The entrance to Fuchuu prison looks like her school, Akane thinks. Glass pans reflecting the sun, reddish walls, parking space. There’s a fence around it and a grim little name stone by her side, but it isn’t anywhere close to how she imagined it would be.
Her imagination has been rampant.
She doesn’t even feel as anxious as she did on the day she went back to school for the first time. If anything she thinks Shizuo looks more anxious than she feels—his hand is holding hers very tightly, like he’s afraid he’ll lose her if he lets go. His skin is hot despite the icy winter wind around. Not sweaty. His hands are never sweaty. But warm, like a furnace, so much so that her own grip is starting to slide inside his.
His other hand has a thin blue folder in it. She’s seen him write on every page in it carefully over the past few weeks; the folder has gone back and forth through the mail that Shizuo keeps tightly organized on his writing desk.
“You ready?” he asks her.
Akane takes a long moment to answer. She’s stopped looking at the front gate and is watching their linked hands instead. There’s a tiny splotch of ink on her thumb from playing with Shizuo’s pens this morning.
She doesn’t feel anxious but she can’t find her voice; all she does is squeeze Shizuo’s hand and step forward, and he follows her gently, his grip softened from tense to comforting.
Akane doesn’t listen to what the man in a guard’s uniform at the entrance says. She watches Shizuo give him the blue folder. The man skims it with attentive eyes before nodding and pressing a button. There’s a buzz, and the loud sound of something unlocking; and soon enough another man is walking toward them from inside the building, opening the metallic gate and gesturing them inside.
Shizuo takes the lead. The man is walking faster than Akane or him were before—she has to almost run to keep up with him, and from the way Shizuo’s hand tenses around hers she can tell that he’s close to commenting on it. But the prison guard stops soon enough, inside a corridor with beige walls and rows of closed doors. They don’t look like cell doors; there’s no locks on them, or tiny iron windows like she imagined there would be. The man nods his head and murmurs a short word to Shizuo that Akane can’t catch.
Then he opens the door for them.
Akane’s head feels filled with dough. She walks in when Shizuo does, and she thinks her hand is shaking now, but he doesn’t stop her. He doesn’t let go of her. Akane’s eyes can’t leave the sight of the glass partition in the middle of the room, and for a moment the light from the hallway is all she can see against the silhouette behind—but then it clears as she blinks, and she sees the tired, warm eyes of her father, the old scar on his chin and older scar on his brow, and when he says, “Akane,” she doesn’t cry.
She doesn’t cry.
The distance she and Shizuo cross from the door to the table and chair seems infinite, and yet they cross it in a second. Shizuo pulls the chair away from the table so she can climb on it, and she does, her hand still caught inside his.
Shizuo is silent.
“Akane,” her father says again. She can’t look away from his eyes. “I’ve missed you so much.”
There’s a knot of warmth and queasiness in her throat that she doesn’t know how to vocalize. She got her voice back when Shizuo took her in, and it came with tears, but this is different. It’s like a part of her is trying to reject the hand Shizuo is holding as something foreign, to cut it off entirely, to detach it from her senses. Like something in her still hasn’t left the big house she lived in once, when her mother and father weren’t in prison. The rest of her is sure that she’ll be swallowed whole by the ground if she lets go.
“Akane?” her father says again. He looks stricken.
Akane feels Shizuo move beside her. He clears his throat in a rare show of physical hesitation—“Ah, I’m not sure if you got my letter.”
Her father looks away from her for a moment, and she feels the lack of his misery’s weight like a burst of fresh air. He holds a piece of paper up; despite the glass keeping most light off of it, Akane can make out the same blue ink that she spilled on herself earlier that day, and though she can’t read it, she knows Shizuo’s handwriting.
“You’re Heiwajima Shizuo,” her father says. “My daughter’s foster.”
Her heart is beating like it’s trying to explode inside her chest.
Shizuo squeezes her hand gently. Her fingers are all clammy now. “I am. I’m sorry we took so long to visit.”
“Paperwork, right?” Mikiya says. “I thought prison would save me from that, but it turns out that even in here, I have to sign shit.”
Shizuo laughs a little nervously. Mikiya’s eyes are flying from him and back to Akane, over and over, like he can’t stand to have his eyes away from her for more than a second. There’s a white lamp on their side of the room that reflects harshly on the glass and refuses to bring his face to life completely. He looks grey. Like a ghost.
Akane’s eyes are burning.
“I already explained to Akane why we couldn’t come earlier,” Shizuo continues. “Since technically, the state is still her legal guardian.”
“Are you planning on shipping her off to someone else when the time comes, then?”
Akane feels the way Shizuo tenses. “That’s up to Akane to decide,” he says tightly.
Her father looks away from him. She has no idea how she looks—she feels as though every muscle in her face is petrified, voice gone and tear ducts as dry as the desert. It doesn’t matter. Her expression is enough to make raw hurt flash through Mikiya’s eyes and some great, invisible hand squeeze her heart all out of blood.
He seems to deflate all of a sudden. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Darling, I’m sorry. I’m very happy to see you.”
She missed his voice. She realizes this right as the knot in her travels up to her throat, and she kneels up on the chair to press her sweaty hands against the glass. Mikiya does the same on his side, palms flat against where hers should be. It doesn’t matter that the glass is hard and smooth and she remembers his hands to be the opposite, because the glass warms almost instantly, like skin.
“Akane,” he says, and she’s never seen him cry before but he is, now, his breathing like rasps and wetness rolling down his shaven face, tears splitting into the lines that prison grew on his skin. “Akane…”
“’M sorry,” she says. It’s barely more than a whisper but she feels like she’s screaming all the same, and her throat aches. “Sorry, sorry, sorry—”
“No, no, baby, why are you apologizing? Why? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
She sobs. “I don’t know.”
Mikiya falls quiet. His tears haven’t ceased but he’s silent where she’s loud, certain that the guard outside the room and the warden in his office must be able to hear her lungs break open on her sobs and the wet noises she makes when she inhales.
Shizuo isn’t holding her anymore, but he hasn’t moved. She knows he’s looking at her, and she can almost feel how much he wants to comfort her—but it doesn’t help, nothing does, because her father is in prison and he will be for years and the best she can do is touch glass and imagine that the warmth on it is his instead of hers.
It hadn’t made sense. Not until now. It didn’t make sense when the judge said twenty years and it hadn’t made sense when she traveled from family to family and then into Shizuo’s gentle hands.
“Dad,” she cries.
She wishes she were strong. She wishes she could do more than cling pathetically to the partition—she wishes she could punch straight through it and hold his hand and drag him out.
Mikiya makes a wounded noise on his side, and it comes off like static, not even like his real voice. It’s traveling from a mic on his side and through speakers on theirs.
She doesn’t know how long she stays like this. Eventually her sobs die down and fatigue takes over; she wobbles onto the table, and Shizuo catches her before she falls and helps her down onto the seat. She still feels like crying, but it’s as if all the energy has been sucked out of her. She has to blink fast to keep her eyes open.
Mikiya rubs a hand over his face. His fingers dig into his eyes. She hears him sniff, and it makes an exhausted sort of laugh burst out from her lips.
He smiles at her gently. Then he turns his head to look at Shizuo, and he says, “I apologize.”
“That’s quite all right,” Shizuo murmurs in answer.
“Yeah, well. I suppose after everything that’s happened, crying in front of a stranger isn’t that bad.” Mikiya looks at Akane again. “Akane.”
Akane nods tiredly.
“You’re very brave for coming here,” he continues. It makes her eyes burn again, but she doesn’t have the energy to cry anymore. “I’m so, so happy that I got to see you again.”
“We can come back, Akane,” Shizuo offers immediately. “Whenever you want.”
Mikiya stays silent for a moment. When he speaks again it is with restrained weight on his words, as if he’s trying to sound as completely neutral as possible. “Would you like that?” he asks her.
She doesn’t know.
She feels terrible for it. But her entire mind is reeling from the realization that this is her life, now; that she’s not just patiently waiting for someone to tell her everything has been a bad joke anymore—this is her life, there’s no going back, no hidden plot twist. No new official in a suit is going to come to her and tell her that everything’s been fixed and she can finally go back home.
Her home is gone, and this is all she has left of it. A cold, stuffy room, where she can see her dad but never hold him.
Tears are streaming down her face wetly. The numbness is starting to settle inside her, and she doesn’t know what it says about her that she prefers it to the sight of her father, forever stuck inside a glass cage that she can’t open.
“Akane,” Shizuo says.
It takes a tremendous amount of effort to lift her head in his direction. He crouches to be level with her, and he doesn’t smile. She hadn’t realized how little she wanted anyone to smile while she felt so miserable.
“You’re very upset right now,” he says slowly. “I understand that. Your dad does too. You don’t have to make a decision now.”
“I’m sorry,” she repeats.
Shizuo shakes his head. “You’ve done nothing wrong. We’ll go home, okay? I think you need to rest right now.”
Her father isn’t saying anything. He’s looking at Shizuo pensively, and then back at Akane, and he smiles.
It’s not a fake smile.
“Okay,” she says hoarsely.
Shizuo walks to the back of the room and knocks on the door a couple times. It opens almost immediately to the same man who led them in earlier—Akane doesn’t know, can’t tell, if it’s been a minute or an hour.
“I love you,” Mikiya says, too low for anyone but her to hear. “No matter what. I’ll always be your dad and I’ll always love you. Even if you don’t want to come visit me. Got it?”
She nods. Her eyes are still dripping, like she’s opened a faucet that she can never, ever close.
Shizuo speaks to her a few times on the way back, but the most she can do is nod her assent thoughtlessly. She doesn’t know what she agrees to for dinner that night, and she doesn’t know what sort of movie he said they should both watch over the weekend. She looks at the blurry flow of buildings outside the car window and feels tears dry up on her face, crusting around her eyes. There’s the start of a headache right between her eyes and she’s pretty sure that she’s bitten her lips raw. Shizuo will want to put chapstick on that again.
The way up the stairs to his apartment is long and painful. She doesn’t touch the hand that Shizuo offers, and he doesn’t insist. If he slows his pace for her it is without a single word about it.
Akane falls onto the couch in the living-room when she’s inside. Her shoes are left at the entrance in disarray, and she listens to Shizuo pick them up and put them inside the cupboard near the entrance without any regret. She can’t feel anything except a blurry, underwhelming sort of misery.
Shizuo leaves her be. He busies himself in the kitchen, puts something to cook inside the oven. He walks into the hallway leading to the bedrooms and soon enough she hears the sound of the shower running.
She doesn’t know how she falls asleep. What seems like a minute after she closed her eyes, there is a hand gently shaking her awake, and when she sits up, she feels a blanket fall down from her chest to pool on top of her legs. Outside the windows, the sky is pitch black.
“You should go to bed,” Shizuo tells her gently. “Sorry for waking you up, but you’ll catch a cold if you sleep here.”
Akane licks her lips. They’re dry, like her entire mouth, and she feels even groggier than she did before.
“How long?” she croaks.
He smiles. “Three hours, give or take? You were really tired. I can reheat some dinner if you’re hungry.”
She shakes her head. Her stomach feels upset, and all she wants now is to go back to sleeping and not knowing anything about anything, ever.
Shizuo walks with her to her bedroom and marks a pause at the entrance. She does, too, a little more slowly.
It hasn’t much changed since the day she arrived a couple months ago. The closet is filled with her clothes and she has her toys around the floor and onto her bed, but she can still tell that it looks like a guest bedroom. There’s a pile of chairs in a corner and a few notebooks on the topmost shelf of the desk. Shizuo’s stuff.
“I should move those,” he says, as if echoing her thoughts.
“S’fine,” she replies.
“It’s your room.”
He always says that, and usually, she’s good with just ignoring it. But today she isn’t. Today she has the knowledge that there’s no going back sitting heavy and painful inside her, and she’s too drained to cry, but it feels all the same.
Shizuo grabs her shoulder gently and nudges her around, so that she can face him.
“Hey,” he says. His eyes are infinitely gentle. “Don’t think about it too hard, okay?”
She swallows painfully. “How?”
“I know it feels like it’ll never get better right now.” He crouches again, so that she can look at him and know he’s not lying. His face is open. His words sincere. “I didn’t think it would be such a shock for you. I’m sorry.”
“Akane,” he cuts her off. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
For the first time that day, she believes it.
His other hand braces itself against her arm, and he squeezes her shoulders from both sides warmly. “You’re very tired. I promise, it won’t feel as awful after a good night’s rest.”
She licks her lips. “I just wanted to—” she chokes, unable to finish.
“I know,” Shizuo says. “But your dad loves you. He understands how hard this is for you. Take your time, okay?” His thumb brushes against the tear tracks on her face gently. “And know that no matter what, this is your home for as long as you want it to be.”
“Say,” and Shizuo pushes against the floor to stand up again, a fleeting smile on his lips, “What would you say about writing your dad a letter?”
“I don’t know enough to write,” Akane replies belatedly.
Shizuo shrugs. “I can help. I’m sure your dad would be very happy to get a letter from you, even if some of it is in my handwriting.”
Akane can’t help but shiver as she remembers the room, the glass partition, the cold, grey table. The prison that looks like a school. She doesn’t even know what her father’s cell looks like or how he’s been doing. She wanted to ask him if the food was okay.
She forgot. She was too miserable to think of anything other than her own sorrow. Now, she wishes she had remembered.
“I want to,” she says. “I want to write him a letter.”
Shizuo ruffles her hair. Under the weight of his hand and his gaze, she thinks she can breathe a bit better.