Chapter 1: Brothers
The water in Ritsu's shoes squelches loudly with every pounding footfall that hits the sidewalk. Shigeo's cold fingers clasp his wrist and drag him onwards, eyes wide with desperation, voice strained and choked in a way Ritsu is all too familiar with.
Ahead of them lies a dark street, lit by dim, flickering street lamps that turn the puddles of water a gross, ugly shade of yellow.
Behind them lie their assailants, hot on their tails. When he listens closely enough he can hear their laughter as it bounces in between buildings and finally reaches them. The chase has been going for… for…
Well, ever since Ritsu could remember, really, but for now, this particular chase has lasted an hour.
“Ritsu—” Shigeo gasps, breathless from the sprint, “come on, we need to—”
There’s a loud slam! behind them, and a shockwave catches Ritsu and Shigeo by the ankles and propels them forward, off their feet. Ritsu catches himself on his hands and knees, snapping his teeth together to keep from crying out. Shigeo rolls on his shoulder and gets his feet underneath him like he’s done it a million times.
… Actually, that’s probably true.
“Stay here,” Shigeo whispers harshly, and not even the waver of his voice can take away the intensity of his tone. “This… this won’t take long.”
It’s raining again.
Ritsu nods shakily, pushing himself up on his hands and knees. The droplets that had been seconds ago seeping through his shirt vanish, and around him shimmers a translucent dome, tinted blue-violet when he focuses on it long enough and hard enough. Shigeo stands outside of it, back to Ritsu, head facing forward.
One of their attackers—tall, slim, with a bright red afro like a circus clown—steps into the light of the nearest street lamp, basking his entire frame in an eerie yellow glow. He has a barrier, too. Ritsu can see it shimmering in the crude light, and rain hits and rolls down its sides like droplets on a car window, speeding too fast.
“Y’know,” he says, in a tone that sends chills spiraling down Ritsu's spine, “it’d be a lot easier if you kids just stopped running already.”
Shigeo sides one foot out in front, the other behind. “It’d be a lot easier if you stopped chasing us, too.”
The psychic cackles. “You know as well as I do we ain’t gonna give up,” he drawls, stepping out of the light and towards them, closer. He has a knife in one hand and a bat in the other. “We’ve been playing this game for too long. If ya come quietly, I won’t even need to—”
Shigeo lifts his foot and slams it into the ground.
The street trembles like an earthquake had rocked it, and a large crack snapd the asphalt in two. Smaller cracks spread from the biggest one, branching out like cobwebs until finally the trembling ceases and their assailant’s eyes are wide.
A moment later, that dumbfounded shock morphs into a grotesque, amused grin.
“What, really?” he asks, white teeth gleaming in the streetlamp. “S’that all you’ve got?”
“It’s a warning, actually.”
The rain soaks Shigeo's dark hair but does nothing to extinguish the fire in his eyes. It could be Ritsu’s imagination, or maybe just the rain, too, but his shoulders are trembling. “Please. Leave us alone.”
Their assailant's smile doesn’t fade. Ritsu feels sick.
“If you want me to leave you alone so badly, you’re gonna have to stop me yourself.”
He charges, and Shigeo races to meet him.
Lights flare as the assailant gears up for battle. Long, whip-like tendrils stretch from his hands and he cracks them at his sides, grinning madly, eyes narrowed and brimming with twisted glee. The psychic whips glow a yellow so bright they make the street lamps look like tainted old paint.
Shigeo runs and leaps at him, fearless, and the whips crackle with energy and lash at him like hungry snakes.
With a sharp swipe of his arm, Shigeo's own powers burst forth with a wide array of winding colors and patterns. The lights encircle the whips, snap them to the ground; the assailant springs back, grin never fading and brings out the bat next.
Shigeo grinds his teeth, hits the ground skidding. His tattered, thrift-store shoes slide through puddles of rainwater.
“Y'know, you ain't bad, kid.”
He strides towards Shigeo, dragging the bat at his side.
“Too bad you couldn't just come peacefully. Would've been a lot easier on you and your brother.”
Ritsu knows what's coming next and squeezes his eyes shut, curling in on himself under Shigeo's barrier, fingers digging and tugging at his hair.
He hears the remainder of the fight. There isn't much to hear. The beginning of a retort, followed by a choked, strangled cry, a thud, a clatter… and then Shigeo is back, shoes pounding through puddles, as he lowers the barrier from around Ritsu.
He feels the rain and takes in a deep breath. Shigeo takes him by the hand, hauls him to his feet, and before Ritsu knows what's happening, he's being tugged behind his brother once again.
Something that isn't rain streaks down Shigeo's cheeks, and Ritsu doesn't dare look back.
“Ritsu? Are you okay?”
Ritsu can't remember a time when either of them were “okay.” He doesn't think there ever was one, and if there were, it happened too long ago for him to recall.
But relatively speaking, he is okay, and he nods. “I'm fine. What about you?”
Shigeo, crouched in front of him, gives an idle nod. “I'm alright.”
The answer had come too fast for there to be any real thought behind it, but Ritsu knows it's better to not question stuff like this. So he doesn't.
They're in one of their many temporary hideouts, crouched under a shelf in a ramshackle shed where hopefully Claw's scouts won't find them. It's still raining, presence made known by the sound of it pelting against the roof like machine gun bullets. What rain manages to slip through the crude rooftop gathers into dark puddles on the floor. The space under the shelf is the driest spot in the shed, and that isn't saying much.
Shigeo moves to sit beside him underneath it. His forearms are hidden by the sleeves of his tattered black hoodie, but Ritsu knows they're bandaged. He's never seen Shigeo bandaging them, but he's also never seen him without bandages.
Ritsu isn't any different of course, but he’s never the main object of his concern. Shigeo's breathing is a bit too raspy for his comfort.
“We can't stay here,” Shigeo says. They're so close that it's easy to hear his voice over the pelting rain. “They know where we are now, we have to move.”
Ritsu drags his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them. He has a hoodie, too, one that's even heavier than his brother's, but the cold seeps through easily and the rainwater helps nothing.
“W-When are we leaving?” Ritsu asks, and despite his best efforts at a brave face, the tremble in his voice gives him away.
Shigeo notices, but doesn't comment. Ritsu is torn between relieved and hurt. “As soon as the rain lets up. It won't be long before they regroup and come after us, but traveling in this weather isn't safe either.”
Ritsu gives a small nod in acknowledgement. Shigeo stretches out one hand to the air in front of them; a barrier materializes from thin air, encasing Ritsu and Shigeo under its dome. It's harder to see now with nearly no light source, but its shimmer is so familiarly Shigeo that he couldn't possibly miss it.
“You should sleep,” Shigeo says quietly, dropping his hand into his lap. “I'll wake you when it's time to move.”
“You took the first shift last time,” Ritsu objects, turning to face him. “Besides, you just fought those Claw guys, right? You need it more than I do.”
Shigeo's smile is so tight and exhausted that, for a moment, it kind of makes him want to cry. “Someone needs to keep the barrier up, Ritsu.”
He can't argue. Even if he tried, there's nothing to be said that hasn’t been said before. This argument is one they’ve had over and over, nearly every night. The outcome never changes.
“Then… then I'll stay up with you!” he tries, voice breaking on the end. “It'll be easier to stay awake if I'm with you, right?”
“It's a waste. If you can sleep, you should.”
“Ritsu. Please don't fight me on this.”
He wants to. He wants to and is ready too. But Shigeo just sounds so tired that every ounce of fight is sapped from him. In the end, he doesn't have the heart.
“Fine.” He grabs his backpack from beside him, tears it open, digs through, “but you're taking the blanket.”
In the same breath he's yanked it from the backpack and hurled it at Shigeo's face. Shigeo yelps, more out of surprise that hurt, but Ritsu stubbornly pretends not to acknowledge it and curls up on the floor. Uncomfortable, maybe, but at least it's dry and safe (for now).
He hears a sigh, but he can also hear the smile in his voice when he answers, “Goodnight, Ritsu.”
He dreams of a sunlit field, with grass overgrown and a forest of evergreen surrounding them, enclosing them, protecting them.
There aren't any bandages or assailants or tattered backpacks. No smelly alleys, no worn-down shacks, no taste of rain. No clouds to blot out the sun. No fear to swallow them whole.
If just in his head, if just for a moment, they're free.
“Ritsu. Ritsu. Wake up.”
“Wassit…?” He pushes himself up on his hands and knees, a blanket slipping from around his shoulders. Shigeo is crouched by him, withdrawing his hand. “Shige…?” It catches up with him. He’s suddenly far more awake than before. “What's wrong?”
“The rain stopped,” Shigeo replies, voice laced with urgency. “They know we're here. We need to go, now.”
Shigeo takes him by the arm and pulls him to his feet, and once they've packed their things and double-checked to make sure there'd be no trace left, out they go, into the night. Ritsu sticks close to Shigeo's side, and his barrier encircles them both the whole way.
It isn't always Claw. Sometimes they're running from ordinary people. Good people, people with good intentions, people who mean well but could never understand. Shigeo and Ritsu spend the week hidden and use weekends to raid what thrift stores they can with what money they have, which is never enough. But people take pity on them, lend them cash they could never repay. It's frustrating to think about it that way. Shigeo is always more upset about it than Ritsu.
“I promise we'll find some way to make this up to you,” Shigeo says that following afternoon, as he bows lowly to an older lady who's given them their missing yen. “Thank you so much.”
“You can make it up to me by staying out of trouble,” she answers with a smile, and though her tone is lighthearted enough, there's an edge to it that betrays her concern. “Be careful, now, alright?”
It takes Ritsu's hand on his forearm before Shigeo backs out of his bow, and they set out shortly thereafter with a plastic bag of two cheap T-shirts and a pair of shoes.
Ritsu wonders what ordinary people with ordinary lives think of him and his brother, but can never muster the courage to ask.
They head downtown and to their little spot in an alley, where they've been camped since the day they were attacked by Afro-Guy. It's Saturday, which means the city is bustling, but civilians don't trust alleyways and it's perfect for them; the less they're interacted with, the better.
“We should be okay here tonight,” Shigeo says, slinging his one-strap backpack off his shoulder and onto the alley's floor. “We’ll jump to another city tomorrow.”
That's their life, now. Ritsu can't actually remember a time when it wasn't.
They manage a cheap lunch off convenience store snacks, and once that's out of the way, they make camp in what has to be the dreariest, loneliest alley in the entire city. There's an overflowing dumpster emitting some godawful stench, but not a rat in sight. Maybe they're repulsed by it, too. He wouldn't blame them.
Ritsu sits himself down against the wall with a long, heaving sigh. Shigeo pitches the barrier overhead, checks around the corner for good measure, and then takes his own seat right beside him. Ritsu doesn't miss the small sigh of relief that escapes him the moment he's off his feet.
He bites his lip, debates how cooperative Shigeo is likely to be, then decides it doesn't matter and goes for it.
“Shige, you really should sleep.”
Shigeo doesn't bat an eye. “I'll sleep once we've jumped cities.”
“You'll run yourself into the dirt before we have a chance to if you keep this up,” Ritsu tries, borderline desperate. He isn't even angry or annoyed at this point, just scared. “Shige, please. I… I'm worried about you. You can't keep going on like this, you just can't.”
Shigeo's gaze softens, and his shoulders slump with a long, tired sigh. “Okay. Okay, Ritsu. I'll sleep. Just—wake me up the second you think something might be wrong, okay?”
Ritsu nods eagerly, proud to have been trusted with this. “I won't let you down,” he swears, like his life depends on it. “Promise.”
Shigeo cracks a smile and shakes his head. “You'd have a hard time disappointing me no matter what you did, Ritsu.”
“Well, this isn't going to be a first, then,” Ritsu goes on, nodding to himself. “I'll take care of it, you go ahead and sleep for as long as you need to.”
Shigeo's smile turns softer, more genuine, and he drags up their blanket from their backpack and falls asleep almost the second he's lying down.
Ritsu takes a moment to study his face—more particularly, the dark, bruise-like crescents beneath his closed eyes and the literal bruises and scratches littering his face. The worst bruise is up by his temple; he'd taken a particularly bad hit the other day, and while he bounced back quickly, that didn't keep Ritsu from worrying. He still worries.
He makes sure the blanket is tucked securely around Shigeo's shoulders before setting his head forward, alert and ready for whatever come their way. There isn't a lot he can do without psychic powers, but he'd be damned if Shigeo can't rest at least a few hours.
He estimates about an hour has passed since Shigeo fell asleep, and Ritsu sits twirling a lock of hair around his finger while he waits the day away. His hair is longer now, down to his shoulders. Shigeo’s is, too. There’s a pair of scissors in their backpack, and Ritsu wonders if he’d be able to chop it off himself, but decides to wait for Shigeo to wake up. And they should probably wait until after they’ve city-jumped before taking on a new look of any kind.
He longs for something to do, longs for something with which he can entertain himself. He wonders if Shigeo always feels this lonely when keeping watch. If he thinks about it for too long, he winds up feeling empty, so he tries not to dwell on it.
The city bustles around him. People pass the alleyway without a single thought, going about their normal, ordinary lives as normal, ordinary people. He envies them. Wishes he and his brother could be more like them. But that leaves him empty, too, so he doesn't dwell on that either.
Something snags him by the ankle and yanks him hard.
Before he knows what's happening he's being dragged across the cement, flailing arms grasping their backpack while trying to find something to grab onto. It doesn't slow him down, and he's yanked and slingshotted across the asphalt until he skids to a stop in the middle of the street, sun beating down on him and lungs paralyzed.
“We were starting to think we'd lost you brats,” gawks a voice from above. “When are you two gonna learn that running only hurts you in the end, huh?”
A foot slams into his ribs. His back hits the asphalt. Fingers encircle his neck and squeeze, tight at first then even tighter. The assailant’s face—silhouetted by the sun behind him, a dark, murky shadow, contorted by a sick, twisted smile—is inches away from his own.
Ritsu can’t breathe.
“You have so much more potential than your brother,” hisses the assailant, far too close to his face. Ritsu claws and thrashes, trying to break himself free, but he’s only held tighter. “Yes… your potential shines brighter than the stars at night…”
His vision is tunneling, spiraling down like a ticking clock.
“Just because you weren’t born a psychic doesn’t mean you don‘t have it in you to become one.”
“I’ve heard they can develop under extreme, traumatizing circumstances… like this one, perhaps. What do you think, kid?”
A laugh, low and close while the rest of the world falls away. “Or maybe we’ll just torture you instead.”
Ritsu’s fingers, scrambling for purchase, for anything, snag around the pair of scissors in their backpack. He retracts his arm, grinds his teeth, battles against the numb, tingling of his limbs and sinks the blades of the scissors right into his leg.
He feels the spray of blood on his hand. The impact and the pressure as the blades sink deep. The attacker’s face contorts again and a vicious, blood-curdling screech tears from his throat as he stumbles back, and Ritsu chokes and heaves, rolling over on his side and coughing, gasping, hacking, trying to get his breath back. He’s only half successful. He feels like he just swallowed rocks.
The scissors clatter to the asphalt with a clang of metal. Distantly, Ritsu hears passersby screeching, cars skidding to sudden halts. Most importantly, he hears the psychic’s ragged, enraged breath. He hears it so clearly that he can almost feel it against the back of his neck.
“You damn brat, you’re going to regret that!”
Ritsu looks over his shoulder, just in time to watch a bout of sickly-green light burst from his attacker’s hand and tear through the distance between them, closing it millisecond by millisecond, until it’s too close, it’s right there, it’s going to hit me, I’m going to die—
He ducks his head in his arms and curls in on himself, bracing for the impact.
There is an impact, just not the one he’d been expecting. He hears the slam, he hears the blast, but it doesn’t reach him. He doesn’t even feel the wind.
His head snaps up and he sees Shigeo’s back, outstretched hand, hair blown back in the breeze of the explosion. His barrier—a very familiar, comforting, shimmering nothing—glows bright purple as though electrically charged, and in the face of it, the blast by their assailant does nothing at all.
The blast dissipates. The ringing in Ritsu’s ears dims as the panic ebbs away. There are still people screaming all around them, shouting and hollering and screeching for help, but none of that matters now.
Shigeo releases a heaving rush of breath and keeps breathing that way, shoulders rising and falling with each gasp. “Thank goodness.” He’s completely breathless. He doesn’t lower his hand. “I made it in time.”
Ritsu’s throat burns with a combination of strain, pain and tears gathering in the back of his throat, but he doesn’t speak again. He doesn’t like the aura Shigeo is emitting. It doesn’t scare him for the reasons it should; he isn’t scared of Shigeo, he could never be, just… scared for him.
The Claw pulls himself upright, blood running down his leg, bloody scissors cast aside nearby. There’s no smile to be seen on that haggard face of his, only twisted rage and gnashing, snarling teeth.
“You’re gonna pay for that, both of you,” he hisses, like a brood of threatened cobras. He takes a staggering step forward, limping so badly that someone could possibly mistake him for a zombie. “Just wait until I—”
His face slams into the asphalt. A passerby screams but Shigeo doesn’t flinch. The Claw is then dragged up by his ankle, still conscious but smug grin wiped clean from his face, replaced by a bloody nose and dazed, pained eyes. He hangs upside-down in mid-air, with Shigeo’s bright aura surrounding his foot.
“You can stay there,” Shigeo says, turning around. “Come on, Ritsu.”
He takes Ritsu by the arm, pulls him to his feet, and leads him away. The Claw regains himself and shouts a muffled something back at them. Ritsu turns and looks over his shoulder, just in time to watch him get decked into the asphalt a second time. Shigeo’s yank at his arm pulls his attention away. He doesn’t look back again.
They city-jump then and there, instead of waiting until the next evening like they’d planned. They’re in Tokyo now, a good couple of cities from where the attack took place. By the time they find an alley to settle down, night has fallen and the city is bathed in darkness. The only light comes from unnatural sources; headlights of cars as they pass by, indoor lights of 24 hour convenience stores, Tokyo Tower way off in the distance.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner,” Shigeo says, facing him, winding gauze around his arm. It’d scraped the asphalt when he was yanked forward by that Claw; he hadn’t noticed it before, and they hadn’t had time to stop and take care of it until now. “I never should've left you on your own like that…”
“I-It’s not your fault,” Ritsu tries, but he already knows his words will change nothing. Shigeo hasn’t even made eye contact with him since the incident. “I should’ve been able to do more.”
Shigeo doesn’t answer. He ties off the bandages, sits back, swallows hard. “Is…” He gets stuck on the words a little and gestures to his own throat. Instinctively, Ritsu’s hand comes up to massage his. He got a glimpse at the bruises while washing the blood from his hands at the sinks in a public restroom, and they’d looked awful then. He doesn’t want to think about how awful they look now, after they’ve had more time to develop.
“I’m fine,” he says, voice breaking only some. “It’s not as bad as it looks, I promise.”
Shigeo looks down at his hands, wrung tightly together in his lap. His nod is stiff and about as reassuring as a gutpunch, and he pulls their blanket from the backpack before packing their humble stash of medical supplies and zipping it shut.
He tosses the blanket to Ritsu. “It’s late. Get some sleep.”
Ritsu looks down at the blanket in his lap, guilt bubbling like boiling poison in his chest. Shigeo turns his head toward the end of the alley and holds his gaze there, eyes set in stone, body near motionless.
Ritsu swallows hard, wincing only slightly as his battered throat protests. “Sh-Shigeo, I’m sor—”
“Not now, Ritsu.” Shigeo lifts a hand without looking at him; the barrier leaps at his command, sealing them off from the rest of the world. “Go to sleep.”
Ritsu’s words die in his throat and any shard of composure he could’ve had shatters like cracked class. Shigeo’s barrier is more noticeable than it’s ever been, a bright, shimmering purple cutting through the rest of the alleyway. Even now, Shigeo still refuses to look at him.
Another swallow and Ritsu pulls the blanket around him and curls on the asphalt, chest tight and getting tighter, eyes burning alongside the tears in his throat. There’s nothing left to be said. Nothing he can say.
The night passes in silence, and neither of them sleep.
Chapter 2: In His Hands
AaaaaaaAA thank you all so much for all your support on this story so far!! I think I responded to everyone's comments, and if I didn't, I'm really sorry and just know that your support means the world to me and I couldn't thank you enough!!
this chapter's a short but rough one. I hope you enjoy!! thanks again for all your support !!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next attack comes a week later at the crack of dawn.
Ritsu doesn’t see it happen. The ground shakes him from his slumber as easily as a hand on his shoulder, but by the time he’s sitting up and asking what’s wrong, the Claws are unconscious on the ground and Shigeo has returned to him, saying stuff like “They found us, we’re moving,” while he gathered their things. He holds his hand to Ritsu to pull him to his feet. His fingers are cold and trembling but Ritsu doesn’t say anything.
Another week later, another attack. Shigeo’s barriers are stronger. His attacks are swifter and each blow is a finishing one. Ritsu hardly ever has the chance to see the fight anymore. One after the other they’re attacked, and one after the other Shigeo brings them down like blades of grass to a pair of clippers.
They city jump.
The crescents under Shigeo’s eyes are darker. Day by day, fight by fight, his features carry less life.
Ritsu is scared, now. Scared and teetering on terrified. But he doesn’t say anything. Nothing he says will be helpful and nothing he says can carry any weight, not after what happened. He doesn’t have psychic powers. He can’t put up a barrier to protect Shigeo like Shigeo can do for him. He can’t fight the Claws.
Day by day it gets worse and day by day he feels like he should say something.
Day by day he ignores those feelings.
Shigeo whirls around to face him, eyes wide but ultimately exhausted. His aura—bright purple, piercing in the darkness—slowly fades from his skin as Ritsu approaches.
“What happened?” Ritsu asks, then skids to a halt when he sees the motionless Claws on the ground behind him. Shigeo’s hands are shaking. He looks spent. “... Shige—”
“We have to move again,” Shigeo says robotically. It’s one of the few things Ritsu hears him speak anymore. “They know we’re here, now. If we don’t move now we aren’t going to have the chance again.”
Day by day Ritsu tried to ignore it.
Day by day it got harder and harder to do so.
Day by day, he knew “someday” would come.
Someday has come. He puts his foot down.
“We can’t keep doing this,” Ritsu manages, and his voice cracks on the edges. “You can’t keep doing this, Shige, you’re—”
Shigeo’s face doesn’t change. “If we don’t move now, we’re going to die, Ritsu.”
“You don’t know that,” Ritsu strains, shaking his head, “but if we keep moving around you’re definitely going to reach your limit. No—you’ve been past your limit for a long time now, we can’t—”
The air changes tangibly. Ritsu’s words get stuck in his throat.
“Stay back!” Shigeo swings around and his barrier comes to encircle Ritsu again, tighter and stronger than ever. Ritsu falls and lands on his backside, eyes blown wide and heart stammering in his chest.
The Claw drops down from the highest rooftop and lands just a few strides short from Shigeo. The ground leaves a crevice where she hits. She rises to her feet, features silhouetted by the streetlight behind her. All Ritsu sees is her hands, lit by a fiery, dangerous red aura. It isn’t a red like Shigeo’s eyes; it’s a red like blood, so dark it’s nearly black, and its light is dim and gruesome.
“We aren’t letting you two get away this time,” she says.
And she strikes.
Shigeo meets her head on like he’s done every other Claw they’ve faced, but his stance is sloppy and each hit she throws lands harder than it should. Shigeo moves and his bright aura is a flash of contrast against hers, and their movements are so fast that Ritsu can’t keep up with them.
All he can do is sit behind the barrier, palms splayed behind him, heart pounding. Around him, the bright purple of Shigeo’s barrier flickers, like old neon lights over an abandoned convenience store. It flickers as Shigeo and the Claw brandish their powers like swords and have at it.
Ritsu bites his lip hard enough to draw blood, and his fingers curl into fists against the asphalt.
Win this, Shige.
A flash of light. Someone screams. He can’t tell who it is. He’s never heard Shigeo scream.
You can win this.
He’s going to win this. He’s never lost a fight before. There have been a couple of close calls, too, close calls that still make the hair on the back of his neck stand up like he’d been electrocuted, but he’s never lost. He can’t lose. There isn’t a psychic alive who’s stronger than he is.
Shigeo won’t lose.
The Claw dashes by as quick as lightning and Shigeo dashes just as quickly to meet her, and—
—Ritsu sees it clearly.
The Claw materializes something out of thin air. Something long with rough edges, like a demonic baseball bat, thin at the handle but defyingly thick at the end. He sees her swing it. He doesn’t see Shigeo block.
It’s the kind of thing that would happen in slow motion. The kind of thing that should happen in slow-motion, in those fictional television shows, in media portraying scenarios that never existed in the first place. Scenarios that, no matter how devastating, were only ever fictional.
It doesn’t happen in slow motion.
There’s a sickening crack, and Shigeo hits the asphalt like a stone.
A beat of silence falls. Ritsu’s heart stops dead in its tracks. His eyes blow wide, his shoulders fall slack. He can’t feel his heartbeat anymore.
“... Sh… Shige?”
The barrier around him melts away like snow.
Blood rushes into Ritsu’s head. He feels suddenly dizzy. His lungs work overtime but he still can’t breathe. His sight tunnel visions until all he can see is Shigeo’s unmoving figure, crumpled on the ground like a broken marionette.
The Claw laughs hysterically into the sky. Ritsu’s heart begins to pound again.
“Finally! Damn it, that sure took long enough! But we knew it was only a matter of time before he couldn’t fight any longer. How long’s it been, huh? Six years? That’s a long time to beat against your limit…”
“Shige?” Ritsu doesn’t feel the word in his throat. He can’t hear it, either. “Sh-Shigeo? N… Nii-san?”
The Claw’s smiling face filters into view. A villainous grin showing too many teeth, slicing like a knife through the darkness.
“So you’re Ritsu, right?”
She steps over Shigeo’s body and takes a step toward him. Ritsu barely notices.
“N-Nii-san, please.” His voice shakes this time and he can’t help it. “G-Get up, Shige—”
“He isn’t gonna get up, kid.”
Ritsu sees it, now. He hadn’t seen it before. There’s something spreading beneath Shigeo’s head, dark like ink, but then it catches the light.
It isn’t ink.
Ritsu’s blood burns beneath his skin. Blurs and splotches and spots cover his sight. Every heartbeat pounds his chest like a wardrum. Every breath feels like a razor blade against the back of his throat.
The burning becomes an inferno beneath him, spreading through his veins like toxins. The Claw’s laughter fills his ears again. She’s saying something about dragging him back with her, about turning him in to the boss triumphantly, about tormenting him until he “awakened,” about leaving Shigeo for dead because he’s too strong for them to brainwash.
Ritsu hears it but can’t acknowledge it.
The inferno takes shape. It takes color. It takes a tangible form within him. He feels its presence, like a hot knife in his heart. It feels like Shigeo’s hand on his shoulder, a comforting, familiar weight. It sounds like Shigeo’s voice telling him everything will be okay. It smells like bad takeout and old, abandoned alleys.
It takes a form, like dangling chains, and Ritsu grabs ahold of every single one.
The blistering inferno carves itself into his skin and fuses with every fibre of his being. A scream tears free but he doesn’t feel it. He doesn’t realize it’s him at first.
The Claw throws herself backwards, but there’s glee in her eyes, not fear. “Oh, no way! Now you’ve awakened? Well, ain’t this an interesting develo—”
She doesn’t get the chance to finish.
Ritsu’s world comes crashing down with the buildings around them. The asphalt splinters. The giddiness in her face is replaced with blind terror and there’s something unmistakingly pleasing about it.
The world blisters and burns, and then, so does Ritsu.
He doesn’t remember the moment it’s over. All he remembers is the fog clearing from his sight, the Claw’s unmoving form on the decimated asphalt, alongside crumbled buildings and street lights, twisted and damaged and destroyed.
Blood rushes back into Ritsu’s legs. He stumbles back, catches himself by sliding a foot behind him.
He can move. He runs.
His knees hit the asphalt but he doesn’t feel the impact. Reaching out, without thinking, he grabs Shigeo’s shoulder and turns him over on his back. He’s bleeding, his skin is alarmingly pale, the bruises are so evident and so is the blood, he’s not moving—
“Sh-Shige?” Ritsu gives him a small shake, throat closing up, eyes burning again. “S-Shi—”
He can’t get another word out, and in desperation, he presses his ear to his brother’s chest and waits, hardly daring to breathe.
Faintly. He hears it faintly. The gentle thud of Shigeo’s heartbeat, such a steady contrast to his own. Slow in comparison. Or maybe it’s just slow. Ritsu is too disoriented and giddy to tell.
When the tears begin to fall, he doesn’t try stopping them.
Shigeo doesn’t wake up and Ritsu doesn’t try making him. They have to move. He doesn’t know how many more Claws are stationed here, how long it’ll take before the organization comes after them again.
So he runs. He hauls Shigeo onto his back and he runs, as fast as he can and then faster than that, until his legs burn and his heart is in his throat. Even then he doesn’t stop. He runs and he runs fast, then faster, then faster. The buildings around them become fewer in number and farther between. Their shapes are blurred and Ritsu doesn’t pay them a second thought.
Onwards he runs. Faster he runs. Shigeo grows heavier by the second but he perseveres through that too. He’d only had time to wrap Shigeo’s head to stop the bleeding; he hasn’t actually looked at it, or disinfected it, or anything like that. He needs to do that but he can’t do that until they find a safe place to settle down.
He does, find one. On the outskirts of the city, by a road seldom driven, lies a series of abandoned apartment buildings. They’re unstable and shabby and unsanitary, but compared to everything else, Ritsu deems them the safest thing he’s seen all evening.
He goes around to the back door, finds a weak spot in the shabby wood, and kicks it inward. The door falls from its hinges and Ritsu races inside the foyer, breathing hard, every part of him burning and aching some way or another.
The foyer is startlingly bare. Expected, of course, considering it’s abandoned, but Ritsu had at least hoped for a couch or something. All there is is a concerning amount of dust, dirt, and cobwebs. The wooden floor leaves a lot to be desired. Parts of it are missing; other floorboards have been splintered, and it looks like termites got to a decent portion of the walls.
It’s not what he wanted. It isn’t what they need. But it’s shelter, it’s a place they can sit and breathe and he can treat Shigeo as best as he can, and that’s enough.
He doesn’t really remember what he does. Everything he digs out of the backpack, every way he moves, every single motion is based on instinct and what he remembers from all the times Shigeo patched him up. It’s weird, but he doesn’t remember ever doing this for Shigeo before. Whenever Ritsu went to, Shigeo had already done it.
Now he does. He’s surprised by the steadiness of his hands, just what little time it takes him to find the gash (on the side of his head, by his hairline; he can only hope it isn’t as bad as it looks), disinfect it (Shigeo’s lack of response through it scares him. He can’t help but wince whenever Shigeo disinfects his scrapes, why isn’t he responding?), and bandage it. Shigeo doesn’t so much as twitch.
Settling Shigeo upright against the wall, Ritsu unzips his jacket and carefully feeds his arms out of the sleeves. They’ll have to burn the jacket, probably. There’s too much blood in it and they don’t have the supplies to save it. And even if they did, Ritsu doesn’t think he’d have the stomach for it. He throws it aside.
Ritsu whirls around. Shigeo’s voice is small, cracked, and it sounds hard to speak, but his eyes are open, though dazed and tired. He’s awake.
A huge breath escapes him, and he thinks, for a moment, that he might break down and laugh. Or cry. Or maybe he’ll do both.
Shigeo studies his face a moment, before glancing away to instead survey their surroundings. He doesn’t move anything other than his eyes.
“Ritsu, I… what happened…?”
Ritsu swallows hard, legs tucked underneath him, hands balled into fists against his knees. “Sh-Shige, I—”
He feels Shigeo’s eyes bearing into him but doesn’t dare meet them. Shigeo had said he couldn’t be disappointed by Ritsu, that nothing he did could disappoint him, but he thinks back to his royal failure against the Claw, where they’d lost their scissors and almost their lives, and now tonight, up against—
“I’m sorry,” Ritsu blurts, without knowing what else to say. “I-I’m so sorry, Shige, I couldn’t—” Voice breaks, cracks. He fumbles. His chest hurts. “... T-They were right about me all along, Shigeo, they were right—”
The words are swallowed up. He can’t find them again.
“—I am a psychic, Shige, I am—” He chokes again, runs his hands through his hair. His heart begins pounding. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t—I-I couldn’t protect you, I—all these years I was a psychic, I just couldn’t—t-they—they were right, a-and—S-Shigeo, I—”
Ritsu’s throat closes, and all he can manage is a small, feeble, “What?”
Shigeo scoots closer to him, slowly. A part of Ritsu is expecting some kind of a lecture (of what sort? That, he doesn’t know). Or maybe Shigeo is going to tell them to move again. Maybe he’s gonna keep pretending to be okay. Maybe Ritsu will, too.
But instead, Shigeo leans over and bonks his head against Ritsu’s shoulder, then leaves it there. “I’m glad you’re okay, Ritsu.”
Ritsu’s breath gets caught on the sob in his throat, and he winds his arms around Shigeo’s shoulders and pulls him close, unable to hold back his tears anymore.
“I-I’m glad you’re okay too, st-stupid.”
Shigeo laughs hoarsely, Ritsu holds him tighter, and somehow that's enough.
I promisepromisepromise Dad Reigen is coming up next.
Chapter 3: Small World
omg thank you all SO MUCH for all your support of this story, it means so much to me that you're all enjoying it, thank you so much ;-; i couldn't get around to responding to comments this time but thank you all so much for your encouraging words and support !!! onto chapter 3!! :D
“Hey, you! Kid! Get back here right now, I’ll call the cops!”
Ritsu scrambles away, struggling to keep his footing, tearing down the street with his heart pounding in his chest like a bird beating against a cage. Life-threatening situations aside, he's never run so fast before in his life.
He manages to clear the shop, bumping into and shoving people out of the way left and right with hasty apologies that he only half means. A couple snap at him. The rest leave him be.
He runs and keeps running, until the noise of the city fades from his ears and there’s no one around to bark or shout at him. He slows to a brisk pace until he gets his breath back; then he resumes the sprint and closes the remaining distance between here and their abandoned little hideaway.
Ritsu ducks into the doorway and immediately makes his way over to Shigeo, still sleeping against the wall with their blanket bundled around his shoulders. Ritsu hadn't wanted to leave him like this on his own, but it couldn't be helped. They needed supplies and for now his brother is too weak to move.
“Hey. Hey, Shige. Nii-san.”
He shakes his shoulder and Shigeo comes to slowly, screwing up his eyes before cracking them open and gazing at him blearily. There’s some confusion there at first, but it doesn’t stay long.
“I got food,” Ritsu says, slinging off the backpack and unzipping it, digging through. “It’s not much, but it’s more than what we had before. Oh, and I grabbed some painkillers, too, I think they should be okay. They’re for kids, I think. Hold on.”
He’d caught himself rambling and now busies himself with digging through the bag again, bringing out bags of chips and a few cheap sandwiches (he’d grabbed the cheap ones on purpose; not that the store owner cared). After that comes whatever medical supplies he’d managed to snag before he was noticed, which isn’t enough but still more than what they had.
Shigeo watches him carefully, and Ritsu knows that he knows how he came by all this stuff, but he doesn’t mention it. It’s just one of those things; they hate it, but it’s out of their control. Asking for food is one thing, but painkillers? Medical supplies? Ritsu could never ask that of anyone and receive it, not without leading them to Shigeo first, and that is not something he’s going to risk.
He changes out the bandages wound around Shigeo’s head, apologizing whenever Shigeo winces or hisses through his teeth. It takes longer than it should because Ritsu is scared to death of hurting him worse, but eventually it’s done, and they break out the sandwiches and have at it.
Shigeo eats just enough to take the painkillers, but sets the rest off to the side with a quiet apology. Ritsu says it's okay.
“You should probably try to sleep, if you can,” he says, scooting to sit beside his brother against the wall. “You look tired.”
Shigeo swallows hard, bites his lip. “But, the barrier…”
Ritsu smiles gently and, without saying a word, extends his hand out in front of them. The barrier answers his call, a shimmering dome of translucent blue, so unlike Shigeo's bright purple. He's rusty and he knows it isn't as strong as Shigeo's, and he knows he can't multitask with his powers like Shigeo, but for now, this is enough.
“I'll handle it this time, Nii-san,” Ritsu promises, smiling gently. “Don't worry. I won't let anything happen to us, promise.”
The conflict melts from Shigeo's face, as does the tension in the air, and Ritsu lets him rest against his shoulder while he keeps watch over the barrier.
It isn't as lonely now as it was before. With a job to do and a brother to protect, Ritsu can't afford to be selfish.
He should have nabbed some fever relievers with the painkillers, because whether it be from exhaustion or infection, Shigeo is running a temperature by the following morning. It isn’t high, thankfully, but there’s no reason for him to believe that won’t change. He isn’t a doctor, but there’s absolutely nothing good about Shigeo’s condition. There is no “bright side.” There is no, “well, at least...”
There’s just exhaustion, fret, and most predominant, fear.
“I'm fine, Ritsu, honest,” Shigeo tries, but the rasp that trails the words does nothing to back them up. Ritsu is rummaging through their backpack, but doesn’t dare glance over his shoulder. He doesn’t want Shigeo to see how shaken up he is, and honestly, he doesn’t want to see Shigeo like this.
“I'll believe you when you can sit up on your own,” Ritsu responds, digging through the backpack more fervently in a sorry hope that somehow, maybe, he'd nabbed something helpful and simply forgot.
With an internal scream, he slips deeper and deeper into despair. When he does finally turn to look at Shigeo, his eyes are closed and he’s out again.
With every hour that passes, Ritsu realizes more and more that it isn't just that Shigeo looks tired. Shigeo doesn’t just look like he’s on his last legs, breath shallow and every cut and bruise a stark contrast to the pallor of his skin. He doesn’t just look exhausted and strained and worn down.
He doesn’t just look it. He feels it.
Ritsu feels it.
He hadn't thought much of it at first, but now it all makes sense. Ever since awakening, he's been able to feel Shigeo's psychic presence as well as he feels his physical one.
And his psychic power is weak. Drained. Exhausted. So badly that it’s bleeding into his physical body.
“I'll be fine, Ritsu.” But he doesn't have the strength to back it up, and it becomes less believable each time. He sleeps more and more throughout the day, and he takes longer to wake up each time. There are a couple times Ritsu thinks he's unconscious.
He's raiding a pharmacy—on the way back to their abandoned little apartment complex of a home—when he sees a blur of something moving around in the shadows. His first instinct is a fight or flight one, and he almost takes off, but stops himself just in time.
There’s no psychic energy emitting from it, and if it is, it’s too weak for him to sense and thereby probably too weak to hurt him. He looks left, right, up, behind him—and when he’s sure no one is around to see, he takes a breath, prepares himself for the worst and hopes for the best, and steps into the alleyway.
Ritsu runs the rest of the way back to their little resting spot, heart and shoulders light and arms full of big, fluffy alley cat. The cat is about as big as his torso, with loads of thick brown fur and little tufts of it on its enormous ears. One of them is torn, like something had taken a bite out of it, but the wound has long since healed by now.
Ritsu doesn’t know what possessed him to pick the thing up, but it hadn’t seemed to mind at all, and he’d been too giddy with ecstasy to really think through any possible consequences.
Shigeo stirs as Ritsu runs over, blinking tired eyes his way. “Wass…?”
“It’s a cat,” Ritsu whispers as loudly as he dares, sinking to his knees with the cat still in his arms. “Shige, look, it’s a cat, it’s a cat, Shige.”
Shigeo perks up just enough for Ritsu to notice, though his eyes are so unfocused and glassy that he isn’t sure how much he’s actually seeing. “A cat…?”
Ritsu nods fervently, hardly able to contain himself, and before he can think twice he’s shoved the cat into Shigeo’s arms, close to his chest. Shigeo blinks slowly, but his fingers thread themselves through the cat’s fur and stroke gently. The cat, in response, gets herself cozy on Shigeo’s lap and curls her tail around his arm.
“H…” Shigeo’s voice is weak. “How did you find…?”
“She was in an alley by the pharmacy,” Ritsu answers eagerly, scooting closer so he too can thread his fingers through the cat’s fur. Despite her lifestyle, her coat is alarmingly soft, and her demeanor is as calming and gentle as they come. He can feel the deep rumble of her purr through his hand against her fur.
Shigeo is looking just a little more awake now, though not enough to call a victory yet. He pets her fur softly, over and over. “Does she… belong to anyone?”
“I don’t think so, she didn’t have a collar and she was all by herself.” Ritsu moves to scratch beneath her chin, and she melts into the touch as much as he does. “Do you think… c-can we look after her?”
She’s big enough and she’s obviously survived long enough that she doesn’t need anyone else, but honestly, this is the calmest Ritsu has felt since as far as he can remember. And this is as awake he’s seen Shigeo in a long time, too. There’s finally light in his eyes, and Ritsu can’t remember a time he’s ever seen that. They need this.
Shigeo swallows hard for a moment, hand going still in her fur, but then she bonks her head against his fingers again and he smiles weakly.
“... Yeah. Yeah, I… I think we can do that, Ritsu.”
It's the biggest victory they've had in a long, long time. Ritsu can't help but cheer. Shigeo's smile doesn't fade until he's fallen asleep.
“Should we pick a name for her?” Ritsu asks, sitting by Shigeo and watching as the cat roams the foyer, stepping carefully over torn floorboards with her tail high in the air like a flagpole.
Shigeo, for his part, shrugs. “I don’t know… what kind of name do you have in mind?”
“Something…” Ritsu pauses, thinks a while. He leans back on his hands, looking up at the rafters and studying a string of cobweb in particular. “Hm… I don’t really know, either. What do people name their pets?”
Shigeo shrugs again. The cat decides that she’s had enough wandering around and comes back to station herself at Ritsu’s side. Once he’s had the chance to pet her, she moves on to Shigeo next, climbing into his lap and bumping his chin with her head. He smiles weakly.
“I mean… sh-she’s soft.”
“You wanna name her Soft?” Ritsu asks, turning to him. “That doesn’t sound like too bad of a name… I think I like it.
“Really?” Shigeo looks at him for approval, still petting the cat gently. He’s still exhausted, but his irises hold light now. It’s a nice change. “You don’t have anything else in mind…?”
Ritsu shakes his head. “Nope. I think it’s a good little name for her.” He reaches out and strokes her head with a finger. She bumps her nose against his hand, purring loudly. “Really suits her personality, too. It’s perfect.”
Shigeo smiles, the cat meows, and their shared laughter echoes hollowly through the empty foyer.
There’s a part of Ritsu expecting the cat to be gone the next day, wandering off and returning to whatever it is that cats do, but she doesn’t leave them. She stays curled on Shigeo’s stomach all night, moving only to check on Ritsu for a bit before returning. Her presence is comforting. Something warm and gentle and normal. The only warm, gentle and normal thing in their lives. They definitely needed her.
It’s… nice. They don’t have very many “nice” things.
The weather makes a turn for the worst, and with it, so does Shigeo.
His fever had never been high before, but now it peaks, sailing upwards like a wayward rocket. It’s come on so suddenly that Ritsu didn’t even have a chance to prepare for it, mentally or otherwise. It seems one moment everything was okay, he was maintaining the barrier and listening to the rain, and the next moment Shigeo was lethargic, with an unhealthy flush across his face and chills wracking his shoulders.
Currently, Ritsu is curled into his brother's side, trying to transfer as much body heat as he can to combat the chill seeping through the frail walls. Rain splashes the floor and would have splashed them, too, if not for Ritsu's barrier.
“It's okay, Shige, it's okay,” Ritsu promises, terrified that it'll become a lie. He can't keep the tremble from his voice. “It's okay, it's okay, just—please, please, hang in there.”
Shigeo's teeth chatter. Ritsu can never seen to hold him close enough, tight enough. Soft has curled into his lap and is licking his hand, purring loudly, but not even her body heat can combat his chills.
Ritsu doesn't know what to do. His arms are around Shigeo but he hasn't stopped shivering. His breaths are so shallow and quick, and there's a wheeze at the end of them that scares him. But he can't fix it. If Shigeo's head injury is related to this, then he should keep him awake, right? Right? Can he do that?
“H-Hey, Nii-san, r-remember that time we went to the duck pond?” He's shaking, too. Badly. “Th-There were baby ducks, they were so cute—a-and, and we skipped stones. Right?”
It was so long ago. He barely remembers it himself.
He thought he could last longer, really, he did. But the tears spill over soon enough and he clutches Shigeo desperately, burying his face into his matted hair. Shigeo responds, kind of, draping an arm around Ritsu’s waist without the strength to return the hold. Somehow that makes it worse, and not even Soft’s gentle nose against his arm can pull him out of it.
The night drags on wearily, slower than a snail’s pace and disarmingly agonizing. Shigeo’s breath rattles in his chest and Ritsu keeps a sharp eye on it, scared that each feeble breath could be his last. He keeps breathing, it doesn’t get worse, but it doesn’t get better either.
It isn’t long before the cold really sets in. Ritsu had felt it before, beating against the walls and seeping through where it could, but now it’s settled inside and made its home in his bones, snug and to stay. The draft is worse by the walls. The floor is cold. They have one blanket, one jacket (Ritsu’s jacket, which he’d long since pulled around his brother. Shigeo’s jacket, covered in dry blood, is on the other side of the room).
Ritsu’s skin is so cold that he doesn’t feel like he belongs in it, even with Shigeo pressed close to his side and Soft curled in their laps, but there’s a part in the back of his mind that knows he needs to do something. He doesn’t know what, but it has to be something. And it has to be soon.
With a clench of his chattering teeth, he gently shoves Soft off their lap. She complains a bit, but must have some thought to what he’s doing, because she stops almost right away. Ritsu moves with frozen limbs, dragging Shigeo by the shoulders and settling him carefully against the corner of the wall. Shigeo doesn’t respond at all this time. Ritsu’s stomach flares, and his rising panic brings some heat back to his bones.
He forces his legs beneath him, and rises to his feet. Blood rushes from his head to his toes, then back to his head. He feels dizzy and disoriented for a moment, but manages to get ahold of himself. He’s not who he’s worried about right now.
The first thing to move is the backpack and the blanket, which he carries and slings into the center of the room. Soft curls around his ankles on his way back to get Shigeo, who’s unresponsive but shivering.
Ritsu kneels in front of him and reaches out, shaking his shoulder. “H-Hey, N-Nii-san.” Getting the words past his chattering teeth is hard. “C-Can…?”
He’s about to ask Shigeo if maybe he can stand, but it becomes very evident very quickly that this isn’t going to happen. Shigeo opens his eyes and blinks at him slowly, but they’re unfocused and glazed. It’s like he’s staring through him, not at him.
Ritsu sets his jaw. “Okay, j-just—I-I need to m-move you, I-I’m sorry if it hurts—”
He doesn’t know if Shigeo hears it, because he doesn’t respond, but he has to do this anyway. He hooks his hands under Shigeo’s arm, bites the insides of his cheeks when Shigeo flinches away from him, and slowly drags him toward the center of the room, Soft sticking close the entire way.
Ritsu barely manages to get there and has to struggle not to drop Shigeo and instead lower him gently to the ground. He’s gone still again, and his eyes are closed.
Ritsu collapses beside him, breath fogging the air before his face with each exhale, and he feels like there are icicles in his chest. He forces himself to move one more time, tucking himself close to Shigeo’s side and pulling the blanket over them both. Soft comes in close, burying herself under the blanket with them and curling in the place where their sides touch. She radiates warmth like a space heater, and the depth of her purring sinks deep into his skin and to his bones.
With a dry, unproductive sob born of helplessness, exhaustion, and despair, Ritsu buries his face against Shigeo’s shoulder and prays the Claws don’t find them, because he has no strength left to maintain the barrier.
He does, however, have the strength to find Shigeo’s hand under the blanket and squeeze it. His fingers are cold as ice and he feels numb but none of that matters.
“Hang in there, Shige. P… Please.”
Shigeo squeezes his hand back, so weak he barely feels it. But either way, Ritsu sobs again and clutches him tightly, praying for morning to come.
When Ritsu wakes up, it’s warm, the sun is shining through the cracks in the walls, Soft is seated nearby like a guardian gargoyle, and Shigeo is a soft, warm, alive weight beside him. Their foreheads nearly touch. Ritsu feels Shigeo’s breath against his cheeks.
If he weren’t still so exhausted, Ritsu probably would have cried in relief.
As it is, he wraps his arms around Shigeo, pulls him closer. The last thing he feels is Soft’s cheek bumping his before he falls asleep again.
He can’t get Shigeo to eat anything.
Now that the storm has passed, they’ve moved to their little corner again, and Shigeo sits there with his back against the wall and the side of his head leaning against the opposite wall, where they meet. Soft is curled at his side with her head against his thigh, but he isn’t petting her anymore. All he’s doing is breathing, and Ritsu is desperate.
“Shige, I…” He kneels in front of him, wondering if he should reach out, touch his shoulder. “I-I know you don’t feel like eating anything, but… can you at least take the painkillers, maybe? I—I think they’ll help. You might be able to sleep.”
But Shigeo shakes his head, the movement so small it’s barely even there. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he breathes, eyes still closed. “Jus’... don’t worry about me, I’ll be okay… I just… need time…”
Ritsu bites his lip and reaches out, touching his cheek. His head is still bandaged, and his skin is still feverish.
Shigeo moves this time, reaching to catch Ritsu’s hand with his own and giving it a fragile squeeze, coupled with an even fragiler smile. His eyes are clouded and tired.
“I’ll be okay, Ritsu.”
He stops himself, recounts every time their positions have been switched, every time Shigeo has been a grounding force for his sake. With a hard, thick swallow, Ritsu nods and squeezes his hand back.
“Yeah.” Another squeeze, tighter. “Yeah, yeah, of course. Of course you’ll be okay, yeah, I—I’ll look after you, Soft and I will, you’ll be fine.”
“Mmh.” Shigeo’s eyes slip shut again, and Ritsu waits until his hand goes slack before releasing it and sitting back, bringing his knees up against his chest and watching Shigeo’s chest rise and fall slowly.
Ritsu is okay, for a little while. He’s okay, talking down his panic with I said he’d be okay, he said he’d be okay, he’ll be okay. Okay? and other likewise things that he never fully meant. But he manages it for a little while. For a little while, he’s okay.
Except, Soft untangles herself from Shigeo’s arms without waking him and patters over to Ritsu instead. Ritsu ignores her at first, but then she puts her paws against his leg, bops her nose against his cheek, and without thinking he grabs her and hugs her tight, burying his face into her fur. Somehow, she doesn’t mind. (Which is great, because he honestly isn’t sure he’d be able to let go.)
The next time Ritsu wakes up, he’s curled close to Shigeo’s side, Soft is gone, and the sun is setting over the city.
He sits upright with the very real, very clear knowledge that something had woken him up. Shigeo is still asleep, breath coming and going with a wheeze. Soft isn’t here. No one is here. The setting sun casts long shadows through the room, but it obscures nothing. No one is there.
He hears Soft, first. Meowing. Far off. Getting closer.
And then he hears a stranger’s voice. Far off.
Ritsu springs to his feet, heart already pumping adrenaline through his veins, and he steps away from Shigeo and erects the barrier. Its blue shimmer brings a source of comfort; a knowledge that Shigeo will be safe, so long as he’s behind it and Ritsu doesn’t fail again.
Soft is meowing from just outside the building, close to the window. The voice is growing louder, but Ritsu doesn’t focus on it enough to make out their words. It doesn’t matter. Whoever they are, they don’t have business here unless they’re after Ritsu and Shigeo, and in that case—
Soft jumps through the window in one fell swoop and curls around his ankles, meowing and purring. Ritsu skips past her towards the door, swung off its hinges from when he’d kicked it in.
He presses himself against the wall right beside the gaping doorway, clutching his chest, trying to breathe. He can see the shimmer of the barrier from here, stark in contrast to the orange-yellow of the setting sun. He tries to remember everything he’s ever seen Shigeo do, every way he’s watched him fight, but his mind is racing and his heart is pounding and he can’t think—
“Where the hell are you? Cat? Why did you—”
He doesn’t think about it. He hears the crunch of glass, a footstep against cement, and he leaps into the doorframe and lunges.
“H-Hey, wait a second—!”
Ritsu tries to swing and punch, but fingers curl around his wrist and hold it back. The voice is still talking to him but he ignores it, kicking and thrashing, going for the calves, shins, arms, whatever he can thrash. The hand around his wrist yanks him, and he kicks and shouts and thrashes and screams and—
Arms wrap around his stomach, pull him backwards, pin his arms to his sides. He continues to kick and scream and thrash a bit longer, to no avail. He can’t break free. He can’t do anything.
“Heyheyhey, calm down! Stop fighting—OW, HEY—it’s okay! I’m not gonna hurt you, I promise, just—! Calm down—!”
The voice isn’t a particularly comforting one, but the dizzying effects of the past week is beginning to settle in, far faster than Ritsu hoped it would.
It’s now that he realizes Soft is curling around his ankles again. The arms around his waist are restraining him, but not hurting him. And, most importantly of all, he senses no aura from whoever it is behind him.
“There you go—okay. See? You’re oka—”
Ritsu jerks away from his hold and whirls around, finally looking into the stranger’s face. He has brown hair, a tall, slender kind of form, and he’s wearing a gray t-shirt and, weirdly enough, dress pants. He looks startled, and rightfully so, but not… dangerous. There’s nothing scary or intimidating about him whatsoever.
A wave crashes over his head. He doesn’t know what it is, but it leaves his mind blank and his stomach sick.
“You alright there, kid?” the stranger asks, brows pinched with a mixture of concern and confusion. His eyes scan Ritsu’s appearance, his face. “You look pretty beat up—where are your parents? Do you need help?”
“P-Parents…” The word is a foreign one. He can’t remember a time he and Shigeo had parents. Surely they did have parents, right? Why can’t he remember them? What happened to them?
He feels sicker. His head is lighter.
“I-I… w… we…”
“Hey—” Hands land on his shoulders, gentle but grounding. “It’s alright, okay? I want to help you, what’s your name?”
“Okay, Ritsu. You can call me Reigen. Are you here alone?”
His nonexistent train of thought slams the breaks and crashes. His stomach churns like an ocean.
“M-My brother, he—he’s here, he’s—”
Nothing dangerous about him, nothing intimidating, nothing scary, no aura.
“H-He’s hurt, he’s really hurt, I don’t know what to do—”
Reigen’s eyes widen, and Ritsu barely has time to point before his shoulders are released and Reigen is on his way over. Ritsu follows close at his heels, heart in his throat.
Reigen collapses by Shigeo's wide, reaching out, taking his shoulder, pressing two fingers to his neck. The barrier is gone, but Ritsu doesn't remember lowering it.
“Wh-What are you doing?” Ritsu asks, hardly able to breathe. Soft winds between his ankles, but aside from that, he feels nothing.
Reigen doesn't answer for a time, but then he lowers his hand. “Checking his pulse.”
“Is… is he okay?”
Reigen doesn't answer. “You said his name was Shigeo, right?”
“Hey, Shigeo.” Reigen snaps in his face, shakes his shoulder. “Hey, kid, wake up a sec.”
He doesn't. A time passes. Reigen snaps again and there's no change at all.
“What is it?” Ritsu questions. Reigen gets to his feet, fishing for something in his back pocket. “What are you doing? What's wrong?”
“I'm calling an ambulance,” Reigen answers, fingers flying. “He needs help, now.”
Ritsu’s mind begins to move again, only this time, it moves too quickly. “W-Wait, don’t—!”
He didn't mean for it to happen, honest. But Reigen's phone flies from his hands, ricochets off the roof, slams into the wall, into the floor, into the other wall, into the ceiling, fast at first and then faster, until Ritsu can't follow it with his eyes anymore. Bits fly everywhere like confetti.
It slams into the roof one more time before it lands in a sad little heap between them.
Reigen stares straight ahead, through Ritsu, not at him. “What just—”
“You can't call anyone,” Ritsu gasps, clutching Reigen by the forearms, breath caught in his chest. “You can't, you just can't, they'll find us again, they can't find us—”
A dizzyspell crashes over his head, and he would have fallen if not for Reigen's grip on his shoulders.
“H-Hey, okay, calm down. They won't find you, I won't call anyone. Well. I can't anymore, anyway. But your brother really needs help.”
Ritsu wants to say that he knows, he knows it too well, but the words won't come out. Reigen squeezes his shoulders.
“... I have a place. It's not very big, but it's more than what you've got. I can try and patch up your brother, alright?”
Ritsu nods, shakily, because he doesn’t know what else to do.
Chapter 4: Merry-Go-Round
omg i'm still just,,, totally blown away by all your support!! thank you guys so much, i'm really glad you're enjoying the story so far!! i have a lot planned for it that i can't wait to share with you. thank you so much for all of your lovely comments and support, it means so much to me!!
i hope you like the chapter!! :D
It isn’t that Arataka had never seen a cat before. He lives in what most people would call the “slum” of the city. Crime rates are higher and break-ins are the norm, but it’s the cheapest sector of the city to live in, with the cheapest apartments and the cheapest lot. Arataka has never been ashamed of being part of that lot, and neither were the many, many alleycats that frequented the place. He couldn’t walk home without hearing a slam or a clatter in the alley and wondering whether it was a feline or a burglar.
But he’s never seen a cat… here. In the “better” part of the city, where the “normal” people live.
He first sees the cat when stopping by a convenience store for a cheap cup of coffee on his daily commute. The cat is big, as intimidating as any tiger, with a chunk nipped out of its ear and massive paws that could do far worse damage than that on an enemy. For an alleycat, it’s surprisingly clean. Not mangy or feral like some of the other cats he’s had the misfortune of running into.
The worst part of it all may be the fact that the cat just. Watches him. And not in the way that it’s surveying the surroundings, marking him off as a potential predator. No, it’s watching him. It watches him on his way in, and it’s still there on his way out, staring at him as though he’d wronged it somehow and was contemplating a righteous payback.
Arataka tries putting it out of his head, because there’s no reason why a cat, an alleycat, would single him out that way. Could cats even “single people out” like that? He doesn’t know much about cats. He’s a dog person.
Oh, maybe that’s why—
He’s at work when he realizes he hadn’t even taken a sip of his coffee. It’s cold, now, but he isn’t letting that precious one-hundred-twenty-five yen go to waste. By the time he goes home that day, he’s forgotten all about the cat and falls asleep easily.
The next day, though, as he braves his daily commute early that morning, the feline is still there, watching him like a hawk, head peeking from around the corner of an alley. Arataka ignores it, grabs a coffee, and sets off to work. He feels its eyes bearing into him for the rest of the day, and he sleeps restlessly.
It rains hard all throughout the following day and night. There’s no sign of the cat, but Arataka can’t shake it from his mind nearly as quickly this time. He grabs a coffee from the shop, heads into work, punches in his hours, and then heads home the same way, pulling his jacket over his head and wishing he’d had the sense to buy an umbrella along with the coffee. The cat still isn’t there.
The cat is there the next day, though. Arataka is kind of relieved to see it, glad that it’s alright, but something isn’t right. The cat doesn’t stay in the alley to watch him like it usually does; instead it prances forward, directly towards him, and he’s this close to turning tail and running when he notices something on its coat.
There’s blood in its fur.
Arataka’s heart drops to his stomach, and in the same moment he takes a knee, holding his hand out to the cat cautiously. Luckily, it’s early enough that the streets aren’t bustling; aside from the shopkeeper inside the store, he and the cat are alone.
“Hey, are you hurt? You okay?”
He’s expecting the cat to do something, to rub up against his hand, to let him help it, but it never makes contact with him. It gets close, close enough for Arataka to see its pupils as they dilate, but it’s turned away just as quickly with a long, sad whine of a meow.
“Waitwaitwait, don’t run,” he tries, thrusting out his hand again. “If you’re hurt I might be able to help you, see, but I can’t chase after—”
The cat mrrows again. A high, pained sound that has no business coming from that big, that grand of an animal. Arataka studies it awhile longer, watches its posture, watches how it goes from moving down the sidewalk, to doubling back towards him, and then repeating the process again, and again, and—
Arataka leaps to his feet. “You—”
The cat spins around and runs.
“H—Hey! Heyhey, wait!”
Arataka tears after it, job and coffee left in the dust behind him, and his legs carry him in leaps and bounds after the sprinting animal.
“Wait! I’m not gonna chase you, I said! What do you want!?”
The cat pauses, just long enough to give Arataka the hope of catching up, before it’s whirled around and continues on like its very life depends on it. One thing’s for sure; that blood, it isn’t the cat’s. The blood was too fresh and the cat wouldn’t be moving like this if it was indeed injured recently.
Which means there’s something else. He doesn’t know what else, but the sheer fact that he doesn’t know propels him to move faster, until the cat is struggling to stay in front of him and his lungs struggle to match his pace.
It isn’t until the cat disappears around a corner and leaps through the window of what looks like an old, abandoned hotel lobby that Arataka realizes where he is. Definitely worse off than his neighborhood; a part of town that he could never imagine as liveable. Run-down buildings, missing chunks of sidewalk, cracks through the asphalt. It's eerie. He thinks of the blood on the cat's coat and that feeling redoubles.
He steps toward the abandoned hotel. The door is off its hinges. The neon sign over it reads better as a warning than a greeting.
“Where the hell did you go?” Arataka wonders, unsure of who he's talking to, himself or the cat. “Cat? Why did you—”
A flying fist almost socks him in the face, and it's that moment precisely that Arataka wonders just what the hell he's gotten himself into.
The boys and their cat are in the backseat of a rental car, but at the rate he's going the speeding tickets will be a higher price to pay than the rent of the vehicle. His fingers curl around the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles turn white, and his heart pounds along with the roar of the engine.
“How're you two doing back there, kid?” he calls over his shoulder, catching a glimpse of them in the backseat. “You guys okay?”
The conscious one, Ritsu—he’s wearing a tattered t-shirt that’s so old and worn that it’s lost the right to be called a “shirt.” The unconscious brother, Shigeo, is still and unmoving in his lap, wrapped in an old jacket, with the cat curled close to his stomach and licking his bruised cheek. The bandages around his head are bloody, and if Arataka thinks about it too hard, he feels sick to his stomach.
There’s no answer, and Arataka tries again. “Ritsu,” (He sees his head snap up in the mirror), “are you both okay?”
“I—I think we are,” Ritsu manages, and his voice is small and scared and god, Arataka doesn’t want to imagine what these two have been through. “I… I don’t know.”
Arataka sets his jaw. His head is starting to hurt. “Okay, hold on. We’ll be there soon.”
Ritsu nods stiffly and holds his brother closer, saying something Arataka can’t completely catch. He focuses on the road again, turning down the street leading up toward his apartment—and that’s exactly when his phone rings.
Arataka jumps and the cat’s head snaps up, ears twitching and eyes big. Ritsu lifts his head too, but slower, like he hasn’t caught up with it until now. Shigeo doesn’t move at all.
Arataka has had two phones for a while now; the phone he carries on his person, and the phone he keeps in his car. The carry-on phone is the one he uses for his consulting business, a business that he’s been losing steam on for the better part of the past six years. The phone he leaves in the car, he uses for everything else. Including his day-job.
Arataka’s eyes catch the words on the screen, a simple Takahiro Nakamura, but he’s barely reaching for it before he decides it doesn’t matter. Whatever his boss wants isn’t important. The two kids in the backseat are.
He presses a button on the side to silence it and focuses on the road.
“Who was that?”
There’s no mistaking the accusatory tone in Ritsu’s voice, but Arataka can’t blame him either. “My boss,” he answers, rounding the bend. “Probably wondering why I haven’t come into work yet. Don’t worry about it.”
Ritsu bites his lip but doesn’t say anything else.
“Yeah, the smaller one unlocks the deadbolt—the bigger one unlocks the handle—”
With a jingle of keys and the click of the locks, the door is swung wide and Arataka shows himself in, Shigeo a dead weight in his arms and Ritsu and the cat hot on his heels. He hits the light switches with his shoulder as he crosses the distance between the front door and the living room, and the dull lights do their best but aren’t nearly enough.
“Ritsu, there’s a bathroom down the hallway, over there—” He jerks his head, “—I need you to go grab as many towels as you find, alright?”
Ritsu nods with empty eyes and practically runs off, and the cat prances after him while Arataka kneels by the couch and carefully, ever so carefully, settles Shigeo atop it. The kid's head lolls against the cushion. He doesn't so much as twitch.
While he waits for Ritsu, he begins to assess the situation. The thing that bothered him firstly was how light Shigeo was, so light that he probably didn’t even need Ritsu to unlock the apartment for him. That alone would have been enough cause for more than a little concern, but then there’s the fever, which was high enough for Arataka to feel through the back of his shirt and burns against his hand when he touches the kid’s forehead.
And then there’s the bloodied bandages around his head, the ones around his arms and hands, the ones on his stomach that Arataka only sees when the hem of his shirt rides up. There’s so much wrong with this situation that it’s overwhelming. He feels kind of like someone’s stuffed mint up his nose. Cotton in his ears.
“I got the towels!”
Ritsu returns with arms full of them, and Arataka gestures to the floor and he dumps them onto it.
“We’ll need water,” Arataka says, thinking out loud more than anything. “But first—Ritsu—”
“Y-Yeah, t—tell me what to do.”
“In the bathroom cabinet, under the sink?”
“There’s a blue box, about this big.” Arataka spreads his hands. “I need you to bring that here.”
Ritsu is already turning and running off. Soft takes off after him and Arataka gets to his feet himself and rushes into the kitchen.
He doesn’t have much, but he scours through the cabinets and finds a bottle of ibuprofens, along with a mixing bowl which he fills to the two-thirds mark with cold water. With the medicine bottle tucked in the crook of his elbow and the bowl held close, he hurries back into the living room and gets there around the same time Ritsu does.
“This one?” Ritsu asks, setting the box down, and Arataka nods as he kneels, setting the bowl and bottle beside it.
“Okay.” Arataka takes a moment just to breathe, to think. “Okay, alright—first things first—”
He pops open the lid of the box and tosses it aside before digging through. Ritsu sticks almost uncomfortably close, eyes darting between Shigeo and Arataka. Soft sits beside him but he doesn’t touch her.
Arataka finds a pair of scissors, sharp and seldom used. When Ritsu doesn’t try to stop him, Arataka begins to cut away the bandages, starting with the ones at Shigeo’s head. He’ll have to cut the sweatshirt off him, probably, and his shirt too because there are injuries there that need to be addressed, but one thing at a time.
“Ritsu, get one of the towels wet and hand it to me, okay?”
Ritsu nods and starts on that, just as Arataka pulls away the bloodied gauze and sets it aside. He resists the urge to swear for Ritsu’s sake only. The gash, stretched and barely scabbed on the side of Shigeo’s head, is bleeding sluggishly. It’s hard to tell with his hair in the way, but something is obviously wrong.
“What is it?” Ritsu asks, and his voice shakes. “Is he okay? What’s wrong?”
“It might be getting infected,” Arataka murmurs, biting his lip afterward to keep from hissing through his teeth. “Shit…”
“C—Can you fix it?”
“I don’t know.” Arataka takes the towel from Ritsu and refocuses on Shigeo right afterward. “I’ll do my damndest, I promise, but if it doesn’t get better soon I’m going to have to take him to a hospital.”
He’s expecting some sort of reaction. He wasn’t expecting silence. It bothers him, but not as much as Shigeo’s lack of response does, even as he works to scrub out the wound.
“How long ago was he hurt?” he asks finally.
“I—a-a few days, I think,” Ritsu says. There’s a pause. “C… Could—” Ritsu’s voice is small, too small. “Could it kill him? Is he going to die?”
“No.” Arataka doesn’t think about it. “No, he isn’t. No matter what happens or what we have to do, he isn’t going to die, I promise. Hey—that black bottle, can you hand it to me? Yeah, that one—thanks—”
Arataka uncaps it with his teeth and pours a generous amount of disinfectant onto the edge of the towel.
“Now, listen. This stuff—it’s not gonna feel nice. He’s not gonna like it, and there’s a chance he’ll try to fight it, but he’s okay, alright? He might not seem like it at first, but he’s okay.”
Ritsu nods, but his eyes are wide and empty. “Will it hurt?”
Arataka doesn’t lie. “Yeah, yeah it will. But it’s gonna help keep the infection down, and it won’t last long. Just, be prepared, yeah?”
Ritsu swallows hard, but nods, and Arataka steels himself and presses the disinfectant-soaked end of the towel against the wound.
And there’s… nothing.
There was a part of Arataka that actually hoped the disinfectant would bring some response out of him, some kind of confirmation that he’s truly alive and okay and not brain-dead, or worse. But there’s no reaction.
Ritsu’s eyes are wider still. “He—he didn’t fight it?”
“No.” Arataka doesn’t trust himself to look at him, doesn’t trust his pokerface. “No, he didn’t. Hand me the gauze, alright?”
Ritsu does, and Arataka sets the towel aside and winds the bandages around Shigeo’s head, underneath shorter bits of hair and overlapping the longer bits.
It isn’t until Arataka cuts away the sweatshirt that he realizes the next biggest problem they have.
Ritsu doesn’t notice—he probably doesn’t have enough experience to notice—and Arataka, for now, uses this to his advantage.
“Hey, Ritsu? Would you mind running into the kitchen and getting a glass of water? He needs something to take the pills with.”
“O-Oh, right.” Ritsu nods, gets to his feet unsteadily. “Wh-Where…?”
“Down that way,” Arataka says, pointing. “There’s a cabinet over the sink, they should be there. If they aren’t—” (He already knows they aren’t), “—just look around for a bit, you’ll find them.”
Ritsu nods and sets off, and Arataka waits until he’s gone before turning his focus toward Shigeo again.
His shoulder is dislocated.
It’s so blatantly obvious now that the sweatshirt is off that Arataka doesn’t know how he could’ve possibly missed it before. But the fact remains that it is dislocated, and he can’t let it go on like that.
He sets his jaw and moves his hands over the injured shoulder, hovering by it uncertainly before he remembers his limited time and forces himself to stay calm, to focus. He knows how to set a dislocated shoulder. He can do it.
He’s as careful as possible, as careful as he needs to be, moving Shigeo’s arm slowly and gently—right up until he doesn’t, anyway. He moves it gently into position, steels himself, and twists and pushes it back into its place.
It’d come so suddenly that Arataka almost shrieks, himself, but regains his wits in time to hold the boy steady, to stretch an arm over his chest and keep him pinned down.
“Hold on there, kiddo, it’s alright. It’s over, it’s done, we’re done—”
Pounding footsteps alert him to Ritsu’s returning presence, but he doesn’t lift his head yet. He keeps Shigeo pinned until the weak thrashing comes to a halt, until his pounding, racing heart slows beneath Arataka’s arm, and the lines on his face go slack and he’s out.
“What happened?” Ritsu questions, hurrying over. “What did you do?”
“I had to relocate his shoulder.” Now that it’s over, Arataka doesn’t feel bad saying it. He just didn’t want Ritsu to watch. “He’s okay. It’s a good sign, him lashing out like that. Means he’s still with us.”
He doesn’t know if that’s true, but it sounds right, and honestly? It was a relief to finally see him move. He’s been too still for too long.
But Ritsu nods in understanding and kneels close by while Arataka continues to work. He hopes he doesn’t find anything worse than the shoulder, but with how things have gone so far, he finds that unlikely.
When he first brought Ritsu and Shigeo into his apartment, it was late afternoon, teetering on evening. When he bandages the last of Shigeo’s injuries after cleaning them thoroughly and putting his arm in a makeshift sling he’d crafted from two handkerchiefs, it’s well past 11pm, and he feels like he just spent a full day working manual labor in the hot sun with no breaks.
He’s washing his hands at the bathroom sink when his phone buzzes in his pocket.
He takes his time drying his hands before he thinks to actually answer it. He’s so all over the place mentally that he barely has time to answer it at all.
“Arataka, where the hell were you today?” Ah. If he’d known it was his boss, he wouldn’t have bothered answering. He needs to look at the caller IDs. Hindsight. “We were swarmed. Why weren’t you picking up your phone?”
Arataka runs a hand through his hair tiredly. “Sorry. Had a… bit of a family emergency.”
His boss’ tone changes immediately. Unsurprising. “Oh, really? Is everything alright?”
“No,” Arataka says, glancing over his shoulder through the cracked door. He can see the back of the couch, Ritsu kneeling by it. “No, I don’t know, it’s—everything’s pretty complicated right now.”
“Damn, I’m sorry. Listen, take whatever time you need off, alright? You’re easily the best worker we’ve got, and I’m sure we can manage for a bit in your absence. I wish you and your family the best of luck.”
“Yeah, okay, thanks. Bye.”
He stares down at the phone long after the call was terminated, and he finally has a moment to think.
That kid, Ritsu, and his brother. They’ve obviously been on the run for a very long time. On the run from who, Arataka has no idea and is, admittedly, a bit afraid of finding out. That, and there’s the fate of his other phone, the one he’d had on his person when he initially found the boys.
No, he hasn’t had the chance to think about that, but he’s willing to bet good money that it’s at least half the reason why the boys have been running. Actually, he’s willing to bet it’s the entire reason.
He swallows back some of the bile in his throat and turns to leave the bathroom. His phone stays on the counter behind him, forgotten.
“Who was that?”
Arataka glances down at Ritsu, leaning against the side of the couch by Shigeo’s head. His eyes are half-closed and tired. His fingers are curled around Shigeo’s.
“My boss,” Arataka answers, sinking to the floor in front of him. “He was mad I missed work today, but he’ll get over it eventually.”
“Oh.” Ritsu looks down, blinks slowly. “I… thanks.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Arataka says, smiling gently. “You two have seen a lot, huh? This is the least I can do.”
Ritsu sniffs, wiping his nose with his sleeve. Arataka looks down at his hands for a time and wonders what to do.
“... Do you mind if I ask a couple questions?”
Ritsu shakes his head.
“Okay, so…” Arataka scoots a little closer. “You and your brother—how old are you?”
“I’m eleven,” Ritsu says softly, “and Shige is—” And then, abruptly, he stops, like a chained animal who’d just run out of slack on their leash. He sits there for a moment, blinking, mouth still open on his thought.
He looks up at Arataka. “What month is it?”
Arataka’s mouth goes dry. “It’s—It’s February.”
Ritsu must not have understood the true implications of what he’d just asked, because he nods and goes on like nothing had happened at all. “Th-Then, Shigeo is twelve.”
Eleven and twelve. Injured. Lost. Alone. The only thing they have to their name is that cat, who’s been curled with Shigeo on the couch for a while now and taking up just as much space as him. Aside from that and the filthy, ragged clothes on their back, they have nothing.
Arataka swallows. “Alright. So, um…”
Except, that’s when he notices just how blatantly exhausted Ritsu looks, how dark the circles under his eyes are, how he’s struggling to keep them open, and as much as he wants to keep the questions rolling, he quickly finds that he doesn’t have the heart.
“... Actually, it’s getting late. You should get some sleep.”
“Sleep?” Ritsu says the word like it’s one he has never heard before. “I… I-I want to stay with Shige.”
“I never said you had to leave him,” Arataka assures. “I have a spare futon somewhere, you two can use that. And I’ve got a ton of blankets.” The heat unit doesn’t work half the time, and with how winters progress in this city, one can never be too prepared. “You’ll be alright, ‘kay? Both of you.”
“But—” Ritsu looks a little more awake now, but not by much. “But, I—I have to keep up the barrier, I—th-they might attack us if I don’t, I can’t let them hurt Shige again, I can’t.”
Arataka has no idea who “they” are, or even what the hell a barrier is, but those are questions for another time.
“Listen, you said that Shigeo was hurt days ago, right?”
Ritsu nods shakily.
“And you haven’t been attacked since then.”
Ritsu shakes his head.
“Then, they probably don’t know where you two are,” Arataka determines. “They might think you ditched this place or ran as far as you could. The last place they’d expect you to be is here with someone like me.”
“I—” Ritsu stammers, trying to find words. “T-That makes sense, I just—wh-what if—”
“I’ll be here, too, y’know,” Arataka cuts in, smiling. “I might not have much, but golf clubs are pretty effective when you want them to be. I’m sure I can manage while you get some sleep. Trust me.”
Ritsu swallows hard and looks toward his brother again, at their interlocked fingers, at Shigeo's sleeping face (or he might still be unconscious, but for now he'll go with sleeping).
“Okay,” he says at long last, wiping his nose on his sleeve again. “Okay, I--I will. Tonight.”
“Good, good.” Arataka hesitates a bit at first, but then reaches out and ruffles his hair. His locks, down to his shoulders and absolutely filthy, are every bit as uneven and matted as his brother's. A pair of scissors would fix that, but not yet.
Ritsu doesn't flinch away from the touch. He looks mutely confused for a second or two, blinking out into space, and Arataka chuckles softly and gets to his feet.
“I'll be right back with the futon,” he says, needlessly brushing off his coat. “Hang tight for a sec, ‘kay?”
Ritsu doesn't respond for a time, and Arataka waits a decent little while before Ritsu nods and he leaves for the storage closet.
Along with the futon, he grabs as many blankets as he can carry. With Shigeo so sick and Ritsu drained and exhausted, Arataka isn't about to risk letting either of them getting chilled. It's still winter. The weather hasn't been kind. It may be one of the reasons why Shigeo is sick to begin with.
When he returns to the living room, Ritsu is half asleep and watching him with sluggish eyes. Arataka takes care of setting up the futon, spreading blanket upon blanket over it until he's run out. Then he folds them back on one side, taps Ritsu to get his attention, and rises to a stand.
“You can go ahead and get situated, I'll move Shigeo.”
Ritsu nods, but doesn't actually move until Shigeo has been lowered gently--very, very gently, as gently as Arataka could possibly manage--onto the futon. Then and only then does Ritsu move, tucking himself close to Shigeo's side, mindful of his slinged arm.
Arataka pulls the blankets over both of them and is just about to ask if everything's alright when Ritsu's voice murmurs, very gently and very quietly, like he doesn't have any air left in him, “Thank you.”
Arataka can't help the smile that stretches his face. “Don't mention it, buddy. Don't mention it.”
Ritsu is asleep immediately afterwards, and after watching over them for just a while longer, Arataka rises to his feet for what feels like the millionth time today, snatching his keys and wallet and swinging his coat around him. He's short on supplies, very short, and he knows he'll be needing them very soon.
He casts one last lingering look at the boys and Soft as she stands guard by them before stepping out and locking the door behind him.
Chapter 5: Breathe
i'm still so blown away by all your love and support jkdsljflsdf thank you so mUCH omg,,,
I really really really wanted to respond to comments this time around but I've been having some hand-difficulties and since it's already been a little while I didn't want to make you guys wait any longer. so just know that i really really appreciate all the support and im just?? blown away?? like y'all are so great aaAA tysm ;-;
also!!!! someone did!!! fanart for this story!!! im still freaking out over it jksjklsjdklfsdf !!! please check out this incredible artwork by RingingSilent!!! pleaseplease it's so good i'm a A A A A i love it so much it's so perfect thANK YOU AHSKLASD <3 <3
without further adieu, onto the chapter!! i hope you enjoy it!!! :DD
Ritsu wakes up, warm.
The futon is soft beneath him, and the multiple blankets spread over him and his brother keep the warmth contained between them. There's a small space heater humming nearby. Soft's purr sinks deep into his skin. Shigeo's breath is even and steady, and the flush across his cheeks is lesser than it’d been.
Reigen is singing a somewhat off-tune something in the kitchen, coupled by a sizzle and the smell of home cooking. Not that he really knows what that smells like, but he imagines it'd be something like this.
He blinks out into space for a moment, up at the ceiling of Reigen's apartment. Shigeo's head is a gentle weight on his shoulder. Soft is sprawled over them both.
Into the silence, into the calm, he whispers a quiet, murmured,
“... It wasn't a dream…?”
Ritsu lies there a while longer.
And then he throws back the blankets, pushes Soft onto Shigeo, and tears down the hall into the kitchen. He swings himself around the doorway, hand on the frame, shoulders tense and eyes wide.
Reigen, currently stirring something at the stove, glances over his shoulder. The moment he sees Ritsu, a smile splits his face.
“Oh, you're awake!” he says, much too chipper. “Good to see you up, I was just finishing here.”
Ritsu blinks twice, still computing. Reigen goes back to prep.
“I didn't know what you kids liked,” he starts off, “so I just grabbed some soup from the market. I'd make it myself, but I'm kinda short on groceries at the moment—not to mention I usually only cook for one—that’s not to say I'm complaining, I'm glad you two are here. I'm a little worried about your brother, but I'm sure he'll be up soon. Sometimes you just need a lil rest and recuperation, y’know?”
Reigen is rambling now, grabbing three bowls from the cabinet and setting them on the countertop as he goes. Ritsu watches him, gobsmacked.
Reigen turns to him, a small frown crossing his face. “What's wrong?”
That's the thing, there's nothing wrong. Things are actually okay for once. But that's exactly what's so mind-boggling. The “right” that is this entire situation.
“N-Nothing,” Ritsu manages, shaking his head to knock himself from the thought. “I just… thank you.”
It seems like too simple a thing. Not enough. But Reigen smiles and shakes his head.
“Don't mention it. I'm happy the two of you are here. You’ve been through hell and back at least a dozen times, huh.”
He's talking to himself more than anything, but Ritsu still nods.
“Wellp.” Reigen brushes off his hands needlessly after pouring two bowls of soup. “I'll dish up Shigeo's once he's awake. In the meantime, you hungry?”
Ritsu doesn't really know what he is, but whether out of shock, a lack of something better to say, or simply to be polite, he nods.
“Oh, also—let me take a look at your arms. You seemed pretty out of it last night, so I didn't push it, but if you're injured, we need to take care of that too.”
“O-Oh, right. Thank you.”
Reigen smiles and shakes his head. “Like I said, you don't have to thank me,” he says, taking the bowls into each hand, “but you're welcome, kiddo.”
Maybe it's his gentle tone. Maybe it's the nickname. Maybe it's the situation. Or maybe it's a combination of everything. But Ritsu feels like his chest is being wound tight, and for once it isn't out of fear or panic.
He follows Reigen into the living room.
“Look after him, okay? As long as you have each other, you’ll be okay.”
They were surrounded by fire.
Ritsu was behind him, clinging to his shirt and burying his face against his back. The walls and ceiling burned so brightly that they drowned out the feeble light of Shigeo’s barrier. A falling piece of the ceiling slammed into it. Ritsu screamed. Shigeo wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pressed him closer, hiding his face.
The smoke rose with the flames and consumed the world around them. When Shigeo found his legs again, he took Ritsu, and he ran.
Shigeo shoots upright, breathing hard, both hands clutching at his chest. His lungs burn against the oxygen flowing shakily through them, and his throat feels like he’d just swallowed rocks. His right arm is slinged around his shoulder. He feels bandages shift beneath his t-shirt. They’re on his arms and legs. His head swims and burns.
With half-fuzzy vision and a mind full of cotton, he surveys the room. He’s sitting on a couch with a blanket over his legs. The carpet is loaded with so many stains that it might as well be its own ballistic pattern. The space has a popcorn ceiling an ugly shade of creamy-gray-white, which does nothing to compliment the walls or decor, which are bland and old and tasteless. His and Ritsu’s backpack is on the floor next to the couch, placed near a blue, plastic box, pillbottles, a bottle of water, and several blankets.
There's no sign of Ritsu anywhere.
Shigeo kicks off the blanket and his feet hit the carpet. The room spins and sways and so does he for a moment, but it doesn’t take long for him to regain his footing. He should be able to sense Ritsu, right? Ritsu awakened. He should be able to sense him if he’s close, so why can’t he? Unless he isn’t close—
Shigeo hears footsteps and his heartrate rockets to a dangerous tempo. They’re too heavy to be Ritsu’s. Too spaced. Too far apart.
The stranger turns the corner and Shigeo slams him into the carpet.
He’s a tall, gangly kind of guy who doesn’t really look threatening, but Ritsu is gone, Ritsu is missing and for some reason he’s here, and the stranger shrieks on the way down, but it cut short when his back hits the floor with a resounding thump. He moves to prop himself up on his elbows immediately, but Shigeo turns the barrier on him, closes him in that space, and—
“Where’s Ritsu?” His voice is steady, but his outstretched hand trembles. “Where’s my brother? What did you do to him?”
The stranger sits up, palms flat on the ground behind him. He looks… exasperated, almost. Shigeo doesn’t know what to call the emotion on his face.
“Ah, shit, I should’ve—listen, your brother’s fine, he’s in the other room.”
Shigeo’s blood burns. “I don’t believe you.”
The stranger looks helpless, now. That much is plain. “Listen, I seriously don’t know what to tell you. Just—call his name or something, you’ll see—”
From the hall sprints first Soft, chirping and trilling, and second, Ritsu, hot on her toes, beaming brighter than ever before. There are bandages around his head, on his wrists and fingers, probably more hidden by his clothes, but he’s there. He’s there, he’s alive, and he’s okay.
Shigeo goes lightheaded. “Rits—Ritsu—”
Ritsu rounds the couch, skids for a second, then throws himself right at him, bringing his arms around Shigeo’s shoulders and hugging tightly. His arms wind up pinned to his sides, but he still manages to raise his one good arm to wrap around Ritsu’s back. The dizziness creeps in. He closes his eyes. Ritsu is okay. That’s all that matters.
Before he’s ready, Ritsu releases him and steps back, though he holds him by the shoulders. “Are you okay? You were out for a while, I—we were worried.”
It takes Shigeo a moment to realize he doesn’t mean “we” as in himself and Soft.
“Oh, I—” He drops the barrier from around the stranger, and now that the panic is gone and Ritsu is here and he’s safe, guilt is replacing it steadily. “I-I’m—I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
“Don’t apologize, kid, I would’ve done the same thing.” The stranger gets to his feet like he hadn’t just been decked by psychic powers, which… in and of itself is kind of odd. “Glad to see you up, finally. I was starting to think I’d have to take you to a doctor.”
“This is Reigen, Nii-san,” Ritsu introduces eagerly, gesturing with one hand. Reigen waves casually. “He found us at the building, he’s been taking care of us.”
“I—” He really, really feels lightheaded now. “I—I don’t know how to—what to—”
The world tips and tilts. Ritsu’s eyes flood with panic. Reigen is suddenly right beside him, taking him by the shoulders and guiding him down to the couch. He doesn’t feel nearly as faint once he’s sitting, but the nausea doesn’t completely dissipate. Ritsu sits beside him, settles a hand on his shoulder. Reigen still holds the other one.
“Take it easy there, bud,” Reigen says, giving his shoulder a squeeze. “You’ve got a pretty serious head injury, don’t push it.”
“Are you okay?” Ritsu asks, brows pinched. “D-Do you think you’re going to pass out again, or…?”
Shigeo shakes his head, stopping short when it increases the dizziness. “N-No, I’m okay,” he says, and his voice trembles a little now. “I-I’m sure my psychic powers will heal it soon. It’s okay.”
It’s actually pretty weird that they haven’t fixed it already. Wounds aren’t usually a big deal. Bandage them, look after them a while, and then good as new (sans the scar they left behind). Ritsu swallows hard, but doesn’t say anything.
“Oh, while you’re up—” Reigen says, and he snatches the pillbottle and water bottle from the floor, handing the water to Shigeo first before popping open the cap and knocking three pills into his hand. He puts two back. “You’re twelve, right?”
Shigeo nods shakily. Ritsu still hasn’t let go of his shoulder.
“Well, go ahead and take this.” Reigen holds the pill out to him, and Shigeo takes it carefully from his palm. His hand is warm. “You’ve gotta swallow it whole.”
“What’s it do?”
“With luck, it’ll bring your fever down.”
Shigeo blinks. “My… fever?”
“You’ve had one for a while,” Ritsu says lowly, carefully. “It hasn’t gone down very much at all.”
“I wanted to give it to you first thing,” Reigen goes on, “but you were unconscious, so, obviously that didn’t work.”
Shigeo studies the pill. The ones they snatch from pharmacies are typically just for kids. They’re chewable, crudely fruit-flavored. He’s never seen a pill like this and that scares him.
But Ritsu isn’t worried. Ritsu seems to trust Reigen. And Reigen doesn’t give off an intimidating, threatening or dangerous aura, psychic or otherwise.
He takes the pill. The water tastes amazing. He hadn’t realized how feverish his body actually felt until he downed it. It’s cool, but not cold. It’s. Great, actually.
He gets through about half of it before realizing and then twists on the cap and returns it to the floor. The ache in his bones hasn’t dissipated, but the nausea and dizziness has some. Maybe he’s dehydrated. He’d be more surprised to hear if he wasn’t.
“Thank you,” he says when he remembers.
Reigen smiles and straightens up, brushing his hands off needlessly. “I made soup earlier, I can heat some up if you’re hungry.” He pauses a moment, studies him. “—On second thought, don’t say anything. I’ll be back.”
He turns on his heel and disappears into the kitchen. Shigeo blinks dazedly at the empty space he’d occupied moments before, only really snapping out of it when Soft yawns and stretches her paws against his leg. It earns a small giggle from Ritsu, who reaches over and scratches her chin. She purrs.
“Reigen bought food for her, too,” he says, voice gentle. “He’s… he’s been really—”
They blink at each other. Ritsu cracks a smile and nods, still stroking Soft’s fur with one hand and holding Shigeo’s shoulder with the other.
“I don’t feel any psychic power from him,” Shigeo says, thinking out loud more than actually discussing. “But I can’t sense you, either.”
Ritsu’s smile turns into a frown. “You can’t sense me? I thought you could.”
“I’ve never been able to sense psychic power from you, before or after you awoke.”
Ritsu’s head tilts and he stares down at the couch, the small space between them. He does so for some time. “That’s… that’s weird. You’ve always been able to sense people’s psychic abilities.”
Shigeo swallows hard, but ultimately shakes his head. Whatever’s wrong, he’ll figure it out eventually. But Ritsu doesn’t need to know how clueless he really is. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Maybe I’m just not used to you having psychic powers.”
Ritsu bites his lip, like he wants to say something else, but he doesn’t. With a small nod, he lets it go. “I do sense something from you,” he says, changing the topic, “but it’s small. And I’m still kind of figuring out psychic powers, anyway, so that might be it.”
“What about Reigen?”
A clatter and bang from the kitchen, and Shigeo and Ritsu’s heads snap around in that direction. Soft’s head shoots up, and she hops off the couch to go investigate.
“Nothing happened!” comes Reigen’s voice, spoken like someone who’d just witnessed something happening. “Don’t worry, kids, I’ve got it covered! Oh my god—”
“No, I don’t sense anything psychic from him,” Ritsu answers, turning back to him. “And I honestly don’t think he could hurt us if he tried.”
That is true. Even is his weakened, exhausted state, Shigeo was able to pin and immobilize him (something that will most likely sit guiltily in the corner of his heart for the rest of his life). That, and Reigen hadn’t even tried to hurt them. Not once. And he’d helped Ritsu, bandaged what injuries he had, took care of them both. There’s something special in that. Something Shigeo can’t really decipher.
“... Do you think we’re okay, here?”
Shigeo meets Ritsu’s eyes, and Ritsu swallows hard and looks down again, fiddling with the hem of his tattered sweatshirt.
“Claw hasn’t found us yet,” Shigeo says finally, “which I think means we’re safe. For now. When the time comes… we’ll just go back to doing what we’ve always done.”
Ritsu nods wordlessly, but Shigeo can tell he isn’t happy. He can’t blame him. He reaches and squeezes Ritsu’s hand on his shoulder, and Ritsu smiles sadly in response.
Arataka really doesn’t like how quickly the boys tore into their soup.
Ultimately, he’s glad they’re eating. He’ll never be able to shake just how light Shigeo was from his mind, and he knows Ritsu doesn’t fare differently (although, it would seem Shigeo looked after Ritsu more than he did himself, because he’s arguably the better off of the two brothers), and he’s glad they had the appetite.
But it was the way they ate it, like they’d never eaten before, the way they thanked him endlessly, as though he’d just saved their lives, that really, really got to him. It struck him somewhere in the chest, close to his heart, and stayed there until the bowls were scraped clean and all that was left to do was feed the cat.
“Heya, sport, looks like your fever’s gone down some.” He sits beside Shigeo on the couch, touching his cheek briefly with the back of his hand. “How’re you feeling?”
“Okay,” Shigeo answers, smiling softly. His skin is much paler than Ritsu’s, even though some color has returned to it. He has more scars. Many, many more scars, each one jagged and deep and white. And Shigeo’s eyes are a vibrant red, too, which is more off-putting than it should be. “Thank you for everything. I… I really can’t say that enough.”
“You can, and you have,” Arataka answers with his own gentle smile, “but you’re welcome anyway. I’m glad you’re here.”
He’s said it before, many times, but he really can’t say that enough, either.
“Soft already ate nearly all the food,” Ritsu says upon his return to the living room. He immediately makes a beeline for the couch and plops beside his brother. “She should be back soon.”
“Ah, good.” Arataka lowers his hand into his lap, checks the time on his phone. “Anyway, it’s getting kinda late. You two should probably start thinking about heading to bed.”
The two had slept on and off the entire day, but the dark rings beneath their eyes are only somewhat lesser. They could definitely do with some more shut-eye.
Arataka gets to his feet and heads across the room, towards a grocery bag on the side table nearby. He feels Shigeo and Ritsu watching him, half-curious (and probably half-cautious, too, not that he blames them), and Arataka snatches up the bag and returns to them.
“I don’t know if anything will fit, but I ran by the thrift store on my way back from the market earlier—figured you two might like some clean clothes. And you’re free to use my shower, too. It’ll probably do you some good. Make you feel a little better.”
“Wait, you—you got clothes for us?” Ritsu’s eyes are wide, just like Shigeo’s, and his voice is startled, with the edge of a gasp to it. They both look completely starstruck. “—And we can use your shower?”
It hurts somewhere deep and close, but Arataka manages a lightweight laugh and nods. “Yes, yes, of course. You can wait ‘till tomorrow, too, if you don’t feel up to it tonight. Either way is fine.”
Ritsu turns to Shigeo, wide-eyed and questioning, and Shigeo cracks a smile and nods. “You can go first, Ritsu.”
Arataka can hear the shower running from the hall bathroom. Soft has long since returned to the living room and is flopped over Shigeo’s lap, and Shigeo pets her gently, lingering especially by her cheeks and ears. She’s purring with such ferocity that it seems to shake the entire couch.
“How long have you two had her?” Arataka asks, trying to keep his tone as light and bubbly as he can, despite feeling constantly like he’s been punched in the gut.
Shigeo turns to meet his gaze, and there’s something particularly haunting about his eyes that Arataka had tried to ignore before. Something haunting that has nothing to do with the dark, blood-red color of his irises. It’s something dark, something deep. Something that has no right belonging to a child. There’s one scar in particular that catches Arataka’s attention amidst the rest; a scar that cuts straight over his eye, short and clean like it’d been done with a fine knife.
Arataka had always known their situation was hell. He knew it’s been hell. But now that Shigeo is awake, he’s seeing more and more. Sinking deeper into the realization of just how horrible of a hell it’s been.
“You mean Soft?” Shigeo asks, snapping Arataka from his thoughts. It’s a rhetorical question, and when he doesn’t answer, Shigeo goes on; “Not very long. Ritsu found her hanging out by the pharmacy, and, well… he brought her back to our hideout.”
“The abandoned hotel?”
“Is that what it was?”
“Something like that, yeah.” Arataka watches his face for a moment, then the rhythmic, constant stroke of his fingers through Soft’s fur. His other arm is still slinged. There are several small white scars on his hands, fingers, wrists. Everywhere. “... Shigeo… can I ask you something?”
Shigeo’s fingers stiffen for a moment, but it isn’t long before he’s petting Soft’s head again. “Yeah. You have the right to know.”
Arataka takes a breath. “How… how long have you two been running? On your own?”
Shigeo ponders this a moment. But the moment ends too quickly. “About… about six years, now. This year makes seven, I think.”
Shigeo nods. Arataka can’t breathe.
“Y—What about your parents?” Arataka manages, hardly able to get the words out. “You’ve been alone that long— where are they? H—”
“They’re dead. They’ve been dead for a long time.”
Arataka’s teeth snap together. Shigeo doesn’t look at him. For a time, nothing happens; but then Shigeo drags in a long breath, holds it, and,
“There’s this… organization. Called Claw. They’re—I don’t really know what their plan is, but they’re rounding up kid espers and trying to brainwash them for their cause. They found out about me and attacked our family home. Mom and Dad stalled. I took Ritsu and—” His voice cracks. He draws a shuddering breath. “I ran. I took him and I ran. But Claw could feel my psychic power no matter where we went. They’ve been after us ever since. Trying to kill me and brainwash Ritsu into forgetting.”
There’s something in his tone. Something about the way he said it. He isn’t petting Soft anymore. His fingers have been curled into tight, shaking fists against her fur. Arataka hesitates.
“It wasn’t your fault, Shigeo,” he says at long last. “None of what happened was your fault.”
“I could’ve beaten them.”
“You were six.”
“I could’ve beaten them.”
“No, you couldn’t have.” Arataka doesn’t know if he should, but he scoots a little closer, fingers interlocked tightly in his lap. “If you could have saved them, if there had been a way… you would’ve done it. But in that situation, you did all you could. And Ritsu is alive right now because of you.”
Shigeo’s arms wind around Soft and pull her tight against his chest, burying his face into her fur. Though, not completely. His eyes glisten. Eyes so devoid and dark and deep that Arataka doesn’t know what to make of it. Eyes that shouldn’t belong to a child.
He sits there, wringing his hands together, biting the inside of his cheek. He reaches out once or twice, withdrawing his hand both times, but finally he can’t take it any longer. His palm meets Shigeo’s dark, greasy hair, and stays there.
It doesn’t feel like enough. But it’s all he has to offer, and Shigeo responds by hiding his face in Soft’s fur and clutching her even closer. Arataka doesn’t lift his hand until he hears the shower water shut off.
The bathroom lights are too bright. Shigeo’s head, which has already been hurting considerably ever since he woke up several hours ago, now turns into a full-blown pound that pulses with the beat of his heart. He finds himself gritting his teeth, clutching the edge of the counter and kicking the door shut in case Ritsu or Reigen walk in on him. He definitely doesn’t want Ritsu to see him like this, and if Reigen finds out, then Ritsu is bound to find out, too.
So he breathes until he’s caught his breath, and then he pushes himself upright and stares face-to-face with his reflection in the mirror.
He has to admit, he looks awful. The pallor of his skin has never been more sickly, and the rings under his eyes are almost black, like thick layers of charcoal. The scars look worse now, too, numerous and white and jagged. And his hair is a mess. He's a mess.
He glances to the side, where the bag of clothes from Reigen sits on the closed lid of the toilet. Ritsu had found baggy clothes amongst them, which means Shigeo probably will, too. So he isn't worried. He pulls off his tattered, ratty apparel and steps into the shower.
It takes a frustrating amount of time before he figures out how it works, and the spray hits him so abruptly that he nearly slips.
But he doesn't.
Instead he stands there, stunned, as the water rushes over him. Over his hair, over his shoulders, over the scars and cuts and bruises and whatever bandages he'd forgotten to remove. The filth is dragged down the drain to never be seen again. The water is probably too hot, considering his fever, but he doesn't dare turn it down.
It's warmth. It's clean. It's refreshing. The steam is pleasant to breathe through and the heat of the water sinks through his skin and stays there.
He can't decide whether he wants to laugh or cry. He ends up doing both.
In hindsight, Shigeo probably shouldn’t have left the water that hot for that long, because by the time it’s off and he’s dressed, he’s dizzy and lightheaded all over again. Hopefully he hadn’t upset the fever.
Reigen is tying off a bandage on Ritsu’s arm when Shigeo returns to the living room, with Soft curling around his ankles and mrrowing triumphantly. Reigen and Ritsu’s heads lift to acknowledge him; Ritsu is wearing an oversized hoodie and sweatpants, not unlike what Shigeo is wearing himself. He looks exhausted, but content. He even smiles.
Reigen finishes with the bandage and lifts a hand in greeting. “Welcome back, kid. Howd’you feel?”
Ritsu is waiting for the answer as much as Reigen, so Shigeo says, “I feel okay.”
It must be convincing enough, because the worry smooths from Ritsu’s face, and Reigen gives him an affirming smile.
“Glad to hear it. Now,” he and Ritsu both scoot over; Reigen pats the empty spot beside him before snatching a roll of gauze from the medical kit, “c’mere, let me bandage you up again.”
“I can do it myself,” Shigeo says, and his voice comes out much smaller than he’d meant it to. He swallows. “You don’t have to.”
“I know I don’t,” Reigen answers, and his smile is… gentle. Warm. Like Shigeo’s never seen before. “Now, c’mon. And then you two can get some sleep.”
Shigeo can’t find the words with which to argue, so he takes a seat on the couch beside him and lets Reigen take care of the bandages.
It’s strange. Shigeo has always bandaged his own wounds, usually before Ritsu even knew they existed. He’s always taken care of Ritsu first, and then himself. He’s never had anyone take care of him in this way. And Reigen is such a warm presence, not just to him but to Ritsu, too. He can tell just by looking. By feeling.
Reigen is done before he realizes. The bandages are clean and crisp against his skin, done up with gentle care.
“I think that's it,” Reigen says, sitting back. “How's it feel? Anything too loose? Too tight?”
Shigeo shakes his head, absentmindedly rolling his bandaged wrist to test it. “It's perfect,” he says, lifting his head to meet Reigen's eyes. “Thank you.”
Reigen doesn't say anything this time, just ruffles his hair. The touch makes his chest tight.
“Wellp, I think we're good, then.” Getting to his feet, Reigen snaps the lid back on the medical box and sets it on the floor, petting Soft on the head as he straightens back up. “You kids should probably turn in for the night. It's late.”
There's no arguing with that. With how faint he's feeling, the sooner he can lie down, the better.
Mere hours into the night, Shigeo's fever resurfaces and peaks.
It came out of nowhere when Arataka really should have expected it. He'd noticed the dazed look in Shigeo's eyes as he stumbled back into the living room, but chucked it up to exhaustion and let the boys sleep.
Now himself and Ritsu are awake, and Shigeo is caught somewhere in the middle, still and quiet with minute reactions to Ritsu's gentle, worried voice and the cold rags Arataka settles on his forehead.
Ritsu helps keep the rags in place while Arataka holds a thermometer under Shigeo's tongue. When it beeps, he snatches it close before Ritsu can see it and looks over the reading himself.
“H-How bad is it?” Ritsu asks, voice small. “Reigen?”
Arataka bites his lip to keep from hissing. The fever isn't high enough to constitute an immediate trip to the hospital, but…
Shigeo is weak. Very weak. More drained than Ritsu, more injured than Ritsu, even thinner than Ritsu. The fever already got so high so quickly, and if Shigeo doesn't have the strength to fight it off, then--
“He'll be alright, I'm sure,” he half-lies, and hates how easily it comes. “I can give him some medicine the next time be wakes up. He'll pull through it.”
Ritsu nods shakily, petting Soft with one hand and squeezing Shigeo's limp fingers with the other. He murmurs something, a promise to his brother that he'll make it through, that he'll be okay, and Arataka's chest aches.
“You should try and get some sleep for now,” Arataka says, re-wetting the rag for lack of better thing to do. Shigeo twitches and flinches just a little when he returns it. “You need as much rest as you can get.”
But Ritsu shakes his head adamantly, just as Arataka knew he would. “I can help,” he insists, as convincingly as he can manage, which isn’t very convincing at all. “I want to help look after Shige. He's always looking after me.”
“I'm here to look after the both of you, now,” Arataka says, in a voice that leaves very little room for argument. “I'll take care of Shige tonight, ‘kay? Besides, he needs plenty of rest if he's going to get better, and he isn't going to be able to if he knows you've been staying up all night to take care of him.”
Ritsu swallows and bites his lip, head snapping down and gaze falling on his and Shigeo's hands. Soft noses her way into his lap, curling close and purring loudly. Ritsu doesn't smile, but he does run his fingers through her fur before pulling her closer.
Arataka takes a breath.
“Listen, kiddo, you two have… god, you two have been through so much shit. And I know you want to look after him. I know you’ve been struggling for so long on your own. But I want to help, if you'll let me. I want to do whatever I can.”
Ritsu sniffs, wiping at his face with his sleeve. “Y-You… you'll look after him? You'll make sure he's okay?”
“I promise you, I will. I'll stay up all night if I have to, you have my word.”
It's obvious he doesn't want to at first. And of course he doesn't. But somehow, Ritsu nods. A small movement, tentative and unsure, but undeniable all the same.
“Okay, I… I trust you. Th-Thank you.”
Arataka manages a smile. “It's the least I could do, kiddo. Don't even worry about it.”
Chapter 6: A Sense of Normality
ME ME BIG CRY OVER ALL YOUR LOVE AND SUPPORT AAAAA,,, ;-; thank you so much for reading!!! i'm really glad you're all enjoying the story so far, thank you all so much for your wonderful comments and for your continued support and aAAHHH thank you ;-;
i think i responded to all the comments this time around, but if i happened to miss yours i'm sorry!! just know that i love and appreciate all of you very much. thank you all!!!
i hope you enjoy the chapter!!! <3
Arataka has always been a dog person at heart, but Soft’s company is just as welcomed.
She didn’t leave Shigeo or Ritsu’s sides until she was certain they were both fast asleep, but immediately after, she crawled out from under the blanket and redoubled her pace once she was in the clear, climbing into Arataka’s lap and knocking her head under his chin like she’d known him her whole life. He’d pet her, she’d settled down, and that’s how they remained.
A glance at his phone tells him that it’s barely past two in the morning. Shigeo has finally settled down into something resembling “sleep”; the fever keeps him restless, but he’s definitely far deeper now than he’s been so far; Arataka keeps vigilant tabs on his fever, not just for Shigeo’s sake, but for Ritsu’s too. He’d made a promise and he’d be damned before he broke it.
He sets his phone off to the side and reaches over Soft to feel Shigeo’s cheek with the back of his hand. He’s still terribly warm and terribly flushed, but he’s asleep enough to not flinch against the touch. Arataka smooths stray, sweat-damp locks of hair out of his face and refreshes the washcloth on his head, before sitting back and letting his hand drift into Soft’s fur again. She nips at his fingers. It doesn’t hurt. When he looks down at her, she lifts her head and meets his eyes with a look he can’t quite put his finger on. He hadn’t many experiences with cats, and Soft is one of a kind.
“You’re worried about them too, huh?” he murmurs, voice barely above a whisper, fingers tracing behind her ears, under her chin. “I’m sure they’ll be alright. They’ve made it too far for it to end here.”
Soft purrs her agreement and gnaws on his fingers again. He lets her without knowing why and returns his attention to Shigeo. Once again, like clockwork, he goes through the mental tasks: check his fever, check his response, check the washcloth. Repeat.
The next time he looks at his phone, it’s nearly three in the morning. Soft’s weight and warmth is almost uncomfortable now, but he can’t find it in him to shoo her off. Nor does he want her to leave.
Except, she does get up and move out of his lap. And that’s how he realizes Shigeo is awake.
His eyes are glassy and fever-bright, staring ahead like he doesn't know where he is. Soft slips under the blanket again and curls close to his chest, but Shigeo doesn't react at all.
Arataka moves closer, barely resisting the temptation to reach out. Instead, he murmurs a gentle, “Hey, Shigeo.”
Shigeo starts hard, as though he'd yelled instead of whispered, and this time Arataka does reach out to touch his shoulder. Shigeo flinches again. Their eyes meet. Arataka holds his gaze.
“It's alright, bud, don't strain yourself. You're alright.”
The panic doesn't fade. Not even a little bit. “R—Ritsu—”
“It's okay, he's here, he's right here, okay? Look.”
Shigeo's eyes fall on Ritsu, curled under the blanket barely five inches away, still fast asleep despite Shigeo's rustling.
Beneath his hand, Arataka feels Shigeo's shoulders slacken. The fear floods from his irises, and his eyes slip shut.
“It's alright,” Arataka assures, squeezing his shoulder. “No, seriously, it's alright. You're sick and exhausted, it's okay.”
“What time is it…?”
Arataka dreads telling him, but doesn't lie. “Late. Or, early, I guess. You should be asleep.”
“Sh-Shouldn't you be asleep too?”
“Nah, it's alright. Don't worry about me, ‘kay? Just rest.”
Shigeo knows why, though. He watches Arataka's face for only a moment longer before he turns away and burrows deeper into the blankets, almost as if he's trying to hide. The next time he speaks, his voice is so small, so quiet, so broken.
Arataka feels like someone just punched him in the jaw. The words kid, he's just a kid, they're kids flash through his mind's eye, but he pushes them aside for later. He'll deal with his own problems in his own time.
“Hey, it's okay. Like I said, you're just a little sick right now.” (More than a little, but he doesn't have to know that.) “I wanna look after you, alright?”
“Wouldn't you rather be sleeping?”
“Not really. I've pulled all-nighters for less important stuff than this. There's nothing else I'd rather do, seriously.”
Shigeo doesn't look at him still. Arataka holds his breath, but in the end, doesn't say anything. He refreshes the washcloth and doesn't miss Shigeo's small, contented sigh of relief when it's returned.
Reigen is right where Ritsu left him last night: seated on the floor at Shigeo's side, eyes somehow wide awake and alert, carrying none of the exhaustion they rightfully should.
Ritsu sits up, blanket slipping from around his shoulders, and Reigen starts for a moment but smiles afterward. His smile is the only exhausted thing about him.
“G-Good morning,” Ritsu replies, before brushing some of the sleep from his eyes. “Did—Did you really stay up all night?” He’s only realizing now how selfish that’d been of him, to allow Reigen to do that in his stead. He shouldn’t have made him.
But Reigen doesn’t seem bothered by it. He nods. “‘Course I did,” he says. “I promised I’d look after Shige, didn’t I?”
He still can’t shake it. Memories of Shigeo flood his mind; always staying up later than he should’ve, always carrying dark smudges under his eyes, always exhausted, always pushing himself further than he could go. Ritsu’s hands curl and tremble.
“Hey.” Reigen’s hand reaches his shoulder. He flinches, without meaning to, before settling into it and meeting Reigen’s eyes. Reigen smiles. “I said it’s okay, right? I can handle a few sleepless nights here and there, trust me. But you and your brother really need the rest. Besides, it gave me some time to think.”
Ritsu bites the inside of his cheeks. “You’re… You’re sure?”
“Positive.” And Reigen lets go and sits back, and Ritsu misses the warmth.
Ritsu and Reigen's heads snap down. Shigeo blinks at them both, tired but awake.
“Hello,” he says again, slightly clearer this time. As though on cue, Soft pokes her head up, too, trilling happily.
“And the gang's all here,” Reigen says, beaming a little brighter. Before Ritsu can even react or ask how Shigeo is feeling, Reigen has reached out and is feeling his forehead. He lets his hand linger for a moment while the silence falls, but withdraws it shortly afterwards. “Well, it’s not much, but I think it definitely went down some. That’s a relief.”
He sits back and Ritsu scoots forward, until his knee nearly touches Shigeo’s shoulder. “How do you feel, Nii-san?”
Shigeo blinks at him a moment before nodding smally and letting his eyes drift shut. “I’m alright. I think—definitely better than last night.”
Ritsu nods wordlessly. A beat passes. Reigen stretches with a groan and hauls himself up to his feet, staggering just a bit before straightening up.
“Well, I’m gonna get breakfast going,” he says, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the kitchen. “Any requests?”
“A-Anything’s fine,” Ritsu says, because he doesn’t know what to say.
“You don’t have to make me anything,” Shigeo murmurs. “I’m not hungry.”
“Okay, well, too bad, because I’m making breakfast or all of us. Just eat what you can, alright? It’ll give your body fuel to work through. Help you recover faster. All that stuff.”
And it’d make Ritsu feel better, too. But he doesn’t say that, because he also doesn’t want to guilt Shigeo into eating more than he can handle.
Shigeo doesn’t respond to Reigen’s prompt, but it doesn’t seem to deter Reigen at all. He’s already begun brainstorming under his breath, taking to the kitchen in long strides. Soft actually leaps and bounds after him, meowing and curious.
“She’s funny,” Ritsu says, watching her tail disappear around the corner behind Reigen. “I’m really glad we found her, Shig—”
He turns back to his brother, and realizes that he’d fallen asleep again. And he doesn’t look nearly as bad as he did that one terrible night, when the icy chill pressed against them from all sides and the fact that they even made it through alive was a miracle, but he still has those circles under his eyes, still has that too-white touch to his skin (all except his cheeks and the bridge of his nose, which are flushed a sickly, feverish red).
Ritsu tugs the blankets up and around his shoulders, tucks them securely around him, and lets him sleep.
Reigen manages to get Shigeo awake and up long enough to eat a little something, but then he’s out again with Soft flopped on top of him and Ritsu on the futon nearby, sitting, knees drawn to his chest. His empty bowl of soup rests on the carpet beside the plastic medical box, and beside that are several bottles of water, some full, some half-empty, and some completely empty.
Ritsu draws in a shaky breath and rests his chin on his knees. Shigeo’s fever isn’t nearly as high now as it’d been (or, that’s what Reigen said, and it doesn’t make sense for him to lie, right?), but the amount of time he’s spent asleep is starting to get to him. Of course he’s glad Shigeo is resting, and god knows he has a lot of rest to catch up on, but Ritsu has never seen him out this much. He’s always been awake, always been tugging Ritsu along, always been mapping out their actions and, by extension, their lives.
He isn’t doing that, now. Can’t do that. And Ritsu is glad he can finally sleep like this, but he’d be lying if he said it didn’t scare him.
The gentle thump of approaching footsteps makes him jump. “Hey, Ritsu, I—”
Reigen hits an invisible wall and stumbles back with a shout. A blue ripple runs from where he’d hit and stretches in a dome around the futon.
“S-Sorry!” Ritsu yelps immediately, and with a snap of his hand, the barrier is gone. “I-I didn’t even realize…”
Reigen waves one hand at him and holds his face with the other. “Don’t worry don’t worry don’t worry, you’re fine,” he says. He lowers the hand from his face, looks down at his fingers. There’s no blood or injury. “Pretty nifty thing, though. What do you call it?”
“A b-barrier,” Ritsu answers, still guilty, but less guilty now that he knows Reigen isn’t hurt. “I-I’m not very good at them yet, but Shige is.”
“So they’re like force fields?” Ritsu nods and Reigen comes to sit beside him, heaving a sigh once he’s off his feet. “That’s pretty cool.”
“You’re… taking all this really well.”
“Taking what well?”
“The whole…” Ritsu squeezes his knees closer. “The whole ‘psychic powers’ thing. You don’t think it’s weird?”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s weird as hell. There’s just more important things I’m focused on instead. Psychic powers don’t matter much, really.”
“You’re…” Ritsu doesn’t know what to think, let alone what to say. “Are—Are you serious?”
“Yep. I mean, it’s no different than people who are geniuses, people who are athletes, or people who talk a lot. It’s just another trait to your person, that’s all.”
“So you—you don’t care that we’re psychics? That doesn’t bother you?”
“I’m more bothered by the fact that you’ve been tracked down and attacked by an organization because of it,” Reigen says, tone thick, eyes staring ahead. “Who cares about psychic powers? You’re kids.”
Ritsu looks away, unsure of what to say to that. He’s seen ‘normal kids’ a lot, all the time, whenever he and Shigeo went out for the day. They’ve always seemed carefree enough. He’s tried to put himself in their shoes, to imagine what life would be if he and Shigeo were born slightly different, but he’s never been able to do it.
“I don’t really know what that means,” he admits finally. “The—The whole ‘kid’ thing. I don’t—really understand.”
Reigen watches his face for a moment. Ritsu can’t read the look on his. A second later, Reigen pushes himself to his feet again.
“Wait here just a second.”
“Oh, ok—okay,” Ritsu stammers, and Reigen spins and disappears around the corner into the hallway. He waits in silence, unmoving. He hears Shigeo’s breath, only somewhat raspy, and Soft is still purring as loud as ever. Ritsu can’t help but be anxious. He still doesn’t know what to call that look on Reigen’s face. It hadn’t looked like anything.
A door clicks shut in the hallway and soon after Reigen returns triumphantly, brandishing what looks like a deck of cards, but slightly different.
“Have you ever played UNO?”
Ritsu shakes his head. Reigen puts on a mock-horrified expression, placing one hand against his chest.
“You’ve never experienced the raw, unbridled glory of UNO?”
Ritsu shakes his head again. Reigen sits by him, shuffling the cards.
“Well, you’re in for something real special, then. I’ll teach you how to play.”
Ritsu scoots closer and Reigen begins dealing out the cards—right up until Soft nuzzles her head into his arm. He turns his head.
“Oh good morning again, Shigeo. Feel up to a quick game?”
Shigeo, for his part, looks equally tired and intrigued. He sits up slowly, looks at the deck of cards in Reigen’s hands.
“UNO?” he asks, brows pinched. Reigen nods enthusiastically, shuffling the cards again without the need for it.
“If you aren’t up to it, don’t worry,” he says, “but we’d love it if you played.”
Shigeo turns to Ritsu for just a moment, long enough for Ritsu to see his tired but relieved eyes, and then he scoots closer until the three of them form something like a circle.
“Sure, I’ll play.”
“Alright!” Reigen goes through the cards one last time, taps them against the futon until they’re lined up correctly, then begins dealing them out. “We all start with seven cards, I think—god, it’s been so long since I played—uhhh yeah let’s just go with seven for now. So, you can look at your cards, but don’t let anyone else see them, and the gameplay goes…”
He explains in great depth and detail, with excitement matched only by an over-enthusiastic sports commentator, and Ritsu and Shigeo listen and drink in every single word.
Getting into it, Arataka is certain that with his experience in the field of cards and games and whatnot, he’d be able to win the majority of the games. Besides, he had strategies in mind, and although he wouldn’t be intentionally trying to defeat the boys, he’d thought it was inevitable.
This is not how it goes.
Actually, it goes the exact opposite, and just as soon as Arataka is finished explaining the game and they finally get into it, he soon realizes that it is he who is being schooled.
Shigeo and Ritsu sit just beside each other, but never peer at the other’s cards. Even so, it’s like they always know what cards would best benefit the other.
“Wild Card,” Arataka says as Ritsu plays it. “What color?”
Ritsu looks at Shigeo, who glances back with the same expression. He has one card remaining.
Ritsu says blue, and Shigeo wins the round. They share a small smile and fist-bump while Arataka laments his failure.
“How do you do that!?” he complains, cards thrown on the floor in front of him. “What part of that expression said ‘blue’!?”
“That’s a good question,” Shigeo says, in a tone of voice that dictates clearly how little he cares. Arataka groans one more time and reshuffles the cards for their next round. Soft flops over on the deck as soon as he hands out the cards; he heaves a long, exaggerated groan, but it elicits a giggle from the boys, so he can’t complain.
The same thing happens, only this time with Shigeo and yellow and Ritsu with UNO. The time after that, the +2 cards stack and stack until Arataka ends up drawing eight, and the +4s are the equivalent of a bombshell wreaking havoc on the city that is the playing field. Arataka never winds up with these cards; Shigeo and Ritsu have them unfairly often.
“Are you sure you aren’t using psychic powers to beat me at my own game?” Arataka questions after his fourth loss; if he can blame his failure on something other than himself, he’ll take it.
Shigeo and Ritsu shake their heads, and Arataka goes on to lose for the fifth time in a row. He blames it on a subconscious use of psychic powers. Logic be damned.
By the time they start the seventh game of the evening, Shigeo’s head has lolled to rest on Ritsu’s shoulder. The exhaustion hasn’t faded from his eyes, but he seems peacefully content, and the two of them play on like nothing had changed.
It’s with the final card of the eighth game that Arataka sets down his stack and claps his hands together. “And with that,” he says, “let’s call it a day.”
“Really?” Ritsu asks; Shigeo gives Arataka the remaining two cards of his hand to be added with the rest of the deck. “What time is it?”
“Dunno,” Arataka says, stuffing the cards unceremoniously in their box with little heed to their security, “but we should still take a break. We can play again tomorrow if you want, alright?”
Shigeo and Ritsu share a small something; one of those expressions that Arataka can’t read, but the two of them can read scarily well. It’s Ritsu who nods at him, and Shigeo who closes his eyes.
“Thanks for playing with us,” Ritsu says. “That was… that was nice.”
Shigeo nods his agreement. Arataka’s chest is both tight and warm, and when he can’t find the right words to say, he smiles, stands, ruffles their hair in turn, and leaves to return the cards.
The night passes uneventfully. Arataka watches over Ritsu and Shigeo for the first several hours, but Shigeo’s fever is no longer on the rise, and he can’t keep pulling all-nighters like this. At this rate he’ll end up burning himself out, and with these kids now under his watch, he can’t afford that.
So he checks over them one last time—tucks a second blanket around their shoulders, pets Soft's head—before turning in for the night.
He leaves the door of his bedroom cracked to let him listen out for the boys, and then he takes a seat at his desk first, flipping through a couple papers for work. Forums for that dying psychic business of his, the rent for the apartment, the rent for the office…
Hell, could he even go back to consulting after everything he's seen? After he's seen the hurts these boys have gone through?
He sighs to himself and leans his elbows on the desk, carding both hands through his hair. It’d never really bothered him before, the conman thing. At least, never in a way that was this up in his face. He hated the part of him that was a liar, the part of him that was selfish, but he’d at least accepted that that was just something he’d have to deal with.
Now there are these kids, actual psychics, eleven and twelve year old children, on the run because of their psychic powers, because of an organization that’s been hunting them since before they could read (can they read? It seems like a stupid thought but maybe he should ask anyway).
And then there’s Shigeo’s rollercoaster of a condition, with high-highs and low-lows, and then there’s a reason why the organization hasn’t tried attacking them here, why they haven’t struck again. And Ritsu is a whole other story, someone who doesn’t have nearly as much control of his powers as Shigeo, someone who just took up the psychic mantle within this past week.
Arataka sinks his head deeper into his hands, elbows digging into the wood of his desk.
“God,” he thinks aloud, curling his fingers into his locks, “what am I doing?”
There’s a lot to sift through. He wishes he’d stayed in the living room, because at least then he’d have things to distract himself with and not wind up lost in his own spiraling thoughts. He’s more than glad the kids are here. He’s so glad they found him, so glad he found them, so glad he can do what he can, so glad they’re safe (at least, for now), but he’d be lying if he said it wasn’t overwhelming.
What is he supposed to do? What can he do that’s more than what he’s already doing?
Soft trots into the room and hops onto the corner of the desk before he can fully realize her presence. When he doesn’t respond right away, she rubs the side of her cheek against his knuckles, and he can’t help but crack a smile and scratch behind her ears gently.
“What’s up, huh?” he murmurs, leaning his cheek against his opposite hand. “Do you need something?”
She doesn’t answer (not that he’d been exactly expecting her to), and instead flops right on top of the papers on his desk without any care to the world. He exhales sharply through his nose with a smile that doesn’t fade and shakes his head.
“Alright, alright, you win. I’ll go to bed.”
Chapter 7: Trial
AaAAA thank you all SO VERY MUCH for all your support omg aaaaa. I know I've said that a lot jsdkfjslkdfdf but I really do mean it!! thank you all for your lovely comments and for all your continued support!!! I hope you like the chapter~! :DDD
Soft is trying to eat his hair.
Shigeo blinks open his eyes slowly and comes to stare into Soft’s, who’s inches away from his face, chewing at a lock of hair against his shoulder. It takes him time to wake up fully, to realize what she’s doing, and then—
“That’s gross,” he says, scratching her behind the ear.
She stops with his hair and studies his face, unwavering.
She leans in closer and bites him on the nose. It doesn't hurt at all, and he scowls without meaning it and scratches her ears again.
“I wanna get up, Soft.”
She clearly wants the opposite, and she makes sure he knows it by refusing to move from her spot, but he does eventually shoo her off his chest. That doesn’t stop her from sulking, though, with her tail curled around her little feet and her eyes filled to the brim with disappointment.
“You worry too much,” he says, placing his palms flat on the futon and pushing himself upright. “I’m f—”
He should have stayed down.
A blinding pain shoots through his skull and throbs behind his eyes, and he grinds his teeth and clutches his head. It doesn't help. His knees curl against his chest, he squeezes his eyes shut tight until he sees stars, he holds his breath. All the while, hoping and praying that Ritsu won't wake up to see him like this. Ritsu can't see him like this.
A door clicks nearby. The sound thrums through his head like a drum, then remains a ricocheting echo.
“Oh, Shigeo, you're—Shigeo—”
He snaps his hands down from his head in an action that hurts so much more than he'd allow himself to show, and he tries lifting his head, trying to look indifferent, but it hurts. It has hurt for so long. He can't do it.
And even if he could, Reigen sees through him.
“Your head bothering you?” he asks in a low murmur as he makes his way over, finally taking a seat just beside him. He'd been careful to avoid waking Ritsu, who sleeps on like nothing had happened. Good.
Shigeo clenches his teeth. Soft pushes her head under his hand, and he doesn't stop her.
“Hm.” Reigen quiets for a moment. “No, I don’t think you are.”
“You really aren’t.”
“How do you know?” He hadn’t meant for it to come out that snappily, but he’s in dire straits here.
The look Reigen gives him is in between shock and pain. “You’ve got some kind of a concussion, kid, you can’t be fine,” he says. “And I know your psychic powers aren’t doing what they’re supposed to and healing it. It’s okay to not be okay, y’know?”
Shigeo doesn’t respond. He doesn’t look at him, either, just strokes Soft on the head and pretends he hadn’t heard a thing. Reigen sighs. A rustle, a pop, a rattle, and he pokes Shigeo on the shoulder. When Shigeo turns, two pills are pressed into his hand, and a bottle of water into the other.
“Take these, at least. They might take a while to kick in, but it’ll be worth it.”
Painkillers, again. Shigeo knows how transparent he’d been, but it’s still frustrating that Reigen was able to figure him out so quickly. He hopes Ritsu can’t do the same.
He takes the pills and chases them back with water, which he caps and returns to Reigen once he’s through. Reigen takes it from him and sets it aside. The water is nice, but his head is still pulsing. He wishes Reigen would leave, even if just for a second, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to be alone again.
“Mind if I take a look at your head?”
Shigeo shrugs, keeping the movement as miniscule as he can, and Reigen’s fingers graze his temples and begin unwinding the bandages. The touch doesn’t hurt like he thought it would. It’s really quite pleasant. Gives him something else to focus on.
The bandages are removed completely and Reigen tugs his hair to the side, inspecting the gash. Shigeo never saw it; he doesn’t really want to; but he can imagine how bad it must be. If the pain has any say in it, it must be terrible.
After a while, Reigen releases his hair and sits back. “Well, the good news is it isn’t bleeding anymore. And I think we got to it before the infection could really settle in. Those are good things.”
Shigeo swallows. “And, bad news?”
“I guess the only bad news is how much it’s still bugging you,” he answers, opening the medical box and pulling a roll of gauze from it. He unwinds it around his hand. “But it won’t last forever, y’know. I’m just relieved we managed to kill the infection.”
He pauses abruptly, frowning.
“We never tried ice, did we?”
Shigeo shakes his head, keeping the movement short and minimal. Reigen heaves a long groan and puts his head in his hand.
“God, I’m such an idiot…”
“You aren’t an idiot.”
Reigen sighs. “Okay, fine, but I was stupid this time. We’ll ice it after I bandage it, alright? That should help with the pain. And the inflamation, too.”
Shigeo hums to avoid nodding, and Reigen scoots closer with the gauze.
“... Actually, can I brush your hair first? It’s a mess.”
“I-I mean… I guess, if you really want to?”
Reigen is on his feet already, though, leaving the gauze behind and heading into the hall bathroom. Shigeo lets himself rest his head in his hands again until he hears footsteps; he’s sitting up straight again when Reigen re-enters the room, this time with a comb and small spraybottle.
“You can loosen up a little, y’know.” He sits behind Shigeo, setting the bottle beside him and the comb between his teeth. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”
“You didn’t do anything worth apologizing for. Don’t.” Before Shigeo can even think of a response, Reigen plunges on with a very noticed change of subject. “Close your eyes a sec, alright? Don’t open them ‘till I give the go-ahead.”
Shigeo nods and does as instructed. The light is closed off from his sight, the throbbing in his head becomes somehow manageable, and he can’t help but release a small sigh of relief.
Something that smells like soapy fruit mists over him, followed by a thud as the spraybottle is settled on the floor again.
"Alright, you can open your eyes now if you want to. I'll let you know if you need to close them again."
Shigeo nods, but doesn't open his eyes. The dark is somehow pleasant, soothing, and the soapy-fruit doesn't even smell bad. If anything, it soothes him, too. In a different way.
Gently—very gently, very carefully—Reigen gathers his hair behind his head, mindful of the tangles and knots. Just how he's going to manage brushing through it is beyond him, but Shigeo doesn't voice it and instead focuses on breathing.
"Let me know if it tugs too hard, alright?"
Shigeo hums, and Reigen gets to work with the comb. He struggles with it, evidenced by his under-breath complaints and quiet curses, and he tells Shigeo to close his eyes more than once so he can use the spray again, but he doesn't give up.
"I won't be able to get all these knots out without chopping a good bit of it," Reigen says after some time. "How would you feel about me cutting your hair?"
"I dunno." The comb runs over his scalp, and it draws another sigh from him. "I guess I wouldn't mind. Me and Ritsu cut our own hair usually, but we lost our scissors."
"Mmm, I see."
Shigeo doesn't understand why it feels so nice. It's not that he never tried brushing his own hair before, but there's just something… so relaxing about it. And Reigen is so careful not to hurt him, so mindful of the gash on his head, so… gentle.
He has to bite the inside of his cheek and squeeze his eyes shut to keep from crying.
"Well, I have some scissors in the cabinet. I definitely don't mind cutting it for you, if you're alright with that."
"Okay." He says it without thinking, but somehow doesn't regret it. His fingers find Soft's ears and scratch gently. "... Thank you."
Reigen hums and keeps working at his hair. His success is debatable, but it's better off than it had been, and with the thought of a haircut on the horizon, Shigeo has never felt better.
Except, for now, he really, really needs to lie down, and Reigen seems to notice, because he finishes up, promises they'll deal with food and haircuts the next time he and Ritsu are awake, and Shigeo curls beneath the blankets with Soft and is asleep in the same breath.
“Wait, you mean you’re gonna cut our hair?”
Reigen puts his hands in the air, open-palmed. “If you want me to,” he says, before lowering them again. “If not, then I won’t—”
“That sounds great!” Ritsu cuts in loudly without giving him the chance to finish, and he whirls toward Shigeo with a smile bright enough to blind someone. “What do you think, Nii-san?”
“I think it sounds wonderful,” Shigeo says, without mentioning the fact that he and Reigen had already had this conversation, but hours ago while Ritsu was still asleep. “If you still want to, I mean, Reigen-san.”
“You can drop the ‘-san,’ kiddo,” Reigen says breezily, “and my word still stands! Now it’s just a matter of when you want it cut. If you wanna wait until after dinner or if you just wanna go ahead and get it over with.”
“I wouldn’t mind it done now,” Ritsu says, but still turns to Shigeo anyway for an answer. “Nii-san?”
“Whichever way works with you two,” Shigeo answers.
“In which case—” Reigen is already on his feet and on his way to the bathroom for supplies, “—we’ll do it! Hang tight for a second, lemme—”
The bathroom door clicks open and Reigen’s voice falls from earshot.
Moments later, he returns with a pair of scissors that already look a lot better than Ritsu and Shigeo’s pair. They’d snagged it from a craft store once, just because they didn’t have an alternative and it was getting unmanageable. Reigen’s pair is much smaller than those, but cleaner, too. Sharper. The metal glints beneath the living room lights.
It doesn’t take long to set up. Reigen spreads a towel on the floor beside the futon and sets up there, with his spraybottle and scissors. After that, he sits down and turns to the both of them.
“Who wants to go first?”
“You can go first, Nii-san,” Ritsu says before Shigeo has the chance to open his mouth and say the same thing. Shigeo turns to him, about to put up a fight, not because he doesn’t want his hair cut but because he wants Ritsu to get one first, but Ritsu only smiles in a way that Shigeo is all too familiar with—a bright, encouraging smile, because Shigeo always does so much for him, and he knows that Ritsu wants to give him the chance to have nice things, too, when he can give them to him.
Shigeo doesn’t argue with him. Instead, he moves to sit in front of Reigen and lets Soft get situated in his lap.
“Alright, hold still.”
Shigeo tenses is shoulders, arms locked and fingers curled into Soft’s fur.
Reigen hesitates, then pokes him on his back between his shoulder blades. “Not that still.”
Shigeo breathes. Reigen pulls a towel around his front, settling it around his shoulders.
“Alright, uhh… I’ve never cut long hair before, so I’m just gonna… try and keep the style simple, if that’s alright? I don’t want to seriously mess it up or anything.”
“Whatever you do is going to look better than what it is right now,” Shigeo says, “so don’t worry.”
Reigen gives a small sigh behind him. Ritsu, on the other hand, looks as thrilled as he’d be if he’d just been given a box of chocolates. He drags Soft from Shigeo’s lap and holds her in a way that definitely shouldn’t be comfortable, for either of them but particularly for Soft, but she doesn’t mind, and Ritsu’s bright-eyed, beamed expression makes Shigeo smile. And simultaneously roll his eyes.
The snip of the scissors is a lot crisper and gentler than when Shigeo and Ritsu hacked off their hair on their own. Reigen has the comb between his teeth the entire time and alternates between the spraybottle and the scissors in his hands, and Shigeo keeps his eyes closed for most of it, not sure what to expect. And the lights are starting to mess with his head again, too, and closing his eyes helps.
Reigen continues to work at it with the scissors, comb and spraybottle. Within no time at all, Shigeo’s head feels lighter, and clumps of hair no longer itch the back of his neck or his collar. He isn’t quite sure how short Reigen intends to cut it, but he doesn’t care.
Time passes gently, with Soft hopping between Shigeo’s and Ritsu’s lap. She tries pushing herself under Reigen’s arm once, but he tells her to go hang out with Ritsu instead, and she listens. The snip of the scissors fills the room, and when Shigeo listens closely enough, he can hear the deep rumble of Soft’s purr.
“Aaaand, I think we’re done!”
Shigeo blinks. “Really?”
“Yep!” Reigen tugs off the towel, and Shigeo turns to face him, wide-eyed and curious. Reigen smiles back. “Hey, I can actually see your face, now.”
“... Huh…” Shigeo doesn’t know what to do, really. Should he touch it? Run his fingers through it? He turns to Ritsu, who is squeezing Soft so securely that he’s surprised she hasn’t tried wriggling free. His smile hasn’t faded in the slightest. It’s redoubled.
“Oh, hold up, I forgot!” Reigen is on his feet again, though he isn’t gone for long. He returns with a small, hand-held mirror, which he intentionally keeps hidden against his chest until he’s sitting down again. “Alright—you ready?”
Shigeo doesn’t know what he is, but he nods and Reigen gives him the mirror.
He looks… different. But not different in the way that he doesn’t recognize it as himself. Not different in a way that’s foreign or bad or new.
It’s different in a way that’s fresh. In a way that’s oddly familiar to him. Like this is who he was meant to be beneath those ratty, uneven knots. This feels like himself.
His hair is still damp from the spraybottle, but it’s much, much shorter than what it was, cut the same length all the way around his head. He likes that it’s short, but not too short. He likes that he can see his face clearly in the mirror, scars and all. He likes that Reigen did it for him.
“So?” Reigen sits back, waiting. “What do you think?”
They’re both waiting for an answer, Ritsu and Reigen. Shigeo doesn’t really know how to give them one. All he can do is stare at himself in the reflection in the mirror, dumbfounded. Shocked. But in the best way one could be shocked.
“It’s… it’s perfect,” he manages to breathe when he’s found his voice again. “I—I love it, I—thank you—”
“It looks AMAZING!” And Shigeo is glomped from behind by Ritsu, who is even more thrilled than he was the day they found Soft. “It really suits you, Nii-san!”
Shigeo giggles softly and leans back into Ritsu’s embrace, bringing his hands up to clutch at his forearms. “Thanks, Ritsu.”
Reigen looks positively beside himself, and brandishes the scissors with somewhat more confidence. “Alrighty, then, Ritsu! You’re up next!”
Ritsu and Shigeo change places, and onwards they continue. Shigeo can’t stop twirling his hair around his finger.
“Oh, Nii-san! What did you think about—?”
“Ritsu, stop moving, you’re gonna screw me up—”
“Sorry, sorry, I’ll sit still.”
“Thank y—oh my god Soft not now.”
Reigen pinches the bridge of his nose with a long, heaving sigh, while Ritsu stares into the hand-held mirror and Shigeo peers over his shoulder. Soft paces the floor between them.
“Now you’ve done it,” Reigen says helplessly, still holding the scissors, though lacking the luster he’d possessed moments ago. “See, that’s why I told you not to move around so much—god, maybe I could try cleaning it up a little…? But if I cut it much shorter it’d probably look—”
“I love it,” Ritsu breathes, voice small.
And, honestly, Shigeo would be lying if he said it didn’t suit him. Ritsu hasn’t had many chances to show it, considering their lifestyle, but he’d always been particularly free spirited. A simple, clean hairstyle like Shigeo’s wouldn’t suit him well at all.
Even if it is a choppy mess of bangs and weird places where the hair sticks up, unprompted and over-enthusiastic about finally being light and short.
“I think it looks nice on you, Ritsu,” Shigeo says, as upbeat as he can. His head hadn’t been bothering him too much before, but now that he’s been up and moving and the excitement has kept his adrenaline burning, he’s feeling rather down right about now.
Ritsu can read him, though. Ritsu always knows. “Thanks!” he says, first to Shigeo; and then he turns to Reigen with a, “Thank you so much!”
Reigen’s smile is tight and forced, but he sighs, sets the scissors down, and responds with, “You’re welcome, kiddo. Both of you are.”
Soft finally has the chance to crawl into Reigen’s lap, now that he’s finished, and Ritsu laughs while Shigeo smiles, but there’s a sort of bittersweet air amidst the room that only Shigeo feels. A bittersweet something, foreboding, like a distant bell, inching closer with each ringing chime.
Because nice things have never lasted very long for them.
Because he wonders, if only to himself, how long this is going to last before it too is taken away from them, just like everything else had been.
Shigeo falls asleep unprompted that evening, long before Ritsu even wants to consider going to bed. In a way, Ritsu is a little disappointed, because Shigeo has done so much sleeping and so little talking lately, but he knows it’s good for him. He’s glad Shigeo is getting as much sleep as he is. He deserves it more than anyone.
“How’re you doing tonight, kiddo?”
“Hm?” Ritsu turns and looks up as Reigen moves to sit beside him on the futon, close to where Shigeo is sleeping. “Oh, I’m fine. B-Better now than ever.”
“Glad to hear it,” Reigen says, nodding, but he seems distracted. He reaches out, brushing Shigeo’s bangs aside so he can feel his forehead. “Hmmm... still feverish, huh?”
“He’s had it for a while, now,” Ritsu says as Reigen retracts his hand. “Is… is that okay?”
“Well, it isn’t good for him,” Reigen admits, shaking his head, “but it’s going down, now. Honestly, if he keeps sleeping it off like this, he’ll be better in no time.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive.” And he says it with such confidence that Ritsu can’t help but believe it.
A silence falls for a time, while Soft patrols the living room, occasionally gobbles something from her food dish, and makes her rounds while stopping to check on the three of them periodically. Ritsu has to shoo her off every now and then to make sure she doesn’t wake Shigeo, but her company is nice. He’s glad they have her. And Reigen. He’s glad of so much now.
“Yeah?” Ritsu turns to him, but Reigen won’t look at him all of a sudden. “... What is it?”
Reigen draws a breath through his nose, runs a hand through his hair, and drags himself to his feet before Ritsu can question him further. “I… need to talk to you about something. Alone.”
“O-Oh, sure.” Ritsu pushes himself to his feet too and shuffles after him, careful not to trip over Shigeo. “Is something wrong?”
“Not… exactly,” Reigen answers, which isn’t reassuring at all. He runs a hand over his face and leaves it there. “Just… let’s move to the kitchen for a sec, ‘kay?”
Ritsu nods and follows him when he leads, and moments later finds them in the cramped kitchen with Soft pacing the space between them. She curls around his ankles, but he doesn’t acknowledge it.
“What is it?” he asks, scared and unsure of whether he really wants to know the answer.
“It’s about Shigeo’s psychic powers,” Reigen starts, voice heavy. “I didn’t want to tell him this, because…” He runs a hand through his hair again, once, twice, then with both hands. “I don’t know what he’d do if he found out, and he seems like the self-destructive type to begin with, and that’s…”
Ritsu’s throat is tight. “What’s wrong with Shige?”
Reigen pulls at his hair once before dropping his hands back down to his sides. “God, I’m making this sound worse than it is—” he heaves, shoulders slumped. “Let me just—give you the facts. Alright?”
There’s a huge part of him that doesn’t want to know, but he finds himself nodding. Reigen draws a deep breath and starts.
“Okay, so—these ‘Claw’ people, the ones who’ve been chasing you.”
“They were attacking you on a pretty daily basis before, right? And it’s been… what, three days since you’ve been staying with me? Three days with no attacks, right? No attacks at all?”
“Y-Yeah,” Ritsu replies, nodding once more. “I… I-I did think it was kinda weird, be-before. It doesn’t make sense why they wouldn’t know we’re here, th-they should be able to track us through Shige’s psychic powers.”
“They should be able to,” Reigen agrees, tone tight and sharp. “But they can’t.”
Ritsu’s heart stammers. “I—what do you mean they can’t?”
Reigen breathes a shaking, shuddering sigh. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while now,” he says slowly. “And… they knew Shigeo was hurt. They knew you--god, what term do you use? ‘Awakened’? Yeah, that. They know you’re a psychic.”
It makes him sick to think about, but Ritsu nods. “T-They should, I think.”
“And,” Reigen goes on, voice heavier yet, “if they knew where you two were, then they would’ve attacked by now. But they haven’t tried anything. Which means they don’t know where you are. Which means they can’t track Shigeo’s psychic powers.”
“I—” His head is spinning. “W—Why not? What’s wrong with them?”
Reigen remains still and quiet for a good long while, so long that Ritsu considers repeating himself, if he dared bring himself to do so.
But eventually, Reigen speaks.
“Listen, I… I don’t know much about psychic powers,” he manages. “... Or, really, I don’t know anything at all about them. But I do know a lot about people. I know what makes them tick. And, right now… Shigeo is exhausted. And it’s not even in the conventional way you think of ‘exhausted,’ I mean—his body is done. It’s gone past what it can handle, and now it’s trying to recover. And I think his psychic powers are trying to recover, too. They’re weaker than they’re supposed to be. Weaker than they’ve ever been before.”
It takes a second to sink in. Or, slightly longer than a second. But the gears click into place, and Ritsu’s eyes blow wide.
“W-Wait, so—you mean—”
Reigen swallows hard, but nods. “Yeah. As soon as Shigeo recovers—however long that takes—Claw’s gonna to be able to track you down.”
Chapter 8: Hindsight
aaahhhh I'm so SORRY it's taken me this long to get a chapter out to you all ;-; full disclosure I've just been feeling pretty down toward my writing lately so it's just been a struggle to get any content out, and I'm still not entiiireeellly happy with how this chapter went but I still wanted to share with you all so!! i really do hope you like it, even though it might not be up to par with the rest of them jskdlfslflsdf.
thank you SO MUCH for your continued support ;-; enjoy the chapter!! <3
“I’ll talk to him,” Arataka promises Ritsu, without first taking the time to think it through. “I’ll—I’ll talk to him, I’ll figure something out. Don’t worry.”
Except, he doesn’t know how he’s going to do it yet. He doesn’t know if that’s a thing he actually can do, not without completely destroying the situation. Shigeo doesn’t put himself first. Arataka has seen this made perfectly clear over and over again, even in just the short time he’s known the boys. Shigeo doesn’t care about his own well-being as far as Ritsu is involved.
And Arataka doesn’t know what Shigeo will do if he knows. He’ll see himself as a ticking bomb, counting down second by second until the day everything blows up in their faces and this perfect thing they’ve found shatters before their eyes.
Arataka has several theories to how Shigeo would react. And none of them are good.
But he says it for Ritsu, and Ritsu believes him, and Arataka is going to figure this out one way or another.
Ritsu sleeps tucked close to Shigeo’s side that night, closer than usual (if that’s possible), with his fists curled into the front of Shigeo’s shirt and his head buried snugly against his shoulder. Shigeo is dead to the world, breathing soundly, but at some point he’d thrown an arm around Ritsu’s waist to tug him closer.
Arataka had poked fun at it while they played UNO together, but their bond really is a beautiful thing. He’s never met two people who were more in-tune with each other, who were closer than these brothers are. It's special, and it breaks his heart all the same.
He calls his boss early the next morning and asks for some more time. His boss is running out of patience, and expectedly so, but it still fills Arataka's heart and stomach with lead. He needs to be able to support the boys somehow and he can't do that unless he works; and then there's the freelance spirit-consultation gig, which he's feeling more and more guilt over by the second, but he needs those jobs, he needs them if he wants to keep this roof over their heads, he needs to figure something out.
He hangs up and goes to sit with the boys again, and when Soft shoves herself into his lap, he doesn't mind in the slightest.
"Thank you for the soup," Shigeo says; he'd only managed to eat half a bowl's worth, but it's more than what he's been eating, and for now that's enough. "And for... everything else, too."
"No problem, buddy," Arataka says breezily, taking up his half-full bowl and Ritsu's empty one. "You two good or do you need anything else?"
"I'm fine," Shigeo says, too quickly, and Ritsu soon nods his agreement. Arataka trusts Ritsu's judgment more than he trusts Shigeo's, primarily because Ritsu is more likely to be honest with him if they do need something. Shigeo won't ask for anything for himself.
Arataka leaves the bowls in the kitchen, and Ritsu offers to feed Soft while Arataka cleans out the cheap litterbox he'd bought a few nights ago. Shigeo offers to help, too, and of course he does, but Ritsu tells him that there's nothing for him to do and that he can feed Soft next time. Shigeo isn't happy, but he doesn't argue, and Arataka's shoulders grow heavier by the second.
Ritsu knows, and telling him had been hard enough. Telling Shigeo the truth is an entirely different story altogether.
He’s stalling. He’s stalling, and he knows it.
He gets a call from his boss the following morning, and this time he isn’t nearly as forgiving. It’s been a while now, he says; Arataka should be able to come back to work, and there’s a threat behind the words that Arataka can’t afford to ignore. Literally—if he loses this job, with the way the spirit business is crashing, there’s no way he’d be able to keep this roof over his and the boys’ heads. Now more than ever, he needs this apartment. They do.
Shigeo is still running a fever. It’s been running for too long. Ritsu sits with him, perks up when he wakes and chatters endlessly, plays with Soft, deals out cards for a quick game; but then Shigeo sleeps, and the strain is clear in Ritsu’s face. Soft lies in his lap while he pets her and watches his brother, scared.
Arataka is stalling. But this isn’t just about him anymore.
And he thinks maybe he should have waited to tell Ritsu the truth about Claw and why they haven’t been able to find them, maybe he should have thought it through, maybe he should have done something different. But that’s in the past now. He can’t focus on that, not when the kids need him in the present.
Ritsu’s head snaps up and Arataka moves to sit beside him. Ritsu scoots to make room, but their knees still bonk against each other. Soft bats at Ritsu’s chin and Ritsu scratches her ears, eyes on Arataka.
“I… have to go to work,” Arataka says finally. “Tomorrow. My boss, he’s… well, he isn’t a patient man in the first place, but he’s already given me time off because of all this, and…” He realizes what he’s saying, remembers how these boys internalize guilt like it’s a prized possession, and changes his tone. “It’s a lot to explain, sorry, I just need to go in tomorrow.”
Ritsu nods at once, though it’s shaky and uncertain. “Are… you going to leave us here?”
There it is. Arataka drags in a long breath and runs a hand through his hair. “Well, I can’t take you with me,” he says, letting his hand fall back into his lap. “Besides, Shigeo isn’t well enough for that. Sorry.”
“N-No, I—” Ritsu’s voice rises, but falls again and he sighs. “I-I didn’t… want to go. O-Outside, I mean. I don’t want them to… t-to see us.”
That makes a lot of sense. Too much sense, even. Arataka nods and ruffles his hair with less hesitation than before.
“That’s alright. Hey, I’ll bring back something good for dinner tomorrow, to make it up to you both.”
“Everything you make for dinner is good.”
“Flattering,” (And a little painful, because Arataka knows his cooking is not up to par, and the fact that these kids would never know that because of the life they’ve lived makes his heart twist), “but I’ll make it extra special, alright? You’ve got my word.”
Ritsu cracks a smile at that (Success, Arataka thinks), and he goes back to petting Soft while Arataka gets to his feet.
Tonight, he’ll talk to Shigeo. No matter how much it hurts, no matter how badly he wishes he didn’t have to, time isn’t a luxury they have.
Arataka is in the middle of throwing together a stir fry for dinner when Soft comes and bats at his ankles. Unlike with Ritsu, her claws are unsheathed.
“Ow!” Swinging around, the cat chirps at him and mimics his movements, almost like she’s mocking him. “Dammit, Soft, that hurt. What’re you on about?”
She mrrows again before spinning out of the room, and it’s only now that Arataka realizes what she’s doing and barely remembers to turn off the stove before following her.
He almost crashes into Ritsu, who’d been on his way into the kitchen after Soft. Shigeo is awake, though still sitting on the futon and staring out into space. He isn’t awake as much as Arataka would like for him to be, but even if he was, he doesn’t think he’d ever get used to that haunted, exhausted glaze in Shigeo’s eyes. No matter how often he sees it, it always throws him for a loop that he can’t get out of.
Arataka is reminded again, and painfully so, of what he needs to do.
Shigeo lifts his head when he hears Arataka's approach and Ritsu tags along, scooping Soft into his arms and holding her as securely as he can, considering her enormous size in relation to his stature. Shigeo breaks eye contact just as Arataka lowers himself onto the futon in front of him.
Arataka settles his palm across his forehead, under his bangs. "Lower," he murmurs, more to himself than anything. "Still there…"
Shigeo blinks cross-eyed at his hand until he withdraws it, biting his lip.
Shigeo has this sort of unhappy air about him, which he masks thoroughly when Ritsu is involved, but it only makes sense. He's only a child, and worse than that, he's been sick and in pain for so long now that it's probably his normal. It's no wonder he has those eyes. He's been carrying too much on his own for too long.
And now they have one last block. The one thing Arataka knows he needs to share but hasn't the slightest clue how to do so.
"Hey, Ritsu? Would you mind making sure Soft has water in her dish?"
He already knows she does, he'd checked before starting dinner, but Ritsu sees the request for what it really is. He isn't as good at hiding his concern, but he promises Shigeo he'll be back and quickly vacates the room, leaving them alone.
Arataka swallows. Shigeo wraps his arms around his legs and keeps his gaze averted.
"How you doing, kiddo?"
"Fine." A lie. Ritsu would buy it, probably, but Arataka isn't fooled. "I'm feeling better. I'm sorry I've just been sleeping."
"No, it's fine, you need to," Arataka says quickly, shaking his head. "You've been running on fumes for a long time now, you need time to recuperate."
Shigeo doesn't respond, not does he look at him. Arataka's palms sweat, and he curls his fingers into fists.
"Actually, Shigeo, there's… there's something I need to talk to you about."
He doesn’t want to. Shigeo doesn’t deserve this. But it’s the only way they can move forward from here. It’s the only way they can be prepared, because Arataka can try all he wants and die in the process, but he can’t stop the people who’ve hurt these boys.
Shigeo blinks at him slowly. “Sure, what is it?”
Arataka draws a breath, holds it while he steels himself, goes over the words in his head, and then he promptly decides that thinking it through for the upteenth time isn’t going to help.
“Those guys who’ve been after you and your brother...”
He sees the tension snap into Shigeo’s shoulders, though his face doesn’t change. Dread swirls and coils in his stomach, but there’s nothing he can do about it. He has to tell him the truth. He’s going to find out sooner or later; at least this way they’ll have a head’s up, have some kind of strategy, know how long they have before Claw finds them.
Arataka steels himself for the overflow. “Listen, I’m not entirely sure about this—” He is, almost beyond any shadow of a doubt, “—but, the reason why they haven’t been able to find you two, I think it—”
“It’s my fault.”
Arataka’s head snaps up but Shigeo looks down at his lap. His eyes are wide, but empty. Still red. Still haunted. A child shouldn’t have eyes like that.
“It’s my fault, isn’t it?” It isn’t a question, not even sort of. He catches Arataka’s gaze and cements it there. “It’s because I’m sick, right? As long as I’m sick they can’t find us. Right? That’s what you were gonna say.”
The little sirens in Arataka’s head spiral out of control. “Shigeo, no, that’s not what I was getting—”
But Shigeo isn’t hearing him. He snaps out of Arataka’s eye contact and looks down at his trembling hands. “So.” His voice shakes with thick hysteria. “If I never recover they’ll never be able to—”
Arataka’s hands come down on his shoulders—injured, uninjured, both. In hindsight he knows he shouldn’t have grabbed him but. That’s hindsight. For now, he has Shigeo’s attention, and their eyes have found each other once again.
“You have to get better, plain and simple,” Arataka says, and gives him the smallest bit of shakes. “You’re getting better. I’m not going to let you compromise your health like that.”
“B-But—” Shigeo tries to look away again, but they’re too close, and he has nowhere to run. “B-But, if I recover, then Ritsu—”
“This isn’t up for debate, Shigeo, no matter what you think,” Arataka says sharply, with a knife in his chest. “You can’t intentionally hurt yourself—” He shouldn’t be saying this, he shouldn’t have to say this, not to a child, “—you can’t force yourself to never recover, you can’t do that—” Just the fact that he’d considered it as a viable possibility is enough to make him sick to his stomach. “You can’t, Shigeo—god, you can’t.”
“But if it keeps Ritsu sa—”
“Do you think Ritsu wants that?” Arataka bites, sharper than he’d meant to be but damn it he is not letting Shigeo have this. He can’t have this. “Do you really think he’d rather watch you suffer?” He shakes him, one more time. There’s barely a breath of distance between them. “Is that what you want? Do you think he wants to sit back and watch you destroy yourself? Are you really going to put him through that?”
“I can’t let it be my fault again!”
It tears Arataka from the frazzled haze he’d found himself in. Shigeo’s eyes are squeezed shut, head tipped and chin nearly on his chest. He brought his hands up, fingers around Arataka’s wrists, but the grip is loose. Feeble. And Arataka only realizes now how quickly it escalated. How far he let it go. How far he made it go.
Shigeo drops his hands down into his lap, jaw set. He brings a single hand toward his face and scrubs at his eyes.
“I can’t let it be my fault again,” he chokes, and Arataka never wants to hear this tone of voice again, not from a child. No one deserves to sound this broken and least of all Shigeo. “It’s my fault our parents died, it’s my fault we’ve been on the run for this long, it’s my fault Ritsu’s been through hell already. And now, now w—” His voice breaks and he has to take a breath and restart. “N-Now he has something nice, something normal, and I can’t—I can’t ruin it for him, I can’t ruin your life, I can’t—”
Hindsight is a fickle thing. Hindsight isn’t a treasure Arataka has.
And for now, without thinking, he yanks Shigeo to him. Gentler, mindful of his injuries, of his own tone of voice, of the situation. He waits for Shigeo’s reaction, gauging as well as he can but the kid doesn’t pull away, and Arataka settles his arms around his shoulders and sits there.
But the silence doesn’t separate them this time.
They sit, and Arataka keeps his jaw set, keeps his eyes closed, keeps his arms around the boy. He’s still feverish. It’s higher now than it’s been all day. They can take care of that in a bit, but for now they let the silence dwell. Arataka lets it be, lets Shigeo cry, lets it rest.
And then, in due time, he speaks. Quietly.
“Your life is just as important as ours, Shigeo,” he murmurs, and this isn’t about him. It was never about him. He shouldn’t have been selfish. Shouldn’t have put himself first. “We’re not going to let you destroy yourself, neither of us.”
Shigeo hasn’t returned the hug, but he doesn’t pull away and neither does Arataka.
“You’re gonna recover just fine, you’re gonna get better, and then—” A breath, a thought. “And then we’ll figure it out. You, me, Ritsu. It’ll be okay. We’ll figure it out. But right now, all we want is for you to get better. Once you have… we’ll take it from there. Okay?”
Shigeo makes a quiet sound, stuck somewhere between a sob and an affirmation. He nods, still without pulling away, and Arataka rests his chin on top of his head and breathes.
A knife brings the tension back into the air and Shigeo is out of Arataka’s arms before he knows what’s happening, and he’s wiping his eyes fervently, waving a hand in the direction of the doorway.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, Ritsu, I promise, d-don’t worry—”
Arataka doesn’t see Ritsu move. He sees his face, teary-eyed, the armful of fluffy cat he holds—and then Arataka blinks, and Ritsu has traded Soft for Shigeo, with a tight hold around his waist and his face smushed into his uninjured shoulder. Shigeo’s breath hitches, tears still not fully gone.
“It’s okay, Nii-san,” Ritsu murmurs, so quiet it’s barely there. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay—”
Shigeo hugs him back then, without an ounce of hesitation. And Arataka watches, silent, and can't help the smile that lifts his face.
They'll be okay.
"We have a visual on the boy."
In a dark, dimly lit conference room, seven individuals are seated unmoving at a long, dark table. The one who'd spoken catches the attention of his fellows, but no one moves a muscle.
"Are you sure it's him this time?" asks one, curious and chipper—perhaps inappropriately so considering the muse of their meeting. "We've been getting a lot of spirits around here lately, and some of them have been pretty tough."
"To be fair," says a third to the first, "you haven't exactly been accurate with your assessments lately. How hard is it to track down a couple little brats, anyway?"
"I'm certain of it this time." The first finally moves, though just to readjust himself in his chair. Sitting in such a brooding position for that long does detrimental wonders on one's back. "We'll strike tonight, before he slips through our fingers. We won't let him get away this time."
Miles away, in a small, dark apartment housing but one, a mobile phone rings.