There was one benefit of living in Ishikari, he supposed.
When Gaku felt his brother’s fist crack against his face—when the force of it sent his head snapping to the side, his body thrown through the air—at least he fell into snow. Nearly anywhere else in Japan, his body would have bounced off concrete or asphalt, bones shattering and skull cracking. But not here: the snow was soft, and it immediately eased the pain blooming across his cheek, cutting off the swelling before it started.
He’d long learnt was pointless to move, to try to stand up again—so he didn’t. Gaku let the ice sit against his cheek, feeling the chill melting against the heat of his skin.
His brother was still hovering above him, hands clenched and twitching. He paused for a moment, fists shaking, waiting for a reaction they both knew would never come. Eventually, the older Mikohara turned his head and spat into the snow, lips curled up in a sneer. Those bruised hands buried themselves into the pockets of his coat, defeated.
“You’re fucked up, Gaku,” he snarled, turning on his heel and stomping off.
Gaku blinked with one eye buried in the snow, and watched as his sibling walked away. He knew that already.
His brother was gone, but he still couldn’t muster the strength nor the will to move. So Gaku let the snowflakes flutter down against his skin, leaving the harsh cold to gnaw at his fingers. He hadn’t bothered to put on a hat, or a scarf, or even a pair of gloves. Not because he enjoyed the weather—he couldn’t say he felt strongly about it, one way or another—but that sharp, prickling frost was at least something.
And something was better than nothing.
Though, ‘nothing’ didn’t sound so terrible right about now. The nothing was something that he knew intimately; familiar and comfortable, like an old friend. You didn’t have to pretend for the nothing: it simply accepted your emptiness as its own, swallowing everything in a silent gulp. Absorbing and burying you, like the steadily falling snow.
Slowly, Gaku closed his eyes.
He didn’t know how long he lay there, allowing himself slowly get erased by the winter. His body no longer felt the cold, the fresh bruises, the pain that was usually beating in time with his pulse. All there was was the occasional sound of the tall grass, a dry rattling ringing in the breeze.
All this to say that when he felt something, soft and vaguely damp, being clumsily draped over him—Gaku didn’t so much as twitch. It took his sluggish brain a few seconds to even acknowledge the weight of that something, and he forced his frozen eyelashes open, the frost clinging to the corners of his eyes. It took a moment for his bleary vision to zero in on the tiny silhouette, standing somewhere him.
Two blue eyes blinked down at him and said: “Cold.”
Gaku blinked and didn’t move. “Pardon?”
“Cold,” the boy repeated, one of his mittened hands motioning vaguely down in Gaku’s direction. Slowly, Gaku shifted his arm, piles of snow sliding off his coat. His hand, stiff and frozen, struggled to find the scarf that had been thrown over his neck. The fabric was plush, still warm with the heat of someone else’s skin.
The boy stared down at him, his face nearly silhouetted by the white sky above them. “Nii-chan looked cold.”
Oh. Gaku forced himself up onto his elbows, his hard and frostbitten clothes moving with him, ice cracking at the joints. He really had been out here longer than he’d thought. “I’m fine,” he said, tugging off the scarf and holding it out to him. Tentatively, the boy took it back, clumsily wrapping the fabric around the lower half of his face. When he decided he was finished, he turned back to Gaku with wide eyes, his breath escaping in little puffs of air through the folds.
Then his nose seemed to scrunch up in delight, the corners of a smile peeking over the scarf. Two mittens grabbed hold of Gaku’s sleeve, tugging insistently. “Nii-chan,” he called, his little boots scrambling in the snow. “Play with me!”
Gaku was half-pulled to his feet, one bare hand pushing itself off the frozen field. The boy was practically vibrating with excitement, jerking Gaku’s hand up and down like some crude attempt at a handshake. How old was this kid, anyway? Three, maybe four, probably. Definitely too young to be out here on his own.
Not that that was any of Gaku’s concern. He jerked his arm back, holding it high and out of reach. “No.”
The boy stared up at him, his cheeks red with cold. “Why not?”
Gaku’s lips screwed into a frown, eyes narrowing. There must have been a thousand reasons, easily—but now that he considered it, he couldn’t come up with an answer. Not a satisfactory one, at least. There was no point in going home when his brother was in one of these moods. His parents wouldn’t notice his absence, or even care if they did. Frankly, he would probably end up just aimlessly wandering through town until the sun set and he was forced back to the house.
The boy was looking up at him expectantly, eyes sparkling as he rolled back and forth on the balls of his feet. Gaku stared down at him for a long second, before reaching forward and tucking the ends of the scarf into the child’s coat. “What’s your name?”
“Sa,” the boy began, before giving a short sneeze. He wiped at his nose with a soaked mitten before trying again. “Satoru.”
“Okay, Satoru,” he replied. “I’m Mikohara. Mikohara Gaku.”
“Mm,” he muttered, his brow furrowing. “Mi—miko—” There was another moment of effort as the boy’s face curled in on frustration, before two gloved hands grasped at his sleeve once again. His expression melted into one of easy joy, tugging at the fabric as he exclaimed: “Gaku-nii!”
Gaku sighed, allowing himself to be led by Satoru’s tiny hands. Close enough.
By the time he walked home the next day, Gaku had already written Satoru off as a one-time irregularity: an anomaly, a brief blip in his schedule and nothing more. An outlier that could promptly be considered, assessed, and discarded.
Which wasn’t to say that their afternoon together had been unpleasant. Even he had to admit that time had passed… marginally faster than usual. Satoru was a pleasant enough distraction: something to keep his thoughts from becoming as beaten and numb as his skin. But Gaku was pragmatic: the odds of that same boy being in that same field, at the same time, two days in a row, was just—
He raised his head, just in time to watch Satoru trip and fall face-first into the snow with a soft whump.
Gaku sighed and trudged towards the younger boy, gently slipping his hands under those small shoulders and lifting him up to his feet. Satoru’s features were squeezed up in displeasure, clumpfuls of snow sitting stuck to his face. Gaku bit down a scoff and began to wipe it off with his bare fingers, feeling the heat of Satoru’s skin burning under his touch. “You should be careful,” he mumbled. “Or you’ll get hurt one day.”
Satoru squeezed one of his eyes open. “Like Gaku-nii?”
His hand stopped, fingertips hovering against the boy’s frozen cheek. “What?”
“Gaku-nii,” he began, impatiently wiping at his face with his sleeves, “has ouches.”
‘Ouches.’ He had to suppress a snort at that. Dully, Gaku wondered if Satoru knew everything that stupid word encompassed: if the little child in front of him had any idea about the kicks against his ribs, the knuckles in his gut, the blood dotting his porcelain sink. The more he thought about it, the more he could feel a vaguely surprised, unsettled something sinking into his stomach. The fact that Satoru of all people, a child, had seen, had noticed—
“Gaku-nii,” he whined, impatiently tugging at the older boy’s frozen fingers. “Snow castle?”
“Of course,” he said absently, plucking Satoru’s bucket from where it had been dropped. “Let’s make some snow castles.”
Somehow, impossibly—Satoru became incorporated into his routine.
As always, Gaku would wake up half an hour before his alarm and trudge into the bathroom. He’d brush his teeth, comb his hair, and wipe away the blood that had only cropped up in the night. Only when his face was properly clean could he properly assess the damage. With a practiced precision, Gaku would take stock of his own skin, counting the cuts and the contusions—a mental checklist, clicking like an abacus in his mind.
Then, unfeelingly, he would stare at his empty reflection in the mirror and fish out the bandages. His fingers would run along the adhesive edges in all the right ways, keeping them securely stuck against his skin. He would rub creams into the darker bruises to help them heal faster, before those too were covered in band-aids and gauze. Only when his wounds were dressed could Gaku dress himself too, trudging out of his room with the smell of antiseptic clinging to him like a second skin.
And on his way home from school, he passed by that field.
For better of for worse, Gaku had rules—little things like don’t cry out and there’s no point in shedding tears. Likewise, he had one for Satoru. Gaku told himself that he wouldn’t go unless someone called his name; told himself that he only stepped over the bank every time because it would be more effort to get Satoru to leave him alone. Told himself that if one day, if that boy didn’t come rushing out of the tall grass, it wouldn’t bother him in the slightest. Not at all.
Gaku never had to find out if that was true. Like clockwork, fifteen minutes after the final bell rang, just as he rounded the bend onto that cracked road, he’d hear the patter of little feet crunching through the snow. Every day, Satoru rushed forward with little arms waving wildly, a smile and a cry of Gaku’s name on his lips.
Frankly, it was impressive how much time they spent doing nothing. Sometimes, they built snow castles only to crush them; Satoru marched upon them with great roars and exaggerated motions, like the movie monsters he must have seen on TV. Once he was done, he usually turned his four-year-old destruction on Gaku. The older boy simply hummed and gave some non-committal agreement, murmuring: “How terrifying.” And that was, apparently, enough.
Sometimes they made snow angels or went “exploring” across the empty lot. Only once did they play hide and seek: while finding Satoru was easy enough—the boy often forgot he had legs, which would poke out of wherever he’d buried himself—but the opposite was not apparently true. Satoru had struggled to find Gaku and ultimately sat down in the snow, wailing and upset. It had taken the rest of the afternoon to calm him down, with Gaku repeatedly promising that he wouldn’t hide on him again.
And on the most active days—the ones where Satoru ran around the field, expending all the energy contained in his tiny limbs—their afternoons usually ended with Gaku sitting cross-legged in the snow, a napping Satoru in his lap, content to simply watch the snow fall.
But no matter what, Gaku always left just as dusk began to creep up on them. He said his goodbyes before Satoru’s mother—who, he’d deduced, worked in the small business next door—came looking for her son. He’d leave Satoru in that field with a promise to see him tomorrow, and go home. Eat dinner. Let his brother release his pent-up frustrations. Do his homework. Take a bath.
Gaku raked his fingers through the shampoo suds in his hair, staring at the blood dripping down onto tile. Rinse. Repeat.
The routine continued uninterrupted, like soldiers marching in a military line, the days stretching into weeks. Until it didn’t.
Something was wrong with Satoru.
And more importantly, Gaku didn’t know what it was. A four-year-old could, frankly, only have so many motivators and emotions; the world was simple when you couldn’t even count to ten, and simple problems often had simple solutions. Most of Satoru’s minor tantrums were easily fixed with a pat on the head or some half-hearted speech about courage.
But this—this was different. For some reason, it always started just as the sky was beginning to get dark: Satoru’s face would turn pinched, his mittens curling into little fists. At first, it was small—the demand for one more game, one more snow angel, please Gaku-nii? But Gaku always had to leave, and he told Satoru so, hastily gathering his things and trudging back towards home.
It only got worse from there. More than once, Gaku had to wrestle Satoru to the ground to get the boy to give him back his pencil case. One evening, Gaku walked back to where he’d stashed his backpack only to find his books missing, the bag packed full of rocks and snow. Once, when he’d thought Satoru was napping in his lap, the kid had even attempted to tie the laces of Gaku’s boots together. (Luckily, Satoru didn’t even know how to tie his own shoes, so it was ultimately a moot point—but the intent was there.)
All of that had, somehow, led to this: Satoru, standing there with a piece of lumber in his hands, blocking the path back to the road. Gaku felt the last of his patience leave him in an irritated exhale, words snapping out through grit teeth. “Satoru,” he snarled. “Move.”
“No,” the boy puffed. His entire lower face was buried in his thick scarf, but Gaku could still see those little eyes, narrowed into a glare between his bangs.
“I have to go home, Satoru.”
“No!” The younger boy was yelling, now; he bumped the lumber against the ground with a stomp of his foot, clearly on the edge of a full-blown tantrum. Gaku huffed and gripped the straps of his bag, pulling the weight tight against his sore shoulders. He didn’t have time for this: if he missed dinner—or, if his brother came looking for him—
Gaku glared and pushed past the smaller child without another word, his eyes focused entirely on the road.
Only to feel two arms and at least one leg wrap around his shin. Gaku continued to walk, feeling the drag of Satoru’s small body in the snow. Every step was punctuated by a loud cry of frustration from below, Satoru’s shouts only intensifying when Gaku refused to stop. Out of spite, he continued to push forward, vaguely hoping Satoru would just fall off.
After nearly twenty steps forward, Gaku was forced to acknowledge that that wasn’t happening. But he couldn’t very well walk the whole way back to his house like this, either, a wailing urchin strapped to his leg. Gaku stopped and planted his feet in the snow, and with a harsh sigh, reached down to peel the toddler off. “Satoru—”
This time, the voice muffled into his pant-leg was quiet. “No,” he mumbled, burying his face further into the fabric. “No, Gaku-nii. Not home.”
Gaku pressed his hands to Satoru’s shoulders, gently easing the younger boy away from his leg. To his surprise, Satoru allowed it without much resistance. But his face was puffy and red, tears and a little bit of snot smeared across his cheeks as he hiccupped. “G-Gaku-nii,” he began, reaching up to rub at his eyes with his mittens, “gets the ouches when he goes home.”
Gaku stared wide-eyed down at the sniffling child in front of him, his fingers curling into Satoru’s shoulders.
This boy—he wasn’t even old enough to be in kindergarten yet, but he’d figured it out. Gaku logically knew that Satoru didn’t understand what he was saying, didn’t actually know what happened when Gaku left at the end of each day. Satoru had no idea about his brother’s rage, his nearly-broken bones, the bloody bandages buried in the bathroom’s garbage can. He probably couldn’t even understand the concept, let alone the reality.
Still, Satoru had managed to piece together the simple cause-and-effect of it.
If he let Gaku walk out of this field—if his Gaku-nii “goes home”—then he was going to get hurt.
Satoru was still standing there, staring up at him with resolute eyes, despite his shoulders jumping and hiccupping under Gaku’s hands. The realization was crashing down in Gaku’s ears, an impossibly loud white noise that was drowning out his thoughts. He didn’t know what to do with this information, didn’t know how to process it because—
Because he didn’t understand.
Why did Satoru even care? No one else did. His parents certainly didn’t. When his body crashed against the walls, his father buried his nose in his newspaper and his mother drowned out the sound with the tap. Gaku knew his teachers had figured out something, but all they offered him were pitying glances and a blind eye. On the rare occasion Gaku stopped at the convenience store for juice, the clerk stared at his bandages for a second, before simply shaking his head and asking for change.
Not that Gaku blamed them. He didn’t. Everyone had their own lives, their own problems. They didn’t need to trouble themselves with his—and likewise, he didn’t have to care about theirs. That was just the way things were. Why take on somebody else’s issues, when you already had to carry your own? You could only afford to care about yourself—though Gaku even found that to be a struggle, most days. It just didn’t make any sense to focus on anyone else.
And yet—and yet—
Gaku released his grip on Satoru’s shoulders, taking one step back, and then two.
“I,” he stuttered, his knuckles white as he clutched the straps on his bag. “I—I have to go.”
Satoru only gave a small whimper as Gaku turned tail, and fled.
When his brother’s knuckles crashed against his body that night—even when he could taste the blood, bitter and metallic on his tongue—for some reason, Gaku still thought of Satoru: shivering and crying in the field at dusk. Small, defenceless—and alone.
The next day, his walk home from school was painfully slow.
Not because of the contusions on his legs or the scrapes on his knees—he’d long learnt to trudge through those as if they were nothing. He didn’t even need to limp anymore, simply acknowledging the pain as it came, before pushing it into a corner of his mind. Boxing it away, like one of the crates in the family warehouse. Sealed, stamped, and forgotten.
So he couldn’t say why his steps slowed as he began to approach the field, or why his eyes resolutely refused to look over. He kept his gaze focused on the road ahead, counting the cracks in the pavement. If Satoru was, for some reason, still there—if he was playing as he always did and didn’t call out, chose not to, then—
Then that would be fine. Perfectly fine.
He wouldn’t care in the slightest.
Gaku continued to walk along the road, tracing the edge of the field.
He got half-way before he heard that familiar sound. “Gaku-nii!”
His shoulders immediately melted, a tension he hadn’t even recognized bleeding out of his muscles. Gaku turned—just in time to watch Satoru once again trip and fall face-first into the snow, with another soft, familiar whump. An unfamiliar feeling hummed inside his chest, buzzing and warm as he stepped over the bank.
“You have to stop doing that,” he muttered, lifting Satoru back to his feet, as he always did.
And the boy smiled up at him as he always did, extending his hands above his snow-covered head as he declared: “Play with me, Gaku-nii!”
Despite himself, Gaku felt the corners of his lips twitching up. “Okay.”
For some reason or another, Satoru was like a ball of pure energy: constantly seeking Gaku’s attention, demanding a new game, another dash through the dry grass, laughs bubbling up from his mouth. These were the days that would usually end in Satoru suddenly running out of power, like a toy whose batteries had given out. But today, he just kept going—as if his excitement simply couldn’t be contained beneath his skin.
In pure exasperation, Gaku lifted the boy and tossed him into a snowbank. All Satoru did was spread out his limbs and laugh, before demanding Gaku do it again.
Before he knew it, the sun was dipping low in the sky, the light turning warm with the coming sunset. Gaku was ruffling the hair on Satoru’s head—a habit which, somewhere along the line, had become tradition—when a shadow fell across their shared vision. His body reacted instinctually, the muscles tightening and tensing as he turned.
An adult: a stranger, someone whose face Gaku had never seen before. His eyes fell into a guarded, narrow stare—but before he got a chance a single question, Satoru answered it for him.
“Mama!” he cried, rushing from behind Gaku, his arms open wide.
The woman gave a small smile, crouching down to accept her son’s embrace. Once they were next to each other, Gaku was immediately struck by how similar Satoru and his mother looked: the same dark hair and sharp blue eyes were on both their faces, practically mirror images. The woman turned those eyes towards Gaku now, one hand combing through her son’s hair. “You must be the ‘Gaku-nii’ I’ve heard so much about.”
Immediately his spine was straightening, his face falling back into a polite impassivity. Out of habit, he gave a slight bow, his hands pressed against his thighs. “Mikohara Gaku,” he elaborated. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”
The woman’s smile warmed then, and she wrapped her child up in her arms before standing up straight, snow sticking to her knees. “Please, call me Sachiko. It’s a pleasure to meet you too.” A small, teasing glint was there in her eyes, and she looked down at the toddler clinging to the front of the coat. “To be honest, I was starting to think you were an imaginary friend of his or something.”
Satoru blinked back up at her, then back at Gaku, before beaming up at his mother again and tugging at her scarf. “Mama, Mama,” he whispered, his voice insistent and tight.
Sachiko only laughed, detangling her son’s tiny fingers from the fabric around her neck. “Did you ask Gaku-nii yet?” The child shook his head, pressing his cold fingers against the warmth of his mother’s throat. Sachiko gave him a smaller, more exasperated smile before turning her attention to the boy in front of her. “Satoru wanted to know if you’d join us for dinner.”
Gaku stared blankly up at her, his brain taking a second or two to process the invitation—then he turned his sharp gaze to the child in Sachiko’s arms. Satoru immediately buried his face into his mother’s shoulder, but Gaku didn’t miss the not-at-all guilty smile on his face first. It took a moment, but the realization hit him like a delivery truck.
His infinite energy, the endless distractions and games.
Satoru had been stalling for time.
Gaku didn’t know what was worse: that the four-year-old could be so conniving, or that he’d completely fallen for it. He pressed his lips together in dissatisfaction, before turning his gaze back to Sachiko. “My mother is expecting me,” he replied.
It wasn’t, strictly speaking, a lie: his mother would expect him to be home by dinner. Anything less was ‘bad form,’ as she put it. But Sachiko’s smile didn’t falter as she adjusted her grip on her son. “We can call her from our place and let her know,” she said. “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind you spending one evening at a friend’s house. Besides,” Sachiko added, giving a short wink, “I could use another mouth to feed. We bought too many groceries yesterday.”
Which Gaku immediately heard as we’ve been planning this since yesterday. Plotting must run in the family. Quickly, his mind was processing through the possible excuses, each one discounted almost as quickly as it appeared. He probably could come up with some reason if he really tried, but so much effort put into avoiding a simple dinner would be suspicious in and of itself.
And the last thing he wanted (or needed) was Satoru’s mother involving herself in his home life. Already, Gaku could see how the whole thing would play out: she would take interest for a little while, pretend that she bothered to care. But it would just be useless, in the end: like everyone else who looked too long, it was only a matter of time until she looked away.
He just had to keep up appearances until then. So Gaku let his grip loosen on his backpack’s straps, offering Sachiko another low bow. “Thank you for having me.”