It took a little over a month for his parents to break.
Gaku didn’t know if that was longer, or shorter, than he had expected. Maybe he hadn’t really expected anything at all—they’d never showed interest or concern in his life before, and had no reason to think they’d suddenly start now. So, after a week or so of adjustment, he’d fallen into a new kind of routine at the Fujinuma household: one where he didn’t need to reach for the first aid kit every morning, and he went to sleep without a single bruise on his skin.
After a few days of living in their tiny apartment, Gaku had insisted on contributing somehow—which is how he ended up as Sachiko’s designated sous-chef, carefully cutting vegetables in comfortable silence at her elbow.
He thought about his blood family a little at first, but even those thoughts quickly fell by the wayside. Instead, he focused on the heat of Satoru’s hand in his as the toddler walked him to school every day, sleepily stumbling the whole way.
And it was—nice. Class was as tedious and monotonous as it always had been, his classmates idly chattering all around. But without the ever-present ache in his bones, Gaku found it (mildly) more tolerable. And once the day was done, he was all the more eager to leave, walking with quick steps to the field where he knew Satoru would be waiting for him.
He should have known it wouldn’t last—but at the time, he was content to just float through one day to the next, willfully ignorant and blissfully naïve.
That night, Gaku had offered to do the dishes after dinner; his arms were elbow-deep in soap and suds, his feet balancing on a stepstool in front of the sink. Satoru was too small to really be of much use when it came to cleaning up, but he stayed in the kitchen anyway, rabidly sketching at the table. Distantly, he could hear Sachiko pulling the futons out of the closet, the thick fabric giving an audible thump as it was shaken out. The silence was lulling and warm—so much so that when the phone began to ring, Gaku almost dropped his plate.
Satoru’s head snapped up too, but all he did was look in the direction of the machine, his legs kicking at the air. “Phone ringing.”
“I know, I know,” Sachiko called back, stepping back into the kitchen. She patted her hands against her jeans as she walked over, muttering something about the hour. After tucking some hair behind her ear, she lifted the receiver off the machine, pressing the speaker against her head. “Fujinuma residence, Sachiko speaking.”
For a second she was quiet, before giving a curious hum, leaning her back against the wall. “Mikohara-san,” she began, and Gaku froze. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
With stiff fingers, Gaku set the cup he was washing into the drying tray, pretending not to be listening as intently as he was.
His father—well, or mother, he supposed either was possible—must have had a lot to say, because Sachiko had gone completely silent, staring intently at nothing as she listened. Gaku resolved himself to leaving the rest of the dishes to soak for the night, twisting the tap closed and reaching for a dish towel. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched his makeshift-guardian, standing unnaturally still as he wiped his hands.
“That’s a decision he’ll have to make for himself,” she said, her gaze flickering to her charge. “If he wants to hear you out.”
Gaku’s grip twisted into the towel, but he gave a curt nod.
Sachiko nodded as well, a confirmation to him more than anything else. “Yeah, tonight works,” she said, tangling the phone’s cord between her fingers. “You still remember the address, I take it.” Gaku could hear the sound of someone on the other end of the line, and Sachiko gave a small affirmative hum. “Exactly. See you soon.”
She set the handset back against the base with a small ring, before placing her hands on her hips with a short, irritated sigh. It only took her a moment to recover, though, immediately turning towards the two boys with a warm smile. “It’s getting pretty late,” she said, her gaze dropping onto her son. “Satoru, you should probably be getting to bed.”
The boy immediately frowned, his mouth opening in what was sure to be a whine. Gaku cut it off at the source, though, poking the boy’s cheek. “Don’t argue with your mother,” he chastised. This wasn’t a conversation he wanted Satoru to hear, either.
Luckily—and with some encouragement from Gaku—they got Satoru tucked in with minimal fuss. He’d developed a habit of falling asleep clutching at Gaku’s arm, but second pillow seemed to be a good enough substitute. Sachiko silently shut the door to the living room as Gaku began filling up the kettle; his father considered it rude when there wasn’t tea ready for guests.
At his side, Sachiko moved to start preparing the teapot. “Are you sure you’re ready for this, Gaku?”
Not really. But then again, he didn’t think he ever would be, so he nodded.
“Okay,” she said, giving him a playful nudge. “Let’s give him hell, kid.”
His father arrived fifteen minutes later, and to Gaku, he might as well have been a stranger. Of course, he recognized him—but in a way, it was like he was looking at his parent for the first time, with fresh eyes. How he kept he kept his back deliberately, achingly straight; the fact that he brought his briefcase, even now; the pressed lines of his suit, crisp and sharp—all of it just screamed fake, and Gaku wondered how he had never seen it before.
His father cleared his throat as he took a seat at the kitchen table, his slicked-back hair shining in the light. Sachiko politely offered him some of the tea they had brewed, and he accepted with a slight incline of his head, his lips still pressed into a firm line. By the time they had all settled in, it was Gaku and Sachiko on one side of the table, and his father on the other—two opposing armies, staring each other down across the battlefield.
His father sipped at his tea, and as he set it down, he cleared his throat. “Well,” he started, laying his hands one on top of the other, “I would like to discuss terms.”
Of course he would treat this like a negotiation. Maybe once, that wouldn’t have seemed so strange, so completely out-of-place—but it was wrong here, at the Fujinumas’ kitchen table. Gaku forced his face to remain even, but all he wanted to do was scowl: it felt like a disrespect to this place, warmer and more like home than that house had ever been.
His father’s fingers tapped against his own knuckles, betraying the mask of calm on his face. “Tomorrow, Gaku’s brother will be leaving our home,” he explained, clinical and detached, as if he weren’t talking about his own flesh and blood. “We have found a residential program that would be willing to accept him. The minimum term is one year, with the possibility of being extended annually.”
Gaku straightened at that, blinking rapidly. He knew that Sachiko had said something along those lines, but—he didn’t think his parents would actually do it. They hadn’t done anything about the situation before, and frankly, he hadn’t expected that to change—especially now, after so many weeks away from home. If they had been serious about changing things, why had it taken so long?
Gaku’s brows furrowed. He knew why.
“So your neighbours finally noticed Gaku was gone, huh,” Sachiko said, thoroughly unimpressed.
“My wife and I just want our son home,” his father replied, without a hint of feeling.
Sachiko gave a low, disbelieving hum at that. “Speaking of you and your wife, Mikohara-san,” she said, leaning forward until her elbows were propped up on the table. “While your older child may have been the catalyst for Gaku-kun’s situation, I have to question why it had been allowed to reach this point in the first place.”
“Boys roughhouse all the time,” his father quipped back, clearly prepared. “We had not realized the extent to which our sons were escalating the situation.”
“Son,” Sachiko corrected, her jaw clenching.
But his father was having none of it, a single eyebrow rising above his glasses. “Which is why my other boy came back beaten black and blue the day you brought Gaku here,” he retorted, before holding his hands up placatingly. “But we are not here to lay blame, are we, Fujinuma-san? I trust we all want a mutually beneficial resolution.”
“I think you mean what’s best for Gaku-kun,” she countered, the stiffness in her shoulders betraying the calmness of her tone. Gaku watched her from the corner of his eye, but opted to remain silent; he wanted to hear what his father had to say to the adult in the room, before the man tried to placate him with empty platitudes.
“Of course.” A plastic smile was slapped onto his parent’s face. “As I mentioned, we have made the decision that outside intervention would be beneficial to my son’s development. In light of that, I don’t see any reason why Gaku shouldn’t be allowed to come home.” There was a glint in his eye, and he added casually, as if it were the easiest thing in the world: “And I think a judge would agree.”
Gaku felt like he’d been punched again, his eyes widening.
“You’re a single parent, aren’t you, Fujinuma-san?” he continued, his voice and posture completely relaxed, as if they were simply talking about the weather. He reached down for his cup, swirling the tea inside with slow, languid motions. “A lawyer would be quite the expense, especially on a single income such as yours. Besides, I’d rather resolve this issue amicably, if possible.”
You call this amicable? Gaku kept his lips firmly shut, glaring across the table. To her credit, if the threat had phased Sachiko, she didn’t let it show; her face remained even and steady, staring resolutely at the man sitting in her home and threatening her to her face. “You know, I still have friends at Ishikari TV,” she replied. “I wonder what they would say if they heard you talking like that, Mikohara-san.”
For a brief second, his father’s façade seemed to flinch—but then it was back again, as hollow as ever. “I don’t think anyone here wants this to turn into a public brawl, do we?” he asked, his fingers drumming along his cup. “We both just want what’s best for our children, after all. Speaking of which—how old is your son again, Fujinuma-san?”
This time, Gaku couldn’t swallow his irritation, snapping harshly. “Leave Satoru out of this.”
Finally, for the first time, his father’s gaze slid his way. “Gaku,” he began, a forced levity slithering into his tone. “Don’t you think it’s time to put a stop to this foolishness? Your mother misses you.”
Gaku suppressed the scoff in his throat. The only thing his mother missed was not being the gossip of the street. He stared blankly forward at his parent, unfeeling and unperturbed, his fingers entwined in his lap. Silent. His father waited a few seconds for a reply, but when it was clear there would be none, he casually turned his attention back to Sachiko. “We fulfilled the requirement you imposed on us.”
“You did,” she said, crossing her arms. “But it’s not my decision. You raised a smart kid, Mikohara-san.” She stopped and nodded in Gaku’s direction without taking her eyes off the man. “So I’m more than happy to let him decide what he wants for himself.”
Yet again, Gaku found himself in his father’s crosshairs—black eyes meeting black, impassive stares reflecting back into each other. In hindsight, he wondered how many of his habits came from the man in front of him; if he’d learned to pack every emotion away watching this caricature of a parent in front of him. Deep inside of his gut, Gaku felt that still-foreign lick of hate, curling in his stomach.
He wanted nothing more than to tear his father’s perfect world down. Wanted to watch his miniature dynasty and crafted persona crumble, like a statue torn from its pedestal. And if that meant waking up every day in this apartment, if it meant that he would spend every morning and evening with Satoru’s beaming smile at his side—then that would hardly be a loss. If anything, the idea made his blood buzz with something like longing.
But. His father’s threat was still there, skulking beneath the surface of civil conversation. This man was on the city council, with a pocket book filled with friends in the justice system. Was it so hard to imagine that he could have Sachiko dragged away in handcuffs? Gaku stared into that cool expression, and knew the answer immediately. Even if she somehow got a lawyer for free, even if she wasn’t found guilty—it would be a long and bloody fight.
For her, yes—but more importantly, for Satoru. Gaku felt a shiver trail up his spine. He already knew that the Fujinumas had no other relatives, no family except each other. If Sachiko was sentenced to jail time, then—then Satoru would have to go to an—
No. Gaku felt his fingers twitch, cutting off the thought before it had a chance to take root. Just imagining it made his intestines twist.
“If he’s not leaving until tomorrow,” Gaku said, his voice flat, “then I have until then to decide, don’t I?”
“That seems fair to me,” Sachiko agreed, tipping her chin in the man’s direction. “Unless you have any objections?”
The enemy tapped his fingers against the knuckle of his other hand. “Of course not,” he said, feigning empathy. “Take all the time that you need, Gaku.”
Which meant, in his father’s twisted tongues, that the clock was ticking. It was already relatively late at night; that left him a little under twenty-four hours to sort through the pros and cons, weighing benefits and risks behind his eyelids. Gaku leaned back into his seat, his hands gripping each other tightly under the table, staring down at his lap. At his side, Sachiko continued to talk, ironing out details for tomorrow night.
But Gaku found his attention pulled elsewhere.
The door between the two rooms was open a crack.
Gaku had seen Sachiko shut it, right after putting Satoru to bed. He dropped his gaze, trailing down that slice of black, until he caught two little bright eyes staring back up at him. The second he realized he’d been caught, Satoru scattered, disappearing back into the darkness of the room. Gaku frowned in his direction, before slumping a little in his seat.
Great. Now he was teaching Satoru bad habits, on top of it all.
“I’m going to bed,” he announced quietly, slipping away from the table without a single glance. He would say goodnight to Sachiko later, when they were alone—and he didn’t have the energy or the will to pretend to be civil for his father’s sake. Without another word, Gaku pushed the door open, staring with furrowed brows into the living room.
One of the futons had a distinct, Satoru-sized lump. Gaku slid the door closed again, cutting out the light and the voices from the kitchen, before sitting down next to the tiny bundle trying to hide beneath the blankets. The form shifted a little, rustling under the sheets, before going still as stone. For a second, Gaku considered just ripping off the blankets—but something about that felt wrong, like he was betraying something.
But he couldn’t really think of anything to say, so he did what he always did when it came to Satoru—he guessed. Gaku dropped his hand where he thought Satoru’s back was, rubbing circles against his spine, gently coaxing. It took a minute or so, but eventually a dark tuft of hair popped out of one end, glistening eyes peering up at him from the depths of duvet. “Gaku-nii?”
“That guy’s scary.”
Gaku smiled a little at that, moving his hand to ruffle at his head. He had never been afraid of his father—but he never hid or fled from his brother’s fists either, so he supposed that didn’t mean much. “He isn’t very nice,” he admitted. “But don’t worry. He’s not going to do anything to you.”
I won’t let him.
“Okay,” Satoru said, his voice still tentative, thoughts clearly stringing together across his face. Even in the dark, he could feel Satoru watching him, the weight of those eyes impossibly heavy. But after a few silent seconds, that lump scooted closer, until Gaku could feel the child sleepily nestling against his side. There was a pleased sigh as Satoru finally found somewhere comfortable, settling down and steadily going limp.
Gaku gently continued to card his fingers through his hair, a motion that he hoped was relaxing. Clearly, it was working, because Satoru’s next words came slurred and muffled by fatigue.
“I wanna,” he yawned, “protect Gaku-nii...”
Gaku’s eyebrows shot up, his hand stilling on top of Satoru’s head. The boy didn’t notice, his breathing already even, quickly stolen away by sleep—and Gaku made sure to keep himself still, even as the air was kicked out of his lungs, as painful as his brother’s heel had ever been.
When… had anyone said something like that to him?
His lips parted, trying to whisper an answer, even if only to himself—but he couldn’t find one. His brother had never, obviously—but he couldn’t even scramble for some long-buried memory. Maybe, deep down, he had hoped it was there: some rose-coloured recollection from his past, like someone’s warm and gentle touch, promising to keep him safe.
But no matter what, it always came back to…
Gaku swallowed thickly, and his hand slowly slipped into Satoru’s own. Even in sleep, he felt those little fingers curling around him, holding on tight and refusing to let go. A broken breath splintered off his lips, and Gaku found himself pulling Satoru’s small body close.
He wanted to protect this, too. No matter what.