12

Lots of things happened this week, but somehow I made it to the weekend in one piece.

For the second time that week, Shugo found himself in the backseat of Detective Ashihara Riku’s dark red Mitsubishi Lancer as they drove to the mall in Rakuen’s bustling commercial district.

Ryoma had invited Shugo to their place that Saturday afternoon, the better to give him a nice, comfortable venue where he could catch up with Taro after the ordeal the boy had been through. After that, it was off to dinner for them. It wasn’t a bad deal, either; for one thing, it saved Shugo from having to cook dinner or spend money on takeout, leaving him free to spend his time and money on other things.

More importantly, there’s nothing like dinner out after all that.

Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, Taro confessed that he had been having bad dreams of being trapped in various situations with no way out. The first was right after the incident itself, where he dreamed of being locked in the trunk again. Meanwhile, the most recent nightmare had him drowning at the bottom of the ocean. The latter instance in particular was apparently severe enough that one of the household staff came running over to his room when he awoke with a scream.

“Why did it have to happen to me?” asked Taro as he sat on the couch in their living room, all but begging for an answer. “Was it because I’m a bad boy?”

Shugo promptly disabused the distressed child of that notion. He explained that anyone would have those kinds of nightmares after going through such a harrowing ordeal, and that experiencing them was nothing to be ashamed of. He pointed out how bad things sometimes happened to good people, but that it wasn’t necessarily because they brought it on themselves. He reassured Taro that the only ones to blame for what happened were the kidnappers – and, above all, that all of them, Shugo included, would be there for him to help him bounce back, better than ever.

“Whenever you wake up from a bad dream, just remember what I said,” he told the boy. “We already know you’re a good kid and that you’ve got people like me and your dad in your corner, so the next step is making sure those bad dreams know it too.”

After that, Ryoma and Riku picked them up to take them to the mall downtown. After spending half an hour wandering around the mall looking for a good place to eat, they eventually settled on a well-known all-you-can-eat yakiniku restaurant on the third floor. As Shugo watched how the two lawmen make the most of it, he presumed this was their way of rewarding themselves for their hard work. Not that he was one to talk, of course; by that point, he himself had also had his fill, and then some.

“So, Taro?” the chief asked after finishing his third helping. “How’d it go?”

Taro obediently repeated everything Shugo had told him.

“That’s exactly right,” Ryoma agreed with an approving nod at his son’s summation of what Shugo had told him earlier. “You’re not a bad boy, Taro. You’re the best little rascal any old man could ask for.”

“Your dad’s not wrong, y’know,” Riku added, laughing, as he playfully poked the boy on the forehead. “On top of that, your opening up about what happened only shows us how brave you are.”

The chief gave his son a brief but tight hug, before letting go and then turning his attention to the older youth. “Thank you for taking good care of Taro, Shugo. And thank you for telling him exactly what he needed to hear.”

After dinner came dessert. Ryoma meant to take them to a fancy coffee shop that was having its soft opening, only for Taro to coax his father into getting them ice cream from the nearby creamery instead. Shugo got two scoops of cookie dough ice cream, while father and son each got two scoops of cheese and chocolate. As he watched the two horse around outside the store shortly after they’d finished their orders, it was clear to Shugo just how much the chief adored his young son and doted on him.

Lucky kid.

By that time, it was exactly 9:00 PM. Despite Taro’s attempt to cajole his father into taking one last side trip to the toy store, Ryoma declared it was time for them to go home. And when his son tried to protest, Ryoma reminded him that it was almost his bedtime, and that they had something coming up tomorrow. “Besides, your eyelids are drooping, and you’ve been yawning every couple of minutes for the past hour,” the chief wryly pointed out, before cracking a grin when his son proved his point by stifling a yawn right in front of him. “You don’t wanna be too sleepy to enjoy the planetarium, do you?”

The drive back to the Hikawa house took half an hour at most.

And by that time, Taro had fallen asleep in the back seat and was leaning against the locked car door.

“Thanks again, Shugo,” said Ryoma as he took his sleeping son out of the vehicle. “Riku, bring him home, would you?”

——

Half an hour later, while they were on the road…

“Thanks again for your help, Shugo,” Riku said as they waited for the traffic lights ahead of them to turn green. “You may not have noticed, but the chief and Taro are both clearly fond of you.”

Shugo shrugged, unsure of what to say. As he’d only just met them a few days ago, he wasn’t sure how to respond, nor could he comment on the accuracy of Riku’s assessment.

“You really think so, Detective?”

Riku nodded, even as he kept his eyes ahead.

“He doesn’t really advertise it, but Chief Ryoma’s always been an advocate for juvenile delinquents and the youth in general,” the aide and detective explained. “By the time I’d met him, he’d become famous within the RCPD for personally leading all kinds of rescue ops for kidnapping and trafficking victims. Even today, he still makes a point of meeting with the kids over at the Youth Rehab Center at least every other Saturday.”

At which point the detective smiled wistfully. “I should know. I was one of those kids once.”

Shugo looked up from his smartphone at that.

“Oh, yeah?”

“I was,” nodded Riku in confirmation. “I think I was 8 or 9 years old at the time-”

Unfortunately for Shugo, he never heard the rest of the story.

Because it was at that precise moment that Shugo’s unseen companion chose to make her presence felt – and, in the process, gave him a splitting headache that caused him to close his eyes and block out the world in his agony.

——

Unforgivable.”

Shugo flinched in surprise – both at the voice, and at the tone of voice. Sorry, what?

Make him suffer.”

By now, Shugo had gotten mostly used to the mental link the two of them shared. After all, she’d spoken to him frequently throughout the past several days. But up until now, she’d consistently spoken in a flat, monotonous voice of someone detached from the world and from humanity. Even when she told him off for his curiosity at the kind of person she may have been in life, she’d done so in a tone that made it clear how she was cautioning him against prying too much into something she felt him better off not knowing. She’d never spoken with anything more than mild annoyance or irritation, much less the deathless rage and the unadulterated venom he was getting from her now.

Still, he tried to reason with her. What’s unforgivable? Make who suffer?

Shugo highly doubted it was Riku’s blood she was out for. The two of them had been in close contact with Riku and the chief several times this past week, and she seemed to like both lawmen well enough. And considering how the spirit was clearly able to sense malice and evil intent, Shugo had no doubt she would’ve warned him if either Riku or Ryoma were bad news. Where’s all this coming from?

Fortunately for Shugo – and for Riku, who had momentarily stopped the car at a gas station they’d chanced upon, and who now wore an expression of clear concern as he looked over the youth in question – the object of her rage was someone else.

Find him.”

Break him, and make him suffer.”

Unfortunately, thought Shugo, it didn’t actually bring them any closer to determining who it was. Who’s gotten you so worked up? Make who suffer?

Find him.”

As the spirit repeated her demand, Shugo thought he felt the beginnings of rage mingle with his increasing confusion.

BREAK HIM.”

By now, the spirit was all but howling for blood through the mental link they shared. From the way her raw fury continued to bleed over into him, Shugo was beginning to wonder whether he’d be able to hold her back if she acted out in her blind rage.

MAKE HIM SUFFER.”

“Who…?” Shugo whispered aloud as he felt that otherworldly wrath surge like a bloody tide throughout his body, just as his headache spiked to the point that his head was about to come apart. “Why are you…?”

It was almost a mercy when a scream of terror rang out at that precise moment.

At the very least, thought Shugo as he exited the car with a meaningful look towards the detective who owned it, he now had a better idea just whose blood the spirit was now screaming for.

——

If anything could go wrong, it would.

And if any given chain of events could go wrong, it was all but guaranteed to go wrong in the worst possible way.

That was the recurring theme 24-year old Hazuki Miyu had observed throughout her life.

Even as a child, Miyu constantly saw her parents arguing and fighting with one another, oftentimes to the point of physical violence. Her father Ushio always seemed to blow up over the smallest thing, be it lack of food or inexcusably high utility bills, and he had no qualms using Miyu’s mother Misa – or on rare occasions, even Miyu herself – as an outlet for his frustration. Eventually, Misa worked up the courage to kick her husband out of the house, and their lives, for good, but their troubles were far from over. From then on, Misa became involved in various romantic entanglements with all sorts of shady men. And while there were variations as far as the specifics were concerned, all of those relationships had the commonality of being as chaotic as they were fleeting.

To that end, Miyu had been very careful not to end up marrying a guy like her biological father, or any of her mother’s many ex-boyfriends. It was in high school that she met Mishima Shinji, a sweet but socially awkward nerd, while they both happened to be poring over required readings in the library. The two were inseparable from that point forward, and unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long after their graduation for the two to get married.

Big mistake.

Unfortunately for Miyu, the man she fell in love with turned out to be a lie. Just as they didn’t wait long before they got married, it similarly didn’t take long before Shinji inexplicably changed for the worse. He quickly developed a penchant for verbally and emotionally abusing her for the tiniest mistakes, only to become profoundly remorseful the morning after. And before long, their marriage had taken on a predictable yet excruciating pattern of fighting and reconciling. But even then, the one saving grace Shinji had compared to her father was that he never hurt her physically.

Until now.

As she stared down the maniac who leered at her hungrily with a crazed glint in his eye, Miyu cursed her luck, and the life she’d led up until this point. Of all the people in Rakuen, she had to be the one to not only be born to a monster, but to end up marrying one herself. And now, the same monster was advancing on her in that dark alleyway with a metal baseball bat.

How could this happen to me?

As it was, it was all Hazuki Miyu could do to glare defiantly at the man who was at once her husband, her tormentor, and now, her imminent murderer, all the while frantically praying for someone, anyone, to find her and save her.

And then…

“What the hell d’you think you’re doing!?”

——

Both Riku and Shugo were stunned at the scene that greeted them.

It wasn’t the detective’s first time seeing something like this, of course. He was a policeman, after all, and coming face-to-face with criminals and their handiwork was an everyday occurrence in their line of work. But as Riku saw it, just because he dealt with this sort of thing all the time didn’t make it any easier or bearable. With that, he levelled his personal firearm, a Colt M1911, and aimed it at the miscreant before him.

Likewise, Shugo’s headache died down to a dull throbbing in his temples as he stared down the one responsible for inciting the wrath of the spirit bonded to him. Much to his relief, the spirit’s unbridled hate and rage that had been moments away from consuming him had receded. Instead, all of her wrath was now focused solely at the man in front of them.

And then she whispered one more time in Shugo’s mind.

Make him suffer.”

Shugo locked eyes with the woman who had been cowering just seconds ago. Gazing at her, he saw that her mortal terror had since been diluted by confusion at who these new arrivals were. More than that, he also felt a desperate hope on her part – that maybe, just maybe, the reason they were there was to rescue her.

“Leave.”

The woman didn’t need telling twice. She sprinted past her tormentor into the arms of the detective, who momentarily holstered his gun and gave her his jacket to wear. “C’mon, let’s get you out of here,” he told her reassuringly. “My car’s close by.”

Shugo watched the two depart for a moment. When they disappeared from view, he turned his attention to the miscreant before him. The expression on the batterer’s face was one of mingled shock and fear, with a hint of outrage at the weird young man who’d gotten in his way.

Oh, here we go…

The youth readied himself as his adversary charged wildly at him with a roar like a wild animal, bat raised high and poised to come crashing down on his skull, before parrying with a rising left forearm block. He then gripped his attacker’s wrist with his left hand, before stepping back and then raising his right forearm in a strike that broke the man’s right arm at the elbow joint and relieved him of his weapon in the process. Not content with what he had done, Shugo compounded this further with a savage front kick to the man’s groin that left him crumpling to the cement in pain, with his ability to procreate left in severe doubt.

Not enough.

Both the spirit and her contractor were agreed in this. Shugo took just a moment to stare dispassionately at the man now writhing and screaming in agony on the concrete, before picking up the metal bat his adversary had been wielding just minutes ago and then twirling it idly as he considered what to do next.

“Damn you…!” the man gasped through the pain, before making a valiant but pointless attempt to get up and fight back. “I swear… I’ll kill you…”

Shugo let out a brief bark of contemptuous, derisive laughter as his eyes flashed red, before he responded in a voice that was decidedly inhuman yet unmistakably feminine.

“SUFFER.”

The man’s screams of pain rang out in the night as the youth viciously assaulted him with his own weapon. He swung the bat downwards again and again, bending it, warping it, and eventually leaving it unusable altogether, at which point he tossed it aside in favour of beating the batterer to a bloody pulp with his bare hands.

SUFFER.”

It was all the man could do to curl up in a fetal position in an attempt to minimize his imminent injuries, though it did little to stop the series of punches that wound up cracking, possibly even breaking, his ribs.

SUFFER.”

The double axe handle that followed cracked the man’s head open and left blood trickling down along his ear.

SUFFER.”

Shugo clutched both hands together once more as he raised them high, before bringing them crashing down in an intended blow to the back of his adversary’s neck that could very well have left him a paraplegic…

“SHUGO!”

…If it weren’t for the sudden shout of horrified shock that brought him back to his senses and caused him to stop just short of actually landing the blow at the very last second.

Shugo stood up and turned around.

And when he did, he was greeted by the sight of Detective Ashihara Riku, whose mouth hung open in disbelief at the savagery that had unfolded in his absence.

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