Some Required Effort (Part III)

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Some Required Effort
Part III

Izaya had been awake for an hour, long enough to break out of the disoriented haze of half-sleep and realize his alarm hadn’t rung yet. It was the softer and easier pull of awareness against his still-unbalanced sleep schedule, not the shrill cut of his ringtone he had grown used to before changing his working hours. His neighbors had already started stepping loudly against the plastic floor. Through the open door to the bedroom he could hear one of the girls’ soft snores. Light was pouring in from the window, peeking between the broken blinds that never completely shut it away. It wasn’t an uncomfortable feeling. Despite the beat of blood against his eyelids and the restless weight over his temples, he felt more awake than he had ever been when he had to get out of bed alone, his apartment still shrouded in night.

He tore himself from his blanket and sat up on the couch, breathing in the stuffed air for a moment. It was warm already, enough that he had broken into the slightest sweat as he slept. Cooking breakfast was a matter of minutes. He opened the window when he was done, stretched, and rummaged through his clothes before entering the bathroom.

Mairu and Kururi were awake when he stepped out of the shower. Their voices filtered in from the open door, rough with sleep. They emerged from the bedroom wearing the same ratty pajamas as always—the ones that rode up at their ankles and waists, too short for them now.

Izaya only hesitated for a second before speaking. “Good morning.”

They stopped dead in their tracks, Mairu’s mouth opening slowly around her surprise. She was still soft with drowsiness. Kururi smiled.

Izaya walked up to her and put a hand against her forehead. He already knew that her fever had broken over the course of the weekend, that she had stopped vomiting in the night between Saturday and Sunday. She was fine now. But if anything her smile widened at the contact, and she stayed still as a statue until Izaya himself had to break away awkwardly.

“How do you feel?” he asked her for the thousandth time.

“Okay,” she said. Her little hands were opening and closing at her side, as if she wanted desperately to grab him. He swallowed.

“Do you feel good enough for school?” She nodded vividly at that. “Alright. I made breakfast, come on.”

“It’s not cereal?” Mairu chirped, looking over the sweet omelette in her plate with a frown.

Izaya shook his head. “I thought I’d try to make something more substantial now that I have time in the mornings.”

Both of them turned their heads toward him in unison. He ignored the pinpricks of self-consciousness at his nape, the memory of Shinra’s judgmental words he hadn’t quite managed to shake off over the course of the weekend.

“Are you really going to take us to school now?” Mairu asked. Her voice was somber. Her eyes, when Izaya risked a look at them, were disbelieving.

“Yeah,” he answered. “Unless something unexpected comes up.”

“And you’re going to come and get us this afternoon too?”

He nodded, not breaking away from her eyes. She examined him for a moment, her little face scrunched up in suspicion, before she seemed to accept his words. Kururi, already sitting at the table and poking around her meal, was beaming.

Izaya ate his breakfast leaning against the counter. The table was small, good enough for an adult or two children but not all of them at once. He watched his sisters complain about the bland taste, about his cooking skills, but even so they ate. There wasn’t a single spot left unclean in their plates once they were finished, and hardly any room on their faces left from how big their smiles were. He tried not to think too hard on how his throat seemed to loosen at the sight with the barest of relief.

He took it upon himself to wash the dishes alone, mostly because the kitchen was cramped enough without a pair of six-year-old girls stuck to his sides. His mind stayed firmly anchored to the box he had put on the bookshelf the night before and what he had to tell them before opening it.

“Go dress for school,” Izaya said, ignoring the soapy water clinging to his arm as he gestured to the bedroom.

“It’s too early,” Mairu whined. “I wanna watch Yuuhei-san’s morning show.”

“I have something to talk to you guys about before we go. Hurry up now.”

They obeyed reluctantly. He heard them shuffle through the closet, throw things on the unmade double bed where they slept. He sighed softly at the thought of going behind them again to put everything back in its place and refold the wayward socks they had probably left in their wake. But even that thought wasn’t enough to dampen his mood. Izaya glanced at the bathroom as he made to pick up a fallen hair clip, and didn’t repress his smile when he saw them brushing their teeth side by side and making faces at the mirror. There was a toothpaste stain on the collar of Kururi’s shirt already, and Mairu’s jacket was on backwards.

He was waiting for them on the couch, blanket folded neatly over the armrest, when they finally came out. They looked at him with a bored kind of curiosity. He thought they were more interested in his attitude change than they were in the blue box between his hands.

Well, nothing to do about that.

Izaya opened the box and took out the cellphone inside, a black flip-phone he had bought and configured the day before. Mairu and Kururi’s eyes zeroed in on it as if he had pulled a gold bar out of his pocket instead.

“You know how to use this, right?” he asked them. He didn’t know how to breach the topic otherwise. Shirou and Kyouko let you use theirs, right?

“Yes,” Kururi said, surprisingly. She reached her hand out to pry the phone away from his fingers. She flipped it open instantly, Mairu leaning over her shoulder to look as the screen unlocked. The bluish glow reflected on her glasses.

“Only one number,” Kururi muttered. “Iza-nii.”

He was surprised at how fast she had been at finding the contact list. He didn’t stop to wonder if such a quick take on electronics was normal for kids their age—he had always been good at guessing his way through technical trouble when he was a kid too.

“This is only for emergencies,” he explained in a tight voice. They looked up. “You don’t have any data or internet, I’ve only paid for an hour of calls or texts.”

Mairu scowled. “Mikado-kun in our class already has his own cellphone.”

“Well, I don’t know how rich Mikado-kun’s parents are that they can trust a six-year-old kid with pricey items like a cellphone,” Izaya sighed. “But I’m not giving you your own phones until you can really use them. You can hardly read.”

They looked at each other for a few seconds. Kururi nodded once, and Mairu’s shoulders dropped in defeat.

“So, what’s the point of this, then?” she fake-whispered at Kururi’s ear.

“I can hear you,” Izaya snapped. “And like I said, this is for emergencies. In case something happens and I’m not around, you can call me.”

“Can we put Aoba’s number in too? And Anri-chan’s? And Kida-kun and Mikado-kun’s numbers too?” Mairu’s voice was excited, as expected. She kept shooting off the names of seemingly every kid in their class before Izaya had the time to wonder who any of them was.

Kururi was typing on the keys calmly next to her, her thumb making little noises against the plastic. “Can we put in Shizu-chan’s number?” she asked softly.

Izaya felt something lock at the base of his spine, and his shoulder tensed in one painful spike under the straining grip of his binder.

“No,” he said.

Mairu fell silent. Kururi stopped typing idly on whatever pre-installed game preview she had found and looked up.

Izaya let out a breath and made himself smile. “You can’t put anyone’s numbers in. I don’t want you accidentally switching the priority call to one of your friends. And you can’t ask your teacher for his number either, that’s just common sense.”

“But you have his number,” Kururi pointed out.

His hand went to the pocket at his thigh and the bump of his own phone underneath. He flinched back before actually touching it, as though the dormant piece of plastic and metal was about to burn his fingers. “I do, because I’m an adult. Now stop asking questions, I have something else to tell you.”

Mairu was frowning again, he noticed, her nose upturned in disgust. Kururi bumped her shoulder against hers softly.

“Here,” Izaya said, handing them a piece of paper. There was a number written on it in big clear numerals. “I want you two to memorize this number. If you ever see it call you, you don’t answer, and you tell me as soon as you can.”

Kururi took the paper, her fingers brushing against Izaya’s briefly. “Who?”

It doesn’t matter, he wanted to say, but he knew he had to give them some sort of an explanation in case they decided to investigate themselves. “My boss. His name is Shiki.”

Kururi’s eyes were so bright when she looked at him he worried for a second that she was getting sick again. “Why?” she asked.

“He’s– not a good person. He shouldn’t ever call you. It doesn’t matter. But just in case, remember this number and never answer. I’ll put the paper on the fridge so you don’t forget. Okay?”

They both nodded, solemn. Izaya stood up and made his way to the kitchen without looking at them. He only relaxed when the soft clicking of Kururi’s thumb on the keys resumed.

He hadn’t wanted to risk registering Shiki’s number into the phone itself. They could accidentally—or purposefully—call him and put their own lives at risk. But he needed a way to make sure they didn’t allow Shiki to contact them.

The lack of change in Shiki’s attitude toward him had Izaya standing on his toes the entire time when they met to work out his new hours and conditions. Shiki had looked professional and focused as always, no more dangerous than he usually was. Sloan’s absence should have lifted the weight of anxiety from his shoulders more effectively than anything else. But instead Shiki had calmly discussed his availability in the evenings and during weekends, had taken long inhales from his cigarette and cared to exhale away from Izaya’s general direction. Had not mentioned the twins. Had not asked a single question. It had made Izaya’s back slick with cold sweat and his fingertips ice over, as if the still and quiet of Shiki’s demeanor was only the premises for an even bigger storm.

It had felt the same right before his parents died; an easy routine of days spent hunched over his classes or the ever-growing number of contacts in his phone, the slow allure of self-gained power and importance in a world that hadn’t birthed him.

Izaya would never forget the free fall of his heart the second he heard the police say—We’re sorry we have to call you like this.

Kururi let her hand sway by his too many times on the way to school for it to be accidental. He didn’t take it, though. He would’ve felt worse about it if he couldn’t see Mairu tightly gripping her from the other side and walking in time with her, like the entire trip was a game of steps and skips. It was still early when they arrived, still fresh enough from the night that he told Mairu to keep wearing her jacket—backwards as it was.

He didn’t know what to tell them when they stepped away from him and into the playgrounds. They were looking at him like they expected something. A word of encouragement for the day, maybe. All Izaya could make himself do was pat Kururi’s hair lightly and keep his expression neutral if not engaging. Mairu gazed up at him earnestly, but her body language looked defensive to him, so he didn’t try to touch her. He felt the weight of her eyes as he walked away like a heat at his neck.

Sometimes looking at Mairu felt a little too much like looking into the mirror and seeing himself as a child.

Izaya didn’t head the the Awakusu’s gallery immediately. Shiki had sent him outside for the day to investigate Amphisbaena, and as logical as it sounded Izaya knew suspicion when he saw it. He lived his life with it hanging around his neck, after all.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. Nakura. He skimmed over the email, long for the paragraphs of vague apologies, excuses, and shaky taunts that the man always sent him. The message itself could have been said in two sentences, but Nakura had always been affable even as a kid, and hadn’t changed much in the years since then.

Izaya smiled as he remembered the glint of Nakura’s knife, so obviously stolen from his parents. The boy had been so angry. Sweat was running down his face like tears, his cheeks bobbled with his trembling threats of bodily harm, making the moles under his eyes jump up and down like tiny black insects. Yes, Izaya remembered Nakura perfectly. He remembered the cowardly boy who bet his money to feel like an adult, who ran around Izaya first with adoration in his eyes and then later with fear as Izaya goaded him to risk more and more. He never said no, though. It had been a game until the end, even when Nakura ran at him with a blade in his hands. It was still a game when Izaya showed a video of the stabbing attempt to his middle school’s principal, still a game when Nakura was arrested and sent to juvie. No one believed ugly little Nakura when he said it was the Orihara girl’s fault. The Orihara girl was a model student and an exemplary member of the literature club.

Izaya had more important things to think about after the incident than what could have become of little Nakura in juvie. Maybe that had been a mistake.

Because Nakura had blossomed during his time inside. Not as a person, not at all; but he had somehow found a way to revive the underground activities Izaya had started in their middle school, had even reclaimed their names for himself. Izaya knew not a lot of children demonstrated the skills he had when he started Amphisbaena himself—but, unbelievably so, Nakura had apparently observed him enough to be able to establish himself a gambling trade leader both in juvie and then outside. He had sunk his claws into the parts of the city Izaya never bothered to look at, couldn’t look at anymore with the work Shiki gave him, and made himself enough of a nuisance for Akabayashi Mizuki to hold an honest-to-God grudge against him. This wasn’t a feat the scared little boy Izaya had known could have pulled off. And Izaya was dying to meet the man he had become and see if he could pull the worn-out fear out of him once more, freshen it up, see it take life again.

There was a stark contrast between what people said of Amphisbaena’s Leader or Heaven’s Slave’s Lizard and the reality of Nakura as Izaya had known him. But ever since Izaya had contacted him directly, making absolutely no secret of who he was and how much he remembered, Nakura had been boring.

He whined. He pleaded. He threatened, then cowered. One day he would seem to grab onto the hook Izaya gave him with both hands, the next he was an impenetrable wall and spoke at length to say nothing. He was scared of Izaya, yes, too scared to meet him face-to-face. As susceptible as he had been to Izaya’s veiled threats of blackmail he still refused to actually see him to discuss them. And it wasn’t out of defiance either; no, he didn’t seem to be self-aware enough for that. He was just too scared of Izaya personally to meet with him.

It was sort of amusing at first, because Izaya himself had been apprehensive at the thought of meeting Nakura—the same kind of self-consciousness he couldn’t help feeling every time something from the past came up. He wasn’t afraid of Nakura so much as he was steeling himself for his looks or his words. But no matter how interesting it was that Nakura at twenty-three years old was still scarred by the memory of fourteen-year-old Izaya, it didn’t help his current situation.

Izaya needed money if he wanted to cut ties with Awakusu. And Nakura had all that money and more.

He read over Nakura’s fumbling excuses once more before hitting the call button and lifting his phone to his ear. Bathed in the early sunlight, he smiled when he heard the high pitch of Nakura’s voice over the receiver, ready to push just a little more beyond this man’s limits.

It was ten to four in the afternoon and Shizuo’s entire body was thrumming lightly with anticipation. Heat seeped through the classroom despite—or maybe because of—the open windows; June had come bearing the sweet scent of unfurled flowers and the heaviness of consecutive sunlit days. He could only thank the gods that there was no tree outside to bring pollen to the mix. Even so, some of the kids sneezed all day, and Masaomi had to make use of his inhaler at least thrice a week now.

“It’s cool,” he said every time. “Makes me sound like Darh Vader.”

Shizuo could only frown and tell him to warn him in advance if he was having trouble breathing. He didn’t enjoy spending ten minutes each time wondering which of his students was the source of the quiet wheezing that interrupted his lessons.

He toured the room again, stopping twice to look over Anri’s shoulder at her neat handwriting as she practiced long lines of kanji. He only realized he had seen to her already when she threw a timid glance toward Mika sitting next to her, as if to tell him, Please look somewhere else already. Shizuo wanted to punch himself in the face.

Mairu and Kururi had already given up all pretense of studying about five minutes ago. They were engrossed in a game of short whispers and gestures that no one but them could understand, their eyes flying to the open door every few seconds, as if it would make their brother arrive faster.

He couldn’t blame them. Most of the restlessness that came to him every day around three thirty was due to Izaya as well.

Izaya himself arrived like clockwork at four, and his sisters came to him so fast it seemed their feet didn’t even touch the floor. It should make Shizuo happy. He should be satisfied with the easy rhythm the man had respected to the letter for two weeks now, with the newfound freedom of his early evenings. He shouldn’t miss the walks between the school and the girls’ rundown apartment building or the glimpses of their lonely apartment door already sheathed by the evening shadows.

Shizuo watched the siblings exchange a few terse words—the girls mostly, and Izaya only once to tell Mairu to fix her shirt which was hanging off her left shoulder miserably. His tone was as dry as he had ever heard it when addressed to his sisters. No trace of the anger he always directed at Shizuo, but no hint of a loving word either.

It was killing him.

He knew the three of them would be gone in a second, long before any other guardian came to pick up their charge, so he took a step forward and cleared his throat.

They all fell silent and looked at him. Shizuo found that he hadn’t been quite prepared for the sight.

“I was wondering if we could talk,” he said through his unease.

Izaya didn’t reply at first. His shoulders came up, easing him off the comfortable slouch he always wore, like a cat raising his fur; his lips tugged into the barest of smiles, and that was all the warnings Shizuo needed to know that he was pissed.

He gestured to the girls to go back to their seats. They did so reluctantly, dragging their sandals on the linoleum so that they made little high noises most of their classmates flinched to. One day he would have to tell them about how rude that was.

Shizuo let the other kids go a lot quicker than usual, only exchanging the smallest pleasantries with their parents, until Aoba left at last with a wave to Mairu and Kururi and he was alone with three Oriharas once more. It didn’t exactly bring the happiest memories to his mind.

Izaya had been leaning against the corner of Shizuo’s desk while he waited, but as soon as the door closed he stood up and asked, “What is it?”

In a hurry, then, on top of a bad mood. Not that Shizuo hadn’t expected it.

“There was something I was wondering about,” Shizuo blurted out. No use beating around the bush. “I was reviewing the students’ files, and you didn’t say what your job is.”

Izaya squinted at him disbelievingly. “Why were you reviewing the students’ files?”

“I was just looking for something. I noticed Mairu’s was lacking the info, and when I checked Kururi’s it was too.”

Shizuo didn’t think Izaya would believe him. But he didn’t think he would believe that Shizuo had been going through his files specifically so he could find an excuse to talk to him again either.

As expected, Izaya bristled at those words, his right hand flexing by his side. “Yagiri-san doesn’t need that information, and neither do you,” he drawled. “I told you to stay out of my life. I didn’t think you would be so brainless as to forget that warning entirely.” Then, sweetly, “Don’t push a pulling door, Heiwajima-san, you’ll break your hands on it.”

I could break any door with enough of a reason, Shizuo fumed silently. Izaya was smiling now, that annoying offense of a smile meant for insult rather than politeness. It fit too well on his sharp features, as if he was born with the ability to mock instead of laugh.

Shizuo wondered of Orihara Kyouko, whose face was so like her son’s, had been this spiteful too.

“I’m not barging into your damn life,” he growled. “This is just mandatory information for the school. I don’t know how you managed to get away with all that shady stuff in the first place.”

Really.” Izaya’s voice dragged on the word. “Can’t you picture a single way? You have a very poor imagination.”

This was getting nowhere. Shizuo realized this, and so did Izaya, because he waved vaguely at his sisters, and they stood up with a rasp of their chairs.

“Wait,” Shizuo barked, “I still need to know.”

“I told you to stay out of my life,” Izaya replied with more heat this time.

“No,” and as he scrambled his memory for the wording of their previous argument, Shizuo realized he was right. “No, you told me to stay out of your family’s business, which I did. I’m free to ask you for information for my work, as an adult to another.”

He berated himself almost immediately for his choice of words and made himself keep looking at Izaya, expecting his face to twist itself into resentment and hurt ego as it had before. Instead Izaya seemed to relax all at once, his face clearing of tension except for the bags under his eyes.

“Okay,” he murmured to Shizuo’s surprise. “I guess I can tell that much to a beginner.” Shizuo opened his mouth to protest the obvious insult, but Izaya shot him an amused glance and said, “I work in investigation, sort of. I do research for a company.”

It was so unlike what Shizuo had expected—not that he had any idea what he was expecting from Orihara Izaya in the first place—that it took him a few seconds to find his voice again. “What, like a reporter? Or a private detective?”

“Oh, definitely nothing like a detective,” Izaya answered with a shiver at his mouth that was the shape of a taunt.

Shizuo wanted to ask for more. He would have too, except Mairu and Kururi walked past him and to their brother, and Kururi grasped the fabric of Izaya’s shirt insistently. Izaya looked down at her and turned on his heels without another word, obviously expecting his sisters to follow.

It was only Shizuo and his thoughts in the room now. He listened to their steps all the way down to the silent staircase until he couldn’t hear them anymore.

There was something there making warning bells go off in his mind. The memory of Izaya talking about his boss with tension in his voice, and the way Head Teacher Yagiri never asked for more information than Izaya was willing to give. The secrets that Shizuo didn’t believe came strictly from Izaya’s need to be an asshole to every living thing around him.

There weren’t a lot of people around willing to employ a man as young as Izaya. Not a lot of opportunities for someone of obvious modest means, least of all a twenty-something with two children as his charges. And even if there were, Shizuo could only think of one type of profession with superiors inhumane enough not to care that two kids had to walk home alone every day if it meant their guardian kept working.

Yakuza probably didn’t see the need for regular working hours or legal job labels.

The thought haunted him the entire night and the day that followed. He went through the now comfortable routine of his lessons, happier in the warmth than he had been in April’s cool wind. Answering his students’ sometimes weird inquiries was a habit now, no longer a panic-inducing experience. But Izaya’s words during the few times they had talked kept replaying in his mind, giving him more dark clues about what made the man than he thought he would ever care to know. He lost track of his words every time his eyes met Mairu’s or Kururi’s. The long hours in the classroom were a jumbled puzzle he didn’t care to solve as long as his brain was stuck on Izaya’s arrival in five hours, then three and a half, then one. The last minutes of the day dragged by at a snail’s pace, every second tugging into infinity until the next came with a click of the classroom’s green clock, breathless.

Izaya’s arrival itself was anti-climatic at best. His face had washed of the previous day’s tension. He didn’t say a word when Shizuo signaled to his sisters to wait and not jump in his direction to leave immediately, he simply leaned against the desk once more as though he had any right to and watched the other children trickle out one by one, led by the hands of the adults who came to fetch them.

“Let’s go outside,” Shizuo said once they were alone. His words were addressed to the girls but Izaya flinched in the corner of his vision instead.

They went down the stairs and out to the playground with electricity sparking in the spaces between them all. Mairu and Kururi ran out to play, blissfully ignorant, and Izaya turned steel eyes to Shizuo, I’m not afraid of you written clear as water on the sharp lines of his face.

“What is your job?” Shizuo asked lowly after a handful of seconds.

Why are you still bothering me with this?” Izaya hissed in reply. “Didn’t you get enough of an answer yesterday? Or are you really so desperate for trouble?”

He was stage-whispering at best, projecting the need for discretion, but Shizuo was tired of tiptoeing around this man. He was tired of the awkward line he tried to step on when it came to the twins and their brother, so he put his foot inside Izaya’s personal space and blurted out, “Are you working for the yakuza?”

He expected Izaya’s face to give away a hint of offense or guilt. Any kind of feelings that may have proved or disproved his suspicions. But Izaya didn’t twitch a single muscle, didn’t lose the edge of the tense half-smile he was sporting, he only leaned in further.

“As I said,” Izaya murmured slowly, his voice and his eyes nothing short of a brick wall, “do you want to get in trouble?”

And Shizuo closed his mouth and thought about his words for a moment, really thought about them. Back at his place with Shinra and Celty around him, he had taken Izaya’s spiel to mean nothing more than a threat to contact Yagiri about his inappropriate behavior. It would have been in his right, because Shizuo has acted outside of his boundaries when it came to the twins; he had assumed too many things from too few details, had let the instinctive dislike Izaya as a person lit up in him dictate his actions. Now he wondered if the weight Izaya had given to his accusations were heavier than he had thought, if it came not from an arrogant young man but from an arrogant young man with ties to organized crime.

It was sobering. Because as far as he was concerned, Izaya’s lack of a reaction in itself was an admission.

Shizuo exhaled slowly, then looked at Izaya again and said, “How old are you?”

Surprisingly, this made Izaya flush with offense, his face growing pink under the thin perspiration that made his hair stick to his temples. “What does that have to do with anything?” His voice came louder, higher, all make-believe lost in his defensiveness; but then he seemed to choke on something, and he closed his mouth again before answering in a deeper tone, “Twenty-three. I’m twenty-three years old.”

Two years younger than me, Shizuo thought. He knew his face was open on surprise at Izaya’s outburst—he made the lines around his mouth soften on a more neutral expression. Too young to be very dangerous even if he is with the yakuza. Then, with guilt knotting his stomach, he amended: Too young to really have a choice in this situation at all.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized there was nothing he could do even if Izaya was working odd jobs for criminals. If he contacted authorities about it the consequences would be too bad for himself, for Izaya, and mostly for the girls. Shizuo could lose his job, Izaya could lose his life, Mairu and Kururi could lose their guardian.

Mairu and Kururi weren’t unhappy. Shizuo was dissatisfied with what he knew of their loneliness, suspected a share of emotional neglect whether Izaya was doing it on purpose or not; but they weren’t miserable, and he had a hunch that they were happier now than they had been at the beginning of term, if only because they were moving further on the path of mourning.

He didn’t dare hope that he had bettered their life at all by haranguing Izaya the way he had. But he couldn’t deny that every day he watched Izaya leave silently with his sisters trailing after him he hoped to find any proof that none of them was as sad as they looked.

Izaya included.

“Okay,” Shizuo said at last, once Izaya had stopped looking at him as if waiting for a lethal blow. “I have a deal for you.”

Izaya exhaled on a tired laugh. “I’m listening,” he mocked, crossing his arms over his chest.

“You don’t like me asking questions about your life, or your sisters’ lives outside of school. I get that. And honestly, I’m not exactly enjoying myself worrying about all that shit.”

“Yes,” Izaya said slowly, brows furrowing in confusion.

Shizuo nodded. “Alright. I won’t ask anything more, then. But you have to take some time every week to stay behind when you come pick them up and let me tell you about their day at school.”

“I feel like I’m repeating myself here,” Izaya muttered, “but apparently you’re slow enough to need it. What does this have to do with anything?”

“Just soothing my own beginner’s conscience,” Shizuo said, and pulled his pack of cigarettes out of his jean pocket. He lit one without looking at Izaya, inhaled slowly, and worked his next words around the smoke. “S’what a lot of the other parents do anyway, it’s kind of like an unwritten rule. You stay behind for a few minutes to talk to the teacher about how your kid is doing in class, twice a week or so.”

“Boring,” Izaya commented softly. His eyes were locked on Shizuo’s lips when he put the cigarette to them again, but Shizuo couldn’t tell if he was disgusted or not by the smell.

“Well, it may be boring, but it’s what all the guardians do no matter how busy they are,” Shizuo added.

Izaya blushed again, tearing his eyes away from him altogether. “Fine,” he grunted. “Twice a week. You have a deal.”

He walked away, sunlight catching red at his hair and turning it a softer brown in the day than the ink-black Shizuo was used to. From afar like this it was easier to tell that he and the two girls walking around him were related.

Surprisingly, Izaya kept his end of the deal to the letter.

He came every day at precisely four o’clock and left within the next minute on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Mondays and Thursdays, though, he waited with his hips pressed to the corner of Shizuo’s desk at the front of the classroom until all the other kids and parents had come through. Then he waited for Shizuo to pick up his bag and lead the way downstairs and to the playground, where Mairu ran circles around Kururi, who tripped and caught her sometimes, and where Shizuo took a few minutes to draw the lines of the girls’ activities and behavior in class for Izaya. Izaya listened, and smirked, and left with barely a word once he had enough, dragging the two excited girls out to the street. Shizuo always watched them until he couldn’t anymore.

It came to the point where other parents and guardians became so used to Izaya’s presence that he stopped gathering surprised looks. On one memorable occasion Mikado’s very worried mother took Shizuo apart and questioned him in a low voice about the presence of his friend, warning him agonizingly gently that although she didn’t mind, others would not be so forgiving. Shizuo had to fight off the worst blush of his life once he caught on the undertones with which she called Izaya his friend, and explained to her that Izaya was only the older brother of two of his students and was waiting here only because he was acting as a buffer between Shizuo and the girls’ parents and needed to talk to him longer than the other guardians did. Mrs Ryuugamine nodded, and took her son by the shoulder and left, and Shizuo stared at the door for a full minute wondering why his entire mouth tasted like lies.

There wasn’t much to say about Mairu and Kururi themselves in class. Mairu was one of the livelier kids with Aoba and Masaomi, but not nearly as bad as any of them. She spoke up without permission sometimes, and when she got caught up talking to her sister her voice had a tendency to lose its whispering quality and become a nuisance to the others, but she quieted easily enough once called out. Kururi was always soft-spoken, her voice raspy as if she was perpetually waking up from a long night’s sleep.

“Like Mairu is taking all the voice out of her,” Izaya commented idly when Shizuo brought it up one day. “I know.”

Shizuo smiled at his unexpected addendum, glad for the hint of caring behind the words, but Izaya only scowled harder in answer and buried himself in resentful silence until he left.

They were always outside when they could, the girls playing and Shizuo smoking while he talked. He had hesitated the first few times, trying to catch a hint of discomfort on Izaya’s face at the proximity with the smell. But Izaya never said anything, only shot a quick look at his mouth when he lit one and then falling into the quiet.

The raining season came with a wave of heat that year. Although Shizuo preferred dry to damp, he welcomed the warmth with open arms at night and when he wasn’t cramped inside a classroom. When it rained during Izaya’s longer visits they stayed just inside the door leading to the playground, talking in low voices until either the rain let up or Izaya took out his umbrella and dragged Mairu and Kururi, thoroughly bored, out to the street.

Izaya didn’t take well to the raining. His mood was somber, his hands nervous as he wiped sticky sweat away from his upper lip from time to time. Still, despite his obvious discomfort, he stayed every Monday and Thursday until Shizuo was done speaking, and eventually that took more and more time and more and more times a week.

He didn’t exactly know when Izaya changed his pattern, or why. The handful of minutes Shizuo spent talking about Mairu and Kururi’s grades stretched to a half hour when Izaya stopped absorbing the information passively and started actually giving back. It made Shizuo feel like he was doing the right thing; it felt good to have Izaya ask why Kururi had failed a test instead of if she had failed it. It felt good to see Izaya frown unhappily when Shizuo related a day the girls spent sitting next to each other in complete silence for no reason, worrying all their classmates and more. It felt like things were getting better when Izaya turned a worried glance to the girls instead of an anxious one.

“She’s not always like that,” Izaya said once after Shizuo told him about Mairu scaring another girl. “She’s not– she doesn’t have the best reactions to things. To people. She’s not like that.”

Shizuo breathed in. Out. “What is she like, then?” he asked cautiously.

And Izaya looked at him vaguely, with his lips upturned into a frown, and said, “She’s nervous, that’s all,” looking like the words hurt when they came out of his mouth.

There was something there, Shizuo thought as Izaya closed up once more. Something that wasn’t his to touch or try to figure out. Some sort of a pain that Mairu shared with her brother alone and that he wasn’t allowed to pry into. He told himself this until he knew he wouldn’t do the wrong thing and try to open another door he wasn’t supposed to when he spoke next.

Somehow as June crawled by, heavy with wet, Izaya’s pattern changed. Or maybe disappeared would be the right word. He missed one day, hurrying out with the girls with barely a glance thrown at Shizuo. He came in the next looking more tired, made up some lie about work that Shizuo wasn’t inclined to believe, and suffered a tense few minutes of conversation with all the airs of an angry child. It wasn’t very nice, overall. Still he came the next day, and stayed again, and the pattern repeated itself until it wasn’t a pattern at all—until Izaya came and stayed to talk most days with no recognizable order as to when he bolted out without a single word.

Nervous was a good word to describe Izaya, Shizuo couldn’t help but notice. Nervous in the ways his mood shifted under his skin like a living thing separate from himself, in the deceptive slouch of his shoulders and the pace of his steps—he walked with his hips, not his shoulders. Nervous in the lines of his mouth, so quick to stretch against ill-intentioned mirth. Nervous in his voice and nervous in his skin as if he was ready to jump out of it at a moment’s notice.

One Friday their talk stretched too far past the limit of an hour for it to still be considered afternoon. Shizuo was onto his fourth cigarette. Izaya was watching his sisters sitting down on a bench not too far from them, his face tense.

“They’re close to Kuronuma Aoba,” Shizuo said after a silent while. It was sunny today, too bright from the reflection of the sun on puddles all around them.

“Who’s this?” Izaya asked distractedly. His eyes flew to Shizuo’s, to the cigarette hanging from his fingers near his mouth.

“One of the boys. He’s a little difficult, but he’s nice to everyone. Came to school with his hair dyed blue for a bet on the first day of term.”

Izaya chuckled at this, his shoulders dropping, and Shizuo felt the need to keep going despite the boundaries he was breaking by talking about other kids to one of the parents.

“Mairu talks to pretty much all the kids in the class, even if she’s not close to any of them,” he explained. “But Aoba is the only one Kururi ever directly talks to instead of just, you know. Hanging behind Mairu’s back and staring in silence.”

“You can say the word, Shizu-chan,” Izaya replied pleasantly.

“Don’t call me that. And yeah, it’s creepy.”

Izaya hummed, eyes still glancing around with no fixed focus. He looked tired, but not exhausted like he had been so many times before. More of a good kind of tired, one that required only sleep to fix itself.

Mairu walked to them quickly, irritated and bored. She flung herself at Izaya’s arm lying limply by his side, hugging it against her and dragging him with her.

“I wanna go home,” she whined. “Kuru-nee too. It’s almost time for Yuuhei-san’s show.”

Shizuo wondered very faintly, as he watched Izaya’s face relax into a smile and his entire body go slack at his sister’s weak pulls, what it said about him that he was too distracted to react at the mention of Kasuka’s scene name. What it said about him that Mikado’s mother’s well-intentioned words chose this moment to ring in his ears and rouse the rhythm of his heart until it beat painful blows against his ribcage, above the dormant suspicions in his guts. Izaya smiled down at Mairu, too tired to care or perhaps too content to, and Shizuo stood dumbstruck in the elongated shadows of the school playground as realization gripped him like a vice.

He was still holding the stub of his cigarette between two fingers when Celty arrived with a roar of Shooter’s engines to pick him up. She lifted her hands to her head to take off her helmet as she walked toward him; then she must have seen how he looked and let go of it immediately to sign, What’s wrong?

Shizuo shook his head. Laughed. “I’m attracted to Orihara Izaya,” he said, and when he tried to speak more his voice died in his throat under the weight of ridicule settling over him—as if he should have realized the sort of trap he was setting for himself by caring too much, by caring for too long.

Can we meet tonight around six?

Izaya halted for a second before his next step. Nakura’s voice was firm on the phone, but even without this added clue Izaya would have believed the proposition to be real if only because Nakura had never been the one to offer a meeting before.

He bit his lip, running his tongue over the sting before finding his voice and saying, “Not tonight.”

Only surprised silence answered him.

“I’ll call you to arrange a meeting this weekend, Nakura-kun,” he continued, smoothing his voice into neutrality. “I’m busy tonight. I’m glad you made up your mind to trust me.”

A pause. “Alright,” Nakura breathed, and Izaya hung up before he could say anything else.

He stayed still for a moment on the sidewalk, letting people walk past him until he started recognizing some of them as the parents and guardians of the kids in his sister’s class.

He had waited a long time for this opportunity, he thought as he started walking again. He had praised and threatened and smooth-talked, used every tool in the box to get Nakura this far down the line. But his sisters’ school was already in sight, and so was the spot their teacher preferred next to the entrance when he talked about his students until Izaya grew drowsy with the sound of his voice, a comfortable sort of soothing that he had not managed to find anywhere else yet. The thought of shortening his evening here made something ache inside of him—made him think, one too many times that day, of the long six weeks of summer break awaiting Shizuo starting Monday.

Shizuo’s classroom was in shambles when he arrived. It wasn’t the first time Izaya had seen the results of two dozen kids allowed within touching distance of art supplies, but today the mess seemed bigger than usual, less controlled. Maybe because of the holidays looming over them all. Kururi smiled as soon as she saw him enter the room, but Mairu was screaming excitedly at a boy sitting next to her.

Shizuo threw him a look as well. He was deep in conversation with another man, who had a hand on his daughter’s shoulder and looked decidedly too chipper for his own good. Izaya fought back the urge to make his presence more tangible. He already knew that being sinister around Shizuo only tended to make them both angry.

He waited at the desk until Mairu finally walked to him, Kururi in tow.

“Good day?” he said.

They looked at him with wide eyes. It took him a while to realize that he had never really—asked them directly. That he only ever relied on Shizuo’s testimonies and his own appraisal of their mood to see if they were feeling okay.

The thought made his face feel hotter against the stuffy warmth of the room, slick at his temples and his hairline where sweat had progressively gathered during the day from the heavy, damp air.

He said nothing when Shizuo nodded in his direction and took the first steps outside the room, leaving it a mess to sort later. But his heart was beating at his throat, making it harder to breathe, even when they all reached the outskirts of the field outside the school building itself where games stood still wet with rain from the days before.

Shizuo lit a cigarette before they were even outside. He dropped all of his weight against a stone bench and exhaled slowly. Izaya stood next to him with every single nerve in his body alight, and waited for him to say the first words.

He didn’t expect these to be, “So what are you planning to do with Mairu and Kururi during the break?”

He felt breathless for a second, unable to bring himself to look up at Shizuo’s eyes proper, instead staring at the yellowish tobacco-stained spots of skin between his index and middle fingers.

Finally, he swallowed, and said, “Excuse me?”

Shizuo threw him a tired look. “You know, making sure they don’t fall dead from boredom. Are you planning to do anything with them?”

Izaya only gaped for a few seconds. Then all the blood in his body took a trip to his head, flush with tension and the smallest amount of betrayal, and he closed his mouth, gritting his teeth.

“Izaya?” Shizuo frowned.

It wasn’t the way he was supposed to say his name. It wasn’t the way Izaya was supposed to feel when Shizuo said his name, not the way he had grown to expect from weeks of their little chats. He felt stupid, and embarrassed, and shaky from the weight of sheer emotion that overcame him during a time he had come to take as a small pocket of peace in his every day life.

“Do you think I would let them drop dead?” he asked slowly, beating his own voice into tranquil interrogation instead of the accusation he could feel building up his chest.

“I think you’d forget that they’re six year-old girls,” Shizuo laughed.

It hit Izaya like a punch in the guts.

“Forget,” he repeated between clenched teeth.

Pain beat at his ears in time with his heart. It was sharp like broken glass, sharp like Shinra’s eyes on him a few weeks ago—empowered by judgment and everything judgment always did to Izaya. He shouldn’t care, he told himself weakly, that Shizuo still thought Izaya forgot about his sisters, didn’t care, didn’t want to care. He didn’t give any weight to Shizuo’s darkened opinion of him when they first met, it didn’t hurt then that Shizuo thought Izaya was the kind of man who could live a second of his life without thinking about what his parents’ death had brought him in the shape of two little girls—he didn’t care then and he shouldn’t care now. But he did.

And shame dug a hole in his stomach almost physically enough to make him keel over.

“I’ll be leaving, then,” Izaya said abruptly, voice too harsh even in his own ears.

Shizuo blinked at him. “What?”

But Izaya had turned his back on him and was walking toward Mairu and Kururi—at least until Shizuo’s hand gripped his forearm with enough strength to make him stop in his tracks.

“Hang on,” Shizuo said with irritation, “what’s going on here?”

“I’m tired,” Izaya answered without looking at him. His eyes stared a hole at a grey piece of gum on the asphalt. “I’m going home.”

“We haven’t talked about Mairu and Kururi’s day yet, there are some things you–” But Izaya tore away from his grasp with a tug that left his entire arm tingling with the aftershock of pain, and Shizuo swore under his breath before taking another step toward him. “Izaya. What the fuck?”

It was unfair that Shizuo could so easily get Izaya’s sisters’ names out of his mouth, Izaya thought. As if they weighed nothing on his tongue and didn’t make the back of his throat close on repressed grief. He slanted his eyes to the dumbfounded expression on Shizuo’s face. It was unfair that he spoke their names with ease, with comfortable affection, and yet stuttered Izaya’s as an afterthought, ripe with annoyance.

“Why are you so angry?” Shizuo said lowly. He should’ve been an actor, like his brother.

Izaya smiled. “I’m not angry.”

Shizuo only looked at him, his hand falling down to rest by his side once more. “Izaya,” he murmured, “you’re the angriest person I know.”

And Izaya clenched his teeth on his rage and stepped into Shizuo’s space, his right hand reaching up to tangle itself into his yellow hair; he only had enough time to see Shizuo’s face open on surprise and feel his eyes burn a trail to his lips before he was kissing him with enough strength to make him lean back on the soles of his feet, his hands finding purchase at Izaya’s hips, hot through the fabric of Izaya’s shirt.

Shizuo’s mouth opened under his like a flower at sunrise. Izaya’s entire body lit up at the first touch of his tongue, at the first taste of tobacco and heat, until all he could do was close his eyes and hope he wasn’t consumed by his own anger so much as the instinctive way Shizuo fit himself against him, from lips to hands to legs until all he could feel was Shizuo’s mouth burning against his and Shizuo’s fingers pressing into his skin so hard he dared hope to find bruises there for the days to follow.

Izaya kissed Shizuo through the confusion he must have felt when his hands rode up to Izaya’s waist and found the dip there; he kissed him until the force of his own want threatened to drown him. It sat at the back of his mind, luminous after months of denial, free to breathe and touch and need.

Shizuo’s hand drove up to fit itself against Izaya’s cheek and the damp hair above his ear; and Izaya started away from it as the silence around them made itself known, stark and sudden and unusual.

He turned his head to the side. Mairu and Kururi were staring at him with wide eyes.

For a long while Izaya stayed like this, his fingers gripping Shizuo’s hair and Shizuo breathing softly against the side of his head. He let go all at once, exhaling through his nose and stepping away without looking back.

Every inch he moved forward was a fight against trembling of his limbs. “Let’s go,” he said curtly once he passed by the girls. At some point he assumed he heard the padding of their feet on the concrete behind him.

He felt cold all the way to their apartment, his fingers shaking against his key as he opened the door. He let the girls in before him and watched, petrified, as they took off their shoes and went to sit on the couch. He couldn’t meet their eyes.

“Iza-nii,” Mairu said in a timid voice.

Izaya jumped out of his stupor as if electrified. “I’m going out,” he announced, his voice ringing too loudly in the living-room.

“Where?” Kururi asked, moving as if to stand back again and walk toward him.

“I have work.” The words came out of him slowly. “I’ll be back in time for dinner. Don’t make mess, okay?”

He didn’t wait for them to answer. The door closed behind him again with the same horrible metallic clang it always made. Izaya took out his phone as he walked down the stairs and speed-dialed Nakura before he even reached the ground.

Orihara?” came Nakura’s voice, meek as usual.

“Let’s meet tonight,” Izaya said. “My schedule just cleared itself.”

He barely listened to Nakura’s fumbling explanations of when and where. He typed down the address from memory after hanging up and walked, ignoring the cabs and the underground station. He didn’t think he could stand the proximity of others right this moment, didn’t think he could ride a train with people pressed against him and not remember Shizuo’s hands holding him, more grounding than anything he had ever felt. He hurried his pace, ignoring the way his surroundings turned into mist every time he turned his head around.

The rendezvous point was deserted when he arrived. It was an old garage at the limit of Ikebukuro itself, long abandoned by its previous owners and due to be reinvested as a barber’s shop—or so the paper stuck to the door said. The door itself was unlocked so Izaya let himself in, and by the time his eyes adjusted to the dark he had realized that he was an hour early.

Good, he thought firmly, sitting down against a wooden box in a corner. He breathed in—it was colder here, with a hint of oil and metal in it, like the fingerprints of the garage’s old life had been stuck inside, waiting to be felt again. Izaya ran a hand down his arm slowly, feeling little hairs rise on his skin. The temperature dropped further as he waited.

By the time Nakura made his entrance, heavy-stepped and slightly out of breath, Izaya had calmed down enough that the cold inside him was noticeable only to himself.

Nakura jumped a little when Izaya rose from his seat in the darkness. He hadn’t changed much from his boyhood days. He had gained in height but his shirt caved around his stomach, betraying the same scrawny bust and limbs he had as a child. He was taller than Izaya now, and wider in the shoulders; but he looked more like a late teenager than a man for the way he slouched and the width of his eyes still striking on his face.

“Orihara,” he simpered.

It was disappointing more than anything else. Even in the shadows Nakura didn’t look anything like what he ought to, didn’t look like a man who could make a fortune off of drug dealing and gambling.

Still, he was what he was, so Izaya put a smile on his face, stepped toward Nakura, and opened his arms wide and welcoming.

Nakura stabbed him.

The knife pierced him white-hot and all at once, too fast at first for Izaya to feel the pain of it. It stuck into him as if his flesh was butter, only painful when Izaya gasped silently and clawed at Nakura’s wrist with shaking fingers. And then his throat tightened on a moan as searing pain shot through his belly, burning and mind-numbing until he couldn’t see past the haze in his eyes to Nakura’s shaky smile.

“Thank you,” Nakura whispered, voice trill, “for being so fucking gullible.”

He ripped the knife out cleanly, and blood poured over Izaya’s shirt and hands as he pressed uselessly against the wound, not completely aware of when he fell to his knees or the rasping breaths coming out of his mouth. He didn’t think he had ever seen this much of his own blood outside of his body. It was slick on his fingers, nauseatingly warm, noisy in the empty room as it dripped against dust and concrete.

“I had Yodogiri Jinnai look into you when you contacted me in April,” Nakura said as he kneeled next to Izaya. “But I shouldn’t have waisted the money. He said you’re just a small-time informant working for Awakusu.”

Izaya barely felt Nakura’s hand rummaging through his pocket and grasping his phone. He let it fall on the ground as he stood up. The screen cracked under the impact, and Nakura stepped on it until the light died altogether.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” he explained conversationally. Izaya looked up through the beating pain in his belly, swaying on his knees; Nakura was looking at him with a trembling smile. The moles on his cheeks went up and down like tiny black insects.

Izaya fell to his side with a low thud, still holding his wounds as if he could force the skin to stitch itself back together. His hands were drenched now, black almost to his elbows in the low light of the garage.

Nakura hesitated over him for a second, looking for the most appropriate parting words. “Freak,” he settled on, his eyes roaming over Izaya’s prone body one last time before he turned around and left, banging the door behind him.

Izaya grabbed his phone almost immediately. His fingers slipped on every key they tried until he couldn’t see them anymore under the slime of his own blood. The phone stayed dead.

Mairu and Kururi wouldn’t start worrying immediately, he thought. He coughed, and then choked because coughing only made the pain worse, only made blood rush out of him at a faster pace until his shirt and the front of his pants were wet against his skin, warm and sticky and disgusting. Mairu and Kururi wouldn’t know who to call, when to call. They would spend the night clueless and only worry in the morning, and by then it would be too late. By then they would think to ask the neighbors, and the neighbors would think to call the police, and the police would look for him and find him lying here in a pool of his own blood with his broken phone clenched in his hand and no one around to to help him pass away.

No one around to pick up his sisters this time. No hidden fourth sibling or cousin or grandparent. He felt light-headed with the knowledge, typing uselessly against the same emergency numbers. Tears ran over his face but he was too breathless to sob. Panic coiled itself around his heart like a great snake, finally squeezing the life out of him like it had wanted to since that day at the funeral in the scorch of late summer.

His vision turned to white and his grip slackened on himself. He wondered if Shizuo would come to his funeral.

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