7

Akihito turns his back to the window and clenches his fist against the aching silence of his apartment. He's not ready to face the judgment of the waking world, to pretend like everything is fine. His skin feels hot and tight in the exposure of the damning morning light so he clenches his eyes shut before throwing his pillow at the window in an act of childlike defiance. The glass bends and moans but doesn't break, and he thinks about how nice that is.

He stretches his arms over his head and yawns before pulling himself from the mattress. His stomach growls so he walks to the kitchen, flips on a burner and places a pan on the stove. He's not going to school today he determines as the residual grease pops and sizzles. Routine means everything to him: sleep, eat, school. These things allow him to believe he is normal. It is a blessed gift of naivety and he would normally accept it graciously, but today he doesn't deserve it. His mother isn't here to punish him, after all, so it's his responsibility to do it.

He thinks about his Mom then, about the short period he lived with her, when the monster was under the bed instead laying on top it, pacing in time with his racing heart. He stretches his open palm above the tendrils of soft heat radiating from the pan and wonders if it would be cathartic to thrust his hand into the hot irons. The thought embarrasses him, so he slides a pat of butter in instead.

His phone chimes at breakfast when his spoon is scraping the bottom of the bowl and his heart freezes. He wonders if he's been forgiven, if the silent treatment is finally over and he's being granted news about Hiromi, but it's just a text about some new data plan from his phone company, and he's not sure if he's relieved or not. It's been two days now: two days of unending, uncaring, perfectly relentless silence. He's starting to worry that they're not even mad at him at all. That instead, they just don't care, that they always expected him to do something like this, and they don't think enough of him to call or text or even send a letter. At this point he'd take anything over this stagnant, stifling silence.

He tastes his breakfast in the back of his throat and furiously rubs the heel of his palms into his eyes. He won't throw up and he definitely won't cry. Feeling any kind of sadness for himself is unthinkable and it makes his skin crawl with a self-hate he doesn't deserve to enjoy.

6

Akihito wakes up this morning. This is remarkable because it means he's slept. It's the first night since the incident that the relentless thrum of his heart lost out to the insistence of exhaustion. When he's fully awake, it takes him five minutes to realize how fortunate he is that he didn't dream. Then it takes him twenty whole minutes to work up the courage to check his phone for messages. There are none, of course, so he googles the obituaries.

He doesn't see anything but that doesn't encourage him. It would be just like the Nase clan to cover up the death of a family member. After all, they wouldn't want to garner unwanted attention. He thinks about that for a while and stares at the wall, chewing the inside of his lip till he tastes copper. He almost considers going to school, just to see Mitsuki and gauge her reaction, but the idea of seeing her makes him instantly nauseous.

Instead, he pads to the bathroom and loses himself in the heat of the shower spray. The steam makes him lightheaded, but he likes that he can't see his hand in front of his face. He'd tried to ignore the mirror as he undressed, but he couldn't help but catch a glimpse of his face in the quickly fogging glass. The softness of his features appalls him; someone capable of such violence shouldn't look so kind. It makes him feel like some sort of devious predator, trying to lure people in with a false sense of security before…

He closes his eyes against the shower stream, scratching at his skin until it's raw and red and aching. No amount of scrubbing can absolve him for his actions. No amount of wishing can change who he is or what he is. So he turns the heat up, chokes the shower stall with thick, oppressive steam, and erases himself.

5

He wakes up screaming. At least, he thinks he was screaming, because his throat feels raw and strained and his cheeks are wet. He falls off the bed in a desperate scramble to untangle himself from the sheets. He has this overwhelming need to move, to get out of there before the nightmares catch up with him.

He pats a few wrinkles from his clothes and pulls on his sneakers at the door. He hasn't changed since yesterday, but it doesn't matter because he thinks he sees a drop of blood on is shoe and he really just has to get out of there immediately.

When he steps outside, the air is still and thick with the threat of rain. He hadn't planned where he would go but his feet move mechanically, taking him to the nearby convenience store. It's weird being outside again, everyone's at work or school and the empty streets feel like some kind of purgatory.

He finds his mind wandering back to that night. He doesn't remember how he got back to his apartment; he just woke up the next morning with a stomachache and a head full of horrible memories. At first, he had allowed himself to hop it was a nightmare, but nightmares don't leave dry blood under your fingernails; they don't leave your clothes ripped and the taste of copper in your mouth. That first day, he just slept with his phone curled in his fist. He was exhausted, that was normal after…but he wanted to be ready to go as soon as there was news. He hoped the damage wasn't as bad as he remembered. He should've been hoping that it wouldn't ruin his relationship—whatever it was—with the Nase family, but he didn't have the foresight then. That first day, he was still naive enough to think he was something more to them than a monster.

He stumbles slightly when he notices the cement sidewalk transition to the brick path surrounding the convenience store. He hadn't realized he'd been staring at his feet—totally transfixed on that one spot of brown on his shoe. 'It's probably just dirt,' he tells himself as he passes through the automatic doors and nods absentmindedly to the old woman behind the counter.

He realizes that he hadn't really planned what to get. He's been eating mechanically these days. He wishes he could be like those people in the movies whose grief is so consuming they are rendered unable to eat, or, when they force themselves to, taste nothing. His appetite is fine, though, and he tastes everything the same as he always has. He paces the store three times and finally decides on a half-gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and a half dozen eggs.

He walks up to the old woman at the register, and places his groceries on the counter, giving a sideways smile as she silently rings up his items. He pays the twelve dollars and sixty-four cents and when he leaves the store he goes around to the back and tosses his sneakers into the dumpster.

The soles of his socks are speckled red when he gets home but he doesn't mind. And that night, when he eats his dinner, everything tastes like salt.

4

He raises the phone to his face, clicks the power button, sees there's no message and let's his arm fall limply to the mattress. He counts a few seconds in his head and then does it again. Lift click fall. Lift click fall. He's not sure exactly how much time has passed, but his arm is beginning to get sore so he guesses it's been an hour at least.

His feet shift around the bed to find a cool spot under the sheets. His temples pound brutally behind his eyes, so he stretches his neck slowly from side to side and casts an accusing glare from the window to the uniform hanging from his closet door.

He had almost gone to school this morning. Well, he hadn't quite decided if he would go to class, but he was at least going to walk the perimeter of the building or maybe even venture into the halls if he felt up to it. He had hoped that his presence would somehow remind the world of his existence. By now, the silence of the Nase family has assured him of impending bad news, but he would rather be yelled at or imprisoned rather than be left to continue pacing in this mental purgatory of not knowing.

He has this weird, childlike urge to call his Mom. His fingertips are charged with electricity, willing him to open his contact list, but it wouldn't matter if he did, she wouldn't answer. Or maybe she would, he doesn't want to find out because what would he even say? "Hey Mom, I killed Hiromi and now no one will talk to me and I'm starting to think red is the absolute most hideous color."

The idea of it is ludicrous, but the thing is, he needs someone to tell him it's not his fault. He needs someone to care, to understand that he didn't mean it and that he's sorry. It's selfish, it's so fucking selfish and he knows—he knows he doesn't deserve pity, but he wants it.

Akihito bites his lower lip and heaves his phone across the room. It hits the wall and dents the drywall with a satisfying thud. The subsequent quiet leaves him feeling stupid but marginally better. Blood bubbles between his lips and drips onto his duvet, but it doesn't bother him as much as he would've expected. He fingers the indentions in his lip and pads across the room to inspect the damage of the phone. The screen is cracked but still illuminates when he hits the home button, so he impulsively checks for new messages.

There are none, so he smashes the phone for good.

3

Without his phone, Akihito almost thinks he can forget about the Nase family. Maybe they'll just stay at a stalemate forever: they'll never contact him, he'll never contact them, and he can just pretend they were characters in a book he read one time.

He's almost convinced himself this could be his new reality when the morning light invades again, illuminating his room with the truth of who he is—what he is. He stumbles to the shower, retreating into the wet heat before he has time to recognize the tears on his cheeks.

He really doesn't want to go to school, but it's Friday and it's his last chance for a casual encounter with Mitsuki till Monday. He feels groggy and queasy and his limbs are shaky under the weight of his guilt, but he doesn't think he can make it another hour, let alone 72, without knowing something; and so finally, he goes.

His walk to school is uneventful. Even when he's back on campus with the occasional familiar face, it's like he was never gone. It's strange, like he's just a regular kid that's been out with a cold. They think he is completely unremarkable and he wishes they were right.

It strikes him then that a student that's been out for four days would be rendered forgettable if another had been pronounced dead, so he races towards the building, scanning blurred faces as he passes for signs of grief. There are none, though, and the bulletin board inside holds no news articles or memorials or hand-drawn cards with insincere sentiments of grief. He pants through his mouth, only just becoming aware of how fast his heart had been beating as the noise of the hall bends and stretches to match the static encroaching the edges of his vision. He leans his palms onto his knees and feels a hand on his shoulder. He focuses on the touch and the din in his head clears a little as he's pulled to his feet and dragged back outside by strong arms.

He sees dark hair and thinks it might be Hiromi for a second, but when he's forced into a sitting position on the front steps and his head is pushed between his knees, he recognizes the hard eyes of the eldest Nase sibling.

"I really thought you'd have learned to be more careful," Izumi says, voice steady but biting. Akihito recognizes the subtext: 'haven't you made enough of a mess already?'

"What are you doing here?" Akihito asks, ignoring the remark.

Izumi produces a cold water bottle seemingly from nowhere and presses it into his hand. She leans back into the stair railing and folds her arms across her chest, "damage control."

"Damage control?" Akihito repeats, scared of the implications of the statement.

Izumi just stares at him blankly, expertly hiding all thoughts and emotions behind a steely mask of indifference. "You should go home," she says after minutes of grueling silence. "It's not safe."

Of course, Akihito realizes, she doesn't mean it's not safe for him, she means it's not safe for others to be around him. He pops the plastic water bottle between his fingers and lets it drop from his grip, gnawing the inside of his lip as he watches it roll from step to step. Despite Izumi's belief that the slightest provocation will ignite in him an apocalyptic power, he generally does have things under control. At least, he did.

He does.

He's not sure.

"Nothing's going to happen." He says, even if he doesn't fully know.

Izumi tuck her hair behind her ear and smiles. "Oh? I wasn't under the impression you could control it."

Akihito's breath catches and he turns away. To argue with her would to be to admit guilt for Hiromi . Not that he doesn't take full responsibility for that: he does, he's completely petrified by it, frozen in place by the thought of what he did and what he couldor should—have done to prevent it. He doesn't have the courage to explain that—while his life is ostensibly the same—it has been irrevocably changed. His home, his relationships, everything is now contextualized by the time before he killed Hiromi and the time after he did it. But to admit that to Izumi would be an unthinkable act of stupidity, so he swallows hard and says, "what, am I supposed to just stay locked away forever?"

Izumi straightens up and pushes herself off the railing, clearly bored with the conversation and Akihito. "Don't be dramatic," she says, pausing momentarily as if she wants to say something else, before deciding against it and walking away without further explanation.

Akihito considers racing after her and demanding more details, but he knows no amount of yelling or groveling will persuade her to share more information that she wants. She's always been that way: wholly immutable, not like her siblings at all. So instead, he rises to his feet and trudges home, head bowed and feet dragging, probably looking every bit as pathetic as he feels.

The crying starts when he's halfway there. He tries to hide his face in his sleeve before surrendering dignity and letting the tears fall unbidden, salty and hot. Most people ignore him; the few acknowledging faces vacillate between horror and sympathy. He's glad that they don't approach; he doesn't know how to explain that the origin for his despair was more than just another person. That he was more—meant more—than could be expressed.

He walks and the tears and the sobs surge out of him, but it doesn't feel like a release. It feels like a betrayal.

2

When he wakes up his head is throbbing. He doesn't remember falling asleep, just coming home and sobbing into his pillow and wishing for death. He feels better now, or, maybe not better, but numb. His temples are throbbing in pace with his heart, but the pain is distracting so he clings to it.

It's cloudy today, which is a relief. Winter is closing in fast, and every time the wind gusts it looks like showers of leaves are raining from the overcast sky. It's hard not to think about Hiromi then, with his sensitivity to the cold.

He crosses his arms over his chest and digs his nails into his biceps. What color was the scarf Hiromi was wearing that day? Was it green or—maybe red? He wants to be devastated by the fact that he doesn't remember, but it doesn't seem that important. At least, not nearly as significant as all the photos of himself and the youngest Nase siblings he lost by damaging his phone days—or was it centuries— ago. It hadn't been his intention to destroy them, but he's almost relieved that they're gone—those relics of a person he can never be or possibly never was.

His mind is romanticizing things enough on its own without those idealized relics. He keeps circling his memories: his first meeting with the Nase clan, their smiles that started as cautious but became accepting over time. He remembers when his mother left, how Mitsuki offered him a lollipop and Hiromi made jokes about crazy old ladies and neither of them mentioned his tears. They teased him and fought with him, comforted him and encouraged him, and unlike his own relatives, they were there, sharing their time with him, the closest thing to family he knew.

Of course, even in their fun there was still Izumi and the Spirit World Warriors; there was still the fact that he was not like them and that they were essentially performing under an arranged friendship. Tension had always existed between them because of that, he knows it, but even so, the full reality is currently inaccessible to him.

He closes his eyes, combs his fingers through his hair and inhales sharply. To think that he will learn to get used to not having them in his life, it makes him contemptuous of his own human nature for acclimation. It's not fair that he should suffer all the same shortcomings of regular people but simultaneously be denied the few comforts they have to combat them. He can't have friends, he can't have solitude, and he can't even kill himself to end the suffering. He can never die, but he can't really live, either.

Akihito sits up, tucks his feet under him and leans his forehead against the cold window. He watches people pass below his apartment while tears stream down his face. His hot breath fogs the window. That internal heat: always blazing, insulating him, but suffocating him, too.

"Please," he begs to no one. It surges from him like a dirge, "please, please." Please take it all away. Please let Hiromi be alive. Please let him be normal, or at least let him never have met the Nase clan. Let them have never entered his life so he won't have to experience the pain of not having them there any longer.

The words eventually cease, his chest too heavy to continue. The weight of it all is crushing, he's not sure if it's grief anymore, or if it is, for whom it's directed.

So he just sits there, blinking away tears, and watches the people on the street. He watches them and he thinks, 'help.'

1

When Akihito wakes up, he's facing the window, his hands drawn together in his chest, his feet numb from their awkward position beneath him. It's early, he can tell because the morning light is unusually weak, even for the dense cloud coverage. Something seems off, but he's not sure what until he stretches his limbs out and meets resistance.

"You know you'll get sores if you stay in bed all day." A deep, playful voice sounds behind him.

His heart jumps to his throat and he flings himself from the bed, staggering backwards until his back hits the wall. "Y-you," he stammers, eyes wide with shock.

Hiromi tilts his head questioningly. He looks pale, maybe a bit more stooped than normal, but he's alive. Alive and his room and alive. Akihito shakes his head from side to side, waiting for reality to set in and for the dream to end, but it doesn't. White heat crawls up his neck and into his cheeks, and the person sitting on the side of his bed doesn't disappear because he's not a dream. He's real. Akihito slides down the wall till he's sitting with his knees against his chest and he covers his face with his palms and wails, too emotionally exhausted and confused to care about preserving his dignity.

Hiromi just watches him appraisingly, arms folded against his chest.

"What's going on?" Akihito hears Mitsuki ask, but he doesn't register the reply.

"Didn't Izumi talk to you?" He hears her ask, louder this time—closer.

Akihito just shakes his head, too overcome to speak.

"Hey," Mitsuki bends next to him and touches his arm. She doesn't offer words of comfort or pull him into a hug, it's already a struggle to keep the emotional distance required of them, overt displays of affection would only complicate matters. Even so, the touch is warm and sympathetic and he feels the tension leaving his body and the hitching breaths slow to a more normal rhythm. "We need to talk," Mitsuki says and looks to her brother. "C'mon, I'll make us breakfast."

Akihito rubs the tears from his face with his sleeve and nods, he takes more time than he needs to stand, intentionally stalling so he can walk behind Hiromi and ask questions of his back.

"You look horrible, Akkey." Hiromi says while Mitsuki rummages through the kitchen and complains about Akihito's lack of food. Hiromi has his chair turned so it won't graze his back and the sight of it makes Akihito's stomach turn with guilt.

'Same to you,' Akihito thinks, but doesn't dare say it. "Sorry," he says instead, and they both know what he means.

They sit silently after that, Hiromi with his head towards the kitchen, Akihito staring at the table, a million guilty questions buzzing through his mind.

Finally, Mitsuki comes in and Hiromi breaks the silence to congratulate her for her cooking skills. Akihito thanks her, too, but only pokes at his small omelet, light-years away from being hungry.

Mitsuki sits between the two boys and leans her elbow onto the table. "Akihito." He looks up at her questioningly, waiting for her continue. Mitsuki sighs and drops her head into her hand, "you need to go to school on Monday, the teachers are starting to ask too many questions."

"O-okay," Akihito agrees.

"And from now on, you're going to stick by my side while you're there."

"Wha-" Akihito starts to say, but Hiromi interrupts him.

"Akkey, the Spirit World Warrior Society has been putting up a lot of resistance since…" He pauses, not wanting to tread on ugly memories. "This compromise had to be made to allow you to stay within our—the jurisdiction of the Nase clan."

Akihito frowns, "so I just have to let Mitsuki babysit me? I guess it could be worse."

"Watch it," Mitsuki warns and steps on his foot under the table.

Akihito allows himself to laugh a little, feeling his world slowly start to fall back into place.

Hiromi shakes his head slightly, "there's one other condition: you're not to have anything to do with youmu. You see one, you come straight to me or Mitsuki."

"And what happens if I don't?"

Hiromi 's eyes narrow and he frowns slightly, "In that case, I won't be responsible for what happens to you." He says it calmly, diplomatically. Akihito thinks he sounds very much like Izumi then and it makes him cringe.

"Fine," Akihito acquiesces. Being treated like a dog on a short leash is still better than the hell of the past week.

"Good," Hiromi sighs and his shoulders visibly relax. "You really do look awful."

Akihito crosses his arms and dips his chin into his chest in feigned anger. "What do you expect when you come to someone's house so early in the morning?"

Hiromi 's mouth quirks into a half smile, "I'm just saying, with such scary bed-head, it's no wonder you can't get a girlfriend."

"It's more likely because he's a pervert." Mitsuki points out, and spears a piece of egg off Akihito's plate for Yakimo to nibble.

"Don't you start," Akihito warns, pulling the dish from her reach.

"Well, she has a point." Hiromi smirks.

"Like you can talk!" Akihito argues back.

"Boring perverts," Mitsuki mumbles and scratches Yakimo's chin.

They leave by the afternoon. No hugs are exchanged, but Hiromi does slip his hands under Akihito's arms while he's busy fighting with Mitsuki about whether or not he needs to be escorted to school on Monday morning. He yells at him for doing it, of course, but a part of him is relieved that Hiromi ostensibly isn't as scared of him as Akihito is of himself.

Later that evening he finds a new pair of shoes on his landing and a new phone on his desk. He's not sure if it's a bribe or an offering, but he accepts them anyway.

He still has a nightmare that night. He wakes up crying, imagining there is blood on his hands, and when Mitsuki shows up at his door that morning, he doesn't mention it. They tease each other like usual, pretending nothing has changed, pointedly evading anything painful.

Akihito isn't sure if he's okay, or if he ever will be. But it's fine, because this is normal. This is routine.