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The Window, The Maple, and The Butterfly

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Ten-year-old Ryuugazaki Rei loved looking out the window of his second-story bedroom towards the neighboring house’s yard and seeing the maple tree that stood there. Whether it was in the spring or summer when the leaves were a healthy green, in the fall when they had turned a beautiful variety of gold, orange, and crimson, or even in the winter when the leafless branches were covered with snow, he had always thought that the tree was majestic. The way that the trunk arched gracefully up from its roots, the way that the branches wove themselves towards the sky, the way that the leaves danced in the breeze with a jingling sound—to the blue-haired boy, that tree was special. The beauty of it was something that he couldn’t apply any calculation or theory to, but all the same he loved it.

Once, when he was younger, he had overheard his former neighbors complain about the tree, saying that it blocked the sunlight from entering one of the windows in the bedroom, which was right across from Rei’s window. Rei had snorted to himself when he heard them—he couldn’t see why the tree was such a problem if there was a whole other window that was letting in sunlight. He was glad that those neighbors had not owned the house—if they had owned it, he was sure that they would have cut his favorite tree down. To his not-so-slight pleasure, those neighbors had moved last fall, and ever since then the yellow house next door had remained empty.

Rei had heard from his mother that the house belonged to someone by the name of Hazuki, and that it had been in that Hazuki person’s family for generations. It seemed that the Hazukis had been renting out their house for years now. The Ryuugazakis had occupied the house next to it for all ten years of Rei’s life, and over the years Rei had watched from his bedroom window as residents of the yellow house came and went. Never once, though, had the nameplate on the mailbox changed to Hazuki, and it had made him a little bit curious about the mysterious family that owned the house. At the least, he hoped that they were not like his most recent neighbors who had moved away.

Now, it was spring and the newly grown leaves of the maple tree were freshly green once more. It was a pleasantly warm Sunday morning and Rei had spent the past few days recovering from a fever. His wake-sleep cycle had been flipped because of his irregularly long intervals of sleep, but with his last long period of sleep, the cycle had returned to normal and he felt more than adequately rested. The first thing he had done when he felt well enough to be out of bed was to walk over to his bedroom window and draw the curtains open. Unlocking the window and pushing the shutters open, he looked out—

And found an unfamiliar pair of eyes staring at him.

Rei almost fell back from the window in surprise. In the nick of time, he grabbed the windowsill and regained his balance. Pulling himself back up, he cautiously peered out the window again.

There was a boy standing at the window across from Rei’s. At first glance, he looked to be somewhere around Rei’s age—though, judging from the roundness of his face and his small build, he was probably a bit younger than him. His hair was a golden blonde, and he had a small turned-up nose and a tiny pink mouth to match. His large burgundy eyes, which reminded Rei of dark red maple leaves in the fall, were wide with curiosity and—was it delight? Once the boy got over his initial surprise, a big smile lit up his face and those burgundy eyes. Rei didn’t realize that his mouth had dropped open slightly from the brightness of the boy’s expression.

Beaming at Rei, the boy opened his small mouth—and out came a high-pitched voice that almost seemed too big for it.

“HI!” he shouted happily, his hands slamming on the windowsill as he leaned out the window towards Rei. Surprised, the blue-haired boy took a startled step back. Not sure how to respond, he simply stood there with his own mouth still open. Undeterred by his lack of response, the blonde boy continued on happily.

“I’m Nagisa! Me and my family moved in two days ago!” he chirped. “I saw the family name on your front gate, but the kanji was too hard for me to read. What’s your name?”

“—Me?” Rei said hesitantly. It had been a while since he’d spoken to someone around his age, and right now he was feeling a bit out of his comfort zone. But he managed to say the next words, albeit a bit stiffly. “Ryuugazaki—Ryuugazaki Rei.”

“Heh~? So your name is Rei-chan!” The blonde—Nagisa—said, giggling. “You have a girly name, just like me!” Rei was taken aback by this response—and he could feel his ears turning red as he gave a heated response.

’Rei-cha’—I do not have a girly name!” he protested. “It’s an honorable name that was given to me by my grandfather—“

“But it IS girly, right?” Nagisa cut in, smiling. “That’s okay, though—we’re on the same boat there, Rei-chan!” He giggled. “It’s like it’s fate!”

“I—you—“ After sputtering a bit, Rei shot the blonde an annoyed look. “Why are you referring to me so casually? We’re not that close—and you’re probably younger than me, too—”

“I’m turning ten this year!” Nagisa said cheerfully, not minding the disbelief that spread across Rei’s face. “I heard from my mom that our next-door neighbors have a son my age—that’s you, right? People always think I’m younger than I am cause of my baby face, but my cousin Natsumi said that it’ll pay off when I get older, so I don’t mind!” Rei frowned slightly as the blonde rattled on, a bit taken aback at how talkative he was being when it hadn’t even been five minutes since they met.

“—anyways, you should totally come over!” He snapped back to attention when Nagisa said those words. “Mom said that I could invite you over after I finished unpacking in my room, and I finished just now, so—“

“No,” Rei said abruptly. At his answer, the blonde boy looked crestfallen.

“Eh~? Why not?” he whined, his voice disappointed. “We have some strawberry cake in the fridge—and I have video games too! And dolls! It’ll be fun!”

“I—I don’t like sweets,” Rei said, pushing his glasses up with his hand and trying to ignore the pout on the blonde’s face. “And we’re not that close—“

“We could be if you’d come over!” Nagisa chirped hopefully. “You could even tell me about the kids at our school! I heard there’s only one elementary school in this neighborhood, so you must go there too, right? I don’t know anyone from around here yet besides you, Rei-chan, so—”

“I can’t.” Rei felt a cold sensation bubbling up in his stomach. “I don’t go there.” His hand tightly clenched into a fist at his side. “I’m homeschooled.”

“Oh.” Nagisa looked only a little surprised before brightening up again. “That’s okay! We can still have fun—“

“I said no,” Rei snapped. “There are plenty of other kids in the neighborhood—go find someone else to play with.” Without waiting for a response, he slammed the shutters shut and drew his curtains closed. His pulse racing and his palms sweating, he sank down onto the floor, his back dragging against the wall of his room. After calming down a little, he realized that he probably hurt Nagisa’s feelings with his unfriendly attitude. A twinge of guilt passed through him before he shook it off with a shake of his head. Walking towards the bookcase in his room, he pulled out a book about pole vaulting and went to his desk. Sitting down on the chair, he opened the book and started to read, trying to get Nagisa’s disappointed face out of his head.

He wouldn’t step out the door of his house unless he absolutely had to. He had promised himself. And now was not one of those times. That was what he told himself as he tried to concentrate on the page before him.

Rei hoped that the next time he looked out the window, the blonde boy wouldn’t be there.

But he was. The next time Rei drew the curtains and opened the window, it was on a Monday morning at 10 am. He knew that a school day at the neighborhood elementary school began at 8 am, so he predicted that a certain blonde haired boy would definitely not be there when he looked out the window. There was the maple tree, and the window of the yellow house next door was open—

When he saw Nagisa at the windowsill right across from him, he nearly fell over in shock again.

“Rei-chan!” Contrary to his previous worries, Nagisa’s face lit up once he saw Rei at the window. It seemed like he hadn’t been hurt too deeply at Rei’s reaction the other day, and even if he had, he was over it. Either way, the blonde leaned out of the window towards Rei just as he had yesterday, beaming at the blue-haired boy. “You finally opened the window again!” he said happily.

You—why—I thought you’d be at school!” Rei burst out, shocked. Nagisa laughed and folded his arms over the windowsill.

“My mom overslept today!” he said. “Her alarm didn’t go off, and we’re all heavy sleepers—by ‘we’, I mean my mom and my sisters and me!” He grinned, revealing a set of teeth that were adorably crooked. Now that he mentioned it, the blonde had a serious case of bedhead and was still in his pajamas. “She’s making toast really quickly right now—and probably burning it—“ As if on cue, a woman’s hurried shout came from somewhere in the yellow house.

“NAGISA!! COME DOWNSTAIRS AND EAT YOUR BREAKFAST THIS INSTANT!!” Jumping a little at his mother’s voice, Nagisa made a face before looking back at Rei and smiling again, a little nervously this time. Rei guessed that the blonde was feeling anxious about his first day at a new school.

“I have to go now—I’ll see you later, Rei-chan!” Giving Rei a friendly wave, Nagisa disappeared from the window. Rei could hear his footsteps pattering down the stairs and his voice saying something like “Coming, coming!”

Now it was just the empty window, the maple tree, and Rei. Exactly as Rei had wanted.

He pushed his inexplicable feelings of disappointment to the back of his mind and instead closed his eyes, enjoying the morning breeze and the sound of the leaves on the maple tree dancing in the wind. When Nagisa burst through the front door some minutes later with toast in his mouth and waved excitedly at Rei, he decided that it was time to shut the window again.

Surprisingly, he found himself giving the blonde a small wave of his own before closing the shutters.

[Hazuki.] That was the name on the nameplate of the mailbox that was visible from Rei’s window. As soon as he noticed it when he looked out the window one afternoon, Rei ran downstairs to the kitchen where his mother was making lunch.

“Mother, did the Hazukis move in next door?” he asked, his words coming out in a rush. Rei’s mother paused in slicing the carrots and turned to Rei, her eyes lighting up as if she had suddenly remembered something.

“That’s right, I forgot to mention it to you yesterday, dear!” she exclaimed. Wiping her hands on the apron, she turned her head towards her son with a smile. “They moved in while you were still in bed with your fever. Mrs. Hazuki brought over a cake just the other day, when you and your father went to the hospital for your checkup. They seem to be a nice family—Mrs. Hazuki told me they have a son your age!” She gave Rei an encouraging look. “Maybe you could go and visit him later this afternoon—I heard he was starting school today, so he should be back around three or so—“

“I’m finished with my math problems, Mother,” Rei said abruptly, not liking where the conversation was going. He tried to make his smile seem casual. “I was hoping you could look them over for me.” His mother looked startled for a moment, but then smiled at him. Rei could almost hear the thoughts that she kept unsaid, and he didn’t like it.

“Of course, dear. I’ll look it over after I finish with the carrots,” she said simply.

After lunch, when Rei opened the refrigerator to get water and saw the strawberry shortcake in its plastic case, he suddenly stopped feeling thirsty. Closing the refrigerator door, he thanked his mother for the meal and went upstairs to brush his teeth.

Before, when Rei had wondered about the Hazukis, he had never guessed that a short blonde kid with crooked teeth and wide burgundy eyes would be part of the mysterious family. For some reason, he had imagined them to be a family of adults that probably lived somewhere in the mountains in a traditional Japanese house, and that they would always just rent out their yellow house in the suburbs that they had never really needed to use. Now that the real family had actually moved in next door and their ten-year-old son was making his presence very noticeable, Rei could safely say that all of his previous fantasies had crumbled to dust.

Apparently, Hazuki Nagisa was not one to give up easily. Whenever Rei opened his window for a breather from one of his lessons or to just stare at the maple tree and daydream, he found Nagisa at the window across from his about half of the time. And whenever these occurrences happened, Nagisa would lean dangerously far out the window with a bright smile on his face and would start chatting, whether Rei wanted to talk or not (the bespectacled boy tried to convince himself that the latter was often the case). The little blonde often alternated between pleading Rei to come over and talking about what he had done that day. The former of their conversations (if one could call them that, since Rei didn’t say much back) always went something like this:

“Come over, Rei-chan!” “No.” “I have candy!” “No.” “Oh, right, you said you don’t like sweets! My mom can make us some hamburgers!” “No.” “We can play the new video game that I got with my allowance last week!” “No.” “Or we can play with my mini cars! My cousin Natsume gave me some of his because he says he’s a junior-high student now and he doesn’t need them anymore—“ “No.” “Let’s watch a movie then! I can sneak one of my sister’s horror movies out of her room when she’s not there—“”No.” “Rei~~chan~~!!” “I said, no!”

At their simplest, they just went like this:

“Play with me, Rei-chan!” “No.” “Play with me!” “No.” “Play with me!” “No.” “Play with me, pretty please?” “No.” “Play with m—“ “NO!”

The latter of their conversations consisted of Nagisa talking almost nonstop about what he’d done with his friends that day at school or how his three older sisters were ‘evil hags’ or the latest video game that the blonde had played or the latest horror movie that he’d seen at the cinema that weekend (Rei often wondered what could compel Nagisa’s eldest sister, who he heard was in college, to take her baby-faced grade-school brother to see R-rated movies overflowing with blood and guts). Although he didn’t say much in response, Rei found himself listening to every word that Nagisa said, and more often than not he even found that he enjoyed hearing the blonde’s cheery voice.

It was a mystery to Rei why Nagisa was so set on befriending him of all people. He had no idea what he had done to encourage any of the blonde’s actions towards him of late—besides waving at him from his room that one time. Even then, it had only been a small wave—but it seemed that was all the encouragement the blonde had needed to pop up from the window of his room pretty much every day and greet Rei like they were best friends. Rei knew his own personality well—since he was little, he had always been the type of kid who quietly stayed out of sight in the corner with his nose in a book, the type of kid who wasn’t good at human interaction and who other kids didn’t try to approach. So he had to wonder what fun Nagisa could be having from constantly chatting him up like this—each time, he had hardly given any conversational responses in return.

What surprised Rei even more was how he himself kept opening his bedroom window, even though he knew Nagisa would be out there at certain hours in the afternoon. He told himself that it was to see the maple tree, and that was partly true—but whenever the window next to the tree was empty, a part of him felt strangely hollow. And whenever Nagisa was there at his window, chattering on and on—Rei didn’t know why, but the scenery out the window just seemed more complete. The maple tree’s leaves gently swaying in the breeze, the bright yellow house that was tinted green by the leaves’ shadow, and a small blonde-haired boy leaning over the windowsill, his burgundy eyes shining as he talked—that was now the scene that Rei secretly looked forward to seeing when he opened the shutters.

A month after they had initially met, Rei started opening the window early in the afternoon and dragging his chair so it was next to the windowsill. Sitting down, he told himself it was just because he wanted to read while feeling the fresh breeze outside, but in the back of his mind he was looking forward to a certain blonde head springing up from the window after school hours ended.

On one of those spring days, something rare happened. Nagisa stopped talking and rested his chin on his arms, which were folded against the windowsill. In a rare moment of silence, he studied Rei with those big burgundy eyes of his as Rei sat at the window, reading his book on beginner’s physics. Feeling slightly uncomfortable under the blonde’s stare, Rei looked up with a slight frown that was meant to mask his embarrassment.

“What?” he asked stiffly. Nagisa cocked his head to one side thoughtfully.

“You really like reading, don’t you, Rei-chan?” he remarked. Rei’s cheeks colored slightly in shame.

“I-is there something wrong with that?” he snapped defensively. Maybe he shouldn’t have sat at the window with a book in his hand all the time. He waited for Nagisa’s teasing voice to say that it was lame, but the remark never came. When he looked up, Nagisa was smiling, but there was no teasing or mocking in it.

“It’s just that you’ve always listened to me talk about what I like, but you never really talk about what you like to do.” Nagisa frowned slightly as he processed his thoughts. “Actually, you don’t talk about yourself much at all—“

“That—“ Rei stopped, clearing his suddenly dry throat. “That’s because you talk more than enough for the both of us,” he said matter-of-factly, readjusting his glasses with one hand. In reality, he just hadn’t wanted to because—well, partly because he had felt too shy and partly because he had previously seen what other kids thought of his hobbies. He mentally shook his head to keep away the unwanted memories that threatened to swarm him.

“Really?” The blonde’s face fell for a moment—and almost immediately Rei regretted his choice of words. “I’m sorry, Rei-chan—was I talking too much? My mom always told me not to ‘chat my friends’ ears off’—but I guess I was doing it again.” Not liking the look in Nagisa’s eyes, Rei quickly opened his mouth.

“You weren’t—” he began, blurting the words out. Recomposing himself, Rei readjusted his gasses before looking slightly to the side, his cheeks tingeing pink. “I mean, you do talk a lot, but—I don’t necessarily hate it—“ At these mumbled words, the blonde’s face promptly lit up again, which caused Rei’s stomach to flutter slightly for some reason.

Really? You don’t mind? I’m so glad!” he chirped happily. “I mean, Rei-chan always listens to everything I say, so I guess it made me want to talk a lot!” The tips of Rei’s ears turned pink at this confession, and he only gave a small grunt in response before turning back to his book. But he still listened as Nagisa continued to speak.

“So what books d’you read, Rei-chan?” The question startled Rei—he had expected Nagisa to revert back to talking about himself, not to ask something else about him. Oblivious to Rei’s reaction, the blonde kept talking, his eyes shining with curiosity. “Sometimes when I’m coming back home from school, I see you with this really concentrated look on your face while you’re flipping through a book, and I always wondered what was so interesting!”

“I—“ Rei could feel the second wave of nervousness wash through him—afraid that Nagisa would find him weird or boring, he considered lying about the subjects of his books. But Nagisa hadn’t scorned him for being a bookworm—and Rei had a feeling it would be hard to lie with those wide burgundy eyes staring at him. Clearing his throat, he replied with a hesitant voice.

“I read about—about math and science, mostly. And physics…sometimes pole vaulting…” His voice trailed off as he watched nervously for Nagisa’s reaction. Contrary to his fears, the blonde didn’t seem bored or weirded out.

“Heh~really? You must be good at math and science, then, if you’re reading those books so much!” Nagisa chirped, with a genuinely interested voice. He wrinkled his button nose slightly. “I’m not so good at math, so I’m jealous—but I really like history though! I have a few history comic books in my room if you wanna see—“ His eyes lit up when he remembered something. “Oh yeah, I have a few books about bugs, too! Maybe you’ll like them, since you said you like science!” Before Rei could respond, Nagisa was gone from the window. Soon he popped back up, a picture encyclopedia of bugs in his hands. Leaning out the windowsill, he flipped through the pages of the encyclopedia, and each time he found something he thought worth sharing, he flashed the pages at Rei. “My favorite bugs are—“ As he rattled on while showing Rei photos of some grotesque-looking bugs, Rei’s face began to pale. Nagisa was through his tenth ‘favorite’ bug when an outburst came from the blue-haired boy.

“That’s not beautiful at all!!”

“And my next favorite’s the dung beetle—huh?“ For once, it was Nagisa’s turn to be startled. Rei had bolted up from his chair, pushing up his glasses in a dramatic fashion as he did.

“Out of all the bugs that exist, why would you choose those bugs as your favorite? That makes no logical sense whatsoever! I mean, the dung beetle spends most of its life rolling excrement, for God’s sake!!”

“Eh—Rei-chan?” Surprised that the usually quiet boy was being so wordy, Nagisa watched and listened in fascination as Rei continued to spout long, difficult-sounding words and countless facts to support his argument, addressing each and every bug that Nagisa had called his favorite. When he was finished, Rei concluded with the statement that “Logically speaking there is no way those insects fit any definition of beauty whatsoever!” After finishing his last sentence, the blue-haired boy panted, leaning down slightly to catch his breath, his face red from talking nonstop for ten minutes.

“Rei-chan…” Nagisa said with an awed voice. “That is…” The breath hitched in Rei’s throat—realizing that he had just fallen into a ten-minute rant about biology and theories and beauty in front of the blonde, he suddenly felt an urge to crawl into a hole and die. “…the longest time I’ve listened to you talking!” Nagisa finished, a broad smile on his face. “Even though I had no idea what you were saying half of the time—that was amazing!” At this unforeseen reaction, Rei could only gape silently at the blonde like a fish out of water.

“Well, it’s true, I don’t think that all those bugs are pretty either, but I still think they’re cool!” Nagisa went on. “I do have a bug I really like that’s totally beautiful, though—it’s my most favorite bug too!” Flipping towards the end of the encyclopedia, he stopped when he found the page. “There it is!” He turned the book towards Rei.

“I always love seeing butterflies, but this one’s my absolute favorite!” he chirped. Rei peered at the page—the butterfly in the photo was mostly a bluish purple, dotted with white spots and the edges of its wings black. The heading on the page read ‘The Purple Emperor’. “Apparently, these butterflies can only be found in Europe, so I’ve never actually seen one—but if I ever go to Europe I hope I can!” He pointed to one picture where a ray of sunlight was hitting the butterfly, making part of its wings shine an iridescent purple. “It says here that when the sun hits them their wings glow purple like this!” The blonde looked up, his eyes directly meeting Rei’s. “It’s almost as beautiful as the color your eyes, Rei-chan!” At the last remark, Rei sputtered in surprise, feeling the heat return to his cheeks.

“I—my eyes—“ All of a sudden, he felt his heart rate speed up, and it felt like butterflies had popped up in his stomach and were fluttering around. He couldn’t bring himself to tear his eyes away from Nagisa’s burgundy ones, which were shining with sincerity as he grinned at Rei.

It was a good thing an actual butterfly flew through the air between them, breaking the awkward moment (that is, awkward for Rei). Nagisa’s eyes flickered in recognition before widening in delight.

“Oh, look! A butterfly!” he said eagerly, dropping his book on the floor of his room. He leaned further out the windowsill, causing Rei to worry that he was going to fall over it. As if it had known about Rei’s concern, the butterfly flew towards Nagisa before he could lean out further, its white wings fluttering gracefully in the wind. Laughing and clapping his hands in delight, Nagisa watched the butterfly flying closer—

And blinked in surprise when the butterfly landed on his mouth.

For a moment, Rei was surprised as well. Then, an unexpected thing happened.

A burst of laughter rang through the air. And it wasn’t Nagisa’s. It was Rei’s—and soon, he was laughing louder, one hand on the windowsill and the other on his stomach. He didn’t know what had gotten into him, but the sight of the little blonde boy silent with surprise for once, and with a butterfly over his mouth, just seemed funny all of a sudden. He was so amused that he didn’t notice said blonde’s burgundy eyes widening as they watched him laugh.

When he had finally calmed down, Rei found Nagisa standing very still, the butterfly still on his mouth.

The high-pitched exclamation that came next practically blew the butterfly away. It flew out the window and away from Nagisa as the boy nearly thrust himself out the window, leaning over the sill precariously.

“Rei-chan laughed!!” The blonde’s eyes shone like rubies as he beamed at Rei. “I can’t believe it!! You finally laughed!!” Taken aback, Rei stared at Nagisa, searching for some words to say.

“I—You—“ he stuttered. “You’re going to fall out your window like that, Nagisa-kun!!”

“Ehh—???” Nagisa’s smile grew even wider. “You just said my name, Rei-chan!! That’s the first time you ever did!!” Realizing what he had done, Rei reflexively clapped a hand over his mouth. His face and ears started turning red again as he abruptly shifted his glasses up his nose for the third time that day.

“I—Well I—What’s wrong with a person calling his friend by their name?!” he blurted. That only made Nagisa’s face glow even more.

“You think we’re friends now?! REI-CHAN!!” Rei groaned mentally—his face felt like it was on a furnace and it seemed that every time he opened his mouth, he was just digging his hole deeper. From the look on Nagisa’s face, he knew that he was probably never going to get rid of the blonde now.

Strangely enough, though, the thought of it didn’t bother him at all. Seeing Nagisa titter excitedly about ‘Rei-chan this’ and ‘Rei-chan that’, Rei felt a warm feeling grow in his chest. Even though he didn’t know it, his mouth had fallen into a soft smile as he watched the boy next door with fond violet eyes.

When Rei’s mother mentioned the incident at dinnertime, Rei had the sudden urge to actively avoid her eyes. So he did, his own eyes focusing on the food he was pushing around his plate as his mother’s cheerful voice illustrated what she had heard earlier that day to his father.

“It’s been a while since I heard our Rei laugh like that,” she was saying, a pleased smile on her face. “I was wondering what was going on—and I heard another voice coming from outside the house, a boy’s voice—“ She turned to Rei, eyes sparkling. “You never told me you became friends with the Hazukis’ son, dear!”

“We’re—we’re not really friends,” Rei mumbled, poking at the tomato in his salad with his chopsticks. “He just shows up now and then and talks a lot—“

“Well, that sure is good to hear, son,” Rei’s father said, smiling approvingly at him. “You should invite the boy over sometime—your mother could whip up a batch of her special pancakes for him when he does.”

“That sounds wonderful. In fact, why don’t we invite the whole family over for brunch next weeke—“ Suddenly, Rei’s mother was interrupted by the sound of the kitchen door banging shut. A moment later, a teenage boy with dark blue hair in a black gakuran uniform slunk into the dining room.

“Ryou!” “Ryouji.” Ignoring his parents’ reaction, the teen’s violet eyes flickered across the table, taking in the contents of today’s dinner. After a few seconds, he gave a tsk.

“M’not hungry.” Ryouji’s eyes brushed past Rei with a bored glance before the teen turned and headed out of the dining room, passing Rei’s side of the table.

“Wait, Ryou! At least have some bread—“ Rei’s mother called out. There was no response from Ryouji, only the sound of footsteps heading upstairs and, later, that of a door slamming shut.

From the moment he had heard the kitchen door slamming, Rei had frozen up, his shoulders tense and his eyes fixed down on his lap. Only when his older brother had walked out had his body relaxed, although the nauseous feelings that had risen in his stomach still remained. It had almost been a whole week since Rei had seen him—he usually came home later, after Rei already finished his dinner and was studying upstairs. Suddenly, Rei didn’t feel so hungry any more. Shoving the rest of his food into his mouth as fast as he could, he excused himself under the worried gaze of his mother and stood up from the table.

That night, the faint sound of rock music could be heard from the bedroom across the hall. Rei tossed and turned in his bed, trying to fall asleep but having trouble with it. It was only when the music turned off late at night that he was able to do so.

In his dreams, he was fighting to climb out of a pit he had fallen into. At one point, he looked up—and saw a pair of apathetic violet eyes stare down at him from above.

When Nagisa asked him what was wrong the next day, Rei quickly changed the subject.

One night two weeks later, when the weather was slowly getting warmer due to the approaching summer season, Rei was lying down on his bed and waiting to fall asleep. His bedroom window was open, and the night breeze that crept in past the open shutters pleasantly ruffled his blue hair. Before he could fall asleep, however, he heard a familiar voice chirp softly from outside the window.

“Rei-chan?” Rei blinked when he heard Nagisa’s voice calling him. “Are you awake?” Wondering why the blonde wasn’t in bed at this hour, Rei lifted himself off the mattress. After putting on his glasses, he crept across his room to the window. When Nagisa saw the brunette boy’s face appear, a smile came onto his face. “I thought you might be asleep already—it’s a good thing you weren’t!” Rei saw an emotion flicker in Nagisa’s eyes, something that he hadn’t seen in them very often: nervousness.

“Is something the matter, Nagisa-kun?” he asked, his tone a little worried. Nagisa looked a bit surprised before he let out a small giggle.

“As usual, Rei-chan is sharp!” The blonde leaned his arms on the windowsill. “Actually, I couldn’t sleep—because something new is happening tomorrow.”

“Something new?” Rei lifted an eyebrow curiously. Nagisa nodded.

“It was actually my dad who suggested it.” Though maintaining his smile, his gaze fell to his hands, his thumbs twiddling.

“Y’know, I actually…get teased by the older boys a lot at school.” As he said this, he let out a half-hearted laugh. “They started to pick on me recently because I’m small and I have a girly name. So, well, I’m sort of a crybaby.” Rei blinked, hearing this new piece of information. The blonde had never mentioned that he was having such trouble at school—and as he processed this in his head he felt a ball of rage curling up in his stomach. Fist clenching by his side, he wished he could find those boys and—

And what could you do about it? A voice said in his head. Rei’s eyes jolted open.

That was right—there was a reason he was in his current situation. His fist unclenched weakly, and for a moment self-deprecating thoughts flashed across his head. But Nagisa wasn’t done talking, and as the blonde opened his mouth, Rei snapped himself out of it and refocused his attention on the blonde.

“So, you see, my dad said that I should take up a sport to toughen myself up. He and my mom talked about it, and my mom registered me at the swimming club on the other side of the neighborhood. It’s going to be my first day there tomorrow, so—” Nagisa scratched his cheek sheepishly.

“Actually—I’m a little nervous about it. And I’m having trouble falling asleep—so I thought maybe I could talk to Rei-chan about it and I’ll feel better.” His burgundy eyes looked to Rei, waiting for the boy to respond.

Truthfully, Rei was at a loss as to what he should say. He had never been good at comforting others—nor did he have much experience in it. A twinge of guilt welled up in Rei as he realized he hadn’t even noticed anything off about the blonde until now. All those times he had showed up at the window to chat, Nagisa had seemed perfectly cheerful, his face lit up in a smile as he talked to Rei about this and that. To think he hadn’t noticed that the blonde was carrying any worries on his shoulders…

“Do you…” Rei snapped out of his thoughts at hearing Nagisa’s voice. The blonde boy faltered as he said the next words. “Does Rei-chan…think I’m lame now?” He fumbled with the edge of his shirt, his voice growing uncharacteristically small. “I mean, now that you know I’m a crybaby—and on top of that I’m small and I have a girly voice—they even said I laugh like a girl, too—“ Not liking what he was hearing at all, Rei slammed his hands on the windowsill as he shouted,

“You’re not lame at all!!” At this sudden outburst, Nagisa jumped slightly in surprise, his eyes widening. Realizing that he was being too loud for this time of the night, Rei quickly lowered his voice. “They’re just being stupid, those boys at your school. I bet they don’t even know you that well—that’s why they’re teasing you just based off how you look. I know better than them—I don’t think like they do. I mean, you’re always bold and friendly—you have a ton of friends in this neighborhood alone, and I’ve seen how the kids crowd around you all the time! You also know how to be funny and you tell really good stories—it’s never boring, listening to you talk…”

“R-really?” Rei was interrupted by Nagisa’s hopeful voice. “You really think that, Rei-chan?” A bit embarrassed by the flow of events, Rei nodded, a faint flush in his cheeks.

“Be, besides that, you—you’re even brave enough to chat up someone you don’t know the first time you meet them,” he said. “I—I know I wasn’t always very friendly to you. I even slammed the window shut the first time we met—honestly, I thought you’d have given up on talking to me much earlier. But you never did...all the way until now…” His own voice grew a bit smaller, but nevertheless it stayed firm. “If I had been in your shoes, Nagisa-kun, I don’t think I could have done the same.”

“That’s why I know you’ll be fine—you’ll make tons of friends at that swim club in no time. If it’s you, you can do it for sure.” Not sure how to wrap himself up, Rei looked down at his hands while twiddling his own thumbs. “So…you know...” A soft but sweet giggle came from the window across from Rei. His head jerking back up and his face red, Rei glared at Nagisa, who was laughing.

“Wh-what?!” he snapped. Letting out a last giggle, Nagisa shook his head and smiled sweetly at Rei.

“You’re the best, Rei-chan. Thank you!” Just those two phrases from the blonde were enough to set Rei’s stomach butterflies off again—and Rei felt stupid for feeling the urge to grin stupidly all of a sudden. “I think I’ll be able to fall asleep now—“ The words had barely fallen from Nagisa’s lips when they were followed by a huge yawn. Rubbing his eyes, Nagisa grinned sleepily at Rei. “G’nite, Rei-chan!”

“…Good night,” Rei replied, readjusting his glasses. Nagisa gave him a wave before turning to return to his bed, yawning again. Rei followed suit as well, taking off his glasses and putting them on the drawer beside his bed before crawling back under the covers.

Only then did he allow the stupid grin to spread across his face.

It turned out that Nagisa did, in fact, successfully make friends at the swim club. In the later hours of the afternoon, when he returned home from the club around an hour before dinnertime, Nagisa would show up at his bedroom window and tell Rei about his swim lessons that day. That was how Rei learned about the two swim club friends that Nagisa seemed closest to—one ‘Haru-chan’ and one ‘Mako-chan’, and later, one ‘Rin-chan’. He heard about everything, from the first day at the club when ‘Haru-chan’ had lent Nagisa his swimsuit and swam beautifully in the girl’s swimsuit Nagisa’s sister had placed in his bag as a joke, to the next day that the blonde had met ‘Mako-chan’ who was nice and had taught him how to swim the backstroke, to many more days following when all three of them had met ‘Rin-chan’ and eventually formed a team to compete in the relay at the regional swim competition for elementary school students. Although Rei missed seeing Nagisa earlier in the day and hearing the blonde talk about these friends so much made him feel more than a few twinges of jealousy, he was glad that his friend was doing fine and wasn’t being picked on. Plus, it was obvious that he was having a lot of fun swimming. So Rei never told Nagisa about his opinion of the sport—ever since he saw some swimmers on TV when he was passing through the living room, gasping almost desperately for breath as they struggled down their lanes, he had always thought that humans were born to walk on land and that the sport did not look very beautiful at all—because he was afraid he would somehow spoil that fun for the blonde.

Also, it seemed that the prediction Nagisa’s father made had come true, even though the way it came true might not have been to his liking. One afternoon, Rei heard Nagisa’s window opening at the usual time, and turned to find the blonde peppered with band-aids and bruises, his hair and clothes looking like they’d been in a sandstorm. Despite it all, however, the blonde had a triumphant grin on his face—was that a new gap he saw between Nagisa’s teeth? Thrusting his hand out in a V-sign towards a gaping Rei, the smaller boy said, “I beat those stupid sixth-graders up!” After debating whether to lecture Nagisa about recklessly getting into a fight or congratulate him for standing up to the bullies, Rei decided to first do the latter. Then he did the former, giving Nagisa a long-winded lecture on refraining from getting into fights—until he saw the silly pout on the blonde’s face, which made him collapse into laughter in the middle of it. Of course, Nagisa eventually followed suit, and the two boys were each rolling on the floor of their bedrooms with laughter until they ran out of breath.

By the week of the regional swim competition, the season had made a complete transition into summer and the heat was slowly getting unbearable. Now, Rei slept with the window open every night, although he always made sure to lock the mosquito net down to guard against potential burglars. The night before the competition, Rei had just slipped under the covers when he heard a soft sob from outside the window. Immediately, he put his glasses on and jumped out of bed, reaching the window in two strides. He unlocked the mosquito screen and pushed it open.

Tears were rolling down Nagisa’s cheeks as he cried at his window. Alarmed, Rei asked, “Nagisa-kun? What’s wrong?!”

“R-Rin-chan—sob—he said—sob—he was moving to—sob—Awstralya—“ the blonde choked out. “After the tourna—sob—ment ends, he’ll—sob—leave—“ Patiently, Rei listened to his friend talk between sobs, and after a while he pieced together what Nagisa was trying to say. Apparently, ‘Rin-chan’ had been planning to leave the country to study swimming in Australia, and although he was leaving the day after the swim competition, he had informed Nagisa about it today. Feeling a bit mad at this ‘Rin-chan’ for his bad timing, Rei tried to comfort Nagisa the best he could. After a considerable number of minutes, when Nagisa’s sobs had subsided down to sniffling, the blonde opened his mouth.

“Everyone is going to leave me behind—when the swim club closes in the fall, I won’t be able to see Haru-chan or Mako-chan anymore—and I won’t ever be able to see Rin-chan again—” He wiped his eyes. “And when Haru-chan and Mako-chan graduate and go to junior high, they’ll have their school swim club to join—and I’ll be at the old swim club all by myself—and I’m scared of being alone, Rei-chan.“ His voice trembled. “They’ll always be a year ahead of me in everything, growing up faster than me—soon, they’ll just forget about me completely. Even though I don’t want that at all!” The blonde buried his face in his arms.

“They won’t forget you,” Rei said soothingly. Although he didn’t personally know Nagisa’s friends, that didn’t matter to him at the moment—whatever he could do to stop those tears, he would do. “How can anyone forget you, with that loud personality of yours? I’m sure that you’ll be able to see them again, even Rin-chan-san—even if it takes a long time. Every time they grow older, you’ll be growing up too—there’s only a year and a half left before you’ll be off to junior high yourself. And even if they’re not at the swim club, you’ll still make new friends. I was right the first time I told you you’d be able to do it, so I’m sure I’ll be right again this time, too.”

“Rei-chan…“ Nagisa looked up from his arms , and Rei was relieved to see that the blonde had stopped shedding tears.

“And even if I’m wrong—at the very least, you won’t be alone.” The blue-haired boy blushed as he said the next words. “After all…I’ll still be here. And you know where to find me if—if you need someone to talk to.” Fighting the urge to leap under the covers of his bed, the brunette shoved his glasses up in an attempt to hide his red face. Luckily for him, it was night, so it wasn’t that obvious.

When he lowered his hand, he saw that the corners of Nagisa’s mouth had curved up into a teary smile.

“Did I ever tell you you’re the best, Rei-chan?” Great—now the stomach butterflies were back again, invading for the umpteenth time. Pretending to remain composed, Rei crossed his arms in exaggerated confidence, chin tilted up slightly.

“Of course. Who do you think I am?” Knowing Rei was trying to cheer him up, Nagisa giggled in response.

“I’ll always be there for you, too, Rei-chan.” The blonde beamed at Rei. “You’re an awesome friend.” At this compliment, Rei’s ears turned pink. Coughing slightly, he cleared his throat.

“You, uh, you should go and get some sleep now—after washing your face, that is.” Not meeting the blonde’s eyes, Rei added, “Good luck with the competition, by the way.” The blonde nodded firmly, his smile growing wider.

“Yep! I’ll do my best, Rei-chan!” After a quick fist pump, the blonde was gone from the window.

That night, Rei dreamed that Nagisa’s team won the competition. The next day, the dream became a reality at sunset when Nagisa dashed into his room, triumphantly flashing the medal on his neck behind the window for Rei to see. Although the rims of his friend’s eyes were a little red—presumably from telling ‘Rin-chan’ goodbye—Rei only smiled and congratulated the boy.

They each sat at the windowsill and chatted until Rei’s mother called him downstairs for dinner. Feeling as if he himself had been the one to win the medal, the brunette could not stop smiling even as he sat at the table, chewing on his beef roast.

Chapter Text

Here is an illustration I drew for this fanfic :D Hope it relieves some of the angst!

 

It happened one day in the fall, when the leaves of the Hazukis’ maple tree had turned an array of yellows, oranges, and reds.

Rei always loved this time of the year, when the scent in the air changed and the streets turned colorful with autumn leaves. They made the world outside his window seem ten times more beautiful than normal. One of his favorite autumn pastimes was extending his hands out the window to catch the bright leaves that drifted down towards him. He often pressed them into his heavier books, taking them out a few weeks later to use as bookmarks.

This year, a certain blonde was also part of Rei’s autumn scenery. Nagisa was also thrilled with the seasonal changes, the burgundy eyes that had reminded Rei of autumn leaves shining as he leapt into a pile of leaves that his sister had painstakingly raked to one side of the yard during her chores. Recalling Nagisa saying that it was his second favorite season (the favorite one being summer because his birthday was in August), Rei rolled his eyes good-naturedly as he watched Nagisa bounce around the yard from the window. Even when his sister ran out into the yard and chased after him with a pitchfork and blazing eyes, the joyful spark in Nagisa’s eyes never once faded. Rei watched in amusement as Nagisa ran inside the house, followed closely by his sister, and was only a little startled when a crashing noise came from within its walls five seconds later. Hearing an angry voice that probably belonged to Nagisa’s mother, Rei couldn’t help but chuckle. Although the smaller boy had often complained that his sisters drove him insane, he was probably more than returning the favor himself. Thinking that Mrs. Hazuki must have it hard, Rei returned to his book about quantum physics and was absorbed in it until he heard Nagisa’s window open.

“Whew! Finally, my mom’s lecture is over!” The blonde had a few leaves stuck in his hair and his cheeks were a bit pink from running around. Rei couldn’t help but find the sight funny.

“There are leaves stuck in your hair,” he pointed out laughingly. Hearing this, Nagisa’s hands reached up and touched his hair.

“Uwah—you’re right!” He picked the leaves out of his hair, letting them drift out of his hand through the window and back into the yard. “Anyways, I still think that was totally worth the lecture!” he said cheerily. “Why rake up leaves if you’re not gonna jump in them?”

“Was it also worth your sister tackling you with that pitchfork?” Rei asked teasingly. “Even from all the way up here, she looked positively murderous.” Nagisa gave a cute roll of his eyes before responding.

“Some people just don’t understand the beauty of what I do,” he said with mock pomp, hands proudly on his hips. “Especially not Evil Witch No. 2—“

“IF YOU CALL ME A WITCH ONE MORE TIME, I’M GONNA FREAKING KILL YOU, BRAT!!”

“HAVEN’T YOU LEARNED NOT TO EAVESDROP ON OTHERS’ CONVERSATIONS?!” Nagisa stuck out his tongue towards the wall that faced his sister’s room. “Geez, it’s like she doesn’t know any manners!”

“Because you’re the expert on manners now,” Rei remarked with good-willed sarcasm, an amused look on his face as he turned the page in his book.

“Well, she doesn’t!” Nagisa retorted matter-of-factly. “Trust me, I’ve lived with her for ten years. I would know!” He leaned his arms back on the windowsill. “What’re you reading about now, Rei-chan?”

“Quantum physics,” Rei responded, with one eye on the book and one eye on Nagisa. “I’m on the chapter about Schroedinger’s cat now.”

“Hm~. What’s so special about that cat?”

“Well, it’s not so much about the cat as it is about the theory—” Rei launched into an explanation, trying to word it in a way that Nagisa could understand. The blonde listened patiently, although he ended up not really getting it. When Rei finished, Nagisa had a pout on his face.

“What’d they have to kill the cat off for?” he asked. “If it was a penguin, I’d have karate-chopped that guy’s butt for sure!”

“The cat is only hypothetical, Nagisa-kun,” Rei said for the fifth time, sighing.

“Still!” Nagisa then caught sight of a white butterfly outside the window. Squealing in delight, he pointed it out to Rei. “Look, Rei-chan! It’s that butterfly again!”

“Those butterflies are fairly common around this area—there’s no proof that it’s the same one,” Rei said, readjusting his glasses in his nerdy way. Nagisa pouted.

“Geez, Rei-chan, just go along with it for once!” Sitting back down, he placed his chin in his folded arms and watched as the butterfly fluttered around between the falling leaves. “It sure is pretty!” he remarked. “Though it’s not as pretty as the Purple Emperor.” Remembering what Nagisa had said about his favorite bug—and Rei’s eyes—Rei found himself blushing. He quickly turned his eyes back to his book, pretending to concentrate. Not noticing Rei’s embarrassment, Nagisa’s eyes followed the butterfly’s path through the air. “Hey, Rei-chan.” He stared as the butterfly started to flutter around Rei’s bedroom window.

The question dropped like a bombshell and shattered Rei’s peace.

“How come you never come outside?”

Feeling the blood in his body turn cold, Rei froze in his chair, the book dropping from his hands. Seeming not to notice his reaction, Nagisa elaborated on his question.

“I mean, I’ve seen the way you look at the view outside your window. It’s obvious that you think it’s beautiful—but I’ve never ever seen you really step outside of your house. Well, I’ve seen you ride your dad’s car to places, but I’ve never run into you walking around the neighborhood—“ He scrunched his forehead thoughtfully. “Even on the weekends, I’ve never seen you outside your room—“

“That—“ Rei winced at the sudden coldness of his own voice. “You, you just haven’t seen me when I do,” he lied. “You’re always at school when I—“

“Why are you lying to me, Rei-chan?” At this question, Rei stopped short of making the excuse, heart jolting between his ribcage. Nagisa’s burgundy eyes looked a bit hurt as they stared directly at the blue-haired boy. “You’ve never lied to me before—you always said lying wasn’t beautiful—but I can tell you’re doing it now.”

“I—I don’t know what you’re talking about—“

“Is it something you can’t tell me about? Why?” Nagisa pressed on. “I’ve always wanted to ask why you’re homeschooled—but whenever I start trying to ask, you always changed the subject. Is it because of whatever you’re hiding?” He looked searchingly at his friend. “Is that why you always turn me down when I ask you to come over? And why you always say I can’t come over, either?”

“—Like I said—“ Rei’s knuckles turned white when his grip on the hem of his shirt tightened. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His voice quivered slightly.

“Is it because you’re afraid of what I’ll think?” Nagisa asked, eyes glowing earnestly. “I’ve told you practically everything about me, Rei-chan—you’ve seen a lot of my really embarrassing sides, but you never once laughed at me. You always comforted me when I was feeling really nervous or sad, and you’ve never thought badly of me for it—so I would never think badly of you for whatever you’re lying about—“

“It’s none of your damn business!” Rei’s voice snapped.

He felt a tinge of regret when he saw Nagisa’s face fall. He hadn’t meant to swear… “Just—can we talk about something else?” he asked through gritted teeth, trying to regain his calm. For a long ten seconds, he only received tense silence in response.

“What’s none of my business, Rei-chan?” The blonde spoke softly, his voice quivering slightly.

“It’s—you—“ Rei faltered. His hands clenched into fists. “It’s not something you’d ever be able to understand,” he said bitterly.

“How do you know? You’ve never talked to me about it,” Nagisa replied. “You’ve never told me the important things about you, ever.”

“It’s not something you’d understand from me just telling you!” Rei’s face darkened. “In fact, you’re lucky that you wouldn’t understand.”

“—I’m coming over there, Rei-chan.” Before Rei could stop him, Nagisa was standing defiantly on the windowsill. His determined burgundy eyes were directed at the maple tree—he seemed to be judging its distance from the window. Rei had a bad feeling about this.

“Nagisa, don’t.” Nagisa looked over at Rei.

“Why should I listen to you? You’re obviously not listening to me.” He turned back to what he had been doing, flexing his knees in preparation.

“Our front door’s right there!” Rei said tersely, beginning to panic.

“I know it’s locked,” Nagisa replied. “I saw your mom leave with the car earlier—and since you probably won’t open it, what other option do I have?”

“The option of staying put!” The blonde only snorted in response.

“No.” Bending his knees, Nagisa made the leap. A strangled yell leapt out of Rei’s throat as he watched his friend soar—

And latch onto the trunk of the maple tree with his arms. Feeling as though he might faint from relief, Rei watched with tense eyes as Nagisa wiggled his way around the trunk and barely grabbed onto one of its branches—the one that was pointed towards his own window.

“Nagisa-kun, get back into your window!” Rei choked out, face pale. “You’re going to fall!”

“Relax, Rei-chan! M’gonna be—“ Nagisa swung his legs off the trunk and hooked them onto the branch so that he was hanging off it sloth-style. “Just fine!” he finished in a grunt. Having nearly fainted at the stunt, Rei watched with sick worry as the blonde slowly wriggled up into a sitting position on the branch. Leaning back on the trunk for a moment to rest, he flashed a victory pose with his hand at Rei, grinning. “See? I’m on the branch now, Rei-chan!” Now he was only five or six feet away from Rei’s window—the closest he had been to the blue-haired boy.

“I—you—“ Rei stared at the grinning boy in disbelief. He had no idea how the blonde was looking so calm, so triumphant at this moment when the tree was more than five times his height. He didn’t even want to think about how far the ground might look from where Nagisa was sitting.

Just then, a gust of wind blew through the tree, causing the leaves of the maple tree to rustle. It brushed against Nagisa’s cheeks and ruffled his golden blonde hair, making the boy squeal in delight. For a moment, Rei was captivated by the sight—how the autumn leaves cast a mixed shadow of reds, oranges, and yellows on the blonde’s skin, how his cheeks were flushed slightly pink from the wind, how his wide smile full of crooked teeth produced a dimple and made his face glow, and most of all, those large burgundy eyes that resembled the color of autumn leaves, sparkling in boyish wonder and delight. For that moment, Rei felt as if the world held nothing but himself, the maple tree, and the blonde that sat on the tree before him.

“Beautiful,” Rei murmured…before he realized what he had just let slip and gave himself a start, a blush growing on his cheeks.

“Huh? Did you say something, Rei-chan?” The blonde blinked at Rei, tilting his head curiously.

“It—It’s nothing!” Rei yelped quickly. “Anyhow, y-you’re being reckless, Nagisa-kun!! Get down from there this instant!!” Nagisa frowned slightly at Rei’s words.

“I told you, I’ll be fine, Rei-chan!” he retorted, edging his bottom forward on the branch as he held on to it with his hands. “You’re worrying too much!” Releasing the branch for a moment, he reached out with his arm and grabbed onto a point further away from him. Grasping the branch again, he pulled himself forward, wiggling his bottom so that it was sitting at a new spot on the branch. Now he was only four feet from Rei’s window, and his smile widened.

“I think I can make the leap now, Rei-chan!” he declared excitedly. Rei’s face paled.

“Leap?!” His voice was shrill with fear. “You’re jumping from there?!”

“Yep! Unless you wanna come over here yourself, that is!” Nagisa replied cheerfully.

“I—“ Rei’s hands shook on the windowsill. “I can’t,” he muttered. “I won’t.” Nagisa frowned slightly.

“C’mon, Rei-chan.” His voice softened. “I know you’re dying to come out—and I don’t bite.” With one hand holding onto the branch, he extended the other out towards Rei with an encouraging smile. “It’s beautiful out here!”

“I…” For a moment, Rei looked at the blonde, then at his outstretched hand, then back at the blonde. Before he knew it, his right hand lifted up from the windowsill—

WHOOSH. At that moment, an ill-timed gust of wind barreled through the air, hitting the tree with force. Rei froze as the tree swayed and Nagisa lost his balance.

He only heard a soft gasp of surprise from the boy before he toppled off the branch.

“NAGISA-KUN!!!”

Everything after that seemed to happen in extreme slow motion. During what was only seconds but felt like hours to Rei, he could only stand rooted to the floor of his bedroom, a sickeningly cold wave of shock running through his entire body. In his eyes, the background flooded out to white and the only thing he could see was Nagisa lying crumpled in his yard, laying so motionlessly, his face paling by the second, his eyes closed and so deadly quiet. And then, Rei saw something red pooling from beneath his blonde head.

Blood.

He heard the sound of a window opening in the yellow house, followed by a shriek of terror. A few seconds later, Nagisa’s mother rushed out into the yard and towards her unconscious son, the blood drained from her face as she dropped to the ground and took Nagisa into her arms. He heard her calling out Nagisa’s name frantically, then yelling at her daughter to call an ambulance.

The last thing Rei heard before he fainted was the distant sound of sirens wailing.

Somewhere in the pitch black dark, he could hear the faint sound of voices.

…Saw him falling from the tree…fainted in his room…found him six hours ago…must have been so scared….

Violet eyes fluttered open to a ceiling in the dark. They blinked a bit sluggishly before opening completely. Everything was blurry…and he felt something cool on his forehead. Reaching up with his hand, he found a folded wet towel under his bangs.

Sitting up, Rei let the towel fall to the side of his mattress as he searched for his glasses. Finding them on his bedside table, he put them on and stared down at his lap in confusion. His eyes traveled across his room towards the window—

Nagisa.

Remembering what had happened, the blue-haired boy bolted from his bed and dashed out of his room. Rushing downstairs, he found his parents in the living room talking with worried looks on their faces. His mother was the first to notice her son, her eyes lighting up in relief.

“Rei, honey, you’re awake!” she exclaimed.

“What happened to Nagisa-kun?!!” Rei demanded, his face growing pale. “Is he all right?!!” His hands trembled at his sides with fear. His mother’s lips softened into a reassuring smile.

“He’s fine, dear. Mrs. Hazuki called just an hour ago—the doctor said he had a light concussion and some scrapes but nothing too serious.” The words that fell from his mother’s lips sounded like salvation, and Rei felt his entire body relax in relief. “He regained consciousness a few hours ago—I imagine that he’s resting now. He’ll be out of the hospital after three days—you should pay him a visit, dear, I’m sure he’ll be delighted to see you.” As soon as he heard this suggestion, Rei felt his relief being knocked away by a cold blast of guilt. His mother’s violet eyes looked at him gently. “You must have been so shocked, seeing him fall like that—you fainted in your room and I only found you after the ambulance left—“

“It’s my fault,” Rei whispered, feeling very cold. “It’s my fault that this happened.” His mother’s face grew confused.

“Why do you say that? Mrs. Hazuki asked Nagisa-kun how he fell, and she heard that he was climbing the tree and you were trying to stop him—“

“I—I got into a fight with him,” Rei said, his voice quivering. “When I said—that I wasn’t going to come outside, he—he jumped onto the tree and tried to come into my room—“ His mind ran over the events that had taken place earlier, and worked out the conclusion that, if he had only been honest with the boy or just taken his hand earlier, none of this would have happened. “He got hurt because of me.” Remembering the blood he had seen, his shoulders shook out of fear and guilt. He was sure that if the blonde had fallen the wrong way, he could have died.

“Oh, Rei, honey—“ His mother dashed over to Rei and took him in her arms, trying to soothe him. “It’s not your fault. I’m sure Nagisa-kun doesn’t blame you at all. If you two fought, you should apologize to him for that—but don’t blame yourself for his fall—“ As much as she was trying to reassure him, Rei only felt worse with every word.

It didn’t matter whether the blonde blamed him or not. It was because of his own insecurities that Nagisa had attempted to climb the tree. He had pushed away his friend when he’d only been trying to help, and he had gotten hurt because of his selfishness.

He never should have opened his window again that spring. As that thought crossed his mind, a grim determination rose up in him.

He decided then that he had never deserved Nagisa as a friend at all.

When Nagisa returned home from the hospital three days later, he immediately went up to his room and threw open his window. He frowned when he saw that Rei’s window was locked and his curtains were drawn closed. It was already 1 in the afternoon—knowing that Rei was an early-to-rise person, he knew something was wrong.

“Rei-chan!” he yelled loudly, leaning his body over the windowsill. “I’m home!!” Silence. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “REEEIIIII-CHAANNN~~!!!” He waited. Still, no response.

Nagisa’s frown deepened. Was Rei not in his room? He knew that if he was there, he’d be able to hear him—he remembered the time he’d successfully woken Rei up at 6 in the morning even with his window shut. He was being five times louder than he had been back then.

“Nagisa! It’s time for lunch, dear!” Nagisa’s mother called from downstairs. Throwing one last puzzled glance at Rei’s window, Nagisa turned around and walked out of his room. He decided he’d try again after lunch.

He wondered if Rei was purposely ignoring him.

Every time since that day, Nagisa had tried almost every hour that he was not asleep or at school to get Rei to open up his window. He had done everything he could think of, from shouting his name with a voice that was ten times its usual decibels to throwing marbles at his window to teasing Rei loudly in an attempt to provoke him into responding to ringing his doorbell repeatedly (almost every time, Mrs. Ryuugazaki answered the door with an apologetic face and said that Rei wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to see him, and that one time, Rei’s brother had been the one to answer, and that had been kinda scary because although he looked like Rei he was a teenager twice his size and he had told him with a pissed face to ‘get the hell off his porch’). Nagisa knew Rei was there in his room, and knowing it only fueled his determination to see him again, no matter what.

But with his attempts constantly being met with silence, Nagisa couldn’t help but wonder why Rei didn’t want to see him this much. Was he still mad about the fight they had had? Maybe he really had been prying too much for his own good. Frowning, Nagisa’s hand traveled up to his forehead where he felt the bandages that were still wrapped around it. Or was it because he hadn’t listened to Rei’s warnings and climbed that tree anyways? His shoulders sank as his frown faded and was replaced by worry. Did he not want to deal with him anymore because he had stubbornly done something so reckless?

Maybe he thinks I’m stupid and immature, he thought glumly. Maybe he doesn’t want to be friends with me anymore... He felt like he was digging his own grave, thinking such negative things. Shaking his head as if trying to shake off those thoughts, the blonde stood up with a determined gleam in his eye.

“This isn’t time to be feeling down!” he told himself, pumping one of his fists for self-encouragement. “I haven’t even apologized to Rei-chan yet—I can’t give up now!”

And he didn’t, for quite a while. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into a month. Already, the maple tree in the yard was shedding its leaves, which were falling into piles on the grass below. Normally, Nagisa would have been delighted to jump in them—his bandages had long been removed and his mother had said he could play outside again—but now he didn’t feel like it. Every time he saw those leaves or the maple tree, he was reminded of the bespectacled boy who had always sat at the window across from it. Rei loved that maple tree—even though he had never said so, Nagisa could tell from the way he had always looked at it with shining eyes.

And even now, he wasn’t at the window, looking at that tree or looking at Nagisa with his attentive violet eyes. Nagisa had stared at his window from his room, called out from the yard as he was raking the leaves, waved towards the window when he left for school every morning just in case Rei was watching behind the curtains—and each time, there had been no change. The window stayed locked and the curtains stayed drawn.

“Rei-chan!! Open up!!”

“Are you still mad about what I said? I’m really, really sorry, I swear!”

“I won’t bug you about coming over anymore, I promise!“

“It’s a really nice day today, Rei-chan! You should see how blue the sky is!”

“Please, please, pretty please, Rei-chan?”

“You won’t even have to talk at all—just listen to me!”

“I actually passed that math quiz I had last week! Lemme show you the score I got!”

“I swear I won’t ever not listen to you again—I’m really sorry for climbing the tree! You know how stupid I can be sometimes—“

“At least open the curtains! You won’t even have to listen to me—I just want to see you!”

“Rei-chan!”

Sometimes at night Nagisa saw the light in Rei’s bedroom on. Sometimes he called out to Rei, and the light turned off. Sometimes he just stayed silent, his chin perched in his folded arms, his eyes staring at the window.

One of those nights, Nagisa started talking a bit more quietly than usual.

“Rei-chan.” He looked at the window. The light was still on. Not knowing if he was listening, Nagisa continued.

“I’m really, really sorry. I mean it. I know I really screwed up.” He paused. No change.

“I was being insensitive. And stupid. And I wasn’t thinking. I just—“ His hands clenched slightly over the windowsill. His next words came out slightly shaky.

“Do you hate me now, Rei-chan?” He felt the corners of his eyes getting hot. “Are we not friends anymore?”

Silence.

Fighting to hold back his tears, Nagisa opened his mouth again for the last time that night.

“I miss you, Rei-chan.” After letting the words linger in the air for a while, the blonde stood up and closed the shutters of his window. Drawing the curtains shut, he padded over to his bed and crawled under the covers, trying not to cry.

Inside Rei’s room, the blue-haired boy turned off the light. Sinking down on the floor next to the window, he sat there like he had been for a while, burying his face in his knees.

After that day, the constant calls of Nagisa’s voice stopped coming. Everything stopped—the blonde ringing his doorbell, throwing marbles at his window, waving at it in the morning— everything. Rei knew he had no right to feel disappointed—after actively avoiding Nagisa for over a month, of course he expected the blonde to give up.

This was for the best, the brunette told himself. Nagisa would move on with his life—soon, he’d go to junior high and make new friends, hang out with them after school, maybe join the swim club there—he’d forget about the awkward kid with glasses next door that he’d used to talk to now and then. Until then, he would always keep his window shut and his curtains drawn.

But the loneliness was there all the same, occupying the space next to the guilt he had felt every day since Nagisa’s fall from the tree. Every time he came into his room and saw the closed window, he felt several emotions welling up in him, the loneliness and the guilt and the desire to just throw the shutters open…

At a point, it had gotten so bad that Rei even asked his older brother, who he wasn’t exactly on good terms with, to change rooms. He had initially been terrified to approach Ryouji about it, but his feelings about Nagisa had won out the terror in the end, at least for that moment. Ryouji had simply glanced at him with bored scorn from his bed, not bothering to turn down the rock music playing in his room.

“You’re not five,” he’d said. “Get your shit together on your own.” He’d then kicked Rei out of his room, slamming the door behind him. Surprised that Ryouji knew about Nagisa and feeling a little jarred from that interaction, Rei sighed and returned to his room.

The months passed into winter, and the New Year came soon after. The elementary school in Rei’s neighborhood had gone on winter break, and almost every day Rei heard the kids living on the same block play outside, squealing with laughter and tripping over on the snow. He thought he heard Nagisa’s voice amongst them, and he tried to ignore the twinges of loneliness that he felt each time by burying his nose in a book or solving a math problem. Now that he didn’t spend any of his time talking to Nagisa, he had increasingly immersed himself in his studies. Sometimes he went to the basement, which was the Ryuugazaki family’s own private gym, filled with various pieces of exercise equipment bought by Rei’s father. Running on the treadmill helped him relieve some of the loneliness, even if it didn’t make it completely go away.

Two seasons went by without much changing in Rei’s life. It was quieter in the house, now that Ryouji was an exam student, and the rock music stopped playing in his room. Now his brother often locked himself in his room to study, and the fact that Rei barely saw him around the house did not change. His mother continued to teach Rei his lessons at home, and although she praised Rei for his hard work, Rei got the feeling that she was worried about him. His father had gotten a promotion at his work in the spring, and since work was busier he spent longer hours outside the house.

One night in the summer, when his father actually arrived home in time for dinner, Rei heard the news.

“I heard the Iwatobi Swimming Club’s closing down for good this week.” Rei nearly dropped the fork in his hand.

“Really? That’s such a shame!” Casting a sidelong glance at Rei, Mrs. Ryuugazaki turned back to her husband.

“Yeah—I heard it from one of my associates at work. He said he used to work for that club and some of his friends who worked there were laid off recently. Times are hard this year.”

By then, Rei had tuned out the conversation. He couldn’t help but imagine what Nagisa must be feeling about this news. He knew how much the blonde had loved that swim club.

When he returned to his bedroom and was about to turn the lights on, he heard a muffled sound coming from outside his window. Rei’s stomach clenched when he recognized what the sound was. Although he hadn’t talked to the blonde for months now, he found he still hated the sound of Nagisa crying just as much as before. Maybe more now, because he couldn’t do anything to cheer Nagisa up, not without opening the window and—Rei’s hands curled into fists at his side as he stood in his bedroom listening to his friend sob.

The next day, when Rei was in the kitchen and saw strawberries sitting in the fridge, he got an idea. Before his mother left that day for the grocery store, he asked her if she could buy some strawberry candy. His mother looked puzzled at his request, because she knew Rei usually didn’t like eating sweets. But when she came home, there was a pink bag of strawberry candy nestled between the bread and the tuna cans in the grocery bag. Thanking her, Rei took the candy upstairs to his room, his mother calling out to him to not eat any before lunch lest he spoil his appetite.

But Rei had no plans to eat the candy himself. Looking at the clock on his wall, he saw that it was noon. He went to the closet and rummaged in the box of toys that he had packed away in the corner a few years ago. A minute later, he found what he was looking for—a slingshot that his brother had given him when he was younger. Picking it out of the box, Rei closed the closet door and walked to his bed, where he had spilled the pieces of candy from the bag. It had been a long time since he had done this, but he decided to try it anyways. Picking up some pieces of candy and pocketing them, he walked over to the window and peered through the gap in his curtains.

As he had predicted, the window across from his was open. Sighing in relief, his eyes darted left and right, making sure that no one would see what he was doing. When he was satisfied, he hesitated slightly before drawing his curtains open for the first in a long time. Undoing the lock on his window, he pushed the shutters open gingerly. Hot summer air blasted into his room almost instantaneously, accompanied by the sound of sunlight and the noise of cicadas singing. Blinking a bit from the sun, Rei took out the candy from his pocket and placed a piece against the band of his slingshot. His forehead creasing in concentration, he aimed the slingshot towards the window, pulled the band back slowly—and released.

The candy sailed through the air and into the window across from his.

“YES!” Rei jumped in the air, fist pumping in triumph. He then realized what he was doing and clapped a hand to his mouth, cheeks slightly pink. After clearing his throat and checking the vicinity once more, Rei took another piece of candy and placed it against the drawstring.

He only missed the window a few times, and those pieces of candy landed in the yard. But they were small, and they were hidden by the summer grass—at least until someone would mow it down. No one would guess that the candy was from him—probably. Hoping this was true, Rei wiped the sweat that resulted from the heat and mental exertion off his forehead and quickly closed the shutters of his window again, locking the lock and drawing the curtains. He hoped that the candy would cheer Nagisa up, even by a little bit.

The delighted squeals that came from outside his window in the afternoon warmed his heart for the first time in months. Even as he went to bed later that night, Rei could not stop smiling.

Months turned into years, and the seasons kept passing one after another, reflected by the ever-present maple tree in the Hazukis’ yard. Certain things remained the same: the Hazuki residence was still full of loud voices, the Ryuugazaki residence stayed quiet, and the windows that stood on both sides of the maple tree were still there. One of them still remained shut with the curtains drawn, even in the summer when the air was sweltering. The other alternated between open and closed, although from the year that Rei turned twelve, it also started to stay closed a lot more.

It was during those years that Nagisa attended junior high that the window across from Rei’s mostly stayed empty. Looking through the gap in his curtains, Rei could not catch many glimpses of the blonde in his room during those years—and even when he did, they were fleeting, with him only catching a tuft of blonde hair or the flash of a black gakuran uniform, small things like that. Whenever the blonde was actually in his room for a long time, the curtains were drawn closed. Sometimes loud music or the sound of video games floated through them, and other times it was silent. Often, Rei heard voices arguing in the Hazuki household, and the sound of Nagisa’s bedroom door slamming always made Rei jump away from the window.

One weekend, in the year that he turned thirteen, Rei was setting the table in the dining room for lunch when Mrs. Hazuki dropped by his house for a chat with his mother. They stood at the door for about thirty minutes, talking—it was the first in a while that their neighbor had visited. Pretending not to eavesdrop while placing the silverware on the table, Rei caught bits and pieces of the conversation, which was peppered with words like ‘puberty’ and ‘acting out’ and ‘bad crowd at school’. When Mrs. Hazuki caught sight of Rei from the doorway, she gave him a smile that reminded Rei of Nagisa.

“Why, Rei-kun! Hello there!” she greeted. Knowing it would be impolite not to respond, Rei quickly bowed his head.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Hazuki.” Mrs. Hazuki looked pleased at this gesture. Her burgundy eyes swept over Rei, making him feel slightly uncomfortable.

“Did you grow taller? My, you look so handsome!” she exclaimed, smiling.

“Th-thank you,” Rei mumbled, feeling embarrassed. Mrs. Hazuki turned back to Rei’s mother with twinkling eyes.

“I see he is still quite the gentleman!” she said. She then sighed. “If only that son of mine had half his manners—“ She turned her eyes back towards Rei, who had been planning to slip away into the sitting room. “By the way, Rei-kun, have you two spoken recently? You would be such a good influence on him!”

The question had completely thrown Rei off guard, and he choked on his breath, starting to cough. Before he could think of what to say to that, he heard a crash and a loud bloodcurdling yell coming from next door. Mrs. Hazuki’s face promptly fell into a furious expression as she smacked her forehead with her palm.

“I swear, I leave them alone for thirty minutes and this is what happens—“ Letting out an exasperated sigh, she turned to Mrs. Ryuugazaki with an apologetic smile. “I’m so sorry for the fuss, Reina. It must bother you, our kids always being so loud all the time.” Rei’s mother laughed good-naturedly, shaking her head.

“Not at all, Nanami. It’s actually refreshing to hear, since the men in our house are so quiet,” she said, with a smile. “Feel free to drop by whenever you like!” Mrs. Hazuki nodded.

“Of course—the same goes for you, too!” She winked at Rei from the doorway. “See you next time, Rei-kun!” With a cheerful wave, she left the Ryuugazakis’ porch, running back towards the yellow house. “YOU TWO HAVE BETTER STOPPED FIGHTING WHEN I GET BACK IN THERE!” Slam.

“She herself can be just as loud when she wants to be,” Mrs. Ryuugazaki murmured to herself good-naturedly. Smiling, she closed the door and turned back to Rei. “You must be starving, dear—let me quickly heat up that curry!” She went into the kitchen, leaving Rei standing between the edge of the dining room and the living room, thinking.

He hoped he had heard the ‘bad crowd’ part wrong. Worried for Nagisa, Rei sat at the table listening to the sound of the burner turning on.

It was a few months before his fourteenth birthday that Rei also started to feel the effects of puberty—the psychological effects, to be more specific. He frequently found himself becoming irritated whenever his mother voiced any concerns about him, such as her worries that he was locking himself in his room for too long at a time and that he didn’t seem to have much of an appetite these days. His answers to her questions became more and more curt, and during one of their lessons at home he got so fed up with her tone of voice that he stood up and bolted from the kitchen table, stomping downstairs to the basement to vent his anger through exercise. Almost every time he got angry at her, however, Rei ended up feeling bad about it. He knew his mother was just worried because she cared about him—in his family, she was always the one looking after him the most. But every time he came back to say sorry, his mother just smiled at him a little sadly, and somehow that made the words stick in his throat. He tried to make it up to her by doing more chores around the house, like doing the dishes and laundry and running the vacuum cleaner even though she never asked him to. Once, he leaned out over the window of his living room and picked the daisies that he had seen growing along the edge of their yard. He put them in a water glass that he placed on the windowsill in the kitchen. His mother had given him a hug later, and even though he had been embarrassed about it because it had seemed like something a five-year-old kid would do for their mother, he was still glad they had made her happy.

The physical effects of puberty also started to come along just a little after Rei turned fourteen in December. One day, he woke up in the morning and went downstairs, and when he opened his mouth to say good morning to his mother, a deep voice came out instead of his old voice. And almost every night he felt growth pains in bed, and he tried his best to bear through them by gritting his teeth and solving equations in his head until he fell asleep. Exercising during the day seemed to help relieve the pain—he started going down to the basement every day to work out on the sports equipment. By March of the following year, to the surprise and delight of his mother, he had shot up to a full 177 centimeters, almost as tall as his brother Ryouji was. Ryouji looked a bit put-off when this was mentioned, but he only snorted in response and disappeared into his room.

Rei secretly thought that his brother had mellowed out considerably since his middle school days—after the year of studying for entrance exams, he had gotten into the high school of his choice and joined the track team there, winning quite a few pole vaulting competitions over the years. Outside the house, he was actually sociable with tons of friends, and over the years he also had many girlfriends, although each one never seemed to last long before the next. He had even gotten an early acceptance into a college in Tokyo with teachers’ recommendations—like Rei, his brother was also a high-achiever, that is, when he applied himself. Thus, he had happily spent his third year pretty much partying and keeping his grades high enough that the college in Tokyo didn’t revoke its decision. This year, he was turning eighteen and would move out in the spring when the semester began.

Although they hadn’t really gotten along these last few years, Rei did admire some aspects about his brother—and one of those aspects included his talent with track. Hearing that his brother had been on the track team shortly in his first year of junior high was what had made Rei take an interest in pole vaulting in the first place. What he had learned from his books seemed to confirm that it was indeed a beautiful sport. When his brother had become serious about track in high school, Rei initially wondered what he looked like while making the jump. Later, he found out—although he had never personally gone to watch any of Ryouji’s track competitions, Rei had seen videos that his mother had taken at these events.

The first such video that he had watched had unexpectedly filled him with awe—the beauty that his brother exhibited when he vaulted himself up with the pole and soared over the bar—the fluidity of his jump, the graceful arc his body made in the air, and the seeming ease with which he landed on the mattress. It was as if he had been born to fly, and as Rei watched the scene from the television in the living room, a fire seemed to light inside him. After that, he had waited eagerly for his mother to return after each competition and show him what she had filmed. The books about track started to overflow on his bookcase, and every time he flipped through the pages, he wondered if, one day, he could learn to fly like that. It only made him more determined to stay as fit as he possibly could—after seeing the first video, he had started to work out more often than he had before, and he found himself looking up tips on maintaining a balanced diet and healthy daily routine. This could only be good for his physique—the muscles and abs and broad shoulders came along with the growth burst and the voice change, and once they did, his mother no longer worried about her younger son’s health as much as she’d used to.

All these years, the window in Rei’s bedroom remained closed, the curtains drawn. At some point in time, Rei had stopped stealing glances through the gap in those curtains towards the window across his. Perhaps he had unconsciously concluded that it was time to leave those memories from childhood behind—and perhaps it was because he would probably not see much of a certain person even if he did. Yes, the Hazukis still lived next door in their yellow house, but as long as Rei didn’t step out of his, the fact was simply a fact and didn’t really impact his current life. The maple tree still stood in the yard, and it was still beautiful, but the memories that came with looking at it were more a curse than a blessing. After that day in the fall nearly five years ago, the tree just hadn’t seemed the same, and Rei had lived without looking at it every day as he’d done in the past.

However, one morning in April, when his brother had left for college and Rei was, strangely enough, feeling kind of lonely from it, something meaningful happened. He was in his room, rummaging through the track-related books on the top shelf of his bookcase when he accidentally knocked over a pile that had been stacked on top of the book he’d pulled out. One particularly thick book hit him on the side of the head before falling open onto the floor, the hardcover side facing up.

“Ouch!” Rubbing his head gingerly, Rei knelt down to the floor to quickly pick up the book—he’d read a book on paper binding once before and he didn’t want to let it sit for too long lest it damage the glue on the spine and stretch out the threads. When he saw what was underneath, his eyes widened slightly.

A pressed maple leaf, dark red and crispy, was sitting on the floor. Rei recognized the leaf as one of the many he had pressed into his books when he was younger—he was sure he had tucked this particular one into the book in the autumn of the year he turned ten. Gently picking the leaf up from the floor, Rei turned it over in his hands carefully, examining it with reminiscent eyes. The leaves had seemed particularly vibrant that fall…he gently caressed the leaf with his fingers, lost in thought.

Suddenly, for the first time in four years, Rei felt a powerful urge to look at the maple tree across from his bedroom. This one leaf had become the only trigger he needed—it had been tucked away in that thick book for four years, and just when he had thought that he might not need that tree anymore, there it had dropped, onto the floor of his bedroom. A familiar-sounding voice in his mind chirped that it was fate—Rei hastily pushed it to the back of his mind. But he couldn’t fight the sudden pang that shot through him—something that closely resembled the feeling of homesickness.

Slowly placing the leaf back in the book, Rei picked up all the other books as well and placed them back on his bookcase. His eyes then turned to the closed window in his bedroom, then to the clock hanging on the wall. It was 10 am, and Rei knew that the school year had started two days ago for the high school in this area. His eyes turned back to the window, his longing now stronger.

Hesitantly, he stepped towards the window, his heard thumping. Closing his eyes, he hastily drew the curtains open with slightly trembling hands, undid the lock, and threw the shutters open with a bang. Apparently, this sound had startled some birds that had been perched nearby, and the Rei nearly fell back at the sound of them chirping and their wings flapping as they flew away. Instinctively latching onto the windowsill to steady himself, Rei slowly let out a breath to calm himself down. Then, he slowly opened his eyes to the scenery before him.

There was the maple tree, the same as ever after eighteen long seasons. Its leaves were a brilliant green, newly grown in the spring, its elegant branches thrust out towards the sky, the dark trunk arched with as much grace as it always had. Seeing the tree after so long, Rei felt a smile growing on his face for the first time in a long while. His eyes incidentally wandered from the tree towards the window across from him—

And he nearly fell over when he saw a pair of familiar burgundy eyes staring at him.

Oh. God. His hands clenched tightly around the windowsill, his nails digging into the wood.

He was dressed in a black uniform jacket with a pale yellow sweater, a white collared shirt, and a red tie underneath. The insignia on the jacket was not the one of the high school in this neighborhood. He was taller now and his shoulders had filled out some, but that was expected, considering the years. He still had the same unruly locks of golden blonde hair, and although his face had lost some of its baby fat, it was still youthful for his age. His nose was still the same turned-up nose, and his lips still small and pink and currently open slightly in surprise.

His eyes, deep burgundy pools that shone in the sunlight like glass, framed with pale eyelashes, were still entrancingly beautiful. And they were currently wide open and staring at Rei.

After a moment of silence only occupied by the sound of the leaves rustling in the breeze, one of them reacted. A huge smile spread across the blonde boy’s face as he leaned out the window with his palms on the windowsill, the curtains in his room billowing behind him.

“Rei-chan!!” The energetic voice, deeper than before but still high, pierced the air and shot through Rei’s ears like bullets. “It’s been a really long time!” The blue-haired boy could only stand frozen, his feet rooted to the ground, his heart thumping madly in his chest.

After nearly five years, he was standing across from fifteen-year-old Hazuki Nagisa, with only the maple tree and air standing between them.

For the first time in a long while, Rei almost felt as if he would faint.

Chapter Text


 

“Oh wow! You’ve grown really tall!”

Those were the next words that came out of Nagisa’s mouth, his eyes twinkling in surprise. “I mean, I think you’ve always been taller than me, but man, I’m kinda jealous! And those arms—have you been secretly working out?” As the blonde’s babbling filled the air between them, Rei picked a hand off the windowsill and pinched one of his thighs. Hard. He nearly winced at the pain he felt, and he released the pinch of skin, feeling dazed.

He could hardly believe it. From the moment he had laid eyes on the blonde, he had seriously thought he was dreaming—but apparently, he wasn’t.

Nagisa was real. Nagisa was standing at the window. Nagisa was looking at Rei. Talking to Rei. Leaning over the windowsill, the hem of his black uniform jacket brushing against the wood—

When it was ten o’clock and most high schools in Japan were already in session.

“—and those glasses of yours, even though they’re different, they’re still the same red that I remember!” Nagisa was chirping cheerfully. “You really like red glasses, huh? Rei-cha—“

“What…are you doing here…?” The words escaped Rei’s throat before he could catch them. Nagisa stopped talking, blinking at Rei.

“Uhm…this is my house?” he chirped helpfully. “And this is my room?”

“I mean—“ Rei began again. “Why are you not at school?” At his question, the blonde’s eyes lit up in understanding.

“Oh. That’s what you meant!” He grinned cheekily, revealing his teeth—Rei noticed that they were not crooked anymore and that one gap had filled out. Maybe he had had braces some time during the years. “Actually, my mom slept through her alarm today!” Rei blinked—this was sounding extremely familiar… “And you know us Hazukis—we can’t ever beat sleep, so here I am!” As if on cue, the voice of one angry Mrs. Hazuki exploded from downstairs.

“HAZUKI NAGISA, IF YOU DON’T GET DOWN HERE THIS INSTANT, I WILL PERSONALLY THROW ALL OF YOUR VIDEO GAMES IN THE FURNACE!!”

“MOOOM, I’M TALKING TO REI-CHAN RIGHT NOW!!! LIKE, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN FOREVER!!!” Nagisa hollered. “CAN’T BREAKFAST WAIT A WHILE LONGER?!” Rei winced slightly—the huge volume of Nagisa’s voice was still the same as ever, he found.

“MY DEAR SON, I WILL BURN YOUR VIDEO GAMES AND YOUR HORROR MOVIES!!” was the threat that returned. “AND GOOD MORNING TO YOU, REI-KUN!!” Nagisa rolled his eyes as he turned his attention back to Rei.

“She’s always liked you more than me, and there’s the proof,” he said lightly. “Anyways, I should probably get going, Rei-chan! It’s the first day of high school and I probably already missed like half the entrance ceremony—sorry for cutting the conversation short!” He turned to head for the door, but almost instantly, his head snapped back around, startling Rei. “And by the way, be there when I get back! At one!” He pointed a finger at him, as if stressing his point. “Be there!” With that, the blonde disappeared from the window in a flash.

Only then did Rei’s knees give out from under him. Crumpling to the floor of his bedroom, he leaned his side against the wall, attempting to recover from his shock.

He jumped a little when Nagisa’s voice burst through the air again.

“AND BY THE WAY REI-CHAN YOUR VOICE IS REALLY MANLY NOW!!!”

Rei stiffened immediately, his face starting to turn red. The whole neighborhood had probably heard that comment, with how loud the blonde was being. Burning from embarrassment, he wanted to crawl under the covers and die.

At the same time that he was suffering from mortification, a familiar feeling of warmth started welling up in his heart.

Until the hour struck one, Rei was pacing back and forth in his bedroom.

For the moment, he had shut his window again and the curtains were back over it. After that mind-blowing encounter, he had not felt up to sitting at the window to look at the maple tree. The alter egos inside his mind debated furiously as the minutes passed, between whether to keep the window shut and avoid the blonde as he had been up until now, or to throw the shutters open when the clock struck one. When he had lunch with his mother at twelve, she saw how pale his face was and asked if he wasn’t feeling well—Rei had only been able to croak out a weak ”I’m fine” in response before shoving the pasta on his plate into his mouth. Once he was back in his room, he continued to pace around it, a deep dent in his forehead between his eyebrows.

As the designated hour approached, Rei’s heart thumped nervously against his ribcage and his hands became clammy with sweat. A million questions flooded his mind all at the same time.

What did he mean by ‘be there at one’? Does it mean he wants to resume the conversation from this morning? Does he want to talk about what happened in the fall back then? Or worse, how I’ve been avoiding him for nearly five years? Will he try to talk to me again after this? What if it’s one and he doesn’t show up? Do I want him to show up? What’ll I do if he doesn’t show up? What’ll I do if he does? Realizing he was feeling more panicked by the second, Rei shook his head firmly, trying to stop freaking out.

Relax, Ryuugazaki Rei. Take a deep breath. He listened to himself, swallowing a big gulp of air before breathing it out slowly. That’s better—now walk over to your desk, sit down, open that physics book and turn to page 59 in Chapter 4, where you left off yesterday—and just. Read. Rei obeyed the voice in his mind, going through the motions as he sat down and opened the yellow physics book. Don’t look at the clock—don’t feel nervous about the fact that it’s now twelve thirty—don’t think about how in thirty minutes, you-know-who will be there, with those huge eyes that he might possibly glare at you with while giving you a piece of his mind about what he thinks of you after all these years—Rei snapped his book shut, a feeling of dread running down his spine. This wasn’t working—he’d just been staring at the same page for ten minutes and hadn’t absorbed any of it. It was now twelve-forty, and he returned to pacing the floor of his bedroom nervously.

When it was twelve-fifty, Rei sat down at the edge of his bed. Looking at the digital clock on his bedside table, he watched as the minutes display slowly changed by one. He was on a mental countdown now—one—his shoulders tensed—two—he was biting his lip—three—his armpits were sweating—four—should he quickly go to the bathroom and get that stick of deodorant because he was pretty sure they were starting to smell—five—not that Nagisa would really be able to smell it, their windows were at least fifteen feet away from each other—six—but maybe he really should get it after all?—seven—maybe he should get up, throw some cold water on his face—eight—OH GOD THERE WERE ONLY TWO MINUTES LEFT—nine—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight—

The hopeless teen immediately jumped from his bed and walked over to the window in one stride. Stopping short in front of the curtains, his uplifted hand wavered in the air, quivering—sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen—what was he going to do?!— twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five—this was not happening to him, not after four and a half years, not when he’d chosen one of the two choices he had in front of him right now and stuck with that one all along—forty, forty-one, forty-two—he could not possibly do this again—fifty, fifty-one, fity-two—he had to be insane, after all that’d happened—fifty-seven, fifty-eight, FIFTY-NINE—

SLAM! The shutters were thrown open forcefully, the curtains nearly ripped open as the blue-haired boy’s face burst out the window. Again, the sound of birds chirping as they flew away floated into Rei’s ears. It took him ten seconds to realize what he had just done, and ten more seconds to gather the courage to look up.

The window across from him was empty.

Sighing in temporary relief, the brunette let his knees sink to the floor and his head tilt downwards. So he had just opened the window…he had just opened it…darn…Feeling nervous, he waited for a voice to call out to him.

Nothing.

He raised his head towards Nagisa’s window. It was empty. Only the curtains were there, fluttering in the breeze that came through the open shutters.

Rei glanced back at the digital clock in his room. It read 1:01. He knew it was only a minute, but he felt a wave of dread wash over his entire body. When it became 1:02 and still there was no sign of Nagisa, he threw back his head and let out a silent wail.

HE WAS PLAYING ME THE WHOLE TIME, THEN!!!!! Just when his thoughts were about to launch into a gutter of despair, he heard a voice from across his window.

“What’re you doing, Rei-chan?” Rei blinked—slowly lowering his arms, he lowered his head back down, his mouth agape and the glasses on his face slightly crooked. When Nagisa saw the expression on the brunette’s face, he let out a pft of laughter before letting the rest roll through the air. Flushing with embarrassment, Rei stood frozen while one hand tightly clutching the windowsill. Even in the middle of being laughed at, he couldn’t help but think that the boy’s laughter sounded pleasant. Noticing the look on Rei’s face, Nagisa stopped laughing and quickly wiped his eyes.

“Sorry, Rei-chan, didn’t mean to laugh at you there—“ He smiled brightly at Rei. “Your expression looked funny, so I couldn’t help it.” His burgundy eyes twinkled in amusement.

“You—when did you—“ Rei stuttered.

“Actually, I got home a little early but I really had to use the bathroom,” Nagisa replied cheerfully. “I was just taking a dump ‘til now!” Rei nearly cringed at Nagisa’s choice of words—in the past, he would have launched into a lecture about how using such words was hardly beautiful. But he wasn’t past-Rei, he was present-Rei, and after being unexpectedly reunited with his former friend who he hadn’t spoken to in years he was feeling too shy to point out anything about beauty and words. So he settled for remaining silent as Nagisa continued talking.

“Boy, was the entrance ceremony boring! But I guess they always are, huh? I thought it’d be fun at Iwatobi High, ‘cause it was named after the rock hopper penguin, but guess I was expecting too much!” He shrugged. “Oh, but my classmates were okay, I guess. I mean, they did laugh when the teacher mistook me for a girl cause of my name, but it wasn’t like mean laughter or anything, and no one made any stupid cracks about it!”

Wait—had he just said ‘Iwatobi High’? The school sounded familiar to Rei—after some thinking, he realized that that was the name of the high school his brother’s high school had often gone against in track competitions. But that school was outside the neighborhood—Rei was pretty sure he’d heard his brother complain about the distance once when one of his track competitions had been held at Iwatobi High. His brother’s high school had only been fifteen minutes away on foot, after all.

“Uhm, why…” He cleared his throat. “Why are you attending Iwatobi High School? Just—I heard it’s a bit far…and there’s another high school closer to the neighborhood…”

“Hm?” Nagisa mused for a moment. “Well, I guess it’s because it’s named after my favorite penguin?” Rei could have pointed out that it was probably named that because that was the name of the town they lived in—but again, he was feeling a little shy here. “Plus, I heard Haru-chan and Mako-chan go there, so that sealed the deal for me!” He grinned. Rei blinked—it had been quite a while since he’d heard those names. “Ah, you remember who Haru-chan and Mako-chan are, right? They’re my friends from swim club that I always kept talking about back then!” The blue-haired boy nodded in affirmation. “I was looking for them at the entrance ceremony but I didn’t see them yet, so hopefully I’ll run into them tomorrow!” He put a finger to his cheek thoughtfully. “Well, I guess it’s kinda far, since it’s a ten-minute walk back and forth from the station and it’s a forty-minute ride to the school stop—and I do have to wake up earlier than I did in junior high—but I still think it’s worth it!” He shrugged and leaned forward against the windowsill, smiling at Rei.

“So? Whatcha been up to while I was gone, Rei-chan?” Realizing that Nagisa was directing a question at him, Rei nearly staggered back in surprise.

“I—uhm—“ He cleared his throat, voice slightly raspy—it had been too long since he’d made conversation with someone outside his family. “I had lunch. And then I read. A book.” Even to him, the response sounded boring, but Nagisa didn’t seem to mind.

“Aha—I knew it!” he exclaimed. “You still love to read a lot, don’t you, Rei-chan? Oh, let me guess—it’s a book about physics, isn’t it?” Rei nodded stupidly, a bit surprised he had gotten it right on the first try. “You were always burying your face in a book, and I remember you used to explain to me about the math and science and stuff when I asked about it!” The blonde’s nose wrinkled slightly. “Speaking of math, they said we’re having a placement test tomorrow—I already sort of miss winter break. That is, the part after entrance exams ended—“ He sighed in melancholy, but perked up just as quickly. “But at least I’ll see Haru-chan and Mako-chan tomorrow! I wonder if they’re part of the swim club—I heard there’s a pool at our school, so maybe I should try going there after classes end! I can’t wait to swim with them again—it’s been so long since I’ve gone swimming!”

“You…didn’t join the swim team? In junior high?” Rei said carefully. He purposely didn’t mention anything about the Iwatobi Swimming Club being closed down—partly because he feared the issue was still a sensitive one for Nagisa and partly because he remembered what he’d done back then to cheer the blonde up—a pink tint appeared in his cheeks, and he tried to will it away, pulling his focus back towards Nagisa.

“Yeah—“ Nagisa’s voice sounded a bit wistful. “Ever since the swim club closed down a few years ago, I haven’t gone into a pool.” Hearing the tone in his voice, Rei instantly regretted even asking the blonde that question. “Oh, maybe you didn’t know—that club closed down when I was in sixth grade, after the swimming season in the summer.” He gave Rei a smile that was slightly tinged with longing. “I heard they’re finally tearing it down this week, so when I see Haru-chan and Mako-chan I’m thinking of going over there with them to see it one last time.”

“I—“ Rei faltered. “I’m—sorry.” He didn’t know what else to say. Nagisa shook his head at Rei.

“No need to say sorry, Rei-chan. After all, I’ll still have really good memories to look back on!” He knocked the side of his head with a fist. “When it’s not related to school, I have an awesome memory!” he chirped. Rei’s eyes softened fondly at the gesture—but he stopped himself before his mouth curved up into a smile.

“And about junior high, well—“ Looking back on those years, the blonde released a sigh and his smile turned a bit rueful. “Let’s just say those years weren’t really the best in my life!” At this statement, Rei’s hands tensed on the windowsill. Had he been bullied again? He hoped not—he’d heard stories about kids getting bullied in junior high on the news, and almost every time a drastic measure from the victims was involved—swallowing, he tried to stop thinking about it. He knew how brutal kids could be nowadays. At least the current Nagisa seemed fine. As if he was reading his mind, the blonde in front of him quickly piped up again.

“It’s not what you’re thinking it is, Rei-chan! I never got bullied in junior high—you don’t get bullied there if you don’t act shy or scared on the first day of school—so there’s no need to worry!” He flashed Rei a reassuring smile. “Though it still wasn’t that fun when I was there—but I’ll tell you that story another time!” He folded his arms on the windowsill and looked at Rei. “So what’ve you been up to all these years?” he asked cheerfully, as if Rei hadn’t been avoiding him for those years. “I can guess that you’ve spent some time working out—what’s the secret to all those muscles I see?”

“I…well...” Pushing up his glasses with one hand in embarrassment—even after over four years, he had never kicked that habit—Rei replied, “We have a gym in the basement…” As he spoke, Nagisa listened with attentive eyes, his chin in his arms and piping up with a comment now and then. By a certain point, Rei felt his voice flowing naturally from his lips, and he marveled at how easily he was having a conversation, an actual conversation with the blonde he had avoided for so long, one where he was talking about himself as well. When Rei finished summing up that part of his life, Nagisa clapped his hands excitedly.

“So you shot up fifteen centimeters in three months? That’s amazing! I wish I had your luck. You don’t know how many cartons of milk I’ve been drinking all this time—but I’m still so scrawny compared to others my age!” He sighed. “Maybe I should try out those before-bed stretching routines that you talked about! Though I don’t think I can handle the ‘healthy diet’ thing you mentioned—I mean, what is life without strawberry cake? And sweets?” The blonde looked a bit appalled at just the thought of it.

“Also, I didn’t know your brother did track! I always thought he looked like the type of guy who was into grunge culture—but then again I haven’t seen him since that one time…” Rei wondered when exactly that ‘one time’ had been, but before he could ask, Nagisa moved on to the next topic. “So you’re also interested in track, huh? I bet you’d be really good at it too, with how fit you are!” He lifted up one of his arms and pinched it wistfully. “I’ve never been able to put on much muscle, though—“ All of a sudden, his eyes brightened with an idea. “You said you have a gym in your basement, right? Maybe I can come over one of these days and—“ The blonde froze.

“………..” Realizing what Nagisa had just said, and realizing that the blonde realized what he had just said, Rei felt a lump growing in his throat. The sudden silence that had settled over the two teenagers was tense and heavy—Rei desperately wondered how he could dispel the awkwardness between them.

“—Sorry, Rei-chan!” The brunette’s violet eyes snapped back up from the windowsill—Nagisa had bowed his head down in an apologetic gesture, his eyes squeezed shut. “I said that without thinking—I didn’t really mean anything by it, though! You don’t have to worry about me actually barging in!“ He looked up at Rei with pleading eyes. “Please tell me you aren’t mad! Don’t—” His voice grew small. “Don’t go back in there…not when you finally came out—“

“…!” Taken aback by the blonde’s words, Rei didn’t know what to say. A mixture of complicated feelings rushed through his body—but most of all, he didn’t like seeing the blonde look so small and scared. As he finally opened his mouth, his eyes flickered—something white was flying between his and Nagisa’s windows. It seemed Nagisa had noticed its presence as well. Temporarily forgetting the tension of the moment, his eyes blinked.

“Oh…a butterfly!” The white butterfly looked similar to the ones they had seen around their houses during childhood. A feeling of nostalgia rose in Rei’s heart—he remembered how a certain sight had made him laugh years ago. That day the butterfly had flown towards the open window in the yellow house—yes, like that—and settled on Nagisa’s mouth—yes, exactly like that—

Rei blinked. Nagisa blinked. The butterfly of the present had actually landed on the blonde’s mouth. It almost looked as if it were kissing the boy—just the same as the sight had looked five years ago.

Rei couldn’t help it. A small noise of laughter escaped his lips. It gradually grew louder, trickling out of his mouth and across the space between their houses, reaching Nagisa’s ears. The blonde blinked as he realized the brunette was laughing—his eyes widened and the glow seemed to renew itself in his burgundy eyes. Eventually, a burst of laughter escaped Nagisa’s lips as well, causing the butterfly to fly away. For the first time in years, the two teenagers laughed together, filling the space between them with the pleasant sound. As they did, the warm spring breeze rustled through the gap between their houses, gently ruffling the leaves of the maple tree on a sunlit afternoon. When they finally stopped, Nagisa smiled fondly at Rei.

“I really missed talking to you like this.” His eyes were crinkled up slightly, and the warmth in them seemed to reproduce itself in Rei’s heart. It cracked through Rei’s exterior and threatened to bring out the smile that he had been trying to hide. “You were always a good listener, and I liked hearing you talk, too, about your theories and beauty and everything else. You were a great friend, and I missed seeing you around.” At this confession, Rei could feel the fluttering sensation in his stomach—he realized that the stomach butterflies were back. Flustered, he tried to avoid looking at the blonde’s eyes as he readjusted his glasses again.

“I…” He hesitated. “I…missed you…too,” he admitted slowly, feeling his ears turning red as he looked in the other direction. “Sort of….” He wondered if Nagisa had even heard what he said, his voice was so small—but apparently he had, because there were the sounds of hands slamming on the windowsill and a body thrusting itself forward, and as Rei looked up Nagisa was hanging precariously off the edge of the window, blonde locks bouncing up with the movement, cheeks tinged pink in pleasure, his eyes wide and sparkling to match the broad smile on his face as he let out a happy laugh.

Really?! You mean that, Rei-chan?!” His smile was blinding. Too awed and embarrassed to do anything much more, Rei simply jerked his head down in a small nod. The act only doubled the intensity of the blonde’s reaction, and as Nagisa nearly toppled out the window and Rei panicked and shrieked at him to get back inside this instant, the blue haired boy knew it—somehow, the blonde had popped back into his life, and this time he didn’t know if he had it in him to shut himself away from him again. And knowing this filled him with feelings of both happiness and slight terror at the same time.

They ended up talking for thirty more minutes before Rei’s mother called to her son to come downstairs for his daily lessons. Nagisa had looked a bit disappointed, but then he gave Rei a cheery smile and a “See you later, Rei-chan!”, and just as quickly as he had appeared at the window, he was gone. What was different about the empty window was that now there was hope, and even with the blonde gone, it seemed like his aura lingered there, making the empty space glow.

Ryuugazaki Rei didn’t know what to do anymore. It seemed that he never knew what to do when it came to the blonde boy next door.

Well, it seemed that said blonde at least wasn’t hesitating about what to do. Although Rei initially left the windows closed and the curtains drawn, that didn’t seem to discourage Nagisa anymore—all it took to get Rei to open the shutters were two or three calls of his name and the words “I’ve got tons of stuff to tell you!”.

Two days after his first day of high school, Nagisa told Rei about how he had found Haru-chan and Mako-chan as planned but found out that there wasn’t a swim club at Iwatobi High now. The pool he had heard about, it turned out, had been sealed off ever since the old swim team had run out of members and ceased to be. It turned out that the reason the blonde hadn’t shown up at his window the day before was because he had gone over to Haru-chan’s house and, after that, snuck into the sealed off swim club with his two friends during the night to dig up the trophy they had won at the swim competition five years ago. Although they had planned to unearth it with the fourth member of the old team, Rin-chan was still studying swimming in Australia and all three of them had apparently lost contact with the redhead long ago. Nagisa proceeded to cheerfully describe how they had just barely dug up the trophy when Haru-chan noticed the swimming pool through the club window and Mako-chan had to restrain him with all his might from jumping into it, which turned out to be empty anyways. With the ruckus they had been making, they were eventually discovered by some construction personnel, and Nagisa said that one of his teachers had scolded the three of them at school because they had been trespassing on private property, even if it was being torn down soon. Rei marveled at how reckless the blonde still was after all these years, and had nearly choked from apprehension when Nagisa had first mentioned the trespassing. Noticing the look on his friend’s face, the blonde laughed and reassured Rei that it was fine, that there hadn’t been any ghosts around despite Mako-chan’s fears, even if he had mistakenly thrown sugar on them instead of salt. Before the brunette could say that wasn’t the issue, Nagisa had moved on in the conversation.

“Like I said, making memories like those are worth the bucket full of lectures that come afterwards!” the blonde said cheerfully. “Don’t you think?” Rei only snorted.

“Be grateful that the overseer in charge decided to overlook it,” he admonished. “What if there had been suspicious people lurking there?”

“Well, there were construction people working there, so I’m sure we’d have been able to call for them if anything happened!” Nagisa replied. “But it’s sweet to know that you’d have been worried, Rei-chan! You always did give me a lot of lectures—you even used to sound more like my mom than my mom!” At this light remark, Rei sputtered for the fifth time during their conversation.

“I—I was not that naggy! I was simply trying to advise you on what, logically, the right thing to do was!” he tried to defend himself. Or had he really been that naggy? Maybe a little—but it had always been for the good of the blonde boy, at least in Rei’s own mind. Giggling, Nagisa leaned over the windowsill, his arms folded.

“Speaking of the old swim club, I remembered now—I’ve got something to thank you for!” he chirped. Rei blinked. He wondered what the blonde could possibly have to thank him for—it had been so long since they even interacted like this. Had he missed something? “See, when I first heard about the club closing when I was in sixth grade, I cried about it a little at night before I went to sleep.” Uh oh. Rei’s violet eyes started to widen in panic as Nagisa went on. “And when I got home from school the day after, I found a whole bunch of strawberry candy scattered across my room!” His eyes twinkled as they searched Rei’s face, which was now starting to slowly turn red. “And my mom even found some in the yard when she was mowing the grass! Would you believe it?”

“Wh—what a curious thing indeed,” Rei stammered, in an attempt to sound innocent.

“Oh, Rei-chan, it was you who did it, wasn’t it?!” Nagisa laughed. “I mean, no one in my family would’ve done something like throw candy into my room, and we all know Santa doesn’t exactly work in the summer! It was obvious someone threw the pieces in from outside, since there were some in the yard too and those looked like the pieces that missed—“ He imitated the thing Rei did with his glasses with his empty hand. “So, logically speaking, there was only one conclusion that I could draw from the evidence at hand!” Laughing at his own imitation of Rei’s speaking manner, the blonde smiled widely at Rei. “There’s only one person who lives across from my window, after all!”

“I…..you……since when…….” So Nagisa had known, all this time—Rei felt like diving into a hole and burying himself in the ground from embarrassment. Of course—even in the past, the blonde had been smarter than most people gave him credit for, and even if he wasn’t—well, looking back on it now, even an utter fool could have arrived at the very same conclusion. Rei had no idea why he had thought the boy wouldn’t be able to figure it out back then. Maybe he had been too distracted, feeling determined that he somehow cheer the blonde up, that he had been way too optimistic in his calculations. Now, as he began to realize this, the blonde in front of hummed in happiness before he opened his mouth again.

“When I realized they were from you, I was pretty happy. I mean, I knew you were still—well, avoiding me—but I figured that maybe, since you still did something like that, you at least didn’t hate me or anything.” His burgundy eyes softened as he reminisced about the memory. “And that candy really did cheer me up a lot! So I thought I should thank you when I saw you again!” He cocked his head a bit ruefully. “Even though I guess the thanks is a little late!“ He giggled.

“That—“ Well, the cat was out of the bag now. Or three and a half years ago. Either way, Rei decided there was no use in denying it anymore. Readjusting his glasses, he looked to the side, blushing slightly. “I don’t think it’s anything that noteworthy of thanks…I’m surprised you even remember…“ At this response, the blonde tutted and crossed his arms.”

“Rei-chan, Rei-chan. I’m the one to judge that, remember? I’m telling you, I was totally touched that you did something like that for me, and after all those times you told me I’d line my entire mouth with cavities if I ate too much candy! I’m saying thank you for it, so accept the thanks like a man!” He cupped a hand to his ears. “Now, do I hear an appropriate response?”

“…You’re very welcome,” the blue-haired boy murmured, a bit shyly.

“That’s better!” Clapping his hands twice in satisfaction, Nagisa grinned. “Maybe from now on I’ll call you my Summer Santa!” Upon hearing the nickname, Rei choked on his breath and started coughing. When he had calmed down, he threw Nagisa an indignant look.

“I would immensely appreciate it if you didn’t call me that.”

“Why not just appreciate it? Being a Santa’s totally cool!”

“Nagisa-kun, you are turning fifteen this year. I think it’s high past time that you stopped believing in Santa.”

“Age doesn’t have anything to do with it! Believers will be believers, and I’m one of them!”

“Nagisa-kun, under the laws of physics AND the laws of gravity AND many other scientific laws that govern our planet, it is physically impossi—“

“Oh, Mr. Santa, please stop being so serious!”

“I TOLD YOU NOT TO CALL ME THAT!!”

The pointless bickering went on and on until Nagisa’s mother called to her son that he needed to do his chores, now. In the end, Nagisa burst into laughter, and Rei couldn’t help but smile as well—even though he had basically been made fun of for twenty minutes over something stupid. Wiping a tear from his eye, the blonde grinned at Rei, still lingering at the window.

“Only you would argue about something so silly with scientific sounding language, Rei-chan. Only you!” His burgundy eyes twinkled. “Well, even if you’re not Santa, at least you’re my friend again!” Not expecting this last remark, Rei’s heart skipped a beat at the word ‘friend’. There was a hopeful smile on Nagisa’s face, as if he was waiting for a certain answer.

“We are friends again—right?” His voice was still cheerful, but it had an unsure edge to it.

Rei thought about it. He remembered the last night that ten-year-old Nagisa had talked to him beyond the closed shutters of his bedroom.

‘Do you hate me now, Rei-chan? Are we not friends anymore?’

Back then, he had only listened wordlessly from the confines of his bedroom as the blonde’s quiet voice floated in from outside. There had been a slight tremor in his voice—and Rei had hated it. His heart nearly broke at the thought of making something like that happen again.

“HAZUKI NAGISA! I HAVE ASKED YOU ONCE, AND I HAVE ASKED YOU NICELY!” Nagisa sighed.

“I’ll talk to you later, Rei-chan.” He turned and headed towards the door of his bedroom.

“YES!”

Rei’s voice echoed loudly through the air. The blonde stopped in his tracks, his burgundy eyes widening. Realizing that he might have shouted too loudly in his haste, Rei cleared his throat and tried again.

“—Yes. We are.” His voice was nervous, but had a firm edge to it. “If—if you want us to be,” he added hesitantly. After I avoided you for nearly five years, that is.

With a light-hearted step, the blonde turned around and beamed at Rei.

“Of course I do!”

They settled back into their old routine so quickly that it almost seemed as if Nagisa falling from the tree had never even happened. Almost. Sometimes Nagisa inadvertently dropped a word or a phrase here and there, and both of them froze up, but the blonde somehow always perked back up and changed the subject. And while Rei felt relieved, at the same time he felt guilty. He knew it was his fault that his friend felt like he had to step around those potholes, that he had to tread carefully in the conversation or else… Although they were friends again now, according to the both of them, Rei knew those unresolved issues from the past would always linger in the background, and he couldn’t help but wondering if Nagisa didn’t hold any of it against him. He was too scared to try and find out.

So instead, he let Nagisa talk about his days at Iwatobi High—the funny things that his classmates said and did, the way he drove his teachers mad with his inattention and quirky comments in class, and the times he spent with Haru-chan and Mako-chan eating lunch on the school rooftop and sometimes chatting with them in their classroom during breaks. Those two friends always came up frequently in Nagisa’s conversations—how Haru-chan was always quiet but had his quirks like his insatiable love for water and mackerel, how Mako-chan was always the huge but gentle mother hen who was able to relay Haru-chan’s thoughts and looked after both of them. The sparkle in Nagisa’s eyes when he talked about those two reminded Rei of the same shine they had taken on when the blonde used to talk about his old days at the Iwatobi Swimming Club. When Rei commented good-naturedly that maybe he should also be making friends with people his age, Nagisa laughed.

“That’s exactly what Mako-chan said the other day!” the blonde said, grinning. “He was all like ‘Is everything all right with your classmates?’ that one time, since I always eat lunch with them every day—he’s always been sweet, worrying like that.” Nagisa placed a finger on his cheek. “Well, there are a couple who I talk to more often in class—like Yamazaki and Komura and Hana-chan—and they’re great, they really are, but it’s not really the same, you know? It’s not like how it is with Haru-chan and Mako-chan—and you too, Rei-chan!” he added thoughtfully. “I’ve always been the most comfortable talking to you guys!”

Rei’s heart thumped—blushing, he looked the other way, readjusting his glasses. “I would have thought you had the capacity to become best friends with the whole world,” he commented. At this, Nagisa laughed.

“Rei-chan! It’s true I’m not as shy as I used to be, but even I have my different comfort zones!”

“Really? You, being shy? That sounds like a distant dream.”

“Ehh?? But I was a bit shy when I was younger, Rei-chan! You remember me being nervous about my first day at the old swimming club! You even comforted me back then!”

“You chat up complete strangers like they’re already your best friends, Nagisa-kun. Even back then.”

Pft, Rei-chan—you make me sound like I’m a scam artist or something!” The blonde winked at Rei. “Besides, it wasn’t like you were a complete stranger—I heard from my mom that she heard from one of the other neighbors that the family next door had a kid my age, so I kinda already knew about you!”

“That—that’s the first time I’m hearing it,” Rei said, a bit surprised.

“I was a bit curious about you, so I wanted to come along with my mom when she said she was bringing cake to your house, but she never got to it until Monday, when it was my first day of school. And by then I’d already met you.” Nagisa drummed on the windowsill with his fingertips thoughtfully. “I saw your window across from mine, but it was closed for like four days, so I was wondering when you’d show up.”

“I—I was in bed with a fever since Thursday,” Rei admitted. “I wasn’t awake for most of the daytime.”

“I see—so that’s why the curtains were drawn the whole time!” Nagisa laughed. “I remember starting to think back then that you didn’t exist—so when you finally opened the window, I was surprised. It was kinda like seeing a unicorn or something!” At this, Rei rolled his eyes.

“I’d like to think I appeared more normal than you are suggesting,” he said. “And Nagisa-kun, the unicorn is a mythological creature—“

“They exist right here, okay?” Nagisa thumped a fist against his chest. “Geez, you could stand to develop an imagination now and then!” The blue-haired boy sputtered.

“Just what are you implying by that statement, Nagisa-kun?”

“Nothing, nothing!”

“Don’t give me that!” Nagisa simply laughed. Afterwards, the two of them continued to talk until it was dinnertime.

It was summer in the month of June when Rei’s father finally took a two-week vacation from work. Although Rei’s mother had long looked forward to this time, Rei’s own feelings were more mixed. It wasn’t as if he didn’t want to see his father, but he was feeling a bit awkward—it had been a while since they had seen each other for more than a few minutes at a time, with how busy his father’s work had been.

And now that his father was around the house more, and now that Rei was older and still as sensitive as he had ever been, he noticed more things now—the way his father stared at him with pondering eyes whenever they spoke—or even when they weren’t speaking and Rei was doing something else in the room. The subtle glances that he sometimes exchanged with his mother at the dinner table whenever the three of them shared a meal together… It was like he was trying to gauge something about Rei, and it was making Rei increasingly uncomfortable. Sometimes he caught himself avoiding eye contact with his father, and even trying not to stay in the same room alone with him. He knew he wasn’t exactly being the welcoming son, and every time this happened he felt guilty for running away. Maybe his father just had something in mind that he just wasn’t ready to talk to him about yet.

The night before Rei’s brother was due back home for the summer, that ‘something’ was revealed at the dinner table. Rei had just come downstairs after talking to Nagisa again, and was eating dinner with a content smile on his face. Seeing her son happy made Mrs. Ryuugazaki smile as she studied his face from across the table.

“Did you and Nagisa-kun have a fun conversation again?” she asked Rei. Nearly choking on his piece of steak, Rei coughed and reached for the glass of water, gulping it down hurriedly. He hoped that the water would make him feel cooler, but it didn’t stop his cheeks from flushing a bit.

“—Yes. Although, I don’t know if I would call it ‘fun’ exactly, Mother….” Mostly today he had been teased by Nagisa and had tried to beat him in an argument with his theories and logic.

“So you’re talking to the Hazukis’ son again?” Hearing his father join the conversation, Rei’s eyes swiveled towards him with a bit of awkwardness.

“—Yes, Father,” he replied. He could almost hear the ‘after all this time’ at the end of his father’s sentence.

“Hm. What high school does he go to, that boy?”

“I heard he attends Iwatobi High School,” Rei’s mother replied for Rei. “It’s a bit far from our neighborhood, but I hear he’s enjoying himself there.” She smiled. “He’s such a darling—always so cheerful and saying hello first.” She had grown rather fond of the boy, having chatted with him sometimes in the mornings when she was out watering the plants or checking the mail. She had even overheard some of the conversations Rei had with the blonde, and was thrilled that her son was being more lively again.

“Is that so. Perhaps we should send Rei to that high school, then. Although I was thinking of Ryouji’s high school—“

The sound of a fork dropping onto the floor rang through the dining room. Rei had frozen in his seat, his hand still in the air where it had been holding the fork earlier. Taking note of her son’s reaction, Rei’s mother gave his father a warning look.

“Darling—we talked about this—“ Not missing these words, Rei’s eyes swiveled to his mother in confusion. They had talked about this? When? What had they talked about?

“You said when he was ready, Reina. But at this rate, he’s never going to be ready.” Mr. Ryuugazaki cleared his throat and looked at Rei. “Your mother and I have been talking about sending you to high school next year. It’s high time that you go back out there and experience society again, Rei.”

“…I….” Rei choked, feeling a lump form in his throat and his pulse quickening. “I can learn just as well….at home….”

“Son, you and I both know that’s not the issue.” His father’s violet eyes bore into his own. “The past is the past—I understand that you were shocked by what happened, but you can’t let that keep you inside forever. Or are you going to stay shut up in this house until you go to college?”

“Rihito!” For the first time in a while, Mrs. Ryuugazaki’s voice was sharp. “Don’t talk to your son like that!”

“Reina. Stop babying him. He’s turning fifteen, for Christ’s sake!” Mr. Ryuugazaki threw up his hands exasperatedly. “You quit your job to teach him at home, saying it’ll help him recover, but when is that going to happen? I sure as well know it won’t happen with him staying inside the house like this, avoiding other people like they’re the plague!”

“—That’s not true.” Both parents looked up at Rei’s voice. The teen’s hands had clenched tightly at his sides into fists, and he was stubbornly looking down at the table. “I’m not avoiding anyone.”

“…Well, you might as well be.” Mr. Ryuugazaki’s voice was quiet. “As long as you stay hiding, you always will be.”

“…I’m not going to high school.” Rei felt anger and frustration swelling up in him. “I’m sorry I ruined your plans—which, I am hearing about for the first time, by the way. Were you planning on telling me in the spring?” Hearing the bitter sarcasm in his voice, Rei’s mother looked at Rei pleadingly.

“Rei, dear—that’s not true. I—we—“ She threw a glare at her husband. “—were not going to force you to go—“

“But you wanted me to.” For Rei, it wasn’t a question. Before his mother could reply, his father spoke up.

“You are going. And that’s final.” His voice was deathly quiet.

Rei stood up from the table, chair falling back with a crash. Although his mother jolted slightly, he didn’t so much bat an eyelash at the sound.

“You can try to make me. But I won’t.” His own voice just as cold, Rei turned around. “Thanks for the meal.” He strode out of the dining room and went up the stairs as quickly as he could. The last thing he heard was the sound of his mother’s voice calling his name, before he slammed the bedroom door shut. Only when he was alone in his room did his hands start shaking, and all the while his heart had been pounding harder than a taiko drum.

After a while, he could hear his parent’s voices arguing downstairs. Even though it was only seven o’clock, Rei went to his bed and crawled under the covers, trying to muffle the sound.

That night, he dreamt that he was falling from the 4th story window of a red brick building. But for what seemed like years, he continued to fall through the air, never hitting ground. The moment before he fell, he thought he caught a flash of light brown hair from the corner of his eyes.

He jerked awake at four in the morning, his face broken out in sweat, his voice panting heavily.

When Ryouji arrived in the afternoon that day, he took one look at the atmosphere in the living room and asked if someone had died while he was gone.

Chapter Text

 

 

Instantly, Nagisa could tell something was wrong with his friend the next day.

The face that the bespectacled boy had shown when he appeared at his window at the usual time was looking off. He looked distressed, almost tired, and his mouth was set in a low, rigid line that was accompanied by a wrinkle in his forehead and dull violet eyes. The blonde hated seeing those beautiful eyes look like that, and as he was making small talk to warm up, he wondered how to go about this situation. Should he just leave him alone? He had seen how Rei acted when he was being confronted about something he didn’t want to talk about, and that made Nagisa feel cautious. But at the same time, he didn’t want to leave Rei looking so down, as if he’d just gone to a funeral or something. So he settled for a solution that he hoped was maybe somewhere in the middle. He knew the brunette always listened to him when he approached him with a problem, so although he’d been saving the story for another time, he decided to talk about it today. Plus, he was sure they would have reached the topic sooner or later, so he was killing two birds with one stone by getting it out now. Taking a deep breath, Nagisa called out to Rei with a voice tad louder than before, grabbing his attention.

“Say, Rei-chan. Wanna hear about my junior high days?” When he saw Rei’s eyes lighting up with curiosity and the wrinkle in his forehead smooth out, he almost grinned to himself. Bingo. Knowing he’d be talking for a while, the blonde leaned his folded arms against the windowsill and perched his chin on them.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but my room was empty for a lot of those years.” He lifted his hands up to idly play with a lock of his hair. “After I started seventh grade, I was never really around the house much anymore. My second sister moved out for college, and my oldest sister also went to live in the university dorms for that year. After that, it was just my mom and Nadeko-nee and me for a while.” He grinned a bit sheepishly at Rei. “Don’t ever tell them this, but when they left the house, I was feeling a bit lonely. I mean, it was the first time either of them weren’t there—I could tell Nadeko-nee was lonely, too. Even though they used to fight a lot amongst themselves, they were also really close to each other, my sisters—I told you how they always used to gang up on me and dress me in girls’ clothes like I was their Barbie doll.” Grimacing a little at the memory, Nagisa went on.

“Nadeko-nee started high school the same year I started middle school, so at the time she was a nervous wreck—you can guess how it was. First day of school, fitting in with the school kids, and the schoolwork gets harder—without my sisters around to give her advice like before, it was worse for her. And, well, I was going through puberty too, and without any brothers or even my dad around, since he was working abroad like usual.” The blonde grinned ruefully. “We were really clawing at each other back then, and boy, did it get on my mom’s nerves. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard us arguing more than once at our house, since we aren’t exactly the quietest family on the block.”

“And, well—when I was at middle school—I never felt like I was being myself. Back then, I didn’t even know what that felt like anymore.” The blonde gave Rei a pained smile as the brunette listened carefully, his face somber. “It was partly self-confidence issues, I guess—and partly because all of the kids I knew from elementary school ended up in a different class. When I made sure I didn’t act shy on the first day of school, I could tell that I was trying to act out on purpose—and I could see all the ‘cool kids’ sitting in the corner, judging me with their eyes. It was like I was trying to auction myself off for whatever value that I was worth according to them. Well, I succeeded—from then on I was part of their group. And after the first week, I really hated them.” His eyes darkened. “After getting know what they were really like…” He hesitated, looking at Rei.

“What’s wrong, Nagisa-kun?” the brunette asked, puzzled.

“Do you swear...that you won’t hate me after this?” Nagisa’s voice was uncharacteristically soft. “After I tell you what happened with them?” At the sight of the blonde looking so small, Rei’s heart clenched in his chest.

“I won’t,” he promised firmly. “I can never hate you, Nagisa-kun.” He tried to ignore the feeling of his ears going red, as delight and relief that spread the blonde’s face. After sighing, the blonde began his story again.

“As I was saying, I really hated them after I saw how they acted. They always talked about the same things—sex, movie stars, drugs, things like that. They were always mean to kids who weren’t like them—always calling someone nerdy or ugly or weird—they even went around bullying some of them. I think some of their victims actually transferred to another middle school because of them. They always sucked up to their senpais, who were exactly like them—jerks trying to act cool when really, they were just scum. After a while, they started doing things together—“ Nagisa faltered a bit before going on. “Things like smoking, drinking, shoplifting, doing drugs—they even tried to get me to do those things too. And…I did try a little beer once—but I never did any of the other things, Rei-chan, I swear! And I never drank again after that one time—I just told them it tasted disgusting and after a while they left me alone.”

“…I understand.” Rei made sure his voice sounded understanding as well so that Nagisa didn’t feel he was judging him. Feeling a bit relieved, Nagisa continued his story.

“But even after all those things, I just stayed with them. Not because I liked them, but because I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want others to see me being alone. I was a coward like that—so much more self-conscious than I ever used to be. Whenever they bullied those kids, I just watched them do it—at one point, I just didn’t care about anything except myself anymore. The days passed by way too slowly, and in my eyes they were all dull and bleak. All that time, I just sat there feeling numb, not thinking about whether I was happy or angry or sad or anything. And listen to this—I even lost my appetite, Rei-chan. It’s me we’re talking about here, you’ve seen how much I can eat—how much I can talk and eat at the same time—I even stopped eating sweets for a while. At first it was because those stupid kids would’ve probably judged me for it, but after a while it was just because I didn’t feel like eating anything. Every time I ate dinner at home I just left half of it and went upstairs. Sometimes I listened to music or I played video games to distract myself, but they never did any long-term good in the end.”

“Nagisa-kun….” Hearing the worried tone in Rei’s voice made Nagisa smile.

“Don’t worry, Rei-chan—I’m perfectly healthy now! Well, maybe not exactly your definition of healthy—but I’m definitely back on the pizza and sweets now!” He winked. “Besides, I think I regained my appetite in ninth grade, so I’ve been okay for a while.” Looking at the darkening sky, a reminiscent look crossed his burgundy eyes.

“I always felt guilty about how I used to behave, even when I was back at home. Mom tried to help, she did—but you know how it is, I was a moody, angsty teen, a real brat. She never tried to really pry or anything, I guess—but I think she knew anyways. There’s plenty of other kids in the neighborhood who used to go to the same school, after all. Those days I always came home late, even though I knew it was worrying her. She gave me a lot of lectures about being nice to my sister and not staying out so late at night. I can guess she must have been lonely too, and hurt—both of her kids clamming up whenever she asked how things were going, and losing their tempers sometimes—“ Lifting his arms from the windowsill, the blonde crammed his hands in his pockets—a habit that Rei knew he showed when he was feeling guilty about something. “Remember, my dad wasn’t there—he was abroad for about two and a half years before he finally came home—so she had to deal with two kids going through puberty, all by herself. It might have helped if my two older sisters were there, but they weren’t there, either.” His smile grew rueful. “I mean, I know I’ve always driven her crazy, but I think how I acted back then was definitely the worst. Sometimes—sometimes I think I even wanted to hurt her on purpose. And Nadeko-nee, too. I was a terrible son and a really bad brother.”

“I….” Rei looked back on that time, just last year, when he had also gone through puberty. The hurt look in his mother’s eyes whenever he got angry—the look she had had on her face when he bolted from the table yesterday… “I understand what that feels like,” he admitted softly. “I experienced similar feelings myself.” Nagisa shook his head.

“You probably weren’t half as bad as I was,” he responded. “My mom says it all the time—that you’re a good kid. You’re probably her dream son or something—and I can tell your mom’s really proud of you too!“ He grinned at Rei. “But anyways, let me get back to the story. The climax is just starting.” He coughed a bit to clear his throat.

“It was towards the end of the second semester in my second year that things took a turn. After something happened, the group that I hung out with until then broke up—I never talked to those kids again. I was never happy about what happened, though—there’s no way any of us could’ve felt happy about something like that.” He paused as the night light near the roof of the house turned on. Rei blinked—he hadn’t realized that it had gotten so dark outside. The light from the lamp highlighted Nagisa’s form, revealing tufts of golden blonde hair and making his eyes and skin glow gently, setting the rest of him back in darkness. If the moment had not been so solemn, the brunette would have advised that Nagisa turn the light on in his room. Instead, Rei stood quietly in his own unlit room, waiting patiently for the blonde to continue. It came after a long minute of silence.

“There was a girl in our group—she was dating one of the upperclassmen I mentioned before. But she was cheating on him with another guy who was also in our group. And, well…she got pregnant.” Pausing, Nagisa let Rei absorb what he had said before continuing.

“The week she found out, she was a real wreck—and back then we never knew why. She didn’t tell any of us, but she did tell that one guy she was cheating with. Apparently, that guy got cold feet—I don’t know what she was planning to do about her situation, but that part doesn’t matter. He told that senpai everything—the one that was dating her—and he found out that she cheated on him. And after he found out…it wasn’t that guy he beat up.” His voice shook a bit as he said the next words. “It was her. And because of that, she miscarried.” He registered the shock that came onto Rei’s face before he swallowed hard, and opened his mouth once more.

“And maybe, if everything had stopped there, things…things might have been better.” His fingers clenched over the cloth in his pocket. “But then—one day, she didn’t show up at school. And the next day, and the one after that, too—and we only heard the truth after a whole week passed.” He slowly looked up to meet Rei’s violet eyes. “That she had been returning to that senpai, that she begged him for forgiveness over and over. But every time she did, he…he beat her harder…and harder…and no one who knew about it tried to stop him…and because of the abuse…” His fists shook at his sides and his voice was quiet as he said the next words.

“She nearly died, Rei-chan.” As he heard those words, Rei’s eyes flew wide open in shock. A series of memories threatened to flood his mind—but, realizing that Nagisa needed him, that now wasn’t the time for this, he focused his attention back on the blonde before him. He didn’t speak—he waited until Nagisa felt up to speaking again, and after a while, he did.

“When the truth was out, everyone at school was talking about it. I can remember what my reaction was—for a second, it almost felt like I was watching a bad soap opera. Almost—but I knew it felt too terrible for that. It made me realize just how—how apathetic I’ve been about everyone around me. I knew what that girl was doing with that guy in our group—I could have told them not to cheat with each other—but I never cared enough to. Even though I always thought she was fake and annoying and everything—” He paused.

“That senpai ended up getting arrested…and I think the other guy she was dating transferred schools. One thing is for sure, I never saw him again after what happened. I never saw that girl again either—none of us did. After that, we broke apart almost naturally. I actually felt relieved that I was alone, and I didn’t even care about what gossip was going around about our group anymore. I stopped acting up at school, and I stopped acting up at home—I didn’t tell any of my family about it. My mom knew from the neighborhood gossip, but she didn’t know that I’d known her personally. I even made Nadeko-nee worry—they both asked me what was wrong, because I was so quiet for a period of time. And for a while, I didn’t give them an honest answer.” He slowly took his hands out of his pockets and placed them back on the windowsill.

“One time, I took a detour on my way home. I went to the station and rode the train a few stops. I was just walking—and I saw them. Mako-chan and Haru-chan. They were walking home from their junior high and they were having this conversation—something about mackerel and Haru-chan’s swimsuit. I noticed them walking in my direction—but they didn’t notice me. So I ducked my head and passed by them as quickly as I could. In the end, they never realized I was there.” Nagisa smiled a little sadly. “I didn’t think I could face them the way I was then. They still seemed the same as they always had been—and I felt different. In a bad way. I felt even worse about myself after seeing them, though it wasn’t their fault.”

“So I stayed like that until the fall of third year. Not making friends, not really trying to study either. I hadn’t joined a club the previous years, so I kept staying away from all of them, even the swim club.” Suddenly, the blonde smiled. “And then, something happened in the fall.”

“I was sitting at my bedroom window this one day, because I was bored and I didn’t have anything else to do. And then…I saw you leaning out one of your first floor windows.” Rei blinked—he hadn’t expected this turn in the conversation, and he found himself flipping through his memory for exactly when he had done such a thing. “It was, what, about four years since I last saw your face? I couldn’t stop staring…You were a little taller, though you weren’t as tall as you are now, although your glasses were the same, I think.“ He looked at Rei with twinkling eyes. “I remember you were picking a few daisies from your yard. I was wondering what they were for—and a bit later I heard your mom’s voice. She sounded happy—and I realized those flowers were for her all along.”

“…Ah…!” Rei remembered now—it was that one day, when he had stormed away from one of their lessons. He had felt guilty and picked those flowers for her—suddenly, he felt self-conscious. So Nagisa had been watching—he hadn’t been looking towards the yellow house, so back then he hadn’t noticed. Caught off guard and a little embarrassed, he averted his eyes from the blonde, murmuring, “You saw me then….”

“Yeah. And good thing, too.” Nagisa’s smile softened.

“Ever since that incident happened in junior high, I thought that it was much too easy to stay sad, and much harder to be happy again. But once I saw what you did…I realized that even something small, like those daisies you picked for your mom, could still make people happy. Once that thought occurred to me…I thought that maybe, I didn’t need a miracle to get through the hard times, either. Maybe, if I started off by doing something small…maybe, I could both bring my old self back and change for the better.”

“Seeing what you did that day—it gave me the push to do that ‘something small’. It suddenly made me want to talk to my mom—talk to my sister—tell someone everything. So, that’s what I did. I sat down and I told them everything, and I said I was sorry for being a jerk all this time. I even called my other sisters and told them about everything, and they came over the next day. I didn’t know that it would be that easy to get them to come home. And after that, well—I think all of us grew a little closer. I’m glad it happened, especially with Nadeko-nee, because she was in her last year of high school and she was going away for college the next year. I told you she goes to one in Osaka now—she lives in a dorm there, and she comes home every month now to visit. And you know my second sister Nao-nee moved back in—she’s still looking for a job, so she’ll probably stay at home awhile. And I told you Natsuki-nee got married last year, but she still drops by every other weekend for a meal, since she can’t cook well.” He paused for breath, then continued.

“After that, my attitude changed. I actually started trying to study—well, harder than I did before, anyways—and instead of Taneda High here in the neighborhood, I decided to take the entrance exam for Iwatobi High. I mean, it was named after a penguin, and plus, Mako-chan and Haru-chan were there! It did also have a little to do with…with not wanting to see the same people from junior high again in high school—only a little, though, Rei-chan! I even started talking to the other kids in my class—some of them didn’t want to be friends with me, because, well, because of the history—but a few of them actually accepted me. I was happy about that—you remember Komura from my class, right? He was also in the same class as me in his third year of junior high, and he helped me study for entrance exams. He’s smart like you are, Rei-chan!” Not missing the blush on Rei’s cheeks from the sudden compliment, Nagisa hummed cheerfully. “We were so psyched we passed the exam, though I guess I was probably the more psyched one, cause I already knew Komura would definitely pass. And, well, right now I’m happy at Iwatobi High! I guess that’s why I can talk about the past like this now.” His burgundy eyes shown in the lamplight as he smiled at Rei.

“In a way, I think it’s all thanks to you, Rei-chan.” His voice was soft, sincere. “If I hadn’t seen you picking flowers that day, I don’t know whether I’d be here right now.” Startled at the sudden thanks, Rei started to stammer as he responded.

“Th-that’s—I hardly think I deserve your thanks. I didn’t even know you were watching me!” he insisted, feeling flustered. Nagisa laughed.

“I know you weren’t doing it to encourage me, Rei-chan. But it was still sweet of you. And it inspired me to take action.” He grinned at the brunette. “Did I mention how I also got my mom flowers that week? I think I almost made her cry!”

“You—you did that?” Rei said, surprised. Then again, the blonde could be very affectionate when he wanted to be.

“Yup—I was totally romantic about it, too—I got her a bouquet of roses! She always said she thought roses were cliché, but I know she secretly loves them.” He laughed. “She even said it was better than the bouquet Dad gave to her on their first date!” At this comment, Rei smiled—although he felt sorry for Mr. Hazuki, the whole story sounded sweet, exactly like the Nagisa he knew. Though he would rather die than say those words out loud. Clearing his throat, he opened his mouth.

“Nagisa-kun.” The blonde’s eyes looked at Rei attentively.

“Thank you for telling me that story.” Rei’s voice was solemn and sincere, his violet eyes also reflecting the same emotions. “Even though I’m sure they were painful times for you—I hope it wasn’t because I said I was curious about it before.” He really hoped it wasn’t—he hated to think he had pushed the blonde into telling him about something so personal and sensitive.

“No, Rei-chan, not at all!” Nagisa shook his head with a reassuring smile. “I just wanted to tell you about it, so I did.” And I wanted to distract you too—but I’m still telling the truth, he added to himself. “If I didn’t want to yet, I wouldn’t have—everyone has things they don’t want to talk about, after all.”

Somehow, the way he said those last words drew up something in Rei’s heart. It was almost as if Nagisa knew. He was aware that he hadn’t had the best expression on his face—but had he been that obvious? He didn’t know the answer to that, but before he knew it, he found himself opening his mouth again.

“I had an argument with my father yesterday.” The words came out before he could think again. “And, well—after that, things have been really awkward.” Immediately, the smile fell from Nagisa’s face and was replaced with a concerned look.

“Why, Rei-chan? What happened?” The blonde hadn’t planned for Rei to come out with what was bugging him, but it seemed that had been the result. He saw Rei hesitate slightly, so he waited.

“It…was more of a disagreement, I guess,” the brunette finally said. “He…he told me to start attending high school next year.” At this, Nagisa’s mouth fell open slightly in surprise. It was promptly followed by a confused frown.

“Why? Why so suddenly?” he asked. “It can’t be because you’re not doing well at home—you’re the smartest person I know, Rei-chan. It’s not like your mother would have trouble teaching you anything.”

“He…” Rei took a breath to calm his heart down his voice, which threatened to shake. “He wanted me to…to experience society. He said…that I shouldn’t keep staying in the house all the time.” Across from the window, Nagisa’s burgundy eyes widened. All the brunette’s worries seemed to pour out in a rush after that, as if the dam holding them back had broken.

“The whole time that he’s been home for vacation, he’s been giving me these looks—and I was a bit confused at first, but I should have seen it coming—he’s even been talking to my mother about it when I wasn’t there—I don’t know why I never noticed it all these years. Now I know—every time he’s stared at me, he’s been thinking things—that I shouldn’t be here, that I’m too old to keep doing this, that I’m being a coward—“ A look of terror washed over his face as he finally voiced his thoughts aloud. “Maybe he even thinks I’m a disappointment—maybe they all do—I’ve always been this way, always introverted, always quiet, only interested in things like books—I’ve never had an ounce of my brother’s outgoing personality—and maybe it was better when I was willing to go outside, go to school like I always have—“ His hands trembled by his sides as they clenched into fists.

“I know I’m troubling them by staying inside—even if I’m homeschooled it’s not normal—I’ve heard the neighbors talk—my mother’s always had to make excuses for why I never came out, never played with the other kids in the neighborhood—she even quit her teaching job because of me—“ Rei’s voice started to shake. “Even when my father brings up talk about family trips—ever since that day, she’s always said she’d rather stay at home—all because she knew I wouldn’t go with them—even when other families invited us over for dinner, I’ve always stayed at home, and they’ve probably all asked where I was. Even my brother—after what happened, he’s never looked at me the same way—maybe he hates me for being so pathetic all the time—after all, I never felt as strong as he always was—“ His shoulders started to shake as well.

“All this time, I think—th-the only thing I did was hurt them. And it’s not like I didn’t know that on the inside—but even so, I can’t bring myself to go outside again—I don’t deserve it. Even though it’s beautiful out there—even though it would make my family happy—I just can’t do that! And I just can’t think straight anymore, Nagisa-kun—I don’t know what to do, and it’s killing me—there’s no equation to apply to this, no theory that can solve this situation. And even now, I’m just sitting here, hopelessly preoccupied with my own feelings—not being able to anything, too scared to even think about the future—and the point is—“ His face jerked down, his eyes squeezed shut.

“I have always, always hated the person that I am!”

The shout rang through the air. Even with the silence that followed, it hung in the night air between the two teenagers. Rei felt a buzzing sound ringing in his ears as he heaved breath, his eyes wide with tension, forehead sweaty, his pulse racing. When a minute passed with no response from the blonde, the brunette was too scared to look up. Now Nagisa knew what he was like, what he had done—and he probably would think he was pathetic as well. He felt a panic begin to bubble up inside him. Maybe he never should’ve done this—he never should’ve said any of this. The blonde didn’t know the reason behind it all—if he did, he would probably despise Rei even more. Maybe he wouldn’t stick around long enough to even find out—

“Rei-chan.” At Nagisa’s soft voice, Rei jumped slightly. He slowly looked up. The blonde was staring at him with sad eyes as he spoke. “Don’t say things like that. Please. It makes me sad when you do.” His hand had traveled up and was clenching the yellow vest of his school uniform tightly around the chest area. “If your family heard, I’m sure it would make them sad too.” His face turned from somber to serious as he studied Rei with his eyes.

“You said you’re hurting them, but to be honest, I think you’re the one hurting the most. I can see it in your eyes—they’re so beautiful when you’re smiling, but I hate seeing them in pain. I—I don’t know anything about what happened in the past, or why you’re shutting yourself inside—but I know you’re a much better person than you say you are, Rei-chan. Even if you never stepped out of that bedroom, I would have been able to tell. You’re one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, Rei-chan—I won’t ever forget how many times you’ve cheered me up when I was sad, how many times you’ve encouraged me when I was feeling nervous or afraid—how many times you’ve sat there and patiently listened to everything I said, no matter how silly or trivial it was—I’ve had people leave before because they thought that I was stupid or annoying or childish, and maybe that’s true sometimes, but you were there longer than any of those people, and you’ve never told me I was any of those things. Even the lectures that you gave me all the time—I know you always nagged me about things because you cared, or you wouldn’t have bothered.” After hesitating slightly, Nagisa opened his mouth again.

“Even—even after I made you mad in the fall that year—“ His voice trembled slightly. “It took a while—but when I saw you again, you didn’t leave. You still listened to everything I said, you said that we could still be friends if I wanted to—and why would I not want to be friends with an awesome person like you? Even today, after all I’ve just told you about what I was like in middle school—you didn’t judge me for my past. You still saw me for the present me, the one right in front of you. After everything you’ve done for me, how can you think that you’re anything less than what you are? I’ve told you before that you’re the best, Rei-chan, and I meant it every time I said it!” The gleam in his burgundy eyes softened as Nagisa looked at Rei, who was now blushing all the way down to his neck.

“I’m pretty sure your family loves you, Rei-chan. I’ve seen how much your mother does—when she talks about you, her eyes always sparkle, like they’re saying that she loves you to pieces. I mean, even my mom loves you, Rei-chan—you’re always one of the hot topics that come up at dinnertime—and it’s not even me, it’s my mom telling me to be more like you. If even the creepy lady next door loves you, your own family definitely loves you more. And I can guarantee it, they can never be disappointed with you or embarrassed about you or any of the self-deprecating things you just said. We both know no one believes that, at least not the people who matter in your life. Like I said, I don’t know the reason behind your situation, but everyone has their hard times—I would know, I experienced mine in junior high. No one can blame you for going through yours—no matter how long it takes, or when you decide to let them go. And none of that makes you a bad person, Rei-chan, it just means you’re human like the rest of us.”

“You’re the best, Rei-chan, and I love the person that you are. Don’t ever say you hate yourself like that again. Or I’ll force-feed you sweets and junk food until you stop!” Nagisa smiled, showing his teeth and forming a dimple in one cheek.

When Rei thought back on it, there had been a ton of moments when he had thought the blonde was beautiful. There had been so many of these moments since the day they first met that he couldn’t possibly count the number in his head. But he found, as he saw fifteen-year-old Nagisa, standing at the window as he had always been, his face gently lit by the lamplight, his golden blonde locks swaying in the night breeze, his smile wide and white, with his burgundy eyes glowing in the moonlight, Rei had to admit it—the blonde was the most beautiful he had ever seen him be. Once again, the butterflies within him started fluttering, but this time they stirred up a feeling that had been lying close to the surface of his consciousness with such strength that he at once recognized its existence in his heart. It threatened to surge out of his chest, through his throat, all the way up to his head and everything underneath. It gave Rei a start, and for a moment left him in genuine confusion.

He wondered why he had trouble falling asleep that night. And when he finally did, he dreamt of a blonde-haired boy standing in the night with the moon overhead, and a butterfly flying in to kiss his mouth.

When Nagisa showed up at his window in the morning and waved at him with a smile, Rei was puzzled as to why his heart was palpitating. When the feeling didn’t go away after some time, he decided to do some research on the cause of heart palpitations later. Steeling himself and trying to muster up whatever courage he could, he took a deep breath and walked out of his bedroom towards the staircase.

[The next stop is Tobimaru—Tobimaru Station—you may exit on your right—] As the train rolled to a stop at the station before Iwatobi, Nagisa sat at his usual seat in the compartment, swinging his legs back and forth as he hummed. He thought back to this morning, when he had actually woken up on time. He had seen Rei sitting at his desk near the window, so he’d given the brunette a good-morning wave before leaving for school. For a split second, Rei had looked a little off—but then, he had also smiled and waved back. The blonde had taken that to be a good sign—he hoped that meant the brunette had cheered up, at least a little.

Geez, Rei-chan should really know better than to put himself down like that. I’ve told him he was the best like a million times—maybe I need to tell him he’s the fabulousest? Not caring that ‘fabulousest’ wasn’t a word, Nagisa happily imagined the look Rei might get on his face if he actually told him that. Maybe he would finally smile—maybe even laugh, then probably tell him that it wasn’t an actual word. He really loved it when Rei laughed—he thought the brunette should do it a lot more often. Playing with the strap of his backpack, he was lost in his thoughts for a while—so he almost didn’t hear the name that escaped the lips of another passenger on the train. It was accompanied by a snicker, which Nagisa recognized as sounding unpleasant. Before he could look up and see who the person was, the train halted to a stop at Iwatobi and the students on the train started getting up to exit.

[This stop is Iwatobi—Iwatobi Station. You may exit on your right.]

Nagisa frowned as he got off the train, swinging his backpack onto his back.

He was pretty sure whoever it was had said the name Ryuugazaki. The snicker that had come after it bothered the blonde. Still frowning, he arrived at the school gates after a five-minute walk and almost bumped into another student on the way in.

That morning, it had turned out that only Rei’s mother was at the table for breakfast. When Rei hesitantly came into the dining room, Mrs. Ryuugazaki had greeted him with a gentle smile. She then told him that Ryouji was sleeping in, which Rei hardly found surprising. What did surprise him was the reason for his father’s absence. His mother said that he had been urgently called back for work—apparently there was a major crisis that they couldn’t deal with without him, and he’d had to cancel his vacation entirely. Then again, maybe that wasn’t such a surprise. When Rei heard the news, he had the bad feeling that he wouldn’t be able to talk to his father again anytime soon. Although a part of him was relieved, he also felt a pang of disappointment and worry at the same time—with them not being able to see each other for so long, he wondered if the damage that had been done the other night could be repaired when they finally did.

Setting that aside, it had been easier to say sorry to his mother. When her son bowed his head and apologized for his behavior the night before, she only smiled and patted him gently on the shoulder, saying there was no need to apologize.

“I meant what I said the other day, dear. It’s your choice.” She didn’t elaborate on what was his choice, but, of course, Rei already knew. The genuine way in which she had voiced this sent another twinge of guilt through his heart—and he only managed to brush it off when he remembered the things Nagisa had told him yesterday. However, when he thought of the blonde boy, the guilt in his body was replaced by a series of those same heart palpitations. He looked at his mother, who had been a biology teacher at a junior high school, and wondered if she would know the cause of them. But on second thought, he didn’t want to worry her, lest it was something serious.

The month quickly passed from June to July, and between these months Rei had managed to do a lot of research. But he still didn’t have a clear answer on what was causing those palpitations. His mother had taken him (and Ryouji, who she had forced to come along) to the hospital for their yearly medical checkup, and the doctors had said that both of them were fine. He had still been worried, though, so before he left he had privately taken the doctor aside and asked him what could possibly be the cause of such heart palpitations. The doctor had quirked up a brow and, with a smile, joked that maybe he was ‘in love’. Rei had brushed the comment aside—that made no sense when he accounted for the facts he had at hand.

It was strange. The palpitations only came when he was interacting with a certain blonde, or thinking about said blonde during the day. Rei knew it wasn’t logical to think Nagisa was the cause—it wasn’t as if the boy could physically make his heart pound, and he was acting the same as he had before those palpitations started happening. It wasn’t as if Nagisa had superpowers—and Rei knew such things didn’t exist in real life anyways. When he looked back on his memories, he recalled that he had experienced similar sensations before, such as the stomach butterflies, but not every time that he had looked at the blonde. Now, every time Nagisa smiled or laughed, or praised Rei, or even just looked at him, the brunette felt his heart clench over and over. There were also other side effects—his hands getting clammy with sweat and his face growing warm for no apparent reason were just a few of them.

Once, Rei had been so busy staring at Nagisa that he hadn’t noticed a tennis ball flying towards his open window. He had barely heard Nagisa cry “Look out!” before the ball had smacked him on the side of the jaw, knocking his glasses off. Later, after his mother had treated the bruise and the kid who had thrown it showed up at the front door to apologize, Rei wondered why he hadn’t been more alert at the time. He felt extremely grateful that the ball had not been a baseball.

When the truth hit Rei not long after the incident, however, he almost wished a baseball had hit him instead.

That night, his mother had suggested that she and Rei watch a movie together with his brother. She had made Ryouji go out and borrow a DVD from the rental shop, and once the slightly disgruntled eighteen-year-old was back, they gathered in front of the television in the living room.

“I can’t believe you’re still into chick flicks like this, Mom,” Ryouji grumbled, sliding the DVD into the player. “You’re not some lovesick teenage girl.”

“Ryuugazaki Ryouji. I do not appreciate your judgmental comments,” his mother replied lightly, but with a slightly scary edge to her voice. Rei gulped slightly on the couch next to her—he made a note to never make any comments like that himself in the future. Taking the hint, Ryouji just let out a hmph before sitting down at the far end of the couch. Soon, the movie began, and the Ryuugazaki family’s eyes were fixed on the screen.

It played for a total of two hours and ten minutes. By the end of the movie, Rei’s mother was teary eyed. Ryouji was asleep on the far end of the couch. And Rei couldn’t move.

Somehow, everything had clicked together during the movie. All of his troubles were the same troubles that the main character had been shown to have. The palpitations, the sweaty hands, his body growing hot, everything—with a dizzying feeling, he remembered the doctor’s amused comment he had heard at the hospital that day. He knew he had to do extra research to make sure—but so far….

Ryuugazaki Rei had a bad feeling that, maybe, after almost fifteen years, he really was in love for the first time.

Chapter Text

 

...

 

“—and I will quiz you on this material, so make sure you all remember this by next Thursday!”

Ding-ding- The chime of the school bell rang, signaling that it was break. A lot of the students sighed in relief when their math teacher dismissed class. Nagisa was one of them—he stretched his arms across his desk and let his torso fall onto the wood, letting out a relieved breath.

Finally it is over. I was trying so hard not to fall asleep again—I thought the look in Takamura’s eyes would burn a hole in my head!” Takamura was the name of the math teacher, and he was currently outside the classroom, so for the time being Nagisa was safe from any pieces of chalk zooming through the air towards his forehead. From the seat behind him, a brown-haired boy laughed, his hazel eyes crinkling from behind round glasses.

“You really were pushing your luck yesterday, Hazuki. After all, you fell asleep during math three times in a row.” At this response, Nagisa pouted.

“But I can’t help it, Komura—it might be more interesting if I actually understood any of it!” He nuzzled his head against his desk, letting out a whine. The boy called Komura rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

“You and Yamazaki both—you guys have literally no patience when it comes to math.” At the mention of his name, a tall boy with gelled orange hair and silver earrings seemingly popped up out of nowhere, giving both Nagisa and Komura something between a hug and a headlock.

“Someone call my name?” Yamazaki asked cheerfully, grinning. “I fell asleep at the back again—guess Takamura didn’t see me this time! It’s all thanks to you, Hazuki—you had his full attention!” Wiggling out of the orange head’s arm, Nagisa threw Yamazaki a peeved look.

“Next time we change seats, I’ll recite a curse that’ll put you back in the front for sure!” he retorted, his look shifting into a sinister grin midway.

“Yamazaki, that hurts.” Wincing a bit, Komura also shook off the orange head’s other arm. “And you can sleep hiding in the back now, but what’ll you do when it’s finals?”

“Easy! I’ll just cheat off your paper!” “You sit five seats behind me!” Nagisa giggled as the two boys went back and forth in their conversation. Thinking that maybe he’d drop by Haru and Makoto’s class to chat, he turned his attention towards the classroom door—

And heard a voice he had heard before from the hallway. His ears perking up, he got up and left Komura and Yamazaki behind, trotting to the doorway. Peering out curiously, he saw the owner of the voice walking past the hall—a square-faced boy with heavy-lidded eyes, bleached hair and a bunch of piercings lining his ears. He even had one in his bulky nose, and Nagisa had to wonder how he had gotten through the day so far without being caught by a teacher for breaking dress code regulations. By the color of his tie, which was green and loosely hanging off his neck, Nagisa realized he was a second year. The boy opened his mouth once more and the same voice came out, saying something that made the other boys next to him laugh crudely. Frowning, Nagisa tried to remember where he had heard that voice before—

‘Ryuugazaki.’ It then clicked—that was the voice he had heard on the train the other day. It had been a few weeks since then, so he had forgotten that had happened. Nagisa remembered the snicker that had followed the name, and the unpleasant feeling he had felt back then welled up in him once more. Frowning, he was about to walk out the door to approach Piercing Boy when a sly, knowing voice piped up from behind him.

“Who’re you spying on, Hazuki-kun~?”

Recognizing the voice, Nagisa was momentarily distracted. Turning around, he saw a girl with sandy hair that was pinned up in a bun with a pink rose hairclip and light blue eyes that were sparkling with curiosity and mischief; it was his classmate and friend, Hanamura Chigusa. Frowning at her voice, lest someone had heard her, Nagisa quickly shushed her and turned back to the doorway—only to find that Piercing Boy had already disappeared. Letting out a sigh of exasperation, he turned back to the girl, his face grumpy.

“Dammit, Hana-chan—I lost Piercing Boy because you distracted me!” he complained. Hana-chan lifted a brow, her grin only getting cheekier.

“Oh, so you really were stalking someone!” she replied cheerfully. “Who is this Piercing Boy we’re talking about here?” Hearing the calculating tone of her voice, Nagisa sighed.

“I don’t know—he’s just someone whose voice I heard on the train once.” He shuffled back to his desk, with Hana-chan tagging along.

“You’re stalking someone ‘cause you heard their voice once? Do you have a voice fetish or something?” Sitting at his desk, Nagisa gave her a look, rolling his eyes.

“I do not have a voice fetish—“ At least I’m pretty sure I don’t—cause I’ve only liked Rei-chan’s voice that much, he added to himself. But speaking of Rei-chan—why did Piercing Boy say his name on the train? He didn’t think Rei knew anyone with that many piercings and probably wouldn’t have known anyone like that even if he did go to high school instead of being homeschooled. His brow furrowed as he sat, deep in thought. Or was he talking about Rei-chan’s brother? But I heard he went to Taneda High, not Iwatobi— Seeing the frown on her friend’s face, Hana-chan looked at him thoughtfully before plopping down in the empty seat in front of Nagisa’s.

“If you want some data on the guy, I can work on it!” she offered—half out of genuine concern for her friend, half out of her insatiable curiosity about other people’s lives. Nagisa could practically see the thoughts cooking in her head—Hana-chan was well-known for her wide possession of information, although one would never guess the first time they looked at her. He even suspected that she had a whole network of information that encompassed every school district in Iwatobi. He also thought she’d probably been snooping around collecting info since she was a grade-schooler—although they had not known each other then, it turned out that they had gone to the same elementary school. When she had first introduced herself to him, she had already known his name despite having been absent on the first day of school—and until she explained herself Nagisa had almost thought she was psychic.

Someone’s looking a bit too eager!” Yamazaki’s voice remarked as he joined Nagisa and Hana-chan, swinging himself onto the empty desk to the left of Nagisa’s. “Is Hanamura gonna go around snooping again?” At this, the sandy-haired girl shot the guy a look.

“I would prefer that you refer to it as ‘intel work’, but yes, I was planning to!” she huffed. “That is, if you’re up for it, Hazuki-kun?” She eagerly turned her eyes towards Nagisa. It only took him a few seconds of thinking—he thought he could ask Mako-chan and Haru-chan if they knew Piercing Boy, since it seemed like he was a second-year, but he guessed that if anyone could really dig up the details, it was Hana-chan. And she never even charged any prices—she just enjoyed the spying and the gathering data themselves. Giving in, he nodded in confirmation.

“Just make sure you don’t make yourself too obvious, kay?” At this, Hana-chan beamed at the blonde.

“Of course I won’t! Who do you think I am?” Out of nowhere, she whisked out a notepad and pen. “I’m all ears, Hazuki-kun! Now tell me what Piercing Boy looks like!”

When Nagisa asked Haru and Makoto about the bleach haired boy during lunch, neither of them had known who he was talking about.

“A guy with bleached hair and a lot of piercings? I’m pretty sure there isn’t anyone like that in our grade,” Makoto said thoughtfully, as Haru silently chewed on the mackerel from his bento next to him. He turned his green eyes towards Nagisa. “Are you sure the tie you saw was green?”

“Yeah—it was definitely green,” the blonde replied, frowning. “He had this bunch of rowdy guys surrounding him, and they all had on green ties, too.”

“Do you remember what some of those guys looked like, then?” the brunette inquired helpfully. “If I recognize them from your description, maybe I can talk to them for you.” He studied Nagisa curiously with his eyes. “But why do you want to find this person?”

“Oh—well, I just thought that I saw him before somewhere,” the blonde offered, his voice feigning casualness. “On second thought, don’t mind it—I probably mistook him for someone else!” The glimpse he had gotten of Piercing Boy had somehow planted a bad feeling in his stomach—he wasn’t one to judge people by their looks, but the expression on the stranger’s face had been smug, tinged with a bit of something that Nagisa had seen before in junior high—maliciousness. He wasn’t sure if he wanted a softie like Makoto to get involved with someone like that. It was only because he trusted Hana-chan to be cautious that he’d asked the girl to help him. She was a sharp judge of character, and he knew she wouldn’t let her guard down if the target seemed anything less than a good person.

“Nagisa.” The blonde perked up when he heard Haru’s voice. His blue eyes seemed to stare right through him. “If we see him again, we’ll tell you,” the raven-haired boy promised, in his usual calm voice. But Nagisa could almost hear the second end of that sentence, one that told him not to worry. His burgundy eyes widened, then his face lit up with a smile—this was one of the reasons why he loved the older boy so much. Even if he had never mentioned that the guy might have something to do with Rei, Haru had known that whatever it was, it was important.

“Thanks, Haru-chan!” Beaming, Nagisa threw his arms around Haru, who nearly fell over.

“Oi, Nagisa! Don’t hang off me!” Haru struggled in Nagisa’s grip, nearly dropping his bento. Makoto laughed good-naturedly from the side as he watched his two friends on the rooftop.

Then again, that boy had even told him that he ‘loved the person Rei was’. After hearing something like that, how could he not fall in love?

Rei stared in panic at the computer screen before him. For the last two hours or so, he had been furiously googling stuff on the computer in the corner of the living room while his mother and brother were out getting groceries. Jumping at the foreseen chance, he had researched and read everything he could possibly find on the subject, and after two hours of surfing the web without even one break, Rei was afraid he had his answer. Now he was ninety-nine percent sure that his bad feeling had been right—he did have a crush on his blonde next-door neighbor, the one who had lived in the bedroom across from his all these years, despite the fact that he was male and probably not interested in Rei that way. He had just let his hand slip off the mouse in defeat when he heard the click of the front door opening. Jumping in his seat, he quickly closed the Internet window he had been using and bolted out of his seat, slamming himself down on the couch and trying to look innocent. He tried to will the redness away from his face when his mother came through the living room with Ryouji, both of them with grocery bags in their hands. Mrs. Ryuugazaki saw Rei in the room and smiled at him.

“We’re back! I’ll be making your favorite sushi for dinner today, dear—my, is it really that hot in here? Your face is so red!” At this innocent observation, Rei shook his head furiously.

“I-It’s nothing, Mother!” he yelped, his eyes darting back and forth nervously. “I was just, uhm, down in the basement! Running on the treadmill—yes, that’s it.” His mother looked puzzled, but for the moment she seemed to buy it.

“We can always turn on the air conditioner if it gets too hot, dear,” she told him. “Ryouji, come carry those bags into the kitchen for me!” As Ryouji passed by the couch, he stopped to smirk at his younger brother.

“You been looking up porn while we were gone, baby brother?” Hearing this, Rei felt both panic and mortification as his mouth fell open and gaped back at his brother.

“I—I was most certainly not!!” he squawked. He wanted to slap a hand over his mouth—even to him he sounded suspicious.

“Right, right—of course not! After all, you have your math books already!” Snickering, Ryouji threw Rei a last knowing glance before following his mother into the kitchen with the bags, leaving his younger brother embarrassed and wanting to die.

It was after the final bell rang, signaling that the school day was over. As Nagisa was gathering his books and getting ready to leave, Hana-chan trotted over to him with an intrigued look on her face.

“He’s not an Iwatobi student.” The blonde looked up at his friend as she plopped down in the seat in front of him. “I knew I’ve never seen someone like him around—and guess why? He goes to Asakura High, which as you know is on the other side of town, not here. I went around looking for his friends, and I saw them in their classroom so I gently asked them for information—“ Nagisa thought that she had probably threatened them with whatever secrets she had on them, she pretty much had some on the entire school. “—and they told me they gave him one of their uniforms, snuck him in just for today. When I gently asked them for more information—“ The blonde could just see it, Hana-chan threatening to tell a teacher about them sneaking an outside visitor in. “—I got his name from them!” Grinning, she held up her notepad, where the name was scribbled.

“Guy’s called Kanemiya Shizuo! He is actually a second year in high school, and he’s famous at Asakura for being a thug, pretty much. He’s had a whole history of bullying in junior high and high school—but it looks like he’s gotten away with it every time. Apparently he’s the son of someone on the school district board, so his parent’s got the wheels rolling behind the scenes.” Hana-chan frowned as she remembered the next thing. “Though I couldn’t gather any data from before his seventh grade year—but I’ll dig around some more for that!” she decided. “Plus, I think I’ve heard this guy’s name somewhere before, but I can’t really remember when or where. But I’ll figure it out when I get more info!” She looked at Nagisa with sparkling eyes. “So? What do you have to say?” Nagisa rolled his eyes but grinned at his friend.

“Hana-chan. You are amazing,” he declared solemnly, taking both hands in his in a gesture of respect and thanks. Hana-chan laughed as she stood up from her desk.

“Anything for a friend, Hazuki-kun” she replied cheerfully, and Nagisa knew it was at least half true. “I’ll keep you updated as I do my research! See you tomorrow~!” Humming, she got up from the seat and ran after some of her girlfriends. “Wait up, guys!”

As soon as she was gone, the smile on Nagisa’s face was replaced by a worried frown. So the guy was known for his past bullying—this didn’t feel good. He might have thought it was Rei’s brother that was involved and not Rei, but judging from both Ryouji’s personality and his age, he found it kind of unlikely that Piercing Boy—oh right, his name was Kanemiya—would refer to the older guy with a sneer in his voice. Nagisa was a good judge of people’s emotions—there had been a confident edge to Kanemiya’s mocking voice. Almost as if he had put down someone in the past and was being triumphant about it—at that thought, his frown deepened even more, as well as his worries.

“Why the frown, Hazuki?” Komura’s voice said from beside him. Nagisa looked up at his friend, who was standing in the aisle with Yamazaki behind him. “Is there something bothering you?”

“Ah—nah, it’s nothing!” The blonde shook his head and gave them a smile. “Just thinking about something, that’s all.”

“Hey, you wanna hit the arcade with us?” Yamazaki piped up. “This time I’ll crush you at Tekken for sure!”

“Nah—you two can just go. M’not really feeling up to it today,” Nagisa replied. The blonde’s behavior had Komura and Yamazaki exchanging puzzled glances. Then, as he remembered something, Komura’s eyes lit up.

“I forgot to tell you, Hazuki—I found this in the notebook you borrowed from me.” He dug through his bag before taking out an envelope. “I meant to hand it over yesterday, but I forgot to.” Nagisa’s heart sank when he saw the envelope—the first time he had seen it in his mailbox, he’d just stuffed it in his bag and brought it to school with him. It must have gotten stuck between the pages of Komura’s notebook when he had taken it home with him the other day. The gold letters on the envelope read ‘Kitagawa Elementary School Class of ’09 Reunion.’ He’d completely forgotten about it over the past few days. Seeming to read his mind, Komura smiled encouragingly at the blonde, whose face had fallen from seeing the invitation.

“It’s an invitation to your elementary school reunion, Hazuki. Not a funeral.” ’And not a middle school reunion.’ Nagisa could hear the unspoken words hanging in the air and sighed.

“Yeah—but a lot of them moved on to the same junior high as us, remember?” he said. “And they all know what I’ve been doing those years—they won’t exactly have a field day when I show up.” It felt too depressing, even just imagining the tension he might feel at such a gathering.

“So? Doesn’t that just mean you and those guys’ll be even friendlier?” Yamazaki asked, his face puzzled. Ignoring the orange head, Komura patted the blonde lightly on the shoulder.

“I heard Hanamura’s going, too—you guys are from the same elementary school, right? You should go with her, if you want to go.” Nagisa sighed, then turned his attention back to the invitation, which he felt like crumpling his hand. But since Komura had gone to the trouble of giving it back, he decided to just stuff it in his bag again.

“Oi, Komura—you just ignored me, didn’t you?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Yamazaki.”

As he walked out of the school building with his friends, Nagisa tried to forget about the invitation and thought about Rei and Kanemiya instead. He wondered how Rei might react if he heard him say Kanemiya’s name. But he sort of felt like that wasn’t a good idea—he didn’t know what territory he’d be treading upon with that, after all. Saying goodbye to his friends at the station, the blonde boarded the train for home, lost in thought for a long time.

When he finally snapped to attention, he realized that he had missed his station and was already four stops away from it. He had to ride the train to the last station before he could ride it in the opposite direction, and when he got home the sky had already started to turn orange.

As the minutes passed in his room, Rei fiddled with his fingers restlessly, sitting at his desk with a book open. He had attempted to read the pages, but found that he couldn’t concentrate—he was too nervous about seeing Nagisa again. At the same time, he was starting to get a bit worried—the blonde had not returned home around his usual time, and between that time and now the sun had already begun setting in the horizon.

He was still staring out his window when his mother came into the room with plate of strawberries in her hand that she had prepared for desert after dinner, and a fork. She saw how her son was looking towards the Hazukis’ residence. Smiling, she walked up to Rei’s desk and placed the plate of fruit on his desk.

“Waiting for Nagisa-kun again?” she asked. Jumping at her voice, Rei turned around in his seat and gaped at his mother. He hadn’t even heard her coming in. Chuckling, his mother also looked towards the Hazukis’ residence, her eyes softening.

“He’s such a nice boy, Rei. I’m glad you two became friends again.” She ruffled her son’s hair affectionately. “If only you and your brother got along half as well!” At this comment, Rei stiffened slightly, looking at his mother with an apologetic face.

“I…I’m sorry…” His mother shook her head.

“It’s nothing to be sorry for, dear—Ryouji’s had a lot of off days since those years. We all have.” Her voice was gentle. “I know your brother loves you, dear—he just doesn’t always know how to show it. And your father, too—I’m sure he’ll understand if you sit down and talk to him.”

“…I hope so,” Rei replied softly, smiling back at his mother to reassure her. Mrs. Ryuugazaki’s eyes twinkled.

“You know so.” She gave her son a pat on the shoulder. “Tell Nagisa-kun hello for me, hon.” She kissed Rei on the cheek and left the room, closing the door. Smiling, Rei turned back towards the window—and nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw who he’d been waiting for.

“Aww, Rei-chan, that was so SWEET!” Nagisa beamed at Rei’s shocked face as he leaned out the window. “I didn’t think mothers kissed their sons like that in Japan—it’s so heartwarming!” Upon seeing the blonde smile, Rei froze—those palpitations were starting up again, and his face was most definitely starting to warm up, even for the summer.

“Na, Nagisa-kun…” he stammered, trying to calm down. “Just—just what were you doing out so late?!” He was embarrassed by how his voice ended that sentence with a yelp.

“Ah—well, about that—“ In his bedroom, Nagisa fought to keep a straight expression as he tried not to think about the thoughts he’d had on the train. “Actually, I fell asleep on the train, and before I knew it I rode past my stop! So I had to ride to the end and then ride back—“ He scratched one cheek with a finger as he grinned sheepishly—at least half of it wasn’t a lie. “That’s why I’m home now!”

“O-oh—I see—“ Shifting his glasses up his nose, Rei turned his face slightly to the side, feeling nervous about meeting Nagisa’s eyes after what he had done today. Seeing this reaction made Nagisa tilt his head with a puzzled look on his face.

“Aren’t you gonna lecture me for falling asleep, Rei-chan?” he chirped curiously. “I mean, when I told you about falling asleep on the train that one time, you were like—“ He shifted up mock glasses up with his empty hand as he deepened his voice to imitate Rei’s. “’Nagisa-kun, that is careless, please stay alert for your stop’ and ‘Things like that wouldn’t happen if you went to bed earlier at night to get the optimal amount of sleep for your body, Nagisa-kun—‘”

“That—that is not how I sound!” Rei protested, whirling his head back around indignantly. “And stop trying to imitate the way I talk, Nagisa-kun—you’re terrible at it!”

“Nah, I think I pretty much have it down by this point!” Nagisa disagreed cheerfully. “My imitations sound exactly like you now!” At this response, Rei’s face grew smooth for a moment.

“They do not sound like me.” “’They do not sound like me.’” “Tst—!” The blonde burst out laughing once he saw Rei’s face. And Rei wanted to be mad—he really did—but instead he found his face softening at the pleasant sound.

Beautiful. The thought crossed his mind before he could stop it, and when he realized this, he mentally slapped himself in the face.

Ryuugazaki Rei, you are not some lovesick teenage girl—hold it together! He blinked. Wait a minute, that’s actually partly true now—except the part about me being a girl— Realizing this just made Rei feel foolish, and very, very nervous to boot. Suddenly, he felt twice as self-conscious before Nagisa, and his hands started to sweat buckets as they clenched the windowsill tightly. His thumping heart felt like it would leap out of his throat as the blonde continued to converse with him for the next some minutes. Seeing as Nagisa did not even seem to be aware of his predicament, the brunette felt like sighing and curling up in a ball.

This is stupid, Rei. You’ve gotten similar feelings around him before—it probably even started before you were even aware of it. But what’s the point of this meaningless crush when the one who’s causing it is Nagisa-kun? Not only is he male, but he probably most definitely does not see you the same way—how could he? It’s one thing to accept that he still thinks of you as a friend but it’s a whole other thing to hope that—well, not that you’ve started hoping for anything yet—no, you can’t ever start hoping. Sure, he’s always told you things that make you feel happy, feel like you matter to him, feel like you’re not completely alone when you have been feeling like that for years—but that doesn’t mean you’ll ever mean to him what he means to you now. He goes to a co-ed high school—now that you think, didn’t he mention someone called ‘Hana-chan’ a few times?—he’ll find someone else who loves him and who he loves back, and she’ll be better for him than someone like you—someone who can’t even step outside his own house. Who can’t ever get closer to him than fifteen feet away… The thought made Rei’s heart clench painfully, and he was so preoccupied by the feelings churning in him that he didn’t notice Nagisa had stopped talking and was pouting.

Reeeeiiiii-chaaaaaannnn!!!” Hearing the blonde’s suddenly loud voice whine, Rei snapped out of his thoughts and saw that Nagisa’s burgundy eyes were looking a bit hurt. “Why are you not listening to me? You always listen to me when I talk. Am I boring you or something?” Not liking the hurt in his tone, Rei immediately responded.

“O-of course not! That’s not true at all!” he burst out frantically. “I—I was just a bit—preoccupied, that’s all…” His voice trailed off as he searched for something else to talk about, but Nagisa beat him to it.

“Is something bothering you, Rei-chan?” The words made the brunette freeze up. “I mean, you’ve been acting a little weird ever since I came home—is it cause you’re still embarrassed about me seeing your mom kiss you?”

“That is most certainly not it!” Rei shouted, his cheeks coloring with a second shade of embarrassment. Nagisa’s face took on a sly grin.

“It’s all right, Rei-chan—I’m totally okay with the fact that you’re a mama’s boy. I think it’s a plus, personally!”

“I am not a—stop laughing, Nagisa-kun!!” Calming down and wiping the tears from his eyes, the blonde grinned at Rei.

“Ahaha—sorry, Rei-chan. But seriously—“ His smile took on a gentle glow. “If there’s something wrong, you know you can always talk to me about it.” It was clear from the comforting tone of his voice—there was no need to talk if he wasn’t ready, but when he did, Nagisa would listen, just as he had listened to his long string of worries that night, when he was feeling so distraught. For a moment, Rei was deeply touched by the blonde’s perceptive kindness. Just as willing as Rei had been to comfort the blonde whenever he was having a difficult time, he could feel Nagisa’s willingness to do the same for him—he knew how much the blonde cared about the people around him, and Rei was glad that he was one of them.

Suddenly, the fact that he was back on speaking-terms with the blonde, that it had been long since then, and that the blonde saw him as his friend, made Rei feel overwhelmed, inexplicably happy. He felt so glad that he had met Nagisa, so glad that he could be a part of this beautiful person’s life. He felt that he could be more than satisfied with that, at least for the time being.

“…Me too.”

Nagisa’s eyes widened slightly as Rei’s face fell into a smile, a smile tinged with all his feelings for the blonde. His face glowed gently under the red-orange light from the sky, the corners of his lips gently raised, dark blue hair fluttering lightly in the summer breeze, his red glasses framing gentle, captivated violet eyes that shone with an emotion he had not shown before. Nagisa couldn’t put a finger on what it was—but for that moment, he found that he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

“I hope I can always be your strength as well, Nagisa-kun.”

Hearing the soft but honest voice speak those words sent a gentle shiver down Nagisa’s back. All of a sudden, the blonde’s cheeks felt warm and a strange flutter traveled through his heart. When he realized that he was gaping at his friend, he quickly slapped his cheeks with both palms, feeling inexplicably flustered for some reason.

“Ah, ahaha, ahahahaha—“ An awkward laugh pattered out from between his lips. “Geez, Rei-chan, stop that! You’re making me blush—“ He shook his head a bit, making his blonde curls sweep against each other and land in an untidy heap. “Anyways, I should get myself back downstairs—I think rinner’ll be deady soon!” He gave a start when he realized he’d mixed up the two consonants. “Uh, I mean, dinner’ll be ready soon!” he said quickly. “And I’ve got homework after that, so! Haha—“

“—I see.” For a moment, Rei looked—did he look disappointed? But he nodded towards Nagisa and smiled—geez, that smile was really starting to become his weakness.

“I will see you tomorrow, then.” The brunette blinked—in all those months, that was the first time he had said something like that. Flushing slightly, he quickly said, “I mean, that is, if you’re not busy tomorrow, of course!” The words had also surprised the blonde, making him gape for a bit. Then, Nagisa smiled and nodded.

“Of course—see you tomorrow, Rei-chan!” The blonde then trotted downstairs for dinner, still feeling a bit warm.

‘I hope I can always be your strength as well, Nagisa-kun.’

The whole time he sat at the dinner table, those words repeated themselves in his head over and over. Only when his sister, Naomi, asked him what he was so happy about, did he realize that his mouth was hurting from smiling too much.

And then again, maybe those eyes were just as much his weakness. The way Rei had gazed at him with those eyes of his, in that way—it stirred something in his heart that made him restless for the rest of the night, and then some the day after. Even as he went through the motions of his daily life at school, those violet eyes popped into his head. Maybe he had an eye fetish—though, again, it was only unique to Rei….

“Hazuki-kun!”

Nagisa jolted in his seat, startled out of his thoughts. Before him stood Hana-chan, giving him a pointed look. “I don’t know what you’re daydreaming about, but you don’t have time to be daydreaming!” At this, the blonde frowned.

“But it’s break? I can’t even daydream in my free time?” Though, admittedly, maybe he had been thinking about those eyes too much. But he tried to convince himself that it was Rei’s fault.

“Uhm, have you forgotten what you asked me to do yesterday?” The sandy-haired girl rolled her eyes at him, but quickly lit up when she remembered something. Rummaging in her skirt pocket, she drew out a familiar-looking invitation.

“We’re going to THIS on Saturday, so don’t make any other plans, okay?” When Nagisa saw it, he almost let out a groan—it was the invitation for the elementary school reunion. He had completely forgotten about it again, and though he had planned to just throw it away somewhere that his mom or sister wouldn’t see it, it was still in his bag from the previous day.

“Hana-chan, I’m not going to the stupid reunion,” he said, shoulders sagging. “Besides, what does that have to do with anything I talked to you about yesterday?”

“Of course it has something to do with it! Didn’t you check the text I sent you yesterday?” Nagisa blinked.

“You sent me a text?” Then again, he had been too preoccupied with, well, with other thoughts last night—so he hadn’t checked his cell phone like he usually would. Slapping a hand on her forehead in exasperation, Hana sat down in front of his desk and sighed.

“I told you I’d give you updates as soon as I discovered more information, remember?” Then, it clicked—oh, right. He had asked for her help with finding stuff out about that piercing guy—Kanemiya. But what did that have to do with the school reunion on Saturday? “Well, since you obviously didn’t read it, I’ll have to brief you on the details then!” She scooted her chair closer to Nagisa’s desk, looking around the classroom before she lowered her voice.

“It turns out that this guy, Kanemiya—he went to the same elementary school as us!” At this unexpected piece of news, Nagisa’s eyes widened. “I thought I heard the guy’s name somewhere, and as usual, I was right! He was always picking on kids in elementary school, and I heard a rumor when I was in fourth grade—that he made this kid jump out a four-story window at school once. But I heard that like, about six years ago, so it’s no wonder I couldn’t remember!”

Upon hearing this information, Nagisa felt the blood drain from his face. He tried to push Rei’s face out of his mind as he processed this news. In front of him, Hana-chan suddenly stood up as if she had just remembered something. Walking to her desk, she rummaged in the storage space and drew out a dark-blue book that was bigger than any of their textbooks. Nagisa instantly recognized the gold insignia on it—it was a Kitagawa Elementary School yearbook. He had two of his own from his fifth and sixth grade years, stuck somewhere in a bookcase at home.

“This is from when I was in fourth grade,” she told Nagisa as she sat back down in front of him. Flipping through the pages, she stopped at the one she’d been looking for and pointed out a picture to Nagisa. “There he is—that’s him.” The boy in the photo was scowling—but Nagisa recognized those heavy-lidded eyes and that square nose. Even though there were no piercings, his hair was black, and his face was chubbier than it was now, this was definitely Kanemiya. “Kanemiya Shizuo, Class 5-3. He was a fifth grader when I heard that it happened.” Reminded of what he’d just heard, Nagisa’s mouth went dry.

“Do—do you know who that fourth-grade kid was?” he asked, trying to maintain the neutrality in his voice. He remembered the spring of his fifth-grade year, when he had first met Rei. If Rei had gone to elementary school until that year—if something had happened that became the reason for his homeschooling—to be honest, he wanted to know. But as much as he did, and as much as Hana-chan was doing him a favor, he still didn’t want to mention that Rei might be involved. That might be him breaching the brunette’s privacy even further, and he didn’t want that. At least, not when they didn’t have any decisive clues… Swallowing, he waited for the sandy haired girl’s answer. He was both relieved and disappointed when she shook her head.

“I never heard a name. In fact, rumor had it that the kid disappeared from that school after that day. Some of the other kids even thought he died—but that’s doubtful, there would’ve been too much of a commotion if that kind of thing happened. I heard rumors that he even disappeared from the yearbook—that there’s no picture and no name that belongs to him.” Her brow knitted thoughtfully. “Whoever he was, it must have been terrible, going through something like that…can you imagine? Falling from a fourth story window when you’re a little kid…and then having to move schools right after. At least, that’s what probably happened to him.” She snapped her yearbook shut.

“Anyhow, that is exactly why we are going to that reunion. We might find someone there who knows the whole story!” Hana-chan turned towards Nagisa with a grin.

“So let’s!

Knock, knock. Rei was studying in his room when he heard someone tap on his bedroom door.

“Come in,” he called. A second later, his mother entered the room, hiding something behind her back, a smile on her face and a knowing twinkle in her violet eyes.

“Guess what I got at the department store this afternoon?” She drew out the object from behind her—a small black box, tied with a purple ribbon. Taking in the object, Rei looked at Mrs. Ryuugazaki with surprised eyes, taken aback slightly.

“Mother—it’s not my birthday for another five months.” Laughing, his mother shook his head.

“It’s not for your birthday, dear. I just wanted you to have one, now that you’re almost fifteen.” She handed the box to Rei, who carefully pulled the ribbon off the box and opened it. His eyes widened slightly when he found a purple cell phone nestled in black velvet. After taking in the cell phone, they swiveled back to his mother, still wide.

“Mother, I—I barely even leave the house,” he said, not knowing whether to feel touched or confused. “I’ve managed without one all these years…it’s not that it isn’t nice, but—it must have been expensive, and even if I don’t use it often, it’d add to phone bill costs—“

“You have a friend who has a cell phone, don’t you?” his mother gently cut in. “I’ve seen kids your age with them—they can’t seem to live without them nowadays. Use it to talk to Nagisa-kun. Since he’s not always at home, and there’ll probably be times when you want to reach him when he isn’t, use it for those times. And I’ve already entered mine and your brother’s and father’s numbers. It would be nice to give your father a call sometimes, when he’s not busy at work. And your brother will go back to Tokyo in the fall—use it to talk to him, too. I’m sure they’d all love to get a call from you.” She smiled lovingly at her son. “And don’t worry about the bills—we can afford to pay a little extra.” Feeling touched at his mother’s gesture, Rei smiled sincerely back at her.

“If that’s how you feel, Mother—I will use it well. Thank you.” After hesitating a bit at first, he stood up and hugged his mother, who looked surprised but tightly hugged him back as well. When she noticed someone outside the window, she released him, patting him on the shoulder.

“There he is now.” She gestured towards the window. “Have fun, dear!” Giving him a wink, she exited her son’s bedroom. Rei slowly turned around, almost fearfully. Sure enough, at the window of the bedroom in the yellow house, there was Nagisa. The blonde was trying to hold back a smirk but Rei could tell he wasn’t meeting with much success. Rei’s face reddened all the way to the tips of his ears as he cracked his mouth open.

“Don’t say it, Nagisa-kun,” he warned.

“Say what?” Nagisa called teasingly.

“You know what.” There was no way he would repeat those words out loud, not of his own vocation.

“Hm? Like the fact that you’re a mama’s boy?” the blonde said innocently.

“NAGISA-KUN!!” While the blonde doubled over laughing, Rei sighed in defeat. He wondered how in the world he had fallen in love with someone who constantly teased him like this. His eyes then traveled to the phone sitting in his box—and then he remembered what his mother had advised him to do. Clearing his throat to get Nagisa’s attention, Rei lifted the phone carefully out of the box and lifted it up towards the window.

“Actually, Nagisa-kun—she came up here to give me this—“

“OH MY GOD, IT’S A PHONE!!” Before he could even finish his sentence, the bespectacled teen was nearly blown away by Nagisa’s excited shout. “Rei-chan, you finally got a phone?! That’s awesome! Now we can be mail buddies!” He quickly pulled out his own pink phone from his pocket.

“C’mon, Rei-chan, gimme them digits! Mine’s XXX—“ The blonde practically shouted his phone number for the entire neighborhood to hear, but it kind of amused Rei to see how excited he was over someone that wasn’t even himself getting a cell phone. It was actually sort of adorable—catching himself thinking mushy thoughts again, Rei quickly shook his head as he found the on button on his phone and turned it on.

“Please wait a moment, Nagisa-kun—I’ve just figured out how to turn it on,” he said as the blonde waited with expectant eyes.

“Wait—Rei-chan, you’ve never used a cell phone before?” The blonde’s voice sounded incredulous, and all of a sudden, Rei felt ashamed under his wide-eyed stare.

“I-Is there something wrong with that?!” he retorted defensively. “I was homeschooled since fourth grade, so I have never felt the need for one since then!”

“But still—you never played around with your brother’s phone? Or your mom’s? I used to do that with my sisters’ phones all the time when I was a kid! And even I had a phone since third-grade!”

“W-well, I never felt the need to do so, that’s all!” Rei turned his attention back to the box the phone had been in. “Now, if you will excuse me for just a minute so that I can read the manual—“

“Whatcha need the manual for, Rei-chan? If it’s about using a cell phone, I can teach you everything!” Nagisa flipped open his own cell phone. “Now, watch where I point, Rei-chan! This is the menu button—“ The blonde started explaining everything from how to navigate around the phone to how Rei could make an mail address so that he could send and receive messages. It took him about thirty minutes, but Rei felt by then that he had the basics down. Now they were mail buddies, and he had found his own number written on a note inside the box, so he had messaged it over to Nagisa. The blonde’s fingers drummed his phone’s buttons with speed as he entered the number into his address book and typed out Rei’s caller ID information (☆Rei-chan☆). Clicking save, he promptly called Rei’s number, and when Rei picked up, he shouted “That’s my number Rei-chan!”, the sound shooting from the speaker of his phone through Rei’s poor ears. The blonde then proceeded to make a shortcut dial button for Rei’s number (“I’ll make it 0 for ‘rei’, since you’re ‘Rei-chan’!”) and made sure he added Rei’s mail address to his contacts folder as well. When they were done, Nagisa let out a cheery whoop, jumping in the air.

Yes! We finally have a wireless line between us!” he said cheerfully. “Now I can even call you from school, Rei-chan!”

“Just—just make sure you refrain from calling too often, Nagisa-kun,” Rei said, shifting his glasses up his nose and not meaning a word he had just said. “I do have my lessons at home, after all—“

“Ehhh~~? Rei-chan’s so cold!” Nagisa whined. He flopped back down with his arms on the windowsill, one hand holding the phone out precariously over the window’s edge. “But that still means I can still text you a lot, right?” His voice perked up cheerfully.

“Nagisa-ku—that is not what I—be careful, you’ll drop your own phone!” The brunette tried to sputter three different responses before he gave up, sighing. “Honesty, why are you so—“

“Awesome?” the blonde finished helpfully. “Thanks to me, you’ll be able to survive on that phone now!” Ignoring Rei’s eye roll, he perked up once more. “Oh! That’s right, I almost forgot!” He flipped open his phone and suddenly lifted it up so it was pointing at his face from above at a downward angle. Making a peace sign with his other hand and grinning widely, he snapped a picture of himself and checked the result. Apparently unsatisfied with the first try, he did this again, and nodded at the second photo with a satisfied look. A few seconds later, Rei heard his cell phone beeping in his hand. Opening it, he found a message from Nagisa with a photo attached, presumably the one he had just taken. In the photo, a hand made a peace sign over one of the blonde’s burgundy eyes, which were crinkled up in a smile that revealed white teeth and the endearing little dimple in his cheek. The early evening sunlight hit his golden brown hair and gently highlighted his face with a golden-orange glow. Rei would have rather died than tell the blonde, but he thought the photo was beautiful.

“Save it to your phone, Rei-chan!” The bespectacled boy jumped slightly at Nagisa’s words. “And set that as the photo for my contact!” The blonde drummed his fingers on the windowsill, thinking. And hmmm…what to do about Rei-chan’s photo… He watched as Rei slowly took his time, getting used to pressing the right buttons as he was saving Nagisa’s picture into his contacts folder. Absently, the blonde turned the camera on his phone back on and was tapping the screen thoughtfully—when he saw it. The perfect moment. Without thinking, his hand moved up and quickly zoomed the camera forward.

Click—a large flashing sound filled the air, one that made Rei look up from his phone. From the other side, Nagisa slowly lowered his phone, his eyes wide and his cheeks flushing, his mouth slightly open. It almost looked like the blonde was just as surprised.

“—There!” Nagisa finally managed to speak. He smiled a bit shyly at Rei. “Got your picture now!”

“Ehhh?!!” The sound of Rei’s surprised and embarrassed cry filled the evening air.

That night, as he lay under the covers in his bed, Nagisa found himself looking at the photo in his phone. On the screen, a teenage boy with dark blue hair was staring down at his open cell phone. His violet eyes were glowing with a soft look, illuminated by the crimson light from the evening sky. The same light gave life to the soft flush in his cheeks, and highlighted his lips, the corners of which were curved up in a quiet smile. It was almost as beautiful as the look he had seen on Rei’s face the other day, when he had told Nagisa he would be his strength.

He wondered if it was creepy to stare at his friend’s photo like this during the night, even if it was beautiful. But even so, the blonde couldn’t take his eyes off it—he snuggled under the blankets, staring at the photo, feeling grateful for high definition cameras on contemporary cell phones, a soft smile spread across his own face. What he didn’t know was that when Rei had been smiling that moment, he had been staring at Nagisa’s photo the whole time.

In the morning, he sent a text saying [Morning, Rei-chan! ≧▽≦]. When he was on the train, he received a reply from Rei.

[Good morning, Nagisa-kun.] Although it was simple and straight to the point, that one text made him feel inexplicably happy.

Later, when Yamazaki commented that his smile was creepy, he gave his orange haired friend a light jab in the ribs with his elbow and was rewarded with a splutter of pain.

Chapter Text

On Saturday morning, a certain raven-haired boy was making a trip to the grocery convenience store. He was thinking of all the mackerel he would buy there, with the time sale that was to start in about fifteen minutes—he was practically famous for swiping all the mackerel in the face of even the most vicious fiery-eyed housewives—when he heard crude laughter roll through the air from near one of the convenience stores on the block. His head turned slightly in that direction, and the corner of his blue eyes caught a flash of bleached blonde hair. Remembering then what he had promised a certain blonde, his body swiveled around completely, momentarily forgetting the time sale.

Instantly he was sure it was the person that the blonde had mentioned—he had not only the bleached hair, but the several piercings, as well as the square features that had been described. Surprisingly, he was still dressed in the Iwatobi uniform, even though it was the weekend. He was sitting hunched over at the front of the convenience store with a bunch of other boys who had the juvenile delinquent look, and he was blowing on a cigarette—the way he breathed out his smoke towards the stray cats nearby made Haru frown. The raven-haired boy was genuinely puzzled as to why Nagisa could be looking for such a person—but he still had promised. Because he hadn’t brought his cell phone when he left the house, he decided to text Nagisa after he got home from the grocery store.

For Nagisa, Saturday evening arrived way too soon. All week he had, out of sheer will power, successfully pretended that nothing was wrong in front of Rei, but when his friends at school saw him, he was in a slight nervous wreck for pretty much most of the week.

As Nagisa stood in front of the place of the reunion, which was the gym at Kitagawa Elementary, he thought for the tenth time about backing out of this. As if reading his mind, a hand grabbed his arm tightly, as if to keep him from running away. From beside him, Hana-chan gave Nagisa a knowing smile, one that said she would kill him if he bailed now.

“Let’s go in, Hazuki-kun!” she said, her voice falsely civil. Nagisa smiled back just as civilly and gave her a nod, although he was dying to just go home. But he reminded himself how many times he had stared at that photo of Rei stored away safely in his phone—how many times he had told himself that, should Kanemiya be of any significance in Rei’s life, whether good or bad, he would find out about it and do what he could to protect his friend’s smile. It was only due to this one determined thought that he had managed to come all this way. Taking a deep breath, he followed Hana-chan inside the decorated gym, where several of their former classmates and fellow alumni were standing around and chatting. As soon as she saw two of her former classmates, the sandy-haired girl squealed and ran over to the girls in delight.

“Yuka-chan! Misaki-chan! It’s so nice to see you guys!” Nagisa watched as Hana-chan hugged the girls, who he recognized as Takakura Yuka and Honjou Misaki. Both of them had been classmates with Nagisa once, and when Nagisa saw the girl called Misaki, he had to fight the urge to propel himself away. She was one of his classmates from Kitagawa who had also gone to the same junior high as him. He noticed Honjou notice him standing there, also didn’t miss the dark judgmental look her eyes took on before she abruptly broke eye contact with him. He had sort of foreseen this—one of her friends in junior high had been bullied by the kids in his group, after all.

Remember, it’s for Rei-chan. Reminding himself of this, Nagisa stood back slightly as Hana-chan first talked to Takakura, asking how she had been doing at her new high school. The sandy-haired girl had not missed a bit of the interaction between Honjou and Nagisa, and soon she turned towards Honjou with a smile.

“So how have you been, Misaki-chan? I heard you went to Sanada Middle School after we graduated—what high school do you go to now?” Nagisa almost winced when she mentioned the name of the junior high, but managed to hold it in. But apparently, Honjou wasn’t able to do the same with her own emotions as she answered an unasked question.

“I hated going to Sanada,” she said almost too loudly, her voice bitter. “Those were the worst years of my life.” As she said this, some of Nagisa’s former classmates around their group grew quiet. Now half of the gym was looking over at them, some with curious eyes and some with knowing glances. A flash of slight annoyance passed through Nagisa’s eyes, but he just stood, still not saying anything. Discreetly assessing the situation with her own eyes, Hana-chan put on an innocently sympathetic face.

“Wow, that sounds terrible! But at least you’re past it now, right?” she said in a genuine voice. “Say, do you happen to go to the same high school as Ka—“

“I went to the same junior high as him.” Honjou jerked her chin slightly towards Nagisa. “He sure looked like he was enjoying himself.” Now, it seemed that she had the attention of almost the whole gym. After a moment of silence, whispers started to travel through the gym, and a lot of glances were being directed towards Nagisa. Deciding it was time to say something, the blonde forced on a civil smile as he opened his mouth.

“Actually, I agree with your sentiments, Honjou. I think I hated that place as much as you did.” He kept his voice calm and composed, as if Honjou was not practically telling him she hated him to his face. “Definitely not the best years of my life.” He also kept the smile glued to his face, as he tried his best to pretend the tension in the room didn’t exist.

“Wow—was it really that bad, Sanada Middle School?” Takakura, the outsider to this situation, piped in. “You never told me you were having a hard time there, Misaki-chan! And you too, Hazuki-kun—you guys must have had it tough!”

“You never did apologize to my friend back then, did you?” Ignoring her friend, Honjou glared at Nagisa as she let the words fall from her lips. “You have no idea how much she suffered, that time she was being bullied by you and your little friends. All three years she was there, she was always thinking about transferring schools because people like you existed. You made life hell for her, and for everyone else that you used to pick on!” Now she was lumping Nagisa in with the rest of those kids—but the blonde knew that he couldn’t exactly blame her for it. Although he had never taken part in the bullying itself, he hadn’t exactly tried to stop it either—in essence he was just as bad as they had been.

But Nagisa also knew what had gone through Honjou’s head—it wasn’t just Honjou, it was pretty much the rest of the school back then. They had watched their friends getting bullied—but that was it; they had only watched. None of them had had the courage to stop the bullying—and Honjou had been exactly like that. The blonde remembered seeing anger in her eyes whenever he saw her, but there had been fear in them, too. He would know—sometimes he had seen it in his own eyes when he looked at a mirror in those days. And as Nagisa studied Honjou, he gave her a slightly sad smile in return.

“If only you’d had the courage to say that to our faces back then,” he said, his voice quiet but ringing throughout the gym. “I think it would’ve made Yamada happy.” At his words, Honjou flinched.

“Don’t you DARE say her name!!” Grabbing a glass of punch from a nearby table, she was about to throw the liquid in Nagisa’s face—when her own face was promptly drenched with water.

Splash! In a split second, Nagisa was also drenched with water. Seeing the two with stunned faces, Hana-chan looked at them with a smile that was no longer accommodating, but warning. She set the empty glasses of water back on the table.

“I think some of us need to cool down,” she said, in a deceptively light-hearted voice, which she made sure was audible to everyone in the gym. “Don’t you think?” Before anyone could argue, the sandy-haired girl took Nagisa by the wrist. “Excuse us for a quick breather—we’ll be back soon.” Dragging the blonde behind her, she strode through the gym, ignoring the stares that they were receiving from their classmates.

When they were finally outside, the back doors closed behind them, Hana-chan released Nagisa from her grip and let out a tired sigh, kneading the skin of her forehead with her fingers.

“Sorry, Hazuki-kun. If I was going to do it to her, I had to do it to you too.” Nagisa shook his head, a few drops of water flying off his hair as he did.

“Don’t be. I knew I had it coming—I deserved it. Thanks for doing that.” He smiled at Hana-chan to show that he meant it. Hana-chan just let out a slightly frustrated sigh.

“I mean, I know that you guys have history—almost everyone in that gym who went to Sanada with you has history, and I know people don’t forgive easily. But after over a year—I mean, we’re not middle school brats anymore, there are better ways to handle these things. I didn’t think anyone would practically fly at you with their teeth bared—I’ve never seen Misaki-chan act like that before! Now I’m starting to feel sorry I dragged you here when you were obviously feeling uncomfortable about coming—maybe it’d have been better if I came here alone and snooped around some. And just when I was about to start asking about Kanemiya—” She gripped the sides of her head in frustration as she threw her head back. “Now what am I gonna do?! After I threw that water in you guys’ faces, I can’t possibly go around collecting information all casually!”

Nagisa should have been surprised that the sandy-haired girl knew about that ‘history’. She had gone to a different junior high than Nagisa, and hardly any of the students from Sanada Middle School had taken the exam for Iwatobi High. He himself had never told her about his junior high days. But the blonde actually found he wasn’t—really, it wasn’t that surprising, seeing that she had a whole network of information that eclipsed almost every school in town. She’d have definitely caught wind of the bullying that went on at Sanada, and she’d probably known what Nagisa had been a part of even before he had first met her. Now, seeing his friend so frustrated made Nagisa laugh—which made Hana-chan narrow her eyes at the blonde.

“Hazuki-kun. Are you laughing at my genuine distress right now?” Stopping, Nagisa grinned at the peeved girl.

“Thanks, Hana-chan. I actually feel kind of refreshed now—I’m a swimmer, I’ve always loved feeling water, even though it’s not as much as Haru-chan does. You’re a good friend.” For a moment, Hana-chan looked taken aback—then, she grinned back confidently.

“Of course—who do you think I am?” She puffed out her chest in a way that strangely reminded Nagisa of something. When he realized what it was, he laughed once more.

“That’s exactly what Rei-chan said to me once!” His eyes crinkled fondly at the memory, one where the ten-year-old brunette had attempted to cheer him up by acting overly pompous. “I told him he was the best, and he was like, ‘Of course, Nagisa-kun, it’s me we’re talking about!‘or something along those lines. It was really funny, seeing him being proud like that!” All of a sudden, he felt his heart warming—of course. That was the reason he was here in the first place.

“’Rei-chan’?” Hana-chan’s light blue eyes blinked curiously. “You mean that girl next door you’re always talking about?” Nagisa gave her a look.

“I told you like a million times, Rei-chan’s a guy! And I’m not always talking about him!” he protested. Hana-chan rolled her eyes at the blonde.

“Please—you mention him every day! You almost sound like you’re in love with the guy. It’s always ‘Rei-chan this’ or ‘Rei-chan that’—when I didn’t know any better, I thought you were talking about your girlfriend the whole time, not a neighbor.”

“Wha—“ Nagisa didn’t know what to respond to that. Even though he was talking about himself, he hadn’t noticed that he brought up Rei so much in his conversations. Suddenly, his face started to feel kind of hot—it sort of made him wish that someone would throw water in his face again.

“Hmm…a guy named ‘Rei’, huh?” Next to him, Hana-chan had buried herself in her own thoughts, chin propped up with one hand while contemplating something. “Where have I heard that one before…?” Before Nagisa could ask her what she meant, a voice piped up from behind them.

“You mean Ryuugazaki Rei-kun?” It was Takakura—she had appeared behind them sometime during their conversation, and was standing two steps above them. Both Hana-chan and Nagisa jumped at the sudden sound—Nagisa wheeling around first with a look of huge surprise on his face.

“You know who he is, Takakura?!” he asked, eyes wide and startling the girl. Next to him, Hana-chan had also turned around in surprise.

“Yuka-chan! What’re you doing back here?” she asked, eyes wide. “I thought you went to comfort Misaki-chan!”

“She said she wanted to be alone, and I wanted to talk to you guys, so I came out here,” Takakura said, answering Hana-chan’s question first. “And Hazuki-kun, I’ve known who Ryuugazaki-kun is since third grade. I think everyone knew who he was—after all, he always had this unique aura, and he was smart to boot. Even though he never really made a lot of friends, I think.”

“Wait a second—“ Hana-chan held up a hand before Nagisa could ask another question. “Ryuugazaki Rei—Ryuugazaki Rei—“ Her eyes lit up. “OH, you mean that kid with the blue hair and red glasses! The one who was always sitting in his classroom with a book at recess! I knew I heard his name somewhere!” She turned to Nagisa with excited eyes. “Is he really your neighbor? The Rei-chan?”

“Yes!” Nagisa responded, his eyes wide and his voice breathless. “That’s him! That’s his name!” He didn’t know what to feel about the fact that Hana-chan had known who Rei was all along. That even Takakura had known him from before he did— All of a sudden things seemed to be coming to the surface, and Nagisa hadn’t even expected to hear Rei’s name at a place like this, so soon from the people standing in front of him.

“You two are neighbors, Hazuki-kun?” Takakura peered curiously at Nagisa. “Wow, what a coincidence! Are you two close?”

“Yeah! We are absolutely close!” Nagisa replied—at least, he was sure he was the closest person to Rei who was actually his age. “We live next door to each other, we talk all the time!” He didn’t mention the fact that Rei was always home now.

“Really? He talks to you all the time?” Takakura looked fairly surprised. “I never would’ve guessed—from what I know, you two have totally opposite personalities. He’s always been the quiet type—like Hana-chan just mentioned, he was always sitting at his desk reading something. He kind of had this air around him that said he wanted to be left alone—I think it intimidated most of us from trying to approach him.” She looked thoughtful. “Then again, it’s been ages since fourth-grade—I guess his personality might have changed—“

“Wait, wait, Takakura!” The blonde quickly stopped her. “He was still at Kitagawa in fourth-grade?!” A bit startled at Nagisa’s excitement, Takakura nodded with surprised eyes.

“Yeah—up until the end of the first semester, that is. I remember that he didn’t even stick around until the end, actually. He stopped coming to school a week before then.”

“Yuka-chan.” Nagisa and Takakura turned towards Hana-chan, who looked deep in thought. “The kid that fell from the fourth story window—do you know if it was Ryuugazaki-kun?” Beside his friend, Nagisa tensed up, his face going pale. He was scared—he didn’t know if he wanted to hear the answer to this.

“No, that wasn’t him.”

He almost sank to the ground in relief. Takakura seemed to hesitate before continuing with her next words.

“But now that I remember—I think he might have been involved in that.” Nagisa’s head shot up, whirling back towards the girl. “I know who really fell from the building back then—the one that was supposedly pressured into it by that upper-grader, Kanemiya. I remember seeing him and Ryuugazaki-kun together a few times. Maybe they were friends—but I’m not sure.” Upon seeing Nagisa’s face, Takakura hesitated. “Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this…it doesn’t look like Ryuugazaki-kun mentioned any of this to you…”

“What happened to that kid?” Nagisa took Takakura’s arms with his hands in an urgent motion. “I really need to know. I need to know how Rei-chan might’ve been involved. Please, Takakura—I want to help him!” His burgundy eyes shown earnestly as he pleaded with his former classmate. “Please!!”

“Hazuki-kun…” Hana-chan said softly from next to him. She then turned to Takakura, her eyes firm, and nodded.

“…All right,” Takakura said finally. “I’ll tell you two everything that I know.” Her eyes became concentrated as she focused on remembering that past. “Six years ago…” She began her story.

 

“…and ever since then, he stopped coming to school.”

When Takakura finished her story, Nagisa was silent. His burgundy eyes shook beneath his lashes, his teeth gritted a bit with tension, his hands shaking in fists at his sides.

“Hazuki-kun…” Beside him, Hana-chan stared at her friend in concern. “Are you okay?”

“…Sorry, Hana-chan. I—“ The blonde’s voice was quiet. “I’ve got to go. Now.” He turned to Takakura, who was also looking worried. “Thanks for telling me everything, Takakura.”

“Wait—Hazuki-kun!” The sandy-haired girl called after the blonde as he dashed away.

In his bedroom, Rei was staring out the window at the maple tree. Watching its green leaves sway in the breeze, he marveled at how beautiful they looked against the early evening sky, which was beginning to turn a spectrum of pink and yellow and blue. There was a peaceful smile on his face as he took in the beauty of the neighborhood in the summer outside his window. His violet eyes traveled towards the window across from his, the window that was currently empty.

The day before, Nagisa had mentioned that he was going to the shopping center to hang out with some classmates from school. Apparently, he was still not back from that excursion—Rei hadn’t seen him all day. Letting out a slight sigh of loneliness, Rei’s eyes traveled over to the purple cell phone sitting on his desk. He found his hand reaching over for it, flipping it open, and navigating to the photo album in his cell phone.

Over the course a few days, he had gotten more used to using the phone—he had been exchanging texts with Nagisa when the boy was at school, and his mother had already called him a few times when she was out of the house and had something to ask him. Now, he was scrolling through the few photos he had taken, of the maple tree and of other things that caught his eye that he had found was beautiful.

He stopped at the picture he was looking for, and clicked on the thumbnail. When he saw the photo of Nagisa, smiling up at the camera under the evening sun in his window, a fond smile grew on his face. Over the last few days, he had found that it became a habit—staring at Nagisa’s photo sometimes when the boy was away from the house. Each time that he caught himself doing it, he had wanted to slap himself, but he couldn’t help it.

“That your new girlfriend?” Rei nearly jumped out of his skin. Ryouji was standing behind him, looking over his shoulder at the picture on his phone.

“Wha—when—aniki!!” the bespectacled boy screamed as he attempted to hide the screen from his brother. “What are you—why didn’t you knock?!!”

“You left the door open, stupid,” Ryouji drawled, undeterred by the angry and flustered look on Rei’s face. “Lemme see that phone—“ Almost effortlessly, he thwarted Rei’s bodily attempts to keep it away from him and placed his brother in a headlock with one arm—Rei remembered his mother saying that Ryouji had joined the wrestling team in college and he was beginning to physically feel the results of that fact. “Wow, it even has better interface than mine—guess you’re still Mom’s favorite little brat.”

“Aniki—give that back!” Rei gasped, as he tried not to choke, struggling in his brother’s grip.

“Hold your horses, I haven’t looked at the picture properly yet—“ Ryouji easily found the picture again and clicked it open. “Whoa, whoa—isn’t this the kid who lives next door? And I thought it was a girl from a dating site or something—” Rei could feel the smirk forming on his brother’s face. “So, since when?”

“Si—since when what?!” Rei sputtered, turning even redder.

“Well, it’s obvious that you have it bad for the kid,” Ryouji remarked, his voice smug. “Otherwise why would you be staring at a guy’s picture for that long? Should’ve guessed, with the way you’re always chatting him up—or are you two already dating?“

“N-NO!!” Rei wanted to fall through the floor and die—anything to get away from the situation he was in right now. His face and entire body erupted into flames in mortification. Ryouji rolled his eyes at how embarrassed his brother was acting, but the grin stayed perched on his face.

“Ah, sorry, sorry. I forgot you don’t have the balls to ask him out.” He snickered. “We better hope that Blondie catches on soon.” He tossed the phone back into Rei’s hands with a sly grin. “Say hi to the babe for me.” With that last teasing remark, he left the bedroom, leaving Rei in flustered shambles.

After a full minute of hyperventilation, Rei finally calmed down to some extent. He really hoped that Ryouji had been joking—but if he hadn’t been—well, at least he hadn’t seemed particularly disgusted or anything. Letting out a slow sigh of resignation, he looked back at the folded phone in his hand, then turned towards the window.

He was glad Nagisa hadn’t been at the window to witness any of this. But at the same time, he hoped that the blonde would return soon. Like every time he wasn’t there, Rei already missed his friend.

“I wonder when he’ll come back.” As he murmured this to himself, he studied the sky, which was starting to turn more orange and red with the passing minutes.

‘—heard he was in the same class as him—I don’t know if they were close, but—‘

‘—it was after a school day ended. I don’t think he was supposed to be there at the time—‘

‘There were rumors for a while, that he was actually a part of it—but I never really believed them—‘

‘After all, I don’t think he was ever such a cruel person.’

The words flew through Nagisa’s mind as he ran, his breath heaving in and out. People on the streets jumped as he ran past them, almost crashing into a few of them. Ignoring the indignant calls that echoed after him, the blonde darted with breakneck speed until he finally arrived at his house. Bolting through the front door, he didn’t even stop to greet his mother as he dashed upstairs and threw open his window shutters.

“Rei-chan!!” The blue-haired boy had been sitting at his desk near the window when Nagisa arrived—he saw the brunette jump in his seat at his shout.

“Nagisa-kun!” Standing up, Rei walked over to his open window. “You’re back at last—“ When he remembered his brother’s teasing from before, Rei swallowed, trying not to blush. “D-did you have fun at the shopping center?” he asked, trying to keep his voice even.

“What does that mean?” Rei blinked—something was off about the blonde’s voice. It sounded so quiet, so tense—immediately, his violet eyes flickered with concern.

“What do you…did something happen, Nagisa-kun?” At this question, Nagisa’s fists clenched tighter at his sides. Even at a time like this, Rei was worrying about him—it made him feel all the more conflicted.

“What does that mean, you might have been involved?” His head jerked up to look at Rei’s puzzled face. “The fact that you were there when that accident happened at Kitagawa—what does that even mean?!” He could see the blood drain from Rei’s face—the teen had suddenly frozen in his spot.

“…How….” Nagisa could see the fear in the brunette’s violet eyes as he fought to speak. “How did you know about that….?” His voice was a hoarse whisper, and he looked as if he had been paralyzed.

“…I heard it all from an old classmate.” There was a tremor in Nagisa’s voice. “I wasn’t at the shopping center—I was at the class reunion at Kitagawa.” His burgundy eyes bore into Rei’s violet ones, gleaming with desperate frustration.

“Tell me, Rei-chan. Why were you there when it happened? What does it mean that you saw that guy fall out the window? Just what did Kanemiya do to you?” His hands shook. “Tell me it’s not true, Rei-chan.” His entire face was in pain.

“Tell me that’s not the reason you’ve never stepped outside since then!”

 

For the third time in his life, Rei felt as if his world was shattering into a million pieces.

 


 

It wasn’t as if he had always wanted to be alone.

Ever since he was little, Ryuugazaki Rei had always been shy. At kindergarten, he had always been too afraid to approach any of his peers. As they had cheerfully skittered about making friends with each other, he had sat in the corner of the room with a picture book in his hands, staring at the pages as he tried not to listen to the other kids play, wishing all along that he had the courage to join them. Every day, when his mother arrived to pick him up, she had noticed how quiet he was, how he never seemed to smile as shuffled his shoes on and held onto his mother’s hand on the way home. But she would notice that a smile appeared on his face when he had a book in his hands, and sometimes on the days when she arrived home late, she would come back with a new picture book for him. Sometimes she even made his brother take him to the local library on the weekends, so he could sit in the children’s corner all day, reading books about almost everything.

Even when he moved on to elementary school, Rei’s disposition didn’t change much. When he was in first grade, he stumbled over self-introductions on the first day of school. The other kids had laughed at how he stuttered, and that had made Rei flush in shame. Ever since that day, he had stayed sitting at his desk in the corner, avoiding talking to anyone, a book propped up on his desk and his eyes firmly fixed on the pages. Although a few kids tried to approach him now and then, he would clam up every time this happened—his throat felt dry, his palms and face sweaty, and he couldn’t bring himself to say anything back. So he just sat, blushing furiously and staring at his book, and after a while no one approached him anymore. He could hear whispers from his classmates now and then, calling him quiet and weird and a loner, and even boring. Some of the meaner kids even started blowing spitballs at the back of his head during class—and their teacher never found out what they were laughing about, because Rei never told her. When his mother and father asked how his days were at school, he would only mutter a few vaguely positive responses before putting food in his mouth and excusing himself from the conversation.

When he moved up a grade, the kids grew more confident, and even meaner. Although Rei never knew what he had done to deserve it—he had always kept to himself, never bothering anyone when he sat quietly in the corner of the classroom to read. Some of the bigger kids ganged up on him when he was alone and no teacher was around to see—whether it was in an empty classroom or behind the shoe lockers downstairs. He had been taken by the collar of his shirt, his allowance and homework and other things taken away from his backpack, sometimes being slammed against walls and sometimes receiving punches in the stomach, where they knew none of the teachers would notice the bruises.

Once, Rei had been pressed against the brick wall of an obscure area towards the back of the school building. He had been just about to be punched when out of nowhere a taller boy with blue hair had leapt in with a flying kick, sending the bully flying.

That was the day that Ryouji had found out his younger brother was being bullied. After he sent the other bullies off with a threat that he’d put them in the hospital the next time he saw them around his brother, Ryouji had taken Rei aside and made him fess up about everything. When he saw tears welling up in Rei’s eyes, he had taken a hand and ruffled his blue hair with an encouraging grin.

“Listen, kid. I’ll tell you how to keep them from ever approaching you again.” He then had proceeded to teach Rei the basics of self-defense—something that he had learned at the local YMCA recently, although he had never really needed to because he was good at fighting anyways. Rei had secretly practiced the techniques in his room over and over, memorizing the theory and drumming it into his body. The next time that those bullies had bothered him, he had given some of them headlocks, tripped some by the shin when they came running at him, and given some of them near-lethal kicks in the groin.

After that, none of the other kids ever bothered him again. Rei didn’t know why those bullies never told on him—even then, he could have probably written his actions off as self-defense, since those kids always had a bad reputation at school and it was mostly true (okay, so some anger had been channeled into those defense movements, but they could hardly blame him, it was their fault in the first place). Maybe it had something to do with the threat his brother had given them, or maybe they were just scared Rei would try to retaliate for it (he wouldn’t have, really, as long as they left him alone afterwards). And, well, he was still always alone, now that the kids seemed kind of afraid to approach him because of the rumors, but at least he wasn’t being ganged up on anymore. After that incident, Rei had taken up jogging the long way from home to school and back to become fitter, and every time he came into the classroom in the mornings after changing out of his jumpsuit, the kids just cast him quiet glances before going back to their conversations.

In third grade, Rei had taken a math placement test, and found that he had scored high enough to take the fourth grade level of the subject. His mother had been proud when she heard, and soon Rei found himself taking math with the fourth graders every fourth period. He had to move to the upper graders’ classroom each time, but it was worth it—he had always loved working with numbers and equations, and he quickly caught up with the level of the fourth graders, even outdoing them on the subject. Though he had caught envious and resentful glances from the kids in both his third and fourth-grade classes, they never did anything else to him—by then he was as tall as some of the fifth-graders, even, and everyone knew he could fight back if he wanted to.

By the time he started fourth grade, Rei had actually reached a point where he didn’t care so much that he was alone anymore. He liked to think that he had gotten used to his solitary school life—although the familiar twinge of loneliness did resurface every now and then when he overheard the fun conversations his classmates had with each other, or when he heard their loud yells at recess when they played outside without him. But at least he wasn’t nervous or afraid about anything anymore—he didn’t think anyone could touch him anymore at this point. Knowing this, he spent most of his free time at school reading books on theories about subjects like math or science or physics. During his elementary years, he had grown interested in those topics, finding a neat, logical, and precise beauty in those many equations, those many laws, those many principles. By third grade he had started reading difficult books that most kids his age wouldn’t go near, much less touch. Whenever he mastered a new theory or successfully applied a new equation, he felt the same joy that he had experienced in his kindergarten days when his mother had surprised him with the occasional new picture book. When he did, the fact that he was alone hardly even mattered anymore.

One day after school, Rei had changed into his jumpsuit after school and had been jogging past the school track when he saw a small boy with light-brown hair being pinned up against the wire fence by some big kids. He didn’t recognize the victim, but he did recognize the bigger kids—he himself had been bullied by some of them in his past. It looked like they had moved on to pick on other weaker kids—Rei rolled his eyes mentally at the fact that they still hadn’t graduated from doing things like that. He looked at the victim’s face, which seemed about to burst into tears at any moment.

Rei hesitated—he knew what it felt like, to be pinned up against that fence, terrified and helpless to fight back. He wondered if he should go over there…but then he remembered that he had spent his last three years of school being shunned by other kids. Suddenly, he felt a wave of bitterness pass through his body—turning around, he continued running in the direction he had been headed.

None of the other kids had cared when he was being picked on—and they had always judged him for being quiet, being different. He had avoided making contact with other kids for years—and he didn’t feel like changing that now. Fighting back the imminent guilt in his mind, he left through the school gates, trying to distract himself with the new theories he had learned while reading that day.

Rei had never expected to see the boy again in the fifth-graders’ classroom.

The next day, he had walked in as usual for his math lesson, a bit early since it was still recess, and he assumed the classroom was still empty. He was about to go sit down at his usual seat and read a book—when his eyes fell on someone sitting at the back of the classroom in the corner. His violet eyes widened a bit as he stared at the small boy with light-brown hair—the one who had been pinned back against the fence when he was jogging out of school yesterday. The boy’s gray eyes widened a bit, although there was no indication that he recognized Rei, and quickly dropped back down to the desk that he was sitting at.

It was a few seconds before Rei collected himself and went to sit at his usual seat. As he did, his mind thought about that little boy sitting in the corner. He’d never seen that boy in this classroom before—was he a new student? So he was older than Rei—he certainly hadn’t seemed it, with his short, scrawny build and thin limbs. After a while, Rei thought he felt the boy staring, but he didn’t turn around and just tried to ignore him. When recess ended and the lesson started, Rei immersed himself in the math and forgot that the boy was even there.

As the chime rang for fifth period and he stood up to return to his fourth-grade classroom, the teacher called Rei’s name and told him to stay back. Wondering what she could want to talk about, Rei stopped in front of the teacher’s desk as she also called out to the light-haired boy who had sat in the back corner.

“Saionji-kun! Come here for a moment.” At the teacher’s call, the boy stood up hesitantly and walked to where she and Rei were standing.

“Ryuugazaki-kun, this is Saionji Yuuto-kun. He just transferred to this school a few days ago—he’s also a fourth-grader, but he’s also been placed for fifth-grade math, just like you.” She patted the light-haired boy, Saionji, on the shoulder. “Since you two are in the same boat, I’ve decided to seat Saionji-kun next to you, Ryuugazaki-kun. I hope you help him get along during our lessons,” she finished with a smile.

At this news, Rei almost frowned—he didn’t like it that she was asking him to babysit this new kid. He didn’t want to deal with any other kids—he could feel the same bitterness he’d felt yesterday well up in him. But he maintained a polite expression on the surface as Saionji shyly greeted him with a hello. After replying with a certain degree of pleasantness in front of the teacher, Rei excused himself for class and walked out the door. He was irritated when a shy voice called his name.

“Ryuugazaki-kun…!” Rei turned his head slightly to see Saionji peering at him with his gray eyes. “Uhm, it was nice meeting you,” he said in a small but hopeful voice. “I—I’ll look forward to seeing you tomo—“

“Saionji-kun.” Rei cut in with a cool voice, his face smooth. “I’ll make this clear now. I hope you don’t think I’m going to babysit you from now on.” He tried to convince himself that he didn’t feel guilt at the way Saionji’s face fell. “Since you’re the same age as me, I assume you will be able to take care of yourself just fine. Please don’t go out of your way to act familiar with me.” Gripping the straps of his backpack, he turned and walked away, leaving the light-haired boy with an expression of shock and hurt on his face.

Just because he’s good at math too doesn’t mean he’s like me, he thought to himself. When he sees what I’m really like, he’ll leave too. I’m just saving both of us time. With that thought, he walked back into his classroom just as the chime rang again for next period.

After that, Rei saw Saionji more often than he would have liked to. More than a few times, he saw the small boy being ganged up on by the bigger kids at recess and lunch outside the windows of the hall, when he was passing by them to go somewhere. Whenever the bell rang after recess and math lessons started, the fair-haired boy had looked pale as he quietly sat down next to Rei in the fifth-graders’ classroom.

As Rei had warned him, Saionji didn’t try to become friendlier with the brunette—he never asked about anything during the lessons they shared and he only said ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to Rei when they met during the week. When Rei caught the boy staring at him now and then, Saionji quickly averted his gray eyes in a nervous fashion, planting them on his textbook instead. And whenever the chime rang for the next period, Rei got up promptly and left, finding himself uncomfortable with the gloomy look on Saionji’s face.

Two weeks after they met, Rei was getting up to leave that classroom when he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Saionji—the fair-haired boy had his eyes looking away hesitantly as he held out something with another hand.

“You…you dropped your eraser...Ryuugazaki-kun…” he said softly. Seeing the eraser in Saionji’s hand, Rei stood still for about five seconds just staring at it. Then, he nodded a bit awkwardly as he took the eraser from Saionji.

“…Thanks,” he murmured shortly, before pocketing the eraser and leaving the classroom. As he returned to his own class, Rei couldn’t help but thinking that maybe he hadn’t sounded sincere enough. But he couldn’t see the point of feeling bad about it come now—after how he’d been treating Saionji almost like a stranger. He frowned slightly as he walked in and sat down at his seat, wishing he could just pocket away his conflicted feelings like they were an eraser.

He had forgotten that it was still in his pocket until that night at home, when he heard something falling out of his shorts as he changed out of them to get into his pajamas. When he saw the eraser, his face once again grew conflicted as he thought of the fair-haired boy who was not his responsibility, should not be his responsibility in any way. But as he put on his pajama pants and was slipping his shirt off, he found himself staring at his bare belly in the bathroom mirror. The sight inadvertently brought back a memory—a cruel one, where the bullies of his past had repeatedly punched him in the stomach, where the injuries would not be noticed by the teachers at school. He then remembered how he had seen them do the same thing to Saionji—with a sick feeling, Rei suddenly wondered if the pale skin under the boy’s shirt was also lined with bruises. And no matter how much he tried to push the thought aside, he found his stomach churning as he went to bed that night.

It turned out that the churning followed Rei around for the whole day when he returned to school the following morning. It bothered him as he listened to his lessons for the first three periods, it bothered him as he walked past the windows in the hall, which he avoided looking at on purpose, and it bothered him when he saw Saionji during fourth-period math, sitting at his seat and looking paler than the previous day. It churned and churned until he found himself doing something about it after the chime rang for fifth period. He remained seated with his things packed up, as Saionji gathered his books and got up to leave the classroom. After hesitating, Rei abruptly got up from his seat as well. Following Saionji out into the hallway, he grabbed the light-haired boy by the arm, causing him to turn around with startled eyes.

“Wha…what is it, Ryuugazaki-kun?” His voice came out with a tremor to it—maybe he had thought it was one of the kids that usually bullied him. Loosening the grip on Saionji’s arm, Rei took a deep breath.

“If…if you stay around me…” he began uncertainly. “They’ll stop bothering you…I think.” At his words, Saionji’s grey eyes grew bigger.

“How did you…” His small voice grew smaller as Rei could see him visibly shrinking. “Y-you saw…?”

“…Yes.” Feeling the guilt in him double, Rei couldn’t bring him to say that he had seen more than just once or twice. “I—I used to get bullied by some of them myself, when I was younger,” he admitted, a slight flush of shame forming on his cheeks. “But I know self-defense now—it’s been a long time since they stopped bothering me.” He shifted his red glasses up his nose with one hand. “If—if you want, I can even teach you the techniques—“

“But why…?” Saionji looked back at Rei with confused grey eyes. “I don’t understand, Ryuugazaki-kun…I thought—I thought you said I should take care of myself—that you don’t want to be friends with me.” Rei flinched a bit at these words—he hadn’t exactly said the last part, but he knew he may as well have. “Why would you offer something like that now…?” The look in Saionji’s eyes took on a hurt glimmer.

“If…if it’s because you feel sorry for me…I don’t need it.” His hands, which had clenched into fists, quivered at his sides as he said this. When Rei couldn’t find a response to that, the fair-haired boy turned and walked in the opposite direction, towards his own classroom.

Rei thought about it for the rest of the day. During fifth period, during lunch, during sixth and seventh, he pondered over the issue as he sat alone at his desk, his eyes far away. When he reached a conclusion at the end of the school day, he got up and swung his backpack over his back. Not bothering to change into the jumpsuit in the bathroom like he usually did, he jogged out of the hall, out of the building and to the area behind the school’s brick wall, where he knew they would be. In almost the same manner as his brother had done two years ago, the blue-haired boy leapt in with a fly kick, sending the biggest bully toppling to the ground. Saionji, who had been backed up against the wall, blinked his teary eyes in surprise as the bully fell away from him.

“—Oi!!” Alarmed and mad at Rei for interrupting, the other bullies ran at him—only to receive a strong foot in the shin or knees that sent them tripping. Putting the second-to-last bully down in a headlock, Rei swung around and let that one fall to the floor as he kicked the last quickly-approaching bully in the groin. Now significantly taller than he had been two years ago, the blue-haired boy drew himself up to his full height and looked down at them with scornful violet eyes as he shifted his glasses up his nose.

“If you ever gang up on him again, this time I’ll put you all in the hospital,” he said, with every bit of seriousness in his voice. With that, the bullies cast him a frightened look before picking themselves up and running away. Huffing slightly, Rei turned his attention back on Saionji.

“Can you stand, Saionji-kun?” At some point, Saionji’s knees had given in under him, and he was sitting on the ground in an awkward position. The fair-haired boy nodded as he stood up gingerly.

“Why…” he hesitated as he spoke. “Why did you help me…? I thought I told you…if it’s just because you pity me…”

“It’s not.”

As Rei’s voice cut in, Saionji’s eyes widened. “I mean…I’ve thought about it since then.” Shifting his eyes away and pushing his glasses up his nose, Rei continued.

“It’s because you and I are the same.” His cheeks were flushing slightly from embarrassment. “I told you I was bullied in the past, too. It’s not like I can forget how that feels. I’m not in any position to feel sorry for you—that would be like the pot calling the kettle black.” Of course, he wasn’t exactly a ‘pot’ anymore, in that sense, but he stared back at the surprised boy with sincere eyes. “I simply wanted to help you, that’s all. But if you still don’t want it—”

He was about to turn and leave when a voice, with a hint of hope in it, stopped him.

“Wait, Ryuugazaki-kun!”

Chapter Text

 

After that, the two boys were suddenly together a lot more at school. When the chime rang for recess, Rei would now quickly stand up with the other students—but instead of the playground, he jogged over to Saionji’s classroom so that they could walk together from there to the fifth-grade classroom for math. After the lesson was over, Rei would walk Saionji back to his fourth-grade classroom before returning to class himself. He often did the same during lunch and after school, when he walked with the fair-haired boy outside the school gates until they parted ways. With that, there was no longer any spare moment for those bigger kids to sneak up on Saionji. Rei could sometimes feel their glares from across the hallway when he was walking with the boy, but he hardly paid them any attention. He did this with the promise that he would teach Saionji some self-defense techniques whenever they had the time, and then hopefully the grey-eyed boy would no longer have cause to be afraid. Sometimes, they went to an empty hall within the school building to practice them.

Now that he was spending so much time with the boy, Rei naturally started to learn a lot of things about him. Yuuto (he referred to Saionji by his first name in his head now, even though he never called him that out loud) was, as he had known, good at math, but he was also good at biology. Since his own mother was a biology teacher at middle school, Rei had a fair degree of knowledge in the subject and could understand what Yuuto was talking about in their conversations. He told Rei that his dream was to become a marine biologist someday and go swimming with his favorite seals. Not only that, but he was fairly skilled at most of his class subjects, except Japanese, and they could talk on the same level of intelligence with each other about topics like physics and chemistry. And sometimes, they would just sit next to each other quietly and each read a book. Although Rei might not admit it out loud, he liked having a friend with similar interests, who he could talk to and be perfectly understood by.

He also learned what Yuuto’s personality was like. On the surface, he was quiet and shy, without much self-confidence or physical strength. Though Rei always taught him patiently, he was clumsy while putting the self-defense techniques to practice, and he quickly ran out of bodily strength, his breath already heaving after practicing for three minutes. However, during other times when he was feeling comfortable, Yuuto talked more than one might expect, his grey eyes shining as he spoke about his favorite sea creatures or described what he had read in a science fiction book the other day. The boy was also patient—he listened to Rei’s long rambles about theories and perfection and beauty, often with a good-natured smile on his face. When Rei was in a bad mood some days, he didn’t try to half-heartedly comfort him, but he waited silently until Rei hinted that he felt like talking again and then returned as if nothing had happened. Like Rei, Yuuto was also a hard worker—Rei often noticed him frowning in concentration during their math lessons, diligently taking down notes. Rei also found that Yuuto had a good memory, even better than his own—even though Rei had neglected to remember the names of his classmates, Yuuto remembered the names of everyone in his grade. When Rei asked how, he smiled sheepishly and said that he had been watching the people here a lot since he transferred to the school. And most of all, Yuuto was fair—he was never quick to judge people based on their looks or after only a few interactions with them. Although Rei had always disliked his classmates because all of them had seemed judgmental of him and because of their past bullying, Yuuto never saw them the way Rei did. When Rei asked once if he wasn’t mad at his classmates, because Yuuto was pretty much in the same situation as Rei was, the fair-haired boy shook his head with a smile that was so painfully understanding that it made the brunette want to throw his hands in the air in exasperation.

“I don’t really think they’re all bad—after all, if I was in their shoes, I would have been too scared to approach me too. Since those bigger kids were always picking on me…” His voice grew a little quiet at the end, but he managed to maintain his smile. “Besides—I never tried to approach them as much as I could have. I was too scared—so, I don’t have the right to complain, either.” At those words, Rei’s heart clenched a bit, as he thought back on all those years that he had stayed alone at his desk, his nose stuck in a book that hid him from anyone outside his closed-off world. All of a sudden, he felt ashamed of himself—now his behavior and attitude seemed so childish and narrow-minded, not to mention cowardly.

“If I hadn’t met you, Ryuugazaki-kun, I think I probably would’ve still been alone.” Those words drew Rei’s attention back to the fair-haired boy, who was smiling at him with a knowing look in his eyes. “I think it was because one of us made the second step.” Rei didn’t need to know what the first step had been—he had rejected it outright the first day he met Yuuto. When he heard that comment that day, the blue-haired boy realized for the first time just how mature this small, thin boy was. It made him develop a newfound respect for his friend—the first person he met that he could call one.

What worried Rei were the days when Yuuto were absent from school. Although this didn’t happen many times the first few weeks he was friends with the boy, it started to happen a lot more frequently after that. Besides feeling a little lonely when he wasn’t there, Rei was worried—each time Yuuto returned to school after his absent days, he looked paler and paler. He knew it wasn’t because of any bullying—he had been making sure of that every day since the first. Each time Yuuto had just waved off Rei’s worried questions and had said that he’d had something to do that day.

Only when Rei had been friends with the boy for over a month did he tell Rei the real reason. It seemed that his health had always been weak—every time he had missed school, he had been in the hospital getting treatment for his condition. One day, when they were practicing self-defense again, Yuuto fell to the floor panting heavily after he attempted to execute one of the moves Rei had taught him. Alarmed, Rei had immediately taken him to the school infirmary, and when he finally found out the truth there, he had apologized. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t recognized how badly it was exerting Yuuto’s frail body. Yuuto had only shaken his head with a smile as he lay back on the infirmary bed.

“I’m really grateful that you offered to teach me those techniques, Ryuugazaki-kun. There’s no need to apologize for that.” He gave a small sigh as he laughed slightly. “Although, I think I probably put all your hard work to waste. I’ve hardly gotten any better—I’ve always been really clumsy with things like sports, because I was born with a weak body. I even sit out for P.E. all the time because of it.” He looked at Rei, his smile turning slightly rueful. “I wish I was as athletic as you are, Ryuugazaki-kun.”

Rei had been unable to answer to that—he didn’t know how to comfort the boy. It wasn’t as if he could say that things would get better through practice—his hands clenching the edge of the bed sheets, he could only sit there and hope silently that his friend’s health would eventually improve. After that day, he had resolved to himself that he would keep a keener eye out for his friend—that he would try to be a better friend himself as well.

But, looking back on it, it had all been for nothing. After all, Rei hadn’t noticed it then, when it mattered the most—he had never truly understood what his friend was going through in his heart. And when Rei had finally realized this, it was too late to save him.

It was a hot day towards the end of June when their math teacher held them back after class once more. Smiling, she handed them two matching envelopes, which looked like invitations to an event.

“There’s going to be a math competition for elementary school students in the second week of July,” she informed the two surprised kids. “You two are the top scorers for math in my class, so I wanted to offer both of you this chance. If you think you may be interested, please tell me by the end of this week. After that, I’ll be starting after-school training for all the kids I’ve given this invitation to. Since you will need your parents’ permission, please talk it over with them as soon as possible.” She had then left the classroom with a smile, leaving the two friends alone with their invitations in their hands. Rei felt a bubble of excitement well up in him as he looked down at the envelope.

“A math competition,“ he murmured, a smile growing on his face. He thought of how much fun he might have, studying more math than he ever had, challenging himself in his favorite subject—he also thought of how proud his parents would be, if he won the competition. Maybe even Ryouji would praise him—ever since his brother started junior high this year, he had been acting a little distant towards his younger brother. Maybe this would get his aniki to smile at him again. Feeling the hope bubble up in his chest, Rei turned to Yuuto with hope in his eyes.

“I think I want to do it, Saionji-kun!” he said, barely containing the excitement in his voice. “You’re good at math, so you’ll do it too, right?” He was then startled when he noticed that Yuuto’s face was somewhat less excited than his own, as he stared down at his own invitation.

“I…I do think it might be fun. But I probably can’t participate.” The fair-haired boy turned to Rei with a wistful smile. “I would need after school training for this, right? My parents—they probably wouldn’t let me stay at school for that long.” At this response, Rei’s smile slipped off his face.

“Is it because of your health?” he asked with a concerned voice. Yuuto nodded.

“Yeah—and I’m already being tutored at home after school now.” Was it Rei’s imagination, or did his friend’s smile look a bit strained? “My mother—she wanted me to improve on my skills in Japanese. So I probably have to go home for those lessons, since it hasn’t been too long since I started.”

“But—but you don’t even like Japanese!” Rei protested. “I mean, it’s true, that doesn’t mean you should neglect the subject, but—but still, you like math just as much as I do! We could even study for it together during breaks—“

“I’m sorry, Ryuugazaki-kun.” Yuuto cut off Rei’s words suddenly, his voice a bit quiet. “But I really don’t think it’s possible.” Judging from the tone of his voice, Rei felt as if he had tried to cross a boundary he shouldn’t cross. That was the first time he had felt that way around Yuuto—if it was a person of boundaries, Rei had always been that, not the other way around. Feeling a bit startled and a bit less excited, the brunette quickly nodded.

“If…if that’s how you really feel.” Noticing Rei’s voice sounded cautious, Yuuto smiled at Rei in apology.

“I’m sorry I won’t be able to compete with you, Ryuugazaki-kun. I’ll do my best to cheer you on instead.” At this, Rei breathed a little in relief and smiled back.

“Thank you.” His eyes returned to the invitation, which he later carefully tucked into a pocket in his backpack.

When he talked it over with his parents at dinner, they had been fully supportive and given him permission. Mrs. Ryuugazaki had seemed proud of her son already from the simple fact that he had been selectively offered the invitation, although Rei had told her that he wasn’t sure if he would win, or even place at all. Even his brother had thrown him a glance and a short “G’luck kid” before he stood up from the table to go to his room. In away, Rei felt as if he had already won. That night, he spent a few extra hours after finishing homework to go over his equations before he went to bed.

As the days left until the second week of July passed by, Rei grew increasingly occupied with looking over his math books and practicing calculations in his head as well as on paper. He had completely immersed himself in his preparations for the competition, to the extent that he found himself studying silently at school even when Yuuto was around. A few times, Rei had felt guilty and asked Yuuto if he wasn’t boring the boy, but each time he had smiled at Rei and said he wasn’t bothered at all, that he understood Rei was working hard. Reassured by the response, Rei had directed his attention back to the work before him, leaving Yuuto to watch silently from beside him.

A couple of times, Rei had been so lost in his work that he had forgotten to pick Yuuto up from his classroom the times he usually did. When Yuuto walked into their classroom for math each time after, Rei had then remembered and asked if he had been all right moving around alone. Yuuto had only smiled each time and said that he had been fine, that no one had approached him, and after that they sat down and paid attention to their lesson. After a while, Yuuto even told Rei that there was no need to follow him outside the school gates anymore, since Rei had after-school math training to do and would have to walk all the way back in.

“I’ll be fine, Ryuugazaki-kun,” he had reassured Rei when he expressed concern. “Since I started hanging around with you, they’ve never approached me again. It’ll be fine.” Since that time, Yuuto had really left by himself, and Rei didn’t have to drop by his classroom after seventh period anymore. He spent that time with his nose stuck in his math books, solving a new equation or memorizing a new formula.

It turned out that the day of the competition fell on a Wednesday, and Rei had to go to the office the day before to turn in the excuse for his absence. Yuuto had tagged along, and as they were returning to their respective classrooms, he observed Rei, who was mumbling formulas to himself even as he was walking down the hall.

“Ryuugazaki-kun.” Rei looked up at the fair-haired boy, who asked him a question. “Are you feeling nervous about tomorrow?” Letting out a sigh that was indeed nervous but equally excited, Rei nodded.

“I admit, I am feeling a little nervous—“ Well, maybe ‘a little’ wasn’t the right word, but Rei continued. “But I’m also feeling really excited. I’ve already had so much fun studying everything—I can’t wait until I get to apply what I’ve been practicing out on the stage!” He crossed his arms with confidence. “I’m sure I have all the theories completely down!” At this action, Yuuto laughed good-naturedly.

“That’s great. I have school then, so I won’t be able to be there to watch—but I wish you luck!” Blinking, Rei remembered—he would be leaving Yuuto alone at school tomorrow when the competition took place. Stopping in his footsteps, he frowned a bit worriedly as he turned to his friend.

“Are you…will you be okay? When I’m not here tomorrow—“

“Hm? Of course!” Yuuto replied. “The guys that used to pick on me were fifth-graders—I heard they’re going on a school trip starting tomorrow, so it’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me—you should be focusing on your competition instead!”

“Really? That’s good,” Rei said in relief. Suddenly, he felt a little guilty about the way he had mostly forgotten about his friend until now—he wanted to do something to make up for it. So on impulse he turned to Yuuto with a spark in his eyes.

“Saionji-kun. Why don’t you come over to my house for dinner after the competition? My mother makes the best hamburger steak.” He knew that was Yuuto’s favorite food. “And after we eat, we can go look at books in my room or even watch a few movies if you want to—I think my mother even recorded that marine biology documentary you said you missed on TV. You can come over after you’re done with your Japanese lessons. What do you say?” This was the first time that he was inviting a friend over to his house, which made Rei a little nervous and excited at the same time. At this offer, Yuuto’s grey eyes widened, and soon he was also smiling widely.

“Of course! I’d love to!” It made Rei wish he’d done it sooner—but there was no turning back the past. He smiled back at the fair-haired boy—and then, the chime rang for sixth period. “Well, that’s the bell—let’s return to class, shall we?” Yuuto simply nodded. They split up at a corner in the hallway to go to their respective classes. This would be the last time they saw each other that day, so they said their goodbyes and parted ways. Rei never noticed that Yuuto lingered in his footsteps for a while, staring at Rei’s back as he walked away—his smile gone and replaced with a look of fear. A hand slipped into his shorts pocket, crumpling a piece of paper that was inside it.

The day of the math competition was a clear, sunny Wednesday. Having managed to take the day off, Rei’s mother drove Rei to the Iwatobi City Hall, where the event was to take place. They arrived at 1 pm, and Rei’s mother saw him to the backstage area, where several kids around his age were practicing last-minute drills and furiously scribbling equations down on paper. The sight only made Rei feel even more nervous—events like this had always made him nervous, especially when he was actually in the middle of them. He wondered if he would be able to keep himself calm enough to do math—he practically begged God to make sure he didn’t throw up on-stage—and his mother must’ve realized his nervousness, because she squeezed his clammy hand comfortingly and gave him a last smile before she wished him luck and left for the audience seats in the hall.

Swallowing, Rei started to recite formulas under his breath while trying not to hyperventilate. He instead tried to think about the good things that could happen—the proud looks on his parents’ faces should he win the competition, the praise he might get from Ryouji, and the fact that he had Yuuto coming over to his house to look forward to after this—all those things gave him strength, even though it didn’t completely put out his nervousness.

When the coordinator called his name from the stage, Rei swallowed, and putting on a determined face, he walked out from the curtains and stepped up to the podium on the right. He looked around the hall as the coordinator called out the name of his opponent, and spotted his mother in the crowd with a video camera in her hands. She smiled and gave him a little wave, and Rei returned the smile as best as he could as he stood, waiting for the beginning. After the audience clapped, the coordinator called for the first question to be projected onto the slide.

“The first question is: What is the square root of x when x^3 equals the number 729?” As Rei had been listening to the question, his eyes had incidentally glanced at a spot in the audience—and found a familiar face in the crowd. He blinked in confusion, distracted for a moment. But he quickly turned his mind back to the question, and he managed to ring his buzzer first.

“3!” he called out into the microphone. A ding sounded in the hall, signaling the answer as correct.

“Correct! The answer is: 3! Five points go to Mr. Ryuugazaki Rei!” The crowd cheered, and Rei sighed to himself in relief. But in the back of his mind, a confused feeling remained as he thought of the face he had just seen in the crowd. Pushing the thought aside for now, he returned his concentration to the competition, his mind swiftly solving problems in his head.

Just what had Yuuto been doing in the crowd? And with such a conflicted expression on his face?

After beating the first competitor, Rei had to face-off with nine more, each one of them faster with their calculations than the one before. He had seen this coming, since the competition was being held in tournament fashion, with two players facing off and the winner moving on to the next stage. With his last competitor that he faced, a tall lanky boy with a beaked nose and mousy hair who had smugly given Rei a look-over as if saying that beating a brat like him would be a piece of cake, the battle had been the toughest. By the twentieth question, Rei had been tied with the boy, ten to ten, and he thought his heart would leap out of his throat as he waited for the final question to appear on the screen. But in the end, he won the battle—although his opponent had rang the buzzer first, he had answered the question wrong, and Rei had solved it correctly before the boy could redo his calculations. When the bell sounded, signaling that he had answered correctly, sparkles shot up from the half of the stage that held up his podium.

“Congratulations, Mr. Ryuugazaki Rei. You have won first place in Iwatobi City Hall’s 20XX Math Competition!” the coordinator boomed. “Let’s all give him a round of applause!” The crowd cheered, and Rei saw his mother standing up from her seat in the crowd as she waved excitedly at her son with both arms, camera forgotten and a huge smile on her face. Instantly, Rei smiled back at her widely—the exhilaration and pleasure hit him suddenly with full force when he saw her, more so than when he had heard the announcement of his victory. Even feeling a bit sorry for his opponent, who had dropped to his knees and fallen against the podium in shock, he thought of how the rest of his day would go. After the award ceremony, he’d go running into his mother’s arms as she happily told him how proud she was of him; they’d make a phone call to his father to tell him about the result, and he would congratulate Rei as well; the four of them would all go out to dinner to celebrate, and Ryouji would look at him and praise him; and the next day, Yuuto would come ove—Rei suddenly stopped track in his thoughts.

Yuuto-kun… His eyes dashed back to the audience, towards the spot where he’d seen Yuuto at the start of the competition…but the boy wasn’t there. He scanned the crowd for the familiar light-brown hair—but he couldn’t see Yuuto around anywhere. Frowning, he tried to remember what sort of face Yuuto had had on—he was sure there had been some shock on the boy’s face, and then some other emotion that he couldn’t assess in his head. He thought back to the interaction he had had with the boy the day before—he knew Yuuto had said he would be at school, and when the competition had started it had been two o’clock. Their school usually ended at three-thirty…and it wasn’t a walking distance from the city hall, there was no way he could have come here without skipping his last few classes. Rummaging through his memories, he tried to remember what they had talked about in their conversation—his own nervousness and excitement, Yuuto wishing him luck—the fact that the fair-haired boy would be alone at school today—at the last thought, Rei stopped, his eyes shooting wide open.

’The guys that used to pick on me were fifth-graders—I heard they were going on a school trip tomorrow, so it’ll be fine.’ The blood drained from Rei’s face as a feeling of dread washed over his body.

He realized then that he’d heard the announcement about the fifth-grade school trip on Monday. They hadn’t left for the trip today—they were scheduled to leave next Wednesday. Yuuto had either not known and mistook the date for today—or he had lied to Rei. And judging from Yuuto’s good memory and unexplained actions, it seemed there was a really good chance it was the latter. As everything began to click together, Rei started to panic, and for a moment he forgot that he was still onstage, with the coordinator saying something about the award ceremony.

He’d been so busy studying for this competition that he had inadvertently left the grey-eyed boy alone a lot recently. And on top of that, he had altogether stopped walking with Yuuto outside the school gates after school ended for some time. Each time Yuuto had smiled and said that nothing was wrong, that nothing had happened. But Rei—Rei couldn’t tell when Yuuto was lying to him. He had never been able to tell—he hadn’t even thought about the possibility.

How could he have been so stupid?

“—Mr. Ryuugazaki?” The coordinator’s voice sounded puzzled. “If you could come up to the center, please?”

Rei didn’t hear what the coordinator said after that. Turning, he bolted from the stage, disappearing from the sight of the confused audience.

He wondered if he had ever really tried to understand.

As he ran, the sun began to set towards the horizon, coloring the previously blue sky pink and yellow. With the passing minutes, it began bleeding crimson and orange, casing a reddish-yellow light on the townscape below it. Rei’s lungs felt like they would burn from the oxygen, he was running so hard at a breakneck speed, the hardest that he’d ever run in his life.

When he had first taken the boy to the infirmary, he had sworn that he would be a better friend to the boy, that he would definitely watch out for him. After what he had decided then—this was not the way that things were supposed to be. Not now, not when he swore that he would change—feeling the panic swell up with a renewed gust of power, Rei tried to run faster, if that was even possible.

He arrived at the school after about forty minutes. As he neared the gates, he saw a few students walking home, probably after having played in the school playground for a while. As he ran past them, he thought he heard them whispering about something.

“—saw that kid in that classroom again with Kanemiya’s group—“

“—they had him backed against a wall—“

“—him again? Poor kid—“ The blood in his body ran cold, and he quickened his pace towards the school building. He ran up six flights of stairs until he was on the fourth floor. Swerving violently around the corner, he ran toward Yuuto’s classroom and skidded to a stop in front of it, tearing the door open as it slid to his left with a loud SLAM!

Standing in the classroom were six boys, each of them bulky and tall. Rei instantly recognized their faces—they were the ones who had always bullied Yuuto, and before that, the ones who had used to bully him. They had made a half-circle formation around someone—Rei’s eyes swiveled to that kid, who was standing near the window with spindly legs slightly bent and apart, one arm slightly uplifted in tension while the other was hidden behind his back, his face frozen in surprise—and fear. His wide grey eyes stared at Rei in shock, glowing in the backlight of the evening sun that came through the open window. Yuuto. Swallowing, not because of the bullies’ presence but because he had no idea what his friend was thinking, Rei opened his mouth.

“Saionji-kun—“ As he spoke, his words faltered in the air. “What—what are you doing here?” Rei didn’t like how Yuuto’s expression stayed on his face, even though he was here now, ready to stop those bullies from doing whatever they were going to do to him. Now the surprise was gone, and only the fear remained—and Rei had no idea why it was directed at him. Trying not to clam up from the tension, Rei continued to speak. “You—you were at the competition too, right? I, I thought I saw you in the crowd—“

“Go away.” Yuuto’s voice was strangely quiet, but Rei heard those two words. Taken aback, his violet eyes widened slightly.

“…Saionji-kun?”

“I said, GO AWAY!!” Until then, Yuuto had been hiding one arm behind his body. Now, he revealed what he had been holding in that hand when he brought the arm forward—Rei recognized the flash of steel as the pale boy held his arm thrust out towards the Rei. The motion had made the bullies stumble back, their faces paling in shock when they saw the item.

In his hand was a small pocketknife. The blade was about the length of an adult’s longest finger, and the handle was also about that long. The hand holding the knife was quaking violently as its owner stood near the window, his whole body trembling with anger and fear, both emotions flashing in his usually gentle grey eyes. The blood had drained from Rei’s face when he had seen the weapon, and a million different thoughts crashed into each other in his mind as he stared at his friend in shock.

“Oi—is he seriously gonna use that thing?” “What if he stabs us with it?” “Shh—just shut up! Don’t provoke the kid!” The bullies flinched when Yuuto’s arm moved very slightly. The only thing that kept them from bolting from room was Rei, who was standing in the doorway.

“Why are you even here, Ryuugazaki-kun?” Yuuto’s voice was quiet, but spiteful. “So what if I went to that competition? So what if I saw you up there, doing math problems like you were having a field day? You should have just kept having a field day. You said your parents were taking you out for sushi afterwards—did you really ditch all that just to come here?” He fought to keep his voice as even as he possibly could. “You should have just forgotten that you saw me there. You should have just pretended not to notice—you should have just kept not noticing, like you always have.”

“…What are you talking about, Saionji-kun?” Rei’s own voice shook as they fell in a stunned whisper from his lips. At the confusion in Rei’s face, Yuuto let out a weak laugh.

“I wanted you to stay that way—sure, I kept getting beaten up when you were busy thinking about the competition—sure, it hurt, and sure, I felt like crap after every time—but I still thought that that was better than you finding out about it. You should have stayed oblivious like you always were—busy with your favorite math, making your nice parents proud, making your cool older brother acknowledge you, being the perfect son, the perfect student, and perfectly happy.”

“Saionji-kun…!” Rei tried to find a response for what he was hearing, but he couldn’t think of anything to say in his situation. What was he supposed to say to all that? These were the first that he was hearing about these feelings—it bewildered him, how bitter his usually kind friend sounded right now. It made the blood in his ears pound as he stood at the doorway, his mouth agape.

“So what if I was suffering? I’ve always been suffering. Every day after school, it’s a trip back home to get tutored, a trip to the hospital to get checked up on, a trip to whatever fancy building that my parents are holding their social event, then another trip back home, where I know I’ll be falling asleep alone in that too-big bed, in that too-cold bedroom I’ve always hated. Feeling sickly and physically weak, that’s not the worst thing. Taking three different medications every day, three times a day—that’s not the worst thing. Being pressured by my parents’ expectations is not the worst thing. Even getting beaten up by idiots like them—“ He jerked his head towards the bullies in the room, who jumped at his sudden gesture. “—is not the worst thing.” His eyes fixed onto Rei’s violet ones, meeting them with such coldness and loneliness that Rei almost felt as if a snowstorm had started in his heart from just looking at them.

“The worst thing, is having you know. Looking at me with those eyes of yours, exactly the way you’re looking at me with those eyes right now—and seeing what you think of the real me. Of all the things that I’ve kept hidden away—of all the ugly feelings that I have for the people around me. When up ‘til now, all you’ve seen of me is the pretty shell that I’ve been trying so hard to keep intact every day—I can’t believe I ever thought that we were the same.” He laughed bitterly. “This is really the worst. Why in the world did you have to come here? At this time?” Backing up towards the open window, his free hand gripped one side of the frame. With one of his feet he stepped backwards onto the windowsill, hoisting his other foot up. The curtains billowed behind him as the evening summer breeze blew through the window, all the way to Rei where it ruffled his dark-blue locks as his body stiffened.

“Saionji-kun!” His eyes were wide with panic, his throat and mouth dry. “Get down from there!”

“I hate being here at this place every day. I hate seeing your oblivious face every day. Maybe—maybe if you hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t be having all these complicated feelings right now. Maybe I would have just resigned myself to forgetting how to feel. Maybe I would’ve been happier if I was alone—if I stayed numb, like how I used to be before you came along.”

“YUUTO!!” Rei’s voice was shrill. When the brunette called his name for the first time, something seemed to snap in Yuuto’s face, which became livid with hatred.

“Why did you have to stop me in the hall then?!” the pale-haired boy screamed. “I wish that you never tried to save me that day!!”

 

“I WISH I HAD NEVER MET YOU AT ALL!!!”

 

Wait—wait—!!! NO—!!!! Rei’s mental prayers were ignored up to the last moment. What happened next seemed to happen in slow motion. Leaning back, Yuuto closed his eyes as he put one foot outside the window. The knife fell out of his hands and clattered to the floor of the classroom…as the light-haired boy fell out the window, disappearing from the room.

Rei didn’t even hear the sickening thud of Yuuto’s body landing on the ground. He never heard the commotion that resulted when some of the teachers who had been working in their office heard the sound and discovered the fallen boy. He never heard the sound of other teachers’ footsteps running towards the classroom. He never even heard the sirens wailing through the evening air as the emergency cars eventually arrived at the school.

Before he knew it, Rei blacked out, falling to the floor in a crumpled heap, his skin pale and his eyes closed in unconsciousness.

He hadn’t died. He thanked God that he hadn’t died. But he was in a coma. He would be in a coma, it turned out, all the way up to the year that Rei was turning fifteen, and then some more maybe, maybe forever. Rei didn’t know what was worse—the fact that his friend may never wake up again, or the fact that he himself had been the cause of it.

When Rei had regained consciousness, he had woken up in his bedroom at home. His mother had been sitting at his bedside watching over him, and her tearstained face had lit up when she saw him wake up. After he had woken up and remembered the incident, he had fallen in to panic all over again, and although he managed to calm down to a certain extent, the hollow, numb ache in his heart grew larger and larger with every passing second. When he heard about what state Yuuto was in, his body had filled with cold dread, and he had almost passed out again. He wasn’t dead—thank God he wasn’t dead—but being in a coma, he could die at any given minute. It left a harsh tension clutching onto his heart, and for the next six years, every time he thought about the light-haired boy he used to know—had thought he knew—the tension was back and grated at his heart over and over.

For many nights after Yuuto’s fall, Rei had been tortured by daily nightmares of the incident. Sometimes it was exactly as the real event had gone—the pale-haired boy with his grey eyes laced with pain and rage as he fell slowly from the window and towards the ground. Sometimes it was Rei that was falling—and he never stopped falling, until he woke from the dream. In this version, he always saw a flash of light-brown hair and grey eyes that flashed as if they were screaming that they hated him. Neither of them permitted Rei much sleep, and he often awoke in the night with a loud cry, his breath ragged and his violet eyes flown open in terror.

Later that week, the police came to his house to question him. He told them everything with honesty, but not in detail—only told them vague things like “He said he felt pressured by the expectations around him” and “He was being bullied at school”. It wasn’t that he cared about what the police would think—it just didn’t feel right, telling them what exactly Yuuto had been thinking that day when he purposely fell out the window. He didn’t feel like he had the right to tell anyone about any of the painful and personal things that his friend had said. ‘His friend’—Rei wasn’t even sure if he had the right to call Yuuto that anymore. Not when he hadn’t ever realized how much the boy had been suffering, when he had been right next to him all this time.

It was because of Rei that Yuuto was in the hospital, in the condition that he was in now. He thought at first that it was because he hadn’t noticed the bullying that was going on, or because he had never noticed the unhappy pressure that the light-haired boy had felt from his family—but then he remembered the words that Yuuto had said just before he fell. Yuuto hadn’t expected him to notice—he hadn’t wanted him to notice. He had never thought Rei close enough to him to be able to share any of that with the brunette.

‘I WISH I HAD NEVER MET YOU AT ALL!!!’

If only that had been the reality—if only Rei had never grabbed him by the arm in the hallway, had never saved him from those bullies, had never tried to become his friend—Yuuto would probably still have been in pain, but maybe it still would have been better than any of this happening.

His mother had let him stay at home and rest from school for the remainder of that week. She had been doing the dishes in the kitchen when a rock shattered the kitchen window in front of her and hit her in the chest. Some of the glass shards also hit her, leaving gashes on her face and arms as she fell onto the kitchen floor with a cry of pain.

Rei had been next to the kitchen door when it had happened—the blood had drained from his face as he dashed over to her and held up her upper body with his arms in panic. Having heard the crash, Ryouji had ran over to the kitchen as well. Seeing his mother in this situation also made his face pale in alarm—then, he had caught the sound of a loud snicker coming from outside the house. His face darkening in a stormy rage, he had barked at Rei to take care of their mother’s wounds and was out of the kitchen door in a heartbeat to chase after the culprit.

But Rei already knew who it had been—he had caught the flash of a familiar face as the owner zoomed away on his bike. It was one of the guys that had always ganged up on Yuuto—Kanemiya, was it. He felt his shoulders shaking in anger—he thought that he knew what the boy had been trying to convey by throwing that rock at his house. He was threatening Rei from telling anyone about what he had planned to do in that classroom, or any deed that he had done before that. Just because he was too much of a coward to target him, he had targeted someone who was completely uninvolved—his own mother.

All of a sudden, everything just seemed too much to handle. He felt the anger slowly but surely being replaced by a fear that crept from the center of his heart through every vein to every crook in his body. His mother was hurt because of him—his sweet, kind, caring mother who didn’t have a bad bone in her, who had never done anything wrong, was bleeding. He could tell as he quickly brought out the first aid kit in their house after he had moved her to the couch in the living room, and started to treat her as best as he could—some of the gashes were deep, and a few of them would even leave lasting scars. That rock had probably even bruised her chest pretty badly. And it wasn’t just her—even now, as he stood in his living room at home, his friend was on the brink between life and death, in a hospital miles away. And all of a sudden, Rei felt as if he could not bear any of this anymore. He wondered how he could keep himself from further hurting anyone. And, lying in his bed that night, he reached both a conclusion and a solution.

When Monday came the next week, Rei did not return to school. Neither did he do so on Tuesday, or Wednesday, or any of the days that came after. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and months turned into years—and never once did he leave his house unless it was absolutely necessary. Even when he did, he left inside a car—he never went jogging outside again, like he had used to love doing. He never went to visit the local library that had become one of his sanctuaries during childhood, to borrow any of his favorite books on his favorite subjects. He never tried to stroll through the neighborhood on the solitary walks he used to love, enjoying the breeze and the different colors of the trees that lined his neighborhood, all the beautiful things outside that he had grown to love. And he certainly never returned to school, any school—he was afraid that every time his eyes took in school scenery, it would remind him of the terrible things that had happened in the summer of his fourth-grade year. Every time he saw the maple tree outside his window, every time he looked at the scenery outside was breathtaking, he crushed the part of him that wanted to crawl out and explore, feel the beauty of the world around him with all his senses. Every time he felt the longing, every time he felt the yearning, he told himself that he didn’t deserve to go outside. Not when someone he knew was always going to lie in a hospital bed, in the cold blackness of his dormant consciousness. No. Never again.

And after all this time, Ryuugazaki Rei had still not changed his mind. But a certain someone had made him waver. A certain someone had unexpectedly appeared in his life. Made the scenery outside seem even more breathtaking than it had before. Was just as beautiful as the scenery he had always yearned for, if not more. Made his heart flutter with inexplicable happiness.

And now, that person was standing in front of him, and he knew. He knew what had caused Rei to shut himself inside in the first place. He held the key to his horrible past—and worse, to his terrible self.

Rei didn’t think he could feel any more terrified than he had during the ninth year of his life. But, as he stood at the window that evening, looking at Nagisa, he found out that wasn’t true. He was absolutely, positively terrified. Seeing the person he loved with that knowledge in his eyes made him want to slam the shutters closed and rip the curtains back closed, all over again. Thinking about what the blonde might think of him, it nearly broke his heart in two.

For the second time, he wondered if it would have been better, had he and the blonde not met at all. For the third time, he could feel the world around him shattering.

 


 

Seeing Rei stand there, his face getting that panicked look, his eyes reflecting absolute terror as they stared directly at him—Nagisa didn’t like this at all. It almost made him wish that he could take those questions back, if it meant that he wouldn’t have to see his friend looking so in pain.

This wasn’t it—he had never wanted to hurt Rei. He had just wanted to know, what had bothered the brunette so much that it kept him away from the outside world, what had hurt him so much in his past that it had caused him to cage himself inside that house. And now, there was a familiar look in Rei’s eyes—Nagisa knew where he had seen that look before. The moment he had caught a glimpse of Rei’s face as he was falling from the maple tree—that look of sheer terror—that look of pain, tinged heavily with regret. Now he understood—why Rei had been so panicked as his ten-year-old self climbed the maple tree that one autumn day. Why he had been so worried that he would fall. Why he had looked so horrified when he did. It all clicked together, making him feel even worse about the incident than he ever had. And all these years, he had only thought that Rei was angry at him for not having listened to him. He never should have ignored the brunette’s warnings—it physically pained Nagisa when he imagined it, how Rei must have shouted towards Saionji Yuuto, how badly he must have wanted to stop that fall. He was sure that was what had happened—even if he didn’t know Saionji, he knew Rei. He knew how kind his friend was—how much he cared about the people he loved, how much he could hate himself if he ever hurt any of them—and now, for six years, he must have been hurting so much. And the blonde was furious with himself for not realizing it all this time.

Now that he had noticed, he was going to do something about it. He had to. Mustering up the courage, because the unpredictability of the moment made him scared, Nagisa opened his mouth once more.

“Rei. I know what you must have thought, all this time. It’s not true. It’s not your fault he fell.” Even though his voice shook, he willed himself to continue. “It’s not any one person’s fault—I know you think you were responsible for it. It’s because I know how stupidly, exasperatingly kind you are—I can almost hear what you must have thought back then. ‘It’s my fault he jumped out the window, it’s my fault I wasn’t there earlier, it’s my fault that I left him alone, that I never knew how badly he was suffering’—I know now. You probably thought the same thing about me, when I fell from that tree a few years ago—you must have blamed it on yourself then, too. And you felt so guilty that you kept your window closed all these years—”

“…It was.” Nagisa stiffened as Rei’s voice, more quiet, more scared, heavier than he had ever heard it be, sounded from his lips. “It was my fault, Nagisa-kun…” The brunette’s arms shook from his sides as he stared at the floor, his eyes in terror. “It was my fault…I was the one who caused that argument…I was the one who made you climb that tree…and because of me, you fell…you could’ve died…just like Yuuto-kun could’ve died…just like he can die any time, any moment now…”

“That’s not true!” Nagisa shouted, his voice frustrated. “Why can’t you understand that, Rei-chan?! Why won’t you listen to me?! I told you a million times, it’s my own fault!! You can’t blame what I decided to do on my own on yourself! Just like you can’t blame yourself for Saionji-kun for taking that step out the window! Sure, he was suffering and maybe you didn’t notice that enough, but he should have told you what he was going through! He should have let you do what you do best, make people feel better, make them come to their senses! If he really thought of you as a friend, then he should have reached out towards you!!”

“He said…that he wished we had never met.” The words fell from Reis lips like a heavy weight. “He said he wished I had never approached him. Tried to help him. Tried to become his friend. Then maybe...even if he still suffered…maybe it wouldn’t have been as painful…” His shoulders shook.

“All those times that I thought I was helping him…all those times that I thought I was going to be a better friend…I was just fooling myself. How could I be a good friend when I never even knew how much pain someone right beside me was feeling? How could I be a good friend, when I never noticed all the hints, when I never realized how he felt when he saw me being happy? I was so absorbed in my own affairs that I never ever realized how unhappy he was—and he never expected me to realize it, Nagisa. He never once thought that I was a true friend. He never thought I was worthy—he even looked scared that I even found out about it in the first place. He expected me to see him differently now—to treat him differently, maybe even reject who he was. I always only saw the nice, smiling, patient, mature side of him—and I never tried to reach beyond that surface. All this time—all this time that I thought we were friends—I was so oblivious, so stupid. I was just some idiotic kid in his life—and because of that one idiotic kid, he fell from the window that day. I couldn’t even stop him, with what I was worth.” Cold tears started to well up in his eyes. “And now, because I couldn’t, he’s alone, in some cold hospital bed in some cold ward—alone in the darkness fighting between life and death. And it’s my fault!” He took a ragged breath and gritted his teeth as he tried not to let those tears fall—he didn’t have the right to cry, like he was the one who had been suffering more.

“It wasn’t just him, Nagisa—my mother got hurt, too! My own sweet mother who never had anything to do with what happened—she got hurt by one of those scum who used to gang up on Yuuto-kun, who used to gang up on me when I couldn’t fight back—all because I had been in that classroom, saw them in there with him! It left her scars—scars that she’ll probably have for the rest of her life, Nagisa! That’s why she wears long sleeves all the time, even in the summer! Every time she looks at the skin that used to be so smooth and beautiful—every time she’ll remember that she was hurt because of me! He probably saw me outside, getting the mail and going into the house—” His fists were clenched so tightly that his nails were digging into the skin, leaving raw red marks, almost drawing blood. “Nothing good ever happens when I walk out that door—I meet people I should never have met, I draw the attention of people that I never should be noticed by—and I’ll remember things, things that terrify me and cut through my heart even with just the thought of them!” Now his eyes were squeezed shut with pain as he shouted the next words.

“Even the fact that you and I met, Nagisa-kun—is that really such a good thing?! Now that you know I’m the type of person who gets obsessed with his own little world, who never truly tried to understand the people around me—how can you still think well of me?! I could never completely let go of my math books—I could never completely let go of the scenery I see outside the window—even as I stay inside the house, I’m not repenting enough, I’ll never be able to experience the hell that Yuuto-kun must be experiencing! I even find myself feeling happy, feeling whole again when I talk to you inside the window—when all this time, I never deserved you as a friend—I never even deserved to be your friend either!”

Silence. After those last words, the painful silence rang in the air between the two boys. In the distance, Nagisa thought that he could faintly hear the sound of two children’s voices as they played in the neighborhood. Struggling to keep himself together, the blonde opened his mouth.

“Don’t.” His voice came out in a trembling whisper. “Don’t say it, Rei-chan. Please.”

“…Sometimes, I wish.” Rei’s voice was strained, hollow as he let the next words fell from his lips.

 

“I wish that I had never met you at all.”

 

As the brunette said this, it seemed as if all the light was fading from Nagisa’s world. Numbly, the blonde could only watch as Rei turned away from him, reaching out with his hands for the shutters. In what seemed to be a painfully slow movement, they slammed shut, making a sound that seemed like heavy rejection to Nagisa. When he realized what had just happened, it made the blonde drop to his knees on the floor as his eyes stayed frozen, fixed on the closed window, which was now draped with closed curtains.

“Rei-chan…” His own voice came out in a hoarse whisper. “No...no…Rei-chan…” Tears began pricking the back of his eyes. “Don’t….don’t say that, Rei-chan…no…it’s my fault…” His whole body began to tremble as he sat there, in front of the window. “Don’t do that…don’t shut yourself inside…don’t go back in there…” Hot tears started to roll down his face as his burgundy eyes crinkled up in sadness. “Don’t…hic….don’t…hic…don’t—“ His lips started to quiver as he began to cry.

“Rei-chan..!”

He realized that he had just hurt the brunette for the second time in five years. Not even feeling his knees hurt, he sat there, shoulders heaving up and down as he started to sob harder.

This time, along with Rei’s, Nagisa’s own world outside his window had shattered.

Chapter Text

His suspicions had been confirmed right when he looked outside the window the next morning. And the next. And the one after that. Every time, Rei’s window remained shut painfully tight, the curtains drawn. All of a sudden it was like they were back where they had been, about five years ago now.

Each time Nagisa saw the closed window, he felt as if his heart broke a little, when he thought about the blue-haired boy who was alone inside that room, who had probably always felt alone, more than the blonde had ever imagined. And Nagisa didn’t know what to do—he had tried to talk to Rei, get through to him—but at this point trying to talk to him again seemed impossible, when he wouldn’t even open the window for Nagisa to try and talk to him. And each time he thought of the words that Rei had left him before he disappeared inside his house, it just broke his heart even further.

’I wish that I had never met you at all.’

Those words just made him feel even more lost, and made his chest tighten with pain over and over. Knowing that his own words had caused Rei to say such a thing—that had hurt him even more. And all he had wanted was to know—to comfort Rei, to tell him it wasn’t his fault, that he deserved to be back out there, outside the house, feeling the beauty of the world, like the kind and beautiful and amazing person he was. But his words had just done the opposite. He had failed twice, both times only hurting Rei in the process. The thought made him want to cry.

And now, as he sat on his bed in his room curled up in a ball after school had let out, Nagisa didn’t know what to do anymore. He had called out to Rei, knocked on his door and asked to see him—the results had always been the same. It left him feeling despair as he sat there, hugging his pillow, his usually bright eyes completely miserable. He was sure he had never felt so helpless before in his life. As his mind started to sink deeper into misery, a knock sounded on his door.

“Go away—I don’t feel like eating dinner!” he shouted, burying his face in his pillow. The door opened a crack and his sister Naomi’s voice sounded through the gap.

“Your friends from school are here, brat.” Her voice was soft. “They’ve asked to come upstairs. They have green ties on—probably your upperclassmen or something.” At this, Nagisa looked up from his pillow. Green ties—could it be? “They said they haven’t seen you around school for a while, so they came because they’re worried. Should I tell them to beat it?”

“No—wait. Let them come up,” Nagisa said quickly. Naomi just nodded and went back downstairs.

During the past few days, Nagisa had been quiet at school. He hadn’t talked much to his classmates, and even though Hana-chan asked if he had been all right after what happened on Saturday, he had only given her a vague answer. He had seen Komura and Yamazaki exchange looks around him, and though the orange head had tried to cheer him up, it hadn’t worked—eventually Komura had stopped him, probably because he thought it was best to leave Nagisa alone for the moment. During lunch, he hadn’t gone to the rooftop to eat with Haru and Makoto, as he always had done. That must be why they were here right now—and he was right. When the door opened a minute later, both of his older friends were standing there, Haru with a bag full of Nagisa’s favorite Iwatobikkuri bread and Makoto holding a box that he recognized to be one from his favorite bakery. Seeing the state Nagisa was in, Makoto’s eyes crinkled slightly in concern before he gave the blonde a gentle smile.

“Package for Hazuki Nagisa?” he said, holding up the box of strawberry cake in his hand. Because he didn’t want to worry Makoto too much, Nagisa managed to crack a small smile as his two friends walked in. They set the cake box and bag of bread on the floor of his room and sat down next to his bed.

“We were talking to obaa-san before we came up,” Makoto began. “We heard from her that you haven’t been feeling well since the weekend. And you haven’t been coming up to the rooftop at lunch the past few days. We dropped by your classroom after school today, but you were already gone—one of your friends told me you’ve been a little off this week” His voice was gentle. “Can we ask you what’s wrong?” Hearing the kind boy’s concern made the tears start to prick at Nagisa’s eyes again, and before he knew it the blonde had opened his mouth.

“I…I think...I think I hurt a friend of mine...” Nagisa’s small voice cracked as he spoke. “Really badly…” Seeing his friend starting to tremble, Makoto’s face grew concerned, and he got up from the floor to sit down next to Nagisa on his bed.

“Who is this friend you’re talking about?” he asked, gently wrapping an arm around the blonde. “And why do you think that? Did something happen?”

“Was it ‘Rei-chan’?” Both of them were surprised when Haru opened his mouth. “The one you were always talking about at lunch?”

“Haru—“ Makoto shot his friend a warning look, but Nagisa just nodded.

“I…found out something about him…something about his past, that he never told me about.” Under Makoto’s and Haru’s watchful eyes, Nagisa suddenly felt the words flowing out of his chest. “And when…when I confronted him about it…he looked so painful. So scared…” His voice grew small as he said the next words.

“I…I said a few things about it—and he…he said…that he wished he had never met me…” The tears started to roll down his cheeks as his voice trembled. “And after that…h-he went inside his room…he’s kept his window shut for days…I’ve tried to talk to him from my window…I’ve rang the doorbell…but he won’t come out. And I don’t know, wh-what to do anymore—I’m scared that I’ve pushed him away for good…and it’s all b-because I w-wasn’t thinking—!” As Makoto looked shocked and Haru frowned with concern, Nagisa buried his face in his lap. “At this rate, h-he’ll never talk to me again—and I’m so terrified that will happen—my mind is in a mess right now, and I can’t th-think straight—“ He choked on his sobs before saying the next words. “I’ve never felt so l-lost in my life…!”

“Nagisa…” Makoto’s voice was soft with sympathy as he sat next to the blonde, rubbing his back. “Shhh…it’ll be okay…I’m sure Rei-kun will come back out again…you can apologize to him then…” Next to the bed, Haru had stood up, his blue eyes narrowed.

“He lives next door, right? Should I drag him out?” he asked, with a cool edge to his voice.

“Haru.” Makoto gave his childhood friend another warning look. “Don’t go break in over there—it won’t make things any better.”

“How do you know it won’t?” Haru retorted. “If he doesn’t apologize, at least I can slug him.”

“Don’t!” Makoto’s eyes widened with terror. Hearing this little argument, Nagisa couldn’t help but laugh a little in-between his sobs.

“You wouldn’t be able to take him down, Haru-chan,” he said, wiping his eyes a bit. “He works out a lot—though you might have a chance in the water.” He hiccupped at the end of his sentence. Upon hearing the blonde’s voice speak, Makoto smiled in relief. He could also see Haru visibly relax a bit—if Nagisa still felt up to making remarks like that, then there was still hope of cheering him up. Laughing a little, the tall brunette stood up from the bed.

“Let’s have the cake now,” he suggested. “It’s strawberry shortcake—your favorite, Nagisa. It’ll make you feel better.”

“We have your favorite disgusting bread, too,” Haru said, his eyes moving to the bag on the floor while his face turned slightly purple. “Which I’m not touching—you can have all of it.” At this, Nagisa managed another laugh. Giving his friends a tearstained smile, he nodded.

“Yeah! Let’s dig in!”

They spent about an hour and a half eating and chatting—although it was mostly Makoto doing the talking, as he filled in Nagisa on little things like what he and Haru had done that week and stories about his younger twin siblings at home. When it was time for both of them to return to their houses for dinner, the two older boys stood up to leave. As they headed for the doorway, Nagisa followed after them with a faint but genuine smile.

“Haru-chan, Mako-chan—thanks for coming and trying to cheer me up. I really love you guys,” he said sincerely. Makoto smiled at his younger friend and Haru just looked off to the side like the tsundere he was.

“Don’t mention it,” the brunette said. “You should tell your friends at school that, too—they were really worried about you when we saw them today.” His green eyes gave a start as he remembered something.

“Oh, right—one of them said they wanted me to give you these!” He took off his backpack and opened it, taking out a stack of dark blue albums that Nagisa instantly recognized as being Kitagawa Elementary yearbooks. “They’re from your elementary school, right? I wondered what the intention was—but she said that you would know when you got them.” Nagisa slowly reached out and received the yearbooks—there were four of them total.

“Thanks, Mako-chan. These must’ve been heavy!” he commented, setting them on his bed. At that moment, Haru also seemed to remember something.

“Nagisa. Did you see the text I sent you?” At this question, the blonde blinked.

“You texted me, Haru-chan? When?” He was surprised—the raven-haired boy rarely used his cell phone at all, much less texted other people.

“Saturday.” Guessing Nagisa didn’t see it, Haru opened his mouth again. “That guy you asked about the other day—the one with a lot of piercings—I saw him then. He was crouching next to the convenience store near my house with some other guys—and he was wearing our school uniform.” At the news, Nagisa’s eyes widened with surprise. But before he could ask any more questions, a voice called from downstairs.

“Makoto-kun, Haruka-kun! Will you two be staying for dinner?” It was Nagisa’s mom. “We have extras of beef roast if you two are interested!”

“Ah, Thank you, obaa-san—but I think we should be going now. My parents are expecting us back for dinner!” Makoto called back politely.

“All right then—but you boys are welcome anytime!” With a smile, Makoto turned back to Nagisa.

“We’ll be going home, then. I hope you feel better!” he said kindly. Nagisa nodded.

“I already do,” he reassured his friend. “Don’t worry about it—I’ll see you guys tomorrow!” The two boys then said their goodbyes and started heading down the stairs. At the head of the stairway, Haru turned back towards the blonde, as if on an afterthought.

“Nagisa.” His blue eyes studied him with silent trust. “Be careful.” Nagisa was taken a back a little—but he nodded. He didn’t have to ask what Haru was talking about, nor did he question how the raven-haired boy had known. The raven-haired boy somehow always seemed to know.

“Haru! We’ll be late getting back!” Makoto’s voice called from downstairs. Giving Nagisa one more glance, Haru turned and headed for the first floor as well. Hearing the front door shut, Nagisa returned to his bedroom and shut the door. His eyes fell on the yearbooks on his bed.

Climbing onto the mattress, he looked over their covers. The oldest of them was dated from nine years ago, and the most recent one was dated from six years ago. Taking a deep breath, Nagisa released it and picked up the oldest one. This would have been published when Nagisa had been a first-grader at a different school. Opening it, he flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for.

There, on the corner of one page, was a photo of a six-year-old boy with dark blue hair. His violet eyes peered out timidly from his red glasses, and his lips were set in a straight line, unsmiling. The name beneath the photo read ‘Ryuugazaki Rei’, and Nagisa ran a line along the print with his finger, staring at the picture. Even when he was so young—even then, he had a feeling, Rei had probably not smiled much. He remembered something Takakura had mentioned in passing the other day—that she had heard that Rei had also used to be bullied when he was younger. Remembering that fact made Nagisa frown—he wished that he could go back in time and take those brats out before they had even gone near his friend.

It was the same for all of what few pictures of him there were in the yearbook—when he was sitting in his classroom, when he was participating in events like the school sports day and the school choir, even when he was posing for his class photo, Rei was never smiling. As he looked through the two yearbooks that came after the first, Nagisa was finding that this still stayed constant—although if he had looked a bit more shy and afraid during his first grade, he looked less scared and more coolly reserved as his grade moved up. And he was alone in most of his pictures—even in the class photos, he was always standing off to the side, with some space put between him and the next kid. Sometimes, Nagisa thought that he saw a flicker of what appeared to be loneliness in the younger brunette’s eyes as he stood for the photos—and this made his heart ache. But he knew there was no use aching over the past—there was only the present, and the future. When this occurred to him, he set down the yearbook from Rei’s third-grade. With a determined glint in his eyes, the blonde turned to the last yearbook, picking it up in his hands.

As he looked through the pages, he found it. Rei’s fourth-grade photo was much the same as his previous ones, his face distant and unsmiling. He let out a small wistful sigh as he turned the pages, looking for the second name on his mind. When he had flipped through the pages for all of the fourth-grade classes, he still hadn’t found a photo with the name ‘Saionji Yuuto’ underneath. He remembered what Hana-chan had mentioned, that there had been a rumor he was left out of the yearbook.

Also, he noticed that there were next to no photos of Rei besides his class profile—and he was notably absent from the class photo that had been taken at the end of the year. It was almost as if they had been omitted on purpose—the blonde frowned thoughtfully. Maybe in all those photos, Rei had been caught on camera with the mysterious Saionji kid. Maybe that’s why there were no other photos of the blue-haired boy. His mind rolling with speed, he turned the last page—and he saw a note fall out from between that page and the back cover. Picking up the note, he recognized Hana-chan’s girlish handwriting on it.

{I borrowed the first two from Yuka-chan.}, the note read. {Call me when you see this! Got things to tell you.} There was a drawing of a flower at the edge of the paper. Wondering what she wanted to say, Nagisa took out his phone and dialed Hana-chan’s number. To her credit, his friend picked up after only two rings.

[[“Finally, you called!!”]] The blonde lifted his cellphone away from his ear as an impatient voice barked from the other line. [[“I won’t ask you if you’re fine, I’ve got something more important to talk about!”]] Rolling his eyes good-naturedly, Nagisa put the phone back close to his ear.

[[“I’ve found out what Kanemiya’s been doing at our school!”]] The blonde’s burgundy eyes snapped to attention when he heard the name. [[“Apparently, your Rei-chan is involved—that guy’s been looking for Ryuugazaki-kun’s high school!”]] At this news, Nagisa’s eyes flew wide open in surprise, his mouth falling open.

[[“Kanemiya’s been going around the high schools in this area, getting kids to lend him uniforms, sneak him in—for an anti-social thug, he sure has a lot of friends! That’s why he was at our school the other day—he was skipping classes and looking for Ryuugazaki-kun! And get this, he’s even been snooping around the Iwatobi High area—”]] Nagisa remembered what Haru had just told him, about seeing him at a convenience store near his house—a cold feeling went down his back. [[“Apparently he’s been hoping to catch Ryuugazaki-kun outside his house, because of who-knows-what, but you can guess what he has in mind. I heard from someone in your neighborhood, that they saw him in front of the Ryuugazakis’ house six years ago, breaking one of the windows—I even found out Ryuugazaki-kun’s older brother caught him and turned him in to the police. Ever since then, Kanemiya’s been banned from that neighborhood—his parents are divorced, and I think his father threatened to cut off child support if he was ever seen there again. But you can guess that he still wants revenge—that always runs through the minds of petty idiots like him!”]] Upon hearing this, Nagisa’s grip on his cell phone tightened as his face turned pale. [[“If he doesn’t find Ryuugazaki-kun outside that neighborhood soon, you can only guess what he’ll do—he can order someone who hasn’t been banned from that neighborhood to go and fetch him—you’ve got to warn Ryuugazaki-kun about this, Hazuki-kun! Otherwise I think he might be in danger pretty soon—“]]

“Hana-chan. Do you know where that guy is now?” Nagisa’s voice was quiet but firm as he spoke.

[[“Kanemiya? Well, I heard that he hangs out with his buddies in the back shed at Taneda High a lot—but why—wait! You can’t go there on your own, Hazuki-kun! That guy’s dangerous—Hazuki-kun! Are you listening? HAZUKI-KU—“]] Beep. Nagisa stared down at his phone, a sudden determination rising in chest.

“Sorry, Hana-chan,” he murmured, as his eyes traveled to the bunch of yearbooks on his bed. He ignored his phone as it began ringing again, and headed to the closet. He changed into bright-yellow shorts and his favorite black Iwatobi penguin shirt. Over that, he quickly threw on a pink jumper, and pulled on some bright purple socks. Looking around the room for anything else he might need, he found his Iwatobi mascot keychain that he had purchased for good luck sitting on his bedside table. He strode over and clipped the keychain firmly to the empty belt loop on his shorts. He then rummaged in his closet and found the new pair of burgundy sneakers that his eldest sister had bought him as an early present for his birthday. He had planned to save them for the fall, when the weather was cooler, but now he slipped them on over his socks. After all, he didn’t have any other shoes in the room—they were downstairs in the hall in front of the door. Swiftly turning off his phone—it was ringing for the fourth time—he set it down at his bedside table and walked over to the window in his bedroom.

There was a back door in the Hazukis’ residence, but there was no way Nagisa could reach it without crossing through the living room downstairs, where his family was watching TV after having had dinner. The same went for the front door. This was his only option. Swallowing a bit nervously, he grabbed the sides of the window with both hands and gingerly put one foot on the windowsill, then the other. From the lamplight coming from the house lantern outside, he judged the distance between the window and the maple tree in their yard. It was about five feet away, and he swallowed his breath, remembering what had happened the last time he had fallen off that tree. He remembered the wind rushing next to his ears, his foot slipping—Rei’s voice shouting in panic—

Rei. Once he thought of the blue-haired boy, the blonde’s resolve hardened, and his brows came together in determination. He had not been able to stop Rei from disappearing back behind closed shutters, but he absolutely had to keep his friend safe. A tree was not going to stop him from doing that. Taking a deep breath, he crouched down on the windowsill, knees bent in preparations for the leap—and leapt.

When the wood thudded into his chest and he felt his arms and legs clamp safely around the tree trunk, he breathed out a sigh of relief. Slowly, he brought his feet around and onto the bark of the tree, and he carefully scaled it downwards. When he was four feet from the ground, he let go of the tree and jumped down, landing lightly on the grass. Sighing in relief, he got up, dusted off his clothes, and silently crept out of the yard. Once he was outside the fence, he started running, disappearing into the darkness of the night.

Was that a rustling sound he had just heard outside? The blue-haired boy’s eyes shifted to the window, which still had the curtains drawn shut over it. His violet eyes sparked a little, but the spark soon disappeared, and he let out a quiet sigh as he turned away from the window. He told himself that he must have been hearing things. As he lay on his bed listlessly, staring at the ceiling of his darkened room, he felt hollow, the same feeling that he had had within him for the past few days.

After retreating into his room with the window closed that day, he had heard it—the sound of Nagisa sobbing and calling his name. It had broken Rei’s heart, hearing the blonde cry—and it was all because of how he had reacted. Only after he had spoken those heavy words had he realized that they would definitely have hurt the blonde. It had only made his heart ache twice as badly, imagining the look of pain on Nagisa’s face, hearing his own voice say those words over and over—‘I wish that I had never met you at all.’ He remembered the pain that had crossed him when Yuuto said the same thing to him, and after he had, he had wondered how in the world he had thought that it was a good idea to say the same thing to someone he held so dear. Again, he had been so caught up in his own distress that he had been out of his mind—again, he had hurt someone important to him because he hadn’t been paying proper attention. Even if that thought had genuinely been for Nagisa’s good in his head—but wait.

Maybe it had just been selfishness that had led him to say those words. He couldn’t just erase past events, one-sidedly wish away the beginnings of a two-way relationship, just because he was feeling afraid, feeling pain. It was one thing if he never let one start, but it was another thing to just break one after it had already formed. He knew this—had known it as he had stayed hidden inside his room behind the curtains.

The only thing that kept him from opening that window and apologizing was the fact that he was scared he would hurt the blonde further if he continued to interact with him. It had happened twice already—even if he apologized this time, even if they kept acting as if nothing had happened, he knew Nagisa would question it. He already had—he had already guessed Rei’s feelings about the accident with Yuuto, had already seen through why he had never tried to step outside his house since then. There was nothing more to question anymore—and where would that leave them now, then? Rei was terrified to find out—somewhere in his unconscious, he always had been.

He remembered what his father had demanded of him at the dinner table that one day in the summer. He remembered how he had said that he couldn’t stay inside the house forever. There was so much of his life left beyond the point when he would finish the course of studies that he could be taught at home. Three years later, at least in his father’s expectations, Rei would have to go to college—after college, he would have to get a job—stand up on his own—and it wasn’t that Rei was against doing any of that. No—the part that left him afraid was interacting with the people that would come into his life. That when they became important to him, and when he wasn’t watching closely enough, they would be hurt because of him. Leave him like Yuuto had left him that day, stepping back from him to topple out the window, out of his sight. That he himself would be hurt beyond repair as well—although that was selfish, Rei had to admit it. He was scared that he would hurt and get hurt, and that when he did, he would be alone, and each time it happened it would be worse than the previous one. Yuuto had already left him—he didn’t want to see Nagisa leaving him, too. So before he could be pushed away, he had pushed away first.

If only he had the courage. If only he could be as brave as the blonde. If only… As he was thinking these things, he heard a buzzing sound coming from his desk. Looking up, he realized his cell phone, which he hadn’t looked at for the past few days, was ringing. For a moment, Rei sat frozen on the bed as he listened to it vibrate.

He wondered, if it was from who he thought it was. Hesitantly, he sat up from his bed, and eventually got off the mattress. Walking slowly to his desk, he picked up the phone in his hand and looked at the caller ID.

He was right—the name ‘Hazuki Nagisa’ lit up his screen as the phone buzzed in his palm. Nagisa had not tried to call him since the first day he had tried to reach him, and that had been a few days ago, after Rei closed the window. Why was he trying to call him again, after a few days of silence? Heart pounding wildly in his chest, Rei debated between whether to pick up the phone or not—when a loud rattling sound came from outside his window. Looking up, his eyes widened—it sounded like someone was pounding on glass.

Cautiously, Rei walked over to his bedroom window. He looked out the glass from a gap between the curtains—and saw a girl who wasn’t one of Nagisa’s sisters in his room. He could tell from the house lantern that she had sandy hair pinned up in a bun, and light blue eyes that were filled with panic. She was standing at the window, holding a pink cell phone to her ear. Recognizing Nagisa’s cell phone from the Iwatobi strap that dangled from it, his eyes widened—what was she doing with Nagisa’s phone? Upon seeing this, he threw open the curtains, and when the girl saw him, her eyes lit up and she gestured to the phone, signaling that he take the call. Very confused, Rei hesitantly clicked the receive call button—

[[“RYUUGAZAKI-KUN!! WHY DIDN’T YOU PICK UP EARLIER?!!”]]

He was blown away by the loud voice of this stranger girl. She sounded pissed off—but there was also a strong tinge of fear in her voice. How in the world she had known his name—was it from the caller ID? But she almost sounded like she personally knew who he was—Rei quickly caught the phone that he had accidently dropped in midair. Putting it to his ear, he opened his mouth.

“I’m sorry—but who is this?” he asked uncertainly.

[[“What do you mean, who is it?! It’s ME of course, Hana-cha—“]] The person called Hana stopped in mid-sentence. [[“Oh wait—I’m not on my own phone, am I? And you don’t know me—“]] Through the curtains, Rei could see Hana recollect herself. [[“I’m Hanamura Chigusa, Hazuki-kun’s classmate. But that’s not important right now—“]] Her voice on the phone seemed to tighten. [[“Listen carefully, okay? There’s no time—it looks like Hazuki-kun’s already left his house. He’s in danger—“]]

[[“He’s in danger, Hanamura?!”]] an unfamiliar boy’s voice piped in from somewhere in the background. [[“But you never told us that when you brought us here with you!”]]

[[“What’s going on, Hanamura? I thought you were here because he called you to borrow your science notes and you didn’t want to show up here alone because you’re a girl—“]]

[[“Will you two just shut up for a second?! I’m having an important conversation here!!”]]

“Hanamura-san!” Rei’s voice was urgent as his grip tightened on the phone, his knuckles white. He didn’t know who those two male voices belonged to, but right now he didn’t care. “Nagisa-kun’s in danger?! Why?! Where is he?!!” His mind was quickly starting to lose its composure as his heart started to pound wildly in fear.

[[“Ryuugazaki-kun, calm down! Listen to me carefully, okay?!”]] Hanamura’s own voice seemed to be far from calm but she hurriedly told Rei what she knew. [[“You do know where Taneda High School is, right?! There’s a tool shed at the back of the school building there—that’s where Kanemiya and his crowd always hang out at night!”]] Upon hearing the name ‘Kanemiya’, Rei froze on the spot, a cold feeling rolling through his guts.

[[“You remember who Kanemiya is, right? He’s been looking for you for a few weeks now, going from high school to high school to find you when you’re not home, when you’re alone—I don’t know what he wants from you after all this time, but we can both guess what, can’t we? I told Hazuki-kun that he might call you out and attack you—and after he heard what I said he hung up. The next thing I know, he isn’t at home when I’ve come to make sure he didn’t do anything stupid, which I already 99% thought he did, but I wanted to stop him if I could. He also left his phone behind, that little shit—“]] Breathing out in frustration, the voice on the other end of the line continued. [[“But listen to me, Ryuugazaki-kun, you’re not going over there alone, all right?! I know you’re not stupid, so just stay cal—WHY THE HELL IS HE OPENING HIS WINDOW?!” Before Rei knew it, he had let his phone drop to the floor and was undoing the lock on his shutters as fast as he could. He had slammed them open without a second thought, thrusting the curtains aside.

It was Kanemiya. It was that bulky boy with the square face and dull heavy-lidded eyes, the one who had always been grinning toothily as he extorted money from him or punched him in the stomach. It was the bully who had always led the group that ganged up on Yuuto at elementary school. It was the cruel kid who had harmed his mother while she was standing in the kitchen that day—and he had been reported to the police by Rei’s brother. He wanted revenge—he had been humiliated by Rei when he had used self-defense to defeat the boy. And if Nagisa went running in there—where Kanemiya wasn’t even alone, but with a bunch of who-knows-who, probably delinquents who were just like him, merciless and violent—and if even the mention of Rei’s name slipped from the blonde’s lips—

Rei had thought that he was terrified four days ago. But this definitely took the cake. He was so mind-blowingly terrified of what might happen to Nagisa, his Nagisa, the bubbly blonde boy with a kind, cheerful smile and those playful, knowing burgundy eyes, the beautiful person that he had fallen in love with even though he had never been closer than fifteen feet to the boy—that he didn’t even give himself the time to think.

Before he knew it, Rei was already jumping out the window.

[[“OH MY JESUS CHRIST’S FATHER!!”]] Hana-chan’s voice rang shrill from the cell phone lying in Rei’s room. But what she had been fearing didn’t happen—with an athletic leap, Rei was clinging to the branch that had been closest to his window. He quickly released the branch with one hand to grab further down the branch, hoisting himself forward as he released his other hand behind him and caught onto the branch again at a point closer to the trunk. Thus, he arrived at the trunk after crossing the branch in a monkey bar fashion, and he quickly threw his arms around the trunk. Grabbing it with his hands, he scaled down the tree in a flash and landed on his feet in the Hazukis’ yard. In the blink of an eye, he shot past the fence and out the gates, the iron clanging shut behind him as he ran. Her mouth agape at how fast he was gone, Hana-chan could only blink her wide light blue eyes at the window across from her, which was now empty.

“Did…did he just do that?” she asked no one in particular, her voice awed.

“Was he on the track team at his school?” Komura asked curiously, having seen what happened. Behind him, Yamazaki scratched the corner of his cheeks in a puzzled manner.

“Wait—this isn’t the time to be standing around!” Remembering the situation, Hana quickly snapped out of her daze. “We’ve gotta go help them!” She thrust a pointed finger at Yamazaki, who almost got hit in the nose with it. “Yamazaki!! You were a delinquent in middle school, right?! Go gather your old friends!”

“Hah?!” Yamazaki looked baffled. “But I cut ties with them ages ago—“

“DO IT NOW!!” “YES MA’AM!!” “And Komura!! You’re coming with me to catch the evidence on tape!!” “All right, Hanamura!” “Wait, Komura! Th’hell are you agreeing so easily for?!” “Because it seems exciting!” “Are you serious?!” “SHUT UP AND LET’S GO!!” The three had been about to head out the door when a smiling face greeted them at the doorway.

“Oh? And just where are we all going?” Hazuki Naomi stared down at them, her smile still pleasant but scary. The three of them gulped upon seeing her face.

...

Meanwhile, Rei was dashing down the streets at a breakneck pace, with only the street lights to guide his way. As he ran down the familiar route, as the familiar landscape of the neighborhood flashed by him in a blur, as the night breeze and the outside air brushed his cheeks and filled his lungs, Rei felt his heart starting to beat faster. He was outside—he was outside the house like this for the first time in years—he could feel the rhythm of his heart beating steadily faster as he picked up his pace. After a while, his ears were starting to hurt from the exertion of the oxygen, his lungs were pumping air in and out and burning like crazy, and felt tears welling up in his eyes because of how the night breeze was hitting them despite the shield of his glasses, which were now starting to get a bit crooked on his nose. He referred to the map in his memory as he turned the corner, crossed a street (despite it being the red light), and near bumped into people as they barely stepped aside in time from getting run over. He remembered the longer path that he had taken home from elementary school when he was jogging, and he remembered the point in his route where Taneda High had stood, a tall brick building behind tall school gates.

Whether it was because he had a good memory or he was in a hurry, Rei found the school with ease and arrived there in the space of barely ten minutes. With a light jump, he was climbing over the back gates and successfully landed inside the school grounds. His gaze darted around until he found it—the shadow of a solitary rectangular structure, which must be the school tool shed. Taking a few seconds to catch his breath, Rei tensed as he quietly approached the tool shed, making sure that there was no one around outside to see him.

He spotted light coming from the structure, and as he neared he heard crude voices laughing inside the walls. He also caught a whiff of a familiar smoky smell—cigarettes. He heard the sound of aluminum clanking inside—Rei guessed that those were beverage cans, probably filled with alcohol, too. He tried to find an opening that he could use to adequately look in on the current situation. There was a window way up near the roof of the shed, but Rei wasn’t quite tall enough for his face to reach it, even if he did go on tiptoes. There seemed to be nothing that he could step on to make his height taller, either. Just as Rei was about to inspect the other side of the shed, the voices inside the structure grew even louder—suddenly they erupted into laughter, and Rei heard a loud banging sound coming from inside.

Instantly, Rei’s face grew pale with fright for the blonde. Before he knew it, he had kicked the door open with a loud BANG!

The inside of the shed had turned quiet at the sudden sound that the brunette had made. The scene revealed itself before Rei’s eyes—about ten or eleven boys sat around on empty boxes and cartons or on the floor of the shed. All of their eyes had turned towards Rei, who was standing in the doorway, his hand tightly gripping the side of the door—his fingers nearly splintering the wooden handle. They were all big and bulky, most with bleached or gelled hair and several of them with piercings on various body parts. Some of them even had tattoos on their necks and arms. There were several beer cans lying next to them on the floor, and some of the boys held cigarettes in their hands. Most of them were in the school uniform that Rei recognized as Taneda uniforms—Ryouji had worn the same one as them when he used to go to high school. In the middle of them, however, a tall boy with bleached hair and the most piercings in this room stood in a different school uniform—one that Rei recognized to be Iwatobi High’s.

Upon noticing this detail, his blood ran cold—he remembered Hanamura-san mentioning that he had been sneaking into different high schools to look for Rei. Rei only hoped that Nagisa hadn’t come across him during his school day at Iwatobi. Because how could he not recognize those heavy-lidded, malicious eyes and the square face and heavy-set jaw—without doubt, this was definitely Kanemiya, the bully that he remembered, the one who had used to terrorize his life those few first years of elementary school. The one who might hurt Nagisa—Rei’s fists clenched tightly at his sides. His eyes dashed around the room, searching for the blonde—but there was no sight of him in the shed. Rei blinked—there was no Nagisa in the shed. Then where—

“My, my. Just what would you be doing here? Ryuugazaki.” The last word came out in a menacing sneer, and for the moment, Rei turned his attention back on the owner of the voice. Kanemiya was speaking, standing in the center of the room and staring at Rei with a smirk on his face. “I don’t remember inviting you to the party. Didn’t know you had the balls to crash here.” At his stupid comment, the boys in the room laughed crudely.

“—Where’s Nagisa?” Rei said, his voice coming out in a low growl. “Where are you hiding him?!”

“—Nagisa? S’that your girlfriend, Ryuugazaki? So you do have balls after all!” More snickers filled the room as Kanemiya stepped forward. “Why, did you bring her to the party, too? There’s always room for more—“ At this response, Rei blinked. Why was Kanemiya referring to Nagisa like he was a girl? Suddenly, he wondered if he had misunderstood something important. Confused, he tuned back into Kanemiya’s words for more information.

“—I don’t know how you got word that I was here—but it’s a good thing you came.” The smirk on the square-faced boy’s face deepened. “But I suppose I should thank you for saving me the trouble of hunting you down.” As he began cracking his knuckles, the other boys in the room began to stand up one by one. “I was starting to think I’d never catch you alone, if you know what I mean? You should thank God I never showed up at your front door looking for you—wouldn’t want me to go and say hi to your precious mother again, would you?”

At those last words, Rei felt the blood in his head snapping. Before he knew it, he had dashed towards Kanemiya and grabbed him roughly by the collar, holding him up with a death grip so that his feet were slightly dangling off the ground. He could see those heavy lidded eyes quail as his own violet eyes glared at the boy with a look so frosty that it could have frozen fire. Rei’s face was dark as he said the next words, his voice equally cold and dangerously low.

“Don’t. You. Fucking. Dare. Mention. Her.” If he had been more composed, he would have been horrified at the curse word that escaped his lips—but now, he couldn’t care less. He genuinely felt the desire to beat this boy to the ground until he was unconscious. Even the guys standing around them seemed to be a little intimidated by Rei’s face and tone. Kanemiya’s voice rasped out in panic as he shouted at his friends.

“’The fuck you waiting for?! Take him out!!” With that, the other boys snapped out of their days and rushed towards Rei—when the closest one to Rei and Kanemiya was smacked in the head by a tennis ball that had been whacked towards him. A familiar voice rang through the air, shrill and angry.

“DON’T YOU DARE LAY A HAND ON REI-CHAN YOU BASTARD!!”

…’Rei-chan’? It clicked in Rei’s violet eyes—only one person would call him that. And although it was the first time he heard him sound so furious, Rei would recognize that voice anywhere. He heard another guy yelp in surprise as he, too, was smacked in the head with a second tennis ball.

“Nagisa?!”

Surprised, Rei dropped Kanemiya to the ground and whirled around to find a familiar blonde on his knees on top of a stack of P.E. mattresses, furiously whacking tennis balls from a carton with a racket. One by one, the boys fell to the ground, clutching their heads in pain. Nagisa’s usually cheerful burgundy eyes glinted with rage as he glared down at the boys in the shed. His eyes then swiveled to Rei and they visibly softened with relief for a moment. Then, he frowned when he assessed the situation in front of him.

“Wait, Rei-chan?! What are you doing here?!” His eyes widened when he remembered that he was seeing Rei in this shed. “Why are you outside your house?!! How did you know I was—oh my gosh, Rei-chan! You’re outside the house!!”

“Nagisa-kun…” For a moment, Rei’s mouth was agape in stupor. Then, realizing he was gaping, he quickly collected himself. Suddenly, now that he had seen that Nagisa wasn’t hurt (at least, not yet), he felt angry at the blonde for being so reckless. It was just as Hanamura-san had said—he had come here alone, a place like this where no one was nearby except a gaggle of high school delinquents who probably would have laid their hands on him if he had shown up earlier. A flare of exasperation and anger swelled up in Rei as he opened his mouth to shout at the blonde.

“I should be asking you that question myself!! What in the world are YOU doing here, Nagisa-kun!?!” All of a sudden, it was like there was only him and Nagisa in the shed, Rei was so bent on giving him a piece of his mind. “Do you REALIZE how reckless you have been?!! Coming to a place like this ALONE, when it’s DARK AT NIGHT, without even taking your CELL PHONE, without telling A SINGLE SOUL where you’re going—just WHAT in the world were you THINKING?!!” At this, Nagisa just grinned sheepishly and scratched one side of his cheek with a finger.

“Sorry, Rei-chan—I was a bit late with reacting, huh? I mean, I was outside watching these guys from the window around the back on the stack of cartons there—and since there were a lot of them, I was just thinking about how I could handle the situation…but then I saw YOU opening the door! I mean, I was so surprised I nearly fell off the cartons! It only hit me that you were in trouble when all those guys started running at you—“ He didn’t mention that he had heard the way Rei had shouted his name with such urgency, with such an angry look in his violet eyes, that it had sent a shiver down his spine and a flutter through his heart, and had made his cheeks feel warm for some reason. He also didn’t mention that when he had heard what Kanemiya had said about Rei’s mother, he had felt anger flare up in his stomach and had proceeded to promptly crawl through the window—despite the fact that he hadn’t had, and still didn’t have, a particular plan. It was purely due to chance and his own luck that the blonde had noticed the carton of tennis equipment lying next to the stack of mattresses.

“That is NOT what I—you crawled in from that high window?! You could’ve fallen, Nagisa-kun!!” the blue-haired boy sputtered, throwing his hands up with exasperation. “And the way you were swinging that racket on top of those mats was dangerous!! You could’ve toppled over with the intensity of the force you were channeling into your arms!!” Hearing these words, Nagisa pouted slightly.

“But I only managed to save you because I did that, Rei-chan! My coming all the way here wouldn’t have meant a thing if you’d gotten hurt!” He crossed his arms like a child who had just been scolded for his behavior—which he was, essentially. “Not when I was thinking so hard about what I could do to keep these guys from ever finding you and harming you!”

At these words, Rei didn’t know how to react—all of a sudden, he felt touched at Nagisa’s sincere words, one that had expressed how he still cared about Rei. But he was still mad at the blonde for trying to do something dangerous like approaching these thugs on his own. His face struggled to find the balance between those emotions as a pink blush crept across his face but his brow still stayed furrowed.

“That is…that’s just…!” he sputtered, the blush spreading to his ears. “How could you be so ridiculo—“

“Oi.” Rei stopped in mid-sentence when he heard a low, pissed-of growl from behind him. “Are you seriously having a lover’s quarrel in front of me?” Dusting off his pants, Kanemiya stood up and kicked at one of his friends’ hand which was lying on the floor next to his face. “Oi! Did all of you shits die?! Get the hell back up!!” Rei’s body tensed as he turned back to Kanemiya, his gaze turning cold.

“What? You can’t fight me on your own, without your buddies to help you?” he said coolly, his arms tensing at his sides in preparation for a fight. “And after all that bark about looking for me this whole time—I’m here right now, what’s stopping you?” He purposely smirked at Kanemiya as if to provoke the boy. Behind his back, he gestured towards Nagisa’s direction with one of his hands, flipping his hand up repeatedly in a signal telling the blonde to quickly escape. He hoped his friend was getting the message, but in this situation he couldn’t turn around and see. “Or what? Are you too scared to take me on by yourself? You’ve always been the coward, ganging up on kids much weaker than you with five more kids your bulk—“ In front of him, he could see the angry flush grow on Kanemiya’s face.

“You’ve really learned how to talk now, have you, Ryuugazaki?” he snarled. “You’ve always been one mute bastard at Kitagawa—but I guess even mute bastards like you can grow a mouth—“

“Oi, Kane, to your left!!” Rei could hear one of the boys on the floor shout. Kanemiya swiftly turned left just in time to see Nagisa with the tennis racket over his head, an angry expression on his face. Before Nagisa could whack him with the racket, Kanemiya swiftly disarmed Nagisa and grabbed him by the collar, pinning him against the nearby wall with a thud. Nagisa flinched slightly as his back hit the concrete—Rei’s face paled once he saw his friend in Kanemiya’s grip.

“This brat’s ‘Nagisa’?” Kanemiya studied the blonde with a growing smirk on his face. “So he’s your little boyfriend now, Ryuugazaki? I didn’t know you swung that way.” His smirk deepened. “But then again, he kinda looks like a chick—“ His eyes suddenly took on a glint that Rei didn’t like seeing at all. “Maybe we should have a little fun with him, eh? We’ll do all the work, you can just sit back and watch—“ He placed a finger under Nagisa’s chin and pulled it up towards him so that his burgundy eyes were glaring up fiercely from his face. “You like that idea? ‘Nagisa-cha—‘”

Splat! Suddenly, Kanemiya flinched—Rei realized with both admiration and terror that the blonde had spat in the teenager’s face.

“Don’t call my name with your ugly voice. It’s disgusting,” Nagisa said calmly but coolly. “And don’t touch me with your dirty hand, either.” At this, the square-faced teenager’s face turned dark red with anger and he flared at Nagisa with a fist pulled back.

“Why you little—!” Nagisa froze and squeezed his eyes shut, getting ready for the punch to come—but it never did. He then felt the presence of a third person in front of him. Opening his eyes, he realized that Rei was shielding him, having caught Kanemiya’s wrist and now twisting it in his steel-like grip.

“Don’t you dare lay a finger on him,” the blonde heard the brunette growl in a dangerously low voice. For a moment, Nagisa was fascinated by how much deadly rage there was in that growl—the thought that that rage was all for him made him shiver and feel tingly all over again. With a last strong twist, Rei shoved Kanemiya away from Nagisa, freeing the blonde from the grip of his other hand and letting him fall back on his feet. He held out an arm in front of Nagisa as if to shield him from danger, while he assessed the situation at hand.

The others in the shed had started to stand up again, and he and the blonde were backed up against the wall opposite from the door. There was no way that they could stay here and fight, when it was only two of them against ten. They would have to get through all ten boys plus Kanemiya to get to that exit. Unless they crawled out the window that Nagisa had crawled into—but Rei doubted that he himself could crawl out of that small space. Perhaps he should fight these guys off as he made time for the blonde to crawl out—but just as he was thinking this he felt a hand grab his free hand and squeeze it. Rei’s eyes flickered to Nagisa, who was looking at him with a stubborn, determined look in his eyes.

“I’m not leaving without you, Rei,” he said, with a finality in his tone that made Rei’s heart skip a beat, along with the fact that he had left the ‘chan’ off it. It had happened a few times before, but maybe it was because of the adrenaline rush that he was appreciating this now, more than before. “I’m never leaving you alone again.” The words caused a sudden wave of glowing warmth to wash over the blue-haired boy, and a blush spread across his face even with the danger of the situation before him. Suddenly, he started to worry that his hand was clamming up with sweat—

And then he felt a fist swinging towards him, and just in time he blocked it with his free hand. Twisting the arm of his attacker, Rei threw him to the ground while catching the stomach of another approaching delinquent with a swift kick. As he did, he released Nagisa’s hand, and he felt the blonde dart out from behind him. The next thing he knew, Nagisa was whacking the delinquents away with the tennis racket with all gusto.

And from there, both boys set to fighting the thugs. The sound of punches and kicks and bodies slamming against things echoed throughout the shed as they fought furiously to defend themselves from Kanemiya’s crowd while making their way towards the shed door. As they did, they also received punches and kicks of their own, and also knocked into the various objects that were stored in the shed. Rei was starting to get worried when he caught glimpses of Nagisa fighting—for someone his size he was fighting back fairly well, but he was also sporting his fair share of cuts and bruises. His mind didn’t even pay attention to his own injuries, which were similar in number and condition—he fought furiously as he tried to get Nagisa and himself towards the exit faster.

Finally, they were just a few feet away from the door. Rei thought that they might make it if he and Nagisa dashed for the exit. After kicking his latest attacker in the shin, he whirled around to find Nagisa—

And went deathly pale when he saw the blonde in Kanemiya’s one-arm headlock. His violet eyes froze when he saw the item in his other hand—it was a pocket knife, and he was pointing it towards Nagisa’s face.

“One false move,” the delinquent breathed softly, “and this boy gets cut.” Nagisa was squirming helplessly in the taller boy’s grip. His burgundy eyes met Rei’s, and Rei did see a flash of fear in them, but it as quickly replaced by a look of compelling fierceness.

“Run, Rei-chan!” he shouted. “Don’t worry about me—just go and get the police!” When Rei didn’t budge, Nagisa repeated himself with frustration. “I said RUN, Rei-chan!!” Ignoring the blonde’s struggle, Kanemiya let out a crude laugh as he watched Rei, who wouldn’t move from the spot he stood frozen at.

“Aww—such heartwarming love. You two just break my heart.”

“Let him go, Kanemiya,” Rei said quietly, a tremor in his voice. “It’s me you want, remember? He—he has nothing to do with…with any of this. Just let him go…”

“But I don’t want to?” Kanemiya lifted a smug brow as he shrugged, smirking. “Or maybe—if you knelt at my feet and licked my shoes, I might feel like letting Blondie here off the hook.” At this statement, Nagisa’s eyes narrowed with outrage.

“Don’t do it, Rei-chan!” he shouted towards the blue-haired boy. “Don’t give up your pride like that—not for a scumbag like him!!” At this comment, Kanemiya’s own eyes narrowed a big.

“Hm..? What did you just call me?” The grip on his pocket knife tightened slightly. “Maybe you do want a little face art done on you after all—“

“Stop!” Rei’s voice rang out in the air. Both of them turned towards the blue-haired boy. His violet eyes were tense, fixed on the knife in Kanemiya’s hand, his own hands trembling at his sides. “I’ll do it, Kanemiya—I’ll do whatever you want. Just—let him go.” With a glance at the brunette, Kanemiya’s eyes flickered with a vindictive glow.

“Do it first, and I’ll release him,” he said. When Rei didn’t move for the first few moments, he opened his mouth and barked, “The hell you’re waiting for?! Get to it!!”

“Rei-chan…!” Nagisa watched in horror as Rei promptly knelt down on his knees on the shed floor. Kanemiya’s lips curled up in a satisfied smile.

“That’s better. Now crawl over here from over there—on all fours, like a bug.” Hearing the instructions, Rei placed his palms flush with the ground and picked one up, about to move forward with it.

And Nagisa could only watch so far. He couldn’t take seeing Rei like this anymore—his burgundy eyes narrowed in a split second as he opened his mouth and sank his teeth into Kanemiya’s bare arm, HARD. Not expecting this at all, Kanemiya let out a loud yelp as Nagisa’s elbow shot back and dealt him a hard jab in the stomach. As he fell out of Kanemiya’s grip, his pocketknife grazed Nagisa on the cheek, leaving a faint gash in it. Rei watched the moment with horror as he feared that Nagisa would get hurt, a lot worse than he actually had. In a heartbeat, Nagisa dashed over to Rei and pulled him quickly back to his feet.

“Let’s run for it, Rei-chan!!” Grabbing the younger boy’s hand, the blonde dashed for the exit, pulling a startled Rei behind him. They ran, out of the shed door, into the night, quickly putting distance between them and the school shed.

“Oi!!” Recovering from the jab in his stomach, Kanemiya’s eyes swerved towards the door with rage. “Get going after those two!!” When he heard no response, he whirled around with an impatient face—

“Did you get the footage, Hanamura-san?” a woman’s voice called from within the shed.

“Yes!” a girl’s voice sounded from outside the shed window—there was a sandy-haired girl with a bun standing behind it with a video camera in her hands. “I’ve got it, Hazuki-san!” The blonde woman standing in the shed, in the middle of a mass of unconscious bodies, smiled at the girl.

“Good work! Now if you’d turn the camera off, please.” Hazuki Naomi cracked her knuckles, turning to Kanemiya with a pleasant smile on her face. “Now I’ll take care of this rat who cut my cute baby brother’s face.” Her smile turned razor-sharp, and her eyes looked as if they could draw blood with a single stare. It made Kanemiya gulp with fear as he saw the deadly aura emanating from her.

Outside the shed, Hana-chan turned off the video camera as a painful howl rang from inside its walls. Shielding the side of her eye with one hand, she turned the other to Komura and Yamazaki, who were waiting for her at the foot of the carton stack, having held it steady for balance.

“Let’s go home, shall we?” she piped cheerfully. The two both nodded—only Yamazaki flinched as a sickening cracking sound could be heard from within the shed. It almost sounded like a limb was being broken inside.

Chapter Text

They only stopped running when they had put a mile’s distance from between them and the school. Panting, Nagisa came to a stop on the sidewalk, kneeling over as he struggled to catch his breath. Next to him, he could also hear the soft sound of Rei’s breath panting as well. They both stood like that for some seconds, calming down their bodies—next to them on the street, a car drove by, the light from its headlights brushing past them as it furthered away. It was only a few seconds after that Nagisa felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Ah—Rei-cha—“ Before he could finish his sentence, the blonde was suddenly turned around and pulled towards a firm body. Arms, strong and sculpted, encircled around Nagisa, hugging him fiercely. At this, the blonde’s burgundy eyes widened—he could feel Rei trembling as the brunette held on to him tightly, as if he never wanted to let him go.

“...Never do that to me again,” he heard the brunette’s raspy voice leave his choked throat. “Never—do you understand…?!” Nagisa could feel the heart in Rei’s chest thumping wildly—he felt a blush creeping back into his cheeks as he just stood in Rei’s embrace stupidly for a few moments. Then, Rei felt the blonde’s arms circle around his back, hands falling to rest on his shoulder blades.

“…Yeah...” He brushed off the urge to snuggle his face against Rei’s chest, which surged through his body even at this time. He felt so warm, so safe in Rei’s arms at the moment. “Sorry for worrying you, Rei-chan…” The words fell sincerely and softly from the blonde’s lips. They stood like that for a few minutes, not caring about the cars that passed them on the streets in the night, taking comfort in each others’ body warmth for the first time since they met.

After a while, though, they were both feeling a little too warm. Rei could feel his heart beating too quickly, as he had his arms wrapped around Nagisa’s waist, felt the warmth of the blonde’s smaller body, his own face just inches from the blonde’s head of soft curls, which smelled faintly of strawberry shampoo. Being pressed against Rei’s firm chest, feeling the outline of his abs against his body, and feeling the strong arms press around behind his back for so long was also making Nagisa a little flustered. After a while, Rei let go of the blonde first, coughing slightly in embarrassment as he tried to find words to say. Then, he saw the light from the streetlamp brush over Nagisa’s face—he noticed the cut that the blonde had gotten from the pocketknife was starting to bleed. Quickly, his flushed face changed to that of concern, and his eyes traveled to the other injuries on Nagisa’s body. They made Rei frown in worry—if some of them didn’t get treated, they would surely get infected or swell up. Without thinking of anything else, he took the blonde gently by the hand.

“Follow me.” This time, Rei led Nagisa forward as he searched the street, which thankfully was familiar to him due to his jogs to school as a child. He stopped in front of a pharmacy and went in. Soon, he came back out with a bag of first-aid supplies and two bottles of water in his hands, which he had asked to wash at the sink in the back. He took Nagisa by the hand again and said, “Come on. I’ll treat those wounds of yours.” Understanding the hidden message that Rei didn’t want Nagisa to return home with those injuries bare, the blonde nodded.

They soon arrived at a park and sat down at one of the benches lining the sidewalk. Sitting down at one directly under a streetlamp, Rei made Nagisa take his pink jacket off—the blonde had had it tied it around his waist when he was fighting, but had put it back on outside because the night air was chilly. Rei then took out the tubes of ointment and the bottles of disinfectant and lined them up on the bench next to him. Then he opened a water bottle and gently took Nagisa’s arm, pouring them over his cuts. Before Nagisa could protest, Rei took off his own jacket and used the inside of it to carefully wipe the blonde’s arm off. He ignored the blonde’s protests that came and just told him to sit still so he could apply the ointments and disinfectants. Unscrewing the lids on the tube and bottles, he cautiously applied the medicine to each of Nagisa’s bruises and cuts. He did the same for Nagisa’s other arm and even his legs, which were also peppered with cuts and bruises.

Nagisa didn’t know since when, but he found that he had been holding his breath slightly for a while. Feeling Rei’s bigger but gentle hands treat his wounds like this, his brow knit in concentration under the lamplight, his lips pursed slightly in concern, his violet eyes glowing with emotion every time he took care of a new injury—it made Nagisa feel warm all over his body. His heart fluttered every time Rei brushed his skin with his fingers, almost seeming to leave behind marks where he had touched the blonde. It made him want to squirm—by the time Rei was finished with his second leg, Nagisa could feel his cheeks on fire, his burgundy eyes purposefully avoiding meeting Rei’s violet ones as he stared down at the burgundy shoes on his feet, his heart beating rapidly.

“Th-thanks,” he stammered in a quiet voice as Rei placed the bottle of disinfectant back on the bench. “They feel a lot better now. I—“ Before he could continue, he could feel a warm, calloused hand on his already warm cheek. He almost jumped in his seat when he realized it was Rei’s hand. It turned his face up and around to face the blue-haired boy.

“I haven’t done your face yet,” Rei said quietly. “I’m sorry it’s taking a while—please bear with it.”

“N-not at all!!” Nagisa squeaked, his face threatening to burst into flames. “You’re doing great!!” He really was—although his cuts still stung and his bruises ached a little, Rei had been truly gentle with how he handled the treatment. The blonde hadn’t felt even the slightest bit more of pain than he was supposed to feel.

At this response, Nagisa could see Rei’s eyes soften slightly in relief. Then, a conflicted look returned to them when they traveled to Nagisa’s right cheek, where the knife had grazed his skin. He seemed a bit distracted as he took that cheek in his hand and gently stroked the skin next to it with his thumb. But when he realized what he was doing, he snapped out of his daze and quickly removed his hand, making Nagisa feel puzzled and inexplicably captivated with the younger boy. Clearing his throat, Rei grabbed the bottle of water and wet the inside of his jacket sleeve with it. He carefully dabbed at the graze on Nagisa’s cheek with the sleeve before he proceeded to gently apply the disinfectant with his brush. The sting made Nagisa wince slightly, but it faded soon enough, and Rei proceeded to apply ointment on the few bruises on Nagisa’s face. When he was finally done, he put the cap back on the bottle and let out a relieved sigh.

“They should be fine now, your injuries.” His eyes caught sight of his wristwatch—it was really getting too late to stay outside much longer. “Just look at the time—we should head home, Nagisa-kun—“

“Wait,” Nagisa said suddenly. He gave Rei a small frown. “Haven’t you forgotten that you have injuries too?” Now, he stood up and tugged Rei up by the hand to make the taller boy trade places. “No way I’m letting you go anywhere until you let me treat you, too.” He bit his lip at seeing the injuries on Rei’s own body—he imagined how worried it would make Mrs. Ryuugazaki, to see her younger son in this state. “Sit down, Rei-chan,” the blonde said in a commanding tone. Then, he proceeded to do what Rei had done for him for Rei, taking his own jacket to use instead of a towel this time. The blonde also stubbornly ignored Rei’s protesting as he cleaned Rei’s cuts and bruises and carefully applied disinfectant to them. He even blew on one particularly bad looking bruise—when he had proceeded to murmur ‘Pain, pain, fly away’, Rei had blushed at the blonde’s actions. Although the blonde’s hands were a little shakier, they were slowly but surely getting the job done. As Nagisa applied ointment to one of the cuts on his arm, Rei studied the blonde quietly with thoughtful eyes.

He had come for Rei. He had said so himself—he had come to make sure that Kanemiya wouldn’t be able to hurt him, before the teen would even come across Rei. He had been foolish, reckless when he did it—he had even forgotten his cell phone, for Christ’s sake—but maybe, Rei thought, it had all been due to Nagisa’s single-minded goal that he himself should prevent the delinquent from harming him. Even after what he had said to the blonde the other day—when he remembered those words that he had selfishly spoken, he felt a heavy twinge of guilt and regret. As Nagisa went on to treat the injuries on Rei’s other arm, Rei opened his mouth to speak.

“…I’m sorry, Nagisa-kun.” His voice rang soft and sincere as he voiced his heartfelt feelings. “I’m sorry for everything—the fact that you had to get those injuries, doing what you did for me. The fact that I—that I said all those things to you back then and then ignored everything that you were telling me.” Hearing this, Nagisa stopped in his motions, his burgundy eyes turning towards Rei’s face. His violet eyes were glowing with somber remorse.

“I—I never meant what I said then. That—that I wished I never met you.” The blonde’s mouth fell open slightly in surprise. “I don’t know why I said such a cruel thing. I don’t know what I was thinking—“ The brunette let out a heavy sigh. “I was only thinking of myself back then, and because of that, I made you upset. And I’m truly sorry for that.”

“…You really mean that, Rei-chan?” Nagisa’s voice came out small, with a slight quiver of hope in his voice. “You really don’t regret meeting me?” The earnest question made Rei’s heart twist again with guilt.

“..I really mean it.” Unconsciously, Re reached over to take Nagisa’s smaller hand gently in his own. “I’ve never regretted meeting you—not like the way you’re assuming. Not even once. The only things I ever regretted were that you had to get hurt because of me—and—and I also feared—that you would be disappointed with the real me. The one from the past. That’s why—hearing you talk about it so unexpectedly that day—it shocked me so much. It made me afraid that once—once you found out about the whole truth—you would be ashamed of me. That this time, you would be the one to leave me…” At some point, Rei’s own voice had taken on a slight quiver. He almost flinched at the outrage on the blonde’s face that resulted from him suggesting such a thing.

“How could you have ever thought that, Rei-chan?!” His previously small voice was now louder, and quite mad. “Do you really see me as the kind of person to do that?! To stick around for the sunshine and then leave when it hails?! You know how much I—“ Suddenly, he faltered, as if searching for the right word, before he began again.

“You know how much I care about you, Rei-chan!” His voice was softer, but still firm. “You don’t know how upset it made me, when you acted like you didn’t want to show me your side from the past—when you were less than perfect, when you were feeling so much pain and loneliness. I know that it was a bad time for you, but I always felt like there was an important part of you there, waiting to be discovered. I always wanted to know about it, Rei-chan. I wanted you to share that part with me—I’ve shown you all of my bad sides, too, not just because I wanted to be comforted, but because I wanted you to know all of who I am. Not just the good parts. It’s the same with how I wanted to get to know you, Rei-chan. I wanted to know all of you, too—I wanted to accept everything about you, like you did for me. And the day that it happened, I thought that we could finally become closer—at least, that’s what I hoped.” He cracked a small smile. “But the first time I tried, you ran away. And the second time, too.” At this, Rei cringed slightly.

“I—I’m sorry!” He bowed his head down towards Nagisa in apology. “I know it—everything you just said is right. I was always caught up with the fear that you would judge me badly that I—that I ended up pushing you away first. And I truly apologize—it was never because I thought that you weren’t worthy of being my friend. It was because I assumed that I was never worthy of being yours. But!” he said quickly, as he saw Nagisa draw himself up for another lecture on not falling to self-deprecation. “As you have told me before, I know now—that I was being presumptuous in assuming that. I should have trusted you more—and I’m sorry that—that it took me this long to understand that.” His hands clenched tightly around the cloth of his pants thighs. “So I…I hope that you still…that you are not still mad…at me…”

“Of course not, Rei-chan!” Nagisa’s voice cut him off. “I was never ever mad at you—I just felt mad at myself. I was shocked after—after what I heard at the class reunion—that I wasn’t thinking calmly. And I was probably pushing you too hard—you must have been shocked, too, finding out that I dug up information on you behind your back—stuff that I probably should have waited for you to tell me about yourself. And I’m sorry for doing that, too. I was scared that after what I did—you’d never want to talk to me again.” The blonde smiled at Rei in relief.

“Maybe that’s why this kind of feels like a dream right now.” Nagisa laughed a little as he said this. “I mean, just a few hours ago I thought you would never even show up at your window again, and now—you’re actually outside, here in front of me, when I’ve only ever seen you behind that window in your room.” He looked at Rei with his burgundy eyes full of wonder—something that made Rei’s face turn scarlet and left him feeling a little dazed. “I mean, it’s like the unicorn in my picture book just jumped out of the page right in front of me!” Rei snapped out of his daze, his face going smooth—he had certainly heard that comparison being made before.

“Nagisa-kun, unicorns do not exist, as I have told you in the past,” he said, shifting his glasses up his nose (thank God he had not been punched in the face with them on—he blessed the reflexes that he had trained when learning self-defense as a kid). “And…I must admit, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by it, myself. Being out here after so long…” His face took on a far-away look as he said this.

“It must feel weirder for you, huh?” Nagisa said sympathetically. Something then occurred to him. “Rei-chan—by the way, how did you find your way to Taneda High from your house? You’ve never gone to any schools besides our primary school, have you?” Rei blinked at the question.

“Ah—I actually ran past it several times when I used to go to school,” he said. “I used to wake up early in the morning and jog to Kitagawa Elementary—I always took the long way around so that I could get more exercise from it. Taneda High School just happened to be one of the points on my route.” At this piece of information, Nagisa’s eyes lit up in curiosity and interest.

“You used to jog to Kitagawa? Every day?” He pulled himself up closer to Rei to listen.

“Yes—I used to do that to keep my health fit. I remember starting to do so by second-grade because—well, because I wanted to become stronger, so that I could fight off the kids that used to gang up on me.” He shifted his glasses up again in embarrassment as he admitted this. Immediately, Nagisa’s eyes softened—not with pity, but with understanding. After all, the blonde had also been picked on by the bigger kids when he was younger. He understood what it was like.

“That was when…when I first saw him, actually.” Rei’s voice grew a little quiet but remained steady. “Saionji-kun, that is. I was jogging past the school track when I saw him pinned back against the school fence. And when I did…I initially wondered if I should help him…but I didn’t.” He closed his violet eyes as if in an attempt to compose himself.

“I…felt strangely bitter at the time. All those years, the kids around me at Kitagawa—they judged me for my introverted personality and my ‘different’ interests…and all those times that people like Kanemiya—“ His violet eyes narrowed slightly as he said the name. “—used to gang up on me…none of them did a thing to stop it. So I…did the same. Even though I saw it happening many, many times. It was only after I realized that he was experiencing the same hell as me during those moments that I felt the urge to help him. So I did…and until then, until I started to befriend him—I never realized that I was also at fault for my isolation. If only I had tried harder to reach out—if only I had called out for help earlier, even—perhaps I wouldn’t have been alone for such a long time.” He smiled a little sadly. “If I had admitted to myself that I didn’t like being alone—learned how to seek others out—perhaps I would have been able to realize what it was that Saionji-kun truly needed.”

“Rei…” Nagisa’s voice was quiet and sympathetic. He was thrilled that Rei was starting to open up to him, but he hoped that it was out of Rei’s own volition and not because he felt pressure from what he had said before. “You don’t…you don’t have to talk about this now. If it’s just because of what I said earlier—“ But Rei only waved off the blonde’s concerns, shaking his head.

“No—I actually want to get it all off my chest. Now I…I genuinely wish to tell you about it, Nagisa-kun. Because you’re my friend—and I want you to know about this part of me, as well.” At this, relief flooded the blonde’s burgundy eyes, and he simply nodded, indicating that he would listen.

“The day he…he fell from that window…he had a pocket knife with him, inside that classroom.” Hearing this new piece of information, Nagisa’s eyes widened. Takakura had never mentioned something like that to him—perhaps she hadn’t known. “I don’t know why he had it with him, or what he was originally intending to do with it. Perhaps he wanted to use it as a defense against those older boys—or perhaps…” Rei left the second of his guesses unsaid, and for that moment, he squeezed his eyes closed and put a hand over them. Understanding what Rei had left unsaid, Nagisa silently placed his palm over Rei’s on the bench and squeezed Rei’s hand comfortingly. Breathing out slowly, Rei continued his words.

“As I said before—I was so caught up in that math competition—so set on achieving my own ideals of happiness—that I never knew he was feeling that much pain. You told me once—that when you were in junior high, you sometimes felt you wanted to hurt your family on purpose. In Saionji-kun’s case…I think that desire to hurt was directed towards himself. I don’t think he ever told anyone else about his feelings—including myself. And I think he was never going to tell anyone—but then, I saw him with those bullies—and it was one of the worst times for him, that I could catch him in.” Rei lifted his hand off his eyes, the back of them starting to pierce with tears. “And after I saw him fall—I remembered something that he told me, when I first found out that his health was not very good.” As he stared up at the night sky to attempt to hold them in, the memory of a conversation in an infirmary room six years ago returned to his conscious.

 


 

-Six Years Ago, Kitagawa Elementary School Infirmary-

“Did you know, Ryuugazaki-kun?” Saionji Yuuto asked Rei as he sat on the infirmary bed, staring out towards the window. This was after he had been brought to the infirmary by Rei after collapsing from one of their self-defense practices. “I actually used to be afraid of going outside, once.” He smiled ruefully at Rei.

“My body’s been in this condition ever since I was born, and because of that, my parents were overprotective of me. When it was high time for other kids my age to be playing outside at the playground, I was never even allowed to go play in the backyard of our house. They were afraid that I would injure myself in my condition—that I would collapse from running around with the other children. Hearing them say so many times that it’s dangerous outside—it actually made me believe it, when I was little. So when I finally was deemed healthier—just enough to start attending school—I was kind of scared.”

“But then, when I saw what it was like out there, standing on my own for the first time—I realized that it was beautiful, that world. I felt like I could do anything, be anything I wanted to be. That was what I felt like when I first saw the sea at Iwatobi Port—the ocean breeze, the golden sand on the beach, and the clear blue water, stretching for miles and miles to anywhere and everywhere. Maybe that’s when I first thought that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I admired the sea creatures that I’ve only ever seen on TV—I imagined how free they must feel, in that endless expanse of water, free to swim anywhere they wished to go. I…I was always envious of them, in a way.” His hands clutched the sheets on his lap tightly. “I wanted to be out there instead of inside walls—just like they are, without any walls to close them in.”

“It’s been years since I’ve started elementary school—but even now…I’m never allowed to play outside. You’ve seen me out there with Kanemiya and the others, but that’s because they used to drag me out by force all the time. Once, when I went to a different school, I didn’t listen to my parents and played soccer with a few kids that invited me at recess…and because my body wasn’t as athletic or strong, I collapsed. After that…they forbade me from ever playing outside with the other kids again. Every time kids asked me to join them outside, I’ve always had to turn them down—and after a while, they just stopped asking me altogether. And as they played outside, I’d always watch them from the window…” A wistful smile formed on the light-haired boy’s face. “And me… I’ve always sat there, feeling envious of them. If only I had been born healthier—if only I could play soccer like them—be free to swim in the ocean—“ His grey eyes turned to meet Rei’s taken-aback violet ones.

“You too, Ryuugazaki-kun—you love the world in your books, but I can tell when I see you jogging—you love being outside, and you can be out there. And because of that…”

“I’ve always thought that you were really lucky.”

 


 

“After he fell from the window that day—I remembered those things he said when he was at the infirmary. And, to think—after he’s yearned for so long to come out, break through that window—he’s not even able to look at the scenery that he’s always loved so much. Even now…even after six years of darkness…he’s still battling for his life alone, in that hospital ward, where…where I know he would have hated being if…if he were conscious to realize it…and to think I can’t do a single thing to change that…” Rei’s voice choked down a sob as his shoulders shook and his free hand clenched tightly into a fist.

“There was no way that I could stand to be outside anymore. Enjoying a kind of life that Saionji-kun’s probably only been able to dream of living all his life—when he can’t even wake up from that terrible place he’s in…I couldn’t do it. I genuinely thought that continuing on with my life as if—as if none of what took place ever happened, as if I wasn’t at least partly responsible—it would be the cruelest thing that I could do to him.“ A tear finally dropped from Rei’s eye, slowly beginning to trail down his face. “Although I’ve known all along—that even if I do this, nothing will change—that it wouldn’t make things right again—I couldn’t knowingly allow myself to be happy. I thought that if I did—that would be betraying my friend all over again.”

“Rei…!” Seeing the single tear fall, Nagisa also felt his own eyes starting to swell with tears. He wanted to tell Rei that it wasn’t true—that Rei still had every right to be happy—but somewhere in his heart a voice told him that now was the time when he should sit and accept his friend’s sorrow instead. Knowing that he had to be there for Rei, the blonde blinked the tears back as much as he could. He lifted Rei’s palm, which had been flat on the bench, and took the hand into both of his own, gripping it as if trying to channel whatever warmth he could into the blue-haired boy.

Noticing this gesture from the blonde made all of Rei’s walls break down. All of a sudden, his eyes were freely leaking tears, and he was voicing his sobs in short, raspy breaths. They grew louder as the seconds passed—for the first time in years, after thinking for so long that he didn’t even deserve to show such a weakness, the blue-haired boy cried as hard and as long as he wanted to. Nagisa had been biting his lips to keep himself from joining in—but at some point, he had also broken down and was now crying as well. The sound of their two crying voices echoed through the empty park as they floated into the night air.

“You—sob—don’t have to—sob—think that way—sob—Rei-cha—“ the blonde sniffled as fat tears dropped down his cheeks. “You—sob—are—sob—awesome—sob—the best—sob—I told you so—!“ His voice grew more unstable and higher pitched as it said so, but his words were as genuine as ever. “You definit’ly—sob—deserve—sob—to be—sob—happy—you always—sob—have—sob— “ With every word, the blonde’s hold on Rei’s hand tightened. “I know—sob—you do—sob—you have t’ —sob—believe it—sob—too—!” His magenta eyes welled up with fresh tears as the ones below dripped down his chin. “Don’t—sob—say something—sob—so sad—! Don’t—sob—cry like—sob—this—!”

“But—sob—Nagisa—sob—kun—sob— “ Rei’s voice sounded over his gasps. “You’re—sob—crying—sob—too—!” His own hand squeezed Nagisa’s so tight that he thought it might break. “And—sob—me too—sob—when I haven’t—sob—cried at all—sob—for the past—sob—six years—sob— “ After somehow correctly interpreting Rei’s words through his incoherent sobbing, what Nagisa deciphered just made the blonde cry even harder.

“But—sob—that’s not fair—sob—Rei-cha’—sob— “ Nagisa’s lips trembled as he spoke. “You’re the one—sob—making me cry—sob—after all—!” He tried to stem his tears by wiping them sloppily with his free hand, but it seemed to do no good. “When I see you—sob—like this—sob—it makes me so—sob—sad!” Shakily, he brought his free hand to his chest, gripping the breast of his shirt with his fingers. “It makes me—sob—hurt here—sob—right in th’—sob—chest—sob— “ His burgundy eyes crinkled with emotion as he bawled. “And I—sob—don’t know—sob—what to do—sob—I’m so—sob—useless to you—sob—!” Upon hearing this, Rei snapped out of his sobbing and jumped to his feet, pulling Nagisa off the bench and towards himself so that their faces were closer.

“THAT’S NOT TRUE!!” he shouted, his words suddenly perfectly coherent. Before he knew it he had his hands grasping Nagisa’s shoulders tightly as he exclaimed his next words.

“That can’t ever be further away from the truth, and you know it! All those years ago, when I never expected myself to smile again, you came along and changed my whole world! I never thought that I would be anything but alone, that no one would know and accept me for the person I am, but you appeared, over and over again, turning my gloomy world upside down, even when I kept trying to push you away—always with that big smile and that silly laughter and those honest bright eyes and those gentle words, telling me that it’s okay—you have no idea how happy you’ve made me, when I never expected myself to be happy again—how much your presence gave me hope when I never expected to see the light anymore—how much it scared me to death when you fell from that tree and I thought I’d never see your smile again—! Even now, you’re standing here, after you attempted to run into a shed full of delinquents alone, for Pete’s sake, even before they actually did anything to me, just to ‘keep me safe’, after you’ve fought them and gotten hurt AGAIN because of me, and bawling your eyes out just because I’m doing the same—If, after all you’ve done for me, you can still say such a foolish thing, then it’s obviously because you have NO IDEA HOW MUCH YOU MEAN TO ME!!”

The last part rang out through silence—as Rei’s voice grew louder and more heated with every word, Nagisa had slowly fallen silent and his sobs had slowly started calming down. Now, the blonde’s burgundy eyes were wide open and fixed on Rei’s face, his pink lips gaping slightly in surprise—and his face slowly and surely growing warmer and warmer until its shade reached the level of a beet. Although he was usually so chatty, at this moment it seemed as if the blonde had been struck speechless. After a while, his whole body started to quiver and his hands began to fidget nervously at his sides as the contents of Rei’s speech were being processed by his brain.

And it took about five seconds, but when it all sank in, his heart nearly exploded all at once, not with flutters but with the fury of a thousand fire crackers set ablaze all at once. Nearly knocked back by the full force of that feeling, the blonde stood frozen to the ground as he started to try and stutter out a response to that.

“I—I, I—you—me—“ All the wiring in his brain seemed to have gone haywire at the same time, combusting the part that could string together coherent sentences. “That—I—I’m—!”

Meanwhile, the person who had made the speech had also come to his senses. Realizing that he had practically confessed his feelings to the blonde, Rei was simultaneously fighting the urge to dig himself a hole in the ground and zoom down it like a groundhog while slowly coloring red all the way from his face to the tips of his ears to his neck and the skin beneath his collarbones. He was absolutely positively mortified—wondering if he could have been any more obvious than he was just now, he jumped back, tearing his hands off Nagisa’s shoulders and giving him a wide berth. If he had thought that the cardiac arrests his heart had previously jumped into whenever he thought of the blonde were bad, then the ones he felt right now took the cake. It was a truly scary question how big of a force they might have had if he had actually confessed to Nagisa—he didn’t think that he would have lived to hear the blonde’s answer, had that unlikely event actually happened.

Perhaps by now the blonde had taken the huge hint inadvertently thrown at him—he had always been one to surprise Rei with his unexpected sharpness. Rei’s body tensed—was that why his friend was currently still frozen to the ground and gaping at Rei like a fish out of water? Maybe he had been so shocked by the hypothetical revelation (Rei hoped to God that it really was just hypothetical and not the real) that he was stammering incoherently due to the inability to find words to say. And yes, it would be mortifying if that were the case—but as the seconds slowly ticked away and Nagisa still was showing the same troubling reaction, Rei was starting to become earnestly concerned about the blonde. Wondering if the blonde was on the verge of a psychological breakdown, the blue-haired boy took a concerned step forward—

“IT’S THE SAME FOR ME TOO, REI-CHAN!!!”

Startled by the sudden explosive outburst from the blonde, Rei jumped and nearly fell over to the ground in surprise. Nagisa was still quivering with excitement, his face still piping hot and his eyes squeezed shut as he poured out all his feelings to Rei.

“The way you say hi to me, all shy and stuff, the way you shift your glasses up your nose when you’re embarrassed, the way your face sparkles when you talk about your theories and logic and equations, the way you tell me off in that sophisticated way of yours, the way you’re always looking out for me, the way you roll your eyes at all my jokes but then you crack that tiny smile of yours and catch me off guard, the way you look at me when I’m talking and listen like I’m the only person in the world, the way you laugh with those purple eyes of yours crinkled up and your mouth just barely open to show a little bit of teeth, and the way you’ve always, always managed to comfort me and make me smile again, no matter how awkward any of those attempts were—those were the things that changed my world over and over again! You don’t know how lucky I feel to have met you! I would rather have you than a million times a billion times a trillion winning lottery tickets—but that’s still not enough to describe how much you mean to me!!” The blonde was so set on communicating his feelings that he didn’t notice Rei’s blush growing darker and darker with every word that he said.

“That’s exactly why I’m never letting you disappear from my life like what happened before. Do you hear me?!” Not raising his face, Nagisa reached up with his fists to hastily wipe away the tears at the corners of his eyes. “Even the things you’re not proud about, even the times that you’ve had to cry like this, or when you were less than brave or perfect—I’ll accept all of them, just like you did for me! If that’s who you are, then that’s also part of the Rei-chan I know and love!” The last word made Rei’s heart jump in his throat, but as the brunette quickly reminded himself not to read too much into the flow of words, the blonde continued with a quieter but still firm voice.

“If…if I really mean something to you—“ Here, the blonde’s hands fidgeted slightly with the edge of his shirt as his eyes took on a slightly nervous look before settling back into their serious look. “I need you to listen to me, Rei-chan. I—I won’t tell you what to do with your life, but I want you to know what I think.” He smiled solemnly, if a little shyly, at the blue-haired boy. “D’you think you can do that for me?”

For a moment, Rei was silent, taken aback at this question. But only a moment—after it passed, the brunette nodded firmly, violet eyes showing the blonde that he was ready to listen. “Good. Try not to be offended by what I say, okay?” Nagisa took a deep breath, then hollered,

“WOULD YOU STOP BABYING THIS SAIONJI BRAT?! IT’S GETTING ON MY NERVES!!”

“Hah?!” As Rei jumped in surprise, Nagisa’s face turned into angry pout mode, his hands settled newly on his hips.

“You never baby me about any of the things I choose to do on my own. So stop doing that for Saionji Yuuto because that’s exactly what you’re doing all the time! Saying that he fell because of you, that it’s your fault you never knew what he was thinking—screw all that! That’s basically all his fault!” The blonde threw up his hands in exasperation. “He was the one who chose to do what he did, Rei! It doesn’t matter how crappy he was feeling, that’s a fact! Don’t you dare turn the blame on yourself!!” He frowned, undeterred by the fact that Rei was gaping at him like he had just grown a second head.

“It’s the same for not knowing how he felt, Rei! Being a good friend doesn’t mean that you’re psychic and you know what the other person’s thinking without them ever TELLING you a single thing! It’s supposed to be a two-way street of ‘ask, listen, and tell’! And you did ask if he was all right, I know you did! So what if you weren’t asking with the presumption that yes, the guy has a humongous load on his shoulders? You expected an honest answer and he gave you the ‘I’m fine don’t worry about me’ face, didn’t he? If he was suffering that much and you didn’t notice, then he was obviously born with an attachable poker face! I know you can be oblivious sometimes, Rei, but you’re not THAT oblivious! The guy didn’t even let you try to understand, for Pete’s sake—if he just assumed that you wouldn’t be able to handle it, then that’s his fault too! From what I’ve heard, it sounds like someone had a little bit of a trust issue!” The blonde huffed. “You guys sound kind of alike in that respect, to be honest!” At this comment, Rei’s face turned indignant and he started to open his mouth. “And don’t you dare deny that, you’ve given me that a lot before so I know where I’m coming from here!” the blonde cut in, effectively silencing Rei. He let out a sigh before his eyes softened.

“And you too, Rei-chan—stop trying to take the blame for what he didn’t do. I’m not saying you’re completely out of fault—I’m just saying that you have this tendency to take things at face value. How come you’ve never thought about the fact that Saionji-kun might’ve been lying? I don’t know the guy personally, so I’m not the expert on his personality, but you said that he’s always been alone at school before, right? If he really thought that you weren’t a real friend and just ‘some stupid person’ superficially posing as one, then why would he have bothered sticking around you for so long? If I were him, I would rather stay alone than waste time with someone who I thought didn’t care about me. Am I the only one who thinks that’s weird?” He pouted. “Takakura said she overheard you two hitting it off talking about math once—I mean, from what it sounds like, you guys actually understand each other when you’re talking about that stuff. You’d never be able to have that sort of back-and-forth conversation with me—it sounds like you guys were really hitting it off when I wasn’t in the picture.” Was that Rei’s imagination or did Nagisa sound…jealous? “So I’m kind of not seeing the connection here, you know?” The blonde crossed his arms.

“People lie all the time, Rei—and sometimes it’s because they’re hurt, sometimes it’s because they’re mad, and sometimes it’s their way of asking for help. This Saionji kid—if you stuck around him yourself for this long, it sounds like he at least wasn’t that bad of a kid. So I’m guessing he just didn’t want you to worry—or maybe he just didn’t want to scare you off. Some people get scared off by others’ weaknesses, you know? And maybe, the reason he said all those hurtful things—maybe those were all in the heat of the moment too.” Nagisa frowned. “I mean, how could anyone say they wished they never met you? I wouldn’t understand them in a million years, even if I tried to.” Not noticing how Rei blushed at this comment, Nagisa’s eyes took on a new solemn glow.

“Life isn’t all penguins and strawberries, Rei-chan. Sometimes you catch people at a bad time—and they say things they never meant to say. And sometimes you’re the one who’s hurting them because you yourself are hurting, and other times they’re the ones hurting you, even if you only want to help. But if you or the other person doesn’t try to make amends, then who will? You’re one of the hardest workers I know, Rei-chan—if it’s you, I feel like you’ll definitely able to mend things with your effort. But if you never try, we’ll never know, will we? Staying inside your house because you feel guilty about doing something Saionji-kun always wanted to do—isn’t that just the reason why you should do it all the more?” Nagisa placed his hands on his hips with confidence. “If it were me, I would march out there and live and get the most I can possibly get from it—I’d march right up to the hospital and brag to him, make him so jealous that it’ll make him want to wake up faster and follow me outside!” His voice softened.

“No matter how angry he might be at you, Rei-chan—I feel like he’d still be lonelier, lying in that hospital bed alone—you might not be able to make him open his eyes, but I know you can go over there and see how he’s doing—then, maybe, he won’t feel so lonely anymore. Just like how I imagine he wasn’t so lonely anymore when he first found you at Kitagawa. And I really think you can stand to be a little more positive, Rei-chan—you know the saying that if you keep thinking it, it happens? Sometimes—I feel like you’re jumping to conclusions about what will happen in the future. If you already give up on him now, what will he do then? Have a little more faith in the guy—that he’ll make it out of wherever he is right now. Don’t be too scared to trust him.” The blonde paused, and his eyes bore into Rei’s as if he was seeing something deep within. Finally, he carefully opened his mouth again.

“I’ve always had this feeling—that you’re scared to become closer to people, Rei-chan. You’re afraid of hurting them, and you’re afraid they’ll hurt you, too. But it’s not all bad—you’ll learn how to be a better friend if you’ve gone out there and tried to be one more often.” Nagisa’s eyes softened.

“If he said that he wished he’s never met you, then go and change his mind. If it doesn’t change right away, then try harder. And if it still doesn’t work—“ He gave the brunette a gentle smile. “Then you’re lucky you have me to come back to. I’ll kick that Saionji guy’s ass so hard he won’t even know what hit him. After I convince you that he’s obviously not worth your attention or care.” He linked his arms behind his back while tilting back on his feet slightly.

“Just…if nothing else…then just remember that I’m here. I want,” he spoke, as he repeated Rei’s own words to him, “to be your strength, too. I always have.” His smile grew a bit sheepish. “Although I might not always be able to cheer you up…”

“I’m glad.” Rei’s quiet whisper sounded in the air. Not quite hearing this, Nagisa cocked his head at the brunette, a bit puzzled.

“What was that again, Rei-chan?” Rei looked up at Nagisa with a genuine smile, his eyes crinkled into crescent shapes and his brows arched up in a way that made him look happily touched. His cheeks glowed slightly pink as he said the next words, so honest and heartfelt.

“I’m so glad that I met you…!”

Upon hearing these words, Nagisa felt as if he had just been punched in the gut—in a completely good way. His eyes widened slowly, the pools of burgundy reflecting the glow of the lamplight nearby; his mouth fell open slightly, and no words came out.

Rei had no idea how happy those words made the blonde. How it transferred some of his stomach butterflies into the blonde’s own stomach. How it made his heart flutter like a thousand Purple Emperors.

A few moments later, five-and-some feet of blonde boy crashed into Rei, nearly causing him to fall over from the sudden weight. Throwing his arms around Rei’s back and nearly squeezing the breath out of the brunette, Nagisa squeezed his eyes shut as he leaned his head against Rei’s chest, cheeks flushed rosy, overwhelmed by his emotions. Startled and flustered, Rei started to panic in Nagisa’s grip.

“Na-Nagisa-kun!!” His face began to turn a shade of beet red. “Wh-what—I—why are you—“ He fell into a babbling mess until Nagisa finally spoke up.

“Me too, Rei-chan!” His eyes were still squeezed shut, cheeks growing warmer. “I’m so, so glad I met you, too!!” His earnest words rang in Rei’s ears, sending a rush of warmth and flutters through the brunette’s own body. “And that you’re right here, actually in front of me—not just looking out from behind a window—“ Rei slightly froze as he felt something wet on his shirt. “I’m s-so glad—WAAHHH!!” Startled when the blonde suddenly started bawling, Rei himself began feeling overwhelmed. Starting to feel the tears in his own eyes prick, but this time for a different reason, he looked up towards the sky, gently encasing Nagisa in his own arms, one hand on top of the blonde’s soft hair.

“Yeah—I feel—the same—“ He choked slightly as he began to feel a warm lump forming in his throat. “Thank you, Nagisa—thank you so much—“ The tears began to flow down his cheeks. “Thank you…!”

For the first time in years, Rei felt truly glad that he was alive. And he had now thanked the person who had been the cause of it. As the two teens held on to each other in the night, their crying gradually subsided. When he calmed down, Nagisa gently pulled away from Rei, wiping his tears with a small smile.

“I think we’ve cried enough to last us a whole year,” the blonde said. At this, Rei laughed as he wiped his own eyes and nodded. His eyes then fell on the clock in the park—and immediately he remembered the situation that they were in right now.

“We should hurry back home,” he told Nagisa, a worried look in his eyes. “You didn’t even take your cell phone with you—and I didn’t either,” he realized suddenly, feeling the urge to smack himself in the forehead with exasperation. “Your mother—and my mother—they’re going to worry…“ Registering Rei’s words, Nagisa nodded in agreement.

“Yeah—I can just imagine how furious my mom’ll be.” The blonde shuddered at the thought. “She’s gonna barbecue me alive—and my sister’ll totally be on board with it—“ His eyes widened in panic. “What’ll I do, Rei-chan?! I’m totally gonna die when I get home!” At this, Rei laughed a bit, but not without his own mind filling with worry. He could imagine how his own parents were going to react—a bit of dread filled him when he realized that his father might also be home already, as well. He was positive that at least his mother knew he was gone—when he’d disappeared from the house, it was before they had had dinner. To think how she may have reacted, when she called him downstairs for the meal and later found that he wasn’t anywhere in the house—a worried frown settled over his face.

“Let’s go—quickly!” he said. He reached out for Nagisa’s hand—but when he realized what he was doing, he quickly pulled it back, blushing slightly. Thankfully missing the gesture, Nagisa nodded and went to collect the first aid items on the bench, handing them to Rei. They found a recycle bin for the empty water bottles and disposed of them, before they hurriedly left the park as quickly as they could.

In the space of about ten minutes, they reached their neighborhood and were standing in front of the space between their houses. Before he went inside, Nagisa turned his head towards Rei and stared at him quietly. Taking notice, Rei gulped a bit nervously and looked back at the blonde.

“What is it, Nagisa-kun?” he asked hesitantly.

“You’re not going back in there for good, right?” Nagisa’s voice was quiet. “This time—you’ll come back out…right…?” At this question, the brunette’s mouth fell open slightly.

“…I’ll need some time,” Rei said finally. “To think…to sort out things in my head…to do what I can do, should do.” He thought of his family as he said this—he knew the time had come to properly face them and talk to them. “I…I don’t know how long it will take, honestly—but just know this.” He looked Nagisa straight in the eye. “I won’t ever try to hide inside from you again—I swear it. I honestly don’t think I can bring myself to do that anymore, even if I tried.” He smiled softly at Nagisa. “I would miss you too much.” Nagisa’s eyes widened slightly—then a small smile also appeared on his lips.

“I’d miss you a lot, too.” He reached over and took Rei’s hand’s in his, squeezing it. “Don’t…don’t keep me waiting for too long. Okay…?”

“Of course.” Rei squeezed the blonde’s hand back. “I will definitely be back. I promise.” Slowly and reluctantly, he released the blonde’s hand and motioned to the Hazukis’ house. “You should go in now, Nagisa-kun. Good night…!” Nagisa nodded.

“G’night, Rei-chan!” He then remembered something. “Oh—and if your mom’s angry at you—just tell her it was my fault, okay?” Rei shook his head at that, smiling slightly.

“I won’t be so selfish that I would place the whole blame on your shoulders—I also wasn’t thinking clearly at the moment, after all. But perhaps I will blame you just a little,” he added teasingly. At that, Nagisa made a face and stuck out his tongue at the younger boy.

“Boo you! Now your mom’ll hate my guts—and when I’ve always wanted to stay on her good side!” He sighed in exaggeration—but inside he really did hope that Mrs. Ryuugazaki wouldn’t end up feeling that way about him.

“She can never hate you, Nagisa-kun. She adores you,” Rei replied honestly. “I bet she wishes I was more like you.” At this comment, Nagisa blushed.

W-Well, I’m me and you’re you—and she can have both of us! I live right next door, after all!” he said brightly. Rei laughed again at the Nagisa’s cheerful remark.

“You really should go back in now. It’s getting late,” he chided the blonde gently. Nagisa nodded again.

“Okay—bye, Rei-chan.” He smiled at Rei, and turned around to trot towards the gate of his backyard. When one last thing occurred to him, he turned around to look at Rei one more time.

“I can still text you, right?” he asked with a hopeful look in his eyes. After looking a bit surprised, Rei smiled and nodded.

“Of course. Any time.” When Nagisa heard this, his smile widened. He then raised his hands and gave Rei a small wave.

“G’night, Rei-chan.” He looked at Rei one last time with a warm glow to his burgundy eyes—and then, he opened the gate and stepped inside the yard. Standing and watching the boy’s bobbing blonde head disappear, Rei opened his mouth.

“Good night, Nagisa-kun,” he murmured, his voice quiet and affectionate. He then turned towards his own house and took a deep breath. He then walked to the door of his house and rang the doorbell.

Chapter Text

When Nagisa stepped inside through the back door of his house, he saw that the living room was empty. He sighed in temporary relief.

“They’re not here…” Maybe, he thought hopefully, his family hadn’t noticed that he was even gone—it was possible, if they hadn’t stopped at his bedroom to check in on him.

“Yup. I told Mom you went out for a bit with your friends that came over,” a voice lightly said behind him.

“Oh, you did? Thanks—“ Nagisa blinked. Then, his eyes flew wide open and he jumped in surprise, wheeling around.

“Nao-nee!!” His mouth dropped open, seeing his second eldest sister standing next to the stairwell behind him. Naomi flashed a deceptively cheerful grin at her brother, while her eyes glinted with a look that said she was about this close to killing him.

“It’s a good thing your three other friends from school dropped by to see you, brat—otherwise Mom would’ve gone into your room some time later, and she’d have found that you were gone instead—and by then, you might’ve had more than those scrawny scratches and bruises on you.” Naomi’s smile widened. “And then, if you’d made it out alive, and when she found out where the hell you’ve been, she’d have proceeded to murder you for doing something so you, so unbelievably stupid.” She cracked her knuckles casually as she spoke with a soft but deadly voice.

“You’re lucky I was the one who found out from your friends where you were—otherwise, who would’ve gone to the shed at my old high school and beat the shit out of those leftover dregs of society for you?” Naomi smiled dangerously as she approached Nagisa and casually slung an arm around her brother’s shoulders. Nagisa knew better than trying to wiggle out from under it because he knew—she would be able to keep him there anyways. “It’s a good thing that your friends were there, really—otherwise who’d have held the video camera while I took care of things?” She chuckled softly, sending genuine shivers of fear down Nagisa’s spine.

“Boy, was it a field day when I called the police on them. Good thing Nadeko left her video cam behind when she went to college—your friend, Hanamura-chan, was it? She recorded some high-definition proof with it for the cops to see. Including the part where you almost got your face carved by that rat with the piercings.” Naomi’s smile quickly dropped, and now she had Nagisa’s head in a headlock, with her grip growing steadily stronger. “And as much as I would like to hear the beautiful tale of why the hell you ran off to a place with pocket knives and cigarettes being thrown around—“ At this point, she sighed, her sigh having a tired edge to it. “I suppose that you should be fixing yourself up first. So you can sound at least a little convincing when you make some excuse to Mom about how you fought a stray cat during your little excursion or something shady like that.“

“…I’m…cough…fine…!” Nagisa gasped from Naomi’s headlock. “Rei-chan…treated me…already…” He squirmed in his sister’s arm. “Just…lemme go! Can’t…cough…breathe...!” Hearing this, Naomi’s grip just tightened even more, before she released her brother a few seconds later.

“You’re lucky I didn’t choose to strangle you, brat. ‘Cause I was seriously considering it.” She sighed once more, rubbing the temple of her forehead with her thumb and index finger. “Out of all the stupid shit you’ve done, this definitely goes in the top three. I must’ve been out of my mind, thinking you might develop something like a brain in high school.” She narrowed her eyes at Nagisa, who looked down at the floor guiltily while playing with the hem of his shirt.

“…Sorry, Nao-nee,” he said quietly, not even making a retort to her insult. “I—I was in a hurry, so…I didn’t mean to run off like that. I’m sorry for doing something reckless.” The hold on his shirt tightened as he spoke. “Thanks…for not telling Mom. After what happened in middle school—I didn’t want to do something like that again. But I…” Thinking of Rei, his hand tightened into a fist. Looking down at her unusually quiet brother, Naomi let out another sigh.

“Whatever, brat. Wouldn’t’ve been my problem if you hadn’t made it out alive.” She gingerly lifted her hand and ruffled her brother’s hair with a touch of affection. “I did some pretty stupid shit myself at your age, so I suppose I should give you some leeway.” She had used to be something of a delinquent during those years—that was where her prowess at fighting had come from, and even before, she had always been athletic, Nagisa knew. Now he understood why Kanemiya and the rest hadn’t chased after him and Rei when they were running away. He knew that if it was Naomi, she would have taken them down easily—but he still felt bad for making her have to do it.

“They…they didn’t get any hits on you, did they?” he asked in a small voice. At this question, Naomi released a bark of amused laughter.

“Are you kidding me? Those little green saps? They couldn’t even get a finger on me!” she said confidently. “I used to fight thugs twice their bulk in high school—as if they’d even have a chance!” She grinned slyly at her little brother. “Or what? Are you actually worrying about your dear, kind, beautiful sister? Someone up there must be in the mood for miracles today.” Hearing the teasing leer in her voice, Nagisa wrinkled his brow as if the idea disgusted him.

“As if—I’m more worried for them, actually. Did they even make it alive to the police station?” He also returned his sister the sly grin. “And did you just say ‘beautiful’? Is that what they call ‘violent and crazy’ nowadays?” Hearing that last bit, Naomi’s smile deepened dangerously.

“You’re lucky Mom’s still in the house—that’s the only thing that’s keeping you alive right now.” Her eyes traveled to the injuries on her brother’s limbs and face, and she saw the ointment and antiseptic glinting on them. “So that ‘Rei-chan’ kid did that for you? I thought male apes your age only knew how to get injuries, not treat them.” Nagisa frowned slightly.

“Don’t call him ‘Rei-chan’,” he grumbled. “You’re not even that close with him. And he’s not an ape, either!” Naomi blinked, as if in surprise. Then, a wide smirk flew onto her face and she snorted with laughter.

“Well, well—isn’t someone being a jealous little bastard?” she teased. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna touch your precious ‘Rei-chan’—I don’t date little kids!” At her accusation, Nagisa’s mouth dropped open slightly in indignation, his cheeks coloring.

“I am not being jealous!!” he protested. “And Rei-chan’s not some little kid—he’s good looking and he’s got a great body and he’s mature, too, so much more than somebody who’s a whole decade older than him!” The second sentence just slipped out of his mouth before he even realized what he was saying. Seeing her brother looking so flustered and indignant, Naomi debated between teasing him a bit more about his obvious crush on the boy next door (she wondered if her brother was trying to hide it, albeit without much success, or really was blind—she got the vibe that it was the latter, but at this rate she predicted he’d catch onto it soon) or slug him for calling her older than what she was (she was six years older than Nagisa and still fresh out of college, for Pete’s sake). When a yawn attempted to escape her lips, she decided to save both for the next day, when she wasn’t so tired. Cracking a half-closed eye back open towards her little brother, she studied him carefully one last time.

“You’re sure that guy was worth the trouble?” she asked. She had never met Rei in person—although she had overheard bits and pieces of their conversations across their windows—so she didn’t personally know what the boy was like. She wanted to make sure, if her little brother was crawling into fights he couldn’t win for this guy, that the brunette wasn’t just some stuck-up nerdy kid who was too scared to fight his own battles, or worse, one of those kids who went around asking for way too many battles. In response, Nagisa didn’t hesitate at all before he firmly nodded.

“Every bit of it,” he said seriously. “If Rei-chan wasn’t Rei-chan, I never would’ve gone there.” Seeing this firm reaction, Naomi simply nodded and waved her brother towards the stairs.

“Go hit the sack, kid. And remember to thank your friends later—they even tagged along to the police station to testify.” Letting out another yawn, she stretched her arms out. “Better get some beauty sleep myself. It’s been a long night. Oh, and tell Mom you’re back, too,” she added. “She’s in her room watching TV now.” Nagisa nodded.

“…Thanks, Nao-nee.” After saying so, he quickly turned and scampered up the stairs, feeling a little embarrassed. Seeing this made Naomi chuckle softly as she went to the kitchen for a glass of water before heading for her own room on the second floor. She turned over what her brother had told her in her head while walking to the door.

‘Rei-chan’, huh… She glanced outside her bedroom window at the lavender house that had always been next door to their yellow one. Wonder if that glasses kid’s getting lectured now, too. Letting that thought fade, she went into her room and closed the door for the night.

When Rei rang the doorbell, Ryouji answered the front door. He gave him one look before he punched his brother in the gut. Rei felt the breath being knocked out of him as he nearly fell over the porch stairs. Rolling his eyes, Ryouji turned to go back inside, leaving the door open.

“Teenagers,” Rei thought he heard him mutter, before the sound of his footsteps echoed up the stairs. “Mom! The brat’s back home!” In response, there was the sound of someone shifting on the couch in the living room. Soon, Mrs. Ryuugazaki came out into the front hall.

“Rei.” Her voice was quiet but firm. Rei gulped—he had rarely heard that tone from his mother during the past few years.

“M-Mother—“ he choked out nervously. “I—I’m sorry—I, I realize how foolish and inconsiderate I’ve been—I, I didn’t even realize that I didn’t take my cell phone with me—and when you went to the trouble of buying it for me—I’m truly, truly sorr—“ Before he could continue, he felt arms slipping around his back and heard a gentle voice speaking.

“I’m so glad you came back safe.” There was a small quiver in Mrs. Ryuugazaki’s voice. “Please, don’t ever do this kind of thing again…!” At these words, Rei felt the guilt in him double and the tears of guilt starting to prick his eyes.

“I—I’m sorry—I’ll never do it agai—oof!” Rei was forced to stop in midsentence when he felt a second punch in his gut. Pulling away from him, his mother grinned with a touch of mischief and sheepishness as she victoriously pulled away a fist from her son’s stomach.

“There—I’m satisfied now. You can stop apologizing, dear.” At that moment, Rei thought that his mother bore an uncanny resemblance to Ryouji—he blinked as he realized that it was the other way around. And all this time, he had thought that his older brother took after his father more—but he now guessed that there was a little of both his parents in Ryouji. Laughing slightly at Rei’s absolutely startled face, Ryuugazaki Reina smiled softly before taking her son by the hand.

“Let’s go and sit down on the couch. There’s something that I want to talk to you about.” Surprised, Rei nodded before following her down the hall. Once they were back under the light, Reina’s face took on a look of horror when she saw the injuries on Rei’s body.

“Oh, dear—what happened to you, Rei?” Her eyes widened with concern. “I should go get the first-aid kit—“

“Actually, Mother, it’s fine. Nagisa-kun—he treated them for me,” Rei admitted, his cheeks flushing slightly. Reina blinked at this unexpected news.

“You were out with Nagisa-kun, dear?” Remembering that his mother didn’t even know why he had gone outside yet, Rei realized that he should explain. But when he remembered that Kanemiya would be involved in the explanation, he faltered slightly. His eyes traveled to his mother’s arms, which were covered by her usual long sleeves. Just looking at them made the old, familiar twinge of guilt well back up inside him. But then, he remembered what Nagisa had told him earlier in the park. He imagined what Nagisa would tell him if he knew what Rei was thinking—‘It’s not your fault, it’s something that Kanemiya did!’ Gaining courage, he looked his mother in the eye and opened his mouth hesitantly.

“Mother—you remember Kanemiya Shizuo, right?” Upon hearing the name, something seemed to spark in his mother’s eyes. Taking that as a ‘yes’, Rei took a deep breath and continued.

“He—he was the one who…who threw that rock when you were in the kitchen…six years ago.” His fists clenched tightly at his sides. “I…I used to get bullied by him when I was younger, in my first and second grades.” He saw his mother’s eyes widen and her lips pursing—realizing just how much he had kept from his mother all these years, Rei felt the guilt renew itself in him once again. “I’m sorry I never told you about—about any of that happening. I—I just didn’t want to worry you, or Father—after all, you were both busy with work—“ He saw his mother’s face and added quickly, “But don’t worry, Mother! I learned self-defense from aniki, so I’ve been able to defend myself since second grade. I was never attacked any more after that, so please don’t make that face.” He paused for a while to get himself back on track.

“Anyhow, Mother—you do remember when…when Saionji-kun fell from the school building in fourth grade?” His mother’s eyes widened—no doubt in surprise that her son was suddenly talking about something he had been so sensitive about for the past six years. “When—when that happened, Kanemiya—he was there, in the same classroom, with a group of other kids his size—and I think…I think he was afraid that I would blame him, lie about him making Saionji-kun take the fall—he used to bully Saionji-kun a lot as well. It wouldn’t exactly have been hard to convince some teachers who knew about the situation at school…so that was why he…why he threw the rock at our window. He wanted to threaten me—because he was scared that I would tell someone that. And because—because I used self-defense on him in the past and he was frustrated that he couldn’t bully me like he used to before. I—“ His shoulders shook.

“I’m sorry…that you had to get hurt because of me that day, Mother. If only I knew that he’d see me outside—I never would have gone out to check the mail.” Tears started to well up in his eyes. “I’m really, truly sorr—“ Before he could say more, his mother stopped him, putting a hand over her son’s mouth.

“It’s all right, Rei,” she said, and her gentle voice meant it. “I…actually, I wanted to talk about that for a while. And some other things. But first…since you said you will tell me what happened, I will listen to you.” Her eyes shone kindly as she looked at her son. “Please continue—I want to hear everything you’re willing to tell me.” Hearing this, Rei suddenly felt touched, and he gulped back his tears before he smiled back and continued.

“Anyhow…that same Kanemiya…he was the reason why I went outside today.” He could see the worried frown form on his mother’s face already. “And there’s no need to frown like that, Mother—I, I admit that he and his friends are the reason for my injuries—but at the very least, I am not ashamed of them. I…I heard from one of Nagisa-kun’s friends that Nagisa-kun was in danger. He found out that Kanemiya…that he was looking around town for me recently, that he wanted to find me and…and attack me…so as soon as he did, he went and…and tried to stop Kanemiya before he could get to me.” At this news, Rei saw his mother’s eyes widen with shock and concern. The blonde had had no reason to worry about her hating him—that, Rei was sure of now. “And I found out from his classmate that he went alone—and I couldn’t just let him face them himself, Mother. Not when I was the one Kanemiya was looking for…so I reacted before I could think carefully. I went after him—and thankfully, I got there before they found him and seriously harmed him.” The thought, no matter how hypothetical, made the brunette shudder.

“We both got some scrapes and bruises—but all in all, we were able to make it out okay. We did take some time to treat ourselves before we returned—that was why we were late. I hope you understand.” His mother nodded quietly, her eyes regretful. “I—I know I should have at least said something before I rushed outside. And there were probably safer, more rational ways of handling the situation—so I’m sorry I acted so recklessly.” He bowed his head down towards his mother in apology, waiting for a response. After a moment of silence, Reina opened her mouth.

“You certainly did act recklessly,” she agreed, her voice a little angry. But when she said the next words, its tone softened. “But—I understand that you did it because you were worried about Nagisa-kun. And even if you were a bit rash—I’m proud of you for putting Nagisa-kun before…everything else.” She smiled gently at Rei. “The bad feelings you must have had about that Kanemiya child—and even the complicated feelings that you have about Saionji-kun—I’m proud that you were able to put those feelings aside to go out and help your friend.”

“Mother…” Rei’s violet eyes started to water.

“I…I don’t think that I was a son…that you could have been proud of me these past years.” His breath shook as he spoke slowly. “Ever since…ever since Saionji-kun fell out the window that day…I’ve refused to go back to school—I refused to go anywhere unless I absolutely needed to, like when I had hospital checkups or something…you even quit your job as a teacher to educate me at home…” His brow knit with regret. “Even though you always loved working as a biology teacher—even though I was certain that I was interfering with that, I still didn’t say that I would return to school. And all those times, you never even told me that I had to return—even though I never told you any details about…about what happened with Saionji-kun—even though you must have agreed with Father, that you wanted me to experience society—even though you could go back to teaching just like you used to do—“ The tears started rolling down Rei’s cheeks as he choked out his words. “Every time that I thought those things—I felt so unbearably guilty—but still, I couldn’t bring myself to—“ His hands trembled at his sides. “It must have been frustrating for you to see me like that, all this time, and yet—“ Through his tears, he could see his mother’s violet eyes also tear up as she gently took his cheek in her hand.

“I have always been proud of you, Rei,” she said, her own voice full of genuine emotion. “Nothing can change that fact. You are the sweetest, kindest, most gentle son that I could have ever wished for—whether you choose to go to high school or not, it won’t change any of that, I’m sure. I was never proud of you because you went to school obediently and got good grades in your classes. I was proud because you always worked hard at everything you did, and you never took anything that you achieved for granted, nor were you ever haughty about the things you did best.” Tears started to flow down her eyes as well.

“Even though your father and I were always busy with work—even though we were always late coming home, couldn’t give you the attention that you fully deserved when you were a child—you never complained about it. And it nearly broke my heart, how you were always sitting quietly with a book in your hand that you never asked me to read to you after I came home from work, how you always told me that things were fine at school and you never told us about the bad things that happened there—even the time that you learned to cook without ever telling me when you were seven, and you fell asleep on the table waiting, with the dinner that you cooked for us laid out—you were always, always the sweet, quiet, understanding son.“ She dabbed at her eyes as she cried. “You were never needy with us—and I should have been able to see why. I should have known that you didn’t want to trouble or worry us—that you were so incredibly kind in that way, so much that I felt I was too terrible of a parent to deserve a son like you—“ Rei’s eyes widened as he heard these feelings of his mother for the first time in his life.

“Seeing you so broken after what happened to Saionji-kun—that was what finally opened my eyes. When I saw you really suffering in front of us for the first time—I knew that it was time for me to really be there for you, like the mother that I always dreamed of being. I always felt guilty that…that it took something so terrible for me to realize that you needed me, that you needed me all this time and I was never there. That’s why—none of it was ever your fault, Rei. The fact that I quit my job, the fact that I started staying at home to teach you—it was all out of my own will. After I realized that I couldn’t do anything to make you feel better—anything to help my own son when he needed help the most—I even thought that it might all be just for the sake of my own self-satisfaction.” Her face twisted in pain as she said this.

“I just told myself to wait until you were ready to talk—but maybe—maybe the problem was that I wasn’t a parent you could truly talk to. And sometimes—I was even afraid to approach you about it—because I felt that I wouldn’t be able to comfort you, to do anything to make you feel better—“ She wiped her tears with the palm of her hand, but they were quickly replaced over and over. “I felt so useless, not knowing what to do. I thought that maybe, if I had taken the time to be closer to you before—that I would have known what to do for you when you were hurting.”

“…That’s not true…” Rei’s voice quivered. “It was my fault—I should have told you first. How could you have ever known any of my feelings if I never took the step of confiding in you? I—I always knew that you were waiting for me—because you never, ever push me during times like this, Mother. You were always like that—even though I was always reading inside at home and never went out to play with the other kids, you never discouraged me from doing what I loved. On the days that you were late coming home from work, you even brought home a new picture book to make up for it. You always asked—“ he said, repeating Nagisa’s words, “—whether I was doing all right, and you were always ready for an honest answer. I just never gave it to you—and that’s my fault, Mother. It’s the same for what happened with Saionij-kun—I knew you were always waiting for me to come to you first—that you were waiting for me to be ready—it was just that I never tried to be ready.” He looked earnestly at his mother through teary eyes, gripping her hands in his tightly.

“That’s why there’s no need to blame yourself at all, Mother—you can’t blame yourself for what I didn’t do. I shut myself away from facing the painful things together with you—and I—“ He choked a bit on his next words. “I couldn’t even apologize properly—when Kanemiya hurt you six years ago—I couldn’t even look you in the eye and say that it was all because of me—“ The tears started to flow down his cheeks once more. “I couldn’t stand it—you continuing to be so gentle, so kind, so caring, even after what happened—even though you never would’ve been hurt if it hadn’t been for me being there—“

“Rei!” The sudden loudness of his mother’s usually moderate voice startled Rei from continuing his sentence. Ryuugazaki Reina’s eyes glowed with a firm light as she grabbed the sides of her son’s face with her hands and stared straight into his eyes. “You know that’s not true! I never thought it was your fault in the least—even after what you’ve told me today, I still don’t think that. It was that child called Kanemiya who threw that stone, not you, Rei. You can’t blame yourself for what you didn’t do,” she said, quoting Rei’s words back at him. “He could still have found our house easily, even if he never saw you go outside for the mail. And yes, it hurt when he did it, but I don’t regret having been hit by that stone or by the glass at all. I was only glad that it wasn’t Ryouji, or your father, or you, Rei. After all, what are a few stones, what are a few scars?’ Her eyes took on a fierce glow. “I always felt sorry for that Kanemiya boy—but I was never scared of him. And you don’t need to be either, Rei.” She looked down at the long sleeves on her arms.

“That was actually one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about, dear. The reason I kept wearing long sleeves—it wasn’t because I myself didn’t want to see those scars.” Her eyes turned gentle as she stared at Rei. “It was because I thought they would bring back what must have been a bad memory for you. Seeing me in the kitchen with those injuries, then having to treat them all by yourself—that was the first time I ever got hurt in front of you, and so badly at that. Things already happened to you—I didn’t want you to be bothered by the memory of these scars, too.” Her tone grew soft. “But I realized that maybe what I did gave you the wrong idea. Am I right…?”

“I…” Rei faltered. “I did…think it was because…you didn’t want to see your own arms like that.” At his quiet admittance, Reina’s eyes softened.

“Quite frankly—I don’t give a darn.” Rei blinked—this was the closest his mother had ever come to swearing. His sweet mother, who had always used proper language in front of him. He was certainly beginning to discover some new sides of her tonight. “They don’t bother me, and I don’t care if anyone stares at my arms or thinks whatever they would like to think about me.” A warm smile formed on her face. “As long as you and your brother and father still love me, I could dance around outside with my arms bare, and nothing in the world could bother me.” Her eyes twinkled. “What do you think about that, Rei?”

“I—I never knew you were into dancing around outside,” Rei said, bewildered. “But if they don’t bother you…” He smiled affectionately at his mother. “They won’t bother me. And even if they do—I will always think you’re the most beautiful mother in the world. So will Ryou-nii. And Father, too.” When he said this, his mother beamed, and she threw his arms around Rei, hugging him tightly.

“I’m so lucky to have a son like you,” she said, her words heartfelt. “Just make sure you don’t change your mind when you get a wife!” At this teasing comment, Rei blushed, shifting his glasses up his nose.

“I won’t,” he replied. “I might tell her otherwise, but you’ll always know how I feel.” He didn’t say anything about Nagisa, although his mind did think…he needed to stop thinking, it was making him blush harder. At this response, his mother laughed.

“I hope so.” She smiled and patted the couch. “Let’s sit down, shall we?” Rei nodded and sat down with her. They talked into the night about everything that Rei had wanted to tell his mother, everything that he had not said to her in the last few years.

When Ryouji came downstairs to get a drink at two in the morning, he found both his mother and his brother dozed off on the couch. Rolling his eyes a bit, he went upstairs and came back with a blanket. Draping it over them, he retrieved the glass of water and went upstairs to his room.

When Rei woke up the next morning, he was lying in the bed in his own room. Rubbing his eyes, he reached for the glasses on his bed and put them on. Next to them, he found his purple cell phone, its screen signaling that he had a new message. When he flipped the phone open and checked the message, he saw that it was from Nagisa.

[Good luck, Rei-chan!] It was short and simple, yet it warmed Rei’s heart. With his fingers, he typed back a message.

[Thank you, Nagisa.] Only after he had sent it did he realize that he hadn’t added -kun behind the blonde’s name. Giving a start from the realization, he blushed to the tips of his ears as he buried his face in his pillow. He hoped that Nagisa wouldn’t notice it too much.

He saw that text from Rei first thing in the morning when he woke up. For a while, he stared at it in bed. He stared at it while he was eating breakfast. He stared at it while he rode on the train to Iwatobi High. He stared at it during breaks in between classes. And still, every time he stared at it, Nagisa would get a slight flutter in his heart, and a warm flush in his cheeks.

Unlike what Rei had hoped, he hadn’t missed the lack of suffix at all. Maybe, since Rei almost always said his name with that suffix—he was a big believer of using polite speech on everyone, after all—it was noticeable, especially when he sent it in a text like that instead of letting it slip from his mouth in the middle of a long string of words. Since it was Rei, he probably hadn’t done it on purpose—he had to have a lot on his mind, after all, or maybe he just wasn’t used to his phone enough yet and had made a mistake in his message, accidentally deleting a character or two before sending. But there was the period, black and round and sitting right next to the kanji for his name—and Nagisa couldn’t help but hope. Although he had no idea why he was hoping or what he was hoping for, exactly.

He was still staring at the text at lunch—when, thankfully, he went to join his beloved Haru-chan and Mako-chan on the rooftop, as he had done before he had felt down for the past few days. And it wasn’t that Makoto wasn’t glad to see him—he was just startled that his friend seemed to have cheered up remarkably fast. And had bruises and cuts all over his arms—he even had a band-aid on his face, one that Naomi had quickly slapped on him before their mother had come downstairs for breakfast. Actually, he seemed even happier than he had been when he was at his normal, and the way his face lit up so bright when he flipped open his phone and stared at something on the screen made the tall brunette curious. Whatever it was, he could tell that was the cause of it—and by ‘it’, he meant the way that Nagisa’s cheeks were tinged with a soft pink glow, which hadn’t been there before, and the way that the blonde’s eyes were lidded slightly as he stared down at—well, whatever he was staring at. Could it be…? It was Haru who commented on it first, blunt as usual with his words.

“Did he propose to you or something?” At his question, Nagisa jumped slightly in surprise, nearly dropping his phone. Catching it in midair, he wheeled around to stare wide-eyed at Haru, who was calmly eating his mackerel bento next to a slightly blushing Makoto. “Is that how you two made up so fast?”

“Pro-pro—!” Nagisa’s face turned a beet red. “Wh-what are you talking about, Haru-chan?! A-are we thinking about the same person here?!” He waved his arms wildly as if to diffuse whatever thought Haru was having. “I-if you must know, I was saving Rei-chan from a bunch of thugs the other day!” He puffed his chest out proudly. “He even said he was super glad he had met me!” His smile looked so blissful that at this point, even Makoto had stopped paling and released a pft of good-natured laughter. He had always noticed these things, whenever Nagisa talked about Rei during their lunch period—but now he thought it was cute how obvious yet oblivious the blonde was being about his feelings. Catching the sound with his ear, Nagisa frowned and looked down at Makoto reproachfully.

“Eh~~? Mako-chan, why are you laughing?” he protested. “You don’t believe that I did it? I did—look at all these injuries! And I have this, too!” He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out the Iwatobi penguin charm he had clipped onto his shorts last night for good luck. “See? It got a little chipped here—that’s from the fight that I was part of the other night!” Seeing the chip in the wood, Haru frowned.

“Isn’t that the one that I made the other day?” In reality, the Iwatobi charm looked exactly the same as the other hundred and thirteen bird figures that Haru had taken to carving sometimes during lunch. But that was Haru—he had always been able to tell things like that.

“Gah—!” Nagisa quickly put his two hands together in apology. “It’s a war injury, Haru-chan! A noble one!” Haru still frowned as he held out his hand.

“Give it. I’m smoothing that part out.” Nagisa’s eyes flew wide open in surprise and indignation as he quickly clutched the charm to his chest.

“No! This is part of the memory I share with Rei-chan! Like I’m gonna let you smooth it out, even if it’s you, Haru-chan!” At this, Haru snorted.

“I guess he doesn’t even need to propose,” he remarked to himself, as Nagisa danced around the rooftop with the Iwatobi charm and his cell phone in his hands. “Someone’s already wrapped himself around the guy’s finger, all right.”

“Now, now, don’t be like that, Haru,” Makoto said, a placating smile on his face. “It’s nothing to scoff at—I think it’s pretty sweet, actually.” He smiled as he watched Nagisa skip around the roof. “He just needs time to realize it on his own, that’s all.”

“Hm.” Haru didn’t respond to that, but took another bite out of his mackerel. Above them, the blue summer sky seemed to stretch endlessly as a rare summer breeze blew through the air.

Nagisa didn’t have the phone open anymore, but it was still on top of his desk, and he was still staring at it out of the corner of his eye as the final chime rang for today. He was about to get up and leave when he saw someone waiting behind his desk.

“Hana-chan!” His eyes regained focus—he suddenly realized that he hadn’t greeted her all day, nor had he approached Komura and Yamazaki. He didn’t know that they had been observing him all day to check on his condition after yesterday—he had been so preoccupied with the thoughts of a certain blue-haired boy that he hadn’t remembered what his classmates had done for him yesterday. “That’s right—my sis told me to thank you for yester—“ He was stopped in mid-sentence when a note was practically thrust into his face.

“I won’t bother telling you how stupid you were being yesterday,” he heard Hana-chan sigh as she rolled her eyes. “Listen—it’s up to you whether you go or not. I just thought—maybe it might help if you knew.” She dropped the piece of paper and started heading towards the door. Nagisa looked at the words scrawled down it and his eyes widened. Immediately, he ran over to the doorway and called down the hall.

“Thanks, Hana-chan!” he shouted. Hana-chan didn’t turn around, but she did put up a hand in a wave before she ran to catch up with her friends.

“What’s that she gave you, Hazuki?” Yamazaki suddenly appeared behind Nagisa, trying to get a glimpse of the note. Before he could, Komura shoved him gently towards the doorway.

“It’s too complicated for you to understand, Yamazaki,” he said with a straight smile. “Now let’s go home~!” His hazel eyes swiveled over to Nagisa. “Are you coming with us, Hazuki?” Nagisa looked down at the note in his hand, then back at Komura.

“—Sorry. I’ve got somewhere else to go.” His voice had a bit of a nervous edge to it. “You guys go ahead!” Before Komura and Yamazaki could exit, he called after them.

“Komura, Yamazaki—thanks to you guys too! I’ll treat you both to burgers sometime!” The two boys turned around, both grinning.

“We’ll hold you to that, Hazuki!” “See you tomorrow, Hazuki!” With that, they were out the door. Nagisa smiled for a while, then remembered the note in his hands. His eyes traveling back down to the paper, a slight frown started to form in his brow.

The handwriting on the paper spelled out the address of a hospital. Written under it was a room number. 301.

Pocketing the paper, the blonde headed for his desk to collect his things and leave as well.

His hands shook, clenched around the straps of his backpack, as he stood in front of the hospital room. The plaque next to the door had the number 301 on it, as well as a very familiar name in kanji.

During the whole train ride and five-minute walk to the hospital, he had hesitated so many times. He wondered if it wasn’t betraying Rei, doing this without the blue-haired boy knowing—just because he was curious. Even Rei hadn’t seen the person lying in this hospital room, not for six long years—maybe he shouldn’t even be standing here, Nagisa thought. At least, not before Rei did…but it was too late. Before he knew it, he was here. Curiosity killed the cat, and it might kill him too someday, the blonde thought, but now that he was here, he couldn’t bring himself to walk away, either.

So, for the moment, he settled for something that he hoped was in the middle. The hospital door had a small window in it—and he walked closer to the door, peering in through the glass—

What he saw made him freeze to the ground. Before he knew it, he was sliding the door open so quickly with so much force that it hit the side of the doorway with a loud BANG!

It startled the solitary occupant of the hospital room, who gave a start on his bed as he stared with wide eyes at the blonde intruder. Nagisa’s burgundy eyes were wide open and his mouth agape as he took in the pale, thin, small boy with light-brown hair under his bandages and startled grey eyes, dressed in a white hospital uniform, sitting propped up on pillows, looking very surprised and very much conscious.

This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be happening, with Rei not knowing about it. He considered the possibility that it had happened that very same day—but the person occupying the bed looked too clear-eyed, too in-touch with the world, for this to seem true. Voice shaking, the blonde finally spoke, voicing a question that might have sounded rude to anyone who didn’t know the situation.

“Why…” There was a tremor in his voice. “Why the hell…are you awake…?”

In his bed, fifteen-year-old Saionji Yuuto stared at Nagisa with a very puzzled look on his face.

“I’m sorry…” he said hesitantly—his own voice a little unstable, as if he hadn’t made use of it in a long time. “I didn’t think I had memory loss from the fall, too…” The mention of the second to last word made Nagisa’s blood run cold. “But who are you…?”

Nagisa had no idea what to answer to that question. In one of the rarer moments of his life, he was struck completely silent, his mouth gaping like a fish out of water.

Chapter Text

Rei was cooking lunch in the kitchen when his brother came downstairs. He could hear the sound of the chair scraping against the wood of the dining room floor as he heard someone sit down. Without even turning around, he could tell it was Ryouji—no one else scraped the chair against the floor that loudly when they sat at the table. For a moment, silence lingered between the two brothers, save the sounds of cooking that were coming from the kitchen next door. Rei expected it to stay that way until he was ready to serve lunch, but surprisingly enough, his brother opened his mouth first.

“Had a good sleep, brat?” Nearly dropping the pan at Ryouji’s voice, Rei quickly caught it firmly in his hand and set it back on the burner. The egg he was making for omurice sizzled in the pan as Rei pressed it slightly with the spatula in his hand.

“—Yes.” He flipped the folded egg in the frying pan, letting the other side of it cook. “I…I noticed that I was in my room this morning when I woke up…but I don’t remember getting back upstairs before I fell asleep.” He cleared his throat as he mustered up the courage to ask the next question. “Did…did you…”

“It wasn’t me, brat. Sorry to disappoint,” Ryouji cut in. “It was Dad—he came home at 3 am and he saw you and Mom on the couch, so he carried both of you upstairs.” At this news, Rei did drop the spatula this time, and it fell onto the pan with a loud clank, making some oil bounce off the pan and nearly hit him. Barely jumping away from the hot spray in time, Rei wheeled around, his eyes wide and his mouth gaping.

“Wait—Father carried us upstairs?!” He hadn’t even talked to his father, much less seen his face at all for the past several days. Ryouji snorted in laughter when he saw the look on his brother’s face.

“Yeah, it was Father who lugged your heavy ass upstairs,” he said, mimicking Rei’s speech. “I did dump a blanket over both of you when I saw you on the couch, but I guess he didn’t think that was enough. Such a gentleman, Dad is.” He rolled his eyes, but not with any sarcasm in them.

“…You put a blanket over us?” Rei asked, feeling slightly shy. “I didn’t know that…thank you.”

“Yeah—it was a real pain in the ass, too,” his brother replied, yawning. “I only came down for water, but then I saw you two snoring away—someone had to stifle the noise.” Despite his blunt words, Rei recognized the light tone in Ryouji’s voice—he knew that his brother was only joking.

“…” For a while more, there was silence between the two siblings once more. Then, Ryouji spoke again.

“I…was always in a mood when I was in middle school.” He paused. “I had a lot of pubescent crap going on in my life…so I didn’t pay much attention to how things were going with you guys.” Rei turned slightly, eyes surprised—he found Ryouji with his chin in one hand, looking off to the side, his violet eyes thoughtful. “And—well, I know I wasn’t poster boy for the best son or anything like that—it’s not like I don’t get why you’re the favorite around here. I’ve gotten good grades, won track competitions, got accepted at a college in Tokyo—but I’ve never really done any of that stuff to please them.” He directed a wry glance at Rei.

“Sometimes I think we were born in the wrong order—you’re much more ‘first son material’ than I can ever be. They’ve always expected a lot from you. Even Dad—the only reason he’s pushing you to go to high school is because he thinks you can get something better from a public education—not that I agree with him, personally, but I’m not talking about me. He’s given up on me a long time ago—“ He let out a bark of laughter. “He always used to give me crap about my personality—like I don’t get it from him in the first place.” As Ryouji laughed, Rei’s eyes widened, processing what his brother had just said.

“I—I’ve never realized you felt like that,” he said, amazed. “I…I’ve always thought that you were the older brother I could never live up to. You always made everything you achieved seem effortless—the good grades, the track and pole-vaulting, your several friends and girlfriends—I was…” One of his hands gripped the hem of his shirt. “I was always envious of your personality…you seemed so carefree…always pushing ahead with what you want to do…never trying to impress anyone else…but you still had people flocking around you…” He looked back up at his brother earnestly. “But at the same time, I’ve…I’ve always looked up to you, aniki.” That seemed to leave Ryouji at a loss for words. After a moment, he let out a pft of laughter before letting it roll out fully.

“See? They all do that—they idolize me all the time, like I’m not a human being too.” He smirked at Rei. “I’m flattered that you admire me that much, baby brother—but you should live your own life instead of trying to live up to your imagination of me.” He scratched his head sheepishly. “I mean, who’s going to take care of Mom and Dad if you turn as carefree as me? Someone around here needs to be more down-to-earth—well, I suppose Mom has that down pretty well, but the line’s gotta continue.” He turned his eyes towards Rei…and in a rare moment of honesty, his voice took on a sincere tone.

“—Sorry, kid. All these years I couldn’t look after you properly. I pushed it all off to Mom, and even by then, it was kind of late.” Startled by Ryouji’s apology, Rei could only stare at his brother in silence, gaping.

“That…I…” He blinked. “I thought you always thought…that I was shameful,” he admitted. “I always thought…that you disliked me…because I was too scared to…” Before he could finish that sentence, Ryouji gave him a look that shut him up.

“Wow, aren’t you as prone to self-victimization as ever,” he snorted. “I told you, it was the pubescent little shit in me kicking in that time—I acted like I hated everyone in this family. And, okay, sometimes I did. But not all the time.” He rolled his eyes. “I don’t even know why I’m talking about this embarrassing crap. Just because you and Mom had to go and have a girl’s talk or whatever it is you two were doing—I thought I was beyond jumping in the bandwagon, but guess not.” He let out a sigh. “Look, would you just forget about it and get that egg out of the frying pan? You’re burning my lunch.” Rei jumped when he noticed the egg was starting to sizzle louder. Quickly, he flipped it over once again and sighed in relief when he judged that he had managed to save it from getting burnt. Having a black omurice wouldn’t have been beautiful at all.

“Where’s Mom, anyways?” Ryouji commented, looking around his vicinity. “It’s been a while since I saw you in the kitchen.”

“In her bedroom—I didn’t want to wake her, so I just let her sleep in,” Rei replied. He picked up the plate of rice he had placed on the counter and maneuvered the frying pan so that the egg landed on top of the rice. He split the middle of the egg with a spatula, making it fall open and spread out over the rice. “You can have this one—it’s not burnt.”

“Hmph.” As Rei returned to the kitchen to make a second omurice, Ryouji got a spoon from the tableware case and started to dig in. “Does Blondie know how to cook?” At the sudden mention of Nagisa, Rei jumped slightly in surprise.

“I—I don’t think he usually does,” he replied, puzzled. “But why?”

“That’s too bad,” Ryouji commented, a smirk starting to form on his face. “Since you’re gonna take him as your wife and all.”

“A wi—!“ Rei nearly dropped the pan he had been holding to prepare for another egg. “That’s—Ryou-nii, he is male—I am male—we, we’re really just friends, okay?!” he burst out, his face and ears and neck all beet red while he tried very hard not to remember what he had imagined about the blonde when his mother mentioned his future wife. Watching this response, Ryouji snickered.

Please—I can so tell you have it bad for each other,” he said over his laughs. “Who the hell holds their friend’s hand and tells them they’ll text and then wave at them with that gross smile on their face? Maybe girls do, but not guys!” His eyes crinkled up mischievously as he smirked. “Oh wait, I forgot—you’re in touch with your feminine self a lot. I guess you could be his wife instead!”

“You—you saw that?!” Rei burst out, dropping the spatula in the frying pan. When the sprays of oil flew off the pan and hit him, he yelped and quickly went to the sink to rinse off.

“Yeah—almost wish I hadn’t, too. Seeing my virgin bro being all gross and lovey-dovey—it gave me the chills!” Ryouji said teasingly as he pretended to shudder.

“That is ridi—I was not doing anything of the sort!!” Rei shouted, as his already-red face grew a shade darker.

“Boys? What are you talking about that’s so fun?” Rei froze and Ryouji fought to control his laughter when their mother’s voice floated down from upstairs.

“Just talking about Rei’s future wife, Mom~!” Ryouji called, horrifying Rei. “Y’know, the one that lives right—“

“IT WAS NOTHING, MOTHER! NOTHING AT ALL!!” the younger brunette barked, yelling over Ryouji’s words. “AND STOP LAUGHING, RYOU-NII!!”

Although she was a little confused, hearing her sons bickering made Ryuugazaki Reina smile. Taking in the whiff of omurice, she headed downstairs for the lunch that her younger son was making.

A few days had passed since Nagisa had first received the note from Hana-chan with the address of the hospital on it. Now, it was after school, and he was already home. Instead of opening the front door with his key, he had walked through the gate and stopped to stand in the yard. Angling his head up, he looked towards the window of Rei’s bedroom in the lavender house next door. It wasn’t closed, but the curtains were still drawn and were floating with the breeze.

He had agreed to give Rei some time to think, so they had not been chatting at their windows for these past few days. And while he was already missing the blue-haired boy, a part of him was feeling slightly relieved. After he had gone to that hospital—he wasn’t so sure that he could keep a straight face around Rei anymore. “What have I done…?” he murmured to himself, as he thought of his first encounter with Saionji Yuuto.

Somehow, in the middle of all the confusion and shock, they had started holding a coherent conversation—and when Nagisa mentioned Rei’s name to the light-haired boy, he had frozen up. When he somewhat recovered from his initial shock, the boy had pleaded with Nagisa to not tell Rei he was awake—at least, not yet. He had already been conscious for a week, he revealed, when Nagisa spoke to him a few days ago. He said that no one but his family knew he was conscious—and for now, he planned to keep things that way.

And while a part of Nagisa just wanted to scale the wall of the Ryuugazaki residence, crawl into Rei’s room and blurt out to the brunette that the boy was awake, he was finally awake—he didn’t feel like he was in any place to reveal what Saionji Yuuto himself had clearly been against revealing. And he knew that Rei had a lot of sorting out to do himself—that was the reason why he was still inside there, after all. He didn’t want to do something that might upset him—that might force him to come outside when he wasn’t ready to, or worse, cause him to hide himself inside again.

When he had introduced himself and finished hearing about how Saionji had woken up from his coma, a sudden flare of anger had welled up in Nagisa’s heart. All the memories of Rei, the thought of how much he must have suffered all these years because of something that this pale boy in front of him had done—the blonde had had to fight to suppress the part of him that wanted to lash out at him, drag him by force out of the hospital and all the way to Rei, and make him apologize to the blue-haired boy.

But once Nagisa regained his composure, he told himself that that would not be what Rei wanted at all, that it wouldn’t make the brunette happy—and he was firmly set against doing anything that made Rei unhappy. His friend had been unhappy for too long as it was, and Nagisa certainly wasn’t going to add to that pile of unhappiness just because he couldn’t keep control of his own emotions. Perhaps he had also attempted to remind himself that those past six years must have been a long time for Saionji Yuuto as well, that he should understand why the boy might not want to see Rei—but he couldn’t really recall. And now, here Nagisa was, standing in his yard, staring at the house of the blue-haired boy that he both did and did not want to see at the moment—knowing that he was going to return to that hospital, again, probably before Rei would ever walk in there for the first time.

More than anything, Nagisa wanted to know. He wanted to know what Saionji Yuuto had to say about the situation six years ago. How the boy had regarded Rei. Why he had jumped out that window. A part of Nagisa wanted to keep Saionji away from Rei, if Rei was just going to come outside for that light-haired boy to hurt him all over again. Maybe he really had been naive about the whole situation—all he had focused on was telling Rei that it wasn’t his fault, that Saionji would wake up for sure—but he realized now that he hadn’t thought about what it might be like after Saionji actually did wake up. The prospect of anything less than a happy ending scared Nagisa, filled him with dread. He knew that if that turned out to be the case, he would not be able to stop it—but still… His hands clenched tightly into fists at his sides.

His burgundy eyes turned towards the maple tree, with its green summer leaves and elegant sloping branches. The tree that Rei had always loved to look at. His mind took him back five years to one fateful spring, when he and his family had first moved into the yellow house that his grandfather had left them in his will.

 


 

-Spring, Five Years Ago-

“Mom~ I’m bored~!” Ten-year-old Nagisa whined as he flopped around the kitchen, where his mother was fixing a quick lunch before they would have to continue unpacking their things.

“Sweetheart, I’m making lunch right now,” Mrs. Hazuki said, preparing the ham for their sandwiches. “And I know you still have a lot of things to unpack, so why don’t you start from there if you’re bored?”

“But I don’t want to!” Nagisa protested. “That’s not fun—I’ve been unpacking since an hour ago, and it’s tiring!” He trotted over to his mother and rubbed his head against her back in a puppy-like way. “I’m boooorrreeedddd~~~!!” Mrs. Hazuki rolled her eye at how childish her now-fifth-grader son was being. Those daughters of hers—they had immediately found out that the family living across the street had two girls, and had gone over to say hi. They still weren’t back, when they had so many things to unpack, and they had left their little brother behind. Sighing, she set the bread down on the plate and turned around, pinching both of Nagisa’s cheeks with her hands. After Nagisa finished letting out a drawn-out wail, Mrs. Hazuki opened her mouth.

“You know, dear, one of the neighbors dropped by and she mentioned something interesting.” At this, Nagisa’s burgundy eyes lit up with curiosity. “She said that our neighbors right next door, in that lavender house—they have two sons. And one of them is your age.” Upon hearing this news, Nagisa’s eyes sparkled with hope.

“Really?! They’re not all girls like they were last time?” The last house they had lived at, their next door neighbors had had four daughters—and that had just been the party for Nagisa, because some days his sisters would completely ignore him, and other days all seven of the girls would gang up on Nagisa and dress him up in girls’ clothes like he was their Barbie doll. It had been a nightmare—and while hoping that the girls living across the street wouldn’t be as brutal, the fact that there was a boy living right next door—a boy his own age—also made him feel hope.

He remembered that his bedroom window was right across from one of the windows in the lavender house. It had been closed with the curtains drawn the last time he had looked, but maybe, the blonde thought excitedly, it was open now. And maybe that boy his age would be there…

“I’ll go and see if I can see him out the window!” With that cheerful remark, Nagisa disappeared as soon as he had appeared. Mrs. Hazuki laughed as she returned to making sandwiches.

He sat at the bedroom window, watching, and watching, and watching. He even did things like play a board game on his own and shoot marbles across his room (he didn’t bother recollecting them, and now his room was unpacked and a mess) in-between to amuse himself, to make the wait less boring. When it was late evening and the window across from him still hadn’t budged, he slumped over the windowsill with his arms and let out a drawn-out sigh. When he did the same the next day and the next, and still nothing changed outside, he was feeling quite discouraged. On the third day, during dinner, Nagisa was sitting at the kitchen table with a pouty face, his cheeks puffed out and his head resting on the tabletop.

“Are you sure he exists, Mom?” he asked reproachfully. When she saw her son sulking, Mrs. Hazuki smiled at him good-naturedly.

“Of course he exists, Nagisa. But you forgot that he probably has school—and you don’t know that that bedroom is actually his.”

“Then can I try going over to their house?” Nagisa asked, sitting up hopefully. “Maybe if we ring the bell, he’ll come out—“

“Actually, I was planning to do that myself, dear. But right now, with all the unpacking, our hands are full.” She gave Nagisa a look, as if reminding him that he still hadn’t finished unpacking his things in the space of three whole days. “When we’re done, I’ll bake a new cake to take over to the family next door, and you can come with me then. You could even invite him over, after you finish unpacking your things, that is.” Nagisa pouted.

“But that’ll take forever—and I wanna meet him now—“ he grumbled. After still managing to fit seconds and thirds of hamburger steak down his mouth despite the fact that he was in a mood, Nagisa returned to his room upstairs.

Sitting at the edge of his bed, the blonde stared at the window, out towards the lavender house next door. The window was still closed and the curtains drawn—and it was still dark inside. He wondered if the boy next door was a vampire—maybe he couldn’t come out until it was night. Nagisa certainly hadn’t seen a glimpse of him during the daytime. But even though the blonde spent the hour before his bedtime glancing out the window now and then while distracting himself with his toys, the light didn’t turn on behind the window next door. When his mother came to tell him to go to sleep, the blonde crawled into bed reluctantly, a bit discouraged. Mrs. Hazuki ruffled her son’s head affectionately and decided to see what she could do about unpacking faster, so that they could visit their next-door neighbors soon.

He had avoided looking out the window the next morning. As he walked around the room unpacking his things, he wondered if by the time he finished taking out his stuff, he would be rewarded with an open window waiting for him outside. Just when he had finished unpacking the last box and thrown the cardboard outside his room, he turned his eyes towards his bedroom window—

And the window across from his was still was closed, curtains drawn. Sighing, the blonde boy closed his bedroom door and padded over to the window gloomily. “When will he ever show up?” he mumbled to himself, disappointed. He had just draped himself over the windowsill as he had done a few times—when he heard a clicking sound coming from fifteen feet away. Immediately, his head snapped up and he stood up at the window, his hands on the windowsill trembling slightly in excitement. He watched with wide eyes at the curtains drew themselves open—the shutters were pushed out towards his direction—

And he was greeted by the most beautiful pair of violet eyes that he had ever seen. They widened behind the bright red frames of a pair of glasses, which sat atop a startled face framed with dark-blue hair. As Nagisa watched the boy at the window nearly fall over in surprise, his burgundy eyes shone with awe. So this was the boy who was his age, who lived next door to him—and all this time he had thought he might not exist or might even be a supernatural creature. This was the boy who he would befriend, who he would go to school with, who would be right there, right across from the window in his bedroom. Suddenly, a bright smile lit up the blonde’s face—and he nearly shot out the window as he slammed his hands against the windowsill and shouted, “HI!”

That was when everything had started. Thinking that they might become best friends, Nagisa had chattered away excitedly, introducing himself, offering that the blue-haired boy with the violet eyes come over to his house—but things hadn’t gone exactly as he had imagined. The boy had just barely told Nagisa his name—he was called ‘Ryuugazaki Rei’ (‘Rei-chan!’, the blonde had thought immediately in his head, and proceeded on to call him so, already partly thinking that this was fate, since he too had a girly name)—and he had given short, somewhat terse responses to all of the blonde’s questions. Eventually, he had even bluntly refused Nagisa’s invitation for him to play at his house—he had coldly told him to find someone else to play with, and slammed the window shut, even drawing the curtains closed. A bit hurt and deeply disappointed, Nagisa had let out a wistful sigh as he sat down with his back to the window, leaning against the wall.

“Rei-chan is so cold…” As he made this remark to himself, his eyes wandered a bit, and his eyes noticed something on the bookshelf sitting across from him. His face perking up, the blonde boy got up and scampered over to the bookshelf. Getting on his knees, he pulled out a book from the very bottom shelf, one that was sticking out a little more than the others: his favorite picture encyclopedia of bugs. He flipped through the pages and found what he was looking for. He crawled over to his bed and sat on it, the book sitting open in his lap.

The page was titled ‘The Purple Emperor’, and Nagisa’s eyes sparkled as he looked at the pictures of his favorite butterfly—his favorite bug out of all bugs. His eyes searched out one of the photos—one of the species of butterfly perched on top of a tree, its usually bluer and darker wings shining an iridescent purple under the sunlight. As he stared at the photo, his wide burgundy eyes wavered with awe and a big smile full of crooked teeth lit up his whole face.

He realized that this was what the color of Rei’s eyes had reminded him of. But as he compared the picture of the butterfly with those beautiful eyes in his recent memory, Nagisa realized that the shades were still a bit different, although they were very similar. The light that had bounced off those eyes when the blue-haired boy had been surprised—the slightly softer, startled glow that they took on at different points in their conversation—the spark that they took on when he was angry and the way their glow darkened slightly once—even when he had been in a negative mood, the brunette’s eyes had been beautiful—even more beautiful than the butterfly in his book.

And suddenly, Nagisa was 100% positive that this was fate—the blue-haired boy lived right next door from him, occupied the room right across from his own bedroom window, and although he had found out that he would not be going to school with him, that didn’t matter—the boy that had a girly name just like him, the boy with a hint of grudging kindness in his voice, the dark-haired boy with the beautiful violet eyes—he could still become friends with him. The thought of that possibility was what made his previous discouragement fly away, what filled his heart with hope of seeing the boy the next day.

And just as he had hoped, it had happened. His mother had woken up late because her alarm didn’t ring—bless that alarm clock—and after she had shook him awake in his bed and left him to get dressed for the day, he had rubbed his eyes, walking over to his bedroom window—and had seen the window across from his being opened once again, by Rei. Since the blonde had to go to school, the encounter had been cut short—but when Nagisa tumbled out of the front door of his house with a piece of toast in his mouth and waved towards Rei’s window, the blue-haired boy had waved back. It didn’t matter that it had been a small, hesitant wave—it seemed that that was all the encouragement that the blonde needed to confirm that they would become the closest of friends.

From then on, he saw Rei more and more often as the days passed. Even when he was usually doing most of the talking, he would notice how Rei never ignored him or lost focus—he could tell from the glow in the boy’s violet eyes that he was paying attention, was listening to everything he said. It made Nagisa feel happy and warm, and made him feel like he could go on and on talking forever, if it meant that the boy would keep looking his way with those beautiful eyes of his. Even though he never smiled at Nagisa, never laughed at his jokes—it didn’t matter. He could still feel Rei’s quiet, attentive kindness radiate from him, even sitting fifteen feet away from the brunette in his own bedroom. And until one day, he thought that he would be satisfied with the way that Rei stayed.

But then, that one day in the spring, Nagisa had seen it for the first time. He was pretty sure it was one of the most memorable moments of his life: the day he first asked Rei why he never talked about himself, the day that the white butterfly had flown between them and landed gently on Nagisa’s mouth, as if it was kissing him. He had heard a voice that was not his own let out a single chuckle—which had soon turned into laughter. Nagisa almost didn’t believe it when he heard it—and as he watched the blue-haired boy who had never cracked a smile, never laughed even once during the full month they had known each other, let out the beautiful sound from his open lips, the corners of his mouth lifted, eyes crinkled up gently in crescent shapes, his cheeks tinged slightly pink—it blew him away. The sparkle that Rei’s violet eyes had taken on during the brief moment that he stayed smiling after calming down—it had taken his breath away. He had never guessed that the brunette’s eyes, and every other part of him, could look so beyond beautiful when he was feeling joy—just like he had never foreseen the tingle of happiness he felt when the same brunette called him by his name for the first time, and called the two of them ‘friends’. From that day, it had become Nagisa’s mission to make Rei laugh, to make him smile—to make Rei smile at him. Every time he succeeded, which still didn’t happen very frequently even after that day, he would feel an inexplicable surge of happiness welling in his heart.

Rei was not only there during Nagisa’s happier days. He had also been there during his sadder ones, or during the times where he felt nervous or afraid. Rei had always been there—always was Nagisa’s strength, his safe place, his home. When Nagisa thought he had ruined all that in the space of a few minutes on an autumn day, when he had realized that Rei had all but disappeared from his life, he had been devastated. As the years had gone by, the ache in his heart had dulled—but it had never completely gone away. Deep inside, he always knew that an important part of him was missing—and when he finally found it again, standing at the window after so long, looking different but still the same—the familiar warmth from Nagisa’s past seemed to rush back into his life. When Rei showed up at the window again, when he said that they could still be friends—it had made the blonde feel so happy, and whole again.

 


 

And now, here they were—further along than Nagisa had ever imagined they would get, and hopefully that much closer as well. More than ever, Nagisa wanted to be there for Rei—he wanted to be Rei’s strength just as much as Rei wanted to be his. He wanted to protect Rei, and he wanted to help him face his fears—and those two feelings battled for dominance within him as he currently stood in his yard, his eyes directed towards the lavender house next door, lost in thought.

Suddenly, Nagisa felt a strong pang of loneliness—the kind that came from being without the blue-haired boy. He wanted to see Rei, hear his voice, all of a sudden, although it had only been a few days since they had last seen each other. Swallowing, he found his hand reaching for the cell phone in his pocket.

“’How are you’?” He said the words to himself as he typed them out—then erased it. “’Are you doing all right?’” He erased that as well. “’I’m outside your house right now...’” He ended up erasing that one as well. None of that seemed to be the right thing to say. He frowned as he stared down at the screen on his cell phone. Then, he silently began typing out the message that he would send.

[I miss you a lot, Rei.] No –chan, no suffixes, with a period at the end. He sent the message with only the slightest hesitation.

He had returned to his room when he felt his phone vibrate. He flipped open the cell phone to find a reply from Rei.

[So do I.] The words made Nagisa’s chest tighten as he stood next to the bed, staring down at them. Folding the phone, he clutched it to his chest as he closed his eyes and blinked back the sudden tears that threatened to attack his eyes.

One thing Nagisa knew, for sure, was that he wanted to be next to Rei no matter what.

The weeks quickly passed into summer vacation, and the air around the town of Iwatobi grew hotter with each day. School let out, and Nagisa spent his days relaxing, doing fun things with his family and friends. His third sister Nadeko was finally back from Osaka, having finished her summer job working for the college office. Even his father was back from working abroad, and although he was only able to stay for three weeks before the flight to his next overseas workplace, it was nice, finally having him back at home after years of being apart. And Naomi was still looking actively for a job, so she was at home as well. Knowing that the whole family had finally gathered home for the summer, Natsuki also dropped by often, sometimes on her own and sometimes with her husband accompanying her. Knowing that it made his mother happy to see all of them together again, Nagisa made sure to put aside a good amount of time for his family that summer.

Outside of his family, Nagisa also hung out with Haru and Makoto often. He popped over to Haru’s house now and then with Makoto, and the three of them sat out on the house porch, eating watermelon (and sometimes mackerel, at Haru’s insistence, even though the weather was really too hot for grilled fish) and just chatting about things. Nagisa even got the two of them (Haru without much difficulty, Makoto with some more difficulty) to watch a horror movie he had brought over to Haru’s house. When the blonde was teasing Makoto too much and said that they should have a test of courage sometime soon, Haru had hit him lightly on the head with the trophy they had dug up that spring at their old swimming club. Once, they even went to the public pool to swim, and although Makoto had to pry Haru off the side of the pool at the end of the day, it had been fun and it had made Nagisa laugh. The blonde even tagged along with them to the annual summer squid festival, where he went on a mad dash through all the food stalls and ate enough squid-related and non-squid-related food for the three of them, perhaps even more.

Nagisa even saw his classmates a few times over break—he joined Komura and Yamazaki at the arcade, went to karaoke with the two of them, Hana-chan, and some of her female friends, and all of them also went to the movies together a few times. So all in all, the blonde could say that his summer vacation was generally fulfilling. But…

Things just weren’t the same, with the window across from his bedroom empty. No matter where Nagisa was or who he was with, thoughts of the blue-haired boy invaded his mind, catching him off guard and making him want to see the brunette more and more. The blonde knew that Rei was taking his time working things out, that he would return as soon as he possibly could—but all the same, he missed Rei badly. The texts that he had sent the brunette on impulse helped with the loneliness, but they never made it go away completely. Rei never mentioned the specifics of how he was doing in his texts—just told Nagisa that he was fine, that he also missed the blonde, that he was glad Nagisa was having a good summer.

On the night of August 1st, when he returned to his room after a birthday celebration outside with his family, Nagisa noticed something sitting on the windowsill. Heart beating in anticipation, he reached the window in two strides and lifted the small box, wrapped in golden yellow gift wrap with a deep purple ribbon, up from the windowsill. He slowly untied the ribbon and carefully put it on his bedside table. He opened the box and once he saw what was in it, his eyes widened.

Inside was a beautiful glass globe, with a silver figure of a penguin with a butterfly sitting on its beak. There were burgundy colored sparkles sitting at the floor of the globe, and when Nagisa carefully took it out and gave it a shake, he found that they were in the shape of maple leaves. Watching the sparkles flutter around the globe, Nagisa’s matching burgundy eyes were entranced by the beauty of the object, as well as the memories of his past with Rei that it brought back. When he looked back at the gift box, he found a note at the bottom of it, written out in neat handwriting.

{It reminded me of you. I hope you like it. –Rei}

He put the globe in a safe place on his bedside table, so that he could see it every day, first thing in the morning when he woke up. He stored the note from Rei away in a box full of his important keepsakes, tucked into the corner of his bottom drawer. Every time he was feeling lonely or missed the brunette next door, he lifted the globe from the bedside table to give it a shake and watched the leaves float around the space in the globe.

One night, he dreamed that he and Rei were ten again and was standing in a grove of trees, their leaves colored brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds. He dreamed that they played together, jumping into the piles that formed on the ground, laughing with each other amidst the falling leaves.

One thing he hadn’t expected for his summer was the frequency with which he would visit one particular hospital in Iwatobi.

Surprisingly, Nagisa found the loneliness easiest to bear with when he was speaking to the most unexpected person. Maybe it was because Saionji Yuuto had personally known Rei—maybe it was because there were parts of the boy that were similar to Rei—it was probably some of both. But whatever the reason, Nagisa found that he was surprisingly comfortable talking about Rei to this frail boy, who he had only personally met a few weeks ago.

It was kind of unbelievable, how this strange friendship had come into the making and had progressed against all odds. At first, Nagisa was unwilling to admit that he now considered Saionji Yuuto a friend, because he had been angry at him for hurting Rei in the past—and even now, a part of him still was. But over the times that he, strangely enough, found himself visiting the hospital ward where the light-haired boy was waiting out his recovery, they had spent time talking to each other and had eventually become friends.

Although at first Saionji hadn’t been willing to do so, he gradually began to open up and started talking about Rei. And maybe, given the situation, that shouldn’t have made Nagisa so happy—but he couldn’t help it. He loved hearing about what Rei was like in the past, before he had met him, when he had still used to go to school—although he sometimes felt stabs of jealousy when the light-haired boy’s stories reminded him of the fact that the two of them had been close before Nagisa himself had known Rei at all. He knew that he also wanted to hear about the past from Rei’s own lips, and he knew that there would definitely be a time for that—but for now, he focused on Saionji’s versions of Rei’s past. It was true, a large part of it was due to his own curiosity about Rei—but another part of it was due to the blonde’s curiosity about Saionji himself. He wanted to know more about this quiet, frail boy, who Rei had considered his friend, and he wanted to know how he had viewed Rei in the past, what he thought of Rei right now.

What was immensely relieving—or should have been—was that Saionji never spoke about Rei in a resentful way. Nagisa didn’t know if that was just because he was Rei’s friend and Saionji didn’t want to offend him, or because he genuinely had no ill thoughts about the blue-haired boy. Unlike Rei, whose emotions were easier to read and more straightforward, Nagisa felt like he shouldn’t be taking Saionji’s own emotions at face value. That was one key difference that he saw between him and Rei—although the boys did share similar interests, levels of intelligence, and were both introverted. Despite his small, frail build that made him look under his actual age, Nagisa felt that the light-haired boy was too solemn, too composed—too much like an adult. It made Nagisa wonder if there wasn’t a frail child hiding behind that adult somewhere—but that part of him was probably not for the blonde to see. Still, he listened carefully to what Saionji said, how he acted, what mannerisms he displayed when he talked about Rei—and the rare moments when he talked about himself, as well. If the boy was knowingly or unknowingly throwing out important hints, Nagisa wanted to make sure that he caught them firmly with both hands.

It wasn’t always just Saionji talking, either. Nagisa also shared stories about the days he had spent with Rei—everything from the moment they had met during childhood to their hiatus after Nagisa’s fall from the maple tree, to the moment that they had found each other again in the spring of this year and everything that had happened since that time. Some things he left out, such as the fact that Rei had rarely used to leave his house—being sure that it would become a sensitive point for Saionji when he knew what caused it to happen—and the fact that both he and Rei had fought against Kanemiya recently, for the same reason. Nagisa thought that maybe he shouldn’t have told Saionji about himself falling from the tree, either—he had seen a conflicted look flash across the boy’s grey eyes before it was quickly concealed once more. And because of what he chose to kept hidden from Saionji, Nagisa had also had to tell a fib about why he hadn’t been able to see Rei recently—he had lied to the boy that Rei had gone on a family vacation and wouldn’t be back for a long time (he never specified the time, because he couldn’t specify when Rei would ‘be back’ in reality either). During his visits to Saionji, Nagisa also took a good portion of his time talking about how much he missed Rei, how much he wanted to be back at the blue-haired boy’s side at the moment.

It was when Nagisa was whining for the fourth time during a visit about wanting to see Rei that Saionji dropped a bomb in the conversation.

“Ryuugazaki-kun sure is lucky—to have someone like you who loves him so much.”

The words caused Nagisa to freeze up on the spot. One word in particular. The fact that Saionji had said this so sincerely, with a gently knowing look in his grey eyes, just seemed to add to the gravity of this statement. It was different from all the teasing comments that his sisters had made (Naomi had filled Nadeko and Natsuki in on the details concerning Nagisa’s and Rei’s recent incident with Kanemiya, and they had resorted to teasing him constantly about it now) and even the blunt remarks that Haru dropped every now and then. There was no joking tone, no sarcasm or hesitation to be found in Saionji’s voice. It was as if he had gently prodded Nagisa in the back when everyone else had just waved wildly at him from the sidelines—and that one prod had sent Nagisa toppling off a high, endless cliff.

The full-body blush hit the blonde with the strength of a cannonball, nearly knocking his heart out of his mouth in the process.

“I—I—I—“ he stammered, his heart pounding uncontrollably. “I have—no idea what you’re—“ Seeing the blonde’s obvious discomfort, Saionji smiled gently at him.

“Have you ever thought about it?” he asked, his voice unchallenging but earnest. The question struck the blonde speechless for a long moment…before he hesitantly opened his mouth.

“…Should I…?” Nagisa whispered, suddenly unsure of everything he had assumed up until then—definitely feeling a little afraid.

“It’s up to you, Hazuki-kun.” Saionji’s voice was understanding, patient. “If I can tell you one thing I know for sure…it’s that Ryuugazaki-kun would treasure you, no matter what. I’m pretty sure that you mean a lot to him—and he’s always been that kind of person.”

And that was all the encouragement that Nagisa needed. He sat there, in the hospital room, and thought—about all the times he had thought Rei was beautiful, all the times he had felt his heart flutter when he saw Rei smile or laugh—about how much he loved hearing Rei’s voice, seeing Rei’s eyes look at him as he listened to what he had to say, as if he were the only person in the world. About how not being able to see Rei during those years had ripped out a part of him—and all it had taken for the brunette to mend it back were seeing his face and a few sincere words that had come from the brunette’s lips. About how Rei was everything—a friend, a mother, a brother, a home—about how much comfort he had been able to draw from just the brunette’s presence. About how much he missed the younger boy—missed the feeling of his strong arms around his waist, his own head tucked in the crook of the brunette’s neck, his face lying against that firm chest, and the boy’s scent—remembering what it had been like to finally touch Rei for the first time in five years turned Nagisa’s face a darker shade of beet red, if that was even possible. His hands clutched his burning cheeks as his burgundy eyes widened, quivering in an uncharacteristically flustered and conflicted way. This was bad—he really wanted to touch Rei again, now—fall into his arms just as he had done that night—hold his hand once again, squeeze all the affection he could into that one body part—

“The thought of never touching him again—I don’t think I can stand it…!” The words flew out from between his lips in a bare whisper. At this admission, Saionji smiled, albeit with a slight bit of embarrassment at hearing those words, before speaking up.

“You really do miss him a lot.” It was a simple statement, but it was definitely not a question. Nagisa nodded furiously, his eyes still fixed on his hands. He missed Rei—he missed every part of him—he missed the boy so badly. That alone should have been big enough of a hint—but it had been five years since they first met, there had been that long hiatus in-between, and they had known each other since their childhood…sure, it had made him feel absolutely elated when he had first seen Rei laugh, but…The blonde’s burgundy eyes widened when that thought struck a chord in him.

“…What’ll I do, Saionji-kun…?” His voice was deathly quiet—one could have heard a pin drop through it. “I think…I think I’ve loved Rei-chan…for a really long time…” His hands grasped the hem of his shirt tightly. “And I…all this time…I never noticed…” Now that the realization had finally struck him, the desire to see Rei increased tenfold and struck him even harder, so much that he almost couldn’t stand it. He wanted to see the brunette, feel those violet eyes watching him, see his smile, hear his voice, hold his hand, hug him—all the feelings came in a whoosh and, suddenly, Nagisa couldn’t sit still anymore.

“I’m happy for you,” Saionji said earnestly. “I’ve never been in love before, so I don’t know what it’s like…but I’m sure it’s a wonderful feeling.”

“You…you don’t think it’s weird…?” Nagisa asked hesitantly, his voice small. “I mean, I’m a guy, and Rei-chan…”

“Maybe a little surprising…but not weird,” Saionji replied gently. “Maybe it isn’t even that surprising. All those times that I listened to you talk about him…I could sort of tell.” He smiled thoughtfully. “Besides, I don’t think I’m in any place to judge your feelings.” Hearing that statement made Nagisa feel relieved—but at the same time, it made him feel sort of…complicated. The blonde buried his burning face in his hands and let out a drawn-out wail, his shoulders hunching up, his whole body curling into a ball on the chair where he was sitting.

“What’ll I do, Saionji-kuun~~~?! This isn’t even funny—I mean, how could I have not noticed, all this time~~~?! And now that I know, what’ll I do about it? Now that I know, I really, really, really wanna see him—but at the same time, I feel like I’ll see him and then I’ll run away—or I’ll seriously start stuttering or crying or something stupid like that~~~!” Saionji just looked at the blonde, slightly amused but mostly sympathetic.

“I don’t think I can help you out with that much…sorry, Hazuki-kun. But you probably shouldn’t run away or hide from him—I think that might hurt his feelings.” Snapping to attention, Nagisa raised his flushed face towards Saionji.

“You’re totally right—I mean, when he hid inside his house and never came out for years after I fell from that maple tree, I was totally hurt too—“

Wait. Nagisa’s eyes widened as he stopped in mid-sentence. When he realized what he had just said, he slowly turned his horrified eyes towards Saionji. The light-haired boy was no longer smiling—but strangely enough, he didn’t seem too shocked either. It was as if he had foreseen hearing this. The look in his eyes was a little grim, but they also shone with determination as he looked the blonde in the eye.

“I was planning to ask you about that, sooner or later.” His voice was composed and serious.

“Hazuki-kun, you said Ryuugazaki-kun was homeschooled now. But you never told me since when, and why. And it was strange, never hearing about you guys meeting outside your houses—not even once.” His grey eyes bore into Nagisa’s burgundy ones with firmness. “And you said that he went on a vacation with his family, but I’ve never heard where, or when he’ll be back—but is he really on a vacation right now?” His eyes dropped briefly to his lap.

“I…I always thought that something was strange. But I never asked you because…because I was afraid to find out the truth. But…” His eyes swiveled back towards the blonde. “If—if something is wrong—if something has been wrong with Ryuugazaki-kun—and if I’m responsible for it—“ His pale hands gripped the edge of his sheets tightly. “I need to know, Hazuki-kun. I won’t blame you if you’ve covered some things up until now, since I was at fault for not suspecting you outright—but if you know anything, and there’s anything that you chose not to mention on purpose—please tell me.” His grey eyes were firm and unmoving. “I won’t run away anymore—I need to know the truth now. Please.”

Struck speechless for a moment, Nagisa stared back at those grey eyes, his mouth agape and unable to say anything for a moment. Then, he slowly nodded, if a bit hesitantly.

“I—I won’t tell you everything that Rei-chan told me, because I think that he should be the one to tell you some of that directly in person. But…I’ll tell you about some of it.” He took a deep breath—and proceeded to tell Saionji what he could. When Rei had started being homeschooled, the fact that Rei hadn’t went outside the house for years, the fight they had with Kanemiya, and why Rei was not back outside yet. When he finished, Saionji’s hands were fisted into his sheets and shaking slightly on top of his lap.

“He’s sorting himself out right now, Saionji-kun. I don’t know how much longer it’ll take—I haven’t seen him in person since the day that we saw Kanemiya—but he’ll come back out for sure. He promised. And…I think you can guess that he was shocked…by what happened six years ago.” Nagisa said the last words quietly. “The way he felt then, and the way he feels now—you’re going to have to hear them from him yourself.” His next words were gentle but firm. “I think it’s about time he knew.”

“…You’re right.” Nagisa breathed out quietly in relief when he heard this response. “It’s about time…that I faced him. I owe him that.”

“…Do you want me to tell him for you?” Nagisa asked. Saionji looked at Nagisa hesitantly, then nodded.

“Just…tell him that I’m awake. And that…I have something to tell him. If…if he’s willing to come and listen to me, after all these years. Tell him he can come whenever he wants.” The grey-eyed boy smiled faintly. Nagisa nodded.

“It’ll be all right,” the blonde offered, wanting to be helpful. At the same time, he feared that Rei might get hurt—he couldn’t read what exactly was on Saionji’s mind at the moment. As if sensing this, Saionji gave Nagisa an apologetic smile.

“—I’m sorry that you had to be in this situation,” he said quietly. “I know how much Ryuugazaki-kun means to you—and I wouldn’t have blamed you, if you hated me for what I did to him in the past.” Upon hearing this, Nagisa shook his head.

“I…It’s true. I might have resented you a little,” the blonde admitted. “But now, I know you myself…and I don’t think you’re such a bad guy.” He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “I mean, what good would it do anyone, for an outsider like me to hate you?” Pausing, the blonde looked at Saionji with slightly pleading eyes.

“Just…please try not to hurt him too much.” His voice quivered slightly and instantly he wanted to slap himself for saying such a thing, when Saionji must already be nervous.

“…I’ll try my best,” Saionji promised. “I…I don’t want to hurt Ryuugazaki-kun either.” It made Nagisa relieved, hearing that last sentence. He stood up from his chair, with one last glance at the light-haired boy.

“I’ll be going now, then.” He paused. “I’ll tell Rei-chan…when I get home.” Saionji nodded.

Before Nagisa went out the door, he heard the light-haired boy call his name.

“Hazuki-kun!” When the blonde turned around, the light-haired boy smiled gratefully at him.

“Thank you.” Nagisa’s eyes widened slightly, before he smiled back and gave a small nod before walking out.

Chapter Text

He had said he would tell Rei, but how was he supposed to go about telling him?

It had been over an hour since Nagisa was back from the hospital. He had turned down his sisters’ invitation to let him tag along to the shopping center downtown, instead opting for going up to his room, shutting the door, and pacing back and forth on the floor.

It seemed wrong to text Rei this kind of news, and calling him on his cell phone…somehow, that didn’t sit right with the blonde either. He knew it had to be in person…but at the same time, he was a little scared. Not only about how Rei would react to this news—but what Rei might think of him for having visited Saionji so many times in the past three weeks or so. He knew Saionji had earnestly asked him for this favor, and he wasn’t going to let the guy down—but who could blame the blonde for being hesitant? It had been years, six long years, before he had even entered the scene. He hadn’t even confessed his feelings for Rei yet—now that he had come to terms with that small emotional detail—and he thought it might break his heart now if Rei resented him for what the brunette could consider a betrayal, or even sneaky at the least. Or worse, if he had to be the one to cause Rei to be troubled—he didn’t even want to think about that possibility right now. Everything was topped by the excitement and nervousness of the prospect that he would be face-to-face with Rei again—and Nagisa felt guilty for letting such mushy thoughts get to him at a moment like this, but he couldn’t help it.

“Nagisa-kun?”

Great, Nagisa thought. I must be pretty lovesick if I’m starting to hear his voice in my mind. He tapped his cheeks with his palms and shook his head. Get it together, Hazuki—you’ve got more important things to be telling him!

“Nagisa-kun!” Nagisa blinked—his imagination was really getting good—it was almost like Rei was outside his window right now, shouting his name—

“Nagisa-kun, there doesn’t seem to be anyone at home but you right now! Didn’t you hear me ring the doorbell?”

Oh my God… Burgundy eyes shooting wide open, Nagisa whirled around and was at the windowsill in a heartbeat. It can’t be…!

“My mother and I baked a cake for me to bring over—so please open up!”

There, standing in his yard, under the maple tree, was Rei. He held a white cake box in his hands, and he was currently looking up towards the window with his violet eyes. When he saw Nagisa at the window, Rei’s face lit up.

“There you are, Nagisa-kun! I knew I saw you going in through the front door earlier—“

“REI-CHAN!!” SLAM! The sound of Nagisa slamming his palms on the windowsill echoed through the air as he leaned dangerously far out the window, his eyes the size of goose eggs, his face growing pinker by the second, and his heart thumping wildly in his chest. Jumping at the loud sound, Rei nearly dropped his cake and hurriedly caught it, balancing it again with his hands. Startled, he looked back up at Nagisa a bit reproachfully.

“Nagisa-kun! Please refrain from shouting so loudly all of a sudden!” he protested. “You nearly made me drop the ca—“

“Wait right there, Rei-chan!!” Nagisa cut in. “Just—don’t move!! Stay right there!!”

“Wha—stay here?” The brunette outside looked confused. “But shouldn’t I go around to the front—“

“STAY!!” Nagisa’s voice shouted.

“Yes, sir!” Rei barked. Just as quickly as he had appeared, Nagisa disappeared from his bedroom window in a flash. The next second, Rei heard a flurry of steps pounding down the stairs in the Hazuki residence, and a loud, crashing sound as the back door of the house burst open. He turned around and saw five-and-some feet of blonde boy run into the yard, darting towards him with alarming speed.

“Wait—Nagisa-kun—slow dow—oof!” It turned out that Rei nearly dropped the cake a second time, as Nagisa knocked him over onto the grass, tackling him with a hug that nearly knocked all the air out of his lungs. Surprised, then flustered, then slowly panicking, Rei lay there frozen with Nagisa on top of him, the blonde’s arms around him in a death grip that would not release his body in the slightest. When he found his voice, Rei stuttered out some words in a voice that he tried to make sound firm but failed.

“N-Nagisa-kun—y-you’re heavy—someone could see us any minu—would you please get up—“

“Rei-chan!” Hearing Nagisa’s muffled voice against his chest, Rei felt his heart thump with a quicker beat. “Rei-chan—Rei-chan—Rei-chan!” His arms tightened around Rei as he shouted into the brunette’s shirt. “I missed you so much…!” At this gesture, Rei felt himself internally melt into a puddle. Slowly, he put down the cake on the grass and wrapped his own arms around Nagisa, gently holding the endearing blonde to his chest as if he were a precious object. One of his hands traveled up to the blonde’s soft curls, ruffling them gently with affection. When the blonde nuzzled his head into his chest in response, Rei almost lost it at how adorable he was being. Clearing his throat in embarrassment and in a reminder of their current situation, Rei opened his mouth.

“I…I also missed you a lot, Nagisa-kun.” His voice was soft and sincere. “But, uhm…I really think we should be getting up now…” With the last remark, Rei felt Nagisa freeze on the spot. Immediately, he tore himself out of Rei’s arms and jumped back about a yard, his face so red that Rei instantly wondered if he had a summer fever.

“Ah, aha, ahahahahahahha!!” A string of awkward laughter rolled from the blonde’s lips. His form was stiff, his arms planted to his sides and his legs planted firmly together, feet planted on the ground. “S-sorry about that, Rei-chan! I guess I got carried away! Aha, ahahaha!” His eyes were furiously darting left and right but not looking at Rei at all. Feeling a little puzzled and disappointed with the abrupt way their hug had ended, Rei sat up gingerly and got up, dusting off his pants. Picking the cake back up, he turned back towards Nagisa.

“It’s fine,” he replied, with a gentle smile that made Nagisa’s heart do flip flops in his chest. “I…I’m glad to see that you’re as lively as ever.”

“Haha—am I?!” Nagisa said—internally frowning as it suddenly seemed to him like his voice was too loud, sounded too obnoxious. All of a sudden, he felt really self-conscious—he hadn’t even washed his face after he got home from the hospital. Was his hair all right? His clothes must be all wrinkled and—realizing that he was probably over-thinking things, the blonde shook his head, trying to throw off the blush that was creeping into his cheeks but not meeting with much success. When the internal frown poked out of the blonde’s mind and took over his face, Rei’s smile dropped and he started to look concerned, and a little hesitant.

“Did…did I come at a bad time, Nagisa-kun?” His violet eyes glimmered with worry and disappointment, which Nagisa hated seeing in them. “You look a little uncomfortable…is that why you didn’t answer the doorbe—“

“NO!” the blonde quickly shouted, head snapping up. “It’s a great time—the best time ever! There’s no time when I wouldn’t want to see you!” Realizing what he had just blurted out, the blonde flushed red all over again. He was too busy fighting his inner panic session that he didn’t notice Rei blushing furiously as well. Striding quickly over to the brunette, Nagisa took the box out of Rei’s hands. “I really just didn’t hear the doorbell—I was…thinking about a few things, that’s all!” he chirped a bit nervously. “But, hey—thanks for the cake! I’m sure it’ll taste awesome—since you brought it over, come on in! I’ll at least get you something to drink, since you don’t like sweets—“

“Actually, Nagisa-kun, I just wanted to drop by to tell you something.” Turning around, Nagisa saw Rei—and saw a wavering look in his violet eyes. He had seen that look before—it showed up when Rei was nervous or hesitant or unsure about something. “Why don’t you put that cake in your kitchen and come back out? I’ll wait out here.”

“Oh…okay.” Nagisa smiled at the brunette, almost reassuringly. “I’ll be back in just a second then!” He disappeared into the back door, and soon he reappeared, having placed the cake in the refrigerator.

“So…what was it you wanted to tell me, Rei-chan?” While he asked this, Nagisa wondered how he himself should break the news about Saionji to the brunette. Looking a bit solemn and a little nervous, Rei cleared his throat before replying.

“I…I think I will go and visit Saionji-kun tomorrow.”

Nagisa was so glad that he had listened to Rei and put the cake in the house. Had it still been in his hands, he was afraid he might have dropped it at that moment, and he didn’t want to ruin something that Rei had put an effort into making himself. Instead, the blonde’s mouth fell open and his burgundy eyes widened with shock as he stared at Rei, like he had just grown an extra head. Noticing Nagisa’s evident surprise, Rei turned his head sideways, shifting his glasses up self-consciously.

“I—I know that it might be sudden of me, and especially since…since I’ve been avoiding visiting him at the hospital for six years. But…as you said yourself…” A faint smile formed on his face. “I don’t think I can make anything worse by going over there…and perhaps, even with someone like me visiting him...he would feel less lonely, indeed.” His smile turned slightly sad. “I heard that his parents left the country when he was only three months into his coma—so I…I’m not sure if there is anyone else who visited him at the ward all these years. I’m sure…that he must have been feeling so alone all this time…” Nagisa thought he saw Rei blink back a few tears before he continued. “But at the least, I’ll be here waiting for him to…to open his eyes…whether he wants me around or not—“

“He’s awake, Rei!”

Before he knew it, Nagisa was blurting out these words. Seeing Reis’s eyes blink, then widen with confusion, the blonde almost wished he could take them back. But he knew what was done was done…and he had promised. Swallowing, Nagisa continued. “I…I know I never told you about this, but…he actually has been having a visitor at the ward recently. And…and it’s me.” His voice grew small, and Rei’s eyes grew bigger. “He…he’s been conscious…for about a month now. And I wanted to tell you, but…but he told me he didn’t want you to know just yet. And when I went to visit him today…he told me that he wanted to see you now. So…he wanted me to let you know…that he’s awake.” Feeling a silence so heavy that he thought it would crush his shoulders, Nagisa swallowed and kept his eyes on the grass, where they had traveled to in the middle of his confession.

“…Are…are you serious?” Rei whispered. His face was slightly pale, his violet eyes wavering in shock, his hands trembling at his sides. He looked like he had almost been struck by lightning. “You…you went there…and saw him…?” Biting his lip nervously, Nagisa nodded.

“I…I found out the name of the hospital he was staying at from a friend. That friend gave me the address…he was already awake when I visited for the first time.” Now his own voice was starting to tremble. “And I’ve…been going back and forth to the hospital for a while now…because…” Fighting to steady his voice, he continued. “Because…I wanted to know, Rei. About you…about him…and I swear, I didn’t tell him anything that I thought you should tell him yourself…but he…he already figured out some things on his own, and…I know that I have no right to poke my head in like this when I’m an outsider…but…I couldn’t help it. I just…” His voice cracked slightly. “I’m sorr—“

“He’s really awake…?” The question fell suddenly from Rei’s lips. Nagisa looked up to see the brunette, his eyes alert. “He’s really all right…?” He didn’t seem to breathe as he waited for an answer.

“…Yes.” Nagisa’s voice was gentle, reassuring. “He’s fine—he’s awake. Recovering…but still…awake.” He purposely repeated the word in the hope that it would drill the reality into Rei, reassure him that the light-haired boy was no longer on the brink of death. “He said that he wanted to see you, Rei-chan. He told me to tell you. I saw him today—his eyes were grey, and they were open, Rei-chan.”

“…Oh God.” Rei’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “He’s awake…he’s really awake…oh God…” Tears started to brim at the edge of the brunette’s eyes. Noticing this, Nagisa panicked and he quickly jumped towards Rei, grabbing onto one of the brunette’s hands to comfort him.

“It’s fine, Rei-chan! He—he didn’t seem mad at you or anything—I’m sure he doesn’t hold a grudge against you or anything!” he yelped desperately. “Don’t be scared, Rei-chan—don’t cry—“

“Thank God!” Nagisa’s eyes widened as he watched Rei burst into tears of happiness. “He’s awake—he’s not going to die—he’s alive, he’s finally going to be alive—“ Sobs of gratitude mixed with relieved laughter surged up his throat as the brunette barely managed to speak. “Thank God…oh, thank God!”

It was right then that Nagisa knew—nothing else mattered to Rei at the moment. Not his insecurities about his past with Saionji, not the betrayal that he might feel about what Nagisa had done without telling him—none of that mattered now. The only thing that mattered to Rei was that Saionji was alive—that after six years of darkness, he was going to live. And realizing this made Nagisa feel a strong pang of overflowing affection for the brunette in his heart. Suddenly overwhelmed by a rush of adoration for this boy standing in front of him, who was crying and laughing and clumsily wiping the tears behind his glasses with his knuckles—if he hadn’t been so sure about it, then now he was positive. Nagisa loved Rei. He loved him so much, it was threatening to make him melt on the spot—so much that he didn’t know what to do about it. So he let the tears fall from his own burgundy eyes instead—but they were tears of joy. He was so glad that he had met Rei. So, so very glad.

It was only after Rei had calmed down that he noticed Nagisa was crying too. Wiping his own eyes hastily, he reached out and carefully took his friend’s face in both hands.

“Don’t cry, Nagisa-kun,” he told the blonde, gently wiping the tears on his cheeks with his fingers. “You shouldn’t make that a habit, you know? Crying just because I am—“

“It’s because I’m happy, Rei-chan.” Rei’s violet eyes widened as a small but brilliant smile spread across Nagisa’s face, his burgundy eyes crinkling up as they shone with tears and joy. “Because I love seeing you happy. It changes my world a little every time I do.”

For not the first in many times, Rei was struck silent. The blonde was dazzling—so dazzling, even with tears dripping down his face and his nose red from crying—so beautiful that it nearly blinded Rei and left him in a daze. He had hardly been able to bear the time he had spent apart from Nagisa, and now, that he was finally outside, and the blonde was standing before him—he looked so unbearably beautiful. His words and the way he was looking at Rei struck the brunette’s heart so deep that he couldn’t control himself anymore. Before he knew it, his hands left Nagisa’s cheeks and gripped the older boy by the shoulders tightly, startling the blonde.

“Nagisa-kun!” the brunette blurted, his face uncontrollably red, his heart swinging around, thumping against his ribcage like a heavy rock. “I—!“

What came the next moment could have been a blessing or a curse. The cell phone in Nagisa’s pocket vibrated with a loud beep, surprising the both of them. When he registered what the sound was, Nagisa blinked.

“Guess I got a text.” He didn’t check it right away—instead, he returned his attention to Rei. “Sorry about that, Rei-chan. What were you going to say?”

“I—I—“ All of a sudden, Rei felt mortified for what he had been about to blurt out. He felt his hands release the blonde’s shoulders from their grip, his feet slowly stepping back a bit.

“I—was going to tell you—that I’m coming back outside,” he finished, a bit lamely. That was not what he had been about to say, but… “I…I’ve spent a lot of time thinking the past few weeks. I’ve talked to Mother, Ryou-nii, and even Father…thinking about what I should do, where I should go from here, preparing a little for it…and I’ve…I’ve been thinking about Saionji-kun…how I feel about him, what I could do for him…and I thought that I reached a conclusion this morning. After I did, the first thing that I thought I should do…was thank you, Nagisa-kun.” A soft smile formed on Rei’s face as he regarded the blonde boy before him. “So I asked my mother to teach me how to bake a strawberry shortcake…and although I don’t know if it will taste as good as your mother’s, I think it turned out fair enough, considering that I was making it for the first time…” Turning his head slightly in embarrassment, he thought of how that episode in the kitchen had gone this morning. He didn’t mention the fact that he had been agonizing over making everything perfect, and had been scolded by his mother with a firm ‘It’s the heart that matters, Rei!’

“…Are you serious…?” Hearing the faint whisper drop from Nagisa’s lips, Rei snapped back to attention. His violet eyes turned back to Nagisa, who was staring at Rei with wide eyes, mouth gaping slightly open, unmoving. “You’re coming back out…? Now…?”

“…Yes.” Slightly taken aback at the blonde’s surprise, Rei shifted his glasses up his nose. “I guess you could consider today my first day out…”

“…You brought over a cake for me…that’s the first thing you did on your first day out…?”

“I…” Rei squirmed slightly, feeling his cheeks flush as he fidgeted under Nagisa’s wide-eyed gaze. “If…if you put it that way…then, yes…”

He was aghast when Nagisa suddenly started to bawl.

“WAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!! REEEEEEIIIII-CHAAAAAANNN!!!!!!!!!” Fat tears leaking out of his eyes, Nagisa threw his head up as he wailed. “YOU’VE GOTTA BE KIDDING MEEEE!!!!!!”

“Na-Nagisa-kun!!” Alarmed, Rei quickly searched in his pockets for his handkerchief. “I—I’m sorry! I don’t know what I did, but I didn’t mean to make you upse—“

“I MEAN, WHO DOES THINGS LIKE THAT~~? EVEN FOR A FRIEND—I MEAN, YOU’RE WAAAYYY TOO SWEET FOR YOUR OWN GOOD!!!!” the blonde bawled. “HERE I WAS, THINKING THAT YOU WERE GONNA HATE ME FOR VISITING SAIONJI-KUN BEHIND YOUR BACK, AND THE NEXT SECOND, YOU TELL ME THE BEST NEWS EVER AND YOU EVEN BROUGHT A CAKE OVER SAYING YOU WANNA THANK ME—I MEAN, WHAT ARE YOU, REI-CHAAANNN???? YOU’RE NOT EVEN REAAALLLL!!!!!!!!!!!”

“…Nagisa-kun…” Feeling touched and a little overwhelmed, Rei didn’t know what to say to that. Instead, he stepped towards Nagisa and put his arms around the blonde again, patting him a little awkwardly on the back. This time, he didn’t care that any neighbors might be watching, nor did he mind that the blonde was getting a mixture of tears and snot on his shirt. He held Nagisa until the smaller boy’s sobs had toned down a bit, until the blonde was just sniffing and hiccupping slightly. By then, Rei had thought about what Nagisa had said and opened his mouth.

“…It’s not that I’m angry at you for visiting Saionji-kun,” Rei spoke thoughtfully. “If anything—I guess I could say that I was very surprised. It feels somewhat unreal, that you met him before I did, at this time…” He smiled a bit regretfully. “If it was Saionji-kun who told you not to tell me he was awake…I could hardly blame you for following his wishes.” At this statement, Nagisa’s eyes widened in panic and immediately clutched Rei’s hand in his own.

“It’s not because he hates you or anything, Rei-chan! He—he just needed time, I think, like you did!” the blonde said earnestly. At this, Rei nodded.

“I understand. Even if he did…hate me, I was prepared to accept that as well.” He cleared his throat, moving on to a more positive note. “I—I’m glad that you could keep him company all this time. With your talkative personality, I’m sure he felt less lonely than he would have without you.” At this comment, Nagisa’s face lit up.

“Yeah! We talked about you a lot!” he piped up. Realizing that the wording might have been misleading, he quickly added, “I mean, I only talked about the memories I have of you! And…and only the most basic things about your situation…” He squirmed uncomfortably. “Because…because Saionji-kun guessed I was lying about those things. But I swear, I didn’t tell him anything about how you feel about him or anything like that—!”

“I know.” Rei’s voice was gentle. “I believe you, Nagisa-kun.” His tone became teasing as he asked the next question. “I’m guessing you asked Saionji-kun a lot of things about me, since you’ve always had an extraordinary amount of curiosity.”

“I…” Nagisa gaped for a moment before his cheeks flushed pink. “I—okay, so I was curious! He told me about what you were like in elementary school! But—again, I didn’t ask about anything too personal! And he never said anything bad about you, so you don’t have to worry, Rei-chan!”

“…He didn’t?” Rei smiled slightly in relief—and a bit of something else. “I see. So he’s still like that.” Nagisa blinked at this response. “He’s always been kind…even careful…when he talks about others. I always thought it was because he was mature like that…but now, I almost…wish that he had tried to blame me.”

“Rei-chan…” Nagisa’s eyes turned somber; he was pretty sure he knew what Rei was talking about. His grip on Rei’s hand tightened. “It’ll be okay! I’m sure that he’ll open up to you, Rei-chan! You’ve known him longer than me—and I’m sure that he has a lot of things he wants to tell you!”

“…I hope so.” Rei’s eyes softened as he looked down at Nagisa’s face, which looked up at his with hope and reassurance. For a moment, he just stared at the blonde absently, taking in his soft blonde curls, glimmering burgundy eyes, his small, turned up nose and dainty pink lips. Realizing that Rei was staring at him, Nagisa suddenly felt extremely self-conscious and more than a little nervous. However, he couldn’t bring himself to tear his own eyes away from Rei, and there he stood, feeling his face grow warmer with each passing second. When he could no longer stand how hard his heart was beating, the blonde coughed a little awkwardly.

“Uhm, Rei-chan…you’re staring…” he said, his voice small. Realizing what he was doing, Rei jumped and immediately leapt back from a flustered Nagisa, his own face growing beet red all the way up to his ears and down to his neck.

“S-sorry!” he yelped. “I was just adm—I mean, I was just lost in thought for a while!” He was mortified at how he had spaced out like that. It really had been too long since he had seen Nagisa’s face.

“Uhm…” Nagisa tried to poke around in his head for something to say. He then remembered the globe with the penguin and butterfly sitting on his bedside desk. “Oh right…Rei-chan!” His burgundy eyes crinkled up and the corners of his lips turned up into a smile. “Thank you for the gift that you gave me…for my birthday. I put it on my bedside table so I can see it every day when I wake up or when I go to sleep. It’s really, really pretty and I love it!”

“Ah—“ Rei’s heart skipped a beat when he heard that four-letter word. Trying to remember that it wasn’t directed at him, he fought back the next shade of red his face was threatening to turn and smiled a bit shyly at Nagisa.

“You’re welcome…I’m glad you like it.” On the thirty-first of July, he had made an exception of his time inside the house and had secretly gone out to the shopping center alone to purchase the gift. It had been a little nerve-wrecking, being among so many people after so many years of staying inside the house, but he had been firm set on getting Nagisa a birthday gift this year, even if it meant that he had to scour every shopping center in town to do it. He had been fortunate in his search, finding the closest-to-perfect gift at the first shopping center he had gone to. The little glass globe had reminded him of Nagisa in so many ways that he had found himself picking it up and taking it to the register. He was glad he had chosen that globe now.

“Of course I do!” Nagisa piped up, his smile widening. “It’s my first birthday gift from Rei-chan, after all!” He twirled happily before coming to a stop on the grass. “I’m gonna get you the perfect birthday gift this year, too! Look forward to it, Rei-chan!”

“…I will.” Feeling touched, Rei smiled at the blonde. They just stood like that for a moment, smiling at each other. Then, Nagisa’s phone went off once more, disrupting the moment. Frowning, Nagisa reached in his pocket for the phone, flipping it open.

“That’s like the second text in ten minutes!” he complained out loud. When I’m in the middle of talking to Rei-chan, too—! He opened the message he had received—and once he saw the contents of it, his face suddenly grew pale.

“…Nagisa-kun?” Rei looked at the older boy with concern. “Did something happen?”

“It’s from Hana-chan…” Nagisa’s voice sounded faint. “He’s moving. Saionji-kun—he’s moving to a hospital overseas!” Upon hearing the news, Rei froze.

“What…?!” His voice came out in a high squeak. “That’s…when?!”

“In three days!” Nagisa replied in a horrified voice. “He’s going to be de-hospitalized by tomorrow evening!”

He sat on a seat in the train, a box wrapped in cloth sitting on the empty seat to his right. To his left sat Nagisa, in one of his rarer, quieter moments. When their eyes met now and then, the blonde would give Rei an encouraging smile, or give his hand a comforting squeeze, before turning around again. He had offered to come along to the hospital with Rei, not only because he knew the way there but also because he wanted to be Rei’s strength. He would not follow Rei into Saionji’s hospital room, but he would wait outside in the hall—he would be there if Rei needed someone to talk to after he saw Saionji.

The train ride almost seemed too short to Rei, although it took them about a forty-five minutes’ ride to get to the hospital stop. From the station, it took five minutes for them to reach the hospital on foot. After checking in with the nurse at the front desk and riding the elevator up to the third floor, they reached the ward for recuperating patients, where Saionji would be waiting in his hospital room. When they were in front of the door with the plaque that read 301, Nagisa reached over and gave Rei’s hand a last minute squeeze.

“You can do it, Rei-chan.” His voice was soft, comforting. “I’ll be out here, waiting.” Hoping that was enough reassurance, the blonde released Rei’s hand and stepped back. Taking a deep breath, Rei reached out with his free hand—the other hand holding the cloth-wrapped package—and knocked on the door.

“Come in!” a familiar voice called from inside the room. Jumping slightly, Rei calmed himself before opening the door with a slightly trembling hand and walking into the room.

It had been six long years, but Rei found that Saionji Yuuto had not changed much. Since he had been in a coma and had only been fed what was transferrable through an IV, the boy had not grown much taller, and was painfully small for his age. He was still pale, still very thin, and his face the same as ever, with the same light-brown hair, thin lips without much color in them, and the same pale grey eyes that seemed to look right through the people they saw. When those eyes saw Rei, they widened with a spark of recognition, surprise, and a hint of something that Rei thought was fear.

“…Ryuugazaki-kun.” His voice was soft, Rei’s name falling hesitantly from his lips. Knowing that he should say something, Rei willed himself to open his mouth.

“…I’m here,” he said in a choked voice. “It’s…it’s been a long time…Saionji-kun.” He hurriedly searched for the right words to say in his head—but he found none. His mind was a blank slate. As he was silently panicking, Saionji spoke up first.

“It sure has, hasn’t it?” The light-haired boy smiled a little at Rei. “Look at you—you’ve grown a lot taller since then. And healthier, from what I see.” He laughed. “Have you been running all these years?”

“I…I’ve been running on the treadmill,” Rei said hesitantly. “I…I’ve stopped jogging outside since…since…”

“Since I fell?” the light-haired boy offered gently.

“…Yes.” Rei’s reply came out in a whisper.

“…Can you tell me why…?” Saionji’s voice was soft. “I…I heard from Hazuki-kun. How you stopped going to elementary school…” Rei’s breath caught in his throat as he kept going. “How you were homeschooled since then…and how you never went outside anymore…” The pale boy’s thin hands clenched the edge of his bed sheets tightly. “Was it…was it my fault…?”

“No…!” At this question, Rei’s voice burst out of his throat and he stepped forward towards the bed. “Don’t…don’t say it like that! I never blamed you for anything, ever—it was…it was all on my own…!” His hands clenched into tight fists as he blurted out the words desperately.

“It’s true…when I went inside my house, I did think of you…when I thought, how when I would be outside, living my life as if nothing had happened…you would be lying in a hospital bed, fighting for your life…” His face contorted with emotion. “I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bring myself to face the truth. I…I became afraid to step outside. I shut myself inside on my own…it was my fault. It was never yours, Saionji-kun…I…I should have been braver. I should have tried to overcome my fears…that I would hurt someone like the way I hurt you…that I would be hurt as well…” His shoulders shook as he squeezed his eyes shut. “All those years that I left you alone…I should have visited you much sooner…I should have come to see your face…even if I was afraid…” He could feel the tears pierce his eyes, but he swallowed, fighting to keep them in.

“Ryuugazaki-kun…” Saionji’s own voice had a tremor to it. “I’m sorry…” At these words, Rei’s eyes opened and he snapped his head back up. “Whatever you say your reason was…I know that I helped cause that.” The light-haired boy’s face was full of guilt and regret as he spoke. “After you were nothing but a good friend to me…although the reason that you never knew what I was feeling inside was my fault…I blamed everything on you that day. And ever since I woke up, I regretted that instantly…” He forced himself to look up, look Rei in the eye.

“It was my fault, Ryuugazaki-kun. After we received those invitations for the math competition—all I could ever think about was how nice you must have it. You could stay behind after school to train—you never had to go to the hospital to get your condition checked up or go to a home lesson that you never wanted to have. You were healthy, you were strong—you could beat up those bigger kids even if they ganged up on you, and you never seemed to be scared of them. You had parents who supported you, encouraged you to follow your interests—when all my parents wanted from me was that I focus on getting good grades at school and stay out of trouble—“ One of his hands clenched the hospital robe he wore, the space over his heart. “I always admired you, Ryuugazaki-kun—but I was also always envious of you. And all that time, when I was pretending to cheer you on, all these ugly thoughts and feelings started to grow inside me—how I would never be able to have what you have—how I would never be able to be someone like you…!“ A tear rolled down his cheek.

“The day before the math competition, I was called out by Kanemiya. He said that…if I didn’t show up in that classroom the next day, he…he would find away to accuse you of cheating during the competition. His parents are part of the education board for this entire town—they could have easily done something like that. And I…I was the worst. I actually thought about not showing up—“ The tears started to come down stronger.

“It wasn’t just that I was afraid to face them—I really thought that I wanted to ruin things for you…! And you don’t know how terrible I felt—when you told me that I could come over to your house after the competition—” He hunched his back over, the tears falling onto his sheets. “On the actual day…I still didn’t know what I should do…and somehow, I found myself going to where you were, at the math competition. And…when I saw you up there…looking nervous…waving to your mother in the crowd…” He wiped his eyes. “I finally came to my senses. I knew I couldn’t do that to you. I was watching you the whole time—I knew how hard you worked to go up there—I couldn’t bring myself to ruin things for you…”

“So I left the city hall. I went back to school, back to that empty classroom after all the kids had gone home. I…I was scared…I was scared that they were really going to beat me until I was half-dead…so I brought a pocket knife with me.” His voice shook with the last few words. “I…I never really planned on using it to harm them…just threaten them if they got too close…but then…you came.” The light-haired boy looked back up at Rei, who was standing frozen in shock, the blood drained from his face.

“You came…and suddenly…I felt angry at you. What I thought back then…was that I was in that classroom because of you…and all of a sudden, you were there too…it was like going to that classroom…everything that I’d been trying to hide up until then…it all amounted to nothing.” Saionji’s grey eyes flashed with the memory of what he had felt at the time.

“I was terrified, Ryuugazaki-kun. When you saw me in that classroom, surrounded by those bigger kids—it almost seemed like you could see through me for the first time—see all the ugly feelings I’ve been trying to hide—I was so scared of you seeing the real me, that I lashed out at you…” The boy’s hand shook as he recalled the sensation of the pocket knife he had held in it. “I thought…I thought it would make me feel empowered, brandishing that knife—but it never did. It just made me feel like I was an even worse person…and I ended up shouting at you. All those terrible things that I said to you…I meant every word at the time…” His voice choked as he said the next words. “And then…I even jumped from that window…just to spite you…” He couldn’t continue on anymore, as the sobs fully took over his body.

“…That’s…” Rei’s voice came out in a hoarse whisper as his own shoulders shook. “What is that…?” His fists clenched tighter at his sides as he forced out the words. “Just what is that supposed to mean?!” His voice took on an angry tone as he looked down at Saionji. “Why didn’t you just tell me, Saionji-kun?! Are you saying—that you made me abandon a friend for a stupid competition—because you wouldn’t say anything to me?!” Angry tears started to leak out of his eyes as he spoke.

“How come you pretended all that time, that you were all right when you really weren’t?! I asked you, didn’t I?! I asked you whether you’d be okay without me to see you out after school—I asked you whether you’d be fine without me around on the day of the competition—“ He threw his hands up in the air. “And you even lied to me, about the fifth-graders going on a school trip that Wednesday—why?!” His violet eyes glowed fiercely as they looked at the crumbling light-haired boy. “I know that I was dense, I know that I never noticed. I know I took your answers for granted—but I always wanted to know the truth!! Was I so unworthy as your friend that you never told me anything important?! Did you think that I was so full of myself that I would put a stupid competition over my friend?!” Letting the package he had held in his hands drop to the floor, he roughly wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

“At the least…the very least…you could have let me try!” he shouted in a weak voice. “Even if…even if it wasn’t me…you could have let someone try to reach you, Yuuto-kun!” Yuuto’s eyes widened when he heard Rei call his name. “Anything…anything besides jumping out that window…anything other than that would have been fine!!” Now his shouting was so loud that his voice could be heard outside the room in the hall. When Nagisa heard Rei’s voice, his eyes widened, and the back of his burgundy eyes started to prick. “You said you wanted to be a marine biologist—go out there and swim in the ocean with the seals—you told me that you wanted to go outside, and be free!!” Rei shouted. “Even though you said that—why?! Why did you do something like that?! When you hadn’t done any of the things you wanted to do yet…! Why did you have to give up?!!” Remembering nine-year-old Yuuto’s smile when he had talked of his dreams, Rei burst out, “I know you were always stronger than that!!” By this time, Nagisa was also crying silently outside in the hall. “Because if you weren’t, you would never even have dreamt of any of those things in the first place!!” The words seemed to cut through Yuuto’s heart, making his eyes widen. Suddenly, he lurched forward on his bed towards Rei.

“I was scared, Rei-kun!!” he shouted back. “I was scared…I was scared what you would think of me...I was scared of losing the only friend I had! After you saw all of my bad sides, I was positive that you were going to leave!!” His hands clenched tightly around the hem of his shirt. “The thought of you, moving on in life, going out into the world while I stayed trapped behind the windows—I thought that you would leave me behind, for sure!! All those dreams of mine…they all seemed hopelessly out of reach…!” His grey eyes flashed. “How could you have ever understood what I was feeling—?!”

“I didn’t need to!!” Rei’s voice rang out in the air. Yuuto’s eyes widened as Rei stood before him, looking at him with a firm expression.

“You still don’t get it…I never needed to understand! Of course I wouldn’t be able to understand—I’m not you, after all!” The brunette’s voice lowered a tone as he tried to calm himself.

“I just needed to know, Yuuto-kun. I was your friend! I needed to know—I wanted to know, all this time.” He stepped towards the bed, closer to Yuuto. “You didn’t have to be perfect—you didn’t always have to be smiling, mature, understanding, or any of the ‘better’ things that you were. And maybe I wouldn’t have understood what you felt like—but I would have understood that you were having a bad time. Even if there wasn’t anything that I could do for you, I still would have stayed. Even if it had hailed after the sun…I wouldn’t have left.” After quoting a certain blonde, Rei looked down to meet Yuuto’s grey eyes. “Wasn’t it the same for you?”

“…I…” The light-haired boy’s voice became small. “I…I always thought…” The tears started to flow again. “…It was. It was the same for me…” Yuuto sniffed as his grip on the sheets loosened. “I wanted to be there for you too, Rei-kun...I…” He buried his face in his hands.

“I’m sorry…!” That seemed to be the only trigger he needed—the tears also started to flow anew from Rei’s eyes as he stood next to the bed. “I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I’m sorry…!” Yuuto heaved as he cried.

“It’s…it’s all right..!” Rei choked out between sobs with every ‘sorry’ he heard. “I’m sorry, too…I’m sorry that I couldn’t stop you that day…that I didn’t visit you all these years…I’m sorry for making you feel lonely…!”

“It’s…fine...!” Yuuto wiped his eyes as he responded. “If it weren’t for you…I never would’ve even let myself feel the loneliness at all.”

“Is…is that a good thing…?” Rei asked dubiously, between sobs.

“Of course it is…stupid…!” Yuuto laughed between the tears.

“Wha—stu—“ Rei started to respond indignantly. But eventually, he joined in with Yuuto’s laughing. Soon, the boys’ laughter filled the hospital room. It leaked out of the crack in the door and flowed down the hallway, where the sound pleasantly surprised a blonde boy with watery eyes.

When the two boys had finally calmed down and had wiped their eyes, Yuuto opened his mouth.

“Ryuugazaki-kun. What will you do from now on?” he asked. “Will you keep being homeschooled?” At this question, Rei blinked.

“Actually…I think I am. At least, until the end of this year.” At this response, Yuuto’s eyes lit up.

“Does that mean you’re going to high school from next year?” he asked excitedly. Feeling a bit self-conscious, Rei nodded.

“I think so. It’s about time…time that I go and experience society,” the brunette replied, repeating his father’s words.

“Wow…that must be exciting!” Yuuto laughed boyishly. “I mean, I’m fifteen right now, but it just feels like my nine-year-old self woke up! I can’t even imagine going to high school!” Looking up at the ceiling, his grey eyes shone. “I wonder what it’ll be like for me to go back to elementary school?”

“Yuuto-kun…” Reminded of the fact that Yuuto was indeed six years behind, Rei studied the light-haired boy with concerned eyes.

“There’s no need to look like that, Rei-kun.” Yuuto smiled. “I’m finally awake for the first time in six years—now I feel like I’ll be able do anything!” Hearing this, a smile formed on Rei’s own face.

“You will,” he said sincerely. “Even…even if you’re in a different country…you will.” Yuuto perked up at those last words.

“So you know already, Rei-kun?” He looked a bit puzzled. “But how? I just found out today myself—and I never even told Hazuki-kun…”

“…Let’s just say that ‘Hazuki-kun’ has his resources,” Rei said, coughing slightly. He hoped that his friend’s private information would at least be safe from said resources once he was in America.

“Heh~? Well, he does seem like the person to have a lot of friends.” As he said this, Yuuto caught a glimpse of something yellow through the small window in the door. His eyes registering what it was, a sly grin spread across his face.

“Say, Rei-kun? Speaking of Hazuki-kun, what do you think of him?” he asked in a notably louder voice. The way he asked this question took Rei off-guard, and he promptly flushed.

“Wh-what do you mean, what do I think of Nagi—Hazuki-kun?!” the brunette stammered. “He-he’s a friend, of course!”

“Heh~? Are you suuureee~?” Yuuto drew his voice out loudly as he said his next words. “Because I’m sure that Hazuki-kun has a big fat cr—“

“PARDON ME, COMING THROUGH!!” a high-pitched voice exploded in the air, overlapping with the loud sound of a door slamming open. Jumping from surprise, Rei whirled around to see a red-faced Nagisa in the room, a too-broad smile on his face. “You guys seem to be done making up, so I’ll join in now!!”

“Nagisa-kun!!” Rei exclaimed, momentarily forgetting that Yuuto was right next to him. “How long have you—you said you would wait out in the hall—at least knock before you come in!” His mind rushed as he wondered just how much of their conversation Nagisa had heard. He prayed to God that the blonde hadn’t perceived that suggestive tone in Yuuto’s voice, while struggling to fight back the second layer of the blush that was threatening to invade his face.

“It’s all right, Rei-kun,” Yuuto said cheerfully. “We can just continue our conversation—“

“NO!” Rei shouted, turning beet red. “I—I mean, we can talk about that later, Yuuto-ku—“

“REI-CHAN!!” Hearing an indignant shout from behind him, Rei turned around again to see an angry, puffy-cheeked Nagisa. “What’s the meaning of this?! When did you start calling him ‘Yuuto-kun’?! And why’s he calling you ‘Rei-kun’ all of a sudden?!” His cheeks puffed out bigger. “When it took you so long to call me by my name!! And why did you call me ‘Hazuki-kun’ like twice just now?!”

“Nagi—Hazu—“ Rei stopped when Nagisa’s burgundy eyes shot him a glare. “Nagisa-kun!” he said finally, in agony. “That…I…!”

“Ahaha—you guys are funny!” Yuuto laughed from his bed.

“We are not—!” “Shut up!” Both Rei and Nagisa shouted in unison.

The three of them ended up talking for a long time, until a nurse came into the room and told them that visiting hours would be over soon. Noticing the changes in Rei’s and Yuuto’s expressions, Nagisa stood up.

“I’ll be waiting outside, Rei-chan!” he told the blue-haired boy. Turning to Yuuto, he grabbed one of his pale hands in both his own and squeezed it. “Good luck in America, Saionji-kun! Kick some ass out there!”

“Yeah—I will.” Yuuto smiled at Nagisa. “It was fun, getting to know you, Hazuki-kun. Thank you!” The blonde then leaned forward to hug Yuuto, and as he did, Yuuto shot a teasingly smug look at Rei, who flushed and turned his head the other way with a frown. Releasing Yuuto, Nagisa gave Saionji one last smile.

“Bye-bye!” With a cheerful wave, the blonde opened the door and went out, closing it behind him. Once he was gone, Yuuto laughed at Rei, who was still frowning.

“Oh, come on, Rei-kun. Don’t be so jealous, it was just a hug!” he teased.

“I—I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rei said stiffly, his ears starting to turn red.

“Sure, sure,” Yuuto said lightly. His smile turned into a sincere one. “You’re lucky you met someone like him.” At that statement, Rei’s face softened and he also smiled.

“Well, there are times when I question that…but, yes. I agree.” His voice was also soft.

“Mmhm. Are you thinking of going to the same high school as Hazuki-kun?”

“I—I don’t know. I would have to research about other high schools in the area as well—see which ones are best-lined up with my academic interests—“

“Come on, you only live once! What about your love interest? I’m sure you’ll do fine with your studies no matter where you go, so just go to the same school as Hazuki-kun!”

“Wha—‘love inte—‘!” Rei sputtered, flushing a dark red. “Was your personality always like this, Yuuto-kun?!” The light-haired boy laughed.

“Making a stab at my personality—that hurts!” he said jokingly. Rei rolled his eyes, then looked at Yuuto curiously.

“Speaking of schools, Yuuto-kun—will you be all right in America? I mean, you’d have to speak English at the schools there…”

“I’ll be fine. I’ve always done okay in English. And before I go to school, I’ll have to finish treatment at the hospital there.”

“…Are you okay with that?” Rei asked hesitantly. “I mean, you’ve been awake for barely a month…and so soon, you’ll have to go to another country on your own…although I’m sure the medical advancements there would be better for improving your health…”

“I’ll be fine, Rei-kun.” Yuuto smiled at Rei. “I’ll adjust...it’ll be a new start. And I got to see you before I leave, so I’m satisfied.”

“Yuuto-kun…” The light-haired boy smiled at Rei.

“Hey, Rei-kun. Do you remember when I told you about making steps?”

‘If I hadn’t met you, Ryuugazaki-kun, I think I probably would’ve still been alone. I think it was because one of us made the second step.’ Rei smiled at the memory.

“Yes…I remember thinking that your outlook was mature, back then.” He gave Yuuto a teasing look. “I never would have imagined that you could be this childish.”

“Haha—neither did I,” Yuuto admitted. “Anyways, Rei-kun…” His grey eyes met Rei’s.

“Can I take the third step now?”

His voice was quiet but unwavering. Rei’s eyes widened—then, he remembered that he had brought something.

“Actually, I—I think I might have it already.” He reached down and picked up the package that he had brought to the hospital. “I dropped it earlier…and it might not be as delicious as my mother’s but…” Before he finished, a nurse opened the door of Room 301 again.

“You’ll have to leave, sir. Visiting hours are over!” she said.

“Ah—yes, ma’am,” Rei said quickly. He turned back to Yuuto with a smile.

“Take care, Yuuto-kun. You can return the container when you come back.” He held out a hand to Yuuto to shake, but Yuuto gave it a high-five instead.

“You too, Rei-kun.” The light-haired boy smiled. “I’ll wish the both of us luck!” Smiling back, Rei nodded.

Before he left the room, Rei looked back one last time at the light-haired boy.

“You can take as many steps as you want, Yuuto-kun.” With those last words, Rei smiled before he walked out the door. Yuuto sat on his bed for a minute, surprised. Then, he let out a small laugh.

“As always, he sure knows how to act cool,” he murmured to himself. His grey eyes then traveled to the package. Taking it off the bedside table, he untied the cloth and found a two-story bento box under it. Curiously, he opened the lid on the top one—and his eyes grew wide.

There, sitting in the main compartment, was a large piece of hamburger steak, topped by an egg. In the smaller compartments were an assortment of vegetables, noodles, sauce, and fruit. The bottom box probably held rice.

He remembered when Rei had told him he could come over, and that his mother would make them hamburger steak. Feeling touched that he remembered Yuuto’s favorite food after all these years, the light-haired boy started to feel tears well up in his eyes. He put the first box on the side of the bed and was about to open the second one when he found a note under it.

{The next one will taste better when you come over. –Rei.}

“Haha…what is this…?” Drip. “After all these years…this is…” Drip, drip. “He should have invited me over earlier….that idiot….hahaha….” Yuuto smiled through his tears as they came rolling down and dropping onto the note. He looked back at the box with the hamburger steak in it, his grey eyes glistening with happiness.

Thank you, Rei-kun…! The oranges and yellows of the sunset outside filtered in through the open window, casting a soft reddish light over the light-haired boy’s smiling face.

On the mostly empty train back home, Nagisa looked at Rei, who kept his face down and his eyes on his lap.

“You can cry if you want to, you know?” the blonde offered gently.

“I’m not—sniff—crying—!” Rei’s muffled voice said indignantly. “I just—have something in my eye, that’s all!”

At this, Nagisa laughed a little and just sat closer to Rei, so the boy could feel his warmth.

Chapter Text

It all started with the ring of the doorbell on Saturday morning.

“Nagisa!” the voice of Mrs. Hazuki called from the second floor. Upstairs in his bedroom, Nagisa squirmed a bit under his blankets, his face buried in one of his pillows. “Get up and answer the door! I’m in the middle of dressing!” The doorbell rang downstairs again.

“Hazuki Nagisa!!” The blonde groaned as he reluctantly sat up and threw off his blanket. Padding out of his room in his pajamas, he went down the stairs, wondering who in the world was ringing the doorbell this early (it was 10 am, but hey, it was still a Saturday). Rubbing his eyes, he opened the front door—and his eyes widened instantly.

“Good morning, Nagisa-kun!” Rei said cheerfully. “I’m here to keep you company for the rest of the day.” In his arms was another box, the smell of the orange pie in it wafting out from inside. Nagisa’s mouth dropped open, and for a while he just stood there speechless, in his pajamas and bedhead, as if he was looking at a unicorn on his front porch.

“Rei-kun!” Mrs. Hazuki’s voice called from upstairs. “Good morning, dear! Is it just me or do I smell something wonderful down there?”

“I brought over some pie, Mrs. Hazuki!” Rei called. “It’s fresh out of the oven!”

“How sweet of you, dear! Come on in and put it on the kitchen counter—we’ll have it for dessert when you join us for lunch!” As this conversation progressed, Nagisa blinked his puzzled burgundy eyes.

“Wait—she knew you were coming?” Rei laughed.

“I secured her permission two days ago. Of course I would never come over without asking first—that would be rather rude of me.” His violet eyes twinkled.

“Wait—you’re coming over?” Nagisa’s eyes widened. “I mean, you’re already over?” His voice was full of disbelief, as if he was seeing something from a dream.

“Nagisa-kun, are you not fully awake yet?” Rei teased. “I told you I was going to keep you company for the rest of the da—oomph!” Before he could finish that sentence, the blonde tackled him with a hug, nearly making Rei fall back onto the porch.

“Rei-chan! Oh my gosh, you’ve come over! You finally came over!!” Nagisa’s voice squealed in delight. “I can’t believe it!! After all those times you said no—Rei-chan!!!”

“Na-Nagisa-kun!! Let go—I’m going to drop the pie!” Rei tried to sound dismayed, but he failed—seeing the blonde this excited made him feel warmth in his heart. And his cheeks, he was finding, as Nagisa didn’t release him but only clung tighter. Sighing slightly in happiness and a bit of embarrassment, Rei held the pie box in one hand while patting Nagisa on the head with the other.

“We have a lot to do today, Nagisa-kun. I’m prepared to partake in everything that you’ve ever suggested we do when you invited me to come over.” These words seemed to do the trick—releasing Rei, Nagisa’s burgundy eyes sparkled in excitement as he looked up at Rei.

“Really?! You’re going to do everything?!” Those eyes seemed to glint with mischief for a moment.

“Well, everything except stealing any of your sisters’ things,” Rei said firmly. “Or anything related to eating contests and vandalism.” He had to have some kind of limit, even if this was Nagisa he would be spending time with. Especially because it was Nagisa. He thought he saw his friend pout for a second, but it was gone as soon as it had come. Lighting up, the blonde grabbed Rei’s arm enthusiastically.

“But we can do everything else, right?!” His eyes took on that sparkle again, and Rei gulped, hoping that he hadn’t missed anything less-than-proper on the list—he was quite confident with his memory, but Nagisa had asked him a million times to do a million different things with him…for the moment, he gave a nod, and Nagisa let out a cheer of delight.

“C’mon in, Rei-chan! The day is only starting!” With that, Nagisa dragged Rei inside the house, slamming the front door carelessly behind him. Rei just barely dropped the pie off in the kitchen before he was pulled upstairs by the very eager, very energetic blonde.

Thankfully, Rei had no genuine cause to worry. They spent the entire day doing what Nagisa wanted to do—playing video games (the blonde won every single time, fueling Rei’s competitive nature and frustration with every passing second), watching horror movies when it was still light out (it didn’t matter, the sun, because they watched them down in the basement, and Rei spent the majority of his time there trying not to barf while the sound of screaming and Nagisa’s laughter filled the dark space), even playing with Nagisa’s old toys (his mini cars from his cousin were still around, and much to Rei’s embarrassment and Nagisa’s amusement, they even played with a few dolls that were in the blonde’s room), and going outside for a walk once (he’d had to stop Nagisa from trespassing into other peoples’ yards and showing Rei all the ‘cool stuff’ that he had buried there when he was little).

In-between those activities, they had lunch, and even dinner together, and although they were only joined by Mrs. Hazuki for lunch, they were joined by the entire Hazuki family for dinner. Nagisa’s sisters had spent almost the entire meal chatting away at Rei and teasing him mercilessly despite Nagisa’s continuous protests of ‘Leave Rei-chan alone, he’s not your prey!’ and while the blonde’s puffed out cheeks and pout both grew as his sisters jokingly flirted with the brunette, all Rei could do was sit there and try not to blush too much while giving polite responses, that is, when he could bring himself to respond to some of their questions.

Nagisa’s father, who still had a few days left to rest in Japan until his flight to his next overseas workplace, watched him with sympathetic, keen eyes—unlike his wife and his children, he was a quiet man, and Nagisa didn’t resemble him much save the fact that both of their eyes crinkled up the same way when they smiled. Those keen eyes had looked at Nagisa, then back at Rei, then back at Nagisa, and after a while, he had mildly suggested that the girls ask questions later and let Rei eat his meal. As if on a magic spell, all three Hazuki sisters had quieted down and returned their attentions to their plates, before starting to chat amongst themselves once more. Although Rei had been grateful, he couldn’t help but fidget a little at the fact that those keen eyes had looked from him to Nagisa and back at him once. It was almost as if he had caught onto something…swallowing, Rei had turned his attention away to Nagisa, who for some reason, seemed to be sulking as he moved his dinner around his plate with a fork. He had attempted to make conversation with the blonde, but he had only given short, un-conversational responses in return.

It was only after they returned to Nagisa’s room that Rei confronted him about his mood.

“Nagisa-kun,” he said, as the blonde lay on his side on his bed with the pout still on his face. “Did I do something wrong?” At this question, Nagisa’s eyes snapped back towards Rei, then quickly looked away.

“No,” he said, still pouting. “Why would you think that, Rei-chan?”

“Well…because you seemed upset when you were at the table,” Rei said cautiously. “You wouldn’t give me very long responses when I initiated a conversation—so I assumed that I had done something to cause the downturn in your mood.” Looking out the corner of his eye, Nagisa saw that the brunette was looking concerned and apologetic—not liking the face he was seeing, the blonde immediately sat up.

“It’s not! It’s not your fault, Rei-chan!” he said quickly. “Just—I felt like my sisters were being kinda chatty…they barely let you eat your dinner. I was mad at them, not you.” He looked away from Rei, hating his cheeks for getting that familiar tingle of a blush that he hoped the brunette wouldn’t notice.

“I—I didn’t really mind,” Rei replied, a little surprised. “I suppose I was slightly overwhelmed…” Remembering some of their flirtatious questions made Rei’s ears turn a bit pink. “But I appreciated it that they were friendly…it was the first time that they met me face to face, after all.” He smiled at Nagisa, whose cheeks had puffed up slightly once more. “They reminded me of you—how you first greeted me when we were younger.” Hearing those words, Nagisa didn’t know whether to feel horrified that the brunette had said he resembled his sisters or to feel elated that Rei was reminiscing about his past self and smiling so fondly at the memory. Unable to decide between the two, the blonde just let out a drawn-out wail and flopped off his bed.

“Geez, Rei-chan! You’re so—ugh!” Nagisa latched onto Rei’s torso, nuzzling his head against the boy’s chest. “Just—don’t talk to them so much! Their germs will transfer through the air and infect you!”

“Geh—Nagisa-kun!” Both affronted by Nagisa’s first remark and nervous that the blonde was suddenly so close to him—no matter how many times he hugged Nagisa, it always seemed to set off those stomach butterflies and at least a few shades of blushes—Rei searched for a response in his head.

“That is ridiculous—germs do not spread between people merely through holding a conversation! A-And to be accurate, if it’s anyone’s germs that are spreading to me, it would be yours! Since you—you’ve constantly been making physical contact with me all day through—through actions like what you’re doing right now—“ Before he had spent such a long time next to the blonde, Rei had not been aware that Nagisa had such a penchant for physical affection—he had thought that all those tackle hugs and affectionate squeezes of the hand had merely resulted from the nature of their moments together—but now that he was aware, he realized that the concept of personal space probably didn’t exist in the blonde’s head. Thinking that this was probably what he should expect every time he was with Nagisa from now on, Rei didn’t know whether to feel nervous or happy about the fact. He probably felt both. At his remark, Nagisa looked up from rubbing his head against Rei’s chest.

“If it’s my germs, it’s okay!” he replied in a voice that sounded as if he was stating an obvious fact. “Or what…you don’t like me hanging off you all the time?” The blonde purposely made his voice sound hurt, making Rei flustered.

“N-no! That’s not—it’s not that I—“ Flushing, Rei looked off to the side, adjusting the glasses on his face. “I was merely making a point about the comparative probability of getting germs from—“

“Rei-chan!” The brunette blinked—Nagisa had disappeared from where he had just stood. Now he was sitting on the floor next to his bedroom window, the one facing out onto the street, and motioning for Rei to sit next to him. “The moon’s out—come over here so we can see it together!” He patted the floor next to him with a smile.

“I—how—just when did you move there?!” Rei sighed—giving up his argument, he walked over to the spot next to Nagisa and sat down. His violet eyes traveled up outside the window, towards the full moon sitting up in the clear night sky. It looked particularly beautiful tonight, Rei thought, and he didn’t know if it was because it was the middle of August when the moon was at its fullest or because it was part of a moment shared with Nagisa. Just when he was about to slap himself mentally for the mushy thought, the blonde jumped up from beside him, burgundy eyes flashing with an idea.

“Hold on, Rei-chan!” Saying this, the smaller boy darted to the switch in his room and turned off the lights. “This’ll set the mood better!” he explained, as Rei jumped slightly in his seat from the light flicking off. The blonde quickly trotted back to his spot and sat down again, next to Rei, turning his eyes back towards the moon.

“It’s really pretty, huh? Rei-chan.” Rei turned towards the blonde—and what he saw was truly breathtaking. The moonlight that streamed in through the window gently lit Nagisa’s face, highlighting the gentle curves of his profile, all the way from the slope of his forehead to the upward turn of his small nose, down the soft curves of his lips and chin, all in a fluid line. It also shed a gentle light on the soft blonde locks of his hair, and gave those pools of burgundy that were his eyes a soft glow as well. A smile graced his face, making the dimple in his cheek stand out in the moonlight. For that moment, Rei could hardly bring himself to tear his eyes away.

“Yes,” the brunette whispered. “It’s beautiful.”

“Mm.” Nagisa murmured. After a moment of silence, the blonde spoke again.

“Rei-chan…do you feel lonely?” The question made Rei blink.

“Why would you think that?”

“Well…since Saionji-kun moved to America a few days ago…I thought you might be missing him.” Nagisa turned to look at Rei.

“Well…yes. It would be a lie to say that I didn’t miss him.” Rei thought of the light-haired boy, who must now be adjusting to the time zone in America. “But, well, missing him and feeling lonely are two different things. I have people around me who I can talk to now—so I don’t feel alone anymore.”

“That does include me…right?” Nagisa asked, a little shyly.

“Of course.” Rei smiled. Of course, he thought in his head, as a small smile also formed on the blonde’s face.

“Good.” Nagisa blinked, as if a thought just occurred to him. “But…it won’t be the same, you know? Not having someone who’s just as smart as you, who you can talk about your favorite math and physics and other stuff with…I mean, you won’t be able to talk with me back-and-forth like that about that stuff, y’know?” Seeing the slight dejection in the blonde’s eyes, Rei smiled down at him fondly.

“You do realize that you’re smart in your own way, Nagisa-kun?” When he said those words, Nagisa looked up at him with surprised eyes—it made Rei think that he should tell Nagisa that more often. “You know Japanese history and world history like the back of your hand—you’re sharp when it comes to reading others’ feelings—“ Except for the feelings I have towards you, he added silently in his mind. “And you have a way with words that makes people want to listen to you, that makes people like you. If you weren’t smart, you wouldn’t be able to do any of those things.” A blush formed over Nagisa’s cheeks as Rei said these words, and a small smile graced his face. “Even if we don’t share an interest in math and physics and ‘all that stuff’,” Rei continued, quoting Nagisa, “you’ve always listened to me talk about it—like how I’ve always listened to you. And for me, that is enough. There are also a million other things that we can talk about. Although I’ll miss having those conversations with Yuuto-kun, you’ll be here next to me…and that is why I won’t feel lonely, Nagisa-kun.”

“…Good.” The reply fell softly from Nagisa’s lips. “But if it was me staying, and you went somewhere far away like America, I’d feel hella lonely, you know?”

“…I would, too,” Rei confessed. “Perhaps you have a point.” But maybe, he thought, it would be a whole different kind of loneliness. Just the thought of something like that happening was unbearable. As he was thinking this, he suddenly felt a warmth nuzzling into his side. He froze slightly when he realized that Nagisa had scooted closer to him and had pressed his side up against Rei’s. Leaning in towards the brunette, the blonde rested his head on Rei’s shoulder as he looked out the window at the moon.

“Yup.” Nagisa smiled contentedly. “This is how things should be.” Next to him, Rei’s heart raced as he pondered the meaning of the blonde’s words.

“N-Nagisa-kun…uhm…” Feeling his face grow hot, Rei tried not to squirm in his position. “Per…perhaps I should be going home now. It’s getting quite late—“

“Five more minutes, Rei-chan.” Nagisa nuzzled his head on Rei’s shoulder. “Just five more minutes…‘kay?”

“…Okay.” Swallowing a bit nervously, Rei turned his eyes back to the moon, which glowed bright and beautiful in the night sky. As he sat there with Nagisa nestled by his side, Rei thought about it—and he thought that he understood what Nagisa had said. He was no longer standing behind a window fifteen feet away—he was finally next to the blonde, seeing him up close, feeling his warmth like this. Nothing could compare to being so close to this beautiful person.

Indeed, this was how things should be. And from now on, the brunette promised to himself, this was how they would be.

 


 

The seven months that preceded April passed more quickly than Rei had ever imagined.

As he continued his lessons at home with his mother, Rei spent his free time doing many things. He went outside to jog or run errands, went to the public library that he had loved frequenting as a child, read books about the things he loved—and frequently spent time with Nagisa. The two of them still talked through their windows often, went over to each others’ houses, and even went out sometimes, whether it was for a jog in the neighborhood or to the shopping center downtown to watch movies or just hang out.

Sometimes, Rei would call his brother at college—and although they still needed to work on their conversations, he was satisfied with just hearing his brother’s voice. Sometimes, Ryouji texted him snapshots of his life at college—whether they were of his dorm room and roommate, his activities on the wrestling team, his group of friends who all seemed like nice people despite being different types, and other things like the snapshots taken during the college festival in the fall, when Ryouji had won a hot dog eating competition and got a box full of wieners as a reward. He had sent the box home, saying in his call that he would not touch a hot dog again until next year, which had made Rei laugh. In return, Rei texted over some photos of his own—pictures that he took of his mother and father, of new things or events that happened in their home, of the neighborhood outside—and very, very hesitantly, some photos of himself and Nagisa as well. He almost regretted doing that, because as soon as he did, there were always the texts that came flying back, teasing Rei about ‘his new girlfriend’ or ‘his blonde Barbie next door’. But all the same, Rei wanted to let his brother know what was going on in his life, so he sent them anyways.

Rei also spent some of his time researching high schools. After he had first talked it over with his mother, he had hesitated before dialing a contact on his cell phone for the first time. When his father had picked up at work, Rei had taken a deep breath and told him that he wanted to attend Iwatobi High School starting next spring. His father had been silent for a moment, and when he finally spoke up, he told him to do so if that was what he really wanted. And Rei had been happy to tell him that yes, it really was what he wanted. The whole time he was on the phone, his mother had been watching from the kitchen doorway, a proud smile on her face.

When Nagisa had heard the news, his face had lit up like a thousand-watt bulb and he had tackled Rei to the pile of autumn leaves in his yard (that was where Rei had first broken it to Nagisa) with a massive hug. When Naomi-san called at them from her bedroom window to get a room, the brunette had been mortified—but Nagisa hadn’t seemed to care at all. As the blonde talked about how they could go to school on the train together, how awesome it would be if they ended up in the same class, and that Rei could also join him for lunch with Haru and Makoto, Rei imagined how the new school year might go in his head, and the thought that Nagisa would be beside him at the time filled him with joy and anticipation.

The winter before the new school year, Rei spent a lot of his time studying for the special entrance exam that he would take for Iwatobi High School (since he would start attending the school in his second year and he would not be transferring from another school, he had to take the entrance exam that had been designed for previously homeschooled students). After his brother returned home for winter break, Rei also asked him if he could help him practice the pole vault—he had planned from the start to join the track team at Iwatobi High School, but as he had little experience with the vault, he had asked Ryouji for his coaching advice. They went to the track field at Taneda High to practice—Ryouji had asked the track team for permission, and his track stardom and winning personality had helped secure it, of course. Although Ryouji had not been able to stop his younger brother’s habit of making calculations before doing the jump, Rei was a quick learner—it also helped that his body had already been fit as well. When they sat on the track after their practices to cool off, Ryouji had also proceeded to give Rei some dating advice—waving off Rei’s unconvincing protests that he didn’t need it (while in reality he listened carefully to the advice while pretending not to listen)—because his brother ‘genuinely feared that he would stay a virgin for the rest of his life if he didn’t’ and because ‘it didn’t seem like he was getting any from Blondie and maybe that was why he was still such a prude’.

On the midnight passing into December 14th, Rei had been sleeping when he heard a snowball pelting his bedroom window. When he kept hearing the sound, he had groggily gotten out of bed and walked over to the window, opening the shutters to find a gleeful Nagisa waving at him from the Hazukis’ yard. After shouting happy birthday to Rei (and Rei trying to shush him because it was nighttime and their neighbors were asleep), Nagisa had proceeded to pelt the brunette with snowballs until the boy jumped out his window—the blonde had thought he was going to get a heart attack, but to his relief, Rei grabbed onto the tree branch and nimbly scaled the trunk down into the yard. They had then proceeded to have a snowball fight, probably waking up some members of their own households in the process. Somewhere in the middle, Rei had managed to tackle Nagisa to the ground, making his back thump onto the snow as the blonde squealed in surprise before he collapsed into giggles. The sight of a rosy-cheeked Nagisa, his soft blonde locks swept up from the movement, his burgundy eyes sparkling and his small pink lips curved up in a smile, had made all the logical, rational thoughts drain from Rei’s head. He had leaned down and had been just about to kiss the blonde—when a window slammed open and Naomi-san’s voice told them again to ‘get a damn room at least a mile away’. About ten times more mortified than he had been that autumn, Rei had immediately jumped off Nagisa, and after apologizing for making him fall, had rushed back into his house, his entire body flushed red and his heart pounding madly against his ribcage.

They had seen each other again the next day, when Nagisa had been invited over for dinner to celebrate Rei’s birthday with his family. Before leaving that day, the blonde had handed him a package, wrapped with purple gift wrap and tied with a golden yellow ribbon. He had then hugged Rei tightly—and maybe Rei had been imagining things, but the blonde seemed to linger in their embrace longer than he usually did, before he pulled away and, with a smile, told Rei happy birthday before returning to his own house. When Rei unwrapped the package in his house, he had found a set of dark-purple pajamas with a pattern of lighter purple butterflies on them. The card inside the wrap had read, {They reminded me of my favorite bug and you. I know you’ll love them. –Nagisa.} And Rei did love those pajamas—perhaps Nagisa had remembered him once talking about the psychological effect of patterns on clothing. He put the pajamas on before he went to bed that night, and dreamed that he was in a field full of flowers as Nagisa ran through them, Purple Emperors swarming around him as they fluttered their wings in the air.

To no one’s surprise, Rei passed the entrance exam for Iwatobi High School. In the spring of the year he would turn sixteen, he joined Class 2-1 as a second year along with Nagisa, who was ecstatic that they were in the same class. He made friends with Yamazaki-kun and Komura-kun, who had also moved up to the same class, and sometimes Hanamura-san also dropped by from the classroom next door with her new friend, Matsuoka-san. After years of only hearing about them, Rei also met Haru, who had frowned at him when he called him ‘Haru-chan-san’ on their first meeting but eventually had grown to accept Rei, and Makoto, who welcomed Rei warmly and made sure that he felt comfortable amongst them, even if the two of them were a year older. Rei also joined the track team at the beginning of the school semester—and he found himself feeling elated when Nagisa would watch him at practice with shining eyes, and even more so when the blonde told him afterwards that his pole vault had been beautiful.

However, Rei felt frustrated when his track records were not getting anywhere and the track coach had told him to stop trapping himself inside the calculations in his head when he jumped. That was about the time when Nagisa had started to try and create a swim club with Makoto and Haru—after the blonde had heard from Gou that her brother Rin was back from Australia and went to Samezuka Academy and Nagisa had become convinced that the three of them could reunite with Rin at a swim competition—and when he came begging for Rei to please come along with them to joint practice with the swim club at Samezuka Academy, Rei had been unable to ultimately refuse the blonde. When everyone at the joint practice found out that Rei couldn’t swim (and some of them found out what Rei’s opinion of swimming was), Rei had been mortified. However, his embarrassment had been forgotten when he watched Haru dive off that stepping board. Struck by the beauty of the raven-haired boy’s swimming, he had been inspired so much that he had made what he would have previously thought to be a ridiculous jump when he did the pole vault at track practice the next day. He had knocked the bar down with him when he fell, but afterwards he had felt so refreshed that he walked right over to Nagisa and the others and asked them to let him into the swim club.

Since then, Rei had faced many obstacles, learned many important things, discovered a new part of his personality (even he himself had never known that he could be so ridiculous and self-confident at the same time, and he simply blamed a certain blonde for drawing this unexpected side out of him) and made a lot of precious memories—in the process getting to know Gou-san, and later, Rin-san, getting closer to Haruka-senpai and Makoto-senpai, and also, Nagisa. He learned to value spontaneity and other things that came from the heart, like friendship, teamwork, passion, and the spirit of freedom. It was because he had been taught this by the members of the swim club that he was able to give his spot in the relay to Rin at the regional swim competition. After their relay had ended, all four of them had come to Rei and given him a group hug—and even after the other three let go, Nagisa wouldn’t release Rei, hanging onto him and sobbing and telling him he was too selfless and he was too good for him and everyone, and many other less-coherent things that made Rei blush as he successfully caught bits and pieces of them with his ears. The others had taken the hint and left them alone, and Rei had told Nagisa that it was fine, he was satisfied with having swum in the relay with them before regionals, that he and Nagisa could still swim in a relay together next year, that the relay they had swum with Rin had been beautiful.

When Nagisa had recollected himself, he and Rei had joined the others for a celebratory photo of the relay. In it, all five of them were standing in front of the pool, most of them smiling at the camera (save Haru, who had his characteristic tsundere pout while looking off to the side, but Nagisa would have said that Haru was smiling on the inside). They had each received a copy of that photo from Gou, and Rei had pinned his copy up on the bulletin board hanging in his bedroom. And every time Rei had noticed how Nagisa was clinging to his swim club jersey in the photo and pulling him into the photo with the others, it made him feel a tingle of happiness—the kind that came from having true teammates and true friends in his life.

Every time he saw it, it made Rei feel glad that he had met Nagisa.

 


 

One day, three months after regionals ended and the new school semester had started, Rei came over to Nagisa’s house after school to do homework and then hang out together. After about two hours, they had both finished—Rei had finished first while Nagisa sat around whining about the workload and how boring this was before finally getting to work himself. Afterwards, they sat around and just chatted about various things—and before they knew it, the sun had begun to set outside.

An autumn breeze floated in through the open window in Nagisa’s bedroom, making the blonde turn his head towards the open shutters. Looking out, he saw the maple tree in his yard, with its red leaves, and beyond that, the window of Rei’s bedroom across from his, windows open and drapery fluttering in the wind. A reminiscent smile formed on the blonde’s face as he thought back to six years ago in the spring, when he had opened his window and seen Rei for the first time.

“It’s been a long time since then, huh? Rei-chan.” Seeing Nagisa’s eyes on the window outside, Rei also smiled slightly and nodded.

“It has indeed.” His violet eyes reflected the light of the setting sun, glowing in a way that captured Nagisa’s heart for the millionth time since they had met. The blonde stared at them quietly for a long moment, which made Rei’s heart stammer in his chest with nervousness.

“Wha…what is it, Nagisa-kun?” the brunette asked hesitantly, flustered.

“Hold on, Rei-chan—lemme get something.” Saying this, Nagisa trotted over to his bookcase and knelt down on the floor. Rummaging through the bottom shelf, he found it—his favorite picture encyclopedia of bugs that he had not looked at for a long time. Taking it out, he turned towards Rei and held it up for him to see.

“Remember this?” When Rei saw the book, he nodded.

“Of course. I remember that you kept showing me your, er, favorite bugs—“ He coughed slightly, remembering that they had all gone against his concepts of beauty.

“Yup! And all of a sudden you burst out about them not being beautiful and all that!” Nagisa said cheerfully. “That was the first time I ever heard you talk so much—and so passionately, too!” He grinned, making Rei feel flustered.

“I—that—those bugs were simply not beautiful at all!” the brunette retorted, shifting his red glasses up his nose. “They go against all my concepts of beauty—“

“So what is your concept of beauty, Rei-chan?” Suddenly, Nagisa was right in front of Rei again, holding the book in his hands, a curious look on his face.

“I…that…I….” Rei trailed off, cursing himself silently for the blush that crept into his face and threatened to travel down to his neck. He wished Nagisa would stop staring at him with those big burgundy eyes of his, as he searched his head frantically for an answer other than the one that was standing in front of him at this moment. “Well, f-for example, there is the beauty of a well-structured, precise equation that I find in physics and math—and the beauty of the human form when making a perfectly-executed pole vault in midair—and, since I’ve spoken of track, I would also have to mention swimming—even now, I find Haruka-senpai’s swimming beautiful—“

“Oh.” The solitary word fell from Nagisa’s lips as he stared down at his feet, his face looking…disappointed? “Yeah—of course you would mention Haru-chan…”

“Nagisa-kun…?” Wondering if he had worded something wrong, Rei panicked. When his eyes fell on the book in Nagisa’s hand, he quickly changed the subject.

“Were you, um—were you going to show me something in that book?” The brunette was relieved when Nagisa perked up.

“Yep! I was—come sit with me!” Walking over to the window, the blonde fell to the floor next to it on his bottom and looked expectantly at Rei. “C’mon, Rei-chan!” Sighing a little and smiling in relief, Rei went and joined him on the floor. Legs crossed, Nagisa perched the book on his lap as he flipped through the pages.

“I know I’ve shown you this before, but you were fifteen feet away back then, so I’ll show it to you again!” He stopped when he came to the page he was looking for. Rei recognized the two-page spread instantly—on them were several photos of a certain bluish-purple butterfly, along with captions and paragraphs of explanations. On the top of the first page, the title read ‘The Purple Emperor’ in large print. Eyes shining, Nagisa pointed to a particular photo on the bottom of the second page.

“Remember this photo? I pointed it out to you back then, too.” In the picture, a Purple Emperor was perched on the branch of a tree, its graceful wings reflecting the sunlight as they shone an iridescent purple. Rei nodded, his cheeks flushing slightly as he remembered how the blonde had compared the butterfly to the color of his eyes. “Even now, it’s my favorite bug. I think it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world.” Nagisa’s burgundy eyes shone as he turned to face Rei, a soft smile on his lips.

“Their wings are almost as beautiful as the color of your eyes, Rei-chan.”

The way the blonde gazed at him made the breath catch right in Rei’s throat. Suddenly, all of the emotions that he had been feeling for the blonde for several months surged up from within him. All the memories of him beside Rei, talking, listening, crying, smiling, laughing—all the times that Rei had wanted to hold his hand, hold him in his arms, tell him how he felt—everything gathered in a pinnacle and gave Rei a big push to do another thing that he had always wanted to do.

He leaned over to Nagisa so that their knees were touching, grabbed the blonde gently by the arm, and kissed him right on the lips.

Reveling in the flutters of happiness that shot through his stomach, Rei lingered there for about ten seconds before pulling back and opening his eyes. He saw a very shocked, very frozen, very red Nagisa look back at him with very wide burgundy eyes, his pink lips fallen slightly apart in utter surprise. Only then did Rei realize what he had just done, and the flutters of happiness were instantly replaced with panic as he jumped away from Nagisa, his entire body beginning to flush. What had he just done, he thought as the blonde just sat there, frozen still, the book having fallen from his hands into his lap. He had just kissed his best friend—his male best friend, who would have had no way of seeing that coming—who probably didn’t see him as anything more than a really close friend. Oh no—what in God’s name have I done—now he’s going to hate me—! Rei couldn’t even pretend that had been an accident, he had not pulled away fast enough to write it over as one—as he wildly considered the option of jumping out the window and getting away from this hell on earth, he heard a small voice say something earth shattering.

“I love you.”

Rei blinked. Thinking that he had heard wrong, he redirected his eyes towards Nagisa, whose face still looked stunned after saying those words. It was as if they had slipped out while he was still in a daze.

“…Nagisa-kun…?” Not daring to hope, Rei kept his eyes fixed on the blonde—and was soon surprised when his burgundy eyes scrunched up, tears starting to form in them.

“I love you, Rei-chan. I really, really love you—so much that it’s taking over all of me.” The tears started to roll down Nagisa’s cheeks as he fought to say these words. “I always thought I was the only one—but just now, you did something like that—“ His burgundy eyes bore right into Rei’s wide violet ones. “Can…can I think that I was wrong…?” His voice quavered with hope. “Is it okay for me to think that…?” The sight of a teary Nagisa overwhelmed Rei, causing him to choke on his breath before he opened his mouth.

“Yes! Yes, yes, yes—“ His shoulders trembled as he said the word over and over.

“I love you too, Nagisa-kun—I’ve loved you ever since the day you first saw me in a wreck—ever since you told me that I could still be myself, and you would be fine with it—maybe ever since the day we first met…!” Watching Nagisa’s eyes widen, Rei hurriedly went on. “You don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to—to hold you, take your hand in my hand, to kiss you—how nervous it made me all those times when you’d hang off my shoulders and cling to my arm and lean on my shoulder—how much seeing you smile or hearing you laugh affects me—“ He was sure that his face must be on fire right now, but he continued speaking.

“You asked me what my concept of beauty was, and—and maybe, I can’t give you a precise answer to that—but all I know is that to me, you’re—you’re beautiful, inside and out. And every time I realized that, I got the urge to tell you, but—my tongue keeps getting tied up and everything in my head becomes disorganized—and even now, my mind is a mess right now and I don’t know what I should do because I’ve never been in this kind of situation befo—oomph!” Before he knew it, Rei was tackled onto the floor in one of Nagisa’s lung-squeezing death grip hugs. The blonde buried his face in Rei’s chest as he furiously nuzzled his head against it, causing the fire in Rei’s face to spread to his whole body.

“You should’ve told me, Rei-chan! You could’ve told me so much earlier—I’ve been in love with you since last year—no, scratch that! I’ve been in love with you since the first time I saw you laugh, I’m positive of it! I just didn’t notice it earlier—“ Rei noticed that the blonde’s ears were turning red beneath his blonde locks. “And I was being so obvious about it, too!”

“Wha—“ Rei’s eyes flew wide open in disbelief. “I beg to differ, Nagisa-kun! How were you being obvious about anything? I mean, you—you always smile and joke and laugh with everyone—you did get rather clingy around me, but that’s how you are with everyone, physical affection is your second nature—and the only possible reason I saw for you being around me so much was because we go to the same school now and we’re even in the same swim club and we still live next door to each other and we see each other all the time whether you want to or no—“ His rant was suddenly cut off by a soft pair of lips that landed over his own.

“…!” When he saw Nagisa’s face up close, tilted upwards with his long-lashed eyes closed and his cheeks tinged with a pink blush, Rei froze, his violet eyes widening. They were still wide open with shock when Nagisa eventually pulled back, with a satisfied smile on his face, his face still a warm pink.

“Was that obvious enough?” he asked triumphantly. In response, Rei just silently gaped back at the blonde, his face turning a whole new shade of red, wondering how in the world this boy could still look so beautiful to him even with that victorious smirk on his face.

“That—I—you—“ Rei tried to find a reply for that, but his tongue kept getting stuck in his mouth. Now that he thought about it, he had done the same thing to Nagisa, without warning—he could hardly reprimand the blonde for his actions…which he did not even dislike at all. On the contrary…gulping, the brunette let out a sigh, dropping his head, his ears burning.

“—Yes. That was,” he said weakly. At his admittance, Nagisa let out a high cheer.

“This does mean that we’re dating now, right? Rei-chan?” he chattered excitedly, his burgundy eyes sparkling. Looking up despite his embarrassment, Rei smiled fondly at the blonde.

“Yes…I suppose so. If you want us to be,” he added. He couldn’t say that he wasn’t worried about how the people around them might react if they found out—but he decided, for once, that he would save future worries for the future. Remembering the philosophy of his favorite sportswear brand, he decided to just do it, do what he truly wanted to do.

“Of course I wanna date you, Rei-chan!” Nagisa chirped. “I’ve been dreaming about it for a whole year now!” Again, he tackled Rei to the floor with a jubilant hug.

“You—you wanted to—for that long?” Rei blinked, suddenly feeling a degree shyer than he had a moment ago.

“Duh! I told you I realized I was in love with you that long ago!” A devious glint suddenly appeared in Nagisa’s eyes. “I’ve wanted to do everything you wanted to, Rei-chan—hug you, kiss you, touch you—“ For a moment, Rei thought he saw the blonde’s eyes darken a little at the last part, and he nearly choked on his own breath. But as soon as they had darkened, the blonde’s burgundy eyes lit up again. “Let’s do all that stuff from now on, Rei-chan! Since we’re going out!” he said happily. Wondering if this was really the same boy that had been crying a few minutes ago, Rei gulped—he also wondered what exactly Nagisa had meant by ‘all that stuff’, but he felt a little scared to ask. So instead, he just nodded, reveling in the fact that finally, after all this time, their feelings had reached each other. Despite feeling a little embarrassed in their current position, he circled one arm around Nagisa’s waist, while the other went around the blonde’s neck, his hand landing on his soft hair. As he ruffled it with his fingers, he felt something thin and long along the scalp. His smile faded when he realized what it was. He sat up, bringing Nagisa up with him as he did.

“This scar…” he spoke quietly. “It’s from the time you fell from the maple tree, isn’t it?” Noticing the somber tone of Rei’s voice, Nagisa looked up from his chest and firmly met Rei’s eyes with his own.

“Are you still feeling guilty about it, Rei-chan? I told you, it was my fault for climbing the tree in the first place!” he piped up in a scolding tone. “Besides, I’m fine, Rei-chan! It’s nothing but a scar from the past, and it won’t kill me! So don’t look like that!” He tightened the arms he had around Rei’s torso, as if stressing his point.

“I was so scared at the time, Nagisa-kun,” Rei confessed in a quiet voice. “I thought…I thought that if anything had ever happened to you…I would never be able to forgive myself. And that was why…why I chose to shut myself inside. I thought that if I were to open that window again, I would only end up hurting you.”

“…Rei-chan.” The brunette felt Nagisa’s hands against his cheeks as the blonde held his face gently. “I’m human—of course I’m going to get hurt sometimes. The same goes for you, too. But you know what gives me hope despite that thought? The fact that we’ll be here for each other when that happens.” His burgundy eyes stared into Rei’s violet ones solemnly, unwavering.

“You were meant to be out here, Rei-chan. You were meant to smile, cry, frown, laugh—you were meant to be beautiful out here, right beside me. And it’s because you’ll be here to see all my different faces that I’ll be able to become beautiful, too.” The blonde gave Rei a smile that was so like him, so cheery and bright and reassuring at the same time that it enveloped the brunette in a glowing warmth. “How’s that for a concept of beauty?”

“...I think it’s perfect,” Rei replied, smiling tenderly at the blonde. There was no winning against Nagisa, after all. Giggling, Nagisa reached up and kissed Rei on the forehead. Then, turning around, he plopped himself right down on Rei’s lap, nuzzling his head in the crook of Rei’s neck and letting out a contented sigh. Nearly melting at the gesture, Rei put an arm around the blonde’s stomach and gently placed a hand on the back of Nagisa’s shoulder, pushing the blonde slightly forward. Before Nagisa could let out a squeak of protest, Rei tilted his head down and trailed kisses along the back of Nagisa’s head, where his scar lay hidden under his golden blonde locks. The feathery sensations made Nagisa giggle quietly as he sat there, enjoying the attention from his best-friend-turned-boyfriend. Eventually, a thought occurred to him and he opened his mouth.

“Hey, Rei-chan. Let’s go to Europe someday and see some actual Purple Emperors! We can even make a round trip to America to see Saionji-kun!”

“Nagisa-kun, we would need a lot of money saved up to go to Europe alone. And we haven’t even gone on our first date yet—“

“Oh, was that bothering you, Rei-chan? We can go on a date right now if you want!”

“…Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of, say this weekend?”

“Aww, Rei-chan, you were already giving it some thought? That’s so sweet!

“I was—that was a figure of speech, Nagisa-kun! Be-besides, I only suggested a more appropriate time—as for what activities we would partake in during the date, I have yet to think of anything—“

“It’s okay, Rei-chan! If it’s with you, I don’t care what place we go to!”

“Is…is that so? Then how about the public library? I would love to help you prepare for the upcoming math midterms—“

“Eeehhhh~~? But Rei-chaaaan, that’s not a date!”

“It would be a study date, Nagisa-kun!”

“Reeiiii-chaaaaannn~~~!!”

As laughter sounded from the bedroom in the yellow house, a mailman appeared at the mailbox in front of the lavender house next door. Opening the mailbox, he placed an envelope with red and blue markings around the edges inside, with a stamp on the corner that had the photo of a seal on it. He closed the mailbox and disappeared around the corner of the neighborhood as the sun set lower down the horizon, casting an orange-red glow over the rooftops of the houses.

When Rei checked the mail the next morning and found the letter, a smile formed on his face. Later that week, he replied to the letter, encasing in a red-and-blue edged envelope two folded pages of neatly penned handwriting, a burgundy maple leaf from the tree in the Hazukis’ yard, and a photo—in which a blue-haired boy and a blonde-haired boy in school uniforms were standing beneath a maple tree, some red and orange leaves stuck in their hair, smiling brightly at the camera.

A month later, when a certain light-haired boy got the reply to his letter, he sat under the shade of an American maple tree and read the letter. As he looked at the photo of the two teens and the burgundy maple leaf in his hand, a smile grew on his face. Under his other hand, the edge of the letter’s second page flapped slightly in the breeze, the closing sentence visible to the reader.

I hope you also learned how beautiful the outside world is.

-Rei.

Another pleasant gust of wind blew through the scene, making the emerald grass dance. In the distance, a white butterfly flapped its wings freely as it flew off into the bright blue sky.

 

-Fin.