Slowly, painfully, Ritsuka began to wake up. Why did he hurt so much? Why was his head pounding? Was he sick? Would being sick make him hurt all over like this? Had he been in an accident? A car wreck or something like that? Slowly, he forced his eyes open and for a moment just stared at the white ceiling above him. He wasn't in his room, but he was lying down, so…
"Doctor Fujioka, please report to pediatrics. Doctor Fujioka, please report to pediatrics."
An announcement on a loudspeaker for a doctor? Was he in a hospital?
Slowly, his head turned and he could see someone standing close to him. "Soubi?"
"Nurse! Nurse, he's awake!" Soubi said loudly, scooting out in the hallway. "Nurse!"
Oh, yes, he was definitely in the hospital. A minute later Soubi was back with a nurse right behind him.
"Hello, Ritsuka-kun! It's good to see you awake at last! How are you feeling?"
"I hurt," Ritsuka said, wishing he could sit up. "What happened to me?"
For a moment, the nurse looked uncomfortable. "Ah, you were injured," she said. "Don't worry, the doctor says that you'll make a full recovery and be as good as new in no time!" Briskly she took his vitals and hurried out.
"I wonder how much coffee that woman drinks," Soubi reflected idly. "How are you really feeling, Ritsuka?"
"I hurt and I'm confused," he said. "Soubi, what happened to me? How was I injured?"
Ritsuka had learned to read Soubi's moods ever since the man had forced himself into Ritsuka's life months ago. He could tell the older man was considering not telling him. "I'd rather hear it from you than from some stranger, Soubi."
Soubi nodded. "I went to your house last night. You hadn't gone to school and you weren't answering your phone, so I…well, I basically broke in."
"It doesn't surprise me," Ritsuka said. "Go on. What happened?"
"Your mother had attacked you," Soubi said quietly, wishing he could spare the boy this pain. "When I got there, she was shrieking that she'd kill the strange child pretending to be her son. She had a knife in her hands and you were unconscious. I managed to get the knife away from her and call the police. Your father's not been found and your mother's in a psychiatric hospital right now. You were brought here and this is the first time you've woken up."
Ritsuka shifted on his pillows, his mind refusing to take the words in or understand them. His mother had said she'd kill him? "What did the police say?"
"Not much," Soubi confessed. "One of the medical people who responded to the call said that it looked like she'd had a complete mental breakdown."
It shouldn't have mattered. He'd always known his mother was unstable, so why was he feeling tears welling up in his eyes like this? All that had changed was the number of people who knew. His therapist had voiced her concern about his mother's mental health, he'd known his mother wasn't all right, his father had known, and now other people knew. Why did he feel like he wanted to cry now?
"It will be all right, Ritsuka," Soubi said. "You don't have to carry this burden anymore by yourself."
"What will happen to her?"
"Doctors will help her," Soubi promised. "She'll stay with them until she's better."
Soubi looked as if he wanted to launch into a stream of reassurances, but then the nurse was back. "I thought Ritsuka-kun would like something to eat. Something light, to start with, to see how you do."
"I'm not hungry," Ritsuka said flatly, eyeing the soup, bread, and juice on the tray.
"You should try to eat," the nurse insisted. "The doctor will be here soon and besides, you must be thirsty."
He was thirsty. "Maybe a little juice, then."
"I'll make sure he eats a little," Soubi promised the nurse.
Ritsuka didn't have the energy to throw a pillow at Soubi, but the urge was almost overwhelming. Over the next twenty minutes he sipped at the juice and let Soubi coax him to try some of the soup and bread. He was just finishing the last of the bread when the doctor arrived.
"It's good to see you're awake," he said, smiling. "I'm Doctor Otori. How are you feeling?"
"That's to be expected," Dr. Otori said, shining a light into Ritsuka's eyes. "You took a nasty whack to the head, so it's bound to hurt for a few days. I'll send some medicine up to you to help with the pain, so it's good that you've eaten. Do you feel dizzy or sick?"
"No. My head hurts and practically all of me hurts, but I don't feel dizzy or sick."
The doctor smiled. "That's very good. Later this afternoon, would you feel up to having a visitor? She's from our social services office and she'll be here to talk to you about what happened."
"All right," Ritsuka said. He was not looking forward to this.
The woman from social services was called Sayakawa Midori and she was, in Ritsuka's opinion, pretty nice. She wasn't the least bit silly, which he'd somewhat expected, but she was calm and kind and got to the point quickly. She asked Soubi for a bit of privacy with Ritsuka and then spent the next few minutes asking him questions about what had happened, how had his mother been acting lately, and where his father might be.
"I don't know," Ritsuka admitted at last. "I know he works, but I've never been to his office. There are times when I don't see him for days. Mostly it was me and Mom at home."
"And your mother? Has her behavior changed lately?"
He shrugged. He really didn't want to talk about it.
"Ritsuka-kun, it's important you tell me the truth so the doctors can help her get better. I know you might feel that you have to keep things secret. It can be scary to tell secrets, but if other people need to know what you have kept secret, then you have to be brave and tell them."
"She…yelled more often. Threw things at me. Screamed that I wasn't her Ritsuka. There were times when she wouldn't let me leave the house. She said that she wasn't letting me go anywhere until I brought her Ritsuka back. Then, she would change. She'd hug me and say how happy she was to have me back and that she wouldn't let anyone take me away from her again." Those times, in his mind, had been scarier than the times she'd yelled at him. It was as if she was truly a different person. She'd cuddle him, couldn't stand for him to leave the room, and she'd make him eat so much food (all of "Ritsuka's" favorites) that he thought he'd burst.
"And what happened yesterday?"
"I don't know what I did," Ritsuka confessed. "All I said was that I was leaving for school and then she...started yelling at me again. Started screaming. I couldn't make any of it out. She wouldn't let me leave. For most of the day she kept yelling, but sometimes she got quiet. If I tried to leave the room she'd start screaming and throwing things again, so I stayed quiet. Then...I don't know. I think she threw something and it hit my head and..."
A knock on the door, and there was Dr. Otori. "Midori-san, may I see you for a moment?"
"Oh, of course," the social worker said, getting to her feet. "I'll be right back, Ritsuka-kun." She pulled the door closed behind her as she went out, but it didn't quite close, and Ritsuka could catch some of what they were saying.
"Evidence of multiple injuries over a great deal of time...poorly nourished...countless bruises in various states of healing...actually had broken bones that didn't set quite right...puncture wounds..."
He was starting to feel cold. Cold and scared, actually. Strangers who became interested in him...that always lead to trouble. He wasn't sure he could take any more trouble for the time being. He had the Seven Moons to think about...although, they hadn't shown up for a while. Still, he wanted to solve the mystery of Seimei's murder. Having that take a back seat to something so mundane as strangers being concerned about his home environment would be more than he could stand.
"Thank you, doctor," he heard Midori-san say before she slipped back into the room. "Ritsuka-kun, there's something else I'd like to ask you."
"What is it?"
"Why didn't you tell anyone about how your mother was treating you? She's been hurting you for a long time, hasn't she?"
How could he explain it? How could he explain that the pain he suffered every day at his mother's hands was suitable punishment for him? Punishment for him not being the correct Ritsuka...for not being stronger...for forgetting who he was... "I was scared." That was an answer he knew she would accept.
"You've been very brave answering my questions today," she said, retaking her seat. "Ritsuka-kun, do you have any other family aside from your parents?"
Ritsuka thought about it. "I...don't know. I think my father has a sister somewhere...or maybe she's a step-sister."
She nodded and opened a file folder. "Hmm. The only emergency contacts listed in your school files are your parents and a...an Agatsuma Soubi. Is that the young man who's been sitting with you since you were brought in last night?"
"That's Soubi," Ritsuka confirmed. "He's my older brother's friend."
She nodded. "Your brother...now, he died, correct?"
Ritsuka nodded, wadding the edge of the blanket up in his hands. "He'll spend time with me sometimes. We'll talk, play video games, make memories..."
"Take photos," Ritsuka clarified. "I feel like if I don't have pictures of something I'll forget it, so I call taking photos 'making memories.'"
Midori smiled. "I see. You know, one of the nurses told me that he hasn't left you since he found you."
"Soubi's like that," Ritsuka said. "I heard him say once that he feels he has to take care of me in place of my brother." That wasn't strictly true...Soubi had said that to Yuiko and she'd repeated it to him.
"It sounds like you have a good friend," Midori said. "Well, I think I've tired you out enough for one day. I'll be back tomorrow morning, all right? We'll talk some more then."
Soubi was there shortly after Midori left. "Is there anything you need, Ritsuka?"
Ritsuka shook his head. "No, there's nothing." He stopped and turned on his side, facing Soubi. "Soubi...what's going to happen? Mom's in the hospital and Dad's...well, I don't know where he is."
"Don't worry, Ritsuka. Things will be all right. I promise."
Midori was back the next morning, bearing a get-well-soon basket of sweets. "Don't let the nurses see you eating any of this, though," she said mischeivously. "I've been in contact with several people about you Ritsuka-kun."
Ritsuka felt his nerves spiral tight. "What did they say?"
"Well, we can't locate your father and he does have a step-sister, but she isn't willing to take you," Midori said. "It seems that she and your father never got along. However, we do have someone willing to take you."
"Take me? You mean, I can't go home?"
"There wouldn't be an adult there with you, and you can't live by yourself, Ritsuka," Midori told him.
"Where will I go?" Ritsuka asked, feeling a little lost. He was already feeling a little forlorn since Soubi had disappeared before he'd woken up that morning, leaving a note saying that he'd be back later after he'd taken care of something important. He could understand that sometimes there were things that had to be taken care of, but it would have been nice to see a friendly face as soon as he'd woken up.
"Agatsuma Soubi has agreed to take you."
For a moment, his mind absolutely refused to take any of those words in. "Take me? You mean, I'll live with Soubi?" He didn't see how this would be possible. For one, Soubi's apartment was already crowded with three roommates. Would there be room for him?
"Of course you'll live with Soubi," Midori said. "He told me this morning that he's arranged for a house big enough for the two of you."
Ritsuka didn't want to think about how Soubi got the money for an entire house. "Couldn't Soubi stay with me at my house?"
"We'd need your father's permission for that, Ritsuka, and since we can't locate him..."
Ritsuka nodded. "Okay. I'll be staying with Soubi, I suppose." He wondered what this woman would say if he told her about all the times Soubi had kissed him and the hints he gave...no, best not to mention those things. If he became annoying in that manner again, he'd threaten Soubi with a call to social services about him. If he wanted Ritsuka to stay with him, then he'd learn to behave. At least, he hoped Soubi would behave. "Is that where Soubi is now? Getting the house ready?"
"He didn't say," Midori admitted. "He did say he'd be back later. The doctor said that you might get to leave the hospital tomorrow morning. Would you like that?"
"It's no fun being in the hospital," Ritsuka said. "Yes, I'd like that."
Soubi wasn't back that day until almost dinnertime. Ritsuka had spent the day flipping through magazines or watching television or being bored out of his mind. Whenever he tried to nap he kept dreaming of his mother and what she'd said, so none of his naps lasted long. He was staring listlessly out the window when Soubi arrived, bearing flowers.
"What's this?" Ritsuka said, staring at the huge bouquet in Soubi's hands.
"A little get-well gift," Soubi said, putting the flowers into a vase. "I stopped by your school and got your assignments, too, and I saw Yuiko."
Despite himself, Ritsuka felt a spark of interest at the mention of his friend. "Is she all right?"
"Worried for you, but other than that, she's fine. She helped me pick out the bouquet, but she had to get home before her parents, so she couldn't come with me to see you. How are you feeling?"
"I'm all right. The doctor says I can leave the hospital tomorrow morning."
"The lady from social services said that I'll be staying with you. That you offered to take me."
"I'm more than happy to," Soubi answered with a smile.
"Aren't you a college student?"
"Aren't college students supposed to be poor and always worried about money? How can you afford a house?"
"I had some money left to me by my mother," Soubi explained. "I always kept it tucked away just in case, and now, it's needed."
"I don't want you to spend money on me," Ritsuka said, feeling guilty that Soubi was using up his savings on him.
"Don't worry about it," Soubi said gently. "I won't suffer any hardship over this, I promise. Would you like to know what I've been doing all day?"
Since he was clearly eager to tell him, Ritsuka nodded. "What have you been doing?"
"I've been getting our house ready for you," Soubi answered. "Also, I packed up all your things from your parents' house and brought them over. Your room's all ready for you. In addition, I've been buying a few things we'll need. I hope you'll like where you'll be living."
"I'm sure it'll be fine," Ritsuka said politely. "Um...where will we be living?"
Soubi named a neighborhood only six blocks from Ritsuka's school. "You won't have to go far to school, and there are stores and the library nearby. I think you'll like it."
"Hmm." It was hard to work up any enthusiasm about it. More than anything, he wished that his hospital stay was over and that he...well, he couldn't go home, could he? His mother was in the hospital and his father...there were times when he wasn't sure what his father looked like anymore, he saw him so rarely.
Dinner arrived, both for him and for Soubi, who, it seemed, all of the nurses liked. They ate together, talking very little, and in the time between dinner and bed Ritsuka got started on his school assignments. He had nothing better to do and he figured that the sooner he started on them the sooner he would finish them. Studying on his own was no substitute for actually being in class, though, so he had to consult the notes Yuiko had taken for him and Soubi more than once over something. He'd just finished his math when Soubi insisted he set his books aside and get some sleep.
"Things won't look so bleak in the morning, Ritsuka," Soubi promised as he settled back in bed. "Sleep well."
Morning arrived, and with it, breakfast. Shortly after breakfast the doctor arrived for another exam.
"You've mended up pretty well," Doctor Otori said happily once the exam was finished. "Now, you'll have to come back a week from now for a check-up, but I think you'll be able to go home today."
"I'm glad," Ritsuka said. "Thank you, sensei."
"You're welcome. I know you'll be in good hands with Soubi-san."
A quick shower and some fresh clothing made him feel human again, Midori-san dropped by to say that she'd see Ritsuka next week, and then one of the nurses wheeled him downstairs, where Soubi waited for him with all the flowers and get-well gifts he'd received. Ritsuka thanked the nurse and followed Soubi out the door to a waiting taxi.
They didn't talk much during the ride to Soubi's house. Instead, Ritsuka gazed out the window, lost in his own thoughts. When they pulled up to a mid-sized house with a good-sized yard he was surprised. He'd passed it just a few days ago on his way to school, but now the FOR SALE sign was gone. "We're living here?"
Soubi nodded and got out of the cab. Ritsuka followed and the cab driver helped them lug everything to the front door. Soubi paid the driver, unlocked the front door, and ushered Ritsuka inside.
At first look, the place seemed spacious, and on second look, the spacious impression stayed. Ritsuka slipped off his shoes and wandered into the living room, looking around. Somehow, Soubi had managed to furnish and set up the house within the space of a day or so. There was a comfortable couch, easy chairs, a coffee table, an entertainment center, and plenty of bookshelves filled with books. Potted plants and a tabletop fountain in the corner brought a bit of the outdoors in, and in an alcove to the left was...a home shrine to Seimei. He could pay his respects to Seimei any time he wanted, now. "Th-thank you, Soubi," Ritsuka said around a lump in his throat.
"It's all right," Soubi said, putting things from the hospital on the coffee table. "Would you like to see the rest of the house?"
Ritsuka let Soubi show him the kitchen and adjoining dining area, the toilet and the bath, the outside patio, and upstairs Soubi showed Ritsuka the upstairs toilet, Soubi's room, and then Ritsuka's room. Ritsuka got quite a shock when he opened the door and saw all of his things from home in this new room. "How did all of this get here?"
"I brought it," Soubi admitted. "I figured you would want your own things."
Ritsuka stared at all of his books, games, pictures, his computer, and when he opened his closet, there were his clothes and other things. A brightly-colored pile in the corner of the room drew his attention. Gifts, all wrapped in different papers and decorated with bows or ribbons. "Um...Soubi? It's not my birthday or anything?"
"They're welcome gifts," Soubi explained, giving him an enigmatic smile.
"You've already brought all of the things I'd need," Ritsuka said, feeling uncomfortable.
"Don't let them worry you," Soubi said, ruffling his hair. "You can open them or not as you like. I should get a start on making lunch, so you go ahead and relax for a bit, all right?"
Once Soubi left, Ritsuka didn't know what to do. He didn't have to unpack, Soubi had already done that for him. The room was already set up, and there seemed nothing that needed doing. He sat on the bed for a while, staring off into space, but then he found his eyes drawn the pile of gifts. He didn't want gifts from Soubi, he wanted...well, he didn't know the words yet for what he wanted from Soubi. Answers, certainly. Answers for all the questions he had. Explanations about Seven Moons and why they'd murdered Seimei and...since Soubi had been his brother's partner, wouldn't he know?
His thoughts wandered then. He didn't think too deeply about anything; he just let his mind go where it wanted. He was half-asleep when a knock on the door brought him back to awareness. "What? Soubi?"
"Lunch is ready, Ritsuka," Soubi answered. "Are you hungry?"
A few days of hospital food always left one craving real food. "Yes! Coming!"
Ritsuka had to give Soubi credit for being a good cook. He always seemed to know just what to make, somehow. For lunch he'd made udon noodles with chicken, mushrooms, and vegetables. It was odd, though, to think that he was sitting down to a meal with Soubi in a home they now shared. It was almost like they were a...well, a family.
"How's your lunch?" Soubi asked, bringing him out of his thoughts.
"Oh. It's good," Ritsuka said, taking a bite of chicken. "You're a pretty good cook."
"Thank you for saying so, Ritsuka. The doctor said to make sure you eat well for the next few days, so if there's something you want to eat, just tell me."
This was puzzling. "Why does the doctor want me to eat well?"
"He said you were a bit too thin for his peace of mind," Soubi explained. "He said that he didn't think your mother fed you very well."
"She fed me all the time!" Ritsuka protested, feeling oddly loyal to his mother. "She always made huge meals!"
"If that's so, then why are you so thin?" Soubi wanted to know.
"I..." He broke off, confused. How could he explain? How could he explain what a trial each meal had been for him, having to remember all the foods his mother's "Ritsuka" had liked and hadn't liked? How could he explain how his mother lost it when she saw him eat something she thought he was supposed to hate? He already knew that he couldn't explain how his stomach hurt even before he sat down to one of those meals. How could Soubi understand? "Oh, you don't know anything!" he snapped. "It's not any business of yours, anyway!"
"Since I'll be taking care of you now, then it is my business," Soubi answered. "Can you tell me what you're struggling to find words for?"
In a second Ritsuka was on his feet and walking out of the room. He didn't have to answer any questions! He certainly didn't have to answer any questions from Soubi, who never gave him answers to any important questions!
"Just a minute," Soubi said, suddenly moving to stand in front of him. "Where are you going? You haven't finished your lunch."
"I'm going up to my room," Ritsuka answered, trying to keep a rein on his temper.
"You only ate a little chicken, a few noodles, and a mouthful of vegetables," Soubi countered. "That's not very much. You can go up to your room once you've finished what's in your bowl."
"I'm not hungry anymore!" Ritsuka growled. "Let me by!"
"No," Soubi said calmly, picking Ritsuka up around his waist and carrying him back to the table. "Once you've finished what you have, then you can go upstairs."
For the first time in a very, very long time, Ritsuka felt tempted to indulge in a tantrum. He was so frustrated that he really thought he might take Soubi's head off. What did Soubi think he was playing at by pretending to be a strict parent? "You're not my father or anything, you know!"
"I know that," Soubi said. "I am Soubi, your older brother's partner. Seimei would want me to take care of you, even if you become stubborn about something as simple as eating a good meal." He stopped and appeared to think about something. "I guess it doesn't surprise me if you have issues with food, but you do need to eat, Ritsuka."
"What makes you think I have issues with food?"
"If you were constantly walking on eggshells around your mother, then it would be almost a given that you would have such issues," Soubi explained. "I bet she made lots of huge meals full of foods that she thought her Ritsuka would like. Then, you, when you had to sit down and eat them, you had no idea what you were supposed to like and not like...it makes sense, doesn't it?"
Ritsuka knew he was staring and he really didn't care. He was too surprised. "How did you know about that? How...how did you...?" He couldn't even think how to ask what he wanted to ask. Finally, he thought of an easy way to ask it. "Did you read my mind?"
Soubi gave him a quiet smile. "No. I thought about it and put pieces together and came to that conclusion," he said. He sat there in front of Ritsuka, ready to give support if needed. Instead of suddenly having a weeping child clinging to him, the child in question turned, picked up his chopsticks, and started to eat. He even asked for seconds, which pleased Soubi to no end.
Once they were finished eating, Ritsuka helped Soubi clean up and then on Soubi's suggestion, he went outside to the back garden. There was a koi pond with a little waterfall and sitting by it was pretty relaxing. He dangled his fingers on the surface of the water, watched the koi swim, and listened to the sound of the waterfall. It wasn't long before he started to feel himself drifting off. At one point, Soubi was there, talking to him, but Ritsuka waved him away and closed his eyes again. He was too sleepy to think about anything else.