When Sojiro Sakura was younger, he saw himself as a paragon of societal change. Like any kid his age, Sojiro believed he could make the world how he wanted with misplaced rebellion. He drank too young for his age, convinced older friends to buy him cigarettes in high school, and stayed out past curfew. It took his father chewing him out and shouting so loud that Sojiro wondered if he’d still be able to hear afterward for him to realize the world wasn’t going to change with him and his poor behavior. All that resulted from it was the disappointment in his parent’s eyes and an addiction to cigarettes he couldn’t obtain on his own.
He grew up. It was inevitable and somewhat of a relief. He graduated college and found himself a job in the government. He met Wakaba, a scientist more brilliant than he could ever hope to be, and he fell in love. Unfortunately, she never felt the same. Instead, he was her friend and content with that. Sojiro shared his coffee, of which he believed to be the best, and she shared her curry, of which she knew to be the best for his coffee. He visited her when Futaba was born and helped her with her new daughter whenever he could. When Wakaba died, Sojiro blamed himself. She’d asked him for help and he’d taken her offhand comment as a joke. He hadn’t seen Futaba for a year, but he was relentless in getting her away from her uncle and under his care instead. It was the least he could do to earn Wakaba’s forgiveness.
Sojiro thought everything would be better for Futaba once he’d gained custody of her, but if anything, it might have been worse. She ran at the sight of people, cried at the sound of foreign voices, and barely left her room. He had to place her meals outside her door and wait by the stairs to catch a glimpse of a pale hand slip the plate or bowl inside. She managed to finish middle school, through copious absences and miraculously passed finals. Futaba refused to take any entrance exams for high school and he let her stay home. In some ways, he hoped that letting her do only what she was comfortable with would make him a good father for her. He knew that wasn’t the case. How anyone could trust him with anymore children was beyond him.
Sojiro sat at his kitchen table. Futaba had long since eaten and placed her empty dishes outside her door for Sojiro to take. He wished her a goodnight through the door and after a moment she called back with the same sentiment. LeBlanc was closed for the night and the television droned on quietly in the living room. Earlier that evening, he had brought the mail in and set the pile on the kitchen table to be sorted later. Now that he had looked through it, he noticed the manila package addressed to him. Inside was the record of a young man by the name of Akira Kurusu.
Sojiro still had a few connections and friends from before he retired and requesting for Kurusu’s information before he took the kid in was easy. Over all, the kid’s record was squeaky clean aside from the ugly blot that was his assault of an older man. It was nothing serious and the name of the man wasn’t given. All that resulted from his attack was a cut on the man’s forehead. Supposedly, it was out of character for Kurusu, but Sojiro knew not to judge a book by its cover. Too many people went about their lives pretending to be good people. Kurusu might be no different.
Sojiro’s heart did go out to the kid, however. No child deserved their life ruined by one stupid mistake. He could attest to that himself. He’d set this kid straight, raise his voice, scare him a bit. He frowned when he found a copy of the kid’s mugshot among the mostly empty pages. Wide-eyed and cheeks streaked with tears, the kid looked everything like the sweet boy who could do no wrong the mother who had called him claimed Kurusu had always been.
Sojiro scratched his chin and sighed. This was nothing like when he’d taken in Futaba. He knew Futaba and he knew Futaba’s family. The Kurusu family were complete strangers entrusting him with their child in their desperation to get someone, anyone, to help them fulfill the court ordered probation and keep him in school. They’d been so hopeful after a friend who was only a regular at Sojiro’s café for a short time shared too much information and convinced him to give them a call. Just because the man thought of him as a friend didn’t mean Sojiro returned the sentiment and yet, here he was, looking down at the kid’s record to prepare himself for his yearlong stay.
He glanced toward the stairs and frowned. Sojiro couldn’t bring the boy to live here. Not with Futaba the way she was and the way the kid supposedly acted. He couldn’t tell Futaba that he was watching this boy either. She’d fear the world even more than she already did with the physical evidence of the world’s violence living nearby. He’d put him in LeBlanc’s attic. Kurusu wouldn’t have any room to complain. He’d be away from Futaba and… alone in Sojiro’s livelihood. His headache was getting worse. Sojiro removed his glasses and rubbed his temples in an attempt to deter it. He’d be trusting that boy with his only source of income and they were lucky enough that, with Kurusu’s parents’ monthly payments, he had enough money to support them all for a year if all went well. He deliberated for a few silent minutes, but ultimately, he decided to let the boy live in the attic. If he did any damage, he’d have proof and that boy would be in violation of his probation. If Kurusu was as good as his parents originally believed, this year would be a breeze.
Sojiro looked back down at mug shot of a boy clearly in over his head and terrified. He’d do his best to help the kid if he was willing to be helped. Sojiro couldn’t do much if he wasn’t. Sitting up taller and stretching his back, Sojiro closed the file and sighed to himself.
Fifteen years old and turning sixteen near the middle of March.
Barely a year older than Futaba. Much too young to have his life thrown away.
April 9th is when he was expecting the kid. It was a lazy morning with only a couple regular customers arriving early for the morning rush. Sojiro had some quiet time to read and do a few crosswords through the afternoon. The television was background noise and eventually he forgot he was waiting for someone. It was only when the bell above the front door jingled and he looked up to see a kid dressed for school, that he remembered.
“Right,” he sighed, setting his paper down on the bar behind him, “They did say that was today.”
He stood and the boy said nothing.
Sojiro decided to bridge the gap and speak first, “You’re Akira Kurusu, right?”
The boy still said nothing again. He fidgeted, eyes meeting Sojiro’s for a second before flickering away and back again. Eventually, he nodded and blurted out, “Please take care of me.”
Sojiro couldn’t tell if that was the kid’s attempt at humor or a genuine request. Instead of laughing and risking the chance that the kid had not meant to be funny, he nodded and smiled. “I’m Sojiro Sakura and, yes, I’ll be your guardian for the year,” his smile fell, “and I’ve got the gist of your situation. You said you were protecting a woman from a man trying to assault her, you pushed him off, and he fell, right?” He waited for Akira to try and change his story. He didn’t and Sojiro continued, “You were arrested for an assault you still claim you didn’t do and the courts ordered you to a year of probation. You understand I’m not going to baby you. I’m not your father and I’m not your friend. I’m watching you for your probation officer. One wrong move…” he raised a finger and pointed out the front door of the café. He let the implication of the gesture hang in the air. He’d never been great at scare tactics, but he hoped what he learned from his father would work the same as it did for him all those years ago. It looked like it might have, as Akira gripped the straps of his bag a little bit tighter and nodded. He motioned for Akira to follow him and turned around. He missed the surprised look on the kid’s face as he walked up the stairs to the attic.
When he turns back around, Akira had followed him. The attic was coated in a thin layer of dust. In the middle of the floor, sat a large cardboard box full of belongings Akira’s parents had shipped to him a few days before. Sojiro felt as though he would regret this. “This is your room,” Sojiro said. There was no flare to his gesture and no interest in his voice. “You’ll need to clean it up and move some things around. I’ve made your bed for you, but that’s it.” The bed was actually a few old spare futons piled onto an old bedframe to keep them up off the dusty floor. Sojiro didn’t have the money to purchase a new mattress that would only be used for a year and he felt bad about it, but he pushed the feeling aside, “There’s a bath house across the street. I suggest you make use of it.”
Akira looked around the room, silently. The expression on his face was indecipherable. Sojiro could guess that he might be uncomfortable and confused. If the kid didn’t like it, he’d have to deal with it. He wasn’t going to go soft on the kid on the first day. “You got something to say?” Sojiro asked, raising an eyebrow and inviting the kid to complain. He had a few planned lines prepared to shoot down any attempts at defiance and disobedience on Akira’s part, but all Akira said was, “It’s… a big room.” His voice was quiet and timid. It was almost as if he was impressed that the entire room was his.
“I’m not going to clean it for you, so get busy,” The statement doesn’t quite fit with Akira’s lack of rebellious speech, but he said it anyway and couldn’t take it back. He knew the kid wouldn’t clean the room and Sojiro would probably have to make a bit of headway in the grime when Akira was away at school so the poor kid didn’t breathe in dust for the rest of the year. He’d go back on his word and he knew it. He does the same thing when trying to discipline Futaba. It was useless.
Akira nodded anyway and Sojiro stepped around the kid to return to his café. For the rest of the afternoon, Sojiro hears footsteps and objects scrapping against wood flooring. At one point, there was a loud bang and Sojiro jumped. He glanced up at the ceiling and then at his empty café before making his way back upstairs. Akira was on the ground, but was back on his feet before Sojiro could ask him what happened. Upon closer inspection, the situation became clear. Akira had knocked over an overcrowded bookshelf Sojiro couldn’t remember the purpose of and fallen when heavy books rained down on him. The smile Akira sent his way was sheepish and embarrassed. Sojiro helped him pick them up amidst far too many apologies from Akira. He was surprised to see the room was cleaner than when he left it earlier. “I didn’t expect you to actually clean the place up,” Sojiro admits when the books are off the floor. Most were placed in a trash bag that Sojiro is going to move to a storage room in his actual house to be at least a little help in decluttering the attic space. Akira, for the most part, appeared thankful.
When night drew closer, Sojiro climbed the stairs again to bring Akira his dinner. He went up there with the full intention to remind the kid that they’re going to Shujin Academy tomorrow to get him registered for the year and that if anything went missing from the kitchen during the night, he’d have hell to pay. The words were caught in his throat when he reached the top and found Akira sitting on his bed, staring up at the rafters with a miserable look in eyes. In that moment, Akira reminded him of Futaba; scared, lost, and receding into herself. Sojiro looked up at the rafters and nothing was there. He thought for a moment, that he didn’t want to leave the boy here alone. It would be so much safer if he told Akira to pick up his futons and follow him back home so he can move the couch back against the wall and let Akira take over his living room for the year, where he can keep a closer eye on him.
He didn’t say any of that aloud and instead, cleared his throat to get Akira’s attention.
Akira blinked a few times and looked at Sojiro, looking startled and tired. Sojiro lifted the plate up to show Akira what he’d brought and continued into the room. “I brought dinner,” Sojiro handed off the plate and Akira looked content to just stare miserably at it and push the rice and curry around with his fork. “Clean the plate when you’re done,” Sojiro told him, “and I’m going to lock up. You’ll be alone at night so… don’t do anything stupid.”
Akira seemed to understand what he’d been trying to say and gave him a sad smile. “I’ll be fine,” he promised and Sojiro held him to it. That night, Sojiro couldn’t sleep.