Sakuraba Chiyo doesn’t really wake up. She hasn’t slept much the past few weeks; not unless her husband forces her to. She thinks he has been a bit of a hypocrite, considering the amount of time he’s spent outside at odd hours just searching. She doesn’t mention it, though. Half the time, she’s there with him when she isn’t crying in their son’s room.
They get the call in the early hours of the morning. Even though they’re both in bed, they know neither of them have slept. The sun isn’t even up yet. Katsuo’s phone buzzes and he sits up like lightning, fumbling in the dark to look at the ID.
“It’s the police,” he whispers. Chiyo sits up beside him and she watches him answer. “This is Sakuraba Katsuo. What?” His eyes light up in a way she hasn’t seen in weeks. Hope rises in her chest. “Yes. Yes, of course, we’ll be there soon! Thank you!” He hangs up and turns to her, mouth agape and eyes wide.
“What? What is it?” she asks urgently.
“They found him!” he says, softly as though to say it any louder would make it any less true. “They found Neku!” She gasps, and sobs with relief.
They go to the station and find Neku in a shock blanket. His hair is messier than usual and he has bags under his eyes. He’s staring down at his lap, apparently numb to his surroundings. It doesn’t matter—he’s alive and right in front of them. Chiyo sobs again, which gets his attention.
“Mother?” he says, shocked. It hurts a bit to hear the distant address of “Mother” rather than “Mom”, but it’s overwhelmed by the sound of just hearing his voice again.
“Neku,” she gasps and stumbles to him, pulling him into a tight hug. He stiffens in her grasp, but gradually relaxes until he’s slowly wrapping his arms around her in return. Above them, she knows Katsuo is just barely keeping himself together. He places heavy hands on their shoulders until he’s kneeling beside them and wrapping them both up. She continues crying into Neku’s shoulder.
They have never been much of an affectionate family. Loving gestures were rarely exchanged—Chiyo and Katsuo were busy all day and Neku had always been a bit absent in their lives. There were pictures in the house of them, all posed and smiling but barely touching. Neku had always hated having to tame his hair and wear suits for those pictures. Now, Chiyo thinks their family needs a little more affection.
“Sakuraba-san?” a police officer says. Chiyo doesn’t get up, but Katsuo does. She doesn’t register what they’re talking about, too busy pulling away from Neku and cupping his cheeks. He looks stunned as she searches his face for any bruises. She’s aware of tears on her cheeks and last month she wouldn’t have been caught dead looking anything less than perfect but she doesn’t care because her son is back.
“Oh, you need sleep,” she says. “What is this? Are those bruises? What happened?” She gently takes his arms, looking at the bruises and cuts all over him. He doesn’t look all that bad, all things considered, but she would prefer if he wasn’t hurt at all. She wants to look for whoever harmed her boy and she wants to make them hurt.
“I…” he says, then clears his throat. “Can we go home?”
“Of course!” Chiyo nods emphatically and looks at Katsuo. “We can go, right?” She wouldn’t dare refuse her son. All she wants is for him to be back home.
“Yes.” Katsuo nods. “Thank you, officers, but we’d like to help our son get settled in again. If you need anything, you have my number.” The officers exchange glances, but it seems they’ve finished their business for the day, because they let them go.
Chiyo ushers Neku into bed the moment they enter, asking him if he wanted any food or if he was just tired and if he needed anything. He doesn’t tell her to leave him alone and is oddly compliant with her questions, answering promptly, albeit quietly. It’s okay, though. He’s home, and he’s okay. He’s always been quiet, but so long as he’s present, it’s okay.
“If you want to talk to us about anything…” Katsuo says hesitantly as Neku eats a quick snack. Neku shakes his head, and that’s that.
Chiyo’s heart still aches every time he calls her that. Still, she turns to him with a bright smile. “I’ve told you that it’s alright to call me ‘Mom,’ Neku.” His cheeks color and he nods, scratching his cheek. “What is it?”
“I…” He taps his foot and fiddles with his prized headphones. “Is it alright if I go out today?”
“Today?” It’s Sunday. It has been less than a week since Neku returned to them. She’s on leave from work for an indefinite amount of time so she can spend time with her son. Unfortunately, Katsuo still has to go, but Chiyo is still here. “Are you sure?”
Neku nods. “Yeah, I want to go out. That’s okay, right?”
“Oh…” She doesn’t want him to leave. She doesn’t want him out of her sight and she worries. There are times when the oddest things bring him into a panic attack, and though she didn’t understand it at first, she had done her research and she tries her best to help. It would be awful he had one when she wasn’t around. “Well, if you’re sure… Will you be alright on your own?”
“I’ll be fine,” he assures her. He looks worried for her, which is stupid because it’s supposed to be the other way around. “I… um… I’m just going to Hachiko’s statue. And then I’ll probably get lunch or something. I’ll be back soon.”
“Okay… Stay safe, though, alright?” Chiyo tells him. “Call me if you need me to come get you or anything. I’ll be there as fast as possible.”
He smiles at her, small and tentative like everything they’ve been doing lately. “Thanks, Mom.”
There are so many things about him that Chiyo hadn’t known. She had an inkling of the things he liked—she had looked in his room and found his sketchbooks when he was missing and she had just cried—but there are still things that she’s clueless about.
The day he voluntarily shows her his designs, she can’t stop praising him through her happy tears. She’s been crying a lot lately.
“Honey, these are amazing,” she says. “I’m so glad you’ve inherited my love for art.” It’s far from the same, of course. She likes famous pieces as well as fashion. He’s more inclined towards street graffiti, but it’s good. It’s common ground.
“It’s not much…” Neku mutters bashfully. She grins and ruffles his hair, ignoring the playful scowl it earns her.
“It’s amazing,” she insists. “I want to know more about your art.”
“Um…” He looks to the side, contemplating something. “Actually, there’s something I want to show you. It’s kind of my inspiration.”
She beams. Revealing his inspiration seems so special. She’s touched that he wants to share it with her. “Of course.”
He takes her out to see the CAT mural. He waxes poetic on why he loves it and what it meant for him before, as well as it means for him now. She cries.
Eventually, Chiyo has to get back to work, but she still tries harder than she had before. Before, she had never been with him. Before, she had never stopped to ask about the things he did. Before, she hadn’t even given him much thought. She makes sure to go home as soon as possible now. She makes sure to be there for him and help him when he asks for help with homework and she listens when he says things.
It’s nice to get to know him. The time when she thought he was nothing but an unruly child seems so far in the past. She can’t completely understand him and he still throws her for a loop, but it’s good. It’s true then that she hadn’t known what she had until she lost him. She won’t let him go again.
Every Sunday, like clockwork, Neku goes out. She doesn’t know what he does and he’s always vague about it. He tells her that he shops and eats and walks, but never anything specific. She supposes that’s okay, though, as long as he comes home.
Then one day he comes home and there are three others with him.
“I’m home,” he announces as he walks in.
Chiyo hurries to the front door, saying, “Welcome back!” Then she stops.
With him are two girls and a boy. The boy is blond and tall, looking more or less like a gangster with his jewelry and loose clothes. The small girl beside him is more reserved. She’s cute in her skull hat and pink sweater. The other girl is a brunette with large glasses and a stuffed cat in her arms.
“Mom,” Neku begins, “these are my friends. That’s Beat—“ the blond boy, “Rhyme—“ he nods to the younger girl, “and Shiki.” The girl with the stuffed animal waves. “We, uh... we met at Hachiko.”
“Ah, is that so?” Chiyo’s eyes have gotten watery all of a sudden. She wipes at them.
“Mom, are you okay?” Neku asks worriedly.
“I’m fine, sweetie. Don’t worry.” She sniffs. “I’m just happy you have friends.” She clears her throat and regains her composure, smiling softly at the group. “My name is Sakuraba Chiyo. It’s so nice to meet my son’s friends.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Sakuraba-san,” Rhyme says politely.
“Oh, call me Chiyo. I don’t mind.” She waves a hand dismissively. “Would you kids like anything to eat? Some snacks?”
“Snacks would be nice,” Neku agrees. He looks at his friends for confirmation, and they all nod. “Yeah, snacks. Thanks Mom.” He smiles. He’s smiled more in the time he’s been back than she can ever remember.
“You’re welcome, sweetie,” she says. “Go on, do your thing. I’ll bring the tray to your room.” Neku nods and leads them away.
As they’re walking away, she hears Beat exclaim, “Bro! You’re rich!” Neku responds with, “Wow, really?” She has to wipe her eyes again before hurrying off to the kitchen.
She thinks Neku’s going to be okay.