Micky was the first to greet Yuto when he returned to Block A.

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“Yuto! Welcome back, man!”

Yuto had headed straight for the showers after getting out.
Freshened up, he had returned to his cell to have Micky come bursting in.
Micky seemed overwhelmed with emotion as he threw his arms around Yuto, and Yuto hugged him back equally tightly.

“I’m so sorry, man,” Micky burst out.
“All because I messed up.
I felt so guilty I could barely eat.
Look at how much weight I’ve lost!”

Yuto extricated himself from Micky’s embrace and looked the man up and down.

“You don’t look like you’ve lost weight at all,” he remarked.
“Smooth talker, aren’t you?”

“You’re obviously just blind!” Micky said, laughing happily as he ruffled Yuto’s hair.

A curious phenomenon happened while Yuto chatted with Micky.
One inmate after another appeared at the cell to greet Yuto.
Some of them he had never met nor talked to before.

“What’s going on?” Yuto wondered.

“You got sent into solitary to stick up for a friend,” Micky said.
“Everyone’s just coming by to show their appreciation.
They probably also want to catch a glimpse of the guy who beat up Bernard.
You were the talk of the town for a while, you know.
That kick – that was just magnificent.
Some guys are saying they think you might be a ninja.”

Yuto couldn’t help but give a wry smile.
The rumour of him being a ninja was one thing, but the fight with Bernard wasn’t even something he had planned.
It was a little uncomfortable to have people spinning it like a heroic tale.

“I only came in partway through.
You’re the one who avenged Matthew, Micky.”

“But you were the only one who got sent to solitary.
I’ll repay the debt someday.
I promise,” said Micky his face set and sincere.
He’d always had a strong sense of duty.
Since it was almost time for dinner, Micky invited Yuto to head to the cafeteria together.

Inmates continued to greet Yuto there as well.
Some silently gave Yuto a firm clap on the shoulder while others welcomed him back with a smile.

“Kinda makes you feel like a hero, huh,” Micky teased.
Yuto had never felt so sheepishly embarrassed before.

Nathan and Dick appeared just as they were sitting down.

“Yuto, you were back!” Nathan’s face lit up as he approached.
Yuto stood up to meet him.
Nathan put his tray down before hugging Yuto tightly.

“I’m so relieved to see you looking well.
We were all worried and impatient about when you’d get back.
Isn’t that right, Dick?” Nathan turned to the man behind him in expectation.

“For sure,” Dick answered brusquely, turning toward Yuto.
When their eyes locked, Yuto felt his heart swell with happiness.
For a fleeting moment, he though Dick would hug him like Nathan.
But contrary to his expectation, Dick looked cool and unaffected as he offered his right hand.
Yuto couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment at Dick’s usual aloof attitude.

After their handshake, Yuto sat back down.
While they ate, Nathan asked about how Yuto how had fared in solitary.

“I thought I was going to lose my mind, being crammed into a shoebox like that,” Yuto said.
“My old cell felt like heaven.
But the guy next to me turned out to be really cool, and we chatted the whole time through the wall when the guard wasn’t looking.
That kept me pretty distracted.”

“That’s wonderful to hear,” Nathan nodded sincerely.
“Solitary confinement is the worst form of abuse in prison.
It’s a despicable custom left over from the old days.
Mental pathologists have acknowledged that being confined alone without human contact results in pathological syndromes.
So the fact that you were able to converse with someone, at the least, probably made a huge difference in your mental state.”

Nathan continued, his face etched with sorrow.

“The prison system in the States is the worst it’s ever been.
It’s stopped functioning at all as a correctional facility.
It’s become an isolation facility for undesirables.
―Yuto, do you know how many people are incarcerated in this country?”

“I have no idea.”

“2.2 million.
The United States is king when it comes to prison population – it has the largest in the world.
Thirty years ago, there were only 600 prisons in this country.
Now, there are about 1,500.
An abnormal rate of increase, don’t you think?”

“It’s probably because of the increase in crime, isn’t it?” Yuto said.

“Not as much as you think.
According to a book written by a legal scholar, the number of crimes hasn’t actually increased that much – only the proportion of arrested people being thrown in prison has increased.
Sentences have also been ramped up.
The privatization of prisons is only encouraging all of this.
In the 1980s, before prisons were widely privatized, there were only 850,000 inmates.
In less than 20 years, that number has increased to 2.2 million.”

“…So you’re saying that incarcerations are being increased on purpose to promote the prison business?”

“That’s right.
Inmates generate profit for the companies.
Schelger is a State Prison, but its operation is contracted out to the biggest corrections corporation in America – Smith-Backs Company.”

Yuto was listening raptly, but was interrupted by Micky’s interjection.

“Hey, man, that’s enough.
No one wants to hear this complicated stuff at the dinner table.
It’ll make our shitty food taste even worse.”

“Oops.
Sorry about that,” Nathan smiled as he shrugged.
Just then, a buzz ran through the cafeteria.

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Many of the inmates had their heads turned to the front of the room.
Yuto glanced in the same direction, wondering what it was.
There was a cluster of Locos Hermanos members surrounding a man with dark facial hair as if to guard him.
As they walked, the men threw menacing glances at the surrounding inmates.

“It’s Libera! He’s finally back!” shouted voices from the buzzing crowd.
The Chicanos were the ones making the most noise.
Their voices gradually turned to cheers, joined by clapping and banging on the tables as they rocked the cafeteria with the din.

The guards seemed unsure of how to react.
They knew very well that trying to suppress the noise forcefully could instantly turn the joyful excitement of the crowd into agitated anger.

In the end, there was no need for the guards to move out.
Neto made a gesture as if to calm the crowd.
The men quieted instantly, obeying the wishes of their leader.

Neto strolled leisurely past Yuto, surrounded by his men.
He still looked to be in his early thirties, but his commanding presence gave him an air of regal dignity.

Physically, he was stout with a muscular build.
His face was rugged and masculine.
Tanned arms extended from the sleeves of his white T-shirt, with a black tribal tattoo on his left arm and a vivid colour tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe – the mother of Mexico – on his right.
In person, Neto turned out to be an even greater man than Yuto had thought.

So Neto had finally been released from solitary as well.
He was finally free.
As much as Yuto wanted to call out and congratulate him, the man before him was not the Neto he knew; he was Ernesto Libera, not only the leader of the Locos Hermanos but of all the Chicanos.
He was no longer someone whom Yuto could approach easily.

Maybe someday they would pass each other and they could say hello, Yuto thought as he dropped his gaze.

“So Libera’s finally out, huh,” Micky said.
“I was wondering why there were so many guards around.
Hey, look at BB and his gang – they’re glaring daggers at Libera.”

True to Micky’s words, the black inmates dominating the back of the cafeteria, especially the Black Soldiers, gave off an intimidating air and scowled as Neto sat down at his table.

“Jeez, you’d think they were getting ready to face off in battle,” Micky griped.
“Hey, Dick.
How’s Choker doing?”

“He’s still giving orders to his subordinates from his sickbed, but he could fall into a coma anytime now.
Spencer was already saying last December that he’d have three months left at best.
He’s hanging on out of sheer will at this point.”

Nathan sighed heavily and shook his head.

“If BB takes the throne, this place will be even worse than before.”

After that, Micky and Nathan continued exchanging opinions on how bad they thought the rift between the blacks and Chicanos would get, and what move ABL would make in response.

Yuto gently pressed his forehead as he listened to them talk.
He felt like he had a slight fever; his temples were starting to throb.
In addition to the headache, he felt lethargic.
Even sitting still at the table was starting to get painful.

“We should get going soon,” Dick said to Micky and Nathan, who were engrossed in their conversation.
Yuto stood from his chair, feeling relieved.
He couldn’t wait to get back to his cell and lie down.

As they left the cafeteria and were walking down the hall, Yuto heard a voice with a Spanish accent behind them.

“Hey, Libera.
You were gone for a long time.
We were all waiting for you.”

Yuto turned to see Neto walking a little ways behind them, surrounded by other Chicano inmates.
Everyone seemed to be jostling for a word with him.
Neto obliged by nodding to each of them in response.

Yuto’s gazed lingered on them absently.
Neto suddenly looked up.
Although they were several yards away from each other, their gazes collided.
Neto squinted as if to make sure of something, then came wading through the crowd toward him.

“Yuto, what’s up?” asked Micky apprehensively as Yuto stood stock-still.
Yuto’s eyes were still on Neto.
The man approached and stopped in front of him.

“―Yuto, is that you? You’re Yuto, aren’t you?”

It was none other than Neto’s voice, the same voice he had listened to through the wall.
Yuto felt his face relax into a grin.

“Yeah, I am.
I’m surprised you could tell.”

“Ha!” Neto let out gleefully, his face breaking into a wide grin.
It was a genuine, attractive smile that someone would only show to people who were close.
“I knew it.
One look and I was certain.
It’s great to finally meet you.”

Neto spread his arms and gave Yuto a bear hug.
Yuto ended up fitting snugly into the much larger man’s arms.

“It’s great to meet you, too,” Yuto said.
“So you’re finally out, huh.
Congratulations.”

“I was released not long after you.
I wish they’d let us out at the same time, at least.
Then we could have shared the joy of liberation together.”

Neto released him from his embrace and peered closely at Yuto’s face.
Then, on some mysterious impulse, he suddenly cupped Yuto’s cheek with one hand and ran his thumb over his small chin.

“I see.
You’re just as Tonya said – prison is no place for these delicate features.”

“Stop that, will you?” Yuto smiled exasperatedly as he gently batted the man’s hand away.

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“Yuto, let’s sit down and have a good talk sometime.
There’s also that thing we talked about.
Feel free to come by my place anytime.”

‘That thing’ probably referred to asking Tonya about Galen.
Yuto was grateful for Neto’s consideration.

“Will do,” he nodded.

Neto noticed Dick standing nearby, and lifted his fist as if to greet him.
Dick also wordlessly raised his hand and gave Neto a fist bump.
To Yuto, it looked like the two men held each other in a distant but respectful regard.

Once the group of Locos Hermanos left, Micky stared in astonishment at Yuto.

“Yuto, man, what’s going on? You and Libera know each other?”

Yuto told him that Neto was the neighbour he talked with often in solitary.

“Wow,” Micky said in awe, but nonetheless seemed to understand.

They returned to Block A and Yuto finished roll call in his own cell for the first time in a long time.
He let out a deep sigh.
He felt dizzy from his fever.
The instant Yuto sat down on his bed to take a break, Micky was back again to invite them to the rec room.

“Sorry, but I think I’ll pass,” Yuto said.

“Aw, come on,” insisted Micky.
“We’ve got so much time until lights out.
Come with us.”

“Hey, Micky, Lennix isn’t feeling well.
Let him rest,” Dick admonished gently.
Yuto didn’t think the man had noticed, and was honestly surprised.
Dick always had a sharp eye, no matter how much he made it seem like he didn’t care about others.

After Micky left, Yuto fell back onto his bed.
His fever seemed to spike from the relief of finally lying down.

Dick sat on the edge of the bed and placed his hand on Yuto’s forehead.

“Feels pretty hot.
Open your mouth – looks like your tonsils aren’t swollen.” Dick went on to ask a few questions, including his health during solitary and whether he had any diarrhea or nausea.
Once he was finished, he placed a wet towel on Yuto’s head.

“Doesn’t seem like an infection of any sort.
It’s probably exhaustion and stress.”

“It’ll get better soon,” Yuto mumbled.

“Let’s hope so,” Dick nodded.
He remained sitting beside Yuto, opening up a book to read.
Occasionally an inmate would come by to give a shout to Yuto, but Dick barred all visitors, telling them Yuto was sick.

“…Dick,” Yuto called softly.
Dick threw a glance at him in answer.
“Thanks for the letter.
It made me really happy.”

Yuto felt a weight lift in his heart from finally being able to say it.
He felt like whatever that was lodged in his chest was finally gone.

“When you said you were looking forward to having me back… it lifted my spirits a lot.
I wanted to thank you as soon as I got back, but I couldn’t find the right time.”

Normally Yuto would be reluctant to be this honest with his feelings, but perhaps the fever was lowering his inhibitions.
But Dick said nothing.
Yuto wondered if he was taken aback at Yuto’s exaggerated gratitude toward a casual gesture.

Suddenly feeling embarrassed, Yuto dropped his gaze as if to avoid Dick’s.

“Solitary wasn’t half bad for you, though, was it? You had Libera, after all,” Dick said coldly.
Yuto was disconcerted at Dick’s thorny attitude.
It almost felt like Dick was accusing him.

“What are you talking about? Of course it was terrible.
Sure, talking with Neto was a good distraction, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
The whole time I was thinking about coming back here.”

What about you? Weren’t you looking forward to having me back? Was that letter just full of polite pleasantries?

Yuto wished he could ask, but there was no way he could.
They sounded like something an insecure man would say to his aloof lover.

Yuto mentally made up excuses for himself.
He wasn’t in his right mind; after all, he’d just gotten back, and he was having a fever.
And this cramped cell that he used to be so sick of was heaven compared to that soul-sucking solitary cell.
He was unravelling from the relief of coming back, that was why―

“Yuto,” Dick murmured.

Yuto’s drooping eyes snapped back open.

Dick had never called him by his first name before.
Although Micky and Nathan had called him Yuto from the start, Dick, for some reason, had stubbornly continued to call him Lennix.

“I’m happy you’re back, too,” said Dick.
“Welcome home, Yuto.”

His words were short, but his gaze was tender.
Dick’s eyes had always seemed so cold before, but now they held a kind of warmth that he found almost hard to believe.
Trapped in the gaze of Dick’s vivid blue eyes, Yuto felt like his whole being was enveloped in his warm embrace.
His heart stirred painfully.

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Why was Dick the only one to cause such a flurry of emotions? What was it about the man that continued to draw Yuto uncontrollably? No amount of thinking gave him an answer.

“Get some rest,” Dick said.
“I’ll keep watch right here so no one can bother you.”

He felt happy when Dick was gentle to him, happier than with anyone else.
He didn’t know why, but he knew this much was certain.

Despite having a fever, Yuto found himself feeling surprisingly peaceful as he closed his eyes.
Tonight was the first time since coming to Schelger Prison that he had ever felt so tranquil as he dropped off to sleep.

Yuto woke up to the feeling of someone changing the towel on his forehead.
Lights-out had come and gone while he was asleep – it was pitch dark around him, and Block A was settled and silent.

As his eyes got used to the darkness, he could make out Dick’s face in the dim moonlight.
Dick was still sitting on the edge of Yuto’s bed, in the exact same position as before.

“What about the last roll call?” Yuto asked.
Usually inmates were absolutely required to stand behind the bars during roll call.

“I asked them to give you a break because you have a fever,” Dick said.
“It was Gasly, so he let it slide.”

Yuto’s fever showed no signs of coming down.
His whole body felt like it was burning up, and even his breath felt like fire when he exhaled.
Dick pressed his hand on Yuto’s cheek to check his temperature.

“If only we had some fever meds.
You should at least get some hydration.”

Dick stood up to pour a glass of water at the sink.

“Can you get up?”

Yuto nodded, but his head weighed him down.

“Don’t force yourself if it’s too hard.
I’ll give you the water instead.”

He thought Dick was going to support his head to lift him up, but the man instead swigged a mouthful of water and brought his face closer.
Yuto wondered in surprise if Dick was doing what he thought he was doing.
The man’s face came closer and closer.

“Di―”

Yuto’s voice was drowned out as their lips overlapped.
Cool water came streaming into his mouth from where their lips were joined.
Yuto reflexively swallowed the water as it filled his mouth.
His throat made a gulping sound that was jarringly loud to his ears.

As he remained frozen in astonishment, Dick repeated the motion without hesitation.
Yuto’s mind was overwhelmed as he wondered why Dick was doing this, and also at the soft sensation of Dick’s lips.

“Want another drink?”

He almost felt like Dick was asking him if he wanted to be kissed again.
Confused, Yuto looked up at Dick’s face.
Their eyes locked in the darkness.

Yuto wanted to say he’d had enough, but his body thought otherwise as he found himself nodding.
Dick crouched over Yuto again and fed him water mouth-to-mouth.

The water was like a sweet nectar; it softly caressed his tongue as it nourished every inch of his parched body.
It quenched him down to each and every cell.
But he was still thirsty.

He wanted more.
He wanted to be given more, from those lips.

In his thirst for those sweet droplets, Yuto found himself unwittingly running the tip of his tongue along Dick’s wet lips.
Dick stiffened for a moment, but promptly answered Yuto’s plea and gave him a fresh draught of water.
Yuto drank it in ecstatically.

Eventually Dick broke contact and pulled away.  Yuto found himself feeling lonely.
He knew it was strange of him, but he couldn’t help it.

Dick wiped Yuto’s lips with his finger and let out a deep sigh.

“Look, I know you have a fever, but you shouldn’t leave yourself wide open like that.”

“…What do you mean?” Yuto asked hazily.
Dick sighed again.

“So you don’t get it.
That’s fine.
Forget it.”

Dick sounded irritated.
Yuto wondered what had soured Dick’s mood.

“Dick, I’m fine now.
You can go to sleep.”

“Don’t worry about it.
One night of lost sleep won’t do me any harm.”

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Yuto chuckled softly.

“What?” Dick said, furrowing his brow.

“People can really change, huh,” Yuto said.
“I remember what you said to me before.
‘You’re on your own.
I’d rather not have to wipe your ass for you.’ Remember that?”

Those were Dick’s cutting words, said to him on Yuto’s first night after he had been beaten black and blue by BB’s goons.

“You don’t forget anything, do you?” Dick said in an exasperated tone.

“I remember more than you’d expect,” Yuto said, his mouth relaxing in a smile.
“That’s why I’m still hung up about why you gave me the cold shoulder when I first came in.”

He knew he ought to let it go already, but it had remained stubbornly lodged on his mind.
He had misunderstood Dick at first, but now he knew that Dick wasn’t a cold person at heart, no matter how aloof he may seem on the outside.
That fact made Yuto want to know even more about the reason behind Dick’s attitude.

“Did something about me bother you, Dick? Did I do something to make you angry that time?”

“It’s not your fault,” Dick explained.
“It’s my stubbornness.
It’s just how I am.
I can’t let my guard down around people until I get to know who they are.
I’ll apologize if it’s bothered you.
I’m sorry.”

Dick’s voice was quiet, and he didn’t seem to be lying.
But Yuto’s apprehension remained.
He still remembered the hint of animosity he saw in Dick’s hostile gaze when they had first met.
It was more than him simply being on guard; it felt like Dick was keeping a distance for some other discrete reason.

“―Dick, before I came here I was working for the Department of Justice under the DEA.”

It was a secret he was supposed to have guarded at all costs in prison.
But Yuto suddenly had the urge to come clean to Dick.
In no way was he trying to copy Neto’s straightforwardness in the way he told Yuto about his real relationship with Tonya, but he knew that sharing a secret was proof that you held someone in special regard.
Somewhere in his heart, Yuto felt a desire to let Dick know that he felt this way.
He also held in his heart a sense of anticipation.

“Wow.
Good for you.”

“I’m not joking, it’s true.
Over the years I arrested dozens of drug dealers and threw them in prison.”

“…So you’re saying you were a DEA agent, then?”

Dick was calm and didn’t seem particularly surprised, though it was impossible to know how he truly felt.

“Yeah.
I mostly did decoy and undercover operations.
It was a dangerous job, but I had a trustworthy partner named Paul.
He was the best partner I could ask for.
But he was killed.
I’m absolutely sure he was murdered by the friends of a drug dealer that we caught.
But the police arrested me solely with circumstantial evidence.
I was framed.”

“So that’s why you said you were falsely accused.”

“Yeah.
Paul was a great guy.
I trusted him and respected more than anyone.
To say… to say I killed him―”

―Hey, Yuto, man, you need to relax.
You might look cool and calm on the outside, but you tend to let the blood get to your head quickly.
Keep that act up, and you’re gonna die young.

Paul’s words suddenly echoed in his mind.
He often made fun of Yuto for losing his cool in desperate situations.
Being the more emotionally mature one, he had always led Yuto with a firm guiding hand.

“I couldn’t even attend his funeral.
I couldn’t even say goodbye.”

Yuto’s voice shook, and his chest felt tight.
He had been told of Paul’s death shortly after being arrested, and now he was realizing he hadn’t had the time to properly grieve.
After his arrest, his life was turned upside down.
He was put through days upon days of grueling interrogations, followed by the trial, then a guilty verdict.
He’d been approached by the FBI.
Fraught with anxiety, panic, and despair, he had been completely occupied just keeping his head above water.

Only now did he feel the full weight of Paul’s death.
It was finally sinking in that he had lost someone he could never replace.
He would never find Paul again, no matter where in the world he looked.
His heart felt like it was being painfully wrung by the staggering sense of loss.

Yuto tried taking deep breaths to calm himself down, but it only made things worse.
He felt his grief bubbling up and spilling over in the form of tears that streamed down his temple.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“Don’t apologize,” Dick said.
“I know what it feels like to lose a close friend.
There’s nothing to be ashamed about when you’re crying to mourn a loved one.
I bawled my eyes out when I lost my friend, too.”

Dick stroked Yuto’s head as if he were comforting a child.
His hand ran over Yuto’s hair over and over.

“You think you can sleep?”

His eyes, his hands, and his voice were gentle.

Yuto nodded and closed his eyes.
As he slipped back into his slumber, he felt a strong wish take shape in his heart.
Someday, he hoped he would come to know about Dick’s grief, and be the one to comfort him this time.
It was a sincere, most heartfelt wish.

If only he could be the one to wipe away Dick’s tears.

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