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January 12, 2017

I shouldered open the door of the staff dorm, waving the apologizing security officer away. "It's fine, I don't need help." I brushed past with a curt nod of acknowledgment, making my way to the small apartment at the far end of the dorm, passing by my own studio along the way. The last apartment was the largest, reserved for the most important member of staff.

Suzubishi Nao
BL School Director

I set my briefcase on the floor, freeing one hand to dig in my pocket for his keycard. The reader let out a soft electronic beep, door clicking open at a light touch.

"I'm back," I murmured, pushing my way inside. The entryway was dimly lit by the light from the adjoining living room, which was nothing more than dusty storage for Nao's collection of books.

I stifled a sneeze. I should arrange for a cleaning service. The dust is getting out of hand. It was rare for either of us to use the dorm entrance, preferring the door that connected directly to the outside both for privacy and because it was a shorter distance from there to the school building. But the weather was too cold and windy, and I didn't want to risk even the smallest bit of chill getting into the apartment. Everything in Nao's life was like that, carefully planned to maximize convenience, minimize effort, and eliminate risk.

I made my way to the kitchen, pausing to drop my briefcase off near the office door, and switched on the electric kettle before unpacking the contents of the takeout bag. It held two nearly identical lacquered bento boxes, one with a sakura motif and the other with a peony. A quick peek confirmed that the sakura was mine, the standard Japanese set, and the peony was a custom lunch of Nao's favorites. I set them on a large tray and set about preparing the tea. The ceramic teapot clinked and rattled as I set it down, and I heard the creak of a bed in the distance.

"Sojiro-san, is that you?" Nao's voice drifted from the bedroom, thin and tired.

Like Nao himself. I pushed that thought from my mind and called out, "Yeah, it's me. I have lunch, I'll bring it in as soon as the tea's ready."

As I waited for the water, my eyes fell upon the tall vase of irises at the center of the small dining table. I'd brought them to Nao for the new year. They weren't traditional new year flowers, but ever since our first year of working together, when I'd randomly chosen them as a birthday gift, I always brought Nao beautiful purple-blue irises for special occasions.

Now that nearly two weeks had passed, the blooms were starting to fade, the edges of the purple-blue petals brown and curling under as the stems drooped. It was time for them to go. I reached for the vase and pulled it close, scrunching my nose as the sudden motion sent foul-smelling water sloshing around, and grabbed the dying bouquet.

And stopped. And stared at the way my fingers curled around the stems of the innocent flowers, cut from the earth before their time, briefly set on display for the pleasure of their purchaser. Now that they had dared to fade, they were doomed to be discarded as trash, forgotten in an instant.

I released the flowers, reaching out to brush trembling fingers along the silky petals. I'd only recently learned the meaning of irises from the florist, who was shocked that I'd been gifting bouquets on a regular basis without understanding their symbolism.

Faith and hope, good news... so what does it mean when the flowers fade? Faith and hope are dead?

I turned my back, ignoring the chill that stiffened my spine, and brewed the tea. A few minutes later, I carried the tray into the bedroom, taking care not to spill anything as I set it down on the bedside table. "Nao, it's not good to be in the dark all day," I fussed, pushing aside the curtains and opening the blinds to let in the weak winter sunlight.

"Yeah," he murmured, rubbing at his eyes with the back of one hand. "But I was asleep until just now... is it really time for lunch already?"

"Yes. And don't even think of telling me you're not hungry." My eyes swept over his slight form, and I tried not to frown. The ridiculous oversized nightgown hid the ridges of his ribs and the worrying thinness of his arms, but the loose neckline revealed protruding collarbones. He'd always had a pointed disinterest in food that was incomprehensible to me, a self-styled gourmet, but this went well beyond a lack of appetite.

You're not getting better. I forced down that thought as soon as it surfaced.

As if sensing my gaze, Nao let his hand drop from his face to his chest, rubbing over the patch of pale skin. "Well, I didn't have breakfast, so I'm pretty hungry..." He leaned over to pluck his glasses from the nightstand, ducking his head as he slid them into place. "Ah, a bento again?"

"Not just any bento. I had Sonoda make you a custom one with all your favorites." I sat on the edge of the mattress and busied myself with pouring the tea. "Did you take your morning meds before going back to sleep?"

"Of course, Dr. Sakaki."

I sighed. "Don't be a brat, Nao."

He let out a quiet laugh. "Sorry, you know it's my nature to be annoying."

"Yeah, and I also know you have a fundamentally bad nature. How on earth anyone thought it was a good idea to put you in charge of a school is beyond me." I offered him a teacup. "Here, I made sure it wasn't too hot this time."

"Sojiro-san..." All the playfulness was gone from Nao's voice, his expression serious as he glanced at me, then lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry... you having to come back here and take care of me like this."

I snorted. "Don't worry. If I didn't enjoy being overworked, I never would have become a teacher."

His thin shoulders slumped. "I'm being serious. It's not your job to take care of me--"

"Nao," I interrupted, putting aside the teacup and taking his hand. It was cold. "I don't think of this as a job or some sort of duty. It's only natural to take care of..." I caught myself before a confession of love could slip out. "Of someone who's important to you when they're not feeling well. You'd do the same for me."

He gave a small nod, eyes averted, but I knew he wasn't convinced. Or maybe he was annoyed by my obvious slip, one in a series of near-admissions that I'd found hard to control recently. As Nao's health declined, so did my ability to hold back my emotions. Every little mistake aggravated his already precarious mental state, the stirring of my unwanted affection threatening to take down the entire house of cards.

I should have left long ago, back when you first denied my feelings. But I couldn't. I squeezed his hand. Because I knew you were lying to yourself as well as me.

Nao's hand trembled inside mine. "But it's your birthday. I didn't get you anything, or plan anything. Even if I'd made a reservation, it's not like we could go out anyway."

"Is that what's bothering you?" I brushed the fingers of my free hand through his hair, letting them slip down and trace the line of his jaw before falling away. That light touch was enough to make a blush blossom on his pale cheek. "It's fine, Nao, we can go when you're feeling better."

His eyes fixed on my face for a moment, the truth I'd felt before echoed in his gaze. I'm not getting better this time. Then he smiled. "Yeah, that's true. Let's do that, then. And happy birthday, Professor. Try to remember that it's your twenty-seventh and not your eighty-seventh, just for me, okay?"

I forced a smile. "You say that, but why don't you try acting twenty instead of fifteen for once?"

I was expecting a snappy reply, but Nao remained quiet, looking down at his hands. The unusual reaction tied my stomach in knots; it wasn't like him to be hesitant. "What is it?"

"Do you really have to go back to work after this? Can't someone cover your afternoon classes?" There was a plaintive, needy note in his voice, so honest it stung my heart.

Thoughts flashed through my mind without my input: none of the other teachers are qualified to cover my classes, the curriculum I've planned is so tight I can't afford to skip a single day, I have three tutoring sessions lined up this afternoon. But none of that mattered.

I can't afford to skip a single day with you, knowing they're coming to an end.

I choked back the lump in my throat and nodded. "I'll call Nakamura. But first, let's eat."

"Okay," he murmured, reaching out to rest one hand on my thigh. "Let's eat."

~ end ~