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Chasing The Dragon

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WARNINGThe drug use is not glamorized in this fic - this is a raw look at the reality they can bring. There are graphic depictions of fight sequences. I will not glamorize drug use in this fic and gang violence is no exception. It is extremely explicit. Proceed with caution and please practice self-care.

He takes Makoto to the place where fire blooms, and when a smokestack climbs overhead like a lonely tower, Haruka knows that he is home.

He wishes there were poetry to it all. Homecomings are supposed to be emotional, one way or the other – exhausting at worst and bittersweet at best. He felt it all on the nauseating drive into the forest, impatient to get the pain over with. He didn’t want to feel anything for that lonely shack in which he grew up, but he is surprised that the sight of it bears no onslaught of grief or even remembrance. It’s just there, and Haruka is just a person standing in front of it.

Perhaps trauma is to blame for the numbness, but he reckons it is defiance that pushes him toward the porch steps. There’s nothing really to step into, no door to peek open with the fear of ghosts sitting there, waiting for him. He worried some twisted part of him would look for signs that coming back was his destiny – that him leaving this shack was only a detour, and not a firm path to a new life.

The pressure is tight in his chest, but nothing in particular stands out, telling him to stay. The shack has no protective exterior and lacks any walls; it is so near crumbling that it sways in the wind like a skeleton left on a noose – alone without a family.

Haruka wishes there were walls to hide the mortification and horror of what happened in all these rooms. Anyone on a joyride on the outskirt’s country roads might happen to take a glance at the shack, and they would feel it in their core that something bad happened here.

Haruka might know the specifics, but it’s like he is viewing his own past from afar, staring paralyzed at all the memories. He can see the little ghost of himself wandering onto the porch to watch the treeline and wait in heartbroken anticipation for a friend to appear.

The shack’s concrete foundation endured it all – the beatings, the storms. If floors could talk, Haruka wonders. If they could tell the story of how it feels to be burned from the inside out, or if they could describe the little boy that walked over these floors, his bare feet crunching over syringes, he imagines they would be surprised to see him now walking these same floors hand-in-hand with a husband of three years.

This home would look at Haruka and say that his tale simply took a momentary divergence from the inevitable tragedy. The chasm of his life was always meant to close like a wound, not a sweet flower. But Haruka has learned nothing from Makoto if not blind hope for a happy ending, though Haruka knows that it’s foolish; it’s a washed-over, children’s book way of looking at things, but Haruka still loves him for it.

He and Makoto wander through the shack, pulled to the living room by a curious noise. They find a bird’s nest tucked in the wires of the busted television. Haruka hears babies chirping for food, crying for their mother, and resonates.

Dull feathers mingle with broken glass of all colors – green shards from cheap wine bottles and the brown glitter of liquor fifths. His younger self would build miniature cities out of those shards, pretending they were glass castles, and he was safe in all of them.

Trash drifts through the hallway as he and Makoto peek into the nearest bedroom. Rats scurry and spiders hide in every corner. The stench of rot drifts from a possum’s carcass hidden somewhere in the mattress – he probably suffocated there while hiding from a storm.

Haruka’s joints ache as he bends down to pick up a broken picture frame amongst the moldy leaves. He brushes pine needles away and shows the photo to Makoto, arching a brow.

His husband squints behind his glasses before craning back. “Jesus, your dad does look like Sousuke.”

“Did,” Haruka corrects with a snort, hanging the picture back on the wall because it doesn’t deserve to even mingle with the filth.

They end the tour with a glance into Haruka’s old bedroom, where they find syringes flashing in the trash. Makoto steps on the syringes purposefully before they arrive at the back porch. The distant smokestack is climbing toward heaven, and others plague the forest. The smoke will hide the sun for days, but the summer humidity still drapes them in exhaustion.

Makoto might only smell rain and smoke, but Haruka looks down at the porch and remembers how his dad always reeked of sweat and joy after a beating. He shakes the memory off, proud that he’s forgotten the color of his dad’s eyes, save for whenever Sousuke meets his gaze directly.

Haruka just happens to glance in Makoto’s direction and admires how his husband stands out in this grey atmosphere with his clean flannel and healthy muscle. He is a good person and looks the part accordingly. He does not belong here, whereas Haruka stands as a living pallet of all the frightening color around them: sooty blacks and bone-white like the stripped trees. Yet he feels nothing short of beautiful when Makoto laces their fingers together and their rings click.

Makoto’s expression is miserable as he looks into the home. “This all just makes me want to hug you.”

Haruka is the one who embraces him, holding Makoto tight and apologetically. He breathes in against his shirt – Makoto even smells warm, and Haruka hides in the rolling hills of his arms, feeling safe on this land for the first time.

Makoto leans back and pushes against one of the porch’s support beams. He squeezes into the wood, which is soft from termite damage. “This place is pretty much done for.” He looks up and brief sunlight zings across his glasses; tree limbs close together overhead like a domed ceiling and Haruka feels small, like he’s trapped in a wooden bird cage, but Makoto finds beauty in all of it. “It’s still a pretty lot. Any idea what you want to do with it?”

The knee-jerk response is to burn every inch of the place but Haruka doesn’t voice those thoughts. There’s value in owning acreage at the edge of the outskirts, where there’s new hiking trails and animal sanctuaries. Haruka didn’t even realize he was technically the owner of his childhood shack until this morning, when he was alerted that he was supposed to be paying taxes on the property. The only reason the city decided to get on his ass about it was because he needed to take the drive out here and make sure that the forest fire hadn’t reached his land. He should be relieved that everything is fine, at least from a financial standpoint, but he definitely would not have felt a loss if the property had gone up in flames.

Haruka crosses his arms as he walks across the porch, sparks bursting in his vision with each pathetically small step. He’s felt like he’s walking on needles for a few weeks now, but there’s nothing he can do about it until his next infusion. He looks up at the morning sky and thinks about how disorienting time becomes when there’s no sunlight. Haruka sighs and drops his gaze back to the shack. “Guess it’d be hard to convince someone to buy the place as is.”

He and Makoto flinch as the roof caves in with an explosion of dust. “Yeah, no,” Makoto coughs, waving debris out of his face. “Don’t think that’s gonna happen, babe.”

Haruka slumps onto the porch steps before he can fall victim to faintness, which is a default sensation these days. Makoto’s eyes widen with a thought and he doesn’t look at Haruka, though his expression is quite intriguing. He sits beside him, looking out at the tree line as his voice falls cautious with hopefulness. “We could renovate it.”

His brows jump. “You mean build something on top of this shit show?”

“Well, start over, essentially.” Makoto winces sheepishly. “I don’t know, it’s just so quiet here and the fresh air might help you feel better, but I’m not thinking it all the way through.” He folds his hands between his knees, squeezing them together. “I know that you probably wouldn’t be able to find peace here, and that’s understandable, so. Forget I even said it, I’m sorry. It was insensitive.”

Haruka’s heart cracks open. “It’s okay,” he smiles, cupping the side of Makoto’s neck. He finally turns to him and Haruka meets his eyes sadly. “I wish I could see things the way you do.”

Makoto’s brows knit with a hum and he pecks Haruka’s nose. “You’re smarter about things like this than I am. All of my bad experiences happened overseas, not where I grew up.” He kisses the back of Haruka’s hand, then his ring finger. “You’re good about your own limits.”

Humor colors Haruka’s voice as Makoto cradles his hand against his heart. “I am?”

“Yes,” he grins, playfully admonishing. He kisses the rest of Haruka’s fingers just because. “Whereas I am complete shit at setting boundaries, you’re not scared to be a jerk about it. Which is hot.”

“If you say so.” He grabs Makoto’s bicep to haul himself to his feet and Haruka sighs. “There’s no point in making a decision right now, I don’t think the fires are even out yet.”

Makoto casts his gaze to the distant smokestacks and shudders, ushering Haruka toward the truck. Fire engines clamber down the dirt road, chasing the smoke that looms deep in the forest. The sirens leave Haruka’s ears ringing, his anxiety spiking.

Makoto helps him into the cab, folding his hand under Haruka’s knees to lift him into the seat, and Haruka grunts a laugh. “I’m not that bad off.”

“Maybe I was just trying to cop a feel, you don’t know.” He squeezes the inside of Haruka’s thigh, making him jerk with a wide-eyed blush. Makoto’s sly eyes are half-lidded when he closes the passenger’s door.

There’s no sense of time while driving in the forest – the endless trees offer gentle suggestion, lulling Haruka to forget what his destination even was. It’s as though he and Makoto could drive for hours, forever, on this twisting ribbon of dirt, and the woods would never change nor lose their enchantment. Gold powders the landscape in a hazy filter like pure magic and familiarity builds quickly in Haruka’s chest, finding a comforting predictably in the overgrowth that hugs the road from both sides.

There’s a hush upon the forest in the pink hours of morning, and Haruka fights the charm of it all but loses his very breath at the world around him. It’s all so lovely and bitter that he is reminded of poetry he’s never read, only felt in his core: I know I shouldn’t love you, but I do.

The sentiment is a relief to admit. A hawk streaks overhead, its mighty shadow beating through the air like a god. His eyes follow its path back to the forest, and the bird dives into the green sea without hesitation. He can imagine how that feels, regarding the world from above without fear of the fall. It’s yet another foolish emotion that Haruka should not be comfortable with.

They reach the main highway but are blocked by news stations setting up their cameras, trying to get a view of the distant smoke as well as the stressful cluster of police cruisers. Haruka catches a familiar shock of bright hair in the crowd: a figure with a boyish gait, packed with lean muscle. “Is that Momotarou?”

He rolls down the window and Momotarou glances at the truck, his expression opening up in surprised delight. He jogs over and brings the stench of body odor with him, huffing a laugh. “Mornin’!”

“Good morning,” Makoto chuckles. Momotarou is caked with dust from trudging in the forest, his hair matted and his uniform drenched. It looks like he’s been working exhaustive hours though the day is still young. “Did you just get out here, or…?”

Momotarou heartily adjusts his gun belt. “Been out here since the animal sanctuary called about the smoke at like, ten last night.”

“Geeze,” Makoto hisses through his teeth. “You need a break, Momo.”

“Eh, it’s all good. Ai-chan’s uncle is coming into town today so he’s been a little manic, I don’t mind getting some fresh air.”

Haruka glances into the rear-view mirror, eyeing the sky as it turns a deeper grey. “Any idea what caused the fire?”

Momotarou looks back at the other officers before ducking into the cab. “Between you ‘n me, we think it was arson.” He’s quick to stick his hands up. “Can’t prove it yet – we ain’t even found a campsite, but there were gas cans stashed in a ditch close to where the Bloodhounds’ territory used to be. You know, back when they were a gang.”

Worry tightens Haruka’s throat. His gaze drifts through the crowd of police and reporters until a pair of figures jar him. Two guys stand tall over the sea of people, their intimidating muscle nearly busting through skin. Both of them are barefoot; one of them is drenched in swamp grime while the other seems to make an effort at looking presentable, though that’s a pointless challenge when living in the woods.

The cleanest of the two men has a deer carcass over his shoulder but he easily braces it one-handed. He isn’t wearing a shirt beneath his overalls and he’s stout from manual labor, rather than the gym. Haruka startles at the paw print tattoo slashing through his chest, over his heart.

Despite his ruggedness, the guy still holds himself in a charming way, not to mention his jawline is like a fucking Disney prince’s. The man rolls his eyes in mean amusement at the disgruntled cop before them, and something about the expression leaves Haruka wary.

Momotarou follows his gaze to the men and scoffs. “God, they’ve been giving us hell all morning. They won’t leave. That messy guy hasn’t said a word but it’s fuckin’ creepy how he just smirks at us.”

The “messy” guy in question is jarring in appearance, his hair something like raw fire. A rope of dead rabbits hangs off his shoulder and he’s bloody up to the elbows from knifing through live meat. Anyone that can wear blood so casually has been around it in a number of ways – not just from hunting. Haruka has the experience to come up with the disturbing conclusion as to why the man is so comfortable with bodily fluids, but Haruka hasn’t had to turn to such dark thoughts in a long time, so he’d rather not ponder it further.

The man’s demeanor is energetic, though it appears he doesn’t know how to carry such a manic force in his bulk; his cruel grin twitches at the edges, features jolting tight before relaxing. He keeps bobbing his middle finger into his palm – he’s nervous in the crowd, but he’s too physically intimidating for anyone else to comprehend it.

Momotarou says, “The cute one claims that some wolves were taken from the outskirts when the fire started.”

Makoto’s demeanor sharpens. “What, why?”

“Dunno. Maybe for the meat? Or someone could have moved them to the hunting land that’s leased out here – you know, get the wolves off public acreage so they can be shot as trophies. I know Nii-chan’s got a lot of complaints back at the station from hunters wanting their acreage expanded because the wolves don’t travel onto their land.”

Haruka rolls his eyes. “Wolves are smart; they know where it’s safe to roam.”

“Thing is, that guy didn’t see anyone take the wolves.” Momotarou folds his elbows over the window, glancing back at the men. “I don’t get how he could just know.”

Haruka crosses his ankles on the dashboard, swaying a knee in thought. “The idea makes sense. The fire could have been started to distract people, and the commotion would scare the wolves into a trap.”

Momotarou perks up straighter, turning around to view the men with more consideration. “Well damn. Hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“Criminal mind,” Makoto says, patting his husband’s thigh. Haruka shoots him an unamused pout and Makoto beams. “I’m sure you’ll figure it all out, Momo! Don’t work too hard.”

“Don’t worry.” Momotarou walks backwards and gives them a salute. “Ai-chan said he’ll be the one to cuss out my superiors if they make me work overtime without pay again.”

Quicksilver pours into Sousuke’s blood when a door creaks open.

It was the front door, the only one in the house without oiled hinges – he left it like that for a reason. He crams his hand into the nightstand drawer, finger hooked loosely around his pistol’s trigger. Panic vices his throat in absolute silence as he stays motionless in the sheets; he settles into a mindset that is hollow and eager to the suggestion of what he might have to do to protect what is his.

Footsteps near the bedroom: a natural saunter that’s reduced to a tired stagger. There’s also a distinct limp, just a slight dip in the gait. Sousuke recognizes the pattern better than the rhythm of his own heartbeat, and he lets his breath out when Rin steps into the bedroom.

Sousuke firmly pushes the nightstand drawer closed and sits up in bed. “Hey.”

“Mmph.” Rin flings his boots off and tosses an intimidating pair of clear heels into the corner. He drops his duffle, wadded lace and sequins tumbling out. He maneuvers through the dull red of morning and flops onto the bed.

Sousuke chuckles and peels off Rin’s socks for him, dragging his tight sweats away. His outfit clings with perspiration and he wears the stench of an onlooker’s cigarette smoke. Club atmosphere – excited sweat and spilled liquor – is just nauseating in any other setting, but Sousuke refrains from complaining. He kneads Rin’s feet, which radiate heat and are creased from his heel straps. “How long were you on stage last night?”

Rin’s feet curl together as he hides his face in a pillow. “I only did a few routines.” Sousuke tugs his anklet so he’ll fess up. “I just did like, five songs over the course of the whole night.” Rin turns over onto his back and nestles his feet in Sousuke’s lap, nudging him to continue the massage. “It wasn’t a hard shift, I’m just out of practice.”

As if Sousuke could ever be convinced that Rin doesn’t still got it. He sighs and gives him some cotton shorts to wear, then Rin tugs at Sousuke’s shirt so he can wear it for himself. Sousuke flushes with pride and obliges, saying, “Don’t dance anymore this week. There’s no reason to push yourself so hard and fast.”

Rin puts on the shirt and inhales against the collar, hugging himself around the middle in a greedy show of Sousuke’s warmth. “Namiko’s tuition is reason enough.” Rin pulls him down for a quick cuddle, tangling his legs in the blankets and letting their calves slide together. His toes play against Sousuke’s, ticklish and sweet. “Have you realized that we pay more for child care than our mortgage?”

“Our first mortgage or the second one?”

Rin pauses in raining sleepy kisses over Sousuke’s bedhead. “Maybe it was the motorbike loan, actually.” He exhales, closing his eyes to appreciate his husband’s touch. Sousuke cradles him, keeping still to feel Rin’s heart thudding against his own. Rin even feels beautiful, from his tired skin to his ardent grit. His eyes are grimy with liner, body greasy from oil; Rin’s thighs and hands are clotted with powder from gripping the pole, his muscles reduced to pulsating mush.

He’s hurting to provide for his family as all good people do, yet he isn’t bitter with the situation. Rin acts as if the normalcy of bills is to be treasured. He and Sousuke have typical problems now: finances, home up-keep, and all the emotional stress of raising a child and a teenager. Such tribulations have brought Sousuke to tears before – not to mention sent him to the gun range for hours – but Rin keeps a smile whenever he cooks breakfast after a twelve-hour shift at the club.

Rin thrives in the monotony of a middle-class life; Sousuke’s caught him looking at an electric bill like it is the most precious thing in the world. He gets it, in a way. When you’ve fucked just to eat for years, a financial notice isn’t even close to a “looming threat.” Sousuke takes himself backwards to the past and easily realizes why Rin feels privileged to have all of their little worries.

Still, he doesn’t strip that often anymore. Usually, he just works as the club’s owner because he would rather be dancing for an audience of one, that being his husband, so the feeling of being watched just isn’t the same anymore. Rin is desired on stage, but not loved.

Even so, it was his decision to hop back on the pole and Sousuke can’t talk him out of it because it’s fast money and a lot of it. He never goes on stage for more than one week at a time and stripping is a legal vice that he can profit on – at least for now.

Rin pillows his head on Sousuke’s bicep, grumbling a snarl. “I saw some city council members at Samezuka last night. Those fucks were watching me.”

Sousuke brings Rin firmer into his chest. “How do you know that’s who they were?”

“Babe, who the hell shows up to the club in a khaki suit?”

He snorts. “True.”

Rin unwinds the screw from his brow piercing, then his tongue ring and all his studs before he drops them onto the nightstand. “It was those same pricks I saw on the news tryin’ to get the red light district bulldozed.”

The alarm clock beeps and Sousuke startles, hand flashing out to slam the damned thing off. Rin jerks back as tension shudders out of Sousuke. He watches him sweat. “You have a nightmare or something?”

“No, I just…” He glances out the window, paranoid at the cars that trudge a little too slow as they pass the house. “I don’t sleep good when you aren’t here.”

Rin brings Sousuke’s head against his chest, cradling him there. “My poor baby,” he simpers.  

Sousuke closes his eyes for a brief moment, then sits up. He’s fidgety with embarrassment and Rin bites his lip around an endeared smile. With one last retreating kiss on the forehead, Rin’s hand slips from him and Sousuke heads for the bathroom. “Don’t worry about those guys,” he calls. “Nothing’s gonna happen with their campaign.”

Rin props up on an elbow, pouting as he watches Sousuke through the open door. “I didn’t even know they were at Samezuka until I got a call from Nadia. She said that they were lurking around another club down the street where she’s got some callgirls stationed.”

“Can you not watch me while I take a piss?”

Rin cackles. “You got performance anxiety?” He throws the sheets over his eyes for a minute. “Prude.” Sousuke flushes the toilet and Rin resumes the conversation with innocent exuberance at his husband’s expense. “Anyway, so we know that those guys had been to at least one other club last night.”

Sousuke’s voice is garbled around his toothbrush. “Which club is Nadia using?”

“The one nearest to the airport.”

“… which is?”

“The Cockpit.”

Sousuke stops everything to shoot a flat look, toothbrush shoved against his cheek. Rin laughs and snuggles his cheek into a pillow like he’s never been more endeared.

Sousuke heads for the dresser and buttons up his uniform shirt, not bothering to wear anything under it because the humidity will be murderous today – he can already feel it in the air. “Strip clubs are the most profitable business in Iwatobi, but most importantly, they’re taxable.” He breezes through the therapeutic motions of reassembling his new Desert Eagle from where he cleaned it last night. “The higher-ups in the council won’t promote anyone who thinks that the red light district should be shut down. The city makes too much money off of it.”

Rin picks up Sousuke’s badge from the ottoman, the silver dulled with age. He stands to clip it onto Sousuke’s gun belt and runs his thumb over the color bars, eyes lost in thought. “Still, it ain’t good to have people like that hanging around the red light district while other legislators are trying to get prostitution legalized.” He turns his heavy-lidded gaze to the carpet. “I don’t think it’ll happen.”

Sousuke takes Rin’s jaw in hand and kisses his cheek in slow pecks. Rin holds him in a languid embrace, tipping his face into the kisses. “It’ll work out,” Sousuke murmurs. “Don’t worry about all that right now, you’re exhausted.”

Rin sighs and cups his face, rubbing through his scruff; it rasps back and forth across his fingers. “I’m gonna miss you.” His pout could bring a war to its knees, but Sousuke merely smirks with half-lidded eyes. “It’s miserable here during the day when the girls are at school. I hate an empty house.”

“I’ll miss you too, but you’ll still have Winnie here. I can come home for lunch.”

Rin whines, lazily pulling a thigh around Sousuke’s hip. He catches it with a chuckle and tips his head back to let Rin press futile kisses down his shirt opening. “That’s hours from now.”

“Go to sleep until then,” Sousuke chuckles before carrying him back to bed. His fatal flaw was kissing at Rin’s frown – Sousuke can’t help but part his lips in utter obedience when Rin’s tongue sweeps his lip. His exhale draws out of him in a moan, body all-too willing to lose his clothes and fall victim to Rin’s touch. “C’mon, let me up.”

Rin pulls back, letting his thighs fall loose before sitting up. “What do you want for breakfast?”

“No.” He yelps when Sousuke pins him back down on the mattress. “Go to sleep, I’ll take care of it.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Rin grins, looking like he’d actually love it if Sousuke did.

Sousuke fists his hair to hold him down and drags his tongue up his throat, bold and firm. “I’ll tie you up. Don’t think I won’t.”

“Bitch, I know every knot in shibari, I’ll have you hanging from the ceiling and thanking me for it.” Rin nips at his chin and kisses him there before pushing his chest. “Okay, you can make breakfast, but let me make sure Gou’s awake and I need to get Nami ready. I’m not gonna have you sending my daughter to school in plaid and chevron ever again.”

Sousuke relents and gets to work on pancakes, which is his newfound specialty. His diet consisted of protein shakes and TV dinners before he met Rin, so anything is an improvement after that. Rin won’t admit that Sousuke has become a better cook than him, but Rin slaves over dinner most of the time, so Sousuke isn’t about to start boasting.

Gou comes into the kitchen without looking up from her phone and it’s admirable that she can maneuver without paying attention – she even knows to step over Echo, then Winnie as they nap on the tile. She has better motor skills than Sousuke, but most people do. After two drinks, he’s been known to get confused about the layout of his own house.

Gou fills herself a glass of water from the fridge, blindly pressing the button for ice as she scrolls through her phone. Sousuke lifts his brows. “Morning.”

“Hi,” she sing-songs, pony tail high and swishing as she turns to sit at the island. She crosses her ankles but makes sure that her pristine high-tops don’t touch. Even when she isn’t required to wear her cheerleading uniform to school, she’s usually dressed in knee-highs and a pleated skirt. The only difference today is her tastefully slouchy sweater.

Sousuke slides the pancakes onto a plate, careful as he stacks them. Gou’s phone dings four times during that minute. “Anything going on?”

She fiddles with her bangs in the front-facing camera, then notices Sousuke looking at her. She pulls out an earbud and blinks. “Hm?”

He flops through an exasperated gesture and she looks at her phone. “Oh.” She puts it away and smiles, though she’s still leaning toward the device. “Chigusa was texting me about a party tonight.” 

“On a Wednesday?”

She snorts. “That’s what I said too, but it’s supposed to be fun. It’s at Amy’s place. She’s got a pool.” Gou rolls her eyes, turning her blush to the side – she knows how eager she sounds. “It’s just this cheerleader thing – celebrating before the first game on Friday.”

Sousuke nods, opening the fridge for some fruit and then, whipped cream since Namiko will throw a fit without it. Gou is far more complacent about having blueberries on her pancakes. “Sounds fun,” he says even though it doesn’t. Rin had to drag him to the police station’s Christmas party last year and Sousuke begged to leave the whole night. The only thing that kept him there was Rin promising to strip for him in his cop uniform when they got home.

Sousuke jolts out of that memory as Gou taps a fingernail against the island. “You think Onii-chan will let me go?”

He tenses, thankful that he’s at the counter with his back is to her. “Ah, maybe. Will it just be your cheer mates there?”

“I mean, yeah. Probably.”

So definitely not. “What time does it end?”

“It’s a sleepover.”

Sousuke looks to the heavens to compose himself. He clears his throat as he turns around, keeping his gaze set on putting a plate in front of her. “We’ll see what he says,” he mutters as his standard neutral answer.

Gou deflates. She pitifully grabs the jar of blueberries to shake some onto her pancakes. “You don’t think he’ll say yes.”

“I didn’t –”

Gou drowns him out by spiraling whipped cream onto her pancakes with a dejected frown.

Sousuke flops against the counter. “Look, I can’t make him sway one way or the other when it comes to these things, okay?” He crosses his arms under her piercing stare. “I’m sorry, I know it sucks but he’s doing what’s best for you.” He lifts his brows. “Rin didn’t have anyone keeping him safe when he was your age.”

Gou stops frowning at that. She sighs and pokes at her breakfast. “I know that, I do, but I’m starting to get crap for never going to one of these things.”

Sousuke lifts his chin, ready to go down to that school badge and all. Christ, Rin’s rubbed off on him in more ways than expected. “By who?”

“Other cheerleaders.” She shrugs. “I dunno, just – stupid people.”

“Why would you want to hang out with them if they’re mean to you?”

Gou just looks at him like he really doesn’t understand the hierarchy of high school, then Rin steps into the kitchen with Namiko in tow. She’s lolling in his arms, half-asleep with boneless limbs. Rin plops her into an island stool and she perks awake, beaming so sweetly when she notices Sousuke. “Hi Papa,” she yawns.

“Hi, magpie. I like your dress.”  

She curls into herself and brushes out the floral skirt happily.

Rin pours himself a cup of black coffee, then hands one to Sousuke after putting two sugars in it. Gou watches them and chews her lip. “So, um – there’s this thing tonight.”

“What thing?” Rin sips his drink, as casual as he’s going to be in this conversation. Sousuke clings to the moment.

“Just a thing for cheerleaders. I mean –” She winces and honestly, Sousuke feels her pain. “It’s not like, practice, is just a little get together at Amy’s.”

Rin crosses his ankles and Sousuke can feel doom approaching. “Oh. Did your coach organize it?”

She hesitates. “No, it’s – it’s a party.”

Ah, the dreaded word that makes everything stop. Sousuke fears it so. He busies himself with giving Namiko her pancakes while the little girl blinks at everyone in the silence.

Rin puts his coffee down to cross his arms. “What kind of party?”

Gou’s brows crease and Sousuke can’t blame her confusion – Rin’s trying to catch her in a lie that isn’t there, and Sousuke carefully jumps in. “Gou said it’ll just be cheerleaders and some of the team might come over.” He knows that she bristles at that, but Sousuke isn’t throwing her under the bus. If Rin found out there were boys present and he didn’t know, it’d be all levels of hell.

He adds, “Chigusa will be there.” He inclines his head to convey the hidden meaning. Chigusa is a good girl; she might have Nagisa as one of her parents, but she wouldn’t be mischievous if the situation turned a little too risky. She lived on the streets before she was adopted, so she’s smart, and Sousuke knows that she would leave with Gou if something went down.

Christ, he hates analyzing such a simple situation so drastically, but Rin thinks in extremes and it’s necessary, being who they are and living in Iwatobi.

Rin says, “You really wanna do this on a school night?”

“It’s a sleepover.” Gou perks up with hope. “So you won’t have to come get me before work or anything.”

Shit, wrong move – Rin bristles at sleepover. She hurries to add, “Only the girls are sleeping over.”

Rin’s features tighten and he opens his mouth, but Gou gently interjects. “Her parents will be home. We’re literally just gonna hang out and like, swim and play Uno.” She looks at him firmer, a bit more desperately. “You know I’d leave if something weird happened.” 

Sousuke startles when Namiko pats his arm. “Papa, whip seam.”

“Cream,” he corrects, fetching it numbly.

Gou hangs in the worst suspense while Rin mulls it over. To his credit, he looks regretful as he sighs. “I haven’t met Amy’s parents Gou, I’m sorry.”

Sousuke almost expects her to cry or throw something, the way she just stares for a whole minute. Gou flitters her gaze down before nodding once; she shoulders her backpack to go wait for Sousuke in the police cruiser.

He deflates when the front door closes. Namiko pats him again for more whipped cream and he gives her the can before going over to Rin, nudging him into saying something. “I wish this were easier.”

“Me too,” Sousuke agrees with a sad smile. It’s stressful, acting as a mediator when he can see Rin’s point as much as Gou’s. He focuses on getting the day started and pecks Rin’s forehead. “I’ll be back for lunch.”

“Mm. Yeah, you will.” Rin arches a sly brow and waits until Namiko trots into the living room to finish her breakfast, then he winds his arms around Sousuke. “I expect to be woken up by a stellar ass-eating at 12:30 sharp this afternoon.”

“You really don’t care about me going back to work with rank breath, do you? That’d be worse than when Aki visits Sei at the station during his lunch breaks.”

He uses his tongue to roll his lip in and he kneads Sousuke’s ass. “Anytime you want me to show up at the station wearing a trench coat and nothing else, just ask, baby.”

Sousuke laughs and pats Rin’s cheek. “I really gotta go now, love you.”

Rin pecks his ring finger, where a raven is tattooed. “Love you t—”

A worried cry from the living room. “Papa.”

“Yeah,” he calls with an oncoming sense of dread.

“… um, the whip seam gone.”

He frowns, raising his voice. “Huh? Did you use all of it?”

Silence, then a cough. “It spray everywhere.” She vocally perks up. “But Echo likes it! And it’s the same color as my hairs, so I don’t have to take a bath! It’s just – just a lil sticky, but it’s okay!”

He meets Rin’s gaze and they look equally dead in the eyes. Sousuke thumps his forehead against his husband’s shoulder. “Why,” he muffles. “We were so close to being on time for once.”

Rin sighs a laugh and pats his hair. “Go ahead, I’ll take care of Nami. I’ll just call Mako, he’s got planning first period, so I should be able to use his truck and make sure she gets to school.”  

“But you’re so tired –”

“I stay tired, babe.” Rin smiles like he’s accepted his reality and is delighted in it. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Train whistles are the loneliest sound, Nao thinks.

The morning locomotive barges closer, its echo stretching for miles – disorienting time and space. Nao closes his eyes from where he’s standing alone in the kitchen; he forgets about the pot on the stove, the paperwork scattered across the table. He basks in the therapeutic rumble as the windows shake like they are fearful of the train that wails at a petrifying volume. Nao is motionless to the core.

He gazes out the sink window to see the rail road barricades flash crimson, then descend with their ringing bells. Nao listens to it all, admiring how the traffic, how lives and all of the world, stop for that train. His gaze darts to follow each train car and he catches glimpses of graffiti; he can tell that the cars are old and local by the spray-painted rabbits with fangs. There are calicos chasing serpents across four cars at least.

He notices a quote, the words melting from a rushed job: you’re yours.

Nao can’t help but sigh a pitying laugh at that one.

His fingers ponder over his mug; the coffee grew cold long ago, pale with clotted creamer and rippling in the drumfire of the tracks.  Chained heavy with dread, Nao looks to the pot of water on the stove. He stares into his reflection and prepares himself with a swallow.

Once the water cools, Nao soaks gauze in it. Tissue, baby shampoo, and hydrogen peroxide clutter the table, and the object of interest waits in a container. Nao’s mouth twists as he rolls the object from one corner to the other, wary of the painted veins and shiny white. It looks grayer than anything – dull and disturbing. It watches Nao.

He adds lukewarm water and a teaspoon of salt to the container before sealing it firmly.

It’s always the worst ten minutes, waiting for his prosthetic eye to clean every morning. That train barrels endlessly as the record player spins in the corner. He keeps a hand caged over the right side of his face just in case Natsuya clambers down the spiral staircase from their bedroom. The train is so much louder as Nao waits, hanging in a frantic balance and wanting to scare the clock into ticking faster. He wants to break something.

Nao is hardly better once the process is over and the artificial optic is sitting warm and damp in his socket. It never feels real, but at least it makes looking in the mirror a bit easier – most importantly, it makes it easier for everyone else to look at him. He is glad to suffer through this anxiety if only for that reason.

Surely, that fucking train has been here for hours now. Nao shakes his head in a failed attempt to clear it. His brain is dazed with exhaustion yet he is restless. He reaffirms that all of his cleaning supplies are stashed away and ensures that everything else needing thrown out is already in the trash. Nao stares out at the dumpster with the most horrible weight in his chest.

He isn’t sure how long he stands there, but he can feel it in the air when Natsuya awakens in their bedroom; he is boisterous as he descends the iron staircase, Marlboro Reds and lighter in hand. He starts his morning cigarette and the man glances into the fireplace, puzzled as to why the logs are charred and simmering from a fire long dead. He relishes a drag, holds it in with savoring pause, then exhales as he regards Nao. “All right, little dove?”

Nao blinks a few times, feeling out of place even though he’s the one who walked himself over to the window. Now he just looks awkward, standing there in his robe and not saying anything. “Yes.” He twitches a faint smile. “I was just looking over some stuff for work.”

Natsuya leans back, so comfortable in the grey haze around him. His stare is pure filth but it always has been in the mornings; Nao recalls a time when there were records playing on the veranda of a house much larger than this apartment building, when they had frozen Irish coffee and cocaine for breakfast and couldn’t keep their hands out from each other’s legs.

Yes, Natsuya has always had a particular charm about him in the morning. He looks like so many things as he stands there, watching Nao: a self-assured criminal, a well-sexed drunk, a tormented poet with so many stories that they must be a pain to carry. In actuality, he’s a hungover construction worker, but oh, he still makes Nao dream just by standing there.

The sunrise paints Natsuya like a god, and he speaks as if he truly doesn’t know. “How long have you been up?” He gives the fireplace another curious look.

Nao’s heart stops. “Not long.” He nods at the files on the counter and Natsuya steps closer to peer at them, bringing a cloud of nicotine and cinnamon with him. Nao says, “That’s all the paperwork on this week’s addicts that have found sponsorships for the rehab center; they start their detox tonight.” He sighs. “If they show up, that is.”

Natsuya scoffs, lifting his brows, and his eyes narrow on some of the papers. “You and Haru will have a mighty big fight on your hands. This says that most of these people have been to the center before?”

“Yes, but they walked out of their treatments.”

“Mm.” Natsuya hides his understanding expression by turning away. “I hope it goes well.”

“Me too.”

Natsuya takes another contemplative drag as he lazes against the counter, and he gazes out the window to watch the train race by. “I wish I could sleep through that damned train. Even when I was at Rough Rabbit, I always bolted awake when I heard one.” He shakes his head, voice fading softer. “I used to get so angry at that sound. I would be hungry, not knowing what in God’s name to do, but that train would rush by without a care. I would think, doesn’t it know?”

He lets the cigarette rest between his middle and ring finger, where there is barely enough flesh to keep it balanced. “But then I appreciated how that sound was constant no matter what. Even when my world falls apart, I’ll always be able to count on that train. Gives me something to look forward to; it makes me feel less important, smaller.” He turns his sleepy eyes to Nao, so handsome in his languidness. “You’re my train.”

Nao smiles and leans against him in the rusty dark. “Maybe it’s just instinct, waking up at a loud noise like that whistle.” He traces one of Natsuya’s fingers to the first knuckle, where it ends. “People like us will never be good friends with sleep.”

Natsuya exhales smoke, politely tipping his head up as he does so. All Nao’s really worried about is how gorgeous his throat stretches out. Natsuya murmurs, “But the birds don’t wake up when the train passes; they won’t start chirping for another hour.” He rests his cheek against Nao’s hair and grins down at their sparrow tattoos. Natsuya whispers, “Aren’t we birds, too? You most certainly are, so I am as well.”

Nao’s heart caves in. “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.”

“See,” Natsuya beams. “I told you The Notebook is the greatest movie of all time. It’s rubbing off on you.”

“It’s dramatic,” Nao sighs, but kisses his husband’s forehead anyway. He nudges him on the way to clean out the coffee pot. “You should check up on Ikuya, call him.”

Natsuya flops into a chair with a groan. “But he’s been so…” He shudders. “Broody.”

Nao rolls his eyes. “Can’t imagine where he got that from.”

Natsuya misses when he tries to knee Nao’s ass, and he gives a handsome pout. “I don’t know what to say to him,” Natsuya confesses. “Having a shit job is one thing and I definitely resonate with that, but all these nightmares?” He kneads his forehead, masterfully keeping the cigarette just inches from his curls. “That’s more – philosophical, I don’t know.”

“Isn’t that your forte?”

“Ikuya doesn’t like considering what those dreams could mean.” His eyes squint as he takes a final drag from the withered stick. “It’s not like he doesn’t want me to worry, it’s more like…” Natsuya shrugs. “He just wants to endure them.”

Nao sighs and runs a sudsy dishrag through the coffee pot. “Well, it won’t hurt to just ask how he’s doing.”

At Natsuya’s silence, Nao walks over to rake through his curls. He cups his face, voice soft with encouragement. “Call your brother. He misses you, too.”

Ikuya pads out of the shower and shakes out his hair, scrubbing a towel through it. He jams his toothbrush into his mouth and lets it hang loose in his cheek as he looks himself over in the bathroom mirror. Twenty isn’t what he expected – not physically, mentally, and most certainly not economically, but he reckons it could be worse. He might get mistaken for a teenager on the daily and he doesn’t have the social confidence to even make a Facebook profile, but it’s whatever. He’s financially comfortable enough to go to the movies sometimes, he gets to leave work early every few months, but most importantly, he’s got a kick-ass tattoo that goes across the front of his throat all gangster style, even if it’s a nightingale.

He really couldn’t afford the tattoo, but he wasn’t about to miss the opportunity after Natsuya finally relented into letting him get a mark of Freebird; it took years of Ikuya insisting that he deserved it. After what he went through with the Bloodhounds, a tattoo was the smallest trophy he deserved for surviving that.

Natsuya was, of course, more worried about Ikuya being officially marked as a gang member, but in all honestly, Ikuya is plenty marked just by being Natsuya’s little brother. He was the leader of a gang, hopped into another one, fucked around with Diamond Back and married their little viper, plus Ikuya knows that Honeyblade would gut Natsuya in the street if they ever caught him alone. It’s a hopeless but legendary track record.

Therefore, Ikuya getting a Freebird tattoo was more of a protective measure than anything else – at least in everyone else’s eyes. Ikuya has waited his entire life to be accepted as one of Freebird, and by him getting this nightingale, it shows that they have welcomed him. Iwatobi’s gangs are irrelevant nowadays, but Ikuya doesn’t care. He earned this ink.

He’s pleased as he checks his reflection. He might be too busy (translated: lazy) to bulk up, but the tattoo makes him look like one of those skinny guys that are all grungy aesthetic and sad, but in a hot way. It’s a complicated persona to keep up, but Ikuya bears the responsibility with great honor. He’s been in this weird phase that’s lasted most of his existence, too unimpressed with life to care about style or color or music, but no shit, he could write indie ballads with this tattoo.

Why he has these motivational pep-talks with his reflection every morning, he doesn’t know, because he lets it all go in a bitter rush as soon as he puts his waiter uniform on.

He closes his eyes to brace for the day, exhaustion pulsing into a headache, and looking over his bedroom just makes him feel doomed from the start.

It’s infuriating that his bed is a torment of dark-plaid blankets as if he were ever in the throes of a good rest. Ikuya has mastered the art of surviving off two to four hours of sleep each night – brokenly, he might add, between crying himself awake or throwing up until he’s conscious.

Pretty sure he’s getting brain damage from the insomnia, but it helps to just pretend that he’s high when he’s in lecture and thinks that the professor is saying the same three sentences over and over. Saying the same three sentences over and over. Saying the same three sentences over and over.

He jerks back to himself with a shudder. He needs to go to goddamn sleep.

He can’t even think about looking under the bed to find all the cum socks from shameful peaks in his long-running fantasy of someone whisking him the fuck out of here. At this point, it’s just another bad emotional tendency that’s piling up with the rest of them. His stare is blank as he regards the dirty dishes towering high on his desk, souring the air. His bookshelves are dusty and it hurts his heart; he keeps his childhood fairytales with him and seeing them filthy is the perfect representation of adulthood right now. He’s just too tired to care, but he’s still anxious enough to hate himself for it.

Ikuya crams his notebooks into his backpack and shoulders it with a groan. The bedroom door is jammed from the building’s sagging foundation, so he’s forced to kick it open before stepping into the living room. The apartment itself is cramped, a shoebox that reeks of the hopeless boredom that comes with poverty. It gets smaller every day and the brick walls aren’t hipster like a coffeeshop’s – the brick rains concrete dust, the place is impossible to heat and it’s insufferable in the summer.

Ikuya fumes a sigh when he notices the window unit in the dining area sweating. He notes that he’ll need to put more duct tape around the unit, then he exchanges one moldy towel for another before stepping onto the balcony to let the fabric air out.

Nii’s punching bag stands against the railing; her tools and empty beers are scattered on the deck from the last time she fixed the air conditioner. There’s a pile of bricks that crashed down from the roof during a storm; he and Nii keep them there in case they need to file a lawsuit somewhere down their desperate road.

Ikuya makes the mistake of taking a moment to breathe in some fresh air. The balcony gives a scenic view of traffic and the ass-end of a fast food joint, so the world is clouded with smog and he gags.

He goes back inside and scowls at how impossible it is to light the apartment. He tries to open the blinds and they jam; leaving the balcony door open to let the city stench in is not an option, so he lets the neon palm tree on the wall guide him. He got it from Seven Tears when they were renovating the bar, and he likes how it casts a green and pink glow across the apartment. It’s easy to cling to little joys in a space like this.

Ikuya grabs his ancient iPod from the desk that’s crammed beside the balcony door, and he pushes aside old hard drives and receipts to find the device. He glances above the desk where Nii’s dusty police achievements hang. It never bothered him that he has nothing proud to display; he isn’t getting employee of the year any time soon since he’s not about to put in the effort to get his asshole boss’s praise.

Ikuya startles when the fridge hisses and he kicks it to make it stop. His shoe sticks to the tacky linoleum, which is peeling at the wall corners, and the appliances are yellowed with age. He looks into the pot on the stove and sniffs, scowls, then turns away.

Movement stirs in the couch and Ikuya creeps over. He glances at the crate they use as a side table and sighs at the vodka bottle tipped over. He spots another one on the coffee table that Nii uses as her workspace – it’s cluttered with maps, her badge, and a duffle bag full of rifles.

Ikuya lifts his chin and goes over to the window, yanking the blinks open to let daylight scream in.

Nii convulses awake on the sofa, moaning like a shot animal. Ikuya marches over and jerks the blanket off her head to cross his arms at her. “Really?” He doesn’t even sound confrontational anymore – he’s almost humored in his exasperation.

Nii is grimy, her hair matted with sweat. There’s two days worth of make-up caked on her face. She throws the blanket back over her eyes, her voice nothing but croaked air. “G’way.”

Ikuya shakes his head. “You pissed in your uniform.”  


He rolls up his sleeves before hauling her up. Nii groans as her stomach rolls and he catches her full weight when she stumbles. “Come on, let’s go to bed.”

“I was,” she slurs, frustratingly boneless while Ikuya drags her toward her bedroom. “Shit, move, ‘mma puke –”

He races her into the kitchen and shoves her face in the sink, looking away as she retches nothing but stomach acid. He pats her damp hair to quell her shivers. She sags against the counter before letting herself be maneuvered, her silence more bitter than anything else.

Black lights guide the way through Nii’s dungeon of a bedroom. She even painted the bricks black, which means they’ll never get their rental deposit back. Ikuya unclips her gun belt and drops it amongst the clutter of empty eyeliner tubes on her vanity; he trips on fishnets and metal-leather outfits on the way to her bed, which takes up most of the tiny room. Ikuya lies Nii down on the velvet blankets and leans back. “Want some water? An Advil or eight?”

“Nah,” she rasps, flopping onto her side. “Jus’ wanna sleep.”

He shifts his eyes up to the wall as she shimmies out of her uniform, too out of it to give a shit. Ikuya looks over her posters of screamo bands and historical figures of dark and questionable nature. He glances back down when she puts a blanket over her legs. “Kay. I’m going to class now, I have a closing shift afterwards.”

Nii hasn’t opened her eyes this entire time until now, and she does so with cracking liner and matted lashes. She’s so swollen and miserable that it hurts to look at her. “A’ight, be careful.”

He can’t help but smile briefly. Sadly. “I will.”

“I gotta shift at eight tonight.”

“You probably shouldn’t go; one nap isn’t going to make downing two vodka bottles go away.”

She hisses out an irritated exhale, shooting him a look. “Skipped too much work already. Sei’s got on to me ‘bout it.”

Ikuya rolls his lips in. “Well, take the bus.” He adjusts his backpack on his way out the door, calling, “Don’t get a D.U.I. on your bike.”

“You little shit,” Nii scoffs. He grins.

Ikuya walks down the complex’s shag-carpet staircase, which is always dark and was possibly used in a low-budgeted horror movie somewhere down the road. He starts his walk on the side of a four lane highway but it’s not that frightening to be near since morning traffic is at a standstill, letting exhaust fumes spike the temperature higher. He fiddles with his shirt buttons and yanks them open in the miserable heat; sunlight flares off his leather work shoes as a blister works at his ankle.

Ikuya keeps his earbuds in with his head low until he comes to a 90s apartment building, one that desperately needs a revival of aesthetics. It still looks homier than Ikuya’s building, he thinks. Kids and pets live here, the balconies draped in flower boxes and benches. A slow-cooker steams from the window of one apartment and Ikuya thinks what he’d give to stop eating Seven Tears  for lunch every day.

He hauls himself up the rickety fire escape and nods politely to the old woman who keeps her forest of succulents on her deck level. He continues his climb and a legion of cats plaster to the window of another apartment, swatting at the glass as he passes. At long last, he makes it to the window with neon ashtrays, and Ikuya bangs on the glass. “Asahi!”

Nothing, as expected. Ikuya huffs his bangs out of his face and ties his hair back before shoving the window open and stumbling into the apartment. “Fuck, it’s hot in here.” He shakes his shirt out in disbelief and glances around the apartment, which makes Ikuya always feel like he’s stepped inside a fortune teller’s tent – or maybe a witch’s hut.

Satin drapes over the furniture and animal skulls hang from the ceiling; Asahi finds them in the woods and claims it’s sad that dogs or cats died all alone, so he takes their bones to give them a home. Ikuya stopped questioning it because it’s the saddest thing to think about.

There are yellowed spell books probably from eBay, since Asahi never ended his journey to find “the answer.” Whatever that means. His religion of the month is voodoo; Ikuya already knew about voodoo dolls, but Asahi wouldn’t dream of wishing pain on anyone, so he makes dolls of his friends in the hope that they’ll be safe.

Herb sheddings and pot ash clot the carpet, and insufferable heat comes from Asahi’s marijuana lamps. Ikuya squats to pinch a leaf between his fingers and licks off the sticky crystals. He roams over to the bookshelf, where a hulking terrarium sits. Asahi didn’t take it well when his albino Ball Python, Nymphadora, passed away, so an Indian cobra named Noodle has taken her place.

Asahi found her in Iwatobi’s wetlands – in recent years, people have started to come out there to drop off exotic snakes they don’t want to care for any longer. He and Ikuya go out there often just for a rush, and they found Noodle ran over by a car and left for dead. Poisonous or not, Ikuya couldn’t talk Asahi out of keeping Noodle.

“Asahi,” Ikuya calls, grabbing whatever he can find from the fridge – today, it’s sparkling soda that tastes like dissolved Skittles. “Ew, ugh – let’s go!”

Asahi barges out of his room, waving smoke out of his face. He’s dressed in basketball shorts and mismatched socks, gold chain twisted around his neck. He pinches the joint between his lips, grunting, “All right, geeze.” He picks a white tee out of the laundry pile on the couch and rolls it on, then jams his feet in some Timberlands. He takes a baggie of trimmed pot out of the closet and stuffs it in his backpack. “You in a hurry or somethin’?”

“No, you’re late.”

Asahi snorts a laugh and throws away the last of the spliff, making kissy noises at Noodle before they exit. “You’re in a big rush to get to a lecture you just sleep through, my good bitch.”

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to my 90 minute nap, so let’s go.”

He and Asahi don’t have the same classes since Asahi is in his last year – it’s taken more time than standard for him to graduate because he wasn’t able to take on a full load of classes, running his mother’s flower shop. Ikuya’s still in core classes and is an undecided major. The smart way to go would probably be business, but Ikuya doesn’t have the motivation for it. He doesn’t think his depression could handle any sort of corporate setting, but he can’t handle much more of his waitering job. All he’s doing is floating right now.

They start toward campus and Ikuya downs the rest of his disgusting soda. “Kisumi didn’t hang out last night?” He’s not usually at Asahi’s during the week, but Ikuya just needs to think about something else.

“Nah,” Asahi sighs, taking a mighty drag from his vape pen. Ikuya’s used to walking through the raspberry cloud at this point, but he’s still embarrassed by the looks they get. Asahi grunts, “Think he doesn’t like coming over ‘cause of my pot plants.”

“Well, yeah.” Ikuya readjusts his backpack, grimacing at the weight. “Most people aren’t comfortable around it.”

Asahi blows smoke rings and twirls his finger around the biggest one to make it spiral and fade. “I think that’s why he won’t marry me.”

Ikuya almost falters in his steps. “It’s that big of a deal to him?”

“Maybe.” Asahi shrugs, kicking stray trash as they walk. “So I’m kind of really fuckin’ screwed because sales ain’t keepin’ Mom’s shop open, it’s the weed.” He snorts. “Best thing about college is the campus, having a good place to deal. I spend most of my time there even though I’m just takin’ two classes this semester.”

It’s an exhausting hustle and it shows, but Asahi still has a pep in his step – plus all the scars from back in the day. The wounds just add more goofiness to his features, somehow. Ikuya says, “Well, just hang out at his place for a while. He might understand one day.”

“He probably won’t,” Asahi smiles. “But that’s okay. It’ll all work out.”

They trudge up the hill toward the college’s administrative building and Ikuya’s phone buzzes. He pulls it out of his jeans, blinking. “Oh. Nii-chan’s calling.”

“Tell him I said hey, I’m gonna bounce.” Asahi’s already got his eye on a group of freshmen, and Ikuya doesn’t need to be told that those are some of his regular clients.

Ikuya stares at his phone. He chews his lip and considers, but dread gets the best of him before he swipes to decline. His earbuds go back in, his head turns low, and he walks toward his lecture hall.

Sousuke is extremely busy picking lint out of his computer keyboard when there’s a knock on the door. Echo jolts awake from her nap in the corner and he straightens up, typing blindly as Seijuro pops in. “Hey, Aki brought me donuts. Come eat them for me.”

“You don’t want them?”

“Bro, I’m on an egg white and whey diet. I start eating sugar again and my abs no longer feel like what sidewalks are made out of.” 

Sousuke fixes him with an unimpressed stare before shrugging. “I already had lunch, but sure.” He casually sweeps the keyboard lint off his desk and Seijuro’s gaze treks the motion with a flat look.

Echo trots along on the walk to Seijuro’s office and Sousuke flops down in one of the guest chairs to start on a glazed donut. “How’s your sister?”

Seijuro grimaces a smile. “She’s okay, I think. I won’t be getting her until tomorrow, then she’ll start school on Friday.”

“You enrolled her in a good school. It’s expensive since it’s private, but Gou seems to like it. I’ll ask her to watch out for Isuzu.”

“Thanks, man.”

Sousuke nods and reaches for another donut. “Heard you led a decent bust this morning.”

Seijuro shakes up a thermos of chilled ginger, smiling wide. “Excavated two dozen bricks down at that grocery store on Bledsoe Drive.” He takes a drink and leans forward. “Get this: the manager was stashing it in pallets. Like, between the planks.”

Sousuke’s brows crease as he chews. “Where’s Bledsoe Drive?”

“Christ, I’m glad we finally installed a GPS in your cruiser. I swear, your sense of direction is getting worse as you age.”

“Fuck off, I know you keep testosterone pills hidden in that left drawer behind your stress ball collection.”

“Oh, so you don’t get your beard oil shipped here instead of at home?” Seijuro raises one of his long, devilish brows and smirks.

Sousuke scoffs even as he blushes. “You opened my mail?”

“You snooped in my office?”

He keeps his scowl in place while eating his donut and Seijuro nods smugly. He says, “Bledsoe Drive is south of here, in the slums. It’s not far from the orphanage where Nami-chan was.”

Sousuke can’t recall. Perhaps his memory is getting worse with his sense of direction. He chews more stubbornly, nodding a lie. “Yeah. Right.” He clears his throat. “That’s a lot of coke to find hidden in a public place. Not good.”

“No shit,” Seijuro sighs, propping his temple on a fist. “We gotta figure out how it was smuggled into the city. Best guess is the barges, like how Haru fetched Freebird’s drugs, but our detectives are swamped. At least the new recruits might be able to figure out who the distributors are.”  

Sousuke shoos Echo away as she whines for a donut, then feels guilty and offers her a pinch of his. “I haven’t met any recruits.”

“They start tonight, I gotta give ‘em a little orientation.”

“Have you even started organizing something like that?”

“Hell nope,” Seijuro pipes, perfectly content that his life is up in flames. “They’re big boys, I’m sure they know the deal. One of the guys worked for the Russian government at one point.”

Sousuke reels, though he’s impressed. “We can afford him on our pay roll?”

“Dude offered to come, actually. I think he’s bored; he hops around to different precincts since he’s basically retired. Hell, he’s only like, forty something.”

“That’s… odd.”

Seijuro shrugs. “He’s in high demand and he’s ready to work, so that’s all that matters.” He clicks to an email on his computer, squinting. “Mik-hai-l Nitori.” Sousuke blinks before Seijuro gives a confirming nod. “He’s Ai’s uncle. Momo met them at their wedding, said he seems like a well-rounded guy.”

“And what about the other detective?”

Seijuro pulls an uncomfortable face. “Not so well-rounded, but he offered to come, too. Now this guy –” He clicks around on his computer but seems to be going to a search engine, rather than another email. “He’s got a fuckin’ crazy track record. Served eight years in the army after high school, but he left the service for…” He squints. “B.C.D.?”

Sousuke bristles. “Bad Conduct Discharge. It’s a punishment.” He shakes his head as his mind races. “You normally have to be confined in a military prison for whatever happened.” Sousuke goes around the desk to lean over at the computer. “He went through an appeal procedure. They never work.”

“What type of situations warrant that kind of discharge?”

Sousuke sits back down and runs the side of his finger across his mouth, thinking. “You have to be court-martialed for it, so it could be anything from manslaughter to sexual assault. I’m assuming neither of those situations occurred since he was able to work for the government again.” He crosses his arms with a wary scowl. “He might have just gone AWOL, I don’t know. The most common cause of B.C.D.’s that I saw was sedition.”

Seijuro’s brows go high. “Trying to overthrow the government?”

“It could have been as simple as telling other people to disregard orders. Either way, it’s a shameful way to leave the service. Most of the time, you can’t get any VA benefits afterward. It follows you forever.” He taps his teeth together before his jaw closes and rolls. “Might be hard to work with him. What branch of the army did he serve?”

Seijuro clicks around and braces himself. “Ah. Special Forces.”

Sousuke rolls his eyes in dread. “What was his rank?”

“Uh…” He drags the word out as he scrolls. “MOS descriptions… he gained the officer rank quickly, then he became an ‘18B’ – Weapons Sergeant?”

Sousuke scoffs in exasperation. “He only climbed two positions as a sergeant in eight years?”

Seijuro blinks before he understands. “You think he might be lazy.” He reads some more and perks up. “This says he was discharged as a detective in the Office of Special Investigations, so he’s gotta know his stuff if he was able to successfully transition to another branch.”

Sousuke droops. “He was discharged while investigating technology infiltration, economic crime, and terrorism, Sei?”

“Okay, look.” He splays his hands on the table and levels their gazes. “He wouldn’t have been able to get a job in the police force if anyone saw him as capable of espionage. He’s in the clear, Sousuke.” Seijuro hesitates. “Maybe all this paranoia has something to do with the culture that surrounds a B.C.D. discharge – trust and believe it doesn’t sound too hot to me – but the guy’s uncovered big stuff in other communities. Drugs, traffic rings, internal laundering in precincts.” He gives a defeated shrug. “We need his help, man. We’ve been without a gang war for six years and we’re just sitting ducks on borrowed fuckin’ time. This guy can help us, I know it.”

Sousuke leans back to cross his arms. “And who the hell might he be?”

Ryuuji lazes awake to evening rain. He left a window open and the walls sweat, the glass panes flushed with condensation. The sheets are hot but Ryuuji burns in silence; his eyes are swollen, the whites faded gray with haunted fatigue.

He finds the motivation to stretch and scrapes his tongue against the roof of his mouth, trying to rid the foul taste of morning breath. He sits up as he grabs his menthols and he wears a distasteful scowl for the bedroom’s décor: it’s a cheap imitation of the modern-rustic movement with cream-and-black fabrics as well as the occasional house plant. There’s also a whole lot of random copper.

Mind you, Ryuuji hasn’t owned a home to decorate in years – he normally works out of grungy hotels – but it’s concerning to see how interior design is evolving. Devolving, more like. At the very least, he supposes it’s nice to have a bedroom with a proper closet for once, even though he lives out of only three suitcases.

When Ryuuji was checking the house, peeking behind oddly dissymmetrical picture frames, he noticed that the walls were painted around pencil ticks – they were dated from when children lived here and were growing. Ryuuji imagines that the family who owns this shabby little Bed and Breakfast originally bought the place to flip it but were forced to live in it when expenses piled up. Even though the city’s real estate market has improved due to the newfound lack of gang violence, the market wasn’t decent enough for the family to sell. Tourism still isn’t going smashingly, but they were able to turn the house into a temporary rental that pays by the week. Ryuuji reckons that the family still lives here when they can’t get any bookings; he wonders where they’re staying now.

He ponders it over his cigarette, flicking the ashes into his rum and Coke from yesterday. He pushes up his tank to scratch at his belly and hauls himself out of bed, going for a piss, then to find coffee. At least the family was interesting enough to think of putting a coffee bar upstairs – it’s hidden in a cramped nook that juts into a rectangle, just big enough for a counter and a garden table.

He ducks inside, lets the coffee pot gurgle, then crouches into one of the chairs to grimace out the port window. Summer rain in Iwatobi always makes the humidity worse. Something long-forgotten in his soul makes him open the window to listen – rain patters, cars sludge by, but beyond that is the distant echo of waves.

Ryuuji’s eyes fall half-lidded, mouth parting. His cigarette drops slack between two fingers, thumb stirring across his mug. Chills tighten his pores as the ocean dances on, and tension that he’s carried for years just rolls away. The evening heat is thick with salt, enough to burn his eyes, and it feels like he could sleep forever with that smell all around him. It’s really been too long.

Ryuuji sits until the coffee gets cold and he bristles when the house creaks. His eyes dart to the floor to track the noise from below. He rises, not bothering to make sure he’s presentable as he prowls down the stairs. He looks like death warmed over as he always does, but such an appearance works in his favor in the case of skittish robbers.

It’s daylight and there’s a steady stream of traffic, so he’s already dismissing that assumption. Whoever is moving around does so with clumsy exuberance – their light steps convey fulfillment, perhaps even bliss. Ryuuji lifts his brows as he pads through the kitchen to shoulder open the door to the covered porch, and his eyes slowly climb the ladder before him.

A man hums from the top, slathering a paint brush across the ceiling. The color is shaded pale in robin’s egg blue and it’s taking over most of the porch ceiling. Ryuuji must have slept harder than he thought.

He watches in silence, crossing his arms and propping on the door frame. Admitably, the man is good company with his humming and deft motions; he makes a simple task look so satisfying. Warm mist floats across Ryuuji’s skin, the wind chimes sing, and he once again finds himself appreciative of Iwatobi – maybe even the people.

That is, until the man notices him. He jerks, saved only by Ryuuji grabbing the ladder. The man throws a hand over his heart, accent thick and disgruntled. “Bozhe moi, how long have you been standing there?!”

Ryuuji openly smirks in amusement. “Long enough, finally.”

He scoffs a laugh and shakes his head. “Keep holding on, let me get down. This old thing has seen better days.”

Ryuuji does as he’s told, grinning. “The ladder, you mean?” 

“I can already tell you’re a charmer,” the man grunts, hopping to the porch. He pushes his blonde curls back and wipes the paint off his hands with a rag, then he thrusts his fingers out with ramrod posture and a blinding smile. “I’m Mikhail Nitori.” His smile relaxes into something more interesting. “Your roommate for the time being and fellow recruit to the Iwatobi Investigation Unit.”

“Ryuuji.” He dares a quick glance down because hands tell a story. Hygiene, labor – it doesn’t matter what elements of a person’s life that Ryuuji needs to find, it’s all in the hands. Mikhail’s have blond dusting across the backs, a few age speckles, but the skin is soft when they clasp palms. Ryuuji’s intrigue is deplorable when he notices a gold band.

Mikhail’s fingers tense around him and the man’s gaze slips between their palms. At first, Ryuuji brims with pride because he thinks Mikhail is checking his ring finger, but then he realizes that Mikhail is studying the lines of his palm.

Before Ryuuji can find a reason why, Mikhail pulls back with a knowing grin. Then he just stands there, rain pouring in the background. “Pretty chain.” He nods at Ryuuji’s throat, eyes crinkling, sharpening. “That real gold?”

Ryuuji squints and chooses to ignore the question. “Thought you were the man of the house, what with the…” He throws a lazy gesture to the ceiling as it drips blue onto the newspapers below. “Personal touches.”

“Ah! Don’t worry, I already checked with the owners and they promised it was fine; they even thanked me for sprucing up the place!”

Ryuuji nods out his confusion. “Somethin’ about exposed wood you don’t like?”

Mikhail opens his mouth, twitching a grin of pleased surprised at the unabashed innuendo. “You’ve never heard the reason why you’re supposed to paint porch ceilings blue?”

“That sounded judgmental. I think you’re deducing my social experience.” His athleisure wear is stained with pizza grease and having morning breath at five in the evening should prove what kind of mental state Ryuuji’s been floating through for the last fifteen years. 

Mikhail claps his hands with a laugh. “Not all detectives go that route – you’re one,” he teases. “So you should know that.” He crosses his arms, cupping his elbows with relaxed posture. He’s built in a lean way, fit from cardio rather than weight lifting. Mikhail points his gaze at the ceiling. “Painting the porch ceiling blue is to ward off evil spirits.”

Ryuuji just snorts. “Oh. Cool.” He’s seen some real freaks in his line of work; having a superstitious roommate will hardly keep him up at night. Though, “Are you gonna have to do this to every ceiling in the house? I’d rather not be stuck huffing paint fumes, I get real paranoid when I’m high.”

Mikhail’s eyes crinkle shut when he chuckles. “No, it’s just for the porch.” He sighs up at the paint can on the top of the ladder. “I’ll finish later, just have to get the ceiling done by in the morning.”

Ryuuji watches him gather up his phone and water bottle from the porch ledge. He humors Mikhail, “Not worried about anything comin’ into the house tonight?”

Mikhail balks gravely. “Oh, no. Not at all.” He turns to the sunset, using both hands to clutch the rag to his chest. “Spirits are not evil in the night; they are free, roaming about with a semblance of reality.” He gives Ryuuji a pointed look of amusement on his way into the house. “Daytime is when they have to accept that none of it is true. That’s when they get angry.”  

Ryuuji raises a brow at the porch ceiling. “Cryptic.”

“Always~” Mikhail calls from the kitchen.

Ryuuji wanders in there to plop in a chair and start his second cigarette. When Mikhail hears the lighter flick, he stops rummaging through the cabinets to drone, “You’re worried about paint fumes but you’re okay with me breathing that in?”

“You’re Russian, right? That place has the largest smoking population in Europe.”

“Oh, so you’re a profiler.”

He taps the ashes out into a square glass he left on the table at some point; the liquor is dried, sticky, and sour at the bottom. Ryuuji crosses his ankle over his knee and leans back, sighing out smoke. “Just let me finish this one, I won’t smoke another one around you.”

Mikhail is taken aback, pleasantly so. His grin turns playful as he resumes his quest for – something, in the cabinets. “You know this house is for non-smoking; it was in the monthly lease agreement.”

He rolls his eyes because can this guy not tell how seasoned Ryuuji is? “I have a fool proof cleaning method; works in heroin-stained motel rooms and outdated craftsmens alike.”

Mikhail finds a cooking pot before digging through the fridge. “You use bleach?”

“No, lemon and seltzer water.”

Mikhail huffs a grin, shrugging. “Well, that works to get blood out of clothes. I never thought about using it for anything else.” He takes out a slew of vegetables that he must have bought when he first arrived at the house, when Ryuuji was sleeping. Beets, mushrooms, potatoes, leek and parsnips. He left all the ingredients in the grocery bag – is he lazy or is this another form of minimalist sufficiency? Ryuuji isn’t sure yet.

Mikhail seems to know what he’s doing, washing and cutting with ease, and Ryuuji is familiar with how comfortable the motions of cooking are. He asks, “What are you making?”

“Oh, borscht! It’s my nephew’s favorite food and he lives in town, so I’m visiting him after our orientation tonight.”

Ryuuji tenses. He casually runs the cigarette filter across his lip. “Mm.”

Mikhail hauls the pot to the sink, then flicks the stove on high. Ryuuji knows that borscht is to be kept on low heat for up to four hours; it’s easy to assume that Mikhail is just rushing the process because they have work soon, but Ryuuji also gathers that he’s a confident cook – used to quickly preparing meals for large quantities of guests. He’s social, seems to be an easy-going conversationist, the type to roll with the punches when it comes to frustrating coworkers. But what does he like to talk about? Is he open with everyone or are such vulnerabilities saved for those closest to him?

Do his loyalties lie at the office or his house: his job or his family?

“So you’ve been to Iwatobi before?” Ryuuji bobs the cigarette. “To visit your nephew and such?”

“I’m not here as often as I’d like to be,” Mikhail pouts, setting out some beef stock before placing a bag on the counter – there’s an odd, rattling noise. “I travel a lot for work and Aiichiro has a decent gig at the rehab center in town, so our schedules never match up. Not even on the holidays, most times.”

He slides the beef into the pot, then reaches in the bag to drop some bones in. The rational part of Ryuuji’s brain knows that Mikhail is only adding a few bones for the marrow, so there’s more flavor to the soup, but Mikhail’s odd superstitions get the best of Ryuuji for a moment.

Mikhail’s voice warms with fondness. “Utyonok doesn’t like to miss too many shifts.” He smiles to himself. “His husband is good for him, makes sure he doesn’t work himself to death.”

So Mikhail’s more concerned about family than anything else, not just work. He’s sentimental. That’s not to say he does a bad job on the clock – Ryuuji’s the laziest of them all and Iwatobi scraped up enough for his flat rate.

He casually takes another drag. “Utyonok?”

“Duckling,” Mikhail smiles.

Ryuuji watches him cook until his throat itches for another cigarette, but he refrains. He sits there, nursing another coffee and being all around lazy. He should probably go change clothes, needs to most definitely take a shower, but he’ll just end up spritzing on some cologne before walking out the door as usual.

Mikhail asks him all the trivial, polite things: does Ryuuji have siblings (no); what are his hobbies (food blogging); what’s his favorite food (omurice); does he like pineapple on his pizza (no but hell no, and he promises to kick Mikhail out of the fucking house if he dares to bring such a monstrosity anywhere near him); lastly, he asks how old Ryuuji is (that gets him a swift bird sent his way, but Mikhail only laughs).

Detectives converse in questions, in circles, but Ryuuji learns. The clock ticks in the silence between them, and it’s quiet enough for Ryuuji’s mumble to carry. “What do you know about Iwatobi?”

Mikhail adds coriander and peppercorns to the pot before bracing his hands on the counter, thinking. “It’s a fallen kingdom. The dominating gangs have been dormant for six years but the city profited from criminal activity more than anything else.” He shrugs. “They couldn’t accept what Iwatobi is; they’re trying to make it something else, so crime is starting to kick back up.”

Ryuuji purses his lips, impressed. “So you think it’s a doomed place.”

Mikhail makes a face. “I don’t like that word.” His mouth tightens with grimness as he stirs the pot. “Iwatobi isn’t destined to be what it was six years ago – the economy wasn’t good then, as far as my research shows, but it’s worse now because the city relied too heavily on the funding from incarceration, overpriced bails, drug busts. Since crime has decreased, your common dealer and callgirl have been thrown out into the world with no education or stability.” He levels their gazes. “Iwatobi has one rehabilitation center and the city can’t fund it. Why?”

Ryuuji grins with all his teeth. “Internal corruption is a pretty alarming conspiracy to the masses, you know.”

Mikhail scoffs and blushes. “That’s not what I mean!” He stirs the pot heatedly, grumbling, “About to get my fired my first day on the job –”

“All right, all right.” Ryuuji waves a hand and sobers up, though he keeps his default smirk in place. It’s a look of knowing. “What do you mean, then?”

Mikhail props his weight on a hip, meeting Ryuuji’s steely eyes without falter. “Nobody in this city knows what they’re doing on either side. The policework is standard – and ardent,” he adds softer. “But crime is picking back up steadily and fast. When those dealers from six years ago are forced to go back to the street and they’re hit with the 3 Times Penalty, Iwatobi isn’t going to have a proper workforce for a decade. It’s a messy system.”

Ryuuji looks away to hide his scowl. Iwatobi has a double-sided reputation for their city-specific penalty – six years ago, gang members were given the option to come forward with information and in exchange, their records were cleared. The downside is that if any of those people were caught doing illicit activity ever again, their charges would be tripled. It was a “no questions asked” sort of policy if the individual had not been caught doing any specific crimes. Iwatobi was too overwhelmed with paperwork and trials to give a shit about rapists walking free in the street.

When Mikhail continues, Ryuuji snaps out of deeper thoughts. “What will make this worse than six years ago is the fact that normal people have been hit by the city’s new economic crisis.” Mikhail takes a spoonful of soup and goes boneless at how delicious it is, then he points the spoon at Ryuuji. “You’re going to have middle-class citizens turning to drugs and crime now that they’re struggling too, just watch.”

Ryuuji lifts his chin. “So what do you propose Iwatobi does about it?”

“Iwatobi needs to start investing what little resources they have into profitable institutions – more rehabilitation, build a new orphanage, throw whatever they can into the poorest areas of the city, like the slums. Get rid of the 3 Times Penalty before half the population is in prison.”

“That’s not going to happen.” Ryuuji doesn’t falter under the heartbreak tight in the lines of Mikhail’s face. “So, now what?”

The man turns a mournful look out the window as night falls. “Now?” He repeats the question to himself with defeated acceptance, like he’s lived this Iwatobian tragedy a dozen times and he’s kicking himself for expecting different.

Mikhail shakes himself and when he turns to Ryuuji, his smile is terrifyingly impassioned. “Now, this is where we come in.”

Iwatobi’s precinct takes up an entire city block downtown. The main building climbs five stories high and boasts impressive architecture, but the sandstone exterior is washed out and reflects the decaying state of the city.

Mikhail parks the rental car in an alley walled by one side of the building, and Ryuuji notes the graffiti climbing up the bricks. The spray-painted cats and snakes chase each other across the wall and while Ryuuji studied the language of Iwatobi’s totems, learned their representation, seeing those insignias in the flesh leaves him disbelieving.

Mikhail stands beside him as they crane their heads back to view the graffiti. “They’re like cave drawings,” he pipes, flattening his hand against a fanged calico painted at eye-level. His palm comes away red, and he smears it off on the bricks. “It’s still wet.”

“No birds,” Ryuuji mumbles, squinting up at the wall. “No rabbits, wolves.”

Mikhail snorts. “Two gangs will be enough to deal with if it comes to that; I’d take it over the Big Five in a heartbeat.” His head jerks toward the dumpster as if someone just called his name, and Mikhail falls ten shades paler. He looks faint, yet he can’t tear his eyes from whatever he’s so riveted by.

Ryuuji follows his gaze to the back of the alley, though he can’t see anything – just smells the odor of sun-heated garbage.

Mikhail shoulders him toward the alley’s entrance. “Come on, let’s go.”

“What, did you see a rat?” Ryuuji’s smirk is amused while the dodge trash on the sidewalk, but he still crunches down on at least two syringes.

Mikhail pouts before upturning his nose. “Ask someone in the department what happened in the dumpster on 4th Street. They’ll tell you what I saw.”

Sousuke gains a boost of exuberance as he hurries to his office to grab his stuff and clock out; Echo trots by his side with similar enthusiasm. He is beyond ready to get home, shower off the day’s sweaty grime, and indulge in Rin’s cooking.

Sousuke pushes open his door, grabbing Echo’s leash from the floor and cramming his phone charger into his pocket. He finds his jacket and glances around, making sure nothing is left behind –

He hurdles the jacket quicker than the next breath and Haru catches it without looking up from Sousuke’s computer.

Sousuke throws a hand over his heart, wavering. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Keeping you on your toes, clearly.”

“How’d you get in here?”

Haru just arches a brow before turning back to the computer screen. “Any junkies been arrested in the last few days?”

Sousuke scoffs, taking his jacket when Haru tosses it back at him. “Yeah, dozens of them.”

“It’s a woman.”

“Well, that narrowed it down.”

Haru rolls his eyes. “Her surname is Kuramoto. She’s been in and out of rehab for a few months now, but she’s always left before she can complete the program.” He’s still wearing his faded blue scrubs, plus Haru looks exhausted, so it’s a safe assumption that he just got off work from the rehab center.  

Sousuke says, “I haven’t come across that name before personally. You think something happened to her?”

His brother shrugs and answers with unfaltering honestly. “I don’t really care about her.” He can never admit such on the clock about a patient, but when it’s just the two of them, Haru can cut the bullshit. “I was an addict too, so I know what it’s like, but her parents have paid for her treatment on multiple occasions and she walks out every time. She doesn’t want to get clean even though she’s got more reason for it than anyone else. She has a son.”

Sousuke understands the uncharacteristic dip in Haru’s voice. “So that’s why you’re looking for her.”

“Yeah.” He sighs, leaning back in Sousuke’s chair like it’s his own. “Maybe it’s nothing. I’m just used to her calling the center every day, wanting us to bring her fresh needles.” He props his cheek on his fist, eyes half-lidded and tired. “I hope she’s okay for Misaki’s sake.”

There’s a knock on the door. Sousuke glances at the clock with impatience, fighting a sigh as he opens it to see Seijuro. “Yo,” the man greets. “Want you to meet our new detectives.”

Seijuro steps aside to reveal two older men, their physicality and looks far apart on the spectrum of differences. One is blonde and dressed in tasteful pastels; the other is tan and wears dingey blacks. Sousuke nods politely and shakes their hands, first with the friendlier, smiling one. Sousuke introduces himself with an added, “Nice to meet you.”

The man’s gaze slips between their clasped palms before he lets go. “You as well! I’m Mikhail.” His voice is light though his accent is thick, and he wears a default smirk of playfulness. “I look forward to working with you.”

His genuity is surprising, though it makes Sousuke grin back, hopefully not awkwardly. The other man saunters up with a lazy sort of confidence and offers his hand. “Ryuuji.”

There’s a pause before Sousuke shakes his hand – it’s dry, calloused, and heavy. “We’re glad to have you.”

Ryuuji doesn’t respond, his eyes steely and his smile no less comforting.

Seijuro glances between them before something catches his eye. “Oi,” he laughs. “Hey, Haru! Didn’t know you were visiting.”

Ryuuji’s gaze snaps to the office.  

“He didn’t either,” Haru says with deadpan sarcasm, nodding at his brother. He slips around the desk to make his leave, nudging Sousuke on his way by. “See you.”

“Yeah, bye.”

Haru makes his way down the hallway, faltering when every hair on his body stiffens upright. He glances over his shoulder to see the man in black watching him with an unreadable expression, though it definitely isn’t friendly – it’s a type of humor that’s condescending.

Haru stares back, only turning around when the man looks away, but Haru doesn’t catch his silent chuckle.

Seijuro says to Sousuke, “I need to go print some handouts really quick, I was wondering if you could show Ryuuji and Mikhail around before their orientation.”

It takes everything in him not to sag. “Sure.” Echo whines miserably and he nudges her into silence.

When Seijuro slips around the corner, Mikhail chuckles, “That’s quite all right, Yamazaki, I’m sure Ryuuji and I will be able to find our way around on our own.”

Sousuke winces. Maybe his displeasure was more obvious than he intended. “Want a cup of coffee?” he offers by way of apology.

“How sweet, of course! That’d be lovely.”

This guy’s enthusiasm is exhausting while Ryuuji is so dead in the face that it puts Sousuke on edge – neither predicament is better than the other. He welcomes them into his office to make a pot of coffee in the corner; the space is cramped with three people and a dog, but Mikhail breezes around gracefully. He glances back at the hallway with a knowing smile. “Was that your brother, Yamazaki?”

Sousuke frowns but Mikhail’s clarification is smooth. “The man that was just here, the one with the big eyes.”  

“Uh. Yeah, he’s my half-brother.” When Mikhail blinks at his obvious discomfort, Sousuke clears his throat. “Sorry, I just – I don’t think we look that alike.”

“You don’t,” Mikhail promises, hands clasped behind his back as he wanders the room. “It was just a feeling.”

“… right.”

Mikhail gasps at a picture on Sousuke’s desk. “Is this your family?”

He glances back from the coffee pot with a short, bashful laugh. “Oh. Yeah.”

“What a precious little girl! What’s her name?”

“Namiko. She’s six.”

“What a fun age,” Mikhail sighs. “My granddaughter is three.”

Sousuke snorts, brows lifted into a sympathetic expression as he grabs two Styrofoam cups from his filing cabinet. “She was pretty stubborn at that age. Still is, but she’s more willing to listen now.”

“Children are so much fun,” Mikhail beams. “Getting to witness them become a real person with all their curiosities and excitements, oh – there’s nothing better.”

Ryuuji rolls his eyes at Mikhail, who kicks his ankle. The blonde continues his survey of the office, finding another picture on the other side of the desk. This one is of Sousuke in a suit, giving a piggy-back ride to the same man that was in the family photo; the man is kissing Sousuke’s cheek, and the scene appears to have been some sort of celebration with dark decorations. Mikhail asks, “Is this your…?”

Sousuke knows what he’s asking by the tone of voice, so he doesn’t turn around from pouring the coffee. “My husband, yeah.”

“Oh, what a doll. You both look very happy.”

Sousuke hands them their cups after the appropriate inquiries about cream and sugar. Mikhail’s coffee is all creamer, while Ryuuji drinks his straight. The man speaks up finally, his pleasantries gruff. “You from here, Yamazaki?”

“Originally, yeah.” Sousuke leans back against his desk and crosses his arms. Echo drapes her head over his shoes and lies down there. “I worked here for a while after graduating from the police academy, then I came back a little over six years ago.”

Ryuuji lifts his brows, though his hooded eyes remain unblinking as he takes a sip of his drink. “You always been a cop?”

Sousuke tries to think of any way he can sprinkle white lies around the elephant in the room, but Ryuuji’s stare is too piercing for him to try it. “I was in the military for a while.”

Mikhail gasps in delight. “Why Ryuuji, weren’t you in the service as well?! Oh, how interesting!”

“Yeah,” Ryuuji nods, smirking. “Thank you for your service.” He says it with a sarcastic wave of his hand.

The humor in his drawl is one that Sousuke recognizes very well; he’s felt that same misplaced resentment before, and the guilt that follows when someone offers those words to him.

Seijuro pops in, breathless from his run back down the hallway. “All right, we’re good to go. Thanks Sousuke, I appreciate it.”

“No problem,” he finds himself saying.

Mikoshiba leads them into your average conference room, one with overbearing fluorescents and old carpet. The wood paneling says a lot about how outdated and tired the building is – Ryuuji wonders if the police force bears the same debilitation.

Mikoshiba possesses a fiery zest for his work, enough to single-handedly hold up the entire department, Ryuuji is sure. He’s a motivator that leads by action and he holds this city dear to his heart, but that could easily mean he makes excuses for his people. Who would he protect first: cops or citizens?

Mikoshiba clearly doesn’t have a problem enlisting those outside the police force to get shit done. “You’ll be working with one of our informants.” He passes them some folders and Ryuuji cranes back when the first thing he sees is a mugshot. “Albert Wåhlander,” Mikoshiba says. “They call him White Boy on the streets.”

Mikhail and Ryuuji share a glance before their boss flusters. “Since he sells cocaine, not – not because he’s, you know. Caucasian.”

Ryuuji’s eyes laze over the report. “Your informants are actually involved in the practice of dealing?”

Mikoshiba’s gaze slides to the side, head tipping before his smile returns with professionalism. “We do things a little different here. I’m sure you’ve heard of our Three Times Pardon.”

Mikhail nods, but the motion trails off in confusion. “Are you saying this boy…” His palm flattens over the mugshot for emphasis. “He’s been convicted?”

“Yes. He used to work our port where the barges come in, and he’d take trips back and forth from here to Gothenburg. He was caught smuggling 450 kilos of coke into our bay.”

“Jesus,” Mikhail startles.

“But around that time, the Three Times Pardon was set in place, so he got to walk. A little over a year ago, we caught him with 9 grams of coke on him and he’s doing twenty years.”

Mikhail hesitates. “For only 9 grams?”

“That’s the deal with the pardon. You get caught again, and the penalties are tripled.”

“It’s a good idea,” Ryuuji nods, ignoring it when Mikhail balks at him.

Mikoshiba bobs his head in a so-so gesture. “They can still get out early on good behavior, and we have a policy about asking if they’d like to become informants. You can imagine what happens if they double-cross us in that situation.”

More prison time – 25 to life, Ryuuji is sure.

“Wåhlander’s a good kid so far,” Mikoshiba assures. “He’s posing as a homeless guy in the slums. We’ve had a lot of busts out there recently, so we’re trying to see if he can figure out who the main distributors are.”

Ryuuji taps a nail against the table, noting where greasy fingerprints haven’t been wiped down on the surface. “You’re assuming that the drugs aren’t being manufactured in the slums?”

“There’s no way.” Mikoshiba is righteous in his confidence. “Iwatobi’s entry point for contraband has always been the barges. We’ve got most of our detectives working at the port for that reason.”

“But have you checked?”

Tension pulses through the room. Mikoshiba’s brow twitches up as a muscle ticks in his jaw. Slowly, Mikhail’s brows raise between the men, and as juicy as this edginess is, he interjects lightly. “We’ll be happy to start working with the White Boy whenever you’re ready, Mikoshiba.”

The man’s startling eyes turn. “Good.” His gaze focuses back on Ryuuji for a beat longer before he glances away with a pointed cough. “Well, you’ll start working with him on your next shift. That’s all I have for you. Welcome to Iwatobi.”

In the car headed to see Mikhail’s nephew, the man swats Ryuuji with his folder. “What the hell was that?”

“Don’t hit me,” he frowns in mock hurt, keeping one hand slack on the wheel’s underside while he smokes with the other. He flicks ashes out the crack in the window. “He started it.”

Mikhail scoffs a high laugh. “You insinuated that Mikoshiba hadn’t checked the slums for drug manufacturing.” He crosses his legs, shimming more comfortably into the passenger’s seat. He watches the windshield wipers rake away the night’s fog. “He seems like a hands-on type of guy; I’m sure he spends most of his time in the field with his officers.”

Ryuuji gives him the side-eye as smoke cuts through his teeth. “Doesn’t mean they’re in the field in the slums.”

Mikhail sighs, rolling his head to face him with a playful sort of defeat. “What do you want from them, zaika?”

The dramatic longing makes him slice a grin. “I just want Mikoshiba to admit that the police are afraid to go to the slums. That’s why they left the kid out there. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing, Mikhail – Mikoshiba’s got so much going on that he didn’t even give us some serious information about our own case. We have to wait until our next shift to get it? Like, the fuck?”

“Big talk,” Mikhail purrs.

The car pulls up to a bland apartment building, a rectangular structure of dirty vinyl with no personalized architecture. Mikhail opens the passenger’s door and grabs his Tupperware. “You take directions around here well.” He steps onto the yellow lawn. “Want me to get a cab when I’m done?”

“Nah, it’s cool, I’ll go buy cigarettes or something. Want me to pick you up at eight?”

“Giving me a curfew?” His grin is slow before he laughs. “Yeah, that’s fine. Stay out of trouble.”

Ryuuji rolls up the passenger’s window and watches him step into the building. “No such promises,” he mumbles to the empty cab. His eyes wander to Wåhlander’s file on the console and he opens it, gaze rushing down the front page. His eyes freeze and he straightens, tossing the folder away to take the wheel. “Stationed on Bledsoe Drive, Bledsoe Drive,” he chants to himself, pulling through the neighborhood before splitting off on the appropriate exit.

Iwatobi’s slums are not as hopeless as Ryuuji thought, but there is still a threatening disconnect between the slums and the rest of the city. The streets are lively in the night; the liquor stores and pawn shops have barred windows, and the buildings glow in flickering neon. Their doors are open with old men slumped in stools, bellies heavy-set with pot holes in their tanks. They glisten with summer sweat as they smoke cigars and laugh into cheap liquor bottles. It’s a jovial sight, rather than intimidating. They shout greetings at the younger people exiting the store with tale-tale brown paper bags.

Dirt bikes and four wheelers fly around Ryuuji’s car, popping wheelies as they drive by the fire barrel burning in the center of the road. The biker group stops at the curb to meet up with some teenagers hanging out around an old Cadillac.

The placement of that fire barrel would have been obvious even without the look those kids send him: outsiders are not allowed into the slums.

After that encounter, he parks a few blocks away and slips through an alley to get onto Bledsoe Drive. The breeze picks up and dust cakes him; the aroma of piss and smoke bleeds into his clothes. The fire barrels parch the air, leaving him hazy as he wanders to a gas station.

Colorful pick-ups loiter at the pumps, blaring music that threatens to crack the pavement. People mingle from where they’re sitting on hoods or in the back. Ryuuji recognizes that brand of happiness: they would be ready for dangerous mischief the moment it presents itself.

He slips into the gas station, noting the barred windows and bulletproof glass protecting the cashier. A group of loud teenagers hang around the vibrant slot machines and they watch him as he steps up to the counter. “You got Marlboro Blacks?”

The cashier is reading a book that covers her expression: Les Misérables. The girl puts it down, revealing herself to be baby-faced and disturbingly innocent for a place like this. She carefully marks her page before hopping off her stool; she’s a short thing, wearing a standard uniform polo that’s tucked into a poofy skirt of dusty purple. Her combat boots are unlaced as she wanders to the counter with the appropriate cigarettes.

She rings him up and he pays, but she pauses when he goes to put his wallet up. “Don’t put it in your back pocket.” She says it like it’s obvious.

Ryuuji blinks for clarification but the girl only looks to the group of teenagers in the back. Ryuuji understands as his stomach dips: someone could try to steal his wallet if he makes it that easy for them.

He tucks it into his breast pocket. “Thanks.” He goes to leave when the door chimes open, and Ryuuji turns back to the girl with his hands on the counter. “Do you have a bathroom?”

His suddenness makes her give him a onceover. Her eyes dart to the boy who just walked in, then back to Ryuuji. “No. Sorry.”

His eyes narrow over his smile as he glances at her nametag. “No problem, Ayumu. Have a good night.”

Ryuuji takes his smoke outside, casually leaning against the barred window as he watches Wåhlander talk with the girl. He’s broader than his mugshot perceived; Albert has that prison-build, all bulk up top and skinny in the legs. His hair is too soft to pass for a “homeless” person’s. He isn’t taking the job as seriously as Mikoshiba thought.

Ryuuji doesn’t need to hear what Wåhlander and Ayumu are saying to understand what’s going on. The boy braces his forearms on the counter to lean closer to Ayumu, and the girl doesn’t shy away. He plays with her little hand and though his hood obscures his profile from Ryuuji, whatever he says makes Ayumu duck her eyes with a bashful smile.

She grabs him a pack of cigarettes and a purple lighter. He kisses her cheek and leaves without paying. Ryuuji watches Ayumu slip her own money into the register before she returns to her book with chewed lip and blushing cheeks.

Wåhlander slips outside and lights up before the door even closes. Ryuuji leans against the building, cast in shadow as his gaze follows the boy across the parking lot. Wåhlander flips up his collar, adjusting his jacket with exaggerated rolls – a show of dominance and paranoia.

The gas station door bursts open and the bell screams. The group of teenagers pour out with intimidating numbers. “Aye, White Boy!”

Wåhlander fades to a stop, hands dropping open. Though his back is to Ryuuji, he doesn’t have to see the boy’s expression to know what’s rushing through his mind. His head bows, shoulders tense. He’s choosing between fight or flight.

Albert decides neither. He turns around with a blinding smile that freezes in place when one of the teenagers whips out a pistol, aiming it firm and true at his face.  

Ryuuji blinks in a slow-motion haze of disbelief. His hand gropes for his own holster, but nothing in him can convince him to move faster.

The shot makes the blood explode in his veins and Ryuuji’s breath punches out of him. He breaks out in a sweat. His arms fall slack. He is suddenly aware of how alone he is in the world, without a single person to run to.

Albert is already dead when he hits the ground; bile rolls up Ryuuji’s throat when his skull cracks open against the pavement, and he watches blood creep around the body because his eyes won't close. 

Albert still has that purple lighter clutched in his fist.