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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 have 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 would 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 of 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 named 'Hiromi'. Did this happen in my last life?"

"Yes. But Hiromi is a boy. Along with Kayo, you had 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 superpower 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'd thought it was thought provoking. I'd 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 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."

~

Chapter Text

Satoru's inherent reaction, was of course, denial.

After having a whiff of fresh, nonstale air, the translucent haze of uncertain longing, peeled off from him just like a candy wrapper.

Or, more precisely, it happened the second Satoru caught a glimpse of Kenya's warm brown eyes, deep concern hidden in them, asking soundlessly are you okay?

"Twenty-six children," he muttered hoarsely and struggled to get away from these walls, from that presence, from his own feelings.

In his mind's eye there was an image of all the people he'd saved, the people who were happy now, for whom he presented a town where he was missing, and, by all means, they should have been enough.

They are the ones filling the hole inside his fragile heart. They are the ones giving him encouragement, living and breathing for him, being happy for him. Not Yashiro.

No. No more of that, he told himself. That name was forbidden, from now on. He would think of him no more. He would refuse to accept that the "ghost" had been real, too. Anything in relation to that man was better off forgotten. That's what Satoru decided.

He would seal away this day and the memories of it. It would be the right thing to do. It was either that, or—

Something Satoru wasn't sure he was ready to face ever again.

~

When Satoru opened his apartment door on the March 2nd, he fully expected to get showered in glitter and streamers as a "surprise" plotted by Airi, who had proudly received a copy of his keys about half a year ago.

What he didn't expect, was to see Satoru's most precious treasures, cheering on in the cramped apartment of his.

"Happy birthday, Satoru!"

Kayo was there, Hiromi was there, their son Mirai as well; Kenya came over too.

"Katagiri-san contacted me and we decided to hold a little party for you and Hina right here," Kenya, who'd still occasionally call Kayo by this nickname, explained. "Here's a little something from me," he handed a rectangular, book-sized present wrapped in blue paper, "and here's from Sawada-san." The second present was paper-thin, an envelope.

"Thank you," Satoru said earnestly.

When he came over to Hinazuki (now Sugita, but Satoru could never get used to her family name), tears welled up in his eyes, he hoped they wouldn't spill in front of everybody. "Happy birthday to you too, Kayo."

"What's with the water works, Satoru? 'Are you stupid?'" She laughed, and Satoru followed suit, wiping his eyes.

Eight-year-old Mirai, who was hiding behind his mother's back (he was a somewhat timid kid, his attitude resembled Hiromi's and Kayo's childhood personalities) offered Satoru a big box, a present from all of their family. "Happy birthday, Satoru-san," he said, eyes averted, eyelashes long.

"Thank you, everybody."

Then Airi came out from her "hiding spot", carrying a huge brown home-baked cake, heartwarming words written on it with white frosting.

They ended up eating it in the kitchen, somewhat crowded, but still cozily, and even used Satoru's laptop to video-call his mother in Hokkaido.

Sachiko was all tears and words of gratitude, she congratulated both her dearest son and Kayo broadly.

It was the day when Satoru's "happiest moment" had updated for the first time since February, as reluctant as he was to admit the importance of that encounter from a month before.

In a way, he was glad to move on from it.

In the evening he finally got his hands on his presents — a Thomas Harris novel from Kenya, an electric water boiler from the Sugita family with a drawing that depicted Satoru in a superhero costume from Mirai (he made sure to attach it to the fridge with magnets), a lover's omamori talisman from Airi (she'd slipped it bashfully to Satoru when nobody was looking — her "official" present was the cake) and a letter from Sawada-san.

"Dear Satoru,

"I have been familiar with your mother for the longest time, I suppose I know her rather well, and that is why I can say with absolute assurance — you are truly deserving to be the part of the Fujinuma family. Your courage in the latest years, and the sacrifice you had to endure all by yourself prove that so.

I have spent years and years trailing after the Ishikari Killer, and yet thanks to you and only you, we have managed to capture him. I would not suggest that the years of life you have lost for this are truly redeemed, for it is up to you to decide, but the success we've had is tremendous nevertheless.

Eighteen (18) convicts for the Ishikari Killer's murders are set to be released on the shortest notice. Trials of two (2) individuals are still in process, undoubtedly, they will be vindicated. Thirteen (13) more were already walking free of charge — those who had already served time for the crimes they didn't commit, at last their names are clear. As for three (3) more victims — there were no convicts, due to the fact that their deaths were orchestrated to look like suicides, or a death of natural causes.

Convict Nishizono worked willingly with the investigators. He was very cooperative in the hearings and in the court. The statements and additional evidence he provided were all proven to be corresponding. Currently, Nishizono Manabu is a convict on death row in Tokyo prison. Due to the abolishment of the statute of limitations in the year 2010 (Heisei 22), all accusations that might've been invalid, no longer lack accountability.

All of this was accomplished in consequence of your involvement. Thank you, Satoru. Thanks to you, the justice is restored. The innocent are free and the responsible are charged. You have my gratitude. Happy birthday.

Best wishes,

Sawada Makoto"

The taste that was left in Satoru's mouth after reading this heartfelt letter from his mother's friend and ex-colleague, didn't exactly match the fulfillment he should have experienced right away.

He sat back and stared out the window, the same one he broke in a faraway timeline over some petty argument with his mother. All he could see beyond, was the darkness of the early Spring's sky, and himself, in the reflection, completely alone.

~

"Hey, Satoru-kun."

He blinked down at the voice calling from beside him, seeing black dots dancing all over the place from staring at the bright sky.

"Oi, I told you not to call me that."

She giggled. "But I am older than you!"

She always says that.

"You always say that."

Airi Katagiri flashed a bright smile, exuberant as ever. "Come on, cheer up!" she emphasized her words with a flail of her half-melted popsicle in Satoru's direction.

"Eh? I wasn't feeling down at all though," Satoru said as he stared indifferently at his own vanilla cone. "Just... wondering about things."

She made a playful exasperated groan, and jumped up from the bench they were sitting on, the camera hanging from her neck dangled slightly. "Then don't! It's your day off, we're here to have fun! Let's go on some more rides. Oh, the ferris wheel!"

She grabbed his hand and urged him to stand up and follow. "What's the fun in riding a slow rotating carriage?" he asked with a small smile.

Airi smirked mischievously, "I'll show you."

Satoru felt his cheeks flare up. He squeezed Airi's hand back, discarding the unwanted ice cream when they passed a trash bin. Just for a second, he glanced at the row of people standing in line for one of the rides in the amusement park, but on this heated July day, none of them happened to be wearing a black blazer.

~

Such days when Satoru was free to do whatever he pleased were rather scarce though. As a mangaka, he had to endure a tremendous amount of work.

Every single day, no weekends, barely any holidays, it was work, work, work. And, Satoru loved it, of course, drawing manga was just about the one thing he could do and would do, any day, any time.

He'd been in the industry ever since he was capable of taking care of himself, practiced since his hand was strong enough to hold a pen. He had been first published in 2006 in Shounen Flight, and he did everything back then, the storyboard, sketching, inking.

Now, after getting an anime adaptation for his debut, he was able to hire assistants. He immediately began fulfilling his next project, and everything went off without a hitch, for three years, every single day, with barely any day-offs, he was working, working, working, seven issues released, and then, something extraordinary happened.

"Fujinuma-sensei, I'm afraid this isn't meeting the publisher's expectations."

Urata-san, his editor, said so one morning when Satoru came up to bring in the monthly chapter for the eighth issue.

"Eh?"

"I don't intend to sound demeaning, sensei, but I've noticed some... changes, in your usual style, is all. I kept silent, thinking it was just my poor judgment, but then the reader ratings came up..."

Satoru tried this approach, that approach; revised the storyboard, changed a few things, yet he couldn't understand what it was that seemed wrong. Eventually he gave up trying to fix something that — according to his judgment — was not broken and submitted the last of chapters.

The editor called to the office the very next day.

"Fujinuma-sensei, you know I adore you, and your style, and the way you—"

"Please get to the point, Urata-san," Satoru said tiredly.

"Alright. So the eighth issue..." The man at the end of the line sighed. "Don't get me wrong, the art style is as good as always, the details are just fine, but how should I put it...

"'It's not enough.'"

The familiarity in these deafening words was striking.

"What do you mean..?" he asked coldly, finger tapping idly against the receiver.

And then Urata-san told him. It was amazing how people tended to pick up the exact same words as they had in the timelines they hadn't lived through. This timeline's Urata-san was always nice, friendly, bubbly. He wasn't the sly, faceless editor of Satoru's very first 2006, the one that told him cruelly: "You're twenty-nine? Are you really doing well in the manga world?"

And yet now, maybe without mockery in his tone, he was reiterating: "It just doesn't express itself well enough. Like the characters' feelings or the story's emotional trajectory, in other words — something is lacking. You have to put more of yourself into it."

"Like you did in your previous work!" he added. "I just can't see your face in this one."

Satoru could've said I'm sorry, I don't know what went wrong. Satoru could've said I'm sorry, I'll do my best to fix everything. Satoru could've said I get it, I know I should dig deep into my heart, but I can't. I'm afraid that I'll find out something unpleasant about myself if I do that.

"We've worked our hardest all this time, and you're telling me it's not enough? Really, Urata-san?" he said instead, venom lacing his voice. Protectively.

"Sensei—"

"No, let me speak first, would you? Me and the guys, we— We've put our all into it, these past months, hunched over our desks ten hours a day, pulling out everything from ourselves to put on the paper, and you're saying 'it doesn't express itself well'?"

"Fujinuma-sensei, you don't have to be angry about it, the work will be published all the same but—"

"Good, I'm glad it will, thank you deeply for not throwing hours and days and months of work into trash at the last minute!..."

"—but the way I see it, your work still needs improving, because the readers need a compassionate story that leaves an impression on their soul, or else we won't sell enough issues, and I'm afraid the contract with you will have to be put on hold!"

Satoru slammed the handset down onto the holder. Fuming, he looked around, seeing his two assistants (currently working on the cover for the newest volume) peek out from their tables coyly.

"It's okay, everyone, keep up the good work," Satoru said in a somewhat shaky voice. He held his wrist so that his finger, still tapping impatiently against the table, stilled.

When he turned to the pieces of uneven sketches scattered across his work table, the phone rang again.

"What now?" he barked into it rather unprofessionally. He was completely sure it couldn't have been anyone but his unspeakable editor, but spite drained out of his voice when he heard who it was. "Oh, Airi."

"Jeez, Satoru, am I calling at a wrong time?" the girl's voice was dripping with concern, but Satoru could swear he heard a little bit of sarcasm somewhere in there. Maybe he was imagining things.

"No, but, well, yeah. Why are you calling the work phone?"

Satoru overheard one of the assistants whisper to the other: "His girlfriend." His finger just about began tapping again, but he focused the anxious energy to go somewhere else, and began rocking his leg up and down instead.

"You weren't answering your regular phone, so I thought, hey, I should call your work phone, what if you left it in the bag and can't hear, so..." Airi said.

"Of course I did. I put it in a silent mode for a reason, you know?" Satoru replied.

There were a few seconds of silence on the end of the line. It felt like a little victory, until Airi spoke up, of course. "Why are you acting this way? What did I do?"

"Nothing. Look, it's just some work stuff. I'll talk to you after."

"Wait, are you okay?"

Satoru sighed. "I'm fine."

"Well, I was meaning to ask, um." She paused and Satoru could just feel the way something arose in him, that blistering energy he felt more and more frequently these days. "I want to do something today. Just you and me. After work, maybe? I miss you, you know, I thought now that you've finished your latest manga volume we could like, have a date, celebrate?" By the end of the sentence Airi's voice turned small. She was sometimes like that, acting all shyly when it came to acknowledging being a "couple", no trace of her usual boisterous self.

But why today, of all days? Satoru and Airi discussed many times, that when it comes to "work", they give each other "space", because it so happens, they both work in their most passionate and beloved fields, so they agreed to not bother each other when they were busy.

And the situation Satoru found himself in, clearly needed full dedication in order to be solved as quickly as possible. There was no time for "dating" or much less "celebration".

"I'm sorry," he said. "Something came up, so I have to stay overtime for today." The vicarious vibrancy sizzling somewhere in the middle of him, soothed out, recognizing that it still wasn't the right time to burst.

Airi was all "oh it's fine" and "I hope you figure things out" and "if something changes just call me, okay?"

When he put the phone down, he noticed the way both his assistants tensed in their chairs.

"Don't worry guys," he said. "The one staying overtime today will only be me. You're free whenever you finish."

One of his assistants, the less reserved one, seemingly relaxed in relief. "Thanks, Fujinuma-sensei."

Satoru nodded, turning back to the faulty sketches, inwardly shushing the feeling that arose its head at the mention of that honorific.

~

Satoru came home next morning, having slept through night at the office, pencil stains still on his cheek after blacking out right on top of his sketches.

What he found immediately after entering, was curry on his dinner table, served for two. His first thought was, mom couldn't have come here all the way from Hokkaido without telling me, then he noticed how the rice and the sauce have dried out, and he realized it was supposed to be yesterday's dinner.

In his bedroom he found Airi, fully dressed and sitting huddled on the floor by the wall, with TV turned on. He didn't even need to shake her awake, because she opened her sleepy eyes almost right after he entered.

"Satoru..."

"Airi, I—"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but when I called you, I was already here, cooking, and I..." She started crying. "I wanted to surprise you I-I guess, and I didn't know that—"

Automatically, Satoru kneeled before her and hugged her head close to his chest, petting her hair, whispering tiny it's okay's, listening to her attempts to explain what she didn't even have to in the first place.

"I guess you forgot, but yesterday, ah, it was our 'anniversary', I guess... We met three years ago, remember?"

The anniversary of their meeting, of course. Airi always insisted that this should be the date people celebrate, instead of celebrating the day of becoming a couple. After all, "a relationship", in all connotations of the word, starts developing on the day you first meet. That's what she always believed in. Or "wanted" to believe.

She always pushed her beliefs, her little rituals and her quirks onto him. Never compliant, always had to have it her way. The qualities that always inspired Satoru, now all of a sudden made him fume.

But no matter how much he wanted to release that baseless fury, he knew it wasn't the right thing to do. He let parts of it slip through the cracks, and here's where he ended up because of that recklessness. On the rocks. He let himself snap. It was his own fault. So he ignored the anger gnawing at him once and for all, and focused on comforting Airi as best as he could, with promises and empty I'm sorry's.

"Satoru..." she whispered, and he could feel the syllables go right through his chest, like there was nothing there to stop them.

~

...It's not that Satoru didn't know where this distant behavior was stemming from. He'd lived for too long — that is, long enough to at least be aware of his own feelings.

This timeline that he'd managed to create with the power of his own will and courage, appeared to be "the true one", or so he had convinced himself. A timeline with no revivals, not even small ones that used to happen during little tragedies — road accidents, house fires, a maniac leading a girl away — as if they were not happening. No oddities to thwart Satoru's peace. A timeline a bit too perfect to be true.

And in an ideal version of his life, he naturally had to pose as an ideal version of himself.

"I can't see your true face", that was right. In his previous life, the life of solitude, he'd been told the same thing. He couldn't express himself well because the feelings, emotions and certain memories, had been locked away deep down at the bottom of his empty heart.

He had been merely pretending to express them. And now, in this new existence, in a constant stream of pleasant sentiments  leading him forward with no disturbances, it became the case once again.

He came back to the habits of his "old self", gradually. "If I keep on acting, I'll become real some day," was what he told himself. What else was he supposed to do? Was it his fault, that even in this seemingly perfect world, his emptiness couldn't be quenched?

Perhaps, something in the core of him had been wrong all along.

In order to maintain a steady and "full" existence, to keep his work, his friends, his girlfriend, he had to be what he was not. So he held back and swallowed any inner "oddity" that threatened the outer "peace".

Yet with that, something inside of him built up bit by bit. With that, birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations, meetings, — all turned into a mush of meaningless events.

But it was easy to pretend they weren't. And on the brighter side — it was amazing just how futile things like conflicts became with that.

He made up with Airi, and moreso, their relationship improved. She promised to be more considerate, he promised it back, their mutual trust was regained and eventually, Airi started making hints about moving in together.

Nearly the same thing happened in his workplace. Urata-san apologized for being harsh, encouraged Satoru to keep up the hard work, and even said that the "new approach" could actually be just what the manga needed.

As long as his act was convincing enough, everything could easily click back into place. As long as everyone else was happy. He had created this world for them, not for himself.

He'd sacrificed 15 years spending them asleep, seeing dreams for everyone's sake. Now he was living a dream — a dream that felt like a lie sometimes, for how flawless it was.

He was a manga artist, as he had always wanted. He was going out with the most inspiring, extraordinary, odd but endearing girl. Everyone (nearly so) in his life have found solace. Even if his own routine consisted mostly of work, he was glad to have it.

If he wasn't working — he was with Airi. They'd go to parks, out to the streets, at times they'd even travel to the farthest ends of the city — all so that Airi could always snap pictures of her sky. She liked climbing trees or sneaking on rooftops, anything to capture the best shots. Satoru accompanying her was a nice replacement for exercise — his own workplace required sitting hunched over the table a lot, and doctors suggested him to move around more. That, and he got to spend time with his girlfriend too.

Their relationship, however, appeared —at least to most people— pretty innocent. They were more like best friends; always going somewhere on "adventures", hand in hand, Airi leading the way, like a pair of kids playing some sort of a game.

They had a "hideout", too. It was Satoru's apartment — where Airi would unfetter, where she'd become gentle and more ladylike. Despite that, Satoru still never considered himself to be "in control". By showing her vulnerable side, Airi empowered herself — at least that's how Satoru always interpreted it. But he didn't mind too much. It felt awkward not to let her lead the way.

Satoru was willing to be led by those he owed his life to. He chose to let them lead him on, yet Airi wasn't the only "leader" that he abided. Such as, when Satoru wasn't with Airi or working, he'd go out with his friends.

It had happened once every three months or so. Satoru, Kenya and Hiromi would all find a day off in their packed schedules to hang out at a bar.

They'd talk about the same things — family and job of course, sometimes they'd reminisce the past. (There were plenty years in-between Satoru's hospitalization and now to talk about, yet Satoru still felt the strain in his chest when memories from his non-existent high school experience would come up in his mind. Moreso due to Hiromi never being present in any of them.)

They never discussed the events of 1988 though. As much as Satoru liked to think it was a beginning of a true decades-long friendship, it was also a very sensitive topic. No one wanted to make Satoru uncomfortable. (Of course it wouldn't hurt him, he'd actually kinda like to talk about it, sometimes he felt like bursting with how much he wanted to talk about it.)

Every three months or so Satoru got his remedy. A balsam to his soul. An occasion which allowed to reunite with the people who were there, who knew what he'd been through, who proved his existence worthy. (The voice inside of him that hissed: they weren't there, they don't know anything, they haven't seen the real picture, was promptly curbed each time.)

Hearing about Sugita family, about Mirai, about Hiromi, Kayo and their newborn, made Satoru's days full of people who didn't know the real him, seem a bit more bearable. (The real me, that voice would murmur breathlessly, longingly.)

Urging Kenya to finally settle with Misato — who was a prosecutor and has met up with Kenya quite a few times — hearing him bashfully dismiss it, gave Satoru an illusion that there was still something beautiful to look forward to, that these aimless days weren't the end of it.

~

On an evening when the horizon was colored like honey and peaches, Satoru walked, a bit tipsy, towards another future where he existed.

There were some things worthy of looking forward to, like coming home to see Airi again — he knew she'd be there, even though they hadn't agreed on meeting up — spending a calm time watching a late night TV show with her, her comments and the show's host and the audience's laughter the only sounds hectic enough to keep him awake; fooling around under covers with her when it's dark enough (only when it's dark, never when their faces are visible) then dozing off, her presence gone fast in the morning because of her desire to capture Venus in the inky purple sky. You know — the little things.

Knowing ahead of what's to come, as if he really could see the future, he plodded along, his gait neither brisk nor bouncy. Perhaps the few shots of saké he downed earlier and the Indian summer were responsible for the shuffle of his feet, the heat in his cheeks and the shortness of breath. Perhaps he felt a lack of oxygen, perhaps that was the cause of that unbearable swell in his chest, perhaps he wanted to cool off and take a breather. Satoru stopped abruptly at a convenience store entrance, the one that he passed every day on his way home, and turned on his heels to face it. He felt compelled to go in, unnaturally so, and he did, but not before looking behind his shoulder — no one was there on the pavement behind him. He was not being followed. The automatic doors slid open with a jovial sound.

"Welcome," muttered a bored clerk. It took a second for the AC to freshen Satoru up. Not only that — the environment pulled him out of a haze. Walking in, he had no intention to purchase anything whatsoever, yet in an instant he knew exactly what he wanted, so he headed straight toward the most familiar aisle — the bento fridge in particular. He used to buy these meals every day sometime ago. Now there was no need to — Airi enjoyed cooking for him. As much as he loved homemade meals, a part of him (that one misplaced and tilted part) still missed the processed taste.

Scratching his cheek, Satoru picked up a single okaka onigiri and went to the cash register. Just this once, he convinced himself. Just this once he'd violate the rule he'd encased himself in. For better or worse, he would let himself remember the old times.

When he approached the counter, something sitting atop it caught his eye. A cardboard stand displayed a variety of colorful lollipops — red, green, yellow, orange, pink and purple; shaped like hearts, stars, animal heads or plain flat circles — semitransparent like stained glass, and so, so familiar.

Satoru stared and before the sentence fully formed in his head he blurted: "Can I take all of these?"

The clerk looked at Satoru and his single onigiri, then at the suckers, then back at Satoru. Perhaps he thought him funny, yet still he grabbed a handful of sticks and started counting.

In a slightly ragged, forceful motion Satoru unzipped his shoulder bag. He reached past a sketchbook which he carried around for practicing (he haven't touched it for a while) and retrieved his wallet.

He soon discovered that he was definitely short on coins. Satoru glanced at the clerk, who patiently counted all the lollies, and couldn't bring himself to tell him that he changed his mind.

The clerk almost rolled his eyes after getting a five thousand banknote and opened the cash register to get the change. Satoru began to stuff his bag full of lollipops, regret for the abrupt purchase building up inside.

He received three one thousand yen bills and some coins. As he was about to put them into his wallet, one bill in particular stood out for it's strange color. Satoru flinched when he felt its slightly crusty texture on his fingers. His gut sank when he saw Noguchi Hideyo's printed face colored in dark crimson.

...It surely must have been irony. An ironic twist of fate to get something like this back for a bunch of candies, tokens associated with one of the worst people to have been born in the Shōwa era.

Satoru put other change in his wallet, but pocketed the off color bill. He ate the onigiri on his way home, thinking that the ominous banknote and the sweets should stay a secret.

~

Without any doubt, at a certain point and time Satoru had fully become an "adult" — both in the minds of others and in his own, and yet, paradoxically, for the first time ever he had discovered something that most people knew by the time they were toddlers.

Sugar was addicting.

Perhaps it had to do with the way Sachiko had raised him — although she pampered him, she in no way endorsed a voracious consumption of sweets, opting to spoil him with "things" instead, like those McGregor gloves that he always begged for, or Wonder Guy merchandise: figurines, utensils, you name it. Sugar wasn't absent from Satoru's childhood, but it was more of a "treat for a special occasion" rather than a consistency.

As such, he hadn't developed a dependency on it growing up. He preferred his drinks unsweetened and when it came to confectionery, something more plain in taste, like almonds coated in dark chocolate.

That had changed ever since he started binge buying lollipops.

It was an impulse. Each and every time. Each and every time he walked into convenience stores, he promised himself he wouldn't make imprudent purchases; each and every time he had a bunch of candies shoved in his bag.

So he started eating them. First on his way home from work. Never at home, never in front of Airi. He didn't want her to question it, or rather — he didn't want to have to answer, should he be questioned. Before it turned into an addiction he considered it to be something trivial, something not even worth fussing over.

Predictably, consuming them only on his way home was not enough. At some point he had ended up possessing a surplus of suckers — he would consider giving them away to some kids if he weren't so disgusted at the mental image of doing so — clearly, he should've thrown them away. But how could he? After all, they were so... Tempting.

It wasn't even their taste that Satoru liked the most. It was the feeling of hard candy against his tongue. Something swelling his cheek, mellowing it, melting in his mouth, his saliva pooling... Being aware of it. His oral cavity, as well as his mind, both occupied. A preventive measure against intrusive thoughts.

Eventually he started sucking on lollipops while at work. His assistants didn't question nor mind it, in fact they gladly accepted whenever Satoru generously offered handfuls of candies on sticks.

Which led to another discovery, moreso a reminder. People liked small treats.

He recalled those instances in his childhood, when one kid would pull out a pack of gum and suddenly get surrounded by his peers, all begging for their share. That kid, if only for a little while, gained some semblance of common "control".

The same trick worked on adults just as well. Satoru started casually offering candies to his co-workers, to his editor and his co-workers, to fellow manga authors and their assistants, to fans that managed to recognize him out on the streets, even to the people who remembered him only as "miracle man-child SF-kun". Any acquaintance and friend who had not been involved in the 1988 case, was entitled to their share of candy.

It's not hard to understand what Satoru got addicted to. Somewhere along the line, others' smiles and little whispers he'd heard (imagined?) behind his back — what a nice guy! — became far more tempting than the sugary taste and the smooth texture of his lollipops.

That could've been it. If the happiness of his closest people couldn't fill him all the way, then maybe, spreading such simplistic joy could.

That was until the day he met Kumi-chan.

They ran into each other completely randomly. She was 21 — a young thriving university student, all smiley and curious like a cat. Her long beautiful light hair was proof enough of her well-being, but Satoru had asked her anyway, out of courtesy — they haven't kept in touch for years.

"The only fatigue I experience nowadays is from schoolwork," she replied. "But I'm the happiest I've ever been!" that, of course, she was. "I've read your manga, Satoru-san! It's amazing!"

A bashful smile and a wave of his palm — a gesture he perfected after years of those same exact words regurgitated by every single distant friend or close acquaintance.

In the midst of a rainy season, dark cumulonimbus was gathering in the sky. Miraculously, they happened to come across each other during their free time. If this wasn't fate, then what was it?

They went on a little trip down the memory lane in the nearest café. Kumi-chan told all about her life leading up to this point, and Satoru gladly followed suit. They looked so perfect in that moment: Kumi playing with the straw of her beverage, riant and ripe, laughing at little titbits of Satoru's story as he flourished his arms for visual clarity; they looked like a pair of really close friends despite their prolonged separation from one another, and Kumi definitely thought of Satoru as a "friend she could respect".

Satoru's order was a small cappuccino in which he poured four small packs of sugar, and by the time he was done drinking it, he found himself craving the savory taste of pizza.

As they were about to wrap up, the rain began to pitter patter against the outside of the bay window.

"Ah," Satoru gasped. "I don't have my umbrella."

"No worries!" Kumi reassured. "We can walk under mine."

And so they did. Their shoulders kept bumping into one another as downpour rapped against her magenta umbrella, they laughed, and the walk towards the closest convenience store seemed eternal.

"Here we are!" Kumi said after Satoru hid from the rain near the entrance. Drops of water were sliding off the sleek umbrella surface. "What a shower! Well, I'll be going this way. It was nice to catch up, Satoru-san."

Satoru had a mischievous thought just then. "Please, Kumi-chan, just call me 'Satoru'. We're technically coevals, aren't we?"

"Oh yeah, you're actually right!" she said.

"I'm glad we met today. Let's go out again sometime, yeah?"

"Sure thing. Until then, Satoru-sa— I mean, Satoru!"

Reflexly, Satoru reached inside his bag and fished out a lollipop. "Here, have a candy, Kumi."

It's then when her smile froze on her face. She looked at Satoru's extended hand with such weird eyes, expression unchanged, but losing in sincerity in some way. "Ah— Thanks!..." she took the lolly and Satoru noticed the tremble in her fingers. That's when his face fell as well. "Well, goodbye," Kumi said as she turned around and began leaving in a fast pace.

Satoru stood there looking at her back and her flowy fair hair, at her tense shoulders and the tight grip she now had on her umbrella handle. He turned around as well and entered into the doors that opened for him.

"Welcome!" said an overly eager convenience store clerk.

The rack with clear plastic umbrellas was right there, near the entrance. Satoru eyed it and then glanced at the counter top where the cash register was. They were there. Waiting for him. Calling him. Tempting him. Satoru felt sick to his stomach.

He left the store just like that, without buying anything. Chilly rain drops hit him instantly, soaking his shirt through, spattering his glasses. He walked fast through the torrent, realization of what he'd done sinking in and tearing his insides apart.

It'd completely, stupidly slipped Satoru's mind, but she knew him. Kumi-chan knew that man, the man whom she trusted, the man who attempted to kill her, the man who casually gave her lollipops.

Satoru knew that blank, frozen, confused expression. It was the same expression that he saw on his own face, reflected in the window of his attempted murderer's car.

Without realizing it, with his careless gesture, Satoru had reminded her, had triggered a memory that should've stayed buried and forgotten.

No, not just that. For the first time he was faced with the truth — something that he always knew but chose to ignore — that he himself had become the man who offered candies on sticks.

Under merciless deluge of rain, he dumped the contents of his bag into a muddy ditch. Alongside the pile of lollipops, his umbrella which he had concealed from Kumi, fell out.

That very same day, when it was already dark out, he came home carrying a square flat box.

"I'm back," Satoru called out.

"Welcome!" he heard his girlfriend's voice reply from within his apartment. "O-o-oh, what's that smell?"

He placed the box next to the laptop on which Airi was editing her photos.

"You brought pizza!" she sounded excited, but kept her eyes on the screen as she removed noise from a snapshot of a cumulonimbus. "What's the occasion?"

"I just wanted to treat you," he said. "Remember how we used to—" he cut off.

"Used to what?"

"Nevermind," he said and went to wash his hands in the restroom.

When he came back, Airi closed the photo editing software, pushed the laptop away and leered at the pizza box. "Oh! It's Oasi Pizza! I used to work there part-time in high school, did I ever tell you?" she opened the box, releasing the warm steam and the mouthwatering smell. "Pepperoni and veggies! It's my favorite!"

She turned to face Satoru, and her hand flew up to her mouth. "Satoru! Oh my god! What happened to you?"

He looked down at himself, at his slightly damp and sully clothes. "Oh, that? I was caught in the rain. Nothing to worry about. I'll go change—"

"I'll get the bath ready!" she sprung up and ran towards the bathroom. "Jeez, Satoru! Why didn't you go home right away? You'll get sick!" she yelled at him from over there. "And did you buy pizza while looking like this?"

While she was busy, Satoru swiped a pizza slice and stuffed it in his face.

She came back into the room. "With the way you're wolfing it down, I'm surprised you didn't eat it on the way over here!"

Satoru smiled sheepishly. He never thought he missed that line.

Airi sat by his side, took a slice and bit it. She kept scolding him in a caring way even as she chewed.

"...but still, thanks for buying this pizza. I kinda missed it," she admitted.

The mood shifted as she began telling anecdotes from her part-time job, eating slice after slice. The distant sound of the bathtub filling up, her voice and the scent of pizza. Satoru took in every detail.

He leaned on his cheek, watching her munch eagerly, observed her elated expression, her carefree body language, her energy and vigor. He compared all of her features to that of Kumi's earlier today, and imagined a world where Kumi didn't give him that look, where she didn't rencounter Satoru in the first place, where she remained as content and optimistic as Airi was now.

But that reality couldn't be wished into existence. For the first time, Satoru's perfect, "true" timeline had gained a single thin fissure.

~

Chapter Text

On one particular day, Satoru got off of work early, and was surprised to not see Airi's loafers at the entrance of his apartment. He walked around his place like he didn't belong there — it seemed so empty without her presence.

As he munched on some leftover rice, it got him thinking — to have achieved such level of habitude, was this what married life really felt like? Satoru and Airi weren't even close to such a concept (despite Sachiko's monthly calls of courtesy and friendly reminders that a grandchild is the best kind of present she could have), yet the routine they'd adapted to resembled something out of those domestic stories he heard many times.

Airi liked to cook. Despite her usual approaches to tasks at hand, experimenting with food was not her forte — she always followed recipes to a T, providing Satoru stably with most nutritious meals (that, suspiciously enough, resembled his mother's cooking strongly). She also never slacked off when it came to cleaning up, keeping Satoru's apartment neat and comfy at all times. That was to say, she'd also cluttered the place with trinkets, pillows and memorable things and such, so it's not like he could get away with treating his house like a bachelor's shack of sorts. It all felt reasonably familial.

So much so, that coming back home and not seeing her felt downright surreal.

But being home alone like that also meant he could actually do whatever he wanted. On his own. Without Airi. That thought shouldn't have been as liberating as it was.

So, in an effort to "go wild", he couldn't come up with anything better than sprawling in front of a TV, beer can (a frivolous unnecessity they had in store) in one hand and his brand new smartphone he purchased for himself this year in the other. Because trying to pass free time aimlessly much like his mother used to (at least in the life where he got to be teenaged) was not a crime — though it sure did feel like it.

Satoru attempted to get comfortable. This position, that position, a few of those pretty pillows to cushion him — he could get away with it — then click-clicking the remote to find a suitable program. That's lame, this sucks. The TV was only annoying him. He turned it off. But now it felt inappropriate to drink beer. He returned the unopened can to the fridge and went back to his spot. He thumbed with his phone. He still couldn't figure out how to operate it swiftly — was too used to the classic flip phone. Airi always teased him, called him an old man. He took her pillows and threw them into the corner of the room.

Satoru laid on bare floor like this, staring into the phone's screen, squinting, when suddenly it slipped from his hand, smacking his face with its wideness. He almost threw it to where the pillows were as well.

Satoru stared at the ceiling instead. All he could hear was silence, his mind devoid of unnecessary words or images. It suddenly clicked. This was what he needed. He briefly recalled the time when he used to lay down just like this, only on his futon which he never bothered to put away, with his hands behind his head, staring up and engulfed only by his thoughts.

He mimicked that exact pose. At last, the tension retreated. Because that's what it was about — not "going wild" or doing something out of the ordinary, but the exact opposite — to return to that far away "ordinary", to that life before Airi, before any of this. If only for a brief moment.

Strange, he thought. A long time ago, in a life that consisted mostly of solitude and unrealized manga ideas, he considered moments like these as being his lowest — musing, pondering, regretting and reflexing, yet he'd never discerned the comfort that they granted him. Being truly on his own. He, himself and him.

It was barely an occurrence in this life. Even before Airi had moved in, he would sketch in his spare time, always pushing himself to reach pinnacles, too afraid to let time go to waste. That did admittedly get him ahead in life. Yet truthfully, he missed such simple tranquility.

He heard the front door's lock turning, the door opening, a girl entering. If he closed his eyes now, he could fake being asleep. Airi would put out the lights and slide the door closed. She would give him space. And in the space he would stay.

He got up.

"Satoru? You're already back!" she leaped at him and embraced him, like she was so happy to see him. "I went out to take pictures! The clear evening sky is marvelous today, pale blue turning into violet, orange in between, did you see it?"

"No I didn't," he told her.

"Look at these pics," she showed him some on her digital camera. He nodded and she scrolled through them.

"They're beautiful," he told her.

Then he sat on the floor in front of the low table and listened to her chatter as she still fiddled with her camera, knowing full well that she'd start cooking dinner as soon as she finished chewing the fat.

"Oh no. Do you see that?" She showed him one of the pictures.

"The sky?"

"No, no, that spot! The white spot jumping all over the place. Ah! It moved now."

"I don't see anything."

She rubbed at her eyes. "A-a-ah, I hate it when that happens. It's like an optic illusion, every time I try to look at the spot, it jumps to a different place. And I can't tell if it's the camera or me! Can't even look at it directly to tell if the photo is botched or not! Didn't that ever happen to you?"

"No..." he cast his eyes away. He definitely never experienced anything of the sorts.

~

A very good thing about this timeline was that everyone had become what they aspired to be.

Kenya was a lawyer like his father, Kayo was a loving mother unlike her own, Hiromi was a doctor, Sawada-san has caught the culprit and so on and so forth — everyone seemed to achieve a certain level of "happiness".

That included Airi, who had fulfilled her dream of becoming a photographer.

Her pictures, while strange in nature, had gained a following, especially ever since Airi started becoming internet popular.

Eventually her work had been recognized — her pictures were posted in a popular photo magazine, soon enough her name and her brand became known in some photographer circles Satoru knew nothing about; things couldn't go better for her.

Satoru was truly glad. Yet in contrast, his own career year after year seemed to falter. His latest manga was not greenlit for the anime adaptation.

"I don't understand these ratings!" Airi grumbled once, holding up a Shounen Flight issue above her head. "When I read your manga, I love every page of it! Why don't others see your subtle genius?"

Satoru knew it was either her lack of understanding of the manga world, or her feelings for him that clouded her perception, but even he could see the reduced quality of his own drawings. The cliché of his storyline. The blandness of his characters.

"It's my own fault. At first I'd reacted angrily too, you know, and now there's no going back seeing the direction I've progressed this story to," Satoru replied as he peeled a tangerine.

At that, Airi recoiled. "'At first'? So you knew about the ratings?"

"That's right."

At Satoru's apartment while nestled under a kotatsu, Airi pushed upwards on her elbows. "How long has this been going on?! Why didn't you tell me earlier?"

"Ah," Satoru scratched the back of his neck and averted his eyes sheepishly. "I didn't want you to get upset. The first time I received a complaint from my editor was... about two years ago?"

To Airi, that revelation was mind-boggling. Of course, since she was busy building up her own success, she couldn't have possibly taken notice of Satoru's manga situation. Satoru didn't blame her. The only one to blame was him, really.

Yet, Airi decided to take action. (Like she does.) So one thing after the other — she started "training" Satoru to get better at his manga.

He accepted the little game of hers despite not taking it seriously. Since then, he'd drawn Airi daily. It was handy, since the manga's female lead was based off of her both personality and appearance wise.

In his first manga, "main girl" was more of a reserved and aloof type of character, obviously based on Kayo. For this one he'd wanted a cheerful and inspiring character. It all went downhill, but not because of her, of course not.

It was just... him. Him, whose face could not be seen, couldn't possibly portray anything properly.

With the everyday task of picturing Airi doing just about anything, Satoru attempted to return his skill to form. It's not that there was a decline in anatomy or perspective. They were fine sketches, Airi praised each of her portrait, unwaveringly saying that Satoru was improving.

However, as a photographer, Airi's duty has always been to capture "a perfect static image". Her eyes just couldn't see the fact that Satoru's drawings weren't moving. Characters' poses, their placement, their design — they became carbon copies of each other, losing in movement and finesse. There were times when instead of drawing, he would fill the page with speech bubbles, just so the excessive exchanges could hide that flaw.

Beside that, another problem had become apparent after he started "training". Satoru couldn't properly imagine various facial expressions of his characters. Frequently, he had left the faces of his characters blank and relied on his assistants to fix them, actually. Same deal went down when he was picturing Airi — the best he got was when he managed to draw a nose and one eye. The rest of her expression was somewhat jumbled, incorrect, so he erased it.

Yet ultimately, the most critical blow to his manga was its plot. To quote a critique he read up online: "It has a good premise but a bland execution." Or another, less professional but no less hurtful: "boring progression and lame plot, reading this is a hassle, would not recommend". Satoru didn't have his manga planned ahead — he had a rough outline of the events, and built his plot around that skeleton of an idea. It worked out the first time. But now something was... lost.

The characters reduced to caricatures of themselves. Satoru didn't have a clue what kind of ending he would come up with, but he was hoping a cheap dramatic turn could spice it up. For some unfathomable reason, it felt right to let it end on a bitter note. It just did.

But Airi decided to fix that too. She suggested some prompts for Satoru to "flesh out" his characters. She basically offered him to come up with short stories surrounding them participating in certain events. Things like "what would happen if they got locked in a room with no way out". Silly stuff.

One of the prompts Airi suggested was as follows: "what if the characters were people in the real world". The answer to that was plain and simple — the main character would be Satoru, and the lead girl Aria (yes, very original), would be Airi.

When Satoru wrapped his head around it, it was like an abrupt flash of a camera in his face — he understood the problem of his manga immediately. He based his characters on real people, and since Satoru had no idea what exactly was happening to their real selves, he had difficulties with the manga as well.

From Satoru's point of view one thing became clear — if Aria had been real, she would've abandoned the main character for good and moved on with her life. What he would do was a tougher question.

His attention shifted to his real self — what was he doing with this life? What would he do as it progressed? Where would he go? What would he accomplish? Manga was his life, and since his most recent work would barely pay off, what else was there left?

Satoru had lost the grip on what he was best at. He was meeting a dead end — a "game over", so to speak, — something was missing, and he didn't want to admit what it was. Yet he had to come up with some way out. He contemplated several things and before long, one piquing thought had prodded against him (and left marks).

"What if I were to experience a Revival again?"

First off, it would have been pretty annoying, since he'd lived in a world without a single revival for nearly 30 years. To him the amount seemed less due to the time spent in a comatose state, but still. It was a long stretch. One leap backwards was capable of destroying the whole progress that he worked so hard for. It would obliterate everyone else's achievements as well.

So initially he toyed with the idea of a small revival. One that would help him fix a few faults. He thought about returning to the day of his meeting with Kumi-chan — he desired to undo the fatal mistake that led to her never calling him back. Or maybe, just a bit further, back to that day when it became clear that his manga was going astray. How would he change it up? Would he make sure to meet Airi for their anniversary?

Then he thought, what if he returned to the year 2012, to the day before that February event took place? He was treading dangerous territory with that thought. It meant that he was ready to face him again. But maybe, in that case, Satoru would be able to manipulate his questions more precisely. Know more things about him. Simply out of morbid curiosity, is all.

What if he came back to the time when the apparition was still around?

Now that was definitely a bad thought. He shouldn't have, couldn't have — he mustn't have even considered such things.

But he wasn't serious about this, was he? He was just playing around with such concepts. Not real regrets — just excuses that come and go.

Satoru's thoughts had abandoned his manga completely.

The lid of the jar in which he sealed his memories was furtively cracked open.

~

Pop! The cork made that brusque sound upon its release from the bottle. The sparkling liquid gushed out straight into the three flute-glasses.

Ding! The glasses made a gentle clinking sound upon collision.

"Congrats!" said Satoru's assistants in unison. In the almost emptied office, they celebrated the release of the final issue of Satoru's manga. Incidentally, they were also packing things up.

"Thank you for your hard work," said Satoru, dowing the sour drink so that he wouldn't have to taste it for too long.

"Thank you, Fujinuma-sensei! It's been a pleasure working with you."

They ate bitter chocolate truffles from a box that Satoru brought along with the champagne. They recalled all sorts of ups and downs: that incident when Satoru accidentally inked the reverse side of the manuscript, that August day when the AC broke and they had to work in heat for five hours until the repairman managed to fix it, that time when they thought they wouldn't finish a chapter before deadline — and when miraculously they did, or Satoru's brief sweet tooth period which had gone as abruptly as it had come.

"I'm going to miss those candies more than anything," said one of his assistants. "...Just kidding. Thank you for letting us learn from you, Fujinuma-sensei."

Gratitude, what a perennial resource it was. So unlike the fizzy fluid or the powdered confectionery, depletion of which marked the moment of their parting. Through the entryway, both auxiliaries looked back at their sensei with eyes that were full of promise — one of them was going to work for another famous mangaka, the other was ready to become a mangaka himself.

Parting ways was never easy. Seeing the office like it was now, emptied desks and shelves, remembering the better days he spent here with his team, creating something which he felt passionate about... All alone at his disheveled workplace, sitting atop one of the desks, bottleneck in hand, Satoru cried softly.

After having left his office for the last time ever, he went for a walk.

There was an implicit consolation in that. Truth to be told, Satoru loved this city as much as he loved his hometown. Its multifarious buildings and narrow alleys, the lilt of traffic lights and rumble of passing trains, the smell of asphalt and exhaust fumes twinning with organic scents of cherry blossom and grass, but not without a tang of salt brought in by the sea breeze.

Though Satoru was not intoxicated in the slightest — simply floaty — he could not help a leaden footfall. He gave in, and detoured from his regular route. His legs brought him to the predestined place once more. It couldn't have been anywhere but under the bridge where he took shelter with Airi a long time ago.

He sat on his usual spot and breathed in that slight, damp, earthy petrichor, the smell of wet concrete, the indescribable and elusive under-the-bridge scent that, seemingly, only Satoru came back to.

An amalgam of graffiti on the wall across Satoru suggested otherwise. He noticed the few additions that weren't here the last time. He wondered who the people that marked the walls were, wondered if it was about time for him to leave a mark of his own.

"To leave a mark". Deep down, that was what everyone wanted to do in life, wasn't it? If that really was the case, then... why wasn't Satoru satisfied? The marks he left... Not his manga, but those infinitely more important marks, weren't they enough to keep him complacent?

The oddity... Look for the oddity... Satoru made a frame out of fingers and looked through. Not this, and not that — as he scanned the scenery. Maybe here? He was focused on his bag and noticed that a single sakura petal has landed on it. It must've happened when he passed by the trees. It fluttered by and...

A memory flashed in his mind. A few of them actually, in each an every he perceived a faint fluttering and caught a glimpse of something that looked like...

The oddity...!

Quickly, before the thought was lost on him, he grabbed a sketchbook and a pen from his bag.

Click! The tip of the pen appeared from its bottom and Satoru began writing down something hastily. If ... meant that ... then ... in which case  ...

He had to write everything down before the thoughts slipped away. Before his mind, which he inadvertently trained to block such contemplation, succeeded in doing so.

Satoru finished and looked at what was written with a contented grin. Another piece was added to the puzzle. He was close, real close. He almost had it figured out. If he could conjure up a few more memories...

Satoru snapped the notebook shut. Either way, its contents were a "what-if" scenario. Merely an entertainment, something thought-provoking, a challenge of sorts.

...it's not like he was actually indenting to trigger a Revival.

~

Satoru was seated behind his desk, on which writing utensils and an abundance of similar-looking Sakuruman sketchbooks were piled up. He was leafing through one of them in what appeared to be deep contemplation, when Airi gingerly opened the door behind him, distracting Satoru from his thoughts.

"Satoru? Can we talk?" she asked in a hushed voice, sounding almost conspiratorial.

He closed the notebook briskly and turned around. "Yeah, what is it?"

"Let's talk at the table, please."

Wondering what caused Airi to act this way, Satoru got up and followed her to the kitchen. They settled behind the table across each other.

"What's this about?" questioned Satoru, a bit intimidated. The list of things that Airi would deem serious enough for a kitchen table discussion was incredibly small, Satoru was getting more alarmed the longer he had to guess.

She cleared her throat and smiled sheepishly, looking down at her hands. "So, Satoru. Do you remember, a while ago, when I told you that I wanted to go on a trip someday?"

Satoru breathed out. This wasn't as drastic of a topic as he'd imagined. "Yeah?" he said. Vaguely he recalled a conversation like that taking place sometime in the past.

"So-o-o!" she clapped her hands together. "Now that you're temporally out of work, I've decided that it's a perfect opportunity for us to finally do it!" she looked up into his eyes, hopeful and excited.

"Us? You mean, the both of us?"

"Yeah! I mean, the timing is perfect now. You need inspiration, a change of scenery would surely get your gears going, and I desperately want that scenery in order to capture new unique snapshots... It'll be good for us!"

Satoru scratched the back of his head. "I don't know..."

"Come on, don't be like that," pouted Airi. She reached for his hand that was on the table and grasped it, giving him a puppy-eyed look.

But that trick wasn't enough to melt Satoru's heart. "Where exactly do you want to travel?" he inquired.

She grinned. "I want to go to every. Single. Prefecture!"

Satoru gawked at her. "What?"

"Look, I have it all planned out!" she suddenly pulled out the laptop from beneath the table and opened it to reveal a map of Japan with a red route line crossing its entirety. "I've been working on this for a while now, and I think I've found a balanced route!"

She began to explain as Satoru's unbelieving eyes gazed upon her work. He was surprised he didn't hear about this sooner, given how much thought and effort Airi put into it.

"And then— Okinawa, now, I know what you're thinking, but we can't not visit Okinawa, so here is how—"

"Airi, Airi, wait just a second," cut her off Satoru. "You do realize that this is going to take at least a whole year?"

She didn't miss a beat. "Of course. That's what I meant when I said I wanted to go on a huge trip."

"Okay... So when exactly do you plan to go?"

"The sooner the better, Satoru. We'll be going south first, and the thing is, I really want us to visit Hokkaido in March, when there's still snow out so that I get to see your hometown in its most authentic form, and it's a good opportunity to spend your birthday together with Sachiko-san..."

Satoru sat all the way back and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Airi..."

"We have only about nine months 'till next March so we'd better start packing soon! We'll be going sightseeing a lot, and we've gotta try local foods, and, I'm not sure if we should go hiking? Do you think we'd be wasting too much time? I mean, I don't wanna miss out on anything..."

"Airi, stop."

She paused with her month parted open. Upon noticing Satoru's posture, her own expression fell. "What? What's wrong?"

"This is... A lot to take in," Satoru said.

"I know that," Airi sighed and reached for his hand again. "But it's not that scary. I have it all planned out, it'll be worth it! I promise."

"No," Satoru slipped his hand out of hers. "Airi, listen, I— I don't think it would be very wise of me to spend what little I have left in my savings on a trip like this."

She frowned at him. "What are you saying right now? I'll be paying for the whole trip."

"No, Airi, I can't—"

"Can't what? It was my idea and I'm taking you along with me, so of course I should be the one paying."

"Look, I don't want to be mooching off of you..."

She threw her hands up. "Mooching? So what, me living in this apartment with you for what, like, three or four years without paying, was also mooching? Well, consider this payback, then!"

"Airi, what are you saying—“

"What are you saying?!" she folded her arms and looked away. "If you don't wanna go, then just say so."

Satoru balled his fists. "Fine. I don't want to go," he said.

She scowled and drummed her arm with her fingers. "I know. You'd rather be staying holed up in your room like you have been ever since you quit your job."

"I've not been staying 'holed up' in my room! I go for walks every single day. And I didn't quit manga, I just need some time."

"Well, it's too bad that you'd rather waste all your time imprisoned in this city that's smothering you."

"Wouldn't you know what it's like to be smothering me," Satoru said through his teeth, immediately regretting those words.

Airi shot a look at him that was both appalled and outraged, but kept her mouth closed.

Satoru got up. "I'm going out," he said, simply, and went back to the room to pick up the sketchbook that he left on the desk. He stuffed it in his bag and went to the corridor, not having a glance at Airi as he went past her. He put his shoes on and left the apartment.

Satoru walked without looking, not even knowing where he's headed. He passed by a convenience store, turning away from its bright lights. He went into an alley, wishing to escape the city's noise. He walked until he stumbled upon a bench in a quiet area surrounded by trees.

Descending onto the wooden seat of the bench, Satoru felt defeated. He shouldn't have lashed out, he knew it. Airi was always like this, coming up with some grand scheme out of the blue, or, more accurately, carefully constructing a scheme just for the sake of making a huge reveal at the last minute. But it wasn't even the prospect of a time consuming trip itself that set Satoru off-kilter. Something about her words: "I really want us to visit Hokkaido in March", had him instantly frozen up.

Even now, just thinking about it sent chills all over his body (or was that due to the wind that hit Satoru's skin and made leaves rustle loudly above his head?).

The worst part, was that it weren't the bad memories that had him steer clear of his hometown. (The leaves above were whispering like they knew.)

Satoru's cold fingers digged into his bag. And again, he knew he shouldn't have indulged his past-dwelling thoughts, but he opened up the crumpled-paged notebook all the same.

The wind swished and all the pages flipped through in front of Satoru's eyes. There were no writings on the inside. Only sketches of Airi.

Satoru was running back home in an instant. Blood rushing through his veins, he was heating up in fear of Airi discovering the forbidden rationalizations, convictions and plots.

He calmed a little when the apartment complex came into view. He slowed down, regaining his breath as he convinced himself that Airi had no reason to check through his sketchbooks. He had an apology prepared, and although he still didn't feel mad about that trip idea of hers, he would be willing to let her lead the way. (Like he does.)

He came inside without announcing that he was home, because the prepared words were ready to slip off his tongue. When he entered the kitchen, those words fell apart, as did Satoru's world.

Airi was there, at the table, the exact sketchbook that he wanted to hide from her in her hands, her eyes moving up and down as she read its contents.

She stopped when she saw Satoru's shadow and looked at him instead, gaze glazed over.

"Satoru..." she spoke, "what's this?"

Voice above a whisper but below her usual volume. Satoru never imagined she was capable of talking with an intonation that sounded that close to disgust.

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out, only a short gasp, a beginning of a word he didn't know, an explanation he couldn't offer. He tried again, and this time, a lie came out: "Just my... my manga ideas."

Her eyes looked down at the words again, and the force that had Satoru rooted to the floor untangled from his feet, he made several long steps and reached to snatch the notepad, but Airi brought it to her chest and squeezed it with her arms.

"'Manga ideas'? Really?"

"Give it back, please."

"Now let me clear this up, then, are you creating a manga about your real life experiences?"

"No. Just give me back my notebook, please."

"No? Then how do you explain the names? Kayo-san's, Kobayashi-san's—"

"Give me back my goddamn book please!" he yelled; he shouldn't have; he didn't care.

Airi let the sketchbook go, a trace of fear behind her eyes, which faded instantly and her brows knit.

Satoru seized his possession and forced it inside of his shoulder bag. Airi stood up and stared up at Satoru angrily. When he stopped struggling with the bag, Satoru looked her in the eyes and felt faint for what he did.

"I'm... sorry for yelling."

Airi's lashes were fluttering but she had the meanest scowl that he'd ever seen her have.

"You know that I always believe you, Satoru." Her face puckered and she turned away. "No. I want to believe in you."

Satoru's heart clenched. A tragedy was unfolding, but whoever controlled the Revival wanted no part in it.

"I know for a fact, that Satoru which I know would never use his actual experiences to write a stupid story," Airi said, conviction turning into disappointment mid-sentence.

He had nothing to say. The only explanation he could come up with, was a lie, too, "they're placeholders," he blurted.

She quirked an eyebrow.

"The names. Everything. I couldn't come up with character names on the spot, so I used the names of those who I know." Satoru bit his lip.

Airi no longer looked at Satoru. She stared ahead somewhere, maybe at his chest, maybe right through it. Like she could finally see—

"Alright," she said, suddenly, head snapping up, hair falling in front of her eyes. "Then who's 'Yashiro'?"

In milliseconds, Satoru's eyes darkened. He never thought he'd hear Airi's sweet voice say those syllables. "Nobody," his reply was immediate, "the only name I made up."

Airi knew Satoru's attempted murderer only as "Nishizono Manabu". "Yashiro Gaku" was lost in time. That name was remembered only by those who knew him way back then, never uttered in present time, as if it were a curse.

Airi squinted, trying to read Satoru's face. He held back from gulping and at last, mustered enough courage to speak earnestly.

"Airi, I'm sorry. Can we please let this go? We'll go on a trip, I promise. I just—" he chocked up, "—I just want things to go back to how they used to be."

He held out his arms, not too widely, inviting Airi to hug him, if she wanted to. She gave him one last pitiful glance and descended onto the floor, opening the laptop once again. She closed the image with the route that she'd made, and opened her photo editing software. Satoru's hands fell down.

"I wish things could go back, too," Airi said. "I'm going to work, now. I don't have anything else to say."

Satoru swallowed thickly and retreated back to his room. He closed the door behind him and stood there, taking in everything that's happened.

He opened his half zipped bag and took the two sketchbooks out. He looked at the both of them, their covers exactly the same, but the one in which he'd been writing — a bit more tattered. Satoru threw the sketches of Airi back on the desk. He raised his other hand up, intending to send the notes across the room, but faltered.

Moisture gathered in his eyes. Satoru scrunched his face and shut his jaw tight, willing the tears to go away, while gripping the notebook close to his chest. He lowered on his knees, waiting until he has calmed down.

When Satoru opened his eyes, he had made up his mind. He crawled on all fours towards the drawer where he kept his supplies, and after rummaging through it, retrieved an ink brush.

Settling behind the desk, he opened the first page and began blacking out one certain name.

~

Airi became used to seeing Satoru's shoes at the entrance whenever she returned home. Their schedules seemed to have made a flip — now Satoru was the one staying in, while Airi dedicated herself to her beloved work.

On one particularly successful summer day (successful in terms of pictures, that is), such was also the case. Airi walked in without minding her boyfriend's shoes, without saying "I'm home", her thoughts filled with the relief that the AC was on, as outside had been excruciatingly hot.

Airi didn't call out to Satoru, she simply continued her routine, left her camera on the table, washed her hands, got out some snack (she didn't have time to cook anymore, and Satoru didn't volunteer) and went inside the adjacent room to pick up the laptop — she needed to sort out and edit the images.

Satoru was lying. On his futon, that is. He did that frequently as of late. His eyes were closed. Airi took the laptop and turned off the lights. She closed the door behind her.

...Satoru peeked open his eyes when she left. The curtains were drawn and only a thread-thin strip of light intruded into the room. It lit up the floating specks of dust right above Satoru's head.

His eyes slipped shut.

~

Noises of kitchenware clunking and loud sizzling had stirred him awake.

Airi's making breakfast, was the first thought that had crossed his mind.

What could she'd been cooking? Fried eggs by the sound of it, yet the faint smell reaching Satoru's room suggested it was something else. Beef?

That was weird, since Airi usually made toast for breakfast. He turned over, thinking about it, and then he was hit with a realization.

Airi doesn't come here anymore.

Satoru leaped from his futon in an instant. Airi left her set of keys to him. She couldn't have entered. He slid the door open particularly hard to startle the intruder.

...Not that he didn't already guess who it was.

The crackle of meat frying, the smell of miso soup and the simmering of rice. The nostalgic picture nudged away any discontent he had.

"Good morning, Satoru," his mother said without turning away from the stove.

"Don't tell me you had the key for all these years..."

"Why wouldn't I? I used to live here, you know."

Satoru shuffled past her to the restroom, yawning.

"It's 11 in the morning and you were asleep. I can't believe it, Satoru. Didn't you get enough of sleep in your life?" she said once he returned.

"Oi, don't joke about that. What did you make?"

"Hamburgers," Sachiko turned around, in her hands two plates of hot, scrumptious hamburger steaks with vegetables on the side.

"For breakfast?" Satoru asked but still eagerly settled on the floor behind his low table.

"I like to pamper you."

She set the plates on the table, as well as bowls of rice and miso soup. Her plate had only one hamburger. Satoru's had two.

"When did you buy everything? Actually, when did you arrive, anyway?" Satoru digged into his breakfast.

"I came over pretty early. I was surprised how neat your kitchen is, actually. You're pretty good at keeping house."

Ah, he got praised. Good thing she didn't see—

"...or you're just not using the kitchen at all. Now that Airi-chan's not here." Ouch. He'd forgotten all about her devilish insight in the years that he'd spent without her.

Sachiko was 62, yet she looked as youthful as always. Not a single wrinkle, though Satoru suspected she was exceptionally good at concealing her age with makeup.

Satoru finished his meal. "Thank you. It was really good." He got up and went to his room to get dressed for the day. He guessed sulking in wasn't an option for the time being.

"Satoru, don't you want to talk to me?"

"About what?" he asked from the depths of his dark room.

"You know what. About everything that's happened," her voice got closer, she stood in the doorframe now.

"Oh, that's, well—  Hey, I'm changing, you know."

She was entering the room. "Oh please, there's not a thing I haven't seen." She was reaching for the string on the ceiling lamp!

"Don't turn the lights on!" Satoru pleaded, but alas, it was too late. The room lit up and revealed a huge mess that Satoru had made during the past months of living all alone. Discarded food packaging, unwashed shirts and socks, magazines, mangas and books scattered here and there, all kinds of junk cluttering the space.

In the midst of it stood Satoru, one leg frozen bended as he was about to slide his pants on.

"Satoru!"

~

They ended up cleaning and decluttering his room together, after Sachiko had thoroughly lectured him.

He knew he shouldn't have let it get this bad, but... Things, like feelings, were only piling up, and eventually he stopped noticing their intrusive presence. It hardly mattered what his room looked like when the rest of his life was a greater mess.

Yet for the time being, he abstained from negative thoughts. Not when his mother was here. Besides, labor served as a good distraction.

After several hours of hard work, the room seemed more or less clean. Sachiko sorted the shelves, while Satoru gathered the last of plastic trash bags. He put them in the hallway to take them out later.

"Satoru?" he heard his mother call out.

"Yeah?"

"Can you explain me what this is?"

His heart sank. Not good, not good. Half a year ago he heard Airi say something similar to these words. That event probably was what eventually led them to grow apart in the first place. On that day Airi lost her trust in him.

But how could've Sachiko discovered it? He'd hidden the notebook well, though admittedly, he should've gotten rid of it for good.

He came back into the room and saw his mother, holding a single 1000 yen bill with two fingers, away from herself.

He breathed the pent up air out. "Oh, that. That's nothing."

"Why do you have something like this stored on your shelf like some kind of a trophy?!"

Satoru went out to the kitchen to get himself a glass of water. "Don't be ridiculous, it's not like that."

Sachiko followed him, still extending her arm as far as possible from her person. "Where did you get it?"

"It was given me as change a few years back."

"And you kept it? I'm throwing it out."

Satoru nearly choked on his water. "What? Why?"

"It's a bad omen! It could've been Yakuza money!"

Satoru rolled his eyes. "Mom!"

"No, I'm throwing it out."

She made a step towards the hallway door, but Satoru was quickly beside her, attempting to snatch the banknote. She dodged swiftly, yet his hand followed hers. "Stop it, Satoru!" She pulled her arm back several times in different directions, but he obstinately attempted to return it. The struggle continued until she pushed at him with her other hand. This made the glass of water, that he was still holding, to tip over slightly. A splash went directly on Sachiko's blouse. "Satoru!"

The distraction allowed Satoru to seize the bill from his mother's hands and hide it in his back pocket. The woman crossed her arms.

"Why the hell do you need it?"

Your question is not 'why' but 'what for', Satoru snarkily thought.

"That doesn't make any sense!"

Shit, he'd said it out loud.

"I don't see any reason to throw it out when I've held onto it for so long. It's like, one of a kind, you know!"

"Satoru..."

"And besides, what if I received it for a reason? What if one day I turn it up for a DNA test, and I don't know, figure out whose blood this is? What if that helps solve a crime from many years ago?"

"What if it's the cause of your misfortune?"

Satoru scoffed. "Please. I've been through worse." He looked his mother in the eyes. "I didn't have a million of bloodied yen bills stored in a bank 28 years ago, by chance, did I?"

She sighed. Reached for her bag on the floor. Then pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "Let's talk."

~

It wasn't a breakup, he told his mom. It was simply, a "break". A pause, which Satoru and Airi mutually agreed on.

Though the "reason" for such a break had officially been that lengthy trip along Japan that Airi took in order to take her photos, Satoru and Airi's relationship had become strained long before then.

He still cared about Airi, he wished the best for her and wanted her to be happy. But no matter how much he convinced himself that they were still in love, the distance between them only grew. Satoru couldn't figure out why their daily life had become so— so bothersome.

"When I say words, it feels like they become real once they leave my lips," was something Airi liked to say. That's why Satoru didn't dare voicing his true emotions.

That's why, Airi never told him that she knew all along.

"It happens, Satoru. People drift apart. You've never experienced heartbreak before, of course you wouldn't know that it's normal," Sachiko said, voice heavy as if partly she blamed herself for never telling him before.

He wanted to assure her that it wasn't the case. That he indeed have experienced heartbreak, the worst kind of all. But such things could not be revealed, not even to her.

Instead he talked about his manga. How he lost his grip on that, too. How his latest volumes didn't sell too good, because readers must've seen the shift in quality upon reading his chapters in Shounen Flight.

How the ending didn't satisfy the audience — they wanted the main character to get together with the main girl. They wanted a more satisfying defeat for the villain. They didn't like the deus ex machina cliché that ensured the main character's survival.

Urata-san hadn't been resentful. He told Satoru to take it easy, to gather his old vigor back together. He must've seen right through him, Satoru admitted bitterly.

Sachiko reassured him: "Not everyone gets ahead in their doings quite like you did. You were very lucky to get all the public attention back when your first manga debuted. You consider your second work a 'failure' simply because you've never experienced a worse one. You're doing well."

To which Satoru wanted to reply: "No, mother, I've been at the bottom. Precisely because I have, I know that I'm about to fall right back there."

She wouldn't understand. Her perspective of him, sadly, was just like anyone else's.

She lit another cigarette, 3rd one in the row. "I know what you're going through, Satoru," she breathed the smoke in and out. "A midlife crisis."

Satoru gave out a stiff laugh.

"What? Why would I have that, aren't I too young?" How old was he supposed to be anyway? "...How old am I anyway?"

"See," she flicked her cigarette into an old chipped saucer that served as an ashtray, "you can't even tell. That's because you've been thrust into adulthood too fast. Your mental age might as well be the same as your physical—"

Wait, it'd been 13 years since he came out of a coma, and he was a 29-year-old when he fell into it, which meant, "...am I past my forties already?"

"If you feel like it."

That was scary. What was also scary, that Sachiko understood. Kind of. In her own way.

Satoru covered his face with his hands. "Wow. I—" God I'm so old.

"Don't say such stupid things!" mom pointed a nearly burnt out stub in his direction. "You only perceive yourself as such. You think that life might as well be over. Now that you quote unquote 'lost everything'."

But... Isn't that so?

"Of course it isn't! Spending some time away from Airi-chan may just help you figure out your true feelings for her. And in the meantime more manga ideas may develop. But you have to figure out what is it that you really want," Sachiko concluded. "Look deep into yourself and spell it out!"

What he really wanted. What he really strived for. What he'd been clinging to for all these years, but never spoke of, for it was too scary to let it become real.

"I want," Satoru said, "to fill the hole in my heart."

~

Chapter Text

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.

"Green, please."

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—"

"Alright."

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—"

"Yashiro."

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..."

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.

"You... What?"

"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."

"Listen, Satoru."

"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.

"Kenya."

"Yes?"

"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.

"Hey, mom."

"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."

"...Yeah."

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.

"Hey, Kayo."

"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."

"Already?!"

Kayo laughed. "Yes, I can hardly believe it myself!"

"They grow up so fast, huh..."

"They do."

"What about Kibou-kun?"

"Kibou? He's right there, do you want to speak to him?"

"Alright."

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?"

"Oh, yeah."

"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.

"Satoru!"

"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."

"Wait, Satoru!"

"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."

"Sato—"

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.

~

Chapter Text

The volume of surroundings returns to him in bits. First, there's a woman whimpering somewhere past his vision. He reacts instinctively, looking in the direction where that ugly sound is coming from.

She's kneeling low on the snow, wailing, as some other lady pats her back. The lady's behind is turned to Satoru, and from that angle, she looks suspiciously a lot like his mother.

There are other people at the scene as well. Two adults are talking to a little girl, telling her something in hushed voices. The girl is wearing a crimson coat. She casts her eyes away from the strangers, but when Satoru meets her gaze, he recognizes that fake vacancy instantly.

It's Kayo. 11-year-old Hinazuki Kayo.

The ragged motion of the scene finally wears off, and Satoru recognizes exactly where he is, exactly what is happening.

He is back in the year 1988, returned to the day when Kayo was taken in by her grandmother, March 6th.

Which means, that by his side...

Satoru tilts his head back, looking up directly at the man from the train.

Yet it's no ghost. In front of him stands the real Yashiro Gaku. A 28-year-old Yashiro Gaku. His sensei. The Ishikari Murderer.

Satoru breathes out for the first time, a warm white cloud leaving his lips. Though he can't see Yashiro's face in its entirety, he definitely sees the way his breath evaporates too. Which means he's alive.

He's alive. Alive. Satoru's legs start walking on their own. One, two, three steps. There's nothing, nothing other than Yashiro in his sight. He's alive, he's not behind the glass, his face lacks wrinkles, he's so young and warm—

Warm? Unbeknownst to himself, Satoru has wrapped his arms around the male figure and squeezed his waist tightly.

Sensei makes a surprised noise at the sudden contact. Satoru presses his face into his abdomen. What's he doing? This man is— This man isn't—

A large hand lands on his head, ruffles his hair. Ah. No, things such as doubt or shame completely leave his mind. Only praises for this Revival remain, because Satoru can now make things right.

"Thank you," Satoru says shakily, muffled against the fabric of the man's trenchcoat.

Yashiro's ungloved hand pats him. "No, you're the one that got us adults to take action, Satoru."

Yashiro was Kayo's murderer. He was the one who didn't contact child protection services. He knew and he purposely didn't do anything to stop Kayo's suffering. He wanted to kill her.

But Satoru's irrational side has blocked out these nagging thoughts. Indeed, Satoru had saved her, and this, this current moment, was his reward. Satoru's grip only tightens as sensei recites his next words:

"Your courageous act resulted in avoiding a tragedy." The man's thumb circles around the very top of Satoru's head. "Kayo is going to be okay now."

That's right. Because I've saved her from you. Satoru slowly lets his grip loosen. In the current context it's kind of embarrassing to be clinging to his teacher like that. Satoru doesn't look directly at his face after letting go, opting to go see Kayo instead.

"Satoru," the girl says almost eagerly upon seeing her friend, "are you stupid?"

"Eh?" Satoru is startled. Not only did he not hear these words in such a long time, but is she referring to?—

"What's with the waterworks?"

Satoru stares at her wide eyed. His hand goes up to his cheek where he meets moisture. He is... crying? But why?...

Kayo smiles. "Don't worry," she says. "We'll meet again. It's a promise."

Wiping his tears, Satoru smiles back and nods. "Yeah. A promise. Someday, in the future..."

Future. Like a flash in his brain, Satoru is presented with an image of the Sugita family, slowly fading away. He'd erased that "future". He...

Kayo extends her hand for him, ready to shake goodbye, clad in pink mittens that Satoru gave her as a present. He remembers that in his own pocket there are blue hand-knit ones, given to him by Kayo. He pulls them out.

Kayo perks up. "See? This is a memento. If you keep them, you'll never forget our promise," Kayo reassures him. "And I'll never forget you." She waves her hand, demonstrating her mitten.

Satoru puts his own on, instantly feeling the warmth of the material. Then he lines his hand with Kayo's and connects them, motion resembling what Kayo had done when Satoru invited her on his birthday, only now they both had something keeping them from getting frostbitten.

"Thank you," says Kayo, looking at their hands. "For saving me from this house."

For saving you from him.

The car horn resounds behind them — Kayo's grandmother and Yashiro-sensei are ready to bring her to her real home.

As Kayo runs off towards them, Yashiro winks at Satoru. Satoru's expression doesn't betray any distaste. He looks just as determined as ever even as he drills his gaze into Yashiro, instead of Kayo. This time, he knows his true colors.

This time, he doesn't chase after the car. He knows what he has to do. He knows how to print a new future onto this newly blank canvas.

~

He saw Airi. He was back on the train station and he saw Airi, not leaving him behind, but standing there as if she were waiting for him.

Her camera was dangling off of her neck. She was looking afar, somewhere up into the sky, where Satoru surely wouldn't be able to reach.

"I'm going out," he said, words turning into bubbles as if he were underwater.

She didn't turn around to face him. She didn't tell him the words "see you later".

Instead, he noticed that her fingers, ring and pinky and thumb, were folded, other two separated and resembling scissors.

Satoru noticed that she looked off, somehow. He realized she wasn't "Airi", but one of the drawings he made of her, a static image with an unfinished face.

His train was about to leave. The vision of the girl was becoming blurry. He never told her, in the end—

The words formed in his mouth, yet he did not let them out. "So  that  they  don't  become    real."

Her fingers snipped at the air.

~

Satoru wakes up. At first it's hard to tell where he is exactly, for the room is too dark. Is he in the past? Is he in the present?

Blindly, he gets out of his futon, and finds the wall by touch. His hand hooks on what must be the door. Noticing that he's not as strong as he used to be, he slides it open carefully.

"Good morning, Satoru," greets his mother, standing by the stove in the kitchen of his childhood home.

Satoru looks down at his open palms, which are tiny with thin childlike fingers. So it is 1988. Yesterday's events weren't a dream.

"Sure they weren't. We've helped Kayo-chan out."

He said it out loud. Again...

"Come on now, let's eat."

Satoru sits down on the chair before his meal — heated up curry. It really does feel weird. Not only is he back in his old home, but in his eleven-year-old body too. It feels rather energetic in comparison to his post-comatose one. If he were to jump up from the chair and run to the bathroom, his head wouldn't swim like it would've in his adult body. It's like he can do anything. He— yesterday he... Did he really give his murderer an embrace?

Sachiko seems to notice Satoru's frozen posture. "Hm, Satoru, why aren't you eating your curry? Don't tell me you don't like it now—"

"Ah, no, it's not like that!" Satoru pipes up in that childish high pitched voice. Weird. "It's really good. I actually kind of missed your curry." To prove it he gulps down a mouthful of delicious rice.

"'Missed it'? We've had nothing else but curry for the past few days!"

Ah, that's right, Sachiko made too much of it a few days ago and they've been feasting on leftovers... Such a trivial memory didn't resurface, unsurprisingly.

"S-so what? I love it nevertheless!"

Mom laughs. "Weird boy."

Satoru can't help but stare up at her face. She looked good in the present, but he can't deny that in 1988 she looks a lot more youthful even without makeup.

The thought gives Satoru goosebumps. "Present". He cast it away with yet another Revival. Even though he promised his previous one would be the last...

And now that future no longer exists. Now his "present" is here and now. In the year 1988. Everything is back to the start. Airi wasn't even born at this point.

Anxiousness surges through his veins. Was it a right decision? To undo all the progress? For the sake of—

Something glints in Satoru's eyes when he recalls why he's here. No, it was no mistake. Not with how miserable he became back in the "present". There's no room for doubt now. His plan shall be brought to motion!

Contemplating helped time go faster. They finished breakfast and Sachiko poured herself some coffee. The rich aroma reaches Satoru's nostrils. If only he could have some...

"If only I could have some..."

"Are you trying to seem mature?" mocks Sachiko.

The words slipped from his tongue! That's twice in one morning. He forgot how frequently it used to happen.

Experiencing it all again... feels kind of nostalgic. The scenery outside is that of a snow flurry. It's been a while since he'd seen a sight like that... The town sinks in the color of white. Satoru sips from the mug of coffee that Sachiko has poured for him, his expression serious and thoughtful.

The atmosphere falls apart soon, because this coffee is too bitter for his taste and Satoru grimaces. There's a noise of what sounds like someone holding back a laugh.

"What?!" Satoru snaps his head to his mom.

"Nothing," she says, looking as if she didn't find the situation hilarious.

~

His walk to school is dazed with anticipation. Today he's going to see—

Satoru slaps his own cheeks. No-no, he has to stay on track. Not a single detail can be missed. The plan he'd prepared... Though heavily thought-over, is flawed still.

For starters what he needs is to remain calm, play the role of an elementary-schooler and most importantly...

Observe Yashiro. Knowing now who the culprit is leaves a false sense of security, like he doesn't have to watch out for the "loners" anymore, but the events of the following days must still play out the same. For the sake of everyone's future selves remaining the same.

Satoru comes into his classroom once again. Class 5-4... It's the 3rd time that he enters it as his adult self freshly after a Revival. Hiromi is already there, at his desk.

"Satoru-kun, good morning!"

There's a pang in Satoru's chest. He never realized it before, but Mirai's voice had been just like Hiromi's...

"Good morning, Hiromi," Satoru says somewhat quietly due to the newfound guilt gnawing at him. Hiromi who became a doctor in the future is now once again just a little boy with a bit of a resemblance to a girl. His future wife, Kayo, was now in another town... Come to think of it, Satoru never noticed them interacting before. And to think that they will grow up to become a beautiful family...

"Satoru-kun, what's wrong?" asks the boy gingerly. "You're standing in the middle of the classroom."

"Eh? A-ah, sorry!" Satoru fumbles with his backpack to get his things out. "I just kind of zoned out."

"Hm, are you trying to speak without dialect again?"

Ah, damn it! He has got to be careful with his mannerisms from now on. Especially when addressing—

"Yo-o, Satoru!" His upper back is slapped from behind with a heavy palm. It's Kazu! He, too, reverted back to his childhood self.

"Yo! Good morning."

Osamu, in that funny hat of his, soon comes as well. The classroom begins to fill with kids. Satoru keeps staring at everything, admiring every detail like it's all a part of some nostalgic dream — the kanji posters on the wall, a bucket of water atop the heater, everyone's faces. The smell of chalk faintly dwells in the air. The idle before-class chatter fills his ears. He missed this.

"E-e-eh, are you crazy? After only one weekend you miss this place?" asks Osamu incredulously.

Satoru slaps his hand to his mouth. He should really watch out lest he blurts something in regard to Ya—

"Good morning, Satoru," his thoughts are once again interrupted, this time by a gentle voice of a blonde haired kid.

Kenya! Unsurprisingly, his child self looks a lot like his adult self. He has always rightfully been the most mature of the group after all.

Unintentionally, Satoru's gaze slips to Misato who has been there at her place next to Satoru from the very start. It's no secret that he'd been rooting for them to become a couple, back in the future. Unlike Kayo and Hiromi, these two weren't even acquainted during their school years.

Misato of the future mentioned that her and Kenya had become somewhat friendly in middle school due to their combined efforts to help Satoru. They went to different high schools, and only met once again in 2010 after Satoru's visit to Hokkaido.

Both unmarried and working in the field of law, their similarities were good conversation starters. Things kind of evolved from there, but not much ever came out of it.

Would anything ever become of them in the new future Satoru was about to create?

"Woah, he looks out if it."

"He's worried about Hina, I believe..."

The comments pass by Satoru's head. He's too deep in thought. It's the only thing he can hope for. For this to work.

Satoru stares ahead at the classroom entrance in the front. In a few minutes, no, seconds—

Mere moments away. Just around the corner. Satoru's clasped hands on the desk are locked so tight that his nails might just break the skin.

Sensei will—

The door opens and the teacher walks in, pace and posture perfectly between casual and formal.

"Good morning, class," sensei says in both friendly and conventional tone.

A wave of "good morning"s returns to him as a reply.

Satoru's knuckles have gone white.

Yashiro takes attendance.

("Fujinuma," he calls out, and Satoru makes an effort for his voice to sound as ordinary as humanly possible.)

Yashiro begins the lesson.

(Nothing, nothing in his demeanor betrays anything amiss.)

From here on now it's a "game". (No, it's been a game for a very, very-very long time.) And currently Satoru is the one with an advantage.

The goal now is to find the right moves to get to him.

~

At the end of the school day all his friends are gathered around his desk.

"Satoru's been like this all day," says Osamu pointing out Satoru's face-downward position on the desk. "Do you guys think he's okay?"

"He's a hero for helping Hinazuki, but..." replies Kazu.

It's not that. It's that he's been searching for a way to tackle Yashiro, to get him "interested", so to speak, but his mind has been drawing a blank.

It's like being in the situation of "approaching a loner" all over again. He remembers how hard it was, and that ultimately, his friends were there to help him out both with Kayo and Aya-chan. But of course, in this case there was no way he could rely on anyone. He has to "approach" Yashiro all alone. And he has to be heedful.

This was the flaw of his plan. Every word Yashiro says bears significance, but Satoru has no idea what he's going to say, let alone how much time will be spent in attempts to figure it out.

"Satoru-kun, are you okay?" asks Hiromi.

"Yeah. I'm okay," Satoru replies, no strength left in his voice.

Not to mention, he himself has to pick his words carefully. And preferably, others shouldn't overhear, so that Satoru may leave subtle hints which Yashiro would surely catch.

But he can't afford being too blunt. Yashiro is a murderer. A good actor, improviser. He calculates everything. He is terribly smart and smartly dangerous. Satoru has to be wary. Therefore, he is hesitant and... nervous. It's— it's been a while.

Satoru's friends keep an idle conversation which he pays no mind to. His pulse is racing. He feels like he can hear the footsteps right at that moment — or is it his heart?

"Satoru?" he's called out as the classroom's right door opens. He sits upright in an instant and looks back. "Come here for a minute," Yashiro-sensei beckons with his hand, but Satoru is already up and going in his direction.

In the doorway, after Yashiro walks away a bit, Satoru turns to his friends. "Don't wait for me," he says, "I'll catch up with you in the kids' center, okay? 'Till then."

He then runs after sensei in the hallway, his shoes making a loud noise against the flooring.

This is it. That "moment". In his plans, this was the key moment that would determine the course of the following actions. "March 7th, 1988, approx. 15:40 — ███████ calls me to the staff room to talk about Kayo."

Back in 1988, the day after Kayo's departure (today, that is) Yashiro called Satoru to the staff room to "ask the addresses of the students living near Satoru's area". Coincidentally, he spoke to Satoru about Kayo's situation, gave him closure, so to speak.

Looking back (or forward) now, Satoru can tell that asking the addresses was simply a "justification", to call Satoru into the staff room. The real reason had been Kayo— yet, hold that thought. Perhaps, the real real reason was something else. Yashiro wanted to specify something.

They enter the staff room, Yashiro's walking pace slow and unassuming. There are several other teachers behind their desks, minding their own business. That won't do. Satoru needs more privacy in order to properly meddle with Yashiro. Satoru tries to keep his expression from looking brooding as he searches for that loophole.

The man sits on his chair and busies his hands with a stack of papers which he evens out. "I called you here to ask you for a small favor, Satoru."

He's trying to emphasize that he called me here only because he needed "help", Satoru frantically analyzes every word in case he misses anything.

Yashiro pats the papers he attracted Satoru's attention to before. "I forgot to give away these printouts, so I need to know addresses of certain students to hand them in person." Yashiro winks. Playfulness. He's using it to lower my guard down. "While we're at it I can also inform you about Kayo's situation. Which one would you like first?"

Satoru's thoughts are staggering. A choice. I remember I was so eager to know about Kayo back then that I didn't think twice. Of course it doesn't make sense. A teacher should naturally have a list of his own students' addresses. Then what is this for? Why bother with the papers? He could've invited me to bluntly talk about Kayo. Just in case anyone would ask? He thought it through. He didn't want other teachers to think we were having a personal conversation. The staff room was the only place where he could call me over for it to not seem weird. Even if I didn't care, he always makes sure that others aren't cautious of him. Both options are distractions, one for the teachers, other for me.

Yashiro is eyeing him. He has to find the conclusion quick! This train of thought is going in a different direction. Think, Satoru, think. Yashiro prepared everything. He didn't hand out the prints just for this conversation to happen. A private conversation that is not allowed— That's it!

"Sensei," Satoru begins, holding back a breath of triumph, "these papers, you want to hand them out to the students living in the public housing? I live near, so I can help you out."

Yashiro's face seems to brighten. Seems. "You'll do that? Why, thank you, Satoru. But what about Kayo?"

"We can have that conversation in your car," Satoru leans in a bit, hushing his voice. "It's not appropriate for students to talk about personal stuff with their teachers on the school grounds."

Yashiro's face looks somewhat dumbfounded, but amused. "Alright, then. I'll meet you at the school entrance in ten minutes. Don't be late!"

"I won't," says Satoru as he hurries to leave the staff room.

After he does, he nearly jumps from the excitement. Success! Satoru managed to come through and find a loophole which allowed an opportunity to speak with Yashiro in less crowded surroundings.

The rush of the victory makes him feel like he's capable of anything. He runs towards his classroom to inform his friends of the change in plans, and to pick up his bag and jacket.

~

The prospect of having to enter Yashiro's car isn't the brightest, and still makes his insides flip unpleasantly, but today Satoru obliquely initiated the ride, that's why he's positive that Yashiro won't act out. Not without a solid plan he won't.

It's that same car, and he can't help the tremble of his fingers as he fastens his seatbelt.

"You surprised me, Satoru," says Yashiro after he drives out to the road.

"Did I?..."

"You acted so mature! Offering to help even at such a time. It makes me proud. To be honest, I'm wondered."

If Satoru didn't know better, he'd assume Yashiro was rambling.

"No big deal. I live near, so... You'll drive me home, won't you, sensei?"

"Hahaha, don't tell me you're doing this just for a ride home!"

"Not at all!"

The mood is light. Good. They visit the first few houses that Satoru points out. Satoru for the life of him can't really figure out how he still remembers the addresses of his childhood neighbors. Some things just stick, he supposes.

"The truth is, sensei, I wanted to talk in a less crowded environment," Satoru tries. If he learned anything from Yashiro, it's that the truth presented at the right angle is the best tactic at times.

"Yes, that was smart of you as well. So, shall I tell you about Kayo?"

"Yes please."

Not a thing that Satoru didn't already know. Kayo's mother won't see her for years, Kayo is safe at her grandmother's place. Satoru knows ahead how that will turn out, how Kayo will enter the same middle school as her ex-classmates, how Hiromi will confess to her in high school just to be denied a few times, until finally, she will give in on their graduation day. How she will grow up into a beautiful woman and a perfectly healthy and functional element of society.

With that out of the way, Satoru remembers another thing he told his teacher back in that staff room, and now he finds himself repeating it again despite himself.

"Thank you, Yashiro-sensei. For..." but this time, he turns his head away bashfully, having remembered what he'd done last evening. "For telling me: 'Your courageous act resulted in avoiding a tragedy.' It made me... really happy."

Because he's not looking, he doesn't see what kind of expression Yashiro makes. Not that... not that he wants to.

"Right, well, thinking back, it would sound cheap if I said 'rewarded' instead of 'resulted', but what you did was truly deserving of a reward."

Satoru nods. "Yeah. I got Kayo's smile as my reward."

He hears Yashiro make a small sound, kind of a soft "huh?", and Satoru's stomach sinks. Crap! He accidentally finished Yashiro's words by himself. Last time it was Yashiro who said the comment about Kayo's smile. Well, this can't be a major mess up—

Satoru's entire body jolts as Yashiro taps his finger on the steering wheel. "You're right. That was your reward. Look, there's another house, right?"

They continue handing out the printouts. The sky is becoming darker and darker with every house they go to.

"By the way, Satoru, was Kayo staying at your house this whole time?" Yashiro asks when the sky is dark enough that stars are visible.

Yes, there's that question. Perhaps, the very reason why he called Satoru in the first place. Last time Satoru told him the truth about Kayo's whereabouts, which resulted in Yashiro hastily clearing the place of the many tools he kept there.

Should Satoru reveal it this time?

Well, since it's not in his plans to get Yashiro caught, he might as well do just that to let him muddle his traces.

"No. We had a hideout."

"A hideout?"

"Yes. We hid Kayo in a bus the Izumi Elementary's hockey club used to use."

Tap, tap, tap. Oh, he must be holding back heavily from showing distress, with how close he was to his prey and all. Some part of Satoru finds amusement in that.

"E-eh. So it's only kidnappers like you who would think of such a place, huh?"

So far, though more stretched in time than before, their conversation seemed to be heading the same way. The surroundings changed, but not the words or conclusions. Even though Satoru's plan intended for things to progress more or less naturally, he still needed to plant "hints" for Yashiro in order to get under his skin.

So, right now Satoru decides to change things up.

"Actually, no. Someone else visited the bus while Kayo was there."

The tapping increases. But his voice, and expression, and posture, are all still the same. He really is good at staying in character. "Really? Did they see her?"

"No, I don't think so. He left some stuff in there."

"'He', huh..."

"I assume it was a man due to the size of the footprint of his rubber boot."

"Footprint?"

"He kicked a box inside the bus and left a footprint."

For a few seconds Yashiro stays noticeably silent.

"Who do you think it was?"

You. "Some crazy dude, probably. I mean, who goes into an abandoned bus at night to kick boxes?"

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. "Didn't you mention he left something there?"

"Oh yeah. It was a bag of creepy kidnapper-vibe stuff. I think this bus is reserved for kidnappers only."

Yashiro laughs at Satoru's remark without humor in his voice.

"Well, whoever it was," he says, "I'm glad that Kayo didn't get hurt." Sure you are. "From now on don't go to such desolate places, okay?"

We could report that stuff to the police, you know, Satoru thinks, but doesn't say it. There's no point in going that far to tease Yashiro. "Yes, sensei."

They visit the last house, one on the farthest edge of the neighborhood, and after that, it's over.

"Ah, good work, Satoru! Thank you for helping me out."

"It's nothing, sensei!"

"I'll drive you home now."

"Thanks."

All this work makes Satoru crave some candy— oh, that's right, at this point in time he still hasn't learned about Yashiro's stash. Well, this time is as good as any, Satoru figures and reaches for the corner of a wrapper peeking from the glove compartment.

"What's that sticking out?" Satoru wonders aloud cheekily.

"Wait, don't touch—"

The entire stash spills over Satoru's lap. Looking at it now, it's obvious what purpose it served to Yashiro. For some reason Satoru doesn't feel disgusted.

"So you've seen them," sensei says darkly as he taps away.

Satoru pretends to be in shock.

"There's no point in hiding now," Yashiro's tone changes to an exaggerated defeat, as he grabs several lollipops and sticks them into his mouth. "You should eat this and be my accomplice!"

His wording is... Interesting, to say the least. Satoru takes the stick that Yashiro offers him.

"I quit smoking three years ago," he continues as Satoru without further ado pops the candy into his mouth. "Since then I used candy as a substitute, and became addicted to them instead." Satoru wonders if this story is true like others which Yashiro shed light on. The man certainly never emitted a smell of tobacco. What— what kind of smell does he have, anyway?...

Satoru forces the thoughts to go away, replacing them with words. "Thank you for the treat, sensei. It's sweet."

There's a relieved sigh which Satoru definitely catches. He rolls the flat lollipop head on his tongue, savoring the sought-out sensation that he'd been denying himself for a long while. Satoru peeks at sensei's mouth, full of candy, too. You should eat this and be my accomplice. How much significance was hidden in that phrase?

Yashiro gives Satoru a quick side glance, then another. Satoru doesn't notice that he is staring at sensei until the man addresses him: "Do you want more candy? Feel free to take it."

"Ah," Satoru forces himself to look away and grabs handfuls of candy to put it back into the glove compartment. "Thanks, I'm good." He doesn't look up for the rest of the ride.

Yashiro delivers the boy home safely.

The seatbealt unfastens, no tricks up Yashiro's sleeve. They exit the car and Yashiro watches the boy go.

"Keep the candies a secret, please," Satoru hears Yashiro utter into his back. Secrets. Satoru turns to face him briefly and witnesses Yashiro putting a finger to his mouth.

Satoru's lips are spread by a smile. Perhaps, a smile very uncharacteristic of a grade-schooler Satoru. "I will," he says in an unfamiliar to Yashiro tone of voice. "Goodbye, sensei!" he yells out normally, rushing off home.

Yashiro's arm sets back down, his hands form fists. He lingers for a while, staring intently at his student's departing form with cold eyes.

~

"I'm home!" Satoru calls out to his mom after breezing inside. He feels extremely energetic due to his success.

"Welcome back, Satoru," mom replies from the kitchen. Satoru kicks off his shoes and sheds off his backpack, ready to munch on dinner. Recently eaten candy didn't mess with his appetite.

He glances at the table, wondering what kind of a tasty meal his mother has prepared for him this time.

...It's curry yet again.

"Sorry, but we have to eat it one way or another," retorts mom the remark that slipped from Satoru's lips. "Go wash your hands, I'll reheat it for you."

After having done so, Satoru returns to the now steaming plate of curry rice and starts eating eagerly. "Ouch!"

"Oi, go easy, at least blow at it before stuffing your face!" Sachiko says, leaning onto her cheek and looking at her son endearingly. "You're late today."

"Oh, yeah, I was, busy," Satoru struggles to speak with a mouthful of rice which he's trying to cool down by puffing.

"Did someone give you a lift?"

D-demon! "H-how did you know?"

"With the way you yelled goodbye, I'm sure the whole neighborhood heard! Also, don't think I wouldn't notice a car pulling up to my house and dropping my son off."

Satoru finally swallows the delicious spoonful and immediately goes for another. "Yashiro-sensei needed my help to deliver printouts. I volunteered!"

"I see. That's very nice of you."

Satoru has eaten almost all of his meal when mom says something that nearly makes him choke. "Yashiro-sensei is nice too, isn't he?"

"Eh? Yeah." It takes massive willpower to not look nervous in that moment.

Sachiko grins somewhat impishly. "Do you like him?"

This time Satoru definitely coughs around his spoon. "Mom!"

"What? You don't?"

Mother, he killed you in another timeline, Satoru thinks yet thankfully doesn't say it. He killed my mother yet I... "He's fine, I guess..."

"It didn't seem so yesterday when you clinged to him like a—"

"You saw that?!" Satoru interrupts.

Sachiko rolls her eyes. "Don't think I wouldn't notice my son squeezing his teacher in uttermost gratitude."

Gratitude. Yes, everything about that moment suggested nothing but a child overwhelmed by thankful emotion and admiration for his teacher.

"I..." there's just no way to say it right, is there? 'He's good' or 'he's nice' or 'he's kind', all of it would just be a big disgusting lie. "I'm glad he helped us."

"Me too." Sachiko looks thoughtful. There's a terrifying possibility that she might consider Yashiro a good father figure for Satoru, and therefore...

The nauseating shiver at the mere thought recoils within Satoru. He can't let mom regard him as a potential partner. "But, I think he was just doing what he had to as a teacher. No more, no less."

Sachiko nods. "Yeah, sure thing. Why are you pointing this out?"

"N-no reason. Thank you for the meal!" Satoru gets up and decides to escape further awkwardness. "I'll go do my homework."

Sachiko follows him with her eyes as he picks up his backpack and practically hides in another room. "Weird boy," she says to herself.

~

"Satoru, the bath is ready," calls out Sachiko half an hour later.

"Coming!" replies Satoru as he leisurely completes his homework, not burdened or phased by the task in the slightest.

As soon as he finishes, he goes straight to the bathroom. His mother has already laid out towels and pajamas for him — ah, he'd always taken such small care for granted.

"Thanks, mom!" he calls out into the room before closing the door and undressing. He folds his clothes neatly instead of throwing them in a pile on the floor — it's the least he can do.

After washing up quickly, he eagerly lowers himself into the hot bath. A satisfied breath comes out and finally, Satoru's body unwinds.

What a day it's been. He can hardly believe that it's not a dream. Although a gut-sinking feeling of having lost an entire future still remains somewhere deep down, the fact that the Revival undid it without much action on Satoru's part indicates that such a future must've been wrong. One way or another. Dwelling on it now won't do any good. The only thing he can do is proceed with his plan.

Satoru hums contentedly, thinking about today's success. Being in Yashiro's space like this... He recalls the way he looked at Satoru — a pretense friendliness through which a glint of genuine curiosity shone through. Being all alone with him would be bone chilling if it weren't for the emotion in his abdomen, smoldering like a piece of ember at the very bottom.

Satoru thinks back to the way he impulsively clinged at sensei in front of everybody — and is instantly wracked with giggles. Ashamed of himself, bashful yet gleeful, he can't help it and laughs from his belly, covering his flushed childish face — what must be blamed on the heat of the bath, that's it.

He holds back those same giggles even after the bath, wrapped in his futon's blanket, feeling like a butterfly that keeps itself from hatching to keep the spider from eating its heart raw.

"Satoru, are you okay?" asks mom, eyeing Satoru's cocoon.

"Y-yeah," he replies breathlessly from inside.

"Are you sure? Are you feeling well?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, ma!"

"'Ma'..."

"I mean 'mom', of course."

Her palm reaches for Satoru's forehead. "Your temperature's high. What do you think, maybe you should stay home from school, hm?"

"Absolutely not!" Satoru sits up unexpectedly, unwrapping the blanket. "I'm fine, see!"

Sachiko looks at him archly, her lips agrin. "Is that so? Hey, Satoru, have you forgotten about Kayo-chan that fast?"

Satoru puffs out his cheeks. "That's not true! All I think about is Kayo! In fact, I'm so happy that she's found a better home, that I can't stop smiling!" he says and turns away on his side, doubling over when another amusing memory causes his insides to feel pleasantly prickly. "...what you did was truly deserving of a reward..." Satoru grins into the pillow as these words replay in his mind, his reward abundantly clear.

I'm thirty— forty-something-years-old and I'm squirming like a schoolgirl in here, Satoru thinks to himself. He bites his lip to stop his thoughts from going astray, but it barely helps.

"Goodnight, son," tells him Sachiko.

"Night," Satoru whispers back.

She turns the lights off and Satoru shuts his eyes tight, hoping tomorrow comes as soon as possible.

~

Chapter Text

The following morning plays out relatively ordinarily. Breakfast with mom, meeting with his friends at class, sensei's arrival and rollcall.

Nothing seems different. Satoru's actions the day before appered to have changed nothing about Yashiro—

However, whenever sensei glances over all of the students at their desks, his eyes seem to halt for a split second on Satoru, before he resumes the lesson.

Satoru took notice of that because his eyes were trained intently on Yashiro. To anyone else it would seem as though Satoru is simply very invested in the lesson. Does it seem so to Yashiro? Is the reason for his attentiveness related to yesterday's car ride? It's a curious observation. It means that at this point, Yashiro is cautious of him.

Last night's dreamy zest makes way for callous rationale. He doesn't let himself get any hasty conclusions about Yashiro or the way he regards Satoru. Nothing that Satoru said yesterday indicated his knowledge of who Yashiro is, yet still, what if the bluntness lead Yashiro to consider him a threat? What if Satoru's remarks rubbed him in a wrong way?

In the last run, Yashiro admitted to starting suspecting Satoru only after he saw him tailing after Nakanishi Aya. But perhaps, with the new course of things, that suspicion is already on his mind.

Of course, like the last time, Yashiro would want a confirmation to his suspicion. And perhaps, seeing Satoru follow Aya now would be enough evidence for Yashiro.

This makes Satoru worried that Yashiro may try eliminating him ahead of time. Maybe what unsettles him is merely a paranoia, but Satoru still has the right to feel disquieted. Because today, March 8th, is Yashiro's execution day.

Today, at 6:40 p.m. Yashiro is planning to kidnap Nakanishi Aya. His car will be parked not too far from the entrance to her cram school. It's certain that all the tools necessary for her murder will be in that car. If Satoru were to interfere, the likelihood of Yashiro targeting him instead of Aya would be high.

Even though Yashiro told him that he never purposefully targeted boys, Satoru's entanglement with Yashiro's business might as well be a "specific circumstance" that would lead to his breaking of the rule.

There is a way to avoid the peril, of course — if Satoru were to meet his mother and help her carry the bags, Yashiro would pick them up just like the previous time. The problem with that — in the presence of Sachiko, Satoru won't be able to get a certain message across to Yashiro.

In short, Satoru's plan has backfired yet again.

There's a possibility that Yashiro may not target Satoru after he witnesses him clearly getting in the way, and even after Satoru clambers into the car alone without his mother's supervision. But the odds are 50/50, and that's a disadvantage Satoru can't risk.

The day drags uncomfortably slowly. With each hour, Satoru's fears grow and pile up. He's afraid of losing now, afraid of messing up. He's anticipated this for so long, but Yashiro's unpredictability shakes him to the core.

Satoru wants to understand him. He's the only one who knows the real him. He's the only one who can go through with this. Satoru just has to— he has to figure him out.

"Hey, Satoru, what's on your mind?" asks Kenya during break time. Their group was standing at the back of the class like usual, everyone but Satoru engaging in conversation.

"Eh? Ah, just..." Satoru's eyes dart around in search for a proper reply. He shouldn't lie, but there's no choice—

"Don't bother Satoru, Kenya," interrupts Kazu.

"Yeah, he needs some space now that Hinazuki's away," supports Osamu.

That's a credible reason. Why didn't Satoru think of it?

"I— yeah," Satoru nods.

Kenya deflates, but he doesn't look convinced by this excuse. He's good at reading people even at this age, after all. Yashiro is exceptional in this field too...

It's a matter of being "read" wrongly. Yashiro is good at scrutiny. Should Satoru distract him with double entendre? If Satoru poses as a simple "obstacle", Yashiro might just try to get rid of him as soon as possible. But if Satoru stalls him...

His mind sets on that idea. Though he still isn't sure how — at least now he's got something to place reliance on.

The day continues without any significant differences. Satoru's friends associate his dazeness with Kayo's absence. Or, most of them do.

"Satoru, can I have a moment with you?" asks Kenya after the last lesson.

Satoru looks at the time on his wristwatch — there's still plenty since he doesn't have to look after Aya before the end of her cram school. At least one advantage is still in Satoru's possession.

"Sure," he replies and follows Kenya.

They arrive at their usual spot on the stairs — it feels so nostalgic that Satoru might even cry.

"Satoru," Kenya begins, "tell me honestly, what are you thinking?"

He expected those words. But this time he truly cannot answer.

"I saw your determination to save Hinazuki at any cost, and now when it worked out, the way you act just doesn't add up."

Interestingly, last time Kenya came to the same conclusion, even though that time what bothered Satoru had to do with not knowing the killer's next steps.

"Won't you tell me if something is up?"

Satoru, who remained silent through Kenya's inquiry, sits down on the steps. This conversation was supposed to happen later, after Kenya would notice that Satoru had become Hiromi's "guardian". But for whatever reason, this time Kenya initiated it earlier.

"Kenya," Satoru says, "before I tell you anything, could you explain me one thing?"

"Yeah?"

"How do you know just by looking at me? Do you simply compare my demeanor on former occasions with now?"

Kenya is thoughtful for a second. He rubs the back of his neck. "...it's not just that. There is a chance that you act the way you do because you miss Hina. But...

"It's your words, Satoru. Or, lack thereof. When I asked you directly, you seemed at a loss. You couldn't answer until someone else piped in."

Words. If he were more careful with his words...

Kenya took notice of Satoru's behavior because Satoru was preoccupied with his thoughts much deeper this time. He didn't go to the youth center yesterday, unlike in the previous timeline, and it was one of the factors that initiated Kenya's worry.

The "result" was strikingly similar to the last time regardless of the occasion. Just like the way Urata-san's criticisms back in the future matched the ones he said in another future... In other words, no matter the circumstance, the results are predictable based on Satoru's previous experiences. Then!..

Satoru springs from his seating position. "Kenya! You made me realize something."

Kenya gives him a puzzled look. "Is that so?"

"Yeah! I'm sorry, though, I can't tell you directly. It's too much of a leap."

If Satoru's prediction is right, then Kenya is going to say...

"I want to make that leap, like you." Exactly! Kenya smiles. "I want to become an ally of justice. If there's continuation to it, then take me with you."

"Then," Satoru grabs Kenya's hand and earns a flushed look of surprise, "I'll show you! But first, let's go get Hiromi," Satoru pulls his friend along to their classroom.

That's right. Satoru's advantage is his foresight. With careful use of correct words, there's no way he can mess up his predestinated meeting with Yashiro!

~

Like last time, Satoru takes Kenya and Hiromi to the abandoned bus.

"Take a look, Kenya." Satoru points to the indubitable prints in the snow. "What do you think?"

Kenya inspects the "clue". "An adult visited here, going in and then out..."

"Not only that. If you look closely, the shoes were wrapped in cloth." Of course Yashiro would make a point in not leaving additional footprints.

"I guess not just to prevent himself from slipping, huh..."

The feeling of deja vu doesn't leave Satoru as they enter the bus, either. The event plays out exactly the same — the bus is cleared of evidence, Kenya questions Satoru's implications, Hiromi is silent and flummoxed throughout.

"I think there's a murderer in this town."

Of course, now that Satoru knows who he is, there's really no need to initiate the "detective game". But...

Even if it may hurt later on, Satoru needs his friends to know about it. So that the mark is left on their minds. So that they become who they are in the future.

"...I have a strong sense your thinking is going to lead to something," admits Kenya with an intent look.

He's right. His talent of seeing through has always, always been on point. Even though Satoru may have undervalued Kenya's efforts... He was as much of an influence to the creation of Satoru's plan as anyone else.

Satoru isn't alone in this. He may be "leaving behind" those who value him, but in spirit, they'll always be by his side. Their words, too. That is the thought that fuels Satoru.

That's what makes him walk with confidence towards his next goal.

"March 8th, 1988, approx. 18:30 — ███████ stalks Nakanishi by her cram school."

Satoru arrives to the Hamanasu Private a bit too early. He looks around, not seeing any cars on the road. Some people are exiting a food store. He could kill some time before Aya leaves her lessons, especially since it's kind of cold outside, even with Kayo's mittens on.

Satoru shakes his head. He shouldn't be careless! Right about now, in one of these shops his mother is binging on groceries, and he better not stumble on her!

Last time she spotted Satoru following Aya from across the road. Just in case, he goes to the opposite side of the street. He retracts his steps, and stands behind one of the wooden bars which suspend the roof of the building along the lane.

From that spot, the entrance to the tutoring school and most of the stores in the area are in plain sight. Unless his mom somehow creeped from behind (which was not likely), he was safe. From this distance it is possible to watch out for every person leaving and entering the buildings.

Satoru scans the road. His teacher's car is nowhere to be seen. There's a possibility that he will park, or has parked, at the end of the street behind the corner. How can he see his prey though, in that case?

Maybe he's confident enough in Aya's punctuality that he doesn't need to witness her leaving. He definitely knows her schedule, which is why he may pull up in his car only after she exits the cram school.

Naturally. He's not just a kidnapper or a murderer, he's also a stalker. Satoru muses while his eyes are keen on his surroundings. He's not expecting to see me here. Even with his profound improvisatory skills, he wouldn't risk kidnapping me without knowing all the details. (He convinces himself so for the lack of an alternative plan.)

From inside the cram school building, a few kids come out. Satoru looks at the time, it's thirty four minutes. The moment the digital number on his wristwatch switches to five, Satoru's head springs up to eye the entrance. Lo and behold just a few seconds after, Aya comes out. She shrugs her shoulders to get her backpack steady and turns left to leave.

Unmoving, Satoru watches the girl walk in a calm pace. Satoru pricks his ears to pick up the sound of a car's engine anywhere near. Aya is leaving, nothing but the regular ambience of this street remains, and Satoru briefly considers following her.

He hesitates, and it's a good choice — a few seconds later he spots his mother, exiting a shop directly across the cram school, with two plastic bags and a box of cider jammed in between her arm and waist.

Satoru instinctively backs away, trying to hide himself best he can. But thankfully, Sachiko doesn't look behind herself as she goes in the same direction as Aya across the street. Satoru exhales.

His mother seems to be struggling as she carries the heavy purchases, and Satoru is endlessly sorry for not helping her, but it needs to be done. He wonders where Yashiro might be at this point. The previous time, as Satoru and Sachiko walked home, sensei honked his car horn to get their attention.

Satoru looks over his shoulder, not really expecting to see anything since he didn't register any offbeat noise.

His eyes meet Yashiro's instantly. They lock as if they meant to; as if sensei looked exactly Satoru's way as he drove down the road slowly, as if Satoru turned knowing all too well whom he's going to lay eyes on.

For a split second it's like they're back in the classroom, exchanging looks that are feigned to be accidental.

And then the man puts on a mask of delighted surprise as the car's creeping movement halts by the boy's side.

"Satoru!" the window on his side rolls down. "Didn't expect to see you here."

Satoru glances in a different direction, hoping his mother's ears several meters away don't pick up Yashiro's voice or her son's name in the air.

"Good evening, sensei."

"What are you doing in this district at such an hour? Shopping?"

Satoru doesn't allow himself to be at loss of words. He winks. "Secret kidnapper business."

Yashiro laughs. It feels more genuine than the last time Satoru has gotten to hear such a sound. "Hop in, I'll take you home."

"Ah, you don't have to..." Satoru plays his part of reluctance, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Don't worry," Yashiro says, "you won't trouble me."

"Thank you," Satoru bows a little before going over to get into the front seat. This is it.

The door slams shut. Inside is warm and he takes off his mittens. He doesn't fasten just yet.

The car moves forward again, but picks up its pace. As they drive past Sachiko, Satoru eyes her fixedly, while she walks onward without seeing her son in someone else's car. Satoru isn't sure if Yashiro had seen her, but he'd probably pretend he didn't just to not pick her up regardless.

(Satoru prepares mentally to use his mom as a trap card should Yashiro show signs of wanting to kill him.)

Lastly, Satoru sees Nakanishi Aya, going home safely, her murderer now by Satoru's side, speeding him away.

Satoru snaps the belt buckle.

~

"So here we are again, the second day in a row that I'm giving you a ride back home! What a strange coincidence, hm?" Yashiro says, the question seeming almost like an act of testing the waters they found themselves enveloped with.

"Not like I'm doing it on purpose!" Satoru retorts, albeit it's a small lie. "Getting to be one-on-one with you, I mean..."

Yashiro begins to tap. Ugh. "It's alright, I enjoy your company."

"I do, too," Satoru says and gets self-conscious instantly. "I mean, I— I enjoy talking to you. A lot." He gulps. It doesn't hurt to make up for the lie with one small truth.

"Aw, I'm flattered," Yashiro replies, turning his head to the side a bit. They're on the highway now and at this point the car can take a wrong turn anywhere.

Right. Stay focused on the task, Satoru thinks. There needs to be conversation. Get in there. Satoru recalls what they had spoken about in this situation last time.

"Oh, sensei, I have a question for you."

The car zooms past familiar scenery. It gives comfort to Satoru. He voices his "concern".

"How to approach someone you don't know?" repeats his teacher. "You mean a girl, right?"

"Oh, y-yeah. I know her, but she doesn't know me." The real me.

Tap-tap-tap. "Let's see... I'm the cautious type, so even if it'd be beating around the bush, I'd start by getting her to—" lower her guard, "—lower her guard."

Satoru tilts his head, pretending to not quite get it.

"To put it simply, make yourself appealing. If you're good at cooking, or sports, or whatever, you can use it as a weapon. When she becomes interested in any of it, she lowers her guard."

This explanation makes even more sense when you put it in a "child abductor" perspective. What kind of things did Yashiro intend to captivate Aya with? Books? Music? What about Kayo?

"I'm not good at expressing my feelings, so I rely on logic instead," Yashiro adds when he notices the thoughtful look on Satoru's face. Yeah. Logic and scheming and getting what he wants. Makes a weapon out of anything. Do Yashiro's "feelings" even go past his sickening thrill? Not counting of course what he thought of Satoru back in the—

Satoru bites the inside of his cheek. The memories are unpleasant simply because, currently, that Yashiro does not exist. This Yashiro doesn't regard Satoru special. Which... shouldn't upset the man in the boy's body as much as it does.

Only a slow and steady rhythm of Yashiro's tapping is currently present in the air. Right about now should be the perfect time to say something that may affect how Yashiro feels about Satoru.

Satoru breathes. In, out. In— "'Would you kill someone for me?'"

On the other hand, in that moment, Yashiro stops breathing altogether. He looks directly at the road, expression unchanged, then turns his head to Satoru slowly. Unbelieving.

"It's... one of the first things that Kayo had said to me," Satoru admits not without a waver to his voice.

Yashiro appears to regain himself rather quickly as his gaze returns to the windshield once more. "Is that so?"

"Yeah. I'm not good at approaching people, but mom always told me, 'If you want to be friends with somebody, then just say so'. It's how I became friends with Kenya and others, by mustering my courage and simply saying 'let's be friends'. Yet when I first proposed the same words to Kayo, she replied with that phrase."

Yashiro seems to ponder Satoru's words. It wasn't a whim to voice "that phrase", on Satoru's part. He knew full well what it would entail, how it would make Yashiro feel. It was one of the first things Satoru came up with when he first wrote out his so-called "manga ideas".

"I see..." Yashiro says. "And what was your reply?"

"I was too appalled to say anything and she walked away. The next time we talked she said she was just kidding."

"Mm," tap, tap, "this must've been one of the things that made you cautious of her situation?"

Satoru says nothing.

"Maybe, even cautious of her?"

"I think it actually let my guard down."

"Haha! So you're saying, it got you interested in her." Tap, tap, tap.

Satoru shrugs. "Maybe it did."

He looks at Yashiro's finger, tapping ever so slightly, glances at the glove compartment, and he knows the candy is there, but for a fleeting moment, if only a bit, he's anxious that it isn't, that his seatbelt won't let go, that they might be driving to the bank of an ice cold river.

He opens the compartment and lets out a tiny sigh when he sees it stashed with colorful wrappers.

He picks up a lolly and looks through its orange semi transparency at his teacher. "Want one?"

"With pleasure," he replies and slips it out of Satoru's grip, letting their fingers brush almost purposefully. Definitely purposefully.

Satoru finds a blue one and wonders what it tastes like. He pulls off the wrapping and licks. Grape. He glances at sensei's swollen cheek as the man suckles around his own treat.

Satoru realizes that he forgot to ask Yashiro the question about his marital status. Last time, being in the same cramped place with his mom and sensei, the situation had been giving him familial thoughts, he thought this is what it would feel like if we were a family, thus he had asked that question.

Knowing now that Yashiro could never be his father, the question didn't come to his mind. Until this point, when his thoughts shifted to far more forbidden places.

It's better to postpone that question, Satoru decides. It's best to postpone other things on his mind too.

"Satoru, may I ask you something in return?"

The words jerk him out of the dazed state. Satoru realizes that he, once again, has been staring at Yashiro the whole time. Did... Did Yashiro ever ask for a "return" before?

Satoru nods because his mouth is occupied with candy.

The man is grinning. "You're faking it, are you not?"

Satoru bites on the stick of his lollipop. "Eh?" he squeaks dumbly. Did he mess up? Was this it? A confrontation?

"You said that you aren't good at approaching anybody. You even went as far as to ask me for a tip, but judging by the bond you've formed with Kayo as well as others and your overall self-assurance — it isn't something that should bother you, is it?"

This went to an unexpected direction. And here he thought that Yashiro caught on, figured out his scheme and was going to kill Satoru and render his struggle pointless, but no. It wasn't a threat. Merely an assumption. No, conclusion. That Satoru's "motivation" to question him is not what it seems. Yashiro decided to confirm it directly.

While Satoru's intention is indeed mostly an attempt to recreate past events — there is still a "target" which Satoru is in need of getting close to.

"I— I succeeded with Kayo only thanks to my friends' aid. But this time..." he looks up, serious, "I can't rely on anyone but myself. And because I'm not really good at expressing my emotions either, because I tend to underdo my endeavors and my logic is meeting dead ends constantly, I decided to ask you. Because I..." he really is going to say that to a murderer, "I look up to you, sensei."

"Ah." Yashiro's finger doesn't stop tapping. This can go downhill at any second. Satoru's hertbeat accommodates to the noise. "You're outspoken as usual, Satoru. But I have to disagree on one thing. I think— your skill of following through is quite good. You wouldn't be able to help Kayo otherwise. Even if you don't always succeed, you should always carve failures into your brain to get better." This is new. And not good. All of these new developments are fraught with danger.

Satoru tries to find a safe reply. "Uh... Thank you, sensei—" Real safe, Satoru.

The man chuckles. "I like the way you deal with troubles. With that persistence, yet elaborately. Ha-ha. You remind me of myself sometimes." Satoru's breath hitches. Is this a genuine remark? A simple meaningless compliment? Satoru isn't sure what he wants it to be. "We're here," Yashiro says.

The car has stopped. Satoru failed to notice their arrival in a tensed moment like this. "Oh." He sees his house outside and some sort of relief mixed with a speck of disenchantment settles in his stomach.

"Your mom's not home."

How does he know? "How do you know?"

Yashiro smiles. "The lights are off." He removes the lollipop from his mouth, which has gotten a bit smaller.

Satoru can rush to unbuckle himself, can swing the car door open, can retrieve his backpack and run off, not even to his empty house but to his neighbors, however, he does not. The door isn't locked yet and it's high time to go for it before Yashiro changes his mind. But... This feels like a test. Like Yashiro is checking whether or not Satoru considers him dangerous.

"Then, see you tomorrow, sensei?"

"Don't forget to do your homework." The teacher twirls the lollipop stick in his fingers. "Would you mind answering another question, though?"

Yashiro certainly didn't have that many questions before. Where is this stemming from? If this continues, Satoru may lose control of the situation. Allowing it would be too risky.

"Actually," Satoru says as he opens the car door, "why don't I answer it the next time we end up alone together?"

Yashiro looks truly bemused. "Huh? So there will be a next time? Are we setting up 'rules'?" He associates it with a game. Good.

"Yup! It's more fun that way, isn't it? Thanks for the candy," Satoru bows before shutting the door and scurrying to his house. He turns backwards as he runs and waves at the car for good measure.

Satoru pretends to be opening the door with a spare key when he hears the car drive off. He carefully looks behind and sees that it's gone. He lets out a sigh of relief.

Satoru is alive. This extremely perilous part of the mission is past him! Though some outcomes were unforseen and their consequences are unpredictable, it was a successful interaction regardless, and now Yashiro's opinion of Satoru has advanced — to where exactly, only time may tell.

Satoru turns on his heels and sprints away from his house. He still needs to help mom with her bags! He bites on the lollipop in his mouth, chewing the crushed bits of candy.

Yashiro's words ring in his head. You remind me of myself sometimes. That... Surely must be a misconception. Or a piece of flattery, devoid of significance, said in passing. Surely...

Because Satoru is nothing like Yashiro.

~

Satoru orchestrates the next few days to transpire exactly as they were before. The meeting with Aya by the river — Kazu's interference which attracts her to their hideout — and Satoru's consistent accompanying of Hiromi during the evenings.

His re-enactment fit in perfectly. Nobody suspected a thing, in everyone's eyes Satoru was a boy with a will to bring "loneliness" of his peers to naught.

And through it all, Yashiro-sensei did not bat an eye. It seemed, after that car encounter, he made an effort to not concentrate on Satoru. He didn't mention the question he meant to ask. They continued to be no more than a teacher and a student.

For an insane fleeting moment, it appeared to Satoru as though his actions might have changed Yashiro's mind; that he wouldn't attempt to lure Satoru into the death's embrace, that Satoru somehow appealed to him. That maybe— just maybe, Yashiro already sees Satoru as someone that is of worth to him.

The illusion disperses on the evening of March 14th.

"Have you noticed how Yanagihara-san has been alone a lot lately?" Hiromi brings up on their regular walk home.

"Misato." Satoru doesn't need to question it. He has been expecting it. His other thoughts were simply... wishful thinking. He knew it would come to this. Yashiro told Hiromi about her to attract Satoru. "I'll talk to her tomorrow," Satoru promises. Tomorrow... is a yet another execution day for Yashiro.

Tomorrow, Satoru will change the future for the last time.

When Satoru comes home that night, he eats dinner with his mom. Meticulously, chewing on everything for a long time, just to remember the taste.

After dinner he decides to take care of a few things. Since he never said goodbye properly, in the last version of his life, now would be a good opportunity. But he has to be discreet.

He leaves the mittens made by Kayo in the drawer where he keeps his anthology. He'd like to keep them, that's why they're better off here, safe at home. He doesn't want to waste Kayo's efforts.

The anthology itself catches his eye. He flips through it — still as good as new, but the heartache is unbearable. He fetches a pencil and writes a small note on the margins of one of the pages, a "clue", if you will. This is plainly to leave a mark, and because going away without a single message would be too cruel. Even for Satoru, whom has forsaken everyone in the future. He hides the anthology deep under other clutter, hoping it won't ever be found.

The man in a boy's body looks at the mask of Wonder Guy which sits as usual atop the drawer. Even though he's probably too old to be motivated by his childhood anime... Its messages still resonate within him.

He gets out the CD player to listen to the opening. It's as inspiring as ever... He can't help but hum along.

Someone taps his shoulder. Satoru jumps up and pushes the headphones off. "Ah!"

"Satoru, it's time to sleep soon," his mom tells him. She's smiling.

"How long have you been watching me?!"

"Clearly not long enough," she laughs.

After bath, they settle their futons. Sachiko leaves the night light on like usual. They exchange good nights.

Satoru stares at the dim orange glow of the ceiling lamp. Tonight and tomorrow morning is the last he'll see of his mom. There's an uncomfortable feeling in his eyes.

"Why aren't you sleeping, Satoru?" asks Sachiko.

How did she know? What a demon. "How did you know?"

She talks without turning over to face him. "I can see when my son is bothered, you know. You barely said a thing during dinner. You were staring dreamily at your mask and listened to that song you like so much. All of this reminds me of the time when Kayo-chan was on your mind."

Satoru doesn't know what to reply. He just says "yeah".

"You don't have to hide. You know I'll support your initiative. If there's anything—"

"I'm sorry, mom, but it's a battle that I must endure alone."

There's a pregnant pause. "...I see. Then, I wish you courage."

Courage. "Yeah. Thank you. You know—" Satoru cuts short. There's no way to phrase it without sounding suspicious.

"Mm?"

But maybe he can try it this way. "Wonder Guy had to go far away in order to protect his family. Do you think they hated him for it? Do you think they were mad?"

Sachiko gives it a thought. "No, of course they didn't hate him. But maybe, they were a little mad. Nobody wants to be left behind, even for a noble reason."

"But he did it to protect them."

"I know, but sometimes, all you want is for your close ones to be near."

I'm sorry, mother.

"Hey, Satoru."

"What?"

"Who is it that you're saving this time?"

There isn't a single answer to this question, Satoru realizes. All of it is so muddled and deranged that he must have gone crazy. "Someone very, very lonely," he replies.

~

On the morning of the 15th Satoru doesn't rush when eating breakfast. It's sunny side up eggs, some bacon, cherry tomatoes, a bowl of rice and a bowl of miso soup. It's his last meal.

He talks cheerily to his mom. The mood is light, yesterday's heavy topic has disappeared into the night.

"Thank you, it was delicious." Words are too precious to be scarce.

"Huh, Satoru, you seem a lot more mature today."

"Do I?" he laughs awkwardly.

While Sachiko is busy washing the dishes for him, Satoru retrieves one last thing from the cookie tin in the closet where mom keeps her (barely used) sewing supplies. He hides it in his backpack — just in case something goes wrong in the "finale".

When it's time to leave for school, it's time for goodbye. He can't do anything drastic, like hug mom or cling to her or cry in front of her. He realizes he hasn't hugged mom for... for...

"I'm going out," he says, trying not to sound strained.

"See you later," says mom. When he's already outside, she calls out, "where are your mittens? Did you forget them?"

Satoru, who was leaving his childhood home in very short steps, suddenly runs without looking back.

There are tears in his eyes. Ah, that's enough already, get it together, you— forty... something year old.

The school day is no less torturous to go through. He sees the smiling faces of his friends, Misato's sulking face beside him, his classmates — everyone, for the last time today. Then he sees his "murderer". And he feels that pang in his chest still, that guilty, guilty flail of an empty heart.

He doesn't eat lunch that day. He wants mom's breakfast to be the last thing in his stomach before the end of March 15th. It also accentuates that aforementioned emptiness.

At the end of the school day he tells his friends that he'll go to the hockey rink after Misato.

"Be careful, it's colder in there than outside!"

"Come to the hideout when you're done!"

"Are you sure you want to go alone?" asks Kenya. Satoru simply nods. "I see. If you're still playing detective, I want full report tomorrow."

"Of course," Satoru promises with false eagerness in his voice.

He takes a bus and waves at his friends from the inside until he can't see their tiny figures. Please grow up well, Satoru thinks to himself. During the ride, he removes his "secret weapon" from his backpack and hides it in the inner pocket of his jacket.

He arrives to Wakaba Gymnasium. The last person to lay eyes on him is the bus driver. This was the case when he went missing last time — nobody inside the gym reported to have seen him. Satoru wants to keep it that way.

It really is colder than outside, Satoru thinks when he enters the ice rink. His eyes catch all the vital characters in this play. Misato, all by herself with a drink, the girls from the class who cheer for Hamada, and next to them with a set of bento lunches is Yashiro, whose eyes seem to drift somewhere else the moment Satoru looks at him. He saw me. Now there's no turning back.

Satoru imagines a scenario where he comes up to his classmates, for example to wish Hamada luck. How hard would such a turn of events mess up Yashiro's scheme? Or if someone, anyone else on the bleachers took notice of the boy? The thought is merely entertaining. What would happen then?

But the viewers of the game are too preoccupied to mind Satoru's presence. No one is going to suspect a thing. Satoru is an unseen specter, following a similarly unnoticed girl to the restrooms. Observed only by one pair of eyes.

Satoru goes past the restroom entrances towards the emergency exit, knowing full well where Misato is. The girl is not his objective, this time around.

He pushes open the big heavy door and a draft of wind lets itself in. The metal is cold against his bare hands. He stands against it so that his back keeps the door from closing. From that spot, past the concrete landing of the stairway he can see a bit of the parking lot where Sharatori senior is coming up to his truck, having recently delivered another package. The bento lunches. Satoru thinks back to his old self, how inattentive he used to be (no, how inattentive he is). Of course there'd be no way for Misato to end up in that truck. He's a flimsy detective indeed.

Satoru checks his wristwatch. 16:26. Soon enough, Yashiro should be coming in from down the stairs, having gone out of the gymnasium and around the back all the way to this entrance — to plant the assumption that Misato has left through this very door.

The truck starts. Satoru hears footsteps — going up the stairs. He's still holding the door open, and from the looks of it, it must be obvious that he's waiting. The steps reach the landing, turn the corner with a scuff and stop abruptly. Satoru sees Yashiro, halted midway, a lollipop in his mouth looking like a cigarette, his expression blank, empty, flat. He probably didn't expect to see Satoru ahead of him. He thought he was the one luring him in. His face muscles are trying to figure out the reaction they need to give.

Satoru holds back a smile. He mocks concern instead. "Sensei! Good timing. I need to check what's inside that truck. Can you help me?"

Yashiro is stumped. He blinks.

"Sensei?"

"Oh," he says.

~

Chapter Text

The rest is a consistent deja vu. They rush to Yashiro's car — speed after Shiratori's truck — and Satoru voices his "suspicion" about Misato being in it. All of it happens in a set of fast motions, Satoru can practically feel the tension of where it's headed on his skin, he's trapped himself, the turmoil and a sick anticipation of seeing "real sensei" soon engulfs Satoru whole.

"If this is true, wouldn't that be a crime?" Yashiro asks. It's not a genuine question, but a way to persuade Satoru to open up.

"We call it 'playing detective'. We pretend there's a kidnapper at large, and talk to 'loner girls' to befriend them. It's a preventive measure against abductions," Satoru explains in a calm voice. As calm as he can manage anyways.

"I see," Yashiro says, still preserving that tone of pretense, "and it appears to be effective, even if it's just a game."

It's so grimly humorous to know that Yashiro had experienced its effectiveness first-hand. There's a chuckle ready to escape Satoru's chest, but it might come off as nervous, so he abstains from letting it out. "Thank you, sensei," Satoru says instead.

"Did you come up with this game after the Izumi bus incident?"

The comfort of the familiar situation disappears in a flick. Satoru's sense of an "autopilot" which carried him on through this, staggers. This is wrong. Yashiro didn't ask that question before.

Satoru's response isn't immediate and he fears that the attentive man has taken notice, "...yeah, we did. It was suspicious, so..."

"Yes, after saving Kayo-chan you realized you wanted to help out more people, am I right?"

Satoru goes along with it. "Yes," he confirms. This assumption on Yashiro's part shouldn't hurt the course of things.

"I reckon this is why you were snooping around that district a week ago? 'Kidnapper business', huh?" Yashiro continues.

"Uh, I—"

"You were following a girl whose 'safety' you had to secure. And Misato was your next target afterwards."

Somewhere along the line, Yashiro's tone became less and less evident of that fake benevolence he always mimicked while wearing his mask of a friendly teacher.

Where was this coming from? Why was Yashiro saying all of this now? Was it because of his encounters with Satoru? Satoru's skin crawls. The new turn is both terrifying and titillating.

"...I wouldn't call her a 'target'. That would be too—"

"Shady? Haha, I suppose it would. Since you're after a noble cause and all."

Has the man warmed up to Satoru after everything? His demeanor seems a lot more relaxed, though not without that hint of danger which he radiates naturally due to his intentions.

"Satoru," Yashiro says and pats his chest. "The seatbelt."

The boy gulps. Warmed up or not, Yashiro still intends to kill him. Satoru feels the press of the "hidden tool" inside his inner pocket, which reassures him. He locks the belt instantly with a strong push. The murderer notices how effortlessly Satoru has trapped himself, but doesn't bring attention to it apart from a small glance.

The car is still following the truck, the sky isn't darkened and they're nowhere near the dreaded tunnel where Yashiro's true nature was first revealed to Satoru all these years ago. Yet despite this, some sort of an inner panic begins to build up in Satoru. Because he realizes that he forgot what he was supposed to say.

The flow of their conversation has changed drastically and Satoru has lost the control he believed he had. This is bad. He searches for "correct" words to iterate, words that would prompt Yashiro to say something familiar which would be easy to retaliate to, but he's lost.

The silence inside the car doesn't last too long, though. "Satoru, do you remember that you promised to answer my question 'the next time we end up alone together'?"

Oh. "Oh." He thought about it, even today, but not at this very moment when his mind is too preoccupied with correcting his mistakes. "Sorry, I forgot."

"That's alright. You got caught up in another 'game', so I don't blame you for forgetting this one." Yashiro winks at him. Surprisingly, he still didn't tap against the steering wheel not even once. Satoru isn't sure if he's reassured or disheartened by it. "Ready to answer now?"

Satoru nods. Even though the order of things is messed up, he can handle it. He'll attempt to return the conversation back on track.

The grin on the man's face looks almost menacing. "Kayo had asked you if you'd kill someone for her. Well, would you?"

Ah. The question doesn't come off as shocking. Of course this is exactly what Yashiro would be curious about. But there isn't any dark revelation for him to know of. Satoru is sure of his answer. "No. Never."

"Be honest, Satoru. Not even for your most important person?"

For some reason he assumed Kayo isn't Satoru's "most important person". How cheeky. "No," Satoru replies. "Not even for my mom." Not even for you.

Yashiro doesn't give up. "But you must have — at least at some point — experienced a thought such as 'if they were gone, things would get better', haven't you?"

"No, I—" There was a time, actually. That time when he attempted to push Kayo's mother down the stairs, before Kenya had stopped him. Or another one, when he wanted to bludgeon a boy for being his childhood friend's love interest. Or how he used to think that Yashiro deserves to be hanged. "Well... Even then, it's not something I would go through. There's always some other way. Murder is a bit too much."

"Then what isn't too much? Sacrificing others for a better outcome for yourself?"

"Huh?"

"Haven't you simply used Misato as bait for the 'kidnapper', in this detective game of yours?"

Satoru's stomach sinks. That was his line! That's what he was supposed to say, and now for some reason Yashiro has appropriated it instead. Satoru's hands tremble as he clutches the fabric of his pants, mind chasing the options he can offer in response. "I might've, but... It's still not the same as murder."

"Why not? If, say, 'a kidnapper' that you're chasing is real, then you deliberately put her in harm's way for your own gain. Regardless of your intentions, you've used her as a stepping stone, a tool for your plan. I'm not saying you're wrong for it, though. Good deeds and bad deeds are the same—"

"No!" Satoru snaps. God, this man really liked to twist words so that they could accommodate his sickening views. "I didn't put her in danger. I knew she'd be okay."

"Is that so? Then why are we chasing that man's truck?"

Satoru freezes in his seat, staring ahead at the road. The atmosphere has changed completely. He has been tricked. Yashiro one-upped him.

~

"What's the meaning of this, Satoru?" his voice is uncharacteristically stern. Another facade to get Satoru to spill the truth.

It's not how Satoru intended to do this. He was supposed to get in the way of Yashiro's "reveal". He was supposed to stun him. Yet he was lured into this trap.

He still has to turn this to his advantage. Otherwise he might end up at the bottom of the river again. "...Misato wasn't the bait," Satoru admits. That point didn't come to his mind this time, because it wasn't the case, not in this nor in the previous timeline. "Because I knew Misato wasn't the murderer's target."

The vehicle enters that dreadful tunnel, red lights flashing in semi-darkness.

"Now you're calling him a 'murderer' and not a 'kidnapper'," Yashiro says. "You're acting like you're certain that there's a 'crime'."

"There would have been a crime. But there isn't one now, because I've prevented it."

Silence. Deafening silence. Satoru shifts his eyes to the steering wheel. Not yet.

Yashiro doesn't tap yet. "Don't you think you're taking this make-believe game too far?"

Satoru wants to respond with something blunt, to call out Yashiro, but holds back. He thinks about all the possible responses when a perfect one forms on his lips: "Even if it is so, I'm doing it to fill a hole in my heart."

He sees the way the murderer jolts in his seat. Finally. He got under his skin. "You're saying that..."

"Yes. I'm saying that this is a way for my, for my friends', and for these girls' vacuum to be filled. Unfortunately, it left one person empty — that would be the murderer. He noticed my advances and decided to take action against me. I'm his target. And I know that we aren't chasing that truck."

Satoru peers directly at Yashiro, finally. There, that blank look again, irresolute about the emotion he should express. Satoru must've robbed him of his "happy moment". There's a secondhand pang of guilt in his chest. He turns his head to the glove box. "I'm sorry," Satoru says, "this isn't your car, so I can't offer candy to make up for it."

As silence settles once again, uncertainty builds up. Perhaps Satoru was too direct. Maybe he should've let Yashiro have that "happy moment". What if taking it away was a mistake? He didn't mean to. Things just spilled and spiraled and now— who knows what's going to happen now?

But then his train of thought is derailed by a sound of laughter. Yashiro— he's laughing. Satoru stares at him. His shoulders shake, it looks like he's struggling not to double over since he still has to operate the car. It's not really a manic laughter, it would've been very innocent-sounding under any other circumstance, in fact, it sounds kind of genuine. The kind that infects you.

Satoru smiles dumbly at the sight. Yashiro soon gets calmer, wipes the corners of his eyes. "Oh, God, Satoru." And then his finger starts tapping.

"W-what?" Satoru stutters and his voice sounds weak. This— He didn't know he'd get affected this much.

The car exits the tunnel finally, darkened sky not meeting Satoru's eye as his gaze is only directed at Yashiro, whose mirthful face serves to swoon Satoru even harder.

"God," Yashiro repeats. "I can't believe you." He almost starts laughing again, but doesn't.

"W-why can't you?"

"You've got so much potential!" Yashiro shakes his head. "Such a shame that you won't last long."

The car takes a sharp turn as it takes a different road than Shiratori's truck. Enchantment dilutes with reality. Don't panic, Satoru. "Why? Aren't you proud of me?"

"Oh, yes I am. Would you mind telling me since when you knew?"

Since forever. "I can't come clear when it's certain that you want to kill me."

Yashiro tsks. "But Satoru... Did you really think you could win me over with your smarts? That I'd let you off the hook so easily?"

Tap, tap, tap. Panic, panic, panic. "Well, maybe—"

"You're playing a dangerous game Satoru. You shouldn't have gone this far if you knew that much. And now I've got no choice but to get rid of you."

"No, you can't—"

Yashiro doesn't let him talk. "I still can't believe this. My God. To be outsmarted by a kid until the very end. So embarrassing."

"Yashiro!"

"You even share my sentiments. How is this possible?"

Tap-tap-tap. "Stop that. Just listen to me. You don't—"

"Satoru, don't you think that our happiest moment gets updated every now and then?"

It's useless. He's rambling. Maybe he's going out of his mind. Satoru should've been more careful.

"I know. You've been chasing your happiest moment for a while now."

"Indeed. But today is finally it. I have what I wanted and it's finally mine."

Satoru searches his face, hoping to see some kind of an affirmation that sensei might be having second thoughts. But all he sees is the same ravenous grin his attempted murderer gave him over two decades ago when he was about to kill him.

The scenery is changing rapidly, they're nearing the river bank. Satoru's heart hammers in his chest. He needs to use his only weapon to get out of this.

"Don't you see how futile it is? Your 'happiest moment'?"

"Hm? And what do you mean by that?" Yashiro's tone sounds genuinely curious.

"It won't last. You'll kill me, and then it'll go away and you'll be forced to do it again. It won't fill the hole in your heart."

The man seems to tap a little slower. "What's that, you consider yourself an expert in the art of thrill-seeking? Hahaha, oh, you don't fail to amuse me, Satoru."

Amusement. That's the key. "Exactly. You find me amusing. In fact, I'm sure you've never been through anything like this before. It's fun, isn't it? I'm having fun playing this game too, you know."

Yashiro gives him a side glance with a squinted eye. "What are you implying?"

"It doesn't have to end like this. Don't you want to know how I figured everything out?"

"I suppose you're exceptionally smart. I was the same around your age. You'd make a fine accomplice if only your moral drive weren't so strong."

Satoru shakes his head. "I'm not smart. You have no idea how long it took me to get here. Don't you see? Don't you find it abnormal? I know way too much. If you kill me, you'll never know how—"

Unexpectedly, Yashiro's hand reaches over to pat Satoru's head. It's a swift motion and Satoru doesn't cognize it on time to shy away from it. The sentence he intended to say evaporates on his tongue like sugar.

"I know you're bluffing, Satoru. It's a part of your act. You think I don't know how that works?"

His hair left ruffled and his thoughts left sinking, Satoru can't form anything coherent after the superficially gentle touch. "I'm not bluffing..." he says quietly.

"We're more similar than I initially thought. Still, it was bold of you to think you can handle me all by yourself."

"I'm the only one who can." Satoru sighs, smoothing his hair. "But I'm not like you."

The man chuckles. "Let's see. You're the kind of manipulative rascal who likes it when things go his way. That's why you got all up in my business in the first place, that's why you involved your friends as well. You don't want it to be any other way, you won't have it any other way. You arrange everything to be exactly how you intended. But you're exceptional at hiding it behind good intentions."

This is ridiculous. Satoru glares at Yashiro. "You're wrong. You're describing yourself, not me."

"That is the point. Because we are alike."

"No!"

The car takes a turn. It's approaching that river bank steadily.

Satoru grabs at his seatbelt instinctively.  "Fine, even if we are alike, which we're not, why would you kill me then? Don't you want to have someone who understands you?"

Yashiro scoffs. "Oh, Satoru. It would be irresponsible to let someone just like me roam this earth. Besides, you know too much."

The car stops. Satoru's breath quickens. His face distorts into a panicked grin, he's sweating bullets. "But—" words, Satoru, use words, "isn't it strange? How I've seen right through you? How I've cornered you?"

Yashiro presses the button which rolls down the car's windows. "Yes. It's like you've seen the future."

"Well—" you can't reveal that you're from the future, he won't believe it, he'll laugh in your face and kill you, "it's way more convoluted."

Yashiro looks at him funny. "I don't doubt that."

"You don't understand," you need me! "if you do this, nothing is going to work out for you. You have to keep me alive."

Yashiro unfastens his own seatbelt. "And what, let you go home so you can call the police on me?"

Satoru vigorously shakes his head, voice distraught, "no, you don't have to let me go. You can— You could... You could let me stay with you..."

Yashiro reaches over for the duffel bag on the backseat. "Haha, why would I bother with that?" He unzips it to reveal the basketball. "I'm afraid it's a 'game over'. For you and me both."

"You think you'll just leave this town and that will be it? You're wrong! Everything will turn right against you, you'll be miserable, empty!..."

"Those are some great expectations you have," Yashiro says as he exits the car.

"No! Yashiro!"

He shuts the door. "Aw. What happened to 'sensei'?" he asks as he looks gleefully at Satoru through the open window.

"I just want to save you," Satoru tries, but Yashiro is putting the ball on the pedal. "I—"

I became obsessed with the idea of saving you and came back in time for you, and you're still murdering me. I was watched by your eyes that existed inside my head, and when it stopped happening I couldn't live without it. I met the you behind the glass and talked to you and looked at you and listened to your story and—

Everything Yashiro had said borne significance. Satoru simply had to pinpoint that something which could truly convince him to change his mind. His failed attempts at foresight brought him nowhere — brought him back to the start. There's no point in being vague now. He has to rub something personal. Something... very...

The car starts moving towards the waters. This is it. "I'm here to help you climb your spider's thread!" Satoru shouts in a broken childish voice, before the vehicle collapses into the river.

~

Cold water instantly flows in through the side windows of the vehicle, the front window cracks under pressure. Trying not to panic, Satoru's shaking hands pull out something from his jacket's inner pocket — they are large sewing scissors that he tried his best to not poke into as he carried them around.

He lines them up with the seatbelt and snips frantically, attempting to cut it off. As it turns out, it's not such an easy feat. The water is rising fast but only a portion of the thick fabric breaks. Soon he has to do it underwater as the numbing liquid rises to his hands.

Oh, God, he can't be in here, he'll fall into a coma again, or something much worse, and all of this would have been for nothing, he did it all wrong, he couldn't convince Yashiro, he failed, he can't— it's hard to breathe—

He holds his breath just in time before the water swallows him whole. He keeps trying to break the seatbelt, pushing with his whole body now, desperately trying to save himself, he needs more air, his body is growing weak, he can't do this—

Something pulls him. Something is trying to pull him up, then it clutches his arms. Then his hand, the one yielding the scissors is yanked, one time, two times, when suddenly nothing is holding his abdomen strapped to the seat. Something pulls him up by the armpits and he's lifted from the sitting position.

Satoru grabs onto whoever it is rescuing him with his free hand, the other still clutching the scissors in a numb grip. He helps himself up with his legs, and gasps as soon as his head is out of the water. It drips down his face and clogs his vision, but he can tell that he's being picked up bridal style. Satoru holds onto the other's body for dear life, heartbeat hammering against his chest in a pace intrinsic only to children.

At this point the identity of his savior is needlessly obvious — Yashiro-sensei is saving him from the very ordeal he put Satoru into. The boy has no time to question it — he's a soaking heap of limbs frost-bound by frigid air.

Laden with heavy dampness, Yashiro leaves the waters slowly. He releases the boy's body on the ground and Satoru slips out just like that, his ice sculpture posture breaking. Without someone else's supportive grasp, Satoru curls up in a ball and goes torpid, trembling ever so slightly.

In this exerted state, his awareness of Yashiro's towering presence is severely miserly. Large palms are pressed to his cheeks. Even though the man just went into the water as well, his hands feel hot on Satoru's face.

"Tell me," demands Yashiro. Satoru's eyes open in slits. He regards Yashiro's face which is right above his. The man looks overwrought. He doesn't seem to be affected by the terrible temperature in the slightest, rather by whatever it is that he wants to hear from Satoru. "Tell me now."

Satoru can't form words. Only small whimpers come out of his mouth.

"I need you to tell me," Yashiro explains a bit calmer. "Tell me, how did you learn about this?" He shakes his head. "You've pinned me down in nearly everything, you've deconstructed my plans, you've mentioned things that were strikingly similar to what I believe in, but this...

"I'm fairly certain you wouldn't guess this," says Yashiro. "So tell me. Tell me right now."

Satoru tries. His jaw keeps shivering, teeth grazing against each other.

"How do you know? Do you— no, no, why did you say that? What do you mean? Satoru."

Yashiro is squeezing his face painfully hard. Satoru tugs at his arms and wheezes, demonstrating that he can't speak while being held so viciously. The man's grip weakens.

Satoru swallows and prepares to speak without stuttering. "B-because I—" Shit.

Satoru tries again. "I know your future," he says in a hoarse whisper, breathing hard.

Yashiro stares at him levelly. This vague response might put him out of temper. It's uncertain what such strung up Yashiro is capable of — though it is not the first time that Satoru witnesses him in such a state, it's the first time that he for certain can't protect himself in any significant way.

Satoru searches those eyes, tries to read him, yet with a paralyzed body and a nebulous mind, Satoru can't possibly figure Yashiro out. All that he's capable of is locking eyes with the man, silently pleading for him to understand, breaths coming ragged out of his lungs.

But then Yashiro visibly relaxes. His expression turns calm and he draws back from the boy. Satoru, still jumpy, still on edge, still unable to read Yashiro, grabs for his forearms, "ahm," — a noise, a whine, escapes from his mouth. It's surely a sign that Satoru can't think straight and latches onto whatever warmth that remains, because, why would he hold onto the one that just tried to kill him? If anything, Yashiro was more likely to put Satoru right back into the drowned vehicle he pulled him out of (wouldn't that be funny).

Yashiro observes the small hands that cling to him with unhidden curiosity. His gaze shifts to Satoru's eyes again and in them he sees an unhidden plea. It's nothing like the looks those little girls had given him — not let me go, but keep me.

Yashiro puts his hands over Satoru's, squeezes his palms and leans over, his mouth just above Satoru's fingers and breathes. That warm sensation spreads beyond Satoru's hands — it surges through his whole body, all the way down to his toes.

Yashiro looks as though he made up his mind, as he pulls Satoru forward and flush against his chest. Satoru sucks in a labored breath, then out comes a hefty exhale, his exertion released all at once. This feels surreal. He clutches onto sensei's back, feeling his skin through the thin fabric of his wet shirt. Only then does he notice that the man is not wearing his blazer and trenchcoat.

Yashiro lifts up Satoru's jacket, which is something Satoru becomes instantly aware of, his heart a panicking bird caged in his chest, but it turns out, Yashiro only does so to wring out water from it. Then Yashiro hoists Satoru up, putting a supportive arm underneath his bottom, and stands up. Satoru wraps his arms around his neck and puts his head on his shoulder, like it is meant to be. In this moment their hold on each other doesn't feel inappropriate.

Yashiro picks something up from the ground — must be his dry clothing — before stepping away from the river bank and carrying Satoru elsewhere. The boy sighs. He's rocked in rhythm with Yashiro's pace. It feels tranquil for a brief moment, until the reality settles.

Beyond this point, everything is an uncharted territory. Being pressed to a warmer human being may be a better alternative to the needle-pricking coldness of a March's river, yet it's not certain whether this being is human at all. Wracked by sudden wariness, Satoru lets himself go limp in his teacher's grip.

And then Yashiro begins tapping against the boy's shoulder.

He's going to kill me, it dawns. There is nothing familiar left in this situation. Satoru is out from the flooded car, but with that he no longer knows what future awaits him. It's a brand new reality. Now there's no turning back.

They're in the middle of nowhere, only faint misty darkness circling their forms, unrecognizable to anyone who's lucky enough to stay inside their vehicles driving down the highway. One of these forms happens to be small and assailable and it's being carried off to somewhere unknown.

The advantage is lost on Satoru. He's got nothing left. Nothing but...

"Oi," Satoru speaks up hoarsely, "w-where are you carrying me?" No response follows, only the sound of snow colliding with shoes and wind's whistle. "Yashiro..."

Satoru's head feels heavy, just like his limbs, he'd like to at least thrash a little, just to show resistance, but all of his energy which he put into getting up to this point seemed to flee.

"Ya-Yashiro. Hey. I said, hey! What are you—"

Just then, Yashiro appears to slow down and one of his hands supporting Satoru's weight is lifted. Satoru jerks up and tenses, afraid to slip and crash to the ground. He clings to the man like a koala would to a tree. Satoru has seen koalas once, in a zoo. Their eyes were so black, like two buttons, and they resembled stuffed bears more than living creatures.

This might be an effect of hypothermia, Satoru thinks curtly, his thoughts get all mushed into a stream of dumb associations and he tries to focus on the situation at hand. There's a strange sound, like something metallic and small hitting something equally small and metallic in a sort of a tuneless jingle.

Keys. Yashiro is fetching a key ring. Airi had a chick keychain on hers, she left it along with Satoru's key back in his apartment, and deep down he had hoped it meant that she would return...

No! Stay in reality, Fujinuma Satoru!

The car's back door opens — this one is apparently exactly like the one they'd just abandoned, so eerily the same that Satoru fears this might be a round two (wouldn't that be hilarious).

Yashiro gently sets Satoru down on the backseat, then slams the door shut, the rough sound making the boy start. That's when he starts shaking from cold too.

Yashiro walks around the front of the car and takes over driver's seat. He meticulously starts the engine and turns the heater on. The first blow of the heated air nearly scorches Satoru's face with how hot it feels.

"You better take those clothes off," Yashiro sighs as he pulls on his darkened red tie. Once the meaning of his words reach the part of Satoru's brain in charge of cognizance, the boy backs away into the corner of the backseat.

"L-l-l-like h-hell I would!" he attempts to bark, but it comes off more like a whimper. He forgets that he's in fact a forty-something year-old man.

Satoru witnesses Yashiro peeling off his own shirt. Before Satoru can see even a segment of sensei's naked skin, he hides his head in his knees, eyes promptly covered with his arms. "I-I-I didn't mean any of this when I a-asked you t-to take me w-with—"

"Calm down, Satoru."

"N-no! You got the wrong idea!"

"Calm. Down." Yashiro's voice is emotionless. Satoru breathes to calm himself, but doesn't look over. Slowly, he regains his reasoning. Yashiro is not like that. He's not interested in young children. "Do me a favor and hand me the suitcase under the front seat," Yashiro says.

Suitcase? Satoru's eyes peek down. He sees a handle sticking out from under the seat across him. Satoru reaches for it, facing away to not accidentally look at Yashiro. The case feels sturdy and heavy. Satoru is not strong enough to lift it, so it collides with the floor as he pulls it out. He glances at it out of curiosity — brown leather and rounded corners, the type that shuts with clamps. Then, Satoru witnesses an arm (a completely sleeveless, bare arm) reach for its handle, so Satoru jolts his hand away as if from fire.

He hears the pleasant clicking sound of the portmanteau opening once sensei places the thing on his lap, but Satoru doesn't risk looking, no matter how curious he is of its contents. He sits there, shaking and soaking wet until some piece of clothing is thrown his way.

"Cover yourself with this, but take off those wet garments first. Don't worry, I won't look," Yashiro says.

Satoru looks at the unidentified cloth, realizing it's Yashiro's black blazer. He looks up finally and sees Yashiro buttoning up a dry grey shirt, exactly the same as the wet one draped over the passenger seat. Inside the suitcase there was a spare change of clothes.

Satoru avoids looking at the front seat from then on, as he's aware that Yashiro must change his pants as well. Biting down on his cheek he attempts to take off his own damp and sticky clothes as fast as possible. He doesn't take time to arrange them on the seat for them to dry, too preoccupied with the fact that he has to hide from Yashiro's eyes just in case.

Satoru falters when he has to take off his underwear. He keeps it on, despite it being wet. He doesn't want to end up completely naked.

Yashiro seems to have changed into his spare outfit entirely. He shrugs on his blazer and Satoru notices that it doesn't look as crisp as the one he's using to cover himself. That means Yashiro gave Satoru the spare one.

"Thank you," Satoru says without thinking. He bites his tongue right after. It's probably heavily inappropriate to thank the man that just tried to kill him.

Yashiro turns his head towards Satoru. The blank look on his face changes into something resembling a normal human expression. He smiles wearily. His hair is wet and droplets gather on the tips of his bangs. Satoru casts his eyes away, unsure what else to say.

"What now?" asks Yashiro. Satoru's posture stiffens. The big blazer shields him, his body language just as his skin should be invisible to Yashiro, but he can't shake off the feeling of Yashiro seeing right through.

"If it's possible, then..." Satoru begins, but the thought gets lost as if blown away by the harsh wind. Satoru rubs his feet together. Clings harder to the fabric protecting him. "I wonder if you could..."

"Ha-ah," Yashiro drawls out and pandiculates. He turns away and continues outstretching his limbs, a few bones pop. He makes a motion to look at his wristwatch. "Crap. I think the water messed it up."

Mildly puzzled by Yashiro's sudden switch to informal speech, Satoru pulls out his own hand — his watch is waterproof — and squints to see the digits. "Uh, it's almost six."

Yashiro looks at Satoru all open-eyed, then notices that the boy has his own watch and soothes. "Oh, good. We've gotta get going," he says and pulls on the gear shift.

~

Yashiro drives him away. Satoru isn't sure if having a chit chat would be appropriate right now. He has a plethora of questions, but knows not what to begin with.

"You keep a change of clothes in your car," he states, for no reason, just to voice it.

"Yes. It's important to always look presentable. To have a back up. You never know when you might need it. I rarely stain myself, but it happens. I mostly change to avoid the smell, if there was left any."

Great. Now Satoru knows more disturbing details about this serial killer's daily life. Well, if he started this small talk...

"This car," he tries again, "is it one of your dummies?"

Apparently Yashiro decides to just roll with it, answering without second thoughts. "The 'dummy' was the one we left behind. My standards for choosing a car are a bit different from others. There should be several cars of the same make and color in the area, so that I can use them whenever necessary. This is the first time when it has come in handy—"

"I knew that," Satoru says.

Tap-tap. "I wonder how."

Satoru turns his head away. "I can't tell you."

"Why not?"

Wouldn't want to lose... "...my advantage over you."

Yashiro squints at Satoru through the rearview mirror. "'Advantage', huh."

Oh crap. He didn't mean to say that.

"You're pretty weird, Satoru. You try to be secretive, then say something frank out of the blue."

"I have a bad habit of blurting things sometimes..."

"Ha. See, now was the high time to stay mysteriously quiet," Yashiro says. "Should I just wait until you blurt the truth about what you meant, back there?"

Satoru shakes his head. "It's going to take some time before it can be explained."

"How much?"

Satoru considers it. "...a while."

Yashiro expels a laugh. "Ha! So it's a yet another game with you. This time, a waiting game."

"You started it."

"Me? Weren't you the one who toyed with me, who made me question things and forced me to make impulsive decisions?"

"Yes, but I couldn't not have done it. You started it by targeting the people I cherish. I had no choice but to stop you."

Yashiro's voice is sharp. "If you knew about me, why didn't you go to the police?"

But Satoru's is sharper, when he retorts: "Because I don't want you to get jailed!"

It seemed as though the man wanted to say something next, but his breath hitched. He looks at Satoru again, this time questioning. "...oh?" he says. "I thought you simply lacked evidence."

"To hell with evidence!" Satoru attempts to shout, but his voice is hoarse. He lowers it to not strain it. "I stand by what I said. I know your future. I'm not here to bring you down, not anymore."

Yashiro seems to think these words over. Satoru can tell that he's trying to make connections, that his brain is always going, always trying to reason and externalize the situation. "Then, what are you after?"

"I seek..." Satoru pauses. He needs to word it right. So that it becomes real as he says it.

"I seek two things: the salvation of a sinner; and the town where I am missing.

"I require both, not just one condition. If I were to stay here, the future would warp in directions I am not ready to face; if I were to forsake you, the future I would have to swallow is no better than a tobacco infused candy.

"The only way for these two things to work is if I'm alive, and with you. In other words... I need you to kidnap me, Yashiro."

He exhales. Like a weight off his chest. "Please," he whispers, barely audibly so he's sure that Yashiro doesn't hear it.

The response is not immediate. It actually takes Yashiro a while to ponder it over.

He speaks up, finally, "is kidnapping your go-to way of handling troubles?"

"I'm stupid, so that's the only thing I came up with," Satoru admits sheepishly.

"I see. You've intrigued me enough, Satoru. We'll see where this goes."

"I won't cause any trouble. I promise."

"'Promise', huh... As always you're quite eager to give everything your best effort. Yet still... I'm not sure I can trust you so easily."

"I understand. If that's the case, sensei, I'll just have to prove to you that I can be trusted. In fact, I'll come up with a rule that I can't break. Let's see..." Satoru thinks about it, then offers with a smile, "How about this: if I ever attempt to escape, you can kill me."

Yashiro's eye meets with Satoru's through the rearview mirror. The dolose glint in it makes Satoru's skin prickle. "Deal," Yashiro says.

~

Chapter Text

The monochrome snowscape that is visible through the car's window is passing fleetingly, parts of it blurry, only the dark cloudy sky dragging by slowly. Snowflakes cling to the glass — attracted to the car's warmth, they melt instantly — turn into drops that are not quite like marbles, yet they still give Satoru a fuzzy, nostalgic feeling.

To think that, not long ago, the exact replica of this van was driving him in the opposite direction, the direction of his uncertain, decade-and-a-half dormant "death". Escaping that paralyzing state is surely, a godsend. What lies ahead however, is likely hellscape.

Satoru knows what sensei smells like, now. In his arms after an agonizing cold bath, and here, enveloped by his blazer, he has caught the scent or rather, the scentlessness of him. It's an inenarrable mix of many aromas — a person's skin, the bodywash or soap he uses, the tincture of places he's been to and people he's come in contact with. Satoru couldn't describe it even if he tried, but to him it's a good kind of smell, the type that he can't help but relish.

It's head-spinning, in all honesty. Everything about this moment is unparalleled. A long drive somewhere where Satoru will soon be calling home. Enfettered by the smell of somebody who'd just tried to kill him, yet has killed himself in the future in an endeavor to make this very moment real.

Was this really reality? Or did he in fact not escape that sunken vehicle, now thrust into a wishful vision of what should have happened?

"Are you real, Yashiro?" Satoru asks sleepily, then yawns. His eyelids feel heavy, but every time they come to a close, he flutters them open in a struggle to stay awake.

So warm. So warm in this car that his attempted murderer is driving. Driving where? Who knows. Who cares. Maybe none of this is real. Maybe Satoru is dead. Does it matter? It probably doesn't. As long as he can stay comfortable, in this blissful, dream-like state just a little longer...

Hands on him. Whose hands? Yashiro's? That can't be. The man is driving. But that smell of his, so delicious. He would drink it up if he could. He drinks it up actually. Tastes nice.

But how come Yashiro is driving? Isn't he dead?

Distantly, a sound of something shattering is heard. Who hears it? Satoru does. Who broke it? It's uncertain who did. But why? Why would he do such a thing? Couldn't he not do it? Couldn't he just wait? (Wait wait wait wait, that's all I'd been doing, waiting waiting waiting.)

If he'd just waited, they'd be able to embrace properly when the right time came. But now that time, that presence, those eyes, were nill. No epilogue. (Selfish. You and your secrets.)

Suddenly, Satoru is jolted out of his muddled head space back into reality. He's convinced that he's falling out of the car as its door got opened, so he grips onto the sheets for balance, but then, sheets, he realizes, sheets don't belong in a car, do they?

That means he's in a bed, and therefore, in a room, and also, in total darkness.

Satoru's head swings around. Movement comes hard to him, which isn't natural, shouldn't be natural. His childhood body is the definition of healthy. It shouldn't experience such fatigue. So he's an adult again? No, no, no.

He touches the bedding that he's lying on. It doesn't feel like a futon. There's an edge to his right, and a wall to his left. So, it really is a bed. If he can move, then he didn't awake from a coma. And if he's on a bed, then he's neither back in his old apartment, nor back in his childhood home. The scent of Yashiro is still real in his nostrils. It was all real.

He grunts, and the voice that comes out is that of his childhood self. Not an adult, then. He didn't experience a Revival that took him ahead, gladly. But then, where is he?

Satoru tries to get used to the darkness, to see the room's outline, but it's a futile effort. A source of light is nowhere to be found. Completely pitch black. His breathing speeds up the more that darkness clams to him — he can't even see his own body, yet— something feels off...

Satoru bends both of his legs, but only his right lifts up. The left is firmly strapped to something. He senses, acutely now, that it has gone numb because there is something wrapped around his ankle.

"Yashiro!" Satoru yells out in a hoarse, incredibly hoarse voice. He never knew his childish voice could sound like this. He sits up despite how feeble he feels and a chill runs down his upper arms. He's not wearing a shirt. "Yashiro!"

Satoru reaches for his foot and feels up the bind. Sticky and flat against him, it's duct tape, which connects him to the metal frame of the bed and keeps his left foot inflexible. He cannot loosen it despite his best efforts — the efforts in question aren't too impressive either way, for his muscles are weakened to the point that he can't even clench his hands.

"God damn it," Satoru hisses through his gritted teeth. He yanks his leg, but that doesn't help. Where is Yashiro?

An immediate answer to that thought comes — somewhere in the room, a door opens. Satoru's head snaps up at the source of light. He squints, as it's too bright. In the doorframe he sees a figure, undoubtedly Yashiro.

"What the hell did you do?" Satoru snarls. The man walks over the threshold and flicks the light switch on the wall. It blinds Satoru.

"Don't do that," says Yashiro. Before Satoru's eyes adjust, his wrist is grabbed and pulled away from his ankle. Yashiro easily pushes him back to lie on the bed and towers over him.

"Don't touch me," Satoru groans and wrings his wrist out of the man's grip. "What's the meaning of this?"

The room has been lit up, but he can't take a good look at it because of Yashiro's overbearing presence standing in the way of his sight. Satoru notices that he has a plastic cup in his hands.

"You need to eat this," Yashiro says.

"Untie me!"

"No."

Satoru glares daggers at his overzealous "kidnapper". Yashiro offers him the cup. "Here. Eat."

It's a cup of instant noodles. Flavorous and steamy, Satoru realizes that the last time he ate anything was in the morning, back home. His eyes gleam and hands inch to grab the cup, but he backs away and looks at Yashiro's face indignantly.

"Where am I? How did I get here?" Satoru's voice has a growl to it. His sore throat is only partly the reason — it's mostly because he's trying to sound really angry.

Yashiro smirks. "You don't remember?" He hands Satoru the cup. There are clean chopsticks on top. "Eat it first. Then I'll tell you."

The golden broth and succulent noodles look alluring, but the idea of eating them while tied to a bed is far from it.

Satoru glances at his foot. "I want it off."

Yashiro leaves Satoru's side and the man in a boy's body manages to have a glance at the room. Western-style door that Yashiro shut after turning the lights on — the first thing that catches Satoru's eye, it being his only means of escape. The handle is horizontal, no lock mechanism in sight. A light switch on the right side of the door, which was responsible for lighting up two rectangular ceiling lamps that are a bit too dim and give the room a gloom look. The ceiling is made of wood, darker in color than the plain light floor. The walls have a sallow color.

Satoru shifts his eyes across the room, ignoring Yashiro's backside to memorize all of the details as much as possible. A sliding closet at the wall opposite of the bed. Next to the bed — a worn desk and a chair. Above the desk, with the same silver duct tape as on Satoru's leg, two flat plywood sheets are attached to the wall. Are they covering the windows? That would explain why it's so dark in here. The presence of windows is comforting, because that excludes the probability of Satoru being trapped in some basement.

Yashiro takes the chair by its back and turns it around, then sits on it facing Satoru, his back narrow, not hunching, and palms flat on top of his lap. Satoru notes that the man is not wearing a blazer, but the rest of his clothes are the same. "Go on, eat," Yashiro says.

Satoru's brows furrow. "Remove it." The cup of ramen is no longer steaming.

Yashiro sighs. "It's duct tape. It was a pain to apply it, it's going to be a pain to remove it. Let's not do that. Aren't you hungry?"

He is. But more than that, Satoru is stubborn. "I don't want it."

"You need it."

"I don't want this shit on my ankle!"

"Ouch. Language."

Satoru grits his teeth. His stomach rumbles. He— he really is hungry.

"Fuck you," Satoru says and picks up the noodles with the chopsticks. He sucks them into his mouth ravenously. Yashiro's lips are spread in a smug smile. The urge to spit out the food right on top of his pristine white shirt is strong.

The meal is extremely delicious, Satoru only gets hungrier the more he devours. He tries to eat it as fast as possible. He's hungry for answers, too.

After finishing the broth which burned his tongue a little, he wipes his mouth. "There. Now tell me. Don't lie."

"When did I ever lie to you?" Yashiro says, amused. He crosses his arms. "What's the last thing you remember?"

"I was in the car with you."

"Okay. You fell asleep. I checked to see if you were pretending; you were not. I bought a can of warm soup and some sleeping medicine at the convenience store."

"You!—"

"I'm not finished. I added the medicine into the soup. Sleepy as you were, you drank it all without notice. You were out cold from that point onward. I brought you in here."

"You dosed me?! You dosed my—" Satoru gawks at the just finished cup in his hands. He throws it across the room. "You son of a!—"

"Careful. Don't stain me please."

Satoru's dismayed eyes look over his teacher's figure once again. "White... It's a white shirt. But you were wearing a gray one on the fifteenth..."

Yashiro closes his eyes. His finger taps over his folded arm.

"How long have I been in here?!"

"It's the seventeenth. Evening," Yashiro admits.

Then for two days straight... Yashiro's been keeping him asleep?! Satoru lurches at sensei in pure rage, not caring that his leg is stuck tied to the bed, but as he emerges his blanket slips and he notices something. "What the?..."

Satoru catches the blanket and his bum lowers back on the bed. He's not just lacking a shirt, he's completely naked. "What... did you do?..." he asks, deflated.

"With what? Oh, nothing. I had to take your briefs off since they were damp. I didn't bother with getting you new ones."

His hands look so weak. His childish hands, and his thin legs and his ankle that won't budge, not even a little. He notices bruises that were left on both his wrists and on the other ankle. So he was tied to this bed... For forty eight hours. He's weak, and Yashiro used it to his own advantage.

"Why?" Satoru asks numbly.

Yashiro stands up, turns the chair back, pushing it under the desk. "I told you that I don't trust you."

"What was... happening? These past days? Mom..." he feels like he's losing sight.

"Sleep tight, Satoru." His vision blurs. He wants to protest, but to lay down feels pretty good too. Just a little bit... It's going to last just a little...

~

Next time Satoru awakes is not as serene. He jerks from his sleep in gasps, heaves. The room itself suffocates him, his body feels as hot as the sun and breaths don't come naturally to him — each one is tearing into his throat like a forceful stab of a cleaver. In a frenzy, Satoru is convinced that Yashiro has given him something to make him suffer in such a way. In reality, it is simply a fever.

While thrashing around, his head and hands collide with the wall — that's how Yashiro hears him and comes to his aid; after getting offered a bottleneck, Satoru swallows the water greedily, but when he comes to his senses, he swings his arm, sending the water bottle spilling all over, — "I don't want to sleep!", he protests hoarsely.

Satoru is blessed to not know how close he came to death because of that harsh action. In lieu of a coup de grâce, all Satoru gets is a cold wet cloth on his forehead. His eyes squint open to search the face of the man who imprisoned him, but a dark silhouette heading for the doorway is all he sees. Satoru has nothing else to do but seek relief from the pain in his temples in this damp piece of courtesy. The door shuts and darkness breathes in unison with Satoru.

Because of the constant mirk in the room, every time Satoru wakes up feels like the same moment, a continuous anguish. Like he got himself stuck in a time loop, where the night lasts forever and pain doesn't quench.

His dreams are repetitive and invasive, like all fever dreams. His sense of self is lost in the vastness of his fearful mind. He's hunted, and haunted, stalked and preyed upon, he doesn't get a break.

He barely notices slight changes. The tepid cloth becoming newly refreshing. The presence that comes and goes, that ebbs and flows just like the tremor of his limbs, neither soothing nor distressing, because, at the very least, it's there for him to make him feel real.

The facet between reality and dreams is too fuzzy, ethereal. He can't tell what is happening and what he only imagines to have happened. The only certainty that belongs in both realms is the tight band around his foot.

"Take it off..." Satoru whines out.

The room is dimly lit by a fluorescent lamp which now stands on the desk. Yashiro is working on something under the lamp's radiance. His student's intelligible cry catches his attention.

"Take it off, please, it hurts..."

He walks over to Satoru and studies his expression. Just as pained, but he seems to be conscious. Satoru lifts his left arm weakly, gesturing.

"Please..." Satoru pleads, rolling his eyes up and opening his lids to look up at Yashiro. He breathes through his parted lips.

Yashiro walks off and Satoru grits his teeth, shuts his eyes tight. He can't feel his foot. He can move his thumbs but can't feel them. The only sensation is sort of a deep, neverending ache in the arch of his foot.

He hears steps again, returning to his side. Then, a hand cages his calf gently. Snip. Snip. Snip, snip. Scissors, they must be scissors, he's using scissors to free him at last. Satoru doesn't feel anything change in his foot, but the pace of his heartbeat speeds up.

As he peels the tape off, Yashiro sees that the foot has swollen up. The circulation was only partly cut, so it should recover in no time. That is what Yashiro says, but it doesn't sound like anything, because everything around Satoru has been balancing on the brink between dream and reality.

"Thank you," he replies regardless, because his mother taught him to be polite.

He's ready to fall back into the abyss (he can't call that torment sleep), but Yashiro doesn't seem to be done. He tells Satoru to wait for a minute and walks off again.

Satoru strains his eyelids to open again. The room looks just the same, except for the lamp on the desk, and papers. The door is open. The hallway light (or whatever it is there outside) has a different shade from the lamp. Even though he's not attached to the bed anymore, no thoughts of trying to escape cross his mind. Needles are starting to assault his foot on the inside.

Yashiro returns. Carrying a basin and a washcloth — Satoru doesn't want to stay awake for this, but it looks like he has to.

Yashiro washes the boy's body with lukewarm water. It's like the times his mother tended to his fever-ridden self in his childhood. It's like the times his mother tended to his comatose self in the rest of it.

He doesn't have the self awareness to not find these touches soothing. Calming. Freshening.

"Do you need to go?" asks Yashiro.

Satoru knits his brows and nods, reluctant. Yashiro gets a bedpan from under the bed and lets him.

After all is done, Yashiro leaves the room. He returns soon enough, but goes straight to the desk. Satoru is free to doze off now. But while he still has the strength, he chooses to speak up.

"You didn't have to... Do that. I won't run."

Yashiro does not respond.

"Please don't... Don't tie me again. Don't put me to sleep."

No reply.

Not that Satoru needs a reply. Not getting thrown away is quite enough.

"You were so... Handsome. In prison. All the time. I was... Jealous."

The sound of someone's pen against the paper halts.

"Can you tell me more about it?" Yashiro asks carefully.

"Haha," Satoru says, not laughs, "all you care about, is that it? And me?"

"Okay. What would I have to give you so that you answer my questions?"

"Just..." yourself, Satoru thinks, but in this aweary state, it's easier to filter words, "don't kill me and don't torture me. Eventually," he says, and that's the most he can offer.

~

At first, seeing the ceiling so clearly above him, stuns Satoru. The room looks different than before, Satoru wonders if he was moved places.

"You've opened your eyes."

He turns his head toward that voice. And sees Yashiro. On the chair next to him. There's a pillow on Yashiro's lap.

"Good morning," Yashiro says. Was he just sitting there watching Satoru? Then it becomes obvious why everything appears a little different. There's natural light. One of the pieces of plywood is not attached, light seeps through the window. The room looks bluish.

"What day is it?" Satoru asks. His voice is very small and husky.

"Sunday," Yashiro replies.

"Which is?..."

"It's the 20th. Morning."

Satoru sighs. He turns to lay on his side facing Yashiro, but feels a sharp twinge in his ankle. "Ow!" His leg instinctively bends, and he realizes that it's no longer attached to the bed. "What h-happened to my..."

"It may be a little sore for a while, but it should be fine."

"Oh," Satoru says, clinging to the sheets. He looks Yashiro's sitting posture up and down, and asks the only thing he can think of: "Why are you holding the pillow?"

Yashiro doesn't smile nor frown. He appears to be in his emotionless state; it's weird how he can switch from a normal emotive human to a bland husk of a person in a blink of an eye. "It's soft," is all Yashiro says.

"Okay," Satoru says, he suspects something ominous so doesn't pry any more. "Can you tell me what was happening the past few days?"

Yashiro nods. "I didn't intervene with it too much, so I don't know the exact details. I presume your mother went to the police on the same day when you didn't return home, but I don't think they took action immediately. I know how these things work. They probably assured her that you were staying at a friend's place.

"Following that, she started obsessively calling your friends's parents. She called me as well. I told her that I've seen you last in class. The next day at school, I simply marked you as absent.

"On Thursday, the day I let you wake up, I got a call from your mother. Apparently she didn't want to wait for the police to take action and got the help of volunteers. She said that the search effort was limited due to weather conditions. It has been snowing for a couple of days. However, they did succeed in finding your backpack and belongings at the Wakaba Gymnasium. It had been taken into the staff room by the local janitor on the day that you disappeared. Presumably the police were informed and from thenceforth are treated as a missing person.

"On Friday I kept you asleep again, no calls from your mother. I was told to tell the students that you were sick. Then came Saturday, and wouldn't you know it, you actually got sick. I had to transfer between places, from my place of stay to here, to tend to you. That's about it."

Satoru listens cautiously. He breathes out once Yashiro is finished. Hearing about his mother's devastation is heartbreaking. It's better to distract himself. "You mentioned 'your place of stay'. If this isn't your home, then where is this?"

"It's a house I own. But I don't live here. This place is a backup."

"Ah," Satoru isn't surprised, "you and your backups, as always."

Yashiro finally lets an emotion creep on his face. Something like contentment, but not exactly. "How are you feeling today?"

"I—" the question catches Satoru off guard. Mentally he's feeling extremely drained. But he doubts Yashiro is asking that. "I guess better than before. My head hurts a little. And my foot," Satoru winces as he tries to flex his ankle.

"Here, drink it," Yashiro offers Satoru a bottle of water.

Satoru squints at it in suspicion.

Yashiro sighs. "Look at the cap. It's sealed. I couldn't lace it even if I wanted to."

Satoru takes the bottle, still in doubt. "When I said I needed you to kidnap me, I didn't mean I needed to get tied to a bed and get force fed sleeping pills," Satoru says.

"You should've been more specific," deadpans Yashiro.

Satoru checks the cap, and it really is sealed. He opens it and drinks. "I need to go to the toilet," he admits after finishing. "And to a normal one, okay?"

Yashiro seems to think this over. "Okay, follow me," he says as he stands up.

"W-wait! I'd like my clothes back."

"They're not here," says Yashiro.

"What? Where are they?"

"Not here. I don't have anything to offer but the blanket for now."

Looks down on his frail self. There's no choice but to wrap himself with his thin blanket and hope for the best. He gathers it around himself clumsily. Sets his feet on the floor. Yashiro is waiting by the door.

Satoru stands up and pain shoots through his left leg. But it's bearable. He hobbles towards Yashiro, making a point with his expression of disdain directed at him.

Yashiro opens the door. The change of scenery is like a breath of fresh air. Even though the hallway doesn't look that much different, with the same walls and floors as in Satoru's room. There are four doors down the hall, and a staircase leading downstairs. So this is a two-story building?

Yashiro leads Satoru to one of the doors and opens it for him. A small toilet room, nothing special. Satoru walks in and closes the door. He pricks up his ears, but hears not a sound. "Hey, you don't have to stand there!", he yells, after which Yashiro walks away a little. What a pain.

After Satoru is done, he walks out the door and sees Yashiro still standing there, leaning on the wall by the next door, waiting. Satoru raises his arms, making sure to keep the blanket pressed to his body with his elbows.

"I need to wash my hands."

"The washbasin is in this room," Yashiro gestures with a nod to the door closest to him.

Satoru walks into the equally simple, matching washroom. Under Yashiro's gaze, Satoru rinses his hands. He looks in the mirror. This worn our expression... He's pretty sure he's never seen his child self look that pale.

He evens out his bed hair, the reflection of Yashiro behind him looks particularly interested in Satoru's ruffling.

He wonders if Yashiro is trying to read his body language. Weirdo. Satoru checks his mouth. "I need to brush my teeth." He breathes on his hand. "Ew."

"I don't have a toothbrush for you."

"You don't have anything. Aren't you supposed to be the king of spare stuff?"

Yashiro doesn't get the joke. "That applies only to things useful for my plans."

"Ugh." Satoru leaves the washroom with a scowl. "I can't believe I still forget about it sometimes."

Yashiro cocks his head. "About what?"

"You know... That you're... You."

Satoru takes a step in the direction of the staircase, but Yashiro's hand emerges and pushes Satoru's chest, blocking the way.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Huh? I thought—"

"Back to your room."

"Why?" Satoru raises his voice.

Yashiro skews at Satoru's smaller form from the distance of his height which right then becomes dismally apparent, just as the imbalance of their physical strengths. What Satoru must sound like when he attempts to be threatening, is akin to a puppy's yapping.

"I won't do anything stupid," Satoru tries to convince, but Yashiro won't budge.

"Let's go." Yashiro leads the boy back into the room. He closes the door after they enter. "Sit down."

Satoru obeys, still pointedly not allowing his glower to drop. He settles on the edge of the bed and sinks his fingers into its mattress. Yashiro walks through the room slowly and Satoru's follows his movement with his eyes. He lets himself take a wistful glance at the shut door. Making a run for it would only make things worse. Well, at least this room is not so bad when there's natural light—

Yashiro picks up a piece of plywood— it still has tape on —to attach it back to the window.

"No!" Satoru pipes, sliding on the side of bed in Yashiro's direction, anger of his expression replaced with fear. "I don't want to be in the dark, please keep it open!"

Yashiro pauses. He doesn't look at Satoru, rather somewhere out the window. He puts the piece on the desk and turns to the boy. "How do I know that this is not a trick?"

Satoru looks puzzled. "A trick?"

"Yes. You've been missing for a couple of days now. All it takes is for you to escape and point your finger at me. What if that's your plan?"

"I—" Satoru shakes his head. "No. No, I wouldn't do that!"

Yashiro crosses his arms. "I can't know for sure, can I?"

Satoru looks down in defeat. It's only natural that Yashiro doesn't trust him. It's only natural... Just like how Satoru doesn't know if Yashiro put something in his drink, Yashiro doesn't trust Satoru's intentions. They're like two wild animals, put in the same cage, snarling at each other from the different ends.

"I'm... I'm so stupid," says Satoru. "I'm not smart, at all. I thought I figured it all out, yet... I didn't think ahead of what's going to happen. I thought that, as long as you don't send me sinking down that river, as long as I'm alive, that everything will be fine. But you still tried to kill me. And you still..."

"So it was your plan. You thought you could appeal to Mr. Murderer and make him lose his guard."

"It's not like that."

"You might be treating it like one, but this isn't a game, Satoru. Just because you somehow took a peek into my mind, doesn't mean you get the right to—"

"Don't you get it?!" Satoru interrupts, "I'm not just a kid playing a game with you! I won't unexpectedly quit or get tired of it and go back to my old life! I cast it all alway just to— Just because!—"

Satoru can't say it. His throat is closing up. He covers his face with his hands and cowers on the bed. He bites on his lip, but tears still gather in his eyes.

This is all messed up. He can't make sense of anything. Why did Satoru sacrifice it all for the man who made him into a captive? Just because he couldn't live without him?

He was following his gut. His... The hole in his heart.

Pat pat. Yashiro pats Satoru's head. Is this supposed to be a gesture of reassurance? Although Satoru has compared himself to a puppy recently, he's sure that he wouldn't wag his tail if he had one. It feels hollow, artificial, a movement that is a replica of a genuine head pat, perhaps deliberately so.

Yashiro's hand lingers there, not directly on top but curved around the back of Satoru's head, the side of his palm a whisker's breadth away from coming in contact with Satoru's ear helix that peeks from beneath his unkempt hair. He feels the radiance of it, its heaviness and broadness and the reality of it. The hand that belongs to Yashiro, touching him — is this why he came back? Because neither the man behind the glass nor the ghost could bestow something as simple as this, as barren as it is? He can count the amount of touches they shared on his fingers. God (or whomever controls the Revivals) knows — it's not enough. Even now, when it's so inert and rigorous, so prepotent that it could pin Satoru's small body with no effort, it's not nearly enough.

Satoru shifts his hands, tears retreated just as quickly as they formed, and peeks at Yashiro through the slits between his fingers. The man's eyes are narrowed, he's not looking at Satoru's face, rather, somewhere above him. The sight reminds him of something, but he can't put a finger on it — where, at what point in time, has he seen that expression? Yashiro looks confused, no— Conflicted.

Satoru knows the threat. It's answers that Yashiro wants most, like in a future before this one, he thinks that he'll dispose of Satoru as soon as he gets them. Satoru's words are a weapon indeed, one which can turn against him should he blurt the wrong thing, or say too much, or speak not enough.

Although, Yashiro did evince a tremendous amount of patience when he awaited answers for a good chunk of his life without a proper guarantee of ever getting them. Still, it's easier to be patient with a mute, nonthreatening comatose child that might pass on his own accord; the same patience isn't exactly applicable to a rowdy and lively brat who refuses to come clear no matter what and could slip through Yashiro's fingers should he allow too much freedom.

Satoru understands why Yashiro feels the need to keep him tied to a bed in an unconscious state, just as well as he understands his own comparative insignificance to him. To Satoru, now, there is too no guarantee. He can't be forthright with Yashiro until—

Until what? Until he starts liking you? You're aiming too high.

No, not that. He doesn't need to be liked. The mere fact that he is here, that he's still alive, should be enough. And yet... Even if he can't be liked, he...

"I... I don't want to be hated," Satoru says in a small voice.

Yashiro's fixated posture jolts, his chin tilting downward and eyes opening wider to finally meet with Satoru's face that is now no longer concealed by his hands. Their eyes meet, not acutely, without a challenge or an ensuing battle, but with softness, Satoru's emitting an undiscovered sadness and Yashiro's lenient, retired from accusations.

Yashiro pulls his hand away — its press has already molded into Satoru's heart and will stay there long after this is over. "I don't hate you," he says. Satoru's expression doesn't change. "Even though you've meddled with my plans," the man continues, "I don't feel any grudge. If anything, I'm impressed. You've put great effort in your deed. Even though I suspected you to be onto me, I never expected for things to go quite this way. You keep surprising me. And what you say, it's like... Like I anticipate every word." Yashiro rubs his own shoulder blade. A motion very uncharacteristic of him, the actual him, that is. "That's why I suppose I don't hate you."

The man's figure dwells in that pose, his eyes now directed away, eyelids lowered just enough to give his expression a coy undercurrent but not low enough to appear disingenuous. Though mentally drained and embarrassingly needy, Satoru is capable of deducting that this display right here is in fact an act. Yashiro can say things while remaining perfectly static, and yet in this certain moment he chose to express himself with body language. To trick? No, to bring Satoru's guard down. Satoru's rationale is utterly cognizant of it. But as for Satoru's sentimentality...

Let's just say that Yashiro's spectacle hits all the right spots. It's hard to resist the tug Satoru feels in his gut. He could almost fall for it, if he didn't know Yashiro as well as he does.

"...I believe you," Satoru says, because even through gestures of pretense, the words Yashiro said were not a lie. Satoru knew from his past... from his future experiences. Satoru sighs, it comes out shakily. "I believe you, though I have the right not to. You've trapped me in this room, stripped me, sedated me, and yet I still believe you. Do you want to know why, Yashiro?" his voice sounds shaky too, though he doesn't mean it to be and tries to suppress the tearful undertone. "It's because I want to believe, for my own sake. And... because you've always, always revealed truthful things you had absolutely no business revealing. Even if you were shifty about the way you phrase them, still. When you told me how you approach girls. Or about making a painful mistake in your past love life. Or... Even now, when I asked you to tell me about the things that were happening while I was asleep. I've learned from my sensei that being genuine works best. So why can't you believe that I—"

As he's saying it, Satoru looks up at his teacher's expression to see it growing dark gradually. He doesn't finish the speech, because his mind catches up with what he blurted and his palms plaster over his mouth. He said too much!

"I've never..." Yashiro slowly says, staring down at his student with beclouded eyes. "Never mentioned anything about my love life."

Satoru shakes his head and backs away on the bed, his behind meeting with the wall.

"You— How?" Yashiro says with a scary look on his face, none of the honed benign histrionism left. "How do you... know these things?"

Satoru looks down, squeezing the sides of his face, keeping his mouth shut. Yashiro never told him about his fiancée in this timeline. Here it is, the moment he was so wary of: the weapon has turned against him. What now?

Yashiro is silent. Satoru glances up. Sensei's face has softened, but he still has that look in his eyes. Like he's trying to comprehend it, calculate it, figure out if there was any way for Satoru to learn of it other than based on a hunch or a mystic power.

The man straightens out. He goes toward the window, like in a daze. He picks up the discarded plywood and attaches it back to the window. Oh, no. Does he want to leave Satoru all alone in the dark?

Satoru gasps because he wants to say something, but words — so foolish, so impetuous, don't say a word, Satoru, — fail him. He reaches his hand, but it falls back. If this is a punishment he has to face for being stupid, then...

The room becomes pitch black. Footsteps leave in the direction of the door. It opens, and the brighter outside lights up the teacher's form. He turns around.

"Let's go," Yashiro says. "I'll show you the downstairs."

The boy raises his head, wide eyes searching Yashiro's face. Isn't there a catch?

"In return, you'll reveal something about yourself."

~

Satoru follows Yashiro cautiously. The stairs creak as the two descend. Satoru immediately feels a chill, evidence that the first floor is a lot colder than the second. He holds onto his only covering —the blanket— intently.

Yashiro notices the wave of shiver that goes through Satoru's body. "I don't use the heater in this house since I don't live here. The upstairs is not as cold by itself. Here the temperature is more apparent."

The stairs lead to the entrance hallway. There are no shoes in the tiled space in front of the door — Yashiro didn't take off his own and walks around shod, as if this place is nothing but storage space for him, and storage (that is, Satoru) doesn't get the privilege of footwear.

Yashiro goes to the left, through an open archway into a big room — at least 18 tatami wide, perhaps bigger. Cobwebbed corners give an abandoned appearance to what appears to have been a normal living room once. Like upstairs, the floorboards here are made of light wood, which is matted with dirt and feels grimy against Satoru's bare feet. The walls are rather faded, all windows are covered just like in the room upstairs, only a sliver of light coming through a crack between the glass and the covering, making dust particles visible in the air. The space is not occupied by any furniture, except for some sort of... boxes?

"Those are books."

"Oh?" Satoru doesn't think twice about having blurted something again; he looks closer and realizes that these countless pillar shaped "boxes" crowding the space are indeed stacks of books, that create sort of a maze which navigates them toward the following room.

"They were taking too much space in my apartment, so I moved them here. To make use of this place so to speak, since I abstained from leaving my tools here."

Yashiro leads Satoru to the kitchen through presumably what used to be a dining area, which is also riddled with books. The kitchen is much more spacious, some counters and cabinets are clearly missing, evident by the lighter spaces along the wall. The ones that were left seem to be falling apart, with cupboards and doors missing, but a counter-top gas stove and a small retro-looking fridge are present. Everything looks old, even for the year 1988. The space is quite broad, but the house appears to be in a state of disrepair.

Satoru rubs his foot over the other. "How did you get this place?"

Yashiro flips a light switch — the kitchen lights up with a yellowish tint. "This house was abandoned. It was built in the late 50s and was intended to be demolished. I got it for almost nothing — under the guise of wanting to fix it up." He sits on a chair behind a square shaped dining table. Satoru follows, clambering on an opposite chair with his feet.

"'Abandoned', huh... Did you do anything to its previous owners?" Satoru asks.

Yashiro smiles knowingly, but shakes his head. "No, I did not. From what I gather, they were the types like Kayo's mother, heedless and pernicious. Such a shame, it used to be a nice house."

A big house, built in the 50s. In this town, there aren't many spacious houses like this one — only in a certain neighborhood, where Kenya lives. But that neighborhood is quite rich, Satoru doesn't remember it so well, he can't recall there being battered or old-looking residences.

Yashiro props up his elbows on the table and leans on his interlocked hands, eyeing Satoru expectantly. "So, I've showed you this floor. Now comes your part of the deal."

"Hey, wait a second. Isn't there more to this place than a kitchen and a living room?"

"I don't go to other rooms. They're all trashed. I can show you if you really want, but you look cold. I don't want to torture you."

Satoru frowns. That's it? That's all there is to it? Vacant space with books and a shabby kitchen? "At least tell me about the other rooms."

"Alright. A traditional room, it's in very bad condition. Another toilet room, a bathroom. What used to be a study. Small storage space. It still has stuff from previous owners that I didn't bother to throw out."

He sure knows a lot about this place, Satoru thinks. "What about the upstairs?"

"Besides what you've seen, two more bedrooms. And didn't we agree that I only show you the downstairs?"

"Right, right," smirks Satoru.

They're sitting across each other, exchanging facts, like it's a game. Brings back memories. Satoru's eyes shift down when a memory from a time that no longer exists resurfaces.

Yashiro is waiting. This... Young version of Yashiro. "So you want to know something about... me?"

"Indeed," says Yashiro and taps a finger against his hand.

"Just one thing. A true one."

"Yes. But something I don't know. Something related to myself."

That is only fair. Revealing bits and pieces of precious information in exchange for Yashiro's trust... undoubtedly a worthy transaction.

"One thing about me, in relation to you. Well. Here goes nothing," Satoru says and looks up at Yashiro, grinning wide, "I don't hate you, too."

~