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lay me down tonight (by your side)

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and we used “i love you” like an apology for the things we couldn’t give each other.

—elly belle

 

 

 

Spirit guide assignments only come once every year. The system in heaven is as such: god divides the yearly tasks into four seasons and spins his fucking wheel of fortune to determine who gets to die in a garden flowers during summer and the rest in concrete caskets during the rest of the year. There’s a roster in the huge meeting hall somewhere near Mount Everest for spirit guides to check and fill in their hours for their duties, and it just so happens Furihata’s rotation this time round falls squarely on the peak of summer.

“You can’t screw this one up, okay?” The warden tells him while Furihata signs the discharge papers and prepares to descend to living hell, having received the coordinates of his assignment location. He’s bound for good old Japan, a place he calls home even though he hasn’t visited in years.

“You butchered your last three and if you don’t come back on time again I’m not gonna save your sorry ass and let you pass.”

Furihata wants to cry. Lost souls are the hardest to herd back to the afterlife realm because goddamn it the human race has the stubbornest living beings to ever exist. They reject the harsh realities of being dead and wander off into oblivion until there’s not enough time to return back to heaven. Furihata wishes they could all just be like him, die one day and wake up in heaven the next — no guides involved, no hassle at all. Though as a result, his memory is a bit out of whack. But at least Furihata could remember his name and bits and pieces of his past life. Nobody needs a reminder of how they died, Furihata most certainly doesn’t.

“O-Okay,” he stammers, “I understand.”

“You’d better.” The warden sneers and promptly shuts the gate behind him, locking him out of the afterlife realm.

He feels so alone. All the other guides have departed, having finished their paperwork earlier and he is the only one left.

10 DAYS.

The Tokyo Metropolitan comes through the thin clouds in patches of concrete grey and white. By the time he’s halfway down Mount Fuji, Furihata belatedly realises he forgot to ask the warden for his assignment details. Aside from an address and dubious GPS coordinates, he’s not even sure of the identity of his assigned soul. How in holy hell is he going to locate somebody who is going to die but doesn’t even have a name?

Well, one thing’s for sure though, Furihata thinks as he glides past the suburbs and prepares for landing in Shinjuku, he’s fucked.

 

 

 

 

Summer in Tokyo always consisted of jerseys soaked in sweat, melting popsicles and vaguely, if Furihata recalls correctly, basketball practices — stifling days spent in the Seirin gym crying blood, sweat and tears during trainings for the championships, while during hot, humid nights they would gather around crumpled futons for a game of poker or swap ghost stories with the cicadas singing in the background (the soundtrack of summer) until their eyes couldn’t stay open any longer.

Furihata remembers them, both the good times and the crushing ones when they lost at games, he’s fortunate to still retain a significant portion of his memory, but sometimes, when his guide-peers congregate for supper in the dining hall in heaven, he can’t help but feel envious at the clarity of their recollections regarding their past life.

“My fiance is finally moving on,” someone once announced tearfully between mouthfuls of tomato soup. The whole table exploded into applause. Things like that call for celebration, and it sort of makes Furihata feel even more isolated from the rest of his peers. He doesn’t have heartwarming stories about grief or moving on to tell, and one can only talk so much about friendship and winning basketball championships without boring others for 2973923874394 times. Hell, he can’t even remember the heartwarming moments he once shared with his own parents. This is how lost he feels.

He feels empty, as if he lost part of himself when he died and woke up in heaven with stacks of paperwork about soul-traffic regulations waiting for him to fill and stamp his name on them.

“I can’t remember how I died,” he tells one of the analysts gloomily one day, “I can’t complete my logbook cover if I don’t. And you know how the warden gets if I can’t fill what’s missing.”

The analyst tells him to close his eyes and search within himself. Furihata does as per instructed and meditates to attain inner peace. He sifts through the hazy memories and tries to grasp for important moments. Past the web of insecurities and thick forests of doubt, he finds brilliant red splattered across dark walls, like brilliantly done artistic graffiti fit for museums.

“I see lots of red.” he says.

“Maybe there was a lot of blood when you died.”

Furihata frowns. Blood would make someone feel uneasy, but this particular shade of red is different. It’s bright, brilliant and inviting. Sometimes, if Furihata looked hard enough, he’d notice flecks of amber spotted across the darker areas, and when he feels courageous enough to sink his fingers to touch, it feels so, so warm.

Like home.

“It’s okay,” Mr Analyst comforts him, “you’ll remember it one day. At least you’re spared from the pain for now. Sometimes, forgetting is the easier way out.”

If only forgetting about assignments was the easier way out of trouble, Furihata thinks sourly as he crosses the sidewalk and steps right into the heart of the business district of Shinjuku.

Despite it being the peak of summer, Furihata feels terribly cold. Strange. He’s already discarded his toga in favour of civilian clothes a few moments ago when his butt crash-landed onto the living realm. Not that anyone could possibly see him anyway. As an experiment, Furihata stretches both his arms wide beside him and watches as the the pedestrians shuffle through transparent spirit matter his arms are made of. He watches a tall, burly man jogging towards himself and braces himself for the impact, but finds it useless when he sifts through cashmere and linen while the man races past to board the bus to the train station.

Three assignments after death later he still hasn’t gotten used to being nothing but floating air particles that exist only to guide lost souls back to the afterlife.

He hops past a lamp post with a patch of flowers planted by the sidewalk. The sudden gust of wind does nothing to deter him from navigating his way around West Shinjuku. Four skyscrapers later, the address printed on the crumpled sheet in his hand starts to glow. Furihata is getting closer to his destination. When he reaches, the ink will disappear and Furihata will know that he’s found his target. The only trouble he has right now, as seeing he forgot his information sheet back in heaven, is finding the brand stamped across the hollow of his target’s neck.

Yes, perfect. Easy as pie. All Furihata has to do is try to convince every single person he suspects to be sick to strip in broad daylight (if they can even see him).

The address sheet glows and the print fades when he stops in front of a intimidatingly tall building with full-height tinted glass windows for walls.

This is it.

Something churns unpleasantly in his stomach when he phases through the glass doors and drifts towards the elevator with the morning crowd scurrying to work. It feels as though he’s been to this building countless times before. Everything, the decor, the walls, even the reception counter, screams familiar to him. His mind has developed a conscience of its own and is currently taking him to the elevator to fight for standing space in that cramped box.

Somebody presses the 39th floor. Deja vu comes back to haunt Furihata and mess with his head.

Little by little, floor by floor, the elevator empties out. The air gets more bearable to breathe when he’s not squished to the back by cashmere or suffocated by overbearing perfume and cologne. By the time the elevator reaches the 36th floor, there is only one businessman left.

Furihata starts to think mindlessly searching for dying people in elevators is a stupid idea when the doors slide open to reveal brilliant red and a flash of gold.

Time stops. Heterochromatic eyes stare back in shock at Furihata who is frozen to the ground as the missing pieces fall into place.

Furihata knows this person. He would’ve recognised that brilliant shade of red anywhere, more so now that he dreams of it every night. He wants to say this person’s name again, like how he used to everyday before he disappeared and woke up in heaven.

“A—”

“Akashi-san?” The businessman interupts, snapping both of them out of their moment of revelation.

Akashi Seijuro blinks, and apologises quietly as he steps into the square box. He brings along a fresh breeze of air, and the scent of clean soap and faint cologne is what drags Furihata by the collar back to the past into a time when his heart still pumped blood and stopped (figuratively) every time Akashi Seijuro is by his side.

Furihata can make out the empty spaces in his memory jar now. They fill up with memories of soft touches and gentle kisses, the warmth found in shared blankets and pots of coffee and tea for two, and time spent together under cherry blossom trees catching fallen pink petals and storing them in mason jars as a token of their love. But, he recalls life after Akashi Seijuro as well — the pain and heartache that follows after a bitter breakup, the cold days spent in bed alone as misery rips his heart apart, and the tears, Furihata remembers them all. If he could quantify the amount of tears he shed into units, his heart would be filled with the sorrow of ten thousand oceans drowning him under until he cannot breathe.

We were once lovers.

But why?

The memories come back, but the jar remains half-filled. Furihata still feels the hollow spaces of loss burning him down.

Why couldn’t they make it to the end together?

“Sleepless night again?” Mr Businessman tries to strike a conversation with the Red Emperor. Akashi turns to reply the balding man. His shoulders twist a little and Furihata has the urge to trail his fingers across the broad expanse of that back he used to map out every night and know so well.

“I’m afraid so.”

“You should try soaking in a warm bath before going to bed. Helps me every time.” Baldy advises as the final floor comes into view and both occupants step out into the office.

“Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind.” Akashi smiles politely (which basically means Fuck Off in Akashi-speak according to Furihata who spent years mastering the language) before parting with the man and walking off in a different direction. Furihata scuttles after him, trying to keep up with his insane pace that he always kept even when Furihata was still alive.

By chance of a miracle (or curse, Furihata really doesn’t know which), Furihata catches sight of a mark on one side of the redhead’s neck and stops dead.

Reality sinks in. Akashi is his assignment. Akashi is the one who will die in 10 days.

Horror washes across him. The world breaks apart for one second but comes back together again the next. Mother Earth is still spinning on her axis and Akashi is getting further and further away from him. Dead or alive, Furihata must speak to him.

“Akashi-kun!” The brunet races past said man and stops in front of him, looking at him dead in the eye. “It’s me, Furihata Kouki.”

Akashi stops for one-tenth of a second in his tracks, heterochromatic eyes widening one-tenth of a fraction of their original size before he picks up his pace and starts walking towards his office again, brushing past an extremely unsettled Furihata who just squirms in his spot and winces the moment the door slams shut sharply behind him.

He feels so out of place even though he’s been here almost his entire lifetime. Well, during his more memorable years, that is.The final moments at the end of his life still escape him, if he was ever conscious to witness the passing of it.

But Furihata Kouki is not one to give up easily. The warden is probably waiting in the dark for some poor unfortunate soul to screw up and eat them up alive for breakfast, so he still has to carry out his duties and make sure the job is done within the timeframe allowed.

So, he turns around and marches up to the door again, sliding into the room smoothly when the secretary opens the door to hand Akashi a stack of files and his schedule of the day. When she leaves, the brunet takes her spot in front of Akashi’s desk and clears his throat as if it would ease away all nervousness and give him the strength to open his mouth and talk to Akashi Seijuro again.

“You are going to die in ten days.” He announces, loud and clear in the deafening silence of these four barren walls. Not the most pleasant way to break the news but it’s the easiest.

But Akashi ignores him, has the art down to a pat, and continues reviewing the spreadsheet in his hands on the company’s latest financial statements. His eyes are flying past columns of numbers and Furihata thinks maybe Akashi didn’t hear him loud enough.

So, he clears his throat and tries again. Cowards never give up, they’re persistent once they latch onto something, especially if their lifeline depends on it.

“Akashi Seijuro, you will die in ten days.” he tries louder this time.

After multiple times of pestering from the brunet, Akashi sighs quietly, drops the paper he was reading and closes his eyes, tired crinkles appearing on his face. He glances at Furihata for a few seconds before averting his eyes to the door, as if wishing someone would just barge in and snap him out of this dream.

Wait, is this what Akashi thinks it is? A dream? Excuse him, but Furihata Kouki is real! As real as spirits can be!

“T-This isn’t a dream, okay?” the brunet stutters in clarification, and winces when the redhead’s eyes fall on him sharply. “I’m real, I’m here.”

He has aged. The extra few lines on his handsome face make him look a few years older than he probably is, but Furihata’s heart still skips a beat or two when Akashi stares at him with his intense eyes. That much hasn’t changed. That and the grim line of his lips that appears whenever the clogs of his brilliant mind whir and churn away in the face of difficult problems (e.g trying very hard to believe ghosts, spirits and the afterlife actually exist).

For a second, he looks haunted, eyes wide with apprehension (or is it fear?) but soon, like always, he snaps back into his senses and steels his expression back into one of cool, calm and collected professionalism.

“Hello, Kouki.” Akashi finally acknowledges his presence — existence — with a curt nod and quiet voice after what seems to be an eon.

And then he is brought back to the past, to a day where the cherry blossoms bloomed and fell from blue skies in kyoto, where two people from very different lives crossed paths, met each other for the first time and fell in love like how the shore loved the sea more than enough to let the waves wash itself away.

“A-Akashi-kun.” he stammers, twisting his fingers together in unease. Akashi buries his face in his hands and heaves a huge sigh.

“You sound so much like him” he murmurs, “it doesn’t even feel like a dream this time.”

“T-This isn’t a dream. It’s the real me.”

“You’re not Furihata Kouki, you can’t be.”

“But I am. I’m a spirit guide now, and I—” the brunet gulps, “I’ve come to retrieve you. You are going to die in 10 days, Akashi-kun.”

The Red Emperor blinks, and then he stands and exits the office without a word further. The sharp slam of the door is an indication that Furihata is not welcome to follow him. Akashi does not come back for a long time, leaving Furihata to linger around the corners of the Akashi Corporation skyscraper that he used know so well while Tokyo moves on with time for the rest of the day.

 

 

 

 

For the next few days, Furihata can count with his fingers the number of times Akashi Seijuro acknowledges his presence around him on this sad lonely planet.

The universe is against Furihata. This entire mission must be a scheme his boss had set up to boot him out of heaven and fall into the deepest circles of hell. It seems like time has given up on Furihata and left him to wither away on Earth, because it’s been three days since Akashi last spoke to him, last acknowledged his presence, and frankly the brunet has never dealt well with radio silence especially when its origins point to a heterochromatic-eyed redhead.

Day one, Furihata speaks to him. Akashi stops a moment, his expression one of disbelief, before he turns away wordlessly and continues whatever he was doing.

Day two, Furihata blocks his path and looks at him squarely in the eyes. Akashi entertains him like how one would communicate with a log (he doesn’t).

Day three, Akashi doesn’t even bat an eyelash as he walks past through the brunet.

And by the fourth day, Furihata gives up. He can only swallow lumps of frustration and tears and trail after Akashi across the metropolitan like the sad, dead (ghost) puppy he is. He follows Akashi into cold, stifling meeting rooms where the Red Emperor dominates and rules over a significant quarter of the Japan economy, he watches as Akashi sells his soul to the incarnate of the corporate devil and slave over towers of paperwork in the absence of much needed periodic breaks.

But, despite the terrifying amount of paperwork sitting on his desk, Akashi always leaves work at six in the evening sharp, where he retreats back to the cold, lonely apartment he calls home, and promptly changes into his sportswear and kicks off jogging from the gates of the apartment.

Evening jogs used to be their thing. Furihata can recall perfectly the warmth of the setting sun on sticky, sweaty skin, the salty scent of the sea settling in their bones as they jogged past the beach on humid summer evenings back when everything was still okay and Furihata was still alive.

And apparently Akashi continues their tradition of evening jogs even after Furihata had passed on. The second day Furihata is stuck convincing the Red Emperor of his impending demise, the latter had put on his jogging shoes and quietly slipped out of the apartment when the brunet was not looking. But, old habits die hard. The road to the beach must be so ingrained in his subconscious that Furihata finds no difficulty in navigating across their old jogging track before gravitating back to Akashi’s side.

He finds the redhead sitting by the bay, alone. The setting sunlight kisses his face in the right angles and direction that Furihata can’t help but feel the corners of his heart tug a little at the impassive, hollow expression painted on his beloved redhead’s face.

“Hey.” Furihata sits beside him, wishing with all his might that Akashi would just talk to him again, that they never left and he never died and things were just the way they were before Furihata left.

But Akashi makes no effort to acknowledge his presence. The words from yesterday night still pierce through his heart, Furihata thinks it would take a long time before the pain and bitterness they carried would crawl away from the recesses of his mind.

You’re not Furihata Kouki, you can’t be.

“Are you okay?”

It’s a stupid question, of course Akashi is not okay. His poker face is back, the walls Furihata used to break down and bulldoze his way across to his heart are back and even more solid than ever. Akashi does not respond to his questions, he still believes that Furihata does not exist.

I’m here, Furihata wants to say, please stop ignoring me.

Akashi stays rooted to the shore even when the crowd around them starts to thin out as time passes. He watches the sky bleed red and purple with such burning intensity, as if when the sun sets it would take sadness along with it so the world can feel joy again.

And later, when Akashi is home, he tucks himself beneath layers of cotton comforters like he wants to drown alone in his bed of loneliness that was originally meant for two.

It hurts to watch Akashi isolate himself from the world. How long has it been like this? Perfect, perfect Akashi, who deserves all the love in the world, yet receives none while the world passes by and watches on as he sinks himself in solitude?

It’s such a lonely sight Furihata’s heart breaks a little more.

For the past few nights, he finds peace in observing Akashi sleep at night. It reminds him of the nights they used to share in the same bed, Akashi’s weight pressed against him and their limbs tangled and slotted perfectly into each other’s creases and folds in ways more than they could imagine. Akashi would lean down to kiss him, tenderly at first, nipping at his lower lip until Furihata slides his fingers into locks of soft red hair and deepens their kiss. He knows the right angles to shift their heads for the perfect kiss Akashi likes so much, the exact pressure to exert against bony hips to elicit soft moans from swollen lips, and Furihata knows precisely the right places to touch so Akashi can whisper his name over and over again and even after a million times, Furihata is sure he will never tire of listening to that raspy voice weave itself into his soul and ink his given name into his bones.

“Kouki Kouki Kouki Kouki—”

Furihata would shut him up by kissing him more, demanding attention that he has craved for since lonely mornings. Their shirts can’t come off fast enough, Furihata wants to tear them apart so nothing comes between them especially in the most intimate of places.

In the dark, Furihata comes in jagged breaths and white hot spasms while Akashi grinds one last time against him and collapses onto him. Like always, Furihata catches him and curls into his embrace even though he’s spent, arms tightening and shielding him from the cold because he’s the last and only place for salvation Akashi could ever turn to.

They would listen to each other’s heartbeat in the dark after that, breathing synchronised to the rise and fall of each other’s chest. The comforting silence washes over them in peace. Furihata would carve his I love you’s ten thousand times in his heart before he has the courage to whisper those three words and lay his heart out in the open for Akashi to see, and while the latter could not utter those words yet, his sentiments were the same. He would gaze at his beloved brunet fondly, fingers threading and caressing his flushed cheeks lovingly as he presses soft kisses against his temple, his eyelids (warm from shedding tears), his jaw and Furihata would know. He would feel so, so loved.

But now, Furihata can only watch the haunted look on Akashi’s face every time they lock eyes across the room and hope that maybe, one day, all this pain will go away.

“Don’t you sleep?” The question (quiet as it may be) springs out of nowhere in the dark. Furihata’s mind scrambles together for a response.

“Not really. Dead people don’t really need to sleep.”

Akashi closes his eyes, but when they open in the next second, those heterochromatic irises are filled with something akin to strong will and determination that burned away whatever that tormented the crevices of his mind for the past few days.

Hesitantly, trembling fingers reach out towards Furihata, trying to touch and feel, but like all things they pass through and grasp nothing but thin air into empty palms.

“I can’t touch you.”

“You can’t. I’m made of spiritual matter. Our body composition isn’t the same.”

Akashi turns away, probably to hide his expression, but the window mirrors his pained expression all the same. The steely exterior he constantly puts on crumples into something so raw and heartbreaking Furihata wishes he could hold him in his arms and help him to feel better again.

 

 

“Kouki, why are you here?”

 

 

 

 

Today marks the fifth day of Furihata’s stay in the living realm. It is Sunday, a bright sunny day perfect for picnics and spending the day outside breathing in fresh air.

Which is exactly what they currently are doing, wandering aimlessly in the local neighbourhood park, taking in gulps of oxygen and basking in sunshine on a very quiet afternoon.

Akashi spends more time sending prayers up god’s way and searching for answers in blue skies than he does worrying about his impending death.

“I think,” Furihata starts, gulping down the sense of discomfort lodged in his throat, “you should start getting your affairs in order.”

For the first time in days, Akashi turns to look at him properly, specks of recognition and interest sparking into life behind dichromatic eyes.

“My affairs?”

“Yeah, your will, your property, your surviving goldfishes and corgi puppies, anything you want to give away, to be honest. It’s mandatory that we spirit guides make sure you leave this world with no regrets.”

Akashi snorts quietly. “I have nothing to give anybody.” (I have nothing left. I have no one left)

“But you’re dying. Please take this seriously.”

“I don’t care about death, Kouki.”

“But death cares about you.”

Why are redheads so stubborn? Where does this streak of pigheadedness come from? Furihata would like to have a few words with the common ancestor of all redheads born into this world. Better yet, he’d like to have an audience with God and question his sobriety when He decided to sprinkle a little too much of stubbornness into all redheads in the human factory.

“Akashi-kun please.” he almost cries in frustration.

Akashi looks away, eyes fixated on the vast blue skies as he waits for the answers to rain down on them and drown him in more pain. Then, with an unreadable expression Kouki cannot for the life of him decipher (for the past few days, he realises he has lost touch with the art of understanding an Akashi), he says quietly—

“You used to call me Sei.”

 

 

 

 

Furihata always thought he had a very good eye for observing Akashi in his everyday life. Akashi’s life is deprived of any semblance of fun and happiness, he notes. Every single day is filled with routines so strictly followed it would put the military training regime to shame.

Akashi's day starts with an unhealthy amount of coffee (flat and black, not a drop of milk or sugar) before it moves on in the production line to be filled with towers of paperwork filling in the empty spaces of his heart desk until the evening sun hits the glass panes of his office, serving as a gentle reminder that it's time to end the day with his daily evening jog by the beach.

(Meal times are slotted in there somewhere. Rinse and repeat.)

Therefore, one morning, in the quiet folds of the office amidst the murmuring chatter and faint telephone rings, it takes Furihata by immense surprise when the the Red Emperor breaks away from routine, putting down the finance sheets as he slides his drawer open and produces a bottle of blue pills out of thin air.

By the time Furihata has recovered from shock by this strange deviation, Akashi is already downing two tablets and scrolling through his phone with surprising concentration.

“Where did you get these from?” How? When? why?

Akashi regards him carefully. “My therapist,” he says slowly, taking in the way Furihata’s eyes widen in shock, doubled from the moment he notices the word ANTIDEPRESSANTS scribbled in haste onto the label.

“Your- what?”

“My therapist.” he repeats nonchalantly as if they were discussing the weather. “Well, my used-to-be therapist. I stopped seeing her months ago, but recent events seem to indicate that maybe I’m due for another checkup.”

Furihata cannot believe his ears, nor his eyes as Akashi picks up the phone and dials the numbers effortlessly as if he’s been doing this for god knows how long. It sickens Furihata to think that Akashi knows these numbers so easily, can recall them so effortlessly — it just shows how much he’s been seeing this therapist of his ever since Furihata was gone.

Akashi was supposed to be invincible, absolute, the pinnacle of human perfection. In all the years they’ve been together, Furihata knows him best, or at least, he thinks he does. Akashi hates showing weakness, he strives and aims for perfection with every fibre of his being, he never tolerates mistakes on his part and always makes sure he does his 100% best in everything entrusted to him, so the prospect of the Red Emperor sitting in a bright, white room with no one else but a counsellor scares Furihata to no end.

Just how much has changed in the four years he was gone?

“Why?” he asks, voice quivering when Akashi finally puts down the phone, “why are you seeing a shrink?” He cannot comprehend.

Akashi closes his eyes and sighs quietly, as if remembering a painful memory. The next two words that escape those pale, chapped lips (the ones he used to kiss so much, so hard) break him.

“You died.”

 

 

 

 

For once, ever since he’s come back, Furihata stops trailing after Akashi’s shadow and stays in the apartment. The thought of Akashi — infallible, strong and unbreakable — consulting a counsellor because of his death torments him, wrenches his heart so tightly he feels faint from all the pain.

“I’ll just... stay here.” the brunet winces when the door closes shut without any reply.

While the redhead is away, Furihata scours all lonely corners of the apartment for clues, answers, keys to Akashi’s distant behaviour. He wants reasons to why Akashi sometimes wakes up drenched in cold sweat, he wants to know why Akashi has to put up a strong front to lie to his friends that everything’s fine when it’s not. Time is ticking and eating away the days they have left for Akashi to leave this world with no regrets lest he loses himself in the afterlife. There are so many things Furihata wants for Akashi to have and live with, especially happiness.

There is just not enough time left. Furihata wants to cry.

In the evening, close to sundown, the front door opens and Akashi returns from his little voyage looking more tired (and sad) than ever.

Naturally, Furihata follows him into his (their) room and watches his beloved fall onto the bed.

“So… how did it go?”

Akashi sighs.

“We revisited the past. The day you—” he pauses, swallowing the lump of sourness in a pitiful attempt to bury the aching grief, “—we just went back to the day we broke up, and the day you left. She told me to write down what I felt. but I couldn’t. I was at a loss on penning down my thoughts. They’re so horrible, they haunt me at night. I couldn’t write at all.”

Because the memories hurt. They hurt so much he wishes he could just slice them apart so he can be free from the pain and realise how it’s like to breathe properly again.

(But life without Furihata hurts even more, so much that sometimes the memories sneak out of his eyes and roll down his cheeks no matter how hard he tries to forget.)

“I’m sorry.” Furihata tries to place a hand on tired shoulders to wave away the sadness, but all that he sifts through is air. He still can’t touch Akashi who is very much alive, filled with pain and sadness to the brim.

“Don’t be.”

If the stars could fall into place, onto the sea to light the way, furihata wishes he were Jesus so he could walk on water to guide them home.

“I love you, I still do. I can’t remember a time not loving you.”

“Don’t say things you don’t mean, Kouki. You should know better than that by now.”

 

 

 

 

“Why did we break up again?”

“I don’t know. I guess, it just didn’t work out.”

 

 

 

 

Furihata has stayed in the living world long enough by now to pick up the routines in Akashi’s life. Early mornings are filled with warm showers and the strong smell of coffee in the air, and once they’ve braved rush hour in Tokyo, Akashi’s schedules are packed with board meetings and endless towers of paperwork bearing the cries of a hundred (and more) dead trees. Life continues as such for him until late night where he walks alone down the back street to the train station just in time to take the last train home.

“Say,” Furihata asks one night when he has the courage to, pointing to the main street a couple of blocks down Akashi Corporation, “why don’t you ever take this lane? It’s much shorter to the station isn’t it?”

Akashi stares at him. Under the moonlight, the shadows falling on his face highlights the exhaustion radiating from his entire being.

“I don’t use that road anymore.” He says slowly.

“Why?”

It’s a shame really, because there are pretty wildflowers growing by the lamp post right in the middle of the toxic air of the city—

“Because—”

—and it’d definitely be nice to pass by everyday and admire those vibrant colours thriving—

“Kouki stop. Don’t go there, please—”

in the midst of grey concrete and—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When ghosts dream, everything seems so empty and hollow.

The world that comes into focus when Furihata wakes up again is terribly grey and cold, subzero temperatures biting into his skin as he trudges his way across snow laden foreground in search of the right way home. His feet take him past the suburbs, past city buildings that feel so foreign to him even though it is the same place he spent over twenty years shaping his life before he died. And it seems like an eon has passed before he stops in front of an extremely familiar apartment complex.

He trails after the wet footprints stained on expensive carpet, taking the elevator and stepping out at the topmost floor because somehow, for some reason, he trusts the soft, incessant whispers at the back of his head to guide him back to where he should be.

And they do, as Furihata catches sight of a flash of red whisk past him to the furthest end of the corridor. The door opens, and Furihata finds himself staring back at another Furihata Kouki as this version of himself beams at the redhead and welcomes him home with open arms and ecstatic smiles, kisses waiting to be redeemed behind closed doors.

And then, he realises (bright as day, clear as blue skies) that this is the past.

Furihata supposes this must be what normal people feel like when they die. In the dark, 135 film rolls start propelling out of the cracks of his memory jar, unfolding before his very own eyes as they play on the memories he lost like a broken record on repeat in a dilapidated theatre. From intense first meetings in high school to intense, nerve-wracking first dates inked into love letters that have travelled interstate into waiting hands trembling with excitement — with the progression of each frame, the fog in his mind gradually clears, the feeling of love comes back to him and suddenly, everything feels like home again.

Their love, he recalls, used to shake the earth. caves and mountains crumble for them. Earthquakes were a manifestation of their yearning for each other when time kept them apart.

And it brings him back to the principle of the law of conservation of momentum: relative speed of approach equals to relative speed of separation. They came so fast together they collided and saw stars. It’s no wonder they would go out with a bang.

 

 

 

 

Eventually, the later stages of their relationship creeps up on him and seeps into the pores of his lungs like stale air. The bitterness of broken love lingers at the back of his tongue as Furihata watches the flames of their relationship, which was what once made their love so great, burn much too bright for two young people to handle.

The morning before the night they fought, Furihata wakes up to an unsettled stomach threatening to push last night's dinner contents out into a porcelain bowl. But it's alright, because it's been happening more and more often recently, but it makes him do weird stuff and throw his emotional chart off balance. If he were female, Furihata would think he’s conceiving, but that wouldn’t ever happen so long as he’s alive so he lets that train of thought die there and then.

“I'll be back late tonight,” Akashi says before he walks down the hallway to open the door to leave. but Furihata stops him before he can, buries his face into the hollow of Akashi’s shoulder blades and inhales the scent of whatever love they made that's left of last night in soiled sheets.

“Sei—”

“What's the matter, Kouki?” Akashi has turned around, lifting the brunet’s chin so concerned heterochromatic eyes can check hazel ones for possible injuries.

God, Furihata loves this man so much it hurts. Akashi is stubborn, but his love for Furihata is endless, the latter would like to believe so.

“Let me go out with you, please?” Furihata tries, he doesn't know why but he needs this. Time lately has been flying past and subconsciously he's afraid there isn't much of it left, like something will happen and one day they'll be gone. He has been dreaming of shared trains and cheerful, quiet conversations, he wakes up to images of entwined fingers and close bodies on the bustling streets of Tokyo during rush hour in the morning - everything he desires for but is denied. He wants to spend every single moment, awake or asleep, close to his lover and breathe in his essence until he's sated to the bone, drunk from love until he can’t walk straight and the only thing echoes in his mind is Seijuro Seijuro Seijuro—

But Akashi, being Akashi, only smiles sadly and apologises with a chaste kiss to his temple. Furihata takes advantage of this and kisses him on the lips.

So, so in love.

“we can't,” Akashi breathes in the spaces Furihata allows him to, “you know why.”

Yes, Furihata knows why, but here Akashi is, kissing him back with equal (if not more) fervor as he pushes Furihata against the wall, rough and hard like how Furihata loves it and drives him crazy by sucking angry red blooms across his neck. His briefcase is flung carelessly somewhere into the corner of the living room, ignored and disregarded. It makes Furihata feel secure, like yes Akashi is as emotionally invested as him in this, they're so crazily in love with each other that Akashi indulges his whims for sex before work once every blue moon even though he’d be late for scheduled meetings in soulless, cold conference rooms.

“I can't, you know why.” Akashi says again, quietly when they come undone from their high.

Furihata closes his eyes and rests his head on Akashi's shoulder. Then, gentle fingers sift through his brown locks, comforting him with unspoken words and affectionate gestures until he feels slightly better. Human fragilities are such a weird thing.

“It hurts.” He mutters into cashmere.

Akashi must have heard it all the same, because the next moment he holds Furihata tighter in his arms more than ever and doesn't let go even when the clock strikes nine and Tokyo bustles into life on a Tuesday morning.

 

 

 

 

“My colleagues are openly gay, people still support them. It's going to be okay, Sei.”

“I can't, Kouki. What will the company think? I can't lose this company, I promised my father that I wouldn’t leave it in ruins.”

“So you'd rather lose me? You’d choose the company over me?”

“I want both. I can have both, just with slight differences from what a normal relationship would be like. Please understand that, Kouki.”

“If I told you to choose now, which will you pick?”

“What is wrong with you today?”

“I don't know. Maybe I need a break. I think this is too much, maybe I need to stop loving you for a while.”

“Don't go.”

“Then tell me you love me.”

 

 “I'm sorry, don't go, please.”

 

 

 

 

Back when he died, Furihata woke up to bright sunny clouds and spiritual beings with glowing halos peering down at him. This time, he wakes up to the broken weepings of a voice crying into his being, trying to resuscitate him back to life through sheer heartache and sorrow alone.

“Don’t leave me again, please. Stay, stay stay stay stay—”

While Akashi tries to hug thin air and ends up holding himself, Furihata wraps his arms around the broken man and whispers that it’s alright, he’s okay now, shhh, don’t cry, don’t cry.

Grief is like a house. she comes together with sadness and sorrow and holds him in her arms where he would feel safe. but that's not right, will never be, because Akashi deserves better arms, ones that can provide him warmth and care that he needs.

Like Furihata's.

Grief — she spills out of his eyes, his heart, his soul like aged tea running down broken mugs through its cracks because there is too much burden to bear. she only knows how to give too much but can’t take away what has become toxic to Akashi. Time has filled his soul with so much sorrow it has long displaced the last remaining traces of life out of his system. There is nothing but an empty shell left in the wake of Akashi’s dissolution into nothingness.

“After you died, sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe.”

This is grief creeping up on him, sinking her fingers into his skin and tightening her hold on him (his neck), until bit by bit she steals away his breath and replaces the empty space in his lungs with despair.

This is Akashi crumbling under the heavy hands of time and grief.

“I lose people I love.”

Furihata is determined to bring him out of this sinking quicksand. Nobody will be left stranded alone in the streets when it’s raining sadness and sorrow ever again, nobody will ever have to stand outside in the pouring rain waiting for redemption that they never had to beg for in the first place. Never again.

So he says,

“It’s better to have loved and lost than to have not loved at all. I lost almost all of my memories when I died and woke up in heaven, I lost all of my memories of you. Before I met you again, I felt lost too, like I didn’t know what life and the afterlife meant anymore, why I still existed when I should’ve been gone. But then I met you again, and I remember now, I know now.” Furihata smiles sadly and tries to hold his beloved’s hand, but he knows all Akashi can feel now is a gust of cold air ghosting above his fingers. But it’s okay, things will be okay.

They broke up because they were just foolish young people with different ideals in love, who thought they understood each other, who thought love could solve every hurdle they faced, every problem, everything. Akashi couldn’t let go of his company, he cared more of his image in public than loving Furihata properly. Furihata was sick of loving him quietly, secretly behind closed doors. He’s sick of the distance they put between them when they go out dinner (rare, if ever), and he’s sick of having to steal kisses when Akashi had always belonged to him.

The aftermath of the fight is still fresh in Furihata’s mind. They break up in the pouring rain, the one who stayed watching in despair the one who left storm away, and days pass until Furihata couldn’t take it anymore. He leaves a voice message on the phone, saying he wants to meet at the corner of the Akashi Corporation by the lamp post, begging that he’s sorry and he takes it all back so please love me again. I’m sorry, he croaks, weeps, like a broken record and all that comes out is heavy, broken sobs until it cements into white noise in the background even after the line goes dead and he’s running out of the cold apartment, chasing after lost love before it’s too late. It’s raining, from light drizzle to heavy downpour in just a span of minutes. And while waiting in the midst of the storm, he faintly hears tyres skidding in a distance, until they draw closer and closer and the panic sets in too late and before Furihata knows it, the last thing he sees is bright headlights burning into his retinas before the world turns black.

Kouki, why are you here?

But Furihata understands now, the reason he is here again.

“I’m here, I’m here again.”

 

 

 

“I came back for you.”

 

 

 

 

The journey home is long and arduous, but somehow, they make it back together and Furihata can’t help but feel lighter and happier than he ever was for the past few days. He sits on the edge of the bed in Akashi’s room while the latter soaks himself in the showers long enough to scrub away the yesteryears of sorrow and regret down the drain. And when he reemerges from the bathroom smelling faintly of lavender and clean soap, Furihata pats the empty spot beside him and smiles.

The shared silence this time round feels comforting. A millenium passes before Akashi finds the strength to speak again.

“I was too late. I would’ve called you back. I was going to call you back, even if you didn’t call me first. Being apart everyday pained me so much I almost broke.” And he did, when he heard the siren of an ambulance around the corner of Akashi Corporation, the blue and red lights dancing and bouncing off slabs of cement and concrete steel did nothing to blind him to the cold, harsh truth that Furihata Kouki was pronounced dead on scene.

It had broken him so hard beyond repair that Akashi stopped functioning altogether from that day onwards. All subsequent emotions get converted into deafening numbness upon going through his nervous system.

“I didn't grieve. Life went on for me. I didn't even cry at the funeral. I kept telling myself it wasn’t you, that it was someone else, and that you were still at home waiting for me to hold you in my arms and kiss you whenever we could and—”

Akashi pauses, fists clenched tightly until he finds his voice to continue.

“My thoughts tormented me. For every moment we were apart, I kept thinking about the horrible things I would do if you fell for another person, what if you stopped loving me, what if I saw you on the street with somebody else. I was filled with so much jealousy. But then you died, I didn’t even get to say goodbye, and one day when I was sitting alone in my room, when it sank, I suddenly felt relieved you didn’t love anyone else and felt disgusted with myself.

“I didn’t know which was worse, seeing you in the arms of another person or not able to see you anymore.”

“If we didn’t fight, if I loved you enough, you wouldn’t have died. You’d be alive now, and we’d still be together. You died thinking I didn’t love you anymore.

Fingertips ghost above tear-stained cheeks. The glistening in Akashi’s eyes are tears of sorrow and regret and something more, like a love so lost that it pains one to find it back only to have it rip apart one’s heart into shreds again and again. Furihata cannot be mistaken, because he’s seen this before. The day he stood on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, with the world closing in on him and the distance between Akashi and him increasing with every passing second, Furihata thought he had only imagined it, that it was a trick of the yearning heart, an illusion of the sorrowful mind that Akashi watched him go with tears in his eyes, but now, Furihata is sure. He is sure that Akashi wanted this as much as he does, this closeness between their bodies, the bond that never broke and the connection that linked them together all the way even after the end.

I'm sorry, don't go, please.

“I never stopped loving you.”

 

 

 

 

“Was it like this for you, when you died?” Did you see people before you died? Did you know you were going to die?

Furihata smiles sadly. “No, it was different for me.” He gestures to his surroundings and traces the mark on Akashi’s nape, “I didn’t have all these. I didn’t know I was going to go, then I went, and one day I just woke up in the land of the dead and got roped into picking up the dead from the living world. I’m like an anomaly, I didn’t really have anyone.”

Akashi’s eyes glisten with unshed tears. Slowly, he tries to meld their fingers together. And it works. The moment their fingers touch, his eyes crinkle in happiness as the warmth spreads across his entire being, right from where their fingers slot against each other perfectly.

Maybe in the future, even though time would have stopped for them, there will come days where the burden of robbing bright futures from unsuspecting souls will become too heavy to bear. Maybe there will be days he can't speak a single word from the pain of taking his beloved away from the living realm. But, there will also come days of joy, mornings where they wake up in each other's arms again with the sun’s glow soft on their skins, and things will be alright, because in the end love will light the way and eternity will be waiting for them to start a journey to the furthest edge of the world. Together.

“How much time do we have left?”

Furihata smiles, and accepts the offer of strong arms folding themselves around his waist graciously. The warmth reminds him of peaceful days on a bustling spring day, it reminds him of moments spent under blooming cherry blossom trees in silence, the kind of warmth felt when two bodies are close, so close it’s enough to ignite a flame in each other’s hearts that will never die.

This warmth will span for eternity and spark a new life where no one is left waiting for nothing in front of the tombstone of someone who will never breathe again. Gently, slowly, Furihata tugs his beloved by the hand and leads him away from the cold, lonely darkness into the light where they will, from this instant onwards, call home.

“All the time in the world.”