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Unburdening

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

I stared down at my phone, finger hovering over the send button.

Yuki, can you come to my room when you get back? I want to talk to you about something.

Ugh. I didn't want to send an intentionally vague message, but I didn't have the guts to be more specific in a text. It was only four in the afternoon, which meant Yuki was still off-campus and visiting his rumored girlfriend or boyfriend - a thought which still made my chest tighten and my stomach cramp. They might be in the middle of stuff right now--

Stop it. Thinking about stuff like that won't help you get over it.

I sighed. Honestly, no matter how I personally felt about what he was up to, I didn't want to cause Yuki any worry while he was having fun. Maybe I needed to add more to the message so he wouldn't get anxious about how vague it was?

Yuki, can you come to my room when you get back? I want to talk to you about why I've been acting kind of weird recently.

Was that too specific? I wasn't sure. Still, I poked the send button before I could chicken out yet again, remembering how disappointed Professor Ito and Suzubishi-san had been when I'd told them that I still hadn't spoken to Yuki.

Tomo-kun, Suzubishi-san had said, if you don't face your problems, that worry will fester and your relationship will be damaged even further. Please don't put it off any longer.

My stomach flip-flopped as I looked down at the words on my screen, black characters stark against the light background. It was too late to take it back. My heart skipped a beat as a reply popped up. Okay, Tomo! I'm on the bus back now, so I'll see you soon!

My back stiffened. "Oh my god, he's already on the way?!" If my heart had been pounding before, it was absolutely racing now. I wouldn't have any time to get my thoughts in order. I looked around frantically as if the answer to all my troubles was hiding in a pile of clothes. My brain was as much of a mess as my room. My first instinct when I wanted to clear my head was to go running, but that wasn't an option with Yuki already on his way back to the school. Still, I wasn't the type to sit still and think; I needed to be doing something physical or I'd end up thinking myself into a dark corner.

"Okay, Tomo, time to get a grip!" I declared, forcing myself up and out of the bed. If I couldn't run, I'd do the next best thing: clean up. Like sprinting, cleaning offered me a measure of control, only over my environment instead of myself. No one would point to cleaning up and declare it a waste of time and effort, not even my adoptive parents, who had scorned my running achievements. To them, neatness was more valuable than physical effort. They'd praised me for keeping my reference books organized, making sure that my code was clean and easy to read, and for maintaining a tidy room. It wasn't really my nature to keep things nice and neat, but back then I would have done anything to win a bit of genuine praise from them, telling myself that those moments of approval were the same as affection.

You're pretty messed up, Tomo. I sighed. Maybe you should seriously consider therapy like Suzubishi-san suggested...

Anyway, whether cleaning was pathological or not, the fact was that my room had gotten messy again. Clothes were scattered about, a shirt draped over the desk chair, several ties under the study table, a jacket in a dusty corner. My desk was covered with a mess of folders I'd brought back from the director's office, papers leaking out their open sides and attempting to join the others that littered the desk's surface. And my schoolwork was all over the place, notebooks on the floor, textbooks piled on the edge of a shelf, office supplies spilling out of a paper bag that had half fallen over.

I started with gathering up all of the discarded clothes, tossing them into the laundry basket from a distance as if playing basketball. The image brought a faint smile to my lips as I remembered the day Yuki invited me to the park, insisting on a game of one-on-one, so confident in his skills as a former member of the basketball club. After that, we'd visited his dad's bakery, and his parents had greeted me like a long-lost son, lavishing us with tons of sandwiches, pastries, and cake.

My chest tightened. That's what I'd thrown away, choosing festering jealousy over the closeness of family. Wasn't that exactly what children did, ignore a toy or a treat until someone else got to it first, and then stomped their feet, crying about how they wanted it too? Someone else had captured Yuki's heart, and I was trying to punish him through avoidance.

I remembered all the times I'd refused his invitations to go out after school, always falling back on the excuse that I was busy with my work. It wasn't a complete lie, but I could have made time for him if I'd wanted to. Instead, I pushed him away, as if sitting by myself in my room and being mad at him would change anything. The only reaction my pettiness ever got out of Yuki was sad resignation, though his disappointment was soon replaced by a smile.

Okay, Tomo, maybe next time. I'm really proud of you for taking your work so seriously, you know.

Yuki probably wouldn't have been proud if he'd seen the disaster my room had become. I scrambled to clear off the desk chair so he'd have somewhere to sit when he arrived, stuffing folders into drawers and tossing books onto the bookcase.

The cleaning went faster than I expected, and once I got the mess on the tea table out of the way, the room wasn't half bad. Sure, the bed was unmade and I hadn't washed the sheets in weeks, but aside from that and the mountain of dirty laundry, there wasn't much else in the room. It was kind of sad, actually. Everything I owned in the entire world fit into one little dorm room with plenty of space to spare. When all my clothes were clean, they still didn't fill the closet or small dresser. The surface of my desk was covered with nothing but schoolwork and papers from the director's office. The books that half-filled the little bookcase didn't belong to me, not a single one - even the comics were ones I'd borrowed from Yuki.

In fact, the only items in the room that hinted at a specific student's identity were my running shoes and a small framed picture on the nightstand. I walked over, picking it up to stare at the familiar photo, the last one ever taken of me and Brother together. He was smiling brightly despite sitting in a hospital bed, and no matter how many times I looked at his face or how carefully I studied his expression, that smile seemed sincere.

How could you keep smiling like that, even to the bitter end? I bit my lower lip. How can I learn to be brave like you? I can't even face my best friend, someone who would never reject me, without wanting to run away...

A knock on the door made me jump, back stiffening. I nearly dropped the picture frame, catching it just before it slipped from my fingers. Yuki. My hands shook as I lowered the precious photo to its usual place on the nightstand, fingers lingering for a moment over Brother's image. Help me.

Another knock, accompanied by Yuki's muffled voice. "Tomooo, are you in there?"

"I'm coming!" I called out, crossing the recently cleared floor. I hesitated for a moment before unlocking the door. As expected, Yuki was smiling when I opened the door, the heavy coat wrapped around his slim frame making it clear that he'd come directly to my room. I forced down the surge of excitement that welled up at the sight of his happy expression and stepped back to let him in. "Yuki, you could have dropped off your stuff, your room's just next door."

"But it's important, right?" He stepped inside, dropping his bag on the floor, and wiggled out of his coat. "I didn't want to keep you waiting for even a second!"

Of course he didn't. Yuki was considerate like that, too considerate, to the point that it put everyone else to shame. So polite, in fact, that he simply stood there, waiting to be invited to take a seat somewhere.

I didn't expect that to sting, but my shoulders slumped as I realized the hidden meaning behind his lack of action; he was hesitant, unsure of where the boundaries lay, because I'd pushed him away so many times. My best friend no longer felt like he could march into my room and take a seat wherever he pleased. My face was flushed with the shame of it as I motioned toward the inside of the room. "Um, well, why don't we sit down? It's awkward to talk about stuff while standing, right?"

He nodded. "Yeah!" Still, I knew Yuki well enough to detect the worry that lurked behind his bright, almost forced, smile. Was he as nervous as I was? I tried not to let my anxiety show as I settled down on the edge of the bed. A moment later, a second weight made the bedframe creak, and I leapt up from the bed as if it was on fire.

"Tomo?" Yuki looked up at me, head tilted and frowning slightly.

"Ah, no, I mean..." I stretched out one arm to grab the desk chair and pull it closer. "Could you sit in the chair instead? It's kind of embarrassing if you sit on the bed, I haven't washed the sheets in forever. And this is a serious talk, so I feel like we should be facing each other directly, you know?"

I didn't really want to look directly at Yuki, knowing that soon there'd be disappointment and horror etched on his face, but I owed him at least that much. And there was no way I could keep my brain straight with him sitting next to me on the bed, so close that his knee brushed mine.

Yuki smiled again, unable to hide the way his hands twisted in his lap. "O, oh... you're right. I didn't think of that." He got up from the bed and sat on the chair, fidgeting uncomfortably. "Sorry, I'm kind of nervous or something. This is really important, right?"

"Yeah, that's right," I mumbled, unable to meet his eyes as I sank back onto the bed. Suddenly I regretted throwing myself into cleaning up my room instead of working out what I wanted to say. Yuki never cared about the mess, only making amused comments about how much the pile of laundry had grown since his last visit. I knew the flow of conversation would change depending on how Yuki reacted, but I really wished I'd taken the time to figure out how to explain my crappy behavior without making him feel like it was his fault.

Maybe it's better that I didn't... I mean, I've been overthinking it for months, running through all sorts of scenarios in my head. Shouldn't I let it happen naturally?

"Tomo," Yuki began, unable to handle more than a few moments of tense silence, "what's wrong? Is something about work bothering you, or is it Suzubishi-san again? You can tell me anything."

"Yuki..."

Was it true? Could I really tell him anything? Yuki's history of kindness and understanding made it seem true, but how would he react once I confessed everything? Any normal person would be disgusted. Logic said it must be so.

The problem was, Yuki defied all logic. We were still close, still best friends, despite the way I'd been avoiding him and keeping secrets. He'd quietly accepted the distance I'd placed between us, content with my excuses of being busy with work, school, track, and my weekend visits. Well, content wasn't really the right word; I could tell that Yuki knew there was more to my behavior, and he was holding back his natural curiosity. He'd made a conscious decision not to push me, which was kind of unusual for him, but maybe he'd sensed that pushing wouldn't help.

"Sorry, Yuki, I know I've been acting weird lately." I met his eyes for a moment, nervously checking for a reaction before lowering my gaze again. "I want you to know, it's not you. I'm the one standing in the way of things getting back to normal. I'm the one who's pushing you away, not because of anything you did. It's just..."

His eyes were on me. I could feel the weight of his gaze, but I couldn't meet his eyes. I didn't want to see the hurt that would blossom on his face once he heard the truth.

"It's just..." I repeated, staring down at my clenched fists. "It's hard to say..."

I closed my eyes, gathering up the scraps of my courage. There was no way around it; I had to do this, or there was no hope of salvaging our relationship. I knew the animal part of my brain was wrong, and its warning that Yuki would reject me, pushing me away in disgust once I confessed my feelings for him was just my own anxiety talking. I knew Yuki would accept me again, grateful that I'd found the courage to reach out and repair our relationship. His friendship wouldn't be withdrawn.

But what if his trust was?

Then that's the price I have to pay.

"Tomo? What's wrong?" Yuki's tone was heavy with worry.

I raised my head, letting the words that had been churning around in my heart for months escape. "Yuki, the reason everything's been weird recently is because I'm in love with you."

Silence. Yuki stared at me, mouth slightly open, eyes blinking rapidly. And then they widened, eyebrows disappearing into his bangs. He finally found his voice, but his response was an incoherent noise, something like: "Whaaaaaaaaa?!?"

I blinked too. And then I snorted, pressing one hand to my mouth to stifle a laugh. Yuki frowned, and I knew he was about to ask me if it was all a joke, so I swallowed back my amusement and held up my hands, shaking my head. "No, this isn't some sort of joke. I just... you really didn't suspect at all? You, who always know everyone else's feelings before they do?"

"B, but... I never would have guessed that! You never said anything..." Yuki's eyes were still round.

"Of course I didn't, I didn't want you to know." My smile wavered, but it didn't fade completely. I forced myself to keep going, to tell Yuki everything while my courage was still buoyed by the surprise of his reaction. "I knew it would mess things up between us, but it ruined everything even without you knowing. I thought hiding it was the only way to keep things normal, but the more I tried to squash it, the worse it got. It's like those feelings took control of me..."

"Tomo... how long have you been hiding this?"

A dozen possible answers flashed across my mind: the truth, a deflection, an outright lie, but what won out was curiosity. "Wait, you're not bothered by this at all, Yuki? You aren't grossed out or whatever? We're supposed to be brothers. I shouldn't feel that way about my brother."

Yuki's smile grew tense, and he looked down at his clasped hands. "W, well... I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel a little weird. I mean, now that I think about it, everything makes a lot more sense. But!" He forced himself to meet my eyes again. "It's not gross to like someone!"

He didn't get it. Of course he didn't, I hadn't confessed the worst of my sins. Suddenly I couldn't look at his face anymore, and I pushed myself up off the bed, holding my head in my hands. "Yes, it is! You really don't get it, do you? I'm gross, I'm a freak!"

"Shut up, Tomo!" The chair squeaked as Yuki jumped up, but I wasn't expecting him to thud into my back, knocking the air from my lungs. His arms wrapped around my chest, hugging me close with a strength that seemed impossible for someone so slight. "I'm not letting you run away again! And I'm not letting you say horrible things about yourself, either!"

I tried to shake him off, but my attempt was only halfhearted, the warmth of his body against my back strangely calming and exciting at the same time. "Yuki, don't... don't touch me, you can't trust me. You remember what happened the last time you hugged me, right? That wasn't an accident."

Yuki's arms squeezed my shoulders. "I know."

My spine stiffened. "Wait, how do you know that? You were so surprised a minute ago, when I said I was in love with you, so how do you know I... I groped you?"

Yuki's voice was right at my ear, setting my face on fire. "Well, yeah, but I said everything makes sense now, right? I meant everything. I was really confused about that, and I thought I was overreacting when I pushed you away, but now I get it..."

"If you get it, then why are you touching me now?" I squirmed in his grasp. Since when was Yuki so strong? "Come on, let go! I'm weak and pathetic, you don't know what I'll do to you."

"That's not true, Tomo, and you know it! You made one mistake, and that's because you were in a bad place. It was Nao-nii's birthday and he wasn't there, of course you slipped." His voice dropped lower, guilty. "It was my fault too for not realizing how much you were hurting."

I shivered. "Don't blame yourself for my weakness, Yuki."

"Anyway, we're brothers, aren't we? Brothers can talk about anything, nothing is off limits or gross or whatever. So please come back and be my brother again." Yuki's arms finally loosened, leaving me feeling chilled as his warmth was withdrawn.

I turned to face him, heart pounding wildly. Was this a joke? No one was that forgiving. But no, Yuki was watching me with a serious expression, eyes slightly narrowed as if daring me to complain. Well, I dared. "You suck, Yuki. Why the hell are you so forgiving? Someone's going to take advantage of you one day, worse than me." My vision blurred, and I reached up reflexively to brush the gathering tears from my eyes. "Seriously, you're gonna get hurt. I already hurt you way too much, Yuki, I'm so sorry, I don't know why I can't be a better person..."

Why was I crying? I rubbed my eyes, trying to hide it, but of course it was way too late. Yuki's hands were on me again, grasping my shoulders firmly as he steered me toward the bed, pushing gently to indicate that it was safe to sit down. I covered my face with my hands, not wanting him to see how shameful I was, crying in a pathetic attempt to keep him from rejecting me.

I'm not trying to manipulate you. A traitorous sniffle escaped my nose. I really am sorry, I was wrong, I don't want to lose you, please don't throw me away, I need you, I want things to be normal again. Jumbled words and scraps of prayers rushed through my mind, too tangled up to find their way to my voice. All I could do was gasp quietly for air as I desperately tried to keep sniffles from turning into full-blown sobs.

The bedframe squeaked as Yuki sat down beside me, and my heart lurched as his arms wrapped around me again, hands patting my back gently. "Tomo, I'm sorry too, I knew you were hurting and I let you push me away instead of trying to help you. I told myself it was okay, that you were feeling better and it would be bad to keep meddling, but... I was selfish. I was mad because you pushed me away when I tried to tell you about my special person. I didn't understand why you did that, I just got annoyed without thinking. And then I was mad that you were distant again, and I told myself you were busy, or that you needed time to work out your family stuff. I made excuses."

Yuki sniffled too, letting me go to wipe at his eyes with the backs of his hands. Our eyes met, and a shock of desire danced down my spine at the sight of Yuki's tearstained face, the way his lips wobbled as he watched me with watery eyes. I turned my face away, and Yuki made a little sound of disappointment, leaning closer. "Tomo, please, don't--"

I stood abruptly, holding my hands out in front of me to keep him from jumping up and hugging me again. "Yuki, that's not it, I'm not pushing you away, but you've got to stop touching me right now. Seeing you all upset on my behalf, and knowing that you don't hate me, it's giving the stupid part of my brain the wrong ideas. If things keep going like this, I'm afraid I'll end up kissing you, and I don't ever want to do something like that to you again."

I expected Yuki to look disappointed or worried, but instead he scowled at me and stood. "Cut it out, Tomo, don't talk about yourself like you're so weak. I keep telling you, you're not. You messed up once, and that's because you were trying to handle everything by yourself again. Well, I know now, so I can help you. Don't you feel better now that it's not a deep dark secret anymore?"

I wanted to protest that it wasn't so easy, but Yuki was right; facing my feelings instead of burying them had loosened their grip on my heart. "Yeah. You're right, I feel like I can breathe again. Because you didn't tell me to go to hell or whatever..."

"I would never do that, Tomo."

"Yeah, because you're a weirdo." I sighed, pressing one hand to my forehead. I was definitely going to have a massive headache later. "Anyone else would be creeped out by this."

"It's because I know you want to change, Tomo. Anyone would want to help their best friend if they were struggling with something so hard. And you weren't trying to hurt me, you were trying to protect me by holding everything in." Yuki took a half-step forward, smiling tentatively. "So, Tomo, can you promise to let me help you when you're hurting? And I promise I won't be selfish and ignore you when I know you need help. Okay?"

It was amazing how easily Yuki could say something like that, tacking 'okay?' onto the end as if it was a simple request, like 'let's share cookies' or whatever. But it didn't feel dismissive or like he was making light of the situation. He'd honestly analyzed it and come to a simple conclusion: honesty was the only way to improve our relationship. Hell, it wasn't just us, it was every relationship. That's why Yuki was a natural leader, unconsciously making the best decisions, and I had to work at it, consciously choosing the right path.

I nodded, but I couldn't meet his eyes, embarrassed by how they shone with such sincerity. "Okay. I promise to try, but you've gotta tell me when I'm being stubborn. Talking openly about my problems doesn't come naturally to me."

"Hehe, is that permission to meddle whenever I want?"

A smile tugged at the corners of my lips. "As if you ever wait for permission."

He pouted. "But you do, Tomo, so... I give you permission to hug me. I don't want us to be the kind of brothers who can't hug. After all, Nao-nii was always hugging you, right?"

"Well, yeah, Brother was always pretty touchy-feely." I'd never asked him about it, preferring to simply wiggle out of his grasp and return to playing. But after spending time with him in the hospital, where he'd always been clinging to my hand, I'd developed a theory. His body must have been an uncomfortable place, always tired and aching, unable to keep up with the simplest of tasks. The comfort of an affectionate touch was probably one of the only pleasant physical sensations he'd been able to experience.

"Tomo? Are you okay?" Yuki's hand touched my arm.

I swallowed back the sudden lump in my throat. "I was just thinking, I wish I'd been a lot more tolerant of Brother's hugs... I didn't think about what they meant to him."

"It's okay, Tomo, I'm sure Nao-nii understood. And I know it's not the same, but I'm here."

"Yuki..." My resolve crumbled at the sight of his gentle smile, and I threw my arms around him, burying my face in his shoulder. "Yuki, I'm sorry I was so stupid. I'm sorry..."

Yuki returned the hug with all his strength. "It's okay, Tomo. I understand wanting to be strong and to do things by myself. But it's always easier with help. I'll always help you. I'm always on your side. That's what brothers do."

I nodded against his shoulder, and for the first time in ages, I felt relief instead of terror at the thought of being close to Yuki. "I'm gonna be stronger. I'm not going to let these feelings get in the way of our relationship. It's like they're already fading because I'm not hiding it anymore."

"See? So don't forget it ever again. I'm here for you."

We were both smiling when I pulled away from Yuki's embrace, though I couldn't help feeling a bit relieved to break contact. I guess it's not realistic to expect this to disappear instantly. Even so, being able to touch Yuki without messing up was a real confidence booster. I wasn't permanently broken. I just had to be careful and keep making the right choices.

And the next right choice was catching up with Yuki. "Hey, Yuki? Um, this is kinda hard to ask, but do you think you could tell me about what's been going on with you recently? There's a lot of rumors about you dating someone and stuff like that..."

He looked surprised for a moment, then his wide-eyed expression of shock turned to a bright smile. "Yeah, of course! I've been dying to tell you! And you have to tell me what's going on with the Suzubishi stuff, okay?"

I nodded. "It's a deal."

~~~

Yuki ended up hanging out in my room until three in the morning, only heading back to his room for roll call and to retrieve some snacks once it became clear that we were going to be talking for a long time. I'd finally made him go back to his own room once he started nodding off in the middle of a sentence, and promised that we could continue tomorrow. Well, later today, I guess.

But I couldn't fall asleep after getting changed and settling into bed, despite being so tired even my eyelashes ached. My mind couldn't quiet down, working hard to process all the information that Yuki had shared with me. No, that wasn't it. I couldn't stop thinking about his boyfriend, not just the fact that there was a boyfriend, but that Yuki wouldn't tell me who it was. Someone older, he'd said, then looked horrified when I asked if it was Sagimori-sempai, who seemed like the obvious guess.

Um, older than that. Please don't ask who. I promised not to tell.

Weren't those the kinds of things people said when there was something shady going on?

You don't have to worry, Tomo. There's nothing weird going on.

I rolled over onto my side, curling in on myself as I thought about it. Yuki seemed happy, so happy that my jealousy flared up if I thought about it too much. He hadn't changed at all, still cheerful and optimistic, never depressed or sullen. And he'd explained the specifics of his relationship in a bit too much detail, including how no one was 'the girl' and that he was the primary offender when it came to being pushy about sex.

"Ugh," I grumbled, pulling the blanket up over my head. "Too much information, Yuki."

It was just like Yuki to share too much about himself, so maybe that was another sign that nothing was wrong and I was worrying for no reason. I mean, if the guy's a university student, that's only a few years apart. It's not super weird for couples to have an age difference of five years or so, the couple that adopted me was like that too.

The other half of my brain reminded me that most couples didn't get together when one was a first year high school student, though. And then I countered myself again, mentally pointing out that Yuki's luck wouldn't allow someone to take advantage of him. But he couldn't trust me, his best friend and brother, with this guy's identity...

Honestly, the more I thought about Yuki's secret boyfriend, the more confusing it got. Yuki was fine, so it wasn't bad. But it was a secret, so it wasn't good either.

But wait, wasn't it the same with Suzubishi-san and Professor Ito? The kinda big age difference, and how they'd first gotten together when the professor was still a first year student. I chewed on my lip. Actually, the whole situation was really similar, wasn't it? For the briefest moment, I considered asking them for advice, then squashed that idea immediately.

No. Yuki trusted me with this information. I can't betray him. I won't.

What I would do, however, was keep an eye on him.

~~~

I couldn't sleep, which was weird, because I'd almost fallen asleep on Tomo's shoulder a few times before he suggested giving up and going to bed. Now that I was back in my own room, I couldn't stop thinking about everything Tomo had told me.

I knew he'd been through a lot before coming to the school - the bad adoption, the hacking scandal, losing Nao-nii - and of course I knew about the board's blackmail, but I hadn't realized there was more. Trying to become part of a family again after being hurt so badly by the failed adoption, the callous way Suzubishi-san had treated him when they first met, the awkwardness of intruding on an established couple... so many things had happened, and I hadn't been there to support Tomo through them.

And on top of all that, there was the pressure of knowing that Suzubishi-san was hoping to make Tomo his heir. They'd finally started talking about it, but I still couldn't imagine having to make such an important decision, especially after getting off to a bad start.

Tomo's not done sorting out his past, and now he has to think about his future too. It's too much... I reached out to touch the wall that separated our rooms. Tomo was there on the other side, but it felt like he was an eternity away. Tears stung my eyes. I wasn't there for you when you needed me. Tomo, I'm not going to leave you alone again.

I probably wasn't enough for Tomo. All I could do was support him, push him to make the changes he wanted and listen when he needed to let it all out. I couldn't really understand everything he'd been through; after all, nothing bad ever happened to me.

He'd mentioned the possibility of getting professional help. I sighed, biting my lip. Honestly, it scared me a little that Tomo was considering therapy, not because it was a bad idea, but because Suzubishi-san had been the one to suggest it. He'd grown up with the support of his family and always knew he'd become the head of a massive corporation, right? If someone like him felt like he needed help, then wouldn't that sort of life be extra hard for a normal guy like Tomo?

I'm going to watch over you from now on, Tomo. I promise.

~ end ~