Winter had passed.
The early march of Spring now warred with the last vestiges of frost that covered the ground outside of the tall, brown-bricked apartment complex. The day was just about spent, the sun set slowly in a stunning display of reds and purples casting its rosy hues across a down-turned face. Soft light played across attractive features, casting relief on sleepy brown eyes, straight nose and full lips, which at this moment were compressed into an impatient line.
Azusa Odagiri sat perched on a bench in the park outside of the complex. The park was small but beautifully landscaped with aspen and maple trees, narrow white-pebbled paths, and a small pond, which at this moment was partially frozen. Occasionally, when it was quiet like it was now, the sound of trickling water pooling around the ice could be heard. In the summer it could be heard more loudly, but for now, it was still partially silenced by the cold. Azusa sat, scuffing his foot through the frost on the ground, gazing at the thinning pond ice without really seeing it. His heavy black coat kept the chill at bay, though some evidence of it remained stamped on his nose and cheeks, which were both slightly pink. The fur from his hood tickled his face and he impatiently pushed it off his head and replaced it with a black beanie that he produced from his pocket. Impatiently, he checked his watch for what seemed to be the twentieth time in the last ten minutes. His sigh was long-suffering, his gaze darted between his wrist and the resounding silence of his phone.
“Shit…” his epithet broke the silence, only briefly stirring the crisp air, before it faded and the silence resumed.
He didn’t really know how long he had been sitting there, to be honest he didn’t really care. He didn’t mind spending the time, it was worth it if he could…
He shook his head softly, rubbing his hands over his face. His breath was warm on his fingers and he took a moment to breathe on them again, to ward off the chill. He stared at his fingertips intently, as his thoughts drifted inward. He was waiting to meet a friend. Well, in truth, more than a friend in his mind though he was sure that his friend wouldn’t agree, or couldn’t even guess…
Brown eyes shifted their focus to the sky, barely noticing the grace of the sunset that blazed there, lost in thoughts that he had shuffling around in his head for months.
It’s been a year since the dust had settled, since the final confrontation, and final reconciliations. Hatsumi and Ryoki are together, going strong despite the war of wills that erupted from time to time.
A smirk passed his lips at this. Hatsumi had grown more confident over the last year, sure enough in her relationship that she had become quite the force to be reckoned with. Ryoki put up a brave front though, and still liked to believe that Hatsumi was his pet…nothing ever really changed at the core, not with them.
Azusa shook off past shadows and stood up from the bench, once again checking his phone. The sun continued to sink lower and still the damned thing hadn’t rung. He issued another impatient sigh and glanced at his watch once more. As he did so the silence was once again interrupted, this time by the sound of footsteps, which crunched to a stop behind him as a bouncy voice drilled into his ear.
Azusa ducked his head and turned his gaze to his unwanted intruder. Akane Narita was dressed for the cold, donned in a bright white coat, a soft pink scarf coiled around her neck. Bright eyes greeted him warmly and her breath puffed in tiny clouds that disappeared in the air between them. Her hand was clasped behind her, grasping tightly to her boyfriend, Subaru.
Azusa smiled, stooping forward to look into Akane eyes.
“Hey Akane-chan.” His gaze darted behind her., "and Subaru. What brings you two lovebirds out tonight?"
Subaru stepped to stand beside his girlfriend and bowed slightly, smiling an embarrassed smile. Akane however was much more poised.
“Subaru and I are going a double-date with Hatsumi and Ryoki. We are waiting for them now." Crossing her arms across her chest, she looked a bit annoyed.
"I can’t imagine what is taking so long, Hatsumi was ready an hour ag-”.
Akane was interrupted by fierce bickering, as the couple in question appeared around the corner. Their heated debate didn’t cease and the trio stared on in confusion. Hatsumi’s voice carried a hint of agitation, though her words worked to defuse the conversation, before it became a full out war.
“Really Ryoki I don’t see what the big deal is!”
“Hatsumi, I told you that I didn’t want you to speak to that guy ever again, you are my girlfriend, remember?”
Hatsumi stopped and tucked her hair behind her ear, before turning an affectionate gaze to the man at her side.
“Ryoki, Shinogu is my brother. What is past is past. You know that I love you right?”
Her eyes were liquid, the sunset cast a gem-like light in their depths. Ryoki immediately relaxed and gave in grudgingly, but not without striving for the last word.
“I just don’t see what you could have been talking about for the last hour”.
Hatsumi kicked Ryoki in the ankle. She grunted her disgust and continued to walk as he rubbed his injury.
“Really, I rarely ever get to talk to him. He lives so far away and works so much, I worry ab-ah, Azusa!”
They finally joined them and Hatsumi’s eyes softened when they encountered her childhood friend. Azusa couldn’t help but smile back, this girl had saved him many times, and he would always have a soft spot for her. Seeing the smile, Ryoki approached behind her and placed his arm around her shoulders possessively, aiming a curt nod of greeting in Azusa’s direction. Azusa eyed him coolly, but still acknowledged him with a nod of his own before shifting his attention back to Hatsumi.
“Well girlie, I could hear you two arguing as soon as the door opened…nothing really changes does it?”
A wide smile parted her lips and she rolled her eyes heavenward
“This dolt, he gets upset over the silliest things.”
Azusa nodded in agreement, Ryoki glared at them, clearly disliking the idea of the pair sharing the same view on anything. Azusa paused a moment and looked at his watch again.
“Hatsumi, did I hear you mention speaking to Shinogu?”
Hatsumi nodded and began a tirade, outlining the beginning of their argument. She didn’t notice the shadows that passed his eyes, or the way he glanced at his watch three more times in the course of their conversation. The loud ring of a cell phone broke the steady stream of babble that poured from Hatsumi’s lips, startling everyone within a three-mile radius.
“Azusa, is that your phone?” Hatsumi still looked startled but slightly amused. “Is it really that impossible to hear?”
Azusa didn’t answer that. How could he say that he lived in such fear of missing these precious calls that he always had his phone on him, and the volume turned as high up as it could go. Instead he looked at the number that flashed across the screen and quickly answered, his voice softening. Hatsumi picked up the change in him immediately, though the others seemed blissfully unaware. He spoke quietly, his tone verging on intimate. His voice caught on words that could have been considered the gentlest she had ever heard him speak.
The others were already in deep conversation of their own and didn’t notice Azusa’s wistful half-smile and they didn’t hear him hang up.
“Someone special Azusa?”
He glanced at her quickly and then back down at the silent phone, another ghost smile skittered across his lips.
“Yeah, you could say that…someone special…”
Any conversation died after that. Ryoki loudly checked his own watch, as he and Akane both prodded their “others” to leave.
Hatsumi bowed her goodbye to Azusa, even as she was dragged away. They disappeared down the road, the promise of another argument gearing up between the late couple blossomed as they crossed the street and faded from view. Once they were gone, the silence returned. He was alone with his thoughts again and he found that he liked it, maybe a little too much. The moments where he could sit and think, allowing his mind to be occupied with thoughts of the one, the voice at the other end of the line, were some of his most treasured. He savored that voice, giving unspoken gratitude to the privacy his mind gave him, the space to think, thoughts that were usually both hurtful and beautiful, the poison and the antidote, the injury and the treatment, the disease and the cure. It was always like this, no matter how brief or general the conversation was, when he got the call, he could breathe again. His relief was quite real. In some ways those phone calls were what kept him going through the day.
He sighed, offering a self-deprecating smile and walked down the street.
The sun had completely set while he talked to Hatsumi, the stars now began to appear, tiny punctures of light in the night sky. Little tendrils of breath escaped his parted lips. He rubbed his hands to warm them up, then stuck them in his pockets. How many times had he taken this walk over the last year? How many times did he wait for the call?
How long has it been like this…Shinogu?
Shinogu Narita, Akane and Hatsumi’s older brother, had been his greatest ally and his biggest support when he was investigating the truth behind his mother’s death. His anger, his hurt, and feelings of betrayal were out of control then, he had hurt everyone in his need for revenge. His single-minded crusade for justice pushed everyone away, everyone except for Shinogu. Even if Shinogu’s offer to help originated from his desire to separate Hatsumi from Azusa, to protect her from his unchecked malice, he was at peace with that. They grew closer through their time together and Shinogu’s support, in the end, might have saved a little bit of his soul. Now, a year later, Azusa existed on killing time between Shinogu’s infrequent phone calls. It was o.k. the guy was busy working three jobs and continuing school. True, his own schedule was nothing to sneeze at either. He was becoming more sought after as a model and could be booked for days without any time to himself, but he made time, for him…there was time. He didn’t know what to make of the feelings that had developed over time and constant involvement. He didn’t want to think of it as gratitude, although he was grateful, such a meager emotion did not feel important enough and would not be welcome here.
He kicked a rock and watched as it bounced across the road, as he followed it a car sped past littering the air with shouts and the whine of its horn.
On the street there were the occasional stares of recognition or the “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?” conversations. He treated these with the same sort of indifference he showed to the camera.
Wrestling his hand from his pocket he glanced at his watch again and quickened his pace. He was going to meet Shinogu on his only break between the convenience store and the job at the warehouse. His mind hummed in gentle anticipation. He knew that Shinogu could never return his feelings, he was a guy after all, and Shinogu still seemed to show some indication of being completely head-over-heels for Hatsumi. Every fiber of Azusa’s body rejected that thought, pain resonated deeply, somewhere in the vicinity of his chest.
His hand grazed the area, an action meant to soothe the ache, but it did little to accomplish its mission. The lights grew brighter as he approached the convenience store where Shinogu worked, hesitating only a fraction of a second, he stepped inside the awaiting warmth.
Shinogu glanced at the clock on the wall.
“Hey, Sasuke, it’s time for me to leave now. Thanks for all your help. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
His words were met with a parting wave. He removed his apron and grabbed his backpack. The sound of the bell signaled a customer, he looked up to greet them and smiled.
Azusa stood in the doorway and removed his hat; pushing his hair out of his eyes, he returned the greeting warmly.
Shinogu took a moment to take in the other man. He was just as beautiful today as he was yesterday, but he would probably only get better tomorrow. His hair had an irritating tendency to cover his eyes, making Shinogu itch to brush it back, so that he could see them. Those incredible eyes, that seemed so intense when they spoke...too distracting.
“You came just in time; I am just getting ready to leave.”
Azusa, shrugged, “I had some time to kill. Since we don’t get to hang out that often, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Besides you know if you call, I will be here.”
Shinogu nodded and slung the pack across his back.
They headed out the door and across the lot in companionable silence occasionally asking mundane questions about the other’s day and the like. Shinogu stole a glance at Azusa, watching his face melt as he spoke, showing a gentleness he normally saved for their conversations or when he was talking to Hatsumi.
Shinogu could smile now when he thought of his sister. The pain no longer ate at him when he spoke with her, it had settled into a dull ache that had gradually faded over the passage of time. He wanted what was best for her. He wanted what would ensure her continued happiness. He was ecstatic that he could finally call her “sister” without praying for something else.
He worried about Azusa though. He knew that Azusa had a thing for Hatsumi. He knew that Azusa also wished what was best for her and stepped aside. Yet he wondered how long the younger man would wait, before he had decided that he should give stealing her away a shot.
Azusa had stopped walking and was looking at him expectantly. Shinogu shook the thoughts out of his head.
“I apologize, what were you saying?”
“I knew you weren’t listening. I asked if you wanted to sit here?”
“Here” was the park bench Azusa occupied earlier. Shinogu nodded his agreement.
“So, wanna tell me what you were thinking about just now?”
“I hardly think that it’s just “stuff”, to make you smile like that.”
Shinogu smiled again.
“The past then. I was thinking about the past.”
“The past? What is there worth smiling about in the past?”
Shin took in Azusa’s frown and shrugged. He was right, there shouldn’t be anything to smile about concerning the past year. His budding friendship with Azusa was the only thing that he could categorize as being a positive by-product of all the disorder. They were thrown together a lot, while looking for clues involving Azusa’s mother and her mystery lover. Azusa was a major support through the hard times, seeing Ryoki slowly take Hatsumi’s affections into his undeserving fold. He even goaded him into taking her away from Ryoki several times and then threatening to steal her himself. Shin always thought that Azusa loved her also, even now, he couldn’t be sure if he still harbored feelings for her or if he moved on like he himself had. Somehow the thought that he might still be dwelling on his feelings for Hatsumi made Shin uncomfortable and little agitated. He didn’t understand why, but a lot of things about Azusa made him feel strangely paranoid or overly warm and anxious where the younger man was concerned. He chose to ignore it then, but now as the feeling grew to be more of a presence, he was faced every day with the busy task of analyzing the whole mess.
Shinogu started, “Huh?”
“See, you drifted off again. Still playing in the past? Why don’t you join me in the present for a bit and tell me about your day?”
Shin complied. He outlined the day, that was just like every other. The endless stream of jobs and school, the back-to-back shifts that gave him little time for study or sleep.
“Be careful Shin, you need to pace yourself or you will collapse again. You work so hard and so often, I worry.”
Shin smiled, feigning irritation. “You’re not my mother, you don’t need to be so worried all the time.”
Azusa’s eyes grew intense for a second, then were veiled as he lightly jabbed him in the arm.
“No. I’m not, am I? I’m not even related, but even so, that doesn’t mean that I can’t worry. Maybe I do abuse the privilege, but you enjoy it, I think. Anyway, you wouldn’t have to work so hard if your roommate hadn’t decided to move out, you really should look at finding a new one.”
“Maybe I do, but I have neither the time or the inclination now. I will have to wait until I get a break from school.”
He changed the subject then, asking about Azusa’s work. Modeling, huh. Azusa couldn’t really talk about him working too much. Right now, Azusa was one of the most sought-after models in the industry. I might not be long before he stretched the power of his beauty further west, he shuddered, hopefully that was a long way off.
“Well, there’s nothing for a couple of weeks. I have a small vacation planned, nothing spectacular just being lazy and quiet for a bit. It has been a while. My father and his wife are not here right now, so quiet is just what I will get.”
Shin sighed and leaned his head back on the bench top. Azusa followed his lead and leaned back as well.
“Sounds great. I really envy you right now.”
He turned his head, still reclining lazily on the bench and shot a glance at Azusa. He took in the slightly disheveled hair, the shining eyes and cold-reddened cheeks and smiled. He reached his hand out to his hair and brushed his fingers through the silky length.
Azusa looked startled. His eyes were wide and his face flushed a deeper red. Just as suddenly as the innocent contact had started, it ended and Shin was holding something up between them.
Azusa looked away and Shin snickered at him.
“Azusa are you blushing?”
Azusa shook his head violently.
Azusa brushed his fingers across his cheek.
He stammered, “No, it’s not that. It’s just the cold.”
Shin went from teasing to concerned in less than a second. He checked his watch and stood.
“Well, why don’t we go then? I have to work anyway and you should get inside where it’s warm.”
Azusa looked unsure. Shin hissed and jabbed him lightly with his elbow.
“I’ll call you later. Now go home.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Shin left then, looking over his shoulder at Azusa’s receding figure.
Azusa was acting strangely. He didn’t know why, but it wasn’t really new, just different. He shouldn’t be worried but he was. He needed time...time to figure things out.
However, now was not the time for thinking, it was time for yet another grueling shift at a thankless job and groaning, he walked as slow as he could in the opposite direction.