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Satoru props up a sketchbook on his knee, using broad, rough strokes to outline the panels of his final art project. He furrows his brow, concentrating on the perspective of each scene. It’s critical that he gets this manga perfectly right before he graduates from Tohoku University, so he can prove he’s earned the scholarship granted to him.

The train jolts a little to the side, and he sighs in frustration as a pencil stroke goes awry.

“Next stop, Sakunami Station.”

Satoru looks briefly at his watch. Another thirty minutes until he reaches Yamagata then. He chews on his lower lip, feeling a bit guilty for not visiting his mother more often, but with finals coming up he’s sure that she understands.

He hopes that she’s gotten around to hiring an assistant manager. It was rocky at the beginning when she first opened up shop ten years ago; he remembers his mother constantly on the phone negotiating with various banks and debt collectors. But now, he thinks with no small pride, her shop has grown to become a successful grocery store with a steady stream of regulars. The problem is that she still stubbornly insists on doing practically everything herself.

He frowns, resolving to talk to her about that - again - once he gets home.

The deep orange of the setting sun filters low through the window, seeming to set the edge of his sketchbook on fire. Satoru takes a moment to appreciate the natural color.

“Next stop, Yamagata Station.”

The train slows to a stop and Satoru shoves everything into his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. He hops off and pulls his jacket tighter around him, shivering in the chilly fall air.

He’s ambling along towards the downtown area, absently wondering what he should make for dinner, when he’s suddenly tackled by a high school girl.

“Airi,” he says, pulling back in surprise. “Hey, what’s—?”

“Satoru, hurry!” she says, panicked and out of breath. “Your mother— her store—”

Gripped with fear, Satoru immediately runs in the direction of her grocery store, shoving pedestrians out of his way. His mind is spinning, praying to every god he knows that he finds her safe and sound.

He skids to a halt in front of the store, staring in shock. His shoes crunch on broken glass and pieces of plaster.

“Mom!” he shouts, tearing through the yellow police tape, frantically searching for her.

He finally spies her sitting on an empty fruit crate, holding a wad of gauze to her head while speaking with a police officer.

“Ah, Satoru,” she says, with a faint and tired smile. The police officer turns around to give him a quick glance-over, before telling Sachiko that he’ll be back shortly to finish getting her testimony.

“Mom,” Satoru says worriedly, trying to inspect her head wound but she waves him away.

“It’s just a scratch,” she says, sighing and looking around at the damaged state of her store. Smashed produce and spilled liquids cover nearly the entirety of the shop floor. “I suppose it’s a good thing we have insurance.”

Satoru stares at her. “Mom, what happened?”

Sachiko exhales deeply, shaking her head. “The police don’t believe me, but it’s the Nishizono clan for sure.” She frowns, clenching her fists. “They’ve been harassing me for months, but there’s no way I’m going to pay dues to scum like them.”

Months?” Satoru nearly screams. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He glares at the policemen milling about. “Why didn’t they do anything?”

She scoffs. “Well, I shouldn’t say they don’t believe me. More like they’re too afraid to go against the Nishizonos.” She looks down critically at the aluminum baseball bat at her feet. “At least I got one good hit.”

“Oh,” Satoru replies faintly, feeling disoriented by the entire incident.

She pats his leg, expression turning serious. “You know I’m always glad to see you, Satoru. But you shouldn’t come home for a while. If the rumors on the street are right, there’s a clan war brewing. The Nishizonos are going to stop at nothing to make sure downtown stays out of the hands of the Katagiris.”

Satoru runs a hand over his face. He always manages to forget that sweet, kind-hearted Airi is actually raised by the yakuza underground, as she tries her best to distance herself from her family.

“Alright, mom,” he sighs out gently. “Let me take you home.”

+

The weekend passes by far too quickly, and Sachiko practically shoves Satoru onto the Senzan Line platform, insisting that he can’t miss any days of school.

“Who cares about school when you could be hurt, or even worse—” he chokes out, tears forming angrily in his eyes.

“Satoru, listen to me!” she says sharply, “I can take care of myself, always have since your father left us. I’m not going to let you throw away your future.”

“Mom…” he says desperately, fear welling in his heart at possibly losing the only family he has left. “Then at least let me come back every weekend—”

She interrupts him, pointing emphatically. “You need to focus on your studies. Do not argue with me.” Her expression softens marginally. “I’ll text you every day, okay? I’ll even send you pictures of the new security guards.”

“I don’t trust them,” Satoru mumbles, looking down at his shoes. How could he possibly focus on his studies?

“Ah, the train’s here.” Sachiko looks over his shoulder and smooths down his jacket, checking to see if he has all his belongings. “Text me when you get back to your dorm.” She presses a kiss to his cheek. “Have a safe ride.”

It takes all his willpower not to cry.

+

Satoru barely makes it to his classes on Monday, much less actually listen to any of his professors’ lectures.

“Hey,” Kayo says to him after their critical art theory class. She tries to look reassuring and hopeful. “Your mom texted you earlier, right? It’ll take time for the store to open again. I’m sure they won’t bother her again in the meantime…”

He emits a sound of frustration, shaking his head. “The police and security guards are useless. There’s no way they can stand up to the mafia.” Satoru looks over at Kayo, distressed. “What am I supposed to do?”

She leads him gently to a nearby bench, sitting them both down. They stay silent for a while, staring at the falling leaves around them.

“Well,” Kayo starts hesitantly, biting her lip, “you know how I’m taking that copyright law class?”

Satoru makes a vague noise of assent, gaze still lost somewhere in the distance.

“There’s a guy there that everyone says—” she says haltingly. “Well, no one’s ever asked him directly, but they’re pretty sure he’s the heir apparent.”

He looks at her in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe you could—ask him for advice?” Kayo says, wincing. “Kenya Kobayashi, I mean.”

It takes Satoru a few minutes to connect the dots. “Wait, Kobayashi?” His eyes widen in shock. “You can’t possibly mean the Kobayashi clan.”

“That...would be the one, yeah,” Kayo mutters, looking around quickly as if there might be eavesdroppers.

“He’s a student here?” he asks loudly.

“Keep your voice down,” she hisses, barely preventing herself from hitting him. “I think he’s studying to be a lawyer.” Kayo pauses, frowning slightly. “That’s pretty smart, actually, if he’s going to be head of the clan one day.”

Kayo watches as a range of emotions quickly pass over Satoru’s features. Then she starts getting a bit worried when he turns to gaze at the law school building with fierce determination.

“Hey,” she says, “you’re not going to do anything stupid, right?”

He stands up abruptly and starts walking briskly in that direction.

Right?” Kayo shouts after him. She grits her teeth, looking down at her watch, which tells her she’s already late for her next class.

+

Once he actually reaches the entrance of the law school building, Satoru stares at the imposing doors and starts second guessing his initial impulse. Pulling out his cell phone, he flips it open and scrolls down until he reaches Airi’s number. His thumb hovers over the call button.

If he’s going to ask anyone for protection, why not the Katagiris? They’re a formidable family, and protecting his mother would serve their end-goal of gaining a foothold in downtown Yamagata. It makes sense all around, and yet—

He shuts his phone with a sigh. Airi is a rare soul, the kind who still sees the good in people, even while she lives in a world fueled by blood and betrayal. Satoru is not going to let her be dragged down and torn apart by the ruthlessness of clan warfare. He will have to find another way.

The doors open suddenly, causing Satoru to take a step back, and two students exit while debating loudly about the merits of the current general election candidates.

“Excuse me,” Satoru says, waving at them. They turn to look at him with mild curiosity. “Um, I’m not sure if you know him, but I’m looking for Kenya Kobayashi. Do you know where I can find him?”

Their eyes widen comically, as if he’s grown a second head. “You’re looking for Kobayashi?” one of them says, incredulous.

Satoru thinks perhaps he should’ve listened more carefully to Kayo. “Er, yes. I’m his—friend.”

They start inching away from him, suspicious. “If you say so…” the other one says, then points at the building. “We just finished civil law class. He’s probably still inside.”

They speed walk away from him before he has the chance to say thank you. Satoru wonders if this maybe isn’t such a good idea after all. But he recalls the scene of his mother bleeding in the middle of her ruined store, and he clenches his jaw in determination. There’s no way he’s going to let that happen again.

He goes inside, tilting his head up to look at the high vaulted ceilings. Somehow, he’s gone nearly four years without ever stepping foot inside the law school. It’s beautiful...and intimidating.

A stream of students start heading his way, and Satoru balks a bit at the idea of just shouting out Kenya’s name and seeing who responds. He absently wonders if he should have brought a sign, like the valets who wait at the airport arrival gates.

As it turns out, he doesn’t need a sign at all.

A male student walks casually through the hallway, intently reading a novel, seemingly unaware of the wide berth all the other students give him. He’s tall, with styled blonde hair, and dressed immaculately in a black turtleneck and tailored slacks. There’s also an embossed leather katana case slung over his shoulder.

Satoru blinks dumbly, sure he hasn’t ever seen anyone who so obviously exuded class and wealth.

As he approaches, Satoru nervously clears his throat. “Kenya Kobayashi?”

The student barely looks up from his novel to give him a cursory glance, before ignoring him entirely and leaving the building.

What? How rude.

Irritated, Satoru follows him out. “Hey, I was talking to you,” he says sharply.

Kenya snaps his novel shut and looks over his shoulder, eyes narrowed dangerously. “I don’t like it when people waste my time.”

“I haven’t even said anything.” Satoru scowls as he’s beginning to see that there might be more than one reason people avoid Kenya.

“Let’s keep it that way,” Kenya says with authority, and stalks off.

Satoru makes several unintelligible noises.

I can’t believe I’m seeking help from this asshole.

+

Satoru ends up following Kenya all the way to the campus dojo. (Which, incidentally, is also a place he’s managed to avoid entirely up until today.) He kicks off his shoes and dips his head in a quick bow before stepping onto the polished wooden floor. His shoulders slump, as he is suddenly aware of how woefully out of shape he is.

He turns to go sit on one of the side benches, but is blocked by an angry Kenya.

“I thought I made myself very clear,” he says softly to Satoru, his tone laced with warning.

If Satoru was any less desperate, he’d be tempted to back off. But he straightens his shoulders, pulling himself up to his full height, nearly eye to eye with Kenya. “I really do need to talk to you.” He looks over at the small group of students who have already changed into their uniforms. “But I can wait until your practice is over.”

Kenya levels a sharp glare at him, but says nothing as he strides quickly to the changing room to avoid being late.

When Kenya reappears in a deep blue gi and hakama, Satoru notices that his attitude is entirely different, anger nowhere to be seen. Instead, Kenya seems to possess an unnatural calm and unerring focus. In his left hand, he holds a sword sheathed in a simple but exquisitely lacquered saya.

Satoru stares unabashedly, feeling the urge to bring out his sketchbook. Kenya really does look like some kind of aristocratic warrior from the shogunate period.

As the instructor walks out onto the floor, the students bow and perform the standard rituals of respecting him and gratefully accepting his guidance. He proceeds to lead them into a practice kata session, which Satoru realizes must be reserved only for high-level iaidoka, as each one of them unsheathes a metal sword instead of a wooden bokken.

Feeling that it would somehow be an intrusion of privacy if he took out his pencil and paper, Satoru instead tries to mentally snapshot the graceful and fluid movements of each kata. They actually remind him of the development and maturation of illustration techniques that have been taught to him over the years. Spare and efficient strokes that look beautifully effortless, but are nonetheless deliberate, belying the many years of training that make such a thing possible.

Every art form is a constant battle with oneself, Satoru thinks, exhaling deeply. He wonders what demons lie beneath Kenya’s hardened exterior.

The practice session ends as quietly as it began, and as the students begin coming out of the changing room in their normal clothes, Satoru roots around in his messenger bag for a bottle of water. Luckily it hasn’t been opened, and he thinks that maybe it would serve as a small peace offering to Kenya.

“Here.” Satoru holds out the bottle awkwardly. Kenya stares at him placidly, making no move to take it.

“You wanted to talk. So talk.” He crosses his arms, looking as if he’d rather be anywhere else.

Satoru takes a deep breath. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. “I need your help.” His grip on the water bottle tightens. “More specifically, I need your family’s help.”

Kenya immediately becomes incensed. “How dare you—”

“It’s my mother,” Satoru says, voice shaking with emotion. “She was attacked by the Nishizonos, and there’s going to be a war between them and the Katagiris over who controls downtown Yamagata. But she hasn’t done anything wrong! She just owns a grocery store there. She doesn’t deserve any of this!”

Kenya remains silent for a while, appearing to have cooled down somewhat. When he speaks, though, his voice is hard. “We have nothing to do with either clan.”

“I know,” Satoru replies, desperate. “I know it’s unfair of me to ask—”

“More like you have no right.”

“You’re right. I have no right to ask. But here I am.” Satoru clenches his fists. “If I had any other option, I wouldn’t be asking you. Begging you.” He wars internally with his pride before swallowing it, and begins to kneel.

“Tch,” Kenya says in annoyance. “Don’t do that. Get up.”

Satoru doesn’t quite obey. “Will you help me?”

Kenya gives him a long look. “And what would I get in return?”

Honestly, Satoru hadn’t thought that far. “Whatever you want,” he says, voice low.

He doesn’t expect Kenya to burst into laughter. “Whatever I want?” Kenya repeats. “What could you possibly give me that I don’t already have?”

“A chance to do the right thing,” Satoru retorts without thinking.

Kenya’s laughter abruptly dies down, his expression turning frosty. He gives Satoru an arrogant look. “I don’t really think you’re in any position to lecture me on morality.”

“You’re studying to be a lawyer, aren’t you?”

“The purpose of which is entirely my own, and nothing to do with you.”

“But you’re here, at school, going through the actual process of earning a degree,” Satoru says, gesturing emphatically around him. “You could’ve gotten a—a private tutor, or maybe even just donate enough money so they give you a degree.” He lowers his hand. “So you must care about doing some things right.”

Kenya doesn’t quite manage to hide a flash of surprise, before closing off his expression again. “You make a lot of assumptions.”

“Well, we’re still talking, aren’t we?”

“Regrettably.” Kenya raises an eyebrow. “Who are you, anyway?”

“Satoru Fujinuma,” he states, then adds lamely, “Fourth year art student.”

“Of course you’re an artist,” Kenya mutters. “You talk like some kind of manga protagonist.”

Satoru looks down at his messenger bag. “Well, that might be because I’m drawing one.”

Kenya pinches the bridge of his nose. “Where do they even find people like you?” He holds up a hand. “You know what? Never mind.” He looks off to the side in resignation. “Fine, what the hell. Maybe I’ll find a use for you.”

Satoru widens his eyes hopefully. “So...you’ll help me?”

“If I have to keep repeating myself, then I won’t.”

“No, I heard you the first time,” Satoru says hastily. “Sorry.”

“You’d better prepare yourself.” Kenya grips the strap of his katana case, and slants a hard look at Satoru. “You have no idea what you’re really asking for.”

Chapter Text

The beginning of winter arrives earlier than anticipated, light flurries of snow dusting the campus grounds. The tree branches are bare, the ends frozen in ice and appearing like crystals in the weak sunlight.

But Satoru isn’t in the mood to appreciate any of it at the moment, as he grips a hot cup of tea, looking deeply frustrated.

“I don’t understand,” he says bluntly to Kenya. “What do you mean I can’t go back home for winter break?”

“I mean exactly what I said,” Kenya says, like he’s speaking to a particularly slow child — a tone that Satoru is quickly becoming familiar with. Kenya explains with an exasperated sigh, “The objective is to protect your mother. In order to do that, we have to be able to anticipate what the Nishizono clan will do next. In order to do that, they must be lulled into a sense of complacency.”

“But if I don’t come home, isn’t that more suspicious?”

Kenya continues as if Satoru hadn’t spoken. “And complacency is achieved by the removal of unpredictable factors.” He eyes Satoru over the edge of his coffee cup. “One of which is you.”

Satoru feels a little insulted. “Well, it’s not as if I’m going to call them and tell them I sought your help—”

Kenya’s expression darkens. “You don’t know the lengths a clan will go to in order to get what they want. If you go back home, you’re nothing more than a sitting duck. You have no status, no intel, no connections. You’re no one to them, and that makes you an easy target. All they have to do is kidnap you and use you as leverage against your mother. And then what?”

Satoru startles as a flash of something fierce crosses Kenya’s face, his hands trembling faintly before he regains his composure.

“I see,” Satoru says quietly. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“There are many things you haven’t considered,” Kenya says sharply. “Because you cannot fathom them.” He exhales and leans back, suddenly looking older than his years. “When I agreed to offer protection, it’s because I can and I will. But in order to do that, I need your full compliance.”

Entirely out of his depth, Satoru can’t help but nod, and in doing so feels like he’s given up something important to Kenya.

Something fragile and unknown.

+

Satoru groans, reaching back to massage his neck. His eyes turn blearily towards the wall clock in the studio, then kind of wishes he hadn’t, when he sees it’s already three AM. He rests his head tiredly on top of his drawing board, which is piled with endless sketches and panels. Is this the third all-nighter he’s pulled? Or fourth? He runs a hand over his face and slides gingerly off his chair, wincing when his knees pop in complaint.

The other late-night occupants in the studio, working with hazy maniacal focus, completely ignore him as he shuffles by. Satoru clutches a coin in his hand, heading towards the exit in search of vending machine coffee, and vaguely notes that the student seated right next to the door has already nodded off, face precariously resting on top of his 3D architectural model.

Satoru pushes the door open with a yawn, blinking slowly against the darkness of the hallway, when all of a sudden a person emerges from the shadows.

Holy gods, what the fuck,” Satoru nearly screams, pressing a hand to his heart. He’s fairly certain he felt death during those brief two seconds.

Kenya looks unamused. (And not at all sleep-deprived, Satoru notes with irrational jealousy.)

“You’re coming home with me,” is all Kenya says, as if he’s commenting on the weather.

Satoru blinks uncomprehendingly, not sure he really heard him right. He’s probably also wearing a stupid look on his face, but he’s too far gone mentally to care. “What?”

“It’s winter break. I’m taking you back to Sapporo.”

Satoru looks down at the coin in his hand. Clearly he needs the coffee now more than ever, if he’s starting to hallucinate Kenya in the middle of the night. “It’s okay, coin. Let’s go find the vending machine.”

“You’re an idiot.”

Satoru winces. Okay, the hand gripping his shoulder is definitely real. “Ow, stop it.”

Kenya gives him a firm shake. “Get your stuff. Now. My car is waiting outside.”

“But my—final project,” Satoru says helplessly. “And my clothes, in my dorm.”

Kenya looks about ready to commit homicide. “Bring. Your. Project. Your clothes are already packed and in the trunk.” He turns and heads rapidly out of the visual arts building. “You have two minutes!”

Satoru makes it to the car in one and a half, papers haphazardly shoved into a giant folder clutched to his chest. Once he catches his breath, he immediately turns on Kenya. “Wait, what do you mean my clothes are packed?”

Holding a bottle of water, Kenya takes a leisurely sip. “I had Kazu go to your dorm room and grab some of your things. Saves time.”

“You what? And who the hell’s Kazu? You can’t do things like this—”

Kenya gestures casually towards the driver’s seat of his sleek black Mercedes. “That’s Kazu.”

A burly, spiky-haired man emerges from the other side of the car, looming menacingly. “Young master, I still think this is not a good idea.”

“Well, his background check cleared, didn’t it?” Kenya looks almost bored. “And how many times have I told you not to call me that?”

Kazu snorts. “Osamu might’ve triple-checked and done a deep web search, but still—having a stranger in the house is a liability.” He cracks his knuckles threateningly. “You never know what he might get up to.”

“I appreciate your concern, Kazu, but he’s coming with us. That’s final.” Kenya holds up a hand placatingly. “And if it makes you feel any better, I also ran a background check myself. Not that Osamu isn’t more than capable.”

“I do not feel better,” Kazu grumbles under his breath, but heeds Kenya’s orders. “Well, kid? Get in.”

Kid? Aren’t we all around the same age?

Satoru gapes a bit like a fish, before deciding to snap his mouth shut and give up because clearly nothing’s going his way today. He shuffles reluctantly into the backseat, then immediately sinks into it when he realizes that it’s pre-heated.

“Buckle up,” Kazu barks at him. “I don’t care if you die, but I won’t have your brains messing up my windshield.”

Satoru mutely clicks on his seatbelt.

“It’s a new car,” Kenya says blandly, before closing his eyes. His posture is relaxed but radiates awareness, as if in meditation.

“Hey,” Satoru says with a small frown, “you could’ve at least given me a heads-up.”

The engine thrums to life, and Kazu deftly guides the car quickly and quietly through the streets until the campus grounds disappear behind them.

Eventually, Kenya replies, “I would have, if I wanted to increase our chances of being tracked and followed. As it stands, the less you know the better.” He sighs through his nose. “Turn off your phone and get some sleep, Satoru. It’s going to be a long drive.”

+

The rattling of gravel against the bottom of the car wakes Satoru with a startle. He rubs his eyes and straightens his neck with a wince, tilting his head away from the vibrating headrest. It takes a few seconds for him to remember that he’s in Kenya’s car, heading towards Sapporo.

“Oi, sleeping beauty,” Kazu says gruffly, the suspicion in his voice not one whit abated. Satoru whips his head to the side, shocked to find Kazu sitting next to him instead of Kenya. His gaze flickers quickly to the front, where he finds Kenya adjusting his sunglasses against the glare of the morning sunlight and driving determinedly over a narrow gravel road in the countryside. The car clock reads nine AM.

“I’m watching you,” Kazu says lowly, finger pointed at Satoru. But his eyes are faintly bloodshot and he seems to be struggling against the urge to fall asleep.

“Okay,” Satoru replies slowly, not knowing what else to say.

It seems like the wrong answer, as Kazu’s expression contorts into deep annoyance. He’s about to say (or yell) something, but Kenya swiftly interjects. “Kazu, your rest is priority right now.” Kenya glances at him through the rearview mirror. “You can interrogate him later.”

Kazu mutters a few obscenities but otherwise seems to be satisfied with this plan. He folds his arms and leans his head back. Then after a few moments, he cracks an eye open at Satoru, as if hoping to catch him doing something sinister. But Satoru merely blinks at him behind his smudged glasses. Somewhat disappointed, Kazu uses excessive force to pull down the armrest divider between them, then drops off to sleep.

Once Kazu is in deep enough sleep to start snoring, Satoru undoes his seatbelt and stretches, bracing his feet against the seat in front of him. His spine feels like it’s been rolled up and crammed into a box. After lowering the window a bit and taking a deep breath of fresh air, he looks over at Kenya with slight exasperation. “I don’t really need to be interrogated, do I?”

“Happy employees make for a happy organization,” Kenya says drily. Satoru has no idea whether or not he’s kidding. Then he wonders why he bothers asking Kenya questions at all, since he still hasn’t really learned anything further than when he first approached him. He settles back into his seat, looking resigned.

“You can sit up here, if you need a change of scenery.” Kenya keeps his eyes on the road ahead.

Satoru straightens up in mild surprise. “Oh, sure.” He expects Kenya to slow down and pull over, so he can switch seats properly, but the car still speeds along with no sign of stopping. “Um.” He looks warily over at Kazu before hesitantly scooching forward. As roomy as the car is, his long limbs aren’t used to contorting in a way that allows him to gracefully clamber over the armrest and into the passenger seat. He’s attempting to twist to avoid scuffing the expensive leather interior with his worn sneakers, but ends up banging his knee and hitting his head against the sunroof. “Ow, ow, ow.”

Kenya grabs the collar of his shirt and deposits Satoru into the seat beside him. Satoru winces, expecting Kenya to make some acerbic remark on his clumsiness. But he says nothing of the kind, his lips curling up with a faint quirk of amusement instead. “We’re about six hours away,” is all Kenya says.

Absently fastening his seatbelt, Satoru looks around in curiosity, scanning the endless stretch of snow-covered grass and telephone poles outside. Then his eyes drop to the console, noting that Kenya isn’t using a GPS at all. He doesn’t even have a cup of coffee next to him. “You’re not tired?” Satoru asks, wondering.

“I’ll rest when I get back home.” Which is not really an answer at all. Satoru wishes he could do something to ease the burden, feeling a bit like useless chattel.

He fiddles with the edge of his jacket. “Do you—” he starts, cheeks reddening, “want me to tell you about my final project?”

Kenya leans over a bit to adjust the temperature of the heat. “Let me guess, it’s about some kind of superhero.”

Satoru lets out a light laugh, eyes brightening. “I guess you don’t know everything after all.” He hums thoughtfully. “Well, you’re half right. It’s about a person who wants to be a superhero.”

Kenya seems slightly affronted, his tone flattening. “Is this one of those things where the main character is based on yourself?”

He expects Satoru to be embarrassed, but he merely smiles. “Of course it is. Oftentimes, the best stories are the ones that come from within.” Satoru’s gaze slides forward. “At least, that’s been the case with all my favorite manga series.”

Kenya huffs, looking over at him. “You know, you might be right.”

Satoru raises an eyebrow and thinks back to their first encounter, where Kenya was thoroughly engrossed in a novel. Perhaps they have something in common after all.

+

As the Mercedes eases into the end of a long, pristine driveway, Satoru grips the dashboard in front of him, entirely speechless. Kenya ignores him, stretching out his stiff hands and sliding out of the car. He raps the side of the car briefly, jolting Kazu awake.

Kazu lets out a surprised snort, and immediately frowns when he spots Satoru in the shotgun seat. “What is he—”

“Please go get something to eat, Kazu.” Kenya bends down to look at him through the tinted window. “You know where the kitchen staff are.”

As if on cue, Kazu’s stomach grumbles and he looks down at it in consternation. “Fine,” he says, clearly displeased. He throws open the door and turns toward the trunk of the car, but Kenya stops him.

“We’ll get the bags. Go on ahead.”

Kazu throws his hands up and stomps off, complaining loudly about Kenya not letting him do anything.

“Oh, and Kazu, find Osamu while you’re over there. I need to speak with him,” Kenya adds, raising his voice.

I know that!” Kazu shouts back, before disappearing around the corner.

Kenya smiles to himself and reaches back into the car to press the trunk button. He peers over at Satoru, who is still frozen in place. “You can get out of the car now, Satoru. Otherwise, you’re going in the garage.”

“I just—” Satoru says, his expression filled with awe. He slowly exits the car, looking all around him. “There’s no way this is real. I mean, this is...almost an exact replica of Ninomaru Palace.”

Kenya clearly doesn’t see how impressive that is. He shrugs lightly. “Father is very attached to the Tokugawa period. He got a bit carried away.” He pulls a leather duffle out of the trunk and hoists it over his shoulder. “Grab your bag. I’ll show you where you’ll be staying.”

Satoru follows him, hugging his folder to his chest and itching to take out his pencils. This entire place is like a dream, transporting him back to the feudal era. If any sakura petals start floating down, he thinks he might actually pass out and die from sheer wonder.

As they wind their way through the compound, the floorboards trill beneath their feet.

“You even have the nightingale floors?” Satoru asks, astonished. He huffs out a laugh in disbelief. “But it’s not like you have assassins coming after—”

Kenya looks back at him, placid.

“Oh,” Satoru says, gaze involuntarily darting around the wooden beams.

He nearly runs into Kenya when he stops abruptly in front of a plain interior room. “This will be your room. Get some sleep if you need to, and stay put for the time being. Don’t make any calls yet. I have to go inform the rest of the staff that you’re my guest.” Kenya tilts his head. “Otherwise, they might be compelled to kill you.”

Satoru feels like he really shouldn’t be surprised at this point. “And you?”

“What about me?”

“If I want to find you...” Satoru’s voice trails off.

“I’ll come find you later. You don’t need to worry about that for now.” Kenya opens the door and leaves it at that, his feet thudding softly against the floorboards as he vanishes out of sight.

Feeling very tired all of a sudden, Satoru drops his bag onto the floor and shrugs off his jacket. He leaves his shoes outside the door and strips down to his boxers. Pulling over the futon from the corner of the room, he stretches out on top of it and drifts easily into slumber.

+

When Satoru wakes up, he shivers and realizes that it’s already nightfall. He wraps himself in a sleeping robe and cracks open the door, peering outside. Everything is dark, except for the dim lights lined along the corridors. He looks down to find a bento box wrapped into a furoshiki and placed inside a steel warming container.

Suddenly aware of how hungry he is, he scarfs down every last delicious bit, then clumsily tries to tie the furoshiki back into its original shape. (He fails.) Feeling sated, Satoru steps outside and breathes in the clean, quiet air. He wonders vaguely where Kenya is and why no one seems to be around. Although Kenya told him to stay put, Satoru figures it wouldn’t hurt if he walks around nearby.

He strains to hear for any noises, and decides to follow a faint trickling of water. After a few wrong turns, he eventually finds the source to be a small garden courtyard, immaculately maintained and awash with moonlight.

He’s startled to find Kenya sitting at the edge of it, barefoot and leaning against half-open shoji doors. A faint trail of smoke drifts from his cigarette, and ash dusts the edge of his deep blue yukata. He looks young and ethereal, like he’s a spirit from another world who’s merely biding his time here on earth. His gaze is distant, his thoughts as faraway as ever.

Satoru feels like he’s intruding, like he should look away, but he can’t. He curls his fingers, tamping down the desire to preserve this scene in ink and watercolor.

“You might as well sit, if you’re going to stay,” Kenya calls out without looking at him.

Satoru jumps a bit. Kenya must’ve known he was there for some time.

“Ah, thanks,” he says awkwardly, walking over carefully and sitting down with his legs crossed. Kenya looks at him for a moment, then slides over a bottle of sake that Satoru hadn’t noticed before.

“Have some, if you’d like,” he says lightly. Satoru looks around in search of cups, but Kenya shakes his head. “I don’t drink.”

Satoru stares at him, eyes flicking down to the cigarette in his hand. Kenya notices and the edge of his mouth curls up slightly. “I figured it’s best to keep my vices down to a minimum.” He takes a brief drag and exhales, faint white smoke disappearing into nothing. “Liquor clouds the mind, anyhow.”

Kenya turns his attention back on the light snowfall drifting down into the courtyard, layering the stones and sleeping maples in a soft white shroud. The meditative, rhythmic thunks of the bamboo sozu are muffled by the thick winter air, the icy water trickling through the tube and into the garden pool.

Satoru takes a small sip from the bottle, eyes widening in delight. “This sake is amazing.”

“Well, I’d hate to think we keep around any mediocre liquor,” Kenya says, flicking the ash off his cigarette. “If you’re going to indulge in something, might as well go for the best.”

Satoru makes a small noise of assent, somewhat uncomfortable as he’s reminded once more of just how differently Kenya lives from the rest of society. He sets down the sake bottle and decides to change the subject. “Will we be staying here the whole time?”

Kenya peers at him from beneath his bangs. “For now, yes. But sometimes plans change. You’ll have to be prepared for that, too.”

Satoru’s getting pretty tired of being treated like a child. “Are you actually going to let me in on these plans of yours? Or am I supposed to just sit off to the side, like a plant?”

Of course, Kenya replies obliquely. “Didn’t you give me your full compliance, when you sought my help?”

“Yes, but I’m not willing to do nothing,” Satoru says, irritated. “I want to help however I can.”

Kenya stubs out his cigarette with more force than necessary. “This is not your final project, Satoru. This is not a place where you can become a superhero simply by wishing it. You will only be told what I believe is safe for you to know.” He narrows his eyes. “You should consider your own life with more care.”

Satoru is unperturbed. “Stop speaking to me like I’m a child. I’m sick of it,” he says bluntly.

“Here, you are one,” Kenya says, sharp and impatient. “You think being yakuza is just fancy cars and premium sake? You’ve never seen—”

But Satoru is fed up with Kenya’s lectures and interrupts him without hesitation. “Of course I don’t. You may be smart, Kenya, but that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. You say I should consider my own life. Well, what about yours? You’re the one acting like you want to be a superhero, doing everything by yourself. Accept some goddamn help every once in a while.”

Kenya stares at him in shock, then huffs out a laugh, low and mild. “You really are an artist.” He turns away, definitively shutting down the discussion. “Well, feel free to stay or go. I plan on meditating for a while.” (He places a slight derisive emphasis on the word plan.)

Gripping the sake bottle, Satoru glowers at him. “I’m staying.”

Kenya says nothing as he adjusts his body into an elegant seiza position. Satoru watches him, expecting Kenya to close his eyes and even out his breathing pattern. But he keeps his eyes open, unerringly focused on the snowfall in front of him.

Satoru bites back his question, instead opting to take another sip of sake.

“You should try it sometime,” Kenya says, his eyes half-lidded and voice seemingly far away. Satoru blinks several times before realizing that Kenya is answering his unspoken question. “Yuki no metsuke. If you are able to follow a single snowflake, then you are able to find focus in times of chaos.”

Satoru exhales in exasperation, thinking Kenya is patronizing him again, but then he looks up and sees nothing arrogant about Kenya at all. Not the way he is now. He wonders if this is Kenya’s extremely roundabout way of telling him how to stand on his own.

Well, he won’t turn down good advice. He’s mature enough to accept that.

+

Eventually, Satoru falls asleep, dreaming about snowflakes.

Chapter Text

Satoru is unceremoniously woken up not by sunshine or morning bird calls, but instead by Kazu’s incoherent yelling, which may or may not have blown out one of his eardrums already. He tries lifting his head and immediately regrets it, as a splitting headache abruptly manifests. Fuck, he forgot that he can’t hold his liquor.

His fingers are loosely draped around the sake bottle, which Kazu snatches away from him, shouting something about not for the likes of you and completely wasted

Blinking slowly, Satoru does his best to piece things together one at a time. He rolls a little to the left to find the shoji doors to the courtyard completely closed. (Oh, so that’s why he didn’t freeze to death.) Then he looks down to find a deep blue yukata - soft and finely woven - draped over him like a blanket.

Wait, isn’t this Kenya’s— oh.

His cheeks turn faintly pink, as he tries not to think about how it got there. Then he squints up at Kazu, his glasses askew, hoping to convey some sort of apologetic look. (It does not appear to be successful.) With enormous effort, Satoru clambers ungracefully to his feet, limbs heavy and swaying. He lets out a yelp of protest, when Kazu grabs his upper arm and proceeds to drag him down a series of mazelike corridors.

“I swear, I’m going to submit an official request to bury you in the mountains where no one will ever find you,” Kazu says vehemently, then looks back at Satoru with a glint in his eyes. “No one.

Yes, okay, Satoru may have been a bit (a lot) discourteous, falling asleep by the courtyard in a drunken stupor. But he still isn’t sure why Kazu seems to have it in for him. Trying to ignore the stampeding wildebeests in his head, Satoru mutters somewhat haplessly, “I haven’t even done anything to you.”

Kazu looks at him like he’s stupid. “What? This isn’t about me! It’s about Kenya.” He jabs a finger in Satoru’s chest. “Dragging him into your business? He doesn’t need that! He should be focusing on school.”

Satoru goes quiet, expression quickly sobering. “I know.” He gingerly rubs his upper arm, where Kazu has probably left a hand-shaped bruise. “I didn’t want to ask him. But I had no choice— my mother—” He shakes his head, looking down. “I just want her to be safe. That’s all. I’m sorry to cause so much trouble.”

“Tch,” Kazu grumbles, looking away. “Well, Kenya never does anything he doesn’t want to do.” Then he whips around to glare at Satoru. “Still, I’m here to look out for his best interests. You might be a harmless twig, but you’re definitely not in his best interests. I can tell.”

It might be because of the lingering sake in his system, but Satoru gives him a dubious look. “I think Kenya would know what’s in his own best interests.”

“Shut your mouth, or I’ll shut it for you.”

“...Got it.”

+

A sense of chronological dissonance comes over Satoru, as he stares at the scene before him — a large tatami-covered room surrounded by sliding doors painted gold overlaid with intricate white flowers, ornate carvings etched into the wooden ceiling above, all flawless and practically museum quality...except for the giant tangle of wires balled up to the side, different colored cords snaking up the walls and around the feet of a bespectacled boy who couldn’t be older than eighteen.

“I’m twenty-two,” he says with a bit of a frown, pausing his rapid typing to look up at Satoru.

Ehh, I said that out loud…

Satoru coughs in embarrassment and decides to start over, raising an awkward hand in greeting. “Nice to meet you. I’m Satoru Fujinuma,” he says, then figures it’s only fair to share his age, too. “I’m twenty-one.”

“Huh, it’s been a while since we’ve had a guest,” he says casually, blinking at him. “I’m Osamu. And I already know all that stuff about you.” He waves a hand at the multiple computer monitors in front of him. “Background checks and all that.”

Kazu shoves Satoru forward a bit. “Osamu, watch him for a bit, will you?” he asks reluctantly. “I have to head out and take care of some business.”

“He’s a guest, Kazu.” Osamu’s attention is squarely back on the monitors, keys clacking away, a small tower of servers humming beside him. “If Kenya doesn’t think he needs to be supervised, then neither do I.”

Kazu looks incensed. “Am I the only one who cares about security around here?”

Osamu raises an eyebrow. “Excuse you. Who do you think takes care of web and financial security?” Then he makes a face. “And don’t come to me again asking how to fix your laptop after you spill something on it. I don’t do that shit.”

“Whatever,” Kazu scoffs. “Just don’t let him out of your sight.” After he leaves the room, he briefly pokes his head back in. “And seriously, Osamu, go outdoors and get some actual sun. Maybe then you won’t look like such a kid.” He disappears before Osamu can come back with an acerbic retort.

Osamu bristles, punching the keyboard harder than necessary. “I can’t wait until artificial intelligence arrives, so Kenya can have an army of robots instead of whatever Kazu is.”

Satoru sits down and thinks that’s a bit of a frightening idea. “Is there— anything I can help with?”

“Not unless you can circumvent the firewalls of the government’s military defense network.”

Satoru stares at him. “I...don’t think I’m your best candidate there.”

Osamu grins. “Just kidding.” He stops typing to lean forward on top of a monitor, peering at Satoru with curiosity. “Say, you’re drawing a manga, right?”

“Yeah, it’s my final art project.”

Osamu whistles. “That’s pretty cool. I mostly play video games, but sometimes I’ll pick up a manga or two. There’s some really good stuff out there.”

Satoru smiles, genuinely relieved to have a normal conversation in this strange household. “Yeah, it’s easy to be inspired with all the great talent out there.” He sighs a little. “Makes competition tough, though.”

“I’m telling you, video games are it,” Osamu says with a knowing expression. “Especially if you design for virtual reality. Then you’ll be set for life.”

“Ah, I prefer the traditional methods, pen and paper. Feels…” Satoru hums, “more intimate. Like reading a paperback book instead of a digital copy.”

Osamu looks at him thoughtfully. “I see what you mean. Kenya thinks much the same way, too.” He shrugs. “I prefer looking forward. Although…” He tilts his head at their surroundings. “I guess it wouldn’t seem that way, since I live here.”

“Did you come here after graduating?”

“Graduating?” Osamu blinks before emitting a laugh. “I didn’t go to college. Too boring.” He pushes up his glasses. “Kenya recruited me back in high school. We were— well, I don’t think ‘friends’ is the right word. But we understood each other.”

Pulling up his knees to rest his arms on top, Satoru hesitates before asking, “Does your family know?”

Osamu goes quiet, looking down at the wireless mouse he’s fiddling with in his hands. Eventually, he says, “When Kenya offered me the job, my family was in deep debt. My father had a really bad gambling habit…Anyway, long story short, what I earned here was enough to get them out.” He looks somewhere over Satoru’s shoulder. “So, I think they know, but they don’t ask.” He sighs and puts on a faint smile. “Plus, how can I turn down free food and lodging?”

“I suppose that’s impossible to refuse, yeah.” Satoru tries to smile back, and Osamu looks at him with understanding.

The tower of servers emits a series of high-pitched beeps, and immediately Osamu turns to poke around in it, eyeing it critically. “C’mon, don’t do this to me today—” As he tinkers around, he continues speaking to Satoru, his tone turning serious. “So, the Nishizonos, huh.”

Satoru knits his fingers tightly together. “Yeah, they attacked my mother’s—” Then he pauses. “Well, you probably know what happened.”

Osamu makes a noise of acknowledgment, as he grabs a screwdriver and rolls up his sleeves. “Guess I’m gonna have to fix this the hard way—” he mutters to himself, before resuming the conversation. “Yeah, I read the police report and scanned through the local surveillance videos. I’m probably missing a few since not all shops use cloud-based services, but there’s nothing conspicuously absent as far as I could tell. Pretty standard hit-and-run.”

“You—” Satoru widens his eyes. “You did all that already?”

“Well, yeah. That’s why you’re here, right?” Osamu says, shining a flashlight on the servers and squinting inside. “To leverage Kenya’s resources?”

“I just thought that…well, I don’t know,” Satoru says with a frown. “Maybe it’s too simplistic, to think that a few guys and some intimidation against the Nishizonos would keep my mom safe.”

Osamu turns around with a look of wonder, as if he’s a kid at the zoo. “Wow, either you watch too many movies or you really are old-school, Fujinuma. We live in the twenty-first century, you know. We don’t need muscle anymore to get what we want.” He rolls his eyes. “Though you’d better not tell Kazu that. He won’t react well to being unemployed.”

Satoru looks doubtful. “No muscle at all?”

“Okay, fine, I’m exaggerating a little. I mean, occasionally someone’s going to fire a gun or start a warehouse fire, and you can’t not retaliate. But honestly, it doesn’t happen as often as people think,” Osamu says. “For everything else, there’s cyber-warfare. The Kobayashis don’t believe in unnecessary bloodshed anyhow.” At Satoru’s astonished expression, Osamu chuckles. “I know, right? Hard to believe. That’s because whenever they do think it’s necessary, they shed a lot of it.”

Feeling suddenly very aware of the yukata wrapped around him, Satoru runs his fingers along the embroidery, wondering how much blood it’s seen. He imagines Kenya wiping it off his sword and sheathing it back into his saya, a mirror image of the kata form he saw at the dojo. Satoru shakes his head to dispel the thought. Clearly, Osamu’s right. He’s a weird, old-school daydreamer, who knows nothing about who the yakuza really are and how they operate.

“Anyway,” Osamu continues, “I wanted to ask you a few questions before I start digging further into the Nishizonos’ movements. And don’t hold anything back. Not if you want to maximize our efforts.”

“Sure,” Satoru acquiesces, though he’s pretty sure there’s no way he could possibly know more than the Kobayashis do already.

“Okay, think back to when your father left.”

Satoru tenses, feeling disconcerted, his layers of privacy flaking away. (Is this something Osamu really needs to know?) “I was—very young,” he forces himself to say. “Five, I think. I don’t remember him well.”

Osamu keeps his expression carefully neutral. “Do you know why he left?”

“My mom explained that he didn’t want the responsibility of a family. But that’s all I know, really,” Satoru says, not meeting Osamu’s eyes. “I didn’t try to track him down or anything.” He exhales heavily. “I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this has anything to do with my current situation.”

“I’m not trying to psychoanalyze you,” Osamu says evenly. “I’m just considering the possibilities. It might be true that your mother had the unfortunate luck of being randomly targeted by the Nishizonos. But we don’t know that for sure, unless we can definitively rule out intentionality. She has no past dealings with the clan, doesn’t owe them anything, based on what I could find. But there’s a lot less information out there about your father. He’s fairly under the radar, which could be suspicious or could mean nothing.”

The low hums of the servers drone on, as Satoru lapses into silence. Something within him shifts, the old hurt he thought he’d buried resurfacing, pressurizing, thin cracks spidering outwards on damaged glass. There’s a small part of him that wants to know who his father is now, what he’s doing, where he is— but mostly he just wants to forget about his existence.

“I’ll leave that up to you,” he eventually says, lowering his head, his dark hair falling into his face. “I don’t know him at all.”

“All right. Fair enough,” Osamu says. “Now, think back to when you first started school, including elementary. Did anyone suspicious ever approach you? Were you ever threatened? Did you ever owe anybody anything?”

Satoru digs up his memories, sifting through them, and shakes his head. “No, never.”

“Yeah, none of your emails or communications ever pointed to any of that. But just wanted to double check with you.”

While he knows he basically begged to get involved, Satoru still feels a bit rankled at how breezily the Kobayashis treat his privacy (that is to say, as if it doesn’t exist).

It must show on his face, as Osamu casually tries to reassure him. “Don’t worry, I’m the only one who actually sees all this. Well, I do report my findings to Kenya, but it’s not like he sits up at night reading your IM chat history from 2001.”

Satoru’s really not sure whether this is supposed to make him feel better.

“That’s it for now, I think. If you end up remembering anything, even if it doesn’t seem all that important, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll keep investigating.” Osamu stifles a yawn as he stretches out his back. “We were keeping some light tabs on the Nishizonos before, but since Kenya’s taking this on, I suspect we’ll all be going down the rabbit hole soon enough. They’ve been around longer than I thought. Not as long as we have, but there’s a lot of data to comb through.” He rotates his wrists. “And then of course, Kenya’s going to want a predictive analysis model.” His mouth quirks up. “If you ever want to see Kenya excited, just mention predictive analysis model. I think he likes it better than porn.”

Some part of Satoru’s brain fizzles to a stop. “Um, I wouldn’t know.”

“Well, you do now.” Osamu roots around in a drawer next to a server and pulls out a bag of chips. “Ooh, nice.” His voice drops to a whisper. “Hey, don’t tell Kenya I eat in here. He might have a fit.”

Satoru stretches his legs and gets up slowly. “I won’t. Although—” he cocks his head, “you really think he doesn’t know?”

“Yeah, you’re right. I mean, he’s not superhuman. But he knows things somehow.”

A vaguely amused voice comes from the doorway. “I think you overestimate my abilities, Osamu.”

“Gyahh,” Osamu blurts out, immediately shifting to hide the bag of chips. “Hello, good morning, lovely day, nice to see you.”

Kenya sighs, looking at him with almost paternal fondness. “I’m deducting the room cleaning bill from your paycheck.”

“Oh, come on, boss,” Osamu whines.

Satoru ducks his head to hide a smile, then looks up when Kenya motions for him to follow.

“Come with me,” he says, before glancing down at the yukata. “And you can give that back now.”

“Ah, right.” Satoru pulls it off, flustered, and passes it back.

Though it’s a fairly warm day for the winter season, somehow he feels strangely cold without it.

Chapter Text

“Holy shit,” Satoru exclaims, as he stares at the possibly the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen (aside from a silver mechanical pencil from 19th century France that he once spotted in an antique shop).

Hidden in the depths of the Kobayashi compound is a large, circular library that is lined with shelves upon shelves of books, stretching from floor to ceiling with tall white columns framing the doorway. It looks much more modern than the rest of the household, with its digital temperature control console and wide, angled skylight. The cool winter rays of sunshine peek through the thin layer of accumulated snow and alight upon a low, wide table of simple design in the center of the room, the wood gleaming with a rich, deep stain. In the corner, there’s a built-in bar trimmed with brass and stocked with coffee and tea, as well as a small display of delicate porcelain cups.

“I thought you might like it,” Kenya says, looking up at the skylight, and it’s the first time Satoru has heard him speak with something approaching warm pleasantry (almost but not quite). “I had this built when I got sick of writing papers in my room. I couldn’t think in there.” He turns towards Satoru. “You can finish your manga project in here, if you wish.”

“I—” Satoru stutters. “That’s very kind of you.” He appreciates it, he really does, but he can’t help but feel that Kenya is shutting him away again, like a doll in a glass case. So Satoru decides to change the subject, consciously aligning his tone with Kenya’s. “I had a discussion with Osamu about the current status of the situation. He seems well-informed.”

Something like pride - just barely - appears in Kenya’s expression. “Yes, he’s good at what he does.”

Satoru gets the feeling this is the highest praise that Kenya has ever bestowed upon anyone. He optimistically inches the conversation forward. “I’m glad he’s on our side. Whatever I can do to help him, I will.”

Kenya levels a knowing look at him. Satoru sets his jaw, preparing for what he’s starting to consider classic Kenya rejection, but as it turns out Kenya has a few surprises in him after all. “Agreed,” he says easily. “You two seem to get along well.”

“Ye—es, we do,” Satoru says, skeptically stretching out his reply.

“Good,” Kenya says. “I look forward to your insightful contribution after Osamu sifts through the data and makes some initial predictions on the Nishizonos’ movements.”

“My insightful contribut—?”

But Kenya has already left, striding off to some other corner of the vast estate, doing who knows what. Satoru stands still for a few minutes, a bit slack-jawed, and wonders why it feels like he didn’t succeed even though he got exactly what he’s been asking for this whole time.

He sighs and pulls off his glasses, using the edge of his t-shirt to rub off the smudges. He presses his fingers tiredly against his eyes and peers over at the library again. Its spare beauty tugs at his admiration, his aesthetic sensibilities, but something about being alone in the Kobayashi complex unnerves him. While Satoru is as introverted as any artist, needing healthy doses of solitude, he can’t help but react directly opposite to Kenya’s distant personality. An image forms in his mind of Kenya floating in a capsule in space, gazing down at Earth’s people, forever observing. Kenya might be content like that, but Satoru is too attached to the human experience — the wonderful, terrible, ineffable spirit of it all that he tries to translate in some small way into his art.

No, he can’t lock himself away in a capsule, no matter how beautiful it is.

Satoru turns away from the library, retracing his steps to his room. He’ll give his mother and Kayo a call, before gathering his sketches and seeing if Osamu wouldn’t mind some company.

+

Engrossed in perfecting the last few pages of his manga, Satoru doesn’t realize that it’s already well into the dark hours of the night until he blinks away the intensity of his concentration and notices that Osamu is sprawled out on the tatami, glasses askew and snoring gently.

Feeling the onset of fatigue, Satoru stretches out his legs and winces as he massages them back to life. A red clip falls onto the floor as he leans forward, and he groans as his cramped fingers pick it up and jab it back into his messy hair, keeping it away from his face. He sighs and looks down at his completed work, feeling a wave of relief but also a strange sense of loss. A kind of catharsis that takes a piece of his soul with it. He wonders if he’ll ever get it back, if he even wants it back.

Satoru rubs his forehead and takes a deep breath, stepping outside the room to get fresh air. The chill of it is bracing, and he is surprised to smell dampness in the atmosphere. Winter rains are rare in Hokkaido, and each drop hits the rooftops like a needle of ice. He tilts his head as he listens to the sharp rhythmic pattering, but - he frowns - there’s a sound of dissonance somewhere.

Satoru follows it hesitantly, his footsteps eventually leading to the courtyard, and he’s stunned to find Kenya hellbent on destroying it. Kenya is wild and agonized, like a soul condemned to damnation, his screams born of some dark, raw place inside him. His yukata is soaked to the skin, turned black like a shroud, and his hands are bone white, gripping his iaido katana, slashing at the maples and wooden beams around him in heavy jagged strokes. His eyes are wide and full of cold fire, devoid of anything except the rage of vengeance, consumed wholly by a sight only he can see.

“Give her back!” Kenya screams in fury. “Give her back to me!”

Satoru pales, frozen in place. He knows with certainty that this is a hurt, a sorrow that is far beyond his comprehension. His heart thuds painfully, but he has no idea what to do. He tries to edge closer, to call out to Kenya and release him from his waking nightmare, but his presence only seems to intensify Kenya’s rage. Satoru cries out as he stumbles back, barely missing the sweeping arc of the sharp blade. He goes blank with fear, and might have very well been seriously injured if not for Kazu’s timely intervention.

Kazu’s heavy footsteps thud rapidly as he races down a corridor towards the courtyard, bursting into view. Satoru’s attention snaps towards him, tense and fraying, as he pleads silently for him to help Kenya.

“Shit,” Kazu says, breathing hard with a deeply pained expression. With an agility that belies his bulky frame, Kazu dodges Kenya’s swings and maneuvers behind him. Reluctantly, he swings his arm back and - with swift accuracy - slams down the side of his hand onto the back of Kenya’s neck, right at the base of his skull.

Like a marionette whose strings have been cut, Kenya’s head tilts back and he slumps into unconsciousness, his limbs falling loose and heavy. Kazu moves quickly to hook his arms under Kenya’s, and braces himself with a grunt as he bears Kenya’s full weight.

“Help me,” he grits out to Satoru, who startles out of his state of shock and moves to carry Kenya’s legs. Satoru bites back a groan, as his muscles strain to adjust; Kenya is heavier than he looks. Satoru barely notices where they’re headed as they shuffle through the corridors, his heart beating rabbit-fast and adrenaline roaring in his ears.

Eventually, they reach Kenya’s bedroom and lay him down on top of his futon, quickly peeling off his sopping wet clothes and tugging at the covers beneath him to tuck warmly around his form. Satoru and Kazu pause to catch their breath, using their wrists to dab at the sweat beading on their foreheads.

Kazu exhales heavily. “I’d better call Hiromi.” With no further explanation to Satoru, and another quick glance of concern at Kenya, Kazu pulls out his cell phone and steps out into the corridor away from hearing range.

After leaving the wet bundle of clothes outside the room, Satoru quietly slides the door most of the way shut to prevent a draft coming in. He hovers worriedly over Kenya, and folds his legs as he sits beside him, gently wiping off moisture from Kenya’s hair and face. This isn’t the Kenya he knows, this pale and vulnerable youth who is hurt and angry and fearful, struggling with hidden demons in the dark. Even while Kenya’s unconscious, tension lingers in the lines of his jaw and his shoulders, as if he’s still fighting somewhere in the recesses of his mind.

Satoru grips the cloth as he finishes drying Kenya’s hair, which is dark gold in its dampness. He doesn’t pretend to understand why Kenya is the way he is. People are rarely defined by the traumas they endure, but sometimes they hide them so well - even from themselves - that when the hurt burrows deep and takes root, there’s no knowing how far it reaches into people’s psyche and how tightly it holds fast. While most of his peers grew up in fairly normal and sheltered lives, Satoru has seen the occasional student who seems to carry a permanent shadow, unseen and unknowable but for something like a hint of darkness beyond the corner of his eye. It reminds Satoru of an unstable television signal whenever it causes the screen to quiver and distort, pulling it sideways in sharp angles, splitting an image of a person into two or three overlapping clones, before suddenly righting itself, snapping them back together into singular smoothness again. As if to say: ah, you weren’t supposed to see that; please forget about it.

Satoru wonders if this is what will happen when Kenya wakes up, those walls of steel slamming back into place with his impenetrable gaze.

+

When it seems like the tension in Kenya’s body finally begins to leave, there’s a sharp rap on the door that jolts Satoru out of his thoughts. He moves to open it, but whoever is on the other side has decided to take the initiative, quickly throwing it open himself.

Immediately, a youth with a round freckled face and short fringed hair swoops in and pushes Satoru aside. Though he can’t possibly be older than Satoru, the youth pulls out a stethoscope with practiced hands and leans down to listen to Kenya’s heartbeat and breathing rate. A deep frown mars his concerned expression, and he turns toward Kazu, who’s hovering at the doorway.

“This is the third time this year, Kazu. I’m really worried about the state of his health.” The youth reaches over to tuck in the edges of the cover more tightly. “I recommend that he takes the next semester off to focus on getting better.”

“Can he, though?” Kazu says, low and rough. “Get better?”

“We have to keep trying,” the youth says sadly. He pulls out several heating compresses from a small bag, and carefully places them over Kenya, seeming to relax a little when color slowly starts coming back to Kenya’s icy skin. “Kazu, can you bring a portable heater and set it up, please? He’ll need to stay very warm throughout the night.”

Kazu leaves without hesitation, and the youth finally looks over at Satoru.

“I’m Hiromi Sugita, the resident doctor,” he states with authority, then tilts his head in curiosity. “You must be Satoru Fujinuma.”

Satoru nods and refrains from asking the question on the tip of his tongue, for fear of seeming rude. But Hiromi can tell anyway, probably from having to explain it repeatedly all the time.

“I went through an accelerated, intensive program that allowed me to finish medical school early,” he says with a faint smile. “You were thinking I’m too young to be a doctor, am I right?”

“Ah, um, a bit,” Satoru says awkwardly.

“Come, we need to let Kenya rest.” Hiromi motions for Satoru to turn off the lights and step outside with him. Satoru hesitates, looking back at Kenya’s sleeping form, but Hiromi reassures him calmly. “Don’t worry, I will be checking in on him every hour until he wakes up.”

They walk slowly side by side for a while, until they find themselves back at the courtyard, which is utterly ruined, broken branches and beam splinters and overturned stones littering the once-pristine ground. The katana lies forgotten among the debris, like a relic left behind by a warrior who was spirited away. Hiromi stares at it in silence for a long time.

Eventually, he says softly, “Did he say anything?” He turns to gaze worriedly at Satoru. “While he was here?”

“Yes,” Satoru whispers. “He kept screaming, give her back.”

Hiromi flinches and curls inward, as if Satoru’s words have sliced wounds into him. He holds his hand over his mouth and closes his eyes, shaking. “He still blames himself,” he says distantly, as if Satoru isn’t there. His voice aches with sorrow. “He can’t see that it wasn’t his fault.”

Though Satoru wishes to know what happened to Kenya to cause such pain, he determinedly remains silent, unwilling to intrude.

After several minutes, Hiromi stops trembling and regains his professional demeanor. “Thank you for your help earlier, Satoru. I’m grateful.”

“I...didn’t do anything,” Satoru says, feeling upset. “I couldn’t help him.”

Hiromi gently places a hand on his shoulder. “You did help, just by being at his side.”

Satoru shakes his head. “I had never...seen him like that before.” Shame tinges his voice. “He frightened me.”

“He is a man to be feared,” Hiromi says solemnly. “But not like this.”

“When you lose someone, nothing else matters,” Satoru says harshly, his heart constricting at the thought of his mother and the danger she lives with every day.

“Grief changes a person.” Hiromi’s gaze falls upon the courtyard again. “In Kenya’s case, it changed everything.”

Satoru looks discomfited. “I completely understand if you can’t tell me. I know there’s doctor-patient confidentiality and all…”

Hiromi reaches down to clasp Satoru’s hand in his own. “Thank you for that. But I do need you to know, in case you’re by his side the next time it happens and neither Kazu nor I are there to help. You must understand.” He inhales deeply. “We grew up together, Kenya, Kazu, and I. You couldn’t find three kids who were more different from each other, but we were close friends all the same. Like family, raised by the Kobayashis. But no one was closer to Kenya than Aya Nakanishi. They were cousins and best friends, constantly trying to one-up each other but still thick as thieves.” His voice softens. “We were eleven when it happened. There was another clan who felt threatened, slighted by the Kobayashis. So they abducted Aya and demanded that the Kobayashis surrender everything to them. But—” His voice falters. “The Kobayashis refused, and she was murdered. They left her body in the rain on the streets, alone and broken.”

Satoru bows his head, tears welling up his eyes. He had no idea. He could not have imagined this.

Hiromi continues shakily, “The Kobayashis hunted down every single one and killed them all. They were ruthless in their revenge. And they were never the same after that.” He turns to look at Satoru, eyes dimmed. “Even though they completely annihilated the Yashiro clan, they couldn’t bring Aya back.”

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Satoru skirts the edges of the complex, giving Kenya as much space as possible. He takes long walks in the endless expanse of woods surrounding the Kobayashi stronghold, jacket zipped all the way up and scarf wrapped tightly around his neck, the air growing more frigid by the day. Partway through each walk, he always turns to look back, half-expecting to see Kazu or some other security personnel shadowing him, but he never does see anyone. (Or perhaps they’re really that good at making themselves hidden.)

The pristine snow and steep hills remind him of the mountains outside Yamagata, where the natural hot springs attract a good number of tourists every holiday season. He remembers sitting off to the side in his mother’s store after school, when he was a child, doing his homework and watching busloads of senior citizens toddle in, snapping up all the wet wipes and pocket warmers and travel-size tissue packs. Inevitably, their eyes would wander over to him, and they would remark how cute he was (he grimaces at the memory) and how hard-working his mother must be. She would always laugh at the end of the day, ruffling his hair and saying that he’s her best salesperson, his chipmunk cheeks encouraging those senior citizens to buy a few extra oranges and plums.

Satoru smiles faintly, pulling out his cell phone as he trudges through the snow. There’s no signal this far out, but he merely pulls up his text message history and fondly re-reads his mother’s text from earlier in the day.

Stay warm! Drink ginger tea. Nakagawa quit today to start own taxi company. Mitsuhide replacing him as security guard. Look at his face. [ Photo ] Not as good looking as Nakagawa. :(

Although he hasn’t made himself a single cup of ginger tea despite her daily reminders, Satoru thinks that as long as he has his mother’s messages - that joyful ping from his phone each morning - then everything in his world might turn out all right.

+

By the time Satoru returns to the complex, the bare trees cast long shadows behind them and the deep blue tinge of night settles over the snow-covered ground. He taps the snow off his shoes and leaves them to dry outside under the eaves of the entrance.

Looking at his watch, he notes that it’s nearing conventional dinner time, although no one here seems to adhere to it except Kazu. (“Routine is dangerous in everything except digestion,” he had proclaimed vociferously when Satoru initially asked him about it.) While Satoru still isn’t accustomed to having meals made for him regularly, he heads toward the kitchen in the hopes of assuaging his growing hunger. Although it had taken a few days at first, he’s grown used to the kitchen staff staring at him like he’s a particularly stubborn weed in an otherwise immaculate garden, even while they prepare his food in professional silence.

However, when he reaches the doors leading to the industrial-sized kitchen and peers through the windows, there is not a single person in sight. He frowns in confusion and - wondering if today’s some sort of holiday - cautiously pushes the doors open.

“Hello…?” he says hesitantly, poking his head in.

At the far end of the kitchen, there’s a large ornate door that leads to a vast storeroom holding the Kobayashis’ impressive collection of wine and spirits, and Satoru is startled to see Kenya leaning against it. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor with a dismaying array of liquor bottles forming a half-circle around his feet. Satoru feels his heart sinking at the sight, and wonders at how bad the pain must be for Kenya to try and drown it to oblivion.

He walks into the kitchen slowly, causing Kenya to look up sharply, eyes still piercing and leonine but slightly glazed over with the effects of alcohol. He tightens his grip on his current bottle of choice, as if expecting Satoru to take it away from him.

Satoru figures that there’s nothing he can really say that Kenya doesn’t already know, so he clears his throat and says, “Did you...send the kitchen staff away?”

Liquor seems to put Kenya in a childishly defiant sort of mood. “If you want dinner, there’s no one stopping you.” He waves a dismissive hand toward the massive sub-zero refrigerators.

“Have you eaten at all today?” Satoru asks quietly.

Pointedly ignoring the question, Kenya instead holds aloft his bottle. (It’s the same brand that Satoru remembers drinking by the courtyard.) “You were right. This really is good sake.” His words are over-enunciated, in the careful speech of a person who thinks he’s doing an excellent job convincing his friends that he is one-hundred percent sober. (But of course, his friends are not at all fooled.)

His eyes track Satoru skeptically, as Satoru walks over to one of the refrigerators and pulls open the gleaming silver doors, peering inside at the stacks of fresh produce. He starts pulling various small things off the shelves: a block of tofu, a bundle of enoki mushrooms, a sprig of green onions, a tin of miso paste.

Kenya takes another swig of sake and wipes away an errant drop with his wrist. It might be the alcohol coursing pleasantly (numbingly) through his body, but he finds himself staring out of curiosity. “Miso soup?”

“Mm-hm,” Satoru replies, rooting around in the drawers for a small knife and cutting board. “My mom’s recipe. She would always make me soup on cold days like this.”

“I don’t need to be mothered,” Kenya says flatly.

“Yes, you’re doing just fine on your own,” Satoru says blandly, slicing the tofu while raising an eyebrow at the bottles surrounding Kenya.

Kenya lets out a hmph and tells himself to get up and walk away, to finish off his liquor alone in some other corner of the complex, away from the rest of the world. Away from Satoru, who’s already seen Kenya’s ugliness and weakness, and probably pities him as some poor, crazy, out-of-control recluse.

But somehow he stays put, clutching his bottle with both hands, staring down at it as if waiting for it to talk back. (Maybe he is crazy. Maybe everyone is right to stay away from him.) Slowly, the scent of steam and green onions and warmth fills the air, and it’s surprisingly comforting in a way that Kenya hasn’t ever quite felt before.

He blinks and suddenly there’s a bowl of miso soup sitting in front of him, simple but golden and fragrant. His stomach grumbles traitorously, and he averts his gaze in embarrassment. He half-expects Satoru to push him to drink the soup, to ramble off all the things that would go wrong with his health if he stopped eating properly, the way Kazu and Hiromi do. But Satoru doesn’t say anything, settling himself on the floor across from Kenya and seemingly content with sipping at his own bowl while Kenya’s goes untouched.

Kenya watches the steam float up invitingly, and thinks that this might actually be the first time someone other than Kazu or Hiromi or the kitchen staff has made him something. He cradles the bowl carefully - the heat warming his hands - and sneaks a peek over at Satoru, but thankfully Satoru is pretending not to notice. Kenya lifts the bowl to his lips and takes a sip, holding back a pleased noise as the hot liquid suffuses his whole being. Where the sake had left him feeling cold, like the embers of a fire gone out, the soup feels like a warm embrace and a mother’s love.

He laughs to himself. Leave it to an artist to bring back a sentimentality he thought he’d lost a long time ago.

+

Satoru indulges in a bit of liquor as well, if only to prevent Kenya from imbibing it all in one sitting. He feels the tell-tale flush rising in his cheeks, and sets his bottle down to avoid a repeat of the last time he drank too much. (Certainly, the kitchen staff wouldn’t appreciate having to mop him off their floor first thing in the morning.)

For someone who claims to not drink at all, Kenya seems to have a second liver hidden somewhere, as he miraculously manages to still remain coherent four bottles in. Even so, his limbs are loose and his eyes are half-lidded, blinking slowly and gleaming in a way that suggests he’s reached a certain point of forgetfulness.

“It’s getting late,” Satoru says, stifling a yawn before casting a worrying look in Kenya’s direction. “Are you okay?”

Kenya tilts his chin up. “Per-fect-ly fine.”

Frowning slightly, Satoru figures he should err on the side of caution and consider that as not particularly. “I can walk back to your room with you, if you want. I don’t want you to fall and hurt yourself.”

“Hurt myself?” Kenya repeats, then smiles self-deprecatingly. “So what? You’ve already seen me do that.”

Satoru can sense that Kenya’s trying to challenge him, to goad him into something, but he doesn’t know what. He lets out a soft sigh. He doesn’t want to play these kinds of games, especially while Kenya’s inebriated. It’s up to him now to make sure Kenya at least gets back to his room safely, in Kazu and Hiromi’s current absence.

He gets up to stretch his legs and leans over to collect the bottles around Kenya, the glass clinking together as he places them on a nearby countertop. Then he leans down and wordlessly offers a hand to Kenya.

For a long moment, Kenya just stares at it. Satoru has no idea whether he’s having an internal debate or simply too tired to comprehend his help. Eventually, Kenya reaches up to grasp it and Satoru pulls him to his feet. But he misjudges the amount of effort needed and ends up pulling too hard, causing Kenya to nearly collide into him. Kenya releases an abrupt exhale of surprise as he attempts to steady himself, and his breath is warm and heavy against Satoru’s cheek.

His cheeks reddening with a flush that isn’t from the alcohol, Satoru immediately steps back and releases Kenya’s hand. He turns toward the kitchen entrance and straightens his shoulders, composing himself. While he would have to be blind not to notice Kenya’s attractiveness, he’s very much aware of what the yakuza would do to someone like him with just one wrong look or misinterpreted touch. He mustn’t forget that he’s no longer within the relatively protected confines of school, especially among other art students where no one would bat an eye at his choice of sexual partner.

Even through the haze of alcohol, Kenya seems to notice the change in Satoru’s demeanor and ends up following him out of the kitchen without further protest, swaying slightly as he goes.

They walk in silence toward Kenya’s room, and Satoru is glad for the night air that cools down his cheeks and his senses. He’ll spend some more time tomorrow with Osamu, and see what other information he managed to dig up about the Nishizonos. Without knowing whether his mother is truly out of danger, he can’t allow himself to be distracted by Kenya, whose intelligence and sharp edges and shadows seem to draw him in against his will.

He stops in front of the door and turns to face Kenya, about to ask whether he needs a glass of water, but he feels his words die in his throat as Kenya leans against the frame, gazing darkly at Satoru with eyes like stormclouds.

“Well, you can’t think any worse of me, can you?” he murmurs, bringing up a slender hand to Satoru’s cheek and seizing his mouth with intent. Satoru completely blanks, overwhelmed by the bruising pressure of the kiss and the dizzying scent of flavored sake, and he wants to return it (he aches with how much he wants it) but there’s a feeling of wrongness that he can’t ignore, and he presses a hand against Kenya’s shoulder, dragging his mouth away, breathless. Kenya looks vulnerable only for the briefest of seconds before his expression becomes utterly closed off.

“That’s not—” Satoru breathes out, looking pained. “You’re drunk. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“I can assure you that I’m experienced,” Kenya says glibly, distantly, and something in the way he deliberately dismisses Satoru’s concern sets him off.

“Just stop!” Satoru says angrily. “I don’t understand why you’re doing this. It’s like you want me to hate you. But I don’t! I just—” His shoulders slump. “I just want to help you.”

Kenya glares at him, his voice sharp as ice. “I don’t need your pity.”

“Who said anything about pity?” Satoru cries out, frustrated. “Nobody pities you. Nobody is asking you to be some impossibly perfect deity. Everyone here respects you. They think the world of you, and they worry because they care about you.”

Kenya folds his yukata tighter around himself and looks away from Satoru, staring blankly into the corridor. And Satoru realizes all of a sudden that Kenya doesn’t believe any of it. In his focus to protect his mother, Satoru had forgotten that Kenya is the next leader of the clan, with people depending on him and heavy responsibilities placed on his young shoulders. Every action he takes could reap significant consequences, and so he maintains a tense grip on his self-control, fearing another loss under his watch. Satoru had always thought that power brought freedom, but now he sees that it binds Kenya, the strings of duty wound tightly around him like unbreakable silken threads.

Satoru’s eyes are wide, his gaze open and compassionate, and it’s too much for Kenya to bear.

“Good night, Satoru,” he says without waiting for a reply, and slams the door shut behind him, pressing his face into his shaking hands and trying to breathe.

Chapter Text

The next morning at the brink of dawn, when the dark clouds lift slowly for the faint emerging sunlight, Kenya slides open the door to Satoru’s room with no preamble. The chill of the air outside suddenly displaces the cocoon of warmth surrounding Satoru, and he wakes up with a startle, instinctively grasping his blanket. He blinks away the fogginess of sleep.

“Ah...good morning,” Satoru says tentatively, warily. He has no idea what to expect from Kenya, what he should even say in the wake of how they left things. But today Kenya is all business and curt manners, showing no signs of last night’s events except for the barest hint of shadows beneath his eyes. He looks down at Satoru dispassionately.

“Get dressed,” he says bluntly. “Osamu is waiting for us.”

He slides the door shut, and Satoru scrambles to pull on the closest pair of jeans and sweater. Running a hand hastily through his hair, he slides on his glasses and grabs his phone, quickly checking the screen for any new text messages. (But expectedly, there aren’t any yet, as most of Japan is still sleeping.)

As Satoru hastens towards Osamu’s work room, his thoughts swirl chaotically. Is today the day he’ll find out what the Nishizonos are planning? What are the Katagiris up to now? Is Airi doing okay? Does Mitsuhide actually have any experience in security? Should he go back to Yamagata before winter break is over?

Is Kenya choosing to forget about what happened yesterday?

He pauses in front of the closed doors to the work room, unsure of how he feels, how he’s supposed to react. On some level, he had known that Kenya would raise his walls again. But there’s still a small part of him that selfishly thinks that maybe - just maybe - he would be the exception.

Satoru scoffs and shakes his head. It’s stupid to think that Kenya would open up to someone he’s barely known for a few months, when even his childhood friends aren’t privy to his innermost thoughts. If Kenya has decided to bury the incident between them, never to be spoken of again, then Satoru doesn’t really see any other choice but to move past it. He won’t rail against Kenya, or attempt to scale the barrier between him and the rest of the world, like some kind of fairy tale hero. He won’t force a connection where it isn’t wanted. Above all, whatever the reason behind Kenya’s decision, he won’t do anything to compromise Kenya’s position as clan heir. There are more important things at stake than his own personal feelings. This much he understands.

Sliding the door open, he steps in and finds Osamu and Kenya pensively staring at the monitors. They both turn to give Satoru a cursory glance before their attention snaps back to the massive amount of data on the Nishizonos that Osamu managed to unearth. Kenya makes a sharp gesture with his hand, and Satoru ends up crouching behind the two of them, peering curiously at what seems like a thousand open files.

“We’ve found what we were looking for,” Kenya says, eyes darting between the screens, brow furrowed in intense concentration.

“We think we’ve found what we were looking for,” Osamu corrects, frowning slightly.

Kenya makes a dismissive noise. “The pattern isn’t obvious and it skips across certain chunks of time,” he mutters, “but it’s there, in clusters. If I’m right, then the Nishizonos are far more clever than we give them credit for.”

“The connections are tenuous at best,” Osamu cautions. “I wouldn’t jump from correlation to causation just yet.”

“What connections?” Satoru says. “To my mother’s store?”

Kenya shakes his head, gaze still fixed in front of him. “This is much larger than that. The pattern explains how the Nishizonos managed to gain power over the last decade, and predicts what they’re going to do next. If their history is any indication, they don’t plan on stopping at Yamagata. Not even close.”

Osamu chews on his lower lip and folds his arms. “They might intend to expand territory at some point, but I doubt it’s going to happen anytime soon if they’re busy fighting off the Katagiris.”

“Depends on the orders coming down the pipeline,” Kenya says. “They may choose to cede Yamagata temporarily in favor of a more advantageous, long-term goal elsewhere. I believe Yamagata means more to the Katagiris than it does to the Nishizonos, because some of the Katagiri ancestors used to reside there. If I were Manabu Nishizono, I’d strongly consider this option to conserve resources and give the Katagiris a false sense of strength, overestimating themselves and underestimating the opponent.”

“Is there a way you can hack into Manabu Nishizono’s communication lines and find out what he’s planning?” Satoru asks Osamu.

“If only it were that easy,” Osamu says, grimacing. “We don’t even know if this ‘Manabu Nishizono’ really exists. Several different figures have popped up over the last few decades, all bearing the same name. We don’t recognize any of their faces, and usually after a few years they drop off the radar, never to be found again. Either Nishizono is extremely paranoid about people finding out what he looks like, or - more likely - the clan is an oligarchy, with several shadow leaders who have decided to use ‘Manabu’ as a group alias.”

“Highly unconventional but smart move,” Kenya says, gripping the edge of the table. “By operating as a hydra instead of a snake, cutting off one head doesn’t cause the downfall of the entire clan.”

“It would also splinter any major investigative attempt by the police. Their forces would have to divide their attention among several targets instead of just one,” Osamu adds, then looks thoughtfully over at Kenya. “Hey, maybe you should think of a reorg.”

Kenya glances at him, unamused. “As admirable as some of these tactics may be, the Kobayashis will never be imitators. We find our own way.”

Osamu shrugs. “Just a thought, that’s all I’m saying.” Then he adopts a more serious expression. “But don’t jump too far ahead, Kenya. This is all conjecture.”

Appearing not to hear him, Kenya focuses on flipping through the files again, mouse clicking rapidly. “They’re methodical to a fault. More so than any other clan I’ve seen. Confronting them could be a lot more dangerous than I anticipated.”

“Kenya,” Osamu says sharply. “Don’t you remember what your father always says? Never assume.”

Kenya twists to face him, glaring bright and angry. “We assumed the Yashiros wouldn’t kill Aya, and that was a goddamn mistake!”

Osamu pales, looking taken aback, but musters up the wherewithal to keep going. “This isn’t about the past, Kenya. You’re talking about bringing us - the whole clan - into a situation that may not need our intervention at all. If you provoke the Nishizonos unnecessarily, you are risking warfare without justification.”

Looking back and forth between the two, Satoru notices that Osamu is staring at Kenya with a concerned and confused expression, like Kenya’s somehow a different person. He remembers that Hiromi had mentioned Kenya’s post-traumatic episodes increasing in frequency over the years.

Is it really starting to affect his judgment?

“Osamu has a point,” Satoru says, inclining his head. The last thing he wants is an escalation to all-out war.

Kenya takes a deep breath, straightening his posture, and looks at Osamu with something akin to acknowledgment. However, there’s still a stubborn set to his jaw, as he struggles to keep his emotions in check, urging himself to regain self-control and cleave to reason. He still feels the ache of Aya’s loss in his heart, memories of the past reaching up and twining around it like ivy, the vines growing longer and deeper over time. His mind has told him, over and over again, to let go of Aya’s ghost. But he can’t — his eleven-year-old self still huddled in the rain, desperately holding on to her hand. He knows his heart is leading him out to sea, his tether to shore becoming thinner. And it frightens him to think that one day he may truly break from reality, unable to care for his clan, letting down everyone around him.

He can’t afford to show weakness anymore.

And so he slams down a shield around his heart, refusing to look at those treasured memories, refusing to speak to the child he once was, who still seethes with hurt even after the deaths of a thousand men. He can’t let them hold him back any longer. Not them. Not anyone.

Kenya stands up, his back straight and rigid, and looks down at Osamu. “I need you to dig deeper, until we get answers instead of conjectures. Concentrate on Manabu Nishizono’s identity for now. If we can figure out what kind of man he is, or what kind of people they are, we can understand the way they operate.” His gaze shutters slightly. “I do hear you, Osamu, but in the event there’s a real threat coming, I’d rather get ahead of it than wait for something to happen to us.”

Osamu sighs and nods. “I understand. But what are you going to do, in the meantime?”

“We may not be able to get all the answers on our own,” Kenya says, tucking his hands into the pockets of his slacks. “So I’ll go out and see what I can find.”

“Kenya, we start school again in two days,” Satoru says worriedly, but Kenya shakes his head, the expression on his face completely opaque.

“I won’t be going back until I finish taking care of things here.”

“Are you sure you can’t send someone else?” Satoru says, his chest tightening at the thought of Kenya alone, blending into the dense hive of city crowds, disappearing behind shadowed doors.

“No,” Kenya says. “There’s no need to involve anybody else just yet. And there are some places where only someone of my status will have access to.” He glances back at Osamu. “Keep me updated. I’ll be taking Kazu with me, if you need to contact him as well.”

As Kenya starts heading out the door, he gives Satoru an unreadable look. “I’ll give Yanagihara a call. She’ll arrange transportation back to school for you.” He pauses slightly. “Osamu will be your contact going forward. If you need anything, ask him. We’ll continue to keep an eye on your mother’s store, as promised. We’ll keep her safe.”

Before Satoru can open his mouth to reply, Kenya shuts the door behind him and leaves. Satoru sinks back onto his heels and stares down at the tatami floor. Somehow, it feels like he’s lost something he never really had.

+

“To Yamagata, then Sendai,” Kenya says, sliding into Kazu’s personal car, a plain Toyota Corolla. Where they’re going, a Mercedes might attract too much attention.

“Got it,” Kazu says, rolling his neck as he prepares for the long drive ahead. He discreetly pats the holster under his jacket to double check his sidearm is there, before releasing the parking brake and putting the car in reverse.

Kenya notices out of the corner of his eye. “Don’t get caught with that, Kazu.”

Kazu snorts. “If you think I’m going to let the possibility of jail time stop me from protecting you—”

“I know,” Kenya sighs. “With any luck, you won’t need to.”

“I’m not going to rely on luck,” Kazu mutters, as he shoves on a pair of sunglasses. “So, Yamagata. I assume this has to do with that Satoru brat. You’re not taking him with us?” He tilts his head. “Not that I’m complaining.”

Turning to stare out the window, Kenya watches the trees go by. “No, Satoru doesn’t need to know where we’re going. Safer that way.”

“I still don’t understand why we’re getting involved in his business,” Kazu says bluntly. “He has nothing to do with us.”

“I already made my choice, Kazu. His business is our business now. But this is about more than just a break-in. There’s something suspicious about the Nishizonos. They’re too different from the rest of us.” Kenya shakes his head. “We have to start paying more attention to what’s going on beyond our own affairs. As much as I respect my father, his isolationist policy isn’t going to help secure the future of our clan.”

Kazu looks at him sharply. “Does your father know this?”

Kenya smiles grimly. “Not yet. But I’ll tell him when the time comes.” He exhales deeply. “That’s why it’s crucial that we get as much information as we can while we’re out here. Then I might be able to convince him to see things my way.”

“If you can get your father to change his mind about anything, then I think you’ll have no problem being the most successful lawyer in Japan.”

Despite himself, Kenya laughs and it eases some of the tension in his body. He leans back into his seat and starts filling Kazu in on all the information he and Osamu have uncovered: the almost unnoticeable emergence of the Nishizono clan a decade ago, the uncanny timing of its territorial expansions with the deaths or illnesses or scandals of the local high officials and politicians, the careful lack of paper trails and financial records, the ghost-like nature of the clan leadership.

Kazu lets the facts percolate in his mind, grumbling thoughtfully. “And Osamu isn’t convinced there’s anything going on?”

“More like he’s hesitant to make any conclusions for now,” Kenya replies with a slight frown. “He’s worried I’m going to do something rash.” He tries not to flinch as he recalls his last episode in the courtyard.

“Tch, Osamu can worry all he wants in that little computer room of his,” Kazu says, waving a hand. “If you think that the Nishizonos might be a threat, then it’s our job to find out and face them head on.” His mouth widens into a fierce grin. “If they try anything foolish, they’ll learn to fear the name Kobayashi.”

+

After they arrive in Yamagata, Kenya wastes no time at all.

“Kazu, rest. And don’t argue with me,” he orders as he gets out of the car. He wishes they could grab a hotel room, but with all the major Yamagata establishments firmly in the Nishizonos’ grasp, they can’t risk being tipped off at this point. “I need to meet with someone now and your presence would be too threatening.”

“What? You’re not seriously going to see Satoru’s mother?” Kazu says, tightening his grip on the steering wheel.

“No,” Kenya says. “An acquaintance.”

“If you don’t call or come back in an hour, I’m coming after you.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

Kenya shuts the car door, and pulls up the collar of his trenchcoat against the evening wind whistling sharply through the narrow roads of downtown Yamagata. It’s been years since he stepped foot in this city, but his memory hasn’t led him astray yet, as he wends his way down half-remembered streets, through the throngs of salarymen and tourists, their tired faces illuminated by the bright lights beckoning to them. Eventually, the sounds of buzzing chatter and drunken laughter start to fade away, as he draws closer to the quieter residential area, taking care to avoid the light from the dim, flickering street lamps.

He finds the small waterway running through the neighborhood and walks along its snow-covered bank, casting his gaze around. A lone, single-span concrete bridge catches his eyes and he heads toward it, wondering if it still bears the graffiti he had left on it in his younger days.

He steps down into the shadows beneath the bridge and smiles tightly, as he recognizes the familiar face in front of him.

“It’s been a while,” he says quietly, “hasn’t it, Airi Katagiri?”