Sunlight dripped through the blinds. It bleached long white stripes on the walls, revealed the texture of the uneven paintjob. It was the type of silver light that beamed dully through a layer of grey clouds. The window was open, and a slight breeze made the wooden frames bang gently against each other. Where they did, the paint was chipped and the wood became visible.
It was Sunday morning. Juuzou had been watching the aluminum blinds sway gently against the glass above him, as he laid on his back. Now and then, a breeze would reach him from outside and he'd close his eyes, breathing deep. The air was heavy with the threat of rain, carrying the smell of trees below, saturated with humidity. He had been drifting in and out of sleep for a while now. The soft tapping on the computer keyboard from somewhere else in the room kept bringing him back into awareness. It was better that way. He didn't feel like sleeping.
Juuzou looked around at the ceiling for a bit, and let his head tilt to rest his cheek on the pillow. From where he was, on the mattress in the corner under the window, he could see the honey-colored floorboards stretch out in front of him. Before the TV was a faded green sofa and a low table. There sat Hanbee, his back to him. He could only see the broad shoulders and the slick black hair tied at the nape oh his neck. He glanced at the lit up numbers on the DVD player. 12h15. In about an hour then...The sound of the keyboard went without faltering. Juuzou sighted softly and shifted back to his original position, stretching a bit on the way.
He heard Hanbee turn around at the sound. 'He thought i was asleep'.
"I'm halfway through, sir."
"No, take your time."
His voice sounded sleepy to his own ears. It had taken effort to mumble the words above a whisper. He heard him shift back to his computer, and the typing resumed. Juuzou looked up at his piece of sky again. Swallows were swirling under the clouds. They sped in and out of sight above the roofs.
"Do you think there'll be a lightning storm?"
"I'm sorry sir, what was that?" The typing stopped.
"Nothing. Sorry, I'm disturbing you." He smiled a bit, and two more swallows joined the others. He squinted up, and he could see that the clouds were distinctly moving with the wind now, getting thicker.
"Not at all. You'll tell me if you need anything, won't you?" He could tell Hanbee was starting to feel guilty now. He really shouldn't. They had made a deal.
"Hanbee, I told you not to fuss over me if i came here. You have work to do. Believe me I get it, I'm your boss."
Hanbee chuckled appologetically, and went back to writing his report. Juuzou smiled to himself and lapsed back into silence.
Maybe this was stepping over the line and finally abusing of Hanbee's kindness. Sure, the plumbers were fixing a leak from the floor above his - water had dripped right through to his ceiling and into his walls. But the workers had been upstairs all Saturday, and only came by once to check the damage. Hardly a valuable reason to spend the next morning at his subordinate's flat.
He knew Hanbee wouldn't refuse when he had asked to come by an chill at his place. He also knew he had work to do that weekend. So he had made him promise that he wouldn't let himself be distracted by his presence; if he needed anything, he would get it himself. And he'd been over enough times that he had no trouble making himself comfortable. Hanbee hadn't questioned his weak explanation for coming in the first place. But it was no use denying it: he felt troubled.
"I'm going to make some tea, would you like me to bring you something to drink? I'll be up so it's no bother..."
"Hm? Oh, let me make it, I've been looking for something to do, sit down, sit down!"
He jumped up from the mattress, feeling Hanbee's gaze following him as he slowly regained his seat. He suspected Hanbee didn't really want tea; it was just another way of pampering him, without making him feel bad about disturbing his work. He smiled to himself, getting to the small kitchen. Hanbee always cared; it didn't matter that Juuzou wasn't exactly his usual self, he didn't need a reason to look out for him. Hanbee was nice to be around. He looked for the stool, dragged it under the cupboard that held the teacups and climbed on barefoot. He could have turned on the kettle before starting to look for the rest, but he wanted to stretch the process as long as he could. It would leave Hanbee free space of thought to work as quickly as he usually did. Juuzou got a hold of his favorite mug. Although he didn't come by that often, Hanbee was always careful to leave that one in front of the others, on the lowest shelf so Juuzou wouldn't have to reach too far to get it. Small things like that were much more soothing than spoken concern. Juuzou pushed aside a couple of chipped ceramic cups and chose one for Hanbee, climbed down and set them on the counter. He paused, and sighed quietly.
Large hands dropped on his shoulders, and Juuzou blinked.
"The kettle has been wistling for a while now," Hanbee said quietly, cautiously.
"Sorry, I got distracted." He didn't turn to look at him, but switched the stove off and started pouring the now boiling water, subtly shifting out of the touch. It spluttered and steamed, soaking the counter. Hanbee dropped his hands quickly.
"I'm done with my report. If you'd like to..."
Hanbee couldn't help but smile at his bosse's poorly contained eagerness. It had been six years since the war had ended, and though their lives were not completely devoid of violence and fighting, they were a lot more peaceful. Juuzou seemed less tense, he caught him smiling to himself now and then, and the calm aura he had now had been lifted of the weight of his guilt. It made him genuinly happy to see him like that. It had taken almost 30 years, but he could finally experience something close to a pleasant life. Juuzou scurried back to the living room and sat on the couch where Hanbee had been working. He pulled his knees up and rested his chin on them, playing absentmindedly with his toes as he read the report. Hanbee followed soon after and found him unmoving and unblinking, his large eyes glazed over and reflecting the square white light of the screen. The dark pupils slid right, then darted back to the left to start reading a new line. Hanbee sat down next to him and set the teacups on the table. He moved slowly, trying not to disturb his concentration, careful not to shift the sofa too much with his weight. There was a moment of silence. The blinds clattered softly against the windowframe. In lack of anything to do that wouldn't disturb the quiet, Hanbee let his gaze rest on Juuzou. When they were lit up so directly, he could make out the faint reddish-brown tint of his eyes. Most of the time they appeared flat black, but he knew better. Hanbee wondered if anyone else did. He rested back in the sofa, and from that angle, he could tell the other skipped to the next line by the slight shift of his eyelashes. Then finally Juuzou blinked, and Hanbee did too, shaking his head a bit. He must be tired.
"Vey good, as usual."
"Thank you, sir."
There was another pause, and he saw his eyes dart down to the small numbers at te bottom right of the screen, and away. It was already 12:30. Next to him, Juuzou was frozen stiff. Hanbee sighed. He hadn't wanted to bring it up; part of his job was to induldge Juuzou in his denials. But for his own good, he'd bite the bullet.
If possible, Juuzou seemed to stiffen further. Hanbee could tell his toes were curled up underneath his hands, tendons sticking out from under the pale skin. He felt a jolt of compassion. Juuzou suddenly looked so small, curled up and his face turned away. The feeling shook through his chest and he swallowed a lump in his throat. It was an odd thought to have, given their relationship, but he was so proud of him. This afternoon was the first of a last series of obstacles, and he would help him through it as best he could. At those moments, his loyalty bound him so tight he could almost feel it. Hanbee took a deep breath.
"May I please come along?"
Juuzou's head turned so fast to face him it was almost unnatural. Owlish eyes stared at him, and finally he asked.
"You're going to the Shinohara house this afternoon, I was wondering if it would be all right for me to come as well."
His timid nature was threatening to claw its way up from the places it hid when Juuzou was around. The last thing he wanted was to be intrusive, after all it was his first reunion with the man he'd been waiting so long to meet again. But he had to try. Juuzou's mouth opened and closed a couple of times, no sound escaping it. His tiny eyebrows were pulling together, a very rare crease forming between them. Juuzou was hard to trouble, but Hanbee had somehow managed. Nor did he have a very expressive face - the emotions he read on it usually ranged from mildly bored to blank, sarcastic or falsely innocent on other days - but what he thought was clear enough: he had expected Hanbee would understand his reason for visiting him, but had hoped against hope he wouldn't, not really believing it but still reluctant to give in so easily. Hanbee was surprised how well he had gotten to know Juuzou, and caught himself wondering if Shinohara knew him that way too.
"You mentionned it a couple months ago."
He looked appalled. Hanbee loved seeing so many expressions playing around his features. Even as tense as he was, he looked alive, a spark flickering behind his eyes. Something everyone had, really. Hanbee never noticed he was missing it until it appeared.
"No one should remember things like that."
"It's my job."
Juuzou uttered a tiny sigh.
"You're such a problem."
Hanbee found it in himself to smile. "I appologize. You haven't answered my question."
"I know I haven't."
"Please answer my question."
Hanbee knew well enough that Juuzou could tiptoe around just about anything he didn't feel like doing. It was quite impressive actually, but he would not let himself be distracted. Juuzou looked at him again, calculating.
"Why are you suddenly asking? It doesn't sound like you at all."
"Well... I've heard so much about him, I'm just really curious to finally meet him."
Juuzou squinted further. Hanbee held his gaze a second, internally sweating.
"I suppose if it were me, I wouldn't mind the support." He added quickly, in a much lower voice. Juuzou hummed. He got up, standing on the sofa. Hanbee wanted to tell him something about wearing out the springs, but thought against it. Juuzou stepped on the armrest, swinging his legs at each step, deep in thought. The dark blue fabric of his shorts brushed right below the crease behind his knees, and Hanbee saw the dissaray of white scars on his calf catch the light from outside.
"Fine, I suppose you can come. It would be rude of me not to invite you after I spent the morning here."
If Juuzou was satisfied with this excuse, so was Hanbee. He'd play along.
"That's very kind of you," he responded, a smile playing around his tone.
"I know." He giggled and stepped off the couch. Hanbee watched him walk across the room and plop back down on the mattress. He played a bit with a string hanging from the open window, then dropped his arm and sighed mightily.
"What time is it again?"
"Ten to one."
He got back up and stuck his head outside. The air was heavy with humidity that clung to the skin, and the sky looked grayer by the minute.
"Maybe we should do this another day, i'm pretty sure i heard a typhoon was coming on the news."
Hanbee smiled, but didn't respond. Juuzou glanced at him nervously, then openned his arms.
"Do I look ok? Should I change? I should definetly change, right? Damn it, do I even have time to go back home? How long would it take from here to Asagaya anyway?"
His nervousness was starting to show in his tone, and Hanbee quickly got up.
"You look very good, and it's hot outside so you don't need to change, you'll be uncomfortable with work clothes. And i'm sure it's not that kind of visit anyways, so casual is fine. But if you do want to change, remember that I have a couple of your clothes here, so either way you don't need to go back to your place. We can take the metro to Asagaya, it'll be half an hour, but we can leave earlier if you don't want to rush."
Juuzou seemed to relax a bit and nodded fervently.
"Yeah, I don't want to be late. And I'm not sure i remember the way from the station."
"That's no problem, if you give me the adress we can look it up on my phone." Juuzou had a phone too, but it didn't do much besides text and call. He barely ever used it.
"Okay, that's good." He walked back to the couch, let himself fall face first on it and grunted into a pillow. Hanbee chuckled.
"It's going to go well, please don't worry. And if you ever want to leave just give me a look and I'll make up some excuse for you."
Juuzou raised his head and smiled sweetly.
"Like what?" Hanbee shrugged.
"I'll take out my phone and pretend I just got an important message from work, asking us to come to the office right away."
"Why wouldn't they just send it to me?"
"You never look at your phone."
"I guess that's true." He dropped his head on the pillow again, and his hair fanned out on the rough fabric. His voice was muffled when he spoke again.
"What time should we leave?"
Hanbee glanced at his computer on the table. "In about twenty minutes I'd say. We'll have plenty of time."
They waited there in the living room. Hanbee drank his tea and answered a couple of anxious questions while Juuzou paced around the room trying to calm himself down. Finally, Hanbee who was checking the adress on his laptop, clapsed it shut.
"Sir, maybe you should start getting ready." He had tried to speak in his most soothing voice, but that sentence sounded stressful to his own ears. As expected, Juuzou froze mid-blink and went expressionless. He seemed to think something over for a while, the little crease between his eyebrows appearing for the second time that day.
"Okay. Gotta pee."
He jumped up and walked briskly to the bathroom. Hanbee sighed and went to put his coat on. He wished there was something he could say to ease his mind, but he doubted he would find the right words. It was probably better to let Juuzou deal with his own stress. While he waited for his boss, Hanbee suddently realised he had just exposed himself to a social encounter, and his own anxieties finally caught up with him. Today though, he was going to have to be the strong one, or at least try very hard. He was looking for a spare umbrella to distract himself when Juuzou reappeared. Hanbee had been crouching to look at the bottom of a shelf, and looked up at him. Something had changed in his features, like something was missing, what did he…
"Sir, your..." he pointed at his own lip and neck. Indeed, the patterns of red stitches were gone. There were tiny marks where they had been, but they were hardly noticeable. Juuzou just shrugged and quickly changed the subject.
"I probably shouldn't wear my slippers, right? It's ok for work because either i'm walking inside or i need to be free to move, but it might rain today, but I don't like wearing proper shoes and people who do are lying to themselves, it's like tiny prisons for feet. Do you still have that pair of sneakers I left here last year? Those are all right I guess."
He bent down next to Hanbee to look at the row of shoes he owned, and by the way his hair fell to curtain his face, Hanbee could tell he got rid of his pins too. This way, he looked so... Normal. It was a very odd sight. Still, he refreigned from commenting on it any further, and went to fetch the sneakers. Juuzou slipped them on quickly, stepping on the heel. Hanbee took his see-through umbrella and handed Juuzou a smaller blue one. Finally, they stepped out and he locked the door. They climbed down the stairs quietly. The difference in temperature between the air conditionned flat and the stairway was drastic. Every breath felt like taking a gulp of steam. It was something you got used to though, and the temperatures would go down again after the storm. A few weeks into the summer, and they'll shiver at anything under 28°C.
They stepped out into the streets. Luckily the thick layer of clouds was completely obstructing the sun, and even though the air was smothering, it was nothing too uncomfortable. Juuzou led the way to the metro station, keeping unusually quiet. The hair at the back of his neck was already damp with sweat, and the loose curls stuck to his skin. A couple crossings and they walked down the steps of the metro station. They had to take the Touzai line until Nakano, and change for the Chuou line until Asagaya. That was where the Shinohara family had moved after the incident, to a quieter neighbourhood. They passed through the gates and waited for the train in silence. There was only a couple people beside themselves, looking at their phones or listening to music. Juuzou fiddled with his JR pass, and hummed along the to the jingle that sounded from the line across. The train arrived, they climbed on and sat down. As usual, they got a few looks; they were an odd pair. People as tall as Hanbee were rare in Japan, and his long hair wasn't usual either. As for Juuzou, he looked like a 15 year old skipping school. People's gaze shifted between them, wondering what they could possibly be doing together. It was different when they went to work; their clothes and suitcases distinguished them easily as CCG agents. But this way, with Hanbee in a short sleeved white shirt and black pants, Juuzou in blue knee-length shorts and white T-shirt, they ironically caught more people's attention. The train jostled a bit, and sped past the city. Soon enough, tall buildings turned to rooftoops of smaller houses.
"The next station is Nakano, Nakano. The doors on the right side will open."
They got up, and stepped out. Hanbee looked around for the sign indicating the Chuou line; he wasn't used to leaving the center of Tokyo. He looked down to ask Juuzou if he knew where to go, only to find he wasn't near him anymore. He looked around, and saw him a bit further away, near the stairways to the exit, waiting for him. Hanbee hurried after him, and when he was within earshot, asked:
"Sir? It's still two stations until Asagaya."
"I know. But we have time, right? Can we walk?"
"Oh. Of course..."
He barely got the words out before Juuzou dissappeared into the crowd again. He could still see the top of his head bobbing up and down in a sea of same-colored hair. If it hadn't been for his years of training in spotting his boss and following him in a crowd, he would've lost sight of him. Finally he got to the exit and the humidity almost immediately made him sweat bullets. He found Juuzou waiting for him next to a stop sign, and quickly got to his side. The wind was starting to pick up, pushing them in the back. They walked under a bridge, and turned right to follow the metro line above them. They passed shops, restaurants, small streets, bigger shopping centers, tiny steaming restaurants smelling of grilled fish, bikes rushing past them. Soon enough they had walked past Koenji without saying a word. People shot glances at them in the streets too, and usually Juuzou made a show of rolling his eyes or staring back at them. Hanbee wasn't quite sure if being annoyed by it was fun to him, or if the stares did affect him in some way. In any case, today, he ignored them completely. He alternated between humming the metro chime which soon got stuck in Hanbee's head, or some tune he didn't recognize and suspected he made up as he went. The closer they got to Asagaya, the more Hanbee felt he should say something. But whenever he thought of a good sentence, he simply couldn't bring the words past his lips and break the silence. As they entered the residential area, Juuzou stopped humming. They passed small houses, garages with broken bikes, decorations for the comming festival halfway done, plants climbing the fences. They walked past a schoolyard, and the cicada's songs grew so loud from the low trees that it almost hurt their ears. Dark clouds were rolling in the winds, coming in from the East. They would reach the Shinohara house in a couple of minutes. Finally, the words seemed to want to bust out of Hanbee.
"Sir, I'm sure-"
Hanbee went quiet. Juuzou's voice had sounded hestitant.
"It's nice you came along. Thanks."
It wasn't unusual for Juuzou to show his gratitude, he simply never did it in such a direct way. It gave Hanbee a lot to think about until they reached the right street, and Juuzou abruptly stopped in front of him. He almost tripped right over him, appologized and turned to face the house. They were a bit early, so they just stood there for a minute, and looked.
Sorry for any spelling mistakes, English isn't my main language, and I haven't read in it in so long ^^ hope it doesn't show too much
It was one of the widest houses in the street, but still very small. There were two stories, thin white window frames and beige, flat brick walls. The gate was high and narrow, of metal painted black. Plants spun around the bars, partially covering the mailbox, or fluttered lightly in the wind. Under the windows were square fans, connected to the air conditionners inside by large, off-white pipes. And of course the white door, and a small rectangular box: the doorbell. It had a tiny black music sign printed on. Hanbee started to feel the nerves, and could only imagine how Juuzou felt now. They stood there for a minute and started to see movement behind the curtains. He looked down quickly at him, and thought he saw him gulp. It was now or never.
"He'll be happy to see you."
Juuzou didn't roll his eyes or scoff, as he half expected him to. Instead, he seemed to make a great effort to push his voice past the tightness of his throat.
"What about his wife and kids?"
Hanbee heard the end of his argument without him needing to voice it. "After what I've done to their family" was what he meant to say. Though it was clear what he thought, Juuzou had never actually expressed that concern. Self pity simply wasn't part of the things he shared with others.
"Remember she invited you many times in the past years, you were the one who refused. She never hated you."
His eyes seemed to reflect the light a bit too much, and he nodded quickly once. Finally he sighed, and hooked a finger at the heel of each sneaker to put them on properly. He straightened, looked at his personal mirror Hanbee who gave him the ok sign that he looked perfect, and he pushed the unlocked gate. It creaked open, the sound mixing with the cicadas' song. Between the entrance and the front door was a tiny space cluttered with all kinds of things. Juuzou saw children's colorful bikes behind a folded tarp. The air carried smells of cooking from far away shops, mixing with the fragrance of the wide variety of plants surrounding them. They walked up the two steps before the doorway, and Juuzou pressed the doorbell.
The faint voices and noises they had heard from inside abuptly lapsed into silence. It lasted a couple seconds, and then they heard agitation, feminine voices, rushed footsteps. They got closer to the door on the other side, and a girl asked about something, but got hushed and asked again in a whisper. They couldn't make out the exact words, but Juuzou wouldn't have been able to anyways through the sound of his heart thumping in his ears. Hanbee put a hand lightly in his back, just to remind him that he was there. The door opened slowly, and three pairs of curious eyes filled the small gap, only to be chidded and pushed aside by someone else, who opened the door wide.
Mrs Shinohara looked first at Hanbee, then dropped her eyes on Juuzou, and her polite expression slowly turned into a contorted smile as she tried to reign in her enthousiasm.
"Oh gosh, oh gosh, I can't believe you actually came, I'm so happy you have no idea-" She seemed to be losing balance a bit and she turned around "-girls! Stop it you'll make me fall! Go get your father won't you?" And she turned back to them both as one of her three daughters ran down the corridoor yelling for her dad. The other two stayed put behind their mother and tried to peek glances at the two gests.
"I'm so sorry, They've just heard so much about both of you, I can't blame them for being a bit curious."
"It's quite all right," Hanbee said with a light laugh, seeing that Juuzou was so completely frozen on the spot he didn't even seem to be breathing. Mrs Shinohara followed Hanbee's quick glance and dropped her eyes on Juuzou as well. Seeing him so quiet, her smile faded into a softer expression only a mother could make. She tucked her blonde bangs behind her ear as she bent down a little to get on his eye level. Juuzou stared right back at her, petrified. Hanbee wondered for how long he had forgotten to blink. The woman laughed softly and took Juuzou's face in her hands as if to get a better look at him, brushed his cheek lightly with her thumb and gave him a kiss on the forehead before hugging him close. Hanbee felt like he was going to cry just seeing that, and wondered if he would last the whole afternoon without bawling like a housewife in front of a drama show. Juuzou's arms were limp at his sides for a moment, hands shaking, but finally they raised a bit and stopped half-way, hesitant. Hanbee decided he should probably look somewhere else, and his gaze dropped on three girls in the doorway, openly staring at him.
"Um...Hello." He really wasn't good with children. Mind you, they were closer to early teenagers, but he still had no idea how to talk to them.
Suddenly, the youngest one pushed past her sisters and approached him with a fierce look. Her pigtails bounced with every one of her energetic mouvements. She wore a jeans dungaree over a red T-shirt. She looked at him with expectant eyes, turned to her sisters and they all nodded fervently at each other. Hanbee started sweating.
Mrs Shinohara let go of Juuzou and guided him, or rather pushed him gently into the house after Hanbee. As soon as the door was closed behind them, the girls lined up in front of them, and in loud, shrill voices, recited something that looked very practiced.
"Hello, I'm Kaiko!" "I'm Jin!" "I'm Kaya!"
And all together, they yelled "We're very happy to finally meet you!" and bowed so low the head of Kaiko, the one with pigtails, touched the ground. Still a bit stunned, Juuzou introduced himself as well and bowed awkwardly. Hanbee did the same and the girls seemed extremely happy.
The entrence led to a small hallway and a narrow staircase to the right. At the end of it, they could make out an open door to a room bathed in sunlight, and what seemed like the faint shadows of trees swaying in the wind, carressing the angles of the furniture. All the walls were painted white, but the light was so soft it was impossible for the house to feel cold. It reflected on the rich color of the floorboads and gave everything a warm tint, like someone had smoothed all the edges. It was peacefully quiet, and smelt faintly of lavender air freshener. They took off their shoes, put on slippers Mrs Shinohara had ready for them and stepped up the small elevation of the floor to join the girls. They immediately started to bounce up and down, asking so many questions at once it was impossible to understand what they were trying to say. Kaiko had grabbed hold of Juuzou's arm and was shaking it roughly to get his attention, Jin was staring up at Hanbee with her mouth hanging open, and Kaya had somehow gotten hold of one of their badges tucked in their pockets and was turning it around in her hands. Juuzou saw it and snapped momentarily out of his daze to make a grab for it, but Kaya laughed and hugged it tight, skipping away.
That made Juuzou smile, and as soon as he did, any tension in the room seemed to dissolve instantly. He crouched down and squinted at Kaya who was waving his badge in the air, gurgling with happiness when she saw Juuzou was playing along. Juuzou moved closer to her, and she screamed out a laugh before hiding befind the railing of the staircase. Hanbee, who had been smiling, felt a small discomfort. He was probably the only one in the room who knew how much Juuzou looked like he was hunting the small girl the way he did ghouls. He probably wasn't doing it on purpose either, but the cold precision of every one of his movements would never leave him, no matter how long he spent without fighting. He glanced at the children's mother, wondering what she knew about Juuzou exactly, and if she was uncomfortable having him near her daughters. To his relief, he found her laughing so heartily she had tears in her eyes. Hanbee exhaled, embarrassed he had thought so little of her. The quiet of the house had been replaced by their voices and the sound of the girls' thumping footsteps on the wood.
"Kaiko, help me!!" She yelled to her sister, and she proceeded to pull Juuzou's arm harder to keep him from approaching the badge. But it was now too late, because he was close enough to reach Kaya and start tickling her senseless. Deathening spurts of laughter from all the girls filled the room, as Jin jumped on Juuzou's back in a feeble attempt to pry him off her sister.
"Are you going to hand it over nicely or do I keep going?"
"No Kaya! Don't give in!" More hysterical laughter.
"Well, you guys seem to be getting along just fine, I'm almost sorry for inturrupting."
Juuzou froze again. The voice had come from down the corridoor, somewhere to his left. He only had to turn his head to see who it came from. Although he didn't need to. He felt Jin slide off his back and run towards the voice, yelling "Dad!! We were having so much fun!"
There was a deep chuckle. "Yes, I could definetly hear that."
Kaya slipped from behind the railing and ran the same way, Kaiko dropping Juuzou's arm to follow her sisters. Hanbee held his breath.
"Juuzou?" The voice called him this time. There was a silence during which even the girls kept quiet. Juuzou got up slowly, and looked at Hanbee first, then at Mrs Shinohara, not sure what he was looking for.
"Go ahead, sweetie," she prompted him and jerked her head a bit in the direction the girls had ran off to. Hanbee thought he saw his entire frame rattle at being called such an affectionate word in such a soft voice. He turned around to face Mr Shinohara.
He was sitting in his wheelchair; his recovery was a miracle, but he was still very weak. He was hugging his three daughters and giving Juuzou a crinkly-eyed smile. His hair had turned white, he was thinner than Juuzou would have thought possible for a man of his bulk. His eyes seemed deeper in their sockets, his cheeks hollow. Now that the shock and joy of seeing him awake had faded, Juuzou realised he didn't recognize him much at all. He felt his chest tighten as his eyes darted between every feature on the man's face. Shinohara's smile faded, as if he immediately understood what Juuzou was thinking. The girls looked at their father, then at Juuzou and back again with puzzled faces, but they did not speak. Then Juuzou's eyes widened a bit. Something in the shape of his eyebrows, he definetly recognized. Memories flowed freely in his mind, the kind he had forbidden himself to remember. Yes, now he could see it. The kind eyes, the shape of his cheekbones, the crease of the chin. Juuzou relaxed, and smiled back. Hanbee wiped a tear away and Mrs Shinohara patted his shoulder. Juuzou walked down the corridoor and the girls stepped aside as he bent down to wrap his arms around Shinohara's shoulders. He rested his cheek on his neck, and let out a long sigh. The man did the same and his hands almost covered Juuzou's back completely as he pulled him close. "It's been a while." The deep voice rumbled next to his ear and vibrated in his head, the short beard scratching his cheek when he spoke. Juuzou swallowed back tears. He could smell nothing but the fabric softner of the shirt he had burried his face in, the same smell that had clung to the suit Shinohara had lended him so long ago.
The moment lasted until Kaiko whispered loudly: "Mommy, what are they doing?"
They all laughed quietly, slightly embarrassed, and let go of each other. Shinohara looked at Juuzou properly for what seemed like the first time since he woke up. He gave the young man a puzzled glance, then looked him up and down.
"Didn't you use to have those sitches? And did you dye your hair..? And your leg, I could have sworn..." He frowned deeply, his forhead creasing like old parchement. How much had he forgotten? Juuzou was about to answer when Mrs Shinohara interrupted.
"Let's take the conversation to the living room, shall we? I'm sure you two have a lot to catch up on. And don't take too long, I want to spend time with him too." And she added, "You'll help me cook lunch, won't you?" and turned to Juuzou to ruffle his hair, then stopped when she saw her husband raising her eyebrows at her.
"Oh, sorry, I shouldn't treat you like a child. I forget you're almot 30." She looked a bit embarrassed. Juuzou answered too quickly.
"No! It's fine I don't mind, I'll try to help any way I can."
They both flashed him a brilliant smile, and moved to the living room. Shinohara rolled his chair to a stop next to the sofa, and Mrs Shinohara helped him onto it. He looked very stiff, and every movement made him clench his teeth and grunt in effort. As soon as he was seated, the girls clustered around him. Juuzou sat down in an armchair and curled up to rest his chin on his knees as usual, and watched them with a small smile. Suddenly, Mrs Shinohara jumped and cried, then rushed to the hallway where Hanbee was still standing.
"You must make yourself at home, please don't just stand there, you're making me look like a terrible host! You know what, come with me, you'll help in the kitchen while these two catch up. Are you a good cook? I don't usually make assumptions, but you look like a man who can cook. That's good because I have plenty of work for you."
Hanbee let himself be led into the kitchen without a word of complaint. This was actually the best possible way to go about the peculiar situation, and he was grateful for the distraction.
"So...How has it been?"
Mrs.Shinohara had been taking out plates from the cupboards and setting them down on the counter. Now she leaned on it, facing Hanbee and hands on the edge as if she needed the support. She had kept her voice low, even though they could only make out a few words of the loud conversation in the living room. Hanbee was pulling out table matts as he had been instructed, and paused to look at her. He thought of fake smiles and bitter laughs.
Admitting it almost felt like a betrayal. Juuzou had put so much energy into keeping a strong front the whole time he had known him. But looking at the creases of worry line the woman's face, he couldn't help but be honest. She sighed and turned back to her plates.
"I feel terrible. As if he didn't have a tough enough time already."
So she knew about Juuzou's history. "He's a strong one, he always pulls through," he assured her with an affectionate smile to himself. Then he hesitated. He didn't want to make her even more uncomfortable, but she had asked. "He still blames himself, you know."
The pained look she shot him made him want to immediately take back his words.
"Of course I know! Every time we would cross each other at the hospital, he'd hurry the other way. I stopped inviting after a while, because I thought maybe he was trying to forget, and I was just dragging him into my misery, but there were flowers there every week. But maybe if you tell him, he'll understand. Listen, without him, we would have had nor the money, nor the strings to pull at the CCG to keep Yukinori alive for ten years. What kind of company would take care of a comatose for that long? If it weren't for Juuzou, they would have let him die. Does he not see that?"
"I think he understands much more than we give him credit for. All we have to do is let him handle himself, and be ready if he ever needs us." Hanbee stopped talking abrubtly. He had just spoken out loud what he had be repeating to himself for years. He replayed his answer in his mind, wondering if he had been rude, but Mrs Shinohara was smiling at him, softened.
"In any case, I'm glad he got the perfect partner. Nobody else they could have chosen for the job would be quite so good at it."
Hanbee felt his face grow hotter, embarrassed. "Big shoes to fill,' he answered quietly.
Juuzou and Shinohara had been catching up in the living room for a while now. At first it had been awkward; neither of them knew where to begin, but then the older man had asked him about his leg again. He seemed to hope he had imagined it, or remembered it wrong, although his own leg was missing. The fabric of his pants had been rolled up and tied on one side, so it wouldn't get caught in anything. On the other hand, Juuzou was wearing bermuda shorts and his prosthetic was visible, only it was so realistic nobody ever noticed the difference with his good leg. Although now that the slippers had been left at the foot of the armchair, Shinohara could tell something was off about the way his ankle and toes moved.
"It's a prosthetic. They gave me a really good one, I'm completely used to it now." Shinohara's jaw dropped open and the girls started chirping incredulously, so he knocked on his shin, and it indeed sounded like something metallic inside of a softer material. The girls screamed, Kaya jumping back to clutch her father's arm, Jin and Kaiko trying to get a closer look but Shinohara holding them back.
"Juuzou... I mean, i've seen extremely good investigators retire because of a missing hand, how in the world...? Can you still...fight?" Though he knew the answer, he looked like he needed to hear it regardlesss. Kaiko was thrashing to escape his hold and go see Juuzou's leg, but he held her absentmindedly, his expression vey serious.
"I have been for 10 years, haven't I? How do you think I got to be Special Class?" He flashed him a crooked grin, and Shinohara shook his head and chuckled in disbelief.
"I knew you were something else, but this..."
Juuzou shrugged. "It took some time getting used to, but it came in pretty handy. There's this compartment inside where I can put all my knives, and this one time I was in a raid because I had promised to look after the friend of a friend, it's a long story, but anyways we went in a ghoul's car and she drugged us and we were sold at an auction and we didn't have our weapons but I had knives in my leg so it was ok, and then my squad brought me my quinque. I got promoted after that, so it's an awesome leg."
Shinohara blinked twice at the onslaught of information. Was Juuzou carrying his 56 knives right now? Of course he was. And since when did he make promises, furthermore kept them, had friends to make them to, and jesus, a squad. And he was leading them through what sounded like operations of a huge scale. What did they call him again now? The Dragon General? Shinohara had heard about all of it of course, but he still had trouble wrapping his head around it. He felt a bit dizzy. Even his way of speaking had changed. Though his voice was still too high for a man his age, it wasn't the chirping, sing-song tone he would have when talking fast through something exciting. It sounded like it came from deeper in his chest, the words more paced. Through his fuzzy memories, he remembered a dangerously reckless, childish boy. He would need a bit more time than that to connect what he thought he knew to the person in front of him. He would also need to find time alone with the other young man - Hanbee, was it? - and have a nice talk with him too. He'd seen him more often around Juuzou than the other members of the Suzuya squad. An odd feeling was swelling in his chest, and pulled the corner of his lips up. He took a deep, shaky breath. Pride? It didn't sound quite right, he had done nothing but sleep for ten years. This was in no way his accomplishement. Still, he felt like he had won the highschool baseball championship again. He felt good.
"Dad, can i pleaaaaasseeeeee go see the robot leg?"
Shinohara's mind came back into focus, slower than usual, and looked down at his youngest daughter.
"I'm not the one you should be asking, Kaiko. Haven't I told you to be a bit more delicate about people's injuries?"
"I don't mind," Juuzou said, shrugging, and put his right leg down. The three girls gathered around to poke at it curiously.
"You said it could open! Show us the knives!"
Shinohara opened his mouth to protest, but Juuzou beat him to it, shaking his head.
"No way, they're super sharp, it's not for fun."
Shinohara rested back in the sofa again and smiled, watching his fomer subordinate. He would have to watch and learn exactly how much he had grown.
"Oh come ooonnn, I thought you were cool," whined Kaya.
"I am very cool, which is why I won't let you lose a finger and bleed to death."
Shinohara grimaced a bit. He wouldn't have quite used the same choice of words, but it was effective enough. Kaya grumbled and crossed her arms in defeat.
"Okay I guess I can show you, but you have to stand a lot further back than that. Is that ok Mr.Shinohara?"
"Perfectly fine," he answered, and the girls cheered. He was a bit nervous; his daughters were so precious to him. But he wanted to show Juuzou he trusted him, and wondered if people at the office gave him the benefit of the doubt during his drastic change. The girls hopped away and pushed each other to get a better look.
"More than that," Juuzou said, and the girls whined and moved back again reluctantly. Shinohara realised that he too, was very curious to see how the prosthetic worked.
"Okay, so there's this little hook behind the knee, you just have to lift it like this, and then you can pull it out, and there." The end of his sentence was overridden by the sound of the pieces of metal snapping open and the girls awed sounds. The mechanics inside of the prosthetic were extremely complex, and Juuzou had no idea what each piece was meant to do, but he thought it was really cool to look at anyway. Apparently the girls thought so too, even though they didn't dare cross the invisible line Juuzou had set for them, because now the knives were showing. When the key was pulled, they lifted in a pattern to be ready to grasp and throw. The 56 weapons were there, blade glinting in the living room's yellow light. As soon as he had opened it, Juuzou clapsed the leg shut. It was only then he remembered Shinohara was looking too. He was speechless for a second, but then chocked out:
"It can't have been as easy as you make it out to be."
Juuzou chuckled. "I'm not the one in a wheelchair."
Shinohara's worried features relaxed at this, and his smile came back. "Fair enough." The girls had been whispering to each other about cyborgs, so he called them back to him and held them still. "So, tell me more about that raid, and the other operations too. I heard Takeomi got married? And what about your squad, and the friends you talked about?"
As they talked, Mrs Shinohara and Hanbee walked into the living room with plates and cuttlery. They all set the table while chatting. Then Mrs Shinohara called Juuzou to the kitchen to help her out, and told Hanbee to take a break; she would need him again later.
Hanbee stared after the two of them in horror. Then he gathered all his courage and slowly turned to the retired investigator, the man who had changed his bosse's life. Shinohara laughed a bit at his expression.
"Sit down wherever you want. How should a call you?"
Hanbee found a chair not too far and not to close, sat very straight with his hands on his knees and answered:
"Abara Hanbee, sir. Mr Suzuya calls me by my first name, but you can do as you wish, sir."
Shinohara's eyes widened a bit at Juuzou being called "Mr Suzuya", and chuckled again, amused by Hanbee's seriousness.
"Hanbee, then. I've heard good things about you. How long have you been partnered with Juuzou exactly?"
His voice was shaking when he answered. "About...Ten years now, sir."
"Oh, of course. I'm sorry, I should have guessed that myself. My mind is a bit slower than it used to be."
"Not at all."
Hanbee felt so hot he thought he was about to start sweating like a comic book character. He didn't know why he was so nervous; maybe it was the fact that he was certain he had seen this exact scene in a TV drama, when the boyfriend is alone in the room with the disapproving father. Although the context was completely different. So really, there was no reason. It didn't keep him from growing more anxious by the second.
"Jin, will you go fetch the remote for me, please?" Shinohara asked his daughter, who slid from the couch to the floor and went to pick it up from the table. He switched the TV on, and Hanbee started to relax a bit, until he lowered the volume so much it was only background noise. The bright-colored set of the cooking show livened the room, so it was an improvement nonetheless.
"So tell me, you two getting along well? A handful, isn't he?" Shinohara asked lightly, scrolling through the list of programs on the side of the screen. He noticed Hanbee jump a bit though, as if the question had stung him. When he answered, his tone was much more assured.
"Special Class Suzuya is the most capable and reliable investigator I've come across. He put effort and patience into my training. Maybe another ten years, and I'll be worthy to stand by his side. Sir."
Hanbee realised at the way the wide grin split Shinohara's face in half, that he had been waiting for this kind of answer. Hanbee felt the blush creeping up his neck, barely concealed by his shirt collar. The way this was going, he would be red up to his ears by the end of the conversation.
"I'm sorry," he laughed," You're very loyal to him. It tells a lot about a leader."
Hanbee nodded slowly.
Juuzou followed Mrs Shinohara down the narrow corridor, towards the sunlit room he had seen earlier. He felt numb, but strangely good. Very calm. He watched the honey-colored strands of Mrs-Shinohara's hair catch the gold light before her, listened to the way the fabric of her light blue dress ruffled with each step. Everything was so soft here, like in a dream.
They got to the kitchen; it was tiny, the walls covered in small jade tiles. Everything gleamed lazily in the afternoon sun. It already smelt amazing. Juuzou noticed a large pot steaming under the humming stove, and saw it was rice when Mrs Shinohara lifted the lid to check on it. On the counter were heaps of chopped vegetables, whole ones and spice bottles. Mrs Shinohara turned to flick on an old-looking plastic radio, and low music started playing. She hummed along to it, and Juuzou stood watching the room for a second, filing every detail in a corner of his mind. She unfolded two aprons from the back of a chair, and handed one to him. He watched her dutifully as she put it on before doing it himself. They were simple and dark blue, stopping right above the knee. The only difference was the size; looking into a cupboard she had juste oppened, he saw she had more of them. Probably one for each member of the family. Juuzou wondered who's he was wearing, nobody was his size among them. Maybe it was the oldest girl's, which would explain why it was just a bit too short for him. Mrs Shinohara handed him the block of soap once she was done washing her hands, and he did the same. The white, cloudy smell mixed with the other kitchen aromas.
"Here you go, you can help me chop the bell peppers, I'll take care of the onions and the salad," she explained, speaking partly to herself. Mrs Shinohara picked up the knife she had been using and handed it to Juuzou, getting another one for herself in the cupboard. He grabbed one of the bell peppers in his other hand, and hesitated. Mrs Shinohara laughed and moved to his side.
"With these, you start by cutting it in halves. Here, do the first one, then you can chop the others by yourself."
Juuzou cut the pepper in half twice, trying not to look too comfortable with the knife. Even he could tell his movements were a bit too practiced, but Mrs Shinohara didn't flinch, and kept giving him instructions. It was hard to hear over the whistling of the rice pot, the stove and the radio, but it was nice that way. They spent half an hour in the kitchen, and Juuzou had a thought for Hanbee, alone with Mr Shinohara. He assumed he must have melted into a puddle of anxiety on the living room floor by now, and sent him telepathic appologies. Mrs Shinohara was washing large salad leaves when he finished up.
"I think I'm done," he told her, raising his voice a little over the noise. She still couldn't hear him properly from under the stove, so she walked over, and noticed with a smile the pile of chopped vegetables.
"Well, I think we're about done here, great job honey, can you hand me the- what?"
Juuzou was staring at her again, unblinking. He shook his head a bit. He felt a lot more comfortable with her now that the ice was broken, and he thought it was safe to be a bit more himself. That included asking the questions that popped in his mind.
"Why do you keep calling me that?"
"Calling you what?"
"Since I've walked in, you've been calling me 'sweetie', 'darling' or 'honey'. That's what I've heard you call your daughters."
Mrs Shinohara smiled.
"Does it bother you?"
"No, that's not it..."
He let his thought drift into silence. From the corner of his eye, he saw Mrs Shinohara glance at him a couple of times, expecting him to continue, but he pretended not to notice and kept wiping the chopping board in the sink. His hair fell in front of his face, but he didn't bother to push it back with his hands full of soapy water. Finally, Mrs Shinohara scoffed lightly, and walked next to him, unfastening a hair tie from her wrist. Juuzou looked over at her and then at her hands. For a second he meant to protest, but looked back down without a word.
"You know what? Once we're done cleaning up I'll take you for a quick tour of the house. Then we can join the others for lunch."
He went back to work while Mrs Shinohara tied his hair quickly at the nape of his neck. His bangs immediately slipped through the hair tie and fell to cover the sides of his face and his forehead again. They finished up, squeezed lemon juice over the vegetables and upturned plates on top. They took the aprons off, folded them and made their way back to the living room, leaving the radio on. Now that the stove was off, the soft music filled the corridor and mixed with the low humming of the TV. Mrs Shinohara stood in the doorway, and Juuzou peeked from behind her.
"Is everything going all right?"
Hanbee was a little less stiff in his seat. Kaya had pulled out a game of Chinese Checkers and set it on the low glass table between them. She had apparently taken it on herself to teach Hanbee. She was delighted to find someone new to play with, and the other girls kept shouting advice at her opponent. They had decided to root for Hanbee rather than their sister, and Juuzou wondered how often she had beat them. Shinohara had a glass of what looked like whisky in his hand, the rich, sappy color swirling inside the thick glass when he shook with laughter. He smiled sheepishly at his wife's disaprooving look when he saw her - he wasn't supposed to drink - but she let it go. It was a special day.
"I'm taking Juuzou for a look around the house. Lunch is ready, we'll only be a couple of minutes." Shinohara nodded, and Hanbee caught them exchanging an oddly amused look.
"That's a good idea. Thanks for your help." He added, and Juuzou smiled at him brightly.
"No problem, it was fun."
Mrs Shinohara gestured Juuzou to follow him. He gave Hanbee a grin before leaving, and he smiled back.
They walked up the stairs, leaving their slippers behind. The wood creaked softly under Mrs Shinohara's steps, and Juuzou followed quietly, his feet finding naturally the least noisy path. The staircase was so narrow and the stairs so steep, that Mrs. Shinohara had her hand on the wall, to make sure she wouldn't lose balance. The creamy wallpaper was faintly textured, and her fingers whispered across it as she made her way up. They reached the second floor, and Juuzou could smell something else mixed with the lavender. Something like wood varnish, but very slight. They stepped onto flat ground again.
Four, bare, white doors stood around them. They all bore identical round, silver handles. Against one of the walls was a thin, wooden desk with a grey sheet draped over it and a white ceramic flower pot. There were fake flowers, so delicate they were almost translucent. Juuzou focused on Mrs Shinohara again at the sound of the first door clicking open.
Compared to the dimly lit landing, the room was brilliantly bright. Light filtered through cracks between heavy yellow curtains, and seemed to be burning the bed and walls with white hot flames. The bed was large, covered in pillows and a soft-looking beige and white striped blanket. There was a closet, a bedside table, and a humming air conditionner. Juuzou saw the remote for it hung near the side of the bed in a tiny plastic box. There wasn't much else in the room, but it felt resting rather than empty. He thought they must use their bedside lamp as a main light in the evening, because he couldn't see one on the ceiling.
"This is my room and Yukinori's." Mrs. Shinohara's voice was low and soft, careful not to startle Juuzou. He nodded. He could tell; the smell of the fabric softener clung tight to the air. He wondered if the whole family used the same, he couldn't really tell with Mrs Shinohara's perfume. The clean, powdery smell overpowered everything else. There was a stack of books on one side of the bed, and as his eyes followed its shape, he saw the space below the bed was packed with them. They stepped back, and she closed the door. The next room was…
Juuzou stepped forward, curious. The light was dimmer here, it infused the air rather than slicing through it. The blinds were down, and Juuzou could tell no one had used the room for a very long time. There wasn't enough dust for ten years though, so he assumed Mrs Shinohara came by to clean from time to time. There was a large wooden desk under the window with an old, bulky computer sitting atop it. Juuzou recognized the leather work bag lying on the floor next to one of the piles of paper. Folders packed with files were stuffed on shelves as high as the ceiling would go, covering three walls entirely. He wasn't sure if he should feel nostalgic, or depressed. This room was a reminder of how Shinohara's carrier had been put to a brutal end. It looked as it had been frozen in time, on that day he left his office to go to work, and didn't come back. It was still expecting him to walk through the door, drop a stack of files on the desk and sit in the black leather chair with a sigh after a long day. The room reminded him of an old faithful dog, waiting on its owner's grave and raising its head hopefully whenever someone walked by. Mrs Shinohara closed the door.
Juuzou glanced at her sideways. There was a small wrinkle under her right eye that wasn't there earlier. Juuzou thought maybe it was a good way to tell if she was feeling sad, and made sure to remember it.
"These two aren't very interesting, it's the laundry room and the bathroom. But I figured you might as well know where everything is."
Juuzou wondered "why?", but just nodded slowly. The bathroom was covered with dark blue tiles with chipped, white motives printed on. The light was blue too because of the shower curtains it filtered through. There was a large mirror above the sink, and it smelt of men's shampoo. Juuzou guessed Mr Shinohara must have taken his shower after Mrs Shinohara, and that maybe she woke up early every morning to help him get ready.
The laundry room was the smallest one yet. The washer and dryer were stacked on top of each other, and a mess of pipes slithered up the walls. Boxes of different color clothes covered the ground, and the only thing poking out was the ironing board.
Mrs Shinohara led Juuzou up another staircase. It was shorter than the first one. The higher they got, the more he could make out the sound of the cicadas in the trees outside. There were four rooms on that floor, too. They walked past a small chip in the paint that Juuzou thought looked like a shoe. It didn't seem like it from the outside, but the house had plenty of space for a family of five.
"This is Kaiko and Jin's room."
As soon as the door cracked open, the cicadas grew twice as loud. Juuzou understood why when he saw that the window was right next to the treetops, the large leaves so close they pressed against the glass. Pastel blue paint covered the walls, and drawings, stars cut out of glitter paper, crayons, patterned bows and toys were scattered everywhere. He could smell playdough and scented glitter pens. It was the first time Juuzou saw a kid's room. He looked at it longer than the others, without being sure why. It just gave him an odd feeling, close to nostalgia, although it didn't make much sense. The room radiated with the happiness of cherished children. For once he was the first to step out, and Mrs Shinohara closed the door behind them.
"You okay, honey?"
Juuzou grinned. "Sure."
"Okay then." She put a hand in his back. "This is Kaya's room. I went there to read for a couple years, until she grew out of sharing everything with her sisters." She rolled her eyes with an endeared expression. "Teenagers."
"How old are they?" Juuzou asked as they stepped in.
"Kaya is fifteen. Jin thirteen, and Kaiko twelve."
He wondered if they remembered their father from before the incident. He doubted they could. Two, three and five. Way too young. He pushed the thought away - a well-practiced trick - and focused on the room.
Each wall had a different color. The one with the window was pale pink, the one behind the bed pastel green, the one across a soft shade of yellow, and the last one white. An off-white paper sphere served as an overhead light, hanging low above the bed like a full moon.
"She said since the sun sets on her sister's side, she wanted a yellow wall to have her own golden hour."
That made Juuzou smile as he looked at the blue bed sheets, the Chinese Checkers competition poster, stacked boxes of boardgames, a filled hamper and a desk cluttered with schoolwork. They stepped out.
"This is another bathroom," Mrs Shinohara said quickly, almost impatiently. Was she worried she was making everyone wait for lunch? Juuzou looked at her, puzzled, but she ignored him and pushed the door open.
It was completely white except for the floorboards, and Juuzou caught a glimpse of shower curtains with colorful animal patterns, a fluffy looking blue shower mat and a cup with three bright-colored toothbrushes, before Mrs Shinohara closed the door. Juuzou blinked, and turned to see her with her hand already on the doorknob to open the last room.
"Okay," she breathed, and seemed to try and settle herself. Juuzou tilted his head curiously, and she gestured for him to come closer. He did, and Mrs Shinohara put an arm around his shoulders. As always he automatically tensed at the touch, but this time she didn't pay it any mind. He was starting to feel nervous, and followed her gaze to the white door. Mrs Shinohara pushed it open slower than the others.
Inside was a small room. The strong smell of paint and sawdust hit him first. An oddly comforting, homy smell that for no reason, colored his mind with slow summer memories. But other than that, it was a surprisingly simple room. All the others had had so much personality and were so imprinted with life, that he could have guessed which room was who's the second he walked in. In this one was a single bed with dark blue sheets. It was pushed up in a corner, and looked a bit awkward. Like it had been asked to wait there by friends planning a surprise party in the next room. A large green carpet hugged most of the floor, and Juuzou could tell why because he spotted tiny specks of white paint that poked out from underneath it. A tall lamp stood like a sentinel next to a bare wooden desk and chair painted aqua. Juuzou looked at Mrs Shinohara, confused.
"We used to put all our junk in this room; baby clothes, furniture we stopped using... You know. But I threw it all away when it happened."
"Why?" He asked cautiously, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Well... I don't think there's any way around it, I'm just going to have to say it." She laughed a bit, and took a steadying breath. Juuzou grew tenser by the second.
"You remember how Yukinori rented you that appartment a long time ago? And how I told you he thought of you as a son... Well, after it happened I wondered where you were going to live. But we'd only met once, and under terrible cirumpstances, so I wasn't sure how to...well, I tried inviting you over but...I'm not trying to make you feel guilty." She had noticed Juuzou bite down harshly on his lip when he realised what she meant.
"I know. I'm so sorry," he muttered through the tightness of his jaw. Pressure was building up in his head, and grew sharper by the second and as he looked around, the room started to shimmer. He could feel the wetness in his left eye brimming over his lower lid. Juuzou blinked furiously a couple times, pushing the unborn tears back further, swallowing hard against the lump in his throat. Thoughts seemed to burst in every direction from his mind, like water from a firehydrant before a hose was plugged and channeled them in a way that made sense.
"Thanks." His voice was small and full, carrying the weight of the word bravely.
"The offer still stands," she murmured tentatively.
"I like my place, sorry."
Mrs Shinohara chuckled, and the air seemed to weigh tons less on his chest.
"Of course. How's next weekend?"
Juuzou smiled wide."Sounds great."
She looked elated. "Well let's get downstairs and save Hanbee, I'm sure the girls are giving him a hard time. They're little demons and he's too kind." They both rolled their eyes, but by then they were climbing down the stairs already. Juuzou looked back once at the room, almost making sure it hadn't disappeared. The blue rectangle of the doorway beamed back patiently at him. It would still be there when he came back.
He hopped down the steps, feeling at ease.
"Thanks for the meal!"
The two youngest girls jumped out of their seats, both chairs scraping loudly on the living room floor.
"Girls!" Mrs Shinohara called, her tone harsh.
They had just finished lunch. The announced typhoon had started blowing heavy rain against the windows, and the muffled sound of the storm outside made the warm living room feel even cozier. Everyone had been catching up over empty plates for about an hour before moving to the living room, and the youngest had apparently grown tired of the conversations. Juuzou couldn't blame them; most of the questions were directed towards Hanbee and him, so he hardly had time to be bored if he tried, not to mention he was thoroughly enjoying the company. He was actually impressed the girls didn't make a break for it sooner. Hanbee smiled apologetically after them, and Shinohara suddenly seemed much more concerned once his wife shot him a dark look for not backing her up. Kaya just rolled her eyes at her immature sisters, and picked up her glass in a dignified manner. Juuzou glanced at her, curious. He'd noticed a small change in her attitude for a few minutes now. Much earlier, she had been the one to swipe his badge before running away giggling.
"Girls," Shinohara tried in a different tone, as the children reached the staircase. They stopped in their tracks and walked back up the corridor, defeated. Their mother raised her eyebrows at them.
"Is having guests over making you forget your manners?" both faces brightened at the same time, and they chirped back in unison.
"May we please be excused?"
"Yes you may," she answered them, insisting on each word to make her point. The girls ran back the way they came, and Juuzou listened to their mischievious laughter and thumping footsteps as they rushed up the stairs to their room. He wasn't exactly aware of the fond smile on his face, until he turned to get back into the conversation and crossed Hanbee's eyes. He automatically rearranged his features into a blank expression, as if he had been caught in a moment of weakness. It was ridiculous, though. Hanbee's small grin grew more amused. A bashful smile broke across Juuzou's lips in response, and he quickly averted his gaze to drop in on whatever Mrs. Shinohara was now saying. He could tell Hanbee was still looking his way, but soon enough he copied him.
"They'll be running right back down when it's time for desert, I can tell you that much." Mrs Shinohara grumbled under her breath.
"They're excited about their project, I think it's a good thing."
Juuzou's interest spiked. "What did you say they were working on?"
"They've entered the contest for those big sculptures they hang from the ceiling of the shopping center," Kaya answered him. Everyone looked her way. It was the first time she had spoken to Juuzou directly since they had sat down at a table, and without her sisters around, she seemed like a different person entirely. A lot more focused, as if she were proud to be part of the adults' conversation and wanted to prove she could keep up. Juuzou grinned at her encouragingly; he could tell becoming everyone's focus had made her nervous. Though he was often labeled as an attention seeker, he could empathize with her on that.
"Oh yeah, I remember seeing some of those in driveways on the way here. There's a festival coming soon, right?" Juuzou made the question general to relieve Kaya from everyone's gaze. She immediately seemed to relax as her mother took over.
"You didn't see the lanterns on the way? They put a bunch of yellow ones up yesterday around the station, and people are starting to decorate the streets, it's getting lovely."
"Right, we walked some of the way here so we must've missed it, maybe on the way back we can take the metro. That way we'll walk past the shopping center, right?" Juuzou turned to ask Hanbee. His subordinate tended to fall silent in large groups, and had once explained to him he was simply incapable of finding something interesting to say. Over the years, Juuzou had picked up the habit of including him from time to time with simple questions that required short answers. The attention never failed to brighten Hanbee's face, and this time was no exception.
"Yes, that's about right."
"We were thinking of going with the girls next saturday, if you two would like to join us. I know you probably have a lot of work, but the offer's out there," Shinohara added, stretching a bit. Juuzou could see he was getting tired. The man's lids were starting to droop heavily over watery eyes. It was easy to forget he was still recovering. Juuzou's smile failed a bit, and he watched Mrs Shinohara rub a gentle hand across her husband's back.
"We'll need to get you up those stairs before you get too tired, I don't want you falling asleep on the sofa again. It's bad for you."
Shinohara chuckled, almost to himself, as if he couldn't quite believe he had gotten so old.
"Sorry for keeping you up, I didn't realise we had stayed so long." Juuzou thought that it sounded like the right thing to say. It was barely 5:00 PM, and he hadn't wanted the afternoon to end, ever.
"Nonesense. I'm not quite that useless yet, coffee will do the trick." He grabbed the sofa with both hands, and started pushing himself up. Just as Hanbee and Juuzou were about to offer help, Mrs Shinohara rolled her eyes at her husband and left her seat first. She put her hands on his broad shoulders and pushed him back down gently into the sofa.
"Don't be a hero, I'll make us some coffee," she said wryly.
Still grimacing from the strain of the small effort, Shinohara didn't protest. He closed his eyes briefly until his back was fully rested against the soft pillows again, and shook his head softly after her. Watching him, Hanbee felt a sudden jolt of understanding mixed with a faint feeling of dread. As if he had been sitting an exam, turned the sheet at the last five minutes and realised there were questions at the back too. Like he was only now getting a fuller picture; it wasn't all sunshine and reunions. This kind of tragedy had to drag its long shadows into a family. He could see them clearly now in the look Shinohara gave his wife. How many years had she sacrificed waiting for him? At what point would all of this simply be too much for her? Did she hate him for leaving them? What would he do if she were ever to give up on him? What would have happened to him if he hadn't had a family waiting when he woke up? What he asked next told Hanbee he wasn't that far off from the truth.
"So, anyone else I know of settled down? Got a family?" Shinohara slipped the question casually while readjusting in his seat.
The rumble of the coffee maker errupted at that moment from the kitchen. Juuzou had turned to the source of the noise, so it meant Hanbee was supposed to answer that one.
"Let's see... I think we covered everyone that was around when you were, all I can think of now is Tamaki, but I'm not sure you've met properly."
"Not yet," Shinohara agreed. His grizzled brows pulled together in a maze of wrinkles as he struggled to gather his thoughts. "But I think I remember. So let's see, if I'm not mistaken, there's Mikage, pursuing his scientific research..." he counted down on his fingers as he spoke and Hanbee nodded. "Nakarai who went into teaching, and Tamaki who married and keeps to paperwork. Which leaves you two on the front line."
A strange intensity had colored the end of his sentence, and in a flash Hanbee could no longer see the withering, injured man. In his place was a veteran, a spark lit in his tired eyes by words he had heard countless times on a battle field. It was like one of those optical illusion pictures, "do you see an old woman or a young girl?"You would stare at it for long seeing only the woman, until something clicks and the young girl appears. After that, it was hard seeing an old lady again.
"That's about right." He didn't like the way Shinohara had made it sound, though. They were still a squad. Only this time of peace left them free enough to pursue other things in life.
Which was probably exactly his point.
Shinohara held his gaze for just a second too long, but it was enough to unsettle him. He wasn't discussing it openly, probably because Juuzou was there, and it was a thorny subject to pick up with someone like him. But the message was loud and clear. Stop the fighting while you still can. Find a hobby, get married. Have kids, go on vacations together. His look had picked a worry with thumb and forefinger right out of its safe place in Hanbee's mind, and sent it echoing unpleasantly in his head. It was accompanied by his parents' concerns ringing around like a tolling bell. He was grateful for the interruption as Mrs Shinohara reappeared carrying a tray. Juuzou sprang to his feet and went to pick up the coffee maker which was heaviest, leaving Mrs Shinohara to set the empty cups down for him to fill.
"Shouldn't you be assigned new members, then?" Lines of concern crumpled Shinohara's brow once more. "Two people can hardly be expected the same results as a full squad."
"Not really." Juuzou answered this time, putting the coffe maker down and taking a seat."I guess it's no different from when we worked in pairs. " He shrugged." Anyways they don't assign us tasks that require a whole squad anymore, that's probably why it was so easy for everyone to go do their own thing." He opened his mouth to mention how the only enemy left was dragon orphans, Shirokae and others ghouls like him. But he remembered Kaya sitting right outside his field of vision, and clasped it shut.
"Well, if the squad leader says so," Shinohara replied in a stunned sort of chuckle. He continued as he bent laboriously to take a cup. "I'm glad you're being so positive about it. And your team is very lucky you're so understanding."
Juuzou didn't think he was being particularly positive. There wasn't much to be positive about, since it wasn't a bad thing to begin with. But if it kept Shinohara from worrying about him, that's all that mattered, really.
"I never had that kind of power over them in the first place, they know they're free to do whatever they want. I think I'm lucky they picked me and stuck around for so long." Juuzou smiled in spite of himself. He really did get lucky. He knew Hanbee would be looking at him now, so he took a sip of coffee to avoid eye contact.
"Get over here." Shinohara opened one of his arms. Juuzou gave him a questioning look, then put down his cup on the glass coffee table and went to sit next to Shinohara on the sofa. His arm locked around him in a strong hug, and a large hand came down to ruffle his hair energetically. Juuzou burst out in surprised, uncontrolled laughter. He felt like he had been thrown in a huge hamper of warm, freshly washed clothes.
"Always knew you were a good kid," Shinohara grunted from somewhere around him.
Finally he was released. He gasped in air and let out a last few giggles, his cheeks bright red and his hair more tousled than ever. He realised he wasn't the only one laughing; Mrs Shinohara was cackling behind her hands, and Hanbee looked like he was trying very hard to keep his cool. Kaya's laughter was the most piercing one, ringing off the walls like chimes.
"Enough business talk, so we can expect you two next weekend? We'll add a futon in the spare room," Shinohara said, his voice suddenly thick and tired.
Hanbee was touched the man was including him so casually. He shot a glance at Suzuya, asking if he wanted him to be there the second time too, and the other nodded with a grin.
"I'd be glad," Hanbee answered lightly, though he felt alarmed by how slurred Shinohara's question had sounded.
"Yeah, for sure, I-" Shinohara's arm suddenly felt ten times heavier around Juuzou's shoulders. He looked up at his former partner, and his features froze.
"See, I knew it." Mrs Shinohara ticked her tongue, laughter still on her tone, and walked over to the couch. "His back is going to be so sore tomorrow he won't be able to move an inch. Kaya, dear, will you come over and help?"
Juuzou heard most of Mrs Shinohara's words, but none of them made their way to his brain. It was comfortably clouded by a familiar mist that always reminded him of static over a radio program, or censor pixels like in Black Mirror. It was one of the series he and Hanbee had watched together on a week-day night. His mind switched effortlessly to the pleasant memory. It hadn't been his favorite show, but he had enjoyed watching it. He had liked one of the soundtracks. He could remember the tune. Juuzou played it in his head. If he focused, he could remember most of the words. But it was a western song and he didn't understand english, so it was a bit hard. He felt vibrations in his chest. He hadn't realised he had started humming the song out loud. A colorful shape moved in the corner of his vision, which he assumed was Kaya approaching the couch. He tried to blink. His eyes only stared ahead. Well, it was fine. he knew exactly what to do. First, he had to think about where he was. That was hard too, because his mind seemed to spring off what it wanted to blurr out like a bouncing ball. The harder he thought at it, the quicker it bounced off into completely random directions. A park. He had been to a park near Shibuya. It had been raining, so the trees smelt really nice. The trees had smelt the same that morning from Hanbee's flat. Before they came to the Shinohara house. There, he was at Mr. Shinohara's house. Now that he had caught the end of the string, he only had to move along slowly. No rush, rushing meant losing the string. He knew that by now. They had been talking in the living room, drinking coffee. The word linked easily to the smell of ground beans from the kitchen. Coffee, because Mr Shinohara was tired. Yes. And when people are tired, they fall asleep. That's completely natural. In fact, not sleeping could be harmful, so he definitely should sleep if he was feeling tired. This was a good thing, really. He tried blinking again. His eyelids twitched, and his eyes focused.
He had stood up, and Shinohara was lying across the sofa, his head propped up on one of the arm rests and his feet on the other. Mrs Shinohara was adjusting one of the blankets Kaya had brought around his wide frame. The man's eyes were closed, jaw limp, chest rising up and down rhythmically. Exactly the way it had for the past ten years. Juuzou jumped as a sudden warmth covered the entire surface of his back. Hanbee's hand, he realised. He felt his thumb brush timidly over his T-shirt, something Hanbee was only allowed to do under rare circumstances. He supposed this was one of them, and he had to admit it was comforting, so he didn't shake him off. Instead he turned his head ever so slightly in his subordinate's direction, his way of asking Hanbee to speak for him.
"I'm sorry, we overstayed our welcome," he said immediately.
Mrs Shinohara turned quickly to Hanbee. "Oh no, not at all! I should be apologising for Yukinori. It's a shame, you'd think he would just say he was that tired." She shot her husband's sleeping face a scolding look.
Hanbee managed to drag the formalities long enough for Juuzou to regain his composure. When he did, he was pleased to see Mrs Shinohara hadn't noticed a thing. Hanbee wished for the hundredth time he could share his bosse's ability to push out any upsetting thought at will. And for the hundredth time, remembered what kind of practice it had required and was grateful he didn't. As they finally walked out, he thought he saw Kaya's face fall as she watched them leave.
The nagging thought Shinohara had pulled to the foreground of his mind would bother him for the next few days, he knew.
It's kind of silly, but while I was writing the part about the bag and the rabbit I remembered a song I love and kind of forgot about over the years. I thought it would be fun to share songs I like and kind of reflects the mood I imagine for each chapter. So this time for the Shinjuku walk, it's Rabbit in the Bag by Nico Vega. Including a song is actually going to be relevant in one of the next chapters, and i don't know, I like listening to music when I read so maybe you do to! :)
The metro jostled, making the metal handles swing in unison above their heads, and steadied again. Juuzou had twisted the other way on his seat, looking out the window over the residential area's low roofs. It was close enough to golden hour, one of his favorite times of day. Half because he liked how magical the name sounded, half because the light did make everything look so warm, striking and soothing at the same time. On his right sat a middle-aged couple. On his left, Hanbee. He thought he was being unusually stiff and quiet, even for him, but he turned back to the window. He wasn't exactly in a cheery mood himself. Utility poles flashed by in a blur of metal and cables. He tried to make his eyes follow them as they swooshed past, until he felt the start of a headache. Well, what people called a headache anyway. He sighed and shifted in his seat so he was facing the inside of the train again. It was Sunday afternoon, and it was packed. Only a corner of the metro television was visible from where he was, framed by the top of people's heads. For a moment he watched the bright piece of screen switch colors as the ads played one after the other, but got bored of it pretty quickly.
The metro stopped once, twice. As people spilled on and off the platform, Juuzou caught sight of a group of high schoolers on the seats facing him. They weren't in their uniforms since it was a Sunday, but a couple of them were carrying gym bags. Their skin was tan and their hair buzzed short, so he thought they were probably training for the baseball championship. He didn't care much about national sports, but he remembered Mr. Shinohara used to watch them on a mini TV during lunch breaks. He was pulled out of his thoughts when he caught one of the boys looking at him, then back to his friends. It was then he noticed the group of teenagers was packed close, heads together as if sharing a secret. Another one glanced over and turned away quickly before the whispers resumed. Juuzou let his lids drop lower over his eyes. It wasn't a glare, just a warning look. He wasn't in the mood. He kept watching them though, just in case. From the looks of it, they couldn't be older than seventeen. Still, their voices had already shed their childish quality, and should they stand up, Juuzou was sure they would tower over him. His eyes slipped down, and he looked at their mud-streaked sneakers firmly set on the ground, then at his own feet swinging ten centimeters above it.
"You're Suzuya, right?"
Juuzou's head flashed up at the sound of his name. The five teenagers had left their seats to approach him, but jerked back in alarm. Juuzou smirked. Having groups of people twice his size flip at every sudden movement he made was the only fun part of having a shady reputation. Though he had thought said reputation was kept safe between the walls of the TSC. How this group of teenagers knew of him, he had little idea. Now, they stood at a respectable distance, hunched down as if they were uncomfortable looming above him. He regretted his earlier thoughts a bit, they were probably nice kids.
"Of course it's him," the one with the darkest skin and sunburned neck hissed to his friend.
"You think the Dragon General takes the metro," one of them asked in a stern tone, his eyebrows constantly raised and his lids halfway down giving him a bit of a smug look.
"How do you think he goes around then?" the other asked defensively.
"You think you could sign this?"
"...What?" The kid who had addressed him was holding up a pen and a book, and approached tentatively. A small blue towel was thrown over his shoulder, and there was a grass stain and dirt on his short's right leg. Juuzou saw his knee was scraped and muddy too.
"Like, sign the notebook? No one will believe me if I don't get proof."
"Proof I take the metro?" He asked, scrunching his nose. That too he regretted, seeing their puzzled faces. The kid who held the notebook seemed to hesitate, and looked around at his friends before facing Juuzou again.
"No, I mean...you know, like we saw you on TV and everything...And my dad works at the TSC so...You're him, aren't you?"
He didn't really understand why they would doubt it in the first place, but he pulled his badge from his waist and flashed it to him in a swift motion. That seemed to impress them for an unfathomable reason, because they started grabbing each others shoulders and shaking them while staring at the badge with wide eyes. A few passengers shot them dirty looks, though they weren't making much noise at all. At least he knew how they recognized him, he had forgotten most of the war had been broadcasted.
"...And so you want me to write my name in your notebook?"
"Sure. If that's all right."
"Um. Yeah I guess."
He took the notebook and pen he'd been handed. The cover had been bent so may ways it felt rough in his hand, and the pages inside were thin and brilliant white, not the recycled kind he found softer to the eye. He flipped past pages covered in hurried, bulky handwriting and stopped at a blank one. He brushed the tip of his fingers across the paper quickly and wrote his name meticulously in the center with the blue ball pen he thought was the one that filled the other pages. His superiors used to tell him off on how childish his handwriting looked. He imagined he could see the difference between his and printed kanjis, but as long as they were clean and readable, he didn't see the issue. Hanbee had once told him that when he wrote them, the characters looked like they were about to start bouncing around on the page, and that he didn't think it was a bad thing. His favorite thing to write were hiraganas with loops in them, and the round to make the "p" sound. There was nothing childish about putting your personality into anything.
"Wow thanks, and is that...?" The teenager kept the notebook open and looked pointedly at Hanbee. Juuzou did the same, and his mouth fell open a bit, unbelieving. Hanbee was still staring straight forward, frowning deeply, completely unaware of the interaction taking place right next to him. Juuzou quickly smiled at the teenager, who seemed to get more confused by the second.
"Yeah he's with me. He had a rough day though, so probably better to leave him alone," he lied smoothly.
"Okay, cool man." He lifted the book with an elated smile. "Thanks again." The train had stopped by then, and they all rushed out as the doors closed. From the window, Juuzou could still see them jumping around waving the notebook. The metro started again, and the view of the station gave way to more rooftops. Juuzou leaned back in his seat, glanced at Hanbee who was still out of it, then turned resolutely the other way to look outside again. Most people in the train had noticed the highschooler's excitement; a couple of faces lit up in surprise as they made the connection, and more were stealing glances at Juuzou, trying to figure out who he might be. He didn't need to turn around to know. By now he could feel people's stares.
Hanbee's mind was going in circles. Circles that involved Shinohara's earlier insinuations, his parent's nagging, and his own fears. There were plenty of those. It seemed every time he thought he had dealt with them, someone came around and started excavating. He was trying to figure out exactly what Shinohara had meant. Was he giving him the job to convince Suzuya to stop fighting? The thought was preposterous. With his past neatly laid out in police files, it would be close to impossible finding a normal job. Although between the special class money and TSC subventions if such a thing happened, he technically wouldn't need to work a day more in his life. But anyone who knew Juuzou also knew he didn't do well with free time. And from what he knew of Shinohara, he was sure he wanted what was best for Juuzou. Doubt crept up from the back of his mind, the feeling of something huge and inconsistent stalking up behind him. Was Shinohara suggesting he left Suzuya? That didn't sound right at all. He felt revulsion boil deep inside him at the thought. But there was no mistaking that the man had spoken to him only. And then there was his father. Of course he was proud of him, he often said so. While the battle was still raging he hadn't said a word, knowing that Hanbee's nature meant the smallest doubt could shake his resolve. But now any excuse was a good one to start talking his son into starting a family. About how damn glad he was to have one of his own at the time of the incident. More than that, he was an only child, which meant his family's future was in his hands. He wouldn't be able to stand the disappointment on his father's face, that much was certain. But he didn't think it was right either to let people pressure you into that kind of decision. He wasn't sure what he wanted, which didn't help. Maybe he could talk about it with Mikage, or Tamaki. Nakarai gave good advice too, but he wasn't sure he had the nerve to ask him. 'Missing out'. That was what it all boiled down to. He was afraid of realizing too late that he had 'missed out' on life.
A small hand grabbed his forearm and shook it. Hanbee blinked and looked over to see Juuzou staring at him. A tidal wave of guilt crashed over his entire body. Had he really been thinking about leaving him while he was sitting right there? He felt like someone had grabbed a huge paintbrush, the flat kind with really rough bristle, and painted the word in bold black strokes in his mind. Betrayal.
"Let's get off on the next one."
"Wait...we.." Hanbee looked around and finally found the screen showing the stations. He jumped in his seat, immediately breaking into a cold sweat. "We're way past our stop."
"Yeah. Maybe you should've payed attention instead of daydreaming like a preschooler."
Juuzou was surprised by the harshness of his own voice. There was no reason to be upset at Hanbee.
"My apologies, sir."
"T'salright. Get up."
"Yes, sir." The train was still going. Hanbee wondered why Suzuya hadn't just told him when it had stopped at their station, and why so many people were looking their way. But it was no time to be questioning orders. He felt unbelievable shame. Suzuya didn't have the choice he did. He was pretty much stuck where he was, and he was thinking of leaving him. He caught the metal handle that was dangling next to his face, feeling his ears burn under his hair. His worse thought yet came to him then. What if he stayed not because he wanted to, but out of his sense of duty? That would be horrible. He imagined Suzuya finding out one day he had remained out of pity, and shuddered. Whatever happened, that was out of the question. If he realized he'd be better off leaving the front lines, he would have to tell Suzuya right away. The train stopped, and he barely caught a glimpse of his boss slipping through the crowd to the doors. He hurried after him as well he could, excusing himself and bumping a few people on the way. He hadn't heard the station name when it had been announced, so he had no idea where they were. A quick look around gave him the answer: Shinjuku.
"I don't feel like going home. You don't have to follow me if you don't want to. Thanks for coming today." Suzuya was already walking away towards the North-East exit. Hanbee stood there for a second, then joined him. It was perfectly clear when Suzuya wished to be followed or not. The fact that he hadn't disappeared in half a second gave Hanbee all the information he needed. Even with someone specifically trained to keep up with him like Hanbee, if he decided he wanted to be alone, Juuzou could pretty much disapparate.
"I dont feel like going home either. Is it all right if I stick around?"
Juuzou grinned up at him. "Sure. What do you want to do?"
Hanbee felt his heart melt, and couldn't help smiling back. Ironically enough, one thing that never failed to cheer him up was one of Juuzou's genuine smiles. "It's a bit early for dinner but we could find a cafe to sit at, or check what's at the cinema. Or just walk around."
"How about we walk around, sit at a café and then check what's at the cinema?"
They walked to the escalators together, and found their way through the huge station. Juuzou's sneakers squeaked against the glistening beige tiles. Hanbee knew he could manage to be quiet if he wanted to, but the noise was probably amusing to him. He smiled fondly to himself. The more escalators they took to the ground floor, the more densely packed with people the station became. A woman in traditional clothes rushed past them, her steps small and hurried under the tight layers of fabric. Hanbee guessed she must be late for a commercial event, and saw he was right when they walked by a stand promoting national travel. They made their way up the last flight of stairs and onto an even more crowded floor. The ceiling was lower there, but the stark clean floor and golden fairy lights seemed to stretch on forever on all sides, barely outlined by stores' bright front windows. Several dozens of bulky, black panels hung from the ceiling, displaying small yellow numbers that never seemed to stop flickering next to locations in bold print. They were mixed with the usual panels pointing in every direction towards ten different exits, metro lines or correspondences. Just looking at them gave Hanbee anxiety. He was glad he had nowhere to go. In the center of it all, the walls and ceiling cut off to show a round piece of sky. The inside of parking lots showed on the sides, and higher still was the street. Even from where they were, they could see swarms of people crossing the large intersections. Hundreds of heals clicked at different frequencies around them as they made their way to the street exit, and yellow lights gave way gradually to the natural blue of late afternoons. They swiped their card at the gates, and finally they were outside.
They walked for a while in silence and without aim, took large overlapping crosswalks, circled the fancy shopping center, passed the Unliqlo building that had rainbow lighting all over its front. They walked once or twice by a Donkihote store, and by the third time Hanbee followed Juuzou inside. The two of them wandered quietly in the over-stocked isles packed with anything colorful and went up to the floor that sold food. As they waited for the narrow escalator to bring them higher still, they caught a glimpse of a floor with red, battered walls covered in posters of idols and anime girls. Behind misty glass doors, they could make out the familiar erratic flashes of color and maddeningly loud sound effects of Pachinkos. They got off at the next floor, that had squishy Pokemon goodies hanging from the high display shelves next to cheap halloween costumes and ironing boards. Hanbee kept dodging flashy wigs and excentric beach towels hanging from the ceiling. For a second, he lost sight of Juuzou and looked around the maze of shelves. He found him crouched down in a nook between a Hello Kitty display and anime figurines. When Juuzou noticed him approaching, he smiled at him and held up a foam pillow in the shape of a pastry. He thought French people called those "brioche".
"Smell it," he said. "Like, squeeze it like that. It smells just like bread."
Hanbee took the squishy thing and did as he was instructed. To his surprise, it did smell like the inside of a bakery. Technology was amazing. He knew Juuzou wouldn't want to buy it though, they both had very sensitive senses - although mostly hearing for Hanbee and smell for Juuzou - and something like that would become very quickly irritating. Indeed when Juuzou got up, he already had something tucked under his arm.
"Look what I found though. It's a tiny rabbit." He handed it to Hanbee, who smiled. The plushie was small enough to fit in his palm, pastel blue and very soft. Its ears were long and dropping sleepily, its nose pink and eyes closed.
"I like it."
Juuzou beamed at him, and went back to looking through the lowest shelf, hands on his knees for balance. Hanbee kept the plushie; when Juuzou handed him something in a store, it meant he was supposed to act as his shopping cart until they got to the register. They wandered around a while longer. Hanbee knew Juuzou liked these stores where no windows could tell you if it was three in the morning or one in the afternoon, and time seemed to dissolve altogether. He caught up to him again in the backpack section, and was handed a black one with little colorful space-themed patterns. It seemed very small to him when he took it, but it was probably just the right size for Juuzou. The thought made him smile.
"To carry the rabbit," Juuzou explained, as if Hanbee had the power to forbid him getting it.
"Of course," he replied seriously. Juuzou grinned and finally lead the way to the escalators going down. They stopped to pay at the third floor, passed the Pachinkos again, crossed the more crowded ground floor and stepped out onto the street. The sky had gotten darker since they had come in, even though they hadn't stayed that long. Neither knew what time it was, nor did they check. Juuzou wanted to stop a few meters away from the busy entrance so he could put the rabbit inside the bag and swing it on his shoulders. Perfect fit. They kept going, and stopped at a couple more places: the artbook floor of a library, a 100 yen store in an alley, the "little Paris" section that covered an entire underground floor of the shopping center. Juuzou had stood in front of several of the luxurious window displays, and asked things like: "How can there be so many different types of cheese? Aren't they all moldy cow juice?", or "Is it a French thing, making everything so fussy? Or just Parisian?". He spoke loud enough that the meticulously uniformed salesmen raised their eyebrows or pursed their lips before spotting Hanbee and shooting him judgmental glances instead. Hanbee just offered them apologetic smiles before following his boss to the next display. He was used to strangers assuming he was Juuzou's parent, so it didn't bother him as much as it did a decade ago. Anyways, he knew by the way Juuzou kept the falsely naive questions flowing that he was getting a kick out of the whole thing. Hanbee loved seeing the mischievous spark in his smile too much to even think of spoiling his fun, and he knew it wasn't mean-spirited in any way. Now he was studying closely a pyramid of macaroons, all of them different flavours judging by their shade. "Is this what happens when you have too much free time?" The sales lady's eyebrows jumped to her hairline.
After a quick stroll through the clothing floors, they were back in the warm evening air. It was getting properly dark now. Hanbee looked over at a patch of trees and benches between the tall, glossy buildings, where a group of performers was busy setting up. The leaves cut out dark shapes against the sky as sunlight finished seeping away. Hanbee sighed quietly. Not quietly enough though, because he saw Juuzou turn to look at him from the corner of his eye. They had wondered this district so many times together, on weekends or on patrol. But this time felt a bit different. Like everything had a faint, metaphorical sepia filter over it; slightly nostalgic, eerily calm. Juuzou was walking in front of him, a nonchalant spring to his step that made his new bag jump on his shoulders. They never talked much on these kinds of outing, but this time Hanbee caught himself being downright absent. He knew Juuzou would notice soon enough, if he hadn't already. Speaking of him... A distracted moment, and he was out of sight again. Hanbee spotted the space patterns before they disappeared behind a flood of strangers, and hurried to catch up.
Juuzou made a face, wrinkling his nose as he stared skeptically into his glass. He slowly put it down on the table while keeping it safely at arm's length. Across from him, Hanbee let out a soft, endeared laugh.
"You don't like it?"
"Tastes weird. I liked the other one better." Juuzou took a look around the bar. They had changed their plans when their wandering took them to the Touhou building, and skipped the cafe to check what was screening instead. All the interesting movies were programmed for much later in the night, so they settled for a bar in one of the close by alleys. Now they sat on either side of a small, square wooden table huddled in a corner of the room. The inside was so packed you couldn't turn without elbowing a stranger, and everything was arranged around the open kitchen in the center surrounded by low counters. Huge billows of steam sizzled constantly from the pans and up into the large fan fixed to the low ceiling. It hummed noisily, sucking up the smoke through big tubes that snaked around the wooden beams. Everything was so loud. Juuzou watched the cooks' quick movements from behind huge jars of fermented drinks with different kinds of things floating in them, like leaves or orange peals. No matter how busy they looked, they always yelled a heartfelt welcome at any customer who stepped in. It wasn't the kind of place you had to take your shoes off, but Juuzou had still kicked off his sneakers that now laid abandoned under the table. The conversations around them were so loud it was impossible to speak at a normal volume.
"Be honest with me Hanbee," Juuzou started, staring at the glass of clear liquid in a man's hand, that he soon raised to his lips once more. "They don't actually enjoy drinking that, they just do it because it looks cool."
They were interrupted by a waiter cheerfully slamming down a plate of sashimi between them. His face was reddened by its constant exposure to the heat of the kitchen, and he yelled at least five kinds of greetings with a huge smile before running off to serve another table. Though they hadn't ordered any food, it was the second time in the evening that it happened. Juuzou had asked if it was free, but Hanbee told him that it was just a bit of a pushy way of making them spend their money here; they'd have to pay for it before leaving.
"It depends on your taste i suppose," Hanbee answered. Though if you're not comfortable in social settings, it does help loosen up." He looked down and swirled the remaining drops of sake at the bottom of his glass.
Juuzou slid a set of disposable chopsticks out of the tall glass that was used to store them and giggled. "So they just do it to get drunk. I can respect that." He twirled them distractedly for a moment before ripping the protective paper off. "You drink often?"
"Only when I'm invited out so not really, no."
"Yeah, same." His elbows on the table, he held the chopsticks upright and so close to his face he almost went cross eyed in an effort to focus on them. He pried them apart with a snap. A splinter fell to the table, and he put down the chopsticks to poke it around. Hanbee watched. They had been sitting there for about an hour already, and they weren't at their first drink. The warm claw of alcohol was already numbing his stomach and wrapping every movement in a cottony quality. He tried to compensate by standing straighter than usual. Maybe he over-did it a little, because Juuzou raised an eyebrow at him.
"You ok? You're not in a meeting you know."
"Yes, sir. Why do you ask?"
"Relax, that's all I'm saying. And honestly," he started, shaking his head. He picked up a piece of fish, watched it dangle from the end of his chopsticks and stuck it in his mouth. Hanbee waited until he finished chewing.
"Honestly?" he prompted him.
"Hanbee, it's Sunday night, we're at a bar, I just bought a rabbit, could you do me a favor and call me by my first name? We've talked about this, leave the 'sir' bullshit at the office."
"Right. I'm sorry."
"T'sokay. Everyone got so stuck up since they made me general of whatever, if you're going to do the same I'll lose my freaking mind. " Then he frowned. "You know what happened in the metro while you were zoning out?"
"What?" Hanbee perked up, alarmed. Juuzou had a history of spiking questionable people's interest, mostly in forced proximity like a packed metro. If one of them had made Suzuya uncomfortable while he was looking the other way, he'd have a hard time forgiving himself. Meanwhile, the other seemed to look more and more amused. He was just toying with him now, Hanbee realized, relieved.
"A bunch of highschoolers knew who we were. Asked me to sign a notebook."
Hanbee gaped at him. "Like... an autograph?" He knew most special classes who had taken part in the war had been given a moment of glory by the media. He supposed he shouldn't be too surprised kids aspiring to become peace keepers would make role models out of them. He also thought you could do much worse than picking Suzuya as a role model.
"Yeah." Juuzou resumed staring at his half full glass.
"You know... there are other drinks you can order, something that would be more to your liking," Hanbee offered. The commotion made them lean closer to each other over the table without a conscious effort to do so. He only realized how close they were when he noticed he didn't need to scream over the ruckus anymore.
"Like what?" Juuzou tilted his head. Hanbee smiled.
"Many things. Would you like me to order something else for you?"
"Hmm..." Juuzou thought over the offer, eyes narrowed and chin slightly jerked forward. "Okay," he finally agreed, "but I don't know what."
"I can pick for you, if you'd like."
Hanbee signaled a waiter, who wrote down the order before hurrying back to the kitchen, and they went back to their conversation. Hanbee loved these talks. He could never remember what they had spoken of exactly afterward, because all they really did was think aloud to each other. He considered himself abysmally bad at making conversation, but Juuzou was the only person he'd met who had failed to ever make him feel awkward. This was nice, comfortable. He often thought hanging out with Juuzou felt as effortless as being on his own. The waiter came back with a fresh glass, and they pulled apart to leave space for him to set it down. Juuzou looked at the drink for a moment with wide eyes. He thought he recognized one of the colored mixtures from the big jars he noticed earlier. The glass was thick, heavy-looking and brimming with the honey-colored alcohol. It smelt of ginger and cinnamon, and dewdrops of condensation were rolling down its sides to pool on the wood's surface. Suzuya watched the reflections at the bottom from the orange light bulbs above them, his eyes following the small silhouettes of people moving around the bar. Hanbee looked back and forth between Suzuya's unblinking eyes, and the glass before him, trying to figure out what he was looking at with such intensity. He decided it didn't matter: it had come to a point where even the slightest shift of his head came with an odd sensation of slow motion, as if his eyes only caught up to the movement a second later. Blinking slowly, Hanbee tried to find something to focus on. Suzuya's large eyes darted left and right ever so slightly. The lighting was dim enough that his pupil was drowned in the dark ring surrounding them, and melted everything into a black circle. Suddenly, he noticed the pair of eyes was staring directly at him. For how long? Taken aback, Hanbee jumped in his seat and cleared his throat as he looked away.
"What." Juuzou asked flatly.
"What do you mean?" Hanbee stalled, his voice weak.
"You were staring."
Juuzou smiled and hummed suspisciously before straightening up.
Hanbee poured himself another glass as a distraction.The sake bottle was only half empty, but for someone who didn't really drink, Hanbee thought he was doing fairly well. When he looked up again, Juuzou was twirling something square and bulky in his hands, which he realised was his wallet. Hanbee patted his pockets, but of course they were empty. He was used to being Juuzou's pick pocketing subject, since he never did it for real anymore but didn't want to lose his touch. Juuzou popped open the leather wallet, dug inside the little card compartments and carefully pulled out every single one to place them neatly on the bar. Hanbee said nothing, and simply watched as his boss redecorated the wood with the contents of his wallet.
"How come you have so many cards?" he asked, carefully shifting one so it fit perfectly with the others, like a puzzle piece.
"Stores give you loyalty cards. It's not useful to have that many, though."
"Why do you take them if they're not useful?"
Hanbee shrugged. "Sometimes it's quicker to accept the card than to have them try to convince you."
"But that's exactly what they want."
"I suppose so."
Juuzou hummed thoughtfully and looked over his masterpiece. The cards were colorful, and all the same size. The table between them had been transformed into a neat mosaic.
"This isn't a store card," Juuzou pointed at a one that had Hanbee's picture on it.
"No, this is social security."
"Do i have one?"
"Yes, you do." Hanbee was grateful he hadn't stopped to comment on the old photograph.
"Where is it?"
Hanbee hesitated, searched in his other pocket and pulled out a second wallet, much thinner than his.
"I keep your important papers handy... In case you ever need them."
Juuzou simply nodded, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for Hanbee to do. He sipped from his drink without picking it up from the table. His eyes flashed up to Hanbee, then to his full glass.
"You're done drinking?"
Hanbee smiled and picked up his glass.
"So you really don't have a girlfriend?"
Hanbee's eyes widened in surprise, and to avoid spitting out his drink, he swallowed it clumsily, throwing him into a coughing fit. Why had he waited for him to start drinking to ask such a question? The innocent smile that matched his tone showed it had not been a coincidence.
"Why do you ask?" He wasn't sure if it was uncharacteristic for Juuzou to address such a topic. He had never shown much interest in it, but he was known for his bluntness after all. Something must have triggered it, but it wasn't always easy to follow Suzuya's train of thought.
"I looked at other people's wallets, and they usually have a picture of their wife or kids or girlfriend. There's no pictures in yours." He took a sip of his drink, deliberately catching an orange peel that was only in there to brew. He chewed it tentatively, and his eyes widened ever so slightly. He tried catching another one. Hanbee found himself distracted by his small expressions.
"No, i don't actually. I never quite... found the time." His earlier worries snaked their way back through the mist around his mind. Was it possible that Juuzou had picked up on his wordless exchange with Shinohara? He honestly put nothing past him, but he hoped it was a simple coincidence that he had chosen to discuss dating now.
"Yeah, well you're not getting any younger you know."
Hanbee chuckled, surprised. "You're older than i am," he pointed out.
"So?" His hands gripping the seat, Juuzou tilted the half full glass at a 45 degree angle with his teeth. It seemed to Hanbee like a rather precarious situation, but he didn't interfere.
"What about you?"
Juuzou's eyes widened, almost in alarm. "Me?"
Hanbee instantly regretted his question. Heat flashed under the skin of his face. Over at the kitchen, one of the cooks slapped a mackerel onto the grill and fresh plumes of steam rose to the ceiling in hot coils. He could feel a bead of sweat rolling down the nape of his neck, under his long curtain of hair. Had he been out of line? He couldn't tell. His mind was clouded, it was getting harder to think clearly. He took a quick glance down to Juuzou's glass, and noticed it was completely empty. Hanbee suddenly thought that he had no idea how his boss was like drunk. Some people got sleepy, others euphoric, sometimes emotional. He was about to apologize, when Suzuya started speaking again.
"Never really gave it a thought."
Juuzou leaned further on the table, chin pressed to the wood and one arm folded, mouth hidden in the crease of his elbow. His other arm was extended and he played absently with a coaster. His tone sounded unsure, as if he were considering for the first time that the subject could actually concern him. Hanbee's expression softened.
"Well, is there anyone you like?"
There was a silence. Juuzou buried his face deeper into his folded arm. Hanbee could only see the top of his head now.
"It doesn't have to be someone at work," Hanbee prompted quietly.
"I'm telling you no, I don't like anyone okay?" His tone had become a bit harsh, but Hanbee wasn't troubled by it. He figured Juuzou was just a bit out of his comfort zone.
"Okay," he answered simply, offering an opportunity to close the subject if the other wanted to.
"Everyone thinks i'm weird anyways. And gross." His voice was muffled by his arm when he spoke.
Hanbee didn't think. His protective instincts charged in, leaving no room for judgment.
"Who said that to you? It's not true at all. I'm sure a lot of people would be happy to date you."
Juuzou lifted his head. He looked skeptical. "Really? Like who?"
"Well... I wouldn't know just like that, I'd have to think for a bit." Not his finest answer.
Juuzou snorted sarcastically.
"You don't have to try that hard Hanbee, i really don't care." At least he wasn't mad at him, Hanbee thought.
"May I ask what brought this on?"
Juuzou shrugged. "I don't know. I just felt like asking. Is it okay?"
"Of course it is. You can ask me anything you want."
But he said nothing else for a while.
"So, you don't have a girlfriend."
Juuzou seemed to think of something, and straightened in his seat. "A boyfriend?"
"No, i'm single." Saying it out loud... A sense of sudden urgency made him slightly panic. 'He wasn't getting any younger'. He remained quiet for a moment, eyes staring into empty space.
"Fuck you, Hanbee."
That stunned him back into reality all right. He looked over at Juuzou, utterly confused and an apology ready on his lips. He was cut short regardless.
"You've been weird ever since we left Shinohara's place. Are you going to tell me what's up?"
Hanbee's mouth opened and closed wordlessly. Juuzou didn't swear on the regular. It was his first venting tool, as Hanbee had witnessed time and time again. The next stage was sarcastic comments.
"I'm sorry," Hanbee blurted out. Had he really hoped he wouldn't notice?
"For what? Reliving your hamster's funeral in your head?"
Well, that didn't take long. Hanbee couldn't help the warm smile pulling at his lips again.
"I'm sorry for not paying attention. I'm a hundred percent here now, I promise."
Juuzou hummed skeptically and laid back in his chair.
"Well I guess that's fine." He kept glaring at him through narrowed eyes from across the table. "Well?"
"Uhm... how should I put this." He glanced at Juuzou, who raised his eyebrows expectantly. "I...suppose I'm still sorting out my own thoughts. I'll be more then happy to share them once I've figured them out."
"Okay." Juuzou nodded seriously. He knew what Hanbee meant. He also liked thinking things over before speaking. Hanbee watched Juuzou chase an ice cube around his glass with a chopstick for a while. It clanged about, never making twice the same sound. Faint neon lights from outside glided on its surface like tiny fluorescent fish. The flicks of the chopstick became more and more idle, until Juuzou dropped it and slumped into his chair, arms crossed. Hanbee turned to him and was about to ask what was wrong, when he noticed Juuzou was biting down on his lower lip. He usually did that when he was pondering over what he was about to say. Hanbee finished his glass while he waited.
"Do you think they noticed?"
Juuzou had asked so quietly that even though he had been waiting for it, Hanbee almost missed the question. He blinked slowly to clear his mind so his answer wouldn't be slurred. He didn't want Juuzou to think he was taking this lightly.
"Even if they had it wouldn't matter. But no, I'm positive none of them noticed," he articulated.
Juuzou seemed to relax a bit, and tucked his face in the crease of his elbow again. Hanbee found it uncanny how Juuzou always assumed he would know what he was talking about without context, and that in return he found himself knowing exactly what he meant. He guessed it was something that happened when you spent so much time with one person. In front of him, Juuzou noticed his metro card lying around, and starting poking the little Suica penguin on it. Hanbee waited again.
"I got upset when I saw him fall asleep. It was stupid."
"I don't think it was stupid at all." When someone had seen as many things Suzuya had, Hanbee thought they had a free pass to get upset over pretty much anything. Not that he needed one, his reasons were perfectly understandable. Suzuya gave a weak shrug in response.
"Are you still upset?" Hanbee asked softly. He was slouching down even closer, trying to catch his eye.
"I dont think so."
"He's all right, his family's taking really good care of him."
"I know that." He flashed a glance at Hanbee, looked down and then up at him again. It almost looked like he was fighting back a smile, and at this point Hanbee had no clue what he was thinking. They ordered more drinks and chatted for a while longer, until they noticed the waiters refusing new customers, which meant it was near closing time.
"It's getting late." Hanbee hated mentioning it, but it was true, and they had work the next morning. Juuzou sighed heavily, and straightened in his chair.
"I guess it is. Metro or taxi?"
"Depends, where are we going?"
A toothy grin lit up Juuzou's face like daybreak.
"I left the report at my place," Hanbee remembered, "and it's due tomorrow, so..."
Juuzou nodded. He slid his sneakers back on and popped Hanbee's wallet open again, this time to pull out a five thousand yen bill.
"Right, your place it is."
The song playing at the end of this chapter and for the next one is "Pale blue eyes" by The Velvet Underground
It was eleven at night when they made their way back to the station. The district was every bit as busy as it had been in the early afternoon, maybe even more now that it was time for young people to come out. They walked past business men spread across the side walk, drunk out of their senses. Some of them had friends who tried to pull them up, making their head loll and jerk limply at every tug on their arm. Hanbee was glad he felt far from that state. He had a hard time walking straight, but by concentrating on his steps he was fairly sure no one looking could guess he was a bit drunk. He glanced at Juuzou walking ahead of him. Though he was half his size and weight, and had had the same amount to drink, his boss was leading the way looking as perfectly controlled as ever. Hanbee steeled himself. Before anything else, he was Suzuya's underling, and he would be damned if he were to ever embarrass him by proving undisciplined.
Finding their line home was similar to looking for the exit of a maze. The proliferating signs that had put Hanbee off earlier seemed to all be screaming at him through their colors and confusing symbols. Juuzou showed some mercy, and grabbed his wrist to lead him through the dense crowd. They filed up over the yellow markings that indicated where the metro doors would open, though the platform was so packed all lines had merged into one big crowd. A couple of policemen strode back and forth, making sure everything was in order, whistle stuck in their mouth and cap screwed on their scalp. They bowed quickly to them both when they walked past, giving Hanbee all the more reason to stand straight. Juuzou nodded back and Hanbee did the same before quickly looking for something else to direct his attention at. He didn't want them to come over and start a conversation he wasn't sure he'd be up to. He settled for checking the electric panels above their heads - they had a couple more minutes to wait - until he thought the policemen might be gone and he relaxed a bit. Something touched his arm then, and he looked down to see Juuzou had rested his head against it. His hand was still around Hanbee's wrist, but it was slowly sliding down, and his eyelids were starting to droop. Hanbee had to remind himself yet again that Juuzou was human too. He wondered if they should have taken a taxi after all.
"Two more minutes," Hanbee told him encouragingly. He caught Juuzou's hand before it fell off his. With all the weight he was putting onto his grip, he wouldn't have been surprised if losing it had made him topple over.
Juuzou nodded slowly, his hair brushing against Hanbee's sleeve.
The metro glided past the stations, showing patches of dark sky and bright advertising signs. There were enough free seats that they could choose the isolated ones at the far side of the car. Juuzou was now leaning completely on Hanbee's side, who was used to it enough not to mind in the slightest. If anything, he was honored to be Juuzou's pillow for the travel.
"We forgot to go to the cinema," he heard him mumble over the hum of the metro. Hanbee looked down at the top of his head.
"It's all right, we can watch a movie at home if you still feel like it."
Juuzou nodded sleepily. "Okay."
He paused for so long Hanbee thought he had fallen asleep.
"Like a DVD?"
"Depends what you want to watch."
"I only wanna watch a movie if you feel like watching a movie, though."
Hanbee smiled. He knew that when Juuzou was tired, he had a small lisp. He could hear it play around the syllables now.
"I feel like watching a movie."
Hanbee's district was a harsh change from the one they had just left. The streets were wide but empty, except for tired business men and women driving home, or sleek black cars sliding around corners like barracudas. It was better lit than residential areas, but still fairly dark. The publicity signs were replaced by red lights crowning the tall office buildings, and traffic cones that blinked orange like christmas trees. They had been walking under huge metal bridges that carried the metros. Juuzou looked off to the side into the stagnant water they were crossing over. In the shadow of the bridge it was dark and still, as if a trench in the concrete had been filled with gallons of China ink. Juuzou knew they were getting close when they started walking past trees. Hanbee searched in his bag and pulled out a repellent spray. Juuzou attracted mosquitoes like he had never seen before, so he applied some on his wrists, neck and ankles for him before they started walking past any parks.
They stopped at a FamilyMart across the street from Hanbee's building. Most of these shops had the same bright white neon lights that bleached everything of its sense of time. Just like the Donkihote, Hanbee could easily believe it was ten in the morning if it weren't for the pitch black windows, that he could easily imagine as opaque curtains. Standing in the harsh light of a konbini also made him realize just how drunk he was. He felt like the morning of a second sleepless night in a row. Juuzou had disappeared between the isles, and even though Hanbee towered over them, he only managed to spot him by following the sound of ruffling food packagings. He had plenty to eat at home, but Juuzou always wanted very specific things that he had not found a way to anticipate yet. He picked up a couple of water bottles and turned to find him waiting, a full basket at his feet.
They crossed the street, Hanbee carrying a white plastic bag in each hand, Juuzou hugging the one with the bottles to his chest. Hanbee pulled out his keys, wondering vaguely why Japan hadn't switched to paper bags yet, and the first door unlocked with a beep. He held it open for Juuzou, and while it swung shut behind them they stood in the familiar double-door entrance, with its wooden letterboxes and silver intercom. Juuzou listened to Hanbee punching in the entry code, and the second door buzzed open. They walked into the empty ground floor. It had the same type of overly clean, large tiles as the station earlier, covering everything from floor to ceiling to the steps of the wide staircase. Golden lights flicked on as they sensed them moving up. Hanbee's flat was only on the second floor, but it didn't really matter because Juuzou could barely feel his legs pushing him up the stairs. Like he was wearing VR glasses and watching someone move from their point of vue rather than moving himself. He waited again when Hanbee put the bags down on the doormat and tried getting the key in the lock three times before he could spin them. He twisted the round aluminum handle they seemed to have everywhere, and held the door open for him to come in. Juuzou kicked off his shoes and dragged his feet to the kitchen, not bothering with the lights. There were just enough streetlights reaching into the apartment from outside that they could do without and still not bump into furniture. Hanbee set the bags down on the counter and put some water to boil for tea.
"I don't want to go to work tomorrow," Juuzou sighed. He had been looking out the verranda's glass door, and now turned back to the dark kitchen and planted his elbows firlmly on the counter next to Hanbee, hands cupping his chin.
Hanbee chuckled and started putting away bags of chips, the plastic ruffling noisily in his hands. "I'd gladly tell Marude you've fallen sick, but the next week is going to be important at the office," Hanbee told him softly, "I'll even have to make sure you wake up on time tomorrow."
"That's going to be impossible, I'll sleep on my desk for sure. All this because of Haise. Why do we need a meeting for this, can't he just send a letter? I'm sure someone will care and read it."
Hanbee knew he didn't really mean what he was saying. He had learnt how to deal with a tired Juuzou, so he answered patiently while looking through his collection of teas, an endeared look on his face he couldn't help. "Remember after the war, how the higher-ups asked us to be very careful with our relationship to the United Front? We don't want another nightmare to start so soon."
"I'm a higher up, why don't I get a say?" He was unironically pouting now.
"You did get a say. You agreed."
"Oh... right." He paused for a second. "Well I don't care, nobody steals my late mornings for an entire week, he's going to pay for this."
Hanbee gave him a look.
"I won't do anything mean!" Juuzou said defensively. "Maybe just put milk in his coffee and watch him gag."
Hanbee forbid himself to laugh at this.
"You sound like you're angry with him."
"I'm not angry with him."
"But you know what I mean. Do you not want to see him?"
Steam whistled out of the kettle, pressure quickly building up. Hanbee dragged it away from the heat and switched off the hot plates. Juuzou spoke after another longer silence.
"It's always weird, seeing him. His wife is cool, I think, but he's changed. Something about his eyes isn't right. Like half his brain stayed in the dragon."
His voice frayed towards the end of his sentence, as if the subject was making him lose his grip against the alcohol in his system. Or maybe he was letting it take over, numbing his own thoughts again. Hanbee glanced at him nervously, and decided that this conversation was over. Juuzou was slouching down completely on the counter now, face hidden in his folded arms. Hanbee tried to find something else to talk about that would distract him while he unpacked the groceries. Stacking up the jelly-based deserts in the fridge, he was frantically racking his brain for something to say when he noticed he had left out a bag of chips on the counter. Juuzou got to it, and was propping himself up groggily to reach the cupboard when it happened.
"Oh f- JESUS!"
Hanbee swore and grabbed Juuzou's forearm, his fingers locking all the way around it easily. He yanked it away with much more strength than he intended in his hurry, knocking the steal cover off a pot on the counter. It hit the tiles in a loud metallic clang and spun a couple of times in quickening, earsplitting clatters before falling silent. What pained him most wasn't the angry red color spread across Juuzou's palm, though it made his heart sink, but his immediate reaction. Although Hanbee had already jerked back, expecting Juuzou to throw him across the room in response, he made no effort to pull himself free. Instead he had raised his other arm in a flash to protect his face, as if Hanbee had been about to strike him. Hanbee was petrified as multiple layers of shock slowly registered in his foggy mind, and after a few seconds he found the presence to blink and swallow through his suddenly dry throat. He opened his mouth, not sure he would find his voice if he tried speaking. Juuzou wasn't moving an inch. He looked cut out of stone. His expression was blank as he looked away, waiting. Though it was a hot summer night, Hanbee felt cold creep under his clothes.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." His voice sounded uncomfortably loud in the dark kitchen, his ears still ringing from the awful sound of the lid falling.
"You scared me," Juuzou whispered hoarsely, his voice more stunned than reproachful. And Hanbee believed him. For what he thought was the first time since they met, he saw a pool of fear at the bottom of his eyes.
"I'm really sorry. I was just trying to get your hand off the plates."
Juuzou looked at him with impossibly wide eyes for a long moment, then managed to arrange his features into a puzzled expression. Hanbee felt great relief when he saw emotion slowly seeping into him again, like blood flowing back into a sleeping muscle.
"What?" Juuzou mouthed silently, confused.
Hanbee realised then that he was still gripping Juuzou's forearm. His fingers were so tight with tension, he had a hard time uncurling them one by one. Even in the dark, they revealed strikingly white marks in a perfect cutout of their shape, that quickly turned red as well. Hanbee felt like he was about to faint. But it didn't matter right now- Juuzou was hurt, and he wasn't even aware of it. He had still not moved his arm, even once released, so Hanbee gingerly took it by the tip of the fingers on both his hands, moving extremely slowly like one would to show a frightened wild animal that you meant no harm. He revolved it gently so that Juuzou could look at his own palm and watched his reaction closely while he took in the new information.
"Oh," he whispered.
Juuzou had propped himself up with his hand squarely pushed against the hot plates. One of which Hanbee had used minutes ago to boil water and was still glowing from the extreme heat, slowly dwindling since he had turned it off. From a second's contact, Juuzou's entire palm had been scalded, the worse parts being the heal of his hand and the tip of his fingers. He hadn't even noticed he was getting burnt. What if he hadn't seen him doing it, what if he had been in another room? Hanbee felt a chill.
"You shouldn't apologize, you were helping," Juuzou said, his voice thawing. "I keep doing stupid things today, I didn't mean to react like that. Sorry."
Hanbee shook his head. He couldn't imagine a single way he could blame Juuzou for what had happened. Rather, he was the one who had distracted him with stupid questions."It's all right, it's not your fault. Let's take care of your hand." Hanbee hesitated. He felt silly for asking every time, but he also knew he'd never stop.
"Does it hurt at all?"
Juuzou rolled his eyes. "Just bandage me up."
"Okay...wait, first..." Hanbee let go of his arm reluctantly, as if it might break the second he did. He went to his fridge and looked for the tube of burn gel. "You can go sit down, I'll be right over."
Juuzou went to the kitchen table obediently and stretched his arm out on the cloth, waiting for Hanbee. He was soon back with the bulky aluminum tube and pulled a chair next to Juuzou before switching on the table lamp. It had a dark beige shade, so the light wasn't too harsh on their eyes, but it did make the damage on Juuzou's hand look ten times worse. Just looking at it made Hanbee's own palm tingle. He tried his best not to show his discomfort as he squeezed out a bead of the ointment onto his finger, and gently applied it to Juuzou's burn. He had to constantly repeat to himself that he wasn't hurting him to be able to keep going.
"Feels cold," Juuzou hissed. Hanbee glanced up at him, unbelieving.
"Did the plate not feel hot?" He was surprised at the hint of bitterness in his own voice. He was more annoyed at himself than he had thought, and he was still a bit shaky from the fright.
"I guess it did." He shrugged. "I was wondering what felt warm when you pulled my hand away."
Hanbee went back to work, trying to steady himself. He should have stopped him before he even put his hand down. When he decided there was enough product covering the whole surface of the burn, he put down the tube and cradled Juuzou's little hand in his, holding it still while he massaged the gel in with circular motions. Juuzou watched closely, quiet until he wasn't.
"Looks like lube."
Hanbee closed his eyes for a second, trying very hard to stay serious. This was no laughing matter. Juuzou looked pleased with himself though, and Hanbee understood he was trying to get him to lighten up. He shook his head, and gave in.
"I won't ask why you know that," he replied, allowing himself a small smile.
"You could, it's an entertaining story."
"Fine, I actually don't know, I saw people messing around with glue on Youtube, and someone said it looked like lube, and it looked like that burn jelly, so yeah."
"I see. You weren't lying, I'm thoroughly entertained."
"Shut up!" Juuzou laughed. "I'm making all the conversation here, let's see you try to lighten the mood."
"I see no need, you're doing a pretty good job," Hanbee chuckled.
Juuzou smirked victoriously.
"The worst part of all this is that the water's probably cold now."
"Now that's truly dramatic."
"Yeah." A pause. "Now I know what it feels like being a steak."
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"A bit," he grinned. "It's just a burn."
Hanbee smiled helplessly. "I'll go get the bandages. If you can, please try to stay still until I'm back."
"I'm going to change," Juuzou called as he walked down the corridor. He hadn't liked sitting alone in the quiet kitchen. Hanbee raised his head from the medicine cabinet just in time to catch him rush past the bathroom.
"Okay, please try not to use your hand!"
"I know, stop worrying." Hanbee could hear the eye-roll in his tone.
Juuzou closed the door of Hanbee's bedroom behind him. He knew perfectly well why Hanbee was upset. He had been hurt in a stupid way, not under the circumstances of a dangerous fight but right next to Hanbee in his own kitchen. He could almost hear his thoughts as he pictured him looking through the medicine cabinet in the other room. 'You'd think I should be able to protect him through a simple day.' But he knew Hanbee would be done blaming himself once he came back out with the bandages. Because Juuzou didn't believe for a second he needed that much time finding them, he always kept them handy. Hanbee knew he didn't like him shouldering blame that wasn't his to carry, and he had improved a lot in just letting stuff like this go. So he would give him time. This way, he wouldn't worry about keeping him waiting. Juuzou looked around the room.
It was barely lit at all, only the faint brightness of a street lamp found its way through the thin white curtains. He didn't turn on the overhead lamp; he liked how all the edges looked softer in the dark. It reminded him of walking on wet sand. There was a desk on the right with a TV hung above it like a painting, and a bed pushed up against the opposite wall. A double one, because Hanbee was so tall he would just plop out of anything else. This time, it had light blue sheets that looked fresh out of the dryer. Juuzou resisted the urge to go roll under the quilt in the nice smell of the organic detergent Hanbee used. Instead, he headed for the closet. Tall mirrors were fixed to both doors, and Juuzou stopped to look at his reflection. He had forgotten he had taken the stitches and the hairpins out. He wasn't sure why, but it had just felt like the right thing to do. Those additions had always helped keeping himself together in a weird way, but that morning each string had felt as heavy as shackles. Now, he stared at someone who he thought he might have crossed on the metro, in the streets or a coffee shop, and the person stared back at him. He looked normal. Much younger than he should, granted, but still normal. He tried putting words on the feeling it gave him. It was like... Stepping into a lukewarm bath after a hot day. It felt good, but not incredibly good. Just good enough; the way it should be. He hadn't heard Hanbee shut the medicine cabinet yet, but he figured he should get a move on. He checked if the door was properly closed, opened the closet and took a cursory glance inside. Most of the clothes Hanbee owned were black. He supposed he couldn't judge, but it was easy to see he had chosen the color out of style more than laziness. Hanbee had that whole slick, Muji aesthetic going on, and it showed in his closet. Juuzou saw a blotch of blue in the midst of all the black and white, and recognized his own clothes. He smiled. They were neatly, almost reverently folded in one of the middle compartments, exactly at Juuzou's height. He pictured Hanbee taking out his own stuff to make space for his hoodie and shorts, and a couple of spare work clothes. He disregarded them though, and bent to take out one of Hanbee's T-shirts. He shook it out. It had a white band logo printed on the front, faded by all the washings, and was big enough it could serve as a parachute for him. Perfect. He pulled off his own shirt and slipped into the black one. He was swimming in it nicely, and the fabric felt nice. It was thin cotton, but not the stretchy kind. Smooth against his skin but still holding its shape. His shorts stopped right above his knee, and were almost completely covered by the shirt, so he took them off too. He lost his balance a bit doing so, which made him feel even more normal. He wondered how Hanbee managed to look so gathered when he himself had been struggling since he had gotten up at the bar not to fall flat on his face. He remembered marvelling for a second at the rush of dizziness he had felt when leaving his seat, and the tough front he had tried to put up had dissolved quickly. He picked up his clothes and shut one of the doors to glance in the mirror again. His legs were mostly bare, and even if only one of them was real he wondered if it was ok to go back to the kitchen like that; he didn't want to weird Hanbee out. He knew most men were uncomfortable around him. They usually avoided looking at him at all, and he had understood it was because they didn't like thinking another dude was attractive. Which he thought was confusing because ironically, it made him automatically gross. Like his very existence was perverted. Juuzou thought it said a lot more about them than it did about him. Hanbee was different of course, but it was no reason to push it. Well, he would just ask him. And he had large boxers underneath anyways, so it was the same as wearing shorts really. And the fact that he was comfortable at all with the idea of walking around Hanbee's flat with just an oversized T-shirt on said a lot. He was tired of thinking so much. His head felt way too busy, like nothing was holding in the less important thoughts, and everything was just spilling out. Juuzou closed his eyes for a second, and immediately felt the room spin out of control. He half expected to find himself on the ground when he opened them again, but was surprised to see he hadn't moved. Wow. Closing your eyes while being drunk was like climbing blindfolded on a roller coaster, he thought. He left his clothes on the bed, shut the closet and went back to the kitchen. His feet whispered on the rug in the corridor, and he made an extra effort to be completely silent when he passed the bathroom.
The kitchen floor felt nice and cold. He looked around for a minute, the silence of the room pushing against his eardrums. The only thing piercing it was the occasional gust of wind through the trees outside. Juuzou crossed the room to a square window. The glass was thick and chiseled in a way that distorted everything on the other side, like looking through an ice cube. It diffused orange light into the room from a flashing road sign across the street. Juuzou ran the fingers of his good hand on the surface of the glass, trying to feel all the tiny spikes and crevasses. It felt nice, like it was massaging the pads of his fingers. He could feel the warm air from outside through thin gaps around the frame, and thought it might rain again soon. He found the handle, and pulled it so that one of the glass panels slid sideways above the other. More sounds of the street came in through the cracked open window. He closed his eyes and smelled the night for a moment, then walked back to the middle of the room, and his eyes fell on the kettle. He went up to it, picked up the lid from the floor on the way, and eyed the inanimate object disdainfully. He wondered if the water had actually gone cold, or if it was still good for tea. Very carefully, he poked it. It seemed fine to touch. Juuzou lifted the lid, and steam came out. It was still good. The two cups they had used that morning were still on the counter, so he plopped a new bag of tea in each and poured the water in them. There. He carried the cups one by one to the kitchen table, cautious not to spill anything using only one hand. When that was done, he thought the silence wasn't helping the whole mood-lifting mission he was on. He went to a smaller table by the window. It was made of wood painted white, and had two levels: the one on top had Hanbee's black record player, and below were all his Vinyls and CDs neatly stacked. Juuzou remembered Nakarai referring to the setup as 'some serious hipster shit,' but he thought the record player really did sound nice, and that the whole process of playing music on it was a lot more fun than plugging your laptop to speakers and pressing play. It was a bit like preferring handmade mechanical toys over plastic figurines that could speak, he could understand why people would pick one over the other, regardless of which one they preferred. He thumbed through the records, and picked one he though he had seen Hanbee play not long ago. The cover had a black and white photograph in the center of four people sitting around on a couch. One of them was holding up what looked like a magazine and looked into the camera. It didn't look set up at all, more like the band had been chilling after practice, and one of their friends had snapped a random picture. Juuzou took his time sliding out the large, black circle with its colorful center, careful not to damage it, and careful not to use his injured hand, at least for Hanbee's sake. He fit it on the record player, and took the weird metal handle with the black square at the end he didn't know the name for, and turned it right until he felt a click. The record started spinning, and he could heard a faint hiss as the machine slowly woke up from its slumber. He turned the handle left, until it was over the thin, smooth black ring between the very edge of the record and the stripes that represented succession of tracks on the album. Then he changed his mind and moved it to a random place over the glossy black surface. Very slowly, he lowered it, crouching to match his eye level with the tiny little piece of metal that poked out from under the plastic square. He watched it closely, holding it at half a millimeter over the spinning disc, and finally let it go all the way.
Hanbee was walking out of the room when he heard the music. He stopped with his hand on the bathroom's doorknob, hands full of bandages and balms he had been reading the instructions to. He immediately recognized the song, fourth track of an album he had gotten recently. He could tell by the depth and texture of the sound that it was turning on his record player. Usually, switching it on was the first thing Juuzou did when he walked through his door. Hanbee's apartment had much better sound isolation than his, and he was taking full advantage of that, bringing his own CDs so he could blast them as loud as he wanted without having neighbours complain. The fact that he hadn't gone straight to it that morning had been his first clue something was up. Gosh, had it really only been that morning? The calm electric guitar riff filled the corridor, pearly and lavender blue. The lyrics started, and he could make out the soft beat in the background. White light from outside soaked the living room ahead on the left, and slipped across the rug to the open kitchen door on the other side. There was an even, static-like sound he didn't think came from the track, and when he spotted tiny shadows falling through the light, he realized it had started raining again. Hanbee walked quietly back to the kitchen.
Sometimes, things just happened in the right way, and a completely unremarkable day turned into something you still remembered ten years later. They were moments hidden in the passing hours like gem shards lost in an old rug. From time to time, one of them peeked out of its hiding place and granted you a beautiful sight. Times like these.
In the dark kitchen, Juuzou shifted his weight slowly from side to side with the tune, his feet bare on the cool tiles, arms and fingers moving unconsciously as if they could touch the music. The burn completely forgotten, he stood by the small square window that gave on the veranda, slid halfway open so that the damp smell of rain on concrete hung in the room. Juuzou's head hung sleepily, his hair tucked behind his ear, and with each rocking movement Hanbee caught a glimpse of closed eyes and lips framing the lyrics clumsily. The dark surface of his hair seemed to absorb every light that touched it, although from time to time he would turn his head and a tiny spark of orange would catch between two locks before being swallowed by the movement, like the light from a small boat on a pitch-dark sea. When he would shake his head to the beat, thin strands separated from the rest and for a second were soaked to a warm chocolate shade by the window's light. Distorted by the textured glass, a deep orange glow touched Juuzou's skin in soft geometrical shapes, smooth as watercolor, gentle as cotton paper. In the largest patches of light, Hanbee saw the shadow of raindrops hitting the glass and rolling down its surface, gathering more of their siblings on the way. Projections of the tiny rivers draped lazily over Juuzou's eyelids, cheekbones and arms like a living pattern. The singer's voice came out delicate and brittle like torn lace as it floated carefully on the melancholic guitar riff.
Hanbee recognized the shirt he was wearing as one of his own. He remembered it to be a tad too small for him, but it hung down mid-thigh on Juuzou, which he thought was beyond adorable. This way the faint rim around his right leg that was the limit bewteen flesh and prosthetic was visible, the sleeves that were meant to be short gaped around his elbows, and the collar was loose enough to lay slanted on his shoulders. It made Hanbee a bit sad to think Juuzou couldn't see how very special he was. He thought he was all kinds of beautiful. He also admired people who could dance without ever looking ridiculous, and Juuzou was definitely part of that category. Of all the impressive characters he had met over his years in the CCG, Juuzou was the only one he thought had true charisma, and amusingly, also the only one who wasn't exactly aware he did. He glowed from the inside.
Hanbee felt a rush of devotion like a warm balloon blowing up inside his chest. And just like that, the decision was taken out of his hands, all the day's worries evaporating effortlessly like bad dreams once the sun came up.
He would stay by Juuzou's side for the rest of his life, simply because nothing else mattered more. This was enough.
Hanbee shifted to rest his shoulder against the door frame, and Juuzou's eyes fluttered open. For a moment he swayed a bit on the spot, finding his balance.
"You were staring," he said in a low voice. As if on cue, the lyrics gave way to a quiet guitar solo.
"Was I?" Hanbee answered, playing along.
"Yeah, you definitely were."
They stood there quietly for a second, rain spluttering hard against the windows.
"Is this ok?" Juuzou asked, opening his arms to direct Hanbee's attention to the T-shirt.
"Oh, of course. You know you can borrow anything you want here."
Juuzou pressed his lips into a thin line to keep himself from smiling. Hanbee felt the moment was right. He drew breath, gathering his courage to speak out.
"I'm not quitting," he finally said. He was pleased with how sure his voice sounded. When he was so used to second guessing every decision he took, this didn't feel like a decision at all. He wondered if he genuinely had considered quitting in the first place.
Juuzou dropped his arms along with his smile.
"You know you can if you want to. Mr. Shinohara has a point." There was no surprise in his tone, as if he had waited the whole day for Hanbee to start exactly that conversation. Of course he had picked up on everything. Hanbee wanted to kick himself for believing a second he hadn't.
Juuzou watched him for a moment, waiting for a shift in Hanbee's composure that would betray his tone to be a lot more certain than he really was. After a few seconds, he seemed satisfied, even slightly impressed.
"Cool, then. I'm glad." He kept his tone casual. Closing his eyes and starting to sway his arms again, Juuzou turned back towards the music. Hanbee felt a great deal of weight lift right off his shoulders. Juuzou always made everything so simple. "I like the song," he added conversationally, giving no chance for the moment to get uncomfortable. "What kind of album is it?"
Hanbee caught on quickly. "An American one, from the sixties. "
"What's he singing about?"
That was a hard question to answer, even with a clear head. Hanbee tried to recall the lyrics; he knew enough English to understand most songs, but he found trying to translate everything kept him from enjoying the music.
"I think... it's about remembering someone important."
Juuzou hummed thoughtfully. The guitar faded away, and there was a pause before the record skipped to the next track. He sighed and turned to Hanbee again.
"You said we could watch something."
"I did. Have you decided what?"
He thought for a second, biting his lip.
Hanbee had half expected his answer; wildlife documentaries were relaxing to Juuzou, and so he never seemed to get bored of them. The following day was usually filled with random animal facts. Hanbee was perfectly fine with watching Planet Earth again, he didn't think he would be able to follow any plot lines just now.
"You can set up the DVD, then. I'll go take a shower."
Hanbee listened to the rush of water from his bedroom, coming out muffled by the closed door. He had walked in to find the pile of clothes on his bed, and folded them away carefully in his closet. He suddenly felt very tired, and wondered if he would be able to catch any of the movie before he fell asleep. He changed into his sleeping clothes and looked through the DVDs. He picked out the Planet Earth one, the Japanese version he had bought so that Juuzou wouldn't have to read the Netflix subtitles. He popped it out of its box and turned on the TV. Once that was done, he went back to the kitchen to get the food ready. They had eaten at the bar already, so he thought Juuzou would be happy with snacks. He was pouring the second bag of chips into a large bowl when he noticed the two teacups on the kitchen table. Juuzou hadn't mentioned them, so they were probably room temperature by now. He put both on a tray with the rest of the food regardless. He didn't mind cold tea at all. Hanbee carried everything back to the room and Juuzou came out a while after, a billow of steam following him from the bathroom door and filling the corridor with the soft powdery smell of Hanbee's shower gel. His hair was damp, wavy strands curling out in random directions from him probably rubbing it with a towel. Hanbee thought he might as well take a shower too. It would be hard enough getting to work on time the next day without having to do it in the morning.
"Food." Was all Juuzou said when he walked in.
"You can go ahead, I'll be right back."
Juuzou buried himself under the covers, his small shape lost in the folds of the large bed sheets, and poked his head out to speak.
"Kay. Where's the remote?"
Juuzou glanced over. "Right."
"Did you need anything else?" Hanbee asked, pausing at the door.
"Not that I can think of."
"Would you like me to turn on the AC?" Hanbee tried, though he knew the answer.
"No thanks." He didn't like the smell of conditioned air, it burned his nose.
Hanbee was about to go but hesitated mid-step.
"Would you like more pillows? I have a few in the closet."
Juuzou snickered. "I'm good, Hanbee."
Juuzou's eyes followed Hanbee out of the room. When he heard the bathroom door shut and the water start to run, he freed his arm from the blanket to pull the bowl of chips closer. Lying down had made the dizziness much worse, but as soon as he felt the salt on his tongue it started to melt away nicely. He ate for a while, looking around. It was a bit hot to be under a quilt, but he liked it that way - it was so huge it felt like a different world under there. Juuzou moved his legs against the mattress. It was soft, and made a satisfying silky sound against his skin. His gaze eventually dropped on the TV facing the bed. It glowed deep blue with a small logo bouncing around, changing its course every time it hit the sides of the screen. He watched it for a moment, until he started feeling dizzy again and turned over in the bed to grab the remote. He stopped with his hand reaching for the black plastic rectangle. Next to it was all the stuff Hanbee had looked for in the medicine cabinet, and he remembered his hand was injured. He started twisting to reach with his other hand, but he had been eating chips with it and couldn't really touch anything else, so he decided he would wait for Hanbee to start the DVD. He pushed the bowl over to Hanbee's side so he wouldn't spill it when moving around, and sank under the covers completely.
Maybe he had dozed off for a minute, because he opened his eyes to a careful shift in the mattress next to him. It took him a moment to remember he had been waiting for Hanbee, and that it had been him sitting down on the bed.
"Have you fallen asleep?" He heard him ask in the lowest possible voice, so that he wouldn't wake him if he had.
"No, I was waiting."
Juuzou felt the covers being slightly lifted from his face. He breathed in cooler air, and saw the room lit in blue again. He turned to yawn into the pillow.
Hanbee laughed quietly. "If you're tired, you can go to sleep right after I'm done with your hand."
Juuzou noticed that the bandages from the bedside table were now resting in Hanbee's lap. He got himself up in a sitting position.
"I'm not that tired. Can we play the movie while you do it?"
Hanbee picked up the remote and fumbled a bit with it in the dark before finding the menu and pressing play. Juuzou took the bowl of chips again and the dramatic music started, with images of the sun rising around a revolving earth. That's all it took to have him thoroughly distracted.
Hanbee took his hand and flipped it palm up. He inspected the damage again, and shivered. It looked painful to say the least. Tropical birds started chirping, and he remembered the first episode was about jungle animals. As the image kept changing on the screen it lit the room in different colors, switching with every cut. Juzou's skin glowed blue when the TV showed footage of birds in the sky, then green as it went back to the jungle trees. The deep, rumbling voice of the narrator and atmospheric music was soothing enough to keep Hanbee from going on a second guilt trip. He took the band-aids first, and wrapped them carefully around each of Juuzou's tiny fingers. He would have liked putting more healing balm on them since the shower had probably washed everything out, but figured it would make the plasters slip right off. Instead he focused on the heal of Juuzou's hand. He had found another balm in the cabinet that seemed more appropriate -the tube he kept in the fridge was good to stop the burning sensation, but this one acted as an antiseptic. He put a fair amount over the burn and rubbed it cautiously until the product was almost completely gone. Then he unrolled what he thought was the right length of bandages, and started wrapping the bottom part of Juuzou's hand with it expertly, leaving the thumb free. He did it quick and well, inspected his work and glanced up to tell Juuzou he was done. There was no need, he saw, because he had been looking down when Hanbee had thought him focused on the TV.
"What's on your mind?" Hanbee asked barely above a whisper.
He shook his head slowly.
"Nothing important. I was thinking, you're like Nemo's dad when he found the last egg. You know, when he rolls it with his fins? My hand's the egg. And you worry about everything just like him, too."
Hanbee wondered how it made him feel being compared to a cartoon fish.
"Thanks," Juuzou said when he clipped the bandage free of the roll, and he flexed his fingers a couple of times.
"Anytime." Hanbee smiled and put the boxes away in the night table drawer, then got into bed properly. Juuzou scooted over under the quilt and curled up next to him so he could rest his cheek against Hanbee's side. This way his head was lifted just enough to see the TV with no effort.
The narrator's voice droned on peacefully. Neither really remembered at what point they fell asleep.
I'm stepping into dangerously unknown territory here haha, I have no idea how to write action stuff but it's coming! This fic is just a fun experiment anyways, I'll do my best not to turn it into a trainwreck ^^
Waking up on time was one of the few talents Hanbee trusted himself to rely on. It also happened to be one Juuzou showed no interest in mastering.
Curled up next to him, his breathing soft and paced he remained fast asleep. Hanbee had spent the last couple of minutes searching for the least unpleasant way to wake a person up. This particular problem had become familiar ever since making sure his boss followed his schedule had become part of his job, but it never seemed to get any easier.
Hanbee watched mutely for a reaction. Pulled across the window inches above the bed, thin curtains swayed and let fresh sunlight pour up the sheets to reach the level of Juuzou's face. It bleached the very end of his lashes into warm honey colors, melted pools of chestnut in his dark hair. He thought for a moment that the brightness would be enough to wake him, but nothing. He gathered his will to try again, preparing for his voice to cut through the peaceful quiet once more but froze as he was about to speak.
Juuzou blinked reflexively, his eyes remaining closed. The unconcious movement made his eyelid twitch against the sudden brightness.
So he was awake.
Hanbee relaxed back into the pillows, deciding to wait a bit longer. From where he rested, he could still see the outline of his features - the slight dip of his brow and arc of the cheekbone. His patience payed off when the fleshy part of his cheek curved slightly upward.
"I can see you smile," Hanbee said.
Juuzou admitted defeat, but otherwise stayed still. Hanbee hesitated. He wanted nothing more than to let him rest, but he knew they would get in trouble if they arrived late at the office. On another day, he would simply have went ahead and let Juuzou catch up to him later, but this week was a bit unusual.
"Did you know that winged locusts from Madagascar can travel over sixty miles a day to look for plants to eat?" Juuzou mumbled, his voice clouded with sleep. Hanbee smiled fondly.
"I knew it was a lot, but not the exact number."
"Well, it's sixty miles."
"I'll make sure to remember."
A cicada croaked, a car whooshed past in the street below and Juuzou yawned. Homey sounds, soporific. Hanbee fought back his own desire to ignore everything that would make him leave the softness of the bedroom.
"Please don't fall asleep again," he asked instead in a small voice.
Juuzou groaned dramatically, but after a few seconds still rolled over the sheets until he was sitting up. It was time for the day to start. Hanbee got out of bed and went for the closet. From behind him came the clatter of curtain rings and daylight flooded the room as he started to pull out clothes. He piled them in two stacks in his hands, keeping Juuzou's shirt folded over his arm to iron. He stole a glance at the other before he left the room, making sure he hadn't sunk back under the quilt. He found him at the foot of the bed, bent down to grab the back of his ankles, knees as straight as they would go. Hanbee had learnt not to call it stretching - there wasn't a speck of effort in those morning gymnastics. He knew Juuzou was only checking his ability the same way a swordsman made sure his blade hadn't gone blunt. In their own way, these quiet times were taking their toll on the TSC. Fights had grown rare enough that investigators neglected their training, and it had become a real issue as when battles did occur, people were out of shape. Apparently even someone like Juuzou felt compelled to actively train in order to keep their touch. Seeing his superior practice so regularly was the most striking proof to Hanbee that the war was behind them.
He stepped into the corridor and walked over to the narrow laundry room. It was a small space wedged in between the living room and the bedroom, just large enough for a washer, dryer and ironing board. Hanbee spread the shirt neatly over the flat surface, plugged the iron and let his mind wander while he glided it over the fabric. His thoughts drifted to the first times his superior had been over at his apartment, and the few occasions on which he had seen him practice this way. Back in those days they spent time together for much more practical reasons, and Hanbee recalled being intimidated by Juuzou's presence to an unreasonable level.
Once, Hanbee had walked in on him easing out of a backbend and had stayed quiet for a moment, pondering his next question. Back then, Juuzou couldn't be bothered to train and was rarely ever seen at the CCG's gym. Catching someone who always seemed ready in any form of preparation was like slipping for a second in the hectic backstage of a flawless show. It had intrigued him greatly and fueled a fascination that had been in its early stages at the time.
"Do you stretch every morning?" He had blurted out. Hanbee had willingly surrendered his bed to Juuzou for that night, planning to sleep on the couch. But the other had insisted it was unnecessary. Now his palms were pressed against the varnished floorboards of the living room next to the mess of blankets on the sofa.
"I'm not stretching," Juuzou had answered in a strange tone. He had turned his head casually to face him at his question, not a hint of strain in his voice.
Juuzou had flipped upright again with inhuman ease and answered with a trace of petulance. The kind that seeped through the practiced humility of a master who took private pride in their skill.
"Does it look like anything is getting stretched here?"
"Then I'm not stretching."
Hanbee brought the clothes back to the room and they got ready in silence. Both of them felt the wordless shift in their interactions, from close friends to co-workers, slipping into place like well-oiled gearwheels. They were always both these things no matter the day of the week, so it was a subtle one. Curiously - and to Hanbee's relief - it seemed the closer friends they became, the easier that line was to tread. And the more he thought about how unlikely a comfortable balance could be found when your best friend was also your boss and mentor, the luckier he felt. And so he took care of that faint line that made such a relationship possible.
Juuzou took his clothes from Hanbee and went to get dressed in the bathroom. He found his toothbrush in a clear cup above the sink and got ready quickly. He combed through his hair with his fingers and clipped part of his bangs off his eyes on his way back to the bedroom. There, he found Hanbee pulling on the long black trench that had been their squad's trademark for so long. There was no real need for it anymore since along with the sash sawn into the sleeve, it had been a way of telling their group apart from other investigators. But even though Hanbee was the last active member of the squad, and that dressing all in black was enough distinction, none of them had stopped wearing it. Juuzou wasn't about to mention it either, but he felt a touch of pride each time they met up for lunch and the four of them were wearing the uniform without outside incentive. During the summer though, it was another story - Hanbee was the only one who took it that far. He did the buttons up to his neck and pulled out both their work cases from the bottom of the closet.
One of the most remarkable breakthroughs of the TSC lab in the past years was how much smaller they were able to make deactivated quinques. The bulky grey suitcases had become a rare sight, except for the few who stubbornly clung to the old ways. Depending on the final shape of the weapon, they could be fitted into something as small and thin as a laptop case. Juuzou had had his quinque transferred into one of those smaller versions, not as much for practical purposes than for the argument that it fit his aesthetic a lot better, and had encouraged Hanbee to do the same. Now, the bags Hanbee carried to the living room could easily be mistaken for simple work cases.
Juuzou heard him shutting down his laptop and taping paper files on the glass coffee table into neat stacks. He picked his badge up from the bedside table and gave the room a once-over to check if he wasn't forgetting anything. He decided it didn't really matter if he was, and went to the kitchen for breakfast. Hanbee joined him a moment later, and around 7:30 they were out the door. Hanbee locked it and pulled out his car keys in a jangle of metal. They walked side by side down the stairs and onto the ground floor, crossing a few people from the building who were leaving for work as well. Most of them averted their eyes, the way people looked nervously away from policemen even though they weren't doing anything wrong. Juuzou thought they did look a bit like hitmen, dressed that way and carrying matching cases. A couple of them still nodded them a greeting which they answered with a smile. They didn't take the main exit into the street but went through a smaller door to the parking lot a floor below. The stairway was narrow, made of large bricks painted white and was always a few degrees cooler than the rest of the building. Hanbee held the next door for Juuzou, and they stepped under the low, naked concrete ceiling of the parking lot.
Hanbee lived closest to the office, at the junction between the fourth and first ward, Shinjuku and Chiyoda. It seemed appropriate since he handled any urgent calls. The business districts had been the first to be almost entirely rebuilt, and as a result they had a shady sort of fanciness about them. No extravagant fairy lights and showy designer stores, but more uniformed valets standing still like street signs and dozens upon dozens of glossy black cars. So many in fact that Hanbee still had a hard time finding his amongst the lot. He pressed his key and a pair of taillights flashed orange twice.
The car used to be their squad vehicle, so it was large enough to fit five people and their equipment in. People in charge at the time had requested they bought one and gave Suzuya a ridiculous amount of money to do so, but none of them had really found it necessary. It had only been used on two or three occasions. When they split, they had all agreed it should go to Hanbee who's car had been crushed to pieces when the dragon woke. He was uncomfortable driving it though. People stared. So it only saw daylight when Juuzou was over and they felt like avoiding the morning trains, packed to the roof as they were. They slammed the doors shut. Behind the tinted glass it was like night had fallen again. Hanbee turned the keys in the ignition and the engine purred to life.
"I'm going to be on time again today, that's insane." Streets were flashing by through the windows. They had driven to one of the city's areas that was still in construction. Modern office buildings were sprouting from a mess of scaffolding with their fresh paint, and the morning sun flashed at them from sleek windows as the car sped by.
"Are you tired?" Hanbee asked, slowing to a stop at a traffic light that quickly turned green again.
Suzuya shook his head. "I'm good. But after this week, that's it. Don't want them to pick up bad habits."
"Of expecting you on time."
"Yeah. Marude makes up a stupid joke every time I am. Like "Wait, is it noon already?" I bet he has a notebook full of them, he's such a bully."
"He's still a nice change from the previous directors, I think." The Washuus had scared Hanbee straight. At least Marude, he felt he could cross eyes with and not end up stabbed by a katana.
"You don't think so?"
"We've had our differences," Juuzou said slowly, fidling with an empty CD box he had found in the glove compartment.
Hanbee looked over at him questioningly. He had sensed some history between him and the new director, but never asked about it. They had seemed on fairly good terms regardless.
"I might have crashed his motorcycle. Once or twice. It accidentally fell."
Hanbee gasped. "He loves his motorcycle."
"Wait, he got a new one?? Why is he still complaining?"
"He probably never got over it. He talks about motorcycles like they're his children."
Hanbee chuckled. "You've never offered to replace it?"
"Believe me, I've tried. Out of politeness and consideration."
"I'm sure you did."
"Refused every time."
Hanbee parked in front of the building. They climbed out and slammed the doors. There weren't really any spots with shade, so he made himself a mental note of being careful touching anything when he came back.
"It's understandable, I suppose," Hanbee answered while getting their briefcases out of the trunk and pulling it shut. He handed his to Juuzou and they walked up to the main entrance under the glaring sun. Heat bounced right off the naked concrete and the air around them felt nothing short of the insides of an oven. Hanbee thought of pulling out the small umbrella he carried for Suzuya- the one with UV protection because his boss hated sunscreen with a passion - but they hadn't parked very far away from the doors and would reach them soon enough.
"Don't take his side, you're supposed to agree with me," Juuzou said, shielding his eyes with one hand so he could look up at Hanbee. "It makes no sense, if you're not going to accept the replacement, then just stop complaining."
"You're absolutely right. How dare he."
They passed the automatic doors and stepped into the broad lobby. Surrounded by spotless glass and shiny white marble, it immediately felt several degrees cooler. On the side was an area with couches and low tables that looked like the first class lounge of an airport, ahead of them stretched the information desks under the imposing TSC emblem, a maze of escalators, and a bit further were the RC gates. Those too had undergone a few adjustments. Marude had insisted that time of peace or not, no ghoul should be able to wriggle through their defenses again, and rightfully so. For a long time people had whispered about how hard the Washuu's betrayal had been on the newest director. Even though Hanbee didn't know the man personally, he sympathized with him deeply. He couldn't imagine the feeling of losing so many friends over devotion to someone's lie.
The incredibly high ceiling made every click of the heal echo a hundred times, giving the beat to the constant hum of voices that made the entire place vibrate like a beehive. Sunlight hit the white sides of the lobby, cut out into clean geometrical shapes by wide glass panels, but far enough under the high ceiling that it wouldn't hurt your eyes unless you went looking up to it. It made the entire first floor amazingly luminous with natural light alone.
"You have the schedule?" Suzuya asked as they crossed the floor, swept past security and RC gates. A lot of people stopped there to search in their bags for their badges, and made way for them to step through.
"Yes sir." Hanbee clicked his second bag open and pulled out the sheet of paper without missing a beat.
"Read it out, please." They caught a half-full elevator before it closed. Juuzou nodded a greeting to the people squeezed inside and pressed the third floor button. Amongst them were young Third Classes that exchanged meaningful looks and older investigators who made a point of looking utterly bored. A few people still had mixed feelings about Juuzou's sudden promotion years ago to the new Arima. Hanbee knew the sentiment mostly came from laboriously climbing the rungs to reach First Class by forty, all the while watching a twenty-year-old casually stroll in and take over the spot of a legend. It meant Arima wasn't one of a kind after all, that maybe what they thought to be the strength of a god was actually achievable. Just not by them, and that was frustrating. Hanbee kept his voice low as he read.
"Monday, general meeting at 8:00 AM in the conference room. All ranks one and above will attend. The rest of the day and Tuesday are meant for paperwork. Wednesday, pre-meeting reunion-"
"'Pre-meeting reunion'," Juuzou scoffed. "It even sounds ridiculous. Who came up with those?"
"Uh, the director I suppose."
The elevator slowed and the doors slid open.
"Pre-meeting reunion and briefing of all leadership representatives, Associate Special Classes and above that will be attending the meeting with the United Front. At 10:30 AM in the meeting room #526." Juuzou went at his usual pace, swiftly dodging groups of investigators, and Hanbee followed quickly with his eyes on the paper, trying not to bump into anyone. "Thursday, meeting with the United Front at 7:00 AM, director's office. At 2:30 PM, leadership reunion concerning the outcome of the exchange with the United Front. Friday, all leadership representatives, Associate Special Classes and above will return to their department for a briefing of their teams."
Hanbee had the key ready when they reached Suzuya's office, and twisted it in the lock with his free hand. Juuzou walked in and put his case down at the foot of his desk. The room had its familiar smell of wood and paper with the undertone of flowery products the cleaning crew used. They had about fifteen minutes left before the reunion started. He plopped down in his seat and switched on the PC. Hanbee sat on the other side of the desk, flipped open his laptop and stuck a USB in the port.
"That sounds like a lot of sitting and listening. You'll be attending Thursday's meeting," Juuzou said.
"Understood." That meant he would have to be at the Wednesday meeting as well. Each member of leadership was allowed to chose up to two subordinates that would accompany them whenever they met with the United Front. They didn't take part in the conversations and simply stood by the walls around the gathering with a sheathed weapon. It had become a sort of tradition since the ghouls brought similar guards to these exchanges, though they had always been peaceful. Hanbee handed him the USB.
"It's in 'reports', 'June/July'"
Juuzou plugged it into his own computer and seconds later the printer started spitting out sheets of paper noisily. Hanbee got up and checked everything was in order on his way back to the desk. Suzuya handed him a paperclip and a see-through folder.
"Hey, can I ask you a favor?"
"Yes. What is it?" Hanbee answered immediately.
Juuzou thought a second about asking something improbable, just to teach Hanbee not to give his word so easily. But he saw his earnest look and couldn't bring himself to mess with him.
"I think I might need the walls in my apartment checked. They've been looking weird ever since the guy upstairs had that leak."
"Very well, I'll take care of it." Hanbee flipped open his phone and scrolled through his contacts while Juuzou walked around his desk and headed for the door. Hanbee followed swiftly, and they walked into the busy corridors again. "I'll give the insurance people of your building a call so they can come check the damage. Would you like me to be there when they come?"
"Yes, please. That'd be nice."
Hanbee fell back a few steps and brought the phone to his ear. Juuzou kept walking, listening vaguely to his conversation with the insurance people. It had been years since Hanbee had taken upon himself to organize his life for him, and Juuzou gladly relied on him for anything that didn't concern work. He wondered why he was so bad at handling his own tasks. Hanbee had told him it was common in people who were very talented at something specific, and that there were geniuses who couldn't figure out how to take the train. That had made him feel a bit better.
"Is tomorrow afternoon all right?"
Juuzou looked over his shoulder, slowing down a bit. "Oh, yeah that's fine." Hanbee soon flipped his phone shut and regained Suzuya's side.
"They'll be over at 3:00."
"Okay, thanks Hanbee."
"You're very welcome."
Suzuya pushed the wide, grey double doors and they swung open on the empty conference room. The squealing hinges reverberated in the huge space, making two heads turn their way over on the stage. From that distance it was hard to make out any faces, but their body language was enough to tell who it was. Marude was pacing about, flipping fretfully through a stack of paperwork, occasionally checking if Mabuchi was making any progress with the mic. His chief information officer was kneeling on the short rug of the stage with a metal toolbox at his side. It looked like he was trying to unscrew something from under the podium. As quickly as Marude looked their way, he turned his back on them again and resumed his pacing with fresh nerves, running a hand through his greying hair. He tore through the pages so quickly Hanbee and Suzuya could hear the paper flapping angrily from where they stood.
"Uh. Hello." Though Juuzou had pushed his voice to reach the other end of the room, it still sounded muffled by the acoustic walls, so he thought the absence of reaction meant they hadn't heard him. But on the stage, Mabuchi pulled out from under the podium with a screwdriver in his hand and briefly flashed them his palm as a greeting. Marude finally turned to them, clearly annoyed.
"Yeah, yeah, hi. Go take your seats," he replied in his usual grouchy way.
Juuzou blinked at him, slightly miffed.
"Well good morning to you too. I'm guessing you don't want this?" He asked, pointing to the report. Hanbee held it up.
"Put that over there," he answered curtly, gesturing at the large desk between the two swinging doors. Then he added something that sounded like "smartass", too low to be clear.
"What's up with him," Juuzou muttered, dropping the papers on the desk.
Hanbee didn't answer immediately. Marude had many likeable traits, but his bouts of rudeness weren't one of them. Mabuchi was holding the end of a cable and looking around for where to plug it.
"Maybe he's nervous. They seem to be having technical problems."
The director had started pacing again, but suddenly jumped as an ear-splitting shriek ripped through the air from every corner of the room. The speakers spat out a chorus of metallic interference, whistled a siren-like pitch that slowly died out, and finally settled into silence. Mabuchi was the first one to take his hands off his ears. He stood up from under the podium and tapped the mic a few times before speaking into it.
"Well no fucking SHIT!!" Marude snapped at him, a tinny echo of his voice doubling over through the speakers.
Juuzou shot them a judgmental look only meant for Hanbee to see. His subordinate laughed quietly behind him while he led the way to their usual seats in the front rows. A surprised smile spread on Suzuya's face when he saw who was already sitting there. Marude was putting on such a show he hadn't noticed the third person enjoying it as well.
Kuroiwa's impressive silhouette was occupying the sixth seat down the row. Chin up, jaw thrust forward, arms tightly crossed. It looked like if he flexed now, his triceps would tear his suit and possibly break the armrests. On being called, he turned to rest his round eyes on Juuzou. He got up at once, chest puffed out as always, and strode up to them. The man's eyes sparkled a bit from under the thick brow and he reached down to put a large hand on Suzuya's shoulder. Juuzou had braced himself for the impact but it still made him sway a bit to the side.
"Hm," Kuroiwa grunted and gave him a meaningful nod.
"Hi," Juuzou greeted back with a wide grin. He thought Kuroiwa's square features had grown a lot softer in the years since his son married.
Kuroiwa reached up to pat Hanbee's shoulder once in the same way. He visibly staggered.
"Good morning, sir," he answered, forcing back a wince.
"How have you two been doing?" he asked in a rumbling voice. Juuzou suddenly thought he would do a good documentary narrator, and was thinking over whether he should tell him.
"Very good, sir," Hanbee answered for both of them while Juuzou came around.
They took their seats and Kuroiwa asked about Shinohara, letting Juuzou do most of the talking. Hanbee listened, happy to let Juuzou's chatter distract him from Marude's odd behavior, when the swinging doors squealed open far behind them and footfalls started filling the room. Hanbee glanced up at the director on the stage. He was chasing away Mabuchi and stacking his papers neatly on the podium, running a hand through his hair again. Then for half a second, he threw a look in their direction and quickly away. Hanbee jumped a bit, alerted. What was going on? He looked to his left at Suzuya. His eyes were on the stage too, his smile gone. It was probably nothing, Hanbee thought. Marude had always been a moody character, it didn't take much to get him going. For all he knew he had just found out his motorcycle got keyed. He felt a shift to his right as the seat next to him was pulled down. Juuzou was quickest to react and waved at the newest additions.
He was answered by three concerned frowns. Nakarai was the first to ask.
"What happened to your hand?"
Juuzou looked at it briefly - It had completely slipped his mind.
"It's nothing. I burnt myself last night, Hanbee fixed it." He fiddled with the bandages, surprised at how fondly he thought of the memory. It had been a really nice day. Hanbee caught Nakarai looking over at him for a second, eyes slightly narrowed, and then back at Suzuya.
"That looks pretty bad," Mizurou took Juuzou's hand to inspect it. The worse part was covered by the bandages, but some of the plasters on his fingertips had slipped off and showed his skin practically glowing red.
"Fear not," Mikage joined in. "I happen to have Chrysocolla in my pocket right now." He pulled out a ragged piece of stone of a vivid blue-green color and held it like a mystical artefact.
"Wow, you always have the coolest things. Does it heal burns?" Juuzou asked, eyes locking on the gem.
"He always carries random stones in his pockets." Mizurou shrugged to Fura who had come to sit next to Kuroiwa and peeked over with a confused look.
"Exactly. It works better during the healing phase of the moon, but luckily I always carry Citrine as well, in case you might need it." He pulled out a second stone, this time a small yellow crystal. "It is linked to your astrological sign and will channel the healing power of the planets through to the Chrysocolla."
"Mikage, put the rock away." Nakarai had little patience with Mikage's ramblings.
"Keijin, bird fact." Juuzou knew the magic words to divert Nakarai's attention while he reached carefully for the stones.
"What's your bird fact?" He asked, looking intense.
"Apparently they found out dinosaurs ate pieces of rock, like chickens. And ostriches. Which makes them a bunch of fat birds."
"That's only 35% true. Where did you hear that?"
"35% is an oddly specific number," Mizurou muttered under his breath.
"Even birds cannot reach the cosmos."
"Get swallowed by a black hole and die."
"You guys are a bunch of weirdos," Juuzou stated while pushing the rock under the bandages.
"Suzuya, the rock is twice the size of your hand, what are you trying to do."
"Test out the power of the moon."
"Actually the next blue moon is in two years from now."
"Well that's inconvenient."
Nakarai turned to Mikage. "What did I tell you about space witchcraft. Stop using it on Suzuya, you know he takes it seriously."
"I would expect nothing less of him."
"Hanbee, help." Juuzou held out his hand for Hanbee to untangle the bandages.
They were interrupted by a tap on the microphone, and the conference started.
Hanbee proceeded at a slow pace between the endless rows of shelves in the archive room. All he could hear were his muted steps on the linoleum floor as he scoured the neatly organized folders, head tilted sideways to read the labels stuck to the spines. He heard someone's clothing whisper from ahead a bit too late and nearly bumped into another investigator, intent as they were on their searching. They murmured apologies, and went on.
The conference had lasted little over an hour. Just enough time to get everyone on the same page about the coming week. A novelty that stemmed from Marude's way of directing. It could seem a bit time consuming at first, but it was easily made up for in smoother communication inside the building and with the different branches. Years earlier, lower ranks would have been completely kept in the dark. Now, the computer section of the archive room was busy with people clicking away, walking back and forth between the computer booths and the printer. Except for the occasional whispered greetings at the water fountain, the silence was complete, everyone focused on the same task.
Although Juuzou had never liked the place, Hanbee could happily spend a day looking for an evasive report and not feel the hours pass. In that too, they made a good team. He had already brought a stack of recent reports up to his superior's office, and while he checked through them Hanbee could concentrate on looking for the type of information that slipped more easily through attentive fingers . By now, he suspected everyone had guessed the meeting with the United Front wasn't the final goal of the week-long upheaval. The director had given each division a day and a half to read up on the last year's worth in reports, and that was standard procedure before an operation of a significant scale. He had sensed the trepidation in the conference room as it dawned on everyone a battle was coming, and for the entire day curiosity had electrified the air at headquarters. He felt that energy now, in the zealous look on even the youngest third classes scrolling down their computer screen. He walked around a while longer, and settled for a large binder filled with schematized maps and data of the past couple of months. He tipped it out of place with a finger and slid it out carefully, mindful of the spot he should return it to later. A few sets in the computer section were vacant, so he chose a desk and set the binder down with a thud. The archive room computers were ancient things. Hulking, square machines. Hanbee pressed the tower to life and it moaned angrily, like a fussy old man you had startled out of a nap.
Time ticked away, and it was only about halfway through the binder that Hanbee started frowning. Something wasn't right. He pulled the most puzzling map out of its sheet protector and turned it over for more information. It was blank. He flipped it back and looked closer at the grayscale depiction of Tokyo's 23 wards. Dark arrows jumped between different zones, their width and patterns varying in a way Hanbee had become familiar with over time. Still he glanced at the key on the bottom right of the page, confused. He had never seen this map before, but the date marked it as only a few weeks old. He let his eyes follow the darkest arrow's trajectory once more. Definitely not right. Maybe someone had made a mistake when tracing the map, and in that case he would need to make sure of it, ask for it to be pulled from the archives so it wouldn't lead to any more confusion. He typed the file's long number in the search engine, and a digitized version of the same map popped up on the square screen. He had started squinting at the tiny words, leaning closer in his eagerness than was really necessary when his phone buzzed against the wooden desk. He jumped and gave the room a cursory glance. When he didn't find the annoyed stares he had been expecting, he turned back to his desk and opened his phone quietly. Nobody ever texted him during the day since he shared the same building as the few friends he had. His eyes widened. It was a message from Suzuya. There was no need to open it to know something was either wrong, urgent or both. Hanbee rose from his desk, nearly knocking his chair over. He caught it, steadied it, and hurried out of the room, knowing that if no one had been looking at him before, they certainly were now.
He clicked on the little blinking evelope while he hurried through the hallways.
"I'm in the cafeteria."
A full stop. A hundred possibilities crossed Hanbee's mind as he pushed the button for the fifth floor twice more than necessary. By the time the doors opened, he had worried himself into a nervous mess. He crossed the corridors in seconds, apologized to the couple of people he bumped into at corners, and stepped through the wide cafeteria doors. At this time of day it was practically empty. There was no food on the displays, only faint kitchen sounds coming from behind closed swinging doors. Hanbee looked around at the clusters of tables and chairs, ignoring a small group of investigators taking advantage of the unoccupied space to have a quiet meeting. He walked further between the panels and into sight of the large scenic windows. The city stretched like a moving fresco from one side of the wide room to the other, and a layer of clouds that had gathered since that morning made the brightness bearable. A small shape cut out of the light caught Hanbee's eye, and he walked past the crowd of empty tables to one in the corner.
"Is everything all right, sir?"
There was a moment's silence, where Juuzou slowly detached his look from the window and looked up at Hanbee, then to his own hand still holding the phone.
"This has to be some kind of record."
Hanbee complied. And as he did so, he saw Juuzou was spinning a mug on the table between his hands. He recognized the drink as the mixture of tea, honey and cinnamon he made for him whenever he seemed nettled. Years ago, he had written down how he liked it for one of the cafeteria cooks who was fond of Juuzou, so that he could ask for it any time of the day without having to look for Hanbee. Juuzou sipped his drink, not meeting his eyes. A red flag raised in Hanbee's mind. He waited tensely, but Juuzou had resumed staring out the window and drinking from his cup. Hanbee counted the seconds he spent without blinking, and when half a minute had passed he decided Juuzou had zoned out, and that there wasn't much else to do but wait. He leaned back in the uncomfortable plastic chair and folded his hands on his lap. Hanbee dropped his eyes on the table. Next to Suzuya's elbow was a neat stack of paper. It looked freshly printed, not the files he had brought up to him earlier. He wondered if it had anything to do with why he had called him here, or if he had decided to work in the cafeteria that day. Finally Juuzou sighed, leaned back in his chair and lifted the stapled sheets between thumb and forefinger.
"Did you know about this?"
Something in Suzuya's tone alerted him immediately. Hanbee's look shifted from his unreadable expression to the sheet of paper he was holding up for him to see. He could feel the pair of pitch black eyes pressing down on him from across the table. Leaning closer to read whatever was in the largest font, he tried to get the gist of it as quickly as he could. The sudden, irrational thought that he might be in trouble knotted his stomach.
His weariness was clear in his voice, and it unsettled Hanbee. Quickly he saw the text was cut out in the standard categories of a report, and was slightly relieved to be looking at something remotely familiar. He started reading through it quickly, not wanting to make Suzuya wait, but the further he got into the text, the more he slowed.
"I'm not sure..."
"You're not sure?" His eyebrows shot upwards, his voice suddenly chilling. Hanbee felt weak.
"May I?" He asked quietly, taking the bottom of the paper tentatively. Suzuya let go of it, and Hanbee straightened to finish reading. Bit by bit, it started to make sense. He understood no one had made a mistake when drawing the map. He pulled the paper he had been studying out of the binder and placed it carefully on the table next to the one Suzuya had just handed him. It spoke for itself, and so he stayed quiet while Juuzou's eyes dropped down to what he was showing him. He visibly stiffened, and his expression froze. He had probably hoped as well it had been a mistake. Why else would they only be learning now crucial information the entire building had seemed to share for weeks?
Illustrating exactly what Juuzou's report articulated, the main arrow on the map pointed to the north-east of the 15th ward, Suginami. The entire area had been grossly circled with a red felt pen, but the additional report provided the precision the map lacked. Unfriendly ghouls had been gathering in Asagaya for weeks.
Incredulity warred with dread as Hanbee understood the implications. It seemed so unfair it was grotesque. Like a bad joke he was waiting the punchline for. Juuzou closed his eyes for a second, only the tension in his jaw betraying the calm front he was adjusting on. Hanbee felt the effort it took him to unclench his teeth and complete it. He opened his eyes and spoke in a voice drained of all color. Hanbee felt a chill as he was reminded of the awful days under Furuta's blackmail.
"You got Shinohara's number?"
Hanbee slipped back into the archive room, and was surrounded once more by clicks of the mouse and the clatter of keyboards. The latch clicked behind him and the faces that turned his way were plain with curiosity. Hanbee did his best to pay them no mind. Instead he walked briskly back to his original spot at the computer, head down and silent. He felt much better once he found his seat, sank under eye level and sensed every one's focus shift away from him. He was glad no one had used the computer while he was gone: after a waking shake of the mouse, the folders from earlier appeared on the screen, untouched.
The more he thought over the situation, the worse it appeared. By sending his investigators on two full days of doing nothing but review paperwork, Marude would have known there was a very good chance Suzuya or a member of his team would stumble upon this piece of information. Hanbee could understand rather easily why he would hide something like that from Juuzou. Maybe he had wished to keep him focused on their next task, or perhaps he had just wanted to spare himself the trouble. It was a bit conflicting: Hanbee didn't like at all the idea of Suzuya being lied to, but was glad he had been spared that kind of stress, at least until now. All in all, the concentration of ghouls in Asagaya going slightly up in the past weeks wasn't a matter of so much worry, and the fact that Marude had kept them uninformed was more unnerving than actually harmful. What gave the situation an entire new range of possible dangers was that Marude had apparently given up on hiding it from them.
For weeks, he had made sure no one would report the incidents up to Suzuya. It sounded like an outrageously tedious task. Compared to that, it would have been child's play to remove the information from the servers and archive room as well, at least for those two risky days. Still, he had done none of it. Hanbee now felt they had been meant to find everything out this afternoon. He pondered over the thought. Investigations had always seemed to Hanbee like long, dark hallways. With each new information he could turn on a light and take a few steps. With a good one, the light could even reveal the next switch on the wall and his mind would flow to the end of the hallway effortlessly to the answer. He felt the same kind of thrill now as the realization lead him to his next thought. Marude's tense attitude that morning suddenly took on a whole different meaning. It wasn't irritation he had expressed, but apprehension. He was probably up in his office right now, wondering if they had found out yet and waiting for Suzuya to come barging into his office, demanding explanations. But why had Marude given up on covering the facts? 'Because there's no point hiding them anymore,' a voice answered at the back of Hanbee's mind.
The entire hallway lit up, everything clicking into place with ominous ease. That was what the entire week was about. The meeting, and the hinted at operation that would follow it. Something grave enough to call for the United Front's assistance. That had to mean a lot more ghouls than the map suggested. It was three weeks old, after all. An organization of unfriendly ghouls, dragon orphans maybe. That would be about enough to make the United Front and the TSC seek each-other's help. And Hanbee now had the grim certitude the battleground would be Asagaya. He tried to tidy his thoughts as the new realizations only brought up more questions. Why would ghouls band together and move to that part of Tokyo in the first place? It was a quiet district, mostly residential areas, the population much less dense than the 4th or 13th ward. He remembered reading about similar occurrences: in these areas, missing people cases stood out a lot more, and so it was fit to sustain only a small amount of ghouls that respected each-other's hunting grounds. Unless they were as organized as the Anteiku group had been in the 20th, ghouls didn't band up to feed in those conditions. Hanbee typed 'Asagaya' in the search bar and scrolled through the news, looking for anything that might catch his eye while he thought. They didn't band up to feed in those conditions, unless maybe something unusual happened. Like maybe, a wide gathering of prey in a same spot. Something planned, that would make ghouls start moving weeks ago to wait until the time was ripe, something you could prepare an operation for. Some kind of event, like an outdoors concert, or a festival. Hanbee felt he was on the right track.
He scrolled intensely through the list of main tourist attractions in Tokyo for the next few weeks, waiting for the name of Shinohara's neighbourhood to pop up. Suddenly, his thoughts crept back on him. A festival. His finger froze mid-scroll above the mouse. He remembered walking under the metro tracks with Juuzou, passing small houses and their gardens, festival decorations half-way finished in their driveways, yellow lanterns decorating the front of the station on their way back.
The summer festival, he suddenly remembered. He felt the hackles raise at the back of his neck. Shinohara had invited them to join him and his family. His daughters had entered the paper-sculpture contest. Hanbee's eyes focused on the bright screen in front of him again, and he typed with shaky hands. His finger hovered for a second over the keyboard before he pressed the enter bar. He was only now realizing how slow the computer was. He tapped his foot anxiously as he waited for the home page to load. When it did, he clicked on the image section. The screen filled up with pictures of the event. He learnt it was called the Tanabata festival, and it was full of smiling children on their parents' shoulders, a few of them wearing bright traditional clothes, dozens of food stands, shiny ribbons dancing in the breeze. Hanbee rubbed his face with his hand. God, it was crowded. A real buffet for a pack of renegade ghouls. And in a couple of days, Shinohara and his family would be part of the mix. He asked himself whether Marude had known that as well, and wondered helplessly why he seemed to want to avoid anyone stopping it. Well, he had to admit it wasn't a bad idea on the ghouls' side. They made a good compromise of stricking a quiet place at the perfect date. The cheerful colors and hundreds of people smiling at him through the screen now seemed macabre, hot summer light hitting down on them like a disaster. Hanbee resumed his searching. Soon, he discovered that the Tanabata festival wasn't nearly the most popular event in the area. A week later would be taking place the Awaodori, only a few blocks away. If there was a real tourist and crowd attraction in general around Asagaya, that would be it. Hanbee had spent most of his life in the center of Tokyo, but the name was still familiar to him. He skimmed through the pictures as well. Adding the crowd of onlookers to the endless cortege of dancers that would move up the streets, it was at least ten times larger than the summer festival. Next to it, it even seemed like a quiet market place. That made Hanbee feel a bit better. Though he knew it was very selfish of him, he couldn't help his relief: this weekend wouldn't be as hazardous as he had first thought. It made sense as well, since the meeting was only this Thursday; Marude wouldn't plan an operation on such short notice. What he speculated now was that the operation would take place the following week, using the Awaodori as some kind of bait. How that would work out without causing any casualties, Hanbee didn't know. And he wasn't about to start wondering about it, for even though the summer festival didn't seem like a target of choice, it was still under potential danger. Hanbee suddenly understood why Marude had kept Juuzou out of touch. If anything were to happen at this week's smaller festival, for example an unexplained amount of investigators guarding the place, the ghouls would surely become suspicious of the following week's event and the bait would completely fail. In order for the operation to work, no sign of activity should be shown around Asagaya that could spike the group's vigilance. In that, Suzuya was an uncertain element indeed. If he believed Shinohara's safety was at risk, even Hanbee couldn't be sure how far he would go to protect him, might it mean disobeying orders and making an operation fail. Hanbee surprised himself by feeling sympathy for Marude. No wonder he looked tense.
But the fact was the Shinohara family was planning to go, and though the danger wasn't as immediate as he had feared, they still needed to be warned. It would be all right, he thought. Juuzou had asked him for Shinohara's number in the cafeteria. So doubtless he had called already and told them to stay home. They would listen, he convinced himself. They would stay home and there would be no need to worry any further. Hanbee resolutely shut down the computer and went back to his original task between the rows of shelves.
Alone in his office, Juuzou twirled the small piece of paper in his fingers. He had folded and unfolded it it enough times in the last few hours that it was already crumpled and threatened to tear right in the middle of the phone number Hanbee had written. He had dismissed him at the cafeteria, his own papers and the files Hanbee had brought all tucked under his arm. He flipped through them now, absent. Information was being kept from him, and he didn't care to scour the TSC's bottomless pit of paperwork the way Hanbee could to search for it. He didn't need to either, for what he needed to do came to him in flashes of instinct, not sheets of paper. And something about this whole business had lit up inside him an overwhelming need to protect Shinohara. To go to his house this instant and stand between him and whatever was coming. Because he could feel something was, though he had no idea what. He had pinned his discomfort down to the summer festival he and Hanbee had been invited to that weekend. Suddenly, he didn't like the thought of it very much at all. He wished Shinohara would just stay home with his family. And so he had wanted to call. He kept twirling the paper in silence, kicking the ground rhythmically every time his chair stopped spinning.
He thought of Hanbee, and even though he was the one who had asked not to be disturbed, he wished he were around. His presence always made everything seem to fall into place, like the safe constant of a confusing equation. He was probably downstairs, clicking through page after page of reports to try and find the logical explanation to all this. He trusted him with that: Hanbee was very smart for actual detective work. Putting clues together, reading into data, that kind of stuff. He shook his head fiercely. He was doing it again, letting his mind wander into tangents. His thoughts didn't want to focus, the ball bouncing off the tough subject as usual, but he had to keep himself on track.
So what if he called Shinohara, what then? He would tell him he had a bad feeling about the festival, that he should stay home with his family. Juuzou had a quick flash of the two smallest girls rushing upstairs after lunch to finish their project. The entire family was going out to see their sculpture hung at the festival, their first attempt to bond again as a family after the incident. Juuzou felt a rush of shame, so real that heat pulsed under the skin of his face. He decided there was no way he could ruin that for them, especially over a hunch, no matter how powerful. He put the phone number back on his desk and pushed it away as far as his arm would go. He would have to think of another way to protect them. He would be there, and Hanbee too, so that was reassuring. But he knew how messy a crowd fight could get once people started panicking. He wouldn't feel at ease unless he could bring a small squad to deal with civilians and give him space to fight. As soon as he had the thought, he pushed it away. If Marude were inclined to help with this at all, he wouldn't have bothered hiding it from him. Clearly he had been wanting to avoid exactly that sort of scenario. If he went to speak to him now, Juuzou would bet anything the first word coming from his mouth would be 'overreacting'. Well, maybe he was overreacting, and he didn't care. When it came to that sort of business, underreacting was a lot more dangerous than overreacting. He could figure something out himself, even if he knew it could mean trouble. There were a lot of people in this building who would follow him without checking for the director's approval.
A wave of helplessness quickly put out his determination. Marude had probably already forbid the S3 squad to follow Suzuya on any mission of the sort he was planning. He thought for a second of his own squad, and stifled the idea in its tracks. He wouldn't ask of them to start fighting again for his own personal motives. More than that, it could cause investigators serious problems if they were caught in such an act of insubordination. People could get suspended for less than that, lower classes might even get fired. His last bit of comfort went out as he realized he couldn't ask that of Hanbee, either. He was so used to thinking of their team as a single entity that it hadn't occurred to him he had been about to put him in a terrible position. This was his issue. He would have to manage it by himself, tell Hanbee he couldn't come with them and make up some excuse for Shinohara. Hanbee would understand, he knew, but he felt much more troubled by the idea of going alone than he would have ever expected. He had grown out of being on his own, he understood. The thought was unsettling. He distracted himself by picturing how it would go. They would be in the middle of a huge, cheerful crowd. Shinohara, his wife, his three daughters and him. Shinohara in a wheelchair, the children scampering around, in and out of sight. If something attacked at that moment, there would be little space to move, let alone fight. The crowd would go into a frenzy, uncontrolled, trip over each other and trample children as they tried to escape. Juuzou had seen it play out a dozen times. There would be no avoiding a bloodbath.
He thought for a terrifying second that there was nothing he could do. Finally, he wondered if choosing not to carry the guilt of being selfish and risking Shinohara's safety wasn't the most selfish thing to do, in the end. Maybe he could handle the consequences if it meant his mentor and his family would be safe.
He would tell them to stay home. It was the bleak conclusion he reached as he continued to spin his chair heartlessly. He expected for the sleepiness to come in any minute now. It always swooped in whenever he ruminated over something particularly stress inducing: his brain had more defense mechanisms than the US embassy. Sometimes it was just plain annoying, but for once he welcomed it. Sleeping now meant he didn't have to call right away. He curled up on his chair, bringing his knees to his chest, and dozed off.
The sun brushed against the skyline, clouds around it burnt with friction. Inside the staircase, light spilt from the slanted windows like drapery. Each step was a marble snake that had found a warm place to nap. It was six in the afternoon, and Hanbee climbed up to the gym on the eighth floor. As usual he had gone by Suzuya's office on his way to make sure he wasn't needed, and had found him fast asleep. After grabbing his bags by the foot of the desk, he had left as quietly as he had come.
He returned a few hallway greetings, pushed open the door to the changing room and had barely walked in that he paused, gym bag halfway slid down his shoulder. The place had the dim lighting and thick, misty air of a tropical greenhouse. From a bench near him, a man stood and tugged his sports shirt on, reached under it and sprayed hearty salves of deodorant. The dense air of the room saturated with it, but nobody there minded. Changing rooms all had the same feeling to them, whether they were in high school, the academy or work. It was hectic and focused, everybody got ready for the same thing but no one really payed attention to you either. It was a comfortable place to be. Through the door past the showers, he heard sneakers screeching, bodies thudding against mats, the occasional shout of an instructor. The sounds were coated with the echo of large spaces. Hanbee could almost see the high ceiling of the next room by listening to them. He slowly grew aware that he hadn't moved from his spot by the entrance when the door swung again behind him. He moved out of the way towards his locker and halfheartedly twisted the code into the padlock. The door opened with a keen of metal. Hanbee stuck his bag inside and pulled out clothes aimlessly. It didn't feel right, being here. He had written down everything he had understood that afternoon in the form of a neat e-mail to Suzuya. He had had an idea: the director might not be inclined to help, but there were people outside the building they could ask. The police, for instance. They wouldn't fight, but at least civilians would be one thing off their minds. They could get into heaps of trouble if they went over Marude's head like that, but Juuzou would be the one to decide in the end. Hanbee didn't know exactly when he had fallen asleep, and it made him uneasy to think he might not have checked his mail first. Everything would happen in the next days. Time felt too sort to be going to the gym or sleeping.
He had thought training would clear his head and help him think, but he saw now that it wouldn't work. He was so preoccupied he couldn't concentrate on changing shirts. The insides of the locker stared back at him as an idea formed timidly in his mind. He had been trying to take more initiatives lately, and he was gaining in confidence. He was good at following orders, but he wanted to be someone you could rely on as well. Maybe for once, he shouldn't wait for approval. Suddenly he felt ashamed he had even come here. He looked around the changing room with slight surprise, as if he had just been teleported there without notice. What in the world was he doing? If Juuzou was tired, then he should take it from here. That's what he thought being partners should mean. Once again, he had found himself hiding behind Juuzou's rank to avoid taking difficult decisions. It was self-flattery thinking he had really changed. He pushed his sports clothes back in a heap, tossed his gym bag on top, shut the locker and left the the changing room.
Hanbee sped past the third floor on his way downstairs and did his best not to think about what he was doing. Their squad had never been in good terms with the 15th ward's police station. People considered it a given they would refuse to speak to Juuzou directly, and the few times he had asked him about it, his replies had been short and cryptic. "They want nothing to do with me," or "It's better for everyone if we don't talk." Hanbee knew he used to be affected to the 20th ward, which was close enough, and had assumed there had been an incident while he worked in the area. Not only was he venturing much closer than he liked to disobeying directives, but he was putting himself in the face of possible confrontation. His heart thudded against his ribcage. He climbed down faster to make himself believe it was from exertion rather than nerves.
He touched the black door handle that had spent the entire day soaking up the sun, tried opening it again with his sleeve around his hand and stepped into the car. The floor of it was so low to the ground it was always a bit uncomfortable to get in. He spun the key in the ignition, stepped on the gas a tad too soon. The car stalled brutally. Startled, Hanbee grabbed the wheel, the pounding in his chest made its way up to his head. In the rear view mirror he caught sight of two silhouettes, wavy in the heat. Nameless investigators, laughing together. It felt like tiny furnaces were invading his bloodstream. They weren't laughing at him, he promised himself. He took a deep breath, exhaled shakily and carefully left the parking space.
It was a half hour long drive to Nerima. Hanbee had remembered the address just enough that when he did start feeling lost, signs directing to the building popped up. Traffic had been smooth, and he reached the place in plenty of time. He had half-hoped it would be closed by then, but the sun was still out when he drove down the last small roads. At the next intersection, it came into view. Standing isolated from the clusters of low buildings was the police station, a naked concrete block splattered with blind windows. A single thin blue sign ran down its front and was enough to make it unmistakable. It was planted in his way with no kindness, the way he imagined a high school bully would block a doorway and stare you down. In front of the station was a small parking lot. It was surrounded by overly-groomed greenery, and half of it was blocked out by orange traffic cones linked together with yellow and black striped tape. Hanbee spotted a free space next to the police vans neatly lined up by the entrance and he drove in slowly, hoping no one would come screaming at him he shouldn't be here. He pulled the handbrake, his stomach in knots. His thoughts pattered like static as he shut the door and walked to the entrance. The ground of the parking lot was checkered with tiny, off-white tiles. They were unnaturally clean, and looked liked they belonged to the bottom of a swimming-pool rather than under his shoes. He stepped past the pillars, under the porch, into sight of two sets of glass sliding doors. To keep walking he imagined it was the doors growing larger, rather than him moving closer. It worked; only when they hissed apart an inch from his nose did panic hit him.
Inside, it was white and quiet. It smelt of warm plastic, stillness and shoe polish. A clock ticked laboriously. Somewhere a fan spluttered and beat the air without cooling it. The lobby was so dense with boredom that the pressure could have pushed him clean out. Hanbee braced himself and stepped in cautiously, the way he would if something vicious slept inside and he was scared of waking it. He went further into the room and felt the doors, the walls stare after him with pairs of invisible eyes. It was suddenly ominous that they wouldn't speak or move, as if they purposefully kept quiet while they watched rather than being truly inanimate. He thought of the hedge animals in The Shining and resisted the urge to glance behind his back. His agitation reveled in the confined space like it was its natural habitat.
A pen clicked, a paper flapped. The sounds were smothered by the silence as if it had acquired a physical body and claimed the room. Hanbee looked over at the help desk. A patch of short black hair peeked from behind it, moving slightly left and right as the person turned their head, obviously working. Oddly, the human presence didn't make the place any warmer. The policeman fit with the furniture as if they were of the same species. An officer, he thought. It wouldn't do.
"Excuse me," Hanbee tried. His voice slit the quiet like a knife through cake batter. The hair kept moving from side to side, and without lifting gave a prerecorded answer, his voice merging with the fan's low buzzing.
"If you want to file a complaint please fill out this form, if it's -"
"No, that's not..."He had interrupted him in his haste. He meant to apologize but feared he might make him irritable by wasting his time. He finished his thought quickly. "I came to speak with your superior. Is he in today?"
The patch of hair danced at the edge of the desk a second longer, then lifted to reveal a pair of pulled eyebrows, and finally accusing eyes rolled around to find the source of disturbance. They pinned him with the belligerence of a thrown dart, then widened until there was as much black as white in each. Out of sight behind the desk, a chair reeled back on plastic wheels as the officer slowly stood. He raised an index finger and jabbed convulsively in Hanbee's direction, wrung his neck to check into the back room and back at the unexpected arrival.
"I recognize you. You're with him." He spoke the last word in a drawl. The intended italics were clear in his tone.
So people weren't exaggerating. Panic bulldozed back into Hanbee's mind and his knees went weak. Still the officer's manner of referring to Suzuya irked him, and he was glad he could draw a bit of strength from that. He walked up to the desk, not feeling the floor at his feet, and a hundred stares followed him across the empty room. Get a grip, he scolded himself. He had fought the One Eyed King, he should be able to stand up to anyone. He would ask for what he came for in a confident, courteous manner and be on his way. Maybe if he did well, he could even improve his opinion of their team.
"I can't believe this," the officer scoffed as if Hanbee couldn't hear him and rubbed his brow between thumb and middle finger. Then louder, addressing him directly:
"You think you can just stroll in here?" He had fidgety manners that completed his awkward posture. The trait made him a bit more likeable to Hanbee, so he tried to focus on that.
"He extends his apologies." He resented speaking for Juuzou when he hadn't been asked to. Hopefully he wasn't stepping over any lines; whatever he had done here, Juuzou really had seemed repentant. Hanbee hoped fervently it was nothing an apology wouldn't fix.
The officer's eyes bulged, and he could swear he saw a muscle in his neck twitch. He had his answer.
"Listen here." The policeman's tone sank dangerously low as he struggled to keep calm. His lips pulled back over his teeth in the indignant snarl of a dog who's tail had been stepped on. "My dad spent his best years in this neighbourhood where nothing ever fucking happens, where he got payed scraps off you people's salary to sit and rot here for days on end. Why? Because he studied his ass off to become a respectable police officer, when lunatics like you are given the medals and the fancy cars." He flung his arm wildly at the window showing Hanbee's car next to the two run-down vans. His gesture was so uncontrolled with anger his forearm flapped from his elbow like an overcooked noodle. The car gleamed arrogantly in the sun as if it knew they were talking about it. Hanbee listened quietly, stunned into silence by the unexpected outburst. He tried to understand why he was being personally attacked over the father of a man he'd just met, and couldn't. All the same, he didn't handle well being yelled at. His entire body felt like it was getting dissolved by the officer's words into a mass of weightless water, trapped inside the boundary of his skin. The water grew hotter, until he knew the lightness would rise up to his head and make him feel faint. The officer went on, thankfully oblivious to the distress he was causing Hanbee. He spat out his words like projectiles.
"He spent a modest and honorable life here, until one of you people decided to cripple him on a whim. At least your boss was smart enough to send someone else do his dirty work. I'll extend my fucking foot in his face if he ever shows up."
By the time he was finished, a vein was pulsing at the officer's forehead. He slapped the papers back on the counter and straightened. Once he felt satisfied with the effect, his complexion gradually returned to its original color and he sat back down at his desk theatrically. The following silence was the most uncomfortable Hanbee could remember ever feeling. The walls laughed, the water simmered and rushed in his ears. For a confusing moment, he wasn't sure where to stand. The obvious choice would be to take Juuzou's side, but this time he was hesitant. The few things he had picked up from the officer's rant were perplexing. Maybe sometimes Juuzou could be wrong, maybe he wasn't always to be defended. Just like that he was rocked completely out of his bearings.
"I'm afraid I wasn't informed of what happened to your father," he articulated. He understood he had overestimated himself. He wanted to get back in his car, back to either his apartment or the office, bury himself under a quilt where he could believe he didn't exist or under stacks of paperwork where he could believe he wasn't worthless. He didn't think he could do this. His bones quivered like gelatin and his muscles felt both stiff and numb. He wondered if he would even be able to move and walk away. The officer looked at him, and took his time walking back to where he stood on the other side of the counter to lean in with a twisted grin.
"You want all the gory details, do you?" He spoke, voice quiet with distaste. Hanbee knew he had struck a nerve again and wished he had said nothing. "That's the matter with your lot. Bunch of glorified butchers. You have to be a sadistic bastard to survive in this shithole town. Now you need to get the fuck out of here, and don't make me say it twice."
Hanbee opened his mouth to contest, but no sound came out. His head felt so heavy with lightness he couldn't feel it, he saw through eyes floating in mist. He was suddenly too hot to feel hot, his blood went nauseatingly cold and raised goosebumps over his arms. He wondered what Juuzou was doing right now, and wished he were here. He imagined how he'd make the officer cower behind his desk without raising his voice. How he had taller people shrink under his eye level with a few sharp words. He suddenly felt much calmer. Thinking of him when he was nervous was like having a tiny well of strength at his side that he could tap into whenever he needed. Hanbee pictured the look the officer would be having if he had been rude to Juuzou rather than him, and the man suddenly seemed a lot less threatening. It took effort, but he managed to unfold his lips into a polite smile. He could feign confidence now, and have a breakdown later.
"As I said," he started, and the policeman twisted back to face him, appalled he hadn't moved. "I came to speak with your superior." He tried to put Juuzou's relaxed authority in his own voice, and although it didn't come close to the same impact, it did give the policeman pause. He pursed his lips white, his face flushed red and Hanbee steeled himself for the impact.
"All right, that's enough."
The deep, raspy voice came from a large and square man shuffling his way from the back room, into the lobby. The officer immediately looked down. Each step pulled a wheeze out of the station's chief, his face drawn so low it was tiring to look at. With an impatient gesture he ordered the younger officer away, looking pointedly away from him as if his behavior had embarrassed him. The officer shot Hanbee a last hostile glare and brushed violently through the doorway and out of sight.
The older man heaved a long sigh, the hollow sound of a tired bellow blowing in an empty hearth. He shook his head sadly before looking up at Hanbee. His eyes rested on two fat purple pillows.
"How can I help," he asked sternly.
Hanbee shut the door to his car and sat still for a while, waited for his heart to resume a normal pace. He was very conscious of the policemen watching him from the station window, but he couldn't move just yet. Somehow night had started to fall since he had walked in; red lamps flickered on above the station's porch. It wasn't so surprising, Hanbee thought he had spent at least an hour in there. And in the end he had done it. They had agreed to keep an eye on the crowd that weekend and it was all that mattered. Once he managed to calm down, he knew he would be proud of himself. He pulled out his phone and prepared to scroll uselessly through his read messages when he noticed the time. His mouth fell open. It had only been seven minutes. His phone buzzed in his hand and he unlocked it quickly, thankful for the distraction. At the same time he clicked on the message icon, it buzzed again, and again a third time. Juuzou was sending him messages for the second time in one day. He tried opening the first, but two more came in almost instantly. He waited a second and when nothing else happened he opened the first message again. Puzzlement replaced his fear. They were all blank. He paused. Juuzou had been sleeping when he left him. Maybe he was lying on his phone and had sent him those unintentionally. Still, he clicked on his number and called, hoping he wouldn't wake him. It rang several times before falling to the voice mail announcement he had never bothered recording. Probably asleep, Hanbee decided. He thought mechanically that he should write a report about what had just happened at the station, and remembered he wasn't supposed to be there at all. He would go home and talk to Juuzou about everything the next morning.
Somewhere in the TSC building, Juuzou's phone rang in his pocket, and he shut it down.
Juuzou's eyes snapped open to sound roaring around him. It was deafening, disorienting. White noise, as if he had flicked the radio on between two stations and held it right to his ear at the highest volume. He listened hard, diving into the sound to try and pick it apart into recognizable bits. A sopping quality began to stand out, and his first though was he might be standing under a waterfall. Rain couldn't possibly be that loud. The waterfall seemed to be hitting a hard surface all around. He blinked rapidly, checking he really had opened his eyes, and realized it simply was very, very dark.
He had been inside his office not a moment ago, he was sure of that. So he couldn't be too far. Provided he hadn't left the building. He couldn't understand if he was inside or outside. He could smell the air, but the rain wasn't touching him. It was all so confusing. But there was no need to panic. Suddenly there was something else, another sound underlying the din. A foreign sound amongst the colorless static. A tune. For a second it came through clearly, and was swallowed by the waterfall once more. His phone was ringing. He wasn't sure he had decided to ignore it, or if it simply didn't occur to him he could answer. He raised a hand carefully and groped at the darkness. His fingers brushed something smooth, flat and light. A leaf. With a leap of his stomach he understood where he was. At that moment lights flicked on, freezing him on the spot. They had reacted to the movement of his hand, and now his surroundings were outlined in harsh lighting. The roof.
Rain poured down in sheets from the corrugated iron above his head. For how angrily and thickly it splashed down, it might as well have been a waterfall. The white spotlights barely managed to reach through the water, and as it tried piercing it, it lost itself in the flow and went crashing on the concrete in brilliant shards. A gust of wind, and Juuzou heard drops hammer against the windows below like tiny bullets. He slowly took a step back. He was only now becoming aware his feet were soaked, up to the hem of his pants. His clothes felt heavy with dampness and clung to his skin uncomfortably. Five more steps, and he held his hand out behind him until his palm touched the cold surface of the door. He grabbed blindly for the doorknob, twisted it behind his back and stepped inside. The door shut with a click. The sudden silence beat against his ears as he turned round to face complete darkness. He patted the walls around him, feeling for a switch, but his hands met only smooth metal. As his hearing adjusted, he made out the steady hum of machinery and the whirr of air conditioning. He had come to the roof enough times that even without seeing it, he knew the door immediately led to a long, steep metal staircase downwards. A catwalk, another set of stairs, and there would be a door to the last floor. Maybe there would be a few people working overtime, and a few lights would be on. From there, he would get back to his office and check thoroughly in case he had left himself a note.
A distant creek of metal, and he stiffened. Juuzou's heart leapt into his throat and thudded in his ears. The air vents, he thought. There had only been a fraction of a second between the sound and his understanding of it, but it had been enough for panic to squeeze through the crack. The sudden blow of it made him feel sick with tension. The dark, the sounds, being alone. Memory could be as crippling as a broken rib that had set wrong. All these things picked at it, like vultures tearing bits of flesh with scalpel-like beaks from a beast that wasn't quite dead. If they picked too long it would rise, blackened with blood, to chase them away and collapse again a bit further. The beast rested in his chest now, heavy. It was feeding on the dark around him and swelling quickly. He took a firm hold of his thoughts and slammed them closed, like a heavy door against a draught. He had to get out.
Juuzou reached the second door and stepped into a carpeted hallway. The last floor, he guessed. The ceiling lights weren't automatic, so he would have to find a switch. All he could make out now were the feeble LED powered green lights at the end of each corridor, showing the emergency exits. Somewhere inside him, pride forbid him to go to them. Inside his pocket Juuzou's phone rang again, making him jump. The irritating jingle bounced down the empty hallways and it suddenly made him nervous to think someone might hear it. It was silly, it wasn't like he was hiding from anything. He pulled it out and blinked a few times, letting his eyes adjust to the sudden brightness of the screen. It was Hanbee. Juuzou felt a pang of relief that he immediately smothered. He still needed to find his bearings before he could speak to him, or he would immediately know something wasn't right. He stuffed it back in his pocket, waited until it stopped ringing, and started walking.
The darkness was so complete that rather than stepping down a hallway, he felt he was constantly walking into an opaque wall two inches from his nose. It closed in on all sides, and as he left the door to the roof behind, it took his back as well. He thought of using the light from his cell phone screen, but it only showed small patches of wall and tapestry, and that somehow made it worse. After a few seconds, he realized just walking wouldn't help. He needed to grope for lights on the walls as he went, or feel for the kind of door that led to the staircase. He went on, paying extra attention, letting his hand brush against the smooth walls.
Suddenly there was a terrible sound right next to him, like a garbage truck had just dumped tons of twisted pieces of metal onto a mountain of broken refrigerators. Terror squirted under his tongue like acid, maybe the sound of his phone had lured something over after all, he resisted the urge to roll into a ball in a corner and cover his ears. The sound stopped. A quiet "ding", and light rushed out of the walls. The elevator doors opened.
Juuzou screwed his eyes shut and opened them again. A huge silhouette stood in the cabin, lit from above by cold, sterile light. It looked like an apparition, some haunted thing out of a Satoshi Kon movie. For a second he thought he caught the light gleaming off a set of braces. Icy water injected his veins, and Juuzou wondered if he had finally gone insane.
"Is everything all right?"
It was Kuroiwa's voice. He stepped forward and the light landed more softly on his features.
"Yes, perfectly fine!" Juuzou grimaced at his own tone; he was overdoing it. He felt a desperate kind of anger. Kuroiwa probably knew where the switch was, why wasn't he turning the lights on?
"I wasn't expecting to find you here," Kuroiwa said slowly, looking around as he stepped out of the elevator. "You said earlier you were going home."
Juuzou felt chilled when he understood they had been talking, and that he had no recollection of it. If he asked the right questions, he could get a gist of what that conversation had been without sounding suspicious, but he knew it would be unwise to try anything while his wits weren't completely about him.
"I changed my mind, apparently."
Kuroiwa nodded, and though his eyes fell to Juuzou's damp hair and clothes, then to the trail of wet footprints he had left on the linoleum, he said nothing of it. "I thought you might be interested to know...It didn't sound like you had called already when I talked to him."
"No. Haven't called yet." His voice was like a dust mote.
"He said he understands the risks, but that he still needs to go. His wife agrees, obviously." Kuroiwa chuckled fondly. "Did we really expect anything else?"
"No. No we didn't."
"We can't ask him to live in fear, especially when it's been so long since he's lived. And if his family thinks the same...He says he understands if you don't feel like coming anymore, but if I know you, you're going to want to protect him."
"Take care of yourself."
Kuroiwa gave him a slap in the back that he barely felt. He might as well have hit a block of playdough. Juuzou sought him at the corner of his eye. At least now he would have to turn on a light. All he heard was a door shutting at the end of the corridor. He turned to where Kuroiwa had gone, unbelieving, and saw a feeble string of light at the bottom of an office door, a few paces away. He took a breath and turned to the elevator. Darkness had swallowed it again like the perfect camouflage. He thought of those fish who pretend to be rocks until prey walks by. The buttons were still lit, an arrow up, an arrow down. He pressed the second one, and the doors immediately opened with the same monstrous sound of mechanic jaws. He didn't like the way it looked like an inviting mouth. The light reminded him a bit too much of the bait of a deep-sea fish. He walked away. He stopped. The staircase was right next to the elevators, he knew that. He patted the walls on each side, feeling he might get his fingers bitten off if he got too close to the elevator, until his hand found a cold handle. He pushed it and blue lights flicked on instantly down the winding marble staircase.
It was thirty-two floors down that he started shivering. The air conditioning ran high in the entire building during summer, but it was particularly noticeable in the lobby and the staircase where the marble didn't really hold in heat the same way. His clothes were thin and soaked from standing on the roof earlier, his fingers and toes were numb with cold. At first he had meant to hurry to his office, but he remembered he hadn't taken a coat. After a few more landings he stopped. The eighth floor. That's where the gym was. He had a locker there, but it was mostly empty. He thought Hanbee might have left some clothes in his, though he wasn't sure he could remember the code at the moment. He stepped out of the staircase, carefully remembering where he left it. He was a lot more familiar with the lower floors so he thought it would be okay. Even finding the changing rooms didn't sound that hard. There were more windows too, so even at night lights from the city made edges stand out here and there. Juuzou turned a couple of corners before he could smell the layers of sweat covered by layers of deodorant. As soon as he pushed the door to the changing room open, he regretted everything. It was the metal, he thought. He hated the sight, the sound and smell of metal. His anger from earlier kicked back in, petty and meaningless like a gust of wind, and he let it be because it felt better than being afraid. He wondered what was with people's obsession of putting metal everywhere. He leaned in, keeping a foot in the doorway so a bit of light could squeeze through. A drop of water tapped the floor of the showers regularly. The benches were clean and tidy, only one or two dark masses laid abandoned in corners, a forgotten bag or a lone sneaker someone had found. The metal lockers guarded the room from all sides, looking sinister. They all had long, thin gaps to keep the air flowing, like dozens of tiny breathing mouths. The dark turned a lot of things into metal mouths, Juuzou thought. He knew exactly where the switch was in this room. it was right by the coat hangers on his left, two strides away from the heavy door, just enough that it meant he would have to let it shut behind him before he could reach it. He also knew that in the very center of the room was a small hole for water discharge, in case the showers overflowed or for when the cleaning crew hosed the room down. If he didn't see it, he couldn't be sure how big it was, he couldn't check if he wasn't falling in it. He took a breath and held it, took his foot out the door, it slammed behind him, the ray of light was swallowed by hungry darkness, he took a step, felt the lockers move around him and coming closer with their hundreds of tiny hungry mouths, felt something soppy and rotting tap its way out of the showers, felt the heavy door lock behind him, he took another step, felt the hole in the center of the floor creep towards his feet, felt the huge room next door, the gym with its huge ceiling and huge amount of dark, and flicked the switch. The room scrambled back to normal. Juuzou walked across the room, deliberately stepped on the water discharge hole and found Hanbee's locker. It took him a moment to remember it right but finally the lock popped open and he stuck his hand inside. He stopped, and pulled back to look. Everything was thrown in a heap, clothes and bag. It wasn't like Hanbee at all, he was always so tidy. He didn't like it. A part of him worried, and he thought about the calls he had ignored. If his phone rang again, he would answer. He ruffled through Hanbee's stuff and found a large black hoodie. He pulled it out and zipped it over his wet clothes. It was warm and it smelt good. He felt a bit better. He left the room with the lights on and walked back to the staircase.
Half an hour after he had started searching his office, Juuzou felt sure he hadn't written anything. The paper with Shinohara's number was folded up into a tiny square on the floor but he didn't bother unfolding it. Instead he checked the contacts on his phone, and found he had typed the number in there. He was suddenly uneasy thinking he had used his phone. He checked for any outgoing call and was relieved there were none, but was thrown at how many times Hanbee had tried to call him. It was unlike him to be so insistent. He went to check his messages and gaped at them. Of course Hanbee was fretting. He was scrolling frantically through his other contacts to see if he had harassed anyone else with blank messages when his phone rang, nearly jumping out of his hands. Juuzou took a second to steady himself, shaken. For a terrible moment he was sure his voice would tremble, but it was steady enough when he spoke.
"What's up?" He tried to make his voice lightly puzzled, but still pleasant.
"Oh! um-" The relief was so plain in Hanbee's voice. Juuzou felt none of it. "I hope I didn't wake you, I was just wondering if everything was all right."
For the first time since he had opened his eyes on the roof, Juuzou wondered what time it was, and felt a wave of dizziness when he realized he had no idea. "Yeah every thing's fine. I fell asleep this afternoon so I thought I'd stay late and finish some work. Why do you ask?"
"Well you sent me um, unusual messages?"
"Did I?" Juuzou could tell his voice was going higher with every one of his answers, but he couldn't control it. He was a bike slipping on an icy highway. All he wished for was to hang up before he crashed. Still he left a pause, pretending to check his outbox. "Oh, wow. Yeah, sorry about that, I must have fallen asleep on my phone or something."
"I see, that's what I thought as well."
He didn't know what to answer. His smile quivered.
"Are you sure everything is all right," Hanbee asked carefully.
"Yes," Juuzou answered quickly. "If you don't mind, I have to get back to work now."
"Very well then."
"See you tomorrow." He hung up and closed his eyes.
Juuzou stepped down landing after landing, and for each of them blue lights flicked on. Finally he reached the white tiles of the ground floor and pushed open the doors to the lobby. It looked eerie and foreign without the buzzing of conversations and constant movement. Too clean, too empty, too big. An abandoned space-station. No lights switched on as he walked further in, but the warmth of busy traffic reached in from outside and powdered the room. He stopped near the information desk. The metro was most likely closed, and he didn't have any money to get a taxi. The prospect of the long walk home that awaited him sapped the last of his energy, and his shoulders slumped. It was an hour away at most, but he felt empty and spent. Blank and light as a sheet of paper. The darkness was starting to make him feel ill, and thinking of winding, unlit streets made his head throb. He turned back to where he came from. Maybe he could sleep in his office, turn on all the lights, put on some music. But he hated the idea of walking up the cold staircase again, and even in a lit room, he could imagine the dark seething up everywhere else in the building, circling inside closed rooms and crawling down hallways. Suddenly he didn't know what to do. Stay or go. He resented each option, and they closed up on him as weariness and fear finally clawed their way up his throat and ripped a small distressed breath from him. It died out quickly in the huge lobby.
He couldn't tell how long he had been standing there when he saw two headlights swing out of the road and into the parking lot. They were no bigger than the head of a pin, but they soon flooded the huge concrete desert in front of the building. The car turned and parked close to the entrance, and no longer blinded by the headlights Juuzou could tell how familiar it looked. The door on the driver's side popped open. Someone stepped out, too tall to be anyone else.
Relief flooded Juuzou's mind, soothed as thoroughly and promptly as a piece of red hot metal plunged in icy water. Worries sizzled away into steam. His entire journey between the roof and the lobby suddenly felt so absurd he wondered if he could have imagined it all. Hanbee walked the distance to the glass doors, stepped into the empty lobby and looked around. He seemed to deliberate for a second, typed something on his phone and sat down in one of the lobby's chairs, prepared to wait. Juuzou wondered if he had left right when he had hung up to have gotten there so fast. A moment later his phone buzzed in his hand, and he walked across the floor to Hanbee. He had never noticed before that the tiles on the ground were larger than he was tall, and it made him feel like the smallest bug. Hanbee noticed him and stood to give the shadow of a bow, touching the fingers of his right hand to his heart. The faintness of the movement was largely compensated by how carefully it was executed. Juuzou couldn't remember when he had picked up the habit, it seemed he had always greeted him in this way. It made him feel like royalty.
Now that he was close enough to see him clearly, he couldn't hide his surprise. Hanbee had his hair loosely tied back, he wore a simple short-sleeved T-shirt, trainers and light-fabric pants Juuzou had only seen him wear around his apartment. He didn't carry a bag or a coat, only his phone and keys in his hand. As if he had been ready for bed when he rushed out. It was beyond strange seeing Hanbee at the office in such a casual attire. Juuzou couldn't remember a single time he hadn't strictly abided by the dress code. Hanbee caught on after a moment, and followed Juuzou's look down to his clothes.
"Oh, sorry about that."
Juuzou gave him a humorless half-smile and gestured to his own damp clothes and oversized hoodie, though he knew Hanbee was long past the surprise of finding him randomly wearing his stuff.
"Come on. It's fine." He shrugged and added quickly, "You look good in anything anyway."
"Thank you." Hanbee managed to keep his voice leveled, taken aback by the unexpected compliment. "Shall we?"
I would love to make illustrations for this story, but I'm not sure if you can post drawings here. Although I think I've seen some people do it, so if anybody knows how I'd be happy to learn!
The song playing in the car and for the rest of the chapter is "Breathe me," from Sia's album Color The Small One.
The parking lot was as empty as a Sunday. A light drizzle swirled in the warm air, the ground a huge mirror to the sky.
"You didn't train today." Juuzou's voice floated like one of the small rain particles around them. Hanbee looked down at him and remembered he was wearing the hoodie he should have taken home. It was dusted with microscopic water beads.
"No. I went to the Suginami police station."
It was a second before Juuzou could answer.
They spoke low without thinking why. Rainwater lapped in the shallow puddles they stepped in. Juuzou grimaced. He had had the same idea, but had done nothing. When had he started relying on Hanbee so much?
"Did it get ugly?"
"One of them was very... passionate about you."
"No kidding. You did good, nice work." Juuzou made his voice warm. He was careful not to give his praise out too easily, but Hanbee had earned it with this one. Maybe it wouldn't have been such a big deal for Tamaki or Nakarai who actually enjoyed standing up to people, but he knew how much it must have taken out of Hanbee.
"Thank you, sir."
They reached the car, a lone boat on a flat lake. Juuzou slipped easily past the wheel to the passenger seat, and Hanbee followed. Night poured into the car until he slammed the door shut. Inside was quiet like a velvet jewelry box. Juuzou had already pulled his knees up to hug them and was tracing idly with a finger the relief of the leather seats. Hanbee spun the keys and the radio crackled to life automatically, lights flicked on one by one on the dashboard. Juuzou stared at them in a way that told his mind was far away. Bored voices sizzled on the night broadcast. Some kind of debate. He extended a hand and twisted the volume down a notch.
"You're not going to ask?"
Hanbee froze midway through pulling off the handbrake, and once again as he was about to ask what he meant. The light from a blue dial glinted on the side of Juuzou's eye but didn't touch the iris. Drowned in the dark, there was something brutally calm about his expression. Hanbee switched the radio all the way off.
"It was one of the policemen who worked there a few years back," Juuzou continued. "I didn't like the way he looked at me so I ripped the eardrums out of his head."
Hanbee didn't want to picture it, but his brain was quicker. He gulped and carefully put the car into gear. He could feel Juuzou's stare on the side of his face like it weighted a ton, but said nothing while he backed out of the parking space, feigning concentration. Juuzou had such a kind heart, it was easy to forget what it had been through and the cruelty it made him capable of. He had spoken the violent words so lightly that if Hanbee hadn't known better, he would have taken it for satisfaction. Still, Juuzou was compliant enough to look away and wait until they reached the first red light.
The engine rumbled quietly. They were alone in the streets between the blind faces of sleeping buildings and the sudden serenity of the moment soothed Hanbee's troubled thoughts. Ever since he had gotten his licence, he had loved driving at night for the way the circles with their numbers and needles would light up by the steering wheel. It reminded him of family road trips, half sleeping in the backseats watching his parent's silhouettes speak in low droning voices, feeling safe. Juuzou was fiddling with the radio dials and jumped when the CD player buzzed open. He looked at it begrudgingly for a moment as if it had personally offended him, then picked out the empty CD case he had been toying with that morning on the way to work. It was old and a corner of the plastic was chipped over the off-white paper. Sepia flowers curled around the singer's name. Hanbee looked at him while he compared the title with the CD inside the player and finally put it down.
"So?" Juuzou prompted him. He had worked to make his tone softer.
"So..." Hanbee was glad he had waited for the shock to pass. His answer was genuine. "Nothing, really. You were a different person, it can't be helped."
"That's it? I just told you I attacked an innocent guy, and that's your reaction?"
Hanbee smiled a bit to himself. "Well, not exactly. But I'm not sure you want to hear it."
"I think it's very admirable. People who change."
Juuzou fell quiet. The car started again and he watched the street sneak off on each side of the windshield. An odd feeling bubbled up in his heart. Maybe it was the fact that everything was so unusual and familiar at the same time, like dreaming about a normal day. It wasn't unpleasant. After a moment he looked back at Hanbee from the corner of his eye, keeping still so he wouldn't notice. He was being as kind as ever, but he sounded lighter, more open. Headlights traced his features fitfully out of the darkness of the car. His presence felt soft next to him, effortless. Juuzou smiled. It was like finally peeling off the clear protective plastic from a new screen.
Hanbee glanced back questioningly after a while and Juuzou blinked away, slightly embarrassed.
"I brought you your things," he said, looking at the space by Juuzou's feet. "You left them at my place."
Juuzou looked down, and his expression brightened.
"I forgot I got these." He pulled the backpack up to unzip it, pushed back the sleeve covering his right hand and took out the small blue rabbit. He stroked the long ears for a moment with a wistful sort of look, then hugged both items tight between his chest and his knees, snuggled deeper into the hoodie. Hanbee rolled down a window and heavy air blew roundly into the car, ruffled in Juuzou's hair like a soft blanket, swept his bangs from his forehead. He closed his eyes to the smell of rain. Hanbee gave the CD player a nudge so it would slide shut. Music played softly and Juuzou sighed. It was nice being with someone who knew him well. He didn't move for the rest of the ride home.
He could tell they were getting close to Shibuya when traffic started to slow. Voices rushed through the window from outside, bar signs and nightclub neons waved behind the constant flow of people, bases boomed loudly from the buildings' stomachs, groups of friends in eccentric clothing clustered at their entrance. It was like looking into tropical waters from the insides of a submarine. Shibuya was one of the trendy districts for young people to be, but in its own special way. It had a deeper pulse to it than places like Shinjuku, buried under the polished store fronts of the day. An underlying roughness carefully saran-wrapped for tourists to skim over. But the 13th ward came alive at night. Stores waited for the sun to drop before they blinked open from nooks of concrete and back alleys. It was never really dark under the canopy of advertisement lights, and though he felt more at home, Juuzou was almost disappointed when the car pulled to a stop in his street. He waited for a group of girls in vibrant coats to strut past, shut the door and stood on the other side of the open window with his bag hanging from a shoulder. A loud cheer came from one of the bars, followed by the clinking of glasses.
"Thanks for the ride," he said. He was hugging his elbows as if he were cold.
Hanbee expected Juuzou to turn and go home straight away, but he surprised him by hesitating on the spot. He stood in the street still glistening of fresh rain, teenage chatter twinkling around him under alien lights, and Hanbee thought that the night suited him. In a few hours, the sky would begin to lighten and he suspected that left alone, Juuzou wouldn't try to get any rest. He felt a surge of concern at how tired he looked.
"Have you eaten at all today?" Hanbee asked.
Juuzou shrugged. "I had breakfast."
Hanbee held back a frown. He knew how much Juuzou loved food, and it saddened him to see him skipping meals. It was usually a good indicator of the mood he was in. He thought for a second.
"I'll cook you something," he decided. "Then I'll go."
Juuzou looked at him appraisingly for a long moment.
"Suit yourself," he finally said and walked away.
Hanbee got out of the car quickly and followed. He reached Juuzou as he was twisting a silver key in the black metal gate. The glossy paint was crumpling away and Juuzou pried it open with a jolt that shook off a shower of raindrops. Water dripped steadily from one of the top floors and pooled in a dip of tiles, mixing with rainwater. Juuzou disappeared up the dim stairway and Hanbee bent to avoid hitting his head on the low ceiling. It was narrow and winding, the walls off white and rough enough to graze his skin. A large moth dozed in a corner, cleaning supplies had been left on the landing. It was such a tight space it could barely fit the both of them while Juuzou picked another key and twisted it in the round handle. He kicked off his slippers, left them askew on the small patch of carpet by the entrance, stepped up the wooden elevation and walked inside. Hanbee followed the same steps and closed the door behind them.
It was more of a room than an apartment. Once inside, you could see everything in a glance, the same way you would turn a model between your fingertips and peek inside. It had been carefully crafted: its sides were plastered with warmth and memories, in a way that reminded of those people who wrap their heads in foil to keep the eyes of the world out. Lining the coat hangers, Hanbee recognized the bright birthday cards their squad sent each other on their birthdays or during the holidays. He could tell who had written which without looking at the names. Scattered amongst those were a few hilariously bad drawings from the games and contests they made up together, a few polaroids of pieces of sky from when Mizurou had brought his camera to lunch break. Smaller objects were stuck to the walls with blu-tack or patterned tape like charms: a leaf, a pebble, the shell of a snail, a piece of striped fabric, a supermarket receipt for a watermelon. Blotches of color caught his eye, and he spotted small stickers sprinkled over the bottom of the walls and the ceiling. Juuzou had only turned on the bedside lamp, and it wove the room with cottony gold threads, made the unremarkable items shimmer like treasures. Walking through the room, light tendrils caught like gilt between fingers and eyelashes, crackled as if it came from a fireplace that danced at the limit of your vision.
Straight ahead was the kitchen. It had a homespun way of being out of fashion. The boiler spilt its metallic insides down the rough walls, the gas cooker was blackened by use. To the left was the bed. So large and snug that the rest of the room seemed to arrange itself around it, like a large cat peacefully asleep in the way. Hanbee never went to the back of the room because it was so much trouble for him to get around it. It didn't seem to bother Juuzou at all, he slipped through the furniture easily to get to the large beige closet in the corner, the square desk covered in art supplies by its side. Hanbee saw it before he needed to ask: from the ceiling and under the air conditioner, the paint warped and bulged from the walls like someone had done a very poor job of sticking the wallpaper. Hanbee understood it was the leak Juuzou had mentioned - it was on the same side of the building as the dripping water he had noticed by the gate. He was glad the workers would be coming the next day for the estimate, and hoped water wouldn't start spilling out the walls before then. Separating the bedroom and the kitchen was a prefabricated shower room, planted there like a lego block. A row of heavy, deep yellow curtains split the room like a sun ray and the meadowy fragrance of mite repellent floated under the smell of almond soap.
The space was filled to the brim with Juuzou's aura.
He had already gone for the bed, tucked himself between the wall and a pillow. Hanbee felt like a giant in a rabbit's burrow. He went straight to the kitchen, took a look around the cupboards and started pulling out pans and utensils. The bedsheets rustled behind him, and he guessed Juuzou had rolled over his way.
"Could you check if there's any drinks left in the fridge, please? Bottom left."
Hanbee found the door to the fridge by his knees, covered in magnets of animated TV shows, and crouched down to look through it. It was practically empty except for different kinds of overly-sugared soda next to huge bottles of unsweetened tea. It didn't surprise him since Juuzou mostly lived off take-away. When he was in his early twenties, the kitchen would have been stacked with junk food. Now Hanbee could tell he was being more careful not to eat outside of meals. By nature he was slim, but it got a bit harder with age for people of his condition to stay in shape. The drinks were an exception; Juuzou had made him try the brand once, and it had tasted nothing short of flavored, slightly watered-down syrup. Sugar gave Juuzou an energy peek that also left him exhausted. Hanbee thought it wasn't the most healthy way to go about sleep issues, but said nothing of it. He picked one of the cans and held it out over the door of the fridge.
"Is this what you wanted, sir?" Juuzou looked over his shoulder and slid off the bed.
"I really do wish you wouldn't call me that when we hang out." He walked to him, feet light and soundless on the blond floorboards.
"Juuzou. My name's Juuzou. So you are officially allowed to say, 'Is this what you wanted, Juuzou.'"
"Is this what you wanted, Juuzou?" Hanbee corrected himself, the can still in hand.
Juuzou stared at him, took it and cracked it open.
"Is something wrong?"
"I didn't think you would actually do it."
Hanbee laughed and started looking through the pantry. "I'm guessing it's not as nice as you imagined."
"Nope. It's very nice."
He hid his smile behind his drink and watched Hanbee find his way around the drawers as easily as if it were his own apartment. For some reason, it made Juuzou happy. He decided to let him concentrate on what he was doing, so he took a straw from a drawer, dropped it in his drink and went back to bed. He had gotten light pink sheets because he thought that was the prettiest color to have sunlight shine on, mostly in the afternoon when it was hot and orange. He felt something square and pulled out a two week old Jump edition from under the pillow. For a while he flipped through it and sipped his soda, listening to the kitchen sounds. Hanbee had pulled the metal string that dangled from the extractor fan and it spun inside the wall, showing little fragments of sky outside. It was already starting to smell really good, even though Juuzou was sure his cupboards had been mostly empty. He finished reading the chapter of a manga he didn't know the name of and slammed the magazine shut. He wondered if he could drink from the can upside down and rolled onto his back to try. After a minute of balancing it perfectly between his knees he was bored again and glanced at Hanbee. His back was still turned to him and he seemed busy, so he rolled over and found the remote for the TV. Facing the bed from on top of his drawing desk, it was the most ancient thing, left behind by the last owners. It was almost as thick as the screen was wide. Juuzou had thought it looked cool so he had kept it, and the console Mizurou had given him for his birthday worked on it just fine. He switched it on, climbed out of bed to press the button on the console and pick up the controllers. He tried guessing which game he had last left in it, and thought it was probably the one Saiko had lent him. He walked around the bed a couple of times juggling the remotes and controllers while it loaded, and when it took too long he decided it was time to go bother Hanbee. He threw them back on the sheets and walked up to the kitchen.
Hanbee looked over at the sound and smiled down at him. Juuzou watched him chop onions he didn't know he had on a wooden board he didn't know he owned. The soda was starting to kick in; he felt fidgety, and a question had been rolling around in his head for a few minutes like a pebble in his shoe. Fuck it, he thought. When he finally spoke, it was a little more energetically than he had intended to.
"Why are you really here?" He asked.
Hanbee turned to him, surprised. "You know why."
"I'm not sure I do, actually."
"Maybe you've had enough of-"
"Don't you dare blame the drink, Hanbee." He held the can away protectively.
Hanbee thought of his answer while he cooked. He felt dangerously comfortable and close to speaking his mind. It would only take a bit more of Juuzou's prying to make him say something he would probably regret the next day.
Juuzou watched him. There was a boundary that kept Hanbee from giving him an honest answer, but he could sense it was shear and friable like a slab of frost, thinner than it had ever been. Maybe he could make it easier for him, he thought. He gave it a jab, watching closely for any sign of discomfort.
"You know there's some people who think we're dating?" Hanbee turned so quickly he hit the handle of the pan and almost had it catapult the food across the room.
"What? Wait, what? Who-why??" Juuzou looked him up and down with a smirk.
"You're in an apron cooking me dinner, and you're asking why?"
"Well... still, I don't think they should assume."
"Does it bother you?" He asked, looking down and toying with the straw.
"Not to blame your drink, but you have been asking very tricky questions since you opened it."
"Maybe I'm expecting tricky answers."
There was a clatter as a the spice bottle Hanbee had been opening leapt out of his grip and tumbled into the sink. He looked at it quietly, then at Juuzou.
"What?" Juuzou giggled.
Hanbee picked up the bottle again and got back to the stove. "I'm not sure how serious you're being."
"Mostly kidding around," he admitted. "But I still want my answer."
"...You won't say afterward that you didn't make me say it?"
"Promise I won't."
Juuzou waited patiently while Hanbee thought over his phrasing, finally feeling a bit nervous. He picked up a piece of onion skin from the chopping board. It cracked like tracing paper. He held it under the lights and looked at the vein-like streaks.
"Because it's important to me, to make sure that you're well."
For a moment there was only the sounds of the fan spinning in the wall, the noodles sizzling and the wooden spoon mixing them in the pan. Juuzou put down the onion skin. The feeling he had gotten in the car seized him again. Like someone had snapped one of those pocket hot-water bottles inside his stomach.
"Wow you're right, I didn't want to hear that. I feel extremely awkward."
"That doesn't sound like you at all." Hanbee tapped the spoon on the edge of the pan and went to rinse a knife in the sink. Juuzou shifted to give him space.
"Yeah," he sighed. "I've been very out of character today."
"Would you like to tell me about what happened this evening?"
"Not really, honestly."
They were quiet for a moment. Finally Juuzou gave in - it didn't seem fair to shut off when Hanbee had made an effort to be honest with him. He finally felt like he had shed off the layer of reverence that always, more or less strongly, distanced him as his underling. He didn't want the gap to reappear so soon.
"You know what, fine. You'll need to realize someday I'm not an invincible unicorn." He grinned. "I know it's hard to believe."
Hanbee looked at him and thought smiling made his eyes look pretty.
"I don't see that ever happening."
"Really. I can't think of a thing you could say to make me think less of you."
"Fun game. Maybe I should make you guess."
"There are so many ways that could go wrong," he laughed.
Juuzou considered that for a second and agreed with a sideways tip of the head.
"I'm afraid of the dark," he said.
Hanbee's response was to clasp a hand over his mouth, but not before he puffed out a small laugh.
"You're laughing!" Juuzou huffed out, appalled.
"No! I'm not, I swear I'm not!"
"I don't know if I can say it."
"At this point you can go ahead, I'm already offended."
Hanbee heard the smile in his voice and knew it wasn't true. He ended up mumbling behind his hand. "It's adorable."
Juuzou smacked a hand on the counter in protest. "'Adorable' is another word for when people you like are being ridiculous."
"Okay," he agreed. "In that case, I meant adorable as in 'charming'."
There was a short silence that left Hanbee free of thinking over the fact he had just called Juuzou 'adorable' and 'charming'.
"Your turn," Juuzou suddenly announced.
"I'm being real and vulnerable here, you have to say something embarrassing too or it's not fair."
"Didn't I just do that?"
"Come on." Juuzou put an elbow on the counter and made himself comfortable like he was waiting for storytime. His life being a compilation of embarrassing moments, Hanbee had lots to chose from and while he thought, his look met Juuzou's. Something had shifted. Like someone had kicked down a wall in a small room and discovered a clear veranda. Light poured into his thoughts. He was speechless for a second. There was something he wanted to say. At the last moment he did a 180° turn in his mind and blurted out:
"I was a boy scout once."
Juuzou instantly laughed so hard he wheezed. When he smiled wide, a little bit of his lower teeth showed. One of the front ones was a little crooked, tipped sideways over the other because he'd never gotten his wisdom teeth removed. Hanbee had decided that when that tooth showed, it meant Juuzou was happy, and that he was doing his job right. It was so rare for him to laugh so freely that Hanbee chuckled along, touched.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to laugh," Juuzou said, catching his breath. "But it's so like you!"
"Can't say it isn't," Hanbee admitted with a grin.
"Does it mean you know how to build a fire?"
"And set up a tent?"
"And you can make an actual scout's promise?"
"I suppose so. Though I can't remember if it still works once you quit."
"I think that's really cool."
Hanbee glanced at him, and knew he had stopped joking. "Most people think it's lame."
"Most people are lame. You're one of the cool ones."
Hanbee had never been called cool in his life. Before he could collect himself enough to respond, Juuzou had disappeared to the bedroom again. The veranda danced before his eyes like an afterimage.
It was a few minutes later, when he was about done and thinking of grabbing a bowl and chopsticks that a colorful box appeared in front of his face.
"A game," Juuzou explained. "We played it with the Quinx at the Christmas party."
"Oh, I remember."
"I'm not ready to sleep yet. I thought we could play it. Unless you need to get home."
"I don't need to go anywhere, I'll be over as soon as I'm done."
"Nice," he grinned and was out of sight.
Hanbee pushed half the noodles from the pan into the bowl, shut down the stove and clicked the fan off. Once all the mechanic humming had stopped, he noticed the sound of a dubbed American cop show coming from the other side of the room. Juuzou had turned on the TV and was tugging a brush through his hair. His pants had been thrown to the ground and he sat cross-legged on the bed, his frame swallowed up by the hoodie. On the screen, a man put on his sunglasses and walked away to an electric guitar riff.
"Here you go s-" Hanbee interrupted himself and glanced at Juuzou. He looked back expectantly. "Juuzou."
"Thank you, Hanbee," he articulated meaningfully and took the bowl. It was white with small blue fish patterns.
"You're welcome," he smiled and bent to pick up Juuzou's clothes. They were still damp from the rain - he guessed he had been out during the downpour earlier that evening and wondered what he could have possibly been doing. He spread them neatly over the back of the chair by the desk, so they would dry properly.
"You're not having dinner?" Juuzou asked quickly. Hanbee could tell he was worried he might ask more questions. He went back to the bed so Juuzou could relax.
"I did. At home after work, not at 3:00 in the morning."
"Stop shaming me."
He held out a hand and Juuzou passed him the brush over his shoulder without glancing back, eyes glued to the TV. After the first bite he ate fast, as if the food had made him realize how hungry he was. Hanbee pulled the brush through his hair carefully. It made it slightly poofier. He caught whiffs of his own shower gel and wondered how his hair could be so healthy when he washed it with soap. From this close, a shimmer caught his eye; silver peeked through the black here and there. Hanbee turned a strand in different angles under the light. It was really pretty to look at. It reminded him of those plates for engraving they gave them in elementary school. They would scratch off the mat black paint and reveal a drawing in the shiny metal underneath.
"I think you might need to dye it again soon."
Juuzou groaned and reached back to pat his hair as if he could have felt its color.
"It doesn't show that much," Hanbee assured him.
"It can wait, then. I'll just stay out of the sun."
"Eyebrows?" Juuzou tipped his head backwards for Hanbee to check. Hanbee's thumbs hovered over his forehead as he looked closely. "They're fine." He turned a question over in his head. "You don't do anything for your lashes."
"They've always been dark. That's all the hair I have, you can stop asking."
Hanbee laughed at the shameless joke and continued combing until Juuzou put the chopsticks down and set the bowl aside, empty.
"It was really good."
He switched remotes and the show was replaced by the video game's saturated menu screen. Juuzou picked up a controller and held the second one out for Hanbee. He looked at it with slight apprehension; he played video games on a steady average of once a year. Juuzou sensed his hesitation.
"If you want I can play a round so you can watch, and then we'll play together."
"That sounds good."
Juuzou clicked on the start button and the colorful image whirled away to show a countdown to the start of the game. Upbeat music filled the room and Juuzou leaned back casually on Hanbee, started flicking expertly at the buttons on the controller. After a moment Hanbee leaned back on the pillows as well.
"Hey, can I say something? I don't mean it in a weird way."
Hanbee realized he had been dozing off when Juuzou's question made him blink his eyes open.
"I was thinking I wouldn't mind dating, if it could be something like this."
They were having a general conversation, Hanbee reminded himself. He had prepared for the question to make him nervous, but the feeling never showed up.
"Just being comfortable?"
"Yeah. This is enough."
Hanbee watched the first round end with the room cozy like an eggshell, downy like foam in a bath. Juuzou's score flashed on the screen like a parade.
"I know what you mean."
Juuzou turned his head with a smile, and gave Hanbee a look with the second controller. Another wall fell down, and he distinctly felt he had been allowed a bit more into Juuzou's life. The music picked up again and he looked over at the screen. This time, Juuzou clicked on the "two players" icon. A new game started.
Time passed, and Hanbee fought to keep his eyes open. He could tell the sun had begun to rise behind the yellow curtains. He blinked hard and focused on the game again. For long, the plastic clatter of the controller buttons went without fail. He thought it was about when the first bird chirped in the distance that the character on the right side of the screen started zigzagging, then completely missed a turn and went crashing into the side of the tracks. Hanbee stared at the screen for a good second, dazed with sleep, before he pressed pause and looked back to the pillows at Juuzou.
At some point through the game he had fallen to his side. Now, one hand still around the controller, eyes closed and mouth slightly open around soft breaths, he was fast asleep. It took Hanbee all his will not to do exactly the same, but he knew Juuzou wouldn't be comfortable finding him in his bed when he woke up. For a reason that escaped him, Juuzou didn't mind sleeping next to him when he spent the night at his apartment, but he had never offered he stayed over at his own. Hanbee had never really looked for an explanation, he simply accepted the boundary. He pushed himself up and off the bed, trying not to think of how soft and inviting the covers felt under his hands as he did so. His legs feeling stiff he walked around the furniture, and slipped the controller carefully out of Juuzou's hand to put it back by the TV. He switched everything off. The cheerful game music gave way to the clean, cottony silence of the first hours of morning. He went to each window to pull the curtains tighter and felt the fresh air that hung around them. The sun was a drop of bleach low behind the houses. It pushed the colors of the night further and further back.
He turned to look at Juuzou again. Whenever he slept on his side, he always made sure one of his legs wasn't hurting the other. It took him a moment to remember which one was the prosthetic and to realize he was indeed laying on his wrong side. If he woke him it would be close to impossible getting him back to sleep. So, carefully, he took his right calf and slid its weight off his real leg. There was already a small red bruise on the bump of his ankle, but it would fade away in no time. After a last look around to check everything was properly turned off in the kitchen and if Juuzou looked comfortable, he picked up his phone and keys, stepped into his shoes and slipped out the door soundlessly. He kept the handle twisted until the door was closed all the way. It latched without a sound. Hanbee stepped down the narrow staircase, past the small black gate that had thankfully stayed unlocked, and out into the street. He took a moment to breathe in the morning air - it was the coolest it would be all day - and wondered if he should go back home for a short nap, or if he should just give up on sleep for the day and get to work a few hours early. He wasn't dressed for the office, but if he could get to his locker quickly he would find the spare suit he kept there. He decided on the second option, but still put his car keys back into his pocket. Keeping his eyes open was enough of a challenge, he didn't trust himself to do it driving. The metros would start running again in about fifteen minutes; he could take his time walking up to the nearest station and still catch the first train.
It was easy to forget how much Juuzou worked. He made such light of it that people believed he did nothing but slack off between operations, and left the rest to his subordinates. Hanbee shook his head at the shear amount of work built up on his desk like model skyscrapers. When he thought he had gathered it all, he found a new stack in a drawer.
He had gotten to the TSC so early that not even the receptionists were there to see him before he changed. On his way to Suzuya's office he had worried he might find it locked, but the door had been wide open. He remembered the previous night's phone conversation, and thought that although he could take a guess, he still didn't know what had happened then. After picking up a few upturned folders from the floor, he had gotten to work.
Juuzou hadn't asked for a day off, it was just how things had played out. So Hanbee had decided that he would catch up on his work for him. At least, everything he thought Juuzou would trust him to handle in his absence. His superior was organized enough that it wasn't too much of a puzzle to carry on where he had left off. This way when he showed up, he would only need to name-stamp the bottom of a few pages and call it a day. Hanbee picked up a ball-pen and flipped open the first folder when the office door swung open. He looked up tiredly to catch Nakarai frowning at him from across the room. He did a double-take when he didn't find who he had expected on the other side of the desk. Hanbee wondered why he wasn't at the Academy, and remembered the students were away on internships or summer holidays.
As usual Nakarai skipped the greetings, right to the point. "Where were you yesterday?"
Hanbee rubbed a hand down his face, tried remembering the concept of time. "I was...running an errand-"
"Didn't think it was worth mentioning? Tamaki was looking for you: you're behind on your work. Also I'm not sure I would be skipping training if I were you. You're not that good."
"I'm sorry, it won't happen again."
"Suzuya?" he asked sternly.
"...sleeping in," Hanbee admitted.
He was shot with a glare.
"It suits you," Hanbee smiled tentatively. "Being a teacher."
Nakarai was the ideal combo of caring, terrifying and brutally honest. A lot like Juuzou, in a way. He looked at him in surprise, and slammed the door shut without another word. Hanbee caught him smiling back before he disappeared.
Noon had come and went by the time Hanbee looked up from his papers and felt coffee was necessary. He had started feeling tense as he saw how unrealistic it was to think he could finish everything in a day's time. He really did want to be able to do that for Juuzou. He grabbed a few pages of his own work and left Suzuya's office for the break room down the corridor. He had found a quiet spot near the window and put down his pen to pick up his cup when he overheard the conversation. At first he didn't pay it much attention, it simply registered in a corner of his mind as he finished working.
Someone shuffled through papers in a way that managed to sound panicked, and read out:
Hanbee's attention spiked like a string had been pulled.
A scoff. "You don't know where you've been assigned?"
"No I do, I was just checking t-"
Group laughter covered the end of the sentence. Hanbee looked up and saw a few heads around him had already turned towards the commotion.
Near the vending machines, a group of hulking investigators sat in wide sofas around a small oak table. The one who had spoken was a balding man with unkempt facial hair, and the unfortunate other side of the conversation was held by a kid in an unfitting suit. His tie was askew and badly done, his hands shook compulsively around his papers. Hanbee figured he was the new intern he had heard about in the past weeks. If he remembered right, he belonged to the 5th Academy's cadets, and must have completely lost his way to end up in the third floor break-room. He felt a wave of compassion for him, and impatience for the older investigator.
"We're just playing with you. Come on, sit down. S3, huh? Nervous?"
"...should I be?"
The man jabbed his neighbour with his elbow for attention."He's asking if he should be."
"I know I would," he said once he caught on. Others around the table chimed in.
"You know who leads the S3 Squad?"
"General Suzuya Juuzou, sir," the intern answered quickly, eager to show he wasn't completely clueless.
"'General Suzuya Juuzou'", someone echoed in a derisive tone. "You can drop the rank. Nobody does that anymore. Yeah, it's Suzuya."
Hanbee had a bad feeling. He should have left while he still could; it was too late now that other people had caught the gist of the conversation. He tried his best to tune it out, but he had finished whatever work he had brought with him and had nothing left to focus on.
"So what rumors are going around the Academy, these days?"
The intern looked around uncomfortably. It was clear he had stopped by for directions, and was now stuck with people who had no intention of helping. "I wouldn't know. I don't really listen to rumors."
"Yeah we get it, you're such a good person. Come on, spill it!"
He had resisted their invitations to sit down so far, but finally gave in when the investigator pulled him down into a chair. The intern clutched his briefcase to his chest, and there was only a short pause before his curiosity got the best of him. He spoke in a whisper, like you would tell a ghost story over a campfire.
"People say he's killed two girls from his class. Twins?" His eyes had gone wide and he looked quickly between the investigators.
Hanbee ignored the few people in the room glancing his way. Briefing his team about this type of situation was one of the first things Juuzou had done: they weren't to try and defend him in any case. He had insisted that the way to gain coworkers' respect was through results, not schoolyard arguments. And Hanbee had fervently agreed. For a long time it had been tough for everyone to keep quiet, but people's opinion had slowly started to change. Nowadays, any decent investigator had some level of admiration for Juuzou. It was hard to find anyone speaking ill of him anymore, which was infuriating to the very few people who hadn't been charmed. A newcomer was an easy target to drag to their side of the argument.
"Not bad, close enough. He killed at least one."
The intern visibly swallowed and his voice shrank to almost nothing. "Did that really happen?"
"If you want the real gross shit, you should swing by the hospital wing. They tell the best stories," someone else added.
"I heard he lost a leg." The kid's breath carried the gossip of an entire school.
"That's nothing." He leaned closer for effect, but didn't drop his voice. "I was told he got his stomach sliced open during a fight, guts literally spilling down to his feet. You know what he did?"
The intern shook his head, his cheeks like two pale moons.
"Pushed it all back in," he said, mimicking the gesture for shock value, "pulled out a needle and sawed it back together. Just like that."
The intern opened and closed his mouth wordlessly like a fish gasping for air. The investigator on his other side gave him a slap to the shoulder and the shock rippled through him like jello.
"You'll be back with some good stories for us."
"I'm sure they're not all like that in S3," he tried.
"Don't fool yourself. They put all the nutcases together."
The kid gulped. "Do you have, uh, any advice that would make this easier?"
"Dunno." The man shrugged and thought for a second. "Be careful not to step on him."
Another explosion of laughter shook the table. The loudest guffaw belonged to the one the joke came from.
The intern waited for relative silence to resume. "You keep saying 'he'..."
"I just wanted to make sure. I wouldn't want to...well. He looks..." He stopped and shook his head sharply. "I shouldn't have said anything."
"No it's okay, every one's thinking it. He looks like a chick. You want to know why?"
The rest was murmured too low to catch, but the intern winced at the words and crossed his legs protectively. "Now you're just trying to freak me out."
Hanbee gritted his teeth until his jaw hurt. He thought of what Juuzou had said when they had climbed into the car, about what had happened years ago at the police box. He had done it because the officer had 'looked at him the wrong way'. Looks did bother him. Knowing that made it ten times harder to stay still while his appearance was being mocked. It had always been a relief to Hanbee, thinking he wasn't allowed to interfere; he became aware something small had changed in him when it infuriated him instead.
"He thinks we're lying."
"That's cute. I give him a week."
"Have you talked to him already?"
The intern shook his head. "Not yet."
"Oh boy, you're in for a treat."
"What do you mean?" His voice broke.
One of the men cleared his throat and began speaking at such a high pitch it made his voice crack, all the while shaking his hands around limply from his wrists.
"Look at me, I self-harm in the flashiest way possible, give me attention! Where's my edgelord medal, I need more to cover my inner scars!"
The full table bellowed in laughter at the impersonation, safe the intern. Outrage chocked Hanbee. People were openly staring at him now, beyond offended, wondering why he wasn't saying anything. He stayed glued to his seat.
One of the investigators caught his breath just enough to speak, face reddened by laughter.
"God, the hand gestures."
"There's no way he's straight."
"Hear that? You better watch out, kid."
Hanbee felt his ears burn up, the sides of his vision blurred. He wondered how long they could possibly keep going. Embarrassement finally registered over the shock freezing the intern's face.
"I don't think that's v-"
Someone turned from the coffee machine then, and the room gradually fell quiet. Everyone looked down at their desk or into their mug. Hanbee glanced over and saw Marude walk by the table nonchalantly, tap its surface with his knuckles on the way.
"Back to work, gentlemen." His voice sounded oddly strained.
"Yes, sir," they mumbled out of unison and ducked their heads behind files or laptop screens. They waited until Marude was far enough to throw each other conniving glances and snicker at their mischief. It seemed no one in the room had registered the director's presence. The intern was scarlet up to his hairline in his new suit. The door swung back and forth for a moment as chatter started to bubble up again. Finally Hanbee stood up, towered over the entire room. All the looks locked on him in interest. Someone like him could never be discreet, he thought desperately. He walked up to the table. The investigators around it looked up, and Hanbee saw their smirks melt down their faces. He had to admit, sometimes he did see the advantage of looking impressive. The intern watched the reaction ripple down the table and turned as well to stare up at him with wide eyes. Hanbee had enough of a reputation as Juuzou's partner that 'S3' might as well be written across his forehead. He turned to the intern. He really did feel bad for him; first day on the job, and he had already gotten with the wrong crowd. He looked on the verge of fainting.
"I'll show you to where you're expected. If you'll follow me?"
They stood side by side in the quiet elevator. Tamaki's office was only four floors up, but the journey seemed to stretch on forever. Hanbee was strongly reminded of his own first days at the CCG. He had been older than the intern looked now, and even then he had been scared out of his mind. How intimidating he looked probably did nothing to help, not to mention what he had just heard in the break room. He wondered if something could have made him feel better in that situation. He stole quick glances down at him. The intern was fiddling nervously with his tie, doing the exact opposite of fixing it.
"Would you like me to...?" Hanbee started, gesturing to his neck where a tie would have been if he wore one.
"Oh. I mean yes, that would be..."
The intern finished undoing the loose knot and held out the tie hesitantly. Hanbee made a neat one and handed it back.
"Thank you, sir." The kid slipped it under his collar and tightened it up to his neck. His demeanor visibly relaxed and Hanbee was glad he had been able to help.
He smiled. "Don't mention it."
They walked through the administrative office, the intern following Hanbee closely and darting fascinated looks around. No one glanced back their way; people were busy picking up phones that never stopped ringing, talking hastily through headsets. A few paces further, a familiar face stood out from the bustle. Mizurou stopped typing and looked up from his computer when he noticed them approaching.
"Getting lost on your first day? Not the best way to start off the month." He spoke absently as he finished what he was typing, and stood up. He turned to Hanbee. "Where'd you find him?"
"Third floor break room."
"I'm sorry," the kid said quickly.
Mizurou and Hanbee exchanged a look.
"This place is a maze. You'll have time to find your bearings." Mizurou picked up a few papers from the printer's mouth, clipped them together and handed them to the intern. "Go over to that guy, the one with the fan on his desk. He'll fill this out for you. Come back here when you're done and we'll get you started."
Mizurou sighed after him and went back to work.
"I'll see you later then," Hanbee said as he started heading back.
Mizurou glanced up. "Wait, isn't that for me?" He pointed over at the papers in Hanbee's hand. He stopped in his tracks and looked down.
Mizurou studied him as he took the papers. "You look exhausted."
"Do I?" One sleepless night and he felt like he hadn't seen a bed in months.
"Do you have the folder this comes with?"
"I left it downstairs, I'll be right back."
"It's fine, I'll come with you."
Mizurou sat casually on the edge of Juuzou's desk. He had picked up a random stack of papers and flipped through it with mild interest while Hanbee looked for the folder.
"So... were you at his place or him at yours?" He asked as he kept reading.
Hanbee saw no point in denying it. He couldn't lie properly on a good day.
"Me at his. Why do you ask?" He handed him the missing folder and Mizurou slipped the papers in. His wedding ring caught the light. Hanbee looked at it. It was so odd to think they were the same age.
"No reason. It's just that you're both behind on your work." He looked over at Hanbee, who suddenly seemed very busy reloading his stapler.
"Yes, actually I need to get back to-"
"So it's safe to assume you weren't writing reports."
Hanbee gave up and put the stapler down. "We stayed up playing video games." He felt ashamed at how unprofessional he sounded.
"...Right. Since when do you make grammar mistakes?"
Hanbee was stunned enough to omit the first skeptical half of Mizurou's answer. "I was in a hurry, I didn't check, I'm sorry I'll read through it-" he stammered and reached for the folder. The other held it away.
"I'll do it." He looked between the two piles on the desk. "Which one did you finish?"
"This side is done, there's this much left."
Mizurou pointed at the much larger unfinished pile. "Give me half."
Hanbee looked up at him in surprise, trying not to look too relieved. "Really?"
"Sure," he shrugged. "I want him to rest too." He went to pick up an armful of colored folders. "If there's anything left when you need to go I'll ask the others."
Hanbee smiled at him apologetically and watched him leave Juuzou's office. A glance at his phone told him it was nearly 2:00 PM; there was still a bit of time left before the appointment, but he really wanted to get there before the worker did. He took his seat again and went back to finishing as much work as he possibly could.
The metro seats were filled with tired people in black and white suits. Some had completely fallen asleep and their work cases hung limply from their hands, their company badges dangled around their necks from the standard blue cord. In that sense, Hanbee blended perfectly with the crowd. Though he never let himself fall asleep on a train - he wondered how those who did always seemed to wake up on time for their stop - at every station he jumped, and nodded off again. When the recorded voice announced Shibuya, he pulled himself off his seat.
He almost panicked when he walked up the street and saw the large white van parked in front of Juuzou's building, right ahead of his car. As he hurried closer he spotted a man carrying a metal toolbox standing next to it, phone in hand, watching the water drip by the gate. Hanbee breathed out tensely and walked up to him. Speaking to strangers never got easier, but he found he always managed when it was for Juuzou. The worker saw him and put his phone away. He was a large man in a gruff overall, with a constantly unimpressed look that immediately made Hanbee wary.
"First floor, water leak?" His voice sounded rough, like he needed to clear his throat.
"After you then."
Hanbee stole a glance at his car before turning to the gate, and tried not to focus too much on the obvious dent in the glossy hood. It almost looked like the worker had dropped the toolbox on it when pulling it out of the trunk. He had never cared much for the car anyway, he convinced himself. The gate was unlocked, so he believed Juuzou was awake and expecting them, or one of the neighbours would have closed it by now. He was proven right when they reached the cramped landing of the first floor. The door to the room was cracked open, the sound of rushing water and dishes clinking reached them from inside. Hanbee still knocked to announce their presence. The water stopped running and the door was pulled open all the way.
On the other side Juuzou appeared holding a dish towel and a plate, soapy water running down his arm. His hair was tied back with the rubber band Mrs Shinohara had given him the past weekend. He was half dressed for work, only his dress-shirt missing over the black tank top. Hanbee instantly forgot anything bad that happened during the day when Juuzou smiled up at him. His glance then dropped on the worker behind and the smile became careful and polite.
"Come in," he said and went back to the sink. Hanbee stepped out of his shoes, aligned them neatly with Juuzou's and just as he did so, saw a large dusty boot step onto the bare wood of the elevation and creak into the bedroom. He gawked at the worker and debated whether to say something, but Juuzou gave him a little shake of the head before getting back to the dishes. 'Whatever'.
Hanbee let it go and instead walked up to Juuzou while the worker checked the wall.
"How was your day off?"
Juuzou gave him a rested smile. "Nice. I cleaned a bit."
Hanbee nodded and watched him as he finished rinsing soap bubbles off the dish he had in hand, stacked it with the rest. Once he was done, he leaned back on the counter to face Hanbee and dried his hands in the towel.
"So I see you've failed at your alarm-clock job."
"I thought you might like to sleep in."
"What made today different than any other morning?" He asked jokingly. "I don't want to think about the work waiting for me over there."
"I left the papers that need your signature on your desk. We should have everything done by this evening."
Juuzou stared at him. "That was a fuck ton of paperwork, who's "we"?"
"Everyone. Tamaki, Nakarai, Mikage and I."
Juuzou gave him a falsely reproachful frown before he started putting the dishes away. "You guys are too nice to me."
Hanbee smiled at him. If there had been any doubt it was worth it, it was gone now. "Hardly."
"Did you get any sleep?" Juuzou asked.
"Not really. I left around 5:30."
"So you mean 'not at all'." He paused for a short moment. "For the record, I wouldn't have minded if you'd stayed."
"I see. I'll know for next time."
Juuzou gave a little crooked smile that made the black of his eyes spark.
"There's a lot of work to do here." They both started a bit; the worker's presence had slipped their minds. Juuzou dropped the towel on the counter and went to the bedroom quickly. Hanbee followed while the man continued.
"You should call your insurance and make hotel arrangements right away, we're gonna have to cut the water for a few days."
Juuzou looked at Hanbee hesitantly, and he responded with an easy smile.
Juuzou returned it and faced the worker again. He would pack enough to spend a few days at Hanbee's place.
"You might also want to empty that closet, and move the TV. Water's not far away from getting around there. Should be fine once it's cut, but you'll want that empty when we start working anyways."
He wasn't sure where he would put all these things; his apartment was too small to store it anywhere else.
"It'll fit in the trunk, and I have plenty of room at home."
Juuzou gave Hanbee a look.
"It's no trouble at all," he assured him. "I'm happy to help."
The worker glanced between the two of them. He made an annoyed sort of gesture as if to cut the moment short. His tone was almost rude when he spoke again.
"Should we draw up the estimate, sir?"
"Oh, yes. Sorry." Hanbee felt uncomfortable the worker had overlooked Juuzou to address him directly, but quickly went to pull out his checkbook from his briefcase and got back to him; it was the purpose of his presence here, after all. The papers were already spread across Juuzou's small drawing desk and Hanbee looked through them attentively with a pen in hand. Juuzou heard them speak of taxes, 40% deposits, other people they would have over to fix the wall and paint. Usually he liked having nothing to do with those tedious-sounding things, but this time he felt oddly left out. Hanbee gave him a spot around the desk as soon as he saw him approaching, and he watched with interest while they finished up. Juuzou noticed the worker stealing a few glances his way but payed him no mind.
"Does it seem good to you?" Hanbee asked Juuzou before signing.
"Oh, uh. Yeah sure," he nodded quickly. He had no clue what he was agreeing to, but felt touched by his effort to include him. Hanbee signed and the worker scooped up the papers with an odd look on his face.
"I'll stop the leak before I go. 'Need one of you to go downstairs while I run a few tests, tell me if the water stops dripping. "
While he had spoken to both of them, he still looked pointedly at Hanbee as he did. He suddenly got the strange feeling his presence bothered the worker.
"I'll go," he agreed, and glanced at Juuzou. His way of staring at the man told him he had gotten the same impression. He simply nodded, and watched him step out.
"So, what do you do?"
The worker spoke in a fawning voice that immediately put Juuzou off. He held out a hand, and Juuzou slapped a wrench into the open palm.
The man had gone to the kitchen to shut off the water pipes, and asked Juuzou to pass him tools as he went. For a few minutes now he had been doing so, wondering why he didn't simply keep his toolbox closer, and wished he could go do something else while he worked. It was too late to do so politely now that he had started making small talk. Juuzou quietly regretted the days when he wouldn't have cared so much about being rude.
"I'm...in the military," he answered. It wasn't technically a lie; they were government officials that fought in an army. Close enough. For some reason, he didn't feel like giving him straight answers.
"Right," the man scoffed. The beady eyes deliberately trailed down Juuzou's slender figure. "As what? Secretary?" He cackled and put a large hand over Juuzou's bare shoulder.
Juuzou fluttered his eyelids in annoyance and shifted out of the touch. "I fight."
The worker stayed quiet for a moment, deciding whether he had been mocked or told a joke. He settled for a patronizing snort.
"You don't have to lie to me you know, I'm a nice guy." He completed the statement with a greasy smile that had nothing nice about it at all. It looked like he was showing his teeth rather than actually smiling: there was no warmth to the gesture.
"I'm sure," Juuzou answered dismissively and glanced back at the door, wondering when Hanbee would be back. He found he didn't much care whether the man believed him. His skepticism was insulting, but it was all the more reason not to pay him any mind. He had become a lot better at handling his temper, although few things really tested its limits anymore, and he had no desire to find out if this man had decided to break past them. Ignoring him sounded easy enough.
Those thoughts froze in motion when he felt a stubby hand touch his hip, slither with the tentativeness of a stalking lion to the small of his back, seeking a way under the tank top. It felt like a clammy piece of meat had come back to life and tried to crawl up his side. Juuzou felt a wave of revulsion so strong it made his mouth water. Briskly, he got to his feet and went to stand by the sink.
"I think you'd better get back to work." His voice didn't betray the mingle of emotion brewing behind his forehead.
"Come on," the worker complained, and much less gracefully pushed himself to his feet. Standing, he loomed over Juuzou and seemed to take great satisfaction in that fact. Superiority gleamed in the fishy eyes. He shot a look to the door as well, making sure Hanbee was still downstairs. "I can do my work and still have a bit of fun, everyone wins."
Juuzou wrinkled his nose in distaste. "You'll do your work and I'll pay you, everyone wins."
The worker ignored his reply and continued approaching. Juuzou's eyes slid with his movement, following. He watched his shoulder brush the wall before he eased to a stop, blocking the view to the front door, cornering him by the stove. When he was met with no resistance, the man took the last step between them and his hands found him again. Juuzou vaguely wondered what he should do from now. His mind felt far away. Thinking had become unpleasantly laborious, like walking in knee-high mud. A spark of understanding suddenly lifted the weight around his head.
"Wait, you're aware I'm a dude, right?"
There was a trace of impatience under the man's carefully kind tone, like poisonous smoke hugging the floor of a room. "You like joking around."
"Oh I get it," Juuzou realized, his expression slowly clearing. "You thought Hanbee lived here. No that's me, that's my name on the paper." He picked it up from the counter and flapped it at the worker - it might not have been written in the usual kanjis, but 'Juuzou' was a masculine enough name to leave no room for mistake.
The man's smile went rigid. His hands fell off Juuzou, clenched into fists, and he rubbed his fingers together slowly as if he had touched something he shouldn't have. In many ways, he had. Seeing how his face turned burgundy confirmed the thought behind the gesture: he had just done something very gay, and it didn't seem to please him at all. The smile turned to a pale, tight-lipped scowl.
Juuzou saw it coming long before it happened. With his eyes used to such quick movements, he had plenty of time to think about what he should do next while the large, hairy arm raised into the air like an overgrown tarantula's.
If he moved, he knew he would most likely hurt the man; controlling an attacker twice your size without harming them was close to impossible, much harder than killing them. That particular issue concerned the great majority of things attacking him, and so Juuzou had never specialized in not harming people. The way he was now, it would be like attempting to stop a giant soap bubble with a scalpel. Humans were so fragile. It was probably safer to do nothing. It would be over soon enough anyways. Juuzou realized with relief that if the worker landed the first blow, he would be in the wrong. And then he could kick him out, have Hanbee report him to the building or call the police or whatever. That was exactly what he would do. He was going to solve this without touching a hair on the worker's head. He had a brief thought for Shinohara, and his decision was final.
The sound of the wide hand striking the side of his face was neat and brutal, it filled his head completely. What Juuzou hadn't expected was the one that followed shortly.
There was a loud crack of bone striking bone. The back of the worker's skull hit the wall and bounced right off, his body slumped to the ground, and he clutched his face. Dark spouts of blood began oozing from between his large fingers, scarlet drops tapped the floorboards one by one. He gazed down at them stupidly, bewildered by pain and shock. Hanbee had turned to the other side of the room, breathing through gritted teeth and clearly fighting the urge to double over the ache of his right hand. It looked like his knuckles had already started bruising, his fingers refusing to uncurl completely. Juuzou looked at the worker's obviously broken nose, then at Hanbee's hand, stunned. Heat pulsed dully through the right side of his face and rang in his ear. He tasted blood from a small cut inside his cheek.
"Are you out of your goddamn mind?" he asked conversationally.
"Sorry." Hanbee spoke tensely, pain momentarily preventing him from catching his breath. "Wasn't thinking."
"He... He hit you."
"I was handling it," he said, the last few minutes finally sinking in. Anger simmered in his throat, pushed his voice into colder tones."I was going to handle it."
"I know," Hanbee assured him, raising his other hand in defense. "I know, I don't know why I -... but he-..." He trailed off, gestured to the man helplessly and gave up just as fast. From the way he spoke, Juuzou's anger evaporated as smoothly as it had appeared. He shook his head in dismay - he would deal with Hanbee later - and turned to the worker instead, who was struggling back to his feet with the help of his free hand. Once he found his balance he slammed his back against the wall for support and jabbed an accusing finger at both of them.
"This is abuse of power." He had trouble articulating, the words came out muffled and twangy. "That's exactly what it is. You're in so much trouble you have no idea. Especially you. You'll be getting my hospital bills. You're gonna fucking pay up you filthy little piece of shit."
He trailed on in a long string of profanities exclusively directed at Juuzou. Hanbee watched, appalled, wondering what you could possibly do to a man that he would overlook a punch in the face. The more he listened, the clearer his answer became, and Juuzou's ruffled clothes finally registered in his mind. He thought of the conversation he had overheard at noon, of the redness blooming on the side of Juuzou's face, and his anger flared like it never had. Before he knew it he had started towards the worker again, his other fist tight and ready at his side.
Juuzou held a hand up without turning to look at him. The gesture reached through the fog of Hanbee's mind, clear as day, and the reaction expected of him engraved in muscle memory, he held still. If Juuzou tilted his wrist, it meant it was time to strike. For a second, he fiercely wished he would. Instead, the hand lowered slowly and Juuzou turned to shoot him a dark look. His eyes, so soft earlier, had turned to ice shards.
"Back off. And you, " he looked round at the worker again, "need to keep quiet if you like your jaw the way it is. Chill out, the both of you." There was enough authority in his voice to cause a few second's silence.
The worker broke it with a sharp laugh that sounded more like a cough. "Are you threatening me? Do you have any idea how much trouble you're in? I'm having you fired, I know people in th-"
Juuzou walked up to him. He cringed further back against the wall, his expression a mix of deep disgust and outrage.
"Fine, have it your way. You were talking about hospital bills? How much for a couple broken bones?"
"Probably a lot." Hanbee's voice didn't sound as strained, and Juuzou was glad he was in less pain.
He had sensed him getting affronted before over this kind of ordeal, but it was the first time the emotion touched his tone so strongly. It made it easy for Juuzou to stay calm; knowing Hanbee was angry for him was enough.
He gave the worker a smile. It was a tired one, a far cry from the hot grin that would stretch his face and widen his eyes. He simply didn't have the energy to get that offended anymore.
"I can spare that."
His composure had a lot to do with the hair standing on the man's arms - even Hanbee felt a chill. Juuzou had something about him that reached right past the human shell of civility to pull out the prey inside anyone, something that identified him to the reptilian brain as real danger. Eyes wild with agitation tried latching themselves onto Juuzou's politely uninterested look and slipped right off at each attempt. Juuzou watched him come to the improbable conclusion that he wouldn't be able to intimidate him, and finally the worker gave up, swung his eyes around to pin them on Hanbee instead. His nostrils flared in rekindled fury at the easier target, he pushed himself off the wall, grabbed the first tool that met his hand from the toolbox and brushed past Juuzou. Hanbee looked up in alarm to see him charge in his direction.
Juuzou sighed, and there was a small popping sound.
The man stopped mid-stride, and yelled. The sound boomed against the walls and Hanbee watched him slump down to his knees again, the wrench fall out of his grip and hit the floor. Stilled by confusion, he tried to understand what Juuzou had done to him, and where. Finally he spotted it: on one of the man's hands, the little finger was bent backwards at a sixty degree angle. He had curled protectively around his hand, gripped his wrist while looking away as if the sight of it made the pain worse, and yelled. It was very strange to watch.
Juuzou stepped around the worker and walked up to Hanbee, took hold of his right arm to look at his hand. Hanbee let himself be handled without complaint. Throughout his life, Juuzou had seen bodies break in enough ways to have an idea of how serious a wound was. Although he wasn't sure he could remember how displeasing pain could be, or how sensitive an injury was, so he made sure to be extra careful as he looked at the back of Hanbee's hand, around where he thought the bone aligned with the wrist and forearm. He touched it gingerly with the pad of his finger. Hanbee winced.
"It doesn't look broken." Juuzou's tone was flat and hard like concrete, but he kept his movements measured as he let go. "You'd think ghoul investigators would be a bit less delicate."
Hanbee meant to respond but cut himself short.
"Speak up." Juuzou snapped.
"I don't punch a lot of ghouls, either."
The worker's wails blared behind them. Annoyance finally got the best of Juuzou and he turned, exasperated.
"Jeez, just pop it back in! It's not that hard!"
Hanbee held very still - Juuzou rarely ever raised his voice, it was always frightening when he did. The man whimpered and kept clutching his wrist. Blood flowed freely from his nose and down his chin to soak the entire front of his shirt. Juuzou knew he was a lot better off than he looked, but he still felt like a bit of a bully. The worker couldn't have stood a chance against either of them, let alone together. Maybe they had gone a bit overboard.
"For fuck's sake," he swore under his breath and walked up to the man who cowered into a corner at his approach. Juuzou grabbed his hand - it looked huge and purple between his -squeezed the finger in his fist and pressed it down brutally. There was another pop, more muffled than the first, and the worker's mouth stretched in a soundless scream. "Now shut it. Hanbee, call the wimp an ambulance."
Hanbee mumbled something unintelligible as he hurried to pull out his phone. Juuzou looked at him and exhaled sharply.
"I thought we ought to call the police as well," Hanbee corrected himself quickly. "He assaulted you."
"Yeah. God forbid anyone assaulted me," Juuzou replied absently. He went to grab Hanbee's keys by the kitchen. "Take care of the rest please, I'll meet you in the car." He needed fresh air.
Juuzou watched the scene through the windshield, elbow propped up on the passenger door and chin in hand.
The ambulance people were charging the worker up through the back doors, trying to disperse his protests. Hanbee stood on the sidewalk with two more of them, having what looked like a rather friendly conversation. Juuzou didn't feel too bad leaving him for that part. It most often turned out that way once badges had been shown, and from his manner of speaking alone Hanbee came off a lot more trustworthy than he did. He watched them exchange a last few courtesies before the ambulance men climbed in the back as well and shut the doors. Juuzou's eyes followed Hanbee as he walked up to the car, pulled open the door on the driver's side and put his seat belt on. He was hiding behind a curtain of hair conveniently dropped across the side of his face. It seemed he had been doing his best not to make eye contact with Juuzou since he had walked back into the room.
Hanbee kept fussing around with things on his dashboard.
"Hey Hanbee." Juuzou bent to try and catch his eye. "Look, it's fine. I know you haven't slept and you're overworked, so you get a pass." What he meant to say was 'sorry'. It was to take care of him that Hanbee had pushed himself so hard. But he was still his superior.
"Just don't ever do that again, I'm not a damsel in distress."
"Yes, sir. Understood, sir." He answered so seriously Juuzou saw no need to argue further. He would still have to pretend he was more upset with him than he really was for a day or two. It was usually enough to make him learn his lesson; earning disapproval was a punishment in itself for someone like Hanbee. But he looked shaken, to the point where Juuzou had to bite down on his lip to keep himself from comforting him. His look fell on his bruised hand taking hold of the steering wheel and he stared at it thoughtfully.
"Did something happen at work?" He hid his suspicion well behind a casual tone.
"Nothing happened," Hanbee replied nervously.
Juuzou shook his head at him and turned to look out the window again. "You're a terrible liar."
Hanbee fell silent and started the engine. They had almost reached the office when he dared speak again. "Can I ask you something?"
Hanbee's expression clouded over as he stared ahead, like whatever he was thinking made the feelings from earlier resurface. He took a steadying breath. "Why did you allow him to do that?"
Juuzou wasn't sure if he was referring to the strike in the face or what had led up to it.
"I thought I might accidentally kill him if I defended myself. It made more sense in my head." Sometimes he simply forgot to care about what could happen to him. It was the only one of his habits he knew annoyed Hanbee to no end. He couldn't really help it; he was a lot happier these days than he could remember ever being, but still his life didn't really feel like it belonged to him. He had thought doing his best not getting killed for so long was good enough progress. Whether he did it for himself or other people's sake shouldn't really matter. In that regard, what had happened that afternoon was completely trivial; he had barely felt anything at all. Though he knew not to use that as an argument with Hanbee.
"You're smiling," Hanbee pointed out.
"I thought you would be furious with me."
"That too." He smiled wider.
Hanbee glanced at him again with a tortured expression, trying to understand.
"Eyes on the road."
I'm writing this chapter late at night/early in the morning, because a nightmare woke me up, and writing for these two makes me feel better :') It's probably not the best time to do a good job but hey XD I apologize in advance if there's more nonesense than usual in this one
"You two. In my office. Now."
Juuzou tore his look from what Hanbee was showing him on his laptop.
It was the next day, and they hadn't mentioned the incident again; it wasn't too hard to focus on work when the meeting with the United Front was only a day away. The director's harsh voice had brought the lively room to complete silence. Juuzou looked around the administration office, meaning to follow people's stares to the unlucky two that had just been called out, only to find every face turned in his direction. He whipped his head around and looked at Marude by the doorway.
"Who?" he asked warily.
"Who do you think?"
Juuzou stared back a moment longer before he slowly got up, his chair raking loudly in the sudden quiet. Hanbee was petrified next to him, so he tugged on his sleeve discreetly to make him move. People's heads turned like a sunflower field to watch them pick up their things and cross the room; Juuzou with a perfectly calm demeanor, Hanbee looking like each stare weighted a ton and he was carrying them all. Marude had gone ahead, so they started down the corridors alone. Once in the elevator, Juuzou caught Hanbee taking a deep breath.
"Hey, you're fine," he tried to reassure him. "That's the beauty of having the lowest rank in a team, you never take full blame."
Hanbee nodded tensely. Juuzou said nothing more; the truth was, they had done enough in the past few days to deserve being told off. At least he didn't think they were being called in because of the previous day's incident.
It was about when they reached the great oak doors of the director's office that Juuzou saw his mistake: on top of knowing their names, he had ended up saying who they were in front of the worker.
"Fuck," he said quietly.
The vast marble office was shelter to a host of unpleasant memories. They swarmed above the checkered tiles like a nesting site. Juuzou stepped forward, and felt his silhouette get swallowed up by the huge space. The black squares reflected it like the surface of a mirror, the white ones looked carved out of ice floes. There was something maddening about the contrast and repetition.
Back-lit ahead of two ridiculously tall windows throned the director's massive desk, and behind it sat the director. Everything in the room had been thought out to bring attention to exactly that point - Juuzou let his look be funneled up to him. He didn't feel like the office suited their new boss at all; Marude was hot-tempered and passionate. The freezing, calculated stone seemed so out of context around him.
Although he towered over everything in the office safe the ceiling, Hanbee felt instantly dwarfed by the people occupying it. Both Juuzou and Marude could individually fill the room with their presence alone, leaving his quite literally crushed in their wake. All he wanted was to shrink until he merged with the patterns on the ground.
"Straighten up," Juuzou hissed at him. Hanbee quickly corrected his posture. He knew it wasn't about looking proper. A dozen paces ahead of them, the director returned their looks with a solemnity that leadened the air.
"I got a call this morning," he began, his voice gliding easily on the walls and floor like the insides of an ice cave. He tapped the end of his pen on the marble table top and leaned slowly over his desk.
"From the Suginami police box. Telling me that 'the deal was off', because the word is two TSC investigators lured a man into their appartment to beat him up." His voice grew louder as he went. The last three words had practically been shouted. Juuzou saw Hanbee flinch from the corner of his eye.
"Okay, that's only half true," he said.
"What happened to your hand?" Marude asked, circling his pen in the direction of Juuzou's bandaged burn. He didn't appear to notice Hanbee's injury; his hands were hidden behind his back in the TSC's formal posture. For once, his meticulousness had saved him.
Marude stopped the pen motion and stared at Juuzou. "You think I'm a moron, don't you."
"Never," he answered, faking an offended tone.
Hanbee wished Juuzou wouldn't provoke him.
"What 'deal'?" Marude sighed and leaned back in his chair tiredly. His tone clearly indicated they were in no position to refuse him an explanation. Hanbee felt mild surprise that he didn't seem to care whether either of them had gotten into a fist fight with a civilian. It gave him a small indication of the trouble they were in.
"We asked the police to watch over Asagaya this weekend, for the summer festival," Juuzou said reluctantly.
Hanbee bit the inside of his cheek. Juuzou had tried to cover for him, but Marude knew as well as everyone else that the entire Suginami district boycotted Juuzou and would have never made any sort of deal with him. It was so clear Hanbee was the one at fault, there was no need to admit it.
"Suspended, both of you. For insubordination and obstruction."
Hanbee felt like he had been punched in the face himself. He looked down at the ground, Juuzou's chin jerked up in defiance. Marude's eyes flashed to him as he caught the reaction, and something in his look hardened. Not with hostility - rather like he was steeling himself for what he was about to say. When he spoke again it was in a low voice that strangely made his words louder, unavoidable.
"You are a liability to this country, and everyone around you, for as long as you live. You're free because they find you useful. Make no mistake about that. "
Each sentence struck down like a mallet. The message could hardly be clearer; if Juuzou started obstructing cases instead of clearing them, there was no telling what would happen to him.
Hanbee felt his heart sink. Nothing had changed. Juuzou could prove himself time and time again, they would carry on using him like a murder weapon, shamefully stored away while they washed their hands clean and plotted their next crime. Juuzou had always been, and would always be someone's prisoner.
He could tell Marude despised the idea almost as much as he did, it was out of sympathy that he had given the warning.
"How long? Does it mean I don't have to go to that stupid meeting tomorrow?" As usual, Juuzou did a wonderful job of acting unperturbed, but Hanbee could hear the hurt at the bottom of his voice. Marude must have too, because he let the insolent comment slip. He pointed his pen at Juuzou. It reflected the light like a blade.
"You're out for two weeks. You're attending today's reunion and tomorrow's meeting with the person you chose to accompany you." His eyes flickered to Hanbee and back to him. "And you'll be there for next week's operation. You are not to set foot in the building otherwise. You," he pointed the pen at Hanbee, who responded like he had been physically jabbed with it, "are out for a week. Suspended from the operation."
Hanbee couldn't remember ever feeling so bad. He had thought he was risking his own neck by acting alone, and it turned out Juuzou was punished more severely as his supervisor for allowing it. He felt terribly stupid.
"With salary?" Juuzou asked lightly.
Marude pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. "Get out. Get the fuck out."
Juuzou turned around and Hanbee followed hastily.
"On second thought. Suzuya." Juuzou turned back unreasonably slowly with the most bored expression he could make. Marude signaled for him to stay. The door shutting after Hanbee echoed in the room, and they were alone. The director leaned back in his chair, looking dissatisfied.
"I'm starting to get familiar with you," he said.
"Is that so."
"One step out of line," he articulated, "a word out of place from you tomorrow, and I'll be adding to Abara's suspension. Was I clear?"
"Crystal," Juuzou said through his teeth. He went back to the door. It took all his will not to slam it on his way out.
Hanbee wanted to say something, but Juuzou didn't really look like he wished to be talked to. He had walked past him sharply, and even with two of Juuzou's paces counting for one of his own, he had a hard time keeping up.
"What's the time," he asked flatly.
"Five to ten, sir."
Juuzou shook his head to himself. They would wait out the last half hour in the meeting room - he felt too agitated to do anything else. "Let's go."
Later that afternoon, Juuzou marched down the five flights of stairs to the lobby, past the giant sliding doors. He wanted to kick something, badly. Not that their suspicions needed further confirmation at this point, but hearing it all spelt out during the reunion had been unnerving. People were determined to ignore the danger looming over the coming weekend to insure the success of the next operation. Juuzou wondered if he would care as much if Shinohara and his family weren't involved, and whether it made him a hypocrite. He quickly decided he didn't care. At the moment, he no longer had anything planned. Hanbee had done more than enough - it was time he took over. But his actions were limited, and he would have to be careful.
He had a thought for Hanbee, who he had been quick to leave in the meeting room that morning. As could be expected, he was shaken by the first blemish on his perfect record. Juuzou felt slightly guilty for not staying with him at least a little while longer, but although he had wanted to, his body had felt pulled the other way. Hanbee had been quick to notice and kept a respectful distance all day.
Now, he had an idea where his unease came from: they had been apart for less than an hour before he had started to miss Hanbee to an unreasonable extent. It wasn't good. He tried remembering the last time they had been away from each-other for longer than a day, and was shocked he couldn't.
He stopped in his tracks. It was a moment before he could collect himself enough to turn and face who had called him.
"Meeting's tomorrow," he said.
Haise wasn't deterred by the curt response. Juuzou watched him with no kindness, standing in the parking lot with a serene air, and without knowing why, it annoyed him further.
"I was thinking... maybe we could go for coffee? Unless you're busy."
Juuzou turned to him fully. He didn't smile back. "I'm not busy."
Hanbee dropped the practice weapon, it fell dully on the gym mats. The others looked over and watched him walk away to the benches running the length of the walls. He sat, elbows on his knees and head down, feeling his right hand with the other.
"What's up with him?" Nakarai asked, out of breath.
Mizurou shrugged and wiped the back of his arm across his forehead. "Talked to him earlier, he just said he 'ruined everything'. Not sure what he's on about."
Nakarai just nodded like it made perfect sense, Mikage grimaced empathetically.
Hanbee slumped further on the bench.
"Where's Suzuya," Mizurou asked. "I haven't seen them together all day." Nakarai shook his head, Mikage said nothing.
"All right, that's it. We need to have a talk." Mizurou dropped his weapon next to Hanbee's and jogged up to where he had gone to sit. Nakarai shot a disapproving look in their direction and turned back to Mikage.
"Are you going to throw a tantrum too? Or can we get back to training?"
"No, I'm fine," he laughed and put up his guard.
Juuzou fidgeted in his seat. To his right, two women chatted over empty dessert plates. A strand of hair had fallen out of one of their hair-does and waved around at each nod in a way that irritated Juuzou. He swung his feet under his chair and looked down at the wooden table. The varnish was too shiny and it reflected the overhead lights too much. It annoyed him too. He closed his eyes for a second and took a deep, calming breath, counted slowly up to ten. He ran his fingers over his right arm with habit, and frowned when it felt too smooth. He brought a hand up to pull at the stitch on his lip and found nothing there. Frustrated, he tugged at his bottom lip instead, until he tasted blood and crossed his hands firmly over the table. He kept kicking air and tapping his fingers on the wood restlessly when his eyes dropped on a pile of coasters forgotten by a waiter.
Haise walked back to him a few minutes later, a steaming ceramic cup in each hand. He set Juuzou's in front of him, and smiled at the house of cards inspired structure that had appeared out of the disregarded coasters. Juuzou reached around it to grab the cup and dragged it closer without a word. He picked up the small silver spoon with two fingers and swirled it idly in his drink. His look lingered on the milky color and he thought, 'he remembers how I like coffee'. He had let Haise pick the shop. It seemed fair since he had most likely tried every single one in the city. Where they sat now was quiet, inside was cool and dim. He supposed it wasn't so bad. Finally, he took the folded coasters down from between him and Haise. He stacked them aside and kept one, rubbed a fist across it obstinately to flatten it. He kept his eyes down on what he was doing like it was the single most important task.
"So. 'Ken', huh."
Haise watched Juuzou patiently. "That's what people have been calling me lately, yeah."
"It doesn't suit you," he mumbled irritably.
"Always so kind," he joked, voice light.
Finally Juuzou sighed and put his hands down flatly on the table, like he was trying really hard to stop fretting. "You realize it's not just a name problem, right? Of course I'll make an effort, but you can't expect me to talk to Haise when I'm calling you by some stranger's name."
Haise's smile faded. He had brought his cup to his lips but lowered it again without taking a sip.
"I understand," he said. His lips framed the first word of his next sentence a few times while he thought. It was hard finding someone who spoke their mind around him since he had become king, and living in a country where consensus was the golden rule didn't make matters easier. Juuzou didn't judge, and there was no malice in his directness. He was someone you could genuinely talk to. The thought made Haise want to smile again, but he kept serious.
"Actually, I was thinking maybe I could stay 'Haise' to you. I'd like that."
It gave Juuzou pause. He took a firm grip of his expression and raised his eyes. Haise seemed sincere, but then again he always had. Juuzou looked away from him and took a moment to watch the room around them once more, listen to the gurgling of conversations. It was getting harder and harder to stay angry. The coffee shop felt like a photo album, a bubble in the city where time had stopped and rewound to the few comfortable years before they hit the eye of the storm. He rested his look on him again, and caught the glimpse of an old friend, somewhere under the countless masks that life had shoved on his face.
"Haise, then." It was small, but a smile bloomed on Juuzou's face.
"Happy?" Haise asked, relieved. The ice had broken again.
"Not even close, but better, yes." He unwrapped a sugar cube and dipped half of it in his drink, watched it soak up the coffee and dissolve. "So what were you doing, lurking around the office?"
"I thought it might be a good time to get a hold of you."
Haise waited for Juuzou to steal the sugar cube by his coffee cup before he finished his thought.
"I want you to teach Ichika."
Juuzou froze mid-movement and his eyes flickered up to Haise cautiously. "Teach her what."
"Skydiving. What do you think?"
Juuzou eyebrows pulled together while he unfolded the small paper wrap. "Who's stupid idea was this?"
"Figures. And what does angry pineapple queen have to say about that?"
"Touka," Haise said flatly to keep from laughing. He could almost feel the kick in the stomach he would be getting if she heard him do so.
"Whatever, Touka. What does Touka think of that."
It was nice hearing names he loved shaped by Juuzou's voice. Haise could feel two opposite sides of his life connecting pleasantly, it made him hopeful. "She thinks you would be perfect for the job."
"So glad to hear it." He put the sugar cube down. Haise noticed how his movements had started to look a bit frantic again, but his tone didn't match and he thought he might be imagining it. "There's a lot of other people you could have teach her to fight that would make a lot more sense."
"Like who?" he repeated, incredulous, and leaned above the table. "You literaly have an army of deadly superhuman mutants, what the hell do you have to ask me for?"
"Deadly superhuman mutants," Haise echoed with an impressed nod.
Juuzou paused and picked up his drink. "Don't quote me on that," he muttered into his cup.
"Come on," Haise laughed. "I know you know why I'm asking you."
He did know. He wanted an investigator to teach her how to fight like a human, so she would know how to fight against them when the time came. It was a very risky thing to bring up during times of peace - anyone else at the TSC would misinterpret it as the ghoul King plotting treason. Juuzou knew Haise enough to see nothing else but concern for his daughter in his query.
"Fine. But there's a lot of other TSC members who could do the job."
"Someone from the Quinx, like Urie. He's excellent, he'll teach quique handling way better than me since he learnt properly, and I'm sure he'd be delighted to help."
Haise shook his head. "He's not right for it. I'm not sure Ichika is ready for bodybuilding yet."
Juuzou grimaced. "So you're saying my style is suitable for a little girl. You're not doing very well."
Haise closed his eyes at his blunder. "That is... not how I meant it."
"What about Tooru, then?"
"Remind me who taught Tooru?"
Juuzou sighed. Haise pulled back. "I'm sorry. If you really don't want to do it..."
Juuzou's expression softened a little. "That's not it. I just can't figure out why in the world you would trust me with this."
"Because I know what kind of person you are." Juuzou kept his skeptical look. "And I heard you're good with kids," Haise tried.
"Who said that."
"Abara told me."
"And how did that conversation go?"
"Juuzou, come on."
"Fine, fine. I tried to murder your pregnant wife, I guess I have no choice but to tutor your kid."
Haise's answering smile was brilliant. "Thanks, Juuzou."
"Well, now that this is settled, I have a favor to ask." He had had an idea while they talked.
Haise sighed through an amused grin. "Never change."
"Not planning to. If you ask Marude something, he'll most likely say yes, right?"
Haise eyed him cautiously. "If it's not unreasonable. What do you have in mind?"
Mizurou let Hanbee step inside the changing room, followed, and closed the door behind them. They were alone, and the noises of the gym next door were muffled down to relative silence. Hanbee looked at him questioningly, the troubled expression from earlier still tensing his features. Mizurou invited him to sit down with a gesture. Hanbee complied, and waited for what was coming next.
"So. What's been going on with you and Suzuya?"
Hanbee blinked, surprised. "...What?"
"Monday morning?" Mizurou explained. "He said he burnt his hand 'last night', and that you fixed it for him."
Hanbee struggled a bit to remember, then answered truthfully. "I did."
"So you were...?"
Hanbee sighed. "At my place."
"And what did you do?"
"We went out for drinks, then we watched a movie," he said carefully.
"Okay," Mizurou answered reasonably. "Where?"
Hanbee looked up in mild alarm. "What does that have to do with anything?"
Mizurou crossed his arms with an expression very reminiscent of Nakarai. It didn't really have the same impact with his overall friendly personality. "You don't have to answer, it's none of my business, really. I'll just assume something way worse than it actually is."
Hanbee gave in quickly. "The TV is in my room, so we watched a movie in my room."
"You mean in your bed."
"There's nowhere else to sit in my room, so by default it was my bed."
"Okay," Mizurou nodded. "Nothing weird with that, I regularly get drunk and lay in bed with my friends, too."
Hanbee stayed silent for a short moment. "You're being sarcastic."
"What would make you think that?"
Hanbee said nothing.
Mizurou unfolded his arms to count off his fingers as he spoke. "Look, you work in tandem at the office, you meet up on weekday nights to write reports, you spend your free time at each other's apartments. Seriously, when are you moving in together?"
Hanbee looked away. Mizurou stared at him.
"It's not like that," Hanbee countered defensively. "Work needs to be done at his place, I'm just helping out."
"I'm sure you are," Mizurou said through a stunned laugh. "So, let's say for argument's sake, that aside from the TSC you also worked part time at a restaurant or something."
Hanbee wasn't sure what he was getting at.
Mizurou continued. "If the manager had work being done in his apartment, I trust you would invite them to move in with you as well?"
"It's exactly the same."
"You know it's not."
"It's technically the same."
"Okay, then I'm helping out my squad leader and close friend."
"Okay, well that's fine."
For a moment Hanbee pretended to be absorbed in feeling out the swelling around his right wrist, then realized it might spark an entirely new round of questions and put both hands squarely on his lap.
"Quick question, then."
"Yes." He was relieved to see Mizurou had something else on his mind, but the feeling didn't last long.
"Have you ever considered..." He let his voice trail off.
Hanbee's answer was swift. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"So, you have," Mizurou concluded.
"I am not interested in pursuing this conversation." Hanbee got up and tried getting past him to the door. Mizurou blocked it stubbornly.
"Well I'm getting more and more interested."
It dawned on him then how uncomfortable Hanbee had gotten with the conversation. He promptly backtracked, and stepped out of the way.
"Fine. Sorry. I'll let you two figure it out."
"There's nothing to-" Hanbee started, when it clicked. "Wait, it's you, isn't it? You guys are the ones who think we're dating." He suddenly felt a lot hotter than the absence of air conditioning could justify. Blood rushed up to his face and he was grateful Mizurou had taken them to the changing room for the conversation he had in mind.
"Dating?" Mizurou scoffed. "You guys act like you've been married for five years, never mind dating."
Hanbee choked on his own words. "You're... exagerating. This is completely inappropriate, Ju-"
Mizurou's mouth dropped open. Hanbee clapsed a hand over his. "Right now," Mizurou said. "You were just about to call Suzuya by his first name."
"No I wasn't," he mumbled quickly.
"Yeah you were," Mizuro insisted. "I heard you."
"He asked me to. It really doesn't mean anything."
Mizurou shook his head at him slowly. "God, I want to slap you."
He simply tipped his head towards the door with an exasperated look. Hanbee lost no time walking back into the gym.
It was a Phosphorescent song that made me want to write this whole thing, so I wanted to put it towards the end. But in the meantime I came across this other track, and it fits too well with this chapter not to put it here:
Down to Go - Phosphorescent
Hanbee could tell Juuzou a thousand more times he should lock his door, it would always open at the twist of the knob.
He stepped inside his room and was met with the familiar silence of missed alarm clocks. As he was about to speak, Juuzou's voice came from the bedroom, very much awake.
"I've been thinking a lot, this morning."
Hanbee remained still by the doorway. His voice had sounded off, too soft. Like the bubbles were missing from a soda. Cross-legged on the bed looking out the rain-streaked window, he had thrown on a black shirt and dress pants, the rest of his clothes laid out on the far corner of the bed. It looked like he had given up midway through pinning the medals on, the small box where he stored them was left abandoned on the quilt. Hanbee let his bag slide off his shoulder and touch the ground.
"About?" he encouraged softly.
Juuzou looked down at his hands, fiddling with the bedsheets. He hesitated a moment, like the thought was too silly to share. Finally he spoke.
"About what life would've been like, if ghouls never existed."
Hanbee went quiet for a long moment.
"You're out of character again," he murmured.
Juuzou smiled. It didn't touch his eyes. "I guess I am."
The warmth of the small apartment had dripped down the walls like fresh paint. Grey morning light wrung all colors from the curtains, the bedsheets and the drawings on the walls, scrubbed their softness off like sandpaper. Juuzou's look fled Hanbee's, wandered down the street below. His apartment being on the first floor, the largest trucks rumbled past only a bit below eye level. He watched one of them stop at a traffic light. The windshield wipers smudged rainwater lazily across the glass, new ones dropped in the streaks they left. A woman with two children hurried across the street under a huge lavender umbrella. By the corner of the window, a spider had made its web and captured nothing but water pellets. Hanbee waited for him to turn around and make light of the entire conversation, find a witty thing to say and change the subject seamlessly, but he never did. His posture wasn't stiff, the way it got when something stressful made him zone out. Instead his hands had dropped the sheets and hung above them, limp and half-open.
He was sad, Hanbee understood. Just sad.
He slid off his shoes and went to sit on the edge of the bed next to Juuzou. A new drop fell on the web, its weight tore the clear strings.
"And what conclusion did you come to?"
Juuzou smiled absently and tipped his head to rest it against Hanbee's shoulder. Although he had come to pick him up for work, Hanbee guessed this was considered 'hanging out'. As they grew closer, it felt important to make these distinctions.
"I was thinking I would have gone to art school," he said, "to be an illustrator, or an animator. I would've liked that. But I can't stay still, so I would have found a part time job in a cafe or a bakery. Maybe I would have gone to live in Osaka or something, and I would have a dialect."
"And a cat," Hanbee added quietly.
"And a cat." His smile widened. "And I would go out on weekends and draw outside. I would have so many watercolors and I would go hiking and keep sketchbooks."
It was a comfortable sadness. There was nothing to do, no one to blame, no regrets to have. Life was simply there, everywhere at once, out of their hands. They had all done their best while carried with the times. Sorrow reached its slow, translucent hands from Juuzou and touched Hanbee. It grew, curled up and engulfed them both in its invisible body.
"I would have gone to college and worked in my uncle's company." Hanbee hadn't made the conscious decision to speak out. It felt odd to share these thoughts with his boss - he had always deemed himself a coward for having them. But the words felt good, and Juuzou had looked up at him kindly, so he went on.
"He's an architect. I would have learnt the language and lived in France, or Germany."
Juuzou knew there were reasons beyond his dedication to the TSC that kept Hanbee from moving out of Tokyo. He stayed close to the family home, so his mom always had someone close by to take care of his dad, if it ever turned out she needed the help. "You'd have started your own family by now, and you would live in a house and come home in the evening and talk about your days."
"We would have never met," Hanbee suddenly realized.
Juuzou's smile melted away like a leaf fell off a branch. That too, had slipped out without Hanbee's consent. He didn't want to sound like their friendship could be a consolation for the nightmare Juuzou had lived through. He looked down, and picked up Hanbee's right hand. He thumbed at the spot that had hurt the previous day. The swelling was painful, but Hanbee barely felt anything from Juuzou's touch. There was something soothing about watching him be so gentle.
"That's true," Juuzou mouthed. Hanbee felt a mix of emotions he didn't try to understand.
"Unless someday you needed an illustrator," he continued. "You could hire me."
"That would be perfect," Hanbee agreed, glad to find his clever little comebacks again. Juuzou gave him his hand back, but didn't let go of it. Hanbee closed his fingers around his.
"But I'm not visiting you in Europe, sorry," Juuzou said. "I wouldn't be able to ask for food and die after a day."
"Most people speak English over there, if you learnt a few words you would be fine."
"Hey I know a couple of words. I'll just speak them in the thickest accent they've ever heard."
"Like... 'cool'. And 'sandwich.'"
"That's really all you need," Hanbee answered with a trace of sarcasm and Juuzou threw his head back to laugh. The sound never failed to lift Hanbee's spirits. It had the effect of a breeze in a smokey room, but soon enough bleak thoughts closed up on Juuzou again and his smile wilted.
"I wonder if I'm even allowed outside Japan, with my record."
Hanbee watched the wistful droop of his lashes brush the top of his cheeks, and wondered how many people he had murdered. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. He wasn't sure they considered mitigating circumstances for something like that.
"I don't know," he admitted. "But we could ask Marude, I'm sure he wouldn't mind explaining that sort of thing on his free time."
Juuzou liked how Hanbee had naturally used "we" when it wasn't at all his problem. Unless...
"Yeah, maybe." He shrugged. "It's not like I'm planning to travel though."
"You've never left the city."
"And you're not curious to go anywhere? You haven't used your holiday weeks in years."
There it was, he thought. "Hanbee, are you asking me out on a holiday?"
Hanbee went quiet. His natural reaction would have been to instantly deny everything in a panic. That day, the urge never came.
"If it sounds good to you, then I suppose I am."
Juuzou looked at the street, amazed. He had forgotten there was a whole world out there. Places where nobody knew him, where ghoul attacks had never made a headline. Suddenly the city felt like it was curling inwards around him, like the sides of a tiny carnivorous plant.
He wanted to leave town.
His eyes lit up little by little and he nodded slowly.
"It does." He frowned and turned to Hanbee, his tone suddenly urgent. "I don't know where."
"There's time to think it over. I have a map at home, we can look at it someday."
"That sounds really nice."
They sat quietly for a while, watching the rain tap the peaceful streets.
"Should we get going?" Hanbee offered. Traffic shouldn't be too bad at this hour, but it was always nice not having to rush, especially for important meetings.
"Yeah," Juuzou nodded, looking a lot brighter. Hanbee got up and went to pick up his bag.
He looked up midway trough putting his shoes back on. "Yes?"
Juuzou turned away from the window and looked at him for a second. Hanbee stared back, thinking he looked like a movie scene with the dull light pouring behind him. Juuzou shook his head lightly with a slow, radiant smile.
Hanbee stood behind Juuzou and watched him, perplexed.
Even from his point of view, he could see the upward curve of his cheeks that meant he was grinning widely, and although the director had been the one speaking for a while, Juuzou's head was firmly turned in Haise's direction. Now and then, the other would throw a questioning glance back from across the circled tables and when he did, Juuzou simply looked down at his papers, kicked his feet innocently.
Weariness had already won over a few people in the meeting room; after barely half an hour, yawns were stifled and reddened eyes had to be blinked open. Hanbee listened closely to most of the information, but when someone droned on about reports he already knew by heart, his attention would fray and he found himself observing the ghoul side of the room instead.
With only six representatives, they were in a clear minority. But through many visits, each of them had become familiar to most people in the building: Haise's extravagant right hand man, who Hanbee knew wouldn't be caught dead showing signs of lassitude, a staunch, earnest ghoul he had only met a few times but had liked from the start, their three guards most often seen behind gas masks, and of course, Haise. Hanbee let his mind wander as he watched him pick up his cold coffee and take the first sip of the meeting, focused on Marude's speech.
Then, out of nowhere, a wave of disgust rippled down Haise's upper body and he put the cup down, fighting to maintain dignity, nose wrinkled and mouth flattened to a single line. Hanbee looked down at Juuzou's back, unbelieving. He hadn't.
Haise did the same and Hanbee could easily imagine the angelic smile that came with the small tilt of Juuzou's head. For the rest of the meeting, Haise alternated between covering his mouth with the back of his hand and pursing his lips, as if trying to get rid of a particularly displeasing taste. Hanbee felt bad for him.
It was a few hours later, and Juuzou was waiting for Hanbee in one of the sofas outside the meeting room, when a vibrant puff of color descended in front of his eyes, held by a set of manicured fingers. The voice came from behind him:
"Pour vous, mon cher."
Juuzou took the small flower. As always, it felt like it had just come out of fresh water, the stem cut just below the petals. It made him want to chew on it. "I still don't know what that means. But thanks, Shuu."
Tsukiyama came around the sofa to take a seat, leaving a respectful amount of space between them. Juuzou stared at him, surprised: the gift was to be expected, but Tsukiyama rarely stuck around once it was offered.
He crossed a long leg over the other, stuck his elbow on the soft backrest and tilted his head so that the back of his fingers would brush his cheekbone. With his sly half-smile and heavy-lidded look, he achieved a flawless movie star pose. Juuzou thought there was no way he didn't practice in front of a mirror.
"I could tell you if you wished, but isn't the mystery much more amusing?"
Juuzou laughed a bit. "Yeah, maybe." If Tsukiyama liked mystery, it certainly showed - his motives were generously coated with it.
Of all the interesting people Juuzou had met, Tsukiyama was by far the most entertaining to watch, so it was always a nice surprise when he showed up for meetings. Everything from the way he talked, to the way he dressed and acted, was utterly and needlessly exuberant. As always he wore a suit so colorful it tarnished the flower he brought, and at each meeting, it was the same: a single purple-blue bell, roughly the size of a coin, that Hanbee had once told him came from a larger bundle connected to a stem. At first, the gifts had attracted puzzled looks, but now even Juuzou had gotten used to the bizarre tradition. He wondered what had pushed Tsukiyama to prolong the interaction this time. Then it clicked: he had most likely heard from Haise that he would be teaching Ichika. Juuzou had only seen them together once from a distance, but there was no mistaking how protective Tsukiyama was of the kid.
Juuzou looked straight at him. "But sometimes it's nice not having to guess."
Slowly, Tsukiyama's winning smile loosened. There was a silence and when he spoke again, it was the most genuine Juuzou had ever heard him be.
"These beauties," he said lower, looking at the flower in Juuzou's hand and his voice suddenly smoldering, "are called Hyacinths. Perhaps you knew it already. But are you familiar with the language of flowers, my small, charming friend?"
Juuzou just shook his head, reduced to awed silence.
"Hyacinths speak for a prayer of hope, a fresh start. The purple ones in particular, are often given after a thoughtless act, as they symbolize deep regret. An adequate choice of color, would you not agree?"
Juuzou had suspected as much. For long, he had known Tsukiyama as the member of the influential family, notorious for his involvement in human trafficking and Ghoul Restaurants. In this kind of network, people talked. And whenever the perfect smile shifted to a doleful one, Juuzou imagined that in his mind, the confident ghoul in designer clothes pictured him at his worst. As a pet or a slave, pitying him. It made Juuzou feel very naked, and so he had fallen into the habit of quickly looking away, wondering how much he knew. This time was no exception.
"You don't have to do all this. I don't hold grudges."
"Be that as it may." Tsukiyama's flamboyant self made a reappearance and he brought a hand to his chest like an actor delivering a heartfelt line. "The nobility with which you greet my repentance does not lessen its need to be expressed. Through these humble gifts I shall sow the seeds of redemption upon the mistakes that have tainted the ways of my past."
Juuzou hadn't expected to feel flustered, but the way he spoke was slightly intimidating, and he had done so loudly. People around were abandoning their discussions to glance at them curiously, until they saw Tsukiyama and understood he was just being his usual dramatic self. Juuzou felt from him that vibe specific to university people, the properly educated kind, one of those who read poetry for fun. He wasn't sure he had understood everything he had said, but he got the gist of it: given the small link their pasts shared, Tsukiyama had found in Juuzou the perfect recipient for his atonement.
"It's really not a big deal, man."
"It is a big deal, quite a big deal indeed. I would go so far as to say, deals don't get much bigger than this."
Juuzou looked down at the small flower and spun it between his fingers. If accepting a gift every now and then could make Tsukiyama feel better, he could certainly do it. He gave him a tentative smile. Tsukiyama returned it ten-fold.
"Have you ever considered modeling? I could introduce you to an agency and get you started in the blink of an eye."
"Modeling?" he asked, fascinated, more by Tsukiyama himself than the actual suggestion.
"Exactement, mon ami. You're already a bit of a star, I can get you on the trendiest magazine covers by the end of the month."
Juuzou just laughed, at a loss for an answer. Clearly he was joking. "I like your suit," he said.
Tsukiyama nodded with an approving smile. "Striking looks and equally remarkable taste. I think you will do very well."
Juuzou felt the sofa shift to his left and turned to see Hanbee had quietly joined them. When he noticed the flower in Juuzou's lap, he held out a hand for it and Juuzou placed it in his palm. Tsukiyama observed them intently as Hanbee busied himself attaching it to one of his hairpins.
"Excellent, magnifique," He nodded professionally.
"He's imagining you in a photo shoot," Haise explained.
Juuzou didn't dare turn. Haise sat on the sofa's armrest by Hanbee's side and Tsukiyama's smile regained its natural dazzle.
"Ah, and now the set is complete. We have a scrapper, a member and a meal, sitting on the same sofa and having a friendly chat. Isn't life whimsical?"
Juuzou jumped as if stung - he hadn't heard the word since before the Academy- but was surprised he didn't feel nearly as distressed as he would have imagined. No one except him had reacted; Hanbee continued adjusting the flower in his hair, Shuu had spoken as serenely as he looked. Juuzou slowly relaxed back into his seat, marveling at the peaceful feeling Tsukiyama's sentence had stirred up inside him. It was when he directed his attention to Haise that he found the presence to gape at him.
Haise nodded with a grimace. It wasn't something he liked to recall. "I barely made it out."
"Who did they send?"
"A huge guy, with his whole face covered. Not the smartest. That's probably what saved me."
Juuzou nodded knowingly. "I heard he was killed. He was sort of nice."
"'Sort of nice'," Haise repeated under his breath.
Hanbee touched Juuzou's shoulder then to inform him he was being called away. He gave him a nod, patting his own hair lightly to find the flower. Haise watched them exchange gentle smiles, and thought that if he had been taken to a different ward's restaurant and that Juuzou had been the one sent out that day, he would have died in the arena without the shadow of a doubt. Tsukiyama followed Hanbee's lead only a few minutes later, excusing himself to loudly greet a couple in white lab coats walking by.
"Well that wasn't too bad," Juuzou said after a long and heavy silence.
"Yeah," Haise replied with a bitter undertone. "You held your papers right side up and everything. Good job."
Ever since word got out that he had tried reading Furuta's operation plans up-side down, assuming he couldn't read had become a running joke between investigators. And Juuzou was just about tired of it.
"You better change your tone," he replied. "Unless you want to spend the rest of your existence in nugget form."
"What's nugget f- oh. Very funny." If Juuzou was inclined to bring up touchy subjects, he wouldn't hold back either. "Maybe wait for Abara to be around to make that sort of threat, it might sound a bit more convincing."
Juuzou turned to look at him with a polite smile. "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"Two against one?" Haise explained with a matching tone. "I'm not sure I would be bragging about it."
Juuzou's smile stayed frozen on his face, but his voice dropped an octave. "I can take you alone any day."
"Yeah. With an armor on."
Juuzou's eyes slimmed to needles and Haise felt he had gone too far. "You sound like you want a rematch."
"No," he said quickly. "No, I'm sorry, I was just kidding around."
Juuzou squinted at him further. At this point he couldn't really see him anymore.
Haise sighed. "Juuzou, open your eyes."
He raised his eyebrows. "Racist, much?"
"Wh-...That makes no sense, what are you saying."
Hanbee returned then, holding a fresh cup of coffee in one hand, a small black device in the other. He first handed the coffee to Haise - hopefully it would be enough to wash out the taste of Juuzou's revenge - and vaguely wondered what the two of them had been talking about; it seemed like the conversation had given Haise a headache.
Haise looked properly surprised. "That's so kind of you," he said, taking the warm cup. "Thank you."
Juuzou held up a hand between them. "Hey you can't use Hanbee, get your own coffee-bringer."
"He's not a coffee-bringer though, he's your investigating partner."
"See Hanbee, this is how you tell if someone's been mentored by a Mado, they all have a stick up their ass."
"Language," Haise muttered under his breath. He was so used to reign in Touka and Nishiki around Ichika that his reaction to swear words was spontaneous.
"Fuck off, Haise," Juuzou replied pleasantly.
"I thought special class Shinohara was mentored by a Mado," Hanbee murmured.
Juuzou gave him a betrayed look. "You know, sometimes I really wonder who's side you're on."
"There are no 'sides' to be on," Haise said placatingly.
"You know what, it's fine. Take the coffee."
"So kind of you."
Haise froze as his lips touched the cup. He glanced up and saw Juuzou openly staring at him.
"You put something in it again."
"I'm a bit more creative than that." Haise's look slid to Hanbee hesitantly and Juuzou shook his head. "He wouldn't, he's too polite."
"What was that in the other one?" Haise asked and took a sip. His shoulders relaxed once he had confirmed it was plain coffee.
"What did it taste like?"
"Like... Rotten animal fluids."
"It was milk. Close enough."
Haise shivered and took another sip. Hanbee used their short pause to slip in a word:
"Sir, I was just given your earpiece back. They said the FPC connector was damaged."
"Nice, so it works now?" Juuzou took it and hooked it around his ear.
"They said to test it out, but it should be all right."
"You have your radio with you?"
"Not right now, I'll go get it."
Juuzou was about to protest when movement caught his eye and made him glance aside. Marude's silhouette was pacing back and forth down the corridor along the glass walls.
"I think I'll, uh..." Juuzou began, distracted, giving Hanbee the earpiece back and a quick look to Haise.
He smiled, the teasing suddenly gone "Go, we'll catch up later."
Juuzou stood to give him a quick, strong hug. "Thanks, Haise," he said and took off, leaving the other stunned in his seat and Hanbee laughing delightedly.
Juuzou walked up to the glass, took a deep breath. He watched the rooftops straight ahead. Sunlight touched him, and though it was still too early to feel warm, it shone blindingly off the smooth buildings. A reflection moved on the surface of the window, and Marude stopped a few paces to his left. Their looks didn't meet, he gazed ahead as well.
"I came to the conclusion that I've been a bit harsh," he began. "As much as acts of insubordination are not tolerated, I do encourage initiative. You can tell Abara his suspension is lifted."
Juuzou felt a large amount of tension melt right off him. One down. "He'll be glad."
"You're still out for two weeks."
"Did you hear me complaining?"
Marude sneered. A group of people started moving down the corridor from the meeting room then. Juuzou waited until they had walked past.
"I didn't say anything during the meeting."
"I was surprised," he nodded. "Just as I was to receive a request from the Ghoul King himself, that strangely aligns with what you've been suspended for."
Juuzou said nothing.
Impatience slipped in the director's tone. "I'm curious to hear what makes you so sure something will happen, to the point where you're willing to use such shifty methods to force my hand."
Marude looked down at him sharply. Juuzou kept his eyes stubbornly forward. He knew he had hit below the belt, but it was the only argument he thought had a chance of reaching him. Marude looked away, further than the window and the skyline, into the past. His lids tightened from a shard of pain he found there.
A long, heavy sigh. "Ten people. No Arata."
Juuzou fought to contain the overflow of relief.
"That's all I need."
Marude looked down at him and seemed very close to saying something disapproving about the flower in his hair, then gave up and stalked off without another word.
Cardboard boxes covered the bed and most of the floor. Some of them half filled, some still folded, others taped shut and stacked against the walls of the small apartment. Juuzou extended a hand towards Hanbee, who handed him the tape roll. A loud tearing sound, and he cut a strip with his teeth to stick it across the top of an overfilled box. Then Juuzou straightened and looked around his feet, hands on hips, assessing what still needed to be done.
"Should be fine," he concluded.
Hanbee could still hardly believe how much stuff Juuzou kept in that one single closet. It was lucky they had started sorting through it early that Saturday, or they would never be finished by noon. As it was, Hanbee suspected they wouldn't have time to drive by his apartment and drop everything off before meeting up with the Shinoharas. The boxes would have to wait in his car until the evening.
He moved away from the bed, finding the scarce pieces of floorboard that weren't covered in clothes, and began unfolding a new set of boxes, when he spotted what he assumed to be two pieces of clothing in protective covers. Although they had been thrown in a same heap with Juuzou's T-shirts and sweaters, they didn't seem like something you could just fold and cram in a box. Hanbee managed his way up to the covers and picked them up. One was heavy, the other so light he doubted there was anything inside. He held both out for Juuzou to see.
"Can I ask what this is?"
Juuzou gave the heavier one a derisive glance. "Ceremony uniform."
"And this one?"
Hanbee lowered it, looked at the cover in awe. "You have one?"
At his tone, Juuzou turned, surprised. "Doesn't everyone?"
"I guess so. But I can't picture you wearing traditional clothes."
Juuzou smiled and put the tape roll down to walk over, stepping carelessly on a pile of shorts. He unzipped the cover, pulled out the yukata unceremoniously and held it in front of his body to look down at it. It was the palest blue, with small, scattered white and red triangles.
"I did, way back in the day. For New Year's. We went to see the fireworks with the 20th ward team, and Mr Shinohara took me to buy it the weekend before. There was Amon, Seidou, Akira... She did my hair up and everything, it was nice."
Juuzou handed the yukata back to Hanbee who took it with deference. The cotton was light as paper in his hands. Juuzou climbed on his desk and bent to look closely at a cluster of tiny cut-out photos taped to the side of his closet. He spotted the one he was looking for and gestured Hanbee closer.
"You know Akira, that's her right there." He pointed at her face on the photograph. "We got along really well from the start. That's Amon and Seidou, before the whole mutant thing. You and Amon could have been tall-people friends, he was also super serious about everything. I kinda made things awkward when he called me out for being a terrible partner. Seidou is Seidou, which is another word for annoying. That's Mr Shinohara."
All the names he spoke so casually were those of CCG legends, from years before it had become the TSC. Hanbee watched him reminisce a time long before they met and remembered that Juuzou too, was part of those legends. It made him feel like a new recruit next to a veteran. Hanbee redirected his attention to the small photograph. It seemed it had been printed on one of the machines at the office, because it looked to be cut out of regular copy paper, and he could spot the familiar vertical streaks in the ink. He looked closely at the people in it.
There was a steely underline to Akira's relaxed features, like she only allowed herself a smile for the occasion, and even then there was a sour twist to it that Hanbee had never known her to wear. He realized he missed seeing her around - she had always been kind to him. He quickly moved on to the tall man standing close to her, and recognized Amon as the former investigator who had come to propose an alliance during the war. Near them was the one he had seen in countless reports, had lost so many colleagues to, and the stories around which had terrified him. One of the most gruesome ghouls you could come across, printed on the photo as an enthusiastic boy holding a plate of festival foods. Hanbee felt a wave of unease and a strange sense of guilt, so he switched to Mr Shinohara. He stood tall with his chest puffed out proudly and a hearty smile. He could imagine that at that time, him and Kuroiwa would have easily been mistaken for brothers. It was a striking contrast to the way he had looked during their most recent visit; muscles melted away to nothing, face withered as if forty years had passed rather than ten.
"And the one gawking at the fireworks like a moron is me."
Hanbee let his eyes go where they had wanted to look from the start. The word slipped before he could catch it. "Wow."
Juuzou looked at him questioningly.
"You, uh..." Hanbee explained himself, "...look very nice." An understatement. He had never really dared share his thoughts on Juuzou's looks; after all, his life had turned into a horror movie when he had been just a bit too pretty in the wrong person's eye.
"Do you really think that?" Juuzou asked pensively. His fingers brushed the tape on the outlines of the picture, as if to make sure it was properly stuck.
Hanbee followed his stare, then looked back at him, puzzled. "Of course. I'm sure you've been told many times."
Juuzou paused. When he spoke again, his voice was strangely detached. "Actually, it's the first time the compliment isn't coming from a ghoul."
Now that he had started, Hanbee felt he had ten years to make up for. "That's not right. You're extremely beautiful."
Juuzou fluffed out his hair from behind his ears, but not before Hanbee saw them flush a shade pinker. He climbed off the desk and went back to his original task of folding up clothes, face conveniently hidden away.
"Thanks", he said in a small voice.
Hanbee brought his attention back to the photo while Juuzou regained his natural color.
"Your hair was still light," he observed.
"Yeah." He dropped a pile of shirts into a box and caught a strand of his own hair, found a strip of sunlight to revolve it under. A dreamy feeling cut his thought short for a new one: "What if I just grew them out, this time?" He asked himself low.
"You're perfect either way."
"Hanbee, stop!" he laughed. "Are you going to ask me for a raise tomorrow, is that what this is?"
"What-no! I'm being honest." He quickly moved on. "So this is natural, you really are a blond?"
"Yeah, but really really pale blond, like I bleach them. I wonder why. Maybe it's because of something cool, like I have Viking blood or something, or it's just the aftermath of growing up in a basement."
Hanbee heard the sharp smile curve his last few words. He had shown none of it then, but Tsukiyama's words after Thursday's meeting had stuck with him.
"Do you wish you could talk about these things more often?"
"Nah. I don't think anyone wants to hear it, honestly," he joked.
Hanbee steeled himself. He couldn't predict Juuzou's reaction, but he felt it needed to be said. The certitude that he at least wouldn't mock him was what gave him the courage. "I never ask because I'm not sure how, but if there's anything you need to get off your chest, you can talk to me."
Juuzou glanced back at the photograph and said nothing more. On the left, his nineteen year-old self stood in pale clothes, head tipped back for the sky to spill into his eyes. His face drank it like an empty plate, reflected the fireworks swimming in the blue night. Hanbee went to ease the yukata back into its cover, letting the subject go.
"I can remember the first time I saw the sky again. After the raid." Hanbee held his breath. Juuzou carried on. "I was sixteen and I had forgotten it existed. At the Academy I would skip classes to find the highest roof I could climb on and spend my days just sitting there and feeling the air. Even after they took me to the CCG, when I was upset I would just go to the roof."
Hanbee felt like someone had just grabbed his heart and squeezed it mercilessly. He couldn't find his voice, much less something to say.
"I told you, no one wants to hear that," Juuzou said under his breath, unrolling a strip of tape.
There was a long silence, during which Juuzou carried on folding clothes and wished Hanbee would speak. He was starting to feel selfconscious about opening up like that. He had wanted to try, but maybe it had been a mistake. He stole a glance back, and saw Hanbee wiping at his eye quickly. Juuzou turned to him in a start.
"Hanbee? Are you crying??" He asked, appalled.
"But you love the smell of rain," Hanbee said, "and watching sunlight." No one had a right to take these things from him. He was too precious for this world.
Juuzou watched him silently. He had never told him any of that.
"Yeah and that's good," he finally said, "because there's plenty of windows around, rain almost every day lately, I can go outside whenever I want, and I have awesome friends who worry about me just a bit too much." He grinned. Hanbee just shook his head and kept folding clothes. How had he ended up being the one getting comforted?
"Since we're talking about our teenage selves," Juuzou continued, looking for something to distract Hanbee from the somber expression he had taken on. For a second he couldn't think of a single thing normal teenagers did. His question sounded unsure to his own ears: "Did you have fun in high school?"
"I did, actually," Hanbee laughed weakly, "I liked the classes." The contrast was grotesque. While he was in elementary school crying over bad grades, Juuzou had already been fighting for his life. Sometimes, Hanbee wondered how they found anything to talk about. It would never match what Juuzou had just confessed to him, but he too, wanted to give something away that he would normally keep to himself. "I had a girlfriend in senior year."
Juuzou recognized the gesture, because his smile softened. He dropped the clothes he had in hand and went to help Hanbee with his pile. "What was she like?"
"Quiet, very unremarkable; no one ever seemed to notice she was there. I was the same, so one time she came to talk to me. We never really saw each other again after graduation."
"What did she look like?"
"Short, hair to her shoulders. Not straight and shiny like the other girls, a bit wavy, with bangs down to her eyes."
Juuzou grinned. "Like me?"
"No," Hanbee quickly said. "No."
Juuzou stared at him with his mouth dropped open. "What's with that reaction?" he laughed out.
Hanbee realized how his words could be interpreted and quickly backtracked. "Sorry!! I meant that someone like you in high school would have been... completely out of my league. So no, she didn't look like you."
Juuzou punched Hanbee on the top of his arm.
"You're very handsome. Stop putting yourself down." He got up and grabbed a box. "Come on, let's get some of this stuff in the car."
Kaya called, leaning from the staircase. Through a slit of the living room's doorway, she saw her mother sitting in the sofa with her back to her, the hair by her face lit up from what she knew was her computer screen, and Kaya guessed she was too focused on her work to have heard her. She climbed down a few more steps and tried again, although she knew the answer.
"Mom, are they here yet?"
Mrs Shinohara turned to look at her. "Not yet, sweetie."
Kaya let go of the railing and crossed the corridor to find a comfortable seat in the sofa. She threw a few glances at the large dining room clock through the open sliding doors, then picked up her book from the coffee table and tried to concentrate on her reading. After a few minutes of silence and her mother's taps on the keyboard, she put it down on her lap and watched her instead. When she worked, Mrs Shinohara pulled out her round glasses, and now the thin gold frame rested near the tip of her nose, her honey hair pulled back in a a low ponytail. Kaya closed the book and slid off the sofa. She crossed the living room to the set of windows that showed their tiny front yard. It was sunny, the sky dry and clear, but she knew the weather had a way of sneaking up on you during summer. She would wear her yellow raincoat, she though, or maybe she would take her umbrella. She let the sheer curtain drop again.
"What time did you say they were coming?" she asked.
It was a few seconds before she got an answer. "Around lunchtime," Mrs Shinohara said absently.
"He's going to be here, right?"
"Who do you mean?"
Kaya hesitated. She wasn't allowed to call adults by their first name, but that was all she'd heard them call him around the house. "....dad's friend."
Mrs Shinohara laughed lightly. She gave a last tap to the keyboard and leaned back contentedly in her armchair. Kaya knew she had just finished writing an email. "I don't think he'll mind if you call him Juuzou, honey."
"But he's a grown-up."
She shut her laptop and turned to her daughter, smiling. "With a young soul; he won't mind. But if you'd rather not, you can call him Mr Suzuya, like Hanbee does."
"What's Hanbee's last name again?"
"Abara. But you know how we talked about making them feel like part of the family?"
"I know, but I think I'll wait and ask them myself. I don't want them to think I'm being rude." She took a few steps into the living room and looked around restlessly. Her mother watched her, amused.
"I'm gonna go read outside," Kaya decided. She didn't want to go back to her room and risk missing their arrival. She grabbed her book again, got to the front door where she twisted the bundle of keys and got out, leaving it open behind her as she went to sit on the small wooden porch by the stone steps.
The sun shone down on the drowsy residential streets, made the cicadas chant in the greenery. A large one was croaking right by her on the wall of her house. Kaya felt the white heat of the sun touch her arms and legs, and realized she had been reading the same sentence over and over without ever catching its meaning. Before long, the book laid forgotten in her lap. It was hard to believe it would rain. Aside from the brilliant clouds moving like icebergs in the distance, the sky was a perfect, uniform blue.
She had been daydreaming for a while, almost dozing off, when she saw two people down the street getting off a car, wearing light-colored shirts that caught her eye immediately. She thudded her book shut, not thinking of keeping her page, and hurried back into the house. Even once in the cool shade of the hallway, she could still feel the sun's heat glowing on her skin.
"Mom!" she hissed excitedly. "Mom they're here!"
"Oh, really?" She got up and called for her husband as she passed the kitchen, then went to peek out the door. When Kaya heard the voices, she stood very still in the entrance hall. Her mother pulled the door all the way open, and her father's friend, the shorter one with the cyborg leg, stepped in first. Kaya's heartbeat picked up, and she bowed low.
"Hello, Mr Suzuya."
"Hi, Kaya. You know you can call me Juuzou if you want."
Kaya was completely sidetracked from the answer she had prepared. "You remembered my name," was all she could say. Though he had answered her so casually, he still gave her a bow to match her own. Usually, because she was a child, adults didn't bother with much more than a slight nod in return.
"Of course I did. How are you?"
"Good, thank you," she murmured. She hadn't even thought he had noticed her. And because she was one of those people who wore their emotions on their face, she knew the bottom of her cheeks were already scarlet red. When she talked to Juuzou, she liked to imagine this was what having an older brother felt like.
Behind him, his colleague had lingered by the door chatting with her mother. She would get the hang of it rather quickly with Juuzou, because the way he looked and spoke reminded her of the high school kids she sometimes saw in the schoolyard during lunch breaks. But it would be much harder with his friend, because he was so tall and spoke more like her teachers, carrying a work case like they did and always impeccably dressed, even though it was the week-end.
She saw Juuzou had noticed where her look had gone.
"You can use his first name, too," he said.
"Can I really?"
Kaya could tell from his smile and slow movements that he was an extremely kind person, so she remembered the game of checkers they had played the previous weekend and found the courage to walk up to him.
"Hanbee?" Her face grew hotter still.
He looked down at her, a bit surprised. "Yes, Kaya."
"Juuzou told me it was okay to call you Hanbee."
"He was right. Unless you want me to call you Miss Shinohara."
To her own surprise, she giggled heartily. "No, Kaya is fine."
A shrill voice interrupted them from upstairs. "Mom?"
Mrs Shinohara hurried to the staircase and stopped at the sight of her youngest daughter standing on the first landing, still in her pyjamas.
"Kaiko!" she cried. "Why are you not dressed yet, Juuzou and Hanbee are here, we're about to leave!"
"But I can't find my baseball cap," Kaiko whined, hugging the railing.
"The blue and green one, the one I took to school on Wednesday for the field trip!"
"I'll look for it downstairs, you go get ready. Go, go. Kaya, go with her and make sure she doesn't take too long." Kaiko climbed back up the stairs followed by her sister, Mrs Shinohara rushed to the dining room closets.
"Dad!" Shinohara had barely made his way up the entrance hall when Jin piped up from the other end of the corridor. "Dad did you see my raincoat, I think I left it in the car."
"Are you sure? I thought I saw it hung in the closet yesterday."
"But I can't find it! I bet it's in the car!"
"Jin, you barely looked," he complained, then gave Juuzou and Hanbee a resigned smile. "Go ahead and make yourselves comfortable, it seems we'll be a minute longer."
Juuzou laughed watching Shinohara and his daughter bicker on their way back to the dining room. Then he put his backpack down and wandered into the house, Hanbee close behind him. When Juuzou reached the living room's coffee table he saw he was no longer accompanied, and turned to see Hanbee had drifted towards a large piece of furniture near the windows.
It was wooden and nicely varnished, squarish with a curvy top; an odd shape for a chest of drawers, with no visible handles or doors. Juuzou saw Hanbee tuck his fingers under a relief of the wood, as if he knew exactly where it opened. Curiosity drew him closer. Carefully, he lifted the curved piece of wood held by latches too well hidden for Juuzou to have seen, and uncovered a row of gem-smooth, black and white rectangles.
A piano. Juuzou's mouth dropped open a little. He couldn't look away.
Hanbee's hand found the keys, his fingers falling mindlessly into a chord he hadn't thought he remembered. With a closer look, he saw they were wooden too, only covered in small plates of chipped ivory. Their shades varied slightly, from a bluish cream to a pearly beige. One was cracked in the middle and had been glued back into place. They felt cold and even under his touch. He smiled nostalgically.
"You play," Juuzou said. It wasn't a question. He didn't try to hide the wonder in his voice as he studied Hanbee. He looked like the natural prolongation of the instrument. Of course, Juuzou thought. Of course he plays the piano.
Hanbee pulled his hand away quickly and hid it behind his back. "Not really. I used to." His parents had made him take classes until high school, and he had only continued a bit on his own.
"Play something?" Juuzou asked in a small voice.
"I don't remember anything," Hanbee answered automatically.
"Okay." Juuzou replied equally fast, letting him know he wouldn't insist. Hanbee shifted his weight awkwardly. Juuzou looked around, not sure what to do.
"I know a few things."
Juuzou smiled up at him and crossed his hands behind his back, acting unfazed so Hanbee wouldn't feel too much pressure. "Cool."
Hanbee pulled the piano seat back a bit and sat down. He watched the keys with his hands on his lap for a moment, then looked at Juuzou who had walked up to his side.
"I haven't practiced in a long time."
"It's okay. I don't know what to expect so I can't be disappointed, I'm just curious."
He seemed to have found the right words, because Hanbee raised his hands and arranged long fingers over the keys.
Mrs Shinohara was still ruffling through the closet when she heard the music. She stopped - it had been so long since anyone opened the piano - and turned to her husband, who was rolling his chair towards the living room. The music reached them easily through the thin paper of the sliding doors. He stopped at their edge, and peeked in.
"Who's playing?" Mrs Shinohara asked in a whisper as she walked up to him.
"It's Hanbee. Juuzou's watching." He answered just as low, an elated smile in his voice as if he couldn't believe what he was witnessing. Mrs Shinohara's look took the softness of a down pillow. She wrapped her arms around her husband's shoulders and they stayed very still, listening. Jin watched them from the closet, then went for the sliding doors. Shinohara caught her and pulled her to his lap.
"Wait here, honey," he whispered to her.
She gave him a perplexed look, but sat obediently and they remained silent until Mrs Shinohara murmured a thought in her husband's ear.
"They're good for each other," she observed.
"They really are," Shinohara agreed.
She didn't know Juuzou as well as her husband did, and had only spoken to Hanbee a few times, but she could tell: Hanbee was less shy when Juuzou was around, and Juuzou was lighter with Hanbee close. The more she saw those traits emphasized in them when they were together, the more they stood out when they weren't. Like tracks on a dirt road that became clearer with each trip.
They pulled each other up.
Mr Shinohara sucked in a breath, a deep emotion ran through him. He looked ahead as he spoke. "I never thanked you," he said. "For waiting."
Mrs Shinohara hid her surprise well. After a second, she bent and pressed a kiss to the corner of his lips. He squeezed her hand in his.
"Worth every second," she whispered.
The last notes dropped to the floor like glass marbles. They lingered in the space below the living room ceiling for the few moments before Hanbee let go of the pedal.
"I can't believe you never told me you could play music." Juuzou's voice had a strain to it, like he was genuinely upset. Hanbee turned to him and saw eyes heavy with something close to reproach. He wondered if Juuzou could really be talking about the piano, it seemed it should be so insignificant to someone like him.
"I didn't think you would be interested," he mumbled, mystified.
"Are you kidding me? That was the prettiest thing I've ever heard!"
Hanbee looked down at the piano, unsure what to say, until he felt Juuzou sit next to him on the small bench. A little hand came into sight above the keys. It settled on them awkwardly, putting no weight into the touch. Hanbee raised his own hand, took Juuzou's fingers one by one and placed them into a chord. After a moment, they pressed down timidly. Meeting more resistance than expected, they tried again, and the keys sank, revealing the raw wood flanking the ones on either side. Somewhere inside the instrument, soft hammers struck thick steel strings. The chord boomed from the piano's chest, trembled up Juuzou's fingers and into the room.
"Wow," he mouthed. Then louder, "Another one."
Hanbee took his fingers again and placed them differently. Juuzou pushed down with application, and the sound came out clear.
"The next one."
Again he arranged his fingers into the chord. He stopped, still holding his pinkie finger, realizing it wouldn't reach far enough.
"I think your hands are too small for this one."
"I'm not," he chuckled.
"Show me," Juuzou asked defiantly. Hanbee touched the missing key. Juuzou frowned and stretched his hand as far as it would go.
"It's a hard one. If it's too far, then you can just pick two and play those."
Juuzou shook his head at the piano. "You were playing with both hands. How do you know you're pressing the right button if you're not looking?"
Juuzou rolled his eyes. "Key."
"It's just a matter of practice. You can always have a quick look if you're not sure."
Juuzou nodded thoughtfully. "You know other songs, right? You'll play them for me?"
"If you'd like. I have a keyboard somewhere at home."
"Boys?" Mrs Shinohara's soft call came from the door frame just by the instrument.
"Yes," Hanbee looked up quickly, closing the piano.
"We're about ready to leave, do you need a bit more time?"
"No no, we're ready too," Juuzou said and got up, but he stopped as he was about to walk through the doorway. Shinohara's wheelchair was empty, pushed up against the hallway wall. The front door was open to show the porch where Mrs Shinohara waited for them, and he was about to ask if her husband wasn't coming along, when he saw him in the courtyard by the gate with his daughters.
"You're standing," Juuzou said.
"Therapy is starting to kick in. But I'm not walking all the way to the center, one of you is on wheelchair duty." He laughed and pointed at a folded up, sturdy-looking wheelchair near the bicycles. Juuzou hadn't noticed it before, but it made sense he would use a different one for outside. Hanbee was closest to it, so he unfolded it, rolled it up to Shinohara. He pulled the brake up and swung the footplates to the side so he could sit.
"You're used to this," Shinohara noted.
"It's my father," Hanbee explained. "He's been in a wheelchair since I was in junior high."
The walk through Asagaya-Minami's residential streets was heaven.
Hanbee pushed Shinohara's wheelchair under the occasional shade of a tree. The older man laid back with his eyes closed, soaking up the sun filtered by the leaves. Mrs Shinohara walked with a hand hanging from Hanbee's forearm, a large wicker handbag on her shoulder and a light summer hat shielding her eyes. Juuzou walked slightly ahead with Kaya trailing behind. They didn't speak, but now and then he turned to smile at her, and she ended up walking beside him. Both her younger sisters were further ahead still, chatting playfully and sometimes racing to a utility pole or the next tree.
After a few minutes, they saw the metro rails overhead which was the first sign they were approaching the center of Asagaya. From there, decorations started to bloom in the streets, ribbons hung from paper lanterns, the quiet morning became more animated. The empty streets turned to narrow alleys lined with small corner shops, ramen bars and street food stalls. Sometimes they became so narrow they had to form a single file to walk through, then the path would widen again.
It was at the exit of one of those alleys that Juuzou suddenly stopped and looked around, amazed. He had been waiting to spot some kind of entrance, but it turned out their shortcut through perpendicular streets had led them right into the side of the shopping gallery.
Inside, the festival had begun.
The piano piece played is Oltremare, by Ludovico Einaudi. It's beautiful and I love it, especially the begining the middle and the end. (Includind insert of my mild frustration when I saw my hands couldn't reach far enough for the very last chords)
I just realized I wrote an entire chapter around a bunch of ghouls eating human food, without ever thinking that the whole deal with these guys is that they can't eat freaking human food. Now I'm afraid of what other huge mistakes I'll find if I read what I already posted XD XD But oh well. The gallery I'm describing is one I walked through on a lunch break during that festival, I think it's called the Tanabata festival? Anyway it's pretty
At the thought of shopping centers, Juuzou pictured large buildings with many stairs, white neons and air conditioning, as he believed most people did.
What they had walked into resembled more a tall, narrow street, uncommon only for its mosaic-paved floor and domed glass ceiling. Shops of all sizes flanked the long carpet of fragmented stones, and for the occasion, stands had sprouted in front of their wide open doors. On the temporary displays were arranged souvenirs, local specialties in jars and crates, old-fashioned kid's toys, a variety of foods that was prepared and fried on the spot.
On anything that could hold them were attached long pieces of bamboo, with small paper notes tied between the green leaves with even smaller ribbons. Delicate glass ornaments swung from awnings and the small bells inside sang with the summer wind.
Pouring down on their heads were the long ribbons Juuzou had seen waving in the streets earlier. Here, they gathered in thick bundles that swayed in the breeze like magical jellyfish, tendrils reaching just a few feet above the ground. Some pale and light as cotton, others a metallic gold that blazed with sunlight whenever it caught its glare. Juuzou could easily duck under a few, but Hanbee had to push them aside with one hand to clear his way. Above still were hung the hundreds of entries to the sculpture contest: voluminous paper versions of mystical animals, political figures, cartoon characters and others that defied any category. The long glass ceiling stretched out of sight to either end of the gallery, but it was barely visible through the overflow of decorations, and the glimpses they caught of the striking blue sky beyond were rare.
Juuzou walked with his nose up, looking at the paper crowd hovering over the human one, his mind a giant bag of confetti. He wasn't the only one looking awestruck; the girls looked around with wide eyes that took everything in, scarcely blinking lest they miss a half-second's spectacle. They were walking together past a bakery, when Jin and Kaiko's interest was drawn by the steaming yatai stalls further ahead. Kaiko was the first to break the quiet spell and allow admiration to become excitement.
"Mom, I'm hungry! Can I go look around the food stands?"
Mrs Shinohara waved aside the end of a few ribbons. "I'm sorry girls, but there's too many people here, I don't want you wondering off on your own."
"We need to find your sculpture before it gets crowded," Shinohara explained as he saw their eagerness.
'Before' it gets crowded? Juuzou chided himself for not being more attentive; it was easy to forget he was here on a mission.
He tidied up his thoughts and looked round. There were a few vacant areas between flocks of people, but apparently that would change. As he glanced at the passersby, he caught sight of two undercover investigators, in city clothes fit for the heat. Seeing the importance of the event, ten didn't seem like a whole lot anymore. Juuzou wondered if there was any way he could go and walk around freely for a minute, just to get a better sense of the place. He had studied a map of the shopping center with Hanbee before leaving, but it looked so different on a festival day.
Juuzou gave a sidelong glance his way, making sure he wasn't losing his focus in the cheerful setting. Hanbee caught his look, still pushing Shinohara's chair, and answered it with a grave nod. Juuzou smiled to himself. Another cursory look was snagged to a stop by a familiar face, and his expression switched to surprise.
What was Nakarai doing here? Apparently he had volunteered as part of the small group watching over the festival. Juuzou was only half surprised; he had sensed that since his injury, Nakarai had missed working on the field.
He looked back towards the family, and saw Shinohara staring at Nakarai as he walked out of sight.
"You didn't," Shinohara said, incredulous. His eyes searched for another investigator he might recognize, clearly wondering how many more had mingled with the crowd.
Juuzou slowed his pace to walk by his side, close enough that he wouldn't need to speak loudly. "I had to," he whispered defensively.
Shinohara dropped his voice. At the moment, he sounded more impressed than angry. "What did you do to Marude to make him approve of this?"
"Well... you know." Juuzou preferred staying evasive. It was a tale for another day.
"You got in trouble, didn't you."
Shinohara just looked away and shook his head, laughing. "My god." Then something seemed to occur to him and he looked back at Juuzou, stupefied. "Are you armed?" he hissed.
"I mean, yeah."
"Jesus fucking christ, Juuzou."
"What! No one can tell, it's in my backpack. Also you're starting to sound a lot like Marude, just so you know."
"No I'm not."
"Yeah, you really are. You used to be cool, you've changed."
"I'm still cool!" He seemed to think hard for examples to back his claim. "I'm cool," was all he found. "And don't try to trick me, this is beside the point. I'm going grocery shopping this afternoon, did you plan a military escort for that as well?"
That would have made Juuzou laugh if he hadn't actually considered it, and if he hadn't heard the trace of worry under Shinohara's joking tone."Iwaccho told you what was going on around here," he said. There was no reproach in his voice. Watching Jin and Kaiko run around happily in front of them, Juuzou saw that had he been in Shinohara's place, he couldn't have made a different choice: for the girls, this was a first and precious family outing. "Never hurts to be careful."
He grinned at Juuzou in slight surprise. "You're saying I've changed? I never thought these words could come out of your mouth." He shook his head while Juuzou finally giggled, then he twisted in his chair to look back at Hanbee. "I wish you had met this little demon when he was my student. I have some good stories you can bring up if he's ever too hard on you. Once, he-"
"I'm stopping you right there, this is not happening," Juuzou interrupted the exchange with a frown. Hanbee wouldn't use them against him, but if some of those stories reached Nakarai or Tamaki, he'd never hear the end of it.
"Remind me later," Shinohara mouthed at Hanbee, and the other laughed, already knowing that if Juuzou didn't want him to, he wouldn't ask. As Juuzou was about to argue, Shinohara continued. "And 'Iwaccho'? Who said you could use my nicknames?"
"He asked me to call him that," Juuzou smiled again as he recalled. "He said it brought back good memories."
"Did he, now." It seemed Kuroiwa had been there for Juuzou after the raid. It brought Shinohara comfort to think he hadn't been left completely alone.
"Mom! Dad! Did you see the dogs from the pet shop?" Jin was breathless with excitement, her sister ran to a stop beside her, eyes bright and cheeks flushed.
"They were like, this small!!" Kaiko placed both her hands in front of her as if she were holding an invisible grapefruit, then looked up at her parents with insistence as if to confirm she had seen correctly. Her mother nodded, looking impressed, her father laughed at their enthusiasm. Satisfied, they both sprinted ahead to the next store.
Shinohara watched them, eyes brimming with love. "Have they never come here before?"
"They were waiting too, you know," his wife said quietly.
Shinohara looked at her in dismay. Her lips curved up slightly. She felt maybe it wasn't her place to speak of such a thing, but she was burning to share. She stooped to his ear and spoke softly:
"They made a pact together after we moved, of coming here only with you. I think Kaya was eight. Even Kaiko kept her word. Did you think you came back a stranger to them?"
Mrs Shinohara had drawn strength from her daughters' naive display of hope more times than she cared to count, and in turn had kept the family afloat. Now they were here, the five of them, with the feeling of a lifeboat suddenly dropped in the middle of the ocean that through years of paddling, had finally reached shore. Shinohara's mouth opened for an answer, but as no words came, he closed it. He recalled their hesitation the first time he had held his daughters again. Though he understood it, it had torn at his heart.
Now, from his wife's words, something deep inside his chest mended, and was set on the path to healing.
The hardest chapter of his life was closed. It was time to focus on those who had chosen not to forget him, regardless of the pain it had brought on them. He didn't know what other trials life had in store for their family, but it had survived this one, would survive others, and continue to grow. Juuzou glanced at him questioningly, and Shinohara gave his shoulder a tight squeeze.
"Mom we're gonna go get food!" Jin announced. The perfect rows of steamed dumplings had finally been too much to resist. Mrs Shinohara turned just in time to see Jin and Kaiko leave.
"No, girls! Wait a second!" They had already dashed out of sight. "I can't keep up with these two! Someone needs to go after them." She put her bag and hat on her husband's lap and looked hurriedly between Kaya, Hanbee and Juuzou, evidently hesitant at the thought of leaving them alone.
Hanbee stepped up to relieve her: "If you'd rather stay, one of us can take care of the girls." He went to Juuzou, and bent to speak to him only. "Why don't you go with the kids and get them lunch? We'll keep looking for their sculpture." He pulled out four folded bills from his wallet. "Let's meet back here in fifteen minutes."
Juuzou pulled away just enough to deliberately look him up and down. Behind his casual tone, Hanbee had just provided him with the perfect excuse to go investigate the gallery.
"Someone's coming out of their shell," he said, barely above a breath, taking the money and stuffing it in his shorts' back pocket.
"I like it," he shrugged, and disappeared into the crowd.
Hanbee stared after him. Had he known that it would be several weeks before they saw each other again, he would probably have found something to answer back.
"Hanbee..?" Mrs Shinohara called. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, sorry." He turned back to her and summed up their conversation: "He went after the girls."
"Mom, Dad, I'm going with them!" Kaya said as soon as she understood Juuzou had left. She ran off and Mrs Shinohara just stared defeatedly after her.
Juuzou felt a hand slip into his. He glanced to the side and saw Kaya looking around happily, so he smiled and led her through the crowd. They crossed the current of people walking the other way, and quickly found themselves by the food stands. It wasn't long either before they spotted Jin and Kaiko, hands full of paper baskets heavy with food and stained with oil, looking at Juuzou expectantly as if they knew he'd be coming with money. He payed, was yelled an enthusiastic thanks, and continued following them around, buying them whatever odd fried dish they pointed at. Juuzou made the strategic call to carry the food, so the girls had to stay close to him if they wanted to eat. But once the baskets were empty, they were back to their scampering. In a sense, Juuzou was glad of their quick pace: four small people could move surprisingly fast through crowds, and he suspected that by the time they stopped again, they had explored half the gallery.
And so he spotted it: the entrance. A circular dome, held up by large, concrete pillars, shelter to a shower of ribbons. The streets peeked from behind it, and when he saw the hint of a flashy Mc Donald's sign he remembered from the maps, he knew he had found his bearings. Strangely, instead of putting him at ease, he felt his stomach twist.
He became aware of Jin pulling at his shirt for attention, pointing at a shop that had caught their interest. Juuzou followed them there, but his mind was no longer on the festival. While they gushed at the displays, he took a discrete step back to get a better look around. Something was off. His smile faded, and he watched, alert. He knew the feeling well: his unconscious mind had picked up on something that his brain hadn't noticed yet. A breeze, a smell. Maybe a shift in the light. His eyes scoured the gallery. Nothing seemed out of place, but the feeling persisted, prickled at his instinct. What was it? He caught the look of another investigator leaning against a pillar, pretending to look at his phone. Puzzled by Juuzou's focused expression, he put it away and looked around as well, wondering what he had missed. When he saw nothing, he still nodded once in Juuzou's direction and pulled on the edge of his collar to speak discreetly into the mic hidden there.
The call for vigilance should be getting around now, Juuzou thought. Hanbee was wearing an earpiece too, so he would know not to leave Mr and Mrs Shinohara's side. Still...
Juuzou turned back to the children. "Kids, stay here okay?" They agreed distractedly, kneeling by a small, bright blue plastic pool. Inside floated what looked like colorful bouncing balls, and among them a little golden trinket of a beetle caught the sunlight through clear water.
Juuzou looked at the eldest sister. He had had the feeling she could be trusted. "Kaya, can you make sure the three of you stay right here for a second? I won't be long."
He had hidden any trace of concern from his voice, but still she looked him in the eye and nodded seriously. "Okay."
Juuzou walked just outside of the main gatherings around the shop fronts, towards a corner leading to one of the quieter side alleys. There he listened, and quickly understood what was wrong. It was too calm outside. Beyond the stout brick walls that held the clamor of the festival, in the streets steaming with sunlight, the cicadas had stopped croaking, the usually loud ravens that crowded the electrical cables had lapsed into silence.
The telling signs that something was lurking.
He swallowed his dread, and though he had not let them out of his sight, he felt unreasonable panic that he wasn't closer to the girls. He walked back to them quickly, and barely noticed Kaya looking up to greet him back when something caught his eye, and he shifted his look to the entrance of the gallery.
The next image would join the dozens already etched in Juuzou's memory.
A woman appeared from one of the side alleys. She ran into the striking sunlight that burned the entrance of the shopping gallery, arms flailing, her long hair thrashing madly behind, her face stretched out in a shout that couldn't reach them. A wild flare of panic plunging into the sedate crowd. Juuzou heard it before her voice carried: the distant sound of flesh ripping wetly, of bones crushed by strong teeth. And then, mixed in a waft of summer fragrances and a promise of rain, he smelt the blood.
Finally, a single word flew out like a spark in a barrel of gunpowder and exploded between the gallery walls.
He would worry for nothing, Juuzou thought. He would annoy a bunch of people for something that would never happen. That's how it was supposed to go. What he was seeing now made no sense.
He would blink, and everything would be fine.
He blinked.The next thing he saw was the crowd swirling madly around him, like someone had pulled the plug from the bottom of a full bathtub. As he watched, his eyes went staring and his mind began to plod. 'No,' he thought, 'not now.' He got enough of a grip just to wedge himself in the shallow cavity of a store front, out of people's way. There, he tried to kick-start his brain again by going through the steps of his routine: he flicked on the radio in his pocket, switched on his earpiece. It crackled, a sizzling noise, and nothing. His stomach dropped. He hadn't checked if it worked, and now it was too late. A familiar voice emerged from the frenzy. Nakarai, shouting. Juuzou looked at him without understanding, until the words pierced through a crack in the panicked cries.
"Suzuya, the KIDS! GO AFTER THE KIDS!"
Juuzou snapped back into reality like his head had been pulled out of water, like a train sped free of a tunnel. The kids. He looked sharply through the crowd. Nakarai ran the other way as soon as he saw Juuzou was back on track.
"This way! Everyone into the shops, don't push! TSC, come this way!" Investigators shouted, steered the crowd as best they could, quelling people's instinct to run for the perpendicular alleys; experience taught them that if the ghoul wasn't alone, the others were waiting at their ends with open jaws.
The following minutes were madness. Those who had understood there were TSC investigators in the lot hurried to the voices, the others followed the rush. People squeezed into shops like a force was sucking them in. Juuzou fought against the current, dodged the bodies shooting at him like blunt objects, ducked and slipped through a moving forest of legs. If he stumbled, he knew he would be trampled flat. He had seen no one still standing by the pool, and it became evident the kids had been swept by the stampede as well. Hanbee would take care of Mr and Mrs Shinohara. He had to trust him with that, and think of the kids. 'Let them be ok, let them be ok, let them-' he broke through the crowd, and needed a second to understand where he stood.
The entrance of the gallery and its foliage of ribbons were a few paces away, deserted. He meant to turn back immediately, but he froze.
The smell hit him first. The pungent, rotting breath of meat-eating creatures infused the humid heat of noon. Then movement, a shadow behind the shivering ribbons. He only then realized how quiet it had become. Everyone had gone into hiding, the gallery was empty behind him. His eyes locked on the mosaic circle on the ground by the entrance. Visible within the few inches between the ends of decorations and the ground, a mass of flesh swung into view and stomped down, black and sticky, like the sun was melting it. Muscles tensed as weight was shifted onto it, then a second hand appeared on the ground, unerringly twisted in Juuzou's direction. He didn't need to see more, the name already filled his mind: Shikorae.
Muted, hurried footsteps behind him. Juuzou turned slowly. Kaya had run back to the pool and plunged her hands into the water. She dragged Jin out and the smaller girl coughed hard, then gasped in a huge breath. There was swelling on the side of her head. Against the foot of a pillar, a girl no older than four laid awkwardly on top of an oddly-bent arm, unconscicous. A bit further still, Kaiko was sprawled on the ground. Kaya pulled Jin onto her back to get to them, but before she could, Kaiko sat up groggily to clutch her leg, tipped her head back and let out a long, piercing wail. Juuzou didn't bother looking back at the creature. He had heard it stop to listen.
Then he felt it like a shift in the air: inhumanly strong muscles coiling. Anticipation rose in the day around them like an electrical current, and everything became still.
Those were the moments before the pounce.
Juuzou broke into a run towards the kids.
As soon as he did, the ghoul charged through the entrance after him with an ear-splitting roar.
Hanbee didn't move. He watched, and listened.
It had started raining again; he heard faint taps on the glass ceiling a distance above their heads. The creature's furious howl had boomed down the gallery and still lingered like a icy blanket over his skin.
As soon as the warning had come through his radio, he had made sure the family remained within reach of shelter. So when the crowd had gone mad, he had managed to herd what looked like fifty people into a small haberdashery. It was dark and wooden, with large rolls of cloth and sewing supplies covering the walls. But all of that was hidden by the number of people crammed inside the room. The shop was packed with the hum of frantic voices, the shrill questions of children asking what was going on: easy conditions for panic to brew in. They had all seen the ghoul crash past them like a cannonball, intensely focused on something just out of their sight. It was probably far down the gallery now, Hanbee thought, running after Juuzou. The image of it was still strong in his eyes, printed on his retina like a flash of light. A monster straight out of a nightmare. He hoped Juuzou was with the girls, and that they were all safe. He closed his eyes for a second, and focused again.
Around Hanbee remained the only bit of spare space, that had appeared as soon as he had pulled out the weapon from his work case. Through the commotion, he had made sure Mr and Mrs Shinohara remained right behind him and the blade he held.
Mrs Shinohara breathed heavily against her husband's chest, working to remain calm. Mr Shinohara was frozen in his chair, a stiff arm around her shoulders, his face pasty and looking more hollow than ever. The purple circles under his eyes were frighteningly dark, like he was recovering from a broken nose.
Hanbee's job was to protect them. The rest of the world could go down in flames; he wouldn't let Juuzou be hurt again. His grip tightened around the hilt of his katana.
"The girls," Mrs Shinohara said. Her voice was strangely mild, she spoke with her eyes closed. Her face was drained of color and emotion. "The girls, Juuzou, where are they."
"They're all right," Hanbee answered without turning. He gave his best effort to sound confident, and took the opportunity to reassure himself as well. "The girls are safe in a shop, with another investigator. If not, they're still outside, which is the safest place to be at the moment."
"Out in the gallery? How is it safe??" She hissed between her teeth. There was a trace of hysteria in her voice.
"Because that's where Juuzou is."
Juuzou caught Jin without slowing, pried her off the ground and swung her onto his back. Her tiny arms steeled with terror, she clutched at his throat so hard he could barely breathe.
"Kaya!" he shouted, making sure she followed. "Can you take care of the other one?"
The answering voice came from somewhere to his side."Yes!"
He shook his backpack out from under Jin and off his shoulder and held it out in Kaya's general direction. He felt her take it. He ran as hard as he could, and a second later caught Kaiko with an impact that knocked the breath out of the small girl. He clutched her to him, feeling his nails dig into the skin of her shoulder and finding no time to be sorry. He was barely aware of the constant high-pitched screech that tore through her throat and out against his ear. Nor did he realize that the way she was, she faced what was chasing them, and she continued screaming in terror. He glanced to his side, hoping hard that Kaya had managed to keep up. She was there, running swiftly, her face blank, bag bouncing against her back as she clutched the unconscious girl to her like a life vest. Juuzou felt Kaiko slip out of her T-shirt and reluctantly let go of Jin to grab her with both arms. The girl on his back shrieked in surprise and tightened her grip on his neck, wrapped her legs around his waist, her skinny knees jabbing at his ribs with each stride. Juuzou tried to squeeze Jin's wrists between his shoulders and jaw in case her hands slipped off. He felt he could still run a distance, but his arms burned with effort and he feared he might let go of the children, or that at any moment it might be too much for Kaya.
He focused on the passage ahead of them. All the stores were closed. Some of them had metal blinds that could be pulled from the inside, but in others, thronging people were pressed against the glass, wearing varying masks of terror as they saw the five of them running. In their eyes, they were doomed. They were waiting to see them torn to bloody shreds by the creature's square teeth, both horrified and unable to look away. Juuzou already knew none of these people would risk opening a store to let them in, and he couldn't blame them.
Ahead, he saw what he was looking for: a large pharmacy they had walked past earlier, cornering the turn to an alley. It was large, the entrance covered in white tiles, and in front of the locked automatic doors covered in horrified faces was a patio for display, raised slightly above ground level and guarded by two pillars.
It was as good as it would get. Juuzou yelled Kaya's name again. He only noticed the rucus behind them when he didn't hear his own voice. He tried again, screaming her name so hard the sound scraped his throat and brought tears to his eyes. She glanced over. Her face was chalky white, her eyes two round marbles. Juuzou took a sharp turn, and she followed. The creature behind them skidded on the smooth floor as it tried to follow and went out of sight for a second, its wheezing still deafening in the enclosed space. They only had a moment. Juuzou found a crook in the shadows between the glass of onlookers and a toothpaste display, let Kaiko fall to the ground and shook Jin off his back, wasting no time with finesse. The people behind the doors were striking it with open palms, yelling with feverish eyes, probably telling them to keep running. To them, they just looked like five helpless kids. Juuzou ignored them completely and went to Kaya. His lungs were raw from running with so much extra weight, his arms felt like rushing water. He tried to pull the bag out of her hands, but her fingers were set into tense claws around it, her face turned away in the direction the ghoul had went. The stench was growing stronger as it approached. Kaya's stomach visibly heaved. If Juuzou wasn't so used to it, he would have felt sick himself. He pried the bag out of her hands and pushed her towards the other kids. Jin and Kaiko were huddled close together, lips white with fear, holding the unconscious girl like you would a plushie during a nightmare. Kaya fell next to them, her breathing quick and shallow, not seeming to notice the muffled yells of the people behind the glass. Juuzou bent to her ear.
"Stay with your sisters, keep them quiet and don't move. I die, you run. Understood?"
He didn't think he would die, so he hated to bring up the possibility to her. But he had to make sure she would know what to do if the unlikely happened. He expected her to protest and answer too loudly in her anguish, but to his surprise, she kept her face set and spoke low.
He stood up and unzipped his bag noiselessly, pulled out the black case. Kaya's eyes followed it, hypnotized as soon as it showed. Juuzou gave her what he hoped to be a reassuring smile, and calmly, he stepped off the patio and walked out into the open, to the middle of the sunlit passage.
Kaya watched him through a small space between the metal display and the tiles of the pharmacy, and couldn't look away.
There was a moment's quiet, and a ghastly sound, like something fleshy and squishy slowly turning around. Then an excited sort of gurgle that reverberated on the glass ceiling, vibrated on the store fronts. Behind them, people fell silent. Kaya saw a shadow slither up on the ground, growing larger, reaching Juuzou and swallowing him in darkness as well. He lifted his head as the shadow progressed, and Kaya wondered with a pang of fresh fright how huge the creature could be. Next to her Jin whimpered, and Kaya slapped a hand over her mouth. She desperately wanted Juuzou back with them. She felt so sick with fear that for a moment she was sure she would throw up. It took all her will to squeeze her eyes shut, and keep them that way. She was the daughter of a Special Class investigator, she would not yield to panic. After a few seconds, her stomach settled, and she kept watching. Her eyes opened just as the ghoul came into view.
Juuzou observed the snarling creature. Repulsive, as any kakuja. But this one was a bit more gruesome in its shape, for it reflected its choice of meals. It was difficult to comprehend which way each limb was supposed to bend, and there were too many to be useful, sprouting from all the wrong spots. At places, the skin oozed and gaped like howling mouths, revealing a layer as tough as leather and black as putrid meat. The ghoul took a step forward, head low, chin grazing the ground. Long, slug-like growths sprouting from its scalp dragged sloppily across the colorful mosaics. There must have been a face under the mess, and it was just as well hidden: it would not have been a pleasant sight. It exhaled in a rale, and Juuzou smelt frustration on its decaying breath. It had expected a banquet, it had walked into a trap. Now the coveted human flesh was safely packed away behind glass walls, and only one of its preys stood between him and the promise of a feast that whetted its hunger. Still, it was being careful. It knew who it was up against. The thought made Juuzou's heartbeat pick up with excitement.
He already knew he would win this fight, that was a given. In the course of the years, he had killed enough kakujas that it had become a tiresome routine, like brushing your teeth in the morning. But he kept himself grounded. This time, things would be a bit more complicated.
He was standing in the textbook definition of the worst battleground: a long, narrow space, with an enormous opponent that almost matched its width, could strike as quick as a snake at any range, everything in plain sight and no opportunities to hide. If the situation wasn't dire enough, the little fighting space he had was flanked by hundreds of potential victims he had to distract the ghoul from. Even the spot he had found for the kids was dangerously exposed. He could see their shadows in his peripheral vision, and hoped they were only obvious to him because he knew they were there. All of those conditions assembled made for an absolute death trap. To anyone, but him.
Juuzou stretched his sights outside his body. His mind travelled freely in his surroundings, piecing together details, glimpses of information he had gathered since walking in. He could feel the space down to the last swinging decoration. Somewhere behind him, a food stand had fallen over and oil sizzled on the ground in thick bubbles. Up above his head, a paper sculpture swung from a cable and creaked softly. The smell of blood still came strongly from one of the alleys by the entrance. Outside the gallery, cars kept whooshing past, oblivious to what was taking place behind its walls. Surely by now someone had called for help, and it was on its way, along with its own array of problems. Juuzou felt sudden urgency; he needed to end this before it became bothersome. He breathed in, and energy coursed from his chest to the tip of his fingers, down to the blade that slept in its case, through his stomach to his legs and back the way it came. A score of gazes were latched onto his every move. A different kind of arena. A shiver of satisfaction ran up his spine and fogged his thoughts. This is what he was born for: right now, he was the deadliest person in the world. If he had nothing to protect, he thought viciously, he would rend the creature to a gory mess in a heartbeat. He reveled in the feeling and tempered it all at once. The strength that came in pair with bloodlust was welcomed, but he refused to lose his head to it. Meticulously, and until he regained his calm, he listed to himself what was at stake. Once in the high of the fight, it would be hard enough to remember.
There were four children behind him who would die, three of which would make Mr and Mrs Shinohara die of sadness if he failed. There were thousands of people with their faces pressed up against the insides of the shops like a horrified wallpaper. If he failed, they would all die. Each of them had a family, friends, that the tragedy would reach as well. Further down the gallery, there was Hanbee with Mr and Mrs Shinohara. He had become an excellent fighter, but if Juuzou failed, alone against that thing he would die protecting them. And of course, there was Mr and Mrs Shinohara. If either of them died, it might finally be a bit too much for Juuzou to be able to live with himself.
He circled a thumb around the button on the case's handle. He would protect them all. It was his job, his city. And there was something else, something new. He thought of the people he cared about. He wanted to return to them once it as all over, and he was certain they would be glad to have him back, too.
He wanted to live.
Sunlight shone in his mind, and he pressed the button.
If anyone is interested, I made a tumblr where I'll post any drawings I have for this story! Since I haven't really described how I imagine the Shinohara children, I made one for them: from left to right, Jin, Kaya and Kaiko. I hope they're kind of recognizable!
(I don't know if I'll post frequently btw, but hey it's there :D )
Also I don't know how to write action. I'm so sorry, I tried.
The metal case exploded.
Kaya watched, her eyes as wide as they would go. It had exploded, and bundles of flesh pulsed out, like the bared muscles of a skinned cow, except they were alive, writhing and bleeding ruby drops of light. It was gruesome and mesmerizing, like poetry about war. The mess of muscles jumped and twitched, grasping at freedom, stretching towards the summer light, until something else took over its body. Invisible strings tugged it back like reins on a horse, forced it into a single shape. The flesh struggled vainly as it was wrung, flattened by the unnatural force humming from the guts of the metal case. Under the incredible pressure, the end of the grisly mass turned into something sharp. Kaya recognized it as the end of a blade. The end of the most enormous blade she had ever seen. The compression spread until the hilt of a tangible object came to rest in Juuzou's palm. The weapon was easily as large as the one who wielded it, the edge so sharp it hurt to look at. If wind blew against it, it would make the air bleed.
Unreal, she thought.
As soon as it appeared, the creature snarled, stomped the tiles with its long, deformed limbs, torn between its desire to lunge at Juuzou and its knowledge of the danger. Another roar. It sounded like no living creature Kaya knew of. Lost inside it was the faint, distorted pitch of a human voice. Completely wrong. She felt Kaiko take a sharp breath, and looked down to see her sister's face frozen in a silent screech. Pure terror. She ought to feel it too. But by then, Juuzou had started moving, and there was little she could do but watch in fascination.
The case dropped to the ground, still humming and pulsing with strange light. Juuzou's eyes never left the ghoul as hands guided by habit found a firm grip on the weapon. He shifted his feet, ever so slightly, but it changed everything. The deflection rippled up his body and he bent his wrists a fraction of a millimeter, the blade revolved half a degree. For a moment, all eyes in the gallery were fixed on its cold, deadly planes. Kaya's were no exception: she watched, hypnotized by the sunlight striking off its surface. And suddenly it was gone, leaving a blotch of color in her vision. She blinked, confused, then a monstrous sound smacked her thoughts to the back of her head like a fly against a wall. The creature had bellowed in fury, and Kaya, her mind wiped completely blank, saw blood cascade out of its charred flesh, splash at its feet.
The battle had begun unceremoniously, and Juuzou's first strike set the tone: there would be no pretense of honor, no codes or rules, only murder.
The creature was already sent staggering from that first blow. Kaya felt a leap of hope: could it really be so easy? In spite of her best judgement, she pictured their family reunited, walking safely out of the gallery, and her desire was so vivid that when the creature found its balance again, her stomach plummeted. It wasn't weakened, it had gone mad. Coming out of its mouth were the chilling sounds of insanity. Laughter akin to the screeches of a broken machine. Goosebumps raised on every inch of Kaya's body, and for a glimpse she saw it; somewhere in there, under the masses of slimy flesh, lived a broken soul.
A sharp limb, Kaya couldn't understand which, slit the air and fused in the direction of the stores. Before she could catch her breath to gasp, it was flying freely, no longer attached to the creature's body. The murderous piece of flesh went crashing to the ground, raising a thick cloud of dust and more projectiles. The sound rattled Kaya's head. Debris flew high enough to punch through the clear ceiling. It exploded in a deafening clatter of glass and metal. Shards and pieces as large as bricks stormed down on the gallery, hit the mosaics like a mad xylophone with a shower of raindrops. Juuzou couldn't avoid them all. He dodged the largest ones but the smaller hit his shoulders, sliced shallow cuts into his arms and legs. He didn't seem to notice or mind. Another strip of muscle sped out of the ghoul's back, another, and then more than Kaya could count. One by one they fell to the ground after thin flashes of light, and she understood Juuzou was slicing through them when for a second her eyes caught up with his movements.
No human should move so swiftly. His being glowed with danger, and at each swipe of the blade she instinctively flinched back despite the distance. All this time, he had been capable of the speed and ruthlessness he showed now. He was the same light and playful person who had caught and tickled her when she had stolen his badge. She could scarcely believe it.
Then it all happened at once: three of the flesh-whips took dangerous directions. One speeding towards the pharmacy, another squarely aimed at Juuzou, and another threatening to plunge right through a shop window. By the time Kaya thought of grabbing her sisters and bolt away, it was too late. A sharp shadow bore down on them with the speed of cracking thunder. Her thoughts were plucked out of her head, and left her body to move on its own. She hurled herself at her sisters, and they hit the concrete as everything crashed around them. So much noise. What Kaya felt was beyond fear. Adrenaline pulsed through her system, pulled her mind out of the reverberations of falling bricks and back to awareness. A pillar had toppled, but they were safe.
Washed up on the pharmacy patio like a tide wrack, was the limb that had attacked them. Up close, it was ten time larger than Kaya would have guessed watching the ghoul from her hiding place. It could crush her body simply by falling on it, she noted with dismay, and Juuzou was barely larger than she was.
Where it had been cut, the flesh fumed and sizzled as if severed by red-hot iron, and blood of a color Kaya didn't think blood should be pooled around it. The fumes reeked of death. Kaya felt Jin gag at the smell. She took Juuzou's empty backpack and pressed it against her nose and mouth. Jin buried her head in it gratefully and took great gulps of more breathable air. Soon, Kaiko scrambled to join her. For a moment Kaya held the bag and let her gaze wander in its pattern of stars and planets. She allowed herself to wonder calmly if they were going to die.
Juuzou had sped out of reach and cut through the limb aimed at the girls first. It had crashed into one of the patio's pillars, but he knew the girls would be fine. Next, he sprinted to the monster's second target and when he reached it, he only had time to watch an enormous clawed hand fall down on him. He gripped his weapon and braced himself for the impact.
A gut-wrenching crash. In the haberdashery, people's faces looked carved out of ice. So foreign to their quiet suburban lives, the sounds overwhelmed their brains and bodies to the point that they had given up on a reaction. Hanbee knew the feeling well. If he weren't desensitized to the sound of concrete clashing with concrete, he would have been just as shaken as the folk behind him. Outside, the echoes of destruction thinned, and were gone. There was barely a moment's silence before concerned voices bubbled up from the back of the shop, quickly edging towards panic. Hanbee didn't want to look away from the display window - he felt the battle coming closer - but glanced back when a shriek stirred more people still. A few had fainted, and a large group had formed around a teenage boy who terror had thrown into a fit. People watched helplessly as his body seized and froth appeared at the corner of his lips, until a handful of them moved him to a safe position in one of the room's far corners. After a moment, he seemed to calm. Hanbee steeled his heart, and faced the gallery once more, willing it all to be over soon.
Kaya uncovered her ears. For a moment her eyes roamed wildly, and she could hear nothing above the ringing that filled her head. Finally she blinked and looked up, the edges of her vision still fuzzy with vibrations. People were yelling inside the stores, but as soon as the dust cleared Kaya saw none of them were injured: the ghoul had struck the concrete walls, as if it meant to tear them all down, and Kaya didn't doubt that it could. But although fractured to cobwebs, the glass of the shop fronts had resisted. Finally she spotted Juuzou getting back to his feet on top of the rubble, and his weapon on the ground, out of reach. Before she could work through the implications, a thud against the glass behind her made her heart jump to her throat. She turned to see that a young police officer, his eyes rimmed with white like a startled horse, had jammed his fingers between the automatic doors and tried with all his might to pry them open. The guilt of watching them out in the open, defenseless, must have been too much to bear. Kaya, with a detached sort of disbelief, wondered if he was insane. He was making so much noise. she felt great relief as dozens of hands closed around the officer's shoulders and pulled him further back into the store. The doors slammed shut once again.
The sudden upheaval seemed to have pulled Jin out of her petrified state. She blinked in a sort of daze, like she was only waking up, and rolled large eyes to meet Kaya's. She suddenly seemed years younger than her age.
"Aren't they letting us in? Why won't they let us in?"
"Don't cry," Kaya meant to speak firmly, but instead her voice had come out harsh. She saw Jin's lower lip tremble, and she quickly softened her tone. "Don't cry, everything will be fine."
"We're going to die," she realized, her tears frozen to a glassy sheen over her eyes. "We're going to die! I want to go see mom and dad! Where's mom and dad!!!" Her voice was raising with every word, and Kaya quickly grabbed her shoulders to catch her look. The bump on her head had swollen and turned purple.
"We're not going to die," she said low, but with force. "Juuzou is fighting." Her own words started a fire in her belly, and she knew she was right. She stared at her sisters with determination; she would not let any of them give in to despair before Juuzou did. She thought of the smile he had given her before leaving, and mustered her own. Jin and Kaya looked her as if she had lost her mind. "I feel sorry for that monster," she said.
Juuzou found his footing on the shifty mound of debris. He had heard a crunch in his ribs, where a brick had struck them. He caught his breath and felt his side pulse dully under his shirt. He touched it quickly - no blood. Behind him, the people in the shop seemed shaken, but safe. The force of the blow had twisted his weapon out of his hands, and sent the blade to the ground a few meters away. He really needed to find a solution for that, it happened much too often. He rotated his right wrist tentatively, and thought it might have been sprained when the quinque was slapped out of his hold. There was no time to pause, or contemplate getting it back: another impact threw his body tumbling the other way. He stopped himself with hands scraping on the rough ground, tearing at the one still wrapped in bandages, slicing open the nearly healed burns. His wounds became caked with dust, rain mixed with blood and ran down his skin. Soon he was matted with it from head to toe in a sticky, translucent coat. His clothes were drenched and heavy, they pulled back at all his movements. He became aware of a shallow cut on his forehead, most likely from when the ceiling had broken. Blood slithered down his brow and he wiped it away. Head wounds bled more heavily than others, and he knew he had little more than seconds before its flow blinded his left eye. He meant to move again, but something pulled him back and nearly made him trip. With a quick look down to his feet, he understood that dust from the rubble mixed with blood and rainwater had turned to mud, and his sneakers had become stuck in the mess. He kicked them off as quickly as he could, sweat dripping from his hair. In an instant, the creature's shadow was on him like a storm, and in a tenth of that time a knife was jammed deep inside its eye. It wasn't enough to hurt it, but it backed away a few precious steps, slipped in a puddle of trampled food and oil, caught itself on a stand and crushed it under its weight, struggled inanely back to its feet. Juuzou finished freeing his feet. He drew four more knives, one between each finger of his left hand, and threw them up to the ceiling.
Kaya watched the hundreds of huge sculptures fall like in slow motion from their severed cables, in a wave starting where Juuzou fought. Cheerful planets falling out of orbit. It was like watching the end of the world. Before she could no longer see through the masses of paper, she caught a glimpse of the one Jin and Kaiko had made. Her arms found her trembling sisters, and she held them close.
Juuzou sped through the falling sculptures, the creature screeching after him, tearing them down on its path. The seconds it wasted each time it lost sight of him were enough for Juuzou to skid to a stop right by his weapon and pick it up. Each of the ghoul's strides sent vibrations buzzing up his legs. Anticipation rushed trough him as he recognized the opportunity. He would turn, and in a flash he would end it. Only without knowing, he had ended up by the wrong store.
"He's not smiling," Shinohara murmured to himself. Juuzou had emerged from the paper avalanche, right in front of the haberdashery's window, drenched in the ghoul's blood.
"Something's wrong, he's not smiling," he repeated, louder.
"No, everything is fine," Hanbee answered. "He's just focused."
"Focused," he echoed, amazed. For a moment Shinohara watched Hanbee silently, felt how much he ached to leave the store and have Juuzou's back. His fingers tensed around the armrests of his wheel-chair. He felt so useless.
The slink of a blade, and a generous spurt of blood whipped across the glass with a force that shook the walls. People screamed, ducked away. Hanbee frowned, shutting everything out. He didn't like this at all. Light barely reached through the thick coating of blood. It plunged the inside of the store in gruesome, carmine darkness, projected its colored shadow on the crowd like an omen. Shinohara took his wife's hand and squeezed it tight. Hanbee squinted harder, focus lining his brow. He thought he could make out silhouettes moving around behind the red curtain. They were too diffused to make any sense, but he refused to let them out of sight. There was a crash that jolted the earth. More screams inside the store. They rose heavily and swirled around each other like a flock of panicked birds. Another crash. This one shot to the core of Hanbee's bones, rattled his skull. Pieces of metal, brick and glass went shooting around out in the gallery, they heard the projectiles' impacts shake the building, the walls screaming in protest, the ground groaning like an earthquake.
"Get down! Everyone down, cover your heads!"
Shinohara's voice boomed over the noise, the military ring to it suddenly so alive that the crowd obeyed hastily. Soon the faces had disappeared and the room was strewn with rounded backs. Helped by the desperate tugs of his wife, Shinohara struggled to leave his chair and take cover. He shouted at Hanbee to do the same, but he ignored the order and stood squarely in front of them both. He kept watching the glass, and out of nowhere appeared a thin shadow. It grew, focused, darkened with frightening speed, and in an instant shot through the automatic doors, blasting it to shards. A piece of brick wall. The sound rang in Hanbee's head. His vision vibrated. He couldn't think, couldn't find his body, but he stood his ground. As he fought to keep balance, his only thought was he might not be shielding Shinohara and his wife anymore.
Something flashed past his side with the speed of an arrow, shone for a fraction of a second like a mirror in the sun. Hanbee wasn't sure how he managed to move in its path. But the next second, pain tore his body, shot up and down his bones like a strike of lightning. Hot blood poured at an alarming rate, the rusty smell already sickening in the store's musty air. His hands were still tight around his weapon. He knew he had to let go and tie something around the wound before it was too late. He felt like a punctured balloon. So light, and getting lighter by the moment. He moved his toes, remembering where the ground was. The pain began to fade into a thick white fog. Looking through it, everything seemed pleasantly unimportant. He found himself able to look down.
A ridiculously large piece of glass was jammed inside his thigh, deep enough that it held its own weight upright. Well, he thought. He looked back. Well, ok. The pointed end of the glass stuck out the other side like a narwhal's horn. Not an inch from its sharp tip was Shinohara's stunned face. He had done it, he had protected them. Whatever remained of his strength was washed away by waves of relief and detachment. If the leg really belonged to him, then it ought to keep hurting like it had a moment ago. Fresh blood streamed out of the gash. Outside, the noise had stopped. The fight was over. He tried to loosen his grip on the weapon again. He had to do something about the wound, he thought vaguely, he was almost sure it was important. With a tremendous effort his hands opened like rusty armor gloves and the blade clattered to the floor.
His body followed shortly.
From the fighter's perspective a battle could seem endless, when in reality, it seldom lasted more than moments. Since the ghoul had crashed through the entrance, five minutes had ticked by, or a lifetime.
"What's wrong with him."
Juuzou stood on the blood-spattered debris and watched the precise welter of ambulance people through one eye, barely aware of the other veiled in red. Between flashes of bright orange and silver suits hurrying in and out of the haberdashery, he caught glimpses of a body on the ground, in a growing puddle of blood.
"What's wrong with him," he asked again. The ambulance man rushed past him like a boulder and came back with a medical case.
"It's his leg." Juuzou jumped. He hadn't registered Shinohara's presence next to him. "He'll be all right."
"I know he'll be all right," he snapped, and immediately retracted. "I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize."
For a while, they watched the agitation in bleak silence. "That thing was flying straight to my face," Shinohara said quietly. 'I should be dead."
Juuzou said nothing while the ambulance sped away and disappeared. Sirens rang for a moment longer, and were gone. They had been in such a hurry that they hadn't offered he climbed in the back. That was never good. More would come to take care of the people who had fainted or suffered minor injuries from the crowd movement, but until then, quiet had been restored on the mess of conversations. Families pushed into different stores were hugging each-other close again, parents cried out in relief as they found their children. A father rushed to Kaya and took his small daughter out of her arms with a profusion of thanks. They both exclaimed their relief when she started to stir. In the lot was Mrs Shinohara, surrounded by her kids. She was on her knees, grabbing Kaiko's elbows and bombarding her with questions. The color had been drained from her face.
Juuzou felt warmth inch down his chin, and reached up to find a cut in his lip. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and it came out bloody. He could only imagine how his face looked. No one chanced a glance his way. The only looks he returned were Nakarai's and other investigators', but he wordlessly dismissed them, and they went back to helping families reunite and tending to the wounded.
"Can you walk? How badly are you hurt?" Shinohara lifted a hand and wiped at the blood threading past Juuzou's eyebrow. He let him, tried to blink his eye clear and gave up quickly.
"I'm fine," he said, and after a deep breath they made their way through the crowd towards Mrs Shinohara and the girls. People drew back with frightened looks at Juuzou's approach, but he gave it little thought other than it made their progress easier. As they came closer to the family, their voices emerged from the ambient noise.
"Does it hurt when you bend it?"
Kaiko shook her head. "It just burns on my skin."
Mrs Shinohara couldn't believe she had gotten away with just a scraped knee. "What about you, Jin?"
"I bonked my head a bit."
"Show me! Does it hurt a lot?"
She shrugged. "Just a bit when I touch it, like the time I hit my forehead on the cupboard."
"Are you feeling sick? Dizzy?"
She shook her head. "I feel fine."
Just a bump on her forehead, no blood. Mrs Shinohara turned an unbelieving look on her eldest.
"Not a scratch," she murmured.
Shinohara rolled his chair up to them, wheels crunching on the debris, and his wife turned to him.
"They're fine, they're completely fine." Tears dampened her words, until they rolled down her cheeks to meet at the bottom of her chin. Juuzou was next to approach and she faced him, managed the small distance on her knees and caught him tightly in her arms. She tucked her face in the nook of his neck, smeared tears on his skin, blood on her own.
"Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you." With each word she held him a bit tighter.
Kaya's hand slipped inside his, cool and smooth. His hand felt hot and sticky, he wanted to shake hers off but she squeezed it tighter. That inspired the smaller girls, and though they didn't dare touch the blood, they came to stand close. Without looking up Mrs Shinohara gathered them all in the same hug.
"Eeeeeewwwwwwwww!" The girls complained, cringing away from Juuzou. Kaya laughed and pressed her cheek to his shirt until it was printed red, Mrs Shinohara completely ignored the blood stains on her cotton dress. Juuzou was silent. He was so certain that she and violence belonged to two, very different worlds. He couldn't understand the soft blond waves against his bruised skin.
"Um," he started. Mrs Shinohara looked up at him. "Ribs. Broken."
He could feel them poke the inside of his skin. He'd be better off not having them puncture anything. She shot her hands away like she had been shocked. "Sorry!" The two youngest girls backed away with disgusted faces and retreated to their father. Mrs Shinohara pulled out a delicate pale blue handkerchief and a small water bottle from her handbag, tipped it over to dampen the cloth. Without a speck of hesitation she began dabbing at the cut on Juuzou's lip, only stopping to wipe fiercely at her tears.
"I should go back to the TSC," he mumbled between two strokes of the handkerchief.
Mrs Shinohara nodded. She could hear more ambulances coming down the streets, but there were so many people in the gallery that she had no idea when they would be taken care of. Juuzou was right, their best chance for swift treatment was at the TSC. "I'll drive you," she said. The skin around her eyes had gone pink from rubbing, but her voice was sure and steady. "Girls, get ready, we're all going together. Kaiko, we'll get a doctor to put a plaster on your knee, until then keep your fingers away from it. Jin, if you start feeling the least bit sick on the way, you are to tell me or your father right away. Juuzou, same goes for you. No acting brave."
Shinohara watched his wife gather her daughters' and Juuzou's hands and pull them to the back of his chair before she started pushing it. He was glad to see color bloom on her face again, and though her strength was no secret to him, he was beyond impressed with her; she had just witnessed Juuzou single-handedly savage a monster, and still she treated him like she did her completely normal teenage kids. He helped her effort by spinning the wheels of his chair, and soon they were all relieved to have nothing but sky over their heads and a soft wind blowing fresh air into their faces. Outside was starting to gather the recognizable glossy black of TSC company vehicles. Help had arrived after the action was over, but their job now would be to make sure no more threats remained in the area.
Mrs Shinohara abruptly pulled the brake on the wheelchair near one of the largest cars, making her husband lurch. They all watched her in stunned silence as she stalked up to the tough-looking investigator with a Q-bullet gun slung across his chest, and requested his car. The man watched her first, unbelieving, then his look slipped to Juuzou, Shinohara, and then back to meet her determined glare. He stepped aside wordlessly. In the next breath Mrs Shinohara ordered Juuzou and her daughters to the backseats, and they climbed in hastily, daunted by a side of her they had never yet seen. She climbed in last, gave the investigator a stiff nod that he answered with an unsure bow of the head. She barely saw it for she was already spinning the keys and revving the engine, and in a screech of tires they were driving off.
Mrs Shinohara slammed a palm on the horn by the steering wheel and held it there a good three seconds. Her husband stared at her with wide eyes, Jin laughed from the spacious backseat. The driver in front of them had been checking his phone while traffic lights turned green. As soon as he drove off, Mrs Shinohara pressed down on the accelerator until the engine hummed angrily. The children flattened their backs against the seats and exchanged awed looks.
"We're still twenty minutes away," she said, barely slowing down for a swerve around a bike, passing it smoothly. "Maybe I should just take you to the hospital." Her hand twitched down to the gearshift - she looked ready to take the next turn.
"Uh, I'd rather not," Juuzou answered politely. Mrs Shinohara shot him a concerned frown through the rear-view mirror. He looked away quickly and offered no explanation.
In the passenger seat, Shinohara hesitated, then decided there was no point in speaking low. Happiness wrapped him; he wasn't sure when it had happened, but they were family now.
"It's complicated for Juuzou to switch doctors. There's one at the hospital wing who knows him well."
"Okay," she said, her tone signifying she wouldn't argue further. It frustrated her how little she knew about Juuzou compared to her husband. She was determined to do better. Juuzou wasn't showing any sign of discomfort, but she winced at the smallest dips in the road as if her own ribs were broken. Chiyoda suddenly seemed like the other end of the world. She shifted the car up a gear and it sped fluidly down the road to the first ward.
As soon as Juuzou set foot in the hospital wing's sanitized reception covered in gore, nurses flew from behind the desk and ran up to them. He was immediately taken away to the emergency room while others flocked around the family. Mrs Shinohara recognized none of them; since the CCG had become the TSC, there were a lot of new staff members she didn't know.
"How are you related?" One of them asked, scribbling busily on papers clipped to a plastic board.
"He's my son. My daughters, my husband," she answered, knowing that if her words rang of truth, it was because she hadn't told a lie. She felt for Juuzou the same, inexplicable love that she had for the children she had birthed and raised. She thoroughly ignored the stunned look she knew her husband was giving her, and stroked Kaiko's hair when she looked up in surprise. If the nurse noticed the reaction around Mrs Shinohara's announcement, she said nothing of it.
One of the nurses inspected the blood-prints on their clothes and faces, finding no obvious wounds other than Jin's bruise and Kaiko's scraped knee. "Does anyone else need immediate care?"
"My daughters need to be checked, but my husband and I are fine."
Kaya almost protested when the nurses steered them away, until she saw her mother's look and followed her sisters without a word. The remaining receptionists typed away and asked whatever questions they needed to register them in the hospital's files. When all was settled, Mr and Mrs Shinohara were accompanied down a white corridor and shown a set of whiter doors.
"I'll ask you to please go to the waiting room A, someone will get back to you as soon as possible. If you would feel more comfortable in a room where you can rest, please tell and we'll arrange that for you."
"Thank you," Mrs Shinohara said, her hand already finding the doorknob. She did feel exhausted, but rest was the last thing she wanted at the moment. They sat quietly in the bright waiting room. Now that the madness was over and her heart gradually resumed a normal pace, worry for Hanbee began to gnaw at her thoughts. She wondered how long they would have to wait for news, and how she could ever break them to Juuzou if they were bad. She looked down at her dress, and brushed at a spot of blood with her finger, knowing it wouldn't come off like that. Her husband's hand closed around hers. She felt its warmth and let it soothe her nerves.
It was only a short half hour before all three girls were returned to them. Kaya with a clean face, Jin with a bandage around her head and Kaiko a large plaster over her knee. The two youngest curled up in their father's lap, Kaya slid into her mother's arms.
"Are we waiting for Juuzou now?"
"Yes." She brushed her hair and held her. She longed to know her daughters' side of the ordeal, but it was hardly the place. "We can ask for a room if you want. You could sleep, or there might be a TV."
Kaya shook her head. Mrs Shinohara turned to Kaiko and Jin with the same offer, but they gave the same response. She leaned back into her chair, and they waited.
"Deep breath in..."
Juuzou breathed in, stretching his chest as widely as he could.
He exhaled slowly. The doctor's gloved fingers felt expertly around his ribcage. She grumbled in false irritation as she worked:
"Making me find cracked ribs on a patient who can't tell me where it hurts. You take my job to whole new levels, young man." Finally she straightened and tugged off her gloves. "I'll have them make a CT scan and an MRI on you to make sure there's no tissue damage. In the meantime, breathing exercices and restricted activities." She added the last part in a stern voice, knowing him too well to believe he would stay still for any period of time.
The emergency room of the TSC's hospital wing was familiar to Juuzou: the lined up beds separated by orange curtains, the humming machines and their tubes, the coming and going of nurses in paper masks and blouses. Once the doctor had gone after a few more warnings, one of them took her place and checked the file she had left on Juuzou's knees. The nurse asked him a few questions: his name, what year they were in. He answered them, trying not to sound too bored, and held out his arm when the nurse asked for it. She adjusted the needle to the fleshy part inside his elbow and asked him to breathe in deeply. He did, just to be nice, and felt the needle break the skin. She asked if he was all right. He said he was. She took it out, leaving a flimsy plastic tube inside his vein, taped it down with a sticky white strip of fabric and left.
There were little things Juuzou despised more than hospital beds, but he laid as still as he could, IVs taped to his wrist, watching the steady drip of clear liquid in the pouch above his head. At least two band-aids were stuck to every bit of showing skin. Normally he was brought here after raids, and nurses ran from patient to patient. But that day he had been the only one fighting, and so the room was eerily quiet. He couldn't see the empty beds for the curtains pulled shut around him, but he could hear no other machine beeping aside from his own. After a long moment, the doors creaked open on the other side of the room, and Juuzou listened to a pair of wheels crossing the squeaky floor.
"How's everyone?" He asked even before a nurse pulled one of the curtains back to let Shinohara in. His voice had become raspy from all the shouting.
"Just fine," Shinohara told him softly, and pulled his chair to a stop by the metal railing of his bed.
"I smelt blood," Juuzou whispered. "Before it came in. I heard it eat."
"They found remains of dragon orphans. A few more were waiting in the side alleys." That in itself was worrisome: it was a rather elaborate behavior for what should have been witless offspring. They were learning fast. "Backup handled it, no humans were killed. You took out the dangerous one. That was a fantastic job." He placed a large hand around Juuzou's forearm that wasn't wearing a splint or been plugged to a machine. He was so little, he thought. Little and so deadly.
There was a long silence, punctuated by the beeping of monitors and drip of the IV.
"Actually, Hanbee did most of the convincing."
After a confused few seconds, Shinohara understood he was continuing their earlier conversation about Marude, and smiled. "How?"
"Disobeyed him, provoked the police, punched a guy in the face and got both of us suspended." He smiled wryly. "I just went from there."
Shinohara raised an eyebrow. "I think you're a bad influence on him."
Juuzou's giggle managed to brighten the room a little.
"Try not to make him laugh," a passing nurse said kindly. Shinohara lifted a hand in apology, but Juuzou's smile had already faltered, and he sighed.
"Did they tell you where they took him?"
"To that hospital in Shinjuku, the one you went to for your leg. They have the right surgeons there."
Juuzou straightened off the pillows. "Wait...how bad is it?"
"Not too bad," he assured him quickly, and with a hand made him lay back down slowly. "It's still attached, if that's what you're worried about." Depending on how extensive the injuries were, that might be the doctor's decision to make. Juuzou knew that just as well as he did, so he saw no point mentioning it when he needed to relax. Shinohara glanced around the room, looking for anything to change the subject.
"Is this how you envisioned spending your 30th birthday?"
Juuzou jumped a bit. "No way, it's my birthday?"
Shinohara winced for him and raised a hand again. Juuzou rested carefully back into the pillows. "June 8th."
"Oh right." Then he smiled. "You remembered."
"Sachie reminded me" he admitted. Juuzou realized he had never known Mrs Shinohara's first name. "Any plans?"
Juuzou shrugged. "Not really. The guys from my squad usually ask if I want to hang out. I'm not really into proper parties."
Shinohara nodded. "All right. Well I was thinking maybe once you've recovered, we could go out for a drink."
Juuzou looked at him. "Just us?"
"That's the idea."
"Sounds like a birthday plan to me."
"It won't be until a few weeks," he warned him. "Maybe months if you keep fidgeting the way you do."
Juuzou rolled his eyes. "Fine, I'll be careful." Then he frowned at the ceiling as if he were just recalling something important.
"Oh shit!" This time Shinohara steadied him before he could jump again.
"I can't go back to my apartment, the plumbers are fixing it. And all my stuff," he said. "All my stuff is in Hanbee's car, I was going to stay over at his place." Everything that had happened suddenly hit him hard. The Shinoharas had almost died under his care. Hanbee was gone, injured, maybe worse. The regular beeps of the machine spiked to a thrumming, Juuzou's breath quickened even as he strove to steady it. The doctor rushed to them with a worried frown, a syringe already in her hand. Shinohara would have liked to protest and calm Juuzou himself, but he didn't like how quickly he had begun to breathe through his broken ribs.
"It's just to make you relax, it won't make you fall asleep unless you let it," she explained in a soothing voice, as she pushed the contents of the syringe into the small tube already in Juuzou's arm. Shinohara saw him tense, but not wrest his arm away as he would have years ago. He spoke in hopes to distract him.
"We have a room waiting for you at home, remember? What do you say you come live with us for a while?"
His breathing had calmed, but he still spoke around shallow gasps. "Would that really be all right?" He hated to think he might be a bother, but anything sounded better than a week at the hospital.
"Of course," Shinohara said. "We'll go speak with the doctor now and handle the paperwork. If she says you're free to go we'll be back to get you. In the meantime, try to sleep."
"Okay," he mumbled. He did feel tired. He heard Shinohara lean over. A hand brushed his hair from his forehead and rough whiskers tickled his skin where he left a small kiss. He watched him leave through drooping eyelids.
Juuzou felt the world pitch softly around him, heard a continuous hum. He smelt leather, felt rough carpeting with the tip of his fingers, and pieced it together. They were driving home. An unnamed feeling swam darkly in his chest. He felt too weary to wonder about it, but he knew that soon enough it would become unavoidable.
"We're almost there."
The deep voice brought him one more step into reality. His eyes opened gradually to the darkness of the car, and he looked up at the dusky sky scrolling past the window. Sky, utility poles, treetops, electric cables, birds, sky again. Juuzou felt the car turn more and more often, which meant they were getting into smaller streets. Time floated, and only started again when he felt the car pull to a slow stop on pebbly ground and heard the handbrake creak. He thought of Hanbee, and his throat tightened.
"Has anyone called yet?" His voice was still hoarse. It scraped in his throat.
"Not yet Juuzou, I'm sorry." He turned and looked at him before he continued. "It's a good thing, bad news are a lot quicker to deliver. They're taking good care of him."
"Okay," he said. There were a few seconds of silence. He heard Shinohara sigh quietly and pop open the door on the driver's side. Juuzou listened to him take the few laborious steps to the wheelchair folded against the gate. He wanted to get up and help him, but couldn't find his strength. Mechanical clicks, the squeaking of metal joints, wheels rolling, and the door by his head was pulled open.
"Can you try and sit up? Slowly."
Once he had been asked, it was a lot easier to move. He pushed himself up and slid off the seat, until his feet touched the ground. It felt warm and rough. He looked down and saw he was barefoot. He couldn't remember when he had lost his sneakers. They were probably under a pile of rubble in the gallery. He felt disoriented as he stepped out of the car and closed the door.
"What time is it?"
Shinohara glanced at his watch. "Almost nine, everyone is still up." He started rolling his chair up the path. "Come on."
Juuzou followed quietly, and by the time they reached the door, Mrs Shinohara was ready to help them in.
"Girls, they're home! Dinner time!" Cheers from upstairs and a rumble of footfalls down the steps.
As she pulled out her husband's second chair, she pointed at a stack of small boxes on the living room table.
"The doctor said you won't take the medicine," she told Juuzou, "but that I should still get it. She also said you probably won't listen, and will be moving around enough that you won't need the shots. So we'll see about nurses coming by the house for those. How are you feeling?"
He smiled tiredly. "Good."
She frowned. "Dinner, then off to bed."
He nodded obediently, and followed her to the dining room, where everyone was already seated and food was ready to be dished out. The girls ate ravenously and as their hunger dwindled, squabbling rose.
"Mom!! Jin passed food with her chopsticks!"
Mrs Shinohara gave them an absent glance. "You also shouldn't point at people with them."
Jin laughed wickedly and Kaiko stomped her foot under her chair indignantly. "You always take her side! This is favorism, it's not fair!"
"Favoritism'," Kaya interjected.
"I wasn't talking to you, know-it-all!"
Jin used the diversion to pick a roll from her sister's plate.
"She did it again!!"
"Prove it," she taunted her around a mouthfull.
"Girls, eat your dinner," their father silenced them. "I want you all in bed early tonight. What does it take to make you run out of energy?"
They grumbled and continued shoveling food into their mouths, Jin gave her sister back one of her own rolls. Juuzou chased a grain of rice around the edges of his meal. Mrs Shinohara finally looked up at him.
"Juuzou," she said quietly,"you're barely eating."
He put his chopsticks down across his bowl, and everyone at the table looked at him.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It's really good, I'm just not hungry right now."
"Don't worry about it," Shinohara said, "you can leave it for later then."
"Is it all right if I go upstairs?"
Mrs Shinohara nodded. "Of course. Your room is ready, I put a towel, a toothbrush and pyjamas on your bed. They're Kaya's, but they should fit."
"Thank you," he said, gave the table a tired bow and went up the stairs. The children resumed eating, while their parents exchanged a concerned look.
Juuzou stepped into what would now be his room, and switched on the light. By the foot of the bed was his backpack and quinque case, all cleaned. Though he strongly doubted anything he had packed had survived, he still checked inside for his cell phone. Amazingly, it was still in the small inside pocket, the screen crushed on the top right corner, but otherwise working just fine. He replied to the few messages from his squad asking if everyone was all right, and sent a short text to Hanbee, just in case he was awake, then went to lock himself in the bathroom. He scrubbed himself clean in the shower, washed his shorts and Tshirt down with steaming water and shampoo, then wrung them almost dry and slipped them back on. He walked quietly back to his room, curled up on top of the bedsheets. The damp clothes felt nice in the warm evening.
Alone, he let his thoughts plunge into the dark places they had brushed on the car ride home. He and Hanbee were usually injured together, or not at all. This didn't feel right; he hated the uncertainty, and the waiting. That last thought helped him understand his mood a bit better: he was being reminded of the months after the 20th ward operation. It was ridiculous, Shinohara was right. If Hanbee's injuries had taken a turn for the worst, they would have heard of it by now. But reasoning and logic were powerless to uproot his dreary thoughts. As if to answer the fresh peal of events, the loss that had been his burden for so long rang distantly down the corridor of years. On its way it opened doors to memories he had sealed away. Perfumes of softer times sifted out and filled his lungs with deep loss. Once it did, it was hard to catch breath. He had Shinohara back, wonderful people had come into his life, peace had replaced war. But no matter how sweet the future would be, those days of slow recovery at Shinohara's side were lost forever. Stuck where he had left them. Juuzou's chest felt like a hollow, bottomless gulch. His ribs protested as he hugged himself together tightly.
He didn't move for a long time. He watched the evening turn to dusk, and dusk fall to night in the shift of light on the landing outside his room. It was completely dark by the time he heard the girls bid their parents good night and climb up the stairs. One of them spoke loudly, and another hushed her as they approached the second floor. They took turns in the shower, then Kaya slipped into her room, careful to make no sound closing her door, Jin and Kaiko tiptoed into theirs. Juuzou was touched by the care they took not to wake him. He heard the two youngest ones chat and giggle from their beds for a moment, but sleep claimed them quickly; they were all exhausted. He resumed staring into the dark.
Jin woke up with a gasp, sweat flattening her hair around her face. She had had a terrible dream of the gallery. The creature's roar remained vivid in her mind, and it was hard not to dwell on it in the dark. She looked at Kaiko's bed next to her own. Her sister slept soundly, her mouth a finger's breadth ajar. Jin thought of waking her, but knew she would only grumble irritably and fall right back to sleep.
She looked around the silent room as she tried to calm her panting breaths. The moonlight was barely dense enough to powder the sides of the furniture and sprinkle the bedsheets. Her eyes slid to the door. She hated the narrow strip of total darkness that went from its top to the floor. She stared at it until she mustered the courage to cross the room and close it all the way, but once her hand was on the carved wood, she lingered there. It was too dark to see, but she knew that on the other side of the landing, the room that had been empty for so long finally had someone filling its bed.
It was so strange having a guest in the house. They hardly invited anyone and when they did, they certainly didn't stay the night. And even though she had heard of Juuzou since she was very little, she realized she didn't know very much about him at all. Whatever she did know was extremely puzzling. She could tell her parents were leaving things out, and it was confirmed when the rules were established: there were questions they were not allowed to ask him, things they were not allowed to say around him. They were forbidden to comment on his voice or strange behaviors amongst many other things. Had it not been mentioned to her she wouldn't have noticed anything odd, but now, with her hand pushing the door open wider, Jin burned with pent-up curiosity. She loved secrets and mysteries, and there was one in the room right across hers.
She slipped out and tiptoed across the landing with her nightshirt brushing her ankles. Juuzou's door was open, but to her surprise he wasn't in bed. She decided to investigate. She picked her nightshirt up her calves and hopped lightly down the stairs, minding her step in the dark, passed her parents' bedroom without a sound and went down to the living room. No one. She pushed aside the sliding door and checked the dining room. Empty. Jin went to the kitchen to find nothing more, but still stopped to pour herself a glass of water. If anyone caught her out of bed being a detective, she could say she had gotten thirsty and went downstairs for a drink. She thought that was what people called an alibi. She carried her glass back to the staircase, thinking that if she could be really quiet, she would take a look in her father's office, but she stopped.
The front door was open. Just a crack, but enough to hear it was raining out in the streets. Her heart sped up with excitement. She had never been outside at night. If she was asked, she could say she had been concerned Juuzou had run away and had gone to check. She put her glass down on the small shelf above the hallway radiator and walked to the door. She wrapped both her hands slowly around the cold handle, savoring the moment, and pulled. The front door was heavy, and it opened with a slow creak. A wave of balmy air washed against her face, and she breathed in happily the smell of her adventure. It was only drizzling, but she still took the time to pull her raincoat off its hook and slip it on. She tucked her feet in her sandals, not caring to tie them, and poked her head outside. It felt like plunging in warm, dark waters. The residential district was poorly lit, but at her movements a dim yellow porch-light buzzed on under a tumble of vine leaves, and revealed a silhouette on the steps. She approached quietly at first, but he didn't turn to look at her. Jin thought for a second, then spoke into the night.
"Thank you for saving us," she said.
Juuzou kept staring forward, and used up the only fake smile he had left in stock. "No problem."
"I hope Hanbee is okay," she offered, but he only nodded vaguely. She walked up to him, sat by him on the stone steps, and after a moment began to throw him expectant sidelong glances.
"You have a question," Juuzou guessed.
"My dad said we weren't allowed to ask," she whispered. Her heart was fluttering in her chest. She hadn't expected to learn anything by finding him, but the way he spoke gave her the impression she would. There would never be such a perfect occasion again, with both her parents asleep and the two of them alone. She wanted to seize it.
A spark of interest. "What did he say?"
"He said... that you went through a bunch of stuff. Something like that. And that we might make you upset if we asked about that stuff." As she spoke her eyes roamed over the large bruises draping his skin in shades of purple and blue, and wondered how painful it must be.
"It's fine, go ahead."
"I have lots of questions, actually," she said eagerly, her voice hushed and urgent.
She took a moment to decide on her most important one, in case time ran out for more. "Why am I not allowed to ask about your parents?"
"Because your dad probably thought it would upset me if you did," Juuzou answered, surprised he could joke. There was no better way to sharpen someone's curiosity than by forbidding them a question they'd never thought to ask. But Juuzou guessed those questions would have come regardless - Shinohara's warnings had at least delayed them.
Jin prompted him, undeterred. "Are they mean people, then?"
"Last time I saw my mom, she wasn't the kindest, no."
"What about your dad?"
"He died when my mom left." A half truth, but here was no way he'd explain that they had been the same person.
Jin frowned. "But she's your mom, right?" She tried very hard to link in her mind the concept she had of a mother, and someone who wasn't kind. "You haven't seen her in a long time? Is she travelling? Is that why my mom made you a room? Is that why you're staying here instead of going to your mom's house?"
"Yeah, pretty much." Juuzou felt bad for Jin; a shady stranger had moved in next to her room, and was being treated like family before she knew anything more than his name.
Her frown deepened as she struggled with Juuzou's brief answers."I don't understand how you could be mean to your own kid. Why would you make it, and then not be nice to it? I know my mom loves me and my sisters, she tells us all the time."
He smiled to himself. "She had her own way of loving me, like you love your goldfish. And she didn't 'make' me, she raised me."
Jin grabbed at the remotely familiar piece of information, her expression clearing. "There's a girl in my class who was adopted."
"A bit like that, yeah."
"The girl in my class got to meet her first mom because she was old enough and she said she wanted to. Did you get to meet your first mom?"
"No," he bit off the word.
She frowned again, frustrated. Juuzou was barely telling her anything. "How come? You didn't want to? My friend says you don't have to if you don't want to, even if your first mom wants to."
Juuzou answered like he had been punched in the stomach. He should have been inured to that kind of pain. "Can't remember. Too young."
Jin felt lost. She looked back inside the house, suddenly concerned that her father would hear her asking the forbidden questions, or that Juuzou would tell him, or that she had upset him really badly and her father would notice the next day. She felt like she was about to be found with a broken vase at her feet. Their stillness meant the porch light had gone back to sleep under its bedding of greenery, and they were left in the dark. There was a short pause during which her hands kneaded her nightshirt nervously. The silence was heavy. She looked for a sentence to break it, anything that wouldn't get her into trouble, make Juuzou smile like he had earlier in the day.
"When my mom had my sister in her belly, she would rock on a chair and sing to her," she blurted out.
Too late. Before he could stop it, a tape of memories Juuzou didn't have began to roll in his head.
Maybe she had sung to him, too. Maybe she had seen his first step, maybe she had knitted him a blanket, maybe his dad had rushed to the hospital when he was born. Maybe they had given him a name. Maybe he walked past the apartment they had shared on his way to work every day, maybe he had gone to the nursery down the street from where he lived now. Maybe they had stuck his drawings on the fridge, maybe they had had a shelf full of photo albums, maybe it had been thrown away or maybe it was in someone's attic under piles of dusty boxes.
Maybe they were still alive, somewhere, but that hurt too much to think about. He would never know. It knocked the breath out of him. How could you miss so badly people you couldn't remember?
The porch light flicked on.
"Jin, what are you doing out of bed?"
Mrs Shinohara's voice came from behind them, rough with the remnants of sleep. Jin dashed past her mom and through the door without another word. Juuzou heard Mrs Shinohara sigh tiredly after her, then quiet footfalls as she approached.
"Honey, please come inside. It's pouring, you'll catch a cold."
Juuzou remained still and silent.
She touched a hand to his shoulder tentatively. "I'll heat up your dinner, run you a bath. Come on, get up. For me?"
"I'm sorry I'm causing you trouble," Juuzou answered mechanically.
Mrs Shinohara understood he wouldn't move. She stroked his hair once and kissed the top of his head. She hoped Hanbee wouldn't be gone for too long. He would have found the right words to cheer him up. She went back inside, took the clear raincoat Jin had dropped on her way upstairs and ducked under the rain again to drape it around Juuzou's shoulders, pulled the hood over his head.
He waited until he heard her steps disappear into the house, and cried quietly.
Kaya heard the floorboards creak near her door.
"Kaiko? Jin?" she called in a whisper. The door to her room cracked open, and her sister's small figure appeared in the dark. Her eyes were wide and her face flushed, as usual after she had been caught breaking a rule. Kaya sat up in her bed.
"What were you doing downstairs?" she asked.
"I went to get water." She hesitated, and decided on the truth. "And I talked with Juuzou."
"... I thought he was sleeping." She tried to catch a glance through the door to Juuzou's room on the other side.
"No," Jin shook her head. "Mom tried to make him but he wouldn't, he wants to stay outside."
"Oh," she simply said, surprised. She could clearly hear the rain beating down on the concrete from outside her closed window.
Jin knew she shouldn't, but she was too excited about her discoveries to keep them to herself. She'd already been found out anyway. As soon as she opened her mouth, the words flew out. "Did you know he was adopted by a mean lady and a man, but he died and the lady left? So he doesn't have a mom or a dad. And that's why he's staying here."
Kaya gaped at her, aghast. "Jin! Did you really go bother him with that in the middle of the night?? Didn't you listen to anything dad said?"
"I did! I wasn't saying anything, and then he said it as okay to ask!"
Kaya thought that Juuzou had been out of bed because he probably had trouble sleeping. Now, Jin's questions must have left him feeling terribly sad. Kaya wanted to tell her sister off for being so insensitive, reply that her excuse made no sense. Instead she pressed her lips together and pulled the covers back over her shoulders.
"Okay well, I'm going back to sleep. Night."
"Night," Jin answered and stepped away to her room.
Kaya waited, eyes open in the dark, until she heard soft snores coming from the next room. She kicked off her covers and swung her feet over the bed to sit on its edge. She took her comb from her bedside table and pulled it through her hair a few times, then tied it back quickly with a rubber band. She got up without a sound and took her bathrobe off its hook behind her door, slipped it on and tied the soft belt around her waist. She was about to slip onto the landing when she stopped and took a look around her moonlit room. Her gaze dropped on a cardboard box near her desk. She grabbed it and left. Her father's snores rolled up the stairs like thunder, and she waited for the noise to cover the sound of her steps each time she knew one would make the wood creak. She peeked into her parents' room on her way down to make sure her mother was back in bed.
Downstairs, she donned on her raincoat, pulled up the hood and pushed the front door open. It felt very odd to be out in her street at night, while her family was asleep. She could feel the world breathing in rhythm from millions of beds. Kaya watched the small red lights flash from a building's rooftop in the distance, listening to the huge quiet beyond the spattering water, and imagined the people in Shinjuku or Shibuya partying in loud bars and bright streets. After a moment she looked down and saw him, sitting on the steps like he was standing guard. He gave no sign he had noticed his second visitor, and Kaya thought he most likely wished she would go.
Juuzou didn't move at the sound of the front door opening a second time. He had a good guess of who it could be. He wiped his eyes quickly, hiding the movement in a gesture of pushing his hair away. He heard Kaya stop. There was nothing else for a moment, so he thought the next sound would be of her steps leading her back inside. Instead, something wooden tapped the concrete to his right. He looked and saw a round board the size of a plate. It had small, circular indentations in the shape of a star.
Kaya sat next to it, paying no mind to the hem of her robe dipping in the rainwater that pooled on the uneven stone. Quietly, she pulled out a small bag that clinked merrily at the slightest shake. She put it down and Juuzou couldn't help staring as she pulled from it brightly colored glass beads, and one by one, arranged them in two triangles on either side of the star.
The marbles on Juuzou's side were a translucent blue that caught the porch light in golden swirls. The ones on Kaya's side were an opaque and glossy red. Raindrops made them shiver in their perfect compartments. Kaya took a marble from her triangle's second row and jumped it over one in the first. Juuzou understood she was silently showing him how to play. He wondered if she had sensed he didn't feel like talking. She glanced up at him briefly, making sure he was watching, then she took the same bead to put it one space further. With another one she jumped over the chain to the middle of the board. Juuzou shifted to face the board and waited while Kaya brought her marbles back into place. Then he hovered his hand over his own, and made a first move. The marble made a muffled sound as it touched the wet wood. The indentations were starting to turn into little round puddles. Kaya tapped a red marble into one of them. It pushed the water out and clung delicately around the shiny sphere. Juuzou was transfixed by the board enough that he forgot for a moment that it was his turn to play, forgot his conversation with Jin and that Hanbee was hurt and that he couldn't go home. He made a move, Kaya followed. For a while the only sound between them was the tapping of marbles on wood as they played. When the porch-light switched off for a fourth time, Kaya didn't get up to wave her hand by the door, and instead pulled out her phone to shine the flashlight on their game. Several times, Juuzou switched their marbles for ones from the bag, just to see how the different colors would look in the new light. They finished a game, a second, a third. Juuzou never remembered who won them, he thought it was probably Kaya. At the end of each game she simply spun the board so they would find their colors again, and started a new one. Speechlessly, his sadness was smoothed like a pebble caught in gentle tides.
The rain had eased to a stop, and a small piece of sky was slowly turning blue when he hid a yawn behind his hand. Kaya looked up sharply and grinned.
"Getting tired?" It was the first time they spoke in the hours they had spent on the porch. Their voices sounded foreign in the quiet of smaller sounds.
"No," Juuzou countered. "You need to go to bed."
"So do you," she replied.
"I'm an adult, I can do what I want."
"That's fine, I guess I'll stay then." Kaya continued picking up the white and yellow marbles and placing them back into their triangles. Juuzou watched her for a moment, waiting for her to slip up and show a sign of weariness. Her expression stayed smooth. He gave up.
"If I go to bed, will you go to bed?"
"Fine," he sighed. "You win, let's go."
Kaya smiled wide and spilled the marbles back into the small bag. She zipped it shut, Juuzou picked up the board and got to his feet. They stepped back into the house. It was warm of people's presence and the strange serenity that came with the early hours of morning. The dark and the quiet were tinged with the touch of dawn. In this house, they were restful. They coated the textured walls in soft blankets, padded the steps of the stairs under their feet. A memory popped in his mind. Hanbee's bedroom at night, looking through his closet while he searched for bandages in the bathroom. Juuzou walked up the stairs after Kaya, in a sort of daze. Sleep waited patiently around him for permission to drop on his shoulders like a large coat made of cotton. They reached their floor. Kaya took the board from Juuzou's hands. The cardboard was soggy and dripping water.
"I'll leave my door open if you need anything. I don't mind being woken up."
Juuzou nodded, already deciding he wouldn't wake her for anything in the world. Kaya gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
"Night," she whispered, and disappeared into her room.
Juuzou blinked a few times in the dark, then turned to his room and walked in. He felt around for the towel and ruffled his hair dry. He found the pyjama - a large T-shirt and jogging pants - stripped and slipped it over the splint and bandages with no trouble. It was warm and dry. He patted the bed and found the edge of the sheets, pulled them back to bury himself inside them. They were soft and smelt so nice and clean. From across the floor he could hear the children's soft breathing. Sleep found him so easily he couldn't remember closing his eyes.
(I posted another drawing on the tumblr for anyone interested!)
Five chapters before Hanbee comes back, and I'm nervous °-° I thought of cutting stuff out so many times but I'll just go with what I had in mind before I realized anyone would actually be reading haha. I'm sweating.
He kept his eyes closed.
"I know you're awake." A slight shake to his shoulder. "Breakfast is ready, we better get downstairs or there won't be anything left."
There was no way he could pretend to be asleep with Kaya the way he did with Hanbee. The thought brought Juuzou's mood low before he'd even set a foot out of bed. He blinked his eyes open to the window on top of the desk; brilliant green leaves swayed in its frame, and by the bed stood Kaya.
In the harsh light of day, all came back to him with brutal clarity, and Hanbee's absence beamed at his side. The thin air where he should have been weighted tons more than his presence.
How could she sound so energetic when she had slept as little as he had? He found no will to step out of bed. Moving, dressing, talking, eating... none of those things sounded like they were worth the effort. He shifted away from her and felt plasters pull at the skin of his arms, leg, neck and face.
"Come on, up! Are you sleeping naked or something?"
"What...? No I-"
"Then get up!! We're missing breakfast!"
She waited outside while he dressed in the clothes Mrs Shinohara had folded on his desk: a very large white T-shirt of her husband's, and a pair of black shorts that must have been her own. Other than the sizes, the outfit was very similar to the one he had worn the previous morning. He was touched by her thoughtfulness.
Kaya led the way down the steps, and indeed Juuzou heard sounds coming from the first floor. When they walked into the dining room, he found a table set for the most elaborate breakfast he'd ever been asked to attend.
Kaiko, and Jin with a swollen bump on her forehead, were scooping spoonfuls out of the family-sized rice cooker and into little ceramic bowls. More held a clear broth bathing large white cubes and chopped greens. Other plates bore long slices of pink fish with the silver skin still on. Everyone had a similar set of dishes, two of them waiting in front of empty seats, and it ocurred to Juuzou that it was really a perfectly normal family breakfast.
Mrs Shinohara was pouring cold tea into their cups from a large plastic bottle.
"Good morning," she greeted them with a smile like daybreak. "How are the clothes?"
"They're perfect. Thanks." He waited for Kaya to take one of the seats and picked the other.
He had been about to sit. Now he turned, taken aback by how seriously his name had been called. Mr Shinohara stopped his wheelchair at the edge of the dining room, and his look was dark.
"...what is it?" Juuzou asked, worried.
"We need to talk."
The dining room had gone quiet. The three girls stopped chewing to stare. Even Mrs Shinohara paused midway through screwing the bottle shut. Shinohara rolled his chair away, down the coridoor and out of sight. Juuzou heard whispers bubbling up in his back as he followed.
They moved up to the front door, and he wondered if they were headed outside when Shinohara stopped and spun his chair around to face him. Juuzou pulled up short and waited for whatever came next.
"I'm about to tell you something extremely important," Shinohara said. "Are you listening to me?"
Juuzou nodded slowly. He would ask him to stop speaking to his daughters. He had frightened Jin somehow and he wanted him to find another place to stay.
"I said, are you listening to me?"
His voice had changed. He wasn't fooling around. "Yes, Mr Shinohara."
Shinohara took Juuzou's face between his hands and looked him straight in the eye. Juuzou stared back, startled. His palms easily took his entire head, they were scorching hot and rough over his cheeks and ears.
"You. Are not. Responsible. For our safety." Shinohara's gruff voice vibrated in the capsule his hands formed, and he shook Juuzou a bit with every piece of sentence. "Of course I'm grateful, you saved my family. But I won't stand for the blame you'd have put on yourself if you had failed."
Juuzou had nothing to say. He was right, he would have blamed himself. Big time. Shinohara continued in a rumbling voice.
"If you still feel you have a debt towards me and this family, consider it payed. We want you with us, not watching over us. Did I make myself clear?"
Juuzou could look nowhere but straight back at him. For no reason, he remembered a garden in the day, a stranger in a suit coming to him offering a kind look and a handshake. "Yes, Mr Shinohara," he whispered.
"From now on, you don't owe anyone anything, and you don't let guilt guide your actions. You live for yourself. And you don't stay up all night guarding the damn door. I want you to promise me you'll try very hard to do that."
"Yes, Mr Shinohara."
"Give me your word."
"I promise I'll try very hard to do that." His voice broke at the end of the sentence. Shinohara sighed and let go of his face to pull him into a careful hug. There seemed to be no place he could touch him that wasn't covered by plasters or a bruise. Juuzou's thoughts were shifting and tangling with dizzying speed while Shinohara rubbed his back thoughtfully.
"I saw you fight," he said, a smile finding his lips.
"Did you really?"
"I did. I was very impressed. You've learnt to balance your strengths nicely."
He felt a surge of warmth at the pride in Shinohara's voice. "Thanks."
"Juuzou! Juuzou come see, you're on the news!"
Shinohara let him go and so ended their talk. They joined the others in the living room, where one of the girls had switched on the telly while they waited to resume their breakfast. Juuzou's face stayed on the screen a second more after he arrived. At least it was a recent picture. He still hated it.
It flashed away to show people in suits speculating around a news set. They commented in turn on a poorly recorded video of the gallery, probably taken off someone's phone, and it seemed to Juuzou they didn't have a lot to say. Thankfully he and the Shinoharas had left before the camera crews could arrive, so the only decent images they had were of rubble, a blurred out carcass behind yellow tape and civilians being herded away by TSC backup. He suspected Marude would soon be invited onto one of these news sets, and Juuzou was curious to hear how he would spin the truth to save face. Running an entire building and its many branches under the scrutiny of public eye didn't sound like a small task. The reporter swerved the subject back to Juuzou and his picture popped up on the bottom corner of the screen again, before it switched to black.
Shinohara set the remote back on the coffee table. "All right, family meeting!" he called before anyone could complain, and rolled back to the dining room.
"Family meeting!" the youngest girls echoed. They ran from the living room, back to their seats and half-finished meals. As soon as everyone was settled, Shinohara cleared his throat and folded his hands like he was about to preside a meeting.
"As you all know, Juuzou is going to live with us for a while. So there's a few ground rules we need to agree on." He looked at each of his daughters in turn, making sure they were paying attention. "First of all, Juuzou is here to rest. So, same thing as when I came home: keep the noise down. Don't throw chairs at your sisters..." Shinohara gave Jin a heavy look and Kaiko looked at her smugly. "...don't drop bowling balls down the stairs." His eyes moved to Kaiko and she looked away guiltily. Juuzou understood better the dents in the steps. "You'll be welcome to jump on him and tackle him to the ground once he's fully recovered, not before."
He flashed a look at Juuzou, who seemed at ease. Shinohara himself was a bit uncomfortable speaking of him while he sat across the table, but he didn't want to nurish the secrecy any more than necessary. His wife and a talk with Jin had showed him the results that morning.
"Juuzou is a bit special," he continued, "because he doesn't know when he's hurt. That means if you break a plate you pick up every single piece, no setting up toothpick traps in your rooms... you get my point. It might not sound-"
"For real??" Kaiko swerved her head to gawk at Juuzou. " What if I pinch you, you won't feel it?"
"I'll feel it, it just won't hurt."
Kaiko seemed to take his words as a challenge because she pinched his arm with all her strength. Shinohara rubbed his face in his hands.
"What, I'm checking."
"Did you understand what I said, Kaiko?"
"Yes dad," she muttered.
"And lastly..." his look rested gravely on Jin. "People's past are their own business. No prying."
She lowered her eyes shamefully. Juuzou wished Shinohara wouldn't be so harsh on the girls. He liked them all a lot, he didn't want them to start hating him.
"Kaya," Shinohara said, and his eldest daughter looked up in surprise. In the single word, Juuzou recognized his involuntary switch from father to investigator. "I want to congratulate you on your behavior in the gallery. You were brave, and did as you were told. Juuzou said you were brilliant. I couldn't be prouder."
Kaya did her best to take the praise with a serious face, but she beamed right through her attempt. "Thanks, dad."
Jin took the cue to pull something shiny out of her pocket and turn to her sister. To the right side of her shirt, she stuck with a safety pin the glitter-paper and felt pen version of a white wing medal. "I made it this morning."
"Jin!" Kaya stammered. Her sister had a small collection of crafting supplies, and this paper Kaya recognized easily: It had a fine pattern of little blue flowers on a silver background, one Jin loved so much she had saved to use on something special. "That's so sweet, thank you!" Kaya hugged her tight. The only one not smiling at this was Kaiko. She took something from her lap and slipped it discreetly to Juuzou while the attention was on her sisters.
"Here, you can have it."
Juuzou recognized the baseball cap she had insisted to wear to the gallery.
"It's her lucky cap," Mrs Shinohara explained quietly from his other side. "She loves it."
Juuzou looked at Kaiko again. "I don't want to take something you like."
"I want you to have it," she insisted.
Juuzou took the cap. It was forest green and yellow with the name of the team written in white. "Thanks Kaiko, I'll take good care of it." She was staring down at her food so intently Juuzou could only see the top of her head. It made him smile; Kaiko didn't seem very comfortable showing her soft side.
Once all was said, they continued their breakfast. Juuzou listened to the dull sound of wood against ceramic bowls under the flow of conversations, and picked up his own chopsticks to stare into his food. He hadn't eaten since leaving with Hanbee the day before, but he still wasn't hungry. He heard the click of cutlery against the table and looked up at Kaya. She had set her chopsticks down and looked at him too. Juuzou stared back, confused, until he understood she was repeating what had worked the previous night: she wouldn't eat unless he did. Juuzou picked up a small piece of vegetable, and her chopsticks were once more in her hand. Shinohara looked between the two of them, then at Juuzou chewing the small bit of food begrudgingly, unbelieving. Kaya had managed to get through to him in a matter of hours, when it had taken Shinohara months of relentless effort.
"Anybody want to help me practice my checkers after breakfast?" she asked as if their small exchange never happened.
Shinohara looked at Kaya again. "Another competition?"
"Yep. The regular checkers club is planning one, so we thought it would be a good time to advertise."
"Good idea," he nodded approvingly.
"I'm not doing it," Kaiko warned her. "You beat me every time. It's not fair."
"I keep telling you to think before you make a move: you're not just hopping marbles around, it's a strategic game."
"But you won't teach me your tricks!"
"There's no trick! Juuzou beat me twice last night, and it was the first time he played."
"No fair! How come?"
"Because he wasn't fooling around like you guys always do."
"I'll practice with you, if you want," Juuzou said, and Kaya shot him a smile.
Jin remained sullenly silent. Kaiko looked at them, suddenly challenged. "I'll play too," she declared. Kaya gave her a dubious look.
"You'll take it seriously?"
She made a face as if insulted by the question, and began to clear the table with everyone. Mrs Shinohara sat up as empty plates were being carried to the kitchen: "I'll bring your board down for you."
They finished washing their dishes, Juuzou watching what the girls did and copying them, then sat around the living room's coffee table waiting for the board. Shinohara took a seat on the sofa to watch them play. As Juuzou began to wonder where Jin had gone, he noticed her approaching timidly.
"Can I join?"
Kaya glanced at Juuzou. "I think she's asking you."
He looked at Jin and saw she was right. Could she really believe him angry enough to refuse? "Of course you can! Come, we'll make a team." Jin dared to smile and sat next to him on the floor.
"Kaya, did you take your board out in the rain?" Mrs Shinohara came into the room and set the game down on the low table. She ran a thumb down the cracks in the varnish and the damp wood splitting underneath, as if to mend it. "Look, It's ruined."
Kaya smiled up at Juuzou, who met her look.
"It's not ruined," she said. "It has a story."