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a bell of air

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to go into the unknown
i must enter and leave, alone,
i know not how.

- e. thomas

+

sapporo, hokkaido.
february 2003.

Kenya suppresses a sigh as he repeats himself for the third time in a row.

“I strongly urge you to take the plea deal.”

But the man sitting across the table, with his nervous tic and clammy complexion, is refusing to accept the best offer that the Legal Aid Association will ever give him.

“I already told you,” he shouts, agitated, “I’m innocent!”

“Sir, I’m trying to help you.” Kenya keeps his voice measured and steady. “With a guilty conviction, we must focus on obtaining the best possible outcome—”

The man clenches his fists. “I have a family to support! Why would I ever commit a crime like this?”

With practiced ease, Kenya sidesteps the question. “If you exhibit genuine remorse for your actions, the judge will consider leniency towards the end of your sentence.” He leans forward, steepling his hands. “I’ll also see what I can do about increasing your family’s visitation rights.”

The man’s expression crumples. “No, this isn’t— this isn’t right. How am I the victim of such misfortune?” He curls inward. “I just want to go home. Please let me go.”

Kenya slides his chair back, standing up and pushing the papers towards his client. “Why don’t you rest for a bit before looking these over again. I’ll go and bring you something to eat.”

Shutting the door behind him, Kenya presses a hand tiredly over his forehead. Being a public defender in criminal cases had sounded like a noble and worthy profession during his law school days. It really had. Even when his professors cautioned him against the rigors of the job, he had not been daunted. Surely with pure resolve and willpower, he had thought, then he could carry on through adversity to help those without a voice. But instead, over the years, he found his idealism waning and buckling under the harsh realities of the system, his pen wielded not for justice but for redundant paperwork and high conviction rates.

“Oi, Kobayashi.”

“Hm?” Kenya says absently, browsing the selection of cup noodles in the vending machine.

His colleague leans in conspiratorially. “The shrimp is the best one.”

Kenya roots around in his pockets for spare change. “It’s not for me,” he says.

“Ah, your client?” The expression on his colleague’s face turns thoughtful. “Is he still claiming innocence?”

“I can’t discuss that with you, Sasaki.”

Sasaki raises an eyebrow. “I am a prosecutor, you know.”

Kenya is unfazed. “You’ll find out like everyone else after the paperwork is filed.”

“Such a stickler for protocol,” he sighs with a mournful tone. “Guess it’s to be expected from a Tohoku graduate. No fun at all.” He follows Kenya back into the office, brightening up a bit. “Hey, you want to go to Odori later?”

“The park?” Kenya frowns slightly, as he swirls the noodles with chopsticks. “Why?”

“The snow festival, obviously.”

Kenya shakes his head. “That’s for children.” (There’s a bit of a twinge in his heart, though he doesn’t know why.)

A small smile graces Sasaki’s handsome features. “So is the zoo, but I got you to go anyway.”

Kenya tilts his chin up. “That’s different. Zoos are educational.”

Sasaki chuckles, then raises his hands in defeat. “Up to you,” he says, walking away towards his desk.

Placing the cup noodles on a small tray, Kenya straightens his shoulders and tries to dismiss thoughts of Sasaki. It’s really quite inappropriate for an office environment, he says to himself, especially a government law organization.

He’s about to turn back towards the interview room, when all of a sudden his vision blurs and a nauseating headache comes on.

Oh come on, not the flu again.

But it doesn’t turn out to be the flu at all.

--

Kenya finds himself in the interview room again, bewildered, his hands grasping at air.

Where did the cup noodles go?

His client seems to have taken his absence poorly, as he’s completely worked up again.

“I already told you,” he shouts, agitated, “I’m innocent!”

“Sir—” Kenya begins, blinking in confusion. He feels like he’s already had this conversation. “Please calm yourself.” He looks down at the papers, which have somehow returned to his side of the table. They still unequivocally state his client’s guilty conviction. “Like I said before, we should focus on obtaining the best possible outcome—”

The man clenches his fists. “I have a family to support! Why would I ever commit a crime like this?”

Kenya stares at him.

Is this deja vu?

His next words come out hesitantly. “If you exhibit genuine remorse—” But there’s an unnerving feeling rising in his gut that he can’t shake, so he stops abruptly and stands up. “Please excuse me. I’ll be back shortly.”

Kenya shuts the door behind him and strides over to the vending machine, pacing anxiously in front of it.

Maybe the effects of overworking are catching up to him. He’s seen many a breakdown among his peers at law school — prolonged stress can affect people in the strangest ways. He shakes his head again, and contemplates taking the rest of the day off.

“Oi, Kobayashi.”

No way.

Kenya looks up, surprised by his own lack of surprise at seeing Sasaki strolling over.

All right. If these are the circumstances you’re stuck in, his mind tells him, then let’s test your sanity.

“Let me guess,” Kenya says, narrowing his eyes. “Shrimp is the best flavor.”

Come on, Sasaki. Prove me wrong.

But of course, cheerful and well-meaning Sasaki laughs in agreement. “Of course it is! I was just about to say so.”

Kenya inhales sharply and shoves his hands into his pockets. One more test. “You know, I was thinking of heading out tonight. Any ideas?”

Thoughtful surprise is an unfairly good look on Sasaki. “Well, sure. I was going to ask if you wanted to come to Odori with me.” He smiles, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s like you’re reading my mind today.”

Kenya grits his teeth. “Not at all.” He crosses his arms, mentally wavering between complete denial and unleashing the full power of his deductive reasoning skills. (Complete denial is definitely winning.)

But the splitting headache resurges once more, forcing him to squeeze his eyes shut.

“Hey, Kobayashi, are you— ?”

Kenya tries to hang on, but Sasaki’s voice fades away into nothingness.

--

He opens his eyes again to the dull fluorescent lights of the interview room.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

--

The third time around, he entertains the possibility that he’s actually dead and the interview room is some form of eternal punishment.

--

The sixth time around, he finally deduces the key to stopping this infuriating time loop.

“I already told you,” his client shouts, agitated, “I’m innocent!”

Kenya shoves the papers aside, eyes flashing. “Then let’s prove it.”

--

Kenya eventually comes to call it echo.

+

sapporo, hokkaido.
may 2006.

“Hey, I’m going out to grab some coffee. Do you want one?”

Kenya startles, looking up from a massive pile of paperwork. “What? Oh, thank you.” He rubs his eyes. “Decaf, please.”

Sasaki raises an eyebrow but has learned long ago not to second guess Kenya’s decisions. “Sure thing.”

Stifling a yawn, Kenya leans back in his chair and stretches his aching muscles. He pulls his reading glasses off the top of his head and tosses them on the desk. Sometimes, he wonders if he’s taking on more than he can really handle.

He pushes back his chair, wincing at the pins and needles in his legs when the blood comes rushing back. It would probably do him good to walk around a bit.

“Chief,” he says, nodding as he passes his superior. She’s possibly the only one who regularly clocks in more overtime hours than Kenya.

“Ah, Kobayashi, I was just about to come find you.” She motions for him to enter her office. “How’s the Igarashi case coming along?”

He sighs, leaning against her desk. “Almost done.” He fiddles with a pen, resisting the urge to pop it in his mouth. Ever since he quit smoking— well, life became a lot more frustrating in general.

“Good,” she says absently.

Kenya frowns slightly, sensing that the Igarashi case isn’t what she’s really after. “Is something wrong?”

“Not entirely.” She pauses, as if she wants to say more. But instead she turns her computer monitor towards Kenya, gesturing towards the screen.

He leans forward, peering at the photograph of an unfamiliar face. “Jun Shiratori,” he mutters, reading the caption below. “Sentenced to death for the 1988 serial abduction and murder of three children in the Kamikawa sub-prefecture.”

Kenya freezes, speechless.

“You’re from Kamikawa, aren’t you?” she says with a soft voice.

He’s staring at the screen but not seeing it at all. Jagged pieces of his memory rise up, breaking through his conscious like the tremors of an earthquake.

“Yes,” he whispers eventually.

He grips the edge of the desk, feeling uneasy. The news should gladden him, should finally close the gaping wound he had been ignoring for so long. But it doesn’t. He closes his eyes to try and piece together his memories from almost two decades ago, but they slip through his fingers like water, leaving him with only blurred scenes and vague sensations.

He opens his eyes and sees the chief looking at him with concern. She presses her lips together. “I’ve upset you.”

“No,” he says automatically. “I mean, it was a long time ago.” His gaze shifts downward. “I don’t remember much.”

She hums in understanding. “Not surprising. You were young, after all.” Her gaze lingers on him for a few moments longer. “I just thought you should know.”

He nods, biting the inside of his cheek. “I appreciate it.”

“Don’t stay too late,” she says purely out of courtesy, as he exits her office. They’re practically the only ones left in the building at this hour.

“I won’t if you won’t,” he calls out behind him, and smiles when he hears her scoff.

When he returns to his desk, Kenya tries to focus on finishing the Igarashi case, but is unable to stop thinking about Jun Shiratori’s death sentence. The gaunt and haunted face from the photograph hovers at the forefront of his mind.

Tapping his fingers restlessly, he decides to shove aside the paperwork and log into the criminal database on the computer. He enters “Jun Shiratori, 1988” into the search function, and pulls up the case files linked to him.

Kenya furrows his brow, as he scrolls through the files. They seem incomplete somehow, missing pockets of information. But he supposes not everything from the ‘80s could have been dutifully digitized and uploaded into the system.

He reaches the profiles of the victims, and feels his throat tighten painfully as he recognizes their faces.

Hinazuki, Kayo. 10 years old.
Nakanishi, Aya. 11 years old.
Sugita, Hiromi. 11 years old.

“Hiromi…” he says softly, blinking back tears.

An unbidden memory surfaces: a sunny day after school, Hiromi’s delicate and smiling face, begging Kenya to teach him how to play soccer, except Hiromi turns out to be quite terrible at it, so Kenya gently teases him by telling Hiromi he should stick with othello.

Kenya breathes out a sad and painful laugh.

“Are you okay?” Sasaki comes up behind him, and Kenya jumps in his seat, quickly rubbing at his eyes.

“Fine,” he says hoarsely, putting on his reading glasses to hide behind them.

Sasaki glances at the computer screen, but decides not to push him. “Here, your decaf coffee.”

“Thank you,” Kenya says gratefully, cradling the cup and blowing cool air into it.

Instead of doing something stupid like remarking how cute Kenya looks at the moment, Sasaki decides instead to turn on the tiny office television.

“Did you hear? There’s a murder in Tokyo, weird case.” Sasaki flips through the channels until he finds one showing footage of a small residential building, yellow tape wrapped around the second floor.

“Really,” Kenya says without any real interest. He pushes up his glasses as he thumbs through the Igarashi paperwork again.

“Oh, they have a picture of the murderer. I guess he’s on the loose.” Sasaki squints as he tries to read the scrolling captions. “Satoru…Fujinuma? Wow, he ran after killing his own mother. He can’t possibly get very far—”

A sudden splash of hot liquid on his arm causes him to curse, and he turns around in surprise to see Kenya’s coffee spilled all over his desk.

Kenya seems not to notice, as he stares in wide-eyed shock at the TV.

“Oi, Kobayashi. What’s wrong?” Sasaki looks at the TV then back at Kenya, concerned. “Do you know him?”

“I—” Kenya starts, but is abruptly cut off by what feels like a freight train impacting his skull. He yells out, clutching his head, a roaring noise drowning out everything around him.

Then his vision goes white.