CHAPTER FIFTEEN

RED THREADS

"What do you want to do?" Lavender asked him, once Ijirashii was sitting cross-legged with his chin in his hands in a corner of Lavender's bedroom.

"Um, hasty death would pretty nice," Ijirashii replied thoughtfully. "I mean. If you're really asking me."

"I am asking you," Lavender said quietly.

"Hasty death," Ijirashii said. He reached up his hands to run them through his hair until it was truly knotted. To his credit, his hair was so thick, thicker actually, even after Lav had cut it that it didn't take long to tangle it. "No. Um. Let me think about that. I want…this to not have happened? At all? I want to be in California, at the top of every damn class in my grade. I want to be looking at dance schools and knowing that any damn one I want will beg me to join them. I want," he paused, and cast his eyes up at the ceiling like he was asking it what it thought. There was a spider on the ceiling. He was unsurprised. Meki and Yuku seemed like the kind of people who would keep spiders all over their cursed haunted house. "I want to come home every day to see my brother filling out college applications or playing tennis and my father probably not being home, but maybe if Mom had some tea ready, that'd be good. I want my eyesight back, because it's getting harder and harder to see. I want an entire year of my life to not have happened. I also would like some cake, and a pony."

"What would you do with the pony?" Lavender asked him after a lengthy silence during which Ijirashii tried very, very hard not to start crying, not even because he was sad but just because he felt so ill and he was so scared.

"I would probably eat it. I have never eaten horse so I just assume I'd have to eat it."

"Oh," was all Lavender could say.

"I also would like to not be crazy but I think that goes along with everything else," Ijirashii added, finally returning his gaze to Lavender. "I miss my mom, which doesn't make any sense at all, I hope you understand—she's probably the one who made Dad throw me out, you see."

"Oh," Lavender said again. "I don't think you're crazy. Not without reason. Not without clinical definition."

Ijirashii shrugged. "It's all the same, the way it feels."

"Do you want to go home?"

"I don't," Ijirashii said, without hesitation. "I don't see what good it would do."

"They could've realized they were batshit by now."

"No," Ijirashii said, wryly. "They contacted me a few weeks after I left, when I was living with, um, my math teacher? It's a long story. Er. They said I had to come back. They said they'd be able to get me some help."

"I see."

Ijirashii held his hands up to the lamp beside Lavender's bed to watch the shadows on the wall. Two in the morning. Shadow puppets: a doggy, a bird, a spider, the biggest and most venomous spider in the world. "What are you going to do about the book?"

Lavender sighed and rested his head against the wall behind him, drawing his knees to his chest. "Convince the world I'm still alive. Find a torture chamber. Find some evidence. Present it to aforementioned world. Not get killed during or after this. I may try to con someone into reprinting the book. Meki probably knows someone."

"And how is this better than Yuku's plan of killing everyone writing the articles and following Miyamoto and just getting it over with before it starts?" Ijirashii questioned him. He had the incredulous tone of someone who could've been joking, or maybe not. Lav couldn't tell.

"Because I'm still not a murderer."

"Yuku is, though."

"Yuku can murder anyone he likes so long as it's not on my back." The truth was he felt like he had woken up from a long, hazy nightmare to find himself in a world where he still wanted to tell the truth, where he still wanted to find justice and nobility in humans, the ones who had created both those concepts. He still wanted the world to know that he was not in the wrong, or at least not in the wrong about that one thing, regardless of whatever he'd done horribly wrong afterwards. And if he just doused these embers before they sparked up again, none of that would happen. He'd go back to sleeping. And one day it would go too far, and he would never wake up again, and still nothing would be solved: lurking beneath everyone's memories would be a serial killer, a book, and a child.

He thought, worryingly, that Ijirashii made him want to still live.

He wanted to tell Ijirashii this, though he almost certainly shouldn't have wanted that, or anything else.

He didn't know anything of should anymore.

But he thought Ijirashii knew, as Ijirashii came to sit before him, and rest his cheek against Lavender's knees, so that Lavender could place his hands in Ijirashii's too-soft hair and hear his breath, crackly and difficult from ribs broken in Lavender's own name.

***

"I think we should go to Tokyo," Yuku mused, sitting on his haunches in front of the closet. "I think we need to pay a visit to your publisher, my love."

From behind him, he could hear Meki clapping pillows over his head, and an irritated squeak from Raizu as he stole one of her pillows. "How the fuck long have you been awake?" came his muffled voice.

"Five."

"We went to bed at like. Three. What the fuck, Yuku."

Yuku paid his husband no mind. "Also, I think it would be best to get the whore out of this house for a bit, make him, oh, I don't know, feel less like a captive, despite the fact that I begin to suspect entirely he is in love with Lavender, and vice versa, which I must inform you cannot end well and makes me a bit sick. He seems to be twenty trillion times more mental than I previously guessed! If I cannot force either of them to start making sense," he said, his voice rising slightly, "I will buy the child ice cream."

"Ice cream?" Meki said, sitting up and stumbling out of bed in a tangle of sheets, also stolen from Raizu, who flipped over onto her side into a ball, growling. "What the fuck," he repeated.

"Are you aware of how much shit is in our closet?" Yuku asked him, tugging a photo album out of a box that was concealing a bag of knives that was concealing a wall that definitely was concealing indeed a shelf containing vials of various things that people like Yuku thought were good to keep around, besides which some painkillers for aches Yuku did not have. He flipped open the photo album. Most of the photographs from the controversy had been burned. Yuku was always a pyromaniac. It came in handy when you were trying to hide things and forget things. But some had been kept, and stashed in the pages of this book. The ones copies of which had been sent to Adrianne, in letters from Lavender those first few months when nothing was wrong. The ones that Yuku had thought he had to cling to in order to remind himself that this part of his life, at least, had happened, because the only reason that whole stupid ordeal had occurred was because he had lost twenty years of time that were already there (over a brother; over a lover who thought him to be dead; over copious quantities of pills to cement the fact in his screaming head that everything he did was a hallucination; and none of this was that long ago). The ones from when Chi Yuku, drug addict and arsonist extraordinaire, studied photography and had access to the most willing and most beautiful model in the world.

"What did you do to him, again?" Meki asked him, looking over Yuku's shoulder as he flipped pages.

"I helped him write a book," Yuku said. And then stopped. "He fell in love with me. That was all."

Meki was giving him a very dangerous look. It was the look you'd give to someone who had been torn away from you at one point, who had driven you to lose your memory at one point, so that you could not find him as he finally went mad in your absence and helped an adolescent write a book; and each blamed the other and each knew exactly what crimes had been committed before this quite unholy union became a proper marriage and names and identities eked out in blood.

Yuku kept turning pages until he got to what he was looking for. "These were photographs we took in the palace. Before we found the torture chamber," he clarified quickly. "I wanted to see if anything in them rang a bell as to where we may have been standing when Lavender fell. Because we won't be able to get into the palace now for sure, without some horrible shit being done on my part at least, and once in we won't have much time. I need to know specifics."

Meki touched a finger to one of the photographs. "And is this the palace where you believe my son was kept?"

"Beneath the palace is where our son was kept." Then a pause. "I don't know if that was my fault."

"No," said Meki, who didn't quite know at this moment either but who knew when to keep himself to himself. Sometimes. There just had not been enough time in between Yuku's brother dying and this resurfacing. Meki wanted time, at least enough to sleep and slap proper glue on the fractured parts of his brain.

Raizu flopped down behind them. They both snapped their heads around to look at her, having forgotten she was even there. "What are you doing?"

"Going to Tokyo," Yuku said, slamming the album closed and throwing it back into the box, where it apparently shattered something small and glass. "How do you feel?" he asked her, standing and extending a hand to her with a terrible smile.

"I bet I feel ten times worse than you did when I knocked you out last time, you fucking pussy," Raizu replied, taking his hand and standing as well, one hand clamped to the side of her head. In the morning light all her bruises were cast into sharp contrast by how pale and golden she usually was, all the colors of a flame in her hair and flesh and eyes. "Look how much less I'm whining than you did. You cried."

"Don't push your luck, I only took you to the hospital last night because Meki wanted me to and I am willing to send you back there myself," Yuku told her, and between them Meki sighed very loudly, stood up, and shuffled past them to crawl back in bed.

"Get the fuck out of bed," Yuku snapped. "You're coming, too."

"Where we going again?" Raizu asked.

"Tokyo."

"Right. You just said that. Okay. Not going."

"Didn't expect you to, dear. You'd probably just die. Or like. Get beaten at random. Quit making enemies."

Hotoma Raizu punched Yuku so hard with her sprained wrist that blood welled up in his jaw, and all he could do was swallow it and laugh and walk out of the bedroom to go find Lavender and explain his plan.

"What's in Tokyo?" Lavender asked warily, when Yuku came downstairs to find him sitting in the kitchen apparently feeding Yuku's son coffee with the terribly entertained help of Ijirashii.

Yuku touched a hand to the scratch on his cheek half-bitterly. Not at Ijirashii. At Lavender.

"My husband's publisher," he replied.

"That…dude. What's his face. Starts with a Y…"

"Oh, not that publisher," Yuku interrupted, as Ijirashii poured Ray another cup of coffee that looked much like syrup and may or may not have had actual crack in it. Ray was giggling not at all unlike a pothead. It was horrible. "Please for the love of your own health stop caffeinating my son, Ijirashii," he said pleasantly. "I will do you serious harm."

Ijirashii looked up at Yuku like he didn't believe him, or if he did, he didn't care. "Nothing you can do to me could possibly be worse than anything anyone else has done," he said cryptically, shifting his shoulders so the whip marks curling over his neck were visible.

"You will find yourself proven utterly wrong, my dear."

Ijirashii smiled. But he took the coffee away from Ray, whose head had collapsed on the table for laughing too hard. Ray rarely slept as was. Adding caffeine to the mix couldn't be great.

"Wait, not that publisher?" Lavender said, disregarding everything else.

"He has another publisher," Yuku said, yawning and sitting down. "Under another name he writes weird surrealist fiction. Something like twenty copies of each book sell per year, which is about twenty million less than the tripe you've read." Yuku jumped as all three of Blair's cats converged on him at once without warning, yowling for food. "We are not friends, cats!" he shouted at them as they twined around his ankles, crying. "I? Am not your master. I do not feed you. I feed my cat. And if I choose to feed you to my cat, he will consider it a hearty meal, you fat motherfu—beautiful feline friends," he cut himself off as Blair came downstairs, already angered by having been woken up by Meki. He reached down to pet one of them—Janet, he thought. She bit him.

"She's sensitive about her weight," Blair remarked, and knelt down by the three cat dishes he'd set out to open cans of overly-expensive cat food into them.

"I thought I'd introduce you to that publisher and see if he's looking to, say, reprint an illegal book and distribute it quietly to anyone who's interested. Get people on your side and get people aware of what's happening simultaneously," Yuku went on. "What do you think?"

"I think I thought I knew you'd want that," Lavender answered.

"I want exactly what you were accusing that dead son of a bitch of fresh in everyone's minds," Yuku said, eyeing the pot of coffee, standing, and going to make himself a cup of tea. His husband drank coffee, or at least an enormous mug of sugar with splatters of coffee in it. Yuku was sensible and proper. Yuku drank tea.

Lavender sighed. "It seems sensible to me," he said.

"That's good, because if it hadn't seemed sensible to you I would've done it anyway," Yuku said, boiling water. "We will do this your way, if we must, without the murder, but I intend on making the decisions I doubt you are sane enough to make yourself."

"I'm not sane enough?"

"I missed you," Yuku responded, which wasn't a response at all but took Lavender aback enough to sufficiently prevent any argument.

***

There were two very important things you could learn on a nauseatingly fast, three hour, tremendously expensive bullet train ride from rural Kyoto to Tokyo: first, that Ijirashii Sawahata got carsick; second, that if you were stuck for a prolonged amount of time with Yuku Chi and his husband, you discovered that they were unbearable, creepy, and constantly shouting at one another.

There was the age debacle, Lavender thought, in which Yuku, in an attempt to reassure Lavender, most unhelpfully mentioned that his husband had been working with this publisher for at least half as long as Lavender had been alive, and Meki raised his eyebrows, thought for a long moment, and decided, for whatever reason, to hit Yuku, who then irritably mentioned that Raizu had already hit him earlier that day and it hurt and could he not do that.

There was the matter of a bribe, which neither had thought to bring along, apparently, leaving Meki to begrudgingly pull out his wallet, press endless paper and coins into Yuku's hands, and make Lavender a bit sick. There was the very fact that Chi Yuku thought they might need to bribe anyone! Honestly.

There was substantial discussion of Raizu, whom they had left alone in their home to watch over their son, and who Yuku most regretted leaving alone with his apparent expansive and expensive collection of vintage wine; and who if Yuku didn't start getting along with soon Meki was going to have both of them committed and if Yuku didn't like the idea of doing that again (again?) very much, then he may as well kiss his husband's editor and make the fuck up, which only led to Lavender beginning to be very suspicious of something.

Ijirashii threw up three times. The first time was on the floor, which was hastily mopped up with wet paper towels. The second time was while Meki and Yuku were having a very heated argument about shitty music in the United States and why that kid's, the one from Chronophagids, hair was just fucking unacceptable (said Yuku, Meki disagreeing wholeheartedly and saying his stupid fucking hair was what made it all worthwhile; Lavender wondered what a chronophagid was). The third time was right before they were deposited in a horrifically busy Tokyo station, and they nearly did not make it out on time.

The air was cold and white with oncoming frost. Ijirashii gulped it gratefully and proceeded to cough as a car rushed past him, spewing out the black fumes that suggested the car was either dying, or demonically possessed. He clutched at his fractured ribs.

"Okay," Yuku said, checking the thick, probably costly, definitely silver watch around his scarred wrist. "I called him this morning to tell him to expect us in his home at four-thirty."

Lavender furrowed his brow. "Are you allowed to do that?"

"You aren't, I am," Yuku answered, tilting his head up to look at the brightness of the winter sky, like the white fire of foxes long dead, it seemed to him. He grinned. "He was very concerned, and thought I meant four-thirty in the morning, and begged us please not to show up until he had at least put some pants on, oh please."

"When did you call him?"

"Three," Yuku said cheerfully. "Either way, we have roughly an hour to kill."

Blair rubbed his eyes and looked longingly at a bench inside the station. "Is that an hour during which I can sleep?"

"No," Yuku said sharply. "How can you be tired? It's the afternoon!"

"Yeah, well, your husband woke me up at the crusty and hairy asscrack of dawn and I didn't sleep last night anyway," Blair said grumpily.

"Crusty?" Lavender repeated, but Blair ignored him.

"I thought you were a vampire," Yuku said, mildly. "They don't mind staying up all night—indeed they must." Blair, indeed, was terribly excited about going to the area that had spawned his truly bizarre and slightly mentally deficient (in Lavender's opinion, and definitely in Yuku's opinion) taste in fashion, which mostly involved anorexic young men wearing frilly black dresses worth more than two months of Lavender's rent. As usual he was wearing black lipstick. It was nice black lipstick, to be fair, but it was still black lipstick, and there was still lace lining the collar of a coat that nearly touched the filthy sidewalk.

"I am not a vampire. I am tired," Blair said. "I had no breakfast."

"You've jumped off the bulimia wagon?" Lavender said, viciously, and Blair continued to ignore him.

"I would offer you my blood but I fear drinking rights to my life-force, soul, and blood have already been claimed," Yuku replied, evoking a hideous cackle from Meki. "However there is a café over there. There are pancakes," he said soothingly, pointing. "Meet us back in front of the station in an hour."

Blair took off.

Meki, too, began to wander away, looking much like someone with early-onset dementia. He had pulled a book and a stick of candy out of the pockets of his trench coat and put his face into both, walking aimlessly into the traffic, which stopped for him without much rage at all.

Lavender gaped at him.

"Where do you think you're going?" Yuku called after him.

Meki paused right in the middle of the street, and this time people did honk. He blinked. It looked innocent. "It's almost Christmas, my dear. I was going to buy Christmas presents for myself. Housing fugitives and whores in my home does not mean I do not get to buy Christmas presents for myself!"

"For yourself," Yuku said dryly.

"To make up," Meki said, politely, "for the two thousand dollar shirt your dumb ass bought with my account last month." And he continued walking, laughing, through the traffic.

Yuku turned back to the others to find two different pairs of eyes locked onto him. "What? What?"

"What the fuck kind of shirt costs two thousand dollars?" Lavender sputtered.

"Is it like, diamond encrusted?" Ijirashii asked, shocked.

"Was it imported from the seventeenth century in a time machine?"

"Does it have little sapphire beaded sleeves or something blatantly and offensively homo like that?"

Yuku sighed. "No," he said coldly. "They're rubies, and they're buttons, and it's silk, and every stitch of it was custom-made for me, and it looks fucking stunning on me."

Ijirashii thought on that for a long moment. Then he looked up at Yuku abruptly. "Are you looking to become a sugar daddy, by some wild chance?"

Lavender covered his eyes.

"No, child, no," Yuku exclaimed, flailing his hands through his long red hair.

"Just asking!" Ijirashii said defensively.

Yuku closed his eyes for a moment. "Well, look. We have an hour and we're nearby to the, um, half-burned apartment complex Meki's publisher lives in."

Lavender was beginning to find this entire deal a little odd. "What's this publisher's name, exactly?" he asked.

"Um, I know him by A. Meki may know his real name."

Lavender ground his teeth. "Why the smoke and mirrors?"

"No smoke. No mirrors. Not even, I think, a smoking mirror," Yuku said, thoughtfully. "He's not mysterious or sinister. He's just not fond of people. Has sixteen or seventeen hamsters, though. Also apparently I frighten him. But while we're out of Minami, and away from the tiny Korean women, I should also buy my husband Christmas presents. I owe him," Yuku said dryly.

"For the two thousand dollars you effectively stole from him?"

"Of course not," Yuku said, looking affronted. "For forcing three people to stay in his house while I resurrect a horrible thing I did while he was elsewhere!"

***

Lavender had vague memories of Christmas shopping in December, in Japan. There were ridiculous enormous trees, horrible English, and a warm adoption of a Christian cultural thing that Lavender had never once cared about in his life, save for wonderful Christmas eggnog and other wonderful Christmas booze and wonderful Christmas sales on leftover eggnog, miscellaneous booze, and chocolate when it was all said and done.

He had been fourteen, and he had bought gifts for his mother, and for David, his mother's husband and apparently, once upon a time, an associate of the deranged red-haired man who had made their son disappear.

That was the problem, he thought.

He would never get over that.

Yuku having long abandoned them for some fountain pen place where he had high hopes of getting his husband another exquisitely crafted and beautiful pen he could break in a month's time (and once upon a time from the same shop Yuku had bought Lavender a pen, a very rare pen only twenty of which existed in the whole world, and how Yuku had made the owner give it up Lavender would never know), Lavender found Ijirashii had led him into an overheated, itty-bitty shop that was decorated largely in offensive shades of pink and yellow. The girl standing behind the counter had a smudge of deep red clay on her cheek, and couldn't have been much older than—god, Ijirashii.

Lavender repressed the urge to bolt.

She wore a cardigan suited to an eighty-year-old woman, and a hippie skirt that drifted around the rather enormous and fuzzy boots on her feet as she looked up sharply and came out from behind the counter, calling a vague greeting to them as she wandered near aimlessly to a backroom where a fire was obviously going. She had a strange, stiff way of walking, like she wasn't sure how to hold herself.

"Where are we?" Lavender asked, glancing down at Ijirashii.

"Have you been paying any attention?" Ijirashii asked, glaring up at Lavender.

"No," Lavender admitted, and eyed the store. It was teeny, but it was packed with shelves of jewelry, all of which had obviously been hand crafted. There were blown glass pendants and small packs of clay and glass beads, all manner of beautiful sparkly little things. You could get lost in there, if you were into that sort of thing, which Lavender wasn't, but his attention got caught by a tiny little bracelet glittering on a rack anyway.

Before he could look at it the girl raced back into the main room. "Sawahata Ijirashii-kun?" she spluttered.

Ijirashii smiled.

"It is you, isn't it?" she said, and ran at him, wiping the clay off her cheek (smearing it onto her nose). She looked stunned. The earrings that brushed her neck jangled as she moved. One of her hands fluttered behind her inexplicably. "I haven't seen you since we were small," she said, and exploded into a flurry of French that was too fast and too strange for Lavender to comprehend.

He took the bracelet from its rack, waiting patiently and keeping an eye on Ijirashii, who did not seem nearly as bitter as he usually did, or half as skittish as he might've been. He seemed to have gone into a different personality, say, the personality of the youngest son of a wealthy man, a ballet prodigy, a charming smile and fluid speech not peppered with such obscenities or cruelties as he might direct at anyone else.

"And what has happened to you, my dear?" the girl exclaimed, switching back to Japanese with ease.

Ijirashii lifted a hand to the scars on his face and kept smiling. "This. That. You know my skin is sensitive to the sun, Ririko-chan."

"All of those from a single fire?" she responded, reaching out a callused finger to touch the scar streaking across his forehead, tilting her head to one side. She smiled, like she found something about the scar tissue pleasing.

Ijirashii didn't flinch.

He stayed calm.

"All of them," he lied pleasantly. "I have not taken the best care of myself, you see. All the studying, isn't it?"

"Do you still dance?"

"Of course I still dance," Ijirashii replied, as though he were offended by her asking.

"It's been so long, that's all," Ririko said, shaking her head at him. "I gave up dancing. You'd expect of course I'm much better with my hands than on my feet," she said, gesturing to the jewelry. "Seems like I can barely walk straight half the time."

"You were a dreadful dancer when you were four," Ijirashii said, fondly. Ririko didn't seem offended. "The jewelry is lovely, though. I saw your name, on the sign outside—that's why I came in."

"And who is that?" Ririko asked, gesturing wildly to Lavender. "You did come in with him."

"Lavender," Ijirashii said. Lavender stood by awkwardly. "Lavender, this is Fujiwara Ririko. Ririko-chan, this is Perez Lavender." If Ririko recognized the name at all, she didn't show it; and if she had recognized it, Lavender thought, she would've shown it. "He is accompanying me back here for a bit."

"For what reason?" Ririko asked.

"Just a visit. I haven't been here in awhile."

"Where is your family?"

Ijirashii waved this away with a laugh. "Sakano is so busy with school these days he can't go anywhere, and Mother has taken up helping my father, who seems to need it. I would not dare to speak ill of him but I feel certain that with his age he does grow wiser, however frailer."

The formalities were going to kill Lavender. He suddenly felt like a bull in a china shop. Which was technically what he was, if a six-foot-two Puerto Rican criminal in a small Japanese jewelry shop counted, which he thought it did.

"Uh," he said. "Uh, this," he said again, and handed the bracelet to Ririko when Ijirashii had gone off to inspect the work of his friend's hands.

She named a negligibly low price. Normally Lavender would've asked her what the fuck she thought she was doing, pricing such a well-made beautiful little thing so low, but Lavender had no cash. He paid her and pocketed the bracelet as Ijirashii returned. There were a few more moments of French and Japanese, none of which Lavender quite paid attention to (scratching his head over what on earth facet of the vicious broken vulgar thing he had crushed to his heart commanded such politeness, such sanity), before Ijirashii led them back out of the heat and into the cold.

Once outside Ijirashii deflated. He let his breath out in a puff of white air as they began to walk. It was beginning to snow. He looked up at the sky and let it burn his eyes. "I am not terribly bright, Lavender."

"I know you aren't, Ijirashii," Lavender said, and pulled the hood of his coat above his head, pushing Ijirashii's over his head too with much irritation. "You are going to get pneumonia again, you idiot."

"Do broken ribs make you susceptible to that?" Ijirashii asked curiously.

Lavender paused. "Maybe. Who was that?"

"Ririko Fujiwara," Ijirashii said. "We were betrothed when I was born."

"Be-what?" Lavender spluttered, backing away from Ijirashii with a look on his face like he'd eaten a lemon.

"Arranged marriage," Ijirashii said, leaning against the wall of a pizza place and inhaling the scents coming from inside. "Her father and my father were good friends and she was two years older than me. They arranged for us to be married when we were adults, until my family had to leave the country." He paused. "I have lived several very different lives in sixteen years, I think."

Lavender could understand that. Lavender had, too.

"But what? Do arranged marriages still exist? Seriously. I mean. Really. Do they?"

"Of course. They're not really uncommon?" Ijirashii said, eyeing Lavender curiously. "It probably had more to do with both of us having unacceptable birth defects. I'm albinistic and she's. God. What do you call it in English? I never learned. Jiheishou."

Lavender thought. "Um, I don't think I've ever heard that word before. If there's an English equivalent I probably know that, but—therein lies our problem!"

"Yeah well. It's. That. That thing." Ijirashii waved his hands. "Some condition. To a small degree. She actually didn't speak until she was four. They figured, when I was born looking like a ghost, and she was living like a ghost, we'd make an excellent pair. She's done well, I suppose."

"Oh," Lavender said, reaching into his pocket. "I bought you this."

"Is that girl-jewelry?" Ijirashii inquired, lifting the bracelet from Lavender's hands delicately and holding it up to the sun. All the tiny facets of the little glass purple and blue beads caught the light and bounced it off of everything, glittering through the pink glass heart. "You want me to end up looking like you?" He slipped the bracelet over his gloved hand quite delightedly. "You fag," he said, and he reached up and kissed Lavender, most unexpectedly; a teenage boy firmly and ecstatically in love with a cross-dressing man in the middle of Tokyo. He took Lavender by the hand and they headed off in the direction of the station to meet the others.

It wasn't a burned down apartment building, it was half a burned down apartment building, and Meki (who had apparently, in his travels, demanded both that a Christmas tree and several crates of chocolate candy be delivered to his home, and who had stuffed a bottle of wine and a very large knife in his pocket, much to Yuku's amusement) led them through the maze of ashes that looked like it could fall in entirely on them at any moment; and it probably would, if they breathed too hard.

It would not be torn down and rebuilt soon, unless there existed people who cared about an area that practically no one could see from anywhere, and that you had to claw your way through ivy to get to.

They found…A…sitting at a desk in the dark, in room he had apparently made an effort to close off from the rest of the building by putting up walls, for some stupid reason when he could've lived somewhere that would not kill him if he could afford to put up walls in a burned building. He wore a black hat with a very wide brim and a pinstripe suit, over which he was wearing a black bathrobe, presumably because it was cold and he was living in a burned down building. There was a bed, rather heavily decorated with quilts and comforters, and a door perhaps leading to another room A had put some work into.

Also, there were six hamster cages connected by an elaborate series of tubes and toys.

It offended Blair, that was for damn sure. He stood firmly by the door through which they'd entered, his arms folded like at any moment he would tsk at this monstrosity and stalk out on the grounds that even he did not wish to associate with people as stupid as this publisher.

"Kobayashi," A said pleasantly, not even looking up from his book. He had a voice like a ripple in time. Lavender realized he was talking to Meki, and it occurred to him that he had never before heard Meki's real surname. Just the pen name.

Meki nodded his head in greeting. "I got you a knife. Merry Christmas," he said, grinning. He tossed the knife to A, who caught it, still not looking up. It was distinctly possible that if he had looked up, his face still wouldn't have been visible in the darkness and beneath that hat.

"Thank you, Kobayashi. I have no use whatsoever for it but I am sure now that I own it I will find a use," A said absently. "Your husband has brought several more people than he said he would. I'm upset." He flipped a page, quietly.

"He is a very upsetting man," Meki agreed calmly. "This is Lavender Perez."

Now A looked up. He squinted. His face was pale and small and pointy, but his eyes were shadowed by his hat. "The blonde one. It can't be the child or the man standing there looking superior in that way people do when they disapprove of one's home. I suppose of course it could be your husband. Perhaps it was your husband all along, but there's evidence to the contrary, so I will go with the blonde one."

Blair's mouth hung open.

Lavender smiled. "Correct."

"I know," A said. "Are you dead, or are you alive? The news said so many different things, back then."

Lavender paused. "I'm pretending," he said, which answered the absurd question, he thought, either way; but in truth didn't answer it at all. It made A's lips quirk up.

A stood, raising a cloud of soot. Ijirashii coughed. "You didn't come here for tea, did you?" A asked. This question was directed at Yuku, and sounded woeful.

"I would not say no to tea, except maybe in this one occasion where I am uncertain if you would poison it," Yuku answered. "But no, I came to ask if you'd do me the favor of reprinting Mayonaka no Shisshi and helping us redistribute it."

A didn't bat an eye. He moved to a little cabinet where there was a teapot sitting, and poured himself a fresh cup, shuffling back to his desk. "Why?"

"Well, it's all coming back to life, isn't it?" Yuku said. "You follow the same newspapers Meki does."

"True," A agreed.

"There are fewer than five copies in the world. I want it remade and reread for the purposes of…what we're doing here," Yuku said, rather evasively.

"Oh, I'm perfectly willing," A said, "it's just I wonder how much you intend to pay me."

"A lot," Yuku said helpfully.

A looked to Meki.

"More money than I make with you selling my books for me," Meki clarified.

"That is not a lot, Kobayashi."

"It is a vague response," Meki answered, winking. "It could go either way."

"A lot," Yuku repeated firmly.

"I'll do it," A said dismissively. He turned away from them, pulled, to everyone's shock, a copy of the book from beneath his desk, and waved them away.

They left. Somewhat numbly.

They were tired, it was snowing, it was getting late in the day, Ijirashii was bitching about, what, a few cracked ribs ("and you have still neglected to actually get me my painkillers! I need those, Lavender!"), and as the sky grew dark with smog and evening, none of them (save Meki, who was skipping because they had stopped by an ice cream place, and apparently six-foot-four romance novelists enjoy ice cream very much; sometimes Meki seemed fictional to Lavender) were entirely in the mood to be accosted by an American in sight of the train station.

He was young enough, probably in his thirties. Beneath his ridiculous knitted blue toboggan, atop which sparkly pom-poms bounced, his hair was a lighter and happier shade of blonde than Lavender's, and his eyes were bright and blue and shiny.

He was also too thin, there were heavy black circles beneath those eyes, and he was clutching in one gloved hand a photograph. When he spoke his voice was raw, though his words seemed casual. "Guys guys guys, can you like. Stop for a second? Please?"

Blair stopped first and turned around, and, sighing, the others followed suit, again save for Meki, who was apparently more eager than the rest of them to get somewhere warm. "What's happening?" Blair asked him, with no small amount of wariness. Blair rightfully expected everyone to be someone who wanted to kill him or someone he knew. He practically heard Lavender stand straighter behind him, getting on his guard.

"My name is Joel," the guy said, rubbing his nose with his free hand. "Joel Stephenson. I. You guys seemed American. My Japanese is such shit, you wouldn't believe, I don't know how I've survived here at all—listen, have any of you seen this child?" He held out the photograph, and Lavender felt like he'd thrown the photograph at him, provided this one photo carried the weight of several large cinderblocks, which it may as well have.

Blair squinted at it. "Sorry, dude. I've never seen him in my life."

Yuku took the picture, examined it, and passed it to Ijirashii, who gave it back to Joel, shaking his head.

"His name is Andrew Matsuda," Joel said pleadingly, like giving a name would help anyone recognize the skinny teenage boy who looked at the camera like making eye contact with it hurt. "He's my son. I. I adopted him. A few months ago. He ran off. The authorities traced him to Japan, which I guess makes sense because that's where his mother ought to be, I don't know, but I came with them to find him…he's seventeen so you'd think I wouldn't be so worried but he was involved in so much shit before I got him, I swear to God there are grown fucking men in this world who want to kill him—"

That struck something in Blair that made him want to help Joel, who seemed so distraught and so familiar with the sort of nasty things that could happen even to very young boys. "None of us recognize him," Blair said, very gently. "We'll keep an eye out, though, and contact the authorities if we do come across him while we're here. We have some experience in shit."

Joel took a deep, shaking breath. "Okay," he said. "Okay. Thank you. I'm sorry." And he hurried off.

It was when they were on the train that Lavender finally spoke, as though he were exploding with the worst secret.

"I shot that kid," he said. "In the leg, and in the stomach. Do you remember?" he asked Blair, tonelessly.

Blair whipped around to gape at Lavender. "You what?"

"That morning, when I went for that job interview. One of the boys was seventeen. One was nineteen. I shot the seventeen-year-old. They intended on taking me somewhere. They tried to kill me."

Blair let his head smack back against his seat. "Oh, god," he said. That was all he could say, six or seven times, increasingly disturbed and frantic, until finally he couldn't speak anymore beneath the shock.

Everyone was silent for the next three hours.