Title: Darkest of Marks
Author: Vesper (Regina)
Content: Bruises, threats of child harm, allusions to assault, violence, whump, sexual situations.
Category: Drama
Characters: Utsumi Kaoru/Yukawa Manabu, Yuge Shiro, Kusanagi Shunpei, Jonouchi Sakurako, OCs
Summary: Utsumi Kaoru's been fighting an attraction to Yukawa Manabu for as long as they've been acquainted. She thinks she's done a good job of hiding it, but that'll change, thanks to a case she's working.
Archival: If you wish to archive, please link to my website. Please keep all my headers intact.
Notes: Thanks to Ahria for beta-reading. I really appreciate your help. Fill for the 30Kisses prompt "if only I could make you mine." For everyone who's listened to me whine about this, I hope it turns out to be worth the wait!


Chapter One: live in darkness

Kurumi blinks at the ceiling, its surface dim above her, for a few minutes. Or longer. She untucks her hand from under her pillow and turns onto her side. "Keisuke?" she whispers and lifts herself up. Something woke her. The door to the bathroom gleams with light around the edges. It always creaks, no matter how quietly one tries to shut it. Kurumi reaches down to rest her hand on the bundle inside a deep basket beside her bed. She puts her hand lightly on the baby's chest, just enough to feel the rise and fall of breath.

Kurumi swings her legs out of bed, arches her back into a stretch, then stands up. She goes to the door of the bathroom, and can hear water running.

"Keisuke?" She pushes the door open a little, while saying, "I tried to stay up for you. What are you doing?" There's no response as she enters enough to see him standing at the sink, hands clenched around the edge of it, his bare back rigid.

"Don't come in here," he says, his head down.

"What's wrong?"

He turns around then and pushes her out of the bathroom, saying, "Nothing. Don't ask me questions."

"Stop pushing me. And lower your voice; you're going to wake up Midori. What happened?" She tries to catch his eyes, by ducking and touching his cheek to turn his face to hers. He just keeps turning from her, and moves her hand away.

"Get out," he says, but he doesn't push at her this time and his voice has gone flat.

"It's those people you spend t-t-time with, isn't it? What'd they do?" She winces as she starts to stutter.

"You don't --" He cuts off in anguish. Kurumi's eyes go wide. Keisuke covers his face with his hands, dragging them down and off his chin. He swallows, looking away from her. "You don't want me to answer that."

He lifts his hands to his face again, curled into fists that he holds to his temples, and then he sinks down onto the floor. He doesn't respond when Kurumi places a hand on his head. She combs her fingers through his hair for a few seconds, as she chews on her upper lip, trying to decide what to do.

The water is still running. She steps past Keisuke to turn it off. His shirt is in the sink and when she lifts it out, water drips from it, but it's not clear. Her mouth falls open and she drops the shirt, backing away.

"Is this --" She goes down on her knees in front of Keisuke. She pushes at his shoulder, once, and then again with more force, when he won't look at her. "That's b-b-blood on your shirt! Keisuke! Why is there b-b-blood on your s-shirt?"

He buries his head into his crossed arms and starts rocking back and forth. She hesitates, then puts her arms around him.

She whispers, "What did you do?"

*

Utsumi Kaoru tucks her notebook under her arm so she can get out her police badge and smiles, hoping it's reassuring, at the young woman who opens her metal apartment door. Showing it only gets her a blank stare from the girl for a long moment, even as she looks from it to Utsumi and behind her. Utsumi doesn't turn to track that look. She'll just see Yuge Shiro, her senior partner, crowding into her back.

The girl's haggard face curdles into an expression full of suspicion. The wail of a baby comes from within the apartment and the girl -- young woman, Utsumi corrects herself again -- turns her head away for a brief moment, a flicker of emotions flashing across her face. A little bit of frustration, Utsumi catalogs, along with a deep and weary worry. Utsumi bites at the inside of her lower lip, and ignores the insistent poke from Yuge, right into her back.

The girl's expression changes subtly as she passes her gaze over them. She opens the door a little more, but not wide enough for either Yuge or Utsumi to see anything within.

She says, tone tired and exasperated, "What d-d-do you want?" The stammer is slight, but there.

Yuge pipes up from behind Utsumi, before she can answer, "We just have a few questions for you, Ms. Ariga. About Yamamoto Keisuke?"

Her mouth twists. She says, "You mean my good-for-nothing husband?" She looks down, says, "He's not here. I haven't seen him in a month." At Ariga's lack of eye contact, Utsumi narrows her eyes. The muscles between her shoulder blades tighten, making her stand straighter and she peers closer at Ariga, sensing an obfuscation. When Ariga looks back up, focusing her gaze on Utsumi, she shivers at the look. She can't shake the sudden certainty that Yamamoto has been here.

Ariga's grip on the side of the door loosens. She lets go, only to move her hand down to the door knob -- preparation for shutting it. She says, "My b-b-baby is crying; can you p-please go away?"

Yuge pokes at Utsumi's back again. She takes a breath. She says, "It'd be better if you could talk with us. We won't take up much of your time." She pulls her notebook out from under her arm. She opens it up to pull a contact card from it; this conversation is failing to get them in, and she needs to be prepared for the inevitable door in the face.

"I told you. He's not here. He doesn't come around. If you see him, tell that son of --" She cuts herself off, wincing.

The wailing of the girl's baby, persistent throughout, has turned into piercing screeches. Ms. Ariga's face crumples a bit, the look of someone with too much stress, and no one available to shoulder it with her. Her lower lip trembles and she looks down. She says, voice strained, "Please, not right now."

Utsumi swallows. She says, "We just need to ask him a few questions, that's all. If he does come back, please call."

The door is already closing as Utsumi hands her the card. Ms. Ariga takes it. The door snaps shut. It cuts off all the sound, but for the tumblers inside the bolt turning over.

Yuge says, "You're so kindhearted." Utsumi turns to him; he's rocked back on his heels, hands in his pockets, eyebrows raised.

Utsumi mutters, "Is there a problem with that?" She pushes past him to head down the rickety metal stairs.

"What?" He calls after her. "What did I say?" She just shakes her head, so emphatically her bangs come loose from their side part, flying into her eyes and catching there. She pushes them away. The sound of her footsteps change from sharp clangs to dull thumps as they hit the concrete pavement.

Yuge's still on the stairs when she swings around to see where he is. She taps her notebook against her leg as she waits for him to catch up to her. "It was a compliment," he says.

She turns her back on him and starts heading to her car. "Thank you, I guess," she says. She stops and says, "Yuge? I have the feeling she was lying to us."

He stops walking. "About what?"

"About not having seen Yamamoto."

"You think he's been here?"

"Yes."

"We should put surveillance on her."

"Yes, we should. But honestly, will it do any good if she tells him? I don't think it would do much to increase our chances to find him."

"Well... " he draws out the sound, scratching the back of his head, eyes scrunched up. He resembles nothing so much as a bulldog puppy.

"If he told his wife to lie, then he's probably hiding somewhere else... don't you think?"

He stares at her for a second, then his whole posture wilts, shoulders and head dropping. "I think we're going to be doing more research."

"That's our job. Most of the time."

"Yes, yes. Gotcha. Let's get going, already. It's going to take a while to figure out where he's gone if not here. Too bad these kind always go to ground when all we want to do is talk to them." He passes her, leading the way.

"That's because they're usually running from other things. I'm driving!" she calls after him.

He raises his hand, not turning around. "You're better at it, anyway," he says. A corner of her mouth quirks up. She can't help it. She takes off after him, suppressing the involuntary smile. He doesn't need to see he actually made her amused.

*

"Well done."

Kurumi ignores the compliment, her face still pinched into unhappy lines. Her mouth twists under the pressure of her feelings, and she keeps her eyes down, though she can see the shadow of the man off in the living room, cast against the wall of the small hallway she stands in. Midori continues to cry. It takes a silence from Midori to spur Kurumi into movement. She jolts like she's been burnt and heads to where she left her daughter, squeezing past the man standing in her path, careful not to make contact or even look at him.

She doesn't have to look at him to feel any of the revulsion when she does. She tries to focus on what she's doing, calming Midori. She enters the bedroom to see that her baby's face is red, her limbs waving fitfully, and her mouth open in a soundless wail. Kurumi says, "Breathe," and picks Midori up. As soon as she does, Midori takes a sobbing gulp of air and Kurumi tucks her to herself, soft baby hair under her fingers, and the warm curve of a tiny head under her chin. Midori is hungry, and angry, and just so much a physical mirror of Kurumi's own emotions, that she whispers, "I know, I know," and sways back and forth. Midori settles down a bit more, but not enough.

Kurumi refuses to even consider nursing Midori while that man is still out there, but she has to get the stored breast milk if she wants to feed her child by bottle and that means going back out to her living space, the one invaded by that man's face and arrogance. If he wasn't her husband's --

She takes a deep breath, ignores the twitch starting at the corner of her eye, and goes. Midori comes with -- there's no way she's leaving her again to meltdown.

He stands when she comes in, and she says, as she passes him, "I want you to leave."

"Do you understand what I want from you and Keisuke?"

She looks up at him, a brief flutter, and she holds herself very still. "I understand that you h-h-have us under your th-th-thumb, and that there's c-consequences for g-getting out. I don't understand why... " He voice is going to choke her before she can get what she wants to say out, and she holds Midori closer. She finishes what has to be said. "Why you don't just kill us right now."

There's amusement in his voice, and it rattles through her like the shock of slipping on ice. "I'm giving Keisuke a chance to prove his loyalty. Tattle, and you only get one chance."

"And th-th-then?"

"Oh, I'll think about that if we get there. You have a beautiful baby. Next time, I'll bring her a gift. I wouldn't be a loving uncle if I didn't, would I?" He smiles.

A rush of sound fills Kurumi's ears, like a waterfall or a jet engine, and she wishes for nothing more than the ability to rip the smile off his face and feed it to him and then she realizes she's been screaming, "Getoutgetoutgetout," over and over again, and she's only just a little louder than Midori's wails.

And then, she's alone, the sound of the door slamming ringing in her ear, still holding Midori, and whimpering into that tiny head, "I'm so sorry, so sorry."

Chapter Two: holding too tight

Utsumi casts an exasperated look upward. Kuribayashi Hiromi is up on the second level of Professor Yukawa Manabu's lab-slash-office, muttering about something or other; annoying teacher's aide that he is. She rolls her eyes before looking down again. The table she's sitting at is littered with books. She pushes away the stack right in front of her with enough force to topple it. She doesn't bother to make it tidy again. Underneath, there's a few chalk marks that she sweeps her fingers over, equations she has no hope of understanding, ever. They are a remnant of the table's other role as a blackboard. She has to admire that type of efficiency, though its role as catch-all is yet one more thing that's annoying her.

She picks her notebook up from its upside-down and open position and leans forward, running her finger down the notes she made before coming here. Kuribayashi utters a particularly loud imprecation and she looks up again. She says, "I wish he'd be quiet; now I can't remember what I was going to say."

She turns around in her seat, to find Yukawa's back to her. The physics professor is up on the ladder in front of the bookcase.

"What's he doing?" Utsumi asks him. He steps down, a few books held to his chest, tucked into the crook of his arm. He's wearing his lab coat today, and it glows in the light coming from the lab's high windows. That same light catches in the lenses of his glasses, like a white flame. "Please don't stack those in front of me like you did the last pile."

"I have him collating data."

"Ah." Utsumi nods and turns back to her notebook, propping the bottom edge of it on the table, first, but that doesn't really work, so she lays it flat.

She can feel Yukawa stop behind her, as she taps her pen against the paper of her notebook, but when he reaches over her shoulder, she startles, losing her grasp on her pen, which clatters as it falls, and rolls off to... somewhere. She almost can't breathe against the sudden pounding of her heart. It's not a new feeling, much as she just wants to deny it.

"What are you doing?" she demands, as Yukawa picks up another book from the table. Her very skin seems attuned to his presence, a prickling starting at the nape of her neck. She stares at the length of his arm, so close she can see the weave of the linen, and is conscious of holding her breath, of his chest almost pressed against her back. He turns his head to look at her, and she busies herself with picking at a page in her notebook, taking a breath. She doesn't look up when he backs away and walks around the table.

"You were saying that you'd reached a dead end."

She swallows, as she tries to recover by turning pages. She's so rattled that she can't register the feeling of the paper under her fingertips. What Yukawa says finally penetrates and she says, "Well, yes. Apart from the facts available as public record, there's very little I've been able to dig up. Yamamoto is married, but apparently estranged; his parents are dead and their old house is abandoned --"

"There's nothing there that I can help you with."

She looks up, but he has his book open, one finger tucked into the corner of an up-turned page, looking at it, instead of her. She pouts a little, but closes her notebook. "I'm just using you as a sounding-board, I suppose."

He looks up at that. He says, "Complaining, you mean." Utsumi presses her lips together, and narrows her eyes, almost ready to pitch into him for being so dismissive, but the expression on his face stops her. She blinks a few times, trying to figure out why he's looking at her like that, like he's... what is he trying to communicate? Like he -- she's not given the opportunity to decipher the thought. He says, "If you're satisfied, maybe you could let me get back to work."

She says, "Sorry to bother you," almost as a reflex, her mind occupied with subtext, with kinesics and an undercurrent she's not understanding. He's not turning his attention away, she notes, still looking at her, almost like she's a puzzle. She opens her mouth, on the verge of a question she can't form. She shakes her head. She'll have to leave it. "I'll see you later, then."

He nods, but doesn't say anything. He looks down, back to his book, instant switch flip, and turns away.

She puts her notebook into her purse and slings it over her shoulder. She slides off the stool, but hesitates. "I'm forgetting someth...." She lets the comment trail. She starts moving books around on the table. "My pen. Where did it.... Ah!" she exclaims, spotting it as soon as she does. It's partially concealed by the space underneath a book that's slid into a slanted position from atop another, much thicker book. It's like the slant of a roof. Utsumi sees Yukawa turn back around out of the corner of her eye, but her attention is still caught by how her pen has hidden itself.

"What is it?" Yukawa asks.

"Suddenly I know exactly what it's like for you," she says. She looks up at him, a wide smile on her face. She says, "Of course. It makes perfect sense."

"What?"

"Never mind," she says, waving a hand at him. "It won't matter to you, but thanks to this mess, I know what to do next. I'll see you later. You were helpful." She snatches up her pen, holding it up triumphantly, before scurrying out.

She barely hears Kuribayashi call down as she exits into the hallway outside the lab, "Is she gone?" She rolls her eyes and continues on.

*

"I'm going back there tonight," Keisuke says to Kurumi. He takes a drag on a cigarette. His fingers are trembling. The cigarette is almost burnt down and Keisuke looks at it, before he stubs it out in the glass tray he holds.

"Okay," Kurumi answers, putting Midori, who's fast asleep, and heavy in her hands, back into her basket.

"I burned everything."

She sits down on the bed, cross-legged, hunched into herself, arms tucked in. Keisuke moves across the space to sit beside her. "I know you think this is wrong, that I shouldn't have done that, but think about it. There's no way --"

"He came here. Kinoshita."

"What?"

"He wants to hurt us. He said --" She presses her lips together, but it does nothing to quell the quivering of her chin. Keisuke tries to touch her on the shoulder, but she moves away. She swallows. "You have to go to the police --"

"I can't do that."

"You got us into this. You promised to protect us. You said this would be good and it's been nothing but --" She stops, biting down on her lower lip to keep her voice from rising and waking Midori.

Keisuke looks at her, and she looks at him. There's nothing but sorrow in his face. "You promised," Kurumi says once again, and then her face crumples, unable to hold any tears back. She tries to keep it as quiet as she can. She reaches out, and they both bend into each other, holding on.

*

Yuge says, for what seems the umpteenth time, that they need to be cautious. "He'll probably run, if he's there at all," he says. Utsumi only nods, and flicks open the clasp on her gun holster. She follows behind him as he advances in front of her. The plot of land is old, with an even older house, fallen in disrepair. Mortar has started to crumble from the brickwork of the enclosing walls to the plot of land. Weeds are the only green in a ground almost completely devoid of grass; what little remains is dun brown and dead. She draws her gun as they close in on the door, finger on the outside of the trigger guard.

Yuge taps on the door with the nose of his gun. "Police," he calls, "open the door." There's no answer, and Utsumi moves to the side, body angled to keep the front of the house and the yard in sight. There's a slim chance Yamamoto is not there, and it wouldn't do to miss his arrival. Yuge taps again.

The crack of a door being thrown open resounds from the back of the house and Utsumi glances back at Yuge, whose eyes go ridiculously round before he shouts, "Go!" She turns back around, points her gun down and away from her and follows around the corner of the house as quickly as she can. The brush growing against the side of the house scratches at the exposed part of her feet and hose and the hem of her pants as she runs along. Yuge utters a muffled curse behind her at how cramped the outer wall makes the pathway to the back, but she doesn't look back.

She comes out into an overgrown back garden, and sees Yamamoto, wearing a blue hooded shirt with no sleeves, scaling a kiln built next to the enclosing wall. She runs after him, yelling, "Stop!" The blue hood disappears on the other side as she reaches the kiln, and clambers up it. Her foot slips a little, her shoes not having enough traction to hold, but she catches and clings to the top of the kiln with the fingers of her left hand and the heel of her right, still holding onto her gun, and pushes herself up before she falls. She's too intent on going over to take but a flashing pride in that, before she's on the other side, too, dropping down in a crouch into a small alleyway, barely a footpath.

She looks up in time to see Yamamoto looking back at her, bent over with his hands on his knees, taking heaving breaths. She stands, and he takes off, again. She races after him, fumbling her gun back into its holster, because there's no way she'll have a good enough aim to bring him down, and catching him will be far easier with her hands free.

She hears Yuge drop down into the dirt and gravel behind her. Yamamoto skids left, and she follows, right into the razed ruins of another house, wood and broken glass everywhere. The amount of debris stymies her for just a second, as she tries to plot a path in it.

Yamamoto is just standing there, back to her, on top of what looks like a washing machine, tilted on its side, his arms out to the side, as if he was preparing to jump down. Utsumi starts to move forward, trying to be careful about what she steps on. Yamamoto turns, and his voice breaks as he raises it. "Just leave me alone! I haven't done anything!"

Utsumi shakes her head, and advances, going for her gun again. Yamamoto holds his hands out, a warning to stop. She doesn't, and he casts his attention away from her, looking around him, jumps down. Seeing that, she calls out, "Don't be stupid," and raises her gun.

"You don't understand!" he shouts at her.

"We just need to ask you some questions," she says, trying to keep her tone level, but unyielding, difficult, certainly, with the fight she has to do to breathe. "You can explain everything to us if you just come --"

He stoops, in one quick smooth movement, coming up with a brick-sized slab of rock, which he lobs at her. She hears Yuge yell her name behind her as she throws herself out of the way, falling hard on her right shoulder.

For a moment she feels nothing and then pain surges over her like a blast of heat from a furnace; her nerves are on fire. She lies there, stunned, gasping, the urge to vomit swelling with the pain and she keeps very still on instinct, but it doesn't help. She hears a shot -- Yuge; it has to be -- and the crunch and grind of debris as he dashes past her. A dull roar fills her ears and she sees, first, grey tinged with red on the outer edges of her vision, then black.

Yuge's face is too close to her own when she opens her eyes. "Utsumi," he says, "are you okay?"

She swallows down the bitter, dry taste at the back of her mouth. She says, "Did I --"

"Yes, you did," he answers, and his face is worried -- not a good look on him. She doesn't move, not wanting to test her arm. The pain is still there, not diminished, but not sharp. She has the feeling that would change if she moved it.

Yuge moves as if to help her up and she warns, "My right shoulder." Yuge nods, and moves to her left, carefully assisting her upward. She leans on him, only to slip downward when she can't seem to find her footing, but Yuge holds her up. She feels the urge to vomit again, and lets go, sitting down with a thump and waving Yuge away when he tries to help her up again.

With her head down, she hears him call for an ambulance, first, and then he says, "Will you be all right?"

She nods, a slow motion, still looking down. She hears scuffling, and risks looking up for just a second to see Yuge hauling up Yamamoto, hands cuffed behind his back, looking uninjured as far as she can tell. Yuge must have fired a warning shot.

She pulls in her right arm at the elbow, holding it close to her torso, and breathes. One... two... three....

Chapter Three: laced with my doubt

"I don't know why you didn't go to the hospital." Yuge sounds like he's sulking, but the crease between his eyebrows tells a different story. "You look like you're going to fall over any minute. We can interrogate him lat --"

"This," Utsumi says, as she points at the dividing window in the room, on the other side of which is Yamamoto, "is more important."

Yuge lowers his voice and steps closer to her. She looks at him askance, then pointedly around the room. They are the only ones in there, observing. He doesn't pick up on the fact that his behavior is unwanted. "Listen," he says, "you shouldn't be here. I heard what you told the paramedics. You should be getting examined, not preparing to question the guy who hurt you. How are you going to type with your arm like that?" He points with his chin, at the blue sling they gave her.

"You could transcribe the conversation," she says.

"Utsumi." He turns away from her, pressing his lips together into an ugly pout, like he's afraid to say more. So she's ticked him off. So what? She reaches up to her arm in the sling and winces.

"So you disapprove." She tries to keep her tone neutral, but it comes out strained.

"Of course I do! You're being stupid, and it's worr --"

"Yuge," she says, turning away from the two-way mirror, "My mind is clear. We can use this. He won't be expecting to be faced with the consequences of his actions as soon as this."

"I don't like it."

"Don't you think I wish I was at home?" she snaps. Yuge steps back, his face looking pinched, and hurt. She closes her eyes, just for a second.

When she looks at him again, he's turned his head to the mirror. She says, "I promise I'll go straight to the hospital right after this. Is that good enough?"

"Fine," he says. "You lead the way, then, if we're going to do this." He grabs the laptop on which to record the conversation, mutters under his breath, "Like beating my head against a --" he catches Utsumi's hard look and shuts his mouth.

Yuge's disapproval and worry are palpable at Utsumi's back as she heads for the door. She takes a deep breath before she turns the knob to the door.

Yamamoto is slouching in the chair, one hand resting on the table in front of him, fingers curled under. They tighten for a moment as he catches sight of her, and then relax. He doesn't look up when Utsumi comes to a standstill in front of him. He acknowledges her only with a nonchalant, "Good afternoon."

Her tone is equally mild, though the urge to be confrontational is very strong. "Had time to gather yourself together?"

He looks up at that. His gaze flickers to her sling and then back down to the table, a slight crease appearing between his straight eyebrows. Utsumi sits down in the chair opposite Yamamoto. She leans forward. "You weren't so easy-going earlier when you attacked me."

He shrugs.

"Now's the time to explain, Mr. Yamamoto. Tell us why you think we shouldn't have been after you." Utsumi keeps her voice level.

Yamamoto says, leaning forward a little, "I don't suppose you have a cigarette, do you? I'm dying for a smoke."

Behind Utsumi, chair legs scrape, the abrupt sound shocking both Yamamoto and she into looking at Yuge. He opens up the laptop. "Was that loud? Sorry." He smiles, but it doesn't reach his eyes.

Utsumi turns back to Yamamoto. "To calm your nerves, perhaps? Don't think you have me fooled for one second. You weren't very calm when we caught up to you. Choosing your dead parents' house wasn't a very smart choice. Why don't you tell us why you were hiding there, in the first place."

He raises his eyebrows. "You probably know already, you just want me to say it for that." He juts his chin past Utsumi to Yuge and the computer.

"Mmm," Utsumi says. "On the night of June 30, witnesses phoned in to report gunfire. When an investigation was conducted, we found the location of what appeared to be a homicide. The man killed was identified as Uchino Kenji. You and he were friends, right?"

"I didn't do it."

"Funny how you go straight to that. Were you there?"

He leans back, looking away.

"You can choose not to answer, but keep this in mind -- you attacked a police officer, with deadly intent. Uchino wasn't exactly the best of company, you know. He had ties to yakuza. What can you tell us about that?"

Yamamoto crosses his arms. Utsumi looks him straight in the eyes. Silence is, after all, a great pressure.

As she expects, it doesn't take long before he gets twitchy. She's seen it happen before. Some tap their fingers on the table, some can't keep eye contact. Yamamoto can't keep his feet still. He jiggles one leg up and down, while the other shuffles back and forth. She leans forward, placing her free hand on the table, fingers spread out. She raises her eyebrows.

He turns his head to the side and she can see his pulse visible on the side of his neck. It's like the flutter of a scared bird.

"Is that all you can threaten me with?" He looks at her, but his leg is still going like a jack-hammer.

She leans back, taking her hand off the table. "Do you love your family, Mr. Yamamoto?"

His leg stops jiggling. "I don't have a family."

"No, you do. Ariga Kurumi and your daughter -- Midori, right? I don't know if you've thought this through, but keeping quiet right now isn't going to keep your family safe. You're scared, aren't you? What's the better choice -- staying quiet or keeping them safe? When we visited your wife, she seemed afraid. Maybe she knows something. What is it?"

"I'm not talking."

As if to prove it, he clamps his mouth together, his full lips compressed into a thin line. That isn't what sells Utsumi on his decision, no, not that or the way he turns his head away, breaking eye contact. He stops jiggling his leg, stops moving completely. Done.

Utsumi stands up. She puts her free hand on the table again and leans down. She says, voice quiet, "We'll be holding you here for a while, in case you change your mind. And we will continue with our investigation, compare evidence, take tests. This would be easier if you would cooperate."

She straightens up. "You're scared, Mr. Yamamoto, and so is Ms. Ariga. She wants to protect you." She holds still, waiting for a response, and it comes, in the form of him swallowing, and his eyes going shut, but she doesn't press any further. "We'll leave you alone now."

At the door, with Yuge beside her, she turns to look at Yamamoto. He's turned his head, and when his gaze meets hers, she sees a deep sadness in them, the same look as Ariga Kurumi's.

Chapter Four: come back 'round

Utsumi looks around the tiny office from her perch atop an examining table. There's a desk close to the table, in a corner. A couple of serviceable chairs, covered with blue coarse-weave upholstery, one of which holds her purse. Two landscapes in muted colors and even softer brush strokes in frames that look inexpensive, but probably aren't, decorate the walls. It's designed to put at ease, but it's still impersonal. She looks at the clock above the desk and sighs.

Utsumi twitches in surprise when a soft rap sounds on the door. She turns to look at it and says, "Yes?" The door opens, and the doctor she chose, a woman with a pretty round face, comes in.

Utsumi says, "Pardon me, but I forgot what you called my injury. Would you please repeat it?"

"Of course. It's called an acromioclavicular separation."

"Ah," Utsumi says flatly, baffled by the terminology. She raises her eyebrows, punctuation to her silent question.

"Basically, it's when the ligaments that connect your shoulder and arm bones tear..." Utsumi closes her eyes, and raises her free hand to massage her temple. The doctor's voice seems to fade into the background as Utsumi considers what having her shoulder out of commission means and she starts an unsaid loop of her favorite expletive in her mind. She's not aware of doing it until the doctor says, "Ms. Utsumi?"

Utsumi snaps her eyes open and says, "Yes?"

"It's common in contact sports," the doctor tries to reassure her. Utsumi nods, listening. The doctor's name escapes her for a brief second, causing momentary panic, but then it comes to her -- Nagase Ayumi.

Nagase continues, "Yours isn't serious, but it will require time to heal, and a period of physical therapy to get your shoulder back into working shape. Don't over-exert yourself and leave the sling on as long as you can. You were treated at the scene with an ice-pack, right?" She pauses long enough to see Utsumi give an affirming nod. "So keep that up. It will help."

Utsumi nods again, and picks at the edge of the sling, for a second or two, before looking up. She says, "How long will that be?"

"Two to four weeks," the doctor answers. She says, " After your pain is gone you'll need rehabilitation. Do you need a recommendation for a physical therapist? I know of a few you could work with." She turns away, to the desk beside the exam table and grabs a notepad, on which she scribbles, her hand rapid across the paper. She says, "Try to make an appointment with one soon, so they can discuss what they'll need to do with you."

Utsumi watches and suppresses a sigh, nodding. Her doctor turns back around and hands Utsumi the slip of paper, which she takes and spares a small glance. She nods and slides off the examining table.

"Thank you, Dr. Nagase," she says, and gives Nagase a slight bow of her head and shoulders, wincing. She places the slip of paper into her purse.

*

Yuge corners her the first thing in the morning before she even has a chance to sit down.

"He's asking for you -- finally! After three days!"

"What?"

"He says he doesn't want to talk to anyone but you."

"Just me?"

Yuge nods. He gestures at the sling she's wearing. "You went to the doctor, right?"

She sighs. "Yes. I promised, didn't I?"

Yuge breathes in, and lets it out in a rush. He smiles, relieved. She gives him a disgusted look, narrowing her eyes and pushing her lower lip out, before she catches herself and schools her expression back into something a little more respectful. But the puzzlement that caused it remains. Why is he so invested? She dismisses the thought, and says, "I should go see him, then."

Yuge nods and hands her a pocket audio recorder. She takes it and says, "All right."

Before Utsumi can even shut the door behind her, Yamamoto says, "What can I do to prove my innocence?"

She doesn't answer just yet, but pulls the pocket audio recorder from her pants, and holds it up, making sure he notices as she presses record. Then she says, "No one said you were guilty."

He hesitates a moment, probably thrown by the recorder. She can see the moment of decision, when he ceases to be cautious, when he takes a breath and uses it to propel his words. "I know how it works, though. I could protest until I lost my voice but all you guys want is a confession."

She stands by the door, even though he's restrained. He stares at her, and even though the words are seditious, his tone is resigned.

She says, "All you've told me is that you know something. What happened, really, that night? That's all I'm interested in."

"Just like the law. It's not that black and white."

"Believe me; I know." Her voice is soft, and a bit strained.

The silence stretches. Utsumi watches Yamamoto; he's not looking at her, and his shoulders rise and fall, his breathing fast.

"I want a deal --"

She cuts him off, her tone bitter. "I can't give you that level of trust." It's a knee-jerk reaction, drilled into her by countless others asking for the same thing; by her training.

"But you believe me when I say I didn't kill that man, don't you."

She clenches her fist around the recorder. She says, "I'll be back."

She turns to the door, but pauses with her hand on the knob, as he says, "You're going to have to let me go soon, anyway. You don't have any real proof that I was there when you think I was. Footprints, you said. Those could have been made any time. I'll just disappear, take Kurumi and Midori with me."

"Words like that won't get you set free."

"I'd be a dead man no matter what."

She turns around again, and takes a step forward. Those were not the words of a man who thinks his life is secure. Yamamoto looks up at her, face tight, jaw set hard. It's the emotion behind it that clues her in -- this is a man who has already contemplated making that choice for himself. She wants, more than anything, to ask him, "Who did this to you?"

She takes another step. Instead she says, "You want protection. In exchange for what, then?"

He blinks once, then shuts his eyes. She says, "Your wife would remain under surveillance. We can't afford --"

He takes a deep breath, almost a heave, a deep harshness to it that makes her stop, startled. He opens his eyes, and says, "You won't regret it."

"Now, hold on, I can't make promises and you'll get nothing from us until it's been talked over by my superiors."

"But you can --"

"I'm telling you --"

"A name, I can --"

"What?"

The edge of the table between them is pressing into Utsumi's legs when just a moment ago she was across the room. Yamamoto clears his throat, and she notices faint traces of unshed tears in the corners of his eyes. The silence bears down.

Yamamoto says, "I can help you. Please, please let me he --" His voice falters and fades. Utsumi watches the breakdown, the ache in his eyes lingering even when he tucks his head down and closes his lids down over it.

"What's the name?" she asks.

*

Utsumi closes the door behind her. Yuge straightens up, taking the weight of his shoulders off the wall, and uncrossing his arms. Utsumi raises her eyes to him; her hand still lingers on the door knob. Yuge clears his throat and Utsumi looks back at the door for a second, a glance that's quick.

Yuge says, "What did he say?"

Utsumi takes a steadying breath.

Yuge's shoulders slump. "So, nothing, huh?"

"No..." She catches his gaze as he looks at her again, eyes hopeful. "He gave us a suspect."

"Who is it?"

"Kinoshita Hideki."

Yuge's eyes widen and Utsumi nods. "You mean that --"

"Yes." When Yuge doesn't immediately respond, Utsumi opens her mouth, hesitates for a second, and then says in a rush, "He wants to cut a deal: be our informant and mole. He wants to be let go."

"But that's not --"

"Our call. I know. But he didn't do it. Kinoshita did. He was only there."

"Utsumi --"

"He knows he'll have to pay for that. We should let him go. He can help us."

Yuge's face is an intriguing study in thought, Utsumi considers. The process of him coming to agreement with her is plain, but he seals it with a nod.

"We can convince the higher-ups," he says, and it's decisive, "if it gets Kinoshita."

Utsumi nods, and takes another deep breath, letting it go with relief. But she doesn't smile. Yuge may be on her side, but he doesn't know just how much she was prepared to fight for it. She starts away from the door, and she's glad that Yuge falls in behind her for a brief moment -- a moment in which her bottom lip trembles, until she presses it thin and stills the motion.

Yamamoto had said one more thing to her before she left. It replays now in her head, with dread coiling low in her gut and stealing her breath.

He'd looked up at her, and his eyes and his face were grief itself and utter exhaustion. His true face in that moment, and more convincing than anything else he'd said. "He's my brother. Everything has his bloody fingerprints on it," he'd said, "including me. He was testing me and I've just failed him."

A splinter of harshness wriggled to the surface, despite his revelation, and came out sharp in her tone, "What did you expect, getting involved like that?"

He'd said nothing in response to that. There was nothing to be said. So, she'd turned off the recorder, and pocketed it.

Chapter Five: feel a weakness

Jonouchi Sakurako nods at Utsumi from the other side of the glass and points to where the door is located, then holds up one finger. Utsumi nods, and goes to wait in the small area the medical examiner and her staff use for breaks and doing the laundry. Once there, she sits back on one of the pair of love seats, set close to a low table. She closes her eyes. Fatigue creeps up on her as she waits, and what was supposed to be just a few seconds of eye rest, becomes more, until she's in that amorphous place between awareness and sleep. She stays like that until she hears Jonouchi open the door of the fridge on the other side of the second love seat, and then, with reluctance, straightens up a little to indicate she's paying attention.

Jonouchi says, "It's been a long day, huh?" She pushes items aside in the fridge, then tucks a container of yogurt into the bend of her arm, and grabs another one before moving out of the way of the door, which shuts behind her.

Utsumi nods. She rolls her head from one side to the other, pausing to say "Ow," as she reaches her right side.

Jonouchi comes around the low grey couch, and passes across the room, moving behind Utsumi. She sets the containers of yogurt on the coffee table as she goes past. "Still hurts?"

Utsumi nods and reaches for one of the containers. She says, "You have no idea." Jonouchi comes back and sits down across from Utsumi, handing her a spoon. Jonouchi winces in sympathy.

She takes the cover off of her own yogurt, and then says, "The last time I saw you, you were wearing a sling. Do you no longer need it?"

Utsumi turns her head away, drawing her mouth back into a pinched line. "I got tired of the looks I was getting."

"Ah." Jonouchi looks down, stirring her yogurt.

Utsumi sighs, and puts down her unopened container. "I don't think I'm hungry."

Jonouchi doesn't say anything, but she glances up, and then back down, a ghost of a smile on her lips. If Utsumi didn't know her better, she'd be more offended. As it is, it's only like being pricked by a pin, not shot through the heart.

Utsumi says, "I know what you're thinking... I'm only doing myself a disservice."

"You could do yourself more damage," Jonouchi points out, prodding the air with her spoon to prove the point.

"I know!" Utsumi sits back, abruptly, and regrets it for the jolt that goes through the joint of her shoulder. Her face twists into a pained grimace. "I just have my pride, you know. It's a sore subject, no pun intended."

Jonouchi's smile becomes more pronounced for a moment, but then it turns downward at the edges, and she tips her head to one side, just a little. Utsumi closes her eyes, as she brings up a hand to rub between them. She says, as she lowers her hand and opens her eyes, "Thanks for worrying about me."

Jonouchi shrugs. "Mm-mm. Don't mind me." She looks down at her yogurt, and says, with an absent air, "I should probably do some laundry after I finish this."

Utsumi nods and gets up. She picks up her yogurt and heads to the fridge. "I hope to be able to go to the physical therapist next week." She opens the door and puts the yogurt inside.

"I suppose you'll wear the sling, then?"

Utsumi angles herself away from the fridge, to see Jonouchi looking at her sidelong. She shifts slightly to shut the door. "Stop that. It's not helping."

"Oh, is that so?"

Utsumi huffs, and turns completely, leaning back against the door. "Oh, be quiet."

Jonouchi waves her spoon back and forth, still looking down. She's made her point. Utsumi hangs her head for a second, then walks back to her seat. "It's bothersome."

"I got that. It's not easy, I understand, just... take care of yourself, okay?"

Utsumi nods. "I'm trying, as much as my pride allows." Jonouchi harrumphs, and Utsumi narrows her eyes, a split-second reaction. "It hurts all the time, which I have medication for, but still," she says. She bites her lip, then says, "It's left me with a large bruise, which'll probably take longer to go away than the injury itself." She makes an expansive gesture over her shoulder, with her left hand spread wide.

"Really?" Jonouchi puts her empty container down.

"Really. I landed on some sharp-edged stuff."

"I think I remember you telling me that."

"Oh, yes, maybe so."

"Oh, but not about the bruise."

"Ah."

"You can show me, if you don't mind. You probably want to, right?" She leans forward, smiling as encouragement.

"Am I that obvious?"

Jonouchi leans back again. She raises her hand and then lets it fall, rather like she's patting the air between them. "Nah, that's just human nature. We like to show off our injuries."

Utsumi laughs, though it's more acknowledgment of something that's supposed to be humorous, rather than finding it so, and then raises her hand to fold up the edge of her sleeve. which covers all the way down to her elbow, looking down as she does so. She says, "It's ugly, I think. I keep surprising myself when I look in the mirror, but you're probably used to seeing bruises." She glances back up.

Jonouchi nods. "Part of the job. That's a magnificent purple there." She gets up, picking up her empty container, and moving across the room to the trash bin.

Utsumi looks down at her arm, at the darkness of the mark, frowning like she's seeing it for the first time. "The oddest part is that it took a week to show up. Now it'll probably be another three weeks before it's all gone. I used to heal so much faster, when I was younger." She's conscious of Jonouchi moving past her again, to the laundry area.

"Entropy. All our cells are slowly dying on us. It's the way of the universe. Sorry," Jonouchi turns, and tips her head into a little bow, complete with a wry smile. "I can't help being morbid sometimes."

Utsumi looks up, sees that Jonouchi has started poking through the canvas bag on the metal frame that holds the laundry. "Very funny. You know who that sounds li..." Utsumi's face goes slack as she trails off and unconsciously, she sits up a little straighter.

"What is it?"

"I, uh, I just realized I've forgotten to do something."

"Is that all?" Jonouchi's eyebrows have climbed up her forehead.

"You don't have to sound like I'm keeping something from you."

Jonouchi turns around and reaches for a bottle of liquid detergent. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Right. Would you like some help?" Utsumi stands, after she smooths her sleeve down. Jonouchi waves a negating hand, and Utsumi settles back down on the couch. She leans back again, this time resting her head against the back of the couch, and listens to the sounds of Jonouchi opening the washer and loading it.

Utsumi opens her eyes a little while later, after silence startles her. Jonouchi is still at the machine, but the lack of any memory from the last sound Utsumi heard to when she opened her eyes is telling. She had fallen asleep. She sits, blinking for a long minute before asking, "Are you sure you don't want any help?"

Jonouchi turns a little to say, "You look dead on your feet. You should go home, get some rest."

Utsumi stifles a yawn. "More morbid humor."

Jonouchi only chuckles. "That's right."

Utsumi stands. "Okay, you're right, I should. I'm going."

Chapter Six: tenderest touch

Utsumi opens her eyes, the next morning, focusing on her alarm clock, on the stand to the left of her bed. It's blinking. All the numbers, blinking.

"Ah, crap," she says, and pushes the blanket off. She mutters to herself as she gets out of bed, "That's what you get for working yourself into the ground, Kaoru, now you're going to be late to work. Hateful power bumps." She picks up her cell phone from beside the alarm clock, working it loose from its charger. She sighs and closes her eyes momentarily in relief when she sees she still has enough time to get a shower.

She pushes the reset buttons on her alarm clock hard, as useless punishment, but doesn't reset the time, just clears the flashing numbers. She can do that later. She heads around the corner of the bed, across to her television. It's a habit, and she hesitates for a second, but turns it on anyway. She's used to watching the news on those days when the alarm clock does its job and wakes her early enough to do so. She heads into the bathroom, tuning out the television as the announcer says, "And temperatures are expected..." She shuts the door, and places her phone down on the bathroom sink counter.

"I need to get a battery for that thing," she says, as she threads her uninjured arm back through the sleeve of the t-shirt she'd paired with loose cotton drawstring pants. Once her arm is free, it's easy to shuck it over her head, and then slip it off her hurt arm. She steps out of her pajama pants and underwear, and both pool on the floor. She kicks them aside and steps into her shower. "This day already stinks."

*

"You're late," Yuge greets her, as soon as she walks into North Kaizuka Police Headquarters.

"Has the meeting started yet?" she asks.

"I don't know -- I was waiting for you. Come on, rookie." He starts away, and she takes a few hurrying strides to make sure she catches up with him. She says, "Oi. You can stop calling me that, you know. I'm not a rookie anymore."

He turns to look at her, eyebrows raised as if to say, 'sure, whatever,' but doesn't stop walking. He says, "What are you wearing that suit jacket for? We're going to be outside for a while today. You're going to burn up."

"You're kidding, right?"

"Twenty-nine degrees Celsius," he says.

Utsumi shuts her eyes and pushes her lips out into a disgruntled pout. Yuge twaps her between the eyes and she snaps her eyes open, her glare murderous. Yuge looks surprised for a moment, but then he grins.

"Cheer up," he says. "Day will be over before you know it."

"Not soon enough," she counters, practically growling. "And don't ever do that again."

He lifts his hands in mock surrender. "Come on, we need to know what they're going to do about Yamamoto."

*

"Ahh-ah, it's so hot in here," Utsumi says, and tries to stir a breeze in front of her face with her left hand. It's not enough so she sighs, and picks up a piece of paper, fanning herself with it. It takes her a few tries before she gets the rhythm right.

Yukawa doesn't acknowledge the comment but with a nod, and turns around, busying himself with erasing the chalkboard. He's wearing the lab coat over his usual three-piece suit, minus the jacket. He can't possibly be as cool he looks wearing that get-up, when she's sweltering under the jacket of her lightweight summer suit.

"Hmm," he answers, a bit late, and pulls the alternate board down, continuing down the green surface with methodical stripes. She watches his lithe movements and cool efficiency. He even makes erasing a chalkboard look graceful, irritating man.

She tears her gaze away from him, and puts a little more force into fanning herself. It's useless.

She says, "How can you stand wearing that?" She puts the paper down, and lifts the hair off the back of her neck, with the same hand. He doesn't answer. She frowns. "Of course," she mutters under her breath to herself. "Ignoring me again."

Holding her hair off her neck helps a little, but it's not enough -- too temporary in nature. She pulls her purse closer to her, looking for a holder to keep her hair off her neck. That holder is somewhere deep inside, she's sure of it.

As she rummages, she fails to notice him turn around, done with erasing the boards, and sit down at his desk. He asks, "What are you doing?" He sounds more puzzled than curious.

She glances up, to where he would have been previously, says, "Oh," and finds him where he's gone. "Looking for someth..." she trails off, as she props the purse up closer to her face, and peers down inside. "Ah, got it."

She holds up the black holder. "This!" She pulls her hair over her shoulder with her left hand, and uses her right to twist the holder around her hair, making sure to keep her arm down and only use her hand. She makes a face, her mouth twisting up into a grimace. "Still hot."

He nods, but makes no comment on her whining -- probably out of a sense of self-preservation. Instead, he gets up, walking past her to the small counter-top range, and she says, "Coffee? Really? With the temperature like this?" She takes a deep breath. She's being catty. Perhaps silence is the better option.

He just continues his preparations, with the rhythmic grace of muscle memory. She grimaces. Again -- she's staring again. She looks away. He says, "I take it you don't want any?" Was there a bite in those words? She shakes her head. The heat has her grumpy.

"Not right now, Professor." Her tone is just shy of saccharine as compensation. She bites down on saying only the addicted would drink coffee in this heat.

He nods, his back still to her. She breathes another sigh through her nose. She can't stand this any longer. It will hurt, but she has to take her jacket off, bad idea or not. She catches her breath, and grits her teeth, making a small noise at the back of her throat, the dull throb in her right shoulder turning to a white-hot lance of pain, as she takes her jacket off. She draws her right arm close over her stomach, using her left to place her jacket on the table.

She looks up just as he turns around, and witnesses his eyes grow just a smidgen wider, his shoulders stiffening. He's looking, not at her face, but at the edge of her sleeve and the skin underneath, where purple has just started shading into lighter violet, then green and yellow.

His eyes flick up to her face, an unspoken question there. Her mouth draws up into a wincing smile. She says, "Ah, I really shouldn't have done that." He's expressionless, but something in his eyes seems to condemn -- or is that her projecting? She doesn't know, but she looks away, unable to keep looking at him.

Behind him, steam has started a low whistle out the spout of the old white pot, but he doesn't turn around to turn the heat down. She reaches across herself with her left hand, up to where the tear had happened.

"What happened?" he asks. She flicks her gaze back to him. His eyes are on her face, but she gets the idea that he's still replaying what he just saw. He takes a step toward her.

She draws her eyebrows down and pinches her mouth together before answering. "I was going to tell you... that's why I came here. A shoulder separation. We were after a suspect, when he turned violent and threw a brick at me, and I landed on my shoulder, trying to avoid it." She shrugs, one-sided. She continues, "It looks worse than it feels. Aren't you going to turn that off?"

He nods, still looking at her, but he turns around a second later, and turns the flame off. She swallows, her mouth dry. She licks her lips, and looks down, at her arm, at the bruise, lifting her hand away to get a better look. Looks worse than it feels, unless she presses down on it, but, she never presses down on it.

She looks up, and flinches backward, because he's right there, and what was she thinking to have not noticed him move? "Professor, what are --" her voices rises, then breaks off into a small gasp, when his hand comes up to touch, light and gentle, her fingers covering the bruise.

His fingertips rest there, over her index finger. She seems to feel it with every cell of her body, all sensation radiating from that one spot.

He's so close, his head bent down to where she can't see his eyes. She cranes her head back.

He says, "This is why you've been favoring this arm." He sounds as if he's had a theory confirmed, but not in the way he wanted. He pulls her hand away, with little effort, her grip gone lax.

"I -- I didn't know you'd noticed." She can't seem to move away from him, even though this is so unlike him to do this, to even touch her. With him this close, she can't even think, senses gone on autopilot. With him this close, she can see that while he appeared to be unaffected by the heat, that's not true. The hair at the nape of his neck is stuck together in damp strands, and heat radiates off him, like the shimmers above a flame. He smells like something close to citrus... and lavender.

He traces the outer edge of the bruise with his fingertips, touch clinical, and she stops breathing, feeling her skin prickle in response at the nape of her neck, heat starting to rise from her cheeks. She starts to breathe again, shallow and fast. His fingers are cool -- how can they be cool? -- as they follow the line, a bare graze of touch, like a breath, like what it would feel like if he blew on it. Heat clenches her stomach tight, at that thought, at the intimacy of it. 'Stop it,' she thinks. It doesn't mean anything; it can't mean anything. Her vision starts to grey at the edges, and her eyes start to drift shut, but she pulls in a deep sharp breath and flinches away.

"I -- I need to --" She looks around, anywhere but at him, and grabs her jacket and purse, and flees, out the door of the lab, away. She closes the door behind her, but stops outside it, dizzy, the floor under her and the ceiling above her seeming to tilt on an axis, and covers her eyes with her left hand for just a second. She wasn't expecting him to -- she should go back in there, and... say something. The pulse of blood is loud in her ears, so loud she can't even hear her own harsh breathing. What would she say, though? She sways in place, and feels air rush around her as the door opens at her back.

"Utsumi --"

She doesn't look back, just says, "No, no. I can't." She walks away and all she feels is the look she doesn't want to see following her.

*

Outside, the sun is touching the grounds of Teito University with long streaks of light, broken by the longer shadows of trees, signposts, and benches. She walks like she's racing the light to reach its destination.

Her phone chimes when she's almost reached her car, but she doesn't bother getting it out of her purse, just yet. It has to be him.

She looks at it, once she's buckled in, started the car, and locked the doors. It's from Yukawa. Of course. A message, which simply reads, 'I overstepped. I'm sorry.'

She holds her phone, her thumb hovering over the shortcut key to reply. Long seconds pass before she presses it. She replies, 'You did nothing wrong. I overreacted.' It's the truth, but it feels like she's lying to him, because it's just words, just empty text, devoid of connotation and feeling.

She closes her eyes, and memory is like afterimages from a blinding light: the touch of his hand, the smell of him, hot and shimmering, and over and over, something not a memory, but a fantasy, an image that burns hotter than the memory. The thought of what it would have felt like to have his mouth there, on the bruise, a kiss to make it better, is so clear, so present that it twists her gut up into knots.

She shakes her head, opening her eyes. "Stop it," she whispers to herself.

Chapter Seven: stuck in your head

Utsumi peers in the driver's side window of the unmarked police car, to find Yuge asleep, a burnt-down cigarette in his mouth. She straightens up, takes a look down both sides of the street, where pools of light under streetlamps make the areas outside of them darker. The street is empty. She bends down again and flicks the cigarette out of his lips. It soars past the cup holders in the divider and lands on the passenger side floor mat, next to a pile of junk food wrappers and an empty -- she hopes, as it's on its side -- aluminum can. Yuge comes to with a jerk, flailing his hand in front of his face. Utsumi smirks, then schools her expression into only partially feigned annoyance.

She says, "Where's Moriyasu? Don't tell me you sent him away."

Yuge says, "Utsumi?" as he pushes himself out of his slumped posture. "What are you doing here?" Another voice obscures the last few syllables of Yuge's question, and Utsumi whips around to see Moriyasu, a plastic bag in his left hand.

"Utsumi? I didn't know you were coming. We're doing fine, you don't need to relieve us." Moriyasu pushes up on the bridge of his glasses and moves past Utsumi, and around the front of the car to the passenger side. Utsumi follows his progress, turning in place, until she's facing him across the top of the car.

She says, "Is that right? You should ask Yuge what he was doing while you were gone getting snacks. He could have set himself on fire."

Yuge says, "Utsumi..." sounding pained.

"I'm going to stay," she says.

Moriyasu slaps his hand on the top of the car, getting Utsumi's attention. "No, Utsumi, come on," he says. "What are we going to do with three doing surveillance? We haven't seen anyone come to visit Ariga. Not even her husband."

"Yes, that's right," Yuge says. "Moriyasu will let me sleep, and keep watch. You should just go home."

Moriyasu pulls open his door and drops the plastic bag on the floor, before he gets in. Utsumi hears the can bounce off hard plastic.

She bends down to look at them both. Moriyasu slams the door shut. The sound returns an explosion of an echo, in the still air.

"Fine," she says, trying to spear them with a stare that will take no argument. "Call me if anything happens."

Moriyasu picks up the bag and starts rummaging in it. Utsumi narrows her eyes at him, but it's wasted.

Yuge says, just as she turns away, "How's the arm?"

Utsumi swipes at her hair, and her fingers come away a bit damp. The heat is ferocious. She looks away. "As usual," she answers.

Yuge looks confused, mouth coming open a little. He leans forward, and pitches his volume lower, as he says, "Why did you come out here anyway, Utsumi? You said you were going to visit a friend and then go home. Aren't you pushing yourself too hard?"

Utsumi stares at him for a second. She says, "That's condescending."

"That's not --"

She cuts him off. "Fine. You're right. I'm leaving now. Good night."

He makes an inarticulate, strangled sound of frustration, and says, "Just take everything the wrong way!"

She just raises a hand and waves, turning away from the car.

"Good night," he calls after her as she walks away. She doesn't answer.

*

She opens her eyes early in the morning, too early to get up yet, but not early enough to fall asleep again. She lies there, blinking at the light from her window, and images from her dream bloom bright in her mind.

Yukawa's hand curled around her bruised and bare shoulder, gentle, just touching, not clutching, seated behind her, his mouth open, warm breath on the curve, where neck meets shoulder, just there. His other hand, moving down her neck, between her breasts, twisting so his fingernails scraped down. She shivered and squirmed under the touch, arching back against him. Then his hand turning again, palm splayed flush against her skin, down past her navel, lower still. Arching against him, his bare skin warm against hers, she placed her hand over his, guiding him down, to rock the heel of his hand between her legs, over the ache there.

Utsumi closes her eyes, squeezing them shut. Her shoulder twinges. Her pulse pounds between her legs. She wants what her dream showed her so much and it's burning her.

She's dreamed of him before, and the dreams are easily shaken, but she's so tired of fighting against how aware of him she is, always, always ignoring how he makes her feel. She clenches her hands, then forces her fingers to uncurl, and slowly moves her right hand down, puts it between her legs, over the smoothness of her pajamas, and holds it there, not moving, just deciding.

She breathes in, slow and deep breaths, making the decision, consciously, deliberately, then brings her hand back up, slips it beneath the band of her pajama pants, her underwear, slides her fingers down, each upward stroke of her fingers a jolt making her want more and more. She thinks of how he looks at her, how he just gazes, as if he's never been told not to stare, of how his fingers had felt on her skin, when he's usually so impersonal when he touches her, never skin-to-skin contact. She moves her left hand over the bruise, under the sleeve of her shirt, imagines it's his hand, not her own. She clings to the dream, to the slow burn of how it made her feel.

She imagines him watching her, and her fingers dip down, into slickness, and drag it back up, pressing it into her clit, and around, quick, and quicker still. The sun has risen, and a line of light crosses her ceiling, but she only sees it in glimpses, her eyelids drifting shut and open. When her eyes are shut she sees his face. She digs her fingers into the bruise, the pain enough to cause tears, but it carries her over, and everything is darkness and electricity sparking through her, straining, through the wave of heat that expands over her, across her breasts. Her mouth is open, head thrown back in a soundless gasp.

She lies still, after, eyes closed, an edge of wetness under her lashes. Then, she slowly removes her hand, gets up, and goes to take a shower.

*

She visits Yukawa at lunchtime the next day, bringing with her a box lunch, with a tiny basket of figs. It's an apology, the best she can offer. She picks a few out and their aroma is as sweet as spun sugar as she gathers them into her palm.

"Here," she says, going closer to where he's seated at his desk. She makes sure to look him in the eyes, when he raises his head to meet her gaze. It takes all her courage not to look away too quickly, but when he reaches out and takes one from her, his fingertips brushing against hers, she can't help but shift her eyes away from his for just a second, breath catching. She looks back to him, to see him nod at her, in thanks. Good; he didn't notice anything.

He's set up a fan since the last time she was here, over on a corner of his desk, and the windows are open. Cicadas compete with the fan. She turns away from his desk, walking back to the other side of the table. The fan swivels on its base, and the flow of air goes across her as she moves, warm like the room. It's a pitiful effort on the part of the fan, just stirring the heated air and not cooling it.

As she sits down, she glances up to see him put the fig beside his computer. It takes her a few minutes to set up her food and when she looks to see what he's doing, he's leaning forward, engrossed in whatever is on his screen. Just as well; she's not at her most engaging right now. She pokes at her food, not really hungry.

She takes a desultory bite, and lets her thoughts go where they will, the susurration of the fan a calming influence. She can be quiet here, really think, or not... whatever she wants.

She takes another bite, absently notes that Yukawa has moved on from reading and is now typing something. She puts down her hashi and stares at the basket of figs. She should save them for later, for when she really gets hungry. She has paperwork to do; maybe after that. It would offer a well-deserved break.

Yukawa interrupts her thoughts by asking, his attention still on the screen, "Is this just a visit for company?"

"I would have let you know as soon as possible if it wasn't."

"So you have nothing interesting for me."

"Bored, are you? That's right. Nothing mysterious at all, just keeping surveillance on a suspect."

For some reason, that earns her a glance. "Oh?"

"Hmm," she answers, nothing more.

"What are you doing here, then?"

"Yuge has someone with him."

"Ah."

He turns his attention back to the computer and starts typing. She stares at her food for a moment, then starts shoveling it down. She doesn't have the appetite for it, but she has to eat. There's no point in trying to savor it.

She's done in a matter of a few minutes. She gets up, and heads to the sink, to rinse out the container before she throws it away. She turns around to find him holding out a trash bin to her, one of those tiny office ones. She stuffs the container down inside and he pulls it back to place beside his desk.

She goes back around to her belongings, but before she can pick up her purse he says, "This suspect... "

She looks up. He continues, "He's the one that injured you, isn't he?"

She sighs, then answers, "That's correct."

His expression tightens, mouth flattening into a straight line. He's not looking at her, but off to the side, which is curious. She tips her head to the side, but then he brings his gaze back to her; it is, however, just momentary, because he drops it straightaway.

"What?" she asks, turning her head a little, looking away and then back at him.

This time he looks at her, straight. It's possibly a bit like being under a microscope.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he asks.

She straightens up a little. "Oh, I... it wasn't important."

"It wasn't important that you were injured?" There's a barb in his voice that catches her unaware. She draws back, her eyebrows coming down in confusion.

"It wasn't serious. Well, it was, but not deathly serious, just something in the line of work. Why should I bother you with things like that?"

He stands up and leans over just enough to place his hands on the desk, stiff-armed. "If that's so, why are you here?"

"So I can't spend time here, is that it? We're friends. Friends spend time together."

She holds his gaze.

"Yes, friends do. Yet, I did not know you had separated your shoulder... why?"

"Because I didn't tell you, that's why. I was busy, all right? Besides, it's not as though you missed me. You don't miss people. I haven't heard from you, either, since before I got hurt. So? You had no reason for it, right? Neither did I."

The words are out of her mouth before she can call them back. "I --" She swallows, hard. "I'm sorry. That wasn't fair."

He doesn't say anything, but he straightens up, and raises a hand to his mouth, his eyes going to the side, pressing his bent fingers into his lips and his thumb into his cheek, before lowering it again. She stares at him, waiting for something more, something closer to anger. But he just sits back down, and leans back in his chair, putting his hand to his mouth again, before he lowers it, and gives her an appraising look. Her mouth goes thin. He's staring her down. It's a tactic he's always using on her, and she's not going to bow to it, just because he's made her feel like she's in the wrong.

He says, "If I were to have missed you, would that have made a difference?"

"What?" She blinks at him, her eyebrows scrunching together. He opens his mouth to answer, but she goes on, "What kind of question is that? That doesn't make any sense coming from you. It doesn't matter now and you're just making me frustrated," she says, and looks away, jutting out her chin, defiant, swiveling in her seat away from him.

"I know," he says, sounding contemplative, almost resigned.

"Huh?" she responds. Her shoulders slump and she pushes back around on her seat to get a better look at him. He's not looking at her, so she just watches him, puzzled by the tone of his voice.

He leans forward, to place his elbows on the desk, and holds his hands clasped under his chin. "I know I make you frustrated. I know I make you angry. These things I can understand. I don't understand why..." he looks up at her, and then away, letting his hands drop to the desk.

She asks, "Why wh --?" and stops. 'Stupid, stupid, stupid,' she chastises herself. Did he lead her here? Was all this just to get to why she ran away? The room feels smaller, claustrophobic. The flash of heat that suffuses her body at the thought that he knows is instantaneous, and gone just as quickly, leaving a prickly cold sweat on her skin. She starts gathering her things, the curses she's not saying ringing like sirens in her head. Maybe she can just head this off before he can get to his point.

She says, "You know what, I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I made a mistake. Obviously, it does matter to you, and I wasn't thinking."

She hops down, off the stool. Movement catches her eye, and she turns to see him come around the corner of his desk. He says, "Utsumi --" but she cuts him off, saying, "I need to go. Yuge's expecting me. Excuse me."

She's almost to the door, when he says, not even raising his voice, "That's twice you've deserted the conversation. You aren't acting like yourself."

Those are words she's said before to him. It may be calculated on his part; it may not be, but in any case, she stops and turns around. He's followed her. She raises her eyes, but her gaze flickers between him and the floor. She lets her gaze remain downward and says, "I don't want to talk about it. Not right now."

"Why?" The confusion in his voice is understated, but it's plain, and unbearably like a plea in her ears.

"Please," she says, knowing she's being unfair. All the times she pushed him into facing something, and she can't even allow him to push her. She looks up, just long enough to see him incline his head, and then she turns on her heel.

He doesn't say a word as she leaves. All the words he could possibly say are obvious anyway, though he'd never say them.

She says them to herself, as she walks through the campus. She takes refuge in how busy it is, noise and color, and movement that she can get lost in. There's no one listening to her, so she can say them as she wishes.

"You're the world's worst coward, Kaoru."

The words are like stones tied to her ankles. She ducks her head and keeps walking.

Chapter Eight: what's going on

Utsumi types, looking from her notebook to the computer screen, filling out a form. A knock interrupts her focus and she looks up to see Kusanagi standing across from her, looking down past her computer screen. He raises a hand when she notices him. Utsumi stands up, eyebrows flying up in surprise. "Kusanagi, sir! What are you doing here?"

"I had a little time. I was wondering if you're able to come have some coffee with me, maybe? Is this a good time?"

"What's this about?"

"Oh, nothing in particular. It's been a while, hasn't it? I heard you injured your arm... are you okay?"

"Who told you?"

He runs his hand through his hair, and shifts his gaze away. "Ah, a tall bird in a white lab-coat."

She sits down, her smile flattening out. "I'm sorry, but I don't think I'll have the time."

"All right, then I'll just get to it. Have you and Yukawa had a falling out?"

"That's... you wouldn't ask if you didn't already know we had. What did he say? No, don't tell me. I don't think I want to know."

"He didn't ask me to talk to you, if you're wondering. He didn't say much of anything."

She gives a look of doubt. He just chuckles, and says,"You know how he is. It's more in what he doesn't say. He asked me if I knew you were hurt. I didn't know. You seem to be okay."

She nods and looks away. The silence is uncomfortable for a brief moment, until he raps his knuckles on the top of her monitor. "I'm sorry. It's rude to ask, I know. But --"

"But you're trying to make peace."

"Yes. It would be in our best interests if you could."

"I see. But if you don't mind me saying this, it's a personal matter -- for us to deal with." She turns her attention back to the computer, moves the mouse around without clicking on anything.

He reaches down, waving a hand in front of the monitor. "Utsumi," he says.

She looks up. "Yes?"

"He's hard to read, isn't he?"

"He is. I would have appreciated knowing that earlier."

"Point. Do you know, he needs people around him. He said that to me once, when I asked him why he went into teaching, instead of just doing research. Without human interaction, he'd be more isolated than he wants."

"I don't see what you're trying to say."

"I guess... when I sent you to him, I just wanted someone to keep him on his toes. I wasn't going to be able to do it. And you're clever, Utsumi, and principled, and just pushy enough to keep him... well, to keep him from being bored."

"Pushy?" She can't help the tone of displeasure that creeps into her voice.

He bends his head down, not quite a bow, a wry smile crooking up a corner of his mouth. "I'm sorry. You know what I mean, right?"

She nods.

"So, if you're having trouble dealing with him, you really need to talk with him. I think... I think he doesn't know how to say he wants you around."

"That's not the problem. He's not --" she looks down, turns her hands over, palm side up. "Pardon me, please." She looks up. Her voice is quiet, controlled, as she says, "I don't really want to talk about this."

He makes a quiet pop with his lips. "I understand. Like you said, it's for you and him to deal with. You've been good for him, though."

"Have I?"

"Trust me. I'll let you get back to work." He lifts his hand in farewell. "See you."

She nods.

Chapter Nine: twice shy

Utsumi rubs at her eyes, trying to rid them of the dry and scratchy film she feels whenever she lowers her eyelids. She brings her hand down and blinks, rapid flutters. It helps a little. Beside her, in the passenger seat of her car, Yuge lets out a gust of air, and then opens his mouth in a wide gape, yawning without bothering to cover up his mouth. He raises his arms above his head, hits his hands against the ceiling of the car, and switches tactics, choosing to stretch his arms straight out in front of him. Utsumi smiles a little at that.

"How long have we been here?" he asks. He rolls his shoulders back and Utsumi hears something pop. She reaches for her phone, in the cup holder between them, where she'd placed it earlier. It reads 18:42. She takes a moment to calculate in her head, her lips moving slightly, and then answers, "About three hours."

"Ahhgh," he says, screwing his eyes shut tight, and the disgusted vocalization is an exact match for her mood. She nods. Yuge says, his eyes still closed, but looking less like he'd tasted a rotten lime, "Still an hour until the next shift gets here. Can't come soon enough if you ask me."

Utsumi nods again. She says, "Sun will set soon."

Yuge sighs.

Utsumi shifts in her seat, and looks out the windshield. The light outside is still a stubborn bright white, the last clinging effort before a half-hour's time will change it to gold. After that, she's seen it change firefly quick, leaving the light rosy for too short a time, before twilight takes over. She leans forward, about to rest her arms on the top of the steering wheel. She hisses when her ill-considered motion puts pressure on her injured shoulder joint, and leans back.

"I thought it was better," Yuge says, sounding surprised, and sure enough when she turns to him, the near perfect 'o' of his mouth is almost comical enough to make her laugh. She swallows it down and looks away, out the window.

He says, "I mean, you haven't been wearing the sling."

"It's fine," she says. "I don't need it."

He says, "Okay, I get it. You don't want anyone worrying over you."

She says, still looking out the window, "Yes, exactly."

Uneasy silence falls, both of them looking out the windows, away from each other. Utsumi leans her head against the post of the side window and wishes for a breeze to blow through the rolled-down window. She stares down the street and counts the wires on the telephone poles again. There's a dog wandering down against the horizon, where heat waves are still shimmering, snuffling at the ground as it ambles. Its coat is the color of wheat and long, and she notes that the setting sun shines through the very ends of it golden white, like an aura.

Yuge breaks the silence again, saying, "Ah, I need to stretch my legs. I'll be back soon." He opens the door and steps out.

She doesn't bother raising her head. It isn't until she hears a voice outside that she looks up. She mouths to herself, the syllables barely audible, "Professor Yukawa?"

She pulls on the latch with her right hand, and pushes the door open with her right shoulder, forgetting one crucial fact in her haste. She has to pause as pain shoots through her, and she, with great effort, silences the impulse to swear. She pushes through it, and steps out, on to the street, catching Yukawa's glance at her, even as he finishes saying something to Yuge.

He nods in greeting when he sees her. Her mouth drops open. She hears Yuge say something, but she doesn't hear what it is. She steps out from the vee formed by the open car door, and slams it shut, this time being careful to use her left hand. She keeps her right arm close and as still as possible. There's such a thing as coping, and then there's being reckless.

Yukawa walks toward her, his shadow trailing to the side, a long, thin wraith, two times longer than himself. Utsumi says, "What are you doing here? Your being here makes no sense at all." She crosses her arms and glares at him.

Yuge hisses under his breath, "Utsumi... why are you so impolite?"

"I'm not im --"

Yukawa says, "She's right." Utsumi turns her head from looking at Yuge so fast she hears a momentary ring in her ears. Yukawa continues, "It doesn't make sense for me to interrupt you at your work. I have reasons --"

Yuge says, "Who are you? Her boyfriend?"

Utsumi steps forward, swinging her left hand down between them, cutting the air. She says, "Oi. Stop that. He's not my boyfriend! Why does everyone think that?"

"Everyone?" Yukawa echoes, tone dubious, but Utsumi has little time to do anything but goggle at him like a nitwit, trying to figure out how to backtrack from that revealing statement, because Yuge's right on the heels of Yukawa's question.

"Who is he, then?" Yuge asks, looking from Yukawa to Utsumi, and back again. Yuge's eyebrows have climbed; he's not convinced.

Yukawa says, "You probably don't remember when I called you about Tagami Shoichi. I'm Yukawa Manabu."

Yuge's face brightens. Utsumi, knowing what's coming, closes her eyes. "Ah!" Yuge says. "You mean that time when she was --"

Utsumi cuts him off. "Please, can you not talk about that?" She opens her eyes. Keeping her face in a frown is starting to hurt, so she forces her expression into a less pinched one. She says, turning to Yukawa, "If you're here to convince me to talk to you, I'll have to take a rain check. I'm on the job and you need to leave."

"Utsumi," Yuge says, and the warning in his voice makes her take her gaze off Yukawa. Yuge is looking down the street, the other direction from which the car is facing. She follows his line of sight. There's a man walking toward them, wearing a grey t-shirt and stone-washed jeans. He's moving with intent and Utsumi looks at Yuge, who looks back, a worry crease springing up between his eyebrows.

Utsumi's voice holds an undercurrent of warning, tone carefully level. "Get in the car, Professor. Now, please."

Yuge says, "He's a fool, strolling down the street like that."

"He shouldn't be meeting us here, yes." Utsumi frowns. Yukawa hasn't moved, gazing curiously at the man still making his way to them.

"Professor!" Utsumi says, tone harsh.

"Yes," he answers and heads to the car, pausing when he opens the door to the front passenger side to look back at them.

Utsumi shoos him with her hands. He raises his eyebrows at her, but then sits inside the car and closes the door. Utsumi takes a deep breath and turns around, positioning herself so she blocks the view out the window.

She says, "Mr. Yamamoto," and inclines her head. He's still a good distance away, but he nods his head and picks up his pace.

Yuge looks uncertain, his forehead scrunching up into wrinkles. He glances from Utsumi to Yamamoto, eyes sliding from side to side, as he tries to judge the situation. Utsumi ignores it, in favor of keeping a close eye on Yamamoto.

"Why are you meeting us here?" she asks.

Yamamoto doesn't answer, not being very inconspicuous in trying to get a good look around Utsumi. "Who is that?" he asks.

"None of your concern," Utsumi says and shifts her position.

Yamamoto stops trying to look around her and bends his spine back into a careless slouch, putting his hands in his pockets. He says, tone bored, "All right. Got it."

Yuge takes a step forward, fists clenched. Utsumi puts a hand on his sleeve, and pulls to get his attention, her gaze flying to Yamamoto. He doesn't seem fazed, but he takes a look at her, and straightens up, taking his hands out of his pockets.

Yuge yanks his arm from Utsumi's grasp. He says, "Listen, you're helping us, got it? Don't take your circumstances so lightly. I hope you haven't forgotten we can still haul you in for what you did to Utsumi."

"Fine, fine." Yamamoto nods once. "I got you. I hope you're easier on the guy in the car than you are on me."

"Listen, you," Yuge starts, voice rising.

Utsumi steps between them, holding up one hand to Yuge and one to Yamamoto, like a crossing guard. "That's enough. I told you," she says, looking at Yamamoto, "he's none of your business. Were you followed?"

"No," he answers. He returns his hands to his pockets but the serious expression on his face remains. "It's not as though it makes a difference. He knows where we live and you wanted us to act naturally."

"Have you any evidence for us yet? Can you tell us when we can move in?"

"Not yet. I'm sorry. He moves around a lot."

Yuge places his hands on his head and turns away, exasperated. Utsumi ignores him. She says, "I think your family needs attention, while you can give it to them."

Yamamoto nods, his face serious. He says, "Excuse me." As he walks, he passes beneath a streetlamp, which lights. The sun has passed beneath the horizon, but some light still clings. Utsumi sighs and glances at Yuge, who looks away from her, clearing his throat.

Utsumi makes her way to the car and says, "You can get out," not bothering to bend down to look in the window -- it is open, after all; Yukawa can hear her, and heard the conversation with Yamamoto, too, of course.

She steps back to give him room to exit, putting her hand on the top edge of the door as it swings open. As he gets out, he reaches for that exact spot, and before she can move it, his hand is over hers. He says, "I'm sorry," and removes his hand from hers just as she pulls it away.

She clears her throat, and moves aside as he steps away from the car, and closes the door. She looks up at him, and narrows her eyes. She says, "I still don't get why you're here. You said you had reasons? Or were you just bored?"

"Yes, reasons, which I'm not prepared to explain, and no, that's not the case."

She taps her fingers against her leg, looking away while she considers that. She glances at Yuge, who's giving them space. He scuffs a shoe on the street, when he notices her looking. She turns her attention back to Yukawa, and says, "You've wasted your time coming out here, whatever you're up to. Let me guess -- still in hypothesis stage?" She waits for a response, but all she gets is a nod. "You had Kusanagi come talk to me," she accuses.

"No, but if you choose to believe that --"

"Why?"

"I'd prefer not to say," he glances at Yuge, "not at this time."

She raises her eyebrows, mouth dropping open. When he doesn't say anything more, she shakes her head, eyes blinking. "Fine," she says, "but please don't do this again. If I wanted to talk to you I'd come by. I don't need to be worrying about --" she cuts herself off, closing her mouth, and looking away again, over the top of the car. "Never mind," she says, "it's been a long day. You should just head home."

"Yes, it has, " he answers. Yukawa says good night to Yuge as he passes him. Yuge's response comes a second too late, as he stares at Utsumi with a puzzled look, before turning to watch Yukawa leave. She scowls at Yuge for a split second, then taps her knuckles on the top of the car once and heads back around to the driver's side.

Yuge joins her in a few minutes. After a few minutes, he says, "What are you doing?"

"Doing?"

"With your hand."

Utsumi looks down, at her hands, and the bizarre sense that she's lost time wars with knowing she'd only been unaware. She forces herself to separate her hands and splays them on her legs. She'd been passing the thumb of her right hand over the back of her left. It was the hand Yukawa had touched. She fusses with the crease of her pants, and says, "Nothing."

Their relief rolls up and she says, "Thank heaven."

Yuge says, in the same moment, "About time!"

Utsumi puts her key in the ignition and says, "I'll drive you home."

Chapter Ten: shadows of our doubt

Despite the fact that Utsumi's been sitting on the wooden bench outside the lecture hall for longer than thirty minutes, no one has bothered her. She might have caught sight of Kuribayashi at one point, possibly, because no one else she knows would wear a pastel polo like that. He gave no indication he'd seen her and she had pretended to be searching through her purse. When she hears footsteps approaching, ten minutes later, she knows she was wrong.

Her glance up is perfunctory, as is her nod. She says, "Good afternoon."

Yukawa says, "Kuribayashi called me when he was leaving and told me you were here."

She nods. "You want to talk to me, don't you?"

He only looks at her, and she's the first to avert her eyes. When he sits down beside her, he's only a few centimeters away. She looks down, frowns, and scoots away from him. It doesn't seem to matter to him.

She doesn't look at him, but she's not really focusing on anything else in the vicinity. There's a lingering heaviness to the air, the residual heat from the day slowly leaching out of the pavement. There is no wind.

He says,"Three days is better than I expected. You always avoid me when you're troubled."

"I was -- am -- busy. So do you."

"No, I don't."

"You do. Besides, I haven't been avoiding you," she counters. "I'm here, right?"

"You are here, outside; that's true." She tightens her lips at that; his voice sounds arch to her.

"I didn't have the courage to go in." Her voice is low.

"Avoiding."

"I was just about to leave. I..."

"I've done something, haven't I?"

She's silent for a long moment. "How do I answer that? Yes? No? Either way, that's not the point."

He doesn't say anything. She's more than happy to let it drop. The pause stretches on long enough for her to grow fidgety. She looks down, tracing the grain of the wooden bench. He says,"You misrepresented yourself when we first met."

Her head snaps up, to look at him, but his gaze isn't on her, focused instead off to the distance. She blinks at him, before her mouth tightens down, an unhappy bow to her lips. "I know," she says. She straightens her back. Now that he's brought it up, she has to apologize. It doesn't come easily, the blow to her pride a fierce sting. "I'm sorry about that. I know I've never said so, but I am."

"No, that's not it. I couldn't tell you were lying."

"What? You're confusing me."

"I couldn't tell you were lying. But, when you want to keep something from me now, you're silent."

"I know how you feel about lies. Omission is better," she takes a deep breath, "than an outright lie."

"You are --"

"Yes, go ahead, say it. I'm illogical."

He shakes his head. "Your logic is your own, unique."

"That's almost a compliment."

"So it is." He pauses. "There is nothing I can say, is there?"

"I... I am troubled. I'm sorry that I can't talk about this."

He nods.

She shifts, placing her hand down on the bench, preparing to stand. He reaches out and places his hand over hers. She snatches her hand away, pulling in an audible breath at the same time, and leaps up from the bench.

"Stop touching me," she snaps. Her voice cracks as it rises, and then her body goes taut, frozen, as she catches the look on his face. It's the same look he gets when he figures something out and it terrifies her, because she gets it now. He did that intentionally, and she fell for it. He hasn't moved -- his hand is still where hers was. "I -- I mean --" She closes her eyes, her head dropping down. It does little to ease the way it feels like the pulse in her throat is throttling her. "Never mind," she says, and starts to walk away.

"Wait," he calls after her. She doesn't stop walking, not even when she can hear his footsteps crunching on the concrete right behind her.

She's not prepared for the gentleness in his voice, when he uses her given name or the way her vision blurs, when she hears it. Her steps falter. A pebble skips away, jolted out of place by her sudden stop. He comes up beside her and she side-steps. She glances at him, but it's quick, and skittery, and she can't help but reach up to her purse straps, defensive. She's pushed him too far, and now, now there's no way she's going to be able to leave without facing this.

He says, "Were you telling me the truth about the bruise?"

"What? Why?" It's all she can say for a moment, the implications taking that long, far too long, to sink in. So that's what he meant.

He looks away, as if he's uncomfortable, dear God, and she stares at him, mouth open. When sense comes back, she blinks and says, "I told you what happened. You don't believe me?"

"You aren't behaving in a manner that --"

"That's not the right conclusion," she says, her voice quiet. "In fact that's..." She stops, switches approach. "Aren't you acting foolishly by coming to a conclusion like that?"

"You have given me nothing to prove my conclusions are anything but correct."

She turns away from him, taking a step, but only the one, coming to a stop. "I've done nothing wrong." She looks down, at the pavement.

"If my conclusions are incorrect, then only you can tell me why. What is it? What am I missing?"

She takes a deep breath, but it's shaky, and hard to take. She doesn't look up, as she turns back. She says, voice a little louder than she intended,"You're not missing anything . I just don't -- I --" She closes her mouth, looking away.

The grounds are empty, and it makes her shiver. Such a lively place during the day, and at night, it's so barren. All the open space doesn't make her feel safe. It makes her feel laid bare.

His voice is like a stone dropped into a still pond. "That was, without a doubt, a lie."

She doesn't rise to the challenge there. She looks at him, putting as much resistance into her expression as possible. "You caught me. Yes. It was. I can't talk to you about this, not now." She turns her back on him and starts walking. She doesn't turn to see if he follows. He doesn't.

Chapter Eleven: hurting so long

Utsumi has just finished placing everything on her desk back against the outer edge of it, ready for the next time she needs them, when her phone buzzes. She reaches for it, taking it from next to the computer keyboard, and turns it over to take a quick glance at the screen. The number is unfamiliar. She pinches her eyebrows together as she thumbs the answer button and lifts the phone to her ear. She says, "Hello? This is Utsu --" She can't finish because Ariga Kurumi's voice says, "Please, Detective, c-c-could you -- could y-- please c-come here."

Utsumi's halfway out of her chair before Ariga gets to the end of that sentence. "What's wrong? What's happened?"

There's a choked-off sound that Utsumi recognizes as the beginning of a sob. Ariga's voice sounds strained and unnatural. "K-Keisuke told me to call you. He has to s-see you. Please come."

"Is he there?"

The line is quiet for so long Utsumi looks at the screen of her phone. The line is still connected. She puts the phone back to her ear. "Ms. Ariga?"

There's the sound of a ragged breath. "Yes, he's here. Alone. Come alone."

*

The door to Ariga's apartment opens as Utsumi clears the top step of the stairs. It's already getting dark outside. Ariga's nose is red, as is the skin under her eyes. She sniffles, but there's no sign of more tears. She turns around when Utsumi comes closer. Utsumi follows Ariga in the apartment, saying, "Tell me what's wrong."

The entrance of the apartment is narrow, closed-in, but it doesn't allow looking further in, as it ends in a wall with a sharp corner to the left. Utsumi toes off her shoes beside the other shoes on the floor: two pairs, high-top sneakers in red, made for a man, the only sign that Yamamoto is there. The other is a dainty pair of white sandals with a decoration of a daisy on each shoe.

Ariga says, "I'm s-s-sorry. I should have c-called an ambulance, not you, but he wouldn't l-let me."

"What?"

Yamamoto's voice comes from around the corner. It sounds strained. "Kurumi, bring her --" A wet, agonized cough mangles the rest.

Ariga's lower lip quivers, but she bites it. She takes a breath and walks past Utsumi. Utsumi shifts her gaze between the door and her shoes, then to the corner. She steps past the shoes, nonetheless.

The room beyond the entryway is messy, lived in, a catch-all for the detritus of life. Yamamoto is curled on his side on the floor, on the other side of a couch at the center. He wheezes, trying to get control over the cough. He lifts his head when he catches sight of Utsumi, but that's all he can do. Her lips part in surprise and she can't help stepping forward. He's been beaten, one eye swollen already almost shut, and the skin over one cheekbone is split, with abrasion around it that has stopped bleeding. No such luck with the triangular split. It looks like it will need stitches, the center of it still glistening red.

Yamamoto stops his cough by holding his mouth closed and forcing himself to stop breathing. His head falls back down onto the dark blue floor covering beneath him. He closes his eyes as he takes a few very slow and labored breaths.

A stifled sound, a high whimper, comes from Ariga, reminding Utsumi that there's another person beside her. Ariga has both her hands in tight fists in front of her mouth. Utsumi touches her gently, briefly, on the shoulder. Ariga startles at the touch. Utsumi makes her voice low and comforting. "Call that ambulance, Ms. Ariga, while I talk to your husband. All right? Go do it."

Ariga nods and goes out. Utsumi watches her leave for just a moment then turns back to Yamamoto.

Yamamoto has his eyes open and even behind the blood and bruises, there's clarity. He says, voice hoarse, "Bet you're glad to see me like this, huh?" That seems to prove more effort expended than available, as his voice fades out halfway through, until the last words are whisper-thin.

Utsumi shakes her head. "No. I'm not. I'm here, now. What did you want to tell me?"

His grin is unexpected. "Yes, I should tell you, huh?" The grin turns into a grimace. Utsumi comes closer and crouches down beside him. He coughs and when he looks at her, his eyes glitter. He says, "He's hiding right now, but he'll stay there for a while still." He gives her the address and Utsumi reaches for her purse, getting out her notebook to write it down.

Asking him to repeat it is agony to her, with how much he struggles to get it out. She gets it down, and reaches to put her notebook away, but he grabs her hand, and she drops it. He uses it as leverage to lift himself up a little, muscles in his neck straining into visible cords. His grip is like that of death's, and she can't pull her hand from it. She stops trying when he says, "Please, please watch over them."

"You'll be able to do that yourself." She can see the moment the reserves of his energy give out, as he nods, eyes closing. He lets go of her hand, and the rush of blood back into her fingers makes her hand feel cold and then hot. Yamamoto has a wheeze to his breathing that is the only sign he's not succumbing to unconsciousness.

Into the room comes a chime from her phone. Utsumi drops back onto her heels, as she fumbles for it. It's another mail message from Yukawa, and she can't help but make a sour face when she sees his name. "Not now," she mutters.

"What is that?"

She looks up from the phone to Yamamoto. He's watching her through slitted eyelids. She looks down again at her phone and answers, "Nothing important." She backs out of the inbox, and puts away the phone.

"It didn't seem like that."

"You shouldn't be concerned about that. Are you cold? Do you need anything?" She looks around for a blanket.

There's one slung over what turns out to be a pile of manga, and Utsumi snags it as she stretches backwards, to get it. Yamamoto has his eyes closed when she turns back.

Utsumi could swear that her heart stops beating for a moment, but even she knows that's a physical impossibility while she's still breathing. Breathing. She holds the palm of her hand in front of his nose, and she can feel a slight stir of warmth against her skin. That he's alive is good; that he's unconscious is not. Or at least she thinks that's right. She hesitates, then picks up the blanket, from where she'd dropped it, draped across the space between them.

She places it over his torso and legs, and says "Hey, y --" then stops to clear her throat and put some vehemence in her voice. "You," she says, as she tucks the blanket around him, "don't make me have to use this as a shroud." He doesn't stir.

"Mr. Yamamoto, come on." She pushes his arm, and gets a flutter of eyes beneath his closed eyelids and a grunt.

It's then that Ariga chooses to return. Utsumi turns to look at her. The skin around Ariga's mouth is pale and tight, her nostrils flared, as if she's restraining something wild. She says, "It's c-c-coming," then clamps her mouth shut. She sits on the couch, and buries her head in her hands.

Utsumi hates the thought of making Ariga answer a different question, but it has to be done. She speaks softly, "Where's Midori?"

Ariga's head snaps up. The look that passes over Ariga's face is a curious thing, full of grief and guilt. She stands up, and Utsumi stands with her. Ariga says, "She's asleep."

"Get her up and get ready. The ambulance will be here soon and you can't leave her without someone here to watch over her."

Ariga manages a nod. Utsumi reaches out and touches her on the forearm. It seems to cost Ariga an effort to move, but she leaves.

Utsumi turns in time to see Yamamoto's eyes flicker and slit open. He tries to form words. Whatever he wants to say is too low for her to catch.

She bends down and he tries again. "I told you so," he says.

"Eh?"

"I was right about --"

Utsumi nods, cutting him off. "Yes," she says, "You were." She raises her head. The sound of sirens is rapidly approaching

Yamamoto nods and then says, "Kurumi, remember."

Utsumi turns around to see Ariga holding Midori, still asleep. It's Utsumi's first look at the baby, and the first thought that occurs to her has nothing to do with how pleasing the baby's features are, but rather a profound sense of pity. It pricks tears into Utsumi's eyes. This child, born into the difficulties of her parents, will also bear the scars they are going to bear.

But there's no time to think about that. Not right now.

Chapter Twelve: need to make it right

"No, I need them here immediately. Yes, sir." Utsumi nods, her phone to her ear, and checks to make sure Ariga is still where she was before, sitting in the waiting room, holding her baby. The shock of before has been muted somewhat, and there's a tired droop to Ariga's head that wasn't there before, eyes vacant and unblinking. The voice in Utsumi's ear says something that she deciphers by running her memory of it over again, but she repeats it to be sure, "Moriyasu, you said? Yes, that's fine. Just make sure he can stay here for a while. I'll be here, too, of course. Is there any news on -- not yet? All right. Thank you, sir. "

She pushes the end button on her phone, and walks across the neutrally patterned and colored flat carpet, that nonetheless muffles her footsteps. She sits down beside Ariga, whose head moves in an aborted indication that she was going to look at Utsumi, but thought better of it. She's holding Midori against her shoulder, and the baby's eyes are closed. Utsumi takes a deep breath and lets it out, forcing her shoulders to slump on her exhale: the tension of the past hour has made the muscles there unbearably tight and aching. She says, "I've called for a guard to watch over your husband."

Ariga stares straight ahead. Utsumi hesitates to speak again, but only for a second. "May I hold her?" she asks and opens her hands out to Ariga. She expects to be rejected. Ariga's been clinging to her child since they arrived, taking Midori out of the car seat as soon as she could. It's as if the baby represents her only tie to Yamamoto, which makes complete sense. Of course she does.

Ariga blinks, a slow drift of her eyelids down and then back up, as if she's just waking up. She turns her head to Utsumi, then looks down at Midori. Ariga's eyelids flutter, deciding what to do. Eventually, she wordlessly hands Midori over to Utsumi, who settles the baby into her arms, cradling her. Midori sleeps on.

It's quiet, very quiet, which is something Utsumi wasn't expecting. There is a bubbling sound coming from the fish tank set in the center of the waiting room, but it's very slight. She follows the path of a silver fish around the tank. Ariga stares at it too, and they sit in silence for a long time.

"Thank you," says Ariga, and then she starts sobbing, no preamble, just a swift and messy breakdown. It's so sudden Utsumi doesn't know what to do, except hold on to Midori, and look away. There is a nurse sitting behind a glass window, who glances up, but then goes back to whatever she was doing before. Utsumi's mouth twists, the sorrow a bit overwhelming. She reaches out, not even certain if it's the right thing to do, and settles her hand on Ariga's shoulder. She doesn't seem to notice, not even when Utsumi pats it.

"It's," Utsumi stops, not wanting to say that it will be okay, because she doesn't know, not yet. She clears her throat. "It's what I could do," she says, instead.

Ariga swipes at the tears, and hiccups a few breaths. "I'm sorry."

Utsumi shakes her head. "You've had a hard time."

"I don't know what I'm going to do. What's going to happen?"

"We try to keep him and you safe. Find the one who did this."

"But he was helping you. How can you find him without his --"

"We'll do it."

Ariga nods, and it's that moment that Midori chooses to wake up and start howling. It's just as sudden as her mother's breakdown, and a flicker of embarrassment goes across Ariga's face, as if she seems to realize that. Utsumi blinks, startled, and Ariga reaches over to take her baby.

"She's just hungry," she says. "I need to nurse her."

Midori's cries quiet a little, once she's in her mother's arms, and Utsumi watches as Ariga prepares to nurse her child, getting out a wrap from the bag she'd brought. Utsumi's caught between curiosity and trying to give them personal space, but her phone rings while she's trying to decide if she should leave them alone. It doesn't seem to matter to Ariga; she doesn't notice Utsumi's discomfort. Utsumi's phone rings again and she glances at the screen to see it's Yuge calling. She says, "I should take this outside. I don't think they'll let me talk on it again."

Ariga nods and Utsumi answers her phone, saying, "Just a minute."

She heads out into the hallway, where there's less chance of getting censured for using her phone, and says, "Yes, what is it?"

Yuge says, "He wasn't there."

Utsumi slumps against the wall and closes her eyes. She drops her hand down, taking her phone with it. She doesn't press the end button, forgets about Yuge for just a moment, feeling a roiling wave of failure that almost makes her sick. Eventually, she can hear Yuge's tinny voice through the speaker of her phone even though it's away from her ear.

She brings the phone up again, and manages to say, "I'm here."

"What, did you drop the phone?" Utsumi holds the phone away from her ear; Yuge's voice was loud and aggrieved. "Never mind," he continues, and she brings the phone back to her ear, "Did you hear me say that we've turned the place over and found nothing?"

"No," she says. "What do you want me to do?"

"Is Yamamoto out of surgery yet?"

"No," she answers again, and she's starting to feel disassociated from her own voice, the responses coming on autopilot. They sound dull in her ears.

Yuge says, "You know he's our only source of information now."

"Yes."

"Are you all right, Utsumi?"

She doesn't know what to say for a long moment. The concern in his voice is unusual, but it's no less than what he's been displaying for her since the incident, and she takes a breath before saying, "Yes."

"Are you sure?"

"Perhaps you could come help me take care of Ariga. It's not safe for her to go home and she can't stay here."

There's a tiny moment of silence in which she pictures him nodding, before he answers, "Of course. I'll be there soon."

She ends the call, and stares at the screen, lit up, all her icons the way she wants them, and she doesn't blink. When she does, it feels like her eyes are burning. She wants nothing more to turn around and kick the wall until either her foot or the wall gives, because this is not the way things were supposed to play out. It's too late now, but she's still angry, in that undefined way that means she's really only furious at herself and looking for someone to blame.

The ache in her shoulders is like a flame being held too close to her skin and she reaches up with her left hand to massage the muscles of that shoulder. Utsumi lets out a sigh and leans against the wall again, a small grunt escaping when her shoulder protests. She closes her eyes, and takes a moment to just let her mind drift. It's just a few seconds, she just needs a few. So she counts to five, realizes she feels grimy and strung out, wishes for the ability to take a shower and wash the day away, and then straightens up.

She's almost to the waiting room when she hears footsteps behind her, and a woman's voice saying her name. She stops and turns, and blinks in surprise. She nods in recognition and gives a tentative smile. "Nurse Maekawa."

"Detective Utsumi, how nice to see you here."

Utsumi says hello, and then looks past the woman who's accosted her, trying to indicate that she can't stay to talk. The nurse, a slender woman with her hair in a pixie cut, and wearing white scrubs with a printed design of pastel winged angel halos, doesn't seem to notice. She says, "I'm glad I was able to see you. The children were wondering when you would come back to sing to them. They miss you."

Utsumi looks down. "I --"

"You must be busy." Maekawa's voice sounds disappointed, and Utsumi looks up in time to see the nurse take a step back. Utsumi steps forward, to match her and says, "No, I've wanted to come. I'll make time, later."

"They... they'd really like that." The cautious hope in Maekawa's voice pierces into Utsumi and she feels her eyes sting.

"Okay," she agrees. "I'll do my best."

"Yes," Maekawa nods. "Yes, we'll look forward to it."

There's an awkward pause, and Utsumi breaks it first, "I need to go. Thank you."

"Of course. Uh, why are you here today?"

"Police business."

"I see. Well, good luck." Maekawa nods and steps aside a little. Utsumi gives her a mirroring nod and leaves, bringing up a hand to her face to pinch at her nose.
She pauses as she reaches where she left Ariga, afraid to intrude, but Ariga spots her and waves a hand to welcome her in. She's still nursing Midori.

"It takes awhile, doesn't it?" Utsumi asks, for lack of anything else to say. It's inane, but at least it's conversation.

Ariga nods. Her smile is small and wan.

Utsumi sits down and reaches for her bag, to pull out the container of pain pills she was prescribed. Ariga looks at her and says, "Are you --"

"For my shoulder. From when we arrested your husband. Did he tell you?"

Ariga nods.

Utsumi dry-swallows the pill she measures out -- just one.

Ariga asks, "Are you angry?"

"Are you?" Utsumi puts the container away, avoiding looking at Ariga.

"Yes, I am."

"But you --"

"I forgive him small things. Why can't I forgive him for something like this?"

Utsumi places her purse underneath her chair. "You're stronger than I am," she mutters.

"It's not about being strong. It's about letting go." Ariga says it with quiet conviction, and Utsumi stares at her. Ariga is the one who looks away first.

Utsumi says, "We want --" She clears her throat. "We would like to put you somewhere safe. Is that all right with you?"

Ariga nods.

"My partner will be here soon and we can work that out for you. Is there anything you need in the meantime?"

"No. But, I have something to give you. Keisuke gave it to me for you." Ariga pulls her bag closer to her and pulls out a small zippered container. She opens it and Utsumi sees that it's a small grooming kit. Ariga rummages inside a interior pocket and pulls out an SD card. She hands it to Utsumi, who turns it over in her hands and looks up, her mouth open and pursed.

Ariga answers the unspoken question. "It's a recording. I haven't listened to it --" She looks away for a second, the tone of her voice turning inward and vehement, "I didn't want to." She looks at Utsumi again. "I think he recorded Kinoshita."

*

The hospital room where Yamamoto Keisuke is staying is lit by one lamp, and Utsumi peers in, letting her eyes adjust, before looking out again at the guard sitting beside the door. He nods at her and she nods back, and then she turns back to the door, stepping in all the way.

The lamp is above Yamamoto's bed, providing one bright spot, so she can see that he's turned on his side, his shoulder obscuring his face from this angle, as she approaches.

"Are you awake?" she asks, and keeps her voice low, but firm.

There's a barely imperceptible shudder through the cover pulled up around him, and then he turns over.

Utsumi says, "Hello. The nurse told me she'd allow me to see you. I won't take long."

He nods. She goes closer to him, and his face goes a little wary. Utsumi wonders what her face looks like -- maybe it's as grim as she feels, and she can't summon up any positive feeling to combat that, nor does she want to.

"He wasn't there, where you said he'd be."

Yamamoto closes his eyes and the bright light picks out every thin spot of the skin on his face, making him look ghastly.

"I'm sor --"

"It's not enough to be sorry," she counters. "We trusted you."

"But the recording --"

"Is not enough. We need to have him, too."

He opens his eyes, fixing them on her, and repeats, "I'm sorry. That's all I can say."

She bends her head and looks away from him, her shoulders slumping. "He's probably cleared out, now."

"I know." His voice is dead weight, no emotion.

She looks around for a chair, and there's one in an alcove of the room. She pulls it up to the side of Yamamoto's bed and sits down.

"Is there any chance he'll come back?" 'For you' is what she's implying and she holds her head high mouth thin. It's clear that if Kinoshita did come back, Yamamoto would probably deserve it. It's petty and passive-aggressive, but it's dark outside and there are people sleeping in the other rooms, and she's here holding a conversation that should never have happened.

Yamamoto's face gains an interesting tinge of green around his lips, very noticeable in the bright light.

"There're guards," he says.

"Yes, for now. Because we want you to be safe. You're our only chance now, because you took your time finding us information."

At that he's very quiet, and Utsumi simply sits, watching him, lips pressed together and anger in her eyes. She notices she's breathing fast after a few seconds and wills herself to calm down.

Yamamoto swallows and it's loud in the silence. "Wh -- where's Kurumi?" He raises himself up on his elbows.

Utsumi stands, tired of sitting, tired of the entire job. She says, voice curt, "Taken care of, along with Midori. She's safe."

Color comes back into Yamamoto's face and he relaxes into the pillows behind him. "That's all I care about," he says, "I don't care if Kinoshita comes back. Not now."

"How can you say that?"

He lifts himself up again, and this time she notices the wince, when she didn't before. The flash of sympathy she has is momentary, but makes itself known with force. That she can still have sympathy over the wounds of someone who hurt her makes all her attempts to be hard and closed-off rather pathetic.

"You have someone you love, don't you." He says it like he knows for sure, no hint of a question. "The person who called you before, right?" And that is a question, because there's no possible way --

She takes a step toward him, says, "How dare you --"

"I don't know who that person is. You just had the same look when you got that call as Kurumi gives me, sometimes." Utsumi stands still. Yamamoto continues, "I've told her she doesn't have to stay with me. That I'm no good. She doesn't listen. She just...forgives me, for everything. No matter how angry she gets, it's not for always." He lies back and stares at the ceiling. "She hasn't ever gone away. You don't trust me, I know. But that doesn't mean you don't trust someone else."

"All that from one dismissed phone call."

"Am I wrong?"

Her phone rings into the silence and it makes her jump. Yamamoto pushes himself up again to watch her as she takes it out, a shiver going across her shoulderblades again, hoping that it's Yuge, or Moriyasu, or even Kusanagi.

"It's a coincidence," Utsumi says.

Yamamoto lies back again. "You should go worry about your problems and I'll worry about mine."

Utsumi half-nods, staring at her phone, not answering it, until it goes to voicemail.

Chapter Thirteen: if it means nothing to you

Utsumi rounds the corner of the hallway leading to Yukawa's lab. There's light high up on the wall, the last of the sun fading away. She stops at the top of the handicap ramp down as she spots the door to the thirteenth laboratory opening. She takes a step back and half-turns.

"Good evening," Yukawa says. Utsumi slowly turns back. Yukawa is turning the key in the lock, his attention there and not on her.

She darts her eyes to the side, then takes another step backward. It's a stupid thing to do; he knows she's there.

"You weren't waiting for me," she accuses, taking refuge in audacity.

He puts his key in his pocket and leaves his hand there, walking toward her. He tips his head. "Don't tell me you were hoping I wouldn't be here?"

He raises his eyebrows as he says it and she looks away. She clears her throat. "Listen. The case I'm working is starting to take up all my time. Why did you call me?"

He takes his hand out of his pocket and stiffens his back, almost, Utsumi notices, as if he's putting himself on the defensive. "I needed to talk to you, about why you refuse to talk with me. Tell me the truth -- you weren't going to come, were you?"

She nods.

"So why did you?"

Utsumi looks up, eyes wide, and then down. She says, "Can we -- can we not have this conversation out here?" She doesn't wait for an answer, just heads down the ramp past him to the laboratory's double doors.

She has no idea what she's going to say, if she'll have the courage to say anything at all. She reaches for the door knob, before remembering that he'd locked it. Yukawa moves past her, the sleeve of his suit jacket brushing against her hand as she steps back to let him unlock the door. She shivers, and doesn't look up, listens only to the silence and the shift of clothing, and the snick of the key in the lock.

The lab is never completely dark, even with lights off and blinds shut there remains the tiny myriad lights of the machinery and equipment, and the light above the bulletin board just inside the door. He steps inside and she follows him. He holds the door to slow its closing, and she reaches for the light switch just inside the door, next to the bulletin board. She's just put her hand on the switch when he reaches for it too, and she snatches her hand away before he can make contact.

"Just leave it off, please," she says, and walks away into the lab, navigating by memory and dim outlines. She goes past the stairs to the second level, past the large table and his desk, until she reaches the small sitting area off to the side. She doesn't look back at him, since she can hear him following her, until she's there, and then she turns.

There's just enough light to see that he's just standing there. His expression, for him, is concerned.

She parts her lips, takes a breath, and bows, low, letting go of her purse straps, and letting her arms fall into the formal place at her sides. "For my behavior, I'm very sorry."

"I don't see why that's necessary."

She straightens back up. She says, "I've been a coward." She reaches back up to her purse straps.

He shifts his weight to one foot, then moves past her, to sit down on the love seat against the wall. She turns to follow his progress, but doesn't join him.

He leans back against the seat, crossing his arms. "You say you've been a coward, but I don't know how."

She looks down, taking a small breath. She turns away a little, then back. "You don't know. But, you've been testing me, haven't you? Like one of your experiments."

He nods.

"I should be angry about that. I don't know why I'm not. You tested me, and still it was the wrong conclusion. Because I couldn't tell you and you didn't know the right questions. It's pitiful, really."

"Utsumi --"

"I don't know the right questions either. Or how to tell you the answer to this one. If I could ..."

"Back to being a coward again?"

"It's too personal."

He sighs, and stands, moving past her, back to his desk. She watches him go, and takes a deep breath.

"Professor..."

He opens his laptop, not looking at her. "If you can't tell me, maybe you should just go." He lifts a hand and waves it at her, dismissive.

She feels the burn of irritation start deep in her chest and she closes her mouth tight into a pinched frown. She tries to breathe through it, but it only builds, into small, quick breaths through her nose. She lets go of her purse straps, takes a few steps and slams his laptop closed. He looks up at her, surprised, and she takes a secret thrill that she's managed to do that.

She speaks through a tight jaw, "Don't play passive-aggressive with me. That's my job."

There's a subtle shift in his expression. It's one she's seen directed at others, never at her. She steps back, peripherally aware that she's holding her breath.

He says, voice level, but each word precise, "Yes. I can see that."

Heat blazes around her face, a sudden fire creeping up her neck and cheeks. She raises her hand to cover her mouth. She walks backward for a few steps, as he doesn't break his gaze, then turns, walking past the large table to the other side, dropping her purse on the edge. She sits down. He's still watching her, still with that hard expression on his face. She says, "I've disappointed you," and thumps her head down onto the table, closing her eyes. The table is cool against her skin.

He says, "I --" but she interrupts, saying, "You wanted to know if you'd done something." Her voice sounds muffled, trapped in between her mouth and the table. She takes the ensuing silence as encouragement to go on, taking refuge in the darkness of her closed eyes. "You did. Sometimes... sometimes you are so observant. You see so many things others miss. But, I wonder how many times you've seen me and missed how you affect me. If you were an ordinary man I wouldn't be so hesitant." She falls silent, but there's no response from him. Her shoulder twinges when she straightens up, but she doesn't look at him, yet, instead raising her left hand and using the backside of it to rub her face and eyes, rather like an over-tired toddler. "I'm so tired of this."

"Tired... of what?"

She lowers her hand, opening her eyes. That sounded... almost apprehensive. But, that couldn't be right.

She looks at him, curious to see what his expression is. The anger is gone, but what's left behind is something she can't read.

That, more than anything, bewilders her. There's something... something there she's missing herself. Like before, but then, that was an unguarded expression, and this one... this one is a shield.

She starts, "Why... " but pauses, trying to figure out what's triggering her sense of something being off. She continues, surprising herself at how defused it sounds, "Why do I feel like you're not telling me something?"

"I'm not."

"Huh?"

"I want to hear what you have to say first."

"You're keeping something from me and you want me to tell you -- first? Where do you get off --" She grits her teeth. She nods after a moment. "Fine. That's not going to happen."

"Why not?"

"Because. You don't make it easy. And I have no confidence."

He stands and comes closer, stopping on the other side of the table. Utsumi stays put.

"Those reasons should have no relevance; in fact, don't, since you're here."

"I'm here because you want me to tell you why I've been unapproachable."

"Yes, exactly."

She stares at him. "I didn't know you could be that manipulative." Accusation and faint aggression color her tone, and she winces as soon as she hears the words come out of her mouth.

"Just as I frustrate you, you frustrate me. But, that's no valid justification, nor does it excuse my behaving that way."

She stares at him for a long moment. She says, "This is going badly, isn't it?" She doesn't really expect an answer, so she attempts to be conciliatory, gentling her voice.

"Professor --"

"How am I not an ordinary man? Why are you refusing to talk to me? What have I done that is keeping you so silent?"

She closes her eyes, turning her head away. She takes a deep breath. There's nothing but silence from him. She sighs again, turning again to look at him.

"If I told you I didn't want anything to change, would you accept that?"

"What would change?"

"Maybe this is just me being a fool. Maybe," she says, not really knowing what she's trying to say, "it's all on my part. I can't expect you to understand... "

"You're not making sense."

"And you keep pushing me! Why are you pushing me?"

Her voice rings off the ceiling and into dense silence. Utsumi sighs, frustration weighing in it. She says, looking him straight in the eyes, "You want to know what I'm tired of? I'm tired of how I can't clear this air. I just can't. I'm sorry."

"You're still here," he points out.

Her face draws tight, corners of her mouth down, eyebrows pinched together. She turns her head away, huff of air escaping from her mouth.

The silence is smothering, like being under a heavy blanket. When he doesn't say anything, she slips off the chair, reaching for her purse. She turns away, but that's all. She's all too aware that he's there, so she turns back around and bows a little.

"I'm going, then," she says.

"That's it?" He comes around the table. This time she takes a step back. He doesn't follow.

"Why shouldn't it be? I'm just asking for more trouble than I can handle if I stay."

He sighs.

"Listen, Utsumi..."

She turns around again, to face him and raises her voice, "What is it? I'm tired. I want to go home. I've been thinking about this too much and now I just want..." She shuts her eyes and shakes her head. "I just want to stop."

"Perhaps you're right. Now isn't the time to have this discussion. Just go, if that's what you want."

He turns away from her, and she watches as he stops a second later, his left hand coming to rest on the top of the table. Her mouth falls open, and she blinks. He doesn't move forward, but she does, taking a step.

He moves his head, having heard, but he doesn't turn around.

She stands there for a long moment. "All right. Thank y --"

"Don't," he says.

Her gasp is entirely involuntary and very audible. She stands very still. So does he.

She turns, starts walking. Each step sounds very loud in her ears, but she forces herself to keep going.

Outside the lab, she doesn't let go of the doorknob. There's no reason she should go back in there. She turns to rest her head on the door. She'll go. She just needs a moment.

She's halfway to her car when she looks up and stops. She turns around and starts back.

She doesn't bother knocking at the door, just exhales a relieved breath when she discovers it's still unlocked. It's still dark inside, and she just about turns around again, but she continues on.

He's sitting behind the desk, his back to her, leaning back in his chair, looking out the window, which he'd opened when she'd gone, or seeming to. "You've come back."

She doesn't move any closer, just stands there, looking at him. She swallows. Her voice is soft and she forces firmness into it. "You still haven't told me what you've kept from me."

"That's not true; I have."

"No, you haven't."

"You're a detective, you have a famed intuition; surely you know."

"You're being mean."

"Am I." He turns around in the chair to face her. The look on his face is enough to set her hackles up, and she grits her teeth. "Isn't it true that it's too much for me to expect that you would know what's on my mind, to know what I'm thinking? If that's true, is it not too much for you to expect me to know what has you troubled?"

Put like that it's enough to break her instinctive antagonism. How right he is that she's given him nothing. It still takes her a moment to let go of her first reaction. Once done, all the fight drains out of her and she stops grinding down, easing the tension in her jaw. The whole time, he doesn't break his gaze.

She says, "Your logic is unreproachable and... and cruel."

"I have something to say."

"What is it?" she asks, unable to keep a tone of resentment from creeping in.

"I haven't been open about something, but it seems when I approach the subject that you haven't been listening, and perhaps this is not the right time. But if not now, when?"

She opens her mouth, but he raises his hand. He continues, rising from his chair, as she closes her mouth, "You've shut me out. I don't like that. I would like you to tell me what's wrong. You won't. I can see that. I'm going to ask one last time -- please, tell me what's wrong."

She looks away. "What's wrong?" she repeats. She closes her eyes for a long moment, licks her lips. "It started when you touched the bruise, but, no...." She opens her eyes, but doesn't look at him. "That's not correct. It started long before that."

"What you did..." she takes a breath, and closes her eyes. She keeps them closed and her head bent down. It's easier that way. "What you did was break open something inside me that I've been trying to keep hidden." She draws in air again, this time it goes raggedly.

"We've been through so much, and all of that is like the bruise, something unseen until it comes to the surface. You've..." her voice falters, and she takes a breath, "you've never known how you affect me. No matter how observant you are, and how smart you are, you've always failed at understanding that. I've been your support, and a friend, and still..." Her voice drifts away. She tries again, but words fail her. "Still... Am I..." She looks at him, notes nothing that will help her, just an odd keen concern to his expression, but that's it, nothing more.

"You know what, Professor, this would never work. We're too different. And all this discussion is irrelevant, anyway. I've decided. I can live with this, with what we are. This bruise will heal." She resettles her purse straps on her shoulder and turns away, taking a step.

"If that is a confession..."

"We are not high-schoolers, writing confessions of love to each other. I'm not staking my hopes on whether or not you'll give me your second button." He doesn't respond. She swings back around. "Don't you think that we're beyond that?" She notes a very tiny flinch in his expression that tells her something struck home. "Don't you think that if this didn't matter in some way we'd have already --"

He takes a step forward. "This is not a problem, and yet you've made it into one."

"We're not well-suited to each other, Professor. Isn't that a problem? Didn't you say it yourself -- love is a... what did you say?"

"Construct."

"Yes, a construct. Theoretical. It can't be proven, can it? Not to your satisfaction."

She watches his assent to her point in the minute flicker of his eyelids and the way his shoulders slump, just a little. She looks away, closing her eyes, her shoulders dropping as well, as she lets out a sigh.

"You're going to walk away, again."

She just looks at him, then nods. "Yes."

He says, "But --"

"Stop, just stop. Whatever you're going to say probably isn't going to help. Can we please... just quit right here? You got your answer, right? I've been as honest as I can, but there's no point in me asking for something I'm not going to get. This is why I should have kept it to myself, but, that wasn't working, so... I guess I'm saying you should forget I said anything. We've always acted professionally with each other. Maybe that's best. I may care about you, Professor, and be attracted to you, but that's not enou --"

He advances again and she looks up at him, without moving her head up.

"There's a fallacy in your thinking."

She raises her head. She stammers, "Wh-wh-wh --" and then presses her lips together. She's making a fool of herself, reacting that way.

He says, "I understand that you're afraid --"

Without meaning to, she over-emphasizes each word. "I'm not afraid."

He takes a breath in through his nose. It's very loud in the silence, when she wouldn't notice it otherwise, but it seems like she can't help but notice it -- keyed up as she is. He moves closer and she steps back. He lifts a hand, twists it palm up, and then lets it fall back to his side. A surrender, not a challenge. "Is that so?" He takes another step and then another.

She stills at his approach, conscious that this will prove something about her willingness to listen to him. He stops. He's not quite close enough that she would have to bend her head back to look at his face, but it's still closer than usual. She breathes in his proximity: his scent and warmth only add to the feeling of being in a bubble, just the two of them, everything else around faded and grey.

He raises his hand, yet hesitates. She says, "I'm not going to run."

He places his hand on her shoulder, right over the tear of the ligament, with very little pressure. She could almost imagine he's not touching her at all, but he is. He is.

Her stomach twists into a tight knot, and she takes a breath through her nose, and holds it. He takes his hand away and she just stands there, aware that he's looking at her, but unable to look up.

"Utsumi?"

She says, "I... "

"Things don't have to change between us." He takes a step back. She almost follows after him. "If that's," he starts, but then stops, clearing his throat. Her eyes widen. As verbal tics go, that one is unheard of, for him. He's never that uncertain. She can't take her eyes away from his face. He starts over, voice gaining confidence, "If that's what you want."

She stares at him, understanding seeping in. She blurts, "That's not what you want, is it?" She lets out a disbelieving breath. "That's why -- you wanted proof, for how I felt. You knew all along."

"No, I didn't --"

"I can't believe you... why would you --" She can't grab the words she needs -- she's losing them, like a castle made of sand washed away in the wake of a wave.

"You know the answer to that already."

"Don't tell me it's because I wouldn't talk to you! What -- what about you? What do you want from me?"

"I thought I was clear."

"Hah. You -- you weren't. Answer the question."

"I want you to stop being miserable in my presence."

"Why?"

"Your happiness is important to me."

"But, why ?"

"There is no other way for me to say this without being inexact. The terms I would use don't map to what I would expect you would want to hear."

"You're talking in riddles. Stop that."

"This is unfamiliar to me."

"Is that so?"

"You are important. That's why. Please accept my sincerest apologies for testing you."

He bows to her, much like she did to him. She watches, mouth open and eyes blinking in shock, unable to say anything.

He says, "I can understand if you want nothing to do with me."

"You... so you know what you've done is --"

"Unacceptable."

"Yes. That." She begins to feel a tremble in her lower lip and she presses her mouth into a tight line. He hasn't straightened up yet and she's too struck by that to be very coherent. She says, "Do you have t -- I mean, please stop. Yukawa. I need to... I have to go." She swallows, hard.

He straightens up, slowly, and she looks down before she can see his face.

"Of course. One question, before you leave."

"What is it?"

"If this is something you've been denying yourself, is that truly how you want to leave this?"

"Yukawa..." She sighs. "I'm not... I'm not leaving this. I just need to think. I need to sleep. And not have dreams of you and --" She stops, and takes a breath.

"Dreams?"

"Yes, dreams. I'm going now. I'll... I'll talk to you later."

"Please do so," he says. His voice is level, but there's something underneath it, the barest hint of something almost forlorn. She nods.

It isn't until she's halfway to her car that the tears start. She swipes at them, tightening her lips to counteract the wobble of her chin.

She gets in the car before she indulges in the wave of anger and sorrow and stress and release of tension, somehow still remembering to lock the doors. She rests her forehead on the steering wheel and lets it wash over her after that.

She calls him a few choice words while she's at it. Then, when she's done, she starts the car and drives home.

Chapter Fourteen: don't care if it hurts

"Let's just make this quick." Yuge doesn't say why he wants that. It's not hard for Utsumi to guess.

"Understood," she says.

"This isn't going to get us anywhere, you know," he says. "Kinoshita is gone and he's not coming back. It's been several days already." Utsumi nods and avoids looking at Yuge.

Yuge slows down beside Utsumi and she turns slightly to see why. He says, "Ah, but I didn't mean to put any blame on you. It's not your fault he's gone."

"It's a bad reflection on us, though," she says. It's just a fact. Yuge nods, mouth pulling back a little in a self-effacing grimace, and they look away from each other at the same time. Yuge puts a hand inside his pocket and starts walking a little faster. Utsumi follows after.

They near the intersection of hallways outside of Yamamoto's hospital room, and Yuge says, "Um, you know what?" Utsumi pauses, and looks at him, one eyebrow going up in expectation. "You should just talk to him. He responds better to you. I'm going to go to the bathroom." He takes off, taking his hand out of his pocket as he goes, and Utsumi shakes her head.

His abandoning her gives her a moment to take out her phone and check it. No messages. At all. She goes to her inbox and refreshes it, making her way down the hallway, as she looks at the screen. Nothing.

She shuts off the phone as she enters Yamamoto's room; the door is open, and she says, "Mr. Yamamoto?" Of course she doesn't have any messages. Yukawa has solved his part of the puzzle of her, and now it's all on her.

"Good morning, Detective Utsumi." The voice is pleasant, but it's not that of Yamamoto's, who appears to be peacefully sleeping, or that of the guard. Utsumi feels her heart jump, and she swallows hard as she turns around, cursing her own distraction. She tries not to let any of that show, instead saying, even though it's hard to talk through lips that feel like they've gone stiff and dead, "Good morning." She examines the face of the man who's plagued the police force, and this one man, asleep in the hospital bed. She nods and continues her greeting, "Mr. Kinoshita."

"You seem very polite. Are you as reasonable as I was hoping? We need to talk."

Utsumi takes a deep surreptitious breath, heart pounding in her ears, and thoughts scattering like flower petals in a gale, unable to summon them back to know what she should do. She's reduced to momentary impressions: the lack of a guard, the tension in her back, the family resemblance between Kinoshita and his brother -- the same straight eyebrows and full lips.

"About what?" she asks. Her mouth falls open and she looks anxiously at Yamamoto. "You haven't done anything to him, have you?"

"No. Why would you think that?"

"You threatened him, and made good on it."

"Mmm, yes," Kinoshita answers, looking pleased with himself. Utsumi's stomach flips over. "But I don't want to kill him." He pauses, puzzlement a brief contortion on his features. "I did, though I changed my mind. He's family; or did he not tell you that?"

If Yukawa exudes a forthright adherence to order, this man seems to be the complete opposite. Chaos. Except that it's possible that the unexpectedness of the situation is what's clouding her. So many factors and decisions she needs to make. On the now -- she needs to focus on the now, on buying time.

"Mind if I check him?"

He shakes his head, and motions for her to go ahead. She says, "He told me you're brothers," as she backs up a little to get a closer look at Yamamoto. She doesn't want to take her eyes off Kinoshita, but she does it anyway, long enough to check Yamamoto and see the rise and fall of his chest is steady.

"Half-brothers."

Utsumi steps forward, away from Yamamoto. "Does that really matter when you just want to keep him under your thumb? He's a liability to you now, isn't he? He and anyone else who saw what you did."

Kinoshita shrugs. "Show me your evidence, Detective, and I'll gladly give myself up."

"I can take you in on the strength of questioning you, and not just on this matter. Did you think that approaching me would work to keep you clear of responsibility? Your intention is to buy me, isn't it? I'm not that weak and neither is he. You trusted him not to betray you, didn't you? Did you know that he was recording what you said or did you just expect that he'd never try to break free?"

Calculation flashes in his eyes, a weighing of her measure. Let him judge her and her capabilities.

She says, "He ran from us, but you already know that. Are you going to run, too? Be a coward?" For some reason she can't grasp, she says it with no hesitation, voice calm, but it feels like it came from someone else, like someone is speaking through her. Disassociation, and yet, she's focused on him, now.

He swears. Good. Anger is a weakness. Make use of the weaknesses and what's available, and she can feel the weight of her phone still in her hand, the weight of making a decision before her advantage is taken from her. So she does something stupid and throws the phone at his face, not expecting it to connect at all, for it to fall short or for him to dodge, but neither happen. It cracks him right in the cheekbone, close to his eye, and she's willing to bet that he saw stars. It doesn't matter if he has a weapon, if he managed to get something past hospital security, because this is her only chance to seize her advantage, so she moves in, and does something else calculated to just cause pain -- she stomps down on his foot. His cry of pain is satisfying, and he stoops for a moment, but she has underestimated the impact of it, and the infinitesimal amount of time she has allowed to pass hasn't helped her.

He grabs her right arm, gives a wrenching twist as he pulls down. She can't even scream out her pain, of course he knew about this, has probably been watching, waiting for this moment -- while all this happens in the blink of an eye, he turns to her, puts his hand over the joint of her shoulder and pushes her to her knees. He has the power now, has exploited her weakness and made her small.

It is this, an obvious knowledge to Utsumi and him, that will set him free, and it is this that starts to fill her up, like black oil, like a roiling darkness of a thunderstorm, anger that takes her over, a rapid uncontrollable response to the arrogance of his upper hand. She acts on instinct, channels that dark force of her emotions, grabs his ankles and pulls him toward herself with all she can and he does fall, with an awkward pinwheeling of arms. She was always better at the element of surprise and pure tenacity is what she's relied on until now, but getting him down is only a first step.

He starts to scramble up and even though her heart has somehow made its way into her throat and the edges of her vision are starting to dim, and her arm feels cut off and useless, but her shoulder still very much alive and throbbing painpainpain, stabs like dull echoes of her heartbeat -- despite all that -- she stands up. If she seizes this advantage, like he did his, she'll have the power, and that thought is coinciding with fiendish glee that she's succeeded. But she can't take refuge in that. Kinoshita is at her feet now, but reversal can be quick and heartless.

She steps on his shoulder, grinds her heel there until he does cry out. She doesn't mean to aim there, but it strikes her how deserved it feels -- because he's the source of all Yamamoto's misery, as well as Ariga's and their daughter. It's deserved, but also cruel, so she forces herself to stop even when she could go on. When she stops he rolls over, onto his stomach, and this she knows how to deal with, how to capture that arm she's damaged, and she twists it back, over-extends it at the elbow until he has no choice but to fall again, to crumple down against the floor. She holds that arm, keeps it bent, keeps it hurting, amd when he is flat against the plain hard floor, she places her knee in his back.

That is when she hears her name and she throws her head up to look up through the loose strands of her hair that have escaped and she sees Yuge staring, eyes bugging at what he sees. She can feel her arm trembling, even as she holds Kinoshita immobile. She's breathing hard, and she blinks, trying to clear what seems to be a film over her eyes, until she realizes she's hyperventilating.

She gasps, "Yuge, help -- " and then Yuge's there, taking over holding Kinoshita down, and she rolls over onto the floor, trying to keep her arm immobile. Through the noise in her ears she hears Yuge admonishing Kinoshita to stay down. She tries to get up, can see Yuge watching her try as he handcuffs Kinoshita. Yuge says, "Utsumi?" She doesn't answer him, as she's too busy swallowing and swallowing the excess of saliva in her mouth to answer him. Yuge tries again, asking, "Are you okay?"

Little sparks are dancing in the corners of her vision and she takes a breath to answer him, and that's enough. It was going to happen anyway. The thought is clear and resounding as she retches, closing her eyes, tears squeezing out the sides, as her body expels the contents of her stomach. It was going to happen whether she wanted it or not.

Chapter Fifteen: it's just that it's delicate

Note: This chapter makes reference to another Galileo story of mine, "and some with traps."

Utsumi enters Yukawa's lab with a cautious step, trying to peer ahead. Yukawa's there, alone; she hears him moving around before she sees him. He seems to be in the middle of making order out of the ever-present clutter on his desk, and she hesitates for a moment, watching him work. Of course he's alone, because he, unlike Kuribayashi, seems to live more at the university than anywhere else.

"Don't you ever go home?"

He doesn't look up, just continues tidying. "Of course."

So that's how he's going to be. Of course; why else? She proceeds further into the room and comes to a stop behind a stool. She draws her lower lip into her mouth. She puts her purse down on the table, then sits on the stool. "I've come back."

He spares her a glance, a brief one from under his lowered head, eyebrows going up a little. "And you've decided to wear a sling. Are we done stating the obvious?"

She lifts her chin in unconscious reaction, then lowers it, with thought. "Please don't be like that."

He stops for a moment, in the act of reaching for a box of chalk. Sometimes the way he thinks is so obvious, like watching a printer spit out paper, methodical and calculated. Whatever his response, it'll probably have nothing to do with what was, frankly, an emotional plea, and he doesn't disappoint.

"What's made you wear it now, when you so obviously needed it before?" He takes the box, and puts it back on the rail of the chalkboard.

She shifts on the chair, settling backward. "It was injured again. That's all."

"No, that's not all."

"No, of course, that's not all." Her next words come out as if she's deliberating over each of them. "It was... difficult, at the end. I'd tell you about it, but it doesn't really matter if it's not a case you were directly involved in, right?"

He nods. "That's right. It hasn't stopped you before, however."

"I know. But I --" She looks down, at her arm and the sling. "I think I got too close, and then, with us... I can't talk about it, yet." She shakes her head. "Talking about my case is not what I came here for and we both know that."

He tips his head, in acknowledgment, and picks up a book, walking past her to the bookcase on the opposite wall. She turns in her seat, following his progress. He places the book where it belongs and turns to face her, putting his hands in the pockets of his lab coat.

"You came to give me an answer."

She nods. She slides off the stool, and walks closer to him. "You said you wanted me to be happy. That's what you wanted. You left the choice up to me. Continue the way we have been or change it all." Her voice rises at the end, like a question, seeking approval for her summarization.

He nods, but that's all. She can't really blame him for being unreadable at the moment; it's probably a deliberate choice. She swallows, looks away. Her free hand knocks against her leg as she finds words.

"I remembered something you said, about how I'd made this into a problem, and that I shouldn't have. What did you mean by that?" She looks at him on the last word.

His mouth turns up into an unexpected smile, but it doesn't last long.

"Point at me," he says.

"What?"

"Just do it."

She gives him an uncertain look, lifts her hand, curled in a loose fist, raises her eyebrows, and at his encouraging nod, points her index finger at him.

He asks, "How many fingers are pointing back at you?"

"Professor..."

He raises his eyebrows.

She sticks out her lower lip. Sullenly, she answers, "Three. Fine, I get --" She shuts her mouth abruptly, as he comes closer. He takes his hand from his pocket and covers her hand with his, folding back her finger, in the process. He lets go of her hand, taking a step back, and then points at her, too.

He says, and there's definite amusement in it, she can hear it, "Like you, I wanted to be sure. It was a mistake."

"We were both wrong."

"Yes."

She tips her head to the side, thinking. "I'm wondering," she says, "about why you started testing me. Was it just because I was avoiding you, or --"

"It was the mistletoe."

"The what?"

"The Christmas you took the mistletoe off the door and your subsequent behavior."

"You mean --" she covers her mouth with her hand for a moment, dismayed. She lowers her hand. "I was obvious."

"But I misunderstood."

She closes her eyes and shakes her head. "So stupid," she whispers.

Yukawa disregards that. Utsumi looks at him again, and says, "Another question. Is this really something you can do? This takes work, you know. You are work."

"One could say the same about you."

"I never said I wasn't." She lifts her chin, defiant.

His gaze is steady. "To answer -- I don't know. It would be amusing to find out."

She nods, pushing her lips out into a pout. "Mmm." She lifts her hand to her forehead, rubbing the skin there as if she has a headache. "Of course. Amusing. Just like an experiment, or writing out proofs, or making decisions about what's best for me without giving something of yourself. Not that I've been better at that."

His eyes close, as he bends his head down, and turns a little away from her. "About that..." That's warning in his voice, or maybe, chagrin.

"This is a mistake, you know. This will be a spectacular failure."

"Yes, it could be. That's still a hypothesis, however."

"So this is how you want to prove the existence of love."

"It would be difficult to prove it without your participation, wouldn't you say?"

"I don't want to be some kind of experiment for you."

"What gives you the idea that --"

"I forgive you, by the way. If that was not clear."

"Ah."

"Also, just to be perfectly clear, I want you to know that I'll tell you what's on my mind if you do the same. Or at least, ask. That's what friends do. We talk about everything but what we should."

"I can't disagree with you."

"Really? Somehow I think that's subject to change."

"Probably, yes."

"So, one more thing. With your permission."

"What would require my permission?"

She walks closer to him, past the boundaries most people have, moving with deliberate slowness, gauging how he'll react, and it makes her heart thump, to be this cautious, and she pauses just before she moves past even the one he didn't cross when he'd approached her before. He doesn't move away. She takes a deep breath and says, "We have to start somewhere."

"An experiment," he says.

"That's right."

"I'm amenable to that."

"Good."

She goes on her tiptoes, and catches him around his neck with her left hand, and pulls down. He stumbles, a very tiny shuffle forward into her space, even though his expression doesn't change -- much. For a heartbeat of a moment it seems like he won't respond, but then she feels his hands come up to cradle against her back, and pull her closer, her arm trapped between them, but she doesn't care. She lets her face break into a wide smile and says, "I am going to test your patience so very much," before she presses her mouth to his.

The kiss is neither awkward nor familiar, but his mouth is warm against hers, responsive. His lips mold to the pressure of hers and she feels something uncoil within her, a lessening of the tension that said all this would go wrong, but that seems an invalid concern now, at odds with the way he's holding her. He's actually pulling her closer, like he doesn't want to let her go, and for a moment the pressure on her bound arm makes it protest with a twinge of pain. The moan that rises in her is in equal measure brought about by desire and torture, mingling into one undefinable, yet needy thing. She opens her mouth to him, more; what was exploratory gains a sharp edge of need: heady, overwhelming. She pulls away, and goes back down on her heels, lowering her eyes, unaccountably shy. She moves her hand down, trailing a path from behind his neck to his chest, and she shivers as she does so, and so she lifts her hand away. She sneaks a peek at his face, only to find an expression that she would best describe as indulgence.

He says, "Consider my patience tested."

She squints at him, trying to figure out that comment. His mouth turns down just a little, and when he lets out an exasperated-sounding breath, her mouth falls open in surprise.

"Oh. Oh! I -- really?" She fumbles around behind with her outstretched hand for the chair. Not feeling it forces her to turn around and find it. She reaches for the back bars of it like she's lost in the dark, and lowers herself into it. She stares up at him with her mouth open, then raises her hand to her heart, the patter there like rain on a roof.

"You don't believe me?"

"No, no, I get it. Would it kill you to show it a little more?"

"I did mention this is somewhat new to me."

"And you speak an entirely different language, did you know that?"

"I understand there are times that doesn't matter."

She can't even blink, not with that statement rattling around in her head, gaining momentum and fizzling with meaning, until it explodes rather like a firework in her mind's eye. She says, each word a little surreal, because this isn't happening, really, "Can I kiss you again. I really kind of need to kiss you again."

"Asking is moot no --"

She has a fistful of that crisp white lab coat of his -- she's going to leave wrinkles in it, just watch. She smiles, even as she kisses him, and then she's breaking off into giggles.

"Something funny?"

"Us," she says, and closes her mouth into an amused twist. Yukawa steps back around the table, heading to the coat stand. Utsumi watches him take off his lab coat, smoothing it down before hanging it up. "I don't want to waste time," she says. "Come home with me."

"Isn't that considered moving too fast?"

"I don't care. How much time have we wasted already?"

Yukawa's face is serious as he turns to face her. Utsumi doesn't look away.

Yukawa looks away, to the side as if he's considering. He says, when he looks at her again, "I like your hair down."

"Is that a yes?"

He nods and smiles. "Yes."

Chapter Sixteen: can't hold it in

Her apartment is pitch black when she enters. She slips off her shoes. Yukawa is at her back, silent and unnerving, or so it feels. But when she turns around she sees him also removing his shoes, bending down to pull at the zipper on the side of them, the sound loud in the silence. He's limned in the light from outside, and it blinds her for a split second.

He looks up at her, as he arranges his shoes without looking at them. "What is it?" he asks. He stands from his crouch.

She takes a steadying breath. She reaches past him to shut her door. She closes her eyes for a moment at how close they are and she feels as though her clothes are a stifling unnecessary weight, as though all the nerves in her skin have been set alight. She can feel her heart pattering in her chest, the sound overwhelming in her ears.

She startles as she feels him move closer. She takes a deep breath and lets her purse drop to the floor. She moves in closer to him, putting her free hand, her palm flat against his chest. She feels when he takes a long breath. In the dark there's nothing but the sound of their breathing and the shift of their bodies. The slow burn she's been feeling intensifies, her cheeks warming. She moves her hand lower, settling on the side of his waist, above his belt, and she encourages him to move even closer by nudging him, moving her hand around him, gathering him to her. He obliges.

She closes her eyes and lets her head fall back and when his hand touches her cheek, she turns into it, relishing the feel of his skin, somewhat dry and rough. His lips touch hers a second later, and she opens her mouth to him, wanting more. She flicks her tongue against the inner curve of his mouth and the resultant hitch of his breath makes her do it again and press into him, walking forward.

His hand drifts from her face, and comes to rest on her shoulder as he responds to her kiss, by slanting his mouth across hers, not a deep kiss, but one that teases her, his lips moving against her in a tentative manner that she finds more sensual, more maddening than something deeper. She shivers at the feel of his hand moving, a gentle, light caress down to her waist, curving there much like hers. He turns her, following along, and moves her backward into the wall. She makes a tiny sound when she hits it, and Yukawa pauses. Utsumi opens her eyes. She looks up, and where it was complete darkness before, now she can see the dim outline of his face.

She takes a slow deep breath, then leans in, pressing her cheek to his chest to where she can hear his heartbeat, the wild thumps of it. It's proof that she's affecting him as much as he is her. She places her hand on his shirt sleeve, fabric crisp and cool beneath the pads of her fingers. She follows the line of his arm, skimming past the bones of his wrist, until she laces her fingers in his and tugs. "Come," she says.

She takes him down the hallway, to her bedroom, where she lets go of his hand and switches on the lamp beside her bed. She sits down, and runs her hand across the weave of the dark blue cotton blanket she has. He's still standing, looking around her room. She takes a deep breath, and tucks her hair behind her ears. She presses her thighs together, feels her pulse throb against the pressure she's created. She licks her lips. She says, "Look at me, please."

He turns his attention to her and she can't breathe for the wave of desire that sweeps over her, but she has to say a few things before she can do what she really wants -- undress him and kiss her way up from navel to neck, see if he shivers when she does. She says, "The bathroom is there," and points across her bed to the closed door. "I'm on birth control, but there's condoms here." She pulls out a drawer from the stand her lamp is on.

He closes the drawer, and says, "You probably need help with your clothes."

Her lips part and she blinks. She says, "I can do it."

He shakes his head. "May I help?"

She blinks some more, but there's no reason to deny him this. She nods.

He sits beside her and she can't figure out what to do, whether she should turn or not, and so she just stays still. He puts his hand on her back, at the nape of her neck, and her eyes half-close at the touch. He finds the closures to the sling easily enough and unfastens them.

"Lie down," he says, and she turns to look at him, surprised. She has a flash of deja vu, and tracks it down to that case with the bow and arrow.

"That's a familiar command." She narrows her eyes, but without rancor. "Just don't tell me to hurry." She lowers herself down and waits, hands resting on her middle.

He settles himself beside her on her left, turned to her, on his side, propped up on his elbow. She turns her head to look at him. His face has a singular expression on it, more open than she's used to, a softness around his eyes she's never seen before, but then he looks away, and it's gone. He rests his hand on her stomach, and she covers it with her own. He turns his hand over, within hers, then slides it out, his fingertips curving into the palm of her hand, brushing against the sensitive skin. He moves her hand aside, then repeats the gesture with her other hand, and he's so gentle in doing it, so slow, that she just relaxes into it, letting out a sigh. Her gaze had drifted to watching what he did, but now she brings it back up to linger on his face. The expression he'd had before was gone, yes, to be replaced with focus. She saw it, she did, there's no way he can hide it... disguise it, perhaps. She bites at her lower lip, and blinks away a sudden excess of moisture in her eyes. He plucks at the bottom hem of her shirt and she knows, without looking, that he's unbuttoning it, one-handed.

She closes her eyes and focuses on the moment. His knuckles brush against her skin, with no pattern or warning, as he works his way up. She breathes deeply, evenly, but each touch is a little spark, a little crackle through her, sweet and hot. Her focus is so narrowed that when he curves his hand flush against the side of her, against her ribs and her bare skin, she arches her back and moans, her eyelids fluttering open and shut. She finds him looking at her, his face a breath away from hers. She closes the short distance, touching her lips to his in a, at first, chaste kiss, until it becomes deeper, messier, learning the taste of his mouth.

She turns her head, breaking the kiss, and catching her breath. She smiles up at him, an evil gleam in her eyes, and says, "You're still wearing too many clothes."

He raises his eyebrows. She sits back up, pops the buttons free from his waistcoat, then his shirt. He helps her once she starts pushing at the shoulders, trying to get them off, putting her legs underneath her so she can kneel and actually get somewhere. Once his two layers of clothing are gone, he reaches for the cuff of her left sleeve. She pulls her arm free and he rises up over her, expanse of smooth skin right before her, and he pulls her shirt around the back of her and slides it off her injured arm. The idea passes through her head that he's treating her almost as as one would something fragile, and she rebels against it. She pushes at his shoulder to get his attention.

"You don't have to be so gentle with me."

He doesn't say anything, but after a moment, he turns his gaze to the mottled area on her shoulder. She bristles: pulling away, sitting back on her heels. "So I got hurt. So what? I'm a cop, it's part of the job."

He takes a breath. He says, "This was a symbol to you, was it not? Of the rift between us, correct? A symbol to you; something more literal to me."

"What do you mean?"

"I have always accepted that your job puts you in danger. That's not the issue."

"Oh. It's different now that it's happened."

"Yes."

"I --" She can't think of anything to say. He reaches out, runs his hand over the bruise, across the strap of her bra, sliding a finger under it and pushing it down off her shoulder. He repeats the gesture on the other side, then leans in to press his mouth to her bruise, and she moans, startling herself with it. "Please be careful," he says, and then continues to kiss along the bruise, Utsumi hears herself make a keening sound and say, "Yukawa," voice high and breathy, but what he's doing to her, with his hot, hot mouth and tongue, has divorced her from coherent response. She leans forward, places her head on his shoulder, and grips at his upper arm. It's all she can do. She doesn't know how long it is until she feels his hands combing through her hair, coming to rest on her cheeks and lifting her head to look at him. She blinks when he kisses her, then says, "Turn around. Let me unfasten this." He looks down and traces the edge of her bra with an index finger. Tiny prickles of heat seem to follow in the wake of the movement.

She turns around, and he moves aside her hair, and then her bra is loose a moment later. She pulls it from her, down and off her arms. Yes, it was practical for her to turn, but now, as he moves closer to her, she thinks he might have done it that way to ease self-consciousness. He moves her hair aside again, and his hand settles on her shoulder, a brief touch, before sliding it down her arm. She's reminded of the dream and closes her eyes at the wave of pure need that passes through her. She takes his hand in hers and moves it so it covers her breast, covers it with her own, reveling in the heat of his palm on her skin. But it's not quite what she wants.

She turns to face him, and pushes him down on the bed. She leans over him, weight on her good arm and kisses him, mouth insistent, hard and open, delving. He matches her, hands coming up, not to her breasts, but curving around to mold to the shape of her bottom. Ah, yes, now she remembers his particular interest in that region of her body. It's not so annoying now, not with the way he's clutching his fingers around the flesh there, digging in and urging her closer to him. She obliges by moving herself over him, straddling him. She settles herself on him, purposefully grinding down on the hard length of him, and the feel of it between her legs, right against that spot, even through layers of clothing is enough to make her mouth fall open, to move with urgency against him. She keeps her eyes open, even though the overwhelming pleasure she's generating this way threatens to make them shut of their own accord. She keeps them open because what's before her is beautiful, even in the unnatural silence of his reaction. She used to men making grunts and gasps when she does this, but not Yukawa, no. His eyes have gone unfocused, and he's still touching her, hands loose on her waist. He reacts by meeting her halfway, grinding up at her when she pushes down. His mouth is open, breath quick, but that's all.

She'll make him fall apart. He's only a man, and she knows what men like, knows how they respond when taken in her hands, her mouth. She can't wait to see if he'll prove her wrong, as the look in his eyes seemed to forecast before. Even if this doesn't last, as is always the possibility -- she dismisses that thought, closing her eyes for a brief moment.

The here and now -- that's all that matters. The feeling of his lithe body beneath her hands, the smoothness of his skin, and the rise and fall of this rhythm. She moves her hands down, to the buckle of his belt, and makes quick work of removing it, when he lifts himself just enough for her to pull it free and toss it away from her. She smiles as she looks him in the eyes, at how he's focused on her. Would he gasp when she fastened her grip around his shaft? Probably not, but it's just a moment away, just a slip of the zipper down, a tug of elastic, a lift of his hips and every inch of his skin is bare before her. She runs her fingertips down from his navel, into wiry hair, but she doesn't touch him there, no, not yet. She casts a look up at him, and yes, he's watching her with heavy-lidded eyes. There's a tension in his face that speaks of intense control. She smiles, keeping her gaze on him, and moves past what's tempting her to touch -- he'll feel like silk over wood, warm, soft, and rigid -- but she wants to tease, just a little bit. Her fingers drift past the dip where hip meets leg and then back up. She raises her eyes to his again, smiles and slides her hand up his erection, just to see what he'll do, and is gratified by the way his eyes snap shut and the way he moves up into her hand. She moves away from him, and shimmies out of her underwear and pants. She drops them over the side of the bed.

He props himself up on his elbows, and she can feel his gaze following her, as she clambers over to the other side of the bed, getting supplies from the drawer in the stand. She'd rather be safe than sorry, and a little lubrication never goes amiss.

She rips the foil open and makes sure she has the right edge of the condom open, before she rolls it onto him, and follows that up with the lube. "Are you ready?"

He raises his eyebrows, looks pointedly down and then back up at her.

She can't help it; she narrows her eyes and tips her head to the side. "Oh, you're a smart one, aren't you?" She pushes on his chest, forcing him on his back. He goes, placid and pliable, and it makes her smile.

"You're all talk sometimes, you know that?" She positions herself over him, and holds her breath as she sinks down onto him. She closes her eyes for a second, getting re-acquainted with the initial burn. "Listen," she says, looking at him, "you were treating me gently, and that's okay, but you don't have to hold back. I don't mind a little pain."

She pushes herself upright on him, and, oh, it scorches like smooth wine down her throat. It must show on her face, because he asks, "How long?"

"Too long. I've missed this feeling." She pushes herself up and then down again, and yes, she really has missed having someone to do this with. She does it again and wrings a sound, finally, from him, a low whimper that fills her with so much joy that she grinds herself down on him again and again. She feels heavy, full of heat that's radiating out of her, her breasts warm and tingling. He touches her there, fingers skating over the tops of them, his thumbs brushing the very tips of her nipples, and the repetition is frustrating.

He moves with her with precision, with control, but just a glance at his face tells her that's a fine distinction. His eyes are closed, and there's a slick shine of sweat above his upper lip.

She leans down closer to him, her hair falling down to brush the side of his neck. He raises his head and turns his face into it. She kisses the hollow beneath his ear. She's barely moving her hips now, but he doesn't seem to mind. Every little movement she makes is fraught with indescribable sensation, and she can't help how quick her breathing has become. His breathing sounds harsh in her ears, as close as she is. She leaves a trail of tiny kisses from that hollow to his mouth, and he opens his to her coaxing, reaching up to her. His hands come up to her shoulders, fingers curling around them, still gentle, almost unbelieveably so. She lays down on him, her head turned away from his mouth. She keeps moving her hips and with this angle, the tip of his cock is pressing directly into her g-spot and she can feel herself coming loose, like a thread from a knitted shirt, unraveled from herself. She opens her eyes, gone shut in the loosing of herself, and raises herself up. She wants something more. She says, "I want --"

"Hmm?"

She sits up all the way, and takes his hand and places it on her hurt shoulder. "I want you to stop being gentle."

"But --"

"Just do it."

"I --"

"I promise, it won't damage me. I trust you. Please."

He stares at her. Then, he gives her shoulder an experimental squeeze.

She moans. Her eyes flutter shut and she clenches around him.

"A-again. Harder." She ruts against him again, striving for a second release. She opens her eyes, hazy though she is in all this rush. His eyes are troubled. She kisses his mouth, a quick press. "It's okay," she whispers.

He curls his fingers around her shoulder and his grasp is at first slight, and she covers his hand with hers and presses his fingers into the skin, into the muscle, the ache she's been living with for the past few weeks. She makes him dig his fingers in, and then all she sees is stars, and she comes again with a force that leaves her quivering, unable to stay upright. She comes down from where she'd flown, pressed against his body, her hair in her face, and his skin wet beneath her cheek. He has his arms around her. She breathes, blinking, feeling tears leaking out from her eyes.

"Thank you," she says.

He says, "You will tell me why," but she can't answer, because he's sitting up, taking her with him, and they tumble backward, a momentary tangle of limbs and awkward positioning. He slips out of her, but really, she was expecting that, and she takes hold of him, as he moves over her, and guides him back in. He settles over her, and she puts her legs around his. She says, "Yes," and looks up, taking in all the skin in front of her, gaze sliding up from the dark honey gold of the nipple right in front of her mouth, tempting her to lick it, to the taut tendons of his neck, and the curl of his hair against it. He has his eyes closed, eyelids pressed down tightly. She gives in to the temptation to lick his nipple. A shudder goes through him when she does it, and she tests what nipping it with her teeth does, and is gratified by how he slumps down onto her, a heavy weight that she clings to, wrapping her legs and arms around him. She's having trouble speaking; her voice sounds drowned and far away from her as she puts her mouth to his ear and says, "M-move."

He does and she can't think anymore, there's no thoughts in her head, only the feel of him surrounding her, the sound of his breathing in her ear. It changes the more he thrusts, and she matches his drive with her own movements up, instinct making her wild and desperate. He comes, as she wanted, with noises that seem torn from him, deep, harsh gasps. His flesh goose-pimples under her palm, and warmth floods her. She closes her eyes and buries her face into the hollow of his neck, the dampness and fragrance of him enveloping her. She'll have it on her skin. She shudders beneath him, aftershocks of pleasure rippling through, at the thought. He keeps thrusting and the orgasm she has next is just a warm wave suffusing her entire body.

He stops moving, eventually, but when he tries to lift himself off, she presses the heel of her foot down, into the back of his knee. He takes the hint and stops, but he still holds himself apart. The pang that goes through her at that is unexpected. She says, "I want you to stay." She works her hand up to his face, touches her fingertips to his lips, then takes her hand away, letting her arm come to rest on the bed. "Please."

"Like this?"

"Yes, like this. Against me, please."

He looks at her for a long moment, while she makes her sincerity known by not looking away. He takes his weight off his hands and lowers himself down on her.

She sighs at the heaviness of his body over hers, her breath fanning out against his collarbone. He says, "Are you all right?"

It's stifling, but not unpleasant. She tightens her inner muscles around him and moves, just enough to send a jolt of pleasure through her. He doesn't make a sound, but she can feel and hear his intake of breath.

"Yes, I'm fine. I like this."

She listens to him breathe. She closes her eyes, and sinks down into pure sensation, mind blank. He'll move when she asks him to, of this she's sure. Until then, she'll give up her own will, and rest secure.

Under the palms of her hands his skin grows cool, the fine layer of damp exertion evaporating. She trails her left hand in a path up and down his ribs. He flinches a little.

She says, "You're ticklish!"

When he speaks, the movement of his lips next to her right ear stirs strands of her hair. He says, "Aren't you?"

She smiles. She's glad he can't see it. She says, "I'd like to get up now."

He lifts himself away. She starts to look for her underwear, but she's having difficulty with moving herself. Every muscle feels used, weak and trembling.He finds the light in her bathroom, but then he closes the door all the way to the jamb, leaving only a sliver of light.

She pulls her pajamas out from under her pillow, and carefully dresses herself. She can hear him moving around in her bathroom -- it's very domestic and just a tad awkward. She hunts around for his underwear, and goes to the bathroom door on unsteady legs. She says, "Here," and holds his underwear through the crack in the door, the waistband of them hooked over one finger. His face looks even more sober than usual in the brief glimpse she sees of him before he takes his clothing from her hand.

She turns from the door, and goes to sit on the end of her bed. The toilet flushes. He emerges a second later, backlit by yellow light. He looks almost regal, which is not normally a word she'd use, but it seems to suit, at least in this moment. Before he can say anything she says, "I want you to stay. Sleep in this bed with me."

He blinks, but then nods. She gets up from the bed, but doesn't approach him. She goes to the right side of the bed, the closest to the alarm clock, and gets in, under the covers.

As soon as he climbs in, her mattress dipping a little under his weight, she rolls closer to him, the infinitesimal dent under him encouraging it. She surprises him; she can feel it in the way he holds himself still, so she hesitates and asks, "Is this okay?" She looks at him to gauge his reaction, but even though there's light, it's hard for her to tell what he's actually thinking. His breathing is shallow, however, and she almost moves away, just before he says, "Yes."

She still hesitates, long enough for him to say, "I said --" She cuts him off with haste, "No, no, you don't need to tell me twice." She snuggles next to him, wedging her left shoulder into the space under his arm and close to the mattress. She settles closer to the length of him and rests her head on his chest, in the crook of his arm and body.

It takes a few seconds for him to relax. She doesn't move.

She says, "I take it back."

"Take what back?"

"What I said before about you not being popular with girls. You were probably really popular with them in high school, right?"

A little silence, as he thinks about what to answer. She closes her eyes as she waits, feels her heartbeat slowing.

"I never knew what to do with the love letters, but you were right. They were never very interested after listening to me talk."

"Hmm. You probably gave away your second button to the first girl who asked, didn't you?"

"I did."

"That's sad."

"It was practical."

"Wait... you're not a virgin, are you?"

"What a leap you make from one topic to another. You'll recall that I've said this to you before."

She takes a breath, prepared to explain, but before she says anything, he goes on, "You'd be horrified if I said 'yes,' wouldn't you."

She says, as she twists so that she can see his face, "Please tell me that's a j --" He turns his gaze from the ceiling to look at her and she subsides. "Of course, you're not. Has anyone ever told you your sense of humor is awful? Don't answer that; I'm not looking for an argument." She drops back down, shifting a little to get comfortable. Her shoulder twinges, and she says a soft, "Ow," more of a breath than a word. At the sound, Yukawa moves his arm beneath her head, curling it closer around her, maybe an attempt to keep her shoulder from hurting.

"Utsumi," he says, as if there's more to follow. Utsumi's left arm is tucked close to Yukawa's right side, but her hand is free, and she lets it rest, palm up and open on his chest. He's so warm. She says, "Hmm?" Then, "I'm sleepy." She turns her face toward his chest.

He doesn't respond. Her eyelids feel heavy, so she lets them droop. His right hand is on her hip, stroking, up and down. Her shoulder twinges again, but this time it comes with a jolt of remembered pleasure. She can feel her breath evening out. Then, she opens her eyes, which she barely remembers closing. "Yukawa? You were saying?"

She can feel his chest move beneath her hand as he takes a deep breath. Safe. That's what she's feeling.

Yukawa says, "You wanted me to hurt you."

"Yes?" she says.

"That's what you wanted, right?"

"Mmm," she murmurs.

He says, "Are you awake?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because it felt good."

His hand stops stroking her hip. He's silent again.

She says, "You don't have to stop touching me."

He doesn't move his hand. "Is that all?"

She turns and pushes herself up so she can get a better look at him. He stares at her, a set to his mouth that's tense. She touches it with her fingertips, her shoulder protesting as she moves her arm, but she doesn't care. "Yes, that's all. I like a little pain -- it makes the pleasure better. Bites are nicer; I like the marks. Would that be better? Would you be worried then?"

"No," he says.

"Can we sleep now?"

"Utsumi..."

"Yes?"

"Good night."

"Good night," she says and settles back down next to him. "Don't go."

She hears the click of the lamp switch as she shuts her eyes and then nothing but their breathing, until it fades into sleep.

Chapter Seventeen: why do you sing hallelujah

Utsumi takes a deep breath of fresh air as she exits the police station. There's a breeze, a moderate, cool breeze, thanks to the cold front that came in a day ago. She lifts her face to the wind and says, "Now that's better."

She hears wheels being trundled over pavement, approaching her from the side and she turns to see Ariga Kurumi pushing a stroller, a shade over her baby. Her smile is bright as Utsumi catches her attention by lifting her hand in a hesitant wave.

"Ms. Ariga," Utsumi greets her, meeting her halfway. "How are you?" She bends a little to peer under the cover of the stroller, where Ariga's daughter, clutching a pink plushie blanket, is sleeping. "She looks peaceful."

"Yes, for once." Ariga's voice is amused, still touched with weariness.

"It's difficult to care for such a tiny thing." Utsumi straightens up, pushing a fallen strand of hair back into place. Her smile is gentle.

"Did I sound too annoyed? I didn't m-mean to. The first time you -- I'm sorry. I wasn't at my best. And then... "

"Don't worry about it. What can I do for you?"

"Thank you very much for watching out for us." Ariga lets go of the stroller, to stand aside from it, and bows. "It's all I can do... say thanks." She reaches out to the stroller when she looks up, resting her hand on the top, and looking away.

Utsumi shakes her head, but then smiles. "I was just doing my job. But, you're very welcome."

Ariga sinks down beside the stroller, and fiddles with the bottom edge of the blanket before laying a hand on top of her daughter's head. She doesn't stir, still fast asleep. "Especially because of her," Ariga says, her voice soft, a little choked. She looks up at Utsumi. "She wasn't a mistake. We wanted her. He was going to get out of that life and we were going to move, start over."

Utsumi nods. Ariga looks back to her baby, touches her cheek with one fingertip, a gentle feather's touch, then stands up.

"Anyway, I just wanted to l-let you know."

"You can still have that chance." Utsumi pauses, trying to weigh if she should go on. Ariga just looks at her expectantly. Utsumi twists her mouth into a closed uncertain smile, and nods. "He won't be in long. He's still young and so are you."

Ariga blinks, and Utsumi can tell it's because Ariga doesn't want to cry in front of her. Ariga nods. It goes a little quiet, and Utsumi finds her gaze settling on the baby. There's something comforting in how she's still sleeping, in how trusting that is.

Ariga clears her throat and Utsumi looks back up. Ariga says, "I'm also s-sorry that you got hurt. That he ended up getting you hurt."

"Oh," Utsumi says, taken aback. "That's not something you need to apologize to me for."

"But I want to."

"It's okay."

Ariga looks as though she wants to protest, but after a moment of hesitation she says, "All right." She maneuvers the stroller to point away from Utsumi. "We should be going," she says, and starts to push the stroller. She stops to look over her shoulder and say, "Take care."

Utsumi waves. "And you." As Ariga turns a corner, out of sight, the smiles fades from Utsumi's face, the space between her eyes creasing into a thoughtful, almost wistful expression.

*

It's several weeks later when Utsumi stands in front of her mirror, hair neat, clothes straight and pressed. She is presentable, perfectly business-like, armored in her well-tailored suit jacket, pants, and appropriate shirt. She smiles and raises her arms straight above her head, joining her fingers in a lock. "Ah," she half-sighs, half-says.

"No pain, I see," says Yukawa, from behind her. He reaches past her to place his comb down beside the sink. She jumps up to leave a kiss on his neck as he turns back to her. She's rewarded for her action with a small flicker of a smile.

"Of course not. There's no bruise, either. It's healed."

He raises his eyebrows. "No bruise," he repeats, flatly.

She smiles, a twist to her mouth making it look mischievous. "I meant, the one on my arm." She turns to the mirror, and moves the collar of her suit jacket away from her neck, folding it back to reveal a deep red mottled splotch right above where her collarbone meets her shoulder. She keeps the jacket pulled back, but lifts her left hand to trace the edges of the splotch, before pressing into it with her fingertips. "This is a little tender."

He's moved, now standing close behind her as she examines herself in the mirror. He reaches around her to take her left hand, bringing it down. She moves back into him, and lets go of her collar. With his right hand he pushes it back himself. She leans her head against him, tilted. She watches him in the mirror, as he caresses her neck. Her eyelashes flutter in the wake of his touch, remembered pleasure coursing through her. He bends his head to touch his mouth against the spot, and she makes a sound deep in her throat, closing her eyes all the way. The heat of his mouth is like a balm, like warm water, and she wishes she could follow this through to something more satisfying.

"We need," she takes a shuddering breath, "we need to go to work."

He replaces her collar over the bruise. The weight of it rubs against the bruise as she turns around to face him, and the air that's replaced his mouth feels cool. There's a throb in that spot she's finding difficult to ignore, so she puts it to the back of her mind to pull out later, along with how happy it makes her feel.

"You should take an umbrella," he says. He says, as he turns to exit, "It's going to rain."

She reaches out before he can go, and captures his sleeve with her hand, halting him. He looks at her. She says, "I'll see you later." She gets closer, but only lets her hand go down, tangling her fingers between his, and squeezing for a second or two. He returns the gesture, and she smiles.

*

"No bruising left," says Doctor Nagase. Utsumi nods. She rolls her sleeve back down.

"How's your range of motion?"

Utsumi sits up straighter, rolling her shoulders back. She lifts her arm, turning it so she can bend her elbow and curl the arm over her head. She says, "And the pain is mostly gone."

"Mostly?" For having such kind eyes, Utsumi considers, her doctor can make them pierce right through.

"It's like a little ache that comes and goes. That's all. Weather sensitive, maybe? Lifting my arm didn't hurt at all." Utsumi lifts her arm to her neck, touching the former site of pain.

The piercing look softens. "Well, that's good to hear. You're probably very happy to have it back to normal."

"Yes. Very happy." Utsumi looks down and smiles.

"Then we're done," answers Nagase.

End.

Note: To leave you with a little trivia, a certain fanvid of mine, "Weakness," was conceived of as a trailer for this story, but since it wasn't finished yet when I made that, I couldn't say that it was. Also, titles came from songs by Oh Land, Florence + the Machine, Damien Rice, Imogen Heap, Over the Rhine, and Heather Nova. Thank you for reading this labor of two years' worth! It's not much, but I consider it a personal success in several small ways.


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