[personal profile] maayacolabackup




**




“Hello,” Ryu says, as his mother opens the door and allows him in. “How are you?”

“Well,” she replies, the same way she always does, taking his coat and then walking into the receiving room, waiting for him to follow. “And you?”

There are countless answers Ryu would give if it weren’t his mother. Hungover or miserable or so empty and alone that I can’t wait to fall asleep at night, so I can pretend, just for a few moments, that Hayato will be here tomorrow are all true enough answers, but they reveal parts of himself he’s never felt free to share with his mother.

When his mother invites him for tea, once every few weeks, she doesn’t want to hear about how Ryu’s biting his nails again, or how Ryu has a student who won’t turn in his homework and another who is constantly texting his girlfriend during class. She doesn’t want to hear about how Ryu’s afraid his plants are going to die because there’s a draft in his apartment, or about how Ryu’s got a hole in his heart a mile wide that he can’t seem to fill, no matter how hard he tries.

She doesn’t want to hear about that. She never has, and that’s why Ryu wears his work clothes over to visit her, because this is all part of his job, really. His part-time job pretending he’s not broken and lonely and waiting for a resolution that might never come.

“Everything’s fine,” he says, and the green tea is bitter on his tongue. It tastes like winter. Ryu wonders if it’s going to snow.

“Do you still see your friends?” she asks, and there’s an edge to her voice, but Ryu can barely notice it. She’s getting better.

“I saw them yesterday,” Ryu replies. “It was fun.”

She nods in acknowledgement.

“Do you need anything from your room?” she asks, and Ryu considers. A couple of sweaters he’d left might come in handy, he thinks, if winter continues like this. It’s only early December, and February is when it all really starts to set in.

“Yes,” Ryu remarks. I’ll be right back. He politely excuses himself from the table, setting his half-empty cup back down on the tray where the pot rests, and makes his way up the stairs.

It’s a small matter to find the sweaters, pulling them down from the shelf quickly. He tries not to look around, but a sudden gust of wind hits a branch into the glass, and Ryu turns in surprise.

The balcony. Let’s run away Hayato had said, like a Shakespearean hero. Let’s go where your father can’t find us. His friends, waiting.

Ryu feels like he’s back in a familiar cage.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” his mother asks, and Ryu nods, clutching the sweaters against his chest. They’re cashmere. So soft, rich boy.

“Yes,” Ryu says. “I did.” The fabric is soothing between his fingers.

“Winter will be cold this year,” his mother says.

“It already is,” Ryu replies. Anyway, Ryu is always cold.


**



Hayato’s mother is beautiful. Her long, dark hair falls wavy and unrestrained to her shoulders, and her eyes are like cinnamon, warm and wild. There’s something in them that’s playful, even though she sits very still, palms pressed lady-like to her stomach and back firm against the headboard.

Hayato looks just like her.

“And who might you be?” she asks, and Ryu swallows. He’s not sure why he feels suddenly nervous, but maybe it’s the way she looks at him. It’s nothing like the way his own mother looks at him, like she’s checking him over for flaws or things out of place. Hayato’s mother just looks straight into his eyes, like she’s measuring what’s inside, and Ryu wonders, a bit, if he’ll be found lacking.

“I’m Odagiri Ryu,” Ryu says, and he bows low, and he feels stuffy, like his manners are too much for a home in which no one stands on ceremony. “Sorry,” he adds, and straightens, scratching anxiously at his wrist where it peeks out of his sleeve. His mother hasn’t noticed yet, but soon, Ryu will wake up and there will be a new uniform hanging on his doorknob. It’s too bad, because Ryu’s just worn this one in so it’s comfortable. He tugs the sleeve again. “Just Ryu is fine.”

“Well, Ryu, come closer so I can take a look at you.” She’s squinting a bit, and she’s obviously not going to get up, so Ryu slips a little closer, his sock feet gliding across the uncluttered floor of the room. The rest of the house looks like a train-wreck, but in here, it is pristine. He wonders if it’s because she likes it that way, or because her two sons demand it—she doesn’t look like she’d be the kind of woman to mind a bit of chaos. “Well, aren’t you handsome,” she says, and Ryu blushes, and she laughs, a throaty sound that gives him goosebumps. She smiles like Hayato, big and wide, and her eyes are like his too.

Maybe that’s why he feels comfortable enough to perch gingerly on the edge of the bed, letting his hands rest on either side of him, pressing into the sheets, rather than on his lap. His mother would frown, but Hayato’s mother just smiles. She’s so soft.

“You seem like a good boy,” she says, almost to herself, and then she nods, and closes her eyes, taking a labored breath.

She must be very sick, Ryu thinks, and it explains why Hayato’s been so hesitant to discuss her.

Taku curls up on her left side and Hayato drapes himself over her legs, and Hayato’s mother threads her fingers through Hayato’s wild hair. “Hayato, your hair’s a mess,” she chides, teasing lilt to her voice. “When you get older, make sure it always looks nice, okay? Otherwise all the girls will pass you by.”

“I don’t want girls,” Hayato says, curling his lip and moving closer to her hand anyway, like a cat seeking attention.

“You might, someday,” she replies, and her voice sounds wistful. Ryu wonders how sick she is.

It doesn’t seem to matter in the moment, as Ryu sits on the edge of the bed and watches them. They’re a family, Ryu realizes. A real one, not like what he’s got; what Ryu has is three people with separate lives living under one roof with enough money to ensure that they never have to talk to each other.

What Hayato’s got, Ryu realizes, is so much more than that.

“You’ve got a beautiful family,” Ryu whispers, and Hayato is teasing Taku, tickling his ankles and stomach until Taku shrieks, and doesn’t hear, but his mother does, and her eyes sharpen in on him, freezing him in place. He hadn’t meant to say it aloud, not really.

“I know,” she says, and Hayato hears her, and looks between the two of them quickly and curiously as Taku continues to noisily roll away despite Hayato’s stilled fingers.

“You know?” Hayato asks, and Ryu averts his eyes.

“I need to get home,” Ryu says, and the word sticks in his throat, just a little. “To my house, I mean. My mother will be expecting me.”

“Right,” Hayato says, and his brow knits together. “Let me walk you part of the way.”

“You don’t have to,” Ryu protests quickly, and Hayato’s mother smiles as Hayato huffs and rolls his eyes.

“I don’t have to do anything,” he says, and crosses his arms. “I just feel like it, that’s all.”

“Okay,” Ryu says, and he feels his face flush, and Hayato looks a bit embarrassed as well. “Thanks, then.”

“Well, c’mon,” Hayato says, and Ryu follows him out, stopping to bow at Hayato’s mother before closing the door softly behind him.

Hayato is quiet as Ryu slips on his shoes in the genkan and doesn’t bother to put on his own, opting instead for his slippers, black ones with two white stripes across the strap. Ryu sees the tiny hole in Hayato’s sock, and he bites back the urge to worry.

It’s freezing outside, and Ryu wraps arms around himself as the chill seeps through his uniform jacket. Hayato’s not wearing any parts of his uniform, just sweats and a big jacket Ryu thinks must belong to Hayato’s dad.

“Your mom is nice,” Ryu says. “Wonderful.”

“She is,” Hayato says. “My dad’s cool too. He’s just busy.”

“Busy?” Ryu asks. “Mine, too.”

“It’s not the same, though,” Hayato says. “Is it?”

“No,” Ryu says, because even when everyone is home, they’re all in separate rooms, finding ways to coexist in the same space without ever catching sight of each other. Ryu didn’t realize it was unusual for a long time, but Hayato’s not afraid of touch, and Ryu flinches back instinctually from it.

“Is it lonely?” Hayato asks, and Ryu stops, and Hayato stops too, the both of them just standing in the street, looking at each other. “At your house?” Hayato’s mouth is drawn, and his eyes slide to the left, focusing on a bike or a wall, or maybe a shop-sign. Ryu isn’t sure because he can’t look away from his friend, whose face is reddened from the wind.

Ryu has hundreds of responses, that range from None of your business to Not at all, don’t worry, but this is Hayato. Hayato is Ryu’s friend; his first friend, and his best friend. “Yes,” Ryu says, and Hayato’s hands clench into fists. Ryu wonders if his fingers are cold. He has the strange urge to take them between his own and warm them.

“You can…” Hayato stops, or more like he stutters, nose scrunching and eyes narrowing, suddenly finding Ryu’s. They gleam in the streetlights. “You don’t need them, Ryu.”

“What do you mean?” Ryu asks, and Hayato steps closer, just close enough that Ryu can feel the heat of his body. Just close enough that Ryu can feel him. “They’re the only family I have.”

“You have me,” Hayato says, and then his face flames, and it’s not from the wind or the cold, but that’s all right, because Ryu’s heart has frozen in place, and he can’t tease Hayato, not right now.

“I do?” Ryu asks, and he hates the hopeful note in his voice, because he’s thirteen, and old enough that he shouldn’t sound like a little kid anymore. He’s also too old to keep wishing for things he shouldn’t want, and he shouldn’t need.

“I can be your family,” Hayato says, and he presses his lips together, and Ryu feels a little like time has paused, but it’s still going, going so fast he’s out of breath. It’s almost involuntary, the way he reaches out for Hayato’s hands, clutching them in his own.

Just like he’d thought, they are cold. He rubs them between his own hands, like he’d seen once, in a movie, and Hayato flinches at the first graze of Ryu’s smooth hands against his callused ones, before his hands unfurl, seeking warmth. “What are you saying things like that for?” Ryu mumbles, trying to swallow around all the things welling up inside him and trying to escape out of his throat. “I don’t need anyone.”

“Me either,” Hayato says. “But just… just in case.” Ryu’s eyes feel wet, not like he’s crying, because Ryu doesn’t cry, but maybe like he wants to go into his bedroom and hide beneath the covers. Then he can pull this memory up and unfold it, and take in all the little bits of it he might have missed the first time around, before he folds it back up and slips it into a hidden pocket in his mind with everything else about Hayato that he treasures.

“Okay,” Ryu says, and Hayato’s cold knuckles don’t feel so cold anymore. Ryu’s always had a lot of body-heat. He guesses it makes up for how lonely he is—he can keep himself warm. He drops Hayato’s hands, and they find their way into Hayato’s pockets. “I can walk the rest of the way by myself.”

“Yeah?” Hayato queries, and then he exhales. “See you tomorrow, Ryu.”

“Of course,” Ryu says, and Hayato turns around, walking back toward his place. Ryu licks his lips, and the wind bites at them.

Hayato is his first friend. His best friend. And no matter how many people Ryu meets, Hayato will always be the most important. Ryu wonders if that’s what family is supposed to mean.

Ryu wonders if this is his fairytale.

(Hayato doesn’t call him ‘rich boy’ anymore, after that.)


**




“It was great seeing you last week,” Take says in his MMS. Ryu squints, because the text on his phone is too small, but he’s noticed Uchiyama peek over his shoulder enough times to see what Ryu’s reading that he’s shrunk the text as a precautionary measure, even when he’s not at work.

He searches through his contacts and calls Take, because Ryu’s terrible at texting.

“Yes, it was,” Ryu says. “I had fun.”

“That’s good,” Take says. “Look, Ryu…”

“What do you need?” Ryu asks, pushing his bangs out of his face and sighing. He’s managed to get all the crumpled up papers… ideas for lesson plans and notes to himself about employment restrictions that he’s typing up for the students so they’ll know which laws not to break if they want any hope of finding a job; all he’s got left, really, is to get rid of the magazines and newspapers and send them to recycling, and he’ll have finished one room.

“I ran into Taku, today. I went to the grocer’s to pick up eggs, and there he was.”

Ryu swallows. “How does he—I mean, is he okay?”

“He is,” Take replies. “But… he says he hasn’t seen you in a while.”

“I should… yes, I’ll stop by. See how he’s doing for myself.”

“You should visit—“

“Don’t push it,” Ryu says sharply, then regrets his tone, because this is Take, not some stranger. “Sorry.”

“That was a bit of the old Ryu, there,” Take says. “I haven’t heard you get upset like that in a while. It’s like your spirit died.”

“What’s there to get upset about?” Ryu says. “Nothing. Why waste the energy?”

“Ryu,” Take says. “Ryu, you know Hayato would hate to see you like this. Just wandering through life like nothing matters.”

“Good thing he won’t, then, isn’t it?” Ryu replies shortly. “Bye, Take.” He hangs up the phone without waiting, licking his lips as he folds the mobile closed and slides it into his pocket.

He surveys the magazines and newspapers, and pushes his sleeves back up, but he can’t focus. “Right. Thanks, Take,” he mumbles under his breath, shedding clothes as he walks toward the bathroom. He steps into the shower and turns the water on as hot as it’ll go. There’s a bit of a draft in his flat, but steam in the shower fights it off, and the five minutes Ryu spends under the water, washing the dust and sweat away, are a peaceful reprieve from the chill.

He steps out of the shower, toweling completely dry as quickly as he can, wrapping his towel around his hair and walking over to his closet. His necklace bumps against his sternum as he walks.

His apartment is mostly one room. It’s plenty big for him, just separate room-like areas except for the closed off bathroom, and Ryu, most days, just figures it’s easier to clean without all those extra corners and divisions.

He pulls out a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, pulling it over his head and sticking his arms in quickly, because his damp skin is cool. The sweatshirt is fleece inside; it’s comforting.

He grabs his keys, and his wallet, shoving it into his pocket, and hooking it on a chain that connects to his belt-loop, because when he’s not at school, Ryu likes to maintain the fiction that he hasn’t become boring.

He locks the door behind him, pulling on his parka because he’s off-duty and he doesn’t have to match a suit. It’s snowing, just a little, and the white flakes catch in his wet bangs, and tickle at his ears. He pulls the hood up as he starts to walk, hands shoved deep in his pockets.

He doesn’t really pay attention as he walks, just focusing on the way the streets look kind of pretty in the twilight, snow glistening on the lamp posts and sticking to the streets in small clumps. It’s okay that he doesn’t pay attention, because he knows the way like the back of his own hand: he’s walked this route so many times he doesn’t even consider, he just turns like he’s on autopilot, checking for cars at street crossings and waving to vendors he’s known for more than ten years, older women who still recognize him even under the fuzzy hood of a jacket he hardly ever wears.

The cold seeps in through the toes of his shoes as he walks, and the snow is getting heaver. It’s fine, because he’s almost there.

The apartment building is the same as it’s always been, front door to the building cracked open, the wood frame buckling after years of little maintenance. It’s fine, though, because the concrete holds firm. It’s not a dilapidated building, by any means.

Ryu is headed to the fifth floor. He takes the stairs, because the elevator has a way of stalling, nowadays. Ryu hasn’t been here in a couple of months, but he doubts it’s been fixed.

He knocks on the door to number five-twelve with the back of his knuckles, just heavy enough to get attention, but light enough that it won’t disturb Hayato’s dad if he’s sleeping. He works at odd hours, after all, and sleep is precious.

Taku answers the door. “Ryu?” he says, and he seems surprised, but then he smiles.

Ryu hurts, when Taku smiles, because now they look so alike, and Ryu can see Hayato in every part of Taku’s face.

“What?” Taku asks, suddenly self-conscious, and Ryu realizes he’s staring.

“You look like your mother,” Ryu says, and Taku’s eyes widen, like he wasn’t expecting that.

“Do I?” he asks. “I don’t really remember what she looks like.” He leans back to give Ryu room to move past him. He’s wearing a uniform. “Only from pictures. But I can’t remember what she looked like doing things. Moving around. Laughing. Not like Hayato—” Taku stops. “Long time no see.”

“You have a new part-time job?” Ryu lingers in the doorway, picking up that Hayato’s dad must be asleep, because Taku is speaking softly.

“College is expensive,” Taku says. “Hayato’s money isn’t enough to cover all the fees. So I got another job. Convenience store, this time.”

“You look like a freeter, not a university student,” Ryu jokes, and Taku grins.

He recalls the way Hayato had sent him a triumphant e-mail, that he was making enough to save for Taku’s college education. Taku’s smart he had written. And don’t tell him I said so. Ryu had laughed and his heart had clenched, and even in Canada, in a six line email, he could feel Hayato’s love for his brother, disguised in teasing and gruff words that simultaneously insulted and praised.

It was Hayato’s way.

“Well, we all do what we must,” Taku says. He’s too young to be a freshman, Ryu thinks. Time passes too quickly. Some days, it doesn’t pass quickly enough. Ryu wishes it would make up its mind.

“How are you? How’s your dad?” Ryu asks, moving in and slumping down on the couch. Taku moves and sits on the arm of a chair.

“He’s okay,” Taku says. “We’re both… okay.”

“That’s good,” Ryu says. “That’s really good.”

The couch is soft behind his back, and Ryu melts into it. It’s so different from his own family home, with traditional furniture and distance and manners. Taku and Ryu and Hayato had always sat on the couch together, elbows banging into each other as they fought for control of the remote.

“Why do you keep checking up on us?” Taku asks, after a moment of silence that doesn’t feel heavy or awkward. “Not that I want you to stop, or anything. It’s just.”

“You’re my family,” Ryu says. “I never really… Hayato is my family. That makes you my family too.”

“Oh,” Taku says, and his eyes look a little wet. He turns away to stare at the wall. Ryu follows his gaze. Hayato and Taku’s heights are marked along it, years and years of heights, marked in purple for Hayato and orange for Taku. At some point, Ryu’s heights join theirs, in a blue that creeps up behind Hayato’s, never quite catching up. “I guess we are,” he says. “I sort of missed you, when you didn’t come,” and Ryu breathes in.

It doesn’t smell like anything special, but at the same time, it’s familiar. Evenings spent here instead of at his own home. Countless times they’d patched each other up in this bathroom, winced and recounted fights on this couch. “I was being…” Selfish comes to mind, but Ryu just lets it trail off. It doesn’t matter, in the end.

“By the way,” Taku says. “I got you this, just in case.” He stands and walks over to the kitchen table, rooting around until he finds a cream envelope. He returns to the sofa and hands it to Ryu. “No pressure, but if you need it, you have it.”

“Is this…?”

“Yeah,” Taku says. “So no one asks any questions, you know?”

“Thanks,” Ryu says, gripping the envelope a little too tight. It folds and wrinkles in his grip, and the corner digs into the flesh part of his palm.

“You’re family,” Taku says. “Might as well treat you like you are.”


**



The worst dream isn’t really a dream, it’s a memory. Ryu is walking down the street, the early spring weather a relief after the deep winter. The grass smells fresh and sweet.

Ryu can’t focus on the weather, though, because he’s got an important examination. His teacher’s examination, actually. He’s got to pass it; he’s studied hard, reading up on rules and regulations that differ from the ones he studied in Canada.

His phone rings, and it’s Hayato’s name in the caller ID. “Hayato?”

“Ryu?” Hayato sounds a bit breathless. It’s too early for him to be breathless, but he does work down at the docks. Ryu’s not sure exactly what Hayato does, only that he’d frowned the last time Ryu had asked and Ryu had pushed the worry away for another day.

Everything is still too nice—too new and yet too familiar, for Ryu to look past all the pleasant feelings that rush through him at the thought of being back in Japan. Back with Hayato.

“What’s wrong?” Ryu asks. “You sound tired.”

“Yeah,” Hayato says. “Just a little.” His voice catches. “Hey Ryu, what would you think if I got a new job?”

“I don’t know anything about your old one,” Ryu replies, and Hayato laughs, and it’s a little bitter.

“You don’t want to, really,” he says, and Ryu’s stomach twists, and he keeps walking forward. “Anyway, what if I changed jobs? It’d be hard to find a new one, but…”

“But what?”

“You’re going to be a teacher. Teachers are role models, right? Upstanding members of society. I don’t want to drag you down.”

“Hayato,” Ryu says, and he looks up, realizing he’s made it to the building where he’ll take his test. He checks his watch. Seven minutes to spare. He leans up against the building. “Hayato.”

“Anyway, I was thinking. What if I got a job that I could talk about. That you could tell people I did if they asked.”

If they asked. Because Hayato wanted to be a part of Ryu’s life. A permanent part, and one that Ryu wouldn’t have to hide as much. One where they could go out to eat and his students wouldn’t stare. It would be. “That would be…”

“Yeah,” Hayato says. “I think so, too.”

“We could get an apartment,” Ryu says. “Mine might be too small.”

“I’ll quit today,” Hayato says. Ryu has so much he wants to say, but he can’t, not right now. All the fear and anxiety about his exam has vanished, replaced with this fountain of welling optimism that makes him feel like he’s floating.

Ryu has so much he wants to say. Instead, he watches fellow examinees make their way into the building, walking through the glass door, and he licks his lips and presses the phone closer to his ear, so it digs into his face. His hair, the tips still red, falls into his eyes. “I have to go now,” Ryu says. “My exam.”

“Right, shit, I’m sorry. You’ve got other things to worry about—”

“No,” Ryu says. “I’m glad you called.”

“So it’s a good idea?”

“Yes,” Ryu says. “Fuck the consequences. Move in with me while you look for a job. I don’t care.”

“All right,” Hayato says. “Okay.”

“Later,” Ryu says, and Hayato hangs up. Ryu holds the phone to his ear, just listening to the dial tone.

It’s the last time they speak.

Ryu always wakes up to his alarm, and it sounds just like the dial tone in his ear did in that moment. It sounds just like it, and Ryu’s heart breaks, every fucking time.


**



All these brambles and thorns, impenetrable, grow up around Sleeping Beauty’s glass coffin. Closed off from the world, living in darkness. Alone.

Ryu wonders what Sleeping Beauty sees behind her eyes as she sleeps.

He hopes she knows everyone is waiting for her to wake up.



**




Ryu’s necklace isn’t really his own. He remembers when it became his; it was the day of his teacher’s exam. About three hours after it, actually, as afternoon turned to evening.

He sits, shaking and tired, in an uncomfortable chair at the police station.

The cop who is questioning him at least looks sympathetic, his eyes tilting down on the outer corners as he speaks slowly and clearly, and Ryu swims through the molasses-like haze of shock that fills his head to try and dredge up answers.

“Is there anything else you can tell us?”

“He wanted to quit his job,” Ryu whispers. “He just… He was going to quit today.”

“Quit his job, huh?” The cop says, scribbling something in his notebook.. “What did he do, exactly?”

“I don’t know,” Ryu says, and why is it so cold in here? It doesn’t make sense, he thinks, when it’s warm outside, the first of the spring flowers starting to peek out of the ground to say hello to the new weather. “I don’t know anything.” Ryu reaches up and pushes a hand through his hair, and his hand is trembling, he notices.

The officer notices too. “Can I get you some tea?”

Tea. It’s spring. The only thing his mother would think is suitable is green tea with hibiscus. A gentle, soothing tea to welcome the season. “No, thank you,” Ryu says. His necktie itches, so he loosens it. He undoes the top button too.

Look at you, shirt buttoned all the way up, Hayato had said that morning, as Ryu had prepared to leave for his examination. Hayato himself had been dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, his hair flipping up over the collar of the jacket he wore over everything. Hayato had reached forward and slid his thumb along the line of Ryu’s jaw, stopping right below Ryu’s ear. They’d breathed in time. Are you really the same guy I went to high school with?

Always, Ryu had replied, and Hayato had smiled, and now. And now…

“I think that’s all we’ll need, for now,” the police officer says kindly. He considers, for a moment, and then pulls out a plastic bag, a small one, smaller than his hand. “We found this, at the scene. It’s not evidence, we don’t think.”

Ryu looks at it, eyes taking in the snapped chain and the pendant that rests loose and separate in the bag. “That’s Hayato’s,” Ryu says.

“We figured,” the officer says. “We figured it was his.”

“Yes,” Ryu says, and he reaches out tentatively, and the officer nods.

“You can… You can take it.”

“Shouldn’t you give it to his father?” Ryu says, because despite everything, he’s still the son of a policeman.

“I’ll trust you to get it where it needs to go,” the officer says, and he gives Ryu a knowing look, like he knows that where it needs to go is to Ryu.

Ryu grabs the bag, crushing it in the palm of his hand by curling up his shaking fingers. “I’ll take care of it,” Ryu says, and it burns, in his palm; it burns like promises Ryu will never get to keep. “Can I go home?”

“Yes, of course,” the police officer says, and he stands, and Ryu stands, somehow, even though he’s dizzy and feels like the whole world is falling apart. “I’m sure you want to get to the hos—”

“Thank you,” Ryu says. He walks across the station, and he feels everyone’s eyes on him, and it makes him square his shoulders until he gets out the door. When the doors close behind him though, Ryu crouches down at the curb, wrapping his arms around his knees, and taking deep breaths. He finally gives into the shaking, letting the shivers wrack his thin frame as he clutches at the tiny evidence bag. Ryu feels a pressure, behind his eyes, and they sting, but he blinks until it stops.

He unfolds his hand and stares down at the necklace. He takes it out of the bag, tearing the bag on accident in his haste, and pulls out the snapped chain. He slips the pendant back on, and stares at where the chain is snapped.

He can fix it, Ryu thinks.

He can’t fix anything else, but he can fix the necklace.



**



There are beginnings, Ryu thinks, and there are endings.

In Ryu’s life, there have been many beginnings. There was the first time he was allowed to travel by himself from place to place: the beginning of freedom. There’s the first time he met Hayato, winded and cold and full of confusion: the beginning of friendship. There’s the first time Hayato pressed him, too hard and too rough, against the wall in the hallway outside their abandoned classroom and kissed him, mouth sloppy and wet and inexperienced: the beginning of more-than-friendship. Maybe the beginning of love.

There have only been two endings. When Hayato walked up to him on the first day of junior high: The end of loneliness.

The first day Ryu woke up in the morning, Hayato’s necklace as heavy as a ship’s anchor around his neck, with the knowledge Hayato wasn’t going to wake up next to him, and might never again: the end of happiness.

In the end, Ryu keeps living, day by day, step by step. And sometimes, he dreams, about new beginnings, and things that are endless.



**




“You’ll stop hanging out with that boy,” his father says. “You’ll fix your grades, and you’ll stop spending time with him.” He says it like a proclamation; like his word is law. In his line of work, often it is.

“No,” Ryu says, calmly, face devoid of anything that might give him away. “I won’t.”

His father looks up and frowns, studying his son in a way that Ryu wants to shy away from. It’s the look that, in the past, would have had Ryu straightening his shirt and smoothing any creases from his pants. It’s a look that would have had Ryu taking back his words.

“No son of mine will fail out of high school,” his father says as a warning. “Hanging out with rats is not the way to succeed in life. You have everything you could possibly need; all the tools to be one step ahead, and you’re throwing it away for nothing.”

Ryu’s chest tightens. Nothing, he thinks. Hayato is not, and never will be nothing.

Ryu bows low and excuses himself, without agreeing to anything or responding to his father’s infuriating words. Outside the house, it’s freezing, and Ryu was too impatient to take a coat—the only thing protecting him from the snow flurries is the thin black fabric of his new high school uniform jacket, with its big metal buttons. Ryu feels comfortable in it immediately, and doesn’t bother to take the tie out of its plastic. It’s a start.

Ryu wants to see Hayato. Where are you?, he texts, and Hayato’s answer comes swiftly.

Wandering. What u need?

Park?

B there n 5, comes the response, and Ryu shivers, but doesn’t want to go back for his coat. Doesn’t want to go inside his own house. Even his room feels like a prison of expensive things he didn’t earn and none of his friends will ever have; his mother’s weak attempts to buy him back into submission, like money has ever been something Ryu has craved.

Ryu sits down on a horse toy; the same one Hayato likes, and he almost smiles as it moves back and forth. The cold plastic easily chills his legs through the thin material of his pants, and Ryu shivers again. The snow is starting to fall a little faster.

“Damn, Ryu, why don’t you have a coat on? It’s cold as hell!” Hayato shouts as he approaches, his own coat so big it dwarfs him. His father’s maybe. Ryu tries to wave but his fingers feel a little too frozen, so he settles for a weak nod. “You’ll die, idiot.”

“No I won’t,” Ryu replies, teeth chattering. “Didn’t want to go back for my coat.”

“Problems at home?” Hayato asks. He’s been having his own, lately; his temper, now that his mother has passed away, getting the better of him more often than not.

“I’m being silly,” Ryu says.

Hayato walks around behind Ryu and pushes him forward, until the ears of the plastic horse dig into Ryu’s stomach and the toy animal rocks forward and back from Ryu’s unbalanced position. Ryu tries to turn around to look at Hayato, but then Hayato slides onto the horse behind him. The fit is too tight, and Hayato keeps his feet on the ground to steady them.

There’s a rush of warmth as Hayato’s chest presses into his back, and Ryu shivers with something other than cold as Hayato’s hands fumble between them. Ryu hears the sound of a zipper as Hayato unzips his coat. “What’re you-“

“Just shut-up, dumbass. I’m not going to let you die of hypo… whatever-you-call-it. The thing where you get cold and then your arms fall off.” Ryu snorts, and then his body is racked with a full shake as it tries to warm itself up.

Suddenly, Ryu is pulled backward again, and he can feel every bit of Hayato’s thin chest as Hayato puts his chin over Ryu’s shoulder and pulls the front of his coat around Ryu’s body. He zips them both in, and Ryu can’t move his arms, but it doesn’t matter, because he can feel Hayato’s heartbeat against his spine and Hayato’s rough breathing in his ear. “So tell me what happened,” Hayato whispers, and Ryu swallows and tries to breathe.

Hayato is so close, and his arms, that he’s pulled out of the sleeves to give Ryu more room, wrap around Ryu’s waist, fingers splayed flat across his belly.

“My dad wants me not to be around you anymore. And I don’t know why, but the idea of him telling me what to do makes me so—” Ryu doesn’t know what word he wants, and all he can really focus on is the way Hayato’s hair tickles his cheek. Ryu feels like he can’t control his own body anymore, and as feeling sinks back in to his fingers, he wriggles until he can set his arms down along the outside of Hayato’s, palms resting against the backs of Hayato’s hands.

“Angry?” Hayato finishes, sounding bemused. “It’s okay to feel things, Ryu,” Hayato says. “No matter how much you were raised to think it’s a waste of time to get angry, or sad, or too happy, it’s normal. It’s exciting. It’s part of being a person.”

Ryu doesn’t have a response; he still remembers what it was like, without Hayato, lonely and locked up and with nothing to lose or gain. He remembers going through every day doing exactly as he was told, and receiving nothing but a nod for his efforts at the end of the day. He remembers flinching on the subway at the simplest touch, just because he was so unused to the feeling that it scared him. So he doesn’t have a response, because he doesn’t really know what normal is.

All he does have is the feeling of a star bursting into existence between his ribs, hot and fierce and way too much to handle, and he wonders if feeling this is okay, too.

He stops noticing the snowfall as Hayato whispers simple things into his ear.



**




Scenes not included in the story of Sleeping Beauty:

“She’ll be safe in there,” the king says to the queen. “She’ll sleep and sleep, and in the end, she’ll be safe in there.”

“But,” the queen says, “we’ll never see her again.”

“I’ll miss her too,” the king says, and they cry and cry because their family is broken forever, and even if they live to be a hundred, they’ll never see their daughter smile again.




Scenes not included in the abridged version of Ryu’s life:

”Ryu, it’s going to be okay,” Taku says, as he stands beside Ryu, both of them waiting in the hallway. It smells like blood, and antiseptic, and like fear, too—stale and strange.

“But,” Ryu says, “We’ll never…”

“We don’t know anything yet,” Taku says, and the younger boy’s face is set, jaw pushed forward suddenly with striking resemblance to his older brother. “Just… stay calm.”

If Ryu remembered how to cry; or maybe, if he’d ever learned how… right now, he’d be crying, because even if he lives to be a hundred, there’s never been anything scarier than this.




**




The envelope from Taku sits on the table, and sometimes Ryu looks at it, not bothering to unseal it.

What’s inside the envelope is a key, and a reminder, and all of Ryu’s fears; the things he’s not sure he’s ready to face.

He thinks about the envelope at work, too, and it distracts him. Not when he’s actually instructing, but in those quiet moments, where he’s sitting at his desk in the teachers’ office, looking for worksheets that will refresh his students on some of the concepts he taught last week. Doing things like that. That’s when his mind starts to wander, and Ryu thinks about his own cowardice, and about how cold he is, inside and outside.

Uchiyama pokes at Ryu’s face, and Ryu frowns.

“You’re too thin,” Uchiyama says. “I could break you.”

“Any time you want to take it outside,” Ryu growls, forgetting, in his pensive mood, that that’s not part of the carefully crafted façade of a changed man that he wears at Kurogin.

“Kitty has claws,” Uchiyama says, leaning forward and narrowing his eyes at Ryu. “What’s got you in a mood?”

“I’m not in a mood,” Ryu says shortly, blinking twice to focus his vision.

Shiratori sighs romantically. “You looked lost in your thoughts,” she says. “Like a classical poet pondering the meaning of nature.” Ryu stares at her, unimpressed, until she flushes under his stare. “Not that you look old,” she clarifies, like that’s the problem. “Just noble. Or something.”

“Anyway,” Uchiyama says. “You look more a little like an orphaned kitten looking for its mother, to me.”

“Just thinking about the holidays,” Ryu lies, wetting dry lips and organizing the stacks of paper in front of him to give his idle hands something to do.

The New Year’s holiday is fast approaching, and Ryu’s expected home. He wonders how the Yabuki family will spend the holidays. If the two of them that remain will cook instant ramen and laugh and tell stories. He wonders if they’ll huddle close and look at two empty seats and remember fuller holidays long past.

“I love New Year’s!” Shiratori says, clapping her hands excitedly. Her pink nail polish has a bit of sparkle, and it shimmers even in the pitiful yellowed fluorescent lighting of the teacher’s office. “We’ll eat soup and do hatsumode and my sisters will all come home.” She leans forward on her desk, pressing her palms flat to the fake-wood. Her desk is nicer than Ryu’s, Ryu notices, but she has been here more than five years. She’s had time to decorate. “What about you, Odagiri-sensei?”

“No,” Ryu says. “I’m not looking forward to it very much.”

Uchiyama frowns, and when Shiratori, flustered by Ryu’s curt answer, finds her way to the other side of the office to chat with another female teacher about something that has them both giggling and raising their fluffy pens in the air, Uchiyama leans forward, bending his body in half so he’s looking into Ryu’s face.

“Bummed out because of your friend?” Uchiyama asks, and it’s impolite, and more than that, unexpected, so Ryu flinches.

“No,” Ryu says. “Either way, I’d have to go to my parents’ house for New Year’s.”

“I see,” Uchiyama says, and he straightens, putting his hands in his pockets. He looks a little dangerous like that, and Ryu suddenly notices a tiny scar behind his ear. It reminds him a bit of how Tsucchi used to look, when they were in high school. “For the record, Odagiri, if you don’t want people to remember your shady past, you probably shouldn’t offer someone a beatdown in the teachers’ office.”

“My bad,” Ryu replies, smiling a bit. “Next time I’ll politely ask you out into the hallway before I give you your choices.”

“Good call,” Uchiyama says, smirking. “Have a good holiday, Odagiri. I hope you gain lots of weight.” He awkwardly purses his mouth. “And you know, your friend and I… we had some mutual acquaintances. So if you—”

“Yeah,” Ryu says. “I’ll ‘tell him hi’,” Ryu says dryly. “Go away.”

“You’re certainly more interesting when you’re not hiding behind your over-starched shirts and your try-hard ties,” Uchiyama says. “See ya around, Odagiri.”

Uchiyama walks out the door, before he quickly steps back in. “Oh hey, I forgot,” Uchiyama says, and shuffles back over to his desk, rifling through the loose papers on his desk until he finds one that’s wrinkled up and a little gray. “I’ve got a present for you.”

“A crumpled up worksheet,” Ryu says dryly. “I’m thrilled.”

“Not just any worksheet,” Uchiyama says. “Kamiyama handed it to me in the hallway on my way in and asked me to give it to you.”

Ryu takes the paper gingerly and looks at it. It’s covered in eraser marks, and angry characters drawn too dark and heavy, like Kamiyama had deliberated on them over and over again. But every blank is filled in, and most of them, Ryu notes, are approaching correct. “He… turned in the assignment.”

“Congratulations, Odagiri,” Uchiyama says. “No one’s been able to get Kamiyama to turn anything in for over a year.” Uchiyama, who’s readjusting his scarf, slits eyes at Ryu smirking. “Look at you go.”

“Thanks,” Ryu says, still staring at the paper. A strange sense of accomplishment tingles in his gut.

You have to be a good teacher, Hayato had said. Just to spite everyone who thinks you won’t be.

Ryu shakes his head to clear it, and his bangs fall into his face. He anxiously pushes them back, thinking irately that he needs a haircut, but he knows he won’t get one that would change the look of his hair too much; because Ryu likes recognizing himself in the mirror, even if the red has long since grown out, and Ryu wears his shirts buttoned up all the way now.

He pats the paper on the desk, to reassure himself that it’s real, and he lets himself smile.

“You have a good holiday, sensei,” Uchiyama salutes. “And I hope it passes… easily for you, whatever you’ve got going on at home.” He scratches at his hair carefully, so as not to muss the style. “I just… I hope you spend it well.” Uchiyama frowns, like he’s worried he’s said too much. “Later.”

“Have a good break,” Ryu says slowly, carefully. “You coming in tomorrow?”

“No,” Uchiyama says. “I’ve got a long way to travel.” And then he’s gone, leaving Ryu alone in the office.

Ryu shrugs his coat on. He starts walking home, still preoccupied, and when he looks up, he’s at the riverbank. He hasn’t walked home this way in a long time.

The river water looks clear. It’s strange, because it never did before. Ryu wonders if the water just reflects the unwavering clarity of his heart.


**



“Sometimes I wonder if this is the only place I can truly think,” Hayato says, and Ryu turns to look at him. His hair is fanned out across the grass, and it shines chestnut in the grass. Hayato had dyed it yesterday, while his mother watched with a mixture of consternation and amusement.

“It is nice here,” Ryu says, and he closes his eyes as the sun beats down on his face, warm rays tickling his lashes. The grass is soft, and the sound of the water rushing by is soft. There’s a road above them, frequented mostly by cyclists, and it makes Ryu feel like down here, they are hiding away from the world, just the two of them. “It’s like our secret place.” He feels a little silly, but it’s okay to be silly with Hayato.

“It’s not very secret,” Hayato laughs lightly, but it doesn’t sound like he disagrees. His laugh bubbles and froths around Ryu’s heart like rushing water, the way it always does, drowning him in all these feelings he can’t understand.

“I know,” Ryu says.

He turns his head to the side to look at Hayato. Hayato’s puppy fat is melting away as the days pass, leaving strong cheekbones in its wake, and Ryu is mesmerized by the way the light plays across his features. “But it’s the only place where my thoughts don’t feel useless.”

“Useless?” Ryu questions, and Hayato laughs again.

“Yeah, like a waste of time. Here, I can think about anything, and everything, and I don’t feel stupid.”

“You can think about anything with me,” Ryu says, quietly. “I’m not going to think you’re stupid.”

“I know,” Hayato says, and they’re always like this, echoing each other’s words and actions like they’re two halves of a whole. “You’re here now, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am,” Ryu says. “Aren’t I always here?”

“Yeah,” Hayato says. “It’s because you’re my best friend, you know?”

“I am,” Ryu says, and the water isn’t clear, and there’s a car overhead, but Ryu feels like he and Hayato are so removed from the world right now that no one can touch them. “This place is special.” Ryu’s uniform, black instead of navy, makes him feel different, but Hayato makes him feel like as much as things change, there are some things that will stay the same. An unchanging bit of a fairytale, Ryu thinks.

“It’s our place, huh?” Hayato says, and Ryu’s warm from more than the sun. He trains his eyes on the murky water, his palms feeling sweaty and his throat dry. “I like that. Just you and I.”

“Yes,” Ryu says, mumbling but loud enough to earn him a smile.

Their bodies leave imprints in the grass, and the moment, perfect and full, leaves an imprint in Ryu’s heart.


**




”We do not remember days; we remember moments.”
--Cesare Pavese, The Burning Brand



**



Hayato doesn’t scream, in Ryu’s nightmares. He grunts, biting his lip so hard it bleeds, taking hit after hit, and pressing his eyes shut so his attackers won’t have the advantage of seeing the pain glaze them over, or of seeing his fear.

“Ryu,” he whispers, he always whispers, voice cracking, and Ryu’s stomach always clenches, balled up so tight it’s making a fist inside his abdomen.

It takes hours after he’s woken up for it to unfurl, leaving him limp and sweating atop his sheets, eyes clenched so tight no light can get through.



**




“Ryu,” Tsucchi says. “Hi.” He’s wearing a suit, tie knotted sloppily, hands in the pockets of oversized pants.

“Tsucchi,” Ryu replies. “What-“

“Getting coffee, same as you,” Tsucchi replies. “You look tired.”

“Having trouble sleeping.”

Tsucchi looks at him sympathetically, before schooling his face into disinterest. You can take the boy out of high school, Ryu thinks, but you can’t take the high school out of the boy.

“It shows,” Tsucchi says.

“Thanks,” Ryu replies. “It’s a big city, why’d I run into you?”

“I dunno,” Tsucchi says. “You’re just lucky, I guess.” He runs a hand through his short-cropped hair, and Ryu smiles.

“I guess,” he replies, and Tsucchi narrows his eyes, looking for sarcasm, and smiles back when he finds none.

“Seriously, Ryu, get some rest.” Tsucchi wraps his fingers around his coffee as the barista sets it on the counter. “It’s almost the holidays. Your students are draining the life out of you.”

“We were worse,” Ryu says.

“Yankumi never looked like you,” Tsucchi says, and Ryu winces.

“It doesn’t have much to do with my students,” Ryu admits, and Tsucchi nods.

“I figured.” He takes a sip of his coffee, and winces when it’s too hot. “Damn.”

Ryu’s coffee arrives to the counter as well, and Ryu takes it gingerly. “I’d better go,” he says. “No students, but meetings all day.”

“Okay,” Tsucchi says. “Maybe you should—”

“I know,” Ryu says, and he thinks about the cream envelope sitting on the table, crinkled and unopened. “I know I should.”

“It’s New Year’s,” Tsuchhi adds. “Time for family.”

Time for family.

The coffee burns Ryu’s tongue.


**



Ryu never thought about his biggest fear, before. He’d never considered what it could be until it came to pass.

Now, Ryu’s biggest fear is the way he wakes up in the morning, and reaches beside him, and there’s no one there; Hayato isn’t there. The part that’s most terrifying is that it might be that way forever, and like when he was kid, Ryu is completely powerless to change it.

**


Part Three


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December 2012

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