Hundreds of miles north of Tokyo, a train sat in an empty station, waiting. A petty old thing, the machine groaned and hissed as it dawdled on the tracks, its gears and joints aching in the cold. Frost had set in, creeping over the nuts and bolts, a spider web of ice spreading across the metal. It was closer to dawn than not, but the sky was a sheet of black; the train’s headlights were the only beacon in the dark. A light snow fell across the beams, cutting shadows against the light.
With a long exhale, the train heaved, steam hissing out from somewhere deep in its bowels. The doors fell open with a long, rusted screech.
A single, lonely passenger stepped onto the platform, wet snow crunching underneath polished shoes.
Gaku tilted his chin up, to the rusting sign hanging above the tracks. Welcome to Ishikari!
To the empty platform, he announced: “I’m home.”
Gaku had dreamed of what he would do when he came back.
How he’d run to Satoru’s front door straight from the station, how his key would still turn the lock, the joy on Satoru’s face when he realized who had come. The way they’d throw their arms around each other, as if they never wanted to let go again. The whole affair was scripted in his head, like the worst kind of TV drama.
His fantasies had never accounted for how long the trains to Ishikari would take. Stepping out of the station, he checked his phone.
Gaku grit his teeth, looked up at the falling snow, and hailed a cab instead.
For all his dreaming, Gaku was, ultimately, pragmatic. All his desires, hungry and starved, were nothing compared to seeing Satoru smile—and he would probably be terrified if he heard someone trying to come in in the middle of the night, even if that someone turned out to be Gaku.
Satoru deserved better than that.
Even if his body was burning with the urge to run to that little apartment, he swallowed it down like bitter medicine, leaning towards the front seat.
“Hiyoshi Apartments, please.”
The driver grunted and rolled away from the curb. Gaku let himself sink into the stiff upholstery, staring out the windows. In Tokyo, there would still be lights everywhere, the city buzzing with sounds and light. But Ishikari was asleep, lit only by the dim streetlamps, uneasily flickering in the cold. Gaku watched the empty streets crawl by, filling in the blank map in his memory. Not much had changed: a few stores had been swapped for others, of course, but Gaku had been prepared for more. Then again, Ishikari had always been a quiet town.
They drove passed the Children’s Centre, and he couldn’t resist a smile. Maybe that was for the best. It was a comfort to know that Satoru had grown up here: safely incubated in a calm, peaceful corner of the world, until Gaku could come find him again.
His new building was, like most things in Ishikari, old—but well-kept, as far as he could tell. The lobby smelled of cleaning products, despite its dated appearance. The elevator creaked as it carried it up to his floor, and he wandered the empty halls, scanning the numbers. Stopping in front of a door, Gaku tried the key he’d been given, and the new lock turned over easily. He flipped on the light.
The place was, for lack of a better word, plain—but in that trendy, modern way, supposedly. The little kitchen was crowded against one wall, a small table separating it from the living room. A single couch faced the TV, the hallway tucked off to the side. Cardboard boxes were stacked up near the table, and Gaku sighed, dropping his bag and closing the door behind him.
It might have been bigger, but it couldn’t compare to the Fujinumas’ home, not by a mile. But it would have to do.
As he wandered through the home, he pulled out his phone and shot an email off to his social worker to let him know he’d made it safely. The second bedroom was a plus: perfect if someone wanted to stay over. Or move in.
The thought shot through his blood like a bullet, and Gaku tossed his phone onto the couch, flexing the feeling out of his fingers. His heart was beating like an earthquake in his chest, shaking up his breath as it pushed past his throat. Nerves, anticipation, excitement—he could feel it all, like a cocktail of adrenaline, setting every atom on fire—and he all knew too well that he wasn’t going to get any sleep tonight.
Pulling open the kitchen drawers, he rifled under his fingers found a knife, and he pressed his finger to the sharp edge, testing. With surgical precision, he slipped the blade under the tape, and cut the cardboard box open. He might as well unpack.
Exactly 6 hours and forty-two minutes since he arrived in Ishikari, Gaku set off to find Satoru.
Unpacking hadn’t taken too long, namely because Gaku hadn’t brought much from Tokyo—just clothes, his mementos of Satoru, and, in an odd moment of sentimentality, his hamster wheel. Putting it away had taken no time at all, so the rest of the night was spent getting ready. Gaku had never been particularly focused on his appearance, as long as it met his needs, but today was special.
It wasn’t a first impression, exactly—but he still wanted to be presentable. He didn’t know if he’d grown up into the person Satoru would want him to be, but he could at least look the part.
In the steam of his bathroom, Gaku took his father’s straight razor to his own throat, scraping the teenaged stubble off his chin. He’d never really gone out in Tokyo, socially, so his clothes were—limited, for lack of a better word. He’d have to fix that. In the end, he settled for a simple white button-up, leaving the collar open in a way he hoped was casual. Shrugging on a black blazer, inspected himself in the mirror. It would have to do.
Slipping the picture of them into his inner pocket, he grabbed and keys and stepped out the door.
The overnight dusting of snow had already succumbed to the sun, leaving the air heavy, damp and fresh. Gaku released a breath and watched it fog in front of his eyes.
Years of searching the internet meant he knew the Fujinumas’ address by heart. Gaku marched through the streets, trying to keep his feet from trying to race his heartbeat. He was excited, of course—more, even, than when his father took that last, bloody, vomit-stained breath. Gaku’s chest had felt empty since the day he’d left Ishikari, and he wanted nothing more than to crush Satoru against his ribs and feel his warmth again, humming where Gaku’s heart should be.
He turned the corner, and his steps slowed. Sure, he’d known the way to the Fujinumas’ home, but he hadn’t considered what that actually meant until Sachiko’s old workplace was staring him in the face. Gaku stared through the blown-out windows into the dirty darkness inside. By the looks of it, the building been abandoned years ago; the sign hung crooked, the letters faded and covered in a thick layer of grime.
But he didn’t care about that.
Gaku hastened his pace, and let out a sigh of relief. Unlike the building, the field hadn’t changed at all. The tall grass was still stretching out of the mud, dry blades rustling in the breeze. Bits of construction equipment—pipes, lumber, old tarps—were still strewn about, their bodies rusted and torn. The path he used to take in and out was still stamped down, cutting across the dirt like a scar. It had been ten years since he’d set foot here, but the dirt still remembered his feet.
Gaku stood there and soaked it all in, blinking away the burning in his eyes. Something was surging up in him, a sad kind of happy that he had never known—but staring out at the dump site, it felt like coming home.
Until he heard the camera click.
It took a second before he found them. Someone was crouching by a stack of steel beams, and Gaku’s good mood immediately soured in his chest, his lips twisting into a scowl. He couldn’t see their face, but Gaku could hear the clicking of the phone’s camera, and his hackles rose. This was his place with Satoru, and the mere idea of people trampling over it, snapping pictures and gawking, lit a fire in his blood.
The intruder pushed themselves to their feet, swiping a hand against their knees, and Gaku’s breath cut out.
Glasses. He’d never considered glasses.
But there was no denying the blue eyes behind them. Satoru stopped suddenly, like a cornered animal, and stared at him from across the field. His grip tightened around his phone, a Wonder Guy charm hanging off the case. God, he looked so different. His childlike limbs had turned long and lanky, and he held himself as most teenagers did: awkwardly, as if waiting for his oversized hoodie to swallow him whole.
But Gaku would recognize him anywhere: behind it all, he could still see the four-year-old he once knew, calling his name.
The cold had turned those soft cheeks pink, and Satoru breathed, puffs of white passing his lips.
And Gaku was frozen. He didn’t expect to find Satoru here; he hadn’t prepared for this, wasn’t ready. His carefully crafted plans were lying shattered at his feet. His mind was screaming at him to say something, but all his rehearsed apologies had fled. Even his legs had rooted themselves to the ground, and his fingertips twitch, itching to grab the boy standing in front of him.
The boy that was just staring back at him. Satoru tilted his head, bangs falling across his frames. A soft frown pulled at his mouth as he took Gaku in. For a heartbeat, no one moved, the wind ruffling both their hair.
Then, all at once, Satoru’s eyes lit up, sparkling like twin saucers. His whole body inhaled excitement until he looked like he would burst, the overflow filling his face with a smile. Shoving his phone in his pocket, he began to rush across the field; his feet stumbled over the junk, his arms swinging to keep himself upright. Old instincts flared to life, and Gaku jerked forward, ready to catch him, to hold him—
Satoru waved wildly with both arms, grinning wide. “Kayo!”
A girl appeared at his elbow. Gaku recognized the narrowed eyes, the defensive curl of her shoulders, and felt his heart shatter.
“What are you doing?” Hinazuki Kayo asked, her face buried in the collar of her red coat.
“Sorry, sorry,” Satoru laughed, slowing to a trot near the field’s edge. “Just getting references!”
“It’s a field,” Kayo said, though there was no bite in it. “Just draw a line.”
Satoru let out an affectionate huff, toeing his way over the bank. Gaku watched it happen in slow motion: Satoru’s battered shoes met the incline and slipped, his heel twisting in the wet mud, and Gaku’s hands shot out like a bullet.
The familiar weight of Satoru settled against his chest and knocked his breath away. From this close, he could feel Satoru’s hot breath on his skin; could feel his heartbeat, wild and erratic under his hands. Satoru’s hands fisted in Gaku’s sleeves, and he teetered dangerously before finding his balance, his hair tickling at Gaku’s chin. They stared at each other, and for a moment, Gaku dared to hope.
But Satoru just laughed, sheepishly stepping out of his grip. “Ah, thanks—sorry about that.”
“No problem,” Gaku croaked, his hands hovering where Satoru had been.
“Come on,” Kayo muttered, giving a short bow to Gaku before grabbing Satoru by the sleeve, pulling him down the street. “We’re late. Hiromi’s already worried.”
“He’s still texting you, huh?”
“Shut up,” Kayo hissed, and Satoru laughed again, the sound beautiful and bright.
Gaku watched as all he ever wanted turned its back, and started to walk away.
(But Ishikari was small: if Gaku wound up also wandering in that direction, following their footsteps towards the tiny downtown, it could be chalked up to pure coincidence.)
Which is why, when they were about half a block down, Gaku shoved his hands in his pockets and took after them. His heart was still pounding like a war drum, and his thoughts were a hurricane of confusion and pain, but he moved at a leisurely stroll, never taking his eyes off Satoru. Even from afar, he could tell that Satoru and Kayo were close: their shoulders brushed as they walked, their heads dipping in, as if sharing secrets—and Gaku could feel his jealousy grinding inside of him, like metal against metal.
“Are you an idiot?” Kayo said, but her smile was fond. Satoru elbowed her in the side, and they fell back into each other’s orbit, like satellites. Gaku tried not to vomit.
How had this happened? Satoru had been young when he’d left—but not so young to forget him entirely, was he? Gaku flexed his hands in his pockets, his fingers tapping a staccato rhythm against his ribs. He could feel the picture, nestled against his breast, and knew. He shouldn’t have been erased from Satoru’s heart that easily.
He stared at the back of Hinazuki Kayo’s head, mind churning. If Satoru remembered Gaku, he would have remembered their promise.
If that was the case, then what was she doing here?
They turned the corner, and Gaku shuffled forward faster, desperate to catch up. As he approached the intersection, his feet slowed, before stopping entirely. Gaku stood, struck dumb on the sidewalk, watching in dismay as Satoru and Kayo waved their hellos to a gaggle of teenagers. They were immediately brought into the fold, a boy with a round face stammering awkwardly as he stepped up to Hinazuki’s side. Satoru was immediately accosted by a larger boy with a pompadour of all things, planting a playful punch to his arm that sent Gaku’s blood boiling. Satoru gave an exasperated smile as the boy threw an arm around his shoulders, pulling him into a loose headlock.
It wasn’t just Hinazuki Kayo. There were more of them, swarming around Satoru like vultures.
A girl in pigtails began trying to herd them into the karaoke bar, literally pushing some other glasses-wearing boy through the entrance as he feigned a struggle. They started to filter in in groups, gesticulating and chatting wildly to each other until they stepped inside. Gaku watched Satoru until he disappeared behind the double-doors, and the stragglers followed, eager to be out of the cold.
The last of them paused in the entryway. Gaku hadn’t noticed the blond boy before—but the blond had clearly noticed him. The boy’s hand was curled tight around the door handle, sharp eyes narrowing as he stared. It was too late to turn or pretend he was on his way, so he just stood there, smiling jovially at the younger boy. Gaku didn’t know if it was simple curiosity or suspicion, but there was a prickling at the back of his neck, a whispered warning in his brain.
“Kenya?” Satoru asked, poking his head out. “Is something wrong?”
The boy snapped out of his stare. “Ah, no. Sorry.”
They both slipped inside, and Gaku released a slow breath, his shoulders sagging.
The snow was starting up again, the occasional white falling to his feet and melting on the concrete.
Standing there, alone on the sidewalk on a quiet street, Gaku finally felt the weight of it all settle in his chest like an anchor, the cold hard lead dragging all of his organs down. He wasn’t so naïve that he thought their reunion would go perfectly. But this… Gaku didn’t even know what this was. Both his brain and his body felt numb, like he was separate from himself, his hands twitching at his sides. Shock, probably.
He didn’t know up from down, but he knew enough to know he couldn’t just stand there. Rumors travelled fast in small towns, especially when it came to strange out-of-towners. So he turned to go, flipping his up collar against the wind. He needed to get out of the public eye, gather his thoughts—take the time to sort through all this and regroup.
Once he had a new plan in place, he could approach Satoru again. Somehow.
Gaku ambled down the street, breathing fast, when his shoulder collided with someone else’s. He felt his steps stumble slightly, and the stranger’s grocery bag hit the ground, its contents spilling out onto concrete. Something in his mind whispered politeness and appearances in his ear, and Gaku crouched to his knees, quickly gathering the scattered groceries in his arms. “Sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.”
He looked up, holding a can up out to the stranger.
But the woman had stopped dead, her face pale, as if she’d seen a ghost.
Oh. From down here, staring into that familiar face, Gaku felt like a little boy again. The phantom pain of home-cooked meals and warm baths rushed over him in a tidal wave, and he ached for it. But all he had was the wet chill from the sidewalk beneath him, bits of gravel biting into his knees. “Hello, Sachiko-san.”
Something flashed across her face, but just as quickly it was gone, an achingly sad smile taking its place. Crouching down, her fingers brushed against his, pulling the can from his fingers.
“Do you like coffee?”
They wound up in a little tucked away café, its storefront crowded into a side alley. The place itself was cozy bordering on claustrophobic; the moment they walked in, Gaku got the distinct feeling that the walls were creeping in, like curious spectators at the scene of a crash craning to catch a peek of the wreckage. The floorboards groaned under his weight, even as he settled down in a seat with his drink.
Sachiko did the same, smiling wryly down at their cups. “Ordering black like a grown-up now, huh?”
Gaku took a sip. “I’m almost eighteen.”
“Wow.” One of her feet grazed against her grocery bag, and it crinkled loudly in the quiet room. “It’s really been that long, hasn’t it?”
Gaku nodded. It had been a long time—even for Sachiko. This wasn’t the same young mother who had taken him in all those years ago. Her hair had been cropped into a sharp bob, and when she smiled, little wrinkles appeared at the corners of her eyes. Even her clothes had changed, the slacks and button-ups traded in for a high-heels and a blazer. Something about it left a sour taste on his tongue, bitterer than coffee.
“I saw Satoru today,” he said, cutting right to the heart of it. “He didn’t know who I was.”
Sachiko sighed, both her hands curling around her mug. “That’s… it’s complicated, Gaku-kun.”
“I have time.”
She took a long, deep sip of her drink, staring out the distant window. A clock ticked loudly above their heads. The cup bumped against the table as she set it down again, her nails scratching at an invisible stain on the porcelain. “He was so young when you left,” she started, gently swirling her coffee. “Kids that age—they don’t know how to… deal with certain things.”
“He took it badly,” he guessed.
“Inconsolable,” she said. “The screaming, the crying—when you didn’t come back, he…” She stopped and took a deep breath, gripping her mug with both hands. “He was convinced he didn’t protect you. That you were going to get hurt, and it was all his fault.”
And, well, Gaku couldn’t pretend that wasn’t the best news he’d heard all day—but Sachiko couldn’t know that. So he kept his face schooled into something like sympathy, nodding along with a frown on his face.
“Nothing helped, and—he wasn’t eating. He wouldn’t go to school.” She gave a dark laugh, shaking her head. “I caught him one night trying to sneak out with a backpack. He said he was going to go to Tokyo. Can you imagine?”
He could. To think that Satoru had missed him—had tried to come for him. No one else had ever loved Gaku so much, had never wanted him like Satoru had. He felt the heat of it settle beneath his ribs, burning like a little furnace in his gut. But Sachiko had gone cold, her voice steel. “I couldn’t let him go on like that, Gaku-kun. I couldn’t.”
Suspicion prickled at his skin. “What did you do, Sachiko-san?”
There is was: a flash of guilt, her lips twisting into a frown—but then it was gone, her eyes resolute.
“I told him that you were,” she pressed her lips together, “imaginary.”
Gaku straightened in his seat, eyes wide. Sachiko continued, the words spilling out of her mouth. “I said that—that sometimes, we make up friends. They aren’t real, and that when we grow up, they go away. And—” She looked back up at him. “You have to understand—he was hurting, Gaku-kun. And I didn’t know if you’d ever come back.”
The thoughts were swirling rapidly around his head, a storm of pain and questions crashing into each other. But all he said was: “He believed you.”
Sachiko gave a dry smile. “When you’re five, you believe whatever your mom says.”
“But,” his hand rushed to his pocket, “there were pictures, and—”
“Just one,” she corrected. “I threw it out.”
Gaku didn’t realize he was angry until then, the rage that had been locked in his bones erupting with a roar. He felt it flare like a hot flash across his skin, his jaw snapping closed before it fired the acid in his throat. He’d trusted Sachiko—she had given him a shelter at Satoru’s side, the closest thing to a place called “home” that he had ever known. And then she had taken it all, and thrown it in the trash. Like it was garbage. Like it was nothing.
He forced his lungs to go slow, schooling his face into a blank slate. “Does he even remember?”
Sachiko shook her head. “No. I don’t think so.”
Of course not. Why would you remember someone who didn’t exist? But the words still left a hollow in his chest, screaming where his heart should be. “I see,” he hissed.
The bell above the door rang, and they both killed the conversation, mouths glued shut. The customer chatted with the man behind the counter, laughing at some horrible joke. Sachiko pretended to be occupied with her coffee, but Gaku didn’t even bother: he stared unblinking down at his hands, his mind rearranging around the bomb that had exploded in his reality.
Satoru hadn’t just forgotten him—he didn’t even know Gaku existed.
Not because he hadn’t loved Gaku, but because he had been tricked.
It wasn’t Satoru’s fault. He had always been so trusting, so eager to see the good in people that Gaku had long learned didn’t exist. And then he had been lied to, manipulated, brainwashed into forgetting the one thing that had mattered most. Gaku grit his teeth, guilt and shame strangling his throat. He had thought Ishikari had been safe for Satoru, but he was wrong. If he had been strong enough, if he had just been here, then he could have protected Satoru from all this.
From her. Gaku stared across the table at this woman he used to know, and felt any love for Sachiko Fujinuma die.
The door to the café closed with another jingle of the bell, and Sachiko set her coffee aside.
“I know this isn’t what you want to hear, especially now,” she said, staring at him with clear eyes. “But when I saw how Satoru reacted after you left—I realized how close you two were, and…” She shook her head again. “It wasn’t healthy. If it had gone on like that—I don’t think it would have been good for either of you.” She looked at him across the table, her eyes pleading. “It took some time, but Satoru—he’s doing so, so well now. He’s happy.”
Because he’s living a lie, his brain hissed.
“I don’t think either of us want to ruin that,” she said, folding her hands over each other. “Do you… understand what I’m trying to say, Gaku?”
Ah—there it was. There had been something bothering him ever since he had seen Sachiko Fujinuma again, and now he knew. The business clothes, the tone of voice, the carefully crafted hair; Gaku blinked, and the café was gone, replaced by a plastic diner he hadn’t seen in a decade, a serrated knife heavy in his hand.
His father glowered at him from across the table, blood bubbling past his lips. “This fascination of yours isn’t healthy, Gaku. It’s sick, and it’s perverted.”
Sachiko’s hands were folded, just like his. Her nails carefully manicured, just like his mother’s used to be, before she took a dive from the eleventh floor balcony.
“And if you won’t nip it in the bud, then we will.”
To think, he used to believe that Sachiko was different. But it had just taken her longer to get there. He stared down at his cup, a drop of cold coffee sitting alone at the bottom. He wondered how thick the porcelain was. How much force it would take to break it into pieces. Whether or not a shard would shatter before it got deep enough.
Sachiko frowned, leaning in to the table. “Gaku-kun?”
Gaku set his cup down, and smiled. “Of course, Sachiko-san,” he said. “I understand everything.”
His parents, Satoru’s friends, even Sachiko—everyone was going to try to keep him away from Satoru.
It was cute, how everyone thought that they could.