In the beginning of the year, Kenya paid Satoru a visit.
Kenya's expensive shoes looked out of place at Satoru's humble entrance. He was dressed in the usual — a light grey suit accentuated by a dark tie, his white shirt's collar and cuffs crisply ironed as always; the faint fragrance of his cologne freshened up the homey smell of Satoru's apartment. He was always giving off an impression of a professional attorney, serious if a bit haughty, but Satoru knew better than to think of him that way, because those kind eyes and an unruly cowlick on the side of his head were dead giveaways — Kenya was the same old ally of justice with a heart of gold.
Normally, his visit would've been considered pretty sudden, but ever since Sachiko had departed not a few months ago, Satoru had suspected her of encouraging (read as: instructing) his friends to regularly "check up" on him.
Satoru stayed in for New Year's, despite the invitation from Sugita family to come along to the shrine together. He did not participate in any celebratory practices, apart from sending out rooster-design postcards. To Satoru it wasn't such a big deal, but to his friends his absence had perhaps been a red flag. They probably assumed he was depressed.
Which he wasn't.
To prove that, he would go as far as to offer anyone to take a look at his apartment — he kept it neat ever since his mother had helped him clean up. He cherished her efforts, and besides, taking out those bags had been a huge hassle.
He even started cooking for himself, kind of. Putting that kitchen to use, so to speak. Taught himself the basics via internet videos and whatnot. He was surprised by how challenging cooking could sometimes be — and Satoru wasn't the type to give up when he had his mind set on something. Preparing meals was a time-consuming and distracting pursuit, which had been exactly what he needed the most.
He was washing the tableware after having treated himself with a satisfying bowl of nishime, when the doorbell rang.
"So good to finally see you, Satoru," Kenya said after he made himself comfortable at Satoru's table.
"It's good to see you too. Green, black?" Satoru casually asked as he opened one of the cabinets where he stored tea.
Satoru refilled the water boiler (a sign that he'd been using it recently like a normal person) and it hummed, heating up water automatically. Meanwhile, Satoru fished out a traditional teapot and searched for the cups.
"So, what brings you here today?" Satoru asked, even though he already guessed the answer.
"Well, first off, I really wanted to see you, and I thought this time is as good as any—"
"Can I guess now?" Satoru interrupted. "You talked to my mom, didn't you?"
Kenya hesitated. "...Sachiko-san did contact me a few months ago. But, that's not the reason for my coming here. I've got news for you."
Oh, Satoru thought. Could it be, Kenya and Misato are finally?... Well, it's about time they tied the—
Stern voice. "This morning, convict Nishizono was—"
The cup crashed on the floor at the "-shi".
Kenya was at his side instantly. "Damn it, are you hurt, Satoru?!"
"No, it's fine. D-dont—" Satoru swallowed, "don't step on the glass."
He excused himself to get the dustpan and brush — they were in the toilet room. He stepped in and closed the door behind him briefly. His hand flew up to his mouth. Breathe, Satoru. He stared directly into the nothingness of the toilet bowl.
Once he collected himself, he returned to the kitchen. His hands were shaking as he swept up the ceramic pieces.
"I guess there's no need to utter it, then," Kenya's voice sounded dry.
Satoru finished making the tea despite anything. He served it to Kenya as he was supposed to.
After the man took his first sip, silence remained.
Satoru was first to break it. "When?"
"Just this morning. I've only learned a few hours ago and went straight to you."
This morning, he was wondering why he woke up crying, he thought he had a sad dream, this morning.
"Why didn't you tell me earlier?"
"Like I said, I came here as soon as I could..."
"You could have texted me."
"I thought it wasn't—"
Kenya drank some more. Since the other cup lay shattered in the trash, Satoru didn't pour himself any. He doubted he could stomach anything at this moment.
"So, that's it huh."
"Yup. Finally truly over."
Inwardly, Satoru shuddered at these words. "That was kind of fast, wasn't it?"
"What exactly?" Kenya raised his brow.
"I thought— death row inmates spent longer time waiting. I thought so."
"Oh. Well, they've taken into account his previously served sentence, and the severity of his crimes... Maybe his luck played a role as well."
For some reason, none of Kenya's words sat right with Satoru. His chest felt heavy. Or maybe that painful strain was caused by the seiza position?
"You know, he asked to be executed as soon as possible. I guess the Gods listened," Kenya added.
Apparently, they did.
Only the ticking of the clock remained in the room, with Kenya's occasional sipping. With each tick, reality settled in. Satoru was now living in a world without Yashiro Gaku. For the first time.
The hands of the clock boomed. Every sound was becoming too apparent. Surroundings ringed in Satoru's ears. Hum of the refrigerator. Clank of Kenya's cup against the saucer. Faint whistle of the wind outside. A world without Yashiro. Second, by second, by second, by second...
"What are you thinking, Satoru?" Kenya asked. Time was continuously going forward. Passing gently.
"Justice served, I suppose."
"You don't sound all that convincing. It's okay if you're conflicted. You know, for a very long time I knew him only as my elementary school teacher, I liked him, so distancing myself from the childhood memory had been hard at first—"
"I'm not conflicted," Satoru cut him off.
"Sorry," Kenya sheepishly said. "Thanks for the tea."
Satoru took Kenya's cup and brought to the sink. "Sorry that I didn't offer anything with the tea, it completely slipped my mind..."
"Oh, it's fine, I had breakfast!"
"Hey, Kenya," Satoru turned his head to the side as he washed the cup. "Do you happen to know what he had for a last meal?"
Probably some lollipops just to taunt me.
"He had juice and sunflower seeds."
Satoru shut the tap off. "Huh?"
"I know! Such a weird choice."
Satoru stared at his wet hands and the way water dripped from them. Juice and sunflower seeds. Peculiar indeed.
It's not an allusion to Satoru. Well, expecting to get one was certainly aiming too high. But what is it, then? A hidden message?
Juice and sunflower seeds. Even on his deathbed the man managed to concoct a riddle. Tempting Satoru to solve it. Solve him.
No, Satoru was not depressed.
Of course he had been somewhat shaken, only briefly. It had been an abrupt piece of news. But overall, his life's pace didn't falter. There was no morose ambiance in the air — quite the contrary — the sky was clear and the weather was pleasant. The food tasted just as good and his sleep remained tranquil and undisturbed.
He was not in mourning. No he wasn't. If anything, he should've been in celebration. The world was freed of a horrible person. The world got rid of Yashiro Gaku—
Although, whenever that name found its way into his thoughts, Satoru had to stop and clear his mind instantly. Otherwise, his body did that thing. When his eyes stared ahead, and he couldn't move nor breathe, because it felt like a cork was stuck in his throat.
But other than that, nothing changed.
Then the reveal became public. And it kind of made things shift a little.
Firstly, he got calls from everyone that knew him. Even those still living in Hokkaido. Even if they didn't mention a thing about that man.
Secondly, the death of "the most vicious serial killer in Japan's history", certainly made some journalists randomly interested in Satoru. They wanted to interview him, or something like that. He declined, of course. (Not that he didn't want to talk about it. Just not like this.)
Thirdly, he got a call from his editor. "Uwa-a-ah, Fujinuma-sensei, you know, as a matter of fact, recently the volumes of your last manga started selling better. You're becoming more popular! By chance, do you not have any upcoming projects?..."
It was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. To top it off Airi was ought to come back to him, suddenly having a change of mind for "no reason".
But, with bitterness or not, he couldn't deny that it was a period of time when Yashiro Gaku had become relevant to Satoru again.
It was a... Justification to look him up.
There was a lot of coverage of his case in media, as it turned out. Not only in Japan — he was listed among world's most heinous criminals. His modus operandi was studied and his psyche dissected by many researchers. Some were seemingly obsessed with his case. There was even a small community of those infatuated with him. Him, specifically, even if they didn't condone his acts.
Satoru wasn't offended. He found it humorous instead — he was reminded of the group of girls in his class who kept following Yashiro-sensei around, who gave him chocolates for Valentine's, and hitched rides to the gym with him.
No wonder the same happened even after his true nature got revealed. His methods had been praised — just like how he'd been praised for his excellence in teaching, how he'd been looked up to by children and adults alike. He was a natural charmer, not only that, Yashiro was quite an attractive man. He looked good in every picture available of him online. He looked good even back then when—
Yes, it wasn't unnatural to find a handsome man handsome. That was all there was to it. Satoru was sure that the grasp of these internet followers had been limited. Of course, these people couldn't have possibly known enough about the man they referred to as "Manabu". And since Satoru was the only one who had the right to know "the real sensei"... It was only natural that he felt entitled to know even more.
The world wide web had proved itself useful after all — stored in abundance was information unbeknownst to Satoru before, namely one on Yashiro's Wikitanika page. Like the fact that he used to have a fiancée, whom he killed in 1983, framing it as a suicide.
A fiancée. Didn't Yashiro once tell him that he'd made "a painful mistake" when Satoru coyly asked him: "Why aren't you married, sensei?", that time when Yashiro picked him and his mother off the road?...
Satoru sat all the way back from his laptop screen and laid on his futon with his hands behind his head. He stared at the ceiling in deep thinking, as he liked to.
Yashiro didn't frame anyone for his fiancée's murder. Instead, he made it look like a suicide. That could mean that there simply wasn't anyone who would serve as a good scapegoat. Yet why did he kill her? He targeted children to fulfill his homicidal urges. Her death couldn't have been a way to update his "happy moment". Then, did he kill her because she was onto him?
"A painful mistake". Was Yashiro simply careless with his words? No, that wasn't the case. On that day he chose to reveal his "approach tactic" which had been genuine. There was no reason for him to lie about one thing, yet be truthful regarding another. He emphasized that he'd been "careful ever since". An obvious conjecture — there was a slip-up, she'd figured him out, and since then he didn't risk having close relationships with anyone.
In other words, Yashiro had been honest. Even if he didn't reveal the specifics, he chose to be candid nevertheless. And it was evident in not just that. Among many other seemingly innocent things Yashiro had told him, in each one's core was hidden a deeper meaning.
And that entailed the following conclusion... Everything that Yashiro had told him ever, borne significance.
Every answer he gave on that fateful February day, too.
The tiny spark inside of him — his desire to know, only grew in size. The key was right there in Satoru's palm. All he needed to do is line it up with the keyhole and thrust.
He sat up abruptly, shaking the thoughts off his clouded mind. There were still intriguing truths in need to be found.
Besides the references to his ex-fiancée, and later on, to his ex-wife — the "personal life" tab didn't consist of much. It mentioned that Nishizono's previous surname had been "Yashiro" and that he lived with his mother and grandfather in Sapporo before enrolling in university.
Was he brought up in a single mother household as well? Satoru's mind filled in the blanks involuntary. He imagined Yashiro as a young boy, going to school, sitting at a desk, studying, playing with friends, doing simple things all children do. He wondered what he looked like, what he wore. A part of him — the part that still, incredibly, refused to acknowledge that Yashiro had been imprisoned for years — couldn't imagine Yashiro not wearing a suit, perhaps, even as a young boy he was well-dressed? He tried to imagine what Yashiro's mother was like. Was she the abusive type like Kayo's mother was? Was she the cause of Yashiro's emptiness? The article mentioned no such things.
What it did mention more broadly, was his involvement with Nishizono-san — the wife he took his second name from. "Nishizono's wife was thought to have committed suicide by overdose on sleeping pills, until his confession in November 2011." Oh, a suicide, once again. He seemed to have used this tactic only on those close to him. Come to think of it, in 2003 it's what he wanted to use on Satoru...
"Nishizono confessed to have commited nine murders. The confession had been proven credible, after a thorough investigation. The incidents had taken place in the timespan between 1990 and 2002. This included the death of Nishizono Shiro, the Chiba county lawmaker. Notable that all of the victims in that period were of legal age." Nine murders after Satoru's incident, all adults. That's right, he confessed in November 2011, but when was the date of his confession to other homicides? And why such division? Almost like Yashiro chose to reveal those he killed "after Satoru" beforehand.
"The follow-up confession in February 2012 revealed his involvement in cases from as early as 1980. Most cases were of child murder-kidnappings, that were considered closed due to..." Satoru's eye movement halted mid-sentence. Something wasn't right here. The article stated that Yashiro had confessed to the pre-1988 cases in February 2012.
They met in prison on a February day. But he couldn't have given a follow up confession before that. Because they met on February 1st.
Satoru grabbed his phone. It couldn't have been so, it was simply a mistake in the article. He dialed Kenya.
The call did not connect right away, yet Satoru was already strung up. He was sure of what Kenya had told him back then. He said that Yashiro confessed the entirety of his crimes. He said that Satoru was needed as a means of reassurance. Satoru was supposed to find out the exact numbers to correlate.
The call connected. "Kenya—"
"Hello, you've reached Kobayashi Kenya, attorney at law. For the time being I am not available. Please leave a message so I can call you back. Thank you."
Voicemail. Of course, it was the middle of the week. "It's Satoru. Call me back when you can. It's— I have to talk to you about Yashiro. Thanks."
Satoru's finger was tapping the back of his phone. The words on the laptop screen blinded his sight. This— this must've been a mistake. He scrolled through the article once more, refreshed the page, but the information remained the same. If it were true, then— no, Satoru didn't want to think ahead. He opted to find more clues while waiting for Kenya to call back.
There was a spreadsheet in the article: "list of victims". Rows listed names, ages and dates of execution. "Twenty-six were children." — Satoru would never forget these words told to him by his sensei. He recounted the columns with ages ranging from 8 to 11 and surely enough — 26 — was the exact amount of underage victims. All executed in the span from 1980 to 1987. So many kids in just seven years...
Nine other victims had to have been adults killed in Heisei era. Yes, they were lined up one after the other after Yashiro's child murders; the murder spree that began in 1990 seemed more practical in nature, the victims were, according to Yashiro's testimony, hindrances — a rival in love, a co-worker aiming for the same position, a doctor whom was opposed to life support (that one hit different), some soul who was getting suspicious and had been too righteous for her own good... The list went on. Yet there still was another adult victim killed in Shōwa era — Yashiro's fiancée, of course.
That's 36 total. Thirty-six? Once again Satoru was struck with uncertainty. While he definitely remembered the exact amount of children fallen by Yashiro's hand, the total number of victims which the murderer had told him 5 years ago, faded. Was it 36? Was it? Or was the article mistaken again?
Satoru propelled up on his feet. There was a way to check that list's credibility. The letter that Sawada-san sent him for his birthday a month after the meeting! It had the number of men set to be released for Yashiro's crimes. If the total amount turned up a different number, then the article surely was simply riddled with false facts! Edited by ignorant people with no knowledge— the conclusion Satoru was hoping to come to.
As he frantically searched his shelves, he tried to re-enact that day's events in his head. A tired look on Yashiro's face. His posture hadn't betrayed weakness for the entirety of their conversation, yet when Satoru had asked about his murders, the body language had changed.
Was it because... It was an act? Satoru struggled to recall their conversation as papers — mostly faulty sketches of Airi, which he'd torn out of the sketchbooks in a depressive fit after she'd left — piled around his feet.
"The court papers say you confessed to committing only nine murders," Satoru definitely had said. Then, he had asked about other ones. And then, and then...
Yashiro had not been looking him in the eyes when he'd said his next line, — "...They will announce I confessed...after they deem the confession valid..."
It sounded true when the man said so, because, because... Because he'd heard those words before. Because they were Kenya's words.
Satoru's fingers were finally gripping Sawada-san's neatly folded letter. He slowly opened it to look inside. He summed up all numbers.
It was certain that Yashiro hadn't used his surrogates to make up for several murders at once. Because the only time he did attempt such a bold move — was the time which Satoru prevented from happening. The Shiratori Jun framing case, was the experiment, during which the Ishikari Killer attempted to orchestrate several murders in a single town as someone else's serial murder case.
After the failure of that due to Satoru's interference, Yashiro went back to his done and dusted "single murder — single scapegoat" pattern
According to Sawada-san's letter the sum of all the framed people had been 33, but 3 more cases lacked a scapegoat — the "suicides" of Yashiro's ex-partners and "a death of natural causes" of Yashiro's father in-law. Adding them turned up the final number — 36. The exact amount of victims mentioned in the article.
Yet Satoru's memory conjured up a different numeral. He remembered, the way the killer rubbed his eyes and temples, what appeared to be motions of a tired and emotionally drained man. It was like he regretted the number he was about to utter, but Satoru knew better than to believe that.
Because when Yashiro encaged the side of his face with his hand and looked directly at Satoru through the bar-like fingers, though his eye was half-lidded to imitate a weary look, the dilation of his pupil told nothing but an absolute certainty and an ounce of boast in the final digit... "Thirty-seven," Yashiro had undoubtedly said.
He had no reason to lie to Satoru. There'd been 33 scapegoats, 26 children, 10 adults and another, unidentified victim, killed before 1988, whom was not a child and did not have a scapegoat. An adult whose death was made to look like a suicide.
Fixated in his place, flummoxed beyond belief, Satoru had his eyes fixed on the letter, questions formicating in his head. Who was the mysterious 37th victim? Why didn't Yashiro bring them up to the court? Why did he confess twice, and when was the date of his second confession?
And what did Satoru really come into the prison's meeting room for?
The memories which refreshed in his mind didn't help either. They rose a torrent of forbidden questions. What does "The Spider's Thread" story mean to Yashiro? What about "Spice"? And what about the other book, the one that Yashiro claimed to have kept by his side perennially?
All this time he denied wanting to find the answers, but now, when just about the only person capable of giving them had been gone, Satoru was having second thoughts.
The sound of his ringtone interrupting his racing mind was both disquiet and desired.
Satoru was tapping his foot impatiently as he stood in front of the elevator, waiting.
When Kenya called back, Satoru spelled his question right away. It had been bad enough that the line went silent for a few seconds, receiver perhaps unable to catch whatever sound that Kenya emitted, the worse part was that Kenya had called him over to his office instead of giving the answer directly.
Which could mean one thing — whatever Satoru was about to know, had to have been explained in more than just a few sentences.
Kenya's office wasn't too spacious, but it was neat and had that slight disorderly feel to it — it was obvious that the person occupying it was a hard worker — judging by papers and files cluttering Kenya's desk. This kind of look was what Satoru strived to have in his own workplace, when he still rented his manga office, that is.
"Hello, Satoru," started Kenya with a smile when Satoru walked in. As he pulled back a chair to sit across Kenya, the blonde's expression changed. "You look vexed. Is something wrong?"
Oh nothing, only that I came all the way here to talk about my— about the dead murderer of my mother, Satoru thought. "Nothing. I'm, I'm nearly out of cash on my IC card," he said instead, which was true, but obviously not the actual reason for his irritation.
"Oh, sorry you had to go all the way here... I've got a meeting with a client in half an hour, it's my lunch time now, so I thought I'd see you instead."
Great, now Satoru was robbing Kenya of his lunch. "Let's just get this over with quick, then."
"Let's," said Kenya and did not continue further.
Right. "So. Over the phone I asked you the date of Yashiro's confession—"
"Convict Nishizono had confessed on the 11th of November, 2011."
"Yes; but see, I know that, and I learned that he confessed only to a portion of his crimes."
Kenya stared directly at Satoru, expression not betraying anything. There was a noticeable pause before his next words. "And where did you learn that?"
"There's an article on Wikitanika..."
"Ah, the internet. You know you can't trust it even these days."
"Kenya, when did he confess to his pre-1988 offenses?"
Kenya did not say anything. He cast his eyes downward. "In regard to Nishizono—"
Kenya's head canted slightly as he looked back up.
"Call him Yashiro. It's his name. And you told me all those years ago that he confessed it all at once and that the investigation for the Shōwa cases was taking place when I came to visit him." Satoru caught his breath before continuing. "And yet I see now that you were not truthful."
Satoru's eyes bored into Kenya's, resolve ripe and full.
"Nothing slips past you, does it, Satoru..." Kenya left his desk and approached one of his shelves with box files stacked behind the glass. He came back soon, having retrieved an abundant set of folders. "These are the Nishizono case papers."
"You have them? How?"
"You don't understand," Kenya shook his head briefly, avoiding Satoru's eyes again. "I was his lawyer."
...it almost felt as if time had stopped. Or maybe, it actually did, and Kenya's revelation had unveiled a new time-related superpower in Satoru. Because his body stilled, entirely, and with it so did the rest of everything.
Then, with the tick of the clock that once again started to boom just like back in Satoru's apartment when he'd learned of Yashiro's death, the world stirred.
"I've been assigned to be his attorney by the court after he discharged others one after the other. I realized that—"
"You what?!" Satoru rose to his feet abruptly, hands slamming onto Kenya's desk, chair scraping the floorboards.
"There's no need to yell." Kenya's voice was impassive. "It's not what you think."
Satoru's head swam. From standing up too fast, from those deafening words— Kenya's voice was barely audible through the loud beat in Satoru's ears.
"It was our chance, Satoru. He was serving life, but he'd most likely get released on parole since his only proven offenses were attempts. One of his previous lawyers nearly succeeded in pulling him out due to 'mental health issues'. I had to seize him."
Which meant that— "You set me up."
"You set me up!"
Neither said a word for a few seconds, Satoru's breaths shallow, Kenya's face spiraling in his vision.
At last, Satoru sat back in his chair in defeat. So that was it.
Kenya hushed his voice. "Listen. This isn't something that makes me a good attorney, but— I couldn't not get it out of him. A confession. After what he did to you, after what my father went through..." the man's face betrayed distress for a second, but he regained his posture. "He knew who I am. And we made an agreement."
"No, no, no, no..." Satoru grabbed his head and propped his elbows on his knees.
"We made an agreement. He would confess if I let him..."
"No. God damn it, Kenya!"
"If I let him meet you," Kenya finished. "The November confession served as a down payment. I'm sorry, Satoru! I know I lied and I know you never wanted to see him again but I had to!"
That's not the problem.
"Then... What's the problem?" questioned Kenya.
Satoru said it out loud. Said something he shouldn't have said. No, he didn't just say it, he thought it in the first place.
Satoru rubbed circles into his eyes with his palms. He tried to shut it off — the faucet that kept spilling wrong thoughts into his head. Black dots began specking his eyesight. Too bright— everything was becoming way too bright, way too clear, like the sky itself, like the smile of a beloved person. It's more fun that way, is it not?
"He confessed to the rest of it right after my visit, didn't he. February 2012."
"Yeah," Kenya suddenly sounded beat. "It wasn't easy, getting you two to meet, you know. Had to pull so many strings. Normally only relatives and attorneys are allowed to meet prisoners... And for a lesser time too. He also requested not to be eavesdropped on. We still had soundless cameras set up, so we could interfere if he were up to no good..."
Kenya's voice droned on in the background as the new information settled in Satoru's brain. These facts which he overlooked all made sense now. Why Kenya had so much information about Yashiro in the first place, why he was informed on the day of his death... Satoru had been foolish. Of course the guard left the room after bringing Yashiro in. Of course they'd been given unlimited time to talk. Yashiro knew...
Yashiro knew all along. That's why, when asked about his reasons to confess, he replied with: "Your question is not 'why' but 'what for'." Because the answer to "why" had been simple. “To see you, Satoru.”
So Yashiro would've been released on parole under normal circumstances. Yet he did not wait for that. He chose to put himself on death row. Because he needed Satoru. And he wanted— what did he want?
Why did he sacrifice himself? Just to speak to Satoru? Just to see him? Just to tell him something?
Ah, no good. Satoru's eyes did that thing again. When they stare ahead. When they fill up to the brink.
"Satoru, forgive me. It was for the best," said Kenya, who kneeled before Satoru's chair. Satoru just sat there, facing down, unmoving. "You've saved everyone in relation to him. The men he'd set up. See? You've restored the justice."
Just like Sawada-san had written in the letter. So he knew, too...
"Did my mom know?"
"No, of course not. She wouldn't allow you to meet him. She'd say it was a trick."
Satoru chuckled humorlessly. She would've been right. "A trick" indeed. A trick set up to make Satoru realize that he can't live without Yashiro.
"If you were his lawyer, then... Did— did you receive any of his personal belongings?"
Satoru came home with the last of what was left on his IC card. The ride on the train had been dull. No thoughts came to his mind. He only wished to get home quickly.
His apartment building, which he grew sick of, looked just like it did in any other timeline. It seemed like fate itself tied him to this place.
He went up the stairs, sound of those metal steps ever familiar. He walked onward, passing the neighboring doors. This is where he met Yashiro in his first timeline; aged 29, an unsuccessful mangaka coming home from a part time job, he saw a man clad in a dark suit, black hat and leather gloves. Perhaps it was the moment when he first witnessed Yashiro's true self, eye glinting red, having killed someone very precious to Satoru only a few minutes before.
Satoru was sick for looking back on that moment wistfully.
He opened his apartment with his key. The door was locked as it should have been, no intruders to overturn his regular life, no oddity to thwart his peace.
Satoru walked in, closed the door behind him. The corridor was dark and empty. No shoes other than his. He turned around and rotated the lock to the door shut.
"I'm home," he said quietly against the door. He earned no reply.
Something in him was about to gush. The turmoil that started accumulating at the bottom of his stomach several years ago, going up and up, avoiding the region of his heart, it just about reached the top of his throat a week ago, and now it seemed to be filling up his head too.
He held it back again. It had externalized itself in different forms throughout these years, was it spleen or overconfidence, a wish to gulp candies one after the other or a strive to keep as many tiny secrets as possible, whichever it was, he at least attempted to suppress it. And it failed to find release time after time, finally replaced by apathy, now.
After taking off his shoes he took off his winter garments, scarf and jacket, and left them on a rack in the hallway. He carefully set his bag on the floor once he entered the kitchen, then went directly to his room.
It was clean, obsessively so. Since he'd stopped sketching, there was nothing else to do but clean and cook. He would've been proud of keeping his word to his mother if other things hadn't been on his mind.
Which was nothing. Nothing had been on his mind. He did not think of anything in particular as he opened one of his drawers and searched for a hole in its underside with his finger pad. Pencils and pens were scattered inside the drawer, one of which he took and pushed through the hole. He learned about this "false bottom trick" from a manga which he considered to be infinitely better than any of his works.
The upper bottom was lifted up — and the secret contents of the drawer were revealed.
Two notebooks. One used to be a sketchbook, repurposed to write notes in instead — unacceptable, forbidden plans which he never thought he'd consider acting upon — and a second book, much thinner, was from his elementary school years, his personal treasure.
The treasure that should've been able to lull this monster inside of him to sleep.
He pulled both notebooks out and returned to the kitchen. He set them on the table, the sketchbook a bit to the side, and went over to his bag. Upon opening it, he retrieved another thin paperback.
He put it on the table as well, an identical copy of his own. Both were titled: "Mikoto Elementary School, Class 5-4 Anthology, Big Wave, Small Wave". Both were dated November 1987. Yet one was more timeworn than the other. Not his.
"The prisoners on death row are allowed to keep only one book," Kenya had told him, handing the anthology.
Satoru sat at the table and covered his face with his hands.
"I'm sorry," he said to no one in particular. He didn't move for a while, breathing in, breathing out.
Then he decided to check the book that Yashiro kept close to his person for the past 29 years.
It became apparent when he first attempted to open it. The pages slipped, the chapter that uncovered itself was the one the owner looked at the most.
Of course. It was Satoru's essay.
Satoru's hands trembled. "Why?" he whispered. Why did Yashiro put so much emphasis on Satoru? The words Satoru had written 30, no, actually, twice as much years ago, blurred before his eyes: "The moment you suffer a setback — that is your new starting point."
Two drops landed on the greyed paper. Satoru didn't mean to cry. He sucked in a breath and asked again: "Why?"
This time the question was directed at himself.
He checked other pages too. All of them. No notes, no messages. He compared it to his own anthology, no differences found. His heart clenched when in his own copy he discovered the picture of himself and all of his friends which was taken seven years ago in Hokkaido.
"I'm sorry, everyone." He wanted things to turn out differently, but his heart had been set, perhaps long before he could do anything about it. As he wiped tears from his face, his eyes shifted to the sketchbook, which he'd largely abandoned after what had happened with Airi.
Without meaning to, his hand inched closer and closer. Even though it had been a nonsensical "what-if" scenario, it was starting to make sense to Satoru. It was the last ray of hope that he had. It was "the new starting point". Or, most likely, a tipping point.
If he didn't do something about that which overflowed him from within, he was afraid it would spill over and drown him.
Satoru fed the copper-colored thousand yen bill to the IC card recharge machine. The money should be enough to get to Ueno in one go, without changing trains.
As he passed the ticket gates, he felt at ease. He decided to call someone while he was waiting for the train.
He scrolled his contact list. It was actually quite big, but full of people that he didn't care enough about — fans that left him his contacts, people from the evening school, many-many acquaintances he gained in this life that he never reminisced about. Satoru decided that calling his mom first would be best.
"Satoru? You're calling at this time of day?" Not even a greeting, huh. "What's up with that? Are you about to cross some boundary?"
She's a demon. Satoru groaned, "Ahh, so you're friendly as usual. 'Cross some boundary'... What's that even supposed to mean?"
"I'm just kidding. I'm always happy to hear from my only son. So, what's up?"
"Nothing is up! I'm just calling because I felt like it."
"Oh, really," Sachiko said, clearly cautious.
"Yeah, really. How's the weather?"
"Really cold in here, you know how it is. And how's yours?"
"Fresh. No snow, but the temperature is low enough to feel chilly." Satoru's words seemed to disperse in white puffs into the air. He watched them go. "The sky is overcast, so I think it might snow, actually."
"Mm, I see. Hey, Satoru."
"What is it?"
"Did you make up with Airi-chan?"
"Is that the only thing on your mind?!" Satoru grumbled. "Like I said, we didn't fight, not really, so there's nothing to make up about. She's probably busy."
"Do you want to call her?"
"I don't know! I'll think about it!"
"Okay. Satoru. You know I love you, right?"
Satoru looked up at the clouded sky. "E-eh? Where did that come from? I love you too."
"Don't forget that!"
"Alright, sure. Is that a cue for me to say goodbye?"
"...If you feel so."
"Then, bye, ma. Next time, I'll be visiting you."
She didn't say goodbye in return, so he hung up. Jeez, judging by her tense voice, she probably thought Satoru was about to kill himself. Haha.
The call was fairly short and the train still didn't arrive. He decided to call someone else. His finger scrolled past Airi's name.
...No, he thought. He'd just be bothering her. Instead, he found Kayo's number.
"Hello?" said the gentle voice on the end of the line. He could hear some noises in the background, domestic ones.
"Hi, Satoru! How are you doing?"
"I'm doing... Great! I'm doing great!"
"That's nice to hear. You haven't been around lately."
"Ah, yeah, well you know how life sometimes is. But how are you?"
"Mmm, pretty good. The kids are doing fine, Mirai's preparing for his high school entrance exams."
Kayo laughed. "Yes, I can hardly believe it myself!"
"They grow up so fast, huh..."
"What about Kibou-kun?"
"Kibou? He's right there, do you want to speak to him?"
Satoru heard Kayo beckoning her younger son in an even sweeter voice. He almost teared up, thinking about her, her kids and how much she accomplished.
"Sorry, Satoru, Kibou doesn't feel like talking."
"Well, he's just like his brother when he was a kid! In fact, kind of quite like you."
"A-ah, you think so? I was so restrained back then. It's embarrassing."
"Aw, come on, I quite liked you, you know." He let out a small awkward laugh. "Although at first I did think you were the annoying type."
"Huuh? What's that I'm hearing for the first time?" she retorted playfully.
"Sorry! I mean, you used to say ominous things then pretend you were just kidding. My mom does that, it annoys me so-o much."
"Hmm, I can't recall ever doing such things though..." It was good that she couldn't. Satoru was glad she didn't look back at her grim past. "Hey, Satoru."
He had a little deja vu. "Mm?"
"Do you remember that time when we went up the hill?"
"The pair of foxes, and the beautiful tree, my... Don't tell Hiromi, but I think it was the most romantic moment of my life."
"Ahaha, really?" Satoru gripped his phone harder. He really did tear up.
"Yes. I... I think of these foxes sometimes, when I look at my kids. Kind of like... Like you brought me to them. Without you, I wouldn't have met them."
Without you, I wouldn't have become what I am either, Satoru thought. He swallowed the lump in his throat and said: "Yes, and the giant sparkly Christmas tree was Hiromi, wasn't he?"
Kayo laughed again. He realized that he'll never get enough of that sound.
"How is he, anyway?" asked Satoru, smiling.
Kayo's voice became calm. "He's doing his best at work. Doctors hardly get a break, you know, but despite that he always spends his weekends with us. Hey, you should come over sometime," Kayo offered.
"I'd love to," sighed Satoru. "He's at work today, right?"
"Yes," confirmed Kayo. "But he's usually free on Sundays."
"I'll—" Satoru's breath hitched. This felt like a lie. "I'll try to make it."
He heard the toddler whining, clearly requiring his mother's attention. Satoru and Kayo exchanged their goodbyes. His train would be approaching soon.
But as the call ended, Satoru immediately received another.
It was Kenya.
"Um, what's up?" Satoru carefully asked, a bit perplexed by Kenya's breathless tone.
"Satoru, where are you right now?"
"I'm about to ride a train to Ueno."
"...Ueno? Why are you going to Ueno?"
"I just needed to muster my courage..." he replied idly, grey sky's reflection dulling his eyes. The train began pulling up to the station. "Oh, my train's here."
"What is it?"
"D-dont," his friend stammered, "don't do anything stupid!"
Ah, so that what was up. Sachiko probably alerted Kenya because she sensed something unusual in Satoru's call to her.
"I won't, don't worry. Goodbye, Kenya."
But Satoru hung up. There was no need to worry. Even if what he wanted to do was definitely stupid, still.
Good deeds and bad deeds are the same in nature, he recalled someone's saying as he found a seat inside. Ah, those words... Satoru resented them with his whole being.
Especially now, when he could finally get it. The exact meaning behind those words, what drove Yashiro, what made him who he is. (Was — bitterly corrected himself Satoru, his thought process halting for a second, unlike the speeding train.)
When Yashiro had confessed, what he did was technically "good", and Satoru, being as slow-witted as he was at the time, naturally questioned his intention — he couldn't wrap his head around Yashiro doing anything "good".
The truth was — so blatant — that it didn't matter whether what he did was "good" or "bad", because Yashiro's intent had always been to make up for his own flaw.
Like a faded film spliced in a haphazard way, the scenes of that day play out in Satoru's head, the words amassing — each and every bearing significance — thanks to you I'm no longer plagued by my inner need to execute; 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; this is the last time we meet; in a way, I consider it to be 'a new starting point' for me; Satoru!
The flaw that nobody but Satoru was aware of, had also been a weapon, the whole time.
It took so long for Satoru to realize. He'd lost so much time, even the time he'd considered to be his treasure, was really such a waste.
The time that Satoru spent unmoving, unfeeling, unwavering: 15 torturous years — not only for Satoru's family and friends, but for another, unnoticed spectator, living and breathing for Satoru, trying to die for Satoru — then 15 more behind the bars while the spice of his life reveled in hollow prosperity.
The punishment wholly deserved for a merciless killer, if only...
If only Satoru hadn't grown just as attached. Gently, gradually, if only Yashiro hadn't found a way to mold himself into an irreplaceable shape in Satoru's heart. If only its manifestation hadn't appeared — and then hadn't disappeared. If only Satoru hadn't succumbed to that dull, ever present ache — which surely, Yashiro had experienced as well, the whole time.
Heartache. That was the word most fit to describe the feeling swelling in his chest. Supposedly, "feelings" were a product of his brain, but they were not contained in his head — his physical heart was actually sinking. Or, rather, it was hollowing.
But only in the mornings. When he had woken up with the same sordid thought that died before he could cognize it, instead reverberating with his heart, making it quiver slightly, every morning.
Only at nights, when intrusive thoughts hadn't allowed him to sleep, when he had covered his ears just to occupy himself with the sound of his own heartbeat. Aching.
If Yashiro had been enduring something along the lines of that, then it's no wonder he reached out for Satoru. An old sinner in the depths of hell, pulling at his only hope — the spider's thread.
In a world where time travel was possible, how couldn't Satoru — who stood for "good" until the end — not help the "bad" that had asked to be saved?
Without "bad" there wouldn't be any point in "good", would there?
And if "good" and "bad" were the same after all... Then what Satoru was about to do would be neither — just a return of Yashiro's efforts.
Just beyond his peripheral vision stands a man wearing black suit pants, a cream colored trench coat and a red tie.
Satoru's gaze fixates and he holds his breath. If this is what he thinks this is, then the moment he moves the real world will swallow the delusion whole.
The man's hands are in his coat pockets, his hair is black just like always — no hint of grey, like Satoru expected, because he was convinced that if he were ever to see his ghost again, it would look like his prison dwelling counterpart. But Satoru won't dare to complain.
Everything about the man on his periphery is so familiar that the words "long time no see" come out in a hushed breathy whisper, a smile forming at the end.
Satoru's stomach is now something akin to a jar full of butterflies — they flutter wildly — did one of them escape? because he can swear he just saw it, passing by the apparition's legs, vibrant blue in color.
That barely matters though, because there is one thing Satoru has to make sure of — that this man really is the personification of his empty heart, or rather, a proper demonstration of whom his heart has been missing — even if it means that the phasm will have to disappear again.
Satoru mentally prepares himself to look at the illusion directly, it's so hard to actually do it, to let go of this heady feeling, so he revels in it just one last time, revels in those eyes, that are surely, looking only at him.
If only he could reach.
There is a loud, blaring noise, which echoes loudly, loudly, loudly in Satoru's ears. A-a-ah, how annoying. Did the train make that sound?
It's snowing— wait, snow, in the train? The hue of everything around him has become dark blue and space has expanded significantly. He trembles — from sudden temperature change, from anticipation — and the slight motion forces him to face his ghost.
His pupils widen. There he is — that man, in front of Satoru, finally; it's him, so much taller than he seemed, looking to the side — Satoru can only see his profile.
Beautifully illuminated. His sensei's profiled look of pride.