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Foreordained

Chapter Text

"Satoru. You're wearing glasses."

It was the first thing Yashiro had said to him, in the prison's meeting room.

Satoru was a little surprised when the guard, after leading the man in, left through the door without providing any instructions whatsoever. The way Satoru always imagined them — the Japanese prison rules, that is — strict, unyielding, he'd expected to be given a clear and bold description of his boundaries, or at least the time frame he was given to talk with the prisoner.

And the fact that he left, instead of staying somewhere behind Yashiro's back, was also somewhat disquieting. And, it wasn't because Satoru was frightened by his attempted murderer's presence, after all, they were separated by a wall and a glass; the feeling was more of a piquing unease deep in his gut. They were truly alone here, together, for the first time in nine years, no strangers to eavesdrop, and Satoru couldn't help but feel like he's taken back to that hospital roof in 2003, damp air and the smell of rain and drops of water stuck glittering like marbles in the spider web.

Honestly, Satoru didn't expect Yashiro's starting words to be about his looks. The moment he walked in and Satoru saw his posture — not crooked like most prisoners, but straight and narrow, eyes still as sharp as before — it was obvious, that despite years and years of incarceration, Yashiro was not "broken" in none of the ways most convicts are.

When his cuffs were taken off, he sat, put his forearms on the table before him and waited for the guard to exit, all the while looking over Satoru's sitting figure behind the glass, evident by the way his eyes darted here and there, at his ex-student's hair, his clothes, his face, finally settling on eyes and saying his first words to Satoru since "I can't live without you."

And— with the way Yashiro sat there, mere inches away, a little smile formed on his lips almost immediately after he caught sight of Satoru, back straightened but face relaxed, Satoru thought, what Yashiro might have said first would be something eccentric, something that would get stuck in Satoru's head and haunt him for days after this visit. Yet Satoru's expectations had been defied.

"Ah, yeah. Late evenings working on manga did a number on my eyesight, I guess," said Satoru, compelling his voice to sound calm.

"Your manga, yes. I read it, you know. Quite a fun read it was." Yashiro sighed, almost contently and averted his eyes. The revelation wasn't unexpected to Satoru, he figured, after fifteen years of following his comatose victim around, Yashiro wouldn't change this habit even after getting caught by the said "victim".

"You mean, you read all of it?"

"Yes."

"You were allowed to keep the volumes?" There were quite a few of those. It was his first hit, an instant bestseller, not in spite of his very interesting personal experience, that boosted his name on the manga scene. An anime adaptation was made two years ago as well, pretty popular, though Satoru doubted Yashiro ever got to watch it.

Yashiro interlaced his fingers together and put his hands under his chin. "Well, not all at once. There's a rule in here, to keep six books at most, but I was able to switch out your tomes, so I could keep the four latest ones on my shelf."

Satoru knew, it was a cue for him to ask about the other two books. But Yashiro kept talking, so he let him.

"I always waited until I would get all of the newest ones to read them in one sitting. Of course, I could never pull that off, since I'd spend too much time staring at your artwork before 'reading time' was over," Yashiro looked up somewhere, lost in thought, it seemed, "then I'd have to wait through a restless night and a day full of labor until I'd get my hands on your work again. I suppose, the sweet anticipation made the dullest days bearable."

"Prison is strict, isn't it," Satoru said.

"Eh," Yashiro looked back down on Satoru, smiling tiredly. "It's no vacation, certainly. It gets repetitive."

"What are the two other books you keep?"

Yashiro's smile widened. He was definitely waiting for that question. "You caught on. Well, one of them is my personal favorite, the other is something I like to keep with me at all times, even if I don't read it religiously."

"And let me guess, you're only going to reveal just one of them depending on what I choose?"

Yashiro's smile widened ever more. He hid it behind his folded hands, leaning his head forward a bit to look at Satoru practically mischievously. "Correct. It's more fun that way, is it not?"

There it was. The "game". The little struggle to "win" against the other, the source of Yashiro's thrill. It was exactly one of the things Satoru expected from the man, if not anticipated it.

Satoru folded his arms and gave his options a deep thought, eyes not leaving his ex-teacher behind the glass. A "personal favorite" and "something he likes to keep", huh? He was curious to know both, but for the time being he'd have to settle with knowing just one. Absently, Satoru drummed his fingers against his arm. The second option could be anything, really, whilst the first option had a purpose. It was meaningful to Yashiro. It would allow Satoru to peek into the murderer's mind. Not that he wanted to, not that he needed to. But his natural spirit of inquiry got the best of him.

"Then, what's your personal favorite?"

Yashiro didn't flinch. His body language did not show any signs of distress. "It's a big book. 'A Collection of Japanese Short Stories'. There are many classic stories in there, you probably know some. I'm sure we even discussed certain ones on our lessons."

Yashiro's answer left Satoru unfulfilled. "Ah, I see." A collection of short stories is not exactly something distinctive that allows a peek into Yashiro's psyche.

"It's very convenient too," Yashiro continued. "Instead of having to re-read a whole single book for the past decade, I got to read many various short stories. Not that I'm not sick of them already. Haha." Satoru suddenly thought that his laughter might be a surrogate for the words "I won."

Yashiro's posture finally slackened as he rested his cheek in his palm. "But we should stop talking about me. What about you? How is your life? How's your mother?"

Right, now that he'd "won", he was getting his "reward" - the answers to his questions. Fine, Satoru thought.

"Fine," he said. "Mom's good, thanks for asking. She moved back to Hokkaido after I got my high school degree."

"When did you get it?"

"2009."

"Woah," Yashiro chuckled. "I was hoping I'd see you when you get it. I felt that, as your teacher, I should be there when you reach that pinnacle. By the way, you didn't have a hard time reinserting into the society, did you? With the way you accomplish things I don't think you should have—“

Satoru shook his head, incredulous, "I thought I told you that I—" then it hit him. It was a bait. Yashiro wanted Satoru to acknowledge his time-travelling story.

"You what, Satoru?" the man smirked at him, though his gaze held no malice.

Satoru exhaled, smile tugging at his lips, though he held it back and finally let his arms unwrap and lay on the table in front of him.

"You know, biologically I am 34 years old. Though, many still regard me younger, mentally. They think I'll be turning 20 next month."

Yashiro nodded, the motion so sudden that it seemed eager. "But none of these digits are your actual age, are they?"

"It's not much older, I'll admit," Satoru replied. "If I count out the 15 years of sleep — I'm about 38 years old now, cognitively."

Yashiro mimicked Satoru's exact pose across him — arms folded on the table. "And your overall age is 53, then. Six months older than me! Marvelous. So you're saying, in the fifth grade you were actually 29. Technically my coeval. No wonder..." he trailed off.

"It's my turn to ask now, isn't it?"

"We were taking turns? Sorry, didn't realize." The man's smile was vacant as ever. Honestly, it was somewhat relaxing.

Satoru chose to voice the question that's been quite literally hanging between them since the moment their eyes met. He wanted to ask him this ever since Kenya had orchestrated this whole meeting.
"Why did you confess?"

~

The smile on the death sentenced man's face slowly strained. He changed his posture back to the one with upturned hands supporting his face, now deep in thought as he stared into the blue of Satoru's eyes, eyes that radiated obstinate determination to know the answer.

The truth was, after the roof incident in 2003, Yashiro had been trialed for the attempted murders of Satoru and Kumi, and earned a life sentence. There was no way to prove his involvement in the past cases due to the fact that the cases were considered closed; moreso his accountability would not be questioned due to the statute of limitations still being intact.

Yet a year after the abolishment of statute of limitations for murder, Yashiro had confessed, even pointed out some evidence, which immediately resulted in him receiving death penalty. And Satoru couldn't help but wonder why.

"Satoru, your question is not 'why', but 'what for'. You want to know what I earn from it. Is it a sense of peace in my mind? or a way for me to get freed from these suffocating walls? Frankly, I don't know myself, Satoru. Let me just say, I was sentenced to life one way or another. To wither away steadily inside a cramped room, or get my neck snapped by rope in a few years, it's not that much different, is it? In a way, I consider it to be 'a new starting point' for me."

Throughout his speech he kept the tight lipped smile plastered across his face. Satoru wasn't sure why. "Perhaps by recanting your sins you aim to earn a little discount down in hell?" Satoru said, though he didn't mean to and was just thinking out loud. Yashiro scoffed lightheartedly. "No, not that," Satoru quickly dismissed his own words with a light shake that made his bangs fall in front of his eyes.

After Satoru brushed his bangs off, he witnessed Yashiro winking at him, a gesture much reminiscent of his fake 'friendly Yashiro-sensei' persona, a gesture Satoru so shamelessly and playfully mimicked when Yashiro let him go on that roof nine years ago, the gesture that's supposed to represent a yet another declaration of victory. "My turn now? Tell me about your 'other' life. The one you spent 29 years in."

Satoru huffed, a bit frustrated. The questions he offered to Yashiro were easily dodged, too effortlessly, and he struggled to come up with something that Yashiro could not simply be vague about.

"Well, there isn't much to tell. I was a mangaka as well. Not as popular, obviously..."

"Did you live with your mother?"

"No," Satoru rolled his eyes, "I lived in Chiba, by myself. Then she happened to visit me, and spotted you trying to kidnap a child. She recognized you, so you followed her while I was at work. You know what happened next."

Yashiro considered what Satoru had said, tapping his lips with his finger. Apparently, he had a few follow up questions. "Why weren't you at home? You said you were an unsuccessful manga artist."

"I— I worked part time. I delivered pizzas."

Yashiro grinned and Satoru held back an urge to let out an annoyed groan. "So I still committed crimes in that 'lifetime'. What year was that?"

"2006."

Yashiro nodded. "The year you turned 29, of course. And my plan to murder Kayo? I executed it, didn't I?"

Satoru's fists clenched against his will. "Yes. It was my first 'timeline', after all. I was a child. I couldn't have known."

"Alright. So I suppose, I murdered your mother, framed you for it and you went back in time all the way to 1988. Did you already know it was me?"

"No. And, don't you think it's my turn to ask now, Yashiro?"

The man sat back and sighed, "Ah. Of course, go ahead." He tousled his hair a bit. Satoru didn't note it before, but it was neat though slightly faded, touched with gray at the temples. The bangs laid freely, not slicked back like Nishizono Manabu's did. In a way, Yashiro's hair looked similar to his hairstyle in 1988. Satoru found some eerie comfort in that.

He bit down on his tongue — this was no time and place to get comfortable. The main reason for Satoru to be here, in the first place, was in fact a desire to figure out if Yashiro's confession had been entirely valid and true. Although he already earned a death sentence for merely a part of his crimes, this was far from the "endgame". As Kenya had informed Satoru, the investigative team had doubts about Nishizono Manabu's involvement in some of the 'pre-1988' cases, since the "culprits" in those cases were already caught and had been imprisoned for years. The deserved liberty for these men was what initially brought Satoru to this very room.

"The court papers say you confessed to committing only nine murders. All in the time period from 1990 to 2002. What about the ones before that?"

Yashiro massaged his nose ridge. "This is just what the official documents say for now. They will announce I confessed to those other murders after they deem the confession valid." That was correct. Exactly what Kenya had told Satoru. But then—

"How many murders total did you commit?"

Yashiro rubbed at his eyes, then his temples. After that he leaned forward, his elbows pushed onto the table's surface, head supported by his right hand, and through his fingers he glanced at Satoru. It was probably the most tired look Yashiro had ever given to him. "37," he uttered, almost privily.

Satoru swallowed thickly. Thirty-seven lives taken by this man behind the transparent glass, thirty seven "scapegoats" planted, their chance for an ordinary existence severed and shredded to pieces, singlehandedly by this husk of a man, sitting in the prison robes with the corners of his lips quirked upwards slightly as he's staring at his proclaimed 'enemy', his ex-student, the one he admitted he can't live without.

You've murdered a number of my friends, sensei. But right now, I bear you no hatred. Satoru's own words he'd said up on that roof, flashed in his mind, words surely said on a whim, surely to buy some time, and even though by all means he must disown them, for the sake of those 37 that no longer get to see the light of day, something inside of him is not ready to. As much as he detests what Yashiro had done, he can't denounce his human nature. There's no doubt that there's still a speck of something redeemable about this man. Was it the fact that Yashiro, for his own unrecognizable reasons, decided to spare Satoru's life and let him live all these years? Or was it that obscure emotion — directed at Satoru, meant for Satoru — hidden deep within his dark terracotta eyes?

In this world, the only person who knows the real you...
And, somehow recognizing that he's the one to know Yashiro, on a level deeper than strings of text in the court's final sentence, and simultaneously having to bear with a certainty that this man's life will be brought to naught, felt that much dreadful and grievous on Satoru's part.

"Twenty-six," Yashiro suddenly spoke up, after minutes of silence, "were children."
The revolting chill, that went down Satoru's spine, was enough to snap him out of any hesitancy he might have had.

Yashiro is a child murderer. He showed no mercy for the little souls he blew out like wavering candlelights, so what he gets now, is similar in nature to a "return of his efforts".

"Were they all girls?"

"Yes, they were."

"Why is that?" Satoru asked, turning his eyes to a corner of the room on Yashiro's side. He didn't particularly want to know, but, if he got a reason to be repulsed at Yashiro's sight, maybe that irritable feeling would stagger to a halt.

Yashiro let out a long, heavy sigh before he spoke. "You know, most of my victims came out of pretty unfortunate places. Negligent parents, unstable homes—"

"Don't fucking give me that," Satoru harshly cut him off, voice raised above Yashiro's hushed rumble of speech. "'Killing them out of misery', don't even get started with that fucking excuse!"

The murderer's mouth froze parted as he stared at Satoru's exasperated stature, at the way his arms shot up to cross on his chest, at the way the young man glared at him with an outraged scowl; then Yashiro chuckled, almost fondly. "Sorry, Satoru. I didn't mean for it to sound like an 'excuse'. I just wanted to explain why I chose girls and not boys — because I felt sorry for them more. I couldn't care less if there was a little boy struggling. Though, I won't say that I was above that. If my victim were to be a boy, it would've been due to some specific circumstances."

"Like ruling yourself out of the suspect list?" Satoru's voice still didn't lack some edge, but at least he wasn't yelling anymore.

"I suppose, yeah. In any case, I always picked less fortunate kids because one, it was far more facile to frame someone for their demise, two — it was easier to get to them in the first place. If a girl was supervised by her parents properly, if she had many friends and was overall a healthy and 'full' member of society, I wouldn't even be able to get to such a girl in the first place. I always used peaceful killing methods, I didn't want them to suffer more than they already had—"

"Oh, please. You smashed Hiromi's head with a hammer," groused Satoru.

Yashiro tilted his head. "I don't recall killing a girl with the name 'Hiromi'. Did this happen in my last life?"

"Yes. But Hiromi is a boy. Along with Kayo, you've killed another one of my classmates, Hiromi Sugita."

"...to get myself off the suspects list. So that's what you meant. Yes, I suppose I would do that. In that case, there was a reason I used I violent method. I must've been imitating a murder out of passion. Sugita Hiromi-kun... If I'm recalling correctly, he was somewhat girly, right? If a 'perverted murderer who's after little girls' had mistaken him for one, he surely would lash out upon discovery, wouldn't he?... Are you following, Satoru?"

Satoru was giving Yashiro a stern look.

"Hey now... You've prevented that from ever happening, didn't you, Satoru? Ah, well. Even then, I apologize for killing your friend. You must've felt horrible. I'm sorry."

Satoru rolled his eyes. "Didn't you say that you don't care if there's a little boy struggling?"

"You are a special case, Satoru. It took me a while to come to terms with this conclusion; but as of now, thanks to you I'm no longer plagued by my inner need to execute. It had nothing to do with sexual frustrations, if you suspect that."

"I don't."

"I know. You know me too well to think that, don't you?"

Satoru's steam finally blew off, and he allowed himself to deflate, close his eyes and breathe steadily. Yashiro was— he was scandalizing, by all means, but thankfully he wasn't exhausting. Even after everything that's been revealed, Satoru still felt like they could talk. He decided not to dwell on it and just let it happen.

"So, will you answer some of my questions, in return?"

"Sure."

Such a fast reply from Satoru probably made the killer feel pleased. "How did you come back in time? Did you use a machine? Or is that your 'superpower'?"

At that, Satoru's eyes unclosed. He'd expected some question about death, like Yashiro inquiring about the ways he'd killed Kayo and others in 1988, or more details about Sachiko's death in 2006, yet, gratefully, Satoru's expectations were not met. Again.

"Ah, I— well..." Satoru faltered despite himself. "I guess it's a... thing, that used to happen to me sometimes." He wouldn't dare call it a super power for how embarrassing it felt to be associated with a "superhero". "I called it 'revival', because it always occurred to me after some kind of tragedy, most frequently death. I'd get taken back several minutes before that 'tragedy' and get a chance to fix it. Sometimes I did, other times I'd avoid it."

Satoru fell silent, recalling the events of nearly— how many years, exactly? Did the 15 years asleep even count? Yashiro said nothing, patiently waiting for his ex-student to continue, tapping soundlessly against his knuckles.

"This only started happening to me after Hiromi's death, come to think of it... Well, anyway, after I found mom's body I— I ran, and then I was taken back. Except instead of taking me five minutes before it, it took me to eighteen years before it."

Satoru blinked and felt like the transparent fog in his head brought up by the uneasy memories, faded away in an instant. These few seconds of recalling, he'd suddenly remembered bits and pieces of his old memory, the one where he attended middle school and high school normally, or when he saw a "million dollar sight" on a class trip to Hakodate, or his very first girlfriend whom confessed to him in 9th grade (did she count as his first anymore? or now Kayo did?). The memories of a time that never existed.

"You— you do believe me, right, sensei?" he suddenly said, feeling something in his gut churn at the prospect of Yashiro not believing it, his heart quickened its pace and he felt like he was able to hear his own blood flow in his head, until—

"I believe you, Satoru."

Satoru, who'd been previously staring at his fidgeting hands, looked up at Yashiro with clouded eyes and what he saw was the man smiling at him, earnestly, his gaze was warm and, by the way he looked, it was obvious that the mere thought of not believing Satoru had never crossed his mind. Utter trust practically radiated from his teacher.

First Satoru breathed out through his nose in relief, then shook his head, a bit bashfully. He couldn't contain the smile that spread his lips. "Even Kenya didn't believe me," he admitted, hoping that the waver of his voice wasn't identified by Yashiro.

"That's right," Yashiro nodded, eyes not leaving the sight of his student. "In this world, only I would believe you."

In this world only I know the real you.
Satoru thoroughly ignored the pang that heaved in his chest at sensei's words. Yet the emotions that spilled out of him, couldn't be stopped.

"Sometimes... Sometimes, I wonder if that other life of mine had really been real. Or if it was a dream I dreamt while being asleep. If my suffocated brain somehow fabricated all of it... It's— It gets lonely, just sometimes."

Yashiro exhaled softly, a sound barely audible, but Satoru picked it up nevertheless. It sounded gratified. "Satoru. Do you want to hear my favorite story from that book I mentioned?"

Satoru gawked at him.

"Do you?"

Yashiro was giving him his "reward". Satoru had won.

~

As it turned out, Yashiro knew the story by heart. It wasn't very long, but the way he retold it, maintaining a certain literary locution, phrasing everything very particularly, just the way intended; it felt like Yashiro had the book on his lap and was reading off of it. During the retelling he intently observed Satoru. His gaze didn't feel heavy, though.

Satoru knew the classic short story, as anyone else in this country knew it, but something about the way Yashiro retold it, perhaps the tone of his voice, gave Satoru an acute sense of deja vu.

"I've heard it from you before," Satoru remarked after the man behind the glass had finished.

Yashiro quirked his eyebrow. "Hm, and when exactly?"

"I—" the answer slipped out of his mind. He knew he did, but when, he couldn't recall. "Maybe back in my old life. Sixth grade, maybe? I can't remember."

Yashiro only hummed as a reply, seemingly connecting some dots in his head.

Satoru cleared his throat before his following question. "So that story is your favorite. Any reason why?"

Yashiro's eyes crinkled. "I read it in my elementary school years. Back then, I thought it was thought provoking. I wondered about it on my way from school to home. Thoughts like 'why would Buddha send a thread to him if he knew what would happen all along?' or 'did Kandata change as the result of this?'. I guess it's the one thing that kept me entertained for some time, hahaha."

Satoru made sure to note all the facts mentally in his head. It was the first time that Yashiro was speaking of something that is not ominous with true passion. Although— was it really as harmless as Satoru thought?

"You like the story because you can relate to it, right?"

Yashiro smirked innocently. "I guess you could say so."

"Do you think of yourself as that sinner?"

But at this question, his teacher sneered and tapped his finger several times, saying nothing.

Satoru sighed. Secrets. Right. If Satoru claimed to know Yashiro better than anybody else, he wouldn't have asked that in the first place.

"This story is meaningful to you."

"Very."

They stayed in silence for a few moments. It occurred to Satoru that he was out of things to say. All out of questions. Even though he still didn't know the deepest depths of Yashiro, all questions that were not already asked seemed unfit and misplaced.

"Hey, Satoru."

"What is it?" the younger man shifted in his seat a bit, now that he no longer had anything to say, it was apparent that he was getting uncomfortable in it. How long have they been talking, anyway?

Meanwhile, Yashiro leaned forward on the table, like trying to close the distance between them to talk about something secretive.

"Can you tell me something about yourself? Anything. I want to listen to you. Perhaps, something about your past. Or something that you feel like you want to tell me. After all," he paused and his eyes circled around the room, "I won't be around for much longer. This is the last time we meet."

Satoru really didn't want to face that truth but here it was — all bare and tender for Satoru to see. The person in front of him was a dead man. His ending was inevitable. Satoru knew death row took a while to be executed, but how long would it take, three more years, ten more years? Yashiro would receive his final punishment for taking these lives, and that would be that. No epilogue.

"Actually," Satoru said, "there is one thing. The one thing I can reveal to you and only you."

Sensei's eyes lit up. For him and only him. The ultimate desire, the ultimate thrill of his — to possess something all by himself with no one else to share — what in many ways brought him to commit these murders. It's been something he anticipated to have from Satoru for many years.

"I am listening."

Satoru's throat went dry. He realized he'd wanted a drink, from all this talking, he was closing up. But, not this time, this time he had to do it despite any inconveniences. He came here, for Kenya and Sawada-san and all the men imprisoned for Yashiro's crimes, but maybe, just for this one moment, he came here for himself. And for Yashiro, too.

Satoru leaned his arms on the table in front of him. It was hard to speak, somehow, because he felt that there's a knot stuck in his throat not letting any air in or out.

Yashiro simply waited, eyes keen on Satoru and Satoru only.

"It started when I first went to my evening classes in 2004. I needed to get re-educated, of course, even if I'd already went through normal school in my previous life, in this one I still had to make up for the fifteen years I'd lost in sleep.

"Everything was fine, but then I saw a man. I only saw his figure, at the back of the class, he was staring out the window, back turned to everyone else. I assumed he was one of the students. But, of course it's not what I really thought, not initially. He was wearing a black suit, and I thought, he might be the teacher. I thought so, because he reminded me of you."

Satoru saw sensei's hand clench behind the glass. He held back an urge to smirk — he knew what Yashiro had assumed just then, it felt funny, for the real continuation was so much more complex than "a case of sugar replacing tobacco", but Satoru enjoyed that sensation which reminded him of being eleven again, messing with an adult who thinks he knows everything in advance.

So he made a pause.

"The man was standing there, unmoving. When the real teacher came in — an old and gruff man, Takayama-sensei, a very good teacher indeed — it was when he arrived did I stare directly at the spot where your look-alike had been.

"But it was empty."

Idly, Satoru began to fiddle with the bottom part of the glass that separated them. He traced it incoherently with his finger, like he was drawing something on a steamy window.

"It wasn't possible for him to leave, because I saw both doors and nobody came out, only in. I was scared that he might've jumped out when no one noticed — to think that I was hoping for a revival to take me back to double check — but I didn't see him for the rest of the evening.

"All I saw was his back, and he reminded me so much of you, for no real reason, maybe it was the shape of his shoulders; but in a way, I felt threatened and scared that you might have escaped prison. A silly thought, I know. I convinced myself that I was imagining things.

"But then I saw 'him' again. On my way home, in the train. This time I caught sight of him with a corner of my eye, and it was so scary that I almost fell back, but when I looked directly, no one was there."

Satoru saw Yashiro's hand unclench slowly. He was beginning to understand.

"It happened again in a few weeks. And again, later. And again. I was seeing him in the reflections of the windows, in the crowds of people near Chiba station, on the water surfaces and behind the trees and falling leaves. I was seeing you.

"Never clearly, though, only faintly, that's how I knew it was a hallucination rather than some creep following me dressed up like you. I recognized the hairstyle, it was just like the one you had in 1988, my sensei's hairstyle, and sometimes I saw a glimpse of a red tie, that's how I definitely knew it was you from all those years ago as opposed to your Nishizono self.

"At first it scared me, and I hated that this was happening to me, but in the following years I got used to it. At times, I even anticipated for you to show up. Crazy, isn't it?"

Satoru let out half a chuckle, still poking the glass with his finger, as if clawing at it to disappear.

"Your 'ghost' was following me, especially in places where I had to be without my friends or my mom. It became comforting, eventually. Knowing that I wasn't alone. Knowing that there's somebody near me, boring his eyes into the back of my head at all times. It's— It's fucked up, isn't it?

"But it stopped. After you, the real you, resurfaced last year, I stopped seeing your ghost. So when Kenya offered, I knew I had to come. I knew I had to see you and make sure that you're still real. That you— That I—"

Satoru stilled his hand and for the first time looked up at the face of his teacher.

Yashiro's eyes were enraptured.

He was looking at Satoru like he just saw a divine creature offering him salvation.

Like he just saw a spider's thread, descending to him from Heaven.

"Sensei?"

Yashiro's hand slowly reached for Satoru's behind the window. His fingertips barely brushed against the glass, not really touching, but still there.

"Satoru!"

His voice was wet with awe, or some kind of other unrecognizable emotion, and his eyes, shiny like never before, smiled at Satoru.

"You wouldn't believe it, you surely wouldn't..." he shook his head, blinking off whatever bleariness that lingered in his eyes, turning his gaze back on Satoru sharp as ever. Nearly red. "Would you believe me if I told you... That I have experienced just the same?"

A soft ah noise hitched in Satoru's throat halfway through.

"When you fell in a coma, Satoru. After your mother moved you to Chiba, at first I'd pondered moving elsewhere. Forgetting you until the day you'd wake up. But when I began teaching again, planning to murder someone again... In the classroom, I saw you, Spice!

"I thought it was just some child in the same clothes. Yet I couldn't look directly at him. Only with my peripheral vision would I see you, Spice, in the school's hallways, or on a field track, in the far away sceneries, through the fierce snow. You were following me, as well.

"For fifteen years your childlike figure lingered somewhere near me. It urged me to go towards you. That's why I no longer wished to kill other children. My true victim was you.

"But when I couldn't kill you after you woke up, I'd revisited all my memories, connected it with the things you'd said to me up on that roof, and I realized. The vision of you was a way for my heart to remind me of what I am lacking. You filled the hole in my heart. And I was seeing you, because my heart begged for you.

"And even here, imprisoned, I could see you. No longer a child, but a young man in hospital robes, always somewhere behind the corner, following the steady rhythm of inmates walking, looking at me with those eyes of yours."

The eyes that were looking only at me.

Yashiro chuckled, nearly mirroring Satoru's own sound he made not long ago. "You repeated my thoughts exactly." Ah, so Satoru said it out loud.

They stared at each other, hands close but still separated, and Satoru let all of it sink in. He couldn't believe it. No, he didn't want to believe it. It was so bittersweet that he felt he would retch if he tried to swallow it.

His heart, with that gaping hole inside of it, beat loudly in frail attempts to reach across for the one that was never supposed to etch himself in it. His 'enemy'. His ex-teacher. The one he couldn't live without.

"Why Spice?" he asked in a breathless voice. "I can swear I've heard that nickname before."

"But of course," replied the equally strained one, "that's what I called you whenever I talked to the sleeping you."

~