”Have you heard what Zaou did on Valentine’s Day?”
“Got more chocolate than anyone in the school excluding the Beppu twins?”
“Well, probably, but that’s not what I’m talking about. He gave chocolate, to Naruko!”
“Makes sense, aren’t they best friends? I mean, guys don’t usually give obligatory chocolate but those two are close…”
“No way dude, you should have been there. The box was heart-shaped and decorated and they both blushed, I almost died from the shockwave of tension! It wasn’t obligatory chocolate, let me tell you.”
“What? No way! Are you telling me there is something going on between those two?”
“Definitely! I had to tell you, you’re in the betting pool too, right?”
“I’m on the losing side, man, this isn’t cool.”
Io didn’t know why he was standing behind a corner listening in to a conversation. Normally, he would walk past his classmates, maybe greet them or extend a word or two out of politeness on his way to the clubroom, but for some reason, this conversation caught his ear. Maybe it was because they were talking about Ryuu. Yes, definitely because it was about Ryuu.
And they were right, of course. There was more than “something” going on between Io and Ryuu; they were dating, after all. They had never talked about whether to make the relationship public or keep it a secret; they both seemed to silently agree on staying low-brow. Io didn’t think their behavior had changed noticeably after becoming an item and didn’t expect anyone not close to them to pick up on it but, well… Maybe he was wrong. He couldn’t afford to underestimate other high schoolers’ hunger for gossip only because he wasn’t that interested in others people’s lives himself. And Io had to make sure nobody talked badly about Ryuu on his watch ever again.
Io decided to lift the cat from the bag when Ryuu and he were the last ones in the bath. “They may have found out about us,” was all he said. Ryuu, so far peacefully leaning on Io's shoulder, jolted up, brown eyes wide.
“Who? The senpais?”
“I don’t know about them,” continued Io, “but I overheard some of our classmates today. There’s a betting pool on whether there’s ‘something’ between us, and it sounds like we were rather obvious on Valentine’s Day.”
Ryuu cursed under his breath and sank lower, facing the ceiling and closing his eyes. “And I was sure we were being discreet. I mean, what have we done that we didn’t already do… before?” Neither of them still liked the words. They felt so heavy, so serious. The opposite of “natural”.
“Perhaps that’s just the thing,” said Io. “They don’t know for sure if we’re dating, and even though they have their suspicions, they don’t know how long… precisely because of the way we’ve always been.” He sighed. “I suppose others saw how intimate we were before we did ourselves.”
A heavy silence fell between the two. Io stared at the surface of the water, following the ripples as they slowly made their way further away from him. He could vaguely hear En and Atsushi’s idle chattering from the dressing room but couldn’t make out words. Strangely enough, his mind didn’t replace them with any of its own. Maybe it was the heat exhaustion that rendered his brain silent, and maybe, for once, it was a good thing. The distant rhythm of Gora’s wood chopping was perfectly enough.
The silence was broken when Ryuu pushed himself back up to sit properly and turned to face Io. His eyes weren’t sparkling as usual, and in them Io could see the same weight he was feeling. Only with some added determination. And with the same determination - or so Ryuu wanted Io to believe, but Io could spot the anxiety in the slight waver in his voice - he said: “Maybe we should just make it public.”
Human hearts weren’t supposed to make loud, irregular pumps like these ones.
“You must know the risks,” was the only concern Io felt necessary to voice. Rest was self-explanatory in the severity of his tone and the darkness he could feel, if not see, in his expression.
“Of course I do,” answered Ryuu. “Definitely some loss in popularity for us both. The guys can make bets but they’re not really ready to see… this kind of a relationship in real life. Some will make stupid jokes, some will be uncomfortable, some will be… disgusted…” His voice faded towards the end of the sentence, and Io extended his arm to gently drape it around Ryuu’s shoulder. He knew what Ryuu meant; they could both remember how Ryuu himself used to react to “those gross things” not too long ago. Ryuu knew exactly what he was up against. How difficult breaking free from thought patterns could be.
Ryuu took the opportunity to snuggle against Io’s side, and continued: “Well, the student council would definitely have something to say if they were here. Then there are friends, families… Your business associates...” Ryuu shifted to hug Io properly, and gave him a small kiss on the neck. “I know it won’t be easy. But I like showing what I've got, you know? We will show them we’re happy. Spread love like Wombat always tells us to.”
Io wasn’t too thrilled to do what the pink alien told them to, but admitted Ryuu had a point. Io was proud of Ryuu and what they had together. And like Ryuu, when Io had something, he liked to show it. And as scared as Io might have been, he knew he was still the less image-conscious of the two. If Ryuu was comfortable going public, Io would be too. He would protect Ryuu from any harm for the most of his ability and beyond.
Io nuzzled the top of Ryuu’s hair and smiled, despite himself. “It’s a deal, then. Shall we start from the rest of the Defense Club?”
Ryuu kept tapping the chair leg with his foot. Tap. Tap. Tap. He knew beating around the bush wasn’t going to help, that the “perfect moment” would never come. That just up and saying it would be easier. That if the message wasn’t received immediately they could elaborate. If it wasn’t accepted, they could… well… Ryuu didn’t want to think about that. Their friends would support them, right? Right. Naturally. They were all here for love. The others would be there for Ryuu and Io. Of course.
Io gently touched Ryuu’s thigh under the table. “Breathe,” he whispered when Ryuu turned to look at him. “Should I?”
Ryuu shook his head and cleared his throat. This was his idea, and he would see it through till the end.
“Io and I are dating. Thought you should know.”
He hadn’t waited to see if he caught anyone’s attention before saying it.
Now he wasn't sure if he wanted to see what their reactions were.
They were the longest three seconds in his life. Until-
"What did you say?!"
There it was. Tradition. They couldn’t have a major plot twist without Yufuin-senpai shouting "what did you say?!”
"That means you love each other, right? Even more than before? Yay!"
Wow, their club really only had two settings, didn't it? Almost sleepily calm or rowdy as hell.
Ryuu did his best to keep up with all the questions and comments. "Yufuin-senpai, you heard me. Wombat, thanks. Yumoto, yes. Kinugawa-senpai…" Ryuu glanced at Io. He shrugged.
"... Been some time now."
"Well, I'm… Happy for you two," replied Kinugawa-senpai. His face screamed "I didn't expect it to really happen, but after everything we've been through, this really isn't such a weird thing, is it."
"So I suppose Ryuu doesn't find that stuff so gross now, huh," commented Yufuin-senpai. Io shot him a glare when Ryuu looked down biting his lip.
Atsushi scolded En for being untactful, Yumoto was now crushing both Ryuu's and Io's necks in a hug, and Ryuu guessed it could have gone worse.
Ryuu gave Io’s shoulder a supportive squeeze. Io nodded him thanks, and approached the desks of two of his classmates. The same ones he had heard gossiping a few days earlier.
“I heard from a reliable source that there’s a betting pool going on,” he started, his best pleasant business voice on. “And considering everyone knows gambling is half of what I do, I find it strange I wasn’t informed. You know I have money to bring to the table.”
The two looked up at Io, shared a bewildered look with each other, and turned back, considerably more nervous now.
“We… Didn’t want to tell you because… Uh…”
“I know what it’s about,” interrupted Io. “Your suspicions were correct. Ryuu and I are together. Tell those who bet against it to start fishing for their wallets and make better decisions in the future.”
With that, he walked off; feeling like he’d just made a very risky investment that might either double his winnings or cost him everything.
It started the next day.
Two boys from neighboring class came to visit. They stopped before Io's desk, both smirking in a sinister way Ryuu didn't like one bit.
"Since you're such a gambling champion," started the one with too much gel in his hair, "you may be happy to hear there's another bet going on in our class. We'd like to hear your opinion."
Io simply raised his eyebrows at them.
The boys glanced at each other, then quickly at Ryuu, before turning their attention back to Io. Ryuu really didn't like this.
"How long do you think Zaou will stand your face for?"
"See, my buddy here thinks it'll take him three weeks to dump your ass. I don't think he'll last for two. Some are optimistic enough to bet on a month."
The other boy, one with his tie hanging loosely from his pocket, continued: “We all figured you’d know how to use your time better.”
Ryuu was about to butt in, to take the time to tell two more morons that Io was too amazing to be treated like just another fling, but Io was quicker.
"You have no right to think of Ryuu like that." His words dripped ice. "I know what and who is worthy of my time, thank you.”
Pocket Tie shrugged exaggeratedly. "Whatever man, just saying. Not like you care anyways." The two then exited the classroom, Gel Head making sure Ryuu saw him roll his eyes.
“Was his womanizing just camouflage after all?”
“Must have been. I mean, didn’t he go out with, like, three girls at once? Clearly nothing but an act.”
“I’d say he was lying about all those dates if my cousin in Bijo High hadn’t confirmed that he really is popular there. But apparently the girls usually end up spoiling him! I mean, can you imagine?”
“Really? Oh man, so he’s the ‘girl’ in the relationship. Makes sense though, have you seen all those cutesy decorations on his bag and notebooks and stuff…?”
Io was fuming with rage, the price tag on his tablet the only thing preventing him from launching the device at someone’s head. Why couldn’t people mind their own business when speculating others’ lives didn’t profit them in any way?
The worst part was that it was always about Ryuu. Io didn’t know if the others were too wary to speak ill of him when he was present or if he simply wasn’t as interesting, but all the insults, mockery and ridicule was aimed at Ryuu. Ryuu, who was so amazing in every way, and didn’t deserve any of it. The worst Io had heard said of himself was implying that he was but using Ryuu as a trophy husband of sorts. Like he didn’t really care.
But it was all minor compared to the torment Ryuu had to endure. Constant taunts of his sexuality, dating history, role in their relationship, intentions, interests… Io took a deep breath. He would have to find a way to put a stop to this.
It was difficult to concentrate on school when your mind was playing your classmates’ snide comments and pointy glances on repeat. “So you finally dated every girl in Binan and moved on to guys?” “Decided to stop pretending, huh?” “Smart, to first befriend and then woo the youngest millionaire in the prefecture. Didn’t know you had that cunning side to you.” As if this was only a game to Ryuu, like people didn’t mean anything to him.
“Binan’s hottest bachelor settles down, and you won’t believe with whom! Check out spicy pictures and dramatic coming out!”
-- Screamed Kinosaki’s article on Binan Web. The most clicked this week. The pictures weren’t especially “spicy” as far as Ryuu was concerned, and the “dramatic coming out” was Ryuu lashing out and yelling “Has nobody in this damn school heard of bisexuality?” in the corridors one day. Luckily the article wasn’t too distasteful - Ryuu had his suspicions that Atsushi had made President Kusatsu pull some strings behind the scenes.
The school bell rang, signifying the end of classes, and Ryuu snapped out of his thoughts. He started to get up and ready to make his way to the clubroom, when three classmates surrounded his desk.
"Could you come with us for a second? There's something we'd like to discuss."
Ryuu considered bailing, but the possibility of being seen as a coward took over. And there was still a chance it was something nice, right? He followed the boys to the yard, behind the school gym.
"You know, there's this treatment we offer to brave people like you at our school," started the biggest boy, rolling his neck. "And word has it you haven’t received it yet." The other two cracked their knuckles and got closer. Ryuu gulped.
When the other members of the Defense Club asked what had happened to him, Ryuu told them he lost his balance and hit his head on the sink in the toilet. When Io opened his mouth to ask more, Ryuu only shook his head.
Ryuu had been fidgeting with the pencil in his hand for forty-five minutes now. They were at Io’s, supposedly doing homework, and it wasn’t unusual for Ryuu to be less than ideally focused, but it was obvious that this time Geography wasn’t the only thing weighing him down.
“Do you want to talk about what’s bothering you?” asked Io after Ryuu’s third frustrated huff and eyebrow crease.
Ryuu jolted out of his thoughts and the pencil in his hand stilled. “Sorry. Did I disturb your studying?”
“You didn’t,” reassured Io, “but there’s obviously something on your mind. Would you mind telling me what it is?”
Ryuu sighed. He rolled the pencil in his fingers once more. “It’s nothing that big. Let’s just get back to work. So what exactly is the difference between rocks and minerals?
Well, if Ryuu wanted something else to think about, Io was more than happy to provide it.
Ryuu typed a message. Then erased it. Typed another one. Erased. Groaned. Why were words so difficult? Typed a word. Wiped his eyes in his sleeve. Decided it wasn’t worth bothering Io over after all; who got this upset over some words and light shoving? There were worse things. He fought monsters on a regular basis, for Heaven’s sake.
Ryuu sniffled, checked his reflection, and pocketed his phone. If this was still weighing on his mind later, he could always talk to Io face to face. Io would listen and not judge, Ryuu was sure. If Ryuu only wanted to confide in him.
Io finally came up with a solution. It wasn’t one he liked one bit, nor wanted to do. But it was his only plan. Sometimes sacrifices were necessary.
He called Ryuu up that Sunday. He chose a park about equal distance from both of their homes in case one of them wanted to bolt. So there he was now, waiting on a bench. Fidgeting with the FX app on his phone, standing up to look for signs of Ryuu, sitting back down, slouching against the backrest blinking at the sky… Rinse and repeat… Why did he have to come early? The sun was too bright, the birds too loud. But not louder than Io’s heartbeat, or the voice of his conscience chastising him over what he was about to do. Why couldn’t it just be quiet.
“Yo! So what’s up?”
Io jumped. Oh no.
“Listen… Time is money, so I’ll make this brief,” he started.
When Io was done and Ryuu stormed away, Io at least knew he had been right about the place.
Ryuu let his body hit the bed and buried his face in a pillow. It had been five days. Five agonizing days since Io had left him out of the blue. And everything was awkward, bordering on unbearable. He wasn’t speaking to Io. Their club mates were concerned but didn’t meddle. Concentrating on anything was hard; his thoughts kept creeping back to Io. Ryuu's best friend in the world. The most important person in his life. The other half of an unbreakable duo.
Which was apparently not so unbreakable after all.
Of course this wasn't their first fight. Actually, they had fought all the time before their friendship began. Then there was the student council incident, the argument over who was more amazing… But they hadn't gone this long without talking since they became friends. Ryuu missed Io’s dry humor, his self-satisfied grins and fond smiles, his touch and voice and lips… But it wasn’t like Ryuu had tried to reach out himself. How was he even supposed to act around someone who just broke up with him? Usually Ryuu was the one to call things off, and then he simply wouldn’t see that special someone anymore.
And as special as Io was, he wasn’t barely “someone”, either.
Sure, Ryuu didn’t like talking about things that bothered him, but he had thought that if he wanted to, Io would be there to listen. He would do the same in return, as weird as the thought of genuinely vulnerable Io was. Even now… Ryuu was being bullied. He was bullied in school, which in itself was weird and new and bad. But he had Io. Io didn’t even have to do or say anything in particular; simply being there was enough to lift Ryuu’s spirits. Who cared about what the others thought?
Well, obviously Ryuu did, but Io’s affection was more important to him. All this time they had been basically battling over who could show love and appreciation for the other more. So what happened? One day everything was good, the next Io wanted to break up. “I know it hurts now, but it’s better in the long run. It’s for your good.” What the hell? That was the oldest trick in the book after “it’s not you, it’s me.” Did Io just suddenly decide Ryuu wasn’t worth his time anymore? Or had it all been a lie since the beginning? What if Io had only accepted Ryuu’s confession out of pity?
No. Io wasn’t the type to pretend like that. And Ryuu couldn't let everything they had end like this. He could still… try to be Io's friend, of course, if it was what Io really wanted. But at least Ryuu would have to hear a reason. Any reason at all.
Ryuu asked Io to stay with him after the club activities. They told the others they would skip Kurotama today (En and Atsushi ushered Yumoto out before he could start asking questions) and found themselves alone in the clubroom as the sun started setting. Io turned to face Ryuu questioningly.
Ryuu nervously turned his face away. "You have some explaining to do," he started, crossing his arms.
"What do you want explained?" asked Io. He knew what this was about. Of course he did. But he really wasn't sure what it was that Ryuu thought was left up to interpretation.
"You dumped me." Ryuu bit his lip, leaving the words dangling uncomfortably in the air for too many, too long seconds. "And you only gave me a half-assed romcom explanation. We- I thought we were happy. I thought you wouldn’t leave me again."
Io felt a painful pang in his chest. "I really did it for you," he whispered. "I saw how horribly you were treated and could only guess how it must have gotten to you. And I couldn't find a way to stop it, so… I figured that… if we weren't together, they would eventually find other things to talk about and you would get to live normally again."
Ryuu's expression changed. The fear and vulnerability all but melted away, only to be replaced with the same anger Io remembered all too well from the time he almost left Defense Club for the Student Council.
“ARE YOU AN IDIOT?”
“Of course it got to me! I cried into my pillow every night! But how do you think I got through it?”
Io thought it should have been obvious. “Because you’re strong and know you deserve better?”
Ryuu sighed deep and ran his hand down his face. Io was glad that Ryuu also took a step closer, even if he also shook his head with a sad smile.
“No. You still think too highly of me and too lowly of yourself.”
“It was you, you moron. I could take the bullying because I trusted you would always be by my side. Because I wanted to be with you more than I wanted to be Mr. Popular. And I thought you agreed, that you would also want to be with me despite the backlash- And then you took it away from me. I figured you decided I was a bad investment after all and you were better off without me.”
Io was speechless. All he wanted was to protect Ryuu, to shield him from harm, to ensure he got what was best for him… And all he managed to do was hurt him more. Instead of somebody to rely on, he ended up being the reason for Ryuu’s pain. This was wrong, this was unacceptable, and Io should have never let this happen.
“Io… Io, are you cryi-”
Io threw his arms around Ryuu’s neck and pulled him close, squeezing him tight. He had convinced himself that sacrificing himself would lead to Ryuu’s happiness, that leaving behind the most important thing in his life would be beneficial. How naïve, how foolish, how stupid.
And Ryuu returned the hug, and traced circles on Io’s back, and whispered “shh” or “don’t cry” or “it’s ok now” every time Io sobbed apologies, over and over and over again.
Once Io calmed down and wiped his tears - Ryuu helping - he apologized once more. “I’m so sorry, Ryuu. I can’t forgive myself for thinking it was a good idea now. I believed everything would be alright and you would be happier if it weren't for me. I’m sorry, I should never let you think you’re not the most valuable thing in my life, and… Ryuu, I was so stupid, will you ever forgive me?”
Ryuu was still not smiling. “So… Do you still want to be with me?”
Io nodded. “I never wanted anything else.”
“You don’t think I'm more trouble than I'm worth?”
“Ryuu, I would never- ”
Io’s reply was cut short when Ryuu kissed him. It was hungry, almost desperate, and oh, Io had missed the taste of that cherry chapstick so much. When Ryuu pulled back, Io was happy to see his beloved was smiling again.
“I forgive you if you promise to believe you mean more to me than you know. Do I need to remind you of which one of us confessed in the first place?"
Io smiled back. "You did. I couldn't believe something so good could be true."
Ryuu grinned, the familiar fire back in his eyes. "But it is, right? And we know all hardships are worth it."
Io wrapped his arms around Ryuu’s back and leaned in for another kiss. “More than worth it.”