Warnings: drinking, family death/mourning, internalized homophobia, stalking.
“Bad,” Vorona announced when Shizuo got home.
He didn’t have time to close the door behind himself. He could only see half of the living-room from where he was, but it was the half she was occupying—sitting at his desk—and she was hunched over in her chair, nail polish in one hand and the other atop the thick economics book she had borrowed the night before. Only half of her toenails were orange, but more than two thirds of the book had been read.
“Brush’s gonna dry,” he muttered, leaning down to untie his shoes. “And what do you mean, bad?”
He heard the sound of her body moving and a bottle being screwed shut. Then she said: “Your Modern History grade.”
He straightened up too fast and knocked the side of his cranium against the wall. Vorona didn’t laugh, though she was looking at him, but he knew better than to think she didn’t derive any humor from the situation. “How bad—wait, did you log on to my email again?”
She shrugged. The foot she had perched on the edge of Shizuo’s chair came back to the floor, and she pushed herself back to make room for him. She liked that his desk chair had wheels.
Shizuo walked to the desk and leaned over her laptop. Yagiri had sent over everyone’s notes for the first assignment of the semester—and, indeed, his was terrible.
“That makes no fucking sense,” he said out loud.
He was exhausted. He had helped Celty at the library for hours, stamping new books for her because her boss was a poor excuse for a librarian—and he’d been inhaling coffee and skimming every article he could find for the essay he was already late in handing back. He still had a shift at work afterward.
And he knew he’d done a correct job for the Modern History thing.
“Stop logging onto my account,” he barked in Vorona’s direction. “I keep having to change my password because of you.”
“Better passwords needed.”
“F—” Shizuo stopped himself. He didn’t like insulting girls, but Vorona really pushed his buttons sometimes. “Damn it. I’m late for work, I’ll deal with this later.”
Vorona’s expression didn’t change. It rarely did. She shook the bottle of varnish and opened it again, and then leaned over her own feet and ignored him.
Shizuo’s throat tightened a little in guilt, but he didn’t have time to stay and ask what was wrong with her. He made his way to the mezzanine over the living-room, where his bed was—the only separate bedroom was inhabited by Vorona. He quickly changed into different clothes and came back down, murmuring his goodbyes, before getting back outside.
The air was warm. It was almost eight in the evening, but this far into spring the sky was bright blue still. The only way to truly feel the night was for the color of light itself against the building façades around, pink and orange. Shizuo ran most of the way to the pizza parlor, with the setting sun at his back. It would’ve been pleasant if he weren’t so tired.
“You’re late,” Tom said. He was smoking by the entrance, and Shizuo shook his head when he offered him a cigarette. “The boss isn’t going to be happy.”
“I’ve never been late before.”
“Once is enough,” Tom replied, looking at him gently. His words came out alongside blue smoke.
Kaztano wasn’t happy. He lectured Shizuo in his loud voice and with his loud accent for almost fifteen minutes, gesturing wildly with his hands, ignoring the patrons around them who kept looking at him in discomfort. Shizuo stood still as a statue and tried not to count the many phone calls Manami was picking up in the pack—the many notes she was putting in for deliveries that Kaztano was giving Shizuo an even later start for.
If this kept going he’d have to lose more time apologizing to each client, and he’d finish at four in the morning instead of two.
Kaztano took a big, wheezing breath. He wiped the edge of his chin of grease from the kitchen and said, “Get to work.”
“Sir,” Shizuo replied complacently. He wasn’t angrier only because he knew this was his fault.
He was reckless on the road for the first hour and a half. He pushed the tiny moped the restaurant owned for all its worth, crossed the entire district ten kilometers above the speed limit to get there within twenty minutes late of his first delivery. The woman who opened the door to him was kind, but he wasn’t so lucky with the rest of his clients. The second man he saw had him bow there and apologize for a good ten minutes, and by that time the route Shizuo tried to take to go back to the restaurant was crowded with cars, forcing him to slow down.
He had to repeat to himself that this job was the best paid one around for most of the evening. That the only reason he and Tom and Manami were laboring as they were—Manami as a receptionist and cook, Tom as a waiter, Shizuo as the delivery boy—was because Kaztano was the fairest boss around, and because Kadota himself had gotten him a job there after he left it for construction gigs.
Clients were rarely a perk of his evenings. Shizuo took to them as calmly as he could and wasted all his pent-up energy going as fast as he could from one side of the city to another. The helmet he wore didn’t cover his entire face. When he could find a strip of street devoid of traffic he rode fast, and let the wind hit his skin and drown every other sound.
The evening this night dragged by especially slow. For most of it Shizuo kept half of his mind occupied with the essay he had to hand back the following day at midnight. He still hadn’t actually written any of it. He could feel his limbs sag with fatigue but he was still planning on staying up most of the night to finish it. Especially since Yagiri had decided to give him an unfair grade, again.
He probably could’ve wept in joy by the time his last delivery of the night came around.
The sky was grey now. Not black. The lights from the city gave the clouds a milky, blurry shine, the same color as dusty drapes. It made the air feel unbreathable. Shizuo got off the sputtering bike with only one pizza box left and his ass and back aching, and then he came into the shining lobby of the apartment building where his client lived and discovered that the elevator wasn’t working.
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” he growled out loud.
From the corner of the room the guardian sent him a sympathetic look. He made himself smile at her despite his irritation, and then he started his ascension to the eighth floor.
Usually he wouldn’t have minded the climb. He liked to exercise. But he’d done nothing but miss sleep and miss meals for at least two weeks now, and it was three in the morning already, and he could feel aches in parts of his body that he hadn’t known he possessed. His forehead was abuzz with the need to sleep.
There was only one occupied apartment on the eighth floor. Shizuo knocked on the door and tried to read the name on the paper stuck just above the alarm button he didn’t want to use. It wasn’t a name he had ever seen before. Nozomu? he thought, blinking the blur of sleep out of his eyes. No… maybe Rinya?
The door opened brusquely. Shizuo didn’t jump back only because he didn’t think he could’ve have made a quick move if his life depended on it.
The man standing in front of him looked disheveled. His clothes were rumpled and his shoelaces were untied, and his hair looked to be sticky with something—his face sweaty and his lips trembling.
And then he spoke, and Shizuo got hit in the face with the smell of alcohol, stronger than he had smelled on another person for a very long time. “What do you want?”
His words slurred together, but it sounded like he was trying to seem sharp and composed. With as wasted as he looked, maybe he believed he was.
Whatever. It wasn’t any of Shizuo’s business. “I’m here with your pizza,” he said. He held the box up a little high with both hands.
The man—he was young, probably around Shizuo’s age—took a long moment to focus on it. Judging by his frown he was struggling to make sense of the word pizza alone, never mind Shizuo’s presence on his doorstep.
“It’ll be seventeen hundred yen,” Shizuo added hopelessly.
No need to wait for a tip from this guy.
The other made a move, at last. He dragged his hand to the back pocket of his jeans and made a faintly surprised face when it came out empty. “Sorry,” he said, after another moment of heavy silence. “I’ll just—”
In the second that followed, Shizuo made the hardest decision of his day yet.
He saw the guy turn around too quickly and his foot hit the edge of the step separating the entrance from the rest of his place. It didn’t drag itself up to step on it properly. Instead the man’s body toppled forward and sideways, in the direction of the polished wood cabinet full of sharp and solid angles.
Shizuo could leave him to it. He doubted this client would be able to see long enough to count the money and pay him anyway. He could just let the man fall and possibly hurt himself and decide not to care, just leave the pizza next to him and go away and get home and spend what was left of his night trying to make up for Yagiri’s grudge against the entire student body.
Shizuo always had a distaste for letting himself do the easy thing, however. So he dropped the pizza box and lunged forward to catch his stumbling client around the middle and prevent him from giving himself a concussion.
Apparently he could make a quick move. Only not if his own life depended on it.
The man was very thin. Very light. Shizuo hadn’t completely stepped into the entrance, so he was leaning forward quite a bit—it made his forehead level with the other’s nape as he held him, and from this close he could smell alcohol in his hair too. Oversweet and heady. He must’ve spilled a drink on his own head or something.
“Easy,” he mumbled, awkward.
The man didn’t squirm. When he managed to slightly turn his head to the side it was with a few seconds of delay, as if the situation had taken that long to reach his brain. “What…”
“Just—hang on. I’ll get you to your couch.”
He squeezed his feet out of his sneakers without letting go of him. Despite his light weight he was leaning heavily on Shizuo, his entire energy dependent on Shizuo’s ability to hold him upright. Once he was in his socks, Shizuo dragged the other to his side and lifted one of the guy’s arms above his shoulders, sneaking one of his own around his waist. He practically dragged the man further inside the apartment, with zero protest. It was a neat place, which Shizuo wouldn’t have expected for someone who looked as out of it as this guy was. If anything he was ready to see a bunch of other college kids passed out everywhere.
But it was empty. Clean and dustless. Except for one sticky-wet spot on the floor where a bottle of rum had been upended—probably when its owner fell—the living-room was sleek and lifeless. Tidy unopened books around the walls and a brand new laptop on the glass desk.
Shizuo laid the man down on his side on the grey couch. The other blinked at him blearily, mouth opening and closing in turn, as if he knew he wanted to speak but couldn’t remember how anymore.
Shizuo took a moment to really look at him. He didn’t look in danger of anything except accidentally stabbing himself with a corner of the coffee table. As long as he didn’t drink anymore there wouldn’t be a need to call an ambulance, he thought, uneasy.
He hesitated before asking, “Are you gonna drink more?”
The man’s unfocused eyes stayed on him. “No,” he replied, at last. “Maybe.”
He really didn’t want to have to call an ambulance on a stranger. Maybe there was someone else he could call, though.
Shizuo retreated to the desk, keeping an eye on its owner. There was a notebook on top of it which he thought might contain addresses and phone numbers, and it did. But he couldn’t figure out if any of them belonged to personal relations, a girlfriend or boyfriend or parents or siblings. They were just names, none of which matched the strange one on the door.
When he turned back to look at his client, the man had fallen asleep.
Shizuo stared at the soft, unhappy turn of his mouth for a second longer. He would probably wake up in his own drool and with a raging headache, but it didn’t look as if he was going to endanger himself.
Still, he picked up the bottle of rum. A lot of it was still inside. He screwed the lid back on and, after a moment of hesitation, rummaged through the guy’s fridge to make sure there was nothing else there that he could drink.
It seemed he had gone straight for the rum and nothing else.
Shizuo put the bottle inside his backpack. He swallowed back his discomfort and opened the last two doors of the apartment—one leading to a bathroom, the other to the bedroom. It was as cold-looking as the rest of the place. There wasn’t even a poster up on the walls. He took the comforter off the bed and brought it back to the living-room, laying it on top of the passed out Orihara Rinya. Or Nozomu.
He ripped a page out of the notebook and wrote a quick note on it, adding his phone number and the address of Kaztano’s pizzeria, just in case. And then he put it on the coffee table, on top of the cooling pizza, and he left.
He was already an hour and a half late in reporting to Kaztano. He knew the man wouldn’t yell at him for making sure someone didn’t die of alcohol poisoning or their own stupidity—Kaztano was, according to Kadota, someone who had depended on the goodwill of strangers many times in his life—but he felt guilty for making him stay up so late. Kaztano always said good night to every single one of them before closing the shop by himself.
The night air was cold on his face now. No pink sun to keep it warm.
Kaztano was sitting in front of the shop when he arrived. He had a cigarette in hand and at least three more in the ashtray placed on the stairs next to him. He smiled in Shizuo’s direction.
“I’m so sorry,” Shizuo said, but Kaztano waved a big hand at him.
“I’ll let you take care of the register,” was all he said.
Shizuo nodded. He went back inside the empty restaurant and opened the cash register, placing the money out and adding to it everything he got for deliveries. He used part of his tips from the night to pay for Orihara’s pizza.
When he came back out, Kaztano handed him a cigarette. “Thank you,” Shizuo said.
The first breath of smoke raged inside him, sending sparks into his tired body and easing the stress out of his head.
His eyelids were drooping. He knew if he thought about it too long he would panic at the thought that he had driven in this state, unaware of how dangerous he was to himself and other, so he resolved not to think about it. It would be four soon, and though the city was always awake, he wished he weren’t.
Shizuo left Kaztano’s company as soon as he politely could. The old man let him go without a word, watching him walk the length the of the street. The traffic only ever let off at this hour of the night. In an hour, people would be driving their cars and bikes getting to work early.
It was five past four in the morning when Shizuo arrived home. He dragged his feet out of his shoes and let himself fall onto the couch in the living-room, and for a long second, he considered taking a sip of the rum he had confiscated from the drunken client earlier. A fleeting noise from above made him look up.
Vorona was leaning over the edge of the mezzanine and looking down at him.
“What are you doing up?” Shizuo asked.
She didn’t answer. Her face looked the same kind of sulky as it had before—irritated, negative, malicious. He couldn’t tell exactly.
Her toenails still weren’t done being painted. The economics book, however, was closed on top of the desk.
“Get out of my room,” Shizuo grumbled tiredly. “I have—”
“Father passed away.”
Her voice was as matter-of-fact as ever. Shizuo looked at her sharply; there were no traces of tears on her face. No outward sign of grief of discomfort.
“Damn, Vorona,” he murmured. “You should’ve said.”
“I just did.”
She swung her legs back and forth into the empty space above him. Shizuo caught one of her feet with his hands and squeezed it gently. “D’you wanna talk about it?”
He frowned. Let go of her. “What do you want, then?”
She rested her arms on top of the wooden barrier separating the side of his bed from the imminent fall right after, and she put her chin on top of them, so that the bottom half of her face was hidden from him, but she could still observe him.
“Request zombie movie,” she said softly. “And alcoholic drinks.”
Shizuo pushed his backpack under the low table with his foot. He picked up the books he had left on the couch before leaving with the goal of sitting down and immediately starting to work, and he stood up, patting the side of her calf as he walked toward his stash of DVDs.
Vorona was still asleep the following day at two in the afternoon. Shizuo had been awake for an hour and cleaning up the mess they’d made of the kitchen. Despite the thorough brushing he gave his teeth he still had a faint beery taste on his tongue from the off-brand Kriek Vorona always bought him. He didn’t even like it as much as he pretended to, but it was the only beer he could drink at all.
He was writing an email to Yagiri. His essay was due in ten hours and still as unwritten as it had been the day before; Shizuo asked her for an extension, again, with a heavy chest and no hope whatsoever. It didn’t matter how meticulously polite he was in his message.
She answered five minutes later: No.
He heard Vorona move from her bedroom. Wordlessly, he stood up from his seat and put water to boil for tea. Neither of them liked coffee that much.
“Consequences not worth it,” Vorona groaned at him when she emerged into the hallway. Her hair was in disarray and her shirt was stained with the cheap mojito she’d drank half of by herself around five in the morning.
“Why do you keep buying this shit anyway?” Shizuo replied.
“Interesting taste. Nothing close to the real deal.” She took a seat at the kitchen table and stared at the kettle as if she could make it go faster with the strength of will alone. If left to her own devices she’d probably try to drink boiling water just to get the taste to disappear.
Shizuo snorted unappealingly. “I’ll never get your obsession with bad drinks and food. You have money to buy yourself anything you want.”
Vorona dragged the leather jacket she’d left on the back of her chair above her head, hiding herself from him and his words.
She had to leave, eventually, to take care of paperwork at the hospital where they kept her father’s body. The funeral would be held some time the following week, she had said, drunk out of her mind. Those were the only words he’d managed to get out of her on the topic.
Shizuo drank two cups of sweet tea and sat down at his desk, grimly resolved to write this essay in the nine and a half hours he had left to do it.
He spent most of the day like this, his lower back aching from riding on Kaztano’s crappy moped all night and then falling asleep on the couch, drunk out of his mind. From time to time his cellphone buzzed with an incoming text from Celty asking how he was doing or Shinra reminding him he needed to put in some money for the preparations for Kadota’s new semester party.
I don’t want to pay for Karisawa’s shit, he replied to him.
If you don’t she’ll probably literally rob your place, Shinra texted back, quick and unbothered. And then, I’ve got a childhood friend coming, so try to make a good impression at least.
I never make a good impression, Shizuo said.
You know, for someone with instincts as good as yours, you can be really oblivious.
Shizuo stared at the text for a moment before deciding to ignore it.
Vorona came back around six in the evening, wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket and looking amazingly composed. Shizuo’s outline was starting to take shape and his organization was becoming clearer. He could probably actually hope to finish in time, even if the final product would be less than stellar. It wasn’t as if Yagiri would mark him fairly anyway. Vorona leaned over his shoulder and huffed quietly, so he batted her away, saying, “No need to gloat,” before she could start telling him everything he’d written in mistake.
“Should have worked on schedule,” she commented, opening the fridge.
“We can’t all just not have a part time job.”
Around eight, when Shizuo was almost done with the outline and getting started on writing out the essay proper, he received a phone call. “Heiwajima,” he answered curtly.
For a moment all he heard was breathing. He rubbed ink-stained fingers over his eyelids and said, “I’m busy, so—”
“I’d like my rum back,” said a familiar voice. “If you don’t mind.”
Shizuo leaned back in his chair. “Oh.”
“‘Oh’, Indeed.” The no-longer-inebriated man took a slow breath and asked: “Would you be free to come over and hand it back tonight? I’d like to avoid going out if possible.”
Orihara didn’t sound anything like he had the night previous. His voice was sweet but unfriendly, sharp, haughty. Something you could only consider pleasant in low doses. “You’ve got a lot of nerve,” Shizuo said, irritated despite himself. “I even let you off without paying, you could at least thank me.”
Orihara replied instantly: “How terribly kind of you, to pay for my pizza, which I had to eat cold, by the way. It’s not like you took off with a hundred-dollar bottle on your way out.”
Shizuo’s eyes flew to the bottle he had set on top of the kitchen counter this morning. The glass—or maybe crystal—reflected the light around and into the amber liquid inside, turning it gold and red.
“Uh,” he said. “I didn’t know.”
“I figured. You wouldn’t have left your phone number if you did.”
“I didn’t drink any of it,” he added, suddenly anxious. “No one’s touched it. There’s not a lot left, though, because you—”
“I’m aware,” Orihara cut in coldly. “Are you free tonight?”
Shizuo looked at the half-finished essay shining off his laptop’s screen. “Not before midnight.”
“Fine by me. Come whenever you can.” He hung up.
Shizuo didn’t move the phone from his ear for a while after that. He looked at the bright, shiny bottle sitting on his counter, and wonder what would’ve happened if he had drunk from it the night before like he had considered.
Orihara didn’t seem like a very forgiving guy. He gave off rich youth vibes. Not the good, selfless kind.
Time went by achingly slow. It had to do with how hard Shizuo found it to focus on so much text for hours on end while keeping his thoughts in line. In the end he did use the coffee machine Vorona owned but never touched. He poured as much sugar into his cup as he could without making himself sick and swallowed the drink as fast and hot as possible. The caffeine helped him through the last hour of his work.
He submitted the essay thirteen minutes before the deadline. He was pretty sure Yagiri had already prepared her failing email for him, and for a good twenty minutes, he sat on his chair, idly watching videos and thinking about her disappointment.
Then he pushed himself upright with trembling arms and grabbed an energy bar in the kitchen. Vorona was sitting on his bed again, legs dangling from the gap between fence and mezzanine floor. She was was filling paperwork.
“I’m going out,” Shizuo called.
She looked down. “Nonsense. No work tonight.”
“Unsatisfied client,” he shrugged.
She didn’t reply, but he could read the incredulity on her.
Shizuo took more care with the bottle of rum this time. It was heavier in his hands than it should be, probably confirming that it was made of crystal rather glass. When he moved it the rum splashed around and left tiny golden drops hanging to the sides. He put it in his bag carefully, sandwiching it between books and a scarf, and then he took off for the subway station nearest their apartment.
The ride itself was uneventful. The trains weren’t too crowded this late into the night. Most of the other passengers were drunk men in work clothes and women with tension running in their shoulders who avoided eye-contact. It took half an hour for Shizuo to figure out where to go to Orihara’s apartment via public transportation rather than his own vehicle and actually get there, but by the time he did, it was just before one.
Once again he climbed eight floors to get there. The guardian in the lobby looked at him with curiosity, probably remembering him as the pizza guy from the night before, but she didn’t say anything to him. Shizuo walked up the clean staircase and through the corridor on the eighth floor. It was carpeted in red, and there was a potted plant on a wooden table in the middle, with a mirror on the wall behind. It looked like a hotel hallway.
Orihara took his time to answer after he knocked. Shizuo looked at the alarm button in consideration for a moment but decided against it—he hated when people rang instead of knocking—raising his hand to touch his knuckles to the door again.
Orihara opened right this moment, as if he had been waiting for it.
“Good evening,” he said, a fleeting smile on his lips.
“Evening,” Shizuo replied.
They stood still for a moment, looking at each other.
Orihara looked way better now. His hair was clean and his skin was a healthier color. The bags under his eyes weren’t as pronounced as they had been almost twenty-four hours earlier. He was wearing different clothes too, better-fitter pants and a black, clean, pressed shirt, the collar of which was brushed by soft strands of hair at his nape. He had sharp eyes and thin features and a poise that Shizuo wouldn’t have expected of someone he had met for the first time bordering alcoholic coma.
Shizuo had to drag himself back to reality. “Right,” he said. “Your bottle.”
“If you don’t mind,” Orihara murmured dryly.
It made anger spark up in him, but Shizuo kept it in check. He slid one arm out of the handle of his backpack and opened it close to his side, taking out the rum.
It was unscratched, but Orihara made a face all the same. “You’ve been carrying it like this?”
“I didn’t exactly know I was dragging expensive shit around,” Shizuo replied, handing it over. Orihara took it from his hand with a brush of his fingers against Shizuo’s knuckles, tingling and warm. “I was tired too. I just wanted to make sure you wouldn’t go back to drinking it and kill yourself by accident.”
Orihara observed him intently. He wasn’t frowning. If anything he looked a little baffled, Shizuo thought. “Are you like this with everyone?”
Orihara slipped his free hand into his pocket and took something out of it. He unfurled the crumpled piece of paper and read: “I apologize for intruding. I opened your fridge and displaced a blanket from your room, but I did not steal anything. I’m only taking the bottle away so you don’t put yourself in danger. Thank you for ordering from Kaztano Pizza.” When he lifted his head, his eyes were mocking, and Shizuo could feel the burn of blood in his cheeks. “I didn’t know pizzerias offered nurse services as well.”
“You were fucking smashed,” Shizuo replied in a growl. “Don’t tell me you would’ve preferred to wake up with a concussion.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Orihara said, lids flickering low over his eyes. “If you’re this thoughtful with every client, your work must get you riches in tips.”
“Says the guy who couldn’t even pay.”
Orihara waved a hand to the side, like a character in a play. “I’ll give you the money I owe you, if that’s such an issue. I know times are tough, but I didn’t think missing out on fifteen hundred yen would make such an indent in your savings.”
“Do you ever get tired of the sound of your own voice?” Shizuo replied. “Because I’m exhausted.”
He meant it. Orihara had the sort of sweetness to him that only gave cavities on the long run. Yet Orihara smiled at his words, and his face colored with more energy than before, and his eyes never left Shizuo’s. And Shizuo found that his cheeks were still warm. “Whatever,” he said between his teeth. “Why were you getting drunk off fifteen-thousand-yen rum on your own anyway?”
Orihara’s hand fell back at his side, his fingers still clutching the note Shizuo had written the night before. “I was celebrating,” he said.
“Star Wars Day,” Orihara said dryly. Then, seeing the way Shizuo’s face twisted: “My birthday.”
Shizuo swallowed mechanically. His throat felt a sudden tightness, like a diluted version of the kind that he had felt when Vorona had said her dad was dead without shedding a single tear. Mostly discomfort and a little bit of pity.
Orihara himself closed his mouth tightly after that, face pale and frustrated. He plucked a wallet out of the back pocket of his pants and took out a few bills. “There,” he said, handing them over. “For the pizza.”
There were only fifteen hundred rather than the seventeen Kaztano’s tuna pizza was worth, but Shizuo didn’t have the heart to tell him his count was wrong. “Thanks,” he said in a low voice, pocketing the money.
“Don’t worry your sweet head about me,” Orihara continued. “I only get this drunk once a year.”
“I’m not worried,” Shizuo replied tersely.
Orihara smiled. He took another bill out of his wallet and stepped forward, into Shizuo’s space and out of his apartment, bare feet quiet on the carpeted floor; Shizuo stood still as he lifted his hand and slid the bill into the breast pocket of Shizuo’s jacket.
“See you around, pizza boy,” he said. Shizuo looked down at him and at his lips, and Orihara’s smile widened, showing sharp, white teeth.
Shizuo’s essay came back with a barely-passing grade. Not enough to make up for the gigantic hole into his average scores that the first assignment was. Yagiri smiled nastily when she gave it back to him, and only the fact that every other student in the room was looking at their copy with a pale face restrained Shizuo’s anger.
“I fucking hate her,” he told Celty during lunch. She had to at the library for two more hours before she could catch her own break. “God damn it.”
Celty typed something on her laptop. She turned the screen toward him when she was done. It’s worrying that this has been going on for years, and no one’s fired her yet, it read.
“Her father is a big contributor to the pharmacy lab or something,” Shizuo muttered. “And she’s written a bunch of famous books. Somehow that’s enough to overlook the fact that she hasn’t passed a single student in ten years.”
That’s what we get for being in this college.
He laughed, despite everything.
He was sitting on a corner of her work desk and helping to put magnets inside newly shipped books. It was brainless work, good enough that they could both do it and still talk at the same time. Outside, spring had bloomed warm and colorful. Rows of flower trees made students sneeze on their way back and forth. Light poured in through the large library windows and dyed every table it touched a rich brown, making the kids sat around them blink tears from their tired eyes.
Celty tapped his elbow lightly. He turned his head to look at her monitor and saw that she had written: When is the funeral?
“Monday,” he replied softly. It was Friday now. A work day for him, with a working weekend ahead.
Do you think Vorona would want us to come? Celty asked.
He hesitated, but thought it would be better to tell the truth. “I don’t think so.” He winced at her. “It’s not against you or anything. It’s just…”
Vorona didn’t have a good relationship with her father when he was alive. The man had been absent, had let her grow up on her own in their home in Russia and then strung her along on his way to Japan without asking for what she wanted. Vorona had lived as isolated in Tokyo as she had before that, until she moved in with Shizuo at the age of nineteen.
And Shizuo wasn’t even sure that he would be invited to the funeral. Vorona was a private person who disliked showing her emotions and especially her grief; if anything, he thought she would go alone, and go through every stage of mourning in a meticulous, calculated way, and come out of it the exact way she had come in.
He didn’t know if that was a good thing. And he didn’t have a right to tell Celty anything more than Vorona chose to.
“Sorry,” he said.
Celty squeezed his shoulder comfortingly.
Shizuo’s afternoon lecture went by slow and easy. He had plans to swing by Kadota’s place after that, so he took off by foot, with more than a half-hour to spare. The walk did him good. Despite the mediocre mark, the relief he had felt since handing in the essay hadn’t left. He breathed in deeply, thankful to be free of the allergies plaguing half of his friends, and even as he crawled deeper into Ikebukuro, it was with the smell of flowers in his nostrils.
“Hey,” Kadota welcomed him when he arrived, opening his door wide. Behind him there was only Togusa, sitting at the bar and playing app games on his phone.
Kadota’s place was the biggest out of everyone they knew. It was also the favorite, because Kadota had done most of the construction work inside by himself, with the help of Simon who worked at the Russian sushi place.
It had been his project since they got into high school together. To buy the biggest place he could find at the lowest price, no matter how decrepit, and to turn it into something livable.
“Karisawa and Yumasaki aren’t here?”
“Cosplay group for Karisawa,” Togusa replied from the bar. “Who knows what Yumasaki’s doing.”
“There’s a new maid café near your folks’ apartment building,” Kadota said.
Shizuo and Togusa nodded somberly.
Togusa offered Shizuo a drink, which Shizuo refused. He didn’t think there was anything sweet enough here that didn’t belong to Karisawa, and he knew better than to dig into her stash. He did accept a can of lukewarm coke, however. Kadota and him took a seat on either side of Togusa, and Kadota asked, without much ado, “How’s Vorona?”
“Fine,” Shizuo answered. “I think.”
“You never know, with this chick,” Togusa said between his teeth.
Kadota kicked his shin lightly.
Shizuo shrugged. “She’s probably not fine,” he said. “But she’s holding up. Going through every day. I don’t know if it’s better than if she let me see that something’s wrong, but at least she’s doing what she needs to and attending class and everything. She even took care of the groceries yesterday.”
Togusa lifted his eyes from the idol game in his hands and grimaced pityingly. “I can’t believe you’re living with her without dating her.” Kadota rolled his eyes ostentatiously, and Togusa added, louder: “What! Vorona is one of the hottest girls we know, and she’s not seeing anyone. It’s not like Heiwajima isn’t into girls.”
“You’re living with a hot girl,” Kadota pointed.
“The weird outweighs the hot in Karisawa’s case.”
Shizuo tapped the can in his hands with his index, and took a sip of warm soda, and thought idly about the red-haired woman Vorona sometimes brought home and who only left in the morning, looking flushed and satisfied.
“Well,” Kadota sighed, “it’s good that she’s not in bed all day and crying, I guess. Though I wouldn’t expect that from her anyway.”
“She’s pretty solid,” Shizuo said with a smile.
Kadota bowed his head in serious acquiescence. When he lifted it, there was humor on his face. “Now,” he continued. “Erika said you owe us a little something for the party.”
Later, at work, when Shizuo was back from his third round of deliveries and stacking the following—and last—ones onto the back of the moped, Manami stopped him with a curt call of his name.
“What is it?” he asked.
She looked unhappy, but it wasn’t a very good indicator of her mood. She always looked unhappy. “This guy asked to be your last delivery,” she said, giving him a slip of paper. “Orihara Izaya.”
Shizuo felt a rush through his limb and into his hands. It tingled in his fingers when he took the paper. “Oh.”
She squinted at him in suspicion and then turned on her heels and walked back into the restaurant. Shizuo saw Tom wave at him from inside, two plates on one hand and walking between tables. He waved back half-heartedly.
Time seemed to speed up on this last round. The city was a blur around his head, white lines drawn onto endless black, as if someone had pressed fast forward onto the life around him. He turned around Ikebukuro three times, slid between cars on the road and avoided running on stray cats in the alleys. He didn’t remember the faces of the people who paid and tipped him. Before he knew it he was standing in the lobby of Orihara’s apartment building, and the woman at the counter was smiling with familiarity and whispering, “Good evening.”
The elevator had been fixed. Shizuo took the stairs anyway, despite the cooling pizza in his hand and the unnecessary effort of climbing all those floors. He stepped into the red-carpeted hallway and walked past the plant and table and mirror and he knocked on Orihara’s door. Orihara himself opened a few seconds later, looking tired but clean and alert, and his smile this time was a lot less sweet.
It was also a lot of more honest.
“Pizza boy,” he greeted him. His eyes trailed down, stopping by Shizuo’s mouth and then chest before landing on the box in his hands. “And my order.”
“Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” Shizuo asked before he could stop himself.
And Orihara smiled wide and gleeful, taking the box from his hands, slipping not enough money into the front pocket of Shizuo’s jacket again. His fingers lingered for a second too much.
The encounter left Shizuo shaken until he managed to fall asleep, hours later, fitful and restless.
Orihara pulled the same thing the following day. He told Manami to write him down as Shizuo’s last delivery of the night, and Manami did with thin lips and an irritated face. The conversation they had didn’t last more than five minutes, like the times before.
“I have a name,” he told Orihara after the man called him pizza boy again. “If you’re going to keep bothering me during my work time you might as well start using it.”
“Heiwajima Shizuo, right?” Orihara said immediately.
Shizuo tensed. “I never introduced myself to you.”
“No, but the lovely receptionist at your workplace tells me everything when I ask nicely enough.” Orihara slid him the money, more this time—almost enough to pay for the full pizza. “She also said you live with your girlfriend, whom she called a ‘literal Russian babe’.”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Shizuo replied tiredly.
Orihara smiled at him darkly. “Good.”
On Sunday Shizuo thought about taking the day off. Vorona didn’t show any change in her behavior, but she spent most of the day confined in her room and using every bit of their shared Wi-Fi to find which place sold appropriate black dresses for a funeral and was open on a Sunday at all. Shizuo didn’t comment on it. He wanted to stay and insist that she talk, because he feared that this might be the one time he should; but Vorona had been handling things fine. She hadn’t denied him the right to come to the funeral yet. When he had seen her at noon she had been on the phone, presumably with Sharaku, and she hadn’t seemed any different than usual.
He left her some tea before he left, prepared as black as she liked it.
Orihara had his door open this time. He was sitting on the step leading to the inside of his apartment proper, with his bare feet next to his shoes and slippers.
“Is the tuna pizza really that good?” Shizuo asked warily. “You haven’t ordered anything else.”
Orihara pushed himself to his feet. “It seems I can’t get enough of it,” he replied, giving Shizuo a once-over and pushing the money toward him. Seventeen hundred yen.
Shizuo’s face burned, and he wanted to reply with something—he didn’t know if he wanted to encourage or discourage the other—but all Orihara did was step back, taking the box from Shizuo’s hands, and slam the door close between them.
“Damn it,” Shizuo snapped. “At least tip me, you asshole!”
There was no answer from inside the apartment. Shizuo stood there for a minute longer, trying to reign in the irritation and embarrassment making his blood boil through his every vein. In the end he stomped away after kicking the wall—and he noticed with a mix of shame and satisfaction that his shoe had left a stain behind, grey on red.
Vorona was awake when he got home. She was sitting on the couch rather than on any of his possessions, which was rarely. The mug full of tea that he had left her was sitting, empty, on the coffee table.
“Hey,” he said.
She lifted her head from the magazine she had spread over her crossed legs. That was when he noticed.
She had cut her hair while he was out. It was shorter, completely shaven on one side even, while on the other, longer bangs framed her face, without the ability to hide it like it always had before.
He stared at her in silence for a while. She didn’t seem too upset at him for it, and she didn’t move at all until he was done taking in the change. Ultimately, all he did was sit on the couch next to her and say, “Looks good.”
“You can just say yes, you know.”
She hit him with the magazine, very lightly. It made him smile through his worries and his chest tighten with the knowledge that this wasn’t like her. Vorona was never that playful.
So he decided to do what he had refrained from doing this entire time, and he asked: “Are you alright?”
She didn’t immediately answer. Rather, she watched the muted TV in front of her with empty eyes, and with her hands, she took something wrapped in plastic that had been sitting on the other side of her body and gave it to him.
It was a dress, from what he could see. Brand new, unworn, cleanly folded. She probably hadn’t even tried it on before buying it.
“I’m sure you’ll look good in it,” he offered, because he didn’t know what else to say. Vorona never wore dresses, and he never questioned it, but he knew it would be another awkward thing for her. Another detail to work through on her own.
She looked at him again. “Extending invitation,” she said in a small voice. “To the funeral. Tomorrow.”
Shizuo’s heart pulsed in his throat. He blinked the blur out of his eyes. “Yes,” he replied. “Of course I’ll be there.”
She nodded her assent, and turned back to the silent TV. He couldn’t see any trace of sleeplessness or anxiety on her. She was as solid a presence as she had ever been, unreadable but not emotionless, someone he cared about and found comfort around. Shizuo didn’t think he had ever met someone as tough as she was.
And yet, when she lifted a hand to touch the shaved side of her scalp, her painted fingers were trembling.