Chapter 1: poppy seed
'What’s the longest you’ve ever kept a secret?’
Sometimes, when he smiles, the scar on his cheek looks a bit like a snake. ‘Long enough to forget what the secret even was in the first place.’
‘All right—then,’ he rasps, voice dry and gritty as sand. He tries to breathe. ‘How many promises have you been able to keep?’
Senkuu never used to know what nightshades smelled like.
“Did you know that guy from MythBusters actually built an Iron Man suit?”
This is the lab on an average day: Ishigami Senkuu with two beakers in his hands drawing a blank on what he was planning on doing with them, a playlist that only cycles through four different K-pop songs, and three lab mates with varying degrees of tone deafness. It smells like an unholy combination of mice droppings and gasoline—the latter of which is mostly Senkuu’s fault. God and Marie Kondo couldn’t save them even if they wanted to.
He’s certain he’d opened the window earlier.
“Senkuu, do you think you could make Iron Man’s suit?”
“Nah, man—he could make it even better. With the way it falls apart every other scene you’d think Stark used Elmer’s glue or something.”
Get an average score on an IQ test, and you can post it on Facebook. Completely blow the MAIS-III and you can hop onto Google and research all the ways the test is inadequate in assessing your cognition—build a case that’d make a Harvard graduate cry. Senkuu’s lab mates all fall beyond the cut-off score for what constitutes a genius. He’d tell them to make their own damn Iron Man suit if he weren’t so focused on trying to figure out what he was planning on doing with 9 ml of gasoline and 4 ml of xylene. The one nice thing about Kazuya’s sad excuse for a playlist—if you listen to the same song more than five times in a row, it just turns into a blanket of white noise.
Nobu bobs his head along to the beat.
“Elmer’s glue,” someone—Nagisa, probably—snickers. “Kazuya’s snot has more adhesive—”
The door to the lab slams open so hard, it’s a miracle it doesn’t dent the wall—especially given the intruder. Nobu’s mice freeze up at the sound, and Nagisa bites back a string of expletives after nearly knocking her Bunsen burner over onto her textbook.
This is what no one ever told Senkuu about friendship. You can know someone for years without ever knowing their middle name or where they were born. You can carry their deepest secrets without knowing what their favorite color is. Those things are just skeleton facts. Shake a person’s hand, and you’ll get their name and occupation. Spend a few weekends with them and you’ll notice the little habits—the way they sort their dinner plate so that none of the foods touch, the way they drum their fingers on the steering wheel in traffic to keep their road rage in check, the way they glance over in the middle of a movie to see if you’re laughing too.
Senkuu’s known Taiju for years. As soon as the door swings open with more force than intended, he’s already set his glassware down on the countertop just in time for Taiju’s large, warm fingers to close over his shoulders.
Enter Oki Taiju—a build that puts a brick shithouse to shame, tear ducts that start leaking at the sight of abandoned kittens and at the end of Ponyo. Taiju’s mom once signed him up for judo. He spent the first fifteen minutes enthusiastically introducing himself to the rest of the class and the last fifteen helping another kid nurse a bloody nose. Never threw a punch since then.
Enter Ogawa Yuzuriha—the brand of considerate that never sits next to an outlet at a café unless she needs to use it. She’s got more callouses on her fingers than Taiju and Senkuu combined and the artistic skill to show for it. Most don’t know it, but she used to be part of the school’s art club. She switched to handicrafts because she’d sooner burn her own art than put it on display. Half-molded clay sculptures, the beginnings of a watercolor scenery—the school’s trashcans had never been so heavy or so beautiful.
There’s no definite proof—can’t prove something as abstract as love, but Senkuu figures they’ve loved each other since they were nothing but a couple of middle schoolers with knobby knees and crooked teeth. Senkuu can’t speak from firsthand experience, but five years feels like a long time to wait before letting someone know that you love them.
“Senkuu!” Taiju’s voice is loud and watery and barrels straight through Kazuya’s fifth replay of EXID. “I—You’re—We thought—I’m—Senkuu!”
“Uh-huh,” Senkuu drawls, picking at his ear with his pinky. “Not bad, Big Oaf. Took you two long enough.”
“Damn straight,” Kazuya drawls from where he’s lounging against his desk with one hand propped against his cheek.
Bitter is a shit flavor, and Kazuya loses bets with the dignity of a preschooler. Senkuu will collect his money after he gets his friends sorted.
Taiju is blubbering, and Senkuu surreptitiously scans the room for a Kleenex. Snot dribbles from the other boy’s nose and the tear streaks on Yuzuriha’s cheeks glimmer under the fluorescent lights. He expected tears from Taiju, but he’s never pegged Yuzuriha as a crier. Senkuu handles romance with the same level of vigor that a college graduate manages their student loans, but—it’s nice, he supposes, that Taiju and Yuzuriha are officially Taiju-and-Yuzuriha. Like Peach and Mario.
(He wonders if that makes him Bowser.
He sure as hell isn’t Toad.)
Yuzuriha’s face crumples as tears continue to pour down Taiju’s face. “I know,” she tells him, “I’m sorry it took us so long.”
Senkuu’s smile rests crookedly on him, like snow on a windshield that’s going to slide off any second; Yuzuriha doesn’t wear melodrama well. His old math teacher used to hate his smile—always thought he was being insincere. Really though, it’s just his face.
Kazuya’s playlist switches over to the next track.
He pats Taiju’s bicep through his uniform. “I never thought you two would cry this much after getting together,” he cackles—if only because he knows how much it gets under Nobu’s skin. Nobu, who is fastidiously trying not to eavesdrop, but is also too nosy not to.
Yuzuriha and Taiju—
“Wait,” Taiju starts, brows crinkled and hands dropping from Senkuu’s shoulders, “we’re not…dating though?” He hesitates and the look he gives Yuzuriha can only be described as hopeful, adding, “Yet?”
It’d be smooth if it wasn’t Taiju.
Neurons operate on a scale of milliseconds. Senkuu picks up on three peculiarities in the span of a half a heartbeat: 1) Taiju and Yuzuriha just shared an entire conversation over Senkuu head, 2) Senkuu wasn’t able to follow said conversation, 3) Senkuu owes Kazuya 10,000 yen—goddamn it.
It’s oddly humid in the lab.
He swears the window was open just a few minutes ago.
Nagisa is the one who drops the question, which makes sense, because Nagisa doesn’t have the patience to wait for her instant ramen to fully heat up even on a good day. “Then what the hell are you two crying over?”
His friends’ eyes are focused on him, and they don’t waver even a millimeter at Nagisa’s question. The smell of gasoline and mice make Senkuu’s nose twitch.
Yuzuriha presses a curled finger to her lip, pensive frown in place. “How are you feeling, Senkuu-kun?”
Like he’s just lost a bet with Kazuya of all people. Like he’s going to be spending another five years watching his friends pine over each other before one of them takes the leap. The word ‘Fine’ lingers on the tip of tongue like the last dregs of Byakuya’s coffee—
Think: Did he even remember to email his dad last night?
There’s an old game that Senkuu’s classmates used to play back in elementary school. Ask him what it was, and he won’t be able to tell you the name, but he could tell you the rules—two lines of kids with hands and elbows interlocked, taunting the opposing team as they try to break them apart. Such a shit game. No one ever wanted Senkuu on their team because he’d always favor breaking formation over breaking his arm.
Senkuu also wasn’t supposed to play rough as a kid to begin with.)
No one is touching him, but Senkuu feels like he’s just experienced a full body tackle. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Magma right over”—right, that’s the name.
What kind of name is Magma?
He blinks and for a quarter of a second the world blurs—like Yuzuriha took a painter’s palette and smeared all the colors together. It’s an odd concept: colors that are all right in isolation start to resemble shit once you mix them together.
Kazuya’s playlist shifts tracks again. Senkuu doesn’t know the song, but Nobu quietly hums along to the lyrics.
Someone asks: “Senkuu?”
He can’t recall what he ate for lunch, but whatever it is, it isn’t sitting well with him. Lead gut and dry mouth—the unholy duo. The lab reeks.
Senkuu rubs at his nose. “I think I’m heading home for the day.”
Nobu frowns, reminds him, “Club’s not over yet.”
“Then,” he backtracks, “I’m going to stop by the nurse’s office.”
Taiju and Yuzuriha don’t stop him, but he can feel their eyes trace his movements as he leaves the room.
Senkuu still doesn’t know what he was planning on doing with the gasoline and xylene.
‘Where does it hurt, Senkuu-chan?’
‘Okay—okay, then tell us what we can do? You must’ve taken something before all of this to help with the pain—how can we—'
‘We’re past that point, and even then—'
Stop, and think about what you’re going to say.
Taste the words on the tip of your tongue and swallow them down like the shit-bitter pill they are.
(Fuck, if Senkuu doesn’t know a thing or two about bitter pills.)
Senkuu doesn’t believes in any gods, but having the right to ask for the impossible is a nice thought. There’s no definite proof, but Senkuu thinks his dad might’ve prayed for the first time on the drive home from Juntendo.
The thing about prayer: those who pray must assume that they haven’t been completely abandoned already.
‘I’m all right,’ Senkuu continues, trying to be reassuring but most likely failing miserably.
The other boy lets out a watery laugh, startled and disbelieving.
‘It’s been a crapshoot since the beginning. It’s okay, Mentalist.’
The school wifi is dodgy at best, particularly during lunch hour. Senkuu blames the dip in quality on network congestion. He rhythmically taps his nail against his phone’s glass screen and, for the most part, manages to resist the temptation of stopping and refreshing the page. There’s a difference between patience and stubbornness, and Senkuu rides the fine line between the two most days.
Taiju and Yuzuriha’s thighs press into his on either side. Senkuu can’t so much as twitch without accidentally nudging them. He can smell their shampoo from where he’s sitting—spice and lavender, it blends together better than one would expect. But then, that’s just Yuzuriha and Taiju in a nutshell. There’s a perfectly fine, empty bench on the other side of the table, but asking his friends to move feels too much like the social equivalent of flogging a baby seal. Yuzuriha rubs at her eye, and it’s only when nothing smudges off onto her finger that Senkuu realizes she isn’t wearing any makeup.
Taiju and Yuzuriha methodically pick their way through their meals faster than his email can update. Senkuu’s eyebrows creep up toward his hairline in response to Taiju licking the grease off his fingers. He catches Senkuu’s look and smiles beatifically back at him, all sunshine and soba noodles. Yuzuriha slides him a napkin.
Senkuu doesn’t ask them about yesterday, but that doesn’t mean he’s not puzzling over it. Senkuu fiddles with his phone’s earphone jack and mentally replays yesterday’s events like a sports recap. Give him the opportunity, and he’ll drag his friends to hell and kingdom come, but they don’t bawl like kids for no reason. Never did find that Kleenex, he realizes belatedly.
“You left pretty quickly yesterday,” Taiju starts, between bites of soba and octopus wieners. Senkuu gets an eyeful of white and pink mush whenever Taiju opens his mouth. He tries to recall if his friend’s table manners have ever been this bad, particularly in front of Yuzuriha. “How’re you feeling?”
Senkuu half-heartedly chases his own lunch around his plate with his chopsticks. He still feels off-kilter. Dizzy. Vestibularly unsettled. There’s probably a ridiculously specific medical term to describe what he’s feeling, but one can’t read medical textbooks without associating them with hospitals, and if Senkuu travels any further down that mental rabbit hole, he’s not going to like where he ends up.
“Let’s put it like this, Big Guy,” Senkuu drawls, “I’ll feel less nauseous if you chew with your mouth closed.”
Taiju makes a conscious effort to chew with his lips sealed, and he’s so good-intentioned about it that Yuzuriha’s eyes crinkle up with mirth. If Senkuu was a poetic sort of person, he’d liken the feeling of Taiju and Yuzuriha to the sensation of lying down in an observatory while staring up at the sky. Senkuu doesn’t have an observatory though. He doesn’t really like poetry either, for that matter.
Senkuu stares dully at his greyed-out phone screen. “Is the wifi working for you guys?”
The little buffering logo does four laps before he gets a response from either of them. He’s been waiting for the thing to load for 387 seconds—not much, perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, but downright despicable for what’s supposedly high-speed wifi. Senkuu didn’t realize he’d been counting.
“I forgot to grab mine,” Yuzuriha admits.
Taiju follows that up with a sheepish, “Me too.”
A retired professor from Todai once made the argument that humankind no longer needed to evolve because of technology. Which—fair point. Because what’s physical weakness when you’ve got access to knowledge at your fingertips? What’s limited stamina when you have cars and trains? But then the man hopped onto national television and claimed that by relying on computers, phones, and vehicle transport, humans had unwittingly become cyborgs. Evidently, the dumbass had never met Yuzuriha and Taiju.
Yuzuriha tucks one lock of hair behind her ear. “My morning was a little rough,” she confesses. “I forgot to set my alarm, and I couldn’t find my backpack. Or my lunch bag for that matter.” She laughs at herself as Taiju nods affirmatively. “Thank God my uniform was already laid out for me.”
“I must’ve been in the same boat with you then. I woke up and didn’t even know what I needed for the day!” Taiju says—and he probably doesn’t mean to be so loud, but his voice has a way of carrying. “Last night and this morning, I even forgot to brush my teeth.”
Senkuu pokes Taiju’s arm with the butt of his chopsticks. “Somewhere you have a dentist, and he’s crying for reasons he can’t comprehend right now.”
“Somewhat unrelated,” Yuzuriha begins, slowly stirring her drink with her straw and then shrugging, “but maybe not. How are you doing, Senkuu-kun?” Unlike Taiju, she’s good at keeping her voice low, which he appreciates, even if he doesn’t appreciate the turn this conversation has taken. “You left so suddenly yesterday, and we didn’t want to say anything in front of your lab mates, but—”
“Indigestion,” he says, not unkindly, and resists the urge to look over his shoulder to check that no one is nearby. “Unrelated to whatever you’re thinking of.”
“If you say so,” Yuzuriha trails off, looking to Taiju.
Taiju and Yuzuriha somehow manage to trade looks even as Senkuu’s sitting between them. For a second, he wonders if he’s in for an interrogation, but then Yuzuriha is asking Taiju if he remembered to do his English homework and he figures he’s off the hook.
It’s funny how concern works. If you take a screwdriver to a shiny new iPhone, there’s a chance you’ll figure out how it works. Dissect a frog in your biology class and label its organs; drill a friend past the knee-jerk answer of “I’m fine” and you’ll get the real, gritty story. But see, concern and sympathy are the white elephant gifts that everyone gives but no one wants.
Senkuu was seven when he got his lifetime-fill of sympathy.
[INBOX] [IMAGE ATTACHED] Senkuu! Here’s a picture of me and my colleagues! Had the weirdest dream last… see more
[INBOX] Quora Digest
>>>From: Juntendo University Hospital
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They get a transfer student halfway through the schoolyear.
Senkuu writes it off.
No one else does.
“So was anyone going to let me know that our newest transfer student is some sort of celebrity or was I just supposed to fill in the blanks based on the school’s newly minted”—Nobu pauses, squints at the flyer he snagged off of the school board—“‘Shishio Tsukasa Fanclub.’” His chair squeaks lightly against the linoleum floor as he pushes himself away from the table. “Who’s Shishio Tsukasa?”
Kazuya makes a pained sound in the back of his throat—the final, haunting whine of a dying animal. “Don’t tell me you don’t know who he is,” he demands. “How can you not have heard of Shishio-san?”
Senkuu bites the tip of his thumbnail, frowning at the numbers on his screen. He refreshes his page for the sake of being thorough, but the numbers remain fixed. A slight dip in the numbers is an inconsistency that can be chalked up to variables beyond his control, but the line graph’s gone completely flat—like a heart monitor on one of those medical dramas his old man used to watch.
The first time the case of petrified birds came to his attention, Senkuu was on his way to a doctor’s appointment at Juntendo University’s hospital and nearly broke his ankle after tripping over one of them. He’d picked it up, gave it a once-over, and stuffed the thing in his backpack, making a mental note to turn it into the university’s fine arts department. It very nearly slipped his radar.
Until he found another swallow.
And that’s just inspiration in a nutshell really. It’s not like fireworks, which are flashy but temporary. Inspiration is a bit more in line with a rabbit trail that you can’t help but follow.
It started out as a small side-project, just something to do between Senkuu’s bigger (and quite possibly, better) research projects. But soon enough, he was running a live feed on the number of petrification sightings based on a combination of reports from news outlets and social media.
For a brief moment, he wonders if there’s some sort of error in his coding, but Kazuya had gone through it line by line the day after Senkuu had written it out and didn’t find any problems then. He filters the data by country just to double-check.
No instances of petrified swallows in Japan or even Brazil—where the sightings were somewhat more concentrated initially.
“What?” Nobu frowns, tapping his pen against his notebook. It leaves behind specks of blue. “Is he an idol?”
Senkuu tears his attention away from his screen. Grins at his lab mate over his shoulder. “Got a crush, Kazuya?”
“I mean, I’m straight—”
“As a parabola,” Nagisa sings.
“But if Shishio-san asked me out, I wouldn’t say no.” Kazuya defends, “I have taste, you know.”
Nobu hums thoughtfully. “Unfortunately for you, I think so does Shishio-kun.”
“Look, my dudes, if I wanted to be verbally shredded by two people at once, I’d go visit my parents.”
Inconsistency is the nature of human intuition. Get a sensation between your shoulder blades when someone glares at you from across a room, but then wake up the day your parents are going to die being none the wiser. Senkuu doesn’t put much stock into gut feelings, but the sudden absence of petrification sightings leaves him reeling, like his world is spinning twenty degrees off its axis. He turns the problem over in his head like a Rubik’s cube before pulling out his phone.
>>>To:[ 14:46] hey, big oaf. what happened with those stoned birds that you and yuzuriha found?
<<<Received:[14:46] I FEEL LIKE ITS BEEN SO LONG SINCE WEVE TEXTED EACH OTHER!!
Senkuu raises a brow. Scrolls up to glance at their last text conversation. They messaged each other two days ago; he has the timestamps to prove it. Senkuu briefly considers mentioning this to Taiju but then decides that that’s beside the point.
>>>To:[14:48] the stone swallows, big oaf. what happened with them?
It takes Taiju a few minutes to reply. The ‘Taiju is typing’ indicator flickers on and off several times before he gets a response.
<<<Received:[14:54] We tried to drop them off at the vet but they wouldn’t take them..
<<<Received:[14:55] I think we buried them instead!
Senkuu cocks his head to the side.
>>>To:[14:55] you think?
<<<Received:[14:56] Are you in club rn!! There’s someone you should meet!!!
>>>To:[14:56] no thanks.
<<<Received:[14:57] Oh, don’t be like that, Senkuu-kun~~ :3
>>>To:[14:57] idiot, do you not read? and what’s with the cat face? gross.
<<<Received:[14:57] SENKUU!!! DON’T BE MEAN!!! ThAT WAS YUZURIHA!
<<<Received:[14:58] We’re here anyway!!
Senkuu tilts his face skyward and sighs, getting vision blots from how long he’d been staring at his laptop and then his phone. He can guess who Taiju’s referring to, and he doesn’t have one millimeter’s interest in dealing with any of his potential tag-along fangirls.
He thinks about shutting the door.
He doesn’t—if only because he doesn’t decide to do so in time.
The background chatter of his lab mates pitters out, and Senkuu casts an upside-down glance at the man nicknamed ‘the strongest high school primate’. Privately, he thinks it’s the shittiest nickname someone could get, but it doesn’t make the epithet any less accurate. It takes 0.1 seconds to make an initial but lasting impression on someone.
First thought: Shishio Tsukasa looks like the existential equivalent of a cheat code.
Kazuya appears to be five seconds away from turning in his science club resignation in favor of joining the Shishio Tsukasa fan club. Taiju introduces him to the lab members like they’re in homeroom, and Tsukasa adapts to his old-fashioned habits with an ease and grace that belies a sort of hard-earned patience one can only get from putting up with people’s shit on a regular basis. “Shishio Tsukasa,” he says, “I’m glad to meet you. Please take care of me.”
Second thought: Shishio Tsukasa’s voice is softer than what one might expect given his size.
Senkuu grins—all teeth and burning eyes punctuated by dark circles—and cracks his neck. “Excellent!” he snaps his fingers. “Nice find, Taiju!”
The sun spills in through the classroom window in gentle beams, and Senkuu can see dust particles floating in the air. His lab coat hangs over the back of his chair, and to cope with the humid weather, Senkuu’s rolled the sleeves of his button-up to his elbows.
Six pairs of eyes swivel toward him with various degrees of dubiousness. Senkuu’s ability to keep tabs on petrification sightings is limited by his ability to monitor several sources of information. A guy like Tsukasa though, who’s already garnered a full-fledged fan club within his first week of school—
“Are you on Twitter?” He cackles, “A guy like you probably has fans crawling out of his ass, right?”
A range of emotions flicker through Tsukasa’s eyes before an odd sort of wistfulness settles across his features. The corners of his lips quirk up. “Well, yes,” he says, unflappable. His eyes slide over to where Kazuya is clutching a Shishio Tsukasa fan club poster, staring at his idol like a deer in the headlights, and adds—with an air of bemusement, “In reference to both of your questions—yes.”
Kazuya withers like the potted plant on Senkuu’s windowsill that he can never remember to water. Yuzuriha had gifted it to him the day after spring break ended, saying that even he couldn’t possibly kill a cactus, but—low and behold.
Senkuu tells Tsukasa, “I’m going to need to you to make a post asking people to be on the lookout for stone swallows. Give them a tag to use if they find one,” he adds as an afterthought. He’ll have to add a few extra lines of code to his algorithm to account for the tag, but it’s not a big deal. This way at least he can feel a little bit better about any information slipping through the cracks.
An average person might want to know why. People are always asking Senkuu ‘why’—why does your hair look like that? Why are you making this? Why are you so determined to go to space? Why does your hair look like a fucking radish?
Tsukasa doesn’t bother asking. He only shrugs and assures Senkuu, “I can do that.”
Third thought: Ishigami Senkuu and Shishio Tsukasa are going to get along just fine.
Yuzuriha and Taiju have been silently watching them from the door, unreadable smiles on their faces like paste-on masks to hide whatever’s running through their heads. Technically Yuzuriha should be in her handicrafts club at this hour, but since meeting Senkuu, she’s gotten into the habit of skipping every so often just to peek in on whatever project he’s working on and offer her help as needed. Taiju never joined a club to begin with in favor of being an extra pair of hands for Senkuu in order to reduce some of the physical labor.
On one hand, Senkuu recognizes that he has three lab mates that he could rely on if needed, but Taiju and Yuzuriha have been with him since the beginning. It’s been said before—by one senpai or another—that Taiju and Yuzuriha couldn’t ever hope to hold a candle to Senkuu’s talent. Senkuu told them to fuck off; you can teach facts but having the mind and willpower to try and tackle problems that one doesn’t even fully understand is its own brand of genius. If the world was ending, Senkuu thinks he’d pick those two to face it with.
The air outside is muggy, but a lone breeze drifts through the open window, gently displacing some of Senkuu’s paper-based notes.
Senkuu states, “We’re also going to need to dig up a body!”
Tsukasa’s polite smile becomes just the slightest bit strained. “Pardon?”
Senkuu grins and gets up on his feet, tugging on his lab coat. Standing up, he doesn’t even reach Tsukasa’s shoulder. “Isn’t this exhilarating?”
Yuzuriha pats Tsukasa’s arm with a patient, condoling smile, and Taiju kindly informs him, “I’m not sure what he’s talking about yet, but it’s usually not as bad as it sounds.”
“Usually,” smiles Nobu, trading looks with Kazuya and Nagisa.
Shishio Tsukasa @ real-shishiotsukasa – 34m
Please be on the lookout for stone swallows. Use #swallowacquired if you find any.
Guinea pig skeleton @ guineapigskeleton – 29m
@real-shishiotsukasa on it!!!!
Lushlife @ lush-life-blog – 11m
am I reading that right?? we’re looking for stone swallows? like the bird?
Shootingstar @ shootingstar – 11m
@real-shishiotsukasa Sir, yes sir!!
Miyuki Hana @ tea-addict – 10m
@lush-life-blog A species maybe?
Asagiri Gen @ real-mentalist – 1m
@real-shishiotsukasa Well. This is interesting.
Asagiri Gen @ real-mentalist – 1m
@real-shishiotsukasa Being put to work already, Tsukasa-chan?
Digging up the swallows doesn’t take nearly as long as Yuzuriha and Taiju trying to recall where they had buried them in the first place. The ground is damp from when it drizzled the other day, and although it leaves the dirt soft and pliable, the extra moisture will make everything messy once they begin. They only have two shovels, and Taiju and Tsukasa immediately plucked them out of Yuzuriha and Senkuu’s hands when they arrived at the playground—not that either of them would’ve fought for the opportunity to dig around in the dirt to begin with.
Once Yuzuriha and Taiju picked out the maple tree they buried the birds under, it wasn’t hard to find where to start digging based on the telltale patch of dead grass. Evidently however, Taiju went overboard and buried them deeper than any of them had anticipated.
Behind them, children in colorful rainboots shriek as they chase each other around puddles and slides and other playground fixtures.
Tsukasa and Taiju alternate between digging and casting uncertain glances over their shoulders as if they expect a policeman to jump out any minute now and demand that they stop. Senkuu and Yuzuriha watch them from where they’re perched on a playground bench—close enough so they can talk to each other but far enough so that they can also make a break for it if an officer does show up.
Yuzuriha tugs on the cuff of his sleeve to get his attention. “Senkuu-kun? You haven’t said why we’re digging up those swallows.”
Taiju and Tsukasa don’t stop digging, but he gets the impression that they’re listening.
“As far as I can tell, those swallows that you and Taiju found were some of the last ones spotted before all of the sightings stopped completely,” Senkuu explains, playing with the tab on his energy drink. “I want to analyze their composition and compare it to the first few swallows I found. See if there’s a difference.” He drums his fingers against his kneecap. “If there is, it could mean that there was some sort of change in the source of it all.”
Yuzuriha shifts on the bench and smooths out her skirt even though there aren’t any wrinkles. There’s an approving note to her voice when she remarks, “You’re really interested in those stone swallows, aren’t you, Senkuu-kun?”
“Petrified birds are dropping from the sky,” he deadpans. “Aren’t you interested in knowing why?”
Yuzuriha hums in response. “I suppose…” She trails off, giving Senkuu an odd smile lingers just below her eyes before quietly telling him, “You’re really something else, Senkuu-kun.”
He gives her a crooked grin. “Don’t let Taiju hear you. He’d get jealous.”
“No,” Yuzuriha shakes her head. “He’d agree with me. And then start listing all of the reasons why you’re amazing.”
Senkuu takes a moment to study her. She cut her hair to her shoulders weeks ago and has long since stopped wearing makeup. It makes her look older, more like an adult. She’s started putting some of her projects on display now, too. They line the windowsill of the science club—beauty in the maelstrom of the Bunsen burners, petri dishes, computers, and hard drives that makes up their lab.
“People who compliment others to their face are either fishing for compliments or in need of a favor,” he notes.
“And when friends compliment you, it’s just that,” she replies with a gentle sort of vigor. “Just people being friends.”
Insult someone their face, and they’ll be able to take the hit without batting an eye. Tell them that they’re amazing, and they’ll feel off-kilter for the rest of the day. Sometimes, Senkuu wonders why human nature tends towards the illogical.
Yuzuriha faces forward, that strange little not-quite-smile still on her face.
Senkuu’s saved from a response by Taiju, who shouts, “I’ve found the swallows, Senkuu! We buried them farther than I thought! Nearly six feet deep!”
Taiju balances his shovel over his shoulder with one hand and clutches the petrified swallows in the other, waving them in the air like a victory flag. Senkuu and Yuzuriha pick their way over, avoiding the mud puddles, and a couple of children who had been curiously spectating go ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ when Taiju displays their findings.
The hole they’ve dug is about one meter in diameter and—by Senkuu’s estimate—five feet deep. All this for two swallows that could fit in the palm of Tsukasa’s hand. It’s going to be a pain to fill in, and they need to move quickly before anyone realizes that they’ve essentially vandalized the area.
“Idiot,” Senkuu calls back. “You bury people six feet deep—and the only reason they’re buried that far down to begin with is to prevent diseases from spreading.”
Taiju’s forehead gleams with sweat, and he passes Senkuu the swallows. Their wingspans are roughly the length of Senkuu’s hand. Yuzuriha plucks the birds out of his grip and wraps them in Taiju’s handkerchief for safekeeping.
“Not bad, guys,” Senkuu grins, taking in the dirt-stained slacks and rolled up sleeves. He offers his can of soda to Taiju who takes a few sips of it before handing it off to Tsukasa. “You’ve all worked hard—let’s go get ramen. My treat.”
Filling in the hole, much to Senkuu’s surprise and the others’ relief, turns out to be a much faster process when a cluster of kids who were previously playing tag offer their help in return for piggyback rides. Yuzuriha and Senkuu each take one. Taiju and Tsukasa manage to carry all of the remaining children on their shoulders.
Cheat codes, both of them.
It’s a long walk to the ramen shop but, standing between Taiju and Tsukasa, it doesn’t feel like one. The humid weather has always had a way of wearing Senkuu down, but when he starts to slow, the others match his pace easily. Tsukasa pulls out his phone to sporadically text back and forth with someone else as they walk, but conversation flows easily between them—better than Senkuu would’ve anticipated given the fact that three of them are childhood friends and they’d only just met their newest companion today.
Byakuya used to go on dates when Senkuu was younger. There was one woman in particular who stood out to Senkuu at the time. Ask him for her name, and he wouldn’t be able to remember what it was, but he could tell you this much: she was a professor like his dad—same university but different department. She had a wicked sharp smile and an even sharper tongue. Senkuu met her when he was six, and she made him laugh so hard, he pissed himself. For those reasons alone, she and Byakuya should’ve worked, but they didn’t. Now, Byakuya is a thousand miles away, up in space, rubbing shoulders with a woman who sings on a worldwide stage and—for all intents and purposes—should want nothing to do with some dorky old professor who gets homesick for a son that isn’t even his by blood.
Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to it: Ishigami Byakuya and Lillian Weinberg get along like a house on fire, and Tsukasa fits into their group like he’s known them for years.
The weather isn’t ideal for hot food, but they’re all too hungry to suggest going elsewhere. They order their ramen and grab a corner booth where no one will give them side-eyes if they (read: Taiju) get rowdy.
Halfway through his meal, Senkuu glances up and catches Tsukasa staring at him with an odd look he can’t read. He licks his lips and asks the pro wrestler what’s eating at him.
Tsukasa only shrugs, “I wasn’t sure if this was something you only ever did with your dad.”
Senkuu pokes at his ramen with his chopsticks. It’d be illogical to claim that it tastes different whenever Senkuu comes here without his old man, but Taiju and Yuzuriha’s grins are bright like the Christmas lights Byakuya used to string around their apartment. Tsukasa’s phone buzzes against the wooden table, and he slides it onto his lap without bothering to check it.
Senkuu realizes that Tsukasa is waiting for an answer. “Kind of, yeah, but he’s up in the ISS right now.” He frowns, considering, “Have I mentioned my dad to you before?”
They talked about a number of things on their way to the park, including the obligatory introductory questions that Senkuu never would’ve bothered with if it wasn’t for Taiju’s old-fashioned tendencies and Yuzuriha’s manners. Someone else might’ve ignored it and figured that they’d mentioned their parents at one point or another, but Senkuu has near-perfect memory and a policy against talking about himself.
The corners of Yuzuriha’s lips twist up into a smile. She plays with the ends of her hair and gently bumps Taiju’s shoulder with her own—or tries to, she’s several centimeters shorter than him so the best she can do is nudge his bicep. “Your dad’s an astronaut, Senkuu-kun,” she points out. “People know him, and he spends about eighty-five percent of all his interviews talking about you.”
“And in general, to anyone who will listen,” Taiju chimes.
Tsukasa, Yuzuriha, and Taiju keep eating.
Senkuu frowns, ignoring his ramen even as it slowly grows cool. If it weren’t for the fact that Senkuu had watched all of his dad’s interviews for himself, he might’ve believed her just then.
Tsukasa looks different without his scars. Tsukasa also looks different when he’s trying not to cry. He asks him: ‘Why did you never say anything?’
Senkuu thinks of petrified swallows and nitric acid. He thinks about the day he told his two oldest friends that he thought the petrification might’ve been a cure. He regrets it almost immediately.
He replies: ‘I didn’t think it was a problem anymore.’
His chest hurts.
It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts—
Senkuu’s long since discovered that the swallows are petrified all the way through. It’s not as simple as a stone shell.
The first question: how—is it a cellular or mineral reaction? The second: can Senkuu reverse the petrification process?
Tsukasa isn’t normally the type to look through other people’s belongings. However, Senkuu makes for pretty poor conversation when he’s focused on science, and he has a tendency to leave his mail sitting out. Tsukasa would likely be with Taiju and Yuzuriha right now, if weren’t for the fact that those two had finally become ‘Taiju-and-Yuzuriha’—for real this time—and, evidently, Tsukasa would rather to listen to Senkuu’s ramblings than play third wheel.
It’s just him, Tsukasa, and a shitload of petrified birds.
There’s a rustle of paper. It’s a testament to how well Senkuu’s gotten to know the other over the past month when he doesn’t even need to look up to know that Tsukasa’s frowning at the letter he’d left on his desk. “Is this an acceptance letter from Kanto Gakuin?”
He quirks an eyebrow at that even if Tsukasa can’t see it and adjusts the lens strength of his microscope. “I haven’t even started applying to universities yet,” Senkuu informs, distracted. “That’s just an invitation to tour the campus and see if it’s worth even applying to.”
The paper crinkles as Tsukasa takes out the envelope’s contents. Senkuu lets him. “Are you going to take them up on it?”
Senkuu shrugs, “May as well.”
It’s not a bad school. Not at all, but in terms of its astrophysics and mechanical engineering program? Not Senkuu’s top choice.
Impress the right people and get a heralded as a genius. Work hard and become an expert. Pick a goal and give up so much of your life trying to reach it that once you do, you won’t even remember what satisfaction tastes like. Most people are sensible and give up halfway through. Senkuu goes on ahead full-throttle knowing full-well that he’s already cued up to fail JAXA’s physical assessment no matter what he does.
Not even a properly functioning muscle-stimulator is going to save him.
(Well, he corrects himself, not that it actually helped Byakuya anyways.)
Tsukasa’s response is immediate and insistent in a way he so rarely is, “You should. I have a friend who goes there.”
Senkuu does look up at that. “I thought I was your first friend!” he says, voice thick with mock-offense.
It doesn’t get the intended laugh. Tsukasa blinks at him owlishly. “I don’t think I ever told you that,” he says, almost as if thinking aloud.
“Huh,” Senkuu says, partially to Tsukasa, mostly to himself. He twirls his pen around his fingers and resists the urge to shift in his seat. “Sorry, must be thinking of someone else.”
As if. He’s certain it was Tsukasa. Senkuu so rarely has blips in his memory, and he vividly recalls Tsukasa’s face the day he told him so.
(Although, that said, Senkuu’s been waking up each day feeling as if there’s an assignment he’s forgotten to do.)
The sun’s set, but the city lights are bright enough to blot out the stars. Tsukasa texted his little sister about an hour ago to let her know he’d be coming home late. Sweet kid, that Mirai. Soft-spoken and slight, but the first time Senkuu met her, she hugged him around his middle so tight, he wondered if Tsukasa’s strength was hereditary.
“How weird,” Senkuu mumbles to himself, biting his thumbnail. “Why would petrified swallows be appearing all around the world for ten weeks and then suddenly stop?”
It’s been about a month since Tsukasa’s initial post, and there haven’t been any sightings of petrified swallows. Even after he sent out follow up tweets, there was nothing but static. His lab mates think he needs to call it a day and let Yuzuriha and Taiju bury their swallows. It’s always easy to tell someone to give up when they’re not the ones putting the work though, so it’s probably some of the most useless piece of advice Senkuu’s ever received. Moreover, Yuzuriha, Taiju, and Tsukasa seem just as invested in the petrification research as Senkuu is.
He hears Tsukasa shift. “There’s someone else who might have a larger reach than I do,” he admits, tone mild. “Have you heard of Asagiri Gen?”
Senkuu raises his eyebrows. “The guy with a crap haircut who wrote a bunch of trashy books on mentalism?”
“Well,” Tsukasa starts after a beat, eyes lit up in a way that Senkuu’s learned would be a full-bellied laugh on anyone else. “I don’t know how he’d feel about that description, but—yes, that Asigiri Gen.”
Senkuu hums, rolling the idea around in his head like a pair of dice. “If you think he’ll go with it, why not?” He swings one leg up over the other and swivels his chair around so he’s not craning his neck to look at Tsukasa. “Won’t he think it’s a bit random for some high schooler to ask about using his social media presence?”
“Gen likes being dragged around by the collar,” Tsukasa dryly remarks.
There’s a million and one things that Senkuu can glean about this Gen guy in that statement alone. That’s what makes Tsukasa so fun, Senkuu thinks. For such a quiet guy who never says things unnecessarily, he knows how to pack a lot of meaning into his words. The most efficient conversation partner Senkuu’s ever encountered.
Enter Shishio Tsukasa—the strongest high schooler in the world with the quietest voice. From what Senkuu’s learned about him thus far, he’s got a chip in his shoulder with regards to old, greedy men but a soft spot for children. He walks with his head tilted down but has a tendency to say what he likes with the confidence that comes with being the strongest person in the room.
(Granted, Senkuu does the same thing, it’s just that his more indelicate comments tend to fly over people’s heads.)
Senkuu snorts. He looks between his petrified swallows and the numbers on his computer screen that have sat at zero for the past few weeks. Rock bottom feels a hell of a lot like being surrounded on all sides by shelves and shelves of stoned birds and slaving for weeks over dinner scraps of data without having anything to show for it. Having the prerequisite knowledge and curiosity is forty percent of being a scientist. Having the perseverance to keep trudging through the numbers and dead-end leads makes up the other sixty.
“Eh, fuck it,” Senkuu stretches his legs out in front of him. His knees pop. “Go ahead and ask him.”
“He gave me tickets to his show this Friday,” Tsukasa says, off-handedly. “You can ask him then.”
Senkuu’s head whips around so fast his neck aches. “I don’t have a single millimeter’s interest in seeing his crappy magic show!”
Tsukasa’s laugh isn’t loud—it’s more like a huff of air than anything else. Nothing like Senkuu’s cackle. “You don’t like magic, Senkuu?”
Senkuu waves him off. “There’s no such thing as magic,” he firmly declares. “It’s all just smoke and mirrors.” He thinks for a moment, noting, “The guy seems like a handful too.”
Senkuu had caught glimpses of the show on Kazuya’s phone, as well as while passing through the train station. Last month, Yuzuriha and Taiju confiscated his laptop in favor of watching a full episode of the man’s show in HD. Senkuu isn’t an ass—well, not always—mentalism is a science, but it’s not a branch that he's even remotely interested in.
Tsukasa is insistent though and has patience in spades, if not Senkuu’s brand of stubbornness. “You need to reevaluate your methodology. And perhaps take a break, Senkuu,” he adds on.
When Senkuu was six years old and just beginning to delve into the world of science, he used to read his textbooks under his bedsheets with a flashlight to trick his dad into thinking that he was actually sleeping like he was supposed to. Those nights, his dad would silently pad his way across Senkuu’s bedroom floor, slip underneath Senkuu’s makeshift tent alongside him, and read him to sleep. Before, Byakuya would make sure that Senkuu never obsessed over anything too much, that he got outside every once in a while. Senkuu emails his dad regularly, but there’s no monitoring your son’s curfew when you’re miles away in space.
“I just need this guy to ask his followers to look for petrified swallows,” Senkuu grouses. “Why do I have to meet him?”
Tsukasa turns Senkuu’s letter from Kanto Gakuin over in his hands. He holds it like it’s something precious even if Senkuu’s gotten dozens of letters from universities across Japan, and so a letter from Yokohama’s top university isn’t (strictly speaking) a novel occurrence. “He’s more likely to cooperate if you ask in person. He appreciates it when other people are direct, even if he so rarely is himself.”
Senkuu mulls over that piece of information and decides: Asagiri Gen sounds like a headache you can’t drink away.
Senkuu drums his fingers against the armrests of his chair. Tsukasa thinks that he’s hit a bit of a dead end, and Senkuu doesn’t have a problem owning up to that assessment. However, he’s not sure he necessarily agrees with Tsukasa’s suggested method for rectifying the situation.
He thinks of empty twitter tags and Asagiri Gen’s bleach-white grin. Verifies, “You said Friday?”
“The show starts at 6:00pm,” Tsukasa tells him, straightening up from where he was leaned up against the wall. “I’ll pick you up from here, and we’ll go together.”
And well, Senkuu supposes that if he’s going to strike out on the petrification case, he might as well go down swinging.
Someone—people—are calling his name in a way that beats against Senkuu’s ears like waves against sand. There are hands all over him now—on his shoulders, his neck, his back. They don’t hurt, either because any harm they could do is miniscule compared to everything else or because they’re nothing but scared butterfly touches to begin with. Present, but insubstantial.
The voices on the other hand.
The voices are hard and brittle like mirror shards and broken whiskey bottles.
‘—yone know C—'
The last time Senkuu saw a magic show was at Taiju’s eighth birthday party.
Well, more accurately—Taiju’s mother hired a magician for his eighth birthday party, and Senkuu kind of watched the show over a low-definition Skype call. Taiju was in charge of the camera, and he couldn’t resist the urge to turn the phone around every half minute or so, babbling to Senkuu about how much he wished he could be there with him.
Taiju had almost decided against having a birthday party that year, insisting, “But I don’t like doing things without you.” It took Senkuu telling him that he was being irrational and to enjoy his party to convince Taiju to stop resisting his mother’s birthday planning.
Byakuya’s beard tickled Senkuu’s forehead from how he was leaning against him, and although his dad’s arm was warm where it rested across his shoulders, Senkuu couldn’t suppress his shivers. Senkuu drew his knees up and adjusted the laptop so it was in a more comfortable position. Byakuya had wordlessly pulled up the bedsheets over his son’s legs. A maelstrom of balloons, cake, and patterned wrapping paper flickered in and out of his view.
Taiju had picked a space-themed party that year.
“Senkuu! Senkuu, did you see that!?” Taiju’s voice had sounded so different over the phone, crappy microphone chipping at formants and filtering out frequencies. “It was so cool!”
Senkuu had smiled and tried to ignore the way the cannula pressed against his cheeks. Yes, he had seen it. Yes, he was surprised when the doves flew out of the man’s hat too. Yes, he enjoyed the show. Yes, he wished he could be celebrating his eighth birthday with him too—happy birthday, Taiju.
Truth is—Senkuu hadn’t really seen the trick, not with how often Taiju redirected the camera towards the rest of the party or his own face.
Senkuu hadn’t minded though—he didn’t call his friend up on his birthday for a magic show of all things. Byakuya’s chest had shook against his back with restrained laughter at his friend’s antics, and he had shot Senkuu a grin, just out of the line of the camera.
So, technically speaking, Senkuu’s never seen a magic show.
He has no empirical evidence to predict how it’s going to go. He just lets himself get funneled into the auditorium with the rest of herd, and it’s only the fact that Tsukasa’s walking directly behind him that keeps him from getting shoved around on the way in. The place is set up to look a bit like a theater. Red curtains drape heavily from the ceiling rafts, and stage lights shine against dark wood floors. The houselights are already dimming by the time he and Tsukasa shuffle into their respective seats. The chatter begins to die down as well, people taking the change in lighting as a cue that the show is about to start.
Senkuu never puts much stock into his appearance, but he does his best to tug his hair down into a ponytail so it doesn’t block the view of whoever’s stuck sitting behind him. Tsukasa smiles wryly and estimates that Senkuu just lost about five inches of his vertical height. Senkuu tells him to eat a dick.
The curtains open.
Senkuu had caught glimpses of Asagiri Gen’s face on the cover of his books, face glossy and enigmatic smile set in place. On paper, he looks like a guy who ran out of the barber shop halfway through his haircut and never bothered going back.
In person, Asagiri Gen is pretty in the way a stained-glass window is.
Doesn’t look like the sort of guy who goes to church though.
Senkuu glances over at Tsukasa and realizes the other boy has been watching him. He does that occasionally—sometimes Senkuu will look up from whatever he’s doing only to find Tsukasa studying him like Senkuu’s a puzzle piece that’s wandered over into the wrong box. Like he’s a block of text that he can’t unravel no matter how many times he re-reads the page.
Senkuu crosses one leg over the other and watches the show.
[INBOX] [AUDIO FILE ATTACHED] Lillian wanted me to send you this! It’s a sample recording of a track she’s been working on, I know you’re not much of a music fan but… see more
>>>From: Juntendo University Hospital
[INBOX] [FILE ATTACHED] Appointment Reminder see more
Please Note: This message contains information that is confidential and may be privileged. Unless you are the addressee (or authorized to receive for the addressee), you may not use, copy or disclose to anyone the message or any information contained in the message. If you have received the message in error, please advise the sender by reply e-mail and delete the message.
[INBOX] Information regarding your upcoming tour. We would like to extend our… see more
First hypothesis: The mentalist uses a trapdoor to avoid the swords.
Second hypothesis: There is no trapdoor, and Asagiri Gen is really just that flexible.
Senkuu claps along with everyone else when the curtains close and has to blink several times when the lights finally flick back on. He grabs his jacket and stands, seat folding into itself behind him as he rises. Tsukasa hadn’t bothered taking off his coat. They shuffle out of the auditorium at a much more languid pace compared to how they entered. Senkuu checks his email and marks the one from Juntendo as read without opening it.
His hair pulls unnaturally against his scalp from the way it’s still tucked into a ponytail—something that Tsukasa finds endlessly amusing.
“You’re like a scallion,” Tsukasa tells him.
“And you look like Tarzan,” Senkuu snarks, disgruntled and in desperate need of a restroom break. They step into the lobby, where most people linger, chatting with one another and congesting traffic. Senkuu can’t shuffle forward anymore without treading on the black heeled pumps of the woman in front of him. “Where did Gen say we could meet him?”
“Dressing room,” Tsukasa nudges his shoulder and points to Senkuu’s right, down a corridor that runs parallel to the entrance for the auditorium. “This way.”
The nice thing about being nearly two heads taller than everyone else—when you want to get somewhere, no one stops you. Senkuu wishes he could relate. Tsukasa calmly picks his way through the crowd, and people part for Tsukasa much in the same way that cars make way for a passing ambulance. Senkuu’s forced to shuffle along behind him, eyeing the split ends that pepper Tsukasa’s locks. And to think the fucker was making fun of Senkuu’s hair.
Today’s been a rougher day. Senkuu massages his chest, willing the ache to go away, and distracts himself by mulling over how two personalities like those of Tsukasa and Gen ever managed to become friends. Tsukasa had claimed that he and Gen weren’t all that close, that they only knew each other through different talk shows and variety acts, but there were times when Tsukasa talked about Gen as if they’d known each other for years. Times when Tsukasa’s phone lit up with half a dozen text messages from someone named ‘Gen’.
Tsukasa always typed out his reply to those messages with his back to a wall.
Senkuu wonders if they’re dating.
They break through the human hoard, Senkuu steps forward so he’s walking side-by-side with Tsukasa. They turn off down a hallway that leads towards the back of the venue, footsteps muted against the gold and maroon carpeting. A man in a black top and earpiece casts them a curious look, but recognition flashes across his face when he sees Tsukasa. He doesn’t stop them. Senkuu casts a side glance at his friend, adding the observation to his growing list of evidence that Tsukasa and Gen are an item. Tsukasa didn’t seem like to the type to be into frivolous guys who thrive off attention, but then—from first glance, he also didn’t seem like the type to have a phone addiction.
Their pace comes to a stop at the second to last door on the left. It reads: Asagiri Gen. Tsukasa knocks and then enters without waiting for a response.
Asagiri Gen is barefoot and about half an inch taller than Senkuu. He’s changed out of his costume in favor of a pale purple button-down and jeans. There’s a moment—between when Gen turns toward them and when Senkuu blinks—in which he thinks he catches a glimpse of a scar across the performer’s face. But then, Senkuu’s opening his eyes again, and there’s nothing but pale skin and thin lips that are stretched into a Cheshire cat grin.
His eyes flick toward Senkuu’s hair and his grin grows wider.
Senkuu wonders if anyone’s ever injured their own face from smiling too big. There’s that feeling again—that feeling as if someone’s burying their hand into the skin of Senkuu’s back and ripping him backwards. His head pounds, and the soft yellow lights in Gen’s dressing room feel too bright. Senkuu tightens his hands into fists from where their buried in the pockets of his coat. Lets his nails dig into his palms because the human brain isn’t naturally wired to block out pain, but Senkuu’s long since mastered the art of re-focusing it.
Gen has a weird, geometric shaped tattoo on the inside of his elbow where nurses like to draw blood. Two mirrored lines that look a bit like lightning strikes. Minimalistic. Clean. Clashes with the overall persona he seems to enjoy projecting.
Tsukasa introduces them, and Gen tilts his head to the side. The longer pieces of hair brush his shoulder. “So, Senkuu-chan,” he starts, voice bubbling over with barely restrained mirth like he knows some great cosmic joke and can’t be bothered to share. He pads forward, steps perfectly silent and stops in front of Senkuu, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet like a kid waiting to be praised. “What did you think of the show?”
“Not bad.” Senkuu picks at his ear. If Nagisa were here, she’d wrinkle her nose at him. “The trick you did with the mirrors was neat.”
“Oh?” Gen pouts at him, but his eyes bely his amusement. “You’re not impressed with my tricks, Senkuu-chan?”
Tsukasa snorts and pulls out his phone, clearly checking out of this exchange.
Maybe they’re not dating.
“I think you could up the ante. Tricks are flashy, but anyone with a good eye and internet access can figure out how they work.” The tragedy of a magician: practice for years to get the baseline dexterity required to pull off a magic trick, practice until the routine is branded into your muscle and your memory, pour blood and tears into developing a cohesive show that works, and then figure out how to live with the fact that ninety-nine percent of your audience only comes in order to pick you apart the way a mechanic pries open a clock. Most magicians never make it off the street, but Asagiri Gen is a lucky one. Even more so now—now that he’s got Senkuu. Senkuu informs him, “I’ve got a trick that I think’ll be right up your alley though.”
There’s a gleam of curiosity in Gen’s eyes. “Really?” he muses, somehow managing to drag out each individual sound. “What did you have in mind?”
Senkuu wonders if there’s a universal milestone for what makes two people friends. It’s not like dating, Senkuu thinks, there’s no conversation regarding labels and what the future holds. On one hand, you can know someone for years and still feel the need to tiptoe around them like you’re locked in a game of chess. On the other hand, it’s possible to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the bus, and immediately match their wavelength. Maybe it varies from person to person—maybe everyone has a brand of friendship that’s as unique as their fingerprints. Senkuu doesn’t know where the line between acquaintances and friends is, but—looking at Asagiri Gen—he reassesses his previous assumptions and figures that the line can’t be that far off.
Senkuu grins crookedly at him. “What do you think about closing your show by bringing a stoned bird back to life?”
Gen laughs. “If you teach me how,” he promises, “I’ll buy you a life supply of Cola.”
Asagiri Gen @ real-mentalist 5h
All right, everyone! We’re hosting a fun little scavenger hunt for all of you lovelies!!! @real-shishiotsukasa and I are giving away prizes to whoever can find a stoned bird! Tell your friends and use #swallowacquired when you find one! Good luck~~ ( ˘ ³˘)♥
Shishio Tsukasa @ real-shishiotsukasa – 4h
@real-mentalist Welcome to the kingdom of science.
Asagiri Gen @ real-mentalist – 4h
@real-shishiotsukasa Hearing that from YOU of all people. Gross. Delete this.
Nanananananami @ captain-of-this-ship – 3h
Kudayari @ properlancemaster – 3h
May be worth mentioning that @captain-of-this-ship is acting nonchalant for the camera, but he’s properly livid.
Nanananananami @ captain-of-this-ship – 2h
@properlancemaster stfu you spear fucker
“I still can’t believe you have Shishio-san and Asagiri-san’s number,” Kazuya wails. In spite of his complaints, he helps Senkuu lay out his tools and even grabs him a fresh pen that isn’t on its last few drops of ink. “You don’t even care about celebrities, Senkuu!”
Nagisa perches on the table behind Senkuu, legs swinging back and forth. “So,” she starts, “tell me again because I couldn’t hear you over Kazuya’s crying—what’s the deal with the Nital Etch? When you guys first walked in here, I thought it was for Yuzuriha.”
Yuzuriha waves her off. “Ah, believe me, I’ve never once used Nital Etch in my life.”
“Senkuu plans on using it to corrode the stone!” Taiju states, no doubt recalling the succinct yet adequate explanation Senkuu provided during the walk down the hall to the science club.
It’s one of those rare days in which Tsukasa takes the afternoon off to prepare for a fight, so it’s just the old group today (read: Senkuu’s lab mates, Taiju, and Yuzuriha). If he was a more sentimental person, Senkuu would marvel over the fact that there even exists an “old group” and a “current group.” But sentiment is for empty-nesters and scrapbook albums, and Senkuu doesn’t have a single millimeter of interest in stumbling down that train of thought.
Senkuu tucks his tie into his breast pocket to prevent the tail end from dipping into anything. About a week or so after getting Gen onboard with his pet project, seven people had chimed in, saying that they’d each found a stone swallow. Thus far, Gen had been successful in persuading each of them into trading the birds for a pair of tickets to his show (discounted, not completely free because Gen was a menace). And Senkuu was able to confirm two things: 1) that the swallows were the real deal, 2) that all of the petrified swallows found post-June had a denser mineral and cellular composition compared to the ones Senkuu had found in the previous months.
The overall prevalence of petrification sightings had still decreased dramatically, and the distribution of the sightings didn’t fully align with Senkuu’s earlier data with all of the sightings occurring within Japan and none internationally, but—
The gears were moving again now that Gen was in the picture.
“What Taiju said,” Senkuu affirms, grinning. “We’ll start here”—He pours the liquid out into a petri dish and gently deposits the swallow inside it as well—“Nital Etch with 10% nitric acid.”
Senkuu’s arms and legs shake with the effort of pulling himself up, muscles stiff and eyes still bleary from sleep. His legs and ankles are swollen.
His place isn’t huge, but people find a way to make it work—all wanting to stay close even though they know there isn’t much they can do in the event that—
Well. It’s the thought that counts, or so the adage goes.
It’s the one in the yellow cap and clothes that Senkuu has to be cautious of.
Just the slightest noise could cause him to stir. It’s why Senkuu makes a point to travel a good twenty meters away before finally doing what he set out to do. He wonders if Yuzuriha and Taiju will be angry with him.
Somedays he wishes they were. If only so they wouldn’t feel like the blame rests solely on their shoulders for being the only ones who had known that Senkuu—
Senkuu stumbles and just manages to catch himself. With so little competing light, he can pick out the constellations and pinpoint the ISS.
When he was younger, people used to joke and tell Byakuya that his kid would outshine him one day. Byakuya had grinned and looked them dead in the eye—“Nah, Senkuu’s going to outshine all of us one day.” Byakuya was pushing fifty when he left behind his Hundred Tales. He was an old man by the time he’d gathered enough platinum to revive humanity, though he didn’t know it at the time.
God, he misses his dad.
Senkuu is nineteen going on twenty when he whispers his legacy into a glass record.
His legacy starts like this: “I know how to save all of humanity. I’m leaving you with the most challenging invention of all…”
The train stops about a block away from Senkuu’s destination, but the weather makes it feel more like ten. There’s an old scrap shop just kitty corner to where Senkuu’s waiting for the cross light to turn green, and he’d be all over it if he felt he could restrain himself to buying only what he’s able to carry himself—tell yourself you’ll crack open that textbook in an hour, that you’ll only drink one cup of coffee a day. Whatever Senkuu lacks in impulse control, he likes to think he makes up for in self-awareness.
He huffs and watches his breath turn into fine clouds of mist before his eyes. That was one of the first questions he had asked Byakuya, he thinks: why can we see our breath when it gets cold? Senkuu smiles wryly to himself. He hasn’t asked his dad a science-related question in years, and it’s a bittersweet piece of affirmation—realizing you can stand toe-to-toe with the person who used to hand-feed you knowledge.
Senkuu’s toes are quickly growing cold. He does his best to awkwardly navigate around the grey slush on the sidewalk without disrupting the flow of traffic too much. The man in a suit and tie to his left sneezes, and Senkuu fiddles with the underwire of his face mask. He truly, deeply hates winter.
His phone buzzes, and Senkuu guesses who it is before he glances at his phone.
<<<Received:[13:06] Senkuu-chan~~ ( ´ ▽ ` )ﾉ
<<<Received:[13:06] What are you getting Mirai-chan for her birthday? I can’t think of anything!!! (๑ˊ▵ॢˋ̥๑) ((´д｀))
Senkuu snorts and smiles wryly behind his face mask. Removes his gloves and pins them between his arm and ribcage so that his hands are free, and the cold nips at his fingers. When Gen asked him for his number, Senkuu had mistakenly assumed it was strictly so that he could get updates on Senkuu’s research.
>>>To:[13:07] idiot~ aren’t you supposed to be a mentalist? don’t tell me you’re a fraud.
>>>To:[13:07] if that’s the case, there’s not even a millimeter’s chance that i’ll tell you how to de-petrify a swallow.
Senkuu bumps into a passing college student and mumbles a quick apology. He doesn’t bother looking up, not when the route’s ingrained into his muscle memory. Senkuu hasn’t made a bet since he lost to fucking Kazuya all those months back, but he’d bet his left kidney that he’d be able to reach his destination even while blindfolded and walking backwards. The thought reminds Senkuu of Nobu’s mice and mazes.
>>>To:[13:08] besides, what’s the point in telling you what i’m planning on getting mirai if it just means you’re going to copy it?
Moreover, where does Gen get off thinking Senkuu’s gift could be bought anyway?
<<<Received:[13:08] How mean!!!!!! (ᗒᗩᗕ)՞(ᗒᗩᗕ)՞(ᗒᗩᗕ)՞
Asagiri Gen is older than Senkuu and the rest of his friends, already tiptoeing into adulthood. Senkuu doesn’t give much thought towards age or hierarchy, doesn’t even bother tacking on ‘senpai’ when addressing an upperclassman. But there’s no denying that there’s something inherently approachable about Gen despite the gap in age and celebrity status. And maybe that’s friendship—when you can throw the pomp and circumstance out the window, when you can text each other at odd hours in the middle of the night for no other reason than to hear each other talk.
Hell—for some people, that’s more than friendship.
<<<Received:[13:08] ( ≧Д≦) And I was planning on suggesting that we drive to Tsukasa-chan’s house together too!!
>>>To:[13:09] if the way you play mario kart is any indication for how you drive in real life, i think ill walk
There’s something to be said about the fact that Senkuu has witnessed firsthand how Gen plays Mario Kart. There’s something to be said about the fact that Senkuu was only being ten percent sarcastic when he sent that text.
<<<Received:[13:10] MEAN MEAN MEAN MEAN MEAN!!!
Senkuu bites back a smirk. Sometimes, Asagiri Gen is the existential equivalent of a trickle down your spine—other times, he’s just a pissed off housecat.
>>>To:[13:12] i gtg. gl figuring out a gift for mirai~~
<<<Received:[13:12] Coward. <(｀^´)> Fight me.
Senkuu steps through the automatic doors of Juntendo University’s hospital and makes his way towards check-in. The front desk know him on sight—practically watched him grow up at this point.
Still, he recites: “Appointment for Ishigami Senkuu.”
They bring him poppies and irises. Senkuu doesn’t know much about flower symbolism. He thinks he asks them what they represent, but he’s too focused on choking down a whimper to really internalize what they tell him.
Tsukasa’s little sister stands at the foot of his bed, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. She’s clearly uncomfortable seeing him like this, which is understandable given her past. The girl with gold-rimmed glasses and lime green baseball cap has less reservations.
She rests her hand on his, little fingers so soft against his that Senkuu doesn’t even think she’s touching him. ‘Senkuu?’
He gently curls his fingers around hers. ‘Yeah, kiddo?’
‘The adults aren’t telling us what’s wrong,’ she says, blunt and frustrated. Knowing her, she’s probably already tried eavesdropping on the adults to get more information. Knowing the adults in question, they know better than to let her.
Mirai steps forward and gingerly grips his bedsheets. Her voice is soft and bell-like—so different and yet so similar to her brother who stands watching them from the entrance. ‘They say you’re getting better,’ Mirai states, ‘but you haven’t left your bed in a month now.’
The other girl asks, ‘Senkuu, why aren’t you getting better?’
At that Tsukasa straightens and steps forward. Hands outstretched to begin ushering them out. He’s good with kids, but his voice is tight when he says, ‘That’s enough. It’s time to go, Suika.’
Who is Suika?
By the time Mirai’s birthday rolls around, Senkuu still hasn’t completely discounted the notion that Tsukasa and Gen are dating. Granted, they’re a bit dysfunctional compared to Yuzuriha and Taiju but then, most couples look dysfunctional once you pit them against Yuzuriha and Taiju.
Tsukasa’s apartment tends toward minimalistic and utilitarian, bare save for a couch that seats two people, a kotatsu, a half-filled bookshelf, and kitchen appliances. Pro wrestler or not, life is expensive when you’re a full-time student with a little sister. It’s a small apartment with only one bedroom; between the state of it and Tsukasa’s tightlipped attitude towards his parents, Senkuu can fill in the gaps just fine. Never let it be said that Senkuu doesn’t know to shut his mouth when it’s needed.
(Well, actually he can think of about seven people who would disagree with that statement.)
Today, the Shishio siblings’ apartment is gently showered in blues, yellows, and pinks. Gen and Yuzuriha spearhead the decorating process while Mirai gets herself ready, stringing fairy lights from one wall to the other and back again until the ceiling seems like nothing more than a spiderweb of stars. For color, they loop streamers and dangling balloons from the string lights. Senkuu’s never ridden in a hot air balloon, but something about the setup makes him nostalgic for one. There’s hardly even a millimeter’s chance of it ever happening, but if Gen ever gets tired of being a mentalist, he could make a killing in design. Senkuu tells him so.
“I do have a soft spot for Devil Wears Prada,” Gen confesses. Although, Senkuu was already aware of that—so maybe it’s not a confession. “I see bits of myself in Miranda Priestly.”
Senkuu considers pointing out that Gen’s wearing a cerulean pullover, but then that’d be admitting he’d actually watched the movie after Gen told him about it during one of their late-night talks. Write a book, watch a movie—hide the evidence and the things you enjoy like they’re a dirty little secret.
They finish decorating with about half an hour to spare before Mirai’s friends start trickling in, and Yuzuriha and Gen take the opportunity to braid store-bought flowers into Mirai’s hair. Tsukasa’s hands are large and scarred, Taiju’s are rough but steady; Yuzuriha and Gen’s are both nimble. Sometimes when it’s late at night, and Senkuu’s too tired to keep researching but not yet tired enough to sleep, he thinks about his own hands and wonders what they’re good for.
When Gen and Yuzuriha finish securing all of flowers, Tsukasa gently reaches out to touch one of them—a pink two-petaled flower that—Senkuu thinks—resembles a clam.
“You look really cute, Mirai,” says Taiju. And it’s an improvement from when Tsukasa first introduced them to his little sister. Taiju had always liked kids, but he had a tendency to treat them like they were some sort of exotic and endangered species.
“Thank you,” she says, shy, “you guys didn’t have to decorate—really—but the apartment looks pretty like this.” If souls came in color, Senkuu thinks Mirai’s would be that orange-pink tone the sky turns just before the sun sets.
“Why don’t we give you your presents now,” Tsukasa suggests, “so we’re not in the way when your friends arrive, Mirai.”
Gen shoots Senkuu a look, and he returns it with a lopsided smirk. Mirai and Yuzuriha take a seat on the couch, and everyone else picks a spot on the carpet, forming a semi-circle around them. It’s a bit reminiscent of kindergarten, Senkuu notes.
If it’s a little strange for a newly-turned twelve-year-old to invite her brother’s friends to her birthday party, no one says so. Story goes—Mirai was in the hospital for a few years and was only recently cleared to go home. There are some choices in life you don’t control. Senkuu didn’t ask any questions, and Tsukasa didn’t provide any more details. Really, it’s a fair trade; when Tsukasa found Senkuu’s medical bills underneath the letter from Kanto Gakuin all those weeks ago, he didn’t comment on it. They’re good at that, the two of them. Not asking unnecessary questions.
Twelve-year-old girls aren’t easy to shop for, not when their interests and hobbies are beginning to shift to something more in-line with being a teenager. When they’re starting to pack up their childhood memories and the stuffed animals that helped them through long, hard nights in favor of other things. The gifts land their mark though, because Mirai would be grateful for socks from Goodwill and—in spite of what Gen’s texts might’ve implied—none of them are actually that bad at brainstorming when it comes down to it.
When it’s Senkuu’s turn, he passes Mirai a box wrapped in blue paper. Mirai’s eyes gleam under the fairy lights, and she blinks rapidly. Senkuu frowns, leans forward—is she tearing up?—but then Mirai ducks her head and begins to peel off the wrapping paper.
Tsukasa takes the opportunity to pick up the paper scraps scattered on the floor, balling them up into one hand. He tosses it into the garbage before sitting back down next to Senkuu.
Even after it’s fully unwrapped, it takes a moment for them to realize what it is: a gold and teal box that fits in the palm of her hand. Mirai opens it and her face splits into a grin when she sees the golden figurine in the center, arms stretched out and face tilted upward like she’s looking into the light.
“A music box?” asks Yuzuriha.
It’s not the first time Senkuu’s made a music box, but it is the first time he’s actually put effort into making it look decent enough for a young girl to display in her room. He’s no craftsman, but he felt compelled to try to make it on his own. It took a bit of repurposing of wind up toy components and music boxes, as well as a couple of off-purchases from eBay, but Senkuu thinks he pulled it off all right.
Especially since the other half of the gift didn’t even come from him, technically.
Mirai touches the little figurine. “How did you know I liked the Little Mermaid?”
Senkuu opens his mouth to respond—
Hesitates. “You know, I’m not sure.”
Gen raises an eyebrow at him, nudges his shin with his own socked toe. “Didn’t take you as the type to like fairytales, Senkuu-chan,” he teases.
And yeah, that’s the thing, he really isn’t.
On his other side, Tsukasa encourages, “Wind it up, Mirai.”
She runs her fingers along the smooth surface of the music box until they catch on the little knob near the back. She twists it a few times until she starts to feel a bit of resistances and lets go. The mermaid figurine begins to spin in slow, smooth circles, and the song starts playing.
‘Nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide’—
Mirai’s mouth parts in surprise, and Senkuu feels Tsukasa stiffen at his side. Taiju and Yuzuriha stare at the box with wide eyes.
Gen asks, “Is that—”
“Lillian Weinberg,” Senkuu confirms.
They listen to a few more bars, and Senkuu can tell Mirai wracking her brain, trying to place the lyrics. ‘Between a rock and a hard place’—
She shakes her head, little flowers bobbing along with the movement. “I don’t recognize the song.”
Senkuu leans forward, resting his elbows on his crisscrossed legs. “Because it hasn’t been released yet,” he clarifies. “Lillian’s a colleague of my dad, for lack of a better word, so I messaged her asking if she’d mind recording a voice template to overlay on—anyway, you get the picture.” He smiles, “Happy birthday, kid.”
Mirai wipes at her eyes furiously, and her voice warbles. “Thank you, Senkuu. This is seriously too much. You’re always—” Her eyes dart toward Tsukasa, and she drops whatever she was going to say next, replacing it with, “Thank you.”
“Well,” Gen sighs, eyes trailing toward the unwrapped dresses, stuffed animals, and backpack. “I suppose Senkuu wins this round.”
Taiju and Yuzuriha trade sidelong glances, no doubt recalling the number of homemade smartphones and decked-out laptops that Senkuu’s gifted them throughout the years. Senkuu’s always kind of been a shit consumer; never even once set foot in a Hallmark.
Senkuu hears Tsukasa shift. “It’s not as if he ever does anything by halves,” he states, clapping a large hand against Senkuu’s back. “How did you convince—”
Tsukasa’s hand brushes against the back of Senkuu’s neck—
Senkuu doesn’t remember moving.
He closes his eyes and opens them and suddenly he’s all the way across the room, half crumpled against the wall.
Yuzuriha’s half-risen from her perch on the couch, and Taiju’s hand is clamped firmly over Tsukasa’s shoulder—Tsukasa, who’s staring at Senkuu with eyes so wide, he can see the whites of them. Mirai is frozen, and Gen’s eyes dart between everyone else’s faces, brows furrowed as he tries to fill in the gaps he’s so clearly missing—
Well, fuck, Senkuu's missing a few vital bits of information himself, isn’t he?
Gen shuffles towards him, still on his knees, and it’s a funny sight—Senkuu would laugh, if it didn’t feel like his was heart was beating against his ribcage like a battering ram. He makes a conscious effort to modulate his breathing because if he doesn’t—
Senkuu grips the front of his shirt. He thinks he smells nightshades.
Why does he know what nightshades smell like?
“You’re all right, Senkuu-chan. I promise.”
Senkuu coughs—hard. Hard enough to make his throat and chest hurt, and oh god—don’t tell him he’s—
Tsukasa’s voice is gentle, like he’s stroking a baby’s head. He rises and starts to take a step forward. “I didn’t mean to—” He shakes his head. Restarts, “I hadn’t realized—”
“Get the fuck back,” Senkuu snaps. Pull the trigger, swing a baseball bat, say the first thing that comes to mind—it’s all just procedural memory and the sinking feeling Senkuu gets when his words catch up with him is a familiar one. It’s hard to retrace your steps when you’re already sliding downhill. “No, wait, you’re—that was—” Senkuu blinks, tongue feeling like lead and stumbling through his words. “I meant—I-I don’t why… I don’t know.”
Gen’s eyes linger on Senkuu’s neck, and his lips press into a thin line. Fill in enough gaps, and you don’t even need all of the puzzle pieces to get the picture. Senkuu feels like he’s missing half of the entire board.
Gen glances over his shoulder toward Mirai. Senkuu can’t see his expression, but he can hear the apology in his tone, “I think it’s best if Senkuu and I head out a little bit early, Mirai-chan. Your friends should be arriving any minute though.”
Mirai fiddles with the hem of her dress. “It’s fine, don’t even worry about it. Take care of”—she cuts herself off—“feel better soon, Senkuu. Thanks again. For the music box.”
Gen pulls Senkuu up so he’s fully on his feet and guides him toward the door by the elbow.
Pathetic, Senkuu thinks, feeling bile rise up into his throat, you’re so damn pathetic sometimes. Pathetic and illogical.
Just before the door closes behind them, he hears Tsukasa's voice, filled to the brim with something that sounds a lot like remorse.
“I’m sorry, Senkuu.”
[INBOX] Quora Digest
[INBOX] How did the party go? Did she like the… see more
[COMPOSE EMAIL] It was fine. Party went off without a hitch—tell Lillian thanks for me. Everyone seemed to like the song.
The highest concentration of Nital Etch that Senkuu can get his hands on is 15% nitric acid. It makes sense—anything more than that is redundant for its intended purpose. But then, that means that Senkuu’s going to have to make his own Nital Etch with a higher concentration because fifteen percent isn’t doing shit.
Maybe I’m going about this wrong—Senkuu’s traitorous mind supplies—maybe the reaction can’t be reversed, and he’s just been walking around with his head up his own ass this entire time. Maybe he’s making a bigger deal out of this than he should. Maybe he should’ve just stuck to researching Ebola.
It sounds like less and less of a ‘traitorous’ thought the more Senkuu considers it, examining it from different angles. Lend an ear to intrusive thoughts long enough, and you’ll get over the initial urge to recoil. Pick at it a little more, and when it unravels, you can see the logic behind it. So—Senkuu resolutely does not think about it.
He’s getting to be good at that, it’s a skill born from practice and experience.
Senkuu fiddles with the creases in his lab coat and ponders how best to go about acquiring alcohol when everyone he knows is underage, including Gen. It’d be so much easier if his dad was around.
Nagisa taps a chipped fingernail against the table to get his attention. “So where’s the rest of the Senkuu squad?”
He shoots her a half-disgusted look and ignores the way his stomach twists. It’s Friday afternoon—three days since Mirai’s birthday—and for once, the only ones in the lab are the ones who are actually authorized to be there. He’s taken to sending Yuzuriha and Taiju off on wild goose chases under the guise of running errands because they can’t stop hovering. Senkuu’s only glimpsed Tsukasa once as he was walking down the hall, and without even consciously deciding to do so, found himself ducking underneath the staircase and staying there until the other passed by.
Senkuu would like to think Tsukasa hadn’t seen him turn tail and run like a scared little kid, but that’s a bit too optimistic for him, given his shit track record of being able to present himself as a normal, functioning human being.
(A voice in his head that sounds a lot like Byakuya informs him that he’s being disproportionately mean to himself again; if it were Taiju or Yuzuriha, he wouldn’t think less of them for panicking—no matter how illogical the response appeared.)
Senkuu picks at the crevice surrounding his laptop’s trackpad, the spot where crumbs have a tendency of getting lodged. He asks, “The fuck is a ‘Senkuu squad’?”
Nagisa wrinkles her nose at him. “Don’t act stupid—it’s a cute look on Taiju, but not you.”
A slow grin splits across Senkuu’s features—the shit-eating one that Nagisa says makes him look like a gremlin. “Oh? You think Taiju’s cute, Nagisa? Maybe you want to join this ‘Senkuu squad’ to spend more time with him?”
She purses her lips and comments, “You’re prickly today. Did something happen?”
Senkuu thinks of the sixteen unread text messages on his phone. He thinks of the fact that he almost panicked so badly he had an attack in front of his friends. He wonders if it’s really any of Nagisa’s business. Nagisa accidentally jostles his backpack with her foot when she crosses her legs. It takes a lot of facial control to not grimace at the telltale rattling it makes.
Bury all your insecurities and tell your parents and best friend that you’re feeling fine before pouring out your soul to the stranger sitting next to you on the bus. Trade numbers with the kid from camp you’ve never really spoken to but end up telling them your deepest, darkest secrets. Sometimes the best listeners in life are the ones who don’t give a single shit about you.
Senkuu looks back at his computer screen and begins to type. “I might have indirectly accused Tsukasa of trying to hurt me.” He adds, “He wasn’t though. I was just…” Just what? Senkuu rolls the end of his bangs between his thumb and forefinger. “…I don’t know.”
Nagisa doesn’t move for a bit, and the hair on Senkuu’s neck raises from how she scrutinizes him. But then, the line of her shoulders soften in his periphery, and she spins on her heel.
“All right,” she starts, bright and airy and unbothered, “I’m pulling rank as club president.” She raises an eyebrow in his direction, silencing any comments about how the only reason she was ever president in the first place was because Senkuu wanted to avoid the added paperwork that came with the position. “I’ll lock the doors for now. If anyone asks, I’ll tell them that I’m working on something confidential—science club members only for today.”
He’s not sure how to formulate a response to that, so he says nothing at all. Senkuu hasn’t looked in a mirror recently, but if Nagisa is being kind to him, he figures he must look like awful.
His phone vibrates in his pocket. For a split second, he finds himself wavering.
Senkuu knows a thing or two about explaining difficult concepts to people. Knows the perfect recipe for watering down information so others can digest it. There’s no way to justify or explain to his friends that when Tsukasa touched his neck, Senkuu thought he was going to die.
Senkuu keeps typing.
<<<Received:[16:07] I have no idea if you’re reading any of these Senkuu-chan.
<<<Received:[16:08] But I assure you that no one’s upset with you over what happened at Mirai’s birthday party.
<<<Received:[16:10] I don’t know why you would think that in the first place.
<<<Received:[16:10] ^^That’s a lie actually, I know why you’d think that—even though I don’t agree with it.
<<<Received:[16:12] All right. I’m going to take your radio silence as a cue that you don’t feel like talking about it, and that’s fine!! I’ll stop.
<<<Received:[16:20] Are you working on the petrification case rn?
<<<Received:[16:21] I don’t have a show this weekend, lets meet at your place and play some videogames~~
<<<Received:[16:23] Does that work for you, Senkuu-chan?
<<<Received:[18:46] Well, see you Saturday evening hopefully.
Taiju is the one who steps forward to retrieve the birds. He plucks them out of their cage and passes them off to Senkuu for examination.
‘They don’t look any different,’ Yuzuriha says, hesitant.
Senkuu grins, smug, satisfied victory making him giddy enough to laugh. ‘They’re not. I guarantee they’re ten billion percent stronger than the others.’
‘You think it’s enough?’
‘Has to be,’ Senkuu says, inspecting the petrified swallows. ‘Anything more than this, and I don’t think any amount of nitric acid is going to reverse it.’
Come Saturday, Senkuu still hasn’t gotten around to reading through his texts. He’s on his way out to try his hand at shoulder-tapping people for liquor when Gen arrives. Asagiri Gen waits on his doormat wearing a smile and a black and white striped shirt, laptop bag looped over one shoulder and takeout hanging from the crook of his elbow. Senkuu sees the white carryout bags and notices the smell of takeout before he realizes that he’s standing practically nose-to-nose with the mentalist.
This close, Senkuu can really see Gen’s age. Not the guy who entered the entertainment industry at as a teen, not the product of professional stylists and makeup artists and excellent lighting—just someone whose last bits of baby fat are still visible without the help of an Anastasia contour stick. The kind of person who’s on their own financially but is still just figuring out how to be an adult.
Senkuu’s still got a year or so to go, but he figures that part of being an adult is recognizing when it’s your loss. He steps back and props the door open a little wider. Gen glides into his apartment like a stray alley cat and sets the food down on Senkuu’s kitchen table.
The apartment is quiet save for the low hum of the heating unit. Still like a scene from the old picture books his dad used to read to him. Senkuu’s seen enough TV shows to know that this is supposed to be the part where their previous encounter catches up to them, when the atmosphere is meant to grow tense and awkward. It’s not. If only because Gen is the physical embodiment of a social buffer, and he smooths over Senkuu’s social hiccups and false starts like they’re nothing.
It’s quiet in the way the long drive home is.
He watches Gen putter around his kitchen for a few seconds before informing him, “The Cola’s in the fridge—right side. It’s diet though, because that’s all my old man can drink, and I wasn’t thinking when I bought them.”
Gen breezes past Senkuu on his way to the fridge, and he catches of a whiff of his shampoo. He clicks his tongue. “As if I’m the one here who’s picky about food. Speaking of—have you eaten already? I haven’t so I’m going to now.” Gen cracks open a can of Cola and holds it like it’s a glass of champagne. “If you’re not hungry, that’s fine, but you should still sit with me.” He gives Senkuu a smile that’s equal parts impish and beatific, “Be a good host, Senkuu-chan.”
Senkuu hasn’t eaten so he takes the seat opposite from Gen and starts laying out the contents of the takeout bag. “Can it really be called hosting if the other person wasn’t invited to begin with?”
“How mean! I even messaged you to let you know I’d be coming.”
Enter Asagiri Gen: a compulsive liar who’s honest about his vices, soaks up attention like a sponge, but shies away from praise. The kind of face that makes people want to dress him in diamonds and light his cigarettes for him instead of listen to his jokes. Drinks Cola like its fine wine because he wouldn’t touch the real stuff even if he was old enough to, and somehow speaks up to eighty words a minute without sounding as if he’s rambling.
They blow through the takeout, and Gen tells him he wants to play videogames. The logical part of his brain can’t help but note that Gen made sure to ask only after Senkuu finished his meal. He starts to calculate the probability of whether he’s being played, before deciding that he doesn’t have the stamina or mental fortitude to outlast Gen’s wheedling even on a good day.
“Fine,” Senkuu gives in, “but if you pick Teemo again, I’m leaving you to rot.”
They plug in their laptops and queue up in the PVP.
His phone’s been silent since Gen arrived.
Either he was the only one messaging Senkuu, or the rest of his friends were aware that Gen was planning on coming over.
Senkuu thinks about that.
Playing with Gen is enjoyable until he gets the bright idea of camping the other team’s fountain at twenty-four minutes. The dumbass. But maybe that’s part of the beauty of videogames—making bad choices with zero real-life consequences.
They both grey-screen, and they’re far enough into the match that they’ve got some time before they respawn. Gen fills in the silence because that’s what comes naturally to him. “Senkuu-chan, what would you do if the world ended tomorrow?”
“Ehhh,” Senkuu’s eyes slide toward him. He wets his lips, gets an aftertaste of the takeout. His hand is sweaty from gripping the computer mouse for so long, and he wipes his palm on his jeans. “That’s a pretty shitty thing to ask someone.”
Gen has a preference for sitting on his knees instead crisscrossing his legs. Senkuu wonders how his legs don’t fall asleep. “Because you don’t know?”
“Because there’s ten billion and one things I haven’t done yet. I’ve a got a train ticket to Yokohama, and the petrified swallows project, and a bunch of leftovers I need to finish before Monday.” Senkuu sits back and adjusts his sock so at least his big toe isn’t poking through the hole. If the world ended tomorrow, it’d be game over—case closed, final exam turned in before you’ve filled in all the answers. Those trivial things Senkuu’s been keeping on his back burner would be nothing but loose ends. He shrugs. “I guess I’d have to figure out a way to stop the world from ending. There’s really no other option. What would you do?”
Gen has a way of smiling that always makes you wonder whether he needs to be comforted. “No idea,” he muses. “If the world ended tomorrow, I’d have 250,000 yen in my back account that I never got around to spending, and my manager would never get to open his birthday present, and…” Gen trails off, face softening. He matches Senkuu’s pose and leans back until their forearms are touching.
The game is still going. They’ve both respawned, but neither have left the base. If Senkuu dared to check their team chat, he’s certain it’d be filled with asterisks and requests for the opposing team to report their AFK asses. They’ll probably get banned for a weekend or so.
Joke’s on them—Senkuu’s never liked this toxic hellhole of a PVP platform to begin with.
“And what?” Senkuu prompts.
“Another question for you, Senkuu-chan,” he says, still smiling but it’s happier now. Mirthful. “What would you do if I kissed you? Right now?”
Ah, Senkuu thinks then, I guess Tsukasa and Gen aren’t dating.
He considers his response, as well as this new piece of information.
He goes for the honest answer: “Die. Because you have a bit of peanut sauce on your lips from dinner, and I’m allergic to that shit. It’d cause quite the scandal if you murdered some poor, innocent high school student.”
Gen licks his lips. “Noted.”
“Otherwise,” Senkuu says, before Gen can get the chance to deftly switch topics like how he switches through TV channels, “I mean, I wouldn’t be mad about it.” Senkuu shifts, suddenly aware that his hair’s a wreck and he’s got holes in his socks. “Make sense?”
They lose the match. They don’t bother queueing up for another, but they also don’t logout. Senkuu sets his laptop off to the side, leans back until his head hits the carpet floor, and studies the other. Gen’s fringe has grown to the point where it gets in his eyes if he doesn’t keep brushing it off to the side.
“You mentioned you’re visiting Yokohama?” Gen asks, swirling the Cola around in its can. Senkuu can hear it fizzle.
The floor is carpeted but not necessarily comfortable. Senkuu thinks about migrating over to the couch, but Gen is warm beside him. He stays on the floor. “Yeah,” Senkuu starts, “just touring Kanto Gakuin and talking to a some of the faculty members. Why?”
“‘Just touring,’” Gen parrots, shaking his head. “You’re not even a third-year yet and universities have their eye on you. In America, you could’ve graduated early and started college already.”
“That was a possibility,” Senkuu admits. He thinks of the letters and emails that began pouring in after he was hand-selected to present at IAU for building a rocket prototype that relied water for fuel. “I talked about it with my old man, but we decided against it. The prospects were good, but not good enough to warrant packing everything up and moving overseas.”
“I’m glad,” Gen says, voice earnest in contrast to the serious look on his face. No makeup, no lights, no pretty smile for the camera. “I’m glad you stayed, Senkuu-chan.”
Senkuu gets the conversation back on track, “You were asking if I was going to Yokohama.”
“Right. Yuzuriha and Taiju mentioned that you need some alcohol for your research—”
Senkuu snorts. “Sure do.”
“Yes, I know, that came out wrong—anyways, I’ve got a friend in who goes to college there who wouldn’t mind helping a minor purchase a few bottles of wine or something. A mutual friend of mine and Tusakasa-chan’s actually.” Gen raps his knuckles on the floor like he’s gearing himself up. The carpet muffles the sound. “And…speaking of Tsukasa-chan—”
Senkuu pulls himself upright, vision getting spotty from the sudden change in blood flow. “Hang on—my turn, you’ve been asking all the questions so far,” Senkuu points out. When Gen doesn’t protest, he says, “You’re a mentalist, right? You’re all about the human psyche and whatever. What does it mean if you get frightened for no reason? Like not just startled or unsettled, I mean honest to God terrified.”
Gen presses his lips into a thin, tense line. Everyone’s got a monster under their bed, but fear is relative and difficult to qualify. Gen props his head up with his palm and answers, “I'm sorry, I don’t know, Senkuu-chan. Even when things got grim, I’ve always felt like I’d come out in one piece.”
Senkuu doesn’t get a chance to respond. His phone alarm goes off, loud in comparison the stillness of the rest of the apartment. Gen nearly jumps out of his skin, and Senkuu's quick to silence it.
Even after all these years, he still sets an alarm—just in case of situations like these. Senkuu gets to his feet, shoulder muscles aching from the way he’d been holding himself. “Hang on,” he tells Gen, “I’m going to go grab something from my room.”
Senkuu slips his phone into the pocket of his hoodie. Heads down the hall toward his bedroom after making a quick stop in the kitchen to grab a glass of water. He fills the cup too high, and liquid sloshes over the edge, wetting the knuckles of his fingers. Senkuu silently shuts his door behind him and finds his school bag lying on the foot of his bed. He eyes the fraying seams and makes a mental note to buy a new one. Sets his glass on his desk before beginning to rummage through his bag. The plastic bottles rattle against each other, and Senkuu sets them on his desk one by one.
He used to keep a pillbox instead, but he lost it at some point, and it was never useful enough to warrant purchasing a new one. Senkuu places the six pills in his hand and swallows them down in one go, ignoring the weird aftertaste that always comes with the orange tablet.
Human eyes are trained to respond to sudden movement, and looking in the reflection of his window, Senkuu can’t help but zero in on his bedroom door swinging open.
“I went ahead and cleaned the dishes, Senkuu-chan. Where do you— Oh.”
Gen stills, looking between Senkuu and the numerous orange bottles in front of him. Senkuu calmly zips open his backpack and deposits the bottles back inside his bag in a single sweep. Glances at Gen over his shoulder and ponders the likelihood of getting out of there without any questions.
“Are you sick, Senkuu-chan?”
He almost feels like laughing. With the way the question’s worded, it almost sounds as if Senkuu taking all of these meds for shits and giggles is an option that’s on the table. Senkuu doesn’t waste brain power even thinking about denying it. “Yeah,” Senkuu shrugs, “but that’s nothing new.”
Gen’s looks at Senkuu. Looks at the bottles. He steps forward until he’s standing beside Senkuu, shoulder to shoulder.
“You’re not going to ask what’s wrong with me?”
Gen shakes his head and plays with the callouses on Senkuu’s writing hand. “Everyone’s entitled to their secrets.”
He wonders why it feels like Gen is saying that for his own benefit.
>>>To:[01:24] i’m sorry
<<<Received:[01:28] Don’t be. I’m not upset. Neither is Mirai.
<<<Received:[01:29] If anything, I think I should be the one apologizing.
>>>To:[1:29] youre kidding
>>>To:[01:31] what would you even be sorry for ?
>>>To:[01:44] you’ve been typing on and off for the past 10 minutes
<<<Received:[01:44] Are you afraid of me, Senkuu?
>>>To:[01:48] what moron is afraid of their friend?
<<<Received:[01:55] I see.
>>>To:[02:00] you’ve got a match tomorrow, don’t you?
>>>To:[02:00] go to bed. you’re worse than taiju
<<<Received:[02:01] You too, Senkuu. Goodnight.
“Contrary to popular belief—and according to Google,” Senkuu starts, “cockroaches aren’t actually immortal.”
His socked feet dangle inches above the floor and the cool, stale air makes goose bumps raise on his arms and back. The socks aren’t new, and Senkuu can’t even begin to guess how many other pairs of feet have worn them—but they’re warm.
The man tilts his head in a way that lets Senkuu know that he’s genuinely interested in what he has to say. “Really? They seem pretty indestructible to me.”
“They’re not easy to kill,” Senkuu admits, picking at the red paper shell on his crayon. Yuzuriha can’t stand it when he does that, but she’s also not around to complain. “But nearly indestructible is different from living forever.”
He hums in agreement, eyes flicking between Senkuu and his monitor. “You aren’t wrong,” he muses, tugging out a slip of paper and jotting down a string of numbers and words in the world’s most fluid chicken scratch.
Senkuu is seven years old, but he’s noticed a pattern. Finish high school, and you can land a decent job if you know where to look. Go to school for more than half of your life and you can publish research papers about why the sky is blue. Stick with it a bit longer, and you might know enough to save someone’s life, but you won’t be able to write worth shit.
The man continues, when he’s no longer focused on jotting down Senkuu’s vitals. “There’re some species of jellyfish that can live forever though. One of my kids made a presentation about it—Turriptosis dohrnii, I think?”
Senkuu crumples up the paper shell of the crayon and picks up the Ninja Turtle’s coloring sheet that one of his previous nurses slipped him. He hasn’t colored much of it in beyond giving Donatello glasses and a mustache. This is partially due to the fact that Senkuu isn’t much for coloring pages but mostly because he also only has one crayon anyways.
“How do you spell that?” he asks the nurse.
The man can only estimate the spelling, but Senkuu figures that Google will understand what he means. Google always does. He carefully scrawls out ‘Turitopsis dornie(?)’ in red crayon just below the turtles’ feet.
“So I can tell my dad about it later,” he explains to the nurse. Senkuu folds up the piece of paper in slides it into the pocket of his gown. “Do you know if I’m going home today?”
There are soft creases between the nurse’s eyebrows when he tries to smile. “I haven’t heard anything yet,” he says, voice soft as the blanket Taiju (well, Taiju’s mom technically) left with him. “I’ll double-check with the doctor and social work, all right, Senkuu-kun?”
The nurse is kind, but it’s really more of a rhetorical question. Senkuu nods with a shrug and picks at the tip of the crayon, red wax gathering underneath his thumbnail.
Being a patient, Senkuu is quickly realizing, is a bit like being just a beloved patchwork of anatomy. At some point or other, they’ve put tubes down his throat, in his bladder, his nose, and in his veins all for the sake of keeping him alive. The thing about all those tubes though—Senkuu might be breathing, but he doesn’t feel particularly alive. He doesn’t know for sure if he really feels like much of a person either. He feels a bit more like a toy doll who lost a fight with the family dog, and the only way to fix him now is by cramming the stuffing back in and taping the tears closed.
He wants to go home.
God, he wants to go home.
“You’re really traveling all the way over to Yokohama to buy alcohol, Senkuu?”
“Idiot,” Senkuu drawls, keeping his voice low for the sake of the other train passengers. He pins his phone to his ear with his shoulder so he can use both hands to retie his shoelaces. “I’m also here for Kanto Gakuin. Why the hell would I waste my time like this if I could just as easily ask Gen’s manager to get alcohol for me?” He double-knots his shoelaces and eyes the passing scenery. “The fact that Gen and Tsukasa know someone from the university who’d be able to help out is just a bonus.”
“Tsukasa-kun mentioned that you messaged back and forth about what happened during Mirai’s birthday party,” he hears Yuzuriha say. Her voice quieter than Taiju’s, Senkuu can’t tell if it’s because she’s further away from the speaker phone or if it’s just the natural discrepancy in volume between the two of them. “I’m not going to pry and ask if everything’s okay between you two, but—are you sure you’re feeling all right, Senkuu-kun?” There’s a short pause, and Senkuu can almost envision his friends sharing a look. “It almost looked like the beginning of an attack.”
Senkuu leans his head back against his headrest. Certain memories are more prevalent than others. Wake up in the middle of the night remembering that time you wet the bed during a sleepover, let your mind wander and it’ll bring up that time you stuttered your way through a class presentation. When Senkuu was ten, he went into full-blown cardiac arrest while playing cops and robbers with Yuzuriha, Taiju, and a couple other kids from around the neighborhood. Senkuu wasn’t aware enough to remember much, but his friends got front row seats. The shitty memories are the ones that get highlighted.
“I’m seeing Sawamura-sensei regularly.” He kicks his legs over his duffle bag. It’s mostly empty save for a couple jeans so it winds up making for a pathetic footrest. “That’s pretty much all I can do right now anyways.”
There’s a bit of shuffling on the other end before Yuzuriha speaks up again. “I guess so. Well—Oh, hi, Tsukasa-kun! It’s Senkuu-kun. He’s on his way to meet your friend in Yokohama.”
“I use the term ‘friend’ loosely,” he hears Tsukasa intone. His voice gets clearer the closer he gets to the phone. “Senkuu, be sure to hide the wine in your carry-on. Use the jeans to hide them too.”
Things are still a little awkward on Senkuu’s end, but it’s getting better. It’s easy to hide it over the phone at any rate. Senkuu nudges the bag, which is more empty air than actual clothes. It’s a little hard to remain inconspicuous when you’re a minor transporting bottles of alcohol from Yokohama to Tokyo—so. Tsukasa’s old duffle bag to the rescue.
It smells of sweat and Icy Hot spray.
Senkuu snickers, “Tsukasa, should I be worried about the fact that you know so much about smuggling liquor?”
“You could get in serious trouble if you’re caught!” Taiju exclaims, and Senkuu nearly has to take the phone away from his ear due to the sudden jump in volume. Between all of them, Taiju wound up being the most resistant to the idea of Senkuu illegally acquiring alcohol.
Senkuu rolls his eyes. “Obviously—oh, hang on.” There’s a brief flicker of static before the arrival announcement starts playing over the speakers, and Senkuu sits up, tugging his jacket back on as best as he can with only one available hand. He says, “All right, I’m going to hang up—I’m pulling in now, and the guy I’m meeting—what was his name?” He taps his finger on the neighboring empty seat. “Ryosuke? Rui?”
Yuzuriha sighs heavily through the phone. “Please figure out his name before you actually meet him.”
“His name’s Ryusui,” Tsukasa supplies, mirroring Yuzuriha’s tone. “Please try to remember.”
Senkuu waves them off even though no one can see him. “I make no promises—anyway, I’m finding him after the tour and faculty meet and greet. Don’t know how lugging alcohol around campus would make for a first impression and don’t want to find out. I’ll let you know how it goes, I need to get a move on.”
“Got it,” Taiju says. “See you soon, Senkuu!”
“Yeah,” Senkuu says, scooping Tsukasa’s hand-me-down duffle off the floor as the rest of the passengers begin to move, “see you.”
That’s a real person who exists.
Senkuu waits kitty corner to the wine and spirits that’s located along the outer border of Kanto Gakuin and watches as his new accomplice/maybe mutual friend ducks into the store. The stoplights cycle between green, yellow, and red and reflect off the icy patches along the sidewalk. Senkuu breathes into his closed palms to warm his hands and wishes he’d remembered to pack a scarf. Yokohama winter has a bite.
He opens up the #swallowacquired tag on his phone and scrolls through it, scanning the dates and locations of the petrified swallow sightings. International reports of petrification are completely non-existent now—haven’t happened since June, save for maybe three one-off sightings in neighboring countries like Korea and the Philippines. The only petrification sightings reported within the last several months are in Japan with a slight concentration to the larger cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka. It makes Senkuu’s data look a little ugly, but he tells himself it’s not unexpected given the fact that both Gen and Tsukasa’s reach are limited to their home country.
Senkuu snorts at himself. Here he is at one of the top private universities in Yokohama, and he’s thinking about petrified birds.
A tall, blond figure kicks open the door of the wine and spirits, and Senkuu puts his phone away. Ryusui lugs a case of liquor across the street to where Senkuu’s waiting and—fit as he seems to be—is already lightly wheezing by the time he reaches him. After he sets the crate down on the salt-speckled concrete, he spends the next minute or so just shaking out his arms in attempt to get his blood circulation back on track.
More than a dozen Pinot Noir bottles rattle against each other, and Senkuu thinks—retroactively—that maybe he should’ve specified his budget before letting this dude loose in a wine and spirits. “Shit,” Senkuu grimaces. “I don’t think I brought enough money with me to pay you off—do you have PayPal?”
Ryusui laughs and slaps him hard on the back. “Don’t worry about that for now—let’s just get these packed away before anyone realizes I just bought alcohol for a minor.”
“About that”—Senkuu eyes the twenty bottles of wine and Tsukasa’s comparatively tiny-ass duffle bag—“unless you happen to be some sort of god at Tetris, I don’t think I’ll be able to take everything. Maybe like…seventeen or eighteen bottles tops.”
“I’ve got this,” Ryusui reassures him, snapping his fingers. For a second, Senkuu thinks: Oh, maybe he is a Tetris god. But then Ryusui just cracks open two bottles of wine and chugs them straight. Senkuu watches his Adam’s apple bob. “Okay,” Ryusui continues, setting the now-empty bottles back down, “now let’s see if we can jam the rest in that duffle of yours.”
They nearly do. They manage to manhandle fifteen of the bottles into the bag so now Senkuu just has to carry three of them in his hands like a minor with a major drinking problem. You know. Casual. This would all be much less conspicuous if Senkuu wasn’t required to wear his school uniform to the Kanto Gakuin meet and greet.
Senkuu almost dislocates his arm while attempting to shoulder the duffle bag, which is already a less than auspicious beginning. He’s going to have to figure out a way to hide the remaining three bottles by the time he gets on his train.
“Thanks,” Senkuu grits out, straining against the weight. He readjusts his hold around the neck of the bottles so they don’t slip through his fingers. “I know it’s probably hard to tell from the tone of my voice, but I’m actually kind of grateful.”
“You’re welcome,” Ryusui says, and there’s a softer quality in his voice that Senkuu can’t place. “It’s the least I could do.” He snaps his fingers. “No giving up until you’ve accomplished what you’ve set out to do, yeah?”
He doesn’t say any more than that so Senkuu just nods his head slowly and says his goodbyes. Starts making his way to the train station. By the time he turns the corner, Ryusui is still in the same spot with his hands in pockets and a wry smile on his face. Senkuu faces forward again.
Either the sucker lost a bet with Gen or owed Tsukasa a favor.
The sky’s a periwinkle blue, and it’ll probably be completely dark by the time Senkuu makes it back to Tokyo. The strap of the duffle bag digs painfully digs into his shoulder, weighed down by a dozen and a half wine bottles. It makes walking upright a challenge. His shoes grind into the salt-speckled ground as he passes by a long line of convenience stores, ramen shops, cafes. There’s a post office at the end of the street where Senkuu needs to turn off, and he stops to unbutton his coat, already beginning to sweat through his undershirt. Thinks, God, what I would give to have Taiju or—
His steps falter. He blinks at the thin air and tries to hold onto the tail-end of that thought even as it slips through his fingers. Like trying to catch water with a net or like waking up from a dream and already feeling the details of it fade from your memory.
Senkuu stops in the middle of a sidewalk and tries to remember.
(Who was he thinking of just then?)
Three stores down, the door to the post office opens with a jingle and a bang. The man exiting is taller than Senkuu, with hair nearly as gravity-defying as his own, and he brandishes a scowl and a yellow envelope. He steps further out into the sidewalk, into the streetlights, and Senkuu nearly jumps out of his skin.
“Shit,” Senkuu hisses to himself, hands wrapped around three bottles of wine with fifteen more in his duffle bag and in his high school uniform for the world to see.
The man’s a police officer.
Senkuu backtracks, turning quickly on his heel and ducking into the narrow alleyway between the 7-eleven and Mos Burger before the officer spots him. He squats, heart racing, and warily eyes the cop through the reflection of Yoshinoya’s windows from across the street. Bites back a curse when the officer starts walking toward Senkuu’s location, and he’s about two seconds away from throwing the bottles into the nearby dumpster to try and hide the evidence—when the cop suddenly stops.
The man glances down at his hands, mutters indiscernibly to himself, and tosses something into the evergreen shrub just outside of Mos Burger.
Senkuu blinks, brows furrowing as the cop turns to he’s facing the other side of the street. Reaches into his opened package again before winding up his arm and launching the contents of the envelope across the street. There’s a clang as whatever it is bounces off the rim of a trash can and then skitters underneath a nearby bench. The cop cracks his neck, and Senkuu’s close enough to hear him mumble, “Eh, good enough. The fucking bat isn’t doing any footwork here, so he can’t complain.”
The cop crumples the yellow packaging up into a ball and starts walking down the street, opposite of where Senkuu’s half-crouched and trying to piece together what he’s just witnessed. The officer dumps the envelope into the nearest trashcan and turns a corner.
Senkuu counts to one hundred before moving.
He clambers to his feet, graceless from the weight of his cargo and pops his head outside the alleyway to double-check that the officer is gone. His shoulders relax, releasing pent-up tension that he hadn’t realized he was carrying. The streets are quiet given that it’s a Thursday night, but Senkuu takes a few minutes anyways to try and forcibly cram the three other bottles into the bag so he won’t have to deal with any repeat mishaps.
He steps back onto the street, simultaneously mulling over the cop’s odd behavior and trying to figure out if he’s going to miss his train. Casts a brief, curious glance toward the evergreen shrub that the cop dropped something into and—
Pick it up.
The weight and coolness of it in Senkuu’s hand makes the hairs on the back of his neck raise.
A petrified swallow.
His heart starts to race, and he reminds himself that panic is illogical.
Start with the facts; what happened and what did you see? He replays the officer’s actions in his head, knuckles white from how tightly he holds the bird.
He jerks his head up, eyes narrowing in on the trash bin outside the post office. Senkuu crosses the distance in twenty steps and sticks his hand into the garbage can. Grips the corner of the yellow envelope and pulls it back out, shaking it for good measure. Senkuu flips it over, eyes scanning for the return address. Holds it up to eye-level after ripping it off, streetlights illuminating the paper and highlighting the printed ink.
The earth spins 1,000 miles per hour, and Senkuu feels it come to a stop while standing on the sidewalk outside a post office.
8-1-4 Ginza, Chuoku
Static. Nothing but white noise in his ears as his mind races, analyzes each of the possibilities one by one until—
Senkuu thinks of all the evidence that had been hiding in plain sight, right in front him and thinks, I’m a such an idiot.
Senkuu runs and doesn’t stop running until he’s barreling past the doors of his train. Crumples to his knees from the effort, lungs burning and shoulder aching from the weight of the duffle bag. Someone asks him if he’s all right, but Senkuu doesn’t answer, just pulls himself to his feet and staggers over to the nearest empty seat.
He closes his eyes and reviews what he knows: he asked Gen for help back in September, after which petrified swallows began reappearing on his radar. But internationally, everything’s been quiet. The cop was planting them in areas where people would be sure to find them, so—this isn’t something that’s occurring naturally, and if that’s the case—
Senkuu searches for the answers like a drowning man looks for a raft or a thief looks for an exit. Once, back in junior high, a former senpai of his showed him a magic trick. She fanned out her standard 52-deck and grinned at him, pink and orange braces catching Senkuu’s attention more than the red Bicycle cards shoved in his face. Pick a card—any card, she’d told him, but see, Senkuu couldn’t help but pick the card she intended for him to pick. Senkuu was never one for philosophical bullshit, but if there was ever a physical incarnation of fate, then he figures it’d be a fourteen-year-old girl with braces who spent more time practicing magic tricks than studying for her algebra test.
Fact: Senkuu always found the Three of Spades.
First hypothesis: Asagiri Gen is tampering with the petrification case.
Second hypothesis: Asagiri Gen is the one behind the petrification case.
Senkuu can work with a hypothesis.
His fingers are cool against his forehead. Senkuu’s almost tempted to fall asleep.
‘Secrets and promises,’ the other muses. His voice sounds wet. ‘Where are you going with this, Senkuu-chan?’
Senkuu’s lips are cracked. ‘I’m leaving everything to you.’
There are lines underneath Gen’s eyes that hadn’t been there when he first met him. ‘We found your recording you know. You said you’d save everyone—does that include yourself?’
Senkuu laughs. Tries to. ‘That’s your first question after hearing the secret to building that?’
‘I won’t forgive you if you don’t save yourself too.’ Silence. Senkuu can hear the cicadas outside. Mirai’s sunflowers are wilting in their vase at Senkuu’s bedside. ‘How much longer can you hold on, Senkuu-chan?’
Breathe in. Breathe out. In. ‘Not much longer now.’ Out. In. ‘Will you look for me?’
‘Even if I’m not the same?’ he presses. Because that’s a possibility isn’t it? That the person that Senkuu is now is going to— He swallows. 'Even if—’
‘Silly,’ Gen hushes. ‘You’re Senkuu-chan, first and always.’
There are three phases to every experiment, and the third goes like this.
There’s something viscerally satisfying about Gen’s surprised face when he opens the door. Like biting off the spiral of a soft-serve ice cream cone or poking holes into bubble wrap—human nature is just the tiniest bit sick in that sense. All about taking pretty things and mangling them.
Gen looks between the bags under Senkuu’s eyes, the four bottles of Pinot Noir, and the boxes of petrified swallows—the latter two which are nestled in a fire engine red wagon that Senkuu borrowed from Nobu. His arms are still sore from carrying a crate’s worth of wine around Yokohama, and Senkuu has other things to worry about than whether he looks like an idiot dragging a kid’s wagon behind him. Do a onceover in the mirror before you leave the house, go over your flashcards for your speech—rehearsal and self-consciousness get pushed off to the side when your veins are simmering with an anger you’re not sure how to unleash.
(“In order for a lie to be believable, it needs to have roots in a real emotion.” [Asagiri, 2017, pg. 17].)
Senkuu nods in greeting, “Hey, pardon the intrusion and shit.” He drops the wagon handle, and it hits the tile floor outside Gen’s apartment with a sharp clang.
Gen grimaces at the sound and gestures towards it. “Ah,” he starts, normally airy voice just the slightest bit wary. “What’s all of this?”
“Stuff for the petrification project.” Senkuu picks up a bottle of wine. There’s a millisecond in which he thinks long and hard about chucking the thing at Gen’s head. They say that anger is illogical, but Senkuu’s head feels remarkably clear.
“Well, yes, I can see that,” Gen tells him, still unmoved from his position in the doorway. “I mean, why are you bringing it here?” He tilts his head to the side, blinks. Wonders, “How did you know where I live?”
He hadn’t. In the six months they’ve known each other, Senkuu’s never set foot in Gen’s apartment. Likely would never even know where it was if wasn’t for the return address he’d snagged off of the cop—Officer Yo was what it said on the shipping label.
Senkuu ignores his second question in favor of addressing the one that’s more easily answered. The fib rolls easily off his tongue, and Senkuu hasn’t always been such a skilled liar—maybe he’s caught it from Gen. Osmosis. “I’m working with alcohol now, Gen. I’m not taking this stuff back to my house.” He grabs the other three bottles, holding them between his fingers. “Even if you’re not old enough to drink, you’re an adult, so it’s best if everything just stays with you.”
“I…that’s fair I suppose,” Gen admits, rubbing the back of his neck. He wavers in the doorway, shifting his weight from one bare foot to the other. “Still, you couldn’t have let me know ahead of time?”
Senkuu tries to smirk, but it winds up feeling more like he’s baring his teeth. “Consider it payback for that Saturday.”
Gen laughs hesitantly. “I don’t—”
For once, Senkuu thinks he sympathizes with Nagisa’s inability to wait for things. The first time he met Gen, he thought he was pretty in the way a stained-glass window is. It’s still true, but Senkuu’s remembered the caveat with stained glass—it looks nice, but it’s fucking useless if you’re actually trying to see what the world looks like outside. Low-grade transparency.
“Hey, can you take this?” Senkuu shoves the four bottles of Pinot Noir into Gen’s hands. “My arms are getting tired.” Senkuu shoulders his way past him, and Gen does his best to grasp the wine bottles before they fall and break against his hardwood floor.
He lives in a studio style apartment. More furnished than Tsukasa’s place but less flamboyant than Senkuu had been expecting. There’s a daybed pushed up against the window that looks over the city and a Western-style kitchen table on the other side of the room. Good. It makes Senkuu’s job a little easier. He shamelessly strolls into his apartment, eyes naturally getting drawn toward the three purple-colored doors lining each wall. He’s willing to bet that the one in the kitchen is just a pantry, but the other two—
He calls over his shoulder, “Got a closet or mudroom around here? I’m assuming you’re not going to want all my crap lying around.” He makes his way towards the first door on his left. “What’s back here?”
He opens it and is met with an eyeful of Gen’s shirts, pants, shoes, a drawer that looks to be for his nightclothes. Senkuu doesn’t waste time picking around in it. He shuts it and makes his way to the door that’s directly across the entrance to Gen’s apartment. Twists the knob, peers in—just a white and mint-colored bathroom. He closes it and glances over the studio again. Dresser, bookshelf, sofa, TV…
“Senkuu-chan?” he hears Gen wonder, mystified. “Are you all right?”
Why would he keep another dresser at his bedside if he already had one in his closet? What was it that Gen told him about hiding things? The best spot was in plain sight? Senkuu makes a beeline towards the bureau and grabs the handle to the top drawer.
There’s the sound of glass bottles being dropped carelessly against granite countertop, and Gen’s bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor. “Wait, hold up! That’s—”
The drawer slides open smoothly, and Senkuu spends a moment just taking in the sight. It’s nearly empty now, only nineteen or so petrified swallows left. He picks one up and admires it. In a sense, he almost wishes it was just a piece of art, like he’d first assumed it was nearly a year ago. Senkuu sets the bird back inside the drawer and opens the one below it. Packing tape, bubble wrap, and gold envelopes.
Well, fuck me, Senkuu thinks. He tugs out the mailing labels and finds that they’ve already been prefilled. Skims over the cities and mentally matches them to the areas that yielded the most data points with regards to petrified swallow sightings.
Gen is quiet from where he stands behind him. Senkuu drops the shipping labels back inside the drawer and calmly slides it shut. He gets to his feet and passes by Gen as he wanders into the kitchen area. “Do you have any energy drinks? I didn’t get any sleep last night.”
“Fridge,” Gen says, voice faded like Senkuu’s favorite pair of jeans.
His fridge has nothing but takeout. Gen tried cooking for Senkuu once. He nearly died after the first bite. Senkuu finds a lone can of Monster on the top shelf and grabs it. Yanks back the tab and leans against the fridge.
He finds Gen’s eyes. “I’m assuming you have questions,” Gen starts.
“Not really,” Senkuu says honestly, “I think I get it. Most of it.” On the kitchen countertop, one of the wine bottles is tipped over on its side from when Gen must’ve rushed over to stop him. Senkuu reaches to set it upright.
Senkuu takes a couple sips of his energy drink, swallows it down in spite of the bile that’s been slowly rising in his throat. “You know, I was honestly content with just believing the reason I wasn’t getting any international data points for petrification sightings was just because your following is localized to Japan,” he confesses. “Probably would still be on that bandwagon if hadn’t run into—what was his name? Yo? Never would’ve guessed what I found him leaving around campus for college students to find.” He slaps the return label down on the counter top. Gen’s eyes flick down to it and then back to Senkuu’s face. Senkuu wonders aloud, “Why would you keep mailing out these things if you’re just offering discounted tickets to people to get them back?”
Gen’s voice is placating even when his face belies just how tense he is. “Senkuu-chan—”
Senkuu’s not finished though. “Last night, I took another look at the cellular and mineral composition of the birds. Compared the swallows I gathered myself to the ones that I got after meeting you.” Senkuu rests his elbows on the countertop. “They’re different. The ones that I got from you are denser—maybe some variation between every few swallows or so, fuck if I know why. Overall though, they’re significantly stronger than the ones I gathered myself. Makes it harder for the Nital Etch to do its work, I think. Why would they be different though?”
It’s a rhetorical question. Gen doesn’t bother trying to answer. Senkuu continues, “They’re different because they’re from a different source. Last year, before June, petrified swallows were appearing all over the world indiscriminately, which made me think that it was a naturally occurring phenomenon. But looking at the data post-June, everything’s dead, like whatever the petrification source was had disappeared—until we get you onboard, and then birds with new, denser compositions start showing up in Japan and only in Japan.”
Gen watches him, a crease between his brows and lips pressed into a thin line.
Senkuu asks, “How does it work?”
Gen blinks slowly, which translates to a full-body flinch on anyone else. Senkuu appreciates that he doesn’t bother asking him for clarification. “I don’t know,” Gen confesses, tone dull, almost as if he’s no longer fully invested in this conversation, but Senkuu knows better. “There was only ever one person I knew who understood the mechanics.”
Senkuu resists the urge to slam his hands against the counter. “You don’t understand how the petrification process works, but you’re still somehow doing it?” he snaps, bewildered.
Gen does flinch at that, although it’s minute. “What? No, I’m not—these swallows are hold-overs from when you were modifying the M—” He cuts himself off with a shake of his head, lips pursed.
“From when I was what?” Senkuu frowns. “Modifying what?”
He waves him off, pulls out a chair at the kitchen table, and takes a seat. Senkuu wonders if maybe those American TV shows were right about that old cliché of people always arguing in the kitchen. “No, not you—” Gen says warily, eyes tight, “I was thinking of someone else.”
Liar, Senkuu thinks. Gen’s a master at hiding his emotions, but even then, Senkuu can see the tenseness in his shoulders, hear the way his voice catches as he talks. It’s too late—it’s too late for Gen; Senkuu’s gotten too close, and now he’s nothing but a shitty open book.
The entire ride back from Yokohama, it felt as if someone had reached into Senkuu’s head and shaken his thoughts around like a snow globe. Facts and theories and wild guesses drifting around like white static until he felt like banging his head against the train’s window. Senkuu’s never understood the appeal of snow globes, but he understands this: Gen’s been leading Senkuu around by the nose for as long as he’s known him.
Here's the catch though—Gen might be a master manipulator, but he penned down his secrets and published them for a quick and easy dime. It’s not a real game unless two people play, and Senkuu’s always been a sore fucking loser.
“I’m fine not knowing why,” Senkuu tells both himself and Gen. “But I also don’t have a millimeter of interest in researching this anymore. You’re going to have to cancel that lifetime supply of Cola.”
Senkuu tosses his half-finished can into the garbage and proceeds to show himself out. He’s not completely heartless though—he leaves the four bottles of wine on the counter. Gen’s hand darts out and grips his forearm tightly. Senkuu can feel each individual finger pressing into his skin through the coat that he never bothered taking off.
“Senkuu,” he says, voice hard and unyielding. His face has gone pale, like someone’s siphoned all the color out of him. Senkuu can’t remember if Gen’s ever called him by his given name without the honorifics. “You can’t quit. Trust me when I say you’re going to regret it if you do.”
“Why would I regret it?” Senkuu says, tone carefully neutral.
There it is, that moment you get before finalizing a decision that’ll shape the rest of your life—that ‘will you, won’t you’ feeling you get just before you hop a train without knowing where you’re going. Senkuu could brush him off, but instead he waits. Waits because he’s just a dirty liar too, and he does want to know what the purpose of all of this was. If the word “pathetic” had a picture definition, it’d be two liars in a kitchen playing chicken with each other.
The fingers on his arm tense and untense. Do it, Senkuu thinks, take the bait, you shitty asshole.
Gen opens and closes his mouth twice before settling on the weakest, most illogical argument, he could’ve made, “You don’t remember it, but you made a promise.”
The thing about hypotheses—you got to test them first.
He looks Gen in the eye and tells him, “If I can’t remember it, then it wasn’t important to begin with.”
Gen’s face starts to crumple at that, like he’s going to cry. Senkuu shakes off his guilt and Gen’s hand. As he walks toward the exit, he can’t hear his own footsteps past the pounding of own his heart. It takes twenty paces to get to Gen’s front door from the kitchen, and it feels like it’s not enough. Curiosity killed the cat, and maybe there’s some truth to that statement. Perhaps there’s a reason why the proverb is so prevalent even today and for why Gen’s keeping secrets; but cats have nine lives and Senkuu’s a man of science.
The chair grates against the floor as Gen pushes himself to his feet. “Senkuu-chan. Wait.”
Senkuu’s steps slow, and he pauses and watches Gen as he kneels in front of the bookshelf that’s just adjacent to his closet. Slender fingers trail over colorful book spines, before settling on a thin paperback. Senkuu waits as Gen quietly skims through the book before tugging a note out from between the pages. Rises to his feet and holds it out to Senkuu. Senkuu moves the take it, hands burning with anticipation and itching to uncover the secret behind the petrification process.
Distantly, he hears Gen’s soft murmur of, “Something Minami-chan managed to smuggle away.”
Senkuu’s fingers close around the note, and it's not the texture Senkuu expected it to be—smooth and inflexible where he had expected paper. His brows furrow, and he flips it over.
There are no formulas, no equations, no words. Senkuu comes to four realizations all within the span of single second.
First realization: It isn’t a note, it’s a Daguerrotype plate.
Second realization: There are twelve people in the picture, and five of them are Gen, Yuzuriha, and Taiju, Ryusui, and—the Yokohama officer?
“Do you remember, Senkuu-chan?”
Third realization: Senkuu doesn’t remember the other eight.
Fourth realization: But he recognizes them.
Senkuu tells Gen, “I don’t.”
[COMPOSE EMAIL] Nagisa, can I have the keys for the weekend? I moved all of my equipment over to a friend’s house for the time being, and I need my stuff from the lab.
‘Mirai and the rest of the children are asking when you’re going to recover.’ He sits with his back perfectly straight and hands resting on crisscrossed legs. ‘What do we tell them?’
Senkuu leans his back against the wall and plays with the edge of his blanket. He’s practically sweltering underneath it, but it’s effective in hiding his swollen legs and ankles from younger visitors like Mirai.
‘The truth.’ Senkuu peers at him, gauging his reaction. ‘If you keep assuming that kids won’t be able to handle that much, then they’ll just grow up into adults who can’t handle the harder facts of life.’
The poppies and irises are beginning to wilt.
The other boy nods. Readjusts his glasses. ‘Understood.’
[INBOX] Idiot. Why would you leave your stuff at a friend’s house if you still needed it? I need to get the keys back by Monday, but I’ll drop them off in your… see more
Senkuu sets down his pen, fingers cramping from holding it for so long. A boy wearing a white visor and a deep blue tracksuit stares at his blueprints long and hard, already shaking his head before he’s halfway through it. The girl frowns at it, picking at the ends of her ponytail.
She looks remarkably like Lillian Weinberg.
The boy speaks first, ‘You’re insane.’
Senkuu needs to take a deep breath before responding, chest tight. ‘Thank you.’
‘This is insane.’
He nods tersely. Breathes in. ‘Thank you.’
The girl-who-isn’t-Lillian-Weinberg looks at him, exasperated. ‘That isn’t a compliment, Senkuu!’
Senkuu wets his lips and taps the blueprint with the butt of his pen—
No, that’s not—
He clears his throat in an attempt to distract from the tightness in his chest. ‘No one ever said saving the world was going to be easy, you know.’
The other boy grimaces, and Senkuu realizes he has no idea what their names are. ‘Well, no, of course not. But…but still—is this really the only way?’
‘If we’re going to save everyone? Yeah. Our one option is this.’
‘It’s risky,’ says the girl, because even without a deep understanding of science, that much is clear. ‘In more ways than one.’
‘Hey. I meant it you know, when—’ Senkuu’s vision blurs, and for a split second, he swears the other boy is wearing headband made of knotted rope instead of a visor. Not a tracksuit but a blue tunic and linen pants. He coughs, wheezes, and tries to suck in another breath. ‘When I said’—he suppresses the next cough, inhale, exhale. ‘S-said I wouldn’t—’
He can’t suppress the next cough. Senkuu crumples in on himself. Coughs and coughs until even those turn into wheezes because he can’t—
He needs to breathe in—
Senkuu desperately sucks in a breath and chokes on it.
He tastes iron and feels the boy press his hand into his back.
The girl’s head whips toward the door to Senkuu’s apartment—
No. Not an apartment, it’s a—
She yells, ‘Kinrou, Taiju! Someone get Jasper! Senkuu is—’
His final thought before his eyes open: Oh. Right.
They were named after amber and chromite.
[COMPOSE EMAIL] Thanks.
[INBOX] What the heck? Put the phone away and go to sleep already, Senkuu.
Senkuu takes the calloused, wrinkled hand that’s resting on his as an indicator for who’s standing vigil tonight.
They leave the room dark, save for a single lamp that casts shadows against the other’s face, making him look drawn out and even older than he already is.
‘Hey,’ Senkuu breathes out, ragged and nearly indiscernible—the others keep telling him to save his breath, but these days, he feels short of breath even just lying down—'old man, is everyone else asleep?’
He starts, evidently not having realized that Senkuu was still awake and casts a glance toward the hut’s other two occupants. The ones who will take Kaseki’s place when it’s his turn to rest.
Fossil—that’s what he was named for: Kaseki.
‘They’re asleep,’ Kaseki confirms, voice low and rumbling. ‘Did you need me to wake them?’
‘No,’ Senkuu’s quick to answer. He wets his lips. ‘I have a favor to ask. From you.’
Kaseki straightens, broad shoulder’s set as if to prepare himself for whatever Senkuu throws at him. ‘Tell me what you need.’
Senkuu’s eyelids are heavy, and it’s a fight to keep them open. He wonders how everyone else can stand to stay awake at his bedside like this.
‘A record. Like the one my old man left behind.’
I need it for my will, is what Senkuu doesn’t say. Doesn’t need to say.
Silence settles over them like freshly fallen snow, and Kaseki looks at Senkuu as if he’s the one in pain.
Maybe he is in pain, being an old man himself and having to witness the death of someone who isn’t even old enough to legally drink by the modern age’s standards.
Well. There’s a reason Senkuu checked to make sure the others were asleep.
Kaseki nods, a slow, shallow movement. He blinks, and Senkuu can see his throat bob with the effort it takes to swallow. “I’ll have it for you by tomorrow,” he says, voice thick and heavy like he’s speaking around a lump in his throat.
When sleep comes to pull him under, Senkuu doesn’t fight it.
This is the lab on a Saturday: empty, save for Senkuu, a box of petrified birds, and fourteen bottles of wine that he's transferred into less incriminating containers. Dead without Nagisa and Nobu’s idle chatter or Kazuya’s music. It should be blessing, instead, the stillness of it all leaves nothing for Senkuu to focus besides the numbness in his fingertips and the way every tick of the analog clock echoes throughout the room. The air tastes stale.
In the days following his confrontation with Gen, Senkuu takes to skipping his morning doses in favor of dry swallowing ibuprofen tablets. It partially alleviates the headaches. It doesn’t do shit to calm his nerves.
He sets one petrified swallow aside in favor of another and draws a line through the words: 85% nitric acid:15% alcohol.
Tick, tock, tick…
Senkuu brings the beaker up to eye-level to check the remaining volume of solution and re-calculates. The bottle of Welch’s grape juice clearly smells of wine and the coloring is off, but so long as whichever school faculty members that happen to be working on the weekend don’t stop by to check in on him, no one will notice know the difference. Senkuu uncaps the bottle and adds 1.25 ml of wine and 3 ml of nitric acid to the already half-filled beaker.
Tick, tock, tick, tock…
The swallows’ wings scrape against each other whenever he pulls them out of the box. Senkuu doesn’t have misophonia—can’t given the fact that he’s friends with Taiju and regularly shares a workspace with Kazuya after school—but he can’t help but grit his teeth at the sound.
Tick, tock, tick…
He sets the bird down on the desk with a little more force than necessary and pours the 86% concentration over it.
Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick…
His fingers feel numb. His hands move like he’s just spectator of his own body. Senkuu opens and closes them to try to relax the muscles. Rubs at old scar tissue on his chest even though he knows it won’t do anything to reduce the tightness.
He goes through the ritual of checking how much solution he has left and calculating how much nitric acid to add. Three and five-tenths ml for an 87:13 ratio of nitric acid and alcohol. He grabs a bird quickly in hopes that it’ll make the noise a little less grating.
He pours the modified solution onto the next swallow. Observe, hypothesize, test.
Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick…
Four ml of nitric acid to increase the concentration to 88%. Take another swallow. Pour. Watch.
Cross out the ratio. Next—
‘So that’s what it feels like to be petrified!’
He lashes out. The beaker shatters against the wall, wine and nitric acid splattering everywhere and leaving a mess on the floor. Senkuu buries his fingers in his hair and swallows down the bile. Digs the heel of his palms into his eyes to shut out the onslaught of images—images of hot air balloons and ships and bats and little girls wearing green melons on their heads—
A strained, sputtered sound that’s halfway between a laugh and sob bubbles out of his throat at that last image. His breath hitches.
Tells himself: In through your nose, out through your mouth.
Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick…
You’re being illogical, he recites. Try again. Senkuu straightens his shoulders and breaths in slow, focusing on the feeling of his lungs expanding. He suppresses the urge to cough and wipes away the sweat that’s been beading at his forehead for the past few hours.
The ibuprofen isn’t doing shit for his head.
‘Suffering? No, not at all! I was completely relaxed and at ease. Because I knew that you definitely would bring us all back with science.’
Senkuu has to swallow his breakfast down again.
He grabs a new beaker and starts from scratch. Mixes wine and nitric acid to get an 89% concentration and pours it over the next bird. He coughs to try and alleviate the tightness in his chest.
Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock—
The stone cracks.
Pain blooms in his chest—sudden, throbbing, and demanding all at once. The container of nitric acid tumbles out of Senkuu’s grip and his knees buckle. Leans over until his sweat-slicked forehead is pressed up against the table. His chest— Senkuu digs his blunt nails into the skin of his chest through his shirt. He opens his mouth, greedily gasping for air, and forces himself to breathe in—
Senkuu chokes on his breath and regrets it immediately. He keens and something catches in his throat—warm and wet. He gags before he coughs, pink-colored phlegm spilling past his lips. Coughs again after another failed attempt to suck in air. His eyes burn, and the distant, logical part of his brain recognizes this for what it is.
The edges of his vision begin to grow hazy. He fights to suppress the coughing—tries to hold it off just long enough to draw in a breath and his shoulders shake from the effort, but it doesn’t—
“We thought you’d be h—Senkuu!”
Hands grip his shoulders and manhandle him so Senkuu’s no longer keeling against the table but resting against the lab’s supply cabinet. The metal is cool against his back, and the change in position makes Senkuu’s chest throb and burn. He hadn’t heard the door open.
‘I’m going to use the power of science to rescue every single person.’
‘We’re going to build our kingdom of science.’
Tsukasa is a little more than a blur in Senkuu’s field of vision. He wheezes, no longer having enough air in his lungs to cough. He reaches one shaky hand up to grip Tsukasa’s wrist and clamps his mouth closed to try and breathe through his nose. It’s only marginally better.
The corner of his brain that is still able to focus on anything beyond the need to breathe distantly recognizes the panicked voices and rush of footsteps as Tsukasa looks over his shoulder and yells for help. “—uriha, call for an ambulance!”
Senkuu hacks up even more phlegm and the force of his coughing makes his eyes water to the point that he can no longer make out Tsukasa’s features. Someone—Taiju—Senkuu confirms, when his vision clears slightly—drops to his knees in front of him. Fingers press into his neck, and Senkuu’s eyes begin to droop in spite of Tsukasa’s and Taiju’s best attempts to keep him alert.
Senkuu draws in one thready breath after another as the corners of his vision begin to turn black. Someone pulls him forward, jerking him into a more upright position, and it jars him enough that a whimper escapes past his lips.
‘I know how to save all of humanity. I’m leaving you with the most challenging invention of all.’
His friends are trying to tell him something, but Senkuu’s too far gone to catch it now.
Before his eyes finally shut, he meets Taiju and Yuzuriha’s horrified gazes and realizes—eight months too late: Ah. That’s why you two were crying.
'It's not going to be easy, but if you guys can pull it off, we'll save everyone—ten billion percent.'
If someone wanted to, they could measure the first few years of Senkuu’s life in empty pill bottles and doctor’s appointments. Senkuu was seven when he learned that hospitals aren’t nearly as cold or odorous as fiction makes them out to be, and heart monitors don’t beep unless your BPM either gets too high or too low. He’s no stranger to the ICU but waking up in a different change of clothes with your vitals displayed on a monitor will always be disorienting. Even more so now that Senkuu remembers living in a world where he had to reinvent doxycycline.
The cannula wraps uncomfortably below his chin, and Senkuu reaches up to adjust it, careful not to displace the pulse oximeter on his index finger.
The figure who’d been curled up and so still in the corner armchair shifts. “Senkuu-chan?”
Senkuu turns, blinking lethargically. “Gen,” he begins—then stops because his voice is both raspy from how much he had been coughing and wet from leftover phlegm still sitting in his throat. He coughs lightly, and some of the congestion clears. Senkuu doesn’t bother asking for water—they won’t be able to give him anything before his bedside swallow exam, so he makes do with swallowing down his own saliva. The probability of never having to set foot in a hospital again is zero, but somedays, even Senkuu likes to imagine it. “How did we get here?”
Gen’s rolled his chair closer, knees drawn up. His clothes are rumpled, and his hair is greasy like he didn’t get the chance to shower before rushing over. He looks drained, and when he speaks, there’s no hiding the weary note to his voice. “I mentioned our fight to Taiju, Yuzuriha, and Tsukasa,” Gen starts, lips set in an unhappy smile. “It appears they’d been planning on staging some sort of intervention for the both us. They tried your house, but you weren’t there.” Gen taps his fingers against the armchair, hesitating. “They didn’t think to check the school lab until later because I’d told them you’d given up on the petrification project. When they did find you, you were in the middle of an attack, and Yuzuriha-chan had to call an ambulance—”
Senkuu waves Gen off before he can go even further down that tangent. “No,” he clarifies, “I mean, how did we get back to the modern age?”
Gen gazes at him with wide eyes, knees still drawn up to his chin. “You remember,” he breathes.
Senkuu reaches out blindly for the bed’s control panel and raises the head of it up so that he’s semi-reclined. His head feels like an over-stuffed suitcase. “I remember counting,” he hears himself say, looking down at the pulse oximeter with glazed eyes. “I remember when Tsukasa wasn’t my friend. I remember Ishigami village. I remember Chrome, Ryusui, Ukyo”—His eyes refocus, and he looks at Gen—“I remember you. I don’t remember how we got here.”
“You got us here,” Gen supplies, voice frank and without a millimeter of deceit.
He stares unblinkingly at Senkuu like he’s afraid this is all just a dream or some sick, desperate trick of the mind. It takes a single second for Senkuu’s brain to fill in the gaps. He watches as the numbers on his heart monitor slowly begin to climb.
“You’re joking.” Senkuu’s head swims, feeling too light and too heavy all at once. Because really, there’s only one explanation for how they’ve fully rewound 3,700 years.
They built a time machine.
Unbidden, the faces of Chrome, Kohaku, Kaseki, Suika, Kinrou, and Ginrou come to mind, and now the heart monitor is beeping—informing his attending nurse or whoever happens to be at the nurse’s station that his heart rate is getting too high. “And you used it? Why? Why would you—Why would I—”
Gen touches his wrist and speaks urgently, “Senkuu-chan. The nurse will kick me out if she thinks there's a risk of me accidentally triggering another attack.” He tightens his hold. “I know it’s difficult—even for some as normally composed as you—but you need to calm down and breathe.”
He does. Senkuu breathes in through his nose and out through his mouth. Forces a calm onto himself that doesn’t feel real. Thinks about Ishigami village and the generations that won’t exist now that—
“Senkuu-chan,” Gen warns.
Senkuu rests his head back against the pillows and counts the duration of each inhale and exhale. Does it until the heart monitor goes quiet again.
He hates this.
Senkuu swallows, stomach leaden. He thinks of Ryusui, Tsukasa, Yuzuriha, Taiju—even fucking Yo of all people—and demands, “Why am I the only one who didn’t remember anything?”
He glances over at Gen, but he isn’t looking at him. Not really. The mentalist’s eyes are directed toward Senkuu, but there’s a far-away sheen to them. For a second, Senkuu wonders if Gen hadn’t heard him.
He’s about to repeat the question again when Gen finally responds: “Because you died, Senkuu-chan.”
Time trickles to a halt. Gen wraps his cardigan more tightly around himself even though the room isn’t the slightest bit cold. “Four years,” he starts, barely more than a whisper. “For four years, you were dying right in front of us, and it took us about three to realize it.”
If Senkuu hadn’t already been modulating his breathing, the heart monitor would’ve begun beeping again. His ears feel as if they’ve been clogged up with cotton.
“The day we found out was the day you couldn’t leave your bed anymore,” Gen says, talking as if he’s relaying the weather, and in a way, maybe it makes everything easier to take in. “We tried a lot of different things—Minami-chan traveled by foot around Japan searching for a doctor who could help. We tried duplicating the medications you were taking, but either they weren’t strong enough or you needed surgery.” Something bitter flickers across Gen’s face. “We tried petrifying you too, but even that was ineffective—there’s no changing your genetic code evidently.”
Senkuu thinks of the day Tsukasa killed him. Thinks of Taiju and Yuzuriha bringing him back to life after that and the first flickers of hope at the thought that the petrification had maybe healed even more than a snapped vertebra. It leaves a sour taste in his mouth.
Senkuu would kill for a glass of water.
Gen continues, still with that far-off look and unaware of the thoughts racing through Senkuu’s head. “Through it all, you were still so set on saving humanity, and you decided that we’d all work together to create the most ambitious invention of all.” Gen tilts his head to the side and a small, private smile softens his face. Gen’s eyes refocus on the present, and his shoulders drop with released tension that Senkuu hadn’t noticed before. “You did it, you know. You saved everyone like you said you would, Senkuu-chan.”
Senku’s pissed but he grins anyway, and maybe that’s real reason why his old math teacher hated his smile so much—always grinning at the wrong time. “At the cost of Ishigami village?” he asks, incredulous. Bitter. The words taste bitter. “That statement in itself is illogical. The fact that Chrome, Kohaku, Kaseki, Ruri, Suika—the fact that they’re all dead is proof in and of itself that I didn’t save everyone—”
“They’re here, Senkuu-chan.”
Senkuu barks out a laugh, disbelieving. His lips pull into a frustrated grimace. “If they were,” he says, forcing the words out around the lump in his throat, “I’m ten billion percent sure they’d be here in this room right now.”
“You were angry at me before—you thought that I was the one petrifying the swallows, but it wasn’t me.” Gen purses his lips and gives Senkuu a considering look. “You were the one who petrified them—3,700 or so years in the future.”
Senkuu’s breath hitches.
He clasps the bed’s handrailing, neurons firing. “The swallows you had were more durable,” he mumbles to himself. “The miracle fluid that we were using, 70% nitric acid, 30% alcohol, it wasn’t strong enough to revive them”—he huffs out a laugh—“I already tried that ratio weeks ago.” The grin threatens the split his face. He presses a hand to his forehead, memories trickling back like a dam on the verge of breaking. “I was experimenting with petrification. I made it so that the stone wouldn’t erode as easily. I did that on purpose.”
The puzzle pieces are finally starting to slot into place.
‘Will it be scary, Senkuu?’
‘…No. But it’ll be dark.’
Gen nods. “The way the time machine worked—it had a bit of a kickback.” He gives Senkuu a look that’s both a little fond and a bit irritated. Come to think of it, he looks at Senkuu like that a lot. “You explained it a bit like this: we weren’t traveling through time as separate entities of ourselves, we were merging with the timeline from the day the petrification occurred—”
‘Will it hurt, Senkuu-kun?’
‘Like a bitch, but it’ll be worth it.’
Gen grins, the victorious glimmer in his eyes matching Senkuu’s own. Senkuu’s mind races, pulling up every scrap of information he’s ever read or heard about related to time travel and—
“Your cellular integrity would break down though, once the merge started,” Senkuu states, realization dawning, “and you’d all be reintegrated into your bodies from this timeline. But the latent action potentials of your heart and brain, the electric activity your own body produces naturally—that stuff would carry over.” Senkuu looks at Gen’s features, taking in the lack of a scar and white hair. “It's why this timeline's Mirai is all right. It’s why there’s only one of you here instead of two, but you still remember the stone age. I’ll bet anything the rest of the modern-day people who we revived are all in the same boat.” His breath hitches, and he wonders if the Senkuu from 5738 AD was a madman. “Of course, then—there’s no way the Ishigami villagers would survive the kickback.”
Hope rises in his chest, and Senkuu feels the moment the final piece slides into place. Eight months is a long time to be wandering around blind, but it’s got nothing on the 116,680,000,000 seconds of darkness that Senkuu survived through.
Senkuu breathes, “So we petrified them.”
The look Gen’s giving him now makes Senkuu think of the day the village gifted him an observatory. Reminds him of the night Gen confessed that he’d been on Senkuu’s side before he had ever even met him. That bottomless well of faith that always seem to be directed toward Senkuu.
“Exactly,” Gen softly affirms—even though it’s not needed because after eight long months, Senkuu’s finally completed the puzzle. The resulting picture is beautiful. “You modified the Medusa, but you weren’t able to finish the cure before—” He stops, restarts. “It’s why I brought the petrified swallows back with me.”
“So I could experiment on them,” Senkuu’s brain supplies. “So I’d find the cure in this life even if I didn’t remember anything from stone world.” He laughs, equal parts impressed by Gen’s schemes and irritated that it worked so well. “And I played right into it!”
Damn. He has to hand it to Gen—the mentalist wasn’t lying when he told him that he could keep a secret.
Senkuu grins, ignoring the way the cannula presses against his cheeks. For once, his chest swells with something other than pain. He tells Gen the words he must have waiting to hear for the past eight months:
“Eighty-nine percent nitric acid. Eleven percent alcohol.”
Asagiri Gen @ real-mentalist – 2h
Thank you to everyone who participated in the stoned bird challenge! ( ´ ▽ ` )ﾉ ( ´ ▽ ` )ﾉ ( ´ ▽ ` )ﾉ Unfortunately the challenge has come to a close, but @real-shishiotsukasa and I both enjoyed meeting you all~~ ( ˘ ³˘)♥
Nanananananami @ captain-of-this-ship – 2h
@real-mentalist So it’s done then?
Butterfeet @ butterfeet1 – 1h
@captain-of-this-ship wtf do you think dumbass?
Miyuki Hana @ tea-addict – 45m
@butterfeet1 Dude cant read
Nanananananami @ captain-of-this-ship – 39m
@real-mentalist I hope you realize just how fucking toxic your fandom is.
Asagiri Gen @ real-mentalist – 37m
@captain-of-this-ship Awww lol! Let me make it up to you Ryusui-chan<3 6pm Friday, I’ve got enough wine for 40+~~~
Nanananananami @ captain-of-this-ship – 32m
@real-mentalist HA! You’re on! I’ll make sure to bring our old friends!!
Miyuki Hana @ tea-addict – 27m
@real-mentalist I really hope that was a typo???
Nanananananami @ captain-of-this-ship – 16m
@tea-addict HAAA!!!! NoW loOK wHO CANt FUcKING REaD?!!??
[COMPOSE EMAIL] Not dead yet. I had an attack, but the MDs think I’ll be all right so long as I stay on track with my meds. There’s a slight possibility of needing heart surgery again in the future though, so cardio and pulm are going to f/u with me in a few months
[COMPOSE EMAIL] When can you skype? I feel like it’s a been while since I saw that shitty beard of yours.
The days following discharge are always a little turbulent. Senkuu walks out of the hospital feeling exposed and hollowed out each and every time, and even though he’s spent days doing nothing but rest, all he wants is to go home and crawl into his bed. This coupled with the fact that Senkuu’s head is still reeling a bit from trying to suddenly accommodate 3,700 years’ worth of memories are why he draws up short when he spots Gen’s Camry pulled up outside the hospital. Senkuu picks out Tsukasa’s profile in the passenger window.
The probability of resting drops to zero.
Taiju opens the back door and stands up. “Senkuu!” he calls, waving as if Senkuu could possibly miss him. “Senkuu! Get in, Gen’s driving!”
Senkuu raises an eyebrow. “Is that supposed to be an incentive?”
Even with the front window rolled up, he hears Gen’s muffled whine. “So mean, Senkuu-chan!”
Taiju steps to the side and opens the door wider for Senkuu as he approaches. Yuzuriha’s already seated on the left side of the car so Senkuu clambers into the middle seat, and Taiju slides in after him. Gen’s car is tiny because he’s too chicken to upgrade to a bigger one, and Yuzuriha’s and Taiju’s legs press into his on either side. Even positioned in the passenger’s seat, Tsukasa looks cramped.
It’s not the first time Senkuu’s seen all of them since he’d gotten his memories back. They’d all frequented his hospital room to see how he was doing, as well as to drop off a spare change of clothes so he wouldn’t have to discharge in his previously worn sweatshirt and jeans. It’s different though—almost like Senkuu had been looking at all of them through a grimy window until now.
There’s a pang in his chest.
The stone world—
From the day of he had an attack all the way up to the day of his discharge, Senkuu’s mind couldn’t stop racing with images of the stone world. Of Ishigami village. Of his observatory. Of the kingdom of science. He didn’t attempt to suppress them either. Simply let them play out in his mind’s eye even when the weight of it all threatened to shatter his mind beyond repair. Stayed awake staring at the ceiling and savoring the memories as if they’d evaporate into mist the moment he stopped focusing on them. Clung to them the way he held onto his consciousness for nearly four millennia.
Maybe that’s why he’s so damn tired.
Senkuu buckles in and can’t hide the tired lilt to his voice when he asks, “All right. So where are you people taking me?”
The look on Gen’s face makes Senkuu think of the day they blindfolded him and lead him into believing that they were surrendering him up into Tsukasa, only to turn around and gift him with an entire observatory.
Gen turns the key and starts the engine, singsongs, “You’ll find out when we get there, won’t you?”
“If we all make it there in one piece,” Tsukasa blandly notes. He’s got one hand wrapped around the seatbelt like a lifeline, and Senkuu deduces that wherever they’re going must be far enough of a journey for Tsukasa to resort to hopping in a car with Gen instead of going by foot, which may or may not be the safer option between the two.
“Senkuu-kun just got out the hospital, Gen-kun,” smiles Yuzuriha—all rosy cheeks and round, terrifying eyes. “Please don’t make it a repeat admission.”
Gen wrinkles his nose at them, evidently only just realizing that he’s trapped himself in a car with four other people who have nothing better to do than mess with him. “I should kick you all out right now,” he grouses.
He doesn’t. They pull out of the hospital parking lot, and Senkuu watches as the scenery shifts from skyscrapers and brick and mortar buildings to grassy fields. For all their ribbing, Gen smoothly navigates the roads even as they become less maintained, hands steady on the wheel. Radio music and easy chatter fill the car, a pleasant sort of chaotic that makes Senkuu think of the science club on a Friday, but no matter how hard he tries, Senkuu’s eyelids keep drifting shut.
He forces his eyes open for the ninth time, catches himself almost lolling against Taiju, and Gen’s eyes meet his in the review mirror. “Take a nap, Senkuu-chan,” he suggests. “We’ve got about an hour more to go.”
Senkuu spent 3,700 years resisting the pull of sleep. Resisting the dark, the oblivion. Staying awake one more hour is child’s play in comparison. He mentions this to Gen, blinking blearily, and missing the sad smiles that cross his friends’ faces.
Taiju firmly but gently shuts him down. “There’s nothing to gain from forcing yourself to stay awake here,” he says.
Senkuu rubs the sleep out of his eyes and explains, “Might forget if I do.”
Taiju’s brows wrinkle in confusion, and he frowns down at Senkuu. “Forget—oh.”
“You won’t forget, Senkuu-kun,” Yuzuriha is quick to say.
He swallows, shakes the cobwebs out of his head. “You can’t know that for sure though,” Senkuu argues. Tsukasa watches him out of the corner of his eye, and exhaustion picks at Senkuu’s already fraying mental state. “I’ll forget, and you’ll leave when you realize how pointless it is to stick around me when I can’t remember—”
“Senkuu-chan,” Gen calmly, patiently cuts in, easy tone contrasting the way his knuckles turn white from how he grips the steering wheel. From the backseat, Senkuu can pick out the way his jaw sets. “You’re not the type to make such bold statements without any evidence.”
The music station switches to a commercial, and Tsukasa turns it off. The ensuing quiet only makes sleep even more appealing. Senkuu pinches his own thigh to force himself awake. “It’s illogical to stick around for someone who can’t reme—”
Gen is determined to keep him from finishing his sentences today. “We’ve been chasing after you for the past four and a half years, you know,” he says. “We each promised you—at one point or another—that we wouldn’t let you die.” The air in the car turns stifling, and it’s only then that Senkuu realizes that Taiju and Yuzuriha are trying—unsuccessfully—to blink back tears. “So,” Gen quietly continues. “In payment for making us break our promise—you need to accept that you’re stuck with us now.”
Senkuu stares at the passing scenery and thinks of poppies and irises. Thinks of the bags that grew under Chrome’s eyes from too many sleepless nights trying to develop a cure for him. Thinks of the defeated slope of Minami’s shoulders when she found a top-tier heart surgeon who had already corroded too much to be saved.
Even if the memories are bitter, Senkuu doesn’t want to lose them. Even if they trick him into thinking his friends are going to kill him, and the memories of dying—twice—make his heart pound faster, he doesn’t want to lose them.
Yuzuriha touches back, a consoling presence. Senkuu blinks and realizes he’d nearly fallen asleep slumped forward against his knees.
“We’ll wake you up when we get there,” Tsukasa promises. “Go to sleep.”
Yuzuriha and Taiju are warm beside him.
Falling asleep is a smooth, gradual process. Tendrils of sleep pulling at his consciousness so softly, he hardly notices them. Senkuu doesn’t feel the moment he falls asleep, but he does feel gentle hands guiding him to rest against someone’s shoulder.
“Rest well,” he hears someone murmur, voice wet and ragged with emotion that Senkuu’s too tired to identify. “You’ve worked hard.”
‘Is it enough? Am I leaving behind enough? Chrome—where is he? I need to—'
Hand on his forehead, a gentle voice quieting him. ‘It is, I promise. We’ll take it from here. Chrome, Tsukasa, Ryusui, and everyone else—we’ll finish what you’ve started...
The things you’ve done here weren’t a waste.’
They weren’t moving anymore. It takes a second to place the significance of that. The radio’s turned off, but it still takes a few moments for Senkuu’s ears to wake up and recognize that people are speaking.
“…discharged just this morning.”
“Maybe let’s let him sleep a bit longer?” Yuzuriha, his subconscious supplies.
“I don’t have a problem with waiting around a bit,” someone says. It takes a beat for Senkuu to place the voice. “We have guestrooms though—that might be more comfortable for Senkuu.”
“I can carry him,” Tsukasa offers.
Like hell you will, Senkuu thinks. He inhales deeply through his nose, taking the sudden turn in conversation as a cue to start moving. His cheek is still pressed against Taiju’s shoulder, and he straightens. Cracks open one eye and has to squint against the last bits of sunlight filtering through the car window. “No one’s carrying anyone here,” Senkuu slurs slightly, lips pulled down into a lethargic frown.
He takes in the view through the opened door. They’re parked on a long, winding driveway leading to a Western-inspired manor. Arched windows line the façade of the home, and Nanami Ryusui leans against the opened car door on Taiju’s side, hands tucked into the pockets of his slacks. Senkuu rubs the corner of his eyes.
Modern-day Ryusui dresses like an extra on Devil Wears Prada, he notes absent-mindedly.
“Figures you’d wake up to that,” Ryusui drawls. He extends a hand, and Senkuu reaches to clasp it. Ryusui’s grin can only be described as shit-eating. “Good to see you managed to smuggle the wine back to Tokyo all right.”
Yuzuriha huffs a laugh. She unbuckles her seatbelt and clambers out of the car. Tsukasa follows suit, stretching out his arms and legs. Senkuu can hear his knees pop. Tsukasa wasn’t designed to fit in a Toyota Camry.
Senkuu scowls, dropping Ryusui’s hand and making a point to wipe his palm on his jeans. “You ass. You seriously dropped 40,000 yen just to make things difficult.”
“I’ll be honest,” Ryusui muses, scratching his neck, “as I was watching you leave, I thought you were going to keel over. Though speaking of wine—” He looks to Gen who’s been leaning forward, arms draped on top the of the steering wheel, listening to their bickering with his own Cheshire cat smile. “You guys have the modified miracle fluid, right?”
At that, Senkuu’s head jerks toward Gen, heart stuttering. So, Senkuu thinks, that’s where they’ve been placed for safekeeping. Between his hospitalization and trying to organize all the fragments of his memory (with only marginal success), Senkuu hadn’t gotten the chance to ponder where they’d been stowed away all this time. A grin fights its way onto his face—Senkuu couldn’t suppress it even if he wanted to.
Gen reaches down to pop the lever to the trunk, and Taiju slips out of the car to open it all the way.
“A hiding spot no one would question,” Senkuu cackles. “No one would think twice about Nanami Ryusui suddenly acquiring a bunch of stone statues, would they?”
Taiju balances four stainless steel containers in his arms, and Tsukasa grabs the remaining four. Senkuu slides out and walks over to them on legs that are still stiff from sleep. He opens one of the pots and stares.
“Eighty-nine percent nitric acid to eleven percent alcohol,” Tsukasa recites.
It’s the last batch of miracle fluid that they’ll ever need to make. It’s a milestone, and the only ones who’ll ever know just how significant of a milestone it is are the one hundred and forty individuals who remember the stone age. Mourning the loss of something you spent years trying to surmount is illogical, but then, maybe that’s part of reaching the journey’s end.
(Maybe it’s okay to mourn it, just a little.)
Senkuu thinks of the treehouse that he’d built with his own hands.
Thinks of flower fields he’d taken Suika to after making her glasses.
Thinks of the billions of seconds he spent in the dark, counting.
Enter Ishigami village: the home that Byakuya left behind for Senkuu 3,700 years in the future.
Ryusui nods toward the estate. “They’re all in there,” he promises, eyes bright. “We’ve been waiting on you.”
Senkuu stares up the Nanami manor. The words echo in his head, and he repeats to himself, They’re in there. He does the math.
“Senkuu-chan?” Gen says, stepping up beside him. “Do you need to rest first?”
Senkuu’s shoulders relax, and he takes in the sight of estate. The final stretch. “No. They’ve been waiting patiently in the dark for the past 24,019,349 seconds,” Senkuu determines. “It’s time to welcome them to the modern age. I made a promise after all.”
Senkuu remembers the stars from 5738 AD and thinks: I’ll see them again soon.
‘I'll wake you all up, I promise. I won't leave you guys to die alone.’
Chapter 2: mustard
Honestly? Second verse, same as the first. (Once more with feeling.) // Part 2 of cheers to the tin man: the Kingdom of Science in the twenty-first century.
A few quick notes:
1) Flashbacks are in chronological order, save for the very last one and when [minor spoilers] Gen becomes a little more emotionally involved in the situation.
2) This is more of a slice of life meets sci-fi mystery, but happy endings come guaranteed with me.
3) Senkuu and Gen belong together because the 'unreliable narrator' tag applies to both of them.
4) Since posting part 1, I've fallen behind on the manga (I'm more of a binge reader) so this can be considered an AU following the Medusa arc.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
‘Ever miss home?’
‘Yeah, but I think I’d miss this one too if I left it behind, so.’ Senkuu’s gaze flicked up toward him. ‘What about you?’
Hands folded under his sleeves, Gen hummed. ‘Ask me again, once you think we’ve gotten there, Senkuu-chan.’
The Zarrow shuffle.
That’s the second trick that Gen was ever taught.
It went something like this: Gen on his grandmother’s knee, hands sticky with strawberry ice cream, and tongue poking out in concentration as he tried to track his oba-chan’s movements. Some days, when Gen gets roped into playing card games with Senkuu, Tsukasa, Taiju, and Yuzuriha, he’ll do a Zarrow shuffle to give himself a better hand and then taste strawberry ice cream on the back of his tongue.
This is where a cocktail of free time and old habits carry Asagiri Gen: to a melon-painted bedroom that’s located in the one corner of Tokyo where you can’t hear traffic and the only view from the window is a lamppost and a tattoo parlor that’s run by a man with bubblegum-pink hair. The sole saving grace is that when the sunlight refracts off the walls, it casts everything into a warm glow like it’s golden hour at noon.
There’s an itch between his shoulder blades and a sleek deck of cards between his hands. He swiped them from Senkuu’s living room weeks ago in retaliation for leaving Gen’s bathtub stained with black dye. (He never did get the security deposit on his old apartment back.) Gen halves the deck beneath the top card and goes through the mimicry of a standard shuffle. He doesn’t check his hands while he does it because that was one thing his oba-chan was always nitpicky about, and you keep the things you learn as a kid.
His oba-chan’s bedsheets have always been colorless and always smell a little stale regardless of how often they’re washed. They’re creased now too, from the way he’s sprawled across her bed, but this is the norm for them whenever Gen visits.
Gen holds up the Ace of Clovers for his oba-chan with a crescent-eyed smile. “Remember this card, oba-chan, and don’t tell me what it is.”
This is the cookie-cutter story that lives on his Wikipedia page: Asagiri Gen signed with Akatoki Agency during his first year of high school as an outlet to share his love of magic with the world.
The story that no one really knows goes more like this: Back when his oba-chan’s hands were steady and her eyes clear—back when Gen had all his milk teeth and wore Totoro-themed bandaids—his oba-chan pressed a deck of purple playing cards into his waiting fingers and taught him that magic wasn’t real.
Those same cards are old now, frayed at the edges and lined with a visible sheen of grime. They’re the kind of cards you want to hold with the tips of your fingernails instead. The very last time Gen shuffled them, they collapsed in on themselves in an ugly fold; too old to be useful but too sentimental to throw away.
It’s like this—the old cards find a new home at the bottom of Gen’s sock drawer and his oba-chan gets a new home with neighbors who don’t always remember she’s there and vice versa.
Gen holds up the Ace of Clovers again, grinning cheekily. “Is this your card, oba-chan?”
Spot the lie: When he’s in a giving mood, Gen likes to imagine that his oba-chan can smell the fresh summer scent in the breeze. When he’s in a giving mood, he can convince himself that his oba-chan’s watching him, just as enraptured as the people who buy front-row tickets to Gen’s shows.
Spot the lie: Other days, he’s comfortable in recognizing the fact that the nursing home’s air will always taste and smell at least a little stale, regardless of how much aerosol the staff spray or how much effort Gen puts into airing the room. Other days, he doesn’t mind the way his oba-chan’s eyes fixate just a few scant centimeters off to his left, where Gen last set down the deck’s tuck box on the foot of her bed.
He slowly lowers the Ace of Clubs, and his oba-chan’s eyes don’t clock the movement.
“Ah,” Gen sighs, voice playful, “I can’t blame you. There’s only so many times anyone can watch a magic trick before it loses its charm. Especially if you know how the trick works to begin with. If you know, then is it really still magic?”
Reaching to turn her palm upward, he sets the Ace of Clubs into her lax, wrinkled hand.
She used to do the slickest Zarrow shuffle.
Gen, closing her fingers around the card, “I think it still is.”
His oba-chan’s face is still and serene.
There’s an essence to hope that is inherently childish. Pretend the stuffed animals and dolls come to life once the bedroom door closes; imagine there’s treasure at the end of the rainbow. Some days, Gen likes to imagine that, in the milliseconds between when he blinks and opens his eyes again, his oba-chan smiles.
Question: Is hope something you’re meant to mature out of?
‘Do me a favor?’
The corners of Gen’s mouth had curved up into a semblance of a smile. ‘I suppose I owe you one or two.’
‘All right, well—guess I’m cashing in on one of them then. I know you can lie just fine, but how good are you at spinning stories?’
‘Hm? Ah, I see. Have a bit of faith in me, Senkuu-chan. You build your machine, and I’ll handle the rest.’
There are people like Senkuu and Tsukasa: people who lead others toward their goals with something akin to single-minded determination; people who others can’t help but band together for. Then there are people like Gen.
Like Ukyo and Francois.
[INBOX] [FILE ATTACHED] Gen: Please see enclosed file for an update version of your schedule. Please note the contracted days your scheduled for shows at LUXE… see more
[INBOX] [FILE ATTACHED] There’s a clinical trial for a new type of pacemaker in Beijing. I think I get the basics of what a clinical trial is, but how hard is it to become a participant? Is it expensive? Could… see more
[INBOX] This is your friendly reminder that game night is next week! Friday, 5:30pm at the Kichijoji home. Bring a plate if you can! (But if you can’t cook, please don’t force yourselves!!! Taiju-kun and I are ordering enough pizza for everyone.)
This is what they don’t tell you, when you’re young and hopeful because being both young and hopeful in the entertainment industry is a commodity in and of itself. What the agencies don’t say, at any point between shaking your hand and getting your name on a dotted line, is that for some people, entertainment isn’t enough. For the cynics who are over the glitter and the romance, the entertainment lies in tugging at loose threads, in pulling at the curtain that separates you from the rest of the world, in spilling all the secrets that don’t belong to them.
Gen’s never had stage fright, isn’t enough of a masochist to have gone commercial if he did have stage fright—in spite of whatever Tsukasa told Senkuu before they’d met in this timeline—but television appearances will forever have him tapping his foot in anticipation because that is the one medium that comes with a pause and replay button.
He turns his left palm upwards and cracks his other fingers with his thumb absent-mindedly.
They’re vultures, to be sure, but Gen consoles himself with the fact that at least they pay.
A large, dry hand reaches out to gently knock Gen’s fingers away. “Enough of that, that’s how you get arthritis.”
Gen snorts. “I have it on good authority that that’s a myth.” If Gen’s stretching the umbrella definition of ‘good authority’ to include the time Taiju googled it because he was bored, no one needs to know. He leans back in his seat to grin up at his agent. “Besides, between the two of us, it’s clear who needs to worry more about arthritis, Hasegawa-chan.”
Hasegawa clicks his tongue at him and rakes a hand through peppered grey hair. He used to speak to Gen in butter-soft tones, back when Gen was fifteen and tiny. Gen heard that tone less frequently as he grew older and started giving his agent ulcers.
“I’m not that old, Gen,” Hasegawa reminds him. His crow’s feet say otherwise, but although long-term exposure to one Ishigami Senkuu will whittle away at anyone’s perception of social mores, Gen—gratifyingly—was born with a verbal filter unlike a lot of his friends. The sofa Gen’s lounging on sinks when Hasegawa takes a seat next to him. “Did you bring one of those stoned birds?”
The good news, at least as far as Hasegawa’s concerned: Gen did, in fact, plan to use the petrified swallows as his closing act.
The bad news, for Gen mostly but also his agent by extension: Gen’s got a near-empty drawer of petrified sparrows in his apartment, a dwindling supply of modified nital etch, and still doesn’t have an explanation ready for when he inevitably runs out of stoned birds.
Gen runs his tongue over his lips. They’re chapped under whatever lip tint Gen’s wearing because his last tube of lip balm was still in his pants pocket when he did his laundry. “Yeah, I have one. I’m planning on using it for the closing act—you’ll put the fluid by the rest of my props?”
Hasegawa hums his assent. He tells him this, “It’s all set up for you already, don’t worry.”
If you tell someone to not look down, they will. If you tell someone to wait, they won’t. If you try to a cover up a secret with the words ‘It’s nothing’, they’ll know it’s not. Put like that, sometimes it’s better to not say anything at all, and if Gen’s feeling skeptical now, it’s justified. Because there are some things you can’t explain without sounding insane, and to this day, Hasegawa is under the assumption that the nital etch’s only role is in embellishing Gen’s routine. Which is to say: once, Hasegawa sent him up on stage with nothing but a plain cup of water, and Gen’s career came very close to ending that night.
Hasegawa pats his pockets before pulling out a lighter and a pack of Marlboros. He doesn’t bother asking Gen if he wants one because no one really enjoys repeating old, worn-down conversations. It’s why small talk is like pulling teeth for most.
Gen watches the way his agent rolls the cigarette between his fingers, eyes the slump of his back when he leans forward with his elbows on knees.
He doesn’t look like he’s going to say anything on his own though, so Gen prompts, “Is there something you needed?”
“No,” Hasegawa says, slow like he’s thinking about the way the words feel in his mouth, “not particularly.”
“Hasegawa-chan, keeping secrets isn’t a very healthy habit, you know,” lectures Gen. He’s read exactly one self-help book and an entire library on mentalism, and isn’t qualified to lecture anyone on anything, but—although Hasegawa’s worked with more talent than most people shake hands with in their lifetime—he’s also the kind of person who believes that cracking knuckles is the leading cause of arthritis and drops words like ‘irregardless’ into conversation unironically. “It’s no wonder you have all those grey hairs.”
Hasegawa snorts around the cigarette in his mouth. “I have these grey hairs because of you, you brat.”
“I think your birth certificate would disagree with you.”
Gen pulls out his phone while his agent complains about ulcers and fifteen-year-old magicians who grow up to be insufferable. A glance at is his notifications tells Gen that, within the half hour since he last checked his phone, he’s gotten forty-nine new messages. For a chat that’s comprised almost entirely of nearly non-literate individuals, it’s a lot. A lot for them and for Gen, because sometimes the text-to-dictation function makes a mistake or two.
Case in point:
<<<Received:[AK][15:04] Gen the federator isn’t working
<<<Received:[AK][15:04] I had to throw out the leftovers and frozen dinners unfortunately
Usually though, it isn’t difficult to fill in the gaps given the context.
Gen makes a mental note to ask Senkuu about the refrigerator and takes a second or two to type out a quick promise to meet his roommate for dinner afterwards. He’s quick to slip the phone back into his pocket the moment he hits send though, because Gen can still feel the ghost sting of a slap to his knuckles when he checks his phone in the middle of a conversation.
(Family dynamics are tricky, and Gen’s had always been traditional.)
Hasegawa takes a drag, and although Gen doesn’t tell him to go easy on the cigarettes, it doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about it.
“Look, Gen,” Hasegawa starts, evidently having got his words together, “you’re an adult now, and I’m probably one of the last people on your contacts list who you want prying. But I gotta check—everything’s all right at home, yeah?” Slate grey eyes find Gen’s, and he meets Hasegawa’s stare evenly. “You’ve been taking on a lot more contracts is all.”
Hasegawa Masao went to middle school with Gen’s mother and loved her in the way a child loves the family they wished they’d been born into. It’s up in the air how Gen’s mother felt about Hasegawa. There’s a level of familiarity there that isn’t standard for most agents and talents, and so sometimes the line between agent and family friend gets a little blurred.
He’d been questioning Gen more though—ever since he faceplanted off the stage on June 3rd, 2019, and walked away a little different from when he’d began the magic show.
(It had escaped Gen’s memory, that he’d been in the middle of a magic act when the petrification incident occurred.)
He’d hoped Hasegawa would interpret it as Gen maturing into adulthood, but evidently, the change was either too stark or Hasegawa simply knew him too well.
Gen shrugs and swings one leg over the other. Spot the lie: “Everything’s fine—my oba-chan’s been requiring more and more looking after these days is all. It’s why I jumped at the contract with that nightclub.”
(Answer: The bills are covered by his mother, his oba-chan’s proxy, for all she never visits.)
Somewhere: there’s a dad running alongside his son as he rides his bike without training wheels for the first time.
Somewhere: there’s a teacher staying late to ensure her students get home safely.
Here, backstage: Hasegawa asks Gen questions he can only answer in partial truths.
“It’s very sweet of you to worry though, you’re not getting to be paternal in your old age, are you, Hasegawa-chan?” It’s playful and probably not the sort of thing most people would say to an elder or even a coworker, but when you’ve got someone like Gen—who’s forgotten more secrets than most people learn and knows how to mold someone’s train of thought as if it’s a real, tangible thing—everyone is fair game.
Gen straightens, brushing out the faint crinkles in his slacks and checking his watch while trying to look like he isn’t avoiding Hasegawa’s gaze. One of the stagehands comes by to let him know that he’s on in five.
Gen nods at his agent. “Well—show time, Hasegawa-chan.”
Hasegawa hums, tendrils of smoke spilling past his lips. “Sure,” he says, “break a leg, kid.”
Senkuu’s eyes were fevered and bright and focused all at once.
He bustled around the lab as best he could, clothes hanging loosely on his ever-thinning frame. Gen watched him and tried to quell the churning feeling in his gut.
‘The first prerequisite is finding a way to preserve the people who weren’t born in the modern world so that they can handle the backlash,’ Senkuu rambled, unrolling a sheet of paper across the table and blindly groping for a pen. He nearly knocked over the ink. ‘The second is figuring out how to disable the Medusa that petrified everyone in 2019—that’s kind of the big one to be honest, because you guys aren’t going to accomplish shit if you just travel back in time only to get petrified again immediately.’
It was the first word that popped into Gen’s mind while he watched Senkuu, and it was a descriptor he never thought he’d use when thinking about Senkuu.
Senkuu coughed and Gen’s hand hovered over his back—a mix of instinct and habit. Senkuu waved him off, continuing, ‘Luckily, we’ve got the perfect template to study to develop an EMP. It’ll disable the petrification machine once you guys make the jump. The third prerequisite though, is having a proper power source and method for altering your state at the cellular level. If you sequence everything correctly, the Medusa accomplishes each of those—’
‘You’re saying ‘you’,’ interrupted Gen.
‘You said ‘you’ but not ‘we’. Multiple times, Senkuu-chan.’
Senkuu paused, hand stilling mid-sentence. The sound he made was somewhere between a huff and a laugh. ‘Not all slips are Freudian, Mentalist. Weren’t you the one complaining to me about how that guy was a dick and an idiot anyway?’ His writing hand went into motion again. ‘This’ll work.’
Gen folded his hands into his sleeves, biting the inside of his cheek. ‘Right.’
At night, Tokyo’s streets after a rainstorm look a bit like an abstract oil painting, store lights glinting off the pavement in such a way that makes Gen like to imagine he’s strolling across the cosmos. Take a breath, hit the rewind button, and trade the constellations of the fifty-eighth century for Japan’s neon lights.
It’s a sight and a feeling that he’s falling into familiarity with all over again.
Shrugging off his suit jacket, Gen undoes the top two buttons of his shirt and rolls up his sleeves for good measure. The humidity has the collar of Gen’s button up sticking to the back of his sweat-slicked neck, and his shoes are still too new, still pinch his toes with each step. Sometimes though, the moments of discomfort are more worth it then not. Take a walk in the rain, drive on old, dirt roads for the sole purpose of getting lost—sometimes, it’s nice to imagine that bits of metamorphosis happen in these moments. Gen parks his car three blocks down from the food stall and pretends he’s wandered into a Leonid Afremov piece.
The lower edges of his tattoo are visible now that Gen’s rolled up his sleeves. The sight of it has him tracing the angular lines and corners with his finger on an impulse while he reminisces over the raised brow he’d gotten from the artist the day he strolled into his parlor on June 3rd, 2019, head still reeling (either from the jump or falling off stage) and no longer used to the feeling of wearing shoes.
The way people go about choosing tattoos says a lot about humans in general. Go back and forth between artists and designs, pull up to the parking lot and spend fifteen minutes debating whether to go in or pull back out. This is what Gen’s noticed: most people get nervous about inking something permanent into their skin, but then rarely think twice about what they say or who they befriend. It isn’t always the idea of permanence or long-term consequences that scare people off. Most times it’s just the fear of committing to something that’s visible.
Gen thinks of Cola, a date carved into tree bark, and the symmetrical, jagged lines inked into the inside of his elbow.
Thinks of a body that never got laid to rest.
At the very least, the change that comes with a bad tattoo is only skin-deep.
Drawing closer to the food stand, Gen spots the silhouette of his roommate from behind the stall’s curtains and increases his pace to a brisk walk. He fumbles for his pocket to double-check that his keys are still there because the clouds are beginning to blot out the skyline again, and although the Medusa temporarily cured his roommate’s arthritis, Gen knows his joints still get a little creaky and stiff when it rains.
There’s a medical reason behind it, Gen knows. One of the staff at his oba-chan’s nursing home passed him a resource pamphlet on it when he asked about it once, but in the end, Gen didn’t retain much of the information; it turned out to be the least of his oba-chan’s concerns.
Picture this, though: The ever-present clutter of takeout boxes in Gen’s fridge slowly disappearing in lieu of frozen dinner boxes lining his kitchen table; a second bedroom with a daybed; Gen’s shoes pushed to one side of the shoe rack to make room for more.
He ducks under the curtains to the food stall, and the young woman manning the stand gives him a customary smile and nod before turning back to the grill stove. His roommate’s hunched over an iPad, thoroughly engrossed and, if Gen didn’t know any better, seemingly oblivious to him taking a seat beside him. This close, Gen can hear Siri’s automated voice reading aloud something that sounds like neither an online recipe for miso soup nor a Wikipedia page. The longer he listens, the more the readthrough sounds alarmingly like a subreddit.
He’s never looked into how the child-lock function works, but he supposes it’s as good a time as any.
Picture this: The world’s most superficial man making space in his home for a ‘bona fide geezer’ (Senkuu’s words, not his) who hadn’t officially existed until March 3rd, 2020.
Cue Asagiri Gen, “Sorry for the wait! You could’ve started without me, you know—you’re probably starving. Have you thought about what you want to order? The curry is on the spicy side so I’d stay away from that. Everything else should be all right though!”
Cue Kaseki, “Oh-ho? And what’s wrong with the curry? You don’t think this old man can handle a bit of spice?”
Gen drapes his suit jacket over his lap and prays to the general cosmos that Kaseki takes his advice. On one end of the spectrum, there’s letting the Ishigami villagers explore the modern world at their own pace, and then there’s ensuring that they don’t die prematurely in the process. There’s Suika, who’s young and was only still developing her worldview when she left home, and then there’s Kaseki, who Gen had wanted to rush to the ER after his first taste of wasabi.
(Gen has never determined how old Kaseki really is.
Currently, he is too scared to ask.)
“Kaseki-chan,” Gen starts, teasing but also one-hundred percent serious, “if you start introducing spicy foods to your palate now, I’m pretty sure you’ll die.”
It doesn’t quite go like this, although it’s the story they tell: Asagiri Kaseki—a born and raised Nagano man—retires from carpentry after a workplace accident and transfers to Tokyo so his grand-nephew can care for him.
Kaseki chuckles, demeanor brightening into something that could rival those of the mall Santa Clauses that Gen sometimes sees around Christmastime. “Challenge accepted!” he croons.
It goes like this: Kaseki, Chrome, and the rest of the Kingdom of Science build a time machine one spring season in the fifty-eighth century.
Beads of sweat begin to prick at Gen’s temple. “I don’t think—”
Kaseki waves to get the cook’s attention. “Young miss!”
It goes like this too: Gen, Ryusui, Francois, and Ukyo gather around a table, planning for the repercussions of time travel while the remainder of the kingdom builds what that modern-day scientists couldn’t.
FUNDS SENT: nanase-RN@mail.goo.ne.jp
You transferred: ¥182,000.00 (JPY)
Estimated arrival: typically in minutes
Yuzuriha shifted her weight from one foot to the other. ‘Will it hurt, Senkuu-kun?’
‘Like a bitch, but it’ll be worth it.’ Senkuu picked at his ear. ‘Once the merge starts, your cellular integrity will break down. You’ll all be reintegrated into your bodies from back then, but the bioelectric currents of your bodies from this time will carry over. ’
‘And Mirai?’ asked Tsukasa, quiet.
Senkuu wasn’t the type to offer comforting glances to anyone, but he was quick to allay Tsukasa’s fears. ‘Neural action potentials should kickstart her brain—and her heart for that matter. She’ll wake up.’ He gave him an unimpressed look. ‘I meant it when I said I’d save everyone.’
Gen stepped in then, pressed the question that had been lingering on their minds: ‘Everyone?’
[COMPOSE EMAIL] Sorry it took me a bit to respond!! My inbox tends to get a bit flooded! I don’t know a whole lot about the behind-the-scenes for clinical trial studies, so it’s hard to say… I looked through the file you sent me though—is there a reason you’re looking at pacemakers? Is everything all right, Chrome-chan? Please respond when you can!
[INBOX] Ah, no—nothing’s wrong exactly. Or at least, nothing’s worse than it usually is, I don’t think. I just wanted to do some research on my own in case. I’m sorry to worry you!
[COMPOSE EMAIL] Ah, I see. Just in case then.
>>>To:[IS][16:52] Senkuu-chan~~ (ノ^∇^)
>>>To:[IS][16:54] My fridge broke down over the weekend, and it costs too much to fix it. (๑ˊ▵ॢˋ̥๑)
<<<From:[IS][16:55] you guys moved in a month ago
<<<From:[IS][16:55] what did you do to it?
<<<From:[IS][16:56] more importantly though, where do you get off on thinking im free labor ?
>>>To:[IS][16:57] (╬ಠ益ಠ) (╬ಠ益ಠ)
>>>To:[IS][16:57] I powered a furnace for you!!!! ｡゜(｀Д´)゜｡ With my bARE HANDS ??!!?
>>>To:[IS][16:58] This is how you repay me!!!!!
>>>To:[IS][16:58] Poor Kaseki-chan has gotten really fond of reheatable meals too ˓˓(ᑊᘩᑊ⁎)
<<<From:[IS][17:00] the furnace was in exchange for ramen tho
<<<From:[IS][17:02] the two aren’t equivalent
<<<From: [IS][17:05] chrome and i can come by on saturday for the fridge
>>>To:[IS][17:05] o(≧∇≦o) o(≧∇≦o) SENKUU-CHAN!!!
>>>To:[IS][17:09] Bring the girls too!! It’s been too long~~
<<<From:[IS][17:11] yeah, ill let them know
<<<From:[IS][17:12] see ya then
>>>To:[IS][17:13] Talk to you later Senkuu-chan~~
‘I wouldn’t hold it against any of you if you weren’t up for this,’ Gen admits, honest in a way he so sparingly is.
‘We’ll do it,’ Ruri said, with a surety that Gen wasn't certain he'd been expecting. ‘This isn’t just about us anymore. There are a number of reasons why we need to do this.’
She shared a look with Chrome, a million and one things conveyed in the span of a heartbeat, and Gen wondered when Chrome’s puppy crush grew up.
‘Disregarding the fact that we could make all the Miracle Fluid we want,’ Chrome continued, ‘it doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people have died already. You can’t revive someone if they’re not whole, and it’d take decades to revive everyone.’
Kinrou—who’d been so silent, ever since news of Senkuu’s illness spread through the village and he’d unrolled a his latest roadmap— rubbed the bridge of his nose, eyes heavy from too little sleep and days that never seemed to end. ‘Even if Senkuu weren’t dying,’ he’d began, quiet and firm, ‘we would do this. Because it’s the only way to save everyone.’
‘Most would sacrifice us to save everyone else,’ Chrome pointed out. ‘But Senkuu’s the type to go for the one in a million chance—we know he won’t give us up. So, we’re doing this.’
There are nuances and unspoken rules of the modern world that Kaseki is learning for the first time and Gen for the second. One fact of life is this: It’s impossible to enter an AEON without hearing the telltale sounds of a child throwing a fit.
Gen continues to scan the grocery store’s signs for the cereal aisle while Kaseki turns a practiced blind ear to it. Times change and knowledge gets lost over in the fractures between generations, but Gen figures that Ishigami village had seen its fair share of tantrums too. The kid’s parent attempts to hush her, plying the girl with sweets and promises that they’ll be finished soon if only they’d please be quiet.
It’s telling—the way children act in public and the way their parents respond accordingly. Not all, but some parents count the seconds ‘til bedtime, hand their child a phone if only to buy a few minutes of peace and quiet; sometimes, people only ever realize what being a parent entails until it’s too late to be allowed to regret it.
Gen pushes the cart slowly down the cereal aisle and feigns obliviousness to Kaseki slipping the candy bar he’d been hiding in his hands into the shopping cart. He hides it behind the sandwich bread under the pretense of making sure the bread doesn’t get squashed by the bananas.
They’d been careful up to this point, about introducing foods. The private nurse Gen had hired had given him the rundown of issues they might have by suddenly switching diets, but it’s been months and Gen supposes that if Kaseki could handle surviving on frozen dinners without any side effects, he could handle a candy bar just fine.
There’s an art to defying the recommendations of those who know better, and Gen has become something akin to either a master or a repeat offender over the past year, depending on how you choose to look at it. But then, you don’t smuggle forty unknown and undocumented individuals into Japan without giving at least a few people grey hairs.
(He sends up a quick prayer that Hasegawa never learns what Gen’s truly been up to this past year.)
Kaseki’s leisure stroll comes to a stop, and Gen follows suit. The cart’s heavy enough with groceries that it keeps rolling, and Gen has to pull against the handlebar to stop it. Kaseki picks up two different boxes of cereal after eyeing the cartons lining the grocery shelves consideringly and wonders aloud about the cereal’s ingredients. This leads to Gen giving him a crash course on the concept of mascots, which is something he hadn't anticipated needing to do when he woke up that morning.
Kaseki gets it though, despite Gen's questionable and hand-wavy synopsis on marketing strategies and branding. “I understand," he says after a while, "they’re like the gecko.” At Gen’s blank, breakfast-deprived stare, Kaseki further clarifies, “From Geico.”
Gen has to wonder how much time he’s been spending on YouTube to be so intimately familiar with Geico commercials.
Wonders: Is everyone else doing a better job at keeping an eye on the villagers living with them?
Realizes: Yeah, probably.
There are only so many beds you can cram into a single home, and there are even fewer modern-day folk in a position to host a villager without raising questions or eyebrows. Tsukasa had his intentions, but there’s something to be said about the fact that most of the people he revived during the Stone Wars were either high schoolers or young adults.
(Which is to say, practically all of the modern-day people in the know, had either limited incomes or family members who would rightfully question the sudden appearance of strangers in their homes.
Which is to say, Tsukasa made Gen’s job a logistical nightmare.)
Gen hums to himself, considers the cereal brands a few moments longer before deciding that cereal didn’t warrant this much deep reflection or consideration at nine in the morning. “Let’s get them both and see if you like either of them. I’m not picky so it’s not like we have to worry about things going to waste.” He drops the boxes into the cart. “The variety will probably be nice since this is what we’ll be living off of until Senkuu-chan and Chrome-chan have time to do repairs.”
There’s a smile in the corners of Kaseki’s eyes at the mention of Senkuu and Chrome. It’s the sort of smile Gen used to see on his oba-chan. He consciously redirects his attention back to the contents of the shopping cart and sets about organizing them even though they’ll be haphazardly throwing them onto the conveyer belt soon enough.
He shifts the sandwich bread so it covers Kaseki’s candy bar better because hiding chocolate in someone else’s shopping cart is a modern-day rite of passage, and for all Kaseki’s brilliance and skill when it comes to woodwork, he’s evidently very bad at smuggling.
“Why don’t we try cooking for a change?” suggests Kaseki.
“It’d be faster if I listed all the reasons we shouldn’t do just that,” Gen admits. He still remembers the green hue Senkuu’s face turned after he tried Gen’s attempt at kimchi. “Do you even cook, Kaseki-chan?” He tries to remember, but really, the only major food source the village seemed to have before Senkuu arrived was fish. Gen doesn’t mind fish, really, but the whole point of this shopping trip was to buy food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated.
Kaseki chuckles, all good cheer and warmth like he’s not a solid wall of muscle and competitiveness underneath his hand-knit sweater and corduroys. Gen hadn’t even needed to hire anyone to help them move into their new apartment.
“Well, I’ll admit my experience with cooking is limited,” he muses diplomatically, scratching his beard. Gen’s already resigning himself to exploding microwaves and needing to empty the kitchen trash can more often. “But—watching the way Ramsay-kun approaches cooking, it doesn’t seem all that different from inventing or crafting!”
It takes Gen a beat. “Rams—Wait, do you mean Gordon Ramsay?”
He thinks: Oh god, he does.
Then: Oh god, the YouTube clips of Hell’s Kitchen aren’t censored.
Kaseki barrels on, “Moreover, Senkuu always said that cooking was just another form of science.”
“Of course he did. Does.” Gen grimaces.
Kaseki eyes flick up toward his.
Gen spins on his heel, eyes scanning for the produce section and projecting an air of absent-mindedness. Decisively, “Let’s start with miso. That should be easy enough that even I can’t mess it up for you. Do you have a recipe? I don’t know the ingredients off the top of my head.”
There are different brands of kindness. Yuzuriha and Taiju are kind in the way that they can find it in themselves to care whole-heartedly about complete strangers, the sort of people who stop what they’re doing to help old women down the stairs or hold the door open for people who are ten meters away. Senkuu—‘painfully blunt, bordering on abrasive on good days and offhandedly rude most others’ Senkuu-chan, ‘needs to Google how to respond to get-well cards and birthday wishes’ Senkuu-chan—has distractedly let doors shut on other people’s faces occasionally, but he’s kind in the way he doesn’t laugh at people’s failures so long as they try their best. It’s a kindness that’s as subtle as his oba-chan’s Zarrow shuffle. Blink and miss it; blink and forget that politeness and compassion are two different beasts. You can’t choose to be empathetic, but you can learn to be kind.
Kaseki is kind in the way he dutifully asks Siri to search for a miso soup recipe and feigns obliviousness to Gen’s slip.
On the way to the produce section, Gen swipes another candy bar off the shelf and drops it in the cart.
Glass pressed to Senkuu’s chest, Chrome listened to his heartbeat, brows furrowing.
‘Well?’ Ryusui prompted.
‘We don't have an exact term for it.” At Ukyo’s look, Chrome passed him the glass and Ukyo took up the position he’d just abandoned: ear pressed to the base of the cup with the open end against Senkuu’s chest. “But it sounds like some of the elders’ hearts do. ‘Fluttering,’ kind of.’
‘An a-fib?’ Senkuu wondered, breaths coming in shallow. ‘Shit. That’s new.’
Chrome looked to Gen, lips pressed into a thin line. It was a beseeching kind of look, despite the fact that Gen had only learned of Senkuu’s condition along with everyone else and was in the same boat as him. ‘It is?’
‘Not all congenital heart defects result in a-fibs, but they can. Eventually.’ Senkuu started to shrug his shirt back on, prompting Ukyo to back away. Ukyo let the glass rest against his knee and didn’t look at any of them. ‘My doc always made sure to monitor for it whenever I came in. Not usually a serious problem. For most people.’
‘So that means…’
Senkuu barked out a laugh. ‘Means I’m a little more fucked than expected.’
Banana. Strawberry. Apricot. Kale. Coconut milk.
Minami swore by the recipe, but really, Gen can’t taste anything past the banana. The smoothie is thick and there are still chunks of fruit floating around in it—part of the problem is that still being awake at this hour makes Gen impatient, the rest of the problem is due to the fact that he would’ve woken up Kaseki if he left the blender on any longer. Gen tips back his glass to take another mouthful, and the smoothie clings to the sides of the glass even after he sets it back down on the table: Exhibit A for why Gen has never been self-sufficient when it comes cooking.
(Kaseki snores on quietly in the next room over though: Exhibit A for why Gen's willing to learn.)
He rests his feet on top of the kitchen chair across from him, eyes and head aching for reasons that sleep can’t solve. The only light source in the kitchen are the digital clocks on Gen’s microwave and oven. Bright, neon numbers changing ever-so-slightly out of sync but moving forward regardless because, here in the twenty-first century, time is not a tangible thing that you can reshape however you like.
Comfort comes in different forms and habits. Comes in late night drives down roads no one else remembers and in morning cups of coffee. Comes at four in the morning after finally pulling apart what's just a dream and what is reality.
Gen’s phone is still in on his nightstand. The alarm is set for eight o’clock, but Gen knows that he’ll be lying in his bed again and counting the freckles on the ceiling by the time it goes off. For now, Gen drinks banana-flavored sludge and imagines it’s another form of comfort.
‘An iron lung,’ Chrome parroted, face drawn and eyes weary. ‘What’s that?’
‘It’s something that physicians used in the twentieth century,’ said Yuzuriha, fingers tracing the grain of the wooden table absent-mindedly as she spoke. ‘I wrote a report on it for school once, it’s how I know. They were invented for patients with polio, for people who couldn’t breathe or had difficulty breathing.’
‘Senkuu…it’s not that his breathing is the root of the problem though,’ Taiju frowned.
‘It isn’t. But it could help with his breathing so maybe—’
Gen nodded. ‘I say we try it then. We're not in a position,’ he asserted, ‘to be turning down ideas now.’
There’s a difference between performing a standalone magic show and performing in a crowded nightclub. In the context of magic acts, clubs always tend towards the chaotic end of the spectrum. The audience constantly shifting and eyes on all angles means that his bag of tricks dwindles with the lack of control Gen has over his environment, but—magicians don’t go commercial by shying away from venues they aren’t comfortable with. Magicians don’t pay their bills by waving off contracts to perform at nightclubs.
Between employing a private nurse for the elders of Ishigami village and moving into a larger apartment, Gen’s got quite the stack of bills these days.
LUXE’s venue isn’t as gaudy as others. It’s modern, appealing in the way an iPhone is. The glossy white paneling of the walls reflect the club’s lights nicely and the bar is sleek and minimalistic.
Senkuu would probably appreciate the aesthetics of it all, Gen thinks, disregarding the fact that—physically—Senkuu wasn’t nearly old enough to be allowed into a nightclub.
(Technically, when Senkuu died, he was still too young.)
Gen shakes off the thought and glances over to where Hasegawa and LUXE’s manager are talking before dipping off into the side wing of the building. Each step has the stoned bird in Gen’s pocket digging into his thigh, a nagging reminder. The reception to Gen’s magic act had been positive though, even without the petrified swallow routine.
Hasegawa will lightly reprimand him for going off script tonight, but there’s an art and a methodology to planning magic acts when you’re scheduled to perform on a weekly basis. Not opening with the biggest trick of all is a fundamental rule to the trade. If you do something long enough, preparation becomes solely a formality. Some teachers, who’ve taught the same curriculum more times than they can recall, don’t spend hours slaving over lesson plans and seasoned therapists spend ten minutes tops coming up with a plan for a session. To become a master at a craft is to earn the right to fly blind on occasion and scrap plans on a whim.
Gen isn’t sure if he’s a master exactly, but he made it off the streets and most magicians never do.
The door to the restroom swings open silently in contrast to the way Gen’s steps echo against the black tile floors. It’s quite possibly the most well-lit room in the entire building, and Gen decides then and there that this will likely be where he takes refuge during his breaks for the remainder of his contract with LUXE.
He leans with his back against the wall, taking out his phone and dutifully opening his Twitter. Undoes the top few buttons of his shirt because the club was warm from the number of patrons. Midway through his Tweet, Gen faintly acknowledges the stall furthest from the restroom’s entrance swinging open. Heavy footsteps and the jangling of keys and the sound of running water fill up the silence in the room as Gen types.
Asagiri Gen @ real-mentalist – 0m
Just finished my first show @LUXENightclub! Thanks to everyone who watched and participated~~ (Special shout-out to the drunk gentlemen who cry whenever I pull a handkerchief out their ears lol) ( ˘ ³˘)♥
OgawaDIY @ crafthands – 0m
@real-mentalist it’s okay, you can just @ Ginrou, Gen-kun♥
Gen huffs out a quiet laugh before remembering that he isn’t alone in the restroom. He glances up to check whether the other occupant's taken notice, more of a reflexive response than anything else and meets an old ghost’s eyes in the mirror.
The last time he saw them, Gen was in the Stone World playing as a double-agent.
Listen close: Gen’s not breathing.
The man is roughly the same height as Tsukasa and just as broad. He's got a black top that's stretched over a wide chest and a badge indicating that he’s one of the club’s bouncers, although Gen hadn’t seen him coming into LUXE. There are faces you forget and there are faces that stick to your brain like Velcro. The man has a nametag, and Gen can’t read it in the mirror, but he thinks he knows what it says all the same.
Gen realizes—belatedly—that he’s been staring. “Uh—”
The bouncer frowns at him. When he asks, “Can I help you?” It sounds less like an attempt at politeness and more like something he’s required to say. Compulsory. Perfunctory.
The lack of recognition in the other is what jolts Gen out of it.
“No, sorry,” Gen recovers. He pretends to continue scrolling through his Twitter feed, to give his hands something to do, to give him a reason to break eye contact. “I didn’t mean to stare or anything. I thought you looked familiar is all.”
The man makes a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat but otherwise shrugs off Gen’s lackluster response. When the bouncer turns to leave, and Gen’s eyes can’t help but follow.
Glance: brown hair.
Glance: blunt chin.
Glance: nametag, Gozan Atsushi.
Gen doesn’t start breathing again until the door closes.
>>>To:[ST][11:10] It’s been forever since we texted—why don’t you ever text me? (｡•́︿•̀｡)
<<<From:[ST][11:18] Because you don’t need me to spy on Senkuu anymore, I suppose.
>>>To:[ST][11:19] Speaking of spies though~
>>>To:[ST][11:19] You remember when you sent me, Hyouga-chan, and a few other members of KoM to scope out Ishigami village?
<<<From:[ST][11:19] Yes, what about it?
>>>To:[ST][11:20] Do you recall the names of the men who died to the poison gas?
[Shishio Tsukasa is calling]
Saturday evening, Gen comes home from a meeting with his editor to find Ruri tending the potted nerve plant that both he and Kaseki have been cruelly neglecting while Kohaku shamelessly pokes through his belongings. Senkuu’s crammed himself half-inside Gen’s fridge while Chrome and Kaseki look on, equal parts fascinated and already somewhat familiar with the inner workings of a refrigerator from they're time in the Stone World.
It says something about them all, both on a personal level and a on a psychological one—that the first fridge ever invented in the fifty-eighth century was a cryochamber.
It says: At the heart of it, they were all kind of mad.
Kohaku, rifling through his closet: “You have so many clothes, and they all look nearly identical.”
Senkuu, poking his head out from behind the refrigerator door: “You guys need to clean out the fridge more often. Where’s all this orange shit even coming from?”
Gen, tired and hungry and folding back into melodrama like a butterfly that refuses to leave its cocoon: “Why did I ever give you all a key to my apartment?”
Hold a newborn for the first time and listen to their heartbeat in time with their parent’s recount of why they chose the name they did. Rock them as the kid begins to fuss and watch their parent’s eyes grow misty and sentimental and vulnerable as they explain the legacy behind their child’s name because, you see, there's a story behind and in every name. Gen’s never held a baby before, but nomenclature came easy after the first ten or so villagers.
Takagawa Chrome, Tachibana Kohaku, Tachibana Ruri, and Suzuki Suika. Gen is particularly proud of those names.
“Because you’re a lonely man. Lonely and not half as shady as you like making yourself out to be,” says Kohaku. She steals one of Gen’s dress ties out of his closet and uses it to pull her hair up into a ponytail. It’s bright and yellow, and the gleam in her eyes falls somewhere between mock ignorance and blatant teasing. She trades a look with Chrome, who’s still leaning over Senkuu’s shoulder, and emphasizes, “But mostly lonely.”
“Lies,” Gen defends, “I have Kaseki-chan.”
Chrome, a bona fide Teenager now: “Kaseki likes Siri-chan and YouTube-chan more than you.”
The warmth of the apartment has Chrome tying his school blazer around his waist like a delinquent. There's a butterfly stain of sweat on the back of his shirt, as well as a shiny smear of lead along the side of his hand from when he must’ve been taking notes during class. It brings Gen back to the days Senkuu spent sitting next to Chrome, patiently walking him through each of the alphabet systems. (Senkuu kicked him out after a while, once he realized Gen was only invested in teaching Chrome emoticons.)
Gen knows a thing or two about square pegs and round holes. The thing is, the modern-day folk got a do-over and a new lease on young adulthood, whereas the villagers have continued to age all the way up to whenever they were petrified. Chrome fits into the square peg of the world like a cylinder turned on its side; old enough to be at the start line for a bachelor’s degree, but so far from jaded that his teachers don’t even seem to notice.
Granted, even if they did, Takagawa Chrome’s forged birth certificate exists for a reason.
Kaseki—the utter traitor—nods solemnly, “Siri is very reliable, and YouTube has taught me quite a bit about the modern world.”
Gen isn’t typically the sort of man who prays. “Remind me to check your watch history, Kaseki-chan.”
Senkuu hums. Off-handedly, tangentially, informing him, “Ukyo mentioned that Ginrou discovered what camgirls are the other day.”
“Camgirls?” probes Ruri.
“How is my fridge looking, Senkuu-chan?”
Senkuu’s tone turns wry, “Like it belongs to a couple of dumbasses who don’t know anything about housecleaning.”
Senkuu slides out of the fridge and re-adjusts his sleeves from where he rolled them up to his elbows. This is something Gen’s finally adjusted to: Senkuu without his petrification scars. Ishigami Senkuu at sixteen years old and relatively healthy compared to where he was a year ago. Gen’s perspective of a year ago anyways.
“That’s a bit hypocritical, Senkuu-chan,” Gen complains.
It’s only half-hearted at best though. Gen thinks of the number of times he entered Senkuu’s home only to trip over a discarded scrap of machinery or to find dirty beakers sitting in the kitchen sink. Thinks of the worn, scarred leather of Senkuu’s couch, the books left propped open against the coffee table.
There’s a difference though, between Senkuu’s kind of messy and Gen’s. You can throw a blanket over a chair to hide the hole in the upholstery or invite a friend over before frantically sweeping the clutter and crumbs under the rug and under the bed. Gen’s apartment gets a bill of cleanliness until all the closets and drawers are opened. There’s an appeal to pretending that the living room and kitchen are showrooms, but Senkuu’s mess is blatant proof of a home that’s lived in. It has its own appeal.
“So.” Senkuu leans against the kitchen counter, flicks his knuckles against the open fridge door. “Chrome, what do you think the problem is? Where’s the breakdown?”
Chrome tilts his head, considering. “The compressor probably? I can hear the fan working just fine”—he reaches in to brush his hand along the interior, pulls away rubbing the pads fingers together—“and it’s not like there’s a buildup of ice along the back of the fridge or anything.”
“Think you could figure out how to fix it yourself? If all else fails, Gen’s loaded so he could just buy a new one.”
Gen makes a discontented noise. “Senkuu-chan, I don’t think you really know how much magicians make.”
Senkuu pads his way toward the kitchen sink, hands together like there’s a tacky overcoating on them. Maybe Gen and Kaseki do need to clean the fridge more. Wet, lather, scrub, rinse. Gen spots a streak of blue on Senkuu’s pinky that matches the color Ruri’s nails, and he's reminded that for all of Senkuu’s sarcasm and moments of mania, he can be soft too. “Your face gets printed on mentalism books, don’t act like you’re not bougie.”
“You buy my books?” Gen preens, balancing on the balls of his feet. He grins. “Why, Senkuu-chan, I would’ve given them to you for free if you’d just asked me to.”
Senkuu looks at Gen like he’s transparent as glass. Gen drinks in the amused judgment in the corners of his smile and in his eyes. It’s a look he’s quickly becoming re-accustomed to. “Like fuck you would,” Senkuu says. Adding, “Also, I don’t buy your books.”
Behind him, Ruri catches his eye, mouth curving up into a smile. She mouths, He’s lying. Gen already knew Senkuu was, but Ruri is kind like that—she leaves little room for misunderstanding and hurt feelings.
Senkuu continues, both as an afterthought and a playful jab, “Kazuya buys them, and he makes the rest of the lab take your quizzes. You know make a lot of relationship ones?” He bobs his head toward the fridge. To Kohaku, he says, “Mind sliding this out a bit so Chrome can get to the compressor?”
Kohaku rises from where she’d been idly flipping through Gen’s pathetic excuse of a photo album. Hasegawa gifted it to him years ago. Gen’s still only filled in five of the pockets, all of which are old photographs of Gen and his oba-chan. If Minami saw it, she’d throttle him and then pack it full of pictures of the Stone World crew.
Hanging on Gen’s fridge is a customized calendar featuring Nanami Ryusui’s abs, as well as his awful, awful grin, courtesy of Senkuu because he's a bit of a bastard. Gen’s also a bit of a bastard though, because instead of ripping the calendar off the fridge and throwing it in the trash where it belongs, he leaves it up there and makes a point of cooing at it whenever he gets visitors. Kohaku eyes Ryusui’s 2D abs with a withering stare before peeling the calendar off the fridge and smacking it face-down on the counter. After that, it's just a matter of tugging the refrigerator out of its cubbyhole.
It’s one of those thoughts that Gen usually doesn’t entertain for more than a few seconds at a time, but he’d never needed a calendar until returning to the modern world. Getting by without one is a simple process if your life only ever revolves around one thing.
Gen had also never moved a refrigerator before, but Kohaku makes it look easy.
When Chrome begins to unscrew the back paneling of the fridge, Gen tells him, “Chrome-chan, before you begin, please remember who’s paying for your tuition.”
“Nice try. I know Ryusui’s the one covering it.”
"...Well, it was worth a shot."
Senkuu snickers quietly under his breath at him, before hoisting himself onto Gen’s kitchen counter so he can watch Chrome and Kaseki as they work. Senkuu isn’t the type to change his life goals so easily, not when he’s already so in love with the idea of outer space, but privately, Gen’s always thought that he’d be a good teacher.
(Miss Frizzle but without the bus.
And the magic, for that matter.)
Gen makes himself comfortable on the couch and resolves not to distract them too much. There's a notebook on the coffee table in front of him. Gen doesn't recognize the cover, but he does recognize the handwriting once he opens it. For a few minutes, he occupies himself by idly flipping through the dozens upon dozens of pages filled with Senkuu's handwriting. The edges of the notebook are worn like Senkuu’s been running his fingers over them in thought or carrying it with him wherever he goes. He doesn’t write anything on the cover other than his name and phone number, and Gen only understands enough of its contents to deduce that the notes have something to do with genetics. After fifteen pages or so, he gently tosses it back onto the coffee table.
Over in the kitchen, Kohaku watches Chrome and Kaseki work's progress from beside her sister for only a handful of minutes before ultimately losing interest. She joins him on the couch, smoothing out the creases in her skirt as she sits. Girls in sundresses and makeup, girls with nose rings and Steam accounts—Gen doesn’t believe in stereotypes, but he’d be a liar if he said didn’t believe in patterns.
(Is a liar regardless, but that’s beside the point.)
Tropes exist for a reason, and there are patterns and tells in the way people present themselves. But Gen has to wonder if maybe those factors don’t apply to the Ishigami villagers. Can’t be applied, given the circumstances.
Kohaku’s dress is blue, and Gen leaves his house slippers at the door these days. Even now his feet are bare from where their tucked underneath him.
This is yet another pattern Gen’s noticed: The flaws you notice in others tend to be flaws you struggle with the most.
Gen’s tie is bright against Kohaku’s hair, a shock of yellow in what used to be blonde. The bathtub in Gen’s old apartment is probably still stained black from when they dyed it. Gen and Suika had been the ones to pick the dye, because neither Kohaku or Ruri were very opinionated about hair colors and because Suika had thought the concept of hair dye was fascinating. Gen had had to steer her away from the teals and pinks because although they claimed neutrality, there were—understandably—still limits to what the sisters were willing to tolerate.
(“Kohaku-chan and Ruri-chan are both dead ringers for a pretty famous celebrity,” Gen explained, googling different hair dye brands and scrolling through customer reviews while waiting with Suika for her optometry appointment. Mirai was proffering up glasses to Kinrou that toed the line between trendy and ironic; he slid each pair onto his nose dutifully when she asked him to. “The whole idea is to help them blend in. Purple, unfortunately, does the opposite.”
Suika swung her legs back and forth, toes dangling inches above the carpeted floor. “What’s a dead ringer?”
He tells her the metaphorical definition, not the original one, which isn’t suitable for children: “It just means that someone looks a lot like someone else.” Gen pulled up a picture of Lillian Weinberg on his phone and tilted the screen of his phone to Suika, “See?”
“No, I don’t have glasses.”
Eyeing the contrast of canary yellow against inky black hair, Gen tells Kohaku, “You know, if you needed hair ties, I’m sure Senkuu-chan would get them for you.”
“I know,” Kohaku says simply. “But like I said, all your clothes are practically identical anyways. You’re not going to miss this one tie, Gen.”
“I don’t want to hear that from the girl who’s worn the same dress her entire life.” Before she can sock him in the arm, “Also, it should be noted that that’s actually my lucky tie.”
There’s a clatter of metal in the kitchen and a few muttered explicatives from Chrome, but Gen doesn’t bother glancing to check because despite his previous teasing, he's not even remotely worried about the fridge. He’s trusted the former science team with things much more important after all.
Kohaku studies him, and Gen smiles airily back at her. Not everyone needs to get science in order to be intelligent, and Kohaku has always been one of the most perceptive people Gen knows. If she ever learned the rules to poker, he doesn’t think he’d want to play her. “Well then,” she starts, voice blunt and wry in equal parts, “if you want it, you’ll have to visit sometime and get it back.”
There’s an art to conversation that Gen’s learned over the years. A recipe that’s easy enough to hand down but harder to master, and Gen clings to it like a personal code. Ask him why, and he’d say it’s a habit he caught between his study of psychology and his career capitalizing on the principles of mentalism. Slide him a few shots and wait ‘til he downs them to ask again, and Gen would tell you it’s a lesson he learned from his mother, albeit indirectly.
(There’s a reason Gen’s choice of poison is Cola.)
Because: The truth is, Gen does visit. Often and whenever he has the spare time to do so. The other truth is that, for someone who’s used to living a stone’s throw away from her family and friends, even that is not always enough.
He grins, and there's a gentle, teasing lilt to his voice that colors his next words, “Kohaku-chan, if you missed me, you could’ve just said so.” He gets an elbow to the ribs for that and laughs in spite of the fact that it actually hurt. “Work’s been keeping me a bit busy lately. Magic, you know.” He raises his right hand and wriggles his fingers on the word ‘magic’, and Kohaku’s too used to him to even bother rolling her eyes. Instead, she gives him a look like she’s tasted something sour and vile, and Gen laughs.
Kohaku, who’s been spending far too much time with Senkuu, corrects, “Tricks and rehearsals, you mean. There’s no such thing as magic. Kaseki sent us pictures of your hat set up.”
Gen tilts his head, wondering, “Kaseki-chan is ratting me out?” More alarmed, “Is there a group chat that I’m not a part of, Kohaku-chan?”
“He may have sent us a clip or two of you miming your way throw a magic routine in your night clothes.”
“There is a group chat!” Gen wails, feeling equal parts impressed at the villagers’ collective adaptability and also left out.
And if there's a word to describe Ishigami village, it's adaptable. Because, although a large part of their accomplishments were due to Senkuu and his brilliance and knowledge and ambition, none of it would’ve mattered if the villagers weren’t game for a bit of a change. Or a little mad, Gen reflects.
“Don’t worry,” Kohaku soothes, expression far too sweet to be genuine. “We don’t share links to camgirl sites or anything.”
“I don’t know if I like what the modern world is doing to you all.”
“It’s not so bad.” Kohaku props her feet on the coffee table, legs angled to the left so they aren’t resting on Gen’s pathetic excuse for a photo album or the notebook that's physical proof of Senkuu's strange, newfound interest in genetics. Hints of gold are beginning to peak out at the crown of her head. Gen will need to recolor her roots eventually. “It’s been fine, even. Things are different, but I’m finding that a lot of things are the same too.”
“Oh?” Gen prompts, “Like what?”
Kohaku rattles of her list of examples off-handedly, like she knew he’d ask, “Like the fact that Chrome and Senkuu still stay up at odd hours of the night working on something ridiculous. Like the fact that Suika still has a habit of eavesdropping on people—”
“Tsukasa-chan did mention she and Mirai-chan got in trouble for sneaking into the teacher’s lounge,” Gen smiles.
Out of context: it's thoughtless to have put Tsukasa in a position where he’d have to care for two middle school-aged girls. In context: when a pair of friends is made up of one child who’s been clinically brain dead for years and another who's going to wake up in a place very far from home, there's really not much to discuss.
(A noteworthy aside, Tsukasa has yet to complain beyond faintly exasperated and grudgingly amused recounts of Mirai’s and Suika’s most recent exploits.
Gen doesn’t know if Tsukasa’s ever held a baby before either, but being an older brother suits him.)
Kohaku continues on, “You worrying over Senkuu—that’s another thing that’s still the same.”
It's a comment and an observation that has Gen's lips twisting wryly. Tachibana Kohaku: Perceptive and all too willing to share her findings. Senkuu might call Kohaku a lioness on occasion, but personally, privately, Gen’s always thought she was more akin to a bloodhound.
His mind wanders to Chrome’s previous emails despite himself, and there’s a heartbeat in which Gen wavers between asking whether his perceived worry is justified or not. By the second heartbeat, Gen isn’t sure if he's really ready to know the answer to that question.
'You don’t want to bring the Medusa with us?’ Gen said, mystified. ‘Why?’
‘Don’t think it’ll serve much purpose.’ Senkuu gripped the edges of his pallet to pull himself up, and Gen moved to prop the pillows up behind his back. Neither acknowledged the gesture nor the way Senkuu’s hands shook with the effort. ‘We need it to create the area of effect for the jump, and I don’t think it’ll have any juice left afterwards. Even if it does, we’re already planning on using the delayed blowback to deactivate the original Medusa. Medusas. Gorgons, maybe?’
Gen let that sink in for a moment. ‘No more petrification device.’
Senkuu grinned, skin stretched tight. ‘No petrification incident. We’ve got one shot, so we need to make it count. Even if the time traveling is successful, it won’t mean shit if the first Medusa is just going to petrify the world anyway.’
Gen laughed. ‘No pressure?’
Sometimes, Senkuu was nothing but ambition and canines and lightning, and if Gen wasn’t so fond of him, he’d know to be afraid.
(Gen was though.
Fond of Senkuu, that is.)
‘It’ll work—ten billion percent.’
[INBOX] Hello, Gen-kun! I hope you’re doing well. I have some questions re: an upcoming interview that you might be able to shed some light on. I hope you don’t mind, I got your email through your agency. I’m interviewing Lillian Weinberg next week and was wondering whether you might have any insight on what or how much she remembers? Has Senkuu-kun mentioned anything about the ISS crew? I’d ask him, but I figured you might know something since it was your idea to begin with.
[COMPOSE EMAIL] Senkuu-chan did regain his memories in the end, but I don’t believe it was because of what I’d proposed at the funeral. There was a delay between the jump and when he started to regain his memories, so I believe it was just the exposure to everyone (me, Tsukasa, Taiju, Yuzuriha) that triggered them. Senkuu-chan hasn’t mentioned anything about the ISS crew now that I think of it, but I’ll be sure to ask about it next time I see him though! Take care, Minami-chan!
Gen knew. He knew the moment Taiju entered. Spied it in the tense line of his mouth and the crease between his brows, in the way he entered quietly. Knew it the moment he realized that Taiju was seeking him out instead of sitting at Senkuu’s bedside.
Addendum:‘Bed’ was a generous term at this point, but Gen was in a giving mood.
Yet another: The iron lung was a charmless and cold piece of machinery, but was also their final line of defense.
Gen straightened and swallowed down the dread rising in his stomach. Thought: Taiju doesn’t wear silence well. Doesn’t wear grief well. ‘What happened?’ He pushed back the images of Senkuu struggling to breathe and heard himself repeat, ‘What happened?’
‘Senkuu’s is asking to be taken off ventilation.’
Gen hid his hands in his sleeves to hide the tremors. ‘Why? What’s wrong with it?’
‘He doesn’t…’ The crease between Taiju’s brows deepened. ‘He just wants to get out. He won't say why, but I think—he doesn’t like that he can’t move or walk, doesn’t like being inside it, he just—’ Taiju’s expression shuttered, eyes growing wet, and Gen felt numb. Senkuu could barely move even before they placed him in the iron lung. ‘He just wants to get out.’
‘Does he know that—’
‘He knows, Gen.’
Gen hasn’t read the final chapter of the book Nikki lent him yet.
It’s the kind of thought that floats to forefront of his mind the way answers from a Magic 8-Ball do. The apartment is quiet, save for Gen’s mindless, rhythmless tapping against the kitchen table. The thing is, Gen used to like endings. He would read books for the satisfaction of the final page, would lay in bed with glow-in-the-dark stars above his head, wondering what the last words he’d ever say would be. The thing is, in real life, endings aren’t romantic.
These days, the final pages make Gen’s chest ache, and nighttime tastes like the second minute after curtain call—when the high of a successful show begins to fizzle out and the last of his audience’s footsteps shuffle through the doors until it’s just Gen.
Gen unlocks his phone and doesn’t bother scrolling through his contacts—he just enters the ten digits because at this point, it’s engraved in his mind along with April 1st, 5738 AD.
Romance and love aren’t interchangeable, but Gen thinks that some types of love go like this: Spend a life second-guessing what you do and examining yourself through the lens of a tabloid magazine, garner a reputation that makes the child in you cringe but go with it because it’s easier than convincing others that people can change. And then—either through a stroke of luck or mercy (or bad luck, maybe)—meet a person you don’t need to second-guess yourself with.
“Hey,” Gen breathes, keeping his voice down for Kaseki’s sake. “If Byakuya-chan and Lillian-chan get married again in this life and have kids, will they be the same children that they had in the other timeline?”
Senkuu’s voice gets fainter, like he’s pulling the phone away from his ear to stare at it. “What the fuck.”
More urgently, Gen presses, “Will they, Senkuu-chan?”
“Look, it’s too early for me to do the math right now. And for thinking about my old man getting it on—thank fuck for that mental image, by the way.” Down the line, Gen can hear Senkuu shifting in bed, and he soaks in the sound of his voice, disgruntled as it is. “Why’re you actually calling me at 3:00am?”
Three in the morning: the hour where the only people awake by choice are the artists, because sometimes witching hour is when inspiration hits the hardest. Three in the morning: when writers and painters are at their best and there’s no one awake to appreciate it.
The catch—Gen's not awake by choice right now, but he is an artist.
“Well, I was—”
He protests, “I didn’t say anything yet!”
“I could tell you were going to lie.”
“Aw,” Gen coos, after getting over that bit of surprise, “Senkuu-chan is learning my tells.”
“Sure am.” To prove it, “And ‘cause that didn’t work, you’re trying to changing the subject.”
“…You do read my books.”
“Jesus, you’re still on that?”
Senkuu’s laugh filters through the speaker, raspy and quiet from a throat that’s gone dry from sleep. Gen lets his head rest against the table, over his phone. Live a life that you try to call your own and treat independence like it’s a signature, but then meet the person that would hurt the most to lose. All’s fair in love and war, but falling in love isn’t always fair.
“I couldn’t sleep for the longest time, and if I go to bed now, I’ll just have a headache when I wake up,” Gen admits. He thinks of Minami’s email. Of Tsukasa’s phone call, by extension. “And staying up this late got me thinking—and I do actually have a question for you. Not the one I just asked, although, I guess it does have to do with Byakuya-chan and Lilian-chan by association?”
Senkuu’s voice is dry from more than just sleep. “It couldn’t have waited until morning?”
“Technically it is morning. Good morning,” Gen adds. Over the phone, Gen can hear the judgmental look. “Does your dad remember the Stone World, Senkuu-chan?”
Senkuu’s response comes easily. “No. Not from what I can tell. I took a page out of your book—not literally, go away—but I think I’ve dropped enough hints that he would’ve said something by now if he remembered.” Senkuu yawns, and now Gen has to too because it’s contagious. “He emailed me about a weird dream the day the petrification incident was supposed to happen, but I don’t think it was related. Before he left, he’d tell me about what he dreamt of over breakfast—fuck knows why. Old man probably thought it was entertaining, but I don’t need to know what his brain comes up with when he’s conked out…. I think in some ways, it’d be easier if he did remember. He keeps asking me if there’s something going on at school or with Yuzuriha or Taiju. I think he can tell things are different. With me. Did you fall asleep?”
“No, I’m still here.”
“Ah,” Senkuu clicks his tongue. “Rough. I thought me rambling would put you to sleep.”
Gen grins, the skin of his cheek rubbing against the table from how he’s resting. “It never does.” He closes his eyes. Unbidden, he thinks back to the five names that had rolled off Tsukasa's tongue three nights ago, and the familiar-but-unfamiliar face he ran into at LUXE. “Your dad and Gozan are in the same boat though.”
“One of the people Tsukasa revived in the Stone World.” Gen wracks his brain for details that Senkuu might remember. “Looked like he’d eat a newborn for the protein? Wasn’t clever enough to stay in Hyouga-chan’s good graces?”
“Got an actual description I can work with?”
“Petrification scar down the middle of his face?”
“Oh. Oh, him.” Senkuu asks, “What makes you think that guy doesn’t remember anything?”
“Maybe the statement is a tad too definitive,” Gen admits after a second. “I ran into him a few nights ago, but I guess we didn’t really speak much. Turns out he’s a bouncer at the club I signed a contract with. I asked Tsukasa to double-check.” Gen’s lips twist ruefully. “He verified that it was him, but now he wants me to try to—I don’t know, help him recover his memories of the Stone World.”
It’s too difficult to explain—without opening old wounds that—during the time Tsukasa spent alongside Gozan and the rest of his men, building his Kingdom of Might and learning how to survive in the Stone World, Tsukasa made bonds that aren’t easily torn down or forgotten, regardless of his change in heart. It’s hard to bring up the time Tsukasa turned on Senkuu and stole the Miracle Fluid recipe to further his own agenda, as well as the Stone Wars.
So instead, Gen just says, “It’s complicated. And I don’t even know if I can do it. So.”
“Why do you think my old man doesn’t remember?” Senkuu wonders, throwing out the question out of nowhere like it’s an itch he can’t reach. It’s difficult to tell over the phone, but Gen thinks he catches an edge of vulnerability beneath the prickly outer shell that is Senkuu’s default when a conversation begins to turn personal.
Ishigami Senkuu: The sort of person who wears selfishness and ambition like armor because admitting that you care is scary. Built invention after invention under the guise of furthering his own goals and acted as if any resulting benefit for the villagers was simply consequential. Addresses all his problems head-on except for the ones that are emotional in nature.
Put like that, it’s not much of a mystery, why Gen is so gone for him.
Senkuu is still speaking, still chasing this seemingly illogic piece of information down the rabbit hole, “Think it’s because he’d been dead for way longer? If that’s the case, it’d check out for this Gozan person too, but I don’t get why it’d make a difference.” Senkuu shifts, fabric rubbing against the phone mic for a brief second before he presses the phone back to his ear. “If anything, I shouldn’t remember as much as I do.”
They don’t tell Senkuu about Gen’s original plan to preserve his memories for a number of reasons. Not out of secrecy exactly but because there are conversation and topics that no one should have to think about and because Gen’s plan was a crapshoot anyways.
This is the running theory: Senkuu’s memory was triggered over time because of people—specifically, Gen, Tsukasa, Yuzuriha, and Taiju—continuously stimulating memories of his time in the Stone World, which culminated in a cascade effect of Senkuu remembering everything.
This is the glaring reason they believe Gen’s plan didn’t work: The only thing that carried over from the Stone World during the jump was the electric activity the body naturally produces. None of the physical changes, none of the scars and the callouses, none of the structural changes to the brain and hippocampus.
(It didn’t matter how carefully they preserved the body.)
“I’m glad you remember,” Gen can’t help but say. The number of conversations they had in the Stone World about this very thing— “The villagers would’ve barged into your life whether or not you remembered them, of course, but it’s—I’m glad you remember, Senkuu-chan.”
Senkuu’s response is quiet and muffled. Gen thinks he says: “Yeah, me too.”
“Mm?” he mumbles.
Gen’s lips pull into a smile at nothing, something unbearably fond curling in his chest. He knows what it’s called. “Goodnight.”
He hears the smile Senkuu’s own voice: “‘Night, Gen.”
‘Let me out.’
Physically, Senkuu was never tall or broad-shouldered to begin with: red eyes and pale skin and bird bones that someone like Tsukasa could’ve crushed in his bare hands. Inside the iron lung, he almost looked like a child.
Yuzuriha’s voice was strained like a guitar string that’d been twisted far too tight. ‘I know it’s not comfortable, I’m sorry—I’m so, so sorry, Senkuu-kun.’ It was at that point that Senkuu stopped looking at her, head falling back to look at the roof of the hut and missing the way Yuzuriha’s face crumpled. ‘I’ll talk to Chrome-kun and Kaseki to see if they can make it any better, but please—’
Senkuu, through gritted teeth, voice gravel-rough, ‘Yuzuriha.’
‘Yuzuriha-chan, Senkuu-chan,’ Gen began quietly, finally making his appearance known, ‘you’re both going to work yourselves up like this.’
‘Gen.’ Senkuu’s eyes found his, the sharpness in them worn over in the way Kaseki’s creations are after he sands them down, ‘get me out of this thing.’
Gen motioned to speak—
It was at that point, he remembered: When the world turned to stone, when they couldn’t move or feel or hear, Senkuu had been awake for all 3700 years.
Of course Gen’s resolve crumbled.
Gen shuts off the radio when the station goes on a commercial break for baby diapers, but Kaseki’s already filling the ensuing silence with a low, raspy hum from the passenger’s seat. If Gen listens close, he can pick out the faded tune of one of Lillian Weinberg’s songs—one of the few things passed on from the ISS crew to their children and then their children. The rhythm’s changed a bit, but Gen doesn’t know if that’s because of Kaseki or if that’s simply how the tune evolved over the years.
They’ve got the windows rolled down to let the breeze in, and it tugs at the mail Gen read but never bothered taking into the apartment. Curled and crammed into the cupholder, the words Local Recreational Programs for Retirees flicker in and out of his periphery.
It’d been years since he bothered opening mail from his oba-chan’s nursing home; he can’t go to family support group because he’s too well-known to keep his participation discreet, and doesn’t want to go because coming alone as a teenager is too telling. This most recent letter wasn’t an invitation to one of the home’s support groups though, and when Gen opened it, he almost wished he hadn’t. It’s been years since his oba-chan was in the right state of mind to do any of the things listed on the brochure.
The oncoming wind starts to beat against the car windows in that way that drowns out all other sound and hurts your ears. Old man or not, there was little in the Stone World that was loud enough to damage his hearing, and Kaseki cringes a little before rolling the windows back up.
The residential home his grandmother lives at only plays Bingo on Fridays, but at the Kichijoji property (which is—functionally—a nursing home, even it’s not listed as such on paper), game night typically consists of CLUE (wherein they all manage to lose even when they team up against Suika), Monopoly (in which people vie for second place behind Ryusui), and Pretty Pretty Princess (which Gen suspects that Mirai doesn’t actually enjoy playing so much as she does roping her brother into wearing plastic crowns and jewels), among other games.
They tried Cards Against Humanity once and then never again.
On the whole, Gen isn’t sure whether he misses Bingo or not.
Kaseki—unlike most of the ungrateful heathens that make up Gen’s friend group—doesn’t act like driving with him is akin to signing his own death warrant and watches the passing scenery with a calm eye. He plucks idly at the rubber band stretched tightly around the CLUE box and pauses his humming. Asks, “Do you think our Suika will grow up to be a detective?”
It could be argued that Suika, in some ways, was already a practicing detective from their days in the Stone World, but Kaseki isn’t asking for the sake of arguing semantics.
“Maybe,” Gen muses. “It’s certainly a possibility anyway—either that or maybe a reporter like Minami-chan. She has a knack for getting answers.” Because one doesn’t discuss Suika without also mentioning Mirai these days, he adds, “Mirai-chan wants to be a teacher. Taiju-chan wants to live on a farm one day with Yuzuriha-chan, where she can do her crafts and hang them around the house.” It’s one of those bubbly, sweet dreams that you make wistful for your own love life. Gen drums his fingers on the steering wheel, thinking. “Do you think Chrome-chan will follow Senkuu-chan to outer space?”
Kaseki doesn’t waste as much time considering the question as Gen anticipated, which makes him wonder if he and Chrome had talked about it at some point. “Hard to say. These days, I think he’s become more infatuated with the medical field.”
Gen spares him a sidelong glance. The thing that most people tended to forget is that—for all of Kaseki’s passion and excitement for science, for all of his strength and ability to keep pace with a group of teenagers and young adults on a mission—Kaseki was old enough to have forgotten more stories than Gen’s heard. Old enough to know how to make friends with the elephants in the room. Gen doesn’t know at which point a new soul becomes an old soul, but Kaseki’s always seemed to straddle the line.
Gen thinks of emails sent at two in the morning, of enclosed research articles and pilot studies. Thinks of doxycycline and bouts of pneumonia. He wonders if Kaseki is thinking of them too. “He was interested when Ruri-chan was sick as well,” Gen finally replies, neutral and passive. Before either of them can marinate on that, before either are tempted to tug at any loose string and unravel all the implications of wrapped up in that statement, he continues, “Has Kohaku-chan mentioned anything?”
“Chrome says that she’s been visiting the dojo with Tsukasa,” says Kaseki, which causes Gen raise his brows. “Even though she may not go pro, it still gives her something to focus on. In all my years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ishigami village have as much free time.”
Kaseki doesn’t say: Kohaku is trying to figure out where she fits in in this world.
He doesn’t say: The village, as a whole, is searching for something to fill the void.
Regardless—message received. Gen makes a mental note to touch base with Ryusui about his plans to hire on some of the villagers to work for the Nanami corporation. Makes a mental note to talk to Yuzuriha about more frequent get-togethers, even if not everyone can make it.
Gen glances at Kaseki for just a moment before looking back at the road. “All right,” he starts, needing to recap. “All right, so Suika-chan and Chrome-chan have school and their respective dreams. Everyone else is still waiting on Ryusui-chan to figure out employment options with his family’s company.” Gen ticks off four of his fingers. “Except for Kohaku-chan, because apparently she’s spending her spare time with Tsukasa-chan beating up poor, unsuspecting people in a dojo.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say they’re unsuspecting.” Kaseki reasons, “They are in a dojo.”
“Kaseki-chan,” Gen begins kindly, “no one is ever quite ready when it comes to Kohaku-chan.”
Gen flips his turn signal on and rounds the corner to the Kichijoji property currently housing the elder members of Ishigami village: a machiya-style house with a garden that the villagers take turns caring for. Pretty enough that the elders of Ishigami village were all in awe over it at first but still plain enough that you wouldn’t look at it twice.
It goes like this: Seven elders, twenty-nine teenagers and adults, and four children comprise Ishigami village. For all Ryusui’s resources, there are only so documents you can forge to make a believable paper trail, and the elders of Ishigami village—minus Kaseki—are old enough to need someone to care for them, but the typical residential home would find the lack of paperwork suspect.
It goes like this: Ryusui buys the home, and Gen hires the private nurse. The property in the Kichijoji district becomes something of a center point for everyone regardless of who it was originally intended to house.
Gen maneuvers the car up alongside the curb. He asks, “What about you though, Kaseki-chan? Any hobbies or interests you’re considering?”
He parks the car, but neither of them unbuckles immediately. Kaseki’s wrinkled gaze flicks off to the side and then back, and he jolts slightly when he realizes Gen’s looking. Gen’s brows raise imperceptibly in response once it hits him that Kaseki was looking for a way to brush off his question.
“Ah,” Kaseki says, after a beat, “for now, I’m just contenting myself by learning as much as I can about this world.”
Gen turns off the ignition, using the action as a moment to gather his thoughts. He thinks of Kohaku and Ruri who are learning about the modern world at their own pace. Thinks of Chrome and Suika who already have goals set out for this new world. Thinks of Kaseki, sitting at the kitchen table or wandering after the Roomba, listening to Siri as she reads Wikipedia articles or puzzling over why he’s suddenly unable to access Reddit on his iPad (Gen does feel guilty about that, but it’s the resolved kind of guilt that comes with doing what’s necessary, i.e. child-lock).
Gen reflects over what he already knows, and what he worried over even before they had the bare bones of the time machine set up.
Gen, kindly and gently, “Well, I’m sure you’ll pick up something eventually. This world is massive, Kaseki-chan.” It hits him a beat too late—
Kaseki gives him a smile like he sees through Gen and appreciates his efforts anyways. “I’m well aware.”
—The world is massive, and sometimes, that’s what makes it so difficult to find your place in it.
>>>From: firstname.lastname@example.org [FORWARDED from: Juntendo University Hospital]
[INBOX] [FILE ATTACHED] Appointment Reminder see more
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When Gen gets the email, he peels himself off the floor from where Ryusui and Ginrou showered him in colorful Monopoly money immediately after driving him to bankruptcy. He’s still distracted and mulling over his conversation with Kaseki, but when he checks, the old man seems to be enjoying himself, surrounded by old faces and friends.
(Gen is a performer though, and so he knows better.)
The Kichijoji property is a three-story house with wide windows and large, blocky architecture, but there’s a short balcony overlooking the garden that people migrate to whenever they need air or to get away from the noise. He passes by Chrome along the way, currently sprawled across a sofa all by himself, glowering down at his laptop and glancing wistfully into the next room over where Suika, Mirai, Taiju, and Tsukasa are playing Pretty Pretty Princess.
The light from the laptop screen casts harsh shadows over Chrome’s face that don’t suit him at all. Gen accuses him of brooding.
“I’m not brooding, I’m working on something,” Chrome says while scowling and sulking, and so Gen takes his claim with the amount of salt that makes up Magma’s personality. Chrome’s phone vibrates against the coffee table, and the scowl turns into something more akin to a pout. (Someday, Gen will reflect on this interaction and marvel over the idea of Chrome surrounded by modern technology.) “I have a group project for one of my classes, and my partner wants to work ahead to try to get it done by Sunday.”
When Gen was in school, he excelled at group projects in that he knew to delegate tasks before anyone else could protest. Curious, he asks, “When were you planning on working on it?”
The hand propping up Chrome’s head drops away, and he lets himself faceplant into the cream polyester sofa. “Thursday.”
Gen has a feeling he knows where this is going. The difference between deadlines in the Stone World and the modern era: one was a matter of life-or-death and the other is arbitrary and annoying. “And when’s it due?”
Into the sofa, Chrome mumbles, “Friday.” Then, inexplicably, “Did you know that in America, people used to put bells on their graves? In case they accidentally buried someone alive.”
Gen did know that actually, but still. Gen glances at the laptop screen again. In the upper right corner, beneath the names Takagawa Chrome and Sato Nagisa is the class ID. World history.
(It only partially explains why Chrome is studying old burial practices.)
“Well,” he starts placidly, “that isn’t at all morbid.”
“Yeah, well,” Chrome shrugs, “healthcare wasn’t as good as it is now. Technology in healthcare wasn’t as good.”
Gen’s still peering over the edge of the laptop screen, skimming what Chrome has so far. Altogether, he has: the date, the class ID, his name, and two lackluster sentences that he must’ve dictated because reading’s easier than writing for Chrome. “Anything Senkuu-chan could help with maybe? Or me?” Adopting a slightly dryer tone, “Because, you know, being a high school student was the highlight of my life.”
“For you, it probably would’ve been if you’d went to school with Senkuu,” Chrome blithely points out. Over the noise of Gen choking on his own spit, Chrome continues, “It’s not that the class is hard to understand or anything, but there’s a lot to go through.”
Takagawa Chrome: A scientist even before Senkuu entered the picture, and a faster learner than anyone Gen’s ever met. He figured out the key to fighting against the Medusa and finished a time machine even after losing Senkuu. The catch—excellence in one area of study doesn’t always translate to aptitude in another. You can be good at math and fail geography, and Chrome’s mind will always be more suited to the intricacies of science than the overarching field of history.
“Well,” Gen says, “if you ever need a quiet place to study, Kaseki’s been looking for a test taster for his recipes.” Kaseki isn’t bad really, he’s quick to understand how to operate the kitchen appliances, but he has a tendency to throw together flavors and spices that aren’t meant to mix because he has the palate of someone who’s lived on fish his entire life. Gen tacks on, “Also, we owe you for fixing our fridge.”
Chrome hums his assent, the beginnings of a grin tugging at his lips, “Yeah, if I hadn’t fixed it, you’d be stuck drinking lukewarm Cola. The horror.”
“I changed my mind, you can flunk out for all I care.”
Someday, Gen will track down the high schooler who’s been introducing Chrome to sarcasm and murder them.
Gen spins on his heel and redirects his attention to locating Senkuu, fastidiously ignoring the way Chrome cackles at his back and he wonders if maybe, actually, it isn’t some random teenager rubbing off on Chrome. Maybe it’s just the entirety of the Stone World crew getting too used to each other, or a byproduct of that.
This is the saying everyone knows: Birds of a feather flock together.
This is the saying in its entirety: Birds of a feather flock together, until the cat comes.
You can walk into a room and pick out the people you don’t want to associate yourself with in a heartbeat. Then on the flipside, you can find yourself scrolling through your contacts list, searching for someone to talk to but coming up empty. Sometimes, it’s the hard times that drive away the people you thought you knew. Other times, it’s the uniting factor. The first sign of civilization was something like this: a bone that healed because someone cared enough to protect another as they recovered.
Gen finds Senkuu on the balcony like he expected. The air outside is warmer than the AC-filled interior, and the setting sun streaks the sky in purples and pinks. Senkuu’s draped over the railing like a cat, one hand fiddling with the tab on his energy drink and the other arm angling over the edge artfully while he watches some of the younger children (the ones who lack the attention span to sit still for a boardgame) play cops and robbers in the garden. It feels so saccharinely sentimental that if Gen didn’t know Senkuu as well as he did—well enough to understand that there are soft, vulnerable facets to his personality—he’d assume something was wrong.
Cheers to the cat that made them birds of a feather.
Cheers to Senkuu, who had a heart and cared enough to try to save everyone, regardless of how often he tried to pass it off as wanting to fulfill his own ambitions.
Gen comes alongside Senkuu and leans on his forearms against the railing. Nodding toward the kids with his chin, “We should get the adults involved—teach everyone how to play capture the flag. They’d love it.”
Senkuu snorts into his drink, dryly intones, “Yeah, the garden’s not going to survive that. You guys can’t even play Bingo without rage quitting.” Despite his tone, he mirrors Gen’s posture, elbows brushing up against his own, and he’s close enough that Gen can smell his shampoo. In this lighting, this close, his eyes look wine-red.
“I remember that.” The residents of the Kichijoji were pulling out bingo balls out of various nooks and crannies for weeks after the ensuing fallout. Gen, in a rare stroke of honesty, confesses, “In all fairness, I was cheating.”
Senkuu mutters a quiet, “I fucking knew it.”
Gen, serenely, “And yet you couldn’t prove a thing.”
Senkuu tips his can bottom-up and drinks like he’s hoping the Raizin Zero will turn into hard liquor on the way down. Unlike Hasegawa, Gen thinks, if Senkuu’s hair went grey, it’d probably be difficult to notice. It’s a break-even trade; Senkuu gives Gen grey hairs too sometimes, ableit in different contexts.
Gen watches his Adam’s apple bob for a moment and decides to switch topics. Unlocking his phone, he opens up his email. Specifically, the email Senkuu forwarded him just a bit ago detailing his upcoming doctor’s appointment. Phone between his index finger and thumb, he tilts the screen toward Senkuu. “Were you looking for company or just a ride?”
There’s a ring of condensation on the railing from where Senkuu let his drink sit for too long, and he wipes it away with his fingers. “I’m looking for company during the train ride,” Senkuu clarifies. “I already have white coat syndrome to begin with, and it’ll just fuck with my blood pressure even more if you drive.”
“How rude,” Gen says, but it’s just a simple, token protest—just a way to assure Senkuu that they’re Senkuu and Gen regardless of the topic of conversation.
This is what Gen has learned, first by watching his oba-chan, and then again, through Senkuu: There are (at least) two perspectives to everything, and for the people on the sickbed, it isn’t always the illness or injury that hurts the most. It isn’t even always the fear of dying. Sometimes, the thing that makes you want to curl under the bedsheets—as if the world is going to swoop down and peck out all of your soft and vulnerable parts—isn’t the thing that’s landed you on the sickbed, but the shift in everyone’s worldview when they look at you.
There’s trust and then there’s the unsung art of sharing unfiltered secrets over text on a whim only to feign ignorance after the fact. There’s the truth, and then there’s the desire to keep perception and reality confined to two separate pages. Gen can flick between the two pages just fine when he wants; his fingers are made for Zarrow shuffles. It isn’t the case for Senkuu though.
In the context of Senkuu, there was never any consent regarding whether people learned of his illness or not. In the context of Senkuu, the beating his self-image took had to have hurt just as much, if not more, than the thing killing him.
Hence, why Senkuu’s request has Gen’s heart beating in six-eighth time: ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.
“Want me to meet you at the station?” Gen asks. “Or do you want me to pick you up from school, and we’ll get something to eat before we walk over?”
Senkuu exhales quietly, nearly imperceptible. “Either one’s fine. Doesn’t make a difference, really.”
“Well,” he replies, “let me know what you decide.”
The fifteen-year-old Senkuu who hadn’t lived through the Stone World—hadn’t ever had to rely on anyone with regards to his health problems apart from his father—would quite possibly never have willingly let Gen know that he had a heart condition. Would sooner plan his own funeral rites than let people know he’d be leaving soon. That said, with the majority of Senkuu’s memories recovered, it puts things into perspective: They already know what he looks like dying.
In that context, a hospital visit is simultaneously nothing and also everything.
Group Name: we're all criminals and accomplices so there is no escaping this friendship
Gen[23:24] All right- so!!
Gen[23:24] There was something I wanted to ask you guys, but I couldn’t find the right opportunity earlier (๑ˊ▵ॢˋ̥๑) (๑ˊ▵ॢˋ̥๑)
Ryusui[23:25] jesus I forgot this chat existed
Yuzuriha[23:26] ^^^because none of the villagers are on it and we agreed not to disclude them !! :(
Tsukasa[23:26] Which does beg the question…
Taiju[23:27] ITHOUGHT WE HAAD A NO SECRETS POLICY GEN
Ukyo[23:27] @Taiju I’m sure its nothing like what you’re thinking haha.
Gen[23:27] This doesn’t have anything to do with secrets!!
Senkuu[23:28] what’s up gen?
Gen[23:30] I was just wondering
Gen[23:31] Have you noticed if any of the villagers are having trouble ?
Ryusui[23:33] What do you mean?
Yuzuriha[23:34] If something’s wrong gen-kun…
Gen[23:35] Sorry that was a little vague!! I meant trouble adjusting?
Gen[23:36] It’s just that Kaseki-chan’s mentioned something earlier that had me wondering
Taiju[23:38] Yuzuriha and I aren’t hosting anyone
Taiju[23:39] But they all seem ok!
Ukyo[23:39] No, I think I get what you mean, Gen.
Ryusui[23:42] @Ukyo ?
Yuzuriha[23:48] Is something wrong with Kinrou and Ginrou?
Ukyo[23:50] Oh, it’s nothing major.
Ukyo[23:50] Or blatantly obvious, I guess is what I’m trying to say.
Ukyo[23:52] Sometimes it just seems like they’re only ever really observing.
Tsukasa[23:55] I suppose Suika was acting a bit withdrawn at the beginning of the schoolyear. It slipped my mind because Mirai was the same way.
Tsukasa[23:55] Senkuu, what about you? You have 3 of them.
Senkuu[23:56] its hard to tell with kohaku but chrome’s good
Senkuu[23:57] ruri doesn’t leave the house unless we’re all going out
Gen[00:01] Well, all right
Gen[00:01] Sorry to bring the mood down!! (๑′°︿°๑) Serious conversations are the worst~~
Gen[00:01] I’m going to get my beauty sleep, you all should too ( ˘ ³˘)♥
Gen[00:02] Especially you Ryusui-chan~~~
Yuzuriha[00:06] Good night!!
Tsukasa[00:07] Good night everyone.
Taiju[00:07] SLEEP WELL!!
Ryusui[00:07] You!!!! I know for a fact you keep a calendar of me on your fridge!!!!
Ryusui[00:08] I don’t think that’s your line here????
Tsukasa[00:09] Don’t rile him up, Gen. Good night you two.
Magic shows without Hasegawa aren’t novel experiences, but it’s only in his absence that Gen realizes how much Hasegawa’s been hovering over him since the jump. On one hand, it’s a little unfair because Gen’s an adult and has been living on his own just fine and hasn’t taken a nosedive off the stage since that one initial incident. On the other hand, this brief taste of independence also has Gen trying to smuggle a now-depetrified swallow out of LUXE underneath his blazer.
The issue with the stoned birds is that, once Gen depetrifies them, he really can’t keep them.
The very-much-alive-and-livid-about-it bird won’t stop pecking at his nipple, and Gen kind of wants to die.
The club’s music sends vibrations up through the soles of Gen’s shoes as he makes his way for the exit. He’s using both his right hand and left bicep to keep the swallow from escaping into the nightclub and has to juggle a bit to turn the door handle. The second he’s outside the building where no one can see, he releases the bird, and it flies out of Gen’s hands leaving a sad trail of feathers. He wonders—a little latently—just how well the birds from the Stone World are adjusting.
Gen wanders further along the outside perimeter of LUXE, rounding a corner as he mentally scrolls through all the facts he retained from the Nature channel. Maybe he shouldn’t be releasing them. Maybe they’re all just dying out there.
A rough voice, “Did’ya need something?”
Gen starts, jolting out of his skin. It takes him a moment to recognize the speaker, partially due to surprise but also because the streetlights don’t reach far enough to see his face easily. It’s the bouncer—Gozan Atsushi.
His mind supplies: The one from the restroom.
Corrects: The one Hyouga murdered in cold blood.
Gen slides his hands into his pockets, posture loosening. “Nope, just grabbing some fresh air.”
“Uh-huh,” the guy says dubiously. He’s got a cigarette dangling between his fingers.
Gen traces the rising smoke with his eyes, watchful. In truth, he finds Gozan unsettling. Not in the sense that he’s dangerous (although experience in the Stone Wars confirms that he is)—but in the sense that Gen’s only just realizing there are five Aces floating around in this poker match, and he has none of them.
He’d been sleep-deprived at the time and only asked Senkuu about whether the ISS crew retained their memories of Stone World for Minami’s sake, but now Gen’s starting to understand niggling curiosity that was in Senkuu’s voice as they’d talked about Byakuya and all the others who’d died and forgotten and still don’t remember.
Moreover, for all his conflicting feelings regarding Tsukasa’s request to help someone who used to be a threat to Gen, when he tries, he can understand where it stems from. (Deeper still, is a part of Gen that regrets some of the things he said to Tsukasa at the funeral.)
There is Tsukasa, who called Gen up with five names on his tongue the moment Gen so much as alluded to running into one of them.
And there is Senkuu, who would never accept miracles at face value.
Then, there is Gen, who hasn’t said it out loud but wishes Byakuya would remember the Stone World, if only so he’d know what his son had accomplished.
These are the puzzle pieces that Gen has to work with: Senkuu didn’t remember the Stone World at all until his attack. Gen’s long since suspected that the only reason Senkuu ever remembered was because everyone else stimulated them just by being there.
He’s looking at Gozan, but he’s thinking of what Senkuu said over the phone, when he thought Gen had fallen asleep.
When life gives you lemons…
Gen considers his options, and then settles on the cigarette. “Mind if I beg one off of you? I normally have my own,” he lies, “but my manager’s been nagging me about it.” Laughing, he adds, “He thinks I have too many bad habits to begin with.”
Gozan makes a commiserating little grunt, evidently in a good enough mood to not want to spurn Gen’s attempts at conversation. It’s surprising; during the Stone Wars, he was always telling Gen to be quiet. Another cue, Gen notes, that Gozan doesn’t remember anything right now.
“I know the feeling,” he tells Gen.
He flicks his pack of smokes at Gen, and a single cigarette slides out smoothly. Gozan even lights it for him after he takes it, which has Gen mentally recapping to make sure that this really is the person he thinks it is. (One glance though, and Gen knows that it is him, regardless of the discrepancy in behavior.)
Gen has to picture the way Hasegawa does it before he brings the cigarette up to his lips. He inhales and it’s absolutely awful. Gen swallows back the urge to cough, eyes watering, and Jesus, Hasegawa-chan goes through like five of these a day.
Gozan isn’t looking at him, luckily. Just lounging against the wall while savoring his smoke break. “Tough crowd tonight?”
Gen shrugs. “Not used to working in a crowd anymore really.” He tips the cigarette at him, outwardly appreciative and inwardly wondering at what point it’s appropriate to stamp it out. “Thanks, by the way. My name’s Asagiri.”
The guy, nodding, “Yeah, me and the other guys were debriefed on you when you signed with LUXE. I think I’ve seen you on a variety show with Shishio.”
“Oh!” Gen exclaims. “Are you a fan of Tsukasa-chan?” He watches Gozan’s eyes and searches for a flicker of—something. Whatever he’s waiting for, it never comes.
The guy shrugs. “I watch his fights.”
Gen tries to remember whatever snippets of conversation he’d overhead during the Stone Wars. “Are you a fighter?”
If he thinks the phrasing is unusual, Gozan doesn’t show it. “I used to be a wrestler.” He licks his lips. Takes another drag. “Fucked my UCL though and haven’t done it competitively since.”
Gen had wondered how Minami knew all those people.
He tries again one more time, before the conversation just gets stilted. “Have you ever met Tsukasa-chan?”
“No,” Gozan says. “Shishio seems like a chill guy, but nah.”
“Tsukasa-chan usually gives off that vibe, doesn’t he?” he hears himself say, a little distant. A sidelong glance shows no change in Gozan’s demeanor, and Gen frowns privately to himself.
It isn’t disappointment exactly, because he’s not sure how he’d explain things to Gozan in a way that wouldn’t prompt the other into attacking him, but the lack of stimulability doesn’t bode well for any of the others with regards to regaining their memories. Namely, Byakuya.
He checks his watch and feigns chagrin. “Ah—my agent’s probably looking for me by now, and he’ll skin me alive if he catches me with this.” Gen drops the stub on the ground and stamps it out. Turning on his heel, he waves one hand in mock salute. “Thanks again, Gozan-chan.”
Gozan nods at him. “Asagiri.”
Chrome’s eyes were red. Everyone’s were, but Chrome’s were the ones that made Gen’s own eyes sting.
This was how Gen found himself on the receiving end of a kingdom’s worth of glares, most red, some just dazed.
Tsukasa’s throat worked as he swallowed. Gen’s own was a little stiff from misuse, so he sympathized. Tsukasa said, ‘For the funeral, Senkuu requested that he be buried at the Ishigami mem—’
The first words Gen spoke since Senkuu died went something like this: ‘I don’t think we should bury him. I think we should save the body.’
First, the silence.
Then, the sound of everyone speaking over one another. Tsukasa’s stare felt heavy.
Gen’s understanding of law is limited to what little secondhand knowledge he’s picked up from various movies and TV shows. All information which he’s never bothered to fact check. It’s for this reason that Ryusui—and Francois, by extension—was especially invaluable in mapping everything out for life post-jump. (The thing with Ryusui: he isn’t an idiot, not by half, but he has a tendency to drop nuggets of wisdom like they’re punchlines and that’s all most people ever need to write him off as a dilettante. There are two types of people to look out for. The quiet ones and the ones who use humor like it’s just another tool at their disposal.)
If there is one aspect of law Gen somewhat understands, it’s this one: durable power of attorney, wherein—in the event that someone isn’t able to make their own medical decisions—a proxy can be named in the patient’s stead.
Legally, Gen is not his oba-chan’s proxy (that’s his mother).
Legally, he is also not Senkuu’s proxy (naturally, that’s Byakuya).
There’s what legality gives you and what’s practice makes you though, and it doesn’t change the number of hours Gen’s spent at his oba-chan’s side while his mother lets them both go to voicemail. Doesn’t change the unsaid fact that—as Senkuu got worse—Yuzuriha, Kohaku, and Gen were the ones left to make the hard calls.
(Because: Chrome was busy running himself ragged trying to build both a time machine and find a miracle cure; Tsukasa had done the same song and dance with Mirai and couldn’t do it again; Ryusui and Ukyo knew themselves and Senkuu well enough to realize the best way to help was by keeping the Kingdom of Science moving; and Taiju was too firmly in denial to make objective decisions.)
(Because: Yuzuriha was desperate; Kohaku firmly believed that since Ruri survived, Senkuu would too; and no one feigned composure like Gen.)
There are a number of hard calls Gen would make for his oba-chan if he had the power to do so. There were a number of hard calls he made for Senkuu that he never wanted to.
So, in that context, accompanying Senkuu to his doctor’s appointment feels like both a new and old affair.
In the end, Senkuu does let Gen drive them both to his appointment because the forecast says it’s going to rain and after living in the Stone World, getting to drive when it’s storming outside feels too much like a luxury to pass up. In an effort to try to emulate the proximity of Ishigami village for Kaseki, Chrome, Kohaku, and Ruri, Gen’s new apartment is much closer to Senkuu’s house. Which is to say, he leaves only twenty minutes before Senkuu needs to check in.
He doesn’t bother turning on the radio or plugging in his AUX cord because Senkuu’s usually the one who picks the music. On days when Gen playfully whines at him, Senkuu alternates between arguing that it’s so he can focus on the road better and roasting Gen’s taste in music slowly over a spit.
Gen isn’t sure what Senkuu must’ve said to Chrome and Kohaku, but when he pulls up outside his building, neither of them make any last-ditch attempts persuade Senkuu into letting them come too.
Or, maybe Gen isn’t giving them enough credit. Maybe they recognize that with Senkuu, science comes in leaps and almost everything else comes in baby-steps.
(He catches Chrome’s eye as he rolls down the window and thinks, Of course they do.)
Senkuu schedules nearly all of appointments on Fridays because his club is used to him leaving early on weekends anyways. This means that they’re missing game night, but it doesn’t stop Gen from wishing the rest of the Ishigami household plus Kaseki goodbye while pawning off Secret Hitler and an instruction’s sheet on how to play Mafia. Someone from the modern world—Gen isn’t sure who, but they have his eternal gratitude—took it upon themselves to make sure the villagers were all caught up on major historical events (because a forged certificate or document can hide plenty, but it doesn’t explain away giant, gaping chasms of common knowledge), and so the villagers give the former dubious looks until Gen reassures them that the point is to kill Hitler.
Senkuu watches the proceedings with a semi-straight face before sliding into the passenger seat of Gen’s Toyota. Gen gives him a wide, toothy grin the second his back is to the villagers.
The former villagers unfurl their umbrellas—a brush of purples, blues, and greens against the grey backdrop of sky and brick and mortar buildings, and Gen merges back onto the main street, lifting one hand up in goodbye. Between the umbrellas, boardgames, and snacks, Ruri’s the only one with the free hand to wave back.
“You smooth bastard,” Senkuu starts, “you’ve been waiting for the opportunity to do that.” It isn’t a question; Gen snickers a little, and Senkuu rolls his eyes, a flash of white teeth from a grin he’s only half-trying to smother. “Think either Magma or Ginrou will rage quit by the second round?”
“Bet.” Rain droplets beats against his windshield, and Gen has to turn the wipers up a notch. He’s not even lying when he tells Senkuu, “Somedays, I feel bad for Kinrou and Ukyo.”
“Not Yo? He got Magma in the end.”
“Well, they deserve each other,” Gen reasons.
What Senkuu doesn't know, since he'd been working on his equations and blueprints at the time, was that Gen and Ryusui almost ignited a two-man mutiny when they assigned Magma to Yo. The diplomatic reason was that their rivalry would motivate Magma to integrate into the modern world, if only to surpass Yo. The less diplomatic reason was that both Ryusui and Gen thought it’d be hilarious.
Gen picks up the AUX cable and twirls it around in a circle, “Do you want the radio on or off?”
“You pick.” Senkuu’s hair is damp from the rain, having hopped into Gen’s car without bothering with an umbrella, and he rolls the ends of his bangs idly between his fingers. “Kazuya watched one episode of Your Lie In April and now he’s on a classical music binge—anything you pick will be better than that. Almost makes me miss EXID.”
Gen settles for turning on the radio because all the stoplights are green and he doesn’t have time to scroll through his music. The song that comes on is slow and sleepy—not a typical weekend pick, but it goes with the weather so Gen sticks with the station.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Senkuu cross his legs and his soled foot brushes against the letter from his oba-chan’s nursing home—the one he keeps telling himself he’ll take inside the next time he goes out but never does. Senkuu plucks it out of the cupholder, and Gen wonders if it’s just simple curiosity or if it’s his way of keeping himself distracted. A lot of conversations with Senkuu—a big part of understanding what he really means—rely on reading his facial expressions though, and Gen’s too focused on proving to Senkuu that he’s not an irresponsible driver to look away from the road.
The thing is, Senkuu is upfront but not always sure that what he’s feeling is justified. Doesn’t subscribe to the idea that emotions aren’t a thing that are justified so much as understood. He says what he thinks but not always what he feels, and if Gen wants a shot at understanding the latter, he knows to watch Senkuu’s face as he talks.
Part of mentalism lies in reading people. Some people are yellow ink on a white page, others are more obvious.
Senkuu’s always been like braille.
Senkuu reads the header out loud. “Local Recreation Programs for Retirees—what’s this?” There’s a crinkle of paper, like Senkuu’s holding it up for Gen to see. It feels kind of like a bait though so Gen doesn’t look. “Thinking of joining some of the villagers in retirement? I’d say give golfing a try, but I don’t know if your arthritic hips could handle it.”
There’s a dirty joke on the tip of Gen’s tongue that takes all of his willpower to swallow down. “You are sixteen,” Gen says, to himself and the world at large, “and I am a responsible adult, and I’m going to prove it by not rising to the bait.”
“Technically, I’m about twenty years old mentally right now.”
“Well,” Gen replies after a beat, “then I’m twenty-two. Mentally speaking.”
“I know, you old geezer.” Gen sputters, and Senkuu continues blithely, “But seriously—what’s this for? If you’re looking for something to do with villagers, I’d say they’re game for pretty much everything, but I can think of eight people just off the top of my head who would get carried away if you did water polo.”
“You don’t say,” he says dryly. Gen would be setting them all up for a massacre if he suggested they do water polo. He buys a few seconds of quiet by flicking through the radio channels. After eight, he says, “Sometimes my oba-chan’s nursing home sends out resources to their residents’ families. I don’t usually keep them, but”—Gen shrugs—“I keep forgetting to throw out this one.”
They roll to a stop when the light turns red—slowly. They don’t even skid despite how wet the roads are, and when Gen turns to shoot Senkuu a smug look, he finds that he’s already watching him contemplatively, head tilted like he’s working through a sticky math problem or a string of data that goes directly against his hypothesis. Before he remembered life in the Stone World, Senkuu usually defaulted to scowling at Gen. Whether that’s due to perceived unfamiliarity or just Senkuu genuinely being mentally fifteen years-old is up in the air.
(And fifteen-year-old Senkuu had been such a precocious brat, fluent in cussing and sarcasm, and the Senkuu that Gen met in the Stone World was like that too, yes—but more as a byproduct of the situation than from the dangerous cocktail of youthful confidence and an overwhelming lack of a verbal filter. There’s a part of Gen that still thinks of the fifteen-year-old Senkuu he’d gotten to know and aches for the one that woke up all alone, in a world of stone, after 3700 years of counting.
The Senkuu in his passenger seat now is an unexpected hybrid of the two, some parts newer and some familiar. Still Senkuu though, always.)
Gen has a feeling he knows where this conversation is heading, but if Senkuu’s blood pressure rising is a legitimate factor they need to consider, he’s willing to keep him distracted. He asks, “What’s up?”
“You never mentioned your grannie before,” Senkuu starts, and somehow, Senkuu referring to his oba-chan as ‘grannie’ feels so stupidly ironic yet endearing to Gen. Senkuu, who refers to his elders as ‘old geezers’ and to some of his nearest and dearest friends as ‘lioness’ and ‘big oaf’. “No—scratch that, you have, but you always talked about her like she’d passed away or something.”
The light turns green, and Gen has to look away. It takes him a moment to reply, “Not…exactly.”
It’s a fair assumption though. In the Stone World, Gen had mentioned her in passing a few times as one of the people he missed, but when people offered to help him search for her, he turned them down without ever clarifying why (the odds of her surviving very long in that world weren’t particularly high, and in a twisted way, depetrifying her—even just hypothetically—felt cruel). Even here, in the twenty-first century, most of Gen’s stories and anecdotes about his oba-chan are told in past tense.
“Mind if I change the station?” Senkuu’s tone is too casual to be anything but purposeful, but Gen thinks that maybe there’s hope for him yet.
Gen plays along, “I thought you said you weren’t feeling picky.”
“Yeah, well, that was up until AKB48 started playing.”
While Senkuu idly flips through stations—Gen suspects he’s more invested in pushing random buttons than in picking a song—he checks his GPS to make sure they’re heading the right way.
Before the silence can start to get too loud, he decides to get over himself, “My oba-chan has late-stage dementia. The reason I don’t mention her much is because there’s just…” Gen tucks his bangs behind his ear and shrugs, “There’s just nothing to tell really. Every day’s pretty much the same with her now.”
He means to continue, to change the subject before things can get awkward or uncomfortable, but Senkuu’s reply comes out pretty quickly and effortlessly all things considered.
“That’s pretty shit,” is what he says, not off-handedly or dismissively but because Senkuu understands what it’s like to be on the receiving end of sympathy. Manners dictate that you say sorry for things that aren’t really in your control and experience reveals that offering pity has less use than a handful of pennies. Senkuu side-eyes him, and even though Gen’s own eyes are on the road (still), he can feel his gaze. Curiously, “Did you want advice or to vent?”
He says it like it’s an either or, but Gen can raise him one better.
“Neither,” Gen tells him, not unkindly, “I just felt like telling you why. Left up here?”
“Yeah, the ramp’s on your right-hand side and there’s a skyway we can take to the hospital from there.” They’re not even in the ramp yet, but Senkuu’s already unbuckling his seatbelt. Bad drivers call for bad passengers or something like that. “I can pay you back for parking—”
“Please,” Gen sniffs, turning on his headlights because the ramp is dim. The lower two levels are full, but Gen can see a few empty spots in the upper levels. He makes a point of keeping 5mph below the speed limit because if he hits some poor elderly man or a visiting family or—god forbid—a pregnant woman, Senkuu will never let him live it down and Gen would never trust himself to drive again. “I don’t take money from broke high schoolers.”
He can hear the lopsided smile in Senkuu’s voice when he says, “You know a lot of your fanbase is made up of teenagers, right?”
Gen puts the car in park and turns to Senkuu fully, nose wrinkling. Decisively, he informs him, “We’re going to be late to your appointment. Get out of my car, Senkuu-chan.”
Senkuu steps out with a cackle. It sounds either very gremlin- or (strangely) fae-like depending on both the situation and whoever’s on the receiving end. Gen is usually, unfortunately, on the receiving end.
True to Senkuu’s word, there’s a skyway that takes them across the street and straight to the hospital’s lobby. It’s still pouring as they cross it and if Gen plays pretend for a moment, it almost feels like they’re just taking a walk in the rain. They go slowly, because Senkuu’s not in any rush and Gen’s just following his lead. That’s the theme for the day: follow Senkuu’s lead until he decides he needs a break.
Eventually though, Gen does have to address the fact that they only have a few minutes before Senkuu’s appointment. “Are you nervous? You’re dragging your feet a little bit, Senkuu-chan.”
“I’m giving my blood pressure time to lower.”
Gen checks and—yep, Senkuu’s pressing his index and middle finger to the inside of wrist. “You’re the worst!” he wails.
Senkuu laughs, and Gen’s shoulders loosen. He hadn’t realized he’d gotten tense in the first place.
“I was going to say that you shouldn’t be!” Gen continues when Senkuu glances over at him, insufferable smirk in place. But then Senkuu must see something in Gen’s face because his own expression softens a touch, and it’s at that point that Gen finally says the words he hates but has also been wanting and waiting to say, “Because this time, you’re going to be okay.”
Senkuu looks ahead and nods once. “Right.”
They open the doors at the end of the skyway and enter Juntendo’s hospital. Gen hangs back a bit while Senkuu checks in. When the receptionist asks if Gen wants to go with Senkuu when the doctor calls him back, Gen declines because he and Senkuu have already hashed out this part of the day out over text. No matter how well Gen can play at being a fly on the wall, some questions are hard to fully answer around friends and family, and the whole point of this is to be present for Senkuu without making him uncomfortable.
So, Gen seats himself on one end of the double-sided, S-shaped couches in the lobby and counts the minutes until Senkuu’s appointment finishes. On the other end and opposite side, a mother’s watching her daughter play with the toy trains on the floor while they wait, and this, Gen thinks, is the annoying part because on the surface-level, hospitals are not unwelcoming. They hire designers well-versed in color theory to pick out the paint and the furniture, and some partner with chain coffee shops to recreate indoor cafés for their patients and their families. Rather than antiseptic or illness, the hospital just smells scentless until you enter one of the patient rooms, and then it just smells like whoever is confined to the hospital bed.
The annoying part is that there’s nothing—no flaw—in the immediate environment for Gen to focus all his nervous energy on picking apart, and without that, he’s left ruminating on the reason he’s there in the first place, as well as any other issues or insecurities he associates with hospitals.
Which are, respectively, Senkuu and his oba-chan.
(Senkuu, who so kindly kept his condition a secret up until he finally collapsed in front of Suika and Mirai.)
(His oba-chan, who looked him in the eye the day she was admitted to the memory ward and needed several minutes to recall who Gen was.)
By the thirtieth minute, Gen leaves to check out the hospital’s gift shop, it’s located just beyond the coffee bar. For a second, he thinks about getting something to drink before, but caffeine is bad for anxiety; Gen is not the one who's supposed to be anxious here.
In the gift shop window, he finds a giant stuffed bear. The stitching of its mouth is a little off, and it turns the bear’s smile crooked; Gen isn’t sure if it reminds him more of Tsukasa or Taiju. He takes a moment to consider both the bear and whatever frame of mind Senkuu might be in after his appointment. For anyone else, it’d probably be in poor taste, but Senkuu would just find it a little stupid, a little kitschy, but entertaining nonetheless. He buys the bear, wanders back to his now-cold spot on the couch. It takes him a second to decide whether to sit the toy on the couch or the floor. He picks the floor, because even if the lobby isn’t full, Gen feels weird about giving up two-people’s worth of seating space to a stuffed animal.
The thing is, in the Stone World, Gen had thought Senkuu was easy enough to read once he got used to him. His actions themselves were unpredictable, yes, but Gen thought that, for the most part, he knew what was going on Senkuu’s head. Knew when he was hiding something or when he was downplaying his own emotions.
Now though, Gen wonders how much he really missed in the end. Wonders how he could’ve missed it.
Gen isn’t a scientist in the same vein that Senkuu is, but he knows how to put two and two together. He remembers the day he received a panicked call from Taiju, saying that they found him collapsed in the lab. Remembers the shorthand explanation of Senkuu’s time travel: Your cellular integrity will break down once the merge starts, and you’ll all be reintegrated into your bodies from the targeted timeline.
There are two take-aways from this.
One: Based on evidence and the events from the current timeline, Senkuu experienced major attacks as a child but also as a teen.
Two: The health of Senkuu’s body in this current timeline is representative of the one he woke up in in the Stone World.
Ergo: Senkuu had, somehow, inexplicably, managed to hide his condition from them—from Gen, who always prided himself being perceptive—for years.
When Senkuu finally comes walking down the hallway alongside a nurse in fuchsia scrubs, he sees Gen first and quirks a smile.
Then, he sees the Tsukasa-Taiju bear and the look on his face turns priceless. He says, “What.”
Gen laughs, but underneath that, he’s thinking that Senkuu without petrification scars looks just as striking as he did with them. He’s thinking that Senkuu, alive and in front of him, has probably taken up all the good luck he’s warranted in this lifetime and then some. Next, Gen’s thinking of the number of promises they made Senkuu and the disgustingly few things Senkuu had asked for before he died.
(To be buried at the Ishigami cemetery. For them to finish the time machine no matter what.)
(They’re one-for-two thanks to Gen.)
It’ll take a few weeks to get Senkuu’s results back so Gen doesn’t ask about them.
It’s like this: Trust is giving up a building block of your soul to someone who deserves it. It’s watching to see whether they keep it for themselves or use it to build you back up into something better. In some ways, for Senkuu, this doctor’s visit is the building block that could send the rest of him tipping in its absence.
Gen follows his lead: “Want to meet my oba-chan?”
[INBOX] Gen: I’m sure you don’t need it, but this is a reminder that you’re booked for a show at LUXE next week. Let me know ASAP if… see more
They go straight from the hospital to his oba-chan’s nursing home.
“This is her room.” Still musty, still stale. Gen holds the door open for Senkuu and complains, “We tried getting one on the first floor so we wouldn’t have to bother with the elevator and wheelchair, but the nursing home was already pretty limited on beds by the time we admitted her. It’s such a shame honestly—they have a really nice garden.” To his oba-chan, who’s tucked under her bedsheets, Gen says, “And you always liked going in walks in the summer and fall. Maybe mother will try talking to the ward director again.”
There are pretty daydreams, like Taiju and Yuzuriha getting married and living on a farm together. Then there are ones that are just desperate, just pretty lies you tell yourself.
His oba-chan doesn’t comment.
Self-comfort is in the semantics: doesn’t vs. won’t vs. can’t.
He glances at Senkuu. His shirt is speckled with raindrops, turning the fabric around his shoulders dark, and Gen figures he looks more or less the same. His oba-chan gazes out the window, eyes unfocused. It isn’t even the exciting kind of rain where the trees bend and sway under the weight of the sky crashing down and the world turns black and white with the occasional flash of lightning. The city lights aren’t on yet either, so the world is only grey and wet.
Gen thinks: No Leonid Afremov paintings for today.
Gen drags two stacked chairs from the corner of the room over to his oba-chan’s bedside and plants himself in one of them. Senkuu sits in the other, and it’s at that point that Gen realizes they’ve switched somehow—somewhere between the hospital and his oba-chan’s nursing home. Now Gen is leading, and Senkuu’s following along.
It’s an old dance, at this point.
According to Hasegawa, his oba-chan looked like Gen’s mother back in the day. People say that Gen, in turn, looks like his mother, but when Gen considers them in a triptych, he doesn’t see a lot of his oba-chan in himself. It’s a case of A equals B equals C, but A does not equal C. Senkuu would roll his eyes at Gen’s blatant desecration of mathematics, but he’d also understand what Gen was getting at.
“Anyways, this is Senkuu-chan,” Gen introduces, smiling for his oba-chan. Swallowing, he continues, keeping his voice light, “You probably recognize him? I’ve complained about him enough.” This is both an embellishment and the truth. Senkuu makes an affronted noise through closed lips, and Gen elaborates, “I told you—the one with the radish hair?”
Evidently, this is the last insult Senkuu is going to take passively, which is fitting, because it was also the only one. Senkuu turns in his seat slightly, just enough so that Gen can appreciate the withering look he’s sending him. Next thing he knows, Senkuu is nudging his ankle with foot, insistent and not very gently about it.
“Move over, you suck at this. Is this not your grannie?”
Gen raises both eyebrows, feeling a combination of incredulousness and bemusement, as well as minor insult. Because collectively, he and Tsukasa had the dubious pleasure of meeting Senkuu for the first time on four separate occasions and each introduction was just as questionable as the last. Ishigami Senkuu—for as much as Gen was fond of him—had no room to judge Gen on introductions.
Still, Senkuu keeps nudging Gen until he finally scoots his chair further to the right to make more room. When Senkuu crouches a little into his oba-chan’s line of sight, Gen prays—in a general, last ditch effort kind of way—that he doesn’t ask to use her Twitter, or dig up a body, or fight off a couple lions.
Credit where credit’s due, once Senkuu’s caught her eye, he smiles—the soft kind that’s rare but always real—and says, “My name’s Ishigami Senkuu, it’s nice to meet you. Gen’s told me a lot about you, not all at once—but here and there.” Here is where his gaze shifts back to Gen. He raises an eyebrow. “He said you pretty much raised him.”
“She’s also the one who taught me magic,” Gen tells him. At some point, his oba-chan’s gaze had drifted from the space behind Senkuu’s head to the quilt strewn across her lap. Gen continues because he’s a master at one-sided conversations. “I was always really bored as a kid, and I used to get into trouble a lot. My oba-chan knew a lot of magic tricks though, and she got the idea to teach me one trick for each day I behaved.”
It’s easier for Gen to fill the silence when it’s just him and his oba-chan. When someone else is around to witness his one-sided conversations, it becomes an exercise in self-deprecation. Which is to say, it’s always at least a little pathetic on Gen's part but with someone else watching, it’s blatantly so. Belatedly—thirty minutes too late, since that’s how long it’s been since Gen extended the invitation to Senkuu—he wonders if maybe he overestimated himself. Maybe this is the building block that sends Gen swaying in its absence too.
There’s the juxtaposition of the hard chair beneath him and Senkuu’s warmth beside him, wet sleeve brushing against Gen’s own. Senkuu shifts in his seat, eyes flickering from his oba-chan to Gen.
Gen says, self-conscious underneath all the playfulness, “This probably wasn’t what you were expecting.”
“You’re right,” Senkuu smirks, “I was told there’d be coffee.”
In wanting to beat a later rush of traffic, they hadn’t wanted to stand in line at the hospital or stop anywhere along the drive, but Senkuu’s been yawning since he’d gotten out of his appointment.
“You’re going to give yourself an arrythmia,” Gen warns him, but he pulls himself to his feet anyways.
Patting his pockets for his wallet, he slips out the door quietly even though he’s at no risk of disturbing his oba-chan and half-jogs, half-walks down the staircase.
There’s a vending machine on the first floor that only works if you select beverages along the far-right column. In spite of frequenting it at least once per visit, Gen’s never seen anyone stop to replenish it. The canned coffee is loud when it rolls down the chute, and there’s something grounding in the way it chills his hand. Gen orders another drink for himself that he doesn’t really want but will take if only to give his own hands something to do when he gets back to his oba-chan’s room.
He realized, as he was patting down his pockets, that he left his deck of cards at home.
Gen wanders back from where he came, finding himself taking the long route around for reasons he isn’t going to analyze. He runs into some of the other residents who are either playing games or taking walks down the hallway. They recognize him by his face and his hair. Gen recognizes all of them too. The carpeting in the hallway muffles Gen's footsteps, and if he looks close, he can still trace the droplets of rain that he and Senkuu carried in with them.
Gen reaches for the door to his oba-chan's room and—
Somewhere: there’s an old grandmother with a daughter who visits every Sunday.
Somewhere: there’s a grandmother and a kid eating strawberry ice cream.
Here, outside Room 2308: there’s a magician frozen mid-knock.
Senkuu’s voice is quiet, but Gen’s holding his breath so he hears him all the same. “…He can be pretty conniving—maybe you wouldn’t be proud of that, I don’t know, but either way, the plan wouldn’t have worked without him. We can't really tell anyone about what we did without sounding insane, but I know a lot of people think of your grandson as a hero. A hero with bad hair and the dumbest tie collection, I guess.” There’s a beat of quiet before Senkuu’s voice continues, taking on a contemplative tone, “I don’t know about that though.” Gen shifts, fingers cramping from the way he’s grasping onto two cans with one hand, and something in chest coils painfully tight until Senkuu continues. “I don’t know about ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’, but what I do know is that Gen is a reliable person and I’ve never regretted being his friend…. That said, he’s also an eavesdropping little bas—uh, brat. Come out, you fu—fraud magician.”
Obediently, Gen opens the door. There’s a number of thoughts flying around in Gen’s head, but for some reason, the one he gets stuck on is this: blunt and straightforward Senkuu holding himself back from swearing in front of an old woman with dementia, who probably doesn’t even realize he’s talking to her. The two people who matter more to Gen than he’s ever voiced out loud.
The coffee cans in his hand are very, very cold. Gen's face feels very, very warm in contrast.
He stands in the doorway for a moment. Makes a split-second decision, “There’s nothing wrong with my tie collection.”
“Gen, you wear Dad Ties,” Senkuu replies. Eyebrows raised in an expression that's both mocking and patient. He lets Gen lead the conversation, lets him expertly dance them around the elephant in room, and Gen thinks he loves Senkuu a little bit.
(There are different brands of kindness.)
Gen makes a wounded sound in protest because anything else, and he might actually, seriously get a little teary, and Senkuu is not the kind of person who knows how to deal with someone crying.
Senkuu’s scowling like he’s well and truly fifteen again, cheeks colored but maintaining a mulish sort of eye contact. “Now hand over the coffee, I’m not done telling your grannie about how terrible you are.”
“Right,” Gen parrots. He sets the coffee in Senkuu’s waiting hand. “Terrible.”
Senkuu pulls back the tab on his drink, and they let themselves go quiet for a bit. While he was gone, Senkuu apparently left his chair in favor of kneeling on the floor next to his oba-chan’s bed. It puts him in the sightline she always seems to default back to, and right now, her eyes are on Senkuu’s face. He stays there, drinking coffee on the floor of a nursing home like it’s a normal thing, and so Gen passes up his own chair in lieu of the floor too. He sits with his back to the wall and legs stretched out in front of him, socked ankle ending up near Senkuu’s knee.
Gen looks out the window. The sky isn’t grey anymore, now it’s gone purplish-blue.
Senkuu breaks the silence first, “Hey, Gen.”
“Why is your grannie here?” He glances over his shoulder and sees something in Gen’s face that has him quickly clarifying, “Why is she here instead of with the others in Kichijoji, I mean.”
“I, well,” Gen turns his drink around in his hands, thinking, “she requires a lot of care—”
Senkuu looks unsatisfied at that. “You literally hired a private nurse for people who don’t really need that much supervision.” He sips his coffee and licks his lips before continuing. “There’s no point in paying nursing home fees on top of that.”
This, at least, he can answer by just sticking to the facts. “I don’t have the decision-making power when it comes to my oba-chan.” Gen pops the tab of his own can after realizing he hadn’t opened it yet. “Also, my mother’s the one paying her bills because she’s her proxy and…” He shrugs. “Social work recommended nursing care so that’s what she went with. After we found her wandering in the middle of street, there wasn’t really a whole lot we could do instead.”
True or false: The next time his oba-chan leaves the nursing home will be when she dies.
For all Gen teases him for being too blunt, Senkuu is compassionate if not sympathetic. For that reason, instead of saying something as inane as ‘I’m sorry’, he pictures the scene Gen described and thinks out loud, “That probably scared you shitless.”
Gen gives him a dry look. With lackluster sarcasm that isn’t really funny, he says, “Yes, well, that’s a given when it turns out someone important to you is sick.” If Gen’s mulling over his next words like they’re heavy, it’s because they’ve been crushing Gen’s chest since Senkuu first collapsed. “Why didn’t you tell anyone? Tell Taiju or Yuzuriha, at least?”
Senkuu doesn’t answer him head-on, just apologizes, “I didn’t mean hurt anyone.” He moves to take another sip but aborts the movement halfway, lips twisting into a frown and brows creasing. “Taiju’s still not…”
“Not over it?” Gen guesses. Keeping his words gentle while still urging Senkuu to understand, he says, “He was the one who found you…after.” He’s not going to elaborate on that; Senkuu is clever enough to fill in the blanks. “We all stayed with you the night before we lost you, but he was the one keeping vigil.”
Senkuu’s eyes are so incredibly bright. Always have been. Always were.
(Until they went dull, and then closed, and didn’t open again.)
“Did he check though?” Thankfully, Gen doesn’t have time to interpret how he feels about that statement, because Senkuu takes it back almost immediately, “Ignore that, that—that came out wrong.” He scuffs his shoe against the carpet. “What happened after?”
Gen doesn’t know what has his heart stuttering more: the first question or the second. Senkuu’s death was a topic they never touched on again after their conversation in the hospital—when Senkuu finally remembered the Stone World. Avoidance doesn’t make things any less real, but it lessens the sting. The things you don’t think about don’t hurt until you remember them. Then, you’ll find the pain’s increased exponentially.
Gen resists the urge to rub at his face. “After was the…the funeral.” The funeral that Gen disrupted, in a sense, is what he doesn’t tell Senkuu. He sips his coffee even though he doesn’t taste it; his mouth was already bitter to begin with. “Why are you asking, Senkuu-chan?”
Is this supposed to be closure?
For who? Gen wonders.
(He’s kidding himself, of course. There’s a part of him that’s still holding onto the fact that the Senkuu he’d first known had died. There’s a part of Senkuu that’ll probably never forget what dying feels like.)
Gen’s reply is only half as playful as he wants it to be. Mostly, it’s just tired. “If you think there’s anything humorous in talking about a funeral with the person it was for, then you need more than just a cardiologist appointment, Senkuu-chan.”
If conversation is a dance, then Senkuu is the kind of dance partner that enjoys waltzing dangerously close to the walls. “You could text it to me if it’s one of those things that hard to say out loud.” It’s an offer with a surprising amount of emotional insight for Senkuu. Gen would be teasingly impressed in most other circumstances. “That’s kind of an option in this world.”
“You really want to know.” It’s not a question. Because Gen knows Senkuu, and he isn’t the type to drop a train of thought forever. Even if Gen finds a way out of this conversation, Senkuu will bring it up again in the future.
Closure, Gen thinks, is a tacky word for a nebulous concept. You’re shaped by the things you experience, as well as the way you respond to those experiences. ‘Closure’, in practice, isn’t as clean-cut as shutting a door. It’s more like clearing away the nightmare fuel and the rotting memorabilia box by box. Just the concept is exhausting to think about, but maybe it’s time for Gen to cash in on the self-help book.
Gen takes in a shaky breath. “The day of—Do you remember the night you asked me if we’d still look for you in this world?” Because before Gen talks about the funeral (or lack thereof) he needs to explain the lead-up to it all. “You asked if we would, even if you didn’t remember. I said yes, of course—because that’s just a given. But after that, you told me…” The words die at some point between his voice box and his tongue.
“Yeah. I remember that.”
Gen’s eyes drop to his lap. It had been one of their final conversations.
“It stuck with me,” he explains, and in some ways, maybe that’s an understatement. “Because even though there were some parts that I’d probably want to forget if I could, the thought of losing four years of my life and going back to the way things always were—I wouldn’t have wanted that for myself, let alone you.”
Gen wiggles the tab off of his drink even though he doesn’t even collect them. His hands just need something to do. Not for the first time, he wishes he had his cards. He starts again, “After— During the funeral, I’d come up with a plan by then to try to preserve your memories. I never got the chance to run it by you, and looking back on it, I think if I had, you probably would’ve told me that it wouldn’t work. You were right. None of the physical changes we experienced in the Stone World carrying over. Our bodies were all just reset to the day of the petrification incident.”
A glance at Senkuu reveals that he isn’t angry, just curious. Upon reflection, Gen finds that he’d already known Senkuu wouldn’t be angry because this is the same person who made a dangerous gamble and let Tsukasa kill him. Because once the Stone Wars were over, this is the person who’s first order of business in saving Tsukasa was putting him in a cryochamber.
On the topic of the cryochamber, he wonders if Senkuu will make him say it out loud, or if he can read between the lines to guess what they did. Guess why there wasn’t ever a burial for him. (Guess what exactly Gen suggested they do to preserve the body.)
“You were thinking that by saving my brain, I’d remember,” Senkuu concludes. He adds, “‘Preserve’, though—that’s an interesting choice of words. I’m guessing there wasn’t really much of a funeral then? Good, I hate ceremonies. The cryochamber?”
Gen doesn’t have it in him to answer ‘yes’, so instead, he just explains, “The time machine still wasn’t ready, until about three months after you died.”
Senkuu nods, eyes flicking back and forth as he thinks. “It was a pretty clever idea, I just don’t think it worked out the way you intended.”
There’s something he’s not saying, Gen furrows his brows. “Senkuu-chan?”
Setting his half-empty drink on the floor, Senkuu reclines back on his hands. Gen knows and trusts Senkuu and could spout a million and one facts about the human psyche, and yet, somehow, Senkuu will effortlessly find ways to throw Gen for a loop when he least expects it. Gen was a goner from day one.
Senkuu asks, “What would you do if we wound up where we started, and I was dying all over again?”
“So many questions tonight, Senkuu-chan.” Gen can barely keep up at this point. The only reason his brain hasn’t shut down is because they’ve all spent too long tiptoeing around the elephants in the room, and Gen needs closure. And, if Senkuu wants to know the all nitty gritty stuff that went down after he died, then it’s best that Gen fields his questions. Better Gen than anyone else. He considers taking another gulp of coffee. He doesn’t. “Why do you want to know?”
He shrugs. “For the same reason you asked me what I’d do if the world ended tomorrow, I think.”
Gen remembers that night.
“I don’t know.” He breathes in, out, and then sags against the wall. It’s been a long day, but this isn’t the kind of question that will lie quietly between them so Gen does his best to answer it. “We’re not in the Stone World, and things are different now.” Gen’s only saying that to buy time to gather his thoughts; if the way Senkuu’s patiently watching him is any indication, he knows it too.
“If it had to be an ultimatum between the two though,” he says, quiet like it’s a prayer you’re not supposed to say out loud, “I’d want you to be happier than me. I’d want you to try first, the way you did with the iron lung”—Senkuu’s face becomes carefully impassive at the mention of it, and Gen understands, yes, but understanding doesn’t make it hurt any less—“but I’d also want you to draw the long stick no matter what in the end.”
Who’s to say if Gen’s mother ever loved Hasegawa; sometimes bits of history trickle through the cracks and the missing paragraphs, but this—even after Gen dies and his bones turn to dust—never let it be said that he didn’t wish for Senkuu to be happy.
They’re facing each other, feet and legs close and almost overlapping. It makes it very easy to spot the small curl of Senkuu’s mouth and the tiny, subtle way his eyes soften when they meet Gen’s. “I don’t do ultimatums,” he reminds Gen.
Gen huffs out a quiet laugh. Defers back to teasing to give them both some much needed air, “You don’t do magic either.”
“I’ll leave that to you and your grannie.” Senkuu bumps his foot against Gen’s. “She was probably a way better magician than you by the way.”
(Strawberry ice cream and Zarrow shuffles. She really was.)
Smiling, Gen says, “You have no idea.”
Senkuu hums in acknowledgement as he drums his fingers against his thigh in thought. Jumping topics, he muses, “Proxy of care means that whoever’s making the decisions is doing it with the patient’s best interests in mind. It means the proxy doing whatever they can to carry out the choices they would’ve made if they could.” At Gen’s curious look, Senkuu shrugs, “I asked my dad about it when I was younger. What did your oba-chan ask for?”
“Not a lot.” Same as Senkuu, in that regard. “She wanted either a room with a view or—if not that—a room where she’d be able to step out into the gardens without a lot of fuss. A house that’s lively, even if she wouldn’t always be appreciate it.”
Gen sets down his coffee and stands up. His oba-chan was already sitting in bed when entered so it’s easy to coax her into lying down completely. Once her head’s settled on the pillow, he pulls the covers over her.
Senkuu watches and says, “Ryusui’s got good taste, I guess.”
“You hate to admit it, but yes.” Gen hasn’t drank much of his coffee, but he feels wired. Tonight will either be a night where he crashes or can’t sleep at all.
Looking at his oba-chan, he wonders if love boils down to longing for others to be happy, so much that it hurts when it doesn’t happen. It’s quiet, and silences with Senkuu are usually comfortable, but Gen’s spent too much of the day sitting still and living inside his head.
Looking down at Senkuu, “Do you want to go for a walk?”
Senkuu blinks at the non-sequitur. “I guess, sure—why now, though? You didn’t want to walk to the train station earlier.”
Senkuu takes the hand Gen extends and let’s him help pull him up.
“Well.” Rocking on the balls of his feet a little, he wonders how Senkuu might interpret his next words. “The city lights are on now,” Gen begins slowly, “and when the streets are wet like this, they reflect off the ground in a way that reminds me of the stars from the Stone World. Come with me?”
Their hands are still tangled, but neither of them move to break the connection. Senkuu’s eyes flick down to their fingers and then up again.
“Sure,” Senkuu replies, eyes an underbelly kind of soft. “Let’s go.”
‘The brain isn’t a static thing. The brain makes new synapses over time and with each new skill you develop. It changes and grows with you on a microbiological level.’ Ignoring the sting that came from people’s pitying looks, Gen continued, ‘I know you all think it’s just magic tricks and psychology with me, but I know how the brain works.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘I think, if we preserve the body, there’s a chance Senkuu-chan could remember this world.’
[COMPOSE EMAIL] Hello mother. I apologize ahead of time for the lengthy email; I tried your phone number but I guess it’s changed since I last called you. I hope you’re doing well. It’s been some time since we’ve last spoken, and I’m also willing to bet it’s been some time since you’ve last visited oba-chan. (That’s not really a bet, I guess—I know you haven’t, but that’s beside the point.) I’m emailing you with a request regarding oba-chan. Just in case you’re thinking about delete this message altogether, I think it’s worth mentioning that you’ll probably actually like these requests since it’ll get oba-chan out of your hair.
I’m sure you have better things to do so I’ll just jump to the chase now: I want to be named as oba-chan’s proxy from now on. As her proxy, I’ll be the one making medical decisions on her behalf and debriefing social work on finding her a new living situation, as well as (and I’m sure you’ll like this part especially) covering her medical bills. Once again, it’s been forever since we’ve talked, but I think we can both agree that this has been a long time coming. Please contact me back as soon as you’re able—I’d like to get oba-chan settled in her new home soon.
(P.S. Hasegawa-chan sends his best.)
Tsukasa had turned soft, like a gentle giant, after the Stone Wars ended, but now Gen was seeing the jagged edge that led Gen into double-crossing him all those years ago. ‘You don’t think,’ Tsukasa began, quiet, dangerously so, ‘that if there was a way to preserve Senkuu’s memories even after he died, he would’ve considered it already?’
Gen knew where the skepticism stemmed from, but still had to tamp down his agitation at Tsukasa’s response. From Tsukasa’s perspective, Senkuu had evaded death at his own hand, built the impossible, and won a bloodless siege. From Tsukasa’s perspective, everything about Senkuu was calculated and planned and nothing but sheer genius. But Gen had been on his side from day one—had been, the second he found that date carved into the tree. Unlike Tsukasa, he’d witnessed the close calls and last-minute plans firsthand.
‘We both know Senkuu-chan stopped thinking about himself a while ago.’ It was the truth, and so by nature, it hurt. Some people nearest to Gen pulled back once the words left his mouth, but distance didn’t make them any less true. ‘If you think Senkuu wouldn’t have taken the risk, then you never knew him.’
‘He was my friend too, Gen.’
That Senkuu wanted to remember more than anything, and a burial site was just a consolation prize, is what Gen doesn’t say. Because those were words from Senkuu’s own mouth, and he gave them to Gen in confidence.
Gen had let too much of Senkuu’s pride get trampled on up to this point.
Gen held Tsukasa’s eye, ‘Not always.’
Several people grimaced, and there was a brief split-second of hurt that flashed across Tsukasa’s face. It was quickly smoothed over with grim regret. Gen credited him this though: he didn't attempt to refute Gen's claim, he took it instead.‘That may be true, but—’
Gen prepared himself for another argument. He hadn’t anticipated Yuzuriha speaking up, but maybe he should’ve.
‘I agree with Gen’s plan.’
Taiju jolted, turned to look at her. ‘Yuzuriha.’
Yuzuriha had looked tired before, but now there was a hint of steel in her eyes and in her spine. ‘While we were on the run, Senkuu made a gamble. He let himself be killed to save me, hoping that Taiju and I would realize he had a failsafe.’
It looked physically painful for Taiju to speak against her, but he did. The part of Gen that wasn’t so focused on his mission was a little proud. ‘Senkuu wasn’t in danger of anyone this time though,' he reasoned. 'If there was a plan, he wouldn’t have kept it a secret.’
‘That’s not what I’m saying,’ she told him, gentle like butterfly wings. ‘I’m saying that if Gen came up with the plan earlier and suggested it to Senkuu, he would’ve taken the risk. It’s how he is, and you know that, Taiju-kun. If you give him an ultimatum, he usually finds a third option.’
There was a glaring, unspoken weight hanging from the word ‘usually’. It didn't matter. Gen knew then, that she’d won everyone over for him. Before, during the Stone Wars, Tsukasa had assigned Gen to Yuzuriha and Taiju to weed out whether or not Senkuu had escaped him. Where Taiju slipped, Yuzuriha hadn’t given him an inch. It was silly of Gen to have forgotten that.
There’s the sound of either glass or ceramic shattering into pieces and a murmured but fervent curse following shortly after. Gen struggles to open his eyes and drowsily untangles himself from his bedsheets. He spent yesterday getting his oba-chan settled in the Kichijoji house, and although it wasn’t physically draining (she had so few belongings that they needed to transfer over), it left Gen with the same brand of exhaustion that he gets after perfecting a new magic routine.
He walks with one shoulder leaned up against the wall because his body is still heavy with sleep and it’s easier to follow the perimeter of the apartment than it is to keep them open.
He finds this: A kettle on the stove, a forgotten tea bag, and Kaseki stooped over the broken pieces of a teacup.
He checks the time: 4:13am.
To Kaseki, Gen says, “Careful, there might be smaller pieces you can’t see and you aren’t wearing slippers. Don’t move, okay? I’ll get the broom.”
He says that, and Kaseki murmurs his assent, but it takes him a few minutes to locate the room from wherever they stowed it away because Gen hasn’t touched it since Senkuu built him a Roomba. He wets his dry mouth and grimaces at the early morning aftertaste.
When Gen returns to the kitchen, he finds Kaseki frowning down regretfully at the remains. He turns one shard over in his hand, and Gen spots streaks of yellow and green. “That was the cup Suika painted for me,” Kaseki tells him.
“Ah,” he sighs ruefully, “I’ll have to apologize the next time I see her.”
“She won't mind, I'm sure.” Suika would be more preoccupied with making sure Kaseki didn’t accidentally cut himself. “What were you doing up?” Gen only realizes after he says it that maybe he isn’t yet awake enough to come up with an answer so he follows up with a white lie Kaseki won’t bother challenging him on, “I was going to get water, but do you mind if I sit and have of tea with you?”
“Of course.” More regretfully, he adds, “We’re out of the blend you like though, I’m afraid.”
“It’s fine, I like ginseng too.” Gen separates the broom from the dustpan with a pop. He tells Kaseki, “You pour while I sweep.”
They work quietly, something about the stillness of the night sky and dimly lit kitchen demanding silence. Kaseki gets out two more teacups and Gen sweeps up the pieces of Suika’s. This close, he realizes that the yellow and green he’d noticed before is a sunflower field. Gen sweeps more pieces into the dustpan and some of the shards get turned over by the bristles. One catches his eye and he holds it up for a better look, mindful of the edges. In the sunflower field, Suika’s depicted the blue-clad figure of someone who could only be Kohaku. Curious, he gingerly turns more pieces over and finds the complete picture: a ship a small, blue sea; a hot air balloon; and familiar silhouettes scattered throughout the painting.
One figure is in purple.
Kaseki informs him, “It was the first thing she made after arriving in the modern world.”
Gen can only nod. It makes sense. Suika would want to immortalize her memories in paint before they faded altogether.
There are stories and sayings about old men and stoicism. Gen knows better though, because he remembers the day old-man-Kaseki cried for having finally made his first friends in Senkuu and Chrome. It’s this knowledge that makes Gen asks, “Do you miss the Stone World, Kaseki-chan?”
Kaseki bobs the teabag up and down like he’s fishing. “I don’t regret coming here. It would’ve been selfish to stay, and I wanted to see this world with my own eyes.”
“Yes, but do you miss it?”
At that, Kaseki sighs. “No, but I do miss the Kingdom of Science.”
You keep the lessons you experience, and this is what Gen knows: science and art are not always a dichotomy so much as a continuum. On occasion, they come at the expense of the other. Other times, it’s impossible to separate the two.
The truth of the matter goes like this: Carpentry and woodwork are arts that people admire in passing but never really appreciate. In the context of the modern world, Kaseki’s livelihood is just a hobby for most.
Gen, “Who said the Kingdom of Science was gone?”
Kaseki, “What could Ishigami village make now, that the modern world couldn’t?”
It’s the million dollar question; Gen doesn’t have an answer. His response is both an admission and an apology in that regard, “I don’t know, Kaseki-chan.”
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, when your work goes from being world-saving to just another hobby. It’s the sort of hurt that’s hard to voice because it’s so easily misconstrued for self-centeredness. Kaseki, Gen reflects, is possibly more intimately aware of these feelings than anyone else. Not everyone needs an adventure, not everyone needs a romance, not everyone needs a story worth writing down, but—the unifying factor—everyone needs a purpose.
(And Gen has tasted uselessness, knows it like strawberry ice cream and Cola and day-old takeout. Because: before meeting Senkuu again in the modern world, Gen had tried to recreate the Miracle Fluid on his own. Spent hours hunched over his kitchen table going through bottles and bottles of rubbing alcohol before Senkuu—amnesiac and fifteen—absentmindedly explained to him the difference between isopropyl and ethanol.
Because: the day after Senkuu died, Gen had finally come up with a plan to save him. Had pulled teeth and argued with people who were still in mourning for the sake of an idea that was proven wrong the second he found himself back on June 3rd, 2019.)
Kaseki pours the tea in silence before carrying both cups into the living room, making a wide arc around where Gen’s trying to sweep. Gen gathers the last of the broken ceramic into the dustpan but when he goes to throw it in the trash bin, he hesitates.
From the dark of living room, Kaseki says, quiet and wondering, “Gen, why did you separate the villagers the way you did?”
Gen pulls the dustpan away, still filled with shards of teacup, and shuts the trash can. He carries the dustpan into the living room and leaves it on the floor in favor of nursing his tea.
“Well,” Gen starts trying to glean what Kaseki is really asking him, “it wasn’t just me. Ryusui-chan, Ukyo-chan, and Francois-chan were a part of it too. But, to answer your question, I put Kohaku-chan with Senkuu-chan because she does well at making sure he takes care of himself without suffocating him, and because he would know how to guide Kohaku-chan through the modern world without being patronizing. As for Chrome—”
Kaseki shakes his head, rewording his previous question, “Why did you not put me in the Kichijoji house?”
Gen checks; Kaseki is looking at closed photo album on his coffee table. Moving his oba-chan had been a quiet affair, but Kaseki had probably been wondering about her since the moment he cracked open Gen’s sad excuse for an album.
The short reason is because Kaseki and Gen are similar, in some ways, and he’d thought that that similarity might be enough to cushion the transition into the modern world.
Staring down at his pajama-clad knees though, Gen knows it wasn’t enough because otherwise, they wouldn’t be here. For all Gen’s knowledge and skill in steering conversations and reading people, he’s only ever able to console the people he cares about after they’re already hurt. If Senkuu was being honest about some people thinking of him as a hero, he doesn’t understand it, because since coming to the modern world, it feels like Gen only ever arrives in the aftermath.
This isn’t about him though.
“I didn’t offer because I thought you’d be a replacement,” Gen tells Kaseki, because it's true; in all her years, his oba-chan never burst out of her clothes in excitement. “I offered because you’re not done being a science-user. Because you built a time machine, and I wanted to see what you’d do next.”
The thing is, Gen is a liar, but to be a liar is to understand what’s true. And sometimes—no matter how many pretty words you twist around the truth like bubble wrap, no matter how gently you deal the blow—the truth will leave bruises that reach all the way to the bone. Kaseki isn’t like Chrome or Suika. Or, Gen notes, it’s more accurate to say that the world won’t treat him the same as the younger generation of Ishigami villagers.
Brain plasticity? Best by the age of three.
University? Best completed by twenty-two.
Working career? Best by seventy, according to the average retirement age.
Gen didn’t help bring the villagers back to life in the modern world just so they could slip through the cracks.
Gen is a liar. If the second trick he ever learned was the Zarrow shuffle, then the first was how to tell a lie. And so he knows what true: there are fractures in himself and in the people who matter most to him, but you need to start somewhere and oftentimes the only place to begin is by accepting that some things will forever be changed. The catch: change and ruin aren’t equivalent.
He picks up the pieces of Suika’s teacup and asks Kaseki, “Have you ever heard of kintsugi?”
They hadn’t touched it again ever since Tsukasa had woken up.
Someone—either Hyouga or Kinrou—someone on the more cynical side had suggested using the same methods on Senkuu. Senkuu’s own response though, along with the general response from the community as a whole, had shut down any attempts to revisit the subject in the future.
Gen didn’t think he’d ever be able to look at a freezer the same way.
The pragmatic excuse: They couldn’t resort to cryogenics because they still needed Senkuu to help build the time machine for as long as he’d be able to.
The truth: If they resorted to cryogenics, then they would be the ones killing Senkuu.
(From Senkuu to Tsukasa, at the start: ‘With these hands, I will kill you.’)
Tsukasa didn't respond immediately, but once he did, there was no anger or resentment in his voice. Just tiredness. The voice of a man who'd been wrung dry. ‘You didn't say anything that wasn't true.'
After closing the chamber, Gen promised him, ‘If it fails, you can say you told me so.’
'I won’t do that, Gen.’ Tsukasa lowered his head. ‘If it fails, you’ll only have your own disappointment to face.’
Gen’s own heartbreak versus a chance to give Senkuu what he’d wanted most. Gen had taken worse gambles.
(Three months and one jump through time later, Gen will receive the damning text from Yuzuriha. True to his word, Tsukasa won’t say a thing once he learns that Senkuu doesn't remember. Gen’s heart does break anyway though.)
Gen’s always felt nine to be an awkward number in that it’s the numerical equivalent of a liminal space, and nothing ever comes in nines when they could come in tens except for—apparently—the number of weeks LUXE has contracted Gen for. Which is to say, this is the final week in Gen's contract with LUXE and by extension, it’s also the last time Gen will ever try probing Gozan Atsushi like some sort of lab rat or ethically-questionable psychology experiment. If there’s genius in grit and determination, there’s wisdom in letting things go, and after his conversations with Senkuu and Kaseki, Gen has decided: they need to stop living in the Stone World.
Tsukasa will be disappointed.
But Tsukasa isn’t a lonely little kid anymore, and neither is Gen.
“I’ll meet you inside,” Gen tells Hasegawa. The club’s lights reflect off his grey hairs and set them in color. “I want to chat with a friend first.”
Hasegawa scratches his chin, blunt nails catch on his stubble. He looks skeptical, but he doesn’t ask what sort of friend Gen’s made at LUXE over his contracted time period, just, “Ten minutes, Gen.”
That’s all he needs really.
Gen finds Gozan circling the perimeter of the club, thick arms crossed over his chest and face as unfriendly as always. He isn’t as nearly as hostile as he was in the Stone World, something which is equal parts relieving and disorienting, and the jury’s still out on whether that’s simply because Gozan is on the clock whenever they interact or if the Kingdom of Might had brought out the worst in everyone.
(Tsukasa had wanted to create a better world, Gen knows.
But the roots of his kingdom were toxic in nature, and it festered.
He figures Tsukasa realized that on his own eventually, since he’s never asked Gen why he turned on him in the first place.)
The music is loud enough that Gozan doesn’t hear Gen calling his name until he’s about a yard away. Once he’s gotten his attention though, Gozan just raises his brows at him. Usually, Gen’s good about only seeking him out during his smoke breaks, but he doesn’t want to wait. It’s not excitement exactly, and it’s not a desire to rip off the bandaid. It’s just Gen looking to store away yet another box of terrible memories in hopes that, one day, Gen will finish the chapter that is his life in the Stone World.
Over the bass that’s loud enough to make Gen feel like it’s hard to breathe, Gozan asks if there’s something wrong.
Gen knows how to lie on a whim the same way he knows how to do a Zarrow shuffle blindfolded. When it’s planned like this though, it’s as simple as breathing, “I actually had a request. I’ve—you see,” Gen lets himself tug at the cuff on his sleeves, makes his fingers shake ever so slightly, “I’ve been having some, some trouble with a fan of mine.” He chews on the inside of his cheek. “Or…I don’t know, maybe ‘fan’ isn’t the right term exactly—”
Gozan squints at him. Something about the expression takes Gen back to the day Tsukasa and Hyouga realized he’d double-crossed them, and Gen thinks he might understand what Senkuu meant about not believing in heroes or villains. Gozan, to his credit, interprets what Gen’s saying faster than expected. It makes Gen wonder if this isn’t the first time a club patron has approached him with something like this.
Gozan asks, grim, “Got someone trailing you?”
“Yeah, I—he always come to my shows, but lately he’s been popping up in other areas. The park my great-uncle and I visit, the grocery store…” Gen can’t force himself to flush is the thing, so he balls his hands inside his pockets and shrinks on himself with purpose. “I know it sounds—”
“I believe you,” Gozan replies, easy enough. “I’ll keep an eye out for him, and I’ll let the other guys know if you can describe him.”
This is the part Gen that has been going over in his mind with polish, buffing it over and over again. He takes out for his phone, and his fingers aren’t shaking but they buzz with anticipation. This is it, Gozan, he thinks, this is the one thing I haven’t tried yet with you.
“I actually managed to get a picture of him.”
Gen taps in his password without looking and pulls up the photo he stole from Hyouga’s social media. He posts as infrequently and as rarely as Senkuu, but Gen managed to find a decent enough picture.
If Hyouga ever finds out, Gen is, once again, a dead man walking.
(He thinks firmly, feelingly: I can never, ever let Hyouga-chan set foot in this club.)
Gozan takes the phone from him, eyes tracing the photo as he mentally catalogues Gen’s supposed stalker. Gen doesn’t so much as blink as he does. Blink and he might miss it, blink and he could miss the split-second of recognition that might cross the other’s face.
Gen waits like this: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
The recognition never comes.
Gozan nods once, “Got it.”
There’s that feeling again—that feeling like Gen’s only just now finding out that he has fifty-one cards in his deck instead of fifty-two. Uncertainty rises in his gut before he can will it away.
“Do you recognize him?” Gen presses, resisting the urge to frown, “Have you seen him before?”
“No, if he’s come by the LUXE before, it wasn’t when I was working.”
The thing is, Gen isn’t disappointed—because he’d resolved to himself that he wouldn’t feel disappointed if this didn’t work (though empirical evidence shows that it should’ve worked)—so much as perplexed. Beyond Tsukasa’s request and Gen’s own vague hopes to provide comfort to Senkuu in the form of proof that Byakuya would remember the Stone World given time, there is little personal investment on Gen’s part when it comes to Gozan Atsushi. Which is selfish of Gen, but still true. He’d told himself that he wouldn’t be disappointed, and so it’s easy to tamp down those feelings, but the thing is—Gen had never considered what the implications of this attempt failing were.
It goes against all of their theories on how Senkuu regained his memories.
The implication: They've got it all wrong somehow.
Gozan hands the phone back. Gen takes it and slips it back in his pocket. The glass screen clunks against the petrified swallow. “He’s got a distinct look,” says Gozan. Gen had been so lost in his head, he’d forgotten for a second, that they were still talking about his supposed stalker. “It’ll make it easy to keep an eye out, and like I said, I’ll let the other guys know.”
“Thank you,” Gen hears himself say, mind miles away. “I appreciate it.”
When Gozan tells him not to mention it, Gen is already walking away.
Gen doesn’t cling to facts and logic the way Senkuu and others might. Gen’s domain is built on psychology and manipulation and understanding how to read micro-expressions. As a child, he’d sooner look up the fairytale explanation for why the sky is blue than comb through a textbook for the answer, but he also understands one crucial detail.
Fact: In the name of science, nothing is a coincidence.
Gen doesn’t reflect on the events of Mirai’s birthday party often, because it’s hard to do so without tasting bile when he thinks about the way Senkuu had jerked away so quickly, had flung himself all the way to other side of the room like he was in danger. It’s hard to think about the fact that, in another timeline, one of Gen's friends had murdered the person he cares deeply for.
Fact: Even when Senkuu hadn’t remembered any of the events that happened in the Stone World, he’d reacted as if he had when Tsukasa touched his neck. Reacted because even amnesiac, he kept the fear of being murdered at Tsukasa’s hand with him.
Fact: Gozan Atsushi was murdered cruelly and unfairly as well, and unlike Senkuu with Tsukasa, Gen knows that Gozan had always been subtly, silently afraid of Hyouga since day one. Every attempt to garner Hyouga’s approval, each time he’d pass up one of his friends to the chopping block—Gozan’s motives were so saturated in fear that in some ways, Gen had pitied him then.
The thing is though, unlike Senkuu, Gozan doesn’t have any recollection of his killer.
His contract with LUXE concludes here, on this ninth night, and Gen isn’t satisfied.
Group Name: land of oz
Yuzuriha[14:22] Oh, haha who changed the group name?
Tsukasa[14:30] Sorry, that was Mirai and Suika’s idea.
Nikki[14:31] Suika made a pop culture reference!
Ginrou[14:36] Wait you can change the group name
[Ginrou has changed the group name to: Ginrou plus side characters]
[Ukyo has changed the group name to: I don’t ask you to pay rent but I could]
[Ginrou has changed the group name to: land of oz]
[Yuzuriha has changed the group name to: 6 MONTH ANNIVERSARY!!]
Yuzuriha[14:40] ^^^As of next week, it’ll be 6 months since people were depetrified!!!
Yuzuriha[14:41] The plan is to meet at the Kichijoji house by 5pm for dinner and games! :)
Yuzuriha[14:41] Hope to see everyone there!
Yo[14:45] idk which chat is this anymore
Ryusui nudged Chrome into a position that wouldn’t be out of place on a statue.
Gen wet his lips, verifying, ‘There’s nothing we need to do once the jump starts? No need to touch anything? Or anyone?’
Chrome shook his head. ‘So long as everyone is in the area of effect, we'll be pulled into the jump. Just sit tight, try not to vomit—that’s what Senkuu told me.’
Gen’s laugh sounded shaky even to his own ears, nerves turning his hands and fingers clumsy. ‘Stellar advice.’
When things fall apart, it’s when you’re at your happiest.
Gen, for all his love of magic and smoke and mirrors, has his doubts on whether psychics are real, but he does believe in patterns.
Autumn festival isn’t for a few more weeks, but the combined efforts of Yuzuriha and Gen have everyone wearing traditional clothes for their sixth month anniversary celebration. Suika’s wearing a green kimono when she helps Gen hang his handmade banner in the entryway between the kitchen and living room. Gen uses a stepping stool, but Suika’s still small enough to need the fold-out ladder the Kichijoji residents use whenever someone needs to tend to the garden’s rose trellis. The others are either in the kitchen, finishing up last-minute dinner preparations, or milling around the Kichijoji property.
They try to unfurl the banner, but some parts of it stick together—parts where the splotches of paint had still been a little damp when Gen folded it up and loaded it into his car. After several minutes though, they manage to get it open with minimal tearing.
Suika, clearly lying, “It’s neat.”
Gen clicks his tongue at her. The painted letters ‘ppy’ in Happy Anniversary remain creased no matter what Gen does. He delicately informs Suika, “I did not pay for your glasses just so you could insult my art.”
In light of the fact that the majority of the villagers likely wouldn’t be able to read what the banner said, he and Kaseki tried to include little references of their lives in Stone World along its borders.
Climbing up the ladder on her side of the entryway, Suika touches a delicate finger to Gen’s artful interpretation of Ginrou, laughing. “Why did you paint Ginrou so much shorter than everyone else?”
Gen pins his corner to the wall, and then helps Suika with her end. “To match his mental age.”
“It doesn’t look like him!”
“And yet,” he says, fond and teasing, “you were able to tell who it was supposed to be at first glance.”
Suika grins at him, giggly from both Gen’s nonexistent painting skills and the thrill of having the former Kingdom of Science in one place again. Her cheeks push up against the lower rim of her glasses, and Gen thinks maybe it’s not such a mystery that Tsukasa lets her and Mirai get away with so much.
Over in the kitchen, Gen hears Ryusui grouse, “All right, someone needs to leave. It’s more crowded in here than it is in hell, and it’s turning into a fucking fire hazard.”
Chrome gives him a sour look, rubbing his elbow from where he’d hit it against the counter after getting accidentally hip-checked by Yuzuriha. “You would know a thing or two about hell, wouldn’t you, Ryusui?”
Gen’s about to point out that Ryusui isn’t contributing to anything and is only in the kitchen because Francois is (it’s an odd reversal of their roles which Gen doesn’t have time to fully unpack), but then Taiju is opening one of the preheating ovens and smoke comes spilling out. The heavy, dark grey kind that means that something isn’t just burnt and currently on fire. Taiju scrambles to get whatever dish it is out of the oven and into the sink, but he isn’t fast enough.
“Ah, hell,” someone—Nikki, maybe, given the level of exasperation—sighs, underneath the blare of the fire alarms. “Look what you did, Ryusui. You jinxed it.”
Kinrou’s frown deepens as he stares up at the smoke detector. In his most serious voice, he turns to ask Yuzuriha, “Which Hatsune Miku song is this?”
From upstairs, Senkuu snaps, “Someone open the windows and turn on the fan already! This is basic shit!” In a sudden switch to a tone that isn’t half as sharp, Senkuu says, “No, that was directed at you, Alumi. I’m saying that to the people who’ve been living in the twenty-first century for more than six months.”
Ignoring the jab, Gen recalls that Alumi is the oldest Ishigami villager.
(A distant corner of Gen’s mind recognizes that Senkuu only knows what to do because he’s set off more fires and explosions than everyone else in the house.)
(In another distant corner of his mind, Gen also recognizes that it’s a wonder they ever pulled off time travel.)
Tsukasa, Taiju, and Francois all move to do as Senkuu says. Gen sees the way Suika’s shoulders pull up towards her ears the longer the smoke alarms blare so he suggests that they wait in the garden until the smoke clears and the alarms stop. He sees Ukyo, Kohaku, Chrome, and several villagers already filing out through the backdoor; the Stone World was quieter than the modern world in a number of ways.
Outside, the alarms are still audible but more bearable.
The later summer months have the garden in full bloom, patches of blues, pinks, yellows, and reds wherever Gen turns. It’s the equivalent to a swan song before they begin to wilt. Mirai and the other children are playing some sort of game already. Suika watches them and glances up at Gen with a frown, shifting her weight from foot to foot like she wants to play but doesn’t want to leave him alone either.
He nudges her forward with a dramatic sigh. “I’m too old to keep up with you children, I’m afraid. It’s very bad for my blood pressure—you’ll have to win without me.”
Suika gives him a perplexed smile, hesitantly reminding him, “But you’re twenty?”
“I have arthritic hips.”
It’s only after she leaves that Gen realizes he’s stopped in front of a bed of poppies, red and bright like a heart. He wonders who selected the flowers and whether they knew anything about their symbolism. He tears his gaze away and looks up just to check if they’re in danger of getting rained out. He catches his oba-chan’s eye instead.
She’s sitting on the balcony alongside Alumi and Senkuu, a blue gingham blanket spread across the formers’ laps, neither women seem to be bothered by the noise of smoke alarm, which has yet to shut off. Gen doesn’t know if that tolerance is due to temperament or simply being too hard of hearing to clock it.
Senkuu’s leaning against the railing, little finger in his ear like he’s only hearing an annoying buzz instead of the smoke detectors going off. Gen raises an eyebrow at him in question, mentally asking him what he’s still doing inside. Senkuu just gives Gen a lazy salute and, after saying something to Alumi and his oba-chan, shoves his hands in his pockets and turns on his heel.
The entire interaction has Gen wondering what the soft side of a porcupine looks like.
He glances back at his oba-chan. Someone pulled her long, grey hair back into a braid. It removes some of the shadows that used to hang around her eyes. Gen can’t hear it from where he’s standing, but Alumi’s mouth is moving non-stop and she occasionally reaches to pat his oba-chan’s hand. She's animated where his oba-chan is still, and Gen ducks his head even though there’s no real need to hide his smile.
His oba-chan looks like she’s enjoying the view.
Coming up from behind him, “It’s weird that seeing everyone together feels like this.”
Gen looks over his shoulder just as Kohaku glides into the empty space next to him, Chrome on her other side. The blue and green sleeves of her kimono wrinkle at her elbows from the way she crosses her arms over her chest. The difference and similarities between Kohaku, Gen, and Chrome can be summed up in this: Kohaku always stands with her feet a shoulder-width apart, straight and tall; whenever Gen wears the right clothes for it, he hides his hands in his sleeves; Chrome, wearing sneakers even though he’s in a yukata, bounces taps his foot, not out of impatience but because the buzz under his skin won’t let him stay still.
Chrome nods in agreement, and Gen has never passed up on opportunity to tease either of them. “Does it make you wish everyone was stuck on an island together again?” he asks, curious underneath the playfulness.
“Maybe for fun,” Chrome answers, like he’s really considering the possibility. “Just a few days to remind ourselves of what it was like.”
Kohaku hums and asks the question Gen was thinking too, “Not longer?”
“I don’t think,” Chrome starts matter-of-factly, eyes flicking back and forth like there are only a certain number of words in the language that could come close to actually articulating what he’s thinking, “that we can go back to that now that we all know how big the world really is.”
Not all memories have equal weight. Standing in a garden, surrounded by the people smuggled out of the fifty-eighth century, Gen measures the years of his life against each other. There are the first nineteen from before the petrification incident, the four years he spent in the Stone World, and the fourteen months he’s been back. Once again, it’s a blatant desecration of mathematics; the four years and fourteen months outweigh the other nineteen.
Gen teases, “Is this the festivities making you nostalgic or is something else?”
One perspective: In for a penny, in for a pound.
Another perspective: Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
When you have someone like Kohaku, there’s a causative relationship between the two. Kohaku gives him a sour, unimpressed look like she wishes the house were on fire if only to throw Gen back into it. Gen laughs, and she elbows him for it, but he catches the way her lips quirk briefly.
Chrome ignores them both, but not Gen’s question. “Nostalgia, I guess,” he decides, confident in his answer. ”I’m happy with the way things are. But building things together with everyone was always exciting.”
In the Stone World, Gen was often delegated the more tedious tasks, but even so, he has no problem with nodding his head and admitting, “It was.” To Kohaku, he points out, in response to nothing, “You’re wearing green.”
Kohaku shrugs at him, blue and green fabric shifting with the movement. “The modern world has more colors than just blue.”
If Gen’s smile is a touch too soft, too fond in response for such a seemingly simple statement, no one says so. Again, he thinks: Adaptable. Ishigami village is chaotically and constantly evolving step by step, and looking at them, Gen doesn't find it so hard to believe that their ancestors were some of the greatest scientific minds of the modern world.
Inside the house, the smoke alarms finally go silent. Yuzuriha opens the backdoor after a few seconds to inform everyone that the food is ready, but if they’d like to eat outside, they have spare blankets for people to sit on.
Time passes easily when Gen is with this group of people.
There are pieces of information about family that Gen’s observed but never experienced for himself. Some are quiet and well-mannered, a lot are chaotic and messy. Some videocall each other over the weekends even if it’s only been a few days since they last talked, and others slowly break apart with time, using school or careers as an excuse. Some only ever see each other at weddings and funerals, but even that’s a stretch.
Fact: Unlike Senkuu, the Ishigami villagers are not related to Gen.
A thought: There is what titles are supposed to make you, and then there’s what actions really do make you. Gen doesn’t know for sure—there’s no way to prove something so abstract—but he thinks that maybe family isn’t found or destined, maybe family is what you make of it.
Six months alive. Three thousand and seven-hundred years away. Eight months asleep in the modern world. It’s more numbers than Gen can handle right now, so he settles with just enjoying the fact that everyone made it in the end.
‘Is everyone ready?’
‘Yeah, we are.’
Chrome's knuckles were white from how tightly he'd clutched the Medusa. Gen asked him, 'Are you scared?'
Something in Chrome's expression steeled itself, and he bared his teeth in a grin. 'Not even a little. Let's do this.'
By the time midnight hits, most people have already filtered off to their Ubers or homes or gone upstairs to their rooms. It’s only the core members of the former Kingdom of Science left when Senkuu says to room at large, apropos to nothing, “I’m heading to the train station. Walk with me.”
Kohaku, Ruri, and Chrome are a given, since they live with him, but beyond that, it isn’t clear who he’s addressing. Maybe he’s not sure who he’s speaking to either. Gen casts him a curious glance and finds a few of the others doing the same. Senkuu’s eyes flick towards them in a look that’s too casual and unbothered to be sincere. Instead of answering the unspoken question hanging in the air, he just calmly readjusts the collar of his yukata and willfully ignores the way the air begins to turn just the slightest bit heavy.
Kaseki glances at him and askance. Gen nods; they’ll walk with Senkuu and the others to the train station, despite the fact that they drove here.
Behind him, Ryusui tells Francois to drive ahead to the train station so he won’t have to walk back, and so altogether, it’s the former generals of science plus the Ishigami, Shishio, and Ukyo households, as well as Yuzuriha and Taiju. It isn’t a small procession, and Gen wonders if Senkuu meant or expected it to happen.
Either way, Senkuu’s pensiveness doesn’t seem to be directed at the number of people who file out the door along with him.
They step out into the night air, a cluster of formally dressed teens and young adults wandering down the street at midnight. With Taiju and Ryusui’s help, Gen maintains an easy, ongoing chatter even as the rest of their group begins to grow quiet during the walk, a mixture of typical post-party tiredness as well as growing anticipation. Senkuu isn’t normally the type to have people stew like this.
If you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly increase the temperature, it won’t realize it’s boiling until it’s too late. It’s only just hitting Gen that the contemplative silence Senkuu’s been sporting since the evening ended feels insidious.
They’re three-quarters of the way to the train station when Senkuu finally turns to catch Ukyo’s eye. When they aren’t looking, Senkuu tilts his head toward Suika and Mirai, and Ukyo nods in return before he starts subtly ushering the two girls further along. The rest of the group slows their steps; it’s the practiced, wordless kind of communication that stems from living, working, and surviving together. The gap between them and their youngest, Gen notes, is far enough for Suika and Mirai to be out of hearing range but not Ukyo.
They’re stalled like this: Chrome is giving Senkuu a searching look; Taiju and Tsukasa are watching him out the corner of their eyes; and Gen is wondering if he’ll have to wheedle whatever it is it out of Senkuu.
Eventually though, Senkuu sighs in the midst of picking at his ear, and Gen mentally catalogues his body language. There are different types of learners, and Gen learns by watching; oftentimes, Senkuu only does that whenever he wants to be irritating solely for the sake of it. Which is to say, Senkuu’s looking to force a bit of normality into whatever announcement he has. It’s only when Senkuu speaks that Gen gets why.
“I got the results back from my cardiologist.”
Gen folds his hands into his sleeves. He feels people glancing at each other in surprise—surprise over the fact that Senkuu is broaching the topic on his own volition. He had to, after a while, in the Stone World, but it’s the first time he’s so much as referenced his condition to more than one of them since they returned the modern world.
“Oh,” breathes Yuzuriha, regaining her figurative footing. Most of them are trailing behind her. “Oh, what was—what did they say?”
Twenty or so feet in front of them, Ukyo’s head twitches like he’s resisting the urge to turn and look at them. Gen sympathizes because he knows that if he spies the concern on his own face, there’s a chance Senkuu might rethink this entire thing and try to switch topics.
He wonders if this is Senkuu trusting them or if he’s just trying to rip off the bandaid by telling them all at once.
Maybe it’s both. Senkuu’s good at multitasking.
“They say I’ve developed an a-fib,” Senkuu says, easy and off-handed, like he’s telling them about what he ate for lunch on Thursday. Senkuu—he knows—is already making a number of personal concessions by telling them like this, so Gen tries not to grimace at the tone. He tacks on, “Which they think is weird because they’d been monitoring everything so closely to try to prevent that.”
Déjà vu, Gen thinks, both in regards to what Senkuu is saying and the situation as a whole.
The streetlights make it difficult to see Kinrou’s eyes behind his glasses, but the downturned curve of his mouth is the same as always. “So in other words…”
Senkuu shrugs although Gen wishes he wouldn’t, and finishes, “In other words, things are progressing more quickly than anyone expected, I guess.” His eyes flick towards Taiju and whatever he sees has his lips twisting into wry, one-sided smile. His rolls his eyes and his voice takes on a gruff tone, “Don’t make it weird, Big Oaf. I’m just throwing it out there because the last time I ‘kept secrets’ you guys lost your shit.”
Kohaku’s eyes sharpen at that, and the look on her face has Gen ruminating over the fact that she’s been keeping herself entertained in the modern world by wiping the floor of Tsukasa’s dojo with men twice her size. “Yes, well, that’s what happens when people find out that one of their friends is hiding important information.” Like dying, is what she doesn’t need to say.
When emotions and vulnerability are involved, Senkuu isn’t a turtle so much as a porcupine. A soft underbelly somewhere beneath the barbs. Gen wonders if the others are only just remembering this facet of his personality. Bury people in the ground, but then look up in remembrance; it’s human nature to think only the best of someone only after they’re gone.
Senkuu is trusting them with far too many of the building blocks that make up who he is.
Gen opens his mouth to try to give Senkuu an out, but Ginrou speaks up before he can.
“What’s an a-fib?” Ginrou asks, more subdued than he’d been all night. Ginrou, who spams the group chat with outdated memes and is even worse of a gremlin than Senkuu on any given day.
Looking at him now, Gen realizes that, in a sick sort of way, that they’d all gotten better at this. Before, when Senkuu’s condition first became common knowledge, they’d spent too much time fixating over the possibility of losing him and licking their wounds from the lack of trust on Senkuu’s end. They didn’t spend enough time asking the important questions at the beginning.
They’ve gotten better at this, but it shouldn’t be the kind of thing one gets better at.
Alternatively: It shouldn’t be the kind of thing you get to practice at.
“He means atrial fibrillation,” Chrome says. The tone of his voice is too complicated to pin down, and Gen can’t see what sort of expression he’s making since he’s walking behind Chrome. Maybe it’s best that he doesn’t see. (Losing Senkuu hurt, but Chrome was the one who had to pick himself up the day afterwards to work on the machine.) “It’s, uh—Senkuu got it back in the Stone World, as things got…” He trails off. “It’s essentially an irregular heart rate. On its own, it usually isn’t life-threatening, but it does need to be treated.”
Again, Gen thinks: We’ve done this before.
“Things are progressing quickly,” Tsukasa says, he keeps his voice low so as not to draw attention from Suika and Mirai. “If I’m recalling the timeline correctly, Senkuu, you didn’t develop this in the Stone World until you were nineteen years old, give or take.”
“We pretty much confirmed it after you started getting short of breath more often,” elaborates Ryusui. He keeps his tone casual, his stroll unbothered and confident. It’s a show, but it’s a show for Senkuu’s sake, Gen knows.
It’s a kindness that goes like this: Senkuu won’t acknowledge that sharing this information makes him feel vulnerable and so Ryusui won’t treat him like he is.
Gen tries to emulate him when he can, but more often than not, Senkuu sees through it anyway. More so since he began to remember the Stone World.
“Yeah,” Senkuu says simply. “I know.”
Chrome’s brow furrow, steps faltering. He scuffs the side of his sneaker when he steps too close to the curb. Ruri reaches to steady him as he states, loudly and abruptly, “But that doesn’t make sense.”
Senkuu glances over, expression careful.
Chrome continues, words spilling out like water from a faucet, “If you didn’t develop an a-fib until you were nineteen in the Stone World, then there’s no reason you should have one already in this timeline. It doesn’t make sense.”
Senkuu’s voice takes on a tone that’s veering towards lackadaisical, “Ah well, it’s possible that the Medusa—”
“It healed the surgical scarring, but nothing else.” Chrome’s gaze sharpens. “Think about it—Kinrou and Suika were both petrified at one point but they still needed glasses after the fact. The Medusa doesn’t have any effect on congenital disorders, that’s why you and I gave up on it as a cure.”
Senkuu’s lips press into a thin line. He theorizes, “Could just be an effect of time travel.”
Gen draws back at that, frowning. Even putting up a front, Senkuu isn’t the type to brush off loose threads, to forgive the illogical. One glance at Chrome’s face shows that he’s thinking the same thing too; he looks at Senkuu like he’s never seen him before, baffled and lost.
“That still doesn’t make sense,” he insists. Chrome tries to make a grand, sweeping gesture at the rest of the group. He’s near the center of the pack though, next to Senkuu, so he really only ends up pointing to Tsukasa and Ryusui, who happen to be walking in front of them all. “Look at them—they’re all in their younger bodies. The bioelectric activity carried over when we made the jump, but nothing else. So, your heart should still be in the same shape it was when you were sixteen. You didn’t have any of the symptoms of an a-fib even at seventeen.”
Something in Chrome’s words piques Taiju’s interest because he whips his head around to look at Senkuu, exclaiming, “And when we were the only ones awake in the Stone World”—in response to their pointed looks at Mirai and Suika, Taiju quiets slightly—“I never even saw you having an attack.”
It feels like a non-sequitur until Yuzuriha’s head lifts from where she’d been looking down at her hands, realization dawning on her face. “The timing’s off for that too then,” she realizes, “because Senkuu-kun had an attack eight months after the jump in this timeline. But that never happened in the Stone World—at least, not just eight months after waking up, because you would’ve noticed it, Taiju-kun.”
It takes it a second for Gen to understand what she’s referring to, and then it clicks.
The day Senkuu collapsed in his lab at school. The day he recovered his memories of the Stone World.
In Gen’s mind, the facts had been confined into two neat boxes laid out like this: Senkuu’s heart is failing, he remembers the Stone World. Gen has been thinking of two as unrelated until now, but in reality it’s more like this: Senkuu’s heart is failing, and he remembers the Stone World—something which Byakuya or Gozan cannot remember no matter what sorts of hints they drop or which memories they try to pull from.
It doesn’t hit him immediately. He doesn’t make the connection right away. The shift in Gen’s reality comes slowly and then all at once when the words finally sink in.
He thinks: Hang on.
He thinks: Wait.
He thinks: No. Oh god—please no—
(If you put a frog in water and slowly turn up the heat, it won’t notice until it’s too far gone.)
One second, Gen’s blood is freezing in his veins, and in the next, it’s roaring in his ears. He stumbles, and it’s only Kaseki reaching out to steady him that keeps him from faceplanting on the concrete. The corners of Senkuu’s lips pull into a frown, brows furrowing, and beside him, Kaseki peers up at Gen’s face. Watchful. Searching. Concerned.
(Gen doesn’t deserve it. If they did what he’s beginning to think they did, he really, truly doesn’t deserve their concern.)
(He’s been looking at this wrong.)
(He didn’t miss nearly as much as he thought he did in the Stone World.)
Listen up: Gen’s heart isn’t beating.
“Are—” The word comes out breathy through a throat that feels too tight, and Gen has to stop himself. Gen swallows around the lump rising in his throat before restarting, “Senkuu-chan, that was when you remembered the Stone World, yes?”
The others don’t follow. Gen can tell, but that’s a secondary concern, at most. See, Gen’s been operating under the assumption that Senkuu never remembered anything until his attack. His running theory, and the thing that pushed him to try with Gozan, was that Senkuu’s memories were recovered after a certain threshold of Gen, Tsukasa, Yuzuriha, and Taiju nudging at his subconscious. Gen had already made an error in hoping that physical characteristics would be carried through the jump, but if Gen’s wrong about this too—if he and the others were only passive factors in Senkuu remembering the Stone World, then that means—
Senkuu’s facing forward. Gen can’t see his face, but he can hear him. “I think in a way, I always remembered. June 3rd had me so fucked up, I couldn’t remember what I was doing or what I’d done earlier that day.”
“There was a conversation we had in the Stone World that you referenced early on after I’d met you again,” Tsukasa supplies, and Gen’s head whips towards him because in all the texts and the updates, he never even mentioned that. As if hearing his thoughts, Tsukasa explains, “I thought it was a coincidence or perhaps one of the others had already alluded to it.”
“Why do you ask, Gen-kun?”
Gen looks at each of them. Pain is both perception and a concept, and most adults brush off stubbed toes and bruised shins just fine but the crushing feeling of guilt throbs. You can brace for a punch when someone begins to wind up their arm, but this—this bit of truth that has Gen’s heartbeat pounding in his ears—didn’t come with a warning label.
None of the others get it. None of them realize it. He opens his mouth and words come out, but if you ask Gen what they were, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. His mind is white static, but the others seem to accept his response.
(Gen still can’t see Senkuu’s face.)
Ruri rests a hand on Senkuu’s shoulder. Anyone else, and Gen thinks he might’ve shaken them off either out of habit or on principle, but Ruri’s unique in that she’s been in Senkuu’s shoes. Before they recreated doxycycline, she was the one on the deathbed. She’s gentle in getting everyone back on track, “Why don’t we just focus on what Senkuu’s doctor told him?”
“You have an a-fib, and in this timeline, that’s a new development,” says Ryusui, taking the cue from Ruri.
Observation tells Gen that Ryusui’s doing the best out of all of them. Handling this, that is. Miles better than Gen is now that—
(He cuts the thought off there.)
Ryusui again, “Did he have any recommendations?”
At this, Gen listens dazedly. It’s only the years of performing live that have Gen still walking in a straight line. He tells himself to pick out three things he can see.
Senkuu scuffs his shoe against the curb (one). His hair looks almost silvery in this lighting (two), and his yukata is beige (three). He doesn’t like sandals—wouldn’t even wear them in the Stone World, but Gen had bullied him into it because he would’ve looked ridiculous in a yukata and sneakers. In hindsight, it’s a very small thing to have bickered over
“There’s this procedure that can cure it,” Senkuu says, still not treating any of this like it’s a big deal, still seemingly at the very opposite end of the emotional spectrum from where Gen is.
Though maybe it’s not just a front. Maybe that’s where he really is. It’s not much of a comfort.
As an afterthought, Senkuu adds, “It won’t fix everything of course, just the a-fib. Cardiac ablation—the success rate’s better than it used to be, I guess.”
“When is the surgery scheduled for?” Tsukasa asks. He’s equal parts gentle and clinical when he speaks, which is likely the tone Senkuu’s craving the most in this situation, but it just makes Gen’s head hurt.
“Well, I’m a minor,” Senkuu replies, more guarded than before and the change in tone marks the end of this conversation. “So I’m waiting to hear back from my old man before anything else.”
Gen casts a glance over the others’ faces, gauging their reactions. He lingers on Chrome in particular, then Tsukasa, willing them both to read his mind and understand what Gen’s just realized if only to allay his fears, to disprove the thought Gen isn’t going to say out loud. It says something, that Gen’s so unwilling to voice what he thinks—what he knows, deep in his bones.
(It says: Gen is a damn coward.)
[COMPOSE EMAIL] Chrome-chan, would you mind sending me a copy of that history paper you were working on?
[COMPOSE EMAIL] Hi Minami-chan! I just wanted to follow up with you regarding your interview with Lillian Weinberg. I know that Senkuu-chan said his dad didn’t seem to remember anything from the Stone World, but perhaps Lillian let something slip?
‘Will you look for me?’
The answer came easily to Gen. ‘Of course.’
‘Even if I’m not the same?’ Senkuu had always been pale. Now, he was white, like all the blood had been siphoned out of him. 'Even if—’
‘Silly,’ Gen managed, through a too constricted throat. ‘You’re Senkuu-chan, first and always.’
This is the saying everyone knows, Curiosity killed the cat.
This the statement in its entirety, Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.
Gen doesn’t care about satisfaction. He doesn’t need something so trivial, but he does need to get his facts straight. It’s hard to keep anything straight though, when your head is spinning in circles down the rabbit holes your own mind creates. They say that an anechoic chamber is the quietest place on earth. Stay inside one long enough, and you’ll begin to hear the sound of your own organs. Gen’s bedroom is not an anechoic chamber; the floors are wooden, the walls are thin, and yet his heart says to his ears: ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.
Here’s an easy riddle. What do laughter, yawns, and curiosity all have in common?
Here’s a harder one. What does an atrial fibrillation, a cryogenic grave, Senkuu’s memories and Gozan’s and the ISS crew’s lack thereof all have in common?
The moon’s path across the night sky chases the shadows on his ceiling, and Gen can’t close his eyes for more than a few seconds at a time. An hour ago, Gen paged through Chrome’s history report and wondered what the chances were.
(Also an hour ago: the math had Gen dry-heaving into the toilet.)
Gen is a liar and so he knows what’s true. Or so he thought. Gen’s thought of plenty of things in his life though. He’s thought that he would never drink another bottle of Cola again. He’s thought that if he ever saw the petrification weapon again, he’d run the other way. He’s thought that time machines were impossible, that the modern world would fix everything, and that they’d get everything right on Take #2. Gen’s also thought that the line between what’s real and what’s fake would never blur so long as he avoided lying to himself. Now, he finds that separating the two is like pulling apart bubblegum flavors.
Truth: By Senkuu’s account, he’d felt the effects of time travel and (now by Tsukasa’s account) had remembered pieces of the Stone World long before Gen had realized.
Lie: Gen and the others were vital in helping Senkuu recover his memories.
(And addendum: If anything, they were only a tipping point. A means to turn the trickle of memories into a stream under the right circumstances.)
Truth: After numerous attempts, Gen was unsuccessful in triggering Gozan’s memories and likewise could be said for Senkuu about Byakuya.
Truth: In the Stone World, they—Gen—did what they could to preserve Senkuu’s body in hopes that, by doing so, they'd also save his memories.
Truth: The physical changes they experienced in the Stone World had no effect on their bodies in this one; there are callouses that Gen is missing and years that have been shaved off all the modern-day folk’s faces.
Truth: They each, individually and collectively, resolved to not let Senkuu die.
A follow-up truth: Promises are just lies unless they’re kept.
(Here’s another riddle that Gen is having difficult stomaching the answer to. What does the term dead ringer stem from?)
The only way all of the truths and the lies become clear, is if Gen answers the simple, gut-punch of a question that he’s never even thought to ask himself until now: In a Stone World, where they have only the bare minimum necessary to monitor someone’s vitals, what are the chances that a comatose patient gets mistaken for a dead one?
(Gen knows what the chances are. They’re written in Chrome’s history report.)
There is experience and then there are the paper facts of mentalism and psychology. When his breath hitches and his throat begins to close on him, Gen shoves himself up from the bed and stumbles past Kaseki's room into the kitchen, cold sweat prickling at his back and his forehead. The light of the refrigerator hurts when he opens it, eyes still adjusted to the dark. He blindly gropes for the ice tray and yanks back the silicone mold once he gets his hands on it. Most of the ice cubes spill onto the floor, but he takes one that doesn’t and crams it into his mouth. The chill seeps into the roof of his mouth and freezes his tongue. Gen breathes through his nose, focusing on the sensation.
He goes through five more ice cubes before he can begin to look at the facts pragmatically.
One, Senkuu will not blame them for their mistake because, if the situations were reversed, Senkuu would’ve put Gen in the cryochamber too, if only because he’d understand that there’s no feasible way to keep a comatose patient alive for the three extra months they’d needed to finish the time machine.
Two, if Kinrou or Hyouga had pushed the issue more, then Senkuu might’ve even been onboard and they would’ve resorted to cryogenics intentionally—not in a clumsy, accidental stumble.
It was a horrible mistake, and Gen’s going to die with that on his conscience, but the thing is, that mistake was only the start point for the cascade of events that led to this final, damning truth: Three, if Senkuu dies in this timeline, it will be all Gen’s fault.
‘I’m not going to remember anything. I don’t even have the Miracle Fluid figured out yet. Is it enough? Am I leaving behind enough? Chrome—where is he? I need to—'
Gen placed a hand on Senkuu’s forehead and rested the other on his chest when he began to try to pull himself up. It was like holding down a kitten. ‘It is, I promise,’ Gen soothed. If Senkuu caught the waver in Gen’s voice, he didn’t show it. ‘We’ll take it from here. Chrome, Tsukasa, Ryusui, and everyone else—we’ll finish what you’ve started.’
[COMPOSE EMAIL] [FILE ATTACHED] This cardiothoracic surgeon is considered to be at the top of her field. A friend of a friend would be able to get you on her waiting list within the month. Let me know, Senkuu-chan.
The time between when Senkuu closed and opened his eyes was getting smaller and smaller.
Gen’s own vision blurred. He thought of his stories and the fairytales that his oba-chan used to read to him. Thought of endings and final chapters that suddenly weren’t so beautiful anymore. Gen looked at Senkuu and knew, deep in his bones, that this would be Senkuu’s last night awake. He’ll need to tell the others, but first—
Goodbyes were always tricky.
This one especially so, because Gen refused to let it be a goodbye.
So he said the words he needed to say and the words that Senkuu needed to hear. Fingers curling around Senkuu, Gen promised him, ‘The things you’ve done here weren’t a waste.’
Gen’s skin chafes against the fabric of button down. He’s worn it more times than he can count, and the elbow is beginning to wear thin, but tonight, it fits poorly on Gen. There are fish out of water, and then there are snakes wearing rotting skins.
After cramming a tray’s worth of ice cubes into his mouth, one after the other, Gen had crawled back into his bed and hadn’t moved from it until the calendar on his phone reminded him that he had a show. The muscles in his neck are stiff and ache when Gen so much as turns his head. Kaseki hadn’t been around when he’d left his room, thankfully; he doesn’t know how he would’ve justified the dark bags under his eyes or the sick pallor to his skin.
Gen managed to wash his face and fix his hair in record time before rushing off, already having wasted the ninety-minute block of time before his magic show that he usually reserves for rehearsal. His tuxedo is only a little rumpled from Gen throwing it into his duffle bag. For all his efforts though, his appearance still has Hasegawa’s posture going rigid once he sees him. The look on his face can only be described as gobsmacked.
“Gen?” Hasegawa says, mouth still open a little in surprise. He shakes himself out of it. “Are you—if you’re feeling under the weather, you could’ve told me. I would’ve canceled.”
“No need.” The trick to lying to Hasegawa is by avoiding his eyes in a way that isn’t obvious. “I was up late last night with some friends, and I woke up with a head cold this morning. I’m not drunk or anything.” At this, he grins cheekily at his agent, “Want to smell my breath?”
It falls flat. The worried crease in Hasegawa’s brow doesn’t abate.
Dubiously giving him a once-over and not even trying to hide the skepticism or concern in his voice, Hasegawa asks, “Are you sure you don’t need to cancel?”
“Well, I just told you I didn’t.”
Hasegawa’s lips thin into a look bordering on stern. “Do you want to cancel?”
A flicker of irritation rises in Gen’s chest. “I’m not—”
Before finishing that statement with something scathing, something sharp enough to hurt and push Hasegawa firmly back over into being an agent instead of a family friend, Gen’s phone buzzes in his pocket. He starts, both at the sensation and at the volume of the text tone.
The group chat with the Ishigami villagers had been active earlier, with people sharing pictures from the anniversary party. Gen stopped checking after a while because the blue light from his phone made his eyes burn. He wonders if it’s Kaseki asking when he’ll be back.
It’s not Kaseki. It’s Senkuu.
Hasegawa is still frowning. Still concerned. It’s not an expression Gen is equipped to deal with at the moment. Gen looks between his phone and Hasegawa, gives the latter a pointed look: do not cancel. He holds his stare until Hasegawa finally sighs and retreats from Gen’s dressing room, giving him a much needed bit of privacy before his show.
The show Gen hasn’t had time to rehearse for.
Gen holds himself back from rubbing his face because the only thing hiding his dark circles is a thin layer of concealer that’s too pink-toned for his skin. It makes him looked sunburnt.
Gen opens his messages. Reads them.
Reads them again.
<<<From:[IS][20:50] hey i got your email
<<<From:[IS][20:50] i looked up the doc out of curiosity, she’s good at what she does
<<<From:[IS][20:51] im gonna have to pass though
There’s a saying about the sound of hooves and zebras, but here’s the catch, when you’ve got someone like Senkuu, things are never so simple. Gen shuts his eyes for a few scant moments. He’s been mentally reviewing last night’s conversation since he got home, and so it doesn’t take much effort to recall his lackluster, unruffled attitude towards his doctor’s recommendations.
Gen doesn’t notice it when he makes the conscious decision to dial Senkuu’s number. Just knows that there’s a phone pressed to his ear and words coming out of his mouth. The words go like this, “You aren’t actually planning on going through with the surgery at all, are you, Senkuu-chan?”
“Hello to you too, Mentalist.”
“This isn’t funny.”
Over the line, Gen can pick out Chrome and Kohaku’s voices. They fade with the telltale creak of Senkuu closing a door. After, “It wasn’t meant to be. It also wasn’t meant to scare you, I should’ve phrased my texts better, but I didn’t know where to start."
Gen ignores that. He knows a thing or two about deflecting and when someone else tries to do it, either intentionally or not, the only way through is by staying on target. He presses, “You haven’t told the others yet, have you?”
Senkuu’s a beat late on the uptake for reasons Gen doesn’t have the mental capacity to worry over at the moment. “That I’m not going through with the surgery? No, I haven’t yet.” There’s a rustle on his end of the line. “I just wanted to let you know ahead of time in case, I don’t know, in case you already reached out to the surgeon.”
Gen hadn’t gotten in contact with her yet, but that’s not the important part here. He’s grateful, in a way, that he’d left his email vague enough for Senkuu to think he might’ve. It’s not a flattering thought, but for all Gen’s double-crossed numerous people in the past, he himself has never been betrayed. It’s another thing that Gen had thought—that he’d never given anyone the opportunity to do so.
He wonders if this was how Tsukasa and Hyouga had felt. If it was, then Gen’s been underestimating them; the fact that they joined forces with Senkuu in the end speaks volumes about their characters.
“Good,” says Gen, “then there’s still time to convince you before you stomp all over the opportunities that everyone wished they could’ve—” The guilt hitting preemptively is what stops Gen from finishing. There are two people in this conversation: Senkuu and Gen. And between the two, Senkuu’s the one with the right to get angry, given everything.
It takes more than one attempt to swallow around the lump in his throat, but he manages. Wonders where to begin before deciding there is no good place to begin. There’s an art and a method to conversation that Gen normally clings to with both hands, but tonight, he gives up on it in same way he gives up all of his secrets in his Magic books.
Gen starts the way people with wanderlust throw darts at a map. He says, “You see, Senkuu-chan, we’ve been overcomplicating the reasons behind why you remember the Stone Age. Your case felt like an anomaly because we didn’t have all the right pieces, but it makes sense if we focus on the clear-cut lines: there is the ISS crew and Gozan, and there’s the other modern-day folk who remember—”
Senkuu’s sigh reads as a crackle of air over the phone. He picks up seamlessly from where he cut Gen off, “And only the people who were alive to make the jump are the ones who remember the Stone World. Because it all comes down to the bioelectricity of your brain and heart carrying over, and that’s not a quality that exists if you’re dead.” The words come out so smoothly, the way they only ever seem to do when you spend an hour practicing them out loud as you pace the room or stay up late, turning the words over in your mind like pieces to a puzzle. Gen almost pulls away to look at his phone, but then Senkuu continues, more subdued, “It wasn’t as obvious or immediate in the way the rest of you remember, but I think, June 3rd—I was feeling the same side effects of time travel as the rest of you.”
Gen closes his eyes.
His heart sinks out of the bottom of his chest.
“You knew.” Quietly, so soft that Senkuu might not even be able to hear it, Gen deduces—accuses, “You’ve known since the night we visited my oba-chan at her nursing home. You said”—Gen’s hands are shaking and the only reason he doesn’t set the phone down altogether is because he can’t afford to put this conversation on speakerphone—“you asked if Taiju checked.”
If his voice catches on the final word, neither of them mention it.
It was such a discomfiting question; Gen didn’t need hindsight to understand that, but now—now he knows why Senkuu had felt the need to ask.
The blood rushes from Gen’s veins, and the part of his mind that isn’t crumbling down like a sand castle that’s gone dry, whispers this: Senkuu’s fixation on the possibility of being buried alive stems all the way to the beginning. Back to when Senkuu died at Tsukasa’s hand without ever telling Taiju and Yuzuriha about his failsafe. Senkuu believes in people. But, if it takes fear to be brave, then it takes doubt to have faith. Which is to say: Senkuu must’ve realized that Taiju and Yuzuriha burying him, without ever checking his neck for residual petrification, was a real possibility.
Did Taiju check?
He checked the first time. Ukyo checked the second.
Senkuu’s voice has grown quieter, like Gen is the one he’s worried about, “I started getting a feeling about it the night you called me asking about the ISS crew. I didn’t put it all together until we visited your grannie.”
Senkuu had asked him so many questions that night. For closure, was what Gen had thought, but of course Senkuu wouldn’t ask just for that reason alone. Gen grips his phone tighter. “You never said anything.”
“It didn’t matter,” Senkuu says truthfully.
It’s the honesty in Senkuu’s voice that has Gen running a hand through his hair. He denies, “It does, on multiple levels. If you die in this timeline, then Senkuu-chan—” Gen’s fingernails dig into his scalp, “This was supposed to be…” It was supposed to be the fix, not just the continuation of a problem they’d thought they’d solved. The words clog Gen’s throat though, and so he isn’t able to say any of it.
There’s a gentle rap of knuckles against Gen’s door. It goes: tap, tap, tap; before the door opens halfway. The freckled face of one of the stagehands appears from behind it, letting Gen knows that he’s got two minutes until showtime. Gen nods mutely; the show isn’t canceled, then.
Later, he’ll be touched by the show of trust on Hasegawa’s part and then guilty for the way he snapped at him.
Now, Senkuu is speaking again. He’s saying, “At the nursing home, when I asked what you’d do if I was dying all over again…”
Gen clenches his teeth, eyes squeezing shut. Some of the blood he’d felt he lost earlier is returning in a fury. If there is a line, it’s right here: Senkuu will always be dear and precious to him, but Gen isn’t going to sit and listen as Senkuu takes his words and uses it to justify why Gen should step back and let Senkuu ruin himself again. If there was ever a drug Senkuu was weak for, it’s willful ignorance of his own wellbeing.
There is no petrification device in this world. There is no need to rebuild civilization from scratch. Senkuu, for all intents and purposes, is out of excuses and projects to lose himself in, and yet—here they are.
“I need to go,” Gen tells him. The words feel odd inside his mouth, clunky. When Gen focuses on the sensation, he realizes that talking—on a physical level—feels disgusting. “I need to go, I have a show. I’m…I have to go.”
“Wait.” More rustling. “Shit—I didn’t think you’d be working this late. Gen—"
Chest hollow, Gen says, “I’ll talk to you later, Senkuu-chan.”
He lowers the phone from his ear and fumbles to end the call. It takes a few attempts because his fingers are trembling, and they keep missing the red button.
Zarrow shuffles are going to be incredibly difficult tonight.
Leaving his phone with the rest of his things, Gen exits his dressing room and shuts the door behind him carefully. Ice cubes aren’t the only trick that Gen’s picked up over the years, and so for a few moments, he stands in the hall outside his dressing room and tells himself to search for four different colors, slowly gathering the pieces of himself back up in preparation for his magic show.
One: His cuffs are black and still chafe at his wrists.
Two: The walls are sage green.
Three: The lights are a buttery kind of yellow.
Four: Hasegawa’s hair is grey. Gen spots his agent straightening from where he’d been leaning against the wall. The wrinkles around his eyes and brows look deeper than before, and it ages him. He says something to Gen, but he’s already dismissing it before the words are fully formed.
The show goes on, Hasegawa-chan.
For one hour, and one hour only, Gen stands on a stage in front of a crowd of people and loses himself in the lights and the applause.
Chrome was the one the task fell to in the end. Standing in the middle of the rest of the villagers, Medusa in hand: ‘Fifteen meters, twenty seconds.’
It was all on the modern-day folk from that point moving forward. Next to him, Ukyo dug his fingers into his arms where they lay crossed over his chest. Out of the corner of Gen’s eye, someone else lifted a hand in goodbye, but he kept his gaze on Chrome and Kohaku and the others. This—like all of the others from before—was only a temporary goodbye. They wouldn’t let it be anything else.
Suddenly against the heavy, demanding silence, Suika sucked in a deep breath, then, ‘Let’s do something fun the next time we all see each other!’
It shattered the solemn atmosphere like a bullet to the windshield.
‘See you on the other side!’
‘Don’t have too much fun without us!’
‘I’ll be waiting!’
‘Ryusui, I swear to god if you sell me—’
‘You seriously think someone’s going to want to buy a statue that looks like you?’
‘Take care, everyone.’
And then there was green.
There’s a high that comes between the first and second minute after curtain call. It’s a moment in which none of the errors and slips mean anything, and the only thing that matters is that for sixty minutes, Gen was nothing but nimble fingers and magic in a dark tuxedo. The second minute always comes though, because so long as Ishigami Senkuu has nothing to say about it, time moves linearly and relentlessly.
Gen hasn’t moved from centerstage yet, but the relief of applause has petered off and the only sound left is that of his audience’s footfalls, which grow quieter and quieter the further away they get.
He was meant to exit stage left once the curtains closed, but sanity comes in the little acts of defiance, and Gen doesn’t ruin anything by clinging to this bit normalcy. He savors this piece of success, since in a way, he’s already lost the thing he longed for most.
It tastes like a consolation prize.
“Gen,” says Hasegawa, not touching him but dipping into his line of sight. It’s strange seeing him on a stage. Some people are gardens and others are green thumbs, and it’s clear who is who in this dynamic. Gen was never much of a green thumb until the Stone World. “It’s time to go, son.”
Hasegawa hasn’t called him that since he was fifteen and crying over his oba-chan. Gen is twenty now, for context.
He lets Hasegawa shepherd him off backstage, past the employees and security guards in plain T-shirts. Back here, everyone’s got a dark, blinking Bluetooth tucked into their ear and a place to be, but Gen keeps his head down. If they’re staring, he doesn’t feel it. He watches his feet as he walks, one foot in front of the other again and again and again, until they’re finally at Hasegawa’s car.
He only notices the problem once Gen’s buckled in. “Wait,” he says. “I left my clothes in the dressing room.”
“I already grabbed your things,” Hasegawa tells him.
Gen looks around the interior of the car. “I drove here.”
“You’re not in a state to drive even on a good day.” In his periphery, Hasegawa is running a hand through his hair. “I shouldn’t have let you perform tonight.”
Gen finally pulls his gaze away from his lap. It’s dark outside, and the streetlights only deepen the wrinkles budding on Hasegawa’s face. Uncertain, bordering on meek, he asks, “Was it that bad?”
“No. The show was fine, you weren’t though. Aren’t,” Hasegawa corrects.
In the time it takes him to interpret that statement, Hasegawa reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out Gen’s phone. It’s hard to slip things into your pockets if you’re already sitting though, so Gen takes it and leaves it on his lap. He asks Gen for his address. Technically, it’s listed somewhere in Akatoki Agency’s mailing records, but that doesn’t mean Hasegawa knows it off the top of his head.
He taps his address into Hasegawa’s GPS to make himself feel useful.
There’s a question in the slope of Hasegawa’s brow and the down-curve of his mouth, but he doesn’t voice it, and for that, Gen is grateful. They hit just about every red light along the way, but it just gives Gen more time to organize his thoughts. More time to settle back into his skin. When his fingers are steady enough, he opens up his texts.
>>>To:[IS][22:27] On my way home now
>>>To:[IS][22:28] This conversation will be a lot easier in person, Senkuu-chan
Never let it be said that Asagiri Gen didn’t have a backbone when it mattered.
By the time they get to the apartment, Gen doesn’t have a game plan, but he does know what needs to be said.
He enters quietly, and Senkuu is already sitting at his kitchen table, staring down at his clasped hands. He doesn’t look up until Gen drops his keys on the counter, the noise drawing his attention.
They traded housekeys the day after they revived the Ishigami villagers. Senkuu claimed it was because he miscounted and made an extra copy that Kohaku, Ruri, and Chrome wouldn’t need. Gen had said it was because he didn’t need to worry about Senkuu finding the stoned birds anymore.
Upon reflection: Gen is full of it, and so is Senkuu really.
Steam wafts up from the teacup in front of Senkuu, which is still full like he hasn’t tasted it yet, and there’s an empty cup on the spot across from him, ostensibly for Gen. Positioning matters though, so instead of sitting across from Senkuu, Gen pulls the chair over to the corner so that he’s sitting adjacent to him.
When he reaches to grab the empty teacup, he blinkingly realizes that it’s the one Suika painted and Kaseki repaired. It’s either dumb luck or a very blatant hint on Kaseki’s part.
Senkuu unlaces his fingers to pick up his tea. Making a gesture with his cup that's slow and gentle enough to not spill any of it, he tells Gen, “Kaseki made it before he left. I didn’t ask him to leave, but Yuzuriha’s working on something for her handicrafts club and wanted his input.”
Wrung out as he is, there’s a wry smile that crosses his face when he remembers the image of tiny but passionate Yuzuriha and old but boisterous Kaseki working on something together in the Stone World. Kaseki’s third maker-buddy.
“I’m sure he appreciates her asking him,” Gen replies, thinking aloud.
The streak of blue nail polish faded a while ago, but Gen’s reminded of it when he watches the way Senkuu wraps his hands around his cup but doesn’t lift it to drink because, Gen’s mind supplies, he prefers bitter drinks like coffee over tea. “I’m sorry, about your show,” says Senkuu, and the undertone of regret in his voice is genuine. “If I knew you had one tonight, I would’ve waited.”
“It’s better that you didn’t.” Gen tips his head toward the ceiling and rubs at the corners of his eyes. His fingers come away smudged with his makeup, and he wipes them on the leg of his tuxedo pants, knowing he’ll have to get them dry cleaned eventually after this. Tiredly, “Why is it that it’s easier for you to worry about a magic show than yourself, Senkuu-chan? You don’t even like magic.”
The look Senkuu gives Gen is a complicated splattering of emotions that he can’t pick apart; mostly though, it’s incredulous. “…Sometimes I forget that you’re not always ten billion percent perceptive,” he says, which is neither an answer nor helpful, although his tone is more reserved than actually spiteful.
Gen scowls. “I think I’m perceptive enough,” he gripes, and the irritation in his voice is only partly pretend. “After all, I figured out the secret behind what separates you from the ISS crew and Gozan—no thanks to you, by the way.”
“How did you figure it out?”
Gen traces the line of gold lacing through the edges where Suika’s teacup had shattered. One thread of gold traces through the hot air balloon. Another goes down the center of Kohaku’s back. “I put it together during the walk to the train station. It was like— I had all of patchwork, but I wasn’t putting it in the right sequence exactly. Because the pattern was dependent on the fact that…” Gen trails off.
He isn’t normally the type to make confessions, not about things he’s done or the lies he tells because admitting what you’ve done leaves you raw and open for judgment. It’s the slap of a rice paddle against Gen’s fingers that turn his Zarrow shuffles sloppy and uneven. There is an unsung art in burying skeletons inside closets and letting sleeping dogs lie.
Argument: Gen doesn’t have to say it, because Senkuu already knows what happened.
Counterargument: There are some things in life you can only own up to, if not for your own sake then for the people you claim to care for.
(Putting your money where your mouth is is tricky when you’re someone like Gen, who lets white lies slip off his tongue like an afterthought, but Gen’s done harder things.)
This is the answer Senkuu is owed: “We put you in the cryochamber after you’d died, like I said at the nursing home, it was my plan to try to save your memories. Only, that’s not really right, is it?”
That Senkuu hadn’t made it in the Stone World was a fundamental fact to everything Gen thought he understood about time travel and these past fourteen months, taking it away now has Gen’s entire worldview tilting on its axis. The knowledge that Senkuu lived should’ve come as a relief, but it’s been hours and Gen is still reeling from it.
“It’s a good thing you did,” Senkuu says, when Gen finishes. “Three months in a coma, and I would’ve just died by the time you guys were you ready to make the jump.”
It’s true, but Gen wishes he wasn’t so blasé about it.
Gen shakes his head and speaks carefully around the lump in his throat, “That’s not all of it though.”
Senkuu tilts his head curiously but doesn’t comment. Gen’s grateful; he needs a more than a few moments to put his explanation together, to sort his thoughts in a way that sounds coherent. Finding the words for something like this though, is like catching water with a net. There’s a cruel kind of irony in that Gen, who’s always been verbose and bordering on logorhheic, struggles to speak now, when he needs to the most. Wash your car the day before it rains; decide against purchasing a phone case only to drop on the curb outside the Verizon—suffice to say, the universe can be a sadistic comedian.
The words do come though. Eventually.
This is the answer Gen owes Senkuu: “Your memories and your heart condition are correlated, in a way. Maybe ‘correlated’ isn’t the right word, but they’re related to one another.” Gen checks Senkuu’s face; he has one elbow resting on the table and his chin in his hand. It hides his mouth from Gen’s line of sight, but his eyes are on Gen. Continuing, “You said it yourself, the only reason we remember the Stone World is because our bioelectricity currents carried over—that’s the electric activity of your brain, yes, but also your heart. It’s why the timeline for when you originally developed an a-fib is so off. It’s because we’ve kickstarted it all over again.”
Senkuu’s quiet for a while. Gen doesn’t blame him. His mouth is still hidden behind his fingers, but studying Senkuu’s eyes, Gen doesn’t find any anger or resentment. They just look thoughtful.
“Giving yourself a lot of credit there,” Senkuu drawls. He shrugs. “You’re not wrong about the a-fib and my memories being related. You’re wrong in assuming that you’ve just given me some kind of death sentence though.” Senkuu lowers his hand to cross his arms over the table. His lips are quirked up into a bemused smile that Gen doesn’t know how to interpret. Suddenly, in regards to seemingly nothing at all, Senkuu muses, “I think that makes for number four.”
“What?” Gen frowns. Realizing how tightly he’s holding his cup, Gen relaxes his fingers. “What are you talking about?’
“The fourth time you've saved my ass,” Senkuu supplies, and for a second Gen is only dumbfounded. He continues, “First there was your quiz—I don’t think Yuzuriha or Taiju would’ve figured out why I let Tsukasa kill me if it wasn’t for that. Then, there was the time Magma mistook you for me—although I guess that was a little less you trying to help and more just Magma being an idiot—still appreciate it though. Maybe this counts as a double save, because you kept everyone from accidentally burying me alive too.”
It’s the verbal equivalent of getting clotheslined. Gen’s mind had been running non-stop up until this point. Now, he’s left tripping over himself. “I haven’t—” Blinking, brows furrowing, “I don’t think you get that—”
“No, I don’t think you get it,” Senkuu wryly interrupts. “Things are moving faster than they did in the Stone World, but the thing is, with all the shit I’ve got going on, it would’ve gotten bad no matter what. I was always going to be in and out the hospital. You didn’t start that.” He picks at his ear. “Like I said, you’re not always ten billion percent perceptive.”
Senkuu gently pushes his teacup off to the side, so that he can lean forward on his elbows against the table. From this position, Gen’s looking down at him and Senkuu’s looking up. It makes it impossible to miss the beginnings of smile that’s threatening to overtake Senkuu’s features. “I’ll give you a hint, an undisputable fact: You’ve given me the means to save myself.”
Imagine this: The feeling of your shoulders loosening in realization.
“You’d thought of something,” Gen breathes, “in the Stone World. You’d thought of a way to save yourself.”
Senkuu waves him off. “Only hypothetically—I didn’t have the resources to pull it off in the Stone World. Technology and physics are one thing, but genetics is a bitch. It really comes down to data, and I wouldn’t have had what I’d need for another hundred years or so. It wasn’t even worth entertaining in the Stone World. Honestly, I wasn't even ten billion percent certain it'd work until this week.”
“The Medusa,” Gen guesses because if a definitive cure wasn’t possible with only knowledge of the modern world then—well, there’s one thing it could be. “The reason you gave up on using the Medusa as a cure was because it only restored you to your genetic template. If you had a genetic condition, like poor eyesight—”
“Or a dumb-fucking heart condition,” Senkuu drawls.
“—it wouldn’t have any effect in changing it.” The thing that’d been coiling tighter and tighter in Gen's chest ever since he learned the truth finally loosens, slowly and then all at once. He says his next words like they’re a matter of fact, a fundamental truth, because they are. They need to be. “You’re going to build a Medusa that accounts for genetic conditions. Not just acquired ones.”
('There was only ever one person I knew who understood the mechanics.')
Senkuu is nothing but scarlet eyes and a wicked sharp grin and ambition buzzing just beneath the surface of his skin. He finishes where Gen left off, “And the only reason I’m going to be able to do that is because, however accidental, you made it so that I kept my memories.” Out of nowhere, because Senkuu doesn’t know when to let a moment marinate, he adds, “And this way you’ll never run out of stoned birds for your show.”
It's so off-base of what's important that Gen snorts.
“That is so not the point, Senkuu-chan,” Gen says exasperatedly, but he’s laughing so—
Oh. He isn’t, actually.
It’s at that point a single drop of saltwater rolls down Gen’s cheek, laughter clogging up his throat until it distorts into something else entirely. After that, there’s no way to stop it. He tries to duck his face down because although he doesn’t mind other people crying, there’s something uncomfortable about it when Gen’s the one doing it, and also last he checked, Senkuu didn’t handle people crying well.
Case in point: “I didn’t think you were the type to blubber.”
Gen splutters through his sniffling. He says with feeling, to the point that Gen’s nearly spitting his scandalized reply, “I do not blubber—never say such a horrible thing ever again, Senkuu-chan!”
Gratifyingly, Senkuu doesn’t put his hand on Gen’s shoulder or anything so mortifying, but he does shift his chair around the corner of the table until he’s side-by-side with Gen and their arms are touching, wrist to shoulder. His eyes are bright and fond, like he’s only barely keeping all his laughter on the inside (laughter at Gen, this brat—), but they’re also soft the way they were when Gen and the village gifted him the observatory.
He asks Gen, words spilling out between a white, sharp grin: “You going to help me figure out a way to rope everyone else into building the Medusa, or what?”
This actual moron.
Like it’s something anyone needs to get roped into at this point.
In the moment, Gen doesn’t know what he’d like to do more: slap Senkuu or kiss him. He does neither in the end. The first because Gen’s laughing again since the only alternative is crying; the second because he’s decided—when he kisses Senkuu, it isn’t going to be in the aftermath of an argument.
What he does instead is reach out to bury his fingers in the fabric of Senkuu’s shirt and pull him forward into Gen’s space. Wrapping his arms around his scrawny, geeky frame, Gen holds tight to remind himself that the Senkuu in front of him is real and tangible and chaotically, wonderfully alive.
The modern world was louder than Gen remembered it being.
‘You’re hanging in there all right, yeah? Sure you want to keep going?’
Beneath the discomfort, Gen had found it funny at the time—the fact that the artist was only giving him the option to opt out after he’d already finished inking two-thirds of the design into his skin. It was oddly reminiscent of visiting the dentist—when the hygienist waits until a drill, probe, and inspection mirror are inside someone’s mouth before asking how their day is going. Human consideration can pop out at the most inopportune times.
Gen blinked at the man dully, ‘Yes.’
Bzz. Bzz. Bzz.
Sentiment and daydreams of dates carved into trees had guided Gen to a tiny tattoo parlor and a man with bubblegum-pink hair. A man who was currently bent over the inside of Gen’s elbow with a tattoo machine. Staring up at the ceiling, Gen quietly mulled over what sort of apology gift he owed Hasegawa for this.
The artist flipped his hair off to the side and out of his eyes before pointing out, ‘You’re lookin’ a little peachy, y’know.’
Gen nodded in passive agreement, eyes glazed over, ‘Yes.’
The tattoo needle wasn’t the most painful thing he’d experienced, but there was something to be said about the drawn-out process of it all.
‘Really—you feelin’ okay?’
Bzz. Bzz. Bzz.
‘What’s your favorite color?’
The artist pulled away for a moment then, back straightening from where he had been leaned over Gen’s arm. He huffed out a laugh through bleach-white teeth. ‘Dude.’
Gen cracked a small smile, supplied, ‘Never did like needles, you know. But, I guess no one really does. My favorite color is green. I like what it symbolizes.’
He resisted the urge to snort and simply matched the man’s smile with pearlescent grin of his own, let the white lie roll off his tongue, ‘Naturally.’
The artist tapped a bare finger against Gen’s outstretched forearm. ‘And what about this? This symbolize anything?’
Gen smothered a laugh and fibbed: ‘No, I just thought a tattoo would be cool. All the kids are doing it these days.’
The guy snorted in response. ‘You’re like, twenty-five tops, but okay.’
Gen was technically nineteen, but there was no need to specify so.
‘It’s more of a reminder. Someone I used to know had scars like these.’
‘Oh, yeah? How’d he get ‘em?’
Amusement pricked at Gen’s lips. 'You wouldn't believe me if I told you.’
The man shrugged at him. ‘If you say so, man.’ He slapped a hand against Gen’s bare arm. ‘Ready to finish up this sucker?’
Group Name: 6 MONTH ANNIVERSARY
[Senkuu has changed the group name to: Kingdom of Science 2.0]
Several people are typing…
One week later, finds Gen and Senkuu in a café kitty-corner to the Kichijoji property. Gen’s spent the last hour sprawled across his oba-chan bed, alternating between talking to her and bantering with Senkuu, so he smells like the detergent the Ishigami elders always buy. He knows because Senkuu tells him so, when Gen leans over his shoulder to watch the grey ellipses come and go. It’s taking everyone a minute or two to get their thoughts together, but once they do, Gen’s phone is going to blow up. Senkuu’s too, for that matter.
Only time will tell though, if Gen means that literally or figuratively.
This close, Senkuu’s hair smells like ozone. Gen’s not so naïve to think it’s from shampoo.
Eyes still on Senkuu’s phone screen, he points out, “I hope you realize that this is the worst way to break the news to everyone, Senkuu-chan.”
“It’s been more than a week since the anniversary”—Senkuu starts to shrug but then stops once he realizes he’ll dislodge Gen if he does—“it was time to change it anyways.”
Senkuu can’t see it from how Gen has his chin hooked over his shoulder, but he’s giving him a dubious look. Delicately, he starts, “I don’t think—”
“Shhh, people are typing.”
“What do you mean ‘shhh’? They’re texts,” Gen complains.
They’ve been at the café for ten minutes or so now, and still haven’t ordered anything. The girl at the cash register keeps giving him icy looks, but there aren’t a whole lot of hiding places for Gen and Senkuu since they’re currently hiding from their respective roommates while Senkuu’s announcement (Gen is being very liberal with his definition of ‘announcement’) blows over. It’s such a mess, and Senkuu is ridiculous, and Gen needs to use the restroom, but it’s one of those cafés where you need a key to access it.
Looking morosely down at the blue and white paisley tablecloths, Gen mumbles to himself, “How’d I even get here?”
It’s a vague, nebulous kind of question, so naturally, Senkuu answers it anyways. “Not sure, but I think it had something to do with a bottle of Cola and also a petrification device.” People are beginning to reply; Gen watches the influx of grey text boxes. After a handful of heartbeats, Senkuu asks him, “Ever wish you’d turned it down?”
Senkuu straightens, making Gen have to sit up too.
“Turned what down?”
Senkuu clarifies, “That bottle of Cola.”
Gen’s lips twist into a wry smirk. “I think I’d still be craving it if I had.”
Senkuu turns his attention back to his phone, and Gen traces the profile of his face. The slope of his nose, the curl of his lashes. The way his lips curve into a lazy smirk while he reads what people are saying in the group chat.
They say that time is relative, and it is; it’s always counting down to something. Looking at the girl at the cash register, Gen catalogues the terse line of her mouth and the way she keeps shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Which suffice to say, means that he has one or two minutes at most. He’s had worse countdowns.
Gen nudges Senkuu with his elbow. “Hey, Senkuu-chan?”
Senkuu turns his head toward Gen, but his eyes stay glued to his phone screen even as he does. It’s both juvenile and endearing. Mostly the latter, though. “Yeah?”
Gen hasn’t eaten peanut sauce in forever.
He rests his chin in his palm, lips pulling into a lopsided, helpless kind of smile. “What would you do, if I kissed you right now?”
With a blink, Senkuu tears his eyes away from his phone to meet his. Gen catches when each emotion bleeds into the other. It goes like this: puzzlement to surprise to mirthful. Senkuu cackles, eyes creasing into crimson crescent moons. Anyone else would shrink away and walk off with their tail between their legs, but Gen makes a living off of reading people.
He knows: Senkuu is braille.
After, Senkuu tells him with utmost seriousness, through pale pink lips that don’t stop grinning, “It’ll make for a really fucking fantastic excuse when Kohaku and Chrome get their hands on me and demand to know why I didn’t answer their texts right away.”
Laughter, yawns, and curiosity—they’re all infectious, and Gen is so very susceptible to them. He grins, “Two birds, one stone, huh?”
Trust is giving up a building block of your soul to someone else. Gen gives up one piece and so does Senkuu. In the deciding moment between whether they keep standing or come crumbling down, Gen leans in and Senkuu does too.
Three thousand and seven-hundred years away. Four years together, then three months apart. Fourteen months of them both stumbling around blind.
No matter which way the clock turns, they always meet in the middle.
‘See you in the twenty-first century, Mentalist.’
‘See you when we’re home, Senkuu-chan.’
Writing part 2 of this fic was like braiding, only with seven different strands of hair and I came in only expecting three.
A sincere thanks to everyone who’s read this fic, left kudos, or commented<3 You’re all wonderful, and words can’t describe how much I loved and adored each of your reviews!
Snippets that got snipped:
• Chrome to Gen: “Netflix and chill!” “Okay, that doesn’t mean what you think it does.”
• Gen to Senkuu: “I left it on purpose,” Gen says, voice airy and teasing, “it gives me a good excuse to drop by.” Senkuu snorts. “Like you’ve ever needed an excuse before.”
• Ryusui (to the villagers before they petrified them but mostly Magma [RIP this man’s screentime]; also Gen): “Strike a pose—you’ll be furnishing my house so make an effort to look a little decent here, yeah?” Magma acknowledges this plight with an obscene gesture, “Does this work?” Ryusui glances at Gen for input, “Maybe let’s leave this one behind, yeah?”
• Kaseki to Gen: “Before coming here, I could never quite come up with an analogy to describe you. After living in and experiencing this modern world, I think I can. I finally have the words to do so. You’re a bit like a stained-glass window. It’s not easy to look through it, and if you do, it paints the world in colors that it’s not. And the more you focus on trying to see through it, the more you lose sight of the big picture.” (“You and Kohaku-chan,” Gen said, throat raw, “are going to run me out of a job.”)