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It happens so gradually that Takaki barely even notices at first. The world around him dulls and darkens until everything is gray. No other color left at all. It should be surprising and terrifying to not be able to see the bright colors of life all around him, but in reality he just doesn’t care. He tries at first to muster up some feelings, but in the end, he just settles for the unending grayness, accepts that it’s something he probably deserves.

It doesn’t change his life all that much. He still wakes up in the morning, goes to work, eats, and then sleeps. A repetitive cycle he doesn’t try to escape from. He’s too tired to try. Even as the first new buds of spring arrive, the world doesn’t change for him.

Still dull.

Still gray.

But he pretends that his world hasn’t gone colorless. He puts on a nice face when he’s working with the group or visiting his family. It takes a lot of effort, but it keeps them from asking questions like “what’s wrong?” because he knows he doesn’t have answers they’ll understand.

It’s like he’s wearing a mask he can’t take off.

***

Yamada corners him after one of the group’s meetings with their manager. Everyone else in the room is talking excitedly about the announcement of a new album. But Yamada slips quietly over to Takaki and faces him.

“This is for you,” he says, holding out a small red notebook.

Takaki blinks. “It’s not my birthday yet.” He’s having trouble remembering the day’s date, but he’s relatively sure his birthday isn’t for a few more weeks.

Probably.

“It’s an early gift,” Yamada explains. “I thought it might be nice for you to have something to write your feelings down in.”

Takaki manages to say thank you as Yamada gives his shoulder a reassuring pat before leaving to meet up with Keito waiting by the door. Alone again, he looks down at the little notebook, feeling the sturdy cover and the soft pages between his fingers. All the pages are blank, waiting.

Waiting for his words.

When he gets home that night, he opens the notebook again. Yamada said to use it to write about his feelings. But that seems like a joke because he doesn’t have anything to write about. Nothing exciting. Nothing interesting. Nothing happy.

Takaki scribbles down the word nothing. And then he sleeps.

***

Takaki almost considers ignoring the scratching sound on his door. His bed is warm and safe, and he feels too tired to move. But a loud thump and a muffled curse that sounds familiar finally urges him to get up and see who’s there.

“Oh Yuyan, you’re home,” Chinen says, halfway between startled and happy. “The weather’s so nice, I was sure you’d be out at the beach today. You ruined my plan.”

Takaki just tilts his head in confusion. Although he couldn’t blame Chinen for thinking he’d be at the beach. With the weather being unseasonably warm, normally he would be there.

But he hasn’t felt the desire to go to the beach at all lately. And life seems emptier without his once-favorite hobby.

Chinen reaches for the mailbox on his door and pulls out a little fresh sprig of pink Sakura he’d been trying to stuff inside. He grins sort of sheepishly and hands the flowers to Takaki. “I was just going to leave them in your mailbox as a surprise. But well, I smashed my fingers in the mailbox flap, and you’re here anyway, so uh, here ya go!” He laughs as he flexes his sore fingers.

“Thank you,” Takaki answers but wonders what he’s going to do with a bunch of flowers.

“Isn’t it nice how the trees are blooming a little early this year?” Chinen says as he invites himself inside Takaki’s apartment, immediately taking off his shoes by the door.

Takaki hasn’t actually even noticed the flowers outside at all. Was it early this year? Usually he would make time to go admire all the cherry blossoms in the city, but this year he would rather just skip it.

Chinen looks around the room, and Takaki thinks he should feel a little embarrassed because he hasn’t cleaned in a while, but he doesn’t really care.

“You could press these and make a bookmark. That way they’ll last even when all the other blooms are gone,” Chinen suggests. “Do you have any heavy books around here?”

“Not really,” Takaki answers, but Chinen’s already digging around.

“This’ll work,” Chinen says, pulling out some book Takaki’s brother had left behind ages ago. Takaki watches as Chinen carefully places the Sakura on the page, and then closes the book to press down on the cover with his hands. Then he takes the book and places it under three shoeboxes he had dragged out of the closet. “Just leave it there for a couple of months.” He looks satisfied with his accomplishment so Takaki just nods.

“Anyway,” Chinen continues. “I’m on my way to meet Keito for a game of futsal. Wanna join us?”

Takaki shakes his head. He doesn’t really want to leave his apartment today.

“That’s okay,” Chinen says as he’s slipping his shoes back on by the front door. “Come play with us when you feel like it, okay?”

“Okay,” he answers.

***

While Takaki waits for his turn for the magazine photoshoot, he sits in the corner of the room. It’s easier to remove himself and just listen to conversations going on nearby than try to be an active participant. He’s sure they won’t notice if he doesn’t say anything.

Everything is the same. Everything is gray.

He loses track of time so he’s not sure how long he’s been sitting there before Inoo slides into the seat beside him, grinning like he’s got something up his sleeve.

“You look like you need to listen to something funny,” Inoo announces in a casual tone and doesn’t leave Takaki any room for argument, even if he had the energy to protest. Inoo could be a force of nature sometimes and it was better just to roll with it.

Inoo pulls out his cell phone and taps at the screen for a few minutes. “One of the staff from Mezamashi told me about this comedian,” Inoo explains. “He’s hysterical. You need to listen to this.” Once Inoo gets everything set up, he places the phone in Takaki’s hands and hands him his headphones as well.

Takaki hesitates.

“You can’t argue with me,” Inoo continues. “I’ve been awake since 2:30 this morning. At this point, I don’t even know what the word no means.” He grins again and dangles the headphones in front of Takaki’s face until he takes them. After that, Inoo takes off for his individual photoshoot leaving Takaki all alone again.

The voice of the comedian begins, so Takaki doesn’t bother to turn it off. He’s really only half listening, but it’s not completely horrible. It works as a pretty decent distraction. He holds Inoo’s phone in his hands, fingers clasping its blue case as he waits.

When Inoo returns later, he gives the phone back with a polite thank you. And then Takaki manages to make it through his photoshoot with a bunch of silly jokes echoing within his head.

***

Takaki isn’t satisfied with his singing as they begin recording their upcoming album. After several attempts to make his lines sound better, the manager suggests he take a break for a bit while a few others record their parts. He sighs as he exits the recording booth.

Everything feels like a waste.

He doesn’t expect it when Keito appears from seemingly out of nowhere and places an onigiri in one of Takaki’s hands and a cup of green tea in the other. It’s kind of weird actually because Keito is rarely so forceful.

Keito doesn’t say anything as he sits beside him and starts eating an onigiri of his own. Neither of them speaks, but Takaki doesn’t mind. It’s a comfortable silence, like Keito understands that he doesn’t have to say anything. Instead, Takaki focuses on the simple taste of the rice and the bitter warm taste of the tea. He doesn’t realize how hungry he is until he’s started eating. Did he manage to eat breakfast this morning? He tries to remember but all he comes up with is a blank.

But the food makes him feel a tiny bit better and the tea soothes his throat that he’d strained singing with earlier. When Keito’s finished eating his own food, he just smiles at Takaki, pats his shoulder, and goes to record his own lines.

Takaki takes a deep breath. He supposes he can try to sing again.

***

On some days, life feels like a neverending cycle of nothingness. He goes through the motions of the day but doesn’t feel anything. He can’t bring himself to talk to anyone about it though. He doesn’t want to worry anyone, doesn’t want to put his troubles on others. He just tries to deal with it all by himself, even if it’s really lonely.

Today they’re practicing with the choreographer for the upcoming concert tour. Takaki gets fussed at twice before their first break. He knows he deserves it because he can’t coordinate his feet with his hands or anything else he’s supposed to be doing. He’s a useless blob of a person and he wonders why he ever thought this was a good career choice.

Once they take a break, Takaki immediately picks a spot along the mirrored wall and sinks down to the floor, hoping his body will just melt into a puddle and he can stay like that for the rest of eternity.

Something obscures his vision a second later, and he reaches up to pull a towel off of his head. Yabu is standing beside him but he sits down so that Takaki isn’t straining his neck looking up. Takaki tries to give Yabu’s lime green towel back to him, but the other just shakes his head.

“You can use it today,” Yabu says. “I have an extra.”

“Thanks,” Takaki answers back quietly. He rests the towel on his shoulders to soak up the sweat running down the back of his neck. His muscles ache all over and he dreads having to get up again. He thinks he’s holding the rest of the group back and that makes an uncomfortable feeling of guilt settle in his stomach.

“You know,” Yabu says, “that turn you’re having trouble with? The trick is to lift your left foot like a half second earlier.”

“Oh.” Takaki isn’t expecting advice. It’s simple but it makes sense. “I’ll try that.”

“I think the choreographer is just being cranky today,” Yabu continues. “Your dancing is fine.”

Before Takaki can say anything in response to that, Daiki calls out to Yabu, asking a question, and Yabu hops up to go answer. Takaki takes the borrowed towel and wipes away the sweat from his face.

With his face clear, he almost feels like he can see things a bit more clearly too.

The rest of practice goes better with Yabu’s advice really helping him out. But by the time Takaki gets home that night, he feels exhausted again. He grabs his mail out of the box, but when he tries to focus on sorting through it, his mind just goes blank.

He tosses the mail onto a pile of more unopened mail that he hasn’t looked at yet, figuring he could deal with it later. Before he goes to sleep, he picks up the notebook Yamada had given him. He hadn’t written much in it, just a few sentences here and there. But today, he writes a little summary of dance practice. Not much but enough. It’s mostly just a complaint to himself about his own inadequacy, but once it’s on paper, it’s like he’s let those feelings go.

At least temporarily.

***

The sound of his phone ringing startles him out of a nap. Takaki blindly grasps for the source of the noise until he finally gets his hands on it.

“Hello?” His voice sounds a little dry and scratchy. He realizes he didn’t even look at the caller ID before he answered.

Hey, are you busy right now?” Yuto’s voice comes through from the other end. Sometimes Yuto is like a bouncing ball of energy, but today he sounds calmer.

“I’m not doing anything,” he answers. He’s never doing anything.

You wanna walk with me while I take some photos? It’d be nice to have some company.

Takaki’s first instinct was to say no because staying in bed was a tempting alternative. But he could hear Yuto breathing on the other end, waiting expectantly for his answer. And disappointing Yuto would have too many consequences to deal with later. So without thinking it through, Takaki agrees.

Great! I’m already outside your apartment. I’ll wait here for you.

Somehow, Takaki wasn’t surprised.

Yuto looks excited when they start their “photography journey” as Yuto calls it. There’s a park nearby that Takaki suggests they check out. Yuto always seemed to enjoy getting nature shots. The park isn’t very crowded when they arrive, mostly just a few joggers and a couple of parents with their young children. But Yuto chooses to focus on the trees and the grass and the ants on the ground. Takaki watches as he twists and turns to get the perfect shot at the perfect angle, how he switches the lens and adjusts the settings, how his face completely lights up when he captures an excellent photo.

Takaki’s not quite sure why Yuto invited him.

Yuto pauses mid-stride to snap a photo of a glob of spilled ice cream on the sidewalk, melted from the summer heat.

“Why’d you take a picture of that?”

Yuto shrugs. “You don’t always have to capture the nice moments with a camera. Sometimes you have to get the dirty stuff and the sad stuff too.” Yuto doesn’t wait for a response before he bounds off down the sidewalk to snap a photo of a bird. The rapid motion scares the bird into flight though, so he points the camera up to the sky to try to catch it.

Takaki looks up and squints in the bright sun as he tries to follow the bird against the pale blue sky. The sound of a click close by makes Takaki turn to look at Yuto again. The camera is pointing towards him instead of the bird.

“This is a good one,” Yuto says and tilts the display screen for Takaki to see too. He just nods, not sure how else to respond. Yuto might like the picture but all Takaki can see are the dark circles under his eyes. He looks like a mess and he tries to hide the frown that sneaks onto his face.

There’s a silence for a few minutes and then Yuto speaks with a bubbly tone, but with a hint of something more serious underneath.

“You wanna hear a metaphor? Something I was just randomly thinking about the other day.” Yuto pauses. “So I think life is just a bunch of mud and diamonds. That’s awesome, right? I mean, you’ve got a whole pile of diamonds. But sometimes it gets hard to see the diamonds because they’re covered in this really gross mud. It’s frustrating, yeah? You can’t focus on this really good thing you have because all you can see is mud, mud, mud. So…” Yuto realizes that he’s starting to ramble. “So what I mean is that sometimes you have to stick your hands in the mud for something good. That’s what I was thinking about anyway.”

He looks proud once he’s done with his little impromptu speech and gives Takaki a genuine smile.

“Okay?” Takaki says, feeling a little confused.

But Yuto doesn’t try to explain further. Instead, he smiles and tells Takaki that he’s got to go. Takaki walks back home slowly still thinking about what Yuto said. He guessed that bit about the mud and diamonds made sense. It was so much easier to just focus on the dirty stuff than the good.

If only he was a bird that could get up and fly away from all the mud.

But doing that would leave all the diamonds behind too.

By the time he gets home, Yuto has sent something in Jump’s group message. It’s the picture of him looking up to the sky with the caption look at my nice model from today :)

There’s already a few replies to it too.

Yamada: Yuya, looking good!

Daiki: Takaki, u look like a pro ;)

Daiki again: hey Yuto, why do u never invite me to be a model???

Inoo: nice photo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Chinen: how does your hair always look perfect? what are your hair secrets Yuyan? tell me Yuyan tell meeeee

Takaki doesn’t exactly understand everyone’s reactions, but he saves the photo to send to his mother later.

He writes stick your hands in mud to find the diamonds in the notebook before he goes to sleep.

***

The grayness persists. The days blur together. It feels like quicksand he can’t escape from, like he’s sinking lower and lower and he’ll never climb out. He’s tried to pull himself out, but maybe it’s just not enough. Nothing will ever be enough.

“You’re eating dinner with me tonight.”

Takaki looks up with a confused “huh?” to see Hikaru standing in front of him. Everyone else has already gathered their things and gone home for the day.

“You keep turning me down for dinner,” Hikaru continues as he takes hold of Takaki’s arm and guides him towards the doorway. “But not today. I’m not taking no for an answer. We’re eating together.”

Takaki figures there’s no use fighting it as Hikaru’s already dragged him halfway down the hallway. He also doesn’t think he has any food at home for dinner anyway and he’s tired of eating convenience store bentos. So that’s how he ends up sitting across from Hikaru at the little restaurant down the street.

Hikaru doesn’t try to force him to talk. He keeps the conversation light, talks mostly about his hair-dye goals for the next few months. Takaki only has to nod on occasion to show he’s listening.

Takaki looks over the menu for a bit but doesn’t even know what to order. He has no appetite for anything even if he feels hungry. Hikaru ends up suggesting a simple bowl of beef and rice and orders for them both.

Takaki swirls the food around a bit with his chopsticks before he takes his first bite. Hikaru has changed his topic of conversation to the weather so Takaki doesn’t have to say much while he’s eating. The food is good and Takaki is kind of surprised when he devours the whole thing.

Hikaru orders two extra portions to take home and walks with Takaki back to his apartment. Takaki doesn’t invite him in but Hikaru comes inside anyway, heading straight for the refrigerator where he puts the take-out boxes away safely. For another moment, Hikaru peers inside the fridge and frowns.

“We’re going grocery shopping,” he announces. Before he drags Takaki outside again, he dumps a moldy container of some sort of mystery meat into the trash can.

Takaki thinks maybe he should tell Hikaru not to be so nosy, but he’s too tired to protest.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Takaki says when they return yet again to his apartment and unload the groceries into his fridge and his cabinets.

“I don’t have to do anything,” Hikaru replies back cryptically. He continues not to ask permission as he rummages around Takaki’s kitchen for a frying pan. Grabbing two eggs, Hikaru quickly whips up a little yellow omelet and then places it in front of Takaki.

“Protein is good for you,” he says, and then he heads for the door. “See you at tomorrow’s photoshoot.”

Takaki cleans his plate, not leaving even one crumb behind.

***

Takaki wants to just smother himself in his pillow when he wakes up and sees that he’s overslept by a good four hours. He was supposed to be at practice today, but he’s already missed a large portion of it. There are two angry voicemails from his manager. Takaki groans, running his hands over his face. He knows he should get up, get a shower, and make an appearance at practice since that was important.

But he’s just so tired of trying. He can’t keep this up. He can’t keep pretending to be okay when he hasn’t felt okay in so long. Little questions keep popping up in the dark corners of his mind. What was the point? Why bother anymore? Did anyone care?

These thoughts echo over and over again while he just stares at his ceiling. There’s no point anymore.

He’s given up.

At least he thinks he has until he hears an obnoxiously persistent knocking on his front door. He tries to pretend the sound is coming from his next door neighbor, but that illusion shatters when he hears Daiki’s muffled voice call out from the other side.

It’s an annoyingly sing-song tone. “Hey Takaki. I know you’re in there.”

He knows Daiki too well. The guy would be willing to stand outside his door for hours calling for him, not caring if it bothers everyone else in the building. So Takaki drags himself out of bed finally just so he can tell Daiki to go away.

“What are you doing?” he asks as he opens the front door.

Daiki pauses mid-knock. “Uh…” He suddenly rises up on his tiptoes and then starts knocking out a random rhythm on the doorframe. “I’m doing my best Yuto impression.”

Takaki gestures for Daiki to come inside. “Just stop before someone complains about the noise.”

“Since you weren’t at practice today, we were worried you were sick. I brought you a basket of oranges. Vitamin C helps fight colds.” Daiki holds out the aforementioned basket and then places it on the table by his large stack of unopened mail. “You don’t look very sick though.”

“I’m fine,” Takaki lies.

Daiki raises his eyebrows with a skeptical I-know-you’re-lying-but-I-won’t-call-you-out-on-it look. He pulls out a chair from the table and makes himself comfortable. “You don’t have to worry about what you missed at practice today. Hikaru and Keito took video and detailed notes. They’re going to put it in the group message later.”

“Thanks,” Takaki mumbles. He doesn’t deserve that when he’s the one who skipped for no good reason.

Daiki doesn’t look like he plans to leave anytime soon. “Hey Takaki, sit down beside me. I’ll help you sort through this.” He grabs the mountain of mail and automatically starts separating the different envelops.

Takaki is too stunned by the offer to protest. Why should Daiki spend his free time doing something as tedious as sorting through Takaki’s mail?

Daiki taps the chair beside him persistently until Takaki sits down. For the next few hours, they throw out the junk mail and Daiki patiently organizes all the bills by their due dates. He gently coaxes Takaki into paying the few that are already past due and also a few more that are close.

When they’re done, Daiki flips Takaki’s calendar—it still says it’s February—and then he writes down which bills are due later so Takaki will remember.

It’s surprising to Takaki how accomplished he feels just by taking care of such a simple task. He’s grateful that Daiki took the time to help. He didn’t even have to ask.

“I should pay you back for helping me,” Takaki says, mostly to himself.

Daiki picks one of the oranges from the basket he brought and smiles. “This’ll do.” He tosses the fruit up in the air and catches it again. Then he exits much more quietly than when he arrived, leaving Takaki to adjust to the new feeling of accomplishment.

He had forgotten what it felt like.

***

The weather is nice so Takaki opens the window in his bedroom on a whim, letting the breeze float through and cool everything off. The view from his apartment isn’t very exciting but he’s been staring out the window for a while, watching the people pass by. Each one on their way somewhere, just going about their daily routines.

It makes Takaki feel a bit lonely. Here he is, struggling each day in his dull gray world all alone. He doesn’t like to call it depression but he knows that’s what it is he’s fighting against every day.

He thinks it’s better if he leaves the window for a while, but as soon as he stands up, he stumbles over something on the floor. Somehow he manages to catch himself before falling completely, and once he’s stabilized, he looks down.

It’s the notebook Yamada had given him months ago. That little red notebook containing a few sparse scribbles within its pages.

Wait a minute…

Red.

He can see it. The notebook cover is red.

And that’s when everything hits Takaki like a ton of bricks. He hasn’t been alone at all. All the suffering under the crushing weight of depression—the group had been holding out their hands to keep him afloat, giving him tiny bits of color back. Takaki hadn’t told them anything about what he was feeling, but they had known anyway.

And they had tried to help him in their own different ways.

They understood.

A scratchy laugh escapes his throat as he thinks about how stupid he’s been to not realize it. The mask he’s been wearing forever cracks open and falls away, letting everything just spill out.

He picks the notebook up from the floor and cradles it in his hands. Yamada had told him to use it to write down his feelings. But he was suddenly inspired not to write what he was feeling, but to draw it.

Grabbing his wallet, he dashes out of his front door and goes to the hundred yen shop down the street. Another few minutes later and he returns home with a package of colored pencils. He goes straight to doodling on the first blank page he finds in the notebook. His art skills have never been great, but that doesn’t matter. The only thing he focuses on is drawing the images that pop into his mind. Food, nature, anything and everything.

His friends had tried to bring color back to his world.

Bit by bit, he fills in the white spaces on the page with all the colored pencils he has. The colors blend and swirl and mix together. Turquoise. Lavender. Fuchsia. Whatever the hell chartreuse is. Etc, etc, etc. Colors all with such wonderful names.

He pauses only briefly to find the pressed flowers that Chinen had left behind back when spring was still just beginning. He’ll use it as a bookmark for this page, so he can look at it whenever things get bad again and he needs a reminder.

The world is still gray. All around him, a dull unending grayness. But here and there, Takaki sees spots of color. Not much.

Not yet.

But he feels confident that, in time, it’ll all come back. The struggle isn’t over yet—not by a long shot—but today at least, he doesn’t feel like giving up.

He leaves one blank space in the middle of the colorful page. Just enough room for him to write one little thing with the purple colored pencil in his hand.

I’m okay.