"You really worked hard today. Let's keep working on the stag handstand tomorrow!" Mizusawa smiled and waved, a nervous flutter of his hand, before heading home.
Kiyama stood in front of the clubhouse, waving back and hating himself for the way his stomach clenched. Evening was settling gently in, and it wasn't long before Mizusawa disappeared into the twilight. Kiyama let out a slow breath.
"Hey, Kiyama," Ryosuke said, "You going home?" As Kiyama nodded, Ryosuke asked, "Are you all right? I mean, that guy..."
Kiyama shrugged. "It's fine." He checked his bag to make sure he had his practice shirt to bring home and wash. "See you tomorrow."
Ryosuke caught him on the shoulder as he stepped away. "Hey." Jerking his chin to indicate Mizusawa, he said, "Is that really all right?"
"I said it was, didn't I?" Kiyama growled. "Besides, so did you. And everybody else, so just drop it." He kept walking, not hurrying -- no need to let Ryosuke think he was riling him up -- but determined.
In middle school Kiyama had been popular with the girls, to Takashi's perpetual amusement. Kiyama had handled it with as much grace as he could, while gently letting them all down. He knew, then as now, that he was considered good-looking, that there were girls who would always want the dangerous boys.
As long as they weren't too dangerous.
The bracelet Takashi had been wearing the day he died: that had been given to him by a girl, but Takashi swore she'd only given it to him because she knew that Kiyama wouldn't take it.
"You want it? What, are you trying to be my girlfriend?" Takashi had laughed. And Kiyama had laughed too. He could no longer remember why he wanted the bracelet, just that it had caught his eye. He and Takashi shared everything else, so why not?
There hadn't been anyone gay in their social circles. Not that he knew of. Takashi suggesting, however flippantly, that Kiyama might want to date him had the same effect as girls suggesting that Kiyama might want to date them: bemusement at best, but mostly just a blank space where he suspected others might have some emotion.
The confessions never seemed to touch him. He'd never accepted any. They were just things that happened to him. He'd known the score: talk fierce, talk loud, be tough, and bag a hot girl on the side. He'd been full of mouth, full of swagger, but the girl stuff left him cold.
After Takashi died the confessions stopped. And who could blame anyone? He'd killed his best friend. The girls saw that there was nothing admirable there, nothing they wanted, nothing anyone could want. They only pointed out what he himself knew: he was empty, null. He took up space where he shouldn't.
Kiyama would admit that Mizusawa's confession unnerved him a little; he might never have played the guy-girl game but he knew damn well he was supposed to. But he'd managed to sit next to the girls he rejected in class, bump into them in the hallways, without fear or shame or awkwardness. And Mizusawa, for whom this must be so much worse, was trying so hard.
"Ryosuke. Kiyama." Wataru ambled down the steps of the clubhouse, eyes narrowed. "Are you still going on about that? Let it go, Ryosuke."
"But," Ryosuke protested, as Wataru continued down the sidewalk. "That guy. He's in the bath with us. We change in front of him."
"We did that before and nothing happened. Remember?" Kiyama reminded him, falling into step with Wataru.
Ryosuke trailed behind them, sullen. "Yeah, but that was before you knew!"
"If I can manage to get undressed in front of him, I think it shouldn't be a problem for you either." Kiyama stopped short and glared. "The problem seems to be more with you than with me. Or him."
Wataru turned back and gave Ryosuke a little shove. "Why shouldn't he look at me? I'm a handsome guy with a great body!" He flexed a bicep and guffawed. "Maybe I should worry if he's not looking!"
Kiyama allowed the trace of a smile to escape.
"It's just... not natural," Ryosuke muttered.
"Neither's our hair color!" Wataru said with a grin like shark's teeth. "Just let it go," he urged again, hoisting his bag over his shoulder and taking the street that would lead him back to Kamome.
Kiyama nodded at Ryosuke and continued on his own way.
"But," came Ryosuke's voice after him. Kiyama sighed and stopped without turning around.
"He doesn't even sit near you in the bath," Kiyama observed. "I'm pretty sure out of the two of us, you have less to worry about than me. So if I'm all right, why are you worrying?"
"Are you saying I'm not cute enough for him?" Ryosuke gasped. He yanked out his phone and shoved it in Kiyama's face. "Look at all these phone numbers of girls who think I'm cute!"
A bark of laughter escaped Kiyama's mouth. "Ryosuke," he said, shaking his head. "It's fine. It'll be fine for you too. Just don't worry about it so much."
He clapped Ryosuke on the shoulder and left him repeating assertions of his own attractiveness.
Some things, Kiyama reflected as he hurried home, were better kept numb, kept hidden. Some things were better to let wither. He'd always felt he had to sacrifice what was left of his life as the payment for taking Takashi's.
But there was Takashi's mother, urging him to live, even though he wasn't sure he remembered how.
There was Wataru, who had never given up on him, a persistent flicker of warmth on the edge of Kiyama's solitary existence. There was, somehow, the team.
Kiyama felt like he was crawling out of a long tunnel, and there was light and noise ahead and he wanted it, for the first time in years. Maybe he was allowed, now, to be part of it.
He was still wracked with guilt; it was a habit, a hardened plate around his heart, self-hatred as reflex. There was still no one inside his skin that he thought particularly worth saving or engaging with. And yet Mizusawa saw something there. Kiyama almost wanted to tell him not to bother.
He wasn't sure when Mizusawa started to like him. Or why. Kiyama didn't think he'd even spoken to him until Wataru joined the team.
Kiyama wanted to shake Mizusawa, to ask what light he saw in Kiyama. To ask Mizusawa to help him see it too.
It had been a long time since Kiyama felt connected to anyone besides Takashi. He couldn't get close to Mizusawa in the way that the other boy wanted, but... maybe it was enough. He could thank Mizusawa by doing the best damn stag handstand he could. He resolved to work extra hard at practice the next day.