“Look at me, Rei.”
Rei’s hands still on the sliding doors unbidden, grip tightening. The cool evening breeze licks across the slivers of skin exposed at his wrists, kissing his collarbones as it winds its way to meet the warmth inside the temple room. Moonlight spills across the patio steps, washing everything in a faint shade of grey, carving a pale streak of light across Rei’s face as he stares at the forest and wishes to be anywhere but here. Sasaki’s footsteps grow steadily fainter as he crosses the gravel paths to rejoin his class, and Yoshitaka’s breathing only seems to get louder the longer he waits for a response.
“Why?” Rei mutters. Facing Yoshitaka again takes more from him than he’s willing to admit. Years of memories, an entire childhood together, churns in his gut. He clenches his abdomen in an attempt to dispel the feeling. Hadn’t he thrown such things away?
“What are you hoping to see?” Rei asks the stars.
“My friend,” Yoshitaka answers, immediate and all too loud, disturbing the delicate air of an exorcism just performed, a soul freshly freed. “I meant it, Rei—I got lonely, without you.”
Rei grits his teeth.
“I know you said you wanted to be alone,” Yoshitaka sounds pensive for a moment, and Rei can tell immediately that his words from that day have been broiling in Yoshitaka’s mind ever since, a repetitive rejection that Yoshitaka could have done nothing but agonize over. Rei hates it—not what Yoshitaka feels, but the fact that he knows what Yoshitaka feels, without it being said. It’s tangible, almost, in the air, a time-worn scent of betrayal with a tinge of isolation.
“But you couldn’t have called once?” Yoshitaka continues. “You couldn’t have answered when I called? We were together all the time as kids,” his voice softens. “It felt so strange for you to be gone.”
“Your skills have progressed.” Rei says. Deflects. He scoffs at himself, knows he can do much better than this, but there’s something about being able to feel Yoshitaka’s heart beating across the room again that makes it hard to think. “With the wolf spirit—you’ve improved. You’ve become a good team.”
Yoshitaka is silent, completely—even the aura of unrest that Rei could feel twisting around him suddenly recedes. Rei hazards a worried glance over his shoulder, and finds himself unable to turn back when he meets Yoshitaka’s incredulous eyes.
“Was I the one you hated?” Yoshitaka asks. “You said that I lived a happy life, but—I thought we were happy together. I thought I did well to welcome you into my—” His throat catches on his words. Rei watches him swallow down what he chooses not to say.
“You hated me so much it gave you a reason to be?” Yoshitaka asks. “Is that it?”
Rei fights back a sudden wave of fury—at what, he very nearly can’t place. At Yoshitaka, maybe, for his arrogance, for his righteous self-importance, for thinking he was enough to fuel the meaning of Rei’s life. But how can Rei justify being angry at Yoshitaka’s ignorance? Would he have ever thought something so self-centred if Rei had just been honest? No, he never could have been—it’s a secret impossible to tell, but it burns, rips through Rei like poison, that Owner fed him such a secret from his own hand, and therein lies the truth: that Owner was the only one Rei ever hated, the only one who could ever bear the full honest brunt of Rei’s fury. Yoshitaka simply found himself in the crossfire.
“No,” Rei says. Speaking is dangerous. He can feel the wolf spirit still in the room, slinking in the shadows, hot breath ruffling Yoshitaka’s hair. The spirit can sniff out a lie, and Rei knows it, but involuntarily out of his mouth comes the words: “I had tired of you.”
Yoshitaka’s eyes narrow. Rei’s widen. Those words, spoken to him on his knees, words that could have killed him but only served to feed the fire of loathing inside him.
Owner. Rei’s hands clench on the wood panel of the doors so hard the edges bite into his palm. The glint of Yoshitaka’s earrings catching the faint light swims before him as his vision blurs. He’s repeating Owner’s words now. Just how much of Owner lives inside him?
“That’s a lie,” Yoshitaka says, words pierced through with a ghostly growl from the wolf spirit. His voice is not unkind, but the spirit makes the words forceful. “To me, and to you. Tell yourself the truth. Lying to yourself will only twist your heart further.”
“Further?” Rei chokes, chokes back even earlier memories of Owner thrown harshly into visibility under the moonlight, his words spat into his face once again, but by someone who calls themself a friend. A twisted heart—but this knot in his chest is all he has, to unravel it is to lose what wakes him up every day. Yoshitaka has never known such a feeling. Yoshitaka still knows nothing.
But in any case, how true must the words be, if they can be said by the benevolent and the malevolent? Rei’s stomach churns so violently, it makes him feel sick.
“You think I’m twisted.” Rei says.
“I think I want to help my friend be himself again.”
Himself. Rei takes his turn to look incredulous, so lost by Yoshitaka’s words that he turns full-bodied to face him, hands shaking ever so slightly by his sides. Himself—what a ridiculous concept, when Yoshitaka knows so little of what truly makes him, spent a childhood building what he thought was a friendship with an empty shell. How one-sided, to think he knew Rei when really all he knew was how it felt for himself to have Rei around.
Yoshitaka knows nothing.
“I don’t need help.” Rei seethes. “The succession is done, I told you—”
Done, at what cost? Rei’s powers reached the potential he always wanted, but never knew the price for until it was paid, and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep Yoshitaka from knowing anything, with his prying eyes and desperate hands.
Rei resolutely ignores the sickness in him, threatening to overwhelm him.
Yoshitaka’s eyebrows furrow, eyes clear, but misty. Tears. “Why are you so averse to the idea that I—care about you.”
There it is, again. Rei watches as Yoshitaka swallows down the words he first thought to say, but didn’t, replacing them with others. The churning turns into a tightness in Rei’s chest, powerful and incapacitating, he can barely take a full breath against the weight of the truth that Yoshitaka won’t speak. The words don’t need to be said aloud, though—Rei can read it, feel it in the air, see it clear in Yoshitaka’s eyes, eyes that have always been too searching, searching always for Rei.
Rei steps out of the moonlight that peaks through the doors, just to watch Yoshitaka’s breathing get faster, to feel it in the unrest of the wolf spirit as Yoshitaka starts to panic.
“So we’re both liars, now?” Rei asks, inches from Yoshitaka’s face.
Yoshitaka steels himself, stares hard into Rei’s eyes, searching through their emptiness for the substance Rei knows he’s buried too deep to find. This is what it means to have a reason, he wants to tell Yoshitaka. This is what it looks like to hold nothing in this world but a grudge. This is what it means to have a secret. He wants to say it because Yoshitaka knows nothing, and to tell him such so clearly could be enough to sever the final ties that keep Rei from the destiny he’s given himself.
How devastating it would be for Yoshitaka, to learn he never knew the boy he so desperately wanted a single word from all these years. Perhaps the hurt would be enough for him to turn his back, and finally Rei would be free—it’s repulsive, the idea, when Rei knows how much the failure to save his only friend would hurt Yoshitaka. It’s repulsive, too, the fact that Rei cares.
But Yoshitaka’s eyelashes flutter, and so too does the rate of Rei’s heartbeat. Yoshitaka’s eyes flicker, down, to Rei’s lips and back to his eyes, so quickly Rei could convince himself he missed it.
But he doesn’t. He holds it in his mind, and feels the rush of knowing a secret that isn’t his.
“You’ll walk away again if I say what I really mean.” Yoshitaka says.
“You don’t want your friend back,” Rei says. It’s not an accusation, but a statement.
“No.” Yoshitaka admits himself so easily. “But I don’t want anything from you if you won’t be honest with me.”
The singular request that Rei could never fulfill. The tightening in his chest threatens to collapse his lungs, the pressure of this moment of finality, the moment of finally cutting the strings that held him back—and knowing, in his heart, in the deepest and most shameful pit of himself, that it was he himself who held on so tightly, not Yoshitaka. He was the one who never wanted to be apart. He was the one who kept memories of their childhoods like something sacred in his mind—Yoshitaka was just in step with him.
How unfortunate is the truth: that his hatred for Owner has always burned brighter than any flame he felt for Yoshitaka.
“Then I’ll see you on the mountain tomorrow.” Rei says, like a surrender.
Yoshitaka bows his head, the answer coming easily—of course it does, Yoshitaka’s had years now to come to peace with any response he could pull from the void Rei left in his life.
“Rest well, then,” he murmurs. “You haven’t been up the mountain in years.”
Rei feels something fragile inside his heart begin to unravel.
“You’ll be there, though?” He asks.
Yoshitaka smiles, even as the wolf spirit bristles behind him. “I always have been.”