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Some Required Effort
Shinra met Izaya for the first time in the literature club of his middle school.
He was already in his last year then, and had joined because his father wanted him to do something with his school life that wasn’t just listening silently in class day after day without socializing. Shinra had thought it a little amusing at the time. Shingen didn’t socialize with anyone except corpses at the hospital and the occasional coffee a young frightened intern brought him; yet he scolded his only son for being a shut in, for reading biology textbooks in his free time instead of joining the baseball team. It didn’t occur to Shinra that this wish could have been born out of worry and love, because Shingen didn’t worry and love.
Shinra remembered Izaya as he was then—with black hair half-hiding his face rather than framing it. With impeccably pressed uniform jackets and skirts and knee-high socks. Sharp smiles and sharp bones in his wrists ready to cut through his skin and maul, blue veins stark against forearms too thin.
Izaya never did anything to Shinra. But Shinra had no doubt that someone, somewhere, was being skinned alive by this angry slip of a boy.
“I’ll call you Orihara-chan,” Shinra said when they first met, weakly grasping the hand Izaya had extended, smiling lightly when he felt the first year’s fingernails dig into his skin. “But you can call me Shinra.”
Izaya smiled like he wanted to kill. His shoulders twitched, and the tips of his hair brushed against his jacket. Black on black on black.
Shinra was two whole years older than Izaya and they didn’t talk much outside of club hours, which neither of them attended with extreme diligence. The literature club wasn’t the best place to speak either, which was precisely the reason why Shinra had chosen it rather than the boisterous science groups whose members gave out colorful pamphlets and flyers at every start of term. Their club president was a serious girl with a bitter tongue who would rather everyone stay silent so she could read in peace. Everyone who actually wanted to talk about literature met outside of school, in coffee shops or ramen corners where they could chatter excitedly. Shinra never accepted their invitations. As far as he knew, neither did Izaya.
But Izaya always sat next to Shinra when the both of them were here. He would open the most obscure books and get lost for an hour into tiny prints faded over the years by greasy fingertips. He stayed silent and still until Shinra himself was too tense from his presence to pretend to read anymore and turned his head to look at him instead. And Izaya would smile and ignore him, or press a finger to the corner of the page he was at and open to Shinra, and they would talk.
Near the end of the first term Shinra understood that he was the reason Izaya came to the club at all.
He didn’t think he had been purposefully singled out by his junior, not at first. Izaya’s shakiness and brutal self-consciousness wasn’t feigned, couldn’t be feigned. But little by little there was less reading and more whispered conversations until the club president started staring at them in disgust every time they walked in and Shinra ceased to go altogether.
Were he more honest with himself at the time, Shinra would have done something to discourage the adoring tilt of Izaya’s lips when he smiled at him. Or the way his body language opened whenever Shinra approached him, even just when he walked by him in a hallway; as if he was about to take a step to follow him. But Shinra at fifteen thought of it as a game, as something uncomfortable and flattering and entirely hilarious, and watched Izaya’s anger spike and mellow out behind his angular face. Shinra was sort of an asshole.
So that was it. They weren’t friends, they weren’t much of anything. Shinra indulged Izaya’s crush on him by weirding him out with the wildest conversation starters he could think of, the kinds that had made him a loner in the first place since elementary school. And Izaya listened with rapt attention and glinting brown eyes, answered the weird tests to human morals Shinra bestowed on him with so much enthusiasm that sometimes his cheeks colored and his movements lost their terrifying controlled stillness. That was it. That was all.
Shinra never contacted Izaya once he graduated. To his vague surprise, Izaya stayed just as silent. The only time his name came up—his old name—was when rumors started circulating in Raijin that some kid in the neighboring school had tried to kill him. But Shinra never mentioned that he had known the victim of this incident. Even when Celty and Shizuo brought it up with the tame curiosity of gossip, he only smiled and acted surprised.
It made sense that the child Shinra had known would grow up to be the man Shizuo brought into their home a decade later. Taller and less thin, with his hair cropped short so that no one could ignore the violence of his feelings anymore when they showed on his face. He was less wild but no softer. Still handsome. Still cracked at the edges so that light could pour in and lose itself in the darkness he hid.
Izaya was the same person in a different package, his anger grown to reach adult proportions and time behind him to learn to harness it.
Shizuo never stood a chance from the moment Izaya showed him a hint of vulnerability. Shizuo, Shinra thought, had always been drawn to the ones others forgot.
Shizuo’s phone had rung about five minutes ago. It was well into the evening, more dark than light even by summer’s standards. Shinra watched as Shizuo stared at his screen for a surprised few seconds, as he answered in a quiet voice and took a few steps away from Celty and himself in thoughtless need for privacy. The soft glow of the sunset drained away from his face in time with his blood, and by the time his murmured conversation stopped barely two minutes later his face was ashen.
Celty wavered on her feet, fidgeting with the cooling cup of tea in her hands. She made a hesitant move to put it back on the counter so she could sign her question. Shinra saved her the trouble.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Shizuo’s hand flew to his pocket, resting for a shaky second on the outline of the pack of cigarettes he kept there before falling down again, restless.
“Someone tried to kill Izaya,” he answered roughly.
Celty did jump at that. She immediately put her cup down and rushed to him with her hands forming flying questions, too fast for Shinra’s average skills at sign language to understand. But it didn’t matter, because Shizuo was looking at the floor and not at her, hands turning to fists at his sides in worry or fear, Shinra couldn’t tell. So Shinra asked again, “What happened?” and made his voice more interested than it had been before, in the hope that it made Shizuo snap out of it before he hurt himself while processing the news.
Shizuo cleared his throat. “They said—whoever was on the phone. They said someone stabbed him. He’s in the hospital now. His life isn’t in danger anymore”—his voice cracked—”but he’s still unconscious.”
“That wasn’t the police?”
This seemed to shake Shizuo for some reason. “No,” he said harshly. Then, after a breath, “No. Probably not the police.”
“Okay,” Shinra said placatingly. He exchanged a look with Celty. “Well, he’s fine now, and it’s after visiting hours so there’s nothing you can really do about it now. They probably won’t let anyone but family visit at first anyway.”
Shizuo nodded hesitantly; but then his face paled more. “Shit,” he whispered, “the girls.” He grabbed his phone again and pressed speed dial so hard Shinra thought he could hear the key crack under his thumb from his spot at the table. After a long minute Shizuo dropped his hand again, looking even less likely to relax in the near future. “No answer,” he growled. Shinra hummed in vague agreement.
If they called you, Celty signed slow and easy enough for Shizuo to notice her and fix unseeing eyes in her direction, then they probably took care of Mairu-chan and Kururi-chan too. They would have done that first. She seemed to hesitate before asking her next question. Why did they call you?
“I don’t know,” he answered. His face was regaining color faster than it had lost it now—Shinra let himself find amusement at how red his ears were despite the situation.
“Go ask about Orihara-kun at the hospital tomorrow, see if you can visit him then” he advised. “Try to get some sleep now, it’s late. You’ve been out of it all day,” he added, voice turned to a tease.
Shizuo’s hands twitched. He walked away without a word to them, and Shinra heard the door to his room close with perhaps more strength than strictly necessary.
What was that all about? Celty asked with a frown.
“Shizuo-kun’s very, very soft heart.”
She smacked him lightly on the arm. He grinned.
Nausea woke Izaya up, slow and relentless. It rolled like waves inside his stomach and up his throat, to his mouth where his clenched teeth refused access to so much as a moan—he was too scared he would vomit if he allowed himself to breathe. By the time he managed to blink through the crust shutting his eyes close he had identified it as pain.
Pain, dull and heavy all over his torso and sharp next to his bellybutton. His eyes burned dry under the soft evening light pouring from the window. He had enough sense to realize he was in a hospital room, and therefore not dead, but any relief he might have felt couldn’t take form while his stomach burned. Only a voiceless grunt escaped when he gave up on silence. He shut his eyes, tears scorching his face, and could only open his mouth when a hand grabbed his jaw and fingers pushed pills past his lips. He was too tired to flinch at the roughness, too exhausted to worry, and drank from the glass of water he was offered. He coughed once after the hands retreated.
Every second was agony, every breath a fight against the stretch of what he knew were fresh stitches. He thought he felt blood seep through the thread closing the wound shut; for a vivid second the slick-warm feel of it was so real that he choked, vision going white on panic as if he was still lying down on the dirty floor of the garage, only able to hear anymore as Nakura slammed the door close with a bang.
Eventually the pain receded. The spikes of nausea abated until Izaya was able to clear his throat, and his belly stopped aching as much. It felt tender under the contact of his gown, just at the limit of uncomfortable and painful. But he could breathe, and when he opened his eyes, they were tearless.
The sunset had painted the walls gold. Next to his bed Shiki was sitting in a cheap armchair, eyes fixed on the screen of his cellphone.
“It’s past visiting hours,” Izaya rasped. His voice felt like blades coming out of his throat.
Shiki raised his head to look at him.
Very faintly, Izaya thought about how thankful he was that Shiki wasn’t the kind of person to take advantage by looking. His eyes never strayed despite the open collar of Izaya’s hospital gown and his noticeable lack of binding garment. He didn’t know how he would have felt if anyone else from Awakusu had been appointed as his guard dog. He never learned to deal with it. Grogginess from the painkillers was preventing him from building fast and coherent deductions; but it didn’t stop his body tensing on pain and apprehension, and it didn’t stop his throat constricting on a sound as he remembered why exactly Shiki was here.
“My sisters,” he said.
“In our custody,” Shiki replied curtly.
Izaya’s heartbeat could dig a hole through his neck. Shiki turned for a second to snap his phone shut. When he looked back Izaya could hardly meet his eyes at all for the thick goo in his brain, dark and heavy on his brow as a physical weight, making his vision blur with dark fuzzy spots.
For a second they both stay silent, and then Shiki sighed and dragged a hand over the scars on his face.
“They’re with Akabayashi,” he added in a tired voice. “Nothing’s going to happen to them. Can’t guarantee the same for my subordinate.” His lips twitched. “From what his most recent update told me they’re rather active.”
Izaya should say something. Should feel something. Some ease around the knots in his stomach and the painful drag around his wound, because he knew Akabayashi in name if not in person and was aware of the man’s rigid ethics when it came to children. Shiki probably realized that he wasn’t going to, because he spoke without prompting again in the same aged voice Izaya had never heard from him before.
“You still act like I’m going to suddenly turn around and shoot you through the head, Orihara, even after all my efforts to prove you wrong.”
This struck through the mud of Izaya’s panicked mind. “What?” he managed to get out.
Shiki rose from the off-white hospital chair and took a few steps to the side. “Imagine my surprise,” he said, “when earlier this evening I received a call from two girls asking me if I kidnapped their brother.”
Izaya opened and closed his mouth, unable to make sense of what Shiki was saying with fear still lining his back and shoulders. At least it didn’t seem like his sisters were in danger. And if Shiki hadn’t killed him yet he was hardly going to do it now—in a public hospital room with nurses still prowling the hallways. He may have bought his permission to stay in Izaya’s room outside of the allotted hours, but he wouldn’t harm him.
Shiki frowned at him. “There you go again,” he growled, gesturing in Izaya’s direction. Izaya watched him with wide eyes. “I really don’t know what to do with you.”
He seemed to fight with himself for a moment, aborting a step to the window and away from Izaya’s bed and the slow beeping of his heart monitor. But then he briskly walked back to the armchair and sat down on it, despite how uncomfortable it looked, despite how close to Izaya that made him.
“Will you tell me what happened,” he said. But the sentence was framed like a sigh instead of a question, as if he knew in advance what Izaya was still realizing—that he couldn’t speak, that he couldn’t trust, that this utterly unexpected change of balance in their interaction was closing him off even further.
For a minute there was just quiet, loaded with electricity.
“Your sisters called me,” Shiki finally repeated, “because you were late for dinner and because they didn’t have anyone else to call—even though apparently you warned them that I was the worst person on earth and that they should avoid contact with me at all cost.” Izaya swallowed against the knot in his throat, and Shiki grunted. “Don’t make that face. I don’t blame you, at least for this.”
He put a hand in his pocket, then took it out. “Can’t smoke inside a hospital,” he growled.
“That would be bad,” Izaya replied in a small voice.
There was a brief silence. Shiki’s staring was making Izaya want to crawl in a hole somewhere and bury himself away forever.
“We found you a few minutes after you got attacked by tracking your phone. Be thankful it was only broken on the outside, or you would be dead. The doctors who took care of you agreed to keep this story on the low and not warn the police, so no need to worry about uncomfortable questions.” Blackmailing, probably, or by chance they were already in Awakusu Mikiya’s pockets. Izaya didn’t know and didn’t want to know.
“So now what?” Izaya asked finally, more breath than voice.
Shiki glanced at Izaya’s stomach hidden by the blue hospital sheet some nurse had doubtlessly provided and said, “Now, we need to have a talk.”
“I don’t see why.”
“Don’t play games with me, informant.” Shiki’s voice was harsh now, like the crack of a whip in the silence of mid-evening. There was not even a hint of footsteps behind the closed door. Only the soft whirring of the heart monitor and the accelerated beeping making Izaya’s own fear so stark to the ear no matter what he did to hide it.
“Okay,” Izaya whispered.
Shiki’s face relaxed somewhat. “Good.”
Izaya waited while Shiki looked for a way to start. He ran his dry tongue over his teeth twice nervously, longing for more water but not daring to ask for it. His throat was parched. He felt hot and shaky. Like his arms were to weak for him to do anything with them and his legs were chained in place instead of just resting on the thin mattress of his bed.
“There is one thing I want to make clear,” Shiki said, unexpectedly hesitant. “You operate under the belief that I hold some sort of all-consuming dislike for you. I don’t.”
Izaya breathed in.
“Personal feelings aside, I only care about what is good for Awakusu-kai and what isn’t,” Shiki continued. “You are an asset. I wouldn’t have offered a job to a college student if I thought more seasoned brokers were out there who could do it better.
“When you came to me months after I made my offer, I didn’t take you in out of pity.” His voice slipped on the word as if it were an offensive concept to him; and then, ruthlessly, “I didn’t care about your circumstances. You obviously didn’t want me to care either, which was just fine. I only ever saw this as an opportunity to have a skilled informant work exclusively for Awakusu.”
His eyes met Izaya’s, and then deliberately stopped on the board at the head of the hospital bed where all information about Izaya’s current physical condition was written for doctors and nurses to see.
“I understand why it’s difficult for you to trust anyone,” Shiki said gruffly.
“Don’t,” Izaya cut in.
Shiki stared at him, unreadable. “I was never trying to patronize you. You’re a loner and I can respect that. You don’t trust me as far as you can throw me, and I respect that too—it shows you’re cautious and that isn’t a bad quality to have in our milieu. But you need to learn to compromise.”
“On what,” Izaya seethed, trembling, “on my safety? On my sisters’ safety?”
Izaya closed his mouth on a strangled noise. Shiki rubbed at the scar above his temple with the tips of his fingers, eyes half-closed as if he was in physical pain over the entire ordeal.
“I have been waiting,” Shiki said slowly, “for you to start acting like the adult I know you are. You were arrogant when I met you, but you never hesitated. You were impressive and I wanted you working for me and the organization I belong to. But for the past few months you’ve been nothing but defiant and treacherous, even after I showed you countless times that I am willing to work with you. I treated you like a man-”
“No need to congratulate yourself,” Izaya barked, stung as he had not been for a very long time.
He regretted it immediately. But Shiki nodded solemnly and said, “I apologize,” and Izaya suddenly couldn’t meet his eyes anymore for the sheer unexpectedness of having anyone offer immediate apologies over this.
Shiki sighed. “My point is, you’ve acted like a child. I tried to show you that I value your work enough to make accommodations, the way I do for any of my men. But you took this the wrong way somehow, and now here I am, wasting my free time lecturing you on work ethics and having some faith in me.”
Izaya wanted to say a lot of things. He wanted to let the breadth of his hurt ego shine through his voice and yell, Stop treating me like a child, except what would that prove besides the truth of Shiki’s words? He had been acting like a child. He had let fear and his need to rebel against his circumstances blind him and had put himself at risk—had put his sisters at risk. So he exhaled slowly until his heartbeat slowed; until the relief that coursed through him faded away from the high of immediate safety and to the low burn of knowing that at least, at least, Mairu and Kururi hadn’t been the ones stabbed for his mistakes.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last. It stung going out and his cheeks flooded with blood, but he made himself look at his boss until the man nodded in acceptance.
“I don’t need or want you to trust me on a personal level, but you need to take your head out of wherever you buried it and allow yourself to rely on me professionally,” Shiki said. He got up from his seat once more to walk to the window. It squeaked as it opened. Air rushed in from the dim and too-warm street, but it felt fresher still than the caress of the hospital’s AC. Izaya said nothing when Shiki lit a cigarette despite the ban. He refused to let his mind linger on the smell of tobacco and the recent unresolved memories it brought back.
“I don’t discriminate with my employees,” Shiki spoke after a while, looking down on the road where cars rushed by despite the late hour, roaring distantly. “And yesterday one of my employees almost got killed. I need to know why and I need to get my hands on the people who attacked him.”
He looked back at Izaya and crushed the lit end of his cigarette against the windowsill. It glowed red and then choked out with a small burst of grey smoke. “Now,” he said, “will you tell me what happened?”
So Izaya did.
In the short time it took him to admit his plan to Shiki and scramble his mind for Nakura’s words over the months—what they could mean in the grand scheme of Awakusu’s relationship with Amphisbaena—night had finished falling. Shiki only asked cursory questions and never remarked on Izaya’s brutal shame and embarrassment and the anger they fueled in his voice and manners. He smoked one more cigarette as he listened, his face outlined by the harsh yellow glow of a street lamp more than the soft white light of Izaya’s bedside.
“Your sisters will be here in the morning,” Shiki said as he slipped the butt of his last cigarette inside a small plastic ashtray in his pocket. “I’ll be leaving now to work.” He paused. “Is there something else I can do for your ungrateful self?”
Izaya closed his eyes. “Fire Sloan.”
Shiki’s laugh was a curt and harsh grunt, something entirely expected if not for the fact that Izaya would have never thought he’d hear it. “I’ll see what I can do.”
As promised, Izaya’s sisters entered his hospital room at ten in the morning right when visiting hours started. Mairu was sitting on Akabayashi Mizuki’s back with her thin arms crossed before his neck and no doubt pressing into his trachea uncomfortably. Kururi was dangling from his left elbow, her feet hovering just above ground level.
Izaya pushed away the remnants of his stale tea. “Thank you for bringing them,” he said cautiously.
“No problem,” Akabayashi smiled as he unknotted Mairu’s arms. She slid down his back with a happy giggle. Kururi was already sitting in the armchair next to Izaya’s bed and looking at him intently. There wasn’t a trace of worry in her eyes, but she was very still.
“We fixed the issue you brought up,” Akabayashi declared after a brief moment spent looking over the tight immobility of Izaya’s hands in his lap and the way Mairu stepped around the heart monitor. “Shiki-no-danna is just dealing with some background problems now.”
The question of what happened to Nakura was on Izaya’s tongue, almost pushing past his lips. He wanted to know and didn’t at the same time. The instinctive need for revenge pressed against the realizations he had come to the night before, still too fresh and easy to crumble. But his sisters were here now, Kururi never blinking away from him and Mairu hovering around the foot of his bed as if she was too scared to come closer, so he nodded and said, “Thank you. Can I have a moment with- with my sisters, please?”
“Of course,” Akabayashi replied. His cane hit the ground evenly as he walked out.
The silence that followed was crushing. Sunlight brightened the room an almost blinding white, and the open window allowed in the chatter of busy streets outside; but nothing could distract izaya from the weight of Mairu’s timid glances or Kururi’s implacable staring. He didn’t know what to tell them. He didn’t know how to apologize any more than he knew how to show he cared, and every second that sped by was another notch up the rhythm of his heartbeat, until his chest felt more painful than the sting of mending skin and muscle in his belly.
“I apologize,” he started, “I didn’t mean to scare you both. You were right to call Shiki, even though I told you not to.”
“Akabayashi-san said someone tried to hurt you,” Mairu muttered. She was kicking the leg of Izaya’s bed, and her shoe made high pitched noises every time it rubbed against the floor.
“Yeah. But it’s okay, they’re gone now. They won’t hurt me anymore.” They won’t hurt you either.
She looked up at him through her bangs. “Really?”
“Really,” he repeated. “And the doctors took care of me, so I’ll be all healed in no time. You’ll have to stay with someone else for a little while, but I’ll be home in a few days.” This seemed to lift something from Mairu’s shoulders. Her slouch relaxed until she was standing straight, open and smiling.
“When can we hug you?” Kururi asked suddenly.
Izaya’s heart came to a stop. “What?”
“The nurse lady,” she continued in the same unflinching tone, “she said we can’t hug you because it’s painful.”
“Kuru-nee wanted to hug you because you let Shizu-chan hug you,” Mairu explained from her end of the bed, and Izaya felt his entire face grow hot.
“We weren’t-” he spluttered. He breathed in through his nose and heard a small, mortifying sound come out of his mouth. “I didn’t let him hug me. And I’m fine. The doctors gave me painkillers.”
He realized what he had just said the moment Kururi did. Her face lit up as she hopped out of the chair and to her feet, crossing the distance between them in barely a second. Izaya swallowed back his protests when she grabbed on to the handle by his bedside to hoist herself up on the mattress. She never hesitated a second. Her hands locked themselves behind Izaya’s shoulders, slithering in between his shirt and the pillow supporting his back. He flinched when she rested her chin at the base of his neck.
She was so small. Her entire weight rested on him now, except for her legs hanging unsupported where the mattress ended. When Izaya breathed her hair flew in front of his mouth, tickling his nose. She felt heavier than anything he had ever held. He brought a hand up without knowing what to do with it.
It must have been the worst hug Kururi had ever received, absolutely nothing like what Shirou and Kyouko had given her so freely. Izaya was stiff and unresponsive as a board. He didn’t know if he should put his hand against her hair or the small of her back, if he was supposed to talk or stay silent. He could only wait it out and stop himself from squirming away. He almost jumped out of his skin when a new weight added itself to his legs—Mairu was lying over them with her face raised in his direction, her arms surrounding him and her hands trying to reach each other through layers of blanket. She didn’t manage it, but she grinned at him as she was, lying flat on her stomach with fingers wiggling under Izaya’s knees, and Izaya ached now, chest bursting open and throat closing off against what felt like sobs, eyes burning through tears until his sight was too blurry to even make out the edge of Kururi’s head shoved under his chin.
“Please don’t go away too,” Kururi said against his skin.
He pressed his wet cheek to her hair and breathed in. There was antiseptic from the room, and leather and smoke from Akabayashi’s car; and beneath it all the tang of fake strawberry from the shampoo he always bought them, sweet like nothing he had smelled before.
The flower shop in front of Raira General Hospital opened at two in the afternoon. Shizuo was there by one, leaning heavily against the grey wall surrounding the entrance. There was always a nurse or cleaning staff member there with him as he waited, smoking or drinking coffee or both. Sometimes one of them would sit down against the dry pavement and eat lunch like this. Passersby sidestepped them habitually, without so much as a disproving glance.
When the shop opened, Shizuo crushed the end of his cigarette beneath the sole of his shoe and walked up to the lady who was arranging flowers outside. He didn’t know what to get Izaya. He had never visited someone at the hospital—Kasuka had never needed it, and as far as he knew neither had his parents. Shinra worked here, but there was a difference between hanging out with Shinra during his time as an intern and visiting someone he knew who was almost killed.
Shizuo stared at the flowers outside the door to the shop itself for a long while. In the end the shopkeeper approached him with a sweet smile and asked what he needed them for.
“I’m visiting someone at the hospital,” Shizuo grunted, fidgeting.
“Friend? Lover?” she asked, and then laughed when Shizuo blushed without answering.
He walked out with a bouquet of white carnations in his hands, stems still freckled with water. They were pretty, he thought. Plain and unnoticeable. But the flowers were thick, with too many petals for him to count, shaped like cups and wide as his palms.
He took the stairs after asking for Izaya’s room number at the reception. There was a line for the elevators. A dozen people or so fretting around the steel grey doors with sad faces and open empty hands. The sight made him reel. Izaya was staying on the second floor anyway, a few flights of stairs away in blissful loneliness.
He was at the end of the hallway, right at the edge of the ward where patients’ rooms ended and a waiting room sat packed with plastic chairs before the doctor’s office. A nurse was coming out with a clipboard in hand, and she smiled at him as she pushed her trolley away to the next door. He took a breath and walked in.
It was a bright place. Shizuo had never seen the inside of a hospital room before, but he thought it wasn’t as bad as the horror stories Shinra sometimes relayed to him. At least Izaya was alone, only one bed and not enough room left for a neighbor. He was sitting up, too, not lying down or unconscious as he had feared, with an old laptop on his knees and a bored look on his face. Shizuo cleared his throat.
Izaya looked up almost immediately, mouth set to stone even as his eyes widened.
“Hey,” Shizuo tried half-heartedly. He hesitated before stepping forward to put the flowers on Izaya’s nightstand. Izaya gave a quick look to the carnations but didn’t say anything.
An uncomfortable knot folded itself over Shizuo’s ribs, restrictive and almost painful. He looked around again as he searched for the right words to start a conversation. How did you start a conversation with a man you liked who kissed you before running away and almost getting himself killed? He’d bet there was no helpful advice on any dating forum thread for this.
The thought made his heart flutter and blood rush to his cheeks, but before he had time to decide on a course of action, Izaya opened his mouth and said, “These are going to need water.”
For a second Shizuo was confused as to what he was talking about.
Izaya tapped a finger against the stem of a carnation. “The flowers,” he added with a sharp smile. “If you don’t put them in water, they’ll die.”
“Right,” Shizuo said. He hovered in place, unsure if he was supposed to say anything else. In the end he picked up the flowers, noticing the empty blue vase set on the nightstand for the purpose of holding them. He walked to the bathroom to fill it.
When he came back Izaya hadn’t closed his laptop or put it away. He was staring at the screen as though no one else was in the room with him, but his eyes weren’t moving and his hands clenched by the keyboard, white-knuckled.
“Where are Mairu and Kururi?” Shizuo asked after putting the vase and the flowers down again. For some reason, his question made Izaya frown.
“With a friend. No need to worry yourself about it.”
“No need to- you got stabbed,” Shizuo pointed out.
“Yes,” Izaya mocked. “I hadn’t noticed.”
He looked so unperturbed. Laptop open on his legs and wearing his own clothes instead of one of those awful blue gowns that opened at the back, as if he could just walk out any time he wanted, as if Shizuo hadn’t been looking all over him since he entered for a hint of gauze or blood.
“How do you feel, then?” he tried again, swallowing back his growing irritation.
“Just peachy,” Izaya muttered. He wasn’t looking at him anymore now. His fingers flew over the keys of the laptop, and the screen came to life, white against his skin and the dark circles rimming his eyes.
Izaya was angry again, Shizuo knew. His body looked tense as a wall, as if he was blocking something from the inside rather than trying to prevent something else from going in; it was how he looked when they first met, how he looked before they kissed. Before he let the walls crumble and his face lighten with feeling—and then Shizuo had to stop thinking unless he remembered how Izaya felt against him or just how much he wanted him.
“Did you choose the flowers yourself?” Izaya asked suddenly. He still looked displeased and twitchy. More than usual. His eyes read over something on his screen.
“Why does it matter?” Shizuo said.
“Well, white carnations mean good luck and healing,” Izaya explained. He was watching Shizuo now.
Shizuo didn’t think much of it. “Isn’t that a good thing to bring to someone in the hospital?”
“They also mean innocent love,” Izaya added mildly.
Time stood still for a second; then Izaya closed his laptop slowly and pushed it to the side, his dark eyes still studying Shizuo’s as if he was a thing to be dissected, opened up and turned in on itself. Ice ran up Shizuo’s back, tiny pricks like the beginning of shivers so out of place even with the dry cool air conditioning. He clenched his teeth.
“I think you’re mistaken about something, Shizu-chan,” Izaya said very slowly. “I think you’re pushing way past your boundaries once more. I should have expected this. You’ve elevated inappropriateness to an art form.”
Shizuo swallowed. “You’re the one who…” He flushed, and gritted his teeth. “You can’t just call me inappropriate here, you asshole.”
“Because I kissed you?” Izaya laughed. He pressed an arm around his middle as he did, fingers spasming in pain, but his voice rang in the room and out the door where anyone could hear it, take a look inside and see Shizuo standing there with a red face, heart bruising against his ribs.
“This is pathetic,” Izaya declared once he was finished.
Shizuo breathed out and stepped toward him.
“Maybe it is,” he said lowly. Izaya had leaned back against his pillow, eyes half closed. But he was still tense, still angry. Still lying.
“Maybe it is,” Shizuo repeated louder, “but at least I’m not lying to myself about it. I didn’t pick the flowers, maybe the florist lady got it wrong. I just wanted to come see how you were doing. The flowers are just a gift.”
“That kiss didn’t mean anything,” Izaya replied with more heat. “I kissed you because you were there and I was tired. I was feeling vulnerable. I would’ve kissed anyone else. Wake up, Shizuo.”
“Never mind this blatant bullshit,” Shizuo snapped back immediately, “considering how fucking strung up you are every time someone non-threatening so much as lays a finger on you,” and here Izaya flinched, and red bled into his face, hot and furious, “It did mean something. It meant something to me, because I like you, God knows why,” he added. He pressed forward before he choked, his hand shooting out to brush Izaya’s, “I like you. I liked kissing you. All I could think about after you left was calling you and asking to see you again, kissing you again, maybe ask you out on a date. Jesus, Izaya, I’ve liked you for months now.”
His fingers slid over Izaya’s, pressed into his slack palm. He didn’t hold it exactly. He wasn’t sure he was allowed to. But he wanted to, so terribly, and he thought Izaya might take him more seriously if he showed him something more tangible than words, no matter how much these words rattled Shizuo’s being as they came out, unfiltered and awkward.
“Don’t make me laugh,” Izaya muttered. His fingers jumped beneath Shizuo’s.
“I tried to call yesterday and see if I could visit sooner,” Shizuo said. He left out the part where he couldn’t sleep or do anything but wait for time to pass, thinking about each of the Orihara siblings in turn until he was ready to pass out from emotional exhaustion.
Izaya shook his head. “You don’t like me.”
“Don’t tell me how I feel,” Shizuo growled. He slipped his hand out of Izaya’s, and Izaya moved his to lay across his lap, too far for Shizuo to grab unless he wanted to lean all over him.
“You don’t,” Izaya repeated hotly. “You barely know me. Have you forgotten already? I threatened your job. I’m a terrible man who would let his sisters die and not even notice,” he added with a parody of a smile, a rip in his face that made him look closer to tears than joy.
When did I say this? Shizuo thought then. The words tugged at his memory, as unlikely as they sounded. Like an echo of something gone wrong in the shadow of the trees the school gates opened to, right in the spot where Izaya and himself had talked so many times.
“Is this why you were so angry?” Shizuo asked.
Izaya frowned at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Two days ago, at the school. You were so angry, and I didn’t know why,” Shizuo explained, his own anger suddenly forgotten for the task of trying to understand what had prompted Izaya’s. “Is it because I joked about Mairu and Kururi dying of boredom?” He shouldn’t have done that. He should’ve known better than to express doubts at Izaya’s ability to care for his sisters, especially in that way, especially when he knew now that Izaya did care.
And he did. There had been no lie in the way he smiled at them, in the way he defended them even when they were at fault. Shizuo had seen the truth of it so many times over the weeks, when Izaya asked instead of listening or when he stayed despite his discomfort in the heat, in the rain, with exhaustion heavy on his brow and the arch of his neck. One eye stuck to the playground where his sisters ran and chatted, always.
So Shizuo said, “I’m sorry I said this,” and put a hand on Izaya’s shoulders this time, and Izaya stared at him as if he’d never seen him before, open-mouthed.
“What are you,” he started. Then he breathed and said, “I wasn’t- look, Heiwajima. Shizuo. I was tired, that’s all that happened. It didn’t mean anything to me. You don’t have any romantic feelings toward me, no matter how pretty you think I am. Please snap out of this before I snap your neck.”
“I do, though.” Shizuo smiled, and Izaya blushed.
“You find me annoying,” he pointed out.
“You think I’m a delinquent hanging around dangerous men.”
“You were right about that, by the way,” Izaya insisted. “I do work for yakuza. I’m an informant, and I sometimes use very illegal means to get what I want.”
“I’m not very happy about that,” Shizuo replied with a frown. “But they saved you, right? Your boss. I noticed that it wasn’t the police calling me, and there’s no security around you. I’m surprised I was called at all.”
Izaya flushed even further. “My sisters told them to call you.”
“Oh. Okay, then.” He didn’t like to think about Mairu and Kururi being in contact with criminals. But Izaya didn’t seem worried about it, and Shizuo himself was used to illegal things around him from living around Celty’s and Shinra’s sometimes odd jobs. “I still like you.”
Izaya bit his lip, and he looked scared now instead of angry. His hands were fists around the blanket, breath coming out of his nose with the faintest of rushing sounds. Shizuo let go of his shoulder and added, “I’m not saying you should like me back, or agree to date me, or anything. Not right now.” A pause. “Not ever. But please stop saying you know better than me how I feel about you. It’s annoying.”
“There are things…” Izaya stopped. He gnawed on the inside of his cheek for a moment, in perhaps the most endearing twitch Shizuo had seen him display yet. “You don’t know me,” Izaya settled on. “Not really. There are things you don’t know about me, things you might not like so much once you find out.”
“What could be worse than working for yakuza?” Shizuo said it as a joke, as an attempt to erase the tense crease of Izaya’s brow. But Izaya smiled at him, fatigue etched on his face, and said, “You’d be surprised what things people consider truly unlovable.”
Izaya seemed truly tired now. With the sun and the white glow of his laptop his face was pale, almost translucent. Like anyone could shine a bright light on him and see through his skin to the muscles and bones inside. He looked pained, too, arm still wrapped around himself for comfort or security. His painkillers must be running off. So Shizuo didn’t ask more despite his worry and curiosity.
“You know,” he said after a while. Izaya looked up at him once more. “I get that you’re a very guarded person. I don’t know why, but I get it.” He hesitated. Izaya looked more open now, more relaxed. At least he wasn’t caught in the same terrifying stillness he always was when something was making him highly uncomfortable anymore. “Not a lot of people like me. Actually, a lot of people have disliked me my entire life. Maybe ‘scared’ would be the right word here.”
He took a seat in the chair next to the bed. Izaya didn’t question him, but it didn’t seem like he minded listening either. Shizuo clasped his hands together and cracked his neck to get rid of some tension—he chuckled when Izaya made a face at the sound.
“I never told you why I became a teacher, right?” he asked.
“No,” Izaya answered. “I don’t think it ever came up.”
“Yeah, well. I usually never have to explain it because everyone around me knows why already.” It wasn’t that he minded talking about it, exactly, even with the unsavory memories it brought up. Every painful echo was soothed by a happy one, after all. But he liked Izaya, and now Izaya knew it, and Shizuo realized that just as he did not know Izaya, Izaya didn’t know him. He wanted to share.
“I used to get in a lot of trouble as a kid,” he explained. “Lots of fights. Nothing too bad, but I was a difficult child, bad grades and bad temper, and it made my parents miserable for all my elementary and middle school years. They were always supportive, they defended me when they needed to and scolded me when I was in the wrong. I guess I was just lonely. The bad rep was nice at first, but it’s a lot more difficult to handle once everyone at school knows you as this hopeless boy with no future who is likely to punch you in the face if you say the wrong thing.”
Izaya hummed. Approving, maybe, or understanding. It didn’t sound bad at least.
“Anyway. Once I reached high school everyone had sort of given up on me. I spent the first term staying away from fights because I realized it didn’t bring me anything anymore, not even attention, since now everyone was just avoiding me. But I was bad at school work, and my teachers didn’t care, so I was just falling more and more behind everyone else.”
He paused for a moment, gathering his memories. There had been bullying involved, small things like thumbtacks in his shoes at the end of the week or mocking writings on his desk when he arrived some days. No one attacked him directly, although a few groups would sometimes whisper loudly as he walked by to see if he could be pushed into rage and violence. Shizuo never indulged, because by then his accesses of violence had already turned to himself instead.
“You know Shinra, right? I mean, you knew him before you met him at my place.” Izaya’s mouth turned to a frown, but he nodded without interrupting. Shizuo continued. “Well, Shinra and Celty—that’s the other person I’m living with—they started talking to me after a while. I think it was Celty who was worried about me, and Shinra just tagged along.”
“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” Izaya said tersely.
Shizuo let out a rough laugh. “Yeah. He’s just as bad as you. Well, the thing is, Celty doesn’t speak. A lot of other students gave her shit for that, and it pissed me off, but at the same time I didn’t want to start beating up other kids again so instead I taught myself sign language.” He smiled. “It was fun, actually. It’s amazing how quickly you learn something you actually want to learn. I hate reading, but I read several books in less than a month. And I bought DVD’s with video lessons included so I could learn even faster. My mom couldn’t believe it. I just wanted to understand what Celty was saying to show her that I wanted to be her friend.
“Celty was absolutely overjoyed,” he continued with a grin. “She made me teach Shinra, because she had tried to but she’s shit at teaching in general so Shinra just learned how to sign ‘date me’ on his own and used it on her all the time.
“So I taught him, and it turned out that I wasn’t too bad at that, so Celty got it into her mind that I should become a teacher. I didn’t really believe it at the time. I still had terrible grades in everything, and university looked so out of my league. But she kept pestering me about it for the rest of the year until I said yes just so she’d stop.”
There was more to it, of course; there were the endless hours of Shinra and Celty tutoring him for the classes he sucked the most at, entire nights before exams spent cramming the things he should’ve learned in middle school but never did. It wasn’t half bad, though. They had fun with Shizuo’s Celty-induced embryo of a dream career. Shizuo joked about it until it wasn’t a joke anymore, until his grades went above average under his startled eyes, until he felt excitement instead of shame when he had to show his parents his exam results. Suddenly university wasn’t a far-away concept anymore; it loomed over him with all the tangibility of can instead of could. And all along Shinra and Celty had been there to help him choose and help him prepare, to push him toward teaching younger kids despite his own fear of his temper lashing out at them—because they trusted him and because they knew Shizuo hadn’t lashed out at anyone who didn’t deserve it in years.
All of it made Shizuo happy, made a warmth inside of him run light in his bloodstream from his toes to his heart to the tips of his fingers. When he blinked to look at Izaya the other was still staring at him, face soft in the daylight. He looked like his mother’s faded picture, the one Shizuo hadn’t looked at in months. He looked like his sisters. He looked like himself.
“Can I kiss you?” Shizuo asked.
“Please,” Izaya said.
It took less than a second for Shizuo to stand up to his feet and lean over the bed. His eyes were closed before he felt Izaya’s lips against his and the weightless tickle of his eyelashes on his skin. His hand grasped Izaya’s wrist, fingers pressed to his elevated pulse so he could confirm what the high beeping of the machine behind him was already saying. Izaya was alive. Cold hands and warm mouth and eyes shadowed by unrest, and his fingers digging into Shizuo’s nape and his breath a hiss of pain when he twisted his torso to kiss him better. Alive.