Shizuo never thought that he would reach his thirties.
For some reason, he always thought that he would die before twenty-five. He could have been gunned down by a countless number of gangs. He could have succumbed to his countless injuries, accumulated too much damage, or faced enough people to finally take him down. Or he could have been killed by a falling boulder, or a lightning strike, or some other terrible misfortune. It could have been any of those things.
Shizuo supposed that he could still get killed in the line of duty, but honestly being a cop wasn’t all that dangerous or exciting. His life was more peaceful now than it had ever been. Most of the people he met on a daily basis were sweet and friendly. Any of the criminals he met were too terrified of him to put up much of a fight. That was a slight advantage, he supposed, to having a reputation for violence when you were younger.
It was a surprise to look back and realize - for the hell that his childhood had been, that Shizuo had actually ended up okay.
All of his injuries had healed, leaving him stronger and more durable than before. His constant fights with the gangs in high school somehow never landed him in jail. He hadn’t even been arrested, which he supposed was lucky, given his current profession.
So here he was, growing older by the day, with a stable job. He hadn’t even lost his temper in years.
I’m becoming a proper adult, he thought, and brought his cigarette away from his lips, blew out a curl of smoke into the empty air. I’m even reflecting on my past.
The smoke had felt warm in his lungs, but now that it was gone, he felt a hollow ache in his chest. He had taken up smoking after high school too, a bad habit, he knew, but it had helped with his temper. And after that, he just never found the time to quit.
The wind picked up, carrying the smoke away. Shizuo drew back a little into the wall. There was a tinge of icy cold in the wind, a bitter reminder that warm 90-degree days were over, and that the temperature would plummet steadily during the coming weeks.
With a sigh, Shizuo decided that it was too cold to be standing outside like this. He put out his cigarette on a nearby ashtray, cast one last look out into the empty street, and went back into the police station that was now his workplace.
This particular police station wasn’t the main Ikebukuro office - the main one was downtown, a fancy glass building, skyscraper-tall, next to some horrible traffic. There were at least fifty other police stations spread throughout the city, more local, housing two to fifteen on-duty police officers at a time. This one was on the smaller side, just Tom Tanaka and Shizuo Heiwajima, and the occasional third whenever they needed technical support for something.
It was a blue-collar job, shitty pay, but decent hours if you didn’t mind the monotony. Shizuo was grateful for it. Not everyone got second chances like this. And if not for Tom, who had offered him that second chance, Shizuo would surely be dead or worse by now.
The man inside was tall and thin, with light brown skin with dreadlocks that came down to his chin. He was bent over a computer, the light from the screen reflecting off his glasses. He raised a hand absently as Shizuo came back in.
"How are you doing?" Tom asked.
Immediately, Shizuo grimaced. "Same as ever, I suppose." He settled in at his own desk, with its outdated computer, its nonfunctional phone, a stack of old reports that he hadn’t gotten to yet and a bowl of hoarded sweets. "It’s been a shitty day."
"It’s been a while since I’ve heard anything happy out of you," Tom frowned at him, concerned. He tabbed away from his window on the computer and swung around in his chair. He was in a meddling mood. "Have you been doing anything fun outside of work? How long has it been since you last went on a date?"
Instantly, Shizuo felt all of his calm evaporate like dry ice. He felt the empty loneliness from outside return a hundredfold.
Something must have shown on his face because Tom immediately backed off. "Right, right, I know, touchy subject." His voice softened with sympathy. "What happened?"
"Nothing," Shizuo responded immediately, defensively. Tom was only one out of two people in the world who knew about Shizuo’s disastrous dating history. He knew it was a sore point, and he didn’t judge, but he kept bringing the topic up.
Shizuo reminded himself that Tom was just looking out for him. He blew out a frustrated breath. "Just busy, I suppose."
"What happened to that last girl? Yama - Yama-something?"
"She dumped me a long time ago." Shizuo didn’t mention that things had never progressed beyond that first date, and he had never quite caught her full name either.
"That sucks," Tom said with a wince.
Shizuo slumped forward onto his desk and tried not to wallow in self-pity.
Another thing about approaching your thirties - if you weren’t married and planning to have kids, then society deemed you as a failure. Shizuo didn’t mind that part; he had a late start on life as it was. But it hurt to realize that he was no longer young. He had wasted his early teenage years fighting, and his twenties trying to make up for his childhood, and somehow during all that time, he had never fallen in love.
Sure, a lot of people approached him, in bars or on the street. Even with his blonde hair warning away most people, he supposed he shared more features with Kasuka than he wanted to admit.
At first, he had been flattered by the attention. After years and years of being ignored and rejected in high school, Shizuo had latched on to any form of affection he could find. That meant a string of older women who had ended up using him for sex, and after he had wised up to that, a series of one night stands that had left him feeling even worse.
Shizuo wished that it could be attributed to bad luck, but after the fourth or fifth or sixth time, he started to feel like nobody wanted him past his looks and his strength and that the only attractive thing about him was skin deep.
Eventually, he had stopped trying altogether. When it got too bad, or he felt so lonely that he couldn’t sleep, he ended up going to a bar and getting so blasted drunk that he would go home with anybody and anything that moved. Even if he was horrified by himself in the morning, and even if he did things he was too ashamed to admit, it was the only way he could cope. Then he could forget, for a while, that he was approaching thirty and had never dated anyone seriously before. He could forget, for a while, the voice in his head that whispered: it’s because nobody can love you - you’re too unlovable.
"You’ll find somebody," Tom said confidently. He patted Shizuo on the shoulder.
"I’m probably going to be alone for the rest of my life," Shizuo replied sourly. Dammit, why did Tom always give him the worst things to think about in the mornings?
"You’re not," Tom said immediately. "You’re too great a guy. I can see it. Everyone can."
"Not me," Shizuo replied bleakly. After that, Tom took one look at his face and decided to shut his mouth, and they spent the rest of the morning in silence.
Izaya never thought that he would die before twenty.
But now, staring at the eviscerated body hanging from the ceiling, tongue hanging out, purple and thick, bloated and disgusting, Izaya had a sudden premonition of his own fate. The dim lighting in the room made it hard to see the man’s face clearly.
Mikiya Awakusu is a paranoid man, he had heard. Give him a reason to distrust you, and you’ll never earn your way into his good graces again.
Izaya did not swallow. He did not look away.
He kept staring, keeping his face blank and expressionless, as the men moved about the room. That was a skill he had learned early on - keep your head down, keep your presence small, keep yourself useful. Powerful men did not kill useful people. Correction: powerful, sane men. Mikiya was not in that category.
"Do you know of any places where we can dispose of the body safely?" A voice came up next to him. Izaya turned, grateful to have something else to look at, and managed a smile.
"I know several," he replied, keeping his voice smooth. He found himself looking into an older man’s face, craggled and well past middle age, thin and harsh. "Shiki-san, is there a reason why you had me come here in person?"
Haruya Shiki was studying his face. As a response, he just shrugged. "I just wondered if you recognized this man.” Quick, snake-like, his hand came up to settle around Izaya’s neck. His thumb dug in hard under Izaya’s jaw, right next to the artery that pulsed there, giving away his heartbeat.
Izaya smiled at him, slow and understanding. "I see," he replied, and deliberately relaxed. "You think I might have known him? I don’t. Is he someone important?"
The older man shrugged but kept his hand on Izaya’s neck for a moment longer. Izaya fought down a disgusted shiver. "You’re a clever kid, Izaya. But you need to stop asking so many questions."
Izaya lowered his eyes. "Of course," he demurred, and finally Shiki took his hand away.
"I need you to make sure no one finds out about this man," Shiki said. "Make him disappear, and you’ll be paid in full. If anyone starts asking about him, bring us their names, and we’ll deal with the rest."
The other men were cutting the hanged man down. The body fell to the floor with a wet thud. Izaya tried not to flinch. Already, the black plastic was being rolled out, and the man was being stripped of all of his identifying features - phone, wallet, teeth, nails. Izaya didn’t want to watch, but he forced himself to.
This would be his fate, once they caught up to him. It was better to know.
When he got home and closed the door behind him, Izaya leaned against it for a long while and tried to think of a way to stay alive.
Now that he no longer had to keep up appearances, he realized that he was shaking like a leaf. His limbs felt so exhausted that he could barely move. His heart, which he had kept steady and controlled when with Shiki, now felt like it was going to explode. Time slid past him in fits and spurts, and he lost at least an hour thinking over and over: I’m going to die.
Back at the start of high school, before everything had gone wrong, Izaya had always imagined himself living out an ordinary life - going to college, finding someone to marry, getting a job and spending the rest of his days in a blur of sixty-hour work weeks, only to find himself old and grey-haired, and to die anyway.
He had spent his entire childhood trying to avoid thinking about that eventual fate, chasing after adrenaline highs, getting into fights with the local gangs. He discovered how easy it was to crack other people’s passwords, to gather up their secrets, to throw out bombshells and watch them dance.
Then, one day, he dug a little too far, stumbled on a secret that was too dangerous. He got caught.
He had been given a choice: work for the yakuza as their personal information broker, or die. It had not really been a choice.
But he had made the best of it, since then. Their demands had resulted in him dropping out of high school, sure, but Izaya hadn’t been learning anything there anyway. All of his more marketable skills, he had taught himself. They learned that he could be useful if he was paid well. They paid well.
Until recently, Izaya had been kept on the fringes of their group. Even now, he wasn’t trusted with any more information than necessary. But snooping was a hard habit to break, and Izaya had never really known when to stop. So, over the course of the past few years, Izaya had slowly teased out more and more secrets, things that he was not supposed to know, things that would get him killed if he was caught.
Things like this: Mikiya Awakusu was paranoid and insane. The Awakusu-Kai was a breath away from falling apart.
The hanged man was just the beginning, whoever he was. With Mikiya becoming leader, there would be bloodshed in the weeks to come as he solidified his position and power, getting rid of everyone in his way.
And now, with this witch hunt going on within the yakuza, it would only be a matter of time before eyes turned on him. Izaya was an outsider, even after all these years. He had no protection if someone suddenly decided that it would be convenient for him to disappear. A single pointed finger, and Izaya would be done, just like that. They wouldn’t even have to prove anything.
Shit. He was next. Mikiya had already decided who to trust, and Izaya was not on that list.
Could he run? Leave this city and its inhabitants far behind, go live in another city. He had sent Mairu and Kururi away. He had bet their lives on this too. Could he get to them before they came back? How far would they all have to run? Overseas with their parents?
None of his family knew about his job. They all still thought he was going to college on a scholarship. Would they believe him if he told the truth? That he had been blackmailed into working for the yakuza, and that he was now in deep shit, and had gotten them all in danger.
He could pay for all of this with his life, Izaya knew. If he sat here and did nothing, the yakuza would come for him eventually and kill him. But they wouldn’t touch his sisters.
I don’t want to die, he thought. He forced himself to stand up, even though his breathing was still irregular and his heart still jittered in his chest. He had to think of another plan. There had to be another way.
The body on the tarmac was heavy and bloated and waterlogged. When the water seeped out onto the black plastic around it, it created a dark puddle that looked like blood.
Shizuo shoved his radio back into his belt and tried not to look at it for too long. What a way to start a morning.
He hadn’t even made it to the police station before getting a call from Tom, asking him to go to the riverbank near Setagawa Station, to help out a team of policemen who were dragging the river for a corpse, based on an anonymous tip.
It was a grey morning, drizzling lightly, and way too early. The sun hadn’t quite made it over the horizon yet. Its rays of light were weak and washed out. The rain made a fine sheeting of mist in the air. It turned the road into a slightly darker shade of grey than the sky and turned the black plastic into a dark stain.
Shizuo moved aside to let the coroner and his team take over. He had pulled the body out of the river. His job here was done. The stench of death still lingered in his nostrils, and he couldn’t get the slimy cold feel of dead skin out of his mind. He couldn’t wait to get back to the office and take a hot shower.
Bodies weren’t unusual in Shizuo’s line of work. Old people died every day, and if they lived alone, sometimes it took days before they were discovered. People died in traffic accidents. They died from freak accidents. And every now and then, maybe once or twice a year in this area, they were killed.
But usually, those murders were simple - if murders could be called such things. A lover taking revenge. A case of domestic abuse. A game of betting cards gone horribly wrong.
This, though. This was foul play.
His radio crackled and spat loudly. It broke the solemn morning silence and pulled Shizuo straight out of his reverie. With a startled jerk, Shizuo brought it up to his mouth.
"Three-six-six to five-forty," Tom’s voice came over the line, buzzy and warbled.
"Five-forty. Code five, go ahead."
"I need you to come back down to the station," Tom said.
Shizuo glanced at the dead body again. "You want me to just leave the body here?" The coroner and his team would take care of it from here, but Shizuo had been asked to help lift it later. The dead man was easily two hundred pounds or so soaking wet, and Shizuo was the only one on-site that could handle that weight easily.
Tom’s voice came over the line again: "Kid just came in. Said he reported the body, and says that there’s more coming. I’d like you to interrogate him."
Shizuo was already moving back toward the main road. He caught the coroner’s eyes and got a curt dismissal. He moved the radio to his other hand, shoving his hand into his pocket, searching for his car keys.
The gravel of the riverbank crunched loudly under his feet, but he barely heard it. He was suddenly aware of something huge unfolding, just out of reach. This situation was getting stranger and stranger by the minute.
Tom’s voice on the other end of the line was grim. "He asked for you."
As soon as he saw the kid in the interrogation room through the one-way window, Shizuo’s first thought was: fuck, he’s trouble.
He was young, in his late teens, maybe, with dark hair and light brown eyes. He was tall for his age, and lean in a way that kids after a growth spurt usually were. He was unusually eye-catching. Shizuo was certain he had never seen this boy around before. The sight of him felt like a weird chill going down his back. Like he had seen a loaded gun, or a drop off of a cliff.
This kid was dangerous, Shizuo decided. He didn’t seem like the type that randomly stumbled across dead bodies. He seemed like the type who knew where all of them were were buried.
Shizuo opened the door.
The boy sat up and straightened out of his slouch. His wrist was handcuffed to the table. Apparently, Tom hadn’t wanted to take the chance that he might run off.
"So," Shizuo said. "How did a kid like you get involved with the yakuza?"
The boy’s smile grew pleased for an instant. When he spoke, his voice was a smooth drawl. "What a horrible thing to say."
Shit, just one sentence out of this brat was enough to make him feel like there were nettles stinging under his skin, riling him up. Shizuo drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Well, this morning’s events were enough to put anybody on edge.
He’s still just a kid, he thought. He’s not a member of the yakuza. He’s just a delinquent.
Shizuo himself had been a delinquent, but that was all in the past. Tom had pulled him out of that rut, with this job offer, and a scholarship to the police academy. But Shizuo still remembered the bitter ache of loneliness and anger and pain from that part of his life. He studied Izaya’s expression, the curve of his smile and the shadow in his eyes, and wondered how much of it was a mask.
"What’s your name?" He asked, to get his thoughts back on track.
"Izaya Orihara, and yours?" From boy’s cynical grin, he already knew Shizuo’s name and was just playing along.
"Shizuo Heiwajima. You asked for me?"
Izaya’s eyes flicked to the doorway and then back to him. The humor disappeared from his face.
"I need your help," he said.
A startled shiver ran down Shizuo’s spine. He had not been expecting honesty.
"Are you in trouble?" he asked roughly.
The boy smiled ruefully. "Yes."
"Probably enough to get me shot," Izaya shrugged as if it didn’t matter to him, but Shizuo wasn’t fooled. That glance towards the door had been entirely involuntary.
"Enough to get you shot," Shizuo repeated dryly.
In his experience, there were three ways that kids got involved with the yakuza: 1) through the drug cartels, former users turned dealers, 2) as prostitutes, usually after being thrown out into the streets or 3) in some cases, being hired to assault a person or vandalize property.
This kid was a high school dropout. Unemployed. He had no criminal record. He seemed to be a complete nobody, except he knew where to find one of the bodies that the yakuza tried to dispose of without a trace.
That meant two things: First, that he had been involved with them somehow. And second, that he was here to sell them out.
Izaya seemed content to just sit here and remain silent, though. He studied Shizuo as if trying to decide something.
"What makes you think you’re going to get killed?"
Izaya considered him for another moment. "How much do you know about the Awakusu-Kai?" he asked.
"They’re one of the oldest mafia groups in the city," Shizuo said. He didn’t specialize in gang investigations, but this stuff was all public knowledge. "What are you doing with them? I thought they didn’t work with kids."
"I’m not a kid," Izaya said.
Shizuo nearly rolled his eyes before stopping himself at the last second. He had not expected such a childish line. He motioned for Izaya to continue.
"Their previous head was Dougen Awakusu," Izaya said. "He died in the beginning of October. His son, Mikiya Awakusu, is taking over."
There was a moment of dead silence, and then Shizuo understood what was going on. His skin prickled.
Transitions of power in the underground were almost always bloody and violent. A lot of business dealings were done based on trust, and trust did not transfer easily, not even from father to son.
Mikiya Awakusu would not trust the same people that his father did, and would by systematically cleaning house in the next few weeks. Shizuo felt his adrenaline spike. This was the first time he had heard of a power transition before the bloodshed, and not after.
"I see," he said. Then he gave Izaya a startled look. "How the hell do you even know all this? Who even are you?"
Izaya grinned at him, pleased by Shizuo’s reaction.
"Option 1," a slim finger raised, and the boy’s amused eyes never left Shizuo’s face. "I’m a drug dealer, one who has never done drugs. Option 2, I’m a gigolo that entertains older closeted gay men with just my charming wit and personality. Or Option 3, I’m secretly stronger than you think - strong enough to, say, snap these handcuffs in two just with my finger, or throw a vending machine across the street."
At the end, he had three fingers raised in front of his face and his smile had become sly and knowing. But by the end of Izaya’s little game, Shizuo had already figured it out.
"Option 4," Shizuo replied dryly. "You’re an information broker just out of high school, in way too far over your head, running to the police for help."
Informants were in an incredibly dangerous position in the underworld. They were the ones that relied most heavily on trust.
Shizuo had never seen an information broker this young. The only other one he’d seen was middle-aged and half-retired, but they had both known about Shizuo’s past, and had both dangled that information in front of him like bait.
Izaya looked surprised. He folded his hands away and made a moue of disappointment.
That still left more questions than answers though. "What did you do for them?"
"I found people," Izaya answered. He looked down and his voice took on a slight edge. "People who had attacked their members. People who had stolen their money. People who tried to leave the country to escape." He swallowed. "People who tried to leave their organization, like me. In this day and age, it’s nearly impossible to disappear without a trace. As long as they kept any part of their online identity, I would be able to track them down."
Shizuo was surprised by the relief that swept through him.
"Good," he said without really meaning to say it out loud.
In the awkward silence that followed, Izaya gave him a puzzled look.
"It means that you weren’t involved in their human trafficking business, or their drug dealing business," Shizuo clarified, although he wasn’t sure why. "It means that you were someone who cleaned up internal messes, not someone who found them more victims. The people you tracked down were criminals already. You didn't drag innocents into it."
He wasn’t sure if he could deal with Izaya if that had been the case - if innocent people had gotten hurt because of him.
But hurting those who had brought that misfortune down upon themselves - if Shizuo judged him for that, then he’d be a hypocrite.
Izaya was staring at him with open surprise now, and a slowly dawning understanding. His mouth quirked into a pleased smile. All of a sudden, he began to laugh.
His laughter had a tinge of suppressed insanity to it, like someone who had been completely unhinged. Izaya threw his head back and laughed until he couldn’t breathe, the sound bubbling out of his throat and filling the locked interrogation room with vibrations that Shizuo could almost feel against his skin. He stared at the boy, wondering if this had all been too much - the pressure had been too great and he had finally cracked.
At last, the laughter stopped, just as suddenly as it had started. Shizuo only realized what had happened after a moment of ringing silence had passed, and it jolted him out of his reverie. Izaya was smiling at him - a helpless, genuine smile that finally reached his eyes. Shizuo’s heart thudded hard in his chest as he realized what a difference that made.
"I like you," Izaya said. "I think I can trust you after all, Shizu-chan."