‘Spend an hour in a dangerous place after dark’.
Huh. Yata blinked at the challenge post, one foot still on his board as he considered it. A dangerous place…
He wasn’t exactly a stranger to dangerous situations, considering his past, but an actual place that was dangerous on its own... Yeah, that might be kind of tricky to find.
Still, once he found one, hanging out there for an hour should be no problem, after dark or not. I’ll just ask Kusanagi-san to help me find a place. Or maybe one of the others, who knows. Yata grinned to himself, his thoughts going to the worn baseball bat he’d kept at the back of his closet all this time. Even after you gave up on that kind of stuff for a more peaceful life, it didn’t hurt to have a weapon handy just in case. This was the perfect chance to get some use out of it again.
“What are you so happy about?” Fushimi’s low, grumbling voice pulled him out of that thought; when he looked up, his opponent was standing to his right, regarding him with a sharp, wary gaze. “You’re not worried about spending time in some place that’s dangerous?”
“Heh! Are you kidding?” Yata straightened, offering a smirk in return. “Danger is nothing to me! What about you – you scared?”
Fushimi raised an eyebrow at him. “Don’t be stupid.”
He definitely didn’t look scared – and, actually, as someone who worked for a secret spy agency, he probably wasn’t. “Well, I’m not gonna lose this one!” Yata declared, sliding his board back and forth under his foot restlessly. I’ll spend two – no, three! – no, maybe four hours in this place, wherever it is. I’ll hang out there all goddamn night! Just wait!
“We’ll see.” Fushimi shrugged, clearly unconcerned, and the corners of his mouth tipped up a bit in a small, condescending smile. “I guess to an idiot, real physical danger would be less of a concern than imaginary things like ghosts, huh?”
Yata scowled back, feeling his cheeks grow warm with the reminder of his recent failure and public humiliation. “Th-those two things are totally separate!”
“True,” Fushimi agreed, in that hatefully slow, mocking tone. “Like I said, one’s real and one’s imaginary.”
“How the hell would you know if they’re imaginary?” Yata challenged, feeling belligerent. “Anyway, I’m strong, so physical danger’s no problem. You can’t punch ghosts.”
“And you know this from… what?” He got two raised eyebrows that time. “Personal experience?”
“Shut up! That’s just common knowledge!” Yata drew himself up as much as he could, glaring back. “Anyway, you got lucky with that last one, but there’s no ghosts in this challenge, and that’s why I’m gonna kick your ass!”
Fushimi made a low, amused sound. “I’ve heard that before.” He turned abruptly in the direction of his workplace – an obvious dismissal. “Good luck finding a dangerous place to spend time without getting haunted by ghosts,” he tossed back without looking, “Misaki.”
Just the way he said the name had fire scouring up through Yata’s veins. “Quit calling me that, you damn monkey!” He scowled at that thin back, caught between irritation and the itching, anxious feeling that seemed to be getting stronger around Fushimi over the past few days. He hadn’t been able to put a name to it, but it kept nagging at him in the back of his head, persistent and painful and pleasant all at once. It was stronger when he could actually see Fushimi, but it came up even when he thought about him, too.
Kind of annoying, really.
Well, whatever. Yata huffed out a sigh, shoving that feeling aside as he kicked off to head back to Homra. It was already Saturday, and he was down two to one on these challenges, so he really needed a win to start his comeback. Wonder what would net me more points – finding a more dangerous place, or staying in a dangerous place longer?
If it came down to, the answer was pretty simple. I’ll just have to find the most dangerous place, and stay there as long as possible! He was pretty sure he could get to wherever he needed to be before it started to get dark – and tomorrow was his day off anyway, so he could stay out all night if he had to. The only thing left was finding a super dangerous place and the rest would be easy.
It wasn’t like there was any kind of danger he couldn’t handle, after all.
An hour in a dangerous place, huh? Fushimi frowned at the screen of his laptop, considering the latest challenge while his coffee cooled on the break room table in front of him. Something about it seemed half-assed. Why an hour? It felt like an arbitrary length of time, however he looked at it – and what was the point of it being after dark? Then there was that ‘a dangerous place’ bit – was it necessary to be so vague? Why not specify, the way the previous challenge had done?
Come to think of it, none of the challenges had seemed to fit into any kind of pattern. He wasn’t sure if he was dealing with a kid or a really useless adult who had moments of insight. Pointless insight, even – wasted on daily challenges that meant nothing.
Not that it makes a difference.
Either way, he had to find a place that was dangerous enough to match or outdo whatever Yata came up with, and despite the fact that the challenge specifically said ‘an hour’, if he wanted to win, he’d probably need to stay in that place overnight.
Fushimi clicked his tongue, more than a little irritated with this unpleasant prospect. He didn’t have to worry about being at work early on Sunday, and it wasn’t like he hadn’t pulled all-nighters in the recent past, but the added complication of ‘somewhere dangerous – not any specific place, just some place that poses an arbitrary level of threat’ muddied the waters enough to make this a pain. He wasn’t about to risk bringing his laptop, so he’d have to rely on his phone to keep himself occupied if the ‘somewhere dangerous’ wasn’t entertaining enough on its own.
He could already feel the headache brewing. Well, there’s no point in thinking about this now. He could secure a stronger lead if he beat Yata on this challenge, so that was worth aiming for. For starters, I should find a place that would qualify as dangerous.
“Hard at work, I see.” Munakata’s distinct voice cut through the silence in the break room; when Fushimi looked up, his superior was standing in the doorway, hands tucked behind his back. “Are you not on a break at the moment, Fushimi-kun?”
As if I haven’t worked through my breaks before. Fushimi clicked his tongue, leaning back in his seat and regarding his boss without feeling any particular resentment for the interruption. “I’m not really working. This is for today’s challenge.”
“I see. In that case, please forgive my intrusion.” Munakata made no move to enter the room, but he tilted his head slightly, a faint smile on his lips. “If you don’t mind my asking, what are your impressions regarding the challenges so far?”
“It’s fine.” You’re the one in charge here – you can intrude wherever you want. “If you want my honest opinion, I think most of them are ridiculous. Whoever writes them seems to change moods on a whim, and there’s nothing particularly worthwhile in any of the things they ask you to do. It’s meaningless.”
“I see.” Munakata’s smile widened; he shut his eyes and made a small, amused sound. “That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose.”
Fushimi was familiar enough with that reaction by now to know what it meant. “What’s your opinion, then?”
“Rather than an opinion, I’d prefer to think of it as an observation.” The Captain’s gaze was thoughtful and keen as he met Fushimi’s eyes. “In the case of a daily challenge, one would assume that the tasks are intended to prompt the individual attempting them to find their own sense of meaning and purpose. To put it simply… it is what you make of it.”
That was exactly the kind of needlessly complex thinking that Fushimi had expected. He clicked his tongue. “I suppose.” I’m not doing this to find meaning, either way. “Well, as long as I can win, it shouldn’t matter what my opinion is, should it?”
“Indeed not.” Munakata inclined his head slightly to acknowledge the point. “However, it is interesting to consider the perspective of the participants in such a contest. I appreciate your willingness to indulge my curiosity on the matter, Fushimi-kun.”
“It’s not a big deal.” It wasn’t like he’d done anything special, after all. Fushimi frowned slightly. “Was there anything else?”
“No.” As if he’d taken that response as a cue, Munakata turned to leave the room. “Best of luck with your investigation,” he added, just before exiting. “I look forward to the results.”
Fushimi clicked his tongue at that, turning his attention back to his laptop. Of course you do – you’re the one who formalized this ridiculous business, after all. Though, if he were being honest, he’d have to admit that the addition of rules and structure had made things easier in terms of actually winning the challenges. He could have argued with Yata endlessly over who had won last night if not for the stipulation that neutral observers would determine the outcome.
He wasn’t willing to admit it to his boss’s face, but he had to (grudgingly) admit to himself that the whole thing really had worked in his favor.
Not that that’s important right now. The vague discussion about ‘meanings’ clearly had something to do with the Captain’s true intentions regarding this challenge, although Fushimi wasn’t entirely clear yet what those intentions were. He didn’t like the feeling of being manipulated, but at this point, he was at least used to the fact that his boss would trust and make use of his particular skills to achieve whatever goal he was aiming for.
There was an unpleasant memory lurking at the back of that thought, but Fushimi pushed it down ruthlessly. It was pointless to dwell on those things.
Still… ‘What I make of it’, huh? That brought the recent image of Yata’s indignant, flushed face from earlier to his mind, and Fushimi couldn’t help but smile a little, satisfaction settling within him. Being able to evoke that kind of reaction was enough to make the annoyance of the challenges worth it, at least. So maybe there was meaning to it, after all.
Now that he was thinking about that conversation… Something in it was nagging at him – a vague sense that he was overlooking an obvious answer. Fushimi frowned slightly, staring at his laptop screen with narrowed eyes as he went over the things they’d said to each other. Nothing in the conversation was particularly enlightening. He’d taken the opportunity to rile Yata up; in this case, talking about his irrational fear – and the corresponding lack of rational fear that made it even more idiotic. Rather than worrying about ghosts, though…
There it was.
That simple, huh? Fushimi almost felt irritated that he’d missed it earlier. Still, in the end it didn’t matter – he now had a worthwhile location for the nebulous ‘dangerous place’ from the challenge, so at least that part of it was done.
At this point, it was just a matter of waiting until it got dark.
The now-familiar recorded voice of the operator telling him that his call could not be completed came through the speaker on Yata’s phone again, and he let out a sharp, agitated ‘ch’, pulling the device away from his ear to stare at it with helpless frustration.
What the hell? Why won’t it go through?
He’d been trying to contact Kusanagi all morning and into the afternoon, and so far, things weren’t looking too good. It wasn’t unusual for this older friend to be out for a whole day at a time, especially if Totsuka had a specialist appointment on the other side of the city, but Yata hadn’t thought it’d be this hard to get hold of him.
It was really shitty timing, considering he only had a few more hours until it started getting dark.
Yata pressed his finger down hard on the ‘End Call’ button, cutting off the recording before it finished, and reached up to rub at the back of his neck with a heavy sigh, trying to figure out what his options were.
So far, none of his friends had been any help coming up with a dangerous place – Chitose’s suggestion had been his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, which he’d seemed weirdly earnest about, and Dewa had added to it with a shrug and a nod. Following that, Eric had pointed out that he didn’t make a habit of hanging around dangerous places, and maybe Yata should do his own research since it was his challenge, after all. They’d gotten into a brief, one-sided argument about whether or not finding a place was part of the challenge or not; Yata was still pretty sure he was right, but whatever.
Anyway… no help from there at all.
He lowered the cell phone, leaning back against the wall in the break room and staring blankly at the mismatched couches and chairs they’d filled the place in with. It still smelled like cigarette smoke, even though Kusanagi hadn’t been in at all that day – like the scent soaked into the furniture or something. It was kind of comforting, in a way. That smell was familiar, from past days and carefree times.
Probably shouldn’t think about that now, though…
“Misaki.” Anna’s quiet voice snapped him out of that haze; when he looked over, she was closing the door behind her carefully, large eyes turned to stare at him with a kind of questioning calm. “Did you reach Izumo?”
“No luck yet.” He offered back a small, rueful smile. It was hard to hold onto any kind of frustration or irritation around her. That gaze seemed to reach right into his soul and soothe whatever ache he felt. “Well, it’s no big deal! I’ll think of something, just wait!”
She smiled back, stepping into the room. “Another delivery order came in. Yu and Masaomi are making the drinks now.”
“Right – got it!” He pushed away from the wall, reaching for his skateboard, and grinned up at her. “Leave it to me!”
As he headed past her for the door, she asked, in that same quiet voice, “Are you having fun?”
“Huh?” Yata paused, resting his hand on the handle as he turned to face her again. “What d’you mean?”
“Your competition with Saruhiko.” Anna was staring up at him with the kind of guileless innocence that only a girl her age could really get away with. “Is it fun?”
“Eh… fun, huh?” He lifted his hand from the handle, scratching at the side of his mouth a bit awkwardly as he thought about it. Having to keep quiet while everyone ragged on him was just kind of frustrating, and then getting that smug look from Fushimi after he fucked up was just icing. Last night had been even worse – not only getting scared, but being outvoted by his own friends, and humiliated in front of everyone on top of it. It wasn’t exactly what he’d call ‘fun’.
But then… Making those pancakes and being able to rub it in Fushimi’s face had been kinda fun.
A surprisingly vivid image of Fushimi’s startled expression when he’d pressed that plate with the pancake into his hands flashed into Yata’s head suddenly, making him pause. For just an instant, when he’d done that, there had been something like bewilderment and a faintly starved look on that normally bland face, and Yata’s heart had maybe skipped a beat. Or something. The single pancake had been kind of a whim – he’d wanted to show off his skill more than anything – so that reaction had been gratifying.
And then Fushimi had gone back to full ‘jerk’ mode and that was the end of that. But it still kind of stuck in his mind, somehow.
Well, whatever. Yata pushed that thought – and the image that went with it – aside. “I guess, sometimes?” He shrugged, feeling a bit sheepish about it. “Y’know, when it’s not something creepy. Right?”
He was expecting at least a smile out of that one, so it was kind of a surprise to see Anna’s forehead wrinkle, a thoughtful frown coming onto her face. “What was creepy?”
“Ah…” Somehow, now he felt a little awkward, and he wasn’t too sure why. “Don’t you think telling ghost stories in a deserted classroom is sorta creepy?”
Anna’s frown deepened; she brought one bent knuckle to her lips, lowering her gaze as if in thought. “Why?” she murmured, almost to herself. “Was it the classroom? Or the stories?”
What’s with this atmosphere? Somehow, Yata felt like he’d said the wrong thing, but he wasn’t sure why. “Well, when you have both together, it’s kinda…” He shrugged, reaching up to rub the back of his neck as he thought about how to describe it without making this worse. “Anyway, it’s not like it’s creepy just to be in a classroom at night! But, y’know, that school’s got this weird feeling since it’s been deserted for a while with the – ”
He stopped there, fingers stilling as the realization hit. Ah…
That was perfect!
Anna was staring at him curiously when he zoned back in. “Misaki?”
“Anna!” He beamed back, bringing his hand down to clench into a triumphant fist. “You totally just saved me! I know exactly what I’m doing for this challenge, and it’s thanks to you! You’re seriously awesome!”
She blinked at him for a beat, and then smiled slightly. “Oh. That’s good.”
“Right?” He quickly turned the fist into a thumbs-up, straightening. “I’ve totally got this now! I can’t believe I didn’t think of – ”
“Order’s up, Yata!” Chitose’s voice called out from the front.
“Oh, yeah… Sorry, guess I’d better go.” He offered a small, apologetic shrug to Anna and then turned to yell back, “Coming!” as he reached for the door again.
“Misaki,” Anna called after him; when he paused to look back at her, she offered a simple, “Good luck.”
He grinned back. “Thanks!”
Not that I’ll need it – now that I’ve got the perfect place, this challenge is mine!
It was raining when Fushimi made his way to a familiar front gate – one of those summer showers that only felt refreshing when the sun wasn’t beating down and making everything muggy – but even with the cloud cover, it was clearly still a good fifteen minutes before dark. As expected, the place was deserted.
It was exactly as they’d left it the night before. Minus the unpleasant dampness.
There aren’t too many people stupid enough to break into a school that’s under construction, huh? Fushimi curled his lip with a bit of sardonic amusement, gripping the handle of his umbrella. He hadn’t dressed for rain – actually, he’d just managed to cover his work shirt with a light sweater – but it wasn’t exactly cold, and being wet wouldn’t kill him. Well, the challenge specified ‘dangerous’ – that’s stupid as it is.
All things considered, it made more sense to just enter through the side that was being worked on. That was where he was going to have to go, since the part of the school they’d been in the night before was too safe to qualify, and there was no point in picking a lock just to have to cut through a construction barrier to get where he needed to.
Fushimi skirted the fence and the various danger signs and Keep Out tape without particular difficulty – the ground was slick, but his work boots were designed for all kinds of weather, and he’d been out on field work in worse conditions. So far, it seemed like there hadn’t been much done on the construction project – at first glance, the second half of the school seemed to be quite a bit older than the part they’d entered last night. The foundation had sunk quite a bit, and the supports looked to be under a lot of stress due to the obvious slant. One of the walls was very clearly bowed.
It was definitely not a safe place to be, and Fushimi was starting to question his life choices just looking at it.
On the other hand, assuming he wasn’t crushed by the building finally collapsing, this was definitely the winning choice in the challenge. The place itself was dangerous, which fit the wording in a more literal sense than some gang hideout or a shady neighborhood. Unless his opponent somehow found a building that was in worse shape, he could likely use that logic to earn the victory.
It was still a stupid thing to do, but…
Fushimi clicked his tongue. I must be just as much of an idiot as he is. Under the circumstances, Yata was definitely the type to go charging ahead without even thinking about the possibilities. Usually, Fushimi wasn’t quite so eager to risk his neck for something as meaningless as a challenge.
But then… if this place had stood this long, he had to assume it would make it for one more night. Assuming his luck wasn’t completely terrible, it should be fine to just sit in a corner until morning.
Well, there wasn’t a lot of time to sit around and think about it, if he wanted to be inside before it got dark. Fushimi surveyed the outside of the building quickly, looking for the best opening. Most of the windows had been boarded up, but in the corner next to the bowed wall, it looked like someone had ripped out the boards on one of them, smashing through the glass with some kind of blunt object and jarring the window open forcibly. It was quick, dirty, thug work – much sloppier than Fushimi preferred.
And also quite recent, on closer inspection.
Someone else is inside. That sent a familiar shiver along his skin; Fushimi instinctively tensed, aware of the knives resting in the holsters around his body. These days, most of what he did for Scepter 4 was office work, but old habits died hard, and the memories weren’t so far in the past that he’d go without weapons altogether. As a concession, he’d cut the number of them down in his casual everyday life, citing the possibility of an emergency mission as a reason to keep the rest in place. Neither Munakata nor Awashima had raised any objections.
Right then, he was glad he’d followed his instincts on that score. Fushimi carefully folded his umbrella and tucked it into the pocket of his hoodie before hoisting himself through the window and making an effort to drop in as quietly as possible. A quick survey of the room didn’t show anything out of place – it was another emptied classroom, if the blackboard was any indication, and there were no signs of movement.
Someone was moving out in the hall, though – and making no effort to be quiet about it. Now that he was inside and the rushing sound of the rain had turned into a light pattering on the roof, Fushimi could hear the footsteps gradually coming his way.
Of course they are. That was just his luck.
There was a spot near the door where the floor beneath him felt… uneven. Shaky. Fushimi found more solid ground to the right, and did his best to tread lightly, sinking into the darkness beside the sliding door that led out into the hall. If whoever this person was entered the room, he’d be able to get a look at what he was up against before they managed to realize they even had company. It was entirely possible that they were about to leave anyway, having accomplished whatever mischief had prompted them to break in, in which case there’d be no need for a confrontation at all.
And if they wanted a fight… well… Fushimi discreetly nudged one of his knives free, dropping it into his waiting palm hilt-first as he slowed and quieted his breathing.
The footsteps were close now… just outside the door…
Fushimi finished his last slow inhale and held it as he watched a shadowy figure step through the open door, strolling carelessly over the shaky spot that noticeably shuddered under their feet, the flooring groaning ominously. The clear outline of a baseball bat was braced on one shoulder, and the person was short – a teenager, maybe, or –
It can’t be…
The figure in front of him turned his head to the side, and in the dim light still streaming through the open window, Fushimi recognized Yata’s frowning profile, beanie once again tucked on his head and bat held in one fist like some kind of juvenile delinquent.
Typical. Fushimi let out his breath in a rush, annoyed with himself for having gotten so worked up over nothing. “You’re here too, huh?” he muttered, not bothering to keep the resentful tone from his words.
Yata tensed and whipped around, wielding his bat like a club, his eyes narrowed and fierce before Fushimi’s voice registered and he seemed to recognize who was standing in front of him. He slouched noticeably, face twisting into a scowl as he let the bat drop. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“What do you think?” Fushimi raised an eyebrow at him, drawing the words out deliberately. “The same as you, obviously.”
Yata’s scowl deepened; he made a sharp ‘ch’, eyeing Fushimi with obvious irritation. “So? How are we supposed to decide who wins if we’re both here in the same place?”
“How should I know?” Fushimi discreetly tucked the knife in his palm back up into its harness, shifting his weight away from the wall. There was an alarming-sounding creak, like the dying groan of a wounded animal; he narrowed his eyes and tensed, a little alarmed. “Oi…”
“What?” Yata braced a hand on his hip, oblivious to the way the atmosphere had changed. “One of us is obviously gonna have to find somewhere else, right? And since I was here first, that means – ”
Another ominous-sounding creak cut him off, louder and longer this time; Yata glanced around, startled, body tensing as if in preparation for a fight. “What the – ?”
The rain. Fushimi turned his gaze up and to the right instinctively, cursing himself inwardly for having overlooked that potential danger earlier. He’d been too focused on another intruder being present. But now that he looked, the bowed wall was heaving ominously, the building stress nearly at its breaking point and amplified by the downpour generating additional weight on the roof.
This place is ready to come apart at the seams…
Yata hadn’t noticed the danger, either – his gaze was still darting nervously around him even as Fushimi could see the weight of the wall starting to fall in on itself.
“Idiot!” he snapped, and before he knew it, he was jumping forward, making a grab for Yata’s wrist and yanking him in the direction of the door to the hall. “Hurry and – !”
The rest of the demand was lost; as he tugged Yata forward, a significant portion of both of their weight fell into the soft spot on the floor he’d felt earlier. It was like everything moved in slow motion – the feeling of the ground dropping out beneath his feet had Fushimi’s stomach bottoming out similarly.
The roar of the building starting to fall apart around them almost drowned out the sound of Yata yelling as they fell down into open space.
Stinging pain and warmth beneath him were the first sensations to break through the haze of shock around Yata’s brain. Without thinking, he brought his hands up under him and pushed himself to a sitting position, cursing under his breath as a few tiny bits of debris tumbled loose, leaving the various abrasions free to make themselves known. It was pitch black, and his eyes hadn’t adjusted, but the ground beneath him felt… surprisingly soft.
He didn’t think he had any broken bones, and no large wounds. Just scrapes and bruises.
There was a groan from beneath him, and the source of the warmth that was still braced between Yata’s knees shifted. As his eyes started to adjust and the dim light from above him registered, he gradually became aware that he was actually propped up above Fushimi, who was just starting to squint up at him with dazed eyes behind his skewed glasses.
Not just that, though – one of his hands was still resting on Fushimi’s chest, and he was straddling his hips.
Fuck. Yata felt his face start to burn without really knowing why, and scrambled off in a hurry. The surface beneath them was scattered with more debris – though not as much as he would’ve expected, considering it had sounded like the entire building fucking collapsed or something – but it had a surprising amount of give. It felt like… a mat of some kind.
As he was pondering that, eyebrows furrowing, something lit up brightly beside him. When he glanced over, Fushimi was sitting up, his glasses straightened and his cell phone in one hand. The bright light was coming from the back of it.
“What’s that?” Yata stared at, blinking slowly.
Fushimi raised his eyebrows but, surprisingly, didn’t make a comment. “Flashlight function,” he said instead, shortly. “Yours probably has one too, if you’d bothered to look for it.”
Yata scowled back at him. “I’m not really into tech stuff, okay? I just use it to make calls and texts.”
“I would never have guessed,” Fushimi drawled. He already seemed to have lost interest in Yata, aiming the light back above them and following it with his gaze. “Huh. So that’s what happened, is it?” he mumbled, almost to himself. “I’m not sure if we’re lucky or unlucky.”
“Huh?” Yata squinted up at the ceiling. There was a large, rectangular hole visible above them – far above them, actually; it was damn lucky those mats were there, or they’d probably both be in a lot worse shape – with a similar-sized rectangular piece dangling from one side of it. Beyond that, he couldn’t see much. “What is that?”
“A door. Probably the entrance to this cellar.” Fushimi lowered his phone, aiming the flashlight around them instead. “The hinges must’ve given way when we both put weight on it.” He was frowning as he made his survey. “I can’t say if being trapped down here is better or worse than having a wall fall on us.”
“Oh.” So that awful sound from earlier had been a wall falling in? Yata’s mind shuddered away from what might have happened if Fushimi hadn’t pulled him back. Guess I owe him one… Then his brain caught up to the rest. “Wait, what do you mean ‘trapped down here’?”
“The door is up there,” Fushimi pointed out, without seeming to bat an eye. “There’s no ladder down here, which means it was probably lowered from the top. Anyway, it doesn’t look like anyone’s been down here in ages. There’s dust everywhere.”
That was true. Yata looked around at what he could see of the room in the limited lighting. Aside from the mats they’d fallen onto, which kind of looked like old worn-out gym mats, there were a few broken chairs, some really old-fashioned looking desks, and some other pieces of outdated gym equipment. There was an obvious coating of dust and cobwebs everywhere, except for where they’d disturbed things.
And no other door that he could see.
“Goddamnit!” Yata brought a fist down hard on the mat, frustration building fast within him. His heart, which had slowed considerably as they’d taken stock of their surroundings, was starting to pound hard against his chest again, as restless and anxious as he felt in this helpless situation. “What the hell are we supposed to do now?”
“Good question.” Fushimi was scowling down at his phone; after a beat or two, he clicked his tongue, clearly displeased. “There’s no signal down here, by the way – at least, not right in this spot.” He shifted to move off of the mat. “I’m going to see if there’s a place where I can pick up something.”
The instant he pushed himself up, he let out an audible grunt and one of his legs seeming to buckle, depositing him back on the mat with a ‘thump’. Yata jumped up from his own seat, alarmed. “Oi… what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Fushimi gritted out, glowering at him, and stood deliberately, taking a step forward. The expression on his face tightened slightly, as if he were fighting a grimace.
‘Nothing’, my ass… Yata frowned, narrowing his eyes as he watched Fushimi take his time wandering around, holding up his phone. “Hey… you’re hurt, right? Should you really be walking around like that with – ?”
Fushimi clicked his tongue sharply, cutting off Yata’s concern. “Still no signal,” he muttered, focusing on his phone. “We’ll have to wait until either someone figures out where we are or the construction workers come in to work on this place.”
That was an effective distraction; Yata deflated, staring at Fushimi with dismay. “Seriously? That means we could be trapped down here for a whole day! Are we just gonna go without eating or drinking?” An alarming thought occurred to him then. “Wait – what about when we have to piss?”
“Shut up already with your idiotic worries,” Fushimi snapped at him, scowling as he turned around. “What do you expect me to do about all that? I’m not any happier to be stuck down here than you are.” He stared slowly back towards the mats, brushing past Yata deliberately. “Figure it out for yourself.”
Yata clenched his fist, ready to snark right back, but as Fushimi turned to sit himself back down, he jostled his leg against the uneven stack of mats. Letting out a muffled grunt of pain, he toppled down much harder than he’d obviously intended.
“I knew it – you are hurt! Dumbass!” Abandoning the argument for the moment, Yata stepped over and knelt beside the injured leg, taking hold of Fushimi’s ankle before he could protest. As expected, there was a dark spot seeping through his pant leg just above the boot. “Why the hell would you just ignore it? You’re gonna make it worse!”
“Shut up,” Fushimi grumbled, but he didn’t make any move to shake off Yata’s hands. When Yata looked up, he was deliberately glaring down at his phone, as if trying to pretend the entire situation wasn’t happening.
Seriously? “You stupid, stubborn…” Letting out a frustrated growl, Yata started to shrug off his hoodie. He considered the thicker fabric for a brief second, and then abruptly pulled his T-shirt over his head instead.
Now Fushimi was looking at him; Yata could feel his gaze, even without looking up to meet it, and was disturbingly aware of his own bare skin. “What are you doing?”
“Shut up,” Yata muttered back, feeling inexplicable warmth rising on his face. He wasn’t sure why it was even a big deal – they were both guys, after all – but he somehow felt exposed under that gaze. It was the weirdest thing. Doing his best to push the feeling aside, he tore a long strip off of the shirt and reached down to wrap it around the wound tightly, binding it as best he could.
Back in the day, he’d had to do this a few times – even to himself, once or twice. Being in a gang meant getting roughed up here and there.
Doesn’t seem like he’s much of a stranger to that part of it, at least… Yata leaned back into a crouch when he’d finished, looking up to meet Fushimi’s gaze. There was nothing particularly weird about that wary frown or those narrowed eyes, but somehow, he felt strongly that there was a question there.
“Why are you doing this?” … right?
He kind of wanted the answer to that himself. It wasn’t like they got along. Fushimi had him on edge from the start, pushing all of Yata’s buttons without mercy or hesitation. But that restless, anxious feeling whenever they were together or his thoughts drifted in that direction didn’t really feel like hatred. There was a grudging admiration in there somewhere, and maybe a certain amount of respect – as a worthwhile opponent, if nothing else. Most of the rest was a mystery, which just fed into Yata’s irritation. The immediate instinct to help when he saw the injury was tied in with it, in a way that didn’t quite make sense. He couldn’t place it, but for all that Fushimi pissed him off, ‘hate’ wasn’t the word he’d use.
Apparently, he’d sat there thinking about it for too long, because Fushimi’s frown deepened. “What’s with that look?”
“Eh?” Yata blinked at him, realized he was still staring, and jerked his gaze to the side, scowling as he felt his cheeks grow hot. “N-nothing! Just spacing out.” He heaved a sigh, snatching up his hoodie from the ground and trying to recover the moment. “Anyway, that should work for now, but you’ll have to get it looked at after we’re out of here. Got it?”
“I don’t remember anyone appointing you as my caretaker,” Fushimi responded in that hateful drawl, raising an eyebrow when Yata turned his scowl upwards. “Anyway, I’ve had worse. You didn’t need to bother with it.”
“Well, too late! And I’d have done it anyway, even if you told me before.” Yata pushed himself to his feet defiantly, tugging his hoodie back on and zipping the front of it. “You said yourself we could be down here for a while. If you’ve had worse, then you know how bad it can get if you just leave it.”
Fushimi clicked his tongue, upper lip curling. “Why do you even care?”
“Good fucking question!” Yata turned and dropped onto the mat beside him with another agitated sigh, tucking the remains of his T-shirt into the hoodie’s pocket. “I haven’t really… figured that one out myself,” he muttered, feeling awkward about it, and frowned defensively when he looked up to see Fushimi giving him a strange look. “A-anyway, that shirt’s cheap, so don’t think too much of it.” Another thought occurred to him, and he let the frown soften into a kind of rueful smile. “Besides, you went out of your way to save my ass up there, so this is the least I can do in return, right?”
For a brief second, Fushimi blinked at him, clearly startled, and then he clicked his tongue again and looked away, brows furrowing. “That wasn’t anything special. Don’t flatter yourself.”
Yata had a sudden flashback to the moment when Anna had thanked Fushimi, over a week ago, and felt the edges of the smile tip up before he could help it. He’s not good with gratitude, huh? For all of Fushimi’s arrogance and condescending behavior, he sure seemed to be in a hurry to downplay his own good points. “Well, I thought it was pretty cool.”
Fushimi pushed his glasses up on his nose, glancing back almost warily. “You’re easily impressed.”
“Heh!” Yata grinned in response. For once, that restless anxiousness wasn’t making him irritable. It was almost nice, in a way. “You might be right about that.”
There was no response; for a moment, things went quiet.
It wasn’t quite awkward, but the atmosphere had a tentative feel to it that spread thickly between them. Yata wasn’t sure where to go with that, but there was a kind of anticipation charging up through his veins that made him feel strongly that he should say or do something. Fushimi was looking at him, without disdain or mockery or even that casual irritation, his face pale and shadowed in the uneven lighting and his long-lashed eyes visible even behind his glasses at this close range. There was something in his expression like bafflement, as if Yata was a riddle he hadn’t managed to solve, but he wasn’t saying anything – wasn’t asking questions or opening up any kind of discussion.
Guess it’s up to me, then, huh?
“Hey.” Even though he’d tried to keep his voice hushed, it sounded loud against the stillness around them. Yata cleared his throat, trying again. “There’s something I’ve been curious about. How’d you end up joining a group like Scepter 4, anyway?”
Fushimi’s frown deepened; he clicked his tongue and looked away. “Why would you be curious about that?”
“Well… you’re my age, right? Close to it, anyway.” Yata shrugged. Honestly, he’d been curious about Fushimi since they’d met, but he wasn’t about to ask when they were snarking at each other. He had his pride to think about, after all. It was different down here, though, with this kind of atmosphere; he felt like it wasn’t such a bit deal. “Plus, you’re kind of interesting when you’re not being a pain in the ass, y’know?”
“Hah?” Fushimi turned his head again, the expression on his face a curious mix of bafflement and something like mild frustration. “’Interesting’?” He snorted derisively. “Don’t make me laugh. Aren’t you constantly going on about how much I piss you off?”
“Yeah, you totally piss me off,” Yata admitted, without hesitation, letting out a huff of breath as he leaned back on his hands. “You’re rude and unfriendly, and you act like you think you’re better than the rest of the planet half the time – who wouldn’t be pissed off by that?” He glanced over to catch Fushimi’s nonplussed expression, and couldn’t help but crack a bit of a smile. “Besides that, though, you act super cool, you’re crazy smart, and you know how to do all kinds of shit I wouldn’t get even in a million years. So yeah, you’re interesting. What’s weird about that?”
Fushimi was staring at him like he’d grown a second head again. The honest incredulity in the reaction was kind of endearing in a way; it was like he’d gotten so used to being prickly and unlikeable that someone saying otherwise was a genuine shock.
Well, that’s not really surprising.
It only lasted a second or so, though, and then he was narrowing his eyes again and clicking his tongue, lips turning down in a frown. “That’s a pretty simple way of looking at things.”
“Yeah, well, I’m a pretty simple guy.” Yata shrugged, grinning back. Despite the situation, he was feeling good. Something about getting to see these new sides to Fushimi was strangely exciting. “So? Are you – ?”
“You know,” Fushimi interrupted him, drawing his voice out the way he did when he was going to say something insulting, “the name of your coffee house, Homra – that was the name of a gang in a different neighborhood at one point.” He lowered his eyelids, watching Yata from the corners of his eyes. “Did you know about that, Misaki?”
Both the topic and tone had Yata’s hackles raising – that, plus an additional little spike of irritation at the deliberate use of his first name, cut through the earlier good mood. He frowned back. “What about it?”
“So you did know.” Fushimi raised both eyebrows at that, condescendingly. “I’d think, knowing that, it might not have been the smartest decision to use it as the name of a business. Don’t you think so?”
Irritation jumped up quickly towards anger within him, rising fast at the back of his throat. “What the hell would you know about it?” Yata straightened, drawing himself up indignantly. “We’ve always been Homra, and always will be! None of that’s changed just because – ”
“Because Kusanagi-san’s bar was auctioned off?” Fushimi interjected coolly. He seemed to be watching Yata closely, eyes still half-lidded. “Or because Suoh Mikoto’s not there anymore?”
The reminder was like an icy fist closing around his heart. He knows about Mikoto-san? At his sides, Yata’s hands clenched into fists. “Shut up.”
Fushimi let out an amused huff, shutting his eyes as his lips tipped up in a slight smile. “Well… I guess it would be a good thing, wouldn’t it? A new start in a different neighborhood, without your former gang leader hanging around bringing grudges your way…”
“Shut up!” Rage blazed to life in his brain; without thinking, Yata shot his hand out and grabbed Fushimi’s collar. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, asshole!”
“Don’t I?” Fushimi smiled placidly at him, not even fighting against the rough hold. “What part of what I said was wrong, Misaki?”
Don’t talk about Mikoto-san that way – Don’t talk about things you don’t understand – Don’t fuck with me – Don’t say that kind of shit about Homra – Those thoughts sprang immediately to Yata’s mind, swirling in his head as he glared at Fushimi, but despite the instinctual anger – the immediate urge to defend any possible slight against Homra – somewhere behind his fury there was an image that blazed more brightly. The image of a small, pale face. Large red eyes. A quiet smile.
“I don’t want to do things the way that Mikoto did.”
The fire that had let in his brain seemed to extinguish with the memory of that clear, unhesitant voice. Yata released his grip on Fushimi’s collar at once, turning away from him and hunching his shoulders forward. With the anger drained out, all he had left was that sense of purpose – and regret.
I never tried to understand him properly… but I’ll do my best for her!
“Yeah,” he muttered, after a brief moment of strained silence, voice gruff. “You’re right.” He could feel the lump rising at the back of his throat with the grudging admission, and couldn’t keep the hurt out of his voice when he added, “Mikoto-san… won’t be around us anymore.”
He could feel Fushimi’s eyes on him, but there was no response other than that.
Well, whatever. It felt almost unbearable to just sit there saying nothing. Yata huffed out a short, humorless laugh. “Like you said, if he came around, all the work to get this far could be wasted.” It was a bitter thing to say, but if Kusanagi could manage, he could too. “Plus, Anna might get targeted. Even the way it is now, we had a couple run-ins at the start…”
They’d managed, though. Despite everything, Homra was important enough to all of them to get through that stuff. Yata still strongly believed in that, after all they’d been through. Everyone there was willing to do whatever it took, even if it meant starting again from scratch, over and over, when their hard work was vandalized and sabotaged.
He cleared his throat. “Anyway, you know all about that stuff, right?” It seemed like Fushimi knew everything, almost. “Guess that’s one of the perks, working for that kind of place…”
“Not really.” The slow, condescending edge seemed to have left Fushimi’s voice; he just sounded weary now. “Scepter 4 isn’t the kind of organization that punishes criminals, so a street gang has nothing to do with us – unless they’re involved in a case. I had enough information to work on Anna’s inheritance issue, and that was it.” There was a slight hesitation, and then, “The rest is from before.”
Yata glanced at him, startled. “‘Before’?”
“Yeah.” Fushimi turned to meet his gaze, head tipped forward and shadows hovering on the edge of his expression. “Most gangs make a point of at least knowing the names and leaders of the other ones,” he mumbled.
It took a second for the meaning behind those words to sink in, and then Yata’s eyes widened as realization struck. “You…”
Fushimi’s gaze on him was watchful. “You’ve heard the name ‘Jungle’ before, right?”
That was enough to summon up a scowl. Those bastards… “Yeah,” Yata gritted out. “I know ‘em.” He didn’t know a whole lot about the online gang – technology wasn’t his strong point, after all – but it was their tip-off that had led to the attack on Totsuka, after all.
He hadn’t exactly been sad to hear about their servers being shut down and their leaders getting arrested. If anything, he was only sorry he didn’t get the chance to beat their asses himself.
“Most people do.” Fushimi’s voice was dry. He let out a short sigh. “I was a member.”
“Eh?” Yata blinked, staring back at him. The expression on Fushimi’s face was serious – he didn’t seem to be joking. “Wait – for real?”
“Why is that so hard to believe?” Fushimi clicked his tongue, frowning slightly. “You’re a former gang member yourself, right, Yatagarasu?”
Yata bristled a little at the derisive tone. “Hey, that code name is cool, okay? But seriously, why Jungle?” Even aside from the fact that they were a bunch of assholes… “It’s not like they have a home base to hang out in or anything. You don’t even get to know who the other members are.”
“That’s what made it appealing.” Fushimi shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. “The missions were easy, they paid well, and you didn’t have to waste time interacting with anyone.” He curled his lip a bit, eyes narrowing. “It was a pointless, stupid existence.”
“Huh.” Yata blinked again, not really sure how to react to that. Is he slamming himself, or… what? Something occurred to him then, and he narrowed his eyes. “Wait, how long ago was this?”
“Five years ago – four if you mean how long since I left.” Fushimi raised an eyebrow at him. “Why?”
That was a relief. Yata let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Just curious.” He hadn’t seriously thought that Fushimi might have had something to do with that tip-off – and honestly, now that everything was over, he was getting used to the fact that ordinary members weren’t worth holding grudges over. Slowly getting used to it. But he wasn’t sure how he would’ve felt about Fushimi being there when that had happened. The idea was unsettling.
He still didn’t really know why he cared. Fushimi felt like a giant mystery to him – swinging from irritable to insulting to moody to… whatever else he was, right now. Yata couldn’t figure it out.
One thing he did know was that his drive to know more was as strong as ever. It was like Fushimi’s existence was a giant magnet or something. He didn’t know why, but despite the anger and the annoyance and the confusion, Yata couldn’t help but feel drawn to him.
I’ve gotta be crazy. But he’d made it this far following his instincts… “So? How’d you end up in Scepter 4?”
Fushimi shrugged again, turning his gaze forward instead of continuing to meet Yata’s eyes. “A lot of things happened,” he murmured slowly, almost thoughtfully, and then turned back. “What happened to Totsuka Tatara?”
The sudden, frank question caught Yata off-guard. “Wha – huh? Wait, you don’t know already?”
He got another raised eyebrow at that. “I wouldn’t have asked if I did.”
Yeah right. Yata scratched at the back of his head, under his beanie. It kind of felt like he was being deliberately distracted, but – well, maybe he wasn’t the only one who was curious. Maybe he needed to be the one to start this off. If he wanted to know about Fushimi, it was only fair if Fushimi got to know some stuff about his past, too, right?
And maybe, if he was totally honest, he was a little happy that Fushimi seemed interested.
“He was… shot from behind.” Even now, it was hard to talk about. The memory wasn’t a good one. “It hurt his spine. I don’t really know… y’know, the medical stuff. But I was there.”
There had been so much blood. Yata still felt sick to his stomach when he thought about it. Not that he wasn’t used to blood, but just knowing it was Totsuka’s had changed everything. He could still vividly remember how it had felt to hold his friend’s surprisingly light body in his arms and feel the thick damp soaking into his clothes and coating his skin. He had been frantic. Totsuka had smiled at him, mumbled something comforting, and then closed his eyes and gone still, and Yata had thought he’d died for real.
It was the most frightening, awful experience of his entire life.
“I held him,” he mused out loud, fingers curling together in his lap to hide the obvious tremor. “He was right there, and dying, and I…” It was hard to speak around the sudden lump that rose up in his throat again. “I…”
Fushimi’s eyes were on him, cool and serious, and somehow that impassive gaze felt oddly comforting. Yata swallowed. “I thought I felt his heart stop,” he admitted softly. This wasn’t something he’d told anyone, and he wasn’t sure why he was saying it now, to someone he’d known less than a month and continually argued with, but it seemed right somehow. “I’ll never forget what that felt like.”
Silence stretched between them. With the memory still fresh in his mind, Yata wasn’t too worried about it feeling awkward. It felt like anything Fushimi might have to say would probably be out of place, anyway. He didn’t want sympathy, and being told that it wasn’t that big a deal since Totsuka didn’t actually die probably would’ve pissed him off. It kinda felt like the silence was Fushimi’s way of saying he’d listened and he got it, so there was nothing to add.
“You,” Fushimi mumbled, finally, “didn’t really need to say that much, you know.”
… Or maybe that.
Yata turned his head to scowl, more out of habit than because the comment really annoyed him. “Oi… read the mood or something, dumbass.”
He got a raised eyebrow in return. “You’re the one who randomly decided to pour his heart out to me. What do you expect?”
“How’m I supposed to know? I just felt like saying it.” Yata heaved a sigh, reaching up to scratch at the back of his head, more out of awkwardness than irritation. It felt like the air had cleared a little, some of that heavy atmosphere dissipating. “Whatever, I’m not taking it back. It felt good to get that off my chest, y’know?” He managed a small, rueful smile. “Anyway, you’re kind of a good listener, I guess.”
Fushimi’s frown deepened; he stared at Yata for a second, looking vaguely disgruntled, and then turned his head. “It doesn’t exactly take much effort to just stay quiet and let someone ramble on.”
“Heh.” The smile widened into a grin. There’s that habit again. Now that he’d noticed it, catching Fushimi’s patterns was a little bit satisfying. “If you say so.”
That sharp, irritated ‘tsk’ answered him, and then Fushimi turned his head again, eyes narrowing a bit. “If you’re going to keep on babbling uselessly anyway, you might as well get on with it. Was the attack on Totsuka Tatara the reason why your leader decided to leave?”
It was a blunt question, but Yata found he didn’t really mind. You could just be honest and say you’re curious, though. “No, not yet. After… what happened, Mikoto-san wanted to get that bastard and make him pay. All of us did.” It was easy to remember the rage and desperation. In those two weeks, he hadn’t slept or ate well, too focused on drowning out everything in a hunt for revenge. “It didn’t work out like that in the end.”
“It usually doesn’t,” Fushimi noted, almost idly.
That might’ve pissed him off if he was in a different mood. As it was, Yata huffed out a short breath, twisting his lips into a frown. “Yeah, well. Mikoto-san walked right into an ambush, on purpose, to get the guy. And it worked! But…” He grimaced, balling his hands into fists in his lap at the memory. “He… wasn’t okay, after.”
Fushimi returned his gaze without saying anything. The lens of his glasses reflected the light from his phone, seeming to glitter a little in the darkness as he tipped his head to the side. ‘Go on,’ the little motion seemed to say. ‘I’m listening.’
Yata took in a breath, letting it out again in a rush, and then went on. “I wasn’t there… I mean, I don’t know if I could’ve done something, but… I wish I was. He was alone, y’know? I regret it.” He let out a small, humorless ‘heh’. “I regret a lot of stuff. But anyway, he ended up in the hospital, too. Really messed up. They couldn’t even get him conscious for the longest time...”
It sounded so weirdly simple when he described it. Yata couldn’t handle even the second of silence that fell afterward, carrying on without stopping to think too hard about it. “Everyone left. I mean, Kusanagi-san had to deal with two people in the hospital, so I get it, right? He didn’t really have a choice but to sell the bar. And he was trying to help Totsuka-san. It wasn’t even like he gave up on Mikoto-san or anything. I see that now. But everyone just left, like Homra was no big thing, and I mean, now I get that it wasn’t like that for anyone, but…”
He had to stop there, not really sure how to describe it. That feeling of being alone – of having any kind of meaning or passion or goal snatched out of his grasp. Frustration and aimless resentment that he didn’t quite know where to point. Everything important in his life just being… gone, all of a sudden. Dragging himself through the days, losing a little bit more hope and drive every time he skateboarded by himself without direction or purpose – every time he passed by the bar, and saw it closed off and empty – every time Kamamoto sent him a message that just said ‘Yata-san, are you okay?’ and he felt hopelessly, irrationally angry…
Every time he went to the hospital and stared at Mikoto-san’s unconscious face, still and powerless; unable to sustain Yata’s dreams and carefree happiness any more.
I just selfishly pinned everything on you and did whatever I wanted…
“You…” Fushimi hesitated for a moment after saying that, seeming to consider his words for a moment as he studied Yata with an unreadable gaze. “Somehow, I can see you being the kind of person to get frustrated when others don’t see things the way you do.”
“Ah…” That one stung, and not because it wasn’t true. When he combined that candid response with his current thoughts, Yata couldn’t help but deflate a little. “Yeah. Well. Can’t argue with that. You really need to hit me over the head with something when I don’t get it, y’know?” He rubbed the back of his neck, forcing a brief bark of a laugh. “I’m kind of a blockhead, after all.”
“Yeah,” Fushimi agreed, without hesitation. “A blockhead, and a stubborn idiot with an incredibly simplistic view of the world. Easily angered, easily baited, and with a tendency to lash out first and apologize later.” He listed it all so easily and blandly that Yata couldn’t help but gape at him, torn between surprise and outrage. “Isn’t that what they call ‘passion’? You’re the kind of person whose feelings are too strong, and you get carried away with them.” He frowned suddenly, crossing his arms in a motion that seemed oddly defensive, eyes flickering off to the side as he mumbled in an almost inaudible tone, “That’s… not always unpleasant.”
Something in Yata’s chest seemed to give a little squeeze; for a brief moment, he couldn’t even breathe, starting at Fushimi with his face slowly growing hot and watching what he was almost positive was an answering flush spread across those pale cheeks. “O-oh,” he managed, after a second or two of stunned silence. “Uh.” He cleared his throat. “Thanks.”
He seriously just complimented me right now, right? I didn’t just imagine it?
Fushimi clicked his tongue and let out a breath sharply, not responding.
The mood between them was starting to feel even more awkward than before. Despite his shock and the tiny bit of embarrassment he wasn’t sure what to do with, Yata couldn’t help but reach his breaking point again. He shifted, a bit nervously. “Hey. Uh. Can I tell you something kinda dumb?”
He got a wry glance for that. “If you couldn’t, you wouldn’t be able to talk.”
“Yeah, yeah – shut up, jerk.” Yata shot him a rueful grin, both relieved and a little disappointed that the atmosphere seemed to have returned to normal. “You wanna hear it or not?”
It wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, but Fushimi’s eyes were on him again, steady as ever, and that was enough to bolster his confidence. “It’s just… Mikoto-san was like my hero, but it was more than that, y’know? He gave me a place to belong.” Yata shrugged his shoulders just a bit. “I was used to feeling like I didn’t really fit anywhere. But with Homra, I did. And I didn’t even have to think, really – I just told myself that everything I wanted to do was for Mikoto-san’s sake, and let out all of my energy without even needing to consider things. It was a relaxed, easy kind of life.”
Fushimi made a small, derisive noise. “That sounds like a pointless life, if you ask me.”
“Shut up.” Yata frowned at him, then sighed heavily. “I mean, you’re not wrong, but don’t say it like that.”
“If you say so.”
He ignored the flippant response. It was strangely freeing to talk about this with someone who had no stake in it, actually. “Anyway, I looked up to him – Mikoto-san, I mean. He was this colossal figure in my life.” Yata lowered his gaze, looking down at his hands for a moment and frowning hard. “After what happened… it was… It’s kinda hard to describe.” He paused, trying to collect his thoughts. “There I was, looking down at someone who was the most stable thing in my whole world, and seeing him… broken down. Like a normal person with flaws, who could die at any time. It’s like the world stopped for a second.” He drew in a sharp breath, frustrated with how hard it was to find the right words. “I can’t really explain well.”
“It’s fine,” Fushimi mumbled back, and again, there was that little second of hesitation. “I understand it more than you think. Probably.”
The words were soft, but there was an edge to them that had Yata turning his head again, staring at Fushimi with surprise. “Huh?”
He got back a short huff and another frown. “Never mind.”
“Right.” There was probably no point in pushing with him. “Well. It… depressed me. I used to visit him all the time, just sitting there talking about the old days.” Now that he was looking back, this was kind of embarrassing. Yata managed a small, rueful smile. “It was so dumb.”
Fushimi didn’t contradict him. He hadn’t really expected that, though. “Anna didn’t visit that often, but she never gave up. She was always looking to the future, even then.” Her strength still surprised him. He wanted to protect her, but he couldn’t help but look up to her, too. “I guess… in a way, I was so stuck in the past, it was kind of like giving up. It took Anna’s inheritance struggle to snap me out of it. She needed us.”
He could still remember her face clearly when Kusanagi-san had been on the phone discussing her aunt’s will. Her hands had been folded in her lap and there was a tremor in her fingers, but her eyes were clear and looking straight ahead. He didn’t understand her connection to that person, who she hadn’t seen in years – but it was obvious the news of her death had an impact. Still…
She always faces forward.
“Anyway.” Yata smiled again, drawing up the familiar determination from the memory. “That’s what made me realize, if I couldn’t go back and fix things with Mikoto-san, maybe I could still do something for Anna, even if it was just supporting her from the side.” He shifted his hands out of his lap and leaned back on his arms instead, turning his head to share his improved mood with Fushimi. “And now Mikoto-san’s awake. I know he can’t be with us right now, but I still think maybe one day I’ll be able to meet him again and try to be friends normally. Not pinning my whole life on him. Know what I mean?”
“Not really.” Fushimi frowned a little in return. “I’ve never had anyone like that in my life.”
Fushimi clicked his tongue. “Heroes don’t exist. But you know that by now, right?”
“Nope.” Yata grinned back at that disgruntled expression. “I still believe in heroes. I’ve just changed how I think of ’em. They’re normal people like us, and sometimes they need saving too, that’s all.”
“That’s so simple.” Fushimi clicked his tongue, frown deepening. “If you put it like that, wouldn’t anyone who saved a hero also qualify as one? You’d end up with almost everyone being a hero in the end.”
“Sounds nice.” Yata snickered a little at the sour face he got back. “Come on, lighten up! It wouldn’t be so bad, right? Everyone being a hero…”
“It loses any meaning in that case,” Fushimi muttered, looking away almost petulantly.
“Nah.” Yata pushed himself back up off his hands, looking at Fushimi’s profile and feeling that tiny edge of a thrill run through his whole body. He felt amazingly light – and warm – after putting all of those feelings to words. “Isn’t it cool to think that you could be someone else’s hero some day?”
Something in Fushimi’s face seemed to shift; when he looked back at Yata, there was an odd expression on it. “Someone else, huh?” he murmured. “I wonder if that stupid thing counted…”
“What?” Yata straightened, watching Fushimi’s face expectantly. There was a certain amount of wary hesitation there. “Come on, you can tell me anything at this point, right? I just dumped my life story on you, so I’ll definitely listen to whatever you wanna get off your chest.”
“That’s true, I guess.” The corners of Fushmi’s mouth edged up. “You talk a lot.”
“Heh.” Yata grinned back. “You don’t talk enough, so we balance out.”
“That’s an interesting way to put it.” Fushimi let out a huff, sounding partially amused and partially resigned. “So? What do you expect me to say?”
How you joined Scepter 4. Why you left Jungle. Why you were in there in the first place. What that ‘stupid thing’ was that made you make that expression just now. All of those things flashed into Yata’s head immediately, but somehow, his instincts tugged him in a different direction. He moderated his grin back to a smile, met Fushimi’s cautious gaze without bothering to hide his own interest, and went with what felt like the natural answer.
“Anything you want.”