“You seem a little young,” the woman at the state mandated shelter says.
She looks unfriendly, Shizuo thinks. Her face is soft but the frame of her glasses is sharp, a thin silver thing that doesn’t brighten the lifelessness of her eyes any. Kujiragi, the tag at her collar reads.
“I’m thirty,” he answers.
She hums softly. “Well. Hopefully you’ll be more lucky with Akane than her previous foster family was.”
“Is that her name?” Shizuo asks. “Akane.”
“You didn’t know?”
He didn’t. He was called the night previous in a rush, after a long day at work spent fixing the mess their intern had made of the stamp machine. He was still half on his way to growling at Rokujou when his phone had rung and he realized who was calling. The rest of his evening he had spent cleaning the guest bedroom of his apartment.
“No,” he answers truthfully. “They never sent over her file. I just knew she was the Awakusu girl.”
“And a troubled girl at that,” Kujiragi replies flatly. “We tried to keep her history on the low from foster parents, but, well. There’s only so many girls in state custody named Awakusu Akane who mysteriously refuse to talk about where they come from.” She fiddles with the pen above her ear lightly. “They weren’t very reassured when they took her in, and then she refused to open up to them. You know how this goes.”
He does. His experience with this part of his life is narrow still; he’s only fostered one child before, a boy named Haruto who smiled brightly and broke a lot of things. Haruto was only with him for a month and a half. It was enough for Shizuo to learn to despise the system he was a part of.
He feels anxious, now, thinking about fostering someone else. He doesn’t know why, exactly. Kujiragi hands him Akane’s file, and the picture at the front is that of a serious-looking little girl. The picture is recent, because there are bags under her eyes and not the trace of a smile at her mouth. Her hair must’ve been a bob the last time she cut it, but it’s been months since her father’s trial now, and apparently no one has taken the time to fix it for her.
She can’t be more than five years old.
“Am I supposed to just take her home like this?” Shizuo says. Kujiragi shifts on her feet and offers him an empty smile.
“Of course not. Take the time to read the file. It’s still early, Akane has to eat and pack her things first.”
“Did she come back recently?”
“Her fosters brought her back here three days ago. We’ve been frantically looking for someone to take her in since, as there’s not really any extra room here.” She pauses. “If she runs out of fosters too soon she’ll have to be taken somewhere else.”
Shizuo eyes the man at the entrance of the room pensively. He doesn’t look out of place at all—it’s seven in the morning and he’s dressed in well-pressed clothes, sipping coffee and reading the morning news. He could be just one of the place’s employees. There’s an air to him that suggests law enforcement, though.
It’s probably why they called him here, Shizuo realizes. He knows most families already have children of their own before offering to foster some more. They wouldn’t want to have police around their every move.
Shizuo is childless. He’s not married, or even dating anyone. He doesn’t have enough experience to be extremely demanding. His throat itches for a smoke, so he sits down on one of the plastic chairs in the hallway. “Okay,” he tells the woman. “I came prepared anyway, so I’ll wait here until she’s ready.”
“Would you like me to tell her anything about you?” Kujiragi asks politely.
“You don’t know me,” Shizuo mutters.
She huffs. “I have your file, too.”
Shizuo thinks about it for a moment. Haruto and himself had gotten along well in their short time together, besides the amount of broken glass he’d had to clean up. The boy’s departure had been of his own decision, and still Shizuo sends letters almost bimonthly to him and his adopted family to know how he’s doing. Awesome, his shaky handwriting replies every time, following with an exhaustive list of every single one of his activities of the week. Shizuo’s not sure how to go around a girl with the kind of history Akane has.
“Yeah,” he replies at last. “Just—the broad lines, my name, what I look like. Tell her she has her room ready too. I took the day off in case she wants to be outside a little, but if she wants to go home immediately I don’t mind.”
Kujiragi barely makes any noise when she walks. By the time Shizuo looks back up from the thin folder in his hands she’s turned around the corner to what he presumes are the bedrooms and other facilities of the shelter. There’s a glass door separating the back from the lobby, like in a hospital. It feels a little gloomy.
He takes out his phone. The screen unlocks to his last conversation with Celty the same morning. She’s texted him once since he started talking out the details with Kujiragi, and it’s a short thing, Everything okay? written casual and sincere.
Be here for a while, he sends. They’re making Akane pack in a rush to leave.
Celty replies almost instantly, as always. Her name is Akane, then? She’s added a flowery kind of face at the end, and Shizuo breathes out a curt laugh. A few seconds later his phone buzzes again. Are you dying from anxiety yet?
Not. Talk to you later, I got reading to do.
Shizuo reflects for a while about the possibility of going outside to consult Akane’s file. Even with the cold of late winter there would be sunlight, and a cigarette to soothe his nerves, maybe even some coffee to flicker them alight again. In these moments he misses the familiarity of his path across town to deliver mail and the hours spent back out in the post office sorting through arriving letters and packages. He doesn’t want to get in the habit of smoking around Akane, though. Just because he can’t smell the tobacco on himself anymore doesn’t mean she won’t be able to.
There’s a short summary of her circumstances at the beginning of the file, along with her age and health conditions. As he thought, she’s just turned five.
He leans back into the chair and starts reading.
It’s maybe two hours before Kujiragi comes back with the girl in tow. He’s had time to read all the fine print and commit it to heart, although he wishes this could have been done way before he had to take her home. It wouldn’t have hurt to be able to see her a few times before that as well. Akane looks taller in person than the photograph suggests, and her hair is cut at least, if not as cleanly as he remembers it being on the picture of her at her father’s trial that had spread all over the city’s newspapers. She’s carrying a bright pink suitcase half her size behind her.
He stands up awkwardly, and when she lifts her head to look at him there’s nothing but fatigue on her. “Hey,” he tries. He smiles as calmly as he can despite the tension inside him.
Her eyes are very wide. She doesn’t look scared, at least, just prudent.
“This is Heiwajima Shizuo-san,” Kujiragi says kindly, nodding in his direction.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Akane replies in a small voice. She’s still staring at him cautiously.
Shizuo refrains from fidgeting. “Is this all you’re bringing?” He gestures at the suitcase.
“The rest of her belongings are staying here until we find a stable place for her.” As he expected, Kujiragi talks over and for Akane as if she’s not here, and Shizuo has to fight down some prickling of irritation before it clouds his judgement and manners. “Some of it is still with the police as well, though it shouldn’t be long before they give all of it back.”
Shizuo looks back at Akane. She hasn’t moved, but her eyes are turned to the ground again.
“Would you like to have your stuff sent at my apartment?” he asks her.
“This is unusual,” Kujiragi cuts in.
Shizuo doesn’t look at her this time. He’d like to be able to see Akane’s face for this, but she doesn’t seem likely to look up again now that she’s assessed him. He doesn’t think she would appreciate him kneeling down to her level either.
It’s a little late to treat her like a clueless child.
“Akane?” he tries again.
Her shoulders jump a little at the sound of her name. “Um,” she mumbles. “Yeah. Please.”
“Okay,” he smiles. He turns to Kujiragi again. “Would it be possible to have it delivered? I can come back with my car later if not.”
She looks back at him with the barest hint of suspicion in her eyes. “It’s possible,” she replies. “Not before late this afternoon, though.”
He doesn’t have to sign a lot of things after that. The agency has his contact info, updated religiously every six months for the two years he’s registered as a foster parent. The brunt of it he’s told will arrive via regular post within the week—he has to school his face out of amusement at this—so it’s really just a matter of putting his name down on five different papers and then taking Akane home.
Kujiragi exchanges a rather cold farewell with the girl when it’s time for them to go. Shizuo knows she’s expecting to see her again in a few weeks at most, and he tries to tell himself he’s as confident as he looks that this won’t happen.
At least, if it happens, he’ll make sure it’s Akane’s decision and not his own incompetence at fault.
Akane jumps a little when he closes a hand around the handle of her suitcase. She lets him take it from her without a word and follows in his steps with some distance between them. The streets outside are a clear cold, more biting for the presence of the sun on them than it would be without; but Akane is dressed appropriately at least, bundled up in a scarf and beanie and with an expensive-looking coat he thinks her father must have bought her. It’s starting to be a little small on her.
“I don’t live far,” he says softly over his shoulder. She’s maybe five feet behind, but Shizuo doesn’t try to close the distance between them. “We just have to walk for five minutes, I promise.”
“I can walk,” she answers, surprisingly loud.
He chuckles. “Yeah. I can see that.”
For a second their eyes meet; then she turns her head to the side and stares at the man walking his dog on the other end of the street.
It really is no more than five minutes from the agency to his apartment. He worries for a moment that the walk up the stairs will be fastidious for Akane, but she climbs the four floors with little more than a light panting to her breath. Shizuo has to stop himself from smiling again while he opens the door.
They stand in silence in the living room, now. Akane is looking around herself as discreetly as she can, with her fringe in her eyes so she can look but can’t be looked at. It’s with little surprise that Shizuo notices her gaze linger on the old desk in the corner of the room where he keeps his stationery, inks, and pens. He knows it clashes with the rest of the décor.
“Would you like something to drink?” he asks once she looks like she’s taking in everything she could. She shakes her head. “Do you want to see your room, then? You can start unpacking if you want. I can help you, too, or leave you alone to it.”
She doesn’t reply, or move. Her knuckles are white around the hand of the suitcase that she’s grabbed back as soon as she came in.
Shizuo has reservations for lunch at the new café two streets down. Akane doesn’t look like she’d enjoy moving again so fast, though; her face is painted the wrong shade of apprehensive, a little too close to fright for his comfort. He doesn’t think she’ll enjoy being out in public as shaken as she looks even with how tight a control she keeps on herself. It’s a little scary to observe in someone so young.
Haruto had been different. He had taken to Shizuo’s home as if he had always lived here, and Shizuo could only thank the heavens that his first experience welcoming a child had gone so smoothly. Haruto came in like a storm and came out like a soft rain, a little less shaky on his feet.
Akane looks like she’s ready to watch the world explode around her.
He hesitates for only a handful of second. When his palm presses to her head it is with the lightest pressure he can manage, just enough that he can feel the soft of her hair beneath his skin. She doesn’t jump this time.
“Are you hungry?” he enquires lowly.
She watches him, and he can see all the white in her eyes. “It’s not lunch yet,” she replies in a small voice.
“That’s fine. I’m starving anyway. I can cook us something.”
Her lips turn white. He realizes that it’s because she’s biting them from the inside of her mouth, in a way she thinks he won’t notice.
Eventually she does move. She releases the grip she has on her bag and climbs onto one of the chairs in the open kitchen. Her feet don’t reach the ground at all like this, and she puts her head into the cross of her arms atop the table so she can watch him from the side. As if folding her body in half could make her disappear.
He turns his back to her and tells himself this doesn’t upset him. “You like omurice?” he says, opening the drawer where he keeps his pans. There’s a silence; then a soft hum that he’s almost certain is assent. “Great. There’s some cherry tomatoes in the fridge if you can’t wait until I’m done, so don’t hesitate, okay?”
When he looks over his shoulder she’s turned her attention to the fridge, even if she’s not moving toward it yet.
“Go ahead, Akane,” he calls lightly, and she turns to him again. “This is your home for as long as you want.”
“Really,” she says, but it sounds the opposite of hopeful.
Shizuo puts down the pan and turns around to lean against the counter. “Really,” he replies.
He might sound more certain than he really is, but he’s not lying. He has no intention of letting her go unless she wants to and until the shelter finds someone willing to properly adopt her. Someone she wants adopting her.
It’s not enough to loosen her into trust. He can see tension running along her thin shoulders like a metal string and fatigue on her face and in the shaking at her lips. She’s not far from crying but she’s not letting herself cry, and he knows that this is exhaustion and leftover shock and that she will probably feel better once she’s fed and rested; but the sight clenches something inside him the way it did every time Haruto broke a plate and stilled in awful expectation.
“It’s okay,” he says before he can help it. “It’ll be okay, Akane.”
“No,” she chokes.
“Yes.” He takes a step toward her and he kneels, this time: with the help of the chair her face is above his, and he can see the wetness in her eyes. “It’s okay to cry.”
She shakes her head. It’s too late for her to swallow back the first damp trails on her face but she tries, face scrunched up in concentration even as small hiccups escape her. Shizuo doesn’t let himself think before running a hand into her hair. She leans into the touch with a sort of despair that makes him feel like he should be the one crying.
“Your stuff will be here today, and we can set up your room,” he says, rubbing lightly against her scalp as she shudders in her seat. “You’ll feel better when you’ve had something to eat and some time to sleep. I promise.”
He knows she doesn’t believe him, not really. It’s written in the hunch of her back and in black letters on her file and in every newspaper archive of the country: Anonymous tip to the police reveals data base of evidence against local yakuza head: Awakusu-kai dismantled. The words mean a very different thing to her than they do to him and everyone else who spent those weeks following the hunt, arrests, and trials. Awakusu Mikiya is only a name and a concept, like organized crime always is for those who don’t live in it. And Shizuo doesn’t live in it.
It’s different to be a child and to see parents and grandparents be sent to prison for decades.
Still a heave comes out of Akane as if she’s suddenly relieved of a weight, and she sags, finally. The last of her sobs are louder and more freeing.
Shizuo stays still for a long time. His knees are starting to hurt against the floor and the angle of his arm is awkward but he doesn’t let go of the side of her head and doesn’t shift into a better position. He won’t, not before she does.
In the end her own restlessness gets the better of her, and her legs start balancing back and forth under the chair. She lifts her head to look at him when he stands back up.
“Feel better?” Shizuo says
“Yeah,” she replies hoarsely. And then, rubbing her eyes fiercely with her fists: “Heiwajima-san?”
“Can I have the tomatoes now?”
He laughs, a little. Somewhere through her exhaustion Akane must find amusement, or maybe she’s just mimicking him; but her lips stretch into the first smile he’s seen from her, cracking right into the tear tracks staining her cheeks and making her look entirely like the child she is.
Shizuo does well in his life, but it isn’t often that he gets to do right. He thinks that this is why he chose to offer the comfort of his own home to this. The picture Akane makes with her in-out wreck of a smile leaves him dizzy, as does the thought of the letter still unopened on his desk that wears the ink stains and smears Haruto has applied with careless fingers.
This is right. This is what he spent twenty-eight years looking for.