Warnings: mentions of self-harm, misogyny, internalized homophobia.
All Excuses Aside
The head teacher’s office was an obnoxiously colorful and bright place. Oddly-shaped figures modeled by childish hands littered the man’s desk, their paint flaking in places from too much dusting. Some looked as old as ten years, perhaps more. Izaya shifted his gaze from the horrid finger-paintings pinned to the off-white walls and looked at his teacher for one fleeting second.
Stupid, he thought in distaste.
It was the same distaste he harbored for the art itself; he was too old now to find any of it interesting.
Still, the sight of his mother sitting in a plastic chair in the midst of all this messiness was somewhat amusing. Kyouko did so hate childishness of any sort.
“I’m sure you understand why the situation is so worrying,” Izaya’s teacher said, smiling beatifically—he had probably never met a woman as coldly beautiful as Orihara Kyouko.
Izaya resisted the urge to snort.
“I’m sure you’re making a mistake,” Kyouka replied frostily. Then, with a tap of her fingers to the arm of her chair: “Izaya, focus.”
Izaya rolled his eyes. “I am focusing.”
Kyouko ignore him entirely, as usual. “My son is one of your best students,” she said. “He’s been consistent with his grades and behavior since he entered this school years ago.”
“Ah, yes, yes, of course… Izaya-kun is a delight to teach.” The man had started sweating now; dampness shone grossly between the creases of his forehead. He wiped at it with an embroidered handkerchief and added, “But the fact is, Minoru was very… clear about what happened when he talked to the counselor.”
“You run a school, don’t you?” Kyouko asked. “Don’t you know children lie?”
In a rare display of courage, the teacher replied, “This is too grave to lie about. We all made sure that Minoru understood it before he made any accusations.”
Kyouko stayed silent. Izaya continued his lazy appraisal of the kindergarteners’ productions and how pathetic his head teacher was for being so attached to it. How many of those children had left his school by now? No wonder his career had ended in such a place. Such weak personalities had no business teaching people above the age of ten.
“Orihara-san,” the man said meekly, “the situation is dire. Very, very dire. Izaya-kun has refused to open up to anyone about what happened, and Minoru-kun caught an infection from his wounds.”
“Izaya didn’t open up because he didn’t do it,” Kyouko replied. “Izaya, tell him.”
“I didn’t do it,” Izaya lied.
His teacher seemed to grow more uneasy by the second. He looked pointedly away when Izaya smiled at him. “Izaya-kun is a good student, but he is a loner,” he said. “His teachers have pointed out in the past that he doesn’t play with any of his classmates…”
Izaya stopped listening. He felt for the phone in his pocket as the man went on with various accounts of his lack of socializing, of his refusal to cooperate during group projects, of his habit of eating alone in the classroom. Using the cellphone during class was easy as anything, but he didn’t think he would be able to pull it so close to the man’s very nose. Even if he did not notice, his mother would.
Minoru had been an experiment of sorts. Izaya hadn’t actually thought that the other boy had the guts to do it, but Minoru had been only so happy to run to him during recess and drag him behind the corner of a building to show him his cut-up arms. What a fool. He hadn’t even bothered to clean himself up properly—he had bled through his shirt and been noticed by their P.E. teacher.
He knew he should’ve gotten a girl to do it instead. Girls never snitched on him.
“Are you calling my son a pervert?” Kyouka was asking now, furious as she rarely was.
“Of course not,” the head teacher replied, “but I have to ask, do you have a computer at home? With the internet, children can be exposed to very dangerous things—”
The most annoying thing about this was that he was right. Izaya had stumbled upon the self-harm forums while using his home computer.
Kyouko argued for a while longer. An hour had gone by already, and Izaya’s behind was starting to become numb on the stiff chair. The fact that he hadn’t been forced to sit in one of the kid-sized little benches was very poor consolation. He watched the sun set out of the window till his eyes burned and a greenish splash of negative light followed everywhere he looked. His ears had completely tuned out the raised voices around him. He drew shapes with the afterimage of sunlight, smiling emptily, bored out of his mind.
“I’m sorry, Orihara-san,” and the man’s voice was final now, though apologetic. “Your son cannot continue to study here. I will put in a good word for him, considering his grades, but you will have to enroll him somewhere else. You should have him see a child therapist as well.”
Kyouko’s lips thinned into a white line. Without another word, she rose from the chair and left the room, Izaya following after her.
It was getting colder now. Izaya shivered, unwilling to close his jacket fully, knowing he would soon be seated warmly inside his mother’s car. He climbed in before her, finally taking his phone out of his pocket and waiting as she smoked by the driver’s door. He knew the cigarette would do very little to calm her down anyway.
Indeed, no sooner was she seated behind the wheel that she turned around and said, “You’ll have no allowance this month.”
“That’s fine,” Izaya replied, typing up a quick message.
“For that comment, you won’t have any next month either. Put that thing away when I’m talking to you.”
He frowned but obeyed. Kyouko was obviously waiting for him to look at her, and so he did, trying very little not to show his surliness.
“What is wrong with you?” she asked once their eyes had met.
Izaya shrugged. “Nothing,” he said.
“You made a boy cut himself up! What were you trying to achieve?”
“You said I didn’t do it.”
“I’m not so sure anymore.”
“Then send me to a therapist,” Izaya snapped.
Her fingers whitened around the shoulder of her seat. If he had not been seated in the back, he knew she would have slapped him. “You’re entering middle school in a few months, Izaya,” she said. “Getting expelled from school is not how you want your future to go. You’re a big brother now—you should be behaving with your sisters in mind.”
Izaya rolled his eyes. “They’re babies,” he replied. “They won’t care that I’m being expelled.”
“Your father will.”
“He’s not here, is he?”
Kyouko turned around with a hiss of anger. A moment later the car sputtered to life, and her hands grasped the wheel firmly, the red of her nail polish very stark against black leather.
“I’m not sending you to a therapist,” Kyouko said as she guided the car out of its parking spot. “I’m not wasting money on you just to satisfy your attention-seeking.”
“I wish you didn’t pay attention to me at all,” Izaya muttered to himself, taking his phone back out.
She didn’t hear him over the sound of the engine.
Going home that day wasn’t any different than any other day. Kyouko thanked the lady who took care of Mairu and Kururi for her a little stiffly, taking the babes from her arms only to put them in their cribs to deal with later. Izaya locked himself into his bedroom and sent email after email to people he had never met before. He only stopped to get rid of the papers over his desk; he didn’t have any homework anymore, after all.
He heard his mother phone his father downstairs, no doubt complaining about him and apologizing for her delay in joining him. She had to cancel her trip after Izaya’s teacher called.
His own phone rang a few minutes later, his father’s name and number shining brightly on the screen.
Izaya ignored it.
As there were only a few months left in the school year, Kyouko did not enroll Izaya anywhere new. He spent the winter of that year home-schooled, which suited him just as well as going to class did. Izaya stayed mostly in his room, tackling down the week’s workload within a couple days so he could have the rest of his time free. He didn’t have any friends, so he didn’t go out to meet anyone. The people who sometimes asked to see him had no idea they were talking to a ten-year-old.
When his sisters’ cries became too loud, he banged on the wall with his fist, and the woman who took care of them hurried to shush them. He didn’t talk to her if he could avoid it; he still hadn’t forgiven his parents for replacing his grandmother with such an inept girl.
The days were long and short at once. Izaya measured time by daylight and often in reverse. He woke when the sky darkened and slept when it brightened. Kyouko and Shirou weren’t home often enough to notice.
When spring came, he entered middle school at a private all-boy establishment. His teachers were strict, his uniform old-fashioned, and his classmates just as idiotic as they had been in elementary school. Izaya celebrated his eleventh birthday with no one the wiser—though his grandmother did send a terribly shrill musical card to him, the mechanism of which he crushed as soon as he opened it.
He pinned it to the headboard of his bed.
Mairu and Kururi stopped crawling around and started walking instead. Their babbling turned to a mushy few words. Their nanny was replaced with another after rumors mysteriously reached Kyouko’s ears of her hanging around the wrong sort. Izaya’s amusement at his own scheme was lost in the face of just how bored he was with it all. He could see no difference between that woman and the next; she cooed and baby-talked and texted on the job all the same.
Years passed. Izaya grew out of his uniform five times. Adolescence caught him with him as awkwardly as it did his classmates, all of whom seemed to lose twice as main brain cells as they grew centimeters. Notes slipped in class about the neighboring all-girl school turned into adult manga, traded in the closet behind the janitor’s office, carried from backpack to backpack. Izaya’s turn to have them came eventually. He took all of five minutes looking at pictures of sweaty bodies to decide that he held no interest in the matter.
He often chose to walk longer on his way home. There was as little waiting for him at home as there was at his school—his baby sisters had turned into overexcited children with way too much interest in keeping him company. He found them slipping into his room at all hours of the day and night. He lay awake in the small hours of morning with half of Kururi’s body strewn over his and Mairu snoring by his ear, both of their breaths in tandem even while they slept. After a few minutes, he inevitably shook them awake and threw them out.
Technology advanced almost faster than he could keep up with it. That was perhaps the only thing he truly enjoyed. On those long afternoon walks through Ikebukuro, Izaya visited coffee shop after coffee shop, borrowed internet café computers for the purpose of talking with desperate strangers whom he pushed this way or that. Clerks got used to hearing his laughter come out of the booths. They must see weirder things.
Sometimes his feet brought him close to Raijin Academy’s front gate. Izaya made his way through the high schoolers crowding the sidewalk without looking at them.
The mess with Minoru in elementary school taught Izaya not to engage too closely with the people around him. Though his parents’ attention had done nothing but dwindle further over the years, he felt very little like being expelled once more. He knew himself enough to tell that if he were to drop out now, he would never enter school again. His vague plans for the future would be much easier with a degree. And anyway the boys in his classes were too inane for him to bother overly much; he found the girls at the neighboring school a tad more interesting to talk to, and they did as well.
“You’re so lucky you’re good-looking, Orihara,” his classmates often sighed. One of them did so now as Izaya slid a light-blue letter into his pocket. It had been given to him, in full view of everyone, by a shy girl from their neighbor middle school.
“Daily showers would help you greatly, Horada,” Izaya replied.
He took his phone out of his jacket and typed idly at the keyboard. It seemed Nakura-kun had met trouble today; he desperately sought Kanra’s counsel.
Around him and Horada, other boys laughed. Horada grew very red in the face. His too-short uniform seemed to flutter around him like a bothered cat’s fur. “You don’t even care,” he accused, pointing rudely at Izaya. “You never reply to those letters. What, you too good for every chick out there?”
Izaya frowned. “You can have that letter if you want it so bad.”
“I don’t want your fucking leftovers!”
Horada’s voice brought the attention of younger students. Izaya wasn’t very used to so many eyes on him; usually those conversations were carried out in better humor. He never thought much of them, or of the scented letters given to him by the girls. He rarely read them.
Horada, however, looked pleased. He looked as if he had waited a long time for such a moment to happen.
When did I make this guy my enemy? Izaya wondered distantly.
“Maybe you really think you’re too good for all those girls,” Horada said almost sweetly. The effect was broken by how obviously he wanted everyone around to hear. “Maybe you swing for the other team, huh, Orihara?”
The boys around them laughed. Horada grinned winningly.
Izaya stared unseeingly at his phone screen.
Accolades came Horada’s way. That can’t be right, some boys said. Man, you don’t have to be so jealous. No one seemed to take Horada’s words seriously. He was dragged toward their next class looking slightly put off by how little effect his grand accusation had. His eyes stabbed into Izaya’s back until he vanished into the hallway.
Izaya found himself alone in the empty classroom. A teacher came and started getting ready for his next class, shooting Izaya some awkward glances, but not calling him out on his presence directly. It took a long few minutes for Izaya to move.
He didn’t go to the rest of his classes that day.
He walked through Ikebukuro. He didn’t stop anywhere. He walked by and through West Gate Park until its doors closed; he made his way toward Sunshine, toward the big entertainment areas, not making use of any of them. His mother texted him after night had closed on him, reminding him that she would be home that night and that he better be there before her.
His sisters said nothing of him coming back so late. They pleaded for him to come play with the mess of paint and play-doh they had made of the kitchen, and Izaya ignored them. He made a beeline for his room. He locked himself in it.
A few minutes he heard a car park in the driveway, and then a few seconds later the high voice of his mother, yelling at his sisters for destroying the kitchen. In a moment, no doubt, she would come upstairs to berate him for not cleaning after them.
He took the blue letter out of his pocket and read it. It smelled faintly of lavender.
The next day found him waiting by the gates of the girls’ school. It was a warm late-summer morning, bright and fragrant with sunlight. It seemed the girls had a garden to take care of as part of their class activities; a flowerbed sat by the entrance of the main building and sweetened the smell of the city.
They started arriving not long after him, often in groups of two or more. Izaya didn’t react to how they giggled at the sight of him obviously waiting here for someone. No one here or at his school was ignorant of what it meant for a neighbor student to stray like this. He looked over the faces of the crowd, trying to remember the one who had written to him the day previous.
He would not have found her if he had not seen her reaction first. She came in with her arm linked with a friend’s, who suddenly shook her and pointed in Izaya’s direction. The girl blushed to the roots of her hair immediately, looking this way and that in a frenzy. She was pretty, Izaya supposed. Short-haired and demure.
He made his way toward her under the curious eyes and gossiping tongues of their public.
“Akiko-chan, right?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she breathed. “Um, good morning, Orihara-kun.”
Her friend left them with a pointed smirk.
By now he could different sorts of stares directed at them both. Izaya had stopped counting the love declarations he had gotten from the students here, but he saw that some looked wildly offended. One girl started crying in the distance, her friends patting her back consolingly. In Akiko’s eyes, he glimpsed a bit of pride, hidden behind the shyness.
He put on his best smile.
Tuesdays were always the busiest days of the week. Izaya’s coworkers wagered that it was because Mondays were a little weekend-hazy, all of them tired and unwilling to come bury their heads in paperwork and answer angry phone calls from their contractors. Tuesdays came at them with all the strength of the week to follow, they said. They had no choice but to focus and stop blaming their previous festivities.
Izaya thought it had more to do with the fact that their boss always locked himself with his weekly yakuza visitor all day. He really wondered how everyone could be so oblivious as to where exactly the company money came from.
It didn’t matter to him overly much. It wasn’t as if he was directly employed by local organized crime; even when police inevitably got involved, he couldn’t be charged with anything more than ignorance.
“Been a while since you came with us after work, Orihara,” said Motoi during lunch break that day. “It’s karaoke tonight, you should come.”
Izaya took a scalding sip of his tea and replied, “I’d rather spare you my singing.”
Motoi elbowed him roughly, laughing. Izaya tried not to show just how much he disliked it. “None of us can sing. That’s the point.”
“I said I wouldn’t be back late.”
“Right,” Motoi grinned. “I forgot not all of us are single.”
He made a few more comments, eyebrows raised sleazily, obviously expecting Izaya to laugh. Izaya answered with strained smiles. He drank from his cup so as to avoid answering most of the time. Tea burned the tip of his tongue. It was cold in the lobby where Motoi liked to sneak in smokes and Izaya enjoyed being left alone.
Far too often, those two things coincided.
“It’s too bad for that poor Hana-chan,” Motoi said as they went back to their desks. Unfortunately, his neighbored Izaya’s—which was the entire reason the man had decided that the two of them were friends since Izaya entered the company two years prior. “She’s been carrying a torch for you, Orihara.”
Izaya glanced at Hana. Her desk was at the other side of the room, by their boss’s office. She had started working here only a few months ago—right now she was buried in work, speaking into the mic of her headset as she typed on her laptop. She was diligent. She probably hadn’t eaten yet.
“She’s twenty-two,” Izaya said.
“And you’re what, thirty? It’s not like she’s underage.”
Izaya was thirty-two. Hana was a year younger than his sisters. “Like I said,” he replied, “I’m not interested.”
Motoi shook his head good-naturedly. His conversation for the rest of the day was more of the same: comments about Izaya’s love life, about his own, about their other coworkers’. He talked crudely of the eighteen-year-old intern working on the floor below theirs. He spoke of a new maid café near Sunshine in a low voice. Izaya felt, not for the first time, grateful for every phone call he got which forced Motoi to be silent.
It was nothing unusual. He finished most of his work before everyone else and spent the rest of his mandatory time at the company taking care of his growing online advice side-business—which consisted of very little advice and a lot of giving people a push in directions he found interesting.
Well. It wasn’t as if he was getting paid for it anyway.
He left the company a little later than he usually did. Motoi was long gone, having sneaked another cigarette break some twenty minutes before he was supposed to be let off. Of course, he never came back from it. Izaya enjoyed something like an hour of silence as the office emptied itself. Hana saluted him awkwardly when she left; he gave her a cold smile which seemed to both fluster and frighten her. The whole floor was empty by the time he put on his own coat and turned off his laptop.
He was waiting by the elevator when his boss’s office door opened, and an unfamiliar voice came out of it—”I’ll see you tomorrow, then.“
“Yes, of course,” Izaya’s boss replied. He seemed oddly subdued.
Izaya didn’t look backwards as footsteps approached him. In fact he took it upon himself to browse the various discussion apps on his phone as the unfamiliar man who had come out of his boss’s office stood next to him, only looking up when he was certain he could fake sheepishness well enough.
“Good evening,” he offered.
The man next to him was definitely not the usual yakuza dog who came to talk to his boss. The ostentatious white suit would have given him away much too soon, as well as the golden chains round his neck and the white, aged scar at his temple. Izaya didn’t think even Motoi could have seen that man and not been suspicious.
Izaya expected the stranger to ignore him entirely. Instead the man glanced briefly at him, away, and then back again with an odd blink. He gave Izaya a quick once-over before grunting, “Evening.”
He said nothing more as they both stepped into the elevator. The closed space of the lift filled itself with the scent of tobacco and acrid aftershave, which Izaya found he did not mind for once. He kept to his own rather than ask out loud all the questions he wanted to; the feel of the man next to him sneaking glances his way felt more rewarding than spying on him would, he found.
They were separated soon enough anyway. Ten floors later the yakuza entered the sleek car obviously waiting for him—and parked on the disabled spot usually occupied by Yoshino’s bulky vehicle—and Izaya made his way toward his apartment building with a lot on his mind.
He received several more emails from Motoi on his way, all asking him to join them for the weekly office karaoke night. He had sneaked at some point a picture of Hana, looking flustered, accompanied by another tasteless comment.
Izaya had no interest in the girl whatsoever, but his annoyance grew enough to make him interested in ruining Motoi’s night. He sent a screenshot of the message, picture included, on a Dollars topic board. He had lost his prior attention for the group after they turned into vigilantes of sorts years ago, but they could still prove useful from time to time.
Several messages immediately popped up to express their outrage. One user by the name of Snake Hands swore to take care of the issue in very stiff writing. The satisfaction of knowing this taken care of carried Izaya the rest of the way home.
It didn’t last longer than that.
A few seconds were enough to make him realize the kind of mood Akiko was in when he closed the door behind himself. His greeting was answered with silence despite the obvious sound of activity in the living-room: the TV was lit on a humor program, the presenters’ loud voices echoing shrilly. Akiko was bent over the low table, not watching it at all, brow creased as she examined some paperwork.
“Leave it,” she said when Izaya turned down the TV’s volume.
“You’re not even watching,” he replied.
She finally looked at him. Her glare was only brightened by how red her face was.
In a bad mood, then.
The remnants of her dinner were visible in the kitchen sink. Izaya didn’t bother preparing anything for himself, instead calling for takeout and leaving the dirty dishes for her to wash. He made his way to the bathroom for a shower, and then the bedroom once that was taken care of, only coming out when the doorbell rang. He had received several more messages from an increasingly concerned Nakura in that short time. He browsed them in boredom as he ate, snorting softly at just how gullible the man was. He must be around the same age as Izaya, yet he had never gotten over the mysterious Kanra who so helped him in middle and high school. His messages over the years had grown more and more desperate for Kanra’s attention, when they were not begging for her advice.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” came Akiko’s voice.
Izaya pushed away from his desk and looked toward the door. “What are you expecting me to say?” he asked her.
She stood in the doorway, arms crossed over her chest, frowning. This expression of hers had grown more familiar as the years went by and teenage fancy left her. “Don’t you have anything to do?”
“As you can surely see, I’m working,” Izaya replied evenly.
It only seemed to make her more annoyed. Her lips thinned and whitened as they only did when she was about to lecture him. It had been amusing the first few times, when Izaya knew he could shut her up with a simple fake gesture of affection, but lately those had not worked so well.
“What is today’s date, Izaya?” she asked furiously.
He realized that he had no idea. For the past few years, days had tended to blend together for him. He knew it was late summer, that fall was high on all their heels, promising to be nipping cold. He knew that on the days Akiko cornered him like this, he liked to escape to the roof of their apartment building and look down at the city, idle thoughts of flight or fall running slowly through his mind. He knew that the face of the blushing girl he had once approached with only the thought of proving a classmate wrong did not fit her so well now.
He mostly let her rant at him once she realized he truly didn’t know. Occasional words caught up with his ears—anniversary was repeated often enough, as well as eighteen years and more shaming accusations. He was thinking of what to answer to Nakura’s latest call for affection from his would-be online love. He was thinking of what a yakuza from upper echelons was doing in his boss’s office when previously only small fry had been sent. He felt over his skin the once-over that the older man had given him, satisfaction curling in his stomach almost as strongly as shame.
“I haven’t seen your parents in years, Izaya,” Akiko said as she slid into bed hours later. The echoes of her one-sided arguing still seemed to ring emptily through the air. “And you haven’t seen mine since last Christmas.”
“I’m tired,” he replied, turning his back to her on the bed.
He could almost feel her fume. “We aren’t even married,” she seethed.
This argument was so well-rehearsed by now that Izaya had no need to listen to know what she would say next.
“All my friends are married, Rei-chan had her second kid this summer—”
“I told you I had no interest in marriage,” he cut her off. “You said you wouldn’t make a fuss about it.”
“That was years ago. You’re an adult now, for God’s sake.”
All of this had been so much easier to deal with when her idea of dating consisted in greeting him with a lunchbox before school and holding his hand in dark theaters once a week.
He tensed up when her hand crept over his hip. It went away for a second, only to come back under the blanket this time, her fingers sliding under the edge of his T-shirt. They were cold on his skin. “Don’t you want kids?” she asked in what he knew to be her best bedroom voice. Her hand moved from hip to belly, fingering the opening of his sweatpants intently. “I’m sure everything would be so much better if we had a little one with us…”
She smelled of earth and plants.
Akiko had quickly abandoned her studies to take up her parents’ flower shop. While Izaya bored himself to tears in university, she had become their employee and eventually their successor. It was a big enough business, one that had run in her family for three generations now on her father’s side. She used to bring him flower arrangements made out of the unsold stocks, arrangements which he knew had taken her hours to fashion. Izaya would carry them to his apartment and promptly forget about them.
She smelled of earth, wet and homely, something she hated and couldn’t get rid of no matter how many expensive soaps and shampoos she lathered herself with. It used to be something to hang on to when their relationship inevitably became more physical; something to close his eyes to and get lost in the first time they had sex and all the times after that—as rare as Izaya could make them—till finally even that was not enough. Till finally plant and flower smells of any kind made his belly ache, till he couldn’t spend time in the lobby of his work place anymore, where Hana had taken to decorating, and instead chose the cold lobby that smelled of Motoi’s cheap tobacco.
Izaya grabbed her wrist and pushed her hand away. “I’m tired,” he repeated.
There had once been a faint sense of curiosity in having sex with her, he remembered. Something that his teenagehood’s adult manga had failed to elicit. He supposed it had to do with all the fuss that the boys of his high school made out of sex—who had had it, who had not, how long till it was their turn. Curiosity could only last so long, however.
He never kissed Akiko if he could avoid it. He never touched her if he could avoid it, which he could, most of the time. In the back of his mind there was some acknowledgement that it must be difficult for her. There was the knowledge that had she been more independent and sure of herself, she would have left him long ago. He couldn’t find any sort of remorse in himself for it.
“You’re the worst,” she hissed at him, emotion thick on her voice. She would probably cry herself to sleep with her back turned to him.
Izaya grabbed his phone and thought of the yakuza higher-up who had so frightened his boss earlier.
He arrived early to work the next day. The small morning hours were cold enough to warrant more than the light jacket he had chosen to wear—for no reason that he could discern outside of it looking better on him than a coat. He waited by the coffee machine, though he never drank coffee, saluting a blushing Hana coldly and counting the minutes.
He didn’t have to stand too long. His boss showed up with barely a nod of acknowledgment, and soon after the same man as the day previous arrived, wearing another spotless white suit and a different expensive watch.
His gaze rested on Izaya for a second too long. His steps slowed in the direction of the boss’s office, and he said, “Good morning.”
Izaya lifted his untouched cup of coffee to him in salute. The man’s rough face twitched ever-so-slightly.
The day crawled by at a snail’s pace. To Izaya’s great satisfaction, Motoi never showed up. The men who usually went out with him for after-hour drinks seemed subdued as well; it didn’t take long to drag gossip out of them and learn that a person dressed all in black had barged in on their karaoke outing the night before and, apparently, severely injured Motoi. He wouldn’t be coming to work for at least a week.
Izaya congratulated himself for a few days of peace and quiet and took his time to work for once, ignoring Nakura’s frantic messages. He hadn’t answered the man since the day before and had no intention to. Nakura had grown boring through the years. He didn’t think the man had anything more to offer him.
He had no intention of going back home early that day and suffering more of Akiko’s desperate calls for attention. He once more outstayed all of his coworkers, even polite Hana who only left after everyone else and was too nice to refuse the ridiculous amounts of work that their boss bestowed upon her. Izaya stayed by the coffee machine, ignoring it in favor of brewing some tea for himself in the evening silence. The sun was setting over Shinjuku much earlier than even a week ago. Fall was approaching quicker than any year before/ Sunlight poured in from the wide windows and bathed the desks of the office in its last glow until at last it vanished behind taller buildings. Only then did he hear anyone move from behind his boss’s door.
Izaya made his way toward the elevator. He waited till the sound of a door opening reached him before pressing the call button. A strange tension had worked its way through his back and shoulders. He wondered if perhaps he had slouched too much that day or the day previous.
Finally, the man from this morning walked into the hallway. He stopped at Izaya’s side with a single sideways glance and a curt, “Evening.”
Izaya hummed in answer.
It was no wonder this man arrived earlier and left later than the ones who usually came to monitor the agency. If those could pass as regular people despite their rough manners and unkempt appearances, there was no mistaking his activities for anything legal. The brand and fitting of his suits were too expensive, too pointedly ragged. The twin rings over his indexes may seem like simple inox to a less avert eye, but in the gleam of fading daylight, Izaya could tell that they were made of gold. So was the solid chain roped around his neck and disappearing behind his burgundy shirt, the opening of which let glimpse a smattering of coarse chest hair.
The man checked the hour on his expensive watch. The move was quick, but not enough for Izaya to miss the sight of calluses at the heel of his right palm. They mirrored the ones at the last knuckle of his index. Gun, he thought, and his belly seemed to catch fire at the very idea.
He was somewhat flustered when he stepped into the elevator. Somewhat awkward when, like the day before, he pulled out his smartphone and started typing idly at the screen. The man made no move to talk to him, though Izaya sometimes felt the side of his face burn from his staring.
He wondered what it would take for him to say why exactly he kept looking.
There was no car waiting for the man this time. He put on his coat—black—in the lobby of the building and left with one last grunt in Izaya’s direction. Izaya barely heard the goodbye that left his own lips in answer.
He found himself hit, suddenly, with a myriad possibilities.
The man was getting away slowly. It was difficult to know exactly where he was headed, but if Izaya had to guess, he would wager Ikebukuro. He’d probably go there by train as well. Izaya had nothing to do that night any more than he did any other night, especially now that he was avoiding contact with Nakura and hadn’t yet blocked him on all messaging platforms they shared. If he came home now, he would only be faced with Akiko’s resentment. If he strayed to a café, he would have to deal with Nakura’s pathetic twenty-year-old crush on an entirely fictional person.
There was nothing suspicious about two strangers taking the same train.
It was with this thought in mind that he followed the man from a respectable distance. It was so easy to see him; Tokyo never slept, never ceased to blind all who lived in its belly, and light abounded even at this hour. People littered the streets in search of entertainment. Ill-behaved high schoolers crowded the cafés and gaming arcades. Night never fully set over the city.
Contrary to what Izaya thought, the man did not go down any subway entrance. He simply walked with his hands in his pockets, never looking back, never seeing Izaya follow him. Izaya felt a strange thrill at being led around like this; he remembered with sudden clarity all the times he had gotten willfully lost as a child, unwilling to go back to the wailing of his sisters or his mother’s unkind remarks.
They walked for a very long time. It felt like no time at all. Izaya could hardly keep the grin off his face, and his muscles seemed to ache and shiver under the weight of it, so unused was he to smiling so widely. Akiko had once likened him to a statue in a fit of anger. Izaya had taken her remark to be about how stiff and unconcerned he was in the rare times they were intimate, but now, feeling the ache in his cheeks, he felt very much like stone cracking apart.
How oddly satisfying.
He almost missed the man slipping into a narrow alley not far from Ikebukuro’s biggest entertainment area. Izaya stopped by a convenience store, half-hiding behind a shelf full of newspaper. He felt, for once, no need to take out his phone and check for messages. In fact his hands stayed very still by his sides.
The man didn’t come out for a long time. Eventually the saleswoman at the back of the shop started throwing him worried glances, so Izaya moved away from the cover of the newspaper stand and approached the mouth of the alley. There were very few people around. Very little noise to cover that of low voices murmuring spiteful words. Peeking behind the wall, he saw only shadows. There must be three or four men including the one he had followed, all of them high on anger based on what few words Izaya caught.
“… can’t let you run around anymore, Shiki-san.”
The man in the white suit let out a rough bark of laughter. He pulled a small, glittery pistol out of his coat pocket.
Their voices were not low anymore. In the dark of the alley Shiki seemed to shine more than any weapon the other three suddenly pulled, his hands busy fixing a long black cylinder to the mouth of his small gun.
He took the first shots before anyone else could; Izaya watched, giddy as he had not been since the first stranger online trusted his words like prophecy, as man after man fell with grunts of pain, with the muffled sound of gunshots. His throat seemed locked in place. He forgot to breathe at all.
One man howled and ran out of the alley. Izaya only had enough of his bearings to remember to hide, but he wasn’t quick enough; the man saw him, wild-eyed and furious, his shoulder bleeding profusely.
“Who the fuck are you,” he roared.
Izaya didn’t answer. In retrospect, he didn’t think it would have mattered even if he had.
The man’s bleeding shoulder was that of his dominant arm—the one he held his own gun with. With a howl of pain, he raised it, took aim, and shot.
Cold spread where Izaya’s belly had once run hot with excitement.
He felt very little pain at first. Distantly, he heard the man mutter, “Shit, you’re not—” and then another voice, a familiar one, calling from deep in the alley. The man let out a cry of fear. He dropped his gun on the ground and fled.
Izaya pressed a hand above his pelvis. He felt warmth over his fingers, slick enough to make him faintly nauseous. He knew what he would see if he looked down, so he did not.
Soon enough the man in white—Shiki—came out running. He picked up the bloody gun that had been thrown to the ground and looked around hurriedly, his serious face twisted with rage. Izaya leaned against the wall of the building with a gasp. By now others had come into the street, brought by the sound of the shot. Izaya watched them despite his hazy eyesight. Adrenaline all but numbed him from fingertips to toes.
One person screamed. Another followed. Izaya took much too long to realize that it was him they were pointing at, and it seemed to him that an eternity went by before Shiki turned around and saw him at last.
“You,” he said, surprise washing anger out of his face.
Izaya smiled. “Evening,” he rasped out.
His legs gave out under him. He was out before he even hit the ground.
He came to awareness in increments. The first thing to be felt was the deep ache of his wound, slow as every heartbeat. The second was the sound of light footsteps around him, almost inaudible. Instead of the aching cleanliness of a hospital room, he smelled tea. He couldn’t hear any monitor nearby keeping track of his heartbeat.
Izaya grunted weakly. The footsteps, still silent, hurried in his direction. The hand that touched his arm was so cold that it startled him and made his shoulder jump. Though the person immediately retracted it and walked away, he heard no gasp of surprise.
A muffled voice came from somewhere, another room perhaps: “He’s awake?”
There was no answer.
The steps that neared him then were much louder in contrast. Izaya used what little energy he had to brush a hand over his face, finding dry spit at the corner of his lips and crust under his eyes. His belly ached more at the movement. He decided to ignore it.
He could feel no sunlight on his face. The day had been clear, bright and warm, which probably meant that it was night already. He didn’t feel as though he had slept long enough for another whole day to have gone unnoticed.
Someone sat by his hip, pulling the cover he now realized had been strew over him deeper against his wound. His body leaned into the dip that the person’s weight created in the surface where he was laid, pulling away from what felt like the backrest of a couch. Now that he thought about it, his feet were somewhat raised as well. He felt the soft of a pillow under his back and head, but the angle of his neck remained awkward.
“Hey, are you awake?” the person asked.
Izaya opened his eyes.
The lights were dim enough not to hurt. He was in no hospital that he could recognize—in fact the room around him looked like somewhere someone could live, sleek and expensive in a way Akiko liked to sigh about jealously every time she visited her more well-off friends. Cityglow glinted out of the wide windows. It flickered off of the glass coffee table in blue, green, yellow.
Then Izaya saw nothing, because the one who was seated at his side leaned very close to his face.
“Hello,” the man said—and it was a man, though he harbored some kind of childishness in voice and appearance, eyes sparkling behind his rimless glasses and too-long hair in disarray. “I have to commend you on your pain tolerance, you know. I didn’t think you’d wake up until morning. I’m afraid I can’t give you any more morphine now.”
Izaya tried to speak. He had words in mind, he knew which questions to ask, he felt that he should be able to voice them easily.
The man leaned back. He crossed his legs and put an elbow over his thigh so that he could rest his chin over his curled fingers. The gesture was almost dainty. Izaya found that he could only breathe once some space had been put between them.
For a long time neither of them said anything. The man looked at Izaya and Izaya looked at the man. He could see now that he was dressed in a lab coat of sorts. He could see that he must be older than he had first appeared—perhaps close to Izaya’s age—and that his sleeves were stained with what looked like dry blood.
“May I ask for your name?” the man asked, still using that same old-fashioned politeness. “I looked through your wallet, of course, but I couldn’t read it. That’s quite an odd name your parents picked for you. Is it Nozomu? Rinya?”
“Izaya,” Izaya replied in a breath.
“Izaya,” the man repeated. He tapped his lips with two of his fingers; Izaya’s gaze trailed down to stare at them, and it seemed that the wound in his belly ached more and less at once.
Then the man smiled.
“Well, Izaya,” he said. The cheerfulness in his eyes which had till then made him look almost childish seemed to shift under Izaya’s very eyes. He leaned over the couch once more until his face was right above Izaya’s, and this time Izaya didn’t think anyone could have mistaken his expression for anything close to good-natured. “You’re very, very lucky to be alive.”
For the first time in years, Izaya felt those words to be true.