AN: I'm aware that Oregairu Anthologies established the Yukinoshita business as a construction company, but here I've changed it to a tech conglomerate to make them slightly more high profile. You'll see why in the fic- seeing as this is an AU I didn't think it was too obnoxious a change.

This chapter was a bit of juggling act, especially with exposition. The previous chapter established the story's main arc, but there's a lot of plot and character work I have to introduce for said arc to really hit home. Getting across that info and keeping it engaging was a pretty difficult balance to maintain.

EDIT: Realised that Isshiki not using a fake name to get into the gala was a small plot hole, so I've altered that. Her and Hachiman's plan is still to pose as brothers, but they're not using the Isshiki name.


A Doll's Eyes

Chapter 3- Friends and Monsters

Hachiman isn't drunk upon returning to his apartment, but that doesn't take long to remedy.

It's well into the small hours of the morning, almost 2:30 AM, and the personal investigator doesn't need telling he won't get any sleep. The interrogation of Nakatani Yasuo had descended into incoherence. He was escorted out of the room, away from the rapist and his poisonous words, barely hearing the Chief Inspector's urgent remarks.

"Go home, Hikigaya-kun," he'd ordered. "You might not be on my payroll, but go home. I'll have Sakiyama call you tomorrow. By then, I'll have figured out how the fuck we're gonna play this…"

He snorts, taking out a four pack of Asahi and collapsing onto his couch. There's only one to play this, and that's his way. I've got 31 days. 31 days before… before…

Half of the first beer can disappears within minutes. His mind jumps from memory to memory and his heart from one suppressed guilt to the next like an adulterer between lovers. It's dark in his apartment, the way he usually prefers it, but tonight it just feels oppressive. Oppressive and cold.

The first can of beer drops to the ground. Hachiman rubs his eyes, trying to force reason through the intemperate mix of panic and, now, alcohol. It won't help him to think, but in this moment he wants to numb feeling more than thought.

No, I… I can't just sit here and do nothing. That's just playing into their hands. Why else would they come out of their hole and confront me, after all this time?

He nods, sitting up, allowing the thoughts to form. They want to provoke me. They're trying to send me over the edge, so my questions become redundant. Jab at me until I'm harmless, like a dancing bear on a chain. That's the plan. That's why they're… that's why they're threatening-

There are few things Hachiman has buried deeper than the memories of his old friend. The girl who, once upon a time, had been his club president. But the connection between them was one that he'd lost long ago. Or, put more accurately, one that he'd wrecked beyond all repair.

The second can of Asahi is opened, and then downed.

There is an incorrigible truth whispering to him. Namely, that every second of the next 31 days have taken on a value, an importance, that far exceeds that of all the previous seconds in his life.

How much time does a person waste in an average day? How many hours does a high-schooler waste on their phone? How many does an undergraduate spend procrastinating their essay? How many does he, Hikigaya Hachiman, spend running from what came before?

If, at the end of the month, he finds that too many of those seconds have been wasted, and that monster's threats have come to fruition-

No. I can't let that happen. Not even in my thoughts. Not even once.

A guttural sound emerges from his throat, and he rises from the couch clumsily, pushing his way towards his desk. The personal investigator kneels down and produces the case file on Yamanishi Koen, the one he'd started at the age of eighteen.

After slamming it down on the desk, he rifles through it at top speed, absorbing the details as if he didn't know them off by heart already, like an actor knows the works of Shakespeare. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, he thought, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.

Will that be the story of the next month too? One of sound and fury, signifying nothing? I owe it to Yukinoshita Yu… to her, to make sure it ends with something other than tragedy. Tragedy, and pointlessness.

He can't afford to be a character in someone's else plot. Their plot. He has to make them a player, an accessory, in his.

But even as he reads the pages over and over again, and sees how 74 corpses have been found there since 2001, and all the other details, it becomes clear with an unanswerable authority that he's clueless. Clueless as he's always been.

The investigator struggles to see what path to take. If his faculties were under control, the logical steps might present themselves, the precautions that even Kudou would adhere to, but in this moment they evade him. Things are too muddled. The past and present too intertwined.

Hachiman grabs a third can of Asahi, hoping it will absorb everything he's feeling, but the onslaught of beer only deepens the murkiness. His usual tolerance for alcohol, built up from drinking too much of it, seems to have abandoned him.

He slides into the deskchair, the words in the file becoming nothing more than a hundred meaningless scrawls. Yamanishi, corpse, 31, Yukinoshita… the different elements begin to converge, and through them he sees one particular memory explode into prominence.

They're walking towards Yamanishi Koen. Him, and the Service Club. They're talking about whatever it was they used to talk about, laughing over the jokes they used to make. The night is illuminated by a bowl of stars and a burnished moon. They're approaching the trees. Approaching what happened.

They mention the rumours about the park. The stories of the Chiba suicide forest. They laugh some more, dare some more, and find themselves heading through the gate.

The darkness becomes absolute amidst the density of trees. Their branches twist perversely at the three teenagers, eighteen years old, subjecting themselves to a future they remain unaware of. Hachiman whispers at the younger version of himself, warning him to turn back, to avert the person he will one day become.

The warning goes unheeded. They notice the blind sputter of a torch, its beam of light cutting through the shadows. They approach it, the overhanging tree. His club president goes first, ahead of them.

She sees it first. The corpse, hanging there like a crooked extension of the tree itself. She screams. He and Yuigahama's eyes widen with terror.

And in the confusion that follows, his club president sees something else. Someone fleeing the scene. The murderer.

"I thought… I thought I saw…"

Those were her words. Yukinoshita Yukino's words. After they'd called the police, after the body had been cut down. She hadn't mentioned it in her witness statement; she doubted whether she'd seen it at all.

But the club president had told him in private. That in the fear, the confusion, there might have been a person there, shifting in the darkness. Her words had planted something inside the eighteen year old Hachiman. A question, toxic and infectious, that spread over his mind like a fungus.

Time and time again, when faced with a choice between friends and family, normality and comfortable nights, Hachiman has chosen the opposite. He's prioritised the question, the pursuit of it, to the alternative.

He imagines the Yamanishi Koen killer, a faceless nothing in his head, leaning over his shoulder. They're here. Alone with him. In the apartment.

They smirk. Their eyes are soulless and black. The eyes of a doll.

He hears them whisper in his ear. "You still haven't figured it out, have you? What I am…"

Hachiman spins his head around. There's no one there. Of course there isn't.

Shit… The beer hasn't done its job. The question repeats itself with an insistent fury, and Hachiman feels desperation strike at his core. He needs to hear a noise other than the the silence of the room. Other than the frenzied dashing of his thoughts.

The investigator rubs his eyes, stands up again shakily, heads over to the corner of the apartment. He has a music speaker, one that isn't used very often; silence has often proved itself the key to a puzzle's solution. The necessity of a distraction has him slide a CD into the tray, a loud and obnoxious metal record, and turn it up to full volume.

It's rhythmic, turgid and exactly the senseless noise he needs. Heavily distorted guitars grunt through a wall of drums. Hachiman went through a time where metal music had been something of an outlet for him. Not as much anymore. But tonight, if it helps…

He feels his way to a fourth can of beer, and then back to the couch. The vocalist's neanderthal-like growls lug him into a place he scarcely recognises. The beer swells on his tongue and the apartment, at last, starts to spin.

Minutes tick by with increasing speed. The metal record blares. The second four pack of Asahi appears without warning at his feet. Hachiman coughs, his throat suddenly sore.

Th- this is what they want… This is perfect for them…

The investigator's dead fish eyes are beginning to close. They are almost fully shut when he realises someone is knocking on his apartment door.

The voice of his neighbouring apartment rings out. "Turn the fucking music off! It's past 3 in the morning!"

He ignores the shouting, which persists for awhile. Soon enough, it fades out, leaving him alone with the music still at full volume. He thinks they've given up, but then the knocking comes again, less insistent this time.

"Hachiman… Hachiman, open up."

He vaguely recognises the tone of Kawasaki. Groaning, she receives no reply.

"This is my apartment, you idiot. I have a spare key."

"…"

"Fine. Have it your way-"

"Wait… wait."

Hachiman stumbles off the couch and switches off the speaker. The music cuts out. "Happy now?"

"You should have that guy evicted, Kawasaki-san," comes the voice of his neighbour, furious. "Some of us have work in the morning-"

"Oh fu- fuck off," he slurs. "Just fuck off, whatever your name is."

He hears the beginning of a shout; then Kawasaki trying to placate it. Some more grumbling; then the sound of a door, the neighbouring apartment's door, slamming shut. The intolerable silence returns, leaving him almost relieved to hear his landlady's voice, angrier that it's ever been.

"I swear, Hachiman. If you don't open up right now, I really will have you evicted."

He gives in, stumbling to the door. Kawasaki is one of the few people he listens to, or trusts, or cares about; something along those lines. That has to count for something.

The key finds its way into the lock. His landlady is standing outside, her hands on her hips, wearing a dressing gown the same light blue colour as her hair. The bags under her eyes are obvious; he's woken her up. He's woken up half the block.

"You better have a good explanation for this-"

"Kawasaki."

The mere sight of a face, a familiar face, prompts an overriding surge of relief. Hachiman can only stare at her, lost for words, trying to keep his footing against the beer's imbalance. Cool night air rushes over his skin. Kawasaki sees how drunk he is and groans again, but that only reassures him that's she tangible. Real.

He zeroes in on her, allowing her to become the strongest link between him and the real world. His apartment had taken on the complexion of a different place, an internalised reality where only he existed.

Kawasaki is stood in her dressing gown. Her eyes are tired and exasperated but unmistakably human. Not black. Not doll-like. Not the eyes of a monster.

"Damn it Hachiman, how much have you had to drin… oh."

She's cut off. Hachiman has already pulled her into his arms.

It's immediate and almost reflexive- the simple reaching out of a person who feels like they're at the mercy of the current. Everything inappropriate about it doesn't register to him. He just needs reassurance. The presence of another human.

"Kawasaki, I… I don't know…"

"What?" She all but squeaks, her anger evaporating in the embrace. She stands there stiffly, his arms wrapped around her shoulders, his face buried in the crook of her neck.

"Help me… I don't know what to do…"

The awkwardness persists, but soon Kawasaki realises that the drunkenness, the music, the obnoxious behaviour, are all the actions of someone who needs her help. A friend who needs her help. An idiotic one, perhaps most frustrating she's ever known, but a friend all the same.

She holds him back, trying to be comforting. "Alright, ah… let's get you inside, yes? Does that sound alright…? Hachiman?"

He doesn't make a sound, still leaning heavily on her shoulder, still breathing loudly. Seeing her cue, she navigates herself out of the hug and, holding him up, guides him back into the apartment.

Hachiman coughs through the alcohol. The helplessness is beginning to feel more like exhaustion. His limbs seem as if they're being weighed down by manacles. The warmth of Kawasaki's body, the fabric of the dressing gown and the vague smell of lavender from her hair become the things that keep him conscious.

"Damn it, how much have you had to drink… I've never seen you like this before."

"Kawa… Kawasaki…"

At some point, he's laid down on his bed. At some point, the exhaustion grows and forces his eyes to close. He hears whispers of comfort in the darkness that sound like his landlady. The lavender smell in his nostrils, real or not, remains like the pronouncement of a dream.

Tomorrow and tomorrow… and tomorrow…

His last thought before falling asleep is that he no longer has 31 days to save Yukinoshita Yukino's life. Only 30.


It's the interrogation room. The place where'd he sat, Nakatani Yasuo across from him, the members of the criminal investigation department staring on. The nightmare has distorted it beyond all recognition; there is no door, no escape, and the person sitting in front of him is not Nakatani Yasuo.

He tries to move, to stand up, to get away, but his hands and feet are tired to the chair. The light hanging from the ceiling above is brighter than the sun, casting a long shadow over the person opposite. He sweats, struggles, shifts, and can't break free. The binds are too tight.

The person chuckles. The voice is neither masculine nor feminine, and of a sickly texture like curdled milk.

"Konbanwa, Hikigaya Hachiman."

"S- stay away from me," he gasps. "Stay away."

"Why would I do that? All these years you've been asking, begging to meet me again, and now you tell me to leave?"

They lean forward, and half of their face appears in the light. The flesh is rotting and grotesque, the eyes black. "If I didn't know you so well, I'd be insulted."

"Know me?"

"Of course. Deep down, I think you've always known too. Who we are. Where we're going."

"I… I don't…"

"Don't be silly, Hachiman. I'm your monster. Yours, now and forever."

All of a sudden, he realises that the light above them isn't a light at all, but a noose. Dangling over their heads, waiting for the time when its use will be required, for one or both of them.

The interrogation collapses like a paper house, and trees grow from seed to maturity in the space of seconds around them. One creaks and bends, reaching over the top, and the noose fastens itself upon it with a slow, mournful inevitability.

Hachiman and the monster stare at the noose. The trees of Yamanishi Koen encroach upon them, thicker and thicker, like Birnam Wood to Dunsinane.


30 Days Remaining

He wakes up with a splitting headache, overly warm and painfully hungry.

His curtains are open. Early morning sunlight spills over the features of his bedroom. The investigator can't remember the last time his curtains weren't drawn. Seeing his duvet, his bed, and his single wardrobe in the light is shocking enough.

Then there's the aroma of cooking wafting in from the kitchen. Cooking. Actual cooking. Egg and miso soup.

Hachiman blinks, trying to acquiesce these out of place details into a picture that makes sense. Waking up with a hangover is, bizarrely, the most normal thing here. Smelling anything other than beer or instant ramen is a small miracle.

When unwanted memories of the night before return, the prospect of a cooked breakfast is almost enough to dull their sting. Almost.

It must be Kawasaki. She stayed over, and now she's making me breakfast. He rubs his eyes as the embarrassment of his actions take hold; waking people up at 3 in the morning, waking Kawasaki up, and then invading her personal space out of some pathetic need for comfort.

The day's barely started and I already have an apology to make. Brilliant.

Only that's the least of his worries. Apprehensively, Hachiman reaches over to his bedside table for his phone. It isn't there; he never got undressed. He curses, takes it out of his pocket and then sees the text. The pendulum clock. The reminder of the task before him.

30 days.

It's from a different unknown number, but still local to Chiba. Hachiman clenches his fist, staring at the two blinking digits as if they would reveal all the secrets he needs.

Sobriety lends him the strength to turn fear and self-doubt into courage. He makes an internal promise. A promise addressed just as much to a woman whose life, completely unbeknownst to her, has been put on the line. It was desperately unfair and desperately cruel, but something told him the Yamanishi Koen killer wasn't the type for mercy.

I can't have anymore nights like that. No more squandered time. I have to be the person that the Chiba Police think I am. That Yukinoshita Yukino needs me to be.

He sits up on the bed, rids his eyes of sleep and tries to ignore the roar of his hangover. Accompanied by the morning sun was the closest thing he could get to optimism, in a situation so devoid of it as to be painful.

In many ways, I could take it as a second chance. Wasn't guilt part of why I cared so much about Yamanishi Koen in the first place?

Hachiman blinks at the realisation. Apparently, it takes the threat of death for him to truly understand his feelings. Regret. Was that really what drove him, all this time? The simple regret for throwing away a connection with two people, two club mates, that he'd taken into his heart like few others?

Perhaps I should see this as a second chance. Perhaps I should see it as having 30 days still to come, not 30 days left…?

The glass half-full doesn't sit well with him- it never has- but in this moment he'll take all the motivation he can get. First, he has to apologise to Kawasaki, and thank her for being there when he needed her most. Then, he has lives to save, and maybe, just maybe, mistakes to set right.

The personal investigator rises, following the smell of breakfast out of the room.

The sight of Kawasaki in an apron, and in his kitchen no less, would be disconcerting and more than a little suggestive in different circumstances. Recalling the way he'd held her last night, desperate and overwhelmed, has him wincing.

Her eyebrows are scrunched in conversation, not noticing him standing in the doorway as a result. Only once the eggs are ready does she turn, see him there and nearly jump out of her skin.

"Shit… At least say something, idiot."

He scratches his head uncomfortably. "My issue was figuring out where to start."

"… Well, 'good morning' would do nicely. And then 'I'm sorry', with an ultra sincere 'please don't throw me out' to seal the deal."

Were it not for the embarrassment, Hachiman might've smirked. "… I'm sorry. And I really mean that. It's not often I cover myself in glory, but last night was… well, you know what it was like. And I'm sorry, for… I'm rambling aren't I?"

"Yep." She averts her eyes. "Wish I could accept that apology."

"I d- didn't do anything too inappropriate, did I-"

"No. That's not what I mean. Sure, you took me by surprise, but we've all done stupid crap when we're drunk."

"You should've thrown me off. Told me to get lost, or something." He blinks. "Why didn't you?"

"Th- that doesn't matter," she says, flushing a little. "What I'm trying to say is that I can't accept your apology because… because you're not really apologising for that. You're apologising for relying on me. And that's not something you need to apologise for."

Sometimes he forgets that Kawasaki understands what it means to be self-sufficient- the strange expectation that comes with independence. They were both loners in high-school, and once you've learnt not to rely on others it becomes harder and harder to permit the alternative. Out of pride. Stupid, nonsensical pride.

'I don't need anyone else'. 'I'm better off alone'. How many times had they repeated that pitiful lie, in the hope it would come to bear some semblance of truth?

"Even so," he says quietly, "I asked too much of you. Staying over. Making breakfast. You didn't have to do any of that."

"Don't beat yourself up about it. If you'd really crossed the line, I wouldn't have stayed." She hesitates, and then looks at her feet. "But helping a… a friend. That's not something I'd do out of obligation. Hell, I don't have enough of them to be choosy about it."

Once again, he finds himself trying to ignore the peculiarly affectionate undertone to her voice, the insinuation in the breakfast she's made for him. Then there's the way the morning sun brushes over her pale blue hair, lands on her hips, turning her into a figure as sensuous as she is ill-suited.

Not least because of the month to come, Hachiman feels he has more of a reason to be responsible. Responsible in regards to himself and Kawasaki, or 'they', and whatever that designation has come to mean.

"We should probably eat," she says, gesturing to the miso soup. "It'll go cold."

They head into the main room and start the breakfast together on the couch. She removes the apron and, sober this time, Hachiman sees she must have changed her clothes while he was asleep. The dressing gown has been replaced by a pair of grey joggers and a thin white t-shirt.

It's the most casual he's ever seen her. The personal investigator has a hard time forgetting their closeness the previous night. Once more, the hint of lavender asserts itself from her direction, mixing with the smells of the breakfast like a strange composite perfume which, unexpectedly, exceeds the sum of its parts.

"… Is it good?"

"Yep. Unsurprisingly."

"Unsurprisingly?" She replies, a little taken back.

"You used to cook a lot for your siblings, right? If this is anything to go by, they had a lucky time growing up."

"… Flattery's not gonna help. I'm still not accepting your apology."

"Yeah, what's up with that? Seems to me like an unnecessary moral stance on what was basically just a thank you."

She snorts. "Sure it was. You just don't like the idea people are looking out for you."

"Well, when you put it like that…"

"… Guess I'm not really one to talk. It was weird for me too."

"What, that people cared?"

"Yeah. Or… or that you cared, really. After the divorce." Her voice lowers. "I still don't think you realise how much I appreciated that. And yeah, it's awkward as shit to say out loud, but no one's gonna say it unless I do."

"Ah… That's why you stayed over."

"You still think I felt obligated? Really Hachiman?"

"What? It's a perfectly reasonable assumption to make."

"How is it more reasonable than me wanting to help out a frie-"

"Stop saying the 'f' word. I hate the 'f' word. It should be law to avoid it at all costs."

Kawasaki laughs. "Whatever… I'm still not a fan of that habit of yours, though. Defusing things with humour."

"Come on, at least give me that." What do you think's keeping me together right now?

"You can talk about if you want."

"Last night?"

"What else?"

"… There's not much to say. I acted like an idiot and you helped me more than you should've done."

"Not that. I'm asking why you acted like an idiot."

"…"

"Difficult subject?"

"You have no idea," he mumbles.

She senses that he needs at least some level of privacy- she doesn't sense that he's doing it for her own good. I'm not having another innocent life caught up in this.

A half-comfortable silence falls where they finish off the miso soup. It's delicious. Worth a solid 8 on the Komachi-good-cooking scale.

"Do you miss your siblings?" he asks, surprising even himself.

"… Where'd that come from?"

"Dunno. Just thinking how you would have used to do this for Taishi-kun, and Keika. Like I said, they were lucky."

Her eyes flickered. "And you know how it feels, I guess. You and Komachi used to seem more like Siamese twins than brother and sister."

"… Yeah." A sharp jab to the chest cuts deeper than he expects. "Don't answer the question. I was just projecting."

"No, it's alright." She takes a deep breath. "… Course I miss them. Really badly, even now. We'd still be living together if we had it my way. I… Growing up, our parents weren't around too much. Being the oldest brought a lot of responsibility. So saying goodbye to living together was harder than I thought it would be. Much harder."

He doesn't respond, knowing she's touched on a sentiment with the distinct potential to cut deep. Kawasaki seems to bring out the illogicality in him like few others. He never makes small talk, least of all about his feelings.

"… You're really not gonna say anything? After that?"

"If you want heartfelt sympathy, you're asking the wrong person-"

"You were the one who brought it up," she says, sounding embarrassed and a little hurt.

"Kawasaki, I…" He puts the bowl aside and rubs his eyes with frustration. "I'm sorry if this sounds callous o- or ungrateful or whatever, but I really can't handle this right now."

"Handle what? Having a friend who cares abou-"

"I can't handle you right now."

Hachiman doesn't mean it the way it sounds. If anything, it's a backhanded compliment. He can't handle the way she leaves a lump in his throat, the way she looks in the morning sun, the way she drags out words he'd never usually say and all the other frightening things that fall under the label of 'Kawasaki Saki'.

He can't handle the way she's stepping up to a pedestal of importance in his life, something so few people before her have managed. Komachi, Isshiki in their moments of calm, and once upon a time, a club president who had fallen from that pedestal like a corpse sinking to the ocean floor.

And that name, Yukinoshita Yukino, is the thing he can't handle the most. A personal investigator, in his experience, needs to be cold and detached. Kawasaki makes him feel a lot of things- but cold and detached?

His landlady says nothing for awhile, and then, with a tremble, "Well… that's nice. That's really nice to hear, Hachiman."

"Never say I'm not honest."

"Don't call that honesty. Don't you dare. That's just being a piece of shit."

"… Thank you. I've made that my specialty."

"You… you… Oh, what's even the point?" She stands up, eyes tired and upset. "I can't handle you either, Hachiman. I hate the way you pretend to be like this, when we both know full-well you're not-"

"You think you know me so well… why, exactly? Because I said the right thing when you were at your lowest point? Because I felt bad that your husband ran out on you?"

"A- and what's so bad about that, huh?"

"What's bad about it is that you don't. You don't know me, Kawasaki. You just don't."

Hachiman can feel the confusion in her stare and, unable to meet it, he charges on. "What's my job, Kawasaki?"

"…"

"Well, what is it?"

"… A private detectiv-"

"Wrong, straight off the bat. I'm a personal investigator. I've told you that before, and you still don't know."

"That's not-"

"What was my last case, Kawasaki?"

"… I…"

"Exactly. You don't know, and I can assure you it's better that way. I spend whole days of my life, years of my life, chasing down the worst people imaginable. Rapists, murderers, serial killers… monsters. The shittiest people in all of Chiba, and a fair few beyond that. But I don't just chase them. I catch them. And most of the time, I enjoy it. What do you think that says about me, Kawasaki?"

"…"

He fiddles with his hands. "I'm glad you returned the favour last night- that you said the right thing, and stayed with me. But knowing who I am… be happy that you don't, Kawasaki. It's not a burden I'd wish on anyone."

"… Hachiman… If you're a 'personal investigator', you should be able to tell when someone's lying, right?"

"… Yes."

"Then why can't you tell when someone's telling the truth?"

"…"

"To be honest, I… I can barely stand the sight of you right now." Kawasaki turns around, and her foot grazes one of the left over beer cans. "Seems to me you're just gonna hear what you want to hear. Like always."

"Kawasa-"

"I'm gonna go back, and try to catch up on sleep." She opens the door to his apartment; neither her voice nor her movements are as strong enough to be convincing.

"Hope you enjoyed the breakfast. I- it's not like you did anything to deserve it."

Long after the door slams shut, and the lavender smell of Kawasaki's hair fades, Hachiman remains on the couch. The taste of miso soup on his tongue was still delicious- delicious and artificial.

Just as he senses himself straying back to the incomprehensible places of last night, his phone buzzes. Apprehensively, he pulls it out, but finds that the text is precisely what he needs.

Sakiyama: HQ, now. The Inspector's got a plan.

Anything, Hachiman realises, even the pursuit of his oldest and most relentless nightmare, seems better than thinking about Kawasaki Saki.


The morning traditions of Chiba's criminal investigation department are set in stone. They arrive at HQ bright and early- if a case hasn't required them to pull an all-nighter, that is- and then head over to their desks. Or to the latest crime scene, if they have one.

In every pair of hands, it's likely that there'll be a cup of coffee. There might be some light chatter amongst the detectives; a reassurance that no matter how irreparably fucked up the day turns out, they'll get through it together. And then the one after that.

Sakiyama gulps down his double espresso. Many of his colleagues seem to have made a similar choice- they all sense the need for something strong. That the pale morning sunrise, evident through HQ's infinite windows, is announcing a day they hoped would never come.

He fiddles with the stationery on his desk. For the first time, I really hope Hikigaya-san is wrong.

He was one of the department present at Nakatani Yasuo's interrogation. The fact they'd already obtained a confession and permission to prosecute from the bureau almost went unnoticed. It took less than thirty seconds for someone to ask him the question.

"Is it true what they're saying? That they exist…"

"Apparently so," was his reluctant answer.

Sakiyama's eyes stay over to Chief Inspector Kudou's office, light cutting through the skeletal blinds. His superior had ordered everyone else to get some sleep; the onus was on him to prepare the case. No doubt he'd been in his office all night, going through the facts, preparing them with his exhaustive no-stone-unturned approach.

He and the rest of the detectives are waiting. Untucked shirts are nervously adjusted and ties straightened gravely, in preparation for the moment when Kudou will emerge with their labour for the next month.

The next month… Only Sakiyama and the others at the interrogation know this. How little time they have to catch someone who has escaped them for years. How even with someone like the Shark on their side, it will be an uphill battle.

When Chief Inspector Kudou steps out, bags under his eyes, he sees that belief reflected back.

The criminal investigation department stands to attention. The inspector is clutching a memory stick in his fingers. He gestures one of the juniors to close the blinds, and then steps over to the fifth floor's projector.

Soon, a computer has been loaded up with the memory stick and the projector pointed at the wall. A overwrought gloom falls on the room as the blinds are closed.

"Better pull up some chairs," Kudou announces, his baritone voice hoarse but authoritative. "We've got a lot to get through."

Sakiyama follows the others, grabbing the chair from his desk and settling in a vague semi circle near the projector. They wait for it to turn on; soon, an almost spectral blue light is cast on the wall, and they see the beginning of a hastily assembled slideshow.

On the first slide, against a pale white background, are the words none of them wanted to read:

Chiba Prefectural Police Department- Confidential- Yamanishi Koen

"Now… this should go without saying, but in lieu of the recent revelations, we are not to speak about this case to anyone. And by that, I mean anyone. With normal cases, some of you might be in the habit of mentioning details to spouses, or even close friends. Though all our cases are confidential, I can accept such lapses are inevitable."

The inspector shakes his head, eyes severe. "This is not a normal case. Breaking confidentiality will be penalised with immediate suspension from the force. And, for the next month at least, any other outstanding investigations are officially on hold. For everyone in this room, the Yamanishi Koen case is now your top priority."

"It's true then," someone near the front mutters. "We're really doing thi-"

"Yes, we are. This person is real- accept it and move on. I, for one, always thought the whole business was a load of bullshit. It isn't." He clicks the pointer, bringing up the second slide.

The newest words to flash up on the screen- Nakatani Yasuo's Interrogation.

"Some of you were present. For those who weren't, here's the brief. The man responsible for the recent rape attacks, Nakatani Yasuo, revealed he was blackmailed into committing them. The rapes were a way of catching our attention- delivering a message. That's us, the criminal investigation department, and our… outside help."

Sakiyama recalls what was said in the interrogation room. How Nakatani had seemed to imply that the killer was reaching out to Hikigaya-san in particular. Kudou was making no secret of it- the Shark was wrapped up in this. Inseparably so.

"He told us this 'blackmailer' was the Yamanishi Koen killer. He seemed to imply it was one person, but of course, we have no guarantee of that. The killer's message to us was as follows: In one month, Yukinoshita Yukino will return to Yamanishi Koen. And this time, she won't leave it alive."

"… And who is this 'Yukinoshita Yukino'? How is she connected to them?" One of the detectives pipes up.

"Yukinoshita…" Another recoils in shock. "As in, the Yukinoshitas? Our National Diet representatives?"

"Exactly. Yukinoshita Yukino is their youngest daughter," Kudou replies. "Now, let's deal with the obvious. If the Yukinoshitas are involved, there's no certainty this 'blackmailer' really is the Yamanishi Koen killer. If anything, it would suggest some petty corporate grudge. Or, of course, that Nakatani Yasuo was making the whole thing up.

"I'd be inclined to believe the latter theory if they'd used anyone else's name but Yukinoshita Yukino. As such, I think this is real. This blackmailer is the genuine article. Here's why."

The third line brings up a timeline. They follow Kudou's pointer to the far left of the slide; the first of three major events, in the course of almost two decades, that have been highlighted.

"Alright. The year's 2001. Up to this point, suicides have been reported in Yamanishi Koen, but nothing on the scale of after this event. The trigger, in my opinion, has to have been the media frenzy created by an article in the Chiba Hoshi- everyone's favourite source for reliable journalism."

The dry comment brings up a groan from the room. The Chiba Hoshi paper's continued interest in the morbid has disrupted numerous cases before. Media attention is every criminal investigation department's worst nightmare. Just look at Jack the Ripper or the Zodiac Killer, Sakiyama thinks.

Kudou pulls up a screenshot of the article, whose headline reads: 'Chiba's Very Own Aokigahara?'.

"I was up-and-coming in the force when this story broke. Many of you will remember what happened; journalists lining up around Yamanishi Koen and our HQ for months. But something else also happened. Once the initial excitement had died down… this was when the suicide rates started increasing."

He brings up a table for statistics for seven years after 2001. "In this period, we begin to see a steady amount of suicides reported in Yamanishi Koen. 2 to 4 a year, up until 2008. The general theory was that this was a result of the Chiba Hoshi article. More people knew about Yamanishi Koen, so more people committed suicide there.

"Nonetheless, in 2008, we decided to launch an investigation. The department opened up a case and looked into things, just to make sure."

He hesitates, the infamous vein in his temple throbbing. His voice wavers. "The first case, which I myself was involved in… was a complete failure. We found nothing. No evidence. No grounds for suspicion. It was a total waste of time and manpower. A couple of months later, and things were back to normal."

Sakiyama glances round the room. The faces old enough to be veterans, those who like Kudou were involved in the first investigation, are nodding. But he can see the discomfort. The fact an emotion very uncharacteristic of the Chief Inspector is highlighted in the projector's gaze. … Grief?

Kudou shakes himself. "So, Yamanishi Koen was set aside. We left it to the conspiracy theorists and the social psychologists. Until 2011- the second major event in the case. Furthermore, this-"

"This is where I come in."

The abrupt slam of the door sucks in attention like a black hole. Kudou's adopts a predictable scowl as Hikigaya-san, clothes wrinkled and dead-fish pupils surveying all, enters the room. Sakiyama's coworkers don't exactly stand and salute, but there's a definite sense of postures being straightened.

Hikigaya-san offers Sakiyama a short nod, acknowledging the text he'd sent. He really doesn't know the effect he has…

"Yes. And Yukinoshita Yukino, as a matter of fact…" A child could pick up on the inspector's irritation, but that doesn't stop him beckoning the investigator up. "It might be more informative if you tell this part yourself."

Hikigaya-san grunts something inaudible, but doesn't protest. Suddenly, the Chief Inspector and the Shark are stood beside each other, as palpably strained in each other's presence as always. But Sakiyama thinks it sets a good precedent. Absolute cooperation, the putting aside of differences, is no longer a token of professionalism. It's essential.

"Seems the big man's been getting you up to speed," he mutters, though it seems to reverberate as if amplified. "I got wrapped up in this because of a coincidence. A stupid, simple coincidence. But since we now know this monster is out there… I hope you'll take what I have to say seriously."

You don't have to worry about that, Hikigaya-san. Sakiyama nods from the back, offering his friend all the support he can.

"… Yukinosh…" He stumbles over the name. "… Yukinoshita Y- Yukino… was my club president. It was me, Yu- Yukinoshita-san and another girl called Yuigahama-san. It was 2011. High school. I won't bore you with the details of a stupid after-school club, but one night, we found ourselves in Yamanishi Koen… and the only surviving witnesses to this killer."

A sharp intake of breath, a click from the projector, spurs him on. "But not completely. All that me and Yuigahama saw was the body, hanging from a tree… I later found out his name was Kikuchi Itsuki. No one special. He lived alone. History of mental illnesses. The kind of person the Yamanishi Koen killer targets… But Yukinoshita… After the body was reported, and cut down, she told me… she told me that she saw them. The murderer. That makes Y- Yukinoshita Yukino the one true witness to their crimes.

"This… this information isn't on the public record. No one knows about the events of 2011 except for the three of us, the criminal investigation department and the killer themselves. Certainly not Nakatani Yasuo. While that doesn't rule out a hoax, I… I can assure you Nakatani wouldn't have given up his 'happy family life' unless he really was blackmailed. No. There's only one conclusion to this. My conclusion."

He glances at Chief Inspector Kudou, who nods, allowing him to continue. "… You haven't had the time to profile the killer yet. I, on the other hand, have had nine years. The sheer number of murders… this is someone who kills for the sheer enjoyment of it. Attention, accolades… those are the motives of a narcissist. Narcissists don't hide their murders as well as they do. They just kill. For them, killing is a bodily function. They do nothing but eat, shit, breathe and kill. And unfortunately for us, they're clever enough to be good at it."

"… In other words, a genius," the inspector grumbles. "Not exactly ideal."

An eerie silence falls over the room, broken only by the click of the projector. Sakiyama's mind, on the other hand is turning. Eventually, he speaks up.

"If they're so careful, and so good at what they do… why do you think they've only emerged now? To eradicate their loose ends? If so, surely we'd have found this Yukinoshita woman in Yamanishi Koen…"

"No. They don't intend to kill her just to silence a witness. She couldn't remember their face in 2011. That clearly hasn't changed. Either she would have come forward or, as you say, we would have…" He swallows, the prospect evidently painful to him. "… We would have found her in Yamanishi Koen."

"Then why…?"

"Well… the simple answer is me."

Sakiyama's nerves freeze. He stares at his friend, open-mouthed, and the rest of the criminal investigation department follow. Kudou, on the other hand, does not. His expression proves he'd already figured it out.

"The Yamanishi Koen killer knows about me. They know how long I've insisted on their existence. I fr- freely admit to being… 'obsessed' with them. I would never have given it up. Never. So… that left them with no choice. Yukinoshita and I are their only loose ends. In a month, they intend to tie up both of them."

"But… but how could they have known?" Sakiyama breathes, his glasses teetering on the bridge of his nose. "It's plausible the killer knows of your involvement with us, but not that…" He trails off.

"Getting it now, huh?" Hikigaya-san laughs, the sound like a strangled animal. "The only people that knew about the events of 2011, and my interactions with the police… are my old clubmates, anyone we might have told and, of course, the police. Knowing us, I doubt we told very many. So… there's a good chance we know the Yamanishi Koen killer personally."

Kudou shakes his head. "Remember what I said about confidentiality? I meant it."

After the grave-like silence extends to almost a minute, Kudou clicks onto the next slide.

"That brings us to the present day. Over the next nine years, we see the peak of the Yamanishi Koen killer's activity. Before 2011, suicides were recorded at something like 2 to 3 a year. After that, it increases to around 4 to 6. There are peaks and troughs to that. In 2016, there are 5, in 2017 only 3, in 2018 back up to 6. But generally, an upward trend. A sign of them getting overconfident, perhaps."

The personal investigator snorts. "Or a sign they're having a good time."

"Thank you for that delightful thought, Hikigaya-kun," he says drily.

"Time…" The detective who'd speculated on the Yukinoshitas speaks up again. "In going on two decades, we've made precisely zero progress. A good portion of that was spent denying this bastard even existed. How are we supposed to better that in a month-"

"You'll better that because it's your job," Kudou all but hisses. "You hear me? Even when there's not a scrap of self-belief in you, I expect to see that pathetic lump of a body being worked into the ground-"

"And what would be the point in that?! Sounds like this motherfucker's all too willing to put it there for us." They turn to their co-workers. "Am I the only one struggling to see the point? What, is our plan to ask them nicely to turn themselves in, all wrapped up like a Christmas present? How will chasing them now make any difference?"

Sakiyama wonders whether anyone will dare agree with him. That possibility is cut short by a murmur from the Shark.

"74…"

"What was that?"

"74," he says, louder this time. "That's how many suicides have been recorded in Yamanishi Koen since 2001."

"…"

"You can make as many excuses as you want. You can speculate how many of those were actually the Yamanishi Koen killer. You can doubt your own abilities. But don't you dare question whether there's a point. The point is that we're detectives. And if you joined the Chiba police for a reason, any reason at all, you'll do what you can to keep that number from reaching 75."

A visible shiver spreads over him. "Or… or at least I will. I don't even work for the police, but I know that's the only good thing to do. The only right thing to do. And I'll do that with or without this department."

"… That doesn't surprise me," Kudou says, voice controlled but strong. "And it shouldn't surprise you either that we're putting all our resources into the case. Anyone who resists that…" He glares icily at the detective who'd spoken up. "… May as well pack their bags now."

No one moves. They only stare at Chief Inspector Kudou and Hikigaya Hachiman, the projector bleeding an unnatural blueness onto their tired but furious eyes. Sakiyama finds himself thanking, once again, that they have the both of them, fixing people to their desks like Medusa fixes their victims in stone.

"Good." The inspector clicks the pointer one last time, and the slideshow ends. The man nearest the blinds opens them; the sun is reaching higher and higher into the sky. The projector's light remains, and two become one blurred and contrasting beam that dashes around the fifth floor.

"There are two main avenues we've gotta cover in this case. The first are the old stiffs. I want their histories, interviews with any old family members, what they did the night of their 'suicide'. Take every anomaly seriously. That's already a shit tonne of paper work, and you're gonna have to do it fast."

He turns his attention to Sakiyama. "That includes you."

Both him and Hikigaya-san scowl, but he brushes it off by. "The second avenue is the leg-work. First, I want a thorough sweep down of Yamanishi Koen. Dust the place from top to bottom, go through old CCTV from the streets outside… Anything you can get your fucking hands on. For convenience, we'll stick with the same divisions from the Nakatani case.

"Then there's the matter of reaching out to the Yukinoshita family-"

"Luckily, I can do that myself," Hikigaya-san interrupts. "She was my old clubmate-"

The inspector laughs aloud, catching several off-guard. "Hikigaya-kun… If you think you're going anywhere near that woman, you're more deluded than I thought."

The words draw surprised glances from all those unfamiliar with the subtext. For them, Yukinoshita Yukino is just Same-san's old clubmate- why wouldn't they take him at his word? But Sakiyama, remembering his conversation with Kudou, winces.

"A family he has a history with… Not a word to him about them…" Then, an image appears of his friend's chalk-white face as Nakatani Yasuo's spat this woman's name- Yukinoshita Yukino. It's alike in intensity to his expression now. All this at the mere notion he won't be allowed near her.

All the more, he's starting to see the wisdom in Kudou's boundaries. Not all of them, but some. Keeping him apart from Yukinoshita Yukino? Sakiyama can't help but think that will be best for everyone involved.

Unsurprisingly, Hikigaya-san doesn't seem to agree. His dead fish eyes are burning a hole deeper than hell into Kudou's jacket.

"I think we might need to discuss that in private, chief inspector."

As the two of them disappear into the back office, Sakiyama wonders whether they mean 'discuss' or 'argue'. Probably the latter.


Hachiman is too furious to acknowledge the victory in seeing Kudou's workplace. Since the day he first approached the police, the inspector has kept his progress at bay- involved, but very much outside of this room. It's pyrrhic in nature, but a victory nonetheless.

The fifty year old takes a seat, seeming far more relaxed than he should be. The mark of a good leader, the investigator thinks. He can't deny Kudou that. Sat by the computer, surrounded by jagged blinds and a thousand books on criminology, he looks every inch the wizened police chief.

"I can see you're in the mood for a rant, Hikigaya-kun," he drawls, unimpressed. "Might as well get it out of your system now."

He obliges.

"You really have invented your own, personalised brand of idiocy," the investigator snarls. "How many times do I have to clean up your mess before it clicks? Without me, this department doesn't have a prayer of catching the killer. You can barely catch the regular criminals, let alone the sadistic fucking geniuses. You need me. Without me, Yukinoshita Yukino is as good as dead, and that piece of shit will slip back into whatever hellhole they call a home without ever being caught. For once, pull your head out of your arse and use the tools at your disposal. Use me."

"… You finished?"

"…"

"Well, that was very impressive Hikigaya-kun, but the answer's still no. We'll make use of your particular skills when the need arises, but with Yukinoshita Yukino, I'm ordering you to stay out of the way. One madman chasing after her is bad enough."

"Listen to m-"

"Y'know, the thing I found most impressive about that rant was how you managed to say her name without stuttering. More than you managed during the presentation."

"… I… What are you saying?"

"Don't play coy. You've chattered on at tedious length about my incompetence, but let it not be said I don't do my research."

Kudou raises an eyebrow. "I'm sure she's a pretty girl, but a restraining order? Even I found that hard to believe."

"…"

"Do you deny it?"

"… Of course not," he murmurs.

"Then explain it to me." Kudou's blunt voice probes the room. "All the stuff about finding a body in Yamanishi Koen. Fine. It's believable enough. Tell me the rest before my opinion of you sinks any lower."

"I don't have to explain myself. That's all in the past."

"You do if you want to be on this case in any capacity," he warns. "No wonder you took to this 'personal investigator' nonsense so quick. Must be hard to get a normal job with that on your record."

"…" Hachiman turns his back on the chief inspector, biting his lip. He wasn't naive enough to think this chapter of his life would stay under the rug. But getting to sleep at night was far more straightforward if he didn't.

"… I did nothing wrong."

"What was that?"

"I did nothing wrong. It was a stitch up."

"It's polite to look at someone when they're addressing you," he intones.

Hachiman does as he's told, hands clammy and hot.

"Good. Now tell me properly."

"… After… In the months after we found the body, I could think of nothing else. That was the start of the person I am now- and you know what that person's like. If there are answers to be found, I don't stop for anyone. Not even Yu… Not even Yukinoshita Yukino.

"I kept begging and begging her to remember. To think back to the moment she saw the killer. It was all we spoke about. Me, Yukinoshita and Yuigahama. Our club sessions got more and more strained, and… and when those stopped, I would call her, or ask that we met up, and keep on begging. She never refused me. She was too kind for that. But I could see it was hurting her. She wanted to remember, for my sake, but she couldn't do it… I never took pity on her. I didn't stop. It didn't even cross my mind."

"Sounds like you deserved it then," Kudou replies unflinchingly. "Not much of a stitch up, really."

"It was a stitch up. Her family didn't consult anyone. They never took it to a court of law. They were too influential for that. One day, I got a phone call telling me about the restraining order, and that was it. No opportunity to appeal. I'll bet they didn't even ask Yu… my clubmate."

"Well done! Your hands are marginally less blood-soaked." He taps his foot on the carpet. "It's irrelevant either way. The restraining order exists. Your feelings for this woman, whatever the fuck they are, clearly exist. You're about as far from being an objective view on things as humanly possible, and a detective needs objectivity above all."

"Then send me home," he rasps, the desperation sharper than the cut of a propeller. "Send me home, and see how that works out."

For a fleeting heartbeat, something like pity crosses Kudou's face. "… I'm not going to do that. It hardly needs saying, but you're right that we need your help." A wry smile. "I need you, and you need me. Would you look at that? A perfect co-dependent relationship."

"… So what? I help you investigate, but I can't ever see her? How will that work?"

"If things go as I hope, you won't need to see her." The inspector mimics Hachiman in getting to his feet. "Ensuring Yukinoshita Yukino's safety is pivotal. Investigating victims, searching the park… that's the difficult part. But if we can get Yukinoshita under our protection, the job's half done. We just need to reach out to her family."

"Good. Make sure you do that… wait…" Hachiman looks back over the conversation, and notices something he'd missed. "… You seemed pretty willing to accept that her family falsified my restraining order."

He blinks. "Why wouldn't I? The Yukinoshitas are powerful people. I'd be more surprised if it had been legitimate."

"… I suppose experiencing that illegitimacy firsthand would be pretty convincing."

The discomfort shifts over to Kudou's side, but he retains his calm admirably. "I see you've been doing your research too."

"Not personally." A foxy smile pops into his head, which he pushes away. "But the Yukinoshitas, being so important to Chiba… that has afforded them certain protections, yes? Assurances. Particularly from the police."

Kudou opens his mouth, as if to start on a longwinded denial, before deciding against it. A look of resignation crosses his face; he settles for honesty.

"… Yukinoshita-san's longevity on the diet isn't the political miracle it's made out to be. He's very well connected with people far above me in the force. There's a culture of… to put it kindly, acceding to his and his wife's wishes, that I've found difficult to uproot."

"And that's still going on?"

"Absolutely." The chief inspector wrinkles his nose, as if he'd smelt something unpleasant. "Even more so now their other daughter has taken over the business. Her name's Haruno-san. She's been calling on our 'protections' more and more of late. Best way I can describe her is a snake in a dress."

He recalls the phone-call that had informed him, in elongated and patronising terms, about the restraining order. The silvery but knife-edged voice, and the promise that his questions would remain unanswered for a long, long time. "… I know. I knew her in high school too."

"Then you know what I'm talking about. It's rare to meet someone so loathed- especially by their rivals. The Yukinoshita's value in the tech market wasn't in bad shape, but with her at the helm, manipulating things? They'll be buying up other companies soon."

"So the upstanding Chiba Police double up as bodyguards for the rich?" Hachiman taunts him, but his hands are still trembling. "Almost makes me feel better about myself…"

Kudou looks at him curiously- the way you look at an animal in a zoo. "I can't tell what you're more worried about."

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing. It's just… All that rubbish about the Shark, the personal investigator, the one who sees the truth… It's a little underwhelming to find you're just a teenager hiding from a girl."

"If it helps, you can see me that way. Everyone seems to have their own opinion of who I am. It's all very confusing."

"I'm sure it is."

The inspector steps over to the window and peers through the blinds. Hachiman takes several deep breaths, composing himself, and then joins him.

"… Look at them. Already working hard." A hint of monotonous pride in the way he addresses his team. "Sure fucking hope it's enough."

"How long will it take to get our sources on the victims?"

"With a decent head of steam, a week."

"And we've only got four. Fantastic."

"They've got mountains of shit to get through. A week. Take it or leave it." He drops the blind back into place. "I'll send the field team down to Yamanishi Koen today. Might as well start there too. We'll have Yukinoshita Yukino in custody as soon as possible."

"It's a start."

"… Did you get another text?"

"Yes."

"Same number?"

"Different. All it said was 30 days."

"Then you'll probably be receiving those daily, I'm afraid. No way we can trace the number."

"… You mentioned…"

"What, Hikigaya-kun?"

He pauses. "You mentioned you couldn't tell what I was more worried about. What was that about?"

"Just that you seemed more worried about meeting Yukinoshita Yukino than a dangerous serial killer. I'd question your priorities, if you weren't you."

"… This month will probably show us what our real priorities are," Hachiman mutters. "I look forward to seeing how warped your's are too, Chief Inspector."


28 Days Remaining

The personal investigator has lectured himself on patience. Having to work quickly is no issue for him; if anything, he thrives on the pressure. But in having the initiative taken from him, Hachiman feels like a gun without ammunition.

He taps his fingers on the railing outside his apartment block. The MAXX Coffee in his other hand has only just been opened; momentarily, he'd considered beer, but the promise to avoid it is still fresh. Not looking like such a good idea now, is it?

The waning afternoon over Chiba warns of an approaching twilight. 4:30 PM. Kawasaki's apartment block has two stories, like many of its ilk, and his is on the second. A restless gaze skirts over the cars and parking spaces below, as restless as the wind at this time of year.

For fuck's sake… why hasn't he called me?

He'd told Sakiyama to do so immediately. That is, once Kudou had contacted the Yukinoshitas, and their youngest daughter was safe in police custody. He'd told him that when there were still 30 days remaining.

It shouldn't be taking this long. It shouldn't have taken two whole days. Definitely not for Chief Inspector Kudou.

No word on the suspects yet. They're still trawling through the info, looking for the one outlying detail that will reveal everything. At least that's supposed to take a week. But no word on Yukinoshita Yukino's safety, the most important factor of all?

He gulps down the MAXX Coffee, not realising the can is being slowly crushed beneath his fingers, and then resorts to his phone. The conversation with Sakiyama reads like the same texts sent on a loop. Any word? No. Why not? Kudou hasn't said yet. Any word? Still no.

The investigator channels his restlessness into typing.

Hachiman: If you don't have news on her, I'll drive over there and do the whole investigation myself

The small mercy of a quick response:

Sakiyama: I followed Kudou up on it.

Sakiyama: Sorry. He said someone called 'Haruno-san' is being 'intentionally obtrusive'.

Sakiyama: I asked him for more and he said 'Hikigaya-kun isn't allowed near them anyway'

Hachiman: Tell Kudou hes pathetic

Hachiman: your the fucking police

Hachiman: arrest her if she doesn't fucking cooperate

Hachiman: last time I checked that was something u could do

Hachiman: sakiyama

Hachiman: if u dont answer me in five seconds I swear

Sakiyama: I'm being told it's not as simple as that. We can't just arrest a high profile figure, nor force them to give up information about their family. There are legalities involved.

Giving into anger, he resorts to calling. The detective picks up a heartbeat later.

"Hikigaya-san, I understand your frustration, but there's not much else I can say-"

"Why the hell haven't you contacted her personally?! Cut out the middle man. The sooner I know she's somewhere safe, the better."

A sigh ripples down the line. "… That's the issue."

"What is?"

"We can't contact her personally."

"Of course you fucking ca-"

"No, you're not following me. We can't contact her at all."

"… What?"

"She has no registered address. No car, no phone number, no nothing. Our records have absolutely no mention of Yukinoshita Yukino since 2016."

"…"

"Like I said, I'm sorry Hikigaya-san, but that's all I can say. She may as well be a missing person. The only people we can bet on knowing her location are the Yukinoshitas themselves, and we're not in a position to make them do anything. It seems like it's the opposite way round-"

He's seething before bothering to hang up. The MAXX Coffee can collapses under his grip, spilling the sugary drink all over his shirt sleeve, but Hachiman pays no mind.

Missing… no record of her… does that mea- no. Don't jump to conclusions. They're supposed to take her in 30 days, not right now. A- and Sakiyama said there's been no record of her as early as 2016.

Hachiman sinks down with his back against the railing, wondering which god exactly is conspiring against him. It's not as if keeping track of his old club mates hadn't occurred. A quick search online will bring up the Yukinoshita family, and Yuigahama too. When cold memories of them start to swirl, he has to look them up for the reminder they still exist.

Doing so now he sees that, compared to the rest of them, Yukinoshita Yukino is hardly mentioned at all.

The last acknowledgement of her online is in 2014. She's listed as doing public charity work for Chiba University. All three of the Service Club had chosen the same place of study, hoping to keep their friendships alive passed Yamanishi Koen.

How ironic that, of all of them, Yuigahama-san was the only one who stayed the course.

For Hachiman, it had been the restraining order. Afterwards, all desire to work had faded, leaving him miserable and directionless. Yukinoshita? She'd dropped out too, around six months later. He'd only heard that in retrospect, and no one seemed to know why. The Yukinoshitas never let on, and back then, he'd been pursuing the endeavour of forgetting her completely.

Komachi's idea. Not a successful one.

He erases Yukinoshita's name from his phone search bar and types in 'Yuigahama Yui'. He already knows what he'll find; half way through uni, about the same time as their leaving, she'd changed degree to study for a job in social work. Her name appears on the employee lists of several residential homes and mental rehabilitation centres, as late as 2019.

In contrast, Yukinoshita Yukino's name doesn't appear anywhere. Not once since 2014, except in reference to her family. No job. No reference point. And this is only the surface level.

"She may as well be a missing person…"

Hachiman has never dared to follow up on her. To contact the woman whose life he might have ruined, had they not been separated. The restraining order is still in place. And what reason did he have to assume she'd disappear, without her family reporting the absence?

He blocks out the voice in his head that screams of negligence, of another incalculably affecting mistake. Not even Yukinoshita Haruno is that heartless. If they haven't reported a disappearance, she can't have disappeared. It's only logical they know where she is.

But 2016 was four whole years ago… why no record of her, in all that time?

The last time he saw a member of the Service Club was… he searches for the moment, and finds it. Yuigahama. The shopping mall.

The investigator, oblivious to the dashing wind, permits the coincidental meeting to return to him. He'd been investigating a case for the police; a series of robberies, all committed by a kleptomaniac with taste for high fashion.

Rifling through a clothes store for evidence had attracted suspicion- he didn't seem the type for a weekend shopping trip. The shop hands had been about to kick him out when her voice, warm and bittersweet, interrupted them.

"It's alright! This is all a misunderstanding. He's an old fr… an old schoolmate of mine."

Yuigahama told him she'd been looking to buy a scarf- he remembers the one in her hands, pink and tartan. New maturity had removed her hair of dye, turned it brown, made it longer than before. Her smile had been bright and agonised.

"What are you doing here, Hikki? G- getting something for Komachi, I imagine-"

"Thanks for your help, Yuigahama-san… I hope you have a good day."

The conversation had lasted no longer than that. Hachiman fled from from the shop, from her, like a mental patient from their past. Afterwards he'd seen parts of her, the hair, the attempted niceness, as images on a personal cutting room floor.

It must have been something like two years ago.

He runs his hands over his kneecaps, still sat against the railing. It's a good thing I don't take Kudou's orders seriously. Otherwise, the past two days would have been a complete waste.

Isshiki-san better get back faster than the fucking polic-

"Hachimaaaan! I've got a gift for you!"

The shout echoes up from the parking spaces below. Were he not so desperate, its volume and the conclusions his neighbours would inevitably draw might have been irritating.

But this time he smiles weakly, and gets back to his feet. She has arriving on cue down to a tee.

Isshiki Iroha, looking up at him from her just-parked car, affronts him with a grin dazzling even from below. The late afternoon embers highlight her outfit; she seems far too dressed up, in a light beige body-con dress, for a meeting between partners.

Hachiman heads down the stairs to greet her, making sure to double check the definition, in this context, of the word 'partners'.

"Ah. Good to see you running over when I call," she quips, grin bright. "Like any good dog."

"I'm supposed to be a shark. At least get it right."

It's the type of response he'd usually spit back with a dry bluntness. The words are right, but his voice is too raspy for her not to notice the change.

"Wow, that was weak. Anyone'd think you're pleased to see me. O- or has the day you confess your feelings for me finally arrived?! I'm sorry, but I only meant 'to give you a gift' in the platonic sense…"

The old joke concludes with the obligatory hasty bow. It almost injects real, genuine humour into his smile. He notes, without much surprise, that she'd probably calculated it would give him a view of her cleavage. She really is trying to cheer me up. Scary.

"I appreciate the effort, but it'll take a lot more than that."

"Will it now? Hope you don't have anything too demanding in mind." She strikes a pose, showing off the dress. "I already have a date for the evening, y'know."

"And you've dropped by for a laugh along the way?" He crosses his arms. "Please tell me you actually did what I asked. Three days into this case, and I've already resorted to prayer."

"Lucky I'm here to answer them, then." Briefly, a look of austerity breaks into her flirtations. "… It's odd… You've told me about Yamanishi Koen before, but it never quite seemed real to me. Not that I didn't believe you, but… now, you're finally confronting them-"

"We."

"What?"

"We're finally confronting them. First person plural."

"And I'll be right behind you the whole way. Or wherever else you momentarily need me to be." She winks, and then pats the bonnet of her car. "Now, how about a drive? My date's at 5."

Safe in the knowledge that Isshiki Iroha is one of those rare people he'll never understand, Hachiman gets into the passenger seat. Her car is an inauspicious Toyota; the kind someone doesn't notice until it's a moment too late.

The journalist pulls out and soon they're on the road, heading into the city centre. She spends a disturbing amount of attention admiring herself in the wing-mirror, and otherwise driving just over the speed limit in total disregard of safety.

"So who is this date of yours? A scoop?"

"Not this time, no. They're a… y'know what? How about we play a guessing game?"

Hachiman shrugs. "No change for me. Half my life's a guessing game."

"Then show me how good you are at them."

"Haven't you seen enough evidence of that?"

"No harm getting some more practice in."

He rolls his eyes, never one to resist a puzzle. "Knock yourself out. I'll need a clue."

"They asked me out with a pick up line: 'Is your name WiFi? Cause I'm really feeling a connection'."

The investigator half chokes. "You serious? I sincerely hope he was drunk."

"Sober as the grave. And don't worry, I've heard worse." She flips her hair, and then re-applies her lipstick. "Well? Any ideas?"

"WiFi…" He puts two and two together. "… Does this modern day Casanova work for a tech company, by any chance?"

"Maybe." Isshiki-san puts her foot down on the accelerator, swerving dangerously close to another car. "It wasn't chance we ended up at the same party."

"When are you going to realise your life isn't a Jack Reacher thriller? A- and shit, learn how to drive properly. The 'fast lane' thing's supposed to be a figure of speech."

The comment earns him a laugh. "That's more like it! Some of those lines almost had the ole Hachiman bite."

"Good to hear… What you hoping to get out of this guy, anyway?"

"You asked me to have a sniff around the Yukinoshita family company. That's what I did-"

"Well, your brief's changed. Kudou's let me down, as fucking per. The Yukinoshitas have half the force in their pocket, and they're not telling us where their daughter is."

She raises an eyebrow. "Can't you talk to her yourself? Back at Sobu, Yukino-san seemed custom made for success. Woulda thought she'd become a lawyer, or something."

He fills her in on Sakiyama's information, and his old club mate's apparent non-existence.

"Crap… If there's one person I can think of who'd stand out in a crowd, it's Yukinoshita Yukino. They must be hiding her pretty well."

"What do you make of it?"

"Me? You're the master guesser."

"I'm in need of a second opinion. Yours happens to be one I value."

"… She was my friend too, y'know. Before it all went up in flames. I understand the police asked you to keep Yamanishi Koen to yourselves, but in a way…" She hesitates, lipstick suspended by her lips. "… In a way, I think it hurt just as much watching the three of you implode like that."

"… What's your point?" he replies uncomfortably.

"My point is that once, like you, I had a really good idea of who Yukinoshita Yukino was. And my second opinion is that something must have gone very wrong for her to just 'disappear' like this. Her family's not exactly known for their integrity."

"My thoughts too." Hachiman shifts in the car seat. Isshiki doesn't know about the restraining order- no except Kudou does- and not knowing how to change that he ploughs on. "… The police asked me to stay out of the Yukinoshitas way, but I can't justify that to myself. Not with so much at stake."

"I'd slap you if you could justify it."

A smile. This time, wholly genuine. "A slap might be just what I need, Isshiki-san."

"Yeah yeah, I'm perfect and amazing and the best partner you could hope for, yada yada." The foxy grin half shines in the wing-mirror. "How else can I excel today?"

"Well… was there anything else this date of yours let on?"

"Not much. Most of it was bragging about how high up in the company he was… Although-"

"That's sounds like a very promising 'although'…"

"It is. He did mention some sort've big, upcoming gala. Think he called it the 'Yukinoshita's annual schmoozefest'. Apparently it's a tradition for Chiba's diet representative to host a party for all the big cats in town. And considering the Yukinoshitas chokehold on that seat, it's basically become their tradition."

"I suppose all the Yukinoshitas will be there. Haruno-san, and maybe Yu… maybe her sister too."

If Isshiki notices him stumble on the name, she disguises it well. "For sure. If this date goes well, he might tell me a little more about it."

"Did he mention a day?"

"End of the week."

"… With a few more details, we could have a gala to attend."

"Don't you worry, Hachiman. I have for knack for getting into the right places."

After some more reckless driving, Isshiki pulls off the main road and onto a side street, parking nearby a neon-washed karaoke joint. They hop out of the car. Their contrasting appearances catch a few eyes.

"Good luck with your date," Hachiman says. "You're a dream. Sometimes."

"In this dress, I better be." She fiddles with her handbag. "You okay getting back?"

"Absolutely. Needed a breather anyway."

For a rare instance, Isshiki Iroha goes wordless. Then, she darts forward and plants a kiss on his cheek, the contact longer and heavier than is probably appropriate. He rolls his eyes. She's left a red lipstick mark. Intentionally.

But the subtle fragrance of apricots doesn't escape him. Apricots and lavender, without warning, submerge him like a scented cloud.

"Wish I could ever tell what you're thinking," she murmurs.

"… Lots of people seem to want to, for some reason. It's not as interesting as you'd think."

"I beg to differ."

Isshiki turns on a heel, breaking a fair few hearts in the street with the cut of her dress. She shouts over her shoulder at the door of the karaoke door.

"Oh, and Hachiman! I'm not attending anything with you unless you look sharp. Get a tux, and make sure it fits."

… A tux? The personal investigator groans. Have mercy.


25 Days Remaining

The Yukinoshita family's yearly gala, as he soon learns, is an event for the rich and no one else. Held at a different venue each time, and indulgent enough to be half-notorious, Hachiman thinks it must be Karl Marx's worst nightmare.

Isshiki had texted him the essentials the morning after what must have been a tiring night. This year's iteration is to be held, for the first time, at the Yukinoshita's own estate. Haruno-san's 'successes' of late promise a lavish, self-congratulatory evening.

And perhaps a tense one too. Isshiki's date, with the eternal prompt of alcohol, had told her there was a chance Haruno-san was having too much success for her own good.

Isshiki: Couldnt get him to say more than that. At that point he wasnt too interested in talking. But sounds promising, yh?

Hachiman: that it does

Isshiki: And just so you don't conveniently forget, the dress code is western style black tie. Dont bother coming in anything else

The investigator decided buying a tuxedo was far beyond his capabilities- he hardly knows his own measurements- but found a passable black suit withering at the back of his wardrobe. Not exactly Sean Connery, but it'll do… I'll have a MAXX Coffee please. Shaken, not stirred.

He smiles while walking. That might have got a laugh out of Yukinoshita Haruno back in high-school. Wonder how much she's changed.

Then he realises the likely answer to that notion is not at all. A little older perhaps, but she had all the qualities of a ruthless businesswoman already. Self-centred, manipulative and with a perchance for saying what no one else wants to hear.

Hachiman isn't too enamoured with the prospect of seeing her again- not least because it was her who, as far as his connection with Yukinoshita Yukino was concerned, buried and twisted the knife. Never say this job doesn't take you out of your comfort zone.

The Yukinoshita estate is only a couple of blocks away. Isshiki's ruse is a good one, and suspiciously practiced. Her well-chosen date is important enough in the Yukinoshita's company to be afforded a plus one, and according to the journalist, 'he won't be bothered if she brings along her older brother too'.

Taniguchi is their family name for the night. Taniguchi Ichiro for him and Taniguchi Midori for her. Let's hope this guy's not one for asking questions.

Hachiman checks his watch. Just past 8. They're due to meet on the street he's currently waiting on, not too far from the estate. It's one of the wealthiest areas of Chiba, right in the outskirts. Every house is detached, large and extravagant, caught in some unspoken orbit of wealth that surrounds the district.

Many of the shining black cars passing by are probably headed to the same place. He messes with the collar of his suit, the black tie constricting his neck. Isshiki better be happy. I even combed my hair for this.

… I hope… I hope she's there. I hope Yukinoshita Yukino's at this party too. She needs our protection.

He doesn't really, of course. He doesn't want to see her dressed up in some gorgeously expensive outfit, spitting put downs to potential suitors, because it would only highlight to him what the world stands to lose if the killer gets what they want.

He selfishly hopes there are further mysteries to solve before he sees her again. Let her live without knowing a monster's hunting her, just for another day. My heart needs protection too.

The personal investigator reminds himself what a terrible person he is, and waits for Isshiki Iroha to arrive.

The sound of a car pulling up comes from behind. He thinks it must be her. Turning around, he sees a long black limousine that reflects the crescent moon overhead as if it were part of its metallic casing. The engine is electric and unnaturally quiet. A chauffeur nods at him from the front seat.

Damn, Hachiman thinks, approaching the car door. Isshiki's date really is big in the company.

He raps his knuckle on the window. "Hello? Midori-chan? It's-"

The window slides down, revealing a face so handsome it leaves him speechless, but for all the wrong reasons. His chest tightens as the rich blonde hair, the jawline and the china blue eyes assemble into a recognisable image. That of a person he used to hate.

"… You."

"Come now, Hikigaya-kun." Hayama Hayato's smile is faker than a plastic silicon implant. "Is that anyway to greet an old friend?"


Chapter 3- Friends and Monsters

A Doll's Eyes