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In the Blood

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Ryuji's leg hurts when it rains. Like old man shit hurts, complaining about his joints aching or needing to soak in hot baths to boiling. He uses pain patch after pain patch on it, even the ones that aren't supposed to be applied constantly for maintenance, but that only wears things down to a thick pressure, like a vise clamped straight on the bone. His leg throbs with every chug of his heart. Plus, even shippu costs add up eventually, and it's not like he can just keep asking his mom for more and more. It's his own damned fault.

His leg doesn't act up every time it rains or else he'd be a lump on the ground half the year -- but when the storms are really coming in, tearing up the sides of the coast, then Ryuji feels the ache. Sometimes it happens even when the storms are completely on the other side of Japan, and his leg signals for days before they hit. The weather turns, the winds die out, the air goes heavy -- and Ryuji's inhaling sharply with every breath he takes, favoring one side of his body and counting the number of steps from school to the train. He can make it. He can.

The doctor said something about a side effect of the nail that got put in to help the bones heal straight -- about nerve damage, aggravated stress fracturing, barometric pressure, blah blah blah, but mostly about how Ryuji fucked up by not letting it set properly. Leg breaks are supposed to heal clean and smooth when you leave them alone, back to perfect health like nothing ever happened. Instead, Ryuji figured he'd measure his own recovery by testing each day how much weight his leg could take, forcing longer and longer steps. He knew himself better than any dumbass doctor, anyway.

He did know himself, though. That was the problem.

Handouts and physical therapy sheets were all just bullshit. Too many cautionary warnings, too many lists of things he wasn't supposed to do. Ryuji knew he'd try to push himself before he was ready.

He knew, and didn't give a damn about the consequences.

It was the same kind of thing his dad would've done.

Ryuji has his father's blood type, his father's anger living in his body, and now he has an endless reminder every time he puts his weight wrong and feels the twinge along his nerves. He has his father's way of wanting to solve problems too: by destroying them, hitting them whenever he can't understand them, shouting them down until they're too afraid to move.

But all those solutions are usually shitty ones. Ryuji doesn't need it explained to him. They're the ones he's got -- but they're still shitty.

So whenever Ryuji's leg hurts, he swallows the nausea down, and tries to stop himself from freaking out. He can't let himself lash out, no matter how bad he feels. The pain is a reminder of his temper, of what everyone says he inherited from his dad: the poor self-control that got his leg broken in the first place, and then made it worse permanently.

He's going to be carrying his father around in his bones forever.

Like a ghost that's sewn into his skin, his dad won't ever stop haunting him. The threaded scars on Ryuji's leg are like his father's handprints on him. His father reaches all the way down into his limbs, into the tissues and joints -- and deeper than that, into the blood, into the heart.

When he was a kid, Ryuji started running as soon as he was able to able to work the door latches.

He learned to love being outside, and to forget being scared of night insects and strange noises. The best months for his dad to get angry were during the spring or fall. Any other season would be too cold or hot to go outdoors for long, and Ryuji would end up taking shelter in a corner of the apartment stairwells instead, knees up against his chest as he tried to wait the minutes out.

It was worse whenever his dad caught sight of him -- usually Ryuji could get away with just being screamed at, but other times, if he got pinned, he couldn't escape without bruises. Ryuji's mom always slid the doors closed, would push Ryuji into another room or send him down the hall in an attempt to spare him from what was happening. A few times, she had to shove him in a closet, and he spent the next hour squashed against old blankets, inhaling dust.

But the walls passed along the messages anyway, trembling with the vibrations, knowing the pattern so well that they could have recited it all on their own:

It'd serve you right if I left you -- you think you wouldn't come crawling through the streets on your knees, beggin' me to come back? You think you can work as a saleslady forever? I've seen piles of dog shit prettier than you. You wouldn't even be able to whore without givin' a discount. You wanna take care of Ryuji, you'd better make sure you do what I say, or else I'm just gonna take off and leave you to die, bitch.

Ryuji didn't stay to protect his mom. He didn't try to fight back. Whenever the yelling would start, he would go straight out the front door and run, gone into the freedom of open corridors and stairwells. As fast as he could, as far as he could, leaving the words behind.

When he first started escaping, going out on the streets got him caught by well-meaning adults, so Ryuji switched to laps up and down the stairs of their building, trying to be as quiet as he could so no one would notice. Once he got bigger, he started running on ground level through empty lots and back streets. It was dangerous, especially at night, but part of Ryuji was okay with that: if he fell in a construction ditch or got hit by a car, then his mother would be able to leave his dad and never look back. She'd be okay.

If he died on the road, it'd all be okay.

Even now, Ryuji looks back at his eight-year-old self in shame for not staying home. He should have done something. He should have fought back. He should have been there for his mom.

He started running for himself. He kept at it later when he discovered the track team and stopped being alone on the course; track gave him a place to belong, where his habit was natural. Even so, Ryuji knows he does his best when there's something behind him that he's running from, something that he refuses to let catch up. He won't be trapped in a corner, against the fridge or a wall. In those times when he was on the track, it was easy to put his head down, focus on the pounding of his feet against the ground, and work on never getting caught.

When he got so good at it that scholarships started becoming an option instead of a fantasy, he started running for that instead. If he got the funding, then maybe his mom wouldn't have to work two jobs, and might even be able to spend money on herself again. Even after his dad had abandoned them, Ryuji's mom hadn’t missed a beat; she'd ignored all the bullshit that his father had tried to feed her, and had looked into every option she could for keeping the two of them alive. Not just alive, but with enough money to give Ryuji the time to play video games and follow hobbies, all the things she said he should be able to do as a teenager. Track was expensive, not just in gear and fees, but also in extra groceries to feed his appetite, and chores that his mom would do so Ryuji could practice instead. She took care of everything without complaint, and never cut back on things he needed for school or sports -- just dug in the extra hours at work, and took on the cost herself.

Ryuji could have done something more about that. Grades weren't an option -- not because he didn't want good test marks, but he just couldn't get things to line up right in his head, and he'd always counted on being able to have his physical strength to make up for it. He'd always been too confident.

When his mother came to him in the hospital, she didn't blame him. She didn't yell at him for how things had turned out, or weep over the medical bills. Instead, she sat by his bed and stroked his hand, her expression remote and quiet.

"I'm like a cyborg now, right?" Ryuji had joked weakly, hoping to see her smile. "I got metal implants and everythin'."

"Ryuji," she had replied softly, which cut the humor right out of his throat like a razor. "Don't."

The first time he tried a full-out run after they give him the official all-clear -- not just the halfhearted jogs around the apartment complex -- he actually gasped aloud, crumpling to the ground until he could try to move without wanting to throw up. By the time he finally dragged himself home, he was breathing hard from simply trying to put one foot in front of the other; the idea of standing up straight felt like an impossible fantasy, a dream from better days.

His mom was scheduled late with her second job, but there was dinner in the fridge, and he dumped the plate on the table and lay his face beside it, too exhausted to even eat. Unwrapping the plastic film seemed a monumental task, dwarfed only by using the microwave. The table was cool and soothing. It was a welcome relief from how his leg felt like it was trying to rip itself apart in spite.

By the time she got home, he was still slumped over, food untouched.

Even though his mother was still in her work clothes, she set her bag down immediately and went to the fridge. "I'll heat you up something fresh. Do you want miso?"

"I can't run, Mom."

It sounded more pathetic than he intended. He couldn't run. He'd lost his escape. And his mother's escape too -- no more scholarship like this, even if the track team had remained intact.

Thankfully, his mother understood. She paused with one hand on the fridge door, and then opened it anyway to resolutely pour him some juice, setting it beside his head with a soft click.

"I don't want you to spend your life trying to make someone else happy, Ryuji," she reminded him gently.

If it was anyone else's parent -- hell, any adult, period -- Ryuji would have blown it off, or figured they meant he shouldn’t worry that much about his family. Like he should get convinced not to care about people who needed it, all because they were trying to be humble.

His mother was different. Whenever she said things like that, there was always a mercilessness in her eyes. Just like she could hear the words he never said, he could hear hers, a second part in that sentence that he understood through the weight of her silence.

Don't do what I did. Never make my mistake.

"You're my son, Ryuji," she added, her voice still firm, a bedrock that never wavered under his feet. "There's more to you than only this."

His leg hummed in waves of pain under the table, screaming in denial. He ignored it, and focused on his mom. "Yeah," he nodded. "Okay."

He could have left Shujin, after the incident. He knows his mom got pressured for it. But she didn't cave, and neither did he, and he went back to class as soon as he got permission. He wasn't the only one who was catching shit for his family history, at least. He wasn’t even the worst.

Way back when he was in middle school, one of the girls -- Ann Takamaki -- had gotten bullied for only being part-Japanese and naturally blond. Tons of people thought she was pretty, including Ryuji -- which only made it worse as they got older and she didn't stop being pretty. She'd always stood out thanks to her parents, her hair, her eyes; living abroad stripped her away from being able to blend in with their schoolmates, and shoved her to the outskirts.

It only got worse when she ended up in Shujin, and all the attention for her body only increased. It was never open harassment, just perpetual snickering in the corners, whispers just loud enough for her to hear: about how Takamaki was so loud whenever she talked, or how she couldn't be expected to really understand Japanese customs, or how impressive it was that a foreigner like her could even attend a six-day class week diligently. Sometimes the jealousy was clear -- that the only reason she got modeling jobs in Japan was because she was exotic, or how she'd have no problem getting married because then someone could have a trophy wife. Everyone had an opinion about how any little thing about her that wasn't perfect was because of the impurity of her blood -- and that everything good she got was because she was born into it, never earned.

Aww, look at the foreign girl trying to use chopsticks. It's almost like she knows how.

American people don't have the right fingers, one girl said smugly. It's always going to be harder for them.

It was the stupidest crap Ryuji had ever heard -- bullying, that was all it was, jealousy for Takamaki's looks and for all the attention she'd get, because the people he heard talking loudest out their asses were the same ones who cooed over mixed-European idols and who wanted to darken their eyebrows, reshape their eyes.

But as long as people could use it as an excuse for looking down on her, they did. Takamaki's blood was suspect. Her parentage was a problem. Everything wrong with her was because she was hāfu, and not real Japanese.

Takamaki was just like him: labeled by her genetics. He could hide, as long as no one knew. Ann could have dyed and cut her hair, but she never once tried that he saw.

It wasn't like he was close friends with her or anything, but something in how Takamaki stayed silent and endured made him want to shut all their classmates up -- like he was a little kid again, hearing reverberations through the walls. His first impulse was to yell at all of them without even knowing what to say, which only made shit worse because defending Takamaki only drew more attention to her. He even got as far as catching one of the girls outside the bathrooms, backing her into the wall as he tried to find the right arguments to get her to stop.

But the girl paled when his hands slammed on the tile, and he realized it looked like he was harassing her sexually, or bullying her worse, and he twisted away and ran for the stairs, all the way down to the first floor and then outside, into the summer air.

That afternoon, he ran laps around the school building, pushing himself harder and harder through an adrenaline haze until he finally missed a step, his knee buckling and sending him crashing to the ground. The pavement scraped up both hands and part of an elbow, and Ryuji rolled onto his side, irritated with why his body wasn't working right -- until he tried to put weight on his leg and nearly collapsed again with a scream. He curled up on himself, pressing the heel of his hand desperately against the pain while his bone melted into a thousand tiny knives made of hot lava that tried to flay his skin from the inside.

He had to figure out another way to deal with it. He had to.

So he bleached his hair. He did it himself, with a cheap kit he bargained for off a classmate who worked part-time at the convenience store. It was his first time, and he was impatient with the directions, messing it up in the bathroom; half his hair ended up a sickly brown, with dark clumps for the rest where he did a bad job of keeping track and missed the strands entirely.

In retrospect, it wasn't the smartest move. Everyone assumed he was just late to the fashion trends, trying to look cool along with everyone else on the hair dye bandwagon. Most of them just snickered.

His mother received the standard warning from his school about his potential delinquency, and the strongly worded request that he dye it back.

"I'm doin' it to help someone, Mom," he yelled, and immediately hated himself for yelling, hearing the volume of his frustration bouncing off the walls. His voice felt like it wanted to explode out of his chest. He couldn't help getting loud. It happened all the time, and whenever it did, he expected his mom to cringe -- but she never flinched away from him. Never.

This time, she set down the letter and steeled herself, looking at him.

"Then we should make sure to do it right," she replied, in that quiet firmness that never once bowed to despair, no matter how many overdue bills had stacked up on the table. "I'll go pick up something better from the store to fix the spots. When I get back, help me clear out the sink."

His mother's gloved fingers in his scalp calmed him down, like he was eight years old again and getting his hair soaped in the bathroom. The better bleach job helped a lot, too, and everything turned out reasonably even, or at least less disastrous. His mom walked him through the directions, and talked about how he'd need to finish lightening it the rest of the way in stages, and then how to handle maintenance as the roots would grow out. They worked out the budget together, planning ahead for the extra cost like it was no problem, just another routine item on the shopping list.

Ryuji felt good about it the next day, working his limp into a swagger, and grinned at everyone who momentarily switched their attention to him and left Takamaki alone.

But afterwards, later that week, he came back early enough from school that he heard one of the neighbors talking to his mother at length, in compassionate, sincere tones. How no one would blame her for getting rid of a problem child. For her own protection. Did she ever feel in danger from Ryuji? It was important that she felt safe around him. If she was ever afraid, here were the numbers to call.

The thing is, Ryuji gets it. He does. And it has nothing to do with the genetics of his dad, any more than Ann's personality has to do with how her family tree can be chopped up into percentages. It comes from rice scattered all over the floor and overturned dinner tables. It comes from broken cups and bottle shards in his hands. It comes from angry insults late at night, reverberating into the summer air -- from his mother smothering her voice in dishrags so her tears wouldn't be heard.

It comes from running, feet slapping against the concrete, faster and faster away from the things he couldn't fix.

But there are studies that people point to, over and over, assuring themselves that drunks only produce more drunks, and that kids are clones of their criminal parents. Violent gene bullshit. It's in the DNA, they claim. Predispositions towards rage. Ryuji's always going to be a danger to everyone around him -- they say -- and brandish science as proof.

Ryuji doesn't think of himself as a monster, or that he needs to change into something he's not. He's not any of the things that people try to convince him he is, just like his mom was never what his dad tried to make her believe. He's not perfect, he's still working on it; he can't confront shit without wanting to fight or yell or bolt out the door. Usually a combination of all three.

So, people are going to be afraid. And they can't really be blamed. Ryuji's temper simmers in his skin, but it's still his choice of how it comes out. He's not going to lie to himself. He's not out of control, not like his dad used to claim -- it is his fault, and no one else's. His mom's not driving him to anger. His school's not forcing him to yell. Even Kamoshida was someone he could have walked away from.

Ryuji could hide behind his dad like his dad hid behind a bottle, but he already knows how that story would turn out.

So he uses pain patches as much as he can afford in bad weather and keeps them on long after they've worn out. He uses heat and cold and his hands. Massaging the muscle doesn't always help, and hot baths sometimes just aggravate things; sitting is good, except if the chair edges dig the wrong way, and then he can't sit at all. Once he crouched in the bathroom and bit his knuckles as a distraction, the sharper pain lifting him gracefully away from the endless nuclear meltdown in his leg. Afterwards, he rubbed at the soft craters in his skin to help them fade away, erasing the marks he left on himself: repeating his father again, even in this.

Whenever it happens at home, and his mom can't see, Ryuji presses his palm against his leg and breathes steadily through his mouth -- inhaling fresh air, exhaling agony.

He's never asked Ann what she does. Maybe, someday, he should.

"I hear that whole weather thing is all in your head," one of his classmates suggests one afternoon when they notice him limping and gritting his teeth, and Ryuji would have punched him right then and there if he wasn’t trying to not throw up from the pain. He thought about punching him later anyway. As it was, being half-nauseous kept him from saying anything, and that was probably for the best, because he still isn't sure how much of it would have been swearing.

He's got to get better. He knows that. He fucks up all the time, is too loud and too eager and too coarse. But for now, what's most important is that Ryuji's not giving in to the excuse that's pounding in his blood, to the option his father showed him with each bruise on his mother's body.

Ryuji had already decided a long time ago to be so full of love for his mother that it made up for his dad, to be so full of excitement and interest and enthusiasm that it was the opposite in every way from what his father had been. If there was a hole in the world left by that man, then Ryuji could fill it up just by smiling enough, caring enough, being alive enough.

But it's not an escape. The memory of his dad exists forever in his bones.

And Ryuji's glad for it.

He's glad to have the reminder. He's glad it's there. He doesn't know how to describe it to anyone else without feeling weird, or like he’s happy to be miserable, because he's not. But whenever the weather turns or he stretches too hard, and he feels the drumbeat in his body reminding him of how easily he flew off the handle, he thinks: that's who I could have been.

That's who he could still be now, if he's not careful.

His dad is in his face and hands and feet, aching in Ryuji's leg every time the rains roll in -- and that means that Ryuji is never going to be able to lie to himself. The world's full of Kamoshidas everywhere, and they're going to bait Ryuji over and over just to see if he'll lose control. Ryuji's under no illusions; he doesn't take any of that shit lying down. He's always going to be a split-second away from acting on impulse.

But now -- thanks to his temper, twice over -- Ryuji will never be able to ignore how easy it would be to walk down the same road as his dad, to turn out like how everyone says he will. His leg won't shut up about it. The pain will heckle him for the rest of his life, reminding him of just what exactly he inherited.

Ryuji won't forget what's in his blood. He can't ever, ever let it win.