Warnings: references to child abuse and to adults taking advantage of children emotionally.
Yahiro didn’t expect Orihara Izaya to answer him at all. He was acutely conscious of his own nosiness in forcing the hand of Yagiri Namie for Orihara’s contact info; even the twins had told him, If he answers, it’s bad news. If he were a better person his key motivator in contacting the man with his half-baked plan would have been the anger on Mairu’s face and the longing on Kururi’s; but all he had was his curiosity, his lack of remorse thanks to the story Nozomi had told—and a vast hunch that he could get something out of it, something that would better Kuon’s life. He didn’t really care what happened to Orihara himself.
He didn’t know if that was a normal thing to feel. On the one hand, he didn’t know Orihara Izaya at all. On the other hand, he knew he could empathize with strangers given enough incentive. And though Orihara didn’t seem to be a good person by any stretch of the imagination, he had almost died. Most people thought he was dead. He was estranged from his own home and from his own family. And yet Yahiro could only think of Nozomi’s story. He couldn’t put himself into Orihara’s shoes and imagine the man experiencing enough pain or loneliness for what happened to him to have canceled what he did upon others.
On the first morning of September, several days after classes had started in full swing again at Raira, Yahiro got an email. Good morning, it read. Yahiro skimmed through the pleasantries and to the signature, and then his eyes hurried back up again, a little wide.
I’ll be amenable to your questions only this morning, Orihara was saying. Yahiro was bad at gauging tone when face-to-face with someone, and he was even more terrible at it in writing. He didn’t even know what Orihara looked like—there were no pictures of him at Mairu and Kururi’s house. He had no idea if the man was being cold or welcoming.
He typed with trembling fingers: Good morning.
Where to start? His head started swimming with everything he wanted to know but didn’t have a right to; he didn’t know why he thought Orihara would answer freely where others who knew and cared about Yahiro went tight-lipped and white-faced when some topics came around. He wanted to know how Orihara survived a fight Aoba said he should’ve died in. He wanted to know who Orihara was exactly, what he had done to make himself so intrinsic to the lives of everyone Yahiro knew that his absence in the city felt like a gaping wound. He wanted to know about Celty Sturluson. He wanted to know about Kuon’s past, even more. He wanted to know why Orihara had left Nozomi to lock herself inside of her own room and inside of her own head and didn’t care enough to help her out of it.
He rubbed his thumb on the side of his phone nervously. In the end, all he typed was: I’m sorry to bother you. Thank you for your patience. He was already on his way to Raira. The gates of the school shone under the morning sun, and he thought he could see Ryuugamine waiting for him by the entrance.
He rushed the last few meters. “Good morning,” he said, and the other boy smiled warmly, fidgeting with his glasses.
“Good morning. You’re not too tired?”
Yahiro had volunteered to come over early, to help with the library. “I’m all right,” he replied—and he jumped out of his skin when his phone vibrated in his pocket.
Ryuugamine observed him curiously. “Everything okay, Mizuchi-kun?”
“Yes!” Yahiro replied.
He kept his hand in his pocket on the way to the library. His leg twitched in impatience while Ryuugamine explained which sections of the library he wanted him to tidy up and sort through—he felt guilty for it, because Ryuugamine always looked more tired than anyone Yahiro knew except for Kuronuma. He didn’t have a right to show impatience of any kind.
Ryuugamine was barely out of the aisle when Yahiro took out his phone and carefully wiped the sweat off his palm before reading what Orihara had sent: I’m not doing this for free. Any info you get out of me means you have to give me info in return. And no lying either.
I won’t lie, Yahiro wrote. And, before Orihara could answer: Who are you?
It took a moment for the man to answer this time. Yahiro placed his phone on the edge of a shelf after two minutes spent waiting, and started taking the books off another shelf and putting them back in the right order. He took notes of everything on a paper Ryuugamine had given him. When his phone finally buzzed again it moved by itself, almost falling to the floor before Yahiro caught it.
Yahiro swore under his breath. Ryuugamine chose this moment to peek into the aisle and look at him with a concerned frown.
“Are you okay?”
“’M fine,” Yahiro muttered, red in the face. “Sorry. I just banged my toe against the wall.”
Orihara’s new message was longer than the previous ones, and its tone even less friendly. Funny that someone who went to the length you did to contact me shouldn’t even know who I am. He had used an emoji there, but Yahiro wasn’t too sure how he was supposed to read it. My name is Orihara Izaya. I’m an informant. Until a year and a half ago I lived in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and worked there at the service of many individuals and groups, until special circumstances forced me to leave. Who are you, Mizuchi Yahiro-kun?
It wasn’t anything Yahiro didn’t know before. He hadn’t expected the man to be so open about it, though. Maybe it was a cheap way of testing the man’s honesty, but it was still worth wasting a question for.
He thought for a moment about how to introduce himself; he didn’t want to give Orihara anything about his hometown or his strength—though Orihara might find out himself if he looked into Ikebukuro’s recent events. Yahiro didn’t know how informants worked. He had only seen them in the old movies his mom loved to watch on the rare occasions she closed the inn and made dinner for them. He used to watch them with her, when he was little. He stopped later because he didn’t like seeing violence on TV.
I’m a student at Raira Academy. I know your sisters and I’m friends with Kotonami Kuon. I’m sorry for bothering you. Kururi-senpai gave me Yagiri-san’s number and told me she would know how to contact you. Why did you leave Ikebukuro?
His thumb hover over the send button for a moment. He stood in the shadow of the aisle, morning sun pouring onto his back from the window.
He thought of Kuon, and hit send.
He didn’t have to wait long for Orihara to answer this time. Yahiro still bent down and took a few minutes to deal with his fast-beating heart and the books spread all over the floor. He sorted two entire shelves before the impatience bit at him too hardly for him to ignore it anymore.
He unlocked his screen; Orihara’s answer was short and to the point. I got badly hurt in a fight against Heiwajima Shizuo and decided to move out of the city. What is your address?
Couldn’t you have stayed and avoided Heiwajima-san? Yahiro typed back, biting his lip.
It’s my turn to ask questions, Mizuchi-kun, Orihara said coldly.
Yahiro rubbed the deep scar on the last joint of his left thumb with his index. He sent his address to the man without much hesitation.
He would’ve come to finish the job if he knew I was still alive and around, Orihara sent, without waiting. Who is in power in Ikebukuro at the moment?
Yahiro hesitated. I don’t know.
“Mizuchi-kun?” Ryuugamine said from behind him.
Yahiro dropped his phone in surprise; he only restrained himself from shoving his fingers into Ryuugamine’s mouth and knocking his teeth out because part of him knew Ryuugamine was harmless, was a comforting and soothing presence in his life rather than a threatening one. He turned around slowly, cold drowning his throat and his lungs and sweat slicking his nape.
Ryuugamine shot a glance at the phone Yahiro was still holding to chest-level. It took a moment for Yahiro to realize he should probably lock the screen again. He cleared his throat after he did. “Yes?”
“Sorry,” Ryuugamine said in his soft voice. He pushed his glasses up before speaking again. “I was just going to tell you that I’m almost done, and classes start in fifteen minutes.”
“Oh.” Yahiro glanced at everything he hadn’t done. “Right.”
“That’s fine. You can come back after class if you want, or another day.”
Yahiro bowed deeply. “Thank you.”
Ryuugamine smiled and went back to the front of the library. Yahiro looked at his phone again once he was out of view.
Then let me ask this another way; who or what are the key elements of concern, of rumor, right now?
Yahiro was a key element of concern. But he didn’t want to mention any of that to Orihara Izaya, or to mention Snake Hands, or IkeNEW!, and take the risk of Orihara Izaya associating those with Kuon.
The thing about Kuon had to come out of a place of personal interest.
Biting his lips and regretting his words, he typed, The Headless Rider and the Slugger. And then: I don’t think Heiwajima Shizuo is the kind to kill anyone. I don’t know what you did to make him mad, but he wouldn’t have killed you for it.
I take it this is your next question, but since you’re lying to me, I don’t think I have to be honest anymore.
I’m not lying. Yahiro found that it was harder to swallow when writing those words.
All Orihara sent back was a link to a video. And Yahiro clicked it despite the cold queasiness in him.
It was himself, wrecking havoc on the old warehouse where Kuon and the others had been taken, wrapped in the shadow-suit Celty had made to protect him. Tearing skin and breaking bones and knocking out teeth. Looking straight at the shaky phone camera capturing him doing the only thing he was good at with wide, inhuman eyes.
He didn’t even need the sound. He remembered every squelch of blood and every crack of bone and every scream of pain. Yahiro closed the video when it started playing again from the start like some sort of a nightmare.
Who is it? Orihara was asking.
Don’t you already know? Yahiro replied, and all he felt was hollow.
They call it Snake Hands, or the Headless Rider’s lover, but I doubt the last one’s true. Since you avoided talking about it I have to assume that you know more than what I can gleam from IkeNEW.
You know IkeNEW?
I know it’s a front for whoever Snake Hands is.
So Orihara didn’t know about Nozomi and Kuon or Yahiro himself. Yahiro knew he was shaking, knew the pit of dread in his stomach and how dangerous it was for him to stand there and not move; but Yahiro was used to being in the presence of a direct threat, of something he could make bleed. He didn’t know how to run away from an email exchange. The arrow of the orange wall clock above the bookshelves was almost pointing to his departure from the library and in the direction of his homeroom. He wouldn’t be able to message Orihara much once class started.
He wrote, I want to know why you left the Kotonami siblings helpless when you left.
He quickly put away all the books he wasn’t done sorting and grabbed his bag, making his way to the entrance. Ryuugamine stopped him on his way.
“I really appreciate you helping out,” he told Yahiro with a timid smile. “No one else wanted to wake up early to help me tidy up the library for the semester.”
“That’s okay,” Yahiro replied, face warm. “I don’t mind helping.”
The library was a quiet place. Somewhere he didn’t have to think too hard on Kuon, and Himeka, and the fact that videos of his accesses of violence were circulating online and being viewed by thousands.
Yahiro swallowed. “I’m sorry I wasn’t very efficient this morning.”
“That’s okay.” Ryuugamine seemed to hesitate before putting a hand on Yahiro’s shoulder briefly—and Yahiro didn’t tense but he didn’t move or smile either, so Ryuugamine quickly took it back. “He tends to have this effect on people.”
But all Ryuugamine did was shake his head and smile this discomforted, shaky smile of his, looking over to the window with regret painted on his face like a shadow. “It’s almost time for class.”
“Right,” Yahiro replied.
He took his phone out of his pocket again before he could help it; Orihara’s message was short, so it wasn’t like there was much to hide.
I prioritized my life, it read. No emoji this time.
Not even Yahiro missed the cold, uncaring tone of it, though.
When he raised his head Ryuugamine was staring at him frankly, and he didn’t look anything like Yahiro had come to expect out of him.
Yahiro opened his mouth to apologize for his rudeness, but Ryuugamine shook his head.
“No need,” he said.
His hand came up and wrapped itself around Yahiro’s and the phone it was holding—the contact not as startling as the way Ryuugamine smiled this time.
“Say hi for me, okay?” It was weird, to hear him talk. Weird to associate the growing licks of fear in Yahiro’s stomach, the eerie smile on Ryuugamine’s face, and his voice, soft and trembling as always. “If you could bring him back… I don’t think that would be so bad.”
Yahiro breathed in softly. “What do you mean?” he asked, not much louder than a whisper.
Ryuugamine looked pained. “It’s not something selfless. Well, it couldn’t be anyway—if I really wanted Izaya-san back I could’ve called him myself—”
Yahiro took back his hand and stepped backwards; Ryuugamine exhaled; his arm dropped back to his side slowly.
“The thing is,” he continued, “that some… friends of mine would never come back here. Not unless they thought me and—not unless they thought I was in some sort of danger.”
Yahiro had no idea what he was talking about. Who he was talking about. He knew it must show on his face, if one were to look past the wide, bloodless eyes and the fear turning itself inside out and into hostility.
Ryuugamine was starting to shake. “You can feel it when you talk to him, can’t you?”
It took a moment for Yahiro’s jaw to unclench. “Feel what?”
He had never noticed the specific shade of grey that made Ryuugamine’s eyes; through the lenses of his glasses they were almost blue, but when he was looking over them, it was the color of wet metal and fire.
“The danger,” Ryuugamine said, exhilarated.
Celty took a turn into one of the smaller streets behind Sunshine. Tourists didn’t go there as much as they did the wide, open spaces cut into the cityscape. They wouldn’t have noticed her even if she did walk among them anyway, because she didn’t stand out in the evening like she did in the day. The night lights were kind to her because they couldn’t touch her—she could practically disappear from the human eye if she stood still enough at this time of the day and changed her yellow helmet for one made of her own shadow. People walked past her without ever seeing the Dullahan standing against the wall behind them.
She had finished her last delivery of the day. Earlier she had received more info from Shiki about Kine, the man who had disappeared—mainly where he had been seen last before vanishing into thin air.
She still felt guilty for accepting to help. Shiki had been nothing but courteous to her in the two years they’d known each other; she felt like she was doing his a disfavor, entertaining the hope that his friend was still alive.
Not that she would stop looking in her spare time. But she didn’t think a yakuza disappearing could mean anything other than his death.
She examined the street thoroughly. She took the time to let her shadow roam the walls and listen under doors and windows; but all the conversations she heard were inane, irrelevant.
The man had been gone for days, now. No wonder.
She took the photo Shiki had given her out of her body suit. She felt like the face on it was familiar, but she couldn’t pinpoint it exactly. Kine was a man with very fine features and no hair, with darker skin than Shiki’s, with a somber look to him that looked more like a cop’s than a yakuza’s. Shiki did say he was working as a private investigator now.
She couldn’t escape the feeling that she had seen him somewhere without knowing who he was.
Celty jumped; it was more out of habit than out of real surprise, because her body wasn’t like humans’. She didn’t have a heartbeat to spike up or a brain to send shocks down her limbs. Her shadow quickly took in the shape and voice of the person standing next to her, and her shoulders dropped, though there was no real tension holding them upright.
Good evening, she typed on her phone. Anri smiled at her and walked forward a little more, her pretty face flushed by the cool night air. “Good evening,” she replied sweetly. “Are you on your way to a delivery?”
Something moved behind Anri. Anri herself seemed to remember she wasn’t alone, because she stepped to the side so her friend could be seen.
It was one of Izaya’s sisters. The soft-spoken one. “Hi,” she whispered.
Celty nodded her helmet at her. Kururi—she thought her name was Kururi, but she had barely ever met the girl, and always in the company of her more visible twin—was looking at her with wide eyes and fidgeting with the collar of her uniform.
Celty didn’t really have a grasp on time. Her past was as endless to her as her future; she felt years pass like hiccups, like short bursts of wind. She had only ever developed a fear of growing old through a fear of losing Shinra. But, in this moment, seeing Izaya’s sister, taller and older and different… she felt as though years had gone by since that day she was whole and then broken again.
She felt the wisps of black smoke in her helmet tighten into a more tangible shape from distress. Her fingers flew to the distraction of her phone and of small talk. I’m about to head home, actually. What about you both? she asked them.
“I was out buying groceries,” Anri said, lifting the plastic bags she was holding. “I met Kururi-chan on the way and she offered to help me.”
Kururi nodded somberly. “Mairu’s at the dojo,” was all she said. She was holding a bag too.
You shouldn’t be out at this hour, Celty replied half-heartedly. As she expected, Anri smiled darkly and Kururi didn’t look fazed in the slightest. Okay, my bad. Just be careful, all right?
Anri laughed behind her hand. “I don’t think we risk anything around here, Celty-san.”
Celty thought about Kine’s hard, unsmiling face, and didn’t say anything.
She felt something touch her elbow; Kururi was holding it tightly, and her eyes were fixed on the picture Celty was still holding between two fingers.
“That’s Kine-san,” she said.
The atmosphere seemed to change immediately. Anri leaned forward next to Kururi to look at the picture as well, and her faced turned from pleasantly private to the sort of painful she had stopped wearing only a few months ago. It made Celty feel terrible; made the heaviness she was experiencing more and more as time went by and she didn’t cross the ocean separating her from her head feel all the more tangible.
Do you know him? she typed warily.
Anri said, “He was with—” before biting her lips and looking to Kururi next to her.
“He’s a friend of Iza-nii,” Kururi replied.
Not from Orihara? Shiki had asked her. The darkness on his face had nothing to do with the one on Anri’s, though. He had been longing, but she was angry.
Kururi patted Anri’s shoulder softly, and Anri seemed to come to some sort of a realization—her face paled and she turned to apologize to the other girl frantically. “S’okay,” Kururi said dispassionately. “He probably was very mean to you.”
Celty didn’t think she had ever heard so many words come out of her mouth in a row. Kururi smiled at her, and it was easier now to see the changes from childhood to maturity, in the sharper angle of her jaw. She looked like her brother.
Celty hadn’t even known that she could still recall Izaya’s face to such detail.
She wished she could turn off her sight for a moment. She couldn’t blink, didn’t have any eyelids to close; the only time she couldn’t see was when sleep took her.
Have you seen him recently, then? And then, realizing how her question might be taken, she clarified: Kine?
Kururi shook her head. “Not since Iza-nii was in high school.”
Celty looked at the picture again. Something was tugging at her memory, like the buzz of an insect in a room that she couldn’t find and chase away. Her mind offered to her the sight of Raira Academy as it was when Shinra studied then—back when it was called Raijin. She remembered waiting there for him to come out so they could drive home together, because Shingen wanted them to bond. Because she felt lonely, and Shinra’s brash affection was better than nothing.
If she could go back to that time now, she would slap herself for it.
She could see him now. Kine. Standing not far away from where she always parked, leaning against a old black car and smoking patiently as the students poured out—and she remembered seeing Shinra’s black-haired middle school friend skipping toward him with glee on his face and too much eagerness to look very professional.
She hadn’t thought much of it at the time. All Shinra had ever told her about the Orihara boy was that he was the bad sort, and Izaya himself never talked to her before a few more years. By then he was already Orihara Izaya, the information broker. Not a child. Not Shinra’s school friend.
She couldn’t recall Izaya looking any younger than he always did; and he always looked somewhere between twenty and thirty, like age didn’t have an imprint on him—until that night with bruises in his eyes and soul and a knife between his ribs.
She knew he had been even worse off than he looked. She had felt the state of his spine when she stopped the bleeding.
Celty ‘raised’ her sight to Kururi’s level. The girl was looking at her intently.
She typed: Sorry. I got lost in my memories for a moment.
Kururi scoffed, very lightly. “Iza-nii worked for him. Kine-san.”
Celty hesitated; and then she replied, I’m looking for him. He went missing a few days ago.
“I’ve only seen him once,” Anri muttered. She was chewing on the inside of her cheek. “He was waiting for—for that man outside of Raira General Hospital once.”
Kururi smiled at her words, weirdly enough.
Celty didn’t know where else to take the conversation. She was uneasy enough having brought up Izaya, even though Kururi didn’t seem to mind. Anri had lost the flush to her face. She was staring at her feet with thin lips and a frown.
And, truly, this was as good a sign as any that Izaya was better off dead or gone. Too many children looked like this whenever his name came up.
She typed another quick message, hoping to clear the atmosphere: I didn’t expect you both to know anything, so it’s okay. How about I walk you home?
“Knight,” Kururi said.
It made Anri’s face relax a little, which was good enough for Celty.
She ran to the opening of the street where she had left Shooter. Her horse neighed when she patted his back gently, and she barely had to stir him in the right direction. His wheels turned by themselves so that she only had to gently push him forward. Kururi immediately touched the bike’s pitch-black side when they were to her level.
You can sit on his back if you want, Celty told her. She added a smiling face to her message for good measure.
Kururi immediately leapt on Shooter’s back and patted his sides like she would his flanks if he were in his real form. Celty let a tendril of her shadow escape and soothe his side as well so he’d know that everything was okay.
They started walking like this, Kururi seated on Shooter and making faint humming noises, Anri having retrieved her bags from her and walking on Celty’s other side in silence. Caught inside the streets and with no open spaces in sight it was hard for Celty to see the sky for more than the dirt brown it was from yellow lamps; the sunset had come and gone already. Pretty soon she would be invisible to all that she didn’t want seeing her.
“Things are changing,” Kururi whispered after a couple minutes.
“How so?” Anri asked her.
Kururi traced a line on Shooter’s back with her index. Celty didn’t think humans could feel him like she could, warm and alive; but it seemed to be enough for her. She hadn’t taken her hands off of him. “People leaving. People arriving,” she answered. She looked at Celty again. “People coming back.”
Behind her, Anri took in an awful breath.
What do you mean? Celty said.
“Who’s coming back?” Anri echoed loudly.
She sounded so tense that Celty immediately turned on her heels to face her; to touch her gently, to comfort her, to tell her than it didn’t mean she had to go through all the fear she did when Ikebukuro was in uproar; and in her sight, not bothered by human limitations, she saw a shadow darker than hers fall onto Kururi and enclose its arms around her.
Celty didn’t shout. She didn’t freeze, or jump. She didn’t have a heartbeat to spike up or a brain to send electric shocks down her limbs.
She spread her black smoke around like a net, made it sticky, made it unbreakable, so whoever was pressing a hand against Kururi’s mouth to choke her screams and dragging her toward the mouth of a pitch-black alley couldn’t escape. She stayed right where she was and waited for the would-be abductor to get caught in her trap. Next to her Anri finished blinking, and her eyes started glowing red, and through her palm the sharp edge of Saika’s blade poked out, filling the night air with its vile presence.
Celty made a mistake, then. She didn’t recall Shiki’s warnings. She didn’t believe in life’s ability to surprise her. She didn’t move.
The shadow dug its heel into the ground and leapt, far higher than Celty had ever seen a human achieve; far higher than the edge of the net she had made a second ago; it caught Kururi tighter in its hold and fell on the other side of the wall separating this street from another one.
She heard Anri scream Kururi’s name and jump on a trash bin to climb over the wall as well. Celty’s hands found Shooter’s steering wheel and he went off before she was even seated, running up the nearest building’s façade and down onto the street behind.
There was no one.
No, Celty thought. Shooter sped up into the alley before she needed to tell him to; Celty spread her shadows as far around herself as she could, into every nook and cranny of this street and its neighbors, looking for the feeling of flesh instead of stone. Looking for Kururi’s heartbeat.
“Kururi-chan!” she heard Anri scream again, far, far behind her, horrified and disbelieving.
Celty rode around the neighborhood twice before she had to admit that Kururi was gone. Which was impossible, because it had barely taken her a minute to go around, and nothing human could be this fast. Not even Hollywood had been that fast. Not even Shizuo.
No, no, no, she kept thinking, like a mantra; in her mind all she could see was Kururi’s quiet and hopeful expression as she rode Shooter earlier; the way she touched him like he was something comforting to her; the way she spoke, soft and heartfelt, eerie but not unkind. And she couldn’t feel emotions like humans did, she couldn’t breathe or scream or sob, but all of the smoke inside and out of her was turning onto itself as if trying to sever its particles into nothing.
People have started disappearing again, Shiki had told her. And maybe that was still Celty’s mistake after all this time; to think that people could never include her or anyone she knew. To think that anything seemingly ordinary happening here could ever be only that. That she was safe, and her loved ones safe, that her story was done being written.