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After the Story Era

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by carrionboy

 

“When you’re ten it’s imaginary friends and make-believe in the sandlot.”

 

Izaya is a deeper blackness against the general velvet of night, a waltz of soft planes of skin for the lights to drape their neon on. By now, Shizuo knows better than to ask if he’s holding forth for the city or just for him.

 

“When you’re twenty, they call you dangerous and wild and a genius, and it’s all very sexy and fun.”

 

One foot, two foot. Pacing back and forth like a cat.

 

“But then you’re thirty—bam!” Izaya tips his own head back, index finger a trigger beneath his chin. “They diagnose you with a mental illness and throw pills at you.”

 

Shizuo leans against the door to the stairwell, skin and steel commiserating. He’s tired, wants to go home. Too much has already happened today.

 

“What’s your point?”

 

“I don’t know.” His grin is as sharp at thirty as it was as twenty, as Shizuo is sure it must have been at ten. “Call it a meditation on perspective.”

 

()

 

Shizuo turned thirty-two a month ago, which means that he’s spent just over half his life, on-and-off, having sex of some form or another with Izaya. This fact is so alarming that the morning of his birthday he spends three whole minutes staring dumbly at his hands in the weak winter light falling through their kitchen window.

 

Somehow, he feels like he shouldn’t have survived this long. At least not with so little scarring.

 

There’s still times, certainly, when he comes home with blood soaking his side. These days Izaya will laugh and laugh, make fun of him and undress him all at the same time, plastering him with insults and bandages.

 

“Ten years ago I would’ve made these worse. Shizu-chan’s turning me into a soft touch,” he complains, prodding Shizuo’s side experientially.

 

“I’ve got nothing to do with it.”

 

“Don’t you, though?” Izaya’s tongue is poking out of his mouth sideways in concentration. “Can you see me doing this for anyone else?”

 

Shizuo thinks he probably has a point there.

 

He ends up looking like the victim of a juvenile toilet paper attack. Sighing, he tugs at the edge of a bandage, already coming loose.

 

“Can I call Shinra to do it properly now?”

 

Izaya makes a little displeased moue and disappears into the kitchen to sulk, which Shizuo takes as a signal to call.

 

()

 

He used to think relationships meant talking. Probably most of them do, but he’s come to realize he and Izaya have remarkably little in common. They don’t talk about dreams or childhoods or what shade to paint the living room walls. Izaya never asks about his job (probably thinks he knows all about it already, the smug bastard), and Shizuo doesn’t really give a shit about Izaya’s. They don’t like the same foods or movies or TV shows, don’t have similar values or move in similar circles, are, anyone would agree, nearly diametrically opposed in personality.

 

In a lot of ways, they still live like two bachelors who’ve accidentally been rented the same apartment but aren’t aware yet that they’re not living alone. The kitchen sink is usually a wreck and Shizuo has woken before to the crash of porcelain on the floor and Izaya’s loud “Woops!” The chicken race to see who breaks first and hauls the cleaning supplies out is always prolonged and reminds Shizuo, in its intensity, of a quieter version of the games of aggression they waged in high school.

 

“Shizuo.”

 

“Fucking what?”

 

“Fuck your fucking what. There’s literally cockroaches in the bathtub. I think they’re holding a little tea party or something; it’s quite charming except for the fact that they’re absolutely disgusting.”

 

Shizuo shrugs. “So?”

 

“So?” echoes Izaya.

 

“I’m already sleeping with a flea, aren’t I?” he points out, and goes straight back to sleep.

 

When he wakes up to Izaya depositing a cockroach onto his face (“look, now you can sleep with them too!”), he chases him around the apartment for ten minutes before getting out the bug spray; Izaya smirks at him as he disappears out the front door.

 

But somehow, they fit, all their multitudes ofrough edges aligning with breathtaking precision, like two puzzle pieces cut out of the same paper. It’s not a matter of getting along, as Izaya will argue with him about nearly anything. Something more like understanding, perhaps. A core-deep hold on the other’s persona that refuses to be shaken by anything so light as the passing trample of a thousand disagreements, foaming at the mouth or otherwise.

 

And the sex, of course, is earth-shattering. Every time, the face in his wet dreams is Izaya’s, but only the body besides him in reality is warm.

 

He’s not a conqueror, but it stirs something in him, the brief moments of tameness Izaya has seen increasingly fit to scatter over the courses of their days. He likes catching him asleep, or stumbling-tired, or very, very rarely, drunk. Likes the incongruous confusedness of him in the early mornings, which Shizuo knows to be his weakest hours, shifting beneath the chill in his loose undershirt as he pokes and prods at the toaster with small, puzzled fingers, until finally (and not long, because Izaya has the professional patience of a general and the personal one of a toddler) light footsteps pad into the bedroom and he’s scrabbling at Shizuo’s shoulders, demanding him to “Get up, that thing’s being stupid again” (“It’s not plugged in, you dumbass.” “Oh.” “Jesus. It’s six-fifteen.” “I know, Shizu-chan, you’re preaching to the choir.”).

 

Surprisingly, Izaya’s not someone who understands physicality very well. Oh, he runs and fights and fucks well enough, but he’s no expert with his knife, despite all appearances, gets away most of the time with waving it around and making some scary faces, and he’s told Shizuo before that he wouldn’t trust himself to shoot straight with a gun. He dresses with absolutely no regard for the weather—sometimes seems altogether unaware of the season. When he’s on an “interesting” job, he often doesn’t feed himself, forgets to brush his teeth, to sleep. He doesn’t associate getting sick with taking medicine, or with not wearing a thick enough jacket, for that matter. Shizuo has witnessed this mover of mobs walk facefirst into things while texting frantically on one of his small army of phones. Sometimes he thinks Izaya must see as through a mirror darkly, like a child peering at the reflection cast by the lens of his own mind’s eye. He’s never met a creature so entirely of the psyche, a man whose daydream just happens to be the world.

 

Yet. At the same time, what paranoia—a painful hyperawareness of every square inch of surrounding. He invents his own monsters for when none are present, colors the world danger-orange ham-fisted.

 

“You would be paranoid, too, if you knew half the things about people I did,” he points out. “It’s a feature, not a bug—no obvious jokes about insects, please, things like that are too menial for me to bother responding to.”

 

“Okay. Flea.”

 

“Never change, Shizu-chan, never change.”

 

In retrospect, this, as all other things, is its own warning sign.

 

()

 

Bizarrely, Izaya likes to cuddle. There’s the sex, obviously (and really, Izaya can be a bit of a fiend about it), but he’s about as unhesitant to initiate anycontact as a dog. Sometimes, when Shizuo’s sitting at their tiny kitchen table, Izaya will come through the doorway and plant his bony ass so naturally on him that he’s not quite sure Izaya’s not mistaken him for a chair.

 

Sometimes: a sharp-edged dead weight in his lap. Izaya grins at some message on his phone and says, “Something’s making growling noises, and it’s not my stomach.”

 

“Get the fuck off.”

 

Izaya pats his leg a little too high up to be in a non-confrontational mood. “But you’ve got such cushy thighs.”

 

“…cushy?”

 

“Oops. Shouldn’t have called the girlfriend fat.”

 

Or it’s toes like a row of ice cubes kicking his ankle beneath the sheets, or an extra hand in his coat pocket, maybe the utterly unnecessary habit of spying on him while draped over his back like the world’s shittiest, squirmiest blanket.

 

“At least gain some weight. Your elbows could kill someone.”

 

“I like my elbows,” he retorts, digging one into Shizuo’s shoulder like he’s trying to slice it open. “And I don’t wanna be fat.” He smirks at the ghost of himself in the glazed black eye of the microwave door, preening shamelessly. “I look good thin.”

 

“No one cares, Izaya.”

 

“I care, and that’s all that matters. Don’t get fat, Shizu-chan.”

 

“Why? You’ll leave me?”

 

“I’ll leave you when I want to.”

 

“You didn’t answer the question.”

 

“If Shizu-chan deals with my elbows, I’ll deal with his concrete abs.”

 

“The fuck?”

 

“Seriously. It’s like sleeping with my head on a sack of rocks. No wonder I get headaches in the morning.”

 

“You get headaches because you keep shitty hours.”

 

A ghost of lip, curving insolently around the lobe of his ear. “And whose fault do you think that is?”

 

()

 

The fact is, Izaya is—not quite alright.

 

Sure, he always talks a lot, an impossibly annoying and incessant stream of noise, but the first time Shizuo catches him talking to someone who is not present and who is also not Izaya himself, fear is a punch-ready fist around his struggling heart.

 

 “Go away.”

 

Shizuo looks up.

 

Izaya is in the other room, somewhere beyond his view. Five minutes ago he was chattering away to himself while watching children’s cartoons, Shizuo struggling, as always, to tune him out, but this strained and serious phrase casts itself through the air like a fishhook and tears him out of his focus.

 

Frowning, Shizuo pauses.

 

After a second: “No. I—” A long pause, so long that Shizuo nearly goes back to not-understanding his tax forms.

 

But then: “Why should I? He doesn’t have anything to do with it.” Another pause. “You’re not making any sense. Now go run away somewhere.”

 

More silence. Slowly, Shizuo stands up.

 

“Maybe. But it’s none of your business.”

 

He pads into the other room. Izaya is sitting on the couch, back to him. He’s looking into the air to the right of him. Responding to it, as if someone’s there. Shizuo’s seen this sort of thing in movies, but in real life it’s blood-chilling. His neck tingles and everything seems to ring.

 

“Izaya,” he begins carefully, with absolutely no idea what he’ll say next.

 

Izaya turns to look at him, and it’s his split-second expression of sheer bewilderment, more than anything, that convinces Shizuo this isn’t another one of the stupid tricks he likes to play.

 

Then the confusion’s gone and he’s humming “Hm?” at him innocently.

 

“Who were you talking to?”

 

“What?” He looks annoyed. After a second, when Shizuo keeps staring, he says, “Myself…? Don’t tell me you still aren’t used to it.”

 

“It sounded like you were talking to someone.”

 

“…Unless you’re suggesting there’s someone hiding under the couch or some such thing, I don’t really see how that’s possible.”

 

 Shizuo lets it go, but he sees it—how Izaya’s gaze flicks around that one spot in the air above the couch. Like he’s avoiding somebody’s eyes.

 

()

 

Shinra and Celty got married three years ago. Though Shizuo’s not usually one to pry in other’s affairs, he finds the development of their relationship fascinating, if only because they’ve charted such a different course than he and Izaya.

 

Theirs is a sweetheart love, bumbling attempts at domesticity and all; Celty has a Dullahan’s body but a girl’s heart, and Shinra’s his own sort of madcap Romeo. They are trying, while the best that might be said of he and Izaya is that they are settling, like two boots perched in a minefield: tense, less tense, heartbeat slowly calming as nothing detonates.

 

The two of them are the only ones left between he and Izaya that you might call “mutual acquaintances;” as such, they present the only meaningful outside insights on their relationship. Celty still finds it strange. Shinra likes to laughingly claim that he saw it coming, although whether he really means this is anyone’s guess.

 

Saturday afternoon finds Shizuo in their apartment. High-rise, sleek, and spacious, it couldn’t be farther from his own cramped little den. The recent rising crime rates that all the news anchors keep pecking on about certainly haven’t hurt Shinra’s pockets. His business is so big these days that it’s less back-alley than alternative entrance. “At least I don’t have to cut any more livers out,” he laughs; Shizuo figures it’s better to assume he’s joking.

 

They talk about this and that, but before long Celty sticks her screen under his nose.

 

[Something’s bothering you, isn’t it?]

 

Shizuo shrugs.

 

“Is Izaya crazy?”

 

Shinra laughs. “Oh, dear. If you’ve just realized that—”

 

“I don’t mean Izaya-crazy. Like crazy-crazy.”

 

“Shizuo-kun, Izaya’s a sociopath, a megalomaniac, paranoid, and possibly borderline schizophrenic.” Shinra ticks the points off on his fingertips as if checking items off a grocery list. “He’s every kind of crazy.”

 

…Well, it’s not like he hadn’t known as much. “Is it okay to just leave him like that?”

 

“He’s never asked for medication, and it’s certainly none of my business to bring it up. Why, did something interesting happen?”

 

“No,” says Shizuo. “I’ve just been thinking.”

 

()

 

After that incident, nothing unusual—well, unusual for Izaya—happens for a while. There’s a period of about a month when Shizuo barely sees him at all. The city is as uneasy as an upset stomach; he hears gossip at work about a new and cold-blooded power moving into town like a cloud over a sunny day. There seem to be more traffic accidents than usual, and the television hums with reports of extortions, kidnappings, people vanishing down alleyways only for assorted body parts to appear in red-ribboned boxes weeks later. Izaya drops in late at night on the days he bothers coming home at all, fortifies himself with sex, and, like the mist over Tokyo Bay, is risen and gone before the sun. Shizuo has no doubts he’s in the middle of it all, and keeps himself well clear—just because he’s sleeping regularly with the guy doesn’t mean he wants to know the first thing about his shady-ass business. In exchange, their house, as if marked by lamb’s blood, remains above the fray.

 

Things continue in this state until the day Izaya refuses to acknowledge his existence.

 

It’s when he turns on him like a snake on its prey (after three and a half goddamn hours of ignoring him) and hisses, “Go away. I know you’re not real,” that Shizuo draws the line.

 

He clamps a hand around his wrist and drags him bodily to Shinra’s. Oddly, once they’re out of the apartment Izaya does not resist, and Shizuo tries not to think about why this might be—about how Izaya, assuming him invisible, wants to appear to be moving of his own volition.

 

When Shinra opens the door and says, “Shizuo-kun, what—” Izaya makes a face that strikes something very close to fear in Shizuo’s chest.

 

Seated on Shinra’s couch, Izaya is edgy and irritated, which translates into an utterly uncooperative front of Cheshire grins and manic laughter and ragged-edged barbs and culminates in Shinra pushing Shizuo out the door and telling him to come back later.

 

Later turns into hours and hours of irritated waiting at a newsstand down the street, sunset like a razor against his eyes even with his shades on. Izaya emerges after the shadows do and thirty minutes after that he’s dancing along a roof ledge and meditating on perspective.

 

Shizuo’s not really listening—all he can hear, word after mocking word, is schizophrenic, schizophrenic, schizophrenic…

 

()

 

The next morning brings one of those rare days when their schedules happen to coincide. Izaya waltzes into the bathroom, hipchecks Shizuo into the counter and cheerily plucks two huge orange tablets out of the capsule.

 

“God,” he whines afterwards, coughing and drinking water out of Shizuo’s mug. “Why’d they have to make them so damn big? I can’t swallow something that size.”

 

Shizuo raises an eyebrow.

 

Izaya frowns at him. “Don’t give me that look—that’s an exception. It’s all about strength of will.” He flings the capsule back into the cabinet, slamming the door shut too hard. “Shower with me?”

 

“I have literally half an hour to get to work.”

 

“As if your job matters.”

 

“Definitely more than your scrawny ass.”

 

Definitely,” snorts Izaya, shimmying out of Shizuo’s old t-shirt and gym shorts—that guy never wears his own fucking pajamas. He smacks his own butt with a skinny hand. “Miss out on his fine piece of tail once, regret it a lifetime.”

 

“You want to talk about regretting things for a lifetime, we can talk about you, sure.”

 

“Dearest Shizu-chan, I don’t know how I deal with your charm in the morning. Oh wait. I don’t.” He kicks the shower door shut and begins caterwauling a pop song as if he intends to drown out the sound of the water by force.

 

In retrospect, it’s fucking embarrassing how easily Shizuo falls for it. That’s one of those things you’d think he’d have learned by now, living with that weasel of a man. The old bait-and-switch.

 

But Izaya’s just such a damn fine actor.

 

At dinner, Shizuo bumps the otoro sushi over. “Here.”

 

“Mmm, no.”

 

Shizuo glances up briefly from his own plate.

 

“You’re obsessed with fatty tuna,” he points out.

 

“Shizu-chan makes me sound like a glutton,” Izaya sighs. “It’s the—” He waves his hand vaguely in the air.

 

“Meds?”

 

“An unfortunate side effect.” Izaya goes back to his papers, pushing his glasses up his nose like the nerd he fucking is. “Well, as the mad doctor would say, for science.”

 

What’s a scientifically proven fact is that Izaya is infinitely fuckable in glasses. When Shizuo rises to put the recycling out, he sluices his hand over the curve of Izaya’s waist.

 

“And this?” he asks quietly.

 

Izaya fucking purrs.

 

“No effect,” he says, looking up at Shizuo and smiling.

 

It’s fucking insulting. As if a few lewd smiles and late nights are all it takes to keep him satisfied, keep him in the dark, like some blinkered breeding bull in heat.

 

Still, the idea occurs to him out of nowhere on precisely the seventh day. When Izaya’s gone, Shizuo takes the capsule out of the cabinet and empties a pill into his hand. It—well, sits there, looking innocuous and fat and orange. He can’t tell at all if it’s anything other than what it’s supposed to be.

 

He takes it to Shinra that night. Shinra opens the door, looks down at what’s in his hand, and heaves a sigh. “I’m surprised you haven’t been by earlier.”

 

Thirty minutes in the lab and he’s telling him “sugar pill.” Shizuo grits his teeth, a vein ticking at his temple. Stripping off his lab gloves, Shinra scolds him like a disappointed teacher. “Did you seriously think it’d be that easy?”

 

And that’s the gist of it, isn’t it? With Izaya, it can never be easy.

 

Because of course he doesn’t come home that night, or the next, and by then Shizuo knows that he knows, that he’s hiding out in his shithole office in Shinjuku or some hotel in the vast sea of lights that is Tokyo. Anything to avoid him, anything to run away.

 

Which is too fucking bad for him, because Shizuo has the nose of a dog, the intuition of a wolf, and the remorseless focus of a missile. It takes him all of a day stalking the streets in a Raira-esque mood to catch the scent of the body that used to arc so sweetly under his.

 

He’s in the middle of a meeting when Shizuo gets to him. The stench of brewing trouble had just about stunk up the entire street. As Shizuo boots the door clean off its hinges, the other men spring up in alarm. Izaya just leans back, pinching the bridge of his nose.

 

“Shizu-chan, haven’t I asked you not to interrupt me at w—”

 

The ensuing fight is like something from their twenties. Izaya pulls his knife at some point and Shizuo snarls at him, “Is one of them fucking telling you do that?”

 

This proves to be exactly the wrong thing to say; Izaya lunges at him and gets the side of his arm in a shallow arc of red.

 

“It’s my hate,” he hisses, voice like acid. “When I look at you, it’s with my eyes. When I fuck you, that’s my choice. The day I kill you, never say it was someone else. It’s me. It’s me.

 

“How would you even know?”

 

Izaya laughs and laughs and thrusts one of his knives so hard against age-softened mortar that the blade sinks two inches between the bricks.

 

“Shizu-chan thinks he knows so much about me.”

 

“I won’t let you run away.”

 

A moment of hesitation. From long practice Shizuo reads Izaya’s intent to bolt from the line of his legs and jumps forward. Even still he barely manages to get a fistful of Izaya’s coat.

 

Izaya shimmies out of it like a snake shedding skin, but by then Shizuo’s got his wrist. Izaya turns his burnt-brown gaze on him like an iron.

 

“Let go.”

 

A second later, a knife comes hurtling towards his stomach. Shizuo grabs Izaya’s fist and turns it, easily—now that he’s gotten his hands on him, the outcome’s essentially determined. A few seconds is all Izaya can last before he drops the knife.

 

At this point, some poor misguided policeman, no doubt summoned by one of the crowd of fearful passersby clustered a secure half-block away, arrives and steps forward.

 

“Hey, what’s going on h—”

 

“Fuck off,” snarls Shizuo, at the exact time that Izaya says in a pleading voice so fake it makes Shizuo want to puke, “Help me.”

 

Twenty seconds later Shizuo is being pressed to the ground at gunpoint. From the floor Izaya is a towering shadow, and after that a pair of worn dress shoes grinding heavily into his cheekbone.

 

“Hey,” he hears the cop say. “That’s enough. Get off him, sir.”

 

Izaya does—after a final, vengeful twist of his foot.

 

“Stay away from me, and we’ll both be happier,” he says, before walking out of Shizuo’s line of sight.

 

()

 

[What are you going to do?]

 

They’re sitting in Shinra’s apartment, bail posted; Shizuo scratches irritably at the tracker bound around his ankle. He could probably rip the thing off, but Shinra cautions him, “Don’t do it in my apartment—the last thing I need is the law coming after me, too,” so he doesn’t—for Celty’s sake, mainly.

 

“I don’t know. Can’t leave it like this.”

 

“I don’t see what you can do,” says Shinra from the kitchen. “Izaya-kun could be anywhere by now.”

 

Shizuo growls and tears a wide strip of leather clean off the couch. Shinra makes a faintly injured sound.

 

“Why the fuck does that guy always have to run off?”

 

“Don’t you know? It’s always been the same reason.”

 

()

 

Whatever that reason may be, that’s the last Shizuo sees of Izaya for the next two months. He’s hidden himself better this time, deeper, a rat tunneled into its nest. Shinra’s theory is that he’s left Japan altogether. For all Shizuo knows, he could be in Osaka or on the fucking moon.

 

He knows he’s still keeping an eye on Ikebukuro, since the charges against him and the court appearance summons somehow vanish between issuance and arrival. The tracker is removed in a haze of bureaucratic confusion, but Shizuo knows better than to assume any of this is coincidence. In this part of town, coincidence has always gone by the name Orihara.

 

It’s frustrating as hell, but all Shizuo can do is go on. He trudges through the summer, chain-smoking a little more than normal, maybe. At least the house is quiet—although it strikes him as eerie now.

 

When Izaya does return, it’s with no warning whatsoever. Just—late one Friday night, after a few drinks with friends, Shizuo opens the apartment door to find him sitting at the table, quite alone and looking more serious than he’s seen him in a long time.

 

He’s playing with a bottle, turning it over and over in his hands as the pills inside rattle rhythmically, as if to remind Shizuo of what they talked about last.

 

Of course, he doesn’t offer any explanation why he’s back—his mind, as ever, is a black box. But Shizuo can see the absence hasn’t been kind to him; his slenderness broken into visible crests of bone beneath skin, under-eye circles and the dying gasps of a bruise painting his cheekbone.

 

“I’ve been thinking, it’d be more fun if two people do this.”

 

Shizuo glances down at the pills. “If you think I’m taking—”

 

“Hm, let’s see. I’ll, ah….” He taps his lower lip. “How about I’ll take one every day, if you don’t smoke?”

 

It’s not what Shizuo was expecting. When he doesn’t say anything, Izaya rises and reaches into Shizuo’s breast pocket, removes the box of cigarettes, and sets them down on the table with a loud tap.

 

Staring at the carton, Shizuo asks, “Something change your mind?”

 

Izaya makes a face. “Not really. I just got bored, that’s all.”

 

That’s probably all the explanation he’ll ever get. Honestly, dealing with Izaya is sometimes like having to coddle the world’s most dangerous toddler.

 

“Fine,” he says.

 

“Good.”

 

“Right now.”

 

“What?”

 

Shizuo points at the capsule. “We’ve started, right? So take the first one.”

 

Izaya looks at him with an expression halfway between wariness and intent to attack. He sticks out his tongue, deposits the pill on it, swallows smoothly.

 

“Let’s begin,” he says.

 

()

 

The not-smoking is killing him. More than once, Shizuo’s tempted to cheat. Izaya claims he’ll be able to smell it on him if he does, but really, how the hell is he going to know?

 

But he finds himself falling into Izaya’s childish way of thinking—he can’t cheat, it’s the rules. So he doesn’t, and the pill capsule continues to empty, day after day.

 

Day after day…

 

The problem with living with someone like Izaya is that you become like the villagers who put up with the boy who cried wolf. Izaya is a maelstrom of half-believed truths and fancies and flat-out falsities on a good day; sometimes he’s serious when he’s teasing, and sometimes he’s teasing when he’s serious.

 

So, when two weeks into the deal Izaya spends a whole day lying in the darkness of their bedroom staring at the wall, it is very difficult to tell whether he’s being dramatic or trying to punish Shizuo or just doesn’t feel like moving or whether it’s really, really the meds.

 

Shizuo hovers at the door, leaves, hovers, leaves, loudly makes food in the kitchen, too much for himself. Hovers.

 

“Go away, Shizu-chan.” Izaya’s voice is blank and flat, a mirror turned on an empty room. “I’m trying to sleep and you’re noisy.”

 

He steps back.

 

“…Do you want something to eat?”

 

He doesn’t say anything.

 

Shizuo leaves.

 

When he comes back again, fifteen minutes later, Izaya is still wide awake.

 

()

 

“Izaya. Hey.”

 

He stalks into the room, holding out the phone like a dirty towel. Between the unreasonably high temperature and the clamor of Izaya’s herd of phones and the generally sweaty state of the world, he’s about ready to chuck the next person he sees through a wall.

 

“Your phone’s been ringing for like the last hour.”

 

No response.

 

“Come on, you fucker, I know you’re not asleep.”

 

“It’s work. I’m not going to answer it.”

 

“You can mope around if you want, but no one’s gonna wait for you.”

 

“Fine,” he says neutrally. “Go on and leave me behind.”

 

“…I didn’t mean it like that.”

 

“I didn’t mean it in any way,” he retorts.

 

“It’s probably really important. The same guy’s called you literally twelve times.”

 

“Don’t look at my phones.”

 

“Then fucking answer them so they’ll stop fucking ringing.”

 

“Just dump them all in here, if it’s bothering you so much.” He coughs, lightly. “And get me some water.”

 

Feeling vaguely angry, Shizuo gathers up the phones and deposits them in a candy-colored rainstorm on Izaya’s desk.

 

“…You know, you’ll feel better if you get outside for a bit, instead of lying there all day like a fucking slug.”

 

“Actually,” he says drily, “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. My phones, please, and then it’d be really nice if you, like, stopped talking for a few days.”

 

“I already put them there.”

 

“I see.”

 

Of course he hasn’t. His eyes are still closed.

 

()

 

The next month, when it comes time to pay the rent, Shizuo forwards the money to Izaya as usual and thinks nothing of it. Seven days later, their landlady calls and informs him the rent hasn’t paid.

 

“Oi. Did you forget to send in the rent?”

 

“Oh,” sighs Izaya. He’s slumped over his desk, his face pointed in the general direction of his laptop. Under about three sweaters, he’s even skinner than before, but Shizuo doesn’t know what to do about it, at least while Izaya continues to claim that food makes him nauseous. “I guess I forgot to tell you. You’re going to have to pay a little extra this month.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Well, because I don’t have enough.”

 

Shizuo eyes Izaya. He’s never known how much money Izaya makes, but he suspects it’s no small sum.

 

“How much more?”

 

“How about you just pay the whole thing, and we’ll figure out paybacks some other time.”

 

“…Fuck that. I can’t just pay the whole thing.” Their apartment may be small and shitty and old, but it’s still expensive as all hell—that’s what living in Tokyo does to you.

 

“What, your pathetic job doesn’t even cover that much?”

 

It does, actually, but it’s a stretch. The fact is that Izaya has always taken care of the bills and the groceries and nearly everything else as well. Shizuo earns enough to cover one person, and one person alone.

 

“The yakuza get tired of staring at your face all day, or what?”

 

“I can’t work if I can’t think, Shizu-chan,” says Izaya very slowly, as if he’s talking to a child. “Unlike yours, my job requires some level of intelligent thought. And I guess it’s no big surprise by now that I can’t really think. So be a dear and pay for it. Or would you rather we stopped playing this little game?”

 

…if I can’t think. Is it really that bad? He’s certainly in more pieces than Shizuo’s ever seen him before, listless and coming apart at the seams, like a stuffed toy that’s been yanked between too many pairs of demanding hands.

 

“It’s for your own good,” he says.

 

“Doesn’t feel like it,” Izaya mutters back.

 

One of his cellphones starts wailing shrilly, like an upset child. Wincing, Izaya plucks it from the table and throws it at the wall. “And one more thing—could you take these to the trash for me?”

 

“You want me to throw them away?”

 

“Yes, I want you to throw them away. I’m so glad we understand one another. They’re just stressing me out. That’s bad for me, right? Stress...”

 

Shizuo gathers up the phones, orphaned children glowing forlornly up at him with their dozens of missed call and text alerts. He’s certainly not about to throw them away—there’s probably state secrets in there or some shit. He ends up dumping them in a kitchen drawer, inside of a rusty saucepan they never use. Their screens, still humming and buzzing and vibrating desperately for attention, look betrayed as he slides the drawer shut.

 

For the first time in a long time, utter, unbroken silence falls over their house like a shroud.

 

()

 

Celty meets him at the intersection, and they trudge through the miserable cold like soldiers edging towards the frontlines.

 

Right away, she asks, [How’s Izaya?]

 

Shizuo shrugs. He doesn’t want to put words to it. Like avoiding those labels—quiet, flat, not-okay—will make them less true.

 

He stares at his hands. He could throw a vending machine but can’t scale a single one of the walls guarding Izaya’s mind. What the hell’s the point, then? “I should be doing something.”

 

[You can always ask Shinra for help, you know.]

 

“But that shit he’s giving him, that’s the problem.” He’s read about this online—the testimonies of muddled, slow thoughts, fog in the head and smoke before the eyes. It’s what happens, when you use chemicals to shut down parts of your brain.

 

[Does he still talk to them?]

 

“He doesn’t talk at all.”

 

She pats his arm, gently.

 

[Hang in there. I know it’s rough.]

 

“I know. I’ll just—keep going.”

 

[Sometimes that’s all you can do.]

 

“Ah, goddamnit. It’s such a fucking annoying situation.”

 

[Are you going to leave him?]

 

The question is neutral enough, but then again, Celty’s never liked Izaya—for that matter, very few people ever have.

 

It’s not until they’re a block down that he says, “Nah. Things haven’t gotten to that point yet.”

 

()

 

Still, it comes and goes. The next week, Izaya goes out of the house, for once. He eats properly the next night in god-knows how long. Perches on Shizuo’s lap and sneaks noodles from his plate and complains about his taste in takeout.

 

Shizuo doesn’t think he’s ever been more relieved in his life. He lets Izaya steal the food.

 

He still sleeps a great deal more than normal, but then again, his normal was never enough. Shizuo can begin to believe that this is what he looks like better. A little quieter and sleepier and more lethargic, maybe, but the words are back, and the teasing smiles and the dancing walk. And if some nights Izaya seems upset, shoulders drawn tight, or retreats to his desk to draw dozens of tightly packed spirals like coils of worms in dirt, or bites his lips so hard they bleed, then Shizuo just lets him alone, or hands him a tissue for his mouth, or runs his hands over the small of Izaya’s back to give him something warm to arch into.

 

More and more, Shizuo questions himself about this damned sense of relief. Whether it’s for Izaya’s sake or his own. Tortures himself with hypotheticals; if Izaya went on being depressed forever, how long would he stick around? And if he did, out of what—some misguided sense of responsibility that Izaya could probably do without? Or is it love?

 

Is he? In love, with Izaya? The easy cohabitation and the sex and the arguing and the takeout, and now the way Shizuo silently mails in the rent, watching his bank account tick down like a bomb timer, silently traces the route to Shinra’s doorstep for the next prescription—he counts them on his fingers, restlessly, eyes squeezed shut like a boy trying to compute a complicated sum in his head. Is that all love is, or is that everything it’s about? He’s no romantic, yet this still feels like a—a bad deal, a rip-off at the corner electronics market, a five-hundred yen umbrella that falls apart in the first rain. But, at the same time, he can’t imagine an alternative. If he’s the type of person to prefer cheap beef bowls over exquisite blowfish soup, does that say something about the beef, or about him?

 

He chuckles wearily to Celty, “Who the hell allowed me to get to thirty-two without knowing this shit?” Running his hands through his hair like he’s trying to dislodge the thoughts from his scalp. “Fuck. There should be an exam or something.”

 

[I’m so old I can’t keep track of the years any more, and I still don’t understand the first thing about you humans’ “love”.] She leans against the railing, looking out at the sleet-grey harbor. [Sometimes I think people invented it just so they’d have something to bother themselves about.] She tilts her body, and Shizuo knows that if he could see her face she'd be wrinkling her nose at him. [Everything was much easier ten years ago, when we were all so stupid… Now even Shinra’s getting ruts between his eyes. If Shizuo-kun is being dragged down too, it can’t be a good sign.]

 

He shrugs. “I still think worrying about those things is pointless. But, somehow—I don’t know; I can’t ignore it anymore.”

 

[You humans make me feel my age.] She smiles, in that uniquely Dullahan way. [We’re all growing up.]

 

()

 

Christmas morning, Izaya stumbles into the kitchen, yawning at goddamn two in the afternoon, and presses a small package into Shizuo’s hands.

 

The paper lies in shreds on the table. Shizuo sighs loudly.

 

“Fuck you.”

 

A pack of Marlboros. He isn’t remotely surprised.

 

“Oh, come on.” Izaya plunks an enormous mug of coffee down onto the table. It seems the backlog of work from his little break is getting to him; he swings between manic energy and pass-out-wherever sleepiness as regularly as the pendulum of a clock, and Shizuo’s had to throw out two Red Bull cartons in as many weeks. “As if you haven’t cheated all this time.”

 

“I fucking haven’t, actually.”

 

“I know Shizu-chan still keeps a carton in his pocket,” Izaya accuses.

 

Shizuo picks it out and throws it on the table. Slowly, Izaya runs his finger over the plastic seal, dulled but untorn.

 

“Fuck you,” he repeats. “Just because you’re a cheater…”

 

For a moment, an unreadable expression passes over Izaya’s face like a shadow.

 

Then he downs the coffee, plucks his jacket off the chair back, and vanishes out the door without another word.

 

()

 

Shizuo swims into awareness. Pushing his way through heavy light. The air damp and clay-thick in his mouth—no, that’s a gag. The darkness rings and sounds sway. His mouth is dry. He might vomit. Fear clogs his veins like a heavy meal, shifting slowly in him, a python.

 

A silhouette is sitting on him, heavy and warm. It shifts and puts its arms around his neck, lovingly.

 

“Hey, Shizu-chan.”

 

“Izhhh….. fgk….”

 

There’s drool running out of his mouth. He can’t figure out which way to tilt his head to stop it. Izaya—it is Izaya, he’s sure, even if he can only see patches of him, too bright like overexposed photographs—strokes his cheek lovingly with a velvet-smooth thumb.

 

“Hey,” he croons. “It’s okay. Don’t worry.”

 

What the fuck are you talking about, you idiot?

 

“Thh… fuh…”

 

“It’s just a little sedative. Just to keep you here for a while.” His whisper is conspiratorial and so tender that bad shivers trail all the way down Shizuo’s spine. He can feel every one of the deep tremors gathered in Izaya’s fingers, like tangled knots from a failed game of cat’s-cradle.“There’s some dangerous things happening out there. One might say… annoying people that need to be shut up. So for now I’ve hidden you somewhere safe. Just stay here. I’ll take care of everything. Just stay here. It’ll be over in a minute.”

 

By the time Shizuo finds the words to protest, Izaya is long gone.

 

He waits, helpless. Feels something of what it is to be an ordinary man. The drug chokes his strength down, locks it away in a box his fumbling fingers cannot open. But his heart is strong, and his blood, and in fair time he feels the chemicals flushing away. He waits, grinding his teeth. The lights and darks of the world begin to rebalance.

 

When he can finally stand, he tears aside the bonds on wrist and ankle and waist easily and drags the massive steel door open. Outside, hints of dawn and salt air spit in his face. Startled seagulls cry and circle far above, curious.

 

It takes him an hour to escape the maze of warehouses, block after rusted metal block, looming like ossified mammoths through the pre-dawn fog. His clothes cling to him with damp, and a terrible thirst burns up and down his throat like wildfire. He’s beyond pissed off, knee ticking jackhammer-like as the train bears him the long way home. Kidnapping? What is this, Raira again? If Izaya hadn’t been such a fuck-up and miscalculated the dosage, he could easily have died of thirst.

 

That fucking bastard. Fine; they can go back there, if that’s what he wants. So Shizuo will track him down and pin him down and beat the shit out of his sorry, medicated, insane ass.

 

“Shi-zu-o!”

 

He starts, almost slipping on the ice-slick floor of the plaza.

 

“Happy New Years! Long time no see. Are you good?”

 

Simon hasn’t changed a bit. Same broad face, maybe a little more hewed, like aging wood. Same flyers in cheesy colors and cheap ink.

 

He considers explaining that his new years was spent locked in some abandoned warehouse at the hands of his so-called lover, but he doesn’t feel like enduring being made to feel like a child again—Simon was always good at that. “Don’t have time to chat.”

 

“Really? It’s been a long time,” reprimands Simon, upending his face into an exaggerated frown.

 

“I’m looking for—”

 

“Izaya?” Simon grins. “They say the world changes too quickly, but some things, always they’re the same.”

 

“Sure…”

 

He nods sagely, pleased with himself. “He came by earlier.”

 

“…You’re shitting me.”

 

Simon doesn’t even bother answering that one. As if to say Shizuo should know better by now.

 

“Which way was he heading?”

 

“Ikebukuro. He seemed…”

 

Shizuo waits, but Simon doesn’t find whatever word he was looking for. Instead he shrugs, massive shoulders heaving up and down like soot-stained icebergs shifting in the sea.

 

“Hurry, Shi-zu-o,” he advises.

 

Shizuo hurries. There’s probably like a five percent chance that Izaya will actually be back at their apartment, but that’s the first place he goes anyway.

 

As it turns out, he opens the door and the stench of iron rolls out and stains the landing red.

 

()

 

After a few hours, a man in scrubs comes hurrying out. There’s a bloodstain, no doubt overlooked in his rush, lurking like a mole at the side of his cheek.

 

“Are you his…?”

 

Shizuo makes an inarticulate gesture. “Friend,” is what he settles on.

 

The doctor tells him they think it was self-inflicted. “Has your friend seemed depressed to you, lately? Or mentioned any suicidal thoughts or intentions?”

 

“No,” says Shizuo, over and over again. Trying, in vain, to drown out the voice that insists this is your fault, you let this happen, if he dies it’ll be you that’s the killer. Isn’t that what you wanted?

 

If he’s sure of anything by now, it’s that he doesn’t want that—anymore.

 

They let him in, after a while. When he’s “stabilized,” or whatever.

 

Lying in the hospital bed, Izaya does not look stable. He looks halfway a ghost, and when Shizuo touches his arm he becomes aware, in a violent flash, of the rent flesh beneath, peeled back like the pale shell of a pistachio.

 

He is suddenly disgusted. Not at the wounds, but that he could live, every day, in such proximity with a creature he knows so little about. That he’s bared his neck hundreds of times to a dreamer, a killer, a child, a schizophrenic, a man with the potential to take a knife to his own arm like a bow to a violin—such a massive force, a hurricane bound beneath a smile. All the mornings he’s woken up on the rim of an abyss, gazing into those fathomless eyes and being gazed into. How could he have stood it for so long?

 

But then the feeling fades, abruptly as a wave pulling back into the sea, and it’s just Izaya. Just a dreamer, a killer, a child and a schizophrenic, just a man, after all, with pressures and levers and weights in his mind, and a knife in his pocket, too ready this time, too close.

 

()

 

He stays by Izaya’s bedside, two nights and one day. It’s not some dramatic gesture of loyalty, Shizuo tells himself—the doctors assure him that he’ll wake up soon, and they would know.

 

The first time his eyes peel themselves back, he looks frightening, gazing hazy-eyed and limp up at the ceiling.

 

“You’re in the hospital,” Shizuo says, and Izaya nods vaguely and goes almost instantly back to sleep.

 

He comes back around in half an hour, and stays this time.

 

“You must be wondering,” he says. He has to take a minute to breathe, slowly. “Why I did that,” he finishes. “It’s all over Shizu-chan’s face.”

 

“It was them.”

 

“Them?”

 

“The—voices.”

 

Izaya makes a scoffing noise. “They’ll be so disappointed to hear it,” he slurs, shifting weakly in the sheets, heavy with pain medication. “Just voices, after all.”

 

“So they’re not?”

 

When Izaya remains silent, Shizuo presses, “You don’t tell me anything. I’m just—an idiot, after all. I can’t figure these things out if you don’t help me.”

 

“So ask,” he says heavily.

 

“Who are they?”

 

Izaya looks away, but allows Shizuo to keep stroking his knuckles.

 

“No one you know.”

 

“Okay… What do they look like?”

 

“There’s too many,” he snaps, and pulls away, laying his arms carefully on the bed, cut-side-up. “I don’t know. Saki, Misato, Hanewa, Tiffany, Mozan-san, Basho, Shin, Kanra, Nobu. Am I tiring you, or should I keep going?”

 

He’s taken aback. “All the time?”

 

“Not usually, but then again, sometimes I feel like holding a little party,” he says, bitter.

 

“Are any of them… here? Like right now?”

 

Izaya sighs, tetchy. “Kanra’s been trying to talk over you this whole time.” He flips a middle finger at something vaguely to the left of Shizuo. “He can go fuck himself, by the way. He doesn’t like you, you know.”

 

“Sounds like your better judgment.”

 

This pulls a smile from Izaya, if faint. “Oh, you said something insightful for once. Maybe there’s something to be said for being crazy.”

 

“You should’ve—”

 

“Told you? Why? So you could shove some pills down my throat and land me in the hospital? I had enough of that in high school, thanks.”

 

“You landed yourself in the hospital.”

 

He doesn’t deign to respond.

 

“…Besides, I don’t think I actually managed to catch you in high school even once.”

 

“Well, congratulations then.” He turns firmly around, presenting Shizuo his back, a white flower petal stuck in a steel-framed cage, and pulls a sheet to his chin. “This time I’m trapped.”

 

()

 

The next day, a surprise arrives in the form of two young women.

 

Shizuo sees the Orihara twins occasionally around the city, but it never fails to startle him that they’re no longer children. But of course—if he and Izaya are already in their thirties, then it follows that the girls are fresh out of college. Time gets to them all.

 

Izaya sits up slightly when he sees them, a spark alighting in his eye like a robin on a park statue. “My, you two are looking annoying as ever.”

 

Mairu huffs, “Why is it that we have to find out everything about you second-hand, nii-san? Such a bother.”

 

A hint of a smile. “Well, I already have enough on my mind as it is.”

 

Kururi ghosts over to the side of the bed. “…it…bad?”

 

“Let’s not talk about that, or I’ll get bored.”

 

In five minutes Izaya is chattering away, telling some long story or other to Kururi’s mutely nodding form. Mairu bobs from foot to foot before abruptly yanking Shizuo out into the hallway.

 

“So what happened?” she demands; pressed flat against the wall, Shizuo feels vaguely impressed by the sheer force of her presence—she’s like her brother, that way.

 

“He stopped taking his meds. Shinra said it was some kind of withdrawal backlash or something.” Shizuo motions vaguely at his wrists. “Has he always been like this?”

 

Mairu nods, brusque, fidgeting with one of her bracelets. “Our mom, too… But it wasn’t, you know. Out of hand.”

 

“Mairu, we were out of hand.”

 

“Oh, your year in Raira was fucked up. Everybody still talks about it, you know. You guys are urban legends now.”

 

Shizuo can’t help grinning at that. “Thanks.”

 

Mairu glances at the door. “Poor Iza-nii. He thinks he’s so cool, but he’s really a complete loser.” She cuts her eyes sharply at him. “But I guess that makes you the biggest sucker of all. Should’ve washed your hands of him when you had the chance.”

 

“I could say the same of you.”

 

“If you back out now, I’ll kill you myself, you know.”

 

Shizuo offers Mairu his hand. “Looking forward to it.” Her grip is fierce, like she has something to prove. “I wanted to ask you—did something happen, like around November or December?”

 

“Is that when nii-san started going batshit?” She scratches the back of one heeled foot with the other, and for a moment a deep bitterness puckers her mouth. “Of course he wouldn’t say anything. Mom died.”

 

Slowly, Shizuo nods. His mom died. Even with Izaya, apparently in the end it can be that simple.

 

“He wasn’t really close to her—none of us were. She died in a, what-d’you-call-it… Ah, fuck, one of those crazy-people hospitals; you know what I’m talking about. Asylums. We hadn’t lived with her for a long time. But that’s nii-san. You never know what’ll set him off. He didn’t even show up for the funeral, though. Asshole. Like we have nothing better to do than order flowers and find cemetery plots.”

 

“That sucks. Sorry.”

 

Mairu ignores him, glancing away as Izaya’s laughter peals out from the room. “And now nii-san’s in a hospital too. It’s a legacy.”

 

“He’ll be okay.”

 

“Will he, though, really? Izaya’s never been very okay.”

 

To that, Shizuo has no defense.

 

()

 

He wakes in the middle of the night to the sound of crying.

 

Izaya is flat on his back at the far edge of the bed, one arm thrown over his face. The tears trailing down from beneath it look like blood seeping from a cut.

 

“Izaya?”

 

He shakes his head, making almost no noise.

 

“Hey…”

 

He rises slowly from the chair, muscles achey-tight with too much air conditioning, and hovers worriedly over Izaya.

 

“Sorry I woke Shizu-chan up,” he chokes.

 

“You okay?”

 

“In a minute. It’ll pass.”

 

“Can I—” He touches Izaya’s elbow as gently as he knows how—as he’s learned, these past months, to be.

 

Izaya grabs his hand, weaves his fingers through his and clenches so hard that his little fox-like nails which he keeps curved nearly to a point leave marks on Shizuo’s skin. Presses their linked hands to his mouth, so that Shizuo can feel the trembling of it.

 

Of all the nights he didn’t come home, how many were spent like this? Alone, in some cheap love-hotel room, chasing after his own distorted idea of strength like the gym-goers on their treadmills that Shizuo sees in their lit glass cages. Just another mile, just another night and I’ll be there, I’ll be beautiful, I’ll be good. It’s such a filthy, sad image—one that makes Shizuo want to wash his hands in tears.

                                                                

“Are you hurt?”

 

“No. I just… It’ll pass,” he repeats, and wipes his eyes with his other hand.

 

“I can call the—”

 

“Don’t,” he says, too fast, and then Shizuo knows; illogically, he glances rapidly around, as if he could find them, too, by sheer dint of force, and how he wishes he could—because you can’t pummel something you can’t see. “It’s—already a bit crowded.”

 

“I’ll kill them.”

 

“Oh, they’re not all so bad. But I”—his voice breaks—“kind of wish they’d go away. I’m just tired and b-being silly. Go back to sleep.”

 

“Izaya.”

 

“Hm?”

 

“I’m real.”

 

“I know you are.”

 

He sounds certain, but Izaya sounds however he wants to sound.

 

Shizuo raises Izaya’s wrist to his mouth, presses his lips against the border between bandage and sweat-damp skin. His pulse is beating frantically, like a butterfly trapped inside a window.

 

“I’m real,” he says into Izaya’s skin, as if he could press the words and the intent into him, inject it straight through his veins. “We’re real.”

 

Izaya’s other hand comes up and runs through his hair, combing through the slightly wavy tufts near the back of his head, before pulling him down into his lap.

 

That’s how they fall asleep, Izaya’s hands in Shizuo’s hair and gripping his shoulder, Shizuo’s tucked around the curve of his hip and spread flat over his thigh. The nurse, who wakes both of them up when she tries to check on Izaya’s arm, tells Shizuo meekly that she didn’t have the heart to rouse him.

 

()

 

As they wait for Izaya to be cleared from the hospital, Shizuo learns more and more about the others. About how Izaya uses them in his work, parceling out impossible volumes of faces and facts and incidents to remember to different alters, like dividing a cake among children. About how they stand behind him at meetings, whispering things he needs to know. He learns that all those times Izaya would convulsively cling tighter to him as they fucked meant that he’d caught a glimpse of one of them (“mostly Mozan-san, he’s such a voyeur, that old man”) peering around the doorway, about how half the times he sits on Shizuo he just wants to sit on him and the other half because there’s someone already in the empty chair. How when Izaya’s talking out loud he’s reciting things for their benefit as much as his own.

 

He learns which of them like him and which don’t (“of course they all know about you, they’re in me”). That he scares “the kids,” of which there seem to be an endless unreliable stream, about how one middle-school girl has a crush on him (“when it’s not Mozan-san, you know, guess which dirty girl’s watching…”). He learns which of them screams in Izaya’s ear until he’s near to breaking, which one handed the razor to him—which of them to hate.

 

Over and over, Izaya tells him, “I know they’re not real. Unlike Shizu-chan, I’m not an idiot. But it’s easier to pretend they’re real than to ignore them.”

 

And that’s the crux of the problem. The more Shizuo listens to Izaya talk about them, the more he starts to believe that it’s healthier for Izaya to have them around than to forcibly try to banish them—which, given how the attempt’s gone so far, he’s not even sure is feasible. But it can’t be healthy. Can it? He battles paper after paper, study after study on schizophrenia that reads like Shinra’s obfuscation in a different language. But they’re all useless, because they all describe ordinary people, because they aren’t about Izaya. Because no permutation of characters could ever capture the sheer force that is the boy who, on happy days, likes to shallowly bite the side of Shizuo’s neck like a small cat. Sometimes he thinks himself into such circles that he gives himself headaches, and then Izaya laughs at him, mocks his stupidity; “See, this is like when someone tries to use a muscle they’re not used to—except in your case, of course, it’s your brain—”

 

When they finally take Izaya’s bandages off, he gazes neutrally down at his arms, before raising them towards Shizuo with a smirk.

 

“Look. Bracelets.”

 

They’re horrifying. “Guys shouldn’t wear jewelry.”

 

“And Shizu-chan shouldn’t throw his misguided gender stereotypes at me. I’ll do what I want.”

 

I know. You always do what you want. Shizuo runs his thumb over the largest of the ridges. “Don’t, then. For me.”

 

“Mm.” Izaya lifts Shizuo’s hand away, places it carefully like something precious and fragile on the side of the bed. “I don’t think I like the way they look, so.”

 

Shizuo is thinking now of the older scars, faint as whispers of wind, laced like a belt around Izaya’s hips. He’s never brought them up.

 

As if he can read his mind, Izaya touches his waist, and says, “Well, I had a life before you knew me. What’s that saying…?” He says it in English, so it takes Shizuo a few seconds to untangle the words into meaning—

 

“‘Never did run smooth.’”

 

()

 

It is Izaya, surprisingly, who takes the initiative.

 

“It’s called Noxo-something? Noxiane?”

 

“Never heard of it.”

 

“It’s experimental. The PMDA hasn’t approved it yet.” Izaya grins at him. “I might die. Shinra’s such a good friend.”

 

“It’s your choice, not his.”

 

Izaya sighs through his teeth, and Shizuo suddenly notices the tiniest of wrinkles around his eyes, light as the footsteps of a bird in snow. “I want to keep trying. That way I can keep loving everyone.”

 

Shizuo laces his arms around Izaya’s ribs. “Are you actually going to die?”

 

“Getting excited, are we? How unseemly.”

 

He kisses the nape of Izaya’s neck. “I’ll kill Shinra myself.”

 

“That sort of possessiveness doesn’t suit you. You’re more of a take-it-easy sort of guy.”

 

“It’s not my fault, when everyone keeps trying to take away what’s mine.”

 

Izaya doesn’t say anything. He rests his hand over Shizuo’s, lightly.

 

()

 

The first week after he’s released from the hospital, the phones ring nonstop, shrill pop song after shrill pop song burrowing up like termites from wood, until Shizuo forces him to put them on silent. Izaya waltzes around the house, gesturing while he apologizes like a frantic restaurant-owner: “Ah, Dougen-san, I’m sorry I’ve been busy,” “Good evening, Mikishi-san, I apologize for the absence,” “Yes—of course, Shiki-san, I’m terribly sorry I’ve been gone so long.”

 

In the three-second gap between hanging up and the start of the next round of phone calls, Izaya rolls his eyes at Shizuo and comments, “I’m shocked the city hasn’t burned down since I’ve been gone,” and Shizuo can’t help agreeing.

 

It frightens him a little, now, to let Izaya take the Noxiane in the morning and go waltzing out into the city full of rushing cars and high unfenced roofs and psychotic men with ill intentions, armed only with his compromised mind. But Izaya’s not some pet to be caged or leashed. All they can do is release one another into that maelstrom and, like any other family, trust each other to return.

 

“This city’s gotten out of alignment,” sighs Izaya. “Like a bad back. So of course, I, the loving overseer, have to kick everything back into shape myself.” He clicks his tongue, scrolling sideways through web tabs like a man scrolling through a dictionary. “What a lot of work people are.”

 

“Your ego hasn’t gone down.”

 

“Shizu-chan still thinks it’s just ‘my ego.’” Without looking up, he pats Shizuo on the knee, maximally condescending. “How adorable.”

 

At night, Izaya has taken to typing copious amounts of notes, reams of documents with no formatting and no visible organization and often in hurried katakana instead of kanji, which makes them look all the more childish. “I feel like a grade-schooler!” he laughs. “But this is the way it has to be. Without them there...”

 

It’s the first time since the hospital that he’s mentioned it directly.

 

“Is it hard?”

 

Izaya drums a pen against the table. “Well, they were all parts of me, anyway. Even the best magician knows his tricks are just tricks.”

 

Just once, Shizuo had peeked at his notes. Izaya had fallen asleep at his desk, drooling onto his sleeve under the light of the laptop screen. Reading even half a page of those dense, energetic characters gave him a headache; as expected, he couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it. This comforted him, somehow. Being able to understand every part of Izaya, he thinks, is probably understanding too much.

 

Mairu and Kururi stop by a few more times. Considering that he knows them well, Shizuo finds it surprisingly awkward to have them in the house. He’s gotten so used to it just being a place for him and Izaya that three or four people feels like too much. Maybe they sense it, too, or more likely they’re just busy with their own lives—by the time the first hints of spring roll around, they’ve vanished back behind the gates of their universities.

 

There are still rough days. Lots of them. But now Izaya comes home to weather his storms. He’s taken to tugging at Shizuo’s sleeve until, grumbling, he moves over to the couch, where he’ll flop down in Shizuo’s lap, legs dangling in the air. Ever the fidget, he texts on one hand and fiddles with Shizuo’s watch with the other until it breaks, buys him a ridiculous Breitling in a month, only to steal it back five days later and give it to somebody else (“it was too classy for you, anyway. Wouldn’t want your coworkers thinking you’d gone white-collar”).

 

Shizuo finds himself watching a lot of television, these days, Izaya’s head heavy in his lap. He watches as the old chief of police is fired in a burst of corruption suits and general public indignation. The new one, a fresh-eyed idealist, rolls in with lips blazing, all talk of “putting an end to the reign of crime” and “restoring peace for the common man.” Watching him burn away on screen, Shizuo can’t help feeling sorry for him. To men like Izaya, such people are like the curtain the cat uses to sharpen its claws. The city continues to roil along at a fast boil. Izaya is busy but in his element, and pretty soon Shizuo’s back to alternating between yelling at him to shut up and deafening himself via headphone.

 

Business as usual, but they’re gentler with each other, now, and some nights their sex is a tender kind of breaking. It feels as if they’ve passed through a long, dark tunnel, running from shadows, and now that they’re in the sunlight they’ll never again find those danger days. Or maybe they’re just running out of energy, wearing one another down like every other thing on the planet.

 

It’s different, but not so bad—growing old, growing up.

 

()

 

“—oh, and on top of that, this guy was totally coming on to me today—”

 

Shizuo ignores this. If Izaya were sitting on a park bench and a few leaves blew into his lap, he’d think they were coming on to him.

 

“—and I was like, no way, I’m taken, and he was like oh really, and I told him I was dating you.”

 

Shizuo blinks.

 

“So if some strange people come bothering you over the next couple days, tell them hi from me, okay?”

 

“You’re serious.”

 

“Shizu-pon-chan-ran-darling, I’m always serious.”

 

He almost never is, but this time, it appears, he’s telling the truth. When the same old shadows appear in some alleyway, Shizuo doesn’t find it difficult at all to fly into a rage. He’d thought they were past that storied era of Raira, when barrels of burning pitch rolled own the hallways and entire wings of the school had to be rebuilt. Though they’d all learned something by now.

 

Further proof that he doesn’t know anything.

 

Izaya appears around the corner as he’s still panting, staring at the nearest man—upended into a trash bin. I’m getting old, he thinks. Back then he would have upended the trash bin onto the man.

 

He glares at Izaya and says, “I’m too old to deal with this shit.”

 

“You’re too young to be pulling those sorts of excuses. Besides, I get rid of most of them myself. You should be grateful. An attractive young man like me, it’s like beating off flies…”

 

Shizuo sighs, rotates his arm a few times.

 

Izaya slips a hand into Shizuo’s pocket, lights one of his cigarettes, and holds it to Shizuo’s lips. “There. I’m sorry, you brute. Hurry up and die of cancer.”

 

He’s already inhaled before the significance of it strikes him. It’s been over half an year since he smoked; his longest abstinence since he was fifteen.

 

Through the smoke, Izaya smiles almost sweetly at him—or maybe it’s just the cigarette, the burst of taste in his lungs like a bedbound child’s first step into fresh grass.

 

“We’re finished with this game.”

 

()

 

They walk together the way they always do in public, not quite touching but perhaps a touch too close for friends. Passersby probably think they’re old buddies, which is simultaneously the truth and far from it.

 

Kitanomaru is bursting at the seams with young, tipsy revelers and families out to catch the blossoms. Shizuo traces Izaya’s gaze to a pair of fresh-faced mothers, pretty and obviously well-off, chatting to one another over packed lunches of soba.

 

“Wishing you were a girl?”

 

“Ew, you perv, you would like that, wouldn’t you? Actually, I was thinking about how much I hate children. Especially babies. So much noise and mess.”

 

“Lucky we can’t have kids then.”

 

“Too bad! My mind, your body. Imagine the possibilities.”

 

Shizuo snorts. “You’d treat ‘em like a science experiment.”

 

“I think you’d make a sweet dad. If you didn’t break their arms by accident.” Izaya leans in too close, mouths into his ear, “How about we kidnap one?”

 

“Hey, there’s a security guard over there. Say that a little louder.”

 

Izaya scoffs, “Please. As if he could stop me.” He kicks the metal links of the fence above the embankment. “Where are those two, anyway?”

 

“Celty says they’ll be here in a minute.”

 

“Probably squeezing in a last minute cuddle. Hey, there’s a thought. If those two had a kid, what d’you think are the chances it’d have a head?”

 

“Tell that to Celty and see what your chances of keeping yours is.”

 

“You’re always on her side. It’s probably the leather.”

 

He’s missed this, Shizuo realizes. Lightly talking about nothing.

 

“Should we get in line?” Izaya’s pointing down the road, at the sloping queue for the boats.

 

“It’s gonna take forever either way.”

 

“See, that slacker attitude is exactly why you’ve made so little progress in life. I’ll stand in line, and you can run over to Yasakuni and buy me a soft-serve.”

 

When Shizuo returns, Izaya bends and licks the ice cream once before taking the cone out of Shizuo’s hand. “Waiting in line at Kitanomaru for a boat during cherry-blossom season—while eating ice cream from a street-fair stall! It’s so cliché it hurts, right? As a couple, it’s the height of boredom to do something like this. Surrounded by squalling kids and people drunk at three in the afternoon. It’s not romantic in the slightest.”

 

“We can go somewhere else.”

 

“I’m complaining for the sake of complaining, Shizu-chan. You and me and the mad doctor and Headless-chan can row out, we’ll get a little drunk, and hopefully I’ll push you into the water at some point. It sounds like a great idea.”

 

“So are we a couple, then?”

 

“Is that all you got out of that? Goodness, sometimes I don’t know why I try.”

 

“You like the sound of your own voice.”

 

“Somebody has to appreciate it, or it’ll waste away. Of course Shizu-chan and I are a couple. Don’t you know it’s been sixteen years? That’s longer than some of these kids have been around.”

 

“Huh. You kept track.”

 

“I remember everything.” The line inches forward, slowly. Shizuo glances at his phone. [Sorry, the subway’s crazy. We’ll be there in five minutes.]

 

“We should move to America.”

 

“Why the hell would I do that?”

 

“We could get married there. They’re allowing people like us to do that. I always thought America was a backwards place, but, I don’t know, maybe they’ve figured some things out.” Izaya turns back to look at him and laughs. “Oh, God, don’t make that face. I’m joking. As if I’d want to get married to someone like you.”

 

“Who would you rather get married to, then?”

 

“It’s not a matter of the person, Shizu-chan. I happen to find marriage distasteful.”

 

“…So you would want to get married to me.”

 

“You know, you have this habit of circling around topics just the way a dog circles a tree before it takes a piss. If you want to pretend we’re married, I won’t stop you.”

 

Shizuo sneaks his hands around Izaya’s waist. He expects him to pull away, but all Izaya does is click his tongue and bat lightly at his arms.

 

“Let go of me, you brute.”

 

“You’d be the wife.”

 

Izaya laughs in a yelp. “Like hell—”

 

Shizuo kisses him, with the weeping cherry trees leaning out over the glittering-green of the canal like girls peering at their reflections, flowered palms a breath’s-width above the water. Izaya’s mouth is cold and sweet from the ice cream; he tastes like artificial sakura flavoring and bits of strawberry. It is as much of a cliché as he could hope for in their topsy-turvy world, and after the winter they’ve had, it’s just about what he needs.

 

In the end, Izaya had stopped taking the Noxaine—stopped taking everything.

 

“It’s too difficult, doing all this on my own.” He laughs a little. “Besides, it’s kind of quiet without them, and Shizu-chan knows I don’t like the quiet.”

 

Shizuo is—not exactly happy with the decision. More concerned.

 

“There’s bad ones too,” he reminds him.

 

“I know how to deal with the bad ones. This—” He waves at his head, vaguely. “I don’t know how you do it.”

 

“What?”

 

“Live without being able to think properly. It’s just such a terrible thing not to be able to use your mind—although I suppose if you ask a natural-born cripple if he misses walking properly, it’s not like he would know—”

 

Shizuo catches Izaya’s hand mid-gesture.

 

“You’re not going to—”

 

“Try and saw my hand off again?” Probably only Izaya could say it so lightly. “I don’t think I’ll try it.”

 

“Say you’re not going to.”

 

“Shizu-chan’s so serious. Fine, I’m not going to.”

 

“Promise.”

 

“You know what they say about promises—they’re meant to be broken.”

 

Shizuo sighs. “Izaya…”

 

Shiiiii-zuo,” trills Izaya in imitation. “Chan.

 

“Cut the chan. We’re thirty already.”

 

“Speak for yourself. I’ll be twenty-three forever.”

 

In the end he never had weaseled a promise out of Izaya. But Shizuo supposes that just means he’ll have to keep a closer eye on him.

 

So he holds Izaya’s hand as they move slowly towards the front of the line, and Izaya grins and sticks both their hands in Shizuo’s coat pocket.

 

“Oi! Shizuo-kun! Izaya!”

 

Shinra and Celty push their way through the crowd towards them. Quite a few people are staring at Celty’s bike-helmet-and-sundress ensemble, but neither Shinra nor Celty look like they could care less. They do look like two young people very much absorbed in one another, and Shizuo suddenly wonders if he and Izaya look the same.

 

“About time,” complains Izaya. “My God, Shinra, you’re certainly getting old.”

 

“Ah, Izaya-kun’s ever the charmer. How are you?”

 

“Don’t let’s all pretend we’ve started caring,” laughs Izaya, “or else you’ll make it hard for me to push you all out of the boat later.”

 

He wouldn’t really, he wouldn’t—but they’ve barely launched when the boat suddenly rocks. Shizuo gets one good glimpse of Izaya’s smile—and despite what Izaya claims, his is a face that looks like it has weathered well over twenty-three years—before the water grabs him. Even though it’s spring, it’s still shockingly cold. For a moment the world is an upside-down whirl of bubbles and black-green water. Shizuo nearly opens his mouth, flailing in the dark.

 

But then a hand plunges in from above, the scars around the wrist barely visible in the sparse sunlight that filters through from the surface.

 

That little shit, Shizuo thinks, and grasps it as Izaya begins pulling him upwards.

 

()