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the prince

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Akechi has a few recurring dreams. Sometimes he dreams he’s about to kill his father, and he is walking to Shido’s office with the gun in his hand, and no matter how sure he is in the dream that it will end with Shido’s death, he always wakes up before he even arrives. Sometimes he dreams he’s on a talk-show, explaining his brilliant and hugely successful plan to undermine Shido from under Shido’s nose, and he is very clever and very charming, made-up and not even sweating under the studio lights, not a hair out of place, and the audience makes the little Ooohs and Aahhs when he’s said something particularly boyishly cute, and everyone loves him so so so much and he wakes up in a terrified sweat.

Other times, he dreams he is already dead on his living room carpet, and he is watching TV channels and newsites slowly forget he ever existed in their relentless search for more views and better stories as he decomposes into the carpet, first the side of his face, then his eye (so that he struggles to keep watching through his remaining eye), then his teeth one by one as his gums unravel, popping the empty space where his nose used to be, until at long last he feels his one eyeball begins to rot and pulp and his vision goes fuzzy like fungus even as he struggles to keep watching some TV screen that’s never given a damn about him and then he wakes up.

And sometimes, very seldomly, he dreams of a jazz lounge in deep velvet blues, the upholstery done in leather and shadow, and somewhere, a woman is singing some aria of some soul, but the lounge is always empty, and the doors are always locked, and the song never ends.

On reflection, it’s probably more accurate to say that Akechi has a few recurring nightmares.

He likes them.

He collects them, even. When he gets a new one, he hoards it close, like shiny stone. He goes over them in off hours when he’s bored, or when he’s feeling doubt, like smoothing his thumb over a smooth stone, or a thumb over a blade. He never writes them down. He just replays them in his head, over and over, to make sure he remembers them. He keeps them sharp, well-used. A well-used knife gathers no dust. A well-remembered dream is never forgotten. In the same way, a wound poked and prodded at never heals, and never ceases to bleed.

 

*

 

He likes them so much that he even has a favorite nightmare.

In his favorite nightmare, he is alone in his apartment, wiping the make-up off. There isn’t much left, but the last smudges are tenacious. The lipstick looks like blood. The smudged mascara are lines of rot. The destroyed contour are bruises. He is taking his face off, but it’s always the colors you don’t want to stick that overstay their welcome on your skin.

He pulls on the longest-sleeved shirt he owns, to cover the fingerprints on his body. He dabs foundation powder half-heartedly on the hickeys the man left, as the boy isn’t old enough to know what they are and where they came from. He splashes cold water on his eyes. He pushes the used condoms into the trash. Then, like a switch going off, he runs out of gas, and he just collapses back onto the bed without even changing the sheets. He meant to change them. He was going to throw the condom out. There’s no way it won’t be found just sitting there on top of everything else in plain sight. But he can’t seem to make himself do it.

His body is heavy. He might as well be chained to this bed, locked in this little apartment bedroom. He’s going to throw the condom out in just a second. The sheets smell awful. When he tilts his head, his own lipstick is a stain on his hand; he can see the fingerprints of men he doesn’t love all up and down his arm. He can still feel them. He can feel their saliva, even though he’s washed it off. The hair on their chests. No matter how hard he scrubs his skin, he can't make the feeling go away. He has the vague thought that if he could just cut all this skin from his body, he could get out of this little prison that his body’s become.

“Mom?”

He turns his head to the other side. “Sweetie,” he says, tiredly. There’s a child standing in the doorway, wrinkling his nose. He can smell the sheets that Akechi didn’t change. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Sorry. I’m home.”

“Welcome home, my little prince,” says Akechi without an ounce of irony. Because he means it. This little child is Akechi’s saving grace—the only good thing he’s ever done with his life—in Akechi’s darkest, most desperate moments, the ray of light that comes to save Akechi from himself. “Did you have a good bath at the bathhouse? All clean?”

The child nods. When he comes closer, he’s dragging his schoolbag behind him. Featherman Grey. They’d saved up for it. Akechi still regrets buying it some days, no matter how happy the child’s face lights up when he uses it. “I was doing my math in the waiting room, but I got stuck.”

Akechi says nothing for a long moment. The child looks at him hopefully. Come on, Akechi. It’s not calculus. The child’s eight years old. It’s probably just multiplication. Akechi might be a college drop-out, but he can at least do his times tables. Does this mean that Akechi has to get up and go to the kitchen table? Can’t Akechi just lie here and sleep, yet? He just wants to be unconscious for as long as he can get away with.

“Okay,” says Akechi, and hates that he has to make himself say it, that he doesn’t want to spend time with his own kid. His heart’s an ugly thing. Piece of shit. “Okay,” he makes himself say again. He sounds unenthusiastic to his own ears. He closes his eyes. “Give Mom a second.”

The child scoots up on the blankets and digs a workbook out of that (stupid) expensive Featherman backpack. “Oh, no, baby,” Akechi says. He still feels too tired to move. “You just took a bath. You’ll get all dirty.”

“It’s okay.”

“I said the bed is dirty,” Akechi snaps.

The child freezes.

God dammit. He can’t do anything right. He can’t even talk to his child right. He’ll have to wash the sheets and the kid’s clothes and his own clothes all because he didn’t change the sheets out before he laid down in it and the kid just took a bath—Akechi paid 500 yen for that kid to be clean, and also to not have to see things like his mother letting some ugly old man smudge the lipstick and stink up the sheets—it’s too much. Akechi squeezes his eyes shut hard and sinks deeper into the bed. He wishes for unconsciousness again, or at least a strong drink that Akechi can’t afford anymore. “Never mind,” he says. “Come here.”

The kid scoots right up next to him, fitting his little eight-year-old body against Akechi’s side. Like a well-trained monkey. Even this eight-year-old knows that Akechi’s spent the last five days in this bed and sure as hell isn’t going to get out of it for some math. Akechi’s shining prince in white armor, clean, pure, untouchable. Akechi doesn’t deserve a child this wonderful, that he’d come to Akechi since Akechi can’t go to him. Who’s the real parent, here? Akechi’s done nothing but let this child down. Light of his life. Perfect child. Even now, he’s saving Akechi from himself.

The kid flips open the workbook. The handwriting is childish, but oddly neat. Why doesn’t Akechi know what his own son’s handwriting looks like? (Akechi heard, once, that if you read handwritten words in a dream, you’ll die.) “This is the part,” says the boy, pointing to a multiplication table that’s mostly filled out except for one row.

Akechi breathes shallowly. Come on, Akechi. This is your son. “Times seven?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, it’s just like all the other multiplication tables. You just add seven however many times. You can do that, can’t you?”

“Yeah, but my teacher says that I need to have a trick to remember it instantly. Like how all the nine times tables add up to nine.”

Ah, right, Akechi vaguely remembers that. “Well, with seven, you…”

And Akechi can’t remember if there’s a trick to the seven multiplication table.

Akechi can't even remember what seven times three is.

Akechi was a bio-chem major, before he dropped out of college after Masayoshi happened. He’d been on a scholarship. And now he can’t remember basic math.

“Can’t you just use flashcards?” says Akechi tightly.

“Um, I tried.”

“Try again,” Akechi snaps.

The child goes silent. Then: “Maybe we could make flashcards togeth—”

“I don’t know, okay?!” Akechi shouts. His body thrashes up from the bed like he’s possessed, until the child scrambles away. “I don’t know anything! I’m just a stupid woman who never graduated and I don’t know anything anymore!”

“I’m sorry—"

“I can’t help you! You already did all the other rows! Just fucking add seven! Stop asking me for fucking help on your fucking homework—"

“I’m sorry!” the child cries. “Sorry! Sorry! I already know my seven times tables! I borrowed flashcards from Ohta-kun! Please don’t be upset!”

Akechi freezes. “You lied to me?” Akechi hisses.

“I just—”

“Did I raise a liar for a son?”

The child shrinks away. “I just want to—”

“Telling lies already? You’re really your father’s son, aren’t you?!”

“No!” the child cries immediately. Even at eight years old, he knows your father’s son is the worst insult he can say.

“You wanted to see me make a fool of myself?!” Akechi bares his teeth, raises his hand, ready to smack some honesty into Masayoshi’s hideous, lying, life-ruining demon child. “Wanted to laugh at your stupid mother who can’t even remember how to multiply?!”

The child ducks and raises his hands over his head, bracing for it. “I just wanted to d-do my homework with you! I’m sorry! I-I’m sorry!”

And just like that, it’s over. Akechi’s hand falls limp on the bed.

He’s going to throw up.

He almost hit his son.

How could he. How could he have done that. How could he. How could he. His own child. Akechi slumps over on the sex-soaked sheets. He can feel men’s skin on his skin. Everything stinks. He has to do the laundry. He is so tired.

“I’m sorry,” says the boy again, softly.

“No. Sweetheart. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” says Akechi. The words feel like they’re being dragged out of him in one long wire, and he’s helpless to stop them. “I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry. Please. Forgive me. I’m sorry.”

“I-It’s okay—”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

Akechi lies back on the bed. Closes his eyes again. When he opens them again, the stupid child still hasn’t left. The boy still looks at him like Akechi hung the moon. Akechi doesn’t deserve this sort of love. Even now, the kid still looks hopeful that he can do fucking math with his useless, good-for-nothing, stupid mother.

“I’m sorry,” says Akechi one more time. “If you know your sevens already, can you show me how well you can fill it out?”

The kid perks up. He scrambles off the bed for a pencil, scoots right back up, tucks himself against Akechi’s side, right under the arm that Akechi had almost hit him with. In less than thirty seconds, the boy’s scratched out his sevens multiplication tables. “You’re so smart,” says Akechi, in his purposefully-kind, careful parent voice. “My brilliant boy.”

The boy lights up. Like a starving dog being fed scraps from the table. Akechi's heart hurts. He's trying to be there for his son. Why is it that the attention he gives his son never enough? Why is his child still so lonely, so hungry for anything Akechi can give him? (Besides, of course, the obvious answer, that Akechi is a shit parent who can barely hold a conversation on a good day.) Akechi is trying so hard to be there for his child. Why is it never enough? Why is Akechi never enough?

“Can you show me what else you did?” says Akechi, eventually.

“I did all this,” says the child, showing Akechi his hard work on the next workbook page, “and also this one, too. We’re doing this page tomorrow so I did it today.”

“Wonderful,” says Akechi. His voice comes out so unenthusiastically, as if through static, a thousand miles off. He tries to smile to make up for it. He doesn’t know if it’s much of a smile, from the look on the child’s face. “You’re so… clever. My clever boy.”

Something of his sincerity must have gotten through, because the child beams again, proud. “We’re learning multiplication tables up to twelve,” says the kid, starts to go on and on about what they're doing in school lately, the science experiment the teacher made them do, how he always understands the teacher faster than the other students, and then Akechi sort of… tunes him out, just for a bit. It’s a soft voice. Akechi is very tired. The child is practically reading him a bedtime story, a little fantasy of his own academic achievements. Who's the parent here? Who's the child? It's so shameful, that Akechi's own child needs to coddle him like glass, but Akechi can’t lie—it does actually put his heart at ease.

“Some day,” Akechi says suddenly, and the child falls silent. “Some day, my clever boy. You’ll be better than all this.”

The child looks back at his workbook. Shrinks tighter into the space besides Akechi’s chest.

“You're so, so smart. So you’ll be better than me. You will. My darling. My dearest.” Akechi leans over, presses a kiss to the child's hair. “You won’t be like me.”

“I want to be like you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“You’re my hero.”

“You’re my hero,” Akechi corrects the child, and with the last of his strength, he says: “You don’t want to be like me. Don’t be like me. Please don’t end up like me. Okay?”

The child’s bottom lip trembles.

“Promise me,” says Akechi sharply.

“I promise,” says the child, rather unenthusiastically, just reciting the lines that will make Akechi happy. “I won’t be like you.”

“You have to be better. You have to be spectacular. Perfect. The best.”

“Okay,” says the child, in a small voice.

Akechi, finally, wraps his arms around the tiny boy, cradling the skinny body to his chest. I’m sorry, he wants to say, but apologies mean nothing. I wish I could be better for you, he wants to say, but wishes mean nothing, either. “You’re going to be great,” Akechi says instead. “You’re going to dazzle the world. I know it. I know you will.”

The child’s breathing is soft against his skin. Akechi has to believe what he says is true, or Akechi is going to lose his mind. He has to believe that some day, even if Akechi is dead and gone, this child may one day be happy and shining and loved and loved and loved. As much love as this child could ever want, until he chokes on it, until he never goes hungry for love or praise again. Akechi closes his eyes, speaking softer, for the two of them alone:

“Anything you want, you’ll have if you set your mind to it. You’re going to be wonderful. I know it. My clever darling. My shining light. My little prince.”

"I love you," says the child.

And then Akechi wakes up.

 

*

 

This is the nightmare Akechi loves most.

On the mornings after his nightmares, Akechi wakes up a little more ready to kill. But on the mornings after this dream in particular, Akechi feels like a wet knife against a whetstone, its excess parts smoothed away until there is nothing left of it but its sharpened edge. He feels like he could cut the rot out of the world with his own two hands and his fury alone. He feels himself growing ever more capable of what he wants. On these mornings, Akechi is very sure that justice exists, and that justice is his own long, lean, knife-sharp heart.