Bare hands tucked under his arms, Akihiko walks through the rain.
No point in running. He heard something once about the rate of water droplets as they fall measured against the relative speed of motion, the end conclusion of which being that he'd just end up as wet, if not wetter. If he could concentrate right now he could work the problem out. It feels like the memory of a physics problem, finite and definable. No point in running, he has no clear destination. He's wearing the wrong shoes for running, still in uniform complete with penny loafers and regretting that he never went back to the dorm to change. Better to walk. Better to pretend he wants to be out in the rain.
A hundred and one excuses, dancing around him and each wild blow failing to connect. Akihiko winces anyway.
His eyelashes are slick with water, ring the night-lit world with stars. The streets are never empty, full of light and light's opposite (not quite Shadows, not just yet), but they are quiet at this time. Almost midnight. The second to last train was at eleven forty, packed as full as peak hour. Akihiko will miss the last train entirely, and Akihiko never misses when he aims.
If he walks at the same pace he uses now, he'll reach the gate to Tartarus twenty minutes late. Late, because has a date. But not exactly. He set a time, Shinjiro set the place. Akihiko won't go deep, if he goes. He'll stay where the shadows are stupid. It's raining, he feels like hitting stupid things for a while.
Another round, another round of excuses. The last one connects, painfully close to a critical strike.
Akihiko picks up his pace.
Two blocks he can hold it before he starts running with the ground-eating glide that he uses for long-distance training. His power comes, not in the thrust of his heel, but in making maximum usage of forward momentum in the space between each step connecting; it feels like he takes three steps per stride, not two: tar-tar-us, left glide right, tartarus, leftglideright. Akihiko skids around a corner, nearly collides with the road-workers who do their thing late at night when they're no inconvenience to anyone, narrowly avoids falling into the waiting pit. Apologies, formal ones, given both ways with neck-jerking nods, and Aki picks up the pace again until he heats up, so wet, and feels like he's steaming. He carries his blazer across his arm. So sor ry, his heels say when they meet the pavement, I'm late, so he runs faster, sosorry, so so so so rry.
Downhill on slick pavement is worse than uphill. Akihiko nearly breaks his own fool neck. He catches himself on a railing with his left hand only, wrenches his shoulder fit to wreck his prospects of keeping the championship belt. Panting. Idiot. Akihiko breathes rain through an open mouth. He straightens himself, puts his blazer back on, pulls wet wool straight. He shakes rain from his hair. Amber streetlight catches in the arc of droplets, sparks against the pitch-black sky.
Akihiko walks through the rain. He's going to be late. This is better than nothing. He spent so long thinking that he thought he wasn't going to make it at all.
Akihiko dislikes remembering his childhood. When he does it's never in bits, always in pieces. At the age of nine, a fellow student slapped Akihiko for being a nuisance in class, for being a nuisance, for being alive to be a nuisance. It was after school and right in front of the main gates, the other boy's parents looking on. Akihiko remembers a serene mother, a stern father, who gave neither approbation or praise but likewise who made no move to stop his punishment. Akihiko wore his share of blows happily enough around the school yard, bruises of mutual engagement badges of pride that he could later sneak out to show Shinjiro, never really understanding why Shinji never bragged about his own bruises, the scabs on his knees, the occasional black-ringed eye that could never hide behind that honey-coloured fringe.
Akihiko had never been slapped before, not by a peer. Slapped, like an errant child. By a child. Who had the right to do so because he had parents standing proud at his flanks. Akihiko howled like a dog, wretched with a shame he couldn't name, with an impotence that crippled him and enlightened him both. Was this why Shinji kept quiet? Akihiko couldn't keep quiet. Futility made him howl, forever futility and forever howling to match, he thought he would never get over it. A ring of teachers surrounded him, not to comfort him but as though to screen him from the other child, segregate him. Akihiko hadn't made this much noise even when Miki had died.
It was the last outburst Akihiko ever permitted himself.
Akihiko's foster at the time was a woman called Sakamoto. Presumably she had a husband; Akihiko never saw him. Corporate hours were rigorously kept in Foster Mother's household. She never slapped him for not having parents, though she might slap him for disrespect, for less than immaculate clothing, for laziness; Foster Mother drew her boundaries with lines that never changed, as stable as the walls of her apartment, when all Akihiko had known before was chalkdust on the pavement. Akihiko learned to depend on Foster Mother's rule, never to take them for granted, to trust the rightness of boundaries. She was not his family but Akihiko was grateful to her.
When Foster Mother had time, they would go for walks together at Aki's request; he was eldest, he got to choose where they would go. On the best days none of the other children would come, which meant Shinjiro would slink out of the woodwork and tail them, the honey hair that got a little darker, a little duller every year hidden under a cap. Foster Mother would call him close by tapping the side of her thigh, or by holding out a pale green daifuku as though she was about to drop it carelessly in the trash. Shinjiro never ran, but he could sidle faster than anyone else Aki knew, and eat faster, too. He would lag a couple of steps behind, one hand trailing the nearest wall even as he licked rice flour from the fingers of the other.
Shinjiro only ate the green or white daifuku. Foster Mother only brought the pink ones once before she realised this. She never said a word to Shinjiro, nor he to she. When the three of them got to the bay, she'd sit with a book and leave them to play.
Akihiko remembers wondering why Shinji liked lived at the orphanage so much, why Shinji wouldn't go live with a foster, too. The new orphanage had asked Akihiko if he would like to go and live with Sakamoto and her invisible husband. They had scrubbed him, sheared his abnormal hair short enough it could be hidden under his cap. They dressed him in someone else's best so he looked like a proper little child, too. They even bowed him into the boss's office for the grave question to be delivered, his ears still ringing with the electronic buzz of the shears.
The thought never occurred to him that this arrangement wouldn't include Shinjiro.
By the time Akihiko was allowed to meet up with Shinji on his own, Akihiko had learned too much respect to abuse the privilege. Corporate hours were law. He would always return to the apartment in time for dinner. Shinjiro no longer lived at the orphanage, he was at a public school that kept dorms for the children of the state, set up in a room overcrowded with beds, each one holding a ghost of children past. Shinjiro always wore something red, akaneiro, even if it was just a ribbon around his wrist. Aki thought it was a defiance against that black uniform that had faded to grey. Shinji's hems were so long they'd cover his shoes, the heels were too worn. Aki kept his new uniform as neat as his hair, flush with the relative glamour of having something all his own to wear. His school was cheap, it accepted him without questioning why his surname was different to his "mother's", and gave him a room of his own. In his case, the commute was too far, dorms were all the go. Aki found it exciting.
Aki told all this to Shinji, told Shinji about all the cool clubs, the girls, the pin Aki had won to wear at his collar – for boxing, he was good at boxing.
Shinjiro told him nothing. Shinjiro nodded for accompaniment. His attention was elsewhere; he rolled up a sleeve to scratch a graze on his elbow. 'Got any mochi?'
'Probably at the house.' Akihiko had never asked this before: he said it quickly, to get it out of the way. 'Want to come back with me?'
Shinjiro shook his head. 'I like walking. Keeps everything moving.'
Shinjiro did like walking. They would walk all day if Aki didn't have to go home, or to school, to his dorm with its well-respected lockout time. Shinji had learned somewhere to restrain his habit of always touching. His fingers were still grimed by a hundred grotty city walls, but Shinji just tapped now, occasionally, instead of trailing. As though to assure himself the world was still there, as though seeing just wasn't believing. Aki was suddenly reminded of a day visit to the zoo, and the caged tiger there pacing, constantly testing the walls with its whiskers, as though it waited for the day the cage would disappear.
'Why do you do that?'
Shinjiro glanced at the wall, his fingers, shrugged. 'I get vertigo.'
Akihiko laughed, pointed at the trouser hems tattering under Shinji's heels. 'You're not that tall.'
'No,' Shinjiro said, 'no, I get it from the earth spinning.'
That was the first time that Akihiko realised that Shinjiro was a separate being. Like all firsts, this one came hard, awkwardly, and left Akihiko reeling from something he later could name as distrust.
They had been around each other for such a long time, since the beginning of thought itself. Aki had thought Shinjiro was just an extension of himself. But Shinjiro knew things that Aki didn't. Shinjiro felt things differently. Thought about things differently. He had thought Shinjiro knew everything he did. They could both see that hour that existed for no one but them: Aki thought that meant something.
Shinjiro told Aki, in all seriousness, about the way the world worked. He must have seen something on tv, half understood an educational show on the communal set at the orphanage, or later, at the school, because then Shinji told Aki that when he was younger, he used to push extra hard with his heels when he went for walks, so he could feel the world spinning backwards from his every step. Force and motion. Inertia. Contact friction. Shinji hadn't learned the words or the concepts, only invented his own explanations into the void left by avoidance of learning. People had to keep walking, Shinji explained, or the world would stop spinning. Shinjiro liked to walk. It felt like he was doing his bit to keep everything moving.
While Aki was still staring in disbelief, the wind picked up a little. Shinji's hair blew into his eyes. That was enough cause for Shinjiro to explain his theory about how trees caused the wind: by coincidence they were right near a park so Shinji could glare at the dense foliage that tossed as vigorously as his hair.
'That's stupid,' Aki said, having nothing else to say.
Shinjiro considered that carefully, glaring at nothing. 'You got a better explanation? Where do you think the wind comes from?'
'What do you mean, it's, it's the wind.' Akihiko was young then. Now he could have explained about air as a mass, heating and cooling, the way hot air moved faster than cold, displacement theories, solar radiation; Takenozuka-sensei would be proud. Back then Aki could only glare right back, directly at his target where instead Shinji looked away. Akihiko kept his fists on his hips. 'It's stupid, Shinji, trees don't cause the wind. Just because you can see the wind when there's trees around doesn't mean the trees make the wind. How do you explain it when we're right in the middle of the city? Don't you listen to anything at school?'
The red ribbon around Shinjiro's wrist came apart under fidgeting fingers, frayed to nothing but threads. Shinji tucked his hands into his pockets, hunched up his shoulders.
'Haven't been to school for the last couple of weeks.'
Distrust. Akihiko felt it flare, sparked by Shinjiro's words and now fed fuel: not only did Shinjiro think differently to Aki, he didn't value the same things. Akihiko couldn't imagine skipping school. He was suddenly ashamed he had wanted to bring Shinjiro home. Foster Mother would have nothing to say to him; Aki couldn't even bring Shinjiro to his dorm at the school, all his new school friends would laugh.
Shame, distrust, and something like pity, a fraternal protective drive: Aki was confused. This was Shinji. Aki shouldn't be feeling this sudden welter of emotion for Shinji any more than Aki should feel this way for his own left hand. Shinjiro should have been a part of him, not this strange separate thing.
A couple of years. Shinjiro's hair was dull, an abstract, accidental colour compared to the many shades of boys and girls who claimed outward individuality through their hair. Born with the white hair of an old woman, Akihiko thought wasting time on hair styles was stupid. Shinjiro's never had a style, was never worn spiky. Shinjiro's hems were always too short, his cuffs never long enough to cover bony wrists. He would have been tall enough to justify a claim of vertigo had he not developed a habit of hunching, trying to make himself look smaller than he was. Akihiko gave up trying to make him stand straight after Shinji called him an old woman for worrying.
They walked a lot now, together, later at night, something they could both do for hours and for free. They would sneak onto the shinkansen to Tokyo, walk past clubs with the strictest of door policies and joke about the day they would be let in, Aki in his corporate gear and Shinji—Shinji being Shinji. It wasn't their age that kept them out, it was their type, each club clear about what type they wanted by charging double for those that didn't belong. Everyone needed to wear their type on their sleeve in order to belong, to let it be known that they belonged. No one really liked other people in this city, as Akihiko had learned at his school with its numerous clubs. As long as he wore his badges and pins he could find people who liked the same things as he did. That was as close as Akihiko could ever get to someone else.
When irritated, anxious enough, Shinji would lead their way without thinking about it. Akihiko was glad to let him lead. Shinji knew where he was going when he stopped thinking about it. This particular night Shinjiro led them deep into a city that wasn't their own.
Akihiko looked around. He recognised the way in which they were being looked at in return, up and down, only by men and the doormen. A couple of winks, the provocation of gazes that fell heavier than Aki was used to even fighting shirtless in the ring. The strange thing was, Shinji stood up straighter under the weight of those stares, shoulders back, chin high, his native resistance turning to an arrogance that drew eyes. Akihiko was worried: he couldn't care either way where they were, but why did Shinjiro react to what those stares would make of him, something less? A reductionist gaze, those stares, that saw something that wasn't Shinjiro, but only one part of him, snarly and vulnerable all at the same time.
Under a neon glow that lit the same scene happening for the length of the street, though possibly no one was quite as young they were, Shinji pressed Akihiko up against a wall and sucked a red mark into being along the curve of Aki's shoulder. Shinji's hair smelled lank; Aki looked on from a dispassionate distance, too dizzy to stay in his own body. He could see down Shinji's collar, right to the core white shirt, where the sweatmarks told the age of the fabric like the rings of a chopped down tree.
'Please stop,' Akihiko said. He felt hot, prickling in patches.
Shinjiro stopped, flushed brilliant red through the pale of his skin. He let his forehead rest against Aki's neck, breathing him, shuddering: this, Aki could take. His hand came to rest on Shinji's shoulder. He stroked. Shinji exhaled, hard.
Awkwardly, without moving back, Shinjiro started to twist at the second button of his blazer as though to snap it off. Akihiko felt only a rising numbness, his touch turned to a claw's tight grip: he knew the story. He knew the game. Boys would give their button to the girl of their dreams and leave it missing, a sign for everyone to see that they were in love. Up to the girl if she displayed her token or kept it secret.
On Shinji, it would just look like his button had fallen off. Akihiko's cheek burned, not quite a blush because it was so one-sided: it felt like he'd been slapped. No way could he bring himself to display a button stamped with the logo of Shinjiro's public school.
'Don't do that, Shinji. I'm not going to take it.' He tried to turn the reprimand into a joke. 'You lose buttons too often to lose one on purpose.'
Shinjiro nearly snarled. 'You got a girl or something?'
Aki thought about Mitsuru, who he'd known for a couple of months now. He thought about Mitsuru, who also saw the hour that existed for no one else. Mitsuru Kirijo, who knew the name of that hour, who knew why it existed, and who had given Aki a reason for existing. Who had made Aki special, not just different. Mitsuru, whose name was always up against Akihiko's own on the honours roll, Sanada and Kirijo, two of a kind. Mitsuru, who saw little point in dating, touching, connecting except as a way to appear as normal as everyone else. Mitsuru, who liked a lot of the same things Aki did, who thought the way Aki did, or as close to it as another person could get. When they said they were going to the library to study, people snickered, and she and he let the euphemism be the useful thing it was. When they got the library, they could study without interruption. Akihiko admired focus.
The thread snapped; Shinjiro shoved Aki against the wall, flung the button at him. Akihiko blinked. The button fell onto slick pavement.
'Give that to her then,' Shinjiro was already walking away. 'Wouldn't want to wreck your own pretty clothes.'
This was something that Shinjiro could do well that Aki couldn't do at all: walk backwards. Shinji kept going, kept talking, hands in his pocket and never falling over: 'You really fucking confuse me, Aki, I'm really fucking confused right now and you really fucking confuse me, you --'
Shinjiro's voice broke: it was deep most of the time, but it broke right then and Akihiko remembered the boy's voice that had been as familiar as his own. Akihiko wondered if he'd ever known Shinji at all. He couldn't think of a single thing to say. He wanted to howl at something, but Akihiko knew the right way to behave.
Shinjiro didn't. Shinjiro swore loud enough to draw eyes, 'Fuck you! Fuck you, Sanada, fuck you, fuck you and your – just fuck!' A yell, muffled by the restraint of a tight-clenched jaw. Shinjiro hunched, collapsed into himself, a shell that was no safe home. 'What am I waiting for? What the hell am I still waiting for?'
So Akihiko told him about S.E.E.S.
Akihiko gets to the gates of Tartarus with time to spare. He goes in, quick, shakes rain from his shoulders and leaves a trail of water behind him.
He brought no gloves tonight, not his boxing gloves, not the ones he wears for Tartarus with lethal lead weights in them, not even the thin leather ones he usually wears to hide the indelicate wreck of his knuckles, the callous that bridges across bone. It matters less than the rain. He can fight bare knuckled. He wants to, tonight. It matters less than the rain, but the rain makes him anxious.
Akihiko is pensive. These meetups always make him feel this way, one reason why he doesn't come more often than not, but this time, well -- the last time he spoke to Shinji he yelled at him, couldn't hold it back, spoke down to his oldest friend, his only, as though Shinji was a stupid little child. Akihiko nearly didn't come tonight just because of the embarrassment of that; Shinji wouldn't want him to apologise, but Akihiko knows how to behave. Apologies come easier to Akihiko than atonement. Akihiko burns with a guilt that Shinjiro would never believe.
Akihiko shouldn't have told Shinji about S.E.E.S.
Shinji learned a good reason to run in S.E.E.S, no slinking, no sidling. Chasing Shadows. Chasing purpose, when Shinjiro had so little of that in his life. Akihiko's fault that even that had gone wrong for Shinji. Akihiko still can't pinpoint why he told him, was he embarrassed? Was he lonely? How many things could they have in common now, if not this one similarity? The hidden hour. This hour used to be their hour.
A flash of red up ahead has Aki focus, crack his knuckles, break into a slight jog. He's not too late after all.
Shinjiro looks – well. Aki doesn't know what Shinji does in the big gaps between when they talk, but sometimes he looks better and sometimes worse: tonight he actually looks well. A long-handled axe rests across his shoulders. Shinji poses, smiles in a lopsided way, dangling his wrists over either end of the wood. No greeting beyond that. The axe is an upgrade from the scavenged plank of wood he had last time. Aki imagines it's easy enough to get a hold of, an axe, compared to trying to find a bow, a sword, a hundred fanciful weapons.
The Shadows this low in Tartarus are stupid enough that their weapons don't really matter anyway. Akihiko can never bring himself to take Shinjiro deeper, especially not when they're sneaking in here without a backup at the gate: they would need their Persona. The first time Aki watched Shinjiro put the evoker to his temple it scared him how he felt. No one should look that rapt with a gun against their head. Akihiko always looked away after that, or let himself come loose first; he couldn't take the way it made him feel to watch Shinji go through the motions of suicide. Freedom. Even though Aki knew it wasn't really suicide, or freedom, not for either of them.
'You shouldn't be in here by yourself, you know.'
Aki wonders why the first words out of his mouth are always a reprimand. Shinji tilts his head, his neck stiff. 'You're late, Akihiko.'
'You should've waited for me.'
A familiar curl of lip, and Shinji snorts. 'Most times you never show. I never bother waiting for you any more.'
'You shouldn't be in here alone,' Aki repeats, dumbly.
'Sometimes I got to let loose.' Shinji rests the axe head next to his boot, palm tapping on the butt. 'You got any more lectures to get out of your system, or can we do what we came here to do?'
What did they come here to do? Nothing useful. Nothing important. The ineffectuality of their meetups itches at Akihiko's insides, makes him irritable. They were here to walk where no one could see them, where neon couldn't warm them with its glow, where they could hit things that weren't each other. 'We're staying on the lower levels,' Aki says. Warns.
'You're the boss.' Shinjiro won't meet his eyes. He lifts his axe to his shoulders again, lets Akihiko lead the way. Akihiko doesn't want to, he wants to lag behind so he can watch Shinjiro, but all that happens is they walk slower and slower, Shinjiro refusing to step to the fore. There's something different about Shinji, more than the vague air of health and care, the new clothes.
New clothes. The most red Shinji's ever worn at once, he must have got himself another job, managed to hold it long enough to collect a paycheck. Akihiko nearly missed the newness of it all, as the coat's already a little tattered at the edges, the heels of new boots already showing wear, but Shinjiro could probably make a suit fresh off the rack look tattered. This coat looks strong enough to last, at least, Aki watched the last one fall to bits around a lanky frame that looked like it never wanted to stop growing.
Shinji brushes a shadow from his sleeve, smiles that crooked smile again. 'Fag.'
'Look who's talking,' Aki says, before he can stop himself. Shinji's shoulders roll against the weight of the world. But he doesn't hunch.
Suddenly Akihiko sees what's different, not the coat, not the axe. Shinji's not hunching.
This is the arrogance that Shinjiro wears walking through Nichō, under the eyes of a hundred wanting men. The words bubble now, they can't stop, Aki can barely hold his voice level when he wants to sit down and howl: 'Shinjiro.'
Shinji won't look at him. Aki wants to shake the subject of his attentions, demand an answer. Society has laws for a reason and Shinji's not exempt, just because it would be harder for him it's no excuse to live like he does, no walls, no boundaries, no judgement that matters except his own. Shinjiro's free, in a way, and Akihiko envies him so hard. Akihiko wants to demand that Shinji come back to earth and live like the rest of them. Shinjiro should. Shinjiro should not. Akihiko's life is full of shoulds and should nots, apologies and atonements, and it's not fucking fair. He knows Shinji couldn't hold down a piece of paper if someone told him to, much less a job. Akihiko can't let himself think of what Shinji's done to pay for what he wants, except he does think about it, because it's what Shinjiro wants to do. Shinjiro does nothing but what he wants. Akihiko has never known a person as strong as Shinjiro.
'I worry so much when it rains.'
'Shit, Aki, you say that when you're dripping wet.' Shinjiro rolls his eyes. 'It's not like it's going to mess up your hair.'
'Dickhead. I mean for you.' Akihiko runs out of things to say so easily. He wants to tell Shinji he likes him, and that it's no one's fault that it's not in the way Shinjiro wants. Akihiko doubts that any language in the whole world has a polite way to say that. Akihiko knows a hundred ways to apologise for the nuisance of his existence, but none of them are right for this. 'Anyway, suits you, that coat. Better than the last one did.'
'Yeah, right.' Sarcastic. Shinjiro's voice shakes a little, a laugh or a sneer, Aki can't tell. He looks ahead, never at Aki, but his shoulders stay straight. 'Pity it's not waterproof.'