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I'll tell you a story about myself. Growing up, my mother and I had very little. Cheap food, used clothes. Even the mat I slept on. She'd found it in a pile of trash a few blocks from our apartment. One less thing we needed to purchase with her already stretched paycheck.

One thing we did have though, was an antique bell. Well, I say antique, but it was likely worth less than five hundred yen. It was this small white thing, with red flourishes running across it that used to make me think of the wind. When you held it, you could feel the little imperfections through the paint, but they were so small you couldn't see them with the naked eye. We hung it just above the door to our apartment.

I was a frightful child. Our neighborhood wasn't very safe, and my mother's job forced her to leave me alone for long hours of the night. I hated the dark, but I would endure it, because sooner or later, I would hear the bell chime as our door opened, and I knew my mother was home. She would come and check on me then, and I would drift off to sleep.

It got to the point where the simple jingle of the bell was enough to send me to sleep. I didn't even need her to check on me. If the bell rang, that meant my mother was home, and that meant I was safe.

Then one night, the bell didn't ring. My mother didn't come home. I stayed awake that whole night, staring at the ceiling, afraid to shut my eyes. The sun came up, and the sun went down, and I didn't move. The bell didn't ring. I stayed in that room, under those covers, for three days, waiting for that bell to ring. It didn't. On the third night the police finally came and collected me. They told me what had happened to my mother. Told me what would happen to me.

But some part of me, and some part of me still, cannot understand why the bell never rang. Part of me is still wide awake in that room, in that rotting apartment, waiting for the soft jingle that would mean, safe. Sometimes, I'll lie awake at night and wait for it, even though I know it's never coming.

I didn't tell you this story to make you sympathetic towards me. This isn't supposed to help you resonate with me more, or allow us to understand each other better. I just wanted to illustrate that everyone is scared of something. Even me. And I hope you'll be honest with me when I ask you, what are you afraid of?

Well, what are you afraid of, Akira?

 

 

They put you in a box. Everything you are, everything you've ever done or could do, everything you wish you could be, all the love and drive and dreams you carry in your heart, all the things that connect you to others, all of it. For all of it, they put you in a box.

Akira stares at a white ceiling, mismatched with the dull ivory walls. It is warm, not unbearable, but getting there. The A/C only comes on after six. It's one of the few ways of telling time in here, as there's no clock and no window. There are two cots, both with simple black metal frames, far too thin mattresses, scratchy sheets and dull gray blankets, and blocky pillows that provide no comfort.

"Don't think that way."

Akira looks at Rokuro as the latter speaks. The boy is his age, a familiar mop of uncombed black hair atop his head, but the similarities stop there. His face is all edge; his jawline thin and straight, and his nose hooked downward. Rokuro's eyes always seem to be darting around, even though there's nothing to look at in the cell. There's an energy beneath them, but it seems cruel to Akira. He does not know what Rokuro has done to be here, and the boy has not offered it up, but Akira cannot help but think he earned his place here.

"Think what way?" He asks. "I didn't say anything."

"Didn't need to." He is sitting cross-legged with his back against the wall, and extends one long arm with one long finger and points at Akira. "You've got the look of a guy that's lost all hope. You're thinking, 'That's it for me, I'm done. This is the end of the very short road that was my life.'"

Akira looks back up at the ceiling. "I wasn't thinking that, but now that you mention it..." He trails off, leaving the implication clear.

Rokuro lets his arm drop and shakes his head. "You need to open your eyes to the possibilities, man." His words are quick and clear, almost like he's biting them off. "There's always a way out.  You have to take up the responsibility to find it."

We are going to make you understand. One must take full responsibility for their actions.

Akira's hands fly to his wrists, to his chest, his stomach, his legs. But he is unharmed. There are no sensitive areas, no bruises or cuts. Nothing. So why does he feel as if there should be?

"What're you doing?" Rokuro asks. "Checking to see if you brought in any contraband you forgot about?" He laughs at his quip, but Akira is too... what is he? Fazed? Confused?

He looks back at Rokuro. "Where are we?"

"Huh? The hell is wrong with you?" His face grows serious and his voice, quiet. "They didn't do anything to you, did they?"

"I-" Akira starts, but he can't finish. His mouth is suddenly desert dry and his words shrivel and die in his throat. His head pounds, he aches everywhere. His hands shake.

"Hey, hey," Rokuro says. He unfolds himself, stands and makes his way over to Akira's cot. "Are you okay? You can trust me, you know."

Trust.

"Do you think you can get her to trust you?"

There's something he has to do. What was it? He hears a faint snapping sound. It's sporadic, but the longer it goes, the more of his attention it takes. "This isn't right," he manages to choke out.

His eyes shift from Rokuro, to the boy's cot, to the walls, to the ceiling, to the thick metal door shut and secured from the outside. This isn't where he is supposed to be. This isn't where he is.

He has already been here.

Rokuro's hands grip his wrists. "Calm down, man. Calm down."

”Kurusu! Hey! Are you still with me? Kurusu!"

Rokuro leans down, his eyes inches from Akira's own. "Just remember, Akira-kun. There's always a way out."

His vision grows hazy. What he sees begins to twist into other shapes. Rokuro is gone, disintegrated, and in his place Akira sees a pair of deep brown eyes staring at him, full of concern. A grin spreads across his face. It's her! Oh, thank God, it's her! I made it back! It's her!

Except it isn't. The face surrounding the eyes grows more solid, more distinct. The sound that drew his attention resolves into a set of snapping fingers held just before his face. "Can you hear me?" The woman asks, her voice touched with panic. "Kurusu? Dammit, what the hell did they inject you with?"

Oh.

He is in another box. Not the same as before, not the box he'd shared with Rokuro with its nondescript sterility. This box is dimly lit, smells wet from dirty water, sweat and blood. This box was full of men not too long ago, but now he is alone save for the woman. This is the box they put him in, this time.

Akira's mouth creaks open. "I-"

Sae Niijima blinks in surprise.

"I can hear you, Niijima-san."

The prosecutor sighs, folds her arms together and leans back in the chair. Her air of concern is gone, replaced with a familiar sternness. "I thought I'd lost you there. Your eyes glazed over and you didn't respond to anything. For a second, well, never mind. If you're back from your little vacation, then it's time to talk. I don't have much time with you."

He groans, droops and rests his head against the cool tabletop. He has to think. There's something I have to do. What was it?

"Hey," Sae shouts. She slaps the table with her open palm, and a stinging thwack bounces through his skull. "Sit up! Don't think, for one second, that you're going to get through this without saying anything."

"Do you think you can get her to trust you?"

"I don't like this. It's way, way too dangerous."

"Do we have any other choice?"

No. No other choice. No other option. There had only been one way forward. There's always a way out. He sits up, forces his eyes and brain to focus. This is Sae Niijima. He knows this woman. He has spoken with her before. She is important.

Sae bows her head a bit, and leans in, almost conspiratorially. The look she gives him is one of contempt. "You know," she says, ice in her voice. "She's going to hear about this. And it's going to break her heart."

Dread seizes him. Sae calls him a bastard, but Akira's mind is spinning once more. Stolen glances over the top of a manga. Stern, exciting words. The taste of coffee on her lips. If he doesn't get out of here, if he doesn't focus, he'll never see her again, never hold her, never hear her, never kiss her, never...

Never...

Never...

Sae drops a thick beige file on the table, and the sound snaps him back. There is a header on the file's tag. It reads, 'Phantom Thieves.'

"Let's start from the beginning," Sae says.

"The beginning?" Akira asks.

He remembers two soft hands on his cheeks, lips pressed to his forehead. "Now, this is important. When she talks to you, you have to tell her everything. All of it. Because if you do, I know she'll believe you."

Akira mumbles soft words into the air. They are too low for Sae to hear. “I’ll come back, I promise.” He has said these words before. He means them.

Sae opens her mouth, but Akira cuts her off. "Okay," he says, his voice a painful croak. "I'll tell you everything." He casts his mind back, and begins to speak.