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a bell of air

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

kamikawa, hokkaido.
february 1988.

“Kenya, wake up.”

Blinking sleepily, Kenya yawns and mumbles something about five more minutes.

“Kenya,” the voice says with increasing disapproval. “You’re going to be late for school.”

What?

Kenya squints as the person in his room throws open the curtains, letting sunshine hit him directly in the face.

Since when did he let someone into his apartment? He rubs his eyes and looks up, frozen, as he recognizes his mother.

“Mother?” he says with a scratchy voice. “What are you doing here?”

She looms over him, and he absently notices that she’s a lot larger than he remembers. “This is highly unlike you, Kenya. Very irresponsible. Are you ill?” She presses a hand to his forehead. “No, you’re not. Then get up and go to school. Don’t make me tell you again.”

She leaves irritably and slams the door.

He stares after her, then slowly takes in his surroundings, then looks down at himself.

Huh.

--

It’s a very odd state of being, to feel both natural and unnatural in your own body, Kenya thinks as he walks to school, relying on the barest hint of muscle memory to get there. (Well, that and following all the other children his age.)

The first thing he notices is that he can no longer reach things on high shelves, which annoys him to no end. The second thing he notices is that he has an extremely strong craving for coffee and nicotine, even though he’s technically never had either at eleven years old.

The third thing— he huffs out loud, trying to rid himself of his nervousness. It’s patently ridiculous given that he’s actually twenty nine, but he can’t help but worry if he has any tests today that he’s unprepared for. It’s like the occasional nightmare about failing an exam, except he most definitely isn’t waking up anytime soon.

He frowns, as his mind replays the news footage of Satoru’s escape. Over the past few years, he’s become quite adept at figuring out the purpose behind each echo, but now— he feels like he’s back at square one. Why is he sent as far back as eighteen years? Is Satoru guilty or innocent? What is he supposed to do in this timeline that would change the future?

Kenya slows down as he nears the entrance of Mikoto Elementary, gingerly stepping around a patch of ice. The gates look strange without the black memorial ribbons that he’d grown used to seeing after the deaths of Hiromi and Kayo.

“Oi, Kenya!” A blur whips past him, cackling with a kind of glee that no sane person should have at eight in the morning. But of course, Kazu has no such compunction.

“Good morning,” Kenya mutters, pinching the bridge of his nose with a leather gloved hand. The shrieks and loud chattering among the influx of students grate against his nerves, and he suddenly feels a great deal of sympathy for teachers everywhere.

“Morning, Kenya,” says a shy, high-pitched voice behind him.

He turns around and nearly drops with relief when he sees Hiromi waving at him, just as young and joyful as he remembers. A surreal feeling overcomes him as he stands still, staring and trying to reconcile the Hiromi - warm and alive - in front of him with the Hiromi - frozen in time - in the database photograph.

Forgive me, Hiromi…

Kenya realizes he must have said that out loud, as Hiromi is now looking at him with confusion.

“Ah, never mind,” Kenya says, putting on a smile. “I’ll see you inside shortly. I’m just going to wait for Satoru.”

“Okay,” Hiromi says softly, gripping the straps of his backpack as he wanders inside.

Kenya leans against the gate, watching him until he disappears from sight. A fierce desire to protect Hiromi wells up inside him, but he has no idea how to go about actually doing it. He closes his eyes, as he tries to recall the details of the Shiratori case files.

“Kenya!” An enthusiastic shout startles him, and he opens his eyes to see Osamu skipping up to the gates. “You asleep there? C’mon, we’re gonna be late.”

But Kenya completely ignores Osamu as he spies Satoru coming up behind him.

“Satoru,” he says, reserved. It seems impossible that the boy in front of him could grow up to be a cold-blooded killer. But a lot could happen in eighteen years. He doesn’t want to believe it, but he’s seen stranger, more twisted cases during the length of his career.

However, Satoru seems not to notice him, his attention drawn elsewhere. Kenya follows his gaze and lands on a girl in a red jacket, hunched over against the chill of the morning air.

Kayo Hinazuki.

Kenya narrows his eyes, feeling that something not quite right is happening. Then the warning bell begins to chime and he loses his train of thought, jostled along by a throng of students rushing to change their shoes.

--

Kenya is standing in the doorway of the classroom, trying very hard to convey a casual expression while inwardly panicking.

Damn it, which desk is mine?

Then he catches Osamu waving enthusiastically at him.

“Hey Kenya, I finished that book you lent me! I left it on your desk.” He points helpfully to the open seat beside Hiromi.

Ah, you are my favorite person right now, Osamu.

Kenya walks over and - as he begins neatly unpacking his backpack - he has the sudden realization that he has no idea how to talk to children. He glances quickly at the cover of the book, and mentally winces as he doesn’t remember at all what it’s about. “So, what did you think?”

Osamu pulls a face. “Bo-ring,” he sing songs. “Not a single mech battle in there!”

Kenya’s left eye twitches a bit. He prides himself on having excellent taste in literature. “I’ll keep that in mind for next time,” he deadpans.

The sarcasm sails straight over Osamu’s head. “Thanks, that would be awesome,” he says, giving Kenya a thumbs up.

Kenya stoically refrains from laying his head down on his desk in despair.

Hiromi giggles quietly, and looks up at Kenya. “Don’t listen to him. It was a really good book.”

Kenya smiles warmly. “Thanks. At least there’s still some hope for the future.” But the ominous weight of his poorly chosen words hits him like a douse of cold water, and he immediately goes silent for the rest of the class period. He doesn’t notice Hiromi doing the same, fretting over whether he had said something to upset Kenya.

--

It turns out that there is, in fact, a test. Kenya groans inwardly, praying it’s about literature or simple math or even the judicial system. But luck is not with him today, as it very clearly states “geography” at the top of the page. He sighs, defeated, and regrets not having traveled more outside Hokkaido in his later years.

But he figures the echo won’t punish him for failing one test, and he proceeds to quickly fill in all the blanks with whatever places come to mind, some real, some fictional.

Kenya spends the rest of the hour tapping his pencil eraser against his desk, surreptitiously observing Satoru. Strangely enough, he also seems to have completed the test early, staring contemplatively into space. Occasionally, Satoru’s gaze would wander towards Kayo, focusing briefly with intense determination before abruptly catching himself and diverting his eyes.

Kenya props his chin up with his hands, concentrating as he tries to dig deeper into his well of memories.

He surmises that he had never quite grasped who Satoru really was over the years, only catching glimpses through the fractal edges of his emotional spectrum. What Kenya does remember is that although Satoru’s emotions had seemed forced and distant at times, there was never any ill intent. On some days, Satoru had brought a kind of animated energy to their hideout games, concocting stories and drawing out elaborate escape plans. On other days, though, he seemed to withdraw into himself, standing apart from the rest of their group.

Kenya doesn’t remember Kazu or Osamu ever really expressing too much concern over it. But Hiromi would sometimes blink worriedly and look to Kenya for answers. Kenya had never really known what to do — he didn’t possess that kind of initiative, and so would remain silently observant until Satoru’s cheerful side reappeared.

But now in the echo timeline, Kenya notices that there’s a different kind of intensity to Satoru’s expressions. Not forced but almost— more honest, somehow. As if he’s less aware of how others perceive him.

Kenya decides, however, that he doesn’t have the luxury of time to sit back and play anthropologist, so he confronts Satoru in front of the group during their ten-minute recess.

“Can I ask you something, Satoru?” He barely pauses for Satoru’s answer. “Do you like Hinazuki?”

Predictably, Satoru stammers and blushes, and the rest of the group works themselves into a tizzy by the very idea. But Kenya is merely using the question as a plausible cover to assess Satoru’s response.

“More like she’s on my mind…” is what Satoru says, which Kenya finds to be curiously worded and somewhat off-kilter regarding Satoru’s personality. If his memory serves him right, Satoru tends to keep to himself or - on sociable days - just their own group members. What’s the real reason behind the sudden interest in Kayo? And does it have any connection to his relationship with his mother?

Kenya can practically hear the clock of the echo ticking, but concludes that pushing too hard right now will only draw suspicion. He figures that this perhaps might be the only promising avenue of pursuit, in his quest to deconstruct Satoru’s past (well, present). And so when the opportunity arises, he tells Satoru that he thinks it’s important to keep his attention on Kayo, making sure to use warm and open language.

Later, Kenya feels a bit guilty for treating Satoru like a client instead of a friend. But - he shakes his head - he has to focus on the objective at hand.

--

“Once again, your father will not be joining us for dinner,” his mother says tersely.

Kenya looks down silently at the table, the bowls of rice and soup and vegetables perfectly arranged.

“Well?” She gestures sharply at him. “Hurry up and eat before it gets cold.”

He straightens his posture automatically, avoiding her gaze. “Itadakimasu,” he says stiffly before taking small, measured bites. He was hoping - irrationally - that somehow things at home would be different this time around. But he finds them to be exactly the same. The food tastes like nothing, and Kenya draws upon his long-formed habit of compartmentalizing his discomfort and loneliness.

His mother only eats a small portion before she gets up, repeating her oft-used excuse of having no appetite, and retreats to her bedroom. Kenya watches her leave, feeling a pang of helplessness as another night goes by where she dresses in silk blouses and pearl earrings but has nowhere to go.

After eating what little he could stomach, Kenya quietly cleans up the table, leaving his father’s portion underneath a basket cover. As he methodically washes the dishes, his thoughts drift back to Satoru and Kayo.

What is the connection?

He wonders if he’s trying too hard to force something that isn’t there, but with the benefit of his experience he believes his intuition isn’t wrong. As he usually does when he gets stuck, he goes back to review the basic facts.

Satoru: ten years old, lives alone with his mother, no father figure.

Kayo: ten years old, lives alone with her mother, no father figure (that he knows of).

Could it really be just as simple as that? The shared understanding of what it’s like to have an ever-present void in their life? He tries to push further along this line of thought, but comes up short. He emits a low noise of frustration, and glares at the flow of water from the faucet. While he can suss out information from Satoru under the guise of friendly concern, he doesn’t have that kind of access to Kayo. (Nor does he think she would be willing to share, even if he did.) She rarely speaks as it is, but— he pauses, eyes widening.

Kenya quickly wipes down the sink, then strides over to his room, pulling out the student composition collection from his desk drawer. He frowns, flipping through it until he spots a rough sketch of a girl on an island with a single palm tree. And, he notices with unease, a figure to the right heavily scratched out.

He scans through her essay, and then closes the book, feeling the bottom of his stomach drop.

It all but confirms the hidden darkness in Kayo’s life.

Is Satoru...being abused as well?

Chapter Text

It surprises Kenya - though it shouldn’t - to discover that the longer he engages in play or really any activity expected from a normal fifth grader, the more pronounced his eleven-year-old self becomes. It’s disconcerting, to say the least. And requires him to manage a balancing act between both identities, which exhausts him on top of the already taxing task of solving his echo. (Trying to pull the throttle on his twenty-nine-year-old self, he finds unhappily, is like overcorrecting the steering wheel of a car. It just leads to headaches, and the rest of society staring at him in confusion and consternation.)

Kenya is presently spending the day’s study hour painstakingly writing a book report the way his eleven-year-old self would (and ignoring his subsequent need for an aspirin), when Yashiro comes up beside him and bends down briefly.

“Kenya,” he says with a neutral expression, “can I see you after study hour?”

Kenya nods, privately grimacing as he suspects Yashiro wants to talk about the sudden shift in his academic performance. He glances at the wall clock, noting that he has about ten minutes to come up with a believable excuse. While he could drop a hint that things aren’t going well at home, which is true and likely to dissuade further questioning, he doesn’t particularly feel like exposing such vulnerability to an authority figure. Knowing Yashiro, he would probably start treating Kenya differently, with more care and kindness, and that kind of extra attention is dangerous to the facade he’s attempting to keep up.

He leafs through his notebook, pretending to review his notes while trying to think quickly. He has to somehow find a way to divert Yashiro’s attention. Perhaps onto someone who actually needs it. Kenya glances over at Satoru, who is - as usual - focused on Kayo. Kenya follows his gaze, ending at her skirt, which reveals the edge of a mottled bruise. It’s a different color than the one from last week.

If anyone needs help, it’s Kayo.

The bell rings, and the class eagerly filters out the door, leaving behind only Yashiro and Kenya.

Kenya tries his best to look appropriately worried. “You wanted to speak with me, sensei?”

“Yes,” Yashiro says, walking around to the front of his desk and leaning casually against it. He crosses his ankles and adjusts his posture to look as non-threatening as possible. Kenya only knows this because he uses the same body language with his more belligerent clients. He thinks it’s a little strange, considering this is nothing more than a conversation between a teacher and his student.

“Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble,” Yashiro says warmly. “Only, I noticed that you seem distracted lately.”

Kenya sees the opening for what it is, and guesses that Yashiro fully expects him to demur. It wouldn’t do to raise further suspicion, so he decides to play along.

“Have I?” He widens his eyes for effect. “I’m sorry if I gave that impression, but everything’s fine.”

As Kenya anticipates, Yashiro isn’t really convinced by his answer. “I understand if there are some things you don’t feel comfortable sharing,” Yashiro replies, softening his tone, “but I do worry a bit since your grades have started slipping.”

Kenya looks down at the ground, his embarrassment not entirely false. He waits for a few moments, hopefully conveying some kind of internal struggle. “Well…” he says hesitantly, “there is something on my mind, but it might not be my place to say it.”

Yashiro nods in understanding. “Of course, you do what you feel is right. I won’t pressure you, but know that I’m always here to help.” He pauses for a bit. “I don’t see any reason to contact your parents at the moment. But keep doing your best. You’re a very bright student, with a promising future ahead of you.”

“Thank you, sensei,” Kenya says, with as much appreciation as he can muster. Then he intentionally drops the volume of his voice while looking in the direction of Kayo’s desk. “I wish I could do something…”

“Hm?” Yashiro says, following his gaze. Out of his peripheral vision, Kenya notices a slight but sudden change in Yashiro’s posture, something that would’ve gone completely unnoticed if he hadn’t spent years studying people’s behavior and mannerisms. Yashiro’s shoulders stiffen incrementally, but the tone of his voice remains exactly the same. “What is it you wish to do?”

“I could be wrong,” Kenya says carefully, “but I think there’s something bad going on with Hinazuki.”

Yashiro raises an eyebrow, a little too deliberately. “Ah, so you’ve noticed as well?”

Kenya remains silent, allowing his discomfort to show.

So Yashiro already knows. But then why hasn’t he done anything about it? Surely he doesn’t have to wait this long to call child protective services.

Yashiro gives him a meaningful look. “I’m glad she has friends who care about her.” He rests a hand on Kenya's shoulder. “I can’t say too much, but the Child Consultation Center is aware of her situation. I’m sure they will take necessary action when the time is right.”

Kenya schools his expression into one of relief. But his mind is racing ahead, processing what Yashiro said.

‘Friends’? That means Satoru has already approached Yashiro about this. It’s highly uncharacteristic of him, but maybe this is his way of calling for help. I will have to devise some way to go to his house myself.

--

The following day, by sheer luck, Yashiro assigns a group project where each student can choose his or her own partner. Before Satoru’s attention can lock onto Kayo, Kenya immediately takes advantage of the situation and drops his notebook next to Satoru, in a definitive way that leaves no room for refusal.

Satoru’s mouth drops open a bit in faint surprise, then closes in resignation. His gaze falls briefly onto Kayo, his expression slightly pained upon seeing Hiromi eventually paired with her via process of elimination. (It’s an awkward partnership, with neither Hiromi nor Kayo really having any inclination to talk to each other.)

He turns back to face Kenya, eyes blinking owlishly. “Hey, Kenya.”

“What a boring project, huh,” Kenya says, as he’s looking down at the page of requirements. (He’s not sure if he’s allowing his younger or older self to speak. Probably both, if he’s being honest.)

Kenya expects Satoru to casually agree, as he tends to do around Kenya’s more dominant personality. But instead Satoru shrugs in reply and starts absently doodling in the margins. “It’s not so bad.”

Narrowing his eyes, Kenya files this odd response into his growing catalogue of ‘Satoru Doing Weird Things.’

“Well, the sooner it’s done, the better,” Kenya says evenly. “Why don’t we go to your house after school to work on it?”

Maybe he should’ve phrased that more indirectly, Kenya thinks, as Satoru looks a bit stunned.

“But—” Satoru frowns. “Isn’t your house closer?”

Kenya reins in a sigh. This is the kind of daily minute frustration that makes him want to light up a cigarette. “My house is being repainted now.” He taps his pencil on Satoru’s desk. “So we can’t have guests over.”

“Oh,” Satoru says, scratching the back of his neck. “Then yeah, sure. We can use my house. Mom won’t mind.”

He says it so effortlessly that Kenya begins to cast doubt on his theory of Satoru being abused. But it would be remiss of him not to evaluate the environment in person, Kenya thinks, and so he nods in response and waits patiently until the school bell rings.

--

Sitting across from Satoru at his dining table, Kenya tries to drag out the outline process of the project for as long as possible. He had forgotten that Satoru is a latchkey kid, and so didn’t take into account the fact that his mother would come back home well after sunset.

Satoru’s mind is clearly elsewhere, as he leans his cheek onto one hand. “I think the outline looks fine, really. Let’s do the rest tomorrow.”

Satoru’s stomach suddenly grumbles, and he looks off to the side in embarrassment.

“Do you want to get something to eat?” Kenya looks up, asking casually. “I’m not sure when your mom gets back, but we can go to Family Mart. My treat.”

Satoru glances at the wall clock, considering briefly before shaking his head. “No, it’s okay. She should be back soon.” He pauses with a bit of a faraway look, as if he’s reminiscing about something. “Do you want to stay for dinner? Mom’s making curry, I think.”

Kenya is tempted to accept right away, curious as to whether the invitation is genuinely as innocuous as it sounds or whether Satoru is subtly seeking a buffer between himself and his mother. But he figures he should check with his own mother first. “Thanks, Satoru. Let me call my mother and see if it’s okay.”

As he dials his home phone, which is one of many things he had to memorize all over again, Kenya ponders once again over the connection between Satoru and Kayo. If his instincts are steering him in the right direction, which will be either proven or disproven after dinner, it’s unlikely that abuse is the common denominator. Which would mean the only other link he’s left with is— well, as of yesterday, Yashiro.

He can’t possibly have anything to do with Satoru eighteen years down the line, can he?

Kenya tries to dig into his memories again, but expectedly comes up empty-handed. He honestly has no idea if Yashiro had remained a teacher at Mikoto Elementary all this time, or whether he had moved elsewhere.

His thoughts are interrupted by his mother answering the phone, and although her tone is cool, she allows him to stay at the Fujinumas for dinner.

After Satoru’s mother comes home, Satoru and Kenya are greeted warmly and promptly instructed to help set up the table. Sachiko is as open and conversational as ever, and Kenya lets the last of his doubts melt away, castigating himself a bit over why he ever suspected her of abuse to begin with.

While taking small bites of his curry - though not too small as to seem impolite - Kenya observes Satoru’s interaction with his mother, now purely out of personal interest. He’s surprised to see Satoru so obviously attached to her, with an almost overwhelming look of love in his eyes. As if he never wants her to leave his sight. (It’s so different from his own maternal relationship.)

Has it always been like this for Satoru?

Kenya finds himself starting to feel envious, but catches himself as he is reminded of the circumstances that led to Satoru and his mother being so close. Though he rarely sees him as it is, Kenya cannot fathom how it would feel if his father never returned home. Nonetheless, as dinner progresses with lighthearted jokes and a review of upcoming school events, his eleven-year-old self somehow prevails over his heart, and he can’t help but show discomfort at the yearning that he feels.

He supposes that the heart wants what it wants.

“Kenya, are you okay?” Satoru looks at him in concern, setting his fork down.

Sachiko chimes in gently. “Did I make the curry too spicy?”

Kenya immediately looks horrified. “No, not at all. It’s delicious.” He allows himself to bask in the warmth of their concern, and lets his guard down a bit. “I’ve just had a lot of things on my mind lately.”

Sachiko smiles, imparting reassurance. Satoru, on the other hand, gives him a strange look.

“You never told me that,” he says with a deceptively light tone, seeming to take his role as best friend seriously all of a sudden. Kenya blinks, not sure how to take this abrupt shift, as Satoru hadn’t really focused overmuch on their friendship over the past few weeks.

Eventually, Kenya decides he’s too tired to keep tiptoeing around Satoru, with all the mental shadowboxing it entails. “It’s Hinazuki,” he says bluntly, gaze shifting towards Sachiko. “She’s a student in our class, always keeps to herself, and there’s evidence that she’s being abused at home. I spoke with Yashiro sensei about it yesterday.”

Something in Sachiko’s expression clicks together, and she looks thoughtfully at Satoru with no small pride. “Satoru, is this why you’ve become friends with her? So that she’s not alone?”

Satoru appears entirely unmoored, as the realization dawns upon him that he’s not the only one who notices when things are amiss.

“I—” he stutters. “Yes, that’s why.” Satoru immediately turns a sharp gaze on Kenya. “You spoke with sensei about it?”

Satoru isn’t quite being accusatory, but there’s something negative there, Kenya senses. Something akin to suspicion.

“I was worried about her,” Kenya says carefully, gauging his reaction. “Who knows what might happen if it wasn’t reported?”

“Right,” Satoru says faintly, hands dropping to his lap. “Who knows.”

Sachiko looks at them in vague astonishment, wondering how they could possibly sound so mature. Perhaps they naturally sound like this when she’s not around, but her intuition tells her that there’s an entirely different conversation going on.

Chapter Text

Waking up blearily on Saturday morning, Kenya still automatically reaches for a cell phone that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a habit that he strangely has trouble shaking off. Who would he even call, in this timeline? Not his friends, that’s for sure. And certainly not his parents. He rolls onto his back, staring up at the ceiling, his thoughts sliding back into the mystery that is Satoru’s past (present).

Kenya isn’t blind to the fact that March second is just around the corner, four days hence. It’s not a particularly momentous day, as far as he can recall. But he does observe with growing unease that as the day approaches, Satoru’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Not only does he enthusiastically send around invites to his birthday party - which he has never ever done in the history of their friendship - but also starts exhibiting overwhelming concern for their safety, especially during evenings and especially around Kayo and Hiromi.

What is going on? Does something happen on Satoru’s birthday that would forever change his future?

While Satoru’s behavior is completely out of character, Kenya has to admit that it isn’t exactly indicative of murderous intent. However, it seems that all signs are pointing towards something unstable, which he presumes must be the turning point — the pivotal moment that he was sent back to change, so that Sachiko can keep living eighteen years from now.

Kenya can only think of one person who would have such a drastic, irrevocable impact on Satoru.

Did his father suddenly come back? If so, then why hasn’t Satoru said anything? Is it his father who actually kills his mother in the future, and somehow Satoru tries to cover for him?

He’s seen enough domestic violence cases throughout his career to know that it’s an all too probable outcome for broken families. But he has no idea what Satoru’s father is like, nor has Satoru ever mentioned him, which leaves his hypothesis tenuous at best. It dangles in front of him, faint and thin like a spider’s thread, and he isn’t sure whether to reach out and grab it. It might be the start of a cascading series of hidden events that leads up to Sachiko’s murder. It might fit the unforgiving numbers of statistical data on spousal homicide. But it also explains nothing about Satoru’s near-obsession with Kayo.

He thinks back to his conversation with Yashiro, who still remains the only link he has between the two. He readily concedes that doesn’t have much experience with child social services, but in contrast to Yashiro’s almost fatherly demeanor and generally proactive nature, he finds his teacher’s passive response to a situation as severe as Kayo’s slightly odd.

Sitting up and running a hand through his sleep-mussed hair, Kenya thinks that maybe he’s going in circles and simply chasing ghosts that just aren’t there. Speaking of ghosts—

His expression turns somber. Isn’t this around the time when the Shiratori abductions start happening as well? He feels the familiar surge of protectiveness rising in his chest, but he traps it before the emotions start encroaching on his logic. He closes his eyes and imagines he’s holding that protective desire in a glass sphere. He walks around it, studying it. Early on in his career, he had found that his emotions were too strong and occasionally caused liability. This had compelled him to pull the brakes and attempt to suppress them altogether, but that ended up also hindering the potential of his abilities. Over the subsequent years, he had learned - slowly - to find a balance. (Still learning in fact, if he’s being completely truthful.)

It’s never a good thing to ignore emotions, Kenya thinks. This desire to protect — it’s not meaningless or arbitrary. Of this he is certain. But to really use it productively, to ensure that good intent doesn’t end in failure, he has to know when and where to channel it first.

He looks down at his hands. Could he do both? Does he have the power to change Satoru’s pivotal moment and stop the Shiratori abductions? Is this what the echo wanted him to do all along?

The glass sphere lies heavy within his chest. It turns, turns, turns—

—and then it shatters, when he suddenly realizes why his protectiveness seems so natural and familiar. Why it feels like he’s seen it before, a reflection in a mirror.

This is precisely what Satoru feels.

But how could he feel this way—

— unless he knows what’s about to happen?

--

Kenya runs, feet pounding the pavement, icy wind whipping past him, faster, faster, faster—

It can’t be.

I must know, I must find out, I must find him—!

--

Breathing fast, he stands in front of the Fujinumas’ door, hand raised, poised to knock. His emotions are in turmoil, restless within his chest. But something holds him back.

Would everything change, if I interfered like this?

Once Satoru knows that he knows, then everything that came before would be revealed as an illusion. The veil would come down, the act would end, leaving two people facing each other, holding masks in their hands. But in the absence of lies, would there be truth? Or only silence?

Kenya lowers his hand, his heartbeat slowing. There are only three ways that Satoru could possibly know about Kayo and Hiromi’s fate.

One, he somehow found out who the killer is and what he or she is planning to do. It’s possible that Satoru might have been at the right place at the right time, and accidentally came across this information. Even more likely, Satoru might actually know the killer. But if it is Jun Shiratori (the one Satoru calls Yuuki), then why didn’t Satoru simply turn him in to the police already? Does he lack the evidence to do so? Is he trying to reason with Shiratori on his own, convinced that the man can change? Although Kenya knows Satoru’s not an idiot, all this seems to be beyond the cognitive abilities of a normal ten-year-old.

Two, Satoru can see the future. As miraculous as such a thing would be, Kenya thinks this may be the most straightforward answer. In a world where time-travel is possible, why not precognition? But if this is true, then how far does that precognition go? If Satoru can see the Shiratori abductions before they even happen, can he see Sachiko’s murder as well? If the 2006 news report is really as it seemed, then it’s something that either Satoru cannot foresee or he isn’t able to stop. In either case, perhaps this is why Kenya was sent back. To change what Satoru cannot. (If Satoru really does have precognition, Kenya notes, then he is a remarkably well-adjusted child. Kenya thinks he would at least show some signs of suffering or mental instability or world-weariness, but Satoru appears as healthy as ever.)

Three, Satoru also possesses the echo ability, just like Kenya. Which makes little sense, because why have two people return to the same time and the same place, when all is needed is one? Despite his best efforts the last few years at researching the possible origins and science behind the echo phenomenon - and coming up empty-handed - Kenya at least can say that the echo is nothing if not efficient and precise. Short of an impending world war or earth-shattering catastrophe, which would surely unearth a coalition of echo-enabled people, the echo has always worked just fine as an individualistic endeavor. Plus, the odds of both of them possessing echo are low enough that it doesn’t bear heavy consideration. At least, not at this point.

“Kenya?”

He turns sharply to see Satoru looking at him curiously, holding several bags of groceries. Quite suddenly, Kenya is aware of how he must look, jacket and hair in disarray, earmuffs forgotten. He takes a deep breath to compose himself.

“Hey, Satoru.” He can’t help but let his gaze linger on his best friend, his unspoken questions swirling in his mind like howling winds in a thunderstorm.

Satoru steps around Kenya, taking out the house key from his pocket and jiggling it into the lock. With a grunt, he pulls open the door (it tends to stick) and slants an unreadable look at him. “Come on in. Did I forget that we were supposed to do something together?”

Kenya turns his back towards him, carefully pulling off his jacket. They both know that’s not the case.

The air between them grows heavy, charged with something anticipatory, like the quiet before a storm. Satoru seems to feel this as well, as he is purposely avoiding Kenya’s gaze, instead spending an inordinate amount of time putting away the groceries in the refrigerator.

Looking around the house, its stark emptiness and the tense lines in Satoru’s shoulders, Kenya suddenly feels like the breath in his lungs has been stolen away, replaced with an ache that spreads to the tips of his fingers. He bows his head, as he begins to realize just how lonely the both of them are. No one to share their thoughts with, no one to believe them. No one who understands the uncertainty of the strange lives they lead.

They lie to blend in, to shield those around them. They choose to endure alone, floating in the darkness like a distant star. Visible to the world but unable to reach out, unable to connect amidst the vast emptiness of the universe.

Kenya looks over at Satoru with a new kind of clarity. He is no longer eleven years old, no longer the boy who sits back and observes, absorbing information but doing nothing with it. The intellect he has cultivated for so many years, the theorizing and postulating — isn’t all of it useless if he cannot reach out to his own friend?

Kenya resists the urge to suppress his loneliness, instead letting it show as clear as day on his face. He doesn’t think he’s ever felt so vulnerable.

“Kenya?” Satoru pulls out an orange to offer to him, but lets his arm drop when he sees the expression on Kenya’s face. “What—”

Kenya holds Satoru’s gaze, and sees something shift within it. A slow revealing like the melting of snow. This isn’t the Satoru he knows as a child. This is someone else. His mind flashes back to the photograph of Satoru on TV in 2006. He’s a stranger to Kenya, but - he curls his fingers - he himself is a stranger to Satoru as well.

Satoru hesitates, as if he wants to say more, but instead lapses back into silence. Kenya knows this habit all too well.

His mind releases the cage door, letting his thoughts fly free into the unknown.

“I know what will happen,” Kenya says quietly, “same as you.”

Satoru stares at him, heart pounding and white static rushing through his ears. The orange drops to the floor, rolling beneath the dining table.

There’s a long silence, as Satoru struggles with this revelation. Eventually, he breathes out faintly, “How?”

Kenya finds that it’s much harder than he anticipated to corral all his scattered thoughts together into a cohesive explanation. He shakes his head instead. “It doesn’t matter how.” He trembles, his emotions fluttering like birds beneath his ribcage. “You’re not alone anymore, Satoru.”

Satoru turns to grip the edge of the kitchen sink, shoulders hunched, as he chokes out a sob. Tears streak down his cheeks, and he bends down, slumping against the cabinet doors beneath. The tidal wave of grief and loneliness that emanates from him is so palpable that Kenya is shocked to find tears blurring his own vision.

He gathers up Satoru in his arms, clutching him tightly, wishing he could take on the burden of his pain. Satoru clings to him like a lifeline, his tears falling hot and wet, soaking through his turtleneck. Kenya cradles his friend, his protectiveness blooming over them like bright, unfettered wings.

Somewhere above them, in the eternal silence of space, two stars collide and it is radiant.

Chapter Text

They’re sitting at the dining table, holding hot cups of tea, their eyes faintly red but otherwise clear. They look at each other differently, feeling displaced, now that everything has changed. The semblance of normalcy is gone. Yet the sands of the echo’s hourglass still falls, ceaseless and indifferent to this seismic shift. The ticking of the wall clock seems unnaturally loud.

“Can you see the future, Satoru?”

Satoru looks a little surprised at the utter seriousness in Kenya’s expression. Then he dips his head down and laughs, low and fragmented, a sound Kenya has never heard from him before. It’s so incongruous with the boy in front of him. “No,” Satoru replies. “Though if I could, it might make things easier.”

Kenya considers his response carefully, as if he’s handling spun glass. While they are both now aware of each other’s farseeing knowledge, the relationship between them feels more fragile than ever. It is a new thing, a hesitant thing, to try and get to know each other all over again, these different selves of theirs. And Kenya isn’t sure they have enough time for that. Strange, how time works that way — it always moves too slowly until you turn to look behind you, wondering how you lost so much of it.

“Then—” Kenya says, “you found out what Jun Shiratori is planning to do?”

Satoru looks at Kenya, confused, as if the question isn’t relevant to their discussion. “But he’s not planning to do anything. Yuuki is innocent, Kenya.”

A cold feeling comes over Kenya, his mind flashing back to the image of Shiratori on death row, his eyes staring at nothing, the look of a broken, defeated man.

All these years...he suffered. His life completely destroyed, because we all misunderstood him.

All except Satoru.

Kenya remembers now, how angry Satoru had been back then. The rage of a child who didn’t understand why the world refused to see the truth. A child who saw injustice and tried to fight back, even when his own mother didn’t believe him. The police, his teachers, his classmates, even his friends— none of them understood him; none of them had heard what Satoru had to say. Even back then, Satoru had been so alone, more than any of them had realized.

Kenya feels his heart constricting, an awful sense of guilt rising up. What kind of friend was he, really? He had been so blind, so consumed by the need to be seen as better— smarter, more mature, like the adult he wanted to be. He had urged himself to grow up faster, so much so that he had let his ties of friendship weaken and fade.

You were alone for a long time, weren’t you, Satoru?

“Kenya?” Satoru’s concern jolts Kenya out of his melancholic thoughts. “You looked really...far away.” His voice trails off uncertainly.

“Ah,” Kenya says, letting his words drift out of his mouth like smoke, “it’s hard not to, being from the future and all.”

Something brightens in Satoru’s eyes, a glimmer of moonlight over a dark, fathomless lake. “I...know what you mean.” A hint of a smile appears, small and genuine, before it rapidly fades. “Revival has never sent me back this far before, so it’s hard to know if I’ll succeed.” He looks at Kenya, sudden and earnest. “But if we work together, we can save them. I’m sure of it!”

“Revival?” Kenya says before catching himself. “Oh, you mean echo.” He shakes slightly from the overwhelming amount of trust in Satoru’s gaze. He wonders if he truly deserves it, with all those years that he allowed to stretch out and fade over time and distance, between who they were and who they are now. He isn’t sure he measures up anymore to the mature and confident leader he presented himself as during their grade school years. Their world back then was so small and simple, so protected— until it wasn’t.

What he had failed to do all those years ago, and all the years since, he will not let happen again. He will not make the same mistake twice. He will prove himself worthy of the pure, unquestioning trust that Satoru is placing in him.

“Then I will help you, Satoru,” Kenya says, with every ounce of conviction he has.

He reaches over to squeeze Satoru’s hand, and Satoru’s smile emerges again, brilliant and true.

--

Kenya leans back in his chair, forming a slight frown. His school books and homework are spread out over his desk, but they might as well not be there for all the attention he gives them.

So Satoru also possesses echo…

There is little doubt in his mind that with the both of them sent back to their hometown in 1988, stopping the abductions is of critical importance to the echo. Something that cannot be achieved by one person. And so, Kenya concludes, the preventative solution must necessitate the two of them being in two different locations at the exact same time.

He lets his chair fall back to the floor with a thunk.

Does this mean there are two killers?

But it’s hard to believe in a town as small as theirs. And the abductions were spread out enough, Kenya remembers, that they could have easily been the work of one person. None of the murders were done in concert. So then why are he and Satoru both needed in this timeline? He picks at the question, brooding over it, letting each possible answer ripple over his consciousness. But none of them stick, each one falling away like a string cut loose.

His mind eventually circles back to preventing Sachiko’s murder, which he believes still remains the primary directive of his echo. Kenya had refrained from mentioning her to Satoru yet. He couldn’t bring himself to speak about her death while he was sitting inside her house, together with her son. It had seemed wrong somehow... like a bad portent, as if he would cause it to happen simply by saying it aloud. He also doesn’t know if Satoru knows; they haven’t yet talked about the futures from where they came. It’s entirely possible that Satoru’s revival had been triggered years before Kenya’s echo had.

Kenya looks down at his school books, his mouth quirking up slightly. It’s strange, that he doesn’t even know how old Satoru really is. All his memories of him and catalogued behaviors take on a different quality now, like small prisms that turn to catch the light. And yet the shadows hide what Kenya really wants to know. He closes his eyes and recalls the 2006 news report, the image of Satoru at twenty-nine years old, black hair framing his face, dark eyes hidden behind a pair of rectangular glasses. Satoru had long lost the cherubic looks of his childhood, the angles of his jaw and cheekbones more defined, shoulders broadened. Kenya wonders how tall he became.

After elementary school, Kenya’s family had moved to a different school district to be closer to his father’s new firm. While he had occasionally written letters to Satoru, Osamu, and Kazu, they eventually petered out in the face of overwhelming school work and the pressures of integrating into an entirely new crowd. (It took a while before people stopped asking him about Jun Shiratori and the abductions.)

Kenya realizes how deeply he had missed seeing them grow up. He had missed out on learning about whatever new interests had caught their attention, missed out on seeing them go on their first (probably disastrous) dates, even missed out on laughing awkwardly together over the trials of puberty. It’s as if he blinked just for a moment and they had vanished, leaving only snapshots of their former selves behind.

Hiromi, too, had been left behind. Never had the chance to grow up, to complain about the world, to make mistakes, to marvel at the new cell phone models, to go to college and pull all-nighters, to be thrust into the real world and pretend to know what he’s doing.

Never had the chance to live.

All this he himself took for granted, Kenya thinks, when neither Hiromi nor Kayo nor Aya ever had the chance to even think about what the future might hold for them. He looks down at his hands, still small and unblemished, no ink stains from bitten pens, no paper cuts from endless piles of textbooks, no calluses from drafting one legal brief after another. The future has yet to be written.

And he will help Satoru rewrite it, at all costs.

--

Kenya stands at the edge of the river bank, pulling up the edge of his turtleneck against the chill of the wind. He watches a young man stamping around in the snow, tossing a red model airplane into the air.

Jun Shiratori.

Kenya observes him quietly — the slouch of his shoulders, his ungainly limbs, his unusual childlike exuberance. This man who seems to be neither child nor man, somehow caught in between, a lonely dweller in an unseen limbo. He stands out as starkly as a missing stitch in the tightly woven fabric of society. His hours are odd, misaligned with the general working populace. Adults have neither the time nor patience to know Jun Shiratori — only enough to see the missing stitch and pass it by, letting their looks of disdain speak for them. Kenya sees now why Shiratori is always around children, who have not yet become aware of society’s stringent normalities and do not judge as harshly as their elders. To them, Shiratori must seem so worldly, so much friendlier than the endless stream of adults who tell them what to do and how to think.

Still, he wonders why Satoru calls him Yuuki; he’s not sure he sees courage in this man’s posture or personality.

But perhaps that’s the point.

He trudges over to Shiratori, who looks puzzled at his approach.

“Jun Shiratori, right?” Kenya says, meeting his wide-eyed, deerlike gaze.

He nods hesitantly. “And you’re…Kenya Kobayashi.” He fidgets with the model airplane in his hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Kenya adopts a neutral expression. “You know who I am?”

“Ah,” Shiratori says, looking a bit embarrassed. “Well, I see you hanging out a lot with Satoru.” He brightens up a bit. “He’s a good kid. Talks about you sometimes.”

“He talks about you, too.” Kenya inclines his head.

“Oh, does he?” Shiratori laughs, his voice high and nervous.

Kenya turns to look at a passing car, absently tracing the inner lining of his coat pockets. He looks at Shiratori out of the corner of his eye. “He considers you a very good friend.”

Interestingly, Jun blushes and a genuine smile appears. “I’m— I’m glad he thinks so.” His voice drops low, and Kenya strains to hear him. “Having friends is nice.” He looks over at Kenya again, smile fading and appearing unsure. As if he’s expecting Kenya to pass judgment on him, like everyone else in town.

Kenya’s expression softens, as he is reminded of a seminal novel he had read in law school. To Kill a Mockingbird, he remembers. He had so admired Atticus Finch, who never swayed from his moral compass and railed against the odds without hesitation. And yet, over the years, Kenya had failed to carry out his teachings, to always look at the circumstances from the other’s point of view.

Until the echo arrived. And though Kenya still doesn’t quite believe in magic, he is glad to accept whatever redemptive power it gives him.

In Jun Shiratori, Kenya realizes, lies the shadow of Boo Radley.

He stretches out a hand. “Any friend of Satoru is a friend of mine.”

--

“I understand.”

Kenya is standing across from Satoru in the school stairwell, which seems to have unofficially become a designated meeting space just for the two of them. Satoru sinks down, propping his feet up on the stairs and leaning back against the balustrade. He appears tired, shadows bruising beneath his eyes from lack from sleep. Kenya empathizes, knowing now the heaviness of the burden he carries.

Satoru sighs, having just finished explaining his admittedly impromptu plan to rescue Kayo, both from her mother and the killer. He looks up at Kenya, a bit embarrassed, as if he thinks Kenya would’ve come up with something far more sophisticated and airtight. But considering the limits of what they can really do as juveniles, Kenya thinks it’s actually quite a bold plan and admires Satoru’s initiative. Even more importantly, no part of the plan tips them off overtly to the killer. Birthday parties and walking home together are utterly normal activities for children. And an abandoned bus behind the school is likely the last place an adult would go to find her.

“I will follow your lead,” Kenya continues. “I agree that the more frequently we spend time with her, the less chance the killer has to isolate her. Same with Hiromi.” He crosses his arms. “But the faster we do this, the greater the possibility that the killer will pull up the timeline for Aya Nakanishi. We will have to contact her as soon as possible.”

Satoru nods, becoming worried. “But I fear that even if we save them, the killer will start to target other kids. There may be no end to it.”

Kenya exhales, knowing all too well that a serial killer’s appetite is never truly satiated. “Like you, I believe that Jun Shiratori is innocent as well. But do you know who the real killer might be?”

Satoru shakes his head, frustrated. “No idea at all. Only that it must be someone in the community, who knows Yuuki well enough to frame him.” His expression turns dark, anger boiling to the surface. “It must be someone who’s been in this town for a long time, to know so much about us.”

Kenya hums in approval. “You would’ve made a good detective, Satoru,” he says unthinkingly.

Satoru peers up at him. “How do you know I’m not?” Kenya winces, practically hearing the gears turn in Satoru’s head. “We didn’t keep in touch in the future.”

This is really not how Kenya wanted to bring up his knowledge of Sachiko’s murder. He shoves his hands in his pockets and sighs. “You’re right,” he says, attempting to stall a bit. “I was in Sapporo at the time, working for the Legal Aid Association there.”

He glances as Satoru, who tilts his head, silently demanding that he continue.

Kenya grips the railing beside him, bracing himself. “It was 2006. I saw you on the news.” His fingers tighten. “It was actually what triggered my echo.”

Satoru’s face whitens in shock and dismay. His words tumble out inelegantly. “I— it wasn’t—” Tears spring to his eyes. “My mom, she—” He gasps, seemingly unable to breathe. He curls up, trembling, huddling into his knees.

“Hey, hey,” Kenya tries to reassure, striding over to put an arm around Satoru. “I know you didn’t do it.” He wants to add it’s okay, everything will be okay, but - he thinks achingly - he doesn’t know if he can really make that happen.

Satoru takes a few shaky breaths, trying to get his bearings again. “I’m sorry. I just—” He pauses, his gaze distant and terribly sad. “There was so much blood. If only I had gone home earlier—”

Kenya can see where this is going, and gently shakes Satoru to try and bring him back to the present. “It’s not your fault, Satoru. We’re here now, in this timeline. She’s alive and well.”

Satoru blinks rapidly, turning to look at Kenya. “I have to find him. He killed her because she found out who he is.”

Kenya stares at him.

Is this the connection I’ve been looking for?

“Are you saying...that the person who abducted Kayo and Hiromi is the same person who—” The words stop in his throat. Killed your mother?

“Yes,” Satoru says, his voice becoming steadier.

“Are you sure it’s a man?” Kenya says, his heart beating faster. It feels like they’re getting closer, stretching further towards the truth.

“Yes,” Satoru repeats, clenching his fists. “I saw him walking down the stairs, leaving my apartment as I was coming home. I didn’t get a good look at his face.” He practically spits out the last few words.

“This is our chance to find him,” Kenya says, his resolve strengthening. “It’s two against one now. And we are no longer children.”

He stands up and extends an arm, reaching down. Satoru grasps his hand without hesitation, expressing gratitude with everything except words. He doesn’t need to, Kenya thinks. It’s enough to know that they have each other, the frayed edges of those lost years threading back together, strong and unbreakable.

Chapter Text

It’s been quite a few years since Kenya has celebrated anyone’s birthday, including his own. Well, celebration in the true sense of the word, anyway. (Going out for teppanyaki with the same people he sees twelve hours a day doesn’t count. Knocking back sake shots to the point of blacking out especially doesn’t count. And he did that a grand total of one time before swearing off alcohol entirely. Okay, mostly.)

This being Satoru’s first real birthday party is turning out to be a big deal for the whole group. Osamu and Kazu huddle together in the corner of the classroom, not-so-subtly conferring over what gifts to buy. (“You can’t give him that! He doesn’t own an NES.” “Oh, right.”) Hiromi adamantly announces that his gift will remain a surprise. Kayo maintains her usual silence and no one pesters her, but they are glad to see her secretive smile, noticeable only by the small dimple in her cheek. They nearly burst from how difficult it is not to tell her it’s her birthday party, too.

Osamu widens his eyes as Satoru goes for a bathroom break, then immediately turns toward Kenya. “You’re giving him a book, aren’t you,” he asks flatly.

“Well, I’d hate to be predictable,” Kenya says nonchalantly. (In reality, he has no idea what to get Satoru. He thinks perhaps it’s a little sad that he probably will end up giving him a book. Then he wonders whether it’s weird for a child to give another child a gift certificate instead.)

Kenya starts getting lost in thought - trying to mentally adjust currency deflation back to the ‘80s, fine-tuning the value of a gift that would be appropriately neither too large nor too small - when Osamu unnecessarily hits him in the arm.

“Shh, Satoru’s back!”

Kenya grits his teeth. “Yes, I can see that.” Then quickly, an idea comes to mind. Before Satoru gets within hearing range and after he checks that Kayo is back at her desk, he mutters to his compatriots, “Hey, let’s make the party a surprise, okay? I’ll talk to sensei after class, and get him to assign Satoru and Kayo after-school clean up tomorrow. Then we’ll go ahead of them to his house.”

They nod furtively, feeling excited and jittery. Kenya finds it unfailingly contagious, and tucks away this memory with care, wanting to treasure this rare time when secrets bring joy instead of sorrow.

During the next extended recess, when most of the class meanders out of the classroom, Kenya gets up slowly and walks over to Yashiro’s desk, his expression turning serious. The birthday party request is merely a pretense for another question that has been lingering in the back of his mind. Not quite a suspicion, but it surfaces uncomfortably every now and then.

“Ah, Kenya,” Yashiro says, looking up from grading the latest batch of math homework. He sets down his pen and steeples his hands. “How can I help you?” His demeanor is as warm and caring as ever.

“Well, I feel that I’ve been doing much better, since the last time we talked,” Kenya says, with as much earnestness as he can muster.

Yashiro brightens just a tad. “I’m glad to hear it. Your grades have been improving.” He looks at Kenya expectantly, correctly anticipating that this is not everything he has to say.

“Thank you, sensei. I feel very relieved.” Kenya leans in and lowers his voice. “It’s probably not my place to ask, but now that Kayo’s part of our group, I worry more about her. Do you know if the Child Consultation Center was able to help?”

“This is not the right place to discuss it,” Yashiro admonishes, “but I know you mean well, so what I’ll share with you is that they’re still trying to get in touch with her mother first. It’s standard procedure.”

Kenya already knows what the standard procedure is for such cases. What he’s really looking for lies in the involuntary expressions of what Yashiro isn’t saying, the almost imperceptible tension in the lines of his shoulders and the corners of his eyes. So he hadn’t just imagined it the first time around, Kenya affirms to himself. He has the strong sense not that Yashiro is lying, per se, but that he’s holding something back. Something more than just words unsuitable for children’s ears. His mind is eager, skirting the edge of hidden discovery, but Kenya ultimately refrains from pressing his luck further.

“I understand, sensei.” He allows relief to flood his tone. “Thank you so much.” Then he pauses deliberately. “May I ask another favor?”

Another hint of tightening around his eyes, before Yashiro relaxes and smiles pleasantly. “Of course. What is it?”

“It’s Satoru and Kayo’s birthday tomorrow. We want to make their party a surprise, so I’d like to request your help to assign them after-school clean up. That way, the rest of us can run ahead to his house.”

“Oh, how fun!” Yashiro says, raising his eyebrows. “Count me in. I will absolutely do my part.” He tilts his head just a fraction. “What wonderful friends you all are. Satoru and Kayo are very lucky to have you.”

Kenya thanks him again, smiling politely, before returning to his desk.

There isn’t anything one could say is really wrong with Yashiro’s response, Kenya thinks. By all accounts, he’s the same generous and helpful teacher who effortlessly wins the affections of both students and parents alike. And yet...that thought of something being hidden continues to persist, floating in the dark like a thin film of oil on water.

--

The surprise is a complete success, which gives Kenya the same kind of satisfaction as fitting in the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. There’s a rightness to the coalescing of this simple moment of celebration along with the overarching intent of keeping Hiromi and Kayo close by.

Satoru is beyond elated, exuding a pure joy that comes wholly from a child’s heart. Kenya watches over him, protectively but also speculatively, as Satoru freely gives in to his younger self. A part of him worries about Satoru forgetting or inadvertently causing a mishap, but in the end Kenya chooses not to say anything. This is something he wants to give to Satoru. If Satoru can have even a small piece of his childhood back, after so much was taken from him, then Kenya will make sure it happens.

Kenya notices that Satoru seems to possess less control over distinguishing between his two selves, or perhaps doesn’t feel the need to. Is it because Satoru’s two selves are fundamentally similar? Is it because so little had happened in the years between the abductions and Sachiko’s murder that Satoru’s personality had undergone minimal change? Or is it because Satoru had such a strong sense of identity, that his formative years had already defined who he will always be? Or maybe it’s simply Satoru yearning for his childhood, and embracing it while he has the chance, here in his revival.

Kenya ponders his own case, where he exerts effort to maintain composure, to ensure his older self remains dominant in his mind. He surmises that it’s probably a combination of his predilection for control together with an absence of desire to return to his childhood. Though he won’t deny Satoru the joy he deserves, Kenya does wish sometimes that he could see more of the older Satoru, rather than brief glimpses here and there. He wants to know him, to talk to him. It seems selfish, now that he thinks about it, to want to bring Satoru closer to him, instead of sharing him with everyone else.

He wonders if it’s his loneliness speaking.

“Earth to Kenya,” Satoru says, lilting with amusement. “Your sandwich isn’t going to make itself.”

“Ah,” Kenya says, looking down at the solitary piece of lettuce sitting on his bread. “Right.”

The whole group giggles, as Kenya methodically stacks the ingredients and cuts the sandwich into perfect triangular halves. Then they marvel at how neat and orderly they look - nearly identical to Kayo’s - while bemoaning their own messy slices, tomato juice and mayo dripping down onto their hands.

“It’s all about proportion,” Kenya says, but this turns out to be a somewhat futile gesture as their attention quickly wanders elsewhere. He smiles to himself. Of course, fifth graders could care less about such things.

When Sachiko snaps on a party hat and announces it’s time for cake and presents, Kenya feels an odd sense of shyness come over him. As he was shopping for Satoru’s gift, he had spent hours meandering through the aisles of gift shops and bookstores, waiting for something to catch his eye. But he hadn’t really known what he was looking for, his mind trying to simultaneously grasp Satoru’s interests as a child and his interests as an adult. Kenya had realized how very little he had to go on, and had become a bit consternated at his own indecisiveness over so small a matter.

Only, it doesn’t feel that way now, Kenya thinks nervously as Satoru picks up his present, his cheeks ruddy with excitement.

He braces himself for Osamu’s triumphant yell, which predictably happens the second right after Satoru pulls Kenya’s present from a silver gift bag.

“Aha! I knew it was going to be a book,” Osamu crows, digging an elbow into Kenya’s side.

“You don’t know that,” Kayo says skeptically, as Satoru begins to unwrap the present. “But I guess it is shaped like a book…”

“Of course it’s a book,” Kazu chimes in, rolling his eyes. “The only way it could be even more Kenya-like is if it’s a book about soccer.”

“Or basketball,” Hiromi adds.

Kenya doesn’t think he’s ever felt this awkward, which he tries attributing to his younger self, but even he isn’t entirely convinced this is the case. (It’s a bit depressing, considering he’s a lawyer by profession and all.)

“You guys are so noisy,” Satoru says mildly, holding up the gift as he looks over at Kenya, his gaze warm and appreciative. “Thank you, Kenya. It’s wonderful.”

Something flutters in his chest, which he immediately suppresses out of surprise, and it takes a ridiculous amount of self-control to remain poised. “You’re welcome, Satoru.”

Osamu raises his voice again. “That’s technically still a book!”

“No, it’s not,” Kayo says, a bit surly. “It’s a journal.”

“A journal is a type of book.”

“How can it be a book if there aren’t any words in it, stupid?”

“Hey, who are you calling stupid?”

The bickering continues (which Kazu and Hiromi watch with great amusement), but Kenya barely hears it, as Satoru grabs a pen and writes “Property of Satoru Fujinuma” on the inside of the cover. Then after some hesitation, he adds “March 2nd, 1988” in the bottom right corner. He raises his head to glance at Kenya, and for a brief moment they share a silent understanding before rejoining the exuberant fray.

Happy 30th birthday, Satoru.

--

After Kayo tells them about the mysterious man who barged into the abandoned bus and left behind several suspicious items, Satoru and Kenya immediately move to remove all traces of her overnight presence. They level tense looks at each other, knowing Kayo just barely survived by the skin of her teeth. There is no denying the sheer luck involved, but it pains Kenya to think about how long, how many years Kayo has practiced enduring in silence, holding her breath, squeezing her eyes shut, hoping that she could turn invisible. It could very well have been what saved her. But it is also the same reason behind her haunted look, her eyes seeming older than even his, seeing the world cast in grey — joyless and ruled by forbidding fists.

But slowly, bit by bit, Kenya sees hints of color appearing in her personality, like droplets of rain catching sunlight and reflecting tiny rainbows. Satoru moves mountains just for the hope of these tiny rainbows, and Kenya feels ashamed. What Satoru has done for Kayo in just a few weeks is so much more than what Kenya has done over his lifetime. He’s fought for and freed many wrongly convicted clients, sure, but Kayo’s transformation is— something else. Like the first breath of air from a newborn who came into the world too early. Like the first blades of grass that sprout in the wake of a flood. It’s a fragile and gentle healing that seems like an ineffable kind of magic. A far greater magic than revival. And Satoru isn’t even aware that he possesses it.

If this is who Satoru has always been, who he will always be, then Kenya is grateful for the chance to be by his side again. He can think of no one better to stand with, to fight with, to be with.

Kenya looks over at Satoru, and his thoughts recede into the back of his mind, as concern overcomes him. Satoru is trembling, staring at the box filled with rope and duct tape and— He slams it shut and holds up his sleeve to his mouth, trying to hold back the sick feeling rising in his throat.

“Bastard,” Satoru says, gritting his teeth. “That sick fuck.”

Kenya sees Satoru’s older self flare to life, as if to shield the child within him, and there’s an undertone in his voice so dark that it skirts the edge of disturbing. It teeters dangerously, and Kenya reaches out to pull him back.

“Kayo is safe, Satoru,” he says. “We got lucky, and we need to focus on what to do next.”

He places a hand on Satoru’s shoulder, careful and deliberate as if he’s defusing a bomb. Satoru inhales a few shaky breaths and his shoulders sag as he allows himself to lean against Kenya, his gaze still avoiding the incriminating box. After gently sitting Satoru down on the backseat bench, Kenya checks all the curtains once more to make sure they’re closed. Then he turns on the heater, the flame whooshing up and casting a warm glow around them. The warmth begins to suffuse their hands and their feet, like stepping into a hot bath. Kenya hadn’t realized how cold he really was, as he settles himself on the floor and feels his limbs loosening.

“I don’t know what to do next,” Satoru says, looking weary and miserable. His breath turns into a puff of white air and disappears quickly. The light of the fire throws Satoru’s small form into sharp relief, his shadow long and dark behind him. Kenya stares at it, an unfamiliar feeling blooming within his chest — if he looks hard enough, he thinks he can see the silhouette of Satoru’s older self. The twenty-nine year old man who he’s seen but never truly met. The shadow quivers as the flame flickers from side to side, and Kenya suddenly fears that it will vanish, the glimpse of the future gone with a blink.

Kenya grips his knees and steadies himself. “We’ll think of something,” he says convincingly. “Kayo confirmed that it’s a man, fairly tall with dark hair. Similar to your description. We have his shoe size, and she doesn’t remember hearing any car noises, so that narrows the killer’s location to somewhere within walking distance of the school.”

Satoru makes a motion with his index finger, as if to push up a pair of glasses, but aborts it quickly. He remains silent, letting his hands rest in his lap. His expression is closed off again, that dark undertone returning, creating layers of land mines and trip wires in his mind. But Kenya is no stranger to chasms and battlefields, and he leans forward to slip his hand into Satoru’s.

The darkness doesn’t fade entirely, but enough that Satoru returns the gesture, turning his palm up to interlace their fingers. He stares into the fire, gaze lost somewhere in the future. His voice is quiet and a little rough, as he begins out of nowhere to tell Kenya about his revival, when it started, all the people he met, all the timelines he relived, the injuries he sometimes sustained, the coming and going of his presence in these strangers’ lives, like a dust storm blowing through, sudden and blistering, then gone as if it never happened.

He lets out a harsh laugh, as he raises a finger to draw invisible wings in the air. “There’s even a blue butterfly that signals when I’m about to have a revival.” Then he lowers it and shrugs awkwardly. “Silly, right? A butterfly telling me what to do.”

Kenya squeezes his hand. “No, it’s not.” And something rises in his mind, a realization, like the sun peeking over the horizon. His neural pathways shift and converge, like water rivulets racing along shallow grooves of sand, all leading to the ocean.

Over the past few years, he had come to tacitly accept that some external power like fate was carving out these chapters of echo for him. Urging him to go back and straighten out the bent threads in the loom of time, to smooth out the edges in his sphere of influence. But now, after hearing Satoru’s account and holding the details like marbles in his hand, he understands that it isn’t fate at all.

“It isn’t the butterfly that tells you what to do,” Kenya says slowly, wonderingly. “It’s you.”

Satoru’s brow furrows in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“I always thought it was fate that was guiding us, using us to fix human errors,” Kenya says. “But from what you’re telling me, all those lives you saved through revival, and all the people I helped at my job through echo — these are extraordinary choices that we’re able to make.”

“Choice?” Satoru seems stunned.

“I know, it doesn’t seem like it.” Kenya stares pensively at the floor. “But I realize now, knowing what I know about you and about myself, that this power that we have — it responds uniquely not to the universe but to us individually. It allows us to listen to our hearts so that we make choices which reflect what we value most, what we desire most of all.” He looks at Satoru, eyes lighting up. “I believe that the choices we make shape the future that we want. A future in which people who don’t deserve to die don’t die before their time. A future in which people who are innocent can live their lives freely. This is what we strive for, even if not everything goes the way we hope. Our choices don’t necessarily guarantee these outcomes, but they can influence the odds of them happening. I think when we repeat an echo, a revival, that it comes from within — it’s our subconscious wish to increase the odds in our favor.”

Satoru stares at him for a long time. “Kenya, that’s—” But he seems to struggle to find the right words, gaze dropping down to their entwined hands. “That’s incredible.”

Kenya shakes his head. “I only say this because we both wish to save our friends. With the two of us, our odds are better than ever.” He holds up their hands with a faint smile. “So don’t give up hope.”

Chapter Text

He sits at the edge of a wooden dock, watching red leaves drift down, the fall breeze catching tendrils of his hair. The sky is golden with the last light of the day, and the trills of the birds echo across the lake as they fly back to their homes. Here, he feels a rare peace, the idyllic beauty a balm for his restless soul. Here, neither time nor sorrow nor fear exist. They are somewhere far, far away, out of sight and mind.

Soft footsteps approach, and he turns to see Satoru walking up the dock, hands tucked into the pockets of his brown jacket, the ends of his green scarf tugged sideways by the wind. He’s older, taller, more mature than Kenya’s ever seen before. There’s a warm look in his eyes, and a small smile on his face.

He sits down beside Kenya, and lets the tips of his sneakers skim across the water, creating little waves that ripple outward before disappearing into stillness. Kenya looks at him for some time, noticing that Satoru isn’t wearing his glasses, eyes as clear and wide as when he was a child. He seems unburdened and happy. This feels right, Kenya thinks. This is how it should be.

Neither of them speak - they feel no need to - preserving the sacred quiet around them. Satoru does, however, reach out to gently trace the collar of Kenya’s trenchcoat, then raises an eyebrow as if to say, ‘Really? The same one?’ To which Kenya provides his own unspoken rebuttal, smiling as he points at Satoru’s own attire. Satoru laughs out loud, eyes crinkled in mirth, an acknowledgment that some things truly never change. His laughter is light and airy, resounding over the lake, and Kenya can’t help but join in, his own laughter quieter but no less joyful.

Kenya has always found words the best way to express himself - his ideas, his thoughts, his feelings - but somehow this moment leaves him without any, the words evaporating like lake mist upon the breaking of dawn. He doesn’t know how to describe this togetherness he has here with Satoru, only knows that he wants it and it makes him happy. Others might call it deep friendship, or a rare bonding, or even love. But this is simultaneously none of them and all of them at once, definitions twining together in some places and unraveling apart in others. Kenya thinks that perhaps it’s impossible to try and define something so special, for he and Satoru had met each other again through echo and revival, each one crisscrossing through the pathways of time until they joined in a rare and radiant fusion, moving together towards a singular purpose. Who else can say they have experienced such a thing? Who else can even begin to understand it?

Satoru sighs as his laughter dies down, and stares pensively out over the lake. After a few moments, his brow furrows and his eyes narrow, as if he’s looking for something. Kenya turns to follow his gaze, seeing nothing out of place, but he feels the wind growing colder, sharper against his skin. Satoru curses and immediately leaps to his feet, dragging Kenya up with him, causing Kenya to nearly stumble off the dock.

“Look,” Satoru says, wary and tense. His grip on Kenya’s arm tightens.

At the far edge of the lake, there’s a quiet, subtle swell of water moving just below the surface, steady and deliberate. An ominous sight hinting at something monstrous lurking beneath. Kenya has heard of such stories, where ancient and powerful creatures lay hidden for centuries, lending enough glimpses for people to weave tales and legends about them. But this swell, this monster, does not feel unknown to him. He steps closer, as if called to it, willing it to show itself.

But Satoru tries to pull him back, crying out, “Kenya, don’t!” And Kenya whips around in astonishment, as the grip on his arm begins to weaken and fade away, Satoru’s hand turning translucent. His chest is gripped with fear, and Kenya throws himself on Satoru, trying to anchor him with his own body, his own willpower. But Satoru is already vanishing, his expression sad and fearful, his scarf billowing around him as he disappears with the wind.

”Satoru!” he screams, stretching his fingertips to try and catch the end of his scarf, but he is powerless, grasping at nothing but air. A deep sound like thunder echoes behind him, and he turns to see that swell of water rising rapidly into a dark, looming wave like the shadow of a mountain, stretching up to the sky, cresting far above his head, until with unfathomable speed it comes crashing down on the dock, splintering it to pieces like a child’s toy, and Kenya only has time to squeeze his eyes shut before the wave swallows him whole, plunging him into a silent abyss.

--

Kenya opens his eyes, gasping for air, a hand clenched over his heart.

He sits up, shaking, and blinks into the darkness as he attempts to even out his breathing. Once his heartbeat has slowed to a steady pace, Kenya rises out of bed and moves towards his bedroom window, opening it to let in the brisk, cold air. He inhales it slowly, his airways stinging sharply. Leaning against the windowsill, he stares outside at the dim streetlamps and light snowfall, the town silent and somnolent in these in-between hours.

He has never dreamed within an echo before. He has no idea what it means, if it means anything at all.

Closing his eyes, Kenya attempts to recall the details and bring them into focus, but the harder he tries the more they blur into each other, evading his grasp and eventually wisping away. Yet the ache in his chest remains, and he stays awake throughout the night, watching the sun rise to signal the start of another day.

--

Kenya is no stranger to nights without sleep, but by midday he finds himself a little too wide-eyed, a little too alert, his nerves fraying as his craving for caffeine returns with a vengeance. His friends remark about the shadows beneath his eyes, speculating that he stayed up reading a particularly engrossing book, but he merely blinks at them without response. Thankfully, Yashiro sensei doesn’t call on him to answer any questions, which is a small blessing.

Satoru pulls him aside after school, looking at him with concern. “Kenya, are you all right?”

Kenya looks down at Satoru’s hand gripping his arm, and for some reason feels a sense of comfort followed by a deep-seated fear. He panics and clasps his hand over Satoru’s without thought, then frowns as he has no idea why he did that. Satoru jolts in surprise but doesn’t move away.

Satoru continues, “Are you not sleeping because of…?” His voice trails off.

Kenya exhales deeply. “Possibly.” He looks up, revealing his uncertainty. “I think I had a dream, but I can’t really remember.”

“Dream?” Satoru says distantly, and Kenya notices that his Tokyo inflection is surfacing again. Then Satoru lowers his gaze to their joined hands. “Or nightmare?”

Kenya averts his eyes, letting his hand fall away from Satoru’s. “I don’t know.” It frustrates him to know that something that might be of importance is gone, beyond his reach, especially within his own mind. “Have you ever dreamed during a revival?”

Satoru shakes his head. “My revivals have only lasted several minutes at most.” He shrugs. “Not much time to dream.”

“And this revival?”

“I— wouldn’t call it dreaming, exactly.” Satoru folds his arms self-consciously. “More like replaying memories.”

“I’m sorry,” Kenya says, berating himself internally. Of course, how can Satoru forget about his mother’s death? Not while the killer still eludes discovery. Perhaps not ever. That kind of fear, Kenya surmises, never truly goes away.

He places a comforting hand on Satoru’s shoulder, imparting his support and his apology. Satoru reaches up to cover it with his own, and says quietly with a serious countenance, “I’m glad you’re here with me.” His accent now is Tokyo through and through, and it strengthens Kenya to hear it. Where Satoru is unpolished as a child, he is fluid and capable as an adult. This is the Satoru he needs by his side, the one who will give them the best chance at triumph.

“So am I,” Kenya says, feeling renewed.

They walk together, meandering along in comfortable silence for some time. Somehow, this feeling is familiar but Kenya can’t quite place it. He looks down worriedly at the sidewalk, wondering if he’s beginning to lose his touch, his mental faculties wearing down like stones at the bottom of a river. Just the mere idea of it unnerves him. If he loses this, what does he have left? What use would he be to Hiromi and Kayo, to Sachiko, to Satoru?

“Is it still bothering you?” Satoru’s voice interrupts his thoughts. “The dream?”

While Kenya’s first instinct is to deny it, to avoid adding another worry on top of Satoru’s shoulders, he knows that there’s nothing to be gained from hiding it away. Not from the only person in the world who could understand.

“Yes,” he says with a sigh, mouth tightening unhappily. “It’s—” He curls his fingers, warring with his pride. “I don’t know. It’s something I can feel, but I can’t see it or explain it. It defies logic.” The words leave behind a bitter taste. “How can I not know? How can I not remember?”

Satoru slows to a halt, looking thoughtful. And when Kenya turns to look back at him, another flash of familiarity hits him, mired in a sense of loss and dread. Before he can stop himself, he reaches out to grasp the end of Satoru’s scarf, holding it like a lifeline. His cheeks flush with embarrassment but his body has a will of its own, refusing to listen to his mind.

“Don’t leave,” Kenya chokes out, his breathing becoming shallow. He has no idea where these words are coming from.

The look of shock on Satoru’s face slowly gives way to understanding, and there is no doubt that the older Satoru is fully here in front of him. “Ah, is that what this is all about?” Satoru steps forward and embraces him tightly, his cheek brushing the edge of the trenchcoat collar. “Did I leave you in the dream?”

Kenya is too stunned to move, his hand still gripping Satoru’s scarf.

Aren’t I...supposed to be the one with reassurances?

“I know what it feels like, to be left behind,” Satoru says softly, full of sorrow. “I’m sorry. I don’t want you to be alone.”

Kenya has never shown what he considers to be weakness or vulnerability to anyone before, not even to his own family. But with Satoru, it somehow seems less terrifying, that he could see the brittle, fragile parts of Kenya’s self - past all those layers and layers built up over the years - and accept them for what they are. To tell him they are not wrong or strange or inadequate, and that he doesn’t think any less of him.

“It’s not your fault,” Kenya says, so quietly it’s almost inaudible. His mind and his heart are in such turmoil, he finds himself frozen in place.

Satoru’s voice continues, floating over Kenya’s shoulders. “Didn’t you say that revival and echo are choices? Choices that reflect what we value most?” He lets go of the embrace and pulls back to look at Kenya. “Do you think that’s what your dream is telling you, too?”

Kenya feels his normally reliable words slipping away, failing to materialize. But maybe for once, he doesn’t need them. Maybe with Satoru, there is no lexicon or language that can wholly parse who they are to each other and how he feels.

Willing himself to stop shaking, Kenya untangles his fingers from Satoru’s scarf and brings them up to Satoru’s neck, pulling him close enough to breathe out “Don’t hate me” against his lips, before pressing his mouth into a chaste kiss.

Satoru lets out a small sound of surprise, before he relaxes and leans in awkwardly to return it. Kenya feels warm and solid, and when Satoru closes his eyes he imagines his best friend long-limbed and grown up, standing before him in this very moment, uncertain and imperfect but utterly sincere. How could he not be drawn to such a beautiful person?

“Stupid,” Satoru murmurs to him with a wry smile. “I could never hate you.”

Kenya buries his red-tinged face in Satoru’s neck and sighs in relief, an unbidden smile forming at the fond insult Satoru borrowed from Kayo. Though his self-doubt still remains, it has quieted to the point where Kenya can once again look to his own heart for strength, as well as his own spirit, which Satoru has lifted so effortlessly like a feather upon a breeze.

--

Honestly, as much as he has learned about people during the course of his career, in no timeline would Kenya have ever predicted that Aya and Kazu would forge a friendship that is as strange as it is endearing. But the longer he observes them, the more he notices that as starkly different as they are in personality and preferences, they share the very same qualities that make them stand out in the first place from the rest of their peers — a bold outspokenness and an unshakeable confidence. He thinks that together, they could be quite a formidable team, if they ever paused long enough to stop bickering.

“I’m glad they get along so well,” Satoru remarks to Kenya, as he watches Aya shriek after Kazu drops a snowball down the back of her jacket. To any other spectator, this statement would appear very far off the mark, but Kenya knows that Satoru too is able to see clearly past the sometimes convoluted ways of children.

“I think we can entrust her to Kazu’s care,” Satoru continues, looking on in amusement as Aya yells out something about Kazu not being so manly now, as she pelts him back with a volley of her own snowballs. Kazu sputters out mouthfuls of snow, and glares at her with a mix of annoyance and reluctant respect. (Somewhere behind him, Osamu is rolling around on the ground, crying with laughter. Kayo - on the other hand - has decided to build an impressively large pile of snowball ammunition for Aya to use. Seeing this, Hiromi attempts to do the same for Kazu, but his expression shows increasing doubt over Kazu’s chances at victory.)

“Don’t you mean entrusting him to Aya’s care?” Kenya responds, raising an eyebrow.

Satoru considers this for a moment then nods, conceding with an agreeable hum. Slowly, his smile fades as his mind forges ahead, struggling against the fog of the unknown future. “The killer must be very frustrated by now. We’re pushing him to a dangerous point.”

Kenya pulls his earmuffs off to rest around his neck, and lowers his voice. “I agree. But this may be exactly where we want him. If he allows himself to get upset, he’ll be more likely to make mistakes and reveal himself.” He turns to look at Satoru solemnly. “And if he is as intelligent and meticulous as we think he is, then it won’t be long before we find ourselves in his crosshairs. We’ll have to be prepared for that to happen.”

“We already are,” Satoru says, gaze turned downward, reflecting on the course of destiny that they are attempting to change. “We were prepared the moment revival and echo sent us back.” He turns to look at Kenya, and Kenya sees a hint of fatalism in his eyes, a readiness to sacrifice, an acceptance of the very real possibility that they may not succeed. It is a startling contrast to the usual optimism that Satoru exudes, and Kenya realizes he is not the only one constantly wrestling with self-doubt.

Like Satoru has done for him, Kenya breathes to anchor himself and reaches out to bring him back. “There’s a good possibility that the killer will try one more time, if not out of frustration, then at least to draw us out and see who is the one thwarting his plans.” He frowns in concentration as he compares Kayo, Aya, and Hiromi, laying out their profiles side-by-side in his mind. “If his modus operandi doesn’t change, then I would guess his next target is another girl around ten or eleven years old. I don’t think he would venture to a different school at this time. It must be either our school or Aya’s again, in order to feed his satisfaction and remain within his comfort zone.”

Satoru gazes out over the park, the streetlights flickering to life as the sun dips below the horizon. “Misato,” he eventually says, hands curling inside his mittens.

Thinking back to the lunch money incident, Kenya mentally traces the fall of Misato’s social status, noting her withdrawal and the barbed anger that masks her loneliness. He nods determinedly at Satoru. “We’ll help her, too.”

Chapter Text

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.