The first time it happened, Ritsu has to admit, it has terrified him.
He remembers the image, but the feeling that came with it has slipped from his mind since… he doesn’t know when anymore. It might be a defense mechanism. He keeps the impression of the fear, of course, but not the fear itself.
He remembers his voice suddenly going quiet to his own ears. When he looked back to Shigeo from a broken neon sign on the other side of the road, his brother was frozen in place. Eyes open. Mouth slightly agape. A blank expression. Their slow banter cold and forgotten on the tip of his tongue.
He remembers every noise disappearing, shutting them into a silent vacuum.
He was petrified.
Of course, he also remembers the fact that when he arrived home later, the whole family was slightly panicking. He could go up one-on-one to a man twice his size without even flinching, right, but all accounted for he was still a seventh-grader, and also always on time. He came home right before mom called the police. He remembers using the pretext of “accidentally take a wrong turn”, and that miraculously that, combined with his well-being apparently unaffected, was enough to calm her and dad down.
His brother wasn’t as easily calmed down, of course; he didn’t fuss or raise his voice, but the irritation and worries showed through his demeanor. It was hard to coordinate Ritsu’s story with his, in which he left school earlier than him and arrived home at about six; but in the end they went with the more logical version of the events.
He also remembers the sound of his phone buzzing snapping him out of the fear. He remembers the word「 Nii-san 」flashing on the screen before he took the call, his voice almost as flat as if he was empty inside.
He didn’t really remember what happened between that call and him arriving home, but those two hours weren’t but insignificant details then, and they definitely aren’t coming back now.
It wasn’t - isn’t - a ghost. Gods forbid.
The image of it is always solid when Ritsu sees it, but the stability’s a fragile feeling. As time goes by, it feels more and more like a cardboard cutout: the moment he moves, it loses what’s left of its humane impression. It vanishes, along with the time he spends stuck in its vacuum.
It isn’t an apparition either. The few times Ritsu comes close enough to it to be able to feel it, he finds it troublingly resembles Shigeo. It’s… quiet. It inclines him to take in the quiet. It’s genuine in its existence: there’s nothing else under its surface. It’s not something using a form he’s familiar with to manifest itself.
If there’s a blessing in all of this, it might be the fact that the thing’s stationary. It’s associated with that bus stop down the road straight from the schoolgate; either it’s confined in that space, or it chooses to stay there. He doesn’t know if it has a will - it certainly doesn’t look so. But however the grand scheme of things work, it’s always there, sitting on the bench brightly lit by sunlight, blank eyes staring out into the air somewhere above his head.
Maybe it only appears when he comes by the bus stop. He can’t say for sure. He can’t even look directly at it anymore. He can’t risk losing more time to it.
Somehow its presence is bigger than Shigeo’s has ever been. Ritsu finds himself contemplating that more than he really cares to.
Days come when he and Shigeo walk to school together; the thing never appears then. The bus stop still feels heavily of it, but not quite the exact feeling - is there an exact one, aside from fear?
Ritsu keeps asking himself that. Curiosity brings him back to the vacuum, but like a black hole, it eats up any knowledge he might have of what it really feels like, leaving only dread. He’s starting to think that he’s more scared of what he has forgotten than that black hole itself.
The ashen remainings of how that thing feels to him still contrast with Shigeo’s general feel, however. The thing is absolute silence while Shigeo’s the faint hum of being alive and of his power, always held back, always bottled up until it overflows; it’s a barren calm while Shigeo’s expressions tightly subdued until they explode.
With a presence there, Ritsu realises that the thing’s nothing, spreading and splattering on the ground, clinging to his sole after every step he takes past the bus stop.
The fear is long forgotten - defense mechanism - and all he has left is the impression of it.
He goes up to the thing during a lone walk home.
He clings to the feeling— the— feeling?— the lack of it. Maybe. The nothingness. It’s like the whole world going white, noises, light, sensation, smells, and amid the lack of everything the thing fits in well enough. Its presence’s assimilated with the vacuum’s. It’s heavy in the way the body feels when it knows this isn’t right and is trying to shut down to protect itself.
It reminds him sharply of something that happened a long, long time ago. The dread is similar. The rest is the direct opposite.
He loses three hours to it, in exchange for a curious thought: maybe this is the lower limit. Maybe this is the absolute zero. He chews on that every morning.
There’s only one single time it ever appears in the same place as Shigeo.
Ritsu is there to pick up the pieces, because he refuses to be anywhere else. As does Hanazawa. As does the conman. He doesn’t know about the other two, but the fact that he was late to stop the explosion is enough to warrant his stay.
They hold Shigeo together as he makes his way back to them from under his power’s weight; Ritsu helps Hanazawa with the repair, Reigen on his phone for an ambulance or two; then he sees the thing out of the corner of his eyes. It’s still there when he looks up. It doesn’t disapper even when Hanazawa and Reigen look at it.
Shigeo wakes up moments after, and the silence lifts from them. It still stays, as if it just wants to witness the scene unfolding with its unseeing eyes.
Ritsu finds his brother’s hand and holds it tightly. He carves the weight, the warmth, the humming of power not yet calmed down, the texture of skin to his mind. The dread has long faded, but he fears it return.
The thing stands up and walks away while Hanazawa and Reigen are blinking.
“What was that?” Hanazawa asks after it’s gone. Ritsu looks at him, then at Shigeo, then at Reigen. The man can tell when he’s lying. He isn’t up to lying right now ayway.
“It’s… not relevant,” he says after a beat of silence. “Don’t worry about it.”
It’s not an adequate answer, nor a reassuring one, but they all let it slide.
Ritsu thinks of it as a caution sign anyway. He thinks of the vacuum where the explosion should be everytime he comes past the thing sitting on the bus stop’s bench, still and empty as a statue. He looks at the air around it and knows that it’s the other end of the scale they, if they are as lucky as he thinks, can never tip fully.
He forces himself to remember the impression of fear. It’s a defense mechanism.