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To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

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For someone who makes a living out of constructing dreamscapes, Fushimi Saruhiko sleeps very little.

Most people consider sleep as an escape. Dreams are their reprieve from the troubles of the waking world. Many welcome and enjoy it, waking up only to look forward to lying back down on their beds and waiting for sleep to claim them once again.

But Fushimi learned very early in life that one is most vulnerable in their sleep, that dreams can turn into nightmares at the blink of an eye. In the empty mansion where Fushimi grew up, sleep was worse than death.

Niki and Kisa were both young and beautiful, an aesthetically pleasing couple that produced an equally handsome child. Niki was a genius and Kisa was a capable businesswoman, so it was no surprise that their son would also be brilliant. Looking at them from afar, they seemed like an extraordinarily good-looking family that has it all. But what outside beauty they had was balanced out by Kisa's complete negligence and Niki's absolutely rotten personality.

Niki didn't physically hit Fushimi, not really. But he subjected him to terrifying mind games well before he was old enough to even speak, systematically destroying everything that the child ever cared for and turning even the most innocent dream into a horrible nightmare. As a child, Fushimi learned never to let his guard down whenever Niki was at home, and even when he was not, most especially during the night when everyone should be peacefully asleep. Niki was the type of person to give you something nice only to snatch it away when you least expect it, and laugh as he set it on fire right in front of your eyes just because he can. So naturally he would also be the kind of person who would burst through a barricaded bedroom door just to yank the blanket off a sleeping child and possibly set the bed on fire because he thought it would be funny.

"I'm never bored when my little monkey is around~," Niki used to say. Years after his death Fushimi could still hear his voice loud and clear in his head.

Kisa, on the other hand, did nothing of the sort to Fushimi. In fact, she never did anything at all. Fushimi barely saw her in the years he lived under her roof and it was more than likely that she didn't even notice when he finally left.

The family was rich, and so Fushimi grew up in a big mansion in which he spent most of his time alone. Kisa was always away on business and Niki, who was unemployed, often disappeared to waste his genius on things Fushimi didn't give enough shit to find out. A housekeeper came to clean and cook in the morning and left as soon as their job was done, but for the most part Fushimi was left to his own devices. The best case scenario considering the circumstances, really.

Whenever he thought about it—not often because he actively avoided doing so—Fushimi believed it was thanks to his childhood with Niki that he became pretty good at what he now did for a living. Niki was always better, always one step ahead, and Fushimi never managed to beat him at this game, but Fushimi was a very quick, very smart learner too, and all the tricks he knows now had their roots in the nightmares Niki inflicted on him when he was a child.

He used to hate this fact, used to think of himself as a second-rate copycat of the despicable genius Niki was because everything he knew came from Niki. But he has since learned to make them his own and he eventually learned new things from new people too. Whether Fushimi admits it out loud or not, he is surrounded by better company now. He is a better person now. He is no longer just Niki's plaything.

 

 

 

 

("Growth begins with a step forward, Fushimi-kun," says Munakata. On his face is a look akin to resignation as he eyes the gun in Fushimi's hand. The ground shakes beneath them. "Ghosts don't know any better because they are trapped in the past."

Fushimi shoots the self-satisfied grin off the face of Niki's projection. Misaki grabs him by the hand and together they run.)

 

 

 

 

The first time Fushimi learned about dream sharing was, unfortunately yet unsurprisingly, through one of Niki's horrific pranks. Niki was not supposed to be home that night so Fushimi thought it was safe to get some shut eye before school. He locked the door and carefully made it so that the doorknob was jammed in place by a chair, before settling in on his bed to sleep.

It turned out to be a bad judgement call when at some point in the night he found himself stuck in a maze. All the walls were mirrors and in front of him stood Fushimi Niki in all his sadistic glory.

"I missed my little monkey," Niki greeted with a malicious grin, "so I thought I'd visit him in his dreams~"

The mirrors reflected Niki's face a hundred, no, a thousand times, and Fushimi was surrounded, helplessly trapped. It took all of his willpower to school his expression into something neutral, something that wouldn't give away the complete and absolute dread that was making his blood run cold.

Niki began to approach him so Fushimi turned away and ran. Fushimi bumped into the mirrors as he frantically tried to get as far away from Niki as possible, but the man only laughed louder and louder and louder as the maze seemed to keep twisting back to him. Fushimi later realized that it really did keep twisting to lead him back to Niki because that was how he made it to be, and in dreams there were no limits as to what Niki could create. That particular dream—nightmare?—didn't end even as projections began to turn up from every corner to join the chase. Fushimi involuntarily let out a scream and he kept screaming until Niki raised a gun to his head and shot him between his eyes.

If Fushimi was going to be honest, he wouldn't have quickly figured out that it was a dream had Niki not pointed it out. It all felt too real—Niki's sneer reflected in the mirrors of the maze, the hurried footsteps of a mob out to get him, the dull ache on his arms and legs where he bumped against the walls in his pathetic attempt to run away. The searing pain on his forehead stayed with him even as he gasped awake, Niki grinning down at him and laughing like a maniac. Fushimi had absolutely no doubt in his mind that Niki would pull the trigger on him in real life if he felt like it, so there wasn't any reason for him to think that it was only a dream.

Fushimi never really slept properly after that. It was only the first of many instances in which Niki forced Fushimi into sharing dreams, trapping him in various mazes and sending hordes of projections after him. Fushimi had experienced all sorts of death in dreams, from burning at the stake to getting buried alive to suffocating in a vacuum to drowning in a giant aquarium in front of a live audience. But the worst part of it was that he always woke up next to Niki who cackled in delight like a madman that knew he could get away with murder. If he died for real, that would have been it. Waking up meant having to live through Niki's sadistic fantasies again.

And the man was a genius; it showed in the dreams he constructed. Fushimi learned the importance of attention to detail in how accurately Niki recreated real life places and objects, making the dreams much more convincing than they would have been otherwise. It horrified Fushimi how Niki knew the texture and material of his blanket and beddings, the exact placement of what few things he had in his room, even the arrangement of the clothes in his closet, enough to recreate them in a dream and fool Fushimi into thinking he was still awake, at least until his inevitable dream death.

It would take a few more years before Fushimi properly learned about totems, and by then he was no longer living in that hellhole of a mansion and Niki was already dead. But as a child in the mercy of such a man, he tried different strategies that would help tip him off that he was in a dream. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. Sometimes they worked until Niki found out what Fushimi was doing.

And so for all of his childhood, sleep was a punishment to Fushimi. An endless, inescapable nightmare.

 

 

 

 

They were in middle school when they first met. Misaki was a loud and obnoxious shorty, fresh out of a falling out with some guys he thought were his friends. Fushimi was considered a weirdo because children are a dangerous combination of stupid and cruel, so naturally he didn't have friends either, and apparently Misaki took that as an invitation to sit with him come lunchtime. For the rest of the year, Misaki talked Fushimi's ear off, made sure he ate properly during lunch, and basically stuck to him like the annoying idiot that he was.

To put it simply, Fushimi was only minding his own business just as he always had when Misaki came barreling into his life like a shooting star, burning through Fushimi's walls, and slowly, carefully, unknowingly, melting the ice off Fushimi's heart to make it his home.

(The first time Misaki said "I like you" they were fifteen, barely out of middle school, and Fushimi wouldn't believe it, couldn't believe it, because it's too good to be true. Something this good cannot last. Fushimi kept expecting Misaki's face to warp into Niki's, the desperate frown to twist and contort into a malicious grin. He kept expecting a harsh, cruel laugh to come out of that mouth, sneering at the stupid little monkey for falling for this funny little prank.

Wake me up, Fushimi remembers thinking.

But Niki's face never appeared and Misaki never let go of his hand.)

Neither of them had other friends to hang out with, so their middle school lives came to revolve only around each other. Fushimi had literally no one else and while Misaki had a loving family, he felt like he never quite fit in after his mother remarried and had other children with his stepfather. Misaki admired Fushimi's talents and thought he was amazing for being so good with computers and video games, for always coming up with elaborate plans to get back on the bullies that tend to gang up on the skinny little children that they were. Fushimi reveled in that admiration, feeding on the pure, unrestrained affection that Misaki gave him. And even if he always poisonously mocked it as a reflex, he envied Misaki's innocently positive outlook in life, so he secretly worked hard to protect it.

Looking back, Fushimi now knows to acknowledge that that was a rather unhealthy kind of relationship and it was inevitable that such an arrangement would fall apart. But at that time, they had each other and nothing else mattered. Misaki was unstoppable if he had Fushimi watching his back, and if Fushimi had Misaki, he didn't have to fight his nightmares alone.

 

 

 

 

"Hey, maybe next time I can come over to your place," Misaki said one day as they sat side by side on the sidewalk outside the arcade, bottles of cola in hand.

It was an innocent suggestion, one born out of curiosity because Fushimi never told Misaki anything about his own family. Fushimi spent most of the summer vacation of their first year sleeping over at Misaki's place, playing video games and helping Misaki with homework. At first he found the noise annoying—Misaki has two younger siblings who were far too young to not be noisy and their house was only barely big enough to fit a family of five—but eventually it became something of a welcome comfort, to be surrounded by such warmth. Fushimi found that he rarely ever dreamt whenever he was staying over Misaki's place, and even when he did, they weren't outright nightmares that he would wake up screaming from.

(Sometimes he did wake up shaking like a leaf and drenched in sweat, with Misaki watching him worriedly. But he always brushed it off as the summer heat and Misaki never pressed the subject.)

Fushimi thought of the cozy little house and the loud chorus of cicadas outside. He thought of the cold, empty mansion and the ominous whirring sound of Niki's PASIV device.

"No," he said firmly. "Never set foot anywhere near that house, no matter what happens."

At that time Misaki didn't even know where the house was but Fushimi was so sure that Misaki would go there if he knew, even if Fushimi said not to, because Misaki was an idiot like that.

"Why not?" Misaki said with a frown. "You stay over at my place a lot. Does your mom not let you have friends over?"

"I don't have friends," says Fushimi.

"... Right. But your mom would be happy if you had one, right?"

Fushimi clicked his tongue and glared at Misaki. "Drop it."

Misaki didn't say anything more and the topic was not brought up again. For a while, Fushimi thought that he could rest easy with the assurance that Niki and Misaki will never meet. But in accordance to the running theme of Fushimi's life, the calm is only the misleading gentle murmur and cackle of a forest fire that blazes and salts the earth.

Some time in the middle of their second year, Fushimi came down with a fever bad enough that he decided it was pointless to attempt going to school. So instead he stayed home to work on the customized PDA watch that he was planning to give Misaki as a Christmas present. Niki wasn't home and he wasn't due to be home until next weekend, but Fushimi was careful to set up his work in a way that would let him quickly shove it in a nook on the wall hidden by his bed in case the man turned up unexpectedly.

That is, of course, exactly what happened and despite the precautions that Fushimi's took, the watch didn't survive the episode because Niki set it on fire in the end. And yet that wasn't the most horrific part at all. Even if Niki had taken the watch for himself to pull apart and tinker with, Fushimi could always just start again. Of course he had gotten used to dying in dreams too; that particular day it was just a boring thirteen storey drop. No, what was most terrifying was waking up screaming from another dream next to Niki's shit-eating grin, both of them hooked up to the PASIV device, and turning to see Misaki's horrified face outside his open bedroom door.

"Oh?" Niki said. He looked at Misaki with maleficent curiosity from his seat next to Fushimi's bed. "Does my little monkey have a visitor?"

Fushimi had never before moved as quickly as he did then. He yanked the PASIV off his arm, jumped off his bed, grabbed Misaki by the wrist, and ran. He dragged him down the stairs and shoved him out of the front door.

"Leave now," Fushimi hissed, his hands trembling as he gripped the door handles. "Never come back."

The last thing he saw before he slammed the front door shut was the complete and utter horror in Misaki's eyes. He was so sure then that Misaki would never speak to him after that.

However, when Fushimi returned to school two days later, Misaki almost tackled him to the ground with a face crumpled in distress, eyes welling up with tears. Misaki always wore his heart on his sleeve so Fushimi thought he could read him perfectly accurately. And yet there they were at the back of their second year middle school classroom, with Misaki holding both of Fushimi's hands so tightly it felt like his fingers were going to get crushed into powder. Even when Fushimi was sure he already permanently scared Misaki away. Even when he was certain he had already lost him forever.

It was not the first time he was wrong about Misaki, and definitely not the last.

Fushimi had to drag Misaki somewhere more secluded before he could make any more specific inquiries. But of course Misaki being Misaki, he didn't exactly wait until they were at the back of the school building before firing his questions.

"Are you okay?!" Misaki asked as they hurried through the corridors. "No, wait—Of course you're not okay! What the hell was that anyway? What was that guy doing to you? You're not still sick, are you?"

"How'd you even know where I lived?" Fushimi shot back.

"Oogai Aya told me! Didn't know you guys are related..."

Fushimi clicked his tongue. He forgot about her. They were cousins of sorts, but they never really talked, and as far as he knew, Kisa and Aya's mother didn't get along any better than they did. He couldn't think of a reason for Oogai Aya to give Misaki Fushimi's address, except perhaps to put an unsuspecting victim on Niki's path on purpose. Why? Was it revenge for Fushimi constantly ranking higher than her in exams? She had always been very clear about her resentment over that.

"Hey, Saru..." Misaki's voice suddenly dropped into a cautious tone. He still sounded worried, but now with less frenzied energy. "Don't get angry. I begged her to tell me and she did say I should be very careful if I was going to be dumb enough to go."

"You're an idiot."

"I know. I'm sorry. But I was so worried. You didn't show up at school and you didn't text back or anything! For all I know you could have been dead!"

I might as well have died when you showed up, Fushimi thought.

"Saruhiko..."

"Forget about it, okay?"

"But—"

"It's nothing. I'm used to it."

"That's even worse!" Misaki protested. "I don't know what it is but it definitely didn't look like something anyone should be used to!!"

"Misaki." Fushimi hated that Misaki was probably right. Still, he didn't want to talk about it anymore so he shot Misaki a glare and hoped that the warning tone of his voice would be enough to make Misaki drop the subject.

They were standing behind the main school building now, under the shadow of its concrete structure. It's such a cliché place to meet up for a brawl or to trade exam cheat sheets that one would think students avoid breaking the rules in as obvious a place as this. It remained a popular venue for questionable activities regardless, but it was almost time for first period so anyone who wasn't in their classrooms yet was probably only lingering thereabouts, leaving the back of the building empty enough for Fushimi and Misaki to have a private conversation.

"Fine," Misaki mumbled in resignation. He looked up at Fushimi cautiously and asked in almost a whisper, "Can you at least tell me what the hell that was?"

Fushimi let out a heavy sigh and crossed his arms. "We were sharing a dream."

"Hah? I don't get it."

"That man. He forced himself into my dream."

"Eh????" Misaki's eyes grew wide. Shock or confusion or both, Fushimi assumed. "He can do that?!"

"Dream sharing is a technology the military developed for training purposes," Fushimi explained, voice low like his words were more for himself than for Misaki. "Noticed the thing we were hooked up on? That was a PASIV device. It administers a special kind of drug used to initiate dream sharing. No idea how that man got his hands on one, but I'm not surprised, really."

"You mean he's making you do drugs???!!!"

"That's not—Well. I guess you can put it that way…"

"That's very bad!!"

"Yeah, I wish that was the worst of it."

"What?! Does he make you do other horrible things??!!"

"Misaki, the military developed the technology so that they can train soldiers without actually putting them in physical danger. In dreams, you can do anything without physical consequences in the real world."

Misaki rubbed the back of his neck. ".... I don't get it but it sounds really dangerous."

"If you shoot someone in a dream, they'll just wake up. Then you can do it all over again."

Misaki was silent for a moment. He seemed to be in deep thought as he stared at Fushimi with his eyebrows knitted together. Fushimi didn't really expect Misaki to completely understand, and he was okay with that. It was better if Misaki knew nothing.

"You know...," Misaki said finally, "my mom and stepdad said they're cool with you staying over, and Minoru and Megumi like you a lot so I'm sure they'll be happy to have you around often."

"Hn." Fushimi didn't really know how else to respond to that.

They spent first period crouched behind the school building, side by side and with their backs against the wall. They filled the silence with idle conversation that only really served to avoid the issue at hand.

Fushimi didn't tell Misaki that him showing up outside his bedroom was essentially tantamount to handing Niki a new weapon on a silver platter. He didn't tell Misaki that Niki had taken to wearing his face in dreams, didn't tell him of the nasty things Niki said while taking on Misaki's small form.

It was best that Misaki didn't know.

 

 

 

Niki passed away very near the end of Fushimi and Misaki's third year in middle school. Fushimi didn't bother finding out more about the details of his death because he had absolutely no interest, not even a mild curiosity. If he had the choice, he would have skipped the funeral entirely, but he somehow got dragged into it anyway as if there was any point in keeping up pretenses. It wasn't as if anyone in both sides of the family actually liked Niki, and it was obvious with the way Fushimi and Kisa barely acknowledged each other that neither of them really cared.

Fushimi and Misaki skipped their middle school graduation, but Fushimi still gave Misaki a graduation gift. With Niki spending the last of his days in the hospital, Fushimi finally finished the customized PDA watch he had been struggling and failing to hide from the man. He had to restart his efforts at least two more times after the first one because Niki kept finding and destroying them.

Better late than never, they always say. And Fushimi thought it was more than worth all the frustration and the effort just seeing the ecstatic look on Misaki's face when he received his present.

(Later on Fushimi found out that Misaki chose the watch as his totem. A dumb choice because, as the one who made it, Fushimi had already handled it and knew exactly what every part was made of and how it felt in his hands. But it was clear that Misaki had done something to it that Fushimi didn't know about, and if it worked for him for so long, then there is no need to fix what isn't broken. So Fushimi just took it as a compliment and a testament to his importance in Misaki's life.)

They moved out to live together in a shabby little apartment located at a questionable part of town. They decided they didn't want to bother with high school, thinking there wasn't any point in doing so. Both of them were high in the delusion that two little brats with barely any education can do anything and achieve everything as long as they had each other. They weren't entirely wrong—somehow they managed to live off of Misaki's random part-time jobs and Fushimi's creativity—but helping out at ramen stands and scamming online gamers could only get them so far.

While they generally got by, oftentimes they ended up being short on funds. Neither of them had the mind to plan ahead and maintain a decent saving, and even if Fushimi was smart and thought of himself as fairly independent, he was still a kid like Yata who, until then, was never in charge of managing the bills and other living expenses of a household. They would argue about it, but in the end they would foolishly say, "We can get through this. We have each other," without really looking at the root cause and fixing the problem from there. They lived to see another day purely because they were stubborn enough to believe that they could.

It worked for a while.

The first attempts to recruit Fushimi into Kusanagi Izumo's extraction team failed, mostly because they came in the form of private messages on one of the online games Fushimi played. It was an MMORPG that allowed players a great deal of freedom, and one day in a fit of boredom, Fushimi decided to construct elaborate mazes to trap other players in and he would charge to help them get out. This was how he earned a reputation in the community and also how he caught the eye of underground information broker Hirasaka Douhan.

There was a ping as a red notification flag appeared over the private chat icon. Fushimi clicked on it and a message from a username he didn't recognize popped up on his laptop screen.

"Good day. Your remarkable skills have been brought to my attention. I have an acquaintance who is looking for someone to construct mazes for them. Perhaps you would be interested? You will be compensated accordingly."

He was always wary of private messages, especially since he was a scammer himself, so he ignored the first one and then blocked the account when it turned out to be very persistent. Perhaps it was only luck that Hirasaka was not one who was easily deterred, and misfortune that Fushimi fell very ill shortly after he blocked the third account that Hirasaka used to contact him.

It wasn't that he cared much about what would happen to him. Fushimi was so sick that at that point he had already accepted his fate of amounting to nothing and achieving absolutely nothing in life. Many nights he spent delirious, hearing Niki's laughter and taunts echoing inside his head, and he felt strangely okay with that because he was ready to die.

"My little monkey~," the voice would say. "Going to die a pathetic little death~"

But it was Misaki's strength that pulled him through it. Watching Misaki struggle to juggle a severely ill housemate and several different jobs made Fushimi sick to his stomach. Useless. Worthless. He could barely take care of himself; how did he even think he could take care of Misaki? Having each other wasn't worth much salt if one of them was a dead weight. He was only a nuisance, a burden. Misaki should have just left him alone to die.

SMACK!

If his entire body wasn't already in pain, Fushimi would have been offended by the piercing slap that Misaki landed on his cheek.

"Don't you fucking dare say something like that again!" Misaki cried. "You're not a burden! I won't let you die! I'm not giving up on you so don't you dare give up on me, Saruhiko!"

Fushimi didn't understand all that much why Misaki was so upset. After all, with him being too sick to even go on his laptop, Misaki was the only one bringing in money, and what he earned was barely enough to cover their expenses. He would wake up very early in the morning to prepare food for Fushimi before leaving to work. He would return around lunch time to make sure Fushimi ate, only to leave again to work another job and come home late very exhausted. Misaki's sun-kissed skin turned dull and he visibly lost weight. Dark circles appeared around his eyes. He looked like he was ready to just drop dead, but he'd still constantly check up on Fushimi who spent all day curled up under thin sheets at his loft. Misaki slept without a blanket because he insisted that Fushimi needed it more.

It would have made much more sense if Misaki focused on keeping himself alive instead of spending whatever little he had on fruits for Fushimi. Sometimes he brought home a bowl of soup or ingredients for hotpot, which were apparently given to him by kind people from the various places he worked at. Oftentimes he splurged on these food items, and it was irritating because they could have used that money to pay for rent or electricity instead. And all these food were only for Fushimi; Misaki skipped breakfast and spent most of his energy during lunch time forcing Fushimi to eat instead of eating himself. He usually made dinner enough only for one person because he couldn't afford more ingredients. Fushimi was perfectly fine not eating whether or not they needed to save, but of course Misaki did not allow that because he wanted Fushimi to get better.

And so Fushimi fought to get better. When he regained enough strength to start going on his laptop again, he wasted no time to work his ass off. Misaki didn't like it. He insisted that Fushimi should take more time to rest. But Fushimi had already made the decision of doing whatever it took to provide Misaki with a more comfortable life, to prevent him from ever having to work himself to exhaustion again. Even if it meant risking getting screwed over by a weirdly persistent potential scammer.

Hirasaka contacted him again with yet another account and Fushimi finally answered. It ended up with them arranging to meet up at a net café of Fushimi's pick—one of the many he frequented in middle school when he wasn't staying over at Misaki and he was trying to avoid Niki. He asked Misaki to stand watch nearby as a precaution because ultimately it was still a very suspicious offer since there wasn't even an office or anything.

He was greeted at the net café by two blonde young women and they sat in a secluded cubicle at the corner farthest from the entrance. One of them was in a well-tailored suit and wore a pair of red framed glasses. She introduced herself as Hirasaka Douhan. The other woman, whom Hirasaka introduced as her acquaintance Awashima, wore a flowing summer dress and a light cardigan. Neither looked like scammers, but Fushimi knew better than to judge a book by its cover.

Hirasaka didn't seem too surprised to find that Fushimi was still very young. Awashima, however, appeared to have an issue with it.

"I've seen his work," Hirasaka said. "I assure you he can do the job."

"I don't doubt your judgement... I just don't think we should have a child do this...," said Awashima.

"So this is some illegal thing, huh?" said Fushimi.

Their facial expressions remained neutral.

"Technically there aren't any laws against it," Hirasaka said.

"I don't care either way," said Fushimi. He didn't understand (or realize yet) how building a maze would be illegal, but it wasn't like his regular scamming operation was a respectable job either. "You just need a maze, right? I'll do it as long as I get paid for my work."

Awashima gave Hirasaka a hesitant look, which Hirasaka answered with a non-committal tilt of the head.

"You just need a maze level," said Hirasaka. "You don't need to take him along."

Awashima turned to Fushimi. "... Do your parents know what you're doing?"

Fushimi scowled. "Do I look like I have parents?"

Awashima looked startled by such a poisonous answer, but she seemed to have gotten the hint and said nothing more about it.

"Can you make a 3D model and blueprint of the maze?" she asked.

"Easily."

Awashima sighed in defeat. She fished a card-like thumb drive from her purse and handed it to Fushimi. When he turned it over, there was a sticky note attached with an address to "Bar HOMRA" written on it.

"Any specifications?" Fushimi asked.

He really should have figured out what they needed the maze for when the only requirement was that it was a "closed loop". Niki was very fond of building dream areas that felt like it stretched forever but were actually just small mazes that looped into itself. In dreams, it was more practical to limit the area of activity so that the sleepers don't accidentally get lost or get sidetracked, sort of like how areas in open world games have invisible boundaries. The subconscious then populates the skeleton of the maze with its own details, making it difficult to notice that one was trapped in such a loop. Fushimi knew that thing very well and could easily make a simple one if he wanted to.

They agreed on a rate and on a deadline. Awashima paid Fushimi a handsome downpayment and he was to deliver the maze model and the blueprint to the address written on the sticky note where he will be given the rest of his fee.

Misaki was waiting outside for him when Fushimi exited the net café.

"Sorry, I couldn't see you from here," Misaki said. "I tried to go in but the dude at the counter told me to leave if I wasn't gonna take a cubicle..."

"It's fine. It went okay," said Fushimi.

"That was kinda shady, though... Didn't think they'd be...," Misaki shifted nervously and his ears turned pink, "girls..."

Fushimi snorted. He always found it amusing how bold and hot-headed Misaki got so timid and flustered around women. "Don't worry. We'll see them again in two weeks. Maybe I'll even introduce you."

Misaki stuttered a protest and spent the rest of their way back to their apartment failing to regain his dignity.

Fushimi thought about it many times after the fact and years later he came to a conclusion: It all really just came down to timing. If he didn't get sick, he likely would have considered Hirasaka's offer eventually anyway. But his timing would probably have been off, and by then the job that Hirasaka would have to offer may well have been for someone else entirely. He and Misaki were very fortunate that Fushimi fell ill when he did and got better when he did, because it gave Fushimi the motivation—at the right moment—to accept Hirasaka's offer. That, in turn, allowed them to cross paths with Kusanagi's team first.

Despite everything that happened after, Fushimi grudgingly admitted to himself that meeting Kusanagi and his team was something he was, in fact, very thankful for.

 

 

 

 

Two weeks later, Fushimi and Misaki were standing outside the classy wooden front door of Bar HOMRA, the thumb drive containing the maze's blueprint sitting in Fushimi's jacket pocket. Misaki brought with him an old baseball bat he found abandoned on the sidewalk when they first moved in together. He thought they needed a weapon to defend themselves with just in case, especially since they were moving to a questionable part of the town, but there were thankfully very little occasions in which he had had to use it. That day he grabbed it on the way out of their apartment as a last minute decision and Fushimi didn't stop him from bringing it along.

The sign outside said that the bar was closed, but it was already the time he and Awashima agreed upon. Fushimi pushed the door tentatively and when he found it unlocked, he continued inside. The bell chime ringing as the door swung open. He went in alone because the quick escape plan he and Misaki prepared involved having Misaki remain outside.

Bar HOMRA's interior was as stylishly elegant as its exterior suggested, and the air conditioning kept the place comfortably cool. It looked like the kind of fancy old English pubs Fushimi only saw in pictures, though it was the only bar he had ever been to then, so he didn't have much to compare it to. Fushimi suddenly felt very conscious about his shabby appearance.

At the bar counter sat Awashima with a glass of what looked like red bean paste drowned in some sort of liquid, and behind the bar was a blond man polishing a wine glass. Fushimi fought to not raise an eyebrow at the man's purple shades—what kind of douche wears purple shades inside a warmly-lit bar, anyway?

Awashima turned to him. "Ah, Fushimi-kun! Just in time. Come sit with us here."

"No need," said Fushimi. "I just came here to deliver the thumb drive and collect my payment."

"Ah, but we have to take a look at it first, don't we?" the man said. He spoke the Kansai dialect. "It might take a while so please take a seat. I'll prepare you some juice. Orange alright?"

Fushimi clicked his tongue before reluctantly walking over and taking the bar stool next to Awashima.

"This is Kusanagi," said Awashima, referring to the man. "He's... kind of the boss, I suppose."

"You suppose?" Fushimi raised an eyebrow.

"I just manage the team," explained the man called Kusanagi as he prepared a glass of orange juice. His smile was probably meant to be friendly, but Fushimi just thought it was sleazy. "We don't have an hierarchy or anything. Anyway, I'm glad to meet you, Fushimi-kun. Seri-chan wasn't exaggerating when she said you're very young."

"Is there a problem with that?"

Kusanagi's smile turned apologetic. He placed the glass of juice in front of Fushimi. "Yes. A little. We were hoping you could show us around the maze. But you're too young for that and we're pressed for time, so we're making do."

Something about Kusanagi's words raised red flags within Fushimi and he started to get really uncomfortable. He quickly pulled out the thumb drive and placed it on the counter, hoping to just get over with the whole thing.

While Kusanagi was plugging the thumb drive into a laptop computer he had resting behind the counter, the bell chime rang again. They all turned to the door which a tall man with a scary face and fiery red hair held open as he told a very nervous Misaki to come in. Fushimi felt his heart stop.

"Found this kid loitering outside," the man said in a deep, lazy tone. "Thought you might not want someone to die of heatstroke at your doorstep."

"Sorry, Saru...," Misaki said apologetically.

"Oh, you know each other?" said Awashima. "Why did you not come in? The heat is terrible out there."

The scary faced man plopped himself on the couch at the side of the bar and lit a cigarette. He was eyeing Misaki's bat as he waved his hand at Misaki who stood by the door looking lost. The man was probably telling him to sit, though it was hard to tell because he moved just as lazily and half-assed as the the way he spoke. Fushimi didn't like that man at all.

"Wow," Kusanagi whispered under his breath. He was examining the 3D model of the maze that Fushimi made. "This is really..."

"Do you still need something changed or can I have my money now?" Fushimi said impatiently, partly because the man with red hair was making him even more uncomfortable than he already was.

Kusanagi looked up at him with a rueful smile. "Ah, yeah, of course... You know, you're really good at this. It'd be great to have you again for future projects..."

Fushimi shrugged. "You found me. You'll probably have no problem doing so again."

As soon as he was paid, Fushimi jumped off the bar stool, grabbed Misaki by the wrist, and got out of there as fast as his feet would take him. He didn't say goodbye, didn't turn to answer when they thanked him and told them to take care. All he wanted then was to get out and far away.

 

 

 

 

Fushimi didn't hear from Awashima again, but Hirasaka reached out to him not long after for another maze building gig. This time it was for a rich wheelchair-bound guy named Hisui who was in the process of building a multiple storey entertainment center for his own amusement. Basically some kid with an enabler guardian and more money than one can shake a stick at wanted a playground. It seemed simple enough so Fushimi agreed to it, only to instantly regret doing so when he showed up at Hisui's shoddily-kept penthouse apartment and found out that "multiple-storey entertainment center" meant "multi-layered dream" involving a stronger dose of Somnacin and an upgraded PASIV device. He didn't even know before then that it was possible to have multiple layers in a dream.

"There's no need to worry," said Hisui's... father? Caretaker? They didn't look alike, although frankly Fushimi didn't care. The man insisted to be called 'Iwa-san'. "I know it's your first time so we're only doing one level today."

"I'd rather not," said Fushimi, trying not tremble. 'Today'? Did he mean Fushimi had to come back?

"Oh, we're willing to pay more, if that's the issue."

He thought of Misaki waiting for him downstairs, thought of how hard Misaki worked to keep them both alive when he was sick, and he tried to swallow his fears even though they got stuck in his throat. Misaki already made his sacrifices. It was Fushimi's turn now.

Not that he would have told Iwa-san anyway that it wasn't his first time, but it had been a long while since he last went under and the only one he ever shared dreams with was Niki. So he really had no idea what to expect this time around, just that nothing pleasant could possibly come out of this. And of course he was right, because not long after Fushimi, Hisui, and Iwa-san went under, Fushimi started seeing Niki's face among the crowd of projections.

Fushimi did his best to ignore Niki, to focus on showing his clients around the maze. Both Hisui and Iwa-san seemed very impressed with his work, and their awe in the twists and turns of the maze served to temporarily distract Fushimi in a way that wasn't entirely welcome but would have to do at the moment. He had to focus, had to keep his feelings in check, because the moment he gives in to his fear, the projections populating the dream would devour them whole. He had experienced it so many times before that he already learned many ways to try to stall it—with Niki, it was always an inevitability—and he barely flinched now whenever projections gave him a passing glance. Fushimi thought if he could keep it up, it would be over soon.

Unfortunately, it was never that easy with Niki. Niki's projection had a presence as impossible to completely ignore as the real Niki did. Fushimi didn't know how long they had been walking around until Hisui and Iwa-san noticed him too, but it felt like an agonizing eternity.

"We seem to have an unwelcome visitor," Iwa-san said good-naturedly. Fushimi couldn't tell if he was just really good at masking his emotions or if he truly didn't realize how abnormal it was for a projection to not just be part of a hive mind.

"A dangerous man," said a voice that Fushimi hadn't heard in ages. He turned around (so quickly that he gave himself a headache) and saw Oogai Aya standing only a few feet away from him. She didn't change much at all since the last time they saw each other. "Aya, like, doesn't trust someone who brings dangerous projections with them."

Fushimi thought she was another projection until Iwa-san addressed her directly.

"Ah, Aya, it's not very polite to join dreams without asking," Iwa-san gently scolded, to which Aya's face turned bright red in embarrassment.

"It's alright," said Hisui. "It's more fun with more people, right? Anyway, I think it would do well for Aya to see what Saruhiko made. It is a beautiful maze."

Aya flinched. She always seemed bitter about Fushimi being better at her academically and she probably wasn't very pleased to know that Hisui thought she could learn from his maze construction. Fushimi would've taken time to enjoy Aya's annoyance if he didn't have his own predicament. He bristled at the use of his first name. He was sure he didn't give them his full name. Did Aya—

"We had you checked, of course," Iwa-san explained. Fushimi's alarm must have shown in his face. "Had to make sure you were clean and all that. Seems like you and Aya know each other, though? Cousins?"

Fushimi clicked his tongue. Aya scowled at him.

"Well, anyway!" Aya interrupted. "Niki is, like, very bad, okay? Trust Aya on this!"

Niki had begun to approach them while they were talking amongst themselves. He had his usual manic grin on his face, his hair messily yet artfully done as it always used to be, wearing fashionable clothes exactly the way Fushimi remembered. He looked so real, so alive, that Fushimi was very nearly convinced he wasn't just a projection.

"My little monkey came to play!" Niki's projection said. He dropped a hand on top of Fushimi's head and roughly messed up his hair. "I knew you couldn't stay away~ You even brought new playmates with you!"

Hisui only watched curiously, but from the corner of his eye, Fushimi could see Aya visibly tense and Iwa-san's smile tighten.

Wake me up, was all Fushimi could think of. His throat was dry and he couldn't move his body. Please wake me up!

"It's really too bad, Fushimi-kun," said Iwa-san as he raised a gun to Fushimi's head. "I was very impressed by your talents and was hoping we'd be able to work together longer. But I can't let you compromise the safety of my charge..."

Niki began to laugh and Fushimi prepared himself for the bullet that was sure to come. But before Iwa-san could pull the trigger, Fushimi felt a jolt, the kind of falling sensation that sometimes shakes one awake when they are about to fall asleep. Everything went black.

"Saruhiko!" he heard Misaki's voice call out. It was oddly loud, as if Misaki was right beside him, shaking him by the shoulders. "Saru, wake up!!"

Misaki sounded very worried, but Fushimi couldn't dare open his eyes. He couldn't tell if he was still in the dream and he wouldn't be able to make sure either way. He felt a hand gently yet firmly touch his arm and unhook him from the PASIV device, but Niki had been able to fool him before, made him believe he was already awake by making a show out of unhooking the PASIV from his arm, only to pull the rug under his feet. So Fushimi's heartbeat quickened its pace, his breathing turned shallow, and he shut his eyes very tight, afraid of what he might see if he opened them.

"Fushimi-kun, it's alright now." It was Awashima's voice this time. Warm, gentle. Reminded Fushimi a little of Misaki's mother when she soothed a crying Megumi to sleep.

It was starting to get a bit noisy. Fushimi heard more voices—Kusanagi's, Iwa-san's, Hisui's, even Aya shouting back at Misaki who accused her of doing something to Fushimi—and he felt his hands grow cold as his fingers dug into his palms. Misaki continued to shake him by the shoulders.

I want to see Misaki one last time.

"Saru, please! Please wake up!" Misaki pleaded.

"He's already awake," Aya said flatly.

"Then why won't he open his eyes?!"

There was a dull pain as someone seemed to have hit Fushimi's side with a boot. Did he just get kicked?

"Open your eyes, Saruhiko," Aya said unfeelingly. "Misaki-kun here is about to explode."

Fushimi took a deep breath and slowly opened his eyes. His back was on the floor, legs dangling by the knees off the edge of the chair he fell asleep on. Someone must have tipped it over and the falling sensation from it was what woke him up. It was only then that he realized it was a kick, a method to wake the sleeper from outside the dream. Fushimi experienced it only once before when Niki poured ice cold water all over him and his bed. However, Niki's preferred method to wake him was to kill him within the dream, so to Fushimi, getting shot in the head was the normal way to wake up.

After a moment of disoriented silence, Fushimi's gaze finally focused on Misaki's face above him. He did a quick scan of his surroundings and found Awashima kneeling beside him, and Aya standing right next to Misaki. Only a few steps away stood the man with fiery red hair, smoking a cigarette while watching them with a lazy expression on his face. It seemed that Kusanagi, Iwa-san, and Hisui had gone somewhere else.

"Saruhiko, are you alright?!" Misaki asked. His eyes were wet and his eyebrows were knitted in concern, and his tight grip on Saruhiko's shoulders were painful. "I panicked when it's been an hour and you haven't come out yet, and the guards wouldn't let me in the building, so I ran to HOMRA to ask for help!! I didn't know what else to do!"

Pathetic, Fushimi thought to himself. He made Misaki worry again. Once again he was a burden. A nuisance. He couldn't do anything on his own without someone having to save his stupid ass.

"Kusanagi-kun has gone to speak with Iwafune-san," said Awashima. "They should not have taken you down, especially not when you do not have a totem."

"A totem?" Fushimi asked, his voice coming out too small and confused for his liking.

"Does Saruhiko not have a totem?!" Aya said. "That's, like, totally dangerous!"

Fushimi scowled. He tried to sit up, but he was still shaky so Misaki had to help him. "What the fuck is a totem?"

Aya was now staring at him with a look that felt like a mix of pity and horror. "Did... Did that man never...? All this time... without a totem...."

While Misaki looked very confused, Awashima seemed to have picked up enough of the context clues to understand a little. However, she didn't say anything about it; instead, she helped him up and drove him to the hospital to have him checked. He and Misaki were taken to Bar HOMRA after Fushimi was given a clearance, and that's where they met up again with Kusanagi and the man with red hair.

"Where's Aya?" Misaki asked.

He didn't show it, but Fushimi was a little surprised. He didn't even notice when she disappeared. Kusanagi blinked at them in momentary confusion before realizing who Misaki was asking about.

"Sent her home," said Kusanagi. He took a seat on the bar stool next to the scary-faced man. "Her parents don't know about dream sharing so we just told them she was caught trespassing... You guys know her?"

"She was a schoolmate," said Misaki. He shot Fushimi a hesitant glance. "Saruhiko's cousin."

"I see..." Kusanagi had an unreadable expression on his face, though Fushimi could tell that he was not the least bit pleased about the turn of events. "Maybe this is a little too personal... but it seemed to me that this isn't your first experience with dream sharing."

"I've never been," Misaki admitted.

Fushimi clicked his tongue and looked away as Misaki held one of his hands with both of his. Awashima, who sat with Fushimi and Misaki on the couch, shifted uncomfortably.

"Alright, I won't ask for details," said Kusanagi seriously. "I dunno how much you know about dream sharing, so I guess I should at least explain what my team does. You deserve that much, yeah?"

He took out a cigarette and lit it before speaking again.

"We specialize in extraction. It's when you infiltrate someone's mind to steal information from them. We use the dream sharing technology to do this. Our clients are mostly companies that want information about their rivals. Stuff like that."

"So, corporate espionage," said Fushimi.

Kusanagi gave him a small smile and a shrug. "Yes. We avoid jobs that are very personal, for a lot of reasons. But mostly it's just that very desperate companies pay a lot better."

Misaki was frowning in a way that reminded Fushimi of the time he explained to him what dream sharing was. It's understandable that he wouldn't get it right away. He hadn't experienced dream sharing before so he wouldn't have a frame of reference yet. Even if he understood that stealing secrets from someone's mind was not good, he wouldn't know exactly how bad it could get.

"Wait... So are you spies or something?" said Misaki.

The scary faced man let out something that sounded like a cough and a snort. Awashima shot him a disapproving look and maybe that was when Fushimi started to think that she wasn't too bad.

"I guess?" said Kusanagi lightly. His smile became more relaxed and he leaned his back against the bar counter. "That's a more romantic way to put it."

"I think it's cool! Spies are cool!"

"Ah, but see, this business... It's not strictly legal, I admit. So I don't want you to think of us as heroes."

Misaki let go of Fushimi's hand (Fushimi flinched at the loss of warmth and contact) so he could turn to face Kusanagi fully. He looked at him unflinchingly.

"You saved Saruhiko! That's hero enough for me."

"It's nothing like that, Yata-chan..."

"In our community there are unspoken 'rules'," Awashima explained. "Iwafune-san was one of the first soldiers that went through training via dream sharing. He of all people should have been most aware of the dangers of the activity and the precautionary measures that should be taken to ensure everybody's safety."

"But you don't die in dreams, right?" Misaki glanced at Fushimi again. "If you get shot, you just wake up?"

"Yes and no," said Kusanagi. He followed Misaki's gaze and made a brief eye contact with Fushimi. "There are situations where killing someone in a dream isn't effective. Anyway, you wouldn't want to be killed, even if it's just a dream, right?"

"Even if you don't die, you can get trapped if things go wrong," Awashima added.

"The thing is there's a reason for these 'rules'. But they're not official or anything. And since we operate outside the law, we can't rely on the police to enforce them."

"You police yourselves," said Fushimi.

Kusanagi nodded. "Thankfully there's very little need to do that."

"What did you do to those guys, then?"

"I've alerted everyone in the community about what they did, so the ones who honor the rules will be thinking twice about providing them with services now." Kusanagi let out a very heavy sigh. "Nothing more than a slap on the wrist, unfortunately... It's the best we can do in this situation. So that means we can't really stop them from trying to hire you again."

The scary faced man finally sat up straight from being half sprawled across the bar counter. He moved and spoke very slowly, in a way that gave the impression that even breathing was a chore for him.

"Let's have 'em on the team," he said.

"Mikoto," said Kusanagi warningly. "We can't. They're children."

"Rule says we can't take minors down with us," said 'Mikoto'. "They don't hafta. They can just stay here to run errands or whatever."

Misaki's eyes lit up, and they sparkled as he looked at this "Mikoto" with the intense admiration that he used to reserve only for Fushimi. He was very ecstatic, and Fushimi couldn't help feeling like his lungs are getting crushed under the weight of something very, very heavy.

"Yeah, we can do that!" Misaki said very excitedly. "Running errands is my specialty!!"

Kusanagi frowned at both Misaki and the scary faced man. Awashima didn't look like she approved of the idea either. However, the man only shrugged in the face of his teammates' disapproval.

"We can keep a better eye on 'em if they're officially under our protection," he said.

"You've got a point there...," Kusanagi muttered. "I guess Totsuka would be able to deal with them better too..."

"You're not really considering this, are you?" Awashima said.

Kusanagi frowned at Awashima apologetically. "Mikoto's right, though, Seri-chan... Look. Okay. I'll allow this but we gotta have some rules in place and you two gotta follow them, alright?"

Misaki jumped off the couch in excitement. "Thank you, Mikoto-san, Kusanagi-san! We promise we'll do our best! We won't let you down! Right, Saruhiko?"

Cold dread ran down Fushimi's spine as he watched the sparkle of Misaki's eyes be directed at someone else and the thought that Misaki's admiration was no longer exclusively his began to take root in his heart. The walls that separated "Fushimi and Misaki" from "the rest of the world" used to be made of concrete—at least that's what he thought they were made of. But they turned out to be just paper, and this "Mikoto" was the fire that burned them down, very easily, as if they never existed in the first place. Fushimi thought that that must have been when the small world that contained only him and Misaki began to slowly yet surely come apart in the seams.

 

 

 

 

A weirdly cheerful man called Totsuka Tatara was the one who mentored Fushimi and Misaki when they officially joined the team. He was kind and patient, answering all of Misaki's questions, and putting up with Fushimi's unpleasant personality with nothing more than a smile on his face. Fushimi thought he was too creepy, and that his "warmth" felt hollow, but Misaki obviously didn't feel the same because he happily ate up everything Totsuka said and wouldn't stop talking about how nice and friendly Totsuka was. It was irritating.

Totsuka taught Fushimi and Misaki the basics of dream sharing, things that Fushimi felt ashamed not knowing even though it was not his fault that Niki was a giant bag of dicks. He taught them about totems, which were objects used to keep track of reality, to test oneself if they are in their own reality or if they are in someone else's dream. It was like a more portable, standard version of the things Fushimi used to do in an attempt to make Niki's dreams discernible from real life. It's true that it would have been nice to know about totems back then, but considering who he was dealing with, Fushimi thought it wouldn't have done him much good. Niki would have found his totem and thrown it away.

After finally learning what a totem was, Fushimi thought it somehow explained Aya's horrified reaction when she found out that he didn't have one. Did she really expect Niki to make things easier for Fushimi? If so, she was even more foolish than Fushimi thought she was.

"What's your totem, Totsuka-san?" said Misaki.

Totsuka performed a dumb little magic trick that involved waving his hands around unnecessarily and ended with him appearing to pull a coin out of his ear. Misaki looked very amazed. He reached out to touch the coin, but Totsuka quickly closed his hand into a fist around it and held it away from him.

"Ah-ah-ah~ I can't let you touch it, remember?" Totsuka said, wiggling a finger at Misaki. "Only the totem's owner should ever handle it, so that nobody else would know its exact weight and feel. That way, when you're in someone else's dream, their subconscious cannot replicate the totem exactly and that's how you can tell."

"Oh, right! Sorry!" Misaki blushed lightly and sat back down.

While they weren't allowed to dream share yet, Totsuka encouraged them to pick out a totem just in case. Misaki spent weeks agonizing over it, but Fushimi knew exactly what he wanted right away.

Fushimi's totem is a wooden pineapple keychain with a rounded bottom he usually attached to his apartment key. He modified it to be mostly hollow with a weight at the bottom so that it would right itself when pushed over instead of falling down. It reminded him of Misaki, or specifically Misaki's resilience, his stubbornness, never giving up even on Fushimi's atrocious diet by putting pineapples in everything he cooked in an attempt to make Fushimi eat more healthily. It was only fitting, Fushimi thought. After all, Misaki himself had become something of a totem to him. His first dreamless sleep since Niki started torturing him with nightmares was right next to Misaki on a humid summer night. When he had lost all hope of recovering from an illness, Misaki never gave up on him and pulled him through it. When he thought he was trapped again, Misaki saved him—not Awashima, not Kusanagi, not Suoh Mikoto. Misaki wasn't only Fushimi's anchor to reality. He was Fushimi's reality. His entire world. His everything. Misaki is the one person Fushimi would always wake up for.

(It was a slow and steady change, like a storm brewing in the distance. Misaki was very at home at HOMRA, too at home for Fushimi's comfort. He worshipped Suoh, respected Kusanagi, and admired Totsuka. He had even gotten quite close to Suoh's younger sister Anna, perhaps because she reminded him of his own sister Megumi. And ever since Misaki started helping out at the bar, he had made more and more friends, gotten more and more comfortable with other people that wasn't Fushimi. It wasn't too long before Misaki's world shifted and changed completely, leaving Fushimi behind.

Fushimi saw it coming, really. He saw his own world start collapsing around him in slow motion. But he was a coward. He didn't want to let go.)

It was a while before they were allowed to go under, and a bit longer still before Fushimi agreed to it. He only did so because Misaki was very eager to try, as if what he saw in the empty mansion when they were in middle school and the conversation they had at the back of the school building never meant anything to him. Misaki said it would be okay because Mikoto-san was going down with them. Nothing bad can happen when Mikoto-san was there to protect and guide them, right? But of course they didn't have to do it if Fushimi didn't want to. Misaki wanted to be sure that he was really alright with it.

Mikoto-san this. Mikoto-san that. Fushimi wanted to throw up.

He was obviously not alright with it at all. If Niki's projection appeared again, he wouldn't know what to do. That wasn't part of the things Totsuka taught them. Fushimi didn't want to disappoint Misaki though, so he just kept quiet and tried to breathe even with fear stuck in his throat.

The dream began with Misaki in absolute awe, playing with everything, twisting roads, bending walls. Fushimi almost felt better just watching the complete and total amazement on Misaki's face. At the very least he was glad that Misaki's first dream sharing experience wasn't the nightmare that his was.

Well. It turned into a nightmare as soon as Niki's projection showed up, but it was still comparatively better than the mirror maze and being woken up the first time by a bullet in the head. Sort of. Fushimi was trying to decide if he preferred Niki's mazes to Misaki immediately turning to Suoh for help when he noticed Niki, or if they were about the same degree of unpleasantness. His totem sat in his pocket heavily like he was carrying a fully loaded eighteen-wheeler truck in it.

Misaki apologized profusely, kept doing so even as they settled down on their own beds in their apartment that evening. Fushimi didn't sleep all night and they didn't go under again for a long time after that.

 

 

 

 

Munakata Reishi is a really weird guy. If Fushimi thought that Totsuka's warm smile was hollow, he thought of Munakata's as very calculated, like an idol who was contractually obligated to smile through a handshake event even when all of their fans had sweaty palms. Not that Fushimi would know anything about idols or handshake events. He just thought it was probably an unpleasant situation that idols normally go through. Anyway, Munakata had a strange aura around him that made Fushimi feel like he was seeing sparkles around him, and that's kind of an idol thing, right?

It had been around a year since Fushimi and Misaki were taken in by the extraction team when Kusanagi brought Munakata to Bar HOMRA and announced that he was going to be helping Totsuka with the point man duties from then on. Apparently he was an old friend or something, because Totsuka excitedly greeted Munakata, and Suoh had an odd smile on his face, something akin to fondness but not like the one he reserved only for Totsuka or Anna. Fushimi didn't like this, mostly because a new teammate having history with half the members made him feel even more of an outsider than he already did.

Though he would never voice it out, Fushimi was of the opinion that Munakata made a better point man than Totsuka. He was very meticulously organized, had a plan for everything. Unlike Totsuka who, despite being quite skilled and resourceful himself, mostly just went with the flow, Munakata knew how to manage and control every factor, even the ones that seemed impossible to control. It was as if he was able to bend reality to his own will, like he was able to make everything go his way.

Fushimi grudgingly found that fascinating, so, almost unconsciously, he watched Munakata closely. But it turned out that Munakata watched him too, and the attention felt very strange, yet not entirely unwelcome. It was different from Niki's malicious intent and from Misaki's blind admiration. Munakata's gaze always made him feel as if he was a piece in Munakata's game of chess against the universe. Fushimi thought he was weirdly okay with that.

"How do you do that?" Fushimi blurted out once after witnessing Munakata straighten out yet another complicated logistics problem.

Munakata smiled at him like he believed that Fushimi will figure it out himself. He was a thousand times more irritating when he did that. Fushimi didn't (doesn't, will never) understand how everything seemed so effortless to this man, and it was annoying how much faith he held on Fushimi's potential.

"I was not satisfied with the situation that was presented to me," said Munakata, "and so I changed it accordingly. That is all."

"That doesn't really answer my question," Fushimi grumbled.

Munakata shrugged nonchalantly. "I believe you are also capable of going beyond. The work you have done for this team so far has proved that." He gestured at the model of a level plan that Fushimi was working on.

Fushimi felt a little tug in his heart at Munakata's praise. It was not condescending like what Niki would have said. It carried the weight of authority the way Misaki's childish awe did not. Somehow it felt legitimate, like something he could actually believe in, not because it was said with big, sparkling eyes, but because it was said so matter-of-factly by a person who was the closest thing to a reality-warping god Fushimi has met so far. He clicked his tongue. Annoying.

While Fushimi was inexplicably drawn to Munakata, Misaki didn't like the man at all. Something about how Munakata insulted Suoh the first time he showed up at Bar HOMRA. Which was really stupid because Totsuka laughed at it and Suoh didn't look like he took offense. He even appeared to like the remark, by the way his usually dull gaze lit up. It was obviously some inside joke or whatever. Anyway, did Misaki understand what "uncouth" meant? Fushimi thought it was a rather accurate description of Suoh.

"I don't know why you're so worked up," said Fushimi. "It's not any of our business."

"Even if it isn't, he's still an annoying creep!" Misaki said as he chopped his carrots a little too forcefully.

Fushimi couldn't argue with that.

 

 

 

("It will always be just you and me, my little monkey~" Niki taunts him. "Your precious Misaki is leaving you but I never ever will!"

Fushimi feels his blood boil at the sound of Misaki's name tumbling from that man's filthy mouth, and a gun instantly materializes in his dominant hand. He flinches at the weight since he lacked proper training to use such weapons in dreams—Awashima was fiercely opposed to arming the younger members of their team, which was ridiculous, because what is the point of abiding gun control laws when the very nature of their occupation itself was illegal anyway—but this time he cannot let Niki go anymore. This time Fushimi will end the nightmare with his own hands.

"Oh?" Niki raises an eyebrow at the gun. "Are you going to shoot me? Can my little monkey really shoot me?"

"Saru!" Misaki calls out to Fushimi. He's running towards him, Munakata following right behind. The whole dream is slowly beginning to crumble around them.

"You can't do it," says Niki. "You won't do it. You know I'm the only one you have."

"You're already dead," Fushimi replies.

"And yet here I am standing in front of you."

The ground shakes beneath them. Trembling, Fushimi grips the gun tighter. Awashima doesn't have to know.)

 

 

 

 

There was nothing out of the ordinary on the day the bubble burst and the elephant in the room decided it would no longer tolerate being ignored. It was the year they turned sixteen, both still very young and stupid, so it really could have ended very differently and Fushimi now shudders to think of the bad endings they very barely missed.

He didn't know what came over him that day, still doesn't. He didn't know exactly what the last straw was. It might have been the stress of designing a level for a particularly tricky job, or the chill of autumn slowly creeping in as summer neared its end, or perhaps it was Misaki talking his ear off about something trivial that Suoh said. Whatever it was, Fushimi decided he couldn't take it anymore and he finally snapped.

"What's so great about Mikoto-san?" Fushimi muttered under his breath.

Misaki, who was washing the dishes, stopped and turned to Fushimi. Apparently he said it loud enough for Misaki to hear. He looked... horrified? Angry? There was disbelief in his eyes as he stared.

"What do you mean 'what's so great about Mikoto-san'?!" said Misaki.

Fushimi stared blankly at Misaki, his lips pressed into a tight line.

Misaki looked like he was about to throw the plate he was washing at Fushimi's face. "Mikoto-san is cool! And strong! He saved us and accepted us! He gave us somewhere to belong! Don't you think so?"

"It's clear now, the choice you made when we joined the team," Fushimi spat out with all the poison that built up in him.

"What the fuck does that even mean?!"

Instead of answering, Fushimi shoved his keys and his PDA in his pocket, put up the hood of his jacket, and walked out of their apartment, making it a point to slam the door behind him. He paused at the foot of the stairs for a little bit because a small part of him still hoped that Misaki would run after him. But the door to their apartment didn't open. Misaki didn't come out to look for him. Fushimi's totem was a heavy presence in the pocket of his pants.

Despite storming out seemingly with a purpose, Fushimi really had no idea where to go after that. He left their neighborhood and aimlessly wandered the town until thirst finally caught up to him and he had to get himself a drink from the convenience store.

He was grabbing a fizzy cola from the cold drinks section when someone came up to him from behind.

"You seem to only drink carbonated drinks, Fushimi-kun," said the familiar voice. "That does not do good to your growing body. I suggest picking up water for now."

Fushimi knew before even turning around that it was Munakata being a creep behind him, but he turns anyway and scowls at the older man's smiling face. Prior to this, he didn't have any idea where Munakata lived because he didn't care enough to find out. Obviously that was a mistake because now he was forced to make conversation as if they were friends. This could have been avoided had he known, so Fushimi made a mental note to steer clear of this particular neighborhood in the future, if only to never have to deal with Munakata outside of extraction work.

"Is Yata-kun not with you?" Munakata asked. He was looking around the small store but it was clear to Fushimi that the man already knew the answer to his question. "Strange. You are rarely seen without the other."

"I'm not his babysitter," Fushimi spat.

Munakata smiled. "Of course. Well, if you are not preoccupied today, perhaps you would like to accompany me to the university. I have friends taking up architecture and they are in a bit of a bind. Totsuka-kun reminded me of the excellent job you did for Kusanagi-san recently, so I thought you may be able to provide my friends with some assistance."

"Hah??"

Does this guy even have friends? was the first thought that came to Fushimi, but while he wasn't exactly planning on saying that out loud, he wasn't given a chance to do so anyway. Munakata took two bottles of water and turned to walk towards the cashier. Fushimi reluctantly followed.

"The university is only a few stops from here," Munakata said. "I expect we won't be long, although you may want to let Yata-kun know where you are in case you will be late for dinner."

Fushimi clicked his tongue in annoyance.

"Oya? A quarrel?" Munakata paid for the water and handed one of the bottles to Fushimi as they walked out of the store. The expression on his face clearly said that he was not the least bit surprised, and maybe he even knew exactly what was going on since he came up to Fushimi just minutes ago.

"What's with that?" said Fushimi with a scowl. "You're happy that we're fighting?"

Munakata's smile softened. "Quarrels with someone important to you are never pleasant. I am merely of the opinion that neither you nor Yata-kun are satellites."

It took Fushimi two or so years to fully understand what Munakata meant then. Years of Munakata dragging Fushimi along with him to university so often that the security personnel had come to recognize him, handing him his visitor's pass with a welcoming smile. Years of Fushimi getting roped into helping Munakata's (and even Awashima's) upperclassmen and underclassmen with projects and homeworks. Years of him seemingly being introduced to someone new every other week. Before Fushimi knew it, he no longer lived in the small world that only had him and Misaki in it. He no longer depended on Misaki's attention and affection. His life no longer revolved around Misaki as if he was the moon orbiting the earth.

But when Fushimi came home that evening he was still confused about Munakata's remark, still upset about the earlier fight. His totem was still a heavy ghost in his pocket, poking at his hip with a dull pain.

The lights were on in the kitchen. Misaki was sleeping there, his head pillowed in his arms on the table where dinner had gone cold. Fushimi walked past without saying a word, climbed up his loft, and spent the rest of the night playing games on his laptop.

 

 

 

 

They didn't speak to each other the next day. Or the day after that. Or the day after the day after.

There were a few times when Misaki looked like he was going to say something. He'd stand in Fushimi's way and open his mouth, only to close it again and leave. For his part, Fushimi wasn't willing to accept that he did or said anything wrong. As far as he was concerned, Misaki was the one who left him first. And for whom? A lazy, uncivilized thug and the horde of morons that seemed to gather around him. So he went about with his day the way he always did. He had a complicated dream to design anyway, and that took up most of his time.

With neither side relenting, they suffered a month of silence. Misaki always left food for Fushimi, possibly as peace offering or maybe Misaki was just being Misaki and couldn't stand knowing that there was no food for Fushimi while he was out working. But Fushimi never touched whatever Misaki left for him. That month he mostly lived off of CalorieMate or whatever Munakata's university friends managed to grab from the convenience store near their dorms. Munakata often called Fushimi out to help his architecture friends and somehow Fushimi always ended up agreeing to go. So in between Misaki leaving very early in the morning and Fushimi being at the university until late, they barely saw each other and there was very little opportunity for them to actually talk even if they had the intention to do so.

"Are you and Yata-kun still quarreling?" Munakata asked one day.

They were sitting across each other in a secluded part of the university library, surrounded by some of Munakata's friends that Fushimi was helping. Most of them already dozed off, possibly from exhaustion due to the all nighters they had been pulling lately. Anyone else left sitting up was barely awake.

"What do you care?" Fushimi muttered quietly.

"An unpleasant atmosphere is not very conducive to productivity," said Munakata. "It disturbs the dynamics of the team. And whether you are willing to acknowledge it or not, there are people who genuinely care about your and Yata-kun's well-being."

Fushimi clicked his tongue and scowled. He didn't come here to be lectured.

"You once asked me how I solve the team's problems," Munakata continued, ignoring Fushimi's discomfort. "The answer is rather simple: There are always different sides to a conflict. Considering all sides is necessary to see all the possible solutions, and from there one can choose the best course of action."

"How do you know which solution is the best?" said Fushimi.

"It depends on the situation, of course. There are no perfect solutions. Not everyone will be happy with the path you ultimately take. Sometimes, sacrifices must be made."

Fushimi stared down at the stack of paper full of various notes and calculations. He could feel the weight of Munakata's gaze, and it gave him goosebumps.

"What do you want to achieve, Fushimi-kun?" said Munakata. "And what are you willing to sacrifice for it?"

Fushimi didn't really have grand dreams on his own. It was always his and Misaki's. They were supposed to achieve things together, fight crime by busting drug rings or exposing corruption, something like that. Everything seemed possible whenever Misaki looked at him and told him he was amazing. Now those plans just sounded ridiculous and silly. Fushimi didn't know what he wanted to achieve as himself, much less what he was willing to lose for it.

Munakata sighed. When Fushimi looked up at him, he found that Munakata was watching him very intently.

"It is also possible to compromise," said Munakata in an uncharacteristically gentle tone.

"You don't strike me as one who compromises," said Fushimi.

"Oya? Do I seem that cold to you?" Munakata was smiling. It felt softer, unlike his usual calculated smile. "In any case, I am confident that you will make the right decision. Know that you will always have my support."

I don't need it, Fushimi wanted to say. It was too irritating how Munakata always spoke in riddles. If he was going to give advice, why not just say it outright? Fushimi already had enough headaches to deal with so he'd rather not have to think about Munakata's words over and over just to understand what he was trying to say.

That night Fushimi lay awake on his stomach, holding his totem in front of him. He absent-mindedly played with it while thinking about what Munakata said earlier. Surely, Munakata didn't mean that Fushimi should stop being friends with Misaki, right? Were they even still friends? At that point Fushimi really would not have been surprised if Misaki decided they should never speak to each other forever. But that was not what Fushimi wanted. Misaki was the one thing he was not willing to lose.

It is also possible to compromise.

Fushimi wondered if that was true. What concessions was he willing to make? Misaki had always been his only and the thought of having to share his attention and affection with others twisted Fushimi's gut. It made him want to destroy, because if Misaki's love was something that he had to share with others, that meant he wasn't as special to Misaki as Misaki was to him. He would rather that Misaki hated him then, because pure hearted, innocent Misaki didn't hate, and that way Fushimi would have Misaki's hate all to himself...

However, that was definitely not the path that Munakata would have wanted him to take—that kind of "solution" reeked of Niki and he was the very person Fushimi was trying not to be. If Munakata can always choose the solution where he himself would be happy without completely running over everyone else, there had to be a way to solve this problem without having to resort to destroying anything. A way to solve this without becoming Niki.

There are always different sides to a conflict.

Fushimi rolled on his back and groaned. He put an arm over his eyes. It was going to be a long night.

 

 

 

 

"Oh! Fushimi?"

Running into Awashima at the university was rare because Fushimi usually spent most of his time there stuck with a bunch of architecture students. It wasn't entirely unwelcome because she never really stopped long enough to be a bother, but today Fushimi was glad to have a small break from helping Hidaka, one of Munakata's university friends, with his revisions.

"I don't see you at the bar much anymore," said Awashima. She was eyeing him curiously. "Yata-kun's upset, but you seem like you're doing alright."

Fushimi clicked his tongue. What is it with these guys sticking their noses into his business? He was starting to think twice about Awashima being a bother.

"Does this look like 'alright' to you?" he drawled, waving at the pile of books and notes on the table in front of him.

Awashima smiled fondly. "Yes. You look like you're enjoying yourself even if you're busy. It's good to see you making friends."

Taken aback by her words, Fushimi stared at her in confusion.

"To be honest, I was a little concerned because you didn't get along with Yata-kun's friends," she said, looking thoughtful. "I suppose they were just not your type of crowd. Nothing wrong with that, of course. It's good to meet new people, expand your horizons a little bit."

"What are you talking about?" Fushimi said a little defensively.

Somehow he felt very exposed, vulnerable. Munakata saying such things was one thing. Unnerving, yes, but also expected because Munakata was the kind of person who saw far too much anyway. Awashima making such observations about him was a whole different thing. She was a very smart woman but she wasn't Munakata, so the fact that she was seeing things about Fushimi that Fushimi hadn't realized himself meant that others might be seeing those things too. He didn't like how it made him feel.

Awashima only shrugged at Fushimi. "Anyway, you two seem very busy. I apologize for taking much of your time. I'll leave you to your work now."

She waved them goodbye before leaving Fushimi to his thoughts, which was good because she was making him uncomfortable with the path the conversation was taking. And he had a lot to think about.

There are always different sides to a conflict.

Did it really seem that he, Fushimi Saruhiko, was making friends and enjoying the company of other people who weren't Misaki? If so, what did Misaki think about this? It had been so long since they last spoke and every time they saw each other Misaki looked like he was ready to punch Fushimi in the face. Fushimi interpreted that as hate, and why wouldn't he? He spent all of his childhood before Misaki came along being made to believe that he was incapable of having anything good in his life. Eventually it would be taken away or destroyed, so what made Misaki different from everything else that Fushimi had lost? It would not have been a surprise if Misaki's light, Misaki's love, Misaki's warmth were also only temporary. But was it really the case? Or was Fushimi only focusing on his side, failing to consider Misaki's too?

He was pulled out of his thoughts by Hidaka's whining. He completely forgot he was even there.

"Why is Awashima-san so nice to you, Fushimi-saaan?" said Hidaka. He plopped himself on top of his books.

Fushimi clicked his tongue. "Get back to work."

 

 

 

 

Four months, three weeks and three days. That was how long they did not speak to each other. Fushimi counted.

When he got home from the university that night, Misaki was standing in front of him, hands balled into fists, his whole body shaking. There weren't any packed bags in the vicinity, yet something at the back of Fushimi's head told him that Misaki is leaving.

"You ruined it", Niki's voice echoed. "I told you I'm the only one you have~"

Right there at that moment Fushimi expected Niki to jump out of nowhere, expected Niki to laugh at his pathetic little monkey foolishly thinking he could have something good in his life, that someone could ever love him, that he could hold something without destroying it. Fushimi expected a deep dark black hole to swallow him—

"When you started hanging out with Munakata-san at the university, I was jealous," Misaki began, his voice low, almost a whisper. "You've been really moody and hard to deal with before that, you know. Like more difficult that usual. I didn't get what was wrong! And then you start hanging out and you look like you're in a better mood. I thought... I thought... you finally realized that you can do so much better than me. It really hurt... Munakata-san is smart. He can understand all the smart stuff you're into when all of it just flies over my head. I can't compete with that."

Fushimi remained silent so Misaki continued to speak, this time with a louder voice.

"But when Munakata-san told me that you've been making friends," he said, "I thought, 'That should be good, right?' I wanted you to be friends with my friends too, but they can't seem to understand you because you're so prickly. So if you're making friends, then they must be people who can deal with you being an asshole. And that's good. Not that you're an asshole, but that someone can look past that and be your friend.

"It still hurts that you're moving on away from me. But Totsuka-san said it's a good thing and I think maybe he's right. I can't force you to be friends with my friends. I'm probably too stupid to be friends with your friends. But it's good to have other friends, right? And just because we have different friends now doesn't mean we've stopped being friends with each other, right?"

There are always different sides to a conflict, Munakata's words rang clear. Fushimi also remembered what Awashima told him months ago, that he was meeting new people and expanding his horizons. Although Fushimi did not consider Munakata's university friends his friends (at least not yet at that point), it was true that he had been spending an awful lot more time with them than with Misaki and that he did not dislike learning new things by helping them out. He could not comprehend the possibility that the look on Misaki's face he interpreted as 'hate' could be anything other than what he thought it was. Now Misaki was telling him plainly that he was hurt: Fushimi running off to the university hurt Misaki just like how Misaki making other friends hurt him. Fushimi spending time with Munakata hurt Misaki just like how Misaki worshipping Suoh hurt him.

Fushimi could not yet claim that he understood or accepted all these revelations and realizations completely, but he thought he was making progress, even if he was moving at a snail's pace.

Misaki took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "I get it. I'm slow. I'm an idiot. I'm sorry it took me so long to understand what you were getting at. I'm sorry I didn't realize it right away. I'm sorry I needed Kusanagi-san and Totsuka-san and even Munakata-san to help me get it. But I'm not a mind-reader either, you know? Kusanagi-san said it's okay to get angry about it, so I'm telling you now that this is on you too! You gotta tell me things exactly because I'm an idiot! And because you didn't say anything properly, it's not entirely my fault that I didn't figure it out!"

"As if an idiot like you can understand...," said Fushimi.

"That's the point!" Misaki shouted so suddenly that Fushimi flinched. "I can't figure it out on my own so you gotta say it in a way an idiot like me can understand!"

When Fushimi looked away, Misaki took a step closer to him.

"I joined the team for you, Saruhiko," said Misaki. "That was the only choice I made when we joined the team. I joined because I'm not strong enough. I joined because my hands are small and I'm weak. I joined because Mikoto-san was everything I was not and that meant he can protect you the way I can't. When you got sick, I was so scared. I was really really really really scared. I thought I was going to lose you. So I worked very hard to nurse you back to health! We were poor. We barely had any money. But I did everything I could because I didn't want to lose you! I don't want to lose you!

"And back at that Hisui person's place. When you didn't come down right away, I didn't know what to do. What if something bad happened to you?! And something did! I wasn't able to stop that. I wasn't able to protect you. That's when I realized I wasn't enough."

Fushimi already realized it long before this confrontation, that their grand dreams of turning the world on its head were only delusions of children pretending to be bigger than the world. They couldn't do it on their own, even if they had each other. Fushimi hated that feeling. He hated knowing he was nothing more than an inconsequential blip in the universe, no better than Niki himself who was a genius that did nothing useful or remarkable with his capabilities. Fushimi didn't say anything because he was hoping Misaki hadn't made the same realization yet, but Misaki wasn't as much of an idiot as most people tend to think he is.

Perhaps he should have already learned his lesson long ago—that being wrong about Misaki wasn't always a bad thing.

"What happened to being invincible as long as we have each other?" Fushimi answered, but there was no bite in his words nor his tone.

"We can't do this alone," said Misaki. His eyes were not sparkling with admiration like they did when they were twelve, yet his gaze was unwavering and the tone of his voice was filled with determination. "But we're stronger together than we are on our own, right?"

Fushimi let out a breath he didn't know he was holding in.

"I love you," Misaki said and his words carried the heavy burden of 'I'm sorry' and 'I will never leave you' and 'Please trust me'. There were angry tears rolling down his cheeks.

"I know," Fushimi replied, hoping it was enough to convey what he felt but couldn't say. 'Forgive me' and 'I love you too'.

Misaki wrapped his arms around Fushimi, tightly, painfully, desperately, and Fushimi responded in kind. Even if their small world had crumbled around them, that didn't mean they had to let go of each other.

There was no Niki. There was no black hole. There were no satellites. Only two galaxies learning to expand outwards. The only sacrifice made was the small little bubble that kept Fushimi and Misaki separate from the rest of the world, but Fushimi thought that maybe it was time to outgrow it anyway.

 

 

 

 

(He was stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. He knew exactly what he would find if he went under and yet he had the bright idea of going down alone. Why? Because he was stupid, that's why. His life was just a series of stupid decisions. This is only the latest, and, at the rate this situation is going downhill, may possibly be the last.

Fushimi thought he could handle facing Niki alone, that he could end this on his own. He's wrong, of course. Like he was wrong to believe that Misaki will be only his forever. Like he was wrong to believe that they only needed each other. Like he was wrong to believe that he was capable of achieving anything if only he had Misaki to believe in him.

However he is now at a point of his life when he can already acknowledge that being wrong about all those things is not necessarily bad. It's okay to be wrong about things. It's okay that his and Misaki's lives aren't all about just each other anymore. He hasn't completely accepted it yet, but acknowledgement is a start, right?

"I knew you'd miss me," says Niki. "I'm the only one who will stay, after all."

Fushimi's totem sits in his pocket, a steady, comforting presence. He thinks of Misaki's hotpot with pineapples, of Munakata's annoyingly knowing smiles. Who's going to be left to help Anna with her math homework? How would Munakata's underclassmen even survive the upcoming exams without him to help them revise? He'll definitely get an earful from Awashima later for being so reckless, and Totsuka will probably just laugh because everything worked out in the end anyway.

"Yeah, about that," Fushimi says. He's rooted on his spot, trembling, and he hates that it's making his voice shaky too. "I came here to tell you to leave."

Niki laughs. "An eviction notice? I'm not leaving. You know you can't make me."

"You're an illegal settler. I can force you out."

Niki's grin widens. A predator playing with its prey before devouring it. "I'd like to see you try.")

 

 

 

 

Munakata offered to help Fushimi get into university and Fushimi accepted it. Something about "expanding horizons" or whatever. He still didn't have a goal in mind or anything of the sort, but he did like learning more things and it could help him with his job, so it was something.

There was a painfully awkward period in which Fushimi and Misaki danced around the subject and, consequently, Misaki's own insecurities about achieving nothing and being left behind, but they managed to talk (and yell and scream and cry) about it as properly as two barely-adults could. While he'd have to be caught dead first before anyone hears him admit it, Fushimi supposes it helped that they were now surrounded by nosy yet supportive proper adults who were more than willing to nudge them towards the right direction. For the most part Fushimi thought it went a lot better than expected.

Two years later he and Misaki are still living in their small run-down apartment in a questionable part of the town. They were working on saving up for a better place and Awashima has been worrying over their living situation for years, but they both got a bit too sentimental and so they kept putting off their moving plans. For now they're doing just fine in it.

"We should probably move after I graduate next year," Fushimi says as he sits at their small dining table, watching Misaki scurry about the kitchen preparing their dinner.

Of the many things that changed in the nine years they've known each other, Misaki's transparency isn't one of them. He's still as fairly easy to read as he was when they were dumb twelve-year olds, visibly tensing when a sore, complicated spot is hit, and Fushimi has to fight down a heavy sigh.

"What's wrong?" Fushimi asks.

"What do you mean, 'what's wrong'?" says Misaki. He doesn't turn to face Fushimi.

"Is it the move or my graduation?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Fushimi gets up and walks up behind Misaki to wrap his arms around his waist. He nuzzles the crook of Misaki's neck. "Misaki, we're moving forward together. I'm not the only one doing things here. You've got your skateboarding competition."

"That I may or may not win."

"That you will win. You're better than all those losers."

Misaki snorts and shrugs Fushimi off so he can stir the curry properly. Fushimi pulls away, but only enough to let Misaki move more freely, not completely letting go.

"What do you know about skateboarding?"

"Nothing. I just know you have me and that's one thing they don't have."

Although Fushimi gets elbowed for his efforts, he also managed to make Misaki laugh, which was easily worth a few more playful jabs to his stomach. The sound of Misaki's laughter is like the sun chasing the darkness of the night away—music to Fushimi's ears, even if it can be a little too loud sometimes.

Fushimi still has fears and worries and nightmares. He still cannot sleep easily or for long. He still hears Niki's voice sometimes, still feels his heartbeat speed up every time he accidentally focuses on the low whirring of Kusanagi's PASIV device. He thinks he'll probably never be truly rid of those demons no matter how hard he tries, no matter how much time passes. But just as he's got Misaki's back, he knows now that Misaki's got his back too, and they are stronger, more resilient—in dreams and in reality—when they have each other.

"I love you," Fushimi whispers onto Misaki's hair.

Misaki turns his head to give Fushimi a peck on the cheek. "I know."

Fushimi's totem sits in his pocket, a steady, comforting presence. He has no need for dreams now, never has; though this time reality is so much more than worth the effort of waking up every morning.