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the big empty

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It’s two in the morning and Teru’s having one of his secret panic attacks.

Scene: a pitch-black studio apartment with a western-style bed shoved against the wall. The only light source in the room is the faint glow of a phone screen, held at a jagged angle that tears at the darkness like a scream, and it illuminates a fourteen-year-old boy on his side, his eyes squinted against tears, his dyed blonde hair starting to grow out brownish-black again at the roots, covers drawn up to his chin, completely alone in the world except for the pile of stuffed animals that usually live in his closet but which, after he changes into his pajamas for the night, always seem to migrate onto his bed. They don’t provide as much comfort as they once did. They’re still his friends, but he’s getting too old lately to pretend they’re listening.

Tonight’s secret panic attack is happening at around the same time and under the same conditions as most of Teru’s secret panic attacks do. All alone, in the middle of the night, in the controlled pitch of his home, where he’s absolutely certain that no one can see him. You see, Teru goes through most of his life with a brilliant golden curtain of self-assurance wrapped around his shoulders like a superhero snug in his cape. It’s just that sometimes, rarely, not that often at all really, the cloak falls off and then there’s this feeling like the ground under Teru's feet has just decided to up and vamoose. This feeling, Teru has decided, is the second worst feeling in the world.

Does Hanazawa Teruki have insecurities? Hanazawa Teruki does! Like, for example:

Kageyama doesn’t even know Teru’s first name.

Okay, objectively? Not true. They are friends. They go shopping together. Kageyama sat with Teru in the hospital that time Teru had dengue fever. He helped Teru fill out the information docket at check-in. Logically, there is no way that Kageyama Shigeo cannot know that Hanazawa Teruki’s full name is Hanazawa Teruki— he even knows what kanji to spell it with, goddamnit. But it’s what Voice In The Back Of Teru’s Head #2 says, and Voice In The Back Of Teru’s Head #2 knows that objectivity and reason are for bottom feeders.

Because Teru spent much of his childhood without anyone to talk to, he has developed the habit of talking to himself. There are two voices in the back of Teru’s head. They have been there a long time. Voice #1 tells Teru that he is the tightest motherfucker alive and anyone who thinks otherwise is too stupid to see it. His psychic powers had for a long time seemed validation: you’re hot shit! You’re a little badass! This is the voice that wants him to get in fights, bleach his hair, skip class and shoot vodka with his fellow thirteen-year-old hardasses at the playground and then spin around on the witch’s hat until he’s hurling on his hands and knees. Listening to this voice tends to feel pretty fucking good, baby, especially in the short term, so Teru used to listen to it all the time.

Then there was The Kageyama Event, and Teru came down with a psychosomatic fever that had him laid out in his room for three straight days. He couldn’t keep saltine crackers down. His pee was fluorescent orange. He was definitely dying. Something about tossing and turning in bed, running a temperature of 104 Fahrenheit, literally cooking in the humiliation of having your entire worldview punted into the stratosphere by some insanely powerful and handsome loser with a bowlcut… it really puts things in perspective.

And the fever dreams. Those sucked.

Teru wipes his eyes and rolls over, his shaking thumb hovering above the digital keyboard, trying to take deep breaths. If he doesn’t regulate his breathing now, he’s going to start hyperventilating, and that never ends well.

The philosophy of Teru clause states that if someone with a certain worldview kicks Teru’s ass, that worldview becomes Teru’s worldview. Unfortunately, the concept of Teru as a commoner— a little fish— is sort of incompatible with the idea that Teru is special and invincible, the precept upon which Voice #1 builds its very foundations. So there are— struggles. Teru is still adapting. Trying to align the assertions of Voice #1 with this new, Kageyama-based model of seeing himself.

Example of a conflict: Teru gets an A+ on a quiz. Voice #1 is like, fuck yeah, dude! Of course I aced it! God, I’m so much smarter than all those other losers in my class. I’m going to do so much better than them. I’m going to change the world. I literally have a Ph. D in physics from Waseda.

And Teru, addressing that part of himself, is like, hey, buddy, you’re at, like, a hundred and I need you to be at like a ten. Could you dial it back a few notches, maybe?

And Voice #1 is like, that sounds like something a weak coward would say. I’m not a weak coward, though. Right? You’re not a weak coward, right, Teru?

Voice #2 says there’s a reason why his dad walked out.

Teru hates Voice #2. It’s what he’s always trying to stomp out, first with pomp and bluster, now with ramshackle goodness and light. It likes to pump Teru full of thoughts that feel like wire coathangers jammed between his fourth and fifth ribs, and at night, when Teru’s room becomes a cube of darkness rivaling the pitch of Vantablack and the conditions at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, when there’s no loud music or bright light, there is absolutely nothing to stop it from doing so.

So it does so.

Teru’s hyperventilating.

 

Problem: Hanazawa Teruki wants to be better friends with Kageyama Shigeo.

Problem: the first time Teru and Kageyama met, Teru put his hands around Kageyama’s throat and squeezed.

Not his proudest moment. Far from his proudest moment. Maybe his least proudest moment ever. Problem is, he did it. It’s done. Point two is non-negotiable.

Here’s another problem: there’s something empty inside of Teru, a hard round ball of nothing. Today is the anniversary of the last day he saw his father. Ever since he cut things off with the circle he ran with prior to The Kageyama Event, loneliness is a small animal with sharp teeth, living in his body, gnawing at his heart. How do you make friends except through shows of middle-school narcissism and bravado? How do you forge genuine connections with people, and not just the petty shows of respect owed your (ex-, by the way) urabanchou status?

Not that Teru has to worry about any of that. Teru’s doing fine. He’s humble now, which is so important. He doesn’t fight unless the other guy throws the first punch, which doesn’t even count as fighting, anyway. He only fights for good causes. He helps Kageyama all the time, right? So why doesn’t Kageyama ever ask him to hang out?

They’re friends, right? They’re friends. They talk, they text, they hang out. Sometimes. Teru subs in for him at work; they go out for yakiniku with Reigen and Ritsu. Sometimes, they walk together on their ways home from school. Teru remembers hundred-year-old trees ripped straight from the earth, their ancient root networks fanning out like nets. Telephone poles dancing around each other in slow orbits like old lovers. He remembers a car he saw tossed around like a ping-pong ball, its doors and trunk wide open, and he remembers the woman he saw hanging out of the driver’s seat, screaming in real fear. True, blind, batshit terror. (Was that how Kageyama felt on the inside? Losing consciousness in a home economics classroom with a stranger’s hands around his throat?) And instead of thinking about what he could have been thinking about, which was that he saved all those people before he collapsed because his brain was bleeding, all Teru can think about is how he failed to get through to Kageyama when he was in that state.

When the lights go off in Teru’s apartment, the darkness is absolute. Right now it’s a blanket of needles, prickling, suffocating, closing tighter and tighter around his chest, his throat. Now he’s the one who can’t breathe.

They’re friends, right? Him and Kageyama? They’re best friends. Best, best friends.

This is so stupid. This is so stupid. He hates me, Teru thinks, and he squeezes his eyes shut and rolls over into the cold shoulder of sleep.

When Mob wakes up, he has a text.

This is not an unusual state of events. He gets regular updates from Tome, Inukawa about what they’re doing, thinking, watching, reading, playing, eating, drinking. The Body Improvement Club has a group chat that is peppered with reminders for meetings and training times and effervescent encouragements (“SWOLE IS THE GOAL!!!!!”).

Mob makes it a principle, though, not to read texts before he’s gotten out of bed, so he brushes his teeth, washes his face, and heads down to the breakfast table before opening the text, which he is a little bit surprised, but not unhappy, to discover is from Hanazawa-kun.

An invitation to walk home from school together that day. And the Body Improvement Club’s schedule has changed too, so now Mob just goes home. He gets home before anyone else, gets a cold tea out of the fridge, grabs a snack, goes to his room. Sometimes he studies or does homework; sometimes he reads manga that Tome lends him.

Sure, why not.

Mob sucks in his cheeks as he takes a moment to think of a reply.

Sure Hanazawa-kun. Did you need something?

 

Mob has barely put the phone down and started in on his cornflakes before the device buzzes with reply:

no just felt like hanging out. ok cool. see you after school.

 

 

At noon the temperature turns scorching. Unseasonably sweltering. From his homeroom window, jaw propped on his fist, Teru witnesses a blackbird fall from a tree and land fully cooked. The second he steps outside the heat drops on him like a forcefield, crushing the wind from his lungs. Breakbone hot. The climate hates him. Why is it this hot in October? As soon as Teru’s off campus he rips the purple jacket off and ties it around his waist, but it hardly helps. He rolls up the sleeves of the stupid white collared shirt the school makes him wear as far as they’ll go. Everyone’s hiding indoors, in their cars. It’s a fifteen-minute walk from Black Vinegar to Salt and by the time he gets there Teru looks and smells like he just took a swim in a fish tank. He’s drenched, fat beads of sweat rolling down his temples, gathering underneath his clothes and hair like horseflies.

Teru grits his teeth passing through Salt Middle School’s gates. Kageyama stands next to the bicycle rack, holding his backpack loosely by his side like a lost salaryman holding a briefcase. His school uniform pants are cuffed to just below the knees. He glows with sweat, but he doesn’t seem to be doing half as badly as Teru. And to Teru, it’s immediately apparent why; Kageyama’s aura is round and iridescent like a giant soap bubble, cooling all the air around him. He’s keeping it up easy, seems to barely even be thinking about it. When Kageyama sees Teru, he smiles at first, then looks concerned. “Hanazawa-kun?”

“Hey,” Teru rasps. He’s shaking. He wants to throw up. Kageyama’s aura is like a scoop of ice cream, instant relief, but it’s not enough; even as he melts into it, his knees give, and he collapses onto the bicycle rack. This is ridiculous. He’s survived torture. All this for a little heat?

“Hanazawa-kun, are you alright?” Kageyama asks. Teru nods, withering. He doesn’t trust himself to say much more than he has. Kageyama’s aura is so nice. Like slipping into a cool bath. Like coming home at the end of a long day. Like it wants Teru to be here. It’s, Teru doesn’t know. Nice.

When they walk home together, they usually go to Kageyama’s house. Teru drops him off, and then Teru walks back to his empty apartment alone, like always.

Teru has a history, you see, of being careful never to bring Kageyama back to his place. That time when the 7th Division attacked was an exception, a moment of absolute necessity.

But it’s 38 degrees Celsius in the shade. From here, if they use a shortcut through a construction zone that Teru happens to know, they can make it to Teru’s apartment complex in five minutes. Kageyama’s house is the usual fifteen-minute walk.

“You know what? My place is closer,” Teru says. “Let’s go there.”

 

As soon as they get in the door, Kageyama sinks to his hands and knees in the shadowy cool of the genkan, backpack dropping to his side, sweat dripping from his forehead. Teru drops his keys and presses onward to fumble with the air conditioning unit hidden deeper in the apartment, finally collapsing underneath it when he’s done to let the cool air wash over him. The sound of the boys’ exhausted breathing fills the quiet room.

“Shit,” Teru says, then laughs.

Kageyama lowers himself closer to the floor. “I didn’t realize… I was still so out of shape,” he tells Teru between huge gulps of air. He sounds disappointed. He finally gives up on supporting himself with his shaking hands and faceplants, relishing the coolness of the genkan’s hardwood on his heat-flushed skin.

Teru shakes his head, rolling onto his side to look at Kageyama with one eye and a smirk like a cat. “No, it’s murderously hot out there,” he says. He hopes Kageyama will think he’s cool for using the word murderously.

While Teru is filling two glasses with water from the kitchen tap, Mob rises up on his knees, taking a moment to actually look at the place his friend and his family live. He’s only ever been to Teru’s apartment once before, after all, and at the time his mind was on Ritsu’s recent kidnapping. It strikes Mob that Teru appeared to be the only one home when he brought the unconscious Mob to his apartment then, and he seems to be the only one home now too. He wonders what Teru’s parents’ schedules are like.

From the entrance, there’s not a lot to see, so Mob ends up following Teru into the kitchen. The apartment is very small, he thinks. There are no dishes in the sink. There’s a calendar on the fridge with some dates marked in different colored pen. The kitchen is a little bit dirty; grime accumulated in corners, leftover spills here and there. Looks like there was maybe a small accident with honey or soy sauce next to the sink. It doesn’t look like anyone has cooked in here in a long time. Mob thinks that the kitchen is very small. If the rest of the apartment is this small, Mob doesn’t know how Teru lives here with his family. Even if it’s just Teru and one parent. Mob finds himself continuing into the main room without waiting for Teru.

Straight ahead, rather than the tatami Mob expected, there’s more wooden flooring. A PS4 that glows blue, hooked up to a switched-off TV. A Western-style bed— not the futon Mob sleeps on— is buried under a mountain of pastel green pillows and bedding.

Teru opens the freezer to scoop ice cubes from the drawer into each glass, watching them land with satisfying plops. Frigid air is slowly flooding the room, restoring life to Teru’s withered body. Teru comes out of the kitchenette and hands Mob one of the glasses of water. Kageyama’s eyebrows are drawn together slightly, like he’s spent a long time putting together a puzzle only to realize that some of the pieces are missing.

There's a reason Teru doesn't invite Kageyama to his place if he can help it; there's a great big question mark written into the apartment's very layout, a path that Teru has been successfully avoiding thus far with Kageyama and one he does not want to go down with him anytime soon, thank you very much.

“Where are your parents?”

That’s the one.

Of course Kageyama would be blunt about it. That’s how Kageyama was. Of course he would comment on the staunch pathetic bone-deep loneliness that permeates every awful square centimeter of Teru’s stupid studio apartment. Of course he would. Of course.

Teru sips his water.

“Syracuse,” Teru says. He crosses the threshold into the living room and sits down on the fluffy rug between the bed and the TV. Two throw pillows from his bed are arranged on the rug as cushions, and he pats one, indicating that Kageyama can sit on it. “Come in?”

Kageyama is very still for a moment, and then gets up and follows him in.

Kageyama sits on the cushion. Kageyama is looking at him, and Teru is looking at the black TV screen, where he sees himself and Kageyama reflected as little colorless ghosts.

“Syracuse,” Kageyama says, finally. “Like… in Greece?”

“Oh, no,” Teru says. “Syracuse, the city in New York. My dad teaches at Syracuse University. He’s a professor of English literature.”

A lot of things are happening behind Kageyama’s deep-set eyes, and Teru knows it’s probably best to be quiet for a moment and let them happen, even though Voice #1 is screaming at him to either distract or threat display. He lets the silence between them marinate until it’s sticky, and then he gives in and swipes the remote from the TV console. His and Kageyama’s figures are replaced by a pair of manicured hands rinsing mustard spinach.

“You live all by yourself?” Kageyama says. His expression has gone from confused to something else, his forehead one big knot.

Ouch. “Yeah. My grandma on my mom’s side pays for it. She lives in Hokkaido. She…” He pauses, looks as though he’s about to say something different, decides not to. “She didn’t think I should have to move all the way up there.”

Kageyama opens his mouth like he wants to say something but then closes it as if thinking better of it. Teru wonders with some interest what Kageyama was going to say that was so bad that even he held back.

“So you do everything yourself?”

Teru raises an eyebrow. “Come again?”

“Your own laundry?” Kageyama looks at the floor. “This place is so clean.”

“Yeah?” Teru’s eyes slide left. “I mean, I’ve been doing this for years now.”

“What do you eat?”

“What do I eat? Lot of takeout. Uh, ramen noodles.” Pause. “Wasn’t I supposed to be helping you with your homework? Or something?”

“That’s okay, Hanazawa-kun. Don’t worry about it,” says Kageyama. As he speaks, he stands up and, with clear purpose, begins to stride towards the kitchen.

“Where are you going?” Teru asks. He gets up and follows him. “Kageyama-kun?”

Kageyama doesn’t answer. By the time he reaches the pantry, Teru realizes what he’s doing, but he opens the door before Teru can stop him.

Instant cup noodles. Crate after crate of plastic-wrapped instant Maruchan cup noodles, cycling through chicken, beef, and shrimp flavors, stacked on shelves, stacked on top of each other, filling the entire pantry. Enough for dinner every night for the next four months.

Kageyama steps back.

“Do you have any money on you?” he asks.

“… Some. Why?”

“Let’s go to the grocery store.”

Teru’s jaw drops. “You want to go back out there?”

“There’s one just down the road,” Kageyama says. He’s right; that’s where Teru goes for his midnight Calpis bar runs. “I saw it. Do you know how to cook?”

“Not really.”

“I can teach you,” Kageyama says. He sounds politely committed to helping Teru, like he’s not going to take no for an answer.

Teru pauses. He’d love the excuse to hang out with Kageyama, but on the other hand, wouldn’t accepting this offer kind of be admitting that he needs help? I don’t need help! I’m invincible! He lashes out on reflex, a dying fish flailing its tail. “You don’t have to. I am— I’m doing fine, actually.”

“I can teach you.”

Teru’s smile becomes muscular only. “You don’t have to.”

“Okay then,” says Kageyama. Then he does something Teru hasn’t seen him do in a long, long time: he narrows his eyes shrewdly. “I’ll just tell Reigen.”

There is real panic on Teru’s face, and Kageyama sees it, because he sighs and says “Okay, sorry, that was mean, I—“

“No,” says Teru, and his heart is beating fast and the blood is rushing in his ears. “Kageyama-kun?”

“Yes?” says Kageyama.

Teru can’t do it. He can’t say Don’t patronize me.

Kageyama helps him.

 

They make it to the grocery store, where they get two daikon, two mackerel (in case they mess up the first one; if they don’t, then Teru can keep the extra in the freezer and cook it later, Kageyama explains), a bag of rice, miso paste, dashi, a package of tofu, some green onions, and a box of takenoko cookies. They split up the bags for the walk home. Sweat dripping down his forehead again, Teru wonders how much work it’s going to take to transform this raw material into an edible meal, and pines for the family restaurant a block over, which could have provided them both donburi for 1200 yen. Still, he keeps his mouth shut. If the world wants to bless Teru with gifts, he will accept them, he has decided, and if those gifts take the form of Kageyama wanting to spend extra time with him, Teru will not argue.

Kageyama doesn’t remember quite as much as he thought he did, but that’s okay. YouTube is a big help, and they work with Teru’s iPad propped up on the kitchen counter, tuned into sleekly edited videos of strangers julienning veggies and fileting fish. Kageyama gives Teru directions and Teru follows them, and they find a rhythm of rinsing and chopping, cutting and boiling that works well for them. Teru salts the mackerel and Kageyama grills it, Teru cuts the daikon to be served with it; Teru gets the dashi boiling while Kageyama dices up the tofu and onions for the soup. They forget to make the rice until the very end, although Kageyama is inexpressibly relieved to discover that Teru does, at the very least, own a rice cooker.

“Normally, it’s best to start the rice before the rest of the meal, so that it’s ready when everything else is, and you can eat while everything’s hot,” Kageyama says, pulling the switch down on the machine. He pauses, studying Teru’s face. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“No reason,” says Teru. He turns around and briefly hides his face in a tea towel hanging from the refrigerator door. He is still sweaty.

They’re done before Teru realizes it, and when the table is set he stands back and looks at what they’ve made together.

“Do you think you can remember how to do that on your own?” Kageyama asks. He’s drying his hands on a dish towel. He’s not smiling, but he looks somehow happy; pleased with himself. “I can teach you how to make more stuff, too. I just have to get the recipes from my mom.”

“That would be nice,” Teru says, meaning it. “And I could help you study for English.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“But I would like to.”

Kageyama is looking at him with eyes that drill holes through flesh. At times, there is something ineffable about the power of Kageyama’s gaze. Teru feels known. Like their first meeting on the grounds of Black Vinegar middle school, Kageyama can see all the way to the back of Teru’s skull and expose all the creepy-crawliest parts of him. Teru feels seen. Teru is seen. Teru feels known; Teru is known. Teru likes everything about Kageyama except this. Teru wants to retreat into his skull, shut all the holes up, and turn out the light.

“Friends just do things for each other,” says Kageyama.

“Ah,” says Teru.

 

By the time dinner is over, darkness has settled into the lap of Seasoning City like a softly purring cat. The food, to Teru’s surprise, is delicious, and filling in a way that Maruchan is not. In the sink, Teru washes the dishes and Kageyama wipes them dry, smoothing them over with a blue gingham cloth. It’s not until Teru happens to glance out the window and see his and Kageyama’s reflections in the black glass that he realizes how completely night has fallen.

“It’s dark,” Teru says. He checks the clock over the stove; it’s half past seven.

Kageyama makes a sound of agreement, handing Teru the last dry dish to be put away. “I didn’t realize I’d been here so long,” he says.

“Me either,” says Teru. “Want me to walk you back?”

“But then you’d have to walk back alone,” says Kageyama.

Teru leans on the fridge, thinking for a second that they’re in trouble, before he remembers it’s Friday.

“Hey, it’s the weekend. You could maybe stay over?” says Teru.

As soon as the words leave his mouth, Voice #2 is cursing him out. He sounds way too eager, too desperate to not sleep all by himself in this stupid apartment for a night. But to Teru’s surprise, Kageyama doesn’t seem to care; in fact, he seems to actually be considering it.

“As long as I wouldn’t be imposing,” says Kageyama.

“Oh, no,” says Teru, his eyes wide and alight with the promise of more hanging out with Kageyama, “you would totally not be imposing. Not at all. We can watch a movie if you want.”

They’re lucky that Teru has a spare toothbrush, and a clean set of pajamas that fit Kageyama. Kageyama says he’ll just change back into his old clothes when he walks home in the morning, so it’s simply a matter of Kageyama calling home to explain the situation while Teru pulls up Netflix. They watch a funny movie, then play video games for an hour while sharing a bottle of Sprite from the fridge, and then it’s time to sleep. Neither of them will take Teru’s bed and put the other on the floor, so Teru ends up laying out two sets of blankets and pillows out on the floor, one for each of them. They brush their teeth side by side in Teru’s messy bathroom and change into pajamas. Teru takes the bathroom, Kageyama takes the living room. When Teru pads back into the main room to stand by the light switch, Kageyama is making sure the TV is off, humming quietly to himself. Teru smiles.

“You good?” Teru asks.

“I’m good,” answers Kageyama. The latter half of the answer is cut off with a yawn. Without bothering to stand, he crawls on his hands and knees to the little arrangement of blanket and pillow designated as his own. He curls up like a burrowing animal, the covers drawn up to his chin.

“I’m going to turn the lights out now,” says Teru.

“’Kay. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.” Inside his head, not out loud: thank you.

 

There’s someone else, Teru thinks lying in the dark.

Just a few feet away from him, there’s someone else.

There are good and bad things. On the one hand, if by sheer bad luck Teru has a nightmare and talks in his sleep, he might disturb Kageyama and wake him up. Then Kageyama would see Teru at his most vulnerable. Teru would rather die.

On the other hand, there’s someone else. Just five feet away from him, another person is resting too, shutting their higher brain function down for the night alongside him. If at any point during the night Teru wakes up, he will hear Kageyama’s sleep-breathing, even and soft, like the world’s night-rhythm, as a reminder that there are other people on this ball of rock and water. The concept, combined with everything that has happened today (the taste of the fish and daikon still spreading over his tongue in memory) makes Teru feel hunkered down within himself.

Kageyama is going to sleep next to him.

Kageyama trusts me.

“Hanazawa-kun?”

“Hmm.”

“You should come with me to Spirits n’ Such on Monday.”

Teru isn’t sure how to respond. He allows the silence until it becomes unbearable.

“I should?” he says, finally. In the dark, his voice reaches out to Kageyama like a hand.

“Mm. You should,” says Kageyama. Teru hears him turn himself over underneath the blankets. Like a pancake, Teru thinks fondly. “On Monday. After school. I’m going to visit Reigen. You should come hang out.”

“Okay,” says Teru, his voice strangely small. “I will.”

“Monday.”

“Monday.”

When the lights go off in Teru’s apartment, the darkness is absolute.

And yet—