"Are you cold?" asks the seven-year-old boy without thinking when he sees a brown-haired child burying their face in their knees which they tuck close to their chest, shivering.
It's a stupid question, his mind later tells him. Of course it can't be cold, it's the middle of summer, which means it's supposed to be hot and sunny, and healthy boys like him should be sweating even under the shade of the trees. That's what Mommy said, and Mommy's right most of the time.
The other kid doesn't say anything, and it makes the boy wonder if it's because they didn't hear him. So he takes a closer step and is in the middle of repeating his question when he can hear somebody's teeth chattering.
"Y-you're sick," the little boy exclaims. They must be, otherwise how can they be that cold at this time of the year? "Hang on, I'll go get an ice pack. Mommy said to use one if you're having a fever..."
"No wanna," the other kid says with a hiss, like they're burned out from the fever and shivering.
"'m not sick." The brown-haired child raises their head and looks at him in the eye, chocolate brown meeting greyish blue. "Really," they breathe out a puff of white smoke, with flushed cheeks and lips that have gone purple.
The boy blinks and thinks of protesting, of telling the other kid to stop acting tough and to admit that they're sick. Doctors aren't that scary, and neither are hospitals; he knows, because he's been there once when he accidentally got his head stuck in the microwave, and he loves it there because it sings to him like Mommy does before he goes to bed every night.
"You're being stupid," the boy says bluntly.
"...You're mean," the other kid replies, but they don't sound hurt. They sneeze into their knees and leave a string of mucus when they pull away.
"Gross," deadpans the boy. "At least lemme go get something to clean it up."
Ignoring the other child's cry, the boy runs back into the school building and heads straight for his classroom. None of his classmates has returned yet, being just a few minutes into recess, which makes things easier for him since there won't be anyone asking him why he's taking out a blanket and a thermos flask from his bag.
When he returns to the same tree by the playground, he sees the other kid shriveling up into a strange and uncomfortable-looking position: back on the buttress root, side curled to the bark like a foetus, one arm raised to cover their face. Like they're sticking themselves to the tree.
There's snow on their hair, too. There's snow everywhere near them. The boy raises his head towards the clear blue sky and immediately turns away when the sun blinds him.
"What're you doing?" he says as he approaches the other kid. "Wh...Why's there snow on you?"
"...None o' your bus'ness..." the child slurs with obvious breathing difficulty.
"Y-you sound even sicker now. You need to see a doctor."
He doesn't. Instead the boy promptly wraps the other kid with his blanket, tugging on the bright yellow cloth until they're pulled away from the tree with a scary crack and rolled up like a sushi. He can feel their eyes staring blankly at him, and when he's done pouring a cup of warm water from the thermos and is about to help the other kid drink, he notices a thin piece of ice hanging from their nostrils.
"But I don't see nothing."
"...You're so annoying..."
The boy pouts, but brings the edge of the cup to the other kid's lips and tilts it gently until he's sure there's water going down their throat. "I'm Mikado," he says. "Ryuugamine Mikado. You are?"
The other child slurps up the water and pants when they're done. Their cheeks and lips quickly return to their usual colour, and Mikado sees their smile for the first time. An awkward, but heartwarming smile.
"Masaomi. Kida Masaomi."
Mikado learns, from years of being Masaomi's closest friend, that Masaomi isn't like any other person he has met before.
Masaomi can do amazing things, like bringing winter early in the middle of summer, and freezing the swimming pool dry during Physical Education lessons. Sometimes he makes beautiful and delicate-looking little ice sculptures out of thin air, and he makes the best snowman regardless of the season. Once Mikado saw him walk across water by freezing it beneath his feet, and Masaomi had no idea he was doing that.
"Masaomi really is amazing," Mikado says quietly.
Masaomi wraps himself up in the quilt as he rolls over and shoots Mikado this look that tells everything about how he feels about that statement. Mikado recognises that look; Masaomi always makes that face whenever Mikado compliments him, and Mikado makes sure he sings Masaomi's praises whenever he can because Masaomi really is astounding.
"Are you an idiot?" Masaomi responds just as softly, burying himself deeper into the quilt cocooning his body. "Something like this...isn't amazing..."
"D-don't say that," Mikado retorts. "You can do things nobody else can."
Masaomi snorts. "Like freeze myself to death without wanting to? Or mess up the weather so bad the farmers can't get their harvest?"
Mikado smiles and shakes his head. "Like cooling down the school when it's too hot. And making ice cubes for my hot drinks." Mikado knows to pause here, because Masaomi's gonna snort again. "I know it doesn't seem like much, but it means a lot to me, Masaomi."
"Are we forgetting the freezing myself to death part? Because, y'know, apparently my body is trying to commit suicide spontaneously for no real reason, I can't do anything to stop it, and Mikado is still telling me I'm amazing."
"Well, for one thing, you got over that stuttering problem."
Masaomi's frown deepens. "You suck at reading the atmosphere."
"Huh? But it's true," Mikado says. "Doesn't that mean you're starting to not get too affected by the cold?"
Masaomi shifts and his mouth almost opens, but ultimately Mikado's words silence him. With a huff, he sits up and hugs the quilt and his knees closer to his body, with the large excess of the quilt resting on his head like a hood.
Seeing this as his cue, Mikado, too, sits up with his knees brought to his chest, and tries to sit closer to Masaomi. Masaomi tries to shove him off, but Mikado stays quite firmly where he is, because Masaomi isn't serious about pushing Mikado off the bed; Mikado can tell that much.
Masaomi sighs. It comes out as a trail of white diamond dust before falling to the ground in a small shower of tiny ice shards.
"Are... Are you still cold?" Mikado asks, looking at Masaomi with concern. He inches closer, paying no attention to the shards that are also all over his bed.
"Could've been worse," Masaomi bites out before giving a hollow chuckle. "But yeah, it's cold. Like duh, Mikado. You're asking a guy who's wrapped up in a quilt and still breathing ice. What else were you expecting?"
Mikado's brows furrow, and for the next few moments he doesn't say anything, simply remaining by his friend's side. It's the middle of winter, and it's sleepover night at his house, so they're both in their matching sets of sky blue, long-sleeved pyjamas, but Masaomi's is buried deep in the quilt. The bed is small for a pair of growing ten-year-olds, and the sheet is cold and fluffy, like sifting a hand through freshly made kakigori. Mikado thinks he likes it that way.
"Masaomi is special," he blurts out as he basks in that pleasant feeling of having Masaomi by his side.
Masaomi raises one brow and his nose scrunches up as if he just smelled something rotten. "Is your head alright, Mikado? I mean, I know I'm special, but you make it sound like it's a good kind of special."
Mikado tilts his head innocently. "That's because it is. Masaomi, you're special. Good kind of special." When his best friend can only gawk at him, Mikado continues, "Masaomi is always the one leading the way. I'm scared of going out on adventures, and even though you always tease me for it, you still wanna bring me along. When I get frightened, you scare away whatever's scaring me. When I get hurt, you drop everything and carry me home. When I need help, Masaomi, you're the one who's always been doing that for me. You're special, Masaomi. To me, you've always been that."
Masaomi stares at Mikado blankly. Then he blinks once. Then twice. And then he laughs, a sound that Mikado finds as soothing and welcoming as the hospital's quiet singing.
A hand shrouded in mist pokes out from the gap between the quilt and stretches to pat Mikado's head, before ruffling the midnight black hair.
"...You lil' rascal, sayin' embarrassing things all of a sudden," murmurs Masaomi.
It is only much later that Mikado realises that the hand was warm.
Mikado raises his head, meeting Masaomi's eyes, and – he thinks he just might be imagining it, but – he sees all of Masaomi's emotions swirling in them.
In those brown eyes, there's exhaustion and anger, disappointment and apprehension, fear and reluctance. But most importantly, there's guilt and sadness.
Mikado feels the tears welling up in his eyes. It's strange. He knew this day would be coming, and he knows this is more painful for Masaomi and his parents than it is for him. Yet he's the only one who's crying.
There are a million things Mikado wants to say. And it's a million too many for him to bear voicing out.
"I'll miss you," he says, only after Masaomi has been forced into the train and Mikado is left standing alone on the platform.
That afternoon, after Masaomi's parents send him home, Mikado returns to his room and lies on his bed, staring at the ceiling. He dozes off not long after, and a few hours later he wakes up to the murmuring of the hospital, his body stuck in the main compartment of the kitchen's refrigerator.
They keep in touch via their private chatroom, and while most people would claim that it's just not the same, somehow Mikado thinks it's perfect.
When Mikado co-founds the Dollars, he does so without putting any thought into it. The others asked him at a time when he was bored out of his mind and the idea sounded interesting enough, so he agreed to whatever they had been planning. He doesn't have to do much about it either, despite being considered a co-founder, which is exactly how the Dollars is going to be run.
A simple and convenient initiative that doesn't warrant much effort or thought, where people of all walks of life can gather and become part of this community, to share information and chit-chat with one another – that is what makes the Dollars special. And true enough, this selling point works fantastically.
So much so, that when it has gotten to the point of what the others deem as "insane" and "out of control", they decide to call it quits.
Mikado, however, is the only one who hasn't wavered. The Dollars hasn't been around long, but it has left a mark on Mikado's heart. For one thing, watching it grow has become a favourite past-time of his. For another, he hasn't had much contact with people who live in the city, and the Dollars works like the bridge he has been dreaming of.
But more importantly, the Dollars sings to him. Like the hum of the computer when he switches it on, and the ringing in his ears whenever he gets too close to the TV. Or the lullaby he hears whenever he's in the hospital, and the dull murmuring of the fans in the air-conditioning unit. Sometimes, especially when traffic is at its peak, he can even hear voices, as if the members chatting over the forums are right there with him.
To Mikado, the Dollars is alive, and he had a hand in creating it. He doesn't need any other reason to carry on with it.
"There's, um, a school," says Mikado, when his homeroom teacher calls him up to the staff room for a private conversation, "in the city. I think I want to go there."
Sensei rubs his stubby chin, nodding. "I'm not surprised," he admits, and he's about to say more when he stops himself and gets up from his seat to peer over the room.
Mikado's eyes dart around nervously before he decides to simply follow his teacher's gaze. He doesn't spot any watchful eyes, and the room is mostly silent. However, he still can't quite shake the feeling that they're not alone in this conversation.
The chair squeaks and squirms under Sensei's weight as he clumsily sits back down. Clearing his throat while fumbling with his magenta tie, Sensei motions for Mikado to come closer with his other hand, and Mikado obeys without question though not without a vague sense of suspicion.
"You have good foresight, Ryuugamine-kun," Sensei whispers in Mikado's ear. Mikado tries not to grimace when the sooty, toxic cigarette odour slithers into his nostrils and down his throat. "After all, only the best is reserved for the city, including the schools and universities. Your parents must be proud of you for making this decision."
Mikado recoils and waves his hands in protest. "Oh, uh, that's... Actually, Sensei, I didn't really take prestige into consideration..."
"Oh?" The middle-aged man leans back into his chair, voice returning to normal volume. "That's peculiar. Most people would put that as first priority when choosing a school, especially when it comes to the city."
"W-well..." Mikado trails off, lowering his hands. When he can't find it within himself to explain adequately enough, he casts his gaze to the floor.
Sensei grunts as he shifts in his seat. "Ryuugamine-kun... If this is about Kida—"
"It's not!" exclaims Mikado, earning him a few stares from the other teaching staff nearby. Mikado almost startles when he realises he is garnering unwanted attention, and gasps quietly before turning away. "I-I'm sorry, I-I didn't mean..."
"It's fine," Sensei murmurs reassuringly, giving Mikado a few awkward light pats on the shoulder. "I know the both of you were very close. His sudden transfer must've been a big shock for you."
Mikado doesn't reply, and simply keeps his head turned away to avoid his homeroom teacher's eyes.
Sensei gives a long, tired sigh. "But look, Ryuugamine-kun... While I understand that it wasn't very fair to have sprung something like that on either of you, Kida-kun's transfer was necessary. His...antics, if you will, have made many parents concerned, and no teacher in this part of Tokyo has been adequately trained for a student like him. The best your elementary school principal could do for him was send him to a proper institution."
The slightest bit of tears stings Mikado's eyes. Things haven't been anywhere near bad since Masaomi leaving for the city, actually, if he doesn't think about it often.
"I... I know," Mikado replies.
"Then you should know," Sensei pauses to give another deep, tobacco-tainted sigh, "why I don't think it's appropriate for you to go there."
Mikado swiftly turns to face his teacher with widened eyes. "B-but I—!"
"It's not a place for people like us," Sensei says firmly and pretends to return to his work, as if that is all he needed to say to close the discussion.
Mikado returns his gaze to the floor. His clenched fists tremble in his lap.
That's not what you said in the forum, Sensei.
Masaomi is rarely online nowadays. When he is and Mikado starts up a conversation with him, Masaomi takes a long time to reply and his response is unnaturally cheery even at the most mundane of things that Mikado shares with him.
Did something ha-
Mikado's fingers freeze as he hesitates. He looks over his intended message, and takes a glimpse at the wall of disjointed text Masaomi has just sent him in the one rare occasion where Masaomi is online, telling Mikado about Ikebukuro and what an exciting place it is to live in with all the things to do and see and how he wishes Mikado could be there.
Mikado presses the backspace button and resumes typing.
When they meet up for the first time in four years, they're both equally surprised for entirely different reasons.
"Holy cow, Mikado, you never told me you had superpowers!" exclaims Masaomi without a care in the world that there is a crowd of people streaming past by them at the train station.
"And you never told me you dyed your hair," Mikado laughs cheekily.
"What, this? Psh, I did it only 'cuz it seemed too cool to pass up on." Masaomi shrugs while tugging a strand of his sunny yellow hair and striking a pose that he probably thinks looks cool. Mikado stifles a chuckle but finds himself choking on it instead when Masaomi suddenly grabs him by the shoulders. "Anyway that's not important right now! Like, ehh? Mikado, ehhh? You— What— When—"
"I don't really know," says Mikado. "It just happened, for no real reason. My classmates got scared, my homeroom teacher had to stop lessons for the rest of the day, and my parents got called up. The next thing I knew, I got a letter and email telling me to take Raira Academy's entrance exam."
He tries to sound as convincing as possible, and it's actually not that hard, he finds, even in the face of his childhood friend. In fact, Mikado would say their separation works surprisingly well to his advantage in this regard, since Masaomi would have no real way of knowing what really happened during the time he wasn't in Saitama, and Masaomi's impression of Mikado has always been that of an elementary school kid who's too cowardly to stand up for himself, tries to stay out of trouble, and has a strange taste in friends.
Masaomi, as expected, takes the story at face value and winces at Mikado's account of it. "Sheesh, that sounds about as harsh as it was for me. I feel ya, buddy."
As he says this, the blond pats Mikado's head in what looks to be a reassuring gesture. Mikado can only sense playfulness on his end.
"Well!" Masaomi says, swinging a lazy arm over Mikado's shoulder and pulling his childhood friend closer. He has a warm, carefree smile on his face, and Mikado realises that's the brightest he's ever seen Masaomi being. "No use crying over spilled milk. What matters is, you're here, I'm Kida Masaomi, and we'll be studying at the same school together again. How awesome is that?"
Very, is Mikado's reflex response. Instead, he deadpans, "Square root three."
The look of utter confusion on Masaomi's face is highly amusing. Mikado almost feels bad for ruining what Masaomi might term as his crowning moment of funny and what Mikado would term as evidence of trying too hard. Almost.
"I mean that your joke makes as much sense as square root three does for elementary school students," Mikado clarifies.
Masaomi makes a melodramatic frown and shakes his head in exasperation. "Ah, so mean! Hey, wait, I don't remember you being so mean back when we were kids! ...Except for the time you called my icy snot 'gross'."
"Well, it was. I was just being honest."
"You wound me, Mikado. You know that?"
"Not at all, Kida-kun," says Mikado with the most innocent smile on his face.
"'Kida—' Ehh wait, wait wait wait wait! What's with that distanced way of formality now? What happened to our golden years of braving forests together and sleepovers and comradeship?" Masaomi cries, looking absolutely aghast.
Mikado shrugs. "I just feel like calling you that," he replies calmly.
While he's honestly ecstatic to see Masaomi again, somehow Mikado still feels...empty. Lonely. Sad. A strange but delicate mix of conflicting thoughts and emotions that feels right and wrong all at the same time; the same feeling he had back at the train station when he sent Masaomi off with the belief that he would never see his best friend again.
"B... Bu-but, but..."
"Just take it that I want to get to know you all over again." Mikado's smile widens. "Ne? Kida-kun."
Masaomi pouts. "But, we started with a first-name basis right off the bat..." Mikado's smile doesn't falter. Masaomi sighs. "Fine, fine. Don't expect me to do the same, though."
Mikado wouldn't have it any other way.
"Oh right, Mikado," says Masaomi, interrupting his self-initiated tour of Ikebukuro as he's showing Mikado around, "you never told me what your special ability is."
"Eh?" Mikado startles, and hurriedly tries to recall the faux answer he gave when he was filling up the application form for the entrance exam into Raira Academy. Up until now, he still can't believe he actually got away with it; after all, isn't the purpose of the text to pick out the weeds pretending to be crops? "Well, that's..."
Masaomi gives Mikado a look that Mikado is neither familiar nor willing to be familiarised with. "Sorry, if you're not comfortable with it, you don't have to—"
"N-no, not at all! It's just..." Mikado's eyes widen as the perfect excuse pops up in his head. "You see, Kida-kun, um... I can't control it very well, and it only really showed up that one time at school, so even I don't know what it can do."
Masaomi blinks, slowly, as he considers this. "Did the examiners..." He pauses. "No, never mind. Forget I asked."
"Ah right, which class did you get posted to? I'm sure they told you in the acceptance letter," Masaomi quickly changes the subject, his usual smile back on his face.
Mikado frowns slightly, but it disappears as quickly as it came and is replaced with an uncertain smile. "Oh. It's class 1A, I think."
Masaomi stops in his tracks. Mikado, mirroring his actions only after realising that he was walking on alone, turns and tilts his head curiously.
"What's wrong, Ki-"
"Duuuude," Masaomi breathes, running up towards his childhood friend and shakes him by the shoulders for the second time that day. "Class 1A? Class 1A? You're in that class and you don't even know what you can do?"
"Ki-i-da-a-ku-u-n-n-ca-alm-do-o-own," Mikado says, trying but failing to sound coherent with how violently Masaomi is shaking him.
"Oh sorry, my bad." Masaomi stops what he's doing and brings his hands away, but grabs Mikado's shoulders again before Mikado can catch his breath. "No seriously, Mikado, you really don't know what your ability is?"
"I really don't know," Mikado insists. "Why? What's wrong with 1A?"
"What's wrong with it?" Masaomi echoes. Then he chuckles, and it sounds jagged with disbelief and dark amusement. "Mikado, that's the class for students who practically aced the entrance exam and came out tops in everything. Their power levels are supposed to be off the charts, and it'll probably keep on growing in ways not even the teachers can predict. And you...you don't know what you can do? Heck, the examiners didn't even tell you?"
Mikado gulps before giving a nervous laugh. "K-Kida-kun, don't joke like that."
"I'm not." Masaomi slapped his forehead. "Shit, Mikado, this isn't something I'd ever kid you about. I'd been hoping you were placed in B class like me, or even C class or something because that's ten times better than being put in A class.
"Mikado," Masaomi continues shakily, "the A class is where students whom the school has identified as potential threats are placed in. They're put under constant supervision, and follow a completely different curriculum regime from the rest of us. It's pretty much like jail, Mikado, and...and you don't know what you can do?"
At first Mikado stares at Masaomi with widened eyes. Then, blinking repeatedly, Mikado draws in a sharp breath.
The streetlights flicker, the traffic lights all light up at once, cars are sent into nearby concrete walls by an unknown, invisible force, and mobile phones in the vicinity start heating up and vibrating. Mikado, feeling a strange sense of heat sweeping over his body, takes a cautious step back, and his world explodes into cacophony.
Mikado concludes, after attending school for one week, that Masaomi's fears as well as the board's and his own are completely, amusingly unfounded.
His other classmates are kind people, for one thing. Kind, helpful, attentive and sensitive to everyone's struggles and joys with their gifts. Generally very nice people, no different from any other student in the school in that regard.
The timetable isn't all that different either. A regular school day starts at eight in the morning with their homeroom teacher settling any ad-hoc matters, breaks for lunch at noon, and ends at three with the daily reminder for students to be careful with their abilities while not forgetting to have fun with them as well. Nothing different from the rest of the school; Mikado remembers casually passing by Masaomi's class without realising it during lunch break and then Masaomi somehow decides that the most rational response is to yell across the classroom, run up to Mikado and pounce on him for details.
Curriculum-wise, Mikado finds that while the exercises conducted may have been different, the general idea of mastering their gifts and the theory and history behind it all seem the same. They will have tests at around the same time, and they'll be sharing exam dates. Only the practical tests will differ, apparently, since that's dependent on the kind of talent they possess.
And class 1A is most certainly not a jail. If anything, it is the friendliest community Mikado has ever seen. Even though everyone is apparently dangerous at some level, the teachers don't treat them any different from the others. The constant supervision thing is also non-existent, to Mikado's knowledge.
The only thing Masaomi got right is that the class is full of students who aced the entrance exam, really.
"Hey, not my fault that everyone else doesn't seem to like the A classes," Masaomi reasons with a slight frown when they're walking home from school. "Besides, their worries aren't completely unfounded either, you know."
"Huh?" Mikado says, blinking. He really can't see what it is that the other students are so fearful of.
"You haven't heard anything about this school's history, have you?" When Mikado shakes his head, Masaomi continues, "Well, that's not surprising. It's not exactly a glorious history. None of the teachers – especially the older faculty staff – likes talking about it."
"What happened?" Mikado enquires.
"Back when Raira was known as Raijin Academy, the school wasn't exactly prepared to take on people as crazy powerful as the A class students," Masaomi begins to explain, placing both hands in his pockets. "In particular, there was a period of time when things were so terribad the school's reputation took a huge flop and the entire city got turned upside-down. The normal residents of Ikebukuro finally snapped and called in the government to handle the mess. The media was all over it, too. The both of us were just too busy with our golden years to remember."
Mikado nearly gapes. "Th-that bad?"
"Very," Masaomi agrees, not looking too proud of the school's history himself. "Raijin itself nearly got blown to smithereens many a times before the new law got passed and things finally settled."
"Yuppo, buddy. A law stating that if somebody like us, affiliates with the school or not, abuses their gift and causes other people trouble, they'll be locked up in a special container for an unspecified period of time, no trial needed."
Mikado blanches, both at the sheer cruelty of the law and at Masaomi's startling indifference as he talked about it. "Even if it's unintentional?"
"Even if it's unintentional," says Masaomi, nodding. "If you're a student, though, the school will be able to take action the fastest. I honestly think it's probably for the best."
Mikado goes a few shades whiter as he recalls the incident that happened one week ago. A wave of nausea bubbles in his chest, and when he clenches his fingers he can feel the sweat gathering on his palms.
"Crap." Masaomi places a hand on his back. Mikado lets out a shaky breath he hasn't realised he has been holding. "Hey, I'm sorry for reminding you, Mikado. I know it sucks. Trust me, I know. But keep this in mind, alright? The school did it to protect you. If they didn't do that and word it got out, there'd be public outcry, and you really, really don't want the government involved. Seriously."
Cracking a smile torn between humour and sadness, Masaomi ruffles Mikado's hair. It brings back memories of Masaomi doing the same whenever Mikado was upset or scared, and because of that, Mikado is able to let out a wry chuckle before settling for a pout.
"H-hey, I'm not a kid anymore, Kida-kun."
"Sure you're not," Masaomi drawls cheekily with a raised brow, retracting his arms to fold them. "I bet you still look under your bed before going to sleep every night to make sure there's nothing hiding there."
"I do not," Mikado is quick to claim.
Masaomi leans in and pokes Mikado's cheek. "Riiiight. Of course not," he says coyly. And with that, their earlier discussion is soon buried beneath normal, less depressing conversations as they continue on their way.
Whenever Mikado is alone and nobody else is loitering near his humble, unremarkable residence, he trains.
Except that's not exactly accurate, because to call it "training" connotes an intention to use his gift for a purpose other than purely fulfilling his morbid sense of curiosity and fascination.
While most people with their own unique talents train, they do so for the sake of getting them under control so as to not threaten the safety of the common populace. Not Mikado, however. Or at least, it's not his primary concern, even after his one momentary loss of self-control. His gift is mostly harmless anyway, contrary to everyone else's belief.
Before, when he was still in elementary school, it was, for the most part, a one-way thing. It took Masaomi's departure for the city and another trip to the hospital for Mikado to realise that the singing and the like only graced his ears and nobody else's. Over time, his gift steadily grew without him actively using it – he didn't know how to, and it's always active anyway – until that one day he decided to apply for Raira.
And then, believing it to be the best way to convince everyone, for the first time in his life Mikado tapped on that mysterious pool of power within him. Just to give a little show, a fabricated set-up for others to see and believe. But it worked in a way Mikado didn't expect. It had always been one-way with him as the receiver, and the only thing the receiver was truly capable of was his sharp hearing. Until the day he gave himself a little push.
Ever since then, he's constantly hearing things – not that he hasn't before, but it's significantly louder and more human-like now – and it's developed to the point that he can communicate with these voices as well. He doesn't do it verbally, but they respond back all the same, and sometimes they offer to show him things that Mikado can only describe as information overload.
So, intrigued beyond measure and doubt, Mikado trains. Or rather, he explores the depths and reaches of his unique capabilities, and constantly comes up with far more extensive tests than the examiners at Raira can come up with. After all, despite what it claims itself to be, Raira's ultimately just an institution of restrictions and discipline above everything else, a proxy for the government body in controlling and restraining people like him.
And the more Mikado explores, the more he grows amazed at the results, and the more he relishes in what he can do. It's an incredible sensation that sends every neurone in his body charging, and he simply can't get enough of just how right it feels.
When he's logged into the Dollars, the feeling intensifies to the point that his computer risks short-circuiting every time he opens up the webpage and finds the member count rising. It shouldn't surprise him by now, but for some reason Mikado can't help feeling astounded.
"Do you wish to find out?" asks a feminine voice ringing in his head, as if its owner has read his mind and knows of his intentions.
Mikado is tempted. He hasn't tried it before, but some part of him knows that he's fully capable of it and that the worst that can come out of this is another trip to the hospital, which isn't at all bad a risk.
...Or the container unit, if I'm unlucky enough, Mikado realises when he's about to land his finger on the screen of his computer. It whirs and sighs when Mikado draws his finger back, and he mentally apologises to it for his cowardice as he switches the power off and lies on his back, staring at the ceiling until the sky fades to black and his house is shrouded in darkness.
There are some people and organisations in this world that you should never, ever come in contact with.
In Ikebukuro alone, there are already too many to keep track of: the colour gangs, yakuza, shady businessmen, underground doctors, graduates from then-Raijin Academy... These are all people who are dangerous in their own ways, the dark truths that the city wants to hide but can never escape from.
"Listen, Mikado," Masaomi once told him, "you're still a newbie to 'Bukuro, and I don't want you accidentally getting into trouble without you realising it. You could get killed in a sec, no joke. So I'm gonna be the good responsible bestie I am and accompany you wherever you go and teach you the ropes till you're ready to survive on your own, m'kay? This is serious talk we're having here, so take this seriously, but don't be too uppity about it, too. People will be able to tell you're easy bait."
"Well... What about helping people if we see they're in danger?"
"Oh, that's easy! Of course we can help them out! Just put on a disguise or something, though. Y'know, like a real superhero. That's bound to get the girls swooning. It'll be a whole lot easier for me to pick 'em up, then."
That was probably why Mikado thought Masaomi was exaggerating and so he agreed without giving it much consideration, but when Masaomi started showing up at his doorstep every morning and popped by his class the moment lessons ended, he realised the gravity of the issue was more severe than he thought.
It's really ironic, therefore, that they are now standing face-to-face with one of the most dangerous men in Ikebukuro after trying to save a female schoolmate from a group of bullies.
"Your name sounds like an air-conditioner brand," the man, Orihara Izaya, laughs after Mikado introduces himself.
Mikado straightens his back, slightly stupefied. "H...Hah..."
"And I see that you're all wearing the Raira Academy uniform!" Izaya comments, delighted. "Wow~ I'm starting to feel nostalgic just looking at you three."
Along with the schoolmate he and Masaomi had been trying to help a moment ago, Mikado's eyes widen. Masaomi, however, remains indifferent, but for just a split second a flicker of fear flashes across his eyes. It isn't difficult to work out the most probable reason, but just to be sure Mikado mentally tugs on all the invisible lines available and pulls in all the information he can find on Orihara Izaya.
Meanwhile, Mikado keeps up his innocent, surprised facade. "U-um, so, Orihara-san is-"
"Izaya's fine," the twenty-three year-old man born on May 4, year 1981, interrupts, waving offhandedly. He seems to like his given name, which isn't much of a surprise. It's one of the most unusual names Mikado has come across, and by normal conventions it shouldn't even be pronounced that way.
"So... Izaya-san," Mikado tries it out, to which the information broker who once lived in Ikebukuro and is now living in Shinjuku hums in approval, "are you, well, perhaps...?"
"It is exactly as it sounds," Izaya replies, nodding as though he is proud of that fact. Mikado understands why, and to tell the truth, he's even a little envious that Izaya's had the privilege of having his talent detected as early as the age of five. "But as for what it is that I can do... Well, where would the fun be if I told you?"
He doesn't need to, of course. The school records say all that Mikado currently needs to know, and as he initially suspected, Izaya was a student of the A class for all twelve years of his life as a student in then-Raijin Academy.
Satisfied, Mikado cuts the connection, but not before catching a glimpse of Izaya's abilities, and he immediately understands the academy's reasoning for placing him in the A class.
"R...right, well, I hope we can get along...?"
"Mikado," Masaomi bites out a harsh whisper.
Izaya's smile widens. "Aw, come on, Masaomi-kun. What's wrong with making new friends?"
Mikado nearly gasps when he feels a familiar icy aura brush against his skin – a sensation he hasn't felt in years – when Masaomi takes a defensive step forward, giving Izaya a mild glare.
"Anyway, Izaya-san, what are you doing here in Ikebukuro? You don't come here very often."
"I'm here to meet someone," Izaya answers, subtly looking past Masaomi's shoulders to fix his auburn eyes on Mikado. "Just met them earlier."
Somehow that statement sends chills colder than Masaomi can ever conjure down Mikado's spine.
Before anyone else can say any further, a shockwave of raw power ripples through the air, nearly bringing Mikado, Masaomi, and their schoolmate to their knees – as a trash bin soars in their direction and knocks Izaya off his feet.
Needless to say, Heiwajima Shizuo – another name belonging to Masaomi's list of dangerous people – is also a former A class student who was involved in the chaos that horribly tarnished then-Raijin's reputation.
Unlike with Izaya, who is as enigmatic as he is sociable, Mikado doesn't need to run a quick check on Shizuo's records to know what he is capable of doing: paranormal strength, even among users with the same gift; astounding tolerance to pain, and incredibly fast recovery.
What makes things even more shocking is that, for some very strange reason, he is completely immune to the effects of Izaya's gift, and Mikado believes that the reverse also applies to a certain extent. Shizuo can cause physical damage to Izaya with his gift, and where most people would have their bones broken from the impact, Izaya is able to shrug it off like nothing happened. Just witnessing their bout is enough to draw those conclusions, which coincide with that of the findings in the school records, Mikado discovers when he's at home and with enough free time on his hands to read.
Mikado's not sure who he should be more scared of, at this point: Orihara Izaya, the man with the most terrifying gift Mikado can imagine, or Heiwajima Shizuo, the man who has enough power to destroy the whole of Tokyo – or Japan, even, if the predictions of the experts at the school are reliable.
"But don't you already know the answer to that, my young Master?" the familiar voice purrs sweetly in his ears before fading away.
Mikado shuts down all his connections and retreats into his futon, trembling.
"Umm... H-hello there. I-I'm Ryuugamine, Ryuugamine Mikado. Th-the person you met yesterday...?"
"E-eh? Ahh... Th-thank you, very much...for helping..."
"I-I'm sorry for what happened," Mikado blurts out the first thing that pops in his mind, even though he isn't entirely sure why he's apologising.
The bespectacled girl shakes her head. "Oh, no, it's not...your fault..."
"S-still, I wasn't of much help..."
"Well, um... I'm...grateful that you did, so..."
"U-um, you're in the same class as me, right? I-I'm sorry, I think I recognise you during orientation, b-but your name..."
"It's fine, um... I'm Sonohara Anri. Nice to meet you," Anri re-introduces herself, giving Mikado a bow.
"N-nice to meet you, Sonohara-san," Mikado returns the sentiment, resisting the urge to bite his tongue for his constant stammering.
Silence, again, follows.
"If... If you don't mind me asking, Sonohara-san," Mikado pauses to rub the back of his neck, "d-do you want to be our friend?"
Deep brown eyes widen slightly.
"A-ah, please don't get the wrong idea, though!" Mikado protests, waving his hands frantically. He can feel his cheeks grow warmer with every second, and the back of his mind begins to stir. "Though I can't really vouch for Kida-kun, I don't have any fishy intentions, Sonohara-san! I-I mean, I want to get to know you better, since we're classmates a-and all... And class reps too, if I remember correctly...?"
While his mind is starting to go slightly haywire from all the unnecessary unfiltered information flowing into his brain, Mikado is relieved that he's able to make himself sound more convincing with that last bit of data he managed to make out from the updated school database. Still, it's impossible that a girl who only knew him for less than one day would agree to such a strange—
Mikado's jaw drops slightly. "...W-wait, really?"
Anri nods, her expression unreadable. Or, perhaps, there is simply nothing for anyone to read.
"But, um... I have a request."
"S-sure, anything." If Anri can agree to something backed by such a flimsy reason, Mikado can't see why he can't do the same for her, no matter what her request may be.
"Whenever you're around me, um...p-please don't...get too close. I might...kill you without realising it."
"Eh...? 'Don't associate yourself with the Headless Rider'...?"
"That's right," Masaomi asserts, shaking his index finger with complete confidence in what he is saying. "I told you before, didn't I? That there are people and organisations you need to avoid at all costs when in Ikebukuro. I didn't mention the Black Bike, because I thought it'd be common sense to avoid that, but after the tragic reminder from yesterday that my best friend is hopelessly gullible, I think it's best if I told you straight before you regret it."
Masaomi jabs a teasing finger in Mikado's cheek as he says this, looking none too impressed with how Mikado handled his meeting with Orihara Izaya. Mikado tries to wave it away, instinctively using his hand that is holding his chopsticks.
"Anri-chan, too," Masaomi adds before mock-clutching his chest. "If I see you in any more danger, I think I'll die from heartache."
Anri glances up from her lunchbox. "Um... Thank you for your concern...?"
"B-but Kida-kun, I don't really understand? Why is the Headless Rider dangerous?" Mikado asks.
"Reminder of a reminder that my best friend is hopeless." Masaomi facepalms. "Mikado, does the word 'headless' not strike fear into your heart? I mean, think about it. How can there even be someone or something that's headless and still be alive and kicking?"
"Kida-kun is not one to talk," Mikado retorts dryly.
"...Okay, fine, so my body can kill itself while I'm still considered alive. But at least I have a head on. And besides, that still doesn't change the fact that the Black Bike is suspicious."
"Rumours say that ever since it came to Ikebukuro, nothing's ever been the same again," Masaomi elaborates. "Things like shadows moving on their own, or the heightened crime rates, or the Raijin Dark Ages. And since it's associated with all that terrible stuff, rumours also say that if you get too close to the Headless Rider, your life will take a turn for the worse. Basically, misfooooortuuune," Masaomi wriggles his fingers, "will strike you."
Mikado slides a chunk of rice in his mouth and chews nonchalantly. Anri hasn't looked up from her food ever since Masaomi talked to her.
Masaomi sighs and opens up his lunchbox.
[Are you sure you want to see?]
The screen of a PDA in front of his eyes reads as a deep and calm feminine voice murmurs the exact words in his head.
The owner of both is wearing a lemon yellow helmet with two tiny horn-like structures and a black full-body jumpsuit. She is tall and slim, possessing a figure that Masaomi would no doubt ogle at, and her jumpsuit accentuates her natural features.
She is also Ikebukuro's most famous urban legend – the Black Bike, after her trademark motorcycle, or the Headless Rider, after circulating rumours that there is nothing beneath her helmet.
Mikado's grip around the strap of his slingbag tightens slightly. Adrenaline is surging through his blood, stimulating every nerve and muscle in his body, automatically establishing an irrevocable link to the Headless Rider's device and opening the gates of his mind for the data to flow through. Her name, address, email, text messages, online handles, browsing history – everything stored in the PDA's memory is now encrypted into Mikado's own for his future scrutiny, and while he normally detests the idea of poking into other people's privacy like that, he finds that he is unable to stop himself from doing so, and it both delights and disgusts him to the core.
"I-if it's not too much trouble," Mikado finally replies, nodding, even though he already knows the answer. He doesn't need to look in another direction to be aware that Izaya is watching them.
Setton-san lowers her "head" as she slides her PDA into her sleeve. Then, reluctantly, her hand reaches for the helmet and raises the visor.
Mikado sees, and then he smiles.
If Mikado had to describe himself in one sentence, he would say – after some stammering and fumbling over his words – that he's someone who doesn't take surprises all that well.
His otherworldly friends may disagree and accuse him of lying, but Mikado thinks that sentence fits him. It paints a whole multitude of impressions depending on how other people interpret it, and more likely than not they're all right about him in some way. Masaomi, for example, would take it to mean that Mikado is as antsy and timid as a lizard that scampers away the moment he's frightened, while Anri would take it to mean that Mikado is indifferent to surprises. Mikado would agree to both interpretations, because that's how he feels about himself.
So when Harima Mika, a complete stranger with a fresh and exposed scar on her neck, turned to him for help, Mikado didn't mind letting her stay at his secluded house. And when shady people came barging in to take her away and threaten to beat him up, Mikado was frozen in fear, despite his anger at their mistreatment of Mika burning deep in his chest even after they're gone and he's left alone.
"...It's too late," Mikado bites out bitterly, taking heavy, shaky breaths in-between his words. His fists are clenched and his back is turned to the entrance of his run-down home while his head is lowered, so that he is facing nothing but the ground.
"Is it, now?" a voice with a feathery, silky lilt questions.
Mikado doesn't rise to the challenge, and simply remains still.
"There's nothing we can do, Celty-san," he says instead, after a brief moment of silence. He would've smiled when he can hear the protest and bewilderment in Celty's voice through her PDA.
"Do you believe that, Mikado-kun?" Izaya says; Mikado's almost certain that the man is smirking. "Are you able to tell us honestly that you believe that there's nothing you can do?"
"What do you mean?" Mikado says, slowly turning his head to face the informant and the Headless Rider standing at the entrance.
"It seems that you may be forgetting something, Ryuugamine Mikado-kun." Izaya stretches out an arm and holds up his hand, keeping his palm open. "The Internet is much more powerful than you think. It can open up paths you can't possibly imagine, leading you to answers that can piece together the truth that you need. Some paths, more than most other people. Am I right?"
Mikado startles as quickly as he recovers. "I-I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh but you do," Izaya encourages, curling his fingers closed in a mildly captivating manner and waving his index finger playfully. "How else have you been able to keep yourself updated on Ikebukuro's happenings?"
"Th-the newspapers?" Mikado suggests.
"Not everything is brought to light in the public eye of society, Mikado-kun," Izaya points out, sounding every bit like a patient teacher giving a student a lecture. "There are things that the common populace want nothing to do with, which extends to general knowledge of those things. Say, for example... The recent kidnapping cases of 'gifted' students as experiment subjects."
[Izaya, that's enough.] Celty warns, at around the same time a breath escapes Mikado's lips as he takes a step back.
Izaya, however, pretends he didn't see it. "But you knew, didn't you? You've always known, from tapping into that boundless network of yours. And your inactivity or supposed indifference is not because of fear. Oh, no." He takes a gleeful step forward. "You've simply been waiting for the perfect opportunity to get yourself involved in these things."
[Izaya.] A shadowy wisp angrily grabs the informant by the shoulder, pulling him back. It's only when he sees this happening that Mikado realises he has fallen to the floor, unable to peel his unfocused eyes away from Izaya.
"So what will you do, Mikado-kun?" Izaya says, the edges of his perpetual smile widening.
"Are you going to let this injustice continue for now and wait for a future opportunity, or are you going to take this chance to make your stand clear?"
Mikado jolts and tethers on the brink of hyperventilation. It takes a split second before he realises that the voice reverberating in his head is unmistakeably Izaya's.
Izaya slowly tilts his head, being careful in keeping his watchful gaze on the shuddering high school student while keeping both of his hands in his pockets. Celty, on the other hand, pulls on her end of the shadow tendril, and casts Izaya a cold, questioning glare that's obvious even with a helmet in place of her actual head.
[What did you do to him?]
"My, Courier-san, are you insinuating that I would stoop so low as to scare a sixteen-year-old child?" Izaya gives a light-hearted chuckle. "Anyway, the real question ought to be, what will he do from now on? His fellow peers are steadily going missing, illegal and inhumane research is being conducted as we speak, and nobody is taking any action against all this. Not the government, not the yakuza... Heck, not even the institution that claimed to protect the rights of the 'gifted' students is doing anything about it."
[...And so you're just going to shove that kind of responsibility onto him? You heartless—I don't see you doing anything about the situation either!]
"Oh my, what's this? Is this care and concern I see? For a creature like yourself, I thought you wouldn't even bother with mortals. Unless you don't consider dear Mikado-kun here and all the other 'talented' beings humans, that is."
"Anyway, let's leave that aside, ne?" Izaya interrupts. "It seems that Mikado-kun has made his choice."
True enough, if Celty had turned to have a good look at Mikado, she would've noticed that he's made his decision while she was busy chiding the information broker.
With a flick of his wrist, Mikado has set his computer going. It opens up countless web pages, mostly articles detailing any and all cases of missing people it can find, as well as confidential information from the database of the company responsible it can hack into. Mikado reaches out and pulls the data into himself, while his other hand makes an upward sweeping gesture to bring up the Dollars website. He gives a fleeting mental command and his computer logs in for him.
Closing his eyes, Mikado leans forward and presses both palms against the screen. He can feel himself drowning in the endless sea, feel the onslaught of the waves and violent winds stripping him naked, feel the cries and voices sinking into his skin. Right next to his ears, Mikado can hear his computer chiming with pure, drunken ecstasy, and a smile cracks on his face.
When he returns to his earthly consciousness, Mikado finds himself surrounded by the coordinated beeping of multiple cell phones, and the murmurs and whispers of Izaya and Celty from behind him.
Mikado slowly stands and turns, flexing his fingers as his eyes give off a luminous, electric blue glow.
Everything...is in my hands.
"Jackpot," Izaya breathes.
A mere few hours later, Mikado stands before the woman in charge of the company and raises his phone, before declaring:
"Numbers is strength!"
What follows is a live anthem chorusing his vision, and Mikado can't help but muse about how beautiful it sounds as he watches Yagiri Namie squirm and look around frantically.
"You really surprised me, you know."
Keeping a blank expression, Mikado turns and sees one of the most dangerous men of Ikebukuro stand atop the tallest of a line of three tree stump-like concrete structures along the pavement.
"Did I?" Mikado asks emotionlessly. "I think Izaya-san is the one who's truly surprising."
"Oh?" Izaya's eyes twinkle. He skips over to the next, lower stump and twirls as if he's regaining lost balance. "How, pray tell, have I surprised you so?"
"I know everything about you." Mikado pauses to gauge Izaya's reaction, and his eyes narrow slightly when he finds nothing worth noting. "Your admission into Raijin Academy..."
"Shouldn't have been possible, yes?" the informant finishes with a widened smile. "That's what I told the teachers when I was taken in. It's no fault of mine that nobody believed me."
"But the test is supposed to be foolproof," says Mikado.
Izaya shrugs, sliding his hands into his coat pockets. "Then there must be something you're missing out."
Mikado doesn't like the sound of that. "Still, it doesn't explain how you're able to stand on equal fighting ground with Heiwajima-san."
"That," Izaya says, his eyebrow twitching so subtly at the mention of Shizuo's name that it's barely noticeable, "just goes to show that it's possible for humans to face up to monsters. Don't you think so?"
A wave of heat crushes against Mikado's chest as he clenches his fists. He can feel his cell phone shift against his thigh in his pocket. From behind him, he can hear people chattering in bewilderment about their phones vibrating for no reason.
"Now don't go jumping to conclusions," Izaya advises, hopping over to a lower stump. "As different as you are from normal humans, I don't have that bad of a heart to view all of you as monsters. Only nonsensical, irrational protozoa like Shizu-chan qualify as one."
"...In other words, those who behave according to the way you expect them to are humans to you," Mikado replies, frowning.
Izaya skips to the ground and towards Mikado. The cryptic elation rolling off Izaya through his phone slithers and wraps around Mikado's neck like a cobra waiting for the moment to swallow him whole.
"Anyway, if you're that curious about Raira's class allocation policy, I'd be happy to tell you. In return for the entertainment you've provided me earlier."
Mikado unknowingly raises his head slightly higher than before, meeting Izaya's glinting auburn eyes. He gives the offer a moment's consideration, and then answers, "No, it's alright. Thank you, Izaya-san, but I think I want to find out on my own."
"Suit yourself," Izaya responds gleefully before bending over and leaning forward to whisper in Mikado's ear, "but I'm going to warn you: you're not going to like what you'll find. After all, you don't take surprises very well."
Mikado makes no comment on Izaya's choice of words. "I'll keep that in mind," he says instead.
Looking rather satisfied, the information broker straightens his back. "Ah right, what will you do about Masaomi-kun and Anri-chan?"
"Eh?" Mikado blinks.
"You know about them now, don't you? The secrets that they're hiding," Izaya elaborates.
Mikado nods slowly, but doesn't reveal what he knows exactly lest Izaya turns it against him.
Izaya looks at Mikado expectantly. "You're not going to do anything about it?"
"No," says Mikado without any hesitation. "I'll admit, I was...surprised to find out, but after thinking about it, I realised nothing's really changed. There's no human who doesn't have secrets, after all. As far as possible, I want the three of us to remain friends without having to share our secrets."
"But don't you think you're being unfair to them?" Izaya questions. "Of the three of you, you're the only one who holds all the secrets in your hands. You may try all you like, but as long as the three of you remain as the people you are, your secrets will come to light eventually. How do you think they'll react after knowing everything about what you're hiding?"
For once, Mikado is unable to give a response, and he lowers his head, casting his gaze to the ground.
"And you know as well as I do," Izaya continues, "that Masaomi-kun in particular isn't going to appreciate it very much. He may even stand up against you, if need be, in spite of his relationship with you. Are you really okay with that?"
"Or should I say, are you looking forward to that?"
Mikado falls silent, his blood running cold.
Even without a verbal answer, Izaya smiles as if he doesn't need it to be proven right. Like a devil who knows, intimately, the darkness that lurks in the hearts of humans and has toyed with Mikado's so delicately and masterfully that if the next thing Izaya says is "Checkmate", Mikado thinks he won't be too stunned to hear it.
A red letterbox hurled in Izaya's direction and a baritone bellow shaking the very ground they stand upon bring Mikado and Izaya's meeting to a close.
And as Mikado watches the backs of Orihara Izaya and Heiwajima Shizuo disappear into the night, he thinks back and then mutters to himself, despite everything that has happened thus far:
"Izaya-san...is a nice person after all."
The next day at school, when they're spending their lunch break on the roof talking and eating as usual, Mikado finds himself pinned to the floor under Masaomi's weight as he embraces Mikado tightly.
"You finally said it!"
"You called me by my name!" Masaomi exclaims, and he is right, Mikado realises.
It slipped out without Mikado consciously thinking about it, because somehow it just felt like the right time to say it. Before, when Mikado reunited with his best friend, it felt more like meeting up with a half-stranger, and over time Mikado attributes it to the school's overarching influence on its students.
But now, after finding out about Masaomi's true identity as the leader of a growing pocket of underground resistance, Mikado can breathe easily with relief that Masaomi hasn't changed at all. It suits him, being the Shogun of the Yellow Scarves, the organisation made up of mostly ordinary people who want nothing more than to live in a different form of peace together with the talents that are among them.
Even though it may be different from Mikado's own ideals which are a chilling echo of the Blue Squares' own – that gifted people should be accorded their own rights and don't have to hide their unique differences in shame and fear – Mikado understands that, ultimately, Masaomi will always be his best friend, his shining ray of light that always leads the way.
And some part of Mikado can't wait for the day Masaomi will help brighten his path.
Mikado looks to his side and catches the tiny smile on Anri's face as she watches them as quietly and timidly as she always does, and in his heart Mikado swears that he'll do whatever it takes to protect that smile, and keep Anri as far away from his and Masaomi's inevitable conflict. She's already lost her parents due to her gift, and even though she's trying so hard to be careful about her emotions, her gift's influence still remains far too strong. It has resulted in the Slasher incidents, and it is only recently that she has picked up the strength and resolve to take the responsibility for it. The last thing she needs is see the both of them embroiled in deep undercurrents of anger, disappointment, and bloodshed; to see the both of them on the ground for reasons other than plain simple happiness.
Mikado looks up into Masaomi's eyes which are beaming like the sun, and forces a smile and a sheepish chuckle.
"Yeah, I guess I did."