She loved waking up on Sunday mornings. Sunday meant no school, and that meant that she could roll on her side and listen to the rain.
Rain? Masami froze.
It was raining.
She was out of bed before she even finished that thought, and made the distance from her room to the stairs in less then the time it took to say 'Ohio'. She practically burst through the first door, and pushed the second one aside so violently that Gawl, who was lying on his stomach and playing something on the laptop, practically jumped in the air.
"Don't scare me like that again!" they said simultaneously - he, as he sorted out the mess he made of his limbs and she, as she all but collapsed to the floor.
"What did I do now?" Gawl complained. He'd managed to sit himself properly, but the computer was askew in a manner that would have made Koji cringe had he been there. "You're the one who comes bursting in here as if the house's on fire!"
"You're the one who's never up to any good!" she snapped. "What are you doing up so early? It's barely after dawn!"
"Trying to fall asleep, that's what I've been trying to do before you had to come in and interrupt! What are you doing up?"
"Making sure you didn't disappear again! Oh!" Masami put her hand over her mouth. Her cheeks were burning.
Gawl looked - she had no words to describe that expression, except that it was uniquely Gawl, and that there were precious few people whom he graced with it.
"I'm not going anywhere ever again, Masami"
"I know that". She swallowed and looked away. "But…"
The futon scraped against the floor; two bare footsteps, and suddenly Gawl was crouched next to her, his face worried.
"Don't you trust me?"
"I do" she whispered, and shook her head. "I do trust you, Gawl, but it was raining"
Nothing more needed to be said, really: It was raining the night that the boys disappeared like the wind; it never stopped raining for the three heartbroken days that the boys were gone, and Masami prayed for their safe and quick return; it was raining when she confronted Koji in class, and he snapped and ran off; it was raining when Masami knelt, terrified, by an unconscious Gawl; and the sky were black and stormy when she pleaded with him to wake.
Loss and estrangement: that was all that rain stood for, in Masami's heart.
"I'm sorry". The words were breathed close together. "For every time that I made you cry, that I made you scared, I'm sorry. For every time I hurt you, Masami, I'm sorry. I'll make it all up to you, Masami, I swear. I have a whole lifetime to make that up to you. Hi", he lifted his fingers gently, but stopped right short of caressing her cheek, "Please don't cry"
"It's okay", she whispered. "I'm not crying because I'm sad"
"No?" he sounded genuinely confused, and that made her smile. "Can you cry when you're not sad?"
"Of course, silly. Didn't you ever cry when you were happy, or relieved?"
"No". He paused. "Actually, I don't think I ever cried"
That made her stop crying - though she now felt like crying for him. "You didn't? Not ever?"
"Not that I remember. Why? Does it matter?"
"Of course it matters, Gawl". She sniffed, and tried to get things under control again. Did he have to sit with his face so close to hers? "Tears are - tears are…" She shook her head. No words were coming. "I'll explain it to you, sometime". She finally got her breath under control. "Where are Koji and Ryo, anyway?"
"Out. They weren't here when I woke up"
"But… but that had to be before sunrise! And…" her mind worked quickly "And I saw the umbrella rack on my way up, and all the umbrellas were there! Are you telling me that they are out there in the rain in the dark and with no umbrellas!"
"You forgot no coats", Gawl added helpfully. "Though I do believe Koji took a jacket"
She stared at him. "For two bright guys, they certainly can be complete morons at times! Oh, I am going to kill them!" She leaped up and stared down at Gawl. "Well? What are you waiting for? We have got to go out and find them!"
"Calm down, Masami"
"Calm down? How can you tell me to calm down? They're out there in the rain with nothing to protect them from the cold! Do you want them to catch pneumonia?"
"They're not going to catch pneumonia". Gawl pushed himself up. "Ryo loves the rain, remember? He goes out running whenever there's as much as a droplet"
"That's not a reason to…"
"Yes, it is", said Gawl firmly, but then his face softened. "For him the rain means freedom. Don't spoil that for him"
"What of Koji, than?" she retorted. "Surely you aren't going to tell me that he enjoys getting soaked wet?" That was an easy one - Koji seemed to hate stormy weather as much as she did; his temper clouded together with the sky.
"No". Gawl shrugged. "But I'm not going to drag him in if he doesn't want to. He'll probably wonder in sometime about noon and pretend he wasn't even gone"
She couldn't decide whether to laugh, cry or yell, and settled for saying: "I don't like it, them being outside like that"
"I don't like it either"
"It scares me", she admitted.
"It's not your fault!" she exploded, and regretted it almost immediately: it wasn't Gawl's fault, and now he looked ready to snap at her again for it.
"It's too early in the morning to fight", she said quickly, before he said something they would both regret later. Gawl was the only person she knew who had a temper as explosive as hers. "Let's go down and have breakfast"
Gawl's face brightened. "You're cooking?"
She snorted and stuck up her chin. "Of course I'm cooking. You can burn water"
It was still raining; but she had something to hold on to.
The rain grew stronger. Not that it mattered - he was already soaked to the skin, and couldn't possibly be any wetter. The jacket, which seemed like a great idea when he left home, had become quite a nuisance now that it was heavy with water. He knew that he would, probably, be better off with the jacket tied around his waist or slung over his arm, but he couldn't bring himself to take it off. Why was as mysterious as any of the other Why's that rattled about in his head, drove him out of the room and made him wonder about the streets for ours.
Why, for example, did he come up here? Koji looked at the low, wide staircase where Ryo had set that fateful day. It had seemed so simple: bring the girls to keep Gawl company while he and Ryo talked to Nekasa. So simple - and it led Saito straight to Gawl. It was a mistake that almost cost them dearly.
Koji set on the stairs. There was a roof above the stairs, and it offered a little cover. He was wet and cold, and seriously contemplating going back home, but he wasn't quite ready yet. He still had things to think about - the kind of thinking that could not be done in the safety of their room. He knew, of course, that he could not solve all of his questions today. Answers will take time - time to sort through the questions, time to gain perspective - but he had to release some of the pressure. He could not stay inside, on a day like that.
He looked up to the sky: gray and cloudy. He didn't expect anything else, and yet - the sight of the gray sky still surprised him somewhat. That, at least, was a why that he had an answer to: having grown up where there was no rain, it was no surprise that he found rainy weather to be a reason for wonder, even if he didn't celebrate quite like Ryo did; even if he found dark, cloudy weather to be frankly depressing.
Why wasn't anything simple, anymore? Why did every question have a double-edged answer?
How long he set there like that, head hanged down and staring at the rain, he didn't know; he must have been very deep in thought, though, because he never heard footsteps, never noticed the telltale shadow of an approaching person, until the booted feet were right in front of him and someone held an umbrella over his head. Koji raised his eyes.
"Masami is going to skin you alive", said Gawl with a smile.
"You don't sound particularly worried"
"Maybe if she skins you, she'll spare me"
"What have you done this time?"
"Me? Nothing. Since when does Masami need a reason to want to strangle me? Here" he offered Koji the other umbrella he had with him, "Maybe she'll decide to spare you after all"
"Good point" said Koji - but he remained seated, and did not take the offered umbrella.
Gawl set next to him, laying the open umbrella to the side but not closing it. "Why, Koji?" he asked.
Koji startled; maybe it showed, maybe it didn't - Koji couldn't tell, anymore. The defenses he'd spent a lifetime perfecting were falling apart, and he couldn't bring himself to either stop or hasten the process.
"Why, what?" he asked.
"Masami is not the only one who's worried", said Gawl softly.
Koji smiled slightly, almost despite himself. "Still trying to protect us?"
"Of course", Gawl snorted. "You're doing a lousy job of it"
"Really". Koji held out his palm, watching at the raindrops fell on it.
"Really, Koji, talk to me" said Gawl, surprising somber - or not so surprisingly. He grew up a lot - or, perhaps, had always been more mature than Koji has given him credit for. "Or talk to Ryo. Or Masami, if that what works for you. But talk, for once"
"I…" Koji wanted to say I have some issues to solve with myself, first but that sentence rang hauntingly familiar, and Koji could not say it. Instead, he withdrew his hand and said: "I'm not ready yet"
"Will you ever be?" asked Gawl. He leaned back on his elbows. "Or will you keep coming up with excuses until I stop asking? Because I won't", and Gawl leaned forward again, elbows resting on his knees as he looked at Koji intently, "So don't try that trick on me, because it won't work"
It was a tense moment; both of them knew what was the big Why that drove Koji out, but neither was willing to say it aloud yet; or ever, if it was up to Koji.
Was that the right answer, though? Between one heartbeat and another, Koji wasn't sure anymore. Maybe, by never speaking of it, it will become true rather than dissipate into the fog of might-have-been's.
We can't hide anymore, said Ryo once. When was Ryo not right?
"It reminds me of Ryo", said Koji abruptly. He held his hand out again. "The rain; it reminds me of him: tender, sad and promising"
"That does sound like Ryo", said Gawl, his voice somewhat strangled; Koji didn't notice, though. "Since when are you a poet, Koji?"
"Maybe I always was". Koji breathed deeply. "Hiding is easier"
"Are there reasons left to hide?"
"Have you told Masami that you love her?"
Gawl stopped breathing for a second - but was it because of the feelings the question invoked, or because Koji dared look at him as he asked that, and his expression was not guarded? Gawl looked away with a sigh. "She knows", he said quietly. "We both know"
"But you didn't tell her"
"We're not hiding", insisted Gawl. "It's just not time yet"
"Koji…" Gawl's voice gained the edge of a warning.
Koji rubbed his forehead tiredly. "I know I'm still hiding. I'm just not ready, yet"
"Will you ever be?"
"I will". It wasn't the old, self-assured and almost arrogant certainty, but it was a certainly - a quality that wasn't heard it Koji's voice for a long time. Gawl abruptly realized that he missed that - Koji's stability had been one of the building blocks of his world for a very long time, even if it was plain irritating at times. "If there's one thing I'm sure of, is that I am not becoming another Kanae". Koji drew another deep breath. "Nothing ever scared me more than he. Ever. Come on", he said suddenly, getting up and taking the closed umbrella from where it still hung on Gawl's arm. "Let's go"
"Where to?" asked Gawl, getting up and picking the other umbrella. If Koji managed to unfaze him, he didn't show it.
Koji smiled - his facial muscled weren't used to it, and hurt in protest, but the smile belonged there.
"To find Ryo", he said simply, "And then home"
It was a good day; a free day. Time was the sequence of one breath after another, and each breath was another dose of the smell and taste of rain; everything else was a blur, hazed by the curtain of falling water and not entirely meaningful. Days like that were meant to be experienced, lived, not thought of. It wasn't even a conscious decision, not to think, because making it conscious would have required thought. Instead, Ryo let himself be carried through by instinct, traveling downtown when he needed the protective white noise of people and then back to the outskirts when the noise became suffocating. He made more rounds across city than he cared to count - not that it mattered, not that he considered it at all.
A fountain in the rain; how strange. The surface of the pool was completely blurred as water fell on it, both from the sprout and from the clouds. The random patterns had an almost syncopatic quality to them, like an alien video art. A ray of sunshine passed over the waters, coloring them momentarily gold and silver.
Ryo raised his eyes, following the light, and smiled as the single ray of light fell over the dark clouds and unto the green of the forest, highlighting the green with deep orange.
Orange. Dark. Bluff.
It wasn't the sunset light over the bluff that he saw anymore, and what he saw was not remotely beautiful. His vision was spinning, everything was spinning, his chest contracting painfully as his lungs refused to function and his heart beat so fast and hard, almost drowning the voice from the memory.
Ryo was frozen to the spot, not falling only because his knees locked on sheer instinct. The fire was a memory, devouring the forest and the present, turning the clouds of rain to clouds of smoke, burdening the air with its smell. Ryo was then, running up the mountain with Koji, out of breath, knowing that Gawl was ahead of them and fearing what he may find, what they will find, and then knowing that they were too late as an explosion rocked the mountain, sending up smoke and fire against that bluff.
His knees hurt - what? Ryo blinked, still breathing heavily. He fell, and his knees hit the ground. The pain slammed him back to the present, to the sunset and the rain, but the panic did not subside: he could still smell the fire and the ashes, could still see the flames superimposed on the scenery. He wasn't even aware that he picked himself up, but he did; memories and nightmares still played out over reality; his heart was still hammering so hard that all other sounds were drowned.
He ended up walking in and out of downtown alleys, where people were close enough for comfort but not too close so as to trigger another attack. The panic attack rattled his nerves, badly. He'd usually managed to regulate these attacks, to stop them before they got out of control. He knew most of the triggers, so he could avoid them. Any now and then, though, something unexpected would happen, and then - then Ryo found himself in a waking nightmare.
The panic attack also shattered the thin protective coat he'd manage to weave around himself. He was painfully aware that he was shivering cold and beyond soaked; that the exhaustion he was feeling was not just because of the panic, but also because he ate nothing today and it was past sundown. He was cold, lonely and miserable - and he couldn't bring himself to do about-face and go back to Masami's home because he was still terrified half out of his wits and trying to get his unruly subconscious under control. A part of him wanted to shout out that it wasn't fair, that he should be allowed to have at least one day of peace - but the rest of his mind answered that he didn't earn the right for peace; rather, he had more to atone for than any other person alive.
It was fading. Ryo stopped for no reason and rubbed his eyes tiredly. He knew, intellectually, that he was in the aftershock phase of the attack, and that that was the reason for the sudden mounting depression; he could tell by his almost-normal heart rate and by the way he was trembling. Knowing didn't help, though: he knew exactly the physiological mechanism that made him feel thus by heart, but it did not enable him to counter their effects. He never was able to tame his own mind - that was why he was always able to find ways were others saw only dead ends; that was the quality that made valuable to Kuberai - the quality that made Takuma invaluable to Saito. It was also the thing that scared Ryo above all else, because it could be neither controlled nor understood.
He frowned. Something was moving next to the garbage bin, and it wasn't just a piece of junk. It was moving on its own, and it made noises. Ryo stepped closer and kneeled to get a better look - and his breath stopped as he realized what he found.
"No luck?" wondered Hoshi Shipo as her Gawl wondered in, last after Masami - who came in an hour ago to prepare dinner - and Koji, who returned mere minutes ago. "My, where can he be?"
Gawl shrugged. "He'll probably wander in soon. It's after dark. Hi", Gawl sniffed the air suddenly, "Is that chicken soup I'm smelling?"
Hoshi got out of the way, fast - she knew the kids well enough to tell what was coming, and she rather preferred her eardrums to remain whole.
"What's the occasion, Masami? I thought you weren't a soup person"
"Hands off!" That noise had to be Masami slapping Gawl's hand - definitely so, because Gawl yelped. "Ryo's bound to catch pneumonia after today's foolishness, so we've got to have soup"
"Oh, come on, he's not going to catch pneumonia"
"Oh yes?" asked Masami darkly. "It's after dark, and he's been out in the storm all day with no umbrella, no coat, no jacket…"
Hoshi sighed into her tea. Masami was building up steam, and Gawl was looking for trouble, provoking her like he did - breathing in the same room counted as 'provoking', in Masami's current foul mood. Then again, the boy was probably saving his friend's life - rain or not, Hoshi was going out when Ryo returned. She had no intention of being anywhere in the vicinity of her daughter when the girl would unleash her anger on Ryo.
A door opened and closed. Hoshi came quickly out of the living room - sure enough, there was Ryo, standing in the entrance and dripping water all over the floor.
"Ryo!" screeched Masami on top of her lungs - she and Gawl came out of the kitchen, having heard the door too. A door slammed upstairs - Koji must have heard the commotion, and was running downstairs by the sound of it. "Where the hell have you been? What, in the name of all the blessed spirits, possessed you to do something so utterly idiotic and inconsiderate like that? Do you have any idea how worried we all were!" Masami approached Ryo as she screamed, and was now standing face to face with him. She inhaled deeply, no doubt preparing herself for another bout of screaming - but suddenly, she deflated.
"I'm very sorry, Masami, Ms. Shipo" said Ryo nervously - the boy had to be deaf, because he didn't seem remotely fazed by Masami's outburst, "But I couldn't just leave them there, they're so small that they wouldn't have survived the night out in the cold"
"What are you going on about?" demanded Koji.
"Them" said Ryo simply, raising his cupped hands.
That was when Hoshi noticed that Ryo held something in his hands, something that looked like a drenched piece of cloth. But a drenched piece of cloth wouldn't make Masami stop shouting, would it? Hoshi came closer, too - and then the battered little thing in Ryo's palm moved, and Hoshi realized with a start that it wasn't a piece of cloth, but a kitten - two kittens, actually, one pure white and the other black and white.
"What are they?" asked Gawl curiously.
"They're kittens, Gawl", said Masami. "Baby cats"
"Wow, cool". Gawl edged closer, and reached out a careful finger to nudge one of the miserable balls of fluff. "They're so small"
"Yes", said Masami softly. She turned sharply and looked at her mom, eyes wide and pleading. "Can we keep them, mom? Please?"
"Well…" hummed Hoshi. Truth be told, she was never much of a pet lover, but…
"Please, Ms. Shipo, they'll be our responsibility - I promise they wouldn't bother you at all". That was Ryo - eyes as large as saucers, and looking like a drenched kitten himself.
Gawl and Koji said nothing, but their twin expressions of fascination spoke volumes. Just seeing such a tender expression on the stoic Suzuki boy's features was enough to melt Hoshi's heart. Fleas or not, the kids obviously wanted the cats very much.
"They won't be so adorable when they mature", she warned.
"Oh, please, mommy"
"Please, Ms. Shipo"
"Yes, please", added Gawl; Koji was still staring at the kittens as if entranced. "We'll take good care of them, I promise"
Hoshi sighed. She just couldn't do it to the kids. "Alright, fine", she said. "You can keep them. If they do any damage to the furniture, though…"
Masami squealed and wrapped her arms around her mother.
That's sobered Masami pretty quickly. "You", she said, turning to Ryo again, her face dark. "Shower. Now"
"Give them here" said Koji, taking the kittens from Ryo's hand. "Go to the shower. Gawl will bring you something dry to wear"
"Why me?" complained Gawl, but went upstairs just as well.
"You'd better bring those to the kitchen, Koji. They're too young to eat anything solid, we'll have to warm milk for them", said Hoshi.
"You still here, Ryo?" demanded Masami. The boy was just standing there.
Koji and Hoshi looked at each other. Hoshi held out her hand and, mutely, Koji handed her the kittens. They were so small that both of them fitted in her palm.
"Come on, Ryo" said Koji, putting an arm over Ryo's shoulder and stirring him away, even as Hoshi said the same words to Masami, stirring the girl towards that kitchen. "You have to be freezing in those wet cloths"
Gawl was sitting on the mattress, holding the black and white kitten as Masami patiently fed it with a dropper. Koji was sitting on the other mattress, and was heaving less luck with his kitten, seeing as he had to both hold it and feed it. All of them raised their eyes when Ryo entered the room.
"You ate?" asked Masami without preamble; her snappish tone clashed with her caring expression.
"Yes, the soup was great, thanks"
Masami opened her mouth, probably to say something nasty, but Gawl shook his head. "Oh, lay off, Masami. We have a kitten to feed"
"You're doing better than I" muttered Koji.
"Here, I'll help you". Ryo set down next to Koji. "You want me to hold him or feed him?"
"It's a 'she', not a 'he' ", said Masami. "Both of them"
"You'd better feed it" said Koji, passing Ryo the dropper.
"Well, are you going to name them, Ryo?" asked Masami.
"Yes, name them, so we have something to call them", said Masami patiently. "We can't just call them 'kitten one' and 'kitten two', can we?"
"You found them, you name them" added Gawl.
"Alright". Ryo hesitated for a moment, then said, pointing at the white kitten: "She's Ren, because she's white like one, and she", pointing at the kitten Gawl was holding, "is Amaya, because I found them in a rainy night"
Koji raised his hand so that Ren was right in front of his face. "Welcome to the family, little Ren", he said quietly.
Ren clawed at his nose, and the room rang with laughter.
He ended up on his back, with the kitten lying right on top of his heart - the little thing buried its nails in his sweater and would not move, and Gawl didn't really mind it there; Amaya pawed rhythmically as Masami fed her, and between that and Masami's constant murmurs, Gawl drifted into sleep.
It was the lack of Amaya's warm weight that woke him up. He opened his eyes to see what was up - and what he saw made him stop breathing.
Masami was sitting next to him, holding Amaya against her cheek, her eyes close, and with such an expression on her face that made Gawl wish he were the one to put it there; Koji was asleep on his back, with little Ren nestled on his chest and his right arm �" Gawl almost gasped - thrown over Ryo; Ryo was asleep too, curled on his side and lying very close to Koji, his face practically touching Koji's shirt.
The only light came from a candle on the table and outside, the rain was still falling.
Masami opened her eyes, kitten still held again her cheek.
"Sorry to wake you up" she whispered.
"It's okay", he whispered back, pushing himself up. "This is the most precious thing in the world"
"This?" she blinked.
"Yes, this. You", his finger brushed against her cheekbone and down to her chin; her breath caught in her throat, "and they, so peaceful, so safe… Finally home". He blinked - why were his eyes stinging? And his throat was constricted, too, for some odd reason.
"Gawl?" asked Masami, her voice small. "Are you crying?"
"Am I?" He touched his finger against his cheek, and was surprised to find his skin damp. "I am"
Masami smiled, part hesitantly and part triumphantly. "I told you", she whispered. "Just this morning"
"Y.." You did, he wanted to say, but his throat was blocked. It half scared him - having never cried, he did not understand why trying to speak made the tears flow. He reached a hand to wipe them away, but Masami caught his wrist.
"Don't", she whispered.
The urgency in her voice made him freeze - he couldn't refuse her anything, not in that moment and not ever, and certainly not when she had that look in her eyes that knotted his insides that like.
She put Amaya down, and put her now-free hand on his shoulder. "Don't wipe away the tears, because that would be like telling them to go away", she whispered. "They're your first tears, Gawl, your first tears ever - and they're tears of happiness, not of sorrow. That's precious, too - don't wipe it away"
He nodded. She let his hand drop.
"Promise you won't be angry with me?" she asked suddenly, timidly.
"I'll never be angry with you", he murmured.
She swallowed, obviously screwing up the courage for something - and then she leaned forward, and kissed the tears from his check.
He stopped breathing.
She pulled away, but her face was still very close to his.
Not angry? She mouthed, her throat obviously too constricted to speak.
His only answer was to lean forward and kiss her properly, on the mouth. Her lips still had the salty taste of his tears on them, and when he pulled back and saw that she, too, was crying now, he leaned in to kiss them as well.
Tears will never be sad to me he wanted to tell her, but words would only spoil the moment. Instead, his lips only formed three words - and he saw that her lips formed them, too.
I love you.
Masami giggled - Amaya effectively broke the magic of the moment; or rather, Gawl mused, transformed it into a different kind of magic.
"Sorry, little one" cooed Masami, picking up the kitten. "We forgot you can't keep yourself warm, didn't we?"
"There's room enough on Koji's chest", suggested Gawl. "And she can be with her sister"
"Is it safe?" Masami threw a skeptical glance over his shoulder. "Doesn't he turn around in his sleep?"
"No, he doesn't move at all once he falls asleep". Gawl picked Amaya from Masami's hand, crawled over and placed the kitten next to her sister, where she fell asleep immediately. "How'd they end like that, anyway?"
"Ryo wasn't sleeping well, so Koji pulled him closer to calm him down - and fell asleep himself as soon as he settled". Masami smiled. "They're sweet like that"
"Yeah". Gawl crawled back to the mattress, and Masami cuddled next to him, putting her head on his shoulder; both of them were surprised at how natural it felt, even when Gawl put his arm around her shoulders.
"Weird", muttered Masami.
"The rain. It's soothing, now that it's not storming anymore, just raining"
What could he say to that? No words he could think of were fitting. He just pulled her slightly closer, and put his head on top of hers, watching the rain as it fell.