Chapter 9:

Chapter 7 - Reunion and Revelation

Youth


Note: It's been what? 3 weeks since the last chapter... I deeply apologize for the long delay, and I don't even have a good reason or excuse. To those who waited patiently for this new chapter, I thank you for keeping up. There are going to be some changes from now on, but it's just minor name changes.Bookmark here

Samija High School —> Samejima Private High School.Bookmark here

Sugiwara —> SugawaraBookmark here

1Bookmark here

“Go straight home, okay?” The voice of a middle-aged woman rang out.Bookmark here

“Yes, thank you for the help, sensei,” Yuugo replied.Bookmark here

He was at the Infirmary Room. With him were Takuya, sitting on one of the beds, and Tetsuya, standing beside Takuya, his arm wrapped tightly around his shoulder.Bookmark here

“You’re all free to go now. I’m sorry, Shibata-kun, that I could not provide better assistance,” The teacher apologized, casting her gaze upon Takuya with a frown. Takuya’s expression was blank like he already knew that would be the outcome.Bookmark here

“It’s fine, sensei. I’ve already grown used to it,” Takuya reassured, forcing a smile. A smile so artificial that anyone could see through its lack of authenticity, yet none could deduce its meaning. It was like a cracked window-pane. On the other side of that fragile glass lay the boy’s genuine feelings. However, that view was obstructed by the multitude of rifts, resulting only in a distorted expression.Bookmark here

Takuya suffered from a rare genetic heart condition that caused his body to be severely weak. Other effects include slower growth of the body and occasional chest pains. Takuya’s height and weight were far below what was considered normal for a teenager. Apart from some people, like his friends, family, and school staff—nobody else was aware of his condition, and he preferred to keep it that way.Bookmark here

As unfair as it was. As painful as it was. That was the life of thorns that the boy known as Shibata Takuya had to tread. Nobody could understand—they could never learn to understand. Those who haven’t experienced what he had to go through could never hope to understand even a fraction of his pain.Bookmark here

“If it continues to worsen, I believe it would be best to talk about it with your doctors if you’re not doing so already, that is.”Bookmark here

“Yes…” Takuya squeezed his hands together and pursed his lips. He knew it was futile, that it was hopeless. He knew it all too well, even as he was just a young child, yet he desperately clung onto that single ray of hope—for a chance for change. Perhaps it would be different, just this once.Bookmark here

Silence came, followed by a tense and heavy atmosphere that pervaded the entire room. There was only silence—a deafening and oppressive silence.Bookmark here

“Uh. L-Let’s get going then, Takuya.” In an attempt to subdue the silence, Yuugo’s voice cut through the air like a sharp knife.Bookmark here

“Y-Yeah…” With that confirmation from Takuya, the boys prepared to leave. It was already quite late, as the sunset was visible from the windows. The light that seeped inside saturated the room with an eerie orange tone.Bookmark here

“Oh and, Katsuragi-kun, Kondo-kun.” As the boys were about to leave the room, the teacher called out.Bookmark here

“Yes?” They asked at the same time.Bookmark here

“Can I please ask the two of you to stay by Shibata-kun’s side whenever you can?”Bookmark here

“Sensei…I can...” Takuya mumbled, hesitating with his words. His face gave off a look of frustration. He did not direct it to anyone in particular, choosing to keep those pent-up feelings solely to himself, or maybe he was directing those feelings at himself?Bookmark here

“Shibata-kun?”Bookmark here

“N-No… it’s nothing.” Yuugo cast him a doubtful look but was not able to get a read on him. Despite their almost four-year-long friendship, he failed to understand the source of Takuya's uneasiness.Bookmark here

“We’ll take good care of him,” Yuugo said.Bookmark here

“Yeah, just leave it to us!” Tetsuya declared, clenching and raising his fists.Bookmark here

Takuya, however, was not reassured by their well-intentioned proclamations. His anxiety only grew. After all, this wasn’t what he wanted. Why? Why do they keep giving him special treatment? He sank deep in thought. However, he understood his desires were selfish, choosing to remain silent, he reluctantly accepted it.Bookmark here

After giving their farewells, the boys left the Infirmary. Yuugo and Tetsuya made sure to stay close to Takuya as they traveled down the empty hallway.Bookmark here

2Bookmark here

The boys took their step out of the building. Their eyes met with the beautiful crimson-orange sunset, in harmony with the trees that filled the campus with matching colored foliage. It was the middle of September, early autumn—the leaves had not yet begun to fall.Bookmark here

The boys were not alone as they walked on the orange-tinted pavement. There were plenty of other students. They were most likely students who had afterschool club activities.Bookmark here

Samejima High School was slightly different from other high schools. Being in a club was not mandatory, and the school was geared more towards those who wanted to pursue a career more focused on academics rather than athletics. School days in Samejima High School were also longer. Classes end at 4:00 PM as opposed to around 3:00 PM in most other High Schools.Bookmark here

The boys were nearing the school gates. From the corner of Yuugo’s eyes, he spots a certain someone. Yuugo gazed at her with a charmed expression. Alice stood alone under one of the trees on the sidewalk. The tender breeze caressed her angelic white hair. She had a blank stare directed towards the crowd.Bookmark here

Although she, like everyone else, was just a student, something about her was distinctly alluring that caught Yuugo’s attention. It reminded him of a similar occurrence a few months prior, in April of that same year.Bookmark here

At the opening ceremony, he had witnessed Alice stand on the exact same spot. The only difference was the seasons. Coincidentally, that was also the very first time he had laid eyes on her. Reminiscing about his love at first sight, he smiled. A mixed feeling of curiosity and worry filled his thoughts. He wanted to approach her, but he did not have the guts to do so.Bookmark here

“Isn’t that Takahashi-san?” Takuya asked, pointing a finger over at Alice.Bookmark here

“Why’s she just standing there all alone? She waiting for somebody?” Tetsuya wondered.Bookmark here

That was the question that floated inside the boys’ minds. Takuya was the first to walk over to her, Tetsuya followed, and Yuugo trailed behind them.Bookmark here

The closer they got, the more apparent her beauty became—to which the boys could only gawk in awe at the maiden.Bookmark here

“Hmmm? Katsuragi-san? And that’s...” Alice said, noticing the boys approach her. “Shibata-san and Kondo-san, right?”Bookmark here

“Y-Yeah, hello Takahashi-san, were you waiting for someone?” Takuya asked.Bookmark here

“Waiting? Ah eh, n-not really...” she admitted, sitting herself down on one of the wooden benches.Bookmark here

“I was just…admiring the view…that’s all,” she spoke with slight hesitation. At her answer, Yuugo slightly tilted his head.Bookmark here

“It gets me oddly nostalgic...” She smiled, continuing to gaze at the students. The way she stared gave off the impression that she held the sight quite close to her heart.Bookmark here

Students walking home together from school was certainly not in any way a rare occurrence, but to her, it was. Her brown eyes seemed to give a feeling of longing.Bookmark here

“Why is that?” Yuugo interjected, walking towards her. Was it right? He didn’t know, but curiosity got the better of him. That was the result of his utter lack of perception. He had trouble understanding the feelings of others. It was a flaw within him that he regretted his whole life.Bookmark here

“I...I can’t say...” she answered.Bookmark here

Yuugo could not understand the meaning of her words—yet he felt a pain strike his heart as he listened to her troubled voice. How much suffering has this girl gone through? He did not know. He did not wish to know. Thinking back to her breakdown when they had first met, it was better to let sleeping dogs lie. He thought. Bookmark here

However, he just can’t seem to shake that feeling off.Bookmark here

He wanted to embrace her. To hold her close to him—close to his heart. With warmth, to whisper to her ear—it’s alright, I’m here. But such thoughts were merely childish delusions, a fleeting fantasy that teenage boys liked to indulge themselves in.Bookmark here

Suddenly. A light beamed from seemingly nowhere.Bookmark here

Yuugo caught what seemed to be a flash from the corner of his eyes.Bookmark here

He turned right and saw Tetsuya and Takuya, with a phone aimed at him and Alice. Immediately, it was clear what they had just done.Bookmark here

“You two! Give me that phone!” Yuugo charged at them.Bookmark here

“Owww, I get it. I get it,” Tetsuya groaned. Yuugo had him trapped in a headlock. While he struggled, he reached for his phone.Bookmark here

“Kay, I'll just take this.” Takuya swiped the phone before Yuugo’s fingertips could reach it.Bookmark here

“Not you too...” Yuugo hung his head low with a defeated expression.Bookmark here

“Pft...” Alice chuckled. The boys turned their attention towards her with mystified faces.Bookmark here

“T-Takahashi-san?” Yuugo asked. His face began to flush. Oh great, as if it couldn’t get any worse, Yuugo thought as he averted his eyes.Bookmark here

“Sorry, sorry. It's just that you three are really close friends...”Bookmark here

“I just can't help but feel a bit envious...” she said, followed by an awkward silence.Bookmark here

“Sorry, that was a weird thing to say. Forget about it.”Bookmark here

“Takahashi-san, do you not have many friends?” Takuya asked bluntly.Bookmark here

“Takahashi-san is really popular, so that doesn’t make any sense,” Tetsuya said.Bookmark here

“Don't just ask things like that out of the blue,” Yuugo reprimanded.Bookmark here

“No...it’s fine, he’s right.” Alice gave a pained smile.Bookmark here

“I don’t have many friends.” She bit her lip then continued. “And being popular doesn’t really mean anything...”Bookmark here

“Don’t you have any friends from middle school or anything?” Tetsuya asked.Bookmark here

“Well…” She took a deep breath before continuing.Bookmark here

“I moved here to Tokyo 6 months ago. Like Himiko, I was from Kamagaya.” The boys were dumbfounded at her revelation. Takuya and Tetsuya, in particular, seemed to be a lot more bothered.Bookmark here

“I-I see...sorry for asking those personal questions,” Takuya apologized.Bookmark here

“M-Me too, sorry...” Tetsuya joined him.Bookmark here

“No, it’s fine. It’s not really a big deal or anything like that.” Alice held up her hands, trying to reassure them. Takuya lowered his head. Seeing as her attempt at recuperating their worries failed, she tried to end the conversation.Bookmark here

“I should be the one apologizing for taking up your time. So I’ll be going now, see you tomorrow.” She stood up and gave a bow of farewell to the boys.Bookmark here

She took her bag resting on the bench and slung it over her shoulder. Waving the boys goodbye, she proceeded to join the crowd.Bookmark here

Throughout the exchange, there was a single person—a single young man who kept silent the entire time. Without even saying a single word, was he simply going to let it go just like that? Of course not. The young man thought.Bookmark here

“Ah, wait! Takahashi-san!” Yuugo yelled, reaching out his hand.Bookmark here

He lamented his flaws. He knew he was hopeless. He regretted not being able to understand others better. That was why—he couldn’t just ignore someone that was so clearly suffering. He didn't have it in him. He was too kind to do that.Bookmark here

Even if he couldn’t do anything, he would still try everything he could to do something. If he couldn’t at least do that, he knew he would never be able to forgive himself.Bookmark here

“If you don’t mind, we could… you know… walk home, t-t-together,” he stammered. Alice turned around, her head slightly tilting sideways. She froze in place as if she could not believe what she had just heard. The two locked eyes until Yuugo decided to break the silence.Bookmark here

“T-Takahashi-san? What’s the matter?”Bookmark here

“Sorry, I was just caught off guard...” In a fluster, Alice averted her gaze. Her usually tense face loosened, her fair-skinned cheeks flushed.Bookmark here

“You’re inviting...me? Are you serious?” She asked dumbfounded, pointing a finger to herself.Bookmark here

“Yeah… is there a problem with that...?”Bookmark here

“N-No...it’s just that...Nobody has ever invited me to walk home together before...”Bookmark here

“But, but. With three boys, it feels weird.” She tapped the tips of her index fingers together.Bookmark here

“You don’t have to force yourself if you’re uncomfortable,” Yuugo said.Bookmark here

“No, no. I’m not.” Alice froze. Collecting her thoughts, she pursed her lips and closed her eyes. She took one deep breath, and opening her eyes once more, she spoke.Bookmark here

“...Thank you—”Bookmark here

With a broad smile, she spoke those words.Bookmark here

“Katsuragi-san!”Bookmark here

A beautiful smile. It was a smile worth gold. It was a smile that could only be seen once in a lifetime.Bookmark here

Yuugo could only widen his eyes in utter astonishment. Such a rare sight was straight out of fantasy. Alice turned around and adjusted her gaze below. Bringing a hand to her face, she rubbed her watery eyes.Bookmark here

“Boss is really amazing, isn’t he?” Takuya said.Bookmark here

“Yet sometimes he can also be really dumb...” he continued.Bookmark here

Readying themselves, they collectively agreed with the plan, and together, the walk-home group stepped foot out of the school grounds.Bookmark here

3Bookmark here

Walking down the busy streets of Shibuya, the walk-home group halted their steps as the traffic lights turned green. Takuya and Tetsuya were playing games on their phones while Yuugo and Alice stood behind them.Bookmark here

Yuugo crossed his arms, his feet repeatedly tapping the ground—soundless, drowned out by the noise of voices and cars passing by. His body would tremble every time he glanced at Alice. Uncrossing his arms, he took a deep breath and mustered up the courage to speak to her.Bookmark here

“It sure is noisy...huh?” he asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah, it’s hard to get used to this. Back in Kamagaya, the streets were a lot more peaceful,” Alice replied.Bookmark here

“Is that so...I see...” An awkward silence followed, their brief exchange abruptly ending right then and there. What should he say? Yuugo scratched his arms, trying to find a way to rekindle the conversation.Bookmark here

“I...uh...“ His attempt proved fruitless. He decided to keep his mouth shut and just wait for the lights to turn red.Bookmark here

“Why don’t we play a little game?” Alice suggested, raising a finger.Bookmark here

“Game?”Bookmark here

“Umu. We’ll each take turns asking questions, and we will both give our answers.” Alice nodded slowly, causing Yuugo’s face to flush. Their eyes met briefly—shivers overwhelmed his body as he hastily averted his gaze. She was cute. Too cute. Alice tilted her head slightly but continued.Bookmark here

“For example. What is your birthday? Mine is May 25.”Bookmark here

“Seems simple...mine’s January 25,” Yuugo answered.Bookmark here

“See? It can be little things like that. It's a simple but fun way for us to get to know more about one another.”Bookmark here

“Now it’s your turn to ask a question.” Yuugo froze as he marveled at the sight of Alice’s smiling face. She really was amazing. He thought.Bookmark here

Yuugo searched for what question he could ask, but before he could, the lights turned red, and the large crowd began to move once more. Yuugo wore a worried look, however. Alice reassured him.Bookmark here

“It's no big deal. We can continue as we walk.” Yuugo nodded in response when someone grabbed his shoulder. It was Tetsuya.Bookmark here

“We almost forgot about you bro, let’s go,” he said.Bookmark here

“Woah, that guy's huge.” He scanned the surroundings and pointed a finger towards a person behind them. Yuugo and Alice turned around and saw the figure of a tall, bulky man, standing in the middle of the crowd—unmoving.Bookmark here

He wore a black hoodie that concealed his face. The way his stiffened body stood was like a statue. The man was tall but not nearly as tall as Yuuto. Yuugo found the sight peculiar, anyone would, but what troubled him the most was a certain feeling of familiarity. He felt like he had seen the man before, but he didn’t remember when or where. He shook his head, shrugging it off before motioning to the rest of the group to move on.Bookmark here

Little did they know, however, that the man was following them. When the group advanced forward, the man resumed his movements in response. He trailed behind the group, making an effort not to be spotted.Bookmark here

The group eventually arrived outside of the Shibuya Station, where they would be splitting off.Bookmark here

“I'm really grateful for today, to you guys. And especially to you too, Katsuragi-san,” Alice spoke with an adorable grin.Bookmark here

“Y-Yeah…it's no problem,” Yuugo responded, his face blushing. There are no limits to Alice’s cuteness. He thought.Bookmark here

“If you need someone to walk together with, you can ask us anytime,” Takuya said.Bookmark here

“Yeah. Yeah. If you need anything, we're here to help!” Tetsuya, with excitement in his eyes, said.Bookmark here

Yuugo felt his entire being overwhelming with happiness at that moment as he struggled to hide the goofy grin on his face. He had covered his mouth or averted his eyes every time he looked at Alice. The hopeless pair got to know more about each other through Alice's question game.Bookmark here

As the group began to head off, Yuugo recognized something familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time, appearing from the corner of his eyes. Once Yuugo ascertained the source of that unease, his goofy smile had all but completely vanished.Bookmark here

Standing a few meters away from the group was the same man in black from before. Why? Why was he here? Yuugo repeatedly asked that to himself. Did he follow them here? Yuugo’s thoughts were out of control as he struggled to make out what was happening.Bookmark here

“Let's go inside...” Yuugo told the group, his breathing was heavy as sweat trickled down his face.Bookmark here

“Katsuragi-san, is there something the matter?” Alice asked.Bookmark here

“It's dangerous here, let's…let's split off inside...” Yuugo was being desperate, yet Alice or any of them could not understand.Bookmark here

“You alright, bud?” Tetsuya asked in concern.Bookmark here

Yuugo’s gaze darted back and forth from the man to the group. His yellow eyes blinked repeatedly. He froze, not knowing what to do. Alice peered at him with an expression of worry and confusion. Yuugo gave one more glance over at the man.Bookmark here

Their eyes met, Yuugo took a step back from shock. The man was walking—walking towards them, at a brisk pace, he inched closer and closer to them.Bookmark here

“Run!” Yuugo yelled. Alice widened her eyes in fear at Yuugo's sudden outburst before an unfamiliar voice joined them.Bookmark here

“Hey there,” The man spoke in a deep voice. Alice immediately turned around and stumbled to her back, landing on the cold hard ground. The man loomed over her. Alice's face twisted from fear before Yuugo got in between her and the man.Bookmark here

From Yuugo's fight or flight response, his brain chose the former. Not because he actually wanted to fight, but it was the feeling of self-sacrifice that urged him to—after all, his violent trembling was all too apparent. He could not even see the man's face as the hood was quite effective in obstructing it. What he did see was the man's lips curling into an eerie smile.Bookmark here

“You've not changed one bit...” the man remarked, slowly unveiling his hood.Bookmark here

“Yuugo.” The hood revealed a man with black hair tied in a braid with dead black eyes that seemed to stare into Yuugo's soul. Yuugo's eyes widened in absolute horror, his mouth slowly opened to speak. Bookmark here

“Sh...Shigure…?”Bookmark here

The man was Yaguchi Shigure. Despite his appearances, he was a young man, the same age as Yuugo. He used to be one of Yuugo's close friends during his elementary school years.Bookmark here

“Why...? Why are you here?” Yuugo asked.Bookmark here

“It’s been like...what? A year?” Shigure rubbed his nape with seemingly no care in the world. Bookmark here

“Answer me...! You promised. So why...?” Yuugo gave a sidelong glance behind him. Tetsuya was in a defensive stance with Takuya behind him, who had a furious expression.Bookmark here

“Let’s talk...alone...” Yuugo said.Bookmark here

“Even after what happened, you haven’t changed.”Bookmark here

“Tetsuya, please.” Yuugo pleaded as he glanced over at the group. He had a pained smile, and his voice was frail. He didn’t want this to turn like that. He didn’t want them to get involved.Bookmark here

“Got it,” Tetsuya replied. However, Takuya protested and tried to charge at Shigure. Tetsuya was barely able to hold him back. Despite his weak body, he surprisingly put up quite a fight.Bookmark here

“Takuya, stop it!” Tetsuya yelled.Bookmark here

“You’re...the chibi, right?” Shigure said emotionless. Contrary to his words, his tone bore no hint of any condescension or belittlement.Bookmark here

“Shithead! Come here! I’ll clobber you!” Takuya howled.Bookmark here

“Let go...of me...” He struggled and struggled, yet, it was all in vain. Tetsuya felt pity as he gazed at Takuya’s powerlessness. In truth, he felt the same way—the same rage, the same anger. However, even if he might act childish and careless sometimes, he had the most self-control in the group.Bookmark here

“The kid who...nearly died that day?” Bookmark here

“Bastard! I don’t care about that shit! For Boss, for Yuugo. I won’t forgive you!”Bookmark here

The sound of Takuya's yells continued to echo through the night sky, attracting unwanted attention to the group. Yuugo knew he mustn't let the situation escalate any further. If things went on like this, he didn’t want to imagine what would happen.Bookmark here

“Takuya, stop this...” he pleaded.Bookmark here

“Tch...Yuugo!” Takuya's voice was cracked and strained from all his strenuous yelling. However, he did not want to give in. There was something he still must do.Bookmark here

“TAKUYA!” Yuugo screamed in a voice louder than what Takuya could produce. Taken aback, Takuya stood in silence, simply speechless.Bookmark here

“Stop this, please,” Yuugo begged.Bookmark here

“Sorry...for bringing you into this.” Apologizing, he offered a hand to Alice, sprawled on the ground. Alice did not say anything in response and only took his hand, standing herself up.Bookmark here

“And Tetsuya...please take Takuya and leave. You join them, Takahashi-san.”Bookmark here

“B-But!” Alice tried to protest, but Yuugo only shook his head. Alice bit her lip in frustration, but she knew she had no right to interfere.Bookmark here

“Yeah...” Tetsuya nodded as he gripped Takuya’s hand tightly.Bookmark here

“Why...?” Takuya muttered to himself.Bookmark here

“Boss...why…?”Bookmark here

“Let’s go, Takuya,” Tetsuya said, facing the opposite direction, waiting for Takuya to move. Takuya eventually gave in, and they began to leave.Bookmark here

“Be careful…” Alice said. Yuugo gave a stiff nod, and Alice proceeded to join Takuya and Tetsuya, leaving the two young men—Yuugo and Shigure alone.Bookmark here

“So…what do you want?” Facing Shigure once more, Yuugo threw that question at him. That was the only thing in his mind right now. Shigure cleared his throat before responding.Bookmark here

“There’s only one thing I came here for,” he said, then paused for a second.Bookmark here

“November 20,” he continued.Bookmark here

“November...what are you talking about?” Yuugo furrowed his brows and squinted his eyes. He felt the cold autumn breeze hit his neck, causing him to shiver. In the presence of the man—to Shigure, Yuugo felt like a small animal.Bookmark here

“Meet me on November 20. Where? I haven’t decided that just yet.”Bookmark here

“That long? How can you guarantee that you won’t try to pull anything…?”Bookmark here

“Don’t worry. I won’t be doing any more of that. Heh, whether you believe me or not is another thing entirely.”Bookmark here

Yuugo and Shigure, along with Kyousuke, shared a close friendly relationship when they were kids. They were united as one by a single common thread. This commonality that had bound them together was the fact they all faced family-related issues. It made it easier for them to understand each other’s pain and grow closer.Bookmark here

Yuugo’s father left him behind at a very young age. Kyousuke grew up in his grandfather’s care as his parents had abandoned him when he was only an infant. And Shigure had the worst condition out of the three. He grew up without a father, and his sole parent—his mother, was an avid smoker and alcoholic.Bookmark here

After numerous incidents that occurred, their relationship slowly began to crumble. Until the last piece of thread connecting them together had snapped completely.Bookmark here

“It’s my fault...I’m a failure as a friend.” Yuugo blamed himself for what had happened. His powerlessness, his incompetence, his naivety—that was the root cause of everything. That’s what he believed.Bookmark here

If he could redo it, if he could get a second chance—he would surely take the opportunity. But, such a convenient method does not exist, and such, right now, this moment, it was his punishment. The price for atonement.Bookmark here

“You keep going on and on about this like a broken record… That’s what I hate about you most.”Bookmark here

He hated himself too. He knew that.Bookmark here

“If you want to get your revenge, then...beat me up all you like, until you’re satisfied.”Bookmark here

“You really are an idiot, aren’t you?”Bookmark here

He was an idiot. He knew that.Bookmark here

“I would rather just end it, right here, right now.”Bookmark here

“You just don’t understand, do you? I know I won’t get through to you, so I’ll leave it here.”Bookmark here

He doesn’t understand. He knew that.Bookmark here

“What?” Yuugo asked. Shigure approached him, stopping beside him. He hunched his back and whispered something inside Yuugo’s ear.Bookmark here

“For the last time, I’ll make sure to make you understand.” Straightening his back, he walked off.Bookmark here

“Well, see ya later.”Bookmark here

Yuugo stood in silence for a minute. Tears welled up in his fragile eyes, trailing down both his cheeks.Bookmark here

“I-I want to understand...but...I just can’t...” In a sobbing, muffled voice, he mumbled to himself.Bookmark here

4Bookmark here

“I’m home...” Yuugo spoke in a disheartened voice as he opened the door to his apartment. He took off his shoes and rested them on the shoe rack.Bookmark here

Their apartment home was small but just big enough to accommodate him, Yuuto, and his mother. He has lived there for his entire life and was content with the things they had: A simple couch and wooden table, one of those old fat TVs—they even had separate rooms. Sadly no beds, but futons worked well enough.Bookmark here

Yuugo was never the type of person to ask for gifts during birthdays or holidays, but whenever he did want something, he would work for it. He also did not want to burden his mother, who was his and Yuuto’s single parent ever since their father left them when Yuugo was still four.Bookmark here

“Welcome home,” Yuuto greeted him. His head nearly touched the ceiling.Bookmark here

Yuugo yawned, taking his bag and resting it on the couch. He unbuttoned and removed his white, sweat-filled uniform, revealing a white T-Shirt underneath. He threw it to the couch and stretched his arms.Bookmark here

“Welcome home, dear,” his mother, Katsuragi Akari, greeted him. After everything that had happened today, he was exhausted—physically and mentally. He planned to go straight to sleep after changing his clothes. However, his mind shifted to another thing. Turning his head to the table in front of him, he saw a peculiar sight.Bookmark here

He saw his mother working with some papers that sprawled on the table. His mother didn’t have any jobs that required paperwork. Did she take on a new job again? Yuugo thought. His mother was hard working and always did her best for him and Yuuto, to the point that she would completely disregard her own health. Sometimes, she would spend 24 hours just working. Though such occurrences were rare,they did indeed happen.Bookmark here

“What’s all this about?” Yuugo asked.Bookmark here

“Ah, it's nothing. You don't have to worry.” Yuugo could instantly tell she was lying. He furrowed his brows and spat out.Bookmark here

"Don't give me that crap! You've been coming home late, and now you're doing this? If you keep going like this...”Bookmark here

“Yuugo…” Akari mumbled.Bookmark here

“I’m fed up with this! Yuuto has been keeping some shit, and now you too?!”Bookmark here

“I asked you both last week, but you just wouldn’t say anything!”Bookmark here

“Yuugo, what’s gotten into you all of a sudden? Did something happen at school?” Yuuto asked in concern. He reached out his hand, but Yuugo slapped it away, stepping back.Bookmark here

He spoke with confusion, irrationality, and selfishness, unlike the normal Yuugo. It was like his mouth moved on its own, without regard for the brain—like his larynx had produced those painful wails of its own accord.Bookmark here

“Just spit it out already!!”Bookmark here

He felt lost. He wanted this to be over. He wanted them to let out whatever secrets they were keeping. If he puts it off for tomorrow or another day, that would mean another day where he would be suffering.Bookmark here

“Fine,” heaving a long sigh, Yuuto said.Bookmark here

“Yuuto? Are you sure?” Akari asked.Bookmark here

“It’s no use keeping it a secret anymore.” Yuuto scoured through his bag. He took out a paper envelope and gave it to Yuugo.Bookmark here

“The hell is this?” Yuugo spoke impatiently. He wasn't usually sharp-tongued, but after everything that had happened today, his mind wasn't exactly in the right headspace.Bookmark here

“I know you won't agree with my decision, but please...open it.”Bookmark here

Yuugo gave him a look of frustration before opening the envelope. Inside was a letter, unfolding it, he read the contents. Just the subject of the letter was enough to make his jaw drop.Bookmark here

“Letter of recommendation...” As soon as those words came out of his mouth, he already knew what came next. He didn't want to believe it, as he struggled to keep reading.Bookmark here

“...for Discite International...University.”Bookmark here

Discite International University was a prestigious learning institution. Every year, Samejima Private High School offers two talented students a chance to apply. Yuuto was one of the two chosen for this year.Bookmark here

“So you're applying...?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, I am.” A long pause followed after Yuuto’s confirmation. Yuugo blankly stared off at the letter. He gripped the paper tightly as he gritted his teeth.Bookmark here

“What the hell are you thinking?!” Yuugo shrieked. For any other family, receiving a letter of recommendation to an International University was something worth a large celebration for—but for the Katsuragi family, it was the root cause of discord.Bookmark here

“What difference does it make applying here and there?! That just makes it harder for mom!"Bookmark here

“Yuugo, stop. I decided to take care of the financial—” Akari tried to interrupt.Bookmark here

“Why did you let him apply?! What good would that make?!” Yuugo slammed his fist on the table. His voice resounded through the walls. Since they lived in an apartment complex, there was no doubt that their clamorous shouts had reached the ears of their neighbors.Bookmark here

“I stand by my decision. I believe it would give Yuuto the best education possible to support the family,” she defended.Bookmark here

“And what?! Fucking leave us for four years?!” Yuugo’s feelings burst forth like boiling water in a kettle.Bookmark here

“Yuugo! Calm down. What's happened to you?” Yuuto tried to dispel the situation, placing his hand on Yuugo's shoulder, but Yuugo shook it off.Bookmark here

“You're just gonna up and leave like our shitty father!” he yelled. Those words pierced Yuuto’s heart like a knife, but he tried to maintain his composure.Bookmark here

“Yuugo! Calm down for a second!” Yuuto slightly raised his voice.Bookmark here

“You're just doing it to follow your fucking girlfriend, aren't you?!”Bookmark here

He went too far. He failed to realize that, continuing to pile up insult after insult, retort after retort, to achieve what exactly? Even he did not know. But was that so wrong? It was his genuine emotions and feelings that were laid bare. As ugly as it was, it was what he truly felt at that moment.Bookmark here

Concepts like reason or rationality could not restrict such strong emotions—It was like his own heart spoke, spouting nonsense after nonsense. His words and feelings were inconceivable—yet, there was no mistaking that they were the truth.Bookmark here

“YUUGO!!” The two brothers exchanged yells like wild animals. What was even right anymore? It did not matter.Bookmark here

“You two, stop it!” It was their mother, Akari, who put a stop to their back and forth. Yuugo and Yuuto frequently disagreed with one another, but they never once took it this far.Bookmark here

They shared one goal—to provide a better life for their mother. However, they both had distinctly different perceptions of achieving that. Yuugo, who wanted what was best for her right now. Yuuto, who wanted what was best for her in the long run. Two sides of the same coin. No side was wrong, yet, no side was right either.Bookmark here

“Tch…” Yuugo crumpled the paper and threw it on the floor. He stormed to his room, slamming the door shut.Bookmark here

His back leaned against the door. Slowly, his weak body dropped to the floor. His mind was thinking of nothing, yet everything at the same time.Bookmark here

After a minute of contemplating in silence, he stood up, slowly undressing, he changed to his loungewear. He did not even give any effort into putting his dirty clothes in the laundry and simply left them on the floor.Bookmark here

He laid on his futon, listening to music with his earbuds. Lost on what it is that he needs to do. He lingered in that pathetic state for an hour. He sought shelter inside the comforts of his own mind, his imagination, his limitless fantasies. He wanted to escape reality—to run away from everything, from his problems, and all the things that caused him to suffer.Bookmark here

Suddenly, a knock on the door. Yuugo pulled out his earbuds.Bookmark here

“Yuugo...dinner’s going to get cold, so...”Bookmark here

It was his mother—he paid her no heed, returning the earbuds to his ears. He wasn’t hungry. He thought.Bookmark here

The door to his room creaked open slightly then closed shut. He raised his head to see bowls of food on the ground. It was his dinner. He got up for the first time in an hour and stared at it: A bowl of rice and miso soup, standard, but enough. He hesitated before taking the chopsticks and began to dig in.Bookmark here

“Itadakimasu…” he said under his breath, pressing his hands together.Bookmark here

After eating his dinner, he continued to lay in bed. He took his phone and opened an app, LINE. He scrolled through conversations he had with his friends and eventually stopped at a familiar user. Her name was Alice Takahashi. He went to her profile, which was private and visible by friends only, but since he had added her the other day, he could see her posts just fine.Bookmark here

She did not have much posts in general. It seems that she wasn’t the type of person to go on social media often. She would occasionally upload pictures of her and her friends hanging out, but that was about it. He went to their chats. It was empty. Ever since they added together after the trip to Akihabara, they have not spoken to each other even once. What should I say? He asked himself.Bookmark here

He began typing out a message.Bookmark here

[Hello, good evening, how—]Bookmark here

He stopped for a moment, thinking then erasing the message.Bookmark here

[How are you doing tonight?]Bookmark here

This time, he had finished typing out a sentence. However, once again, he deleted the message and started over.Bookmark here

He spent the next half an hour repeating the same cycle. In the end, he could not send a single message. In that lonely night, he simply wanted company—someone to talk to, someone to lean on. Of course, he had his close friends he could contact any time and vent his frustrations to, so why Alice?Bookmark here

He gave up, closing the phone and setting it aside. He decided to just sleep for the night, to end this miserable day once and for all. However, just as he was about to doze off, a notification sound came from his phone. Scratching his hair, he got up and checked who it was.Bookmark here

The source of the notification made Yuugo widen his eyes.Bookmark here

It was a message, a message from Alice.Bookmark here

[Alice: Good Evening, I forgot I had added you the other day, so I just wanted to drop by and say hello.]Bookmark here

She sent a hello sticker after the message.Bookmark here

It took him a while to come up with a reply as he just stared off, thinking of the best way to respond. While he contemplated, Alice sent another message.Bookmark here

[Alice: I also wanted to ask but are you doing good? After leaving you with that guy before, I wanted to make sure you were alright.]Bookmark here

[Yuugo: Good evening to you too, haha, thanks for worrying, but I’m doing well.]Bookmark here

He fumbled as he typed it out. It was an awkward reply, but it worked.Bookmark here

[Alice: Is that so? That’s great, then. I’m glad you’re alright.]Bookmark here

[Alice: Also, I wanted to thank you again for today.]Bookmark here

[Yuugo: It’s no problem.]Bookmark here

[Alice: That’s all I wanted to say. Thank you very much.]Bookmark here

She sent a goodbye sticker. Yuugo hurried to type a response. He didn’t want the conversation to end there. Just as he got what he wanted, he didn’t want to let it go just like that.Bookmark here

[Yuugo: Wait!]Bookmark here

[Alice: Is there something wrong?]Bookmark here

After a few seconds of hesitation, Yuugo sent his reply.Bookmark here

[Yuugo: Are you going to be doing anything for the rest of the night?]Bookmark here

It was an odd response. One would be creeped out by such a personal question asked in such a straightforward manner. However, Alice did not think of it that way.Bookmark here

[Alice: Not really, I’m just laying in bed right now. I just finished my homework.]Bookmark here

[Yuugo: Then, would it be okay if we continue talking? I’m sorry if that sounds weird.]Bookmark here

[Alice: Sure. I have nothing else to do anyway.]Bookmark here

[Alice: We can pick up where we left off before with my question game.]Bookmark here

[Yuugo: Sounds good.]Bookmark here

The once empty chat between Yuugo and Alice began to fill up. They spent the next two hours just exchanging messages.Bookmark here

[Alice: It’s 11 already, I didn’t realize we went on for that long.]Bookmark here

[Yuugo: Same, haha, we got a bit carried away, huh?]Bookmark here

[Alice: Yeah, I’m pretty beat, so I think I’ll go to sleep now.]Bookmark here

She sent a yawning sticker.Bookmark here

[Yuugo: Alright, goodnight, sweet dreams!!]Bookmark here

[Alice: Thanks <3. You too! Goodnight to you too!]Bookmark here

With that farewell, their lengthy chat came to an end. For Yuugo, it meant that it was the end of his temporary shelter from his problems once more, but at least this time, his mind had alleviated, even just a little bit. He spent some time just laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, mulling over his fight with Yuuto. He could not agree with him, not one bit, but he acknowledged that he went too far at the time.Bookmark here

“I’ll apologize tomorrow…” he whispered.Bookmark here

The next moment—his consciousness faded.Bookmark here

Bookmarked
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