Some Required Effort (Part V – End)

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Some Required Effort
Part V

Summer break let off at the very end of August this year. With the worst of the heat gone Shizuo’s students came back lighter than they had left, with tan lines on their shoulders and skin peeling from their cheeks and noses where the sun had burned them. He took the first day slower than he would have liked to. The kids spent most of the morning hours relating their holiday activities one after the other, voices high from the too-long absence of an authority figure to tell them to keep quiet. No lesson was involved before lunch break arrived; every time Shizuo made to stop the effervescent discussion of whose trip had been the most impressive one of his students would look at him, bright-eyed, and ask, “What did you do over the break, Shizuo-sensei?”

He blamed his lack of composure at the innocent question on how little sleep he had gotten the night before. The thought of seeing Izaya after class was over had kept him up until midnight was well past him; he had sat on the balcony of his apartment, smoking long and slow into the tepid night air, with only Celty’s cool hand on his shoulder to blink him out of stupor from time to time. And when one of the children asked him all he could remember was the white hospital room and its fitful inpatient, Izaya’s hand tangled in his hair as they breathed against one another or leaving Kururi’s swiftly when Shizuo walked past the door.

Mairu and Kururi looked happy, he thought. Aoba was talking to them in poor imitation of a whisper, and they giggled, Mairu with her voice and Kururi with her smile, at whatever he was telling them.

Shizuo hadn’t seen Izaya in the past two weeks. He had made invitations when the man was discharged and was unsurprisingly met with silence—not refusal, though. Never refusal. And sometimes during his breaks his phone buzzed with an incoming message, with tastefully polite enquiries as to how Shizuo was, what he was doing, if the girls were behaving in class. Shizuo wasn’t very used to waiting on relationships. Something told him Izaya’s reluctance had more to do with Izaya’s own issues than Shizuo himself, though. So Shizuo texted back, and let his heart flutter alone through cycles of uncertainty and confidence, and never pushed.

After the long break for lunch that he spent confined in the staffroom talking to Mikage, he managed to make his class actually work. Time didn’t pass quite as quick as he wanted it to. The weather had cooled noticeably over the month, but Shizuo felt as hot as he had during the sleepless nights of heat wave. When the colorful arrows of the classroom clock finally dragged themselves to four there was sweat pooling at the lowest of his back.

Izaya wasn’t smiling when he entered the room—but then again, Izaya rarely smiled like he meant it. He was walking on his own now, no chair or crutch of any kind in sight, and if his steps were slow at least they were secure. Their eyes met and Shizuo didn’t repress the warmth bubbling up inside him when Izaya’s face softened out of tension and his swept a look over Shizuo’s body before turning around to seek out his sisters.

It felt strange, Shizuo thought, to be with Izaya and the girls inside the school without the ache of want to keep silent, to talk over until he could ignore it. There was nothing preventing him from looking at Izaya like he wanted to now; at his eyes or his mouth or the short hair at his nape, so black against his skin.

Izaya stayed near the desk until the flow of parents and children finally cleared away. Mairu and Kururi were around him, each grabbing one of his elbows, and though he didn’t look relaxed exactly he wasn’t pulling away either. Shizuo cleared his throat when Izaya looked back at him with an eyebrow raised, a steady heat over his cheeks. “Are you…” he paused. He wasn’t sure how to phrase this.

Izaya looked away for a second, lips twitching, and then he said, “Do you want to come with us?”

“Yeah,” Shizuo breathed. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

This time when they walked past the gate they didn’t stop on the playgrounds. Shizuo walked behind Izaya as they crossed the streets, eyes fixed to his legs for any sign of weakness or imbalance. He jumped slightly when a small, warm hand grabbed his fingers tightly. Kururi wasn’t looking at him, too busy matching the rhythm of her steps to her sister’s in front of her, and although Shizuo knew he wasn’t supposed to, he closed his hand around hers. The school was long gone from their sight, hidden behind grey buildings and noisy roads, and the silent look Izaya gave him when he noticed Kururi was gone from his sight was enough of a permission.

The narrow street where they lived didn’t seem as grim as the last time Shizuo had seen it.

Izaya stopped in front of the metal staircase, head lifted to look at the glint of their apartment door from below. Then he sighed and shook off Mairu’s hold on his arm.

“Will you guys be okay on your own for a couple hours?” he asked them.

The answer was pretty obvious. Kururi dropped Shizuo’s hand and crossed the few steps between her and her brother to lock her arms around his waist; Mairu didn’t move away from her spot, but she grabbed Izaya’s hand so tightly that the barest flicker of pain made its way to his face.

“Nothing’s gonna happen,” he said tiredly. He sounded like he had said these same words a thousand times before.

“Same as last time,” Kururi muttered against his hip, voice choked against the fabric of his shirt but still too clear, too chilling.

Izaya’s free hand hovered over her head for a second before touching her. “Really,” he insisted, softer this time. “I’ll be with Shizu-chan right there the entire time.”

Three pairs of Orihara eyes immediately turned to Shizuo. He stood as still as if physical restraints had appeared to shackle him down.

Mairu was the first one to turn away and look back at her brother. “Is he gonna be your bodyguard?” she asked suspiciously, and Izaya smiled, cutting and taunting, and answered, “Exactly.”

“Hey,” Shizuo protested weakly. He was ignored.

The girls looked at each other in tandem, silent but undoubtedly communicating something to each other. In the end they both relaxed their hold on Izaya without completely letting go of him, and Izaya shifted on his feet but didn’t move away.

“I want a hug,” Mairu demanded. Shizuo couldn’t help his body tensing, even as Kururi looked up with hope in her eyes and lifted her arms in invitation. Izaya paled a little, and then blushed enough for it to be visible in the shadow of the street.

He only shot a quick look at Shizuo before bending his knees to crouch so he was level with the girls. Mairu let out a happy, high-pitched noise and threw herself at him, arms crushing tight around his neck. Izaya toppled for a moment before catching his balance, and then Kururi stuck herself to his back and crossed her hands over his chest, nose buried in his hair. Izaya flinched more violently at the contact, breath catching audibly. But he didn’t squirm out of their hold. He made no move at all except for the slow stroke of his thumb over Mairu’s shoulder blade until the girls let go on their own.

Shizuo watched him stand back up feeling like his heart was hurrying out of his chest, a burn of misplaced pride catching warm all over his body. He didn’t say a word. He and Izaya waited until the twins walked up the stairs and they could hear the clang of a door opening and closing, its echo like an alarm against old walls and windows, and then silence, more tangible with the soft rush of cars at the mouth of the alley than it would be without.

Izaya turned his head to look at him. “Let’s get coffee,” he said, and started walking away before his words could completely take meaning inside Shizuo’s head.

Shizuo knew this part of town pretty well. He had toured it with Celty whenever she was working in the area, had scouted the shops when he learned where he was affected as a teacher for the year. Izaya walked past his preferred tea houses and cafés without sparing a glance at them, and Shizuo didn’t stop him, only followed suit without speaking. Better be somewhere Izaya felt comfortable, he thought.

In the end Izaya’s steps faltered in front of a hole-in-the-wall shop, the kind that sold snacks and coffee until late in the evening. At this time of the day it was almost deserted, hotter inside than it ought to. The sun beat against the glass window and made the room feel like an oven even with the door wide open in invitation for wind. Izaya walked to the table farthest away from the counter and sat down, still silent as a young waitress walked to them both to take their oder.

By now Shizuo’s throat had closed on anxiety as much as fatigue. He tapped his fingers against the edge of the plastic table and watched Izaya take his phone out of his pocket to skim through his messages, thumb typing in answer to some or sliding with casual cruelty for what didn’t interest him.

It only took a couple of minutes for the waitress to come back with their drinks. It felt like hours.

The iced coffee soothed some of the stifling warmth when Shizuo started drinking. Izaya put away his phone, didn’t touch his own cup, and finally lifted his eyes to meet Shizuo’s. He seemed to struggle with his words for a moment before speaking.

“I’ve been thinking,” he started slowly.

Shizuo waited. Izaya didn’t look like he expected an answer—his fingers locked together in front of him like a barrier, and he took a loud breath.

“I was honestly about to reject you completely,” he continued, and Shizuo felt all the air in the room leave, but Izaya quirked a smile in his direction and said, “but that would be me running away again. The call-outs are getting tiring.”

Shizuo breathed out. “So does that mean…” he trailed off hesitantly. Izaya’s ears were red, his eyes flickering between Shizuo’s face and the blue table between them.

“Don’t get too excited,” he muttered.

It didn’t sound like a reproach, but it didn’t sound very promising either. Shizuo’s heart was beating a steady drum in his chest now, suffusing warmth through his insides and a peculiar weakness in his limbs that felt like shakiness without really being it. It was the same kind of feeling he had gotten while kissing Izaya at school and then in the hospital room.

Izaya wasn’t looking at him anymore. His finger came to rest at the edge of his steaming cup of coffee, stroking the handle without taking it. He looked nervous, and it made something quiver inside Shizuo despite the glee that threatened to take over at Izaya’s veiled admittance of his own feelings.

“In the hospital,” Izaya said steadily, “I said there are things you don’t know about me.”

Izaya had called himself unlovable back then. “I remember,” Shizuo replied softly.

Izaya’s finger tensed against the cup. He groaned lowly, rubbed his other hand against the side of his neck. His cheeks were flaring a brighter red now than Shizuo had ever seen on him, but it didn’t elicit fondness in him this time. Instead it made concern rise up a notch in him until he had to refrain himself from pressing his own hand on Izaya’s to offer a semblance of comfort.

“Do you like men, Shizuo?” Izaya asked suddenly, and Shizuo choked on his drink.

Izaya’s face was impassive; he made no move to make fun of Shizuo’s splutters as he regained his breath, didn’t so much as smirk in his direction. “Yeah, of course,” Shizuo replied once the itch at the back of his throat became manageable again. “Don’t you?” he added worriedly.

“Oh, I do.” Izaya waved a hand lazily. “Never mind, that was the wrong way to talk about this.” He still looked perturbed, though. Still red in the face from fear rather than embarrassment.

“Do you…” Izaya’s fingers clenched again, bloodless-white at the knuckles. “Do you know anything about transgender people?”

There was a beat. And then, “Oh,” Shizuo said, and Oh, Shizuo thought.

He felt and heard his blood rush to his face, blinked away the haze in his vision until Izaya was clear again. There was a new shape of worry in him now, coming with a lick of curiosity Izaya’s posture told him he absolutely shouldn’t indulge. He swallowed with difficulty and pressed his palm against the cool dampness of his glass.

“Not really.” He was trying for nonchalance but he knew his voice was tight with carefulness, too even to the ear to sound natural at all. It did nothing to appease the strain over Izaya’s shoulder—over his neck, over the stark dip of his collarbones, the span too narrow now that he was looking.

“Well,” Izaya said roughly. “You might want to look it up.” A pause. “If you still like me, that is.”

At least on this Shizuo wasn’t uncertain. “I do,” he replied, more forceful than strictly necessary. “It doesn’t change anything.”

Izaya let out a breathless laugh. “You’ll find that it does, don’t worry.”

Silence spread between them, thick and obtrusive, loaded with tension.

Shizuo felt the urge to apologize. For wanting to peer closer at the shape of Izaya’s clothes and for the way words caught in his throat with embarrassment or shame—he didn’t know, couldn’t tell, didn’t wish to find out what made him embarrassed in the first place: his own cluelessness or… He shuddered, hair rising along his arm with skin-deep disgust at himself. He made himself look at Izaya’s eyes instead of anywhere below the line of his chin and almost jerked away from the coldness he saw there. Izaya was closing off and Shizuo’s chest ached at the sight; and he knew with vicious clarity that whatever was happening here could only be blamed on himself. Because he had obviously reacted in a way Izaya had been building up against, and because there was a stream of questions in his head now, questions he wanted to ask even when the slouch of Izaya’s body in his chair screamed No like his voice couldn’t have.

So Shizuo kept his mouth closed and breathed as slowly as he could. Before anything else he had to do something about the terrible tension Izaya was curling on and the miserable turn of his lips. He ripped his hand off the grasp he had on his own knee and slid it over the table until it reached Izaya’s. He stroked the thin skin on its back with the tip of his fingers.

“Izaya,” he tried. His voice was hesitant but it’s wasn’t weak, and it would have to do for now. “I’m sorry that I reacted badly-“

“You didn’t,” Izaya replied, and tried to drag his hand away, but Shizuo pinned it down as firmly as he could without the threat of actual hurt.

“I obviously did,” he smiled half-heartedly. “And I don’t know what I said or did exactly, I don’t really know anything about… about you being transgender, and what it means. And I’m sorry. I’ll do better.”

Izaya stared at him. He still looked upset, and his fingers spasmed beneath Shizuo’s in unspent irritation. But he didn’t try to pull away.

“I will look it up,” Shizuo insisted. “Because this is obviously important to you. And I’m glad that you told me. I’m happy that you trust me this much.”

He lifted his hand to rest his fingers on Izaya’s cheek. Izaya leaned in a little, hair brushing against Shizuo’s knuckles with the movement. From the counter the waitress leered at them, but Shizuo didn’t draw back despite the discomfort of her attention and Izaya stayed as he was, his eyes burning themselves into Shizuo’s as he waited for more.

“I really like you,” Shizuo offered. He pressed his palm against Izaya’s skin, tugged softly at the hair behind his ear. “There’s nothing about you that I don’t like, even your shitty attitude.”

Izaya’s lips twitched in the ghost of a smile. His hand came up to cover Shizuo’s on his cheek, warm from holding his coffee for too long. “Don’t make me regret this,” he said simply.

I won’t, Shizuo thought, and let Izaya lean over the table to meet him halfway, dry lips dragging against his, mouth warm even against the weather and leaving hot, bright tingles all over Shizuo’s skin.

October started with cold wind and a request.

“Aoba-kun says his mom says we can have a sleepover,” said Mairu as soon as they all left the school grounds. Izaya could only thank himself for equipping her with woolen gloves for the sudden drop in temperature—her hand was clutching his and the fabric slipped when her hold tightened, making it harder for her to crush his fingers as she liked to.

“Did she,” he answered.

“I just told you,” Mairu frowned, the sarcasm flying over her head completely. “Saturday evening!”

Kururi was walking ahead of them this time. She had stopped hanging onto Izaya for every little thing as she had right after first getting permission, and Izaya swallowed back the disappointment he felt every time he thought about it. It was better this way. She wasn’t supposed to be scared of his disappearing every time she let go of him. At least Mairu hadn’t grown past the need to constantly grab some part of his body. Mairu had always been a little too much like him.

“And did you two just forget to talk to me about it before making that decision?” Izaya asked, voice loud enough with mockery to be picked on even by six year-olds.

Mairu tugged unhappily at his hand. He winced. “You would’ve just said no,” she whined. “This way you know Aoba-kun’s mom is okay with it, and Aoba-kun gave us her number so you can call her to tell her you agree. We did all the work for you.”

“We did,” Kururi chanted back, head turned to look at them.

“Watch where you’re walking,” Izaya snapped. Kururi smiled brightly and turned back around with a touch of dramatic flair to her movements.

Mairu was dragging behind now, resting her weight on his hand so he was forced to slow his pace and hunch a little forward, effectively pulling her along. God.

“Shizu-chan would agree!” she accused loudly, and Izaya rolled his eyes.

“A good thing Shizu-chan has no say in what goes on in this family, then.”

“But you like him!”

Izaya felt his face flare with heat at her words, as innocent as they were. Explaining the concept of dating to them had been his worst mistake yet, as they had taken it to mean Shizuo could appear in any argument they had as a pivotal point. “Still doesn’t give him a say in whether or not you get to sleep at Aoba-kun’s,” he replied tersely.

In a way he was glad Shizuo had a meeting after class and couldn’t walk the way home with them this time. He wasn’t enthused about the soft, all-consuming brand of good will Shizuo carried around like armor—especially not when his sisters were just being brats.

It was truly cold by the time they arrived home. Harsh wind and low grey clouds and dead leaves creaking beneath their feet, and when Izaya took his key out of his coat his fingers felt numb around the metal, clumsy as he opened the door.

He immediately turned on the heat, barking quickly at Kururi to keep her scarf on until the room didn’t feel like the inside of a fridge. She smiled again, hopping on the couch and sitting on her socked feet to keep them warm and playing with the hem of the blanket Izaya had left unfolded this morning when he woke up.

Mairu sat down on the floor next to the couch and angrily pulled on the loose strings of her hat. The stitches along the fold came undone one by one. “I wanna go to Aoba-kun’s,” she complained. There was a hint of real upset in her voice, most likely due to the long day at school and the cold weather sapping her energy away. Izaya took off his coat and walked to the kitchen to put on the kettle. Shiki didn’t expect him to show up before six today; he had time for tea.

“You should have told me you wanted to instead of going behind my back to plan it all anyway,” he said without looking at her. He heard the soft thud of cloth hitting ground and guessed she had thrown the hat away instead of destroying it completely.

Then her voice came again, too muffled for him to understand completely, but the intake of air from Kururi and the way she said, “Mairu,” at the same time as Mairu’s tongue trailed on the word mom like an insult was enough for Izaya to freeze over.

“What did you say?” he asked slowly, pressing a hand on the unlit stove to keep himself upright, eyes catching at Mairu’s now guilty expression. He felt drawn in from hurt instead of concern, heart beating too-fast and almost painful against his ribs. His belly flared with remembered pain from the stabbing, as if there were still thread keeping his skin close, as if he was cut open again and losing hold on reality as he bled out on a dirty cement floor.

Mairu couldn’t see any of this, of course. She looked at him stubbornly and repeated, “I said, mom would let us sleep at Aoba-kun’s on Saturday.”

In the corner of his eyes Izaya could see Kururi shift on the couch, legs dangling in front of her now and heels hitting the padding at the front repeatedly. But it was Mairu he was looking at, with the upset tilt of her lips so reminiscent of Shirou’s.

Maybe she wasn’t just tired, Izaya thought faintly. The tips of his fingers ought to burn from being too close to the now hot kettle but he could barely feel them. Maybe she really was upset, maybe she was miserable, maybe she was still mourning too much and simply not talking about it and Izaya had been stupid enough not to see it. Foolish enough to believe she was better now.

The low whistle of boiling water broke him out of his reverie. He cleared his throat.

“Okay,” he said. “All right. You can both go to Aoba-kun’s on Saturday.”

He turned his back on her satisfied yell to pour the tea in three different cups. The skin of his knuckles had reddened from the heat and he scratched at them with his thumb without thinking until they ached. He heard Kururi’s footsteps toward him and felt the press of her forehead against his arm.

“Iza-nii,” she said, plea and apology at once, and Izaya had to blink away the tell-tale burn in his eyes from how messed up it was that she was apologizing for hurting him.

“You have Aoba-kun’s mom’s phone number, right?” he asked evenly. His fingers came up to stroke through Kururi’s short hair, and he felt her nod against him. “Good. Give it to me, I’ll arrange everything before I make dinner.”

He barely heard any of the conversation with the Kuronuma woman—he forgot her first name as soon as she said it, didn’t so much as miss a breath when she said, “I was expecting a parent, not a sibling,” with an unconcerned laugh. He wrote down her address on a clean napkin and offered platitudes when she started fussing over her goodbyes. Mairu was in the shower now, half of her tea left to cool on the coffee table. Kururi was curled up on the couch, eyes fixed on the TV where a kids’ show was running on low volume. Izaya sat down next to her.

“I have to go to work in five minutes,” he said carefully. Kururi looked up at him. “Will you be okay?”

“Yes,” she answered, and then, with her lips tugged into a frown, “you?”

“I’m just fine.” He made no move when she leaned against his side and wormed an arm around his waist. She felt warm, drowsy in a content way from her day at school.

“Shizu-chan said my handwriting is good today,” she muttered unexpectedly.

Izaya could believe that. He could picture Shizuo’s smile as he said the words and the way he would crouch next to Kururi’s desk to point out her mistakes, could almost hear his voice grow rough as it always did around his students. Izaya let his head rest on the back of the couch and stared at the ceiling. Their neighbor was stepping loudly behind the wall, dragging chairs against the floor so that everyone could hear her, because she couldn’t stand the sound of running water and Mairu was taking too much time again for her tastes. He hoped Mairu took another good fifteen minutes.

Izaya took Mairu and Kururi to Kuronuma Aoba’s home on Saturday after his work ended. Kuronuma lived not far from where Shizuo did, in a new-looking apartment building with tasteful wooden doors and carpeted floors and a guardian at the entrance behind the glass pans that led to the lobby. The woman who opened after he rung looked exactly as he had expected her to from the sound of her voice—short than him, with a bowl cut of black hair and a softness around her middle, a smile stretching on her face cutting through dimples and crow feet around her eyes. She looked like a mother.

“Please come in,” she said with the voice of someone who didn’t receive visitors often.

Izaya didn’t especially want to. But Mairu was already tugging at his shirt, looking intently at the boy standing behind Kuronuma who was staring at her in turn with bright brown eyes and an excited smile. Izaya took off his shoes and put on the guest slippers the woman handed him.

The apartment didn’t look as wealthy as the outside of the building made it out to be. The furniture was sparse but comfortable, the walls stacked with pictures of Aoba and another, older child Izaya thought might be a high schooler. It was bright, though, with big, clean windows from which light poured in to rest on polished wood and lilac fabric, and it was warm without being stifling, with potted plants and vibrant flowers to give out an earthy scent.

Kuronuma brought him tea barely a minute after he sat down at the table. By then his sisters and the boy—Aoba—were already engaged in a deep conversation, too fast-paced for Izaya to follow; he blinked sheepishly when he saw Kururi tread her fingers through Aoba’s hair rhythmically the way she sometimes did with him. Aoba didn’t so much as blink from the contact.

“He likes your sisters a lot,” Kuronuma said awkwardly as she sat down in front of him. “He’s usually very… well, he’s a lot to handle, in school at least. But their teacher said he’s been doing better and better in class.”

“I had no idea,” Izaya answered.

Kuronuma chuckled. “I think it has a lot to do with Mairu-chan and Kururi-chan. He won’t stop talking about them.”

Izaya glanced at the kids again. Mairu looked excited, but not to the extent of screaming or accidentally breaking anything. Kururi was still calm, didn’t even seem to notice the foreign objects and smells around her.

“Well.” Izaya pressed his fingers tighter against the hot ceramic cup and brought it to his lips to take a sip of scalding green tea. “I hope everything goes well. Please don’t hesitate to call me if anything happens.”

The woman nodded, and then blushed slightly and fidgeted with her own cup. Izaya tensed.

“Are you…” she started. She paused for a handful of seconds, looking for her words, and then, “I’m sorry for asking, but—where are your parents?”

Air seemed to come slower to and from Izaya’s lungs when he finally opened his mouth to answer her. “They’re dead. Car accident a year ago. I’ve been taking care of them since.”

“I’m so sorry,” she fussed immediately, red in the face and pity in her voice, and Izaya was about to wave off her concern rather than make himself go through it when she said, “This is an amazing thing you’re doing. You’re so young… You must be really close to your sisters.”

His chest locked, heavy and unmoving even with the push of his breaths against his ribcage. He thought he must have said something in answer because Kuronuma stopped looking like the less garish version of a tomato and eventually his feet brought him back to the plush carpet floor of the hallway, with the sound of children’s laughter in his ears and the faint ringing of Kuronuma’s voice lavishing praise on him like blows.

He was still thinking about it when the cold fall wind hit him as he walked out of the pretty, expensive building. It had been more than a year since he actively sought out the memories but they came to him as sharp-cut and clear as if he had been consciously examining them all this time. The heat of summer crushing on him, the irritation he had felt in the office of his mother’s old solicitor. The sympathy in the man’s eyes as he read out her will, glaringly exempt of Izaya’s own name—not even his old one, the one Kyouko had kept calling him until two years after he moved out and until her anger receded to begging, Please come back home, spend time with your sisters. Izaya had told the man he would consider his options until the funeral. He spent that same night cramming for the beginning of the semester and ignoring the febrility taking hold of his heart, until his eyesight grew fuzzy with sleep and he fell as he was, sitting down on his bed with his head in a book he hadn’t read a line from in more than three hours.

It had been simple. His parents’ own money paid for the burial on the slot of earth they had reserved. Izaya didn’t have to make any calls; he received the notice as every other guest had and rented a suit for the occasion—straight cut with the shoulders’ line broader than necessary so no one could ignore how much he wasn’t the child Kyouko had perhaps talked about to the other mourners. He was sweating before he arrived to the funeral home, back slick with sweat even before the march to the graves actually began, but by then he had other things in mind than his last child’s tantrum.

Because Kururi and Mairu were at the funeral too. Clad in black dresses and black shoes, grown twice as tall as he remembered the last time he had seen them by accident in the streets of Shinjuku—and with tired faces and dirt in their hair from no one telling them to wash it, and their uncut nails digging into each other’s hands with all the strength of fear.

Izaya called the solicitor with his answer before the last guest had even left.

There was an itch in his throat now that had nothing to do with the cold October wind. For a second Izaya stared at the sight in front of him without realizing where he was, and then he recognized the sleek metallic door to the janitor’s office and the sounds of the Kawagoe highway above his head.

He plucked his phone out of his jeans pocket and pressed it to his hear. It rung for a surprisingly long time before Shizuo picked up. “Hello?” He sounded relaxed. Alert. Izaya breathed out more easily.

“It’s me,” he said as steadily as he could. “Can I come over?”

“Yeah, of course.” There was a murmur of conversation, muffled by Shizuo’s palm against the receiver, probably. “Are you okay?” he asked worriedly.

“Just fine,” Izaya replied before hanging up.

He took the elevator to the penultimate floor and climbed the rest of the way by foot as slowly as he could. Even so it wasn’t three minutes until he reached the highest of the building and rang Shizuo’s doorbell.

He heard Shizuo’s voice, and then footsteps too light to be Shizuo himself, and the person who opened the door was not Shizuo indeed—but it wasn’t anyone Izaya would have expected either.

“Good evening,” Hanejima Yuuhei said politely, head bowed as he stepped to the side to let him in.

Izaya’s mouth opened but no sound came out.

“Kasuka?” Shizuo appeared at the end of the hallway. He was looking at his phone. His eyes widened in surprise when he looked up to see Izaya here, mouth immediately softening into a smile. “Hey,” he said, taking a few steps forward. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon. Were you just outside the door or something?”

“Or something,” Izaya replied finally. He walked past the door, took off his shoes. Was about to walk up to Shizuo himself to greet him properly. And then the numbness let off at last and he turned to Hanejima instead to ask, “Why is Ikebukuro’s favorite idol here?”

“I was just visiting my brother,” Hanejima answered without a hint of actual emotion in his voice, and Shizuo laughed roughly.

“I didn’t exactly want you two to meet like this,” Shizuo said. He sounded happy. “Kasuka, this is my boyfriend, Orihara Izaya.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” Izaya said through gritted teeth, face flushing to actual warmth at Shizuo’s casual words, and some of the misery lightening its hold on him as if swept away by the wind.

Kasuka looked different in reality than he did on the small, ill-lit screen of Izaya’s television when the twins stared at him during interviews or early morning shows. It might be the lack of makeup to fake the color on his cheeks or the smoothness of his face in general, but he was as pretty without it as he was with it. It had more to do with how flat his mouth was and how cold his eyes looked, Izaya thought. He wasn’t staring exactly but he held Izaya’s stare with a fierce absence of will until Izaya felt the urge to provoke a response like oil on his skin.

Kasuka turned to look at Shizuo before he could indulge. “I’ll be leaving, then.”

“Yeah,” Shizuo smiled. “Take care.”

The man nodded—once deeply at Shizuo and one more time at Izaya, before putting on his shoes and carefully closing the door as he walked out. It barely made a sound to diffuse the silence in the room. Izaya clenched his shoulders and turned back around.

“Hi,” Shizuo breathed, crossing the last steps separating him from Izaya and leaning down to kiss him.

It wasn’t much, just a press of lips still warm and a quick taste of coffee and ash, but it was enough to loosen the last of the tension in Izaya’s body.

“Please tell me Shinra isn’t here,” Izaya said against Shizuo’s mouth, and Shizuo laughed again.

Shinra, as it turned out, was not here. He was gone with Celty for the weekend, leaving the apartment comfortably spacey and quiet for Shizuo to enjoy—and, apparently, invite his celebrity of a brother for coffee. The glass door to the balcony was ajar so that the crisp outside air could come in and sweeten the overheated living-room. Izaya sat down on the couch and stared at the commercials running on the muted flatscreen television.

“Do you want something to drink?” Shizuo called from the kitchen.

“No,” Izaya said curtly.

He heard Shizuo walk behind him and breathed in preparation for contact just before Shizuo’s fingers landed on his nape, trailing softly up to the tip of his hair. “Where are your sisters?” he asked.

“At a friend’s. Sleepover.”

Shizuo hummed. He stayed like this for a while, standing behind the couch with his hand working through Izaya’s hair and stroking the skin at its base until Izaya felt comfortable shivers crawl up his back, ears numb from pleasure and the beginning of warmth at the core of his belly. He didn’t know whether to feel grateful or not when Shizuo’s hand left him and Shizuo himself walked around the couch to sit down next to him.

“You do realize they’re never going to let you live this down,” Izaya stated after one of Hanejima Yuuhei’s commercial spots played silently.

“What do you mean?” Shizuo said against the lid of his coffee cup.

Izaya lightly nudged him with his foot. “Hanejima Yuuhei,” he clarified. “Mairu and Kururi are big fans. Mairu especially.”

“Oh.” Shizuo took a sip, and made a face against the no-doubt lukewarm bitterness. “Well. Kasuka is a big boy, I’m sure he can hold his own against two six-year-old girls.”

“At least promise me your family isn’t secretly running the country.”

“No,” Shizuo said, his smiled turned feral as he pushed his leg back against the pressure of Izaya’s foot. “We don’t have that unsavory Orihara blood.”

“I take offense in this,” Izaya pointed.

“Sure you do.”

Izaya laughed, bright and shaky and short, and Shizuo looked at him with eyes that only seemed to grow softer with every second they met Izaya’s.

The silence that followed was comfortable. Izaya let the sole of his foot rest against the curve of Shizuo’s leg, warmth seeping through his skin until he could forget the last of the shivers that had wrecked him on the way here. Shizuo toyed with the coffee he was probably not going to finish, eyes only darting away when his phone buzzed on the table, alight with a text Izaya guessed was from Celty. He didn’t feel cold at all anymore. Not with the open window and not with bad memories. Even so, Izaya brought himself closer to the heat of Shizuo’s body next to him, lifted a hand to turn his face around so he could press their lips together again.

Shizuo fumbled with his cup for a second, breaking away from the kiss with a whispered, “Sorry,” so he could put it down on the glass table. It rasped softly in the quiet but Izaya paid no mind to it; Shizuo was straightening his back again to push further against him, chest to chest so that his arm could curl around Izaya’s back and his hand could crawl up to grab his hair, tongue flickering hot against Izaya’s, bitter and wet and utterly satisfying. He only broke away this time to kiss roughly against Izaya’s temple. Izaya bowed his head down to escape the violent shudder that shook his chest and stick his own mouth to Shizuo’s neck instead. He tasted like salt. Like clean, dry skin, taut over muscle and bone at his shoulder and warm, warmer now with the contact that made soft little breaths escape his mouth, level with Izaya’s ear.

Shizuo’s hand glided down Izaya’s back to rest at the edge of his shirt. Izaya lifted his head to kiss him again, open-mouthed and greedy, eyes half closed so he could see as much as feel the satisfaction of Shizuo’s eyelashes fluttering shut against his cheekbone and the awkward press of their noses.

Izaya didn’t jump when Shizuo’s fingers crept up underneath his clothes this time. Instead he arched into the touch and let his throat make sound against the acute pangs of heat in his stomach and the way his skin felt like fire after every trail of Shizuo’s fingertips against his spine, until they reached the hem of his binder, stuck to skin too tightly for any more feathery touches. Still, Shizuo tugged at it, short and willful, and Izaya closed his mouth to bite lightly at Shizuo’s upper lip.

Shizuo pulled away, one hand buried in Izaya’s hair and the other still caught between fabric and skin, gathering warmth in the friction. “Is this going where I think it’s going?” he asked. When he breathed out Izaya could feel it on his lips.

“If you want it to,” Izaya replied. He stroked Shizuo’s collarbone with his thumb, slowly, heavily, so that he could ignore the anticipation building up like anxiety at what Shizuo would say and focus instead on how warm he felt. He didn’t want to let go of that feeling. Not yet.

He needn’t have worried. Shizuo nodded with a smile and leaned down again, licking his lips and then Izaya’s, red and glistening and so hot he thought he might be able to feel it to the touch.

Izaya leaned back quickly. “Do you have lube and condoms?”

Shizuo stopped dead in his track at the question, the disappointed frown he was wearing enough of an answer. “No,” he said. “I wasn’t exactly expecting this. Maybe Shinra has some.”

“I’m not using Shinra’s condoms,” Izaya replied with enough distaste in his voice to be heard a mile around.

Shizuo chuckled, and came forward to kiss Izaya’s cheek. It flared at the contact. “I know. I was kidding.”

For a moment they stayed in each other’s space, Izaya’s thigh resting above Shizuo’s. Shizuo’s hand left Izaya’s hair to land on it instead, digging slightly in the soft of it through the fabric of Izaya’s jeans. And the low tug of want in Izaya’s belly didn’t go away.

“I’ll go buy some,” he said after a short second of struggle to find an even enough voice.

“You sure?” Shizuo asked.

“Yeah. Might be useful in the future even if we don’t do anything today.” Izaya kissed Shizuo again after standing up, ruffling his hair until it stood in spikes and waves on his head and no one could have looked at him without knowing Izaya’s hand had gone through it.

The air outside did nothing to cool him down this time. It prickled unfelt against his face, buzzed around him as if he was surrounded by a thin, impervious layer of something separating him from the touch of wind or cold. Izaya smiled, unashamed, at the salesman who took the opportunity to leer at him after scanning his purchase. “Keep the money,” he offered after handing out a few crumpled bills, and the man spluttered and reddened, forehead shining with sweat.

Tension was still threatening the loose slump of his back and shoulders as he walked, Izaya knew. One thought in the wrong direction and his confidence could crumble like dry leaves. But every time his mind wandered away from the slow glow of pleasure and want in his stomach he thought back to how good Shizuo had been to him and to the now freefalling trust Izaya had in him, to how in five minutes Shizuo’s presence had erased the gooish weight of worries and regrets that had plagued him before coming here. To harsh drag of Shizuo’s fingers against his skin. To how much he wanted this.

Shizuo was sat down again when Izaya came back inside the apartment. The TV was off and the coffee mug was gone to soak in the sink, and Izaya suffered a brief second of hesitation at the mouth of the hallway before Shizuo turned his head to look at him and pushed himself to his feet with one hand on the arm of the couch.

It didn’t feel wrong.

Izaya lightly pushed Shizuo against the wall with his free hand; Shizuo smile and followed suit until he was stuck between the clear wallpaper and Izaya’s body pressing against his entirely. Izaya fingers clenched onto the wall as he pushed himself upright to meet Shizuo’s mouth again. Shizuo grabbed him around the waist, dragging up his shirt to expose skin to air and then skin to hands, palms bracing into the crook of Izaya’s waist and thumbs digging into the soft of his hips, seeking the resistance of bone to massage until Izaya had to lift a thigh against Shizuo’s and press himself further in.

None of it felt wrong, not a second, not a feeling.

“I’m not doing this in the middle of the living room,” he panted into Shizuo’s ear, and Shizuo growled in approval and straightened up. He was, Izaya was glad to notice, walking a little awkwardly as he led them both to his room.

Izaya didn’t take the time to look around after closing the door, only walked into Shizuo again to pick up where they left off, grabbing the fabric of his shirt to lift it above his head as far as he could without tiptoeing outright, finding glee and another beat of want at the sight of his skin so stark in the soft light. He dragged his fingers down Shizuo’s torso and clashed their lips together again, more breath than kiss in the immediacy while Shizuo fumbled to open the buttons at Izaya’s collar—just enough for room, just enough so that Izaya could step back again and get rid of it himself.

He wasn’t naked enough to feel self-conscious. And yet, when Shizuo’s eyes looked down to the off-white scar next to his bellybutton and lowered a hand to trace the length of it, weightless so that only the thin hairs on Izaya’s skin could rise to actually meet the pad of his index, Izaya felt as though he was already standing nude, all of himself bared to the eye. Readable.

Shizuo didn’t linger too long on it. He shook his head to the side, dragged his hand up again to slip under the elastic front of Izaya’s binder. “How do you take this off,” he muttered, disbelief on his face and fingers hovering around the edges without knowing where to grab, and Izaya laughed and said, “With lots of training.” He spared Shizuo the pain of trying it himself. The nylon and spandex stuck to his skin from the sweat and the heat, burning as he crossed his arm before him to pull it off his skin too fast and too harsh. But it was off at least, and Izaya lost no time to awkwardness, walking back into Shizuo’s space to kiss him again, lungs expanding to fullness and damp skin cooling before Shizuo stroked up his waist to revive it back to heat.

Shizuo traced along the red lines etched into the sides of Izaya’s breasts from the hour-long binding. “Is this okay?” he asked softly. He wasn’t looking down. He was meeting Izaya’s eyes with none of the instinctive backtracking he had displayed when Izaya came out so many weeks ago.

“It’s more than okay,” Izaya answered. Shizuo’s thumb brushed against his nipple and Izaya hooked his fingers into the waistline of Shizuo’s pants to catch his footing against the rush of shivers running up his body.

Shizuo kissed him deeply while he touched him, stepping backwards to the edge of the bed and then sitting down, pulling Izaya with him to sit across his lap. Izaya sighed when they parted, and then stumbled on his breath as Shizuo bowed down to press teeth and lips to his throat in a mimicry of a bite, trailing downward to repeat it against the inside of his breast while his hands slipped under Izaya’s jeans and underwear. He tugged him closer like this, until Izaya’s ass sat just above his crotch and Izaya had to think to breathe in for the way their skins stuck together and heat gathered between his legs.

“Take your pants off,” Shizuo said against him, and Izaya’s voice closed off the threat of a groan as he fumbled with his button and zipper. Shizuo’s hands lifted Izaya’s hips just enough so he could kneel up instead of sit down and they could start pulling at the denim.

They had to fall to the side eventually so Izaya could squirm out of it. Shizuo kissed lower down Izaya’s chest still, until he reached the scar and licked on the new skin there in striking echo to the fire beneath. Either it was more sensitive than the rest of his body or Izaya had linked the memory of pain to it too strongly, but it felt like too much, too shuddering to be pleasurable, and he pulled Shizuo’s head upward and away from it. Shizuo made an apologetic sound from the back of his throat. He crawled back up, slower this time, kissed Izaya’s chin and then his lips, softly.

Izaya roamed a hand over the bedspread until he heard and felt the crease of a plastic under his fingers. He dragged the bag to Shizuo, who nodded before going for his own pants with shaky movements, lifting his hips over the bed to drag down out and underwear at once.

The pack of condoms ripped open easily under Izaya’s fingers. The lube spilled across his palm when he pressed too hard on it, but he didn’t care much at the moment—it was much more important to finally, finally close his hand around Shizuo’s cock and hear Shizuo’s voice break, “Shit,” hot against his ear when Izaya dragged his hand up and squeezed, and then feel Shizuo’s hand close around his own to catch slick against the overspill of lube and move aside, brushing up Izaya’s thigh and pressing between his legs.

Izaya couldn’t help the jump of heat in his veins any more than he could the way his grip tightened on Shizuo’s sex past the point of pleasure. “Sorry,” he panted, teeth closing to bite at his own lip when Shizuo started stroking until he pushed the tip of a finger inside. It wasn’t painful, or very sensitive in general—but the press of Shizuo’s thumb on Izaya’s clitoris and stretch of his fingers and the prospect of his cock, still hot inside Izaya’s hand, were all enough to make blood rush to his belly, fast and then sluggish with the edge of orgasm, and Izaya had to control his breathing now, use his other hand to dislodge Shizuo’s thumb and encourage the open-palmed press of his hand against his pelvic bones instead in a more manageable kind of pleasure. He didn’t want to come yet.

Shizuo was three fingers in when Izaya hitched a leg around his hip and turned his head to lick against his open mouth, eyes shut from the languid burn in his veins more than out of real necessity. “I’m ready,” he said.

“All right,” Shizuo replied heavily. He moved then, kneeling between Izaya’s legs rather than across them, and he took hold of Izaya’s wrist, urging him to release his almost unconscious grip so that he could open the plastic wrapping of one of the condoms and unroll it on himself. He lined up with him then, one arm as a pivot beside Izaya’s head and the other hooked under his thigh to angle himself better. Izaya breathed in harshly at the last of the painless stretch, let out a short moan when Shizuo dropped down to mouth against his neck once more as he started thrusting slowly.

Izaya,” Shizuo groaned, damp breath on sweat-slick skin and his hand trailing down from the high of Izaya’s thigh to the crease of his knee, a tickle not unlike electricity that made Izaya’s leg jump and his back arch to fit himself better against Shizuo. Izaya’s stomach felt tight, knotted hard and still from the weight of sheer physicality and the relentless feeling of Shizuo inside him, Shizuo’s hand roaming back up to brush his hip and his waist and plant itself palm-first against his ribcage where his heart must be beating strong enough to be felt, to be heard. It made the flow of blood in his heard audible against his own ears and his breath shorten so as to seem uncatchable. As if he was drowning. As if he was lying here exempt of oxygen with only Shizuo’s shoulders as a lifeline to hang on to, to drag down to himself so he could crush their mouths together again and suck in the air from Shizuo’s lungs.

He moved, at one point, too full with energy to lie down. He threw his leg farther up the line of Shizuo’s body to make him tumble to the side, climbed back on top of him to take him back inside at a faster pace and pull Shizuo’s hands to rest at his hips himself, bracing, anchoring. He felt a good kind of drunken, warmer than he had even in the throes of heat waves this summer. His back rippled with it, damp when Shizuo grabbed him there to push him down into a kiss, and when he felt Shizuo’s hold tense and his breath rattle against his lips Izaya didn’t stop, only locked his thighs around Shizuo’s hips to hold him down and stick himself to the length of his body. Shizuo came with a tremor, and Izaya wished he could absorb the feel of it as he did the sight of Shizuo’s forehead relaxing into bliss and his wet mouth opening to a shuddering inhale.

Izaya took a few seconds to calm the race of his blood, to unknot the muscles around his hips and fall down to the side, legs still thrown haphazardly across Shizuo’s. He didn’t move when Shizuo sat up to take off the condom and throw it in the garbage can next to the bed. He only breathed when Shizuo lied back down to look at him.

“Did you come?” he whispered.

The restless hiss of Izaya’s exhale would have been enough of an answer even if he hadn’t shaken his head. Shizuo threw a hand around his middle to pull him toward him, back to front, and then dragged his fingers through the coarse hair of Izaya’s sex and put his mouth to Izaya’s nape to kiss and nibble.

He worked Izaya through a slow, groggy orgasm, stroke after stroke of nimble fingertips until Izaya had to curl away from the contact rather than into it. His other arm was laid across Izaya’s chest, hand resting against the hollow of his neck where his heartbeat distended skin. After he was done Shizuo covered the scar on Izaya’s belly with his palm, wet fingers on his skin and damp body to his back and the press of his mouth against Izaya’s hair, as secure a hold as one could get.

Night was falling now. Sweet and slow like a man’s last breath.

The shower they took afterward almost ended up being more than just a shower. In-between the kisses Shizuo bestowed on the line of Izaya’s shoulders Izaya could feel firmness from more than muscle and bone, and if left to contemplate the idea with clarity he knew he could grow back the same amount of heat in answer. But there was sweetness and pleasure to be found in the drag of Shizuo’s fingers massaging foreign shampoo into Izaya’s scalp also, another kind of proximity in standing naked in the yellow light of the bathroom, tinted down from the blurry glass pan holding the shower stall close. They were tired as well; with the overall exhaustion that followed sexual gratification and made one feel as though every muscle in the body had been worked through at once.

Izaya threw the bedspread in a corner of the room and made his way under the blanket wearing nothing but boxers and an old, worn-soft top Shizuo lent him. Shizuo spent some more time up before joining him—fixing the dishes in the kitchen, closing the window against the now chilly night air. It didn’t matter. All Izaya could care about was the comfortable lean of his own body in an actual bed, for the first time in more than a year. He stretched his legs as far to the sides as they could go, satisfied to notice that if he lied in the middle of the mattress he couldn’t reach any edge.

“Make some room,” Shizuo grumbled when he came back. Izaya rolled back to the side and waited for the shift of blankets and sheets as Shizuo joined him under the cover.

For a second fear gripped him, irrational and unstoppable, that they would sleep like this on opposite ends of the bed; but then Shizuo threw an arm around him to pull himself closer, not as tight as before, but enough that Izaya could feel the warmth of his body behind him.

He hadn’t thought it would feel this comfortable. The weight of Shizuo’s arm over him would become too much after a while, as would the proximity, but right now, with his body still limp from physical exertion and the slow drum of the shower against his skin, he couldn’t have moved for the world. It was too dark to make out the room around him or examine the pictures he had glimpsed while entering earlier. Shizuo’s fingers brushed against his collarbone, from the base of his neck to the top of his chest, and Izaya closed his eyes.

“That was great,” Shizuo mumbled sleepily behind him.

“Thanks,” Izaya mocked.

“Don’t be an ass.” His grip tightened playfully. Izaya let himself relax further into the hold, still too alert to really feel the tug of sleep but open enough to it that he knew he could find it soon. Shizuo shifted a little closer. He took his arm back to link it under Izaya’s own and around his waist this time, thumb under his breast and palm braced against his side.

“Why did you come here?” he said.

Izaya turned his head back as much as he could. “What do you mean?”

“You never just come here unannounced,” Shizuo explained. “I figured you were upset about something.”

He didn’t sound suspicious. Just worried. It was ultimately this that made Izaya answer at all.

“I was thinking about my parents,” he said, “and about how terribly I’ve taken care of my sisters.”

He felt Shizuo brace himself up, saw his concerned face hovering over his own in the corner of his vision. “What are you talking about?”

Izaya turned to his other side so he could face him. “The mother of the kid I left Mairu and Kururi with said I was a great person for taking them in,” he continued.

“And this means you’re bad at taking care of them… why?” Shizuo was frowning now, all traces of sleep vanished from his features.

“Because I am,” Izaya answered simply. His energy was too long gone for anger to rise or shame to lock him down. “You know it. You saw how I was a few months ago.”

“But you changed.” Shizuo’s hand came to rest on his neck. “You got better at it.”

“It’s not enough,” Izaya replied. His throat felt tight again, body too slow to react but mind always racing—”I still let my six-year-old sisters do their mourning alone.” He swallowed. “They don’t even talk about their parents in front of me. It’s like they’re scared I’ll get mad.”

“They’re your parents too,” Shizuo said softly, but Izaya shook his head.

“It’s not- it’s not the same.”

They both stayed silent for a moment. Shizuo’s hand was warm against Izaya’s neck. He could probably feel every painful swallow with the heel of his palm. Izaya wished he would crush it down.

“Do you want to talk about your parents?” Shizuo asked finally.

No, was Izaya’s first thought, but then, Maybe, slower and deeper, a need buried for so long now trying to fight its way out of his mouth and into his brain where he could never hide it again. He raised his eyes to meet Shizuo’s. There was no judgment there.

“It’s a stupid story,” he said at last.

“It’s not stupid if you want to tell it.”

Izaya rolled his eyes. Blinked away the blurriness. Shizuo smiled.

“Kyouko—my mother, she was a very busy woman.” His voice came out lower than he would have preferred, with the evidence of struggle in it like rocks on a road. “Not home very often. My father was a journalist. He pretty much followed her on every trip she took. I spent a lot of time with sitters as a kid.”

Shizuo lied back down on the pillow, face level with Izaya’s, so that the air he breathed out of his nose came to shiver on the edge of Izaya’s chin. He didn’t move his hand away.

“I’ll spare you the details, but my mother wasn’t very happy about the whole,” Izaya winced, “gender thing. I think she just didn’t understand it. My father was a little more open, but he never said anything Kyouko didn’t approve of, so he never said anything at all about it. Anyway.” He breathed out slowly. “She didn’t like that I cut my hair and dressed like a boy. She was never violent about it—just disappointed. I figured she wasn’t going to change her mind when I was sixteen, so I moved out.”

“That’s pretty young,” Shizuo commented, still in the same even tone.

“Yes, well. I’m resourceful,” Izaya taunted. Shizuo snorted softly at that.

There was a moment of silence. Izaya tried to sort through his memories without losing hold of the calm Shizuo’s presence allowed him.

“I think she changed after the girls were born,” he said, softer now. “I came to see her in the hospital. She called me by the right name for the first time that day. I thought maybe she was just tired and confused from giving birth, but-” He stopped. Swallowed. “I think, maybe, she wanted to get to know me. Try to fix things between us.”

Maybe giving birth had reminded Kyouko that she had another child. Izaya hadn’t cared back then—he had come to visit more out of brief curiosity and a strong need to show he was okay living on his own than out of real concern for his newly born sisters. But Kyouko had said, “Hello, Izaya,” with two babies in her arms and circles like bruises under her eyes. She had always called him Izaya after that day. And when Izaya had adopted Mairu and Kururi after the funeral—they had never called him anything other than brother. As if that was what he had always been introduced as their whole lives.

Izaya cleared his throat. “I guess we’ll never know,” he said hoarsely.

Shizuo’s hand shifted to his nape, to the hair at the back of Izaya’s skull so he could pull him forward into a brief kiss. “I’m sorry,” he said. Izaya shook his head, and their noses brushed.

“I can deal with it,” he replied. “I’ve dealt with it before. But I shouldn’t have let my sisters feel like they can’t talk about their own mom in front of me.”

“You know I’m not the one you should be having this conversation with,” Shizuo murmured.

Izaya let out a brittle laugh. “I know.”

Sunday was Izaya’s only day off, and after leaving Shizuo’s place and picking up the girls from Kuronuma Aoba’s still pretty, still expensive building lot, he spent it walking around the streets of Ikebukuro with them.

It was sunny, warmer than it had been all week. To Kururi’s greatest joy the sidewalks were littered with freshly-fallen leaves. She stepped in them, reveling in the dry, creaking sounds they made under the soles of her boots. Mairu tried to walk in her step without crushing a single one in turn.

He let them run wild inside West Gate Park; it was still early enough that almost no one was up except for an old lady walking her dog and a couple of college students who didn’t seem to have slept at all. Mairu appropriated one of the swings for more than an hour. Kururi kept up the leaf-stepping for most of that time until she tired of it and came to sit beside Izaya on the bench, both of her gloved hands holding Izaya’s elbow.

“I’m hungry,” Mairu complained when she finally relented the Orihara Swing to another kid. “I want ice cream.”

“In this weather?” Izaya said tiredly.

Mairu stared at him, completely unimpressed. “Yes.”

Finding an ice cream parlor in Ikebukuro in the middle of fall wasn’t an impossible task, as it turned out. They had to walk a long way from the park, and Mairu complained endlessly—except when they walked by Russia Sushi, which Izaya steered them both away from despite the way their eyes lit up at the extravagant display—but they found one not far from their school, crushed between an attorney’s office and a grim apartment building. It looked almost decrepit. The owner watched them with wide eyes as they ate.

“Do you want to go home?” he asked them when they were finished. As expected, half of the ice cream was left behind in their cups, too cold on their numb tongues now.

They both nodded. Izaya didn’t think they’d had much occasion to sleep if Kuronuma Aoba was half as excitable as his mother had made him out to be.

Mairu and Kururi fell asleep on the couch almost as soon as they sat down. Izaya felt drowsy himself despite the most comfortable night he had had in a year, but with the couch taken he didn’t want to borrow the girls’ bedroom. And it really was their bedroom now; with school-assigned drawings hanging from the back wall alongside an especially tacky poster of Shizuo’s brother in a vampire outfit, the provenance of which Izaya couldn’t begin to guess at. There were socks and shoes strewn on the floor, and the bed was unmade from a previous nap—most likely during Izaya’s work hours the previous day.

He would soon have enough money to rent a bigger apartment, one with room for two beds instead of one. Izaya had started looking about a month prior, had a notebook full of references and prices and locations already. One offer was especially tempting—a three-room place with bright windows and good isolation, a few yards away from Kawagoe Highway.

His phone buzzed inside his pocket. You left with my shirt, Shizuo was saying, the accusatory tone belied by the memory of his hold still so stark inside Izaya’s mind.

Come and get it, he texted back.

It buzzed again a second later.

The girls woke up mid-afternoon, with creased brows and dry mouths and the usual apathetic moodiness of too-long naps. Izaya gave them some water and turned the TV on to some kids’ show doing a rerun of several episodes. They latched onto it with the intensity of a few grown men watching baseball and started whispering together almost as soon as the characters were introduced.

“I like the pink one,” Mairu said at one point, loud for Izaya’s benefit.

“He’s definitely the prettiest of the lot,” Izaya approved after a brief glance at the screen.

It made her giggle. Kururi leaned backward to look at him with a bright smile.

Eventually the rerun ended, with a cliffhanger and a promise for more the following week. Izaya pushed himself upright. “I’ll make dinner.”

“I want ramen!” Mairu called immediately.

Izaya snorted. “No way. You had ice cream for lunch, I’m making vegetables.”

“Unfair,” Kururi threw in, but she didn’t look upset about it.

Izaya went through the motions of making and eating dinner with his mind in a haze. Shizuo’s words and his own from the previous night kept replaying themselves to him, slowed down to their essence and mixed with the feeling of close contact and comfort. His fingers grabbed the hem of the old, soft shirt he was wearing—the logo on the front faded to whiteness from too many turns inside a washing machine. Worn and shapeless.

“Mairu, Kururi,” he said before they could leave the table and take the dishes to the sink. Their heads lifted up as one. He breathed out slowly. “I need to talk to you about something.”

Their eyes stayed fixed on him for so long he thought they would never leave again. But Kururi opened her mouth and asked, “What is it?”

Izaya’s words got stuck in his mouth. For a brief second he felt the threat of panic and shame weigh against his conscience and almost win—and maybe it would have, in another world. But he clenched his hand around the soft fabric of Shizuo’s shirt and said, “I wanted to apologize.”

He thought they might ask what for. But their faces stayed the same, open, patient, as if they had consciously waited for this moment to come.

“I’m sorry that I made you think-” he choked, but made himself continue. “I’m sorry that I left you both alone to deal with their deaths. With mom and dad’s deaths. I shouldn’t have done that. I should’ve been here for you, and I wasn’t, and I’m so sorry.”

His throat hurt now, a bright ache going up to his head and making his eyesight blur with unmistakeable tears, so he dug his fingers into his eyelids to push them back until he finished.

“And I want you both to know that if it’s not too late, you can still come to me for anything,” he said, and the words stumbled out of his mouth with abandon now, unstoppable and endless, “you can talk about mom and dad whenever you want. You can ask me questions about them if you want. You can ask me anything.” He took a shuddering breath. “And no matter what, I love you. I love you so much. You’re the most important people in my life. I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you.”

He couldn’t see anything anymore but he kept his eyes open, kept wishing the tears to retreat and not spill over to burn down his face so he could witness theirs instead.

He felt hands on him—one pair holding his and another tugging at his elbow until the hand still on his face fell down his side and small fingers linked with his, unbothered by the wetness of his own tears. He blinked the rest of the burn away from his eyes, saltwater running down his face and dropping from his chin. He couldn’t breathe through his nose anymore. But he could see.

“Silly Iza-nii,” Mairu said at him. She hooked her free arm around his middle and buried her face against his hip, fingers still clenched tight with his. “We love you too.”

Kururi pressed against his other side with her head lifted to his. “We love you too,” she repeated. Like an evidence. Like an unshakeable truth.

Izaya’s sobs felt like laughter.

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