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a bell of air

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They decide that approaching Misato is a delicate matter, given the way she had been thoroughly humiliated in front of the entire class. It was a bitter fracture from where she once stood, fueled by pettiness and trivial revenge, and now those feelings have curdled, seething and writhing in a tight ball of thorns among the remains of her ego. Misato has never been the quiet sort, and so it isn’t difficult to notice her sharp retorts, lancing through anyone who displays weakness in her eyes. In the burnt and fallow field that was once her circle of friends, she claws arrows from the dust and aims them at the hearts of those who left her behind. Neither Kenya nor Satoru pretend to wholly understand the mind of a young girl, but even they can see how deeply the hurt runs. Regaining her trust - if they ever had it to begin with - will not be an easy task.

“To lose so much over a single pencil...” Satoru murmurs. “It’s hardly believable.”

Kenya sees the downturn at the corner of Satoru’s mouth, a faint unspoken guilt, and he gently brushes his thumb over it. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Satoru. You were defending Kayo against an unjust accusation.”

“I don’t regret defending her,” Satoru says, sighing. “But maybe I could’ve been less harsh about it.”

“If you had, would Kayo have felt the truth of your sincerity?” Kenya says. “Even the same action in varying degrees can yield very different results. What’s done is done. Maybe now we can even offer Misato real friendship, a fresh start with no pretense.” He pauses. “Though I’m not sure how Kayo will react.”

The edge of Satoru’s mouth slowly curls upward, dispelling his previous mood. “I believe she’ll understand. She’s a lot kinder than she looks.”

Kenya releases a soft laugh. “She is, isn’t she?” A gust of wind tugs his bangs sideways, as his expression falls. “Well, Kayo knows better than anyone that there are far more hurtful things in life than a lost pencil.”

Satoru takes a deep breath and burrows his hands into his pockets. “Let’s hope that Misato will never know anything worse. She’s too young to have such a hard heart.” He looks over at Kenya with resignation. “You will have to be the one to approach her. She won’t want to talk to me. Not after what I did.”

“You’re not wrong,” Kenya says, “but I doubt it’ll be easy. She may not suspect an ulterior motive directly from me, but she knows we’re friends. It’s likely she’ll be too proud to accept any overtures right away. But I’ll do my best.” He feels his mind starting to thrum, like the first touch of a bow on violin strings. “I’ll find a way.”

“Then I will keep protecting Kayo and Hiromi and Aya,” Satoru says, his voice steady. “I trust you.”

And Kenya answers Satoru’s smile with one of his own, a simple but powerful reminder that they no longer have to face the world alone.

--

Kenya tracks Misato’s movements over the next few days, piecing together her routines and activities, keeping an eye out for any suspicious figures in her vicinity but also looking for an opportune moment to engage her attention. (He surmises that while approaching her on school grounds is more convenient, the environment wouldn’t be conducive at all to potential friendship, with her emotions still raw and her guard up high.) However, it seems that whatever interests she might have had before the incident have dulled down or disappeared entirely. Even during the one time she stopped at an arcade, she had worn a look of indifference from game to game, only biting down hard on her lower lip and leaving abruptly when she couldn’t manage to win a stuffed winged bear.

With no friends to spend time with after school, Misato walks straight home most of the time, leaving Kenya a bit adrift. He doesn’t see any activities where he could reasonably join in and leverage it as a common interest. Sighing, he thinks he may end up having to borrow Satoru’s technique (really Kazu’s technique) of bluntly asking outright. But where Kayo’s initial reaction was dismissive and apathetic, Kenya predicts that Misato’s is likely to be volatile and defensive. And the risk of her pushing them even further away - possibly even refusing to come to school - is one he’s not willing to take. Not when the killer is lying in wait outside, ready to strike when the opportunity arises.

The killer’s silence is so oppressive that Kenya can almost feel it. The quiet is relentless, gripping the air in his lungs like a shivering intake of breath before descending into a pitch-black basement. But he knows that the imaginary monsters of the mind are no match for the man-made horrors of reality. He’s seen men - kind-faced, clean-shaven, polite-mannered men - who have conceded in court to charges of rape and torture and strangulation as if they were nothing more than items on a grocery list. He had learned that monsters don’t live beneath beds or in closets, the way children believe, but walk out in the open, wearing the faces of next-door neighbors and respected members of society.

Kenya balls his fists in frustration. It’s too easy to see every tall, dark-haired adult male he passes - on the sidewalk, in the convenience store, on the bus, at the park - as a suspect. It overwhelms him at times, and he has to stop and breathe to resist the onset of paranoia. He can’t let it paralyze him.

Nevertheless, the echo feels like an unseen war of attrition, the burden of time bearing down on his sanity, pulling him closer to the precipice. Having Satoru fight alongside him keeps him grounded, keeps him from giving in to the voices of doubt and fear in his head, but it also pains him whenever they are separated. It is a new kind of pain, a far deeper pain than he is willing to face, to think of the killer finding Satoru alone, a thick gloved hand around his throat, stealing his very life. Stealing eleven years, thirty years, and all the years to come, like pouring poison upon the roots of a tree and watching every branch wither and die until nothing is left.

He knows that if it comes down to it, he could never sacrifice another friend to save Satoru. He knows that Satoru wouldn’t want him to. This is a choice that they both understand without question, even as it goes unspoken. And it wouldn’t change if Kenya were in Satoru’s place. But it doesn’t mean Kenya won’t try like hell to make sure that choice never has to be made. It doesn’t mean he will accept a future without Satoru.

“I cannot fail,” he says, closing his eyes. “I will not fail.

--

Even in March, the winter wind still has a sharp bite to it, gusting beneath people’s jackets and rattling old metal lamp poles. It quickens the steps of adults and children alike, with nearly everyone shuffling home to hot tea and central heat. But on this particular day, Misato makes the rare decision to stay behind after school, instead of her usual haste to leave. Kenya invents a believable excuse to the rest of the group, nodding slightly as he catches Satoru’s eye, and ends up following Misato to the empty ice skating track behind the school building.

She seems unperturbed by the wind, and sits down briefly at the edge of the track, pulling out a pair of skates from her backpack and lacing them on. After setting down her black boots beside her backpack, she gingerly taps a blade against the ice, testing its strength. Seemingly satisfied, she begins to leisurely skate around the track, her skirt ruffling behind her.

It soon becomes clear to Kenya that she’s an experienced skater, her legs bending with ease as she increases her speed, rounding the corners tighter with every lap. Her red tights and green scarf become blurs of color, and her face is set in fierce concentration as she clasps her hands behind her back. Kenya stares in awe, momentarily forgetting the cold as he’s almost certain she’s breaking Hamada’s record.

He remembers the day of Hamada and Satoru’s race, where Satoru had thrown it at the last minute. He hadn’t understood its significance until they had revealed their echo and revival abilities to each other. Where others might have seen Satoru’s concession as a lack of will or confidence, Kenya now knows that Satoru simply never thinks of putting himself first. It isn’t in his nature. The same way he now knows that Misato’s enthusiasm in cheering on Hamada during the race was actually born of her own desire to compete. To win, as she once did in popularity and social standing.

As she crosses the red finish line at an unbelievable speed, Misato allows herself to finally catch a breath and glide to a slow halt. While skating didn’t bring back her smile, Kenya is glad to see that she looks calmer, steadier. He walks up to the side of the track and leans onto the barrier, clapping his hands in soft but heartfelt applause.

Misato’s head snaps up, a brief flash of surprise crossing her face before a wary expression quickly sets in. She thrusts her hands in her jacket pockets and narrows her eyes, like she’s trying to figure out if Kenya is mocking her. Her shoulders hunch defensively.

“What do you want, Kenya?” she says brusquely.

Kenya notices that her eyes dart over his shoulders and around the track, looking for signs of his friends. He lowers his hands, leaving them relaxed and open. “It’s just me,” he says with a nod. “You have a lot of skill, Misato. Better than Hamada even.” He evens his tone so as to not sound overly fulsome. “I’m impressed.”

It seems that Kenya’s reputation for being direct - if a bit distant - is working in his favor, as Misato doesn’t outright dismiss him. It means his words can be taken at face-value with no mean-spirited intention behind them. He can almost hear the gears turning in her head as she tries to suss out the real reason he’s here. But she’s also never been the patient type.

“You can’t possibly be here just to be impressed. So, what is it?” She puts on a haughty, false bravado. “You gonna report me to sensei for not getting permission to use the track?”

“No,” Kenya says simply. “Not if you don’t want me to.”

It hadn’t escaped his attention in class that ever since the lunch money incident, Yashiro has been showing more sympathy to Misato, giving her easier questions when calling on her and using a kinder, softer tone of voice. As much as she tries to hide it, she holds fast to those small acts of kindness and the last thing Kenya wants to do is to take that away from her.

She casts her gaze downward to hide her relief, and replies offhandedly, “Well, if all you’re gonna do is stand there like a weirdo, then I’m leaving.”

Kenya supposes that this really isn’t the most normal of circumstances, and so he smiles a bit self-effacingly. “I guess I am. It can feel lonely sometimes.”

This seems to anger Misato, as she stares at him accusingly. “What are you even talking about? You have your weirdo friends, don’t you?”

“I do. But we all have different interests, so it can be hard to talk about what you like when no one else understands.”

“That’s not my problem, is it?” Misato bites out.

“No,” Kenya replies, “but it’s nice to have somebody listening, even if they don’t really get it.” He pulls down his earmuffs. “If you ever want to talk about skating, I’d like to hear about it.”

Her expression remains hard and skeptical, and Kenya figures this is probably as far as he’ll get today. It’s a first step, a tentative one but a step nonetheless. He tells himself not to push too hard and to refrain from mentioning Kayo or Satoru at all. At least for now.

Slanting one last look at him, Misato wordlessly changes into her boots and heads off in the direction of her home, ducking her head against the wind. Kenya watches until she disappears from sight, then pulls his earmuffs back on as he prepares to follow at a distance. While there’s risk of him getting caught by Misato - which would obliterate any potential trust between them - it’s a far lesser risk than the one he’s attempting to protect her from.

As he yanks up the collar of his trenchcoat, he feels a prickle on the back of his neck, like he’s being watched. It’s hard to tell if it’s the paranoia he’s been trying to suppress or the result of all his work experience. Not all his clients were innocent, and after years of working with dangerous convicts, he quickly developed the habit of looking over his shoulder and sensing if something is off in any way. Kenya admits that he hasn’t been too vigilant thus far in this timeline, allowing the familiarity of home and the safety of school to lull him into stretches of complacency. But this feeling of being watched - instead of the one watching - immediately heightens all his senses into hyper-awareness.

He neither hastens nor slows down his movements, continuing to act normal to avoid alerting the watcher. Instead, he uses his peripheral vision to scan the area in front of him while he adjusts his backpack. He’s lucky there’s still daylight, giving the watcher less of a chance to hide, but nothing overtly tips him off. He doesn’t see any idle trucks parked suspiciously in the street or anyone peering out from the nearby residential buildings. But he doesn’t really expect to at this hour — most adults are still at work, or at least out and about running errands.

Which means, the only ones who could be watching are…

Kenya grits his teeth and walks back towards the school building. Just as he’s rounding the corner, he dares a quick glance up at the wide windows facing the skating track. It’s the teachers’ office, but all he’s able to see are the backs of the teachers who are sitting, their gazes focused on their own desks. No one seems to be paying him or the skating track any attention.

He releases a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, but the seed of doubt begins sinking in. He doesn’t want to think about the lightning-flash jolt of fear that not only could the watcher be the killer, but that the killer could be a teacher. It doesn’t seem possible. The very thought sickens him to the core, to his heart, and he’s not sure he has the strength to see this echo through if it’s even remotely true. He can’t even bear the thought of sharing this with Satoru. It would utterly break him.

He leans against the wall of the school, clenching his jaw, trying to fight back against the idea. But that seed is sprouting, bursting into black tendrils of dark whispers that wrap around his lungs and snake their way into his mind.

It makes sense, doesn’t it?

Only a teacher would know where every child lives, right? Only a teacher would know who to target.

And who do children trust the most besides their family? No one would ever suspect a teacher. No one would even dare to think it.

But you do, don’t you? Haven’t you noticed something off? Haven’t we been telling you this?

Kayo and Hiromi are in the same class, aren’t they? Don’t you think it’s too coincidental?

Don’t you think the killer could be—?

Kenya drops to his knees and retches, the bile coming up sour and acidic, burning in his throat. He trembles as his whole body goes cold, the numbness aching down to his fingertips. Still, his mind is frantically tearing at those insidious whispers, those inconceivable lies, trying to pull them apart and crush them, trying to preserve his sanity, to pull him back from the precipice—

The front doors of the school entrance slam open, and Kenya freezes, staring down at his own vomit, not daring to see who will walk out.

Heavy footsteps approach, crunching through the snow-covered ground and stopping right in front of him. Brown, ordinary shoes. Black, ordinary slacks. Kenya can’t do anything but stare at them. Just beyond, he sees the footprints left in the snow and his heart stops. He knows that print. He knows that size. He knows because he’s committed them to memory, ever since the night of Kayo’s near-abduction. But it can’t be right. It can’t be right at all.

He looks up, struggling to hide the maelstrom of emotions churning up inside him, and finds himself caught fast in Yashiro’s sharp, inscrutable gaze.