As promised, Souji returns the night of March twentieth: exhausted, pale, and sweating. But there's a glow in his eyes that tells all the story Dojima needs to hear.
Nanako fusses a little. She runs up and pulls Souji by the hand to the couch, then pushes him down and feels his forehead. Souji doesn't hide his smile. (Neither does Dojima.)
"Big Bro, you look sick! You can't get on the train tomorrow like this!"
Souji just chuckles and leans into her hand obediently. "Nice try; your father's already bought my ticket. I just overdid it a little...all I need is a good night's sleep."
Nanako takes up her index finger and waggles it at her cousin. "Don't pretend you're feeling better than you really are! You'll need a lot of healthy food and rest first," she says firmly, and then marches off towards the fridge.
Souji watches her putz around the kitchen with a fondness in his smile. Something solidifies in Dojima's stomach, warm and familiar, and suddenly it's decades in the past and he's looking up at his sister's face as she reaches down and ruffles his hair—the skin creases around her eyes to make room for that soft grin, the dimple in her left cheek, a gentle glow in steel-colored eyes for a younger sibling.
When he blinks again, he's moved to sit down beside Souji, who's looking at him mildly. (With sunlight and ceiling cracks and lying eyes, he sees apprehension.) "I don't suppose you'll tell me what the hell you were doing," he mutters, careful not to draw Nanako's attention.
Souji's head tilts back and lands against the couch with a soft thump. He breathes once, then meets his uncle's eyes. "No. But I can leave in peace now."
Dojima tenses. Sounds far too much like dying words. Souji might have caught that too, because he adds, "I finally found it. It's harder to go back now that I have, but—" He looks over, grinning like he's got every damn thing in the world figured out. "I know it now. The truth."
"The truth, huh?" Dojima's chin sets against his chest. "Of what?"
"Something you have to figure out yourself."
Souji laughs when Dojima does nothing but raise an eyebrow.
"It's easy, Uncle. I'll give you a hint." The teenager lifts a single hand up, stretches his fingers out, and clamps his fist shut in one motion. Grinning. Like every damn thing in the world figured out. "You just reach out to it."
Dojima drains his mug of coffee, glances at the clock, then shouts up the stairs. "Souji, come on! You're going to miss your train!"
There's an affirmative sound from above. Moments later his nephew descends, one bag slung over his shoulder and another hefted beneath his arm. "Where's Nanako?"
"Wait!" His daughter flies down the stairs, brandishing a digital camera that she holds up towards Souji. "I want to take just one more picture of you and me, Big Bro! So when you come back, I can remember exactly what we looked like before you left!"
Ryotaro glances at his watch. "Nanako, we really don't have time..."
"I still have one more bag upstairs, Uncle," Souji interrupts, setting the shoulder bag on the table. He's smiling as he crouches down and takes the camera from his cousin. "Would you mind getting it for me? This won't take more than a minute."
Dojima rubs the back of his neck and huffs out a consent before marching up the stairs. Souji's door is wide open. He presses a hand into each side of the door frame and leans forward, surveying the spare room that he'll probably never have the heart to use for storage again.
Empty is all he can think. The futon had been thrown in a closet that morning, the shelves are empty, the haphazard tower of books are cleared from the desk. The rug is rolled up and leaning against the far corner, and the curtains are spread wide open for the sunlight to stream in. Whatever had become of the weapons he found in this room months ago, they aren't here anymore.
Once he spots the bag on the couch, he steps forward into the room and lifts it, realizing a breath too late that it wasn't zipped up. Something clatters onto the floor. Ryotaro curses, dropping the bag, and stoops to pick it up.
It's...a video tape?
Nobody records on cassettes anymore. He turns it around in his hands: the tape is wound neatly, but the white strip of paper attached to the front has been ravaged with red permanent marker. There are definitely words there—and a number, he thinks—but the angry-looking scribble winding across label makes it impossible to make out.
He looks at the clock, then at the television seated across the room. Old thing. Not sure why he's kept it around, really; Souji never seemed to use it much except to nurse his strange obsession with the weather. But it has a functioning cassette player.
Before he realizes what it is exactly that he's doing, Dojima pushes the tape into the slot and flicks the T.V.'s power button. As the old, unused machinery whirs to life he walks over to the door and shuts it—just in case.
Hell, what is he doing? Turning your nephew's room upside-down is one thing when you find him hiding weapons, but he hasn't been on the force long enough to hear a story as stupid as someone being bludgeoned to death by a video cassette. He should push eject and turn off that television and put the tape back and walk downstairs right now—
A picture flickers to life on the screen. The first thing Dojima notices is the timestamp in the corner: 2003. Part of that technological gray area where some people still recorded tapes. This video is old, but not that old.
The second thing he notices is that the boy in the focus of the camera is Souji. Young, skin blanched even paler by the resolution, hair a bit shorter and shoulders a bit lighter. But he's memorized the set of that mouth and those gray eyes.
The third thing he notices is the single slice of cake sitting on a plate in front of Souji. The fourth is that the woman dressed in a business suit standing at the other end of the table is his sister.
Finally, he realizes that this is a home video of Souji's birthday.
"Have you made a wish, dear?" The sound of her voice strikes Dojima somewhere deep; it's not the one he remembers. Where there was warmth and cheer, now there is nothing but forced pleasantness, like she doesn't know how to talk to her own child. She checks her watch and he feels a snarl rise in his chest.
"Yes," Souji says. The sound dies in his throat. There is nothing in that voice. Empty as the rooms around them both. "I wish for the continued success of you and father."
"That's very practical of you, Souji," Ryotaro's sister says like she's the damnedest proud mother in the world.
"And how old is our son today?" The cameraman speaks, his voice tight and bordering on awkward. Dojima is suddenly unsure whether Souji's father was just humoring him with the question, or if he really had no fucking clue. He doesn't want to find out so much as he wants to find his brother-in-law and punch him in the face.
Souji's face is quiet as he stares down the single flickering candle on his cake. He looks more like a doll than a child. "Nine."
And suddenly he's decades in the past and looking up at his sister who stares coldly back—her face hard and pressed like her suit, arms stiffly at her sides, thin smile pulled only as far as it takes to fool a child, the dimple in her cheek replaced by wrinkled lines. Her eyes are still the color of steel and nothing else is there.
From the television speakers, a phone begins to ring. The camera turns towards his sister, who answers it right fucking there. "Hello? Yes, that's right. Is it an emergency? All right, we'll be—yes, but we're almost done. Right. We'll meet you." She puts the phone away and reaches out to touch the cameraman's shoulder. "Emergency meeting."
The picture swerves back to Souji one more time. His gaze never left the candle. "Looks like we'll need every bit of that wish, sport. You're a man now, so take care of the house while we're gone, okay?"
"Oh, I forgot!" Ryotaro's sister trots into the picture with her purse already slung over her shoulder. There's a small card in her hand that she sets in front of Souji. "You probably don't remember him, dear, but your Uncle Ryotaro sent you a birthday card."
The picture blurs as the camera is set on its side, still fixed on Souji. He hasn't moved an inch. In the background, Dojima can hear his sister muttering to her husband. "The card is very sweet, but idealistic—I suppose law enforcement really was the best career choice for Ryotaro. I hope Souji doesn't take after him—imagine, our son! Chasing down criminals!"
Souji, as though oblivious to his parents' loud chattering, reaches for the card and begins to read it. His expression shifts for the first time in the video—nearly imperceptible, but a there's a slight lift in his eyes. Dojima is grateful for even that much.
Souji folds the card neatly and leans forward to blow the candle out.
"Whoops, I left the camera on!"
The picture jostles once—then ends.
"Blind." Dojima's own voice rises just above the sound of whirring as the tape rewinds. Sunlight streams through the window, and his silhouette is cast on the T.V. "I've been so tied up with my own—so damn blind to the truth."
The cassette player clicks. He takes the tape, puts it back in the bag, and goes downstairs.
Nanako is still a bit red-eyed when they pull into the driveway, so he asks her to make them some coffee. There's something in the novelty of having an 'adult drink' that always cheers her up; she doesn't seem to realize that she's far more of an adult than she's meant to be already. With Souji gone, Dojima will have to change that himself.
As he's taking off his shoes at the door, it hits him like the train that pulled away with his nephew in tow: Souji is gone.
Not gone, because he has his cell phone and even promised to call the moment he was safely home. But 'home' doesn't mean the Dojima household for Souji anymore—it doesn't mean shuffling newspaper pages or the warm, lingering scent of rain or painfully cheery Junes jingles.
It means a cold room in an empty house at a big, dirty city with parents who can't remember his age or give enough of a fuck to give him one day a year.
There must something about that Dojima parenting.
Dojima stifles a curse for Nanako's sake, determined to distract himself. Might as well pack up Souji's T.V. into the garage. He climbs the stairs and enters what was Souji's room for the second time that day, but before he can make a beeline for the television, a spot of white under the coffee table catches his eyes.
Hell, he's snooped once today. Why not twice?
He bends down and reaches under the table, drawing away with what turns out to be a card. Must have fallen out of Souji's duffel bag with the video tape. Dojima turns it in his hands, only to have his heart jump into his throat when he reads the title:
Happy Birthday to a very special nephew!
Throat dry, Ryotaro opens the card. Sprawled across the page is the thick, unsteady scribble of his own handwriting.
Happy birthday, kiddo! I'd be surprised if you remembered me, but I'm your uncle Ryotaro. I keep trying to convince your mother to bring you for a visit, but I guess she doesn't want to come to a backwater town like Inaba, and your aunt Chisato hates the big crowds of the city. Women, huh? :)
Heck, your cousin Nanako just turned one a few months ago and still no dice. I had to see you in diapers, so you'd think your mom would return the favor! That's it: now that you're all grown up, see if you can heckle her into a family reunion.
It's all on your shoulders, kid! Melt her heart so we can be a family together.
Dojima swallows, his hand shaking as he reads the last line once more. Circled in red permanent marker is the phrase 'we can be a family together', and beneath it, in a less refined version of the writing he's seen on so many translation notes and book reports, is a single, bolded caption:
"Isn't your coffee getting cold?"
"Nah, we just poured it. We're waiting on a certain someone."
"Uncle, you didn't have to see the stewardess' face when I asked her to fill a mug I brought myself. I thought she was going to Galactic Punt me for a minute."
"Never mind. Ah—thank you, ma'am. Sorry for the trouble. All right, am I on speaker?"
"Yup! Hey, Big Bro!"
"Hey, Nanako. You know, you two still haven't told me why this is so important."
"It was dad's idea!"
"Let's just say I did some...reaching out, was it?"
"...I see. In that case, I'm ready when you are."
Dojima lifts his mug, and thinks that yeah, it's pretty easy to grin when you have every damn thing in the world figured out.