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001: Things We Left Behind And Others We Didn't PRT 1
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... RYŪNOSUKE had not been particularly attentive of his surroundings for the majority of the four hour drive from the airport. He'd gazed out of the passenger's seat window on occasion to take in, if not but visually, the stark change in scenery that was the countryside of the Tama region, also known as Western Tokyo. Although he was not in a frame that would allow a full appreciation of the simplistic and natural beauty of the region, the 17 year old --who had until now lived exclusively in a bustling city-- saw in the wide and empty green plains visible on the roadside an indication of just how much he was leaving behind. He was hundreds of miles from Osaka, hundreds of miles from his old life, his old home. "Hundreds of miles from-"

Ryūnosuke inhaled deeply as he pressed his head against the window glass and closed his eyes, hoping to banish his thoughts and clear his mind. Merely a temporary reprieve, he knew; one that worked most of the time, but the thoughts were never truly gone. The guilt and shame were always there, persistent, stubborn, and lingering in the back of his mind, pouncing out from the darkness to torment him only when he pretended he could move beyond them. Ryūnosuke sighed lowly in frustration. Who was he kidding, no amount of time or distance could ever make him forget what he'd done --the harm he'd caused-- much less could any distance change it.

Tamura Mariko had thoughts and regrets of her own as she watched her son from the backseat of the silver SUV bound for their new home in Karakura. She regretted that she'd noticed too little and too late to help him, that she didn't see the signs that he was struggling and needed help. Most of all, she resented the fact that a tragedy had torn a rift between herself and her boy. Where there had once been warmth and openness now festered an expanding pit of coldness and silence. Oh, how she hated the silence and everything that came with it. The doubt and paranoia. Sleepless nights, woke with fear as she wondered if she would have to go through what that poor girl Hina's mother experienced. "Would she wake up one morning and find her boy-"

Mariko shuddered, holding back the tears that had begun to swell in her eyes. "No." That was precisely why they had left Osaka. It would take time, it would be hard and painful, but she would get her family through this crisis. They would reclaim their happiness and she would see the glow in her son's eyes again. Even if that meant moving to the edge of the earth. Mariko reached over the passenger's seat and placed her hand tenderly on Ryūnosuke's left shoulder. "Are you okay, Ryūn?" she asked lowly. There was a delay in her son's response. Part of her hoped that perhaps he was considering to share everything that was bothering him. That he'd suddenly become inclined to tell her everything that happened that morning when he found Hina. That he'd shout at her, curse at her, or even blame her, just as long as he'd opened the door that would allow her back into his life. Let her be his mother again.

"I'm fine." Ryūnosuke mumbled. Mariko, squeezed his shoulder, silently begging him not to shut down on her again.
"Are you sure? You haven't eaten or said anything in hours. Are you hungry."
"Mom, I'm fine... I'm just tired is all."

"Alright, honey." Mariko conceded. She gave Ryūnosuke a final pat on his shoulder before she reclined in her seat. She wondered if she'd pressed too hard again without realizing it. If her maternal instincts had gotten the better of her again. But what else was she to do? What else did she have to trust in if not the biological imperative to protect her child? Did that make her selfish? How could it be wrong of her to want to be close to her son again? How could anyone expect her to be patient and endure the agonizing pain of knowing your child --the most important and beloved thing to you in this world-- is so close, not even an arm's length away, and yet so achingly distant from you?

Ryūnosuke surely couldn't comprehend his mother's feelings. For as much as he was a selfish teenager, he had very real torments of his own as well. Perhaps fortunately, if he had nothing else going for him, Ryūnosuke was mature enough to at least recognize his own thoughts and emotions. He knew very well, that he was dealing with his own guilt, shame, and regret. He was angry, but not with the world --most certainly not with his mother. Rather he was angry with himself, for what he'd done. He'd blamed himself for ruining what little happiness his family had. For destroying that little happiness he'd always taken for granted. Add to that the fact that, for better or for worse, the troubled teen had inherited his father's pride, which dictated that there were things he simply could never say openly or admit.

Mr. Nagashi was a man of many talents and responsibilities. Exactly three months from the day he'd have been under the employment of Tamura Keiji for fifteen years. He'd been President Keiji's (of Tamura Pharmaceuticals) closest friend for seven more years than that. Point was, Nagashi had known the Tamuras for a very long time. He'd, in fact, known young Ryūnosuke for the teenager's entire life. Nagashi, was practically a member of the family himself, but he was a professional and never eluded to that fact and was all the better at his job for it. At least in his own opinion. Officially, he was the Head of Security at Tamura Pharmaceuticals. Unofficially, the parameters of his job description were much less clearly defined. Put bluntly, he did whatever the Tamura's needed of him; with top priority going to whatever Tamura Keiji instructed him to do. At the moment, that task happened to be driving Keiji's wife and son to their new home. That also meant silently enduring the tense atmosphere that now loomed over the entire Tamura household like a black smog of ill-managed emotions. It was no secret that the smog followed the mother and child even now, and that it was heaviest around Ryūnosuke. Nagashi would have loved to give the teen some much needed advice but the truth was that even Nagashi, in all his life-hardened wisdom wasn't sure what he should say to Ryūnosuke. Frankly, as much as it pained him to think it, he was fine with being invisible as long as the Tamuras collectively acted as if he was. "We'll be there soon, we've got about another twenty kilometers." he said sharply before allowing himself to fade back into invisibility just as quickly as he'd spoken.

"Thank you, Nagashi." Mariko replied shortly afterwards. Ryūnosuke remained silent. The teen opened his eyes again and watched as a train approached on the railway parallel to the road. He wondered where the train was going, what were the odds of it heading to Osaka. He watched closely as they passed the train, heading their opposite directions, and for a moment time seemed to slow down to a halt, just like it did in the heat of a match, when he was in the batter's box, honed in on a pitch. For just a second he caught a glimpse of a teenage girl who couldn't be any older than he was. She sat alone with a thick red scarf wrapped tightly around her neck. She wore an opened jean jacket, with a white blouse underneath, and on her lap was a small pink suitcase littered with newly applied and some aged and peeling cat stickers. However, her most defining feature was the ever obvious look of repressed sadness on her face. He recognized that expression, it was Hani's expression, the one that haunted him now. Ryūnosuke shifted upwards in his seat and looked backwards at the train as it drew away again, his brows furrowed with concern as a faint gasp escaped his pressed lips. Nagashi and Mariko took note of the teen's sudden alertness. "Ryūn?" Mariko called worriedly.

Ryūnosuke responded quickly, almost too quickly, "It's nothing." he reassured; hoping his mother would leave it at that, and, against every cry of her maternal intuition, Mariko did.

To Be Continued...
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002: Things We Left Behind And Others We Didn't PRT 2
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... IT WAS nearing sunset when Nagashi pulled the car into the driveway. The sudden shift in his equilibrium caused Ryūnosuke to stir awake and he realized that he'd dozed off at some point during the drive. He looked out the window and at the house in front of them. From the outside it was clear the house was a modern --a very modern-- take on a traditional urban Japanese home. It had a peculiar and unconventional architectural design; and its color was a dark navy blue that might as well have been black. Ryūnosuke thought the house resembled what someone would design if they given a black hexagonal prism and asked to carve cubes out of it until they had something that could pass as a home while looking as close to a plain hexagonal prism as possible. There was not a single curve to be seen in the design. Everything about the exterior was precisely and uniformly cut. White light beamed out from the large picture window on the second floor overlooking the street below. The house was built right on the corner lot of an intersection. Bold, loud, and imposing --truly like a Tamura Keiji statement. "This is exactly the kind of house dad would have built." Ryūnosuke thought. Then, as if she'd read his mind, his mother spoke.

"Well... it looks very... residential..." She sighed and muttered something to herself before she reached over the passenger's seat to hold her son's shoulder again. "Listen, Ryūn. I know you're not exactly happy about the move. I know you miss your friends and you miss Akane-" Mariko felt Ryūnosuke tense when she mentioned Akane, his girlfriend. She paused to sigh as she remembered that they'd broken up after the incident. "I'm sorry, Ryūn. I-"

"It's fine." Ryūnosuke cut in and pulled his shoulder away. "I know what you're trying to say. This is a new house, in a new town. It might be hard, but we came here for a fresh start and we have to make the best of it." he added, he tone was as clear and confident as always. "I'll get used it. Can we just go inside?"

"Yes, sure." Mariko replied. If she had anything else to say, Ryūnosuke didn't give her the chance to say it, as he opened the passenger seat door, walked to the front door, and into the house. Mariko slumped back into her seat as an expression of hurt and defeat marred her soft expression. Nagashi glanced at Mariko through the rear-view mirror.

"Everything alright back there, Ms.Tamura?" Nagashi asked with a raised brow.
"I'm fine, Nagashi, thank you. I just need a moment." Mariko replied, wiping her eyes as she fumbled in her purse for a tissue.
"Here, take this." Nagashi said, reached back with a gray handkerchief, and offered it to Mariko.
"Thank you," Mariko, as she took the square of finely woven cotton and wiped her eyes again, and smeared her eye makeup.
"I know Keiji doesn't pay me to give his family advice of how to handle their personal affairs and I understand that it's none of my business-"
"Enough of that, Nagashi." Mariko interrupted sharply. "You're family and you know Ryūnosuke. For God's sake you see him more than his own fath-" she forced herself to stop there and took a deep breath to center her thoughts. "If there is anything that you can tell me that will help me get my son back, please, I'm all ears."

Nagashi waited a moment before he responded. He'd recognized in Mariko's shaky voice a genuine cry for help that he simply could not ignore. It was true, he did see Ryūnosuke more than Keiji. He was the one who went to all of Ryūnosuke's games, the one who the teen called when he needed help, and once upon a time --not very long ago-- he'd been the one Ryūnosuke turned for advice. In that moment, the gravity of just how important Ryūnosuke's well-being was to him as well hit Nagashi like a sledgehammer to the chest. He felt a bead of sweat roll down his temple and wiped it with the cuff of his sleeve. "I've dealt with a lot of death and a lot of loss in my lifetime, Mariko. I've seen people go through what Ryūnosuke is going through and the short of it is, I can't tell you that he's ever going to be the same again." Mariko could feel something dark and heavy swelling in her chest, and Nagashi could see the pain in her hardened expression. "Sooner or later, you're going to have to accept that what happened has changed your boy forever. And however he turns out at the end of it all, for better or for worse you're going to have to accept him. Right now, he's hurting and he's gonna stay hurting for a very long time because he's a good kid. He feels guilty and he's beating himself up because of what he did. I know that for a fact precisely because you raised him right. You raised a good young man. Now, he made a few bad choices and now he's paying the price. But Ryūnosuke is a fighter, just like his father, and nothing keeps them down. He's gonna get through this, but you can't force him. He needs to figure it out on his own. What he needs from you is your support and your trust. You have to trust that he'll make the right decision when the time comes."

"What if I can't accept that. What if I can't accept that I'm supposed to just let my baby suffer and punish himself for making a mistake." Mariko countered.
"Then, ma'am, you do what you have to do, what you think is best for your child and hope for the best... but understand, in any case Ryūnosuke is not going to be your baby forever."

Mariko, took a moment to let Nagashi's final words sink in. For a moment she tried to consider the possibility --a reality in which she was forced to no longer see Ryūnosuke as her her child, her baby to protect for as long as she drew breath. And then, with one sharp exhale she leveled her posture and rejected that reality in all its entirety and variations.

"Thank you, Nagashi. Please inform my husband that Ryūnosuke and I arrived safely."
"Yes, ma'am. Good luck to you both and have a good evening." Nagashi replied. He then whipped his phone out from the breast pocket of his suit jacket as Mariko exited the vehicle and followed her son into their new home. She took her shoes off at the door and slipped on the remaining pair of cotton tatami.

The interior design of the house was not much more welcoming than the exterior. The lack of interior walls helped open up the home and enhance a sense of space, while the rich wooden floors provided some warmth to combat the coldness of the plain snow-white walls contrasted with the sets of all-black furniture. The movers had arrived at the house the day before and stacked boxes in all the appropriate rooms and quarters. Mariko, took the open-risers to the second floor and closed the motorized blinds to the picture window before turning off the lights. There were also two bedrooms on the second floor, and a third bedroom on the third floor.

She could hear Ryūnosuke moving boxes on the third floor and decided to check on him. After she ascended the last flight of stairs Mariko paused at the end of the hall opposite a closed door that the noises had originated from. She sighed as she marched to the door, knocked twice , and then swung it open. Ryūnosuke was inside unpacking his cloths when he eyed his mother skeptically. "You know the rules, Ryūnosuke." she said sharply. There was agitation laced in her tone.

"Mom, come on. This is supposed to be a new sta-" Ryūnosuke tried to plead, but was cut off.
"No closed doors. Curfew at seven. Am I making myself clear?" Mariko stated icily.

Ryūnosuke paused for a moment, and Mariko swore she saw a flicker of rebellion in his eyes but it faded just as quickly as she'd thought she'd seen it and Ryūnosuke conceded. "Yes, ma'am."

Mariko nodded and then spoke again with her usual soft and caring tone, though she sounded almost disappointed that Ryūnosuke had not tried to argue further. "Thank you for respecting my boundaries." she paused and Ryūnosuke continued to unpack piles of folded clothes onto his bed. "Come downstairs when you're done, we'll order takeout." Ending there, Mariko made her way back to the second floor. She figured she'd unpack some things herself.

To Be Continued...
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003: A Tarnished Bloom
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... MUCH TO Mariko's disappointment, the change in neighborhood and home seemed to have no effect on the morning routine so far. As she prepared breakfast for herself and Ryūnosuke, she reminisced on a time, not long ago, when her son would have been on his way home from a morning jog, with fresh ingredients for the morning meal. She would greet him at the door with a smile and embrace. Sometimes she'd comment on how sweaty he was before demanding he'd shower up, with the promise that breakfast would be ready by the time he was done. For the last few months Ryūnosuke had spent the mornings alone in his room. Mariko often walked by his door to check on him out of concern. Most days he was at his desk with his back to the door, always occupied with something. Other times he'd have simply over-slept or was still in bed on his phone. On this particular morning it was the latter.

Mariko sighed and chopped scallions on a wooden cutting board. She often found herself remembering the little things; sometimes she wondered if she was the only one who recognized the small changes and was affected by them. "I can't tell you that he's ever going to be the same again." Nagashi's voice resounded from the corners of her mind. "That was complete nonsense!" Things would go back to the way they were; eventually she'd find a way to reach her son again. Mariko swore it. "What did Nagashi know? He wasn't a mother. In fact, he had no children of his own to speak of at all. Nagashi was just a retired soldier, with no comprehension of the lengths she was willing to go for her only child." Mariko asserted mentally, as she pinched a serving of the chopped scallions and garnished it over a bowl of steamed rice topped with a raw egg yolk and soy sauce seasoning. She similarly prepared a second bowl of Tamago gohan for herself. Mariko carried the two bowls out of the open kitchen space and into the dining area to set the table. She took a final trip back to the kitchen and returned with the rice cooker and a kettle of mint tea. Mariko then walked to the staircase and called out to her son, "Ryūn! Breakfast is ready. Come down, please." She waited until she heard the sound of his footsteps before she returned to the dining room and took her seat in front of the breakfast table on her plush, lavender floor cushion. Ryūnosuke's orange one awaited his arrival at the opposite end of the breakfast arrangement.

Ryūnosuke descended the staircase, entered the dining space just moments later, and sat down, legs crossed, as his mother smiled and beckoned. "It's just Tamago gohan, I have to run out for groceries later." Mariko explained as Ryūnosuke navigated the arrangement with his eyes before shrugging approvingly.

"I can get the groceries." the teenager offered coolly as he picked up his bowl and chopsticks. "Itadakemasu", he murmured before mixing the contents of his bowl with the wooden utensils.

Mariko blinked in surprise, a little stunned by her son's offer, it had been a while since he'd shown any interest in assisting her in completing menial household tasks. "Perhaps the move was already having a positive impact!", she thought. She could feel a light of hope flicker in her heart, but quickly composed herself with a short under-breath cough. "No, honey, it's fine. I need to go into town, anyway... and there is a bookstore not far from us, would be great if they looking to hire." Ryūnosuke winced and paused for a moment just as another unwelcome thought dangled itself in the foreground of his mind. "That's right, mom had to close her own bookstore when the move was decided. Not that she could have kept it open after the vandalism --Shut up-- Everything she worked so hard for, years of dedication ruined in just minutes and it's all your fault, Ryūnosuke." Ryūnosuke felt a growing tightness in chest, he clutched his clammy fingers around his chopsticks as the voice in his head continued to taunt him. "How much more do the people around you have to suffer while you sulk around? --Shut up-- How can you even look mom in the eyes --Shut up, please!-- after all the pain you've caused. Just sit by idly while mom's happiness slips further and further way. Maybe in the end --No, don't think that! Shut up, shut up, shut up!-- you could also tie mom a noo-"

"I'll get a job too." Ryūnosuke blurted out; there was a panicky shortness to his breath. Mariko looked up at him in shock and searched his expression for further explanation. "I'll get a job, and I'll help around the house more." Ryūnosuke added, now leveled having successfully silenced the voice --for the moment, at least. "You don't have to do everything alone." 

Where she had once been pleasantly surprised, Mariko was now fearful and concerned. Her maternal instincts raged on within, warned her that something was awry. Still she remained calm and simply feinted a convincing smile. "While I appreciate you showing some initiative," she started, took a deep breath, and then set down her bowl and chopsticks. "I want you to stay focused on your studies." Mariko noticed Ryūnosuke dropped his head. "No, he's closing up on me again!", her mind panicked. "That being said," she back-tracked. "I'm not entirely opposed to the idea." Ryūnosuke's head shot up again, and she saw his features relax a bit as if he'd found some much needed relief in her approval. "It's no secret, I could use a little help around here, at least until we've settled in. And a little extra income can't hurt, either." She sighed again and smirked. "Your father might not like it, but he isn't here, so... I will allow you to get a part-time job, if you can assure me that it won't affect your grades. If you can promise that then we have a deal."

"Deal. I promise." Ryūnosuke replied without a second thought. He then extended his open palm out over the dining table. Mariko chuckled, extended her hand as well, and they shook on it, sealing in agreement. They started eating again but before long, Mariko had broken the silence once more.

"Since we were on the topic of your education, I suppose now would be a great time to let you know you got accepted into Karakura High School. The principal and teachers were a bit concerned about you joining halfway into the first term, but after seeing your transcripts their minds were put at ease." Ryūnosuke did not appear particularly excited. Internally he wondered if it had really been his grades that concerned the teachers initially or the fact that he'd been involved in police investigation not even two months ago. Perhaps it didn't matter now, he'd gotten in anyway in the end. Although, just like with their new home, he couldn't shake the feeling that his father was somehow involved with the school's decision. The idea that his father still had that much influence this far from Osaka was frustrating to Ryūnosuke, but it was also kind of impressive at the same time. Tamura Keiji wasn't a man of many words, but when he did speak, stuff got done.

Ryūnosuke recalled the last time he'd spoken with his father, two weeks ago. It wasn't a pleasant memory. They'd butted heads in the past, but the last time had been a particularly nasty confrontation. Ryūnosuke could feel a phantom numbness on the left side of his face where Keiji struck him. A "disgraceful embarrassment"  his father had called him. "Well, he wasn't wrong." Ryūnosuke thought as he emptied his bowl."But that doesn't make you any less shitty of a father." , the teenager remarked internally. He'd always found that the best mechanism of defense against his father's overbearing judgement was to simply convince himself the man's words and actions bore no discernible consequence on his life. As far as Ryūnosuke was concerned that might as well have been the reality of it. Although, he could never truthfully deny that at one point in his life he sincerely valued his father's opinion, yearned for his approval, and wanted Keiji to be proud of him. In fact, though he'd surely be far too stubborn to admit it, perhaps that was still the case, even now.

Perhaps things would have been different if his father was around; and if that were the case it meant Tamura Keiji also had his part of the blame. "If you weren't such a shitty dad, I wouldn't have have done what I did. None of this would have happened. We wouldn't have had to move across the country. Mom wouldn't have had to close her bookstore. And Hina... Hina would still be-" Ryūnosuke set his bowl on the table suddenly and cleared his head of any thoughts related to his father. Dwelling on the hypothetical only made him angrier. 

"I'll take those.", said his mother as she stood up, reached over to Ryūnosuke's side of the table, and picked up his used dish and utensils. She then carried them back into the kitchen. By the time she reached the kitchen sink Ryūnosuke had already begun to head back to his room. "Ryūn, would you mind opening the windows on the second floor?", Mariko called out. "The weather outside is great and we could use some fresh air." Ryūnosuke never replied, but minutes later, as she was washing the dishes, Mariko caught a faint and sweet scent of cherry blossoms in the air. She smiled, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. She visualized herself picnicking beneath the shade of a sakura tree, in a rich green meadow. All around her pink flower pedals danced happily in the breeze. Not too far ahead she could Ryūnosuke smiling as he ran towards her, waving and dressed top to bottom in his baseball gear. The glow of joy was unmistakable on his face. 

Mariko opened her eyes and began to hum a tune. She could hardly remember the last time she felt this much at peace. She felt she'd finally made a little progress with Ryūnosuke, he was slowly returning to his old self. Tiny sprouts of hope budded from the black abyss of despair that had engulfed her heart and Mariko sighed in relief. Spring truly was the season of new beginnings.

To Be Continued...
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004: Skeletons
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... RYŪNOSUKE sat silently on his bed with his eyes buried attentively into the screen of his phone. He'd awaken just an hour earlier to the repeated chiming of his inbox notification, alerting him that he'd received a total of one-hundred and thirty-two new messages. The vast majority had been from a group chat comprised of members of his old high school baseball team, and of course his ex-girlfriend Akane and some of their mutual friends. Until now, he'd ignored the group --it was a rather effortless endeavor-- as the group was rarely active. If he remembered correctly, it was made by one of Akane's underlings to coordinate the baseball team's plans for the cultural festival last year. Since then the group had been used to post memes and other random trivia. In fact, the quantity of new messages was so unprecedented that, upon first looking at his phone, Ryūnosuke wondered what could have possibly provoked the unusual activity. His best guess was that Akane was planning one of her parties. Under that suspicion alone, the teenager very nearly disregarded the chatroom entirely. However, his curiosity had gotten the better of him and, without seemingly a conscious thought of it, he found himself both tapping on the icon of the CATTERY app and beginning to read the logs, starting when the actively began at 6AM.

The first message was from Akane. 'I got accepted into Nagoya. Not that anyone is really surprised.', it read. Ryūnosuke couldn't help but chuckle, "Of course she got in.", he snickered. Akane had always been brilliant. While Ryūnosuke was also smart and performed very well academically as long as he asserted himself, what Akane had was something different. Something super-human. She was a genius, who excelled every subject without needing to study at all, with a particular inclination towards complex scientific materials. If she wanted to, Akane could have skipped high school entirely; and it did her teachers no favors that both she and they knew that fact. There was one thing that Akane needed from school, however, and that was social interaction with people her age. Being the only daughter of the CEO of one of Japan's largest pharmaceutical companies and the sole inheritor of the Ayanokoji Clan fortune meant there was a tremendous amount of pressure on her shoulders to exceed and mature beyond her years.

Not unlike Ryūnosuke, Akane despised the never-ending bombardment of pressure and stress mercilessly cast down by a ruthless and over-bearing father. And because of it, also unlike Ryūnosuke, she rebelled. In fact, their rebellion had been one of the same. Their father's were once college buddies who entered the same field. After college, Akane's father went on to start Ferne'Care Pharmaceuticals and employed Ryūnosuke's father, Keiji, as the head of his own department. The company had somewhat of a rocky start, but things took a major turn for better when Ferne'Care made a breakthrough that caught the attention of governments around the globe. Ryūnosuke's father claimed the breakthrough happened as a direct result of to his own research and that Akane's father --and by extension Ferne'Care-- took full credit for his work. This ignited animosity between the two, the friendship and respect the two colleagues once shared was gone. Replaced by a seething bitterness and, perhaps as some believed, a deep jealousy that culminated in Keiji leaving Ferne'Care to start his own company to rival his former friend. Enter, Tamura Pharmaceuticals.

At the time this was all happening Ryūnosuke and Akane were toddlers in daycare and from that day forwards it was by no coincidence that they wound up attending the same schools all throughout their elementary, middle, and high school years. It was clear to everyone, most especially to Ryūnosuke and Akane themselves, that their fathers intended to use them as pawns and props in their ongoing feud. It was also clear that neither of their fathers had accounted for the possibility that by trying to constantly force their children to butt heads with one another that the pair they might grow closer to one another. Although, Ryūnosuke couldn't say for sure what Akane thought of their relationship, there was a time when it was the most important thing to him outside of his pursuit of baseball. A time when he would have given anything to ensure her happiness. A time when he truly believed they had a future together. Their friends and peers used to refer to them as the "Power Couple of Shimizudani high school"; Ryūnosuke and Akane were dubbed "King" and "Queen" respectively.

Ryūnosuke scoffed at that thought; he wondered at exactly what point had their egos inflated to the degree that they believed absolutely nothing could break their teenage romance apart. It didn't matter, they were through with each other now. Akane had been the one to end it. After what happened, Ryūnosuke didn't blame her. Heck, he'd actually found a bit of relief in the fact that they were separated, and at the very least it seemed like Akane was moving on from it all. Ryūnosuke read the next few messages.
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Spoiler

Akane: I got accepted into Nagoya. Not that anyone is really surprised.
Yatsumura: Congratulations, Akane-san
Mimi-chan: CONGRATS AKANE-SENPAI! We knew you could do it! ヽ(o^▽^o)ノ
KILLA Kiriyama: Nice Kill, Akane-san
JouMANJI: Nice Kill
Super_Neko: Yay, Akane! You go girl!
Wakazō #23: Nice Kill, Akane-Joō-sama! The Queen strikes true again, YAHOO!
Akane: Thank you all. Anyway, I'm hosting a party tonight at my place. I expect you all to attend. Dressed for the occasion.
Mimi-chan: I'm SO THERE Akane-senpai. Is there anything you need us to bring
Akane: No, Mimi. Everything is catered
Super_Neko: The Queen has spoken!
Yatsumura: I'll be there
KILLA Kiriyama: Count me in
JouMANJI: Likewise

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Ryūnosuke snickered under his breath. Just as he suspected, Akane was having a party and the group chat was the most convenient way to inform everyone. He wondered if she was aware that he was still in the group and, if so, did it even matter to her. As he scrolled down through the messages it was more of the same; congratulations to Akane and confirmations of attendance. "Seems like everyone is moving on." Ryūnosuke thought. That was until he saw a message that he was pinged in by ♙Wakazō #8 , who was actually a freshman named of Keita Kawashima. As Ryūnosuke recalled, Keita played the outfielder position. "Wakazō" was just the nickname they gave the all rookies on the baseball team. Keita, like countless others, idolized Ryūnosuke for his talents and popularity. He worshiped the very ground Ryūnosuke walked on and seemed to take the "King Ryūnosuke" thing more seriously than anyone else, even now. Evident by what he wrote in the chat. 'I can make it but will @♕Ryūn will be attending as well? I don't think anyone has heard from him yet.'

That message was from only twenty minutes ago and towards the end of the recent activity. Ryūnosuke contemplated closing the chatroom, but again could not resist the alluring pull of his own curiosity. His ego demanded that he know what the others mentioned of him, if anything at all. Damn the possible consequences. 
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Spoiler

Wakazō #8: I can make it but will @♕Ryūn will be attending as well? I don't think anyone has heard from him yet.
Super_Neko: ... seriously?
Super_Neko: You're gonna ask THAT question.
Wakazō #8: What?! Why is that question a problem?
Mimi-chan: Because why on earth would he be attending?
Wakazō #8: Why wouldn't Tamura-senpai be attending?!
KILLA Kiriyama: @Mimi-chan @♙Wakazō #8 Would both of you just relax. This isn't the time or place for it.
JouMANJI: Lay off Mimi, the kid doesn't know.
Wakazō #8: Know what? What don't I know?
Yatsumura: Tamura-san, won't be coming. Haven't you noticed he hasn't been at school at all?
Wakazō #8: After what happened with Enokida-san, maybe he needed some time away from school
Yatsumura: Kawashima-kun, are you socially retarded?
KILLA Kiriyama: jeez, man, learn the read the mood
Super_Neko: I guess the baseball team is keeping the denser ones nowadays  ╮(︶▽︶)╭
JouMANJI: Leave the kid alone, he's just worried about his senpai. Kawashima, just drop it
Wakazō #8: WHAT HAPPENED????! Why am I being kept out of the loop? Joumanji-senpai!!!!!
Akane: We broke up. And Tamura moved away. Haven't you noticed, his mom's bookstore closed down.
Akane: So, no. He won't be coming.
Wakazō #8: You broke up, why? You two are the King and Queen! Why did Tamura-senpai move away?
KILLA Kiriyama: Dude, take a hint
Super_Neko: What an idiot
Akane: Yeah, none of that is any of your business, kid.
Mimi-chan: Just ignore him, Akane-senpai. This one is clearly stupid
Wakazō #8: Who are you calling stupid!
Mimi-chan: How about you move away as well if you want to be with your senpai so much.
Super_Neko: I heard he moved to America.
Wakazō #8: AMERICA?!

----------

Ryūnosuke sighed and dropped his phone on his lap. There were many thoughts swarming in his head, most of all he wondered how much of what happened was actually known and what other rumors had spread about him. It was frustrating for him, he knew that dwelling over those things did not help with the "turning a new leaf" vision, the entire basis on which their move to Karakura had been predicated. His mother warned him before that it would be best to sever all the connections he had in Osaka and anyone related to what happened with Hina Enokida. That was much easier said than done. As much as he wanted to move on and as much as he should have ignored the messages, Ryūnosuke could not deny that he still cared about what his old teammates thought of him. He especially cared about Akane's perception of him. However, his mother was right, it was time to move on. He couldn't bring himself to interact in the group chatroom, but the least he could do was reach out Akane privately, wish her the best, and bid her farewell. He opened his phone again and brought up his private chat with Akane. The last received message was one of hers, from three weeks prior. 'Where are you? I drove by your mom's bookshop and its been completely closed down. Are you leaving town?', it read. Ryūnosuke grunted, realizing that he'd completely forgotten to respond. At the time it was sent, he put it off and then kept putting it off until he'd let it slip out of his mine. He thought about what he should say for a moment and then began to reply. 'Hey, Akane. Sorry I didn't reply sooner. Yeah, my parents figured it would be best to get away from Osaka and have a fresh start someplace new. I saw that you got accepted into Nagoya, that's amazing. I'm very happy for you and I know you'll do your best.', he wrote. A part of him expected that Akane would ignore his message but to his surprise Akane was already typing a response. Ryūnosuke felt his heart pounding with anticipation up until the very moment that Akane's new message bleeped onto his screen. 'So, you ran away?' Ryūnosuke heard the icy contempt in the question as if Akane was standing right there in front of him. He could picture her scornful glare clearly in his head, but there was nothing for him to argue. She was right, running away was exactly what he'd done. So, Ryūnosuke replied simply with a 'Yeah. I ran away.'.

'Hmm, that's nothing like the Tamura Ryūnosuke I know.' Akane replied, but then added 'Well, to be more precise, the Tamura Ryūnosuke I thought I knew. You've shown that you're capable of some alarming things.', before Ryūnosuke could even respond. Ryūnosuke leaned back against the wooden headboard of his bed and reread the message perplexedly. He wondered if he needed to defend himself or just let the remark slide. He understood that Akane might still be justifiably angry about what happened between them, and that ignoring her messages for so long didn't help his case either. But for her to go that far, that was unfair especially considering the role she played in what happened. 'I've shown that I'M capable of some alarming things?', he replied defensively, which provoked Akane's next response.

'Yeah, you know, like cheating on your girlfriend who has been nothing but loyal to you. That kind of alarming thing.' At that point, the back and forth argument over texts began.

'I didn't cheat on you, Akane! You know that!'
'Then please explain those pictures, the ones I found on your phone that morning.'

'Those pictures were a mistake. They meant nothing!'
'You kept them. Clearly they meant something.'
'Yeah, and you spread them all over the fucking internet!'
'So, now what happened is my fault? Somehow it's my fault that I found pictures of another girl on YOUR phone.'
'You hated Hina from the day she arrived. For some reason you couldn't stand the fact that we became friends. As smart and confident as you are, you just can't admit that you were jealous of her. You were so jealous and petty that you bullied and humiliated her.'
'Well, evidently I had every reason to be jealous, considering what happened.'
'You really think you're completely innocent in all of this?'
'This all started with you and you're to blame. That's why you ran away and now you're casting blame to deflect from having to accept responsibility for what you did. I must have really had the wrong idea about you. Hate to admit it, but maybe my dad was right. All you Tamura men are despicable.'
'Yeah, your words and actions speaks volumes of what you Ayanokoji are really like, as well.'
'I can't believe I ever dated you. You're pathetic. I thought I'd be heartbroken about leaving you after all the things we've been through together, but you've made it so much easier for me. Have a good life, Tamura Ryūnosuke.'

With all the might he could muster in that instant, Ryūnosuke hurled his phone through the air and into the wall. It hit the wall with a loud thud. Ryūnosuke watched the device shatter into at least 4 pieces as shards of glass from the obliterated screen sprinkled across his room. Before he had time to fully register what he'd done in his outburst of rage, Mariko was already making her way down the hall and to his room. He heard the haste in her steps as she rushed to his door and the teenager buried his face into his cupped hands. "Ryūn! I heard a loud noise, is everything okay?!" Mariko asked worriedly as she scanned the room for any fallen objects or disturbances. She saw a crack in the wall where something had collided with the concrete and below it on the carpet were the just about unrecognizable remains of what had been her son's smartphone. "What happened?!"

"Nothing, I'm fine." Ryūnosuke replied, his voice muffled by his hands.
"Ryūn, you can't expect me to just believe you're fine after you've-"

"I said I'm fine, mom!" Ryūnosuke spat back his temper having gotten the better of him. He recognized it immediately afterwards and realized he was in the wrong again, lashing out at his mother. "I can't do this now. I can't be here.", he thought. Ryūnosuke got out of bed and walked past his mother to the closet on the right side of the room.

Mariko took a moment to calm her own nerves, but she knew that Ryūnosuke had seen the anger in her eyes. "You are not fine, Ryūnosuke. You keep telling me you are, but you haven't been fine for a long time." She watched her son undress down to his boxer shorts, leaving his pajamas in a heap on the floor that he kicked to the side as he shifted through his closet and pulled out a black tracksuit. It didn't seem like he was listening to her, but Mariko continued anyway, there were things that she couldn't allow to go unsaid for any longer. "I keep telling myself that I have to give you space and time to figure this out and yesterday, for the first time in a very long time, I thought things were getting better." She paused, hoping to give her son a chance to respond or at least acknowledge her words. 

Ryūnosuke had just finished adjusting the elastic waistband of his pants. He grabbed an orange shirt and put his arms through the sleeves, "Sorry I haven't gotten over driving someone to commit suicide fast enough for you, mom." Ryūnosuke said with no real intention of mocking his mother. Rather, the words seemed to just slip out.

That was the final straw for Mariko, "Is that what you think? That I'm being inconsiderate of what you're going through. You're not the only one who has had to suffer from this Ryūnosuke. You're not the only one with regrets and guilt. I understand that you're angry and you feel guilty for what you did, but you can't just use that as an excuse to lash out at everyone, especially not the one person trying to help you." There was no trace of her the usual motherly tenderness in her voice. Instead, it was heavy with her frustration and sadness.

"Maybe if you stopped trying to help so much, you'd be better off. I can handle this myself." Ryūnosuke retorted, casting the tracksuit jacket over his back before he pulled both arms through the sleeves starting with the right.

"No, Ryūnosuke. This-" Mariko pointed out the destroyed phone on the floor. "This is not 'handling' anything. This is being a selfish brat. And I raised you better than that." 

Ryūnosuke sighed under his breath, he'd heard that same phrase from his father more times than he cared to remember "you were raised better",  and he'd grown tired of the notion that that somehow meant he should have been incapable of doing wrong. "Again with the how you raised me stuff. You ever consider that maybe you didn't raise such a great kid?" he muttered, putting a baseball cap on his head.

Mariko was visibly stunned by the response and took a step back. "What does that mean? What are you implying that I am a bad mother?" Ryūnosuke did not respond immediately, though in his heart he knew his answer should have been an immediate, clear, and resounding "No". Mariko was not by any stretch of the imagination a "bad mother". Ryūnosuke was beginning to get exhausted; the conversation was weighing heavily on his already tolled mental state. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to think straight and articulate his thoughts. He felt the greatest amount of regret about being rude to his mother and it just made him angrier that no matter how nasty and disrespectful he was she continued to be supportive of him. She really was the only person trying to help him, but Ryūnosuke didn't need Mariko's care or support at the moment. He needed her to be angry with him. To tell him directly that he was in the wrong and he deserved all the suffering that came to him. He needed her to say that she was disappointed. Because he knew Mariko had raised him better and he should have been better. Akane was right as well, he was pathetic, his mother just didn't know how much so.

It suddenly became important that he made her understand her son wasn't the pure innocent young man she'd raised him to be. The truth was, he'd started down this dark path long before the tragedy with Hina. A path of lies and secrets. Ryūnosuke held his final words, he felt them choking him as if they'd taken the form of a barbed lump in his throat. Though he couldn't yet imagine the form his words would take once he'd said them. After this, there was no telling what would happen or what his mother would do. He just knew he was taking the coward's way out. Ryūnosuke picked an orange and black backpack out of a cardboard box in the corner of his room behind the door. He noticed his aluminum baseball bat was fastened into one of the external slip pockets. He wore the bag by the right shoulder strap, walked pass his mother out of his room, and into the hallway. He wanted to give himself a head start.

"We're not done here. Where are you going?" Mariko asked.

Ryūnosuke took a deep breath and clutched his fists. "Remember that morning two days before it happened. I came home and you asked where I'd been. I told you I spent the night at Kiriyama's place, but that wasn't the truth. The truth is that I was with Akane." Ryūnosuke paused, he still had his back to his mother so he couldn't see her expression but he had no doubt that she'd probably already begun to connect the dots. "We went to a hotel together and we-" Ryūnosuke stammered, it shocked him that even he could get this flustered. "We-" ,he grunted, struggling to get the words out.

"I understand, Ryūnosuke." Mariko interjected suddenly, hoping to spare her son the embarrassment. While she herself felt no less flustered and awkward about the revelation, she figured it would help keep Ryūnosuke talking. "You two are young... you loved each other, and sometimes those things just happen." 

Ryūnosuke shook his head. "No, you don't get it. That night... I only went to Akane because I was angry with Hina. I'd been avoiding her that entire week all because I-" Ryūnosuke stopped himself there. This was the hardest part, coming to grips with the fact that at the end of the day this entire tragedy really did ball down to his own mistakes. How could he accept that? There was no way it was that simple. How could even begin to carry that burden and why should he have to? For now, he'd already admitted more than he should have and if he said anything else he knew his mother would have more questions. Questions he wasn't ready to answer or worse yet, didn't have the answers to. "I... I need to clear my head." The teenager said as he sprinted down the stairs without another word.

"No no no no no, Ryūnosuke!" Mirako begged as she attempted to chase after her son but to no avail, Ryūnosuke was too fast. She reached the staircase before completely giving up her pursuit. "Ryūnosuke, please come back!" she shouted just before he legs gave out from under her and she collapsed to her knees. On the very brink of an emotional breakdown of her own, Mirako made one final plea to her son "Please don't shut me out again!" she sobbed as tears poured down her cheeks. Then, as if to signify his rejection of her heartfelt request, the door slammed behind her departed son.

To Be Continued...
______________________________
WC|4,845
-----

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005: Conviction PRT 1
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___________________

... RYŪNOSUKE ran from home with no specific destination in mind. The seventeen year old's only certainty at the time was his need to get away; to create distance between himself and his problems. He ran for long as he two feet could possibly carry him, but Ryūnosuke noted that he was discernibly unfocused. His breathing, short and sporadic, was a clear indicator that he would not be able to keep up his run for very long. Nevertheless, Ryūnosuke couldn't stop; if he stopped running, his thoughts would catch up to him and he'd have to confront them head on. He couldn't run forever, but he intended to delay the inevitable for as long as he possibly could. Alas, came the fated hour; Ryūnosuke had ran just short of three miles from his home when his body finally rebelled against his will to press onward. The teenager stopped just seconds before he reached a bridge, over-passing Karasu river, heading into Old Town Karakura. He bent forwards and clutched his knees, panting as sweat trickled from his face; his cheeks flushed with exhaustion. Ryūnosuke swallowed hard and tensed as he felt the rush of negative emotions flood over him like a crashing tide. With his mind no longer preoccupied with controlling his continuous movement, he began to question what he'd done and said. Just what was he thinking, sharing that sensitive information with his mother, it hadn't helped in the slightest! It didn't absolve him of any of his guilt or regret. It didn't make him feel any less shitty. It didn't undo what happened to Hina or change why it happened. The only thing it did was make things extremely awkward and embarrassing. Ryūnosuke was certain he'd managed only to humiliate himself and now he could never return to that house or face his mother. "Nice going, idiot." Ryūnosuke muttered, cursing himself as he caught his breath and then walked over the bridge. He was no less emotionally distraught, but at least the teenager knew very clearly where he was headed as he followed the street signs that directed him through Old Town Karakura and to the train station.

It was a relatively low traffic hour, when Ryūnosuke reached the station, the morning rush hour had ended long before the teenager arrived. The station was basically empty, which worked just fine for Ryūnosuke. It meant there were fewer prying eyes or concerned adults to potentially ask him about why he was looking to leave town alone or why he wasn't in school. Ryūnosuke sat on one of the many empty metal benches within the station building and contemplated boarding the next train leaving Karakura. He knew that he most likely couldn't return to Osaka or to the life he'd left behind. Ryūnosuke also knew there was no place he could run to fully escape the horrors that plagued him. So, then, why did he keep running, was it simply because running was easy? Ryūnosuke told himself that he was trying to find the answers ever since that morning. In reality, he'd found nothing but excuses until now and ever worse than that, he'd realized the possibility that there was no answer to be found. There was no "undo button", no reset, no way for him to bring Hina back. Ryūnosuke sunk into the bench and pulled down the brim of his cap to hide his face. There was no "fix" to what he'd done. What was the "right thing" to do now? Was it too late for that now, was he expected to just live with this unbearable guilt for the rest of his life? Who wouldn't run from a bleak reality like that?

"Traveling light, are you?", said a feminine voice to the teenager's left minutes later. Ryūnosuke hadn't noticed exactly when the person arrived or sat down beside him. "Where are you heading to?", the stranger added. The voice was curious and had a softness to it that reminded Ryūnosuke of his mother's. He sat straight up again and raised his cap just enough to get a clear look at the woman addressing him from the corner of his left eye. She appeared to be in her late twenties to early thirties from what Ryūnosuke could tell. She wore a black dress suit, with a white blouse, and her brunette hair was styled neatly in a single bun. She had one large maroon suitcase on her left side and a beige duffel bag nuzzled on the bench between her and Ryūnosuke. Ryūnosuke immediately noticed the mild puffiness beneath the woman's eyes as she smiled at him, and he could tell she was tired; likely due to having her own life issues. Still, she'd gone through the trouble of talking to him, it was only polite that he responded. Even if the person was a complete stranger. Most likely, they'd never cross paths again. Besides, the woman looked like she was more in need of a conversation than she was actually concerned with wherever some random teenager was headed. "Not sure. I haven't decided if I'm leaving or not yet."

"Sorry", the woman replied. "I don't mean to be nosy, it's just.", she paused and sighed. "I wasn't certain, but I when I saw you here, I thought I might know what you were going through because I've been in a similar situation.", she explained.

Ryūnosuke scoffed involuntarily at the thought of the woman having experienced anything like what he was going through; but once he realized how rude it must have sounded he immediately regretted it. "Sorry, I didn't mean to-"

"No, it fine." The woman interjected with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I know how it must have sounded to you. Strange lady at the train station takes one look at you and somehow thinks she knows exactly what you're going through, I get it.", she chuckled momentarily before pausing. She looked directly at Ryūnosuke before leaning her side against the back of the bench and crossed her fingers together tightly on her lap. "I guess, what I should have said is that I can recognize someone trying to run away from something, because I have been there. In fact, I'd been running away from something for too long until recently."

Ryūnosuke didn't know how he should respond to the woman's words. She'd pretty much read his situation accurately, the teenager suddenly felt more self-conscious than he was before. He wondered if it was that obvious to every adult who saw him. He looked down at this sports bag on the floor between his legs. "You look like you've done alright for yourself in the end, despite the running away." He knew just how vain his comment sounded, but he needed to say anything to get the lady talking again.

"Oh, this?" The woman gestured to her outwards appearance. "This is just the visage, it's nothing." She remarked passingly. "But, you're right, for a very long time I did think I was doing great for myself. Kickass job, making good money, independence, everything I needed really. At least that's what I told myself over the years... Here, I'll show you." The woman reached into her pocket and took out her phone. She pressed the power button and pointed the screen at Ryūnosuke. The teenager, curious, looked at the screen and saw the background; a photo of a young boy, probably six or seven years old. He was looking upwards and smiling as warm rays of sunlight kissed his chubby features; the child looked a little goofy on account of missing two of his front teeth. There was a small beach ball in the boys tiny hands and he sat in the middle of shiny golden sands. A small blue wave brushing up against his left side. Ryūnosuke couldn't help but break a smile when he saw the boy. "He's a darling isn't he!", said the woman. "That's my Kaito-kun. He's turning eight next month." The woman put her phone on her lap. "I've decided, I'm never going to miss another important day in his life." Ryūnosuke looked at the woman directly, he had an idea of what she meant now, but he wasn't sure. A wave of sadness hit him when the woman simply nodded, acknowledging his thought with confirmation as if she had read his mind. "I was eighteen when I had Kaito. Still a young, stupid college kid. You can imagine my absolute dread when I found out I was pregnant. When he was born, I was sick with fear and anxiety. I wouldn't be able to raise a child and focus on my education and my career."

"What about his father?" Ryūnosuke asked lowly, although he suspected that he already knew the answer.

The woman shook her head. "He was never in the picture. Got spooked pretty early on, as well. I don't blame him though, besides, I never thought he'd stick around to father the child anyway." Ryūnosuke wanted to comment that he could relate to that, but decided against it and instead allowed the woman to keep talking. "Anyway, I was too scared to raise Kaito on my own. I was ashamed for having a child while I was in college. Ashamed that I wasn't more careful. I tried to manage it for a while, but after just three weeks, I left Kaito with my grandparents and ran away from home. I tried my best to forget about him. I figured my grandparents could give him all the love and care he needed without me. A few years later, I finished college, got a job, worked my way up in the company. I thought I was happy, but really it was all just a distraction. No matter how hard I tried to, I couldn't forget about my child. It took seven years, but I was finally done running, I was ready to do right by Kaito but when I finally saw him I realized that time doesn't wait on anyone, and things don't just magically get better if you ignore them." The woman paused, Ryūnosuke could tell she was on the verge of tearing up and he was suddenly reminded of his mother again. "My Kaito is such a sweet boy, but it's no thanks to me. I'm no better qualified to be a good mother to him than I was eight years ago. I've missed out on so much of his life, so much of being a family that when he looks at me now I don't see any love in his eyes. As far as he knows I'm just some stranger who abandoned him." The woman wiped her eyes and smiled. "I can't take back the years I've lost with him, and as far as I know he may resent me for the rest of his life." It was at that moment that Ryūnosuke felt his own tears beginning to swell in his eyes. "That's the kind of thing that'll break any mother's heart."

"Then why?" Ryūnosuke stammered, his eyes were hidden behind the brim of his cap but the woman saw the line of tears that rolled down the teenager's cheek. "I don't understand. Why would you just accept to let yourself suffer! You said it yourself, your son probably hates you and sure that's his right to do so but you're not really to blame either. You were a college student, you couldn't raise him on your own and his father wasn't in the picture. You tried, you did what you could. You've been punished enough haven't you?"

"It's not about punishment."

"What else is there?! You made your mistake, you paid for it with all those years you lost. Now you're choosing to live with the odds that you might not ever loved by your son! What do you call that!" Ryūnosuke exclaimed, the woman could tell the question was more for the teenager himself than it was for her, still, she answered with the best response she could give.

"It's called doing the right thing.", she delivered plainly. Ryūnosuke visibly tensed up, he took a moment to hold his emotions at bay. He paused for a moment to work on a response, a counter argument, but he quickly realized that he didn't have one. In fact, it seemed like the woman had simply reaffirmed the answer he knew deep down all along. The woman noticed the teenager's shoulders drop in defeat, she reached over and gave him a soft rub on his back. "It's a tough one to accept, but at the end of the day, we do the right thing because that's what makes us moral people, even when its difficult, even when it hurts and feels like it's a punishment." As the woman stopped there, she and Ryūnosuke noticed the train arrive at the station. "Well, I think that's me... or us" she chuckled as she stood up and collected her bags. She smiled at the teenager as he wiped his eyes and looked up at her directly.

"Off to see Kaito-kun, right?"
"Absolutely, and permanently this time. I'm gonna be the best mother I can be from now on. Not sure what all that entails, but I'll take it all on. Anything for my Kaito-kun."
"Then I guess this is goodbye." Ryūnosuke stood up and held his palm out to shake the woman's hand. "I still don't have all the answers but after speaking to you I think I know there is one issue I can't run away from. So, I won't be getting on that train."

The woman nodded before giving Ryūnosuke a firm handshake. "Allow this strange lady at a train station to impart one last bit of wisdom before she goes away forever?", she asked sarcastically.

Ryūnosuke chuckled and nodded back. "Shoot."

The woman took a deep breath and looked Ryūnosuke directly in his eyes, "You don't have to figure it out alone, you know. If there are people around for you to ask and lean on for support there is no shame in that. And one last thing, if whatever happened has beaten you up this much already, you're most likely on the right track. I know that from experience. I just hope it doesn't take you as long as it took me to know for sure." With that the woman boarded the trained and waved bye to Ryūnosuke and the sliding doors hissed shut. Ryūnosuke waved back as the train left the station.

Once it was gone, the teenager wore his backpack and exited the station building. As he walked into the Karakura Shopping District, Ryūnosuke thought about the woman and everything she said about doing the right thing as well as her own life and her relationship with her son, Kaito. It made Ryūnosuke think about his relationship with his own mother again. While he couldn't even fathom a reality in which Mariko would abandon him, he could see one in which she felt like Ryūnosuke no longer loved her. After hearing the woman speak, the ramifications of actually running away from home dawned on Ryūnosuke clearly. The fact that he'd even considered abandoning his mother after everything that had happened served only to make the teenager despise himself and his actions even more than he already did. However, the additional self-loathing aside, Ryūnosuke knew what he had to do. He might not have had the answers for the other things but, at the very least, he knew he had to do right by Mariko. She deserved nothing less and it was the right thing to do.

To Be Continued...
______________________________
WC|2,600
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OOC|Equipment Obtained: [Kakushin (確信, Conviction) ] Ryūnosuke's alloy Baseball bat.

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006: Conviction PRT 2
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___________________

... RYŪNOSUKE fully intended to return home and sort things out with his mother... eventually. The truth was, even after the conversation with the woman at the train station, and even after steeling his resolve, Ryūnosuke was still far too embarrassed to go home so soon. Barely four hours had passed since he left and the words he'd told his mother before storming out the door were still seared into his conscious thoughts as if freshly branded there. Despite Mariko's attempt to make her son feel less embarrassed and awkward about it, the fact remained that it wasn't information Ryūnosuke felt he would ever be comfortable with his mother knowing. "Then why did you tell her, you dumbass!", the teenager muttered inwardly, scolding and berating himself repeatedly for his humiliating mistake, as he roamed the streets of the shopping district. Ryūnosuke's only definitive aim was to stall for time until he'd built up the courage to return home and face Mariko. "This isn't running away from my problems. This is just keeping distance until I find the right angle of approach."  The teenager told himself, and continued to tell himself as the arms of the clock turned morning over to mid-day. However, walking around the shopping district got very boring snapping quick. Only an hour later, Ryūnosuke decided that allowing another minute be wasted window shopping was no longer justifiable. If he couldn't find a more productive use of his time, he'd might as well just return home. As soon as he had that thought, an image of his mother waiting for him at the door of their black box of a home had him flustered again. The only logical decision was to find something else to do, maybe fish around for a part-time job opportunity. He remembered his mother already approved of him getting a job as long as he kept his grades up. Surely there had to be at least one shop looking to hire a teenager part-time. Ryūnosuke also didn't have anything specific in mind, though he thought himself rather capable for his age. As far as physical labor went, he might have been the best suited teenager for it around.

Having decided his next course of action, Ryūnosuke continued his walk through the shopping district, now on the hunt for potential employment opportunities. Time possessed the illusion of passing faster when the teenager actually had a set goal to accomplish. Two more hours flew by without him realizing it, and Ryūnosuke was, frustratingly, no closer to having a job as far as he could tell. Growing progressively tired and agitated with each passing minute and fruitless effort, Ryūnosuke decided to take a short break. He stopped by a vending machine, fed it the required amount of pocket change, and pressed buttons as prompted until the machine acknowledged the transaction and released Ryūnosuke's purchase with a loud THUNK. After claiming his cold bottled beverage, a Pokka Sportswater, Ryūnosuke twisted open the sealed cap and guzzled down all five-hundred sweet milliliters of the pale drink. The effects were almost immediate, Ryūnosuke smiled as he tossed the empty bottle into the nearby plastics recycling bin. "Yoshi" he cheered and pounded his right fist into his open left palm. He felt as if the sports drink had not only hydrated his body but also his dried up good mood. He'd just started to carry on in his quest for a job when he noticed a couple walking with their young child. They didn't stick out particularly as a family, and none of them had any special features that set them apart from the crowd. In fact, Ryūnosuke hadn't even noticed their faces when he saw them. What he did notice, however, was the baseball helmet the little boy was wearing; as well as the small baseball bat he carried in his right hand. "Is there a batting center nearby?" Ryūnosuke suddenly wondered, as all thoughts of finding a job completely evaporated from his conscious. The teenager began to follow the family, while maintaining a big enough distance from them as to not appear suspicious. The last thing he wanted was to be mistakenly perceived as a stalker or a creep. Especially not once he considered that the family could just be heading to back to their private residence for all he knew. He had enough un-pleasantries stacked on his metaphoric plate as it was. Still, the teenager preferred to think the family were headed to a batting center or at least some baseball field or sandlot somewhere in town.

Much to Ryūnosuke's elation, the family had indeed led him to an indoor batting center in the heart of the shopping district. The establishment was snuggled tightly between a sportswear outlet and a game cards store. Ryūnosuke thought it fit in perfectly, as he admired the two story building from the outside. "Elites Dome. Games and Sports" the teenager read the lighted storefront sign gleefully. The name was displayed in bold all-capped letters, large enough to cover half of the front wall above the building's twin sliding doors. On the upper-half of the wall was another lighted sign dedicated to just the logo. A single baseball cradled in the palm of a leather mitt, with a pair of crossed baseball bats behind it. Ryūnosuke cracked a huge grin, he loved the place already!

The glass doors slid openly seamlessly as he approached and a cold air-conditioned breeze rushed against him. The air carried the smell of rubber (from the infill crumbs of the artificial turf, no doubt!) and there was also a faint hint of alcohol-based cleaning agent, most likely used on the bats. As he stepped inside, Ryūnosuke could hear the mechanical whirling of pitching machines in the distance and occasionally he'd also hear a brief PING! as a baseball made contact with a bat. The teenager felt his shoulders quiver with joy. THIS was exactly what he needed. Ryūnosuke could hardly remember the last time he'd hit a ball or even swung his bat. He remembered the last game he played with his team, it was a open match with a neighboring high school before they went on winter break. It had only been a few months ago, but it surely felt like decades ago. 

Ryūnosuke faced the receptionist behind the small counter to his right as the sliding doors closed behind him. She was shorter than him, but looked to be around his age. He noticed she was wearing the striped white jersey of the Japanese national Baseball team and a matching black cap with the letter "J" embroiled on the front panel. Ryūnosuke approved immediately. The receptionist snickered at him, Ryūnosuke figured it was in reaction to how bright his expression must have been glowing. "Welcome, to Elites Dome!", said the receptionist before sliding in a quick remark. "I'm gonna assume you'd like to use a batting cage."

"Yes, please. Thank you!" Ryūnosuke replied immediately, unaware of how high his voice had gotten with joy. The receptionist nodded and began to type something into the computer at the counter as Ryūnosuke inspected the wall behind her. The wall was decorated in full with signed and framed baseball accessories and equipment. There were also multiple framed photos of a tall bearded man, who Ryūnosuke assumed was the owner, standing with famous Japanese Baseball stars. The teenager noticed a few right away, like the famous, now retired, pitcher Hideo Nomo. As well as his favorite switch-hitter and infielder, Kazuo "Kaz" Matsui; the very first Japanese infielder to sign with a Major League Baseball team. Ryūnosuke's excitement grew with every player that he recognized, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiri Suzuki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Hisashi Iwakuma, and the list went on and on. "Excuse me, is that man the owner!" Ryūnosuke blurted out as he nodded in the direction of one of the many photographs. He simply had to know who this man, who'd practically photographed himself with every Japanese Baseball legend Ryūnosuke could think of, was.

The receptionist looked back at the wall and snickered, "No, that's not the owner, silly! That's Shohei Ohtani, he plays for the Los Angeles Angels." she replied sharply.

Ryūnosuke scoffed, the receptionist had clear misunderstood which "guy" he was referring to. "No! I know who Shohei Ohtani is, I mean the guy-" The receptionist burst into laughter and cut him off, leaving Ryūnosuke to simply blink at her in confusion.

"Sorry." She wiped her eye. "I was just messing with you." she explained before swiveling on her heels and facing the wall with Ryūnosuke. She pointed out Shohei Ohtani (Ryūnosuke's idol, though he did not mention it) in the picture again. "That guy, we obviously both know is Shohei Ohtani.", she then shifted her index finger an inch or so to the right and pointed out the tall bearded man present in all the photographs. "Now that guy is Asano Shimada, the owner, and also my dad." She spun back around and faced her entranced costumer again. "I'm Asano Nozomi, by the way, mister..." she let her breath linger, giving Ryūnosuke a chance to introduce himself.

"Tamura Ryūnosuke" He replied without much thought. He worried Nozomi might recognize his name and thus know about his background and the events that led to his relocation to Karakura. However, he was relieved when Nozomi didn't appear to recognize his name at all; Ryūnosuke took a mental note of his own conceit again. Being aware of his own vanity had a habit of stinging on the inside. 

Nozomi nodded "Nice to meet you, Tamura-san."

"Likewise, Asano-san." Ryūnosuke glanced up at the picture of the owner, Asano Shimada, again and his lips cracked open as if he wanted to ask another question, but he shut them instead, hoping not be annoy Nozomi with more inquiries while she was trying to do her job.

"Well, you're in luck, we have a lot of free cages at the moment. Our pitching machines are token operated. Each token costs two-hundred-fifteen yen. One token gets you fifteen pitches. But, if you want, you can get twenty tokens for three-thousand, two-hundred, twenty-five yen.", Nozomi explained. 

Ryūnosuke quickly processed the math in his head, "So, that's like five free tokens and.. three-hundred pitches. I'll go with that please.", he reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and gave Nozomi the money.

"Thank you for your purchase, Tamura-san!" Nozomi accepted the payment and exchanged it with a small beige pouch containing Ryūnosuke's twenty tokens. Ryūnosuke happily took it off her hands. "Cage A-6 is all yours. That's on this floor. Last cage down the hall to your left."

"A-6, got it." Ryūnosuke nodded as he headed down the hall.
"Have fun!" Nozomi shouted out to him as he disappeared from her sight.

Ryūnosuke entered an huge air-conditioned room that was much larger than he imagined anyone would have guessed based on how tightly tucked in the batting center appeared from the outside. It was almost as if the the space was contained in a pocket dimension of its own --a very awesome pocket dimension, the teenager noted. The entire floor was covered in artificial turf infilled with crumbled bits of recycled rubber, just as Ryūnosuke suspected based on the smell when he entered Elites Dome. Lined up in a single row to his right were six batting cages, each divined by a metal fence that extended all the way up to the ceiling. The first and shortest batting cage to his right was A-1, occupied currently by the family of three he'd followed to find the batting center. As Ryūnosuke walked straight ahead towards cage A-6, he noticed that A-2 and A-3 were also shorter lanes, likely designed specifically for child customers. As he approached the last --and his personally assigned-- batting cage, A-6, Ryūnosuke was pleased to see it was appropriately sized. He didn't even need to measure it physically, his experienced eye identified that there was just over a sixty feet distance between the batter's box (designated by two white rectangular boxes painted on the turf) and the pitching machine. The teenager grinned as he entered the cage and closed the gate behind him. He walked through the opening in the green mesh net that surrounded the walls of the cage and served as a secondary barrier for straying baseballs. Ryūnosuke pinched the Velcro opening of the mesh net close as well and then dropped his bag at his right foot. He knelled, unzipped the backpack and extracted a pair of black baseball gloves that he then wore with haste. Next, he pulled his aluminum bat from the side pouch. Ryūnosuke paused once he had the bat in his hands as an image of a smiling Hina flashed in his head. Ryūnosuke quickly rotated the bat in his palm and examined its surface to confirm the Kanji that Hina had inked on it for him.

'確信'
Kakushin, 'Conviction'; the name they had given the bat together on Ryūnosuke's seventeenth birthday --the day Hina gifted it to him. Ryūnosuke recalled mentioning to Hina that she didn't have to spend so much money on a bat for him, especially since he wouldn't be allowed to use it in any of his high school games. The bat was just too advanced, plus even if it was allowed, he'd need time to break it in. The words Hina spoke to him afterwards would stick with him forever. It shocked him that it had taken him so long to remember them.

"I know, stupid. You already have plenty of bats for Baseball. This one is for something else."
Ryūnosuke stood up to his full height, and got into batting position within the right-side batter's box, as Hina's voice continued to echo in his mind and heart.
"This bat is special. Even if you're never able to use it in an official game, you should never let it go."
Ryūnosuke tightened his fingers around the lizard skin grip of the bat and he could immediately picture Hina standing at his side, just as she had on the day she told him those words. He took a deep breath.
"Whenever you're down, whenever you feel like there is something getting in your way, I want you picture all that crap as a huge dark wall in front of you."
Sure as he remembered the words, Ryūnosuke imagined all the thoughts and worries that plagued him at the moment, even his inability to fully accept what happened to Hina. All the things with the move, his problems with his father, his fall out with Akane, and all his anger and frustration. He took all the negativity and piled it, pitch black brick by pitch black brick, into a massive wall, an obstacle that completely towered over him and engulfed him in the cold darkness of the shadow that it cast.
"Use this bat to channel your conviction,"
Ryūnosuke tensed for a second preparing to back his swing with the full brunt of his strength and will.
"And smash all your worries and obstacles to pieces, kay?"

Ryūnosuke winced as a tear rolled down his cheeks, but he swung. He swung with all his might, just as Hina's voice told him to. The black wall trembled with the first hit, but Ryūnosuke wasn't done yet. He assumed batting position again, and again he swung with all the power he could muster. This time the wall split at the center and a warm white light could be seen pouring through it. Ryūnosuke sniffled as he readied his bat a final time and looked to the image of Hina standing at his side. She nodded with a smile and Ryūnosuke inhaled sharply once more before swinging his bat with so much intensity that he swore he saw the metal fence of the cage rattle and the mesh net bellow from a shock wave produced by the sheer force of his movement. With that swing, the black wall in his mind was obliterated completely and crumbled away as the white white flooded over him for just a second before it disappeared; the image of Hina gone with it as well.

Ryūnosuke stood as if halted in time, his bat and arms still extended at the peak of his swing. Just as that light had engulfed him and passed, so had a fleeting since of peace and relief. Two emotions Ryūnosuke had not felt in so long. For just that second he felt as light as a feather, it was a feeling he couldn't communicate or liken to anything else. The teenager wasn't even sure he fully understood himself. He couldn't explain what happened or why it caused tears to pour from his eyes like a waterfall. All he knew, was that whatever it was, it effected him in a way he could never have anticipated; and, although as brief as it was, Ryūnosuke knew it had left him just a little bit better than he'd been before.

Ryūnosuke lowered his bat, pulled his cap off with his left hand, and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Thank you, Hina.", he sobbed lowly. Ryūnosuke recomposed himself quickly afterwards. He inserted a token into the designated slot behind the batter's box. The slot was connected to a wire that ran through a white pvc pipe lined across the bottom of the cage fence, all the way to the automatic pitching machine. The pitching machine whirled to life, Ryūnosuke readied himself for the incoming pitch, and it came seconds later, just as he expected. Although the ball shot through the air at seventy miles per hour, Ryūnosuke saw it approaching as if it were floating though the air in slow-motion. It'd been this way for him for almost as long as he could remember. With no trouble at all, Ryūnosuke lined the sweet spot of the bat barrel with the center of the ball and swung.
PING!
Ryūnosuke grinned as he followed through with his swing and watched the ball shoot back in a perfect line drive, right into the protective L-screen guarding the pitching machine. Ryūnosuke chuckled, not surprised at all that he'd batted the ball successfully, but simply enamored of the vibrating of his bat in his hand when it impacted the ball. He'd been completely unaware of how much he missed that sensation as well.

To Be Continued...
[Left Thread]
[Continues In: Blunt Trauma]
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015: Remembrance
[Continuation From: Blunt Trauma]
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... RYŪNOSUKE drifted in and out of consciousness periodically. To him it felt like slipping between two blending dream-states. He had no way of accurate discerning dream from reality. The real from the illusions. Sometimes he saw images and relived moments from his past --the life he knew he'd lived-- but meshed into those memories were events that didn't quite fit in or belong. In one memory, he was having dinner with his mother, they were laughing; but when spoke to him, it was with a childish voice that wasn't her own. "Hōō no Sokumen." she said flatly.

"What?" Ryūnosuke thought as small bursts of vermilion flames ignited on the dining table and the wall behind his mother. Then, his mother caught flame as well, though she didn't react at all and continued to smile and talk to Ryūnosuke as if nothing was wrong. Oddly enough, Ryūnosuke did not react either, even as he too was engulfed in the rich red flames that quickly burned away the entire memory and filled the darkness of his mind with just that vermilion blaze. He could feel and hear the flickering of the flames around him. They didn't hurt at all, rather, they felt surprisingly warm and cool at the same time. Like a touch of a continuous light breeze on a warm Spring day. It was soothing.

The next thing Ryūnosuke remembered was lying on his back, his head rested against the chest of another person he could not see. To be precise, he only knew it was a person due to the pair of arms that embraced him from behind and wrapped over his chest. He felt the softness of a cheek against the side of his head and he smelt something nice. Mint Chocolate? "Mom?" the teenager thought as the voice whispered into his right ear. "Like the great phoenix, from the ashes, we shall rise." With those words, Ryūnosuke's mind went black again.
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In the next memory he was sitting alone on the bleachers of a baseball field under a sky of pouring rain. He heard a crack of thunder off in the distance, but the rest of the sounds were just the white noise of the downpour. Ryūnosuke was cold and wet; his black baseball jersey, soaked in the rain, was heavy on his shoulders. Just like the feeling of defeat that overcame him suddenly."Wait?" Ryūnosuke thought. This memory was real. He knew what it was and he knew what was going to happen next.

"Heads up!" A girl's voice called out to him from his left. Ryūnosuke raised his head to face her. It was Hina Enokida. She winked at him with her camera (one of many she owned) held up in her left hand with the her other on her hip. The memory of her was crystal clear. Her short rosewood hair was soaked and matted down around her face and the lenses of her glasses were very slightly fogged. However, the thing Ryūnosuke recalled most clearly was her smile. It had an instant effect on him; he felt the weight on his shoulders begin to fade away.

Spoiler

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Hina was someone he didn't have to impress or be tough around. Someone who understood him and saw him for who he was, not the person he tried or even the person wanted to be. "Hina?" he replied, startled. "What are you doing out here?"

Hina furrowed her brows skeptically, "Eh? That's my line, dummy.", she murmured as she helped herself and sat down snugly beside Ryūnosuke. She leaned into him and rested her head on his shoulder. Ryūnosuke said nothing, though he welcomed her warmth. "Rough day, huh?" 

"Yeah." Ryūnosuke replied flatly.
"Hey, you did your best out there, I could tell." said Hina. Ryūnosuke knew she meant to console him in his moment of disappointment and sadness. Others had tried, but it was different with Hina. It just felt more sincere when she did it.

"My best just wasn't good enough, it seems."
Hina grunted lowly. "We can't win them all, buddy." Ryūnosuke appreciated that Hina said 'we'. Even though she didn't actually play Baseball, and so she hadn't 'loss' anything, it always felt like she was on Ryūnosuke's side no matter the outcome. At the same time, his loss stung that much more, because he knew if he loss, it was a loss for Hina as well. He'd let her down just like he'd let down the others.
"We could have won this one." There was a hint of bitterness in Ryūnosuke's voice. It wasn't directed at Hina and it was refreshing to know she always understood that fact without him having to say it out loud.
"So, what did you get wrong this time?" Ryūnosuke let out a low gasp. Had she somehow sensed he was more hurt at the thought of failing her and decided to exclude herself from the equation in order for him to focus on himself again? How was she that good at reading his mood? It never got any less disarming no matter how many times she'd done it.
"Too many wild pitches. That was my fault. They were fast and the batters could barely hit them, but I put too much pressure on Joumanji to catch them, as well. I should have trusted him more and listened to his calls", Ryūnosuke confessed retrospectively.
"Ah, there was also that one time when you tried that bizarre run for third base but got tagged. Kyah, I was holding my breath, I thought you might make it. It was so close." Hina added.

Ryūnosuke sighed, recalling the misplay again in his head and wondering what went through his mind when he thought he could possibly reach third base before the baseman caught the ball. His impatience costed his team a free score and it ruined the team's morale to see the ace get taken out on such an uncharacteristically bad play. "Yeah, there was that too."
"Well, the good news is you know where you messed up. So, we learn from it and get better, right?"
"Yeah." Ryūnosuke murmured.
"But just in case-" Ryūnosuke heard a CLICK as a light flashed at his right. Hina had snuck a picture of him.
"What are you doing?" Ryūnosuke questioned bluntly.
"Just immortalizing this moment." Hina replied as she looked at the picture on the screen of her camera. "Wow, even your self-loathing depressed look is photogenic. How do you do it?" she said as she put the screen in from of Ryūnosuke's face. 

The teenager blushed as saw himself on the screen, he thought he looked pathetic, all somber, frowning, and feeling sorry for himself. "Delete it, now." He demanded, knowing full well it wouldn't happen.
"No way! It's been immortalized!" Hina countered, as she pulled the camera away and held it tightly on her lap, guarding it from Ryūnosuke's reach.
"I don't like it... It's not how I want to remember today." Ryūnosuke countered back softly.
"So," Hina nuzzled her head against Ryūnosuke's shoulder. "What do you want to do about it?"
"Immortalize a different one." Ryūnosuke replied, there was a submissiveness in his tone. He wasn't demanding it of Hina. It was a sincere request.
Hina chuckled and smiled. "That, I can do." She said as she raised her camera up at an angle with both arms, it was pointed downwards at her and Ryūnosuke. "Look up." She whispered to him. Ryūnosuke listened, he looked up at the camera lens and saw their reflections in it. "Smile." said Hina softly. He did, and instantly felt his sadness wash away. He'd just about opened his mouth to say something when Hina pressed the button. The camera clicked again as the flash hit Ryūnosuke's eyes and turned his vision white for a moment. The teenager blinked. When he opened his eyes again Hina was gone, the white light was a small oval far off in the distance, and although Ryūnosuke was still cold he was no longer soaked with rain.
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Ryūnosuke realized that he was reclined on his back. He blinked several times to adjust his eyes and took a moment to gather his energy. It dawned on him that the light above him was not a camera flash, but a street light. He jerked upwards and surveyed his surroundings. For starters, he was now on a wooden bench across the street from a boxed-shaped building that was a very-nearly-black shade of blue. He was home?

There was no four-horned creature out to eat him or masked strangers to be seen anywhere around. More importantly, he didn't "feel" to be dead or wounded at all. The teenager raised his hands, he could do that now --strangely-- considering he was certain his left arm had been broken. Just as certain as he was that all ten of his, now completely fine and movable, fingers had also been broken. "W-what the Hell?" Ryūnosuke stammered as he looked down at his body, he was no longer in his black tracksuit. Now, he had on some stranger's green trench coat with only a pair of boxer shorts underneath. The thought that someone had undressed him and changed his cloths made him uncomfortable, but he didn't dwell on it very long once he noticed --thanks in part to his semi-nudity-- that he no longer had any injuries on his body at all. It was almost as if his battle and near death encounter with that monster had never happened. Like it was just a dream, except the teenager knew it wasn't. Ryūnosuke looked around earnestly for Kakushin, his metal baseball bat, and found it right there at his side. He held the grip of the bat firmly in his right hand and let out a deep sigh of relief. He then stood and faced his home. The lights were off, as to be expected at this hour, though he knew not what hour that was. It was FAR past his curfew, that was all that mattered. As he ran across the street as fast as he could, he figured he'd find out just how late he was soon enough.

To Be Continued...
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016: New Perspective
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... RYŪNOSUKE entered the house through the front door. His mind had been racing with thoughts of how he intended to explain where he'd been all this time and why he'd missed his seven o'clock curfew by several hours. The story about being attack by a giant monster with tentacle arms was definitely --as any logical person would assume-- off the table. However, as the teenager's eyes scanned the dining room and he closed the door behind him, he sighed lowly when he spotted his mother passed out on the floor. It was equally a relief and a disappointment as a part of him deep down felt there was a great urgency to the things he wanted to tell her. There were things he wanted to say, that he was willing to share now, thanks to his newfound resolved. His near-death experience had also enlightened him to that fact. Still, he worried that if he waited he might lose that confidence or change his mind. After setting his bat down beside the door, Ryūnosuke silently crept towards Mariko; he noted that his mother was already in her pajamas, which told him she'd been awake waiting for him earlier in the evening --before she ended up sprawled out on the dining room floor.

Ryūnosuke's first thought was that she'd simply dozed off, but he got a much clearer idea of what actually happened once he glanced over their small dining table, where he saw a nearly emptied bottle of sake, beside a nearly emptied glass. "Mom.", the teenager murmured lowly; his voice was soft with regret. In his entire life there were only two instances Ryūnosuke had seen his mother drink this heavily. The first was many years ago, after she'd gotten in an argument with his father. It was the day Keiji decided to get an apartment away from home, closer to his office. Ryūnosuke recalled his mother was furious that his father had made the choice without even consulting her first. The teenager remembered that at the time it didn't really matter to him either way. By that point he only saw his father in the morning and maybe at night for dinner --they rarely interacted during either of those times.

The second instance was now and Ryūnosuke sharply inferred that his mother had, justifiably, been in a heightened emotional state, for which he was almost entirely to blame. He felt an immeasurable amount guilt. Ryūnosuke knew Mariko was a very patient and tolerant mother; the thought that he'd managed to upset her to this point was hard to come to grips with. He'd like to think at least his transgressions were not as terrible as his father's but it was impossible for him to make that claim honestly. The honest truth was that it didn't matter whose actions were worse, Ryūnosuke and his father had both managed to wrong the person who least deserved it. At the very least, Ryūnosuke intended to take responsibility for his mistake. The teenager knelt down and gently lifted his mother up in his arms. He was confident in his strength to do so, but he was still surprised by how little his mother seemed to weigh. He was sure he'd carried moving boxes heavier than she was. Mariko grunted against Ryūnosuke's shoulder as he carried her up the stairs to her bedroom. He could see the red under her eye and on her cheeks, he wondered how much she'd cried after he left. He could also smell the alcohol in her breath and sighed under his breath. He laid his mother on her bed gently and tucked her in. Mariko grunted again and turned to her right side before she went silent, sound asleep. Ryūnosuke stood at her bedside for a minute, his head lowered with shame. He considered waking her up, but ultimately could not bring himself to do it.

Ryūnosuke turned away and went back down to the dining room to clear the table. He assumed that, much like himself, his mother would prefer not to be reminded of this night the next morning. As he picked up the alcohol, the teenager noticed a small note on the table. He hadn't seen the note before. 'Dinner is in the thermos, it's curry.' it read. Ryūnosuke stood silently for a moment. He'd completely forgotten about food and actually hadn't eaten a meal all day. After putting away the sake, Ryūnosuke searched the kitchen countertop for the thermos. He found the gray container within seconds, and --without even bothering to carry it out of the kitchen-- popped the container open and wolfed down the curry. He'd hardly had time to realize just how much he'd be starving before he was sniffling, his eyes filled with tears at both how delicious the curry was and also by just how close he'd come to possibly never returning home to taste it.

"I almost died today." , the thought was stuck in his head and with it came the thoughts of all the possibilities and scenarios that would have followed as a result of his death. Ryūnosuke felt weak at the knees and decided to sit down, right where he was. He leaned against the kitchen counter and continued to devour his curry as he reflected on how grateful he was to be alive and how the curry was the best he'd eaten in his entire lifetime. Once he was done, Ryūnosuke washed the dishes and went upstairs to his room. He wasn't hungry anymore, just exhausted. Once in his room, he took off the strange green trench coat he'd acquired and hung it begin his bedroom door. He then belly-flopped onto his bed in just boxer shorts and tried to fall asleep. It was a struggle for a while, as his mind continued to race and play out the bizarre events that had occurred just hours prior. Nonetheless, after what felt like an eternity of tossing and turning in bed, sleep eventually overcame him.

To Be Continued...
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017: Unexpected Visitors
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... RYŪNOSUKE was in the bathroom, down on his knees beside his hungover mother as she sobbed and periodically vomited into the toilet bowl. The teenager rubbed his mother's back reassuringly while also choking back the urge to vomit himself. He tried to hide that fact but it was probably very apparent in the paleness of his face. For better and also for worse, Mariko had vehemently avoided all eye-contact with her son from the moment he'd awakened to her gagging and crying. Partly out of shame and, Ryūnosuke was sure, partly out of anger with him for everything that happened the day before. The events that led up to him storming out of the house were still fresh in his head, despite all the absurd insanity that occurred afterwards. Who could say for certain, but he was fairly confident his mother hadn't been attacked and nearly killed by a monster. So there wasn't anything to mellow out the relative gravity of his confession as opposed to literally being attacked by a hunger-crazed monster. One instance of premarital sex just didn't seem like that big a deal in comparison; but, that was just the perspective of Ryūnosuke, the troubled teenager. "Ryuuun" Mariko sobbed, her face hidden behind the veil of her long black hair. "Get out, I'm so ashamed of myself!". Ryūnosuke felt a sudden jolt of guilt and sadness; his mother was the one who drank way more than she should have and passed out on the floor, but she'd only done it because all the emotional stress he'd put her through. Now she was trying to take all the blame --of course she was, that was the kind of mother he had. "Mom, please. You know I can't leave you alone like this.", he felt his mother lurch forward just before she vomited again, he rubbed her back through it all.

"I'm so sorry you have to see me this way. I'm such a horrible mother, getting drunk in the middle of the night like that." Mariko cried.
"Stop that! You're a perfect mother." Ryūnosuke earnestly refuted. "It's not you. I've been... a terrible son. I shouldn't have stormed out like that before, I'm sorry. I'll accept any punishment you decide on, for everything, including missing curfew." Ryūnosuke felt his mother go still as the last statement left his mouth. He had a good idea of what was to come next, he could almost see the red hot gears turning in her head. "Crap, here it comes." , he thought.
"Oh, don't worry, you're in a shit ton of trouble. You and I, we're gonna have a long chat, young man-" Mariko retched. "once my head stops spinning." Ryūnosuke went stiff and silent with both shock and horror. Mariko noticed and turned to face him and saw the blank expression on his face. "What?" she strained through her tightened gut.
"Nothing." Ryūnosuke replied faintly. "It's just-" Ryūnosuke paused and held back a chuckle, "I've never heard you say 'shit' before."
He was promptly met with an disapproving, "Hey!", followed by a weak smack across the side of his head, not surprising; he'd actually expected at least that much."Language!" Mariko barked, her face blushed red and stern for a moment before she turned pale. She lowered her head and projectile vomited into the toilet again for a proper five seconds. "Oh, God!", she retched afterwards. Ryūnosuke had started to rub her back again and he decided to try and say something reassuring.
"You sounded pretty cool saying it."

Mariko instantly shot him a glare. "Get out! Or I'm grounding you until you graduate!", she shouted and pointed to the door.
"Yes, ma'am!" Ryūnosuke popped up to his feet --not keen at all on being grounded for that long-- and scurried downstairs, he heard his mother barf again on his way to the kitchen.
-----

Electing the least he could do was prepare breakfast as a sign of remorse, Ryūnosuke got to work in the kitchen. He considered reheating the leftover curry from the night before, but figured that curry wouldn't be kind on his mother's stomach. Instead, he decided to prepare some toast and eggs. He also got out a few cold bottles of sports water. He knew that in addition to regular water, his mother would also need a lot of electrolyte-rich fluids. It was strange, he remembered the fact from the time his former best friend, Kiriyama, got drunk and hungover during their summer vacation trip to Akane's beach house. Kiriyama had stumbled upon some alcohol in Akane's father's study and decided to drink it on a dare. He seemed completely unaffected as he downed the alcohol. At first they'd even all jested that Kiriyama was an alcoholic in the making, but the joke quickly turned to panic when Kiriyama was tossing about sick just hours later. They even thought he might die for a bit, but of course, Akane was the one to calmly google search "hangover remedies" and within minutes delegated tasks to the underclassmen which included fetching a lot of the sports drinks the Baseball team guys had on hand naturally.

Reflecting on the whole ordeal now, Ryūnosuke chuckled. There was so much that the trip highlighted, how hard Kiriyama tried to stick out and act cool being one of those things. Ryūnosuke paused as he cracked an egg and poured its contents into a glass mixing bowl. He signed and lowered his head, saddened by the memories that he was beginning to recall. His fallout with Kiriyama. Of course, he couldn't just remember the good times without the bad and worst ones clawing in as well. Ryūnosuke understood why his actions had ultimately torn a rift between he and Akane, but Kiriyama's 'betrayal' was not one he'd expected or understood at all. Kiriyama completely disavowed Ryūnosuke and even testified against him. He went as far as to strongly imply that Ryūnosuke had been stalking and harassing Hina for months. Which was a blatant bold-faced lie. Ryūnosuke felt his rage swelling up just thinking about it; how he was wronged by his best friend since middle school. Even worse, Kiriyama also spared no effort in trying to turn the rest of the Baseball team and even the coaches against Ryūnosuke and even succeeded to a degree. Although, Ryūnosuke ultimately made the decision to quietly quit the team on his own.

He remember his last 'talk' with Kiriyama before the move to Karakura. It wasn't much of a talk and it quickly escalated to a fist fight. It ended eventually and from that point, both bloodied and bruised, the two of them silently decided they were no longer friends or anything to each other. Ryūnosuke pushed the thought to the back of his mind again, there was no point in dwelling on it now. He knew full well this was just another consequence of what happened. He might not ever be able to understand why Kirayama did what he did, and sadly, that put him even further away from being able to forgive him for it. Still, it was just another ripple, Ryūnosuke had to see it as such because that was the only logical explanation. It was all linked to what he'd done, his own actions. It all started with the terrible thing he'd done to Hina. Ryūnosuke claimed his faults, he owned his shit, what frustrated him, was that others, including Kiriyama didn't own theirs.

Just like Akane, Kiriyama wasn't entirely innocent either. In fact, he'd been one of the main people who was mean towards Hina for a long time, and even after Ryūnosuke declared her a member of their group, Kiriyama was still visibly cold towards her. If Hina had more friends --better friends-- she might not have felt so hopeless and alone. She might not have felt like she didn't have any more options besides committing suicide. The memory of the morning he saw Hina's hanging from her bedroom fan flashed in Ryūnosuke's mind. He slammed his palm on the marble kitchen counter. "Enough!", he muttered under his breath, holding back the tears. He couldn't deal with this now, it wasn't the time. "Please.", the teenager, begged. He wasn't sure who or what he was pleading to. It didn't matter who or what as long as they could get the plague of memories to stop. The teenager took a deep breath and composed himself, he focused on making breakfast in order to drown out his thoughts. It was important to stay leveled, no more outbursts like yesterday, no more making his mother worry. That was the promise he made to himself.
-----

Once he finished making breakfast, Ryūnosuke brought it upstairs to his mother, who seemed to finally be clear of her vomiting fits and was back resting in bed. Mariko ate a little and drank one of the sports waters before she fell asleep again. Ryūnosuke left an extra two bottles on the nightstand and left his mother to rest. He returned to the kitchen he eat his own breakfast. He reheated the leftover curry for himself and turned on the television to the DAZN network to watch a Baseball game. It hadn't been ten minutes before the doorbell rang.

Ryūnosuke looked at the door suspiciously, at first unsure if he'd actually heard the bell, until it rang again seconds later. That was strange, they weren't expecting any visitors as far as he was aware. The teenager walked to the door and briefly eyed his baseball bat; it was still at the side of the doorway where he'd left it the night before. Ryūnosuke looked through the peephole and saw two men, both in suits and what looked like law enforcement badges around their necks. Ryūnosuke stepped back from the door and looked towards the stairwell, it didn't seem like the bell woke up his mother. Good. Still, he wondered what these two men, most likely policemen, could possibly want. Not that he didn't have an eerie suspicion it was related to the events of the night before. Had someone seen what happened? Did those strange masked people go to the cops afterwards? The teenager took a deep breath and reached for the doorknob. He'd find out what these two men wanted soon enough, he thought as he opened the door.

To Be Continued...
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018: Trouble With The Law!
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___________________

... RYŪNOSUKE took a moment to quickly study the appearances of the two men standing in front of his house door. The man to his right was a bit bulkier in figure but around the same height as the teenager himself. He was bald with a very stern expression and a neatly trimmed but defined chin strap beard. He wore a pair of shades that were tinted brown and hid the eyes that sat below his thick dark brows. The man held in his right hand a single gold coin that he simply flipped and caught as he stared directly at the teenager. Ryūnosuke couldn't help but pick up on the authoritative and imposing atmosphere that seemed to radiant through the man's admittedly impressive black suit. To the teenager's left, and markedly less commanding of presence was another man who --compared to Ryūnosuke and much more so to his assumed colleague-- was of a relatively average build from what the teenager could judge. However, he had strikingly orange hair upon which Ryūnosuke momentarily fixated; it subconsciously made the teenager more inclined to warm up to the man. He wore a gray suit and overall had a much more casual and aloft demeanor about himself. He also appeared to be several years younger than his coin-flipping partner. Perhaps he was less hardened by the trials and experiences that came with the territory of their line of work; which Ryūnosuke had already confirmed to be law enforcement officers, thanks to the badges both men currently wore around their necks. At that moment, Ryūnosuke found himself mentally thanking Nagashi for having taught him how to properly distinguish legitimate policeman badges from fake ones. He also knew what to look for as far as the protocol officers and detectives followed when identifying themselves at civilian residences. Ryūnosuke cleared his throat as he stood upright and crossed his arms. "Good morning.", the teenager greeted calmly. His eyes drifted towards the man to the left as he was the first to respond.

"Good morning, young man." The man replied with a cordial smile as he and his colleague reached into their chest pockets and pulled out photo IDs which they promptly presented to Ryūnosuke as the man continued. "I'm Detective Kakaabi and this is my colleague, Detective Tamakawa. We're with the KPD. You must be Tamura Ryūnosuke, correct?"

The photograph IDs were the verification Ryūnosuke needed and he nodded to the pair of officers as they returned the IDs to their pockets. "Yeah, I'm Ryūnosuke. Can I help you, detectives?" The teenager asked despite already having a good idea of what the detectives were most likely visiting for. He wondered if the masked guys who saved him last night called the incident in or maybe they worked with a secret police task-force.
"Yes, actually, you can." Seito responded. "We're investigating an incident that took place last night. There was some destruction of town property and we're fishing for leads." Seito began to reach into his right pocket when Detective Tamakawa caught his coin and cut in,
"Where were you last night, kid?"
, the detective asked bluntly. Ryūnosuke caught a distinct accusatory tone in the man's voice and allowed his gaze to fall coldly onto the officer.
"I was out until around eleven." Ryūnosuke replied plainly.

"Eleven o'clock, huh. That's pretty late, don't you think? What were you doing out at that hour?" The Detective returned, his tone no less incriminating.
Ryūnosuke couldn't help but let out a shallow scoff. Recent history had given him some experience with egotistical officers and as he remembered correctly it didn't end well back then. "On my way home, actually." The teenager started. "I spent most of the day at the Elites Dome batting center. I didn't leave until nine-twenty. The daughter of the owner...Asano-san." ,Ryūnosuke recalled, "she saw me leave at that time." As he answered, the teenager noticed that Seito had paused with his hand half-way into his pocket. Kakaabi currently glanced at Tamakawa from the corner of his eye with an unmistakable curiosity.  

Tamakawa went on with his line of questioning. "We have security footage that shows you running towards the train station at nine-thirty. But you never enter the station or get on a train. You also don't appear on any other surveillance cameras in the area-"
Ryūnosuke predicted the question that would be tied to the end of that revelation of fact and decided to save the detective and himself some time, "I didn't take the train. I overspent at the batting center and didn't have enough money for the fare." The teenager's words were sharp and concise. His demeanor exuded confidence and straightforwardness; but internally he was beginning to grow concerned. If the police had him on camera running from the train station was it possible they had other things on tape. Images of his battle with the monster named Baron Quadhorn flashed in Ryūnosuke's mind. He could feel that strange power, the ignition of that fire that burned within his very soul when he chose fight over flight and faced the monster head on. Furthermore, another thought struck the teenager; if the police had no footage of him after he passed the train station, how did they find his home? Ryūnosuke thought to ask this question, but he didn't want to come off as defensive until he determined the full extent of what the detectives knew. In the meantime, Ryūnosuke understood he had to be careful with what he said. He never had any intention of lying to the police --at most he intended to leave out a few details if necessary-- but he was now forced to assume the detectives knew everything until he could confirm otherwise. "Excuse me, Detectives. Am I currently a suspect?"

"No, haha, you're not a suspect." Detective Kakaabi cut in firmly. There was a stress on the word 'not' that surprisingly seemed directed more towards Detective Tamakawa than it was the teenager. "We're just asking a few questions, is all."
"Is there anyone who can confirm you arrived home when you say you did? Maybe a parent or siblings?", Detective Tamakawa continued.
"No. I live here with my mom and she was already asleep." Ryūnosuke, turned to the orange-haired detective, "Detective Kakaabi, I'm more than happy to answer your questions, but I'm not sure I understand how I can help you find your guy." Ryūnosuke stated calmly.
"Ah." Seito started as he reached fully into his pocket. "My colleague thought we should ask you about it because we found this-" Ryūnosuke's brow furrowed with shock and confusion as he observed the object Seito extracted from his pocket. Sealed in a clear plastic bag was unmistakably Ryūnosuke's wallet. "not far from the crime scene. Do you have any idea of how it might have gotten there?"
"I guess, I must have dropped it while I was running home." Ryūnosuke explained.
"I see. Well, did you see anything strange on your way there? Any suspicious characters, anything at all that could help us?", Seito asked as he returned the wallet to its owner.

Ryūnosuke considered for a moment as he took the wallet from Seito, thanked the officer, and bowed his head. The teenager pondered on whether or not he should mention the monster. Even as the ever-present burning of Detective Tamakawa's glare at him compelled the teenager to a decided 'no' with every passing second. While he couldn't be certain of Detective Kakaabi's motives, it was clear that Tamakawa was more occupied with finding a culprit than uncovering all the facts. Having recent firsthand experience in being the subject of law enforcement ire, Ryūnosuke could sense that no matter what he said, he was already guilty in the eyes of at least one of the officers. The teenager had to weigh his options and the potential risks and ultimately decided to leave out the encounter with the other-worldly creature. "Sorry, I don't remember seeing anything out of the ordinary. It was pretty dark and I was in a rush to get home."

"Nothing at all, are you sure?", Seito insisted.
Ryūnosuke lightly frowned and shook his head. "Nothing.", he reaffirmed. His eyes drifted from Kakaabi towards Tamakawa whose stare still drilled into the teenager as his gold coin was perpetually flipped in his left hand. Seito nodded, "Well, I think that will be all. Wouldn't you agree, Detective Tamakawa?" Seito quickly handed out a card to the teenager, on it were the detective's name and contact information. "Tamura-kun, if you recall anything later, please give me a call." Ryūnosuke, received the card and nodded.
"Sure thing, Detective Kakaabi. And thanks again for returning this.", the teenager tapped the card against the top of his wallet.

"Just doing our job. Let's go, Detective Tamakawa." Ryūnosuke smiled warmly and bowed again. Seito was the first to turn and leave, as he started to walk away, Tamakawa paused and locked eyes with the teenager.

"There is just one more thing." Tamakawa reached into his pocket and quickly flicked a small shiny object from it towards Ryūnosuke. The teenager reacted instinctively and caught the projectile, which had a cold metallic feel to it, in his fist. Turning his palm towards himself, Ryūnosuke felt his heart nearly stop as he stared --paralyzed with the realization that he'd been caught-- at the mangled and bent remains of a batting cage token. Although the metal token appeared to have been slightly melted out of shape, one could still make out the words "Elites Dome" inscribed on the surface. Ryūnosuke clenched his jaw behind his tightly pressed lips. From what he observed at his peripheral, it was obvious that Kakaabi was not clued in on the meaning of the interaction. Tamakawa on the other hand, his stern and serious expression were no more and the heavy foreboding grin that lined his face declared boastfully the word that detective needn't utter aloud. Ryūnosuke heard the word, clear as day, as the gold coin whirled upwards in from of the officer's face before descending flatly into his palm with a metallic pat. "Gotcha" Ryūnosuke swallowed hard and closed his right fist tightly around the token. "Stay safe out there, kid... and welcome to Karakura." Tamakawa said as he turned away and departed with his colleague. Ryūnosuke watched the two officer's enter a silver sedan, Seito walked around to the passenger's side while Tamakawa sat in the driver's seat. He didn't move until he saw the car drive off. Once the detectives were completely gone the teenager paced backwards through the doorway and shut the door behind him...
-----

... Detective Kakaabi Seito sat silently in the passenger's seat as detective Tamakawa pulled away from the Tamura residence and drove east, heading back in the direction of the police head-quarters. He reflected on their conversation with the teenager and occasionally glanced at Tamakawa who was silently grinning as he held the stirring wheel with a death grip; in his right hand he effortlessly rolled his gold coin between his fingers. By now Seito had a long list of questions; it started with why Tamakawa had asked him to tag along for this case --which was clearly just a regular Hollow attack that happened the night before. The last question on that list was what the Hell was that at the end between Tamakawa and the Tamura kid. Alas, it was clear to Kakaabi that Tamakawa seemed content with leaving him in the dark and that he wouldn't get answers unless he pried for them. It wasn't like him to do so and he was more than happy to tag along to help out where he could, but Tamakawa seemed to be withholding information that was vital to the case. "Ahem." Seito cleared his throat. "He seemed like a good kid.", he began. Tamakawa snickered. "Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe you know something I don't." Kakaabi finished and gave Tamakawa the floor to explain why he'd dealt with Ryūnosuke in the callous manner that he had. Tamakawa took the bait almost instantly.

"Come on, Kakaabi. You felt that kid's Reiatsu as clear as I did." Tamakawa appeared to almost shudder at the thought of it. "He was practically a busted fire hydrant."
Seito sighed. "Yeah, it was something... Still, having a lot of Reiatsu isn't a crime. I mean, even if we could prove he was the guy there last night, all it does is tell us he fought a Hollow and lived to talk about it."

"He was there... I have no doubt about it. He's our guy and the Hollow wasn't just any Hollow." Tamakawa replied bluntly. "Open the glove box, there's a file in there." Seito raised a brow, then clicked the glove compartment open, and spotted the file. He extracted it as Tamakawa told him and with a nod from his colleague began to look through it. On the first page there was a sketch of a furred Hollow with serrated jaws on the surface of it's mask and four horns protruding from its shoulder and around it's head. "That's Baron Quadhorn, I'm sure you've heard of him."
"Yeah, of course." Seito confirmed.
"Real nasty bastard, up there with the big bads like the Quarterer. He's been terrorizing Karakura for months now, we know his preferred hunting grounds but he always manages to give us the slip. He come, stalks his prey, takes them out and then retreats to Hueco Mundo."
"Wide range of hunting grounds that he targets at random. The number of officers 'equip' for this sort of thing are too few and far between to cover all his spots, especially when he isn't the only active predator. Means he gets away with it." Seito added, sharing a bit of what he knew about the infamous Baron Quadhorn from reports he'd seen in the past.
"That's right. Until last night. Seems Baron Quadhorn targeted that Tamura kid and got one Hell of a surprise."
"You think the Tamura kid took on Baron Quadhorn alone? He's got impressive Reiatsu, but it doesn't look like he's had any training or experience beyond that. Maybe he could put a fight, but that means the Baron would have really had to earn the feast."
"The kid wasn't alone. Look at the next page.", Tamakawa replied.

Seito flipped the page in the folder and his eyes fell on a photograph paper-clipped to a report. The photograph was of four blurred figures leaping between two rooftop silhouetted by the moonlight. The image was taken from the perspective of someone down in the alley between the two buildings. Squinting his eyes, Seito could make out masks over the faces of each of the individuals and it became clear to him, "WILD'S?", he asked.
"WILD'S." Tamakawa affirmed. "There is no natural route that kid could have taken to get back to his house without being caught on at least half a dozen cameras. Suspiciously, all the cameras in the area momentarily stopped working. That seems to be the norm when those WILD'S punks are involved."
"You think they made contact?" Seito inquired as he flipped through the rest of the folder and scanned through what Tamakawa had documented as the most recent WILD'S activity and its correlation to the Baron Quadhorn sightings.
"I think they did, and I think this Tamura kid is the key to catching one of the biggest fish in this town." Saito looked out the window as he pondered on Tamakawa's words. He knew there was some history between Tamakawa and the WILD'S crew, but he wasn't sure how deep it ran. One thing was for certain; he had a feeling this wouldn't be the last he heard of this case or Tamura Ryūnosuke for a long time.

To Be Continued...
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019: On The Crucible Of Fate PRT 1
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___________________

... RYŪNOSUKE raced up the stair to his bedroom with his wallet held tightly in his left hand. His conversation with the two detectives replayed clearly in his head as the teenager imagined --after the fact-- what things he should have or could have said to change the outcome. He hadn't been careful enough and that mistake had effectively given the detectives all the information they needed. Ryūnosuke had served himself up in a gold ribbon. Tamakawa particularly, had pretty much expressed so to the teenager directly. A fact that only further worried Ryūnosuke because despite the fact that Tamakawa had both the evidence --and obviously the motive-- he needed to do so, the detective hadn't taken any action against the teenager whatsoever. Ryūnosuke didn't understand the detectives actions, nor their motivations, and least of all their intentions moving forward. Ryūnosuke plopped himself down on the edge of his bed and tapped his right foot nervously on the floor as he stared deeply into the wall in front of him and racked his mind. The teenager sat anxious and contemplative for a few silent minutes that passed like dripping kuromitsu from a metal spoon. Still, no matter how hard he pondered, Ryūnosuke found himself still plagued with questions and worries by the dozens. Questions he didn't have the answers to. Worries he couldn't be sure were rational or not, and the fear of not knowing just how worried and afraid he should be. After much mental toil, the teenager arrived at a singular conclusion; he needed answers and all hopes of getting them pointed in the direction of the mysterious people who saved his life. The reasons were rather simple; he was clueless on his own and going to the detectives wasn't an option.  So, assuming he could even find them, the group of masked individuals were Ryūnosuke's best bet. He figured if they were willing to save his life, they wouldn't mind answering a few questions to help him understand what was going on in this town.

Ryūnosuke sprung up from his bed, paced towards the green trench coat hung up behind his bedroom door, and started to rummage through its many flapped pockets. He hoped the owner of the jacket had left something for him to use to get in contact with him in order to return the trench coat. What he found in the inside chest pocket was much more than he'd anticipated. The teenager felt his fingers slide across the surface of what was unmistakably a folded sheet of paper. He pulled the paper out of the pocket and unfolded it, he exhaled a shallow gasp as his eyes landed on a hand-written note.
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You probably have a lot of questions. We have answers.
Come to Sato Gift Shop in Mashiba. We'll be waiting for you. -WILD'S

-----

After reading the letter, Ryūnosuke folded the paper again and slipped it into his pocket. He had more than just the address to follow, he'd also been given an open invitation. So, why was he hesitant now? The teenager wondered but quickly came to understand the answer on his own. Perhaps knowing the answers to his questions was far worse than remaining ignorant to them. Maybe there was a blissful innocence in being oblivious of the world he'd been completely unaware of until last night. A world of monsters and supernatural powers. Ryūnosuke lifted his right hand in front of his face and clenched his fist as he again recalled the battle against the monster, Baron Quadhorn. He remembered the immense mysterious energy that surged throughout him and engulfed him like a raging blaze. He'd felt empowered behind his wildest imaginations, beyond what he knew to be humanly possible. It was incredible and still equally terrifying. Ryūnosuke  steeled his resolve with that realization. For now his intense desire to understand that strange power outweighed his fear of opening a Pandora's box he wouldn't be able to close again.
-----

Ryūnosuke got dressing in a black tracksuit with an orange jersey underneath. He folded the green trench coat and placed it in his gym bag, along with his baseball bat. Before he headed out into town, Ryūnosuke checked on his resting mother; Mariko was still peacefully sleeping off her hangover from the night before. After leaving the house, he locked the door behind him and stood on the corner of the pavement at the intersection of two roads. The teenager looked around for any suspicious characters; he imagined that being tailed by law enforcement might be a reality he'd have to deal with now but, thankfully, that didn't seem to be the case. At least not yet. Confident that he had no unwanted eyes on him, Ryūnosuke started to walk to his destination; the Sato Gift Shop, located in the Mashibi district of Karakura. It was about a twenty minute walk from Ryūnosuke's house but he'd likely have to cut between a few alleys to reach it. As he walk through town on his way to Mashima, Ryūnosuke was repeatedly shaken by the strange entities he was able to see now. On occasion he'd spot beings that looked like normal humans but with chains protruding from their chests. They either walked or stood around in a manner that gave the teenager the sense that they'd been there all along, just invisible to the masses. Many of them looked back at him with an equal amount of curiosity and acknowledged that they could see him as well as he saw them. There were also distant unseen presences that Ryūnosuke could feel all around him. Many faint and others more potent. None as malicious as that of the Baron the night before.

As he walked, the teenager wondered about the mysterious group of people who apparently went by the name WILD'S. He was curious about who they were behind the masks, what they intentions were, and what purpose they served in the supernatural world. He found he was more inclined to believe they were out to do good, seeing at they'd saved his life when they had no obligation to do so, and he was thankful for that. Even if he didn't have his own questions or interest in their strange and dangerous world, he did feel he needed to thank them properly and also return the trench coat. Ryūnosuke was particularly interested in meeting the girl with the phoenix mask, as he was certain she was the one who actually pulled him back from the brink of certain death.

Before long, Ryūnosuke arrived at the location of the Sato Gift Shop, it was a small humble affair, nestled between a flower store to the left and a small dango shop on a corner facing Karakura Community Park to its right. The outwards appearance of the gift shop was very homey; in fact, gift shop and the dango store appeared to be one with the small house nuzzled behind them, as if they were two separate and welcoming instances into the home itself. The redwood exterior of the shops and the house were very pleasing to behold, and gave off a warmth that Ryūnosuke appreciated. It was nothing like the cold and black monolithic box he had for a home. It was also nothing like the teenager was expecting for the assumed based of operations of a secret supernatural organization. Although, a part of him figured that was the entire point. Looking in through the glass store front of the gift shop, Ryūnosuke could make out tons of colorful merchandise and memorabilia. A lot of seasonal products as well, and a few customers walking about. Looking to his right, Ryūnosuke noticed that the dango store did not appear to be open yet. He adjusted the strap of his gym bag on his  right shoulder.

There was a suddenly bell jingle, followed by a draft of cold air as the gift shop door opened in from of the teenager just before a friendly male voice called out to him, "Good morning, sir. Welcome to Sato Gift Shop!" Ryūnosuke faced the door again and met face-to-face with a tall young man with sandy blonde hair and green eyes. His hair was styled in a bowl cut with an angled fringe that was parted down the middle. There was a stubble on his chin and his skin-tone was almost a European pale. His other features were unmistakably East Asian, Ryūnosuke noted. The young man appeared to be just a few years older than Ryūnosuke himself; just hitting his early twenties. He had on a plain white apron and what appeared to be a suit on underneath --perhaps distinctly missing a coat, although the teenager could not say for certain. "Ah, you must be the guy in for the interview.", the man stated. Though he didn't recognize the man's face, Ryūnosuke felt a sense of familiarity with the voice. The words "I really wanna save this guy!" played in his head like a memory in the voice of the man standing in front of him.
Ryūnosuke, perplexed by the man's statement, barely had a second to fully comprehend it before he young man reached out to him and with a firm but gracious push against the teenager's back, guided him into the store. "H-hold on. What?" Ryūnosuke stammered as he was simultaneously pushed through the shop layout. His eyes observed his surroundings; stacked nearly to the ceiling and from wall-to-to with all manners of products enclosed in glass display cabinets. As he was steered towards the back of the store, between aisles of postcards and picture frames, his legs just naturally followed along as if they were accomplices with stranger and shared his intentions.

"Just on time, we've been expecting you." The young man spoke with a deliberate half-shout, it was like he wanted all the customers in the shop to hear what he was saying while muffling out any voiced protest that might have come from the teenager. Ryūnosuke and his pseudo-guide rapidly approached a wall upon which t-shirts, jackets and other clothing accessories where displayed. As they reached the wall the stranger turned Ryūnosuke sharply to the left and put him face to face with a black door with an "Employees Only" sign visible at eye-level. "The manager will see you now for your interview." The young man explained before briskly nudging the teenager towards the door.
Ryūnosuke skipped a couple of steps forward and planted his feet to a halt. He paused for a moment and faced the the door, before turning back to look at the young male employee. There was a now a sharp look of acknowledgement perhaps even pride on the man's face as he nodded at Ryūnosuke. The teenager suddenly felt certain that he's met the man before; specifically that he was one of the masked people. The young man seemed to recognize the revelation blooming in Ryūnosuke's eyes and simply nodded again. There was one last confirmation the teenager needed; Ryūnosuke reached to his left side, half-way unzipped his gym bag and pulled out the folded green trench coat. The look in the male employee's eyes as he noticed the coat said more than enough. The teenager smiled and nodded back at the young man, "Thanks for lending it to me.", Ryūnosuke said as he tossed the coat to the employee.
The man chuckled and smiled back, "Thanks for returning it." There was an unspoken message in both their expressions of gratitude that was not missed by either of the young men. The employee knew that Ryūnosuke was also thanking him for intervening and saving his life and Ryūnosuke understood that he'd been thanked for answering WILD'S invitation. With that silent interaction alone, Ryūnosuke felt a strange sense of camaraderie with the employee. They were two young men who'd barely known anything about each other, but thanks to the strange and terrifying circumstances that had caused them to meet on a fateful evening, Ryūnosuke felt there was a bond between them in the making a bond that would only grow from this point on. At that moment his heart harbored no doubts and Ryūnosuke confidently approached the door, pulled down the handle, and opened it. "Last door to the left, at the end of the hall. Good luck." The male employee finished before he walked to the side and disappeared behind an aisle.

Ryūnosuke cleared his throat and stepped through the doorway. There was a dimly lit hall, about seven feet long, with doors on both sides and a single door at the end. Ryūnosuke walked to the end of the hall and turned towards the last door on the left. He he opened the door without hesitation, expecting to see an office, but was met with a downwards case of stairs that led to some underground facility. The teenager exhaled his held breath and began his descent. He reflected on his actions thus far with every step; he recalled all the chances he'd had until now to turn back. He'd followed the directions on the letter, allowed himself to be pushed through the shop, opened the first door, walked the hall, opened the second door, and was now going down the stairs. His actions thus far were a reflection of how committed he was to the pursuit of  this unknown, but still the teenager wondered if he'd passed the point of no return. He'd come this far, and certainly he could turn around and return home, forget everything that happened. The teenager scoffed at that thought. No he couldn't. Ryūnosuke knew that better than anyone. There was no turning back now, the only path for him was forwards. Whether he'd come to regret that decision later was yet to be seen but the teenager sincerely hoped he wouldn't. After all, he had even regret as it was to last him at least a couple of lifetimes.

The bottom of the stairs opened up to his left into a massive air-conditioned underground chamber partially lit with panel LED lights. The room closely resembled what Ryūnosuke expected a luxury employee lounge would look like. There was a pantry and a round dining table off in one of the far corners. A black living room set complete with sofas, a glass coffee table, and a 60 inch flat screen television. Looking to his left, Ryūnosuke could see a large portion of the room dedicated to fitness and training equipment. That section with distinguishable by the large grey puzzle foam mats that covered its area as opposed to the maroon carpet seen everywhere else. There were weight racks, treadmills, two multi gym systems, and a few punching bags. To the right of the training area (between it and the living room set) was a more casual recreation space, Ryūnosuke could make out two adjacent Ping-Pong tables, a Foosball table, an Air Hockey table, and a bookshelf stacked with books, but more so with board-game boxes. The middle of the room was distinctly lacking of any furniture besides a large rectangular table with no chairs around it. The room was presently void of any other presences. There were any unique ones triggering the teenager's new "sixth sense", not that he had a particular understanding of how that worked regardless. There was a deadly silence to the room, save the faint hum of the ventilation.

Then a smooth feminine voice emerged from deeper in the room, ahead of Ryūnosuke. "Come this way.", the voice called. The teenager looked forwards in the direction of the voice's origin and saw a tall slender woman with long and wavy sandy-blonde hair, done up in a huge ponytail that went down to the base of her spine. She was dressed in an maroon long-sleeve turtleneck and black denim pants. As the teenager walked towards her, he could make out her rose-colored lipstick and finger nails, and her striking green eyes. There was a strong resemblance to the male employee he met moments before, except unlike him there was no mistaking her European heritage. It was also clear that she was much older than Ryūnosuke; she looked to be in her late twenties to early thirties from what Ryūnosuke could tell. Intriguingly, there was a cool and attractive maturity to her appearance and facial features, Ryūnosuke imagined that as much as he hated the act of smoking, this was a woman who could smoke and look incredible while doing it. She smiled as she welcomed Ryūnosuke in another room, there was a formidable sharpness in her gaze as she eyed the teenager and Ryūnosuke felt as if the woman had seen all there was to know about him, discovered all his deepest darkest secrets in that moment and had not been phased by any of them in the slightest. "Thanks.", the teenager replied with a bow as he shuffled quickly into the room. This room had the appearance of the typical principal's office, and Ryūnosuke was much less impressed by it appearance alone as he was by how boring it was compared to the other facilities he'd seen.

"Well, make yourself comfortable. The Professor will be in shortly." The woman said as she closed the door behind the teenager and walked around to the front of the back of the office desk and leaned against the wall, beside a large framed map of Karakura. Ryūnosuke cleared his throat and helped himself to a seat. He didn't know were to look, so he pretended to observe the office setting, in doing so he discovered just how unremarkable the office was and also, that the attractive blonde woman was studying him from head to toe. The teenager shifted in he seat and faced the woman directly he tried to match her gaze and the woman simply chuckled as he did. "Careful, you'll make a lady blush.", the woman quipped.
"Figured it'd be impolite to not return the favor.", Ryūnosuke replied confidently.
"Hmm, touché", she chuckled again and crossed her arms. "Can't say I'm surprised, of course the boy who boldly took on the Baron alone would have some fire in him." The remark surprised Ryūnosuke, he was beginning to wonder just how many people knew about his battle with the monster known as Baron Quadhorn. "I didn't catch your name."
Ryūnosuke stood up from his seat and held his hand, the gesture seemed to momentarily shock the woman but she quickly accepted the gesture and firmly shook Ryūnosuke's hand. "Tamura. Tamura Ryūnosuke.", he stated firmly.
"Pleasure to meet you, Tamura-kun. I'm Sato Kiyoku, but I'm called 'Manager' around here."
"And I am the Professor." a third voice stated as another person entered the office. Ryūnosuke turned to the door and met face to face with the professor. A man who wasn't much taller than himself, with neat combed back brown hair and round glasses. His nose was notably pointed and red at the tip. The Professor appeared to be a bit stocky under his garments, which consisted of a white lab-coat and had a grey suit. He wore a silver watch on his left wrist which drew the teenagers eyes to the Professor's oddly large hands. Ryūnosuke imagined the professor would make a great catcher if he played Baseball. The Professor was the one who offered his hand for a shake this time and Ryūnosuke seized it firmly without hesitation. "We've heard a lot about you, Tamura Ryūnosuke.", said the Professor with a charming smile.

To Be Continued...
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020: On The Crucible Of Fate PRT 2
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... RYŪNOSUKE watched the man who identified himself as "The Professor" sit in the leather chair behind the desk. Just as he'd noted the man's outward appearance, the teenager also remarked the Professor's dull manner of speech and even his posture. It was all very pedestrian. A complete contrast to Ms Sato. Admittedly, Ryūnosuke's first impression of the Professor was unflattering, but the teenager was conscious not to judge too harshly. He simply thought the man was average and uninteresting, not the kind of person he'd expect to be at the helm of a secret supernatural organization. He didn't believe his opinion to be defamatory but the fact that it was an unfair assumption to make was not completely lost on the teenager. "Please, have a seat.", the Professor insisted with an open hand gesture towards the chair opposite to his own.
"Thank you." Ryūnosuke responded as he sat down again and faced the man directly. The Professor gave an unassuming smile as he did what Ryūnosuke guessed was a brief study of his appearance and demeanor. Intriguingly, the duration of the man's stare seemed meticulous and calculated. It lasted long enough for his intentions to be obvious and short enough to not be awkward. Whether or not that had been intentional or purely a coincidence the teenager would never know.
The Professor interlocked his fingers over his desk and finally broke the silence. "So, Tamura-kun. I can only imagine how many questions you must have, before we go any further I want to assure you we're prepared to answer all of them for you to the best of our ability.", the Professor explained warmly.
"Thanks, I'd appreciate that." Ryūnosuke acknowledged with a bow of his head. Based on the man's tone, Ryūnosuke intuited that that was merely the Professor's opening statement, so the teenager left his response at that and allowed the Professor to continue.
"Oh, certainly... and we appreciate you coming, really." The Professor nodded and glanced at Kiyoku who smiled in agreement. "So..." The professor addressed the teenager again, "I guess our first question for you is why did you come?", he asked.
Ryūnosuke paused and reflected on the question. It wasn't that he didn't know or was unsure of his answer, he simply found it odd that the Professor was asking for it. He thought his reasons were obvious, the Professor had basically stated them himself just seconds before. Ryūnosuke chuckled nervously, he figured maybe the question was rhetorical but the moment of silence and the still gaze of the Professor upon him alerted the teenager that the Professor was in fact expecting an answer. "Uh-" Ryūnosuke blinked with a light shake of his head and cleared his throat. "Well, it's like you said, I have a lot of questions and... and the note-", he started to reach into his pocket, "The note I got from your guys.. I guess... It said to come here if I wanted answers." Ryūnosuke chuckled again. "So, here I am... because I want answers."
The Professor's gaze remained fixed on the teenager before he responded with a monotone, "I see."

Ryūnosuke wasn't clear on what to think of that response and he was beginning to suspect the Professor perhaps harbored some suspicions of his own. "I don't understand. Is that a problem?", the teenager questioned. There was a sharpness in his tone that he saw the Professor no doubt noted. He watched the man lean back in his seat and wave his right palm dismissively as Kiyoku sighed. Ryūnosuke would later recall the interaction followed as the exact instant he began to warm up to the Professor, perhaps out of a sense of sympathy --maybe even pity.
As the Professor waved his hand and practically folded upon himself in his chair. His entire facade cracked like an egg shell and the Professor's true personally poured out a spilled in the leather seat. "No, no. It not a problem at all!" , he animatedly assured, his voice hit an unusually high pitch.
The reaction had the teenager on high alert as he looked to Kiyoku --still a complete stranger to him-- for reassurance. The manager simply shook her tilted head and rolled her eyes; it seemed this was nothing out of the usual. "What just happened?" The teenager whispered nervously.
"I apologize... not trying to put you on the spot... w-we just have some concerns-"
"Alright!" Kiyoku interjected. She stepped forward and slammed her right palm assertively on the Professor's desk. "I think, I'll take over for the time being, Professor. If you don't mind."
The Professor shifted back into a natural posture in his seat and straightened the lapels of his lab coat. "Yes, Manager Sato. That may be for the best."

"Aahh, this guy is a total wimp." The realization sparked in Ryūnosuke head. "Wait, did I just scare the shit out of a grown man?...That's... kinda sad.", he wondered with a frown. "Look, I don't want any problems." Ryūnosuke stated reassuringly.
"Neither do we." Kiyoku returned. The Professor nodded in agreement. "You have to excuse the Professor, while he oversees operations here, he isn't exactly a 'people's person' and it sometimes leads to awkward misunderstandings."
The teenager could understand that, he was quiet familiar with the type. It was quite common in the high-school setting. No one was completely free of social ineptitude or awkwardness --not even himself. Like most things, some people just suffered it more than others. "Yeah, that's cool. I get it. No worries, Professor." Ryūnosuke replied sympathetically. He thought he'd successfully pulled off his attempt at appearing less confrontational. That usually helped. The Professor gave no discernible reaction, although it was now obvious that he was postured with his shoulders conspicuously squared and what little he had to pass as chest muscles were puffed out. "Eehh?! A defensive pose!", he shouted internally as he coughed into his left fist and stealthily snuffed an involuntary cackle.

"What the Professor was very poorly leading to, was the fact that there is something peculiar about your case." Kiyoku explained. "A few things aren't added up. Now, one of our own vouched for you, he's the reason you received an invitation at all-" Kiyoku sighed and Ryūnosuke remembered the young man with the green trench coat. "But, he sometimes jumps the gun and its our-", the Manager pointed to herself and the Professor. "responsibility to protect our team and our operation. You understand, Tamura-kun?"
"I do." The teenager answered with hesitation and then reaffirmed, "I get that completely." His eye-contact drifted from Kiyoku to the Professor and then back to the former. "I'm just not understanding what that has to do with me. You said something isn't adding up..? I'm not sure I know what that means." Ryūnosuke explained.
"We'll get to it." Kiyoku assured. "But first, tell us a little bit about yourself."
Ryūnosuke leaned back in his seat and thought about how he wanted to answer. He'd never liked that request. 'Tell us about yourself'. Perhaps it wasn't so much that he disliked the question itself, rather he detested having to answer it. Talking about one's self; he found it pretentious. Furthermore, it was his personal understanding that when people asked that question there was usually a specific piece of information they were fishing for and not a monologue of someone's autobiography. He often wondered why people didn't just ask for the information they wanted directly. The obvious answer was that they probably made the ambiguous inquiry out of politeness. If that was the case he could understand it, but it didn't make the answer seem any less self-important. Fortunately, Ryūnosuke did see a possible compromise. Perhaps by inviting the direct question he could get the Manager or the Professor to just come out with what they had to say without tip-toeing around the subject. At the very least, he figured the Manager wasn't the type to pass on the opportunity. "Is there anything specific you'd like to know?"
Kiyoku smirked. "Yeah, sure.", she agreed as she walked around the desk, sat in the chair beside the teenager and faced him. The Professor now seemed isolated on the opposite side of the desk, but Ryūnosuke could tell he was following the conversation from the sidelines. "So, Tamura-kun, how long have you been in town for?"
"Just a few days. We moved from-"
"Wait.", Kiyoku interjected. "Let me guess... Osaka?"
"Yeah, something gave it away?"
"Your dialect."
"My dialect?" Ryūnosuke retorted with a raised brow.
"Oi, you're all tough sounding, yo! Real intimidatin', we better not mess with you!" Kiyoku explained with a few brash swings and signs with her hands while doing what the teenager could only assume was an intentionally dramatic rendition of a gangster. His first and instinctual answer to the performance was to firmly establish that he didn't sound that ridiculous, but ultimately he didn't say anything at all. The reaction from both Kiyoku and surprisingly the Professor as well were looks of mild disappointment. The teenager couldn't imagine why; but this was the beginning of a long-running gag of Ryūnosuke missing what were, in the eyes of his Karakuran comrades, obvious setups for a counter-punches. The eulogy of Kiyoku's joke was a soft sigh. "Anyway. Is Karakura a long-term thing for you or what, you just visiting?"
"Long-term, I think. We have a house here."
"The Black Box, right? That's what we call it."
"We call it that too, my mom and I."
"Is there a story there?" Kiyoku asked curiously and Ryūnosuke scoffed before offering his answer with a dismissive chuckle.
"Yeah, the story there is my dad." There was an involuntary iciness in his tone, Ryūnosuke noticed it only as the words left his mouth and then he noticed Kiyoku and the Professor notice it.

"Okay then." Kiyoku responded flatly. Ryūnosuke started to worry they might ask him to elaborate on that more and make a conversation out of his family issues. Thankfully, the Manager showed no interest in pursuing the topic further. "And what's the story with the Baseball bat? Iwa-kun said you fended off Baron Quadhorn with it but I assume that's not usually the case. Do you play?"
"Iwa-kun." The teenager thought, again remembering the young man with the green trench coat. Ryūnosuke nodded emphatically. "I play a lot.", he affirmed.
"Interesting... are you any good?" Kiyoku followed up. Ryūnosuke hesitated. He was uncertain of how to answer. Again not wanting to come across as presumptuous, but the obvious and honest answer in his mind was a resounding "Hell yeah!". Ryūnosuke was just "good" he was one of the best players he knew. A rising star. An ace player with the road to a professional career in the Sport all but laid out before him. No doubt seeing the resistance in his answer Kiyoku continued, "No need to be modest, give us your honest opinion of yourself... or if it helps, just tell us what your friends and coaches say about you."
Ryūnosuke took a moment to collect his thoughts and then nodded. "I guess -and I don't mean to brag-" He felt the need to make that point clear. "I'm pretty damn good."
"As in-"
"Freakishly good, for my age." Ryūnosuke added, quoting his high-school coaches and teammates. "That's what the coaches say, at least... on the school team. I was the Captain until the move here." He ended with no intention of elaborating on the circumstances of his departure from his old team. It wasn't information he was prepared to disclose to anyone yet, least of all strangers he'd just met.
"Freakishly good..." Kiyoku repeated, facing the Professor who grinned confidently. Ryūnosuke identified it as the face scientists made when they had a breakthrough or had proven a hypothesis. He recognized the face in both his father but more often in Akane's father and midst their teams of lab coats.
"Anything else, Tamura-kun. Anything you can gives us... like incredible feats of physical strength or agility?", asked the Professor.
Ryūnosuke's eyes widened. He thought the inquiry was oddly specific, but now that the Professor mentioned it he did have something possibly relevant to add. "Well, I always ace the school fitness tests, but come on... it's not that difficult."
"And when you say 'ace' you mean-?"
"Top in the prefecture. There is this other guy... he and I always come out on top, but he wasn't from my school." Ryūnosuke elaborated and watched skeptically as the Professor yelped and practically glowed up like a light-bulb.
Kiyoku also appeared relieved as the teenager gave his answer. "Okay, that just leave one more thing to get out of the way from our side."
Ryūnosuke leaned upright again and held the arm of his seat, "finally", he thought. "Sure, ask away."
"Tamura-kun." Kiyoku stared directly at him. Her tone had shifted to one that was markedly more serious than before and it gave the teenager the sense that this was the most important question, the one of greatest consequence in the eyes of the Manager and the Professor. "When did you first start seeing monsters and spirits?"
Simple enough. "Last night." Ryūnosuke responded without hesitation. "Before last night I've never seen anything like that. I didn't even believe stuff like that existed!" He paused then and recounted his near-death encounter with Baron Quadhorn. "I... I almost died last night. If it wasn't for your guys in the masks I wouldn't even be here right now." Ryūnosuke hunched forward as the gravity of that realization hit him again. He'd thought he was pass it, but clearly not. He needed a moment and both the Professor and Ms. Sato seemed clued in on that fact and let him have it. "I can't..." Ryūnosuke forcibly stopped himself, he felt his words weren't forming correctly. He was speaking before he had the chance to fully organize his thoughts. He took a deep breath and faced Ms. Sato sternly. "I can't 'almost die' in the middle of a street again. So, I need to know what's going on out there, what that monster was and if there are more of them... I need to know why it attacked me! What the Hell was that energy stuff and what was that stupid thing that was talking to me."
Kiyoku pressed her lips and nodded, apparently satisfied with the teenager's response. "I think we've confirmed what we needed to, Professor. Don't you agree.", she stated to her colleague.

"Yes, I believe so, Manager Sato.", replied the Professor before he rolled his leather chair closer to the desk and addressed Ryūnosuke. "Tamura-kun. We will explain everything to you now, as promised. But I must warn you it is a lot to take in. I'm afraid if you're going to accept the answers we have to offer you'll have to leave any preconceived notions of what you think you know about reality at the door. The answers we have require that you reexamine the parameters of what you might have previously believed to be impossible or unnatural. Make no mistake, the concepts we're exploring fall well within the realms of the supernatural... with a heavy emphasis on spirituality." The Professor paused briefly, giving his words to moment to seep in. "Are you a religious person, Tamura-kun?"
"What?", Ryūnosuke stammered. He heard the question but was unsure of the relevance or if he fully understood its meaning.
"Do you believe in the human soul, that people live and when we die we are judged by our character and actions... The afterlife and such, perhaps reincarnation?"
The question reminded Ryūnosuke of all his past mistakes and regrets and he wondered if what tormented him was a fear of some divine punishment after death. He preferred to believe it was more than that but he couldn't deny his belief in a divine power played it's part. "I-I guess so.", he replied.
"Good, people of faith usually have an easier time accepting what you're about to hear-"
"But-" Kiyoku interrupted. "If you ever feel like it's too much and you need a break or want to stop, just let us know."
The sincerity in her voice was unmistakable, it reminded him of his mother and how she spoke when she was concerned for him. For better or worse Ryūnosuke appreciated the familiarity and warmth of it, it gave him a bit more confidence that he was prepared and could handle whatever was thrown at him. "I'll be fine. Please, don't hold back.", that seemed to get an approving smile from both Kiyoku and the Professor.
The latter spoke again as he interlocked his fingers over the table once more. "Then, let's begin."
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... JURI felt the Reiatsu of the strange boy she'd saved the night before radiating from the gift shop long before she and Kanako arrived and from practically a half-mile away. She gasped upon the realization and turned to Kanako (AKA Kitsune), suspecting that she too had felt it. "Kanako-chan, Iwa-kun was right, he must have accepted the invitation!" The soft-spoken Juri noted gaily to her friend and housemate.
"Yeah, looks like it." Kanako gave a soft smile, the sincerity of it however extended no further than acknowledging Juri's excitement.
"C'mon, Kanako we have to hurry. Move your butt!"
, Juri exclaimed excitedly as she took Kanako's hand and started to run towards the gift shop.

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... KANAKO whined, "Hold on, Juriii!", but allowed herself to be pulled along. She was happy to see Juri happy but, if Kitsune was being completely forthcoming, she hadn't taken any particular interest or liking to the stranger. In fact, as she looked at the long silky strands of Juri's now snow-white hair, Kanako's doubts were only further confirmed and exasperated. It would forever be a reminder of what the stranger had taken from Juri and the potential threat he represented to them all, whether he knew it or not. Nevertheless, she also understood Juri's feelings. Juri was a pure-hearted and innocent and had no ulterior motives at the time she decided to save the stranger. She saved him because she could and it was the right thing to do. They all thought they knew the risk --Juri herself most of all-- but none of them had could have truly anticipated what happened. The cost of saving the stranger's life. They were extremely fortunate things played out the way they did and Kanako feared that cost had caused Juri and Iwa to be more invested in the stranger than they ever should be.

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... IWA met Juri and Kanako at the gift shop entrance and invited them inside, tossing them both their aprons as they entered. "Morning, Juri-chan, Kanako-chan... Guess what!", he stated cheerfully.
"He's here!" Juri replied and raced into the shop.
"Yup, he came right over. Just like I said he would. You must have left quite the impression, Juri-chan!", Iwa jested. Juri took a sarcastic bow and the two shared a laugh.
"It's not that big a deal, you two." Kanako muttered and then frowned as her comment seemed to go ignored. Lost to the combined fawning of her two friends.

"Do you think he'll join the team?" Juri whispered excitedly.
Iwa smiled confidently and gave a thumbs up. "I'm optimistic. Big Sis and the Professor are interviewing him now, so we have to wait and see."
"So, does our mystery guy even have a name.", Kanako asked flatly. It was clear she inquired not in any cordial capacity, but simply out of her desire to run a background check later.
"Ah!", Iwa exclaimed. Stunned in place before he sighed and rubbed the nape of his neck. "Heheh... I forgot to ask, sorry.", he murmured sheepishly.
"Baka." Kanako flatly.
"Iwa-kuuun!", Juri pouted. The door of the gift shop swung open behind them with the jingle of a bell.
"Morning.", called a familiar voice as Iwa, Juri, and Kanako all half-turned to face the door.
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... CHIZURU looked between her three comrades with her right brow raised with curiosity. "Why are you all standing so close to the doorway?" She asked bluntly. She noted the confusion on the faces of all three of her teammates, even Kanako who'd seemed to be slightly annoyed as opposed to ecstatic like Iwa and Juri were.
"Morning, Chizuru-chan, have you noticed the guy from last night is here, the one Juri saved!", Iwa exclaimed.
"Yeah." Chizuru pressed her lips and tilted her slightly to the side, "Pretty hard to miss."

"Morning, Chizuru-chan!", Juri replied cheerfully.
"Hey, Chizuru.", Kanako right after her. She'd barely finished before Iwa continued their conversation.
"Are you saying you're not the least bit excited by the prospect of having a strong new member on the team? The guy nearly beat Baron Quadhorn!"
"No, actually, he nearly got killed by Baron Quadhorn. Remember, we were all there. C'mon, it's not that serious." Chizuru corrected. She didn't believe there was any malice in her statement; but, for reasons that were not entirely different from Kanako's, Chizuru was also somewhat opposed to the ardor with which the others seemed ready to embrace the stranger. As far as she was concerned having a ridiculous amount of Reiatsu alone wasn't of itself grounds to invite anyone into WILD'S and past experience had taught her not to trust so soon.
"Thank you!" Kanako interjected with a gasp.
"He'd be dead if it wasn't for us showing up and mainly Juri risking her life to save him." Chizuru looked at Juri directly and could see that the fourteen year old was now frowning. Chizuru held her shoulder tenderly. "How are you feeling, Juri-chan."
"I'm fine, thank you, Chizu-chan.", she replied softly and sniffled.
"That's good... by the way white hair looks just as pretty on you." Chizuru then addressed Iwa who also appeared to slightly disappointed with her lack of enthusiasm and furthermore her lack of acceptance. Chizuru sighed, "Look, I hate to be the buzz kill, but we don't even know this guy. He's clearly pretty powerful, I won't take that from him, but you're putting a lot of trust in a guy we don't even know-" Chizuru caught herself there. She imagined the other would find it ironic that she was making that argument after what she'd done in the past. "I now realize how rich that must sound, coming from me of all people."

"No." Iwa replied sharply. "Objectively speaking, you have a point. Besides, we all trusted-" Iwa sighed, he likely wanted to get back on point. Chizuru appreciated it. "Listen, team. All I'm saying is we give this guy a chance. I'm pretty sure he's not secretly working for the police if that's what you're worried about. He nearly died in my arms and no one was coming to help him. I'm not denying there is a slim chance, a very slim chance in my opinion, that we get burned again but what we stand to gain here if this guy is the real deal..." Iwa scoffed and Chizuru could see the gears rapidly turning in his head. No matter how greatly he might have been overlooking the potential risks, she had no doubt that Iwa had thought of all the possible ways having the stranger on the team would benefit WILD'S because that was how Iwa was. Everything he did was for WILD'S first and foremost. "Chizuru, we simply can't pass this up. Big sis and the Professor are vetting the guy as we speak, and this time he's my guy and my burden."
Chizuru frowned, she'd almost been convinced but she knew that Iwa knew the reality. "Don't say it.", she thought.
"If he burns us, it's on me and I'll handle it.", Iwa declared confidently. Chizuru couldn't resist, she wouldn't hear another word of it. She reached out and grabbed the chest of Iwa's apron and hissed sternly.
"Iwa-kun! If he burns us neither of us will be able to handle him... That's it! WILD'S will be done for!" With the last word, she shoved Iwa back. Iwa balled his fist and glanced at both Juri and Kanako, who were both paralyzed with shock. Chizuru regretted putting her hands on Iwa, but didn't show it. He needed to know how serious this was.
"I've calculated all the risk and he's worth it." Iwa replied sharply. He then looked to Juri and smiled. "He's worth it.", he reaffirmed.
"Let's go, Juri-chan dango store isn't gonna run itself.", Chizuru ended in passing.
-----

... RYŪNOSUKE sat silently absorbed in his thoughts as he tried to grasp the numerous reality-bending mental curve balls being hurled at him by the Professor. It felt like hours had gone by, when really the Professor had barely spoken for thirty minutes; breezing through what was by his own admission the "crash course in the Spiritual World". A world hidden behind a simple veil of perception and awareness that the teenager had only recently crossed completely. A world full of monsters like Baron Quadhorn; "Hollows" they were called. Corrupt spirits of supernatural power, born of the souls of deceased humans unable to pass on peacefully to the afterlife --known as the Soul Society-- for any myriad of reasons. Trapped in the World of the Living, they lose their hearts to strong negative emotions and eventually become Hollows. As Hollows they are driven by an insatiable hunger to devour the souls of the living and the dead alike. Opposed to the Hollows are the Shinigami. The Professor described them as "shepherds of the dead" tasked with guiding souls to the Soul Society and purifying the souls of Hollows by slaying them with special weapons known as Zanpakutō. He noted that while the effectiveness of Shinigami in recent years could be subject for debate, as the teenager might have no doubt agreed given his own near-death run in with the Baron, the Shinigami had their distinct role within the supernatural ecosystem as the "balancers". The equalizing force keeping the collective realms of the universe from falling into total destruction.

Ryūnosuke's next question then was about the role of people like himself; the "Spiritually Aware" and specifically Fullbringers: humans with the ability to not only perceive and interact with other spiritual entities but also possess unique supernatural powers of their own. While the Professor gave no definitive answer he did present a theory. It suggested that Fullbringers were just the next natural evolution of the Human race. Nature's inevitable answer to the growing threat posed to humans by powers and forces beyond what most could even perceive. The Professor added, "And if that's the case, then the only true obligation Fullbringers have is to simply survive and procreate, just like any normal human." Ryūnosuke frowned. Given all he'd learned he didn't find that answer very satisfying. To resign himself to the life of a normal oblivious human after discovering he in fact had the potential to be so much more was contemptible to him. Ryūnosuke had always been ambitious, even long before he ever knew he had supernatural powers. Originally, he'd attributed all the signs of it --his ridiculous athleticism, his above-average physical strength and speed, and his exceptional visual perception-- to just being a genetic edge and his own dedication and skill. Even back then he dreamed of setting himself apart and being more. More than his peers, more than his father, more than everyone --more than just another human. To simply live was the opposite of who he was.

-----

... THE PROFESSOR saw the discontent in Ryūnosuke's eyes, just as he'd seen it in all the others and he noted the cruel irony of it. These children who were so much more than they could know and who outclassed anything that could be quantified as statistically "human" were here now by their own volition driven by the very Human yearning for a higher calling. It was admirable, but like all things human, it was flawed. Therein the Professor believed was his own calling. "But, I suspect that isn't the answer you were hoping to hear." The Professor sighed lowly. "It surely isn't the answer the rest of us have accepted.", he baited and Ryūnosuke took the bite.
"So, what is your answer?"
The Professor smiled warmly and stood up from his seat. "I started WILD'S precisely for people like you, Tamura-kun. Young people, Fullbringers with incredible powers and a drive to do more, to be more. You asked about our roles. Well, mine is to serve as the mentor to those youths. To guide them and advise them so that they can harness their powers as forces of good and make a difference in the world. But also to cultivate a safe environment where they are understood and can feel safe."
"So, just like a school principal?" Ryūnosuke asked.
The question seemed straightforwards but the Professor read between the lines and understood what the teenager was really asking and chuckled. "Not exactly, Tamura-kun. My purpose and my goal isn't to control you... It's to train you and provide you and those like you with the tools and experiences you need so that you can control yourselves and hopefully hold each other accountable." The teenager fell silent, seemingly accepting or at the very least willing to consider that alternative perspective. "I want to show you something.", said the Professor with a beckoning swing of his arm as the turned to face the map of Karakura on the back wall on the office.
-----

... RYŪNOSUKE looked first to Kiyoku and stood from his chair only as she nodded approvingly. He walked around the desk and stood beside the Professor who coughed and chuckled nervously as the teen stepped into his proximity. "Yes, that's great.", he murmured giving the teenager an awkward and despicable jab in his shoulder. Ryūnosuke thought it best to disregard the interaction entirely and the Professor spoke no more of it either. "So, here we have a map of Karakura...", he explained. Ryūnosuke nodded. "And here-" The Professor hovered his right palm over the map and Ryūnosuke watched with intrigue as markings began to appear on the map as if drawn out of thin air.
"Whoa!", the teenager exclaimed. "How'd you-"
"Oh, this is nothing. A simple parlor trick, really." The Professor dismissively. "What's really impressive are all these black dots with the circles around them.", he continued point to one such marking as it inked itself on the face of the map.
Ryūnosuke watched the different marking as they appeared. Black dots with circles around them, black dots with "X"s drawn through them, areas segmented off with colored lines that appeared, faded, and then appeared again. Of the black dots with circles around them, the teenager counted at least two dozen, but there were plenty more he missed. "What do they mean." He asked finally.
"Those are Hollows WILD'S has neutralized in the past week alone. Thirty-eight so far, if you count them. Now who is to say for certain how many souls were in immediate danger from them but at the very least that's thirty-eight humans and spirits saved." Ryūnosuke could hear the pride in the Professor's voice. He didn't blame him either, thirty-eight lives saved from creatures like Baron Quadhorn, that was a remarkable accomplishment. The Professor then pointed to one marking in particular, not too far North-West of the train station. "Here, this one is your encounter with Baron Quadhorn." Ryūnosuke clenched his jaw as he looked at the marking; a larger black dot about twice the size of the others with a circle around it but also an "X" drawn through it. "Unfortunately, we can't get them all. Sometimes we can't make it in time, maybe our hands are tied elsewhere... Sometimes, like with the Baron, we just don't have the power to take them on. We were extremely lucky to have been able to save you when we did, Tamura-kun. Extremely lucky."

"No." Ryūnosuke shook his head as his eyes hovered over the map, this time taking note of all the "X"s. He frowned, unable to make a precise count but knowing for sure that as far as he was concerned the number of victims was "too many". "I'm the one who was lucky." Ryūnosuke could feel his emotions swelling in his chest as he remembered the coldness of the pavement beneath him as he laid broken and battered in a pool of his own blood just seconds from death. The face of Baron Quadhorn, his horrifying grin of serrated jaws, flashed in the teenager's mind. He could hear the sharp whip of the Baron's tentacle as it tore through the air and he recounted the sound of his bones snapping beneath his skin. Ryūnosuke felt his terror reignited, but knowing that there were others out there just like him who also suffered as he had or worst filled him with an even greater anger. Ryūnosuke clenched his fist. "So, is this what WILD'S is about?" Ryūnosuke muttered icily, his eyes focused in on the all the black dots. 
"This and so much more, truly." The Professor elaborated before clearing his throat. "So, you see, Tamura-kun. I-It's our belief that you can do some real good here. With the proper trai-"
"Yes." Kiyoku cut in. "This is WILD'S. This is what we do.", she affirmed with a grin, a part of her understood that was all the teenager needed to hear.
"Good." Ryūnosuke replied as he made a silent vow to clear the map in front of him of all the "X"s and to hunt and kill Baron Quadhorn specifically. He felt he finally found the reason for everything that had happened. This was it, this was how he set things right. "Where do I sign up?"

To Be Continued...
______________________________
WC|5,615
-----

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