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violet disposition

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At fifteen minutes to ten on a Sunday night in September, Mitsuba Sousuke is hit by a speeding car.

 

He’s on his way back from a late night photography session in the park when it happens, camera in one hand, coat in the other- because although it’s autumn in theory, the weather still stubbornly clings to the idea of summer. Warm nights, long days, cicada song in the bushes. Mitsuba wears his sweater tied about his shoulders like a cape, always prepared for the wrong sort of weather.

 

He’s in high spirits, he spins on his heel to take a photo of the way the street-lamp beams cut slices into the night, and a car swerves around the corner before Mitsuba can even think to breathe.

 

Brakes, metal, shattered brickwork and someone screaming. A horror movie in the back of Mitsuba’s head. 

 

Then he wakes up, sprawled over backwards onto the tarmac. Right as rain. 

 

Mitsuba gives himself a once-over- then a twice-over, just to be safe. Running a hand over each arm and each leg, pressing a fist against his ribs to make sure none of his precious bones are broken. It wouldn’t do at all if his cute image were to be ruined by some unsightly cast stuck over his arm or ankle. Although, he thinks, the fuss wouldn’t go unappreciated. (He checks his limbs again, just to be sure.)

 

Then, he notices that there’s a boy sitting on the pavement next to him.

 

Mitsuba stares at him, because he’s got a shock of blonde hair that looks like it’s never seen a comb in its life, one tooth at the front with a chip punched out of it, and he’s wearing the most ridiculous earring Mitsuba has ever seen in his life. Bright red, the kanji for traffic scrawled across the front, less of an accessory than a gaudy impression of a Christmas decoration, hanging off the side of the boy’s head. Mitsuba takes personal offence.

 

He considers his options.

 

There’s the polite way of doing things, which would involve asking (nicely) why the boy is sitting on the pavement next to him, and why he’s smiling in such a quiet, sad way. As if he holds the secrets to the universe in the palm of his hands, and they’re all becoming a little too heavy to bear. And then there’s the Mitsuba way of doing things, reserved for home and his mom’s business meetings, because he’s never really liked her co-workers. 

 

“The hell are you looking at, lame-earring boy?” Resolutely, he chooses the Mitsuba way.

 

Said lame earring boy has the nerve to look surprised, pointing squarely at his chest as if there’s anyone else in the area with a terrible taste in accessories to match. He looks like he wants to say something, but Mitsuba beats him to it, riled up in a way he hasn’t felt in a long while.

 

“Who else would I be talking to?” He pushes, voice raised because the streets sit a little too quietly for his liking. “ Traffic safety? Is this some kind of joke? I bet this is a regular thing for you- I bet!” 

 

“I-” Lame earring boy looks close to bewildered, whatever he was attempting to say dying on its way up his throat. 

 

“I bet you were trying to do weird things to me while I was unconscious, weren’t you? You’re just a pervert with an ugly earring and a weird fetish and-” The boy lunges forwards. He moves faster than Mitsuba expects him to- faster than anyone would expect him to- and pinches Mitsuba’s face with one hand, effectively silencing him. Were he not suddenly stilled into a state of shock, Mitsuba thinks he might have just bitten him. 

 

“I’m here to collect your soul.” He says, eyes sharp and serious and not entirely natural. Like he’s made out of the same material as glow-in-the-dark stars, or the cats-eye markers on the road beyond Mitsuba’s feet. Catching the moonlight from where it nestles behind the clouds. He’s close and bright and Mitsuba doesn’t know where to put any of his limbs.

 

So this time, he does bite him.

 

He sinks his teeth in, and the boy yelps in surprise as if he’s a wounded puppy rather than a person with hands and hair and the stupidest earring Mitsuba has ever seen. Mitsuba takes the opportunity to scramble further away- his mom will start to fuss if he doesn’t make it back home by ten. 

 

I’m here to collect your soul, ” He echoes, as the boy nurses his hand. “Is that some weird euphemism you came up with?”

 

“No, I’m-” The boy looks at a loss for words, and Mitsuba clocks it as a personal victory. (He can’t remember the last time he managed to make a strong impact on someone- negative or otherwise. It feels good.) “You’re dead.” The boy resolves.

 

Mitsuba almost chokes on his tongue. “You’d really threaten a cute, defenceless boy like me?” 

 

“No, I mean, you died, seriously- I’m supposed to collect your soul now.” The boy pushes, adamant. Mitsuba almost admires his perseverance, even through the frustration that builds about the cats-eye glare to the edges of his figure. (He’s odd to look at in more ways than one.)

 

Mitsuba thinks he might just be the weirdest person he’s ever met.

 

He tells him as such. 

 

“Can’t you find some other car crash victim to be a creep to? I need to find my camera and get back home,” The wreckage of the car is still a little way down the road, surrounded by shards of brickwork and the distinct smell of burning rubber, and Mitsuba pities the flowerbeds of whoever’s garden it is that’s been torn up under its wheels. He thinks he should perhaps be concerned by the fact that the driver has yet to resurface, or that nobody has left their houses to help, but the absence of his camera feels like a more pressing issue. 

 

Garden walls and flower beds are replaceable. Years upon years of memories and the camera that has become as much a part of him as his own fingertips- they are not. 

 

“Please don’t go over there,” The boy is persistent in a way that’s almost disconcerting. “I don’t care if you don’t listen to another word I say, just believe me when I say you don’t want to look.” 

 

He grabs Mitsuba’s wrist, fingers cold as ice, and a violent shudder passes through Mitsuba’s entire body. Involuntary, nauseating. He tears his hand away, because at first the boy with his strange earring and his weird euphemisms had been funny. Now, all cats-eye stares and ice-like touches, his presence is just as unsettling as the heavy, clammy silence which rests over the street.

 

(Why has nobody come out to help yet?) 

 

“I’m just going to look for my camera. I’m not going to start prodding around or anything.” There’s something about the way the boy is staring at him- sad and desperate and electric blue- that makes Mitsuba want to run. So he does, turns on his heel and sprints towards the wreckage before the boy can even think to stop him. Before he can see that Mitsuba is close to tears, for some inexplicable reason. 

 

It feels cold for September, the cicada song no longer echoes from the bushes, and Mitsuba thinks he’s going to be sick. Because there, crushed between the wall and the front wheel of the car, is a mirror image of himself. 

 

“I tried to warn you,” Is all the boy says when Mitsuba falls back down on the pavement, feeling distinctly like his own body has turned itself inside out. “Don’t put in a complaint about me.” 

 

“You think that’s funny, lame earring boy?” Mitsuba manages to reply, before he bursts into tears. 

 

“It’s Kou,” The boy says, and though it’s just a name, his voice sounds like it’s laden with enough sadness to last a lifetime. “I’m here to collect your soul.” 

 

He places a hand on Mitsuba’s shoulder, hesitant and numbingly cold, but Mitsuba leans into it anyway- forgoing all of his previous complaints. After all, it’s not as if there’s anyone else around. 

 

The truth of the matter is- Mitsuba Sousuke has not lived much of a life. 

 

His circle of friends extends no further than his acquaintances in the photography club and his own mother. He’s never been abroad (too scared of planes to ever set foot on one), he’s never been on a date (too cute to possibly tie himself down), he’s never made an impact beyond some bad first impressions back in elementary school. A background character in his own story, going about the motions the script tells him to. As cute as they come, but equally as uninteresting. 

 

He wonders if anyone will even remember him. 

 

The thought just makes him cry even harder, curling into himself on the pavement as Kou pats his shoulder like he doesn’t know what else to do with his hands. 

 

“You’re not very good at this.” Mitsuba sniffs through his tears, while Kou puppeteers a clumsy attempt at comfort- with his stupid earring and his ice-cold palms and his glow-in-the-dark eyes. 

 

“I’m trying my best!” Kou responds, indignant. “I’m new to all of this.”

 

“Try harder then.” Mitsuba wipes futilely at his eyes, and tries to force some sort of humour into his voice to drown out the grief that sits stone-like in the pit of his stomach.

 

“It’s different in practice than it is in training, okay,” Kou justifies, still patting at Mitsuba’s shoulder as if it’ll do anything to make things better. Around them, the night doesn’t breathe. Cold, suffocating, nothing like September should be. “This is only my third assignment.” 

 

At that, Mitsuba laughs, a bitter, choking sound that doesn’t really feel like a laugh at all. It catches in his throat in all the wrong places, and the tears start up all over again. “So, are you an angel then? Or a grim reaper? Is bad fashion sense part of the job description?” He asks, and hates how the words waver. 

 

“I think grim reaper explains it best.” Kou answers, purposefully avoiding the comment on his earring. He tugs on it as he speaks; habitual, absentminded. Similar to the way Mitsuba often pulls at the ends of his sleeves or the camera strap around his neck. For one short, breathless moment, Kou looks startlingly human. Like someone Mitsuba would pass in the corridors at school, or argue with over the last melon pan in the convenience store. 

 

“Where’s the black cloak then- or the scythe?” He replies instead, because he misses melon pan already. 

 

“I’m not actually a grim reaper, that’s just the easiest way to explain my job,” A tug of his earring, a frown on his face. Scarily human, scarily real. “But I do have a weapon, a staff-” He pauses. “Amane confiscated it, though.” 

 

At that, Mitsuba really does laugh. 

 

Kou’s expression melts into a smile that speaks volumes of sadness. He stands and extends a hand like a promise, reaching across the street to where Mitsuba still sits. “Do you think you’re ready to go?” He asks. 

 

All of a sudden, Mitsuba wants to run. 

 

He’s not ready for this- he told his mom he’d be back by ten, he’s got a camera full of photos to develop, and he’s still got to start his summer homework. He’s got more loose ends than he can think to count, and he doesn’t want to leave them so tangled. He can’t leave a world where, within a few years, nobody will remember the name Mitsuba Sousuke. 

 

The tears come again, this time a knife-blade twist in his gut, sharp and angry and not like this. He thinks, if his voice wasn’t stuck in the back of his throat heavily enough for him to choke on it, he would have screamed. Mitsuba has never known grief like this- he was too young to remember when his father walked out, his grandparents died before he was born, he’s never been close enough to anyone to suffer a painful fallout or breakup. It’s new, raw and terrible, and Mitsuba Sousuke is not ready to die.

 

(Is anyone?)

 

Kou looks lost, three assignments into his role as a not-quite-grim-reaper and standing before a crying boy who doesn’t want to die, curled upon the pavement in the breathless night air. 

 

“I’m not really supposed to without permission,” Kou starts. There , Mitsuba feels something like hope. “But I could make a deal with you. I don’t think Amane will yell at me too much.” 

 

“Way to sound suspicious.” Mitsuba chokes out, but the hope is enough to pull him to his feet regardless.

 

“I can give you one more year. One year to live your life as best as you can,” Kou explains, and Mitsuba feels the night heave in a breath of air. “On the condition that you let me stick around with you.”

 

He looks guilty almost, tugging at that earring once again. Mitsuba frowns through the tear-trails on his face. “What, do you just want me around so you can do perverted things, or-”

 

“I don’t remember much about being alive,” Kou interjects, something about his expression so open and earnest that it stops Mitsuba in his tracks. “I figured that, if I tried to live as a normal human for a while, then I’d maybe recall some things that I’d lost.”

 

Kou extends a hand for an entirely different reason. A boy with electric shock hair and terrible taste in accessories and eyes that glow like cold embers in the dark- reaching out into the night. Mitsuba doesn’t want to spend a year stuck in the company of a not-grim-reaper who wears traffic safety charms as earrings, and potentially has a fetish for car crash victims. Mitsuba also doesn’t want to die. He wipes his tears away with the back of his arm, because one year is better than no time at all. 

 

When he shakes it, he finds that Kou’s hand isn’t quite so cold after all. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Kou says, as the world holds its breath. “I can’t do anything more than this. The rest is up to you.” 

 

Then, before Mitsuba can say another word, it’s warm for September all over again. 

 

The pain in his hand knocks him out cold before he can even scream.

 

-

 

Mitsuba doesn’t like hospitals. 

 

He’s only been in one a handful of times- once for a broken toe, once for a bad case of food poisoning that he and his mom caught simultaneously, once to visit a distant relative who just slept the whole time. They’re always busy and clinical and he hates the smell of hand sanitiser, so he’s less than impressed when he opens his eyes to a row of fluorescent lights on the ceiling and the sound of someone coughing something fierce down the corridor. 

 

Aside from feeling stiff from his head to his toes, he feels surprisingly alright. 

 

(There’s a distinct absence of his classmates crying by his bedside, waiting to see if he’s okay because they’ve finally realised how delightful he is- but a boy can dream.) 

 

His mom is sitting there however. Thankfully not crying, because Mitsuba thinks that might have just tipped him over into tearful sobs too. Instead, she smiles down at him, a little watery, a little worried, and asks him how he’s feeling.

 

“I feel fine,” He admits. A bit sore and a whole lot less cute than the norm, but fine. “I had the weirdest dream though.” 

 

Boys with glow-in-the-dark stars for eyes, cold September nights and ridiculous earrings. A deal, a handshake, one final year in the making. Mitsuba scoffs to himself, because he’s clearly been watching too many bad movies from his mom’s collection. 

 

She laughs. “That’s probably because you’re hopped up on more painkillers than I can remember the names of,” Mitsuba Yukie kicks ass at memory games, so that’s saying something. “Which would explain the dream and the fact that you don’t feel like hell right now.”

 

“I’m tired.” Is all Mitsuba can respond, because the steady to-and-fro of nurses and family members has begun to feel like a lullabye. Back and forth and back again, until he has to fight to keep his eyes open. 

 

“Go to sleep, then.” His mom jokes, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. 

 

He does. 

 

-

 

He spends the next few days in a state of half-wakefulness, prodded into awareness every few hours by nurses who check his vitals, his memory, the state of his hand.

 

His hand is something that Mitsuba doesn’t want to dwell on. An elephant in the room, wrapped up in plaster beside him as he sleeps his days away. It took the worst of the damage, from what he’s heard. Crushed between the wheel of the car and a garden wall, then patched back together by surgeons and an artillery of metal plating. In the best case scenario, he’ll be left with an ugly scar for the rest of his life. In the worst case, he’ll never use his hand again. 

 

He’s been told, more than once, that it’s a miracle he didn’t need it amputated. 

 

(It feels like some foolish attempt to cheer him up- a misplaced look on the bright side - so he pretends to be asleep every time they tell him.)

 

Mitsuba isn’t happy. But, he’s alive. And that’s something.

 

The dream from the night of the accident still sits heavy and foreboding at the back of his mind. Lying in wait, as if set to pounce. Mitsuba buries it by asking his mom to bring his laptop to the hospital so he can smother his thoughts under episodes of mindless TV dramas. The cast on his hand is unsightly, and it makes operating the keyboard more difficult than it ever should be- but it stops him from thinking about the kanji for traffic and electric blue eyes. 

 

It also stops him from thinking about the summer homework he has yet to start.

 

It’s over a week before he gets any visitors that aren’t his mom. Unfortunately, said visitor is Yugi Tsukasa, who scrambles in through the doorway, makes a beeline for Mitsuba’s hand, and only narrowly misses when Sakura jerks him backwards by his collar. 

 

There are some things which Mitsuba likes about Nanamine Sakura. They’re a few years older, have a flair for the dramatic, and sometimes offer to do Mitsuba’s eyeliner for him while the broadcasting club is setting up and the photography club is packing away. There are also some things that Mitsuba doesn’t like about Sakura. mainly the fact that, where Sakura is found, Tsukasa won’t be far behind.

 

Natsuhiko enters the doorway last, and puts a struggling Tsukasa in a headlock like it’s a habit of sorts. Tsukasa struggles for two seconds then goes limp as a doll, with a grin that would almost be endearing if it was on anyone else’s face. Mitsuba shudders.

 

“Why weren’t you all crying by my bedside?” He huffs, because the fact that it took them a whole week to show concern about his well-being is, quite honestly, unacceptable. Mitsuba wouldn’t say he’s friends with the sole three members of the local broadcasting club- Tsukasa is terrifying to say the least, and Sakura and Natsuhiko both graduated school, so he doesn’t see them in the corridors like he used to. But the photography club, held in a small media room by the park, always packs up as the broadcasting club arrives. And hence, here they are- stuck in some no-man’s land between acquaintances and friends. 

 

Still, Mitsuba thinks, some concern would have been nice. 

 

“I was going to come earlier,” Tsukasa pipes up, giving up the doll act to squirm out of Natsuhiko’s grip. “I wanted to see the X-rays from where your hand got all smashed up.”

 

Mitsuba grimaces. Tsukasa makes grabby-hands towards the cast on his arm. It’s Sakura that comes to the rescue this time, securing a firm grip on Tsukasa’s wrist with hands that Mitsuba knows from experience are stronger than they look. 

 

“How are you doing?” They ask, in their soft voice. A shred of concern that Mitsuba can tell is genuine. 

 

“Terrible,” He groans in response, and flops back onto the pillows to prove a point. “I can’t take a shower so I have to use dry shampoo on my hair, and this cast is totally not cute- plus the nurses keep prodding me and interrupting my beauty sleep.”

 

Mitsuba turns on the dramatics. He knows it’s easier than to admit the truth- that he’s scared he’ll never be able to use his hand again, that he can’t shake his dreams of deals and handshakes and electric eyes, that he’s being weaned off the painkillers so he feels distinctly like he’s been hit by a truck. ( A convertible, actually- his mom had joked the first time he told her as such. Making light of the situation in a way that only she could have managed.)

 

On top of his worries- Mitsuba has been told too many times that he could have died that night. How it’s a miracle that he’s still here, still breathing. It’s a giant, terrible concept, which perches upon the fluorescent lights in the hospital corridor and leers over him. Every second of every day he’s sat here, it sits and it waits. 

 

You could have died, it says. (It sounds like twisting metal and a boy with the coldest hands Mitsuba has ever known.)

 

“Do you want anything to drink?” Sakura asks, like they understand everything without Mitsuba having to say a word. “There’s a cafe downstairs that we passed on the way up.”

 

“I’d fight another convertible for some lemonade right now.” Mitsuba affirms. Making light of the situation in a way that only his mom could have managed. 

 

Sakura smiles- quiet and knowing and far beyond their years. “Natsuhiko, Tsukasa, let's go and get lemonade.”

 

Tsukasa trails behind as they leave, and Mitsuba bunches his sheets up to his chin to hide his cast from view. But instead of taking a lunge for it, sharp canines bared, Tsukasa just turns over his shoulder and grins as if he knows a huge, brilliant secret. 

 

“One year isn’t that long, you know.” He says.

 

Mitsuba swears the temperature in the room drops by ten degrees.

 

-

 

There’s no such thing as angels or grim reapers or boys with electric-charged eyes. Near-death experiences are just something for the movie screen. 

 

It keeps him up at night, regardless.

 

-

 

The all-clear comes after two weeks of shuffling around the corridors of the hospital, watching his way through five seasons of a drama he can’t even remember the title of, and dousing his hair in more dry shampoo than he cares to take note of. His mom drives him back home. He sits in the front seat of the car, head leaned out of the side window because it’s still warm for September, and he hasn’t tasted fresh air in days. 

 

The first thing he does is take a shower- his hair feels disgusting and he needs to get it back to smelling like strawberries for the sake of his own pride. Getting washed with a plastic bag stuck over one hand to protect his cast is no easy feat, but it’s something he knows he’s going to have to get used to. Especially if his hand will be immobile forever. A new norm which he’s going to have to adjust to. 

 

His mom does his hair for him, he squirms in protest because she always ties his ponytail a little too tightly, and then he pulls on a cardigan to cover up the fact that both his arms are still bruised like ripe fruit in the aftermath of being thrown into a garden wall. The weather clings stubbornly to summer, and Mitsuba wishes autumn would hurry up and sweep onwards. 

 

He goes for a walk next. Being stuck indoors for close to two weeks has done him few favours aside from keeping him safe from insect bites, and he thinks he might just wither up on the spot if he doesn’t get some fresh air and a change of scenery. His mom goes out to pick up something for lunch, reminds him that there’s strawberries in the fridge, and tells him to take care with an expression on her face that’s a far sight more concerned than usual. 

 

Yet another new norm to get used to, Mitsuba supposes, stepping out into the fake-summer streets. 

 

The park and the road which runs alongside it is a place he steers well clear of, not willing to face the demolished garden wall and torn up plants quite yet. Instead he makes a beeline for the highstreet- it’s a weekday and school is back in session, so he should be able to make it through the crowds without running into any classmates. He’s not quite ready for people to see him just yet, with his haphazardly tied hair, the graze on his cheekbone and the unwieldy cast over his arm and hand. 

 

The air smells like summer, and for once, Mitsuba is glad that nobody recognises him. 

 

“There you are!” Footsteps sprinting down the street, a cold hand on Mitsuba’s shoulder, and the kanji for traffic catching the mid-morning sunlight. Sixteen strokes which make Mitsuba’s blood run cold.

 

Mitsuba has been told more than once that he’s prone to dramatics. And so he screams, wrenches his arm free, and sprints off down the street without a second thought.

 

Grief twists in the pit of his stomach again like a wound with the stitches ripped clean out. It was meant to be a dream- some nightmare brought on by a cocktail of painkillers and a traumatic experience. Kou, firework eyes and earring and all, is not meant to be here. He’s not meant to exist. Mitsuba thinks he’s going to be sick. 

 

His breath sears his lungs as he runs, out of practice and unused to being outside- never mind undergoing strenuous exercise- and every single part of him hurts. But nothing as much as the realisation that this is it. That there is a countdown over his head that has already begun ticking down. That he’s been wasting his days away in the belief that forever was something he owned. 

 

The thought turns sharp and bitter in his gut, and the time in which he falters is all Kou needs to catch up with him, still breathing easy. 

 

“Hey,” He starts, securing a hand around Mitsuba’s elbow like he expects him to sprint away again. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. You’re kinda bad at running.” 

 

In the light of day, Kou looks almost normal. If he had never encountered him before, Mitsuba could easily mistake him for another student from the highschool down the road, skipping classes for the day. He glances from Kou’s chipped front tooth, to the hand gripping his elbow, and hits him solidly in the stomach with the back of his cast.

 

“Get your creepy hands off me, lame earring boy!” He struggles into the mouth of the nearest sidestreet, smacking at Kou’s hands as he goes, because really, does he not know how to talk to a boy without manhandling him first? Despite looking a bit winded, Kou’s face splits open into a bright grin that’s so earnest it makes Mitsuba’s teeth hurt just looking at it. Nothing like those slow, sad smiles from under the streetlamps. 

 

“Oh good, you do remember me!” Kou sounds delighted, and Mitsuba wants to hit him again. “You really didn’t make it easy for me to find you, y’know.” 

 

“So you’re a stalker as well as a creep, weird earring boy?” Mitsuba starts, but feels his energy slowly running out. He sighs- heavy, tired. “I thought I’d made you up while under the influence of like, seven different painkillers,” He admits. There’s only so long his theatrics can hold out, under the crushing realisation that Tsukasa was right somehow. One year is not a long time at all. Kou seems to recognise the tone of his voice, and his grin cracks and fades, just a little. 

 

“I’m sorry that I couldn’t do anything about your hand.” Kou then replies. There’s a bitter note underlying his words, as though he’s angry towards himself for not being able to help. It’s an odd sound, and Mitsuba feels himself wither underneath it. Here he is, a boy that Kou has known for less than an hour. Here he is, a boy that Kou was willing to change fate for.

 

He doesn’t address it. (He doesn’t know how to.)

 

“So,” Mitsuba says instead, through the knife-twist of grief buried to the hilt in his stomach. “Is this really it then? One more year?” 

 

Silence, curled heavy and dissatisfied at the end of the sidestreet. Then-

 

“One year is better than nothing, right?” Kou responds. Looking on the bright side in a way that Mitsuba thought only his mom was capable of. He’s learning things about Kou by the second- his bright smile, chipped tooth, terrible taste in earrings. He’s someone Mitsuba is just going to have to learn to live with. 

 

“Yeah,” Mitsuba replies, curling a fist around the hilt of the knife-blade, and ripping it free. The longer he can ignore it, the better. “You’re right, I guess.” 

 

“Hey, don’t sound so unsure of my judgement!” Kou wrinkles up his nose and shoves Mitsuba in the arm that isn’t trapped in a cast. Slowly, he then adds; “You might want to walk home a different way- screaming at thin air then bolting off in the other direction isn’t a good look.”

 

What. Mitsuba thinks.

 

“What.” Mitsuba says out loud, and feels dread rise up in the pit of his stomach for an entirely different reason. 

 

“Nobody but you can see me- I thought you knew that?” Mitsuba did not, in fact, know that.

 

Somewhere down the road, there is an entire street-full of people who just saw Mitsuba scream and tear off down the street- hair tied lopsided and his cardigan sleeve bunched up to accommodate for his cast. When he spoke about making an impression, this was not what he had in mind. Kou peers at him like he can’t quite hide his own grin. “I could make myself visible to people, if you’d prefer.” He offers.

 

Mitsuba groans, and punches Kou solidly in the stomach. Cute image be damned. 

 

“You’re just here to humiliate me! I bet you’re getting some gross kick out of seeing me embarrassed.” He whines. Kou raises his hands to defend himself when Mitsuba tries to hit him a second time.

 

“I should have taken your soul while I had the chance.” Kou responds, but he’s grinning as if he’s not even bothered by Mitsuba’s attitude at all. (He denies firmly to himself that it’s a nice change of pace.)

 

Kou assures that he’s entirely visible before they wind back to Mitsuba’s apartment through the side streets. He even stops to pet a cat he finds lounging on top of a gate to prove it, smiling back at Mitsuba as he does so. An unspoken I told you so which is so bright and self-assured it’s almost laughable. 

 

“It’s creepy how you’re so desperate to spend time with me,” Mitsuba calls, when Kou asks him how long it’s going to take them to get home. Home, like Mitsuba’s apartment is a place he belongs in too. “Is it your car crash fetish? Do you think this is hot?” He holds his cast into the air.

 

“I do not have a car crash fetish!” Kou protests. “You’re the weird one for constantly bringing it up.”

 

Mitsuba shoves him, Kou shoves back, and for a moment, it feels like they’re friends. Mid-morning, strolling down the streets after skipping school, heading back to Mitsuba’s house to play video games while his mom is out. Mitsuba hasn’t had friends over to his house in a long while. He’s not disliked at school, he’s just not particularly liked either. People talk to him in class and group up with him for team sports, but nothing further than that. There’s no sitting outside the convenience store together or staying for dinner at people’s houses. 

 

Kou isn’t human. He’s got eyes that shine like fireworks in the dark and he can turn himself invisible to everyone but Mitsuba. He’s also the closest thing Mitsuba has to a friend right now. He scoffs to himself, because it doesn’t get any sadder than that. One year left to live, and he’s going to spend it with a dead boy hanging out in the corner of his bedroom.

 

“So,” Mitsuba starts, to prevent his thoughts from becoming any louder. “Do you remember anything about when you were alive?”

 

Kou hums, thoughtful. “My name is Kou, and I’d just turned sixteen. I was from around here, but I can’t remember where my house was. That’s all.” 

 

“Birthday?” Mitsuba pushes. Kou shakes his head. “School name?” Another shake. “ Family name?” A third negative. “Wow, you’re hopeless .” 

 

“I can’t help it!” As he speaks, there’s something about Kou’s expression that seems almost guilty. Mitsuba doesn’t know how to deal with just how open he is, heart worn on his sleeve in full view- a clear display of exactly what he feels towards the world around him. (Mitsuba kind of wants to know what he thinks about himself too.) 

 

Mitsuba fumbles with his keys, finding that unlocking the door with one hand is more difficult than he anticipated. Without another word, Kou takes them from his hands and does it for him. All the while, he wears that same earnest smile on his face. They step inside, Mitsuba doesn’t thank him, and Kou doesn’t ask him to. 

 

There’s someone sitting on top of the kitchen table, and he’s eating Mitsuba’s strawberries right out of the carton. 

 

Mitsuba shouts Hey! At the same time as Kou shouts Amane! 

 

Mitsuba begins to feel left out of the loop, as Amane puts down the carton of strawberries, hops off the tabletop, and grabs Kou by the collar of his jacket. 

 

The first thing Mitsuba notices is that Amane looks like a mirror image of Tsukasa, to the point that it’s genuinely upsetting. The second thing he notices is that Amane’s hat is almost as ridiculous as Kou’s earring. The third thing he notices is that Amane is furious

 

“Boy-” He shouts, and Kou sets his face into something defiant. Teeth gritted, staring across at where Amane has him caught by the lapels of his jacket. “What are you doing?

 

Kou glances across the kitchen to where Mitsuba stands, significantly out of his depth. “It’s just one year, Amane. I couldn’t take his soul like that.” 

 

“Boy, if we went around making deals with every dead person we felt sorry for, then the city would be full to the brim with wandering souls that none of us have the time to collect,” Amane stares, and Mitsuba shrinks backwards. The one saving grace when it comes to Tsukasa is that he never looks angry. Now, Mitsuba knows exactly what outrage would look like on him. It’s not a comfortable sight. “You can’t be so compassionate.” 

 

“So dead people don’t deserve empathy just ‘cause they’re dead?” Kou challenges. Mitsuba wonders if he can creep past them and escape into his bedroom. “We’re dead too, Amane- do we not deserve a chance either?”

 

“We didn’t get a chance,” Amane’s voice is ice cold- bitter and sad and Mitsuba flinches away because it feels like he’s overhearing something he wasn’t supposed to witness. “That’s why we’re-”

 

“You gave Yashiro-senpai an extra year.” Kou says. 

 

The pressure in the room drops, a vacuum opening up in the centre of the kitchen, right between the fridge and the table where Kou and Amane stand in a stalemate. Mitsuba, waiting by the front door, an unwilling observer. (He hopes desperately that he doesn’t become part of the collateral damage too.)

 

“That’s not-” Amane moves, and Mitsuba takes the opportunity to skirt past him, collect the remaining strawberries from the kitchen table, and sit himself down on the sofa. If he turns the volume up on the TV, he can just about drown out the shouting from behind him. He tosses the stalks from the last few strawberries back into the carton, and tries to pretend that nothing is unusual. Tricking himself that he’s living in an idealised world, where one year is just another measurement of time, and there aren’t two undead boys having a screaming match in his kitchen. 

 

“Oh.” Mitsuba’s mom steps in through the front door with a takeout box in one hand and her car keys in the other. Kou is standing on the kitchen table, Amane is floating about the light fitting, and Mitsuba doesn’t know how he’s going to explain any of this to his mom, open-minded as she is.

 

“Sousuke, could you tell your friend to get down from the table,” She says, like Amane isn’t there at all. “I should have enough lunch for the three of us.” 

 

In a startling change of demeanor, Amane cackles like a banshee and vanishes into thin air. Kou at least has the decency to look mortified when he scrambles back down from the furniture. 

 

“Actually,” Mitsuba starts, because his mom looks confused out of her mind and Kou is floundering in the corner of the kitchen for any semblance of an explanation. “We already ate. Come on.”

 

He secures a hand around Kou’s elbow, forces down a shudder over just how cold he is, and hauls him down the corridor towards his room. Apparently, Mitsuba Sousuke must do everything around here. Apparently, he must also invite creepy visitors with car crash fetishes into his bedroom. 

 

Gross.

 

“You can’t skip out on lunch, it’s not healthy.” Is what Kou decides to address once Mitsuba slams the door shut behind them. Not their deal, not the argument, not how Amane somehow broke into his kitchen and started eating his strawberries out of the fridge. He decides to talk about lunch . Kou looks like he means business too- arms folded, frowning deep and worried. He’s ruining the atmosphere of Mitsuba’s room just by standing there.

 

“I’ll get some leftovers later.” Mitsuba promises, just to placate him. (He doesn’t exactly feel like eating, not now that talk of souls and death and one year remaining has accommodated his gut- an unwelcome guest.) 

 

Kou’s frown relaxes. “Good, skipping meals isn’t-”

 

“Are you my parent, Kou-kun?” Mitsuba interjects. “Is this another thing that you’re into?” 

 

Kou picks up a sweater left lying on the bedroom floor and hurls it at Mitsuba’s face. (He thinks he might have deserved that one, just a bit.)

 

“No touching my stuff!” As much as he may have deserved it, Mitsuba still turns to glare at Kou, tangled up in the arms of the sweater. This is his home, his space- he seldom lets his mom in his room, never mind a strange boy with strange eyes and a smile that errs on the wrong side of too bright. And here is Kou, throwing items of clothing around as though he owns the place. “That’s rule number one, because apparently you don’t know how to act when a cute boy lets you into his room.”

 

“Ah.” Kou says, and returns a photo frame to its spot on Mitsuba’s bookshelf.

 

“No touching my stuff, don’t go in my drawers or cupboards, don’t even think about coming in here when I’m sleeping, don’t sit anywhere other than the floor or the beanbag over there.” Mitsuba counts the items on his fingers as he speaks, and Kou nods obediently. If he keeps talking, he can almost fool himself into thinking that Kou is just a friend staying over- maybe he had an argument with his parents, maybe he ran away from home. He’ll be gone by the end of the week, Mitsuba will go back to school, and he will live out his life until he’s old and wrinkly and gross.

 

The knowledge that he can’t avoid it forever curls up behind his ribs, settling stone-heavy in his chest. But he’s never been good at facing his problems head-on. It’s part of the Mitsuba way of doing things- taking the easy way out. 

 

If Kou has any problems with that, then he doesn’t voice them. Maybe he likes to take the easy way out too. (There’s something about his enthusiasm and stubbornness which tells Mitsuba that’s far from the truth.)

 

“This beanbag?” Kou asks instead, and flops backwards into it before Mitsuba can give an answer. “Your room is nice.” 

 

“It is.” That’s one thing Mitsuba can agree with. 

 

He likes his room a lot- it’s a place where he can be himself. There’s nobody here to tell him he can’t paint his walls pale pink, or keep a box-full of flavoured lip-glosses next to his desk, or collect enough plushies that it makes getting into bed difficult each night. There’s nobody to make fun of him for hanging up his favourite photos in elaborate frames, or for hoarding scented candles on his windowsill. Elementary school was rough, middle school was rough for entirely different reasons, and this year, he thinks, might just be the worst of them all. But there’s always been a place he could come home to. Kou melts into the beanbag in the corner of the room, and grins up at the ceiling as if he’s found his new favourite place.

 

“Stop smiling like that, you’re so creepy,” Mitsuba says, and does little to pretend that he’s not glad to see the lack of judgement on Kou’s face. “Anyway, are you going to explain what was going on out there? Why was there a scary kid eating my strawberries.”

 

“Ah,” Kou repeats, again. “That was Amane- he’s my supervisor. He’s not that much older than me, but he’s been dead for a really long time, so he’s got way more experience. He doesn’t act like it though- he’s a creep and he’s rude to girls and he took my staff off me because he thinks I can’t use it.” 

 

Mitsuba remembers Kou mentioning his name, the night of the crash. Amane, who has been dead for years, yet shares a face with Yugi Tsukasa from the broadcasting club. 

 

“So much for your idea that he wouldn’t yell at you,” Mitsuba comments, settling down on the edge of his bed. His painkillers are sitting next to it along with a glass of water, so he takes one, suddenly all too aware of the ache in his hand. “That sounded a lot like yelling to me.”

 

“Oh, that was nothing!” Kou has the nerve to grin. “He didn’t even pull out his knife.” 

 

Mitsuba chokes on a mouthful of water. “You let a guy with a knife into my house? What if he attacked me? How could you expect cute, defenceless me to-” 

 

“I wouldn’t have let him come near you!” Kou interrupts him with a grin that sits dazzling upon his face. Sharp canines, chipped front tooth, enthusiastic in a way that makes him look more alive than dead. Mitsuba thinks he might just have to look away. “You’re under my protection now, just leave it all to me!” 

 

Mitsuba has never seen anyone look quite so radiant. It feels as though, suddenly, he doesn’t know what to do with his hands or his feet, or any other part of himself. A stranger in his own bedroom, all because a boy with a stupid earring and electric-shock hair has invited himself in. He decides firmly that he hates every bit of hopeful energy that Kou has. 

 

“That’s so cheesy,” He scoffs. “Way to sound like a bad movie hero.”

 

“I mean it, though,” Kou tells him, earnest as ever. “This year is meant to be the best you’ll ever have- Amane watching over your shoulder the whole time would just ruin it.”

 

How can it be the best year ever when I know it’ll be my last, Mitsuba wants to say. How can you, who knows what it’s like to die, look me in the eye and tell me it’ll be okay.

 

You watching over my shoulder is gonna ruin it.” He replies, instead. Fooling himself, taking the easy way out. The truth hangs around his furniture- ominous and heavy and a disaster waiting to happen- and Mitsuba ignores it. The easy way out.

 

Kou doesn’t mention any one-year-left’s . Mitsuba doesn’t tell him about Tsukasa, because there’s no easy way to inform a person that their boss shares the face of a boy who once told Mitsuba he had a secret, then pulled a long-dead mouse out of his pocket. 

 

“So, are you going to get lunch yet?” Kou asks, still stuck in the beanbag. “Because skipping meals is really-”

 

“There’s no way you weren’t an older sibling back when you were alive.” Mitsuba comments, and, if he looks hard enough, he thinks he can see a spark of recognition in Kou’s glow-in-the-dark eyes. Before he can say another word, he goes to get leftovers from the kitchen.

 

“So, who's your friend?” His mom sounds delighted as he re-enters the kitchen, and Mitsuba can hear her knowing smile even behind the screen of her laptop. 

 

“He’s not my friend.” Mitsuba tells her, as he puts two plates into the microwave. One after the other, because operating with one hand is something he’s yet to grow accustomed to. 

 

Sure.” She grins, in that I know everything way of hers.

 

“Sure.” Mitsuba affirms- and when he doubles back to collect the second plate, she’s still smiling.

 

Back in Mitsuba’s room, Kou has detached himself from the beanbag and stands over the desk in a hunched over pose that can’t possibly be comfortable. He looks solemn, like all the air has been pulled out of the room by the nearest window. Next to him, his food grows cold.

 

“You’ll put your back out if you stand like that for much longer.” Mitsuba sing-songs, wobbling over to put his plate down on the floor before he drops it. It’s barely past lunch-time, and he’s already tired. His legs hurt, and when he tells Kou as such, he doesn’t even blink. Moving closer, he finally sees what it is that Kou is fixated on.

 

It’s his camera.

 

The broken, shattered-to-pieces remains of his camera. Sitting on top of the desk like an apology. The serrated blade of grief, which Mitsuba had tried his best to rip free, comes back and twists itself deep between his ribs. It wouldn’t be short of an exaggeration if Mitsuba said that his camera was everything to him- an extension of himself, allowing him to capture the world in the way he sees it. Photography club was a place where he could belong, editing photos into the night was what kept him busy, taking pictures of the sky, birds, weather was what he wanted to do with his future.

 

(A future he no longer has, reminds some bitter thought, wrapped underneath his tongue.) 

 

The no-longer-a-camera sits broken upon the desk, and if Mitsuba wasn’t a crybaby at heart, he thinks he could have almost laughed at it. How fitting. 

 

He’s crying before he can even think to stop himself, sinking back into the bed and pressing the palms of his hands into his eyes hard enough that he sees stars. Then, he hears footsteps falling gently across the carpet. Then, the bed dips at his left side. Then, a cold, quiet hand presses against his shoulder. Light, unsure, one of the worst attempts at gentle comfort that Mitsuba has ever had the misfortune of witnessing.

 

But he doesn’t protest, this time. There’s an insult which sits and dies in the back of his throat, soothed out by Kou sitting steadily beside him. He’s quiet when he needs to be, Mitsuba finds- smiling in a muted, sad way that says he doesn’t understand, but also that he wants to. 

 

Later, Mitsuba will get mad at Kou for putting his clumsy hands all over him, for breaking the rules and sitting somewhere other than the beanbag, for snooping around his bedroom the moment his back was turned. 

 

For now, he just leans closer. 

 

“Can you buy a new one?” Kou aks, eventually. And that’s all it takes to release the bitter, painful laugh from the back of Mitsuba’s throat. He doesn’t know if dead boys still have hearts, but if Kou has one, then Mitsuba is now certain he’d be wearing it right on his sleeve.  

 

“Don’t be stupid,” Mitsuba scoffs, watery and more miserable than he’s ever sounded in his all-too-short life. “Of course I can. It’s just- the principle of it.” 

 

Kou’s expression shifts into something that would be more suited to a confused puppy than a human with two hands to rest on Mituba’s shoulders. “The principle?” He echoes, and Mitsuba decides he doesn’t like dogs any more. 

 

“That camera was meant to take me to photography school. It was supposed to be my future. And now-” A broken lens, and one year left. Mitsuba can’t make his voice curl around the words, because if he speaks them soft into the fake summer air, then they’ll become real. They’ll follow him and he’ll collapse under the weight, and not even Kou’s hands, cold for September, will be able to hold him up.

 

“One year is a lot longer than you’d think.” Kou says, and for a second or two, Mitsuba remembers how to breathe.

 

-

 

“Your friend seemed very lively,” His mom jokes, once Kou has pretended to leave and now sits unseen, swallowed up by the beanbag in the corner of the bedroom. “You seemed to get along well enough though- you even let him into your room!” 

 

There’s a question underlying her words- a hundred questions, even- where did you meet him, why didn’t you mention him before now, what’s with the earring? She doesn’t ask any of them, because if she really wanted to know the answer, she’d probably have coaxed it out of him already.

 

His mom just knows how to handle him like that. ( You’ll never be as bad as any of my co-workers , she told him once, whispering conspiratory over a plate of tonkatsu. Deal with them, and you can deal with anything .) 

 

“I had to put him in there so he didn’t try to climb on the table again.” Mitsuba responds, a half-truth that has Kou glaring from where he’s making his best attempt to melt into the beanbag. 

 

“Invite him over again, I want to meet him properly.” Yukie says, and Kou grins like he’s got a kilowatt bulb stuck behind his teeth.

 

Mitsuba groans.

 

-

 

He spends the next few days lounging around his room, watching TV shows, eating fruit his mom left in the fridge, and ignoring the heavy, terrible thing which sits above the broken camera on his desk. Denial is the first stage of grief, and Mitsuba doesn’t have any intention of experiencing the other four. 

 

He doesn’t start his summer homework (summer is long-gone, no matter what the weather might think) and Kou sends him small, sad smiles from the corner of the room.

 

Kou also sends Mitsuba bright, larger-than-life smiles from over his shoulder, trailing around the kitchen after him. The sort of expression that makes him look alive and wild and brilliant, and kind of makes Mitsuba want to lock him in the bedroom so he doesn’t have to look at him. He smiles like he means trouble, but not too much trouble- a kid with a baseball bat who would shatter every window in Mitsuba’s bedroom, then apologise for the mess. 

 

(He’d be a good subject for a photo if he could sit still for longer than two seconds at a push. Or, if Mitsuba’s own ego would allow it.)

 

“Lame-ass earring pervert.” Mitsuba calls him, when Kou offers to help him pack his school bag for the next day- after watching him struggle with the zipper for five minutes. Kou smacks him in the side for the insult, snatches the bag off him, and closes it with ease.

 

-

 

It takes the teacher walking into the room and acknowledging Mitsuba with a curt greeting for his class to notice that he’s back. For some foolish reason, Mitsuba had expected a change- that people would finally realise what they were missing in his absence, and he’d step into the room to find people lining up around the classroom to say good morning. He knows it’s wishful thinking- Mitsuba has never done a single thing to stand out since middle school, and it’d take more than a few weeks of absence to change that. 

 

Nonetheless, it hurts to realise just how irrelevant he’s become. 

 

It’s not that he hasn’t tried- he’s spoken up in class and kicked up a fuss during group projects and tried to do things the Mitsuba way all over again. He sees now that it hasn't made a difference at all. He pulls his laptop out of his bag, and the class turns to face him in some giant, unspoken ‘ oh, he hasn’t been here?’ 

 

He types up his work because writing with his left hand is no easy feat, and wonders, low and heavy, if it would make any difference if he had died that night. It’s a small, venomous thought that sits upon his shoulders through the duration of maths class, and makes concentrating on work he’s already behind in all the more difficult. 

 

Would they finally feel his absence? Would they stand up at his funeral and lie that they were friends, that Mitsuba Sousuke was a good person who was gone too soon? (Would they even remember him?)

 

Satou from the front row answers an equation on the blackboard, and Mitsuba cuts that thought off before it can begin, or he might just cry to the scrawl of chalk against board. He focuses on the numbers instead, staring until Satou’s neat writing turns incomprehensible. Maths is hard, but there’s worse things to think about.

 

-

 

Thankfully, accompanying Mitsuba to school isn’t a part of Kou’s attempts to remember what life as a human is like. He does, however, meet him just beyond the gates afterwards, standing against the fence like a delinquent or a jilted lover, waiting for his true love to return. Mitsuba assumes that must make him the cruel sweetheart who left him behind.

 

“I’d never date you, even if you paid me.” Mitsuba tells him preemptively- he’s too cute to be tied down, after all. He’d just embarrass anyone who tried. 

 

Kou grins. “You’ve got a terrible personality, so I wouldn’t date you either!” 

 

The thing between them is some bizarre middle ground between friends and associates in a grand terrible deal which took place one cold September night. It’s a strange game of push and pull, where Mitsuba insults Kou (rightfully so), Kou hits back (also, rightfully so), and then Kou smiles with all his teeth on display, as if he’s discovered a part of himself that he had forgotten existed. Rinse and repeat. They walk along the road, and the thing tips more towards friends. Kou talks animatedly about streets he might just remember, and Mitsuba keeps his voice low in case he’s not quite visible. 

 

There’s a cafe that they walk past, one which Kou claims he remembers just a little. He wraps a hand around Mitsuba’s wrist and pulls him through the door before he can protest that he has lessons to catch up on, barely any savings left, and that he still hasn’t started on his summer homework.

 

“Summer is long gone!” Kou tells him, and Mitsuba thinks that he’s at risk of withering under the force of his enthusiasm.

 

He orders for one, because he’s learned the hard way that Kou doesn’t actually need to eat, but the milkshake that’s placed on the table in front of him has two straws stuck into it and a heart-shaped biscuit embedded in a mountain of whipped cream. A subtle ‘ have fun on your date’ that makes Mitsuba squirm in his seat.

 

He shoves both straws into his mouth before Kou can get any ideas. 

 

“This jog any memories?” Mitsuba asks around the straws. (He’s not about to take any chances.)  Kou glances around, from the lights to the cakes in the display case and the odd trinkets lined up along the window. He hums, curious.

 

“How mad would you be if I said none at all?” He then asks. Mitsuba kicks him under the table, and hopes that’s enough of an answer. 

 

In the daylight, Kou just looks like any normal boy- rowdy, enthusiastic, terribly dressed. In the daylight, Mitsuba can play into an imaginary world where they’re school friends, where he doesn’t have to check if Kou is visible before talking out loud, and that he doesn’t sometimes disappear at night, only to come back looking as if there’s a lifetime of sadness living in the back of his eyes.

 

He told Mitsuba one evening that he doesn’t need to worry about any of it, and Mitsuba never brought it up again. He hopes he never has to.

 

“So you admit that you just brought me here because you wanted to go to a cafe with a cute boy?” He pushes, because that’s what he’d say if they were friends. “I bet you’ve been fantasising about this all day.”

 

“Speak any louder, why don’t you.” Kou hisses, and- Mitsuba thinks- that sounds like fighting talk.

 

So he raises his hands to his mouth in a makeshift megaphone, takes a deep breath, and- 

 

“This ugly-earring perv has been fantasising about-”

 

Kou clamps a hand over his mouth, not even trying to be gentle. Mitsuba struggles and positively shrieks into his palm, and he wonders if this is what having a proper friend is like.

 

“You’re terrible,” Kou berates, releasing Mitsuba on account of the cafe patrons shooting them strange looks across the tables. “Awful. The worst-”

 

“But you’re still hanging out with me.” Mitsuba says. But you’re still trying to be my friend.

 

“But I’m still hanging out with you.” Kou replies, smiling again.

 

Later, he’ll realise that a dead-boy trying to make friends with a dying-boy sounds like the setup for a bad movie script. For now, though, Mitsuba will just offer Kou a sip of his milkshake, because just maybe, he’s not all that bad. Not if he can take the Mitsuba way of doing things by the horns, and still say I’m hanging out with you with the certainty of someone who will still be hanging out with him for the foreseeable future.

 

“You know I shouldn’t try to eat or drink stuff.” Kou stares down at the milkshake through sad eyes.

 

“Come on,” Mitsuba insists, and the irony is almost enough to make him laugh. “Live a little.” 

 

Kou snorts, one part disbelieving and one part amused, then picks up the glass.

 

-

 

The beanbag in the corner of Mitsuba’s bedroom has gone from simply being the beanbag, to being Kou’s beanbag. The thought makes it permanent, that he’s here to stay.

 

-

 

Tsukasa is waiting to ambush Mitsuba by the door of his classroom. For someone who once crept up on and caught a bird in the school yard with his bare hands, Tsukasa still doesn’t seem to have got the stealth thing down quite right. He keeps leaning around the doorway impatiently, and even when he’s hiding behind the frame, Mitsuba can still see the toes of his shoes peeking out. 

 

He slides his laptop into his bag, excruciatingly slow. Dealing with Tsukasa is an ordeal that’s as terrifying as it is disturbing, and Mitsuba doesn’t want to face it while Sakura isn’t around to play damage control. Tsukasa lurks. Mitsuba pretends that he didn’t actually want to get his lunch out of his locker, anyway.

 

It takes Tsukasa exactly a minute and a half to get bored of waiting. He sidesteps in through the doorway, marches over to Mitsuba’s desk, and slams the palms of his hands down on the surface with a resounding smack. Mitsuba cringes as almost every head in the classroom turns to stare at them.

 

Then they see Tsukasa, and look away as fast as possible- par for the course.

 

“Who were you hanging out with by the gates yesterday?” Tsukasa asks, hands still bracketed on either side of Mitsuba’s desk. “With the funny earring.”

 

He looks curious, ready to sink his teeth into something. Mitsuba just hopes that something isn’t his arm, or maybe his laptop. If Tsukasa wants to sink his teeth into Kou, then Mitsuba supposes that’s just his problem to deal with. 

 

“Just a friend from another school.” Mitsuba lies. He likes to think it sounds convincing- he and Kou have practiced this, after all. Spinning a tale about how they met, a false backstory that should just about be believable, so long as nobody probes too deeply. 

 

Tsukasa grins in a way that says I know something you don’t. Another huge, dreadful secret. The unsettling kind, said before leaving a hospital room to get lemonade- not the weird kind where he pulls a mouse out of his pocket right after. Mitsuba suppresses a shudder. 

 

But two can play a game of secrets, so Mitsuba doesn’t tell Tsukasa that he knows a grim reaper boy named Amane who shares his face. 

 

“Are you just gonna stare at me all creepy, or do you actually want something?” Mitsuba shrinks back in his chair. Tsukasa has been staring at him a bit too long, with eyes that look almost like they’re made out of the same stuff as glow-in-the-dark stars. 

 

“Maybe,” He says, straightening up again. “Maybe not!” 

 

He goes to sidestep around the desk, and instead walks face first into Yokoo from the front row. Yokoo almost drops his lunch on the floor. Tsukasa blinks like a cat, then skips out of the classroom without a second thought. Mitsuba wants to sleep for a week. 

 

“I don’t get why you hang out with him, Mitsuba-kun,” Yokoo says, after ensuring that his food is in no further danger. His lunchbox has a boat printed on the front of it, as does his bag and his gym shirt. “He’s so weird.” 

 

Mitsuba tries really hard to put his words in the right order. “I don’t hang out with him- I’m an unwilling participant.” 

 

At that, Yokoo laughs. He’s got a loud laugh, one that Mitsuba would normally call obnoxious- but Yokoo has kind eyes and fluffy hair and he kind of looks like a golden retriever puppy which hasn’t yet realised it’s too big to sit in people’s laps any more. Mitsuba has always wanted a puppy, because dogs are one of his favourite animals. Mitsuba thinks he might, just maybe, like Yokoo.

 

Satou from the front row then approaches, asking if Yokoo wants to eat the tomatoes out of his lunch because he doesn’t like them. Yokoo leaves with a friendly see you later, Mitsuba-kun. 

 

Realistically, that’s how all of their conversations go. A few polite sentences, Mitsuba forcing down the urge to check if Yokoo’s hair is as soft as it looks, then a see you later which never actually happens. He decides that he’s too cute to be dealing with any of this, and heads to his locker to retrieve his lunch. 

 

Tsukasa is still standing, right at the end of the corridor. Mitsuba doesn’t even know which class he’s in, nevermind if he has any friends of his own. He avoids eye contact, and Tsukasa doesn’t move an inch.

 

-

 

Denial is the first stage of grief. Mitsuba thinks he’s getting pretty comfortable with it.

 

-

 

Mitsuba makes it to mid-October, before an offhand comment from his homeroom teacher brings every bit of his comfortable avoidance crashing to the ground.  

 

It’s raining outside- the weather has finally given up on summer and unleashed an October storm which has persisted for three days straight, and Mitsuba’s shoelaces are wet from where they came untied on his walk to school, and he didn’t have anyone to do them back up for him. Though, in a few days, he switches out his cast for a somewhat more portable hand brace- a small mercy which will make life a little easier. 

 

He considers investing in some velcro shoes, if this is what the future looks like. 

 

His homeroom teacher walks into the room, and drops a stack of pamphlets about the pros and cons of university onto the front desk. 

 

“I know it’s only second year,” He says, to the echo of groans throughout the room. “But this stuff creeps up on you and hits you like a sack of bricks. It’s best to start thinking about it early.”

 

And it’s that which knocks the floor to ruins under Mitsuba’s feet. 

 

Mitsuba wanted to study photography. He’d go to university, meet new people, make a name for himself, and come out of the other end with an esteemed  job on the right side of a camera. That’s not going to happen any more. There’s a countdown over his head that ticks forwards to next September, and then nothing more. He can hear chatter from the desks around him, discussions of a future that his classmates will receive, and he will not. 

 

It’s a heavy, terrible weight to bear.

 

“Mitsuba-kun, what do you think you’re gonna do after school?” Yokoo from the front row pipes up, with his soft-looking hair and his golden retriever eyes. He leans over the back of his chair, and Mitsuba thinks he might cry. 

 

There is no ‘after school’ here. He thinks.

 

“Sorry, I think I’m gonna throw up.” He says out loud, and bolts out of the classroom door before anyone can see the tears in his eyes.

 

He locks himself in a cubicle in the third floor girl’s bathroom, because it’s been out of order for the past two years and everyone knows that it’s one of the only places in the school to get any privacy. It’s also said to be haunted, but ghosts are the least of Mitsuba’s worries.

 

It feels like someone has kicked him in the chest, and broken every one of his ribs clean in two. The feeling of grief is back, except this time, instead of a knife, it’s a thirty-five inch longsword that skewers him through the chest. Puncturing a lung on the way, and maybe his heart too. He sits on the closed lid of the toilet, sobs into the sleeves of his cardigan, and thinks that maybe dying that night would have been less painful. A kinder, quicker fate. 

 

The bathroom is quiet aside from a steady drip from one of the taps and Mitsuba hopes nobody comes looking for him- he doesn’t know how he could explain any of this to a person who isn’t Kou. Every time he tries to stop crying, to catch his breath and dislodge the sword that sits painful and unwieldy through his chest, it just makes it worse. Loud, angry sobs that stick in his throat and aren’t cute at all. Not in the slightest. 

 

He can’t even say that he has one year left any more- September is long gone, and October is well on its way too.

 

“I don’t think people ever realise just how tough it is, to know that you’re going to die.” A voice comes from the next stall along, and for a brief moment, Mitsuba wonders if the bathroom actually is haunted. Then he realises that the voice sounds like Tsukasa, but at the same time not like Tsukasa at all. So it must be Amane, sitting in the third stall along, for some reason.

 

“What are you doing here?” Mitsuba manages to ask, watery and punctuated by a heavy sniff. 

 

“I’m here to tell you that the boy made a mistake- but I’m guessing you’ve figured that out for yourself by now.” Amane says, his voice muffled slightly by the cubicle wall between them. The boy being Kou. The mistake being Mitsuba sitting here, still alive.

 

“Are you gonna take my soul now, then?” Mitsuba asks. It sounds nothing like the defiant statement it should be. “Because I really don’t want to die in a school bathroom.” 

 

Amane lets out a laugh that doesn’t sound much like a laugh at all. “I couldn’t even if I wanted to- you’re Kou’s responsibility now. I can’t lay a finger on you,” He pauses, and the barometric pressure between the stalls seems to rise till it’s nearly suffocating. “I can give you advice though- you have a chance here that not many of us got. I sure didn’t, and the boy didn’t either. Don’t waste it.” 

 

He sounds bitter and exactly as young as he looks- just another kid who got robbed of his future. Just like Kou. Just like Mitsuba.

 

“What would you do? If you got the same chance?” Mitsuba leans his head against the cubicle wall. The running and the crying and the surprise of Amane showing up in the third floor girls bathroom has taken all the energy out of him. 

 

Amane hums. “I guess, I’d do all the really dirty-” 

 

Mitsuba yells and cuts him off before he can say anything more. He’s starting to have doubts about the credibility of Amane’s advice.

 

“Take this seriously!” He sobs, and tries to stop himself from crying all over again.

 

“Just do all the things you want to do,” Amane says through the wall, once he’s finished cackling. “Make new friends, enter a competition, go swimming in a lake or something. You get one final year- better make it count.” 

 

‘The rest of us weren’t so lucky’ says the cold, terrible thing sitting above the stalls. And then, Amane is gone. 

 

Mitsuba emerges from the cubicle, peers into the mirror, and tries to make himself look presentable. Combing through his hair with one hand, wiping away tears with the sleeve of his cardigan, plastering on a smile which will hopefully distract from the way his eyes look exactly like he’s been crying in the girl’s bathroom for the past half an hour. He steps into the classroom in the middle of English class, ducks his head in an apology, and slides back into his seat.

 

“You okay?” Yokoo leans over the back of the seat again. He looks worried, and Mitsuba kind of likes the attention. It distracts from the thirty-five inch sword made of grief that punctures clean through one of his lungs. (He knows now that it must have missed his heart, because it’s still beating- fast.)

 

“Yeah,” He whispers back. “I think my mom tried to poison me over breakfast.” 

 

Yokoo laughs, and the teacher tells them to be quiet, which only makes him laugh harder. Outside, three days into a mid-October storm, it stops raining. 

 

-

 

On the way home, Mitsuba buys a notebook.

 

It’s small and unassuming, a plain front cover and neat lines inside, and he knows it’ll tuck nicely out of view into the drawers beside his desk. His shoelaces fall untied into the puddles when he steps out of the shop, and he wonders when Kou will show up, because he could use the help with tying them again. 

 

Back in his room, he pulls the notebook out of his bag, slaps a bunny sticker on the front for good measure, and starts to write a list. 

 

One final year- better make it count. He scrawls Amane’s words onto the top of a page in the middle of the notebook, handwriting sloping messily with the pen gripped in his left hand. He knows for a fact that typing would be easier, but this- the bad handwriting and the empty notebook- just feels correct. 

 

Win a photography competition - the first item reads. He’ll need to get a new camera for that, but he knows that, if he can’t go to study photography, then he’ll just have to make an impact with his work in another way. He’s been told he’s good enough to win more than once- that he has an eye for the unusual that gives his photos an extra something . He hopes that something will be enough to leave an impression.

 

Make new friends - says the second. He wants to get to know someone who isn’t Tsukasa, and who will spare him more than a few polite words and a See you later, Mitsuba-kun that will never actually happen. Preferably someone who isn’t already dead.

 

Then Kou is back in his beanbag, out of breath and frowning to himself. Mitsuba doesn’t know how he got into the room, or how long he’s been sitting there watching him with eyes that have lost some of their electricity. 

 

“Don’t worry about it!” Kou tells him, in a way that lets Mitsuba know he should probably be worrying about it. He doesn’t suppose it’s easy, telling people that they’ve died, that their time is up. He wonders, distantly, just how many awful things Kou has seen under that bright smile of his. 

 

“What’re you doing?” Kou asks, peering up from his beanbag.

 

“I’m making a list,” Mitsuba hesitates, then counts from one to three and back down again. “One of all the things I want to do before I die.” And there it is. He said it- out loud. 

 

Aside from Kou blinking twice in surprise, nothing changes. It hurts just as much as it always did, and the ceiling does not come shattering down to crush him. Mitsuba has said a lot of words in his life- before I die is just another three.

 

“That’s a good idea.” Kou smiles, and he doesn’t look quite so sad any more. 

 

Mitsuba wracks his brain for all the things he’s ever wanted to do before, then cuts out all of the unrealistic ones- he doesn’t think he has the time to become a superstar, or to graduate university, or to go to space and take photos of the asteroid belt. Kou makes suggestions too, detaching himself from the beanbag to crouch by the side of the desk, but Mitsuba tells him firmly that all his ideas are dumb. 

 

It’s a painful thing to write- a checklist counting down the days of his final year- but it’s also the most cathartic thing he’s done in a long while. He eases that longsword from his chest, and though the wound bleeds and aches and may never heal properly, he thinks he can learn to live with it. 

 

The final list covers three pages, on account of Mitsuba’s wobbly, sloped handwriting. From sleeping under the stars, to planting flowers in the park, to learning how to drive a motorcycle, it makes things feel final, but complete. Kou looks over the list once, then once again, and tells Mitsuba firmly that he’s going to make sure that it’ll be the best year he’s ever known.

 

With the amount of determination Kou puts into it, Mitsuba can’t help but believe him.

 

“Why’d you cross that one out?” Kou then asks, pointing at the last line on the list. Get a boyfriend, with one big, wobbly line struck through it. 

 

“‘Cause I’m never gonna be able to find someone as cute as me in the space of a year.” Mitsuba tells him, resolutely.   

 

Kou stares like he wishes he could die for a second time. Mitsuba laughs loud, open and genuine for what feels like the first time since he woke up on the pavement with Kou sitting next to him.

 

-

 

Mitsuba’s cast is removed at the hospital days later, and he gets shipped through more tests and X-rays than he can count before his hand is wrapped back up and packaged into a tight-fitting brace. It’s just as hard to move in, but it’s sleeker than the cast and his cardigan sleeves can fit right over the top of it. He can hide the bulk of the brace from view, and there’s something about that which gives him an unexpected hit of confidence.

 

The next day at lunch, Mitsuba gets out of his own chair, and sits himself down next to Yokoo and Satou from the front row. 

 

“Can I sit here?” He asks, after he’s already got half of his lunch unpackaged onto the table. Satou nods in a way that looks more bemused than angry. Yokoo grins at him, wide and bright, like Kou’s smile but without the sharp teeth in the way. Yokoo slides his natto across the desk and into Satou’s lunchbox while he’s distracted. 

 

Mitsuba knows from experience that the polite way of doing things won’t get him anywhere. If Kou can tolerate the Mitsuba way with barely any complaint, then, just maybe, everyone else can learn to as well. 

 

(If he’s only got one year left, then he wants to spend it as himself. )

 

So he reaches out, and helps himself to a mouthful of fried potatoes from Yokoo’s lunch. He turns to him, cheeks stuffed with food, and tells him; “I’m cute so it’s allowed.” It’s what he’d say to his mom, to Kou, to the friends he kind of wants Yokoo and Satou to become.

 

Yokoo stares at Mitsuba like he’s grown an extra head. Satou looks from Yokoo, to Mitsuba, to the potatoes that are now missing a bite, and then almost topples out of his chair from laughing. Yokoo yells that it’s not funny stop laughing, but he’s on the verge of collapsing into giggles too. Mitsuba tells him the potatoes tasted good, and Yokoo does laugh so hard he topples out of his chair. 

 

Satou mentions something about homework, and he and Mitsuba have to talk Yokoo through a sheet of chemical equations due next period. Mitsuba gets another mouthful of potatoes as payment. Satou finds the natto in his lunchbox and swears he doesn’t remember putting it there- something which Mitsuba manages to stay quiet about for a total of ten seconds before selling Yokoo out. 

 

It takes him way longer to eat his lunch than usual, but when the teacher for chemistry class walks into the room, he doesn’t want the break to be over, for once. 

 

This time, there’s no See you later, Mitsuba-kun. This time, Yokoo swears he’ll get him back for the natto when he least expects it, and Satou declares Mitsuba a partner in crime against Yokoo’s picky eating. 

 

As he walks back to his desk, Mitsuba feels satisfied.

Chapter Text

Kou has yet to give up on his habit of waiting for Mitsuba by the school gates every afternoon, always found perched by the fence with his hands in his pockets and a smile on his face. For once, Mitsuba hopes nobody else can see him- or they’ll start to talk. If rumours are going to spread about Mitsuba’s love-life, then he’d prefer it to be with someone a whole lot cuter than Kou.

 

“You’re, like, a three out of ten at best. ” Mitsuba tells him sincerely, as they take the long route home to avoid the road by the park. (Though his cast has been exchanged for a brace, and over a month has already passed, he’s still not ready to face it just yet.)

 

“That’s mean.” Kou pouts.

 

“That’s being generous .” Mitsuba picks up his walking pace, to avoid the swing Kou takes in his direction. 

 

True, there are some parts of Kou which aren’t the worst to look at. His eyes are bright and electric, and his smiles and boundless enthusiasm have the same infection rate as a winter cold. But, everything else- 

 

No comment, Mitsuba will say if he’s ever questioned. 

 

“So,” Mitsuba asks, while Kou takes the key to the front door out of his schoolbag by default. “What would you rank me?” 

 

Something about the question makes Kou choke on his own words, and he flushes red to the tips of his ears as though he’s been badly sunburned- if such a thing could happen in late October. “I mean, you’re cute,” He says, with more honesty than Mitsuba had ever expected. “But your personality kind of ruins it.” 

 

This Kou, who turns and grins at him from the doorway- Mitsuba doesn’t like him quite as much as the one who blushed and stumbled only seconds before. So he doesn’t justify this Kou with a response- just drapes himself over his shoulders, and asks him to make something to eat.

 

If there’s one thing Kou remembers about being human, it’s how to make some damn good food. 

 

“Make your own snacks.” Kou laughs, pushing Mitsuba’s face away with the palm of his hand. Still cold, even for October. Mitsuba thinks he might be getting used to it though, because he doesn’t shiver at Kou’s touch any more. He doesn’t dare think about how useful it will be during summer- one year is a very long time, and summer is an entire lifetime away. 

 

“What do you think you’re doing, putting your gross, cold fingers all over me?” Mitsuba struggles instead, like he’s not the one draped over Kou’s shoulders like a heavy, Mitsuba-sized cape. “Is it because we’re alone in here, huh? Do you think this is some sick opportunity to get your hands on me?” 

 

Kou turns to look over his shoulder, and those blue eyes filled with fireworks are suddenly far too close. Mitsuba tries not to blink. “Will you be quiet if I make you some pancakes?” Kou asks, unimpressed. Mitsuba snaps his mouth shut and nods, effectively placated. As much as he likes to kick up a fuss, and as much as Kou is bright enough to hurt, Mitsuba isn’t going to compromise the offer of home-made pancakes. 

 

He slides off Kou’s shoulders with a smile.

 

“Are we friends?” Mitsuba asks later, half-way into a sheet of English homework. Kou pours pancake batter into a pan, and for what feels like an eternity, only the hiss and crackle of frying food can be heard.

 

“I mean, I’d be a bit concerned if we weren’t, by now.” Kou slides a spatula under the pancake, flips it perfectly, and grins to the sound of it flopping back down into the pan. He’s got the sun behind his teeth when he smiles like that, and Mitsuba wonders how someone so dead can fit so much life inside them. He feels significantly like he’s falling behind. 

 

Wearing all of the life inside him on proud display is just the Kou way of doing things- selfless to a fault, laughing like he’s trapped fireworks in his throat, bull-headed enough to deal with whatever Mitsuba throws his way. Heart on his sleeve instead of kept safely behind his ribs, tucked between two lungs and one spinal column. The Kou way of doing things is new and unfamiliar and honestly kind of infuriating. So Mitsuba decides to give it a try. 

 

“You’re probably the first proper friend I’ve ever had,” He says, and admitting it out loud feels like he’s ripped out his own front tooth. He doesn’t know how Kou says things so honestly, all with a smile on full display. “How sad is that- I’m dying, and my only friend is already dead.”

 

Kou stares at him for a long, uncomfortable eternity. The distance across the kitchen can’t be more than a few metres, but it feels like they’re a world apart. Mitsuba, tipping on a precipice, and Kou, already at the bottom. Then-

 

“I’m still Kou,” He doesn’t look at him, but Mitsuba can feel Kou’s presence in every corner of the room. “You’re still Mitsuba. What does it matter if we’re dead, or alive, or somewhere inbetween?” Kou’s words hang heavy, until he slides the pancake onto a plate and crosses the eternity between them in five quick strides. 

 

“It’s kind of overcooked on one side.” Mitsuba complains, prodding at the pancake with the end of his pencil. Kou mimes hitting him over the head with the frying pan. Unspoken between them; one giant, breathless yeah- what does it matter?

 

-

 

“Who’s the boy that keeps meeting you by the school gate?” Mitsuba glances up from his lunch, and thinks despairingly that history might be repeating itself. Only this time it’s not Tsukasa that asks, it’s Satou, sliding the tomatoes out of his lunchbox and into Yokoo’s. 

 

“What boy?” Yokoo asks around a mouthful of natto that took Mitsuba and Satou’s combined efforts to convince him to eat. He blinks, eyes owlish and curious, and Mitsuba stages a boxing match with Kou in the back of his mind- as payback for only ever being visible at the worst possible times. He K.O’s the imaginary-Kou with a punch to the face, right as Satou leans in across the desk.

 

“He’s got blonde hair and he wasn’t wearing a school uniform- he looked kind of scary,” He describes, and then a grin creeps onto his face that wouldn’t look out of place on a shark- minus all the teeth. “Mitsuba-kun, you seemed to get along pretty well with him, though.” 

 

“He’s just a guy from another school I met at the hospital,” Mitsuba cuts in, telling the same story he told Tsukasa weeks ago. “We hang out in cafes sometimes because he doesn’t have anything better to do.” 

 

They also hang out in side-streets, Mitsuba’s bedroom and the bench outside the convenience store near the swimming pool, but Satou doesn’t really need to know that. Yokoo definitely doesn’t need to know that. 

 

There’s a brief moment in which Yokoo looks like he’s putting two-and-two together, staring intensely into his natto as if it holds a grand cosmic secret somewhere amongst the soybeans. He achieves enlightenment around ten seconds into the staring contest. “Oh! Are you two-”

 

“We’re not dating,” Mitsuba cuts him off before he can say another word. Yokoo looks like a golden retriever and his hair is exactly as soft as it looks, and Mitsuba probably wouldn’t mind dating him. Kou also looks kind of like a golden retriever- but one that probably has fleas. Mitsuba would very much mind dating him. “Never in a million years. Not a chance-”

 

Yokoo takes the opportunity to dump the remaining half of his natto into Mitsuba’s lunchbox.

 

“No take-backs.” He grins, not a single chipped tooth in sight. 

 

-

 

There’s a camera sitting on Mitsuba’s desk.

 

Not the old, broken one that looks like an apology- a new one, or at the very least a well-loved second hand one. It sits whole and undamaged on his desk, propped up on top of the notebook with the bunny sticker slapped on the front. Mitsuba feels his heart do a backflip.

 

His socks skid on the wooden floor as he runs into the kitchen, and his mom looks up in surprise from where she’s trying to haphazardly shape onigiri by the sink. 

 

“Did you buy me a new camera?” Mitsuba asks in disbelief, because the thing sitting on his desk is of a way higher spec than his old camera, and he doesn’t even want to know how much it must have cost. 

 

If his mom looked surprised before, then now she looks positively bewildered. “No, I didn’t, why-”

 

Mitsuba runs back out of the kitchen, almost crashing into the wall as his socks struggle to find purchase on the floorboards. The camera is still sat on his desk, sleek and professional, the sort of equipment Mitsuba has always dreamed of owning. Kou is in the room this time he enters, spilled out into his beanbag, but he sits up sharp and excited when Mitsuba steps in through the door. Mitsuba stares at him, and feels slightly like the world has been kicked out of orbit. 

 

“Did you steal this?” He asks, straight to the point. The expression that passes across Kou’s face is horrified

 

“No! I’d never-” Kou stops talking to haul himself out from where he’s being swallowed up by the beanbag, moving to stand beside Mitsuba. In the low light of the room, the edges of Kou’s limbs are surrounded by a faint halo, looking far from alive. A cats-eye glare that shrouds his entire figure and spills over into Mitsuba’s too, making him look half-dead in the process. “I collected the soul of an elderly lady who was a photographer before she retired,” Kou explains. “She said she wouldn’t mind if her camera went to a new home once she was gone.”

 

Kou tugs on his earring in the way Mitsuba has learned he always does when he’s unsure or nervous- light-splintered fingertips curled around the kanji for traffic. He doesn’t say it, but Mitsuba can hear him asking for approval in every slight gesture he makes. 

 

“Thanks, Kou-kun.” Mitsuba says, honest as he can bear. Then, he lets the tears that gather in the corners of his eyes speak for him. They’re genuine this time, not the crocodile tears he knows he can force out to get a reaction when Kou shoves him or runs down the street after a cat and leaves Mitsuba behind. He hopes that Kou can tell the difference. 

 

“I said it was gonna be the best year ever, didn’t I? You can’t win a photography competition if you don’t have a camera.” Kou says, as if it’s just what any normal person would do. 

 

Then, Kou does the unthinkable- with cold hands that glow behind the closed curtains, he lifts up the edge of his jacket and wipes Mitsuba’s tears away. Slow, deliberate, smiling in a way that doesn’t quite show off his teeth. Mitsuba stares, and Kou folds his hands away into his pockets, as though he’s been caught stealing.

 

The air feels heavy.

 

“Is this a love confession?” Mitsuba then asks, a nervous laugh caught in the back of his throat. (It’s just Kou- stupid, overenthusiastic Kou- why does he suddenly feel like his bones are too big for his body?)

 

“You’re so full of it.” Kou pushes back. The kilowatt smile returns, burning out any semblance of softness that was there before, and Mitsuba wonders if he imagined it in the first place. He turns on the ceiling light, cradles the camera to his chest, and Kou looks painfully human all over again.

 

Once more, the air is breathable.

 

-

 

Learn to drive; reads one of the items on Mitsuba’s list of things to do before he dies.

 

He brings it up over dinner, half-way through eating one of his mom’s better attempts at onigiri. “Do you think I could get driving lessons?” He tries to ask it casually, but his mom blinks three times in quick succession, like the question has come completely out of nowhere. 

 

“You’re too young to drive.” She then laughs.

 

“I’m old enough to ride a motorcycle,” Mitsuba continues. He’s somewhat planned this conversation out over the course of the afternoon, but whether his argument is sound enough to convince his mom is another matter entirely. “You can do that once you’re sixteen. D’you think I’m not sensible enough?”

 

Yukie laughs. “That’s up for debate. I’m just surprised- it’s not something you’ve ever mentioned before.” 

 

Mitsuba always believed that he’d have time for driving and other adult things once he’s done with university and set loose into the big wide world. Now- he doesn’t have the luxury of waiting. “Someone in my class started lessons a few weeks ago,” Mitsuba lies, and it feels strange to keep such big secrets from his mom. It feels even stranger when she simply accepts it, usually the first to know when Mitsuba has something on his mind. “It got me thinking.”

 

“Now, there’s a first,” She teases, reaching across the table to mess up Mitsuba’s hair. “Don’t you think you’d be better off waiting? Your hand hasn’t even healed yet.” 

 

The thing that has followed him since he woke up in the hospital is not quite an elephant in the room, because elephants don’t drape themselves heavy and suffocating amongst the light fittings, or make Mitsuba feel like there’s a part of his body that no longer belongs to him. He stares into it, and swears he feels it staring back. 

 

“I want to do it now,” Mitsuba then says, tearing his eyes away from it. “Getting into that accident made me think about just how easy it is for things to go wrong- I don’t want to wait for stuff to come to me any more, because one day I might not have the chance.”

 

Although it’s only an omission of the truth rather than a lie, Mitsuba feels terrible. His mom complains to him about her co-workers and lets him know all the stupid mistakes she made as a teenager, and in turn, Mitsuba is as open and honest as a sixteen year old boy can be. Lying to her face about something so huge and terrible feels like a breach of trust in the worst possible way. It crushes each of his lungs when she smiles across the table at him.

 

“Grasping the bull by the horns, huh?” Long gone is the teasing note to her voice, exchanged for something soft and nostalgic. You grew up, didn’t you? It asks, wordlessly. “I guess it would stop me from having to shuttle you back and forth to your photography trips.”

 

“So, you’ll let me have the lessons? I’ll take bathroom cleaning duty for a whole month if-” Mitsuba starts.

 

“Sousuke, you wouldn’t even last a day before you came complaining to me that I’m putting you through child labour,” Yukie jokes in response, then smiles that same, soft smile once again. “Wait until we find out how much movement your hand is going to have once the brace is off- it’d be no good if you learned to ride one-handed only to find that you can actually use both.”

 

Truthfully, Mitsuba had expected more of an argument- he’d prepared a list of reasons Mitsuba Sousuke should ride a motorcycle, but he hadn’t even needed to go past the second bullet-point. Taking life as it comes- he thinks his mom might know a thing or two about that. “Thank you, you’re kinda the best.” He says, as open and honest as a sixteen year old boy can be. 

 

“Aren’t I?” Yukie leans over her plate of slightly wobbly onigiri, conspiratory. “Anyway, us Mitsubas have always looked pretty cool in leather jackets.” 

 

-

 

Kou’s beanbag has slowly made its way across the bedroom floor, until he’s sitting right next to Mitsuba at his desk, peering over the homework and assignments Mitsuba has buried himself in. He’s three coffees deep despite not actually liking the taste, and outside there’s hailstones bouncing off the window in rhythmic thuds that are as distracting as they are unsettling. It’s November already, but his teachers finally caught on to the absence of his summer homework, and he’s still behind on the work he missed in the few weeks he was in hospital. 

 

“You’d think they’d be nice and let me off the hook- I mean, come on,” He gestures at the air with the brace that still traps his hand, immobile. “I’m damaged, wounded , how could they be so cruel to me?”

 

“I could help if you wanted?” Kou then offers, sitting a little straighter. He’s got that earnest smile on his face again- the one which Mitsuba hates, because it’s so selfless that it makes his eyes hurt. 

 

The nice thing to do would be to tell Kou that it’s fine, that his support is more than enough. But Mitsuba would like to actually get some sleep at some point, so instead he heaps a pile of maths papers in front of Kou, tosses him a pen, and tells him to get a move on. The nice thing be damned.

 

Mitsuba works through a short essay on insect respiratory systems, while Kou scribbles down answers to maths equations with surprising confidence. The hailstones fall outside, but indoors, it’s unexpectedly cosy. Even with Kou’s cold presence beside him, the warm glow of the desk lamp, the blanket around Mitsuba’s knees and the coffee cup tracing steam-patterns in the air is enough to make him feel warm inside and out. It may be November, but perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing after all.

 

Kou slides the sheet of equations back across the desk in what must be record timing. Mitsuba wonders briefly if Kou is some sort of undiscovered genius, despite his lightning-struck hair and slightly untamed appearance. Then he notices that most of the answers are very clearly wrong.

 

“Are you trying to sabotage me?” Mitsuba turns to face Kou, unimpressed. “I don’t think you got a single one of these correct.” 

 

“I’m not very good at maths.” Kou explains- like that’s not glaringly obvious. Mitsuba groans, and five different mis-spellings of tracheae laugh at him from his laptop screen. Kou prods him gently in the arm “Do you want me to get you another coffee?” He asks, in the same way a person might give an apology, or a peace offering.

 

Mitsuba thinks he might shake out of his own skin if he drinks any more caffeine. Still, there’s something about Kou’s offer that makes it impossible to say no, so he nods in affirmation. “There’s decaf in the cupboard by the fridge.” He tacks on, for the sake of his beauty sleep.

 

He’s three corrected tracheae mis-spellings into his essay when it hits him in the chest that oh, it’s already November. He’s two months into his final year, and here he is, doing summer homework at midnight while hailstones pour down from the clouds outside. Wasting his time away. So far, all he’s achieved is getting Yokoo and Satou to tolerate sitting with him at lunch, and learning that to mention the words one year left won’t bring the world crashing down around him. It just aches, in a way that he no longer tries to ignore. 

 

Kou pushes his way back into the room with a mug-full of coffee- a latte this time, topped with a dusting of cocoa powder. Some other skill Kou must have remembered from when he was alive. Though he doesn’t even know his own family name, Kou can recall a lot of other things in its place- like how to make coffee and the best way to remove a stain from a carpet.

 

“I’m wasting my time.” Mitsuba tells Kou, as he places the mug down gently on the desk- next to Mitsuba’s left hand, so he doesn’t have to reach across to pick it up. 

 

“Huh?” Kou hesitates before he sinks back into the beanbag, and he has the nerve to sound confused.

 

“I’ve already gone through two months, and everything’s still just as normal as it's always been,” Mitsuba prods at his laptop keyboard, backspacing through an entire paragraph that didn’t turn out quite right. “I was hoping things would change- I haven’t exactly been living an exciting life before now, y’know.” 

 

The expression Kou is wearing is expectant, as if he’s waiting for something. Too impatient to hang around for the red light at crossings, but somehow tolerant enough to want to hear every one of Mitsuba’s complaints. It’s an unspoken promise- that although Kou may not understand, he’ll do his best to try.

 

“I got bullied as a kid,” Mitsuba starts with a sigh. “I was loud and girly and kind of eccentric, so I was a pretty easy target,” Kou hums, as if that somehow explains things, and Mitsuba hits him in the arm as hard as he can manage. “Don’t act like that makes it fine! I tried to tone myself down in middle school, but nobody spared me a second glance any more. People didn’t dislike me, but nobody was my friend either.” 

 

“What about the two guys from your class that you started hanging out with?” Kou asks. Then, quietly- “What about me?” 

 

“Yokoo-kun and Satou-kun are nice, but they’ve been friends since they were babies- I’m just kind of tagging along,” Mitsuba turns to look at Kou. He’s lying with his head propped up against the side of the desk and he’s staring right back at him with eyes that hide fireworks somewhere behind the irises. “And you’re just some pervert with a car-crash fetish who lives in my beanbag. I tolerate you at best. ” 

 

At that, Kou laughs. “I don’t think you ever had to tone yourself down, you know- kids are mean, but you’d have found people who can put up with your terrible personality eventually. You’ve still got time to find them.” 

 

“Not with the way this biology essay is going,” Mitsuba tries to joke, but it falls flat- crushed against the carpet below his feet. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to make up for sixteen years of lost time.” 

 

“You don’t have to make up for anything,” Kou then tells him, still leaning against the side of the desk, still bright and brilliant as he steals a corner of Mitsuba’s blanket to pull over his own legs. “If you can’t fix something, then just make something new to replace it.” 

 

Mitsuba looks down at him, and finds that he doesn’t quite know what to say- as if Kou has knocked the words clean out of his chest.

 

“We can start tomorrow,” Kou continues. “How about a photography session in the park? I’ll even model for you.” 

 

“You’d be the worst subject ever,” Mitsuba laughs, so he doesn’t have to admit out loud that it sounds like a good idea. “Anyway, there’s a storm going on out there- you want me to catch a cold?” 

 

Curled up with his legs tucked under one corner of Mitsuba’s blanket, Kou lets out one of his rarer, softer smiles. “Tomorrow is a new day.” He says.

 

Tomorrow is a new day.

 

-

 

Sure enough, at some point during the night, the storm ends. Mitsuba wakes up late, stretching out his legs and working his way through the gentle physiotherapy exercises designed to try and retain some movement in his hand, before he straps it into its brace for the day. Kou is nowhere to be seen, abiding to the rules about staying out of Mitsuba’s bedroom while he sleeps, although Mitsuba is certain that he’ll show up soon enough.

 

“I’m going to take photos with Kou-kun in the park,” Mitsuba announces while he fixes himself a quick breakfast. “Don’t make lunch for me because I’ll eat while we’re out.” 

 

“Stay safe, okay?” His mom comments from the dining table, and there’s something a little heavier than usual behind it. Last time you went out to take photos, you almost came back without a hand, he reminds himself before he decides to make a fuss. 

 

“Kou-kun is weird enough to scare off any errant vehicles, I’m sure,” He jokes, but lets his mom press a gentle kiss against his forehead anyway. Outside, the doorbell rings- one, one-and-a-half, two times- in a pattern that speaks Kou’s name without Mitsuba even having to see him. “Speak of the devil.” 

 

He collects his camera, drops the lens cap into his bag, and heads outside. 

 

“I’m glad you’ve finally got your human act perfected- I was running out of excuses for you materialising in the middle of the kitchen.” Mitsuba says, as he pulls the front door shut behind him and hands Kou his keys so he can lock up before they leave. Despite the clear skies, it’s a cold day and Kou looks significantly out of place, arms covered only by the lightweight jacket and t-shirt he’s always worn. Mitsuba wonders if he died in spring or summer, but he doesn’t have the words to ask.

 

Instead he sighs, unwinds his scarf and tosses it squarely at Kou’s chest. It misses- he’s throwing with his left hand, after all- but the end still catches him in the face as it sails cleanly over his shoulder, so Mitsuba classes it as a victory. “You’re gonna get weird looks if you walk around in the cold wearing only a light jacket- put that on and spare me the embarrassment.”  

 

Kou holds the scarf in one hand like it’s something that’s alive and has teeth- before he wraps it tightly around his neck. Mitsuba does not cast a quick glance over his shoulder to see how it looks on him. 

 

The road down the side of the park looks different in daylight. Streetlamps don’t slice up the shadows, and the houses don’t mount upwards into a star-filled sky. The cars that roll down the road all stick to the speed-limit, passing by slowly underneath the trees. Mitsuba plays with the velcro strap of his brace, picking at a stray nylon fibre that curls from the material. 

 

“We don’t have to-” Kou starts, tugging on his earring. Nervous.

 

“I’m making something new.” Mitsuba echoes Kou’s words from the previous night, hits him hard in the arm with the side of his brace, and takes off running down the road as fast as his legs will carry him.

 

Nothing happens. No cars swerve onto the pavement, all of the garden walls are whole and undamaged, there’s no bloodstains on the pavement or bits of metal thrown from one end to the other. It’s just another road, with just another row of houses, and just another bad memory held within it. Every road in the city must have the worst moment of someone’s life contained within its streets. This one just happens to be Mitsuba’s.

 

Kou catches him before he can reach the park gates, curling ice-cold fingertips around the sleeve of Mitsuba’s coat with a laugh that splits through any bad memories left in the air overhead. The road by the side of the park might have set the scene for the worst moment of Mitsuba’s life, but now, he also has this. He has Kou laughing, himself protesting foul-play, and the leaves dripping with melted hailstones in the November air. 

 

Mitsuba raises his new camera, balanced against the brace on his hand in a way he’s practiced too many times in the comfort of his room, and takes a photo of the melting ice as it rains down from the treetops right onto Kou’s head. A memory he’ll leave behind, of a dead-boy and a dying-boy, making something new. 

 

“If you’re not visible right now, I’ll push you in the lake.” Mitsuba tells Kou firmly- just to avoid getting too sentimental. That wouldn’t be any good. 

 

Mitsuba takes pictures in every corner of the park, of the ducks on the lake, the falling late-autumn leaves, the water droplets clinging to the last stubborn flower petals by the side of the path. He crouches in the grass and takes photos of a Shiba inu puppy that takes a liking to his shoelaces and tries to bite Kou in the hand, then spends ten minutes chasing after a crow that hops along the fence-posts by the edge of the park. 

 

“Feeling better?” Kou asks, smiling as if he already knows the answer.

 

“Only because you’ve been quiet.” Mitsuba quips back, and hopes Kou can tell he means so much more than that. 

 

There’s a cafe at the edge of the park which they shelter in when the rain starts up again- cold, unforgiving and looking like a promise of an early winter. Mitsuba orders lunch, Kou does anything but order lunch, face pressed up against the window in a way that Mitsuba hopes leaves red marks all over his nose as punishment. He then goes to explore, citing that he might remember something if he looks around. Mitsuba watches him go, and begins to think that the possibility of Kou ever remembering something from the life he lived before may be wishful thinking on both of their behalves. 

 

“Look at this,” Kou announces, depositing something on the table in front of Mitsuba. A flyer, for a local junior photography competition. Submission deadline; one week’s time. “You should join.” 

 

Win a photography competition- says item number one in Mitsuba’s list of things to do before he dies. He picks up the flyer.

 

-

 

Mitsuba’s return to photography also spells his return to the photography club. Unfortunately, a return to the photography club also means he’ll have to deal with Tsukasa again, so he brings Kou along for moral support. He trails behind Mitsuba, who plugs in his earphones and pretends he’s making a phonecall to avoid any assumptions that he’s talking to himself. 

 

Kou relegates himself to the corner of the clubroom, while Mitsuba brings up the competition to the supervisor and takes a trip into the darkroom to develop the pictures from their trip to the park a few days ago. It’s difficult with just one hand, so he recruits the help of one of the other club members- a university student whose name he doesn’t quite remember, but who seems more than happy to add his photos into her own batch. It’s therapeutic being back in the darkroom amongst the low lights and the smell of acetic acid. Everything always feels more okay than it really is when Mitsuba finds he can’t see much beyond his own fingertips. A narrow focus on the world around him, filtering out everything aside from the trays of developing photos and the hum of the lights. 

 

He’s long since learned that denial helps nobody- but to forget for a while doesn’t feel like such a bad thing.

 

The photography club is packing up when Mitsuba steps squinting out of the darkroom. Par for the course, at three minutes to six, the door swings open and Tsukasa marches in. The packing up efforts seem to become a little more urgent, and Mitsuba can tell not much has changed.

 

Tsukasa’s line of sight falls not upon Mitsuba, but directly over his shoulder, right towards where Kou sits on one of the benches unseen. He stares right into Kou, and Kou stares back, frozen to the spot.

 

“Mitsuba, what-” Kou manages to choke out, before Tsukasa’s expression slides into something dangerous and lined with teeth, and he strides right over. Mitsuba briefly considers how long it would take to scramble out of the nearest window. 

 

“Who’s your friend, Mitsuba?” Tsukasa asks, but he’s not looking at Mitsuba at all. Kou sits like a deer caught in the headlights, frozen in the path of an oncoming truck that has no intention of hitting the brakes. 

 

Salvation comes in the form of Natsuhiko, jerking Tsukasa back by the collar of his jacket as if he’s a badly behaved dog rather than a very scary kid with a very scary expression. Sakura follows Natsuhiko in, and Mitsuba makes a beeline to hide behind them. 

 

“I’m really sorry about him.” Sakura says with a duck of their head, but they’re not looking at Mitsuba either.

 

He feels the distinct urge to bury his head in the ground outside, or maybe to scream. 

 

“Mitsuba-chan, want to help set up the broadcasting room?” Natsuhiko calls from where he’s got Tsukasa tucked under one arm, once again limp and doll-like. Mitsuba is glad that at least one person is acting normally

 

“Sure.” Mitsuba agrees, against his own better judgement. Kou has his feet tucked up on the countertop like he’s scared Tsukasa is going to crawl underneath him and bite his ankles, and he shakes his head vigorously at the same time as Mitsuba nods. 

 

Mitsuba thinks he maybe should have mentioned Tsukasa earlier. Prior warning is usually an essential when it comes to dealing with him, after all. 

 

He goes through the motions of setting up the microphones and broadcasting equipment alongside Sakura, while Natsuhiko keeps Tsukasa entertained somewhere outside. November sweeps onward, so the light outside is already beginning to fade by the time the broadcasting room is set up. Summer suddenly feels like a very long time ago. 

 

“Can we talk, at some point?” Sakura speaks up right as Mitsuba is about to leave, a sense of not-quite-urgency lying in wait under their usual neutral expression. “Not now, but soon.”

 

Normally, Mitsuba would make a ridiculous comment or accusation, something that would make any other person roll their eyes or contemplate throwing something at him. But Nanamine Sakura is not any other person , and Mitsuba’s antics have never worked on them in the slightest. And so Mitsuba nods, and leaves the broadcasting room with one more question than he entered it with. 

 

“See you soon, Mitsuba-chan!” Natsuhiko calls across the room. Mitsuba kind of hopes that he doesn’t see Natsuhiko at any time at all . He’s harmless, mostly, but Mitsuba is happy with being an only child his entire life- the acquisition of an irritating older brother figure is the last thing he needs. 

 

“Say hi to Amane for me!” Tsukasa calls cheerily as they leave, and Mitsuba feels autumn turn to winter all around him.

 

-

 

“Amane mentioned a brother, once,” Kou tells him on the walk back home, and his voice feels hollow. “A twin who shared his face and made looking into mirrors feel wrong.”

 

Mitsuba doesn’t look up from the surface of the road. “Tsukasa is alive, though.” Is all he replies.

 

For a long while, there’s silence. Mitsuba thinks it might just start to snow.

 

Then Kou laughs, shaken and empty- hardly a laugh at all. “Are you sure about that?”

 

He isn’t.

 

-

 

“I had siblings too,” Kou is still sitting in his beanbag even though it’s past midnight, but Mitsuba can’t yell at him for breaking the rules because he’s not sleeping, and Kou isn’t touching any of his stuff. “A brother and a sister.” He continues.

 

“And you only just remembered this now?” Mitsuba asks through the darkness of his room, trying to force as much annoyance into his words as possible. Kou isn’t the one who has to get up early for school, after all. 

 

In the slither of moonlight that cuts in through Mitsuba’s curtains, he sees Kou shake his head. “I’ve always known. They’re the reason I’m here.” 

 

Mitsuba gets the impression that here is in a grander sense, not just his beanbag in the corner of Mitsuba’s bedroom. There’s a fond, painful lilt to Kou’s voice, and Mitsuba wonders just how much he misses them. 

 

“Why couldn’t you just tell me this in the morning?” Mitsuba questions, feigning annoyance to cover up the fact that he’s never been more curious in his life. Because here is a piece of Kou that isn’t just kilowatt smiles and good cooking and grim-reaper duties. Something new.

 

“I took this job so I could stay on earth and watch my siblings grow up,” Kou whispers it like a secret into the corners of Mitsuba’s bedroom. Then, his voice falls quiet, afraid. “Amane took it to get away from his.”

 

Mitsuba wonders if he left his window open, because it suddenly feels far too cold for November.

 

-

 

In a startling turn of events, Yokoo and Satou ask Mitsuba to hang out with them outside of school. In a second, even more surprising turn, he finds himself being added into a groupchat with them- cool people (and Yokoo) reads the chat title, and Mitsuba almost chokes on a mouthful of rice. 

 

“Satou keeps bullying me on our friendship-dates, so I’m bringing you for moral support, Sousuke.” Yokoo tells him, both shoes balanced on a football under the table. The first names- those are new too. 

 

“It’s not bullying if it’s honest!” Satou quips, then drags Yokoo into a poor attempt at a headlock. 

 

Over time, Mitsuba has learned that Satou has a mean streak alongside being the calm, model student who always has the right answers in class, and that, for all he appears cheerful and relaxed, Yokoo takes his sports very seriously indeed. Mitsuba hopes, deep in his chest, that they’ve discovered new and likeable things about him too. ( What’s not to love? He reminds himself firmly.) 

 

Whatever it is they found, they obviously like it enough to invite Mitsuba on a Saturday afternoon trip to a cafe in the town center- the one that Mitsuba visited with Kou a long while ago. Their group chat gets discretely renamed to cool people (including Yokoo), and Kou hangs out in the corner of the room while Mitsuba stresses over what to wear. 

 

“Just wear what you normally do.” Kou tells him, like he’s in any place to give fashion advice. 

 

Mitsuba tells him as such, tacking a lame-earring insult onto the end of it, before throwing on a cardigan and pulling out the hair-tie keeping his ponytail in place. Hair down, a cardigan with sleeves long enough to cover the brace he’s required to keep on his hand, a fluffy coat with ears on the hood. A twirl in front of the mirror to confirm that he looks cute enough, then out of the front door. 

 

The blast of cold air that hits as soon as he steps outside has Mitsuba wishing that he never gave his scarf to Kou in the first place.

 

Yokoo and Satou are already waiting in the cafe when Mitsuba hurries in five minutes late, followed closely by a trail of fallen leaves that cling to his shoelaces.

 

“We were starting to think you wouldn’t show up!” Yokoo laughs when Mitsuba falls into the seat opposite him with a sigh. 

 

“Looking this cute takes time, you know.” Mitsuba reminds him with a grin, and hopes that his hair isn’t tangled from the wind outside. He runs a hand discreetly through the back, just to make sure.

 

“Your coat looks so soft,” Satou comments, reaching across the table to pat at Mitsuba’s arm. “I’m almost jealous.” 

 

“Wait till you see this-” Mitsuba pauses, then flips the hood up to show off the ears. Yokoo laughs, delighted.

 

“That’s so cute- you have to let me try it on later.” He taps his hands on the tabletop eagerly, grinning in that excited puppy way of his. No chipped teeth or sharp canines. Mitsuba thinks, a few weeks ago, if Yokoo had called him cute so unabashedly then his heart would have turned itself inside out inside of his ribcage. He wonders what changed to stop Yokoo’s smile from seeming quite so overwhelmingly bright. 

 

“If you get it dirty or anything then you have to buy me a new one.” Mitsuba reasons, and pushes his thoughts aside. He can dwell on such things later- now, he’s here to have fun with his friends. 

 

“Can we order now?” Satou then interjects, impatient enough that it makes Yokoo laugh all over again. “I’ve heard great things about the cakes here, and I feel like I’m being left in suspense.”

 

Mitsuba orders another milkshake and a strawberry cake that’s pink enough to match, hoping to get some photos on his phone to make his mom jealous with. Yokoo gets iced tea despite the cold weather, Mitsuba swears that he’s never going to speak to him again, and Satou snaps a picture of the two of them bickering that he promises to send to the chat later. And though his worries that he’s just tagging along are still all too present, Mitsuba feels like he belongs.

 

“Hey, mind if I join you?” Someone falls into the chair beside Mitsuba. He turns, and there sits Kou, Mitsuba’s scarf around his neck, electric-shock hair entirely untamed, and, from the exclamation of recognition Satou lets out, completely visible.

 

“Hey, you’re Sousuke’s friend- the one from the school gates!” Yokoo catches on a second later than Satou does, almost knocking over his iced tea as he gestures in Kou’s direction. Sat between their two larger-than-life grins, Mitsuba thinks he might just pull up his hood and hide in it for the foreseeable future. Glancing from Yokoo to Kou, Satou seems to have the same idea.

 

Mitsuba turns to Kou in what he hopes is a silent, angry what are you doing, but he receives nothing in response aside from Kou’s usual smile. Mitsuba kicks him under the table, hard.

 

“So, are we going to get an introduction?” Satou questions, prodding at his cake.

 

Mitsuba lets out what he hopes is a heavy, very audible sigh. “This is Kou, he won’t tell me his family name and he also won’t leave me alone for longer than, like, a day. My cute face has turned him mad and now he can’t get enough of me.” 

 

This time it’s Kou’s turn to aim a kick under the table. 

 

“You’re awful. I’m just being nice and giving you your keys back because you forgot to take them with you.” Sure enough, he drops Mitsuba’s keys onto the tabletop, bunny keyring and all. Kou’s mouth twitches up into an expression that almost looks smug, and Mitsuba decides it doesn’t suit him one bit.

 

“Okay, you’ve given them to me, you can go now.” Mitsuba tries to shoo him out of the chair, because Kou has seen the worst of him, and he doesn’t need Satou or Yokoo knowing that those parts of him exist.

 

“Well he’s here now, he might as well hang out with us too!” Says Yokoo, the traitor.

 

-

 

“I don’t have a phone.” Kou admits, when they try to turn the group chat into cool people (including Yokoo and Kou). Yokoo stares at him like he’s grown an extra head. Mitsuba lies that Kou’s family is just really, scarily traditional.

 

“I see him pretty much every day, unfortunately- I can relay messages to him.” Mitsuba offers, and feels significantly like two worlds have collided right before his eyes. The Kou world of firework eyes and long nights and the beanbag in the corner of Mitsuba’s bedroom, and the Yokoo-and-Satou world of uneaten natto and chemistry homework and Satou’s killer headlocks. 

 

He can’t yet tell if the impact is a good thing.

 

-

 

“Why’d you decide to show up then, of all times?” Mitsuba asks later, after Yokoo has tried on his coat and they’ve split the bill equally despite Satou’s order taking up almost half the total cost. They’re walking home, cutting through the sidestreets like usual, except it’s not like usual because Mitsuba now has one friendship group, instead of one friendship group plus Kou. 

 

Kou shrugs, and his breath doesn’t cloud in the air in the same way that Mitsuba’s does. “If this is gonna be the best year ever, I figured that having to juggle time with me and with your school friends would ruin it a bit.” 

 

Mitsuba laughs. “Who says I want to spend time with a lame traffic-safety earring pervert who-” 

 

“Plus, it’s part of our agreement anyway,” Kou cuts him off, and it’s a shock to the system, because he hasn’t brought up the Deal in a very long while. It feels almost insignificant now- the thought that there were always two sides to the bargain they made that cold September night. “If I’m going to remember stuff about being alive, then what better way to do it than by hanging out with people who are very much alive?”

 

It’s that which pushes Mitsuba to voice a question that has been eating away at the back of his mind for a very long time. “How come nobody recognises you?” He asks, standing suddenly very still in the middle of the pavement. “You said you were from around here- there’s got to be somebody who knew you when you were alive.” 

 

“People who knew me when I was alive can’t see me,” Kou also stops, but doesn’t turn around even as he speaks. It feels like he’s hiding something. “It’s why I’ll never be able to talk to my siblings again, or tell my old school friends that I’m doing okay, or let the lady at the convenience store know that I once stole a bouquet of flowers from the stand outside and never paid for it.” There’s something lonely and fragmented at the back of his throat, and Mitsuba doesn’t like the way it twists in the corners of his words. Kou is not meant to be sad, or lost or alone. 

 

“Hey-” Mitsuba starts, but finds that he couldn’t even conjure up the words to say if he tried.

 

“It’s also why the lady at the till in the cafe thought the three of you were talking to an empty chair.” Kou jokes, and only then does he turn over his shoulder. He’s grinning, but none of the usual spark is there. A sad, dead, lonely grin that makes Mitsuba’s heart ache.

 

So he doesn’t kick Kou in the shins, or yell, or call him names. He slides his fingers between Kou’s- palm to cold, dead palm- and holds on tightly the whole way home.

 

-

 

Yokoo’s aptly named friendship-dates become a weekly thing. They hang out in cafes to escape the cold, huddle under one too-small umbrella at the bus stop, and swear that one day they will play laser tag together despite never actually making plans to do so. Yokoo slides his phone into the middle of the table to show how the wind at the beach knocked his grandparents’ boat clean on its side, and Mitsuba tries to replicate it by recruiting Kou’s help to tip Yokoo out of his chair. Satou bakes cakes and pastries and mumbles something about a stressful assignment, so Mitsuba ruffles a hand through his hair in the way he’s seen Yokoo do many times before.

 

Before he knows it, they’ve become a unit- Yokoo and Satou and Mitsuba and Kou- whose regular orders all the local cafes remember. 

 

November fades into December, the days grow shorter, and Christmas lights begin to paint the streets in colourful constellations that make Mitsuba want to bring his camera every time he sets foot outside after dark. He’s all too aware of the passage of time- he’s over three months into the year, and the wound through his chest cut deep by a longsword made of grief has not yet healed. But his days are filled with Kou sprawled out in his beanbag like he owns the place, Yokoo and Satou’s lunchtime food trading ring, and window-shopping for clothes they’ll never be able to afford at the weekend. And for now, it’s good enough.

 

It’s difficult not being able to tell them that he won’t be around come next September. That, while he plays pretend and acts like forever is something tangible, this year is all he has left. He could talk to Kou about it, but Kou is already dead- so he wouldn’t understand either.

 

And so it’s just Mitsuba, and the heavy, dreadful knowledge that looms over him- sounding like car crashes and countdown timers. In some ways, he has found friends who like him, call him by his first name and invite him to hang out on the weekends. In other ways, he’s more alone than he’s ever been.

 

Then Yokoo invites them all over to his house, puts on a Christmas movie which turns out to be an eighteen-rated horror flick in the wrong box, and Mitsuba swears he’ll have nightmares for a week. Satou reminds them that they could just take the disc out of the player and go to find the right one. Yokoo just buries his face deeper into Mitsuba’s shoulder. It’s winter break, the forecast predicts snow in the foreseeable future, and though there’s a terrible secret between them which only he and Kou share, Mitsuba can’t think of a better way to spend his time. 

 

(There’s a jumpscare on the TV screen, and Kou squeaks like a broken door-hinge and clings to Mitsuba hard enough to hurt. He thinks he would have threatened to file for damages, if he wasn’t gripping back just as hard.)

 

-

 

Still, when he’s alone in his room, and Kou has been banished to who knows where, it eats away at him like a hungry beast with five layers of teeth.

 

It’s a terrible thing, to be aware that you’re going to die.

 

It’s a terrible thing, when you’re the only one that knows.

 

-

 

By the time they send him an email ( who still sends emails? ) in late December, Mitsuba had almost forgotten Sakura’s request for them to have a conversation some day. It’s a request to meet up at an obscure cafe on the edge of town, a place Sakura affirms that Tsukasa won’t show up at. And so Mitsuba finds himself perched in an ancient, western-looking building, with stained glass windows, fancy crockery and bowls with tiny sugar cubes on each tabletop. He looks significantly out of place, with his fluffy pink coat and trainers to match. 

 

Sakura pours him a cup of tea with steady, patient hands, each finger decorated with a different elaborate ring. Mitsuba considers asking where they bought them. 

 

“So, Nanamine-senpai,” Mitsuba starts with a nervous laugh, dropping a sugar cube into his tea- then another for good measure. “Any reason why you’ve brought me to the secret hideout of every classic goth in town?”

 

“I’m in a similar situation to you,” Sakura says, straight to the point, and the temperature in the cafe seems to drop by a few degrees. “Tsukasa isn’t alive- and I don’t know how much longer I will be here, either.” 

 

“Oh.” Mitsuba replies, because really, what else is there to say?

 

“You’re not often speechless,” Sakura continues, a tiny note of amusement in their voice despite the chill. “I guess it’s a lot to take in, to know that you’re not the only one. I assume it was the car accident in September, when you made a deal?”

 

Mitsuba nods, and takes a sip of his tea. The second sugar cube has melted in, and made it almost too sweet to bear. “How much longer do you have?” He then pushes. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows that it’s probably not appropriate to ask, but the chance to finally talk to someone who understands is too tempting to ignore.

 

“Until Tsukasa gets bored- his words, not mine,” Sakura pours themself a second cup of tea, while Mitsuba has barely started on his first. The stained glass from the window casts shifting light-patterns on their hair, and it makes them look almost inhuman. He wonders just how long they’ve been living in a place caught between life and death. “I don’t know how, or why, and I don’t wish to know either- but Tsukasa is very powerful. He’s been acting as a human for who knows how long, and I feel like I’m the one helping him, not the other way around.”

 

“Kou only got me a year.” Mitsuba replies, but he can’t say he feels jealous of Sakura’s situation. Kou may be brash, overenthusiastic and a little like staring right into the sun- but at least he’s not Tsukasa. At least he can hold onto Mitsuba by the sleeve of his cardigan, and call him a friend. 

 

“Make the most of it,” Sakura advises, and lifts the teapot to refill Mitsuba’s cup for him. “And if you need to talk, then don’t hesitate to find me.”

 

Mitsuba adds the right amount of sugar, this time. It feels like a weight has lifted from his shoulders, and he can breathe again.

 

-

 

New Year’s Eve arrives with a morning of snowfall, flakes twirling in through the apartment windows as Mitsuba and his mom clean the house with a vengeance- airing off bedsheets, sweeping away dust and making things clean for the upcoming year. Kou helps too, showing up at the door after spending the majority of the morning nowhere to be seen. He claims that his family is getting along fine without him, and from the small, sad smile on his face, Mitsuba can tell that he’s not just making excuses.

 

Mitsuba Yukie hands Kou a feather duster, and tells him to go wild. 

 

By the time they finish cleaning, the apartment is freezing and there’s snow melting on all the windowsills, so Yukie whips up three mugs of hot chocolate, cranks the heating up as high as it’ll go with a brief, despairing comment about energy bills, and dumps a big fluffy blanket onto Mitsuba and Kou’s heads. 

 

They watch a movie on the TV while Mitsuba makes arrangements with the cool people (including Yokoo) chat, relaying the details to Kou about their trip to watch the fireworks at midnight together. They’ve been planning it for weeks, trying to work around Yokoo’s trip to see his grandparents and Satou’s yearly post-midnight shrine visit with his family. Mitsuba has been looking forward to it since the moment Yokoo came up with the idea- he’s always spent the new year alone with his mom, huddled around a livestream of the Shibuya countdown, so a change of scenery as the years change is a welcome occurrence.

 

Still, he does feel a little bad for abandoning his mom to deal with a party of wine-drunk co-workers all night.

 

(There’s a part of him that knows this New Year’s Eve will be his last. That he’ll never crouch on the floor around a laptop screen in the dark and count down the seconds with his mom at his side again. It’s a small, bitter thought in the pit of his stomach, that he doesn’t want to spend his final New Year with her. Because he knows that he’d cry big, dramatic tears, have to hide in his bedroom, and he wouldn’t know how to explain why. Another bad memory, the kind of thing he doesn’t want to leave behind.)

 

“You two look real cosy over there.” His mom comments, nodding towards where Mitsuba’s head has found itself at home against Kou’s shoulder. They’re both swaddled head to toe in a fluffy blanket, and were it not for the bitter thoughts living in his chest, Mitsuba knows he would have fallen asleep by now. Kou, on the other hand, is wide awake- eyes glued to the terrible action movie playing on the TV.

 

“He’s actually very uncomfortable,” Mitsuba comments, and tries to pretend that something doesn’t dislodge in his chest at the teasing note to his mom’s voice. “You’ve gotta do better, Kou-kun.” He tilts his head to stare up at Kou, as unimpressed as he can manage. 

 

Kou looks like he’s deep in thought for once, electric eyes trained on Mitsuba.

 

“Okay.” Kou then says, and grabs each end of the blanket to cocoon Mitsuba up in it before he can even think to protest. Kou is laughing, his mom is laughing, and so, naturally, Mitsuba has to start laughing too.

 

It stops snowing at some point late in the afternoon. Mitsuba and Kou run down to the convenience store to buy packs of toshikoshi soba noodles to cook over the camping stove Yokoo promised to bring. On the way, Mitsuba dumps a handful of snow down the back of Kou’s neck and finds, to his horror, that he doesn’t even flinch at the cold. 

 

Before he knows it, it’s dark outside and he’s bundled up to his eyes in a cardigan, a coat and his scarf which he finally stole back from Kou. His bag is full of uncooked soba and his mom has handed him a torch that’s most likely bright enough to blind someone at close-range.

 

The bus ride to the base of the hills is a crowded one, most passengers on their way to the shrine- some dressed in traditional clothing, others in snowboots and winter-wear. Mitsuba and Kou take the other direction, heading for a small path that winds up the hillside towards an outcrop that Satou swears has the best views over the town that there is. It’s more of a scramble than a path, Mitsuba quickly finds, and he hands the torch to Kou because he still only has one hand to work with, and he’d quite like to avoid the embarrassment of falling in the snow- dark as it is. 

 

“Are you trying to kill me off?” Mitsuba heaves out a breath as he stumbles onto the outcrop to find Yokoo and Satou already huddled beside the camping stove, a heavy-duty picnic blanket rolled out to protect their legs from the remains of the snow. 

 

“Oh no, Sousuke is onto us!” Yokoo laughs, eyes bright in the firelight that dances around them. Mitsuba responds by tossing a pack of soba noodles that hits him square in the shoulder. 

 

Despite the difficulty of the climb up, Satou was not wrong about the views in the slightest. The houses below look like a sea of stars, strung with fairy lights that wink into the night and lanterns that bob in the lightest of breezes. Swaying, ebbing, flowing, a living town below their feet. It’s too cloudy to see the stars, but Mitsuba doesn’t think he needs them- not when there’s an entire world of constellations beneath them. Mitsuba decides he’d take this over the Shibuya countdown livestream any day of the year.

 

“Great, isn’t it?” Satou comments, leaning to warm his hands over the stove. “Yokoo and I come up here every year to watch the fireworks.” There’s something fond in the back of his voice, and Mitsuba is reminded of the fact that, for as long as either of them can remember, it’s always been Yokoo-and-Satou- childhood friends, middle-school friends, highschool friends. And now, somehow, Mitsuba has found himself a part of it too.

 

“Thanks for inviting us,” Kou replies, earnest and open enough to combat Mitsuba’s own inability to voice what he feels. “Both of us.” 

 

Satou smiles, and pats the space on the blanket next to him. “We’re all friends now, why wouldn’t we invite you?”

 

They’re such simple words, but they’re enough to make Mitsuba’s heart feel whole.

 

Satou brings out a bag of home-baked snacks to share around, Yokoo has a flask of some herb-based tea his dad sent him along with, and Mitsuba pulls out the rest of the soba noodles, reading the cooking instructions as Yokoo tries to bring a pan of water to the boil over the camping stove. Kou takes over with the noodles when Mitsuba almost pours the boiling water over himself and Yokoo, and Satou declares that they’ve got an hour and a half till midnight in the same voice he’d use to tell them that lunch time is almost over.

 

Up there on the hilltop, they eat toshikoshi soba to welcome the new year, the 108 tolls of the shrine bell begin to ring out into the sky, and the world below sways in time to the cold winter breeze. Beckoning on a year which will be Mitsuba’s last, but also feels like the first he has truly spent alive. 

 

Yokoo is the only one of them who can get a phone signal, so he brings up a countdown and lets the voice of the radio-presenter ring out into the night sky.

 

“Five,” It says, and Mitsuba joins in. “Four, three,” The first firework goes off, exploding into the night sky and filling it to the brim with shimmering colours that catch like starlight in Kou’s eyes beside him. “Two, one!” 

 

The fireworks start for real, then, shattering through the sky and turning themselves into a makeshift, technicolour galaxy that does more than replace the absent starlight. Kou drags Mitsuba into a hug, and in turn Satou and Yokoo join them with shouts of happy new year that get lost somewhere in the material of Mitsuba’s scarf. Four boys up the side of a mountain- two living, one dying, one long dead- and a sky filled with glitter that pops and fizzes and burns above their heads. 

 

From the shrine across the hills, the bell continues to ring. Each resounding strike feels like a first and a last rolled into one, and the fireworks swim suddenly before Mitsuba’s eyes.

 

“We’ve gotta do this again next year!” Yokoo comments, and it’s that which causes Mitsuba to break. 

 

There is no next year, he tells himself, as he freezes up beneath the warmth of Satou’s arm and Yokoo’s hands. There is no next year. He feels numb, his limbs no longer belonging to him as the bell tolls into the night and the fireworks stain the skyline pink.

 

“Sousuke?” It’s Yokoo who notices first, pulling away with a frown of concern. He catches sight of the tears clinging to Mitsuba’s eyelashes, and elbows Satou in the side to get his attention. “What’s wrong?”

 

Mitsuba can’t tell them. There are no words with which he can say that they are his first and last best-friends, and that next year is a concept which doesn’t exist. That Mitsuba Sousuke is a dying boy who has only just learned what being alive feels like. (It feels like fireworks and it tastes like toshikoshi soba and it sounds like 108 tolls of the shrine bell.) 

 

“Sorry,” Is all he says, but it barely comes out as words at all. “I’m really sorry.”

 

The bell strikes again- the final chime out of one-hundred-and-eight. Kou doesn’t let go of Mitsuba’s hand for a second.

 

-

 

It’s in January that Mitsuba finally gets to take the brace off his hand for good. 

 

He doesn’t know if it’s fair to call what’s left a hand any more- it can only grip things gently, it bends and straightens at slow, painful speeds, and the entire back is sliced by an angry-looking scar that makes him feel sick every time he looks at it. It’s still attached at the wrist, but it no longer feels like a part of his body. 

 

He’s sent away after another course of X-rays with a lightweight hand splint, some flexible finger supports and the knowledge that he’ll probably never hold a pen in his right hand again. He supposes his messy left-handed scrawl is here to stay.

 

At a red light on the way back from the hospital, his mom turns to him with a wry smile. “So,” She says. “How about those driving lessons?” 

 

-

 

The motorcycle Mitsuba starts learning to ride on is tiny and more than a little ridiculous-looking. He’s terrible at it at first, nearly crashes into a wall then cries when the instructor yells at him to watch where he’s going. He almost gives up after the first lesson.

 

But then, when he takes off down the street at a speed faster than he could ever run, he feels overwhelmingly free. Like, if he tried hard enough, he could go anywhere.

 

-

 

On the last day before winter break ends, Satou asks Mitsuba if they can meet, alone. 

 

It’s ominous to say the least, and Mitsuba wonders briefly if he should just not show up. Then Kou pipes up from the corner that he’s being paranoid, and that nobody will like him if he ditches them all the time. “If he kidnaps me to do weird things, I’m blaming you.” Mitsuba cautions to Kou’s form reclining in his beanbag, before he heads out into the January air.

 

“I’m going to get right to the point.” Satou says, when Mitsuba joins him on the bench outside the convenience store. There’s a takeaway coffee already sitting in his gloved hands, and his expression is entirely unreadable.

 

Is this a love confession, or a kidnapping plot? Mitsuba doesn’t reply, as much as he wants to.

 

“Do you have a crush on Yokoo?” Out of all the things Satou could have said, Mitsuba had not expected that. 

 

“Why do you-” He starts, confused out of his mind.

 

“Yes or no, Sousuke?” Satou cuts him off. Mitsuba turns to really look at him- ears red from not just the cold, hands gripping his coffee cup a little too tightly, eyes fixated on the ground below his feet and oh- oh.

 

“You like him,” Mitsuba replies, and the way Satou curls a little further into himself is enough of an answer. “You like Yokoo.”

 

Satou sighs, and the sound is so bone-achingly tired that it almost makes Mitsuba shudder. “If you have a crush on him, I’m not going to cut in and make a move, so I really need to know.” 

 

Mitsuba thinks about Yokoo. His hair is as soft as it looks and he smiles like a golden retriever puppy- and dogs are one of Mitsuba’s favourite animals. But Yokoo doesn’t have fireworks behind his eyes, his grin isn’t blinding to look at, and he doesn’t keep Mitsuba grounded when he cries. He’s a bit silly, he really doesn’t like soybeans, and him and Satou are perfect for each other.

 

“I had a crush on him, a while ago,” Mitsuba admits, with a smile he hopes Satou can see is genuine. “But, no offence, he was cuter before he started talking.” 

 

At that, Satou laughs out loud, a sharp, relieved sound that rings into the winter air. “You’re right about that,” He starts. “Thanks, Sousuke. We can both struggle with our crushes together.”

 

Mitsuba turns, confused. “ Our crushes?” 

 

“I mean, your crush on Kou-” Satou starts, nudging Mitsuba’s ankle under the bench as if he knows a secret.

 

“I don’t like Kou.” Mitsuba interrupts, because Kou is bright, loud, and has terrible taste. He also has fireworks behind his eyes, his grin is blinding to look at, and he keeps Mitsuba grounded when he cries in his room in the middle of the night. 

 

“Don’t you?” Staring over the rim of his coffee cup, Satou’s voice sounds like a challenge.

 

-

 

“I don’t like you.” He tells Kou when he steps back into his bedroom and pulls off his gloves. Careful with his finger splints as he goes. Kou hums, par for the course, and doesn’t once look up from the book he’s reading.

 

Mitsuba wonders if he’s lying to himself.

 

-

 

There’s an email sitting in Mitsuba’s inbox- subject line; youth photography award ceremony invite- and he almost knocks his laptop onto the floor in a combination of shock and delight that has his heart racing. He’d almost forgotten about the entries he’d submitted to the photography competition advertised in the cafe by the park, yet here he sits, an invite to the finals sitting in his inbox.

 

He buries his face in the sleeves of his sweater and screams. 

 

“Something exciting?” His mom asks, when he slams his laptop down on the table in front of her. He hopes the incomprehensible noise he lets out is indication enough. She scans over the email, then pulls Mitsuba into a hug that he thinks might have broken a rib or two.

 

“You’re squishing me,” He mumbles into her shoulder, trying his best to squirm free. “I’m gonna file a complaint.” 

 

“Good- you’re too talented,” Yukie laughs, and hugs him tighter. “I’ve got to squash you so you don’t end up overshadowing me.” Mitsuba groans, but gives in eventually, going limp in his mom’s arms to avoid the worst of the damage. When it comes to hugs from Mitsuba Yukie, struggling is futile.

 

“So,” She continues, once she’s decided that her son is free to breathe again. “Who are you taking to the award ceremony as your plus one?”

 

Mitsuba freezes. That part of the email he definitely didn’t see. 

 

He pulls up a chair to sit at the table, no point in going back to his room now. “I guess you could-” 

 

“Sousuke,” His mom stops him before he can say another word. “You’re not going to a fancy official award show with your mother as your plus one.” As far as moms go, Yukie is pretty cool- she lets Mitsuba wear what he wants, has a similar love of deserts, and rarely talks to him as if he’s just a kid who doesn’t yet understand how the world works. But she’s also his mom. She has a point.

 

“You’re right, that wouldn’t be cute at all.” He agrees. His other options are limited- he’d feel bad for asking Yokoo or Satou and leaving the other behind, Tsukasa would likely tag along for the ride if he invited Sakura, and the only other person he knows well enough is-

 

“Why don’t you take Kou?” Yukie asks, smiling sugar-sweet and devious across the tabletop.

 

“I’m not taking Kou-kun.” Mitsuba replies, terminating the conversation on the spot.

 

-

 

He takes Kou.

 

Yokoo is visiting his grandparents by the coast for the weekend, Satou has cram school, and Sakura poses too high of a Tsukasa-risk for Mitsuba to be willing to invite them. Leaving Kou as his only option. He expresses in great detail how displeased he is with the arrangement, as he descends upon Kou’s hair with a comb and finds that no amount of brushing can tame it into submission. 

 

The fact that Kou refuses adamantly to take off his earring just adds insult to injury. 

 

He’s wearing clothes that Mitsuba had to pick out for him- a blazer, a shirt and a clip-on tie that kind of makes him look like a bodyguard when framed next to Mitsuba’s own blouse-and-dress-pants ensemble. 

 

“I’d rather people thought you were here to fight off potential attackers than have them assuming that I’d ever take you anywhere on a date.” Mitsuba informs him right before they leave, with one final, futile sweep of the comb through Kou’s hair. It’s cold outside, winter still clinging stubbornly to the trees, so Mitsuba lends Kou his scarf again and pulls on his fluffy jacket to make up for its absence. 

 

The venue for the ceremony is a gallery in the next city along- one Mitsuba has visited many times before on both school trips and personal outings. The difference this time is that, somewhere behind the doors, it’s his photography that’ll be on display. The thought is enough to make an unsettling feeling of anxiety rise up in his chest- something Kou seems to notice, as he reaches down to tug gently on the sleeve of Mitsuba’s coat.

 

“You’re gonna win this thing- no doubt about it.” Kou tells him, with such certainty that Mitsuba almost believes him.

 

The viewing hall for the award ceremony is packed when Mitsuba and Kou step in from the cold- filled with people and chatter and muted music from a speaker system in the corner that adds a certain ambience to the room. Despite Kou’s comforting words, Mitsuba is still nervous enough that his hands shake in his pockets, so he makes a beeline for the buffet table in the corner, dragging Kou behind him by the end of his scarf. Eating his way through four bite-sized cakes does wonders for calming his nerves.

 

He finds his own photo hanging somewhere near the middle of the gallery hall. It’s an older picture, but one he’s proud of nonetheless- taken from the roof of the school by sunset. Birds sweep past the camera lens, some in focus, some blurred out of view, and the city skyline in the distance is painted in shades of rose-gold and post-rain silver. A world pulling itself out from a springtime storm, and turning to face a new day. Freedom, he had titled it, because that was how he had felt that day, struggling out onto the rooftop and watching the stormclouds split open. 

 

“I don’t really get it,” Kou leans over to tell him, after squinting at the photograph for what felt like an unnecessary amount of time. “But it looks pretty!” 

 

Mitsuba shoves him gently. “That’s ‘cause you wouldn’t know art if it bit you in the ankle.” He tells him, but he can’t help the way the bite slips away from his words. It’s hard to be bitter, when he stands in the viewing room of a gallery he’s visited since he was a child, and sees his own photo hanging there for the world to see. A piece of himself that he will leave behind in the memories of others, long after he’s gone. 

 

The Mitsuba Sousuke of September believed he would never make an impact. The Mitsuba Sousuke of January looks back over his shoulder, and tells him ‘ just you wait’.

 

To stop himself from tearing up in the middle of the gallery, he doubles back to the buffet table and steals yet another tiny cake. 

 

The announcement of the start of the actual award ceremony brings Mitsuba crashing back down to earth, and his nervousness amplifies tenfold. He pulls at the splints on his fingers harshly as he sits, anything to keep his hands busy. When Kou settles down next to him and links their fingers together between the seats, he doesn’t even try to pull away. Kou’s hands might be freezing cold, and Mitsuba might not want to associate with someone who thinks it’s a good idea to wear a traffic safety charm as an accessory- but Kou still keeps him grounded. He’s steadfast and unwavering, and that’s all Mitsuba needs. He curls his fingers around Kou’s as much as their limited movement will allow, and holds on tight. 

 

“Could they take any longer?” He whispers in conspiratory tones into Kou’s ear, when the welcome speech drags on for quarter of an hour. The quiet laughter that Kou lets out attracts more than a few dirty looks, and it takes all of Mitsuba’s composure to avoid laughing too. 

 

The presenter then finally moves onto the results, listing off names from a tablet placed on the podium that reflects in his glasses and ruins the impression he’s trying to give that he’s got everything memorised off by heart. Mitsuba tells Kou as such, only to stave off the nervousness that hollows out his stomach and makes him feel like he’s going to be sick. His name doesn’t come up, not in third or second or-

 

“First place in the landscape category- Freedom by Mitsuba Sousuke, for its unique angle and dynamic composition.” The presenter reads off the tablet screen, and for what feels like the first time in his sixteen years of life, Mitsuba is stunned into silence. 

 

He finds, all of a sudden, that he has forgotten how to move- maybe even how to breathe too. Then Kou is beside him and he’s grinning like he’s eaten a supernova- chipped front tooth, untameable hair, eyes filled with enough electricity to summon up a storm. “Told you so.” He says- as if he can predict a future that’s brighter than ever- before he plants the palm of his hand between Mitsuba’s shoulderblades and shoves him towards the podium. 

 

Slowly, Mitsuba re-learns how to walk.

 

“I won.” He tells Kou later, back by the buffet table. His entire body still feels pleasantly numb, in the aftermath of congratulations and prize money and the agreement that his photo will be displayed in an upcoming exhibit of local photographers. 

 

“Like your ego needed any more of a boost.” Kou laughs. I’m proud of you, the fireworks in his eyes say. 

 

“Do you want a photo with your plus one in front of your entry?” A photographer with an event staff badge then approaches them, gesturing over towards where Mitsuba’s photo hangs on the wall, now with a significant crowd gathered around it. 

 

He’s not sure if it’s happiness clouding his judgement, or the fact that Kou doesn’t look all that bad when he’s dressed up properly, but Mitsuba extends a hand to pull him to his feet. “Come on, lame-earring- I’ll be nice and let you stand next to me.” Kou takes his hand, and Mitsuba finds that he doesn’t want to let go. 

 

They pose in front of the photo, Mitsuba turns his head to an angle he knows makes him look the cutest, and nudges Kou slightly so his ridiculous earring isn’t in view. Kou squeezes his hand, cold and constant, and the camera shutter goes off one, twice, three times. 

 

“Huh,” The photographer frowns towards the screen of her camera. “That’s odd. Can we try that again? I think the pictures got corrupted.” 

 

“Oh, right.” When he speaks, Kou’s voice sounds hollow, empty and entirely wrong. His grip on Mitsuba’s hand slips away, and he’s pushing through the crowd towards the gallery door before Mitsuba can even think to stop him. The photographer looks bemused, staring from her camera screen, to Mitsuba, to Kou’s retreating back. 

 

Mitsuba is just as confused, because if there’s one thing Kou doesn’t do, it’s run away.

 

He jumbles out an apology, pulls on his coat, and runs after him.

 

By the time Mitsuba catches up to him, Kou is sitting on the steps outside of the gallery, knees curled up to his chest and Mitsuba’s scarf hanging loosely around his neck. He’s huddled so tightly against the wall that Mitsuba almost misses him and runs right past into the night- it’s only the sweep of car headlights catching in his unruly hair that gives him away.

 

It’s too cold to be sitting outside, but Mitsuba falls onto the stairs beside him.

 

“Sorry,” Kou says when Mitsuba sits down. His smile wobbles at the edges, so much that it doesn’t even look like a smile at all. Mitsuba wonders why he’s trying so hard. “For ruining the photos.”

 

Sometimes, Kou is so selfless that it hurts to look at him. Now is no different. “ That’s what you’re worried about?” Mitsuba responds, and forces down the urge to call him an idiot for being so stubborn. There is a time and a place, after all.

 

“Spending time with you,” Kou doesn’t look at him, instead staring past his knees at the places where his hands don’t look quite so human. “It makes me forget that I’m not alive. Here, I feel like I can do anything- like I never died at all.” 

 

Mitsuba has seen more sad smiles from Kou than he can count on both hands. He’s seen him sink onto the floor like the world has become too heavy for him to bear. He doesn’t want to know the number of terrible things Kou must have seen, escorting souls away by one cold hand. Still, Mitsuba has never seen Kou cry. 

 

There’s a first time for everything. 

 

Every time Mitsuba has cried, Kou has always been there- bringing words of comfort, questionable advice, and hands that are as steady as they are cold. Now that their roles have been reversed, Mitsuba doesn’t know what to do with himself. His body feels a little less like his own with every sniff that Kou tries to muffle- quiet, as if he’s used to hiding his own sadness behind smiles and bright, loud don’t worry about it s. 

 

So Mitsuba focuses on the facts- It’s cold, they’re outside, and Kou is crying.

 

Mitsuba shrugs off his coat, wraps it around Kou’s shoulders, and pulls him into a sorry excuse for a hug. His arms don’t end up in any of the right places and he’s shivering from the cold within seconds. But Kou melts right into him with a sigh, and all Mitsuba can do is hold him upright. Kou is not alive- his body is freezing, Mitsuba can’t feel him breathing against his neck, there’s no pulse-point beneath his wrist. He’s not alive- but what does it matter? 

 

He tightens his grip, and hopes it’s enough.

 

“If you even think about apologising, I’ll push you down the stairs.” He murmurs into the scarf around Kou’s neck, something which drags a tiny, sad laugh out of him. 

 

“You’d fall right down with me.” Kou replies.

 

“Maybe that’s a risk I’m willing to take.” Mitsuba unwinds his arms from around Kou and shuffles backwards so he can look him in the eyes. Even through his tears, his eyes still catch the light as if they’re made of glow-in-the-dark stars. His hair is even more unruly than usual, his shirt is creased, every car headlight that passes by traces the tear trails down his face. But Kou has never needed to pretend to be alive- Mitsuba thinks. He always has been. 

 

“Don’t worry about any of this,” Kou says once he’s finished crying, because he’s stupid and selfless and Mitsuba wants to fall into him and never let go. “I’ll be fine.”

 

“You don’t have to be, though,” Mitsuba watches him through the darkness; traces over every piece of him, from his earring to his chipped tooth to his bright, bright eyes. “You might not be alive, but you’re still human, idiot.”

 

Kou looks like he’s going to cry all over again. Mitsuba comes to the terrible conclusion that he might be in love with him.

 

-

 

Afterwards, Mitsuba catches a cold that puts him out of action for two whole days. Kou attones for being partially responsible by curling up with him on the sofa, fetching him warm drinks and making him soup for lunch. Mitsuba would rather Kou didn’t spend any time with him at all, not if he looks as rotten as he feels, but the attention doesn’t go unappreciated. 

 

Mitsuba calls him the worst armrest ever. Kou tells him that he’s even worse at sitting still than his little sister used to be, and she was only six. Despite his complaints, Mitsuba snuggles closer, and Kou runs his fingers through his hair in a way that almost makes him fall asleep on the spot.

 

“Get your dirty hands off me.” Mitsuba mumbles, half-hearted. It feels like there’s an entire hornets nest, living behind his ribcage.

 

-

 

It’s a horrifying realisation that Mitsuba likes a dead boy. He likes a boy who wears earrings inscribed with the kanji for traffic, who has terrible taste and a terrible smile and the brightest eyes Mitsuba has ever seen.

 

The worst part is- it doesn’t feel any different. Not a single thing has changed. Mitsuba wonders just how long he’s been lying to himself.

 

-

 

Kou isn’t waiting by the school gates for Mitsuba, and he’s honestly a little bit offended. He buys coffee from the convenience store on his own, takes the direct route home because the side streets aren’t fun without Kou chasing every cat he spots, and comes up with increasingly creative insults to make use of once he finds him again.

 

The reason becomes apparent when Mitsuba fumbles with the apartment keys, and opens the door to the sight of Kou and Amane yelling at each other across the kitchen. They don’t notice him standing there in the doorway.

 

“- Shouldn’t be getting so attached, boy,” The tail end of Amane’s sentence rings out from where he’s stood on one side of the table. “Don’t be an idiot.”

 

“Like you’re in any place to talk about getting attached!” Kou’s voice, desperate and angry, shouts back. A flicker of something unreadable passes across Amane’s expression, and Mitsuba feels distinctly like he’s stumbled upon something he’s not meant to be seeing.

 

“That’s why I’m mad at you- you’re making all the same mistakes I did, because you never listen!” Amane again, marching around the side of the table to grab Kou by the scarf wrapped around his neck. Mitsuba’s scarf , which may as well have become Kou’s scarf . Said in the same way as Kou’s beanbag and Kou’s permanent space in Mitsuba’s mind. 

 

“For someone who claims he doesn’t care, you’re getting pretty angry.” Kou responds, trying to struggle away, but something in his voice wavers.

 

“I don’t care about what you do, boy,” Amane’s voice is filled with a startling sort of finality. “But you’re dragging the kid into it too- stop giving him hope for something that shouldn’t exist.” 

 

“I-” for once, Kou seems at a loss for words. Mitsuba closes the door slowly behind himself, and steps back outside. It feels colder than it did before. It feels like he’s been trespassing in his own home. 

 

He knows he can’t go back, not until Amane is gone, so he heads in the direction of the cafe in town instead, settling into a booth by the window and ordering the largest hot chocolate he can afford with the change in his uniform pockets. He then pulls his homework out of his bag and settles for an impromptu study session- anything to distract himself from the unpleasant mix of concern, worry, confusion that sits in his stomach like the pit of a fruit he swallowed unwillingly. Mitsuba likes gossip perhaps a little bit more than the next person. But when two not-quite-grim-reapers are arguing in his kitchen, he knows it’s a better time than any to keep his curiosity to himself.

 

His hot chocolate is brought over to his table, and Mitsuba spots Kou across the other side of the cafe.

 

Except, it’s not Kou. This Kou is taller, older, has no earrings and sits up straight in his seat, none of the slouch that Mitsuba is used to. He’s got the same hair and the same bright eyes as he types something down on his laptop screen, but he’s not Kou, not in the slightest. Mitsuba stares across the cafe, homework forgotten on the table in front of him. 

 

The not-Kou turns over his shoulder, evidently catching onto Mitsuba trying to burn holes in the back of his head. He glares in a way that Mitsuba doesn’t think Kou could ever be capable of- bitter and angry and filled with malice, and Mitsuba almost chokes on his hot chocolate. The definitely -not-Kou turns back to his laptop screen.

 

Mitsuba likes gossip perhaps a little bit more than the next person. This is something he knows he can stick his nose into.

 

So he shoves his books into his bag, picks up his hot chocolate, and moves onto the table behind Not-Kou. The boy at the laptop sighs through gritted teeth, but doesn’t turn around. Now that he’s closer, Mitsuba can see that his hair is a little more well-tamed than Kou’s, he’s got a traditional-looking bracelet around one wrist, and he’s typing up what looks to be an essay on his laptop screen, a textbook open next to him. He cranes his neck to try and read the words on the screen.

 

“If you have something to say, then get on with it.” Not-Kou spins to stare at Mitsuba once again, and though his eyes are the same familiar shade of blue, they’re filled with ice rather than fireworks. Cold and cruel. Mitsuba topples backwards, almost falling right out of his seat.

 

“I’m sorry!” He squeaks, hiding his face behind his hands. “You can’t kill me, I’m way too cute to die!”

 

The boy at the laptop raises one eyebrow, sharp and unimpressed. He turns back to his essay without another word.

 

Mitsuba considers walking out of the cafe without even finishing his drink- he thinks he’d rather deal with Amane than this boy who looks like Kou but with ice for eyes and a cruel smile on his face. Instead, he pulls at one of his finger splints, and asks the question that’s been at the forefront of his mind since he spotted him across the cafe.

 

“Do you have a brother?” He calls across the table. Hands freeze over laptop keys, and Mitsuba wonders if he’s going to make it till September. “You just look a lot like someone I-”

 

Had a brother,” Not-Kou corrects, and his voice sounds like it's softened around the edges a little. Mitsuba is still terrified. “You’ve met him, haven’t you?”

 

“I-” Mitsuba doesn’t know what to say. When the boy turns back around, closing over the lid of his laptop once more, he just looks tired. Not dissimilar to when Kou shows up after a day of absence and tells Mitsuba not to worry about it- as though the weight of the world is his to carry alone. 

 

“My family dabbles in the supernatural- I figured that Kou wouldn’t pass on so easily,” Not-Kou says, as if that explains everything. “I’m Minamoto Teru.”

 

And like that, everything falls into place. 

 

Mitsuba remembers hearing the Minamoto family name once in passing- it was all over the local news, what can’t have been more than two years ago. That’s awful- Mitsuba remembers his mom saying, as she caught sight of the paper in the convenience store windows. An electrical fault, a fire, a child trapped in a burning building. The brave neighbour’s middle son, who ran into the blaze. The child who survived, and the boy who did not. An insensitive interview with a father who didn’t seem to care, and then nothing more as the next big story broke the following day. Mitsuba feels ill.

 

Stupid, selfless, ridiculous Minamoto Kou.

 

“I’m sorry.” He tells Teru. What else is there to say?

 

Teru scoffs. “No you’re not- you only just met me. Tell it to him , if you mean it.”

 

Mitsuba doesn’t think Teru likes him all that much.

 

“Do you,” He takes a sip of his hot chocolate, stalling as much as possible. “Do you want me to tell him anything? Like, a message or something?” It’s a foolish attempt to placate Teru, and all it does is drag up a bitter smile.

 

“I think he already knows anything I could want to say to him,” Teru admits. “Nothing ever got past Kou when family was involved.” There’s something knowing, hiding behind Teru’s words. Like he’s aware that Kou has gone unseen for a reason, and that there’s always an explanation for everything.

 

Mitsuba decides to take another chance. “Can I ask you something?” He says, quietly.

 

“If you must.” Rather than being angry, Teru just looks exhausted. So Mitsuba counts to three and back again, then-

 

“Do you think he knew? That he wasn’t going to make it back out?”

 

When Teru smiles a small, sad smile, he looks almost like Kou. 

 

“We didn’t even know the neighbours whose house it was that well. But that’s just what Kou is like- he’d sooner hurt himself ten times over than see someone else struggle,” Teru says, and Mitsuba wants to tell him that nothing has changed. “I think he knew he was going to die. That didn’t stop him, though.”

 

It’s a terrible thing, to know that you’re going to die- Amane once told Mitsuba from the other side of a cubicle in the third floor girls bathroom. 

 

And oh- Mitsuba thinks. Kou does understand.

 

-

 

By the time Mitsuba gets back to his room, Amane is long gone and Kou is sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, forgoing his usual position on the beanbag. He looks apprehensive, and there’s clearly something heavy on his mind. Mitsuba knows the feeling all too well. 

 

He looks at Kou, and sees a newspaper headline from two years ago in the convenience store window. He also sees a stupid, selfless boy, who does stupid, selfless things.

 

Outside, it’s raining again, droplets sliding down the bedroom window and filling the room with ambience that does little to cancel out the silence. For a long while, Mitsuba does nothing aside from counting the raindrops.

 

“I think I’m getting too attached,” Kou tells him eventually, his expression as overcast as the sky outside. He tugs on his earring- that nervous habit making a comeback. “To being here. To spending time with you.” The way he’s staring up at Mitsuba from the carpet, it looks like he’d rather do anything but leave. 

 

It’s as Teru said earlier, back in the cafe- surrounded by the smell of hot chocolate and the tap of fingertips against laptop keys. He’d sooner hurt himself ten times over than see someone else struggle. 

 

“Minamoto Kou,” Mitsuba says as the rain falls from the clouds, and Kou’s full name on his tongue feels strange, but correct. “Just do what you want.”

 

Kou sits on the carpet, and he looks completely starstruck.





Chapter Text

Three weeks before his seventeenth birthday, Mitsuba fails his driving test. 

 

One and a half weeks before his seventeenth birthday, Mitsuba passes his driving test.

 

“Second time lucky!” His mom tells him, when a shiny new motorcycle license appears in the mail a few days later, complete with one very ugly passport photo which was taken years ago. He hopes desperately that he never gets pulled over, because he doubts that the person in the picture- hair parted into curtains on either side of his face, and decidedly very uncute- would be recognisable as himself. Kou snorts out loud when he catches sight of the photo, and it takes all of Mitsuba’s self-control to avoid kicking him in the knees. 

 

He opens his notebook- One final year- better make it count - and ticks off ‘learn to drive’ with a sense of finality.

 

Winter is finally taking its exit; new leaves begin to bud on the trees and the weather is slightly warmer, sloughing off frost and icicles from tree branches and windowsills. Mitsuba likes spring- he enjoys the colours, the smell of the new flowers, the feeling of a world waking up from a three-month-long slumber. He also likes spring because that’s when his birthday is. (It’s a whole day to commemorate his own existence- who is he to complain?)

 

It’s only as he wakes up on the morning of his seventeenth birthday that Mitsuba realises this is another terrible last . After this- there are no more birthdays. The thought is enough to stun him into silence before he’s even had a chance to rub the sleep from his eyes. (The idea of getting out of bed suddenly seems much less appealing.) 

 

Seventeen is as far as he gets to go. That’s just the sad truth of the matter.

 

Every time he thinks he’s grown accustomed to the idea of things being his last, something else takes a swing with a baseball bat and knocks his legs out from underneath him. He dreads the days when summer nears its end and warm September nights settle in once more- when lasts will become a commonplace. 

 

Mitsuba curls his hands into his bedsheets, huddles into the nest of plushies that surrounds his pillow, and wonders if he’d be able to get away with crying on the morning of his birthday. 

 

“At least you got to seventeen.” Kou then pipes up from his beanbag, where he sits cross-legged with his jacket tied around his waist- because he’s got a sixth sense for knowing exactly when Mitsuba has woken up. Kou is dressed for a summer that hasn’t arrived yet, and if he didn’t feel like a gaping wound had opened up in his chest, Mitsuba would make fun of him for it.

 

Instead, he glares. “If you’re going to guilt-trip me, then at least say happy birthday first, lame-earring boy.” 

 

“Happy birthday!” Kou chimes, missing the point by a mile and a half. “I’m not trying to make you feel bad. You’re making a lot of firsts too, y’know. You got to be seventeen for the first time- even if it is your final birthday.”

 

Sometimes Kou says things that make perfect sense, and it always reminds Mitsuba painfully that he likes him more than a little too much. Maybe they’re just words, but they’re enough to lure him back out from underneath the covers anyway. 

 

His birthday falls on a weekday, so Mitsuba still has to make himself breakfast and take the walk to school, unacceptably average for a day so important. The weather takes mercy, at least- blue skies and gulls twirling over the rooftops, cold but calm in exactly the way that Mitsuba likes. He steals back his scarf, pulls his cardigan sleeves over his finger splints, and hopes that the clouds in the distance don’t turn storm-grey any time soon.

 

Yokoo and Satou meet him at the gate instead of in class as usual, because Satou baked birthday cupcakes and couldn’t light the candle that Yokoo stole from his drawers at home if they were indoors. Mitsuba calls them cowards for not trying, but closes his eyes and makes a wish anyway. Yokoo has a box the size of his own head- hair included- stashed under his desk, which he hands over to Mitsuba once they’re indoors, birthday cupcakes eaten. 

 

“It’s from both of us, but you can’t open it yet. It’d totally give away your mom’s present idea.” Yokoo instructs solemnly.

 

“How do you know what my mom is planning?” Mitsuba asks, picking up the box and giving it a hard shake to try and gauge what could be inside. It sounds solid, so his initial idea of a giant plushie goes out of the classroom window.

 

“We’ve been coalescing with Kou, who has been coalescing with your mom.” Satou explains.

 

“Say the word coalescing one more time-” Mitsuba threatens, and isn’t sure whether to feel touched, or to kick up a fuss that his friends have been scheming behind his back for who knows how long. “I can’t believe you’ve been plotting without me. Leaving me behind! Excluding me from the conversation! I’m gonna die of neglect, abandonment-”

 

Satou shoves another cupcake into his mouth, effectively shutting him up.

 

School is the same as usual, aside from Mitsuba having to carefully arrange his feet around the giant box shoved under his desk. Kou waits for him by the gates as always, Mitsuba threatens him for conspiring with Yukie for who knows how long, but he still accepts Kou’s wordless offer to hold hands as they walk down the side streets.

 

Mitsuba hates how nicely their hands fit together. It makes him wish he had known Kou before he decided to throw his life to the flames. 

 

(They still haven’t spoken about it- about what Mitsuba learned in the cafe that cold winters day. Mitsuba knows, and Kou seems to be aware that he knows, but the words are absent from either of their mouths. It feels like a continental drift waiting to happen, and Mitsuba is far too comfortable with the way the land fits in place.)

 

“Sorry I couldn’t get you anything,” Kou tells him while they’re walking up to the apartment door, Mitsuba’s keys in his hand. “For your birthday.”

 

If he knew how to voice his feelings, Mitsuba would tell him; but you’ve already given me so much. 

 

If there’s one thing Mitsuba Sousuke struggles with, it’s expressing his feelings properly. “You should be sorry- my heart is broken right now!” He whines instead- and just hopes that his imitation of Kou’s dazzling grin is enough to betray the truth. 

 

Kou makes him pancakes to attone, Mitsuba does his homework at the kitchen table, and he tries to force down the urge to peek in the box that’s sitting on the chair next to him. He rattles it again for good measure, listening to the thing inside shaking around. 

 

His mom comes home empty handed, and Mitsuba is starting to have suspicions.

 

“We’re going out for dinner,” She announces, stealing a bite of his last pancake. “But first- if you’re willing to contribute a bit of your prize money from the photography competition- I’m taking you to test out some second-hand motorcycles.”

 

From where he sits unseen on the kitchen counter, Kou grins. Mitsuba thinks, for a final birthday, this isn’t all that bad.

 

-

 

The box contains a motorcycle helmet- hot pink with a pair of cat ears protruding seamlessly from the top. Mitsuba decides, resolutely, that it’s the single best thing he’s ever owned.

 

-

 

By the weekend, Mitsuba has a leather jacket hanging in his wardrobe, his pink helmet sitting by his desk, and there’s a tiny second-hand motorcycle parked next to his mom’s car outside. It had taken a decent chunk out of his photography award money, but he can’t think of anything he’d rather have spent it on. The feeling of being able to go anywhere- it’s freeing, to say the very least.

 

“I’m totally driving to the photography club.” Mitsuba announces, while pulling his jacket on and grabbing his keys- now with an extra addition to the bundle. He’s ridden his motorcycle a few times already- quick trips around town to get a feel for the new controls, then one ride to the supermarket to pick up a bag of flour-  but his mom looks a little more nervous than usual as he speaks.

 

It’s like the road outside the park still haunts her. Mitsuba glances over his shoulder towards where Kou lingers out of sight in the doorway, and admits wordlessly that he knows the feeling all too well.

 

“I’ll stay safe,” He affirms, helmet tucked under his arm. “Besides, I look too cool for people to hit me.” He twirls on the spot, and runs out of the front door before his mom can laugh at him any louder. 

 

Finding somewhere to store his bike takes longer than the ride to the park itself, but the appreciative shout from Suzuki-san (photography club member, two years Mitsuba’s senior) as he points it out from the clubhouse window is well worth it. 

 

Mitsuba takes a trip into the park this time- he doesn’t have any photos to develop, so instead he wanders around taking pictures of the spring-fresh leaves and the flowers only just starting to bloom, documenting the first signs of life as they haul themselves out of the ground. Spring has come early this year, and Mitsuba has never been more grateful towards the weather. He’s grown tired of short days, long nights and morning frost. He wants to see a world that has decided to be alive.

 

By the time he returns, the broadcasting club has already arrived. Tsukasa has his head buried in one of the store cupboards, so Mitsuba deems it to be safe enough to head over and talk to Natsuhiko while he’s untangling a pile of microphone cords in his lap.

 

Natsuhiko’s eyes travel from Mitsuba’s jacket to where his bike is parked outside, and he puts two and two together as a knot in one of the wires falls apart in his hands. “You never told me you passed your test, Mitsuba-chan!” He complains, though he doesn’t sound offended in the slightest. “You’re meant to tell your senpai these things!”

 

“Natsuhiko.” With a cautionary statement, Sakura makes a fortunate appearance from the door of the broadcasting room- dressed to the nines as usual.

 

“Yes, my dear?” Natsuhiko’s attention is quickly diverted, barely off-put by the withering look Sakura sends in his direction. His enthusiasm is always about as admirable as it is mortifying to witness. Tsukasa still digs through the cupboard, oblivious. 

 

“That’s a nice bike, Sousuke.” Sakura turns their focus towards Mitsuba instead. It is a nice bike, Mitsuba agrees- though it’s small, second-hand and has a few knocks taken out of it, it’s sleek and nice to look at. The accessories that go with it are an added bonus too.

 

“You think the bike is cool? Just wait till you see this-” He cuts himself short to dash over to the bench where his helmet sits, ducking down behind one of the countertops to pull it over his hair. He spins around, grinning behind the visor. “Ta-dah!” 

 

Natsuhiko looks suitably impressed, and Sakura covers up what Mitsuba hopes is a smile with one hand. Then, before Mitsuba has the chance to say anything more, Tsukasa is right in front of him, one hand on either side of the helmet and grinning like a Cheshire cat that just swallowed a mouse whole. 

 

Tsukasa jerks Mitsuba’s head down hard, and smacks his forehead right into the visor. 

 

Mitsuba is the one wearing the helmet, so it doesn’t hurt at all. Tsukasa on the other hand stumbles backwards with a red welt forming on his forehead, and laughs as if he’s never been more amused in his life. 

 

“Your helmet works!” He calls, as if he’s done Mitsuba a favour. “Gimme a ride now.”

 

Mitsuba can think of a thousand things he’d rather do than let Yugi Tsukasa climb on the back of his motorcycle. But Mitsuba is terrified of him on a good day- even more so when he’s grinning in a way that looks like he’s about to take a bite of something- and he feels that even if he declines, Tsukasa will find his way on regardless. 

 

“Just to the end of the street and back.” He concedes- a reluctant compromise. Tsukasa grins so hard it looks as if the corners of his mouth are about to split open, revealing sharp teeth and something not-quite-human.

 

When he gets onto the back of the bike, Tsukasa’s hands are just as cold as Kou’s are. Mitsuba wonders why he never noticed before. 

 

He takes off at a snail's pace down the street- it’s late so there’s not many cars in sight, and Tsukasa is surprisingly obedient, holding on tight and not moving too much when Mitsuba tells him to stay still please. They make it to the end of the street with no casualties. Mitsuba doubles back, and wonders if Tsukasa has turned over a new leaf.

 

“I’m gonna jump off.” Tsukasa then whispers into the back of his neck.

 

Mitsuba slams on the brakes hard enough that it hurts his arms, and when Tsukasa topples off the side, he rolls harmlessly onto the pavement. Mitsuba’s heart feels like it’s migrated into his throat in the worst possible way, while Tsukasa lies on his back on the pavement and giggles to himself amongst the drying puddles. 

 

“What?” He finally stops laughing to ask, as Mitsuba stares down at him through the visor of his helmet. The expression on Tsukasa’s face is entirely unreadable, and Mitsuba never wants to see him wearing it again. “It’s not like it could have killed me.” 

 

Mitsuba decides that he’d rather die on the spot than let Tsukasa get on the back of his bike ever again.

 

-

 

One of the items on Mitsuba’s list encompasses planting flowers in the park. A memorial for himself of sorts, as he tells Kou, earphones in and standing in the doorway of the garden center. They sift through rows upon rows of early-spring flowers, Mitsuba deeming Kou’s input unnecessary after he suggests a bunch of hot pink tulips which he claims to match Mitsuba’s hair perfectly. 

 

Eventually, he settles on violets. Small, purple flowers with five-fold petals that represent innocence and modesty, and will bloom right through to the end of summer.

 

“I’m pure and gentle, so they’re perfect for me.” He claims, running a fingertip over one delicate petal.

 

“You couldn’t be pure and gentle even if someone paid you.” Kou quips back, although the words sound fond. Wearing his heart on his sleeve once again. Mitsuba loathes to admit that he’s probably right. 

 

They climb back on the bike, Kou’s cold hands find their way around Mitsuba’s waist, and his nose presses into the fabric of Mitsuba’s scarf. Mitsuba tries his hardest not to crash into a lamp-post, because even with the approach of spring, his inconvenient feelings towards Kou haven’t faded in the slightest. If anything, they’ve gotten worse, but he’d never admit that to himself. Crushes are for losers who can’t keep a hold of their feelings. Mitsuba Sousuke is not a loser.

 

(The way his heart tries to sledgehammer its way out of his ribcage every time Kou tightens his grip from the back of the motorcycle says otherwise.)

 

It’s a cold day so the park is relatively empty, and Mitsuba makes a beeline for the flowerbeds near the lake, where he often comes to take photos of the glassy surface and the birds that float along it. He sets down the tray of violets on the path beside him, and works his fingertips into the dirt, grimacing when it gets stuck down his fingernails. Still, nothing has ever felt more correct when he nestles the first violet flower into the soil beside the boughs of the hydrangeas. 

 

He digs into the ground a second time, and Kou asks him; “When did you learn my full name?”

 

Since that rainy afternoon, when Amane and Kou screamed at one another in the kitchen and Mitsuba met a boy who looked like Kou but wasn’t Kou, neither of them have said a word about it. A second unspoken thing to join the great, terrible secret that has hung in the corner of Mitsuba’s bedroom since September. This one is smaller- sad and personal, a bitter pit in his stomach that he doesn’t want to taste on the way back up. 

 

But Kou likes to drag Mitsuba out of his comfort zone, and this, he should have seen coming.

 

Mitsuba keeps his fingers buried in the dirt, grounding himself against the electricity in Kou’s storm-bright eyes. “I met your brother,” He says. “In a cafe. He’s scary and he yelled at me for staring at him.”

 

“Nii-chan is nice, he just doesn’t like strangers,” Kou says immediately, as if that makes it better. Then his shoulders slump forwards, sad and heavy. “Did he tell you?”

 

Mitsuba shakes his head. “I remembered a newspaper article in the convenience store window, once I heard your family name,” He swallows around his words, because they taste just as rotten as he expected. “You’re so stupid, you know that?” 

 

Kou laughs under his breath. “So I’ve been told.” The heads of the violets bob and sway in the cold spring breeze and Kou looks like he might get blown away with them, small and fragile in a way that Minamoto Kou shouldn’t be.

 

“Have you always known about that too?” Mitsuba continues, emptying out all the questions on his mind so they can start anew. “Or did you only just remember it?”

 

“I-” Kou looks like he wants to say something, then he snaps his mouth shut. A tug on his earring- that nervous habit, doing its rounds again. “I know about it- I wouldn’t say I remember it though.” 

 

There’s something he’s not saying, Mitsuba can tell. Deep down, he wants to know every single secret that Kou has ever kept. On the surface, he doesn’t probe any further. He buries another violet up to its roots in the soil. 

 

“Is that why you made the deal with me, that night?” He asks eventually, once his fingers are tethered to the ground again. “Because you knew what it was like to die too young?” 

 

Another tug on the earring. Mitsuba kind of wants to pull it out for him, so Kou will do something else with his hands. Something like slotting his fingers between Mitsuba’s, or helping him plant the damn flowers. 

 

“That was part of the reason.” Kou tucks his legs into his chest, defensive. 

 

“And the other part?” Mitsuba takes a chance.

 

Finally, Kou scoops up a handful of soil, and uproots a violet head from its tray. “You were so full of life that you hadn’t yet spent,” He says, as the soil and roots slip between his fingers. “It was all there and waiting to be lived, and I don’t think even you knew it. But I know you can see it now.” Scooping soil over the roots, he plants a violet flower that’s a little more purple than the rest, swaying by the hydrangeas. 

 

Mitsuba stares. “What do you mean?” 

 

The smile Kou sends him is one that Mitsuba hasn’t seen him wear before, but he knows immediately that it has become his favourite- that he wants Kou to smile at him like that forever. “You might have a terrible personality, and you might be the absolute worst at getting along with people- but you’re so alive , Mitsuba. I’d bring you back ten, twenty, a hundred times over, if I had the chance, just so I could feel even a fraction of it.” 

 

If Mitsuba didn’t know better, he’d say that Kou almost sounds like he’s in love with him.

 

He goes to make fun of him, to call him stupid or cheesy, or tell him to save his confessions for when they’re not covered in soil, but he can’t get the words past the place where his heart has decided to make a home in his throat. So he does the next worst thing, and starts crying.

 

The smile slips off Kou’s face and is replaced by panic, and that only makes Mitsuba cry harder, wiping his eyes on the back of his arm because his hands are still filthy and there’s still violets to plant. 

 

“You can’t just say things like that!” Mitsuba eventually manages to wail, sniffing into the sleeve of his leather jacket. “Are you totally shameless?” 

 

Next to him, Kou heaves out a sigh of relief. “I thought I’d actually upset you for a second.” When he laughs, it sounds like spring and the smell of violets, and Mitsuba considers pushing him into the hydrangeas so he doesn’t have to hear it any more. 

 

“Shut up and help me plant the rest of these, Minamoto-kun.” He gestures towards the last few violets, still waiting in the tray. Now that he knows Kou’s family name, he supposes he should start using it, after all.

 

It’s Kou’s turn to complain this time, wrinkling up his nose in distaste. “C’mon, you’ve been calling me Kou for months, don’t go all formal on me now.” 

 

“You still call me Mitsuba,” He wipes the last of the tears from his eyes and digs another hole in the flower bed. “Are you a hypocrite as well as a pervert and a-”

 

“Sousuke,” Kou says, before Mitsuba has the chance to prepare himself. Mitsuba doesn’t know how two simple syllables can make his heart do things like that. “Should I call you Sousuke?”

 

“That’s my name you’re saying there, don’t wear it out,” Mitsuba hopes desperately that his voice stays steady, because he can barely hear himself over the radio-static that fills his ears. “It sounds weird when you say it- stop it.”

 

Kou scoops more soil into the palms of his hands, and has the audacity to laugh.

 

-

 

Minamoto Kou is made of bad ideas, all stuck together with parcel tape that has seen better days. The bad ideas appear to be infectious, as Mitsuba pulls on his shoes at half-past ten at night, and asks Kou to sneak into the park with him. It’s on his list, underneath planting flowers- he’s always wanted to take photos of the shadows against the moon that the branches cast, and it’s a perfect clear night for it. Entirely cloudless, the full moon framed by a halo of mist and stars. 

 

He leaves a note on the table for his mom, in case she glances into his room and finds it empty- a quick ‘ going on an adventure- back by half eleven. Kou is here too’ which he hopes will suffice.

 

He wears his fluffy coat on account of spring still being in its early days, and his camera nestles in his hands with the exposure adjusted to the dim lights of night-time. In the dark, Kou is surrounded by a faint haze- a solar halo that follows his hands as he speaks, because Kou talks with every piece of his body, always in motion. It’s dizzying to watch, sometimes. 

 

The fence is low enough to scramble over even with Mitsuba’s poor right-handed grip, designed more for aesthetics than with actual security in mind. He drops to his feet amongst the flower beds easily, camera clasped to his chest. Kou struggles over too out of solidarity- Mitsuba is almost convinced that he can teleport, so for him to wobble over the precipice of the fence is probably unnecessary. 

 

Still, he brushes cobwebs from his jeans, and smiles a supernova into the night. Mitsuba just tells him to get a move on. The sun has no place in the dark, after all.

 

Mitsuba takes photos of the moonlit shadows on the pavement, the quiver of the branches against the skyline, the thick band of the milky way, not quite washed away by light pollution. The fragmented reflection of the moon upon the surface of the lake makes a nice shot, as does the silhouette of the flowers in their beds, edged in silver. Kou stands behind him, making suggestions that are helpful three times out of ten, and Mitsuba wants to both trip him into the lake and take pictures of the solar storms in his eyes till the sun comes up. 

 

He can’t do either, so he calls Kou an idiot and moves on. 

 

It becomes apparent very quickly that they’re not the only ones in the park. A little way from the treeline, there’s a group of older teenagers huddled around the flames of a small bonfire, tongues of fire spitting embers and making crooked shadow puppets out of the foliage. Kou has long since grown impatient, drifting around Mitsuba in a distracted orbit- a restless satellite that sighs and trips over its own feet every few minutes. Mitsuba edges closer to the flames, raising his camera lens to snap footage of the way the firelight makes monsters out of the shadows around it.

 

“How much longer are we-” Kou’s voice tapers off into a breathless, terrified noise. Kou by nature is both fearless and gentle, so when he grips Mitsuba’s arm hard enough to hurt and shakes as if he is trying to cut pieces of himself loose, Mitsuba knows something is very, terribly wrong.

 

Kou stares into the flames. The fire laughs in response, a terrible crack-and-snap of burning timber and newspaper.

 

Mitsuba can’t imagine what it must be like to burn alive. Kou, not quite gentle and not quite fearless, doesn’t have to speculate. Mitsuba pulls his arm hard, spins him away from the firelight, and half-drags him over to the lake, where the flickering light patterns can no longer be seen, and everything is coloured cold silver. 

 

“You said you didn’t remember it.” Mitsuba watches as Kou finally pries his fingers loose, bringing stiff joints back to life with a shaky sigh that rattles in the cold night air. It no longer feels like spring- it no longer feels like anything aside from Kou’s cold, terrified eyes and the death-rattle of a laugh that he lets out. (Just as Mitsuba’s right hand is no longer a hand in everything aside from its name, Kou’s laugh is no longer a laugh at all.) 

 

“I lied,” He says, and Mitsuba feels an eternity of space filled with moonlight and hydrangea flowers and terrible secrets opening up between them. Perhaps, the heart Kou wears upon his sleeve is not his heart at all. “I never forgot what it was like to be alive- I remember it and I miss every second of it.” 

 

“But, the deal-” Mitsuba grips the fence around the side of the lake, one hand strong, the other barely a hand at all. The Deal is the least of his worries, though it’s the only thing he knows how to put words to. 

 

“There was never a deal, Sousuke,” Kou says his name so gently that it makes his head spin. “I stuck around because I wanted to make sure that you got as much life out of this year as you possibly could. And I,” He hesitates, searching for the right words. A tug on his earring to fill the space. Then-

 

“I liked it; seeing you happy. It made me want to stay, even if making myself visible all the time is exhausting. Even if there was nothing that I needed to remember.”

 

Kou smiles- a small, tired imitation of his usual chipped-tooth, kilowatt grin- and Mitsuba doesn’t think he has ever felt so much at once. His body feels too small to contain everything without it spilling over the edges; he is angry and he is sad and he wants to kiss Kou all over his awful, selfless face. There’s an open wound somewhere in the sinuous muscle of his heart, raw and bleeding. Kou put it there. Kou is the only one he knows that can fix it. 

 

Mitsuba isn’t sure if he wants him to.

 

How could he put his heart in the hands of someone selfless enough to run headlong into a burning building to save a child he barely knew. Someone stupid enough to challenge fate for a boy lying on the road who he had never met before. Minamoto Kou is ridiculous, self-sacrificing and possibly set on ruining Mitsuba’s life. At the very least, he’s determined to make him cry.

 

“You’re so stupid!” Mitsuba shouts, tears clinging to his eyelashes, and he takes a bitter sense of pride at the way that Kou jumps in surprise. “Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why are you so willing to throw everything away just to help people?”

 

“Hey-” Kou tries to duck out of the way of the hand that Mitsuba swings at him, smacking him lightly in the arm once, then twice again.

 

“Take better care of yourself! There’s no point in saving people if you’re just going to get hurt in the process,” Mitsuba hits Kou’s arm weakly one more time, then slumps forwards and buries his face in the fluffy pink sleeves of his coat. He feels exhausted and he doubts he’s even going to be able to make it out of the park, never mind back home. “Look at this, you’ve even made a cute boy cry. You’re the worst. ” 

 

Gentle once more, Kou maneuvers Mitsuba’s hands away from his face, cold fingers curled around the sleeves of his coat. Though the moonlit scenery around them swims before his eyes, Kou’s steadfast figure is all Mitsuba can see clearly. True north redefining itself into the shape of a stubborn martyr with fireworks for eyes.

 

“Do you want me to leave?” Kou asks, like he believes the world can survive without compass directions. Mitsuba can’t decide if he’s missing the point on purpose, or if he’s just that ridiculously dense. The question hangs alongside the stars- distant, far too real, and hundreds of years behind. 

 

They’re almost the same height, so Mitsuba settles for burying his face in the stretch between Kou’s neck and his shoulder. His camera gets in the way, Kou’s fingertips feel like a winter’s frost creeping back in and turning the seasons in reverse, and here’s an insult somewhere on the tip of Mitsuba’s tongue, but the words are gone before he can even consider voicing them. He just leans closer, and hopes that Kou still knows what warmth feels like.

 

There’s nobody around to see them, and so Mitsuba feels safe to open his heart so painfully.

 

“Do you want to stay?” He asks Kou, eventually. To interrupt the moon’s silent watch feels sacreligious, but correct.

 

Kou’s voice is barely a whisper, though he speaks as if he’s been practicing for it his entire life. “Of course I do.”  

 

“Then,” Mitsuba doesn’t think he’s ever been more sure of himself. “Don’t you dare think about leaving.”

 

It’s just another undeniable fact, to add to a long list of certainties that Mitsuba has learned over time. Injuries heal in one way or another. A year feels like both a moment and a lifetime. Spring creeps up on you when you least expect it.

 

Minamoto Kou is here to stay.

 

-

 

“This doesn’t look like half eleven to me.” Yukie is sitting at the kitchen table when Mitsuba makes it back through the front door around midnight. She quirks up one eyebrow, a silent demand for an explanation that drags a heavy sigh out of Mitsuba while he shuts the door behind himself. Kou is off doing who knows what, and his mom has his note trapped under one hand- there’s no room to deny anything.

 

Besides, his mom is a force of nature- she’d get the truth out of him eventually.

 

“I lost track of time.” He explains. Amongst other things. 

 

“Doing?” Yukie probes, a quiet indicator that Mitsuba won’t be allowed to slope off to his bedroom any time soon. At least she appears more amused than angry. “And where’s Kou? You should have asked him to stay the night, especially if he’s going to have to walk home by himself.”

 

“I can’t believe you’re more worried about Kou than you are about your own son,” Mitsuba sniffs. He decides with a sense of finality that he’s far too tired for any of this. He wants nothing more than to fall into his mountain of plushies and sleep the rest of the night away, but his mom clearly has other plans entirely. “You’re a terrible parent.”

 

“Kou is far too nice to be hanging out with a terror like you,” She laughs. “I hope you’re kinder to him than you are to your mother.” 

 

“I can’t be nice to someone who wears earrings like that, ” Mitsuba can feel himself falling into his mom’s trap- lulling him into casual conversation before she starts hitting him with the big questions. ( Works every time, she had told him once, and Mitsuba loathes to admit that she’s right.) “He’s an offence to my precious eyes, and his personality sucks too.”

 

“The way you’re smiling isn’t exactly selling your point very well,” Yukie prods at him over the tabletop, sitting in the warm glow of the kitchen lights. “Did something happen between you while you were at the park?” 

 

“No, why would something happen between us?” Mitsuba doesn’t realise how defensive the words sound until they’re sitting heavily on the kitchen table in front of him. He snaps his mouth shut so hard his teeth click in his jaw, and his mom raises her eyebrows. Questioning, self-satisfied. She’s got him; hook, line and sinker. 

 

“Okay, so something did happen,” It’s a small mercy that she’s still smiling. “Got it.”

 

“Why does it matter? Nothing-” Mitsuba feels more frustrated than amused, one hand curling into a fist in his lap. Yukie is a quick thinker, always one to read the room, so she schools the smile away from her face immediately.

 

“Sousuke, if something did happen-” She starts.

 

“Seriously, nothing-”

 

Even if something was to happen, then I wouldn’t care, Sousuke,” His mom watches him from across the table, gaze steady and more serious than Mitsuba has seen her look in a very long time. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, but I can guarantee that there’s nothing that’d stop me from loving you.”

 

“What if I said I went around kicking puppies for fun?” Mitsuba jokes weakly, and can’t help the feeling of relief that hits him when the atmospheric pressure lifts slightly, so that it’s no longer suffocating.

 

His mom laughs. “Okay, then we might have some issues.” 

 

She folds the note from the tabletop in half, then in half again, as if putting it to the back of her mind with each deft movement. Mitsuba sighs, and supposes that he can afford one bit of honesty. There are too many secrets living in their apartment after all- Too many things unspoken for a mother and son who once told each other everything. “Nothing happened, honestly,” He admits, soft and quiet. “We just spoke about some things that we probably should have sorted months ago. Nothing else.”

 

The barometric pressure steps back up, although this time the air is still twenty one percent oxygen, and Mitsuba can still breathe. 

 

“Did you want something to happen?” Yukie then asks, leaving at least five doors open on her way so Mitsuba can back out at any time. 

 

Mitsuba holds so many giant, awful secrets in the fist-sized space of his heart. He won’t let this be one of them. He closes his eyes for good luck, and he nods.

 

His mom hugs him tight in the tiny kitchen they have shared for seventeen years, and just for a while, all they need is each other.

 

-

 

Mitsuba ends up back at the cafe in town on his own once again; Yokoo busy with a sports tournament, Satou cheering him on, and Kou nowhere to be seen. He’s been craving the milkshakes from the cafe for weeks, and temptation finally gets the better of him on a rainy spring morning, the sky grey and in need of something pink and disgustingly unhealthy to brighten it up.

 

He parks up his motorcycle down the street, steps into the warmth, and spots Teru sitting at the table furthest from the door, typing away on his laptop again. Mitsuba drops his helmet down on the table opposite him, because while Teru might be intimidating at the best of times, Mitsuba has more than a few questions to ask. All things he can’t bring up to Kou without revealing just how deeply he cares. 

 

“Oh, it’s you.” Teru sounds less than impressed when he recognises Mitsuba’s presence, although the way he snaps his laptop shut is a small victory. Mitsuba wonders if he’ll win him over any time soon. (From the ice-fractals hanging in the back of his eyes, hidden behind a bright grin, Mitsuba has a feeling that it’s not particularly likely.)

 

“Sound a little more delighted, why don’t you,” Mitsuba starts, then flinches at the way Teru twirls a cake fork between his fingers. He doubts such a weapon could inflict much damage, but he’d quite like to make it to September unharmed- so he closes his mouth with a resounding click of his teeth. Placated, Teru sets the fork back down. “I want to talk to you about Kou.”

 

Teru raises one unimpressed eyebrow, fitting more contempt into one quick movement than Mitsuba thinks Kou has ever held in his entire body. Despite their similarities, he’s starting to doubt that the two brothers are even related. 

 

“If you have questions about Kou, then why not ask him yourself?” Teru looks more judgemental by the second. “I hope you’re not in the habit of going behind people’s backs to pry into their personal lives.” There’s a threat living in a saturated hollow behind his grin, and Mitsuba swallows heavily around a mouthful of his milkshake. 

 

“I don’t know how to get him to talk to me,” Mitsuba tries to explain. “He keeps secrets because he thinks it’s better for everyone if he suffers by himself, and I want him to realise that he’s being an idiot.” 

 

Across the table, Teru blinks in surprise, and his expression melts into a sad attempt at a smile. A private expression that Mitsuba isn’t sure he should be prying into. “Yeah, that sounds like Kou.” When he talks about his brother, Mitsuba finds that Teru isn’t quite so scary. He looks like exactly what he is- a college boy who has been through an unspeakable tragedy, yet has still struggled from the other side standing with two feet shoulder-width apart. Because, what else is an eldest sibling meant to do? Mitsuba has never had any brothers or sisters, or any other close family aside from his mom. He doesn’t think he could ever understand, not truly.

 

“What was he like?” Mitsuba takes a risk, and the rain slides down the window-frames, just out of reach. “As a brother.”

 

“Exactly as you said- stubborn, selfless,” Teru follows the rain patterns down the window, but from the distant look in his eyes, Mitsuba can tell that’s not what he’s seeing at all. “I’ve always been a hopeless older brother- I was so busy with schoolwork and our father couldn’t care less, so Kou did all the cooking and the housework. I tried to study hard and get good grades to save my siblings from the same sort of academic pressure, but I just left them to suffer in other ways instead.” 

 

The way Teru speaks- he sounds like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

 

Mitsuba knows the knife-twist of grief all too personally. From the way his hands curl into fists beneath the table, nails against flesh as they sink into his palms, Mitsuba is sure that it’s a pain Teru is familiar with too. Whether it settles in the gut, the lungs, or the heart, it’s always a heavy burden to bear. Though he doesn’t like Teru, and he’s sure that the feeling is mutual, there are some things that Mitsuba can’t help but sympathise with. “I see.” Is all he says, because he knows from experience that sorry isn’t a word to be spoken lightly.

 

It’s another certain fact- that Minamoto Teru holds himself responsible for his brother’s death. Outside, the rain decides to transform itself into a downpour. 

 

“I should be going home.” Teru says, as if he’s overstepped a boundary between them that he established himself. He stands up, and Mitsuba sees that he doesn’t have a coat or an umbrella to speak of.

 

In a sudden lapse of judgement, Mitsuba jumps to his feet too. “I have a spare helmet if you want me to give you a ride back.” He offers, foolishly. 

 

Teru glances from the rain, to Mitsuba’s bike parked a little way from the door, and undergoes a spell of poor judgement of his own. “Sure.” He agrees, before he can regret a single thing. 

 

Riding with Teru on the back of his motorcycle is a far sight different to when Kou accompanies him. Teru sits so still that Mitsuba isn’t sure if he’s still breathing, his hands are warm, and there’s a pulse at his wrist that beats in a steady rhythm, so unlike Kou’s own absent heartbeat. He doesn’t say a word either, just sits in steady silence aside from when Mitsuba calls over his shoulder to ask for directions. 

 

The Minamoto household is on the outskirts of town, amidst a neighborhood filled with large, traditional-style houses complete with gardens, backing out onto an expanse of fields and farmland. It’s calm, quiet, and there’s the burned-out husk of what was once a house on one side of the road, standing guard like a cold, terrible memorial. Mitsuba notices that all the curtains of the houses opposite are closed. He can’t blame them for it at all. 

 

“Do you want to come in for a while?” Teru asks, once he’s settled the helmet down on the back of the motorcycle. He looks like he’d rather Mitsuba did anything but step inside his home, but at the same time, there’s an unspoken understanding between them. A shared tragedy, of sorts. Mitsuba nods, and parks his bike in the driveway on Teru’s instruction.

 

The house is sparsely furnished, and as Mitsuba pulls off his boots by the door, Teru claps his hands together and mumbles a greeting to the altar at the side of the hallway. As Mitsuba passes, he catches sight of two portraits held between the double doors- a woman with cropped blonde hair and a stony expression, and Kou, alive and human, laughing at something behind the camera. He ducks his head into a quick, respectful bow, before hurrying after Teru into the kitchen. 

 

Kneeling at the table, there’s a girl who can’t be much older than eight, her shock of blonde hair pulled up into twin bunches on either side of her head. She’s saying something about a test score to Teru, whose expression is softer than Mitsuba ever believed it could become, but when Mitsuba steps into the kitchen, she stops talking and turns to face him with surprised blue eyes.

 

“Who’s that, Teru-nii?” She asks, and the tone to her voice has Mitsuba fearing for the safety of his ankles.

 

“Tiara, that’s Mitsuba,” Teru introduces. “He’s friends with Kou-nii.”

 

Tiara blinks once, then once again, then- “Oh, say hi to nii-chan for me!” She says it as casually as anything, and Mitsuba finds himself more than a little bit confused.

 

“Our family is familiar with the supernatural,” Teru explains, while Tiara turns back to her homework with a cheery wave in Mitsuba’s direction. “ Dying isn’t as simple as it sounds, is it?” Teru’s voice takes on a knowing tone, and Mitsuba wonders if he’s seen right through him. He’s smiling, and every straight, white tooth on display looks like a threat.

 

“I-” Mitsuba’s breath falters in his throat. He wonders if he’s made a terrible mistake.

 

“Do you want to see his room? It felt wrong to clear it out, so it’s the same as he left it,” Teru then offers. Mitsuba feels like he’s going to develop a case of emotional whiplash. “Although, it’s maybe a bit tidier now.”

 

Mitsuba feels like entering Kou’s old room is an invasion of privacy of sorts- stepping into something he shouldn’t bear witness to. But, then again, Kou has spent the past few months occupying a corner of Mitsuba’s bedroom, so he supposes that it’s only fair. He turns to Teru, and tells him that he’d like that a lot. 

 

Kou’s room is the first entrance at the top of the stairs. It’s the only room with the door pulled shut, and when he goes to slide it open, Teru’s hand lingers on the frame as if it’s a sacred place, not made for touching. The first thing Mitsuba notices is that the curtains are open, letting light flood into the room. Across the road, he can see the burned-out upstairs windows of the no-longer-a-house. Mitsuba wonders if, two years ago, Kou had stared out of that very window towards a building engulfed in flames, and realised that he was about to die- reckless and foolish and oh so afraid.

 

“I’ll leave you to look around,” Teru tells him with a smile that doesn’t look happy in the slightest. “If you break or steal anything, then I’ll know.” He slides the door closed behind him, and leaves Mitsuba alone in a dead boy’s bedroom, untouched for two whole years.

 

It’s exactly what Mitsuba would expect the bedroom of Minamoto Kou to look like- tacky, brightly coloured and painfully lived in. He’s got lion-patterned bedsheets which Mitsuba cringes visibly towards, bookshelves lined with a few study-guides and more recipe books than Mitsuba can count, and a desk that looks like it's never been used once aside from as extra storage space.

 

There’s also photographs, framed and propped up on every available surface. 

 

Mitsuba almost doesn’t touch them, but curiosity gets the better of him, eventually.

 

On top of the bookshelf, there’s photos of Kou at the beach, barely old enough to walk, waving a spade around like a makeshift sword as he attempts to whack a much younger Teru in the knees. Then there’s one of Teru, Kou and a baby Tiara, standing by the gates of a school that Mitsuba doesn’t quite recognise- Teru holding Tiara in his arms and Kou grinning like it’s what he was born to do. On the shelves near the desk, there’s a photo of Kou and a girl not quite his age, covered head to toe in batter as Teru’s blurry form fusses over a pan in the background. The girl has long hair dyed green at the tips, and she proudly displays a plate of lopsided donuts, smiling from ear to ear. A second photo on the shelf appears to be a middle school class picture, and a quick scan from side to side reveals Kou in the middle row, caught mid-sneeze while his classmates on either side laugh. 

 

There’s a few more scattered around the room. Kou with friends, family and people’s pets- throwing peace signs next to a huge fluffy dog, a parakeet making a nest out of his hair, Tiara riding on his shoulders. All brimming with more life than Mitsuba thought it would be possible for a person to have, even trapped in still images behind the glass of a photo frame. There’s no fireworks behind his eyes, he doesn’t glow in the dark as if he’s trapped a galaxy below his skin, but he doesn’t need it. It’s not that which makes Minamoto Kou look as if he’s alive.

 

The final photo is placed next to his bed, and Mitsuba sinks into the sheets as he takes it in one unsteady hand.

 

It’s a family photo- the same woman with cropped blonde hair from the altar downstairs, only this time grinning from ear to ear with a baby in her arms, a stern man beside her cracking the slightest hint of a smile, Teru holding a giant stick in two hands, and Kou sat upon the man’s shoulders, laughing so hard it makes Mitsuba’s ribs hurt just looking at it. Mitsuba holds the remains of a broken family in his hands, and wonders when it was that things went wrong. 

 

He leaves the room not long afterwards, unsure of what to do with so many memories that aren’t his own sitting heavily in the pit of his stomach. He feels numb, like he’s come back down from an out of body experience, and has to re-learn how to use all of his limbs again. In his hand, he’s still holding the photo.

 

“Minamoto-san, do you think I could-” He steps into the kitchen with it in plain sight, so Teru doesn’t pull a kitchen knife out of the drawer under the assumption that Mitsuba is a thief. ( I’m even being formal, be grateful, he thinks to himself, privately.)

 

Teru catches sight of the photo, and his hands freeze around the vegetables he’s haphazardly trying to chop. Then, slowly and painfully, he nods. “Just take it. I think he’d like it.” 

 

There’s a sense of finality to his words, and Mitsuba takes it as his cue to leave.

 

-

 

He props the photo up on his shelf, alongside a picture of his own- Mitsuba and his mom underneath the sakura blossoms in the park, sticking his tongue out at the camera they had foisted onto some poor stranger. (It had taken a total of ten photos before Mitsuba had been satisfied with the angle, ever the perfectionist.)

  

The frames are similar enough that they look like a matching pair. Mitsuba hopes that it does something to make up for all the words he doesn’t know how to say.

 

(Kou cries when he sees it sitting there, tears welling up in the corners of his bright blue eyes. Mitsuba calls him a sentimental loser, then kneels beside him on the floor and holds him tight.)

 

-

 

The beginning of April brings with it the first sakura blossoms of the year, and by the time the first week comes to a close, the walk to school is stained in shades of pink. Kou kicks amongst the petals that fall to the ground, catching them in his open hands like snowfall, and if he were to take out his earring and brush his hair for once, Mitsuba could almost say that it’s not a bad sight at all. 

 

“I want to do Hanami in the park this year.” Mitsuba announces over lunch, seamlessly trading his miso soup for Satou’s milk bread. Satou glares at him as if he’s sprouted an extra arm.

 

“It’ll be so crowded, we’ll get squished.” He reasons. He’s right- Mitsuba knows exactly what the park is like during sakura season- but he hasn’t had a picnic under the blossoms in years, and he wants to experience the atmosphere just one more time.

 

“You could finally use that flower-shaped cookie cutter I got you, though!” Yokoo pipes up from where he’s doing his maths homework, due in next period. “I bet it’d be fun, even if we get trampled.” 

 

Fine .” Satou sighs, swayed so easily by Yokoo’s insistence. Recalling their conversation outside the convenience store weeks ago, Mitsuba grins. Satou kicks him under the desk, but it’s well worth it to see the way his ears turn the same colour as the tomatoes he slides into Yokoo’s lunch box.

 

-

 

For a Saturday morning in April, the weather is freezing cold- deliberately planned, in the hopes that the park would be as empty as is possible for a day during Sakura season. Mitsuba packs his camera, pulls gloves onto his hands in the hopes that his fingers won’t stiffen up beyond practical use, and tosses his scarf and his fluffy coat at Kou’s face as a hint that he should try looking normal for once.

 

(The coat looks good on him. Mitsuba wants to slam the wardrobe door in his face.) 

 

Mitsuba dresses for the occasion- a white turtleneck under a pink sweater under a pink coat, jeans cuffed at the ankle and a pair of platform trainers that (much to his delight) make him just the slightest bit taller than Kou. He can feel Kou watching him as they walk down the stairs carrying shopping bags filled with food and a flask of tea, eyes burning heavy and bright into the back of his neck.

 

“I know I’m cute, you don’t have to stare at me that much.” Mitsuba pops up the collar on his coat, as if it could do anything to shield him from the way Kou’s eyes are bright enough to hurt. 

 

In a surprising turn of events, Kou doesn’t even argue back.

 

Despite the temperature dropping low enough for Mitsuba’s breath to become condensation in the morning air, the park is still packed full of visitors reclining on blankets underneath the sakura trees. They spot Yokoo and Satou already perched close to the lake, crammed unfavourably between two families and a group of tourists. When Mitsuba complains about the spot they claimed, Kou plucks a can of iced tea from the bag in his hand and drops it wordlessly down the back of his coat. Cruel, unusual, and very effective at silencing him. 

 

“Please teach me your Sousuke-handling abilities,” Satou laughs when Kou sits down, completely ignoring Mitsuba’s threats to never speak to him again. “They’d be so helpful at school when he’s off on a tangent about how we only like him for his looks.”

 

Mitsuba flops down heavily onto the blankets, and swears that he’s never going to speak to any of them again.

 

His vow of silence lasts approximately a minute, because Satou brings out a box of homemade cookies- flower shaped, as per Yokoo’s request- and Mitsuba decides all is forgiven in order to finish one in three quick bites. They’re delicious, as is everything that Satou bakes, and Mitsuba quickly goes in for a second. Kou pretends to eat, crushing biscuit crumbs into the grass in a way that Mitsuba will berate him for, once they’re out of earshot. (How wasteful, when Mitsuba is right there for him  to pass food to.)

 

Kou had monopolised Mitsuba’s kitchen the night before, making all sorts of treats for them to snack on- the most exciting being a sweet, tasty-looking flan that sits in its dish at the top of one of their carrier bags. Mitsuba makes grabby hands for it as soon as Kou moves to turn it out onto a plate, because it's been ages since he’s eaten flan, and he’s not willing to wait another second. 

 

“Time waits for nobody, Kou!” He quips, while Kou forms a defensive barrier around the flan with his whole body. A human shield blocking Mitsuba from his much-deserved treat. From around Kou’s side, Yokoo scoops up a piece of flan and pops it into Mitsuba’s mouth, with exactly the speed and efficiency expected of a multi-talented athlete. 

 

The flan is quite possibly the best thing Mitsuba has ever tasted. Sweet, melt-in-the-mouth, and well worth the awkward hi-five he and Yokoo share over Kou’s shoulder. 

 

Though the morning is cold and the park is filled to the brim with people and noise, Mitsuba can’t help but feel like everything has slotted into place. He’s got food to eat, friends to share it with, his camera has managed some great shots of the sakura blossoms, and Kou keeps reluctantly feeding him mouthfuls of flan. He pillows his head against Kou’s leg and rolls onto his back to take pictures of the blossoms overhead, of Yokoo with petals in his hair, of Satou trying to stack cookies into a makeshift tower. He doesn’t take photos of Kou, but finds to his horror that he’d maybe like to. Kou runs his fingers absentmindedly through Mitsuba’s hair, brushing from root to tip to the sound of the camera shutter. Gentle in a way that Minamoto Kou shouldn’t be capable of. (He’s always been full of surprises, bright as supernovas.)

 

Mitsuba thinks that if he were to die then and there, lying amongst the sakura blossoms- then he’d go down smiling.

 

“Yokoo, you should be grateful,” Mitsuba says eventually, struggling back into a sitting position and swearing that he doesn’t miss the feeling of Kou’s hands stroking through his hair. “I used to have a crush on you.” September is still a lifetime away, but Mitsuba doesn’t want to leave every bit of honesty till the end. 

 

“You did?” Yokoo looks surprised, wide puppy-dog eyes staring at Mitsuba, not quite as cute as they used to be. If he stares deep into them, he won’t see cats-eye road markers and distant stars- he’ll just see Yokoo, but closer.

 

“Back in autumn,” Mitsuba affirms. “Not anymore though- you’re not actually that cute up close. Not compared to me, at least.” 

 

Yokoo laughs at that, and he’s still got sakura petals sitting in his hair. Satou looks like he wants to remove each of them, petal by gentle petal. Why don’t you?- Mitsuba asks him wordlessly. It’s your turn to be honest. 

 

“It’s good that you don’t have a crush on me any more,” Yokoo tells Mitsuba. “‘Cause I like someone else.”

 

He’s talking to Mitsuba, but his eyes have drifted three paces to the right, where Satou holds his jenga-tower of cookies steady. Completely unaware. 

 

“He was totally talking about you,” Mitsuba tells Satou later, once Kou and Yokoo have given up on their snacks and initiated a game of catch with a group of eight year olds by the lake. Yokoo still has petals in his hair. Satou’s fingertips still twitch like he wants to pull them out from between the strands, and maybe to kiss Yokoo while he’s at it. “He was looking right at you.”

 

Across the park, Yokoo tosses the ball to Kou and hits him square in the chest. “Since when did this matter so much to you?” Satou asks, and doesn’t turn away from the sight of Yokoo apologising profusely for one single second.

 

“Since we became partners in crime- you’re the brains, I’m the beauty, united against Yokoo’s terrible lunch habits and your obvious crush,” Mitsuba ducks as Satou tries to put him in a headlock. “Seriously, if you like him, why not just tell him? What’s the worst that could happen?” 

 

“Ruining a sixteen-year-long friendship sounds pretty bad to me,” Satou deadpans, finally tearing his line of sight away from Yokoo and his soft hair full of sakura blossoms. “Why don’t you follow your own advice and tell Kou that you want to run off into the sunset with him?”

 

“I don’t like Kou.” Mitsuba rebukes- like a liar.

 

Satou doesn’t justify that with a response- the way his eyebrows shoot up towards his hairline say all that he needs. “What if I tell him I like him, and it turns out he wasn’t talking about me?” He asks instead. “What if he was talking about someone on the soccer team, or someone from our class, or-” 

 

Even over the sound of kids shouting, people singing and the morning calls of the birds from the tree branches, Mitsuba can hear Satou overthinking. So he moves, blocking the view of Yokoo and Kou and the hoard of children they’ve recruited into their game. So that, though they’re in public, it feels as though the sakura trees are their only witness.

 

“If you were to die right now- would you be happy with Yokoo never knowing that you liked him?” Mitsuba doesn’t want to know the expression he must be wearing upon his own face. The way Satou stares in surprise is indication enough.

 

“I never thought of you as the carpe diem type.” He laughs in response, a nervous sound straight from the back of his throat. 

 

“I’m not,” At least, I wasn’t. “But you never know what might happen tonight, or tomorrow, or next week.” His fingers twitch beneath the sleeves of his coat, broken and pieced back together by metal plates and finger splints. He hears Kou laughing behind his shoulder, a sharp, warm sound that Mitsuba thinks he could recognise anywhere. Satou opens his mouth, then snaps it shut again, because anything could happen. Good or bad or any of the strange places in between.

 

“Satou!” Yokoo comes running across the field, dodging the two families and the group of tourists and the large floppy-eared dog lying in the grass. “Look at this funny bug I found!” He’s got one arm outstretched, his hair is still full of flower petals, and for some reason Satou is looking at him as though he holds the galaxy in the palm of his hand instead of a weird caterpillar.

 

“What’s the worst that could happen.” Satou asks himself, and as he stands, his tower of cookies goes crumbling to the ground.

 

“This is the worst thing ever,” Mitsuba announces later, watching as Satou speaks to Yokoo under the sakura trees in the distance. Satou reaches up to pull the flowers out of Yokoo’s hair, and Mitsuba groans around his mouthful of flan. “How much more cliche can you get?” 

 

Kou, decidedly not paying attention, just hums and keeps brushing his fingers through Mitsuba’s hair.

 

“I bet you want to confess to me under the sakura blossoms- it’s fine if you want to try, I might not even reject you until you’re done speaking,” Mitsuba can feel himself running his mouth, because there’s a secret part of him that would like that very much indeed- Kou facing him with supernova eyes and petals in his hair. In the distance, Yokoo pulls Satou into a hug. 

 

“Thank you for letting me come here with you,” Kou says, instead of some cheesy, romantic confession. “The last time I did Hanami with anyone was when my mom was still alive. I forgot how fun it could be.” 

 

Once again, he looks like a boy that could have been Mitsuba’s classmate- sitting at the desk in front, passing notes during class, buying ice-cream in summer that he can actually eat. Someone who Mitsuba could turn to, and tell that it’s fine, that they can do Hanami together every year, that they have all the time in the world. 

 

“Don’t get all sentimental,” Mitsuba cautions instead, because even if time is fleeting, he’s a hypocrite who doesn’t follow his own advice. “Or I’ll start thinking that you’re in love with me.”

 

He motions for Kou to feed him the last mouthful of flan- his hands are tired and there’s no way he could possibly do it himself. Yokoo and Satou cross the length of the park, both wearing sakura petals on their shoulders. 

 

(Mitsuba doesn’t miss the way their fingers are linked together- like a promise that neither of them wish to let go of.)

 

-

 

Spring hurtles on, the sakura blossoms begin to fall from their branches, and Amane has started trying to follow Mitsuba home from school. It starts out simple enough- Mitsuba steps out of the convenience store after picking up some vegetables for his mom, and Amane is perched on the bench outside. Mitsuba sweeps past with what he hopes is a stern expression, and Amane makes no attempt to follow. The next day, Amane trails him down the highstreet, Mitsuba speeds up his walking pace, and loses sight of him before he makes it down one of the alleyways. 

 

The next week, he’s sitting on top of someone’s fencepost, cross-legged and twirling a knife between his fingertips in a way that makes it look more like a habit than a conscious movement. Talking to a person who can play absentmindedly with the edge of a blade is close to the bottom of Mitsuba’s list of priorities. He hikes his school bag over his shoulder, and runs the rest of the way home.

 

Amane catches up to him on a cold day in late April, the streets stained pink by fallen blossoms that have reached the end of their short, pretty lives. “Kid-” Amane tries to speak, one hand gripping Mitsuba’s sleeve tightly.

 

Mitsuba yells, calls him a creepy loser with a knife, then tries to sprint in the opposite direction. Amane is terrifying- he looks like Tsukasa, speaks as though he’s lived for an eternity, and wears a hat that’s even more ridiculous than Kou’s earring. He brings with him warnings and has a habit of tipping the world off center- and Mitsuba is comfortable with the way the land lies. So he struggles, trips over his own shoelaces, and goes spilling onto the pavement. Somewhere above him, he hears Amane laugh.

 

“Kid,” He starts again, lowering himself to crouch on the road next to where Mitsuba tries to scoop his books back into his school bag. “Can you stop forcing me to act like a stalker? I tried to be nice and start a conversation normally.”

 

“Stop making excuses, I bet you just wanted to follow me home and get me all alone so you could-” Amane brandishes his knife, the blade flashing silver in the mid-afternoon sun. Mitsuba takes it as a cue to be quiet.

 

“I just want to talk, I’m not going anywhere near your apartment unless you have strawberries lying around,” Amane slides his knife back out of sight and curls his knees into his chest- getting comfortable by the side of the road. He sighs, and suddenly looks all too much like the kid he may have once been. “I don’t think that what you’re doing is a good idea.”

 

“Yeah, talking to perverts is a terrible-” Mitsuba eyes the knife as it makes another appearance, and cuts his sentence short.

 

“You’re getting attached to Minamoto,” Amane elaborates. “I hope you realise that, no matter how full of life he may seem, he’s never going to be anything other than dead. Once you’re gone, that’s it.” There’s a bitterness underlying Amane’s words- a great, waterlogged sadness cultivated over who knows how many years. A lifetime of what could have been s, sitting under his skin. There’s a retort and an insult sitting on the tip of Mitsuba’s tongue, but he bites them both back before they can make themselves known.

 

“Is this you telling me that you’re going to try and stop me?” Mitsuba asks instead. Feet tucked in, school books still spilled over the pavement. 

 

Slowly, Amane shakes his head. “You’re making a mistake, but I’m not going to get involved. I just hope you know that, however much it hurts you , the boy will feel it ten times over.”

 

“How do you know?” Mitsuba asks, half curiosity, half annoyance. Here sits Amane, who Mitsuba has only ever seen yelling at and berating Kou. Here he is, wearing an expression that comes close to concern. 

 

“I’ve learned from my mistakes,” Amane curls further into himself, nothing more than a small, sad kid sitting by the side of the road. “I gave someone an extra year. I got attached. I let myself believe I was still human. It’d be just like the boy to do all the things I told him not to.”

 

“But what does Kou have to do with any of that?” Mitsuba pushes. “Is it because you’re his supervisor, so you feel responsible?”

 

“The three of us were friends, once,” Amane takes a while to respond, and when he does, he doesn’t sound like himself. “Yashiro Nene, the boy and me. I was dead, she had one year left, and the boy was a disaster waiting to happen. Yashiro died, Minamoto blamed himself, and I knew he was about to do something reckless. So I told him that, when it was his time to go, I’d let him stick with me, so he could keep watching over his family.”

 

Mitsuba feels everything start to make sense, slotting together like pieces of a dreadful puzzle. “You feel guilty.” He speaks, slow and uncertain. More of a question than a statement.

 

“If I hadn’t told him that, then I think he might have hesitated for even a moment longer. He might still be alive,” Amane sighs, and unfurls his limbs. He stretches out into the road to the point that, if a car was to drive past, it would surely hit him. “I’m good at making mistakes. I owe it to the boy to stop him from making the same ones.”

 

Mitsuba has learned over time that grief has many appearances. Grief is a thirty-five inch longsword through his lungs. Grief is a house on the outskirts of town with all the curtains pulled shut. Grief is an altar in the hallway, housing photos of a mother and a son. Grief is three friends, one pretending to be alive, one long gone, and one who shoulders all the blame.

 

If things go wrong, Mitsuba says. “Which they’re not- we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves.” 

 

Amane laughs in a way that almost sounds like he’s saying thank you , and then he’s gone.

 

-

 

Mitsuba stares at the matching pair of family photos on his shelf, and wonders what shape of grief he will leave behind.

 

-

 

He decides he needs to talk to Sakura, because who else could understand his situation?

 

The email he sends to them is brief and precise- a quick I need to talk to you, followed by a let's go to the shrine together for the spring matsuri. He hopes that the crowded festival atmosphere will rule out any chance of Tsukasa trying something dangerous- safety in numbers or something of the likes. That, alongside the fact that he doesn’t want to trail after Yokoo and Satou holding hands all evening. He’s too cute to play third-wheel; that’s a role which Kou is going to have to shoulder alone.

 

Sakura responds promptly and equally as briefly, and Mitsuba returns to his homework. 

 

“Good luck, lame-earring boy,” He tells Kou later, when he falls wordlessly into his beanbag a week before the evening of the festival. “I’ll make a prayer for you at the shrine.”

 

“Not ominous at all .” Kou grins, and Mitsuba is glad he’s not going to see what he looks like surrounded by lanterns and firelight.

 

-

 

Mitsuba figures that finding a place to park near the shrine will be a lost cause, so he forfeits his cat-ear helmet in favour of the public bus, sitting knee-to-knee with Kou as he stares out of the window and refuses to talk to Mitsuba. He does his best to maintain a stoic silence, forehead pressed against the bus window as it sways down the road. He shifts slightly each time their knees brush under layers of clothing and silence. 

 

Kou has well established that he’s not happy- a culmination of Mitsuba ditching him to hang out with Sakura instead, and the thought of dealing with the already weeks-long honeymoon phase of whatever relationship Yokoo and Satou forged under the flower petals that day in the park. Kou had turned to him as they left the apartment, called him a traitor, then sworn resolutely that he’d never talk to him again.

 

He’s acting like a kid, and Mitsuba is almost glad of it, annoying as it makes the bus journey. Just kids is all they are. Dead or alive or something else entirely- they’re still just kids.

 

Kou’s vow of silence holds up until they reach the bottom of the steps up to the shrine, at which point he smiles out a quick have fun before sprinting through the crowds to find Yokoo and Satou at the top. Mitsuba watches him go, blonde hair and firework eyes disappearing into the masses. (To his horror, he finds that he kind of wants to chase after him.)

 

There’s festival games and stalls taking place around the base of the stairs, and Mitsuba considers buying some food to occupy himself while he waits. But the sky is cloudless, brimming with stars that shimmer in a way that’s more than enough entertainment, so Mitsuba settles himself by the flickering lanterns and waits for Sakura to make their appearance. 

 

Firelight dances over the knuckles and joints of his hand as he weaves it through the beam of the lantern, distracted. 

 

“Where’s your friend with the earring?” Mitsuba startles at the sound of a voice overhead, scrambling around to catch sight of Tsukasa, perched impossibly on one of the lantern posts. His eyes dance with flames and he’s crouched like a cat about to make a kill. The stars suddenly feel too distant and too cold. Tsukasa, with his sharp canines and wicked eyes, eclipses them all out of the sky. 

 

“You almost gave me a heart attack!” Mitsuba hisses through his teeth. He just manages to hold his voice steady, but from the way his grin splits wider, he’s certain that Tsukasa can feel the way his heart is racing.

 

“Ooh, that’d be funny to watch!” He wobbles on top of the lantern, feet slipping in his sandals. “The feeling of a heart stopping below your hands is very interesting, you know.” 

 

The amused tone to his voice makes Mitsuba’s skin crawl. “Are you just here to be gross and weird, or do you actually want something?” He asks, although either prospect is equally as unsettling. Any interaction with Yugi Tsukasa leaves a bad taste in his mouth, and a suffocating feeling of dread that lingers for hours afterwards.

 

Tsukasa rearranges himself on the post so he can peer down at Mitsuba. He wobbles but never falls, like gravity has made an exception for one boy-monster with eyes that flash like lanterns in the dark. “I want a lot of things!” He proclaims. Mitsuba shrinks back a little further from the flash of his teeth. “You know, one year is barely anything at all when you think about it- fifty two weeks, three hundred and sixty five days-”

 

He counts off the words on his fingers as he speaks, and each number sounds like a threat. A terrible, foreboding shadow that lowers the temperature and makes the stars seem exactly as far away as they really are. Billions of miles overhead, more than a lifetime away. Mitsuba finds that he’s forgotten how to move. 

 

“I could give you more, if you wanted.” Tsukasa then proposes, voice dark and dreadful. Long gone is the Yugi Tsukasa who would jump off moving bikes and pop bubble-wrap in the back of the broadcasting room. This is the Yugi Tsukasa that Amane avoided the afterlife for. This is the Yugi Tsukasa that is not a boy or a ghost, but a monster instead. 

 

“What do you mean by more? ” Mitsuba asks, because he’s afraid of what might happen if he doesn’t.

 

“Sakura is boring. You have a motorcycle and your hand is made of metal and you’ve got so much life left in you that you could die twenty times and I’d still be able to drag you back,” Tsukasa’s words sound hungry. “You’re way more interesting. I’d have made a deal with you in a heartbeat, if the earring-boy hadn’t gotten to you first.” 

 

A violent shudder passes down Mitsuba’s spine, and he finds that he doesn’t have a single word to say. When Tsukasa hops down from the lantern post, his footsteps don’t make a sound. Like a cat- a hungry, grinning cat, staring down at Mitsuba. He’s never felt more like a bird with a broken wing, sitting pretty and waiting to be caught.

 

“You’re running out of time anyway, Mitsuba,” Tsukasa’s fang-filled smile is paralysing. “So what’s the harm in-”

 

Salvation comes in the form of Nanamine Sakura, securing a hand around the collar of Tsukasa’s yukata and hoisting him backwards. He falls onto the ground with a surprised huff, then blinks up at Sakura with eyes as wide as saucers, shifting from grinning monster to disappointed kid within seconds. Mitsuba decides firmly that Sakura is the best person ever (aside from himself and maybe his mom, that is). 

 

“I told you not to run off,” Sakura sighs, as Mitsuba scurries over to hide behind them, a physical barrier between himself and Tsukasa’s wicked sharp teeth. “You can’t just go around terrorising people. Go and scare Natsuhiko with your goldfish scooping instead.” 

 

They sound like they’re scolding a petulant child, and were he not terrified out of his own skin, Mitsuba thinks he might have laughed. Tsukasa scrunches up his entire face, but still obeys, skipping off towards the stalls. 

 

“Sorry, I turned around for a second and he was gone.” Sakura apologises, glancing down at where Mitsuba has a vice grip on the sleeve of the black embroidered haori they’re wearing over their usual clothes, an odd blend of modern and traditional that somehow works for them. 

 

“I seriously thought he was gonna kill me!” Mitsuba buries his head against Sakura’s back and hopes that, when he opens his eyes again, the stars will no longer be eclipsed from the night sky. “You can’t let him get near me ever again- my heart is fragile and perfect and he almost made it stop!” 

 

Sakura just stands patiently and waits for him to calm down, until he loosens his grip and is certain that he’s no longer about to cry. Tsukasa is nowhere to be seen, so he lets out a sigh of relief, and flops back down onto the steps leading up to the shrine. The crowd moves around him accordingly. 

 

“Want me to do your makeup for you?” Sakura then asks, producing a small pouch from their bag. “I’ve got some eyeshadow that’ll look good with your hair.” 

 

Mitsuba knows he must look like a wreck, scared and washed out and his eyes most likely blotchy with unshed tears, so he nods vigorously. It wouldn’t do if people were to see him as anything less than perfect. (He has a reputation to uphold, after all.)

 

“He tried to get me to make a deal with him,” Mitsuba admits, while Sakura crouches on the step below him and begins to pull primer, brushes and eyeliner out of their bag, laying each item out in order. “He said you were getting boring.”

 

“I figured as much. Close your eyes,” Sakura picks up the tube of primer, while Mitsuba does as instructed. “Something tells me that my time is running out.” When they speak, their voice barely sounds bitter- instead heavy with acceptance. A sense of acknowledgment towards their terrible secret which could only have come from years of expecting it. Mitsuba doesn’t think he could bear asking just how long Sakura has lived in the knowledge that their time is so limited.

 

“That’s kind of what I wanted to talk about, actually,” Mitsuba admits, wrinkling up his nose at the cold texture of the eye primer. Mitsuba opens his eyes to gauge Sakura’s reaction before he continues, scanning the usual neutral planes of their face for any sign of hesitance. He finds none, met only by Sakura brandishing an eyeshadow brush in a signal for Mitsuba to shut his eyes again. “When you do go, will you get a chance to decide how you want things to end?”

 

Sakura sweeps the brush over his eyelids, a feather-light touch. “I don’t think Tsukasa will give me a choice, no,” They say evenly, to the tap of the brush against the lid of the palette. “It might be different for you, though. I think Tsukasa is an exceptional case.” 

 

Mitsuba laughs bitterly at that. “Exceptional is one word you could use.”

 

Though he can’t see it, Mitsuba can hear the smile in Sakura’s voice. “Do you want any glitter?” They ask.

 

“Is that even a question? Of course I want glitter,” Mitsuba waits until the sound of Sakura rifling through their bag ends. “If you did get a choice, how would you want to go out?” 

 

A different brush paints glitter over Mitsuba’s eyelids, and Sakura is silent for what feels like an eternity. “What’s brought this on, anyway?” When they finally speak, they sound curious rather than judgemental, but if it wasn’t for the steady sweep of the makeup brush next to his eyes, Mitsuba thinks he might have flinched away. 

 

The truth always has to come out, eventually.

 

“I’ve seen how grief can ruin people,” He admits, curling his hands into the fabric of his coat. He’s sat awake more nights than he can count, wondering how big of a hole he will leave behind, how much collateral he is worth. “I know there’s families who got pulled apart by guilt, friendships that were ruined, people that’ll blame themselves forever. I want to make an impact before I go, but I don’t want it to be a bad one.” 

 

The brush lowers. When Mitsuba opens his eyes, Sakura is framed by firelight, and he’s sure that they understand. They’re in the same boat- sat just by the edge of the crowd, but feeling more than an eternity away. Like the stars overhead, nestled in their own comfortable corners of the galaxy while they burn their lives away.

 

“I want people to remember me forever- I’ve had enough of being forgotten,” Mitsuba continues, words punctuated by the traditional music that strikes up from the festival grounds beside them. “But I want to die in a way that nobody can blame themselves for.” 

 

Sakura’s smile is small and gentle, but from them, it speaks volumes. “That’s a pretty mature way of thinking about things,” They admit, glancing past Mitsuba towards where the lanterns flicker in the late spring breeze. “If that’s the case, then I think I want to die doing what people like us do best.”

 

Mitsuba blinks. A group of kids run up the stairs beside them, laughing with candied apples grasped in their tiny, young hands. “And what’s that?” He asks, quiet. The world doesn’t hold its breath, because time waits for nobody.

 

Sakura’s smile grows brighter, full to the brim with lantern-light. “Living the best we can.” 

 

It rings like a chime, hangs in the air in the same way as smoke hangs after a bonfire, and Mitsuba feels a part of himself lie to rest alongside it. He’s been told that he entered the world fighting- a kicking, screaming baby, full of life and determined to make an impact on anyone standing within fifty square meters. He can’t think of a better way to leave it all behind.

 

“Eyeliner?” Sakura then asks, as if the conversation never deviated from makeup at all. Mitsuba nods.

 

Sakura’s work leaves Mitsuba with sharp eyeliner, hazy dark eyeshadow and sweeps of golden glitter that make his eyes flash under the lanterns. He takes the ponytail out of his hair to let it fall loose, and decides that he’s never looked better. They head back into the festival grounds- takoyaki is bought, goldfish fail to be scooped and performances are watched, clapping along to drum beats and dances that twirl under the shadow of the shrine. Sakura kicks ass at a ring toss game and wins Mitsuba a tiny cat plush, which he tucks into the pocket of his coat and names Natsuhiko-chan , much to Sakura’s amusement.  

 

The walk up to the shrine is a long one- and Mitsuba becomes glad that he sacrificed style for the sake of comfort as Sakura stops every few steps to fuss over the way the heels on their boots are wrecking their ankles. It’s a familiar clap-and-bow at the vermillion torii gate, then Sakura leads the way for them both to wash their hands before making their prayers for a summer which will be their last. 

 

“It’s been good to talk about these things with someone who understands,” Sakura admits later, while they’re walking back down the stairs and the festival grounds hum below them. “Natsuhiko doesn’t know any different, and Tsukasa is, well-” They cut themself off with a small grin. 

 

Mitsuba thinks he can just about spot Kou’s shock of hair, waiting for him by the bottom of the steps. “It’s helped a lot, you’re right,” He admits, letting his guard down for a few, short moments. “I’ve been a lot less lonely this year, but in some ways, I’ve been more alone than ever.” 

 

“Well, for as long as I’m still around, you can email me if you ever want to talk.” Sakura offers quietly. 

 

Were Mitsuba feeling less sentimental, he’d make a joke- a lighthearted who even uses email, these days? Instead, he pulls Sakura into a hug; a few seconds of warmth and the smell of dried flowers and all the goodbyes he’s never known how to say. Then he takes the stairs two at a time and runs towards where Kou stands at the base of the hill, because Mitsuba Sousuke isn’t good at expressing his feelings, not verbally, at least.

 

“I could spot your hair from all the way at the top of the stairs- what are you, a canary?” Mitsuba berates, hitting Kou on the shoulder as he walks past. “How long have you been waiting there for me like a forlorn lover, anyway? It’s kinda pathetic.”

 

Kou turns as if he’s about to argue back, but all that comes out of his mouth is a noise that makes it sound significantly like he’s swallowed his own tongue. From where he’s half-way through a skewer of yakitori, Yokoo whistles in appreciation.

 

“Sousuke, your makeup!” Satou is the only one of them to actually speak, reaching over to slap Kou on the back before he chokes.

 

Mitsuba grins. “It’s half Sakura’s handiwork, half my natural good looks.” He frames his head between two hands, and Satou suddenly looks much less impressed. Kou blinks at him as though he’s seeing an entirely different person, or maybe undergoing an out-of-body experience. Something about it makes Mitsuba feel like his heart is trying to climb out from between his ribs. 

 

“Can we get candyfloss now?” Yokoo then pipes up, despite the fact that he still hasn’t finished his yakitori. Truthfully, Mitsuba is tired beyond belief- even with his comfortable shoes, he’s ready to sit down on a bench somewhere and not move for a week. But, he’d take anything to shake off the way Kou is watching him, entirely unreadable, so he nods. 

 

“Aren’t you going to tell me I’m pretty, canary-hair lame-earring boy?” Mitsuba falls in line beside Kou while Yokoo and Satou walk ahead in search of a stall selling candyfloss, weaving their way past the ring-toss game and the goldfish pools and a display lined with masks that Kou shrinks away from when they walk by. “Sakura did a great job on making me look even more brilliant.”

 

Mitsuba would take an insult, Kou telling him to shut up, a hard shove in the arm- anything other than the heavy, wordless silence that sits between them.

 

-

 

Denial is a state that Mitsuba is comfortable in, so he makes no attempt to bring up the way that Kou avoids his gaze more often than not.

 

-

 

The finale of spring comes in the form of a mid-May storm, thunder crashing through the clouds and hailing lightning down from the heavens; a deluge that floods the banks of the river within hours and leaves the scenic route to school ankle-deep in water by the time the day is over. Mitsuba is in class when it starts, so he, Yokoo and Satou huddle under one tiny, flower-print umbrella by the gate, and discuss their plan of action.

 

Satou proposes that they wait it out. Yokoo offers to call his dad to give them all a ride home. Mitsuba suggests that the convenience store which sells umbrellas is a three minute run away. (It’s a new addition to the Mitsuba way of doing things- living life the best he can.) 

 

They’re soaked by the time they make it to the convenience store, but even Satou is out of breath from laughing, so it feels more than worthwhile.

 

It’s after three days that the clouds finally break open, a shard of light splintering through the classroom window during lunch break and setting the sky alight with golden fire. The rain subsides over the duration of maths class, and Mitsuba stays behind to use the school darkroom even after Yokoo suggests that they hit the convenience store again to get iced tea and celebrate the end of spring. 

 

He’s yet to develop the photos from hanami in the park back in April, where Kou fed him mouthfuls of flan and Satou decided that he only has one life to live, so he’s going to do it properly. The dim red lights of the darkroom are calming and familiar, guiding Mitsuba through the process of turning camera film into snapshots of sakura blossoms and Satou’s tower of cookies and Yokoo with his hair full of flowers. He’s just about gotten used to doing things with the somewhat-useless remains of his right hand, using the stiff fingers as more of a support than something to grab and hold with. It’s a steep learning curve, and he almost spills developing fluid over himself more than once, but he can feel it getting easier with each repetitive motion.

 

Learning to live with things is something Mitsuba thinks he must be fully qualified in, by now.

 

There’s a knock on the darkroom door, and when Mitsuba opens it, squinting into the light of the hallway, Kou is standing there- ridiculous earring and all.

 

(Learning to live with Kou- that’s something Mitsuba hasn’t quite managed yet.)

 

“Thought I’d come and keep you company.” He says, in the subdued way that has become commonplace since the night of the spring festival. He hops up to sit on one of the countertops, and Mitsuba finds that he doesn’t even want to smack him in the knee, now entirely unsure of how he’d react.

 

“If I wanted company, you’d be the last person I asked,” He huffs instead, a half-hearted imitation of his usual conversations with Kou. “At least make yourself useful and start hanging these up for me.” 

 

Kou slides back to the ground, and quietly begins clipping developed photos up to dry along the strings criss-crossing the benches. The red lights glow, and neither of them say a word. 

 

“I’m going to head out onto the roof to take photos,” Mitsuba announces, once the pictures are all strung up around the room- decorations made out of sakura blossoms and Yokoo’s delighted smiles. “You can come if you want.” He aims for the statement to be nonchalant, but it comes across as anything but. Please come with me, it says. We need to talk.

 

Mitsuba Sousuke is bad with feelings. Minamoto Kou isn’t much better. He follows him onto the rooftop anyway.

 

Mitsuba had taken this same path once, over a year ago. The day he photographed Freedom from the Kamome Gakuen rooftop, clouds splitting open to reveal the sunset and gulls wheeling overhead. A year later, not much has changed. The clouds still yawn open like a window to the pink-gold-amber sky beyond, the gulls still fly, the storm still ends. Mitsuba has always looked at Freedom , and felt a piece missing- an empty space in the foreground where something should reside. Negative space, waiting to be filled. 

 

One year on, Minamoto Kou stands at the edge of the rooftop, leans out towards the sunset, and makes the picture whole again. 

 

It’s complete because Mitsuba loves the sky. He loves the birds. He loves the smell of the rain after a storm has broken. He loves Kou. As much as it makes him want to cover his eyes and scream over the rooftops until his throat hurts, he loves Kou. 

 

He raises his camera and snaps a photo, a new Freedom, right as Kou turns over his shoulder and asks him; “Sousuke, are you in love with someone?” 

 

The photo doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t- Kou is a dead-boy pretending to be a living-boy, and cameras aren’t made to capture ghosts on film. Mitsuba feels his heart migrate to his throat, because Kou is staring in a way he’s never stared before, and his eyes are filled with every constellation in the night sky.

 

Sousuke, are you in love with someone? Kou asks.

 

Of course I am, Mitsuba thinks. How could I not be?

 

“What do you need to know that for, huh?” He scoffs instead ( terrible with feelings). “Have you gone and fallen for me already?” 

 

The stormclouds are split wide open, the air tastes like Freedom, Kou is still staring.

 

“What if I said that I have?” He says, in the smallest voice Mitsuba has ever heard coming out of Minamoto Kou’s throat. 

 

Time doesn’t stop. The gulls still wheel overhead, the cars still pass by on the streets below, the road by the river is still ankle-deep in water. The start of Summer waits for nobody, and Kou is in love with him too. 

 

“Oh.” Mitsuba says. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

“So, Sousuke, are you in love with someone?” Kou asks again- stubborn, determined, and always alive.

 

Kou has developed the sudden ability to render Mitsuba speechless. So he throws aside all of his pride, and tells himself Spring only ends once. 

 

“You,” He says, and from the look on his face, he knows he’s left Kou speechless in return. “For some reason, you.”

 

“Oh.” Kou echoes. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

-

 

The line in Mitsuba’s notebook which reads get a boyfriend is struck out by a thick, wobbly line, but Mitsuba still pens down a small tick beside it. A fanfare in sparkly pink gel pen, because boyfriends is what he and Kou have decided to be.

 

Mitsuba quickly realises that boyfriends isn’t that much different to just-friends. Kou’s earring is still tacky, he still has bad taste, and Mitsuba still wants to slam the door to his bedroom in his face. He still drapes his cold arms across Mitsuba’s shoulders like a Kou-shaped blanket and offers all the wrong answers to his maths homework. Mitsuba still calls him a pervert, smacks his hands away, then whines when Kou slopes off to the other side of the room. 

 

“I suppose I could let you sit up here if you promise to keep your hands to yourself.” Mitsuba tries to force a change for his own peace of mind, patting the covers of his bed between the plushies. But then again, it’s not like Kou has never sat on the edge of his bed before. 

 

The line between them- it’s been blurred for a very long time.

 

With all the grace of an excited puppy, Kou hops onto the side of the bed, secures his arms firmly around Mitsuba’s waist, and pulls him down into a rib-crushing hug. Mitsuba lets out an unflattering shriek and is suddenly very glad that his mom isn’t home yet.

 

“That’s not sitting!” He protests, squirming to try and twist his way out of Kou’s grip. “That’s the opposite of sitting!”

 

Over his shoulder, Kou laughs- bright and warm enough to make up for the not-quite-human coldness of his hands. Mitsuba’s struggling grows a little more half-hearted. He flips himself over so he’s lying nose-to-nose with Kou- close enough to see the way his face scrunches up slightly when he laughs, and to view every single supernova that lives behind his glow-in-the-dark eyes. There’s a whole galaxy in there, vast and undiscovered.

 

“I bet you’re really enjoying this, traffic-safety earring pervert,” He sniffs. “Holding a cute boy captive in his own room- I don’t even want to know all the gross things you must be thinking about.”

 

Truthfully, Kou’s grip is loose enough that Mitsuba could stand up and move if he so wished. Truthfully, he finds that he doesn’t even want to. 

 

“You’re the one who’s messed up, for constantly thinking people want to do dirty things to you.” There’s no bite behind Kou’s words- instead he sounds almost scarily fond- and Mitsuba pushes his face into Kou’s shoulder so he doesn’t have to look into his eyes any more. He thinks, if he stares for a moment longer, then he’ll start wanting to kiss him.

 

“Sounds like something a pervert would say.” Mitsuba hums. Don’t let go, the way he curls up closer speaks for him. 

 

There’s no heart beating behind Kou’s ribs, his arms are cold as death and his chest doesn’t rise and fall with all the breaths he doesn’t take. Instead he brushes his fingers through Mitsuba’s hair, traces circles down his spine and talks in a voice that’s softer than Mitsuba has ever heard it become- alternative signs of life. It’s proof that he’s still here, that he doesn’t need to be alive to still be human.

 

“Do you think this is a good idea?” Kou asks later, the question heavy with worry that sounds entirely out of place.

 

Mitsuba doesn’t know how to deal with a Kou that is not smiling, so he doesn’t lift his head from against his shoulder. “No, I think letting you put your perverted hands all over me is a very bad-”

 

“I mean this. Us,” Quietly, his hands slow, still resting gently in Mitsuba’s hair, but no longer moving. “I’m not alive, remember? Amane told me that-”

 

“Amane told me plenty of stuff too,” Sharply, Mitsuba cuts him off. “I’m not Yashiro-san. You’re not Yugi Amane- thankfully, because I’d never go near you if you had Tsukasa’s face.”

 

It’s not his usual laugh, bubbling up from his chest and filling every corner of the room, but Kou laughs all the same. Mitsuba continues. “We can’t repeat whatever mistakes happened back then, ‘cause we’re not them. We’ll just make our own mistakes instead.”

 

“I think we’ve already made plenty of those.” Kou agrees softly. 

 

“Besides,” Mitsuba grins against Kou’s jacket. “I already ticked it off in the book, so you have to commit to it now.” 

 

At that, Kou does laugh properly. Mitsuba hides the way his entire face turns strawberry red, and the land lies correct once more.






Chapter Text

Mitsuba has a love-hate relationship with summer. On the one hand, he likes the colours, the late sunsets and the sight of a world that’s full to the brim with life. On the other hand, over eighty percent of his clothes become useless, and he’s forced to parade around town with his finger splints exposed to the world. As he wakes up to the hottest day of the year with hair that sticks to his forehead from the warmth, Mitsuba wonders if Sakura would let him borrow a pair of the lace gloves he knows they own.

 

Kou is his one saving grace- with hands that are always scarily cold, he’s like a not-quite-living ice pack that sits in the corner of Mitsuba’s room, still accommodating the beanbag despite the more relaxed guidelines. 

 

“It’s too warm.” Mitsuba groans, once he’s dressed and the curtains are thrown open to reveal the rooftops below, shimmering in the early-summer heat. Kou takes the hint, unfuses himself from the beanbag, and places a cold hand on both of Mitsuba’s cheeks. He holds his head in his palms, and Mitsuba sticks his tongue out in a way Kou knows by now to mean thank you. 

 

The traitorous thought creeps into the back of Mitsuba’s mind that it would be so easy to kiss Kou then and there. They’re barely an arms-length apart, Kou’s softer smiles aren’t wide enough for their teeth to hit together painfully, and for some reason Mitsuba likes him so much that it makes his head dizzy. He’s never kissed anyone before aside from an incident back in preschool after he was tricked into believing kisses would give him magic powers- but that doesn’t count. All that matters is that Kou is sitting so close that Mitsuba can see the tiny scar above his left eyebrow, and that crossing the distance would take no effort at all. Easy as breathing.

 

He grabs Kou’s hands by the wrist, and shoves them away. “Time’s up!” He calls, to quieten the triple-time beat of his heart. “You’ve gotta pay if you want to touch for any longer.” 

 

Kissing Kou would be the worst thing ever, he tells himself firmly. He’d be too enthusiastic, probably mess it up, and then Mitsuba would have to live with the knowledge that his first proper kiss was as terrible as they came until September sweeps around once more. Besides, his own bedroom- Mitsuba dressed for a day inside and Kou with his hair sticking up even worse than usual- is not the romantic setting he’s always imagined.

 

(Not that he’s ever imagined kissing Minamoto Kou before. Not that he thinks about it when he’s on the verge of falling asleep, and Kou is still talking softly about anything and everything from the other side of the room.) 

 

“How much do I have to pay to kick you in the knee?” Kou quips, but his ears have turned almost as red as his earring. It’s not flattering- Mitsuba tells himself. It’s not cute at all. 

 

“A lifetime in jail,” He responds, folding his arms against his chest to keep his traitorous heart in check. “For being evil and cruel and a terrible boyfriend.” 

 

“Let’s get ice cream.” Kou then attones, although let’s get ice cream usually involves Mitsuba buying himself a cone of raspberry sorbet and eating it while Kou watches and warns him when it’s about to melt down the side of his wrist. June has started warm this year, and so walking down the road to buy ice cream has become something of a ritual just for the two of them. Mitsuba denies that they’re dates. Kou calls them as such whenever he gets the chance, like the word tastes sweet on his tongue.

 

“You’re trying to waste all of my money, I knew it.” Mitsuba stands up to collect his shoes anyway. 

 

Though June has only just begun, the sky is blue and cloudless, and the air smells of summer when Mitsuba steps out of the front door, tossing Kou his keys so that he can lock up behind them. He can do it himself now with significantly greater ease, but that’s another ritual they’ve developed over time. Kou catches the keys, laughs at the excessive number of keyrings Mitsuba has collected, and the sound of key-in-lock joins the gulls in the sky.

 

Mitsuba has a love-hate relationship with summer. But as he takes the stairs two at a time and bursts out into the shimmering June air, Kou looks like he was made for it. 

 

-

 

The end of year exams are approaching, Satou brings more cakes and cookies to class by the day, and Yokoo stages an intervention in the form of a group trip to the park. Mitsuba grabs his camera as an afterthought. He has a plan to bulk-buy some photo frames so he can hang up pictures of the year all over his walls- an archive of memories from what has undoubtedly become the best year of his life.

 

As summer moves onward, the days get warmer and warmer until it’s impossible for Mitsuba to get away with even a loose cardigan. Instead, he settles for a t-shirt with a strawberry decal on the front alongside strict instructions for Kou to hold his right hand when they walk to the park. Though he’s just about grown used to the limited movement in his fingers, the splints and the angry scar across the back are still things he’s self-conscious about. (If he doesn’t want to look at them, then he can’t imagine what other people must think.) 

 

Stubborn as ever, Kou grabs his left hand instead. “It’s really not that bad, you know,” he reassures, and though Mitsuba can’t quite believe him, the certainty in Kou’s voice is almost enough to have him convinced. “People probably won’t even notice it.” 

 

Ever the optimist. Mitsuba shoves him lightly, but makes no attempt to pull his left hand free. “You’re right, people will be too busy staring at your awful earring.” 

 

“Why do you have such a problem with my earring?” Kou protests, earning an unimpressed frown in response. “It’s not that bad!”

 

“It’s tacky- just like you.” Mitsuba grins. He means it as an insult, but it comes out fonder than expected. Only now, he doesn’t have to reel it back in- he can let feelings spill over into his words unrestrained, now that summer is here and Kou is in love with him too.

 

A bubble of fond and happy thoughts rises in his chest like a tin-foil weather balloon, predicting sunny days and cloudless skies. So Mitsuba tests the waters, and steps out of his room still holding Kou’s hand tight. 

 

“Morning, Sousuke. Morning, Kou.” His mom doesn’t bat an eyelash- Kou has already established himself as a near-permanent fixture of their apartment, after all, and Yukie has always been able to read Mitsuba like an open book. He doesn’t know why he was even worried in the first place.

 

( Cute- she texts Mitsuba later, and he thoroughly curses the day Mitsuba Yukie woke up and decided she was going to be a cool mom who uses emojis and makes fun of her son’s love-life.)

 

“We’re going to the park to hang out with Yokoo and Satou,” He announces, pulling Kou over towards the door before he can strike up a good-natured conversation. They’re already running late as it is. “Don’t bother making lunch.” 

 

“I’ll put leftovers in the fridge for when you come looking for a snack later.” His mom laughs from where she’s reading something on the screen of her phone. Mitsuba wonders if he’s actually that much of an open book, or if his mom just errs on the wrong side of superhuman . He grabs his leather jacket and helmet, curses the heat, and shuts the door behind him.

 

Though the wind which flows past the motorcycle as Mitsuba drives them to the park is a welcome change from the stifling June weather, Kou’s arms wrapped comfortably around his waist are another problem entirely. His head rests against Mitsuba’s shoulder, hands clinging on tightly, and Mitsuba thinks he might just forget how to breathe somewhere between the traffic lights on the highstreet and the doors of the swimming pool down the road. 

 

Parking his bike is a nightmare as usual, so he kicks Kou off by the park gates- more for his own peace of mind than anything else- and finally discovers a place to nestle it between two cars on the far side of the road. If he looks closely, he can see a piece of garden wall that’s newer than its surroundings, patched up after a car and a boy broke it down one warm September night. 

 

The sight of it aches, but it’s no longer too painful to bear. 

 

Yokoo and Satou are already sat by the lake, always the first to arrive because Mitsuba and Kou have the combined time-keeping abilities of a broken pocket-watch, and for them to show up on time would probably tip the world off its axis. 

 

“Finally, they arrive!” Yokoo announces when they approach. Mitsuba doesn’t miss the way his arm is thrown casually over a stressed-looking Satou’s shoulders. He’d tease him for it mercilessly, if he wasn’t still holding Kou’s hand at his side. He knows what asking for trouble looks like, and currently it shares Yokoo’s wide, toothy grin. 

 

“The traffic was bad.” Mitsuba lies- it’s easier than admitting out loud that he was too scared to show the world the wreck of a hand attached to his right arm. 

 

“Yokoo wanted to buy ice cream for you when you arrived, but I told him that it would have totally melted before you got here.” Satou pipes up, and though he still looks a little stressed- always under heavy academic pressure from his family- an easy smile still slips onto his face. Mitsuba is glad to see that he hasn’t yet snapped under the tension. 

 

Mitsuba flops down heavily on the bench beside Yokoo, leaving barely enough room for Kou to perch beside him. “You have such little faith in us- where’s your sense of trust? Of respect? Of-”

 

“You lost all of my trust when you showed up half-way through Yokoo’s baseball game because you stopped to pet a cat and got lost.” The tone of Satou’s voice makes his words sound all too much like fighting talk.

 

“Hey,” Yokoo pipes up, turning to frown at Mitsuba. “You told me you were late because you needed to help your mom with the groceries!” 

 

Guilty as charged, Mitsuba raises his camera and takes a photo of Yokoo’s pouting face, just to give him something else to yell about. 

 

They get ice cream soon after, trailing through the park and stopping every few metres for Mitsuba to snap pictures of the flower beds and the trees full of leaves, so different to the reds, whites and pinks of the previous seasons. Summer is truly here, so Mitsuba buys the biggest cone of strawberry ice cream he can afford, and spends the whole walk back to the lake dodging Yokoo’s attempts to taste it as they go. 

 

Mitsuba gets photographic evidence of Satou biting into his ice cream without flinching, of the pigeons that crowd around Kou’s feet when a huge chunk of his lemon sorbet melts off the side and falls right onto the pavement, of the way Yokoo keeps linking fingers with Satou when he thinks nobody is looking. He wishes he could capture the way the summer sun turns Kou’s hair gold instead of blonde, or the way he’s yet to notice that he has ice-cream on his nose, or the way the violets they planted with their bare hands still sway, just visible over his shoulder.

 

“Once school is done, my dad said he’d be cool with driving the four of us down to the beach for a day or two, if you wanted,” Yokoo proposes, once his ice cream is eaten and Satou has berated him for getting chocolate all around his mouth. “It’s usually just Satou and me that go, but we should all be able to fit in the car.”

 

“We can put Satou in the boot if we don’t all fit- he’s small enough.” Mitsuba teases, and accepts that he probably deserves it when Satou stamps on his foot hard. 

 

Satou looks calmer as they make their summer plans, exams pushed to the back of his mind. Kou enthuses about how he hasn’t seen the sea in years- something which falls a lot heavier to Mitsuba’s ears than it does for the others. Mitsuba shrugs, and admits that it might be fun. (He knows his smile must betray his own excitement.)

 

Summer may be the last season that he’s going to have, but Mitsuba isn’t ready to loosen his grip just yet. He has the park, his friends, his boyfriend, and a few months left to go. There’s still memories he has yet to form- and he knows that this is one of them he wants to hold onto.

 

So Mitsuba jumps to his feet and props his camera on the bench across the other side of the path, angling it so that the lens is pointing in the right direction to catch where the four of them were sitting previously. 

 

“Getting a photo of all of us,” Mitsuba calls, when Satou asks what he’s doing. “Start looking pretty- and Kou, you’re still in the shot, you might want to move.”

 

They’ve already established a lie that Kou is incredibly camera-shy, so Mitsuba asking him to get out of the way isn’t an unexpected request. Only this time, Kou just grins wider. “I think I’m fine here.” He says.

 

“But you-” Mitsuba begins to speak, but the timer on the camera starts counting down from ten. He doesn’t have time to question it further, running to the bench and scrambling back into his seat. Kou throws a cold arm around his shoulder, grins supernovas into the summer-heavy air, and Mitsuba is still staring shamelessly at him when the camera shutter snaps.

 

Technically, the photo is one of the worst he’s ever taken. It’s slightly lopsided, not exactly in focus, and the magnification he had to put on will probably do a number on the image quality. But for once, he doesn’t think about the fine details. Satou is throwing a peace sign into the air and casting a sideways glance towards Yokoo, their fingers linked together. Yokoo is smiling with his entire body, eyes closed and his other hand resting on Mitsuba’s knee. Mitsuba isn’t even looking at the camera, head turned off to the side like he’s hopelessly distracted. And there, barely hanging onto the edge of the bench, is Kou. Kilowatt grin, arm thrown around Mitsuba’s shoulder, legs kicked off the ground like he’s about to fall.

 

A memory, made and captured and entirely impossible.

 

What the hell, Kou- He turns to say. 

 

“Wait, where’s Kou gone?” Yokoo beats him to it. 

 

-

 

Kou doesn’t show up the following day, completely absent from his usual position in his beanbag or hovering over Mitsuba’s desk. He’s not there on Monday either, waiting outside of the school gates. He’s not there on Tuesday, when Mitsuba stays behind in the school darkroom and develops three copies of the photo from the park- two for Yokoo and Satou, one for himself. 

 

The frames Mitsuba ordered online show up at the apartment, and he slips the photo inside; a single moment of Yokoo-Satou-Kou-and-Mitsuba on a park bench in summertime. A picture that Mitsuba wants to keep close to his heart forever. So he places it on his shelves, next to the photos of him and his mom and Kou and his family- a small collection of the things that are most important to him. 

 

He’d never admit such things out loud, though. (Not that he’d need to, when Kou can look into his eyes and see every traitorous thought he’s ever tried to hide.)

 

Kou isn’t there on Wednesday or Thursday either. Mitsuba crosses off another item on his list- learning to skim stones by the river- without Kou there to witness it. He doesn’t need Kou to help him live his life the best he can. He isn’t an essential piece of Mitsuba, like a heart or a lung or a piece of his spinal cord. 

 

But, while a person might not need both of their hands, that doesn’t mean it hurts any less when one is lost. (Mitsuba might not need Kou, but his room feels empty in all four corners without him.) 

 

-

 

On Friday afternoon, Kou is waiting by the school gates again.

 

He has the nerve to smile when Mitsuba runs over, although it’s a little more dull than usual- a sunset on a cloudy day, rather than the full heat of summer. 

 

Mitsuba is mad at him (and worried, and upset ), so he storms past and doesn’t say a word. They walk back to Mitsuba’s apartment in complete silence for what feels like the first time, and it makes the journey feel excruciatingly long. They forego the convenience store and the scenic route by the river and down the sidestreets, instead cutting directly across town. Every time Kou opens his mouth to say something, Mitsuba walks a little bit faster.

 

He doesn’t want to hear a word of what Kou has to say while they’re in public. Whatever explanation he has to give, Mitsuba knows for certain that it’s going to make him cry, or something equally as embarrassing.

 

He’s gone without an explanation until now. He can last a little while longer. 

 

Kou gives up trying once they pass the swimming pool, and that’s Mitsuba’s first indication that something is very wrong indeed. Kou is stubborn, bull-headed, and whatever the situation, he doesn’t give up. He doesn’t hang his head in shame, and he doesn’t fall behind while Mitsuba strides ahead. 

 

They pass into the apartment stairwell, before Mitsuba finally decides he has waited long enough.

 

“Where did you go?” he demands, walking straight past his own floor and continuing upwards. “How the hell did you show up in that photo? And why are you so quiet- it’s creepy!” 

 

He forces open the double doors at the very top of the stairs, leading out onto a poor excuse for a rooftop garden. Mitsuba rarely visits it- the garden aspect consists of a few withered plants lined up in pots down the middle of the roof, and the rest is an expanse of concrete that looks out over the town. The four short walls boxing it in are hardly high enough to stop someone from toppling over the edge. It’s a bit of an eyesore to say the least, but it’s quiet. Quiet is what Mitsuba needs. 

 

“I’m sorry for vanishing,” Kou says, hesitantly. You’d better be sorry, Mitsuba would tell him, if he wasn’t confused out of his mind. “I underestimated just how much energy it would take.”

 

There’s something warm and uncomfortable that begins to settle in Mitsuba’s lungs, like a threat that he will soon forget to breathe. Pieces slotting into place that he desperately wants to ignore. “As numerous as my talents are, Kou, I’m not a mind-reader.” He quips.

 

“The photo,” Kou laughs, sheepish, half-ashamed. Mitsuba knew it. “You kept talking about wanting to document your memories, so I-”

 

“So you decided to temporarily wipe yourself out of existence, just so I could take a nice picture?” Mitsuba finishes for him, and curls his hands into two uneven fists by his sides. They’re standing close to the wall, and over Kou’s shoulder, he can see the cars flying past, unaware. “You didn’t think it would be a good idea to mention it first?”

 

Mitsuba is glad that he brought them up to the roof, because at least then he can blame the tears that cling to his eyelashes on summertime pollen and the breeze which herds the clouds across the skyline.

 

“Do you not like the photo?” Kou asks- failing monumentally to read the atmosphere.

 

“Of course I like it, you idiot!” Mitsuba gives him a firm shove, one hand on each shoulder. Kou stumbles backwards, a little closer to the edge of the roof. “But I’d be fine without it too! What if you never came back? What if it took till September for you to show up again, and by that time it was all over?”

 

Only on rooftops at the cusp of summer does Mitsuba gain the ability to render Kou speechless.

 

“You can’t do everything yourself! You might not be alive- but you’re still only human!” Mitsuba continues. Another shove, another step backwards. Stupid, selfless Minamoto Kou doesn’t say a word. 

 

“Do you just do everything that people say?” Mitsuba grabs Kou’s jacket by the lapels. (He’s finally dressed for the right weather now that summer is here. That’s the least of Mitsuba’s worries.) “If I told you to jump off this building right now for me, would you do it?” Kou doesn’t reply, but the expression on his face is telling enough. “Don’t you dare even think about answering that, I swear-”

 

Mitsuba can’t remember the last time he felt this sad and this angry at the same time. It’s not just the photo- it’s every ridiculous, self-sacrificing thing that Kou has ever done- all building up to this . Mitsuba almost wants him to fight back, to give a proper explanation, but Kou offers him nothing but silence that anesthetizes limbs and makes his head spin.

 

“You’re always so stupid,” Mitsuba yells at Kou, the skyline and the buildings below. “Self-sacrificing,” He takes a step forward, then another. “Irresponsible, and-”

 

“Sousuke,” Kou says, breathless with terror. “I’m going to fall.”

 

Mitsuba comes crashing violently back down to earth. 

 

His hands grip Kou’s jacket white-knuckled, forcing him so far backwards that he’s leaning out over the top of the wall, clinging with shaking fingertips onto the edge like he’s got a life that depends on it. His entire body is tilted out into open space, and it takes Mitsuba a few terrifying moments to recover enough clarity to haul him backwards, pulling him away from the edge with shaking hands. He feels sick to his stomach.

 

“I,” Mitsuba breathes out, covering his mouth and feeling the way his breath catches in his throat. “I didn’t mean-”

 

Kou clears the space between them in what would be a sprint if he had the space to get going, and pulls Mitsuba into a hug.

 

Mitsuba is glad that the rooftop garden is rarely visited, because he loses track of how long he and Kou stand there, clinging hard to each other as if they’re still balanced on the precipice and seconds away from falling. He’s not sure which of them is shaking the hardest- it’s as if they’ve become one entity, losing all the places where Mitsuba Sousuke ends and Minamoto Kou begins. Mitsuba doesn’t want to let go. He doesn’t ever want to let go.

 

“Are you still mad at me?” A part that is probably Kou asks, muffled against a shoulder that is probably Mitsuba’s. Failing to read the room in a way that should be expected by now. Mitsuba sighs.

 

“Absolutely,” He says, each syllable losing more of it’s bite than the one before it. “I’m so angry I don’t even want to look at you.” Mitsuba couldn’t look at Kou even if he wanted to, eyesight rendered useless by the shoulder of his jacket. 

 

“Do you really think it’s that bad for me to want to help people?” Kou untangles himself and stares at Mitsuba across the small section of rooftop garden that now separates them. The question is completely earnest, and Mitsuba hates it. How can he stop Kou from giving every piece of himself away, when selflessness is as much a part of him as his eyes or his lungs? 

 

“If I got hurt trying to help you, would it be painful to you?” It’s a cheap tactic, to spin the situation on its head, but it’s all Mitsuba can think to try.

 

Kou blinks, confused. “Of course it would be.” 

 

“Then why shouldn’t it be the same the other way around?” Mitsuba says. Kou stares right into him like the world around them no longer exists, and looks as if he’s half-way to achieving a world-altering revelation. Wide eyes, mouth slightly open. Mitsuba wants to tell him he’ll catch a fly in it, if he stands like that for much longer. (Or maybe he wants to kiss him instead. Either is equally as plausible.)

 

He doesn’t do either- one thing he has over Kou is that he does know how to read the mood. 

 

“It’s not just me, either,” Mitsuba continues. “When you help people by putting yourself at risk, you just hurt them in another way entirely. Me, your brother, Amane- we’ve all felt it. Ask either of them if you want a second opinion.”

 

A car alarm sounds from the road below- a loud, jarring sound that would have made Mitsuba jump a foot in the air if he wasn’t entirely focused on something else. Something else being Kou, staring like he’s realised his own importance for the first time in his not-quite-life. 

 

“Ah.” He says, almost drowned out by the alarm.

 

“You can’t change the world on your own,” Mitsuba tells him, then shoves him in the arm weakly. Kou falling silent always feels like a premonition that bad things are about to happen. “‘Cause you’re just a human with a dumb earring and a death wish.” 

 

“I mean, I’m already dead, so-” Kou starts. 

 

Mitsuba had wanted his first proper kiss to be a romantic affair. Standing at the edge of the worst excuse of a rooftop garden for miles, eyes red from crying and his throat raw from yelling is not what he had in mind. Still, Kou is close, he’s exactly the right height to lean into, and Mitsuba can’t think of a better way to shut him up. So he stands up as tall as he can make himself, and-

 

“If I kiss you, will you be quiet?” He asks, and feels his entire face turn unflatteringly red at the statement. Kou doesn’t look much better off- eyes wide and owlish and his mouth still hanging open. At least he’s not talking any more. Mitsuba worries for a second that Kou is going to say no- that he’s moved too fast and made a mess of everything. Then, as if he’s only just remembered how to move, Kou nods. 

 

“Go on then, we can’t stand up here all day.” Mitsuba prompts.

 

“Oh, you wanted me to-” Kou looks startled, recollects himself, and takes a gentle step closer within the space of what can’t be more than a heartbeat.

 

Up at the top of their world, surrounded by concrete, blue skies and summer, Kou presses a short, hesitant kiss against Mitsuba’s lips. It’s over in seconds, but once they separate Kou is grinning like an idiot, and Mitsuba finds that he can almost forgive him for taking so long. (So long to come back, so long to accept that he can’t change the world, so long to finally let Mitsuba know that first kisses don’t need to be spectacular.)

 

“Can I do that again?” Kou asks. There’s the enthusiasm, Mitsuba thinks.

 

“You’re shameless .” Mitsuba tells him, and decides that, if the rest of summer feels like this, he’ll go down smiling.

 

-

 

The end of year exams creep up on Mitsuba in the same way that a summer storm catches people off-guard, left outside without an umbrella. He hasn’t revised as hard as he could have done- just enough to keep himself out of remedial classes over summer- and he can feel Satou’s disapproval like it’s something alive and mildly irritating. Yokoo has a similar laid-back approach- he’s aiming to go pro in one of his many sports, and he’s claimed more than once that he doesn’t need ionic bonds to kick a football or sail a boat. Satou’s exam stress manifests in the form of freshly baked goods on a daily basis, and Yokoo makes a wordless promise to check on him each night after school. 

 

Kou sits in his beanbag, mercifully excused from exams. Instead, he makes Mitsuba coffee, acts as a human ice-pack on the days when the temperature grows too warm, and sometimes perches on the edge of the bed when Mitsuba lets him.

 

Exams come and go, Satou heaves a sigh of relief over no longer having to spend all of his savings on eggs and flour, and Mitsuba comes to the harsh realisation that he’s never going to come to school again.

 

He lingers behind on their last day, despite Yokoo and Satou’s invitation to the cafe down the road to celebrate the real start of summer. A lie that he needs to use the darkroom to develop some photos, despite the fact that he did all the work he needed to at the photography club the previous evening. 

 

Instead, he stands in the middle of the empty classroom, and takes it all in. There’s his desk, one row from the window, still decorated with the flower sticker he put there at the beginning of the year. There’s Yokoo and Satou’s desks in the front row, where they always eat lunch, pushed a little closer together than two desks should be. There’s the class plants lined up by the back window, which Yokoo almost killed when he was put in charge of them back in March. 

 

He was correct when he thought to himself, a lifetime ago, that elementary school was rough, middle school was rough for entirely different reasons, and this year would be the hardest of them all. But it was also one of the best. He tackled Yokoo’s odd lunch preferences, did homework the period before it was due, and spent a whole week trying to bring the class plants back from the dead. He found best friends in the front row of desks, a boyfriend on the roof, and left memories in every corridor.

 

He pulls on his shoes, shuts his locker for the final time, and walks out of the front doors smiling.

 

-

 

“I’m offended that you haven’t taken me on a proper date yet.” Mitsuba announces, once school is over and he no longer has to think about exams or getting up early to make it to class on time. Kou frowns.

 

“I’ve been getting ice-cream with you since June though?” He questions. “I thought those were dates.”

 

“You really think that sitting on a bench outside the convenience store and watching while I eat raspberry sorbet counts as a date?” Mitsuba groans, rolling over on his bed to stare at Kou in what he hopes is disappointment. “You’re the worst at this. I bet you wouldn’t know a good date idea if it kicked you in the face.” 

 

Kou picks up a pink fluffy dog plush from the floor and throws it at Mitsuba. It misses, hitting the wall behind his head, but Mitsuba still falls back dramatically as if he’s been shot. The stack of plushies in the corner of his bed collapses, nearly burying him entirely. 

 

“Fine then!” Mitsuba can’t see from where he’s stuck under a mountain of perhaps too many plushies, but he can hear Kou’s bright grin in every corner of his words. Mitsuba groans. “I’m gonna take you on the best date ever! You won’t even know what hit you!” 

 

“Oh yeah?” Mitsuba uncovers himself, and stares at Kou in a way that he hopes looks like a challenge. “I’ll be waiting to see what the lame-earring boy with terrible taste thinks is a good date.”

 

Kou flashes his sharp canines, and clearly knows fighting talk when he hears it.

 

-

 

“Kou told me he’s gonna take me on the best date ever, then stole my laptop and locked me out of my own bedroom.” Mitsuba complains on the phone to Satou later, a tub of ice cream in his lap and a game show on the TV that he’s only half paying attention to.

 

“So, you finally took your own advice and admitted that you like him?” Satou deadpans from the other end of the line.

 

Mitsuba realises his error a second too late, and hangs up before Satou can say another word.

 

-

 

In the middle of July, Kou tells Mitsuba to pack his camera, wear comfortable shoes, and find his headphones, because he has no intention of getting a train ticket of his own. 

 

From the way Kou is talking, Mitsuba assumes that his aforementioned date idea is going to be an all-day affair, and finds that he’s feeling significantly more afraid than he did beforehand. It’s not really a date- he’s the one paying for it after all- but Kou won’t let him look at his bank transactions until the day is over, not wanting to ruin the surprise. Mitsuba just hopes he had the common sense to not go wild with the spending.

 

Most of his photography award money went into his jacket and his motorcycle, and he’d quite like to enjoy the rest of the summer without having to scrounge money off Yokoo and Satou. 

 

“You look nice today.” Kou offers as they walk to the train station, his jacket tied around his waist and one of Mitsuba’s pink hairclips he didn’t ask to borrow sitting in his hair. Left entirely in the dark about their destination, Mitsuba had decided to dress for every possible occasion- boots which he knows he can walk for hours in, dungarees that he knows look cute and stylish, and a light t-shirt to keep himself cool under the summer sun. He wonders if Kou will notice the clip-on earrings he found in his desk drawer and threw on for the occasion.

 

“I bet you’re only telling me that because you’re trying to win me over.” Mitsuba huffs under his breath, trying to keep his voice down low so that nobody thinks he’s talking to himself. He doesn’t tell Kou he looks nice in return, because he looks the same as usual- unruly hair, tacky accessories, plain trousers and t-shirt combo. Mitsuba thinks Kou is lucky that his personality is large enough to make up for it.

 

They catch the train line to Asakusa, Kou hopping over the turnstile unseen in a way that makes Mitsuba almost choke on a laugh. They manage to get a seat on the train, and Mitsuba spends the whole journey with his phone glued to his ear, pretending to take a call so he can talk to Kou without receiving too many odd looks. (An hour-long phone call may not be the best look either, but he’d much prefer looking clingy to looking like the sort of person who talks to himself.)

 

Kou, upon assuring Mitsuba that he’s visible once they’ve left the station, drags him across the river, pulls him down a street which he swears is the right one, and gets them lost within minutes. For once, Mitsuba doesn’t make fun of him for it- he rarely visits central Tokyo, but every time he and his mom have made the trip, they’ve gotten lost at least twice. It’s a rite of passage, of sorts. 

 

They wander past shops, commuters and ice-cream stands, until Kou finally turns, grins fireworks into the summer air, and points upwards at the Skytree which looms dizzyingly high into the air before them. 

 

“Surprise!” He announces, so bright and hopeful that it’s almost painful to look at. Like staring directly into the sun- brilliant, dazzling and completely hazardous to Mitsuba’s health. “One of the points in your book was to visit the Skytree, so I spent ages trying to book tickets and finding a day when it wouldn’t be that busy and-”

 

They’re in public, stood in the middle of a busy street at the base of one of Asakusa’s tourist hotspots, but Mitsuba pulls Kou into a hug anyway. “Maybe you don’t totally suck at planning dates.” He admits, reluctantly. Kou beams, and Mitsuba finds himself wishing he had brought sunglasses.

 

They catch the elevator up to the first observation deck, Mitsuba closes his eyes so he doesn’t spoil the surprise for himself, and Kou leads him up to the second, one cold hand upon his arm at all times. He opens his eyes only to step into the second elevator, after he almost trips over his own feet and Kou laughs mercilessly at him. (Mitsuba hits him, and Kou admits that he probably deserved it.)

 

“Lead me over to the window, I want to open my eyes and see it all right away.” Mitsuba instructs, and finds that he can barely keep the excitement out of his voice. Kou links their arms together and walks him over to what Mitsuba hopes is the window, stumbling over his shoelaces and laughing as they go.

 

“Okay, you can look now!” Kou announces, words filled to the brim with wonder.

 

Mitsuba opens his eyes, and the whole world extends out below his feet.

 

Normally he’d be terrified of standing at such a height, but the view knocks any semblance of fear clean out of his lungs. Instead he stares awestruck at the expanse of the city, lying like a sprawling monster as far as the eye can see- angular and catching the sunlight, living, breathing, moving. He presses his face to the window and wonders if this is what birds see, and what people mean when they say that, if they could have any superpower, it would be flight. 

 

He’s never felt so small, yet more like a giant in one single breath.

 

Kou stands next to him with his nose squashed up against the glass, trying to get a look at the cars that crawl by their feet, small as ants from their perch in the sky. He’s grinning from ear to ear, so Mitsuba can see the chip in his tooth and his sharper-than-normal canines clearly.

 

“Are you trying to fall out?” Mitsuba asks, unimpressed, and Kou finally peels his face away from the glass with a sheepish grin. 

 

Mitsuba raises his camera and begins moving around the observation deck, taking photos of the rising spines of the city below, snapshots of the jagged shapes that cut geometry into the landscape. It’s not ideal, taking photos through the glass, but he knows he’s good enough at editing to make it work. He takes a picture on his phone too- one of the view for his mom, and one of his own face against the view for Yokoo and Satou. 

 

He takes snapshots out over the river, and though the entire world lies below them, Kou is not looking out of the window at all. He’s wearing one of his softer smiles, his whole face melting into it, and he’s watching every movement that Mitsuba makes, slight adjustments of his focus, the settings, his position. He’s staring as if he’s in love in every sense of the word, and it kind of makes Mitsuba want to hold his hand or kiss him- neither of which would be any good.  

 

“I know I’m pretty, but the view is out there, idiot.” He says as compensation, and hopes his ears haven’t turned as red as they feel. He reaches out a hand to shove Kou’s face so that he’s turned towards the window again, earning a displeased shout and some odd looks from the tourists around them. 

 

On the way back down the elevator, Mitsuba decides that there’s few enough people looking to get away with kissing Kou on the cheek- a quick, wordless thank you for showing me the world which he hopes Kou can interpret. 

 

(Mitsuba may not wear his heart on his sleeve, but Kou can read him like he does.)

 

Back on the first observation deck, Mitsuba points out pieces of Tokyo that he recognises- a bridge across the river where his mom once tripped and dropped a whole crepe over the side, a green area he’s convinced is the park where a massive golden retriever knocked him clean off his feet, the tall building he’s sure he and his mom used as a landmark for when they got lost. 

 

Kou tells memories of his own, no longer having to pretend that they’re something he’s missing. he mentions the time Teru got lost in the Seibu Shibuya department store, the weekend his mom got time out of hospital and bought them on the train to buy all the street-food they wanted, the time he tried to take a train to Shinagawa but ended up in Shinjuku instead.

 

Little pieces of Minamoto Kou that Mitsuba will hold onto in place of the photos he cannot take.

 

They eat in the Skytree cafe, the views making Mitsuba’s slice of cheesecake one of the best he’s ever eaten- as he takes a photo of it sitting against the backdrop of half of Tokyo. Kou takes seven consecutive unflattering photos of Mitsuba against the window on the first observation deck, before Mitsuba bans him from photography for the remainder of their trip.

 

Because apparently, the Skytree is only the first thing on Kou’s itinerary. He borrows Mitsuba’s phone to use the map feature and takes them to an onigiri place for lunch, nestled down a sidestreet and so well hidden that Mitsuba would have walked past were it not for Kou pulling him in through the doorway. It’s quiet and the onigiri is delicious, and the traditional decorations are a nice change of pace to the business of the city beyond.

 

A quick glance at the time, and Kou announces that they have to keep moving, or they’ll be late for their next spot. Mitsuba wonders just how many things Kou has managed to prepare, especially for a person who acts like he’s never made a plan in his life.

 

Kou leads him on a veritable tour of Asakusa, pulling him back across the river to snap photos of the Kaminarimon gate with its giant lantern and crowd of tourists, stopping for ice-cream from one of the road-side vendors, then window shopping for cute clothes and stationary in the mall. They get lost more times than Mitsuba can count on both hands, and by mid-afternoon the temperature is a little too hot to bear, but for the way Kou grins expectantly every time they reach a new location, he’s willing to power through the summer heat. 

 

Lost amongst the bustling streets, Mitsuba finds that he can forget about everything aside from Kou and his ridiculous, hopeful grin. He doesn’t need to worry about the fact that his time is running out, or think about how he’s going to say goodbye to everyone, or worry about Tsukasa’s flame-lit eyes balanced on a lantern in the dark. All he needs to think about is the location of the park Kou swears is nearby, the not-yet-unpleasant ache in his ankles from walking all day, and the way Kou’s eyes flash neon beneath the billboards, trained on the screen of Mitsuba’s phone.

 

Here, nobody knows either of them. Mitsuba and Kou are just faces that will pass by on the street and be forgotten in moments, yet, surprisingly, Mitsuba is okay with it. He’s learned by now that he can’t leave pieces of himself in everyone’s memories- so instead he will just have to make sure that, to those who do remember him, he is nothing short of unforgettable. 

 

Kou points out the entrance of Sumida park, where the spire of the Skytree looms up past the tree branches and the expanse of the river, and he stares at Mitsuba as if getting lost was something he had planned from the beginning. Their fingers still link together even though there’s no longer a risk of getting separated in the crowds, and Mitsuba wonders if summer has always looked this bright. (Maybe it’s just Kou, turning the whole world around him electric.)

 

They settle by the banks of the river while the sun begins to dip in the sky, and Mitsuba snaps photos of the way it stains the water surface golden. Kou taps his fingers against the edge of the bench and waits impatiently for Mitsuba to finish- which only encourages Mitsuba to take even more time adjusting the settings of his camera to see the way his frown deepens by the second. 

 

“So,” He starts, when Mitsuba is finally satisfied enough to lower his lens. “How was that for a date?” 

 

The enthusiasm of Minamoto Kou knows no limits, and Mitsuba almost laughs at how eager he sounds. Like the golden retriever that had almost squashed him flat last time he visited Asakusa over a year ago. “It was alright, I guess.” He teases, just to watch how quickly Kou’s mood can change. 

 

“Come on, it was way more than alright, I spent hours planning this!” Kou tries to defend himself and his elaborate date ideas, and Mitsuba can’t help but be impressed. Kou put a hundred and ten percent into every single corner of Asakusa that he dragged Mitsuba to, each moment planned to the tiniest detail by a person who is usually as spontaneous as they come. He’s ticked at least three things from Mitsuba’s list in the course of one day, shown him what it would feel like to fly, and smiled alongside him even when they got lost and the weather felt too warm to breathe past. Alright is far too small of a word to describe it.

 

Though they’re in public, Mitsuba leans his head against Kou’s shoulder, curling up close and watching pedestrians, the river and time drifting on by.

 

“It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had.” He admits, in a small, barely-there voice. A piece of honesty that makes his entire chest feel warm.

 

“That’s more like it.” Kou laughs. Even as they walk to the station and catch the train back home, he’s still beaming from ear to ear.

 

-

 

“Someone looks like they had fun.” Yukie teases when Kou performs a charade of dropping Mitsuba off at the apartment door, and Mitsuba can’t quite manage to school the smile off his face in time. 

 

“It wasn’t fun at all. We got lost and Kou made me pay for everything.” He grumbles in response, and hates the way his voice betrays how his heart is doing backflips behind his ribcage. 

 

“Sounds terrible.” His mom grins, like she doesn’t believe him in the slightest.

 

-

 

Mitsuba regrets spending so much money on the trip to Asakusa when Yokoo and Satou invite him and Kou to the arcade in the center of town. Neither of them mention it out loud, but it’s clearly a double date- right down to the way they pack into a cafe booth to get milkshakes beforehand. Mitsuba and Kou on one side, Yokoo and Satou on the other, nudging each other’s ankles under the table. 

 

Saving his money for the actual arcade, Mitsuba just steals sips of Yokoo and Satou’s drinks, pockets heavy with the knowledge that he’s going to have to pay for Kou as well- grim reaper boys don’t get allowances or have savings to tap into, after all. While Kou may be able to slip unseen onto public transport, and he has no need to buy food to eat- he still hasn’t found a way of ghosting himself onto the claw machines at the arcade. 

 

Mitsuba considers emailing Sakura again, to ask how they go about budgeting the not-quite-human that lives in their bedroom. He shoots Kou a withering glance, for good measure.

 

“You know, Satou is actually really good at DDR,” Yokoo pipes up, whipped cream from the top of his milkshake stuck to the corners of his mouth. Mitsuba hopes, for the sake of his sanity, that Satou doesn’t do something gross like wiping it off for him. “He hasn’t done it in a while, but I bet he could beat any of you.” 

 

Mitsuba goes to say that he’s already had enough of broken bones, and would quite like his ankles to stay intact too. Kou beats him to it, slapping his hands down on the tabletop with a wicked grin.

 

“You’re talking to the reigning DDR champion of my former Middle School- wanna bet?” He challenges. Mitsuba waves goodbye to all his hopes of saving enough money to buy himself a four-pack of puddings from the store later.

 

“I bet you’re just making that up,” Mitsuba prods Kou in the arm, voicing his displeasure in the way he does best. “You’re too clumsy and uncoordinated.”

 

Satou laughs sharply, endlessly amused by the betrayed expression on Kou’s face. “You’re supposed to be rooting for him, Sousuke!”

 

Mitsuba folds his arms with a sense of finality. “I’m not going to root for someone who’s probably going to lose because he’s terrible at DDR.” 

 

Unfortunately, Kou is- as he said- really, really good at DDR.

 

It’s like he reserves every bit of his coordination solely for the act of stamping on flashy light-up arrows, hitting each one perfectly on-beat in a way that’s as mystifying as it is impressive. Mitsuba accuses him of cheating. Kou throws his jacket at him and calls him a sore loser. Satou is good too, but Kou completely wipes the floor with him three songs in a row before he admits defeat, and announces Kou the reigning DDR champion of his former Middle School and the cool people (including Yokoo and Kou) group too.

 

“Why are you even so good at this?” Mitsuba asks later, once Kou finishes up a solo song and Mitsuba can stop watching him in mystified silence. 

 

Kou turns to him, expression completely deadpan. “Teru-nii and I used to use it to settle arguments.”

 

The image of Minamoto Teru on a DDR machine is not one that Mitsuba wants to entertain, so he nips the conversation in the bud then and there.    

 

Yokoo is the next of the group to come close to running out of money, feeding most of his spare change into the claw machine in an attempt to win a penguin plushie which he’s convinced looks like Satou. He keeps trying despite Satou’s constant reminders that the machines are rigged and that he’s never going to manage it, scooping up the penguin on his second-last try and depositing it right into Satou’s arms. Mitsuba reluctantly admits that he’s impressed, and immediately turns to Kou to ask why he’s not putting in a similar level of effort to win him prizes.

 

“You already have enough plushies to populate a small country, Sousuke.” Satou jokes, the penguin tucked under his arm while they wander around to find the racing games that Yokoo swears are more fun than they sound. 

 

“You’re all so mean, ” Mitsuba huffs to himself. “Next you’ll all be ganging up on me to do who knows what, and-”

 

Kou grabs Mitsuba from behind, effectively transforming his words into a shriek and hoisting him kicking and squirming off the ground. Mitsuba struggles and yells that there’s a pervert trying to get me send help and Kou deposits him ungracefully onto the floor of the arcade with a heavy thud. Mitsuba has always been proud of his ability to fake-cry, so he blinks heavily until crocodile tears cling to his eyelashes and Kou hauls him back to his feet with a groan.

 

“Your personality is so, so terrible.” Kou laughs, half fond and half disbelieving. Both a ‘ why do I stand you’ and an ‘ I like you anyway’ rolled into one.

 

“But you’re still hanging out with me.” Mitsuba wipes away his fake tears with a grin, and the words taste like strawberry milkshakes and late September.

 

“Where’s Yokoo and Satou?” Kou glances from one end of the row to the other, and finds that they’ve long since been left behind.

 

Mitsuba beats all three of them at Yokoo’s racing games, experience with riding an actual motorcycle giving him a tactical advantage- or so Satou claims, hopping down from the plastic-clad silhouette of a fake bike. “Maybe I’m just naturally brilliant.” Mitsuba quips in response, a self-satisfied smile putting all of his teeth on display. 

 

“We should do this again.” Yokoo announces, once they’ve pooled all their remaining money into a four-pack of puddings from the supermarket and settled down on a bench by the side of the road. They share a single plastic spoon between the four of them- because Satou was the only person sensible enough to grab one.

 

They hang out as a group all the time- almost every other day now that summer is upon them- so Mitsuba can only assume that this refers to the whole double-date thing. To the fact that nobody cared when Yokoo kissed Satou on the forehead after he finally won against Kou at DDR, or that Mitsuba and Kou have been holding hands for the past fifteen minutes despite the summer heat. Letting bits of their affection bleed out unrestrained for the others to see. A secret, seen but not spoken.

 

Mitsuba considers telling them no, because it’s already late July, and he doesn’t want the Yokoo and Satou of September and beyond to keep habitually planning dates that work best with four. Over one short year, they’ve built so many habits together- he doesn’t want going to arcades and cafes to become painful for them too. (As much as he complains, as much as he doesn’t know how to tell them as such, he still wants Yokoo and Satou to be happy- both as Yokoo-and-Satou and as individuals too.)

 

Kou nudges him in the arm, and doesn’t need to say a word to tell him why start holding back now?

 

Mitsuba nudges back, and doesn’t need to say a word to tell him thank you.

 

“Only if we go somewhere that isn’t going to enable Kou to spend all my money on dance games.” he reasons, wearing an imitation of Kou’s kilowatt grin for good measure.

 

-

 

“I don’t know how to make it hurt less.” Mitsuba tells Sakura in the cafe again, watching as they pour out one cup of tea, then another.

 

“You can’t,” They say, and through the shifting lights of the stained glass windows, Sakura is smiling. “It’s going to be painful no matter how you cushion the fall- so why not have fun while you’re at it?”

 

-

 

Mitsuba doesn’t like packing.

 

For one, he’s come to realise that his wardrobe is far from beach-suitable, mainly consisting of jeans and sweaters which would lead to a case of heatstroke if he wore them to the coast in the midst of summer. It’s only a three day trip- Yokoo’s dad will drive them down on Monday morning, they’ll stay two nights with Yokoo’s grandparents, and then be collected again on Wednesday afternoon. Mitsuba doesn’t have enough clothes for one day on the beach, nevermind three. 

 

I’m taking you sailing, so bring something you don’t mind getting damp in! Yokoo’s statement in the cool people (including Yokoo) chat earlier had only complicated things further. Mitsuba considers faking a sudden, tragic illness and staying in his room all week instead. He sits in a pile on the floor consisting of half his wardrobe, and Kou perches on the edge of the bed, dead-set not helping at all.

 

“You know,” Kou muses. “I think some of my old clothes would fit you.”

 

Mitsuba shoots him a withering look, but still finds himself standing on the doorstep of the Minamoto household an hour later, with the terrible burned-out husk of the neighboring home standing like a memorial across the street. He tries not to look at it, tries not to taste the phantom tang of smoke upon his tongue. 

 

To a normal person, it would appear beyond odd to stand upon someone’s doorstep and ask to borrow a box of summer clothes from their late younger brother. Thankfully, Minamoto Teru is not a normal person- when he answers the door he’s wearing a ceremonial robe and is followed by a cloud of incense that’s almost strong enough to make Mitsuba cough up a lung, and he simply nods reluctantly towards his request.

 

If there’s one thing that Mitsuba has learned, it’s that Teru would likely do anything for his brother. Not just out of guilt, but because Kou is clearly one of the few people that Teru has ever cared about. He wonders, briefly, if that’s just part of having a sibling. (Then he thinks of the grim-reaper boys Tsukasa and Amane, and realises that can’t be true in all cases.)

 

Teru forces the box into Mitsuba’s hands, parcel-taped shut and marked with the kanji for Kou’s name. Mitsuba just hopes it’ll fit on the back of his bike. He turns to leave, not wanting to stand under Teru’s cold stare for a moment longer than necessary.

 

“Do you care about him?” Teru calls down the street, stood in the doorway in his ceremonial robes, the visage of a spirit himself. He looks not-quite-human in a different way to Kou- like he has eyes which have seen far too many things, and all of them have turned his soul to ice fractals. Mitsuba almost feels bad for him. (Almost- because Teru is scary and has threatened him more than once.)

 

“Of course I do.” Mitsuba replies. More than I care about most things.  

 

Satisfied, Teru retreats through the front door, and slides it closed behind him. 

 

Back in his bedroom, Mitsuba and Kou divide up the clothes between themselves. Mitsuba blatantly refuses all of the animal print T-shirts, and instead steals each pair of shorts for himself, leaving Kou with only the trousers. He’s just going to have to make do with rolling the cuffs up and hoping for the best. He packs some of his usual outfits too; for wearing around the Yokoo family home and making a good impression on his grandparents. (He’s heard rumours from Satou that Yokoo’s grandmother makes some killer dorayaki, and he’s hoping to score himself an extra helping or two.)

 

It takes him, Kou and his mom’s combined effort to get his bag shut, but he announces that it’ll be worth it in the end. His mom just rolls her eyes, and asks them if she should make some iced coffee for all their hard work and effort.

 

Yokoo’s dad picks them up early the next morning, Mitsuba and Kou piling into the back with Satou, while Yokoo has the time of his life and all the legroom in the world in the front seat.

 

“Kou, you’re always so cold, ” Satou complains from where he’s crammed between Kou and Mitsuba in the middle seat, knees bunched up to make room for his overnight bag on the floor. “You’ve got to have some sort of circulatory issue going on.”

 

Kou laughs and tells him a sheepish ‘ something like that’, which makes Mitsuba feel both sad and amused in the same instance. If no-nonsense, matter-of-fact Satou knew the truth, then he’d probably lose his mind. (If no-nonsense, matter-of-fact Satou knew the truth, then at least Mitsuba would get to say a proper goodbye.)

 

The hour-long drive to Kamakura is filled with Yokoo shouting over the back seat about all the places he wants to take them, and 80s pop music drifting from the car’s speaker system and out of the open windows. They pull up outside of Yokoo’s grandparent’s house, facing towards the docks so the yachts and sailing boats can be seen bobbing upon the water from most of the windows. As soon as they’ve been introduced to his grandparents- two former competitive sailors who could never quite give up the ocean- Yokoo leads them down to the sailing club to show them his boat. 

 

Mitsuba doesn’t know a single thing about sailing, but as long as Yokoo is excited about it, then he supposes he’s fine with hearing about rope types and wind conditions. Satou smiles like he’s heard the same spiel enough times to recite it off by heart, but is still no less entertained by it. Perhaps Yokoo feels the same when Satou rambles about the changes he’s made to his favourite cake recipes. Perhaps Kou feels the same when Mitsuba talks about shutter speed and aperture values while taking snapshots of the park. 

 

“He sails like a madman then tries to peer-pressure you into jumping in the water with him afterwards,” Satou warns when they trail back to the house to get lunch and prepare to spend the rest of the afternoon on the beach. “I’d put something waterproof over your hand splints if I was you.”

 

Lunch ends with Yokoo’s grandfather telling all the embarrassing stories about Yokoo that he can think of. Mitsuba revels in it, until Yokoo decides to bring up his five minutes of infamy from the third year of middle school, when Mitsuba smashed a classroom window with a bottle rocket during a science lesson. (He had clearly been mistaken in assuming that everyone had forgotten about that by now.)

 

Kou chooses to confess his own embarrassing middle school story to even the playing field, admitting that he once dodged class using labour pains of all things as an excuse, a fact which almost makes Mitsuba and Yokoo’s grandmother choke on their drinks. 

 

After eating, they get changed into clothes that are more beach-appropriate, and take a short walk along the coastline. The waterfront is already packed due to the hot weather, luring locals and holiday-goers alike from their bedrooms, but Yokoo knows the area well. He leads them to a part of the beach off to the side which is usually quiet, throwing out a towel over the sand for them all to sit on. 

 

The four of them pass an inflatable beach ball back and forth in a circle, then gang up on Satou to bury his legs in the sand after he almost sends the ball flying into the waters of Sagami bay, never to be seen again. Kou sprawls out backwards in the sand after claiming that he’s immune to sunburn, and Mitsuba sighs because he doesn’t doubt that for a second. 

 

It’s strange seeing Kou, dressed in beach clothes and lying flat on his back under the sun, looking like any normal boy taking a holiday with his friends. Since that cold night in September, he’s only seemed to grow more and more human- alive in every sense aside from the heart that doesn’t beat in his chest. He’s made a place for himself amongst the living, and despite his claims that being visible all the time is exhausting, it doesn’t seem to bother him at all. Mitsuba flops down next to him, melting into the warmth of the sand against his back and trying desperately to avoid the thought of having to brush it out of his hair later.

 

“Hey,” Mitsuba whispers, just over the crash of the waves and the chatter of beachgoers all around them. “Is this not really tiring for you?” 

 

Kou hums, nestling into the sand like a sleepy cat. “It is a bit, but I don’t mind it. I’m having fun here.”

 

Mitsuba feels uncharacteristically glad that Kou is doing something for his own sake for once. It makes an entire wasps nest buzz in his ribcage, so he swings his hand out to the side and hits Kou hard in the chest, anything to avoid the way his satisfied grin is dangerously contagious.

 

“Gross,” He tells Kou in mock disgust, and the corners of his mouth hurt from trying to suppress a smile. “For someone who’s so rough, you’re way too sappy.” 

 

Kou’s grin turns altogether more dangerous. “You think I’m rough?” he asks, and Mitsuba yells as Kou grabs his ankles before he can even think to roll out of the way. “I’ll show you rough if you want!”

 

Mitsuba isn’t sure if he’s shrieking or laughing as Kou drags him by his legs over the sand- either way, his hair is a mess, his face is as red as summertime strawberries and his ribs ache in the best possible way. 

 

“Unhand him, you fiend!” Yokoo intervenes, catching onto Mitsuba’s yelling and staging a mock rescue attempt, complete with cheesy one-liners, finger guns and Satou trailing behind him with an amused grin on his face. Mitsuba laughs so hard there’s tears in his eyes as Yokoo grabs Kou around the waist and the three of them toss him kicking and screaming into the waves.

 

He resurfaces with his hair dripping saltwater down his forehead, clothes soaked through, and grinning so brightly that it eclipses the sun out of the sky and leaves Mitsuba dazzled yet unable to look away all the same. While looking at Minamoto Kou, the sun has never felt more close to earth.

 

“Did you take your hand supports off?” Kou asks, sat up to his shoulders in the seawater. 

 

“Yeah, why?” Mitsuba responds, and supposes he had it coming for him when Kou pulls him into the waves to join him.  

 

-

 

“All those in favour of blaming Kou if we get colds and ruin the trip?” Mitsuba announces, a towel draped over his head to dry off his soaked hair.

 

Three hands go up, and three pairs of eyes turn to glare at one very sheepish Minamoto Kou.

 

-

 

Yokoo takes them sailing early the next morning, pulling the covers off their futons and throwing open the curtains at a time that’s definitely not acceptable for the middle of summer vacation. “We’ve gotta get onto the water before it gets busy!” Yokoo reasons, already dressed in water-shoes and one of his many boat-decal t-shirts, ready to go. 

 

As they eat breakfast, Yokoo talks animatedly about the weather conditions, how it’ll be perfect to steer his racing yacht out into the bay and stop for snacks with a full view of Kamakura, Enoshima and the mountains beyond it. They pack dorayaki covered in five layers of plastic wrap to keep it dry, a bottle of fruit juice to share and some leftovers from dinner the night before- none of which Satou claims will survive the journey un-squashed.

 

Yokoo’s boat isn’t actually his boat at all- it’s his dad’s old racing yacht, put out of action after a career-ending injury until Yokoo was old enough to learn how to sail it himself. “He only ever uses it for day-trips and practice, but he was taught to sail by racers so,” Satou laughs, conspiratory. “I hope you don’t get seasick.”

 

“I only sail dinghies back at home,” Yokoo explains, reminding them of yet another of his many sports. (Mitsuba thinks it’s no wonder he’s always doing his homework over lunch break.) “So it’s always fun to come here and get to go out in a proper boat.” 

 

They get kitted up with buoyancy aids, hop into the hull of the yacht as if bobs steadily in the water, and Satou warns them to hold on right as Yokoo angles them into the wind. The sail catches, and they go flying out into the bay. 

 

It’s about as thrilling as it is terrifying. Mitsuba can feel his heart doing doubletime as they skip over the waves, and beside him Kou grips the bag of dorayaki tightly to his chest like it’ll do anything to protect him should he topple off the side. Managing the tiller at the back of the boat, Yokoo looks delighted, steering them into the wind with careful actions that keep them moving. He’s got sea-spray in his hair, he’s grinning like he’s only just come alive while out on the water, and Mitsuba feels warmth spread through every bone in his body.

 

It’s not the same sort of warmth from September, back when he had a stupid crush on a boy that looked like a golden retriever puppy. Instead, it’s just happiness, that he got to spend a year sharing pieces of the things his friends love most. If he had never sat down and stolen a bite of fried potatoes, he’d never have learned that, instead of just being a boy with soft hair and a nice smile, Yokoo comes alive on the waters of Sagami bay, or that Satou may be good at maths, but he also secretly likes baking shows and cries whenever the dog dies in movies.

 

“Is it safe to lean out of this thing?” Mitsuba calls, struck by a sudden sense of bravery and freedom.

 

“As long as you don’t fall!” Yokoo shouts back over the wind, and adjusts the tiller to turn them into it. 

 

And so Mitsuba grips the railing and tips his head back, until he feels the seaspray on his face, the sun in his hair and the water below moves past like he’s soaring. Mitsuba never wrote learn to fly in his book because it always seemed like an improbable wish. Here, on the water, and there, at the top of the Tokyo Skytree, he thinks he might have just about managed it.

 

“Why can’t you do something cool like this?” He asks Kou once he’s pulled himself back over the edge, hair flecked with saltwater and his heart singing in his throat. Kou, still clutching the dorayaki to his chest, threatens to push him overboard.

 

Yokoo angles the boat to a halt in the middle of the bay, lined up with the seafront. From out there on the water, Mitsuba can see the slope of the trees, the sprawl of the town buildings, people laying out their blankets for a day on the beach and the electric railway passing along the coastline. Yokoo drops the sails so they can remain stationary, and Kou uncovers the dorayaki from its five layers of plastic wrap, finding it significantly more squashed than it was before they left. Kicking off his shoes and dangling his feet into the water, Yokoo lets out a content sigh, clearly as much at home out on the water as he is on dry land.

 

“I thought you’d be the sort to get scared out on the water, Sousuke,” Satou muses around a mouthful of red bean paste. “I definitely was when Yokoo first dragged me on one of these things.”

 

Mitsuba shrugs. “I haven’t been scared of much lately.” He admits. Too many other things to think about. “I guess getting into that accident back in September made everything else seem pretty safe in comparison.”

 

“Can I tell you all something important?” Yokoo then pipes up from the back of the yacht, before Satou has the time to say anything more. He pulls his legs back over the side, sitting cross-legged at the rear with the tiller beside him and his hair windswept.

 

Satou looks just as confused as Mitsuba feels, and if it’s something Yokoo has yet to tell even Satou, then Mitsuba knows it must be something serious.

 

Yokoo takes a deep breath, in and out to the swell of the waves. “I think I’m going to move in with my grandparents after graduation next year,” He says. “I want to start sailing properly, and I got scouted to start training on Enoshima full time, once I’m out of highschool.”

 

There’s silence, split only by the lap of the water against the hull, then Satou reaches across the boat and hits Yokoo lightly in the arm. “How is that a secret?” He laughs. Yokoo stares at him, both bewildered and starstruck. “That’s brilliant!”

 

“I,” A nervous laugh bubbles up in Yokoo’s throat. “I thought you’d all be mad at me for wanting to move away.”

 

I’m not going to be around to see it, anyway. Mitsuba thinks.

 

“Did you forget that cars and trains exist, idiot?” Mitsuba says instead, because summer isn’t over yet. “It’s not like you’re moving to the other side of the world or anything.”

 

“Yeah, I’m just mad that you thought we’d be angry at you for relocating an hour down the road,” Satou pushes Yokoo in the arm a second time, a fond smile worn clearly on his face. “Anyway, if that’s the case, then I have a secret to tell you all too.”

 

“Oh?” Kou asks, although his grin is a little less bright than usual, sat amongst talk of a future he had stolen from him. 

 

“I know my mom wants me to be a lawyer like my sister, and my dad wants me to study medicine and become a doctor- but I think I might sign up for a culinary course, once I’ve graduated,” Satou admits, smiling across the bay. “I might not end up going anywhere with it, but baking is, like, one of the only things that keeps me sane. Might as well try to make something out of it, right?”

 

Mitsuba tries to blame the ache in his gut on the rock of the waves or an undercooked bit of dorayaki. Anything but envy. “Don’t forget us when the two of you are world-class pastry chefs and olympic sailors.” He says, and wishes it could be little more than a joke.

 

“What about you two then?” Yokoo asks, playing with the mainsail ropes as he speaks. “What big dreams do you have for after graduation?” 

 

There is no graduation, says the notebook on Mitsuba’s desk and the constant ache in his right hand and Kou sitting cold and dead beside him. Perhaps this time last year, he would have said something about photography- travelling the world with only his camera for company, making a name for himself that nobody will ever forget. 

 

“I’m just taking things as they come,” Mitsuba says now, grabbing Kou’s hand to hold him steady. “Both of us are.”

 

“Ahh I wish I could have that sort of self-confidence,” Satou sighs, and though Mitsuba wasn’t exactly lying as such, he still plays right into it. “I’ve been stressed over this for months.

 

“We should head back before the wind drops- I want to take you to Enoshima on the electric railway before lunch.” Yokoo announces then, shattering the stillness with a tug of the mainsail rope. They go flying back across the bay, and Mitsuba remembers how to breathe once more.

 

-

 

Yokoo digs out a disused firepit from a store cupboard in his grandparents’ house, and three of them huddle around it in the yard, listening to the snap of the firewood and the crash of the incoming tide against the shoreline beyond the front door. Satou prods at the fire with a stick to keep it burning, and Mitsuba is glad of the way that the flickering warmth staves off any thoughts about time running out. It’s as if the spit of the embers drives it to the outskirts of their makeshift circle, warned off like a hungry beast that lies in wait. Just for now, Mitsuba can afford to pay it no mind.

 

Instead, he steals everyone’s marshmallows because he keeps burning his own ones, boos at all of Yokoo’s bad campfire stories, and lies that Kou is still tired from their walk up to Hasedera temple earlier that afternoon. (He can’t tell them that Kou cannot look at fires larger than a camping stove without freezing up, because he knows what it’s like to burn alive.) 

 

They sit and talk until they’re all out of marshmallows and the fire is barely a low belly of embers in the pit, so Kou deems it safe to join them outside, just about able to ignore the glow in front of him. He doesn’t stay out for long, none of them do, as Yokoo’s grandmother calls out of the upstairs window for them to go back inside before they disturb the neighbors with their chattering. 

 

Yokoo and Satou head up to their futons in the guest room, Mitsuba and Kou settle in for another night on the living room floor, exchanging goodnights and a promise to get up early to spend as much time as possible on the beach the following morning before they have to leave.

 

Mitsuba soon finds that he can’t sleep.

 

Now that the fire has died down, the conversation on the boat and the knowledge that summer isn’t going to last much longer hangs heavily over his head, enough to have him tossing and turning under the covers. He gives up after an hour, pulls on his shoes and heads out of the front door, slipping one of the spare keys Yokoo told them to use under a flower pot by the door. 

 

He walks barefoot across the road and down to the beach, entirely empty in the late-night darkness. The landscape is lit only by the moon hanging overhead and the bob of the boats in the marina, where Yokoo plans to move during a next year which Mitsuba will never experience. 

 

He hasn’t thought about dying for a long while. It had to catch up to him eventually.

 

As if he can get away from it, he tears off running across the sand, kicking up the beach behind him and letting out a yell that turns into a sob halfway up. He presses the heels of his palms against his eyes and runs blindly- not caring where he’s going, or if he runs into anyone, or if he ends up knee-deep in the water, still dressed in his pyjamas.  

 

Though he may have lived life the best he could, ticked off almost every item on his list and left memories which will remain for years after he’s gone, that doesn’t mean it’s something he’s ready for. He’s seventeen, he shouldn’t be even a quarter of the way into his life, and here he is, living with the knowledge that September is as far as he gets to go.

 

Half-way across the beach, he trips over his own feet, tumbles face first into the sand and rolls till he’s lying flat on his back under the stars, so out of breath that his lungs hurt and his throat burns and there’s sand sticking to the tear-trails on his cheeks. 

 

“You know,” And then Kou is lying beside him on the ground, like he’s got a sixth sense for all the times that Mitsuba needs him most. “When I first realised my brother and sister couldn’t see me, I jumped in the river and tried to swim from one end of town to the other. Sometimes you’ve gotta do weird stuff as an outlet.” 

 

Still too out of breath to speak, Mitsuba just shoves him weakly in the shoulder.

 

Kou’s voice takes on a softer note, and his eyes have the same comforting warmth as a childhood bedroom covered in glow-in-the-dark stars. “It’s a terrible thing to have to deal with. You don’t have to be okay with it all the time.”

 

Finally, Mitsuba manages to get enough air into his lungs to form words again. “I don’t think I could have spent this year doing anything better,” He says, and tastes salt in the back of his throat. “But I wish it never had to end. I don’t want summer to be over.”

 

Kou’s hand finds its way into his. “I don’t want it to end either. I’m going to miss feeling so alive. I’m going to miss everything. ” 

 

“It’s unfair and awful and I hate it and-” Mitsuba presses his palms against his eyes as if it’ll do anything to stop his tears. “And fuck I just got sand in my eye-” 

 

He peels himself up from the beach, though only to rub at his eye with the hem of his shirt in an attempt to get the sand out. He blinks furiously and his sobs turn into laughter that verges on the side of hysterical. “Come on,” He chokes out, feeling entirely ridiculous. “I can’t even cry in peace without something happening.”

 

Kou then offers him his jacket, something he must have pulled on before he left the living room not long after him. “Maybe we should go back inside.” He offers, in a small, quiet voice that doesn’t suit him at all.

 

He says it in the same voice he used to ask Mitsuba if he was ready to go , back in September.

 

He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be ready, not fully. (There’s no avoiding it, though.)

 

“Just, let me do one more thing,” Opening his eyes tentatively, Mitsuba scrambles to his feet and runs off down the beach, until he’s submerged up to his ankles in the waves and the edges of his pyjama trousers are soaked through. He cups his hands around his mouth, blinks tears out of his eyes, and yells into the bay as loud as he can.

 

“Don’t you dare forget me!” He shouts, and it echoes across the beach, ringing into the night sky and joining the steady crash of the waves around his legs. Mitsuba doesn’t know who he’s talking to- the sky, the town of Kamakura, Yokoo and Satou, or Minamoto Kou standing on the shoreline. Maybe it’s all of them. Maybe it’s the whole world.

 

Even if summer ends, its memories will cling for years to come. 

 

It hurts- it hurts so much that it crushes his chest and makes him feel as though he can’t breathe- but at least he’s not alone. 

 

At the very least, future world-class pastry chef Satou, future olympic sailor Yokoo, and Minamoto Kou with fireworks for eyes will remember him.

 

“I think I’m ready now.” He says. Kou smiles slow and sad, like he knows Mitsuba isn’t just talking about going back to bed. 

 

-

 

Mitsuba packages Kou’s old clothes back into the box they came in, folding each ridiculous patterned T-shirt as carefully as he can with only one working hand. There’s a sense of finality to it which he isn’t fond of- feeling significantly like he’s packing away a piece of summer for good. 

 

Though, it had to come eventually. It’s August, he’s crossed over into his final month, and everything feels like it’s rushing by at a pace that’s too fast for him to match, even when he’s sat upon his motorcycle and driving back to the Minamoto household. Kou accompanies him this time, perched on the back of the bike with the box of clothes in his lap, bringing a part of himself home for what might be the last time.

 

“I know he won’t be able to see me, but it just feels like something I have to do.” Kou speaks over Mitsuba’s shoulder, and his words are heavy with acceptance. Mitsuba knows the sound all too well- taking things as they are is something he’s had to grow accustomed to.

 

He parks up his bike, and doesn’t turn to look at the burned out husk of the house across the road. Mitsuba Sousuke doesn’t want to die- but at least he got a chance that many others did not. At least he gets a choice of the sort of grief he wants to leave behind. He won’t be ripped from the world; he will leave it living his life to the fullest. 

 

Kou stays sitting on the rear of the bike, and Mitsuba takes the box of clothes from him without another word.

 

Teru opens the door, looking down in barely-veiled surprise as he catches the sight of Mitsuba standing on the doorstep, re-sealed cardboard box in his arms and Kou standing sentry by the motorcycle, unseen. 

 

“I was under the impression that you were planning to keep them.” Teru admits, bemused. He’s not wearing ceremonial robes this time, instead dressed like any normal college student- aside from the traditional bracelet around his wrist and the weight of the world on his shoulders. (Nothing Mitsuba could tell him- about Kou, about how alive he still is despite everything- would ease Teru’s guilt. This much is certain.)

 

“I’m offended that you think any of those clothes are to my taste,” Mitsuba jokes, then lets out a heavy sigh he thinks he must have been holding since he placed the final line of tape along the lid of the box. “I think this’ll be the last time I see you, so I wanted to tie off any loose ends.”

 

Teru has told many times of how the Minamoto family dabbles in the supernatural, and so Teru just nods in acceptance. “I figured as much.” He says, understanding in a way that only a person who has felt grief’s knife-blade sharpness ever could.

 

“Well,” Mitsuba says, ducking his head into a stiff, shallow bow. “Thank you for everything.” He retreats down the pavement, back towards where Kou waits and the burned-out building looms over the street as a permanent reminder of just how cruel the world can be.

 

“Mitsuba,” Teru calls down the path after him, a sudden afterthought. “Good luck.”

 

When Mitsuba turns, Teru is smiling- quiet and sad in the same way that Kou’s smiles sometimes are. He slides the door to the Minamoto family home shut behind him for the last time, and Mitsuba knows for certain that he meant it. 

 

“I told you Teru-nii is nice.” Kou grins into the back of Mitsuba’s neck as they drive through town, heading home while the sun begins to dip towards the horizon and turns the road ahead golden. 

 

“You’re biased- it doesn’t count.” Mitsuba scoffs in return, and denies that he’s smiling into his helmet.

 

It’s his first proper goodbye- number one of many. It’s painful, an ache in his chest like a torn-open wound. But it’s also a weight off his shoulders, and driving back home has never felt lighter.

 

-

 

“It felt good to say goodbye to him.” Kou admits later, Mitsuba’s room filled by the glow of his laptop screen and the fireworks behind Kou’s eyes.

 

Mitsuba’s hands fall still over the keys.

 

But you’re not going anywhere; is what he doesn’t say.

 

-

 

Mitsuba brings Kou to the photography club with him again, because Tsukasa has been sending him strange looks from the corner every week since the spring festival, and with September approaching faster by the day, Mitsuba doesn’t want to find out what he’s planning behind those flashing lantern-lit eyes. He stands in the low light of the darkroom, red lamps humming overhead as he talks Kou through the process of developing camera film, shifting the photos between the developer and the stop bath and the fixing fluid, then handing them to Kou to string up around the room. 

 

He can hear Tsukasa outside, loud voice audible through the walls, and he keeps his conversation down to a whisper, motioning for Kou to do the same.

 

Mitsuba isn’t sure if Tsukasa has any sort of superhuman hearing, but he doesn’t want to take his chances.

 

“You’re going to damage them if you handle them so roughly.” Mitsuba snaps at Kou as he wobbles on his tiptoes to reach the top line of string that criss-crosses the darkroom walls, slapping gently at his wrist.

 

“I’m doing it exactly as you showed me!” Kou argues back with a laugh caught in his throat and his eyes glowing soft and blue amongst the red lights. It’s a nice contrast; a traitorous part of Mitsuba’s brain with too strong of a connection to his heart thinks. Mitsuba hits Kou a little harder before he can do anything stupid, like wanting to kiss him.

 

Photography is serious business, and Mitsuba does not live in a romantic comedy. He’s not going to kiss anyone in the photography club darkroom- regardless of whether or not they smile like they’ve eaten the sun and make his heart turn loops behind his ribs.

 

( Just once couldn’t hurt, says that traitorous part of Mitsuba’s brain again. You only get one life. )

 

To his horror, Mitsuba finds that he’s almost considering it, staring shellshocked at where Kou stands on his tiptoes and takes extra care with each photo he touches.

 

The lock on the darkroom door slides shut.

 

Mitsuba stares at the door-handle in horror. Kou stares at Mitsuba in confusion. Tsukasa stares at both of them from where he’s now perched at the back of the darkroom, eyes burning like fire in the lowlight.

 

Mitsuba grabs Kou’s arm for support, perhaps a little too willing to sacrifice him to Tsukasa if that’s what it comes to. The traitorous part of his brain that thought about kissing him in the dark falls entirely silent.

 

“You’re running out of time,” Tsukasa sing-songs, as though it’s all just a game to him. He balances impossibly on the edge of the countertop, with bottles of acetic acid around his feet and gravity once again making allowances in all the wrong places. “I told you that one year is no time at all, didn’t I?”

 

When Kou slides their fingers together, holding tight, Mitsuba isn’t sure which of them is shaking the worst.

 

“What do you want?” Mitsuba asks, quiet and trembling, because he’s nothing if not a coward, and defiant statements are not something he can give to a grim reaper boy that grins down at him like a Cheshire cat with a mouse in its claws. 

 

“Lots of things! Didn’t I tell you already?” Tsukasa wobbles on one foot, still perched unfeasibly close to the edge. Not once does he look like he’s about to fall. “There’s a lot of things you want too- I can tell! You want to keep living, right?” He stares into Mitsuba with all the intensity of a forest fire, and Mitsuba shuffles a little closer to Kou, gripping his hand hard enough to hurt.

 

“I do, but-” Mitsuba starts, but Tsukasa cuts him off with a clap of his hands.

 

“But what? You made some friends, had fun for a year, and decided you’re not even going to keep fighting?” Tsukasa frowns, and at the very least, it hides his teeth from view. “That’s sad- I always thought you’d put up more of a struggle.”

 

Mitsuba lets out a shaky breath, in and out in some futile attempt to make his voice lie steady. “I don’t want to die,” He tells Tsukasa, human eyes meeting a monster’s across the humming red lights and fluttering pictures. The temperature drops, far too cold for summer. “I really, really don’t want to. But, if I have to, then this is how I want to go. Not with you creeping over me every second of the day.”

 

Tsukasa stares and stares and stares, hanging in the corner of the room like a bad omen. Then-

 

“Okay.” He says. Mitsuba doesn’t think he’s ever been more confused in his life.

 

“Wait, that’s it? You’re just-” 

 

“Boy,” Tsukasa says, in some dangerous imitation of Amane’s voice- laughing at the back of his throat like a creature who has forgotten what being alive means, and has instead discovered something altogether more dangerous. “Boy, what about you? You want him to live, right? Why not give him your soul?”

 

Steadfast Minamoto Kou visibly flinches. The air feels heavy with something terrifying.

 

“I’d disappear if I did that. He’d never be able to see me again.” Kou speaks. Mitsuba feels as though he’s no longer present in the room- a ghost despite being the only one of them that’s still alive.

 

Hopping down from the countertop with footfalls that don’t make a single sound, Tsukasa grins. The expression is cold and terrible and lined with sharp teeth, ready to take a bite. “He’d be alive, though.” 

 

In a cafe towards the rear end of winter, Minamoto Teru had said he’d sooner hurt himself ten times over than see someone else struggle. Kou is selfless to a fault, ridiculous enough to run into a burning building to save a child whose name he didn’t even know, and his hand goes slack around Mitsuba’s like Tsukasa’s offer is something he’d be willing to go through with.

 

Just another self-sacrifice, performed by a boy who has no idea of the wreckage he leaves in his wake.

 

It felt good to say goodbye; Kou had told him from the corner of the bedroom, curled up in his beanbag next to three matching photo frames on the bookshelf. Mitsuba realises with a sense of horror that, just maybe, Kou has been planning this all along. 

 

Mitsuba turns to face Kou with eyes he knows must be wide with fear.

 

“Kou, whatever you-” He says quietly, an echo from the end of winter splitting through the summer weather outside. “Just, do what you want.”

 

(All he can do is hope that, somewhere along the way, Kou has learned how to look behind him.)

 

Kou’s grip tightens around Mitsuba’s hand, holding on so strongly that he almost feels warm and whole and alive. He stares deep into the embers of Tsukasa’s fire-lit eyes, steadfast even though he knows what it feels like to burn alive. “I don’t want to disappear yet.” Kou tells the boy-monster at the other end of the darkroom.

 

Tsukasa blinks, like it’s the last thing he expected Kou to say. For a few, fearful moments, Mitsuba is scared that Tsukasa is going to do something dangerous, that the fire in his eyes is going to spill out and consume both of them whole. Instead, he just shrugs.

 

“Suit yourself.” Tsukasa says, as if Kou had done little more than decline his invitation to go out for dinner. And then he’s gone, a bottle of acetic acid toppling over on the countertop as he goes, and the lock on the darkroom door slides open once more. Mitsuba lets out a shaky breath that feels more like a death-rattle in his lungs, and slumps against Kou’s side. 

 

He doesn’t brace against the impact like usual, and the two of them almost go toppling onto the floor in a scared, shaking heap. Kou’s expression is unreadable, and Mitsuba doesn’t like it one bit- an unfamiliar face that only appears at the worst of times.

 

“Is that selfish of me?” Kou asks, in a voice that’s too small even for the cramped floorplan of the photography club darkroom. “That I want to stay by your side? That I like the world too much to leave it behind?”

 

Mitsuba isn’t aware of the implications of the solution Tsukasa had suggested, and he doesn’t want to know. He feels both on the verge of laughing and crying all at once, and anything more would tip him over a precipice. Because, for who knows how long, Kou had existed in the knowledge that, come September, he would throw himself away for the sake of somebody else once again. 

 

Because, somewhere along the journey, Kou had decided to stay. 

 

There’s a small, selfish, terrible piece of Mitsuba that doesn’t want to die- that would rather Kou did whatever it took to keep him living and breathing and surviving. Even if it cost the world. But that part is drowned out by the rest, which holds steadily onto Kou’s hand, and knows that one year was more than enough. (There are others who weren’t nearly so lucky, after all.)

 

“You have a really weird definition of what selfish means,” Mitsuba jokes weakly, nudging Kou’s arm to try and drag his smile back out by force. “It’s about time you did something for your own gain. You were bound to run out of pieces of yourself to give to others, eventually.”

 

At that, Kou finally laughs. It’s tired and it’s weak and it errs a little too close to sadness- but it’s genuine. And so it’s enough.

 

The darkroom lights hum and there’s still a few photos to develop, film waiting to be submerged in the repetitive sequence of developer-wash-fixer. Mitsuba takes photography very seriously, and he does not live in a romantic comedy.

 

(He kisses Kou in the darkroom anyway.)

 

-

 

“It’s not just me who’d never forgive you, if you threw everything away.” Mitsuba says as they walk under the streetlamps leading back from the park, moonlight cutting past the tree branches.

 

Kou is silent for a long while, his hair burned silver.

 

“I know that, now.” He then says, like he finally understands that the weight of the world is not his alone.

 

-

 

Mitsuba sprawls backwards on the sofa, leaving his mom squashed up against the arm while they watch through another of her terrible english rom-coms. He hasn’t been paying attention to the subtitles for the past fifteen minutes and he has no clue what’s going on, content with throwing pieces of popcorn into his mouth and ignoring Yukie’s threats to push him on the floor if he stretches out any further. 

 

There’s a sad scene playing on the TV screen- based on the overdramatic rainfall and gloomy piano music- and Mitsuba cranes his neck to look his mom in the eye.

 

“Hypothetically,” He says, and tries to force as much nonchalance into his voice as possible. He’s starting to think the movie scene might be a funeral. “If someone told you a huge lie, could you ever forgive them?”

 

Yukie doesn’t pause the movie, suggesting that she’s been paying just as little attention. “Depends on what the lie was for.” She replies, bemused.

 

Mitsuba mulls the words over in his head, as figures in black file into a church onscreen. “To stop someone from feeling sad.” Piano music, rainfall, a teary-eyed person speaking english words Mitsuba barely understands. (he’s sure the movie was meant to be a comedy.)

 

“Well, if someone is going to tell a lie, then that’s probably the best reason they could give,” His mom turns to look at him, no longer making jabs at his posture or the way his feet keep straying into her personal space. “I’d be angry for a while, but I’d forgive them eventually.”

 

For almost a whole year, Mitsuba has told his mom one giant, terrible lie. To know that one day she will forgive him, it feels like seeing the sun for the first time in weeks. “That’s good.” He replies, and the piano music swells.

 

“Sousuke, what are you hiding from me that could possibly make me sad?” He can feel his mom staring, reading him like an open book in a way that only Mitsuba Yukie could ever manage. Mitsuba isn’t sure why he thought he could learn to evade seventeen years of being known inside and out.

 

“I said it was hypothetical.” He frowns, because he knows that the truth is something which will stay locked inside the atria of his heart until September and beyond.

 

“You don’t say ‘ that’s good’ about hypotheticals, Sousuke,” She prods him in the leg. “Come on, spill.”

 

The movie on the TV screen turns back into a comedy, as the piano music cuts short and something happens at the funeral wake which has the whole onscreen cast laughing. Mitsuba doesn’t laugh along with them, because he hasn’t been paying attention to the subtitles, and the plot of the movie is the least of his worries right now. He lets out a sigh that’s filled to the brim with overdramatics. “Fine- I’ve been eating your ice-cream out of the freezer for weeks.

 

It’s not the secret that has sat upon his shoulders since early September, but it’s not a lie either.

 

His mom stares at him from across the sofa as if he’s committed a travesty.

 

“I changed my mind,” She grins. “I don’t forgive you at all.”

 

-

 

Mitsuba spends the final few weeks of Summer doing as much as he can. He goes to cafes with his mom, makes fun of her co-workers even more than usual, and finally agrees to take her on a ride around town on the back of his motorcycle. He goes on picnics in the park with Yokoo, Satou and Kou, haphazardly bakes cookies in Satou’s kitchen, and cheers Yokoo on as he sails into first place during his last competition of the season. 

 

He goes on dates with Kou- nothing quite as elaborate as their trip to Asakusa, but amusement parks and restaurants and window shopping is much more fun with a hand to hold. 

 

He visits the gallery in the next city along, and sees his photo hanging on the wall amongst the work of other local photographers. A piece of Freedom which will remain for long after he’s gone. Beside him, his mom squeezes his hand tight, and tells him that she’s never been more proud.

 

-

 

“Your time is almost up.” Amane is sitting in the kitchen again, thankfully not yelling and thankfully not eating Mitsuba’s strawberries. He doesn’t look malicious- just annoying- as he perches by the table and spins his knife between his fingers like it’s a nervous habit.

 

“Thanks, I noticed.” Mitsuba drops his bags of groceries onto the table. Amane is still more than a little bit terrifying, but Mitsuba knows that, if he’d wanted to stab him, he would have done it by now. He just about feels safe enough to skirt around him to put some vegetables into the fridge.

 

“The boy was going to give up his soul for you.” Amane then says, bringing back memories of the darkroom from what can’t have been more than a few weeks ago. Of Tsukasa’s fire-bright eyes staring dangerously from one end of the room to the other. Amane may look like Tsukasa, but at least he doesn’t have eyes like that.

 

“Yeah, because he’s a selfless idiot who doesn’t understand that people care about him.” Mitsuba still hasn’t quite forgiven Kou for his previous plans, but more than anything, he’s just glad that he made the decision to stay after all.

 

“It’s a tempting option, when you care about someone that much,” Amane’s voice is uncharacteristically quiet, and Mitsuba thinks he might be speaking from experience. “But once you do it, that’s it. You disappear for good.”

 

“Are you just trying to scare me, or something?” The room feels still, too cold for August. Mitsuba thinks, if he looks at the clock on the wall, he might just see that time has stopped. 

 

Amane shakes his head. “As much as you’re a brat who brings out the worst in Minamoto, you’ve helped him more than you realise. Thanks, Mitsuba. It puts my mind at rest a bit.”

 

He sits on the edge of the table like the weight of his words is almost too heavy to bear. Mitsuba doesn’t know exactly what Amane has seen over the many long years he’s wandered between life and death- he doesn’t know what happened between him and Tsukasa, or what his relationship was towards Yashiro Nene, or exactly how the friendship between a dead boy, a dying girl and a disaster waiting to happen fell apart. He doesn’t think he’ll ever know- some secrets are not made to be told, after all.

 

“You can leave the lame-earring pervert to me- I’ve gotten pretty good at handling him by now.” What Mitsuba does know: Amane is just an annoying, undead kid, and he shouldn’t have to carry everything on his own.

 

Amane then laughs, adjusting his hat and schooling his expression back into a grin. “That’s good- it’d look terrible on my resume if someone I recruited wiped himself out of existence.” 

 

Mitsuba doesn’t think grim reapers have resumes. Amane’s smile tells him thank you. 

 

(“Knowing you’re going to die is a terrible thing to bear,” Amane says later, after he’s eaten his way through the strawberries that Mitsuba offered him. “But you made the most of it.” For the few seconds before he disappears, he sounds almost proud.)

 

-

 

During his last photography club meeting, Mitsuba thanks the supervisor discretely for all their hard work in running the club, in helping him choose his entries for the competition, in teaching him all the tips and tricks they know. He doesn’t develop or take any photos of his own, just watches- observing the mini portrait shoot going on in the corner, the door to the darkroom opening and closing, the older club members helping out those younger than them. 

 

When the broadcasting club arrives, Mitsuba sticks around for once. Tsukasa is mercifully absent, so Mitsuba monopolises his usual spot in the broadcasting room while Sakura speaks local conspiracy theories into the microphone with their soothing voice, and Natsuhiko manages the sound and effects in the background- efficient for all that he likes to mess around.

 

This time, Mitsuba lets Natsuhiko mess up his hair and pull him into a one-armed hug, allowing him to indulge in his older-brother act one last time without struggling away. 

 

“See you, Mitsuba-chan! See you, my dear!” Natsuhiko calls, when Mitsuba and Sakura head out together with plans to eat at a restaurant in town that Sakura suggested. Mitsuba feels terrible- he’s never been especially close to Natsuhiko, but the thought of leaving without saying a proper goodbye is raw and painful. Sakura reads him like an open book, and tightens their grip on his hand. 

 

One last time, Mitsuba turns over his shoulder and waves. Natsuhiko grins, so normal that it hurts, and disappears back into the broadcasting room.

 

As soon as they’re out of earshot, Mitsuba lets out a heavy sigh, slumping against Sakura’s side as they walk towards where he parked his motorcycle. “If I’m crying over Natsuhiko-san, then it’s not going to be cute when I say goodbye to you later.” Mitsuba forewarns, wiping away his tears with the back of his arm before he tosses a helmet to Sakura. 

 

Perched on the motorcycle in the car park outside of the restaurant, Sakura does Mitsuba’s makeup one last time; sweeping eyeshadow across his eyelids, brushing on eyeliner, then dropping a tiny gold pot of glitter into his pocket so that he can put some on himself whenever he feels like it. They sit on an outdoor table at the back of the restaurant and watch the sun sinking below the skyline while they eat, staining the evening in shades of pink that feel a little too much like a goodbye for Mitsuba’s liking.

 

That’s what this is, after all. Mitsuba has one week left, and as far as Tsukasa is concerned, Sakura might not have that much longer either. Though one year can feel like a lifetime, it’s also barely any time at all. The golden clouds prepare to say goodbye to the sun, and Mitsuba prepares to say goodbye to Nanamine Sakura, who never falls for his dramatics and is one of the only people in the world who understands.

 

“You’ve done a lot this year,” Sakura starts, the candlelight on the table flickering across the rings on their fingers and making them look almost inhuman. “It took me a very long time to accept my own mortality, but you’ve made the most of every second.”

 

“You helped with that- it was too lonely beforehand,” Mitsuba swallows around the lump that begins to migrate into his throat, trying to hold back tears at least until they’ve eaten dessert. “I know I had Yokoo and Satou too, but none of them would have understood even if I told them.”

 

“I never could have told Natsuhiko either,” Sakura’s face shows a rare sort of vulnerability- something which Mitsuba doesn’t suppose they reveal often. “It’s going to be hard for him. When I die, Tsukasa will disappear with me too. Natsuhiko might be alive, but I don’t envy him at all.”

 

Mitsuba thinks of Yokoo and Satou and the group they’ve become, attached at the hip for the whole of summer. He thinks of how, come September, it’ll just be Yokoo-and-Satou against the world once more. “How do you deal with the thought of leaving people behind?” Mitsuba asks, and regrets asking Sakura to do his eyeliner as he feels the first tears of many gather upon his eyelashes. 

 

“It’ll hurt for a long while,” Sakura admits with a tired smile. “It’ll be painful and at first they might not forgive you for leaving them behind. But you leave parts of yourself with them that they can hold onto. You’ve got to remember that too.” 

 

Mitsuba stares through the candlelight, flickering in the low August breeze. Because Sakura is right. He won’t leave Yokoo and Satou with the memory of Mitsuba-kun from the third row, who they regret never talking to. Instead he’ll leave them with Sousuke, who kicks their ass at racing games, steals their food and takes high-definition photos of all their unflattering expressions. He won’t leave his mom with a son who only goes out for photography club and never brings friends home. He’ll leave her with Mitsuba Sousuke who rides around town in a hot pink motorcycle helmet, goes on impromptu ice-cream dates, and still eats her food out of the freezer every so often.

 

It’ll hurt for everyone involved, but at least he can say that he’s not wasted a single second.

 

“How about we order some dessert?” Sakura then asks, because they understand every one of Mitsuba’s thoughts entirely.

 

“Do you even need to ask?” Mitsuba tries to wipe away his tears without shifting his makeup, and grins over the candlelight.

 

Later, once night has fallen and the sky on the outskirts of town is brimming with stars, Mitsuba drives Sakura back home- slowing to a halt outside of a small block of student dorms by the riverside where they live alone. (Sakura has never mentioned parents or siblings. Mitsuba has never asked.)

 

Everything feels painfully final as Sakura dismounts the back of the motorcycle and waits for Mitsuba to do the same. The longsword made of grief is back, between the ribs and through the lungs, and this time, Mitsuba is sure it must have struck his heart on the way through. Under the streetlamps and the stars and the tears that now fall unrestrained down his face, Mitsuba feels as though he’s already become a ghost. 

 

There, by the roadside, Sakura pulls him into a hug, holding him steady as Mitsuba buries his face in their shoulder and grips the back of their shirt in two shaking fists. Fingers decorated by intricate rings stroke patterns into Mitsuba’s hair, and Sakura doesn’t complain in the slightest that he must be getting makeup all over their shirt.

 

“I might not have much time left either,” Sakura says gently, in the same soothing voice they would use to whisper rumours into the broadcasting room microphones. “But thanks to you, I’m going to make the most of it,” They pause, a quiet laugh catching in the back of their throat. “Even if I have to spend it with Tsukasa.”

 

At that, Mitsuba laughs too. “Good luck with that.” 

 

Sakura hums, and continues to run their fingers through Mitsuba’s hair, slow and soothing. “Lots of people are going to miss you.” They say, quietly.

 

A car drives by, sweeping over them with its headlights without a second glance behind. “I don’t mind that, as long as people don’t even think about forgetting me.” Mitsuba admits.

 

“I don’t think that’s likely- you’re the sort of person that’s hard to forget,” Sakura says, and their hands fall still. “I’m going to say goodbye now, Sousuke. Take care.”

 

Oh, Mitsuba thinks, as Sakura steps back and smiles gently at him from across the pavement. This is it, then. The sensible thing to do would be to say goodbye in return, dry his tears, and drive home. The Mitsuba thing to do, on the other hand-

 

“Nanamine-senpai, I-” He throws himself back across the pavement, clings to Sakura like a distraught kid and cries even more makeup onto their shirt. “I’m sorry about the time I ate your pudding and blamed it on Natsuhiko-san, and when I stole your red eyeliner and never gave it back, and the time I told my mom that your hair makes you look like a plant- I didn’t mean it and I-”

 

“Sousuke,” Sakura cuts him off gently. “I appreciate your honesty, but none of that really matters now, does it?”

 

“I-” Mitsuba peels himself away from Sakura’s front, just enough to look them in the eyes.

 

“That’s the funny thing about dying, Sousuke. It makes everything else seem insignificant.” The streetlamps flicker, and Mitsuba has never heard something more painful yet correct. 

 

(When he pulls on his helmet and drives away, Mitsuba holds his breath, and doesn’t look over his shoulder once. He doesn’t want to see the door close. He doesn’t want to say goodbye.)

 

-

 

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Mitsuba asks his mom as he counts down four days left on his fingertips. School starts in six, and summer ends in two. Yukie raises an eyebrow from where she’s typing something into her laptop, eating the cupcake that’s sitting on the table next to her.

 

“Not really,” She replies, and Mitsuba almost laughs at the irony. A ghost made the cake she’s eating, after all. “I think your grandfather would have exacted spiritual revenge on me for not becoming a doctor by now, if ghosts were real.”

 

He wonders if things would be easier, if Mitsuba Yukie dabbled in the supernatural and could recognise a goodbye when she saw it.

 

“If I was a ghost, I’d haunt you just so I could laugh at your misshapen onigiri every time you made it.” Mitsuba says instead, because his mom doesn’t believe in ghosts, and jokes are all he can tell her.

 

“What sort of TV shows have you been watching lately?” Yukie laughs, and takes a bite out of a cake made by the dead boy living in Mitsuba’s beanbag. 

 

Please start believing in ghosts- Mitsuba wills her, silently. That’s the only way it’ll hurt less.

 

-

 

The final item on Mitsuba’s list of things to do before he dies reads; sleep under the stars.

 

So, on the last day of August- which heralds clear skies, warm weather and one of the last few sunsets Mitsuba will ever see- Mitsuba meets Yokoo, Satou and Kou by the base of the hill near the shrine. Between them they have a camping stove, roll-out mattresses courtesy of Satou and enough food to last a week- well prepared for all eventualities. Mitsuba has also packed tissues, because he knows in the deep, ugly pit in his stomach that this is the last time he will see his best friends. 

 

They have too many bags to make it through the usual scramble up the hillside, so Mitsuba shuttles them up the side-road one by one on the back of his motorcycle. Yokoo goes first, unable to sit still in his excitement as he clambers onto the back and tells Mitsuba he’s always wanted to ride a motorcycle. In the short journey up the hillside, Mitsuba has to tell him to stay still and hold on tight unless he wants to fall off no less than five times. Satou is next, clinging to Mitsuba’s waist like he’s a lifeline, fingers buried hard enough into his sides that he’s sure it’s going to leave bruises.

 

Kou on the back of his motorcycle is a familiar presence- relaxed grip, shifting just enough to let Mitsuba know he’s still there, the sun on his face as he leans back and takes in the view. With his hair stained gold, Kou looks like a golden retriever puppy with its head out of the car window, and Mitsuba ruffles his hair with one gloved hand once they pull to a halt near the outcrop, where Yokoo and Satou are setting up the camping gear.

 

Even before sundown, the view out over the town is a brilliant one- the river catching the sunlight, cars snaking down the streets, the rise of the school building. Nearby, the apartment blocks Mitsuba has lived in his whole life, and on the outskirts, the larger houses where Minamoto Kou once spent his days. The sprawl of Tokyo to the east, the mountains to the west. Everything Mitsuba has ever known, spread out before his eyes.

 

He thinks, when the day comes, this is where he’d like to die.

 

“Satou, do you have a fake ID or something?” Yokoo breaks into Mitsuba’s thoughts, pulling a pack of sparklers out of Satou’s bag. “How did you get these?”

 

From where he’s smoothing out the corners of one of the camping mattresses, Satou laughs. “It turns out my older sister is cooler than she looks- she got them for me after I bribed her with cake.”

 

Mitsuba will have time for heavy thoughts later. For now, he lets out a comical gasp, gripping Kou’s arm hard. “Bribery and possession of illegal explosives? I’m friends with a criminal! Satou, I can’t believe-”

 

Satou rolls his eyes, and tosses a camping pillow at Mitsuba’s face.

 

They manage to get everything set up properly before the sun has set, giving Kou plenty of time to cook dinner while it’s still light enough for him to see his own hands. For something made of only dried and canned ingredients, it’s surprisingly tasty- Yokoo shows his appreciation by getting the sauce all over his face, and Mitsuba snaps a photo which he hopes someone will have the clarity of mind to develop for him after he’s gone. 

 

The sun begins to sink below the skyline, the end of summer making itself known in shades of gold and pink that paint the clouds and make the town below look almost dreamlike, blanketed in warmth. Satou brings out the pastries he baked for the occasion, squashed a little in transit, and they witness the sun’s Midas touch turning the rooftops to pure gold.

 

“I wish summer never had to end,” Yokoo says, sitting by the light of the camping stove. “I’m used to the nice weather and waking up late.”

 

“You just don’t want to go back to studying.” Satou jokes, prodding him in the arm with one of the unlit sparklers. Yokoo opens his mouth as if he’s about to disagree, then snaps it shut again.

 

“Everything has to end eventually,” Kou’s voice is uncharacteristically quiet, staring across the rooftops. Mitsuba turns to look at him- eyes pooled with electricity, voice soft and sad in a way that makes it feel private. Intimacy reserved only for sunset and the flickering light of the camping stove. “But there’s always next summer. But you can always remember this one, too.”

 

Unspoken beneath his words; don’t forget about us. Don’t forget about this summer.

 

“What is this, a bad movie ending?” Mitsuba jokes, because if he doesn’t say anything, he knows he’ll start to cry.

 

“Kou is right though- a lot happened this summer. A lot happened this year. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it in a hurry.” Yokoo agrees. And, really, that’s all Mitsuba needs to hear.

 

“Yeah, you’d better tell your adoring fans when you’re a star athlete all about how Mitsuba Sousuke showed you the sunset, let you ride on his motorcycle and took you to the best cafes in town.” Mitsuba replies, and the sun dips closer to the horizon by the second.

 

Sunset becomes dusk, the four of them toss a ball back and forth and Yokoo almost knocks himself out trying to hit it back to Kou with his forehead. Satou laughs so hard he has to sit down to wipe the tears from his eyes, and Mitsuba immortalises the whole process on his camera screen.

 

Though no lanterns swing between the rooftops this time, the near-cloudless skies leave them with no need for artificial constellations. In the absence of streetlamps, the night is filled to the brim with stars, and the heavy band of the milky way slices the sky in two. Satou points out the plough and orion's belt, then traces his fingertips across the night to where the north star lies- memories of childhood camping trips resurfacing in the form of constellations.

 

Kou’s eyes are filled with fireworks as he lies flat on his back and stares into the sky. Mitsuba holds his hand quietly- broken fingers that don’t grip quite right meeting cold lifeless palms, glued together in a way that just fits. 

 

They light the sparklers on the camping stove and trace light-patterns through the night sky. Yokoo and Satou try to spell out each other’s names, while Mitsuba butchers the kanji for traffic and Kou stabs in his direction with the lit end of his sparkler, as if he knows a single thing about fencing.

 

Once the sparklers have all been burned through and the camping stove switched off, Yokoo huddles down on the camping mattresses and the rest follow, piling into the space where they’ve pushed three of them together on the ground. It’s cramped, Mitsuba ends up with Kou’s arm in his face and Satou taking up most of his leg-room, but he finds that he doesn’t mind it one bit. 

 

He can’t hate it, not when he can open his eyes and stare right up into a sky filled with stars that seem to multiply the longer he looks. The seconds tick by, August tips over into September, and the constellations feel close enough to touch. When Mitsuba turns his head to the side, Kou is looking at him like the night sky above means nothing, and as though Mitsuba is the one with supernovae living behind his irises. 

 

Last September, Mitsuba wasn’t even the protagonist of his own story. This September, Minamoto Kou stares at him as if he holds the whole world in his hands.

 

A year is a very long time, after all.

 

“Thank you so much,” He tells the stars, tells Satou who takes up his leg-room and Yokoo who curls up beside him, tells Kou with his eyes full of fireworks. “This has been the best year of my life, and I’m not just saying that so you’re more likely to let me steal your breakfast in the morning.” 

 

He can feel the tears coming, and this time he does nothing to try and stop them. Satou notices, rolling to face him with a frown on clear display even in the dark. “Sousuke? What-”

 

“Just, let me finish,” Mitsuba wipes at his eyes before he continues. “You’re the first proper friends I’ve ever had, and I’m so glad that I stole Yokoo’s fried potatoes that day last autumn, because otherwise I’d never have gotten to know you properly.” 

 

Grief is a longsword and a hungry beast that eats Mitsuba away from the inside. It leaves his breath shaking in his throat and the stars swimming through tears until it feels as if he’s been plunged underwater. But he pushes onward, because if he can’t say goodbye, then this is the least he can do.

 

“I was so lonely beforehand, you know? Yeah, imagine that- cute little me, feeling lonely. But thanks to you, I’m not alone anymore,” He turns to Yokoo and Satou on his left, then Kou on his right. “I’ll never be lonely again, because I know that somewhere in Kamakura, pro sailor Yokoo is thinking about me. Somewhere in Tokyo, pastry chef extraordinaire Satou is thinking about me. Somewhere in the world, lame earring boy Kou is thinking about me.”

 

Kou kicks him somewhere under the blanket, and it’s so familiar that it only makes Mitsuba cry harder.

 

“You’re kinda unforgettable, Sousuke,” Yokoo replies, and though Mitsuba can’t see him through the dark, he’s sure that he must be smiling. “Even if you didn’t steal my potatoes, I think the four of us would have found each other eventually.”

 

“I just,” Mitsuba lets out an unflattering sniff, and covers his face with his hands. “I know I make a fuss, and my personality is kind of terrible, and I’m way cuter than all of you so I probably overshadow you when we go out places- but you’re still here, and I’m so glad.”

 

“We’re not going anywhere, Sousuke.” Satou replies, and holds his left hand with a different kind of softness to the way Kou holds his right.

 

But I am, Mitsuba thinks, and the grief of it all tastes like burning timber. But I am.

 

“Even if we’re not together,” Kou then says, breaking his silence for what feels like the first time in an eternity. “We’re still not going anywhere.”

 

Mitsuba stares back at the stars once more, which will remain in the sky for many years after they have fused their last atoms and burned themselves to pieces. Billions upon billions of miles away, yet on an outcrop beneath the sky with his first-last best friends at his side, the stars feel close enough for Mitsuba to touch.

 

Even if summer ends, it doesn’t go anywhere. Long after the violets have wilted, long after the stars have died, they’re still here.

 

he doesn’t say goodbye - because Mitsuba Sousuke is not gone yet.

 

-

 

Come morning, once they’ve woken early to watch the sunrise and eaten breakfast under a sky stained golden, Mitsuba hugs each of them once. First Satou, who always has the right answers in maths and bites ice cream without flinching. Then Yokoo, who hates natto and has hair that’s exactly as soft as it looks. And finally Kou, who has fireworks for eyes, and will be at his side till the very end.

 

“You’re going to end up smothering me!” He complains, when Satou puts him in a headlock for getting too sentimental, struggling in a way that makes Yokoo collapse into a fit of laughter.

 

When he hops onto the back of his motorcycle and drives away for the final time, the smile Mitsuba wears is nothing but genuine.

 

-

 

Mitsuba Sousuke’s final message in the cool people (including Yokoo) groupchat goes like this:

 

I had fun

 

And-

 

I’ll see you soon

 

(Still, he doesn’t say goodbye.)

 

-

 

For as long as Mitsuba can remember, it’s just been him and his mom and their tiny apartment in the center of town. So as his number of days ticks down to one, Mitsuba spends his time inside, despite the fact that it’s warm for September all over again. He helps his mom bake misshapen rock buns that turn out more rock than bun, looks up instructions on how to bring the houseplant in the kitchen back from the dead, and curls up on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn and three terrible movies back-to-back. 

 

It’s as normal of a day as any, but to Mitsuba, it means the world.

 

“You’re pretty cool, you know?” He says, half-way into the third movie of the night. His mom blinks, and quietly pauses the TV. Reading him like an open book, as if she can tell that there are things on his mind that he can’t rest until he’s spoken.

 

“Sousuke complimenting me? What universe have I ended up in.” She laughs, but it’s a softer sound than usual. Keep going, it says, unspoken. I’m listening.

 

Mitsuba kicks her in the leg, gently. “The universe where you have the nicest son in the world,” He starts, and his usual grin holds out for no more than a few seconds. “I was thinking about my friends’ parents. Kou’s aren't around, and Satou’s want him to do jobs he’s not interested in. You’ve always been here, and you never told me I’ve got to go and become a smart fancy lawyer in Tokyo or anything.”

 

“I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I tried to force you to become the top of your class, Sousuke,” Yukie smiles, sitting cross-legged on the sofa. “I don’t think my parents ever forgave me when I told them I didn’t want to go to medical school.” 

 

Mitsuba’s mom has chased her own fair share of dreams, and given up on even more in the process. She never told Mitsuba that he couldn’t grow his hair long, or stay out late to take photos, or borrow her makeup when he was twelve and discovering new things by the day. Because she remembers what it was like to be a kid with big ideas, and all the motivation in the world to pursue them. 

 

“Still- you only ever get mad at me when I do stupid things,” As he speaks, the tears he tried so desperately to hold back begin to fall. “And you never get fussy about my grades, or try to get me to change my personality, or to take up different hobbies.”

 

“Of course I’ve got to nag at you when you do dumb stuff, I’m your mom,” Yukie opens up her arms, and pulls Mitsuba into a hug that feels like coming home. “Who else would stop you from getting yourself into trouble because you don’t know when to close that big mouth of yours?” 

 

She strokes her hands through Mitsuba’s hair, and all it does is make him cry harder.

 

“I don’t have a big mouth,” He protests through his tears, but he doesn’t struggle away. “You always told me to speak my mind, so that’s exactly what I do.”

 

“Still, you have to read the room first,” Yukie prods him in the shoulder once, then once again. “Do you want to get back to watching this movie, or do you just want to sit here and cry for a little longer?”

 

“I think I’ll keep crying.” Mitsuba sniffs, and curls up close. His mom doesn’t ask why he’s crying, perhaps because she’s never needed to. Mitsuba may be keeping a lifetime’s worth of secrets in the four chambers of his fist-sized heart, but his mom has always heard him loud and clear.

 

Even if she doesn’t believe in ghosts, and even if most of her dreams didn’t work out, he knows that one day, Mitsuba Yukie will be okay again.

 

(The final scene of their third movie of the night makes Mitsuba laugh until he’s crying all over again. And, from where he stands unseen by the bedroom door, Kou is smiling too.)

 

-

 

Mitsuba says goodbye to his bedroom- to the pink walls and his mountain of plushies and the three matching photo frames on his bookshelf. He says goodbye to the cute clothes in his wardrobe, the summer homework on his desk that he hasn’t yet started, the new schoolbag his mom bought him that he’ll never get to use. 

 

He says goodbye to the notebook with the bunny sticker on the front, then drops it down the back of his wardrobe after one last glance through the crossed-out pages. All the things he wanted to do before he died (all the things he did. )

 

Kou rises from his beanbag in the corner of the room one final time, and asks: “Are you ready to go, Sousuke?”

 

-

 

“I’m going for a ride around town with Kou,” Mitsuba holds himself together as he steps out into the kitchen, and closes the door to the room he’s lived in for the past seventeen years behind him. “Just to get some fresh air.”

 

“Be back before eleven,” His mom says, and doesn’t look up from her laptop screen. Working hard, as always. “Have fun, and stay safe.”

 

“I will,” Mitsuba tells her- one final, terrible lie. “I will.”

 

He stares around at the kitchen, the living room, the half-dead houseplants by the sink and his mom, working away. She catches him looking, and laughs into her laptop. “Go on, don’t keep Kou waiting!” 

 

Kou is standing right beside him, unseen, holding the patched together remains of his right hand like he never intends to let go. 

 

“Bye, mom.” Mitsuba says, Kou squeezes his hand tight, and he closes the front door behind him. 

 

(Mitsuba holds himself together- right until he’s out of earshot. In the stairwell, high above the city lights, Mitsuba cries until he doesn’t think he can cry anymore. Kou holds him steady, and then, Kou cries with him. Mitsuba isn’t the only one leaving, after all.)

 

-

 

They drive up to the clifftop once more, cutting through the night past the entrance to the shrine and the scramble up the hillside, then pulling to a halt outside the rocky outcrop that overlooks the whole town. It’s a cloudless night once again, the sky is filled with enough galaxies to match the constellations behind Kou’s eyes, and the town shifts like a moving beast below their feet. Tokyo to the East, the mountains to the West.

 

Mitsuba ties his jacket around his shoulders like a cape, because it’s warm for September, and he’s always prepared for the wrong sort of weather. 

 

For what feels like an eternity, Mitsuba stares out at the town that has become his own. Somewhere amongst the lights, Yokoo and Satou will be sitting in their bedrooms, Sakura will be writing the script for their next broadcast, Minamoto Teru will be making sure the curtains are closed, and his mom will be finishing up her work for the night. Somewhere right beside him, Kou slips his cold fingers between Mitsuba’s own, where they fit as if they’ve always belonged there. 

 

“Sousuke,” Kou says, and his body looks like it’s made out of the same stuff as glow in the dark stars. “Do you want to stay here, in a way?”

 

Mitsuba stares.

 

“Don’t move on just yet. Collecting souls is a tough job, and we wouldn’t be able to see each other that much because we’d be busy, but we could watch the world go on together,” Kou grips Mitsuba’s other hand, the one that moves like it isn’t a hand at all, so they stand as polar opposites upon the clifftop. “I’m sure Amane wouldn’t mind there being one more of us.”

 

“You mean like he didn’t mind when you gave me this extra year?” At that, Mitsuba can’t help but let out a smile. Kou is still just as ridiculous as ever, right until the end.

 

“Even if he did mind, I wouldn’t let him near you! You could probably fight him off yourself though- he doesn’t like hurting people, really,” Kou laughs, sheepish and gentle in a way that still makes Mitsuba’s heart swoop in his chest. “So, what do you say? If you want to move on then that’s fine too, I just thought-”

 

It’s a big decision, too fast and too soon and Mitsuba doesn’t know what answer he’s supposed to give.

 

(One thing Mitsuba does know; he’s not ready to leave just yet.) 

 

“I’ll do it,” He says into the warm September night. “Let’s watch the world grow up together, lame earring boy.”

 

Mitsuba knows that seeing the last moments of people’s lives will be hard, that he’ll have to witness the aftermath of every bit of pain he puts his friends and family through, that he’ll come to adopt the same tired smile that Kou so often wears. He knows that Kou is learning to be selfish, by asking him to stay by his side for years to come.

 

But he also knows that he’s selfish himself- he wants to see Yokoo and Satou graduate, and he wants to know that people won’t forget him in a hurry. He knows, deep down, that playing a role in the last moments of a person’s life is a way to make an impact that he had never considered before Kou spoke it into existence.

 

They’re both selfish in the best possible way, holding hands at the top of the world.

 

Mitsuba thinks, if this were the ending to one of his mom’s cliche movies, then there’d be a shooting star overhead, or some miracle which would turn back time to last September, or a soundtrack that would swell to a crescendo over the rooftops.

 

Instead, Kou turns to face him with his supernova eyes, and asks; “How do you want to die, Sousuke?”

 

“Have a little more tact, why don’t you?” Mitsuba shoves him weakly. He thinks back to the festival, where Sakura had told him under the light of the lanterns that they wanted to go down living life the best they can.  

 

Kou asks him again. How do you want to die, Sousuke?

 

“While feeling alive.” Mitsuba replies.

 

So, he leaves his helmet on the outcrop, keeps his jacket tied around his shoulders like a cape, and hops onto the back of his motorcycle. Kou climbs on behind him- a familiar weight, arms wrapped around his waist.

 

Mitsuba pulls out his ponytail so the autumn breeze catches in his hair, and kicks off down the slope of the hill as the stars lean in close. He drives fast, faster than he’s ever gone before, faster than can possibly be safe, and he can’t stop the exhilarated laugh that swells in his chest like music, or the tears that catch on his eyelashes and are whisked away by the wind. 

 

He drives faster. The lights of the town below whirl past brighter. Mitsuba Sousuke has never felt more alive.

 

Kou presses a kiss against the back of his neck, so gentle that it hurts, always full of surprises.

 

The world spins past in shades of fireworks and summer days and sleeping under the stars until the sun comes up, and then- nothing more. 

 

When Mitsuba opens his eyes, he’s sprawled over backwards on the tarmac, and there’s a boy with a shock of blonde hair and the most ridiculous earring ever sitting on the road beside him.

 

“Are you ready to go?” Minamoto Kou asks. When Mitsuba grabs his hand, he finally feels warm.

 

-

 

One summer after

 

-

 

Even if summer ends, it’ll come around once more. Even if the violets wilt, they bloom again next year. Even if Kou shows up late every damn time, Mitsuba will still wait for him by the park bench for hours if he must.

 

“You couldn’t even make it to graduation day on time?” Mitsuba berates. Kou runs down the path with his jacket tied around his waist, and almost trips and falls face first into the violets blooming by the side of the pavement. 

 

“I was on a job- you won’t be laughing so much when you’re out of training.” Kou shoves Mitsuba hard, same as usual, then kisses him on the cheek in greeting. Same as usual. Deep down, though Mitsuba hates to acknowledge it, he’s glad to see Kou. It’s been almost a week since he was last affronted by the sight of his tacky fashion sense and firework eyes, and he was beginning to tip unacceptably on the verge of missing him.

 

“I see, work is more important than seeing your friends in their terrible graduation photo hairstyles.” Mitsuba huffs, but still holds onto Kou’s hand when he offers it. 

 

Truthfully, it hurts more than anything to witness the graduation he was never able to experience for himself. From the way Kou grips his hand tight, he knows he must feel the same. The guilt is there too- every time Mitsuba has seen Yokoo cry, watched Satou move from place to place as if he hasn’t slept in days, and plucked petals off the flowers his mom left for him. The guilt is there, but Kou is there too- and Kou knows enough about leaving people behind to help Mitsuba through to the other side.

 

“There they are!” Kou points across the park, towards where Yokoo and Satou stand amongst a group of Mitsuba’s old classmates, holding their graduation certificates to their chests with barely concealed pride. In a months’ time, Yokoo moves to Kamakura to start sailing full-time. A few weeks afterwards, Satou heads to Shinjuku to start a culinary course which he has yet to tell his parents about. 

 

“I can’t believe that they’re leaving us here.” Mitsuba sighs, and tries to force down the pride that rises in his chest like a tin-foil weather balloon.

 

“They’re not leaving all of us.” Kou nudges him, as Yokoo and Satou sit down side-by-side on the bench by the violet patch. They settle towards one end, leaving room for two by habit- a space which Mitsuba falls into as easy as breathing, and Kou follows right after.

 

There’s a memorial plaque on the bench that contains the kanji for Mitsuba and Sousuke . He wishes, distantly, that someone could add Minamoto and Kou alongside it- or maybe Traffic, for old-time’s sake. Yokoo taps the plaque with the back of his hand, fondly. 

 

“Sousuke would be crying right now if he was here, I bet.” He laughs, in that loud, golden-retriever way of his. A laugh that came back eventually, given time. 

 

(Mitsuba is crying, not that they’d know.)

 

“And Kou would be doing a terrible job at getting him to calm down,” Satou adds on. Then, quietly- “The four of us should have graduated together.”

 

Yokoo stares across at the two not-quite-empty seats beside him, and smiles.

 

“Do you believe in ghosts, Satou?” He asks, as the violets sway in the summertime breeze.