"We're not the same," Hikari said - and that was that.
Not the same. What the hell was that supposed to mean? I stood there watching her pack - leaning against the doorway to what had been our room - and I didn't really know what to say. Except for one question… "Why?"
She stopped carefully putting her things into boxes, and looked up at me with sad eyes. "I don't know, Takeru. If I knew, I'd try to change things. I'd try to stop it. But we're just…" She glanced away, twisting one of her little figurines in her hands. "Not us anymore."
I stared at her. Not us anymore? Did that mean not romantic enough? Not passionate enough? Not… us? I couldn't tell what it meant. But I didn't want her to go… "Maybe we can fix it - we can talk about it, right? You don't have to leave."
"Takeru…" She sighed, staring at her hands. Hikari had beautiful hands - small and pale, and they fit perfectly in mine. I fell in love with those hands when we were in high school - along with the rest of her. Back then, we were the perfect couple. "It's not that simple. We moved apart instead of closer together. We're not Takeru and Hikari the couple any more… we're just Takeru and Hikari - separate people. Haven't you felt it?"
I didn't want to believe it. "I haven't felt anything," I answered stubbornly. "I'm happy with you." Between courses at the university, part time jobs, and keeping the bills paid, I'd thought we were doing a good job of maintaining a relationship.
The idea of losing the comfortable security of my beautiful girlfriend beside me in bed was disconcerting.
I loved Hikari. I'd loved her since we were children. I couldn't fall out of love with her.
And yet, that seemed to be what she was saying about us.
"I love you, Takeru," she said softly, moving forward to plant a soft kiss on my cheek. "But it's not the same as before. I can't stay here with what was a relationship once upon a time just so we can have each other as a security blanket."
"It can be the same," I insisted, not ready to give up yet. "We can go for a walk on the beach - stay out until the sun rises. It'll be like when we were in high school. If you still love me, and I still love you, we can make it the same. Can't we?"
Her eyes met mine, and I could see the finality in them. She had made up her mind - and this was the end. "We could go for a million walks," she said simply, "and it'll never be the same as it was."
That was it, then… I couldn't do anything but watch her walk out of my life.
"So how's the hunt for a roommate going?" Daisuke's cheerful voice asked me over the phone. "Find anyone crazy enough to put up with you yet?"
"No, but at least I'm not being forced to put up with someone like you," I shot back, half-heartedly. Daisuke's intentions were good - he wanted to make me feel better by acting like nothing had happened - but I was a little too preoccupied for his attempts to really do much good. "I think I'll wait until September. With people coming back to school and looking for places, it'll be easier."
"You're never going to find anyone if you compare everybody who asks to Hikari, you know," he pointed out brightly. "Get over it already."
I snorted. "You of all people should know it's not that easy to get over Hikari."
"It is when all you're doing is feeling sorry for yourself." He didn't give me a chance to reply to that one. "Hey, did you get an invitation to Miyako's weekend thing?"
"Yeah… for Takeru and Hikari, but I doubt she'll mind if we show up separately." I searched the coffee table in front of me for the note I'd made with the date and directions. "How about you and Ken? Are you going?"
"Of course! Everyone's going to be there." I can almost see him beaming over the phone. "Taking time out of our busy schedules… It's been a while since I've seen some people. I mean, I see Taichi once in a while, and kept up with you guys - but I haven't seen Iori or Miyako since high school. Seems like a long time ago."
I smiled, managing to feel a bit better after all. "Iori and I have sort of been sending those 'hi, how are you?' emails back and forth - but I think we managed to fall out of touch for the most part. I haven't seen much of Miyako at all… It'll be nice to see how they're doing."
"So are you catching a ride with Yamato, or taking the car?"
"I thought I'd take my car." For a moment, I wondered how Hikari was getting up there… but it was only for a moment, and I pushed the thought aside. We'd been broken up for almost a month - I was at the point where thinking about her seemed pretty useless. "I might want to leave early."
"You'd better not," Daisuke threatened. "Anyway, I'll call Yamato myself - I was going to take a shortcut and ask you if I could get a ride, but your car only has two seats, and there's no way I'm spending the whole hour alone with you."
"Or apart from Ken," I added calmly.
"Hey, is that any of your business? I don't think so, Takaishi!"
"After I've watched you make out in public five or six times, it might as well be my business, Motomiya."
"Hey, bite me."
I grinned. "If that's an invitation, I'll pass."
"Yeah, yeah." I could almost see him making a face. "Just make sure you're up there, all right? I'd hate to have to come all way back into town just for the purpose of dragging your ass out to the cabin."
"I'll be there," I assured him.
A week later, I was traveling up the highway in my ugly but dependable used car, and feeling a good deal more apprehensive than I had when I'd promised Daisuke I would be at Miyako's cabin for the weekend.
Hikari was going to be there…
So is Yamato, I reminded myself. And some good friends I haven't had time to see in a while. Just because things hadn't worked out between me and the first and only girl I'd ever loved, it didn't mean I shouldn't get to spend the weekend with people I was looking forward to seeing again.
I was going to have a good time, damnit.
There was a flat stretch of road leading out to the turn-off that would take me to Miyako's cabin, so I saw the stalled car and the figure standing beside it from quite a ways away.
I slowed. There had been enough times when my own car had betrayed me that I knew how frustrating it could be. I couldn't even imagine having it happen in the middle of nowhere like this… It'd be a long walk to a phone.
The guy wasn't even trying to hitch a ride, either… It looked like he was fiddling with something in his hand - maybe a cell phone? I pulled over and addressed his back, leaning over the passenger seat a bit to talk out of my open window. "Hey… You need a hand?"
He turned around - and a familiar set of slanted green eyes blinked at me. "Takeru?"
"Is that… Iori?" Oh wow… I hardly would've recognized him. He was taller, and less awkward than he had been as an adolescent - and if nothing else were different, his hair at least looked a lot less like someone had stuck a bowl over his head and starting cutting away.
I don't know where the thought came from, but for some reason, I got the impression that the rest of him had finally grown into his eyes. Iori had always had nice eyes.
"Are you going to Miyako's?" he asked, bending over to talk into my car window. "My phone isn't working, so I'd appreciate a ride, if you could."
"Sure." I leaned back over so that I wasn't halfway on top of the passenger seat. "Hop in."
"Thank you." He tossed his bag in the back seat and then sat down, settled back and carefully buckled the seatbelt over his jeans as I maneuvered back onto the highway. "I was trying to call Miyako, but my phone needs to be recharged."
"Isn't that always the way it happens?" I stole another glance at him. Iori and I had been pretty close when we were younger - but when I moved in with Hikari and he was still in high school, we saw less of each other. I just remembered him as the friend I never failed to pick out in the crowd when I played basketball - he always looked so out of place at the games for some reason.
He was still cute, too… but without the baby fat and so much of a height difference between us, it didn't seem to be such an innocent 'cute' any more.
"It's been a while," he said, after a moment of silence.
"Yeah," I agreed.
"I heard about Hikari." Iori's voice was low and cautious. "I'm sorry. I thought you two were really great together." There was an odd tone to his voice; he looked out the window as we drove.
"Thanks." I didn't really want to hear any more about Hikari. "According to her, it was for the best, though." I just wish I could understand… "So are you done with high school yet?"
He nodded. "I'll be starting university in the fall. I'm just looking for a place to stay - or I'll have to live at home and take the subway to school every day." That brought a grimace.
Funny how things fell into place… "Well, if you're going to the same university the rest of us go to, you're in luck. I'm actually looking for a roommate. The rent's good and we're only a ten minute drive away. I like to think I'm easy to live with, too," I added, giving him another glance.
"Seriously?" He offered a hesitant smile in return. "That'd be great, Takeru."
"I should be thanking you." I grinned, not looking away from the road this time. "I was having trouble finding someone - it's hard to find a roommate you can tolerate. We'll probably get along okay, though."
Iori nodded. "I have to practice meditation at least an hour every day - for my kendo training - and it'd be best in the apartment. Will that be a problem?"
"Probably not - unless you invite people to practice with you." I could put up with a few quirks - I'd put up with Hikari's, after all. "You'll be fine. In fact… how soon can you move in? I don't want to get too used to living alone."
"I'll start packing as soon as I get home, if you'd like." Iori shifted a little. "That reminds me… Can I get a ride home with you as well? I think my car's had it."
I turned for a brief second to smile at him. "No problem."
"No, see, it's all parallel-y things." Daisuke waved his hands expansively, one still holding his drink and the other nearly hitting Ken. His boyfriend took possession of the wayward hand, patiently listening to the debate he was currently engaged in. "Like you and me - we're the goggle boys."
Taichi rested his arm on one of the chairs Miyako had arranged outside for us to sit on and leaned around Koushiro - who had somehow been talked into sharing the chair with him, and was looking as if he couldn't quite figure out how - to grin at Daisuke. "Goggle boys, huh?"
From the moment Iori and I had gotten out of the car to accept hugs and enthusiastic greetings, I'd felt at ease. It was the first evening in a long time that I'd spent time in the company of the other Chosen Children - and even with Hikari there, it just felt right for all of us to be together again. In fact, if she hadn't been there, it wouldn't have been the same. It reminded me that I wanted to remain on speaking terms with her - and to be friends. I still cared about her a great deal.
And for whatever reason, that knowledge made me feel much better.
"Right." Daisuke nodded. Beside me on the couch, Iori leaned forward as if to listen more intently. "Ken and Yamato are the cool, moody ones," he continued, "and Koushiro and Iori are the smart ones. Hikari and Sora are the level-headed females, and Miyako and Mimi are the crazy ones."
I had to add my input there. "But that just leaves me and Jyou, and we're not very much alike."
"There you go," Taichi said to Daisuke, and smugly slid an arm around Koushiro's waist. "Your theory has no validity - I don't need to be dating Yamato, and I have every right to stay with Koushiro."
The redhead's eyes rolled heavenward, as if to ask someone up there 'why me?'
"But… But…" Daisuke looked dismayed. "But there is a parallel…"
"Why don't you parallel Takeru with Yamato," Iori suggested quietly. "They're brothers, after all. Then Taichi should be dating Jyou."
As luck would have it, Jyou had chosen that moment to come out of the cabin and join the six of us outside. "What!?"
Taichi waved a hand at him. "We're just talking about who's most alike between the old and the new Chosen Children," he said casually. "Daisuke thinks I should be dating Yamato instead of Koushiro."
Jyou shook his head, looking as if he wasn't certain why he hung out with us. "Then who do you expect me to date?" he asked Daisuke, with a wry tilt to his eyebrows.
"Well, if you follow his reasoning, you should just be breaking up with Sora," I pointed out. "But if you follow Iori's reasoning, you should be dating Taichi and Yamato should just be breaking up with Sora."
"Well, Yamato and Sora did break up in high school," Jyou agreed, sitting on the picnic table by Ken and Daisuke. "But I'm not very much like Ken, am I? If you think about, I'm more like Iori."
Taichi seized on that. "Well, if you parallel Iori, then Koushiro's going to parallel Ken, so it looks like I'm dating the right person." He grinned at Daisuke.
The younger boy frowned. "But Koushiro's not moody…"
"Well, they are both geniuses," Jyou pointed out reasonably.
"But…" Daisuke frowned. "He's not…"
"Hold on a minute." Koushiro looked thoughtful. "I hadn't thought of this before, but Ken and I have the same initials, don't we?"
"K.I… they are the same." Taichi's grin widened, and he hugged his boyfriend in good-natured triumph. "Looks like I'll be holding on to you after all, Koushiro."
Ken wrapped an arm around the sullen-looking Daisuke's waist comfortingly as we all laughed.
"Good theory." I hadn't noticed Yamato come outside - he joined Jyou on the picnic table while he spoke. "But I think there's still one problem with it. If I parallel Takeru, and Jyou parallels Iori…" He gave me a small smirk. "Shouldn't you two be dating?"
"That's right!" Daisuke abandoned Taichi and Koushiro to focus on a new target. "How come you never told me, Takaishi?"
"Uh…" I glanced at Iori; he looked about as shell-shocked as I felt, and his cheeks were gaining a soft red color that was visible even in the dim light. "Because it's a little hard to date someone when you haven't even spoken in person for two years?"
"Well, now that you're roommates, it shouldn't take much, should it?" Yamato didn't even seem phased by the frown I directed his way. Did he really have to talk like this? I'd just gotten out of a five-year relationship less than two months ago… I wasn't really in the mood for teasing about my love life.
Nevertheless, I was about to get it. "You're roomies?" Taichi raised an eyebrow at me. "When did that happen?"
I shrugged. Another glance at Iori showed that his blush was only getting worse, not better, so I was unofficially elected to do the talking. "He needed a place to stay, and I needed someone to stay with… It just worked out, I guess."
"That's how it begins," Daisuke said sagely, nodding at the others.
I didn't bother to reply. I'd tease back if it was all in good fun, but I really didn't feel like bantering over something like this. I didn't look at Iori again, either. Hikari had been my friend first too…
But Iori was different from Hikari… I had loved Hikari.
I still loved Hikari.
The conversation switched topics, but I didn't feel as much like participating. I sat there with a smile on my face and concentrated on the warm presence of my friends until we collectively decided to call it a night and headed inside to sleep.
"Where should I put this?"
"Huh?" I set down the box I was carrying on the table in the kitchen area of my apartment - or, our apartment, I should say, since the boxes signified Iori's new part-ownership of the place. "Oh - second door. The room with nothing in it."
Iori nodded over his box and pushed through the door with his shoulder.
"I don't know how I let you talk me into this." Daisuke stumbled in through the front door with another box in his arms. "I don't need to be here helping you guys move boxes around… And it's almost lunch time, too…"
"Through there," I instructed him, and smiled. "We appreciate your help in our time of need. Especially since you'll probably recall some assistance that was given to you when you moved in with Ken - with almost twice as many boxes, at that…"
"Okay, okay." Daisuke passed Iori as he was leaving the room. "You don't own very much, do you?" he asked, nudging the younger boy as he passed. "Is there some kind of kendo rule that says you can't have possessions?"
"It's good to have things you can be confident about," Iori said to me, ignoring Daisuke's question completely. "Like finding out over the course of the past few days that the laws of physics will change before Daisuke Motomiya ever does."
I laughed. Daisuke sped up to catch Iori and gave him another nudge. "What's that supposed to mean, huh?" he demanded.
"What's what supposed to mean?" Ken entered the room with another box. "Where does this go, Takeru?"
"Through there." I pointed, and added a response to his question. "Iori commented that Daisuke never changes."
"He'd better not." Ken set the box down and rejoined us. "I sort of like him the way he is."
Daisuke tossed a careless arm around his boyfriend's shoulders. "How many more boxes?"
"Two - but this is only the first trip. Takeru's car wasn't big enough for everything, remember?"
Daisuke sighed - just a bit over-dramatically. "Great. At this rate, we'll never get to have lunch!"
I patted him on the shoulder without much real sympathy. "How about if you guys carry them up, and we'll head back over to pick up the rest?"
"How about if we give Daisuke something to eat first?" Ken suggested. "Before he takes a bite of your sofa."
I glanced at Iori, who shrugged. "We might as well - my mother won't be able to drive my bed over until later tonight. There's plenty of time to get everything else here before then."
"We could pick up some fast food on the way back," I suggested, and Daisuke groaned again. "You won't have to wait that long, Motomiya - I've got snacks around here somewhere."
Abruptly, he was grinning at me again, a less-than-trustworthy glint in his eyes. "So can I take that as permission?"
"Not exactly." I turned my gaze toward Ken again. "I'm leaving you in charge of food distribution," I said. "Don't let him bankrupt me. We'll pick up some kind of meal on the way, so don't eat too much, either."
"I'll take care of it," Ken promised.
"Stay out of my bedroom if you plan to exchange snacks for favors," I added, getting into the driver's seat of my car while Iori slid in beside me and the other two went around back to get the last two boxes out of my trunk. "That's what the bushes outside the building are for."
"I'll take care of that, too," Ken assured me, and smiled in a not-so-innocent manner.
The last of Iori's boxes - two of which were devoted to holding books - were loaded into my car without much fuss, and we took a trip through the drive-through at a fast food place to pick up sustenance. Even after we'd unloaded the rest of his stuff, it was still going to be a long afternoon - we had to unpack, too.
After two years, I'd almost forgotten how much effort it took to move.
Granted, though… I had watched Hikari move out just over two months ago…
I blinked, startled out of my thoughts by Iori's voice. "Yeah?"
He wasn’t looking at me; out of the corner of my eyes, I could see him staring out a window. "It's going to be pretty strange for you, isn't it?" he asked. "Living with me when you've been staying with Hikari for the past two years?"
"No stranger than it will be for you." I shrugged. "You lived with your mother and grandfather, right? I'm probably not much like them." I offered a smile.
He shook his head. "You know what I mean. You and she were…"
I sighed. "Look, Iori…" How was I supposed to say this? I was looking forward to living with him, actually - he was quiet and sane, and we'd always gotten along well. "I did love Hikari, and she and I did live together - but I'm not going to resent you just because you live with me and you're not her."
Iori grimaced. "I didn't mean to imply - "
"No, it's okay." I didn't want him moving in if he wasn't comfortable with it. "If you're worried about it, you should say something. You do still want to move in, right?"
"Of course I do." He stared at me. "I just wasn't sure if you… well…"
"If I really wanted you there?" I finished for him. He didn't say anything. "Iori, I'm ready to get over this. I want to start moving on. Anyway, I like having you around - it's a lot better than being alone, right?"
That brought a small smile. "I guess you're right."
Much better. I grinned. "Good. Now let's get this food back to my - our apartment before Daisuke and Ken give the little old lady on the third floor a heart attack."
It was no good. I rolled over onto my back, spreading my right arm out over the space on the bed that Hikari usually filled. It didn't look like such a huge bed during the day, but at night, it seemed to grow enormous without her in it.
I really should look into selling this and getting a smaller one…
It just never seemed worth the effort when it was light out.
I sat up. It was hot, late, and I didn't feel tired at all. I wanted to sleep, but it was one of those nights… There was too much on my mind, and I couldn't stop thinking about it.
And Hikari wasn't there. She was always such a light sleeper… If I were up at night like this, I needed to be up and about, walking around. Trying not to make her suffer when I was the one with the problem.
I'd kind of gotten used to it.
I wandered into the kitchen. That was usually my first stop on nights like this - to get myself a glass of water, maybe sit at the table and try to get to a point where I had trouble keeping my eyes open. Once I'd made it there, it was hard to think about whatever was bothering me anyway.
Iori's door was open, which made sense because of the heat. He still had boxes stacked around, and things were mostly disorganized. During the day, this hadn't seemed so weird… During the day, I'd just been helping one of my good friends move in. Getting myself a new roommate.
But now… it was strange. Having Iori here… and having Hikari gone.
You promised him you wouldn't think like that, I reminded myself. It wasn't the way he thought it might turn out, though - I mean, I didn't resent him. It was just… odd. I'd only had one roommate before, and I'd been in love with her.
I was going to have to learn how to live with someone all over again - this time someone I wasn't sleeping with.
I poured myself a glass of water and swallowed it in one gulp, trying to be quiet. Could he hear me? After all, it was his first night in a strange place - he might still be awake. Then again, we'd just had a pretty tiring day…
At least there's someone there… I stared at the open doorway, feeling somewhat better with the knowledge that, at least, there was another presence in the apartment. If I'd still been alone, it would've been harder. If this had been a stranger, too, I don't think it would've helped.
Thank god for Iori. I smiled a little, still watching the vague dark shapes behind the door. And he was worried he'd be a bother…
As it turned out, he was the farthest thing from it.
"I'm back!" I shut the door and set my bag of food down on the table, feeling satisfied. Unless Daisuke were to stop by for a visit, we'd probably be good for a couple of weeks. And then it'd be Iori's turn to shop, anyway.
That had never really been one of my favorite chores.
I still hadn't gotten so much as a 'hi', though… Crossing the hall, I took a look into Iori's room. "Hey. What are you doing?"
He opened his eyes and looked up from where he'd been sitting on the bed. "Meditating." The word came out in a quiet tone; his face and posture were also relaxed.
"Yeah?" I was probably interrupting, but if I didn't ask now, I might forget that I'd wanted to know. "I thought you needed to be sitting cross-legged - and have incense and candles, maybe…"
"It doesn’t work like that." He smiled at me, still with that almost dreamy calmness. "Want to try it with me? I'll explain."
"Sure, I guess so." I came in and sat next to him. "So, this is part of your kendo training, huh?"
"Yeah, but that's not the only thing it's good for." He closed his eyes again. "It's relaxing - stress and tension waste energy, you know."
"That makes sense." I glanced at him for instructions. "So is there some special way I should sit, or what?"
"However you feel comfortable." Iori kept his eyes shut as he spoke; his lashes fanned lightly over the top-most part of his pale cheeks. "You can't relax very well if you're in a position that doesn't feel right."
"I hadn't thought of that," I admitted, and shifted a little to get comfortable. "All right."
"Make your breathing steady," he continued, in that calm, level tone. "Try to keep each one even - and let it come naturally, so you don't have to think about it. Then close your eyes and clear your mind."
I tried. Closing my eyes and making my breathing steady was fairly simple. But clearing my mind was not. I had no idea how aware of things the mind always is. Every time I tried to silence one thought, another one came back in to replace it. Even the smallest things distracted me - the sound of my breathing… the sound of Iori's breathing… the fact that I wasn't alone… the knowledge that he was probably managing fine, and I couldn't do this for the life of me…
"I'm having a little trouble with that last part," I admitted ruefully, after a while.
Iori smiled, and opened his eyes again. They were unclouded and seemed a very clear green up close. "It'll come to you," he promised. "It's not that difficult, once you get it the first time. Just keep working on it."
I gave him a half smile in return. "I don't know if this is going to become a regular thing for me."
"It helps when you're trying to go to sleep at night," he pointed out, meeting my gaze squarely. "A lot better than getting up and walking around, anyway."
So he had been noticing the irregular hours I'd been keeping infrequently over the past few weeks. I stared back guiltily. "I didn't know you'd heard me."
"It doesn’t really bother me," Iori assured me. "I don't have problems sleeping. Like I said, the meditation helps. Which makes sense, since it's a relaxation technique."
I looked away. Those nights weren't very pleasant… It wasn't even so much about Hikari - more about adjusting. I still couldn't get used to having her gone. We'd been together so long… It disturbed me that I was starting to like the change. What kind of person was I? Only three months, and I was happy without her? We'd been together for five years - and lived together for two. And three months was all it took? Hadn't I loved her enough? Maybe that was why she'd left in the first place.
'We're not the same'… Did that mean she didn't think I loved her any more?
"Whatever you're thinking about probably isn't going to help you," Iori told me, quietly.
I looked up at him again, startled - then I forced a smile. "It's nothing serious. Don’t worry about it." I moved to get up and leave the room. Iori didn't need to see me like this - he was too serious already.
"Takeru." He frowned at me when I turned around again. "If it's something you have to think about so much, it's serious. You don't have to tell me about it, but don’t lie and say it's nothing."
Typical Iori… I had missed him. Even if I didn't realize it until I started seeing him on a regular basis. "All right. It's not nothing, but I'm pretty sure it's something I have to work through on my own."
He smiled at me. "I had a feeling that was the case."
For some reason… just for a crazy moment there… I almost thought he was beautiful. It made no sense - he was sitting in his room, in old shorts and a T-shirt, not sitting in a patch of sunlight or anything, and looking completely ordinary. Just Iori - the kid who had been my jogress partner, who seemed to understand me as much as anyone could or did. The younger boy, with the overly wise eyes… the ones that sometimes looked young and old - vulnerable and strong - all at the same time. And the thought totally came out of nowhere.
I hadn't thought of anyone other than Hikari as beautiful for quite a while.
I didn't think it would have happened so soon.
It was too hot - even near the end of the summer. I toweled off my hair, feeling a lot better after a nice cold shower. I might have to start taking two of these a day.
Either that or get air-conditioning. And we couldn't quite afford that.
Well, I probably won't be training this late in the morning any more…
I made sure the towel was securely wrapped around my waist, grabbed my sweaty t-shirt and basketball shorts, and left our closet-sized bathroom.
The key turned in the lock as I dumped my clothing in the dirty laundry box I used, and seconds later Iori stepped in with his kendo stick over one shoulder and gym bag over the other. "I'm ba - uh…" He trailed off for some reason.
"Hey, how was practice?" I thought I left a set of clean shorts out… Time to go rooting through the laundry I'd done the day before and hadn't gotten around to putting away yet.
I really needed to learn to do things as soon as possible. Hikari used to be on my case all the time about that sort of thing. Iori didn't really bother - but then again, he didn't have to. His good habits shamed me into trying to fix my bad ones.
I still hadn't gotten an answer… "Why the silence, Iori? Was it that bad?"
"No…" The word was kind of drawn-out, and sounded odd. I looked up from the bag of clean clothes I was rooting through in time to see him set his bag and kendo stick down quickly, cheeks red and eyes turned deliberately away from me. "Takeru, you do… you do realize you're half naked and wearing a towel, don't you?"
"Huh? Oh." I glanced down and threw a sheepish look his way - which he may or may not have seen, as he still wasn't looking at me. "I just got out of the shower."
This didn't seem to help with the blushing. "You don't usually take a shower this late."
"Yeah, I know, but I did my morning training later than usual today," I explained. Did it honestly bother him? "It's the summer program for my basketball team - but I usually do it early in the day when it's not so hot. I always just have a shower when I'm done. Why, what's the problem?"
"It…" Iori looked down at the floor. "It makes me uncomfortable. Sorry." The words almost seemed to be mumbled out at the carpet by his feet.
It makes him uncomfortable? I blinked. "Well… I guess I'll try not to do it any more," I conceded. He still wasn't looking at me, and his cheeks were still flushed.
"Thanks." He moved around me, toward his room, still keeping his eyes averted. "I'm going to have a shower myself - you don't need the bathroom any more, do you?"
"No, go ahead." I watched thoughtfully as he grabbed a change of clothes and shut the door behind him firmly.
Uncomfortable… with me in a towel? And blushing about it? There wasn't much else that could mean. Iori - who knew? It wasn't exactly something a person could just ask of their friends. 'Hey, how's it going? By the way, are you gay?'
I grinned and shook my head. And he found me attractive, obviously - that was flattering.
It was flattering. I pulled on a clean short and shorts. Iori was beautiful sometimes, and it was flattering. That was about as much as I was ready to concede to. He was my friend. We shared the same apartment. Why complicate things?
Hikari was your 'friend', and you shared the apartment with her, too…
I really didn't need voices like that in my head.
Looking back… I probably should've noticed something. If it got too hot, I didn't have any reservations about wandering the apartment shirtless - it was my apartment, after all - but Iori always seemed to disappear on those occasions, either into his room or out of the building. He was never anything but fully clothed himself, no matter how hot it was - even first thing in the morning or when he came out of the shower. And I'd never thought about how reserved he could be about things like that…
I probably should've, though. I smiled ruefully to myself and sank into a chair to wait until my roommate came back out. I'd better let him know that I don't think he's a weirdo or something.
I didn't have long to wait. Iori didn't take long showers. He came out about ten or fifteen minutes after he'd gone in, fully dressed and with his training clothes in his arms. "I'll be heading down to wash my clothes later today," he told me, still with the residual traces of a blush on his face. "It doesn't take long to run out of clean stuff, does it?"
"Yeah, and it's not the greatest chore in the world," I agreed, leaning forward a bit. "Why didn't you say something earlier if you were uncomfortable with this, Iori? I would've understood."
He avoided my gaze. "I didn't think it was worth making an issue over it."
"Weren't you the one who said that if it's bothering you, then it's serious?" I countered. He definitely looked uncomfortable by that point, so I backed off a little. "If there's anything I do that bothers you, just point it out to me. If I think you're being unreasonable, I'll let you know. Trust me."
Iori let out a breath, and turned his embarrassed gaze to meet mine. "All right."
On the last day of September, Hikari called me.
I hadn't been expecting it at all… Actually, I hadn't really even spoken to Hikari since we were all out at Miyako's cabin - which had been back in May. I'd seen her around campus a couple of times, but we hadn't gotten a chance to talk.
To tell the truth, I hadn't really been that eager to talk to her.
"Hi," she said, when I answered. I recognized her voice right away - it was enough to make me go cold all over.
"Hikari." I wasn't sure what else I was supposed to say.
"How are you?" she asked. I had thought for some reason that hearing her voice would bring it all back - would make everything painful. I'd realize how much I had lost when she left.
But I just felt cold.
"Good," I said. My voice sounded weird, even to me. "How about you?"
"I'm fine," Hikari said in response. "I meant to talk to you when school started again - but I've been so busy… I heard you got Iori to move in with you, though - I'm glad for that."
I sat down at the kitchen table, stretching the phone cord out. "How come?"
"Because you shouldn't be alone."
I couldn't help but laugh, even though I didn't really think it was funny. "You were the one who left."
She sighed. "I had to…" Her voice was small.
And that was the one thing I still didn't understand. "Why? I really don't get it, Hikari. Why did you have to leave? Just… one day, out of nowhere, suddenly I'm not good enough?"
"Because… Takeru, you would've resented me." She doesn't sound regretful at all - just sad. "I would've resented you, too, I guess. You and I… weren't meant to be together. We weren't the same any more."
"You keep saying that." I had to struggle to keep my voice even. "'We're not the same'. What does that mean?"
"Just what it says…" Hikari sighed again. "I was hoping you'd understand by now."
I rested my face on my free hand and smiled humorlessly at the table. "I guess I'm too dense to figure it out."
"Not really - just stubborn."
I couldn't help laughing at that, either, still with my fingers buried in my face. I didn't understand at all… "I'm sorry."
"Me too," she admitted. "Do you really regret it that much? Would you have been happier if I were there?"
My turn to sigh. "I don't know… I'm not suffering, if that's what you mean."
"That's good." She paused for a moment. "How's Iori?"
"He's good." We were moving on - small talk. "How's Miyako?"
"She's doing well. We can manage to live with each other, anyway."
I smiled again, this time with some sincerity even if no one could see it. "That's probably a good sign."
"Takeru." Hikari sounded uncertain again. "I'd really like for us to be friends. Or… if we can't be that, I'd at least like us to be able to talk to each other."
Friends. Yeah… No guy is ever glad to hear that word coming from a girl they've been dating. But this time, for some reason, it seemed appropriate. I wasn't supposed to feel better for hearing it, but… well… I did. I couldn't even begin to wonder what that meant about my feelings for Hikari. Maybe I honestly was falling out of love with her. All I really knew was that I honestly did want to be her friend again - one day.
"We'll work on it," I promised.
"When did it get so cold?"
I pulled my jacket more tightly shut and wasted about half a second thinking longingly of summer before slamming the car door shut and running off after my roommate. "Somewhere halfway through October?"
It was a week into November.
Iori reached the door to the apartment before I could catch up to him, and was fumbling with his keys by the time I got there. "You really need heat in that car," he commented, still visibly shivering but smiling at me despite it.
"Not really." I grinned at him, more in an effort to keep my teeth from chattering as I waited for him to open the door than anything else. "I'd like it, and I'm sure you'd like it since you have to get a ride with me everywhere, but I don't need it. And I can't afford it, either way."
"Isn't that the truth?" he said wryly, and finally got the door open. "At least we have heat in here."
"Yeah… warmth!" I shoved him inside before he could start moving at a snail's pace, closing the door behind us and ignoring his indignant squawk. "Did you know that it's dangerous to be out in the cold after you've been doing a lot of sweating?"
Iori's half-hearted glare softened into a smile. "That was a great game!" he remarked.
"The other team was great - kept everyone guessing right up until the end!" I always loved close games… For some reason, I played my best with my nerves were on edge. "Right up until that last shot - I thought for sure we'd be going into overtime."
"I thought for sure you'd miss - how many people can be so accurate from so far away?" Iori grinned at me.
"Man… I didn't think I'd make it, either!" I laughed, facing the TV and making a shooting motion. This was nearly as good - reliving the game. "I just thought it was worth a shot… but it actually did go in! Amazing, huh?"
"No kidding! I was on the edge of my seat the whole time!"
"So was I!" I spun around again to face him, still on an adrenaline high. I could see my own enthusiasm shining back at me from his face. "And I wasn't even sitting! That game was… incredible!"
"That was you, Takeru!" he insisted. "I could hardly take my eyes off you, you were doing so well! You're an even better player than you were in high school!"
"I don't think my ego needs that!" I laughed - but I had to admit, I got a nice warm glow from hearing him say it. He was still beaming at me, green eyes both bright and soft in a way that somehow made my throat go dry.
Wait… what am I thinking…?
"Iori?" I wasn't really sure what I wanted to say… For some odd reason, my heart was still beating hard. Maybe left over from the excitement - remembering the game?
"What?" He stared back at me, blinked once, and the smile slid off his face. "Takeru?"
I couldn't quite figure out what came over me at that point. But I didn't have anything to say to him, really. I just… The next thing I knew, I was leaning over and his eyes fluttered shut, I could feel him breathing erratically…
What am I doing?
I caught my breath and stopped myself with some effort, feeling as if inhuman effort were required to keep our lips apart. Such a short distance…
"Takeru…?" Iori murmured my name, in a soft, sort of confused voice. He still didn't open his eyes. "What…?"
I didn't want to answer that. Hell, I didn't even know the answer to that! What was I doing? I was standing here close enough to feel the faint chill that still lingered over my friend's skin, and I couldn't make myself move away. I had no idea how to answer his question!
So I did the only thing I could think of at the spur of the moment.
I kissed him.
I kissed Iori Hida. My roommate. My friend. In the middle of our apartment, still in my basketball jersey with my winter coat over top of it, at almost ten o'clock at night.
Oh god… this…
"Takeru…" He gasped out my name when we broke for air. "What…? Why…? You…"
My head was spinning, but I didn't let up. "You… want me to stop?" I could barely mumble the words, feeling almost drunk from that kiss. If he did… If he hated me for this…
"No!" There was a slight note of panic in Iori's voice as he said it - and all at once his arms were around me, catching me almost completely off guard and kissing me as passionately as I'd ever been kissed. And all I could do was clutch at him and return it. I didn't think I could stop.
Scratch that. I could've stopped. I had no will to stop.
I was kissing Iori!
I realized something at that point, somewhere in the part of my brain that wasn't clouded with the kissing and the obvious thoughts about more than kissing. I'd been going crazy since he moved in, because I was happy and that had seemed to make me insensitive. And I'd thought it was Hikari… but it wasn't. Because the reason for it wasn't that I'd been falling out of love with her.
It was that I'd been falling in love with Iori.
God… I should've realized… I should've seen it…
His arms locked around my neck as I pressed him clumsily against the door. Our second kiss was somewhat awkward - inexperienced on his end - but that familiar excitement was present… The passionate, eager, impatient feeling that came with being in love and intimate - and deliriously happy. At that moment, I could think of nothing but the amazing young man in my arms. Not Hikari, not school, not my game… nothing.
I loved him. I wanted him. More than anything else.
How crazy is this?
I fumbled with the door handle, not breaking the contact we shared, and finally managed to get it open and spill us both into the room.
We did break apart then - unintentionally - and stared at each other for a moment, breathing heavily and with half-lidded eyes.
Iori's cheeks were flushed, eyes clouded over slightly, but the way he looked at me… He was willing to meet my gaze squarely; a familiar firm conviction mixed in with the desire I was sure I mirrored for him.
And a split second later, we were back in each other's arms, kissing each other hungrily as I lowered a very willing young man back down onto my bed.
I had trouble sleeping that night.
It was kind of strange… I remembered when I had trouble sleeping because the bed was empty except for me. Now I was having trouble because there was someone else in it.
I guess everything takes some getting used to… I smiled a little, sitting up slowly so I didn't wake Iori. He was sleeping on his back with the covers pulled up over his chest and his face turned away from me. His breathing was steady and slow, and his eyes were delicately closed, the lashes fanning slightly over his cheeks as they did when he was meditating. I could only see his neck and the top of his shoulders over the blanket, but his skin was pale - like porcelain, almost…
I liked it. Hikari's had more of a tan to it, and I'd liked that too. But right at that point, I was much more partial to Iori's skin than Hikari's.
In fact, the idea of having Hikari in my bed - ever again - made my skin crawl.
But why? It didn't make sense. I had loved Hikari. For five years of my life, she had been the most important person I knew. The sun had rose and set in her eyes. I wanted to spend forever in her arms.
And now… now the idea of being away from Iori could've killed me.
He was beautiful. I couldn't help but think it, watching him sleep. Most people couldn't see it; they overlooked him for some reason or another. But anyone who took the time to stop and look had to be able to see it.
I reached out almost absently to touch his cheek, and he stirred a little - a movement that froze my hand in the act. I could feel the warmth from his skin, but if I touched him, I might wake him. And I wasn't sure I was ready to talk about this just yet.
I drew my hand back reluctantly.
Why did it happen? How'd I forget so easily? And most importantly… If I could fall out of love with someone as easily as I'd done with Hikari, would I do the same thing to Iori? Would I end up hurting him if we were together?
I really don't want to think about this. I pushed the covers aside and slid my legs around. It didn't take long to dig through the pile of clothing and find the stuff that was mine. Pulling it on quickly, I got up and left the room.
I needed to take a walk and try to sort this all out in my head.
As it turned out, I didn't get anything sorted out, and I took so long trying that by the time I made it back, the sun was already past the 'sunrise' point.
I hope he's not awake yet… That thought made me wince. The first time we sleep together, and he wakes up alone. And there I was brooding about how not to hurt him… I hadn't gotten off to a very good start on that.
Well, he doesn't get up that early… maybe he's not up yet. The thought gave me hope, however fleeting it was. Iori didn't seem to miss much, even when he was supposed to be asleep.
I unlocked the door and moved inside, rubbing at my hands to warm them. My bedroom was empty - my door was open and I could see it as I moved further inside. I could also hear the shower running.
Great. My fingers jammed together, twisting in imitation of my stomach. I really did not want to screw this up. I had doubts - a lot of doubts, actually - but the bottom line was that I'd rather take this chance while it was offered. I'd regret it if I didn't - and I wanted to be with Iori. But at the same time…
I wished I didn't have so many doubts.
Well, you're going to have to face this now, or you'll end up blowing your chance anyway. I sat down at the kitchen table, and waited for my roommate - and, incidentally, my lover as well - to come out and realize I was there.
It didn't take long - and even after the previous night, he still came out fully dressed. I couldn't read the expression on his face when he saw me sitting there, but he froze in his tracks. "You're back."
I nodded and offered a half-smile that probably wasn't as light as it should've been. "I couldn't sleep, so I took a walk. It turned out longer than I'd planned. Sorry I… well… wasn't there." I dipped my head awkwardly and watched for his response.
"That's all right." He edged past the kitchen table as if I were dangerous and might attack if he made any sudden moves. "I wasn't really sure what I was expecting anyway - I've heard a lot of conflicting opinions on the morning after." A faint blush rose on his cheeks and he looked away, embarrassed.
"Well, I've only ever done this with one other person," I reminded him. "So you could say this is the second time I've had a first 'morning after'. Generally, I've found they're pretty awkward."
Iori's eyes swung up again to meet mine. "You say 'first' as if there's going to be a second."
This was the part I'd been worrying about… I took in a long, slow breath and tried to calm myself down some. "Do you want there to be?"
He sighed, then doubled back to the table and pulled up a chair for himself. "Of course I do," he said, as if stating something that was common knowledge. "But I know you have doubts. Or you would've been there this morning."
Something about the matter-of-fact tone he used hit me harder than a violent show of emotion might. I swallowed hard, trying to find the right thing to say. I didn't even know what I wanted yet, much less how to put it into words. "Iori… I…"
"It's fine." Again with the flat voice. His eyes flashed slightly, as if he were angry or hurt. Or maybe both. I didn't blame him. "I knew last night that there was a strong possibility nothing would come of this, and I did it anyway. I figured I'd rather have one night with you than nothing at all - after all, I've wanted it for long enough…" His voice broke slightly then, and he looked down at the table, seeming embarrassed again.
That surprised me a bit. "Me? You wanted… For how long?"
Iori shrugged, still not meeting my gaze. "Six and a half years, as of about a month ago," he answered - quietly and with a certain dignity.
Six and a half years? That was more of a shock. That was… before I'd started dating Hikari. Iori had only been about twelve - of course I hadn't noticed him like that. "Why didn't you ever say anything?"
"What should I have said?" He did look at me that time - to give me a wry look. "I was a kid with a crush that scared me to death, and you only had eyes for Hikari anyway. I'd been hoping that if I kept quiet, it would go away on its own, but all it did was get worse. Even when I wasn't seeing you any more…" He shook his head and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. "I tried. Believe me, I did. It's not that easy to fall out of love with someone."
I winced. Maybe for you it isn't… "Maybe when you're trying," I said out loud, watching him uncertainly. He'd just pretty much confessed that he loved me… Part of me wanted to float off on cloud nine. Another part of me just felt totally lost. "Or maybe I'm not that good at being in love."
He didn't say anything in response to that - just stared down at his hands with seeming fascination.
I took that to be my cue, and cleared my throat again, watching him apprehensively. "So… last night…"
"Last night was a one-time thing," Iori finished for me, looking up again. "I don't want your pity, Takeru. Unless, of course, you're ready to start something more serious with me?"
It was my turn to offer silence as a reply.
He nodded, obviously struggling to be calm but with that angry hurt look still flashing in his eyes. "I'd rather we didn't talk about it any more, in that case," he said shortly, and pushed back his chair to stand up and retreat to his room.
I stayed in my seat and stared at his door.
Normally when you love someone who loves you back, it inevitably leads to something significant. Something fantastic. Something like last night.
But somehow or another, my life had gotten too complicated for things to work out so easily.
"Stupid, Takeru," I muttered, staring up at my ceiling. "You're a moron, and everything you've done that leads up to where you are is stupid."
Even dating Hikari was a bad idea. Look how that turned out.
And if I wasn't being stupid, I was being cruel. I'd just slept with Iori and then tossed him aside the next morning. What was I turning into? I hated people like me.
I kept staring at the ceiling. It didn't seem like I was going to get any sleep that night, either. All I could think about was Iori - his small smiles and huge green eyes and his steady calmness. And especially the way I felt in his presence.
Was I ever going to wake up with him beside me again? Or would I go on forever, never sorting this out? I'd hardly be able to blame him if he went off with someone else and left me alone. After what I'd done to him…
But somehow, I knew Iori wouldn't do that. He was too stubborn and he cared too much - he knew I was having trouble, and he'd stay as long as he thought it would do me any good.
I also knew that he'd still be there, even if I took years to work this out.
I really didn't want to think about this… All I could do was ask why. Why was he so understanding? Why did I find it so easy to forget Hikari and love him? Why had she left me in the first place?
No more thinking… I shut my eyes and tried Iori's breathing instructions. No more 'why's. No more wondering. I didn't want to think about anything. I wanted my mind to hold nothing at all. No more thoughts.
I thought about nothing. Just… nothing. And it felt like I was drifting off.
For maybe an hour, all I could remember was a sensation like floating.
When I came back out of it, every muscle in my body felt relaxed - as if the tension had drained out when I shut my thoughts down. And my mind was remarkably clear.
So that's why he recommends it so highly… I kept my eyes shut but let the thoughts back in. I felt more ready for them now... It was like doing a massive clean-up inside my head. I have got to do that more often.
Iori… I smiled a little, feeling much better. Another way he'd helped me. I didn't know what I'd do without him any more.
Maybe that was the way to go. I let out a long breath, trying to push aside all the 'why's and 'what if's that kept clambering at me. 'Why' meant in the past, and 'what if' meant in the future. All these questions about things I couldn't change or see… And I already had the two most important facts straight.
I did not love Hikari. I loved Iori.
It didn't mean anything to ask 'why'. It just was. That was how things were; I couldn't change them. All this time, it seemed like the only question I could wonder about, when I should've been asking 'what now?' instead.
I really was stupid. And slow, too… I should've realized how Iori felt about me back then. I should've been more considerate.
But that's in the past - no sense worrying about it now. Things were going to be different from how they were back then. I'd cared about him, yeah, but only as a friend. Not like this. It wasn't the same. Not the…
My eyes shot open and I sat up abruptly, pulled back out of that sleepy haze as if I'd just had a bucket of ice-cold water dumped over my head. Not the same! It's not the same… That's what Hikari meant when she said it…
She hadn't been talking about anything I'd said or done… She'd been talking about how I felt. About her. Because somehow I didn't love her the same way, and she'd realized…
And that explained why it had been so easy to fall out of love with her. I hadn't been in love with her any more - not like I was with Iori.
It was so simple! I ran a hand down my face, grimacing. And so strange, how one thing could be so different when it was with two different people. Living with Hikari had made my love for her fade, and living with Iori had made me fall in love with him. It wasn't a matter of my ability to love someone… It was who I could spend my life living with, and being in love with.
Hikari hadn't fit that 'who'. Even if I never could stop caring for her, it wasn't the same at all. And I hadn't understood how I could not love her. I cared about her. But it wasn't the same… I just hadn't wanted to see it.
But Iori… Iori did fit. I was more sure of that than ever.
I slumped back onto my back. My thoughts were whirling again… But I knew there were two things I'd want to do in the morning. The first was to call Hikari. She'd been waiting for me to figure it out, and I wasn't likely to disappoint her after all that.
And the second…
Iori. I smiled, sinking comfortably against the pillows again. I was going to have good dreams that night, for certain.
Iori set down the remote with a sigh. "There's never anything good on when you have nothing better to do with your afternoon," he murmured, watching one of two contestants on a game show brain the other with an oversized wooden mixing spoon.
I frowned in his general direction. All morning long, I'd been trying to work out a way to tell him… It didn’t seem logical that this would be so difficult. I knew how he felt about me, after all.
At least the phone call with Hikari had gone well.
This is ridiculous, the sensible side of my brain argued. Why draw this out? Tell him!
"There should be a movie a couple channels up," I pointed out, instead of obeying. "I'm not sure what it's about, though."
"Well, it has to be better than this." Iori gave the man currently hurling soggy dishcloths at his female opponent a look of contempt, and picked up the remote again to switch channels.
I give up, the voice at the back of my head seemed to say. You're on your own.
That really didn't inspire a lot of confidence in me. When the voices in your head start deserting you, you know you're in trouble.
"It doesn't look all that bad," I commented, leaning forward a little so my elbows rested on my knees. Actually, I hadn't been paying much attention to the twenty seconds of the movie that had been played so far.
Iori sighed. "Well, at least they're not wielding dangerous cutlery."
And that decided our entertainment for the afternoon.
I spent about ten minutes watching him instead of the movie, and then I decided I'd had enough. You can only go so long being too nervous to confess your feelings for someone who returns them before you come to the conclusion that you need to get it over with already. "Iori, can we talk?"
The expression on his face when he turned down the volume on the TV and looked at me was apprehensive. "Sure. What about?"
I shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. "Well, I'm in love with you, for one." My voice was as accurate an imitation of his matter-of-fact tone as I could manage. "And two… how about Chinese for dinner?"
His mouth dropped open and his eyes widened a notch. "You… what?"
"I'm hungry, and I have a craving for sweet and sour pork," I said, with a completely straight face. "We can go pick it up in my car - what do you say?"
"Takeru, you…" He stood and faced me, those huge emerald eyes vividly colored with emotion. Despair, longing… thinly veiled hope. "You had better not be making this into a joke."
I stood as well and met his gaze squarely. This was easier now that I'd gotten started… The words almost seemed to come naturally. "It's not a joke. I love you. Isn't that serious enough?"
"I… don't…" His eyes were filling; he looked away quickly, as if to hide them from me. "You can't love me. You love Hikari."
"I think I'd know if I still loved Hikari," I answered firmly, still watching him. I didn't want him to have any doubts about my feelings. "You have to trust me when I tell you that I know. I spent a long time sorting myself out, and for the first time in a really long time, I'm absolutely certain of what I want."
Iori was silent for a while, but then he lifted his head and met my eyes again. "You love me?" he asks quietly.
I nodded. "Yeah, I do. I think I was always meant to, at some point or another. I'm just sorry it took me so long."
"I don't believe in destiny when it comes to this sort of thing," he answered, in that matter-of-fact tone. "But…" His eyes softened as he stared at me. "I'm more than willing to trust you. I know I've already told you, but I love you too." His voice quavered a bit at the end, and then he reached out toward me, hesitantly.
That was my cue… I took hold of the offered hand and just as hesitantly used it to pull him closer. He seemed to melt against me, and I wrapped my arms around his waist on instinct. This feeling… It was like relief and happiness, rolled up together and translated to the best feeling any human could experience. "You okay?"
"I'm fine." He pulled back a little and stared up at my face, keeping his arms wrapped loosely around my neck. "Say it again, please."
That made me smile. "I love you," I repeated, staring back down at the face of the person I intended to be with from then on. Those words meant almost nothing until they were said exactly like that.
"Takeru…" He leaned up and kissed me - a soft kiss, but one that lingered.
I could feel my knees growing weak. For someone so inexperienced, he was pretty damn good at that. "Iori…"
He pulled back again and smiled brilliantly. "To answer your question… Chinese sounds good."
I laughed helplessly and bent to kiss him again.