Satoru really shouldn’t feel so put out.
And yet, here he is, kicking his feet listlessly as whatever lesson Yashiro is giving goes in one ear and out the other. He hasn’t felt so useless since the last time he failed to save Kayo, before revival gave him another chance. It’s been nearly a week since Yashiro had agreed to help him; nearly a week of sitting still while he waits for Yashiro to finish his investigation in the library.
It’s almost funny how they both followed the same instinct. Satoru only spent one day researchig in Chiba, though. He can’t imagine what Yashiro is doing that’s taking so long in Ishikari’s comparatively small library.
His pencil traces over the same few words in his notes again and again. He’s supposed to be copying down what’s on the board, but he’s too preoccupied to pay attention. It doesn’t matter anyway. There’s nothing being taught in this classroom that he hasn’t learned before.
The longer this revival goes on, the more small things deviate from his memory. His mom hovers less and pries more. In his past life, she scarcely ever asked about his social life, probably because she knew he didn’t have one. It might be his imagination, but she seems less worried since the Kayo incident was resolved. Nothing suspicious has happened around her since she got involved, either. Satoru has to assume the killer isn’t targeting her out of anger for his stolen target.
They’re going to the hideout more and more these days. Satoru already found his lost gloves there, discarded on a dusty seat, and they’ve since been buried in the depths of his backpack. Osamu and Kazu have begun a fierce rivalry to become the first person to beat Hiromi at shogi. Misato has begun joining them some days, but only when Aya comes, too; something about not wanting to hang around with gross boys all day.
Satoru did catch Osamu eating his own boogers the other day, so she has a point.
Finally, the last new change in his life has come in the form of a new nickname. Spice. Yashiro calls him that infrequently, and only when they’re alone. When Satoru asked Yashiro what it meant, he just laughed.
The lesson continues. Kenya is called to the front of the class to answer some math problem or other. Satoru abandons his notes completely, angling his elbow so Misato can’t see as he writes the names again: Kayo, Aya, Hiromi, Yuuki: the victims. As for the suspects... well, Yuuki’s father is pretty much the only one. Sawada’s list didn’t contain any other names he knew. He hoped Yashiro would be able to add to the list, but he’s reported nothing back so far.
The other list had more than one familiar name on it, but he can’t exactly trust it. There’s no way his mom or Yashiro is the killer.
They’re in uncharted territory now. Without any more relevant information from the future, he’s stuck unless Yashiro discovers something. Satoru has no idea what the killer will do next, who’s on the target list. If the killer leaves town, if no other incidents happen in Ishikari, he’s too young to follow him. He’s staring down the possibility of either flashing forward to the future, not knowing what happened in the interim, or reliving the rest of his life in a sense of constant unease, wondering if the man who split his mother open is hiding behind every corner.
And what a life it will be. Going through middle school, high school, and art school again, struggling to find his footing in the manga industry again, going through puberty again—Satoru knows some people would consider it a blessing, but he doesn’t see how. He wants his life back. It was a depressing, boring life, but at least it was his.
(He didn’t have Kayo or Hiromi or Kenya, but he did have Airi. Airi, who hasn’t been born yet. Airi, who would never have wanted him anyway.)
“I’m disappointed in you, Kenya. You’re usually sharper than this.” Satoru startles. Kenya is standing at the front of the room, his eyes fixed on the floor. Yashiro’s admonishment has already sparked giggling from the rest of the classroom. “Let’s see, how about Satoru. Can you answer this problem?”
Satoru jumps up. Nerves make it hard to focus on the board at first, but—
It’s only a simple division problem. What was he nervous for? This is still elementary school. “Thirty-two.”
“Very good!” Whispers follow Yashiro’s praise, comparing him and Kenya. Satoru’s face falls when he sees a pout start to form on Kenya’s face.
He just messed up again, didn’t he?
After nearly 400 pages, the book ends in a fizzle of metaphysical posturing, utterly incomprehensible and useless. Yashiro tosses the science fiction novel onto the pile of discarded books next to him and gives his temples a good rub.
Over a week ago, after failing to kill Satoru yet again, he’d made a promise to help him with his hunt for the killer. The library has been his refuge, a place for him to think without risking Satoru seeing every thought on his face. Time spent away from his Spice is a necessary evil. It’s painfully boring, but Yashiro has to think of it as investment for the future. Their future.
Instead of researching his own crimes like he told Satoru he would, he’s been scouring anything that could give him an answer to what he’s experienced: science fiction, textbooks, the occult. Anything that could explain to him how one goes about traveling through time.
With his own experiences to prove the possibility, how could deny what’s right in front of him? Satoru must have gone through the same process he has. Prophetic visions or powers of divination or even a set of highly specific tarot cards wouldn’t account for the contents of Satoru’s hero book alone, let alone his newfound maturity and schoolwork. The Satoru who’s struggling to protect Ishikari must be an older Satoru in a younger body. Instead of going back minutes or hours like Yashiro has, he’s gone back years.
But how many? Five? Ten? And how has he done it?
The thought that god is simply playing games with them like Buddha did with Kandata has crossed his mind. He just doesn’t like the idea that his actions are being controlled by someone else. If they are, there’s no point to his murders. There’s no point to his very life.
Yashiro hoists up the stack of books and returns them to the shelves—he doesn’t want to leave them for the library staff to pick up and speculate about. The sun is starting to set, marking another day wasted on wild theory and fantasy. A quick walk to his car and he’s off towards the small house he bought years ago when he moved back to Ishikari. It's a few blocks away from the home he lived in when he was a child; it had sold for dirt cheap given the history, and while Yashiro was tempted to buy it, it would only look suspicious to anyone checking the property history.
Out of habit, he checks the park on his way home. Kayo has already left town, but the impression of her red coat against the snow still lingers in his mind. He'd become interested in her soon after meeting her. It was always easy to kill children with abusive or neglectful parents; they are so often alone, ostracized, and the scapegoat is right there for him to exploit. He only shifted away from her mother when he noticed how much time the Shiratori boy spent with the town's children. If the "culprit" had ties to multiple children, he could kill two, maybe three birds with one stone, so to speak.
He took so long with Kayo because it was remarkably hard to gain her trust. Then Satoru came along, and managed to do in only a few days what took him a year. The day Kayo appeared with Sachiko and Satoru to confront her mother, the faint thread above her head was gone. When Aya began spending time with Satoru's little gang, the thread disappeared from her as well.
From that day on, the only person Yashiro has seen the thread on is Satoru.
On a whim, Yashiro pulls over on the side of the road. He shoves a lollipop in his mouth and strolls through the park. Now that the snow has melted, colorful play sets and sparse grass are made visible by the street lights. Broken appliances and black garbage bags pile up at the tree line. Yashiro had planned to dispose of Kayo there, once he’d killed her. He’d chosen the place because of its convenient location, but looking at it now, it strikes him as a little crude. It wasn’t his intent to humiliate or dismiss her. He doesn’t dislike Kayo. He actually likes her quite a bit, as far as a man such as Yashiro can like someone.
“Are you talking about… a girlfriend?”
“Well, there are some similarities to a romantic relationship.”
Yashiro runs his fingers over the bark of the tree Kayo used to stand under. There’s a question he’s asked himself a few times over the years; does he love the children he kills? He’s not sure. He knows, intimately, that he kills children because of what happened that day in his parents' shed. He knows the only time he feels alive is when he kills. He knows he is, at heart, so very much like his big brother.
But he’s never had the urge to force himself on the children he’s killed. Sex is, at best, a means to an end for him, a physical act to solidify his appearance of normality. He doesn’t care about the morals of society, but assaulting a child would only get in the way of more lucrative endeavours. He’d much rather take a life than traumatize it.
As for romance, well. In all his past romantic relationships, he never felt as connected to his partners as he did to his victims. And for all his past victims, he's never felt as drawn to them as he does to Satoru.
Satoru makes him feel. He doesn't know what the emotion is, but it’s there. It's a blend of thrill and fear and physical sensations, heat flushing his skin, hands shaking, palms getting sweaty. Yashiro wants to savor this feeling.
He wants to savor the death.
Yashiro always assumed his own death would come in the form of a suicide. He has no interest in allowing society to punish him, and there’s no point in living once he grows too old and weak to carry out his plans. His second attempt to kill Satoru was the first time he ever tried to end his own life, but clearly something about it was insufficient. Killing Satoru, or killing himself and Satoru—neither are the direction his life is meant to take.
Yashiro crunches the lollipop beneath his teeth. There’s something he’s missing. Something important.
Something foundational to his very existence.
After school, Satoru stares at the library for a good ten minutes before he turns around, resigning himself to spending the afternoon unproductively at home.
April has brought with it the faint warmth of spring. The snow that crunched under Satoru's heels weeks ago has already melted. His puffy jacket is left at home most days, hanging neatly in the closet. The warm air brings a sense of calm to their sleepy town, a whispered promise that everything will be okay.
But it’s only an illusion. Spring and summer are no safer than winter; Hiromi was murdered in June in the original timeline. The killer is still on the loose. Satoru can’t let his guard down for a moment.
A chill runs down his spine. Then a hand grabs his sleeve.
For a brief, horrible second, Satoru's entire body goes cold. He jumps. The person behind him backs off.
It's Kenya. It's only Kenya.
Satoru tries to calm his breathing. “What’s up?”
Kenya eyes him worriedly. “I just wondered if you had plans tonight.”
“Oh.” Satoru frowns. Hiromi's parents got off work early, so he went home already; Aya and Kazu are on a date; Satoru already walked Misato home; and his mom is working a late shift. He can’t go to Yashiro’s house either, since he’s still holed up in the library. "Nothing, I guess."
“Do you want to come over to my house, then?” Kenya asks. “My mom wants me to watch my little sister tonight while she and my dad go out.”
Satoru stares in shock. “You have a sister?”
“Haven't I mentioned her before?”
“I don’t think so.” No matter how hard he thinks, he can’t recall anything about his friends’ families. Even in the original timeline, he’s sure he never met Kenya’s sister.
With how inattentive he is, it’s not really shocking he ended up alone.
Kenya clears his throat, looking horribly embarrassed. "Well, do you want to meet her?"
Things have been awkward between him and Kenya since Satoru inadvertently humiliated him in front of the class. He’s tried to bridge the newfound distance between them with jokes and games, even gotten a few problems in class wrong on purpose, but to no avail. Maybe this is Kenya extending the olive branch. If it is, Satoru can rest happily. Kenya isn’t a target, but that’s no excuse to avoid him.
(Misato wasn’t a target in the original timeline, either. The killer prefers girls, but it’s not impossible for him to target Kenya.
Satoru banishes that line of thought before his mind is able to conjure up an image of Kenya’s body laying in the dirt.)
Satoru has never been to Kenya's house before. To say he lives in a nice neighborhood would be an understatement—his house is massive, with a carport and a small manicured garden out front, the kind Satoru's mother always wanted. A mild-looking man and pretty blonde woman stand next to a sleek, clean car without saying a word. The man checks his wrist watch. Kenya runs towards him.
“You’re late,” the man says.
The woman, who must be Kenya’s mother, smiles. Kenya strongly resembles her, with their blonde hair and honey brown eyes. “It’s alright. Who’s your friend? Is he going to help watch Miyuki?”
“Yeah. This is Fujinuma Satoru,” Kenya says. “He’s my best friend.”
Satoru flushes. He said it without any hesitation—best friend. For some reason, it makes his stomach churn. “It’s nice to meet you, ma’am, sir.”
“Thank you for taking care of our Kenya,” his mother says. She adjusts the fit of her jacket. Kenya's eyes fall slightly, an almost petulant frown taking over his face.
They wave at the car as it pulls out of the driveway, then head into the house. Satoru almost does a double take when Kenya tosses his shoes aside in the foyer instead of putting them up in the cubbies. Conversely, Kenya doesn't so much as raise a brow when Satoru jiggles the door handle to make sure it’s locked.
The inside of the Kobayashi manor is minimalist, mostly white and beige with scant decoration. It strikes Satoru as efficient, well-crafted for the family of a serious defense attorney. Kenya hangs in the living room, glancing over at the staircase before he motions Satoru to come in close.
“Can I tell you something?” he whispers. He refuses to meet Satoru’s eyes, opting to look at the floor instead.
“Yeah, of course.” Satoru prepares himself for the inevitable horrible: Kenya found out the identity of the killer, or he noticed someone else at school is being abused, or his parents are refusing to buy him Super Mario Bros. 3 when it comes out in half a year.
"To tell the truth, I don't think my parents' marriage is going well."
Of all the things Satoru thought Kenya would say, that wasn’t one of them. "But they just went out on a date."
"They did, but didn't you see how my mom was dressed?"
Satoru blinks owlishly. He's not sure where this is going. "Uh, yeah? She looked nice."
"She didn't even dress up for their date," Kenya insists, his voice dropping in volume. "That can't be a good sign."
A spark of recognition lights up a deeply repressed memory in Satoru’s mind—a car driving away into the snow, faster than his tiny legs could carry him. His stomach turns to ice. The loneliness he felt, the guilt, wondering if it was his fault his dad left, his fault his mom had to struggle. Then like a switch had been flipped, the anger at being denied a normal home. Kenya must feel the same way now, without anyone to talk to about it.
Satoru just can’t stop messing things up.
"Kenya, do you resent your mom and dad?"
"What? No," Kenya says. "Why would I?"
"Because they're making you worry. You feel like you don't have a normal childhood, like the kids who have a mom and dad who love each other…" Kenya's expression becomes more and more confused the longer he speaks. Satoru trails off, ending his speech with a shrug.
"Satoru, are you—?"
A loud squeal interrupts them. Satoru catches sight of a blonde mop of hair before tiny hands wrap violently around Kenya’s middle, squeezing the life out of him. “Big brother!”
Just like that, the serious mood is gone. Satoru can’t help the relief that spreads through his chest. “Miyuki! We have a guest,” Kenya admonishes.
“Oh!” The girl—Miyuki—gasps. Her grip on Kenya’s shirt tightens. “Hello.”
Kenya’s sister takes after her mother as well, with shoulder length blonde hair pulled neatly into a ponytail. Satoru leans down a bit to greet her. “I’m Fujinuma Satoru.”
“He’s my friend,” Kenya adds.
Miyuki’s jaw drops in a childish display of shock. “You have friends?”
Kenya sputters, his face growing red. “Of course I have friends! What kind of question is that?”
While the two siblings bicker, Satoru stares at the floor. Does Kenya not hang out with the other guys after school? Has he never brought friends home before? Once, Satoru spent almost every day alone at home. He doesn’t think he invited anyone over in the previous timeline from middle school til… well, til Airi.
“Look, let’s just go play house or something,” Kenya says loudly, breaking Satoru out of his stupor. “You have finished your homework, right?”
Kenya’s eyes narrow. “Have you?”
“...I did most of it.”
“Not good enough. Go do the rest. If you need help, call for me.”
Miyuki stomps back up the stairs, grumbling. Kenya sighs with all the despair of a long-suffering mother. “I should have told her to do it in the kitchen. She’ll just play with her stuffed animals in her room.”
Seeing Kenya take on the role of a parent to his younger sister—it should make sense. It should be cute. All Satoru feels, though, is a growing sense of discontent, echoing in the form of a question he really doesn’t want answered: are you sure Kenya isn’t a target?
“Hey, why don’t we go do something?” he asks, voice about an octave higher than normal.
Kenya seems to notice his shift in demeanor. He frowns. “Sure. Let’s go to my room.”
Kenya and Miyuki’s rooms are both upstairs, right across from each other. Miyuki’s door, adorned with faded floral stickers and yellow sign bearing her name, is half closed. Behind it Satoru can faintly hear her hushed voice acting out a fantasy story. Despite his earlier complaints, Kenya doesn’t scold her, opting instead to go into his own room.
Kenya’s door is plain, as is the room it conceals; a bed, a desk, a closet, and a chair. The only thing suggesting the bedroom belongs to a child is a teddy bear dressed in camo overalls sitting on the bed. One of its arms has been ripped off; stuffing spills out of the open wound.
Satoru stares at it for a moment too long. “Do you have a dog?”
“Then, did Miyuki do that?”
“She didn’t.” Kenya glances at the doorway, like he’s afraid she’ll materialize there and hear. “I, um, had a bit of a fit.”
“You had a tantrum?!”
Satoru drops his voice to a whisper. “You had a tantrum?”
“I did not,” Kenya says indignantly.
The tension in his shoulders resides a bit. The destroyed bear was only Kenya’s doing. Not someone else’s.
(Kayo's mother had destroyed her things, leaving her with little to take to her grandma's house. Satoru had watched her toss torn books and broken pencils in the trash can and regretted not letting her grab anything before he kidnapped her.)
Satoru lets himself smile. “Okay.”
Kenya’s face is red as a tomato. Satoru does his best not to humiliate him further by laughing. “What d’you wanna play?”
As it turns out, Kenya has a famicom; it’s not something Satoru should be excited by as a twenty-nine year old, but he finds himself bouncing excitedly in place. Even in 2005, when he had his own disposable income, he was never wealthy enough to waste money on gaming consoles. They play for a few hours, Kenya effortlessly kicking Satoru’s ass, only stopping when Miyuki peeks into the room to announce her homework is finally complete. Kenya invites her in to watch them play.
Satoru finds himself glancing over at her. She can’t be older than six or seven, but she’ll be closer to their age in just a few years. She should be safe, being the daughter of a wealthy lawyer with an older brother to look after her. She should be.
(She’s closer to the killer’s ideal target than Kenya. Satoru has to stop himself from asking if she spends too much of her time alone.)
By the time the Kobayashis come home from their date, it’s gone completely dark outside. Satoru helps Kenya put the famicom away in his closet, thanks Kenya's mother for having him over, and declines an offer for a ride home. He wants to survey things while he walks back, look for anything out of the ordinary. There are obviously things he’s still missing, and this is his last revival. He can’t afford to make any mistakes.
Hiromi, Aya, Misato; Kenya and Miyuki; Yuuki; his mother—they’re all counting on him.
No matter what, he has to protect them.
For the next week, Satoru patrols the town every evening. Though spring has made the days warm, the nights are still chilly; Satoru finds himself shivering as he makes his way through the shopping district. His mom tried to get him to wear a jacket before he left for the evening. He should have listened to her.
A fair few people are out at this hour—a family going grocery shopping, a teenager walking their dog—but no lone children. Satoru stares a little too hard at a toddler holding hands with an adult man outside a convenience store. Probably her father. He can't help but be reminded of the attempted abduction his mother witnessed in the park, the event which led to her murder. So many things are different; this girl is too young for the killer, the man too unbothered about being seen. Still, there's a possibility.
The longer he looks, the more details pop out at him. The slight breeze moving the girl’s ponytail. It’s blonde, the same color as Miyuki’s. The man readjusts his grip on her tiny hand every few moments. She rocks back and forth on the balls of her feet. Each motion feels wrong, distorted. Satoru steps forward and takes a breath.
The shout dies in his throat when the girl runs to a woman exiting the store, yelling “mama!” The man greets the woman with warmth, taking one her bags. Heart thudding in his chest, fingers twitching with unused adrenaline, skin suddenly hot against the cold air, Satoru watches the child skip away, holding each of her parents' hands.
He gulps. “What’s wrong with me?”
The cold douse of self-reflection does nothing for his adrenaline rush. Wheels screech on the road behind him and Satoru whirls around, imagining shadowy hands reaching out to grab his arms, force him into the car. He’s terrified. Why is he terrified?
It’s only Yashiro-sensei, after all.
Yashiro frowns at him. Satoru tries to steady his breathing, make himself appear less freaked out than he already is. When Yashiro leans over to pop open the passenger’s seat, Satoru jumps in eagerly. Eyes burn into his back, faceless strangers watching in curiosity or concern. None of them try to stop him from getting in the car. He doesn’t know how he’d react if they did.
The engine hums as Yashiro steers them away from the shops. He pops open the glove compartment, and suddenly there’s a lollipop waving in Satoru’s face—caramel apple, his favorite flavor. He takes it. Soon its light, fruity taste is spreading on his tongue. His saliva turns into sugary syrup. For a long time, Satoru’s lips moving against the candy is the only sound in the car.
“Want to tell me what that was about?” Yashiro asks.
Satoru glances out the window. They’ve been driving around aimlessly for a while now, passing the same buildings again and again. Maybe Yashiro thinks the rumbling of the engine will soothe him. “I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
“I’m just…” paranoid? Jumpy? An adult in a child’s body, trying to stop his mother’s murder? “...scared.”
Satoru flushes. “Just a little!”
“It’s okay if you’re scared.” Yashiro’s voice is unexpectedly soft. He sounds fatherly. “This situation would be scary for anyone, no matter their age.”
“Thanks, sensei.” Warmth spreads through Satoru’s chest. He looks out the window again, sees the wildflowers springing up on the side of the road, pretty yellow and pink bundles of spring. Airi once showed their manager a polaroid she’d taken of the spring flowers in Chiba. Satoru had wanted to take the excuse to sidle up next to her, but he was never the type to make the first move. If he’d approached her confidently that day, like he’d done with Kayo, would he have become more than just a “friend she respected”?
Satoru can feel is expression becoming glum. He doesn’t want to go home yet. He’s too sentimental today, and his mom is too perceptive. Besides, if he catches a cold, she’ll scold him. “Sensei, can we go to your house?"
"Of course." Yashiro makes a sharp turn. Satoru leans his head against the window, letting the rumble of wheels over gravel reverberate through his skull.
They arrive at Yashiro's house within a few minutes. The sky above them rumbles; storm clouds blot out the setting sun on the horizon. Satoru takes in a deep breath, tasting the humidity in the air.
"Sure you don’t want me to take you home?" Yashiro says, though he’s already unlocking the front door. His house is less ostentatious than Kenya's, a simple, small home sized just right for a bachelor in his twenties. Its the kind of home Satoru would have chosen, could he afford one. "The rain might make it hard for you to get home tonight."
"It's fine." With all his running through Ishikari's snow drifts during February and March, a bit of rain hardly seems like an obstacle. He left his schoolbag at home, so no need to worry about his homework getting drenched. "I’ll just call my mom if it gets too late."
Yashiro's friendly smile levels into an unreadable expression. "Right."
Satoru pauses in the doorway. He's only been to Yashiro's house once before, that night they had coffee and made plans for the future. "Am I imposing?"
Yashiro's smile returns. "Never."
(Airi welcomed Satoru into her home once. It didn't end well for her. It’s late to be considering this now, but—
“Maybe I shouldn't…”
"Don't be silly. Come in before it starts raining." Yashiro takes him by the shoulders. "You could never bother me, Satoru."
The door closing behind him, the lock clicking into place, the quiet solitude surrounding the two of them—
Satoru has never felt safer.
It's so, so difficult not to just kill Satoru.
How can he be so smart yet so stupid? He perfectly anticipated Yashiro's plans, thwarted his abduction attempts with ease, and yet he's so trusting. It's almost worrisome. What if some other predator appeared to take advantage of him? The thought of it makes Yashiro want to squeeze him tighter and tighter, until he crushes him.
Satoru settles down with his child-sized sketchbook while Yashiro makes coffee. The drugs are still in his medicine cabinet, unused. Every day the open packet taunts him while he gets ready for work. This time, he saves the coffee for himself, and grabs a juice box and a package of crackers for his young guest. Satoru's smile flattens into a grimace when he sees the childish food, but he doesn’t refuse it.
Yashiro has been thinking. He’s decided their little time travel escapades have been the result of their own will, desires locked deep within their hearts forcing back the clock, giving them another chance. The only question now is what to do with this new life. Shall he kill Satoru, let him live… become the father he always needed? Should Yashiro take his time cultivating that trust before he destroys it utterly?
Of course, it’s also fun to simply observe. Yashiro savors the way Satoru eats, quiet, dainty chewing and tiny licks to clean the crumbs off his fingers. It reminds him of watching Spice munch away at the sunflower seeds Yashiro would drop in his cage. "You eat very quietly."
"Most of your classmates chew with their mouths open and smear half their lunch on their face. You really are very grown up, aren't you, Satoru?"
Satoru's embarrassed smile is infectious. "Thank you, sensei."
The rain picks up, beating against the roof; its soft hum fills the silence as Yashiro watches Satoru eat. He knows he looks rather suspicious right now, but Satoru has scarcely, if ever, shown any wariness towards him. Yashiro rests his face in his palm, finger tapping against his temple.
He decides to push it a bit further. "Looking at you makes me want to smoke again."
"What the hell does that mean?" Satoru’s face quickly goes from indignant to embarrassed to horrified. "I'm—I mean—!"
"Don't apologize. You just make me feel nostalgic."
Yashiro pats Satoru’s head. “No, thank you, Spice.”
They sit a while longer, Satoru eating, Yashiro watching. The light rain turns into a torrential downpour. Satoru glances over at Yashiro every few moments, trying to hide his churning thoughts. Watching his expressions change is so very entertaining. Yashiro would love to lock him up in a cage where he can poke and prod at him all day long, see those eyes widen with fear then darken with hatred, again and again and again.
Satoru is the one to break their comfortable silence. "Sensei, can I ask you something?"
"Like I said, I'll tell you when I find something. Be patient."
"It's not about that."
Yashiro raises a brow. "Then I'm all ears."
"It's a bit of a weird question."
"In case you haven't noticed, I'm a bit of a weird guy."
Satoru doesn't laugh. He doesn't even smile. Yashiro is sharply reminded of a years old conversation, one that began with "where were you on the 22nd of last month?" and ended with weeks of pretending to grieve a woman who had been little more than an annoyance to him.
If Satoru suspects him, what will Yashiro do? Kill him, or keep him?
(Or kill him again and again and again, turning back the clock to savor that sweet betrayal. There are so many methods he wants to try, some painful, some peaceful, all with Satoru, Satoru, Satoru—)
"What if there was someone you really wanted to meet," Satoru says haltingly, "someone really important to you, but you weren't sure if fate would let it happen. What would you do?"
Yashiro blinks. "Are you talking about Kayo?"
"No," Satoru mumbles. His ears flush red. Yashiro's breath stutters.
What a little flirt.
The words that come out of his mouth next are out of his control. It’s all Satoru’s fault, really. Satoru’s fault for teasing him. Satoru’s fault for toying with him. It’s Satoru’s fault, so Yashiro isn’t to blame for what he shamelessly suggests, for the sick show he’s planning.
Satoru deserves this.
Everyone deserves a return on their valiant efforts. It would be so sad if Satoru never got to meet the person he’s so desperately searching for, after all.
"Hey, Satoru. What do you think about coming to the library with me tomorrow?"
After school the next day, Satoru marches into the library at Yashiro's heels. Everything looks so much larger in this tiny body, so much more imposing. The woman at the counter greets them with a sight bow. She clearly recognizes Yashiro—he has been here every day for the better part of a month. In a rather uncharacteristic move, Yashiro walks past her without even throwing out a greeting. Satoru jogs after him, struggling to keep up as they make for the records section.
The spot they stop at is a secluded corner of the library’s second story. Bookshelves surround a small table and chair, sheltering them from watching eyes. A window adorns the wall. A thin layer of dust rests on the shelves. Satoru covers a sneeze as Yashiro goes through the newspapers, picking them out one at a time and laying them down on the table.
“Start looking through these,” he says, gesturing to the stack. “You might find them interesting.”
Satoru drops his backpack on the floor. He opens the first paper, dated May 1972, and immediately sees why it caught Yashiro’s eye. On the front page in bold font reads Missing Girl Found in Family’s Shed, Suspect Commits Suicide . It’s similar to the killer’s M.O., but…
This is wrong.
“This is wrong.”
Yashiro’s reply jolts Satoru out of his thoughts. He coughs discreetly into his fist. “The suspect wasn’t arrested, he committed suicide. Besides, the killer doesn’t rape his victims.”
Yashiro smiles enigmatically. “How do you figure that?”
“Um.” Satoru scratches his cheek. “Just a feeling.”
Yashiro pushes another bundle of papers towards him. “Look at these next.”
A bouquet of dead children lay before him. Two years, 1983 and 1986, and four dead girls. Each victim has a perpetrator behind bars; a father, a teacher, a vagrant. Someone conveniently close, conveniently suspicious. Conveniently denying their guilt, making themselves look guiltier in turn. The defense lawyer for one of the cases is listed as Kobayashi Takanari.
Satoru feels sick.
"There are more than just these, I'm sure. Our killer is awfully efficient."
Satoru nods. Another paper finds itself in his hands. It’s from 1987, only a year ago. Three girls went missing in quick fashion; two of them sisters, who disappeared together, one of them a loner who vanished from the school playground after dark. The suspect, a local with considerable debt, was arrested a short time later. Draft letters for ransom notes were found on his computer. Though he professed innocence, the evidence was against him, and he was found guilty.
(No one locks their doors in rural Hokkaido.)
Satoru feels sick.
Yashiro sits at the table. Satoru turns to him, prepared to discuss motive, victimology, and the timeline thus far. His words fail him. Yashiro is holding a paper in front of him, his expression almost sickly. Satoru nudges his way between his arms to catch sight of the headline.
Child Psychiatrist Commits Suicide in Sapporo
Satoru cranes his neck back, trying to catch sight of Yashiro’s dark eyes. “Sensei?”
“Here.” Yashiro grabs his hand, tracing his fingers down past the headline—to the body of the article, where a certain sentence catches him off guard.
“‘Ikeda Yuuko, age twenty-four, was found unresponsive at 10:23pm after having jumped from her apartment balcony. Testimony from her fiancé…’” Satoru’s stomach drops. “Her fiancé…”
“‘Testimony from her fiancé, Yashiro Gaku, indicates she was under immense stress at her hospital job. He stated in his police report that Ikeda suddenly became erratic and inconsolable before throwing herself from the balcony. Injuries on Ikeda’s wrists and Yashiro’s arms corroborate his testimony that he attempted to prevent the suicide, only to be overpowered. Ikeda was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital at 10:31pm,’” Yashiro finishes. “Hard to believe it’s already been five years.”
“Why aren’t you married, sensei?”
“Actually, I went through a painful experience once, so maybe I’m proceeding with excessive caution.”
That Yashiro didn’t tell him the whole truth should bother him. Yashiro is his teacher, and Satoru is, at least on the surface, an eleven year old boy. His sensei shouldn’t be relying on him.
But Satoru wants him to.
He wants to fill the hole that exists in Yashiro’s heart, like Yashiro did for him. He wants to find the right words to say, like he did for Airi. Satoru turns around, still caged in Yashiro’s arms, and tries to find something to say. Anything. Something that will lessen the pain.
And yet, like with Satoru’s manga, the words don’t come. He’s still too afraid to look inside himself. He’s still too afraid to look inside other people.
No matter how hard he’s fought, he hasn’t gotten anywhere at all.
Yashiro laughs humorlessly. “You don’t have to say anything. It was a long time ago.”
“Five years isn’t that long,” Satoru says, mouth dry. Five years was how long he’d spent drawing manga professionally. Five years got him a video game series adaptation and the ability to draw perspective a little better. Five years isn’t long enough for anything.
Yashiro shakes his head, smiling despite the reminder of his almost-wife’s suicide right in front of him. “That’s a weird thing for a kid to say. Five years is half of your life, isn’t it?”
“It’s only about a fifth of yours.”
“Very good.” Yashiro tosses the newspaper on the table. His arms wrap around Satoru, pulling him close. “Oh, Satoru, Satoru, Satoru. Spice. What am I going to do with you?”
Satoru squirms. “Sensei?”
“All those little lives. Gone in an instant. Their ‘killers’ jailed, then forgotten about. How very sad.”
Oh. Satoru wraps his arms around Yashiro’s neck, submitting to the hug. “I’m sorry for involving you, Sensei.”
“Don’t be sorry. I was already involved.” Yashiro buries his nose in Satoru’s hair, takes a deep breath. It tickles. “I’ve been thinking about what to do. There has to be a solution, only it’s so far out of my ordinary line of thought I can’t see it. I’ve been thinking about you, too.”
“You. Such a small thing. So easy to break, to hurt.” Yashiro’s grip tightens. His grip restricts Satoru’s airflow the slightest bit; he shoves back, trying to create space where there isn’t any. “I haven’t felt this alive in ages.”
“Sensei, let go. You’re hurting me.”
Yashiro crushes him. “Tell me, Satoru,” he says, unbothered by Satoru’s hands pushing at his chest, his breaths coming out as gasps, “how old are you?”
Alarm bells are ringing. Satoru looks up instinctively, but instead of the blue butterfly all he sees are cobwebs clinging to the ceiling. Twenty-nine. One year older than you. “Eleven. You gave me a birthday gift, remember?”
“Sure did. Should I give you another? I’ve missed so many. How old are you?”
“I told you, eleven—!”
“Hush, now. We’re in a library, you shouldn’t be making so much noise. What if someone comes to check on us?” Yashiro’s finger taps against his back. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-nine—” Satoru’s eyes snap open wide, noticing the mistake far, far too late. “E-eleven.”
A fatherly smile blooms on Yashiro’s face. He lets Satoru go enough for him to breathe, enough for him to feel his heart shudder in his chest, pumping blood faster and faster to fuel the flight or fight instinct flooding his head. Then Yashiro nuzzles Satoru, brushes their noses against one another, and for the first time Satoru realizes, dully, that this is not how a father touches his son.
“Twenty-nine,” Yashiro says, his voice full of wonder. “Alright. That explains things.”
“Sensei,” Satoru breathes. His whole body is trembling. “Let me go.”
“No. I don’t think I will.” There’s a flash of silver illuminating the space between them. Satoru glances down, sees the box cutter Yashiro used to cut him out of his car, a weapon he hadn’t questioned the existence of—
—a seatbelt that wouldn’t come undone, fire consuming Airi’s house, his mother, lying dead on the floor of his apartment, a knife lodged in her gut and the man he’d seen on the stairs, red eyes, so red—
—Yashiro’s eyes look red, in the light of the setting sun.
“If you’re a good boy and keep your mouth shut, I’ll let Kenya and Misato live. If you aren’t, well,” Yashiro laughs good-naturedly. “It’s not like anyone will believe you anyway.”
In his dreams that night, Airi collapses on the cold, wet ground as he's led away in handcuffs. Her expression is one of pure agony.
Yashiro-sensei watches from behind the yellow tape, laughing.