Some Required Effort (Part II)

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Some Required Effort
Part II

There was never much to do for Shizuo on Fridays. Class didn’t end earlier, but in the staffroom he could feel the exhaustion like a tense veil hanging over every teacher in the vicinity. Most of their efforts were aimed at finishing the week’s coffee with single-minded ignorance of how tasteless the last of the dregs were; by an unspoken rule, fresh coffee was only ever brought on Monday mornings. It had taken some time for Shizuo to realize that he didn’t have to bring some himself every week. Mikage had laughed off his embarrassment, feral, with one of those quick and vicious pats on the back she only ever gave to him and to Head Teacher Yagiri—who allowed them for a reason he couldn’t fathom.

Even more palpable than the teachers’ fatigue was the students’, though. They came in that morning a few minutes later than they did the rest of the week, trembling more, talking louder. Their frail limbs shook and waved with the excited abandon of overwork. Masaomi bumped into a shelve as he walked in without even noticing it, although the strength of the impact was enough to make a couple of books fall and surely bruise his shoulder. But he kept talking at Mikado as if nothing happened.

Mairu and Kururi entered just as Shizuo was picking up the fallen books from the floor. He expected them to make a face at him—or at least, he expected Mairu to do so—but their heads were turned to each other. He recognized the dismissal for what it was and left them be, heading instead to the front of the class so he could call for silence and take attendance.

The first part of the day went on, lazy and unperturbed. Aoba and Anri stared absently at the window for most of it, but Shizuo could hardly blame them. It was a mid-May morning, warm and sunny, even a little stifling. Any other day he might have called for their attention to be back on their work, but even he could feel drowsiness at the unexpected warmth, and he knew that it would be pointless. He didn’t think any of them would be able to focus.

By the time lunch break came around barely half of his students still had their eyes on the kanas they were practicing—and most of those who did were blinking sleepily at their papers, pencils long forgotten. All of their heads went up when the bell rang, though, and conversations picked up immediately from where they left off during mid-morning break, as though the hour and a half that followed had never happened.

Shizuo gave up on barking at them to walk out of the room quietly; the kids took out their lunches hurriedly and ran out as if physically drawn toward the sun bathing the playground area. His only consolation was that he could hear neighboring classes do the same, and not a single teacher raise their voice to call for quiet and better attitude. He bent his neck to loosen the knots at his nape, eyes closed. Before long the only noise he could hear was the distant chatter coming from the open window as almost all of the school’s students settled outside to eat and play.

He wasn’t entirely surprised to see Mairu and Kururi still sitting at their desks when he opened his eyes. He rose to his feet and walked toward them, swallowing against the tension in his chest that told him he shouldn’t be attached enough to be able to guess when they weren’t feeling well.

“Everything all right?” he asked once he reached them.

Kururi kept her head down toward her open lunchbox, but Mairu gave him a fast glance and a nod, apparently unable to keep her eyes off her sister for more than a second. He sighed.

“Okay. I’ll be in the staffroom for lunch, don’t hesitate to come see me if you need something.” He hesitated. “Going outside for a bit might do you good.”

He got no response apart from Kururi’s hand clenching slowly into a fist. Mairu made a small sound at the sight, a bit too close to a whimper.

Walking out of the room felt a little too much like he was leaving part of his heart behind—the part that held all his ability to focus while he was worried.

“What’s wrong?” Mikage asked him when she saw his face.

He took a seat next to her, taking out a sandwich. “Nothing.”

But it wasn’t twenty minutes later that the tense call inside Shizuo’s chest was answered by Mairu walking inside the room. Her slippers slid on the floor with every hurried step.

“Kuru-nee’s sick,” she said, but Shizuo was already out of his chair and walking to the door, his hand catching the girl’s shoulder on the way. Mairu didn’t flinch at the unexpected contact. She was already so tense she was shaking, all of her child’s focus set on outpacing Shizuo to the classroom.

He could still hear the high-pitched yells of the children playing outside, crawling through the open window like hot air. Kururi didn’t seem to have moved an inch since the last time he had seen her. Shizuo knelt next to her chair and tilted his head until he could see her upturned mouth and the unfocused gaze she directed at her lunch. She hadn’t touched it. From this close he could finally hear the effort in her breaths, see the shine of sweat on her pale skin and the contrast it made to the bright flush sitting high on her cheeks.

“Kururi,” he called, with the softest voice he could muster. And then, when she failed to react in any way, “Don’t you want to eat?”

Mairu slid her hand into her sister’s. She moved, finally, tightening her fingers and lifting her head to the side to meet Shizuo’s eyes. Something sharp tugged at his heart. She looked utterly miserable.

“How do you feel?” He wanted to put a hand to her forehead, feel for himself the fever he was sure she had. But Kururi was holding tight onto Mairu’s hand, as if bracing herself, and he didn’t dare. “Do you want to go to the nurse’s office?”

“… No.” She shook her head as she said it.

“You’re sick,” Shizuo replied in what he hoped was a comforting voice. “Even if you feel like you can stay in class, I can’t take the risk of letting the other kids catch what you have. Do you understand?”

She frowned at him, considering his words. After a while she nodded, and her grip on Mairu’s hand slackened.

He smiled. “Okay. I’ll walk you there. The nurse—Touka-sensei—she’s very nice. There’s nothing to worry about.” Nothing to worry about, he repeated to himself.

Kururi nodded and stood up. Shizuo wanted to tell her to eat something before going, for fear of her collapsing on the way down to the nurse’s office; but he wasn’t sure what was wrong, or how wrong it was. Her voice sounded fine, and she didn’t seem disoriented. Still the knowledge that something was hurting her sat deep inside his mind, and he felt himself panic more with every step he saw her take—every second of complete silence in which she neglected to let her ailment be heard or seen.

He knocked on the door to Kuzuhara’s office with his right hand, the left firmly stuck inside his pocket, taking away from himself the temptation to guide each girl physically. Mairu was standing close behind her sister, maybe too close for comfort considering Kururi’s state, but Shizuo didn’t have the heart to tell her to step away.

Kuzuhara ushered them in after a single surprised glance at Shizuo. She obviously didn’t feel the same need for restraint as he did—her hand immediately went to Kururi’s forehead and then the side of her neck, even before she was finished leading her to one of the beds.

“I’ll take it from here,” she smiled at Shizuo. “You and Mairu-chan should go back upstairs-”

“No!” Mairu yelled, and made as if to knock papers off Kuzuhara’s desk in her anger. Shizuo grabbed her arm before he could help himself, but she didn’t react. “I want to stay with Kuru-nee!”

He’d never heard her sound like this, even with all the times it seemed she was the one to voice what Kururi felt on top of her own thoughts. She didn’t struggle against his hold or try to throw anything else, but her mouth was torn into the most miserable frown he had ever seen on her, and her eyes shone with desperate tears.

“I don’t want to leave her alone!”

“She’s not alone,” Shizuo said, too fast and too strongly. “Kuzuha- Touka-sensei is gonna stay with her.”

Mairu turned her wide eyes to him, and grunted, “Not the same,” unspoken terror giving weight to her voice in a way that made Shizuo’s heart turn in on itself.

“She’ll be fine,” Kuzuhara said softly, a little lost. “I’ll keep her here for an hour or so, see how she’s doing. I’ll call you girls’ brother if she has to be taken home.”

Kuzuhara’s voice was soothing, but Mairu flinched as if she had physically struck her. Resentment coiled itself inside Shizuo’s guts as the face of Orihara Izaya flashed through his mind, sharp enough to cut itself at the edge of the man’s dishonest smile and the uncaring glint of his eyes. Silence spread over the tension in the room. His eyes never left the unhappy slouch of Mairu’s shoulders as her little face stayed turned to her sister’s, who was watching her in silence.

He made himself smile, and released the hold he had on her arm to push her toward him. “It would be bad if you fell sick too, right?” he asked her. Mairu only glanced at him briefly before straining her neck to look back at her twin, but he insisted. “She won’t be alone. You’re still in the same building. Kururi is a big girl, but she needs to rest, and she can’t do that with too many people around.”

Mairu released a distressed sound, more whine than word.

“It’s okay,” Shizuo murmured. “Touka-sensei will make sure she’s fine. You should come back upstairs with me so you can tell your sister about all the stuff she missed in class. I’m sure she doesn’t want to get behind on everything we’re doing.”

Kururi nodded at that. Shizuo felt the tension leave Mairu’s body under his fingers, like a great wave had swept it away all at once. She lowered her head in silence.

“Go wash your hands, Mairu-chan,” Kuzuhara said kindly. Mairu shifted on her feet for a second, but finally moved toward the sink at the corner of the room.

Shizuo let out a breath. “Thanks, Kuzuhara,” he muttered. She laughed softly at that.

“I told you to call me Touka.” Then, more seriously, “I’ll keep you updated after classes. Now get out so I can take care of Kururi-chan in peace.”

He flushed a little, nodding awkwardly. Mairu was waiting for him just outside the room. They took the stairs back up to the second floor, and Shizuo stayed with her inside the classroom. Mikage came in a few minutes after that, bringing the lunch he had forgotten with her. He didn’t touch it, and neither did Mairu hers. They spent the rest of midday break in each other’s wordless company, listening to the excited cries coming from the playground and the rushes of warm wind that made the green curtains dance away from the windows.

The remaining hours of class that followed were a blur. Shizuo gave up on actually making anyone work around two and a half in the afternoon and let the kids loose on the art tools. After about ten different students asked him what they should draw, he simply told them to draw whatever they wanted to be doing instead of class, and got Masaomi’s obnoxious cheers for his efforts. The whole thing wasn’t extremely professional, and he would have to clean up about eight different tables of paint and marker stains, but he at least got the satisfaction of seeing Mairu start drawing almost immediately and Aoba engage her in mindless chatter. He let himself sit down on his desk and watch the exhausted chaos unfold before him, smiling when one of the kids ran up to show him their work, correcting the kanji of their names that he insisted they write at the back of each of their pieces.

By the time the first tired parents and guardians came to pick up their progeny, no one had put anything back in its place. Shizuo waved off the bashful glances some of the parents gave him upon seeing their child drop their brush or crayon to run toward them, assuring that he didn’t mind doing the clean up. The room emptied a lot quicker than it ever did the rest of the week.

“Do you wanna help me with this?” Shizuo asked Mairu, gesturing to the mess around him.

“Alright,” she said—the first non-hostile thing he had heard from her all day.

In the end, they were only about two-thirds done with picking up fallen markers and tubes of water-based paint when Kuzuhara knocked on the door and let herself in. Shizuo straightened up. His attempt at a smile fell when he saw the concerned frown on her face.

“Is Kururi all right?” he asked immediately. His face warmed when he noticed that he’d cut her right as she opened her mouth. “Huh, sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she smiled. “Kururi-chan is still downstairs. I think she has a stomach flu—she threw up a couple times. Her temperature is a little high and she’s dehydrated, but it’s nothing bad. I managed to make her eat some yogurt and she fell asleep.”

“Oh… That’s good, then.” It didn’t explain the crease between Kuzuhara’s eyebrows, however.

“Yes.” Kuzuhara smiled at Mairu, who had walked up to stand close to Shizuo’s side. Her small hand crept up to tug at his sleeve in an unconscious reach for comfort.

And then Shizuo remembered. “Wait, didn’t you say you were gonna send her home if she didn’t feel better?”

“That’s the problem. I can’t seem to reach her brother.”

His breath caught in his chest.

“I tried texting him,” she continued, oblivious, “but I kept getting told that my messages couldn’t reach him, so then I called and apparently the number isn’t in service at all. You have his number, right?” she asked.

Shizuo snapped out of his daze. “Yeah, I…”

“Is it the same as this one?” She pulled her phone out of the pocket of her white coat, and showed him the most recent entry in her call history. Shizuo’s fingers fiddled clumsily with his own cell until he found what he needed—Orihara Izaya staring at him from his contact list.

It wasn’t even close to the number Kuzuhara was holding up before him.

What the fuck, he thought, and tried not to let the panicked anger flooding his blood show on his face.

“It’s just a mistake,” he said instead, his hand coming up to rest on Mairu’s shoulder. He thought he should look at her, see the disappointment or sorrow or lack of surprise on her face, but he couldn’t. “I’ll call him, sort it all out.”

“You sure?” She frowned at him.

“Yeah, no problem. You can go, I’ll close the office when I leave.”

She looked at him for a second, hesitant. “Okay,” she said finally, her forehead smoothing over. “If I find anything out of place when I come back on Monday…”

“You won’t,” he replied, but there was no heat in it. Years ago he would’ve flown into a rage at being suspected of stealing anything. But he could hear the trust in her words and the amused lilt of her voice, and his reflexive defiance quieted under the weight of Celty’s advice over the years. Not everyone is out to get you. You’re allowed to take risks.

He found Kururi blinking the weight of sleep away from her eyes in Kuzuhara’s office. “Hey,” he said, kneeling next to her. “How do you feel?”

She watched him silently for so long that worry started making its way up his spine once more. “Vomity,” she said at last.

He nodded. “Touka-sensei said to give this to you if you still feel nauseous when you wake up.” He gave her glass full of water mixed with unappealing beige powder. The thing looked like mud and smelled badly enough to make him turn his nose, but Kururi smiled widely and drank it in one go. He resisted the urge to help her to her feet after that, and instead watched over her for any sign of dizziness.

Once he was satisfied she wasn’t going to fall over while walking, he pushed her shoes toward her and put her bag over his shoulder.

“We’re going home, then?” Mairu asked.

“No,” he replied, and surprised himself with how immediate his answer had been.

The more he thought about it, the righter he felt about his decision, though. He wouldn’t walk them home only to drop them at what he knew was an empty apartment in a decrepit street. Kururi needed attention, which Orihara Izaya wouldn’t give her, since he apparently didn’t feel the need to even give his sisters’ school the right number to call him if anything ever happened.

So this was how low his charges were on the ladder of Izaya’s priorities. Shizuo’s fingers brushed against his cellphone in the pocket of his jeans, wondering for a second if the number that man had given him was even the real one. He hadn’t looked like he was lying, back then.

“One of my housemates is a doctor,” he told the girls, who were watching him with wide eyes. “He should be home now, so I’ll take you to my place, if that’s okay with you both. I’ll call your brother once we’re there.”

“Fine,” Kururi said, her voice still soft with sleep. Mairu’s hand crawled into hers.

Shizuo shot a quick text to Celty, telling her not to come pick him up as she usually did. Then he called a cab, knowing that the apartment he shared with Shinra and her was too far for two tired school girls to travel by foot. Mairu seemed excited on the way, blabbering on and on at the poor driver, who took her chatter in good grace and indulged her questions about whether he had driven criminals and gangsters around. Shizuo made sure to give him a large tip once they reached their destination.

Shinra met him in the hallway as he was closing the door behind the girls and telling them where to leave their shoes.

“Shizuo,” he said, surprised, “I didn’t expect you to be back so early.” Then his eyes fell on Mairu and Kururi, and his face took on the scrunched up expression he wore when he was thinking very hard about something.

“Don’t hurt your head,” Shizuo shot him, but Shinra was already walking toward Kururi and putting a hand on her forehead, dragging her into the living room as she blinked sleepily up at him and his always startling demeanor.

Mairu followed suit, dropping her bag in the middle of the hallway. Shizuo picked it up and put it to the side. He plucked his phone out of his pocket; the screen unlocked to where he had turned it off. Orihara Izaya.

Leaning against the wall as Shinra’s kind-voiced chatter washed over him from the other side of the apartment, he let the anger power through him in a single flash, just enough to give him the energy to press the call button and lift the device to his ear.

Izaya’s phone started buzzing late in the afternoon. He only noticed because the soft sound it made inside the pocket of his coat was different from his breathing pattern. Shiki’s office-living-room hybrid wasn’t that hot, but Izaya was still sweltering. The current meeting had been going on for an hour; the windows were closed, curtains drawn shut to avoid onlookers, and stuffy warmth rolled inside the room like a giant crawling creature, pressing against Izaya and making sweat gather at his back, his armpits, the inside of his elbows. He had been forced to take off his coat a few minutes after Shiki’s business partner had arrived—and he could feel Sloan staring from the other side of the room, his eyes stuck on the hollow of his neck and, he knew, lower down his torso every time he straightened his back. He should straighten his back. Roll his shoulders, breathe in deeply, cough. Let out some of the tensions assembling between his shoulder blades where cloth stuck to skin, almost chafing from the sweat.

Izaya didn’t straighten his back.

It took him an embarrassing while to realize the buzzing inside his coat pocket was a call rather than a text, but it did very little to diffuse his confusion, because the only person who ever called or texted him was Shiki, and Shiki was right here.

The number wasn’t hidden; it sat bright and open on the touch screen of the phone the Awakusu-kai had given him once he’s started working for them instead of with them. Nakura had only contacted him instead of the other way around once so far, and it was via a masked number. And, almost automatically, his thoughts slid back to his sisters’ teacher whom he had given this number to—but he wasn’t supposed to call. That was what Izaya thought they’d agreed on back then. The number was a compromise, Heiwajima wasn’t supposed to actually call.

“Orihara Izaya,” he said, picking up about two seconds before the call was redirected to his voicemail. He turned his voice as snappy as he could without dragging anyone’s attention to him. As he made his way to the door and into the hallway behind he could feel Sloan’s gaze over his neck like a layer of grease on his skin. He closed the door without looking back.

“This is Heiwajima,” Heiwajima said uselessly.

Izaya’s lips tugged into a smile at his voice, his mind flashing for an instant to the face of the man as he had decided to hold him in contempt the moment he saw him. He felt the first rush of battle-ready blood to his face and the sharp electric current of his body settling for a fight. He was alone in the corridor, free to enjoy the caress of fresh air Shiki had denied entrance to and the heady feeling of rushing straight into danger.

He didn’t know why an elementary school teacher of all people should be dangerous. He just knew Heiwajima was.

“What do you want?” he said, once he was sure the pause between Heiwajima’s question and his own answer had been enough to rile him up.

“Shit,” Heiwajima breathed, and something heavy uncoiled inside Izaya’s belly at the weight of anger behind the soft-spoken curse, but then, “Kururi’s sick.”

It all went crashing down. Izaya’s fingers tightened reflexively on the plastic case of his phone, too slick from the heat to do anything but slide on the surface and push it out of alignment against his ear. His heartbeat slowed too quickly, and suddenly he was just standing alone in an empty corridor, sweat cooling on his skin, and in nothing more than his jeans and T-shirt.

He opened his mouth, but Heiwajima decided he was done waiting for an answer. “I live with a doctor, so I took her and Mairu to my place. You need to come pick them up. I’ll text you the address.”

There was a pause.

“You are gonna come, right?” This time his voice had the ice-cold feel of disgust in it. Izaya felt himself rise up in answering spite even with the erratic beat of cold blood in his veins.

Shizu-chan said he’ll call people you don’t like if you don’t come pick us up tomorrow, Mairu had told him weeks ago, the day before he and Heiwajima met. “Yes,” Izaya answered, even though he knew he couldn’t afford to, knew Shiki was expecting results he wasn’t giving because of his own plans, knew the bitter taste in his mouth was due to the kind of apprehension he could never enjoy.

He hung up before Heiwajima did and clenched his hand around his phone rather than let it shake.

Shiki’s eyes flew to him when he came back. The man in front of him—a business partner for the art gallery that acted as a front to the Awakusu offices, not a client—was still speaking. Behind him, Sloan was reading into a computer file. Vorona wasn’t here today, meaning Egor or Akabayashi was baby-sitting her.

Izaya waited until the gallery’s administrator stopped talking and stepped toward Shiki. His heart beat against his throat in the most uncomfortable way, the way that made the skin there pulse visibly, but Shiki’s eyes never wandered down and Sloan didn’t have a direct line of sight anymore.

“I need to leave for today,” Izaya offered with the best apologetic smile he could muster. “Emergency.”

“I wonder,” Shiki said. He didn’t elaborate.

Izaya knew Shiki was frustrated with him, maybe even angry. He had been toeing the line of treason with Amphisbaena—was planning on treason by involving himself with Amphisbaena—and though Shiki didn’t know about his intentions, he definitely didn’t like his methods. Hiding how he was getting his intel on the drug drops and underground casinos wasn’t how he was allowed to work anymore. Shiki wouldn’t let it go on for too long.

He had to speed up his little chats with Nakura.

“I can get some more work done on Sunday,” Izaya said placatingly. “But I really need to go now.”

Shiki watched him for a moment, brow creased in something that strangely enough looked more like concern than suspicion. It disappeared too fast, though, and soon the tip of his fingers, yellowed over time by the imprint of tobacco on his skin, started tapping rhythmically against his thigh.

Shiki’s more legal business partner shifted on the leather couch opposite him. The noise Sloan’s fingers made against the keyboard of his laptop fell into silence. Now not even the too-hot press of the room’s still air could alleviate the cold seeping through Shiki’s expression and, it seemed, Izaya’s very pores.

Izaya murmured, “I’ll take my leave then,” and picked up his coat without looking at anyone. Shiki’s voice came to him again once he was opening the door.

“Is it about your family?”

Izaya’s chest constricted around the knot of panic in his heart that was born the day his parents died, and he closed the door without answering Shiki’s threat.

It took him the entire walk to the station to calm himself down enough to think about looking at where exactly he was going. He took out his phone and stared at the address Heiwajima had sent him. It wasn’t too far from where he was. Kawagoe Highway, Ikebukuro. Maybe a twenty-minute walk.

Turning his back to the gaping entrance of the underground station, Izaya began walking.

The still-high sun beat against his back and made the skin of his left arm dampen where it was holding his coat up against his hip. He relished in the feeling of open air and drowned himself in the sounds of car horns and the yells of street salesmen, passed by the Russia Sushi signboard where Simon was speaking loudly to a couple of customers without seeing him. And all the while, he let the bottled tension inside of him focus on a single target instead of the fear ringing in his head from Shiki’s parting words.

Heiwajima Shizuo.

By the time he reached the entrance of the rather new apartment building behind Kawagoe, all his heart felt was the regular thrum of anger, much easier to deal with than anything else in the world.

There were three names on the plate next to the door he rang at. Heiwajima’s was at the bottom, below a foreigner’s name written in both roman letters and katakana and another that made faint familiarity blink itself into his brain, but before he could wonder any deeper a woman opened the door.

The foreigner, he thought, briefly eyeing the shape of her face. He smiled.

“I’m Orihara Izaya,” he said, channeling his irritation into the sweetest tone he could produce. “My sisters are here, I believe.”

The woman opened her mouth, and made an aborted gesture with her hands. But her breath didn’t change its pattern to accommodate speech, nor did she look like she was at a loss for words. She simply smiled back at him and stepped aside to let him in, before taking guest slippers out of a closet and handing them to him.

She didn’t, or more likely couldn’t, speak.

Izaya filed this knowledge into his head as he did everything about everyone he met, and stepped to where the hallway opened into a bright living-room and kitchen.

Heiwajima rose from his seat when he entered. His lips thinned on the same frustration Izaya felt curling inside his throat, and when their eyes met the only thing holding Izaya’s smile in place was the rigid coldness running through him, sharpening his tongue until he could feel the bite of the words he wanted to throw at this man.

“I thought the girls looked familiar,” a cheerful voice cut through the tension, and a bespectacled man wearing a plain blue shirt entered his field of vision.

Confusion mixed with panicked familiarity made their way to the front of Izaya’s thoughts, but the What on his lips died as his gaze fell on Kishitani Shinra’s knowing smirk.

He could feel the blood leaving his face.

“You’re Orihara-”

“Izaya.” The word ripped itself from his tongue with such force that even that air-headed brute of a teacher seemed thrown off by it. Izaya clamped down on his feelings until the numbness settled, disgusting, but enough to make his voice stop wavering. “Shinra. It’s been years. I didn’t notice your name at the door, my apologies.”

Shinra tilted his head, looking at him in the same way that had made him feel special in middle school but now only made the need to run creep up his legs. It was worse than waiting for anger. It was waiting for judgment.

The woman moved then, signing something with her hands. Shinra’s assessing eyes immediately went to her.

“Orihara-kun was my junior in middle school,” he explained, and Izaya’s back unknotted itself so fast that he almost stumbled in his dizziness. “He’s quite the hard person to forget.”

“Never mind that,” Heiwajima growled, oblivious. “We need to talk, Orihara.”

“I told you to call me Izaya,” Izaya replied. Heiwajima’s fingers clenched into fists, his blunt nails biting into his palms. It was a very satisfying sight. “Or I’ll just call you Shizu-chan, like my sisters do.”

“Do you think this is the time for jokes?”

“You called me, and I came here as fast as I could,” Izaya drawled. His eyes wandered around the room and as far away from Shinra’s as they could. “I don’t know why you’re so angry.”

Heiwajima took a large step toward him, looking very pissed. Pissed enough to raise a hand on him, maybe. Izaya smiled and shifted his footing.

“The school nurse tried to get in touch with you all afternoon,” Heiwajima said, now almost directly in his face. “Kururi came to school sick. She vomited several times. You gave the wrong number.” And then he closed his mouth and held his breath, his eyes boring furiously into Izaya’s, waiting for him to react, to tell him he had deliberately given fake information because he obviously didn’t care.

In truth, he had forgotten.

The girls were already enrolled at that school when Kyouko and Shirou died. In the daze that had followed their burial and Izaya’s search for a place bigger than the one-room students’ apartment he was living in at the time, it hadn’t occurred to him that he should have notified the head teacher of his new phone number—given by Shiki when he had started working for him. Or maybe it had, and he just hadn’t remembered once the girls were somewhat settled with him.

It would be easy enough a blunder to explain. Heiwajima obviously knew of his family’s circumstances, even with how hard Izaya had insisted Yagiri Namie didn’t share that information. It was only natural, though, and he had expected it as soon as Mairu had told him her teacher cared. Izaya could play the card of the newly orphaned young man trying to get used to taking care of children, if only his entire being didn’t revolt at the idea.

“I didn’t think it would ever come up,” he said instead, and found delight when a shudder of rage shook Heiwajima. “They can take care of themselves.”

“They’re six, are you out of your goddamn mind? They should at least have a cellphone to contact you with if anything every happens, seeing how little time you seem to actually spend with them!”

“Kururi-chan is sleeping in the guest room,” Shinra cut in, “and Mairu-chan is with her, but I don’t know if she’s awake or not, so you should probably keep it down if you’re going to argue here.” His eyes flew between the two of them as though watching a very interesting tennis game. Next to him the woman—Celty—waited with her arms folded over her chest and her gaze fixed on Heiwajima. A worried frown creased her delicate features, but even that wasn’t enough to disturb the soft affection she directed at the man currently spitting disgust at Izaya’s face.

Exhaustion sped through Izaya’s body and mind like an arrow, and suddenly every ounce of fun he had dragged out of the situation fell lifeless. Enough.

“I’ll be taking them home, then,” he announced, and turned to Celty with a question in his eyes until she snapped out of her surprise and started walking to what was probably the guest room door.

“They’re sleeping,” Heiwajima said, stepping after him. His arm rose abruptly, as if to grab Izaya’s shoulder. Izaya stepped away, and Heiwajima closed his hand on nothing. His face didn’t change, though. “At least let them rest for a while, they need it. Not that you’d know,” he added viciously.

And that was it.

“I’m tired of this,” Izaya said, stopping in his tracks and turning to look at Heiwajima. He was already uncomfortably close for the two of them, but he leaned in even closer. “I don’t want you anywhere near my sisters again.”

Heiwajima’s face twisted in confusion. “I’m their teacher,” he said.

“Yes,” Izaya agreed softly. “Their teacher, and nothing more. I’ll arrange something with my boss, free myself in the afternoon to come pick them up, even in the morning to make sure they get to school in one piece. You’ll get your freedom back. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

He didn’t know if he could do that, didn’t know if Shiki would consider this request the last straw into Izaya’s basketful of liberties. But it was worth it, if only for the red that flushed Haiwajima’s face and the horror in his eyes.

Izaya,” his voice rumbled out of him like thunder, “that’s not what I meant-”

“I don’t care,” Izaya said. “I want you out of my family business and back where you belong. You’re just a teacher, and a new one had that. Started just this term, right?” Heiwajima blinked in surprise, mouth still open around his outrage. “I wonder who you think you are, lecturing me, threatening me. Don’t make me file a formal complaint to Yagiri-san.”

It wasn’t enough, it wasn’t nearly enough. Izaya wanted to do more, wanted to drive the fear of himself into Heiwajima Shizuo to the point where that man would never be able to sleep another night without thinking about him. Heiwajima had paled, and his mouth had closed on tight fury even as Celty put a comforting hand on his shoulder and glared at Izaya with about as much strength as a sick puppy. But more than anything Izaya felt Shinra’s eyes on him. He felt the barely-retrained trembling of his own fingers and the maelström that this unexpected meeting had made of his thoughts. More than anything, he wanted to go home and lick his wounds, despite the anger that rose in him at the idea; he wasn’t wounded. He just needed a break.

“Kururi-chan should still be sleeping,” Shinra said quietly. “I have something for her when she wakes up. It’s nothing bad, what she has—just a stomach flu. She should be fine within forty-eight hours.”

Izaya looked at him unseeingly for a moment, before everything seemed to deplete inside him. Kururi. She was sick, and Mairu was probably losing her head over it. This was why he was here in the first place.

It occurred to him that his sisters as actual human beings hadn’t been on his mind since he had hung up on Heiwajima. They were only a concept, a pivot for his anger. It made Heiwajima’s veiled accusations weigh on him and shame bubble up his spine until he could feel the threat of blood in his face and even the prickling of exhausted tears in his eyes. He turned his back on everyone in the room.

“I’ll wait until she wakes up,” he said in a painfully steady voice.

“Come to me before you go, I’ll give you the medicine she’ll need,” Shinra answered.

Izaya nodded without turning back and made his way to the guest room, closing the door behind him. It was rude, probably, and it wouldn’t make his escape from Shinra’s inquisition any quicker in the end. But he took an easier breath inside the dark little bedroom than he had this entire day.

It took him a while to realize Kururi was staring at him from the bed. She had the covers drawn up to her nose and her hair was a mess of knots and sweat-slicked strands, sticking to her forehead or going up and to the sides. Mairu was asleep in the chair next to her. She had probably exhausted herself by worrying.

“How do you feel?” he asked her, walking until he was right by her side.

Kururi didn’t answer. Her eyes went down to the side of the mattress, and she moved her arm out of the way under the cover. Izaya hesitated before sitting down where she obviously wanted him too.

“Hurts,” she said then, but she was smiling as if he’d done something good to her.

“What did the doctor tell you?”

She frowned in thought, pupils blown wide by the dark, gaze a little unfocused. “Flu… something. Touka-sensei gave me a thing so I wouldn’t puke. It’s only for two days. I need to drink a lot. Fever.”

Izaya nodded. She looked feverish, with the kind of mild elevated temperature that never really spiked but rather stayed in place for hours, only enough to signal that something was wrong. She was pale everywhere but where her cheeks shone red, and there was cold sweat between her nose and lips and at her temples. It was the kind of fever he would have noticed if he had been here when they woke up that morning. It wasn’t bad, though, it was nothing to worry about. She would be fine before Sunday when he would have to leave her again for work. He repeated those words inside his head until they started tasting like the truth.

“Iza-nii,” Kururi said, and he heard more than he saw her hand creep toward his under the blanket. Izaya breathed out and stilled himself until he felt her palm under his through the rough scratch of fabric. He didn’t close his fingers around hers.

“Sorry.” He didn’t know why he was apologizing.

Kururi looked at him, eyes wide enough to swallow him whole, and she said, “I miss mommy.”

He tripped against the resistance at the back of his tongue, tiptoed around the febrile ache he had ignored for months. “I know,” he exhaled, and brushed a hand against her damp hair as she sobbed, letting out the tears she had been accumulating all this time. “I know, Kururi. It’s okay.”

Her name felt foreign in his mouth. He had never hated himself more.

“Shit,” Shizuo said for the third time.

It had been maybe fifteen minutes since Orihara Izaya and his sisters left, after an hour of conspicuous silence from the guest bedroom. Since then he had smoked two cigarettes, was on his way to light a third—even the soft squeeze of Celty’s hand on his arm not enough to calm him down.

“I haven’t seen you upset like that since high school,” Shinra commented idly. Shizuo flipped him off, and Shinra only laughed as if the entire situation was hilarious. “Well, it figures that Orihara-kun would be the one to rile you up so much.”

Celty tugged her hand away from Shizuo to ask, How well do you know him?

“Not very well,” Shinra answered, finger stroking absently along the edge of his cup of coffee. “We never kept contact after middle school.”

What happened?

“Ah, I never knew exactly. I think he was involved in something that ended up with a kid being sent to juvie, but I was in high school with you two then, and we’d already drifted to different friend groups.”

Shizuo exchanged a look with Celty, who hesitated for a second before signing again. He doesn’t sound like a very good person.

Shinra hummed thoughtfully, took a sip of his coffee. Grimaced. “I wouldn’t know. He was,” a pause. “Different. He was very different back then.”

“But you sounded like you expected this kind of shit from him,” Shizuo objected, a frown pulling at his forehead.

“Different kinds of difference,” Shinra replied evenly.

It didn’t make sense, but Shizuo let this one confusing thing go in favor of the distress still rattling his bones. He couldn’t wipe his mind of Izaya’s voice as he threatened to report him for inappropriate behavior, or his eyes set so wide on him and filled with nothing but anger. It had been jarring, more than their first encounter. Like he’d cornered a wild animal without noticing it and only now was he getting scratched and bitten for his actions.

It wasn’t a good feeling.

“Well, anyway, I guess I’m off to a great start,” he muttered. “Shouldn’t have gotten involved with Mairu and Kururi like this.”

They seem to like you a lot, though, Celty offered. He smiled tightly in her direction.

He didn’t know if it was true. All he knew was that he enjoyed talking to them, that he payed more attention to them in class than he did his other students. And as guilty as that fact made him feel, he couldn’t help the affection he held for them, so close to what he felt for Kasuka. The kind of affection he had missed giving out since Kasuka had left home to do his own thing and come back an adult, hardly in need of his big brother. In a way, maybe he had been inserting himself into Izaya’s role toward Mairu and Kururi without noticing. He could understand why that made the man feel so defensive.

The queasiness inside him didn’t disappear, though. Instead of quieting, his thought circled back again and again to Kururi’s quiet distress during the day, to Mairu’s fear of leaving her sister alone even with a nurse. As if any time they weren’t in each other’s company was a time spent in loneliness no matter who else was with them.

His very soul seemed to rebel against leaving these girls, or their brother, alone.

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