[personal profile] maayacolabackup




**





The years roll by, but a hundred years to a steadfast heart, are but a day.

--Queen Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty, 1959



**



“Next year, we’ll be in high school,” Hayato says, sitting on the merry-go-round, arms wrapped around his knees.

“We’ll finally be in the same class,” Ryu says with a dry laugh. He’s not sure how he feels about his grades having slipped to the point where he’s in the bottom-ranked class going into high school, but… Every moment he’s spent neglecting his homework has been spent out doing a different type of learning.

With Hayato, Ryu’s learned how to skip stones across river water, or how to drink an apple drink from the convenience store in one gulp. He’s learned how to figure out if a stranger is dangerous or a potential friend. He’s learned how to make friends, in general. Ryu’s learned how to tell dirty jokes, and hell, how to tell clean ones, too. He’s learned about pop music and skipping classes, about the way the grass feels different beneath your back when you’re with a friend than it feels when you’re alone.

Ryu’s learned how to laugh, and to him, that’s worth the looks of disappointment on his parents’ faces. Ryu’s learned how to breathe.

“It’s nice to sit here and know where I’ll be a year from now,” Hayato says, interrupting Ryu’s musings. “To sit here and know that there’s a steady path in front of me. That there’s something I’m supposed to be doing.”

“That’s rich,” Ryu says, laughing a bit. “Considering how much you hate being told what to do.” He walks over to the roundabout and wraps his hands around one of the metal bars. It’s cold against his skin. Ryu’d forgotten his gloves at school, so they’re already half-frozen anyway. He tugs at the bar, using the strength in his arms to send the merry-go-round spinning. Hayato spins in a circle, and every few seconds, his grinning face appears before Ryu, hair tousled and eyes sparkling.

Ryu doesn’t understand why the sight of Hayato makes him feel warm, but it does. When Hayato smiles, just like he’s smiling now, Ryu feels like his heart dives, or plummets, and it sends him reeling in unexpected ways. He’s never really felt anything like it before, but it’s not a bad feeling.

It makes him want to move closer. Hayato doesn’t seem to mind.

“There’s a difference between being barked orders and knowing your next step, though,” Hayato defends, when the toy slows. “There’s a big difference.”

“I know,” Ryu says.

“Don’t you feel comforted, at all, that there’s no major decision to make yet? That we’ve got it all set up for us, that next year, we’ll go to high school, and be in the same class, and we’ll have uniforms, and classes, and things to do that we’ll blow off?”

“I guess,” Ryu says, and he sits down next to Hayato, and their knees touch, and Ryu likes the touch. “I mean, in a way, it’s a relief.”

“Yeah,” Hayato says. “A relief. Cause someday, it’ll be scary, and we’ll have to do things with no map, you know?”

“Yes,” Ryu agrees, and he lies back, and looks up at the sky, where the sun is hiding away, making it’s slow trek down into the horizon as night begins to fall. Hayato joins him, tiny, fluffy pieces of his hair sneaking into Ryu’s face and tickling his nose as they ponder the universe side by side. “I know.”

Ryu turns away from the sky and looks over at Hayato, whose face is illuminated in the dying light. The last bits of sunlight settle along the bridge of his nose and the profile of his lips, outlining him with a golden glow. He looks…

Ryu’s heart is beating really fast. It’s strange, Ryu thinks, because he’s not nervous right now, or anxious. It’s just him and Hayato, and it’s here, with just the two of them, that Ryu feels the most relaxed. Between them, there’re no pretences, or lines that Ryu feels like he has to be wary of; there’s just the two of them. Best friends.

That’s why it’s strange that Ryu’s heartbeat is so heavy he can feel it in his stomach, hammering like a rabbit’s. His throat is dry, too.

“You’re being very quiet,” Hayato says. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Ryu says, and it’s true. Next year, he and Hayato will be in the same class, breaking the same rules together, and how can there be anything wrong with that?

Thinking too far into the future scares Ryu. He tries to imagine what will happen when high school is over, and Ryu is left to figure out where he’s going and what he’s doing.

He closes his eyes, and tries to picture it.

“You’re thinking too hard,” Hayato says, and Ryu opens his eyes again, and Hayato has turned on his side to look at Ryu, one hand grabbing the metal bar that sticks up between them. The roundabout is still spinning slightly, just enough that Ryu feels like the Earth is moving.

It might just be the way Hayato is smiling at him, softly, in a way that he never lets anyone else see that makes Ryu so imbalanced.

A calm spreads through Ryu then. “I am,” Ryu says. “But I realized…” he draws off, letting the sentence disappear into the cold air. A chill from the metal is seeping in through his coat, making him shiver.

“You realized?” Hayato prompts, the words turning into white mist between them thanks to December’s last breaths. “You realized what, exactly?” His bangs, too long to even think about passing any sort of regulations, fall across his face, and his lips stretch in a teasing grin. “Tell me your thoughts.”

He doesn’t demand, because he doesn’t have to. There aren’t secrets between them. That makes the feeling, the one he can’t identify, seem almost heady. “It doesn’t matter,” Ryu says.

“It does matter, if you’re thinking about it with that serious face,” Hayato says. “You only make that face when you’re thinking about your dad.”

“No,” Ryu says. “I mean… It doesn’t matter. That we’ll have to figure stuff out on our own, someday.”

Hayato pouts with confusion, wrinkling his nose and tilting his face even more toward Ryu. “Yeah?”

“It doesn’t matter because we’ll have each other,” Ryu says, and then he feels embarrassed, so he looks up at the sky again. It’s gone purple already. His mother will be expecting him home soon. It’s probably almost time for dinner. “I’m just being… Never mind.”

Ryu hates the cold, but he doesn’t really want to go anywhere right now. For some reason, this moment feels perfect.

Hayato reaches toward him, and Ryu can see the movement of his hand out of the corner of his eye. Hayato’s hand snags the sleeve of his winter coat, and tugs just a little, asking for attention. Ryu swallows and looks back over at him.

“Obviously, we’ll do it together,” Hayato says, his own face a little bit flushed. “Did you think I’d go anywhere?”

Ryu laughs, because they’re both lying on a merry-go-round in an empty park in the middle of winter, looking at the sky and talking about the future. “No,” Ryu says, and the truth of it settles down into his bones. He knows Hayato will always be here. He knows it like he knows the grass is green and the sky is blue, and like the sun will rise in the east and set in the west. “I didn’t.”

“Good,” Hayato says gruffly, and then he sits up and blows his bangs out of his eyes. “I should do something cool with my hair.”

“You’ll probably do something stupid,” Ryu says. “And just think it’s cool.”

“Maybe,” Hayato says. “Will you still be my friend?”

“Of course,” Ryu replies, and the feeling, the one that’s been welling up in his chest, grows just a little bit heavier.

“We should make a toast, or something,” Hayato says. He hops up from the merry-go-round and finds Ryu’s bag, digging inside until he finds the bottles of tea they’d bought at the convenience store on their way to the park. He tosses Ryu his, and Ryu catches it, easily.

“To what?” Ryu asks. The bottle is cold in his already cold hands, and he really does have to head home. “I’ll be late.”

“I know, I know,” Hayato says. “This will only take a second.” He unscrews his bottle and Ryu copies him, and Hayato frowns. “This should be, like, booze or something.”

Ryu’s not sure about that, because they’re only fourteen, but Hayato’s had a different life than him. “What are we toasting to?”

“Someday, we’ll do this for real,” Hayato promises him solemnly. “But let’s toast. To another year of friendship.”

Ryu smiles, and then he laughs. “You’re so dumb.” But he feels a flush of pleasure flood his cheeks, combating against the numbness from the wind.

“It’ll be like a tradition,” Hayato says. “Our tradition.”

“Right,” Ryu says.

“It’s an awesome idea,” Hayato says.

“It is,” Ryu agrees, and as they bump their plastic bottles together, Ryu hopes it’s one they follow for many years to come.


**



Ryu doesn’t have any idea what he’s supposed to be doing.

There is no illuminated path through the brambles and thorns to where Briar Rose lies sleeping, and every path he sees leads him further away from Hayato, which is the last thing he wants.


**



Ryu rings in the New Year alone, watching the fireworks in South Korea on the television because he’s too lazy to change the channel to the replays of the fireworks in Yokohama, and drinking a fizzy bottle of champagne by himself.

When Ryu came back from Canada for the holiday the first year after he’d started studying abroad, he’d finally been twenty, old enough to go to the convenience store and buy a bottle of cheap, nasty champagne for he and Hayato to split. They’d sat by the riverbank and softly said ‘cheers’ to each other as the sky lit up, drinking from disposable paper cups with blue patterns around the lip that crinkled in Ryu’s too-tight grip. Hayato had turned flush and red, and Ryu had felt giddy and lightheaded himself, but it might have been more from the company than the drink.

This year, Hayato has left him to drink the bottle by himself; the same cheap brand they’d shared back then, under the fireworks in the winter air that was far too cold for outside celebrations.

As he takes sips of the champagne, poured into a glass because he’s supposed to be an adult now, Ryu muses that the cold out on the riverbank, tonight, would probably be unbearable.


**




There is no greater sorrow than to recall in misery the time when we were happy.

--Dante



**




Kisses and fingers that leave bruises on the outside heal the bruises on the inside, and Ryu doesn’t mind turning black and blue to feel a little more whole.

Besides, Ryu thinks, sometimes, Hayato’s eyes are so vulnerable that Ryu forgets they’re supposed to be angry school boys wrestling for dominance in the dark, and only remembers the way his heart climbs up into his mouth and stays there.

He wonders, when Hayato’s tongue slips between his lips, if Hayato can taste it.




**




When Hayato’s mom dies, Hayato punches a hole through the wall of his bedroom. He hits the drywall over and over again, until his knuckles leave blood smears on the white paint and the neighbors holler for quiet. Then Hayato slumps down to the floor and curls his arms around his knees, and Ryu’s never seen him look so soft.

“She was beautiful, right?” Hayato whispers, and Ryu can hear the sound of Hayato’s father out in the living room, stumbling around drunkenly as he searches for something, swearing loud and slurred. “My mom. She was really beautiful.”

“One of the loveliest women I’ve ever seen,” Ryu replies solemnly, and then Hayato’s crying, and Ryu doesn’t know what to do or to say. He just sits down stiffly next to Hayato, and Hayato lets his head rest in the hollow of Ryu’s neck, and Ryu goes stiff, because he’s not used to being touched. He ventures a hand up to Hayato’s hair, letting his fingers slide through the strands at the base of his neck, and he aches for his friend. Hayato’s pain is written in the line of his spine and in held-back sobs that shake him as his nose burrows into the skin at Ryu’s neck. “Inside and out.”

Somehow, it becomes an embrace, and the blood from Hayato’s knuckles smears across Ryu’s shirt, and Ryu doesn’t care; of course he doesn’t care, he just pulls Hayato closer.

Hayato touches as easily as he draws breath, but for Ryu, it’s something new, something he can offer that he’s never been able to offer before, to anyone, and Hayato takes it. He pulls in and takes, and Ryu wants to give, and Hayato starts crying, silently.

Ryu looks up, resting his chin on the top of Hayato’s head as Hayato wraps his arms around Ryu’s waist. Ryu blinks away the fuzziness in his own eyes.

Taku is standing in the doorway to his and Hayato’s bedroom, looking at his brother’s crumpled form with wide, watery eyes, and all Ryu can do is smile. Taku approaches gingerly, and one of Hayato’s arms snakes out and pulls him in, and Ryu has the both of them in his grip, thin arms spread as wide as they can go.

Later, when Taku has fallen asleep, Hayato whispers thank you into the skin at Ryu’s neck.

“We’re family,” Ryu whispers back, and he can feel the soft smile Hayato’s lips make as the brush along his skin, and Ryu’s heart feels like it’s going to burst, and he doesn’t know what any of this means but it’s overwhelming, dragging him down deeper into the feelings that are slowly beginning to consume him.

He’s warm, like it’s not winter at all.



**



Loneliness has never been a distant stranger to Ryu. Loneliness, instead, was Ryu’s companion during his childhood, pressing in close and curling around him, and almost suffocating him with how tightly it held on, wrapping its arms around his torso and making it hard for him to breathe.

Ryu will hold on to his memories of happiness with a grip so tight loneliness will have to peel his fingers back one by one, bloody and bruised, to make him let go.

But Ryu doesn’t doubt loneliness’s determination.


**



Ryu wakes up in the morning just fine, and prepares himself to go to his parents’ house for the day.

He arrives exactly on time, and his mother’s pleased smile seems as empty as he is.

Rituals, and rites, and bowing, and incense left on gravestones… These are things Ryu does without thinking, as his mind wanders.

Soon it’s dinner, and Ryu takes his place at the far end of the table as is customary.

His father sits across from him, arms crossed. Ryu is on his knees, sitting traditionally as his father studies him. “How is your work going?”

A safe question. “Well,” Ryu says. “My students are all on track to graduate.” He doesn’t mention Kamiyama, because it might hit too close to home.

“You teach the worst class in the school. That’s an accomplishment.”

“It is,” Ryu says, and he hates the little flicker of pride in his chest. His father’s approval is rare, and Ryu doesn’t seek it—he’s been rebelling for so long that he doesn’t really remember what it feels like to crave his father’s endorsement.

Hayato had given him self-validation, too. The necklace that hangs from his neck is heavy.

“Well done, Ryu. Perhaps you’ll make something of yourself, after all.”

Dinner is quiet, his mother’s cooking delicious as always, and his father’s stern gaze is resting on them both, watching. Ryu’s manners are impeccable, even if his knees hurt and his back is tight with tension.

It’s only once every couple of months, Ryu reminds himself. Filial son is a pretense he only needs to play one day out of every sixty.

“Sending you to Canada was clearly the right decision,” his father says later, voice low and even. “Because you’re a teacher, now, which is more than I could have even expected, and that good-for-nothing friend of yours is—” His father’s tone is haughty, and void of any sort of emotion, and maybe Ryu’s on edge already, thinking about the envelope Taku had given him in his bag, and a tradition he’d once again missed, solitary champagne bottle consumed alone instead of together, but he can’t take it today.

“I’ve got grading to do,” Ryu says, and rage is boiling inside him, like it used to when he was in high school; anger that’s fair, and powerful coming over him and making him feel the way Hayato had told him it was sometimes okay to feel.

Hayato taught him everything he knows about feeling; all the emotions that living here had slowly stolen from him, day by day until he’d started to feel like a shell instead of a person. “Tests, you know. That time of year.”

His father just grunts as Ryu stands. His nails are digging into the flesh of his palms, and it hurts, but he focuses on that instead of the rage.

Pain he can handle. Pain, he’s used to. Ryu can take a fist to the face better than most.

“Until next time, Ryu,” his mother says, her voice placid as usual. She hurries to usher him out, like she knows he’s angry, though, and Ryu wonders if it shows on his face. “He just wants what’s best for you,” she whispers, as Ryu hurriedly shrugs on his coat, wrapping his scarf twice around his neck.

“No he doesn’t,” Ryu says. “He wants me to not shame him.” Ryu chokes on it.

“It’s not you,” Ryu’s mother says. “He just never really liked the influence that the Yabuki boy had—”

“Hayato taught me how to fight,” Ryu says, and his mother nods.

“Exactly,” she starts. “And—”

“With more than just my fists and elbows,” Ryu continues. “Hayato taught me how to figure out the things I wanted. How to fight for myself, how to stand up for who I am.”

She’s silent, her hands clutching anxiously at the folds of her skirt. There’s a tiny streak of gray now, Ryu notices, at her temple, but her face looks the same. The same worry lines pulling at her mouth.

“Hayato taught me what family should be,” Ryu says. “And for as much as you and father find me lacking…” Ryu opens the door and steps outside, adjusting his bag on his shoulder as he moves out. The wind is harsh on his face. “I find you lacking, too.”

I’ll be your family, Hayato had said.

Maybe it’s time for Ryu to go see him.



**




Black uniform with large metal buttons. He does them all up before he leaves the house, so he doesn’t have to listen to anyone talk about how he’s not wearing the uniform shirt. He’s got a bag, too, a black leather one, with books he’s barely opened inside.

His cell phone is ringing. “Ryu, hurry up! I’m waiting around the corner.”

“Right, right,” Ryu says, as he hangs up. “Calm down, Hayato, I’m coming,” he whispers to himself, and laughs.



**




“…If through this wicked witch’s trick, a spindle should your finger prick… a ray of hope there still may be in this, the gift I give to thee. Not in death, but just in sleep, this fateful prophecy you’ll keep.”

--Merryweather, Sleeping Beauty, 1959



**



The hallways are dark. Ryu figures that’s perfectly reasonable, seeing as it’s ten o’clock at night on a holiday, but it still makes the whole place feel gloomy.

Then again, Ryu thinks, it’s always likely to feel gloomy, considering what this place houses.

Ryu approaches the front desk, digging in his leather bag for the envelope as he walks. He retrieves it just as he reaches the desk, and smiles awkwardly at the nurse. He glides his nail under the seal, the sticky adhesive parting easily, and retrieves the badge inside.

“Hi,” he says tentatively, and the nurse smiles back.

“And who are you here to see?” she asks kindly, and Ryu swallows.

“Yabuki Hayato,” he says clearly, taking time to enunciate the syllables, wrapping his mouth around the name carefully, like he’s introducing a new topic to his class, or like he’s answering one of his father’s pointed questions. “He’s long-term care?”

The nurse’s eyes soften a bit at the waver Ryu can’t quite keep out of his voice. “Everyone here is, sir,” she says. “We are a long-term care facility.”

“Right,” Ryu says, and he rubs his arms anxiously, the badge gripped in his left hand tight enough to leave grooves, and his right hand clinging to the fabric of his coat. “Yes, I know that. I’m just.”

“First time here?” She asks, and Ryu licks his lips.

“Yes,” he says. “Not since the hospital—I haven’t been able to come since he was transferred here.” Haven’t been able. Right. In some ways, it’s completely true, but it sounds pathetic now.

Not strong enough to come here. That’s more true, Ryu thinks. Far more true.

“Are you family?” She flips to a new page on her clipboard. “Because it’s not regular visiting hours. Only family can enter before or after our posted visiting hours.”

“Y-yes,” Ryu says. “I am.” He slides the badge across the desk, the plastic sticking a bit to his palm, and the nurse takes a cursory look at it. She marks his name down in her clipboard and nods.

“Go ahead on up. Yabuki is on the third floor, room 311.”

“Thank you,” Ryu says, and he watches as the nurse files the badge without any more questions. He shifts his bag on his shoulder, and his hair is getting too long, he thinks, when it gets caught under the strap. It tickles where it’s curling at the ends along his neck.

The air is cold in the elevator, impersonal and stuffy. The long-term care facility doesn’t smell like a hospital, though. He can smell things like air-freshener and plants, and that makes it… better, in some ways. In other ways, it’s like a false comfort.

It’s a false comfort because when Ryu peeks his head into room 311, Ryu can still see the tubes and the wires and the machines, and unlike at the hospital, he’s not at all prepared for them.

When Ryu thinks about Hayato, (when he lets himself think about Hayato as he is now, that is), he imagines him peaceful; his hair spread out across a white pillow and cheeks flushed, like Sleeping Beauty.

The flowers blooming on Hayato’s windowsill are freshly watered and blooming despite the winter air, and they add to the illusion.

But Hayato is not Sleeping Beauty. Hayato, with IVs in his arms, veins at the crooks of his elbows purple and bruised, lips chapped and dry, cheeks hallowed and chalky white… he’s not a character in a fairytale. His shirt reveals a glimpse of his shoulder and collar, and he’s pale there too, and far more frail and thin than any slumbering princess.

He doesn’t look asleep, at all.

He looks like skin and bones and empty moments.

Ryu stands in the doorway as he clenches his hands into fists, mouth pressed into a thin line. He stares at Hayato, watching the slow, barely noticeable rise and fall of his chest, and his own breathing slows to match. His eyes focus in on the lax position of Hayato’s fingers, the way they sit still on the smoothed sheets.

Hayato, before, never had smooth sheets, or still hands. Hayato, even in sleep, was restless and full of frenetic energy, grabbing fistfuls of his sheets and tangling the covers about his legs, or pushing them off the bed entirely as he tossed and turned. Sometimes Hayato would knot himself up so completely that in the morning, he’d be unable to escape, mouth parted and eyelids heavy with sleep as he wrestled to free himself from a trap of his own making.

But now, the sheets are smooth. And Ryu takes a step forward.

There’s a chair next to the bed. Ryu assumes that it has been put there by Taku, who Ryu knows stops by once or twice a week on his way home from school, and left there after he’s gone.

Ryu takes his seat.

“What am I doing?” Ryu asks, burying his face in his palms. Hayato doesn’t answer, and Ryu doesn’t really expect him to.

He can imagine what Hayato would have said. ”Wasting your time, you idiot.” Or maybe ”At least you could have brought chocolate.”

Ryu lifts his head and turns to look at Hayato’s face. His eyelashes are as dark as soot against the pale skin of his cheeks, and his hair is a tangled mess of waves, the roots thick and black where the chestnut has grown out. Ryu reaches up to touch it, fingers finding a home in the softer, untreated bits at the top. It’s sweaty and a bit damp, but that’s nothing new—Ryu has seen Hayato in every way, bruised and sweaty and bloody.

None of those ways have hurt quite as much as this. The heart monitor is steady. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Ryu takes his left hand and picks up Hayato’s left. The skin is smooth. It’s not supposed to be smooth. It’s supposed to be rough and scarred and a little bit green from fading impacts. Still, the weight of it is familiar in Ryu’s hand, and when he laces their fingers together, it still feels like two parts of a whole.

“You weren’t supposed to leave me alone again,” Ryu says, and his words bounce off the walls, echoing in the empty room. He shivers. Hayato is silent.

Ryu imagines that Hayato’s fingers tighten just the slightest bit, but he knows that is nothing but fantasy.


**




…Then the king and queen kissed their dear child, without waking her, and left the castle. Proclamations were issued, forbidding any approach to it, but these warnings were not needed, for within a quarter of an hour there grew up all round the park so vast a quantity of trees big and small, with interlacing brambles and thorns, that neither man nor beat could penetrate them. The tops alone of the castle towers could be seen, and these only from a distance.

--Charles Perrault, The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods



**



Ryu sighs and sets down his pen, linking his fingers to aid in a stretch, pushing his palms up to the sky as his back complains. Ryu chuckles a bit to himself, because if you’d asked him five years ago, he’d never have guessed he’d end up taking a test in a classroom far after high school graduation, trying to pass an exam that would certify him to spend the rest of his life in a classroom.

“That concludes the examination,” says the proctor, and Ryu sighs. The exam booklets are collected, and Ryu blinks slowly and carefully, wetting his lips. “You may now leave the room. You’ll be notified of the results in two weeks.”

Ryu fishes around for his mobile in his pocket, and he looks at the screen in confusion. Four missed calls? They’re all from the same number, an unrecognizable one. Ryu fingers the phone for a moment, then gets caught up in exchanging mindless pleasantries with other test-takes, pulling on his spring jacket and making sure his bag is closed, exiting the room in a crush of prospective teachers.

He doesn’t remember the calls until he thinks to ring Hayato. The four, highlighted in red, stares back at him, like the phone itself is anxious, and Ryu bites his lip and scratches at his head, pressing the return call button.

“Hello?” he says, when the line picks up. “I received four calls from this number?”

“Hello,” is the reply. “This is the police station. This was the last number dialed on our victim’s phone.”

The word victim rings in Ryu’s head like an alarm siren, loud and angry and tough to comprehend. His brain is short-circuiting, and he’s exhausted, and the pieces are starting to come together in a way that chills Ryu down to his bones. “Victim?” Ryu sighs and pulls his bag up, readjusting its weight on his shoulder. “I’ve just gotten out of an exam, what do you mean victim?”

“This phone was found in the pocket of an unidentified young man about three hours ago, sir. I’m going to have to ask you to come down to the local poli—”

“In his pocket?” Ryu says. “Why didn’t he just give it to you?” Hysteria is crawling along his ribs, in a slow creep toward his heart. “Is he in trouble? Is he okay?”

“Sir, we really just need you to—”

“Is he okay?” Ryu presses, and the person on the other end of the line, a man, maybe a secretary or a junior officer, Ryu’s not sure, sounds flustered as he stammers out a response.

“Sir, please come in to the station, I can’t explain this—”

“Just tell me he’s okay!” Ryu yells, and people walking past him on the street are staring and Ryu doesn’t care. His whole focus is on the scratchy, timid voice telling him nothing on the other end of the line. “Tell me that Hayato is okay.”

“Hayato,” the man says frantically, to someone who isn’t Ryu. “His name is Hayato.” He clears his throat. “We don’t know, yet, he was taken to the—” His voice cuts off, and a steadier voice takes control of the conversation.

“Sir, please report immediately to the station.” This voice is commanding, and somehow forces Ryu into a calm he is in no way ready to feel.

“Please, tell me something, anything,” Ryu says, and some other day, he’d be worried about how his voice sounds wavering and weak. He’d be worried about Hayato ribbing him about how he sounds like a punk instead of like a thug, and he’d be worried about giving too much away. But right now, all he can think about what isn’t being said. What he isn’t being told, and four missed calls and a request to come to the station.

All he can think about is how they didn’t even know Hayato’s name… Maybe because Hayato couldn’t give it to them.

“It’s not good,” the man says finally, still in that steady voice. “I’m going to need you to come on down to the station, now, son.”

“I’ll be right there,” Ryu replies, and he can barely end the call because his hands are shaking too fiercely.


**




Sometimes, in his dreams, Ryu tells Hayato that his job doesn’t matter. He laughs when Hayato says he’s thinking of quitting, and says ”Why would you do a dumb thing like that?” and then Hayato huffs a bit on the other end of the line.

”You’re right,” Hayato always replies. “I guess there isn’t anything wrong with this one.”

And Ryu will ignore the tremble in Hayato’s voice and the way that Hayato sometimes comes home looking so weary and sad that Ryu wants to hold him close and never let him go.

Sometimes, in his dreams, Ryu comes back from his exam and Hayato’s waiting outside his apartment with convenience store sushi and a roguish smile, and Ryu opens the door and lets him inside.

Sometimes, Ryu wakes up, and his twin bed is cold, and Ryu is alone.



**




But I won’t follow you
Into the rabbit hole
I said I would
But then I saw
Your shivered bones
They didn’t want me to


--Birdy, Terrible Love



**



Ryu is sitting in the park when his phone rings. His elbow hits the bar of the roundabout painfully as he grabs his phone from his bag, shifting past his keys for the mobile. “It’s late,” Ryu says, because he knows it’s Take.

“No, it’s early,” Take says. “It’s seven am. Sorry to call at this hour.” Ryu sighs, and it comes out a little quavering, because he’s cold. “Are you outside?” Take’s voice sounds a little incredulous.

“Yes,” Ryu says. “Definitely too cold to be outside.”

“Shouldn’t you be with your parents?” Take asks, and then Ryu can hear the hitch in his breath. “I mean, I thought you’d be—”

“We had a difference of opinion, as usual,” Ryu says. “And I ran away, as usual.”

“It’s not running away,” Take says. “I’m the one who runs away.” He laughs a bit. “I’m sure you recall…?”

“I think we’ve all done our fair share of running,” Ryu says. “Yankumi made us promise not to fight anymore, remember?” He remembers Hayato coming up with one of his patented Formations just to initiate an escape. Ryu remembers things like that all the time, usually when he isn’t distracted enough.

“Okay, okay, anyway. So you fled your parents’ home on New Year’s Day. Why aren’t you at your flat, then, wrapped in thirty blankets? Asleep?” Take’s voice is teasing again.

Take is his closet friend besides Hayato, because Take knows when to back off and when to dig deeper.

“I went to see Hayato today. Yesterday. Whatever,” Ryu answers, feeling candid for reasons he doesn’t understand. Or maybe he just feels so raw he can’t bother to put up the face he’d perfected over the course of high school: his serious, no-nonsense, nothing hurts face. Today, Ryu’s run out of the energy to pretend. “I needed to walk around. You know, think.”

“Oh,” Take says. Ryu can practically hear him thinking on the other end of the line, can imagine his big eyes wide with surprise and his teeth catching his lip. “I see.”

“Yes,” Ryu says. “Feeling cold is better than feeling nothing.” Nothing, in this case, means everything, they both know that. The cold numbs more than Ryu’s body, it also numbs his heart. He puts his feet on the ground and pushes the merry-go-round into a slow spin. “Why’d you call?”

“Right,” Take says, and he hesitates. “Look, Ryu… I know it’s early, or I guess, for you, late, but since you’re already out…”

“What do you need?” Ryu says, immediately alert. There’s something scared in Take’s voice, like there’s so much he wants to say but he’s afraid to say it.

“Tsucchi and I are headed to the café… you know, the one we hung out at back in the day,” Take says. “Can you come?”

“Sure,” Ryu says. “Not like my parents are wondering where I am.”

“Okay,” Take says, and then there’s that pause again, and it’s a little frustrating because Ryu just wants to know. “See you soon.”

“Yes,” Ryu says, and he ends the call, standing up from the roundabout, feeling just a bit dizzy.

It’s a short walk to the café from the park; it was always a part of their usual rounds, especially Ryu and Hayato. It only takes about five minutes to get there, and the worst part of the walk is the slush that’s started to freeze. The walkways are a bit slippery and Ryu slides a bit, because he’s still wearing his dress shoes and a pair of dress slacks that aren’t appropriate for the coldest bit of winter. The sun is rising, and Ryu’s tired eyes admire the beauty of it, in a detached way. The early rays of light are warm on his cheeks.

Take and Tsucchi are waiting for him, somber expressions on their faces.

“Who died?” Ryu wants to joke, but last time, it had been Ryu sitting on a plush seat, and Hayato in the hospital, and that makes the joke significantly less funny. “What happened?”

“One of them is getting out in a couple months,” Tsucchi says, eyes narrowed as he studies his coffee. “I’ve still got contacts, you know. People who didn’t manage to make it out of the seedier side of the workforce.”

“Getting out,” Ryu repeats darkly, and Tsucchi nods while Take trains his eyes on his drink.

“It’s been less than two years, and one of them is getting out.”

“Which one?” Ryu asks, throat tight. He remembers them all. All seven of them, with their unrepentant faces and hateful eyes. Ryu remembers each and every one of their faces in excruciating detail.

Seven armed men versus an unarmed Hayato. A Hayato who was just trying to move on with his life. A Hayato who hadn’t attacked them. A Hayato who was coming home to Ryu.

“The one with the rich mom who hates him,” Tsucchi says. “And the fast-talking lawyer.”

“He got an appeal,” Take says. “They said he was not as involved. More of an accessory; watching not helping.”

Shinazaki. That was his name. Shinazaki.

“Bullshit,” Ryu says. “All the others said he was the ring-leader, the one who didn’t stop after they made their point—” Ryu realizes he’s raised his voice too loud for seven in the morning. He bites down the noise, and bites down the anger, too. Ryu’s too old now, to give into impulses, even if, thanks to Hayato, he knows it’s okay to feel them.

“We know,” Tsucchi says. “You’re preaching to the choir, here, Ryu. It’s not right.”

“But we just thought you ought to know. And I didn’t want to tell you over the phone.”

“I appreciate that,” Ryu admits.

“Also, we…” Take steels himself. “We don’t want you to go after him.”

Ryu closes his eyes and examines every inch of the man’s face in his mind’s eye. Remembers the way a tiny smile had pulled at the corner of his lips even as he faced a jury of people and mountains of evidence. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“Because,” Tsucchi says. “You’ve got a life now. We’ve all got lives now—”

Ryu’s eyes fly open.

“Not Hayato,” Ryu says. “Hayato doesn’t have a life now.” Tsucchi quiets, and takes a swig of his coffee. Take winces.

“No,” Take says. “But you do.” Ryu examines his fingernails.

They’re smooth, and filed. His hands are unmarked, except for a bit of black ink that has yet to wear away from two days ago. His suit is tailored, and he’s not worried he’ll rip it in an altercation. Long, black bangs fall into his face and obscure his vision, but he usually parts his hair and pushes them neatly to the side.

Ryu isn’t living at all.

“Do I?” Maybe, all those things would be okay if Hayato were ironing holes into some of those starched button-downs, or Hayato’s fingers occasionally made their way into his hair to mess it up, but… Ryu looks up at Take, and Take is looking at him, eyes wide. Tsucchi is still looking down at his drink, jaw tight. “Do I, really?”

Take doesn’t back down. “You once took a fall for me, Ryu. You’re a loyal friend, even when it hurts you.” Ryu isn’t expecting this attack, and he clenches his hands into fists as he stares at Take. “But it’s not just you, you know. You’re a teacher now. And you’ve got that student… The one who’s on the edge of not graduating? Him. Do you think his teacher getting carted off to jail for murdering some guy over a grudge sends the right message?”

“I don’t care,” Ryu hisses, and Take frowns. “Hayato didn’t deserve—“ Ryu’s eyes prickle and he blinks twice.

“You do care,” Take says, low and calm, and Ryu’s anger, a lit ember in his chest, dies down just a little. “You’ve always cared. Hayato’s the hot-headed one, and you’re the thinker. Think, Ryu.”

“I am,” Ryu says, and he exhales, letting the flames die down and his fists loosen. “I am thinking. It’s the thinking that makes me angry. This guy, back on the street. Catching more guys out of high school like he caught Hayato, not letting them leave when they realize that it’s no good.”

“Then you’ve got to teach those kids, Ryu. Those are your kids now.”

“I’m not Yankumi,” Ryu says. “I’ll never be Yankumi.”

“No one’s telling you to be Yankumi,” Tsucchi says. “We’re telling you to be Ryu. And to not get arrested.”

“Hyuuga’s not part of your intervention?” Ryu mutters, ordering a coffee with a lift of his eyebrow.

“He’s out of town,” Tsucchi admits, a bit sheepish, and Take laughs, seeing that the danger has passed. “He’s here in spirit. And this was sort of last-minute. I only found out last night.”

“Thanks,” Ryu says, and he’s thanking them for all sorts of things. Tsucchi nods, and Take smiles, teeth peeking out like he hasn’t aged a day in five years. “For, you know, stuff.” A coffee finds its way into his hands from a smiling waitress, and Ryu nods at her.

“Yeah,” Tsucchi says. “Don’t mention it.” He scratches at his eyebrow. “Really.”

Ryu closes his eyes again, coffee now warm between his palms. This time, behind his eyes he sees Kamiyama, fresh cut from a knife marring the side of his face, and a familiar determination wells up in him. No more Hayatos, Ryu thinks. No one else under my watch getting hurt.

“I’ve got faith in you, Ryu,” Take says, later, when Ryu’s visibly drooping from the exhaustion of two emotionally draining days and a night without sleep.

“I’m still angry,” Ryu says. “So angry.”

“Good,” Take says. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you feel anything but sad. Maybe now you can start to live.”

Ryu recalls the feeling of Hayato’s still fingers between his own, and tries not to fall to pieces. Instead he wraps his hand around the pendant that hangs from his neck on a chain that’s been repaired.

Take’s staring at him. “I’m still not used to the black hair. I know it’s been a couple of years, but it’s strange to see you like this.”

“Not all of us can keep the remnants of high school rebellion,” Ryu says, eyeing Take’s blonde and black hair, still spiked up and way too loud. “I’m an authority figure.”

“Or you’ve just lost yourself,” Take says. “Lost track of who you are.” He eyes Ryu’s black hair like it’s an unwelcome stranger.

“It’s not that,” Ryu says, because there exists a Ryu without Hayato, but the world through that Ryu’s eyes seems to be mostly in shades of grey. “It’s just the red is too bright.”

The red reminds him of Hayato, and there’s enough doing that without remembering the way the strands of his hair looked across Hayato’s pale skin in the morning every time he looks in the mirror.


**



“You’d look awesome with red hair,” Hayato says, as Ryu watches him carefully lean forward on the sink, carefully holding the tiny bleached section of his hair away from the rest. “Like, it’d be really cool.”

“My parents would kill me,” Ryu says, and Hayato grins, eyes sparkling with mischief.

“So?” Hayato says. “The color of your hair doesn’t have much to do with how you do in school.” Hayato nudges Ryu with his toes, slipping them up Ryu’s uniform pants until they’re cold on his shins. “Plus the ladies will love it.”

Ryu looks at the container of bleaching gel sitting on the edge of the sink counter. “You really think it would look good?” Ryu asks, and Hayato nods enthusiastically.

“Yeah, I think you’d look great.” And Ryu is shrugging off his shirt and putting his head under the faucet in the tub, letting the water paste his hair down to his neck and slide in warm rivulets down his collarbones.

“Then go ahead,” Ryu says, and Hayato’s plastic-gloved hands are sinking into his hair, and Ryu thinks that it doesn’t really matter whether the ladies will really love it or not. All that matters is what Hayato thinks, in the end, because Hayato is more important than any girl who might be impressed with a bit of hair-dye and an undone collar.

Hayato is more important than anyone. Ryu barely hears his mother’s shocked gasp later that night, because he’s remembering Hayato’s fingers along his scalp, stealing Ryu’s sanity as he massages Ryu’s scalp, washing out the bleach.


**




Ryu’s exam results come in the mail, and for some reason, when he opens them up and looks at them, all he can see is Hayato, wishing him luck on the exam and making fun of his boring black tie.

He’s passed them, but he can’t find the will to celebrate.


**




“Did you really get into fights, in high school?” Kamiyama asks, sitting on the edge of one of the desks. Ryu hasn’t held him after class, he’s here of his own free will. Asking Ryu about times he’d rather forget.

Still, Ryu had mentioned it first. “Yes,” Ryu says. “My best friend and I were the resident bad boys of Kurogin.”

“Really?” Kamiyama asks, and he looks Ryu up and down, as if Ryu’s boring suit and slight frame make him an unlikely gang member. Ryu wants to snort and tell him he was one of the strongest, and that bad behavior comes in all shapes and sizes.

“Yes,” Ryu says, letting a little danger into his voice that has Kamiyama’s eyes widening. “But I don’t fight anymore.”

“Why’d you stop?” Kamiyama asks. “What made you decide to stop, I mean?”

“It was no longer what I needed to do to have the things I wanted,” Ryu answers, and he thinks about Hayato, with an angry grimace and a split lip, kicking at a guy from an enemy school while Ryu took on another guy twice his size.

“What did you want?” Kamiyama asks, then bites his lip as he realizes how personal a question it is. Ryu sighs, a rush of air from his nose.

“I wanted to be with the person I loved,” Ryu says, and Kamiyama looks surprised he answered, and doesn’t press for more.

“So if you hadn’t… wanted that, would you be fighting now? Working for a gang?”

Ryu smirks. “No,” Ryu says. “If I hadn’t wanted that, I wouldn’t have been fighting in the first place.”


**



Hayato starts getting into fights during their first year of high school. Without his mom to take care of, Hayato’s got too much free time and plenty of extra rage—he begins talking in ways he knows will start fights, and then backing them up with his fists.

It begins with these tiny incidents. Scuffed shoes and scratches along Hayato’s knuckles that might mean nothing at all, if it weren’t for the strange absences, or Hayato’s hushed whispers to Tsuchiya. During class. Ryu keeps his eyes straight ahead and tries not to worry. He tries not to feel threatened, too.

At first, Hayato leaves Ryu out of it, whatever he’s doing, but Ryu starts noticing, more and more, the welts and cuts, and the way Hayato’s jaw juts stubbornly forward when Ryu questions where he’s been. Ryu’s confused, because he’s gone from knowing everything about Hayato to knowing not enough: these days, it’s Tsucchi Hayato disappears with at the end of the day.

“It’s none of your business,” Hayato says, when Ryu runs into him on his way home, after going with Take to the comic book store so Take could surreptitiously pick up the latest volume of Revolutionary Girl Utena without Tsucchi knowing he reads it.

“Yes, it is,” Ryu counters, and he notices Hayato’s walking with a bit of a limp.

“You’re in enough trouble with your folks over me,” Hayato says. “You don’t need to know about this.”

Ryu sighs, and Hayato’s tall enough now (taller than Ryu, at least) that it’s easy for Ryu to wrap Hayato’s right arm over his shoulders to help bear Hayato’s weight. “It’s you. Of course I need to know.”

“Of course,” Hayato mimics, a frown pulling at his face. “You’re nosy.”

“I’m your best friend,” Ryu corrects. “Or I was.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Hayato says gruffly, wincing as he walks. “Who else would it be?”

“Tsuchiya,” Ryu retorts, and this time Hayato’s wince isn’t from pain.

“It’s just… he understands.”

“I could understand,” Ryu says, and he guides Hayato into the lobby of his building. Holding the door open as Hayato hops inside, and then slipping back under his arm, wrapping his own arm around Hayato’s waist. It’s thicker and stronger than he remembers. He presses the elevator button.

“I mean, he knows what it’s like to feel angry,” Hayato says.

“So do I,” Ryu says. “Just because I don’t pick fights, or scream it aloud… You know better. You know I get angry too.”

“Not…” Hayato swallows. Ryu watches his adam’s apple bob, the skin of his throat smudged dark with dirt. “Not like this.”

He’s still so beautiful, Ryu thinks. Even now, when Ryu feels like Hayato is so distant.

Ryu leads Hayato into the kitchen, making him sit on the countertop next to the sink as he gently lifts Hayato’s leg to investigate his ankle. It’s swollen and bright red. “How’d you do this?”

“You should see the other guy,” Hayato says, throwing his head back. His hair hangs behind him in a fall of tangles. The blond streak looks rebellious among all the chestnut strands, and Ryu licks his lips.

“Probably sprained,” Ryu says, releasing the limb and squeezing up onto the counter next to Hayato. Hayato scooches a bit to make room. “You’re going to have trouble walking on it.”

“Oh well,” Hayato says, like it’s no big deal. Ryu guesses it isn’t.

“I’ll help,” Ryu says. “With the walking. I’ll carry your books, or something.”

Hayato snorts. “My books? Who are you talking to?”

Ryu offers a half-smile. “I guess,” he says, biting his lip, “that you’d better teach me how to throw a punch.”

Hayato stills, and then he slowly relaxes, offering Ryu a slow smile. “Rich boys. They never know how to do anything useful.”

“Yes,” Ryu says. “That’s why I found you.”

“You’re just using me?” Hayato teases. “Rude.”

“No,” Ryu says, looking at Hayato seriously. “You’ve taught me so much.”

Hayato turns away, and Ryu’s eyes stay trained on Hayato’s jaw, which flexes like Hayato’s not sure how to respond. “You act like you’re the only person that’s learned stuff,” Hayato says. “Me too, you know.” Hayato still doesn’t look at Ryu, but he moves one hand over so it bumps Ryu, extending his pinky finger so it links around Ryu’s.

He doesn’t do anything else, and Ryu wonders if he’s waiting to see if Ryu will pull away. Ryu just tugs a little, curling his own pinky to secure the link.

How Ryu feels about Hayato is starting to become, Ryu thinks, just a little bit unbearable.

Part Four


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December 2012

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