It doesn’t seem strange to you, at first, when your father brings Miss Shouji home with him. After all, she’d come by a few times before, and your mother brings her friends home sometimes too. What is strange was the little boy hiding behind her legs. Even younger than you, you think. When you start to ask about him, your father smiles and says, “Miss Shouji and her son are here because of my job. Do you know what that means, Kazumi?”
You nod, answering automatically, “That means it’s a secret.” Your father’s work is very important. Both of your parents always say so. It’s not a job he can talk about to just anyone, and definitely not something you should pester him about.
He smiles and pats your head, and the rare gesture wipes any further confusion or hesitation right out of your mind. You beam up at him, and don’t say another word. As he ushers his guests to his wing of the penthouse, though, you do sneak one more look at the little boy. You manage to catch his eyes when he looks back over his shoulder at you, but all he does is jump and turn back to cling even more tightly to his mother.
Despite still glowing from your father’s affection, you can’t help being just a little disappointed. You didn’t get to see other children much outside of school. Your father says too many children these days are messy and careless, and he doesn’t want the house getting messed up, so you can’t invite anyone over. Sometimes your parents’ friends bring their children over for your mother’s parties, but even then, you don’t usually get to talk to them. Most of the time, you just sit or stand next to your mother so she can show off the outfit she picked out for you, and their parents do the same.
Not that you mind all that. Being quiet and polite for a few hours is easy enough, and it’s how she shows she’s proud of you. But... you’d been a little excited for a minute, thinking you might get to talk to Miss Shouji’s son. Your father works so much, and you can never predict whether your mother will be home or not, she spends so much time with her friends. It might have been nice, having someone your age you could play with. If he’s that shy, though, you don’t want to bother him. And your father’s wing of the penthouse is always locked. You won’t even have a chance to say hello unless he comes out on his own.
At first you try to keep an eye on that part of the penthouse, just in case, but as the days turn into weeks, you have no choice but to give up. Only Miss Shouji ever comes out, usually with your father. But even when it’s just her, she doesn’t really talk to you. Or even look at you. She just goes right to the kitchen, orders some food from the dispenser, and takes it right back in. You never even get a glimpse of her son.
It’s alright, you tell yourself. Things aren’t as boring these days as they used to be. School’s helped a lot with that. When you’re there, you can talk to your classmates. And when you’re at home, you can actually study and do work, instead of just sitting around watching television and waiting for one of your parents to come home. And, of course, you had your mother’s parties to attend. With so much more to do now, you’d almost managed to put your father’s guests out of your mind, when one night your mother leaves you home on your own.
“Augustus has been talking about his plans for this birthday for months,” she says, swapping earrings on and off, trying to settle on a pair, “And I’m afraid it’s just adults tonight, Kazumi. You don’t mind ordering something for dinner, do you? You just-”
“Push the buttons I want,” you say, following her around as she settles on some pretty emeralds set in silver, and hurries back to her glove drawer and starts rummaging through it. “It’s okay, I remember.”
“That’s my good boy.” She smiles at you, quickly, before plucking out a dark green pair that matches her jewelry. “I won’t be back until very late tonight - maybe even tomorrow morning - so you shouldn’t wait up. But if your father comes home before I do, let him know where I am, will you? He should make an appearance if he can.”
She gives you another smile, and waves once she finishes slipping her gloves on as she hurries out the door to the elevator. You wave back, even though she isn’t looking anymore.
...It’s very quiet without her. You think about turning on the television, but decide against it. The Hunger Games are getting close, so that’s all anyone is talking about. You don’t really like it. A lot of the videos they show are kind of scary. Watching with your father can be fun, because of how excited he gets and how much he talks to you about them, but on your own? You just shake your head at the thought, and go to get your things for school. You can work on your assignments out in the main room until you get hungry, so you won’t miss your father if he comes home.
You’re so absorbed in your assigned readings and going through the problems, you don’t hear the door sliding opening in another room, or the small footsteps getting closer. You don’t notice at all, until you hear a squeaky gasp from the doorway, and almost jump out of your skin before you realize it’s just that little boy. Miss Shouji’s son. He’s staring at you with wide, frightened eyes, and you only break out of your own shock when you notice he’s starting to step back. You quickly put on your best guest-pleasing smile and say, “Hello! I haven’t seen you out in a while.”
“Sorry,” he says, to your confusion, dropping his eyes and hunching his shoulders, “I th-thought no one was here... I’m sorry, I’ll go back-”
“No, it’s alright! It’s just me here right now,” you say, maybe a little too quickly. But if he’s so shy he never wants to come out around people, you don’t know when you’ll get another chance like this. “Um, you came out for a reason, right? Is something wrong?”
He’s still looking at the floor, hands twisting into the hem of his shirt. “...’m hungry...”
“Oh, I was just going to order something for dinner.” A small fib - you’d probably have waited another hour or so on your own - but one that finally gets him to look up at you. You take it as encouragement. “I’ll get something for both of us, and we can eat together.”
His eyes are fixed on you, without even blinking. “Is that... really okay?”
“Of course,” you say, trying to make your smile as reassuring as possible. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“...Mama and me will get in trouble, if people see me.”
Must have something to do with your father’s work, but... it’s hard to imagine what. Still, you keep your expression steady and say, “Well, I’ve already seen you, right? When you first came. And no one got in trouble.” That seems to make sense to him, and his grip on his shirt starts to loosen as he considers it. “But I won’t tell anyone I did, if you’re still worried. Promise.”
For a few seconds, he just fidgets, shifting his weight back and forth a few times, like he can’t decide which direction to go. But finally, he nods and starts taking a few careful steps towards you. You don’t have to try to keep smiling anymore - now your struggle is to not look too excited and scare him off.
“What do you like to eat?” You ask, sliding off the couch and heading towards the kitchen. There’s a screen on the wall for ordering food, and you even have your own stool to reach it with now.
He follows you, but stays a few steps behind. Seems like he’s still a little scared. “...Anything’s okay.”
You tilt your head. “Are you sure? There’s a lot of choices.” And you really don’t want to pick something he doesn’t like by accident, now that the two of you are finally talking. You look closely at the screen, and in a burst of inspiration, add, “It’d be a big help if you narrowed them down for me.”
Sure enough, he starts looking excited at the idea. “I can help?”
Glancing down and shuffling his feet for a few seconds, he winds up asking, “Um, is there... anything sweet? Like cake?”
Well... there is, but you don’t think that’s really dinner food. But he’s looking at you so anxiously... you think it can’t hurt too much if you skipped to dessert this once. “Sure! Do you like chocolate?”
“Uh huh!” And he surprises you by breaking into a big, eager grin.
It’s infectious - you just can’t help grinning back, even as you turn back to put in the order. You’ll just make sure to get rid of any leftovers before your parents get home. They won’t know a thing. “Now we just have to wait until it arrives,” you explain to him, stepping back down to the floor, “We’ll know when the dispenser starts to beep, and it’ll be ready to eat right away.” You point at the slot in the wall next to the screen, and he stares at it with awe. With that taken care of, it finally occurs to you to ask, “What about your mother? Does she want anything?”
“I dunno... Mama went out with Father earlier, so she’s still sleeping.” He frowns, looking kind of embarrassed. “I tried to wait ‘til she woke up. I did . But she was taking too long.”
...Well, obviously, if he has a mother, he has to have a father. But, you realize with a start, you’d never thought to ask where he is, or why he’s not here. Sure, you didn’t have many chances, but your own thoughtlessness still mortifies you. These two people live with you, and you barely know anything about them. Resolving to do better from now on, you turn to him with a smile. “That reminds me. We haven’t been introduced right, have we?” Holding out a hand, you say, “I’m Kazumi. What’s your name?”
For a second he just looks at your hand, and you wonder if he knows what to do, before he starts to smile too and grabs it. “I’m Kazuma.”
You can’t help but laugh, even though you feel bad when he wilts a little at the sudden noise. “Sorry,” you say, “It’s just kind of funny that we match, that’s all.”
“Mm,” he says, letting go of your hand and looking embarrassed again, “Mama wanted us to.”
You blink, tilting your head a little. “Why?”
“She says siblings are s’posed to, where she’s from.”
You don’t know what kind of face you make as the word, the meaning, starts to sink in and the pieces begin to fall into place. Why they’re here. Why they’ve been here so long, with no sign of leaving. Why they’re a secret. But it must not be a nice one, because Kazuma starts looking scared again, and takes a step back. “Are... are you mad? Father said... a l-lot of people would be, but-”
“No!” Too loud. He flinches at the exclamation, and you try, again, to be quiet. Gentle. Whatever you might be feeling, it’s much, much more important that you don’t scare him. “No, I’m sorry. I’m not mad. I’m just... surprised, that’s all.” You smile, and pat his head. It always makes you happy, when your parents do that. You hope he’ll like it too. “I didn’t know I had a little brother. It’s nice to meet you!”
Slowly, relief spreads across his face, until finally he starts to smile again and nods. It’s a lot easier to put your own feelings aside, when you see him looking happy like that.
You don’t ask your father about Kazuma. He made it clear you weren’t supposed to from the start, after all, and pushing it would only make him mad. You don’t ask your mother either. When you look back on it, you don’t think she’s ever talked about Miss Shouji, even though it’s been months since she and Kazuma started living with the three of you. You’re not sure she’s even spoken to her, the couple of times your father’s brought Miss Shouji out while she’s around. And if what Kazuma said it right, you guess that makes some sense. Your father never talks about who your mother brings home either. Bringing any of it up feels like it’d be breaching some kind of etiquette that just hasn’t been explained to you yet. So not asking and keeping your meetings with Kazuma a secret seems like the safest thing to do.
And it’s kind of fun, too. You even come up with a special knock, so you can let him know when you’re the only one home. At first, Miss Shouji came out too, but she still didn’t talk to you much. She just... watched the two of you. Very closely. You don’t know how you feel about Miss Shouji. She’s never mean to you, but something about the way she looks at you makes you a little nervous. Like you’re taking a test or something.
Then, once, after she ushered Kazuma back to his room for a nap, she took you aside and asked, “You do want to be a good big brother, don’t you, Kazumi?”
A little surprised, you nodded and answered, “Of course.”
She stared at you closely for a few long seconds, and just when you were starting to feel like you’d done something wrong, she finally straightened back up and sighed. “...I’m going to trust you, then.” And she gives you a quick smile, that somehow still doesn’t make her look any happier. “It’s better if he’s not just relying on me, after all.”
You’re not sure you understood exactly what she meant, but you think you get the idea at least. Especially since afterwards, she watched the two of you less often, and mostly just let you and Kazuma play by yourselves. She’s counting on you to look after him. It’s what you would have done anyway, of course, but it really feels like a responsibility now, and when you think of it like that, it’s kind of exciting.
Still, you can’t shake the discomfort you feel around her so easily, so Kazuma’s the only one you wind up talking to about his situation. He answers everything he can - and eagerly, too. You wonder if maybe he’s wanted to talk to you as much as you’ve wanted to talk to him, and the thought makes you feel warm. He’ll be turning six this year, just a few months after you turn nine. He’s lived in the Capitol his whole life, but his mother hasn’t. She doesn’t talk about her old home much, even to him. Just that it was very hard to live there, and that things are much better now.
When he says that, a part of you feels proud of your father, for helping her like that. But... there’s some unease that comes with the thought, that you can’t quite shake. When you see Miss Shouji with your father, she’s all smiles and laughs, but all those times she’s watched you and Kazuma... she mostly just looks tired.
It’s not like you can do anything about that, though, or even talk to anyone about it. So with no other option, you do your best to ignore it. Besides, you have something more important to think about. Miss Shouji can go out sometimes, but Kazuma’s always cooped up inside. You asked if he’s ever been out since he got here, and he just shook his head. “Father says it isn’t safe.”
You guess that’s true. If Kazuma’s not supposed to be in the city, you don’t want to put him at risk by sneaking him out. But at the very least, you want to make staying here easier for him. So you start bringing him things from outside that you think he’ll like. Some rare kind of candy your mother’s friend gave you. A new toy everyone at school’s been talking about. Stories you can read to him off your tablet. He gets so excited over everything, but he seems to like the last one especially. Most books have an audio option - all you have to do it push a button and a narrator will read the story out loud - but he always asks you to read them outloud instead.
“You do it better,” he says, “Please?” And no matter how many times he’s asked you that week, you always say yes. How can you do anything else, when he’s smiling at you like that? And the more you read to him, you start to figure out all the ways to tell it just right, to make him laugh or gasp. He always has questions for when you’re done (“But why did the knight have to kill the dragon? And how’d the witch even get her powers? And why didn’t the princess’s parents try to help her on their own? And-”) and before you know it the two of you have come up with plenty stories of your own just to answer them.
You can’t remember having this much fun with someone before. Your classmates are nice, mostly, but you don’t have a lot to talk about with them. Few of them take school very seriously, and don’t understand why you do. They mostly just talk about things they saw on television, and you’ve been watching even less of that than before, now that you’re spending so much time with Kazuma.
And of course, you’re glad when you get to spend time with your parents, but... that’s not really the same as having fun with them. Especially since you’re keeping a secret from them now. You just can’t help feeling nervous around them. Of course, you always watched what you said and how you acted, but now you have to be extra careful not to give anything away.
You guess if you stopped sneaking around with Kazuma so much, you might have an easier time with everyone else. But there’s no way you could ever do that. Not when he’s always so happy and relieved to see you. Every time you see him like that, you know for sure that being his big brother is the most important thing you can do.
You don’t realize how lightly you’ve been taking your role, though, until a few months later.
“Kazumi.” Your father stands at the door of your room, and right away, you sit up straighter at your desk. The tone in his voice makes your blood run cold, and it takes a second before you can make yourself turn to him.
He doesn’t answer right away, giving you time to notice Kazuma standing a few steps behind him, holding the toy you got him. Without a word, your father grabs his wrist and pulls him forward. On reflex, you start to protest, but the bruise on your little brother’s face stuns you into silence. Finally, your father says, in that deceptively calm way, “Our guest has something to say to you.”
“S-sorry,” Kazuma says, his eyes down and just barely holding back tears.
“Sorry for what ?”
He flinches, but keeps talking, and holds the toy out to you, “T-taking your things. I sh-shouldn’t...”
Finally, you wrench yourself out of your chair. The movement makes it easier to interrupt, and you try to keep your voice level. If you sound like an adult, maybe he’ll listen to you. “Wait, Father, that isn’t what happened. I gave him that, it was a gift. He didn’t take anything.”
But you realize you’ve just made another mistake right away, in the way his eyes narrow and immediately zero in on Kazuma again. He grabs your little brother’s hair this time, pulling it sharply enough to make him cry out. “So you lied to me? How long have you been sneaking around?”
“He- He wasn’t sneaking around!” There has to be a way to fix this. You don’t understand why he’s still only yelling at Kazuma, but there has to be a way to explain it’s not his fault. “I just- I thought he might be bored, so I thought, I should give him something to play with. It’s my fault, I should have asked you first. I’m sorry.”
For a moment, your father looks at you, and you think maybe it worked, but then he drop his eyes back down to Kazuma and snarls, “You even have him covering for you. Don’t you have any shame at all?” Kazuma flinches again, and you don’t... you don’t know what to do. Saying anything is just making it worse. You try to catch Kazuma’s eye, to try and show him how sorry you are, but he won’t look up at all. Finally, your father gives you a quick glance and says, “I’ll deal with you later.” You nod, slowly. Terrified you might say anything else wrong, you stay silent even when your father drags Kazuma back out of the room, towards his private wing.
Your father spends a lot of time at home, the next few days. He explains to you that Kazuma has to learn to follow the rules while he’s here if he wants to stay. Maybe you meant well, but Kazuma will grow up selfish and ungrateful if he thinks he can just ask you for anything. “I know perfectly well what he needs and what he doesn’t,” your father says, “So don’t worry and leave taking care of him up to me.” Your mother has nothing to say on the matter whatsoever.
You don’t try to argue with him, and of course you don’t dare try to speak to Kazuma while either of them are around. But when he finally goes off on another business trip almost a week later and your mother goes to visit a friend for the night, you work up the nerve to try. Knocking on the door to your father’s wing in the code you two decided on, you call out, “Kazuma?”
There’s no sound that reaches this side of the door. There never is. But, just in case, you knock again, and say louder, “I’m so sorry, Kazuma. You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want, but... can you just let me know if you’re okay?”
For a few seconds, there’s still nothing. Then, a few beeps, and the door slides open. Kazuma still has the bruise, but it doesn’t look like he’s been hit anywhere else. He glances anxiously at the room behind you, and doesn’t cross the threshold into it. “...It’s not your fault,” he says, quietly, “I shouldn’t have had it.”
“No, I’m the one who gave it to you. I should’ve known it could get you in trouble.” And it’s true. You should have. Why did it take something like this to make you understand? You just... hadn’t thought that far. It never occurred to you that your father might get that angry, or that he’d hurt Kazuma like that. You didn’t- you didn’t think at all.
“...He broke it,” Kazuma says, sniffing a little. “Even though you got it for me, it’s all gone...”
He’s starting to cry, and it’s making you want to cry too, but you don’t let yourself. You smile instead, and carefully reach over to pat his head. You’re the reason he got hurt, so you have to comfort him now, no matter what. “It’s okay.” You remember your father saying Kazuma would be selfish if you gave him things, but... looking at him, you can’t even imagine that being possible. “If you want another one, I’ll get it, and we’ll keep it in my room so no one knows. And if you want something else, I’ll get that for you instead.”
He looks up at you, and the hesitant way he asks “You’re not mad?” makes your chest ache.
“Of course not.” You look at the bruise again. There’s pills you can take to make those fade faster. Why didn’t Father give him any? Why didn’t his mother? ‘ I know perfectly well what he needs ’, he told you, but there’s proof staring you right in the face that he doesn’t. But you don’t let the troubling thoughts seep into your smile. “I’m just glad you didn’t get hurt any worse. That’s what’s most important.”
Suddenly, his arms are around you, squeezing tight while he sobs hard enough to shake. You hold him, petting his hair gently while you try to steady him. And you tell yourself, over and over, not to forget who’s fault this is.
The two of you don’t stop meeting or playing together. You’re just more careful. And as months turn into years, caution eventually becomes second nature. You don’t get him anything too big, but some flowers from a park your class visited are safe, as are candies and small treats. Not risking another discovery is most important, you know, but you still feel bad that you can’t give him anything he could enjoy for long.
He says he doesn't mind. His mother is usually around to play with him when you’re not there, and there’s a television in your father’s wing he can watch when she’s out or too tired. It’s not like he doesn’t have anything to do. But still... it doesn’t feel like enough. Especially as you both get older. Kazuma gets taller, bit by bit, and you can’t help but wonder if he’s going to be stuck living like this forever. When he’s a teenager or an adult, is he still going to have to hide away in your family’s penthouse forever? It’s hard to imagine - no, not just hard. It sounds like a nightmare. He’s not even allowed to leave your father’s wing right now, is that ever going to change?
One day, you try asking him, carefully, if he knows how long he and his mother plan to stay with you. He squirms a little bit. “I don’t know. Mama - um - asks him about it sometimes, but he keeps saying it’s too dangerous.” For a moment, a shadow flickers across his face. But before you can ask more, he turns and grins, “But Mama thinks I can change his mind, if I try. Then he’ll let us live on our own again, like she used to.”
“I see.” The thought of him not being around as much stings a little, but you know that’d be the best thing for him. So you ask instead, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
He looks a little shy again, and asks, “Well... maybe you can teach me things? Like what you’re learning in school.” He shifts, looking a little embarrassed. “Mama’s been teaching me to read and stuff, but... I wanna show him I’m smart enough to not get caught, so he won’t worry about that anymore.”
That makes sense, you think, so you agree. You collect all the files of your older assignments, still stored in your school tablet, and give them to him bit by bit. He reads everything you give him voraciously, though you try not to be careful with how much you give him at once. You don’t want to give your father a single reason to get mad at Kazuma.
But he really is working hard. He tells you all the things he studied while you were away, and you give him questions from tests and homework you’ve done to challenge him. His answers aren’t perfect, but considering he’s younger than you and hasn’t gone to school properly, he’s really doing amazing. And you like teaching him. The same way you used to tell stories together, he asks questions you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.
There’s a lot of things, really, that you only start thinking about because of him.
The Hunger Games come this year too, like always. Next year, you’ll be old enough to be reaped, if you lived in the districts. Some your classmates make jokes about it, betting amongst themselves how well they’d do, or who in class would have the best chance. You laugh along, because you know you’re supposed to. But whenever you watch videos of the Games now, you just feel scared. Of course, if Miss Shouji isn’t from the Capitol, she must be from one of the districts, but it’s only when you watch the Games does it really feel like you understand why she stays here. Every time a tribute dies - quick or slow, fighting back or resigned - you understand a little more clearly.
Sometimes, you think you’d like to talk to her about it. But every time you might have a chance to, she just seems so exhausted, you can’t really make yourself approach her about it. Bringing up something like that would probably just upset her anyway. And you don’t say anything to Kazuma. He’s safe as long as he’s here, after all. You don’t want to scare him.
You try to keep you own anxiety out of the way you teach him. You don’t want to push him too hard just because this year’s Games put you so on-edge. But maybe it starts to seep through, because you notice his enthusiasm whittling down bit by bit as time goes on. He tries as hard as ever, but he gets frustrated more easily when he can’t get something right. You back off, focus on encouraging him and explaining what he’s not understanding, and he’ll cheer back up for a while. But the next time he hits another snag, he starts going in circles and getting upset all over again.
Until one day, just a little bit after the Victory Tour’s scheduled, you hand him a new test and he just looks at it for a moment before pushing it back to you. “Thanks, but... there’s no point.” He smiles, but it looks like it hurts. “I’m not gonna convince him like this.”
You blink, not sure what made him decide this now. But if he’s that frustrated, you don’t want to force him to keep going right away. “Okay,” you start to say, “Then, we’ll think of some other way. It’ll be okay.”
“No. There’s nothing,” he says, still smiling, even though his voice is tight and almost hoarse, “Nothing’s going to work.”
He’s more upset than you realized. But if he’s upset, then you have to stay calm and reassure him. Comfort him. Softly, not letting yourself feel the threads of alarm starting to clench at your heart, you say, “That’s not true. There has to be something-”
“There isn’t,” he says, “‘Cause you’re the only one he wants here.”
There’s no anger or bitterness in the statement. Just a calm resignation that’s even worse. He’s not even looking at you anymore. You don’t know what to say to him, and as the silence stretches out between you, he finally stands up and heads towards your father’s wing. You don’t know what to say, but you still start to call his name, to at least try and talk about this a little more, but the door slides shut without him ever looking back at you.
Fear thrums in your blood, cold and numbing. You try to tell yourself he’s just frustrated. You just... need to give him some space, and when he’s calmed down a little, you’ll try and talk to him again. He works so hard. He’s smart and creative and wonderful. You can’t believe that there isn’t any way to convince your father of that.
...Or maybe, if he can’t do it on his own, you can.
It’s a couple of days before you manage to catch your father at home. He’s been so busy at work, and your mother’s been taking you out to parties celebrating the Victory Tour. But when you finally manage to see him, you have your lines perfectly memorized. “Father, can I talk to you?”
He still has his coat on when you approach him. Raising an eyebrow, he takes it off slowly. Deliberately, you think. “About what?”
His eyes start to narrow, but he doesn’t seem mad. Cautious, maybe. “...Alright. What is it?”
Now that you actually have him in front of you, it’s harder to say. You have to be so careful with this. But you keep yourself standing straight, your voice calm. “They’ve been here for a while. I’m sure... it must be uncomfortable for them. Especially the little boy.” Don’t sound too familiar, you remind yourself. He’ll get mad if you do. “I was wondering if, maybe, there was any way you could find another place for them to live?”
He stares at you, expression relaxed and neutral, for a few long seconds. You’re just opening your mouth to try and press a little further, when he suddenly clamps a hand on your shoulder, squeezing hard enough to hurt, “Did that woman put you up to this?”
You gape, too shocked at the sudden question to even really feel the pain. “Huh? No, of course not-”
“Then her son. She’s using her son to get to you. Those ungrateful little-” With a rough shove aside, he almost pushes you to the ground as he walks towards his wing. You have to dart right in front of him to keep his attention.
“No one told me to do this! I’m just worried about them.” That makes him pause, and you jump at the opportunity. “The boy’s almost my age. If I could never go out anywhere, I’d- I’d be miserable. I just...” Your voice is starting to shake. You pause, take a quick breath, and continue more steadily, “I know you’re already helping them a lot. But... isn’t there any way they can live somewhere on their own?”
“...Why are you asking me all of this so suddenly, Kazumi?”
He has that tone again. Calm, cool, with just enough anger seeping through to make you feel nauseous. “I- I’ve been-”
“You haven’t asked anything about them for years,” he says, leaning down towards you, “Why do you suddenly care what I do with them?”
You don’t know how to answer without admitting what you’ve been doing with Kazuma. You scramble around your mind for some kind of excuse, but every second you do, you know you’re just making the lie more obvious. All your practice falls apart, and you’re reduced to trying to stammer out something, just to make him stop looking at you like that.
Finally, after what seems like forever, he stands back up. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter why.” He looks back towards his door. “You’re right, though. Something has to be done about them. Maybe I’ve already put it off too long.”
You want so badly to believe that he means to help them. But his voice hasn’t changed, and the look in his eyes is as cold as ever. “What are you-”
“Never you mind,” he says, shortly, giving you a quick glare. “They aren’t your concern.”
He does walk past you, then, and enters his wing. Even before the door closes, you know there’s no way anything you say or do can reach him at all.
Your father isn't there the next morning. When you try to ask your mother, she says he had to go in to work early for something urgent. Considering the last time you upset him like that, he hovered over you for days, you can't help feeling suspicious... but you really were scare about having to see him again after last night. Even if it's just a delay, you're relieved you have some time apart from him, and a chance to talk to Kazuma again right away. As soon as you get back from school and confirm your mother’s out, you go straight to the door and knock on it.
There’s no answer.
...You guess you should’ve expected Kazuma to still be mad at you. First you pushed him too hard with your school work, and then you got your father mad at him again. You try knocking again and calling his name, just in case, but there’s still no response. You have no choice but to wait a while longer, and hope he’ll at least let you apologize when he’s less angry.
You try again the next day. Still nothing, from Kazuma or your father. Then you wait two days before you try knocking again, so you don’t annoy him. Even then, no response. Not even a request to go away and leave him alone. You wish Miss Shouji would at least answer, if Kazuma really doesn’t want to speak to you. The silence is almost unbearable. You still remember the bruise your father left last time you got Kazuma in trouble. What if he hurt him even worse this time, and that’s why he’s not answering?
By the next time you see your father, this thought’s scared you enough that it outweighs the fear of talking to him. So you ask him directly, “Is- is Kazuma okay?”
He looks at you with open surprise. “Why on earth are you asking about that?”
“I haven’t seen him, or Miss Shouji, and... you’re the only one who’d know. Please.”
Understanding creeps into his eyes, followed shortly by irritation. “Kazumi, I’ve told you to stop concerning yourself with those two.”
“I- I know, but-”
“Listen, I’m only going to say this once.” He claps a hand on your shoulder, and you stiffen under the touch immediately. “They aren’t here anymore, so they’re no longer any of our business.”
...You’re misunderstanding. You have to be. You can barely feel anything at all. His hand, the floor under your feet. The words start to falter out on their own, “You don’t... you can’t mean the district-”
“Besides, you were right,” he says, cutting you off with a pat on your shoulder, “It’s not good for a growing boy to be stuck inside all the time. He’ll be better off where he belongs. Happier. It’s what’s best for everyone.”
You think you nod, because it sounds like he wants you to agree. But the movement doesn’t feel like part of your body. Your father says something else, but you don’t really hear it. They’re just. Gone. Both of them. You don’t say anything else, and when he stops talking, you walk straight to your room. When the door closes behind you, you stop moving. A part of you wants to cry, but nothing’s coming out. Mostly you just feel empty.
It’s your fault. Because of what you said. That’s what convinced him to send them away. Does Kazuma know it’s your fault? He must. He must, because it’s always been your fault. You’re careless and didn’t understand how scared he was or how dangerous things really were for him, and now you finally ruined everything for him. You didn’t- you didn’t even get to apologize. You can barely breath, all you can manage is shallow gasps of air. He’s gone. He’s gone, and your father just made him disappear, and his mother too. Even after all this time, he just sent them away without any warning.
You try to make sense of it. To understand how he could do that. ‘ He’ll be better off where he belongs ’, he said, like Kazuma hasn’t grown up here, spend his whole life in this city. You bury your hands in your hair, pulling it until it hurts, and finally just stop trying, because you don’t want to understand anything about what that man’s thinking.
You still can’t cry. Everything blocked up tight inside you. Maybe you could scream, but you don’t have the right. You’re not the one who’s whole world has been uprooted. Tomorrow you’re going to go to school, the same as always. All the rooms will still be here, same as always. And you bet your mother will throw another party soon, same as always. Kazuma’s the one who’s suffering, somewhere you can’t see and can’t reach. Him and his mother both. And you didn’t do anything to help them.
That year, when the Hunger Games is aired, your eyes are glued on the screen as they show the reapings. You think Kazuma’s probably in District 5. It’s what would make the most sense - it’s closest, and where your father works sometimes - but you don’t know for sure. Maybe he thought that would be too obvious and sent them somewhere else, to cover his tracks better. So you wind up scan every single crowd for any sign of Kazuma or his mother. He’s not eligible that year, but maybe... maybe he’ll show up on camera.
The first year, you’re too focused on trying to spot him to really pay attention to the kind of conditions the districts are in. What the cities and people look like. But next year, you notice more details. How gaunt so many people look. How tired and scared they are. You watch as children your age or a little older walk up to the stage.
You still don’t want to watch. You’ve never liked watching. But... looking away feels worse. It feels like you’re just trying to hide. Your father has no such complications. He watches, grinning and analyzing each tribute, making early calls on who he thinks has the best chances. You still can’t understand him at all. How can he look like that, when Kazuma could be standing on that stage? You want to scream at him. You keep your mouth shut, and your eyes on the screen.
When you’re fifteen, Kazuma’s twelve, and you spend the entire reaping session numb with terror. He’s not called, and you still can’t spot them. The cameras are so focused on the chosen tributes and their families - you barely even get a good look at how many people are in each district. Even in the videos for the final eight tributes, Kazuma and his mother never appear. You’re relieved whatever friends and family they might have now are spared, but you still... wish you could at least get a glimpse of them. Just one. To know if they’re still okay.
He isn’t reaped when you’re sixteen either. But this year, another tribute catches your attention. Shiranui, a Career from District 4. It isn’t rare for Careers to band together at the beginning of the Games, but Shiranui seemed closer to his co-tribute than most and you found yourself worrying what would happen in the arena. When she gets injured early on, he protects her until medicine from a sponsor arrives. He doesn’t leave her behind, or finish her off.
If someone like him had been looking after Kazuma, you catch yourself thinking, you’re sure he would have been able to take much better care of him. Shiranui would have figured out a way to protect him.
Your admiration only grows as the two of them work together towards the final eight, until you finally can’t take just sitting around and watching anymore. You want to help him. You’ve never sponsored a tribute before, but you’ve heard from your father about lounges where bets and sponsorships are managed. As soon as the idea hits you, you head straight for one. Though once you’re there and see how many fans he has, it’s hard to think of your own contribution as making much of a difference. But there’s still a small touch of pride among the deep relief you feel when you see him win. He probably would have won whether you did anything or not, but... you did do something to help.
And six months later, when he asks for your help again, you say yes. You say yes, even though you know there’s five years left until Kazuma’s no longer qualified to be reaped. Maybe he’s not in District 5. Maybe your father cared enough to at least send him to a Career district, where he won’t be at risk. Or maybe he is in District 5, and he’ll still never be reaped. Not everyone is.
But right now, Shiranui does need your help. He’s asking you, and only you. How can you possibly say no?