’t point a knife at anyone, would you?”

Reigen can tell. Ritsu is the kind of kid that expels his fear with anger and action; he doesn’t turtle, unlike others, even when doing so would only benefit him.

“What’s your point?”

“You don’t have to hold it against yourself, you know. If you feel guilty, then do something about it.”

Reigen listens: hears the hum of the car engine and the buzz of the heater, but hears little else, not even the boy’s soft, distant breaths. Perhaps he’d pushed too far.

When Ritsu returns the phone to his ear, his sigh is wet and his voice is tremulous. “Then what am I supposed to do? After all of this time...”

“There’s no other way to proceed but forward. If you’re going to honor an apology, the only way to show sincerity is by committing to something. You did apologize to that girl, right?”

Ritsu’s silence answers in the stead of his words.

“I guess you still have some things to work on,” Reigen scratches his temple, tipping the ash from his cigarette onto the ground outside. He blows smoke, watching it cloud up the inside of the car, thinking. “How about visiting a shrine?”

“Huh?”

“It’s Sunday tomorrow, right? We’ll go in the morning. Make some more excuses for your parents. You can invite your friend.”

“Like I’d want to do something like that,” Ritsu mutters. Reigen ignores his muffled sniff. “Whatever. We’ll walk and meet you there.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Reigen flicks his exhausted cigarette out on the ground outside, reaching across the console of the car to shuffle the papers back into their folder. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Be careful, okay?”

“I’m sick of everyone telling me to be careful,” Ritsu sighs, patience exhausted. “I’ve been fine up until now, haven’t I? Goodnight.”

Click.

Reigen stares down at his beeping phone in befuddlement. Ritsu just hung up on him. What a merciless kid. He snaps it shut, tucking the folder under his arm and his phone back into his pocket, not entirely convinced he’d been heard. Ritsu is willful and stubborn; if his brother is anything like him, Reigen doesn’t doubt he’s alive.

Outside of the warmth of the car, the cold wind bites. Breath by breath, the cool air relieves the tight heat coiled in his lungs. He grinds his heel against the littering of cigarette butts on the ground. A cautionary glance around the empty parking lot confirms his solitude. He doesn’t expect to run into anyone he knows.

After his impudent display during the investigation of Nishimiya’s murder, he’d been saddled with a heaping stack of paperwork on top of his usual work. His visit to the prefectural police didn’t go unpunished, but for having involved the NPA and gone over his superior’s head, he can take the penalty of being stuck on desk duty. Long hours suck, but he’d rather be exhausted than unemployed.

Reigen slinks into the building and heads into the main offices, finding the lights already on. “Funny,” He mutters. “I thought I turned the lights off.”

“They were off when I got here.”

Reigen is careful not to shriek outright, but the resulting shock makes him jump; he spins around to find Serizawa staring at him, blinking curiously.

“Idiot, don’t scare me like that,” He chides the other man with a hand over his heart. “You shouldn’t sneak up on people from behind. It’s creepy.”

“Oh, sorry,” Chagrined, Serizawa runs a hand through his curly hair, playing off his embarrassment with a shrug. “Are you still working?”

“I am. I’d love to go home, but I’ve got a lot to catch up with. What about you? You don’t often stay late.”

“To be honest…” Serizawa casts a wary gaze around the office, empty save for the two of them. “I forgot something, so I came back, but I can’t find the reports I was given. If I can’t find them, I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Reports? What for?” He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, angling the documents under his arm away from Serizawa’s field of view.

“The case files for the three recent murders,” Serizawa says, shoulders curling inward. It’s as if he expects to be scolded.

“That’s bad to lose,” Reigen agrees, forgiving. “I can help you look for them, if you want.”

“If you don’t mind…” As Serizawa gives a short bow, Reigen rounds the corner of his desk, sliding the folder underneath several other layers of paperwork.

“Any idea where you lost it?”

“I saw it last on my desk, but…” Serizawa scratches his stubble. “To be honest, I think I might have mixed it up with some other paperwork.”

There’s his escape route. Serizawa makes it easy. “I’m guessing it’d be bad if it fell into someone else’s hands.”

“Yeah. Boss was going on about how important this case is. He mentioned you, of course.”

Reigen picks up on that, perking up curiously as he pretends to rifle through a stack of paperwork. “Oh?”

“Said you ruined our chances by going to the prefectural police. He also said something about you embarrassing us, but I don’t think it was a bad decision. We can use all the help we can get.”

“That’s precisely why I went,” Reigen agrees, flipping open folders and skimming through them without really looking at them. “There’s a good chance you handed the files off to me, so I’ll check here first. You gave me that huge stack of paperwork, remember?”

“I remember seeing it after that, though…”

“Well, it won’t hurt to look. Things change hands all the time here. Why don’t you check your office again?” Reigen hopes his insistence doesn’t alert the other man. Serizawa suspects nothing—he nods reluctantly, taking the bait.

“... I’ll try looking again, but I don’t think I’ll find it.”

He heads off. Once Reigen is certain he won’t be heard, he heaves an exhausted sigh and wipes his brow. His heart is going to give up one of these days. He’s only lucky things turned out this way. Serizawa’s absent-minded nature often led to similar situations. Missteps like this make respecting the man difficult—he’d forgotten to take the master key from the ring before giving it to him to close the evidence locker. If it hadn’t been for that, Reigen wouldn’t have been able to steal the files from his office in the first place.

Seeing the other man approach, he pulls out the folder from the pile and flips it open.

“It wasn’t there. I can’t believe this…”

“Is this it?” Reigen asks, gesturing. Serizawa’s eyes blow wide before he hurries over, peeking over Reigen’s shoulder. “Ah, sorry. I had to open it to check. Haruka is the name of one of your victims, right? These are just incident reports, by the look of it… they can’t be that important.”

“They are.” Serizawa dissents, snatching up the folder when Reigen offers it, flipping it around to inspect, as if in disbelief of what he’s seeing.

“What, no thanks?”

“No,” Serizawa murmurs, realization stealing him over. His brows knit together, and he looks from the files to Reigen and back again, deaf to the drumming beat of his heart. “Did you take these from my office?”

Reigen’s gut seizes, mind going completely blank. His mouth moves on its own and he deflects the accusation automatically. “Me? No. Like you said, they ended up in my pile of paperwork—”

“You’re the one who said that,” Serizawa’s voice drops, taking Reigen’s heart with it. “I only said I might have mixed it up with other paperwork. I didn’t specify which pile.”

As Serizawa straightens up from his usual hunch, Reigen stumbles back into his desk, hands flying out to catch himself, only to knock over an unsteady pile of papers.

“Ah, shit!” he drops to his knees, scrambling to pick them back up. His busy hands don’t stop him from running his mouth. “You know you’re just being paranoid, right?” They both know he’s lying through his teeth. Eyes on the ground, Reigen continues to dig his grave. “Why would I steal something like that?”

“That’s the part I can’t figure out.” Above him, the older man crosses his arms. “Don’t tell me you’re still trying to get on this case. I don’t get why you would want to.”

Serizawa isn’t often definite in his convictions, but he’s certain of this. Reigen knows when to give, so he gives, sweat trickling past his collar as he methodically gathers together the papers, not asking for help and not meeting his eyes.

“Idiot. It’s because it’s a prolific murder case, isn’t it? Everyone is talking about it. Who wouldn’t want on?”

Reigen doesn’t look up, but he can hear the scowl in Serizawa’s voice. “How are you so confident?”

He isn’t confident at all. Serizawa is just buying into what Reigen is selling. There’s only one other thing that could be worse than this: Serizawa learning about he and Ritsu’s relationship. If this doesn’t get him fired, then that will. He rises, his vice-like grip on the papers the only thing ensuring he doesn’t drop them a second time.

“I wouldn’t call it theft, Serizawa. I try to explore all my available avenues.”

“Explore?” He can see the cogs turning in the other man’s head, and notes the exact moment he realizes when he’s been played. “My office was locked.” He scowls, and then gestures, palm up. “Give me those keys.”

Reigen digs in his pocket and drops the keys into his awaiting palm, hoping Serizawa doesn’t feel how clammy his hands are. Not trusting himself to stand completely on his own, he leans against the desk, opting for a casual stance to combat Serizawa’s aggressive posture. This time, he’s a lot more careful with where he places his hands.

“You don’t want to hear any of my theories? As far as I can tell, you guys are stumped right now.”

Controlling the mood is Reigen’s specialty, so his flippant attitude accomplishes at least one thing: getting Serizawa to lower his guard long enough that he agrees to talk on equal terms. Looking down at the ring of keys with an expression of a man quite smothered, he sighs, turning an unimpressed stare on Reigen.

“I guess I’m partially to blame. I should have figured you’d do something like this.”

“Come on. Throw me a bone?” Reigen smiles, and Serizawa rolls his eyes.

“Fine. What’s your theory?”

“Well—have you investigated any missing person’s cases that fit the profile of the victims?”

“There might have been some mentions of doing that. Why?”

“This killer doesn’t have a stable MO, does he? I’m betting your profile for him is simple. Male, in his thirties, unemployed with history in law enforcement, fired or maybe even retired… Nishimoto made it look like he was intent on stringing his victims along. He might have considered her intimately, but the last two discredit that. They’re too violent for him have any sympathy.”

Serizawa crosses his arms again, biceps straining the fabric of his shirt. He radiates impatience.

“A-all I’m saying is that there’s no way to confirm that he definitely dumps the bodies the same way every time. It’s possible he has countless victims hidden away. So—missing person’s cases.”

“Did that boy convince you that his brother is involved?” Serizawa asks.

Reigen’s stomach drops. He doesn’t let it show on his face, but it shocks him. Intuition, intelligence, whatever—it doesn’t matter. He underestimated Serizawa.

“Ah… well, that’s something else entirely…”

“No wonder he was so pushy. I never thought to ask him why he kept coming, really… I just wanted to get away from him.”

Reigen can’t believe his eyes, but the man standing across from him is guilty, not angry, but abashed. His jaw drops, words for once failing him.

“I never took you for the type, Reigen.”

“The type?” He blurts, mind whirling at the conversation’s turn.

“The type of person to investigate things like this on your own time. It’s because of that little boy, isn’t it? You heard him out. I didn’t listen to a word…”

Having established a clear trail of thought, Reigen latches on, smoothing out the front of his shirt with a hum and a nod, radiating false modesty. “It’s tough, in that kind of situation. I can’t blame you for wanting to just walk away.” Thank god for Serizawa’s assumptions. It makes weaseling out of this a lot easier. “I persisted. It’s my specialty, after a—"

“You still can’t steal documents.”

The quirk of Reigen’s lip falls flat. “I’m aware of that. Still, I can’t believe there’s no evidence.”

Serizawa chews on his lower lip, looking everywhere but at Reigen. It’s clear he’s mulling something over. He’s smart—intuitive, whatever, fuck—but his expressions are easy to read into when he’s hemming and hawing so openly. Reigen raises an eyebrow expectantly.

“Uh, the thing is… we do have evidence now.”

He doesn’t believe it. “What are you talking about? Those reports—”

“Didn’t you notice that Nishimiya’s files were missing?” He holds up the folder. “His autopsy report came in tonight.”

“Are you serious?”

“I can show you it. The report, I mean,” Serizawa trips over his words in his haste to explain. “But you can’t tell anyone else. About me showing you it, I mean. And about the contents. You know, since you’re not on the case, I can’t officially involve you, but… I feel bad,” He says, shrugging. He rubs the back of his neck, quick to retreat. “Or—"

“That’s fine,” Reigen snatches up the opportunity—he doesn’t care if he’s being placated or not. “Let me see the report, then.”

With a final cautionary glance around the room, Serizawa leads Reigen to his office, where he unlocks the door and gestures for Reigen to enter first. He closes the door behind them and flips the light switch, Reigen grimacing as the fluorescent bulbs flicker to life. It makes him feel exposed, under the microscope, nerves tingling with anticipation.

He watches as Serizawa withdraws a key from the inner pocket of his jacket and unlocks a drawer; catching Reigen’s eye, he scowls. “Uh, please don’t get any ideas. I really don’t want you rooting around in here… you can just ask me about it next time, okay?” The chiding statement flies over his head, Reigen preoccupied with the contents of his drawer. Serizawa sighs and hands the report over.

“Never took you for the type to do an inside job,” he comments, idly flipping the paper over to inspect. The joke misses the mark, judging by the deadpan look the other man gives him. Reigen’s collar burns. He focuses on the autopsy conclusion, skimming over what he already knows. His interest is caught by the text at the bottom of the document.

Items turned over to the Gifu police department as evidence include: Fibers from hair and clothing, oral swabs and smears; fingernail clippings; samples of head hair, fingerprints; bloodied clothing, blood samples; glass; black hair taken from clothing.

Reigen feels winded with the new information. “The hair they found on his clothing didn’t match his hair color?”

Serizawa nods. “His hair was dyed blonde. The hair fibers found were black.”

“Black,” Reigen repeats, reality crashing into him like the sweep of a wave. “Is this being analyzed?”

“It is.” Serizawa takes the report back when Reigen offers it to him, slipping it inside the folder before stowing it away under lock and key. “We’ll have him in less than a week, given he’s already on record.”

The insurmountable task of hunting down the monster is already over. Reigen gives a senseless nod, looking around dazedly. Serizawa hovers by his side, troubled by his silent acquiescence.

“Um, Reigen-san? I wanted to mention it earlier, but… you don’t look so good.”

“I haven’t slept properly in days,” He waves away his concern. “This is… big news, isn’t it?”

“I can still bring up the idea of investigating recent missing person’s reports. It’s worth checking out.”

“Is it?” Reigen scrubs a hand over his face, grimacing at the sensation of stubble on his cheeks. He needs a shower, a smoke—maybe a whiskey. “It’s just a matter of bringing the guy in and wringing a confession out of him.”

Serizawa opens his mouth to respond, but Reigen doesn’t want to hear it. He feels suffocated in the tiny office, where the quiet strains with suppressed tension. He opens the office door with a jerk of his head. “Come on, let’s lock up. It’d be bad if we were found like this.”

They pick their way across the office, locking up and turning all the lights off. Reigen wastes no time, not bothering to pull his coat on and instead rushing for the back doors with Serizawa following on his heel.

“Hey, wait. What’s the matter—"

Pulse quick in his ears, he throws open the doors and thunders down the steps, winded by the whip of wind that throws open his suit jacket and tousles his hair.

“Reigen-san!” Serizawa shouts, footsteps falling hard on the concrete steps behind him. Reigen’s hand flies out, a warning for Serizawa not to approach him further: he stops a respectful distance away, eyes wide.

“What am I even doing?” Reigen gasps, hand over his eyes. Images twinkle across the back of his eyelids like fireworks: Mob, face down in a ditch, Nishimiya, drowning in his own blood. For some reason it’s paramount that he makes the other man understand. “It just—it can’t end when you bring him in. If he doesn’t know anything about Mob, then… where the hell do I go from there?”

He can feel Serizawa’s eyes on him. He expects the silence to resound, to continue unstopping, broken only by the shrill hum of crickets and the occasional whizz of a passing car. He never could connect to other people in any meaningful way.

“Reigen-san.”

The hand that falls on his shoulder grounds him. Reigen drops his hand from his eyes, peering up into the cloudless night. His throat clicks as he swallows.

“Sorry. I should probably go home.”

Serizawa bites his lower lip, withdrawing. “This really matters to you.”

Reigen chokes out a laugh. “It’s stupid, I know. It’s not like this is anything new. I’ve dealt with cases like this before, but now…”

The wind whispers past their ankles and cuts through the thin material of his shirt. He shudders involuntarily, arms curling around his middle. Serizawa follows Reigen’s gaze to the sickle moon leering above them.

“You’re in too deep. Getting invested is a rookie move, you know.”

He looks to meet the other man’s eyes. Serizawa’s smile stuns him.

“Shut up,” He blurts, face flaming. “I’ve been a cop for five years already. I get it, I shouldn’t have gotten so attached. Hoping too much might make me an idiot, but there’s no way I can look that kid in the eye and tell him his big brother isn’t coming home.”

“I always thought you were selfish, but maybe I was wrong. You actually have a really big heart, Reigen-san.”

“I said shut up already!” The tips of his ears burn. He tells himself it’s the cold. “You’re just trying to get back at me, aren’t you?”

“I guess so,” Serizawa laughs, hand at the back of his head. “It’s not a lie.”

“I need a smoke,” Reigen mutters miserably, throwing on his coat. He lights up as they walk towards the car park together.

“I’ll keep you updated,” Serizawa says. “I promise.”

“Promises are for kids. Still, I’ll hold you to that.”

With a final parting wave, Serizawa heads to his own vehicle, parked under the shade of a tree. Reigen watches him drive off, shuddering in the cold.

“’Meet me at the shrine tomorrow’, huh. Maybe I should pray.”

Chapter Text

Reigen wakes to something unexpected: the sun.

He groans and rolls over in his bed, throwing a hand over his eyes to block out the sunlight trickling in from the cracks in his blinds. Every joint in his body feels stiff, his body heavy, mind processing things achingly slow—even having been woken by the pleasant beginnings of what is sure to be a beautiful day, he still feels half asleep. Days of working without stop, hours of driving, and sleep deprivation has taken its toll on his body. He’s not as young as he used to be—the days where he could subsist on ramen and three hours of sleep are long gone. It’s unpleasant to be reminded that he’s not as spry as he used to be.

Reigen drags himself out of bed with a yawn, stretching the stiffness from his limbs as he sets coffee to brew and pulls open the blinds. The freshly fallen snow glistens outside, the world blanketed in a sheet of white that twinkles underneath the sun. He cracks open the window, glad to be given a chance to allow his apartment to breathe. The sensation of being crammed inside a stuffy room that lacks proper ventilation is stifling—it might be winter, but the cool air is a desperate relief. Still, he makes sure to close it after going through his morning routine; coming back to sheets stiff from the cold isn’t something he wants either.

Reigen finds another surprise waiting for him two blocks down from the shrine: the sight of Ritsu, walking beside a taller, broader boy. He stops the car ahead of them and steps out with a wave, ignoring the way Ritsu rolls his eyes as he introduces himself to his friend. The older boy—Tokugawa, he’s soon to figure out—gives him a once over, suspicions falling away as they shake hands. With polite smiles they dissect each other, reaching a unified understanding in the ticks of silence between their words. They walk the rest of the way together.

They stop in front of shrine’s gate, watching as a mother and her daughter pass them by, excitedly discussing the fresh snowfall. There’s not a lot of people here this morning, but it’s a beautiful day. As the snow melts, the streets will fill with families looking for a bit of warmth to brighten what has been a dreary month.

“I don’t even know why we’re here,” Ritsu sighs, breathing warmth into his hands. “Care to remind me?”

“I think we could all use the time to reflect,” Tokugawa combats Ritsu’s pessimism with an insistent smile from over his shoulder. “I thought it was a good idea.”

“That’s underhanded,” Ritsu says.

“I’m being sincere,” Tokugawa returns, affronted.

“Either way, it’s good to get out of the house,” Reigen butts in, watching as Ritsu gears up to argue, obviously biting back a scathing remark. “And it’s nice out today—we got lucky. We don’t get much sun during this time of the year.”

Ritsu bites his lower lip. He drops whatever he was going to say, giving a noncommittal shrug. Reigen takes that as a win.

“Well, let’s get going. You want to write a wish first?” Reigen hurries them up the path to the shrine, leading the way up the stairs. Ritsu doesn’t argue—just follows behind him, making his disinterest clear with every deliberate stomp up the snowy steps.

In the corner of his eye, he sees Tokugawa scowl. “That sounds like a good idea,” He says. “I’ll write one. What about you, Kageyama?”

They both watch Ritsu cautiously, waiting for his reaction. “… I guess I’ll write one,” Is all he says, gaze trained on his feet.

Reigen drops a few coins into the empty shop vendor and hands the boys the wooden plaques, stepping aside as they write out their wishes. He watches his breath fan out into clouds in front of him, mind adrift. Despite the crisp chill in the air and the coffee, he still feels half asleep. He could use a nap. He lifts a hand to his face, drifting over the freshly shaven skin, fingertips tingling. He could use a lot of things—including a smoke.

“Reigen-san.” He feels a small tug at his sleeve and finds Ritsu at his side, attempting to garner his attention. “Reigen-san. Aren’t you going to do one, too?”

“Ah, me? I’ll just pray.”

Ritsu raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t question him further, hurrying up the final set of stairs. Tokugawa follows him, casting a curious glance at Reigen. They pass by a gaggle of schoolgirls heading down the concrete steps, a man clothed in a green wool coat—Reigen counts heads, looking for anyone he might know. He doesn’t want to explain why he’s spending his day off with two kids he has no blood relation to.

He pauses at the top of the steps, but only because Ritsu is stopped there, Tokugawa frozen by his side. Reigen follows their gaze to a little girl with long blonde hair, staring straight back at him.

“Tasuki-san?” Ritsu asks, sounding breathless. Reigen’s heart jumps into his throat, disbelief combating the urge to turn tail and run in the opposite direction.

“Kageyama-kun? What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Ritsu snaps, anger licking up his heels and turning his shoulders inwards, hunched defensively. Reigen’s throat clicks as he swallows. Ritsu bleeds fury—every huff of breath comes hot, hands wound into tight fists, teeth ground together as he stares her down. Reigen wonders: was he this angry when he decided to beat her, and over so little?

“I was only…” She glances down at something clenched in her bare palms—a wooden plaque, a prayer.  “I just…”

“Is that,” Tokugawa begins, mindlessly gesturing, in disbelief himself. “Is that for Shigeo-san?”

Tasuki jolts, bringing it to her chest to hide the smooth surface, burying whatever words are written there between her cold hands and her beating heart. “Um…”

“Tokugawa asked you a question,” Ritsu urges. “Well? Is it?”

This anger is different. It’s not anger from feeling betrayed; not cool, calculated disdain, trained with a careful precision. It’s the hatred of a child—a stubborn hate that would be completely unreasonable in most situations.

Reigen clears his throat. “Ritsu.”

The boy blanches, turning to him as if he’d forgotten he was there. “Huh?”

It’s a risk, but when it comes to Ritsu, nothing is safe. Reigen steps forward, clapping the boy on the shoulder. With a firm hand steering him forward, he brings them to stand in front of Tasuki. Her stare is open and blank. She doesn’t look like a bully, but Ritsu doesn’t either.

“I’ll admit that I’m curious, too. Is that for Ritsu’s brother?” He asks.

For a moment, all she does is stare—not suspiciously, not angrily, but as though she’s lost, having been caught horribly off guard. “It… it is, but… I didn’t want to place it yet.”

Reigen smiles, politely curious. He doesn’t remove his hand from Ritsu’s shoulder. “Why not?”

“Because, well…” She rubs her nose, giving a sniff. “I thought it might be wrong of me. But I saw you,” She brightens as she gestures to Ritsu. “So—so I wanted to ask permission.”

“Permission?” Ritsu blurts. “From me?”

Reigen squeezes Ritsu’s shoulder.

“Yes!” She says, suddenly thrusting the plaque towards them, lowering herself into a deep bow. “Please, allow me to wish for your brother to come home!”

The silence echoes with that proclamation, and Reigen finds his eyes traveling down her arm to the plaque, to the scrawled letters written there—he picks out an apology in the ink, Shigeo’s name, a wish asking for him to return home safely. Ritsu reaches out to take it, but pauses midway, hand hovering indecisively. Their conversation from last night comes to mind, and Reigen wonders if he’ll remember, if he regrets what he did enough to accept this from her.

“Tasuki-san…” He murmurs, voice soft, far softer than Reigen had anticipated. “I… I don’t understand. Why would you want to do this?”

She looks up from her bow, face flushed. “I wasn’t a good person. I want to make it better, but I don’t know how, so… I decided to do this. Please!”

Tokugawa creeps up beside Ritsu, giving him a purposeful nudge. Reigen pats his shoulder once—just a reminder that he’s here—and drops his hand back to his side. Ritsu looks up at him, eyes roving from her to him and back again, lost. He couldn’t have expected this.

Haltingly, he accepts it: “I guess it’s okay. It’s fine. You have my… permission.”

Tasuki stands straight, the smile spreading across her face seeming weak, thin. They collectively ignore the tears at the corner of her eyes. “Thank you.”

“Why don’t you place them now?” Reigen suggests, guiding them toward the wall of the shrine, covered with a litany of plaques. “We’ll pray, after.”

The children do just that, Reigen watching over them from a few paces behind. Tasuki glances at him over her shoulder, and then leans in to whisper to Ritsu conspiratorially. “Who’s he?” She asks, hand cupped over her mouth.

“My uncle,” Ritsu answers without a beat of hesitation.

“Oh.” She drops her hand—and having noticed Reigen staring—gives him a smile. She returns her attention to Ritsu. “Oh, yeah. There was someone else paying his respects for your brother,” Tasuki mentions it as an afterthought, eyes tired.

Ritsu’s listing attention snaps back to her when she says that. “Hm? Who?”

“He was just here,” Tasuki stands on tiptoes, looking down the sets of stairs leading to the shrine, and then twirls in place, making a show of looking for him. “He’s gone already, though…”

“Someone? Who was it?” Reigen asks.

“Um, maybe a family friend?” Tasuki shrinks into herself, turning from one accusatory gaze to the next. Maybe it’s just the chill in the air, but Reigen’s hair is standing on end. “I didn’t catch his name. Sorry. He said he knew Shigeo really well.”

“That’s strange,” Ritsu tilts his head. “We don’t have any family friends in this area.”

“Well, maybe you just don’t remember,” She says, frustrated they don’t believe her. “Otherwise, some stranger left a message for your brother.”

“Do you remember where he placed it?” Reigen asks.

“Oh!” Eager to help, Tasuki squints at the wishing plaques, eyes roving over row after row until she finally finds it—she points a finger at it, waiting until Reigen approaches before she drops her hand. “That one, I think. It was really short, so I thought it was weird, but...”

“Why don’t you three go and pray?” Reigen’s collar feels hot. His jacket is suddenly stifling. “I think I’ll write a wish after all.”

“Okay, but…” Ritsu hesitates. 

Tokugawa hurries him along. “Come on. It’s over here.”

Reigen doesn’t turn to watch them go, listening as their footsteps fade further into the distance. He rips the ema Tasuki pointed out to him from its place on the wall, feeling numbness settle in his chest as he reads the message, left without an address—left without a name, but their identity still screaming with every pen stroke.

 

Shigeo,

You will grow strong.

I wish to see that growth.

 

Reigen pockets it, hands shaking.

He takes a moment to smooth out the wrinkles from his jacket, tugging down his gloves. Control comes to him easily; he won’t allow himself to panic over nothing, won’t scare the children relying on him—he’ll continue to pretend nothing is wrong. He’ll ignore the thin piece of wood in his pocket that weighs him down, heavy like iron with implication and possession.

Hands in his pockets, he strides over to the front of the shrine, ignoring the concerned look Tokugawa shoots him. He holds steadfast, proceeding through prayer without blinking, breath slow, heartbeat eased by the ritual. He’s jumping to conclusions. He’s making an illogical leap—too eager to find something where there isn’t anything, mind tired, thoughts hazy. There’s no way, after all. Who could be so bold—how could they dare?

He listens to the children chattering behind him, waiting for him to finish. He rings the bell, and steps back. Too late he realizes that he hadn’t prayed for anything. Maybe he should have prayed for Shigeo’s health. His growth, even.

He turns on his heel. Tokugawa is already down the first set of stairs, and Ritsu and Tasuki are whispering to each other. Reigen tries not to let that irritate him. They’re children, after all. Maybe that’s what bothers him—that they’ve both hurt each other so badly, but can come back together again after everything. It shouldn’t bother him. He was the one who encouraged Ritsu to apologize in the first place.

It doesn’t feel good to see them talking together, but he doesn’t understand why—why not, when Tasuki’s face is flushed with giddy pleasure, when Ritsu is listening to her, grudging, but willing?

Something is wrong about all of this, but he doesn’t know what. He’s skirting by with what little intuition he has, gut screaming at him to right what is wrong, only—he doesn’t know what’s wrong, because nothing is amiss. Right now, he’d kill for the senses that come to Serizawa effortlessly. When it comes to things like this, persistence can only get him so far.

“… I’ll meet you here tomorrow then,” Tasuki whispers, catching Reigen in the corner of her eye, shutting up immediately. She straightens out, hands fluffing her skirt, smile over bright.

Ritsu glares at him. “What are you staring at us for?”

“Nothing. Come on, we’ll walk Tasuki home.”

“I live in the opposite direction,” She says, shrugging. “It’s fine. I walked here by myse—”

“No. We’ll walk you home.” Reigen says, insistent. Ritsu raises an eyebrow, but assents with one shared look between them. He turns to Tasuki.

“It’s easier this way. Don’t be stubborn.”

That’s rich, coming from Ritsu—he’s even more persistent than Reigen is. The thought isn’t particularly comforting.

He follows the two children down the steps, where Tokugawa rejoins their group. They exit the shrine grounds, coming from the opposite direction that they came from. Tasuki is chattering to Ritsu, who is somehow inexplicably listening. She seems pleased with herself.

They’re walking her home. This should ease Reigen’s worries and disperse the cloud looming overhead. He’ll make sure they all get home safely. It’ll be fine.

Reigen pauses.

Is it then, maybe, that he feels watched?

He continues walking without pause, gaze shifting from the cars parked on the street to the apartments above, skirting over the little details, looking for something. What, he doesn’t know. There’s no one else on this street. The bright, cheering beat of the sun obliterates the shadows of the day. There’s nowhere to hide, and there’s nothing to be seen.

They leave Tasuki only a block away from her home and head back the same way, but this time the silence is stifling. The snow is wet under their feet, now a slush of melted ice and water. Something is wrong. Something.

“So Ritsu,” Reigen begins. “You going to meet up with Tasuki tomorrow?”

He can’t see Ritsu’s face, but he sees his ears go red and watches as he hunches his shoulders. “… that’s none of your business.”

“Sure it isn’t. I’ll meet up with you guys; what time?”

“Ugh…”

Tokugawa nudges Ritsu and he relents easily, soft, worn from the days, the pressure of two better than one. “… seven. We’ll go there and back before our parents wake up, and then head to school together.”

Reigen nods. “I’ll see you at seven, then.”

He stops at his car, allowing the two boys to walk home together. He watches until they turn down a street, backs fading from his vision. Something, something. He sits in his car and lights up, heaving in the smoke with an urgency that he can’t pretend is only addiction. He drives home, eyes on the road, shining and slick with the melted snow.

Today is beautiful. He goes to the store because it’s his day off and it’s what his routine dictates he do—he buys tea, bread, milk, cream—cigarettes. He passes by children in the candy isle, picking up a milk lollipop, only to end up thinking of Ritsu. He turns it over in his hand, staring down at the glossy, sugar-coated surface, and he wonders. He plays back the facts in his head. Nishimoto, Haruka, Nishimiya, a mantra. Maybe he should have prayed for the dead. He ends up shoving a fistful of the lollipops into his cart.

Today is beautiful. Every family in the city is out shopping, so the lines in the grocery store are long. Reigen isn’t an impatient man, but today—on this beautiful day—he’s tense, wound up tight, and every second that goes by quiet but for the murmur of voices and the blip of scanners makes him grind his teeth.

The girl at the register reaches the lollipops and smiles at him. “For your children?” She asks, and her cheer is too much—the misunderstanding curdles like milk, sitting sour at the back of his tongue. Reigen can’t bring himself to smile back so he focuses his gaze somewhere over her shoulder and nods, as though abashed.

It’s a Sunday. The traffic on his route home is absurd. For the first time in his life, Reigen cusses out another driver when he gets cut off trying to merge. Fingers fidget in an impatient dance against the leather of the steering wheel in time to the ticking of his watch. He bottles up every breath of smoke and heaves it out of the car window, smoking like a chimney. He doesn’t feel watched—it’s not eyes on the back of his head making him uneasy.

It’s something else.

He doesn’t put his groceries away when he gets home; he dumps them in the corner of his kitchen floor and puts the plaque down on his coffee table, running his hands through his hair.

 

Shigeo,

You will grow strong.

I wish to see that growth.

 

The two lines aren’t enough for him to deduct anything—not when his thoughts are slipping through his fingers like sand, when he can’t hold onto reason. Reigen pulls out a fresh pack of cigarettes and fumbles to tear the plastic off. He pauses before lighting up, remembering his landlord’s anger the last time he broke that rule. He tosses the pack aside.

Reigen doesn’t stand from the couch even as the bright bloom of the sun withers into a terse orange, setting his apartment aflame. Nishimoto, Haruka, Nishimiya. Why did he switch to a boy after killing girls? An older boy, at that? Why did he leave evidence behind after carefully controlling the crime scenes? It could be a loss of control. The violent nature of Haruka’s death implies dissonance. He was losing it—but even then, after beating her skull in, he hadn’t left anything behind. Not a shred of evidence. Not until the boy.

He wants to watch Shigeo grow. Seeds planted in the soil—he’s planted something. A hint maybe, a print.

Or perhaps a hair, evidence left behind with purpose.

Reigen drops his hands from his hair into his lap.

Nishimoto, Haruka, Shigeo. He’d been discounting him from his thoughts the entire time—belief weak, wavering. He didn’t run away. Not dead, not gone, but taken. Reigen didn’t believe it, some part of him rejecting the reality that Shigeo might be beyond their reach, but still alive.

He flies to pick up his cellphone, only to find the screen alight with an incoming call. His stomach plummets when he sees it’s from Serizawa. Hands shaking, he flips open the phone and presses it to his ear.

“It’s me.” He clears his throat and hopes the tremble in his voice goes unnoticed. “What’s up, Serizawa?”

“Ah, Reigen-san. Sorry to call you on your day off, but I thought—”

“What is it?” He interrupts, no patience for polite frivolities.

 “… you can’t come rushing in if I tell you this,” Serizawa says. In the distance, Reigen hears the muffled activity of the busy office—Serizawa must have locked himself in his office to make the call. “Can you promise me you’ll stay at home?”

“Get on with it,” He snaps, and then regrets it. “Sorry, just.” He pinches the ridge of his nose, fighting a headache. “Fine. I won’t come rushing in.”

“There’s been another abduction. It fits the pattern.”

Reigen can’t breathe.

Dread coils around his heart, the resulting cold sapping all warmth from his limbs. He sits down as the numbness spreads, fingertips tingling.

Reigen finds his breath, and asks: “Who?”

“Tasuki Hojo.”

Chapter Text

A text stares up at him from his phone, the illumination glaringly bright in the darkness of his bedroom: See you at the shrine. He told Reigen that they were meeting at seven. His bedside clock reads six.

It was a lie, of course.

By six twenty, he’s dressed and ready to leave. He checks the stove-top clock, blinking in the neon glow as he munches on toast, eaten quietly in the dark. He doesn’t want to wake his parents—he would rather slip away in darkness and return to the dawn. There’s something exciting in being secretive about something so innocuous. He checks his wrist watch on the way out: six twenty-seven. Ritsu hopes Reigen won’t think to come early.

The sun hasn’t risen yet, but it’s not cold this morning, so he goes without his jacket. Like yesterday, today will probably be a beautiful day. He basks in the quiet hum of early morning life as he walks the familiar path down to the shrine, soaking in his surroundings.

Tasuki is moving away: after today, he won’t ever see her again. She’d told him yesterday, whispers slipping through her fingers in cloudy exhalations. They decided when Haruka’s body was found. We’ll be done packing by tomorrow. I’m transferring, and you know—it makes me nervous.

Ritsu arrives at the shrine and pauses at the gates, hands in his pockets. A gust of wind sends him shivering, shoulders braced against the abrupt chill. Tasuki isn’t here yet. He shakes aside his sleeve, looking at the time on his wristwatch. Six forty-two. They agreed to meet at six forty. After every apology, every well-meaning word and every second spent convincing himself this is what he needs to do, he still doubts her intentions and can’t quite decide on his own. She’s not here yet, so he doubts her. He doesn’t know if he forgives her, so he doubts himself.

What he doesn’t doubt is that Reigen will be here soon, even if she never arrives. He’d rather say his goodbyes without him breathing down his neck, hand on his shoulder, guiding him through apologies—at best patronizing him.

Ritsu isn’t patient enough to watch the seconds tick by, so he heads past the gates and up the hill. One breath, two steps. He pauses to look back over the shrine grounds, taking in the view. The distant call of crows strikes a dissonance in the beauty of the dawn. Struck with anxiety, he flips open his phone, realizing he never gave her his number. Forgiveness will absolve his guilt, he’s sure of it. But she needs to be here for that to happen.

Six fifty: shadows have begun to grow as the dawn licks up the base of the hill, spilling over his shoes, painting the shrine in a dim purple-orange glow. Ritsu clicks his tongue, irritation beginning to bubble underneath his ribs. Like indulging her causerie, this is another exercise in patience.

His watch ticks, the hands moving ever on. She’s late when she had promised she wouldn’t be. Maybe her parents caught her trying to sneak out, or maybe she was toying with him all along. An ugly, writhing sort of nervousness rises in his throat, logic faltering. Maybe she won’t show up at all.

He cracks under the pressure, anxiety twisting up his gut and making his blood run hot. He consults his watch and his phone before beginning up the stone steps, hoping he’ll see her from afar if he gains the high ground. The writhing twist of shadows creep close, apparitions created by the dawn. A gust of wind rolls over the hill, carrying close the scent of copper. He clings to his bookbag, unnerved.

Each step brings him closer to the din of the crows. Some sit perched on the roof of the chozuya, others on the ground, scavenging. From his low vantage point, he can’t see what they’re squabbling over, but their caws are rancorous in the quiet. He hastens his pace, reaching the top of the steps with a deliberate huff.

“Go away,” He mutters, stepping up to the ablutions to scare them away. When they don’t take flight upon his approach, he falters, stopping short.

There’s garbage on the ground. For some reason or another, someone decided to dump their dirty clothes here. Ritsu can’t tell what it is—it could be a shirt, a pair of pants, or a coat, sitting in a lump at the base of the water basin, soaking wet.

He doesn’t want to pick it up. He doesn’t want to touch it at all, so much so that his hair stands on end, gooseflesh prickling across his body as disgust seizes on his skin like ice water. It makes him feel sick—but more than that, it disturbs him to see something discarded here, on sacred grounds.

His brother would call him old fashioned.

He thinks Reigen would, too.

Six fifty-five. Ritsu leans to pick up the wet clothing, to set it aside. The clouds break and the sun spills across the grounds, catching Ritsu with a hand outstretched, pulling the soaked fabric from the ground to shake it out.

He holds it away from himself as the light falls across the material of Tasuki’s coat, dyed red.

Shock crashes over his body, but not because he knows what he’s seeing, and why he’s seeing it here, of all places. He carefully lowers the coat back to the ground, looking around and noticing things he hadn’t noticed before. Splattered up the base of the basin and leading behind it is blood—distinctly, irrefutably blood, thick like tar, the scent of copper on the air.

It’s then natural that his searching eye crawls up, looking for further discrepancies. On the other side of the basin, a silhouette stretches across the ground, intermingling with a smattering of scattered feathers. He’s not close enough to see who it is, but he’s close enough that when he looks for it, he sees the top of their blonde head on the other side of the basin.

Ritsu doesn’t want to know who the shadow belongs to, and he doesn’t want to know if what’s spattered on the ground is blood. He doesn’t desire any kind of certainty in proving his assumptions correct, but a force grabs a hold of him and urges him to look. Whether it’s human curiosity or simple impatience, he doesn’t know, but the force of it is terrifying.

“Tasuki-san…?”

He almost expects the figure to move, or to laugh nervously, afraid to be found. But the blonde head on the other side of the basin doesn’t move. It remains where it is, still as a statue.

He steps around the chozuya and finds her there, waiting for him.

With her body slumped against the water basin and her head tilted skyward, she looks almost as though she fell asleep there. But the blood—the crack and bleed of broken skin on her forehead, the black, inky emptiness of eye sockets gaping, picked clean by the birds—those things don’t speak of sleep. It takes him a half second to digest that she’s not breathing, and less to understand what that means. It doesn’t take any longer than the twenty minutes he took to get ready this morning, the fifteen he spent walking here, or the seven he spent waiting for a girl that would never come.

Fear presses itself against the swell of his throat with a kiss, transmuting the heat of his blood to ice. He stumbles back gracelessly, feet catching on nothing. He falls backward, sprawling against the stone.

His blood roars in his ears—far louder than his scream, ricocheting in the empty dawn. The crows surrounding her take flight at the sudden noise, scattering feathers throughout the air. He claps a hand over his mouth, nausea propelling him backward on hands and knees. Ritsu turns to his side and retches, entire body heaving and shuddering. He chokes on the bile scalding the back of his throat and turns to look at her, hollow eyes meeting ones brimming with tears.

It’s hard to breathe and it’s harder to think, impossible to apply logic to horror reserved for the pitch abysm of nightmares. He tries to tear his eyes away, but he can’t, not when she’s watching him, mouth parted as though to speak. She will never utter another word again, secrets taken with her beyond the grave. Ritsu squeezes his eyes shut and curls up, back against the steps behind him, burying his face into his knees. Her afterimage chases him behind his closed eyelids, feet pounding against the stone steps in time to his heartbeat.

“Ritsu!”

Only, when he looks up—it’s not Tasuki he sees, but Reigen.

Seven o clock. On the dot.

He pushes himself off the steps and Reigen races to catch him when he stumbles forward, little hands curling against the collar of his shirt, hiccupping with the tears he hadn’t realized he was holding back. He recognizes that Reigen’s arms are curling around him, but thinks of little else but the girl behind them.

“She—she—Tasuki—”

“I know. I see her. I know, Ritsu.”

He tries to raise his head, to look past Reigen’s broad shoulder to meet her eyes again, but Reigen pulls him into his chest. “Don’t look. Don’t, not anymore.”

“But she—”

“She’s gone.”

For it to be said aloud cuts—it digs into his chest and drags out another wail from him, agony rippling through the air. Disbelief, dread, the antithesis of aporphine all one wave, crashing into him and pulling him down under. He sags against Reigen’s chest, shuddering with sobs. He barely registers the ground moving underneath his feet as Reigen pulls him away from the scene, carrying him down the stone steps.

There’s something to be said for Reigen’s fortitude. He coaxes Ritsu into sitting down and wraps his jacket around his shoulders, showing no sign of his own distress, no signals that anything is wrong at all. He makes a phone call, all while rubbing soothing circles into Ritsu’s back until his sobs palter, settling into quiet hiccups. The entire time, Ritsu doesn’t let go of the front of his shirt. It’s only when he hears the distant cry of sirens that he releases him, startled. Reigen snaps his phone shut and Ritsu looks up at him for an explanation. He doesn’t even need to ask for Reigen to understand.

“I called it in when I heard you scream. I didn’t know—I couldn’t have… but I had a bad feeling.” Reigen’s shoulders slump and he heaves a defeated sigh. “I just finished filling Serizawa in, so he’s relayed the situation to the other officers, but still, they’re going to ask you a lot of questions.” Another sigh, another ragged, exhausted glance toward the street. “This looks bad on my part.”

Ritsu’s throat works around speech, tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth. He swallows. “What are we going to do?” It comes out a croak.

 “We don’t know each other, if they ask. I heard the scream, and I called it in. I came and found you here. Simple, right?”

Ritsu nods. On the street below them, several police cruisers come to a screeching halt, the sound of car doors slamming echoing up the hill.

“Ah. Shit, that’s right—give me your phone.”

Ritsu fumbles to obey, extending it with a shaking hand. An ambulance comes to a wailing halt on the street, and the phone disappears into Reigen’s jacket.

“I’ll give it back to you when they’re done taking your statement. They’ll take your clothes, or at least swab them, since…”

Reigen pauses, and Ritsu finally looks down at his hands, finding them caked with dried blood. From the coat, he realizes—the blood is sticky on his fingertips, smears of it extending to Reigen’s collar. Ritsu feels a putrid loathing gurgle up his throat, nausea surging back with a vengeance.

“I’m sorry,” He blurts. “Your shirt…”

“What, this?” Reigen scoffs. “Nothing bleach won’t fix. You always worry about others first, huh?” He ruffles his hair, and Ritsu’s anticipatory thrill of anger goes nowhere, instead dwindling into quiet loathing.

“This is my fault,” He murmurs, voice small. Over the approaching din of the officers and paramedics below, it nearly fades away with the breeze. “It's my fault that this happened.”

“Where’d you get that from?” Reigen asks, tone chiding. “Tasuki wasn’t your responsibility.”

“But I… I was the one who called her here.”

“That’s not true. You—ah, shit. Hold on.”

Reigen is cut off by the approach of the paramedics—he stands from Ritsu’s side and points them in the right direction. It won’t take them long to assess the situation. One of them stays with Ritsu, kneeling at his side, asking questions he drowns out to better focus on Reigen and the approaching swell of officers. A detective strides up to Reigen, immediately chiding him.

“… what have you gotten yourself caught up in?” Ritsu recognizes him as Serizawa—big, stupid, oafish, but not unkind.

Reigen gives a quiet laugh. “The coincidences just aren’t stacking in my favor,” He says, sheepishly gesturing to Ritsu. “He’s the one who found the body.”

“Ah…” Serizawa meets Ritsu’s eyes over the top of the paramedics’ head, and averts his gaze. He steps into Reigen’s space, whispering under his breath.

“—cuse me,” The paramedic repeats herself, regaining Ritsu’s attention. “Is this blood yours?”

He looks down at his hands, stomach lurching with nausea. “No,” Ritsu stammers, struck with the cold, just then. His teeth chatter together, and he pulls Reigen’s coat tight around him. “No.”

She questions him and checks his pulse, nodding her head after every one-word response. His attention is again drawn by the men surrounding Reigen, a third added to their party.

Ignoring her protests, he stands from the step on shaking legs, approaching the two detectives. They seem to be preoccupied with this third person—someone he doesn’t recognize, but whose voice rises over the din of busy policework.

“…a great time, at any rate. Makes the drive worthwhile.”

“Hanazawa-san—from Tokyo, right?” Reigen sticks out a hand for the man to shake. “Reigen Arataka. Thanks for coming down.”

“I couldn’t refuse,” He takes Reigen’s hand, giving him a firm shake. “What a beautiful start to the day. I can’t wait to get a better look at her.”

Ritsu’s teeth chatter together, and for a moment, all he sees is red.

“It’s not a side show,” He blurts, and the three men turn to look at him, bewildered. “How could you say something so cruel?”

The detective raises his eyebrows, not fazed in the least. “Hey, Seri-chan? This is the kid that found the body, right?”

Serizawa opens his mouth, looking between the two. “I—yes. According to Reigen-san, he—”

“I’ll want to question him after I’m done here. It looks like the paramedics cleared him, so go take him to a car, okay?”

A dead silence follows the command as it rings across the grounds. The nearby officers share worried glances before erupting into murmurs. Ritsu doesn’t understand the hierarchy in its entirety, but he has a feeling a line has just been crossed.

Serizawa doesn’t balk, nodding senselessly. He’s either forgiving or stupid—but more likely is that he can’t quite believe it, defaulting to polite acceptance. “Ah, um… okay—”

“That’s not necessary,” Reigen interrupts, flinging a hand out to stop Serizawa. His lips thin into a tight look of disapproval, directed toward the new detective. “I’ll go, instead. You two should hurry along.”

Serizawa turns his wide-eyed, deer in the headlights look over to Reigen. “But—”

“No, I insist,” With a swivel of his polished heel, he turns to Ritsu, gesturing he come closer. He sweeps the boy under his arm. “Come, Kageyama-kun. This’ll be settled in no time.”

They head down the stone steps, and neither Serizawa or the fresh-faced detective try to stop them. Down the first set of stairs, Ritsu hears Hanazawa’s voice drop into a hissing whisper, carrying across the grounds.

“What’s up with that guy, taking charge… he’s just a lower ranking patrol officer, isn’t he? He’s not even on the case.”

Serizawa’s muted response falls on deaf ears. Like the heavy cogs of a machine clunking against each other, a missing piece falls into place and sends the machination running. Their voices fade into the background along with the hustle and bustle of police activity, Reigen leading him far down the block to a patrol car. He calls for an officer to take Ritsu, and they wait alone together. Reigen fusses with the coat slung around Ritsu’s shoulders, tugging it closer to his collar.

“Ritsu? I’m going to stay on scene for as long as I possibly can to figure all of this out.”

“You lied to me,” Ritsu croaks.

Reigen’s hand falls from his shoulder. He crouches in front of him to speak to him at eye level, and while that would be an infuriating patronization any other day, Ritsu can’t drudge up the anger needed to combat the tiny injustice.

“Don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying,” Ritsu hiccups, using his sleeve to wipe the tears away. “Why? After I decided to trust you…”

“Bear with me here. What’s the alternative? Me refusing to help you?”

Ritsu sniffs, feeling little, a pathetic child unable to do anything, and all alone in that. Reigen smiles at him, eyes tired. “I don’t let stuff like rank stop me.”

Ritsu averts his gaze, unable to bear the outpouring of warmth from the older man.

“I wish I could send you home. I don’t know what that guy is thinking. We usually take a statement from witnesses, so this is overkill. If I’m not around and it gets to be too much, just beg to go home—you can fake tears pretty well, if I recall correctly.” His smile quirks with a teasing overture, and Ritsu scowls, fussing with the wet edge of his sleeve.

“… don’t make me wait,” he says, and Reigen agrees with a nod.

“I won’t.”

 

When the detectives finally return from the crime scene, the station is in a state of alarm. Phones ring off the hook with potential leads and eyewitnesses calling to help their investigatory efforts, and somewhere in the maze of station walls, Ritsu is waiting to give his statement. Reigen’s skin crawls with apprehension, but he isn’t set to work at his desk, allowed to take said statement, or told to go home. Instead, Hanazawa Teruki fights tooth and nail to have him detained as a suspect.

Stripped of his belongings—badge, gun and holster sitting on a tray on the table—he stands between a nervous but defiant Serizawa and Hanazawa, who practically spits with outrage.

“Tell me you don’t find him even a little bit suspicious.”

“I don’t find Reigen-san suspicious at all. You’re not putting one of our reliable officers into a cell.”

“That’s why this case is still ongoing. The culprit is right under your nose, but you’re too proud to look.”

“Reigen-san is not being added to the suspect list,” Serizawa snaps, rising from his defensive hunch to his full height, crowding into Hanazawa’s space. The smaller man retreats with disgust, evident on his features. “I’m the head of this investigation, and you’re a consultant. Please don’t misunderstand your place.”

“You’re not even going to consider what I’m saying?”

“Because you’re suggesting we treat everyone like a criminal,” Serizawa booms, crossing his arms over his chest. Reigen thanks the gods for one good thing: Serizawa is on his side. “You’ve detained Kageyama-kun—a victim—on top of everything else. I allowed you to do as you liked on the field, but don’t you think you’re pushing your luck?”

“Meet me in the middle, then. Keep his badge and gun. Take his phone, let me look through it. Search him, at the least. If you can’t consider my suggestion—”

“Fine,” Serizawa snaps his mouth shut, muscles in his jaw twitching. It’s rare to see the older man so worked up, and Reigen is thankful he’s never been on his opposing side. After hours of biting his tongue, he can’t blame him for finally snapping—it’d taken less than half an hour spent in Hanazawa’s presence before he began to show the signs of his frustration.

Reigen heaves a sigh and sits at the table, tossing his wallet onto the tray beside his other belongings, having been stripped of his identification as an officer. The missing weight of his gun at his side disconcerts him, and having his badge taken is insult upon injury—but what concerns him more is the potential loss of his phone, and the incriminating information on it.

“I’m sorry, Reigen-san,” Serizawa turns to give Reigen a bow, Hanazawa rolling his eyes behind his back. “Could you hand over your cellphone as well? I would rather not do this, but if it eases Hanazawa-san’s doubts—”

“It’s alright, Serizawa. Don’t apologize. I understand where he’s coming from. I’d be suspicious of me, too,” He says, smile infatuating—charming even, silver tongue glinting in the low light. “But is it necessary? I don’t understand what you’d even be looking for, if I handed it over. And something so informal is…”

“Telling you defeats the purpose,” Hanazawa cocks his hip, lip twisting with derision. “The longer you hold on to it, the worse you look.”

Reigen feels hot around the collar. He clears his throat, thinking over his options. Refusal won’t look good, not when Serizawa has given up the fight—and attempting to weasel away won’t work when Hanazawa is intent on biting through his neck until his teeth meet. He knows what his texting history looks like. He knows he mentioned the shrine. He knows that, irrefutably and inevitably, Hanazawa will question him—and unlike Serizawa, big, soft, kind Serizawa with a heart of gold—he’ll bring his suspicions to the higher ups and tear down he and Ritsu’s sandcastle like a snot-faced toddler out for blood.

This situation is the one he wanted to avoid the most. He might lose his job. He will most certainly lose contact with Ritsu. They’ll be done in by Hanazawa and Reigen can’t fight it beyond grimacing as he sets his phone down on the table, praying that the texts and the phone calls go unnoticed. The two of them might be able to reason with him, but he doubts it—he can only bank on his persistent tongue and Serizawa’s rank.

Within a few short strides, Hanazawa is snatching up the phone. He flips it open with a click of his tongue, as though impatient it took so long—though it took less than half a second for Reigen to mull over his oncoming demise.

Judging by his slack-jawed expression, Serizawa is astonished—but Reigen is not. It’s already been made clear to him that the teen doesn’t know what manners are.

“Hanazawa-san. Please, that’s rude…” 

“Rude,” Hanazawa scoffs, flipping his hair over his shoulder. “When I’m investigating a murder case, manners are the least of my concern. Limitations like those are what separates us.”

Reigen leans back in his chair, taking that statement in.

Prick.

“Don’t blame me for anything you see if you look through my e-mail. I’d rather a kid not dig through my personal information, but…” He shrugs, hoping he isn’t being transparent. He hopes to redirect his attention away from his text history. “You come recommended by the NPA, so I guess I can’t complain.”

Hanazawa shows no outward response other than the tightening of his smile. "Senior officers like yourselves always underestimate me and say it’s because I’m young, but I’m betting it’s because you’re insecure about your own incompetence,” He clicks through the phone’s settings at breakneck speeds, and Reigen wonders if he ever mentioned Ritsu by name. “My clearance rate is triple both of yours combined—ah, wait,” He looks up from Reigen’s cellphone. “You’re not even a detective, so… really, you can’t even compare us.”

“I suppose not,” Reigen returns the strained smile, doubting that he has any skill to back his claims. Hanazawa is a presumptuous, arrogant brat: Reigen’s hesitant respect for him flew out the window when upon inspecting Tasuki’s corpse, he muttered a comment about her having been “cleaned out by the fucking birds”.

Serizawa heaves a sigh, running a hand through his hair. “You know you can’t say that kind of stuff, right…?”

“It’s the truth,” He chirps, focused on Reigen’s cell. “Wow, this is sad. The last person who e-mailed you was your mom? I bet you don’t even have any friends. Is that why you’re so desperate to get on the case?”

Hanazawa,” Serizawa thunders, one final warning. The younger detective looks up, startled, and his smile falters at the glowering looks being directed at him from the two corners of the room.

“It’s a joke!” Hanazawa hides his mouth behind his fingers as he gives an airy, artificial laugh. “I really do respect my senpais in the workplace, okay? I’m only seventeen, so let me have some fun.”

Reigen shares a look with Serizawa and the retort burning on the tip of his tongue dies. They drop it not just because they’re decades older, but because Hanazawa is a consultant gifted to them from the NPA. It doesn’t stop Reigen from fantasizing about smacking him upside the head.

“Okay, done!” With an upbeat grin, he hands Reigen’s cell back to him. “Luckily, you’re just as boring as you look, Reigen. I didn’t find anything interesting. Not even any dirty texts.”

“Am I boring? That’s a relief.” Perturbed, Reigen takes his cellphone back, wondering how the texts went unnoticed when he was certain they were damning. He supposes his surprise must show on his face, because Hanazawa laughs at him.

“What’s that face for? Did I miss something?”

“No,” he shrugs, playing it off with a haphazard grin. “Just shocked you didn’t comment on my spam folder.”

Hanazawa’s smile falls flat as he rolls his eyes, and Reigen privately wonders how he missed it, or if he’s simply missing a piece of the puzzle.

“At any rate, I should probably go question that kid.”

“Take his statement, you mean,” Reigen corrects.

“Yeah, whatever. You’re free to go.”

Hanazawa gathers up the case files and his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. He opens the door, and with a final parting wave, heads off into the labyrinth of interrogation rooms, turning down a hallway and out of sight.

Alone with Serizawa, Reigen can finally breathe easy. Slouching in his chair, he puts a hand over his eyes, groaning. “I need a cigarette.”

“I’m worried about Kageyama-kun,” Serizawa admits. “There are camera feeds for the interrogation rooms, so I’m going to head down there now. You can come w—”

“I will,” Exhaustion forgotten, Reigen jumps out of his chair and slides his holster back on, tucking his badge back into the front pocket of his shirt. “We need to be there if he decides to bully Ritsu into saying something he doesn’t mean. The kid’s got a temper on him.”

“I guess you’d know,” Serizawa murmurs, following behind him and into the swarm of activity in the station’s hallways. “How deep does your relationship go…?”

“It’s complicated,” Reigen says, striding down the halls and taking a turn into the security department. “Now isn’t the best time to get into it. Why don’t you tell me about Hanazawa, instead? I know I’m the one who dragged him out here, but all I’ve heard are rumors.”

“He’s popular,” Serizawa shrugs, a step ahead of him. “He does a lot of television. Radio, too. Ah, and he’s an idol.”

Reigen absorbs that quietly. His ego might have a backing. “So, he’s a sensationalist. Is this it?” He pauses in front of a door, glancing up at the room number.

“Yeah,” Serizawa steps past Reigen to open the door, leading them into a room packed tight with monitors, all receiving different camera feeds. It’s not difficult locating the one they need—Hanazawa’s purple suit sticks out, a splash of color amongst the grey and black slacks.

“An idol, huh… from the way he acts, guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Reigen closes the door behind them to ensure their privacy, and Serizawa flips the audio channel on. They both sit to watch.

On the screen, Hanazawa stands across from Ritsu, who sits with hands clasped politely in front of him. He seems unmoved, expression as stony as the day they met, but with Reigen’s jacket still wrapped around his thin shoulders he looks frail.

“… to make you wait for so long. You must be tired after everything—I imagine you never suspected this would happen.”

Ritsu stares at Hanazawa, blank faced. “Have we met before?”

Hanazawa laughs, taken aback. “No, I don’t think we have. You might recognize me from somewhere, though.”

“In that case, where?”

The detective outright ignores his question. “This’ll be easy, so don’t be nervous. I’m just going to ask you a few questions, okay? Nothing to be intimidated by.”

“I’m not intimidated.”

“Of course not… so, then…”

Reigen narrows his eyes, dragging a hand over his chin. “He’s treating Ritsu like a suspect. His attitude is starting to get on my nerves.”

“I disagree with his methods, but… the boss trusts him. His reputation is good, and he’s got a big name.”

Reigen chokes on a very dry, sardonic laugh, exasperated. “Yeah, yeah. I don’t care if he’s some superstar idol. That doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“I don’t mean that,” Serizawa frowns, fidgeting sheepishly. “He’s solved a lot of cold cases.”

“What, you mean on prime-time television, in front of a live studio audience? I don’t buy that charade at all,” Reigen grouches, dragging a chair over to sit down in front of the monitors. “This guy clearly isn’t interested in helping anyone.”

“You think so?” Serizawa glances from Reigen to the screen, as though trying to discern as much for himself. “He’s stuck up, sure, but…”

“He’s doing this for himself. He wants attention—badges, awards to hang on the wall. I’ve dealt with this type before. Haven’t you? I mean, you worked for a huge organization before you started working for the NPA, right?”

“Ah, yeah, but… most of those people were at least a little bit eccentric.”

“Geez,” Reigen smothers a sigh with his palm. “I still don’t get why you left.”

“What about yourself? You’re smart. You could have done anything else.”

“Me? Ah, for one reason or another, I just ended up here…”

That doesn’t seem to have been the answer Serizawa was looking for. He sighs, dejected, returning his attention to the fluorescent glow of the screen. “I just wanted work I could be proud of.”

Reigen considers that. Work he can be proud of, huh. Reigen wonders what he was thinking when he chose this path. He can’t seem to remember. He returns his attention to the ongoing interrogation.

“—go to the shrine today, Kageyama-kun?”

“I just wanted to get out of the house.”

“So early in the day? First thing, before school? It looks to me like you were going there to meet someone.”

Ritsu visibly tenses. Hanazawa holds his gaze for a beat before he drops his eyes down at the statement papers in front of him. “What happened when you arrived? Be as detailed as you can.”

“I headed up to pray, and I found her. Her—her coat, first, then her.”

Hanazawa writes something down, and then sighs, pressing the cap of his pen to his lower lip. “Before today, have you ever met the man who found you—patrol officer Reigen?”

“Ah… no.”

“Did anything he do strike you as suspicious?”

“What? No… you don’t suspect him, do you?”

Reigen sits back in his chair, hand over his eyes.

“Even if I suspected him, that’s not something I can tell you,” Hanazawa says it like it’s a matter of fact and it is, as they’re not allowed to divulge that kind of information. It’s not meant to incite a response, but he doesn’t need that to rile Ritsu up. Reigen knows as much from firsthand experience. “It’s just a little weird, how the coincidences line up. Anyway—”

“Coincidences?”

“… well, yeah. That man is involved with some shady stuff. Still, that’s not something you need to worry about. It’s tragic enough that you’re any part of this…” Here, Hanazawa puts on the dramatics, leaning back with a hand over his heart, sigh melodic. “How terrible. I commend you for remaining so calm throughout all of this. Have you ever given a statement to the police before?”

“Just once, when my brother went missing.”

“How sad… they still haven’t found him, huh? That Shigeo.”

Ritsu’s unease bleeds through his expression, seeping out across the table. Hanazawa scents it like a bloodhound, nose pressed to the ground.

“What’s that face for? Don’t tell me I’ve touched a nerve.”

“… no.”

“Hmm. I was going to apologize for bringing it up, but I suppose that’s not necessary.”

Serizawa turns to look at Reigen, and they stare each other down, neither of them voicing what is now abundantly clear to them: Hanazawa knows.

“… by the way, did your parents know you left the house?”

“No. I didn’t tell them.”

Hanazawa spins the pen in his hand, pausing to scribble into the sheet in front of him. “Kind of dangerous, don’t you think? Considering that your brother is missing, and a bunch of kids have been found dead around your neighborhood, I would have thought a smart kid like you would be on high alert.”

Reigen can’t tell through the thin grime of static on the screen, but he thinks Ritsu must be sweating. “Is that all for today? I want to go home, I’m tired.”

“That’s too bad, Kageyama. Just give me a few more minutes of your time, okay? Hold on a sec.”

Hanazawa stands from the table, chair screeching. Somehow—perplexingly, unnervingly—he’s looking toward the camera, eyes piercing through the feed. He approaches the camera, and with a knowing grin, reaches up—

And the feed goes black.

Reigen’s chair clatters to the ground as he flies to his feet, grabbing Serizawa by the elbow to steer him out of the door.

“We’re going down there. Now.

 

 

In the interrogation room, Hanazawa stretches the stiffness from his muscles, joints in his back popping. He heaves a deeply relieved sigh and leans against the table. “Much better. I hate the sensation of being watched, you know? I can’t work like that.”

“Did you not hear me? I want to go home.”

Hanazawa continues talking as if he hadn’t heard him. “You said you knew Tasuki as a classmate, so I want to know if you can think of why someone might want to hurt her.”

Ritsu looks up from his hands. “You aren’t serious. Someone’s been abducting and murdering girls. I don’t see why she wouldn’t become a target.”

“That’s not what I asked,” Hanazawa sighs, hand working at the back of his neck. “I asked if you knew anyone who might want to hurt her. Someone with a grudge?”

Ah.

He looks back down into his lap and swallows the swell of nausea rising in his throat. “No. I don’t have a clue about anyone like that.”

“I guess you wouldn’t. You two weren’t friends, after all. Not close at all, not like you and that cop.”

Ritsu pales, numbness sweeping over him. After waiting for hours on end with hands coated sticky with blood, he can’t think of a way to combat this attack—not when the memories are still fresh in his mind, shut lids bringing forth the images he knows he won’t be able to forget.

Hanazawa claps his hands together. “Ah, I hit the mark! You and Reigen were supposed to meet up this morning, but I can’t tell what it would have been for. Let me guess: was it a playdate?”

Ritsu feels cold. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” He hangs his head, hiding his expression in his bangs. “I just want to go home.”

Tap, tap, tap—Hanazawa drums his fingers across the surface of the table as he circles closer, leaning into Ritsu’s space to whisper. “You picked the wrong game to play.”

“It’s not a game!” Ritsu snaps, rising from his chair with a shriek of metal on tile, slapping his palms onto the table. Hanazawa smiles, delight wolfish, appetite sated with the unintentional admission.

“Ah. Is that so.”

The door bangs open and Hanazawa lurches back into place, putting himself a respectable distance away from Ritsu.

“Hey, time’s up. His parents are demanding his release. We’ve got no reason to hold him, so I’m sending him home.”

“Oh, you are?” Hanazawa asks, amused, but daring.

Ritsu looks up across the table to where Reigen stands in the doorway, and further still, Serizawa.

“No, I am,” The taller man says, stepping past Reigen and into Hanazawa’s space. “You’ve kept him here long enough.”

The other detective hesitates for a moment before assenting under Reigen and Serizawa’s combined glare—miraculously, he turns to offer Ritsu a stiff smile. “How sad! You heard what the man said. Looks like play time’s over. Thanks for cooperating.”

Ritsu forces a calm, fighting the urge to bolt. Hanazawa doesn’t say anything when he sweeps past him, and Ritsu doesn’t look back, having no desire to speak to him further.

Reigen leads him through the hallways until they enter a vacant office, Serizawa splitting up from them along the way. He closes the door behind them with a click.

“I’m sorry I made you wait—"

“My parents,” Ritsu says. They’re alone again and he has questions, things he needs to know, explanations to soothe his soul. But the words don’t come—he can’t scrounge together the sense to ask. He’s very tired. He would like to rest. “Where are they?”

“They’re on their way,” Reigen presses something into his hand—his cellphone, he realizes. “I brought you here to buy us some time. What did Hanazawa say to you after he cut the camera feed?”

Ritsu stares down at the phone. The plastic creaks underneath his white knuckled grip.

“Ritsu?”

“Nothing,” he breathes, fears caged in his lungs and swallowed whole, given away to time. Like apparitions faced with the day, Ritsu retreats. “He just complained about having to take my statement, that’s all.”

“That’s it…?”

In the absence of words, Ritsu takes off Reigen’s coat, holding it up for him to take. “That’s it. Thank you.”

A half beat of silence, one minute of fidgeting hesitation—twenty to get dressed, fifteen to get to the shrine, and less for his world to invert.

Reigen takes his coat back. The sun begins to set.

“… alright.”

 

 

The drive back home is quiet but for the hum of the engine and the click of the turn signal. His parents let him doze in the backseat and when they arrive home, they don’t force him to sit at the kitchen table to talk. For once his mother acquiesces with a silent stare, watching as he throws his shoes into the closet and dumps his book bag in the entrance way.

Upstairs in the bathroom, Ritsu listens to the faint bustle of activity as his mother prepares supper downstairs. He can’t recognize the person staring back at him in the mirror, the bags under his eyes ghostly, the flaking bits of blood a macabre print against his cheek. As the shower runs, the room fills with steam, fogging up the glass.

The water is hot. Scalding, even. But the heat helps blanket the sensation of blood on his palms, gritty and pungent, reeking of copper—it purifies him with every burnt nerve. He scrubs himself until his palms are smarting and raw, until his skin stings pink and red from the heat and the pressure, and even then it’s not enough, he still doesn’t feel clean.

The water cools eventually, and so he turns the tap to stem the flow, standing there dripping until his mother knocks at the door, telling him dinner is ready.

“I’m not hungry.”

“… we’ll pack it away for you. You can eat whenever you like, but you have to eat.”

She leaves, he dresses. The towel he rubs against his hair is too soft and too white, too kind for him. When he enters his room, he finds she’d folded his dirty clothing and set his phone on top of the pile. He can’t summon exasperation, nor can he will the fear in his heart to action. She found a cellphone she had never bought him only to leave it untouched and without comment. Ritsu hopes she understands, but then he concludes that she must, for this to have been left for him. Be it fate, fear, or blind ignorance—he’s been left alone.

He doesn’t touch it, just lays down in bed. He watches the clock on his desk as the evening dwindles into night, the room falling to darkness as the sun slips away. His mother and father move quietly through their routine, heading into bed without uttering a word to him, not even a goodnight.

Ritsu is beginning to fall asleep when his phone chimes. It’s a message from Reigen, he doesn’t doubt. Nothing in him wants to talk to the man—he simply doesn’t have the energy to indulge him. But when he sits up and flips open his phone, the message doesn’t appear under Reigen’s name. Curiosity renewed, he clicks through and opens it. There’s no number attached.

 

Unknown

Meet me at the wharfs at midnight.

Come alone.

If you tell anyone, I’ll know.

We have something to discuss.

 

Ritsu checks the time. Ten fifty. He moves without thought, reason or sanity, dialing Reigen’s number with a calculated calm. He knows what he must do, inspiration blinding, fears discarded for a higher path. He’s sick of being weak, and he’s sick of relying on other people.

“—something up?”

“Reigen-san,” He says, faking a sniff, a sob. To better the act, he hiccups. “Can you come pick me up? Please?”

Hesitant silence meets his ears, the static chirruping with the background sigh of passing cars. Reigen must be on his way home or out on a smoke break.

You can fake tears pretty well.

“… what’s wrong, Ritsu? Are you at home—”

“I had a nightmare… I don’t want to be alone. Please.”

“… alright. I’ll be there shortly. Promise me you'll wait inside though, alright?”

Ten fifty-three. Changes comes on a dime: all he needs is a few seconds to turn the world on its head.

“Yeah,” Ritsu smiles, the tears cascading down his cheeks all too real. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

When Ritsu calls Reigen, he’s outside his apartment smoking.

The tears are unexpected of him, but at the same time they’re nothing to be surprised by. Ritsu is young. After suffering through a great deal of stress, a nightmare at his age is predictable. The memories will surface at the most inopportune times and it’s inevitable they spoil his slumber. He knows witnesses suffer a great deal in the wake of trauma, he’s dealt with too many victims not to. But as he listens to the boy cry and choke back sobs, his mind goes blank.

It’s been a long day and an even longer night, and exhaustion has rendered him devoid of thought. For a moment, he doesn’t know what to say. Reigen knows that none of this is his fault. There’s no way he could have predicted Ritsu would lie about the meeting time, and he couldn’t have guessed the shrine would serve as the dumping grounds for Tasuki’s body. But he wishes he could done something to stop it.

Maybe he’s tired. If not for his exhaustion, he would assume the blame lay on others and detach himself from the situation entirely, but that’s not who he is anymore. Tasuki is dead and Ritsu will never forget it and he hates that. He hates that he had to see it, and he hates even more that he’s entrenched himself so deeply into this investigation that he feels anything at all about something that is more simple misfortune than anything.

Reigen doesn’t often give in when he has reservations, but guilt is a powerful driving force. Obligations motivate through their sheer necessity. And what is this, other than an obligation?

Ritsu needs him.

He snuffs the lit end of his cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe and climbs into his car.

As he squints to see the road through the darkness he’s reminded just how dumb of a decision this is. His eyesight has grown significantly worse over the years and driving during the night is a pain. The streetlights and stoplights are distracting blurs that burn up his peripheral, giving him tunnel vision. He drives slower than he otherwise would—for the sake of safety, he tells himself, deliberation and not hesitation.

He turns onto Ritsu’s street and his pulse flutters, fingers fidgeting on the wheel, inhibitions making him think twice. Coming here is irresponsible—if either of them are caught, then it’s over for them—but his absence causes devastation, as was proven today. He needs to be there for him, even if only to soothe away the remnants of a night terror.

Reigen parks outside, taking a glance down at his watch. It’s eleven o clock exactly. When he looks back up, Ritsu is half way down the drive, having been waiting inside as instructed. He unlocks the passenger side and Ritsu slips inside, the moonlight trailing in after him, a halo of light silhouetting him in a ghostly glow. He slams the door behind him.

“A nightmare, huh?”

Ritsu nods, securing the seatbelt over his front with a click. “… yeah.”

He won’t ask what it was about.

Reigen shifts the car into gear and they leave Ritsu’s street behind, driving aimlessly. The silence drapes cold over his shoulders, whispering poison into his ear, intrusive thoughts seeping sluggishly through his mind—stress and apprehension bundling up into a tight knot that he forces himself to swallow down, knuckles white against the steering wheel. He thinks too much, sometimes, and he runs his mouth on end, but he can’t think of anything to say right now. The silence goes on uninterrupted but for the hum of the car’s engine, muffler rumbling.

Reigen can do a lot of things, but he can’t turn back time.

“How are you feeling?” He asks, falling back on the tried and trusted strategy he usually uses—how are you, how do you feel, what do you need, what do you want, what can I do for you. Consoling people is a part of his job and he’s never found it difficult before now, but as he runs rehearsed comforts through his head, he can’t help but find them inadequate. His veneer of smooth geniality is a flimsy security and realizing that now makes him stumble with his words. “You must be exhausted,” He says, hoping to banish the lingering silence. He jerks the wheel a little too sharply as he steers them down a well-lit street and Ritsu looks over at him, jostled by the sudden movement. Reigen continues to sweat.

“I feel sick,” Ritsu eventually admits, hand curling up in his shirt, shoulders hunched up—he looks frail and thin, and god, Reigen’s chest aches. “My stomach hurts.”

“Have you eaten?” He asks, and this is automatic too, assessing the damage so he can figure out what to do, so he can help him pick up the pieces. Slapping a band aid over his wounds won’t stop him from bleeding out, but this is only first aid, the fix desperately temporary. “We’ll stop by a convenience store and I’ll get you something.”

Ritsu seems discomforted by the kindness, giving a small shake of his head. “It’s fine. I have food at home.” But his stomach groans then, making him flush with embarrassment.

“See? It’s not fine. I’m guessing you haven’t eaten since this morning. You’ll waste away if you don’t get something in your stomach.”

Ritsu presses his lips into a thin line, dropping his eyes into his lap. He doesn’t try to argue further.

Reigen drives them to the nearest store, guided by the beacon of the fluorescent neon signs. He tells Ritsu to stay put but keeps the car running, unlocking the back door to grab his jacket where he’d left it and his holster. He rifles through his pockets, muttering to himself as he searches for his wallet and finally locates it. He heads into the store.

He doesn’t want to linger very long, but he zones out in front of prepackaged meals, staring dazedly at the different varieties of onigiri and sushi, sashimi and rice, overwhelmed by the abundance of choice. He doesn’t know where to begin—what does Ritsu like, anyways? Children often have an affinity for sweets, and he won’t be able to eat anything heavy. As Reigen peruses the pastries, he wonders what kind of meals Ritsu’s mother cooks for him at home—if he has favorites, or if he’s picky with his food like Reigen used to be.

Thinking of it now, he realizes he’s a little envious of him. Reigen doesn’t have the time to cook for himself, so he ends up eating cheap takeout and fast food most days. It’s strange he hasn’t put on weight, but he supposes stress is like a disease, in that—it eats for him, a parasite sitting in the pit of his stomach, gnawing on him from the inside out.

His wandering gaze catches on the sweet bread, and he reflects on who he is now, on change. He was a real brat as a kid and always complained about what his mother made for dinner, favoring stew to soup, and beef to chicken. The times she cooked too much curry and left them to eat the leftovers for every meal until it was gone were the times Reigen hated the most, and he wasn’t quiet about how he felt. To cleanse his palate, he often snuck away to the store and bought sweet bread and melon soda. It was a forbidden treat he enjoyed on his walks to school, and the secrecy made it taste even better.

Almost in a trance, Reigen picks up the sweet bread and then melon soda. The simple sight of them brings a wave of nostalgia to burn at the back of his throat, and he swallows belatedly, glancing around the empty store. Ritsu and he aren’t so different—they’re as similar as they are dissimilar, neither conforming to expectations or standards, combating each other like oil and water.

Reigen thinks he knows Ritsu, but he doesn’t have a fucking clue. Not about anything.

Sweet bread and melon soda will have to do—if he nabs a pack of cigarettes for himself, then he’ll happily blame the mechanics of habit.

He tosses a wad of cash onto the counter and accepts the bagged items, fidgeting and nervous, impatience renewed. He realizes he’s been a lot longer than he’d hoped to be and he’s discomforted with having left Ritsu alone. He hurries from the store, frantic to beat down the anxiety thrumming through his veins.

He finds Ritsu exactly where he’d left him in the car, parked in the back of the lot. More patient than himself, he sits with hands clasped together in his lap, giving a glance toward Reigen as he opens the car door. The older man can’t suppress a shaky exhale, relieved to see him, scared he might disappeared into the night—stolen away—gone without a trace.

“You were in there a while. What did you get?” Ritsu peers at him curiously as he settles back into his seat, rifling through the bag as the boy watches. He stashes the cigarettes into his breast pocket, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. “Smokes?” He utters in disbelief, disgust evident.

“Relax, I’m not going to light any around you,” He says, handing Ritsu the can of melon soda. He takes it, and then the bread Reigen passes him. “I was just guessing when I picked this stuff up, but… do you like sweet things?” He asks, and Ritsu blinks at him owlishly before peering down at what he’s been given, suitably distracted.

“I don’t mind them,” He answers, quiet, unwrapping the bread and taking a bite. He chews with consideration—he considers everything, deliberately measured and precise. They’re alike in that way. He makes the conscious decision to look at Reigen and say, “It’s tasty. I haven’t had this kind before.”

“You’ve been missing out,” Reigen tries out a smile, and it’s weary but it’s genuine. “I used to love mixing soda and sweets, as a kid.”

“And you don’t anymore?” Ritsu asks, tearing off a chunk of the bread and stuffing it into his mouth—although he claimed not to be hungry, he’s clearly ravenous, scarfing back the food quickly. He cracks the tab of the soda and takes a sip, eyes glued on Reigen, prompting a flustered response.

“It reminds me of when I was a kid,” he admits. “I guess… I haven’t had it in a long time.”

Crumbs falling off his face, Ritsu tilts his head.

“It’s nothing—anyways, don’t eat so fast. It’s not going anywhere.”

Ritsu chews slowly, giving a careful sip of the drink. He’s strangely obedient tonight. “I feel like this is something my parents warned me about.”

“Huh? What is?”

Ritsu makes a face. “Never mind.”

Reigen’s tired mind catches up with him. “Was that a joke?” He grins lazily, leaning back in his seat. Ritsu rolls his eyes, and that’s normal, the bratty petulance familiar to them both. He relaxes incrementally, slouching in his seat. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“I guess,” Ritsu gives a casual shrug, finishing off the bread with a final sip of the drink, dusting himself off. “You should go back to eating sweets instead of smoking. It stinks in here.”

Bemused, Reigen gives him a pointed stare—a lecture now, really?—and then gives the air a sniff. “Does it? I can’t smell a thing.”

“Only because you’re used to it,” Ritsu berates him, and then sighs, exasperated. “It’s a bad habit.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Reigen gives a nonchalant shrug, settling comfortably into abashment, throwing Ritsu a lopsided smile as he tugs his seatbelt over his chest. He would combat the lecture with a preemptive scolding of his own—he’s tempted to tell Ritsu to eat more often, maybe, to take care of himself—but he figures he deserves it, and lets it go. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

Ritsu dithers on a response before dropping it, eyes and hands falling to his lap. Reigen could press him for more and get him to open with pitiless prying, but he lacks eloquence in his exhaustion and can’t caution the charade. Frankly, he doesn’t have any desire to. Ritsu is clearly tired.

“It’s late,” Reigen says, glancing at the clock. “I’ll take you back home.”

Ritsu doesn’t protest and he’s quiet during the drive back, but he makes no move to leave when they come to a stop in front of his house. Reigen intends to hurry him along, but when he turns to face him and he finds him fidgeting, picking at the edge of his sleeve, his reprimand dies in his throat.

It’s obvious he has something he wants to say, busy in his own world, gathering together the courage to speak up. Children are stubborn in the worst of times—for a moment, Reigen wonders if he should encourage him or say silent.

He chooses to stay silent.

It’s always a guessing game as to what tactic will work best on Ritsu, but right now he doesn’t want to force him, hoping he’ll speak up when he’s ready. It’s an allowance Reigen was never granted as a child, but something he so desperately needed—to be listened to, to have his voice heard, something Ritsu obviously craves. More than anything, he wants his concerns to be addressed seriously.

Reigen doesn’t have the heart to chase him away, so they continue to linger in the quiet, soothed by the hum of the idling engine.

Ritsu raises his head to meet his gaze and Reigen’s heart skips a beat. “Reigen-san,” he begins, faltering immediately. “Um…”

“Go ahead,” Reigen says, heart in his throat. “What is it?”

Ritsu opens and closes his mouth and then mutters, “Never mind. It’s nothing.”

“Don’t be stubborn,” Reigen chides gently, turning to face him properly. “What was it you wanted to say?”

“It’s nothing important,” Ritsu blurts, angry, tearing off his seatbelt and opening the car door, casting a glance at Reigen over his shoulder. “Just forget about it.”

“Wait—”

The door slams behind him, and Reigen scrambles to roll down the window, voice carrying after him. “Text me once you get inside—and lock the door behind you!”

“I get it,” Ritsu mutters, heading up to the door, Reigen watching his every movement until he disappears inside. He can’t be angry over the sudden dismissal—Ritsu has always had a volatile temperament, and he doesn’t hold it against him.

He opens his phone, waiting for the message. He watched him enter the house, but he still needs that last bit of reassurance, a confirmation that he’s inside and safe. When it appears, he heaves an exhausted sigh, flipping his phone shut.

He makes the drive home unhindered, mind drifting aimlessly. He has a sense that he miscalculated somehow, even if the abrupt end to their conversation can’t be attributed to any fault of his. He usually has the advantage in their conversations, and it’s discomforting to feel he’s lost that control.

It doesn’t matter; children are fickle, Ritsu particularly. He’ll sleep on it and call him tomorrow, maybe arrange a meeting, so they can talk it out when he’s got a head for it. He’ll even apologize. He feels a budding hysteria at the thought. Who else would he do that for, he wonders?

Outside his apartment, he opens the back door of his car to retrieve his jacket and his holster, tucking them under his arm. As he hefts the bundle into the crook of his elbow, he pauses—something isn’t right. The bundle is too light. His wallet is in his pocket, but its missing weight isn’t what he notices.

Guns are heavy. He’s carried for years and he knows the difference between a naked holster and one weighted down, and for some reason his holster is empty, leather straps hanging limply in his arms. He stares down at the barren thing, perturbed.

That vague curiosity warps into horror within the next second.

He throws himself into the back of his car, hands scrambling against the seats, search desperate. He checks underneath the seats, snatching up his phone to use the illumination to light his path, but there’s no carbon glint of metal and plastic.

His gun is missing.

“No,” He chokes, realization catching him up, his heart crashing to the ground in a downward crescendo. Sense and reason flee him, replaced by unbridled fear. His hands shake as he dials Ritsu’s number, but he gets an automated recording. It doesn’t ring once: he’s turned his phone off.

Reigen stares down at the screen and wonders—when? And realizes that he’d been an idiot to leave him alone in the car with a weapon, irresponsible in every sense of the word. Reigen doesn’t have to wonder why he would steal his gun because it’s exceedingly obvious—Tasuki is dead and Ritsu thinks it’s his fault. He’d admitted as much to him earlier today and he’d glossed over it, pushing him away with brief, meaningless reassurances.

He tangles his hands into his hair, blunt nails digging into his scalp, gripping tight as a horde of nebulous imaginations crash over him. Ritsu could hurt himself, or he could hurt somebody else. There’s a multitude of things a despairing middle schooler could do with a gun. Reigen needs to stop him before it’s too late.

He’s an adult. Irresponsible, failing, lost, but an adult with adult intelligence. For just a moment though, he allows panic to thunder up his throat before he stuffs it back down, setting his emotions to the wayside.

He won’t allow Ritsu to be hurt in his absence.

Not again.

 

 

As Ritsu watches Reigen reverse into the street and leave him behind at home, he wonders if this is the last time he’ll ever see him.

He steals a few bills from his mother’s purse, creeping through the darkness of their living room and out the door again, buttoning up his jacket as he goes. It’s getting cold, the night bringing a chill to whip and bite at his ankles as he retreats a safe distance from their home before flipping open his phone and calling up a cab. Ritsu has a lot of things to worry about—one of them the intent of the unknown number—but he finds himself dazed, stumbling through the empty streets with his thoughts far away, following a few distant steps behind him.

Anxiety pools in his gut, the fire simmering low, unable to warm him. His hands are cold but he refuses to wear the gloves in his pocket, the ones that Shigeo gave him. The passing thought makes him feel ill, and the nausea reminds him of his conviction and the conviction makes him feel faint, head spinning with the knowledge of what he’s about to do. He’s gone too far to turn back now—but if he tells himself it’s for the sake of securing their investigation, then he can convince himself it’s for his brother’s sake, and he doesn’t feel guilty at all. Not about any of it.

Two blocks from his house, the cab pulls up beside him. He double checks his phone for instructions. The unknown number had sent him a second text earlier—he reads out the warehouse number to himself, committing the digits to his memory. He turns the device off as he opens the car door and slips into the seat, sliding to settle against the smooth leather upholstery.

“Where to?” The man asks, not questioning Ritsu’s age or appearance, the gaunt hollow underneath his eyes, the shaky way he fumbles with the cash.

“The wharfs.” He answers, and if his voice trembles a little bit, well—that goes unnoticed, too. Ritsu feeds a few bills through the slot and the man takes it, and they drive.

Ritsu checks and double checks his wrist-watch; he doesn’t want to be late. The compulsion to hurry along to his destination well before the ordained meeting time is a habitual flaw; when he steps outside and the car drives away, it’s only eleven forty. Twenty minutes to wait in the cold—or twenty to find the warehouse, he realizes, squinting to see the engraved numbers through the darkness. The streetlights don’t do much to aid his search, their light limited to the honeyed pools collected underneath the lamps, useless to him.

Snow drifts down, collecting on his shoulders and in his hair; he huffs a hot breath, and the fluffy flakes that have settled into his lashes melt, leaving him blinking away the wetness. Fear, he thinks, is irrational—he’s not scared, no, methodical in his search, hands steady at his side, the weight of the gun tucked into his belt helping him gather his courage.

He finds the warehouse on the far end of the property. He unhurriedly examines the chain and lock hanging limply from the door handles, taking note of the light edging out through the cracks in the wood. They—whoever they might be—are already here, waiting for him.

Far away, a boat hums, the horn echoing in the distant twilight. Ritsu falters with a hand stretched out to push the door open. He doesn’t know what fate awaits him on the other side of the double doors, and that uncertainty threatens panic. He waits for it to pass and it does, with a few quiet and cautious breaths in and out. Anticipation rises high in his throat and eagerly jostles to take fear’s place, tasting like bile, like melon, nostalgically sweet.

Recklessness takes him now, where it once hung just a mild, acrimonious suggestion above his perfect head. He’s prepared to use the gun. He’s ready to discard the limitations he’s held onto his entire life, tired of retreating like a coward in the face of fear. He wants to capture the truth with his own hands and save his only brother, as he had saved him.

He doesn’t need Reigen.

From now on, the only person he’ll rely on is himself.

He sucks in a breath as he glances down at his watch, the hands of the clock striking midnight. Bracing himself for the worst, he opens the doors. They groan in protest, the heavy wood needing a forceful shove before gaining enough momentum to swing open, the creak of the hinges drawing attention to his entrance.

A dusty lightbulb hangs above a pile of crates, the dim yellow glow serving as a lackluster spotlight. Ritsu recognizes the person sitting underneath the pool of light immediately—the blonde hair and purple suit are unforgettable, after all. Why him, he wonders, thoughts converging into one jumbled mess, confusion taking precedence before fear.

The doors bang shut behind Ritsu, drawn out and then back in with a howl of wind. He jumps at the noise, the rattle of chains and the clunk of wood, and Hanazawa looks up from his phone.

“Ah, perfect. You’re right on time,” He says. Ritsu surveys his surroundings and approaches him cautiously, stopping on the outskirts of the pool of light. The dissonance between Hanazawa’s airy greeting and the stifled atmosphere makes his skin crawl. “What’s the matter? You don’t have to be so suspicious. I came alone.”

Ritsu’s eyes flick from the high ceilings down to the railings of the second story loft, all before zeroing in on Hanazawa. He can’t presume anything of this man. That includes his intentions. He has no desire to guess why he was called here by him, and besides, manipulation is Reigen’s specialty, not his.

“What do you want,” he asks, bluntly.

“How rude,” Hanazawa laughs, his cheek falling into his palm, elbows propped up against his knees. He seems entirely unbothered. “Is that how you greet someone?”

“When you’ve called me to a shady place like this, how else am I supposed to react?” Ritsu says.

“A café wouldn’t have offered much privacy, and I’d rather we not be overheard,” Hanazawa snaps his phone shut and stands from the chair, tossing his hair over his shoulder. “I’m glad you’re so trusting, you know? It would’ve been a pain if you brought that man with you.”

“This has nothing to do with trust,” Ritsu says. Despite his best efforts to curb his temper, he can feel the beginnings of anger licking at his heels. He deliberately ignores the comment about Reigen.

“It’s obedience, then,” Hanazawa’s lip curls, a subtle change in expression that Ritsu can’t interpret as anything other than derision. “Relax, why don’t you? I only called you here to talk. There’s no need to be so defensive.”

He’s deliberately trying to incite anger in him, and he finds it frustrates him more than anything. He’s tired, and he doesn’t want to play games—if Hanazawa is a threat to their investigation, then he wants to know.

“Talk, then.”

Hanazawa’s smile doesn’t quite falter, but it no longer reaches his eyes—he controls the atmosphere with a languid gait as he circles the chair, eyes never leaving Ritsu’s.

“You should have an idea already. You’re a smart kid, aren’t you? Top of your class, on your way to be the alumnus representative… on top of that, you’re smart enough to get on the good side of the cop investigating the disappearance of your brother. It’s obvious what I want to talk about.”

“It isn’t obvious at all,” Ritsu says, throat sudden dry and sticking, mouth parched. Behind Hanazawa, something gleams in the darkness—a metal baseball bat, leaning innocently against the stack of crates. He swallows thickly, averting his gaze. “Care to enlighten me?”

Hanazawa’s reflexive response is laughter. The sharp sound lacks all traces of humor. “You can’t seriously believe playing dumb is going to work,” His smile falls flat, amiability disappearing. He begins to pace, strides swift. “It’s been a long, tiring day. I’d like to clear some things up and then get home… meeting you here like this is inconvenient for me too, you know? But it’s for your sake, so I’m putting up with it.”

Ritsu can’t fathom a guess as to what this is about. He shifts to take a step back, reminding himself of the weight at his hip—he has the control here, and Hanazawa doesn’t even know it. As if having heard his thoughts, the other man suddenly locks eyes with him, coming to an abrupt halt.

“You figured it out already, right? That your brother is missing because he was abducted, not because he ran away.”

The statement barrels into him, taking him off guard. Ritsu’s heart lodges itself into his throat as he tries to understand how he could know that. He’s sure the shock shows on his face, because Hanazawa’s grin resurfaces, freshly incensed.

“There’s no way you don’t know,” He continues, taking his silence as an agreement. “Right?” He prompts.

Ritsu can’t deny it, so he nods. There’s no sense in lying when Hanazawa is clearly convinced of it.

He claps, delighted to have been proven correct. “Ah, see? I bet you also know about the connection between the victims, but that… that, I don’t understand how you could know, not unless you’re working with that cop. You seemed nervous when I mentioned suspecting him, after all. What is it you two are doing together, exactly?”

Sweat trickles over Ritsu’s nape; it’s suddenly stiflingly hot in the warehouse. His blood burns underneath Hanazawa’s intense gaze. “Does it matter?” He asks, hands curling into fists. He doesn’t understand how he learned so much about them in the space of a few short hours—he wants to know, but he doesn’t dare ask and risk giving Hanazawa a reason to taunt him further. “Frankly, I don’t think it’s any of your business.”

“Oh, it is. It’s my investigation now. If there’s vermin sniffing around my case, I’m not going to ignore it,” Hanazawa smiles, a humorless baring of teeth. Having discarded all chivalrous pretense, he continues to berate Ritsu, punctuating his loss of control with a wring of the hands. “I can’t just leave this be, as much as I’d like to ignore you guys. It’s just not possible for me to work at my best knowing there’s insects crawling around in my space. Get it?”

Ritsu tracks every step Hanazawa takes as he begins to pace again, cautious and impatient, waiting for him to do or say something more. Where their breaking point is, he doesn’t know, but he’s already fed up with this conversation.

The gun tempts him.

“No. I don’t get it. What do you want from me?” Ritsu asks, letting up on his tenuous restraint, allowing anger to thunder through his veins. “What’s the point of all of this? Me and Reigen will solve this case on our own, so if this is all so inconvenient for you, then just leave.

The smile on Hanazawa’s face freezes, amusement long gone. “Reigen? That fraud?” His laugh is piercing—a slash of dry, sardonic fury that cuts through the air. “Ah… you’re not joking, are you? My god.”

“I’m not, so just—”

“I have to wonder what kind of arrangements you two have.” Hanazawa spins on a polished heel, rounding past the folding chair to take up the baseball bat. His back is to Ritsu as he continues to mock him. “Do you eat up every word he tells you?”

Ritsu is tired of this. “Just shut up,” He snaps. “Shut up and leave us alone.”

The bat gleams in the dim light cast by the bulb hanging above, Hanazawa's now humorless scowl thrown into shadow. Ritsu’s thoughts stutter on the implication of violence, the unspoken threat clear as day as he hefts the bat up in a casual approximation of its weight. “You really don’t get it at all, do you?” His voice is quiet.

Ritsu feels a sluggish chill surge through his veins, the beginnings of fear, the emotion deadened under exhaustion and combated by excitement. The sweat gathered on his forehead grows cold. “I guess I don’t,” he says, firm.

Hanazawa is unamused. “I’ve gone out of my way to warn you, so the least you could do is listen.”

The weapon was a concealed threat, respectfully set aside from their conversation. It’s Ritsu’s fault they’ve come to this point, his own stubborn arrogance combating head on with Hanazawa’s.

He can’t regret it: he needs an excuse to use the gun, after all.

“As if I’d listen to anything a person like you has to say.”

“Ah.” Hanazawa nods knowingly. “But you’ll listen to a creepy cop. What kind of favors do you do for him, hm—for the information he gives you?”

“We trade,” Ritsu blurts, speaking without thinking, taken aback by the insinuation that their relationship would be anything other than fair and true. “I tell him what I know, and he—”

Hanazawa interrupts him with a condescending bark of laughter. “You really do trust him! Ah, that’s so sad… you’re such a good kid. You don’t suspect him at all now, but what happens when he asks for more, huh?”

Ritsu isn’t given a chance to speak as Hanazawa continues to rant, voice growing louder for every contemptuous word, spittle flying as he descends into a rage. Ritsu doesn’t have to wonder what his breaking point is anymore. It’s been made abundantly clear to him.

“What are you going to do when you don’t have anything left to give? I can have him sent off to another prefecture in a heartbeat, and you wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing about it, so what the fuck do you think you have to gain by defying me?”

Every other word is punctuated by a swing of the bat as Hanazawa grows increasingly hysterical, Ritsu unable to do much more than watch him rage. Deep down, he knows Hanazawa is right, that without Reigen there’s nothing he can do—but reason fails when put up against his desire to fix things, against Hanazawa, taunting and cruel.

Ritsu can do this on his own. He can set him straight with the cold glint of the gun’s barrel. He’s certain of that. He just needs a reason to use it, to show him that he means business, to scare him into compliance.

“I’ll find my brother with or without him,” He says, as cool as ice. “So stay out of my way.”

Hanazawa stares at him, slack jawed, chest heaving as he pants breathlessly. He looks away, shaking his head repeatedly. “Some people don’t understand unless it’s spelled out for them—I know that, but I was really hoping you’d understand.” He lifts the bat to rest it against his shoulder, swaying slightly as he turns to advance on Ritsu.

Flinching instinctively, he stumbles a few steps back. “What are you doing?” The gun—he has the gun. He doesn’t need to panic.

“Putting you in your place.”

He advances.

Time moves too quick. Ritsu can’t catch up.

A fist drives itself into his stomach and crushes the breath out of his lungs, Hanazawa having closed the distance between them in less than a second. Terror grabs at the remaining air in his lungs as he struggles to recapture his breath, stunned by the blow. He slumps against Hanazawa’s frame and the older boy steps back, nausea dropping Ritsu to his knees as he coughs, choking on his saliva. Bile burns at the back of his throat.

He might be sick.

Darkness falls over him and he jerks his head up to watch as Hanazawa approaches, bat raised far above his head.

“Ah,” His eyes gleam in the low light. “I really hate that defiant face of yours.”

The world swims as tears blur his vision and he flinches in anticipation of the blow, hands snapping upward to defend himself. Unavoidably, the bat slams down into his shoulder, joint giving underneath the metal with a sickening crunch. A second blow follows the first and his teeth clack together as he goes sprawling to his elbows, the impacted flesh throbbing as his heart jackhammers in his chest. Indefensible, he crumples into a heap, hands flying to cradle the back of his head.

It spares him from nothing. Hanazawa kicks him onto his back and stomps repeatedly on his stomach, and all at once he’s sick, gurgling as bile spills over his chin and onto the ground. He turns his head to spew the contents of his stomach onto the warehouse floor, the surge of vomit clogging his windpipe. His assailant pauses his attack and jumps back to dodge the spray. Acid burns the back of his throat and he chokes on the remnants, spitting up chunks.

Miles above him, Hanazawa laughs. “Fuck, that’s gross. Look at what you’ve done—you fucking puked on my shoes, you shithead.”

Ritsu begins to edge away, crawling on his hands and feet. It’s a desperate scramble for escape and Hanazawa isn’t having any of it. He nails him in the gut with another kick of the heel and he doubles over, gasping for air but unable to take any in. He wheezes desperately, mind blanking. Hanazawa doesn’t spare him for even a moment, giving an exhilarated cackle as he shoves him back onto his side, imprinting his ribs with the bottom of his shoe.

Black edges at the corners of Ritsu’s vision. He can’t breathe. Hanazawa continues to advance, bat raised overhead. “I think you owe me an apology,” The strike clips his shoulder and the clang of metal on concrete leaves his ears ringing. He sucks in a gasping breath. “Well? Come on!” Ritsu scrambles to crawl away, desperate to put distance between them. Hanazawa snarls. “You’re an arrogant, insufferable little bitch, you know?” Ritsu recoils as the bat flies up, terrified. “You have no fucking respect. Apologize,” The bat wails on its way down, cutting through the air and drowning out the rest of what he says: “And know your place!”

Stars burst behind his eyelids as the bat cracks against his ribs, jarring him shoulders to shins. He’s woozy with nausea and his physical defenses have been exhausted. Even as he begins to weakly cry, Hanazawa doesn’t let up. He rains down blow after unrelenting blow, bruising up his arms and his legs, too, when he curls up to defend himself. Hanazawa seems intent on beating him into a smooth pulp, bruising him up and breaking him down, reducing him to a wet mess of snot and tears.

Hanazawa swings for his face—though he jerks his hands up to protect himself, there’s no need. The bat connects with his shoulder and he wails, expelling the lungs from his breath as the brutality severs his remaining connections to reason. He doesn’t understand a thing but fear anymore, convinced he's inches from death. 

The assault ceases, and Hanazawa stands over him, heaving ragged breaths. Bruises pool with heavy blood and muscles scream out in protest as he pushes himself upright, a menagerie of mental and physical turmoil. The temporary respite allows him to assess his own injuries—his gut tenses as he curls a hand over his middle, involuntarily shuddering.

He sucks in a sharp, desperate little breath, and the throbbing locus perched underneath his ribs expounds. Everything burns, nerves excoriated and seizing, like the slow press of hot metal to skin. The world spins in a disorienting haze as he looks up at Hanazawa, realizing belatedly that he must have fractured a rib.

“Do you get it now?” Hanazawa glares down at him, watching as Ritsu crawls to his knees. “I’m only defending what’s rightfully mine. Hey?” Ritsu dodges his attempt to grab a fistful of his hair and he snarls. “Are you fucking listening to me, you shitty little brat? I’m only giving you what you deserve. You asked for this when you challenged my authority.”

Hanazawa talks, but Ritsu doesn’t comprehend a word of it. He only understands that he doesn’t want to die, he wants to live. But he might die. He will die. He will die if he doesn’t protect himself.

The gun offers safety.

He stumbles to his feet and his stomach roils as a fresh wave of agony assaults his senses. The world spins and his stomach lurches, threatening to bring him back down to his knees. He takes a few steps back, glassy eyes locked onto Hanazawa’s, trailing expectantly after him.

“Scared?” He asks. Maybe he’s mocking him. He can’t tell anymore. Ritsu drags up his jacket to grab at the handle of the gun, tucked into the waistband of his pants. Hanazawa can’t see it, so he continues to run his mouth. “You can’t run from this.”

He advances.

This time, Ritsu knows what’s coming. He doesn’t want to die.

He withdraws the gun.

The barrel glints with the promise of danger and Hanazawa pales. It’s an exhilarating sight—just as he’d expected, it stops him in place. Ritsu scrambles for the trigger, shuddering out a soft, ragged breath. Adrenaline surges through his veins in a numb thrill.

But he fails to account for one thing.

Hanazawa knows what he’s doing.

A wild, frenzied swing sends the bat cracking across his knuckles; the gun is knocked out of his hands, flying to the ground to skitter across the floor. It disappears into the swell of shadows by the entrance, eaten up by the night. Ritsu stands stock still, disarmed of his last and only defense.

“What,” Hanazawa exhales shakily, choking on a hysterical little laugh. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

Chapter Text

Ritsu slowly turns to look behind him, eyes swimming as he searches for the glimmer of metal. Even if he knew exactly where the gun landed, he won’t be fast enough to retrieve it. He turns back to Hanazawa with his mouth agape, tears cascading down his cheeks.

“I—I wasn’t…”

“No,” Hanazawa’s eyes are devoid of light. Ritsu has strangled his own chances. “You weren’t thinking at all.”

Time comes to a standstill as they stare each other down.

This was all a horrible mistake.

Ritsu twists sharply on his heel and runs for the doors.

The bat collides with the backs of his legs, sweeping them out from underneath him; he goes down hard, his jaw cracking against the floor as he lands gracelessly on his face, skin skidding and grating on the unfinished concrete. A metallic taste floods his mouth and he realizes he’s bitten his tongue, but the pain is a numb afterthought as a pair of hands snare around his ankles to wrench him backward, dragging him mercilessly across the warehouse floor.

Dread coils cold around his heart and he scrambles to find a purchase on the ground, blunt fingernails skittering across the concrete. He accomplishes nothing, his fruitless struggling earning him shredded skin, nails cracking as they catch on the rough surface. Hanazawa has him where he wants him—upon release, Ritsu scrambles forward and earns himself a sharp kick to his side. A weight descends onto his back, warm breath fanning across his nape as Hanazawa leans in, honeyed whispers dripping thick with poison.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

A hand tangles into the hair at the crown of his head, wrenching him back into an unnatural arch. The tug and pull tears a few hairs out by the root and Ritsu bends himself back as far as he can to lessen the intensity of the pain, but it stretches the bruised meat of his ribs and he can’t keep it up for long. His spine twinges, alight with discomfort, crushed underneath the weight digging into his back.

Ritsu swallows, the chords in his neck straining, fighting the urge to beg for mercy. He’s in over his head. He can’t—he can’t do this. Terrified beyond belief, Ritsu fights the hold—his efforts are rewarded with a sharp jab to his side, and he jolts, whimpering helplessly. “You fucking dog,” Hanazawa snarls, the attack against his dignity barely registering. “Were you going to shoot me?”

“No,” Ritsu rasps, squeezing his eyes shut tight, tasting the tang of salt as he licks his dry, cracked lips. The tears come unbidden, hot, shame streaking wet on his cheeks. “No, I—please, I wasn’t—”

“Liar,” Hanazawa hisses.

With his hand against the back of his head, he smashes Ritsu’s face to the ground. Lips crack and bleed and white, dizzying washes of pain blunt his senses, head spinning farther and farther away. He drags him up before smashing him back down for a second brutal, crushing crack of skin and bone against concrete—the blood vessels in Ritsu’s nose break and bleed, running in rivets into his mouth, coating his teeth with red as he gasps, struck dumb. Thought escapes him, instinct kicking his heart into a wild overdrive. It does him no good. The blows have dazed him, and his clumsy, spastic struggling only serves to feed Hanazawa’s anger.

He doesn’t want that.

He’s angry enough already.

He spits up a bit of blood, feeling thoroughly ground out. He doesn’t want to fight this anymore.

Hanazawa drags his head up again and a surge of animalistic panic thunders through Ritsu again because he knows what’s coming this time, and it hurts and he’s tired, so tired.

The safety mechanism from a gun clicks, resounding in the open emptiness of the warehouse. Only, neither of them are anywhere near the gun. Hanazawa grows suddenly rigid behind him.

A voice calls out from the shadowed entryway.

“Don’t move a muscle,” The person breathes, the command tempting refusal. “Or I’ll fire.”

Ritsu’s lagging thoughts catch up to him as footsteps slowly tread closer, bringing them into the light. He knows that voice. He knows them, but it doesn’t make sense that they’re here.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Hanazawa gives a ragged exhale, grip in Ritsu’s hair tightening in increments until it threatens to rip clumps out by the root. “You little brat, you told him after all—”

“He didn’t tell me a thing,” Reigen says, voice reverberating in the wide space. His presence commandeers attention: the metal glint of the gun catches in the light as he steps from the shadows, aim trained on Hanazawa. A relieved sob makes Ritsu’s chest ache, wounds aggravated, and he keens, desperation renewed. “Let him go.”

Hanazawa doesn’t move, breathing nosily in through his nostrils. Ritsu doesn’t register much but that, and the sensation of nails digging into his scalp.

“You’re both idiots,” he says, punctuating the words with a sharp tug. Pulled back and stretched taut, Ritsu flails for balance. “No—no, you, you are a complete moron, you’re giving up everything for this piece of shit—”

“I don’t expect you to understand,” Reigen drowns out the rest of Hanazawa’s tirade, stamping down the flames until they only smolder, heel gritting against the concrete as he comes to a stop. “And I don’t care if you do. Hanazawa-san, if you don’t want to be shot, then I suggest you let go of him.”

Hanazawa holds still for another terrifying second, and then Ritsu is released and he sprawls out on the concrete, barely catching himself in time to keep from smashing his face against the ground. He chokes on a bit of blood and spits, coughing violently, curling up. He doesn’t dare move, not even as Hanazawa rises to stand, not with the gun cocked in front of them, not with Reigen so unflinchingly still.

“Ah,” A grin breaks out across Hanazawa’s face and he brushes his bangs out of his face with a laugh, as confident as ever. “You’re fucking around. I get it. Bluffs like that really work for you, huh?” He gives a few dazed, disoriented nods, and locks eyes with Ritsu as he looks back over his shoulder at him. “All of it for this kid, right? As if I’d believe that.”

The metal bat glints as Hanazawa raises it. Ritsu’s heart pulsates once, twice, and goes cold as fear floods his mind.

Reigen pulls the trigger.

The bang ricochets in the open space. Ritsu flinches and curls up, clutching at his ears, deafened by the noise. He jerks his head up, instinctively searching for blood. Hanazawa is doubled over but unharmed. The bat slips through his hands, clanging against concrete and rolling across the ground. He clasps his hands over his ears, gritting his teeth through the resulting tinnitus.

Reigen doesn’t so much as flinch: he only waits for their ears to adjust, temporarily deafened by the echo of the gunfire in the open, empty space, hands steady on the gun.

Hanazawa regains his bearings quicker than Ritsu does, face contorting as he stares at the crater between his feet, hints of anger slipping through the cracks. “You’re fucking insane,” he directs his whisper down at the hole in the ground, the cracked bits of concrete flaking up, shattered upon impact. He looks up, dazed. “If—if you misfired, you could have killed me—”

“Oh? Maybe you’re smarter than you look,” Reigen murmurs, almost vacantly. “Next time, I won’t miss.”

Silence. Ritsu’s ears continue to ring. Hanazawa grinds his teeth, loose hands curling into fists. He glances at the bat on the ground, at Ritsu, crumpled into a heap where he left him, and swallows.

“Don’t even think about it,” Reigen preemptively scolds him, reading his intentions easily. “I don’t want this to escalate any further, but I’m prepared to do anything if it guarantees his safety.”

Hanazawa shifts his weight from foot to foot, restless and itching to expel his energy. “You’re coddling him,” he blurts. “He’s not going to die from a few bruises—”

“And yet I’m certain Ritsu has more than just a few bruises,” Reigen replies, unfaltering in his conviction, unwavering. Ritsu crawls onto his hands and knees, slumping as his elbows give, pain keeping him from scrambling to his feet and running away, even as eager fear urges him on. “You're only a little arrogant, Hanazawa-san. You can't make excuses right now, so don't waste your breath.”

“Fuck you,” Hanazawa snarls, heel gritting against concrete as he finds his balance, retaining his petulance even as Reigen tracks him with the barrel of the gun. A faint trail of smoke drifts up into the rafters. “What the fuck are you even doing this for? You get what’s going to come after this, right?”

Reigen tilts his head, considering him. “Does it feel good to bully a child that can’t fight back?”

A brief moment of hesitation, and then outrage. “He pulled that gun on me—”

“You’re so pathetic it makes me want to hurl,” Reigen spits, finally showing some semblance of emotion, face darkening with anger. “What the hell kind of threat does an untrained child pose to you?”

Hanazawa stares. Reigen shakes his head.

“Hey, Ritsu? We’re getting out of here. Can you stand?”

Ritsu looks up at Reigen and sees double, vision blurring with tears. He swallows down bile and forces himself to his knees, and then shakes his head, realizing he can’t stand on his own. The simple admittance of defeat is enough: Reigen ushers forward, gun still trained on Hanazawa, and offers him a hand.

He takes it.

Reigen pulls him from the ground with surprising strength, herding him close to his side, and Ritsu clings to what of him he can reach, feeling faint. His head spins and threatens nausea, but he stifles his sickness with a few desperate bobs of his throat, swallowing spit and blood, iron heavy on his tongue. He puts a hand up to his nose to stem the flow; the action is belatedly futile, shirt already covered in a smattering of bloodstains and dirt.

Hanazawa watches in stunned disbelief, derision gone, anger gone, leaving him barren of emotion, devoid of all that he had had. Reigen begins to turn, to open the doors behind them, to usher Ritsu out and he breaks from his trance, hurrying towards them, choking up.

“Wait,” he rasps, breath strangled. “W-wait… you can’t be serious—you can’t be giving everything up for—”

“I can,” Reigen turns to cast a disdainful glance over his shoulder. “And I will. You don’t get it,” he heaves a sigh, bereft of energy, tucking the gun into his holster. Hanazawa’s desperation heralds his defeat and his acceptance of it: there’s no longer a need to keep him at bay with the threat of violence. “Because I can tell that you’ve never really fought for anything before.”

Hanazawa stumbles to a stop, face woefully blank, eyes blown wide.

“… we’re leaving. Do whatever the hell you want, but I don’t want to see your face. Not ever again.”

Reigen cradles Ritsu around his middle and they step outside, shuddering as they walk into the icy air, the cold biting deep into Ritsu’s wounded skin. Snow has piled up in drifts, blown over by the sharp gusts of wind, and he doesn’t hear anything more as the doors swing shut behind them, banging together with a deadening finality.

“Ritsu,” A few steps away from the door, Ritsu begins to sag, unable to continue walking. “Hey. Did he hit your head with that bat?”

“No,” he croaks, tears freezing in his lashes. “Reigen-san, I’m s—”

“Don’t,” The cop sucks in a breath and shakes his head, falling to a knee, speaking to him at eye level. “All I care about right now is whether or not I have to take you to the hospital.”

“No,” Ritsu shakes his head. “You’ll get in trouble.”

Reigen somber expression cracks into a strained smile and he laughs, suddenly breathless. “I’m already in trouble. Doesn’t matter to me. I’m going to carry you to the car, okay?”

Ritsu nods, and Reigen sweeps a hand underneath his knees, hefting him up bridal style. He rises to his full height, and they continue; Ritsu’s head lolls against Reigen’s shoulder, feeling heavy, limbs slackened and weak, unable to do more than cling to the front of Reigen’s jacket.

He can’t think straight. But he knows he’s scared and that he needs to tell Reigen something important, though his tongue feels thick in his mouth, summoned words falling short of what he needs. He struggles through the miasma of confusion and distress, swallowing down his sickness.

“No hospital,” he manages, blinking away tears, throat clogged up. “And don’t call the police.”

Reigen doesn’t spare him a glance. The snow crunches far underfoot, muffled under a thousand leagues, Ritsu floating weightlessly in his arms. The whistle of the wind is deafened by tinnitus, though he can feel it whipping against his skin, the chill burying itself deep underneath his skin. He wonders if it’ll go away. He wonders if any of this will go away, or stop hurting so much.

He wonders if Shigeo will ever come home.

“Reigen-san,” he repeats, giving his scarf a tug, small hand fisted in the fabric, desperate to be heard. “We can’t stop here.”

They continue to drift. Reigen shifts him in his arms, and this seems effortless for him, but Ritsu can’t see the sweat beading up on his brow, can only see the pinch of his expression, the defeat, the guilt. His head is swimming, but he sees what he doesn’t want to see.

He sees Reigen giving up.

“I know.”

“Then—”

“I know, but you’re hurt,” he shakes his head. “Hanazawa isn’t going to give up after this, and like hell if I’m letting him get away with hurting you. It’s over. Just let me take you to the hospital.”

“It can’t be over,” his stomach lurches. “My—my brother is still waiting.”

Reigen stops as they arrive at his car, turning his head down to cast him a sympathetic look, beyond exhaustion. He yanks open the car door, and settles Ritsu on his feet, guiding him inside. He sits down on the seat, but stubbornly keeps his legs outside, halting Reigen from closing the door in his face. The man isn’t pleased.

“Are you serious? You might have internal bleeding, dammit, how the hell can you be so stubborn—” He leans down to grab at the boy’s ankles, urging him inside, and Ritsu kicks at him. “Ritsu,” He scowls, the beginnings of frustration edging in, combating his guilty sympathies.

“My brother,” He repeats, even as Reigen snatches up his ankles, stilling his flailing. “My brother is waiting for us, Reigen.”

Reigen stiffens, a startling stillness stealing him over. A reverent calm seems to sweep over him: he focuses his concentration on Ritsu, locking eyes with him, searching for something. Ritsu doesn’t blink.

His internal battle with responsibility ends with compliance. He gathers himself up with a sigh, smoothing down his jacket.

“If you can argue like this, maybe you’re not hurt so bad after all.”

Ritsu opens his mouth to combat that, and Reigen holds up a hand.

“I’m doing a full examination on you. If you need a hospital, I’m taking you to one. Got it?”

Ritsu’s heart skips a beat. “But—”

“This is what adults call compromise,” Reigen interrupts. “If you want to play adult games, then get used to the rules.”

He snaps his mouth shut. Cautiously, he situates himself in the back of the car, and Reigen slams the door closed. Ritsu watches as he opens the driver's side and sits down, pulling his phone from his pocket. A brief flash of panic kickstarts his heart, but Reigen turns his gaze to him, their eyes meeting in the mirror. 

"I'm just calling a friend," He explains, fingers fast on the keys. "Someone who can help us out."

Ritsu nods, pulling his seatbelt over his middle. The adrenaline from the fight begins to fade, leaving his body battered and bruised, throbbing in time to his heartbeat. Reigen starts the car, backing out of the parking lot and onto an alley street without much in the way of urgency. His fingers fidget on the wheel. A bad habit. Ritsu blinks, head lolling.

"Hey, Serizawa? It's me. I'm going to need your help. You still have connections with your old agency, right?"

Despite his best efforts, Ritsu drifts, consciousness fading as his head thumps against the headrest behind him, exhaustion bringing him under. He sleeps, restless and fitful, dreams pained and body agonized, thoughts tortured. But he sleeps.

 

--

 

The howling of the wind against the window wakes him. 

"Ah," a voice lilts from the shadows of the room, cadence speaking their smile. "Good morning, Shigeo."