[personal profile] maayacolabackup






**



… But at this moment the young fairy stepped forth from behind the tapestry. “Take comfort, your Majesties,” she cried in a loud voice. “Your daughter shall not die. My power, it is true, is not enough to undo all that my aged kinswoman has decreed. The princess will indeed prick her hand with a spindle. But instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years.”


--Charles Perrault, The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood




**




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.

And then.

And then there was Hayato, all noises and scrapes and anger and energy, and the loneliness loosened its grip just enough for Ryu to inhale. The air tasted fresh and sweet, like strawberry ice cream in midsummer.

Hayato’s way of filling the silence pulled Ryu close and kept him warm.

Ryu misses Hayato. It’s worse, now that he knows what it feels like to go through every day without choking on the feeling of being completely alone.

Ryu misses Hayato with every step forward, and every step back, and loneliness is holding onto him so tight his bones might break under the pressure.

Life, Ryu thinks, isn’t a fairytale, and sometimes Ryu wonders if there’s any magic left in this world at all.

**




On a cold day in January, Ryu runs into a boy with soft, fluffy hair and a mischievous glint in his eyes that makes the chill melt away, sending warmth all the way down to Ryu’s toes. He’s got a smile that lights up his whole face, a crooked one that stretches chapped lips and draws attention away from dirt smudged cheeks.

His clothes are second-, or maybe third-hand, and his coat doesn’t look warm enough for the weather, and there’s a bit of a shiver visible on the exhale as he breathes, but the boy doesn’t seem to mind the icy wind; not really, anyway.

Ryu notices all these things from his vantage point on the ground, because Ryu has literally run into the other boy, walking too fast with his eyes on the asphalt instead of in front of him. Or maybe the other boy has run into him, laughing and stumbling over filthy shoes with untied laces and limbs that have grown more quickly than expected. He’s joking with his friends, this other boy, as he picks himself up, dusting off threadbare pants that pull up too short at the ankle.

Ryu’s shoes are new, with laces perfectly tied, and his trousers are hemmed to hang just above the tops of his shoes. His father had surveyed him as they stood at the main entrance this morning, critically scanning for any flaw. Ryu is just a child, but his father has always treated him as if he were a man. A man always takes pride in his appearance. That’s what his father always says to him, when Ryu leaves his shirt untucked, or when Ryu’s uniform is wrinkled from hanging it up incorrectly.

But even though his shoes are new, and his trousers are the perfect length, Ryu doesn’t really have friends, so he doesn’t feel like he’s better than the boy who now leans over him, companions cheerfully bickering, looming, with his face filling Ryu’s vision. There’s a tiny cut under the boy’s right eye, and Ryu wonders where it came from.

“Sorry,” the other boy says, and that fluffy hair falls into his eyes, and his mouth is almost too big, stretching around the words in unexpected ways. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Yabuki!” Another boy yells, and this boy’s head turns, leaving Ryu staring at a long neck. The hair at the nape is a bit curly. “We gotta get out of here!”

“Right, right!” is the hollered response, and the boy, Yabuki, Ryu thinks, looks back at him. He’s backlit by the bit of sun shining through the thick layer of winter clouds, and his hair is a tangled shadow in Ryu’s vision.

Ryu feels uncomfortable under his gaze. His expensive coat pulls across his back. He’s getting broader in the shoulders—not by much, but enough to restrict his movement. Enough to make him feel stuffy and hot, even in the winter.

A hand reaches out. “Let me help you up,” Yabuki says, and Ryu licks his lips. The hand is callused, and there’s dirt under the fingernails. Ryu can imagine his own mother’s tiny frown of disapproval.

It’s not enough to stop him. Something in Yabuki’s wild hair and wild eyes feels like an adventure- one that Ryu’d have to be crazy to pass up.

Ryu’s not crazy. Or maybe, maybe, he’s just crazy enough.

Yabuki’s hand is as warm as his eyes, and Ryu feels a tingle spread from their joined palms and creep up his bicep and into his chest before sinking into his stomach, like the import black tea his mother favors in early fall. It’s… a pleasant feeling. He wonders if a simple touch is supposed to feel like this. Ryu’s not really used to being touched.

“I’m Hayato,” Yabuki says, and he tosses his hair back, and now Ryu can see that his cheeks are flushed with cold, and that the cut under the eye is maybe two days old, already scabbed and fading to brown.

“Odagiri,” he replies, and he offers a tentative smile. “I’m Odagiri Ryu.”

“Yabuki!” the friends call again, and Hayato waves at them. They’re further ahead now, but Hayato’s legs are longer than Ryu’s. He’ll be able to catch up to them.

“Gotta pick up my little brother now,” Hayato says. “Taku worries when I’m late.”

Ryu has a mother who worries when he’s late, too.

“Right,” Ryu says. “Sorry again.”

“It was probably my fault,” Hayato says. “I really wasn’t looking.” His laugh is too loud, and too rough. It’s nothing like Ryu’s mother’s quiet, unassuming laugh. Ryu has never heard his father laugh, but it probably doesn’t sound like this. It probably wouldn’t make Ryu feel so much like there are bubbles inside of him aching to escape, frothing in his belly and floating up into his chest. “Anyway, catch you around, Ryu.”

“Catch you around,” Ryu echoes, and the boy is gone, bounding off to meet his friends at the corner. When he disappears from sight, Ryu can feel the cold again. He can feel January’s biting wind, and the way frost from the ground still somehow makes itself known through the leather of his shoes. His bag is still on the ground. He’s going to be late to cram school.

He’ll remember that smile, because it feels like a dream, or like the magic that Ryu’s only read about in fairytales. He’ll remember Hayato.

This is a beginning.



**




“Odagiri-sensei," Kamiyama says, pressing his palms flat against the teacher's desk, leaning forward a little challengingly. Ryu wants to laugh at him, because he's seen worse. Hell, he's done worse; what passes for insolence among his students just reminds Ryu of junior high school. "I need an extra day for the homework."

Kamiyama's tone doesn't really ask for permission, but Ryu knows how this works, too. Kamiyama's got complicated things going on at home... Ryu doesn't know exactly what, because he's not Yankumi, but he knows enough to nod his head. "Fine with me," he says, and Kamiyama exhales. He needs to graduate. Ryu knows that, and is willing to make allowances so that it happens.

Soon the classroom is empty, and Ryu is left alone at his desk, elbows digging into the wood as he presses his face into his hands. There's too much starch in his shirt, and it makes it uncomfortable for him to lean very far forward, because there's no give in the collar, so it digs into the skin of his neck.

School is over though, so he's free to unbutton it, and loosen his tie, too. Hayato would laugh, if he could see him now.

Sometimes it's hard for Ryu to sit in a classroom, day after day, teaching students who remind him so much of the way they all used to be; impudent expressions on their faces and loud laughs that almost mask his own voice as he tries to patiently explain the basics of geometry to a disinterested audience.

Out of the corner of his eye, when he lets his guard down... That's when he sees Hayato, sitting in the back, leaning against his chair with his legs spread wide, bottom lip jutting out with defiance.

Ryu doesn't want to see Hayato there; it ties his stomach into knots each time, and makes his breathing shallow and short, and he loses track of what he's saying for just a moment too long to be normal.

The students, his students, are used to it. It's only Ryu who never seems to see it coming.

Ryu stands, and his chair screeches across the linoleum as he straightens. He grabs his basket, and tries to make a mental list of the things he needs from the teachers’ office. He wants to get in and get out as soon as possible, because today, for some reason, he feels a little trapped. He presses his hand to his chest, where he can feel the metal of his necklace against his skin. It presses out, uneven, against his palm.

There's also the matter of Shiratori, who doesn't seem to take no for an answer, but that's a different problem entirely, and it's another one he can't dwell on.

He slides the door open as he presses his basket to his hip with one hand, and slips inside as noiselessly as possible.

He's lucky. His quiet contemplation time in his empty classroom has given the teachers’ office time to clear out, and only two instructors remain, shuffling things around on their desks.

"Odagiri-sensei!" Shiratori squeals, and Ryu winces.

"Good afternoon," he says quietly, taking his free hand to push his hair out of his face. It's a boring black, and he can imagine Hayato's eyebrow of disapproval... Ryu shakes it off. "And how are you today, sensei?"

"I'd be better if you wanted to go out for drinks," she says with a wink. "I'm free on Thursday."

She's cute, Ryu thinks, distantly. There's not really anything wrong with her, in her pink and beige clothes, her impeccable fashion perfectly on trend and her smile innocent and sweet. There's nothing wrong with her, but there's plenty wrong with Ryu. Ryu’s just pretending he’s civilized, half the time.

"She's free every day," Uchiyama replies, with a smirk. "She's just trying not to make it too easy for you." Uchiyama’s only a year older than Ryu, and Ryu thinks they might both have been the same sort of delinquents in high school. Uchiyama’s got an air of restrained violence to his movements that Ryu finds strangely comforting. It reminds him of…

"If a girl is free every day, it means she doesn't have any friends," Shiratori says, pouting. "And I have plenty of those."

"You do realize you were a teacher here when I was still a high school student, right?" Ryu asks rhetorically. "That I'm considerably too young for you to be hitting on, I mean?"

"And what a trouble-maker you were," Shiratori replies. "I was charmed even then by your rugged good looks."

"Rugged," Ryu says. "Right."

"You and your handsome friend--" she starts, but then she claps a hand over her mouth exaggeratedly and looks at him with wide eyes. "Sorry, I forgot. I shouldn't have said anything."

Ryu swallows. "It's fine." He quietly shuffles over to his desk, and unpacks his basket. There's an almost eerie silence, but perhaps it's his imagination. "I'm headed out."

"Have a good evening, Odagiri," Uchiyama says, and Ryu nods, shrugging on his coat and locking his desk drawers.

"I will," Ryu says, digging his gloves out of his pockets. "I've got big plans tonight."

"Ooohhh," Uchiyama teases. "Big plans... Do they involve a lady?"

Shiratori looks put out, which makes Ryu smile a little wryly. "They might," he says. Ryu supposes Yamada, the kind old woman who runs the local grocery, counts as a lady. Ryu's big plans are just getting groceries for the first time in weeks, and cleaning his flat, which he's somehow managed to clutter up despite the fact that he hardly ever uses it for anything besides sleeping. "See you tomorrow," he says, and shoves his gloved hands into his pockets. He's already got his leather bag slung over his right shoulder, and it's a bit heavy-- he's got a lot of math quizzes to grade, and they're weighing it down.

"See ya," Uchiyama says, and Shiratori echoes with a little "bye" that sounds melancholy—and Ryu feels bad, he really does, but the answer will never be yes.

Ryu's had his share of falling in love, and he's not really in a place to do it again. He's not sure his heart can take it. Besides, he’s never fallen out of love, so maybe there’s no space, in any case.

Outside, the wind is brisk. Ryu frowns, because it's colder than he'd expected, like winter is trying to challenge him to a fight. Ryu grits his teeth because he hates losing.

His phone rings. He sighs, and fumbles around in his bag until he finds it, hunching his shoulders a bit to protect his neck from the chill. It's only a few more blocks from his apartment. Usually he doesn't mind the walk, but Ryu abhors cold weather. Hyuuga jokes sometimes that it's because there's not enough of him, and the cold wouldn't be so bad if he ate more.

"Hello?" he says into his mobile.

"Ryu!" says the cheerful voice on the other end of the line. "How are you?"

"Freezing," Ryu says, a tiny smile making its way onto his face. "Long time no talk, Take."

Take chuckles. "You could always call me," he teases. "There's no reason you can't take the initiative."

"You know it's not my style," Ryu says, and there's a pause, where Ryu fills in the rest silently. And seeing you reminds me of him. Take sighs into the receiver, before he barrels on.

"Are you free tonight? Tsucchi and I were going to go get ramen, and wondered if you wanted to come? Goodness knows if you eat without us to watch you."

"I'm still alive, aren't I?"

"Barely, last I saw you," Take murmurs, and it's unexpectedly solemn, the teasing slipping from his tone. "Seriously, it's been like a month. Come and meet us."

"Yeah," Ryu says. "I just need to change clothes, and drop off these math quizzes."

"Eww," Take says, and Ryu wants to laugh. "Math."

"My students feel the same way you do," Ryu replies dryly, still walking forward, weaving his way through pedestrian traffic with expertise. There are some high school boys up ahead smoking cigarettes next to their bikes. Two of them are his, but Ryu pretends he doesn't see them, because they aren't really hurting anyone. He'll mention tomorrow in class that he walks home along this route, and give them a stern glare. It'll give him some cred, in case he needs to get them to fall in line later.

Ryu thinks he's getting pretty good at this whole teaching thing.

"So come," Take says, and Ryu can hear him holding his breath. He doesn't want to worry them.

"Only if you call Hyuuga," Ryu says, and Take releases a relieved giggle.

"It's a deal," Take says. "See you at Kuma's place?"

Kuma's place. Of course.

"Yeah. In an hour."

“Do you even remember how to get there?” Take jokes.

“Shut up,” Ryu replies, and hangs up.

Ryu guesses the grocer will have to wait.

He drops his mobile into his bag, and reaches into the zipper pocket for his keys, undoing all three locks on his door with ease. He surveys the mess with an exasperated eye.

"How on Earth am I this messy?" he asks himself, dropping his bag in the genkan and shedding his coat. At least his flat is warm, he thinks, as he sets his gloves on the table just inside the door.

If Ryu is honest with himself, he doesn't particularly want to go back outside. It's not just the cold, he knows.

He's known Take almost nine years now, but for the past two, just looking at him makes Ryu want to curl up into a ball and disappear. It's not just Take, it's Hyuuga and Tsucchi too.

But Ryu makes himself go, because that ache—he wants to feel it. He likes to be reminded that it's all real. That this isn't a nightmare he's going to wake up from in the morning.

It's the same reason he took the job at Kurogin this year. It's like ripping off the bandage every single morning when he walks through the school gates to teach the worst class the school has to offer.

Sometimes, Ryu wants to cling to old memories.

He fingers his necklace after he strips off his dress shirt, tossing it to the floor. The necklace is cold, too, from the outside air. It lies like ice against his sternum.

A T-shirt and a sweater complete his warmer ensemble, and he spares one last glance for the neglected grading before he's gone, walking down familiar streets that remind him of being five years younger, wearing a black uniform jacket over an old tank shirt, Hayato at his side as they prowled around looking for trouble.

Ryu hasn't patronized the ramen shop for two years, but Kuma's place is the same as it's always been. There's a pretty big after-work crowd, but Take'd clearly saved a table for them right next to the kitchen. Ryu smiles as he sits down, just a tiny one, but Take beams back at him. "Thought it might be warmer back here," Take explains unnecessarily. "We always used to sit here, before."

Before. Yes, Ryu thinks. Hayato was always worried about Ryu, even if it wasn't something he expressed in words.

Ryu nods tightly, and Take bites his lip.

"Anyway, Hyuuga just called, and he'll be here at eight, when he gets off work, and Tsucchi is-"

"Right here," Tsucchi says, towering over them both. He's carrying three beers in his left arm, the bottles pressed against his chest, and a smaller bottle of sake in his right hand. "Ryu, long time no see."

"I've been busy," Ryu says, though all of them know that Ryu's not that busy. "But I'm here now."

"We aren't going anywhere," Tsucchi says. "So don't disappear."

"I won't," Ryu says. Tsucchi smiles at him, then, and sets the beer loudly on the table.

"Let me help," Kuma says. "Ryu, you still like the beef, right?"

"My favorite," Ryu replies quietly, and Kuma ruffles his hair like Ryu isn't a grown man. "Hey!"

"You looked too serious," Kuma says, nervously grinning.

"Ryu always looks too serious," Take says, and Ryu frowns at them both, or tries to. But despite his efforts, something like a smile is pulling at Ryu's lips.

"I'm a teacher, now," Ryu says. "I'm supposed to be serious."

"Tell that to Yankumi!" Tsucchi says, ordering a beef ramen for herself.

"I think Yankumi is pretty serious," Take argues. "If a bit..."

"Whimsical?" Ryu finishes, and Kuma laughs.

“Idealistic,” Tsucchi corrects with a smile. “In a good way.”

"Yankumi's pretty pleased that one of you guys followed in her footsteps."

"Ryu's the only one patient enough," Tsucchi says. "He never really had a taste for trouble we had." Ryu looks down, and tugs anxiously on the sleeves of his sweater, so that they cover most of his hands. His bangs fall into his face, and he lets them hide his expression.

"Take was the least crazy, if you ask me," Ryu demurs, and Kuma laughs.

"Take tried to stop fights, and Ryu just made sure the rest of us didn't get killed," Tsucchi says. "And Hayato and I instigated everything."

"That sounds about right," Ryu says, and he opens a beer as Tsucchi pours sake into tiny glasses and pushes them around the table.

Ryu takes a gulp of beer and looks around the shop. It fizzes in his mouth and tickles its way down his esophagus as he swallows, surveying the lively customers. A group of students, but not his school. Their uniforms are navy, not black, and the buttons are a dull bronze, and flat. Not like the buttons on their uniforms.

Still, Ryu's memories are hard to beat back. He resists the urge to play with his necklace, leaving it under his shirt.

The ramen, when it comes out, is hot and spicy, and it's soothing in Ryu's belly, like the laughter of Tsucchi and Take on the other side of the table. It's nice, Ryu thinks, to sit here and absorb their warmth.

After all, Ryu is always cold.

"Hey guys, looks like I made it!" Hyuuga's hair is still spiky, but he's wearing a suit. He'd ended up employed at a company, after all, and last time Ryu'd seen him, he'd reported being happy. "Ryu, how are you? You'd think we live in different countries, with how often we see you."

"We did, for a while there," Ryu returns, and Hyuuga smiles, and squeezes onto the bench next to Ryu, dropping his briefcase on the floor underneath the table and leaning forward.

"So pour me a drink," Hyuuga says, and for a moment, there's a ghost sitting to Ryu's left, and Ryu can't breathe.

"To friends," Take says, raising his glass. "To always remembering the good times together."

"To friends," Ryu echoes, and one-shots his sake. It's a harsher burn than he remembers. His left hand sneaks under his sweater and grabs at his necklace, rubbing his finger over the metal that hangs from the chain.

An hour later, or maybe two, when things have gone a little fuzzy, and Tsucchi is recreating, loudly and obnoxiously, an incident that had occurred at the toy company where he works, that’s when Take, who has switched to Ryu's side of the table, leans a little against Ryu's side.

"Hey, Ryu," Take slurs.

"Yeah?" Ryu slurs back, because they've both maybe had a little too much to drink.

"Do you ever go and visit Hayato?" His voice is quiet, and his eyes are half-lidded, like he's staring into the distance at something Ryu can't see. It's an unusually somber expression on his face, but thinking about Hayato has a way of dragging out the darkest parts of them.

Ryu closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, and despite the alcohol and the hot ramen and the spices and egg scenting the air, Ryu can still smell sterility, and despite Hyuuga's raucous laughter, he can still hear the steady beeping sound that represents Hayato's heartbeat.

"No," Ryu says. "Not since… the move. I can't."

"Oh," Take says, and then he sighs. "He'd like it, if you did."

"He doesn't like anything, now," Ryu snaps back, and Take flinches, and when Ryu opens his own eyes, Take's look a little glassy, even through the sake-haze that swims at the edges of Ryu's vision.

"You're wrong," Take says. "And you give up too easily."

"Do I?" Ryu replies, and his tongue wets his lips. He can't really feel them; they’ve gone numb from a little too much sake for a school night.

“Not always,” Take says. “You used to see things through to the end.”

“It’s already the end,” Ryu says. “Now is just… after the end. It’s the boring part of a fairytale.”

"Did I ever thank you?" Take asks. "For that time?" He sounds a little past drunk, to Ryu. But Ryu remembers the time Take is speaking of. Of course he does. He’d thought, then, that that was the worst he could ever feel.


”You’re not Kurogin’s leader,” Hayato says. “A man is nothing if he isn’t strong.”

“A man always makes his own decisions,” Ryu replies, and Hayato winces as his own words are thrown back at him. “I have reasons for mine.”

“Don’t you know I…” Hayato looks down. “Never mind.”



"Yes," Ryu says. "Lots of times."

"Well, thank you," Take says. "You're a good friend."

Ryu isn't a good friend at all, but sometimes it heals him a little to hear the words, even if he doesn't deserve them. He thinks Take knows that, somehow, with his empathetic heart and eyes that seem to peer into all the gloomy places Ryu tries not to show. Take has always been the best at expressing his feelings. Ryu's always just fumbled around in the dark.

"Not really," Ryu says. "If I were I’d be braver. But you're welcome."

Take pats him on the back, and Ryu takes another drink.



**




Ryu has a recurring nightmare that comes only when he's so tired he can't wake himself up.

In the nightmare, it's pitch-black outside, and all the street lamps are blown out, leaving the street dark and dangerous. Ryu's breathing hard, like he's been running, and there are lancets of pain that bite into his ribs, as if they're broken. There's harsh breathing all around him, and Ryu is surrounded, and he can't see how many there are, because it's so dark.

Panic crawls up from his belly and into his heart, and Ryu is so fucking scared that it almost paralyzes him.

And then there's pain, the familiar pain of getting the shit beaten out of him, and then there's blood, and Ryu feels himself fading out, and when he looks down at himself, he's not Ryu anymore; he's Hayato, and it's Hayato who is hurting, and it's Hayato's blood covering his hands, and when he screams, it's Hayato's voice.

"Ryu," he says. "Ryu, help."

When Ryu wakes up, he's shivering, and he always reaches up and touches his face to make sure he's Ryu again, and his eyes and head ache like he never went to sleep at all.

"Hayato," he whispers, and there's no answer, because Ryu is here, in his empty apartment, alone.

Ryu, now, is always alone.



**




“Odagiri!” calls a voice behind him, and Ryu spins around. It’s a stiff turn, because the uniform is new and unyielding; his mother had ironed it with starch this morning, smiling at him softly when he came downstairs to collect the jacket. It’s the first day of junior high, and Ryu is, as usual, standing alone.

“Hayato,” Ryu says, surprised. “I mean, Yabuki.”

“Hayato’s fine,” Hayato says, a big toothy grin splitting his face. “I’m surprised you remember me, rich boy.”

“Why?” Ryu counters. “You remembered me.”

Hayato blinks, like he hadn’t expected it to be turned back on him, and sticks his hands in his pockets. His uniform is new, but he wears it guardedly, almost like he’s not used to new things, or like he feels less safe with them. His sleeves are too long on his jacket. It’s been bought with room to grow.

Ryu wishes he didn’t notice these things.

“Of course I’d remember you,” Hayato says. “How could I forget the guy wearing a coat that costs more than my dad makes in a month?” Hayato tosses his hair. “We went to the same elementary school, anyway. I saw you around.”

Ryu flushes and scowls, and looks to the left, out the hallway window, and into the courtyard in front of the school, where students still mill around talking to their friends. “Fair enough,” Ryu says, and he wonders why Hayato is still here. “Why are you talking to me?”

“What?” Hayato says, tilting his head to the side. “Why not?”

“People don’t usually talk to me,” Ryu replies. “Because I’m… well, boring.” Boring might not be the right word, but it’s close enough. Ryu spends most moments wondering about the consequences of every single action he takes, and by the time he’s weighed it all out, the chance has passed him by, and he’s done nothing at all.

“Maybe you are, and maybe you aren’t,” Hayato says. “But I’ll figure it out for myself.” Hayato shifts from foot to foot. His uniform shirt is unbuttoned, and he’s wearing a gray t-shirt underneath. His hair is too long. He looks anything but regulation.

“Oh,” Ryu says. “I see.”

“I decide everything on my own,” Hayato says. “A man always makes his own decisions.”

Ryu frowns, and lets his hair fall into his eyes. They’re only thirteen. Not men, not yet. But Ryu supposes Hayato is used to being treated like a man, too. “I see,” he repeats, and his father’s face looms in the forefront of his mind. His father would not approve of Hayato at all.

A little piece of Ryu likes that.

“So what class are you in, Odagiri?” Hayato says, and Ryu notices, all of a sudden, that Hayato doesn’t even have a school bag. “I’m in 1D.”

“1A,” Ryu says, and Hayato waggles his brows.

“Oooooh, first class,” Hayato says. “A real smart guy.”

“Not smart,” Ryu says. “Just… my dad.” Hayato peers at him closely, getting into Ryu’s personal space. Ryu feels short in front of him, because Hayato is long and lean and smells like powdered sugar. The cut on his face has healed. Of course it has. It’s been a while.

“You’re not a stickler for the rules, are you?” Hayato asks, and he cuffs Ryu on the shoulder. “We might have problems, if you are.”

“I don’t know,” Ryu says, and for some reason his heart is beating so fast, and his palms are sweaty. “I’ve never really thought about it, before.”

“Well, while you think about it,” Hayato says, clutching at Ryu’s wrist and putting wrinkles into his navy uniform jacket. “Let me introduce you to some of my friends.” Ryu moves naturally to follow.

“Isn’t class about to start?” Ryu asks, but he’s less worried about it than he should be. Something about Hayato, who is made of nothing but rough edges, makes Ryu feel like his own jagged bits fit right into the cracks.

“So?” Hayato says, and his grin is huge and somehow it makes Ryu feel, for the first time, like he belongs.



**




One day, Ryu will forget the way his uniform jacket scratched his neck, or the way his lip had stung after a fight where he’d been lucky to get away with his nose intact. One day he’ll forget the way his father had looked at him like he was nothing the first time he’d limped home after a fight, or the way the peroxide had burned and bubbled in the cuts on the backs of his knuckles.

One day he’ll forget the way he’d slowly stopped caring about anything but watching Hayato’s back, school and responsibility falling by the wayside to Hayato’s whims and demands.

He might forget all of that, but Ryu will never forget the way Hayato would wrap Ryu’s arm about his neck after a particularly tough fight and drag him home after everything was said and done, ignoring his own injuries. Ryu will never forget the way Hayato’s smile was like the breaking dawn, playful and just a bit devious and spilling little rays of light into Ryu’s life. He’ll never forget the way Hayato clawed his way inside Ryu’s heart and still has never left.

He’ll never forget that, and maybe, sometimes, that truth haunts him.


**



“You really did have big plans last night, didn’t you?” Uchiyama says the next morning, as Ryu rests his forehead against the cool metal of his desk, the chill of it soothing for his pounding head.

Ryu grunts in response, and it’s enough to make his stomach turn. He hasn’t had a hangover this bad in a long time, and he didn’t even make it to bed until four in the morning. Probably not the best choice for a school night, and Ryu feels a tad guilty, but he’ll pull it together just fine in time for classes in a few hours.

“Well, sorry for doubting you,” Uchiyama says, and he rests his hand briefly on Ryu’s shoulder before he walks past. “And here I thought ‘big plans’ meant doing your laundry or something like that.”

Ryu almost wishes it had, the way he aches, but seeing his friends had been… good. Even with all the memories, seeing the people he fought his way through high school with makes him feel a little more whole. “No first period today,” Ryu says. “Get back to me in a few hours.”

“When you wake up, sensei?” Uchiyama laughs, and it grates in his ears, because it’s too early. When he’d done roll call and homeroom this morning, his class had sounded like a dull roar, but that might not have had anything to do with his hangover.

Ryu’s own homeroom class, in high school, had been loud too, shouting and screaming and quieting just a little under Yankumi’s firm hand. Ryu doesn’t mind the noise, usually.

“It was good to see my friends,” Ryu adds, continuing the conversation almost against his will.

“Not a girl!” Shiratori crows, and Ryu and Uchiyama both turn to look at her. The movement hurts Ryu’s head, and Shiratori flushes awkwardly. “Sorry.”

“I should go get ready for class,” Ryu mumbles, and drags himself up from his seat, pressing his palms flat from the table to push himself up. He’s forgone a tie today, and the top button of his shirt is left undone, and obviously, no one but Ryu notices, but it’s enough to make Ryu feel self-conscious.

The classroom is still empty when he gets there, his students still in athletics class, and Ryu takes a moment to survey the classroom, graffiti decorating the walls and chairs overturned.

It’s strange, Ryu thinks, how time can pass but things still say the same. Another 3D, another room full of kids with problems and attitudes and mouths that move before their brains catch up.

Another teacher who wants them all to graduate for his own reasons as well as for their sakes.

They invade, all shouts and sweat and dust, and Ryu is prepared for them, his painkillers having finally started kicking in as he moves to the chalkboard to put the assignment up.

By the end of the day, though, Ryu is exhausted, and he’s still got a long day ahead of him, because after school, he’s got to stop by his parents’ house and visit his mother. His father won’t be home, which is a relief, but it’s enough to have to see his mother. Ryu wishes, sometimes, that every day wasn’t a battle.

“Kamiyama,” he says, as the students rush out of the classroom, headed for unsuspecting cafes and karaoke rooms and restaurants. “Wait.” Kamiyama halts, and he’s moving stiff, like Hayato used to if he didn’t ice.

“What’s up?” Kamiyama says, shoulders tense like he’s waiting for a rebuke. Ryu notes that he’s got an angry cut along the side of his face, the kind with puffy edges. A knife-cut, then, one that doesn’t need stitches but worries Ryu anyway.

“That assignment…” Ryu says, instead of what he wants to say. “Don’t forget it. You don’t need any more zeroes, all right?”

Kamiyama frowns, and looks at Ryu suspiciously. “Why do you care so much? No one else does.”

Ryu knows what it’s like to have people give up on you. He also knows what it’s like, he thinks, to know you have people who won’t. “Graduating’s important, okay?”

“Not everyone is good at school, or cares about it,” Kamiyama says, and Ryu’s stomach lurches in a way that’s got nothing to do with his lunch sitting heavy in his hangover-affected belly. “Why do I need to think about the future?”

The words echo words he’s heard before; things he’s felt, things Hayato felt, and it hurts him to hear them again.

“Because this isn’t the end,” Ryu says. “Life doesn’t stop after high school.” Things end, but it’s not, necessarily, when you expect them to.

“Things are fine this way,” Kamiyama says. “There are a few gangs willing to take me on, and…”

It’s okay, Hayato had said. I can get part-time work with some guys I met, and—

“I sucked at school,” Ryu says, interrupting Kamiyama. “I had terrible grades, and in the last year, I stopped coming to school for months because I didn’t see the point. I’d found work with a gang, and what was a degree going to be worth?”

Ryu doesn’t talk much to his students. Even when he’s teaching, he’s circumspect—saying just the number of words he needs to get the point across and nothing more. Now, he thinks, the words are just tumbling out, and Kamiyama’s eyebrows are almost up to his hairline with surprise.

Ryu closes his eyes, and behind them, Hayato is so still, chest moving so slightly up and down slowly and steadily, mouth slack and parted.

“I had a teacher, then, who wouldn’t give up on me. My parents had given up long ago, when they realized I wasn’t going to lead the sort of life they’d planned.”

“You were—“

“Class 3D,” Ryu says, and Kamiyama, when Ryu opens his eyes again, is looking at him in shock.

“But you’re a teacher,” Kamiyama says. “And I could totally take you in a fight.”

Ryu cracks his knuckles and narrows his eyes. “Wanna bet?” he says, in the same low voice he used on rivals, and Kamiyama gulps.

“No,” Kamiyama says. “I guess I don’t.”

“I’m a teacher now because I wanted to be,” Ryu says. “And you can be whatever you want to be, too. You don’t have to…” I can get part-time work with some guys I met-- “You need to have good enough grades that you can get a job,” Ryu says. “Doing something that means something to you.”

“Right,” Kamiyama says. “Well, my friends and I—“

“My best friend,” Ryu says, slowly. “You remind me of him.”

“What’s he do?” Kamiyama asks. “Is he a teacher, too?” Kamiyama’s sarcastic, like he thinks Ryu is some kind of ‘stay in school’ commercial, and not a real person. His interest is waning, head leaning toward the door like he wants to follow his friends outside. Ryu guesses he does, and he doesn’t blame his student.

“He doesn’t do anything anymore,” Ryu replies, and the words stick a bit, but he gets them out. He looks down at his hands. He’s got thick calluses on his knuckles still, and scars. A record of who he used to be. “He can’t do anything, anymore.”

Ryu’s not a fighter, now. He’s come to realize that without Hayato, he hasn’t got much fight in him.

Ryu doesn’t want Kamiyama to end up like either of them. His necklace feels like a shackle around his neck. Ryu fights the urge to touch it.

“Oh,” Kamiyama says. “I see.”

“The assignment,” Ryu says quietly, turning around and waving Kamiyama away, because he’s got to leave soon if he wants to be on time for tea. His mother’s always detested tardiness, and Ryu’s enough of a disappointment already. “Don’t forget it.”

Kamiyama is silent for a moment, as Ryu packs his basket and readies himself to go back to the teacher’s office.

“Odagiri-sensei,” Kamiyama says, and Ryu turns. He thinks he may have even managed to school his face into something that doesn’t resemble the turmoil inside him. “Thanks for giving me the extra time. I won’t forget.”

“Sure,” Ryu says, and Kamiyama gives him a slight bow, and Ryu wonders if maybe he became a teacher because it’s like going back in time and changing himself. “Try not… try not to get hurt, all right?”

Kamiyama gives him a sardonic salute.


**



There’s a different version of the nightmare, where Ryu is the one who is attacking, not the one being attacked, and Hayato’s eyes as he lies beneath him look so scared and so betrayed. His fists burn, and Hayato is blurry in his vision, like Ryu is crying, which is how Ryu knows it’s a dream, because Ryu doesn’t remember how to cry.



**




I know the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started.


--Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms




**




“You look cold,” Hayato says, and Ryu grimaces. He tugs his navy uniform jacket a little closer around his thin frame, and tries to disguise his shivering, even though he knows it’s a lost cause. He’s a bit small, even considering he’s only 13, and he mostly only regrets it during times like this, when the wind seems to whip through him instead of against him.

“Of course I’m cold,” he says. “It’s the middle of winter.”

Hayato takes the end of his scarf and wraps it around Ryu’s neck. He steps closer so the knit doesn’t pull. “I don’t get that cold,” Hayato says. “But I figured you wouldn’t accept the whole scarf.”

“I wouldn’t have,” Ryu says. Hayato’s so close to him now their arms brush with every step. “Thank you.”

“What are friends for?” Hayato says, and Ryu’s stomach flips, inexplicably, in a way that leaves him feeling confused and pleased and a little lost.

“Thank you,” Ryu says again, and it’s not just about the scarf, and Hayato elbows him.

“Shut up,” Hayato says, and Ryu laughs as he kicks up a bit of yesterday’s snow with his worn sneakers.



**




Fairytales, Ryu thinks, always have a happy ending. Cinderella falls in love with Prince Charming, and he rescues her from a life of poverty and drudgery, and they live happily ever after. Snow White manages to charm even the most obstinate of the dwarves and find her happily ever after. Momotarou, a boy born from a peach, manages to save his entire village and defeat all the demons who had robbed them, leaving them even better off than when they’d started.

Fairytales, Ryu thinks, make real life even more painful, because when things work out differently than they work in the stories, you can’t help but think about how it could have been.

Fairytales also make real life more painful because you never see everything—only the good parts make it into the tale, after all.

Sleeping Beauty, Ryu remembers, slept for one hundred years before she woke.

After all that time, Ryu thinks, she must have felt so lonely when she realized everyone she’d ever loved was gone.

And all the time she slept, those people were missing her.

Ryu can understand that kind of loneliness. Ryu knows that ache better than he knows anything else.



**




It smells like sugar, Ryu thinks; sugar and chocolate.

“You’ll be in 2B next year, your teacher said,” his mother says calmly. “Because your test scores have dropped. Your father will be disappointed.”

“I know,” Ryu says, and his mother slowly mixes the batter. She’s too calm, and Ryu’s on edge. “It’s… not going to be bad.”

“Your father has big dreams for you, Ryu. Don’t let him down.” Her pace doesn’t change; nor does the tone of her voice, but Ryu feels himself shrinking and shrinking, until it’s as if he is two feet tall, looking up at the world from the lowest possible vantage point. He doesn’t feel much like a man; he feels thirteen, through and through. “You might want to stop associating with those boys.”

Those boys, she says, like they’re just people Ryu will drop like they’re nothing. Hayato’s hand has become a familiar weight upon his shoulder, and Take’s gentle smile has become a common courtyard greeting. Ryu’s homeroom teacher looks at Ryu with disdain when he walks into class five minutes late, taking too long to say his goodbyes to his friends in the morning. Ryu is pretty sure Hayato barely bothers with class. Hayato doesn’t bother with much.

But he bothers with Ryu, seeking him out during lunch and after school, dragging Ryu to cafes and arcades. Ryu feels… well, for the first time in his life, he feels wanted, and special, and like he matters to someone. “Ryu,” Hayato says, in a voice that cracks. “Ryu, hurry up!” and he waits. He waits for Ryu, or tugs on Ryu’s arm if Ryu is walking too slow, and he smiles at Ryu.

Hayato is his friend. Friend. Ryu doesn’t even have to say the word to taste it. It tastes like sugar and chocolate.

“No,” Ryu says, and then her hand stills. Just for a moment, but it’s a pregnant enough pause that Ryu notices. Then she sighs, and takes to the cake mix again. “I don’t want to.”

“You must consider your future, Ryu.” She rests the spoon against the side of the bowl and retrieves a pan. She slowly greases the bottom, methodical as always. It’s the same way she prepares her tea, and surveys the newspaper. Everything Ryu’s mother does is steady and predicable, like the ocean tides receding in the mid-morning. “And your father’s reputation.”

“I know,” Ryu says, but he can’t even fathom, anymore, a future without Hayato. Hayato is prickly and short-tempered and violent, and his speech is loud and rude. He’s gruff and reckless and melodramatic, too. But, he’s also Ryu’s. He’s Ryu’s friend, and Ryu is his friend, too. Hayato is important.

Hayato is worth every disgusted curl of his father’s lip at another lackluster test performance. Hayato is worth the hunch of his mother’s back right now as she contemplates his refusal.

“Don’t let your performance suffer any more than it already has, then. You’ve got to think about high school entrance exams,” his mother says, and Ryu nods. She can’t see him, but it’s enough. Ryu’s silence has always been enough, here.

Suddenly, it’s hard for Ryu to breathe. Something about this house, this kitchen, this moment, feels stifling. He needs to escape.

Ryu goes up to his room and rips off his tie, throwing it onto the floor, and collapses face first onto his bed.

His whole life, so far, he’s followed all the rules, under the watchful eye of his father, when he’s not too busy with his job to be at home. “You’re not a stickler for the rules, are you?” Hayato had asked, and Ryu’s stomach is churning. He’s not sure why this feels so scary.

He falls asleep in his uniform. His father isn’t home to chastise him in the morning for it though, and Ryu is twenty minutes late for class.

He doesn’t wear his tie because, he realizes, he hates the way it feels like a chain around his neck.

“No tie?” Hayato asks, warm eyes lingering on Ryu’s undone top button on his shirt.

“I hate ties,” Ryu says, and Hayato laughs, and Ryu feels warm, even though it’s autumn.

“Me too,” Hayato says, and Ryu undoes another button, just because he feels like it.

Part Two

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December 2012

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