Kadota’s New School Year Party finally had a scheduled date. Kadota himself waited for the end of Shizuo’s classes on Thursday, still wearing his work overalls, blinking tiredly in the sunlight. The dust had left white spots on his face and hands, and every time he tried to wipe his mouth and chin free of it, he seemed to make it worse.
“Boss let me have the afternoon off,” he said, waving Shizuo’s smoke out of his way. Shizuo stepped a little farther away with an apologetic smile. “I’m going round telling everyone. Saturday evening.”
“I’ll take the evening off,” Shizuo said. “I’m still pissed about the money thing, though.”
Kadota grinned. “I promise you won’t regret it.”
He took off his beanie, shaking off some of the dust on it. Shizuo almost teased him about the existence of texts and the futility of going from person to person to relay the message by oneself, but he knew how Kadota was about those things. And he wasn’t exactly in the mood.
He was supposed to meet with Orihara in town in about an hour.
“Karisawa’s surprise better be worth it,” he grumbled, and took another drag of his cigarette.
“It will, it will.”
Kadota looked at him for a moment, taking in the clothes he was wearing. Shizuo felt himself blush before he opened his mouth.
“You’re a little well-dressed for class, aren’t you.” It wasn’t even a question.
Shizuo was wearing dress pants and his best shoes. Vorona had taken one look at the state of his clothes and taken the folded ironing table out of the dusty cupboard they’d put it in when they first moved. Shizuo hadn’t even remembered that they had one. He had let her iron almost all his shirts with a half-hearted offer to do it himself.
Vorona had been doing a lot of things around the apartment since Monday. Cleaning and sorting and buying new equipment. Stuff she usually left until the last possible moment—once they became absolute necessity rather than daily annoyance. Shizuo had followed along with the cleaning only because he felt so guilty whenever he came home and noticed that she had taken care of his dishes for him.
As if reading his mind, Kadota asked, “How’s she doing?”
“Good,” he answered. This time he thought he wasn’t being dishonest. “She has someone who’s helping her more than anyone else could, I think.”
“I heard you two went at it again yesterday,” Kadota commented evenly.
Shizuo rolled his eyes. “Did Rokujou put the video online already?”
Kadota nodded, bashful, and Shizuo sighed. Some things were inevitable.
“Well,” and Kadota sounded amused now, “if beating the shit out of you is her way of coping, then by all means.”
“Sometimes I want to beat the shit out of you, Kadota.”
“Please don’t. I like being alive.”
The smile this put on his lips lasted until he caught sight of Yagiri walking quickly toward the entrance of the building they were leaning on.
Or at least she looked like she was. At the last possible moment her eyes came to rest on Shizuo, bypassing Kadota entirely, and she stopped in front of him. Shizuo straightened from his slouch against the wall, restraining a wince from the pain it caused him. He looked down at her in silence.
She was a tall woman, thin and well-dressed, and very attractive. She probably would’ve been a favorite among most of her male students from her looks alone if she weren’t so fundamentally unsympathetic and unfair.
Maybe that was why she was.
“Heiwajima,” she said lowly. She shot a glance to Kadota’s dirty clothes, and her nostrils shivered in disdain.
Kadota cleared his throat. “I’ll see you later,” he told Shizuo. “Don’t forget to tell Vorona about the date.”
He left without further ado. Shizuo watched him go and tried to ignore the tense knots coming alive between his shoulder blades, where he was the sorest from his fight the day before.
Before he could muster the courage to speak, Yagiri said, “You’ll be allowed back into my class.”
He looked back at her in surprise. She was considerably calmer than she had been when they last saw each other and her face was the livid picture of some mythological monster, but there were bags under her eyes to betray her fatigue, and as always, she looked as if she hadn’t smiled in years.
“Thank you,” he said carefully. “Er—I apologize. For my rudeness. And for destroying a desk.”
He bowed awkwardly, mindful of the pain in his neck and shoulders. For a long moment he didn’t know when to straighten up, because Yagiri was silent and still.
“This isn’t what I want,” she said at last. He stood straight again, looking down into her eyes. There was anger on her face, and something a little tense—a little scared. “If it were up to me you’d be thrown out of this university, and I’d make sure you weren’t accepted anywhere else in Tokyo for the rest of your sorry life.”
It made his mouth dry despite the irritation flaring inside him. “I was out of line,” he admitted through his teeth.
“If only just that,” she sneered at him. “You’re a talentless boy. Your work is mediocre. You don’t have the heart for the job no matter how hard you try, and you of all people have no right to even sit in my classroom.”
“You can’t just decide that on your own—”
She waved a hand in front of his face, making him flinch back. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t have a choice.” When she spoke again, she looked well and truly disgusted. “You and your friend can dig up all the dirt you want on me or your other professors until you make your way out of this place with an unearned diploma. See if I fucking care.”
She walked away, disappearing past the glass doors of the History building. Shizuo stared at the spot where she’d been standing wordlessly, fingers clutching the now-cold stub of his cigarette.
His blood felt like ice.
He made his way to the place he was supposed to meet with Orihara in a daze. He didn’t look at the underground train station outside of campus anymore than he did the bus stop a street later and simply continued on foot, letting the warm May wind ruffle his face and brush against his skin. Any other day he would have revelled in the warmth of spring around him and the sights the city offered bathed in sunlight; but he barely felt the wind, and he barely felt the spikes of pain in his shoulders from fighting so recklessly against Vorona. He just walked.
Orihara was waiting for him at the café. He had picked the spot the night before, and he was already seated outside, dressed all in black, soft hair flickering around his face.
He looked different in the daylight. There was a childishness to him that Shizuo hadn’t noticed in the red of the hallway—his eyes were brown instead of black when they met Shizuo’s, and with this much light around the imprint of sleeplessness was less pronounced on him. He looked younger.
“Good afternoon,” he greeted Shizuo. There was a softer smile on his lips than usual, or maybe it was just that it looked colder and meaner during the night. A witch’s smile.
Shizuo sat at the table in front of him. Orihara put his chin onto the heel of his palm and observed him with blatant interest, eyes flickering over his clothes. “You look good,” he said.
“Thank you,” Shizuo replied evenly.
Orihara frowned. He waved a waitress over toward them, and once he was done placing his order Shizuo simply told the woman that he wanted the same thing mechanically. He didn’t even know what Orihara had ordered.
He felt sluggish. As if his thoughts were going in slow-motion.
“I’ve seen the video,” Orihara announced after a moment of tense silence. He slid his phone toward Shizuo, and Shizuo blinked at it tiredly. He saw himself and Vorona on the ring, moving against each other in a blur. “Through no fault of mine. It was actually an accident.”
“I bet,” Shizuo muttered.
He pushed the phone back to the other side of the table, and Orihara picked it back up, his mouth a tense line. “I didn’t know you were this good at boxing.”
“Vorona kicked my ass.”
“But she didn’t do so without some effort on her part, did she? And you hadn’t fought in a year.”
And Shizuo closed his eyes, letting acute disappointment pour into his voice, and he asked: “Did you blackmail my professor?”
Orihara’s silence was as good as a confession. Shizuo rubbed his fingers over his eyes, slowly, painfully, so that when he opened them again all he saw for a moment were reddish spots, blurring Orihara’s silhouette into nothingness.
It didn’t last. Soon enough Orihara was there again, tense as a bow but not apologetic. “She deserved it,” he said.
He sounded like a terribly distorted version of Vorona’s words. Like an audio tape run down to grainy static from too much use.
Shizuo’s fist closed around the café’s menu card, and the thing crumpled in his grip immediately, though it was made of plastic rather than paper. His knuckles ached under the band-aids. “You had no right to do that.”
“Oh, come on,” Orihara scoffed. He leaned backward into his chair, legs sprawling under the table and brushing Shizuo’s gently. “She’s a fraud. It took me all of thirty minutes to dig up enough dirt on her to get her fired if I wanted to.”
“Never mind it being illegal, then,” Shizuo said, and he kicked Orihara’s legs sideways, making the other slide down on his chair. “Since obviously you don’t care about shit like that.”
Orihara’s eyes were glacial as he straightened up again. “I don’t.”
“Well, I do.”
Shizuo stood up. His injured hand grabbed the handle of his backpack with too much strength, making the fabric rub hard against his palm.
“You can’t just do this, Orihara,” Shizuo said. He knew he sounded pleading and pathetic, but he felt worse than that—he felt betrayed. “I told you to stop getting involved in my life like this.”
“So protecting you from the bias of an unfair professor isn’t fine, but this,” Orihara gestured between the two of them, “is?”
Shizuo couldn’t even look at him anymore. “Yeah. That’s what I want. Not someone who manipulates my coworkers and blackmails people I get in disagreements with.”
Orihara didn’t speak for a moment. “She was going to ruin your chance at a career in your field of study,” he said lowly. “I’d call that more than just disagreeing.”
Shizuo brought his bag over his shoulder. “I would’ve dealt with that,” he replied. “I would’ve called her out in front of the disciplinary board, and asked other students to help me too. She wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
He risked a look at Orihara’s face again.
He was staring at the table in front of him, and his eyes alone betrayed nothing; but his fists were closed tight in his lap, and his legs were crossed at the knee, and he was as bruised with insomnia as he had ever been.
Shizuo felt sharp pity at his throat like the need to vomit. It drowned out the anger and left him feeling empty, left him feeling like a fool. “I’m sorry,” he said, though he knew he had nothing to apologize for; Orihara clenched his jaw visibly before relaxing all at once.
His voice was very quiet when he spoke again. “I suppose we’ll see each other tonight, then.”
“No.” It cost him to say it, but Shizuo did it anyway. “Don’t bother ordering pizza today, or tomorrow either.”
“How about Saturday?” Orihara asked pleadingly.
Shizuo thought he might not have meant to say it out loud. Orihara closed his mouth tightly after that, turning his head away from Shizuo and in the direction of the café’s entrance, but Shizuo saw the blush crawling up his neck anyway.
He looked away too. “I’m busy on Saturday.” He didn’t want to stay here anymore and have to watch as Orihara struggled to keep his composure while refusing to apologize. “Drop it, Orihara.”
“That’s not my name.”
Shizuo swallowed past the pain in his throat. “Drop it, Izaya,” he repeated.
He heard Izaya chuckle behind him as he left, dry and mirthless.
When he got home at three in the morning, Vorona was sitting on his bed, legs dangling from the edge of the mezzanine.
She didn’t ask him how his day went. She looked at him sideways, above the book she had balanced over the tiny wooden fence, face devoid of judgement of any kind. The living-room smelled like nail polish and flowers. Her toenails were blue now. Shizuo’s dishes were gone from the sink and his desk had been dusted and cleaned, from the looks of it.
Shizuo dropped his bag on the coffee table and let himself fall onto the couch, staring unseeingly at their TV’s screen. It wasn’t on, but he didn’t feel like extending his hand to grab the remote. He leaned his head back until the upper edge of the couch was at the crook of his neck, kneading some of the tension without getting rid of it.
He heard the creaking of the ladder as Vorona climbed down from his bed. Like she had a week ago, she sat down next to him on the couch—knees held close to her chest, toes digging into the fabric.
“Is it okay if I smoke inside?” Shizuo asked.
She nodded. He reached for the small table next to the couch, one with a potted plant on top of it and a small drawer. There was a similar one on the other side. Inside it he found the old ceramic ashtray he used whenever she wasn’t around and dragged it to his lap.
He sighed, realizing that he’d have to reach for his bag for a new cigarette; but Vorona seemed to read his mind. Her feet touched the ground again and she leaned forward, taking hold of his backpack and rummaging through it quickly, habitually. She handed a new pack to him without a word and watched him open it with a quiet sort of expectation on her face.
Shizuo lit what must be his twenty-fifth smoke of the day with weak fingers. Pain was running through the line of his shoulders, worsened by riding on the moped for hours, making his mouth tense from simply lifting up his arms.
“Warm-up and stretching next time,” Vorona murmured. “And appropriate attire.”
“Yeah.” Shizuo took a long drag of smoke, let it burn his throat without coughing and expand in his lungs lazily. “I don’t think there’ll be a next time.”
Vorona observed him silently for a moment. She stretched her naked legs in front of her, grabbing the edge of the coffee table with her toes, and she said: “You don’t miss it at all.”
Shizuo thought about it. About the sweat and the effort and the rush of adrenaline when he fought, the relaxation spreading through him afterward when he showered, almost sexual in nature; he thought about the sound of sandbags cracking open under his bound fists and similar crack that rang inside him every time, leaving him high off his own strength.
He thought about Vorona’s busted lips and the busted lips of many others—about the fear-tinged respect in the club members’ eyes.
“No,” he replied, blinking the burn out of his eyes furiously. His throat ached with the unexplained need to cry.
“Okay,” Vorona said.
It was that simple. Or that complicated.
Vorona turned her back to him, and Shizuo thought that she was about to stand up and leave for her room. But all she did was lean against his side, the back of her head on his shoulder and her legs spread over the arm of the couch on her side—almost knocking the plant there that mirrored the one on Shizuo’s.
Shizuo didn’t move. His shoulder relaxed without any effort on his behalf, to make for a better headrest for Vorona. He looked at the top of her head and resisted the urge to sneeze when her hair tickled his nose gently. “You okay?” he asked.
“Affirmative,” was all she said.
“Are you sure—”
She dug her elbow into his stomach lightly. “Yes.”
He pushed her arm away and frowned at her, even though she couldn’t see it. “Vorona,” he said, as evenly as he could make himself sound. “I don’t mean to, to push you or anything. But I’m worried.” He paused, then added: “Everyone is.”
Vorona stayed silent. He saw her unlock the screen of her phone, but she didn’t do anything with it. She simply stared at the blue background and unopened apps.
Then, she said: “Everyone?”
“Yeah. ” Shizuo shifted in his seat, relieving some of the pain in his back and making her head slide from his shoulder to his arm. “Kadota’s group, Celty… Even my coworkers.”
“You mean Tanaka,” she scoffed.
“Kaztano too. Kadota told him about your dad.”
She lifted her phone, camera turned to them. The picture she snapped only showed her eyes and forehead and, above them, Shizuo’s surprised face, his cigarette halfway to his mouth. He didn’t have time to say anything before she sent it away to half her contact list.
“Damn you,” he growled, shaking her off his shoulder. He crushed the cig in the ashtray.
There was a very small smile on her lips when she turned her body around to look at him once more. “Shame is unneeded. You have a very photogenic face.”
“That’s not the issue!”
But he couldn’t be mad. Not with the heavy fatigue coursing through his limbs and with the heavier affection he had for her, and certainly not when he could see the marks that lack of sleep had left under her eyes and in the color of her skin. Her lips were very white.
Shizuo put a hand on her knee. She didn’t react to it except for losing some humor in her expression—and it was open, still, so he repeated, “Are you all right?”
She looked down. “Unknown,” she replied.
“Okay.” He took back his hand, rubbed it over his face. “You know you can talk to me if you need to, right?”
“Unclear whether you know that you can talk to me,” Vorona replied dryly.
His heart skipped a beat. “What do you mean?”
She made a tsk sound between her teeth, looking irritated, but not at him. “Change in your behavior has been noticed in the past two weeks,” she said. “Possibility of it being due to the loss of my father has been examined and rejected.”
“Oh God,” Shizuo said, chest drumming with horror, “did you think you were responsible—”
“Listen,” Vorona interjected. He shut his mouth, his entire body cold with fear more than embarrassment. Vorona scratched at the shaved side of her head, blue nails digging into the soft, tiny hair there, and she looked as if she were ready to start hitting something in frustration. “The possibility has been rejected,” she said again, slower this time. “If… you would like to talk about it. The real issue. I am amenable.”
Her cheeks were red. Her eyes didn’t show any hesitation, however, and neither did the rest of her. He half-expected the low light of the room to reflect on her like it would on steel, because that was how she felt to him. As unbreakable and heavy as reality itself.
“I…” He hesitated. “Someone’s been… coming on to me lately.” He saw her eyes turn to ice, so he waved a hand between them. “It wasn’t unwanted. Fuck, between you and Tom, it’s like you both think I can’t fucking defend myself.”
“Not a question of physical strength,” she replied.
He sighed. “I know. Damn it, I know. This guy is… he’s intense. He’s not a very good guy, and he’s very—open, about what he wants. But not in a bad way. He never acted like an asshole about this, he was just clear about the fact that he was interested in me.”
“Is the interest reciprocated?”
Izaya’s face appeared to him, not as it had earlier, burned with shame and hurt, but as it had all the times before. Shadowed and suspicious but also open in ways Shizuo didn’t think Izaya himself realized. Every single encounter he’d had in that hallway had felt like the air itself was charged with electricity; when Izaya touched him, it made his skin run with shivers and warmth, his face and lips sting and tingle.
It only made the memories of the day worse.
“Yeah,” Shizuo said at last. “It is. I just don’t think he’s gonna want to be with me anymore.”
The disappointment was so bitter on his tongue, he had to turn his head away and swallow. Vorona didn’t ask any more questions, and she didn’t move to touch him.
She stayed, though.
Friday morning greeted them all with rain. Despite how clear the sky had been for weeks, the fog was thick and the clouds heavy, and some time around seven in the morning, they opened up over the city and wept.
Shizuo got out of his home at the same time as Vorona did. Her economics lecture took place near where Yagiri’s office was, so they made their way to campus together on foot. Despite the umbrellas they took with them, they were drenched in minutes, Shizuo’s jeans sticking to his legs icily and Vorona’s pants looking no better. She wiped her wet hands on her shirt with a moue of disgust once they got inside her building, before dragging her arms out of her jacket and holding it between her fingers dramatically. It had been green when they left home; now it was almost black.
“I hate rain,” Shizuo muttered. His hands were cold but he felt too hot under his clothes. “Fuck.”
“No swearing in front of Yagiri Namie,” Vorona commented.
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
The pain in his back was worse today than it had been the day before. Shizuo had forgotten how to deal with sore muscles, and he wished he could remember how he had gone along with spars every day for years before he quit. Vorona gave him the hint of a smirk before walking toward the hall at her right where other students were already gathered.
Soon, Shizuo was alone, his wet bag pressed against his chest, and the hours to Yagiri’s office visits crammed into his pocket, probably reduced to unreadable mud.
He walked toward the stairs anyway, and he took them two at a time until he reached the third floor. There wasn’t anyone around that he could see except for a busy-looking secretary at a desk along the corner, and when he asked her if Yagiri was in, all she did was nod and point to the farthest door in the hallway.
Shizuo walked up to it, stomach tense and heart beating in his mouth, and knocked.
“Enter,” came Yagiri’s voice.
He pushed open the door.
Her office was as devoid of life as she herself looked. It was neat but dusty, with the faint smell of tobacco in it; the shutters were almost completely closed over the windows, reducing natural light enough that she probably had the electric ceiling lamp on all the time. There was a succulent on the windowsill that Shizuo thought must be fake, and a single picture on top of her desk.
She was in it, looking a lot younger. A boy who looked like her stood on the other side of the frame, and, between them both, a big man with a menacing face, holding both their shoulders with his hands.
“Sorry to bother you,” Shizuo said, dragging his eyes up from the picture and to Yagiri herself, seated at the desk. As he expected, she looked displeased to see him. “I wanted to talk about what you said yesterday.”
“There’s nothing more to say,” she barked at him. “If that’s all, you can get out of my office—”
“Wait.” He raised his hands, palms facing forward in surrender. “I’m not here to make things worse.”
She snorted. “How much worse could they get?” She had papers sprawled over the desk, and her fingers were stained with ink from writing. He thought he could see a lawyer’s card near her pen, and it made the guilt in him tighten like a vice.
“The person who blackmailed you,” he said lowly. “I’m so sorry. I never asked them to do it, if it’s any reassurance.”
He swallowed mechanically. “I know I sound like I’m making excuses for myself,” he continued. “But I talked to them about it, and they won’t do anything. I swear.”
He wasn’t lying. He didn’t think Izaya would do anything to make the situation harder on himself, not with the way he had looked back then.
She frowned at him in suspicion. “Why should I believe you?”
He didn’t know how to answer that.
“Thought so,” she muttered.
She looked down at her work after that, apparently deciding to ignore him. Her hair wasn’t the same sleek black as it always looked; it looked tangled, and the collar of her shirt was crumpled, as if she’d slept in it overnight. Despite the sure way she reached for her fountain pen, her fingers were trembling with rage or exhaustion, and Shizuo knew that he couldn’t leave it at a simple apology.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Her fist closed on the table, crumpling a student’s paper on the way. “You’ve made your point. Leave.”
He shook his head, though he knew she couldn’t see it. “No. I’m sorry that I was disrespectful—I shouldn’t have said what I did, or been violent in your classroom.”
“Are you sorry that you did it,” she seethed, “or for the consequences you almost faced?”
“Both,” he replied instantly. “And you’re totally free to take disciplinary action against me for my attitude. Regardless of my opinion of your teaching methods, I shouldn’t have done that.” He could feel the beat of his heart against his chest, rapid-fire, like a bird’s. He breathed in deeply despite the anger trying to roar its way out and pushed down on it with all the strength of his mind—all the strength he could muster from the memory of Vorona’s presence beside him the day previous. When he closed his hand by his side, he thought he could still feel her fingers, entwined with his.
Yagiri stayed still for a moment. Then she dropped her pen on the desk, ignoring the droplets of ink that fell on it from the shock, and she leaned back in her chair so she could look up at him.
She looked both more vulnerable like this, away from the height the professor’s chair gave her in the lecture hall, and more terrifying.
Shizuo bowed as he had the day before. “I apologize,” he repeated at the floor. “For my actions, and for their consequences to you. I never wanted anyone to get blackmailed over my temper.”
There was a knock on the door. The secretary from earlier walked in, marking a second of hesitation at the sight Shizuo made, but Shizuo didn’t move. She spoke to Yagiri in a low voice behind her desk and then left, and Shizuo didn’t straighten up until the door had closed behind her and the muscles in his back were almost screaming from the pain.
He licked his lips, tasting rainwater and salt on them. Yagiri had her eyes fixed to the papers the woman had brought in, but they were unmoving.
“What do you know of this person’s threats against me?” she finally asked. Her voice was quieter than he had ever heard it.
“Nothing,” he replied. “I didn’t ask, and they didn’t tell me.”
She crossed her legs at the knee. “I would’ve thought any student would jump at the occasion to get dirt on a teacher.”
“Not me. I hate underhanded shit like this.”
It made her smile, though not from any sort of positive feeling. “Let’s say I believe you, then.” Shizuo opened his mouth, but she tapped two fingers on her desk firmly, cutting him off. “How sure can I be that my life won’t be spread around for the public to see?”
“I can’t… offer you any proof,” Shizuo replied. The realization made him feel more defeated than rejecting Izaya had. “But I know this person. I’ll talk to them again if I have to—make them apologize to you as well.”
Yagiri didn’t look at him. She rubbed the flaking nail polish of her left hand with her thumb, though it was still shaky; in the end she closed her fist and sighed, loud despite the sound of heavy rain filtering in from the window. She looked sickly in that sort of light. Sleepless and wrung dry.
“Fine,” she said tightly. “You do that, then.”
Shizuo was about to reply, but she stood up, stopping him once again.
“Get me a formal apology and a name,” she declared, looking him in the eyes. “If I don’t have it by Monday evening I’ll drag you in front of the disciplinary board, Heiwajima. And I’ll call my lawyer and sue whichever friend of yours thought this was a game, and you with them.”
“Deal,” Shizuo breathed.
She sat back down, opening a drawing and taking a pack of Camels out of it. “Get out of my office.”
Shizuo turned on his heels and walked back. His hand was on the handle of her door when another thought occurred to him.
“You know,” he said, looking at her over his shoulder. “I actually love your class.”
Yagiri had a cigarette stuck between her lips. It fell down as she laughed, an angry, wrecked sort of laugh, unattractive and high-pitched and making her entire body shudder as if she were being hurt. It lasted too long for comfort and made the air of the room feel like ice.
Her eyes were shining with tears when it stopped. She turned around in her chair so he wouldn’t see her wipe them off, and Shizuo took the opportunity to leave, closing the door as silently as he could behind himself.
He found Sharaku outside. She was standing in the shadow of the entrance, protected from the rain, looking at him walk to her and chewing gum around her smile. Like she had on Monday, she handed him her pack, and he refused, lighting a cigarette instead.
“You’re gonna kill yourself with those,” she commented.
“Shut up,” he grumbled. It was hard to be honestly angry after seeing Yagiri lose it like this, so he smiled at her best as he could. “How I decide to die is none of your business.”
“Why are students always so fucking dramatic?”
He laughed briefly. “What are you doing here? Vorona won’t be out for a while yet.”
Sharaku’s face brightened at the mention of Vorona’s name. She slid the pack of gum back into her pocket and replied, “Guess I just felt like seeing how you were doing, Heiwajima.”
It made him pause, and the smoke come out of his lips slow and languid. The air was too heavy and wet with rain for it to rise; it stagnated over their heads, stuck inside the small pocket of water-free space where they stood.
“Vorona wanted me to make sure you didn’t get your head chewed off in there,” Sharaku admitted with a lopsided smile. “Just in case.”
“Right.” She took her phone out. “I should tell her that your head is intact.”
“You do that,” he said mockingly.
She gave him the finger, casually, while typing with one hand. Shizuo closed his eyes and let the sizzling sounds around lull him into something more relaxed than he really felt. The ache in his back and shoulders lessened and the fog in his head grew, weighing down on his temples, reminding him of all the hours of sleep he had lost lately.
“You look exhausted,” Sharaku said gently.
He blinked at her tiredly. “Yeah.” He pushed himself off the wall and onto his feet proper. The world rocked sideways for a terrible second before his mind settled on working again. “I’ve got a gigantic nap planned for today.”
“Live your ambitions,” she smirked.
His phone vibrated against his thigh. He stuck his cigarette between his teeth and took it out of his jeans’ pocket, the band-aids on his knuckles almost ripping off on the edge of it. He didn’t mark a pause at the name he saw on the screen despite the way his chest constricted and simply turned his back to Sharaku, pressing it against his ear. The case was damp between his fingers from contact with his drenched clothes.
“I was about to call you,” he said in preamble.
There was a moment of quiet on the other end. “Oh.”
Oh, indeed, he thought with nostalgia. It didn’t matter that the time nostalgia took him back to was less than two weeks ago. “I just had a talk with Yagiri,” Shizuo said, tapping the end of his cigarette; the ash fell toward the ground without a sound, half of it getting caught on his leg. “She’s saying she’ll sue us both if she doesn’t get a formal apology from you—signed in your name—by Monday.”
Izaya was so silent and still on the end of the line that Shizuo could have believed that he hung up, if not for the tiny, staticky sounds he could hear through the rain.
“She wouldn’t be able to do anything against me,” he said. “But I suppose giving you a blackmailing record would beat my initial purpose.”
“I suppose,” Shizuo murmured. “Why were you calling me?”
Izaya’s voice sounded so different on the phone, so disagreeable. So far-fetched from the sweetness of it when they were face-to-face. “It doesn’t matter,” Izaya said evenly. “Fine, then. I’ll write Yagiri-san the most obsequious letter that she’s ever received.”
But he didn’t hang up after that, though his tone was final. Shizuo stared at the wall and ignored the burning weight of Sharaku’s eyes at his nape; he took another breath of smoke, his fingers brushing his lips, warmer and bigger than Izaya’s had been.
Izaya spoke again, then. “I would still like to see you.” He tone and words had switched to an aching sort of politeness, so different from his arrogance that Shizuo knew without a doubt that they were sincere. It made the pit of longing in his stomach growl in anguish like a living creature. “I have time tomorrow evening. If you want.”
“I’m not doing the café thing again,” Shizuo said, though he shouldn’t.
Izaya chuckled breezily. Shizuo heard the sound of a chair being moved and a laptop booting up, and he put his arm on the wall in front of his and his head against it. His neck hurt. “I’m sure we can figure something out for dinner. Maybe simply your place or mine, though I’m a mediocre cook.”
“Figures, with all the pizza,” Shizuo mumbled. Then, straightening up: “So you’re inviting me out, but I have to make you food?”
“Trust me,” Izaya replied delightedly, “you don’t want to try any of mine.”
Shizuo let himself imagine it for a second—inviting Izaya over or walking to his house and cooking there. No one around to see him and his own want, no wise voice to tell him he should look elsewhere, look for better. Just Izaya in his empty apartment, his eyes black and his heart on his tongue, fingers reaching up to touch Shizuo’s face.
His cheeks were red when he spoke again; and the words, when they came, did so with a whole new sort of pain. “Sorry—shit. I can’t.”
Izaya took a while to respond. “All right, then.” He sounded wounded, and Shizuo’s guts clenched in remorse.
“See you, pizza boy,” Izaya said.
He cut the call.
Shizuo let his arm fall to his side. The cigarette in his other hand wasn’t burning anymore, though he had forgotten to finish it. The humidity was so bad that the ember had died on its own.
He almost jumped when he turned around and saw Sharaku still standing there and looking at him.
“Shit,” he said again, rubbing a hand over his face. “I forgot you were there.”
“I could tell,” she replied. “Trouble in paradise?”
“There wasn’t a paradise to begin with.” She made a face at that, too understanding for comfort, so Shizuo lifted his bag over his shoulder and said, “I should go home,” in a definitive tone.
She nodded, and she pushed herself away from her own wall, stretching her arms above her head. “I should head back to the dojo too,” she said with a deep exhale, tension running out of her. “I’ve got a class to teach to the little ones.”
“Good luck.” Shizuo opened his umbrella, which was still wet from his walk earlier. “See you tomorrow, Sharaku.”
“Send me a pic of Vorona trying on her party wear, will ya?” she replied.
“Get some yourself,” he snapped back.
For the second time that day, he went away with laughter at his back. He didn’t feel like laughing himself, though, and the fifteen minutes he took to reach his apartment were spent in stark silence, his stomach heavy with guilt, and his clothes heavy with damp.
The sky was still dark on Saturday. Every sidewalk was a puddle, making walking near-impossible without feeling icy water fill one’s shoes. Even so, at five in the afternoon when Vorona emptied her closet in the living-room, the row of footwear she aligned in the entrance for trying didn’t count a single pair of closed flats or sturdy boots.
“Are you gonna be okay wearing those?” Shizuo asked her, nodding to the brand-new pair of red pumps she had placed on the coffee table.
She stared at him in the mirror she had placed on his desk. She was using it as her spot to apply makeup; her hair was up in a towel, and she was in her underwear.
The underwear thing had stopped shocking him the first time it happened, on the very day they had started living together.
“They have good balance,” she replied evenly.
“The heel is one centimeter in diameter.”
She didn’t reply.
Shizuo stared at the TV again. He had notes for his upcoming assignment spread over his lap and over the couch, as well as about five different books that he hadn’t opened yet. There was a telemarketing program on, which didn’t interest him in the least, but Vorona had taken the remote with her and not brought it back.
“We don’t even have to be there for two more hours,” he muttered.
Those hours were spent browsing any online article that he found relevant to his work, no matter how far-fetched. There was something about physically opening books to work that made the prospect of staying hunched over working on an essay for hours real as opposed to planned. He knew he wouldn’t get anything accomplished before leaving for the party anyway.
Vorona came and went during that time, each time with different clothes on. Shizuo lost track of her outfits after the first two, and she never asked for his opinion anyway, only for his compliance in letting her use the entire apartment as she saw fit. Considering all the housework she’d done over the week, he wasn’t too resentful about it.
Because the clouds were so low over the city, the light started to dim by the time they had to leave. Vorona emerged from the bathroom one last time one hour after they were supposed to go, wearing the brightest red shorts he had ever seen and the shoes he had commented on earlier, as well as a cream silk shirt. She had earrings on and gel in her hair, and when she walked on those needle-like heels, she didn’t waver even once.
Sharaku made a noise of appreciation when they joined her outside of their building. She was wearing different dress pants than the ones she had on at the funeral on Monday, and better-looking shoes; and, to Shizuo’s surprise, Vorona hooked their arms together as they walked.
Judging by the color on Sharaku’s cheeks, it was a surprise to her too.
They took the train to Kadota’s place. Thanks to the thin, maze-like streets around him, the water on the ground was less present, making the walk more comfortable. They heard the murmur of voices and music before they even knocked, and when Yumasaki opened the door, the volume hit them in full, making Shizuo flinch back by reflex.
He ushered them inside with a bright smile and a dramatic Welcome; when the door closed behind them, confining them to the noise and crowd inside, Shizuo felt it physically.
“Come on, Shizu-chan,” Yumasaki said, pushing him with both hands at his shoulders.
“Don’t fucking call me—”
“Shizu-chan!” Karisawa’s voice rang, clear and insufferable, and the woman herself appeared in front of him as if summoned by the sound of his name. “You’re here!”
“I said I would be,” he replied angrily.
Her face was red with delight, and she said, “You have to see what we bought. Come on, come on!”
She tugged him further inside, toward the wide living-room—thrice wider than Shizuo’s whole apartment—and to the center of it, where a group was gathered around something that made a weird sort of buzzing echo through the music.
At first he couldn’t see what it was. The dozen girls staring at the device in awe made too compact a screen, and it wasn’t until one of them moved away that light finally fell on the machine pouring dark liquid from all sides and steaming very faintly.
“Is that a chocolate fountain?” he asked.
Karisawa roared in laughter next to him.
“It’s so big,” he said, bewildered. There were pieces of fruit and candy on the table where it was placed, making it look like a pedestal of some sort, surrounded by offerings. “Fucking hell.”
“It’s why we wanted all that money,” Karisawa mock-whispered. “Everyone in this room has participated in buying our best acquisition since we moved into this place.”
“Togusa-san wanted to turn it into a beer fountain,” Yumasaki said, appearing on Shizuo’s other side. “A beer fountain.”
“Can you even do that with a chocolate fountain? Or anything? Wouldn’t the foam be impossible to control?”
“I rue the day we shall find out, Karisawa-san!”
Shizuo slipped away from them as they yelled. All the furniture in the room was occupied by someone, and the ordinarily clean bar counter on the side was filled to the brim with bottles, opened or not. The blue light on the ceiling served no actual lighting purpose, but it shone grimly on its surface, which in places already looked sticky with spilled liquid.
Shizuo walked behind the bar and to Kadota’s large secondhand fridge. As he thought, the beer and white wine were stacked inside. He grabbed a bottle of white without thinking too much and got himself a paper cup from the giant pile of them beside the sink.
Someone tapped his shoulder while he was pouring the Moscato, almost making him drop the bottle. Celty was smiling at him as he turned his head, her phone held up between her hands, reading, Having fun?
“I’m absolutely thrilled to be here,” he replied dryly. He put the bottle back in the fridge after he was done, and he downed half of the fruity wine in one go. He felt warmth rush to his head as he did. “Where’s Shinra?”
With the weird childhood friend he invited. The guy doesn’t seem exceptionally happy to be here either.
“I don’t know how anyone could be Shinra’s childhood friend and be happy with the fact.”
She pinched him lightly in answer, making the first real smile emerge on his lips in more than two days.
Celty knew the place better than he did. She dragged him to the farthest end of the room, in a sort of alcove where a ratty couch sat. Shizuo had seen it whenever he came around but never used it himself—the TV was on the other side of the living room, which was where they played video games. This one was lumpy and uncomfortable, but it was away from most of the noise and guests.
I’m glad to see Vorona, Celty wrote once they were seated. Was that her girlfriend with her?
“Yeah,” Shizuo replied.
Celty didn’t show any surprise at the admission. She took it in stride without further comment and with a smile, and when she engaged him again, it was in work and school-related chitchats, and about the latest news on her side.
Kadota walked to them about twenty minutes later. “I saw you get a head start on the Moscato,” he told Shizuo, throwing him the bottle in question. Shizuo caught it with the tips of his fingers. “Sorry I couldn’t come by earlier, the place is literally swarming with people I need to say hi to.”
“Won’t anyone miss this?”
“It’s fine,” Kadota said lightly. “I bought it for you and Erika anyway, but she’s too busy with the fountain to care about the booze.”
Celty typed for a moment before turning her phone to him. Why did you buy the fountain? it read.
“It costs a fortune in chocolate to even work, but it’s amazing.” Kadota was grinning now, hair messy from the heat, cheeks red from drinking. “Let’s just call it a childhood dream come true.”
A sudden burst of cheers from the room made him look behind. Shizuo had to struggle to see what the source of it was, and when he found it, his face warmed with more than the simple effects of the wine.
Vorona was kissing Sharaku next to the fountain, both hands caught in Sharaku’s hair and Sharaku’s hovering over her sides in surprise and appreciation. It didn’t last more than five seconds. In that time the room had burst into applause, though for entirely wrong reasons; and Shizuo felt pride shoot through him like an arrow when he saw the way Sharaku smiled and laughed, and the way Vorona turned around, contentment shining out of her.
Kadota was red as well when he looked back at them. “Um,” he said. “Guess that explains why you two aren’t together.”
“Guess it does,” Shizuo said into his wine.
“Togusa’s gonna be heartbroken about this.”
Shizuo almost replied, Who gives a shit about Togusa.
“Right.” Kadota straightened from his slouch and spoke to Celty next. “Shinra’s looking for you, by the way.”
She shrugged lightly and stood up, following him into the room. They disappeared inside the crowd.
Shizuo sat alone in the alcove. He refilled his glass with the now-lukewarm wine but didn’t touch any of it. He stared at the edge of the wall without seeing the people around, and wondered how long he would have to stay until he could leave without seeming rude. Despite the space around everything was the wrong kind of warm, stuffy, sweet from the alcohol and bitter from the sweat. There was a group dancing next to the TV, where Togusa had probably set the music the loudest. He thought he caught sight of Kamichika in it, but she was moving too fast for him to know with this little light.
There was a noise as someone put a glass bottle on the old wooden coffee table in front of him. The couch dipped beside him when they sat down, and Shizuo looked at the bottle absently, waiting for conversation to arise from the stranger and their probable friends so that he could drown them out again.
It was a heavy bottle, already almost empty. Probably rum. In the blue light its content looked like liquid gold, and it splashed around lazily from being moved, leaving amber droplets to hang to the inside of the crystal. One long-fingered hand was holding the cork in place and leaving small, whitish stains on its gleaming surface.
Warmth spread through Shizuo’s chest, tingles running down his arms and to the tips of his fingers—and next to him Izaya said, “Good evening, pizza boy.”
He felt suffocated. His eyes met Izaya’s as if drawn in by a magnet; Izaya looked winded, his skin shining from sweat or from the light alone, entirely out of his composure, and more attractive than Shizuo had ever seen him.
It didn’t seem to matter than he couldn’t find any word to answer. Izaya let go of the hundred-dollar rum and put his hand to Shizuo’s cheek instead, thumb brushing the corner of his lips and fingers digging into his hair.
“You’re Shinra’s childhood friend,” Shizuo said at last.
Izaya smiled shakily at him. “If it were anyone but Shinra I’d ask you why you sound so horrified.”
His palm was so warm. Shizuo knew his face must be redder and hotter than it had a minute ago upon seeing Vorona and Sharaku, and Izaya’s wasn’t much better, though in his case it was masked by the way blue looked on him. Shizuo held no hope that he looked this good while blushing so furiously.
“I wasn’t stalking you,” Izaya said abruptly. He took back his hand, and Shizuo tried not to flinch at the loss of it and the sudden free-fall of his heart. “I didn’t know you’d be here.”
Shizuo closed his mouth. Izaya’s hands were trembling slightly, though he didn’t look drunk. If anything he seemed terrified by his own forwardness in a way he hadn’t when they were alone in his hallway and his gaze had lingered, unabashed, on every detail of Shizuo he could find. As if he wanted to burn him to memory.
“I believe you,” Shizuo said.
Izaya exhaled all the tension in his body at once. He rubbed a hand over his face, and Shizuo watched, fascinated, drinking in every second of it.
He swallowed. “I’ve—”
“Shizuo,” Izaya cut in, and Shizuo shut his mouth again, teeth hitting too hard together and making his jaw ache. “I need to talk to you.”
He was biting his lips. Wordlessly, he brought himself closer, until their thighs were almost touching and he had to turn his upper body around to be able to face Shizuo. From this close, it was easy to discern how damp his lips were, and his eyelashes cast long shadows over his cheeks, drawing lines over his skin that the light cut through like blue scars.
“Okay,” Shizuo breathed.
Izaya smiled joylessly. His hands were clenched tightly in his lap. “I’m—sorry.”
Shizuo’s throat felt tight.
“I,” and Izaya raised a hand to put it on his shoulder, fingers digging tightly into the fabric of Shizuo’s shirt, “I thought I wouldn’t apologize. Shouldn’t apologize. Part of me keeps telling me that I never care about this, but the truth is—”
He stopped to breathe in. Shizuo raised his own hand without thinking, circling Izaya’s wrist against his chest with his fingers. He felt the other’s heartbeat in it, and it was as fast as his own.
“I don’t care that some fraud of a professor feels bad that I broke into her private life,” Izaya continued. He hadn’t stopped looking into Shizuo’s eyes, hadn’t even blinked once. “In general I’m not someone who gives much thought to others, or who feels a lot of empathy. And more than just that—I don’t care about a lot besides myself.”
Shizuo tried to reign in the hope flowering in him to no avail; it spread through his blood like sunlight, so bright it made him want to close his eyes. Izaya took in another breath before continuing, “I’ve found that I care that you care, though.”
Shizuo wanted to raise his other hand and touch his fingers to the skin at Izaya’s nape, where it must be damp, where the softest of his hair would brush his knuckles.
He couldn’t hear any of the party’s noises anymore.
“The day you met me,” Izaya murmured, “was one miserable day in a long string of miserable days. I bought the most expensive bottle of alcohol I could find on impulse and I was planning on drinking until either my body or the bottle gave out. I don’t even remember ordering pizza at all.” Shizuo’s hand slid up from Izaya’s wrist to hold his fingers instead, and they were shaking again in his grip, cold where his palm had been hot. “I never expected anyone to show me any sort of kindness. Let alone a perfect stranger.”
“I wasn’t going to leave you like this,” Shizuo replied softly.
Izaya shook his head with a chuckle. “A lot of people would have. And I felt so outraged afterward, that someone had stepped so thoroughly into my perfect plan to ruin myself. I spent the day reading your message and then trying to crumple the paper as tightly as I could, over and over and over, and thinking of ways to make you pay for it.”
“The thing is,” Izaya cut in. “You answered when I called. And you came when I told you to bring back that stupid bottle. And you came back every night afterward, and it didn’t even take forty-eight hours for me to realize that was the only time of the day I was looking forward to. Stupid, right?” He laughed as he said it, and Shizuo’s mouth tasted bitter despite the sweet of the wine, every beat of his heart ringing through his entire body. “I didn’t even know you. Even with all the details I pried out of your coworker every day, I don’t really know you. But you were there on my doorstep every night, like a fucking daydream come alive, and I wanted you so much.”
Shizuo’s free hand reached forward and gripped Izaya’s nape, touching soft hair and softer skin. “Do you ever get tired of the sound of your own voice?” he asked. “Because I’m exhausted.”
Izaya was already close enough that he could make out every individual eyelash, every strand of his hair. When he tugged him closer he saw the limits of his pupils inside his eyes, almost completely drowning out his irises, and Izaya laughed a real, genuine laugh, that crashed onto Shizuo’s lips along with his own.
Both of Izaya’s hands framed his face almost instantly, scratching his scalp lightly and tangling with his hair; Shizuo leaned into the kiss harder than he thought he would, making Izaya fall backward on the lumpy couch and their mouth lose contact for a second. Izaya immediately pulled him back in, and when Shizuo felt his mouth open under his own, he didn’t hesitate.
Izaya tasted sweet from the rum. He licked into Shizuo’s mouth almost avidly, and Shizuo let him, content to brush the hair out of his forehead and feel him breathe against his cheek, eyes fluttering closed where he could feel it, right under his own. Everywhere they touched was scorching, and he felt his back dampen with sweat, his fingers slide against Izaya’s skin, his lips sting from the heat.
When he pulled back, it was only so he could breathe and look. Izaya’s face was entirely red, his mouth still open, but his eyes were focused when they opened.
He licked his lips. “You know,” he told Shizuo, “I don’t even like rum. Too sweet.”
Shizuo sat up with an exasperated grunt. “We’re not compatible in any way.”
He glanced at Izaya sideways, just in case, but Izaya didn’t seem to take his comment to heart. He threw a hand over the back of the couch to pull himself up as well and back into Shizuo’s space. He rested his chin on Shizuo’s shoulder, and his hair tickled Shizuo’s nose gently. Shizuo only barely managed to restrain himself from leaning down to kiss it. With pulling back from Izaya came the awareness that they weren’t alone at all, that a world of people was moving around them, too close for comfort. Shizuo looked around the room, panic rising up his throat at the thought of being applauded the way Vorona had earlier.
It seemed no one had seen them, thankfully. He leaned his head back against the couch and closed his eyes.
He felt Izaya shift against him. “I’m aware that dating the weird client who keeps checking you out and digging into your life isn’t the best prospect out there,” Izaya said in a quiet voice.
“Yeah,” Shizuo replied in kind. “So I’ve been told.”
There was a silence. Shizuo thought about dragging a cigarette out of his pocket, but he still had the taste of Izaya’s mouth on his tongue, sweeter and warmer than any alcohol, almost unbearably pleasant.
“I don’t know about any of that stuff,” he admitted. “I’ve been told I’m lowering my standards too much. Or that I’m making bad decisions.”
Izaya tensed beside him, body going from relaxed to hard and unforgiving. Shizuo pulled his back away from the couch, and Izaya’s head slid from his shoulder. They looked at each other for a moment.
Shizuo’s chest was still brimming with warmth. His heart was still beating against his ribs as if trying to break them from the inside.
“It’s good enough, though, right?” he asked. “That you want me, and I want you too.”
Izaya smiled darkly. “What I want is a little more complicated, Shizuo.”
“That’s fine too, then.” Shizuo took out a cigarette and lit it, and Izaya’s gaze felt like a trail of heat on his lips, worse than the flame of his lighter. He let out the smoke with his next words: “I’m the kind of guy who falls in love with the shitty client digging into his life, after all.”
He watched the flush on Izaya’s face darken again, the deep terror in his eyes bleed out; and he didn’t move to stop him when Izaya plucked the cigarette from his lips to replace it with his own. He breathed the smoke out into Izaya’s mouth, heat running under his skin and then over it as Izaya breathed it back.
All of his self brought to a simmer by how much he wanted this.