Morning came, and Gaku ran away.
Which sounded dramatic, but was really rather simple. He’d never unpacked, so all he needed to do was grab his bag, put on his shoes and slip out the door. The walk to the train station didn’t take very long. Getting back to Ishikari, though—that would take a lot of connections, and even longer hours. But it was feasible, and that was all that mattered.
Ducking under the turnstiles was simple enough. Then it was just a question of blending into the crowd.
Until the attendants on the train asked for his ticket.
The police delivered him back to his parents before lunch. Running away wasn’t so easy, after that.
The car stopped with a gentle lurch, and Gaku considered vomiting just for the satisfaction of it.
On the other side of the window, his new school waited for him, as prim as proper as lipstick on a pig. Boys and girls filtered through the gates, their expensive clothes iron-pressed to perfection. He could feel his own collar tight around his neck like a noose, buttoned the way his father liked it. His eyes narrowed, and in the glass, Gaku caught his own sour reflection, glaring back at him.
His father drummed at the steering wheel. “I trust you remember what to do.”
Fury burned in his stomach, but his voice came out cold. “Go straight to your office after school.” Not that he had the option to go anywhere else: his wallet and savings had been confiscated, and his parents had started hiding their own. He’d checked. “I have half an hour to get there after last bell.”
“And if you don’t?”
His fingers curled into his bookbag. “You’ll ruin it.”
“That’s right.” His father’s fingers gripped at the leather. “I trust you’ll behave yourself in school, too.”
The or else went unspoken. Gaku glared at his feet, but nodded, slipping out onto the sidewalk. He slammed the car door behind him with more force than was strictly necessary, but if his father had anything to say about it, Gaku didn’t stay to hear it. He marched towards the school like a prisoner on death row, his blunt nails digging into the flesh of his palm. Gaku focused on the pain, and forced a smile.
For all his parents’ posturing about how this was ‘such a good school,’ nothing was really different. Sure, the faces were new, the building well-kept and reeking of old money—but in every way that mattered, it was the same as any other class. After his unremarkable self-introduction, Gaku settled into the flow of things, playing the same role. Slipping into a new environment was always a chore, but never a particularly difficult one.
His eyes darted to the clock. In Ishikari, he’d prayed for the final bell. But those days were gone now, and the thought hit harder than any of his brother’s punches ever had. He’d rather eat glass than see his father, frankly—but unfortunately, no one was offering him the choice. The bell rang, and Gaku reluctantly gathered his things.
Half an hour was tight, especially since his parents didn’t let him have a bus pass: it gave him too much freedom, apparently. Shrugging on his backpack, Gaku strolled out of the classroom, and mulled over his options. He didn’t have to go to his father, obviously. He could just run away, but—
Gaku thought about Satoru’s smiling face, beaming from under the brim of his ducky hat. The way they clutched at each other’s hands, fingers threaded together. It was just a picture, he knew that, obviously—but it was all he had. That photo was the only proof that he and Satoru had existed together, that there was something that he had lost. Something that was worth fighting for.
And it was the only way he could see Satoru at all, anymore.
His chest clenched, fingers curling around the straps of his bag.
He could just let his father destroy it. Sachiko had a copy, and if he managed to get back to the real Satoru, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
But it was a gamble: even attempting it meant he’d lose the photo, guaranteed. Besides, how would he get to Ishikari? The trains were clearly not an option, not when he didn’t have a ticket. Even if he got his hands on his father’s keys, he couldn’t really drive. And he would only get so far before the car was reported stolen. The only other option would be hitchhiking, but there was no point if he wound up dead in a ditch somewhere.
Gaku gripped at his chin. Even if he did manage to get to Ishikari—then what? His parents would know where he’d gone. What would stop them from just dragging him back? From blaming Sachiko and Satoru for everything? They wouldn’t be so lenient a second time: if Gaku was caught running away again, they would probably ship him off to some facility, like they did for his brother. And any centre for “troubled youth” was liable to have security to prevent run-aways.
Getting back to Satoru would be nearly impossible, then.
Gaku glared at the pavement. Trying now was a guaranteed loss. As much as it hurt—as much as it made him want to crush something just to feel it pop and squirm—he had to think more long-term. The shadow from a passing skyscraper cut across the sidewalk, and Gaku stepped into it, eyes burning.
All he needed was less of his parents, and more of their money.
Huh. Well, when he looked at it that way, the answer was almost comically simple.
His father’s building loomed in front of him, and Gaku slipped into the elevator, a sudden skip in his step. Generic music rolled out of a tinny speaker, a generic classical sound. Gaku drummed his fingers along to it, adjusting the grip on his bag. It would take time, surely—but it could be done. The certainty filtered through his blood, and the elevator dinged.
The doors slid open, and a coffee pot shattered against the floor.
Gaku stood in the lift for a second longer, his hand catching the door. In the centre of his father’s formerly pristine office, a young woman raked manicured nails through her hair. With wide and wet eyes, she stared down at the dark stain growing in the carpet. The smell of coffee crowded the room, and she bent down, wobbling atop her high heels.
“Damn it,” she whispered, plucking at the glass. “Damn it—”
Gaku watched for a second, unimpressed.
Dropping his bag on the coffee table, he walked over, pushing up his sleeves. The woman’s head whipped up, and Gaku offered her a sympathetic smile, crouching down. “Here, let me give you a hand.”
“Oh,” she said, shoulders slumping in relief. “Thank you.” She pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear and she returned to the task at hand, dropping broken glass into her open palm. “I have no idea what happened. The handle just snapped off, and—” Her free hand made a wild motion.
“It was probably cheaply made.” His father only cared about quality when it was something he actually had to use. “I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”
“Tell that to my boss,” she mumbled.
The door behind her desk swung open, his father’s stern face glaring down at them. The receptionist jumped, panic flushing across her face. Glass crunched under her shoes as she staggered to her feet. “S-sir—I—”
“It’s my fault.” Gaku didn’t raise his head, but he could feel the weight of his father’s stare, like a beast breathing down his neck. His fingers skidded along the carpet, chasing sharp edges. “I bumped into her.”
His father made a low hum as he checked his wrist, lips pressed together into a line. “At least you’re on time,” he said, tugging his sleeve back into place. As he turned, he nodded towards the stain. “We have clients coming in an hour. I want that gone by then.”
The door closed in their faces. Gaku huffed, and the woman muttered: “Asshole.”
Before immediately slapping her hand over her mouth, whirling to stare in his direction. Gaku just gave a small shrug, an amused look settling on his face. “It’s fine,” he said, dropping a piece of glass into his hand with a little clink. “You’re not wrong.”
Her shoulders relaxed, and she crouched back down, tugging over a garbage can on the way. “Thanks for that, by the way,” she said, offering a feeble smile. “You didn’t have to.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He turned his hand over, letting the glass fall into the garbage. “I’m already on his bad side.”
“I can’t imagine living with him,” she mumbled, scratching at the carpet with her nails. “Must be tough.”
Her eyes tipped his way—not surprised, or even pitying, a simple acknowledgement. Then, a playful smile stretched across her face, pushing at her cheeks. “Hey, why don’t you let me handle the rest?” she asked, nudging him with her elbow. “Least I could do, since you took the fall and everything.”
Gaku frowned. “But—”
“Don’t ‘but’ me! Go on!” Her hands shooed at him, swatting at his shoulders. “You just get comfy, and I’ll get this sorted, okay?”
Gaku watched the flurry for a second, before pushing himself to his feet. “If you’re sure…” he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “You’ll let me know if you need a hand?”
“You know you didn’t actually break it, right?” she laughed. “Chill, I got this. Don’t you have homework to do or something?”
He feigned a wince, reaching down for his bag. There was a couch pushed into the corner of the room, crammed in by a little coffee table, and he moved towards it. “Can I sit here?”
“Be my guest,” she offered, pulling cleaning supplies out of the little supply closet behind her desk. Gaku glanced at the labels—disinfectants, carpet cleaners—and immediately discarded them. He settled onto the stiff cushions, pulling out his biology textbook. Nothing was ever that easy.
But there was more than one way to skin a cat.
His eyes slid over to the receptionist, scrubbing at the stain on all fours.
It would do.
Things settled into a kind of routine. His father would have a drink in his office at the end of the day, before dismissing his receptionist and ushering Gaku into the car. They drove home in strained silence, the radio spitting out news and numbers from the Nikkei. Their condo building had an indoor garage, and they took advantage, riding the elevator up to their floor.
When they got in, his mother set supper on a table made for three.
Gaku pushed the food around his plate. He didn’t have an appetite—hadn’t, ever since they left home. Across the table, his mother smiled, placing a manicured hand on his father’s arm.
Of everyone, she seemed to be thriving the most. Her nails had been filed and painted over, her baggy sweaters and fears stored away in some closet somewhere. She had shed their old life like a second skin. Here, no one knew about Ishikari; no one knew about the beatings, about the weeks he spent, seeking refuge in the Fujinumas’ home. No one knew that she’d abandoned one of her children, without so much as a second thought.
No one knew she failed as a mother. And that was the point.
Gaku swallowed a bitter spoonful, and watched her laugh. Satoru had taught him all about playing pretend. He could play, for a little while. When the time came, he would tear it all down.
Until then, his smile stretched around his fork, and he laughed along.
He cultivated his space at school, planting seeds and settling into that comfortable distance: well-liked enough to be respected and admired by his peers, but never attracting too much attention. His classmates asked him for help with homework, but never invited him out to karaoke—and that was how Gaku liked it. Coming up with excuses was a hassle, and there was no point faking friendships he’d just have to cull.
The course material was slightly more challenging, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. Gaku made a point of visiting his teachers, asking questions he already knew the answers to. His biology teacher, especially: a tall, thin man with a wide smile, he made a point of commending Gaku on his dedication, happy to answer any non-questions he had.
Gaku stopped by a few times a week, just in case.
On the other days, he spent his time holed up in the school library. Not for the books, but for the machines. His parents didn’t own a computer—his father used the one at his office, and he suspected his mother wouldn’t even know what to do with one. But Gaku typed at the keyboard with purpose, dozens of tabs loading at once, loading screens flickering in front of his eyes.
First, the familiar searches:
Ishikari “phone book” + Fujinuma
Ishikari + “Fujinuma”
As always, nothing.
Gaku bit down the bitter disappointment, rubbing at his eye with his palm. He just—he needed to explain what happened to Satoru. Needed to tell him he was coming back for him. Just wanted to hear his voice, even it was only through speakers and wires. But no. He could only assume that their phone was under their landlord’s name, impossible and out of reach.
He tried calling Sachiko’s work, but the business had apparently shut down. Satoru’s kindergarten had been his safest bet. Gaku had rushed to his school’s payphone and dialled the number as soon as he had found it, clutching the scrawled digits in his hand. Turns out, they don’t let strangers on the phone speak to kindergarteners—and despite Gaku’s pleading that it was an emergency, to at least leave a message, all he got was a dial-tone, ringing like a death knell in his ears.
(If anyone had bothered to check the alley by his father’s office that day, they would have found a stray cat, its neck snapped in two.)
So, he moved on. Gaku researched as much as time would allow, wading through the legal jargon. Inheritance law in Japan was relatively straightforward, but the rules around foster care and emancipated minors were more complex. Short of a certain age, orphans were shunted into the system, until they were old enough to be on their own. Gaku’s finger tapped impatiently at the mouse, the gears turning in his head, until the bell beckoned him back to class.
Then the familiar trek to his father’s office. As he pretended to do his homework, Gaku kept an eye on the receptionist, offering a small wave when he caught her eye. Over the edge of his textbook, he watched as she put on her lipstick and touched up her mascara. When she was done preening, she slipped her make-up back into the top drawer of her unlocked desk.
Every so often, she brought him a cup of coffee—always burnt, though he forced his way through it anyway—and they talked. Gaku always asked about her day, and she seized the opportunity to complain about his father. They commiserated in quiet tones, and it was easy for Gaku, not having to fake his own disdain, for once. Pretending to give a shit about her problems was harder.
Eventually, his father would send her home. They would exchange quick goodbyes, his father would finish up his work and his drink, and they left. Gaku would fall asleep running his thumb over the key, reciting Satoru’s favourite things and the promises they’d made. Exhaustion would take him, and then it would all start again.
Rinse, repeat. The school year came and went.
And time ticked by.
His junior high uniform was modern, gakurans replaced with a blazer and tie. That was fine by him: there was no way to untangle the clothes from the image of his brother, burned into the back of his mind. Some part of Gaku wondered what would have happened, if looked in the mirror wearing that uniform. What he would do, if he saw his brother looking back.
Some things he didn’t need to know.
The school was on the same campus as his old one, a closed ecosystem for the rich and the elite. All of the students were the same, and a lot of the teachers were too. Gaku smiled as his biology teacher took up the blackboard, and pretended to take notes about photosynthesis. Instead, he sketched out Wonder Guy’s mask, dedicating every detail to the page.
Objectively, the best plan was to lay low. His parents were suspicious, still watching him out of the corner of their eyes, like guard dogs straining at their leashes. One wrong move, and everything would be ruined. So Gaku played at complacency, biding his time even as it burned, like a red-hot coal in his hand. When it became too much, there were always the cats in the alley, an itch waiting to be scratched.
In the meantime, Gaku kept up his research, dutifully looking up Satoru’s name as much as he could. If something happened, he would know.
The receptionist began to confide in him more. Gaku bit his tongue and listened as she lamented her love life, his father’s attitude at work, how slow her landlord was at fixing things. And Gaku played at sympathy, nodding along and sipping at the terrible coffee she made. When she asked about him, he opened the canned lies—how school was interesting, even if the homework was hard; how he just loved living in the big city, far away from where he grew up. He didn’t know what would get back to his father, after all.
In the evenings, he sidled up to his mother, helping with the dishes and asking about her day. Bit by bit, he could see her defenses falling, all too eager to believe that her son was a good boy, and not wondering about why. After bidding her goodnight, he would wash up, go to sleep, trace the teeth of the key, and blissfully dream of Satoru.
The alarm clock rang, and months still passed.
He was running out of things to ask his teacher, so he changed tactics. On the days he wasn’t holed up in the library with his real studies, he offered to help around the biology lab. The chores were dull: sweeping the floor and washing the blackboard, mostly. But it gave Gaku the chance to familiarize himself with the shelves, his eyes scanning the bottles locked behind the glass.
One day in his second year, as he wiped the workstations down, that he asked: “Sensei?”
The teacher looked up from his papers with a hum.
“When do we get to do dissections?”
“You mean like, frogs?” He folded his arms, leaning back in his chair. “Well, we don’t actually do that anymore.”
Gaku’s hand stopped. “Why not?”
“Animal protection issues, mostly. Though it wasn’t popular with some of the girls, either,” he laughed. “I heard it was getting more expensive, too. Most schools have phased it out.” He looked over, brows furrowed. “Why do you ask?”
Gaku stared at his own reflection in the metal table, before feigning a sad smile at his teacher. “I want to go into medicine.”
“Ah. That’s why you’re such a good student,” he said, half-joking. “Were you looking at becoming a surgeon, then?”
He nodded. “I thought it could be like… practice. To make sure I really liked it. But…”
His teacher hummed. “Well, if it’s something you’re serious about, then it’s not impossible. Have you considered cram school?” He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his desk. “There’s a few specifically for kids who want to go into medicine, to prep them for university exams. I think they still do dissections for the high school classes. Probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, if that’s the path you want to take.”
Gaku didn’t hide his displeasure, rubbing at an invisible stain. “I don’t think my parents would approve.”
His teacher frowned. “Why’s that?”
Shit. “My father wants me to take over the business,” he said, the words tumbling awkwardly out of his mouth. “Uh, I think. He’s never said as much, but…”
“I see.” Gaku felt some of the panic in his chest loosen. Luckily, that kind of problem wasn’t too rare at schools like this. His teacher tapped at his chin for a few seconds. “Well, I can bring it up at the next parent-teacher meeting, if you want. Might be a bit more convincing coming from me.”
“That would be great!” Gaku chirped, bending at the waist into a bow. “Thank you, sensei!”
His teacher laughed, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “Please, it’s my pleasure! Especially for my best student.” He smiled warmly, something like pride shimmering in his eyes. “I’m sure you’ll save lots of lives one day, Gaku-kun.”
Ha. Gaku grinned wide, nodding. “I hope so, too!”
“M-Mikohara-kun, what should I do?”
Gaku stared at his classmate, profoundly bored, despite the sympathetic look on his face. She was one of the popular ones, someone who was used to getting what she wanted—which is how, he supposed, they got into this situation in the first place. The hamster cage took up most of the space on his desk, the sound of squeaking coming from somewhere inside. “Your parents won’t let you keep it?” he asked.
She shook her head, sniffling. “They said they don’t want rodents in the house… but the store won’t take him back…”
Gaku didn’t want it either. What he wanted was to get to the library and search for Satoru. But the girl was standing there, hands clasped together and pleading with wet eyes. He could refuse, but would risk ruining his reputation. If she turned on him, then the rest of the popular kids would likely follow, like lemmings. What a hassle.
Gaku grinned up at her, tugging the cage closer. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of him.”
The cats couldn’t have all the fun, after all.
After the last bell, he walked towards his father’s office, carrying the cage against his chest. As he often did, he ducked into the alley, setting the crate down on the grimy pavement. The hamster inside was still busily burrowing into its bedding, hiding in the wood chips and squeaking loudly. Gaku crouched down, tugging open the little door and forcing his hand in.
Right away, a ball of black fur went barrelling for his fingers. Gaku braced himself for the bite—the cats had all tried, though few succeeded—but the pain didn’t come. Instead, the hamster pushed itself back onto its hind legs, ears alert and nose twitching against his skin. It was all too easy to pluck the critter up, cupping it in his hand.
Gaku craned his neck, looking each way down the alley. No one was passing by. The fastest way would be to dash the thing against the wall. If that didn’t do the job, his foot would.
Meanwhile, the animal stretched out across his palm, yawning. Dumb thing. “You should probably be more worried, you know,” Gaku muttered, poking at it with a finger. Some creatures had no survival instincts. Even now, it grabbed at his fingers with its grubby paws, more concerned with play than escape.
Gaku watched it, curious. It should be trying to run away. But it didn’t, content to sit in the palm of his hand, grooming at its head. The thing looked small, probably young—naïve and trusting, like Satoru. Unaware of how cruel the world could be, that not every friendly face had friendly intentions. The hamster got comfortable against his fingers, rubbing its little head against his knuckles. Its black fur caught the light in a familiar way.
Gaku dragged a finger down its spine. It was just as soft as he remembered.
He brought his palm up to his face, staring the animal in the eyes.
The hamster pressed its nose to his, and Gaku smiled.
Somehow, his parents let him keep it. In hindsight, Gaku shouldn’t have been surprised. It was an attachment: if Gaku had something he cared about here, then he probably wasn’t going to run away anytime soon. So his mother welcomed the pet with open arms, eagerly helping Gaku clear space in his room for the cage. In the end, he set it down on his desk—it’s not like he did homework at home, anyway.
He opened the door to the cage, and the hamster scrambled out, tumbling into his open palm. “Careful,” he cautioned, gently stroking at its spine.
His mother smiled brightly, looking between the two of them. “Do you have a name for it yet?”
The hamster squeaked, and Gaku smiled again. “Spice.”
Later, alone in the dark quiet of his room, he whispered: “Satoru.”
Life became marginally more tolerable.
Every evening, Gaku beelined for his room, to be met with the excited squeaking of his companion, pressing up against the bars of his cage. Gaku usually let him out when he was home, content to watch Satoru roam across his floor. More often than not, he was a furry little blur of energy, rushing around in circles and squeaking all the way.
Gaku would sit down and let his paws scurry all over him. It was nice to have Satoru waiting for him after school again.
Eventually, he would tucker himself out, curling up into a sleepy ball. Gaku happily lay back on his bed with Satoru’s little weight slumbering against his stomach. His fingers lightly stroked at the hamster’s fur, feeling his tiny chest rise and fall, like another heartbeat under his hand. He tried to think of the last time he felt so at peace.
Which is, of course, when someone knocked. Gaku jumped at the sound, and Satoru was immediately scrambling, limbs tangling in his shirt. Carefully, he cupped his hands around him, ignoring the angry chittering from inside. “Come in.”
He expected his mother, but it was his father who pushed the door open. That was never a good sign.
Gaku dragged his thumb soothingly down the hamster’s spine, stepping up to Satoru’s cage. “Is something the matter?”
His father stayed in the doorway, hand on the doorknob. “I spoke with your teacher today.”
Right. The meetings were tonight. Gaku gently set Satoru down back in his home. The critter stood on his back legs, huffing and puffing; Gaku slipped him a sunflower seed in apology. “And?”
“He recommended a cram school for you. For science.” His father’s hand flexed on the knob. “He was quite adamant.”
Gaku watched as Satoru sank his teeth into the sunflower seed, frantically chewing. Still such a messy eater. “Is that a problem?”
“I didn’t know you were interested in medicine.”
He shut the door to Satoru’s cage. “It’s a recent development,” he explained, turning to face his parent. “I thought you would approve.”
“We had discussed this.”
It was less a discussion, and more like his father dictating exactly what he expected. Gaku leaned back against the desk, his fingers gripping the edge, wood groaning under his hand. “This would be mutually beneficial.”
The man frowned, raising an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“It is admirable for a son to take over the business,” he explained. “But compared to having a son who is a surgeon… well, I thought you were prefer it. Seeing as I have the aptitude, it seemed like the logical choice.”
His father watched him, his fingers drumming against the doorknob, considering. Gaku placed a hand on the hamster’s cage. “Spice is here.” The hamster squeaked, scurrying to sit below his palm. “The cram school has an attendance system, as well. They’ll call if I don’t come to class.”
They stared each other down, Gaku’s fingers slipping through the bars of the cage. Satoru reached him and pressed his nose to the tips, gently nipping at the skin. Finally, his father’s shoulders lost their tension, pulling the door closed behind him. “I’ll consider it.”
The lock clicked shut, and Gaku huffed, frowning. Satoru was still scurrying around where Gaku’s hands had been, hungry for attention—and he crouched down in front of the desk, until the two of them were staring eye-to-eye. “Sorry you had to see that,” he mumbled, rubbing his finger against the hamster’s cheek. “I know how he upsets you.”
Satoru squeaked, and Gaku laughed. “I know,” he said, patting his head. “He’s a bad man.”
The hamster closed its eyes, leaning into the touch, drowsy and content. Gaku felt the warmth spread throughout his chest, a familiar longing that he held dear to his heart. “Don’t worry,” he whispered, a smile curling across his face. “He won’t be here much longer.”
Surprising no one, his parents signed him up for the cram school.
It was a welcome reprieve: twice a week, Gaku was saved from the boredom of his father’s office. Pretending to care about the receptionist’s life was beyond dull, so he dove into his studies when he could, content to lose himself in the quiet of his own head. The classes were thankfully small, and filled with equally antisocial students, so he didn’t even have to go through the effort of “making friends.” It was structured, simple, and solitary.
In other words, bliss. If he could bring Satoru with him, it would have been perfect.
Oh well. He had an adequate distraction.
The school loaned everyone a laptop for note-taking. Gaku couldn’t take it home, of course—but it had an internet connection, and that was good enough. While the teacher prattled on about cell structures, Gaku pulled up the search engine.
He didn’t really expect anything anymore: Satoru was still so young—around ten by now, by his count. But Gaku tried anyway, scouring the web with a fine-toothed comb. He had never really understood religion; the idea of going through the same motions on blind hope alone always seemed like a fool’s errand. He was starting to see the appeal.
After a few years, even this had become mundane. In a moment of desperation, he’d signed up for every social media site he could think of, searching for Sachiko’s profiles—but no. It was like they had never existed. If it weren’t for that picture—which his father kept hidden from him, even now—he might have even believed it.
He sighed, propping his head in his hand. Once he had exhausted his searches, he moved on to the Ishikari news. Maybe Sachiko had put something up in the classifieds. Gaku clicked the community tab, lazily looking through the wedding announcements and obituaries. If he had the funds, he’d take out an ad himself; maybe then he’d be able to find the Fujinumas again.
Gaku scrolled down, and his breath caught.
It had to be him. The picture was small, but Gaku would recognize him anywhere: the blue of his eyes, the slope of his nose, even the edges of his smile. He pulled the computer closer, desperately zooming in, leaning towards the screen. His smile was a little awkward, edging on sheepish—and Gaku let out a shuddering breath, his voice catching in his throat.
Above the photo was the headline: Mikoto Elementary congratulates its sixth annual essay winners!
With one hand, Satoru held up a paper, a crude drawing of Wonder Guy taking up nearly half the page. Gaku pressed a hand to his mouth, stifling the crazed laughter bubbling up his throat. It was him, it was Satoru: a bit older, sure, but still the same little boy that Gaku had always known. Still in Ishikari, still alive—still waiting for him.
Gaku breathed through his fingers. The caption read: Satoru and Kayo from Mikoto’s class 5-A, posing with their winning essays.
Only then did he see the little girl, half-hiding behind Satoru’s shoulder. She looked away from the camera, holding her own essay up near her face, ready to duck for cover at a moment’s notice.
And in between them: their hands, holding on to each other.
Gaku’s fists slammed down onto his desk.
The class went quiet. At the front of the room, the school’s tutor stared at him, the marker in his hand still awkwardly pressed against the whiteboard. “Is… something the matter, Mikohara-kun?”
His fists snapped open, and Gaku raised his head with a smile. “Sorry, my computer froze,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. “May I bring it to the technician? I think something’s broken.”
The teacher opened his mouth, but Gaku was already gone, laptop tucked under his arm.
The door closed behind him, and Gaku spun around, slamming his knuckles into the nearest wall. His head was spinning, lost in the rush of bloodlust stampeding through his veins. After all these years, he had finally found Satoru again—and his soul was still soaring, like a bird finally freed from its cage. It felt like he was actually breathing for the first time in years.
But then there was her. Gaku slammed his fist into the wall again, snarling.
Someone was taking what was his.
And he wasn’t even there to stop it.
He tried to swallow his scream, but it escaped; a quiet cry, pushed through grit teeth. Tears hit the ground by his feet, and Gaku glared down at them, grinding the drops under his heel. This wasn’t productive. No matter how hard he tried, wishing wouldn’t kill Kayo.
So he leaned his forehead against the d and took a deep breath. Eventually, the drum beat in his blood lost its time, slowing to a leisurely hum. His body was still dizzy, the aftershock of an emotional earthquake; he blinked to clear his vision, shoving off the wall and stumbling back into himself. There was no more time to waste.
But first. He raised his aching knuckles to the door, knocking twice.
The IT technician poked his head out, brows furrowed. Gaku smiled like his world wasn’t falling apart, holding up his laptop. “Sensei said I could print something?”
In the comfort of his room, Gaku pressed the picture up against the hamster’s cage. “See?” he whispered, pointing to the boy’s smiling face. “That’s you.”
He had planned to take his time. Plans change.
Gaku stood at his mother’s side, elbow-deep in dishes and suds. She was humming something she’d heard on daytime TV, drying the plates with a cloth. He scrubbed at the pot, rinsing the caked-on food down the drain. If only everything was so easy to deal with. It was hard to flush people down the pipes without a bit of mess.
He laughed at the thought, and his mother smiled up at him. He liked being taller than her. “What’s so funny?”
“Ah,” he said, sheepish. “It’s just—something Dad’s receptionist said to me.”
“Oh,” she hummed, looking down at the utensil in her hand. “Do you two get along?”
“Yeah!” Gaku grinned, beaming. “She’s really nice and keeps me company. It’s good to have someone I can talk to about stuff.” He turned on the faucet, swirling the pot around under the tap. “I don’t know what I would do without her, really.”
His mother’s hands stopped. “I’ve… never heard you talk about her before.”
Gaku shrugged. “There’s usually not much to tell.” He turned towards her, the picture of innocent confusion. “Doesn’t Dad mention her?”
Her face twisted. “Why would he?”
“I don’t know,” he said, watching the water overflow. “They just seem really close.”
“Is that so.” She ran the towel across the knife, the teeth catching the fabric before she set it aside. “Well, it’s good to have dependable workers.”
“Yeah, she seems to be a big help.” With a twist, he dumped the cold water down. “She’s in his office all the time—”
There was a crash, and Gaku tried not to smirk as porcelain hit the floor. Shards of a bowl were scattered around their toes, and he set down his pot, wiping his hands on his pants. “Mom, are you okay?”
“O-oh,” she said, looking down at the mess as if seeing it for the first time. “I’m sorry, I just—”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, giving her hand an assuring squeeze. “I’ll go grab the broom, okay?”
It was only in the corner of the room, but he toed his way over carefully, laughing. “You know, it’s kind of funny. When I met her, we accidentally broke Dad’s coffee pot,” he said, picking up the dustpan. “We had to clean it up then, too.”
When he looked back, she was crouching down, staring at the biggest shard in her hand. “Yeah,” she whispered. “That’s great, honey.”
He looked up from his biology textbook. The receptionist was hunched over in her seat, rifling through her drawer. With a huff, she flipped her hair out of her face, pulling things out of her desk. “This is going to sound really stupid, but have you seen my lipstick? I can’t seem to find it anywhere.”
He frowned, pretending to think. “No?” He tucked his finger against the page, half-shutting his book. “Is it in your purse, maybe?”
“That’s where I checked first,” she huffed, planting her hands on her hips. “I’ve lost lip balm and stuff before, but I’m usually pretty careful with my real makeup...”
Gaku hummed, tapping at the hardcover. “Maybe you dropped it, then.”
“I guess I must have,” she sighed, slumping back into her seat. “This sucks. I lost my little bottle of perfume a few weeks ago, too.” She leaned forward, plopping her jaw into her hands and whispering. “Replacing them is such a hassle… I don’t exactly get paid a ton here, you know.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” he said, dead-pan. “But, sorry.”
She laughed, throwing her head back and scooting back to her computer. “Don’t worry about it. You’re a good kid, Gaku.”
The lipstick in his pocket said otherwise, but she didn’t have to know that.
After dinner, he helped his mother with the dishes, as had become routine. It had been weeks since he had planted the seed of doubt, and from his place at the sink, he watched it bloom. Her fingertips from red from bitten nails, the skin on her lips chapped from biting. Gaku pretended not to notice, filling the space with mindless chatter.
And if some wine found its way into the kitchen, he didn’t mention it.
Eventually, his mother retired to her room, bottle in tow. His father was sitting in the living room, reading something by the lamplight. Gaku crept into the laundry room under the pretense of tossing some towels in the wash. Opening up the washing machine, he threw the dirty fabric in—but not before digging through, pulling out one of his father’s shirts.
Luckily, he didn’t have to pass by the man in question to get back to his room. Gaku gently shut the door behind him, giving a little sigh. In the corner of the room, he could hear Satoru’s wheel squeaking, followed by the pitter-patter of little feet. With a smile, Gaku watched him go, tossing the shirt over the back of a chair.
He set the lipstick down on the night table and pulled the perfume out of its hiding place. In an ideal world, there would be a more—elegant solution to this. But it was the results that mattered, so he grabbed the make-up and walked to the mirror. The cap came off with a small pop, and Gaku leaned forward, pressing the stick to his upper lip.
Satoru squeaked. Gaku glanced through the mirror, and saw the hamster—alert and curious—pushing up against the bars. He grimaced. “Don’t look at me like that,” he mumbled, staring at his own face. “This is embarrassing enough as it is.”
Slowly, he dragged the lipstick around his mouth, smearing red across his lips. It wasn’t the least bit dignified: he couldn’t even get it on straight, the colour wobbly and sitting awkwardly on his skin. Sucking in his lips, he rubbed them together, like he had seen his mother do. It evened out a little, actually. He didn’t know that actually worked.
It still wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. Gaku turned away from his own reflection, pointedly not looking in Satoru’s direction. His father’s shirt was a perfect, stainless white; Gaku lifted it up towards his face, rubbing the fabric between his fingers as he thought.
Where would be the best place for this? He knew about fucking, in a clinical sense. But the actual act interested him as much as a root canal, so he’d never considered it too deeply. He knew there was more lead-up than he knew: kissing, touching—but he’d never really considered where that would happen. He frowned, inspecting the shirt this way and that, as if the answer would fall out of one of the folds.
People… kissed on the neck, right? He had seen one or two of his flustered classmates scrambling to cover their throats. Every once in a while, if one of the girls tilted her head just right, he could see the dark purple bruise, peeking over the collar of her uniform.
The collar of his father’s shirt was stiff. Gaku pressed his lips to it. It smelled of cologne, and he gagged, recoiling. At least it was done—the lip-mark was branded onto the fabric, as stark as blood on snow. Gaku couldn’t help but grin, holding it up to the light. It was a little smudged—but if anything, it just added to the effect.
There was one other place he knew lips could go. Emboldened, Gaku grabbed the bottom hem, pressing another mark to the edge. His father always tucked his shirt into his pants—his mother would catch the meaning. The finishing touch: two light sprays of perfume, concentrated around the stains. He waved it around a little, airing the fabric out; it wouldn’t do if the smell was suspiciously strong.
Gaku gave it a sniff. His father’s cologne and the receptionist’s perfume mingled perfectly. Satisfied, he threw the shirt into his own laundry basket. He’d sneak it back in with his father’s clothes in the morning.
Luckily, he’d had the foresight to nick some make-up removing wipes too. He eagerly scrubbed the colour off his mouth, destroying the evidence. Satoru was still watching him, having partially climbed up the bars of his cage; Gaku smiled, playfully poking him in the stomach, and watching him tumble down. “I’m doing this for you, you know.”
Satoru stretched out on his back, showing his belly. Gaku tickled it with a fingertip, and the hamster curled up around it, clutching the nail as he gently nibbled at the skin. He plopped down in the chair and happily watched, Satoru’s little feet kicking at his hand.
Time marched on, and Gaku watched as the puzzle pieces began to move into place. It was slow, like watching tectonic plates shift—and there were times he wanted to scream, to shove the actors into their places, to grab the kitchen knife and just get it all over with. His fingers itched with the urge, the familiar black water rising in front of his eyes, like the ocean at night.
When it became too much, as always, he went to Satoru’s side. Over the years, all of Gaku’s birthday presents had been for the hamster: a bigger cage, more sophisticated toys, little sand baths for his fur. For far too many nights, he assuaged his soul by watching the critter rush around in his ball, bumping into walls with a startled squeak.
At least his mother was advancing according to plan. Alcohol had found its way into the kitchen again. Every so often, Gaku refreshed her paranoia with another round of lipstick and perfume. To the receptionist, he quietly whispered his concerns: that his mother was stressed, that the move had been hard on her, that he was trying as hard as he could. The woman squeezed his hand tight as he cried, and Gaku ticked another item off his list.
Sometime this year, his cram school should do its dissections. Then the stage would be set.
In the meantime, he continued his search for Satoru online. Aside from that picture—which he had saved, printed, emailed to himself, and uploaded on a USB drive, just in case—there had never been another mention of the boy online. He knew he should be grateful that he’d found even that, but it had given him a taste of something, and he wanted more.
His father still hadn’t returned the photo he’d taken from Gaku all those years ago. Even now, his heart ached for it. Once, he’d vaguely asked the receptionist about it—but she didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. His father really didn’t trust anyone. It might have been admirable, if it wasn’t so frustrating.
Gaku sighed, tapping a pen against his notebook. All that was left to do was wait.
The elevator dinged. Out of habit, Gaku glanced over.
His mother staggered out of the elevator, and Gaku’s pen fell out of his hand.
Then, his heartbeat promptly skyrocketed. His brain was running a mile a minute, neurons firing so fast he couldn’t keep up; he saw what was in front of him, but it just wouldn’t stick. Because it didn’t make any sense. Why was she here? What was she doing? This wasn’t part of the plan, and panic flushed across his skin, a burning-hot cold sweat. As if in slow motion, he watched as she shuffled towards the receptionist’s desk.
Gaku leapt to his feet, but it was too late—the young woman was already smiling up at her, oblivious.
“Good afternoon! How can I help you?”
His mother worked at her lip, eyes snapping into a glare. “Whore.”
“Mom!” Gaku leapt over the coffee table, grabbing her shoulders. “Mom, what are you—have you been drinking?”
She had been: he could smell it on her, sharp as a knife in his nose. Her eyes were wet and tinged pink, her body swaying between his hands. It took a moment for her to realize he was there, but when she did, her face softened, giving him a soft pat on the cheek. “Oh, Gaku,” she slurred, “don’t worry. This has nothing to do with you, honey. You’d never do something like that, such a good boy…”
The receptionist’s eyes went wide with understanding. “Ma’am—”
“Mom,” he pleaded, trying to angle her towards the exit. “Come on, let’s—let’s just go home, okay?”
“What the hell is going on here?”
Oh, fuck. Gaku cringed, turning. His father stood in the doorway to his office, shoulders squared back and hands fisted at his sides. All too easily, Gaku saw his brother—chest puffed and knuckles swinging—and his teeth sank into his tongue. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree after all.
His mother tried to jerk forward, and Gaku threw his arm in front of her. “As if you don’t know,” she spat, straining against him, thin fingers curling into his sleeve. “You think I’m stupid, don’t you? You think I wouldn’t notice what you’re doing?” Her voice cracked, and she pushed, clinging for dear life. “And in front of our son—”
“Enough.” His mother was yanked out of his grip, and Gaku watched as his father dragged her by the wrist. With a pointed glare at the receptionist, he said: “You’re excused for the night.”
The door slammed closed on them both. There was a strained moment of silence, before the voices rose on the other side. Gaku’s eyes bored into the wood, his ears straining to catch the words, but no. All he could tell was that they were yelling and—as much as he hated his parents, as much as he wanted them to suffer for what they did to him—
This wasn’t part of the plan.
This wasn’t part of the plan.
Gaku brought his hand to his mouth, biting into his thumb. His mother was never supposed to bring it up, not directly. If they compared notes—if they realized that someone had set his father up—then everything was over. And once they thought about it, they’d realize that Gaku was the only possible suspect. He was the only one with the motive, and opportunity to act on it.
This was the worst-case scenario.
Everything he had been working for would fall apart.
And then they would ship him off somewhere, and they would lock him away, and he’d never see Satoru again, and—
A hand fell on his arm. Gaku jumped, an ugly gasp tearing itself from his throat as he whipped around. The receptionist’s mouth was a thin line, her eyes damp and breath shaking, but her hand was steady as it squeezed his shoulder. “Breathe, Gaku-kun,” she said, her voice soft. “It’s okay. Just breathe.”
He’d forgotten she was here. He pressed a hand to his chest, swallowing down precious oxygen. It felt like his heart was going to explode into pieces. His parents were still screaming on the edge of his consciousness, and it felt like he was drowning in the sound, his lips barely skimming the surface.
“It’s okay,” she whispered, a quiet in the storm. “It will be fine.”
And Gaku nodded, because she was right. He could still fix this.
His clammy hand clamped down on hers, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “I—thank you,” he croaked, giving her a wobbly smile. If there were tears in his eyes, all the better. “I… I feel better now.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She rubbed comforting circles into his shoulder, looking back towards the closed office door. “I… I didn’t realize it was this bad.”
“Me neither,” Gaku said, shaking his head. “I don’t even know what she’s talking about.”
“Are they going to be okay in there?”
He opened his mouth, and shut it. “I… I don’t know,” he said, before turning back to her. “But you should… you should probably go.”
“And leave you here to deal with this on your own?” she scoffed. “No way.”
“Please,” he asked, grabbing the hem of her sleeve. “I just—if you’re still here, it… I think it might make things worse.”
She considered this for a second, chewing at her lower lip. “I really set her off, didn’t I?”
“Yeah.” He gave a wet, mirthless laugh. “For some reason.”
The receptionist sighed, pinching at her nose. “God, this is so fucked up.” With a long-suffering sigh, she crossed her arms, scanning him with a concerned wrinkle in her brow. “Are… are you sure you’re going to be okay here, Gaku-kun?”
“Y-yeah,” he said, rubbing at his arm. “I think so. They’re all bark and no bite.”
“If you’re sure…” She pointed at him with a forceful stare. “But if you don’t show up here tomorrow, I’m calling the fucking cops. Deal?”
That was the real worst-case scenario. “Deal.”
She stared him down for a few seconds, before nodding and grabbing her purse from her desk. “I’ll—I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” With a press of a button, the elevator doors slid open. She paused in the lift, hands gripping the strap of her bag. “Get home safe, okay?”
“I will,” he promised, giving her a little wave. “You too.”
The doors closed with a hiss, and Gaku slumped down onto the couch, leaning his head back against the wall. Through the plaster, he could hear his parents, voices shrill, and still at each other’s throats. He tried to pick out the words, but it was like trying to pull thick wool through a needle. Resigned, he stared up at the ceiling. The paint was cracking.
The fact that his parents were still yelling was a good sign. If they had realized something was amiss, then they would have turned on him already. If they just kept slinging accusations at each other, then this may still work. Any hard evidence wouldn’t work in his favour, but his mother didn’t seem to suspect him—or, didn’t want to, judging by the way she talked coming in here. If his father denied it, would she even believe him? If it was her son’s word against her husband’s, where would she land?
Gaku leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. Not all was lost.
The voices stopped. Gaku leapt to his feet, watching as the door swung open.
His mother looked like a wreck—more so than before, if that was possible. Her hair was everywhere, her eyes puffy and red. Her entire face was flushed, wet with tears and sweat. For a second or two, she just hovered there, one hand pressed against the doorframe. Gaku inched closer, as if approaching a wounded animal. “Mom?”
She raised her head, barely looking at him, before stumbling to the receptionist’s desk. She tugged it open, rifling with both hands. It didn’t take her long to find a bottle of perfume. With shaking hands, she sprayed her own wrist and brought it up to her nose. Recognition flashed across her features, and she threw the bottle down.
“Come on, honey,” she said, voice hoarse. “We’re going home.”
He nodded, hastily gathering his things and rushing to the elevator. His mother immediately grabbed him by the hand, tugging him inside. He squeezed back, and watched as a brittle smile settled on her face. Her nails dug into the back of his hand, and Gaku buried his grimace behind the mask, murmuring soft words in her ears.
Across the room, his father came out of his office, jaw set in a firm frown.
Gaku watched him until the doors hissed closed.
It was amazing how little things changed, after that. Neither of his parents addressed what happened with him: both seemed hell-bent on avoiding the conversation, which was fine by him. Gaku didn’t particularly feel like it either. No one had come out and accused him; if anything, his mother seemed to cling to him more, which was as good a sign as he was probably going to get.
Not that she was doing well, of course. The woman was unravelling faster than the old sweaters she’d dug out of the closet, edges fraying and full of holes. Any effort she put into making dinner was gone; more often than not, it was something half-heartedly thrown together, if there was something on the table at all. Most evenings, Gaku came home to find her in the living room, half-asleep with a bottle of wine.
Always the dutiful son, he walked her to bed. His father noticed, of course—but he clearly didn’t care.
All things considered, this may have been for the best. The receptionist witnessing his mother’s downfall was not something he had arranged for, but it had clearly worked in his favour. She was more concerned, going so far as to bring chocolates to the office for them to share. Gaku preferred hard candy, personally, but it was alright.
The cram school had given him the syllabus for the upcoming module. Gaku circled the dissection date in red, before tucking it under his mattress, right next to the photo of Satoru. The hamster in his hair squeaked happily, and Gaku smiled, reaching up to stroke his fur. It wouldn’t be much longer, now.
On the fated day, Gaku strolled to the cram school with his hands in his pockets, a smile on his face, and murder on the mind. The sun was bright and the weather was warm; the cherry blossoms had fallen a week ago, the petals strewn across the pavement, crushed to a paste underfoot. He kicked at them with his shoe.
Class didn’t start for another hour or so, but that was the point. Gaku had kept his school attendance immaculate, just for this day. The moment he said he was ill and asked to see the nurse, he was excused from last period. No one batted an eye when he took his backpack with him.
It was nice not to be rushed, for once. It gave him time to savour the moment. As he waited for the light to change, he hummed the Wonder Guy theme, shifting his weight from foot to foot, bobbing with the beat.
The cram school was nearly empty when he walked in. None of the other students had started to trickle in yet, but Gaku poked his head into the classrooms as he passed by, just in case. The fewer people around, the better.
The science lab was located in the very back of the building, down narrow, winding corridors. Through the little frosted glass windows, Gaku could see the lights were on. Not ideal, but manageable; he knocked twice, before sliding the door over.
The smell hit him immediately—like a concrete punch to the face, he could feel it storming through his sinuses. Despite all his research and preparation, Gaku still gagged, doubling over and smacking a hand to his face.
The tutor whirled around, a thin surgical mask stretched over his face. “Ah, Mikohara-kun! Are you alright?”
Gaku nodded, squinting through his watering eyes. On the other side of the classroom, the windows had all been thrown open—he didn’t want to think what it would smell like if they weren’t. Burying his nose in his sleeve, he stepped inside, towards the teacher’s station. Several jars were lined up on the desk, their tops screwed off and set aside. Inside the glass, dead frogs bobbed in the chemicals, watching him with empty eyes.
“Sorry about the smell,” his teacher said, digging through the box for another mask. “I was hoping to have it aired out before anyone arrived. Would you like to wait outside?”
“I-I’m fine,” he choked out, but accepted the offered mask, strapping it over his ears. It didn’t really help. “I didn’t realize it would be that bad,” he lied.
“Ah, that’s the chemicals,” the teacher explained, tapping the glass with his finger. “Formalin. A fancy way of saying formaldehyde and alcohol. Nasty stuff, but it does the job.”
Gaku knew that very, very well. There were little metal trays spread out at the end of the table. “Are you getting them ready for class?” he asked. “Can I help? I kind of want to get used to it, before we…” He motioned towards the scalpels.
The teacher watched him for a second, considering. “How old are you, again?”
“Sixteen,” he said, straightening his spine. “Almost seventeen.”
The older man took a moment, before pushing a box of latex gloves over. “Take off your jacket and strap these on,” he said. “There’s safety glasses in the cabinet.”
Gaku nodded, hurriedly throwing it all on and shrugging off his blazer. The gloves felt comfortable, and were nice and thick at the fingertips. He pulled his school tie loose, throwing it over the back of the chair. “What would you like me to do?”
“Carefully,” the teacher started, holding up a finger, “reach in and pick up the frog. Let the chemicals drip off before you put it in the tray. And if you’re feeling sick, go out into the hall and take a breather, okay?”
Gaku smiled behind his mask and flashed him a thumbs up. “Yes, sensei!”
The cats had given him experience dealing with dead things. Gaku didn’t bat an eye as he grabbed hold of one of the frogs, yanking it out of the jar and letting it hang in his hand. It was heavier than he thought it would be, its skin slimy and slick, even through his gloves. Gaku watched its limp limbs swing, giving it a little shake, watching the as last of the formalin dripped off.
He moved it over to the tray, the corpse hitting the metal with a small splat.
He craned his neck in his teacher’s direction. “What should I do with the jar?”
“Can you put it there?” With an un-frogged hand, he pointed towards a cart by the door.
Gaku nodded, setting the lid on top of the glass and walking it over. He stole a glance over his shoulder. His teacher was focused on the task at hand, organizing supplies and amphibians in neat rows. Gaku tried to calm his nerves, setting the jar down on the cart.
It was a small thing, really—a quick, nearly effortless gesture. A bead of sweat trickled down Gaku’s neck. He reached into his pocket.
The stolen perfume bottle was empty, but felt impossibly heavy in his hand.
With a slow, steadying breath, he lowered the bottle into the jar. Pockets of air floated to the surface, chemicals swimming into the glass. Gaku waited until the bubbles stopped. He pulled the bottle out and twisted the cap back on, and with steady hands, he slipped the formalin back into his pocket, patting it once for good measure.
Five years of planning, done in five seconds.
“Everything okay over there, Mikohara?”
He turned to his teacher an awkward laugh. “Sorry, my hands are just a little slippery,” he said, holding up his gloves. “Makes it hard to get the lid back on.”
“Be careful,” he droned. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt.”
Gaku laughed again. “Right.”
They made quick work of the rest of the frogs, putting the animals in the trays and the trays on the tables. By the time they had finished, the first of his classmates had started to trickle in; Gaku happily took his place at one of the dissection stations, smiling pleasantly in front of the animal’s corpse.
As the other students heaved and squealed, Gaku slit the frog’s belly open, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
He had everything he needed—except opportunity.
His mother wasn’t cooking at all, anymore. Gaku and his father usually bought dinner on the way home now, something pre-made, microwave-ready and covered in plastic. Not ideal for a number of reasons. Besides, that was only his father’s food. He had two birds, and only one stone. He needed to aim carefully.
He paced back and forth across his bedroom, Satoru nestled and asleep in his breast pocket. His plans needed to change, obviously. The situation had shifted since they arrived in Tokyo, nearly—what, six years ago, now? It felt infinitely longer. Yet the wound from that day was still fresh: a gash that Gaku kept poking and pulling at every night, until even the infection was a comfort.
The hamster yawned, and Gaku slipped a finger in, rubbing at his head. He only had one shot at this. If he made a mistake, if something went wrong—Gaku let out a harsh breath, feeling Satoru snuggle against his nail. It simply was not an option.
He’d waited for years. He could wait a few months more.
So he did. Gaku bit back every urge, every restless midnight thought. The formalin was a constant weight in his pocket, and he took to rolling it between his fingers in class, feeling the chemicals shift and roll against his hand. Knowing what this little bottle could do, knowing what it will do—it was intoxicating. Who knew that a life could weigh so little?
Meanwhile, the world kept moving. Satoru kept him company in the dark hours, bits of grey peppering his fur. His parents kept going through the motions of their routine, oblivious. The receptionist kept confiding in him, like an old friend—though he supposed they were, in her eyes, at least. His classmates prattled, his teachers taught, and he kept attending the cram school, if only to keep up appearances.
And still, he waited. Softly, patiently, always—waiting.
Until he’d waited too long.
Gaku stared down at his hands. The world had gone roaringly silent, the sound of nothing rushing into his ears like a flood. Even the hamster cage was quiet, the wheel abandoned, a squeaking voice snuffed out. Satoru lay cupped in his palms, and Gaku dragged his thumb through his fur, softly stroking his motionless chest.
Gaku stared down, face blank, as a yawning chasm opened where his heart should be.
“Oh, sweetie,” his mother whispered in a rare moment of sobriety, placing her hand on his elbow. “I’m so sorry. I know how much he meant to you.”
She didn’t. Nobody did. Gaku nodded anyway.
“We can have a little ceremony, if you want,” she offered, rubbing his arm. “We can—we can go bury him in the park, even. How does that sound?”
He continued to pet the hamster, rubbing his finger in comforting circles, eyes dry. “I… I think I’d like to do it alone,” he said, finally. His throat felt oddly tight, like someone was squeezing down on his wind pipe. He didn’t know why. “If that’s alright.”
“O-of course, honey,” she whispered, giving him one last assuring squeeze. “Just let me know if you need anything.”
With a promise to be back in half an hour, Gaku slipped out the door, with nothing but Satoru’s corpse nestled between his hands. Aimless, he wandered through the city streets, passing the park without so much as a glance. The evening air was compressing all around him, too thick to breathe and too tight against his skin. He kept walking.
Only when he was half-way over a small bridge did he stop. Dusk had settled in, and Gaku stood in the shadows of a building, feeling the evening chill underneath his clothes. In the distance, he could hear the thrum of traffic, the hum of a city run on machines—but here, all was quiet, the river flowing silently beneath his feet.
For the first time since he left home, he opened his hands.
Satoru was curled into a little ball, as if asleep. Gaku stared down at him, waiting for the moment when he would wake up, squeaking for food and affection. But nothing happened: the animal was dead, and Gaku clenched his jaw, breathing through his teeth.
He’d been careless. And he lost Satoru again.
The pain crested, spilling over and out of his mouth with a quiet, strangled scream. He drew out the sound, letting it bleed his throat dry, his own voice echoing all around. For a few moments, Gaku stood there, shoulders hunched against the wave. But his eyes remained steadfastly dry, even as he stared at the little, dead thing, carefully cupped in his shaking palms.
Then, all at once, it was over.
He glanced down at the hamster with fresh eyes. In the end, it was just like the cats in the alley, or the frog on the tray. Craning his neck, he checked for witnesses, before dropping the body over the railing. There was a soft splash, and Gaku brushed his hands against each other, shaking off the excess fur. It had probably been half an hour by now.
He turned and began the trek back to the apartment. On the way, the streetlights flickered on, one by one. The chasm was still there, as gaping and empty as it ever was, settling beneath his ribs. It was a familiar companion now, but sharper and colder than he remembered. The hamster had held back the tide, but now the dike had burst. The feeling stormed in, the same black ocean he had always known, crawling up his throat.
Gaku paused at the crosswalk, watching the traffic breeze by. The solution, at least, was simple.
If he lost one Satoru, he’d just have to get another.
The light turned green, and an ugly smile twisted his face.
The next day, Gaku sat in his father’s office, pleasant as can be.
As far as he could tell, everything was going according to the same routine: the receptionist was typing away at her computer, a pot of coffee bubbling away in the corner of the room. His father had been holed up in meetings for most of the day, not that it made a difference—he rarely showed himself until it was time to go, anyway. But the man still had his vices: all Gaku had to do was sit there, and…
Like clockwork, his father pulled his door open, loosening his tie as he walked towards the elevator, a pack of cigarettes in one hand. Over the edge of his textbook, Gaku watched him go.
The moment the doors shut, he was on his feet, darting towards his father’s room.
The receptionist’s head snapped up. “What are you doing?”
“My mom said she forgot something last time,” he said, biting his lip. “I don’t think she wants to ask him for it, so…”
Her eyes darted to the elevator, before giving him a nod. “Go.”
Thanking her with a smile, he slipped inside, closing the door behind him.
A few minutes later, he reappeared, tugging the doorknob in his wake. The receptionist cocked her head. “Any luck?”
“No,” he said, sighing and returning to the couch. “I’m going to ask about it later, though.”
The elevator dinged, and both of them pretended to turn back to their work. His father re-emerged, eyes narrowed and the smell of tobacco clinging to his clothes. Gaku pretended not to notice, licking his thumb and flipping the page. Only when the door clicked shut again did the two look at each other, and Gaku gave a huff, flopping back against the couch.
“Good luck with that,” she muttered with a sympathetic smile. “You’ll need it.”
Gaku went back to his pretend studying, keeping a close eye on the clock. Time crawled, slower than it had all these years, if it was possible—but eventually, the little hand found five. Gaku gave a dramatic sigh, setting his book aside as he pushed himself to his feet. “I’m going to do it.”
“Waiting until the end of the day?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow. “He’s going to be tired and grumpy, you know.”
“More than usual?” he asked with a wry smile. “I’ll deal with it.”
He brought his knuckles to the door, knocking twice before entering. His father was writing something down on his desk, and he looked up, frowning through his glasses. “What is it, Gaku?”
He pushed the door closed behind him, hearing it click. “I’m turning seventeen in a few weeks,” he pointed out. “Nearly time for entrance exams. I was hoping to discuss my future.”
His father hummed, setting his pen aside. Bundling his papers in his hands, he tapped the stack against his desk, before setting them aside. “I see.” Pushing himself up from his desk, he motioned for Gaku for take a seat. He sank into one of the thick leather chairs opposite, crossing his legs and folding his hands in his lap.
“I trust you still intend to go into medicine,” he said, moving towards the bar. The bottle of scotch on the bar winked in the light, and his father pulled over two glasses. Alcohol tumbled into the crystal cups, and his father held one out to Gaku. “I have considered some universities that would be suitable.”
He accepted the drink, resting his hand on the armrest. “Actually, I was hoping to discuss high school, first.”
His father raised an eyebrow, reclaiming his seat with a long sip. “How so?”
“I was thinking of finishing my last year at another school, actually,” he explained, swirling the scotch around in his glass.
His father leaned back with a hum, lips tight before taking another taste. “Such as?”
“Mikoto High School,” he said, beaming. “In Ishikari.”
His father’s face froze, eyes hard and cold. He set his empty cup down, knuckles white. “I thought you had grown past such childhood fantasies, Gaku.”
“Well, I have always been driven,” he said, leaning back. “I’ve been told it’s an asset.”
“Did your mother put you up to this?”
“Ha.” Gaku smirked, staring down at the drink in his hand. “No, I assure you—this was all me.”
The older man frowned, the wrinkles in his face twitching, considering. For a long moment, the two of them simply stared across the desk, the tension thick in the air. Gaku’s finger tapped at the rim of his glass, his nail pinging against the crystal, a tick-tick-tick in both of their ears. His father reclined in his seat with a low breath, before opening his mouth, and vomiting blood all over his desk.
With a hoarse, gurgling noise, the red splashed against the polished mahogany. His father’s hands flew up, one clutching at his throat, the other at his mouth—but it didn’t stop the flood that came spilling out with the next wet heave, crimson splattering out between his fingers. There was a wet and ugly gasp as the man looked up at his son, fear in his eyes, and—
Gaku laughed. A cold, hollow sound—it died quickly in his throat, and he gave a happy sigh, settling comfortably into his chair. “How does it feel?” he asked, positively beaming at the sight. “I’m told it’s excruciatingly painful. Like every organ is melting from the inside out.”
The man wheezed. “G—Ga-k—” But whatever he tried to say was swallowed by the blood and bile in his mouth, and his entire body seized. His chest slumped, as if caving in, shoulders landing with a soft thump against his desk. Hazy eyes stared through glasses speckled with red. “W—wh—”
“Shh,” Gaku said, leaning back into his leather armchair, swirling the poisoned drink with a grin. “I’m trying to watch.”
Pink foam fizzled out of his father’s mouth, his lips open and gaping like a fish. Every breath rattled wet in his chest, and the man’s eyes rolled back in his head, blood vessels bulging. Pale fingers twitched in the blood, drops dripping off the edge and onto the carpet. Gaku nudged his foot out of the way, leaning his head in his hand and sighing, content.
His father heaved once or twice more, his weak coughs lighter than a whisper, before he went still.
It was like that—pitiful and afraid, stinking of shit and vomit—that Mikohara Gaku’s father died.
And the room went blissfully, beautifully silent.
Gaku released a shaking sigh, leaning his head back in the chair. So many years.
He let himself relish in the moment, the smell of death and blood filling his lungs.
Cracking his eyes open, he watched the fan above spin, smirking to himself. There was no better satisfaction than a job well done, but there was still more to do. Gaku pushed himself to his feet, carefully avoiding the puddles of blood scattered around the desk. He’d been careful so far; he didn’t plan on breaking that habit now.
Moving behind his father’s desk, Gaku tugged a handkerchief out of his pocket. The drawer handles had managed to avoid any of the blood, shining in the low light. Hiding his fingerprints in the fabric, Gaku pulled the drawer open, a soft smile breaking out on his face.
Gently, he lifted up the picture, Satoru’s grin beaming out under his ducky hat.
To think, it had been here, this whole time. Gaku barely recognized himself, the boy in the picture smiling, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He supposed he didn’t, back then. Softly, he traced Satoru’s face with his fingertips, before slipping the picture into his pocket, over his heart. Gaku looked down at the slack-jawed corpse, his face blank. “You shouldn’t have taken him from me.”
But no one can change the past. Gaku had come to terms with that a long time ago.
He paused on his way out, raising his glass one last time. “Thanks for the drink.”
Then he stepped out of the office, pulling the door behind him closed with a heavy sigh.
The receptionist looked up from her compact, snapping the mirror closed. Her brow creased in concern. “How did it go?”
“Better than I thought it would,” he said, honestly. He swirled the alcohol around, staring down at it. “He said I gave him a lot to think about, and told me to meet him at home.”
“Huh,” she said, leaning her head in her hand. “Well, that’s something, right?”
“Yeah,” he laughed, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I just hope he comes around. Oh!” Gaku held out the glass, poison sloshing around inside. “He, uh, gave this to me but… I don’t really drink. After everything with…” His voice dipped down low. “Well, you met my mom.”
She winced in sympathy. “Right.”
“Do you want it?”
Her eyebrows shot up into her bangs. “Are you sure?”
“I’d just end up pouring it out,” he said, shrugging a little. “It seems like a waste.”
“And you’re underage…”
“Well,” she said, scooting her rolling chair closer with a smile. Her manicured nails curled around the glass. “I’m never one to waste a good drink, especially if it’s free. Thanks, kiddo.”
His smile widened. “It’s my pleasure. I hope you like it.”
Grabbing his backpack, he shrugged it over his shoulder. “I don’t have a ride, so I’m going to head out and try to get home early,” he explained, giving a wave as he trotted towards the elevator. “Have a good night, Nishizono-san!”
“Thanks!” she chirped back, cupping the alcohol in her hands. “See you tomorrow, Gaku!”
He bit his tongue, stifling a hysterical laugh as he stepped into the lift. “See you then.”
The doors closed, and he never saw her again.
Gaku inhaled the damp evening air as he walked, hands in his pockets and soul as light as a feather. The feeling carried him all the way to his front door, and Gaku turned the key in the lock, stepping in and toeing off his shoes.
The lights were all on, not that it meant much. Dropping his things in the hallway, Gaku sauntered in, humming to himself. As expected, he found his mother on the living room floor, half-slumped over the couch. A bottle of wine was abandoned on the coffee table, and he sighed, crouching next to her.
“Mom,” he whispered, gently shaking her shoulder, as he had a hundred times before. “Come on, Mom. Time to go to bed.”
She gave a garbled groan, lifting her head from the cushions. “Gaku,” she slurred, leaning her heavy skull on his shoulder. “Welcome home, sweetheart.”
“Thanks,” he said, looping his arm around her torso. He pushed himself to his feet, pulling her along. She sagged against him like a dead weight, half-stumbling as she tried to stand. Slowly, Gaku made his way down the hall, gently coaxing her along. “Come on.”
She groaned, her feet dragging against the polished floor. “Wh—where’s your—?”
“Dad isn’t here right now,” he said. They passed by her bedroom door. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Oh,” she said, huffing. “Where’re we going?”
“I thought you could use some fresh air,” he said, pulling the balcony door open. “It’s a nice night.”
It was. The balcony wasn’t big, and it looked out onto a parking lot—but in the distance, the lights of the city shimmered, a kaleidoscope of light and glass. He paused and took in the sight, a light breeze ghosting across his cheeks. For the first time, he understood why people found Tokyo so beautiful. Maybe he’d bring Satoru here one day, when all of this was over.
His mother hunched against the railing, and Gaku smiled down at her.
“Here,” he said, wrapping his fingers in the handkerchief and reaching into his pocket. “I have something for you.”
She looked up, confused, and Gaku dropped the empty bottle into her hand. Her fingers curled around it, and she stared, nose twitching at the chemical smell. For a moment, it was like she didn’t even register it, didn’t understand—before her face softened, eyes widening, before settling into something achingly soft.
“Oh, Gaku,” she whispered, looking up at him. “What have you done?”
Gaku didn’t answer. He pushed.
And she didn’t fight, didn’t scream. His mother just fell.
Gaku stared at the empty space where she’d been, and listened to the dull, wet sound of her body meeting the pavement.
Then he turned on his heel, and closed the balcony door behind him.
Someone will notice the body. Someone will call the police. And when they arrive, they will find Gaku: in his pyjamas, half-asleep, assuring them that his mother went to bed hours ago, as if he didn’t already know she was a splatter on the parking lot lines.
Gaku stretched, swinging his arms at his sides. He’d better brush his teeth.
The news broke like this:
His mother, in a fit of paranoia and alcohol, poisoned his father’s scotch. The poor receptionist had told her friends all about the woman, how she showed up to the office belligerent and drunk, going off about some imaginary affair. In a sudden moment of horrifying clarity, his mother leapt from her apartment balcony to her death, the evidence clutched in her hand as penance.
The crime left their only son, orphaned and grieving the senseless massacre.
Or, so they said. Gaku stared at the TV, head in his hand, more bored than anything. It had been a few weeks since that night, but the news cycle had refused to move on. It made sense—a well-to-do family, struck by infidelity, poison, and a dramatic murder-suicide? The public was salivating for every juicy detail, like a dog with a particularly bloody piece of meat.
It didn’t help that Nishizono’s family was disgustingly rich. An up-and-coming socialite, murdered by a jilted older woman? The tabloids practically wrote themselves. Gaku sighed, tapping at his chin and glaring at the screen. In an ideal world, the incident wouldn’t have made the news at all, but he supposed that was his own fault. He’d just have to deal with the consequences.
Gaku straightened up, putting on the face of a suffering, frightened boy. “Yes?”
The social worker turned the TV off, giving him a sympathetic glance. “You shouldn’t be watching this.”
His lips shook as he pressed them together, nodding and staring at his feet. “I know,” he said, voice cracking. “I’m sorry. I just—”
“Don’t apologize,” the man said, dropping a hand on his shoulder and giving it a squeeze. He motioned towards the open office door. “If you’re ready—?”
Gaku nodded, and allowed himself to be led out of the waiting room, clutching his bag against his chest. The social worker’s office was pretty bare, the blinds drawn over the windows, dust floating through the air. Gaku collapsed into an uncomfortable chair, swallowing down the lump that wasn’t in his throat. “Is—is there anything I need to do?”
“Not really,” he said, leaning back in his own seat. It squeaked under his weight. “You’re the only living person named in your parents’ will. Normally, we’d wait until you’re eighteen to transfer all their assets to you, but seeing as you’re only a few months away…”
“R-right,” he said, nodding. He had briefly considered waiting until he was eighteen, just in case. It was good to know he hadn’t shot himself in the foot. He needed that money. “I, uhm… I’m not going into the foster system, am I?”
“Not unless you want to,” he said, opening his hands, leaving the offer on the table. “You’re almost an adult, so it feels a bit pointless. Though you should stay with someone.”
“There’s some family friends in Hokkaido,” he said, biting his lip. “I was planning on going back there.”
The social worker raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure? You wouldn’t rather stay here, with all your friends?”
Gaku nearly, nearly scoffed. “Tokyo has… too many memories,” he said, his voice cracking. “I just—I just want to get out of here.”
The man’s face softened. “Okay,” he said, scooting closer to the computer. “I can get the transfer process started, so you’re registered with the school there. I take it you probably want to sell the apartment, too.”
“Please,” he whispered, staring down at his shoes. “I don’t really want to go back there.”
“We’ll get that sorted too, then,” he said, pushing his glasses up his face. “Is there anything else I can do for you, Mikohara-kun? Anything?”
Gaku drummed his fingers against his bag. “Actually, there is one thing…”
Morning lazily broke above the train station. The platforms were empty and bare, still a few hours and several coffees away from the proper morning rush. Every so often, a sleep-deprived commuter would shuffle through the turnstiles, dragging themselves towards the tracks. Nobody was ever up this early by choice.
Nobody except Gaku, of course. He stood in the middle of the station, his smile wide, a duffel bag flung over his shoulder. It had been nearly ten years since the last time he was here, trying to sneak aboard the north-bound train. Some part of him was still jittery, waiting for the inevitable, police officers swarming from all sides—but no. Things were different now.
He let out an excited breath, a puff of white fog trailing in its wake. With a skip in his step, he walked up to the kiosk labelled ‘Ticket Pick-Up,’ smiling at the attendant behind the glass. “Good morning! I have a reservation for the five-thirty Sapporo train?”
The woman blinked up at him, suppressing a yawn. “Name?”
He slid his new ID forward, beaming. “Yashiro Gaku.”