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In The Town Only You Are Not In

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When Kobayashi Kenya is in his second year of college, his boyfriend breaks up with him.

Nanashi Hiro was the first person he had ever kissed, the first person he’d ever slept with, the first person he had ever moved in with, and he was, most significantly, the first person who really made Kenya understand that he was attracted to the same sex.

But it’s not until Hiro breaks up with him that Kenya realizes that he is not the first person he ever fall in love with.

“Do you even understand?” Hiro says, near tears, “Do you understand how hard it is to be with you? You’re so obsessed, so focused on the past—”

“You knew that about me from the start,” Kenya says, his voice harsh. The breakup hurts, not because it’s the end of a relationship, but because it’s a rejection of who he is.

“You have no idea what it’s like trying to compete with someone in a coma!” Hiro yells, his voice breaking.

Kenya reels back with his whole body, not expecting this attack.

“You’re always thinking about him, always talking about him, everything you do is for him. Don’t I matter? Don’t I matter more than some boy you knew in the fifth grade?”

And it’s a low blow—it’s an attack on a subject so deeply personal to him it’s like deliberately thrusting the knife into an open wound. And Hiro knows this. Hiro knows there are just some lines you’re not supposed to cross, ever.

That’s Kenya’s only justification for saying what he said next:

“Don’t be absurd, it was never a competition. Satoru at eleven was ten times the man you will ever be.”

He sees the exact moment Hiro breaks. His face crumples; his whole body just looks smaller.

Hiro walks out the door and later, sends his sister to pick up his stuff. Kenya never sees him again.

Later, when he thinks about what he said he realizes that it was a very cruel thing to say.

But also, that it was true. The eleven year old Satoru had set a very high bar for the kind of person Kenya thought all people should be.

It’s the first time he realizes that he had been in love with Satoru, that he is in love with Satoru, that he will never be able to get over losing him the way that he did.

*

The moment Yashiro-sensei tells the class about Satoru is a defining moment for Kenya. He will always remember that day as the moment he truly grew up. Until that day, he had no idea he was capable of feeling such a range of emotions. Shock, anger, frustration, grief, disbelief. All other milestones of adulthood—puberty, learning to drive, graduating high school, his first relationship—would pale in comparison to the moment when he was eleven. This is how you lose innocence: learn that someone tried to murder your best friend and you could have prevented it from happening.

*

Because that’s what he’ll remember from this: he could have stopped it.

Satoru was always careful about keeping “their detective game” in the realm of make-believe, but even at the time Kenya knew it wasn’t make-believe to Satoru; Satoru was taking it seriously. Kenya had known that, and dismissed it as impossible.

And Satoru paid the price for that.

Kenya should have gone with Satoru to the ice rink.

That’s something that will live with him for the rest of his life.

*

As soon as Kenya sees the car pulled out of the river, he thinks, “That’s Yashiro-sensei’s car.” But of course it can’t be; he saw Yashiro-sense’s car in the lot just this morning.

The second realization hits him like a sledgehammer.

That car was supposed to look like Yashiro-sensei’s car.

The realization actually knocks the wind out of him; he clutches his heart and tries to breathe for a few seconds, sure that he is drowning on dry land, sure that this must be what Satoru felt in his last moments.

When he can finally breathe again he is convinced without a single doubt that his homeroom teacher is a murderer.

After all, Satoru had been careful—Satoru had been the one to insist everyone went out with a buddy, that everyone be wary of strangers.

He would not have gotten in the car with just anyone.

The realization should have hit him sooner.

*

Sawada finding him probably saved his life.

Because now there was someone else, just as obsessed, just as determined to find an end to this. Now there was someone who would fill in the gaps of what he didn’t know.

Working with Sawada reminded him of what it was like to brainstorm with Satoru. It also makes him feel like he’s catching up with the eleven year old Satoru, finally piecing together all the things Satoru had known when he was a child.

*

Learning Sawada’s theory about the framed killers had been a revelation, a vindication, and a confirmation. He felt vindicated on behalf of his father, who had been persecuted for his believe in another killer all along.

“Did you ever tell Satoru this?” Kenya asks.

“Did I ever share theories about a serial killer with an eleven year old boy?” Sawada hedges.

At this point, Satoru knows the man well enough to say, “Well, did you?”

Sawada visibly deflates. “Alright, yes, once. A few days before his…” he trails off, because he knows better than to refer to it as an “accident” in Kenya’s presence.

Kenya thinks about it, but the timing is off. Satoru had thrown a rock through Shiratori Jun’s window the night of March third—an act of senseless violence that even at the time Kenya had known better than to think Satoru would commit without reason.

Now he knows the reason.

Satoru did it so Jun would have an alibi—the police themselves. He did it because he knew Jun would be the most likely suspect in a child’s abduction.

Satoru must have known before he ever talked with Sawada.

*

Years later, he talked to Shiratori Jun about his suspicions.

He’s not sure why—and until the moment he actually started he didn’t know that he came here to tell this man his theories.

Truthfully, Kenya is surprised by how easy it is to talk to Shiratori Jun. He’d never talked to the man when he was younger—unlike Satoru or Kayo, he’d always had plenty of people around him, and he’d never needed to talk to someone so much older than him.

(He remembers how angry Satoru became at the suggestion that Jun was up to no good—this man was someone Satoru cared about, this man was important to Satoru. Maybe that’s why he’s here, chasing after any slim connection there is to Satoru.)

But Jun is patient and he doesn’t judge Kenya or question his interest in something that happened so long ago. He doesn’t have that same, pitying, “you should move on” look that almost everyone in Kenya’s life does when he talks about the past. That’s probably why it’s so easy to pour out everything, ending with his theory that Jun would have been arrested if not for Satoru.

Shiratori Jun is silent for a long time as he considers this. Finally, he says, “I was always alone as a kid. I never had any friends. I think that’s why I always made a point of talking to kids when they were by themselves—I was trying to be there for them. I was trying to make sure they didn’t feel like what I felt when I was younger—that there was no one on this earth who cared one way or another if they lived or died. That’s why I was so happy when they did start hanging out with kids in their class.

“I didn’t realize how it would look to others, until I became a father myself. I didn’t understand why it was weird for a grown man to talk to a kid, or what society thinks about that sort of thing. I was really naive.”

“But you made a difference,” Kenya blurts out. “You made a difference to Satoru and Kayo.”

He did what Kenya couldn’t, those early months. Kenya noticed Satoru on his own, he noticed Kayo. But he never made the effort to reach out, not like this man did.

“I’m glad,” Jun said earnestly. “And if Satoru saved me—I wish I could thank him. I wish—”

Kenya wishes too.

*

He keeps—not a journal, he doesn’t want to call it that—but a record. He writes to Satoru on the idea that Satoru will want to know everything he’s missed when he—when he wakes up.

He fills book after book, often scrapping the whole thing, only to start afresh. He has so many things he wants to tell Satoru.

*

Sometimes the records sound like love letters—outpourings of I miss you, I wish you were here—moments too real for Kenya to face in the morning after he write them. He usually throws those versions away.

*

He punches Hiromi in the face when he finds out the boy is dating Kayo.

He apologizes immediately after, but he doesn’t regret it.

*

Hiromi stays on the ground after the punch.

“I’m sorry,” Kenya says, turning away, and hiding his shaking hand behind him, so Hiromi won’t see he’s still rattled. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK,” Hiromi says, still on the ground, not looking at him. “Do you think he would hit me?”

It’s not a cheap shot, not meant to hurt Kenya at all; it’s an actual honest plea. Kenya can hear the agony in his friend’s voice, and it calms him down enough that he can offer a hand to him and help him get back to his feet.

“No,” Kenya says gruffly. “I’m sure that he wouldn’t.”

*

When they’ve both calmed down enough to sit down for a beer, Hiromi starts talking, and Kenya actually listens.

“Sometimes…sometimes it feels like Satoru-kun saved me too, you know? Sometimes I walk around and I just have this unshakeable feeling that I shouldn’t be alive right now. I was so happy when Satoru included me in the group, when he started walking home with me, it—it was just so nice. And now I keep thinking—did he know something then? Was he protecting me?”

“He was,” Kenya says, with zero doubt in his voice. He’s talked a lot about the mystery killer with Sawada; he knows both from Sawada’s files and his father’s that the killer always targeted three children before moving on. It’s too much of a coincidence that Satoru also singled out three children for protection.

“I—he means a lot to me, Kenya. Satoru-kun. And Kayo—we’ve talked a lot about it. About what it’s like, knowing that—” Hiromi struggles with his words. He looks near tears. Kenya thinks he should probably change the subject, for Hiromi’s sake. But he’s never been able to change the subject away from Satoru.

“The feelings Kayo has for Satoru—they’re the same feelings that I have for Satoru,” Hiromi says.

“Not the same,” Kenya protests. “I mean, I always just assumed Kayo liked—” But he can’t finish the sentence to Kayo’s boyfriend.

Except Hiromi just meets his gaze, level and serious. “They’re the same feelings,” he says again, firmer this time.

And then Kenya gets it.

“Oh.”

Hiromi doesn’t flinch away from Kenya’s gaze. “I’m studying to be a doctor, you know? Maybe someday I can save him. He’s always in my thoughts, and Kayo is the only one who understands that. We understand each other, in a way I don’t think anyone else can.”

What about me?! Kenya wants to howl. But it is different, he’ll admit that. Satoru was many things to Kenya, but he wasn’t his savior. He doesn’t have that immense gratitude and guilt for living.

“I love her, Kenya,” Hiromi says. “But more importantly, I feel safe with her. Being with her is easy, like breathing. If—if I thought Satoru would hate me—”

“He wouldn’t,” Kenya says. “I know he wouldn’t. He’d be the first one to congratulate the two of you.”

Hiromi feels better about it after the conversation, but they never really talk about it again.

Maybe Kenya is jealous. Hiromi and Kayo, they can share Satoru with each other. They understand each other.

Kenya doesn’t have that.

*

He doesn’t talk to Kayo about it for a long time. During Kayo and Hiromi’s wedding, Kenya gets up and delivers a speech praising how lucky they care to have each other. He almost breaks down and bawls like a baby when Hiromi acknowledges, “Those beloved who could not be with us today,” but he’s genuinely happy for them (even if he is still a little envious).

He doesn’t talk to Kayo until after she gives birth to a son, and she tells him they named the boy, “Mirei.”

And he just blurts out, “Not Satoru?” without thinking, but immediately realizes how tactless that is.

Before he can apologize, Kayo replies, “We did name him after Satoru. Satoru gave us both a future. But we both agreed we couldn’t, we just couldn’t name him ‘Satoru.’ It would be like we were trying to replace him.”

Kenya nods, because that makes perfect sense.

“Hey, Kenya, you were the one who told me I should move on, weren’t you? You were the one who told me I should live my life.”

“Technically, Satoru’s mother did, I was just passing along the message. Not that I didn’t agree,” he adds.

Kayo nods. “I hated you for telling me that. I hated her too, for a bit. I thought—if she still clings to the hope he will wake up, if she still devotes so much energy to him, why can’t I?”

“It—”

“It’s different. I know.” She looks down at the baby in her arms. “I get that, now.”

They’re quiet for a long time. Kayo says, “The absolute worst thing I could have done to Satoru is wait for him. He saved my life. He would have wanted me to live it.”

Kenya nods, because yes, that’s exactly what Satoru would want.

“Kenya—you’re the one who told me to move on. Why can’t you?”

Kenya grips his knees. “I don’t know,” he says, quietly, firmly.

He doesn’t know why he can’t move on. He just knows he won’t.

*

He doesn’t visit Satoru often. His mother didn’t want that, for one thing. For another, it’s harder than he expects to watch Satoru age and not know what kind of man he’d be.

*

When he goes to middle school, high school, and college, he is always thinking about who Satoru would be. Would they still be friends?

He wants to say of course, but that’s not how friendships work. By the time he goes to college he knows how rare it is to keep in contact with anyone from childhood. He often thinks how he probably wouldn’t still talk to anyone from his younger years, if they hadn’t been united by the common tragedy that was Fujinuma Satoru.

*

He thinks about killing Yashiro Gaku only once, when he turns twenty, and Nanashi Hiro has just broken up with him, and he’s realized that he’s been in love with Satoru all this time.

He knows Yashiro tried to kill Satoru. He knows it. He knows Yashiro has killed a lot of children; Kayo and Hiromi and Aya Nakanishi were just some of his intended victims.

He thinks, if only you didn’t exist in this world. And he’s drunk, and he’s angry, and he keeps returning to the thought, if only you weren’t in this world, then Satoru still would be.

And he’s halfway to Yashiro Gaku’s last known location before he remembers the conversation he had with Satoru, in a whole lifetime ago.

Stopping Satoru from killing Kayo’s mother had seemed like a turning point for both of them. It was when Satoru finally opened up about what he’d been doing, when they became partners.

It’s also, privately, something that adult-Kenya is proud of the child-Kenya for having done.

It was unequivocally the right thing to do. And that’s what stops him now. The kids that they had been, the heroes that they had wanted to be, that’s what connects him and Satoru.

He goes home, drunk, tired, and sad. When he wakes up the next morning he decides to visit Satoru.

*

Fujinuma Sachiko looks tired, but happy to see him.

“Kenya-kun. It’s been awhile.”

“It has,” Kenya agrees.

They spend about twenty minutes catching up in the kitchen, Kenya trying very hard not to look at the room he knows Satoru is in.

Along time ago, when Sachiko had moved Satoru to a different facility, she’d told Kenya but she hadn’t told Kayo about the decision. At the time, it had seemed like she was giving Kenya her blessing for him to continue down this path. Or maybe she just hadn’t realized how obsessed he was.

Now she seems to understand.

“Kenya-kun, are you happy?”

In the past week, Kenya’s boyfriend broke up with him, he realized he was in love with a man in a coma, and he’s seriously thought about murdering someone. It hasn’t been a great week, but that isn’t what she’s asking.

“I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing with my life,” Kenya replies delicately. “I couldn’t imagine being happier doing anything else.”

She smiles, but it’s a complicated, empathizing smile. She understands that there’s no moving on from this. Life is sort of miserable right now, but the alternative (giving up on hope, giving up on Satoru) is much worse.

He knows that he shouldn’t have come here. For one thing, it must be agony for Sachiko to see someone her son’s age, someone who should have grown up with her son, walking around, healthy, living.

“Can I see him?” Kenya asks.

She nods, like she was waiting for him to ask.

*

Satoru looks thin, but that isn’t surprising. It’s always strange, seeing him like this. It’s been so long—it’s sometimes hard to see his friend in this man. So much of his memories are wrapped around Satoru as he last say him: an eleven year old boy, determined, brave as hell, a hero. Not this stranger lying on the bed.

And yet he is undeniably Satoru.

“Satoru,” Kenya says. “It isn’t fair, Satoru. Do you have any idea how many of us were in love with you? How many of us are still in love with you.”

It takes him ten minutes just to work up the courage to take Satoru’s hand in his.

“Satoru,” he whispers, his voice breaking. “Satoru, I love you, please, please wake up.”

And it’s stupid, it’s so painfully stupid, but a part of him really hoped that Satoru would wake up to the sound of his voice.

*

He tries to date. Two boyfriends later he realizes it’s never going to work. The eleven year old Satoru still set a high bar for who he thinks all people should be: determined, not afraid to do what’s right, brave. And he keeps comparing everyone to Satoru in his mind.

Also, he’s still obsessed with catching Yashiro Gaku, now Nishizono Manabu. There’s not a lot of people who are willing to put up with that.

(Not any.)

So he decides not to date.

*

“It’s so impressive how you’ve pursued your goals,” his professors say when he graduates. “Not many children know what they want to be when they grow up and stick with it.”

He always knew he wanted to be a lawyer, like his dad. But Before Satoru (those brief years Before all of this began) he always assumed he’d be a defense attorney, like his father.

Now, he wants to go after the bad guys.

*

“Are you lonely, Kenya?” Kayo asks him.

“I don’t have the time to be alone,” Kenya says.

*

When he’s twenty-five, Satoru wakes up.

*

It’s almost unfair, really, that the Satoru who wakes up is so very much like the Satoru he remembers.

They say, never meet your heroes. He’d been told over and over again (mostly by his ex-boyfriends) that even if Satoru woke up, there’s no way he’d match the picture he’s created in his head. No one could live up to the pedestal he had placed Satoru.

But Satoru gets to learning how to walk, talk, function in society, with a determination that is an inspiration to watch.

And almost immediately, he is instrumental in taking down Yashiro Gaku for good.

*

When Satoru explains the time travel to him, he does his best to come up with a rational explanation for all of it. “You were dreaming.”

He knows he’s disappointed Satoru with his explanation.

And it’s not even that he doesn’t believe the time travel. Honestly, it would explain a lot. In many ways, it’s the only explanation that actually makes sense.

He’s not sure why he says the dreaming theory. Maybe because he can’t let Satoru know how amazing he thinks he is.

Of course Satoru could time travel. Why wouldn’t he? He’s remarkable.

*

And this should be the end.

Satoru is awake, Yashiro Gaku is in prison, happy endings for all.

Kenya just feels so drained from the finish. His whole life has been about this. He doesn’t know what to do anymore.

Satoru has an easier of adapting to society post-Yashiro than Kenya does. He becomes a bestselling mangaka and never has any trouble at all with the changes in society during his long absence.

“Well, I lived it once before,” Satoru says.

“Right, of course,” Kenya says.

*

He finds it a little alarming when Satoru starts hanging out with a high school girl. He feels like he shouldn’t, it’s Satoru after all, but as a lawyer, he sees his fair share of cases of grown men and high school girls, and it is, well, alarming.

“Oh my God, it’s not like that!” Satoru says, when Kenya hedges around the subject.

“Well, I didn’t think it was,” Kenya says, defensively. “It’s just odd, is all. How did you two even meet?”

Satoru falls silent and Kenya has come to recognize that by now. “In the hospital,” Satoru says finally, “By coincidence.”

Kenya hesitates and then asks, “And in your ‘other’ life?”

“We worked at the same pizza place,” Satoru confesses.

You?” Kenya laughs.

“I wasn’t a very successful mangaka, the first time around.”

And this, more than anything, really convinces Kenya that maybe Satoru really did alter the time continuum. Why would he dream about working at a pizza parlor?

“So what was I?” Kenya asks. It’s the first time he’s ever questioned Satoru on the alternate timeline.

Satoru shrugs. “Don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“We weren’t really friends, then. We all pretty much went our separate ways.”

It’s impossible to imagine—since Satoru woke up their group of friends made a point of getting together every couple of months.

It also seems too sad. He can’t imagine a life without Satoru.

Not just Satoru, he realizes. Hiromi, Kayo, Osamu, and Aya were all absent from that life.

“It wasn’t a good life for anyone,” Satoru says.

Suddenly, he’s not just sad but panicked. What happened to that other Kenya? Did he just disappear? Or is he still out there, probably wretched, in a world where killers were never caught?

“I try not to think too much about it,” Satoru says.

“You’re a mindreader now, too?” Kenya says.

“No. I’ve just been through what you’re going through.”

A new thought hits him suddenly and he grabs Satoru’s arm. “Satoru, what’s to stop it from happening again?”

“What?” Satoru asks, frowning.

You. What if you go back in time again? What if I disappear?”

And, OK, he’s getting a little drunk now, but the thought terrifies him more than the lonely Kenya is another timeline does. What if he becomes someone else?

“It won’t,” Satoru says.

Kenya nods drunkenly, still gripping Satoru’s arm. Satoru sounds so sure. Kenya has come to trust Satoru when he sounds like that. He’ll believe anything Satoru tells him.

“I had a lot of regrets, last time. That’s why I was able to do what I did.”

“Oh,” Kenya says. “I guess that makes sense. So you don’t have any regrets this time?”

“No,” Satoru says. “Well. Not yet.”

“Not yet?” Kenya repeats.

“I guess it depends on how this turns out.”

“How this—?”

And then Satoru leans in and kisses him.

It catches him off guard. He barely has time to register what’s happening, and when he does it takes him even longer to believe what’s happening.

When Satoru pulls back Kenya says, “That’s not fair, Satoru.”

Satoru looks at him quizzically and Kenya buries his face in his hands. “I can’t believe you made the first move. You’ve been in a coma forever. How are you this smooth?”

“I missed out on puberty this time round,” Satoru says, cheekily. “I have a lot to catch up on. Oh hey, I guess this means I’m technically a virgin in this time line.”

“Oh, god,” Kenya says, his skin hot and his mind still in a whirl. “We have to leave this bar. Now.”

*

Later, they’re in Kenya’s apartment, and they’re sober, and Kenya still can’t believe this is happening.

Kenya doesn’t know how to ask “why me?” without it sounding pathetic. And maybe this isn’t going to work after all. It’s everything he’s ever wanted and that’s a problem. People aren’t supposed to get everything they want.

He loves Satoru too much, and he’s loved Satoru for far too long. There’s no way this could work; the balance is all off, Satoru controls too much of who he is.

“Satoru. Do you know how many people are in love with you?” he asks instead.

Satoru laughs, like he doesn’t believe Kenya, like the idea is absurd. And does he really not realize?

“And you?” Satoru asks.

“Of course, me,” Kenya says. “I’ve loved you forever. But you—why me?” he finally gives up and decides to sound pathetic.

“Why?” Satoru asks, frowning. “We’re partners, aren’t we?”

Kenya blinks at him.

“Everything I did—you were not my side the whole time. I went back to 1988 three times, did I tell you that? It took me three tries to get it right. And I don’t think I could have done it without you. Then, or now.”

And maybe this is the strangest part of their relationship—in this time line, Satoru has always been with Kenya. But Kenya had long, agonizingly slow years where he was defined by Satoru’s absence. Satoru has a couple different life times and Kenya has the years of Satoru’s absence and they each have a different amount of time within them.

“Let’s get it right this time,” Kenya says quietly.

“We are,” Satoru says.

And, of course, Kenya believes him.