torch, July 2000

Disclaimer: these guys are so not mine. They belong to Nasu Yukie, and possibly also to Studio Pierrot. This story is set during and after Here is Greenwood 6, and may not make a whole lot of sense if you haven't seen both 5 and 6. It contains, as the astute reader will already have deduced, spoilers. Please note that the story is based entirely off the anime, not the manga, since my Japanese is non-existent.

Many thanks to !Super Cat (this is all her fault, really, except for the commas) and to elynross (none of this is her fault, really, especially not the commas) for helpful and thorough criticism and editing. All faults, particularly of punctuation, are mine. Anyone who feels so inclined is welcome to send feedback. :-) Do not archive this story without permission.

The best policy

"You lied to Hasukawa, didn't you."

"One moment." Shinobu Tezuka lifted a hand and went on writing with the other.

Leaning back against the door he had just closed, Mitsuru Ikeda knew that he should wait — wait until his roommate finished whatever phrase he was so intent on, yes, but also wait and let the question sit between them until Shinobu answered it. That was the Shinobu method, and it seemed to work really well, but it wasn't easy for him. He watched Shinobu sitting by the desk, watched the back of Shinobu's head, its precise unmoving tilt, and wondered why, after more than two years, more of his own natural exuberance hadn't rubbed off on Shinobu. None of Shinobu's unflappability appeared to have rubbed off on him, either. It was very annoying. Being unflappable would have come in handy on many occasions.

"When you said that you knew how he felt," Mitsuru found himself saying after all, incapable of stopping his train of thought long enough to wait for Shinobu to get on. "As though you'd been in the same situation yourself."

"Poor Suka-chan," Shinobu murmured and finally put his pen down. He pushed his notes into a neat pile and half-turned in the chair until Mitsuru could see his face. Predictably, he looked calm and amused. "I wouldn't be surprised if Shun started up a cheerleading squad."

"Igarashi would be furious," Mitsuru said, diverted for a moment by the thought of Shun in a short pleated skirt, waving pom-poms, hair in two perky ponytails. "She'd probably whip out her bicycle chain and— Shinobu, why did you lie to Hasukawa? I don't think he believed it. I don't think anyone believed it."

"Clearly, you didn't." Shinobu shifted the chair and swung himself fully around, stretching his legs out.

Mitsuru chuckled. "As if you'd ever yearn hopelessly for someone you couldn't have!" The thought of Shinobu tormented by unrequited love was absurd. The thought of Shinobu breaking down and dripping blood and tears on Mitsuru's shoulder the way Hasukawa had done — it made Mitsuru's imagination boggle in unfamiliar, uncomfortable ways, and he quickly tried to push it back into its accustomed shape. It was impossible to conceive of Shinobu acting in any way like the impulsive, hot-tempered Hasukawa, in languishing over a girl or in anything else. Shinobu just didn't do that kind of thing. Never had, never would. "The idea, it's just—"

"Tragic?" Shinobu suggested, sounding bored.

"Ridiculous." Mitsuru stepped away from the door to sit by the table in the center of the room, folding his legs comfortably. Someone — most probably Shun — had left a brightly colored flier for a video rental store lying there. Mitsuru picked it up and began to fold it into a paper plane.


Mitsuru ran his nail down a fold, making it sharp and precise. He knew he would have noticed if Shinobu, who was, after all, his roommate and his best friend, had gone the Hasukawa route. Shinobu didn't pine after girls. Not in general, and certainly Mitsuru had never seen him pine after any specific girl. He couldn't possibly have missed that. So, it had to be something else.

"I suppose you were trying to make him feel better, by making him think you'd been in the same situation. That's a kind and considerate thing to do."

"Very considerate," Shinobu agreed.

The plane came out a little lopsided, and when Mitsuru threw it, it wobbled in the air and went over Shinobu's shoulder rather than hitting his nose, as Mitsuru had intended. He frowned. Origami had never exactly been a hobby of his, but any idiot could make a paper plane.

"Only you don't do things like that," Mitsuru went on, considering his roommate. Not kindness and consideration. Not a girl. "So there must be some other reason behind it. You don't usually bother to lie to people unless you have a good motive. The question is what it could be."

He stared at Shinobu, who stared calmly back. "What, indeed."

"Have you set up a betting pool on Hasukawa and Igarashi? You could be trying to manipulate him into doing whatever no one has bet on him doing, going to Igarashi's school like that." Mitsuru wished he had the plane back. He always thought better when he could use his hands to toy with something. "But I think I'd notice if you ran a betting pool, and I haven't heard anyone talking about their bets. It must be something else."

"Mitsuru," Shinobu said, just that, just his name, speaking it as though he were commenting on the weather.

"I'll figure it out." Mitsuru shifted, propping his elbows on the table. "I will. I think it did cheer Hasukawa up a little." Shinobu got to his feet, crossed the room, and picked up his robe. He walked past Mitsuru to the door. "Hey! Hold it! Where are you going?"

Shinobu glanced over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow a fraction of an inch. "You appear to be holding up both sides of this conversation so well, I thought I would take a bath and let you carry on."

Running over the past fifteen minutes in his head, Mitsuru had to admit that Shinobu had a point. "I'm coming with you," he said, jumping to his feet and snagging his yukata from its hook. He followed Shinobu out and fell into step beside him, as always. "You can be really annoying to live with, you know that?"

Their footsteps, soft-slippered, made no sound.

"On the other hand," Shinobu said meditatively, "I don't snore."

In the relaxing heat of the furu, Mitsuru closed his eyes and let his arms drift up to float in the water. "Hasukawa's stubborn. He won't give up on her."

"So I've noticed." There was a slow current in the water as Shinobu shifted. "That's why I told him to go for it. He would have, anyway. Igarashi seems to inspire any number of harebrained acts of devotion. I suppose we're lucky she's not Shun's type, too."

"You could have told me what you were planning before you let me go off in a wig and skirt and make a fool of myself," Mitsuru said. Then he opened one eye, just to see if he was right about the expression on Shinobu's face. He was. "But you thought it was much more entertaining that way, didn't you."

"Yes," Shinobu said. "After having had to deal with you when you had a fever, I felt I was owed a good laugh."

"I hope you enjoyed it," Mitsuru muttered, but couldn't muster even the suggestion of a grudge in his voice. Shinobu really had taken excellent care of him, even if it had meant that Mitsuru hadn't been able to go and meet Igarashi at McDonald's as he had promised. And it had been a bad cold. He'd been rather grateful to be pushed into bed and told to stay there.

Some moments later, Shinobu went on, "I recognized the wig from that theater production, but where did you get the skirt?"

"I, um, borrowed it from the dorm lady," Mitsuru admitted.

"Without her permission, I assume."

"Without her knowledge. 'Excuse me, ma'am, may I borrow a dress from you so that I can go off and get in a fight with a girls' gang?'" Mitsuru snorted. "That would have gone over well." He sank deeper into the water. "I had a hard time returning it, too."

"Shun helped you."

"Yes, he— How did you know that?"

"I didn't do it, Hasukawa's much too wrapped up in his thoughts of Igarashi to be of any use to anyone, and you really needed someone to distract the dorm lady. Besides, you never work alone."

"I'm that predictable."

"It's part of your charm," Shinobu said in a kind voice.

Silence fell, steam rose, and Mitsuru could feel his brain melting; it was an oddly pleasant sensation. He was tempted to stay in the furu for the rest of the evening, but he still remembered how sick he'd felt from overheating the time the ghost of Misako-chan had trapped him in the hot water for too long. Rubbing his wrinkled fingertips together, he wondered if Hasukawa would manage to meet Igarashi tomorrow afternoon and what would happen then. And that reminded him of something important.

"Shinobu, I need to borrow your notes from—"

"—sixth period. I made a copy for you. On my desk." Mitsuru looked up, surprised, to meet Shinobu's cool gaze. "If you cut the class tomorrow as well, ask someone else."

"It was your idea to send Hasukawa to Igarashi's school," Mitsuru reminded him.

"Yes, but I didn't realize I'd be sending you two idiots along with him."

"You're a romantic at heart," Mitsuru said. Shinobu sighed and stood up, only slightly flushed from the heat of the water; he turned to get out of the tub. "But that still doesn't explain why you lied to Hasukawa."

Shinobu wrapped his own towel around his hips and appropriated Mitsuru's to dry the back of his neck, where his hair was twisting into uncharacteristically cute damp little curls. "One of these days," he said, "you should learn to listen to what people actually say." He tossed the towel at Mitsuru. "And by the way...."

"What?" Mitsuru got out of the water and regarded his wet towel with disgust.

"I have started a betting pool on Hasukawa and Igarashi. Since you're so involved in the whole matter, I'm sure you'll want to place a bet."

Shinobu stepped out to the changing room, and Mitsuru's towel hit the closing door.

* * *

Mitsuru couldn't help but involve himself further in Hasukawa's hopeless passion for Igarashi. He wasn't entirely certain why it seemed so important to him. He liked Hasukawa, yes, but there was more to it than that. It was as though Hasukawa's tears on his shoulder had created some kind of bond between them. Or maybe it was just that having seen Hasukawa so vulnerable, Mitsuru wanted to do something about it, get Hasukawa's heart off his sleeve and stuffed back out of sight where it belonged.

Shinobu's cryptic words didn't come back to him until several days later, when he was leaving the hospital where Igarashi was no longer staying. Hasukawa strode on ahead, plainly disinclined for conversation, so Mitsuru turned to his other companion. "Shun?"

"Yes, sempai?"

"Do you remember, some days ago, when Shinobu told Hasukawa that he understood how he felt and that he should go to Igarashi's school rather than to her home?"

Mitsuru paused to review his pronouns, but apparently he had been clear enough, because Shun nodded. "Yes, sempai."

"Do you remember exactly what he said?" Mitsuru thought he remembered, but the words in his mind didn't seem to hold any hidden meaning. And there had to be a hidden meaning, or he didn't know Shinobu as well as he thought he did.

Shun wrinkled his nose thoughtfully. "I think so. Suka-chan said that until he's told Igarashi about his feelings, and she has turned him down, it's not over, and Shinobu-sempai said that he understood, but that it's rude to go to a girl's house like that." Pushing his long hair back over one shoulder, Shun went on, "Although I wonder, Mitsuru-sempai, isn't it rude to wait outside her school, as well?"

"It's not the same thing," Mitsuru said, "but when the school has a strict policy, it's not the best thing to do."

"And you might get in trouble. I wonder if Shinobu-sempai knew that." Shun shook his head. "Suka-chan really has the worst luck with girls."

Mitsuru looked ahead to where Hasukawa was moodily kicking a rock as he walked along. "Yes, he does."

When they got to the dorm, Hasukawa went off to drown his sorrows in hot water, and Shun disappeared into room 210 with mutters about neglected homework. Mitsuru went into room 211 and found it empty.

He had homework to do, too; his involvement in Hasukawa's pursuit of Igarashi had left him a little behind in several subjects, despite Shinobu's occasional help. Mitsuru looked at his desk and at the small pile of books on the table; then he climbed up to his bed, and lay down on his back with his hands under his head, and thought.

Shinobu came back an hour later, wearing his school uniform, which looked freshly ironed and pressed even at the end of the day. He glanced up at Mitsuru. "How did it go?"

"She'd been released." Mitsuru rolled over on one side and propped himself up on his elbow. "I think Hasukawa is getting desperate."

"I hope he wasn't bringing her any expensive flowers." Shinobu took off the uniform blazer and hung it up neatly on a hanger, then began to loosen his tie. "Sooner or later he must start wondering if Igarashi is worth all this trouble."

"She is to him," Mitsuru said. "Hasukawa isn't the type to fall in and out of love every week; remember how he was with Sumire-chan. You know, I still wonder why you lied to him."

Shinobu pulled the loop of his still-knotted tie over his head. "Didn't we already have this conversation, several days ago?"

"No, just one very like it." Mitsuru sat up, letting his legs dangle over the edge of the bed. From this angle he could see the paper plane that still sat on Shinobu's desk. "I don't think you've ever pursued anyone the way he's pursuing Igarashi."

Shinobu smiled faintly. "You haven't noticed me spending my afternoons outside girls' schools?" He hung the tie over the hook of the clothes hanger he'd put the jacket on. "Or persistently calling someone who won't talk to me?"

"Well, there is no knowing what kind of foolish stunts you may have gotten up to before I knew you," Mitsuru said with a half-grin; Shinobu was making his own point for him.

"Not as many as afterwards," Shinobu assured him, undoing his cuff buttons. "Is there a new dorm policy on not lying to Hasukawa that I haven't been made aware of?"

"Of course not." Mitsuru followed the movements of Shinobu's fingers from one shirt button to the other.

"That's good," Shinobu said, "because you lied to him yourself recently. Of course, it may not have been deliberate."

Mitsuru became aware that he was watching concentratedly as his roommate took his shirt off. He shook his head to clear it. "When did I lie to Hasukawa?"

"When you brought him to meet your family during winter break." Shinobu hung his shirt over the back of his desk chair as carefully as he'd hung up the blazer on the clothes hanger. "He really appreciated that, by the way. It made him feel," Shinobu paused as if searching for the right word, "close to you."

"Well, I like Hasukawa," Mitsuru said, unsure of what that had to do with anything. "And I didn't lie to him, and I don't see how you can know anything about it, because you weren't there."

"He told me about it, of course." Shinobu pulled off his sleeveless undershirt and put it in the laundry basket. His pale skin showed goosebumps from the cold.

"Hasukawa said that I lied to him?"

"No." Shinobu took a long-sleeved undershirt from the pile on the shelf in his closet and shook it out. "He said that he was surprised you don't understand how much your family loves you."

Mitsuru blinked in surprise. "I've never denied that my family loves me."

Shinobu pulled on the new undershirt and tucked it in. He picked up the shirt and pushed his arms into the sleeves, then began to do up the buttons again with small, precise movements. "No. But you don't seem to understand the nature and quality of that love." He flipped his shirt collar up, drew the tie over his head, tightened it, and folded the collar down again.

"I do understand. They've given me so much, more than I could ever have asked for, more than I—"

"Not more than you deserve." Shinobu's voice turned unusually hard. "Never more than you deserve. Mitsuru, you talk about them as though you don't belong with them, when they keep holding out their outstretched arms to you. They think you belong with them, and you keep walking away."

"They gave sixteen years of love to an outsider," Mitsuru said. "I couldn't ask more of them than that, that's why I moved to the dorms."

Shinobu, in the act of putting his blazer back on, paused to give Mitsuru a look that was close to a glare. "You don't have to ask, idiot. It has nothing to do with asking. If you're in a situation where you have to ask for love, you won't get it."

Mitsuru opened his mouth to say something, he wasn't quite sure what, and then a mental image of Nagisa came between him and those unformed words. He considered that image for a while, and everything else he knew about Shinobu's family, and ended by saying weakly, "I don't see what any of this has to do with lying to Hasukawa."

"He told me," Shinobu said, turning away again, "that you'd said that strangers never can be as close as real brothers."

Mitsuru wasn't sure what to say to that. He hadn't meant for his words to be taken out of context, although Hasukawa had put his own spin on them, saying that love was all that mattered, undoubtedly thinking of Igarashi, but....

Jumping down from his bunk, he took a step towards Shinobu, and then there was a violent knock on the door and Hasukawa burst in.

"Shinobu-sempai, let me borrow some stationery." Hasukawa's hair was still wet from the bath and his eyes shone. "I tried to call again. She's not answering. But if I write her a letter—"

"She might tear it up," Shun suggested, coming in behind Hasukawa, looking fondly amused. "Or she might not."

Shinobu nodded. He, too, looked amused now, and there was no way for Mitsuru to tell if there had been another expression on Shinobu's face just moments ago. When Hasukawa had gotten his stationery, he sat down at the table in their room to write, with Shun hanging over his shoulder offering suggestions. After a while Mitsuru was drawn into the situation as well, commenting and giving advice, and when he looked up after criticizing Hasukawa's penmanship, Shinobu had walked out of the room.

* * *

Shinobu didn't come back until Mitsuru had already gone to bed. Mitsuru lay in silence in his bunk and listened to the sounds of Shinobu undressing, putting on pajamas, getting in under the covers. Finally he said, awkwardly, "So how is the betting pool going?"

"It is going extremely well," Shinobu said, and turned out the light.

* * *

Shun looked resigned. "She's not here, as expected."

"Well, she might show up."

It was difficult to decide if Hasukawa looked brave, or stupid, waiting once again outside the gates of Suminohana Girls' High School, ready to find out how Igarashi would respond to his letter and to what he had to say. Perhaps both, Mitsuru decided. He wondered how Igarashi felt about Hasukawa's persistent courtship. She didn't answer the phone, she wasn't coming out of the school now — but if she wanted to say no, why couldn't she just say no and let it all be settled?

"What do you think she'll say?" Shun whispered, shifting beside him to peer around the street corner. "Or do you think she'll just ignore him again? It does look that way, doesn't it?"

"I don't know." Mitsuru frowned. "I always thought Igarashi was more resolute than this."

"She looked resolute enough for ten girls that time when she came to Greenwood and asked for you." Shun leaned forward, and Mitsuru grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and hauled him back out of sight again. Having Hasukawa stand out in front of the gate was bad enough; it wouldn't do for the teachers of Suminohana to come to believe that Igarashi was being stalked by the entire student body of Ryokuto Academy. "Oh, no."

Mitsuru was about to ask Shun what he meant, when he saw that Koizumi was walking up to Hasukawa. He closed his eyes, but when he opened them again, Koizumi was still there, and he and Hasukawa were talking. Mitsuru tensed his muscles, preparing to run out and interfere. He was familiar with Hasukawa's temper, and he didn't think he could keep Hasukawa from being deposed from the position of dorm president if it came out that he had been brawling outside a girls' school.

When he saw that Koizumi was holding the letter that Hasukawa had written to Igarashi, he was prepared for the worst. Next to him, Shun shook his head in despair. So Koizumi had the letter, and Igarashi had never even seen it. "Come away from there," Mitsuru muttered, his eyes on Hasukawa, knowing that his words were too quiet for Hasukawa to hear. "Let it go."

Igarashi finally came out of the school. She moved as though she expected someone to hit her at any moment; she barely looked at Hasukawa. There was something wrong there, Mitsuru thought. Why wouldn't she just speak up? It was as though she didn't know what she wanted.

Mitsuru leaned back, absently holding on to Shun. Maybe she didn't know. Or maybe she did know, and that was what kept her silent. It wasn't as though she could doubt that Hasukawa cared for her, after all; he'd made that plain enough.

They had to take Hasukawa home. After Igarashi had run away, after the smugly smiling Koizumi had gone with her, all the air seemed to go out of him. He had tried and tried, he had tried so very hard over and over, yet Igarashi kept walking away from him, eluding him.

"You're such a fool, Suka-chan," Shun said fondly, and Mitsuru nodded agreement, but he wasn't sure Hasukawa even noticed them.

They went back to Greenwood in silence, since Shun's attempts to talk to Hasukawa met with no response at all. Mitsuru walked behind the two younger students, looking at the back of Hasukawa's head. Maybe Shun was right, and Hasukawa was nothing but a fool, and bravery didn't come into it at all.

But at the same time, he thought, as the familiar silhouette of Greenwood came into view, there was courage in Hasukawa's behavior. You had to admire someone who could open himself up like that, who could show his love again and again to someone who couldn't seem to make herself accept it.

When they came to the front porch, he let Hasukawa and Shun go in, but stayed outside himself, staring up at the sky. Kone the cat came to twine around his ankles. When he paid her no attention, she attempted to claw his ankle through his pants leg, then sauntered off on her own cattish business.

After a while, the sky began to cloud over. Some of the younger boys came out, talking about Hasukawa, who had apparently been staring at his food as though he'd never seen noodles before. Mitsuru wondered if he was hungry, decided that he wasn't. The boys went off towards the koi pond.

Cold air crept up his sleeves and down the neck of his shirt. He ran his hands through his hair, tugging at it. Love. What a damnable subject to be thinking about, standing outside on a cold winter evening. Mitsuru turned around and went inside.

Going up the stairs, he nodded to people, but didn't stop to speak to anyone. Little blips and beeps floated from the open door of the video arcade, and he glanced inside to see if Hasukawa had taken refuge in the mindless hunt for the next high score, as he seemed to be so easily led when he was depressed. Only the usual suspects were there, though, so either Hasukawa wasn't tempted, or Shun had managed to steer him away.

The telephone room was empty. He hovered in the doorway for a while, then told himself firmly that hovering was for cowards and weaklings, and picked up the receiver, and dialed.

And it was so easy. His mother answered and exclaimed with pleasure at hearing from him. He told her that he was well, that Shinobu was well, and that Hasukawa was also well, which had to count as mostly true since there was nothing physically wrong with poor Suka-chan. The boy seemed to have made a good impression.

Then he said, casually, "I thought I would come and visit this weekend, unless you have other plans?"

"No, nothing." Her voice was warm. "It will be lovely to see you. Sho will be so pleased, too, he wants to show you his idea for a science project. Will you be bringing any of your friends with you?"

"I don't know yet," he said. The cold air that had seeped inside his clothes was gone. "Will it be all right if I let you know a little later?"

"Yes, of course." She went on to talk about something else, grandfather's crotchets and a prank that a friend of Sho's had perpetrated, and after a few more minutes they said their goodbyes and hung up.

Mitsuru looked at the phone. Amazing invention, he thought, amazing that you could pick it up and dial a number, and talk to someone, and say pretty much anything.

If they would listen, that was.

On an impulse, he dialed Igarashi's number, but there was no answer.

When he came back to 211, the room seemed to be full of people, but when he'd shouldered his way in past Furusawa, he saw that there were only four of them. Shun was having an animated conversation with Furusawa, Hasukawa was sitting crosslegged by the table with both hands wrapped around a mug of tea, and Shinobu was putting a blanket around Hasukawa's shoulders. He glanced up and met Mitsuru's eyes for a moment over Hasukawa's head, then looked down again.

"It really was a complete disaster," Shun said. "Right, Mitsuru-sempai?"

"Right," he agreed a little absently. "Suka-chan, are you all right?"

Hasukawa didn't even react to the nickname, just sat there and sipped at the tea. It was Shinobu who answered, "He will be. Just leave him alone for now. He needs a little privacy."

Mitsuru thought about saying that Hasukawa could have a lot more privacy if he weren't in his room, wearing his blanket and probably also drinking his tea, but he was fond of Hasukawa, and feeling strangely, unfamiliarly grateful to him besides. He nodded and went over to Shinobu's desk and picked up the lopsided paper plane.

Looking at it, Mitsuru thought that he saw where the weight distribution was uneven. He began to unfold it, intending to start over again. Shun and Furusawa had gone from sighing over Hasukawa's misery to discussing a physics problem and were appealing to Shinobu for help.

Mitsuru only listened with half an ear as Shinobu began to explain. Instead he watched the still and silent Hasukawa, and thought about his own actions earlier. He felt sorry for Hasukawa, but also, now, for Igarashi. It was difficult to let yourself be loved.

The paper plane resisted his fingers. It wanted to be folded into its old familiar creases. He sat down on Shinobu's desk chair and thought about the people who had taken him in, all those years ago, and made themselves his family. Not for any special reason, he thought, just because they were good and kind.

And that was the start of it, but it wasn't, as Shinobu had tried to make him see, as Igarashi unwittingly had made him realize, the whole of it, not at all. His mother didn't sound happy to hear from him when he called because she was being good to him, it was because she was happy to hear from him.

He threw the plane. It went over Hasukawa's shoulder and landed on the table. Still unbalanced, it pulled to the right, although not as much as before.

"Thank you, Shinobu-sempai," Shun said. "I think I'd better take Suka-chan back to our room and put him to bed."

"I'll give you a hand," Furusawa said, and scooped Hasukawa up, blanket and all, as though he were a child and weighed nothing at all. Presumably, to someone who carried a motorcycle every day, he did weigh nothing at all. Shinobu took the tea mug from Hasukawa's unresisting hand. Shun opened the door, and the small procession trooped out.

Mitsuru waited until Shinobu closed the door again, and then he said, "I suppose this is the end of your betting pool."

"I'll give it a couple more days." Shinobu picked up the paper plane. "Is there a special reason you're indulging your childish side again tonight?"

Mitsuru thought about the possibilities for a clever, flippant comeback and decided he felt neither clever nor flippant. "Just happiness, I guess. I feel bad for Hasukawa, though. So, you think he still has a chance?"

"I suppose not," Shinobu said shortly and turned away.

Through the wall, they could hear Shun talking Hasukawa through the process of getting his clothes off and his pajamas on. Mitsuru hoped Hasukawa was capable of climbing up to his bed without falling and breaking his neck. An upper bunk was no place for someone who was blinded by lovesickness.

Looking at Shinobu's back, Mitsuru said the first thing that came into his mind. "I didn't lie to Hasukawa."

Shinobu didn't turn around. "No?"

"No. I don't think strangers can be as close as real brothers." He shifted in the chair; it felt unfamiliar to sit there, in Shinobu's place. "But I think people who choose to love one another can be even closer. I'm going to visit my family over the weekend, do you want to come with me?"

There was a rustle, as of glossy paper being crumpled in a clenched hand. "I don't know." Shinobu sounded a little strained. "I might have a lot of student council work."

"Well, let me know when you've made up your mind," Mitsuru said, and went to brush his teeth.

* * *

The next morning, he found the paper plane lying in a small wrinkled heap at the foot of the bed. He picked it up, smoothed inefficiently at it, and put it in his pocket; then he went down to breakfast. Shinobu was already out, gone on some unexplained early-morning errand of his own.

When Mitsuru entered the dining hall it was crowded, and he found a seat, as usual, with Shun and Hasukawa. Hasukawa was still in a world of his own and didn't appear to notice that Mitsuru ate half his breakfast in addition to his own, to make up for missing dinner the night before. It seemed that Shun was prepared to lead Hasukawa around all day and, if necessary, answer for him in class if he was asked a question.

Mitsuru had to smile. It was an unlikely friendship, but it seemed very solid. He wondered where his best friend was; Shinobu had been leaving the room as Mitsuru woke up. He wondered if he should find Shinobu and talk to him, about strangers and brothers and friends and family, but surely Shinobu was intelligent enough to figure these things out for himself. He wondered what Hasukawa would do when he finally became alert enough to confront the world again.

Shun tugged at his sleeve. It was time to go. And it was raining.

His classes were dull, and he found his attention drifting. He'd slept badly, to his surprise; surely, after sudden illumination and inner peace one ought to sleep soundly and dreamlessly. Instead, his dreams had all revolved around Shinobu saying, again and again and again, I didn't lie to Hasukawa.

There was no opportunity for him to speak privately to Shinobu, whether he wanted to, or not. During breaks Shinobu always seemed to be somewhere else, surrounded by other people. Mitsuru wasn't entirely sure what he would have said, anyway. He'd never been the type to weigh his words before, but living with Shinobu must have changed him a little after all, if only because Shinobu himself was precise about what he said.

Very precise, Mitsuru thought. It all came back to that again — it was what had mystified him — why Shinobu, who never spoke an unconsidered word, had said what he did to Hasukawa. He was obsessing too much about this. It was even getting into his dreams. He put his hand in his pocket and found the paper plane, pulled it out and looked at it.

It was lopsided; one wing had been scrunched up like an accordion, and the nose was bent. As a plane, it was pretty much a complete failure.

Mitsuru flattened it on his desk, glanced up to make sure the teacher wasn't watching him, that no one else was watching him, and slowly, patiently, began to fold the abused piece of paper into a rose.

He had no idea what the rest of the day's classes were about. His attention was drifting as badly as Hasukawa's. People who wanted to speak to him between classes had to shake him to get him to listen. And it kept raining. It was still raining after the last class. He gathered his things and put the rose away very carefully where it wouldn't get crumpled. It wasn't a very good rose, but then, he'd never tried to make one before.

When everyone was getting ready to leave, he finally caught up with Shinobu again. Watching as Shinobu pulled on his trenchcoat, Mitsuru wondered what to say. He was still wondering when the cry went up, "There's a girl waiting outside the gate!"

Hasukawa came back to life. The color came back into his face, his eyes shone, even his hair looked redder. He jumped to his feet and rushed out, and Shun rushed after him, brandishing an umbrella. After a moment's confusion, everyone else followed, to find out what was going on.

Mitsuru put his umbrella up and went out to join the crowd outside the gate, and Shinobu came with him. It was true, the roles were finally reversed; Igarashi had come to speak to Hasukawa, at last, and they were facing each other in the downpour, looking dramatic, and romantic, and very sweet.

They were oblivious to all the people staring at them. Mitsuru found that he was holding his breath, and when Igarashi dropped her umbrella and all but fell into Hasukawa's arms, he let it out and smiled. She had dared, then, and Suka-chan had been rewarded for his crazy persistence. Glancing sideways, Mitsuru saw that Shun, umbrella-less, nevertheless looked extremely pleased.

Shinobu put a hand on his shoulder, gripping briefly, and then letting go again. "There goes the betting pool," Shinobu said, and walked away.

After a little while, Mitsuru became aware that he was standing in a puddle. Chill rain water began to soak in through his shoes. He had no great desire to catch a second cold, and he thought Hasukawa and Igarashi would be well able to handle their own affairs from now on. Besides, there were other matters to be considered, such as his family, and Shinobu, and the betting pool, and the paper plane, and the rose.

He turned away from them and began to walk back to the dorm with a few others. There were puddles on the ground, and he walked carefully around them, thinking it would be no good to go into a Hasukawa trance. His fingers turned pale and cold around the shaft of the umbrella; he had no gloves.

He went inside, put his umbrella to dry, and exchanged his wet shoes and socks for slippers. Everyone who had come from the school building stood around the entrance hall and talked about Igarashi and Suka-chan; the dorm lady was listening with an uncertain frown. She turned as Mitsuru was passing and caught his arm. "I'm not sure I should allow this," she said, "right outside our school," and then, more tellingly, "with that girl!"

"She's very sweet, really," Mitsuru said. "She just happened to be in a bad mood when she talked to you."

The dorm lady looked unconvinced, as well she might; Igarashi's insults had had a great deal of force behind them. "He's setting a bad example for the younger boys."

"Well," Mitsuru said, "he's the dorm president. You must take it up with him. Please excuse me, I have a lot of homework." He slipped out of her grasp and went up the stairs, walking carefully over the latest broken step.

Upstairs, it was unusually quiet. Mitsuru went to room 211 and pushed the door open. Shinobu was standing by the window and didn't turn as Mitsuru came in. "You shouldn't be here," he said. "You have band practice."

Mitsuru had completely forgotten and couldn't bring himself to care. He put his case down on the table and got out the rose and looked at it. One of its petals said, OPEN 24 HOURS. Another said, SPECIAL OFFER. When he looked up at Shinobu, all he could see was a silhouette against the rain-spattered window pane.

"You didn't lie to Hasukawa, did you." If Mitsuru hadn't been watching so closely, he would have missed the new tension in Shinobu's shoulders. "You said you knew how he felt and you meant it." Shinobu didn't answer. "But you didn't mean it the way he meant it."

"You cut band practice last time to go to the hospital with Hasukawa and Shun," Shinobu said in an expressionless voice. "It's probably not a good idea to cut it again."

"When Hasukawa said that until he'd told Igarashi how he felt and she'd rejected him, it wasn't over, he meant that he had to tell her. To get it settled." Mitsuru turned the rose over. ALL THE LATEST RELEASES. "But it's just as true that if you don't tell someone how you feel, they can't reject you, and so it's never over." He straightened a petal. "And it never begins, either."

Shinobu didn't move. "The band leader won't let you get away with this a second time," he said.

Mitsuru walked up behind Shinobu and reached over his shoulder, offering him the rose. "Here."

"What is this?" Shinobu took it delicately between two fingers, not touching Mitsuru's hand.

"It's a flower. I think I made it for you."

"It's not a very good flower." Shinobu sounded as though he would have thrown it out the window, had the window been open. But the window wasn't open.

"No. But it was a much worse paper plane. And Suka-chan might be a fool, but he was a brave fool, and now he's a happy fool."

"How inspiring," Shinobu murmured, in a quiet, contemplative voice. "Are you going to go to band practice now?"

"No," Mitsuru said, and put both arms around Shinobu, propping his chin on Shinobu's shoulder.

He was prepared for anything to happen: an outcry, a blow, even, or more likely a sweetly sarcastic remark that would make him wish he'd never been born. That was how it went. Offer and be rejected. Shinobu stood very still. It was like holding a statue, and Mitsuru was just beginning to wonder if he should let go, and perhaps find a quiet corner to go off and die in, when Shinobu relaxed into his embrace and lifted one hand, putting it over Mitsuru's and lacing their fingers together.

Raindrops smacked heavily against the window. Shinobu shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "And what do we do now?"

"That's a stupid question," Mitsuru said, turned him around, and kissed him.

As always when acting on impulse, it took him a moment to realize he'd actually done it — that he was really feeling Shinobu's mouth against his own. It sparked through him like a shock, that sudden truth, followed by a second shock as Shinobu kissed him back.

The kiss was slow and awkward at first, a hesitant brushing of lips, but then they warmed to one another, opening up, holding each other more closely, kissing deeply, tasting each other. Mitsuru closed his eyes, and felt Shinobu's long fingers wind into the hair at the back of his neck.

It wasn't his first kiss. Or his second, or his third, or however long people kept count of kisses and of people they'd kissed. It wasn't new to him. He knew about this, the movements of lips and tongue, the sweetness and thrill of it.

All the same, he wanted to clutch at Shinobu's shoulders and whimper like an overwhelmed virgin.

Maybe it was the way Shinobu smelled, clean and warm and sweetly musky. Maybe it was the way he tasted, like rain and twilight. Mitsuru ran a hand up Shinobu's spine. Three layers of cloth over skin, yet he could feel the heat.

They moved against each other in a slow swaying motion. They were dancing. They were kissing. They had been doing this forever, and they would go on doing it for ever more. They.... There was a sharp knock on the door, and they jumped apart just as Shun burst in.

"It's so dark in here!" he said, slapping at the light switch. "How can you see anything?"

The overhead light came on, and Mitsuru saw several things: Shun's cheerful face, his own untidy desk, the paper flower still in Shinobu's hand. He put up an arm to shield his eyes. "Has Hasukawa come in out of the rain yet?"

"They went off somewhere," Shun said. "With my umbrella." He came into the room and sat down by the table. "I can't believe she came to see him! She must have broken up with Koizumi for his sake. It's unbelievable."

"You'll have to get a new hobby," Mitsuru said, sitting down across from Shun. He was deeply, intensely aware of Shinobu still standing by the window. His heart was still beating much too fast.

"You, too, Mitsuru," Shinobu drawled.

"Oh, I think I've got one."

Shinobu produced beer from somewhere and came to sit with them at the table. They drank and talked, or rather, Shinobu and Mitsuru tried to keep up with Shun's happy loquaciousness. "Are you sure you can live with a Hasukawa who talks incessantly of his girlfriend?" Shinobu asked.

"It must be better than the way he's been since winter break," Shun said frankly.

"Anything would be better than that," Mitsuru agreed and sipped at his beer. His skin prickled. He wanted, more than anything, to touch Shinobu.

"Let's play cards," Shun said, and Mitsuru sighed.

It occurred to him, halfway through dealing, that he and Shinobu had never had any scruples about throwing their juniors out of their room if they couldn't be bothered with them... and their seniors, come to think of it, when they'd been younger. There was no reason why they shouldn't toss Shun out on his ear. Except that Shinobu wasn't making a move in that direction, and so Mitsuru didn't feel that he could, either.

He glanced at Shinobu and came away with the impression that Shinobu had been glancing at him just the moment before. The video rental rose lay on the table now, next to Shinobu's beer can. It really was a lopsided, awkward-looking thing. Shun took the next trick.

They played for a couple of hours. Shinobu won every game, but then, neither Shun nor Mitsuru had expected anything else. It got chilly in the room, with a strong draft of cold air coming from the window, and Mitsuru rubbed his arms. "I'd like to have my blanket back," he said.

"It's on Suka-chan's bed," Shun said. "I'll get it for you, sempai." He jumped to his feet and went out.

Mitsuru stacked the cards neatly and twisted a rubber band around them, and tossed them across the table to Shinobu, who put them away in his desk drawer. In the room next door they could hear Shun exclaim something, and a low murmur in reply. "Hasukawa's back."

Shinobu raised an eyebrow. "Let's hope he hasn't brought Igarashi."

"I don't want Shun to come and sleep in here tonight," Mitsuru agreed, and saw, for the first time ever, to his immense surprise and gratification, that Shinobu blushed.

Shun came back with his arms full of blanket and dumped it on Mitsuru. "He's glowing," he said, with a little disdain and a great deal of fondness, and for one moment Mitsuru thought he meant Shinobu, until common sense reasserted itself. "I don't understand how anyone can look that happy after just having spent three hours at McDonald's drinking milkshakes with a girl."

"Presumably it has more to do with the girl than with the milkshakes," Shinobu said, "or I'm going to think Hasukawa's a pretty sorry kind of lover."

"Mitsuru-sempai?" Shun balanced on one foot. "I have to turn in a history essay tomorrow, and...."

"And you just spent several hours playing cards. Shame on you, Shun." Hours, moreover, that in a better and less Shun-infested world Mitsuru could have spent kissing Shinobu. "Want me to take a look at it?"

"Yes, please, sempai."

Mitsuru checked his watch, suppressed a sigh, freed himself from the blanket, and went with Shun to room 210. The first thing he saw was Hasukawa, sitting on Shun's bed in a happy daze, smiling to himself. "Congratulations, Suka-chan, looks like you might be getting some chocolate in February after all."

"Huh?" Then Hasukawa shot to his feet. "I should go next door and thank Shinobu-sempai. He told me to go to her school. He lent me the letter paper. I owe it all to him."

He wandered out of the room, and Shun and Mitsuru looked at each other in exasperated resignation. "We do all the work," Shun said.

"And he gets the thanks. It's an unfair world." Mitsuru seated himself at one of the desks. "Now, hand over your essay."

He began to read, keeping an eye on the door. The essay wasn't bad. Shun had obviously put a lot of work into it, although when he'd had the time for that was more than Mitsuru knew. When Mitsuru was about two thirds through it, Hasukawa came back, still with that dreamy look in his eyes. "I'm seeing her again tomorrow," he said.

"That's nice." Shun steered Hasukawa aside just before his shins could collide with the table. "Sit down, Suka-chan."

Mitsuru tuned them out and kept reading. Only half his attention was on the essay. A strange nervousness was growing in him. He didn't know what was going to happen. Behind Shun's talk and Hasukawa's half-formed replies, he couldn't hear anything — nothing from the other side of the wall. He knew Shinobu was there. He could feel it, the way he'd feel a black hole pulling him in. It made his skin tingle, it made his eyes water, it turned his mouth dry.

There was something new between them, and he'd put it there.

"This isn't bad," he told Shun. "But you need to put in some more work on the middle sections, here and here, to support your conclusions." Mitsuru pushed the essay into Shun's hands. "You can show me the revisions tomorrow."

But it wasn't that simple, because Shun came with him as he left the room, and somehow they wandered off down to the bathrooms together, and stood side by side at the urinals talking about whether Hasukawa would manage to write his essay, and brushed their teeth together, and Shun got out his hairbrush, and Mitsuru touched his jaw and wondered if he needed to shave.

He flossed, which he hardly ever did, then felt stupid; Shun looked a bit curiously at him. Mitsuru didn't think that he could explain that he was stalling, delaying the moment when he'd have to go back to his room and to his roommate, which he wanted to do more than anything in the world. Looking at himself in the long mirror over the row of sinks, he wondered why there weren't little talk bubbles around his head, saying things like, I KISSED SHINOBU, and I WANT TO DO IT AGAIN.

While Shun brushed his hair, Mitsuru went to the bathroom door, cracked it open and looked out into the corridor, then shut it again. It was rare for the bathroom to be so empty at this hour on a weeknight; nearly everyone in the corridor, nearly everyone in the dorm, kept the same hours.

"You're awfully jumpy, sempai," Shun said.

"It's the shock of having Hasukawa's love life settled," Mitsuru said quickly. "I feel as though I've been made redundant."

Shun put the brush away and shook his hair back over his shoulders. "You could always try to find Shinobu-sempai a girlfriend," he suggested. "I don't think I've ever seen him so much as look at a girl."

"Look who's talking," Mitsuru muttered. Then he regretted it, but Shun just grinned at him.

"Or you could do your homework." Then Shun dodged out of the bathroom, and Mitsuru chased him up the corridor and caught him outside his room and twisted his arm, not very hard. They said good night, and Shun went inside.

Mitsuru went to room 211 and looked at the door, shook himself briskly, and opened it. He all but collided with Shinobu, who was on the way out. They passed each other in the open door without a word, just a look that seemed to say a lot, but when the door closed again Mitsuru was left wondering if it had said the same thing to both of them.

He stripped, hung up his clothes and put on his pajama bottoms, then wandered, with the pajama top in his hand, over to the window. It was still raining outside. He could see drops on the window and darkness beyond. Mitsuru shivered and watched as the skin on his arms pebbled in the cold draft. It reminded him of seeing Shinobu like that, not so long ago. His nipples were tight and hard, and he touched one of them, experimentally, and almost jumped; he gripped the pajama top in both hands instead so he wouldn't be tempted to do that again.

If he turned around he would see the bunks, the top one where he always slept, and the bottom one.... Mitsuru didn't know what to do. He waited.

And waited.

A long, long time later, Shinobu came back.

Mitsuru turned when he heard the door open. He watched Shinobu walk inside, close the door behind him, and stop. They looked at each other in silence. Shinobu looked perfectly calm, but Mitsuru had seen enough of Shinobu's calm faces to know that this wasn't the everyday natural calm, this was the calm-in-the-face-of-an-emergency calm. Slowly, Shinobu lifted a hand and began to tug at his tie, turning away very deliberately from Mitsuru's gaze. The tie came off. Shinobu began to unbutton his jacket. Mitsuru couldn't stand it any longer.

He walked quickly across the room. "Let me do that," he said and put his hand over Shinobu's. After a short, startled moment, Shinobu's hand turned in his, and gripped it, and then they clutched at each other, and pulled each other close, and they were kissing again and everything was all right.

All right, except that his heart was beating faster and his skin was on fire and he couldn't seem to make his fingers understand how to undo the buttons of Shinobu's shirt. He fumbled, and Shinobu fumbled with him, until jacket and shirt and undershirt fell in a tangle on the floor. A small part of Mitsuru's mind was amazed that Shinobu didn't pick his clothes up and put them away at once. Then there was no time to think of that, as they were pressed bare chest to bare chest, skin on skin. Small shudders ran through him, and his hands moved with startled pleasure over Shinobu's back. When Shinobu kissed his jaw and his ear and his throat, he gasped.

"It's cold here," Shinobu said, and Mitsuru didn't understand at first. It wasn't cold, it was hot.

When he did understand, he let go, hands saying a reluctant goodbye to Shinobu's skin. He turned and pulled the covers down on the bed, and heard the rustle of Shinobu stripping out of his pants. They fell into bed and into each other's arms, wrapped in sheets and blankets. Mitsuru still had on those stupid pajama bottoms, and Shinobu, Shinobu was wearing boxers, soft loose cotton. They kissed again, sucking kisses, biting kisses. Mitsuru rubbed a hand over Shinobu's chest and felt nipples tightening under his palm. He could feel that same tightening happen in his own body, pulling through him like a deep undertow; it dragged him down into feelings and sensations that were so powerful, they almost frightened him.

To reassure himself, he held tighter to Shinobu, pressing them together. Shinobu's thigh pushed in between his own, Shinobu's hand ran down his back and slipped fearlessly under the elastic of his pajama bottoms, and he buried his face against Shinobu's shoulder, because the walls were thin. They rocked against each other, cotton and skin, a frantic push and thrust, as clumsy and awkward in its way as the paper flower, and so, so good.

Shinobu pushed at his pajama bottoms, and he tugged at Shinobu's boxers, wanting them out of the way, but too impatient to do more than shove them down a bit. His hand closed on hardness and he gripped and stroked, and put his other hand over Shinobu's mouth. Not that he'd expect Shinobu to be loud — but he hadn't expected any of this. Mitsuru watched in the dim light as Shinobu's eyes widened, and then dropped almost shut; Shinobu was gasping for air against his palm. He was thrusting against Shinobu's hip; it wasn't enough to get him off, but that didn't matter, he wanted to watch this. Wanted to see Shinobu lose control because of him.

So he stroked faster, reveling in the feel of silky-hard flesh in his hand, the struggle of Shinobu's hot body against his own. He wished the light were better so he could see. Shinobu arched against him, breath coming fast and hard. Shinobu's tongue swiped out, a fierce lick against Mitsuru's palm. The bed creaked faintly beneath them, but he couldn't worry about that now. It was much more important to see Shinobu flushed and panting and squirming and so incredibly hot, almost like a different person, but those green-gleaming eyes... they widened suddenly, in a look of ecstasy and shock, and Shinobu jerked and froze and came, messily, all over both of them.

Mitsuru took his hand away from Shinobu's mouth. He drew breath to say something, but before he could, Shinobu pulled him down into a kiss. Then kissed his throat, and his chest, and licked flat-tongued over his right nipple, and he flung an arm over his face, gasping. With his other hand he helped Shinobu tug the damn pajama bottoms down, away, to sit clingingly around his thighs and he didn't care because Shinobu was stroking him and sucking at his stomach. Lower. And lower. And lower, and oh

This, this was new, and it wasn't anything like he'd thought it would be, except for the heaven part. Kisses and licks and a strong hand stroking him, and then suction, sweet and hard and perfect, of course it was perfect, it was Shinobu, it was better than perfect. It was real and happening, and he bit his arm and thrust up, and the darkness behind his tightly closed eyelids broke into a million shimmering pieces.

The next thing he was aware of was the sound of Shinobu coughing. Mitsuru opened his eyes and saw Shinobu propped up on his elbow, wiping at his mouth and chin. Meeting his gaze, Shinobu snorted and swallowed and said, "I think it's coming out my nose."

Mitsuru started laughing helplessly. He rolled his head back and forth on the pillow and squeaked with laughter, until tears came to his eyes and a solid thunk on the wall indicated that Shun or Hasukawa had thrown a book. Then he sobered up. "Do you think they heard—?"

"No." Shinobu wriggled, getting out of his boxers, and started to wipe them both clean. "Not until you started making a noise like a dying sheep. Was it that bad?"

"It was great," Mitsuru said. He tugged Shinobu down and they shifted around, moving this way and that until they were both naked and comfortable and settled with Mitsuru's head on Shinobu's shoulder. "It was— No one ever did that to me before."

"No one ever did anything like this to me before," Shinobu said lightly, stroking Mitsuru's hair. Mitsuru blinked. "I think I could come to like it, though."

"No one?" Mitsuru tried to squirm even closer. He didn't expect a reply and wasn't surprised when he didn't get one. "We'll have to do it again sometime." Rubbing his nose against Shinobu's breastbone, he asked softly, "Will you come with me, then, this weekend?"

Shinobu's stroking hand paused, then resumed its motion. "Yes."

"Good." Mitsuru settled in, content. "In case you're wondering, I'm sleeping down here tonight."

Shinobu sighed. "I have mentioned that you snore, haven't I?"

"Many, many times," Mitsuru said and closed his eyes.

* * *

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