A/N: I would like to preface this story by noting that, generally, I write one-shots. This holds for this story as well, so please don’t get your hopes up for a second chapter.
Again, this could be read as a prequel to ‘Untitled’, although I didn’t set out to write it that way, and I won’t call it a prequel of that. I couldn’t call it that at all, because I don’t know what exactly happens at the end of this (you’ll see what I mean). But you could read it that way if you’d like to. Of course, you would have to assume that Toshio just doesn’t remember anything at all when he has any amount of alcohol.
One of these days I may actually write a happy story for the MuroixOzaki pairing. This is not one of these days.
To the End
He’s breathing shallowly, although he has yet to find it difficult to breathe. But it comes over him easily, as if it’ll somehow speed everything up – the brutal pain in his arm, the sudden flurry of panicked thoughts, his unabating misery. So he breathes shallowly, roughly, slowly as his blood leaks onto the floor, a smell of copper invading his nostrils as he lies there. Outside the sun shines and birds chirp, everything seeping through the door he left cracked. He wanted to die with the smell of sweet grasses surrounding him, and so it was open… if he’d been any braver, he would’ve just gone out there to wait for death. Even in the end he couldn’t manage to muster that.
Lying like this, sprawled on his side on the tatami, a sheet under his arm (to help with the cleaning that will have to follow), he can feel a light-headedness setting in, a dreaminess to it all. Drifting into a dreamlike state, like the fever-stricken do. And in this dreamlike state, he finds his mind casting back across the years; he finds himself remembering. The early things, the late things… his mind drifts along lazily. He knows not much time can have passed, but it all seems to slow as his thoughts move with the pace of the creeks at high summer.
It seems to be true, what the people always say – right before one dies, their life flashes before their eyes. They do still say that, don’t they? That we all get a fever-dream recollection before all goes dark? It’s still something the people say, right?
He can feel himself remembering…
* * *
It’s a bitterly cold day in Sotoba when something unexpected happens to Seishin. He stands very still, and blanches. Toshio gives him a funny look from where he himself lies on the floor, having looked up from the comic book he had been leafing through nonchalantly. But how can Toshio do that? He’s the reason for the funny look, after all.
“Don’t stand there looking stupid.” He’s put the comic book down now, a frown deepening on his face. Seishin feels flustered, and steps further into the room, but then freezes up again. They are twelve years old, and he’s never been confronted with something like this before. He fiddles with the top button on his school uniform, trying to come up with some sort of response, but he fails to do so before Toshio speaks again, still frowning up at him, “You’re still making a stupid face.”
“Well… I…” He stutters, and let’s himself sink to the floor, sitting down tensely across from his friend. “You can’t just ask someone that!” He bursts out, uncharacteristically loud.
Toshio raises an eyebrow, peeling himself up from the floor and into a more upright position, his comic book wholly abandoned, “Why not?”
Seishin looks away, unable to handle that direct look, feeling embarrassed both for what Toshio has said and for his own lack of composure in response to what he has said. “It’s a weird question…” He hears himself finally mumbling, and he feels his own face beginning to grow hot.
There’s actually a hint of embarrassment in Toshio’s voice when he answers, “I didn’t know it was that big of a deal…”
Seishin looks back at him with some surprise, his own mortification sliding away quietly. He’s picking quietly at the edges of the comic book pages, his facial expression hard to read. Seishin swallows, and scoots a little closer, feeling his face redden again, “Well, if you really want to…”
Toshio looks up suddenly, forcefully, “I’m just curious, you know! People do it, and they act like they like it so much… and Mikiyasu says even he’s done it!” He shifts uncomfortably, abashedly, his gaze shifting away once again as his outburst fades into the silence. Seishin is kneeling now, closer to his friend, so close he could lean forward and…
“Ok. Um… well… we could try it… but… how do we start?”
It’s a very simple question, although he isn’t really sure how he actually asked it. Thinking on it later, he wonders more and more how it came out so easily, his own bafflement increasing with the intervening years. How, indeed?
“Close your eyes.” It is a command. A nervous-sounding one, but a command nonetheless. So he lets his lids fall shut, and he remains motionless. He can hear Toshio moving, his legs scraping slightly against the floor as he gets closer. And then there it is, a light pressure on his own lips, and a sudden nervous feeling in his chest. Toshio is kissing him. It is his first kiss.
It doesn’t last long, and they can’t manage to look each other in the eyes afterward. But he still finds himself asking, his voice sounding somewhat strangled, if they can try it again. Because the first time isn’t like how it really is, because it’s the first time. You can’t know until you try it a second. It sounds half-reasonable. And Toshio gives a short, strange laugh, but kisses him again.
It proves an unfortunate error on his part. Neither of Toshio’s parents are given to knocking before entering rooms. They are both thrashed, soundly, perhaps Seishin less so than Toshio, and it is a very long time before Seishin is welcome in the Ozaki residence again, a longer time before Toshio tells his parents that he’s going to see Seishin, not Mikiyasu or any other classmates.
Seishin winces as he slowly walks home. He cannot think of what excuse he could possibly use with his parents for this. But he already feels a tiny sense that he does not regret what has happened – only, maybe, that Toshio’s mother walked in at all.
* * *
It is in high school that Seishin begins to spend so much time in the disused church that hides amongst the cedars further up the hill behind the temple. As a child he had sometimes explored it, but its dim interior and its alien iconography had seemed intimidating to him. He preferred the woods closer to the house and the temple, and so had his friends, when they weren’t spending their time by the river closer to town instead.
But as a high school student, he finds himself drawn to the pleasant solitude of the church. He even sleeps out there some nights, quietly sliding the door to his room shut as he creeps out the side of the house, pillow and blanket tucked under one arm with which hand he also clutches notebooks and pencils. No one ever bothers him when he is there. It is a perfect place to study. And to write.
Although it is his own place, he allows Toshio to see it, too. Toshio doesn’t seem nearly as entranced by it as he feels; but maybe it is just that he comes from doctors, Seishin from priests. It may not be his own religion, but it casts a reverent feeling over him regardless. And if he breathes in deeply enough, he thinks he can still smell a ghosting of incense and the delicate pages of absent Bibles.
So Toshio is allowed here, although Mikiyasu isn’t. Not that Mikiyasu has ever asked – or Toshio, either, for that matter. But he walked Toshio up here anyway, so now Toshio knows that if he isn’t in his room but Mr. or Mrs. Muroi says that he is home, he can find him here.
He also knows that he can suggest sleeping over there when he somehow pinches a bottle of sake.
Which is exactly what happens during the summer break their first year of high school. Toshio doesn’t explain how it is that he has gotten a hold of this forbidden item; he just pulls Seishin aside with a grin, and quietly tells him in an undertone, the grin never leaving his face. He’s excited about it – and not just for the sake of drinking it. Seishin can also tell that a lot of it is his own pride at being able to finagle it in the first place. And Seishin can’t help but feel a bit excited, too – he’s been allowed sips before at festival times, but never anything more, even as the villagers’ faces reddened and their behavior became sillier. He remembers his father, his straitlaced father, abruptly spinning his wife around quickly, and dipping her, almost dropping her, as if they were dancing, and his mother laughing, her eyes unfocused as the bonfire burned lower and the villagers careened around them. He wants to try that sake, too.
Mikiyasu has gone for the holidays to visit relatives down in Kyushu. They jeer at him, jealous of his impending days at the beach, and he promises to bring some souvenirs back, maybe to write some postcards. But there won’t be any of the illicit sake for him. Maybe, if he’s lucky, there’ll be another time.
They camp out in the church; Seishin’s parents know that they are there, although Toshio has neglected to tell his own parents. His mother is too suspicious for that, maybe his father, too. So they think he slumbers peacefully on the spare futon in a guest room, never mind that he probably would’ve just shoved Seishin over and crawled into that futon, too. He doesn’t want Mrs. Muroi to have to do more laundry. And he hates rolling it up in the morning; his bed at home is Western in style.
But in the church, he doesn’t complain about the futon. He hates sleeping bags more. He’ll just make Seishin deal with it in the morning, anyway; he won’t make a fuss about it since Toshio carried it all up the hill and will carry it back down. So the futon are unfurled between the pews and the altar, and they sit down on the small step the altar creates, the sake bottle between them. And they drink.
They both sputter a lot to start off with, the liquor burning more than Seishin had recalled from those small sips he’d been permitted. They laugh at each other, and then giggle pointlessly as the level in the bottle decreases. Not that it decreases by much, but they are united in their lack of tolerance for the substance. And so they tease each other ruthlessly about it.
At one point, after a particularly sharp comment, he shoves Toshio, who falls off the step. He rights himself quickly, but too quickly, for he tips over the other way, and Seishin laughs loudly at him. Toshio pushes him off the altar with a shove from his own foot, and they are wrestling, rolling on the floor and the futons, dizzy from the movement and the alcohol.
They stop when Seishin can’t roll any longer, his head completely reeling. Toshio has him pinned down, and there is a smug expression on his face – he’s won, or he has at least from his vantage. They’re breathing hard from the tussling, but it begins to subside as they remain stilled. Seishin can even begin to make out the form above him, his senses settling into a less chaotic state.
He realizes he must be drunk as he realizes that the position he is in makes him uneasy even as he hopes that Toshio won’t move away from him. Which is part of why he feels uneasy. Because he’s been feeling a bit funny about his childhood friend for a little while lately, and the idea of drinking with him had made him feel a bit nervous, although he was mainly looking forward to it. Not because he thought he’d end up like this. Just all those memories of the drunk villagers in midsummers, laughing so merrily and spinning the night away.
But now he remembers what has made him most nervous of all, most confused of all, a dream he couldn’t quite remember fully, yet which left him feeling unsteady and made his heart race when he thought on it. The sort he was fairly certain he wasn’t supposed to have about a friend. A male friend. A male friend he’d known since they were babies.
He can feel himself stiffening at the mere thought of this unfortunate dream, and he can no longer continue to look Toshio in the face. He turns his head, fixing his gaze elsewhere, and mumbles, “Can you please get off of me?”
“Oho, you admit defeat so easily? Only if you beg.” Toshio’s grin is clear in his voice, as is his lack of awareness.
Seishin squirms slightly, trying to hide what is happening from the other boy, a panic beginning to rise within him, “Please, Toshio, just please get off of me, I’m tired and the sake’s making me nauseous.”
But Toshio is drunk and in no mood to let it go so easily. He wants to mock his loser more, and he begins to say something. But he also moves a bit, trying to shift his weight as the position he is in becomes uncomfortable. And, in doing so, his knee collides softly with the space between Seishin’s legs. The words die in his mouth.
Seishin squeezes his eyes shut tightly, wishing it all away, because he knows that Toshio knows. Toshio knows that his oldest friend is turned on by being beneath him like this.
“Oh.” It isn’t much of a response, but it repeats itself, “Oh.”
The knee doesn’t move. Seishin’s heart pounds heavily, and he finds it hard to breathe again. He doesn’t say anything, though; he can’t.
And, then, Toshio is touching him. He lets out a low cry of shock, “To-toshio, what are you doing?” But Toshio keeps touching him, and he can feel his skin prickling under his clothes. It’s all so terrifying, but he doesn’t want it to stop.
He involuntarily kisses Toshio when he comes. In the morning, when Toshio complains of a head-ache and little recollection of the night before, Seishin claims to have no memory of it at all.
* * *
The night is clear but warm, the noise of wedding guests audible but muffled behind glass. Seishin is outside, looking at the distant hills and avoiding the party indoors. His face feels as if it will crack if he smiles any more, and his will to continue this act is fading quickly as the night wears on.
Inside is a wedding reception. Inside is dancing, a monstrous cake, and an open bar. The ceremony was hardly traditional in the Japanese sense, and the reception has more trappings of the West than anything else. Toshio’s wife is a Christian. At least there are some favors in this world; he didn’t have to officiate.
The church was so different from his own. He considered the one on the Muroi property his now. No one else went into it ever, after all. He keeps it clean and fixes things when they break – a hole in the roof, a smashed window-pane.
A lot of people must keep the church they got married in clean and in good repair. The walls were a blinding white, the ceilings so high, the windows so large. The carpeting on the floor looked new, and none of the Bibles were missing. He was able to notice many of these things during the ceremony. But he liked his church better.
He walked toward the direction of the sound of water, the noise receding behind him as he moved. There was a koi pond here, the water cascading endlessly down a small waterfall into the pond, to be sucked back in some grate and tossed back down that same incline. The koi were fairly large, and they began to surface, their mouths popping open and shut as his shadow was cast across the water. He smiled slightly, and leaned over, poking his finger out toward them. A few lazily chomped at it before settling back beneath the surface.
“Firefly koi…” He murmured, watching them still. Their tails furled in the liquid, and they bumped against each other as they swam. “It must be nice to be a fish…”
The voice startled him slightly, and he whirled around. Toshio grinned at him, his cheeks reddened with champagne, “What, did I surprise you? What’re you doing out here by yourself?”
“I could ask you the same; why aren’t you dancing with your bride?”
Toshio laughs, “She’s in there dancing with my father and all my uncles. It’s driving my mother crazy! Her son finally gets married and it’s to someone like that!”
“Ah.” Seishin turns back to the koi pond, poking tentatively at the water again. The koi re-surface for another fruitless round of biting.
He can hear Toshio moving closer, and frowns down at the fat fish in the pond, wishing he’d leave him alone. The entire ordeal is bad enough without the groom bothering him.
“You should come back inside. A lot of the girls have been looking for you.” Toshio nudges him now, obnoxiously, “I always did say you were the pretty boy. I don’t know how I managed to tie the knot before you did.”
“I don’t want to dance with any of the girls.” He says, coldly. Toshio looked at him more clearly, a look of concern crossing his features, “What’s the matter? This isn’t like you.”
Seishin stepped away, facing the hills. It wasn’t like him, no. Usually he just smiled and said something noncommittal, something vaguely pleasant when he was miserable. Anger wasn’t in his purview. But he was annoyed and irritated – with himself, with Toshio. With himself for not doing anything years ago, with Toshio for being oblivious.
And not just to this. Toshio had seemed less and less aware of anything Seishin felt at all as the years had passed since high school ended and they went off to college in the big city. They’d gone to different schools, yes, but they’d seen each other enough, hadn’t they? And they’d always been friends, right?
The reversion to childhood nickname pulled him out of his reverie. He turned back to Toshio, a feeling of calm settling into him as he took Toshio’s face in his hands. He looked at him for a moment, studying his face. The other man looked profoundly baffled.
Seishin kissed him, Toshio’s mouth slack with alcohol and confusion. And then he stopped, moving back to look at his face once more, his hands still on either side of it.
“Toshio. I love you. I always have. And now you are married. Go back to your wife.”
When he left, Toshio was still standing there by the koi pond. He hadn’t seen him since.
* * *
He could feel a warmth spreading in him even as his vision dimmed more and more, a strange warmth which seemed to build from his stomach before creeping into his weakening limbs. He inwardly cursed himself, cursed the wretchedness of what memories came to him in these last moments. The whole thing was but one facet in the flawed glass diamond that was his life, but here it was, haunting him cruelly despite all of the other things which had crowded him toward death.
But the pain in his arm was gone. And he realized that he didn’t care any more about any of it – that he’d been trapped into following in his father’s footsteps, that Toshio had never realized anything, that Sotoba was a miserable little place, that he’d never had much of a choice in his life, that maybe what he was doing wasn’t the best answer to things. It was all rapidly slipping away from him, dissolving faster than he could keep track of any more.
He heard the door slide and a voice saying his name, distantly, but he didn’t care. It didn’t matter. His eyes drooped shut, the sound from footfalls on the tatami failing to reach his ears. He felt his arm being grabbed roughly, and a loud cursing from Toshio, but it all came to him slowly, and he did not react. It just didn’t matter any more. It just didn’t matter at all.