Bakuman is owned by Tsugumi Ohba and Takashi Obata
Mashiro felt uneasy as he stood in front of the residential gate. It was Miho's home. He hadn't stepped inside since the day of the incident.
He remembered that day vividly. As per tradition, the three friends stopped by at Miho's after school. Miyuki, Miho's mother, served the kids lemonade and they talked for a bit about their day. Miyuki was as cheerful as ever chatting away at the dining table.
"You know, I'm thinking about moving after Miho graduates," she confessed. "Somewhere quieter, like Enoshima or Osaka. What do you think?"
Kaya gladly began listing available moving places for Miyuki. As Kaya droned on, Mashiro turned to look at Miho, who was cleaning dishes near the kitchen sink. Though her back was turned, Mashiro could tell there was something wrong with her. He could tell by the languid way Miho scrubbed at a bowl, how she hadn't even bothered to keep up with the conversation. When Miho caught Mashiro's glance, she gave him a small smile, as if to assure him that she was fine.
I should've asked her about it in person. I should've known that something was up.
Mashiro's guilt was a paperweight against his chest, sinking further into a deep trench. He didn't have time to mope, though. Takagi insisted that they go back to 'the scene of the crime', and was adamant to see their mission through. The scruffy-head was about to ring at the doorbell.
"Wait," said Mashiro. He spoke in a nervous spurt, low and a little scratchy. Takagi stopped mid-press, his arm reclining back along his side. The other teen cleared his throat of its scratchiness before speaking.
"Takagi, I think it might be better if I went in alone. Miyuki—I mean, Miho's mother, she might be creeped out talking about this with a stranger, even if I'm there."
A short hum escaped Takagi's lips before answering. "Can you handle going in there alone?" he asked.
Mashiro looked back at the house. The overwhelming feeling of dread and anxiety whirled wild in the pit of his stomach. Now that he thought about it, going to 'the scene of the crime' alone seemed the worst possible option. In fact, going into the house at all seemed too much a challenge at the moment. If anything, Mashiro almost felt like running away. Almost.
"Maybe not," he admitted. Mashiro looked back at Takagi; his brows sloped down, the corners of his mouth stretched into an apologetic smile.
"We can go another day," said Takagi.
"No, I handle it." If I don't try now, I might never get up the courage again.
Takagi pressed the doorbell. It was only a minute before the boys heard the buzzing whirr of the house intercom.
The voice was clearly Miyuki. Mashiro was quick to answer her, pressing the intercom button.
"Hey, Miyuki. It's me, Mashiro."
"Mashiro? Just wait a moment."
Seeing her walking out to open the gate, Mashiro could recognize the toll Miho's disappearance had upon her mother. Though Miyuki seemed as bright as she ever was, there was a slowness to her step. When she smiled towards Mashiro, the expression seemed more forceful than the natural grin she had that afternoon before the disappearance.
"Oh Mashiro, it's so good to see you."
Her eyes glimmered with curiosity upon seeing Takagi. "Now who might you be? Mashiro's friend?" Miyuki inquired most pleasantly.
"Um, he's—" Mashiro didn't quite know the right way to introduce the scruffy-headed teen. To say that Takagi was his friend was about as truthful as saying a wolf accidentally ate a sheep. On the other hand, anything other than that would sound suspicious or strange—no one just says 'here's my accomplice' and gets away unscathed. To his relief, however, his accomplice needed no such guidance.
"Takagi Akito. I was in the same homeroom class as your daughter." The teen bowed his head in respect towards Miyuki. "It's nice to meet you, ma'am."
Miyuki, wide eyed at first, settled into a soft warm smile. "Likewise. Come in, I was just about to have some tea."
As Mashiro suspected, being inside the Azuki residence was doing no favors for his psych. The house was just as it was before—the same cheery wallpaper, the same fresh scent he always admired—all excluding the scattered papers in the living room and the rows of coffee mugs that sat by the sink. The boys sat down around the kitchen table as Miyuki poured their cups of green tea. As she served them their glass, she dispelled the observations of Mashiro, as if she peeked into his mind.
"I'm sorry for the mess. The police force left in such a hurry that they forgot to clean up."
Mashiro shook his head. "It's alright, Miyuki. It's not that much of a mess."
Miyuki gave a soft smile, sitting herself down at the table. She propped up her elbow and rested her head into the hammock of her palm. Mashiro could see much clearly her tiredness, how her closed lids seemed scrunched too tight and her voice lacking much of her liveliness.
"Kaya's not with you?"
The anxiety in Mashiro's stomach began to churn. He looked down at his tea cup in thought. Kaya had been staying home from school for the past couple of days. Mashiro's attempts to contact her were in vain; she refused to pick up any calls or texts from her cell phone. The teen shook his head, his expression grim.
"I don't know how to help her," he confessed. "It's like she's locking everything out."
Miyuki nodded. She crossed her arms upon the table, her voice calm and hopeful as she spoke.
"She'll be alright, Mashiro. I'm sure she'll reach out to you when she's ready."
Miyuki turned to Takagi, who was quietly drinking his tea, looking around with a curious eye. The scruffy-head looked very unsure of himself, which Mashiro couldn't help but smirk at. I guess he's not as outgoing as he makes himself out, he thought.
"So you're the famous Akito Takagi, huh? "said Miyuki.
Takagi set down his drink, swallowing before he spoke. "Oh, I don't think 'famous' is the right word…"
"But you're at the top student in the class, aren't you? Close to being the smartest student in the school. That's impressive."
Takagi scratched his head, his cheeks reddening a bit with embarrassment.
"I try my best," he answered. All the while, Mashiro looked on at his accomplice with interest. So he's the top of his class? Who'd have thunk?
"Yes, Miho—I mean, whenever I encouraged her to try being the top of her class, she'd say it was impossible. 'Only Takagi and Iwase are ever at the top,' she said. Iwase always comes in second place, too—she must be an amazing girl. "
Takagi made a nervous laugh, now scratching his neck. "Yeah, Iwase is very competitive…" he said in a wavering tone. Seeing the scruffy-head squirm in his seat was quite an amusing sight for Mashiro, the swarming anxiety in his chest dwindling into a more comfortable state.
"Miyuki," began Mashiro. It was taking most of confidence to just consider asking her the question.
"Miyuki, do you know anything about why Miho disappeared?"
Miyuki paused for a moment. She tucked strands of her hair behind her ear. Though she still had her youthful face, her dour expression aged her some, so much so that Mashiro was beginning to feel guilty for asking.
"As far as I can tell, my daughter had no reason for leaving the house. The last time I saw her, she was in her room studying for her math exam."
Mashiro shrugged into his chair. "Yeah, she told me about that. She texted me before she—"
The teen couldn't bring himself to say it again. He didn't want to hurt Miho's mother more than he already was.
Miyuki leaned forward , her hands clutching the edge of the table. "What did she tell you? Did she say anything?"
Mashiro shook his head. "We just talked. She, uh,"
He couldn't help but blush a bit, remembering how Miho confessed to him. Should I even tell her about that?
Miyuki spoke out right away, wide eyed and bright. "Did she confess to you?"
Mashiro blushed more vibrantly, turning into a deep tomato red. Soft stutters slipped from his lips as he tried to compose himself. In his peripheral vision he saw Takagi with a wide smirk, raising a thumbs up from underneath the table. As opposed to the preferable answer of smacking the smile off the scruffy-head's face, Mashiro settled for the less violent alternative of glaring.
Miyuki smiled. "I thought so. You two always looked so cute together."
"I-Is that so?" Mashiro couldn't help but laugh nervously, just as Takagi did. To avoid making even more of a fool out of himself, the teen went back to drinking his tea.
Takagi sat forward in his seat, adjusting his glasses. "Have the police found anything yet?" he said.
Miyuki looked down onto her hands, clasped together in her lap. "Nothing much. They've figured out that she did leave sometime after midnight, but things have been slow since then."
"And you still suspect that she was kidnapped?" Mashiro noted how surprisingly severe Takagi's voice was at that moment. His accomplice held a determined countenance, his brows as straight as his square rim glasses.
Taken aback, Miyuki looked up from her lap. There was a split second of fear—perhaps even knowing—in her eyes. Then, almost just as quickly, Miyuki answered in a calm voice.
"I did at first, but it's beginning to look more unlikely now."
"What about Otters? Have they found anything?" said Mashiro.
Miyuki paused before answering. "They're all doing the best they can."
Mashiro leaned in, about to speak, when Takagi lightly kicked his chair. Just leave it be, it seemed to signify.
"Sorry to be so nosy," said Mashiro.
Miyuki smiled softly, her tired eyes holding a hint of forgiveness. "It's alright," she said. "I'm so glad you came."
The boys left the house not soon after. It was now the late afternoon in Tokyo, the sky a blazing orange and yellow; the sun was about ready to recede into the city skyline. The suburb sidewalk was darkened with shadows, including that of the two teens, their long legs even skinnier in their silhouetted reflections. Mashiro was a few feet behind Takagi. The scruffy-head still held that serious look on his face, staring intently at the ground. Mashiro wiped off some sweat with the cuff of his sleeve, switched his book bag from one hand to another.
"Hey, slow down. You're walking too fast."
Takagi turned around. He looked almost surprised. "Oh, sorry Saiko."
Saiko? Is that my nickname now? As much as he wanted to complain, Mashiro felt too tired to put up much of a fight. Takagi stopped for the other teen to catch up before walking again, this time right next to Mashiro.
"I was just thinking about what Mrs. Azuki said. I think she knows more than she's letting on."
"And what makes you say that?"
"Just think, Saiko: why would the police not investigate you and your friend? If they had really been doing their job, they would have known that you three walked to school together from Mrs. Azuki."
Mashiro, struck by the realization of it, began to ponder himself. In the last few days, his family received no other word or notice about Miho's appearance, with the exception of Miyuki's call.
"If the police really are investigating, then why would Mrs. Azuki withhold such information? And why was she so adamant before about her daughter being kidnapped?"
Mashiro shrugged his shoulders. The weight of his anxiety began to settle back down in the pit of his stomach.
"And you think this all has to do with Otters."
Takagi looked back at Mashiro, with a spark in his eyes. "Exactly!"
"Now, just here me out," said Takagi. "The paper said that Otters was also involved with the investigation, right? Well, maybe Otters are the ones that are actually in charge of the case."
"All speculation," replied Mashiro.
"But you saw how she reacted to Otters. She freaked out! She paused before giving us her answer—an answer that, by the way, didn't really answer your question at all."
Mashiro thought back to Miyuki's words.
"They're all doing the best they can."
Despite the neutral tone of her voice, her words seemed too artificial then. The mention of Otters was definitely a reaction; what kind of reaction, Mashiro hadn't a clue.
"Then I guess we need to do more detective work, don't we?"
The corners of Takagi's mouth pulled wide into a bright smile. "That's the spirit, Saiko! I knew you'd believe me!"
"If by believe you mean I believe your argument's full of holes. Anyway, what's with 'Saiko'?"
"Well, if you read your name a certain way, it comes out Saiko. Clever, huh?"
"I'd prefer it if you didn't call me that. It sounds like 'psycho' to me."
"Oh hey, I just noticed that. You have a good ear, Saiko."
"Stop calling me that!"
The sunset streets of Tokyo, though covered in shadows, seemed less foreboding and lonesome for Mashiro as he walked home with his new, strange accomplice.
Come over here right now! It's important!
When Mashiro arrived at her house, Kaya was already waiting outside the residence gate. She was still wearing her pajamas, though she wore a coat over her pajama top. Unlike the usual high ponytail the girl often wore, Kaya's hair was let down, strands of locks curled on one side or another. Mashiro felt a bit overdressed in comparison, though wearing his old slip-on sneakers certainly helped.
Having ran all the way from his house (at the discouragement of his mother), Mashiro leaned against a bar of the gate, trying to catch his breath. As he looked up at Kaya, he could tell that she was in a worse state then before.
"You're late." She said it without her usual teasing; now he knew something was very off.
"Sorry. Phone was on silent."
Kaya kept her arms crossed, rubbing her arms to keep herself warm. Her face was a bit red—Mashiro couldn't tell whether it was from the cold evening breeze or from crying.
"Miho called me."
The words stuck him like a jolt of lightning. He almost lost his breath. "What?"
Kaya voice began to shake. Her arms wrapped around closer to her chest.
"I just couldn't go to school Mashiro. I just couldn't believe she could disappear like that. I-I just kept trying to call her, but no one would answer."
She leaned closer to Mashiro so that they were a few inches apart. A pocket of tears began to well up in her eyes.
"I was just about to give up until last night. My home phone rang. When I picked it up, it was Miho—I know it was her."
Kaya began to cry into Mashiro's shoulder. Unsure of himself, he brought one arm around her, pulling her into a hug. She continued to speak, even through the tears and stutters in her voice.
"She said, 'please save me!' The phone line was hung up before I could say anything else."
Mashiro's mind was in a whirlwind as he held Kaya in the Tokyo night air. 'Please save me'? Wouldn't that mean-
"I tried calling her back, but it said her number wasn't available. Everyone else I called-the police, the operator, they all say the call didn't happen, but I-!"
Kaya pulled away from Mashiro's shoulder, trying to clear her eyes of her tears, wiping her nose with her coat sleeve. As the last of her sobs began to settle down, Mashiro began to speak.
"We'll save her, Kaya."
"Huh?" Kaya looked up, brushing off the last couple of tears.
"I mean, if the police can't do it, then we need to take matters in our own hands. Me and Takagi are already going our own way about it."
"Takagi?" Kaya laughed softly, sniffling as she did so. "I guess I missed a lot while I was gone."
"I'll catch you up to date," said Mashiro, a small smile at the corner of his lips.
Kaya shook her head, arms crossed. "You idiot," she said in her teasing way. She continued in a more serious tone, her voice a bit scratchy from crying. "We're just kids, you know. Can we really save anyone?"
"We won't know until we try," said Mashiro. "It beats doing nothing."
Kaya said nothing at first. She looked out into the Tokyo sky, as if all the answers might fall into place if she searched hard enough. She soon looked away, turned her gaze towards Mashiro.
"Alright, Mister Detective," she said. "What did I miss?"