“Oh, by the way, I got you a souvenir — you should clear a shelf for it. It’s something like a precious antique.”
“...I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.”
“I’m not. You know I always get you gifts when I go away.”
Yuki hummed a suspicious note. The noise was directed down to the styrofoam cup of minute miso he held, picked up without thought and regarded idly as Haru spoke with a gentle purpose of nothing things. He twisted the item slowly in his hand and, mindful of the still-protesting sting in his palm, he returned it to the shelf of packaged quick meals.
“You sound like a doting parent,” he said. Haru gave some soft noise of agreement. “And the last time you got me a so-called ‘antique,’ you ended up giving me a candy necklace and an I.O.U.”
“It’s only a placeholder, Yuki.”
“For three years?”
“Has it been that long? Huh. Well, did you like the candy at least?”
Yuki huffed, but the noise was tinged with the small smile pulling his mouth.
“I’m pretty sure some ants in my apartment loved it.”
“The circle of life is a miraculous thing.”
Yuki hardly thought as much as he nudged the foremost pack of chips on its hook with his finger. He watched it swing from side to side a few times before stilling it with a pinch.
In the convenience store, tucked away into the corner comprised of the instant foods aisle and the fridges of frozen meals, he prodded aimlessly at products while his cousin’s call turned similarly meandering. He scanned over familiar shrink-wrapped containers and disposable meal trays, down to his feet shifting purposeless against the checkered vinyl tile, and up again, over topmost shelf to graze over the rest of the store, to the quiet front register and the empty aisles in between.
Though the early afternoon sun pressed against the large front windows, meshing hot and off with the stark white fluorescents striping the ceiling, he wasn’t there to pick up lunch as the few other customers appeared to be doing. It was what he had told his designated driver-slash-warden when the man had stopped him at the end of his apartment’s walkway, and the lie had left him in much the way that the man’s expression morphed at seeing Yuki leave unaccompanied — easy, graceful, and tinged with pleading.
While he had convinced the man that he could manage a short walk down the street alone, and that it was advised that he get some exercise and sunlight as part of his recuperation, he knew that the man had at the very least tailed him. The familiar creep of the tires and subtle hum of the engine rounding the corner wasn’t lost on him as he stepped inside the store, even if the car had evaded his field of vision.
It had only been ten minutes. Any longer and the driver would come looking for him, but Yuki wasn’t ready to go back yet. Almost a month of being cooped up in his apartment, at first under bed rest and then what felt more along the lines of house arrest, had left him feeling weighted with a relapse of claustrophobia. He hadn’t felt it so strongly since he was a child, but the sensation of something enveloping him from all angles, something cold, and dense, and ultimately invisible, was too familiar for any comfort.
So he would stay in his familiarized zone of microwave meals and just-add-hot-water noodles until he was toe-to-toe with that huntsman of a driver if that’s what it took for him to shake the feeling. Even if it only lasted a short while. Even if he knew that, come nighttime, he would return to that feeling as he struggled to fall asleep. Staring at the off-white light of his bedside lamp until his eyes burned from sleeplessness, and the same, few-worded thought — Akito is the only one who can permit you to leave — circling as a phantom whisper in his ear until the morning birds would again interrupt and allow him some rest.
“I’m still trying to figure out if the ducks up here are the same as the ones at home. I want to say yes, but they’re kind of giant and keep trying to chase me when I get too close. Maybe they’re just not used to people. Or maybe it’s a genetic mutation.”
“Are you sure they aren’t geese?”
Yuki scoffed a laugh. With it, though, came the tickling urge to cough, and he buried the noise into the back of his hand. He winced at the slight wheeze that escaped him.
Before Haru could say his name, he was swift to placate him, saying,
“Don’t. It’s just allergies.”
Haru mumbled a noise.
“I wasn’t going to say anything.”
“But now that you mention it.”
“Are you doing okay?”
Though his tone hardly pitched, it did just so, in just the way it did when they were children, and during those first long assignments together away from home, and lately in these past few weeks as Yuki had been left to carry much of his physical and occupational wounds alone. There were times his concern was more blatant and pinned to his sleeve, but more frequently, as it was now, it was passed to Yuki like a secret note, folded within the careful curl of his hand and passed along in such quiet that few could be privy to its contents.
“I’m fine,” Yuki said. He looked down at his palm, at what was now just a jagged pink scar hugging the base of his thumb. The line along his breastbone was similarly colored, though thin and and smoothed. “They’re just scarring over now. My hand’s still a little numb, but I think this is as good as it’s going to get.”
“Mm. And what about Akito?”
Yuki quieted at that. He turned on his heel to regard the wall of freezers, where he could direct his voice into the store’s corner. After a deliberating moment, he muttered,
“He hasn’t summoned me yet. I’m still being supervised.”
“Huh. Guess he’s taking his time.”
“I don’t really want to talk about it.”
He really, really didn’t. His past month had only been in some parts comprised of lying in bed and tending his wounds, of being closed in by dutiful Sohma drivers keeping him from trekking out on his own, and, he was sure, more covert staff ensuring he wasn’t up to any runaway business. He had spent a lot of time sitting still, and waiting, and doing close to nothing at all.
Most of his time, however, had been spent lying awake wondering when he would finally get the call. Time that he could have spent decompressing had instead been spent unable to focus on anything but readying himself for the eventual summons to see the family head. Every noise that fell out of place made him freeze, and prolonged silences made him anxious for the expectant phone call or knock on the door or press of the doorbell that he had convinced himself would punctuate the quiet.
It was a bad way to spend his time. He had even broken his streak and smoked the last few of his cigarettes on one of the nights he had stayed awake long enough for sunrise to break through his blinds. It wasn’t until after he finished them that he thought he should have gotten rid of them for good, but it was too late; instead, he ended up digging them out from their hiding spot in the junk drawer of his dresser, almost flattened to disuse in their paper carton, and lowered himself into the habit as a last-ditch effort to bring himself to some state of peace.
And even then, he could only think about what Akito would tell him, and could only feel something in him shrivel and shrink at the idea of having to say anything in return.
Haru was aware enough of this. Yuki didn’t have to tell him. Staring into the depths of the freezer, Yuki chewed on the inside of his cheek and tried to ignore the aggravation that pinched him at his cousin asking about it at all.
“I know,” Haru said. “I’m just thinking about you.”
Yuki swallowed. He breathed out, slow and tempered, and said,
“I know. Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“Of course. I’m not the only one, though.”
“Not the only what?”
“Person thinking about you right now.” At Yuki’s bout of confused silence, he added, “Word gets around, Yuki. I have the feeling sensei might have talked about you to a certain someone. My ears have been ringing a lot lately.”
Yuki deflated with understanding. When Shigure didn’t pass sensitive information along to people who had no business knowing, he truly couldn’t say. Groaning low, he brought his hand to sweep his bangs back from his eyes, and he glared.
“This has nothing to do with him. It’s family business.”
“He’s your brother. I’d say that’s family business.”
“You know what I mean.” Feeling petulant, Yuki dropped his hand and diverted his frown to his shoes. He was glad he was alone there. “I don’t want him involved in this.”
“That’s your call.”
“Clearly not, if Shigure’s just going to tell him everything anyway.”
“What I mean is, it’s up to you if you want to talk to him. You don’t have to. But I don’t think he would be the worst person to have on your side right now.”
Yuki closed his eyes. The implication that Haru was getting at struck a bit too close. Another bout of anxiety itched up his throat, and, remembering himself and the line they were speaking over, he said,
“I should go.”
“Alright. I’ll call later. Remember to say hi to the plant for me.”
Though he hung up and pocketed his phone, Yuki remained standing in the back aisle of the store, staring down the frozen dinners as he battled with the feeling of needing to leave. He could practically feel the driver’s mounting anxiety with each moment he wasted inside, having spent far too long on what was supposedly a trip to grab lunch, but the longer he stood there alone, the more he realized how sorely he had missed just being able to exist without being so closely monitored.
Those short hours spent on solo assignments. The few and far between days off where he had no one to report to, and no one to report to him. What had used to be solitary nights, sitting on his back balcony listening to the world creep down to a steady half-slumber. Such small things at the time that, now, he ached for as though they were all he knew.
He realized in the absence of these small things that such a freedom was still new to him. Thinking of it sent a pang of bitter want down his core, and the sour thought of returning home made him all the more wary of leaving.
Still, he knew he had to go. The driver would come looking for him sooner or later. He turned again to face the rest of the store, and returning down the aisle to meet the main floor, he made his way to the exit empty-handed.
“Ah— Yuki, is that right?”
Yuki stilled. Surprised, he turned to the kiosk that sat nearest the entrance, and behind it was the cashier who never seemed to go home, the older man he had become familiar with in his past few years of living just up the road.
At seeing his face, the man’s eyes crinkled with recognition. Yuki turned fully to him and gave a brief wave.
“Sato-san,” he greeted.
“I thought it was you.” Sato leaned low into the counter on his forearms as Yuki came closer. “Seems like it’s been a while since I’ve seen you around here. How are things?”
“It has,” Yuki said, smiling light. “I was away on a work trip.”
“Well, no wonder. And I see you’re still playing around with...” Sato raised a hand and gestured a circle towards his own head, his grey hair specked with white. Yuki mirrored him until his fingers touched the ends of his hair, still stained brown while the rest had returned more or less to its abnormal grey. Sato chuckled. “I suppose it’s easier to experiment when you’re young.”
“But, in any case.” The man pressed back away from the counter. He glanced behind him at the wall of cigarettes and similar minutiae, and then off to his left at the coffee machines humming low. “Don’t suppose you need your usual?”
Recalling the emptied carton sitting somewhere on his floor at home, Yuki was struck with the temptation to say yes. He deliberated for a moment, weighing his fluttering anxiety against his lungs already chronically flimsy, before patting his hand against his pants pocket to check if he had come with any money at all.
At hearing the small jangle of coins, he said,
“A coffee would be good, actually.”
The man stepped back with the order. As Yuki fished the change from his pocket and separated the coins in his palm, he almost wanted to tell him to take his time — that he was in no rush. But he had noticed some time ago that there was a particular pace that Sato kept up with, the mechanical rhythm that came with doing the same steps multiple times a day for however many years, and it made Yuki wonder if it would be possible to do slowly after all this time. Or, if pace was pertinent, in the way children pedaling too slow on their bikes would topple over from the lack of momentum.
He slid the excess change into his pocket. Sato capped the drink.
Out of the corner of Yuki’s eye, a black car crept slow along his vision, past the window and down the street. He held his breath and waited for it to stop, but even as it passed his line of sight, he could hear it continue on, until its pervasive hum rolled out of his range of hearing, too.
His stomach clenched emptily. His time was up. The next time the driver came around, he would park right in front of the doors, and there was no saying whether he would grant Yuki the privilege of walking home. There was no saying whether he would be allowed to do this again. Not until Akito summoned him, and even then, maybe not until sometime after.
It had only been fifteen minutes and already, he was being faced again with locked doors and sitting still.
He had hardly realized he had turned his head to monitor the car’s reappearance until he found himself startling with Sato saying his name. He turned again with an apology on his tongue, but was met with Sato peering around him to look past the furthest window where the car had vanished.
Yuki placed the coins on the counter. He felt a prickle of warmth fall on his neck when he realized how clammy his hands had suddenly become.
“Sorry,” he said, finally. Sato regarded him again as he took his coffee from the counter. “Thanks.”
The man nodded. He looked about to speak but, perhaps reconsidering, he faltered before settling on a simple “Take care.”
Yuki gave a vague smile. It dropped when he turned away to face the front doors.
He hardly made it some steps forward before turning on his heel to face the man again.
“Actually,” he started, and as he drew his eyes up from their automatic drop to his feet, he found that Sato hadn’t looked away from him as he left. “I’m wondering if you could do me a favor. Is there another exit I can leave through?”
Sato raised a brow. He glanced again out the window, and Yuki strained to hear if the driver was passing by again. At the silence, he forced himself to keep looking ahead.
Sato’s mouth thinned with a slight frown.
“Is there someone you’re avoiding?” he asked.
“Well— yes.” Yuki rubbed his thumb along the edge of the cup’s cardboard sleeve, diverting himself from looking over his shoulder. “I can’t get into specifics, but there’s someone waiting for me outside who I would rather not run into.”
Sato hummed. He glanced again at the windows as he stepped away from his post, until he could step around the check-out counter’s end and join Yuki on the main floor. With a small scoop of his hand, he beckoned him to follow.
Yuki hoped he didn’t seem overeager in trailing behind him.
“I hope it’s not an ex-girlfriend,” Sato said, before laughing soft to himself. He had pulled a small keyring from his pocket, and he twitched it at his side, forcing the keys to chime in a short rhythm. “Love knows no bounds, and neither does passion. People say you do stupid things for love, but passion — now that’s where the real danger lies.”
Yuki didn’t know how to respond. As Sato continued forward without so much as a glance back, though, Yuki figured this was a rare moment where a response was purely optional.
He was led to the back of the store where, tucked between the end of the refrigerated aisle and the corner of paper products, there was a thick metal door with only a small, rectangular Employees Only sign to indicate its use. Sato pushed down on the lever handle and spread his arm along the door, revealing a hallway lined on either side from floor to ceiling with pallets of boxes wrapped tight in cling film.
He gestured at it with some instruction.
“The exit’s on the right, at the end next to the delivery doors. It locks, though, so you won’t be able to come back in if you forgot anything.”
Yuki looked down at himself and his small coffee. There wasn’t anything to leave behind.
He stepped into what remained of the hallway, a thin but manageable space, and looked back at Sato to give his thanks. Sato spoke before he could start.
“Afraid we can’t make a habit out of this.”
“Thank you, Sato-san.”
“Take care. I’ll see you soon, I’m sure.”
Yuki nodded, even though he wasn’t sure at all, and turned to navigate the small delivery room. Behind him, the door closed with a heavy thud and clank of the lock, and for the moment, he allowed himself to feel a warmth bloom over his chest.
He hadn’t quite expected to be remembered.
Finding the exit, he leaned carefully into the crash bar until the latch gave in near silence. He pushed the door open with the barest of weight, not enough to let in any light but just enough to allow a small stream of air through, and he held his breath as he listened.
From his few years of living in the area, he was aware enough that what sat beyond the door was a small side street, compressed almost to the size of an alley if it wasn’t just large enough to allow a mid-size delivery truck to maneuver through. It left the perfect amount of space for a sedan to hide in, and he listened for any hint that the driver was waiting for him there. A hum from the engine, the bare scrape of the tires against the asphalt (this driver, he had noticed, was prone to fidgeting with the wheel as the car idled), or even the off-chance that the man was listening to the radio or talking on the phone with the window rolled down.
But there was nothing. Nothing but the high breeze rustling the tops of the trees that lined the one-way roads bracketing the delivery street, and a car revving up the street to his right. Far too fast to be the driver.
There was the chance that the driver was parked there, engine off, perhaps to catch Yuki in the act of escaping or simply to indulge in a momentary act of giving up. These didn’t seem as likely, but still, Yuki cautioned pushing the door open just slightly further to get a visual.
The left side of the street was empty. The right — the door wasn’t open wide enough for him to see through the space between the frame and the hinges. He sucked the inside of his cheek between his teeth for just a second, just long enough to shuffle through his options, and opened the door wide enough to peer out and around it.
The street was empty.
He released the breath he had been holding, but stepped back to bring the door nearly shut again, keeping it open just enough to listen for the cars driving along the surrounding streets.
To his right, another one came by, again too fast and loud to be the driver. He waited, until finally, to his left, there was a slow roll down the road, approaching the side street. Yuki eased the door open just barely so, just enough to watch the latter half of the dark car creep past. It gave no pause as it passed his hiding spot in its return to the front of the store.
Yuki swallowed. When the trunk of the car disappeared, he stepped out into the street, and after easing the door to a quiet close, he traipsed along the wall towards the street his driver had just coasted. Again, he listened, and not hearing anything, he gave a wary peek around the corner.
The road was empty. The driver had turned onto the street in front of the store, and very possibly had stopped there to finally apprehend his detainee after a twenty minute too-long lunch break turned vanishing act.
Now was his chance.
Taking in a steadying breath, Yuki looked up the street, a gentle incline that in some blocks led to the main road. He would have to walk fast to make it there before the driver tried to search for him again, but there, he at least had some decent options to hide.
He exhaled, and finally, he took in a sip of his drink. He started forward.
Just for a little longer, he promised himself. Until the thought of going home is bearable again.
The last time Yuki boarded a train was over a year ago, during an assignment in Nagasaki that had started with a general, yet tedious legal matter involving one of the city’s universities, and had ended some days later in a hellish combination of Haru wandering to the aquarium in the middle of the night, scrambling to quiet his trespassing and self-entrapment in the penguin enclosure with a hefty "anonymous" donation, and a moderate rainshower unfolding into such a storm that, unless they could make it further north, flooded out their ride home, and flooded their persons regardless.
Being on a train platform again, under less harrowing circumstances, left him feeling awkward and oddly underprepared.
There was no terrible storm leaving all of the passengers looking exactly the same, drenched and unwilling to look one another in the eye. There was no Haru, or other subordinate, or other Sohma at all accompanying him; there wasn’t an itinerary to follow, or a timetable to tack to the forefront of his mind. There wasn’t an assignment telling him his next steps.
As Yuki stepped onto the train cabin and, after some deliberating with his still-sore chest and hand, sat in an empty seat beside one of the exit doors, he thought of how he had never taken a train without an end destination before. He found it childish, in the way that made him feel bittersweet, and his cheeks grew warm with both internal embarrassment and novelty.
For some minutes he felt the anxious impulse to stand and keep guard of himself, to be alert for the sake of sticking to the task. But, without a task, there was nothing to tether this feeling, and so he forced his hand to unfurl against his leg, smoothed down the wrinkle it had left in his slacks, and lamely gave himself the task to just let his eye focus on the window across from him.
It was by the fourth stop that the tension in his shoulders dropped away, as by then he realized he was much the same as everyone else on the train sitting and standing with him: he was a complete stranger.
A little buzz in his stomach tickled him when he realized he could simply keep riding and not return. The prospect of disappearing, of getting off at a random station and leaving his identity behind just as he had so many times before, only this time letting the rails take it far, far away from him, rushed him like an old memory. To be someone other than Yuki Sohma — to be anything other than Yuki Sohma — was a thought that made him lightheaded and desperate.
It wasn’t realistic, he knew. But there on the train, as he watched the coming and going of complete strangers who didn't give him a second glance, save for the few who eyed his hair or his face before averting their gaze, he could pretend it was a possibility. He could pretend it was possible for him to unbind his ankle and his wrist and walk away, and walk for as long as and far as necessary for everything to be forgotten. He could pretend that, when it came time to stop walking, there wouldn't be a set of claws waiting to sink into his back the moment his guard was down. To pretend that he wouldn’t be dragged back home the moment he got too comfortable — back to himself, back to Akito's room, Akito's feet, Akito's hand.
To pretend that his trail would go cold if he willed it.
Overhead, the automated announcement chimed with the next stop. While a number of passengers shifted, drawing their bags higher up their shoulders, gripping the hand rails, alerting their posture, Yuki folded his hands in his lap and idly watched as the next station pulled into view.
He liked the sensation of the low rumble against his feet, he realized. He liked how the sunlight struck the floor and seats, and how the shadows of the early afternoon were stark and shifted slow with the wide, loping turns in the tracks. He liked the sounds that existed in the almost-quiet; the gentle conversation held between two friends at the other end of the car, the hum of the air conditioner that reminded him of its presence with an infrequent click. The hiss of the train stopping, and the low murmur from passengers getting on and striding around one another, until they at last settled in their place and fell to a comfortable silence.
Across from him, he watched the station drag away through what space remained in the growing crowd of riders. He was aware they were pulling through to Osaka, and he thought, then, that he'd better get off at the next stop and change course, lest he run into people he wasn't supposed to. Hashitano Corp., the Tsukadas, Machi Kuragi—
Something in the train car shifted.
It wasn't the car itself, but it was something intangible and familiar. It hit Yuki in such a way that he drew his posture up, until he was sitting as sharp as he had when he first boarded.
He felt a stare dig into the side of his face.
He held his breath.
In the hushed crowd, a voice rose and shot clear through him, accurate and serrated. A knife thrown straight into his spine.
Yuki turned his head to look. He shouldn’t have — he should have kept his eyes pinpointed to some nothing spot on the floor, should have ignored his name to give Manabe some doubt, but when he saw the cold fury drawn over the other’s eyes, he realized it would have been futile to ignore him.
He knew it was him.
He knew Yuki’s name.
Manabe stalked forward, letting go of handrails and weaving around passengers that now watched him and Yuki both with some mix of curiosity and ambivalence. A thick air of accusation sat plain in his voice, his thin frown, his stiffened posture that only grew more severe once he was only a single line of seats away from Yuki. Yuki felt his nerves edge in as questions rolled over him, slow waves cresting with the implication that Manabe knew far, far more than he should have, and peaking higher as he wondered how, but he smoothed them down to mere ripples with a careful inhale and a leveled expression.
Just because he knows your name, he rationalized, doesn’t mean he knows everything behind it.
He didn’t stand. In some moments, Manabe stood before him, so close his knees knocked to Yuki’s when the train ran over a poor joint and sent a jolt through everyone onboard. It was a deliberate closeness. A deliberate intimidation formed in the bar of his arms locked to the handrails, the vague crane of his posture as he loomed over Yuki like a creature peering into a cradle.
Everything about him screamed confinement but his eyes and the pinch in his mouth. It was there, in the boiling dark of his face, that Yuki knew he was being dared to stand up and defend himself. A dare to trap himself in that way and give credence to whatever accusation sat on Manabe’s tongue out of sheer agitation or panic.
Yuki smoothed his hands flat against his slacks. Calm, he looked up at Manabe from his seat.
“Manabe,” he said.
He stared down at Yuki for a long moment. Yuki stared back. He could feel the rest of the passengers watching, wary as they shifted from foot to foot, curious as they waited to see what would unfold.
Yuki noted that his under eyes were gently swollen with sleeplessness.
Before Manabe spoke, he inhaled slow. Deep. As though he were trying to quell a flame that sat deep in his belly, or perhaps to feed it as he readjusted his grip and it became knuckle-white. Letting the fire spread until it agitated his throat and limbs, until he was incited enough to yell, throw a punch, or both. Like riling up a starving dog before letting it off its leash.
Yuki prepared himself for a temper. What he received instead was an icy calm as Manabe said at last,
“I don’t know what makes you think you deserve to show your face here.”
The words jabbed at Yuki in a way he didn’t expect. The tone was so much unlike Manabe that his mind lashed at itself, reminding him in no uncertain terms that he had no idea who this man was beyond his name and a handful of conversations, and that for him to have ever thought otherwise was so beyond absurd it was simply laughable.
But the words themselves, cruel but a bit over-dramatic all the same, left Yuki feeling much as he often had when speaking to him in the past. Confused, and a little offended. A new anxiety brewed in him as he wondered again what knowledge Manabe suddenly had about him, but he placated himself again, realizing he had called him Yuki, not Sohma, and that alone made his stomach ease just enough to allow him to breathe.
He remained level as he looked up at him, but allowed his brows to perk.
“Don’t play stupid,” Manabe seethed. He adjusted his grip on the handrails only to allow him to leer down at Yuki further, where, now closer, Yuki could see the whites of his eyes were specked red in the corners. “Tell me where she is.”
Yuki’s mind reeled a moment. The confusion drawing over his expression was swiftly met with Manabe looking ready to finally strike him, but as he thought back to when they last saw each other — what he believed would be his final contact with him and Kuragi — he grasped at the only thing that made sense. Manabe was an overdramatic man at times, after all.
“Your shop key, you mean?” he asked. And then, sincerely, “I had intended to get that back to you, but—”
He was cut off by the fist furling in his collar, and the harsh tug that arched him somewhat from his seat to bring him, at last, to Manabe’s plain-faced rage.
“Bastard— Machi. What the hell did you do to Machi?”
Yuki stilled. For a deafening moment, there was only the rattling of the train speeding over the tracks, and the cold pit forming in his middle.
“Kuragi-san?” His voice grew hushed, wary again of who else was on the train overhearing them. “Are you saying something happened to her?”
Manabe jostled him, forcing his head to whip back some.
“Don’t give me that. I’m tired of the bullshit theatrics — who are you, and what did you do with her?”
Overhead, the chime signaled. The automated voice recited the upcoming stop. On Yuki’s right, a man approached, seeming to ask with his eyes for permission to drag Manabe kicking and screaming away from him, at which Yuki raised a hand to stop him.
“Manabe,” he said. He hazarded placing his hand on top of the fist curled tight into his collar. “Manabe. We can’t do this. Not here.”
The train pulled with the inertia of slowing. Manabe kept his hand twisted into Yuki’s shirt, and though he glowered down at Yuki’s hand on top of his own, he refused to give. Instead, he gave a glance to the front of the cabin where the next stop was dotted with an indicator light, and then, as the train slowed to a halt, he said,
“You don’t wanna talk here? Fine. This is my stop anyway.”
And at that, he yanked Yuki to his feet, a stumbling movement that was in part due to Manabe’s awkward hold and the train pulling everyone forward with its stop. The line of his knuckles dug directly into the half-healed scar lying just under the buttons of Yuki’s shirt, and Yuki bit his tongue at the tingling pain that shot through his breastbone.
There was a collective, indistinct murmur as Manabe dragged him off the train onto the platform, and it was once they reached the exit gates that Yuki finally maneuvered his hand to grip his wrist, thumb sliding up to press into the hollow of his palm. Manabe stilled his stride to look back at him, scowl painted fierce, and in return Yuki adjusted his hold in such a way that the fingers curled tight in his shirt loosened.
Manabe’s harshness was interrupted with an annoyed grimace.
Around them, the current of departing passengers continued through to the gates.
“Making a scene,” Yuki said, low and stern, “won’t help either of us.”
“I’m not here to help you—”
“Let me rephrase.” Yuki adjusted his hand again, and with a pained hiss, Manabe’s grip loosened entirely. “Making a scene won’t help her.”
Aggravated, Manabe snatched his hand out of Yuki’s hold and wagged it to disperse the stab of pain it had been dealt. Yuki slid his arms loose over his chest and watched his eyes cycle through rage, frustration, and resignation. Manabe glanced at the crowd still moving with ease around them, and Yuki watched him shake his hand out again, down at his side, as he seemed to come to some quiet, unlikable conclusion within himself.
At last, Manabe spoke, jabbing a finger at him, just barely avoiding stabbing his chest.
“If you try to run, I swear I’ll kill you.”
Yuki had to force himself not to roll his eyes. Instead, he stepped around him, and as Manabe bristled and pivoted to turn into him, he said, calm and practically directed into the other’s cheek,
“Well, it seems I don’t have much of a choice, then.”
As he joined the departees and stepped through the gate, he felt Manabe exit close behind him. His presence felt like a dangerous electric field that repelled him without a single touch.
They walked through the station and out into the streets in a terse silence. As they did, they enacted in an odd and distant dance of stepping ahead and falling behind one another — Yuki, unfamiliar with the area and stopping to let Manabe lead, and Manabe refusing to lose sight of him but acknowledging with multiple annoyed huffs that he had to play captain. Both refusing to walk beside one another, and both refusing to say anything of it.
It was when they seemed to go too far, not many blocks from the station but still too many considering the urgency of the situation looming heavy overhead, that Yuki finally stilled, and forced Manabe, some long steps ahead of him, to do the same with a call of his name.
“Is there a reason we’re going this far?”
“Don’t be stupid.” Manabe swept an arm out to gesture at the street, where a small handful of people milled about; a line of quiet apartments, save for the small parking garage and the corner bar, nearly noiseless despite the gentle cascade of old rock and a single clatter of a glass. “We can’t talk here.”
And at that, he turned again, stride set, at first leaving Yuki bewildered, and then leaving him annoyed. That he had the nerve to volley his own words back to him, after he nearly made the entire train privy to their conversation, as though he were the one being careless—
Manabe turned partially to land a stare on him. Yuki scoffed and followed.
Stop being childish, he scolded himself. As he reminded himself that it was a safer bet not to discuss the Kuragis here — a place that, from what he recalled from his brief dive into Manabe’s living situation some months prior, was quietly yet stringently divided over the family’s influence — he forced himself to be grateful instead that some awareness had wormed its way into Manabe’s skull.
He thought again, not for the first time in the past few weeks, of Shigure’s comment to him about pride, and he attempted to leave it behind him as he quickened his pace, briefly overtaking Manabe’s lead.
It was some long minutes later that Manabe finally stilled. He had led Yuki to a small lot at the end of a road entrenched in quiet, standing shin-deep in a stretch of overgrown grass pressed between a house with empty windows and a thick line of gangling hedges, thorny and barring them from a closed-off road dotted with faded construction markers. There was the gentle hum of hidden insects and frogs lurking in the dry green, and yet despite the typical summer humidity, the air felt brittle.
The tension snapped as Manabe whirled on him. Not just in words, a rageful expletive that splintered the stale air, but with a hooked arm and a fist headed for Yuki with only the hope of landing on his body somewhere, unpracticed and imprecise.
Yuki blocked it with his hand. For good measure, he wrapped his other hand around his forearm and pulled, toppling the weight of his half-twisted stance and tossing him to the ground. A half-second that seemed to leave Manabe momentarily stunned, before he remembered himself and readjusted to sit up.
Yuki stood over him, arms crossed, displeased.
“I thought we came here to talk about Kuragi.”
“Fuck you,” Manabe spat. He lifted himself from the grass, and as though he hadn’t just been thrown like a toy, he stood defiant, posture taut in a way that Yuki knew meant he would try to swing at him again. “Don’t talk like you care about her. Don’t you dare, you disgusting liar.”
Yuki’s defenses flared in his chest.
“You lied to me! For months!” Manabe’s arms spread out long and wide from him, gesturing at the great big nothing that laid between the two of them. “I trusted you, and then—”
The lunge and swing came, and Yuki again blocked it, grunting this time as Manabe flung his full weight into him. As he went to discard him to the grass again, though, a hand flew up again to his collar, and he found himself staggering forward with him as Manabe managed to hook his foot behind his ankle and skew his balance.
Yuki attempted to drop with some grace, but Manabe, not bothering to find a way to break his fall or damper the descent in any way, brought him straight down with him. The thud of his back hitting the ground didn't seem to deter him as he instead wrestled his hands to grip Yuki's forearms.
“Admit that you took her,” he said, and it was the edge of breathlessness that let Yuki know that some of the wind had been knocked out of him. As Manabe tried and failed to swing his weight in a way that would allow him to flip himself upright and pin Yuki to the grass instead, and as Yuki moved to press his knee along his hip to keep him from rising, he let out an agitated noise and said, again, strained and terrible, “Admit it.”
“Where is she? Huh? What the hell did you do to her? If you did anything to her, I swear to God—”
“—I’ll kill you.” Manabe unhanded Yuki’s arm in an attempt to reach for his face, or possibly his throat, but Yuki pinned his wrist down with a deft hand. He could feel his heart thudding deep in his ears as Manabe struggled under him. “She didn’t want a damn thing to do with you! Is that why you did it? Did you get pissed because one person didn’t like you? Then you better take me too, because you know what? I hate you. I fucking hate you.”
Manabe shifted his other hand away from Yuki’s arm in another attempt to swipe at him, and again, Yuki pinned it down. He leaned over Manabe, brimming with anger and unease, gripping his wrists tight as he struggled to get a single word in.
He hated how much the words stung him. To hear those words so vehemently, not for the first time in his life, not by any stretch of the imagination, made him want to fold up and become unreal. To hear them from him shouldn’t have mattered.
He thought of the crumpled scrap paper still sitting on his kitchen table, sitting beside the living reminder of his assignment still thriving and green. How it lived in his line of sight every day for the past four weeks, and how the scrawl of Phone-a-friend was now an over-familiar decoration in his home and in his mind.
This was where sentiment led him. Every time he dared to hold on to just an ounce of it, it only led him to pain, and anger, and a deep, awful shame that left him lost.
Akito had warned him of as much since he was just a child, and yet he still never seemed to learn.
“You’re sick,” Manabe continued, kicking a leg out but failing to have it meet anywhere but the ground. “You’re goddamn sick. I can’t believe I trusted you— I’m so pissed that I ever trusted you—”
“Manabe.” Yuki jostled his arms a little, but as he continued on, he said again, with more force, “Manabe— Kakeru.”
Manabe stilled, and in the sudden silence, Yuki could feel just how intensely his eyes burned through his. Yuki could guess what he was rearing himself to say — “Don’t talk to me like we’re friends” — and spoke before he could be given the chance.
“I didn’t take her,” he said. He tried to keep his voice steady, but the way his heartbeat crawled up in him, he feared it wavered. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“How am I supposed to believe that? You were following her for—”
“I’ve been on what’s essentially house arrest for four weeks,” he pressed. “The last time I was out was the last time I saw you.”
Manabe’s brows furrowed. Yuki breathed a short exhale through his nose, and slowly, he released one of Manabe’s wrists to raise his left hand, leveling the ugly pink scar along his palm to the other’s line of sight.
“When I was injured,” he explained, “I wasn’t just forced to stay home to heal. I’ve been… under supervision. I haven’t been allowed near the shop again.”
Manabe frowned up at the scar, and frowned differently when he returned his eyes to Yuki’s.
“You make getting hit with a warning to, I dunno, not stalk someone sound like your mom grounding you for a week.”
“It wasn’t that.” He breathed steadily, then, as his heart began to revolt in him, the truth of it all lying flat on his tongue. He swallowed it back and spoke around it. “There was concern from… There was concern that the people who attacked me would try again if I went back. They’re a gang local to the area.”
A whisper of the truth. He lowered his hand, and Manabe again struggled under him.
“What— Look, get off of me— What the hell do you mean? Concern from who?”
With some caution, Yuki released his other wrist and removed his weight off of his hip. As he did, Manabe let out a hiss, and as he sat up, he pressed the heel of his hand deep to the low right of his stomach.
“I can’t say,” Yuki said, careful as his heart seemed more than willing to detach itself from his body. He wasn’t sure he could blame it. “This goes higher than me and you, and I suspect higher than Kuragi-san. I can’t say any more than that.”
“The hell that you can’t.”
They stared at one another. Then, with some noise of complaint, Manabe shifted his legs under him to stand. And though he hunched somewhat into the pressure of his hand, he still managed to bring himself tall.
Yuki, even as he followed suit, had to admit that this darker side of his stubbornness harbored something surprisingly intimidating.
“She’s been missing for three days,” Manabe started, “and the only trouble she’s run into lately is you. It’s not a coincidence, and I’m done with you screwing around and trying to feed me some bullshit story again.”
At his side, Yuki balled his hand, feeling the light pinch of his nails burrowing into his palm, and with an exhale, he released, flexing his fingers out.
Give a little to get a little, he reminded himself, willing his mind to fall steady. Get out of the red.
Slowly, he said, “Kuragi-san — you’ve known her for a long time.”
It wasn’t a question. Manabe lowered his hand from his stomach and repositioned it with a cross of his arms.
“So, I assume you know who her father is.” At the short hike in Manabe shoulders, Yuki pressed on. “And I assume that you know at least a little of his business ventures. Especially since moving here a few years ago — it seems like the bidding war on all of that real estate happened right in your backyard. Do people here know the truth of that matter yet, or is it still just a rumor that he had any involvement whatsoever?”
Manabe shifted his weight to one foot, lips drawn thin. Yuki waited. He slid his hand in his pocket and slowly flipped a coin piece between his fingers. What had moments ago felt tumultuous in him had leveled to a deathly calm, the change so severe it threatened to make him feel groundless.
Finally, Manabe asked, low but even, “Do you work for him?”
“No. He’s an associate of ours. But, we have reason to believe he’s breached contract with us, so we’ve been investigating other possible associations and venues he’s working through. That included Kuragi-san and the shop.”
A troubled look fell over Manabe’s heady glare. Yuki slipped the coin up his hand until it sat in his fist, and he made himself aware of how the edge dug into his skin.
“‘Associates?’ You mean you willingly worked with that guy?”
Yuki could practically see his brain speedily redrawing his own conclusions, all far worse than what he had started with. Face reddened, he didn’t allow Yuki to answer as he continued, fevered and repulsed,
“You thought she was working for him? Seriously?”
“It’s not a secret that she’s his daughter. It was an obvious path to consider.”
“It’s not a secret that he’s a giant asshole, either. Did you seriously think she was working for him? Her?”
Yuki shook his head.
“I didn’t think she was involved. I reported as much.”
“Reported to who?”
“That,” Yuki said, opening his hand so the coin fell out of his grasp, “I can’t tell you.”
“Why? Because you’re lying again?”
“Because it’s dangerous, Manabe.” Yuki gave a pointed look at him, hoping it conveyed enough without him needing to speak. “It’s better for you not to get any more involved than you already are.”
“Not get any—” Frustration boiled high in Manabe’s throat, and with it, his voice grew hot and impatient. “First of all, you used me to get to her, you made me think we were friends just so that you could hang around without seeming like a sketchy creep, and second of all, I’m the only one who seems to give a damn that she’s up and disappeared. I’ve been running around the whole damn city for days trying to get a hint of where she’s at, and now— now you’re laying on me that it’s not because she was kidnapped by some obsessed— molester, but because some moron thinks she’s involved in whatever bullshit her father’s up to?”
Manabe stepped forward, and with a punctuated jab to Yuki’s chest, he said,
“You made me get involved. If you want me out of it, then tell me who the hell you are and where she is, and then I’ll gladly stay as far the hell away from you as possible.”
Yuki swept the hand away from him with the back of his own.
“I won’t tell you,” he repeated, cold and calm. “And I don’t know where she is. I didn’t take her.”
“Even if it wasn’t you directly,” Manabe countered, his rejected hand dropping to a fist at his side, “it was still whoever you work for. It’s still your damn fault.”
Yuki moved to retort, some automatic defense dredging up his chest, but as the words processed in him, he stilled.
He knew for certain he didn’t take her. That was a clear truth.
He could not say the same for the rest of his family.
His suspension — it had left him cut from all communication regarding his subordinates and their assignments, and his own assignments had been rearranged and relocated to someone else. They had put him in the dark to keep him from meddling. Even Haru hadn’t imparted anything to him in the past weeks — anything business-related beyond a pleasantry was swiftly redirected to something casual. And while much of that was just Haru being Haru, Yuki knew it was also him following orders.
Without any information coming in, he had been left to worry about only himself, his position, and his ever-vacillating footing with the head of the family. Left only to swallow and accept what he had been told, that he had been careless, that everything was now out of his hands, before being left in the hands of surveillance and the nauseating spiral of his own thoughts as the threat of another failure closed in on him.
The Kuragi assignment was still on, they had said. And he had been told over and over again that interrogations were off the table.
But Akito was getting impatient. He had written Yuki’s involvement out.
It was entirely possible that the parameters had changed.
“Shit,” he breathed.
“What?” When Yuki didn’t respond right away, Manabe repeated, “What? Was I right?”
His caffeine lunch roiled in his stomach as his adrenaline spiked. He was so short-sighted, so self-absorbed, that he hadn’t even once considered that that rules would change once he was shunted to the sidelines.
And why wouldn’t they, he fumed, embarrassed and vitriolic, when you got kicked off for protecting the subject?
That both Kuragi and Manabe had been present with him when he was injured, and that this was information Shigure and Hatori both knew — that he had lied in some paltry attempt to keep them from questioning his progress with the assignment, which was then read as him solely protecting Kuragi…
Yuki said nothing. Instead, he turned on his heel, the tall grasses popping as they broke and unrooted underfoot, and as he began to take some long strides away, he said,
“I have to go.”
There was no way Akito trusted him now. There was no way that any of his work over the past few months could be seen as remotely viable. All of that time wasted, only serving to make Akito more and more restless. And now that he could be read as traitorous—
Manabe’s hand was quick to close on his shoulder, and he was yanked a step back with a pull as Manabe forced his way around him, standing in his way. The hand left him as he spread his arms out in a wide gesture.
“What the fuck? You’re just going to leave me with that?”
“Manabe,” Yuki said, the cool calm of his tone sunken and replaced with something more urgent, “I need to handle this. I think you might be right.”
“Then why would I trust you to get her back? You were the one trying to screw her over in the first place—”
“Because this wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Manabe quieted. He lowered his arms. Surprise, confusion, and a return to mistrust fell over his features in a rapid cascade, and Yuki, unable to loiter around any longer, spoke with some finalization.
“I’m not asking you to trust me,” he said, “because I can’t rightfully ask that from you. But Kuragi-san was never supposed to be put in harm’s way, and by extension, neither were you. That’s why I’m telling you not to get any more involved than you already are. I don’t know what their plans are anymore, but in the likelihood that they did apprehend her, it means they’re getting agitated and impatient. You’re not off their radar.”
With that, he stepped around Manabe. As he walked forward again, out of the grasses and into the road, Manabe stopped him again, not with a hand but with his name.
“Yuki,” he said, and when Yuki turned somewhat to look at him, he seemed doubtful. Anger flagging, but not entirely dissipating. “I don’t get it. Who’s side are you on, anyway?”
An answer sat immediate behind Yuki’s teeth. He bit the inside of his lip before responding.
“If I catch wind of anything, I’ll try to let you know.”
He moved to turn away again, but before he did, he spoke again. Disquieted as a flush of shame crept high up his chest, crushing his words into something small as they left him.
“And… I’m sorry. I really am. This isn’t how things were supposed to go.”
And at last, he turned away, leaving Manabe behind as he returned to the street with an intense stride. Some blocks away, the train station peered high and white over the ward, and even as he returned to streets more gradually alive with noise, he was pulled only by a single thought. A thought that sat so high and heavy in his mind that it made his entire body ache.
He had to handle this.
He had to confront Akito.
From the end of his street, Yuki could see the black car sitting idle again before his apartment. He had all but forgotten the driver, and, though his mind was strung with an urgency he hadn’t felt in some time, he wondered when the man had given up on looking for him.
His thoughts paused altogether, though, as he reached his front door and found it unlocked.
He peered inside, cautiously, at the genkan and the entrance hallway. Besides his own shoes, kicked off haphazard and shoved to the molding, there was a pair of black derby shoes set neat against the step. Somewhat larger than his own, with the barest of scuffs at the toe interrupting the shine.
At recognizing them, he let out a hefty sigh, swinging the door open fully. It was only once he stepped inside and slipped out of his own shoes, padding down the short hall to meet the sliding door of his living room, that he could place the hanging scent of tobacco.
When he entered, Shigure was there, sitting at the low table and idly flipping through a book Yuki had abandoned some time ago. Suit jacket tossed to his side, tie loose, as though he were sitting in his own home.
Yuki raised a brow at him.
“Yuki,” he parroted, stabbing the small stub of his cigarette into an ashtray that Yuki hadn’t bothered to hide. He looked up at Yuki still standing in the entryway. “I would say ‘welcome home,’ but that would be odd, wouldn’t it.”
Though he looked unconcerned, Yuki knew he was trying to bait him. To ask why and fall into the conversation of why he wasn’t home as he had been clearly instructed.
Instead, he asked, “What are you doing here?”
Shigure closed the book and placed it back to its spot on the table, on top of some discarded pile of junk mail and half-scribbled on papers.
“Well, I think it’s worth checking in with my little cousins from time to time. Although, that wasn’t really in the agenda for today.” He readjusted his position on the floor to better look at Yuki, looking at him directly. “It seems whoever was left here to supervise you for the day ran into the little problem of having absolutely no idea where you were. He’s been at the estate for hours trying to explain himself, but, well…”
He gestured at Yuki with an airy hand. Yuki scoffed lightly through his teeth and crossed his arms.
“Checking in on me seems below you.”
“And rolling around in the dirt doesn’t seem befitting to you either, but here we are.”
Yuki looked down at himself. On his left pant leg was a grass stain set with dirt, right at the knee.
Shigure rose to his feet and meandered to the bookshelf by the balcony door. He scanned the titles with light fingers, but didn’t rest on any. This was far from the first time he had been in the place, but Yuki didn’t feel any more at ease by the fact. Really, he always felt distinctly like a child when Shigure was around, a snappish anxiety brewing with the hope that he wouldn’t come across anything that he hadn’t thought to hide, or didn’t realize could be implicating until there was someone else observing the room.
Yuki looked around. It was too much of a mess to notice if anything was out of place anyway.
When his cousin continued to dawdle without a clear reason, Yuki asked,
“What do you want, Shigure?”
“Oh, nothing in particular. Not from you, at least.” He gave up on the books and turned again to face the room, lazing his eyes over their surroundings. “I’m just here to play Hermes. Divine messenger, psychopomp, protector of thieves. Not my favorite job, but there are some requests that even I can’t ignore.”
Yuki felt something heavy and cold drop in his stomach. He shifted his arms to bring one hand to the opposite elbow, giving it a brief squeeze. An old childish comfort that he found did little for him here.
“...What is it?”
Yuki froze. The name left Shigure as though it didn’t carry the weight of the world within its clipped syllables, but when it fell heavy and tarrish at Yuki’s feet, he knew that its weight was still real, and potent, as it pulled at and numbed his knees. Whatever had been on his mind — his assignment, Machi Kuragi, how he could possibly go about confronting the head about these matters — was quickly replaced with a tidal wave of nothingness.
There was just an ounce of power in admitting to himself that he needed to confront Akito, but it burned away like a cheap matchstick the moment he was returned to the defense.
Shigure seemed to pay little mind to Yuki’s sudden quiet. He glanced him over, gaze returning to a more known and subtle unkindness, before delivering the rest of the message. Words he didn’t need to say out loud, as Yuki had been dreading them so terribly that he could hear them in his dreams, so clearly that many mornings he was left to question if he had slept at all.
The words he hoped would be staved off another day, and another, and another. Even when he knew that, in this family, most hope was lost.
“He’s ready to see you.”