He never really bothered to imagine where Satoru lived, but this was—Gaku stopped and turned the words over in his head. Small? Meagre? Modest, maybe. That was definitely the politest word he could think of. The building looked old, its outside walls stained with salt damage and rust. Quickly, he counted the doors leading to each home; without even stepping foot inside, Gaku could tell that each unit must be pitifully small.
Yet, despite that, the Fujinuma residence wasn’t unclean or unwarm: a wave of cozy heat met him the second Sachiko opened the door, carrying with it the smell of laundry detergent and cooking rice. A space heater rumbled away in the living room, glowing a faint red. In the entryway, hooks sat waiting on the wall, child-sized hats and sweaters hung up to dry.
Gaku stopped in the entrance, giving a short bow to the home as he slipped off his boots. “Pardon the intrusion.”
He called his mother as Sachiko cooked by the stove, his fingers tightly clutching the receiver. Once he got past his parent’s apparent surprise, getting permission to stay for dinner was… surprisingly easy. For better or for worse, she didn’t seem to care either way. And if she didn’t, then Gaku wouldn’t either: he felt nothing as he hung up the phone, turning his gaze back in Sachiko’s direction.
As if sensing the attention, she turned back to him, a wooden ladle buried in the pot and a hand on her hip. “Do you like your curry spicy, or mild?”
He blinked up at her. “Whatever is fine.”
Sachiko gave a little hum at that, bringing the spoon to her lips for a taste. “Are you sure?”
Gaku nodded, but the woman’s eye didn’t leave him, heavy and knowing.
“It’s okay to like things, Gaku-kun,” she continued, breaking her stare as she returned to stirring. “And it’s okay to say you don’t like things, too.”
There was a long beat of silence, the bruises under his sleeves suddenly aching. One look in her eyes, and Gaku got the immediate sense that this woman was—formidable. Not someone he would trifle with, if he could avoid it. So he didn’t bother trying: he turned towards the other room, slipping around the kitchen table with purposefully unhurried steps. “If you excuse me,” he muttered, “I’m going to go play with Satoru.”
He felt the weight of her gaze against his back, even after he crossed into the other room.
But any lingering concerns were instantly drowned out by a pair of bright blue eyes. The boy looked up at him, still lying face-down against the floor, his legs kicking aimlessly at the air. Broken and blunt crayons were scattered all around, and a messy scribble had been scratched onto the paper in front of him, little more than a jumble of mismatched colours. The sight eased some of the weight sitting in his lungs, and Gaku took a seat cross-legged on the floor, staring down at the rumpled page. “What are you drawing?”
Satoru turned back to the paper, rubbing more colour across one of the figures. “Gaku-nii and me.”
He stared back down at the picture, before tapping his finger against the taller shape. “Is that me?”
“Mm,” Satoru said, nodding as he stared intently down at the page.
Satoru looked up then, his eyes alight. “Just like Wonder Guy!”
Gaku raised a single eyebrow, and Satoru looked—he looked downright scandalized, his brow furrowing with purpose. The boy immediately scrambled to the corner of the room, shuffling up to the small corkboard leaning against the wall. He watched as Satoru plucked a cheap mask from where it was pinned before rushing back, insistently pressing the plastic against the older boy’s bandaged cheek. “This!” he continued. “See! Wonder Guy!”
Gaku gripped the toy in his hand, turning it over. The design was vaguely familiar: brilliant and bright red all over, with a black visor and gold details cheaply painted onto the face of it. Clearly it was supposed to be… some kind of superhero character. The kind that Gaku had heard his classmates talking about, once or twice. An elastic was strung across the back, so it was intended to be worn, but the mask was almost comically big compared to Satoru’s smaller head.
Gaku raised an eyebrow at it, before glancing back down at the four-year-old still beaming up at him. “And you think I’m… like this.”
“Mhm!” Satoru nodded, still trying to push the mask onto his older friend’s face. “Gaku-nii’s like a hero!”
He stared blankly down at Satoru, holding the toy above his head and out of the reach of those shorter arms. “Why?”
Satoru’s gave an irritated whine, his bottom bouncing back down into a clumsy sit. “Even when Gaku-nii gets ouches,” he began, his face filled with a childish intensity, “he always gets back up! Just like Wonder Guy!”
Gaku stared down at him, thoroughly unimpressed.
Obviously, Gaku had never believed in heroes. It was a flawed concept to begin with: humans simply didn’t look beyond their own problems, didn’t go around choosing to “save people.” No one interfered in his life, so he didn’t interfere in theirs; that was just the way of things, and he’d long since accepted it as the way of the world—just like everyone else had. As far as he was concerned, heroes were like unicorns and dragons: a fairy tale, something told to children to help them sleep at night.
But even someone like Gaku could see that Satoru’s definition of a superhero was far too wide.
After all, Gaku had never struggled for anyone or anything in his life. He had never found something worth fighting for, something worth protecting. There wasn’t anything noble in the constant bruises, the screams he’d learnt to swallow, the blood dripping into the bathroom sink. He wasn’t even sure why he got up every morning, other than simply following the motions of routine, combined with having nothing better to do.
And yet. Satoru’s bright, insistent eyes were still there, a smile stretched across his face. Everything in him exuded fondness and pride, staring as if Gaku somehow held the entire world in his hands. Looking up at him like he was a hero.
So Gaku held the mask up against his face, the mask pressing against the blood-stained gauze on his face. “Sure,” he muttered, his voice muffled by the plastic. “I’m just like Wonder Guy.”
It wasn’t long until Sachiko called them into the kitchen for dinner. He ate the curry mechanically, occasionally looking up to stare at the younger boy sitting across the table. Satoru ate eagerly, as if his life depended on it, clutching a wide, plastic spoon in his fist. Sachiko did most of the talking, for all of their sakes—politely asking Gaku about his school, his hobbies, if he lived in the area. He answered as minimally as he could, carefully balancing secrecy and formality, turning the spices over on his tongue.
By the time they had cleared away the plates, a steady, thick snow was falling outside the windows. Gaku was already twisting his scarf around his neck when Sachiko brushed the curtains aside, staring disapprovingly at the weather. He could already see where the conversation was going, and didn’t even flinch when she finally spoke. “Will you be alright getting home, Gaku-kun?”
“I’ll be fine,” he replied, quietly shrugging on his coat. The warm food had—finally—done Satoru in: the boy was slumbering on the main room’s floor, not even waiting for his mother to make his bed. So Gaku made sure to speak softly; leaving would be much easier without Satoru tugging at his clothes and begging him to stay. He’d been through that enough, as of late.
But, clearly, Sachiko was intending to do it on her son’s behalf. She turned away from the glass door leading to the back, watching him like a hawk. “Why don’t you call your mom and see if you can spend the night?”
“Thank you for your concern,” he replied immediately. “But I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you, Sachiko-san.”
A soft hand fell on his shoulder, and Gaku froze to a stop underneath it. Sachiko gently crouched down in front of him, meeting him at his level, eye-to-eye. “You aren’t an inconvenience, Gaku,” she said, her eyes serious. Then, her gaze melted into something warmer and over-all less intimidating, an easy smile on her lips. “And I definitely wouldn’t want my son to be walking home in this weather. I’m sure your mother will understand.”
For a long second, he watched her, his fingers hovering on the buttons of his coat. Sachiko gave a knowing hum, then, propping her hand against her cheek. “You know,” she said, smirking, “Satoru will be sad if you leave before he got a chance to say goodbye.”
Demon. Gaku frowned, before tearing his eyes away to stare at his boots. “I’ll… give her a call, then.”
His mother agreed to the sleepover easily, and Gaku held the receiver to his ear long after she’d hung up. A part of him thought she would put up more of a fight: he was staying with a family she’d never met, after all. He’d never so much as mentioned Satoru before, let alone Sachiko. They could have been convenient lies, as fictional and deliberate as any lie ever was. Or worse: a malicious reality, waiting with bated breath for Gaku to stumble beyond his parent’s reach.
And yet, she said yes. Just like that.
Gaku listened to the dead line drone in his ear, a dull and toneless flatline.
Slowly, he set the phone down, letting to it clang against the receiver.
He stared at the phone, as if waiting for it to ring again.
Sachiko slipped back out of the other room, something tucked under her arm. Quietly, she slid the door nearly closed behind her, leaving only the smallest of cracks open. Despite the darkness in the living room, Gaku could still see the corner of a futon, the covers rising and falling with each of Satoru’s tiny breaths.
Sachiko walked back up to Gaku with a tired smile, holding out a pile of clothes. “I bought these for when Satoru got a bit bigger,” she whispered, “but I don’t think he’ll mind if you break them in first.”
Gaku looked down at her hands, and accepted the bundle without a word. It was a set of carefully folded pyjamas: a button-up shirt and loose pants, patterned with blue stripes. He slowly brushed his thumbs against the flannel, feeling the threads. The fabric was still crisp under his touch, new and unused. It even still had that new-from-the-store smell, sharp like plastic and packaging. All it was missing was the tags.
No matter which way he looked at it, Satoru was barely four—he wouldn’t need something in this size for years. Gaku pressed his lips tightly together, his fingers curling into the fabric. “Thank you, Sachiko-san.”
“It’s my pleasure,” she replied, before nodding towards a door down the hall. “The bath should be ready by now. Go ahead and clean up, and I’ll make you a bed.”
He nodded again, turning his back to her. Gaku moved sluggishly towards the bathroom, like a machine with rusted parts, his muscles stuttering with every step. His carefully crafted routine was—for better or for worse—out of reach. He kept his face even and impassive, but under his carefully crafted mask, Gaku was a train that had jumped the track: flailing and careening with sparks under his feet and a screeching in his brain. Without the iron keeping him steady, there was just—freefall.
But there was nothing to be done about it. All he could do was wait for gravity to swing the other way again, throwing him back on course. So he didn’t give Sachiko another glance as he slipped into the bathroom, quietly shutting the door behind him.
Immediately, he felt the heat, thick with moisture and the smell of soap. The bath hadn’t been sitting there for very long, but the steam had already coated every surface, turning every tile slick and wet. Gaku could feel it licking at his pores, seeping through his clothes and plastering them against his skin. With practiced motions, his bruised fingers began to unbutton his clothes, his shirt and pants falling to the floor.
Then, he stopped, his head turning to stare at the mirror above the sink.
Fog coated the surface, and with a hand, Gaku wiped the condensation away. Out of habit, he analyzed his reflection—but it was the same as it always was. The same dull, dark eyes. The same mottled, black bruises. One of the bandages on his cheek was peeling in the steam; he absently pressed his fingers back against the ridges, trying to stick it back against his skin.
It fell away again, limp and useless, just barely hanging on.
Gaku stared at the mirror, watching the fog creep back in. “Like a hero, huh.”
Drops of water were rushing down the glass, sliding across his face. He looked away from it, turning his attention to the tub. His feet padded across the room in wet slaps, and he inhaled deeply, staring down at the water. As always, he sank slowly into it, his body waiting for that familiar pain: the sting of searing heat on fresh wounds, iron-hot and biting. He settled under the water, and waited for that discomfort to come.
After a minute, Gaku opened his eyes, and stared forward at his feet.
Nothing hurt. Well, he supposed that made sense. He hadn’t seen his brother since that morning, and the beatings—as a general rule—only came after school. He’d circumvented going home entirely, which meant avoiding those fists altogether. Not the intended outcome, admittedly, but not an unwelcome one, either.
He wriggled his toes without a single aftershock of pain, and Gaku let himself sink down under the water, the bath rising above his nose and mouth.
For the first time since he could remember, he just let himself soak, something warm settling in his bones.
Gaku hadn’t realized how different waking up in someone else’s house could be. Back home, the morning was structured: time was allotted for every step, an assembly line creating the person known as “Mikohara Gaku.” He had expected that that wasn’t going to be possible—he didn’t have his supplies, or a bathroom he could commandeer as his own.
What he hadn’t expected was how… relaxed everything was. Satoru was barely even awake at breakfast, his little eyes blearily blinking at the world from his booster seat. More than once, Gaku had given his face a poke—and it took a few seconds for the toddler to even acknowledge the action, his face scrunching up in annoyance. “Gaku-nii, stop,” he whined, rubbing at his cheek.
“You have to eat,” he muttered back, turning his attention back to his own plate. Everything always felt worse on an empty stomach. Satoru pouted in his direction, but spooned the rice into his mouth all the same.
Gaku got ready with pin-point precision, even in an unfamiliar environment. He didn’t question why the first aid kit had been left out on the sink, nor where the new toothbrush—still shrink-wrapped in fresh plastic—had come from. Sachiko had laundered his clothing in the night, and Gaku slipped back into them without complaint. No one would notice that he was wearing the same thing: his wardrobe was static enough as it was, filled with dark pants and button-up shirts.
But the fabric was softer than he remembered, and an altogether not unpleasant smell clung to his clothes. It was a scent he had always associated with Satoru, and he found he didn’t mind being wrapped up in it, now.
When they finally stepped out of the house, it was with a half-awake Satoru still dozing against his mother’s shoulder. Gaku’s school wasn’t far from where Sachiko worked—obviously—and they walked there in companionable silence, fresh snow crunching under their feet. Gaku’s own mother had never walked him towards school, but it felt oddly natural when Sachiko did it.
Just once, Satoru blinked his eyes open, and stared down at the older boy. “Gaku-nii,” he mumbled, his words slurred against the lapels of his mother’s coat, “no ouches?”
He pressed his lips together, staring straight ahead. “No, Satoru,” he assured him. “No ouches.”
If Sachiko heard—and it was impossible for her not to—she pretended not to notice, clutching her son close.
They stopped only when they reached the edge of the field, steps away from the entrance to Sachiko’s work. It was only a few blocks to school now, and Gaku bowed down low, his hands clutching at the straps of his bookbag. “Thank you for having me,” he said.
“It was our pleasure,” Sachiko replied, gently setting Satoru down on his own two feet. The boy swayed for a moment, before reaching to clutch at his mother’s coat for balance, a sleepy yawn stretching his face. Sachiko laid one hand on her son’s head. “You’re welcome anytime, Gaku-kun,” she added, her voice oddly serious. “Don’t be afraid to drop in, even without notice. Okay?”
She stared at him, and he realized she was expecting an answer. So he forced himself to nod, murmuring: “Okay.”
Sachiko watched him for a second, but was apparently satisfied by whatever she saw, looking back down at her son. “Satoru,” she said gently, “say goodbye to Gaku-nii. He’s going off to school.”
Satoru sluggishly nodded, before giving a small wave with his free hand. “Bye-bye.”
“Goodbye, Satoru. Sachiko-san,” he added, giving another short bow. Without another look, he turned on his heel, continuing his route to school. Behind him, he could hear the Fujinuma’s voices, fading away a little more with every step. Gaku took a long, deep breath, tasting the cold Ishikari air on his tongue once again.
Somehow, he’d made it through—and once the morning bell rang, everything would be back to normal. Back to routine. The way it always was, and always had been.
For some reason, that didn’t bring him any relief.
School passed by in the same blur it always did. Gaku did his work diligently, keeping his nose buried in his books and pretending to care. He answered when called upon; the problems were all simple and mundane, only bits and pieces of what he’d already picked up in his spare time. During break, the chatter of his classmates swelled around him, and he plastered that charming smile on his face.
Here, he wasn’t ‘Gaku-nii,’ with his bloodied nose and bandaged body. He was ‘Mikohara-kun’—the understanding class rep who lived without a care in the world, save for the love letters tucked into his shoe locker every week.
(And if he listened attentively when someone brought up some superhero show, it meant nothing.)
The afternoon trudged by slowly, and Gaku turned his face towards the windows. Somewhere along the line, this too had become a habit: watching the weather, keeping an eye on the thermometer hanging outside the classroom window. Satoru was outside for most of the day, playing in that open field. Gaku knew if it got too cold out, that Sachiko would convince her boss to let Satoru wait in the staff room next to the space heater.
But it didn’t stop his stomach from twisting every time the mercury dipped lower, crawling below zero.
There was an itching under his skin by the time the final bell rang, and Gaku began to pack his things, biting at the inside of his cheek. He didn’t know what this feeling was: this irritated buzzing in his bones, the sensation of something sinking deep into his chest. He could deal with pain on his skin, the cuts and the bruises and the hairline fractures. Somehow, this—whatever ‘this’ was—was worse.
He gave the quickest of cursory goodbyes to his classmates, and stepped out of the school gates, immediately turning down that familiar road. The weather really had gotten worse since the morning: it was cold like the day he had first met Satoru, where every breeze felt like a splash of frozen water, cutting through his clothes. So he ducked his head down and walked a little faster, his hands buried deep into the pockets of his coat.
Gaku got to the field quickly, his chest rising and falling heavily, his breaths coming out as deep puffs of air. He immediately spied Satoru, his dark blue coat stark against the white snow—and Gaku felt his shoulders slump in relief. The knot that had formed in his stomach slowly unravelled, and he stepped up and over the bank separating the grass from the road.
The boy looked up from the snow castle he was trying to build, instantly dropping the bucket in favour of raising his hands, both arms waving above his head. “Ga—”
His eyes widened, and Gaku turned around—just in time for his brother’s fist to slam into his face.
He staggered back, his feet scrambling to catch his weight in the snow. Somehow, he managed to stay standing, the familiar taste of copper and metal pooling in his mouth. Gaku felt his mind jerk back to reality, watching as his brother stalked towards him, fists shaking and teeth bared. “Where the fuck were you last night?”
Satoru. Gaku inhaled slowly, and resolutely refused to look over, his gaze trained on his sibling. “Nowher—”
The next blow landed against his nose, crashing against cartilage with familiar crack. This time, Gaku went down hard—his back slamming against the packed-down snow, dry grass and twigs snapping underneath his weight. He’d long gotten over the instinct to reach for the wound, but he could feel the blood pouring down his face, hot and thick. With a wince, he tried to push himself to his elbows, at least—but was rewarded with his brother’s boot, burying itself deep in his stomach.
“Bullshit!” The next kick came faster, deeper—and the one after that, and the one after that too. Gaku coughed as the air was punted out of his lungs, splatters of red staining the snow underneath his face. Squeezing his eyes shut, he resisted the urge to curl in on himself; that always made it worse in the end, the target shifting from his torso to his head. Instead, he forced himself to go limp, his body skidding a little with every blow.
Somewhere above, his brother cursed again, the heel of his foot landing against Gaku’s shoulder. “This is your fault, you know,” he growled, kicking him onto his back. Gaku couldn’t help but cough as some of the blood hit the back of his mouth, the red bubbling against his lips. Still, he cracked his eyes open, staring up at his sibling’s rabid eyes. “If you’d just come back last night—if you’d just been home, then—!”
His words were cut off with a dull thunk.
Gaku blinked up at him, every breath rattling under his ribs. For a brief moment, neither of them moved—and it took Gaku a few seconds to recognize the long piece of wood that had just bumped against the back of his brother’s head.
With wide eyes, Gaku dropped his gaze down, to the person holding the end of the lumber between his little hands. Tears were streaking down Satoru’s face, his shoulders jumping with every hiccup—but he held on to his makeshift weapon, glaring up at the enemy. “L-leave,” he stuttered, swallowing thickly, “leave Gaku-nii alone!”
Gaku stared at him, a chill burying itself in his gut. “S-Satoru—”
“‘Gaku-nii’?” His brother’s lips twisted into a sneer, his eyes darting between the two younger boys at his feet. “Don’t tell me you’ve been playing house with this brat every day.”
Say something. Gaku could feel his mind running a mile a minute; there has never been a problem that didn’t have an answer for, never a situation he couldn’t talk his way out of. He parted his lips, trying to force the words onto his bloodied tongue—but his brother’s attention was already elsewhere, his entire body pivoting towards Satoru’s shaking form. “Hey, kid,” he said, his fingers flexing by his sides, “did your ‘Gaku-nii’ ever tell you about minding your own business?”
Gaku could see the moment Satoru’s bravado shattered, his stiff fingers suddenly losing their grip. The lumber flopped to the ground, and the boy took a few slow, frightened steps back, his hands curling into little nervous fists against his chest. “I—h-he—”
“Obviously not,” his brother spat, planting his feet in the snow. Gaku felt his breath catch in his throat; he knew that stance, knew what it meant. His broken body forced itself onto his elbows, a long line of blood slipping from his lips. Not fast enough: he watched as his brother’s sneer twisted into a humorless smirk, his right hand clenching tight. “Let me give you a life lesson, kid.”
In that moment, Gaku became aware of a lot of things: the way Satoru’s eyes widened, his shoulders hunching in on themselves. His brother’s leg swinging back, bracing to lean into the punch. The way his own pain fell away, buried beneath something he’d later recognize as adrenaline. But more than anything, Gaku was aware of the way his eyes narrowed—the way his teeth grit, his lips curling back into a snarl he’d only ever seen on his sibling’s face.
Like a math problem, Gaku could feel his mind tallying up the signs, the conclusion snapping together in his core. For the first time, he could feel that fire burning in his belly, the steam leaving his mouth in a ragged pant. His feet scrambled against the snow, his body vaulting forward, staggering through the air. There was a name for this feeling: something like fury or rage, but Gaku didn’t care about that now, because—
Gaku-nii always gets back up! Just like Wonder Guy!
Gaku’s fist crashed into his brother’s face, and they both went down.