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Saints Fall Down

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Sangaku doesn't know when the feeling starts. Perhaps it doesn't start so much as he starts to notice it, staring at his video game console in bed one day, the blankets on his lap, and in between, his fingers, which don't feel like they're a part of him.

He tells himself to move them. They do, twitching on the buttons. His avatar in the game stabs the other character dead.

These are his fingers, his brain, from his head to his feet. Stuck in this body that sleeps sometimes, hurts sometimes, falters a lot. His parents are still talking to the doctors about it. They still argue about whose fault it is.

*

The class representative gets home. Sangaku can hear the sound of her opening her front door, greeting her mother, starting to climb upstairs. He has good ears. They don't get sick.

"Manami," the class rep. Her window has been open all day. "You're sick again?"

Sangaku lifts his head up from his video game and smiles. "You sound like you're surprised."

She scoffs. "Hardly."

She scours through her backpack. Sangaku doesn't need to watch to know.

She comes back to the balcony and reaches over. She's holding a pile of worksheets, even though Sangaku doesn't turn away from his video game.

"I brought your homework for today."

Sangaku takes it with one hand and puts it on his bed. He'll do it tonight. Or tomorrow. Or over the weekend.

"Do you still feel like you're dying?" the class rep asks dryly.

Sangaku looks up.

"What?"

She blushes. Class rep does that a lot. "Because of what you said the other day," she says. "About not feeling alive, and." She gestures to his video game.

Sangaku stares at his screen. The opponent is about to attack, and he lets his fingers stay where they are.

His avatar gets stabbed and falls. A bright red "GAME OVER" flashes on the screen.

Sangaku smiles. "It's less about feeling like dying," he says, "and more about learning what dying feels like. So you want to stay alive."

The class rep sputters.

"W-What?"

"You know." Sangaku thinks about earlier today, with his fingers and. Mind. Is this mind even his? Where did it come from? Who knows if he's even real? "When your body feels like your body, every inch, the air above it."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," says the class rep.

Sangaku shrugs and returns to his video game.

*

Frequently when he's about to fall asleep, he gets these premonitions. It's hard to call them dreams, because he begins tracking the exact moment he's about to fall asleep, about to lose consciousness, about to become unaware of his brain until he's awake again.

In these premonitions he sees nails, nails like the ones in his bed and holding his house together. But these nails are on a hard surface, like they've fallen, maybe, and a strange feeling echoes in Sangaku's chest. Maybe it's pain. Maybe it's delight.

Maybe it's both.

*

It's later that school year, but the next year, when the class rep introduces bikes to Sangaku for the first time. And Sangaku feels changed - he's focusing so hard on his body that it feels like his, pedaling, controlling the bike, gripping the handlebars -

"Oof!"

"Manami." The class rep frowns and puts her hands on her hips. "I told you that bike is too hard to ride, you should - "

"No." The bike pushes against him like it wants to knock him over, and Sangaku wants to push back with all his might, tame it, control it. "It makes me feel good."

"You just said that," the class rep mutters, turning back to her bike.

It's a bright and sunny spring day but today it actually feels like one. Sangaku's never really associated moods with the weather before, but this, feeling the open air and all the elements on his skin, and something inside his chest lifts stupendously. Then he thinks about riding in the rain, loud thunder beats, flashing lightning, the push and pull of the rain and wind - and his heart's pace quickens.

How wonderful that would be.

*

He stops falling off his bike after a couple of months of practice. About half a year after that and he can control the road racer - that's what the girl at the store had called it - at a comfortable pace.

His parents split in the middle of his being in junior high. After his father storms out of the kitchen, his mother stares hopelessly at the door for a second.

Then:

"It's not your fault."

"Hm?" Sangaku lifts his head from his homework. He glances around. "Where's Dad?"

His mother sighs. "Thank you," she says. Her voice might be watery.

It's not the last time he sees his father, because he comes the next day.  Sangaku's at home even though it's a school day because his mother hasn't stopped believing him when he says he's sick, even though he hasn't been sick since after he learned to control his bike.

He's staring at the unmarked sheet of homework he could've done yesterday, could potentially do today, when the front door slams open. His father comes in, flustered at the sight of Sangaku.

"I'm glad you're here," he says, as Sangaku goes over to hug him. "Be a good kid for your mother okay?"

"Okay," Sangaku says into his father's jacket.

"I'm gonna get a few things and then I'll be off," he says. "It's not your fault, alright?"

Sangaku doesn't know why his parents think he might think it's his fault. If he did, then they'd be bad parents.

"Alright," he says.

*

The first time he climbs a hill he falls seventeen times.

It's - hard, with the pedals not moving, or not getting him anywhere. He's taught himself about the gears, and the easiest - the ones that actually let him pedal - move him forward hardly by a centimeter.

He turns the gear twice.

Perhaps this will be easier, he thinks. He grips tightly on his handlebars, and pushes his feet. The chemicals go from his brain through his body to his feet, which obey. He tells himself to keep pushing, and he does.

The feeling that he usually has during the day, like he's floating, like he can't look into a mirror without getting confused at a physical reflection - that all disappears. He sinks into his body and his bike and pedals. He moves forward.

He stares at the peak. He's going to take it. This is all his legs can handle right now, but that's okay - the chemicals from his feet to his brain and back let him keep moving forward. When his thighs sore and his feet sting, he smiles, bows his head. Pushes himself more like he can push himself out of his body.

*

He and his mother take it easy, though his mother laments about not buying Sangaku enough gifts now that their budget's cut short.

Sangaku says, "It's alright, I don't need anything except my bike."

In his last year of junior high his mother finds out he's been pretending to be sick - mostly because one night after he tells her he wants to miss school the next day, she catches him sneaking into his bike for a late night ride, and forces him to go to school in the morning. She doesn't chain his bike away, though.

The class rep tells him about Hakogaku, the reigning high school bike kings of Japan. It's not the title that interests him so much as the thought of racing across hills and hills and mountains, and his heart quivers. All these hills he's never climbed and can, peaks he can race reach to take the top first.

"Is it hard to get in?" he asks her.

It is; but he manages when she helps him study. He hadn't even asked.

"It's because I want to go there, too," she says when he doesn't ask again.

When exams are over but results aren't out, he goes on a bike ride to filter out the piles of useless mush in his mind. It's interesting how they'll stay in his brain, somehow, grow old and rotten and rusty over time.

But climbing this hill is at the forefront of his mind.

He pedals - he's learned to use higher gears on hills, though his legs have experience with the tenth gear on only flats. Something inside him tingles.

It's a bright spring day, like that first time he'd ever ridden a bike. The sky is bluer than the Hakogaku logo he's seen, once - every element tingles his skin.

His ears perk, and he raises himself on the seat of his bike.

He hears the wind before it comes. His body moves on its own - or is it just the part of Sangaku's body that knows, even when he doesn't - and he shifts one gear up. Raises his body forward.

Pedals so much harder that it pushes him at light speed with the wind. He opens his mouth and laughs - it feels like the blade of a knife is sliding against his skin, culling it, threatening.

He reaches the peak in record time and whoops in delight.

*

When he gets into Hakogaku, everyone talks about the Inter High, how only the elite are chosen. The practices are after school but the hills are all the same - there are more hills across the route from school back to his home, so sometimes he practices there instead.

He does want to be in the Inter High, though, because it's at the highest mountain in the region and that's ages of climbing, of the burn in his thighs. He races and secures his spot; then Fukutomi-san asks him to ride with him and they race.

Sangaku goes home feeling too much for his bones. It's good, the energy thrumming through every inch of skin.

His mother has dinner made and he remembers he hasn't eaten.

She's asleep by this time, because she works extra hours and falls asleep whenever she gets home. She does check in with the class rep in the middle of the day, though, to make sure Sangaku goes to school. Sangaku eats several bites of the food before he wraps the rest for his mother's lunch tomorrow. He writes a note about being on the Inter High team and puts it on her lunch, before, heading to his room.

His curtains are shut but past them he can see the dim light from the house and bedroom next to his. He smiles. The class rep might take her schoolwork as priority, but he's going to take the peak of the highest mountain in the prefecture.

*

Toudou-san says, "You're a pretty good climber, Manami-kun."

"He's a weird ass climber, that's what he is," says Arakita, as Sangaku thanks Toudou. "Who taught you, wonder boy?"

"I taught myself," Sangaku answers. "Well, I guess class rep taught me... she showed me what bikes were, really."

"Showed you what bikes were?" Arakita's voice is full of disbelief.

Izumida cuts in. "A first year has never been on the team before," he says. "You have expectations to uphold."

Sangaku smiles and scratches behind his head.

Fukutomi says, "Do not worry, Izumida. I'm sure Manami will exceed expectations."

"He hasn't with practices," Arakita snarls. "Fuku-chan, haven't you noticed Manami's attendance rate?"

Fukutomi glances at Sangaku.

Shinkai says, "And still he managed to beat Kuroda and be with us."

"You just like him 'cause he's weird like you," Arakita spits at Shinkai.

Toudou says, "And you're not weird?"

Arakita turns on him, but Fukutomi interrupts.

"Listen," he says. "Now that we've finally met as a team, I want you all to know one thing: believe in each other, even our first year." He glances at Sangaku. "We will place first this year. Like we always have."

Everyone shouts in agreement. Sangaku thrusts his fist in the air and says, "Yeah."

"Watch your senior, Manami-kun," Toudou says, wrapping his arm around Sangaku's neck. "Watch how this ace climber rides."

Sangaku smiles. "Thanks Toudou-san."

*

Practicing with the others is new, because he's never biked with anyone before. They're all much older and more experienced than him so he lets himself move along with them.

He doesn't quite expect the way his body relaxes, but doesn't try to push him out, glance into a puddle and feel like he's not there. Sangaku glances into a puddle and sees himself, feels - whole, he supposes.

He nearly rams into Arakita.

"Watch it," Arakita grumbles.

Sangaku smiles and says, "Sorry."

Arakita glares.

"What are you so happy about?"

"Oh?" Sangaku tries to ground himself even more. He's on his bike, his hands are tight on his handlebars, and. Even with his teammates around him he can still feel the wind. They make the pressure higher.

"I'm happy?" he says.

"You certainly look like it," Arakita mutters. He starts to go off more towards the front.

Sangaku says, "I'm happy riding my bike."

*

He meets Sakamichi shortly before the Inter Highs start. Sakamichi smiles when he bikes too, and Sangaku wonders if it's because he feels what Sangaku feels.

When they race Sangaku is close to hitting it, but finds the wind instead. He rides on that, wants Sakamichi to keep his water bottle.

Sakamichi is bright and doesn't talk about pain, only anime. Sangaku wants to ask him if it makes him feel alive, but that might go over his head. Instead, they make a promise to see each other at the Inter High, and they do.

(The first day they tie, the second day Fukutomi crosses the finish line, and Sakamichi breaks everyone's expectations except for Sangaku's. Perhaps he does feel the same thing.)

Sangaku keeps his pace with his team, watches Izumida lose, Toudou take the mountain, Shinkai lose, and Fukutomi win again. Fukutomi rides like something weighs down his shoulders. Perhaps that is his way of staying in his body.

*

Midousuji rides like he doesn't feel the pain and that's what keeps him alive and it's terrifying. It's terrifying and fascinating and the first time Sangaku sees him ride up close, he thinks, /he's just like me./

There are many different types of people in the world. There are people like the class rep, who always aims for him and misses and Sangaku doesn't aim and misses. There are people like his mother, who works so hard to let him know that she loves him so she never has the time to say it; his father who runs away to feel alive too and still leaves voicemails on his cellphone.

Toudou rides because he's good at it and Fukutomi rides because he needs to and Arakita rides because he feels more than he'll ever express. Sakamichi rides despite pain and Sangaku rides for it, and Midousuji.

Midousuji rides through it like he can't feel the pain, doesn't want to because there's something better past it. But Sangaku knows that, too - that's what makes Midousuji such a good opponent.

"You're not gross," he hears Midousuji mutter to him. Perhaps unconsciously.

Sangaku grins. He grips his handlebars so hard that it feels like they're going to burn the pattern into his palms.

*

When he shifts to his tenth gear, he jolts out of his body.

It's not quite like he's dreaming. He's awake, can see the road behind his eyes - but what are his eyes anymore, but a peek behind a window curtain, like seeing if the class rep is awake yet but not really knowing.

It feels dark, like everything looms. It's not. It's hard for Sangaku to hear, to breathe, to -

He tells his eyes to blink. They do, and he has control over his body. He does. He pedals, pedals like he's doing it for the first time, up that hill and falling seventeen times. Like he's riding at night just because he wants to, to get on the Inter High team for this peak, for everything.

His mind doesn't quite feel like it's in his body, like it's lagging and dragging behind the faster he gets. Sangaku rides even faster.

*

He cries.

The first thing he thinks when he sees Sakamichi cross the line is Fukutomi's voice, saying, Believe in each other, even our first year. We will take first this year.

Like they always have.

Toudou had told him to ride free. And he had. Fukutomi had put him on the team. Sakamichi had -

He's on the edge of the cliff and tears are dripping down his eyes and he doesn't know why. It's winning, he'd wanted to do, so badly, but.

He feels his feet against his ground. Stomps hard. The weight in his chest rivals the way his body feels when he's riding on tenth gear, it hurts, it.

The peak isn't quite like how he'd imagined. He stares out across the countryside and towns, the places he's been and not blurring in his eyes. If he had wings, he'd let himself drop. Fly as close to the ground before he could pick himself up. So that he's still alive.

*

It lightens when he apologizes to his team.

It darkens when he remembers how he'd told Sakamichi to go for the Inter High in the first place.

But Toudou-san lifts it when he tells Sangaku about rivalries and riding with people. Inanely Sangaku wonders if Midousuji's ever been told that before. That, at the last moments before he dropped out, during his race with that one Sohoku first year, he'd understood what Toudou's telling him now.

He buys another water bottle, and calls Sakamichi. They're going to see each other at the next Inter High. Sangaku knows it.

After he hangs up, he sighs and stares out at the busy streets of Akihabara. Everyone is talking to someone or lost in their own world. That's what it means to be alive. Sangaku pinches himself and remembers that he's still here - in his own world, now.

Next year he'll race against Sakamichi again. In a big, big race - but perhaps many small races before that. With crowds, jangling like a big orchestra, and Sangaku will be there with his team. With Sakamichi and Midousuji. With his bike.

He hops off the railing. The breeze touches his skin. He climbs on his bike, thinks about Hakogoku and the Inter High and the space between his bedroom curtain and the class rep's. Faces watching, bikes next to his.

He's not ready to die just yet.