Warnings: transphobia, violence, child neglect, family death.
Some Required Effort
Izaya watched them lower his parents’ coffins in the ground without blinking.
His sisters were standing a few feet away from him, looking as quiet as any newly-orphaned child ought to—but they weren’t crying, either. He thought, very faintly, that it must be a family thing.
He nodded and shook hands and accepted whispers of condolences under the scorching sun. His skin was slick with sweat, and if he hadn’t worn black no doubt the whole audience would have seen the wet streaking his clothes, the shirt clinging damply to his back. All throughout the funeral, his heart beat deeply, slowly, and his blood ran thick and warm. Everything was too warm.
“Such a shame,” said one man, one of Kyouko’s coworkers. Former coworkers. “They were so young, too, and they had only just gotten the twins”—Izaya heard the direction of his thoughts, the children they could care for and be proud of, at last—”really, such a shame. What are you going to do now?”
He was the first to ask the question directly. Izaya knew they were curious, knew most of them hadn’t known about the estranged son of the Oriharas. He found it amusing, if a little annoying. Even now, people lingered around in the swollen summer heat rather than go back to the funeral home and the promise of blissful air conditioning. The call of scandal and gossip was too strong.
Izaya smiled, said something placating, and watched the man leave with disappointment hanging from the corner of his sweaty chin. He noted the name engraved into the lock of the suitcase he was carrying, the early loss of hair around his temples and the beginning of a slouch in his neck, and knew he could find him again.
“I’m thirsty,” Mairu whined next to him. Kururi shifted on her small feet and looked at him pleadingly.
“You should have taken some water with you,” he answered.
They both frowned, the expression making the resemblance between them even more striking, before their faces smoothed again and they started talking to each other too lowly for him to hear.
He watched them for another moment before turning his head away.
He would have to drop out of college, he supposed, noting distantly that men were shoveling dirt into his parents’ grave already. He didn’t want to let his sisters fall into the system. Too many stories of foster families mistreating their charges, or adopting for money and privileges.
Izaya didn’t really like or appreciate the girls. He was seventeen when they were born, already long gone from the family house and hardly keeping in touch. He had known Kyouko was pregnant—she had seen fit to send him a text when she had learned the news, and again after the birth—but he hadn’t cared. He was neck-deep into college applications, high school finals and entrance exams. It hadn’t seemed real to him at the time. Even when he had visited Kyouko at the hospital and seen the smile on her exhausted face as the babes squirmed and gurgled in her arms, he had thought it amusing and a little irritating, but nothing more. He had seen his sisters exactly three times after that—once on their first birthday, once during a family reunion he had decided to go to because Kyouko had invited someone he wanted to meet, and once by accident while doing the groceries in Shinjuku.
They were his charges now, though. If he concentrated hard enough Izaya knew he would find the sting of panic under the blankness of his feelings, so instead he planned. He was about to start the last year of his studies in journalism, but he would have to drop out. He would find a job. Something substantial. He couldn’t exactly hope for easy and well-payed work, not with nothing more than a high school diploma under his belt. Heartbeat speeding up, he thought again of the proposal he had refused six months ago. Call me, Shiki Haruya had said in his gruff voice. And Izaya had replied, I’ll think about it, thinking Shiki would take the answer for what it was, but Shiki had only laughed and texted him five minutes later. Izaya still had the text in his phone.
“Let’s go,” he told the twins.
They followed him reluctantly, their shoes dragging through the gravel. A few people were still outside, watching them pass, and Izaya knew that they saw the way the twins clung to each other behind him, the uncrossed space between them, knew they were remembering the service and how he had never touched them, not once—no comforting hand on their small shoulders, no smile or tears or loving whispers.
“Where are we going?” Kururi asked. She hadn’t said anything until then, and her voice was raspy, wind-soft.
“Where is it?”
Izaya didn’t answer. For a breathless second he saw his future as he had always envisioned it dissolve and change like aspirin in a glass of water. He saw the months and years to come, the mess he would make of things because that was all he knew how to do. Messes. Strips of spite and resentment littering his past relationships, left behind as he kept moving forward. And now he had two five-year-old girls to take care of. To feed and clothe and raise and keep relatively well-balanced.
He smiled tightly, clenching down on the fear knotting his stomach.
You’re going to be fine , Celty signed. Her mouth was strained, she was trying so hard not to smile. Shizuo grunted and leaned further against the wall surrounding the schoolyard, fingers twitching in his jean pockets. Really , she added. You know what you have to do. Just go through the first day .
“Yeah, and all the goddamn days after that,” Shizuo said.
Celty’s shoulders shook in silent laughter.
Shizuo sighed. “I need a cigarette,” he grunted.
As expected, Celty immediately straightened up and started signing, frowning in disapproval. You said not around the children.
“Well, they aren’t here yet, are they?”
But he hadn’t taken his pack with him, all too aware that he wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation otherwise. Now, he really hated himself for it.
Celty touched his shoulder briefly. You gonna be okay? she asked.
“Yeah.” He smiled at her. “Really, I’m just a little nervous, but—it’s just going to be a bunch of kids. Not exactly the most frightening thing in the world.”
Kids are terrifying, but you’ll be great with them. I’m more worried about the coworkers. Do tell me when you get your first invitation on a date.
“Stop fucking with me,” he snapped back, but his words lacked the heat of true anger. Besides, Celty knew him better than to think he could ever truly get mad at her.
He wasn’t afraid, not exactly. Kids couldn’t hurt him no matter how much they tried. He was more afraid of hurting them, somehow—though he knew he could never raise a hand on any of them, his temper often took control of his words. He had thought, up till this point, that he would have little trouble containing it, but… Well. Anticipation and anxiousness for his first day had him doubting himself once more.
A few minutes later, the headmistress stepped out of her old-fashioned but spotless car, and walked toward him.
“Pleasure to see you again, Heiwajima,” she said shortly, giving him a curt nod. “All set for your first day of class?”
“I guess,” he replied a little uncertainly, but she only laughed and waved him off.
“You’ll be fine. The first days are always something of a trial, but I have no doubt you’ll get used to it soon. We all do. Now, shall we?”
Shizuo felt his cheeks warm at her faintly patronizing tone. Giving Celty a pat on the head and mumbling, “Tell Shinra I said hi,” he turned his back on her and followed the woman up the steps and into the school itself, where he would spend most of his days this year.
He had already visited the building when he had taken the job, but headmistress Yagiri still showed him around. His classroom was at the very end of the second floor corridor. He took in the blank walls and well-used but clean desks, the blackboard looking neat and dustless as it never would for the rest of the year, the shiny linoleum. He tried to imagine twenty-odd little black-haired kids looking straight at him from the rows of chairs and tables. Suddenly feeling nauseous, he walked out, barely restraining himself from slamming the door shut.
His dropped his bag on a table in the staffroom and busied by himself making coffee. He had brought his own blend, an expensive thing Kasuka had gifted him for his first day, and figured he might as well make a good impression on his coworkers by providing something that wasn’t just a tasteless shot of caffeine.
The room filled in during the next half-hour. Most of the other teachers seemed to be women, with a few men here and there. A lot of them had a strained look on their faces, but seemed well-rested and ready to take on the day. Shizuo wished he felt half as confident.
“Coffee,” a young woman mumbled, making a beeline for the plastic cups. “God,” she moaned after the first sip. “Who made this? Whoever you are, I’m giving you half my salary if you keep bringing that stuff here.”
“I might have to take half your salary anyway to buy this,” Shizuo answered awkwardly.
She smiled at him, something sharp and eager. “You must be Heiwajima. I’m Mikage” she said, and shook his hand firmly.
Shizuo noted the lack of honorific. The tense knots along his back relaxed a little, and his breath came out a little better. A little easier.
They chatted amiably for the next few minutes. Mikage—as she insisted he call her—was a woman of few words, which suited him just fine. She was the P.E. teacher, and stormed off to prepare the gym a good five minutes before anyone else started leaving for their own classrooms.
“Well, good luck, Heiwajima,” headmistress Yagiri said, and suddenly he was alone in the staffroom.
Knowing he couldn’t put it off any longer, he swung his bag over his shoulder and made his way to his classroom. After that, it was just a matter of minutes until the first children started trickling in.
Shizuo watched them with growing horror. They were so small. Six year-old babies somehow walking on two legs without wobbling (how?) and chatting excitedly among themselves. Ruffled and dirt-stained clothes, brand new backpacks, colorful knee socks. One of the kids walked in smirking haughtily at him, his hair bright fucking blue. Another was talking loudly to a quiet-looking boy who kept glancing nervously around. There was a girl with glasses half the size of her face, a boy who had forgone normal jacket options for one with a purple kitten on the back, and twins.
Shizuo felt entitled to say the world was out to get him.
Finally, the last kid came in, panting, and only six minutes after the bell had rung. Shizuo closed the door, stood before the suddenly silent crowd of twenty-two children, and tried to look non-threatening.
“Good morning,” he said after a pause.
Some of them mumbled in answer. Most of them stared at him silently. It was terrifying.
“So… er… My name is Heiwajima Shizuo. I’ll be your teacher this year. Why don’t you all start by introducing yourselves to the rest of the class?”
More silent glaring. Shizuo almost flinched, and then remembered that he was an adult, that he was ready for this—had spent years studying and taking exams and observing how it was done—and that he had no reason to be scared of a bunch of children. None whatsoever.
“You,” he growled, pointing to the boy with the kitten jacket. “You start.”
He watched, satisfied, as the boy jumped to his feet and started babbling about his likes and dislikes.
The next half hour was spent observing each child and trying his best to remember all their names. He pinpointed a few future troublemakers: the boy with blue hair, Aoba, who had apparently dyed it for a bet and knew he was going to get punished for it but also said he wasn’t afraid of no detention, sensei—and also, apparently, this Masaomi kid who talked more than he breathed and seemed intent on becoming the official class clown.
Shizuo almost groaned out loud when one of the twins, Mairu, started babbling about Hanejima Yuuhei—Shizuo would have to tell Kasuka never to visit him at work. Her sister’s introduction was a lot shorter. She only said her name, Kururi, and sat back down.
There were a few other odd kids—a boy called Ryuugamine Mikado, of all things, thought fortunately his name seemed to be the only weird thing about him. But by the time all his students had finished saying their names, Shizuo was reasonably sure that, yes, he could do this.
This was what he wanted to do. What he had worked for all these years, while his friends supported and encouraged him. He thought once again of Celty’s quiet faith in his abilities, and felt himself growing a little taller.
He could do this. He would do this.
At the end of the day, Shizuo couldn’t have told if time went quickly or slowly. At times it had seemed to go at a snail’s pace, but then when he had looked at the green classroom clock it had been time for lunch, and then the final bell had rung. Surprisingly, he had met little trouble. He ordered Aoba to go wash his hair of the temporary dye before his parents noticed—and proceeded to blame Shizuo for it—and the boy had complied with a heatless glare. Other than this, everything had gone smoothly.
He was relatively sure he knew all the kids’ names now. He said them one by one in his head as he watched them leave come four o’clock. They trickled out as their parents picked them up. Most of them took the time to greet Shizuo and introduce themselves; it was easily the most tedious part of this day. Finally, after Mikado’s somewhat boring mom walked out of the room with a hand on her son’s shoulder, he was alone.
“What are you doing?” he blurted out. The twins—Mairu and Kururi—had finished putting on their shoes and jackets, and had already made their way to the door.
“Going home,” Mairu replied, looking bored.
“Where’re your parents?”
Kururi made a small, aborted gesture. Shizuo saw Mairu’s hand close tightly on her sister’s, and something queasy-feeling made its way to his stomach.
“Our brother can’t pick us up today.” Mairu’s voice sounded a bit faint. “He said to apologize to you and tell you that we don’t live far and we can go home alone.”
“That’s not how it works,” Shizuo explained, trying to keep his voice calm. He had no idea who their brother was, but he didn’t like the sound of this explanation one bit. “I can’t just let you go home on your own.”
“Then we’re stuck here until Iza-nii decides to show up and we don’t know when he finishes working and maybe he’ll stay out late because he won’t know that we couldn’t get home and you’ll have to stay with us until tomorrow morning when he finally notices,” Mairu said in one breath, crossing her arms.
“He’d notice,” Kururi murmured suddenly. Mairu snorted.
Shizuo blinked helplessly.
He wanted to ask where their parents were again. It made no sense that they would have asked the girls’ older brother to pick them up if he was working late—surely a neighbor could come in their stead, or an uncle or grandmother. But Mairu was looking at him as though she expected him to physically jump on her, and Kururi still hadn’t released her sister’s hand.
So he said, “Okay. You said you live close, right? I’ll walk you.”
Mairu’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yeah. Class is over, and I don’t have anything planned. It doesn’t bother me.” That wasn’t exactly true, but they didn’t need to know it. And a thirty-minute walk wouldn’t put that big a dent in his personal time.
The sun was shining when they got out, but the wind was too strong for Shizuo or the girls to feel warm. They walked in tense silence until the trees bordering the sidewalk disappeared and Shizuo felt the air turn crisper. Mairu had led them to a block of old apartment buildings.
It wasn’t exactly a bad place. The paint had flaked off in places and turned yellow in others, and some of the outside pipes were red with rust. But the façade was clean and the street was bare but quiet. The trash bins were shut and put side by side in tidy rows, not overflowing with unsightly content as he would have expected.
“Well, we’re here,” Mairu said, probably coming to the conclusion that Shizuo wasn’t moving any time soon of his own volition.
In truth, he didn’t really want to leave. He wanted to see the girls’ parents and ask them about their absence—or maybe their brother, if he was home already. But he couldn’t just go and knock on their door and he felt drained, suddenly, wrought and tired as if he had run a marathon.
He needed to see Celty.
“All right,” he replied at last. “I’ll see you tomorrow at school. Don’t be late.”
Mairu mumbled something in answer, but he didn’t catch it. He watched them go up the outside stairs to the third floor, and struggle with the lock of their door for a moment before walking inside and disappearing from view.
Shrugging the uneasiness off his thoughts, Shizuo made his way back to the school. He had work to get back to, and Celty would be here to pick him up in less than an hour.
He was still deep in paperwork and lesson planning when he heard the tell-tale sound of his friend’s bike from below his window. He made a quick job of putting his stuff into his worn bag and locking the classroom. Celty was waiting for him outside the school gate, leaning against the seat of her bike, a smile on her lips.
How did it go? she signed eagerly once he was close enough to briefly press a hand on her shoulder.
He smiled tightly. “Fine, I guess. I didn’t screw any of them up yet at least. Please get me out of here, though.”
She laughed, radiating the warmth and friendliness he had grown used to in the past few years—with her shoulders going up and down and a few happy wrinkles lined around her blue eyes. Shizuo immediately felt a little lighter, a little less tired. She gestured for him to take a seat behind her and he complied, finding comfort in the press of her back to his chest as Shooter, as she had named her prized vehicle, started its familiar roar.
They drove in silence. Even though Celty couldn’t answer him with her hands busy stirring the bike into motion, Shizuo would sometimes babble thoughtfully when they were riding together. Today he didn’t feel like it, though. His thoughts went back to the Orihara twins; to their serious faces, to their closeness which felt to him like isolation, to the deserted street and rundown apartment building they lived in.
Celty made him coffee once they reached the place she shared with Shinra. They were alone, as Shinra would be working late at the hospital that day. Shizuo almost cried in relief when Celty took out a small pack of cigarettes from a kitchen drawer.
Thought you might need it, she said with a smile. He stuck one between his lips and lit it immediately, throwing her an apologetic glance for the smell. She waved it off.
With nicotine in his brain and bitter coffee burning his tongue, Shizuo finally felt himself relax. He could never stay tense and worried for long. Not at Celty’s place, which was as much a home to him as his own or his parents’ old house. Not with the weight of comforting memories slowly pressing down on him.
He chatted for a long time. Celty listened in rapt attention, as she always did. She smiled and nodded and laughed in the right places, teasing him for his anxiousness in front of the children without ever scolding him for it. She knew better than anyone how he felt about his job—how much he had wanted it and how hard he had worked to get where he was, both in school and on himself. So he told her just about everything. Aoba’s prank and Masaomi’s cheerful art of making a mess, Anri the bespectacled girl and her quiet demeanor.
“There’s a kid named Ryuugamine Mikado—don’t laugh, I’m not joking,” he added, seeing her hide her mouth behind her hand. “No idea how his folks came up with that one. His mom came to pick him up after class, she seemed normal enough.”
Maybe they thought a proud-sounding name like that would give him confidence, she replied, but the twist of her mouth betrayed her amusement.
“Well, they’re gonna be disappointed. Mikado is a quiet kid. Shy, too. He would probably have stayed in his corner all day but Masaomi apparently decided he was his best friend. At least he’s not alone.”
There was a silence. Uneasiness crept back on Shizuo as his mind once again showed him the blank gray street, the flaking paint and rotten pipes.
“Actually,” he said slowly, “I wanted to talk to you about something.”
He wasn’t certain he should talk about the twins, but keeping what he had seen to himself felt somehow wrong.
What is it? Celty asked. Her brows were furrowed in worry at his tone.
“It’s not, like, serious or anything, just… The twins—Mairu and Kururi—their parents didn’t show up after class.”
“I don’t know,” he answered helplessly. “They said their brother was supposed to come, but couldn’t, so I had to walk them home.”
Celty stayed silent for a moment, looking thoughtful. It doesn’t seem like that big a deal, she said at last. Maybe something unexpected came up and he didn’t have time to ask anyone else.
“Apparently he knew in advance. He told them to apologize to me. I don’t see how he couldn’t’ve asked someone else to come for them.”
She nodded. Shizuo stared unseeingly at his lukewarm coffee. He drank it in one go out of habit more than real need, and made a face as he swallowed the dregs. Putting down his cup, he took out a second cigarette and lit it, breathing in the smoke till his lungs screamed with the need to exhale.
“I don’t know if it’s anything worth worrying about,” he murmured, feeling a little awkward. “I mean—I don’t know them. Maybe you’re right, and it’s just a one-time thing, and I’m being a mother hen about all of it.”
You should trust your instinct, Celty replied after a slight hesitation.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” But he still felt foolish, getting all worked-up after only one day of teaching. Having thoughts like neglect come to his mind when the girls had looked properly fed and clothed and cared for, if a little quirky and sidelined.
They spend another hour in companionable small talk. Celty always had a new thing or two to say about her job as a courrier, the people she met and who asked for her services. Shizuo didn’t care all that much about whose wife was pretending to be her husband’s lover to get proof of his cheating, or who was secretly meeting whom, but he liked seeing Celty sign excitedly and knew how much this mattered to her. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for non-verbal people, and he always felt warm and soothed when he saw how happy her somewhat unconventional job made her.
Shinra joined them around nine in the evening, looking tired and still wearing his lab coat, but smiling gleefully when Celty immediately greeted him with a hug.
“Glad to see you too, Celty,” he said once she released him. “You too, Shizuo.”
And so the day continued. They ate together the burned pasta Shizuo prepared and stuffed themselves full of cake afterward, before dozing in front of a re-run of Kasuka’s first movie Celty had caught on TV.
It was warm and familiar, calming in a way nothing else was in Shizuo’s life. Celty’s shoulder pressed against his arm and he could hear Shinra’s breathing slowly taking the rhythm of real sleep, and he didn’t at any point feel like an intruder.
This was what home felt like. Quiet and usual.
Izaya came home a little after midnight.
His neck hurt and he wanted nothing more than to escape the crushing tightness of his clothes and crash into bed for the night, but when he walked inside the apartment he found Mairu waiting for him.
“What are you doing up at this hour?” he asked tiredly, kicking off his shoes and throwing his coat onto a chair. “Don’t you have school tomorrow? And where’s your sister?”
“Kuru-nee’s sleeping,” she replied with an annoyed tilt of her chin. With her wearing soft blue pajamas and bunny print socks, the effect what somewhat ruined. “And I needed to talk to you about school.”
“Well, go ahead, and make it quick.”
She snorted haughtily. He ignored her and poured himself a glass of water, dropping unceremoniously into a plastic chair in the tiny kitchenette.
“Shizu-chan said we can’t walk back on our own after class is over, it’s ‘gainst the rules or something. He had to come with us.”
Izaya choked. “Shizu- who the hell is Shizu-chan?”
“Our teacher,” Mairu replied, as if it to say, obviously. Izaya put down his glass slowly.
“Do you have permission to call him that?”
“Of course not. We call him sensei to his face. But he’s nice.”
I don’t want to know, Izaya thought, feeling more exhausted by the second. “Okay. So your teacher walked you both home. What’s the big deal, then?”
Mairu went a little red in the face. “We don’t want him to do it every day! You have to come pick us up tomorrow and the days after that.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” Izaya replied coldly. “You’re in a nice school with other nice kids—just make some friends and have their parents walk you, if you don’t want to owe your teacher anything.” Mairu looked like she wanted to start yelling, so he cut her off. “Go to sleep now. I won’t be here to wake you up tomorrow morning and I don’t want to have to deal with late slips or whatever so soon.”
She threw him a nasty glare before storming off into the only bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Izaya thought about fixing himself a small dinner, but his back was stiff and his eyes stung from looking at numbers on a computer screen all day, and he could feel the tug of sleep at his temples, the beginning of a headache. He stared at the bedroom door for a few minutes, just to be sure that the girls wouldn’t be getting out to go to the bathroom or anything, before undressing quickly.
He lied down on the lumpy couch with his back to the room and his blanket covering him up to his forehead, and soon enough sleep took him.
A sharp intake of breath woke him up four hours later—it took him a few seconds to realize it was his own, and that he could feel someone’s gaze burning at his nape. He sat up and turned around, only to meet Kururi’s tired eyes.
“Oh, it’s you,” Izaya exhaled. He drew the blanket back to his chest with an irritated tug. “What’s going on?”
The girl stayed silent for a moment, her wide eyes still fixed on his. Izaya fought the need to look away as much as he could.
“Why did you wake me?” he finally asked, when he came to the conclusion that Kururi would probably be comfortable just looking at him in silence for another hour.
She made as if to grab his sleeve; Izaya couldn’t help flinching back out of habit, and Kururi slowly let her hand fall back to her side.
“Are you really never going to pick us up from school?” she asked. Her voice, as always, was barely more than a whisper.
Izaya relaxed, and let annoyance seep through his words. “I can’t. I already told you both. I have to work late in the evening and you’re completely capable of crossing three streets on your own. I showed you the way to school and back and everything on Sunday.”
Kururi nodded as if she had expected his answer. Which did little to appease Izaya’s growing anger, because why had she woken him up at half past four in the morning if she already knew what he would say?
“Just have this teacher of yours walk you home, if it bothers you so much,” he waved her off. “Since apparently you’re not old enough to walk alone for ten minutes, even though you told me you were.”
“He asks questions,” Kururi said then.
Izaya rubbed his forehead, breath catching in his throat. “Of course he does,” he let out slowly. “Everyone asks questions. You’ll just have to get used to it.” He lied back down, his neck aching at the uncomfortable angle of the couch’s arm. “Go back to sleep now.”
He closed his eyes and focused on the soft padding of Kururi’s socked feet on the floor until he heard the bedroom door close once more.
Sleep evaded him after that, unsurprisingly. He turned off his alarm before it rang and stood up, making his way to the bathroom for a quick shower. The idea of breakfast stayed with him through the tepid caress of water on his skin and until he was finished drying himself, but he shoved it aside; there was enough to eat at the Awakusu-kai’s offices anyway. He prepared the girls’ lunches in a hurry and exited the apartment.
The air was cold outside. The sky was littered with pink and orange stains to the east but still a dark blue everywhere else. It was early, but still Izaya could hear doors opening and closing and see people making their way to the underground station, with rumpled suits or sometimes construction wear, yawning as they walked. He stepped quickly ahead of the growing crowd, hoping to catch a seat on the first train. He didn’t, but he wasn’t shoved against a door or forced to breathe in the sweat of another for the whole trip, so he counted himself lucky this time.
The sun was up by the time he got back to the surface. He nodded at the guard smoking outside the office entrance and stepped in, shrugging off his coat as he did.
The Awakusu-kai’s office building, much like its head and executives, managed the not insignificant feat of screaming yakuza while maintaining an air of almost-lawfulness. If anyone ever asked one of the group’s leaders outright if they dabbled in illegal activities, they would receive a tight-lipped smile and a a reply of we at the Awakusu always keep an open mind, but we would never think of breaking any laws, silly. Probably along with an expensive cigarette and a subtle invitation to never contact them again. In the same way, the offices were physically toeing the line between good and proper and screamingly decadent. Tailored suits didn’t quite manage to hide all the tattoos and scars of their owners; the walls were painted and rugged an abysmally normal taupe, but the rooms reeked of smoke and blood on a bad day, and some stains never really left the deep black of the couches’ leather.
Clients were received in those offices. They were invited to sit and discuss their business, offered refreshments and friendly advice. Some of them were killed in there. Not often, no. Quite rarely, in fact. But Izaya knew it happened—had seen it happen—and could never shake off the feeling that this time, maybe, it would be his turn to bleed out on one of Akabayashi’s treasured carpets.
He didn’t dislike it. He rather enjoyed it, even, which was part of the reason why he never intended to take Shiki’s offer in the first place. But beggars can’t be choosers, as he had learned early in life, and Izaya had always been good at finding pleasure in unpleasurable places.
Really, if he had continued on his way to becoming a freelance journalist and informant, things would have been the same. He always did like the thrill of danger too much.
He sat down at the corner desk of Shiki’s office, ignoring the leers some of the men had been throwing his way since he came in. The door closed on them with a satisfying thump.
“Good morning,” came Slon’s accented voice. He was sprawling in one of the armchairs, relaxing for a minute before work took off again. Vorona was leaning against a wall not far from him.
Izaya shot them a glance but didn’t answer. Exhaustion tugged at his muscles, making him sluggish, and the tension that always followed him around the office had not improved his mood. Really—why had Kururi felt the need to wake him up in the middle of the night?
“Pissy,” Slon smiled, sly. Izaya frowned, a scathing answer making its way to his lips, but then the door opened once more.
Shiki walked in briskly, holding a stack of papers and wearing an expression that never bid anyone any good. The last of the tense knots along Izaya’s spine came lose.
No one ever dared stare at him while Shiki was around.
“First client will be here in ten minutes,” Shiki grunted. He dropped the papers on his desk and turned back to look at them. “Slon, stop hovering around and make yourself useful—Aozaki’s been asking for you for an hour, don’t pretend you didn’t know. Nothing will happen to Miss Vorona while you’re gone.”
Despite the sting of the reprimand, Slon left with good grace. Izaya wished, not for the first time, that he would fall on his own feet and die.
Things went pretty much the same as they always did after that. Vorona hung around like a very tall and silent child, sometimes buried in a book, sometimes peeking at Shiki’s files, sometimes staring at the clients until Izaya, who was seated directly behind the living space reserved for those meetings, could see the sweat dripping down their necks. Shiki talked and charmed and gave orders, spoke on the phone, went out, came back. He was never one to sit still behind a desk.
Izaya empathized fiercely.
He felt raw with unspent energy as his break came around. His legs were screaming at him to get up and leave, to run for a while, even to just change positions. The crick in his neck was ten times worse than it had been the previous night. But he couldn’t move yet; a client was still here, babbling about some money trouble he was in, some kind of underground casino and- oh.
Shiki’s eyes zeroed in on him.
Izaya carefully schooled his expression into one of blank amusement, repressing the hint of a shiver at his chin, the treacherous tug of glee at his mouth. He was sure nothing showed on his face. Still, Shiki had some sort of a sixth sense when it came to him, it seemed—and his gaze kept flickering between the client and Izaya until the man left, sweaty and shaking.
Silence hung for a moment. Vorona, bless her, either didn’t notice the tension or chose to ignore it, and kept her little blond head firmly inside whatever mind-numbing economic essay she had picked up.
Shiki sucked in the last of his cigarette.
“I want you to look into this,” he said evenly. Each of his words came out with a sliver of gray smoke. He was sitting some distance away, but with the way he looked at Izaya and the acrid smell permeating the air, Izaya felt as if he had breathed them out right into his face.
“Of course,” Izaya replied amiably. “Amphisbaena, was it?”
Shiki didn’t deign answer that question. Instead he looked at him blankly for another few seconds, before standing up and straightening his jacket.
“I’ll have someone else look into those people I told you to check out,” Shiki continued. “Just focus on this and tell me or Akabayashi about whatever you find.”
“Akabayashi-san does hate drug dealers on his turf,” Izaya said mildly.
Shiki’s fingers twitched. “Don’t push it, informant.”
He left the office after that, face unchanged. Vorona shifted in her seat, but her eyes never once wandered toward Izaya.
It was sort of adorable, that Shiki kept calling him that. Informant. As though Izaya really was the freelancer he had told him he aspired to be when they first met more than a year ago—before his parents’ death and that dreadful phone call. Before he had come running with his tail between his legs, all but begging Shiki to let him have this job, because he was twenty-two and had no degree and no legal experience and two little girls to try not to mess up.
It was debatable whether Shiki did it out of respect or just to remind him how low he had sunk. Either way, Izaya appreciated and hated it in turn, just as Shiki seemed to appreciate and hate him.
Izaya could have tried finding a legal job. Probably. He had told himself, without believing it much, that he would—that this thing he was doing for the Awakusu Group was only temporary, until he could get back on his feet and find something less likely to end up with his being buried alive in some remote place.
Amphisbaena, he thought, and this time he didn’t smother his grin. His earlier restlessness forgotten, he took out his cellphone.
Izaya always did love the thrill of danger too much.
Shizuo made his decision the morning of his twenty-third day of teaching—not that he was counting.
He was awake before his alarm, basking in his overly warm room. Cold was never meant for him; he always preferred things on the hot side. Already he was enjoying the promise of summer heat that May would bring along, the scorch of the sun on his skin and the wind drying out the streets. His colleagues were mourning the loss of winter comforts; Shizuo was anticipating the slick of clean sweat along his back. The late night cigarettes he would smoke on his balcony half-naked while his neighbors tossed and turned in their beds, the buzz of fans and air conditioning familiar in his ears.
His day at school went ordinarily enough—which meant that only three Aoba-caused disasters happened, Anri barely shrieked when he called on her for answers, and Masaomi miraculously managed not to break anything.
Truly, he was thankful for the days when nothing broke.
But when everyone was gone around a quarter past four—Masaomi being led away last by his disgruntled father—and Mairu and Kururi turned toward him with an expectant look on their round faces, he steeled himself.
“I got something I need to talk to you both about,” he said.
The change in them was instantaneous.
Mairu’s face smoothed out of expression altogether. Her eyes were bright, though, shiny with the first spikes of anger and shame. Kururi’s hand gripped hers until their skins became bloodless-white.
Shizuo almost let it go right then.
For the hundredth time Yagiri’s voice rung in his mind, cold and harsh as her whole demeanor always was—I didn’t tell you before because their brother asked me not to.
No matter how he looked at it, though, his feelings on the matter never changed. A teacher ought to know if one of their students was an orphan, especially when the orphaning had happened so recently.
He sighed, longing to take out a cigarette right here in the middle of his classroom. Instead he ran a hand through his hair.
“Look, I’m not—I’m not going to ask you to, I don’t know, talk about all this, I guess.” He wanted to cringe at how hesitant he was being. “But even though walking you girls home after class doesn’t bother me, it does make me feel weird to know that your legal guardian can’t take the time to come pick you up. That’s just not right.”
Kururi was half-hidden behind Mairu now, which was never a good thing. Mairu’s anger was proportionate to her twin’s discomfort.
“He has work,” Mairu said then.
“I have work too,” he replied, keeping his voice as gentle as he could. Even so, he felt the girl’s flinch hit him like a physical blow. “If he can’t come himself then at least have him write me a word to let you go home with someone he trusts.”
Kururi made a sound halfway between a snort and a choked sob at that. Before he could decide what to make of it, Mairu opened her mouth again.
“Iza-nii doesn’t trust anyone,” she declared, looking at Shizuo as though he’d lost his mind.
Shizuo almost groaned out loud. Tearing off his own toenails sounded less bothersome than dealing with those two.
“Listen,” he said, and the final tone of his voice seemed to make the girls go cold all at once. Well, shit. “Look, I can’t, that’s not how this is supposed to work. I know your circumstances are” sad “special, but I can’t keep trusting someone to take care of you both when I’ve never seen them or heard directly from them. Please ask your brother to come meet me at least once. We can discuss this together and decide what to do from now on.”
He had trouble meeting Mairu’s eyes after that. Even Kururi—quiet, blank-faced Kururi—seemed to be screaming at him at this very moment, asking him how he could do that to them.
And this more than anything else comforted him in his decision to demand a meeting with their elusive brother. Something was going on here that no ice-cold word from headmistress Yagiri could make him turn a blind eye on.
“Their parents are dead,” she had said, he remembered, as if she was talking about the weather. “Kicked the bucket a few months ago—car accident, I heard. Their mother was an up-and-coming businesswoman. It was all over the papers.”
And Shizuo had remembered something then, the picture of a sharp-faced woman with long black hair and brown eyes, the name Orihara Kyouko written under a tacky title (Car Accident Or Car Incident?). He had found the very page when he came back home that day, lost in the pile of outdated newspapers he only bothered to throw out twice a year, and he spent a few long minutes staring at her attractive face. Trying to pin down the resemblance between her and her daughters, and failing. The twins must have taken after their father, who was mentioned in the article but whose picture wasn’t shown.
So with all this in mind, he didn’t back down under the glares of two sad little girls with their ink-stained hands and clean but old clothes. Secondhand clothes in perfect state but obviously not theirs the way new ones would be. Hanging off their bodies awkwardly at their wrists, as if someone had tugged at the sleeves until they loosened too much—and Shizuo had never seen the girls pull at their clothes like that before, the way Mikado and Anri would.
The walk to their street was spent in tense silence. Shizuo took the lead for once, used to the ten-minute walk between the school and the rundown building in its empty gray slot.
Something, however, was different.
“He’s here,” Kururi whispered, and Mairu jumped as if she had yelled.
Shizuo looked up to the third floor, to the old metal door and the tiny window next to it. The room behind was lit softly.
He entertained the thought of just climbing up there with the girls and talking it all out. Shrugging that weight off his shoulders for good. But that would be breaking his students’ privacy in a way he never wanted to. Just coming here with them every day felt like too much already.
“Don’t forget to tell him,” he told them a little sharply. Mairu glared at him. “I wanna see him before the week is over, or I’ll have to make some calls he won’t like.”
They wouldn’t understand what he was talking about. But their brother would, hopefully.
Some effort is always required, Shizuo thought on his way back. Even while looking over his students’ works for the day, his mind was abuzz; he rightened shaky words with an absent hand, paper creasing under his fingers, and time and time again the face of the dead woman slipped into his mind. Orihara Kyouko.
The twins came to class the following day wearing very different looks. Mairu’s disgruntlement was inked into the lines of her mouth and her forehead, into the jerk-like motions she made when anyone other than Kururi talked to her all morning. Kururi, meanwhile, was smiling full and open, as if something in her had finally been soothed.
“He’s coming today,” Mairu told him before lunch break.
Shizuo had never felt more out of place.
The last bell rang like a death sentence. Some of his kids were already ready to go, as always, and Shizuo snapped at those—Masaomi—who ran too fast for the exit. The task of quieting worried mothers was usually one he despised, but today he barely noticed their aggressive voices and demands. He talked to them with one eye stuck on the classroom’s open doorway. Every new face who came in sight made him jump beneath his skin, even though he knew he didn’t know most of the people who came to pick up their children. There were other classes in the school, other classes on this very floor, of course he knew that, but every man under thirty whose face he couldn’t associate with a name became a new source of irritability in the fifteen minutes it took for his class to be empty.
Empty, save for the twins. Shizuo settled back behind his desk and waited.
“Whatever,” Mairu said after the clock hit four thirty. She looked angry and unsurprised. “He’s not coming.”
“He is,” Kururi whispered in a rare show of faith.
Mairu grunted, turned her back to them both, and made to grab her bag and shoes from under her desk.
A knock broke the silence then. Shizuo raised his head as the door opened without waiting for an answer—and Shizuo felt something like a fool for wondering at so many faces earlier, trying to find family resemblance and failing.
Mairu and Kururi didn’t look a thing like their mother, because Orihara Kyouko’s face went to her son instead, in all of its fine and classically handsome glory. He was a thin man; and it felt wrong to call him a man instead of a kid, because he was younger than Shizuo, younger even than he would have expected, or at least he looked like it. Scrawny limbs clad in plain black clothes, circles under his eyes and tension at the edge of his chin, he walked inside without faltering, as if he had been coming here since the beginning of term.
His eyes met Shizuo’s almost at once, bypassing the girls entirely—and the man smiled.
“You must be Shizu-chan,” he said pleasantly. And no one could have missed the edge to his voice or the glint of sharp malice in his brown eyes.
Shizuo felt something he hadn’t felt in years: the heat of dislike in his belly rising like a living thing, thinning his mouth and clenching his fists until he could feel his desktop crack and bristle under his palms.
“Iza-nii,” Kururi said then.
The simple joy in her voice brought Shizuo out of his trance. His shuffled a few papers to cover the break in the wood of his desk, and cleared his throat.
“I’m Heiwajima Shizuo,” he said, walking around the desk to stand before the girls’ brother—the one he had been envisioning punching in the face just a second ago, god—and extending his hand.
The man gave him a thin smile and didn’t take it. “Orihara Izaya,” he answered. “Here to pick up my sisters, as you so nicely requested.”
“Well,” Shizuo grunted. “You have to admit that it’s a pretty unique situation.”
They stared at each other for a minute after that. Shizuo saw Mairu fidget in the corner of his eyes, looking between the two of them as if they were putting on an interesting show instead of just glaring daggers.
“So are we going, or what?” she said finally.
“Do you have everything you need?” Orihara asked her. She nodded ruefully. “Good. Let’s go, I don’t have a lot of time.”
“Wait a second,” Shizuo said a little louder than he wanted to. “I have a few things to discuss with you.”
“I’m very sorry, Heiwajima-san,” Orihara replied in a voice so sweet it made Shizuo’s teeth ache. “I have my work to return to, you see, and I’m sure you’re very busy yourself” the corner of his eyes crinkled, as if he’d heard the best joke of his week yet, “so I won’t take any more of your time. Thank you for taking care of them, if it’s a bother I’ll have someone else do it—I’m sure they have lots of friends by now whose parents won’t mind dropping them off on their way.”
Them, he had said. Not their names. They, them, “my sisters”. And Orihara talked as if he didn’t know a single thing about the twins, and didn’t care as long as they stayed out of his business. Shizuo’s throat tightened in a rage he hadn’t felt since his middle school days, and he took a step forward.
This time, Orihara looked surprised as well as mildly irritated.
“Now listen here, Orihara-”
“Please,” Orihara said. “Call me Izaya.”
Shizuo groaned, low. “Fine, Izaya,” and the lack of a proper honorific was meant as an insult, but the man’s smiled widened to border on glee, as if Shizuo had given him praise, “we need to talk. Now. Surely you can spare a few minutes of your precious time.”
“I really can’t,” Ori- Izaya said, voice apologetic and eyes anything but.
“Not even for you sisters? Your charges?”
Izaya’s playful-neutral expression stayed in place. Shizuo could’ve been talking about the weather, for all any onlooker might have known, but somehow the air grew colder and even less friendly than it had been a minute ago. Shizuo felt the difference like a sharp tug at his insides.
“Very well,” Izaya said. And he put his hands in the pockets of the worn black jeans he was wearing, the picture of uncaring.
Silence hung for a moment, as Shizuo fumbled with his words. Damn it, this was the reason why he always let Celty do the talking all these years—Shizuo sucked something dreadful at expressing himself, and God only knew what could come out of Shinra’s mouth in any given situation.
Shizuo cleared his throat. “As you’re surely aware by now, I’ve been walking Mairu and Kururi home for the past three weeks. Since the start of term, actually. And while it doesn’t bother me personally, and I saw nothing in the school’s rules saying it was forbidden, it’s still impractical and a little inappropriate, don’t you think?”
“I don’t see why,” Izaya replied easily. “Unless you’re planning to do something inappropriate, in which case rest assured that you’ll live to regret it.”
Despite the flash of horror and unadulterated rage that went through Shizuo’s entire body at these words, a small corner of his mind quieted. If anything, at least Izaya wasn’t a hundred percent indifferent to the girls’ fate.
He forced the anger down as much as he could, and kept a tight grip on his temper as he talked again. “Can you really not spare the time to just come pick them up every day? Or, I don’t know, once or twice a week? I can try to arrange something with a parent of one of the other kids the rest of the time…”
“I’m awfully sorry, Heiwajima-san,” Izaya said. His voice prickled along Shizuo’s arms like tiny needles, and he repressed a shiver. “I took the day off especially to answer your request, but my boss made it patently clear that doing so again would not be appreciated.”
“Who’s your boss?” Shizuo asked then. “I can tell them-”
“No, you can’t,” Izaya cut him off, with a steely edge to his voice that had not been here before.
And despite the alarms that rang in Shizuo’s head at this, he could feel that insisting would get him nowhere. Just like this entire conversation, really.
“Would you at least be reachable if something ever happened?” he asked, resisting the urge to rub his forehead. The need for a smoke was like literal fire inside him, a painful ache at his temple and the tip of his fingers.
Izaya hesitated for a second. Something went through his eyes that Shizuo couldn’t catch long enough to decipher—it could have been embarrassment, or fear, or annoyance. It could have been anything.
“Yes,” he said finally. “I’ll give you my number—just don’t call unless it’s really important.” Don’t call, ever, was what he wanted to say.
Shizuo never intended to call anyway. If anything happened to the girls, he would call social services. Not this older brother who cared more about his boss’s opinion of him than his sisters’ well-being.
He took the crumpled piece of surprisingly expensive paper Izaya gave him nonetheless, ignoring the reflex-like need to flinch back when his fingers met Izaya’s cold ones.
Izaya still gave him a knowing smile. “Bad circulation,” he said amiably.
Shizuo was about to reply—he didn’t know what he wanted to say, but something would not let him allow this man to have the last word—when Kururi walked up to her brother, and slowly slid her small hand into his own. Or tried to.
Izaya jerked away as if he had been burned. Kururi watched him with the same plain expression she always wore, hand in the air, until at last she let it fall down. She and Izaya stared at each other for a very long second, before he turned around a little shakily, throwing Shizuo one last glare.
“Satisfied?” Mairu asked once Izaya had left the room without waiting for her or her sister.
Not at all, Shizuo didn’t say—but he could have, because the I-told-you-so look Mairu threw him on her way out hit him like a slap in the face.
“Is he always like this?” Iza-nii asked once they were almost all the way to the apartment.
It took Mairu a moment to understand what he was talking about, as always.
“Your teacher,” he added. He wasn’t smiling, but Mairu thought there was something in his eyes that wasn’t entirely displeased.
“Pretty much,” she answered.
He hummed thoughtfully. Mairu rolled her eyes at him and turned back to Kuru-nee, who hadn’t let go of her hand since they had left the classroom. She tightened her grip and gave her a smile she knew was reassuring. Kururi blinked twice in wonder.
Mairu didn’t really understand why her sister insisted on trying to initiate touch with their brother when he had made it clear, if not in words then in actions, that he didn’t like it or even appreciate the sentiment. At the same time, though—she knew why.
When she closed her eyes at night, she could still almost-feel the soft grasp of their mom’s hand in hers, or the strangling hugs their dad gave her every day.
“Heiwajima Shizuo,” Iza-nii muttered while fishing in his pockets for the key to their house. The metallic sound the door made as it unlocked jarred something within her. A bird gave a thrill, somewhere above them.