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One I'm Scared Of The Most, Can You Scare Me Up A Little Bit Of Love?

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 Shou had only been to the hospital once before. 

 That’s not to say he hasn’t needed to go a multitude of times. Shou has broken his ribs, his left ankle, and his pointer finger on each hand; he’s dislocated his shoulder twice; hell, Shou even gets sick more often than most kids his age, mostly each time resulting in a need for hospitalization that was never acted upon for a set of short, specific reasons that were easy to remember and just as easy to question, as much as Shou isn’t allowed to under his father’s strict gaze. Shou was such a ‘problematic’ child, as his father had put it once, that he’d had to hire Fukuda- a healing psychic- just to babysit. By then, Shou already knew how to handle himself- most of those injuries he’d had to deal with on his own or his father had shown him how to deal with it on his own. 

 Shou already knew how to cauterize his wounds with his pyrokinesis, stitch his deeper cuts from online videos and forums, and look after himself in almost every way that mattered. 

 Except, allergies were an unpredictable thing. Shou had been told what he’d been allergic to, from the days when hospitalization was still an option should the need arise. And, with Shou’s allergies the need often arrived. He’s got a lot of weird allergies- a product of birth complications, as it had been explained to him. Certain spices, acidic foods, nuts, types of wheat- things he had to take serious care to avoid, and the list only grew with each reaction being a tired new bullet point for what he should avoid. Except, hospitalization was off the table, had been since he was six. So when Shou is ten and has a severe allergic reaction to a specific set of citric acid nobody had realized he’d been allergic to, Touichirou took him to an emergency psychic healer, and Shou’s life- his father’s legacy- had been saved, Touichirou offered to hire him. 

 Fukuda had been stumped at this proposal. 

 “You… want me to-” 

 “Protect him, in a way. If my son gets hurt, you will let him get hurt, and you will heal his injury so long as he has learned his lesson. There will be no sheltering him from harm,” says his father, and Fukuda takes notes on a piece of paper as though he’d forget, “but I do need him physically capable of taking over Claw when he’s old enough. And he has a knack for… needing healing.” 

 The healer nods, pencil scraping over paper. The lead comes loose at the pressure, snapping to the floor, the light tap of gravity sounding through the room. Shou, from where he draws quietly on the foot table at the side of the room, stops doodling at the sound, somehow heard enough with the distance. He watches as Fukuda fumbles at the sudden lack of writing instrument, and Touichirou frowns at him, disappointed already. Shou knows that getting on the wrong side of his father right off the bat was a sure way to make your own life miserable, as he’d seen his father do for countless employees that have come through Claw and crumbled after just moments in Touichirou’s presence. 

 Shou is not too young to understand his father is a bad person. Touichirou has never been a person Shou hesitates to be in a room with like others do- he’s spent his life with his old man, his mother not in the picture, and Shou knows that the guy is proud of him for each unremorseful action he commits. Under his proud gaze, Shou acts for Claw whenever he’s ordered with little hesitation. He’s strong headed and powerful in his own right, and hardly anybody in any established Claw base knows his relation to the organization's head, giving him a sense of authority he’s made for himself. His powers have been amplified with each punch and kick and jab and thrust aimed his way, by Touichirou’s prideful orders, and it’s something he should be proud of, too. 

 He isn’t. 

 He’s learned overtime that the fear he incites is not a token of his worth, and that him viewing it as such puts him in a different category from everybody else. Shou isn’t sure where he stands, though he knows where he’s supposed to. 

 (He knows, at least a little, just how wrong that idea feels.) 

 He gets up. Makes his way cross the room quickly, arm extended to offer the stranger his own purple crayon, the one he’d just been using to draw a random dog while he pretended not to listen in on their conversation. 

 Shou had used to want a dog, thinks he used to have one, vaguely remembers having one when he was much younger. It’s just as faded as his mother’s face, in his memory. He asked his old man about it, once, and he’d promised Shou if he ever brought it up again or snuck a dog into any base to keep under his nose, he’d personally ensure he’d never see it again. Shou tries to block that memory out.

 Fukuda blinks, surprised at the silent offer, and takes it with a small, “thanks.” 

 Shou catches his father’s eye. Touichirou is smiling at him, a hungry sort of gaze that sees a future in him, somewhere along the lines of his own goals. Shou is young, and doesn’t smile back, but as he turns away he lets the rare warmth of approval flood over him, walking back to his table and picking up a red crayon to continue his picture. It doesn’t quite work without purple, but he figured he could make do. He knows the dog in his memory wasn’t purple, but he doesn’t really care. 

 Fukuda gets hired. With a healer in Claw, he hasn’t needed a hospital more than once since his mother left. That once was a slip-up, a mistake that cost Fukuda a spot at his father’s side, but not at Shou’s. Shou doesn’t blame him- how could he, when it was his own fault? 

 “I didn’t, that wasn’t on the list-” Fukuda begs at Touichirou’s angry gaze. One of the many rules of his employment was absolutely no hospitals . Him breaking it essentially meant more than just being fired- Fukuda was clearly terrified Touichirou was going to break him. 

 Shou was a little worried he would, too. 

 Touichirou puts up a hand, and the healer stops instantly, biting his bottom lip. “It is your job to heal him yourself when things like this happen. Instead, you brought him to a hospital, compromising our position at Claw. You do realize that Shou doesn’t exist, don’t you? If they’d caught on, we’d have lost all our opportunities here. Now, we have to come up with a whole new story, all thanks to your-” 

 “S-sir, I- we used a fake name. There- there’s no way to track it back to Shou. The government will still think he’s dead, there’s no cause for them to investigate!” Fukuda cries, shaking and trying desperately not to. Shou is still where he stands at his side, feeling equally on trial, though he does not cry or shake. He simply stands rigid, waiting to hear Touichirou’s punishment, his own. 

 Touichirou looks deadly. Fukuda gulps so loud it feels like a gunshot in Shou’s ear. “All you did was register a fake name which will prompt investigation because nobody matching Shou’s description will be filed under your provided name for him, or your own if you bothered to lie about that or any relation the two of you may have. They’ll want to know why an idiot of your stature brought in a seizing child due to an allergic reaction that you could have handled yourself when neither of you exist under the names you provided and Shou doesn’t legally exist at all.” 

 Fukuda lowers his head. Shou watches as he bites his tongue from under his mop of hair, clearly trying to hold back from saying I couldn’t heal him if I didn’t know what was wrong with him and there was no time, he was suffocating, and instead closes his eyes, ready to accept whatever punishment he thinks he deserves. 

 Shou doesn’t say that it's his fault. He knows that he has to be careful with everything he eats- his allergies are widespread and even he doesn’t know their full extent. It was him that ate what sent his lungs into near-collapse, closing his throat and rashing his chest. It was him, and not Fukuda, and he doesn’t think Fukuda should be punished for it. 

 Shou doesn’t speak up. He feels like his throat is closed again, smothering him, his own body betraying him once again. 

 Fukuda is fired. Shou is told he’s never allowed to see the young man again, and that’s his own punishment. 

 “What if-” he start to ask, seriously dreading the answer. “What if I get hurt again, though?” 

 His father ruffles his hair. Then, the hand travels down to the back of his neck, the grasp light then uncomfortable then painful in seconds. Shou lets out a gasp, because his fingers are cold and rough and Shou’s first instinct is to duck away, to pry them off of him, but he’s frozen in place. 

 “You won't,” Touichirou says smoothly. “If you do, there will be nobody here to heal you, and there will be no second trip to the hospital. You’re ten years old, son. You should know how to walk on thin ice by now.”

    Shou is very careful with what he eats. He is very careful with who knows his name, with who was newly hired to work for Claw, with who he let get close. Fukuda wasn’t just his healer, he was also his partner. Someone Shou could joke with about his crummy father who seemed to find it funny rather than tattle instantly. Shou wasn’t sure he’d ever call Fukuda a friend, but he was, at least, a constant- one that didn’t end with Claw. 

 Shou realized, finally, that his father was never going to change. That he was serious about world domination, no matter how ridiculous it sounded to his son. That his pops was a madman, rich with power and money and crazy with delusions of grandeur. 

 Shou really thought he would change his mind. See sense. See Shou. Instead, all his father saw was a pedestal, a throne made of bodies of tired, broken, used and powerless people. He watched Touichirou manipulate people, lie to people, pay people off. He watched Touichirou lie to him about missing Shou’s mother, regretting losing her. Those eyes, the ones that looked at Shou like he was a prize and a nuisance all at once, could only ever regret something as soft as love. 

 Touichirou catches Shou playing with an alleyway dog. It’s not a part of any base, but a member of Claw caught him and spoke loudly of it as a joke, “that intern kid with the spiky hair, touching a pitbull with no fear! A stray one, at that!”, a small piece of information that floated to his ears and resulted in what Shou assumed would be just a scolding, a punishment, a new injury to stitch up himself. 

 That hadn’t happened to him. 

 Touichirou killed the dog. Showed him a video of its body, of its life being strangled out of it with psychic powers so vibrant and overflowing it could only have been his own. 

 “Caring for those who beg for scraps like mutts like these make you no different from them,” he’d told Shou, who stared at the footage unblinkingly, refusing to show any emotion, refusing to say any words. “I raised you to be above everyone else. I raised you to understand your own greatness, not… not to waste your time petting discarded animals.” 

 Shou apologizes. He apologizes, because that dog died because of him. A sweet dog with a lopsided grin, who probably was abandoned by her owners. Pitbulls were a breed that many mistook for evil, and Shou apologizes to his father for giving her his time rather than focusing on Claw’s goals. 

 Shou feels evil, in that moment, because he understands more than ever just how many lines his father will cross to ensure that Shou turns out just like him. How one day, if he continues following his father like he has, he will. 

 He won’t. He vows it quietly to himself as he apologizes for petting a dog, as his father accepts his apology gingerly and with a curt, “Good. Don’t make me do it again, Son.” 

 He won’t. He won’t. 

 He works to contact Fukuda and any other espers he could get to before his father does. Higashio (the power of disassembly and reassembly, a great one to have to cover his tracks; plus, Higashio had a cat named Jean Boy, and that was too precious for Shou to pass up), Ootsuki (who could create shockwaves, useful for quick escapes and who owned an XBox that Shou could use whenever), and Fukuda (who still chose to help him, despite everything) were the best he could find- they weren’t great, but they could drive and cook and they were on his side above his fathers. That was all Shou could ask for, really, at the age of 12. 

 He learns to turn invisible. To reverse polarity of other people’s power, to control his pyrokinetic abilities better. He learns to hide his aura, his injuries, his body all in time; Shou was building a rebellion, a small one, a strong one. It kicked off, finally, with Ritsu getting kidnapped by Claw. 

 It was perfect timing. Shou was 13, powerful, and had his father’s ignorance on his side. Touichirou had never even considered that Shou would try to fight back, nevertheless would abandon his station entirely, destroy numerous Claw headquarters in just a few months, remain completely undetected while doing so, and- here’s the part Shou couldn’t believe- find his mother. 

 His mother, who left without Shou, who now had a fancy, busy life filled with her boyfriend- gag- and her job as a communications manager for a gala organization. She was doing just fine without Shou. So fine, in fact, Shou was scared to even introduce himself. Did she know that Shou was still alive? Did she know, and leave anyway? Did she try to fight to take him with her? 

 (Did she want him back?) 

 Shou doesn’t have to say who he is. She takes one look at him and dives in for a hug, crying and whispering that her son, her son was back, her son had come back to her. 

 He doesn’t stay with her. He tells her, if he needs a place to go, she’ll be the first thought on his mind. She seems delighted at this, though Shou realizes as he thinks it over that she’d never actually offered anything to him. Still, he calls her at times- when he’s finished a destroying another Claw base, after thinking too hard and wanting a distraction, when he’s about to set Ritsu’s house on fire and needs a shred of certainty that yes, he has somewhere to go once all this is done. 

 Then, with a giant broccoli and a new best friend, Shou suddenly realizes it's done. They all go back to their hideout for one last night, and everyone reveals their plans for the rest of their lives, suddenly decided and finally spoken out loud, just like that. 

 Higashio and Ootsuki tell Shou they plan to move out of Japan entirely. Ootsuki knows English and Higashio is willing to learn, so “maybe we’ll try Canada. I hear it's nice. I’d love to see a moose,” announces Ootsuki while Higashio nods along enthusiastically. 

 So it’s goodbye to them, then. As much as Shou suddenly hates it. 

 He hates it from Fukuda even more, though. 

 “You can always call me to come heal you if you’re hurt. You have my number,” he says, and Shou knew this was coming, and still, it sucks. 

 “Thanks. For… helping. Even after pops fired you, you still stuck by me. And I didn’t even pay you,” Shou fumbles, trying to joke, but Fukuda’s look of pity is painful to stare into and he wants to teleport like Shimazaki and never have to look at it again. A small part of him, however, knows he’d miss it too much. 

 Fukuda leaves. He doesn’t say where he’s going, but the ‘call me if you need me’ weighs heavy in the air. 

 The fight is over. He doesn’t need him for anything, anymore. Shou no longer has anybody depending on him to reverse the harm his father has caused, and he no longer has to rely on allies to achieve that feat. It’s over, it’s done. 

 Shou has nowhere to go. 

 His father had been arrested. Serizawa- of all people- had come with him for that. The day after everyone dropped him and Shou dropped everyone, he’d been carted off to jail by some guy named Joseph who Shou had never met before but understood he had to trust in a situation like this. 

 He has three options for what to do next; he can go back to his father’s main operative base. It’s bound to be completely empty, and it's probably the safest place to crash at this point. He could also go back to his mother's house, but a part of him is scared to jump right into that. Sure, his mother might be an option, but Shou wasn’t certain if he was ready to suddenly jump into a normal life, just like that. Going with her would mean the start of normalcy; something Shou lost when he was just six, when she’d left him in the first place. The third option was to stay at the hideout by himself. The government still didn’t know that he existed, after all- yet, it was only a matter of time before the hideout was discovered, as everybody would be on the lookout for Shou after the news got out. Which, if Shou had to guess, was just a matter of time before it happened; he couldn’t stay hidden forever, especially now that his father was out of the picture.

 After all, if Touichirou didn’t talk, Joseph sure would. As if that’s his real name, Shou thinks bitterly to himself. He was investigating everything for a while now, he’d said. There was no way he didn’t know who Shou really was if that was the case. 

 He’d cross that bridge when he got to it. For now, he’d go back with his mother. He needed a place to stay- he needed something to eat, something new to wear. 

 He needed to charge his phone, in case he had to call Fukuda or the others. In case something came up, something else went wrong, because knowing his life and his luck something would go wrong. 

 Walking to his mother's house and asking to live there, at least for a little while, just until he had something better to fall back on- it was like walking into that aching pain in his chest, the one that told him bad idea, bad plan, no other options. Rip the band-aid off. It can’t be that hard, right? 

 It was just normalcy. Living with a parent and her significant other- her boyfriend lived with her, this absolute chad that Shou felt was way too cocky and brash to be a good fit for her, though he knew he had no right to say anything about it- was nothing unusual for a thirteen year old boy. It was normal. 

 He could do normal. Right? 

 

 

(Wrong.

His mother welcomed him home with open arms, her boyfriend not so much. Shou and him fought a lot. His mother took his side more than Shou’s. 

 Eventually, the ball gets dropped. 

 “Why didn’t you want me around?” Shou had to ask, after so long of dancing around it, after so many times his mother had flinched when he stood to quick or said something too loud or did something too… 

 Too much like his father. 

  Why don’t you want me around, he'd thought, still thinks, but did not voice. 

 She’d sighed, shaking. “S- Shou, it’s not that I didn’t want you around. Your father would have taken you no matter what I did.” 

 Shou didn’t believe her. “You knew what he was better than I did. You know, he legally killed me after you left. I don’t exist. He framed my death and paid off cops and investigators and anybody who he needed to, or he just intimidated them into doing what he wanted. I guess that worked out in your favor just as much as his, considering you didn’t have to pay child support if you no longer had a child to support.” 

 She looked crestfallen. For a long moment, she didn’t say anything, and Shou had almost started to wonder if he was wrong. A moment longer, and his mouth is open to apologize. 

 His mother spoke first. “You’re so much like him. When I told Touichirou I didn’t want any part of his life anymore, he just ignored me. He said that you were going to be the next him. That he saw so much of himself in you, and so little of me in your eyes, so what did it matter? I… I looked at you before I left,” her voice didn’t quivering, anymore. It was steadier than he’d ever heard her speak. “And I thought- I thought that maybe he was right. If I took you… I’d have never left him. You remind me so much of him, Shou.” 

 Shou felt like he’d just been punched in the throat. He choked, no words coming out, other than a soft and strained, “Oh.” 

 She didn’t look him in the eyes, after that. Shou didn’t try to prove her wrong, to prove he’s better than his father, would never turn out like his father (I won’t, I won’t).  

 Shou only visited her home when she was at work or not around, to play with or feed his hamsters. He had nowhere else to bring them. He stayed there some nights, avoided it most others. 

 He didn't look her in the eyes, either.) 

 

 

 Joseph finds him. 

 “You don’t exist,” says the government man, whose job Shou isn’t sure of at this point but whose air of confidence exudes priority, “which is why I didn’t seek you out first. Your father isn’t getting a trial, obviously. There's no official ruling for psychic powers in the eye of the law; at least, not yet. An incident like the one that leveled the entire city is going to change things, you should know. Give people more confidence to act out, to start violence.” 

 Shou really doesn’t care. People always had the confidence for that, they just never really had as big of an outlet as his old man before. He shoves his hands into his jacket pocket and straightens his back, swinging his coat out to gesticulate his dissonance. Joseph continues, unaffected. “If we had known you were a part of this, there would have been an easier way into this situation, and it could have been over before it stopped. We could have charged him for child endangerment, abuse, neglect- but there was no indication he had a child at all, anymore.” 

 Shou bristles, tries to look calm. “You don’t know he did any of those things,” he points out, since admitting to someone like Joseph what his relationship with his own old man was like was something the man that carted him off to what was essentially a death sentence didn’t deserve. Besides, the charges could have started way before that, along with his mistreatment of his mother- the fact that that hadn’t even come up in divorce files made went to show how little against their father could have been picked up on before the worst case scenario happened to Seasoning City, a little city Shou had grown quite accustomed to, quite fond of in his time around.

 Joseph was only there for business, which Shou took for meaning ‘sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong to do things his way.’ 

 The man plays around with a cigarette in his hand. Shou stares at it, waiting for it to inevitably enter his mouth and poison his lungs, yet Joseph negates the action in favor of speaking more. “But we could have opened an investigation legally, and there would have been no hiding from that.-” wrong, Shou thinks, a buzzer noise playing in his head, though he doesn’t interrupt, “-Destroying your existence was a smart move, one clearly on his part. We have no doubt you are not affiliated with that man, if your age and your own little… rebellion, wasn’t telling enough.” 

 Joseph sticks a hand out, then. Shou watches as his fist unfurls into a card, one with just the word ‘government’ and the name ‘Joseph’ printed on it, plus a number in much smaller font. Shou takes it and tries not to laugh at how shady it looks. He’s wringing the card around, tempted to burn it up right then and there for good measure, if only to get the government off his back. 

 He doesn’t. If Joseph knows who he is, that brings up nothing but issues. Shou has been his own parent for a long while now, and living with people with no legal rights to house him. They could get in as much trouble for not reporting Shou’s situation to the police as he could be in for continuing his guise of non-existence. 

 “What do you want me to do with this?” He asks, waving the card. Joseph smirks like Shou had just walked into a trap, and Shou has lived his life watching for smirks like those. 

 The adult scratches his chin, clearly going for nonchalance. “You don’t exist. That means that the Japanese Government and Child Services has to take you in. You’re not just legally dead- you’re an alien. An immigrant, at this point, and a very illegal one. Nothing you do traces back to you and that in and of itself is a problem for national and international security, especially considering your powers and, according to your father-” he says pointedly, and Shou hates that tone that spells out the one-up he thinks he has over Shou because his father has been cooperating since his incarceration. Probably going for a plea deal, if he could ever get one. Shou isn’t sure if he wants him to get one or not. “-the places you’ve travelled together to expand Claw without travel visa or documentation of having gone anywhere or been anywhere at all. That card-” he waves his hand, and Shou crumples it in his fist a little, “is a way out. A second option, per say. You’ll continue being a ghost and no curious eyes will aim on the people you have managed to draw lines to- off the top of my head, your current living situations.” 

  He’s bluffing. He doesn’t know about her. He’s trying to get you to react to see if he’s on the right track or not, Shou promises himself. He doesn’t react. Waits for Joseph to submit some form of proof, to drive a nail into the wood he can’t get out with powers.

 Joseph smiles. “Ah. You don’t believe me. Well, suit yourself. Your mother doesn’t have to have guaranteed safety if you don’t think it matters.” 

 Shou’s aura flares at Joseph, the air around them visibly heating. “You can’t touch her,” he snarls. He knows he should have kept his calm, stayed stoick, stayed neutral. But Joseph isn’t an idiot- he clearly knows more than he’s letting on, and waiting for Shou to confirm anything doesn’t prove how dangerous he is as much as how little he’s letting on. Shou could stand there and pretend he lives on his own permanently with some kind of Child Services approved reason for why and let Joseph continue, but Joseph found him as it was on the street he’d been walking down, from her house to begin with. He wasn’t exactly hiding his connection to her, and lying in a situation with an invariable constant like Joseph was would only make things more unbalanced in the long run. 

 The man smirks. “And we won’t. If you consider my offer.” 

 “You haven’t given me one.” 

 “Oh, yes. See, you’ll stay a ghost. Your identity as Suzuki Shou hasn’t existed since you were six, and due to your father’s influence. We can’t cover over that. The public isn’t as scared of psychic powers as it is with legal meddling. The idea that power is enough to bend the law is terrifying to the public, and if that news got out you’d be a target of the media, ex-Claw out for revenge against your father, individuals seeking their own penance-” 

 “I know,” Shou cuts him off, ready to set the card on fire. A little smoke rises from his fingertips to emphasis his impatience, and Joseph's eyes track the upwards line momentarily before he picks up his speech. 

 “You can’t be revealed as you are, is what I’m getting to. If you stay a permanent un-resident, your future will belong in the shadows. Do you really want to stay in hiding for the rest of your life? You’re young. You have a whole life that won't be ahead of you if this isn’t sorted out,” Joseph promises, his words basically a threat, though Shou would be lying if he says he hasn’t thought about it before. If he got caught floating through the system- which, inevitably, he would- any chance of a future outside of a psychic cell was gone to the dogs. “We’ll rework your identity- change your last name, say you were off living in America with extended family due to your father’s actions, and erase the fact that your mother is the woman she is. We have another name we can put in the files, an American woman who recently passed away and whose timeline would match up with this fabrication, no contacts on her side to further investigate. Purely for namesake; you’ll be unaffiliated with Turata Touichirou and your ‘death’ will no longer have happened,” the man proposes, flicking his still unlit cigarette around. “Instead, you’ll have changed custody at the age of six and have lived in America with this woman up until her passing, when you’ll return to Japan to find your father and attempt to and, of course, fail to halt his progress towards terroristic demolition.

 “With this system in place, you’ll be able to continue living in Japan wherever you’d like. You and every name we have affiliated with you will go uncharged, and everybody involved in your rebellion- Serizawa Katsuya, Reigen Arataka, Fukuda Hiroshi, to name just a few- will go unaffiliated with the cause and safe from persecution. None of your affiliates have their hands clean of the situation, and any involvement at all, at this point, is considered criminal; as I’m sure you’re aware.”

 Shou says nothing. Joseph finally pulls out a lighter, sticks the end and sucks in deep. The smoke rises up unnaturally thick, a form of his power made tangible to further escalate the point. “Take this offer, and they’ll all, you included, be able to live a normal life. Go to school, have an actual identity, be able to drink once you come of age. You’ll be a Japanese citizen, like you’ve been pretending to be.” 

 The red-head narrows his eyes. Joseph sighs as though he’d just given a mighty speech, then glances down at Shou, his cold energy taming the flames of Shou’s own. Shou can feel this, the genuinity coming off his aura in waves. Shou could read aura’s just as well as faces, and knew a catch was coming despite the man’s upfront nature. It pissed him off, though he knew just as well as Joseph was a precarious situation Shou was in. 

 “Where would I live, then? Obviously, if I took this deal, my mother would be off the table.” 

 “Smart kid. You’ll be considered an Unaccompanied Minor of Japan; that is, you’ll be working for us until you’re old enough to emancipate, upon which you’ll then be free to do what you want.” 

 Ah. There it was.  

 “So… I’ll be your dog until I’m 16.” 

 “15, actually. We can do so as long as we’re keeping you under monitoring and you have a caseworker assigned to you, one also a part of the division I work under that you’ll be joining for the time being- and, if you’re deemed incapable of living under your own standards once this contract is over, you’ll be free to live where you like with our own funding,” he explains, crossing his arms and staring down Shou as though his words weren’t enough. “‘Dog’ is too harsh, anyway. You’ll be a part of my division; a nameless nobody of the government that finds invariables like your father and you and finds solutions, like the one I’m proposing now. Some of it will be international. Most of it will need use of your psychic abilities, much like it takes use of mine. You’ll live under sanctioned roof for two years and go where we need you to go when we need you to go. Schooling will be provided, since it was obviously,” he takes a long drag, “not, before. Any contacts you have in Seasoning City will be severed as you work for us in order to ensure their and your own security. You can disobey an order if you’d like, too. We aren’t kidnapping you. You’re just strongly encouraged to do everything we say.” 

 “It sounds like I’m being kidnapped.” 

 “It’s an offer. There’s always handling things yourself, too.” 

 Shou scoffs. Of course, that was a better option. For Shou. He could figure things out on his own- circulate CPS himself, make up his own story, even tell the truth if he wanted. Doing so, however, would incarcerate his mother for housing him as long as she had without reporting it to the authorities; not to mention, Fukuda, Ootsuki and Higashio for not only housing him but also harbouring psychic abilities that aided him in an unlawful pursuit of destruction of his father’s property, cause, organization and peoples as part of Claw. Everything would start being tracked and monitored out of concern for them and Shou being a threat, rather than an invariable. 

 Shou not taking this offer meant many things, but most of all, it meant harming the few people in his life he still had. 

 Shou burns the card. It sizzles to the floor in a crisp pile of ash and anger. 

 “I don’t trust a government that lies to itself,” he says, and turns to leave. Joseph doesn’t stop him. 

 He makes it back to the house, empty for at least another hour, and bites his hand to stop himself from crying so hard he draws blood. 

 The number on the card is etched into the back of his mind like a knife had carved it there by his own hands. 

 

 

 Shou gets into a fight after that. He can’t go to Serizawa, to Ritsu, to Reigen like that one time. He can’t, because he doesn’t know how to talk about this and doesn’t think he can, doesn’t think he should. He doesn’t know what to do. Shou always knows what to do. He’s on top of things, he’s aware of the world around him, he knows all it’s tricks and rhythms and patterns. 

 Shou doesn’t know what to do, and he’s angry, and he gets into a fight. An easy target and he stalks through the streets, too emotional to reign in his aura. He bumps into a man as he power-walks, who shoves him hard and calls him a punk and tells him to watch where he’s going. 

 Shou has been watching where he was going his whole life. He’s treading on thin ice with every step he takes. Living under his father, if he didn’t live life quietly and his obedience wasn’t tangible, he’d be more than just legally dead. Hiding from his father, if he didn’t punch that guy or burn down that guy’s house or do everything exactly right, he or anybody else counting on him, against his father, against Claw would be dead and it would be on him. Living with his mother, who’d left him with his father, knowing what he was, knowing what he was doing- preaching gentleness and kindness and giving none when he needed it, when he needed to learn it- he had to watch where he was going, because she wasn’t doing it for him, wasn’t in it for his long run. She was scared of him, just like she was scared of his old man, and now she’d left Shou just like she’d left him. 

 (Shou knows he left her, really. He’s just so tired of trying to prove to her that he won’t turn out like the man he’d run from, just like her.) 

 Shou is tired of treading lightly. Of hiding his whereabouts, of people counting on him for everything and then leaving him the moment it was all over. Of watching where he was going for the sake of other people. 

 He was done. He shoves the man back. “You watch where you’re going,” he snaps, and the man is tall and short-shaven and muscular and reminds him of his old man. 

 The fist that punches him felt very much like his fathers’, too. 

 Shou gets into more fights after that. He’s running on fumes, and as far as he’s concerned, anybody who gets in his way is just another member of Claw that needs to be taken out. Shou watches a man toss a cigarette butt on the ground and he tosses it back at the man’s head, getting elbowed sharply in the ribs in the process. He stumbles onto another fight a short hour later, three men that seem oddly unsure if they should fight a child his size or not. 

 “You’re all gay pieces of shit,” Shou says to them, and just like that, he’s got a knife wound to the left shoulder to worry about. 

 That’s fine. Shou didn’t try to fight back as much as he should have, as easily as he could have. He didn't once use his powers, didn’t once try to run. He’d punched and kicked and been punched and kicked and now he’s got a stab wound, which will probably take the rest of the day to deal with. 

 Fine. That’s fine. He’ll just deal with it himself, like he always does. 

 Like he used to do, before Fukuda showed up to stitch him back together. Shou hadn’t actually stitched up a wound in a long while, but he’s sure he remembers. He stumbles his way onto the top of a roof, just some random roof, high enough up that nobody could see him through a different rooftop and centered enough he’s out of view from below. He doesn’t need to stay invisible, so he drops the veil with great relief and gets to work, lifting up his shirt to burn the wound short, quietly praying it hadn’t pierced anything important. His hands were stained red from holding the wound, and his shirt sleeve was starting to get soaked, dripping down his side. 

 Sure, there was a psychic way to get stains out of clothes. Doesn’t mean Shou wants to do it more than he has to. 

 He holds his hand flat over the stab wound, sucks in a deep breath, and clenches his teeth. 

 It hurts like a bitch. His aura is flicking around, and he tries his best to keep it close to him while closing the wound. He tries to focus on that task rather than the pain of sealing a wound with his own fire. 

 It’s not easy. Shou hasn’t done this in a long time. Even when he had to do this when he was seven, twice in one year, he’d done a better job than he was doing right now. He could aim the burn to the wound directly so it wouldn’t spread on the skin and risk an infection, but Shou had his father directing him then, instructing him on how to seal the wounds he’d caused himself so that one day, Shou wouldn’t need to rely on anyone, not even his father. 

 Well. At least something came out of it, then. 

 The wound is cauterized fairly well, now. Shou can’t breath right, and he’s not sure if it’s from the pain or he’s having a panic attack. He’s shaking all over and the flames weren’t as well-controlled as they could have been, sticking out a little on his skin. Shou would have to be very careful with cleaning it after this if he really didn’t want to reach an infection. It would have been easier to stitch it up, but Shou didn’t feel like walking into a store bleeding to find some workable supplies, especially when they’d cost more than he had anyway. 

 He lays on his back. The sun is bright above his head, but he can’t find it in himself to care. He can’t sit up anymore. The clouds pass slowly, so slowly, and yet the sun is leaving and the clouds have actually roamed quite far from what he’d remembered- he’d probably passed out without even realizing it. Oh well. The rest would do good for him. 

 He lays there a while longer, listening to the fuzz in his ears. It takes a lot of effort to push himself up, and it burns like hell but doesn’t hurt as bad as he thought it might, meaning he’d done a good enough job fixing himself up. 

 His old man would be proud. Maybe if he ever gets out of jail Shou can tell him about this, see the pride in his eyes for once in so, so long. 

 Maybe he’d hate what he’d become. Hate how Shou sought this out. Maybe Shou wasn’t even good enough for his cringy, embarrassing, abusive, terrorist of a father. 

 A wave of nausea hits him and he throws up at his side. 

 

 

 It’s late out by the time Shou thinks to check his phone. He’s heading back to his mother’s house; he has to go back to feed his hamsters, and plans to just sneak in the window to get to them. He keeps their food pellets in his room, after all. They’d have to skip out on leafy greens for a bit, but they were strong, and they could handle it. They were the only reason Shou was planning on going back at all, no matter how much the thought of returning makes his stomach drop, his head spin. His arm hurts when he moves it and he walks in a daze, still covered in blood, aura and body invisible to the world around him. 

 Shou still doesn’t exist. He wonders if it really is better off that way. Maybe it really doesn’t matter as much as he thinks it might. He’s basically just an illegal citizen to anybody that doesn’t look further into it, and the cost and labor of trying to get someone to look into it… 

 He can’t help it. It hurts to reach for it even with his good arm, pulling his sore one by default, but he fishes his phone out of his pocket. It takes a great deal of strength to click it onto the lock screen, a greater deal to look at it. 

 He has one message. 

 

Goth Kid

Me and my brother and Hanazawa-kun are going for ice cream tomorrow morning. You up for it? I’ll buy yours since brother is buying for Hanazawa-kun. 

 

 Shou blinks at the message. For a long while, he doesn’t know what to feel- then, he feels like he might cry. He drops his invisibility- nobody was on the street, anyway. Takes a step back, looks at himself in the reflection of a car window he’d just passed. The blood staining his clothes are still visible, hard and caked to his skin, and he starts to doubt if they’d get out using powers at all. His hands are red, as well- even some stains of it, along with a huge bruise along the side of his face and some smaller forming around a cut on his lip, rest uncomfortably on his face. His neck has a long scratch from where one of the men had gripped him to elbow his ribs- slowly, carefully, he lifts up his shirt. His ribs don’t look to bad- probably just a crack, based on the purple swelling, but lack excruciating pain. That would heal in time, but certainly not in time for tomorrow. None of this would be better for tomorrow. 

 His aura wraps around him like a blanket as he stands there, expression blank, and tries to keep walking, to forget what he just saw, to text Ritsu a confirmation and excitedly greet him tomorrow, share a cold cone together- though, Ritsu would probably get his in a bowl, if Shou had to guess. He could have found out for sure if he could just say sure, but Ritsu was observant and there was no way he could hide any of what happened from him. There was no way Shou could tell him, either. It wouldn’t help anybody, wouldn’t solve anything. 

 Shou sighs, goes to pull up his invisibility so he can hide his face from any more car windows as he walks, think of something to say to Ritsu. He hesitates when he comes face to face with a green snot blob. 

 “You look like shit, kid.” 

 Shou nearly jumps out of his skin, turns invisible out of reflex and tucks in his aura so fast it basically slaps the spirit. 

 Though it hurts to suddenly take off, he’s freaking out and all he can think is to fucking go. He jets into the air and flies the rest of the way back to his house, not stopping once to think about the seer of his cuts against the wind, how Dimple showed up out of fucking nowhere the moment he lets his guard down. Because of course. 

  Shou was an idiot. He should have been more careful, should have fought back, shouldn’t have done anything at all. Yet, as he stops outside his house, he can’t figure out what else he was supposed to do. He’s been careful all his life and it’s gotten him nowhere.

 He hovers at his window. He can see his little critters in their cage. One is running through the tube system he’d set up for them that weaves around his room, while the others eat or run on their wheel, two to each. They’re so small, and the only reason he really has to be gentle anymore is his care for them. 

 He heads inside. Feeds them, checks their water, wraps his wound in the bandages he keeps in the spare room that had been lent to his use, and goes to sit on his bed in deep exhaustion. The spare, one his mother had kept even though she’d bought a new one for herself and her boyfriend, and Shou had gotten it. He sits on it and pulls out his phone. 

 

Suzuki Shou

Can’t. Have fun tho owo 

 

He sighs. Writes out another message, this time to Serizawa, the only person who’d actually have the patience for all of his babies. 

 

Suzuki Shou

Would you be open to caring for my hamsters temporarily? I’d pay you and if you leave a window open I’ll take care of them too 

If not that’s okay, I’ve got other people I can ask

 

 A lie. A bad one, really, but he can’t bring himself to care right at that moment. He couldn’t ask Ritsu, the guy has done enough for him already. They can’t stay with his mother if he can’t even stay with his mother; she'd never take care of them while he was away, wouldn't have the time with how much she worked, anyway. He also doesn’t have much money to pay Serizawa since he couldn’t even think about getting his father’s money until he was eighteen- something of a legal process, which he can’t commit to if that just won’t work. 

 Ritsu doesn’t text him back. Serizawa doesn’t, either, and instead tries to call him; Shou doesn’t answer, just lets his phone vibrate in his hand and watches as the light fades from the adult’s name. He doesn’t feel much like talking right now, and no doubt Serizawa will be panicking over this, probably already is panicking over this, and Shou can’t bring himself to care. He flops over on the mattress and, too tired to think about anything anymore, let sleep take him. 

 

 

 He wakes up to a voicemail from Serizawa, telling him to bring over his hamsters whenever he can and though it stresses him out to do so, he’s leaving a window open for Shou. He’ll be at Spirits and Such all morning and afternoon today, apparently. Shou considers this information while he pulls the blood out from his clothes, and the mattress too, since his burnt skin was bleeding during the night a little. He’d need to clean it really well, but first he needs to clean everything else while he figures out what to do. 

 Okay. He’ll get ready. He’ll bring his hamsters, all five of them, over in their hamster balls (he only owned four but Siuna and Omua, his latest two additions to his hamster family, both got along well enough to share without trampling over each other. He'll psychically carry them in their hamster balls, as well as the tubing and structures and food, to Serizawa’s place. It would have to all stay invisible, which was a lot to do for a long period of time, considering how far away Serizawa lived. 

 Or, alternatively. He could try to work things out with his mom. Make her see that he’s not his father, that he’s trying, that he’s still her gentle boy from all those years ago. 

 (“You remind me so much of him, Shou. You both started out the same way. I can’t watch it happen to you, too.”) 

 He wraps his shoulder wound in new bandaging- taught and aching and bleeding again, the pain in it sharp and somehow more noticeable than when he’d gotten injured to begin with. Probably because he slept on his back, if he had to guess. He changes into a light blue sweatshirt with a yellow sun wearing comical shades on it, grabbing a large pair of shades himself to match. They sort of hide the huge bruise on the side of his face. His mother is a darker skin type than him, so he couldn’t think of trying to steal her makeup even if he wanted to. A light yellow scarf hides the scratch on his neck quite well, too, as long as nobody looks too close. He’d just have to hope Serizawa really wasn’t home when he got there, though he felt weird thinking of being in the tiny flat by himself. 

 Gingerly, he begins to load them into their clear balls, placing them on the floor as he works through packing everything up. He didn’t care much for any of his own stuff. It wasn’t important, and anything he owned was small enough to pack and run like he was so used to doing. His laptop was the only possession he owns that he wants to take with him but doesn't, knowing it would probably just get confiscated anyway. 

 He’s got everything. His hamsters, their set-up, his backpack full of money, some clothes, toiletries and a manga he hasn’t finished yet and doesn’t really want to part with, plus some or other small things. It’s still got room to fit more, but if he starts walking around with it and looking obviously like it’s most of his possessions, it’ll be suspicious. 

 He doesn’t know what he’d do if someone found out. Nobody will, he’s sure of it. He’ll handle this. He’ll figure it out. At least he doesn’t have to hide from Child Services, considering nobody thinks to be looking for a dead kid. 

 He’s not so sure if that's a good thing, really, but it’s his reality and for now, it’s what he’s got to work with. Maybe when he turns eighteen he can plea for a visa and Japanese citizenship, just say he was staying with people out in America, close family. 

 (Won’t work, he thinks, and hates it.)

 He takes off. It’s not heavy, not with his powers, but keeping everything invisible while still making sure he’s flying in the right direction and his hamsters aren’t freaking out too much (after all, he can't turn their sounds invisible, and Rittu is a squealer) takes concentration, and with how much is on Shou’s mind, he finds it quite difficult to make it there unnoticed. 

 Just like Serizawa had said, the window is left open. He pushes it up all the way and lets himself in to find an entire counter top cleared off for him. There’s a note there, too; 

 

 Dear Shou,

 Hopefully you can find a good spot to keep them! If you need somewhere to stay, I know my apartment is small, but you’d fit on my pull-out couch. Me and Reigen are making plans to move in together somewhere nicer and bigger than both our flats, somewhere that fits Teru so he can move out of his apartment and somewhere that could fit you, too, if that’s what you’d want. 

 Reigen told me not to tell you over paper because if you agree this is ‘technically’ kidnapping. Teru has agreed to it under some specific non-disclosure rules Reigen made to avoid getting caught. We know you and Teru’s situations are different, but they’re also both irregular and if you’d like, we think this would be a good way to ensure you have a place to go home to every night and keep your hamsters. If you’d like. 

 Please burn this paper when you’re done but don’t set the house on fire, I’m renting and there’s a lot more to getting out of a lease than I’d originally realized. The office will be busy today but stop by if you can- the boys are all getting ice cream if you’d rather do that, or if you need space that’s fine too. If I’m wrong in assuming you yourself need a place to stay, please take no offense! I just want you to know the option is open and will always be open whether you decide today or in a year from now. 

 Sorry if I wrote a lot. Hope you can read my handwriting.

- Katsuya 

 Shou reads the paper. Reads it again, then one more time, then another. He burns it, tries to put it out of his mind, tries not to start crying in the middle of Serizawa’s square-foot apartment. His hamsters roll around in their little balls, and Shou already knows there’s nowhere for them to tumble off of on the ground floor, so he goes to set up the cage and discard most of the tubing that won't fit and isn’t strictly necessary right now. That done, he puts each of his hamsters away, piling the vacant balls up in the corner where they won't roll away. The movement strains his shoulder painfully, and he bites his lip until it's over, forcing himself to ignore it.  

 Then, he has nothing to do with his hands. 

 He drums them on his legs, on the counter, on the couch he eventually drifts towards. Sitting on it hurts his rib, but he’s not focusing on that right now. The note is all he can think about, even through the light squeaking and skittering noises of his beloved pets up on the counter top. 

 Tears well up in his eyes and he pulls his sunglasses off before they can get stained, and figures it's about time he tries to figure out where he’s going. 

 

 

 “Hey guys!” 

 His voice startles the three boys who hadn’t seen him or his hidden aura sneak up on them. Ritsu nearly drops his spoon (bowl of ice cream, Shou knew it!) while Teruki screams like a little girl and Shiego’s eyes widen just a little. 

 It’s quite funny, really. Shou had decided to go get ice cream with them, but wasn’t sure where they were or if he’d missed them, and he wasn’t about to text Ritsu to ask. So, he’d just looked up how many there were and paced between them while stretching out his limbs and re-wrapping his bandages. When he finally found them, they’d already gotten the ice cream, but seeing Ritsu hold his bowl and quietly listen to Teruki’s eccentric story about how he knitted his neighbor’s gerbil a sweater (something Shou wants to see… so badly), he realized it didn’t matter. 

 It didn’t matter, because these were his friends, the people that had invited him out (though really that was Ritsu but the fact that Shigeo can stand to be around him anymore and Teruki didn’t go against the invite despite how little they know each other meant a lot to him. More than they knew. So of course, he felt the need to scare them for a laugh, and though Teruki looks frazzled and Shiego looks more surprised than anything, he finds it’s really Ritsu’s expression that matters. 

 It matters, because he can’t read him. Ritsu stares blankly at him, a mixture between anger and relief and worry blended into one big thing Shou can’t name plastered on his face. 

 “Shou. You came,” Ritsu says, emo voice out. It causes Shou’s smile to grow exponentially. 

  “'Schaw. ‘Course I came. I just wasn’t sure if I would make it before, but yours truly always finds a way,” he brags, popping one fist on his hip. He’d do the same with the other if any movement at all didn’t hurt. Even the bandage felt like it was rubbing against it, meaning he probably didn’t tighten it enough, and he was a little worried it might start to bleed again. Still, he smiles, truly meaning it- thing might be bad right now, but knowing people like Ritsu would still sometimes invite him out for things as mundane as this, trusting him around his brother and his brother’s friend, made it feel more okay than Shou would have expected. 

 Everything felt awful, as it was. Knowing what was coming, what he was missing out on, what he had to do felt like a greater weight than the backpack on his shoulder, having to be carried by only one strap because he’d gone and gotten stabbed right where the other strap would have to wrap around. It was fairly heavy, packed with all of his physical essentials, and he was tempted to put it down just so it stopped aching his supporting arm. 

 “Glad to see you, Shou-kun!” Greets Teruki, recovering fairly quickly. Shigeo nods and waves a hand, the other holding his cone, in his own greeting. 

 Ritsu just narrows his eyes. “What’s with the shades? It’s cloudy out.” 

 Shou pulls at his sweatshirt. His scarf lifts a little with the movement, but not enough to show off the angry scratch that has started to bruise overnight. “They match! I don’t really get why the sun needs shades, but I know I used to draw stuff like that all the time when I was a little kid. Although, admittedly, I drew dogs a lot more than suns with shades. Still, it’s cute.” 

 Ritsu doesn’t quite look suspicious, but he sure doesn’t look like he accepts that answer. Still, at Shou’s bright grin, he sighs. “Ya. It is,” he agrees, then shovels a spoonful of ice cream into his mouth before he can say any more. 

 Ritsu got a green tea mint flavor while Shigeo got salted caramel and Teruki got a strawberry bubblegum mixture. They all let Shou try a little bit (though they do offer to go back and get one for himself, he tells them he really doesn’t care but insists on at least trying Teruki’s because it looks disgusting and he just has to know what it tastes like) and Shou, as expected, hates what Teru has, doesn’t think Ritsu’s mint flavouring should be in anything other than toothpaste, and can’t have what Shiego has because he’s allergic to sea salt. Shiego tells him it tastes very good, and Shou guesses he just has to take his word for it. 

 “What would happen if you ate it?” Teruki asks curiously. “You get itchy, or you get a stomach ache?” 

 “I can’t breathe, actually. My throat gets really tight. And I’m out of epi-pen, so I guess I’d just die. Ha,” Shou says, adding the awkward laugh to soften the end note. Teru rolls his eyes. 

 “Don’t be dramatic,” Teruki says, waving a hand around dramatically to play off his humorous tone. “The hospital will have some. And can’t you get that stuff refilled?” 

 Shou pops his lips. There’s no point in hiding it anymore, anyway. As much as he doesn’t want to face the fact, this might be the last time he sees them for… a long while. He’s not entirely sure how everything will play out, but he doesn’t want to leave them with lies. He came to see them this possible last time because he liked that they like being with him, and doesn’t want to change that by telling the truth, but doesn’t want to lie as his silent goodbye. He’s a little shaky as he answers, not having expected to want to answer so earnestly. He wants to be honest with these people. He wants to be honest and a good friend and gentle and everything his father is not. 

 “No… I, uh, got my Epi-pens off of Higashio, and he lives in Canada now? I think? So, that’s a bust. And I can’t go to the hospital without Child Services coming to like, arrest me. So.” 

 “Arrest you?” Ritsu echoes harshly, enough that they all turn to stare at him. “For what?” 

 Shou rubs the back of my neck. “I’m… not exactly a legal citizen, Ritsu. My situation is kind of fucked. Like… Like I’ve got two options, or- well, three? No… no, two,” he corrects, having thought of the note that was left for him offering him a place to stay, and then endangering all of them if anybody ever found out. There was no point. Shou didn’t exist, and living with them wouldn’t change that. He’d just be putting off the inevitable. He’d just be adding more people to the list of lives he’d fucked up just because they were kind enough to help him, to not report him, to just be there when he needed it. He couldn’t do that to Fukuda and the others, to his mother and her shitty boyfriend, to Reigen and Serizawa. He couldn’t do that to himself. 

 He won’t do that to himself. Self-consciously, he adjusts the backpack strap on his good arm, carrying every possession he’ll want with him when he goes. He’s made up his mind, and he hates himself for it. 

 He swallows the lump in his throat that had him take a moment before continuing. “One. I’ve got one option, and it’s just as fucked. But I’m working to get it sorted, you know,” he adds with a smirk, shoving Ritsu lightly in an attempt to wipe that analytical frown off his face. “So no worries. I promise I won't eat anything that will kill me until then.” 

 The three of them stare at him, and he looks at his fingernails, flicks the edges of them at random to avoid reading their gazes. He doesn’t have to analyze them. They’re his friends. 

 A small aura pops up from beside Shou, one that is decidedly not his friend, and Shou tries not to flinch at the green spirit’s sudden appearance. “You guys better share that icecream with me,” Dimple says as he floats towards the group. He turns to look at Shou. “Ah, I see you don’t have one. Maybe you can just get some ice, then, if the cream part didn’t work out for you. You look like you could use it.” 

 Shou scoffs. “You look like you could use some manners.” 

 “I don’t have to use manners, I’m dead!” 

 “So am I, legally. I’m still nice!” Shou defends, and the ghost falters a little. Shou ignores the look Ritsu is giving him and crosses his arms, taking care to not squeeze his injury in his own grasp. “Fine, okay, I’m nice-ish. I’m not the best example of ‘nice’ but I am the best example of ‘ish’.” 

 Dimple frowns. “Geez, you sure can say that again. Annnnnyway, Shigeo, is that salted caramel? Mind if I have a lick? I literally don’t have germs, so it’s fine, right?” he says as he floats over to Shigeo, who wordlessly holds out his cone neatly for the ghost to try some. Shou rolls his eyes, though one couldn’t see it from behind his sunglasses. 

 Teruki has drifted his attention back to Shigeo, making sure the spirit doesn’t eat all of his ice cream, but Ritsu is still trained on him. After a moment, it gets tiring, so Shou decides to engage with his pointed stare by tilting his head to him and offering a neat, toothy smile. “You’re smart for getting your ice cream in a bowl. If you keep staring the way you do, it’ll melt into a liquid, and then you can just sip it. Like ice cream soup.” 

 Ritsu, for his own part, flushes and looks away, down at his melting pile of ice cream and sheepishly eating some. He doesn’t look like he wants to be, but offers some more to Shou as he chews (yes, chews, he’s actually biting down on the ice cream, the bastard) and Shou takes the offered spoon, both eating and watching as Dimple tries to weasel Teruki into sharing some of his own cone. 

 “Legally dead, huh,” Ritsu breathes next to him, quiet enough that the others can’t hear. Shou passes him back the spoon, watches as Ritsu scoops some more into his mouth patiently, hands it back again. 

 He scratches the edge of the bowl to grab more. “Told you I’m fucked,” he says softly as he takes another bite. 

 “It’s fucked, ya. You’re… you’re not.” 

 Shou blinks. “Don’t think that works very well, bud.”  

 “Ya, no, it doesn’t,” he agrees, voice still soft, drowned out by Teruki yelling at Dimple to get away from his bubblegum sugar cone. “I didn’t realize that you were in some kind of a situation. All those times we’ve hung out, you’ve never said.” 

 Shou hands him back the spoon. Ritsu takes it, but doesn’t go for more. He keeps staring at Shou, like he can see behind his sunglasses, the exhaustion and confusion dancing in his eyes. 

 “I…” Shou starts, wants to dig out an immediate excuse and just say he hadn’t thought to, he wasn’t sure how to, he didn’t want to bother him. He wants to say nothing about it at all, but knows Ritsu is waiting for an answer, knows he deserves one more than anybody. “I’m sorry,” he says, instead of an excuse, in lieu of a reason. 

 Ritsu doesn't comment, probably isn't sure how to. Finally, he takes a bite. The icecream is almost gone between the two of them. Teruki and Shigeo are a bit further off, each having made it some kind of a distance in Teruki’s effort to ward off Dimple, who looks like he’s just messing with the kid at this point. Shou is offered another bite, but shakes his head, and Ritsu lowers the bowl back towards himself. 

 “Your backpack looks heavy. Want me to hold it for you?” Ritsu offers. 

 Shou smiles. “It’s okay.” 

 “C’mon, you’re gonna tear your shoulder out of it’s socket holding it how you are. You carry mine all the time when you walk me home from school, even though you don’t have to,” he points out. His gaze is set in a hard determination, and Shou knows he won't take no for an answer, so he sighs and shrugs it off. He hands it over in one hand, and Ritsu takes it, dipping a little at its weight. “Geez, Shou, what do you have in here? Everything you own?” He asks, clearly playing for a light tone, but he’s never been good at easeful jokes and at Shou’s avoidant gaze focused instead on stretching out his now free arm, his frown increases. 

 “... Shou, you don’t actually have everything you own in here, do you? I was joking.” 

  Shou gives him a sheepish, tired, lie of a smile. “Not everything. I left my hamsters with Serizawa.” 

 Ritsu opens his mouth for an instant response, but doesn’t get much of a chance. Dimple floats back into their faces, licking his lips and pointing at the last few bites in Ritsu’s ice cream bowl. “Your turn, kiddo,” says the ghost smuggly, while Teruki and Shigeo follow closely back over to them, Shigeo looking mildly amused while he pats Teruki’s back in sympathy, a large lick evidently gone from his cone. 

 Ritsu gives him the bowl, let him finish what little was left.

 They walk around together for a while after that. Dimple eventually leaves to go do whatever it is ghosts do in their free time, and the four boys walk around town joking with each other and playing around with their powers. Teruki picks up a bench and flips it upside-down, then goes to sit on it like nothing was unusual. Shou finds this very entertaining and hopes on the bottom on the bench, which was facing right-side up, sitting casually. The two laugh about it for a while, both Kageyama brother watching in amusement, one more so than the other.

 “I’m going to be officially moving in with Reigen-san and Serizawa-san in a couple of months. Gotta say, it’ll be nice to be living somewhere bigger than my studio flat,” Teruki starts saying a while into the walk. Shou raises his eyebrows, remembering the letter Serizawa had left him. 

 Shigeo nods happily. “That’s great to hear, Teru. It’ll be a great opportunity for you.” 

 “Won't it? I’ll be able to cook meals to the proper portions in recipe books rather than just altering them for one person. That’ll be nice.” 

 “That’s your biggest take-away?” Ritsu says, voice a little mocking, and the blond laughs. 

 “Well, no, but it sure is something to look forward too! Living on my own and then suddenly living with two grown men is going to be a pretty big change, and there’s a lot I’m looking forward to for it.” 

 Shou rubs his arm, gently over the indent in his skin. “Are you… allowed to be talking about this? I thought there was some non-disclosure agreement Reigen made you sign, or agree to, or something.” 

 Teruki blinks, stops walking. He turns to him. “How’d you know about that?” He asks, voice a little on edge. 

 Right. It was a sensitive topic, one Shou probably shouldn’t be trying to butt into. He puts his hands up to show he meant no harm in his question, then says, “ah, well, Serizawa mentioned it… Sorry, I know it’s not any of my business.” 

 Teruki’s gaze softens. “Right. No, I shouldn’t have gotten defensive. I’m surprised at Serizawa for telling you, but I figured it was okay to mention if it was between us.” 

 That sliver of trust towards Shou widens his eyes a little. Teruki really thinks he’s trustworthy enough to not talk about something like that? The two of them hardly know each other. It seems weird that he wouldn’t mind Shou knowing something like that. 

 Of course, he was good friends with Ritsu, who Shigeo was constantly talking up, and Teruki was close with Shigeo. Maybe that was it. Still, he feels weird at this admission, and adds, “um. Well, to be fair, he told me in a note he wrote and explicitly told me to burn directly after reading it, so I probably shouldn’t have mentioned anything. But, I think it’s great that you’re all going to be living together! It’s better than living on your own.” 

 Teruki hums. He takes a moment, looks like he’s about to start walking again, then says, “Ya. You live with your mom, huh?” 

 Shou bristles. Oh, great, did Teruki really connect the dots that fast? Shou had tried to be really vague with his answer. He didn’t know him well enough to recognize how observant he was, especially with how casual he looks. Shit. 

  Teruki waits patiently for an answer while Shou tries quickly to think of one. Ritsu and Shigeo switch their eyes between the two of them, searching for a context that Teruki caught onto surprisingly quickly. He knew if he wasn’t careful with what he said, Ritsu would figure it out- had probably already guessed something was going on- and he really didn’t want that to happen. 

 Shou tries not to huff as he says, “he was only mentioning it in letter because he was at work and couldn’t tell me personally, Hanazawa-kun.” 

 Teruki smiles softly, looks a little hurt at the sudden formality but doesn’t comment on it. “Of course. I wasn’t implying otherwise,” he says smoothly, then turns and keeps walking. 

 The boys all follow, and Shou holds his wound unconsciously as they go, grips it a little tighter than he should and does all he can to not wince at it. 

 After a while more walking and messing around, with Shou taking a step behind in the conversation to just listen in and nod along for a bit, they decide to go to Spirits and Such and see if they can bug Reigen or if he’s busy with customers. 

 Shou does not decide this. In fact, he’s the only one who objects to it. He doesn’t want to see Serizawa, to be asked about his thoughts on his proposal, to be asked about the hamsters or if he’d gotten them set up or how often he’d be back for them. 

 He’d left Serizawa a list of instructions on how to care for them if Shou can’t. 

 (Shou knows, deep down, that he can’t). 

 They start walking despite Shou’s clear hesitance, though it doesn’t go unnoticed by Ritsu.  

 “Hey. What’s up? Why don’t you want to go?” he asks, curious and worried at once. The concern radiating off Ritsu today is weird, and Shou wonders if it’s because he’s not as good at hiding his emotions as he thought he was or if Ritsu was just really good at reading him. 

 “I- Ritsu,” he says, doesn’t want to stay, doesn’t want to leave him yet. But, he can’t go and be asked what he knows Serizawa is going to ask, what he doesn’t want to decline because it’s an offer that he wants to accept, wants so badly to be a part of, can’t ever be a part of. Not when Joseph's words press down on his knife wound more than his jittery fingers, cut into him in ways he wishes he could ignore, could forget about, have to face head on. 

 He can’t face Serizawa head on, say no to something he doesn’t want to say no to, leave on a lie. He can’t do that to them. 

 He won’t. 

 “I gotta go,” he says quietly, calmly. Shigeo and Teruki were walking a little ahead of them, and Ritsu matches Shou’s dramatically slowing pace behind, face tucked close to his in an effort to figure out what Shou was thinking behind his glasses. 

 “Go where?” He asks. 

 Shou sighs. “Man, Ritsu, you’re something else.” 

 Ritsu stops walking, grabs the edge of Shou’s sleeve to make him do the same. It tugs against his bandages, and he winces a little, just enough that Ritsu blinks where he’d touched and lets go like his sleeve had burned him. “You’re hurt. Shou, something is going on and I want to help you but I can’t if you don’t fill me in. What’s wrong?” 

 “Nothing that can’t be fixed. It’s just gonna take a bit of time, is all. Don’t worry too much about me, okay?” He says softly, genuinely, needs Ritsu to understand this. “Just- promise me, just one thing?” 

 Ritsu looks scared. “What?” 

 “That you don’t like… forget that we’re friends, or whatever. When I come back,” he says, stressing the when, though he has no idea what Joseph will make him do or if he’ll be back at all, much less when, “that that won’t have changed. We’ll still be friends, right?” 

 Eyes wide, Ritsu lifts his hands. He puts them on Shou’s sunglasses, pulls them off to look into his shining blue eyes, much more dull and tired and a little more red than usual. His black eye holds just as much intensity as his normal one, yet Ritsu’s gaze drifts to it still. 

 It takes Ritsu a few breaths to respond, and Shou holds his own while he waits. “We’ll still be friends,” he promises, staring deeply. He stares a lot, that Ritsu, Shou thinks to himself as he tries not to flush under the truthful gaze. 

 “R-right. Great,” Shou whispers. “Um. Can I get my backpack? It really does have everything I own in it, so.” 

 Whatever expression Ritsu comes up with then- his eyebrows pinched, eyes locked on his with a desperation Shou didn't think possible- pushes shivers down the red-head's spine. His voice is hesitant when he asks the question he doesn't sound like he's ready for the answer to. “You’re coming back, right?” 

 Shou takes a breath. “If I can,” he says, honestly. He can’t lie with Ritsu’s eyes so close. “I promise, I’ll try.” 

 It’s obvious the raven-haired boy doesn’t like this answer, but he hands Shou back his glasses, which Shou gingerly slips back onto his face just in time to hide a new shimmer. Then, Ritsu shrugs off the backpack and hands it to him at his good arm, carefully watching his other as though trying to guess what happened to it. Shou takes the pack and slings it over his shoulder, hands shaking a little with the movement. 

 Ritsu tackles him into a hug. It’s the most gentle tackle Shou has ever felt, and he isn’t sure what to do for a moment. Eventually, he melts into it, resting his arms over him. 

 Ritsu pulls away and Shou wishes he never did. 

 He waves goodbye to Shigeo and Teruki, who had both been watching a little ways up, to far ahead to hear but not to see the gentle touches that would probably have embarrassed Ritsu if he didn’t look so damn sad and concerned. They both wave back, a little confused and probably just assuming he was heading out for the day. 

 He sends Ritsu one more final look, a quick peace sign held close to his heart, and turns invisible before taking off into the sky. 

 When he gets at least three blocks away, he pulls out his phone and dials the number that he’d memorized, despite a part of him wishing he hadn’t. 

 “Speak,” says a voice on the line, one that was clearly Joseph, though he didn’t identify himself as such. 

 Shou can’t help it. Though Joseph can’t see it, he rolls his eyes. “Wow, that’s how you greet everyone? You may as well send it to voicemail if you want to discourage people from talking to you that badly.” 

 There's a pause on the line. “Shou,” Joseph says, voice pleasantly surprised. “I take it you're calling to take me up on my offer?” 

 “If I accept, can I still be called Shou? It’s a nice first name. I like hearing my friends say it.” 

 “... Your surname will be the only alteration. Your friends can continue to call you Shou.”  

 Shou nods at the sky. “Awesome. So where do you want me to go?” 

 

 

 Shou’s new living conditions aren’t all that different from that of when he was on the run from Claw with Fukuda and the others. He’s got a semi-permanent housing this time, but it’s far from Seasoning City and he’s living with a caseworker named Jin (“Just Jin,” they’d insisted, and Shou honestly was getting sick of these government names until he’d realized that part one of fixing his legal identity was editing his remaining identity, which basically meant for the next few months he’d be ‘just Shou.’ It pains him to think about this, but he knows it’s not permanent, and he swallows back the jokes and gets to work.)

 Work, being of two things. For the first few months, Shou is made to follow Joseph and some other government workers (who seriously call themselves “security enhancers”) around Japan. They track down remaining Claw and tie up loose ends that Shou would have thought himself generous enough to let sort itself out, if only he had a real choice here. They throw seventeen people in jail in two months, and Shou isn’t sure how many of them deserve it, how many will make it out through trial, how many are just being accused of terroristic crimes or national treason, or even just wanted for murder. For once, Shou isn’t the one in charge- when they corner a man said to be ex-Claw that Shou has never seen before and he begs, “why?” Shou honestly has no answer, and no apology, and melts two metal bars together to restrain the weak esper. 

 He asks Joseph to see the files that would have condemned the man, and Joseph shows him. Photographic proof of his crimes, documents of his misgivings, proof of need for containment. It doesn’t make Shou feel much better, but he doesn’t ask again after that. 

 During this time, Shou gets his new last name. Shou Iske. 

 “What? I’m not Jewish,” he says at his new ID card, the first one he can ever recall having. His hair is buzzed short now, and in the photo, it looks much more brown than red. He runs his fingers through it while he waits for his answer. 

 “It’s the last name of the woman in America who we connected your familial lines too,” explains his caseworker. “From now on, you’re honorary Jewish.” 

 “That’s ridiculous. Does that make her honorary Japanese?”

 “She’s dead,” they remind him in a stark deadpan, and Shou flushes a little because, oh ya. She was dead. He had some random dead Jewish person’s last name that he had to wear like a security blanket from now on, not even knowing what she looks like, what her favourite flower was, what her culture was like. Shou feels like an imposter in his own skin branding a name like that. He tries not to think about it too hard, to focus on the tasks ahead of him. 

 He wonders if Ritsu would like it, or hate that he’s lying about something brand new, now. He’d love to text him. To say hi, to give him an update on things. To make sure he’s getting home okay on those days Shou used to walk him home from school, now that Shou can’t be there anymore. 

 They took his phone the moment he showed up at the address Joseph gave him. It was really his dad’s phone, anyway, and the plan would have had to get cancelled soon regardless. He tries not to worry too hard about how Ritsu’s doing or if Ritsu is worried about him, too. It’ll only make it harder to get through the day, he knows, if he’s spending it focused on something he can’t have. 

 (That doesn’t stop him from imagining conversations they’d had or would have had in the dead of night, where he sleeps alone in a small room void of warmth or personality. Shou doesn’t sleep a lot.) 

 Once Shou gets his ID finalizalized, they get him a passport a week later, and move their little ‘adventures’ as Shou likes to call it to piss off all the gloomy, serious adults around him, to America- the first international trip they take, by no means a vacation of any sort. Apparently there are some esper groups there, too, using their powers for their own personal gain. Shou knew espers weren’t confined to Japan- he’d seen many in his travels with his father as he searched for one greater than he was, and assumedly couldn’t find any. Still, most were in Japan or neighbouring countries, and America had a much smaller populous yet it seemed somehow they’d all found each other to commit various smaller crimes that could potentially bring attention to the bigger picture of espers beings around. It was an issue for everybody, and though Shou would rather let another country’s affairs play out on its own without meddling, Shou knowing English meant he was a larger part of the search and hunt for psychic individuals abusing their abashedly weak powers. 

 One of the English men they take down (they can’t exactly make arrests in a forgeign country, but apparent Joseph was familiar with American officers in a similar ‘government’ position (Shou is getting sick of how he uses the title of government as a branch term for every crime he commits) and let them handle it from there on) calls Shou a “dirty rat” and Shou isn’t sure if that’s a racist term or if Americans just like using the term “rat” as an insult. He thinks rats are pretty cute. Maybe not to the French, but they can’t win in everyone’s hearts, he guesses. The same man nearly shoots Shou with a gun enhanced by esper abilities Shou didn’t notice before it was almost to late. It had the ability to cut through his barrier with a piercing slash, but Shou’s barrier is stronger than most and slows it in time for him to duck out of the way and send a wave of energy to the man’s feet, knocking him off the ground and causing a bullet to fly, ricochet off industrial piping, and shot himself right in the neck. 

 Shou wipes the splattered blood off his face and takes an extra long shower that night, thinking about how close he was to lose his chance to see Ritsu again.  

 Espers are, in fact, much more cruel as of late. Shou is only being exposed to those actively using their powers for shit like petty crimes and dastardly deeds, really. He knows there are plenty in America scared to exist knowing people like the ones they go after are forcing them to conceal who they are. The thought is enough for Shou to really crack down on the task ahead, no matter how much he knows this isn’t his responsibility, his problem, his right for a solution. When Joseph aims him and the others in the division to a group, they don’t hesitate to go after them. 

 Shou wishes he did hesitate. Violence without doubt was a little too close to what his old man loved, wanted so much from him. He won’t become that person, but every new order feels like it’s somehow coming right from Touichirou’s mouth. Shou wants to hesitate, but the thought of the bullet that was so close to ending everything, to removing the chances of him seeing his hamsters or Serizawa or Ritsu or anybody he cares about at all makes him become something close to everything he promised he won’t. 

 There's a minor group of espers they find out in Ohio using their powers to force others to do things for them. Shou feels very little remorse punching them in the face with his aura after they break into their fighting ring, where they hold various trafficked and stolen animals and force them to fight, mate, bleed for their entertainment. Apparently it’s called “dog fighting” but Shou spots more than just dogs; a large brown pig, some roosters and even a couple of cats are locked in cages and tied to posts with rope, muzzles bound and eyes wide and sickly. 

 They vacate all the animals and Shou doesn’t ask for permission before he burns the place down. Joseph is incredibly pissed at him for this; apparently it drew attention to them, but they were their last bust before flying back to Japan after months of searching, beating and incarcerating Americans who do shit like this. There might be less espers in America as a whole than Japan itself, but the ones here were bolder and louder and much more willing to commit crimes than the ones in Japan, up until his father arrived and gave them all a proper outlet. 

 They’re supposed to fly back in two days after the incident, and Shou refuses. There were many animals that had to be ensured safety, and he refused to let other people handle it after seeing how they handle themselves. 

 “Our work here is done. We’re leaving.” 

 “I’m not,” Shou promises, voice leaving no room for argument. He’s holding a small, mixed breed dog- she looks like a lab, but clearly has a pitbull’s jaw. She’s got scratches all over her left side, and a hind leg Shou has already wrapped up in bandages he’d brought back from Japan, the ones he used on his common injuries and his bad ones, such as his stab wound to his shoulder. It had mostly healed over, though the scarring from the messy cauterization was pretty bad and, though it would mend over with more time, would never fully go away. 

 The scratches on the dog would be no different. Shou holds her gently in his arms, feeling her shake, but she doesn’t try to get away. He steels his gaze. “I’m not leaving until I know things are going to be okay here. I can fly back to Japan myself if I need too.” 

 Joseph shakes his head. “You’re 14. You flying back alone would mean me having to sign a lot of paperwork, which I’m not planning on doing over something like this. We can stay for three weeks, at maximum. If this-” he gestures to the many cages behind him, all removed from the now singed passageway leading to the basement fighting ring, “-isn’t fixed by then, I will kidnap you, kid. Our agreement isn’t over yet.” 

 Shou would wave a hand to flap the comment away, but the puppy is surprisingly heavy and he can’t afford to shift her weight to release a hand. Instead, he settles on rolling his eyes and sighing dramatically, something he could easily hear Teruki doing in the back of his mind. “Ya, ya, whatever old timer. It’ll be over by then.” 

 It’s not, though. The roosters were easy to take care of- fly them to a farm, easy drop-off to a woman who seemed more than thrilled to have a few extras around. The pig was a bit harder, just a different farm he had to seek out and convince wouldn’t die over it’s (Shou has no idea how to tell a pig's gender, and could guess, but would rather not) wounds and waste their time. Shou had to really convince the man of that farm that he didn’t want money and that didn’t mean that the pig was diseased or sickly, and though it probably couldn’t be eaten he was a nice pig and would make for great company. It wasn’t a very selling argument, but the pig really was healthy, it’s injuries having been small enough to heal naturally overtime. The farm takes him once Shou promises he won't go away until the man agrees. 

 Shou doesn’t know the American animal shelters, so he tries to avoid taking any of the cats or dogs there until he’s done his research into finding a good one, only after checking boards and post-outs to find out if any of the animals had been reported lost, having been stolen off the streets or from homes. To his surprise, many of the cats had been reported missing, and flying them all to their respective homes takes time. He has to spread out the task with the division, who all complain about being held back to help with something as mundane as this. Shou threatens to set them all on fire until they finally do as their told, and show him photographic proof that the cats and few dogs in the same boat had been delivered. 

 He’s pissed at many of them for bragging about the rewards they’d gotten for finding the lost pets, and Shou makes them go back and return the money. They don’t listen to him until he actually does set one of them on fire. Just their clothes; still, it’s enough. Joseph wisely doesn’t comment when the division members return with a wide breadth around the young esper.

 He visits twelve separate dog shelters and seven cat shelters to find the best ones for the remaining animals, and after judging that the employees were fit for animal care and the shelter was a safe and caring environment, Shou manages to part with each cat (many missing ears or eyes) and almost each dog (less injured than the cats, though still with notable bite marks and scratches from other animals, and clear psychic residue on their fur as proof of their involvement, enough to make Shou fume as he hands them over) to their appropriate shelters. 

 Of course, almost every dog gets taken in by the shelter. He hesitates at the lab-pitbull mix, the candid yet harsh words of one of the employees there forcing him to hold the dog back; “pitbulls aren’t often adopted. There’s a huge stigma against them- especially, there will be for one like this, who looks like she’s been in fights. People will most likely see that and assume she’d started them, and the odds of her leaving here are smaller than other dogs.” 

 Shou doesn’t turn her in. He smuggles her into their current hideaway while he ponders for a long while what to do with her. 

 Three weeks are up, and he’s made a decision.  

 “No.” 

 “Yes.” 

 “Shou, this conversation is over,” Joseph crosses his arms, voice deadly. 

 “I’ll pay for her flight tickets. I’ll take care of her. I’ll-”
“You won't have time to take care of her. Once we go back to Japan, we’ll have more work to do, both in and out of the country. There will be no taking her back.” 

 Shou jabs a finger at his chest. “She can stay with my mom until I’m back. Only one more year, right? She loves dogs. And fuck, she owes me, really. When I emancipate, I’ll be able to take care of her.” 

 Joseph leans down to properly stare Shou in the eyes. “No.” 

 Shou floats up a little so Joseph doesn’t need to look down on him. “You don’t get to tell me no,” he says, dangerously. He knows who he sounds like. He knows what he’s doing. It doesn’t hold him back, doesn’t stop him or tame the determination in his eyes. “Let me contact my mom. If she says no, then it wont work, and it’s a no.” 

 The man narrows his eyes. “You are not allowed to contact-” 

 “Then you do it! Ask her, and say it’s for me, and she’ll say yes!” 

 Joseph glowers, and so does Shou, and the two stubbornly stare each other down for a number of minutes. The dog sneezes from the side of the room, and both flinch a little at the sound, breaking their eye contact to watch as she licks her front paws delicately, unaware of the imbalance of her fate, the pang in Shou’s heart when he looks at her. 

 Joseph sighs. He pulls out his phone, asks Shou for her number and dials. 

 The line rings. She answers. Joseph’s volume is purposefully on so low Shou can’t hear, but Joseph’s own responses are clear. 

 “Miss Suzuki?... Your son- yes, Shou- yes. Miss… No. My apologies, I am not allowed to discuss Shou’s situation with you, it would do you well to calm down and listen for I will answer none of your questions and wish to propose my own,” Joseph says, and Shou watches, eyebrows scrunched, as Joseph waits for his mother to finish saying something before continuing. “It is Shou’s request that you care for a dog until a certain undisclosed period of time. Is this well?” 

 Shou tries not to squirm as he waits for Joseph to be able to continue talking over the muffled sound of his mother’s voice. “Thank you for your time. Expect the dog shortly.” 

 He closes the phone. Pockets it slowly, all while Shou practically vibrates in his spot. 

 “She said yes?” he asks carefully, trying not to sound too excited and failing miserably. 

 “She said anything for you, and she wanted me to tell you she was sorry. She didn’t specify for what,” Joseph admits, sounding tired. 

 Shou freezes. Looks over to the dog, minding her own business at the side of the room. “Oh,” is all he says before he bottles that up and tries to focus on the dog again. “Well, she’ll take good care of her. She’s just the sweetest, mom’ll love her.” 

 In a look of pain, Joseph excuses himself, already reaching for a cigarette as he exits the room. 

 

 

Shou hates that he just has to trust that Joseph delivered the pitbull. He’s not allowed to be anywhere near her, and as soon as Joseph assures him the dog has made it to her, they’re moving onto a different part of Japan. 

 Being back feels incredibly weird. He knows, just a few hours away, is Ritsu. He’s worried that if he doesn’t keep his aura tucked by, somehow, Dimple would probably notice it and show up and the least opportune time once again, compromising his position and ruining his contract. He likes to think that over the last year and some, Joseph had warmed up to him and would be lenient if something like that happened- he also knew that Joseph was an asshole who, in the end, only really cared about himself and would take back everything he could with no hesitation. If he got outed before he was old enough, he wouldn’t be able to emancipate like Joseph wanted- his legal caregiver is caved in as himself, after all, and Joseph would simply not sign for an event like that. Even if he did, he could still refuse to fund Shou until he was of age for his father’s inheritance, which he’d now be able to access properly at 18. Until then, the agreement was that Shou would receive enough in his now set-up bank account to pay for a small flat each month, and he’d be old enough to work to make for the rest. He’d just be able to get by. 

 That’s the plan, anyway. Shou thinks back to Serizawa’s burnt-up letter, and wonders. 

 Now that they’re back in Japan and Shou is officially recognized as a citizen (through a totally illegal process Joseph has set in place and Shou isn’t allowed to discuss, assuming he could figure out what Joseph did to make it work, which he doesn’t even want to consider) and can officially, for the first time, go to school. 

 Through their inbetweens, his caseworker has been testing his education to see what grade it would be best to stick him in. High school, for his age? Or a few grades back, since he’d missed- well, everything, since he was six? 

 He’s passed most of the tests they’d given him, though the reading portion gives him real difficulties, and they insist that now that he’s going to be doing school during the day and working for them on weekends and during the night, he’ll be able to branch off that skill and polish it until there are no further issues. They say he’s out of practice from only reading maps and manga all these years, and Shou can’t really disagree with that.

 

 

 Shou goes to school. He lasts two months. 

 He has never sat still like this before. He starts in the grade for his age, but he hasn’t been in a school since he was six- when he was just starting, and didn’t have to find loopholes to still go.

 Things are different with kids his age. They’re all too loud. They jump around the halls and yell about television programs or local sport events or working out or making out, and Shou overhears some seriously weird gossip about certain celebrities he’d never heard of prior to. 

 It’s fine, though. The kids, they’re loud and mean and some are clearly bullies, but they’re fine. 

 Jospeh had worked in some way for him to get free school lunches, and is only able to eat a smaller portion each day, knowing most of what's provided for him will send him to the hospital if he bothers. He probably wouldn't eat the garbage this school handed out to its student faculty, even if he could. It looks like something Teruki would wear. 

 The lessons are hard, though. The homework is impossible. He finds the task of reading ridiculously ineffective, and the school takes notice of it whenever he’s asked to read aloud or present. He can’t get the words to organize right, the letters jumbling as he looks them over. 

 “It’s presentational anxiety,” says his teacher. “You don’t like taking charge and talking in front of people. It overwhelms you, so the words smash together. You have to take deep breaths and picture everyone wearing underwear over their ears and on top of their heads.” 

 Shou wants to sock his teacher. After that, it’s all he can think about, but he never would- of course not, she’s not a foe, she’s an asshole who thinks she knows him for some reason. He’d never punch her, still. That’s what bullies did. 

 Bullies like the ones in his class, picking on this other kid who- and Shou can’t believe these are real teenage problems and not just something out of a movie he thought was fetishized for drama- got the wrong answer on a test, and the bullies were cheating off of him, and therefore also got the wrong answer. Shou watches as they crowd the kid into the washroom during recess, hands clamped over his mouth, clearly with intent to harm. Two of the kids hold back his arms while another shoves him inside, another covering his mouth. The kid drops a textbook as he’d ushered inside the private room, and Shou picks it up, clenching it so hard his knuckles go white. 

 Shou sends four children to the hospital that day and gets kicked out. They say he can come back upon “further investigation,” and Shou tells them that it's not worth it because he’d never step foot into that school again, and promptly never does. 

 

 

 Shou goes to another school. At this one, he lasts two and a half. 

 He finds the schoolwork just as disorienting and upsetting as always, and the children just as repulsive and rude. 

 He breaks a teacher’s arm for telling him to button up his school uniform, which he wore two buttons down because he was suffocating in his class and needed any semblance of a breather he could get. The teacher told him to button it back up, that he looked like a delinquent. Shou told him not to bother him, he’s trying to open his locker and he can’t get it open, it must be jammed again. Dumb school with no budget for anything. The teacher grabs his shoulder, reaches out to his neck and tries to aggressively do the buttons up for him. 

 Shou, in that moment, sees only his father's hand reaching for his neck. He grabs the wrist and snaps it forwards, driving his elbow into it until he hears a loud crack. 

 He leaves the school before they can expel him. 

 

 

 Shou is ordered to go to a third school by Joseph. He gets suspended a week in for punching a kid he'd passed in the hallway running his mouth off about how psychic powers were for terrorists and terrorists only, and he could take them all if they didn’t use their ‘devil energy’ during the fight. Shou had turned around and decked him square in the nose, no patience no negotiate his statement with him or ignore the arrogant comments and walk away. The kid had bled all over, and the crack Shou felt beneath his fist was not any more satisfying than the look of shock and fear on his friends' faces. 

 To say Shou was really just in a bad mood that day would be an irresponsible understatement. He’d been working a lot under Joseph’s watchful eye, dismantling psychic testing facilities that were becoming dangerously close to human experimentation or the morals Claw stood for and the practices they committed and gave him horrible flashbacks he really did not need. On top of that, he’d been having a lot of problems sleeping and wasn't getting much time in between ‘government’ work and school work to try. He’d fallen asleep in two of his classes, already, and children walked around him like he was a bomb about to be set off. 

 A fair concern, considering he absolutely was. It was announced on the news the other night that Suzuki Touichirou had been put to death for his crimes. He hadn’t been watching the tv- had been too busy burning evidence of psychic crimes Joseph had gathered for such a purpose- but heard about it the moment he’d entered the school. 

 “They killed that terrorist with the creepy eyebrows last night hey? Good riddance,” says one kid in their social class, when asked to provide a piece of current events. Many kids clapped, some snorted at the description, others pulled out their phones to look up the articles released while they’d been sleeping. Their social studies teacher started writing about it on the board, and the class added onto how it reflected the unit they were currently on in the class, and Shou got up and left without a word. 

 He punched the kid in the hallway mere minutes later, on his way out, unsure of what else to do with the feeling inside of him. 

 (“Don’t think this is over, old man,” he’d told him, the very last time he saw him, spoke to him. “You’ve still got to get an earful from mom.” 

 Touichirou looked almost regretful, as he’d said that. Shou had thought a monster like him would regret love, could only ever regret love. Somehow, the look in his eyes made Shou rethink.

 It didn't look like it was his relationship with his mother, his relationship with him, that made his stony eyes soft, for a moment. If Shou didn't know better, he'd have thought, in that moment- it looked like what he regret, really, was losing it. 

 Shou wasn’t sure, in that moment, what to think. He still isn't.) 

 He walks back to the house, not his house, not Joseph’s, not his caseworker’s- just the house, the one they were currently all stuck in to lay low as they worked through their nightly plans. Shou opens the door with his key and walks to the room he’s stuck in, pulls out the phone he’d stolen from the kid he’d punched as he flops over on the bed, numb. He’d go back tomorrow and give it back. For now, his hands shake as he pulls up Mobgle and searches his father’s name. 

 He reads every article, watches every news piece. None call him an esper- some mention it as a rumor circulating so people had some artificial villain to face when all he was was a madman with people on his side. Shou’s hand wobbles at the tense as he scrolls, the words impossible to align with his eyes through the wetness of his silent tears and something else, something he can’t name, that changes the letters into different lines and forces him to read and re-read until he can properly get the idea of each sentence. 

 He’s in them, too. Apparently Touichirou had tried for a plea deal and released secret information on various other espers that had helped him and his cause over the years. 

  So that’s where Joseph got all his information, then, Shou thinks bitterly. Thinks of him getting lists of names of people his father threw under the bus to help himself, all to no end. They may not even be criminals, just people called out by the man that toppled an entire city and blocks before it. Joseph was using biased information that Shou could only hope he’d properly looked into himself to avoid condemning innocent people that had simply gotten on his bad side. 

 He doubts his father would have outed anybody close to him- he knows he wouldn’t have said anything about Fukuda, Ootsuki or Higashio because they were with Shou, and therefore under Joseph’s protection. Shou had opted the same for Serizawa, and could only hope that Joseph hadn’t taken his father’s word over his if they’d been mentioned during this process at all. 

 Shou had clearly been mentioned. Touichirou’s famous last words, headlining the majority of these articles, were; “If I had been a better husband and father when I had the chance, there would have been no lesson for me to learn at all.” 

 There it was. That was it. The last words he has to say, revealing he had a kid, a kid that had done everything in his power to stay under the radar. If anybody found out who he was- if Joseph hadn’t changed his last name before it was too late, anybody could have followed the trail to him. Shou was still legally related to his father, but distanced by every legal action Joseph could have possibly taken, all out of a fear that Shou would turn out just like him. 

 Joseph is scared of him. That’s why he takes him everywhere, is doing everything he can to separate terrorists from terrorist’s son, to set Shou up well enough that he won't need to hurt others to keep his head above water. He’s scared that Shou will be another head on death row after committing crimes that only his old man could think up. 

 (Shou is scared, too. No matter how many times he thinks to himself, I won’t, I won’t become like him, I won’t lose what I have, who I am. I won’t be him, he scared that he’s inching his way down that path, no matter how much he denies it.) 

 Shou closes the phone. He stares at his ceiling for a long time. He hears Joseph enter the house, but nobody knocks on his door. He hears Jin come in, but they don’t say anything to him. 

 Shou doesn’t go to school the next day. Nobody bothers him about it, or makes him come out for their likely unwarranted mission of the night. 

 Shou goes to school the next day, sneaks the phone back into the kid he’d taken it off of’s backpack, and ditches classes. He knows they’ll call Joseph and tell him about him not being in his classes, but he couldn’t care less, can’t be there anymore. He would have stayed back at the house if having the phone didn’t cause him to type out and delete and retype messages to Ritsu, written and deleted and not sent, never sent, because he needs to be able to see Ritsu when this is all over and he can’t compromise that, not after everything. 

 He goes to an arcade and plays the most violent game he can find there for hours on end, then, exhausted, makes his way back to the house. 

 Joseph is waiting for him. “If you-” 

 “I was at the arcade, old timer. I didn't contact anyone. Jus’ leave me alone,” he mumbles, pushing past him. Joseph lets him go. 

 Jin pushes food he barely eats into his room for dinner, and he misses a third day of school and missions. On the fourth, Joseph makes him go, and Shou does. He goes to the school, and to his relief, nobody mentions his old man. The hot topic has passed onto new celebrity gossip of people Shou has once again never heard of, and nobody asks where Shou was the days he was gone, and the clock ticks by slower than ever before. 

 The mission after school doesn’t come. 

 “You can sit this one out, kid. I can take care of this myself,” Joseph tells him before he heads out the door. 

 It’s Shou’s words that stop him in his tracks. “Serizawa is okay, right?” 

 The man turns. Looks at him, expression bored. “Told you already, kid, we aren’t after anybody that opposed Touichirou that day. He’s fine.” 

 Shou kicks his feet a little. He probably looks pathetic, hates that more than ever, but is too null to fix it. His hair has been growing out again but not sticking up the way it used to, falling limply down at the sides of his face in a way it never used to do when Shou flew everywhere, permanently etching it upwards. The bags under his eyes are sizable, his eyes emptier than they used to be. He looks messy. He looks… done. 

 “I don’t…” he says, doesn’t want to be saying, isn’t sure how to say. “I don’t know how to feel about my old man biting the bucket. Am… am I sad? Is that what this is?” He asks, really asks, because it’s kept him up for the last four nights and he can’t go on not having an answer to something as burning and painful as this. 

 Joseph looks like he doesn’t want to answer any more than Shou wants it to be him that answers, yet neither of them have a choice here, not really. Joseph runs a hand through his short, patterned cut. “It’s ‘bite the dust’ or ‘kick the bucket’, and you and your father had a relationship I’m not really fit to comment on here, kid.” 

 Shou nods. It’s true, and he knows it. He doesn’t really want him to comment, anyway. He wants someone like Serizawa to comment, to tell him first hand what to be feeling. Someone like Ritsu, who was always so blunt and honest and would always say exactly what he needed to hear. Someone like Shigeo, who spoke so softly and genuinely Shou once thought he was a coward, but now needs his strength. Teruki, maybe, who always gave advice one shouldn’t follow and would make a good guideline of what voices in his head he should be ignoring instead of listening to. Hell, even Reigen could probably help him out now, if only he could talk to him, to make sure they were okay, let them help him be okay. 

 Joseph, whose expression is so carefully blank, pulls out a cigarette. He bites it in his teeth as he pulls out a lighter, then pulls it out to add, “besides, you don’t have to put a label on your feelings. Just feeling them is enough sometimes, kid. Makes you human,” he pops the cigarette back in his mouth, lights it, and closes the door behind him. 

 Shou stands at the door for a bit, unsure of what else he can do. 

 

 

 The months snail their way by. Shou shaves his head again, learns why he’s having so much trouble in school (something called dyslexia, and apparently he has adhd, which, okay, sure), and is officially 15. He’s pulled out of the school he’s in so that he can move districts, closer to where he used to be, to Seasoning City. It will take another month or so to finalize everything, or it would, if Shou needed an apartment for himself. 

 Shou has had a long time to think about what he wants to do with himself now that he can, and has never gotten the letter Serizawa left for him out of his head. Now that he has the freedom to do so, he’s terrified. 

 A lot of time has gone by. Would the offer even still be open? Do they even have another room? Did they end up getting the new house they’d talked about? Maybe he’d just be intruding. Maybe they wouldn’t want him back, after all that time. Shou wasn’t even able to come back for his hamsters like he said he’d try to. Were they still okay? Hamsters didn’t have very long lifespans, and moving can be stressful. What if they weren’t there anymore? What if Serizawa had gotten rid of them? What about the dog? If Shou’s mom still had her, would they be open to having her, too? 

 There was a lot Shou was terrified over, a lot he was justifiably terrified over. If it didn’t work out, he’d just have to get his own place like Joseph had originally planned, but he wasn’t sure if he could stand it- being suddenly alone with his thoughts, waking up to more empty rooms and caring for a dog that probably had gotten more used to his mother and her shitty stupid boyfriend, if they were even still together, and his hamsters, what few he had left if, at this point, any. 

 He wasn’t sure how to reintroduce himself. It felt wrong, like he didn’t deserve to just show up and re-insert himself into his friend's lives. It wasn’t fair, he knew. Nothing about any of this was fair. 

 He takes a deep breath. Rears up his fist. He knows you don’t really have to knock on the door to come in, but if Reigen or Serizawa or whoever was around at Spirits and Such at this hour were with a client, he wouldn’t want to interrupt. Reigen has a sign that he flips around when someone comes in if he doesn’t want the interruption, but he’s also seen the man forget to flip that sign many times and figured it wasn’t very reliable to base his judgement on.  

 He just needs to knock. Knock, wait a beat, stick his head in. Go from there. He can do this. He’s not a coward, yet he feels himself shaking. He’d run a hand through his hair if it wasn’t buzzed so short, an attempt to go unrecognized by anybody who may have recognized him from Claw that had simply stuck around because he was starting to get used to it, quite liked it after a while. It was so different from what they knew, though. Would they recognize him? 

  Stop. Knock, just knock. That’s all he has to do. He takes a deep breath. Whatever happens, happens. He can do this. He’s faced Joseph. He’s faced his mother. He’s faced terrorists and dogfighters and assholes and students. He’s faced his old man. He’s faced himself. He can face a con-artist and his dad’s old bodyguard. 

 He knocks. Hears a familiar, “come in!” that could only belong to Reigen, and takes another deep breath before pushing the door open and sticking his head in to see Reigen at his desk, eyes wide, mouth dropped and the pencil once in his hand dropped to the desk counter with a loud clank of a noise. 

 “Uh. Heeeey, Reigen,” Shou says, fully entering the room. He feels out of place in his dark t-shirt and long black pants, a stark contrast to the bright appearance of the light-grey and off-wash purple that is Reigen’s suit. He’d had to get used to wearing darker clothes on his missions, and didn’t think to stop that habit before coming here. 

 The man gawks at him for a moment, and Shou opens his mouth to say something when Reigen pushes himself out of his desk and abruptly up from his chair, earning an audible screech from the hard floor. 

 “Shou,” the man breathes, sounding like he’d just been punched in the throat for how weirdly the delivery was, almost a crack but mostly a squeak. “You- you’re okay! Oh my- holy shit,” he says, rushing over to him, and Shou braces himself for the hug the man was clearly making a move for and isn’t let down when Reigen sweeps him up, holding him weirdly tight. He didn’t think Reigen was a very touchy-feely kind of guy, really. He assumed he’d just get a thumbs up or something. 

 Nope. Reigen is holding him like he’d disappear the moment he lets go, saying absolutely nothing. He’s even pinning his arms back in the hug, so Shou can’t even return it or pat his back or whatever people do when they’re being hugged. It wasn’t even like him and Reigen were that close before all this, so he figured his reaction was more on Serizawa’s behalf than his own. 

 Shou isn’t entirely sure what to say, so he just lets Reigen hug him while he glances around the office. There are new books on the wall Shou doesn’t recall being there previously, a new photo board, too. Shou can’t see the photos on it from so far away, and sort of wants to. Serizawa no longer seems to have a school desk, since he can’t see one- instead, a second desk faces the side of Reigen’s, and a third, even smaller desk lines next to that one. Maybe Shigeo’s? Does he still come here? Shou is wondering about it when Reigen finally lets him go, something bright and something tearful in his eyes. 

 “Shou, are you hungry? You must be hungry,” he says, looking him over properly. Sure, Shou had probably lost weight and was already probably a little underweight before this whole mess began. He had some muscle on him, though, so he didn’t think Reigen would notice. “C’mon, wanna go get some Soba?” 

 Shou blinks. “Uh, sure. As long as I can get it plain wherever we go, ‘cause I’m allergic to a lot of sauces.” 

 “Sure, sure. They’re used to accommodating for allergies, I’m sure,” Reigen says casually, flapping a hand around, and opens the door for him, quickly patting his coat to check he’s got his wallet and nodding methodically when he feels it. Shou steps out of the office and watches as he flips the office sign to ‘closed’ before sauntering away, Shou quickly following after him. 

 “So, Shou,” Reigen says as they head down the steps. “Who knows you’re back from wherever it was you were?” 

 Shou rubs his arm. “Ah… you. I wasn’t really sure how to go about it… I figured I’d have to start with you and Serizawa because of um,” he pops his lips to stall as he thinks of his wording, “ah, I guess I wanted to know what sort of options I had. Where’s the big guy hiding?” 

 Reigen waits for him at the bottom of the steps as they turn on the street. Shou keeps his aura tucked to himself neatly, used to having to hide it, though he knows Reigen can’t see it anyway and even if he could, it wouldn’t really matter. He was just Reigen, after all. “He’s at class. Most everybody is, really. Even Dimple had better things to do today. You picked a pretty calm time to visit the office, really.” 

 Shou raises his eyebrows. “What would you have done if a client came in with a ghost issue?” 

 “I’d have taken care of it. I’m the world’s number one-” he starts, then stares down and Shou’s unimpressed gaze. He clears his throat. “I would have called Dimple to get his ass down to the office and help me.” 

 Shou nods. Good, he’s finally admitting it then. It’s about time. “Dimple has a phone?” 

 “It’s a burner, and who knows where he got it. But ya, it’s got a number and is the best way I can contact him these days,” he admits, and as Shou nods, slickly brings up a fairly big question. “You know, Serizawa called and texted you a lot. You didn’t answer.” 

 Shou does his best to answer just as casually as the question was posed, though it wasn’t really framed as a question. Still, the unspoken why? weighed heavy in the air as they walked. If Shou was going to have any right to ask them for a place to stay, he wouldn’t have any right to lie about something like that. Joseph told him to keep everything a secret, made him sign a contract of silence, even. Yet, he owes at least that much to Reigen. 

 “Didn’t have my phone. It got broken,” he says, not really lying. He had no doubt Joseph destroyed his phone the moment it was confiscated from him. 

 “I see,” is what Reigen settles on, opening the door for him to the soba shop. Reigen lets him order whatever he wants, and Shou gets plain soba and some edamame on the side. Reigen just gets a yaki platter, one of the cheapest options on the menu, for himself. Shou doesn’t comment on it as he pays, and the two wait quietly for their food to be ready while they sit. 

 He can tell Reigen is trying to figure out how to best handle the situation. He’s a smart guy, but he’s in a weird position with Shou suddenly showing up like this. Shou hates that he put him in this position to begin with. He taps his fingers on the counter and decides it's not fair to put this whole conversation on Reigen, and decides to rip the bandage off. 

 “So, I’m legally emancipated, now,” he starts. “I could get my own place, now that I’m back in Seasoning City. I don’t have to get it here. I’m not even from here, really. It’s a nice place, though, by far my favourite that I’ve been to. I think I’ll stick around, now that I can.” 

 Reigen lets him talk. He continues, “besides, everyone I know is from here. I think. Assuming they’re all still here,” he backtracks, a thought he’d been thinking night after night striking him once more, “because, everything might have gone and changed without me. It’s not really cool of me to assume everything paused just because I wasn’t around.” 

 Reigen swivels a little on his bar stool to face him better. “A lot has changed. You’re right about that,” Reigen agrees slowly, and the pit in Shou’s stomach sinks further down. “Mob’s in high school. I’m in my thirties. Ritsu,” he starts, and time almost really does stop, “is in his first year at the same high school as Mob, same as Teru They’re all taking different classes, but in the same place. Teru lives with me and Serizawa, too. He emancipated pretty recently, so there are no longer any issues there.” 

 Shou lets out a breath he’d been holding. They’re all still here, then. The information is a weight off his shoulders, heavier than his backpack full of all he has in life, sitting at the bottom of the barstool. He nods a little, unsure if he’s able to comment anything more than a thank god, which wouldn’t really be great to say aloud. 

 “Serizawa is almost done school. He’s graduating in just a few months. His schooling runs different from everybody else's, weird as that sounds. And,” he’s about to say, then pauses, looks a little hesitant. Shou braces himself for what he knew was coming. “Two of your hamsters passed away, while you were gone. I’m sorry, Shou.” 

 Their food is placed in front of them, and Shou picks up his chopsticks slowly, peels them apart. He wraps up some of the noodles in front of him, watching mechanically as steam rolls off it in waves. 

 “Which ones?” he asks quietly. It takes all his energy to keep the crack out of his voice. 

 “Ah, the brown one with the yellow spot around its eye, and the one that looks just like that but with longer fur.” 

 “Rittu and Yamada,” he confirms, stirring the noodles more to let the steam rise away. He doesn’t look at Reigen, isn’t sure what expression they’re making. “I wish I could have taken them with me. I’m glad that you were there, at least, and Serizawa too. Thank you for… for taking them in. Are the others…” 

 “The others are good. Eating plenty of greens, always running through the tube system the boys came over to set up at our place. Ritsu was the only one who knew their names, you know. You wrote a list of instructions on how to take care of them, and he was the only one who could decipher your writing and the names you wrote.” 

 Shou’s eyes water a little as he risks a smile at the thought. “Ya. Apparently I’m dyslexic, I guess. I wrote that note in kind of a rush. And, um… when I left them at Serizawa’s old house, there was a note there, too.” 

 Reigen takes a bite of his soba, even though it must burn his tongue based on his expression. He swallows painfully, then nods. “The offer still stands. The one that was in the note, I mean. If that’s what you’re asking, we made sure we got a house that had a spare room in case you- in case you ever came back, Shou.” 

 Shou doesn’t say anything. He’s a little busy trying to fight off the wetness in his eyes. If Reigen notices, he doesn’t comment on it, but he does continue talking. “We were all worried about you. For whatever reason, Mob was the only one who knew where your mom lived. The kids all went there to see if they could find you after you stopped returning Ritsu’s texts, only to find that you didn’t live there anymore and never really lived there at all. Your mom had no idea where you were. Mob told me she said she never knew where you went when you took off, which apparently you did a lot, and that she figured you’d be back eventually to feed your hamsters. She didn’t even realize Serizawa had them, had had them for a few weeks, since you’d dropped them off.” 

 He takes another bite of his food, an opportunity to breathe in between the weight of Reigen’s words. Shou takes a small bite of his own, chews it slowly. It’s really good, but he can hardly taste it. 

 “Ritsu was really worried about you,” the con-artist tells him with a look of care, one that makes Shou turtle a little with guilt. “Said the last time you two talked, you sounded like you weren’t sure if you’d ever see each other again.” 

 Shou swallows. “I wasn’t,” he agrees, swallows again. “I didn’t really know what was going to happen to me. That’s why I- I tried to say goodbye to him. I never wanted to leave. I didn’t want him to think I wanted to leave him, Reigen,” he exclaims, his words wet and practically begging. “Is he- he’s okay though, right? First year at high school, that’s pretty cool. He’s fine.” 

 Reigen gives him a look. It’s one he’s only ever seen on Ritsu, one that just screams you can’t be serious. Shou turns away from it. “I’ll talk to him myself soon, anyway. It’ll be fine.” 

 They eat quietly for a while after that. Reigen’s phone pings, and he pulls it out to check it. “Serizawa is home. He’s asking where I am- he’s probably checking I’m not out getting drunk in a bar all alone. You coming back with me? We can set up the spare room for you, no problem.” 

 Shou taps the edge of the empty soba bowl. “You do that?” 

 He shrugs. “Used to. Used to smoke and lie my way through life too, before you kids showed up. Still lie, though I’m trying to not do it to the people I care about, which is why I mean it when I say I’ve got a room you can stay in for as long as you’d like.” 

 It takes a lot of effort, but Shou nods. He’s exhausted, and really wants to see Serizawa, is even excited to see Teruki. He’s missed making fun of his clothes, although Shou know’s that his all-black attire isn’t exactly much to look at itself. 

 He wants to see his hamsters, the three he has left, probably doesn’t have for much longer. A thought pops in his mind before he takes more than a few steps off the barstool. 

 “Do you like dogs?” 

 Reigen’s eyes turn into stars for a moment before he blinks them away. “They’re okay.” 

 

 

 They get to the house. Reigen tells Shou to “maybe stay outside while I tell Serizawa and Teru you’re here so they don’t… go crazy with the greetings” and then goes to unlock the door, turning back to him to add “don’t go running off again, eh kid?” 

 Shou rolls his eyes. “Get inside, geezer,” he pokes, and Reigen gives him a mock salute before entering the apartment. 

 It’s pretty cute on the outside. Bigger than he’d have expected Reigen to have, but he figured Serizawa being around would have brought in many new customers and business opportunities. It had a nice blue door, probably coloured inside as well- something he’s sure Teruki would love. The guy was always about color, even when it hurts Shou’s eyes to look at sometimes. And he never even saw the kid more than a few times. 

 He taps his foot. He’s tempted to put his ear to the door to see what he can hear, but doesn’t want it to suddenly swing out and thwack his face. If he concentrates, he can feel Serizawa’s stressed aura just to the side of Teruki, whose aura flares a bright pink-yellow along Serizawa’s blue-purple inside the apartment. Reigen has nothing but a faint green, his own personal aura, merely rub-off signatures resulting in constant contact with that of others' auras. The green might be due to Dimple frequently hanging over his shoulders if that was a thing he still did, or maybe green was just more Reigen’s colour. It wasn’t as grimy as Dimple’s, anyway. It was too personal a thing to ask about and probably something he wouldn’t have an answer for, anyway. 

 He rubs his arms. Geez, how long did he have to stand out here? He’s still holding his own aura close to himself, too tight for even a highly trained esper to notice. Even Shigeo probably wouldn’t see him coming like this. He knows he doesn’t have to, but it’s been so necessary for so long, letting it fly free like the others do seems so dangerous, so absurd. Even just having himself be noticed again was a big step in what felt like the wrong direction, though he knew it wasn’t. 

 After what feels like forever, the door opens to Reigen’s face. “C’mon, kid,” he urges, leaving space for Shou to walk by. The red-head lets himself in, trying to hold up a courage he usually wore like a coat. It falters the moment he sees them. 

 Serizawa’s eyes are wide and he’s clearly been crying. His hair has grown a little longer, a little curlier, and he’s wearing nothing but a housecoat he’d probably tossed on the moment he got into the comfort of his house. Teruki is leaning against the couch casually in contrast to Serizawa’s upright positioning, but even he looks a little freaked out just by seeing him. His own blond hair is much longer now, tied up in a bun at the top of his head with a pink scrunchie that doesn’t at all match his blue silk pajamas, though the blue does play off the walls just as well as Shou expected of him. 

 “Sup,” he says bashfully, trying a different approach from how softly he’d greeted Reigen. 

 It doesn’t change the results. Serizawa moves over to him like he’s on autopilot and opens his arms shakily. 

 “Shou, can I h- hug you?” the grown man sniffles. 

 Shou shrugs and opens his own arms, lets Serizawa tackle him into one of those big bear hugs he’d achieved so well. He hugs much better than Reigen does, anyway. 

 After a few long moments, it’s apparent Serizawa won’t be the one to detach the hug. Shou doesn’t have the heart to either, though, and instead shifts his focus to Teruki. 

 “How ya been, Hanazawa?” he asks, still patting Serizawa and trying not to break down himself. Teruki looks surprised that he’d been addressed at all. 

 “Better than you, it looks like,” he responds out of stupor, and Shou’s frown causes a quick backtrack of the blond’s words. “S-sorry. Just… you look tired, Shou-kun.” 

 Shou sighs, watching as Serizawa pulls himself away finally, eyes searching for answers to questions his mouth can’t seem to form. “I am tired,” he admits. “I mean, it’s so hot outside and here I am, wearing all black. I’m drained, dude,” he jokes blandly, and Teruki smiles a little, and Serizawa smiles a lot. 

 The man wipes his tears on his sleeve, then gives Shou a proper grin. “We’ll set up your bed. Stay as long as you’d like, Shou. We won't be long getting it ready.” 

 With that, the two of them exit the room, Serizawa a little stiff in motion and Teruki a little hesitant, glancing back behind himself once before disappearing behind the hallway. 

 Reigen offers him some water from the tap, ran through a filter he’s positive he’d never have been able to afford before. Shou takes it and sits on their couch as he waits, tossing his backpack to the ground as he leans into the soft cushion. “You know, we’re gonna have to talk about where you’ve been eventually. Tonight, get some rest. Tomorrow, you should go see Ritsu, if you’re up for it, or you can stay here tomorrow too and we can work through it together then.” 

 Ritsu. The thought of seeing him yet sent a pang through his chest he swallows down rough with a sip of water. He wants to see Ritsu, and he nods along with the thought. “Ritsu tomorrow. I’ll catch him after school if he’s not busy, but I don’t want to distract him before it. Do you mind if I just stick around the house for the day, until then?” 

 Reigen nods. “Of course. Your hamsters are in the room they’re setting up, by the way.” 

 Shou nearly drops the glass of water before he’s dashing out of the living room and zipping into the room that is supposedly ‘his’ for the time being. 

 There, on the counter along the wall. Shou floats his way over to them, eyeing the setup with pride. Their tubing ran from tank to floor to the second, smaller tank back around to the first one. It was the set-up Shou had brought with him to Serizawa’s house but hadn’t had the time to actually set up. He remembers Reigen saying something about who set it up, and turns over to Serizawa and Teruki, both at the side of the room clearly pretending they aren’t watching as they set up the bed. “Did you guys do this?” 

 Teruki thumbs his chest. "Mob, Little Brother and I did. Tome came over a couple of times, too, just to play with them. Ritsu visits them a lot as well.” 

 Shou’s eyes properly tear up. Even when he was gone, they really were helping him. 

 His voice wobbles a little as he thanks him, and Teruki tells him it’s no big deal even though it is, and Shou opens the enclosure. He sticks his hand in, and none of them run to him like they used to. It doesn’t hurt, considering Shou knows why. 

 “Hey ladies,” he purred at them, and they sniff at his offered hand. “I know, I smell different. It’s been a while and you guys have adorable little walnut brains. You probably don’t remember me, but I remember you guys. I thought about you all the time. I wanted to come back to you so badly…” he trails off, sniffles. Two of them stick their heads out closer, another still uninterested. He smiles. “I’m glad there were people here to take such good care of you.” 

 Shou leans over the enclosure for a little while, but none really come out to him. That’s okay. In time, they’d get used to him again. He can wait for them. 

 Serizawa clears his throat and when Shou looks back around, the bed is set upright. His backpack is leaning against the wall, though he knows he didn’t bring it in. Reigen must have brought it, and he hadn’t even noticed. 

 God, these people were so kind. 

 They leave him to get some rest, and Shou sleeps better then he has in ages. 

 

 

 Shou wakes to the smell of pancakes. A glorious smell, really, considering it's one of the few breakfast foods he can actually eat. 

 Serizawa and Reigen are the only ones around. Teruki was at school, apparently, considering Shou had slept until noon. It was a bit late for pancakes, then, and Shou asks about it. 

 “We were hoping the smell would wake you up. We were worried you would go into a coma,” is what Reigen explains the action as, his mouth unattractively full. 

 Shou is basically just eating maple syrup with how much he’d dosed his own batch with. “Well it worked. Haven’t had pancakes in ages.” 

 Reigen shovels more food into his mouth. “Weren’t living with people big on baking, then?” 

 Shou knows what Reigen is doing, how he’s trying to get him to subtly reveal something about where he was so that a segway leads them to a proper conversation as opposed to just outright asking and chancing a bad reaction from Shou. 

 Shou appreciates how careful he’s being, though he really doesn’t need to baby him over it. Besides, Reigen is asking more for Serizawa’s sake, who is sitting gingerly at the edge of the table, waiting patiently for his answer as he chews slowly. He’s asking because they care, and if Shou didn’t give them something to work with they’d just be treading around him for the rest of time, subtly trying to get something out of him. It was cruel to keep them in the dark like this. 

 Shou twists his pancake around, dragging it through the syrup soup he’d created. “Na. They weren’t big cookers, either. Lots of takeout, plenty of those packet meals you used to eat all the time, Con Man.” 

 Reigen doesn’t say anything to that, takes his time chewing as he waits for a proper response to circulate his mind, and Shou huffs before he hurts himself. “Look, guys- I’ll save you the trouble. You can ask me whatever you want about where I’ve been, but I can’t answer everything.” 

 “You can’t, or you’re not allowed to?” Serizawa asks hesitantly, finally speaking up. 

 Shou shrugs. “Both.” 

 “Why not?” 

 “Ooh, big question there, big guy,” Shou warns him, and Serizawa turns his gaze back to his food, getting soggy under all the butter he’d piled on it. 

 Reigen’s turn, apparently. “Do we know the people you were staying with?” 

 “Um,” Shou thinks about if he can answer that one before shrugging. “Ya, Serizawa met one of them, once.” 

 “I did?” 

 “Ya. Remember the pale guy that carted dad off for death row?” Shou asks, tone as normal as possible, and Serizawa’s eyes widen in realization. 

  “That guy, Shou? That was the shadiest man I’d ever met. He- he said he was from the government, and literally nothing else. You’ve been with him this whole time?” Serizawa frets, leaning into the table anxiously to the point where Shou leans away from it a little. 

 “Kind of… on and off, really,” Shou rubs his arm, still waterboarding his pancake. “I can’t talk about why, though. Government stuff. Not that different from what I did when I was taking out Claw bases with Fukuda and the others, really, just with people I liked a lot less than Fukuda and the others.” 

 He takes a large bite, mouth sticky and wet as he chews loudly just for the sake of some kind of sound in the room. It was a safe answer that gave them something to picture, but nothing really to come to mind. Neither of them really knew what he and Fukuda and the others got up to while they were on the run; Serizawa especially wouldn’t have known, considering he hadn’t even realized Shou was rebelling before the very last second when he’d basically gotten in the way. 

 Serizawa clearly looks unsettled by this news- he knew the guy never liked Joseph, had called him insensitive and arrogant after they’d parted ways, much to Shou’s amusement at the time. Reigen clearly can’t say much about it, since he wasn’t there and likely has no idea who they’re referring too. Still, he speaks up- something of a specialty of his, really. “So you were working for him,” he explores, and Shou nods uncertainty. 

 “Kiiiiiind of… Ya. I mean, basically. It was more of a- a trade of services.” 

 “... Services.” 

 He squirms in his chair at the cold tone Reigen suddenly adapted. “Yeah. I wasn’t really in a position to say no to him,” he explains, thinking back to Joseph's subtle threat on Serizawa’s head, on Fukuda’s, Ootsuki’s, Higashio’s. Maybe even Ritsu’s, or Teruki’s, or Shigeo’s. It was a chance he couldn’t afford to take, not with so many heads on the line, including and especially his own. They don’t need to know about that, though. There was no point to them knowing about that. It wouldn’t help anything at this point, as the damage had been done and the problem was over. Probably. Joseph was an asshole, but he was an asshole who was true to his word, and Shou felt like if he could trust him about anything, it was this. “But hey, it wasn’t so bad. Thanks to him, I’m officially a Japanese citizen. I was even in a few different schools for a while. I mean, I kept getting kicked out, but the fact that I was in them at all is something to be proud of. And now I can enroll myself in whatever school I want, because I’m getting ‘funded’ or whatever. Cool, eh?” 

 Serizawa and Reigen look incredibly pained. It’s Serizawa who manages to find his words first, this time. “Shou… w-what was the deal you made?” 

 Shou frowns. They really weren’t focusing on the positives of the situation, were they? “Legit, I can’t tell you guys. And it’s over anyway, so I wouldn’t stress it. Work-for-work, really, if that's a good term.” 

 “What kind of work?” 

 “Government stuff! Guys, seriously-” 

 “Shou,” Reigen says, voice very serious in a way Shou has never heard it before. “Were you blackmailed into this position?” 

 Shou blinks. Frowns. “Well, I wasn’t there because I wanted to be. I’d have much rather been playing with my hamsters and texting Ritsu funny memes I find that he hates but pretends to laugh at anyway, or watching the many, many wrestling matches I’d missed out on while I was gone. As it stands, I had to go with him. I can’t tell you guys the stakes, and I can’t tell you guys the reason, and I can’t tell you guys the contents; but, it all pretty much worked out in the end, and I’m here and I’m fine and it’s fine, and I just need you guys to trust me on this.” 

 They’re all quiet for a while after that. Nobody seems to know what to follow Shou’s declaration up with, and Shou isn’t sure if he wants to be adding onto his own comment or if he should leave it as is. 

 “Can we ask you one more question, and then let you rest until you have to see Ritsu in a couple of hours?” Reigen ends up inquiring as he picks up his and Shou’s finished plates, despite Shou’s initial motion to grab his own, used to doing his own dishes. 

 The red-head nods, knowing if he couldn’t answer it, they wouldn’t make him. Reigen nods, puts the dishes in the sink. Serizawa is still working his way through his last one, even though he looks kind of like he might throw up after another bite. The sink is turned on, running as background noise to the question, “These people you were staying with… did any of them touch you, or hurt you in any way?” 

 Serizawa looks like he actually might throw up, now, and, oh. OH.  

  “N- no!” he exclaims quickly reaching his hands out to steady the anemic looking Serizawa. “No, they- they were assholes, but they didn’t- no. No, Reigen.” 

 Reigen starts washing the dishes, not once looking up. His grip on the plate in his hands noticeably relaxes, enough that Shou realizes just how tight he’d been holding it and was surprised he didn’t shatter it, might have if Shou said yes. “Good,” he said sharply, despite the clear relief in his tone. Even Serizawa looks like he’s about to melt into his chair. “Good,” he repeats to himself, and Shou gives him an okay weirdo look. 

 “Ya… hey, can I borrow one of your phones?” he asks, and Serizawa wordlessly hands him his own. Shou unlocks it, remembering the passcode effortlessly and not one bit surprised that it hadn’t been changed once all this time. He excuses himself, heading back to the room that was set up for him and closing the door behind him softly. 

 He calls his mom. She doesn’t answer, so he leaves a voicemail about hopefully visiting her tomorrow to see her and the dog. He asks if she’d named her, if she was doing okay- remembers nobody is going to answer, excuses himself. He uses Serizawa’s phone to keep track of the time, and pulls out a bright blue sweater with stripes going down it and light leggings he’d been able to fit alongside his other few changes of clothes. It was a bit crinkled, so he uses the heat of his hands to smooth it out on the bed before asking for permission to take a shower and to be lent a towel, which Serizawa happy lends him. 

 Smelling better, he plays with his hamsters (they were already starting to warm up to him again) and changes into his new outfit. By the time he’s done, it’s only a little while before he gets to wait up for Ritsu. He usually goes to the school as it gets out and then just waits the bit of time for Ritsu to get out from his meeting, in case it was cancelled or shorter than usual, which it often was. He still had time to go, but really didn’t want to stay cooped up in the house any longer, just pacing around until he got to see him. He knew if he did that, he’d start overthinking shit, and he really didn’t want that. 

 He excuses himself to let them know he’s going out rather than just leaving and chancing them thinking he’s run off again, and flies around the city invisibly for a while. He forgot to give Serizawa his phone back, and knows he should probably return it, but he uses it to pay mindless games as he hovers over the city, breathing in its smells and freedom once more. He makes his way over to the school and sits on the top of it like a bench, playing a game he’s surprised Serizawa still has after all this time where you tap the screen to help a bird fly through pillars. It’s good for concentration, but not for anxiety- maybe that wasn’t as big of an issue with the guy as it used to be. Shou didn’t get the time to ask him about how he’d changed since Shou left, if he’d gotten any better at controlling his emotions, his worries. 

 He’d have time. They’d all get plenty caught up, he knows. He wants to know what he’d missed out on, what he still has time to be there for. 

 

 

 The waiting game for school to get out doesn’t take too long, though time drivels by in a painful lapse. Students flood the grounds the moment a final bell rings, all just as excited to get out of the high school Shou has never sat at before as they were to get out of the middle school he’d sat at time and time again. Shou watches gingerly for any powerful auras, watches Shigeo and Teruki vacate the school together, Teruki laughing at something Shigeo said and Shigeo, now stylized with a much nicer haircut that did less to frame his face and more to bring out his eyes, more curled rather than crisply straightened at the front of his face, talking about something Shou can’t hear. 

 He hopes Teruki didn’t say anything about him today, and figures he didn’t or Ritsu would look much more panicked as he exits the school shortly after, talking to some friends of his own. Shou doesn’t recognize them, but he does recognize Ritsu- even under the new school uniform, a lighter gray than of Salt Middle School with a red zipper going down it, it’s still Ritsu. Ritsu’s aura, his hair, his bright black eyes that say a thousand words; that was him, alright. Shou is a little worried to finally show up to him by interrupting his conversation with other people, and follows him with his eyes, waiting to see if the teens around him walk the same path or if they’ll turn down different roads. 

 Thankfully, he sees Ritsu wave at them, and they wave back. Then, it’s just Ritsu. 

 Shou doesn’t know what to say. He's terrified to be doing this, terrified Ritsu won't actually want him back. He's got new friends. He doesn't need Shou to come back into his life like he's got some kind of right to- Shou knows this. 

 He also knows that that's the only way he's ever been a part of Ritsu's life. When they first met, Shou literally beat the shit out of him, and then burned his house down at only their second meeting. Yes, Shou had to. If he didn't beat up Ritsu then, his position in Claw would have been compromised. If he didn't burn down Ritsu's house, someone else would have done it first, without taking the care to vacate everyone on the premises, relocating his parents and enlisting Ritsu into both a partnership and a friendship; one Shou quite literally backed him into a corner over. 

 And yet, Ritsu stuck by him. Shou can only hope that he'll do the same, now. 

 ("You wanna be friends?" Shou had asked, what felt like ages ago. Ritsu blinked dumbly above him; they were laying on his bed, legs entangled, while Shou played a game on his phone and Ritsu studied from his notes, which leaned against Shou's hip. 

 "I thought we were already," the raven-haired teen revealed, sounding both bored and confused, an excellent mixture that added a little pinch to the end of his sentence Shou just loved to hear. 

 Shou leaned up, the app on his phone having already timed itself off the screen and leaving no reason for Shou to keep staring at it. His change in position shifted Ritsu's books off his hip and back onto the bed, and their owner watched their legs unlace blankly before turning his gaze to Shou, giving him his attention as he speaks. "Okay. Cool, just checkin', I guess." 

 "You're my best friend, Shou." 

 It was Shou's turn to stare blankly then, though his face was flushed considerably more than Ritsu's. The other boy said nothing else, just watched Shou seriously, tentatively. 

 Shou swallowed. He had to pull his head out of the clouds to respond. "Wow. Low bar, then?" 

 Ritsu kicked him, and Shou laughed, hands out in mercy. "Ah, okay, okay!" 

 An eye roll. "Don't joke. I just poured my feelings out to you." 

 "Ah," the smaller boy sighed endearingly, "you're right. And... you're my best friend too, minus my hamsters. And the stray cat that lives outside of my house. And-" 

 Ritsu kicked him again, and both him and Shou laughed about it through the night.) 

 Gingerly, he floats his way. He doesn’t want to startle Ritsu. Though it’s usually funny to do just that, after so long, that’s not how he wants to re-introduce himself. He could say hi, but if Ritsu just starts crying like Serizawa had, that would be weird to recover from. 

 He lands behind him. He’s still invisible, aura tucked fully away, and Ritu doesn’t look like he’s noticed him. He takes a deep breath, lets the light around him unrefract. 

 “I like the new uniform,” he settles on, and Ritsu stops walking abruptly. “A zipper is a nice change, too. Buttons strangle me when I wear them, so.” 

 The raven-haired teen slowly turns. His eyes lock onto Shou’s, and he takes a step backwards as though the sight of him startled him into reality in a way his voice hadn’t. 

 “Shou,” Ritsu gasps. 

 Shou smiles, a little stressed by the different reaction. “Hey, Ritsu. Long time no-” 

 He doesn’t finish his sentence. Ritsu rushes him, decks him square in the jaw. Shou fumbles a few steps backwards, holding the side of his face and gawking. “Hey! Ow, dude!” 

 “Where were you?” Ritsu yells. A few students walking behind or around them turn to stare, but Ritsu takes no notice. “You- you disappeared, Shou! You made it sound like you were about to die, and then didn’t answer any texts, or any calls, and nobody knew where you were, and we couldn’t track you down or look you up because you don’t exist, Shou! I had no way to find out what happened to you! I had no idea if you were kidnapped or you killed yourself or someone killed you or if you’d just fucked off to Puerto Rico for a two year long vacation!” 

 The teen paces his way over to him, each step dangerous and his anger at Shou so tangible it chokes him a little. Shou takes a step back for every step he takes forwards, hands up in surrender to try and calm him. “W- where’d you get Puerto Rico from?” he asks wobbly, trying to lighten the dense atmosphere of Ritsu’s rage and failing miserably. Ritsu pulls at his own hair. 

 “Shou, don’t- fuck, don’t you dare joke with me right now,” he snaps, and Shou gulps. 

 He stands his ground. Stops backing away, because at that point they were just going back to the school, and Shou doesn’t want Ritsu to be alienated for yelling at some kid nobody had seen before in the head of the courtyard. They certainly had an audience already, and though Shou normally didn’t care about that type of thing, he was worried Ritsu would be after this was over. 

 For whatever reason, Shou knows, in that moment, that he truly won’t become his father, truly isn’t the boy his father started out as. No, Shou was certain a man like his old one could never truly feel regret, feel regret for leaving a loved one behind, for making them so scared and upset they have to run like his mother had or lash out like Ritsu was doing now. 

 Shou truly did regret everything that he’d done to make Ritsu have such a hurt look in his eyes, masked under sharply directed rage. 

 He stands his ground. Ritsu marches up to him, face right in his own. He’s taller than Shou, considerably, by at least an extra three or four inches now. It’s more noticeable now that Shou’s hair is cut short, but he was a pretty short guy, and Ritsu’s legs certainly hadn’t skipped out on the growth spurt Shou’s took a nap during. Still, Shou doesn’t flinch under Ritsu, not even as he rears back for what looks like will be another punch. 

 Instead, he closes his eyes, waits for the next hit to come. He doesn’t want to hurt Ritsu, has no doubt he could beat him in a fight if he actually had to, but never would. Ritsu was rightfully mad, and Shou deserved to have his anger taken out on him. 

 The punch doesn’t come. Shou cracks an eye open, widens them both when he sees Ritsu just standing there, watching him intently. 

 Without warning, Ritsu pulls him into a hug. A strong one- wow, he must be working out at least a little in his spare time, there was no way he was that strong before. It’s softer than Reigen’s bony hug and tighter than Serizawa’s careful hug. It’s just as desperate as the one he’d pulled Shou into before he’d left him. 

 Shou’s worried his ribs will crack under the pressure, and lets out a little wheeze wrapped in a sob.  

 “I’ve missed you, asshole,” Ritsu breathes into his neck. "I like your haircut." 

 Shou doesn’t even try not to cry, this time, and he shakily hugs the other boy back.