The Queen of Hearts

Chapter 1

"I am many things, darling, but pure of heart is not one of them."

The train doors slid open with the smooth noise of bristles on rubber. An older man was the only one who boarded. His walking stick tapped, and his weight plopped beside her in an empty carriage.

His knee pressed into her right thigh, and Akira let a sigh out through her nose, flicking through her phone with her left thumb. The train jostled.

What time are you getting the train? 4:31PM
I'm already on. 4:33PM
Oh? what time are you due into Shibuya? We could go for coffee… hear your guy has a nice coffee shop. 4:34PM
It's next stop 4:34PM
oookay, I'll rush there. Yongen-jaya is where you're going from there, right? i'll walk you from Ginza line 4:35PM
Thanks, Robin Hood, my saviour. 4:36PM
Stop this. 4:37PM

She looked up, man still very close to her side, and felt the train slowing down as it began to pull in. Akira felt some tangible awe as she saw Tokyo, which she had seen a good few times before, pull past her; the buildings were slick, the pedestrians efficient, and the advertising clean and popping. Glowing text flickered between the skyscrapers, too fast to read.

"Arriving at Shibuya station. Please transfer for trains to…"

Akira stood, and the man beside her beamed. "Are you getting off here?"

She found herself thumbing the edges of her skirt. "Yes. Do you need some help?"

"Oh, thank you," he bumbled, grabbing her outstretched hand and pulling himself to his feet slowly. He linked his arm with hers, taking careful scuffling steps as they slowly exited. "Do you go to school around here, darling?"

"I'm transferring to Shujin Academy."

"Oh, that's a fine establishment. Really well-known for sports, isn't it? The track team made nationals, I believe-"

Akira pulled her phone from her pocket, peering at the message.

where are you. did you stand me up 4:37PM
No, asshole. Just wait a minute. I'm walking some old person off. 4:40PM
Oh, so you like spending time with geezers 4:40PM
I wish I was getting paid for this. 4:41PM
I bet you do on the weekends. 4:42PM
Just wait a minute. 4:42PM

Akira walked off the step, peering around her. She couldn't see him anywhere; she'd never met Akechi in real life, but she'd seen plenty of pictures of him. He was fairly good looking, far beyond what she'd expected. He wore glasses and started a lot of online debates he couldn't finish, winning on some smug platform of condescension often. But he was far better looking than she expected. With those looks, he could have gone into celebrity, Akira supposed - but he wasn't really that kind of guy, she thought. Either way, Akira decided she'd like to think she remembered his face, as pretty as it was. Shibuya bustled.

"Would you mind walking me to the square?" the man said. "There are lifts around here somewhere."

Akira stifled a grimace and smiled. "Yes, of course. Is someone picking you up?"

"Yes, my daughter. She's..."

She nodded keenly for a couple of minutes, blinking and looking attentive when necessary as she took painfully slow steps to the lift. As the elevator's doors closed around them, Akira opened her phone to Akechi's conversation.

I'm coming now. This guy decided he wanted me to walk him outside. 4:48PM
Can't reject an old guy huh 4:49PM
Just being an honest citizen. 4:49PM
Very funny. Do you want to meet me at the station square instead? 4:50PM
If you could. 4:50PM
Nice, I'll be up. 4:50PM

She walked outside, annoyed people knocking her shoulder as they passed. It was raining lightly, and there was a sea of umbrellas before her as she walked this man to the square.

"Ah, there she is! My Saeko-chan. Do you want to come back with me for some coffee?"

"Dad, god, stop harassing these young girls," a middle-aged woman hissed, dark hair framing her face with a curled and smoothed middle part. "God, I'm sorry. Was he bugging you? He always brings up some young girl on his arm when he walks up."

"No, please," she said, waving a hand in reassurance and her left arm feeling freer than ever. "He was no bother."

"Thanks anyway. Take care."

"Thanks," Akira said, eyes flicking straight to her phone.

Is that you trying to shake off the old guy? 4:52PM
Yes. 4:52PM

She distantly heard the woman berating her father, a great deal shorter than her and linked with her. "This is Sunday! She probably had the day off, you know? Just call me to come down next time!"

"Hey." Akira jumped at a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see a charming-looking boy with awkward features.

"Hey," she said, a little lost for words. "You could have helped me get away from that guy, you know."

"I know," he smiled.

"Nice. Do you know where the Ginza line is?"

"To the left. It's good to see you in person," Akechi beamed. "You're awful tall."

Akira grimaced. "Yes. I could kick you in the face with ease."

"Not saying that." Akechi slouched as they walked away. "Are you thirsty? There's a whole line of vending machines here... they're truly one of Tokyo's biggest luxuries."

"You don't have to talk in superlatives all the time," she muttered, but walked to the vending machines, tracing her fingers along a line of polished glass cases.

"I wouldn't know how else to speak. It's just how I talk."

Akira hummed, tracing her fingers across the rows. She wasn't sure what to get. She did like melon soda, but it was raining. Maybe she could get a hot drink? Would it spill on the train?

"I like Arginade. You should get one of those."

Cheap too, she thought absentmindedly. She wasn't sure she was quite accustomed to Akechi's manner yet, but she bought one, and lifted it to her lips and was almost instantly repulsed by the smell.

"That's genuinely disgusting."

"You don't like it?"

"That smell is rank. It smells like something is rotting in there."

"It's good for you!"

Akira took a sip; it was less potent than the smell, but was by no means palatable. She hissed slowly through her teeth, wincing. "I don't want to improve my health, Akechi. I just wanted a drink."

Akechi shrugged, smiling awkwardly and motioning towards the Ginza line. "Let's not miss your train. Truth be told, I do prefer coffee. Do you want me to take your bag?"

Akira adjusted it on her shoulder. "Not really. Do you want my drink? I can't stomach it."

"With pleasure."

'You better not have planned that all along,' Akira thought, staring as he swiped it from her hands with glee.

"So, what's Shujin like?" she asked, making her way down the stairs. "Is it... upper class?"

"A bit, for me," he said, smiling. "I work two part-time jobs and I still barely manage it."

"That much, huh," she murmured. "It's nice, though, right?"

"Full of gossips, however, if you know what I mean." Akechi seemed fixated on the label of the can as he walked. "Lots of people like to come to the arcade just to see me work."

"That's nice. What nice people."

Akechi laughed. "Sorry if that's not encouraging."

She waved it off. "No, that's really... mean. I could come and help you bunk off every once in a while."

"Feel free," Akechi beamed. "It is an excruciating shift at times. You would be amazed what fluids children can get smeared on the interface of a shoot-em-up."


They carried on down the stairs, and arrived at an enclosed underground platform, rattling with the passing trains above. Akechi let his bag slip off his shoulder and let it down by a pillar, leaning against the brick.

"Even so, it's not so bad," he said, staring. "It pays nicely for a part time job. And there are worse customers than obnoxious kids."

"Are there?"

A figure caught Akira's eye. Someone stood far down the line, near the entrance of the tunnel and far from where the train was due to stop. It was the dustier end, near the vending machines and a small ventilated shelter with a luggage rack. He stood isolated, a bag limp by his feet. Akira flexed her fingers around the handle of her bag, feeling discomfort.

"Sure. And I can pay for my own flat now," Akechi said. "I have a nice TV... this is your station, actually."

"Oh," Akira blinked. That guy hadn't moved. It felt a little strange to see someone not at least glancing at their phone, or looking at the train times. "You heard that the guy I'm staying with owns a coffee shop?"

"It's a bit weird that you don't know," he said. "You could have just looked it up, too. Weren't you curious about where you would be staying?"

"It was somewhat sudden. I didn't know where I would be until recently."

"Even so. I heard he used to be a politician, actually."

Akira hummed, staring at the train times. Just two minutes until a train that passed through Yongen-Jaya. That guy still wasn't moving. Was she overthinking it?

She shook her head. "Anyway," she began, "do you want to come back for a coffee then?"

"I was planning to, yes," Akechi said, smiling brightly. "I've been there before, actually."

"Is it nice coffee?"

"Inexpensive and well-brewed. Definitely. Some of the nicest I've ever had, actually," Akechi said, smiling. Akira couldn't help but feel undermined by his smile, quite different from his broad and mocking ones; it was small and bright, but with amber eyes staring straight at her. "And your... owner, was nice."


"Your warden," he smirked, winking. "He was an older man, and he was well-dressed. I'm sure you'll be fine."

"Because older men are so good with young women these days."

"They've never been good with young women at any point in history, you know. But he does seem nice."

The train's headlights peaked at the end of the tunnel, and Akira felt the stagnant air that pushed out of the tunnel ruffle her hair. Was that man still there? Had he moved to join the queues waiting at the doors? Why was she so attracted to that lonely figure, waiting for a train that would never come?

Akira leaned past Akechi to look, biting her lip.

"Is something wrong?"

Her eyebrows knotted. He'd moved, far exceeding the yellow line marked at the edge of the platform, toes peeking over the edge and his bag abandoned a few feet behind him.

"No, it's just- it's just that guy," she said, words coming to her strangely. She heard the squeal of the oncoming train reverberating down the tunnel, the glare of the headlights, the crowd settling into organised lines where the doors would be. "Just on his own up there."

Akechi turned to follow her gaze, searching for the lone man. "Him?"

"Yeah, him," she said. She shook her head, urging herself to look away. "It's- It's nothing special. I'm just being weird. I'm..."

But Akechi didn't look away either.

"...something about it."

And just like that, as people waited obediently for the train and others slid past with phones, briefcases, magazines - Akira and Akechi watched a man jump onto the line.

He stumbled, almost falling over but catching himself just barely. The train's horn blared down the tunnel. The figure looked at the approaching train almost drunkenly, but stepped over the electrified rail and parted his feet to stand firmly in the centre of the track. He stared straight at the train. Akira watched as Akechi turned on his heel beside her, eyes wide, silently reaching out as the crowds rippled with horror around him.

It hit him quietly, the crack of his skull and the crumpling of his torso into the metal muffled by the shrieking of the brakes. The wheels dragged him down feet first, the dent of the metal and the red of the blood trailing as he was pulled underneath. The train carried on, sparks spraying onto the platform, passengers reeling back, conductor desperately pulling at the brakes as brain matter slid down the window.

The train ground to a stop.

Akira stared, a fingernail cracking from the force of her clenched fist. Akechi choked, outstretched hand twitching. Passengers on the train stood clueless behind doors that wouldn't open, the crowds on the platform shrinking back into the corners like mold, and as the train ground to a stop, Akira heard the dead man gurgle.

The station burst into screams. Wardens ran past her with walkie talkies, people banged on the train doors, and the conductor stood motionless at the controls, tissue still dripping from the cracked glass. Where Akechi stared, a trail of stretchy orange back fat, dragged across the cement, stained the track. He didn't speak. She didn't speak.

It was like a wildfire in a coal mine, she thought. The kind that would burn forever and ever until it had burned a sinkhole right into the centre of the earth; but they were so far underground that Akira wondered if the smoke would even reach the surface- if the crowds at Shibuya crossing would even hear their screams.

Akira did not move much, but Akechi did. In fact, her legs dragged, but he tugged her along through throngs of desperate people and guards quickly moving to contain the hysteria. Before she knew it, they were on another line to a train station nearby, one she hadn't even seen the name of. The carriage was empty, the few passengers staring quietly at their phones or sleeping on their shoulders.

They sat in folded out seats, Akechi with his elbows on his knees, Akira staring straight forward. The train emerged from the tunnel, into the bright but busy outskirts of Tokyo. It went past too fast, and she didn't try and focus, eyes fixed on her and Akechi's elusive reflections, catching flashes of her own dazed expression as buildings passed by.

"Have you ever been to Tokyo before?" Akechi said quietly.

Akira saw the swinging handlebars in the reflection, all tilting in unison like the world was bending. "Once."

"Did you like it?"

"It was with school. Not much," she said. "I preferred the countryside."

"I've never lived in the countryside." Akechi's fingers shuffled through each other like a pack of cards. "Wanted to. Seems nice."

"I got a lot of stick for wearing piercings and dyeing my hair," she said. "They're a bit stuck in their ways."

"You wear piercings?"

"Not today." Akira felt heavy. "Thought it'd make a bad impression on you and Sojiro."

"I get you." Akechi nodded to himself. "Piercings are a bit brave, aren't they?"

"Not really."

"I know I don't have the guts." The noise that came out of his mouth was some attempt at a laugh. Without the full effort, it seemed a bit of a dull attempt, and his tone was raw like he'd been yelling. "Those guns scare me."

"I knew a girl who pierced her belly button herself with a needle and a potato."

"God, don't."

The train shuddered along, feeling as slow as ever, even as passing poles flickered by so fast it was like every stuttering shot of the passing scenery was a new frame in a film reel. With every frame, Akechi's expression didn't seem to move.

He stared. The roped handles, hanging down, twitched with the rattle of the carriage. A bird, hitchhiking absent-mindedly, circled the exitway. Its single eye caught Akira's, orange. It stilled.

"Look," she said. "It's looking at me."

"It's a bird. They do that." He sighed. "Look, it's a natural reaction. That wasn't - most people would be freaked out. There's nothing wrong with that."

Akira sneered. "Don't talk to me like I'm a child."

He held up his hands in surrender. "I'm sorry, I just - I've never seen anyone kill themselves before."

She sighed. She dearly wished that there was some easy exit to this conversation, but there didn't seem to be much of one, since they were hemmed in by the seething morass of humanity around them. So she just nodded, and Akechi seemed to understand that she didn't want to speak.

It was fortunate that the ride was over quickly, and they pushed through to step onto a thin concrete platform, this one comfortingly free of blood. The stone here was older - more smoothed by time and uncountable feet, like something well-worn and loved.

Akira couldn't help but relax a bit, now, particularly since it was only a short trip up the stairs into the fresh, almost rural air of Yongen-jaya. For the first time, Akira felt like a bit of Tokyo reminded her of home.

"This is the penal colony of Yongen-Jaya," Akechi said. She glanced over at him. He was grinning like an idiot; clearly, he thought he was hilarious.

"Not bad," Akira said, nodding and tapping her fingers on her arm. "That means I should just batter the first guy I see, right? That's how you're supposed to show that you're not to be fucked with."

The roads narrowed as they drew further from the train station, and every alley was tight with no space for anything but small service cars and bikes. There were bikes at every rack, some leant trustingly against shop windows, and restaurants squeezed between shops with small apartments above. Signs were strung between each side of the street; the shade made it cooler. Akira breathed out, adjusting her bag on her shoulder.

"Like it here?"

"I do." She breathed in and out, running a hand through her hair. One side of her head was shaved quite close to the scalp, the other long enough to tickle her earlobes, and for a moment she'd expected locks to weave their way through her fingers. It was prickly instead. It'd been a while since she'd had hair long enough to throw over her shoulder, but for a moment, she missed it.

"Speaking of… or, you know. Thinking of," Akechi said, cutting across the moment of her blinking at the strange sensation of short hair, "I didn't expect you to have hair like that."

"I haven't had it this short forever, you know."

"It's unusual, though. You never came across as… y'know."

Akira raised an eyebrow, striding ahead a little. "I do?"

"Yes. No- punk-rock. I never thought you'd be, uh, punk rock."

"I'm not."

"Very punk-rock of you to deny it. Are you an anarchist?"

"No, I burn virgins. Cut it out. Are we still in the era where we guess people's lifestyles from their hairstyle?" Akira looked at the crossroads, with several tilting winding streets speckled with hurried people looking entirely the same no matter how much she stared. "Do… you know the way from here?"

"Sure." Akechi motioned forward. "Just straight. We'll get there."

Akira frowned, putting her hands in her skirt pockets. "Will I get used to this?"

"As anyone gets used to anything. Work. Capitalism. Social isolation." Akechi snorted, finding himself very funny. Akira thought if he had the ability he might high-five himself. "No, yeah. You'll learn the way."

She didn't answer.

Tokyo's streets, despite how busy a town this was, were entirely free of litter. Just clutter, with clustered telephone poles and spotted traffic cones and a shady orange glow that reminded her of home. Not that she wanted to think about home - not about her parents, so quick to abandon her, or any of her milquetoast school friends who hadn't text her back since she got pulled into custody.

Akira ran her fingers across the shaven side of her head. Still coarse, like freshly cut grass. She bit her lip.

"This is a nice area of Tokyo, though," Akechi hummed, hands in his pockets and head thrown back a little. He was smiling, but Akira felt the jealousy in his words. "Rural, not too busy, but well-connected."

"Yeah," she said. "I'm grateful to be somewhere so nice, at least."

Akechi motioned to the left. "This is the place."

Leblanc was surprisingly pretty. The coffee shop was mainly wood decor, and benefited from its age through its shabbiness. Flowers hung in baskets, not too many. It was understated and warmly lit. Akira couldn't help but feel some sort of relief that the stranger she'd been thrown on was, in some regard, sophisticated.

For a moment, a bundle of pink and orange flowers reminded her of the brain matter from earlier. But then it didn't. She stopped thinking.

Akechi pulled her through the door, saying something to the old man sat reading the paper on a bar stool, and then she slid into a booth. Her knees felt awkward beneath it - legs gangly and long - and she stared at the table. Wood. Just varnished wood; drinks from years gone by had stained coffee coloured crescents into the table. A cloying, bitter coffee scent gamboled underneath her nostrils. The bar was well-organised. The man, however, was wearing a pink button-up and a scruffy apron, and had eyes perfect for his thick-lens glasses. He peered over them at her meaningfully.

"And you?"

She blinked. "Coffee?"

"Any kind?" he said. His voice had a low tenor and pleasant timbre to it, and she shook her head slowly. Brain matter. "House blend, then?" She nodded.

The man set himself to work, dispensing coffee beans and setting the water to boil. As he pottered away, Akira tried to focus on the prettiness around her, or at least conjure up something to say, but found herself drawing blanks. She stared at her nails, cuticles messy and varnish chipped away. She should have got them done before she'd come.

"A date at my coffee house, Akechi?" the man whistled, running the tap, dishes clattering. "I'm flattered. But if you don't take her somewhere more expensive, she's going to throw you out for a better model. Or at least somewhere classier, you know."

"I'd take all my dates here if I got any, sir."

"No wonder you don't get any, then. Who's this?"

"My date. I ordered her from the countryside. Very expensive hick, this one. Mail order bride."

"I'm not from the countryside," Akira said, rolling her eyes. "Nakano is just out of town."

"Middle of nowhere. Never heard of it. I bet you don't even have running water. Do you have to catch fish to survive?"

"Do you know how to make anything except instant noodles?"

"Nakano," the man behind the bar said, frowning. "You're from Nakano?"

"Yes. Just came today."

"Then…" he looked at his watch. "Was your train the one that's just come in? I heard there were delays. A suicide."

They both went quiet, but then Akechi lifted his chin, flashing a smile that was probably not worth a million yen, but at least a thousand. "I forgot to introduce you. Sakura Sojiro, this is Akira, your… lodger. And Akira, this is your minder. Or landlord- uh, Sakura-san."

Sojiro blinked slowly, crossing his arms. "Huh."

Akira stood up slowly, lifting up her bag with her and bowing a little at the hips. "Nice to meet you, Sakura-san."

"Sit down, your coffee is still on the boil. I'll be over in a second." He began to potter about behind the bar, and Akira exhaled slowly through her nose as she seated herself again. Akechi nodded reassuringly, smiling brightly.

He finished and plated two cups of coffee, serving them to Akira and Akechi both with a nod. She sipped it quickly, not so hot it did more than sear her lips a little, and the rich taste set her back a little. Akira blinked down at the creamy froth her lips had broken, surprised.

"It's really good."

"I know," Sojiro said. He gave Akechi a look. "And you?"

"As always sir, you simply cannot be beaten on coffee," Akechi beamed. "I told Akira as much."

Sojiro nodded, seemingly satisfied, and sat himself on the bar stool comfortably, lifting up the paper again. "When you're finished with your coffee, I'll see you to your lodgings."

Akira agreed, feeling strangely meek and nervous under the generous tenancy of a stranger. "I'm- very thankful."


For a quiet but comfortable moment between Akira and Akechi, they sipped tea and made small talk about the trains and the journey, until Sojiro spoke up.

"Did you two hear anything about that suicide?" He turned the page. "It was a very public affair, wasn't it? And it's thrown the schedule into disarray, of course. Typical. But it was just after you pulled in."

"Yes," she said. "We did."


"Saw it with our own two eyes, actually," Akechi said, smiling. "It was a really awful sight."

"Bad timing, huh? Sorry I asked." Sojiro hummed, closing the paper. The headline was irrelevant; of course, it must have simply passed here by word of mouth, Akira thought. "And that's some bad luck you have there to see that on your first day here."

"Yeah," Akira murmured. "Unlucky."

Akechi drank one last mouthful of coffee, setting down his cup and smiling. "Well. I'll be going back. I don't live too far from this neighbourhood, so I will see you both again. And you the day after tomorrow, Akira. Welcome to Tokyo."


"Come back anytime." The door jingled as he left, and Sojiro buried his hands in his pockets as he went to turn the sign over and close up. "So you're Kurusu Akira, then?"

"Yes." Akira had no idea what to say. Why hadn't she thought it over? She'd been worrying about meeting Akechi, even. Her minder even more, but it had slipped her mind after the- gore. Now she was here, dumb and intrusive. "Thank you for taking care of me."

"I'm going to set some ground rules, just to be clear," Sojiro said, coughing with some authority. "But come with me first."

He motioned her to the back of the shop, up some stairs and into a very dusty - but spacious - attic. "This is where you'll be staying. I'm around the corner, but circumstances make it so that you're going to be alone."

"That's fine." Was that a bike? Could she steal it? A bike sounded good.

"So," he said, straightening his spine and giving her a well-rounded stern look. "Ground rules. Rule one. No… parties. Don't cause noise up here. Don't do anything particularly weird in general, actually. This is a shop, and I need to stay in business."

"Yes sir."

"Rule two. I'm not going to give you pocket money. I do not have the money to pay for your clothes. You can get a job around here if you need something - do not go beating up children for it."


"Rule three. Go to school."


"Rule four. Don't talk to my customers."


"And…" Sojiro loosened, but his eyebrows knotted, and he rubbed his forehead, exhausted. "I am sorry about what you saw today. Whether you're a… delinquent or not, that stuff is frightening to hear about. Sorry you had to see it."

She swallowed. "Thank you, sir."

"We can talk more tomorrow. Be up and ready - we're going to your school. Also, rule five, no biker boys here. Other boys are okay. Other girls are welcome."

"Don't really know where I'd find a biker boy, sir."

"Okay, rule six, no sir. I'm not grey yet, you know."

"Yes ma'am."

"Cut it out. Be well dressed for tomorrow. And… how did you know that Akechi boy?"

Akira shrugged. "Just online."

"Did you know him before you were ousted here for assault?"


Sojiro sighed, rubbing his head. "The world is full of strange and uncanny coincidences. You get ready for bed. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Goodnight sir-"



As Sojiro descended the stairs and headed out, Akira glanced around the room. If she could clear some of the junk out of here, she'd have a desk, a couch, plenty of storage space, even room for a tv, on that table over there. This was plenty spacious. Not half bad, even if it was a little dusty.

It'd been a long day, so she made for what looked like the bed - a mattress that looked soft and halfway habitable in a room full of boxes and probably spiders, and only managed to take off her shoes before she fell asleep.

When she stepped down the stairs into the coffee shop, before that first day of school at Shujin, she wasn't quite prepared for Sojiro to be waiting with a dish full of steaming hot curry.

"Eat up," he said. "You're going to want it for today."

Akira wasn't quite sure what to say, so she brushed down the edges of her skirt, and nodded.

Sojiro walked back behind the counter, and placed the food and a fresh mug of coffee in front of one of the stools.

"I don't think I can afford to feed you three meals a day," he admitted. "I can promise twice, though. But it's going to be curry both times. I think once we get into a routine, and you've shown yourself to be a trustworthy, I'll show you how to make your own."

"Thanks," Akira said, between mouthfuls. It was fortunate that she didn't mind spicy. It was a lot like his coffee - quietly sophisticated, with a clear blend of strong flavor. "This is very good," she complimented.

Sojiro just stared at her, lips quirking slightly. It was gone too fast for her to be sure it was a grin, however.

"You'd best be hurrying to school as soon as you're done. I'll worry about the dishes, just for today. You don't want to be late," he said.

Akira nodded, and slipped the last bits of flavor into her mouth, washing it down with a few gulps of coffee.

"Alright," she muttered, checking over her uniform again - the black and red skirt and blazer combo, white turtleneck, and black suspenders seemed strange on her. She had to grudgingly admit it didn't look totally terrible, for a school uniform. And she got to wear her black boots, which were useful in case today turned ugly, and she needed to kick someone's face in.

"You look fine," Sojiro said. "Get going."

Akira hurried out the door, and back underground to catch the subway to Shibuya, where she knew she'd have trouble.

After a cramped ride, she stepped off the train, and glanced around. Someone bumped into her, and she started, quickening her pace to stay with the crowd, following the crush into the Shibuya subway station. She studiously avoided looking at the platform, not wishing to see blood splattered across it. She stepped up off the escalator, and scanned the signs - she needed - the Ginza line? That sounded right.

She rounded the corner, slipped her ticket into the machine, and then slid out the ticket gate. Here, she stopped and looked around again, in the open area. A juice stand stood in the center, and she found a corner and pulled out her phone.

No new messages. Tapping it open, she checked her conversation with Akechi. He hadn't sent her any new messages since last night. She scanned the chamber. He wasn't here. Did she have the wrong place? Wasn't this the station square?

Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a sign for the Ginza line, and a set of escalators behind it. Her stomach churned, and she felt the seconds ticking by. She didn't want to be late for her first day of school. Akira reached down, and pulled down her skirt, and then adjusted her glasses, sitting new and uncomfortable on her face. She glanced around one last time, and then set off for the escalators.

She rode up behind a sweaty-looking businessman, and then hooked a left past a homeless man to the stairs, chugging up them past through the loose crowd. At the top, she emerged out onto a cramped plaza, with a lottery stand, and a scraggly panhandler in front of the nearest building. Akira felt a quick stab of relief - this looked more like the place she was supposed to be.

She hurried across the plaza, eager to get out of the rain, and pressed herself against a fresh stone pillar, screens flashing through movie posters reflecting off her phone screen. Akira flicked through her home screen over and over, messages failing to buzz but not yet ready to message Akechi.

She looked around - he was definitely somewhere here, right? The way people flowed through one another seemed so choreographed and certain that she couldn't help but feel like she was the only uncertainty in a sea of people who knew exactly where they were going. Whenever Akira passed through Tokyo, even to visit, she always felt dwarfed by how people slipped by one another.

It was only as her panic was mounting that she felt the gentle pressure of a hand on her shoulder. She spun, wildly, one hand tucked into a fist and cocked for a blow, the other reaching up to the grab the lapels of...Akechi?

She relaxed, releasing him and unclenching her fist, letting it rest on the strap of her bag.

"Hey there," he said, reaching one gloved hand up to rub the back of his head. "Don't worry, it's just little old me."

"Hey," she said. "Way to sneak up on a girl."

Akechi smiled what Akira was quickly coming to realize was his trademark smile: too-wide and falsely cheerful, with just an edge of mockery.

"I'm sorry," he said. Akira didn't think he was sorry at all. "I didn't realize you had such violent tendencies."

Akira rolled her eyes, unwilling to show uncomfortable she was with how close to the truth he was. "Speaking from experience? You into the Sukeban type?"

"Well you're so tall, you'd fit right in." He smiled awkwardly. "We should head to the train, though. You don't want to be late for your first day."

"Of course," she agreed, smirking.

"This way," he said.

"Lead on, noble steed."

He just rolled his eyes.

Fifteen minutes later, they were stepping off the train into the pouring rain. She spotted a pair of girls in Shujin uniforms stroll past them, chattering under a clear plastic umbrella. Akechi sighed, and produced a plaid umbrella from seemingly nowhere. Akira honestly didn't know whether he'd had it on him before, because she hadn't seen it, and it didn't seem like it would fit in his Shujin bag. Still, she wasn't complaining.

They trudged away from the subway station, and through a thin alley, the water dripping down in a line. A boy with vibrant yellow hair and suspenders dangling from his belt dashed past them, holding his bag above his head to ward off the rain. Akira nimbly dodged out of the way of the splash he created.

Akechi, on the other hand, shouted, "Were you raised by wolves, Sakamoto?!"

The boy, Sakamoto, didn't say anything. He turned the corner of the alley, and disappeared from view.

"Dick," Akechi said.

"Yeah?" Akira asked.

"A bit." He didn't elaborate.

They rounded the same corner that Sakamoto had, and emerged out in front of Shujin Academy. Akira was as equally unimpressed as last time, and she climbed the rain-drenched steps under Akechi's umbrella, steeling herself. She could already see the stares as they came to the doors, and Akechi opened one of them, graciously holding it for her. She stepped in, gazing around and meeting the eyes of everyone who was looking at her.

"You're on your own from here," Akechi advised, his mouth twisting in amusement. "I'm off."

She just snorted, and adjusted her glasses, spotting the teacher who she'd been assigned to, Kawakami. She sauntered over to where Kawakami was chatting with the blonde boy from earlier, Sakamoto.

She looked up as Akira approached. As soon as their eyes met, Kawakami visibly sagged, deflating like she was a balloon that had just been popped.

Akira didn't let it faze her. "Kawakami-sensei. I think I'm supposed to meet up with you?"

"Yeah," the teacher said. "Fine. Sakamoto, I'll talk to you after school. Kurusu, with me." He gave Akira a strange look, and then slouched off. Kawakami briskly steered off in the opposite direction, leaving Akira to trail along afterward. "Why did they stick me with her? She's clearly trouble. I mean, I'm not a senior teacher or anything. I don't know what to do with a delinquent like her." She sighed.

Akira didn't think it was wise to comment, particularly because she wasn't sure that Kawakami knew that she could hear. So she instead pushed up her glasses again and glared daggers at all the students they passed, since evidently word had gotten around. They were eyeing her and whispering, the topics of their conversation obvious.

Someone had told them that the new transfer student was a girl with a criminal record, and they were all amazed at how well she fit the bill. Well, she could probably say goodbye to her friendship with Akechi, then.

Kawakami led the way to the staff room on the second floor, and sat her down with the same dogged disinterest.

"I'll be your homeroom teacher, so you'll start the day with me. We're in room 2-D. Here's your timetable. Any questions?"

Akira wasn't sure if she wanted to ask any, so she just shook her head. Kawakami didn't wait around for her to change her mind, and after a brisk walk, she found herself in front of a class full of wildly staring students.

Kawakami introduced her, "Quiet down! This is our new transfer student, Kurusu Akira. Please introduce yourself, Kurusu. Don't say anything embarrassing."

Akira turned back to the class. and said, "Hi. I'm Kurusu Akira. I moved here because I'm on probation for assault. I look forward to you all staring at me behind my back, but refusing to look in me in the eyes all year." She gave a little bow, for emphasis.

Kawakami just rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Go sit behind Takamaki, in the open seat by the window."

Akira trudged forward, to the seat behind the second Shujin student she saw with blonde hair this morning. This girl, however, looked like a natural blonde, with clear blue eyes that complimented her very fair complexion. Her face was still distinctly Japanese, with a pert nose and round eyes.

Akira was also privately impressed that this girl wasn't currently being sent home for dress code violations - she was wearing a white hoodie under her blazer, and bright red tights. Akira was pretty sure neither of those things were allowed.

She was one of the few in the class who weren't openly staring; she grinned at Akira, and raised her eyebrows as she walked past. Akira wasn't entirely sure what that was about, but at least one person in the class appeared as if they were willing to talk to her.

What a frustratingly low bar to set. Still, Takamaki wasn't bad-looking, and Akira didn't think that getting to know her would be a huge chore.

Takamaki proved to be the most interesting person in her class. The other girl didn't seem to be paying much attention - instead, she seemed to be giggling to herself as she scrawled something in her notebook. No one else was really of note - they all sat there, shooting Akira furtive looks out of the corner of their eyes, or when they didn't think she was looking.

Akira admitted that she'd have given a great deal to know exactly what Takamaki was so furiously scribbling, but she didn't want to risk Kawakami's ire so openly on the first day of school by leaning over to see - it would be very obvious to anyone looking at her, and there certainly was no shortage of anyone like that this morning.

This set the course for the day, and Akira spent it in something of a daze - her previous school hadn't covered the material exactly the same way, so she had to catch up in some places, and could snooze through others. Akira slouched back in her chair, eyes half-lidded for most of her classes. She'd gotten out a notebook, and scribbled a note or two down, but she wasn't really all that motivated to take notes, and her efforts petered off quickly.

Finally, they ended up back with Kawakami, who taught Japanese, until the last fifteen minutes of the lesson, when Kawakami abruptly stopped teaching kanji, and instead changed the subject.

"Alright, class," she said. "Due to the wave of suicides recently across Japan, the government has instituted a program of suicide awareness in all schools. Since I'm your homeroom teacher, we'll be covering that in this class."

Akira was surprised - though she probably shouldn't have been. She hadn't seen anything about an upswing in suicides in Japan, but, then again, she'd witnessed one the day before yesterday.

Up front, Kawakami looked less than confident for the first time today - she'd been standing up, moving across the blackboard as the lesson progressed; now, she collapsed into the chair behind her desk at the front of the classroom.

She leaned forward, and continued, "Look, I'm going to be honest. They gave us guidelines, a whole big speech - but I don't want to lecture you. It boils down to this: You are not alone. None of you. If you feel like things are hopeless, or you just need someone to talk, please come see me. I'm available for you.

"If you don't want to speak to me, I can find someone for you to talk to. I get it, I've never felt like that, but I promise you I won't judge you." She stood up and gestured to the door. "You all can head out early today. Think about it." Then she sat back down.

Akira got up, feeling off-put by the forwardness her first day. She gathered her things, and got up to go find Akechi, but when she walked by Takamaki's desk, the girl's hand shot out to stop her.

She looked over, and Takamaki's face was split into a wide grin, teeth showing.

"Hi there! You look new and interesting, so let's hang out! Wanna go get crepes in Shibuya? I know the best place, and you absolutely have to go." She leaned forward, eyes gleaming, delicate hand pressing on Akira's bare wrist. "What do you say?"

"Oh," Akira said, feeling overwhelmed. "I actually, uh, have plans. Sorry." When Takamaki's face fell, she hastened to add. "But I'd love to. Another day."

"Sure thing," the other girl said, not looking insulted in the slightest. "I'm busy tomorrow, but I'll be free the day after?"

"It's a date," Akira said.

"It sure is," Takamaki said. "See you, then." She sauntered off.

Akira watched her go, feeling like Shujin had better stop surprising her for today. She'd about had her fill.

Stepping out into the hallway revealed Akechi leaning against part of the stairwell, bag resting against his feet. She walked up, feeling the curl in her gut.

"Hey," she offered, tentative.

"Fancy seeing you here," he said. "Still want to go to Leblanc?"

"I see how it is," Akira countered. "You're just using me for my coffee connections."

"You've figured me out. I have a bone to pick with you, though." He said, as he stepped off the wall, and led the way down the stairs towards the exit.

"Yeah?" she asked as they walked. The staring and whispering was as bad as ever, and the sinking feeling in her gut was even worse.

"I didn't realize you were such a notorious criminal. And you even come to school, like the rest of us." She risked a glance over at his face. He was smirking that mocking smirk, but that was nothing new.

"Yeah," she admitted. "That's a thing. No idea how everyone knows, but it is a thing."

"Well, you have street cred now. No one will mess with you, definitely."

Akira sighed. "Sorry I didn't mention it. I was hoping to live in anonymity for at least a day."

Akechi's smile stretched painfully fake. "The teachers would have known, obviously. Maybe it was one of them?"

"I guess. Why would they, though?"

"Perhaps they were angry that you were allowed to come to this school in the first place," he suggested.

"Who here knows me well enough yet to hold a grudge? Kawakami was rude, but there's rudemess, and then there's malicious rumor-spreading," she countered.

He shrugged. "I don't know much about her. But you never know, you might have fallen for her act." She sighed. There was no use speculating - everyone already knew, and there was nothing she could do to change that.

"Let's just get out of here," Akira said, pulling her bag up over her shoulder and breathing out through her nose.

"Oh, I've actually got quite a sudden hankering for a cup of coffee."

She snorted. "You're a whore."

He shrugged. "I just know my price, darling."

When they stepped out of the front door of the school, it took Akira a moment to realize that they were in the wrong place. She'd only been through here a few times, but the front steps of the school usually led to a street, not to a vertigo-inducing drop stretching far below, the bottom obscured in mist. Was this the back building? Did they not use this bit?

"Akechi!" she said. "Is this the, uh- the back building? Is the abyss a like, built in part of it, or am I staring at a… sinkhole?"

"That's not - what?" he asked. He turned to her. "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

"Isn't there supposed to be a street here?"

"There is. There definitely was the morning. This is something else. I don't think we're in Aoyama-Itchome anymore, Akira," he said.

"Who the hell calls it that?" she muttered. Still, he wasn't wrong. She turned back to look at Shujin, and her mouth fell open. Almost absentmindedly, she patted Akechi's arm.

"You're gonna want to look at this."

Stretching upwards in front of them was an enormous edifice of bottle-green glass, misshapen and unnerving, like some enormous monster had clawed its way upwards, and left green trails that solidified in its wake. At the base of this, they stood, gazing up, up, up, until the top was shrouded in wispy cloud, a dead ringer for the mist that obscured her vision when she looked down.

"Wha - oh," he said. "Oh, my."

"How?" she asked. "We were inside there just a minute ago. How can the world go from totally normal to absolutely insane just like that?"

"I've got no clue," Akechi said. "Should we look around, see what's inside?"

"It's not like we can go anywhere else," she said. Looking around, as far as the eye could see, she could spot crooked, tilting skyscrapers, windows gone, looking burned out and husked, rising intermittently from the mist below, like enormous headstones in some nameless, primordial graveyard.

"No," Akechi said, laughing rather hysterically. "No, I don't suppose we can."

Akira stepped back towards the building - it didn't seem like a school, not anymore - and took a tentative step forward. She glanced back to make sure that he was coming along with her, before continuing up to the imposing edifice. Oddly enough, it had expensive-looking glass doors, the kind with shiny, gold-plated handles. Akechi was polite enough to hold the door for her, and they stepped into a long hallway, with a bright light shining at its end.

The interior of the tower was filled with what looked like cold stone, a darker green than the glass outside. They walked in silence, their footsteps echoing, for a few minutes, before they emerged out onto a small platform, in the middle of a massive chamber. It was roughly the size of her room at Leblanc, but without railings, the platform seemed perilous. There were hundreds of paths, latticing up and down the tower, splitting and branching and moving up and down, maze-like.

She stepped over to the side of the platform, and got a dizzying sense of vertigo. The thin platforms looked slick, and Akira shuddered. If she looked, she could see dark shapes wandering up and down, across the paths, both upwards and downwards. At the bottom, the many platforms honeycombed into mist. Looking upwards, the top was obscured by a bright light, shining from above.

"Nope," Akechi said, tapping his foot. "This isn't weird or creepy at all, no ma'am."

"I'm a bit old to be a ma'am," Akira remarked, tone dry. She stared at the three glass paths before them, thin and shimmering.

"Right. What the fuck is this place? Why aren't we in Shujin right now?" Akechi asked, the slightest bit of hysteria creeping into his voice.

"Don't worry," she said. "I am, after all, a big bad criminal. I'll protect you."

He forced a smile at her, and she took what she could get. There really wasn't much else to do, other than forge onward, so she picked a path and took it.

She walked, Akechi behind her, up and down in a zigzag until it just ended abruptly. A dead end, then. Looking back, she could see the pipe that led to the center of the room, looking out of place because of the way it was fully enclosed.

"This is not just me, right?" he asked. "This is real, isn't it?"

"I don't know," she admitted. "I've never seen anything like this place before. I've never even heard of anything like it before. It's like we've slipped into another world, or another dimension, somehow."

Akechi said, "Let's go back."

He led the way all the back to the center platform, and then through the strange tunnel, to the door, and looked outside. Akira trailed silently behind him. There was nothing different outside - only that haunted, endless horizon of blown-out buildings, and looming, endless mist.

"What do we do?" Akira asked.

"I don't - we have to get out of here. But I don't see an exit."

"An exit?" The voice that cut in was horrifying, in that it wasn't really a voice at all - instead, it was two voices, talking in sync, the chords making what would have been average sinister. Akira started.

Turning around, she saw a man - but that was the only thing she could definitively say about him. He was a shifting mass of person - first a businessman, then an athlete, then a Diet member, and on and on. All positions of wealth. But he didn't seem to be any one of them. Or perhaps, he was all of them at once.

"What the…?" Akechi whispered.

"There is no exit," the man said, sounding baffled. "You can't get out. Why would you want to get out? You haven't seen her yet."

Akira was backing away, slowly. This was wrong. Everything about it was wrong. This man was wrong. The way he spoke was wrong. The building in which they now stood was impossible and yet it wasn't wrong like this man was.

"We need to go, Akechi," she said, her legs itching to run, far, far away.

"Go? Go where?" he laughed, an edge of hysteria creeping into his voice. Akira didn't dare look at him.

"Not yet," someone said, but she couldn't tell who it was - she couldn't look away now, not from this wrong man and his wrongness.

"You can't go," the man said, and then he was there, in front of her, hands around her neck, pinning her to the wall. "YOU CAN'T GO!"

"Run," she tried to gasp to Akechi, but she couldn't get the words out. She struggled, tried to kick him, but nothing could budge the cold iron grip he had on her neck.

Akechi didn't heed her - instead, he swung his bag directly onto the man's head - the swing looked impressive, and it must have been plenty of force - but the man didn't stagger. Instead, he only gripped tighter.

Her vision swam, and the edges seemed to darken.

"There," that voice said again. "You want it, right?" Akira didn't have the breath to speak, but the voice seemed to understand her anyway. "Of course you do. You practically burn with it. The desire to stop this - to stop all of it. That's why you fractured that man's skull, back in your hometown. You don't believe in their rules. You want to make your own."

Of course she wanted that.

"Good," the voice said. "Let's start. To make this contract, use everything you have. Call my name. With everything you posses, with the dying inch of your breath, call out to me. Call. My. Name."

Akira twitched, thrashing against the man's grip long with all of the strength she possessed, long enough to gasp it out.

"I am thou, thou art I."

A wind, howling, blew. Akira couldn't track where it came from, but the man released his grip, letting her down and punching her across the face. She could hear Akechi charge him in the background, and her glasses shatter, but oddly enough, her face didn't hurt. Instead, she looked up, and noticed that the weight was still on her face. She reached up, and her hands hit cool metal.

A - domino mask? What? Akira felt drunk, but she knew she needed to take it off. It wasn't right, either. She grabbed one end, and the mask didn't give. She tore, and then her face tore, the pain burning white-hot across her eyes, blood drizzling down her cheeks. She needed to get it off, and it was going to hurt, but she gritted her teeth and ripped it all the way. It was pure agony, and she opened her eyes again to see that Akechi and the man had stopped struggling.

Instead, they were looking at her in fear. Then, the power came, pouring into every inch of her, sticky and warm and oozing, like hot fudge. Her skin burned with purple fire, raging, consuming her until she was covered in it, and there was another - thing - person? there with her. She could feel its warm presence, like a comforting old friend.

And then she could see, through its - her eyes, then, and heard her mouth say, "I am Ching Shih, pillager of nations, of fleets, and," her mouth turned into a grin, "of hearts."

She felt the bubbling grow stronger, hotter, and then she was raising one slim, long-fingered hand tinged in ghostly purple, and then something rose up from the ground and consumed the man, like fingers grasping up from an unspoken hell.

He screamed, once, and then vanished. The power abruptly left, then, deflating like a balloon that had just had a very tiny hole - not so much it popped, but just enough to drain it slowly.

And then she was laying there, on the ground, all power gone. Exhausted. Akechi came over, and offered her a hand up. She took it, numbly.

"And here after the criminal record thing, I thought you were outta surprises," he said, tone light and eyes twinkling.

Akira gave a choked laugh. "Trust me, I have no idea what that shit was."

"Let's get out of here," he said. "If we try to go back out the doors, maybe we can return to the real world."

"Sure," Akira agreed. It wasn't guaranteed to work, but then again, nothing was. They stumbled out towards the door, Akechi supporting Akira, and the moment that he pushed the door open -

-it was sunshine again, and they were standing in front of Shujin, the noise and bustle of the city returning. The light drizzle that the morning's rain had become felt like a gift of life.

Akira breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good. We're out of the horrifying hell-dimension now."

"Yes. And you've stopped summoning huge pirate demons," Akechi said, his tone light.

"And there aren't any creepy faceless men around trying to kill us."

"And you're not dressed like you're in a future-retro pirate outfit from the 19th century. Cool overcoat, but a bit dramatic, honestly."

Akira stopped, and stared at Akechi. "What on earth are you talking about?"

Akira examined herself. She was wearing her regular school uniform, a blazer over a pleated skirt, with long socks. "No. I didn't."

"Huh. Well, it was very stylish," he said, quietly.

"I don't think I ever want to go back there again," Akira admitted.

"Yeah. I think 'what the fuck?' about covers my feelings on that place."

They lapsed into a silence then, and she marveled that there was something between them now that there wasn't before - some bond, of living through that insane nightmare that they're just walked out of. They struggled over to a bench, and sat there, catching their breath.

After she'd begun to feel slightly more human again, Akira asked, "You still want to ride the train back to Leblanc?"

Akechi eyed her. "I thought you said we were done with the horrifying hell-dimension for today. No more trains."

"Leblanc- oh. You mean the subway." She forced a chuckle. "Fair. Offer's still open, but I'd get it if you want to crash or something instead."

"What the hell," Akechi said. "Why not. I could use some of old man Sojiro's dickishness."

"Cool. I don't know if I want to ride the subway alone," Akira admitted. It felt like too much in too short of a time - first the suicide the other day, now this.

"I don't blame you."

It was only later, when she staggered up the stairs to her cluttered, unfinished room, looking forward to nothing more than collapsing into bed fully dressed that it happened: she pitched herself forward, and it was only halfway down that she realized that there was something already in it.

"Hey!" the white cat screeched.

"No," Akira said. "That's my bed. Go away, cat. I'm too tired for this."

"Please," the cat said, remarkable golden eyes piercing into her. "It's imperative that I must speak to you, Kurusu Akira."

"And it's imperative I go to bed, because I'm done with this bullshit today. If you really want to tell me so bad, tell me in the morning. And don't hog the covers."

And then, without waiting for a reply, Akira slipped under the covers, rolled over, and fell promptly asleep.

A/N: Cowritten with my girlfriend ijnt, and posted on AO3 and Spacebattles under ijnt and hellequin respectively.

Do you prefer waffles or pancakes? Personally, I think waffles are far more portable and therefore superior.