24

The atmosphere at the Rakuen Community Center was befitting the outreach program that had been scheduled for that day and was currently well under way.

The event started off with Amaki Anri, renowned businesswoman and philanthropist, delivering a welcoming speech to participants and beneficiaries alike. Likewise, similar remarks were made by other notable figures from all sectors of the community. Rakuen Mayor Hongo Shotaro and Police Chief Hikawa Ryoma of the RCPD both underscored the importance of social justice in upholding law and order, while one of the local business tycoons stressed the need for everyone in Rakuen to work together so that their city truly lived up to its name. This was then followed by various activities and games meant to serve as icebreakers, before the actual distribution of donations that capped off the morning activities.

And before long, it was time for lunch.

About time, too.

I can’t work on an empty stomach.

Harusaki Ayumu was the last to leave after they’d gone out on the town last night. Apparently, Dan had gotten a job offer while the rest of them had just gotten started on dinner. The contract came with a photo of the intended target, too. And as it turned out, the target of the contract was the very same young man they crossed paths with a week ago.

“I’m showing this job offer to you first because I thought you might want to call dibs on this one,” Dan had told him. “It’s his fault you’ve been having those nightmares, right? Not to mention your friend Ayato cutting ties with you and bailing on us.”

The first of those was correct, at least. While that kid and whatever it was that had possessed him had allowed Haru and his associates to escape with their lives, none of them managed to do so unscathed. Dan’s skull had been cracked after their enemy whacked him in the head with the butt of his own pistol, for one thing. Another of their number was still nursing broken ribs at home after being smashed across the torso with the blunt edge of a sword, which was only slightly more preferable than had the youth slashed him open right there and then. On the whole, all of them had sustained injuries of varying severity all over their bodies.

All of them, except for Haru himself.

I was the unlucky one.

For some reason, that kid – demon – whatever he was – chose not to hurt him physically, though whether it was his idea of mercy or because of something else entirely was anyone’s guess. Then again, thought Haru, subjecting him to horrifying visions, nightmares, and flashbacks, all on a constant, recurring basis, wasn’t what he would’ve called mercy. While the cracked skulls and broken ribs his companions had suffered would heal within weeks, Haru had no way of knowing when – or even if – the torment he himself had been subjected to would ever end. Since that night, he had to endure flashbacks to the worst moments of his life, in addition to all kinds of visions of himself being subjected to unimaginable torture.

I’m not sure how much more I can take, thought Haru as he dug into the packed lunch – a bowl of garlic pepper beef and rice – that had been distributed by the staff.

Whether it was deliberate or mere coincidence, the episodes had had a way of occurring at the worst possible time for Haru. A client who’d been seconds away from hiring him for a job changed his mind at the very last moment after he began screaming in terror seemingly out of nowhere. For that matter, he had a similar stroke of bad luck when the girl he’d been about to invite to a meet up instantly hung up the phone without a word after she heard him suffering a similar attack on the other end.

They just won’t leave me alone.

Before the week was over, Haru had been desperate enough to resort to drinking himself to sleep. And even then, he knew it was a band aid solution at best. After all, the eventual alcohol tolerance he’d build up would inevitably force him to drink increasingly harmful amounts of liquor for increasingly fleeting periods of respite. Unless the nightmares faded away soon, odds were very good that Haru would either go mad, or he’d become an alcoholic and develop all the other associated problems in the process.

And as Haru considered Dan’s offer to call dibs on the contract, he could’ve sworn he could hear a voice whispering into his ear.

Go for it. You’ve got nothing to lose.

So he did.

At the time, Haru thought it was just the voice at the back of his head urging him to get some kind of recompense for what that kid had done to him. But when he got home, he found that a package had been placed on his bed. Tearing away the plain brown paper wrappings revealed an ornate box containing an equally fancy-looking tanto. And in addition to the blade itself, there was also a note that bore a brief message written by an unfamiliar hand.

Just one stroke will end your nightmares. Best of luck.

Haru’s initial reaction to the unexpected gift was to grimace, as he knew that doing what the note said would be easier said than done. Of course, that first impulse soon gave way to a mix of alarm and surprise at the way the message was worded, as it heavily implied that whoever had sent the weapon knew of his nightmares. As the only person he’d confided in was Dan – who not only had distinctly different handwriting, but who would likely have just given him the knife directly considering they’d just hung out together – the note could only have been written by a stranger.

Or maybe it wasn’t the voice of my head that I heard earlier?

In any case, Haru had already spotted his target and tormentor earlier that morning, so the intel from the email was spot-on on that end at least. The target had been helping with the distribution of the books, canned food, and clothes that had been donated to the beneficiaries earlier, and was now talking animatedly with some of the children who had gathered around him.

Just one stroke will end my nightmares, he thought. Just one stroke.

Haru considered his options carefully. Assuming whoever had given him the blade knew about his target’s supernatural healing factor and had enacted some kind of countermeasure against it, a well-placed stab to the target’s heart or any of his other vital organs would be enough. At the same time, he knew perfectly well he couldn’t just walk up to the guy in front of everyone and shove the blade in his guts. Even if he succeeded, he’d just land in jail immediately after, and an untimely stint in prison was the absolute last thing he needed right now.

And it’d traumatize all these kids, too. God knows they’ve been through enough as it is.

So Haru waited the day out by blending in with the others who were participating in the outreach activities. While he didn’t really mingle with the kids or the other participants, he did help them out when they needed boxes and goods to be carried from place to place. And as barely anybody there knew who he was, he didn’t have much trouble drawing attention to himself up until noon.

Just a bit longer…

Of course, that quickly changed at around 4 in the afternoon. One of the staff had caught sight of him and asked for his help bringing in boxes of mineral water that had been delivered by a delivery truck parked outside. It was while Haru was carrying his third box that he caught sight of the two girls who were telling a story to a group of orphaned toddlers at the opposite corner of the auditorium.

“…Well, shit,” he muttered to himself. “Ayaka and Erina. And if they’re here, then…”

Haru didn’t have to wait long to be proven right. Within seconds, Ayato came into view, walking up to both girls who were spending time with the children to give Ayaka a plastic bag. He then watched as one of his two oldest friends since childhood got to her feet and began distributing water bottles and sandwiches to the children.

This job just got a lot more complicated.

Haru wasn’t sure whether the three of them had become acquainted with his target since that job went wrong. However, what he was sure of was the complication posed by the unexpected presence of Ayato, his sister, and his girlfriend, all of whom were unknown variables who could very well hinder him from getting the job done. He’d given a false name and shown a fake ID at the registration booth, but he could still be ejected from the venue if they caught sight of him and reported him to the organizers as a potential troublemaker. Likewise, a public confrontation would similarly expose him to everyone there as someone to be wary of, thereby severely hindering his freedom of movement. If anything were to go wrong, all eyes would be on him.

More importantly, Haru himself still had affection for his old friend – and for both Ayaka and Erina, whether or not they believed it. While the two girls never really approved of him inviting Ayato along on all those jobs, Haru had to admit that they did have a point about inherently dangerous and risky nature of the work involved. Even now, he wasn’t convinced he could bring himself to hurt Ayato, Ayaka, or Erina if the worst case scenario came to pass and they stood in his way.

Dammit.

Talk about an unforeseen complication.

Right now, it was all Harusaki Ayumu right now to continue blending in among the outreach participants.

And as inconvenient and tricky though it was, it was all Haru could do to exercise utmost caution so neither the target nor any of his three childhood friends would spot him.


Before long, it was 6 PM – exactly an hour after the outreach program had ended.

Whew, what a day, thought Shugo as he rolled up his bomber jacket before stowing it in his backpack and placing it on the bench, before he himself sat down to the right of his backpack and draped his left arm over it. Lemme just catch my breath for a bit.

All day long, Shugo had been helping Rena and the others as they attended to the beneficiaries of the outreach, with he himself being entrusted with babysitting half a dozen children for the day. He listened to those children as they shared their life stories with him, with emphasis on their experiences that led to them being entrusted to the care of the Rakuen Youth Rehabilitation Center.

One of them lost his mother in childbirth and then his father at Fukushima when the nuclear disaster occurred, with his life going from bad to worse when he was forced into a life of crime due to the death of the uncle who had become his legal guardian.

Another one lost both his parents when they happened to be abroad in Thailand when that tsunami hit back in December 2004, leaving him in the care of an abusive uncle who constantly beat him until the poor kid snapped and ran away from home after crippling his uncle and paralyzing him with a well-placed whack with his baseball bat.

Yet another had been homeless and lived under a bridge, only to be taken into custody and entrusted to the Youth Center after he and his friends were nabbed for picking pockets in the commercial district.

That said, the most heartrending backstory came from the sole girl in the group. Unlike her five peers who shared their stories before her, that girl’s parents were still alive, albeit in prison. But when Shugo asked her what her parents had done that resulted in their imprisonment to begin with…

Damn, girl.

Needless to say, the answer the girl whispered in his ear had him reflecting on how some people didn’t deserve to have children, nor did they even belong in civil society.

Actually, screw that.

I’m not even sure they deserve to live.

“Shugo?”

Rena’s voice recalled him to reality just as he’d gotten a little too lost in his thoughts.

“Hi, Rena,” Shugo looked at her, managing a tired smile as she sat down beside him. “Thanks for inviting me here, it was really fulfilling.”

“Anytime,” she replied. And then she beamed at him, in a way he was convinced could light up the entire city for days. “I’m glad you could make it, too.”

Neither of them said much after that, though the small smiles both of them wore indicated that their silence had less to do with awkwardness than it did with their exhaustion after their active participation in the day’s events. While he, Shugo, had no way of knowing exactly what Rena had been up to all day, he was sure that both Rena and Yuria had been running themselves ragged ensuring that the outreach program spearheaded by their family would be as successful as possible. And if he was tired, then it was surely nothing compared to the fatigue both girls felt.

Finally, it was half an hour later when a cobalt blue Honda Civic stopped at the driveway just outside.

“Oh. That’ll be Yuria and Mom,” Rena said as she got to her feet and began to make her way out of the entrance hall, only to hesitate and briefly look back.

“Need a ride home, Shugo? I’m sure they won’t mind.”

Shugo’s insides froze.

This is a joke, right?

Rena was inviting him to ride home with them. On one hand, it was the closest he’d gotten to her since he first laid eyes on her back in junior high. The time had been when all he could do was sneak glances at her in the past, and now, she herself was inviting him to ride home with her and likely sit beside her for most if not all of it. It was almost too good to be true.

Be cautious, child. I sense an enemy nearby.

And as it turned out, it was too good to be true.

“…Sorry, Rena. Chief Ryoma needs me to meet him back at the RCPD.”

Or at least, he will, once I’ve taken care of whoever this is.

Rena’s face fell. If Shugo didn’t know better, he’d have sworn she was actually disappointed he’d turned down her invite. “Oh, what a shame. See you at school, Shugo!”

He smiled and waved back as he watched her get in the back of her mother’s car and ride off into the sunset.

And then, after about a minute had passed, Shugo sighed and got to his feet.

“You can come out now. I already know you’re there.”

Shugo sensed the oncoming attack just quickly enough to step aside as someone tackled him from seemingly out of nowhere.

“…Good grief, that was close.”

Shugo braced himself as the attacker then turned around, a manic and even desperate look in his eye, as he tried again with a wild left punch aimed at Shugo’s face. The teen executed the outside block he’d been taught throughout the course of his karate training, before leaping backward as his assailant tried to follow this up with a right haymaker that was just as wild.

A tanto,” the spirit said in his ear. “With a silver-coated blade.”

Because of course it’s coated in silver.

Be careful, child,” she warned him further. “Whoever sent him means to end you.”

Shugo grunted in understanding as he stepped to the side to avoid a lunging stab aimed at his forehead, before taking advantage of the overextension by sweeping his attacker’s leg and sending him crashing to the floor. From there, the teen then fell upon his assailant in a heartbeat and began raining blows on his adversary. The other man tried to raise his forearms and indeed he managed block at least some of them, but after a minute’s worth of continuous pounding, his guard began to weaken enough to provide a momentary opening-

There!

-Which Shugo promptly seized by nailing his would-be murderer with a hammer fist between the eyes that knocked him out cold in the process. Having finally ended the fight, he then got up after prying the tanto from the unconscious man’s right hand, breathing and panting all the while as though he’d just run a mile.

“…Shugo? Are you okay?”

He slowly turned around. Before him, a few meters away, stood Ayato, Ayaka, Erina, and Officer Kadena Saaya, all of whom wore identical looks of shock and horror on their faces.

“Your arm…”

And when Shugo looked down to check himself, he finally saw the fresh stab wound that pierced through his left forearm, and the blood that had been flowing freely from it.

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