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Chapter 1

 

He remembered starting the last year of high school almost entirely alone, the small gang of delinquents he called friends having been broken up between jail or trading in school bags for work boots. His parents insisted that he completed his education, and that was the only reason he even showed up. Looking back, sometimes he felt grateful for it, and other times he’d wished it had gone differently, even if it wasn’t better. It all depended on how he was feeling in the present moment.

 

Shortly after their graduation, Hide and Yuta headed out to Tokyo with the intention of finally focusing on establishing the band in the live houses of the city. As they were the band’s least awkward and most sociable members, the two who were the ones to book shows and make contacts in Gunma and were now free to do the same in Tokyo. Atsushi however stayed behind in Fujioka once more as he felt unable to leave his mother behind on her own just yet.

 

He remembered that day early in the year, when a kid from another classroom he’d hung out with alongside his old group of friends came up to him at the end of the school day. Knowing what had happened to their mutual pals, he extended an invitation to hang out at Imai Shouten, a small family run shop by the train station. Atsushi declined originally. Hanging out, inside a snack shop? But the classmate corrected him. The invitation was for the house connected to the shop, the bedroom of the oldest son. Didn’t Atsushi know about this already? Hisashi Imai had been in his class since first year, but this was the first he was ever hearing of it. He couldn’t even picture who Hisashi Imai was in his mind. These days, he couldn’t get him out of his mind even if he wanted.

 

Even with the newfound freedom of adulthood, Atsushi slowly felt himself going down the path he’d found himself in a year prior. This time, he occupied his mind speeding around roads and highways outside of town after work, taking curves up the mountains at daring speeds and watching the forests blur on either side of his car. One mindless thrill traded in for another, but the empty feeling within continued to gnaw at him.

 

Despite having gone up there countless times after he’d never forgotten how anxious going up the narrow flight of stairs leading there made him the first time. Not because it was a clearly amateur handyman who built the stairs, a way for Hisashi to access the personal area his parents built out for him. Honestly, he never could figure out what had caused the feeling, but it was there and strong and unforgettable.

 

Eventually, he started taking his drives in the mornings before work, leaving early from work for them, and soon he was no longer coming in at all. His self-destructive behavior continued on until he foolishly came home one summer weekday, feeling too hot to drive and not expecting to find his mother inside as he had.

 

He was surprised by the sight as they entered the room of this now infamous Hisashi Imai. Kids, some he recognized by their uniforms as being from their school, others from elsewhere, all crowded and bunched together wherever they could find purchase in oddly shaped bedroom. The smell of tobacco hit his nose as he noticed a few more students hanging halfway out of the large window and realized they were trying to keep the smell of cigarettes from overwhelming the fanless room. Underscoring the various groups’ chatter was a record player with music he’d never heard before. He thought, maybe it was American or something? Definitely not Japanese.

 

“You’re just like your father!”

These words coming from his mother would haunt him long after they had been said, but at that moment had reduced him to a sad little boy in his mother’s arms.

 

As he looked around, he kept trying to figure out which one was Hisashi and started to feel ashamed almost. He’d been invited into the home of a classmate he’d been in homeroom with since they both entered high school, but it had been through a completely unrelated classmate, and during their senior year of all times. He noticed that the largest group collected on and around the bed. Looking them over, he pegged the tall, wildly animated and chattery guy on the bed as Imai. Imai caught Atsushi staring and called for him to come over, welcoming him loudly as he recognized him as a new face.

 

By August he’d finally taken his first steps to life on his own out in Tokyo with the others.

 

“Hey man, welcome to Club Imai! You can call me Araki!”
“Huh? You’re not Imai?”

 

“Araki, no, no, NO!”

Hisashi stormed across the small garage they were using as practice space, guitar slung across his back as he rubbed his hands furiously across his face. This was the 5th time that he had them stop in the middle of this particular song. Making his way to a mini fridge in the corner, Hisashi retrieved a can of beer from it in hopes the coldness of the drink would chill his temper.

“Hisashi dude, I’m sorry ok? I’m doing the best I can but I don’t know if I can pull this song off right.”

 

Finishing the beer in one long pull, Hisashi took the still cold can and rolled it across his forehead and let out a sigh.

“It’s alright man. Hey, I just said it’s alright!” Hisashi grumped at Araki’s wounded puppy face, “Look, we’ve still got enough original material and can fall back on a cover or two if it comes down to it. It’s fucking hot in here anyways, let’s just call it a day and go find a conbini for dinner before we gotta head out to work.”

After packing up, the band split into their various groups. Hide and Yuta who lived together, and Hisashi and Araki who shared one of their many part-time jobs together. Ever the odd man out was Atsushi, who was setting down the last of his drum kit out on the curb before squatting beside it. Pulling out a cigarette from his front shirt pocket, he looked up at the rest of the band.

“You know, Yuki and her mom should be here soon, if you guys want we can at least pick up your gear so you don’t have to lug it all the way back home.”

Unfortunately for Atsushi, arriving in Tokyo months after everyone else had meant that they’d already settled into their living arrangements and had little room to budge. Unable to bring himself to ask to stay in Hisashi and Araki’s place, he instead slept on the floor of Hide and Yuta’s already too small for two people apartments at first, and then he met Yuki.

No one was entirely surprised that he'd been taken home by two women, just that it hadn't been a fan of the band in the first place.
Atsushi met Yuki, and her mom, during his short time as a delivery driver for a restaurant. The initial courtship was stilted and awkward, and chiefly on Yuki's side, and ended as soon as Atsushi's time with the restaurant did. However circumstances gave them another chance and Yuki just happened to be in the audience of a small show they had played. Atsushi quickly moved in with them and appreciated their kindness towards him and his main passion, though it was always in the back of his mind that he could never reciprocate in full.

A pair of pale slender fingers reached from above him, plucking the cigarette out of his own hand before he could bring it to his lips. Atsushi traced the hand back to it's owner and scowled at Hisashi, who was grinning out one side of his mouth as he held the cigarette in between his lips.

 

“What?” The boy he now knew as Araki laughed boisterously before turning to  the boy sitting next to him who had seemingly checked out of reality for the pages of the manga in his hands only to be startled back to the present by Araki slapping him on the back.

“Hikkun,” Araki cried out, can you believe it? I got mistaken for you again! I told you you were a poor host. ‘Hikkun’ was a thin boy, maybe taller than his slouched posture would make one think, with a thick choppy mop of brown dyed hair further hiding the eyes behind his sleepy lids.

Maybe he hadn't been reading that manga and had actually been asleep all this time in all this cramped chaos. Atsushi wondered now if he'd never seen him because he spent all of his time in class just as in his own head.

 

Rummaging through his pockets, Hisashi pulled out a lighter and flicked it into life on the other end of the cigarette, taking in a long drag and exhaling it slowly as he returned the borrowed cigarette back to Atsushi's own mouth.

“I was planning on taking my guitar in with me to practice, but I appreciate the offer for my amps. Tell Yuki and her mom thanks too Atsushi, me and Araki are gonna go on and get ready for work tonight.”

Before Atsushi could say a word in reply, Hisashi had already spun around, guitar bag slung over his shoulder as he walked beside Araki down the sidewalk. Taking in the menthol flavored smoke of the cigarette, Atsushi exhaled it back out with a long dejected sigh. It was probably too much to ask still, but Atsushi had hoped that coming to Tokyo and being near Hisashi would help mend their rift more, but Hisashi continued to keep just enough distance between them and now with Yuki in the picture…

 

“Oh, huh,” The sleepy boy muttered, slowly looking at Araki and combing back his thick fringe with his fingers before turning his eyes at Atsushi.

As heavy lidded brown eyes met his own, Atsushi saw them slowly open up and light up within as they held each other's gaze, making the crowd around them fade into background noise as Hisashi's stare intensified until he felt as if he was the only thing that existed in his field of vision.

“Hey, I'm Hisashi, but you know that right? You're Sakurai, from homeroom, right?”

 

“Acchan!” A cute sing song voice cried, making Atsushi spring up to locate the source as he dropped his still lit cigarette and crushed it under the sole of his sneakers.

Yuki was exiting the passenger side of the pickup truck her mom drove, rushing to quickly embrace Hide and Yuta before wrapping her arms around her boyfriend and meeting his lips for a kiss.
“Yuck, you were smoking weren't you,” she giggled making a playful face at Atsushi before letting him go. “Okay guys, you can't leave all this lugging up to a cute girl like me!”

“What cute girl? All I see is a gorgeous woman,” Yuta winked before helping Hide open the back door of the truck bed before beginning to load up their amps and guitars. Yuki laughed and stuck her tongue out at him, letting go of Atsushi so he could load up the rest of the equipment next.

“Yu-chan, you're going to have to do better than that if you want to pick up a pretty lady at your next show!”

Yuki and Yuta continued their banter as the three men finished loading up the truck. Afterwards, Hide and Yuta hopped in the space left for them in the bed while Atsushi climbed into the cab, Yuki sitting in the middle of the long bench seat between him and her mom. They drove to Hide and Yuta's apartment to drop them off before heading back to the one that he lived in with Yuki and her mom.

That night, he found himself with Yuki curled up against him in the futon they shared in the small 2 bedroom, but his thoughts were far back at the Imai Shouten.

 

“Yeah… I'm Atsushi. Uhh I'm sorry dude, I don't think I've ever actually seen you in class.”

Hisashi grinned, big and brilliant, eyes still never leaving Atsushi's, “That's because I usually sit in the back corner behind Mt. Toriyama,” Atsushi laughed as Hisashi used the nickname of the biggest guy on the school wrestling team, “Teacher never remembers I exist to call on me haha.” Without hesitation, Hisashi stretched out a lanky arm and reached for Atsushi's hand to shake.

“Anyways, welcome to my room man!” As he let go to return to his manga he gave Araki the meanest dead glare Atsushi had ever seen as the taller boy fought to stifle his laughter.

“Holy shit! I think you got more words out of him than I managed the whole first year we had class in Junior High!”  Freely laughing, he was silenced by the spine of the Weekly Jump being slapped unceremoniously against his ear.

 

“Acchan,” Yuki's sleepy voice pulled him back and he realized he had laughed a bit out loud, “What’s so funny this late, go back to bed.” She yawned and stretched out against him, soft warm skin on his as she buried her face into his shoulder.

Stroking her long hair, Atsushi closed his eyes and silently pled for sleep to claim him.