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Hero Child

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Shigeo has come to hate the fall.

Autumn brings a steady degradation to the bright bloom of summer. The leaves gradually lose their luster, withering and falling to the ground in piles that Shigeo has to sweep up during his turn on chore duty, a task he’s left alone to do. It’s not unusual that his partner abandons him, but he doesn’t mind. It’s precious alone time that allows him some self reflection. The silent murmur of wind is the only noise to keep him company out in the cold.

He doesn’t discover himself in the monotonous labor, nor does he find any relevant knowledge in self as he walks in the dull afternoon light. The sun is hidden behind clouds and the dusk comes colorless and empty. Piles of leaves scatter like ash across the asphalt as he walks home alone.

Shigeo sniffs. He’ll have to start wearing a scarf and gloves, soon.

There’s one thing he likes about the fall, beyond the chores and the cold and the dying colors of summer. He likes the way his little brother’s face lights up as life around him withers and dies, like he’s never seen anything like it. Ritsu claims the colors of fall are beautiful, breathes the words wistfully into the air in white puffs, exhalations of amazement.

Ritsu isn’t here right now, though, so his big brother is left hating autumn, no enthralled sibling to keep his spirits up.

“I’m home.”

It’s a small murmur he doesn’t expect anyone to hear, but his mother calls back to him as he toes his shoes off.

“Welcome home, Shige. Where’s your brother?”

“Still at school. A student council meeting.”

“Maybe you should have waited for him? It’s better for you brothers to walk home together.”

His mother’s suggestion is said warmly, but from Shigeo’s perspective in the chill of the shadowed entrance way, it stings. “You’re right,” Is all he manages, sliding his slippers on. He walks past the kitchen without another word, headed up to his bedroom.

Shigeo sets his bag aside and turns the kerosene heater on, allowing its gentle warmth to heat up the room. It’s one of the only objects here, other than his desk and his rolled-up futon. They used to keep it in the living room, but they bought a new one and Ritsu had entered his room on too many occasions and complained about the cold for his parents to simply throw it out or put it in storage. So it’s his now.

He’ll need a scarf and some gloves for tomorrow; he finds them easily in his closet, tucked away where he’d left them last year. He places the mittens on his desk and listens as the sounds of his brother arriving home play out beneath him— his mother greets him with enthusiasm, and his father chimes in, too.

Shigeo sits in front of the heater with his hands out in front of him, cupping them against the warmth radiating from the vents. If he were to reach forward then he would burn himself against the metal. The heat is preferable to the cold; perhaps the sting of his flesh would take away the bite of the wind, create maybe a permanent warmth.

A knock sounds at his door, and Ritsu enters his room. “Brother?”

His little brother pads closer, silent in his socks, taking to kneeling at his side. The touch that brushes against his shoulder is gentle, nearly timid. He looks between Shigeo and his outstretched hands, as if confused as to why. It’s cold, Shigeo wants to say, even if it isn’t anymore.

“Do you want to go downstairs and set the table with me?”

The hand on his shoulder reaches out and pulls his fingers away from the heater. They’re red, and remain warm even as he brings them closer to himself.

Ritsu sighs, defeated.

Shigeo allows his brother to draw him closer by the wrists, inspecting his fingertips. Ritsu makes a noise in the back of his throat and Shigeo feels that same sting in his chest again.

“You would have burnt yourself if you had kept them there much longer.”

Water drips into a cup half full. It steadily fills up inside of him.

“… let’s go downstairs.”

Ritsu is looking at him like he’s waiting for an answer; Shigeo nods stiffly and they stand from the floor together. It might be that he just needs a warm meal. Ritsu turns the heater off before they leave the room.

They have the radio on while they set the table; a rare occurrence. A news reporter drones on about things that don't matter to Shigeo. Ordinarily, they fill the silence in between bites of food with light conversation, but Shigeo doesn't mind—the radio gives less chance for awkward pauses and those stiff, appraising silences. The background noise is a pleasant distraction.

Ritsu drops a bundle of spoons to the ground in a clatter, startling Shigeo out of his daze.

He turns around to watch as his brother murmurs apologies and kneels to gather them up. The reporter’s grim drawl suddenly becomes clear and icy. “—found in a dumpster. The girl’s identity is currently unknown, but the police investigation is currently underway…”

The radio cuts in and out, static coming in erratic bursts. The words sound garbled, underwater. Ritsu searches his brother’s face as he hovers in place, just as indecisive as the receiver.

“Maybe this isn’t something we should listen to before eating,” Ritsu suggests mildly, giving no hint of his distress. His mother frets a moment more before she coincides with a nod, and he gratefully switches the radio off.

They eat in silence; none of them bother with conversation.

Later that night, Shigeo brings the radio up into his room, where Ritsu can’t tell him he shouldn’t listen to the reports. They’re talking about the weather, about the cold snap and about crops, of all things.

Shigeo wonders if they’ve ever found a body in the fields before, and whether or not human flesh would be deleterious to what would have otherwise been a healthy harvest. He rolls over in his futon and falls asleep wondering what rice would taste like, should it have been gathered from soil rich with blood.

School the next day is much of the same. In making their way there, Ritsu says nothing of the ashy piles of leaves nor the gray, sullen sky; he keeps his head tilted down, and Shigeo thinks to look down too, wondering what could possibly draw his brother’s attention to the ground. He finds nothing of interest between the cracks lining the pavement.

Ritsu sniffs.

“Are you cold?” Shigeo asks.

“I’m alright,” Ritsu says, voice wavering as his intense concentration on the ground is broken. They stop walking. Shigeo is already shucking his mittens off, drawing Ritsu closer by the wrists, as had been done to him yesterday. He pulls the blue cotton over his little brother’s trembling fingertips and finds the weariness in his heart lifting as Ritsu’s exhausted expression melts into one of exasperated joy.

“Thank you.”

“They’re too small for me. You can keep them.”

“I’ll tell mom you need a new pair,” Ritsu nods, struggling to flatten out his smile. A light flush creeps up his neck, and whether it’s from the cold or embarrassment, Shigeo doesn’t know. He simply nods. He can tell his little brother is grateful.

Their two worlds are different, and yet the same. Ritsu sees the endless colors of fall—sees reds and oranges that mix together like oil paints, colors that impress so much of the setting sun. Shigeo sees the brown of the leaves and the gray of the sky, sees ice where Ritsu sees fire. But they’re brothers, the two sides of the same coin, and as they walk to school hand in hand, those worlds meld into one.

School is much of the same as the day before, but Shigeo isn’t put on chore detail. For just today, it’s somebody else’s responsibility. He mulls that over in his head and decides he’s relieved to not have to stay late today. Ritsu and he can walk home together.

His last class of the day is Math—his least favorite. He likes it even less than P.E. He’s terrible with numbers, try as he might. In the past, Ritsu had offered to study with him when he had overheard his mother berating his big brother for his low grades, and he had shamefully turned him down.

The teacher is writing things on the chalkboard and Shigeo is gone. Most of the boys in the class are. He finds himself absorbed with the paper of his notebook, staring at the numbers, at what he doesn’t understand. He looks at his hand, his fingers wrapped around his pencil. Ritsu’s had been nearly blue this morning.

The girl seated in front of him is openly dozing, so when the teacher calls out her name she jerks to wakefulness and he repeats the question.

Haruka—he knows who she is. She’s popular. She’s even the girl’s volleyball captain. Shigeo sweats, keeping his eyes down, glued on his book.

She turns her head—just a little—and hisses in a low whisper. “Help me out!”

Shigeo can’t breathe. There’s a lump in his throat; he stares down at the page of numbers and explanations before him and finds it impossible to decipher. He doesn’t even remember what the question was. He gives a tiny shake of his head and she grumbles something as the teacher calls her out for her dozing.

“I’m tired from practice, that’s all,” She mutters underneath her breath. “Thanks for the help, Kageyama-kun.”

He swallows; his pencil is slippery in his hand, so he sets it down. The teacher is looking at him, but the intensity of his gaze is lesser when compared to the heat of her glare.

“Kageyama, can you answer this question? You were paying attention, so you should know it.”

Shigeo looks at his notebook, vision clearing. It’s written down. This is one he knows—it’s just one of the examples with the numbers in a different order.

“U-um, could it be, 32…?”

“You’re right. See, there you go! Paying attention has benefits, Haruka,” He admonishes her without a hint of pity, and the top of her ears go red. A few of the girls laugh under their breath and she ducks her head. She turns her head and he’s shocked to see furious tears in her eyes.

“You did that on purpose.”

“I, I didn’t,” He stammers an excuse, but she’s already turned back around, keeping her head low as she fights off what is obviously tears. The teasing couldn’t have been pleasant, but it’s a situation Shigeo is familiar with. A wrong answer and some scolding results in laughter—it always has.

Their teacher has resumed his lecture, and the children that had laughed are back to dozing off. He doesn’t understand. The rest of the class passes by in a confusing blur, and when the bell rings and everyone stands to leave, he gently taps her shoulder.

She turns to look at him, perplexed and seemingly unconcerned, and the shift in mood startles him.

“What?” She asks, clearly impatient. “I have practice, so if you’re just going to stare at me…”

“I’m sorry for before,” He says, tripping over the words. He can’t let it go the same way she has; she should know he hadn’t meant to do that. Shigeo isn’t the best at understanding situations like these, but her tears had made it clear that he had been wrong in answering the question.

“Don’t worry about that,” She smiles. Shigeo’s tense shoulders slump. “I get it.”

“Get it…?”

“Yeah. I understand, so don’t worry. See you tomorrow.”

She leaves him behind with that and nothing else. Her smile and her reassurance is disconcerting. He must have misunderstood somehow, or been mistaken in what he thought he saw. Maybe those hadn’t been tears at all. A terrible regret lingers at the back of his mind, sitting heavy and bitter on his tongue.

Ritsu is busy with another student council meeting today. Shigeo doesn’t wait for him.

There’s one thing he can stand about walking home alone—there’s a secret path he takes, sometimes, a route that not even Ritsu knows about. Today, he takes that path. It’s a lonely side street that branches off into an alleyway that leads back to the main road.

There’s never anyone else around; a few people might pass him by on his way, an old lady or another child his age, similar in loneliness. But he’s the only one who knows about her.

Shigeo stops in front of the shadowed alleyway, crouching low to the ground. He reaches a hand out into the darkness, murmuring soothingly under his breath.

A black cat ambles out from a cardboard box, bounding toward him on wobbling legs. She’s so little, it’s hard to believe she’s an adult.

The small cat purrs as it approaches Shigeo’s fingertips, unassuming and friendly. She butts her little head against his palm and he strokes her back as she mewls contentedly, comfortable in his presence.

He pulls out an unopened carton of milk from his bag, and his empty bento box, too. He pours half of the milk into it, watching as she excitedly winds her lithe form around his legs, looking up at him expectantly. He sets it down for her. She purrs even as she drinks; Shigeo knows he shouldn’t interrupt her, but he can’t help in patting her head. He sips from what’s left of the carton.

It’s a quiet moment in which two good friends share some milk and in that moment, they’re both happy. Even in this cold alley, in this dark street, where the dusk comes with creeping shadows and a wind that howls and bites, Shigeo feels warm. It starts in his chest and tingles up through his toes to his fingertips, but he supposes that might be the cold after all.

He shoves his hands into his pockets and looks down at the cat that can do nothing but meow at him as he leaves the alleyway. She trails after him, sometimes, but never follows very far.

He wishes he could take her home.

When winter comes, there’s no way she’ll survive out in the cold like this. Each time he thinks to call her closer, to draw her to his home—to perhaps show his parents her sweet, scared face, to beg and say, “We can’t leave her out here like this, can we?”—she turns around and returns to her cardboard box. Ritsu might stick up for him and the lonely, sickly cat, but he hates animals in truth and would resent her for her fleas and her frailty; the meows that fill Shigeo’s heart with fondness would fill his with hate.

He knows he has only himself to blame when he returns home and his mother scolds him again for not waiting for his brother. He tells her he’ll wait tomorrow, then, and she accepts that.

He sits in front of the television that night and watches cartoons with eyes glazed over and mind far away. It’s times like these that losing himself isn’t such an issue as it is like when he nearly burns himself reaching out to touch the iron of his heater. There’s no harm in zoning out to the glory of judicature, a symphony that sings of purity and corruption. He watches as superheroes flatten their enemies against the might of their charisma and their innate goodness. It mesmerizes him.

Shigeo watches as the hero convinces a desperate girl not to jump off the edge of a cliff, although she’s unaware of the assembly of people gathered below to catch her. It’s both a saving from the metaphorical madness she’d been steadily driven into and a very literal death. When she takes his hand and returns down the slope to run into her brother’s open arms, Shigeo wonders if she knew she was going to be saved all along, if her holding out was intended and not predestined.

Shigeo wonders: if there are heroes in this world, then why did that girl have to die?

He shuts the television off and heads up to his room, opening the window. A breeze ushers in a chill, one that snaps around his naked arms like a rabid animal, clinging with teeth and biting to bone. Seconds span into minutes of staring out at a flickering streetlight; he listens to the dying hum of summer, the waning trill of cicadas buzzing like a fly in his ear. It takes a while before he realizes that it’s cold, that the house has drafts, Shigeo. Are you stupid? Is there something missing inside of you?

He doesn’t close the window. He stares out into the sky and seeks out the moon where it flits between passing clouds, big and bright and ethereal.

“Could I have saved her?”

The moon doesn’t answer him. It stares back with a gaping mouth, a broken jaw. Within the confines of a dumpster, her broken body provided nothing. She decomposed into an infertile corpse that was worth less than compost and she didn’t take the hand of a superhero to find her path in life, whether that be to grow into rice or live strong and free.

She died a meaningless death.

Maybe Shigeo could have done something. There’s the possibility he just barely missed taking the path that would have intertwined their fates and labeled him a hero or a savior. Shigeo thinks that it’d be nice—to be called a hero. It’d be nice to save someone.

In the morning, he and Ritsu eat breakfast together with their parents. He doesn’t have a student council meeting today.

“Oh, mom,” Ritsu starts, remembering something. “Brother needs a new pair of gloves. His don’t fit him anymore.”

“Oh, is that so? I’ll have to grab a pair after work today. Just bear with the cold a little longer, Shige.” He nods. He has no problem with cold hands if it means Ritsu is warm.

On their way to school, Shigeo thinks to ask him something.

“Ritsu,” He begins, and his brother immediately turns his full attention on him. It’s only slightly unnerving. “What do you think a hero is?”

“Hm—like a superhero? Isn’t that someone with powers?”

“No,” Shigeo pauses. He struggles for a moment, pinned down by his brother’s curious stare. “Not someone with powers. An everyday hero.”

“Like the police? I’m not sure what you mean…”

“Maybe,” Shigeo murmurs, considering that. He’d only ever seen policemen standing around before. “What makes a hero a hero?”

“Hm,” Ritsu ponders that for a moment before answering. “Well, for me… a hero is someone who delivers justice. He doesn’t care for himself. He prioritizes other’s needs above his own, and…” His little brother’s expression warps as he looks up into the ashen sky. “He protects people.”

Shigeo nods.

“Why?” Ritsu turns his attention back to him. “Why do you ask?”

He doesn’t know why, so he doesn’t answer.

Ritsu tilts his head curiously. “Brother?”

“It’s just…” He averts his gaze almost shyly. “I was thinking, and… I’d like to be a hero. You know, some day.”

“Oh,” Ritsu freezes, like he’s not sure how to respond. After shifting through a few complex expressions that look difficult to make, he settles on an awkward smile. “You’re already my hero.”

Shigeo takes that information—that lie—and seals it away in his heart. He can only nod.

“I’d like to be a hero for everyone,” A pause. “I know I can’t... but I just want to protect something that means something to me.”

Ritsu stares at him openly. “That’s noble of you.”

“It’s not really noble… it’s kind of simple,” He shrugs. “I want to be strong enough to protect things like, my values, and other people… I'd like to protect you, too.”

“Then that makes you a hero.”

Shigeo and he meet each other’s gazes. There’s only sincerity sparkling in the depths of his little brother’s eyes. He accepts it without question.