[identity profile] stormymood.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] arashi_exchange
A piece of rainbow for [livejournal.com profile] spacewhistler

Title: The Gentleman's Word
Pairing: Sho X Ohno
Rating: PG
Summary: Sho made a life-long promise to Satoshi and he was determined to keep it.
Notes: Dear [livejournal.com profile] spacewhistler, although your prompt made me the most excited to write that I've felt in years, I still couldn't come up with anything special or original. Still, I wanted to thank you and feel that I am fortunate to write for you. I couldn't make up my mind and in the end I just hope that you enjoy it if even just a little bit.

"Suddenly, I realized that in your arms, I was still afraid. I decided on my own that I would reduce that fear by leaving you behind."

* *

At one time, a child was given the power of choice. Though that decision was divided three ways, the strength behind their binding came from the child's own unwavering will. So it was that the pure heart that made those promises became both a fortune and a curse.

Back then the child could not fathom a life without his grandmother who, in his parents' absence, single-handedly raised him in the deep countryside. Yet when his grandmother fell ill, the unimaginable would become possible. She was to move in with a cousin and he would start living with his parents in the big city where they worked full-time.

To calm a crying child, his grandmother wove him a spell. She reached into her sewing basket and pulled out a spool of red thread. She cut three pieces and helped him tie one around her pinky. Then she showed him the red thread secured on her finger.

"These are your promises," she said and clasped his small fingers around the other two red strings. "Save them for the most important people to you. This is proof that I will always be a part of you."

The night before his departure, the boy fastened the second string around his favorite toy - a slingshot gifted to him by his late grandfather. He gave it to his grandmother so that the two most important pieces of himself would always be together.

To the very end, she held on to his toy, keeping and taking it with her wherever he couldn't go.

* *

Among the tablets engraved with his ancestors' names were his late grandmother's.

"Grandma, I'm home," Sho said, on his knees in front of the altar. "How have you been?"

This was his first return to the place of their memories since his grandmother left them four years ago. He had fallen forbiddingly ill at the time of her passing and had been forced to stay behind during her funeral. Only once he had received medical clearance from the doctor and permission from his family was he allowed to visit her site of burial. Even then his grief had been so profound that he had been persuaded to cut his visit short.

Sho didn't miss his grandmother any less now as he did then, but in those four years he had met a source of strength that helped him to contain that grief.

"Grandma, I found him again - the most important person to me. I saw him not long after I left here," he said.

That day on the sailing ship, he had spent many minutes dry heaving over the side before lying down on the deck to bemoan his seasickness. A fisherman crouched beside him to kindly touch his forehead. Sho fatefully blinked up into the same dark-brown eyes that had captivated him so many years ago. Though a passing decade had altered the image of a youthful boy, Sho recognized him. His determination from their first meeting had not wavered.

Sho learned to embrace what he initially didn't know. To his first and only love, he gave himself freely. Thus his every waking moment, he hoped to give Satoshi happiness.

To his grandmother in the present, Sho relayed, "It took me ten years, but I found him, Grandma. His name is Ohno Satoshi. You would have loved him, too. The way he laughs - it lights up his whole face. When I hug him, he fits perfectly into my arms. Satoshi's hands are always cold, but that's why I like to hold them."

Still, when he gave his all suddenly Satoshi's laughter was replaced by the desolate expression Sho had first seen in him. In that instance, the life that had been made for the two of them stopped making sense.

Sho told the silent altar, "I'm sorry I couldn't bring him here to meet you, Grandma. Because I couldn't keep my promise, I decided that I will wait for him. Even if I follow him this time, if he doesn't smile then my efforts are meaningless. Though waiting - it becomes harder each day. Will he come back to me?"

At the time of their first meeting, the crowd of people that passed by did not spare him a single glance. Nine year-old Sho who was newly arrived to the packed city, lost at the wrong train station and suffering from hunger, found his way into a corner where he shriveled and cried. Among the witnesses of his solitude, only one youth disengaged from the silent passerbys. The youth took his hand and led him onto the right train. As they rode together, Sho squeezed the youth's cold hands that continued to be clasped around his.

"Where are you going?" Sho asked when he noticed the large backpack strapped onto the older boy's back.

"I don't know," the youth answered. He stared into the distance, his eyes unfocused. Sho saw sorrow in the youth's gaze. "Somewhere. Anywhere. Far away from here."

They reached the correct station terminal. Before he left to seek for his worried mother awaiting his arrival, Sho held onto the youth's hand just a bit longer. Offering a subdued half-smile, the youth crouched down to pat his head with his other hand. Sho tied his last red thread around the youth's ring finger.

He looked into the older boy's sad, dark-brown eyes and promised, "Mister, I will make you happy."

In the present, Sho's cousin came to the door of the antechamber and looked on silently waiting for him to finish.

"Thank you. I'm done," Sho told him and stood. He bowed to Aiba. "I was just about to head out."

"Why?" Aiba asked. "Stay and have dinner with us. If you leave now, it'll be two hours before you get home."

"I can't, but thank you," Sho said. "I have to get going. I'm waiting for someone and I don't want to miss him."

Aiba expressed disappointment, but saw him out at the gate of the old building. "It was great seeing you again. Come back anytime. We're family for a reason."

"Thank you," Sho murmured with another quick bow and dived out of the gate into the sunset.

* *

A month later, Sho received a call from the city. It was his first phone call in weeks and at first he had been hopeful, but upon hearing the voice on the other end the of the line the joy clamoring to the surface plummeted.

"I finished reading your manuscript," Nino told him over the phone call. "Why is the ending a tragedy this time? Our Editor-in-chief isn't happy. It's deviated too far from your past hit works."

"In the context of the story, a happy ending doesn't make sense," Sho mumbled into the receiver. "Without the heroine, the protagonist's life has no meaning."

"Revive the heroine!" Matsumoto shouted in the background of Nino's call. "It's a fantasy novel for a reason!"

"This story doesn't work that way," Sho murmured at an even lower volume than previously, but unswayed by Matsumoto's wrath. "The heroine finds her peace in everlasting death. If the protagonist revives her, he will be undoing her greatest wish."

"That's where Chief and I agree that it doesn't make sense," Nino said. "If the heroine loves the hero, wouldn't she want to be with him?"

"Why do you think she will be happy with that?" Sho asked.

"I don't understand what you're getting at," Nino confessed. "That's the obvious conclusion if there's a mutual connection."

Sho replied, "Love doesn't always mean happily ever after."

After Sho hung up, Nino spoke to Matsumoto, "Sakurai's going through a difficult time. We can talk to him again later and try to convince him."

Matsumoto clicked his tongue in his irritation and rapped his knuckles on Nino's desk. "I won't go easy on him just because he's your friend, Ninomiya. You shouldn't either."

Nino tried to appeal to his boss's sensibilities. "Sakurai's not eating right, Chief. Maybe the stress has gotten to him. I'll convince him eventually. Because we're friends." He emphasized the last bit.

Unable to relent that easily, Matsumoto asked, "How? Aren't you going on a trip tomorrow?"

"Yes," Nino replied, "but that's for business. I have to find someone important."

One week after their conversation, Nino arrived at Sho's doorstep unannounced. Sho took his visit very well and graciously invited him in. Taking the writer's positive demeanor as a cue, Nino expected to find Satoshi inside when he went in. He immediately knew his assumption was wrong when the cold silence of the interior greeted him. Although everything remained the same from his last visit, the effect of Satoshi's absence seemed to have taken a toll on the very walls of the small house.

It was to his relief when they sat on the back veranda outside the confines of the dreary home to have a cup of coffee. The two friends looked out over hills, farm fields and green forests. The vibrant color of summer reminded Nino that three months had passed since the day a drunken Sho had called him to announce that Satoshi had taken off.

"If you're here to persuade me to change the ending, you're in for a disappointment," Sho said. "In case it doesn't go over well with Matsumoto, I've got you covered so don't worry. I'm working on a different story that will definitely please him."

Nino studied him over the rim of his mug while he took a long sip of his drink.

When he saw his friend looking at him so intently, Sho smiled pleasantly at him with an unspoken question in his eyes.

"I did not expect this type of welcome," Nino explained. "How're you feeling?"

Sho's smile faltered and then disappeared completely. He said calmly, "The village doctor gave me a special tea to drink with my meals. It should help my stomach settle down and digest."

Nino was comforted by the news and decided he could continue his business trip without worry. He had only stopped by for a short while to see how Sho was faring. It appeared that his friend was getting along pretty well. He thought that perhaps his trip had become redundant.

Yet, as he was making his way out he saw a flash of his friend's wrist when the sleeve had been pulled back and was appalled at how skinny it was. What if Sho was just acting fine? Carrying doubts, Nino went on his way.

Moments after his friend left, Sho heaved into the toilet. Nothing came up predictably except for a mixture of saliva and bitter bile. His breakfast had been disposed of hours ago. Though he tried to eat lunch, it was just impossible to keep anything down. Even with the doctor's medicinal tea, everything he ate came back up eventually.

When his stomach finally settled, Sho curled on the bathroom floor, too weak to move or wipe the perspiration from his brow.

It wasn't the lack of energy that affected him the most. The emptiness inside of him almost mirrored the time when he knew of his grandmother's passing. Back then learning the truth had sank him into a pit of darkness which had been the beginning of an unnatural sickness. That time his parents and doctor had attributed it to shock, but this was different. Months after Satoshi left, this was an uncommon after-effect of his absence.

Satoshi came to stand by the bathroom door and saw him lying pathetically down on the floor by the toilet. He chortled.

"What are you doing, Sho?" he murmured in his soft indoor voice.

Sho's eyes flickered to his lovely rounded face, the features having been memorized perfectly ages ago, and whispered, "I'm waiting for you."

"Why?" Satoshi asked.

He faded into the background, a mere trick of Sho's mind.

"I miss you," Sho whispered to the person who wasn't there.

Before the time that Satoshi left, Satoshi had refused to meet Sho's eyes. He had gathered his things in one backpack, the same as their first meeting.

"Can I hear you voice?" Sho asked knowing that it wasn't in the other man's nature to say anything. As expected, Satoshi kept his silence. So Sho added, "I can wait. Until you say something - anything. I'll wait to hear from you."

Then Satoshi left the house they had been living in together.

Their last shared memory contributed to his desolation with the knowledge that he had not been able to comfort Satoshi. Still on the hard floor Sho closed his eyes and tried to ignore the gnawing silence around him.

* *

On the first day of his freshmen year of high school, Sho stopped just outside the gate of his new school and appraised the three-story building with his eyes.

At first he had been impatient to set out on his own, but it had taken only a few wise words from his grandmother to change his point of view. He realized that in order to protect the people most important to him he had to grow up.

"Right now I must be the same age as you were when we met," Sho said full of wistfulness as he thought of the youth he had made a promise to many years ago. "Ah, but I still feel like a kid. But even then you walked out alone. Where are you now?"

Students moved passed and around him while throwing him strange looks, but he took no notice of them until Nino came up beside him and slapped him on the back of his head.

"You're being creepy talking to yourself again," Nino jokingly complained.

Sho rubbed the back of his head. "I was just making my high school declaration."

"Declaration?" Nino repeated. "What?"

Sho took a deep breath, drawing fresh, spring air into his lungs. "I am going to find my first love. With certainty."

Nino snorted without full comprehension of his friend's commitment. "Getting a girlfriend? You're no different from the rest of us guys."

Sho turned his head and smiled benignly at his friend since middle school. "Seems like you thought too highly of me," he said.

* *

"In the fairy-tales that you write, the happy endings are a foregone conclusion. In reality, happiness is a variable. It was something I did not believe in. So the happiness that you gave me - I did not recognize it and allowed it to slip through my fingers."

* *

For a long time, there was simply no place where he belonged. From run down apartments to distant relatives' homes and finally ending up in a foster home - the consistency of having nothing remained until he picked himself up and left. Until then, Satoshi had no voice. Solitude was a condition he was used to. It was a quality later self-inflicted and utilized in self-interest. He had been getting along well enough in his isolation.

Sho brazenly destroyed that self-determination. The self that he didn't know appeared. That one silent half that protected him and which he could safely embrace. He was afraid of the consequences if he lost it. That was the only part of himself that he had known for years. He had too many fears that could not be swallowed and digested otherwise.

Satoshi sat on the pier overlooking the stretch of sea and sky. He stared at the blueness of the scenery wistfully. For days he had returned to this place trying to establish some peace of mind, but the thoughts of a shared past couldn't go away completely to make that happen.

"Ohno," Nino called him and went to stand by his side. "Thank goodness, I finally found you."

Satoshi glared ahead of him at the sea, having recognized the voice of Sho's editor and friend. Frustration at the disturbance made him stubborn. He had explicitly told Sho to leave him alone.

Satoshi stood and grabbed his backpack to leave. Nino hastily reached out to stop him, but Satoshi shied away from his touch. Biting his lower lip, he ducked his head and stormed down the pier.

"I just wanted a word with you!" Nino shouted after him.

Satoshi had nothing to say to him. Neither did he have anything to say to Sho.

Three and a half years ago, Sho had stepped in front of him and blocked his path with stretched arms. Sho did not dare touch him, having quickly realized that Satoshi hated abrupt contact with others.

He said, "You don't have to say anything. Just hear me out. Please."

So Satoshi stood in place and waited.

"I don't need anything from you, I swear," Sho said. "I won't bother you. Just, if you happen to see me around the corner or down the street, don't hide from me. You can pretend I'm not there. Treat me just like any other stranger. Don't be conscious of me. Don't think about me. You can continue being who you are."

The sincerity of his words reached Satoshi. His stubbornness subsided. He looked up to meet Sho's eyes and murmured hesitantly, "I won't hide. You...you can greet me. I'll try to answer."

Then Sho had smiled brightly with joy as if he had received the greatest gift in the world. That honest emotion ignited the beginnings of a realization for Satoshi.

As always, Sho had reached out first, but at that moment Satoshi had tentatively agreed to something that would grow beyond his expectations.

At a time before the end and a long time after the beginning, an unsuspecting storm had broken out quickly. The ominous clouds loomed over the entire village. Rain pelted the earth relentlessly. In this dire weather Satoshi had been making his slow way home on foot in only his thin jacket. Sho came running with an umbrella to Satoshi's rescue. He was wet to his skin and bones, having left the umbrella unfurled so he could run to reach Satoshi faster.

As Sho came to him, he opened the umbrella only to have it whipped from his hands by the strong wind. It was gone from their sight within seconds. Despite their dreary circumstances, Satoshi couldn't help but chuckle.

"I'm sorry," Sho apologized at his uselessness.

Satoshi could adapt to any situation and was a prodigy with his hands. However, Sho still had difficulty doing the mundane everyday things. The glaring difference in their skills made the gap in their ages and maturity level even more unbearable for him.

"This is more interesting," Satoshi murmured though he shivered.

Sho didn't believe him one bit, but he tried not to let his disappointment show because he recognized Satoshi's effort to soothe him. He offered his hand and when Satoshi took it he felt grateful. Entwining their fingers, Sho suggested, "Let's find cover from the wind and rain to wait the storm out."

To their misfortune, the storm raged all through the night. They spent their time waiting side by side in a farmer's storage shed Damp from the rain, but exhausted from his work that day, Satoshi's head leaned on Sho's shoulder and he fell asleep. Sho moved to accommodate his position and make his sleep more comfortable.

"Next time, I'll do better. I will become a better man for you," Sho murmured to the sleeping man.

He brought Satoshi's hand to his lips and pressed a soft kiss on the palm. He wanted to move on from all of his regrets.

Yet, Satoshi left before Sho had a chance to correct all of his mistakes.

* *

Having volunteered his services to a fisherman for a free meal, Satoshi now sat blissfully on a boat bobbing out on the water. He had two fishing reels out in front of him and a can of beer in his hand. This was what he considered happiness. He knew that his special good-luck charm would come through. The piece of red string gifted to him by a young boy he once helped had been taped to a piece of cardboard. He carried it around in his wallet and took it out to trace down the string when he especially felt that he needed luck.

That moment was the only memory in his past that he particularly valued. Satoshi wasn't a Samaritan of any kind, but seeing a lost boy whom everyone seemed to see and yet not see had sparked something in him. It reminded him of himself too much. Then the boy had rewarded him with the most meaningful gift he had ever received - a blessing with the purest feelings.

So he had engraved that gratitude and scene into his memory.

Satoshi spent his day smoothly and he wished it would always be this way.

Fate had other plans for him.

When the fisherman concluded his work that night and they returned to the docks on the boat, Nino was there on land waiting. Satoshi's earlier peace of mind plummeted. Frustration built up in his chest. He clenched his teeth stubbornly. Looking at his feet and pretending to not have seen Nino, he tried to run away again.

"Ohno, can't you call Sakurai at least once?" Nino quickly blurted in case he missed his chance this time.

Satoshi continued moving and Nino followed him closely behind.

"Aren't you curious about how he's doing?" Nino asked him.

Those thoughts were exactly the ones he tried to stop himself from thinking. This was a time for himself to find his own path and he didn't need anyone else intruding, neither Nino nor Sho. So he kept going, trying to get as far away from Nino as possible. If he didn't say anything, the editor would leave him alone. He would not make the same mistake as the past. He wouldn't invite anything he couldn't handle.

Finally, Nino stopped walking and shouted in his frustration at Satoshi's receding back, "Was it all a lie? Every time I saw you two together, Sakurai was always smiling. Always talking about you. And I thought you cared enough about him too. Was it a lie, Ohno? Tell me, were you ever happy with him at all?"

Satoshi stopped abruptly. Yes, he answered in his mind. He was so happy that it scared him. It was a happiness he had no control over and the unpredictability of it threatened the life that he had sought for in his youth. Sho was an equation that threatened him. Sho might disappear one day, just like his father and mother.

Once that thought passed, he continued walking, leaving without having uttered a word or turning around.

Nino did not follow, finding the answer from the other man's cold silence.

Though he did not know that he had pushed Satoshi to deal with his struggling emotions once and for all.

* *

Sho received a call from a pay phone. He thought it could be a fan who had somehow gotten a hold of his number, but when the silence on the other end persisted he grew suspicious and then his heart began hammering in his chest.

"Satoshi?" he murmured into the phone.

"It's me," Satoshi confirmed.

His voice was melody to Sho's ears and his sunken spirits soared. He smiled happily and from gratefulness. Satoshi had contacted him at last.

"How are you doing?" he asked. "Do you have enough to eat? Where do you sleep at night? It's getting colder now. Please take care of your health and be safe."

Satoshi took a deep breath, preparing to cut through that enthusiasm. At his softest tone, he murmured, "Sho, don't chase after me anymore. Forget me."

Silence answered his statement.

Satoshi took another breath and tried again. "I've decided."

"Are you happier now?" Sho cut in softly.

Satoshi bit his lower lip, struggling to contain his weakness. He lied, "Yes, I am. I'm much happier now."

The response ripped Sho's heart to shreds. He placed his hand over his chest where his heart was beating erratically. His throat seemed to have closed as breathing became even more difficult.

This was only the consequence of his unnatural attachment.

"I understand," Sho finally said with difficulty. However, instead of agreeing with Satoshi he added, "I understand, but I'll still wait for you. You can continue doing what you want. I'll continue to wait, but I'll leave you alone from now on. I'll be okay. I'm rooting for your happiness, Satoshi. Wherever you may be."

Satoshi's initial response was silence. Then he murmured, "I'm sorry, Sho."

The ache in Sho's chest intensified. He covered his mouth to stop the sounds that tried to escape as tears burned his eyes. He couldn't say anything, but for as long as he could he wanted to keep on hearing Satosh's voice. However, the money had run out and their call ended abruptly.

Sho was back in the bathroom heaving into the toilet bowl. Sweat broke out on his skin from the exhausting effort. His stomach lurched and his throat burned. He tasted iron on his tongue and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. A streak of blood painted on his skin. He stared at it without emotion. None of it mattered to him. Sho held on to the seat of the toilet taking shallow breaths.

The mirage of Satoshi knelt beside him and moved his wet bangs away from his eyes. Sho stared wistfully at Satoshi. His pained expression conveyed everything he couldn't physically say. He reached for the hand that was always cold yet reassuring, but it disappeared as soon as he tried to grasp it. The teasing of his mind and the emptiness of his heart stifled him.

Sho pressed his arm over his eyes when he couldn't hold back the tears from his shock and broken self.

He had decided to wait even if it took an eternity, but the shortness of his breath told him otherwise.

He shouldn't be this sad. All he should ever need was for the love of his life to find happiness, even if that was without him.

* *

Sho had a happy dream. Satoshi and he were having their usual weekend afternoon coffee on the veranda. Families were at their fields during the harvest season. Fall was coming and so was Satoshi's birthday.

"What would you like?" Sho asked straightforwardly. He didn't want to commit a mistake when it came to bringing Satoshi happiness.

Satoshi set his coffee cup down and shook his head.

"You don't know?" Sho asked.

"Nothing. I don't want anything," Satoshi said. He traced graceful fingers around the rim of his cup.

Sho saw that the red thread was tied around the older man's ring finger where Sho had placed it many years ago. He smiled at the sight of it.

"Sho, you can move on without me," Satoshi said as he continued to look into his cup.

Those words immediately displaced the smile on Sho's face. He retorted, "It's impossible."

"I will absolve you of your promise," the dream-Satoshi said.

Sho stretched his arm across the small table and opened his hands palm faced up. Knowingly, Satoshi placed his cold hands in Sho's. Then Sho gently traced the red thread tied securely on the older man's finger.

"I can't. This is it. You are my last love," he said quietly.

The Satoshi in his dream looked up finally and deeply into his eyes. He smiled widely.

Sho woke and found himself lying on a bed in a bright room hooked up to an I.V. Instead of the person he most wanted to see, his friend was at his side.

"You fainted in the bathroom," Nino said. "As soon as I found you, I called the village doctor. He helped me bring you down to the nearest hospital. You've been unconscious for three days. Imagine if I hadn't been there? What would have happened?"

Sho summoned a weak smile to his lips that he didn't feel. "Thank you," he said.

"How do you feel?" Nino worried.

"My heart is in pieces," Sho replied in a jokingly manner although only he knew the truth of that confession. Every waking moment was excruciating physically and emotionally. He wanted to go back to his sweet dreams.

Nino spoke up without reservation. "You're a fool, Sakurai. How hung up can you get over a guy? What happens if Ohno doesn't return?"

"Then it's over for me," Sho said. "I'm head over heels for him. There's no one else."

"What if Ohno doesn't return?" Nino emphasized. "Can we change your feelings about him? Should I just drag him here against his will and knock some sense into him?"

"Sorry, Nino. We're stubborn," Sho said. "Did you by any chance meet with Satoshi on my behalf?"

"You're both idiots," Nino agreed, sulking as he lightly kicked the foot of Sho's bed. "You knew, didn't you? Yes, I found him, although he refused to come back with me. Forget him, Sakurai. He's only one guy out of many in the world."

Sho turned his eyes up to the celing in an attempt to hide his burning tears as they streaked down the side of his face. The emptiness that sucked him destroyed all vestiges of hope. Above all others he had placed one purpose. If he couldn't make that come true then nothing else he did had any meaning.

"It's fine the way it is. I'll be okay if Satoshi doesn't come back," he murmured, although his heart protested.

Every conscious thought, every sane moment was a struggle to gather his breath. He closed his eyes against the world when the one person that mattered wasn't there. He embraced the darkness and hoped it would soothe the ache in his heart.

In the darkness, Sho felt gentle hands on his forehead and thought it was Satoshi at first. But when he opened his eyes he saw that his was his grandmother sitting at his side this time. Although it wasn't the person he had been waiting for, this was another person he had most wanted to see. Sho could not hold himself back from crying openly. The tears fell easily. He hastily rubbed his eyes so that his vision of her wouldn't blur.

"Grandma, I need you," he said through the gasps that escaped his lips.

His grandmother smiled patiently and held his hand. Sho attempted to sit up, but pain shot through his abdomen and chest. His breathing became labored and he pathetically fell against the pillows. The futility of his attempts broke him and he wept even harder as if he was still a child.

"Grandma, I am wrong. If I was stronger, I could wait for him for an eternity," he said.

His grandmother leaned in to press a kiss against his forehead and patted his head. Sho sucked in his tears and shut his eyes.

"I am proud of you, my boy," she said. "I won't leave you again. Come, let's go home."

* *

"At that time it was easy to walk away from you, but when I was all alone I realized I couldn't forget you. When I looked back, moving forward by myself and leaving you behind was a choice I shouldn't have made. It became a regret."

* *

Satoshi crouched by the payphone and stared up forlornly like a lost child. Once he had heard Sho's voice, the addiction that he successfully severed had returned. He hadn't realized that he could become so invested yet again. He couldn't walk away from it, but he couldn't pick up the phone and dial Sho's number either.

His last conversation with Sho had drained him emotionally. He had lied and the bitter after taste left him with a deep sense of loneliness which he had successfully held back at bay until now. Satoshi beat at his chest as if he could stomp out any lingering attachments he had. As usual, it was impossible and he knew that Sho had changed his life in a way that he couldn't erase.

He remembered very clearly the moment he decided to leave and when he told Sho of his decision. At that time, he could not look at Sho or it would have stopped him, but he also knew he couldn't stay.

If he went back to half year a ago, he would make the same choice again.

But that didn't make his current regret go away.

"When I'm with Sho, I'm the happiest," Satoshi finally allowed himself to accept.

The beginning of his journey had started fifteen years ago when he left his foster parents' house. At the premise, his goal had been to find a home for himself. When he revived that journey and left Sho behind, the renewed mission and attempt to find himself stemmed from a place of disbelief that such happiness would exist for him. He hadn't realized that it did exist. With Sho he had found his home after all.

For their first petty argument, Satoshi had been angry at Sho for taking hold of his hand while they were at the village market. It was a time before Sho understood the little things about him.

Satoshi had been merciless in his anger.

When the younger man came at night to apologize yet again, he refused to open the door.

In the morning, he found Sho sitting on his doorsteps. Despite staying up all night waiting, Sho had smiled kindly through his weariness and said, "Good morning."

It was then that Satoshi realized that Sho would embrace and forgive even his deepest faults.

In the present, Satoshi unconsciously dug into the ground at his feet with a stick while his troubling thoughts distracted him. When a wet drop landed on his hand, it took him more than a few seconds to realize his tears had come to the surface. He had to ask himself why he was even crying. When his breath was cut short and he thought the ache in his chest would kill him, he recognized the pain as his fear.

Within and without Sho's arms, he still feared. He feared losing Sho. Leaving in an attempt to be rid of all conscience and consequences had not caused that fear to disappear.

Satoshi covered his damp eyes with his hands. At this time, he had to make another choice. He had to either run away again or confront his fears head on.

Without seeing, without consciously steering, he allowed his feelings to lead him in the right direction back to the starting point of his second journey.

On the long road home, an old woman greeted him from the bench of an isolated bus stop. She beckoned to him and he stopped in front of her wondering if she needed help. She reached for his hands and he obligingly placed his in hers. Her wrinkled hands were rough and even colder than his. It startled him. Then she turned her gaze up to meet his eyes and the depths of her dark brown pupil bound him to the spot. Yet, she smiled warmly.

"My grandson was right," the elderly woman said. "You are lovely."

Satoshi wasn't sure how to reply to something like that. He wondered if she knew him. He didn't think he had met her before, unless in passing.

She continued without interruption, "Thank you for making him happy for many years." She placed a slingshot in his hand. "I will take him with me, but don't be too lonely. Keep this and take it with you wherever you go, just like I did, and perhaps think a little of him when you can."

Satoshi stared at her quizzically, wondering who and what she meant.

Suddenly, she was gone in blink of an eye.

He didn't act immediately, instead staring in shock at where she had sat and then knowing it hadn't been a vision because he still held her gift. He took a long look at the slingshot in his hand. What shocked him more was the red thread tied around an arm of the slingshot. It vividly reminded him of his own.

The strangeness of the meeting sent a shiver down his spine. As suddenly, a wave of anxiety and fear hit him. He turned back to the direction where he was headed and gazed out into the distance. Somewhere in that direction, Sho was supposed to be waiting for him. He hadn't doubted it, but all of that had changed with the strange meeting. It drove him to desperation and he broke into a run.

A buried memory rose to the surface.

On one of the rare days when Sho had accompanied Satoshi on his fishing trips, Sho became sentimental while they were drinking and waiting for the fish to bite. Well on his way to being drunk, Sho confessed himself openly and without embarrassment.

"I love you a lot, Satoshi," Sho said while glaring at the sea trying to focus his gaze. "Because I'm with you, I don't think about the end. There's only one possibility I am fighting for. Even if you give up, I'll continue believing in us enough for the both of us. You'll forgive me for loving you this much, won't you?"

Although Sho had poured out his heartfelt sincerity, yet he had told Sho to give up.

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. His fears became a reality all because of his own decisions.

When Satoshi couldn't get in touch with Sho, he called Nino.

"You're too late," Nino told him over the phone. "I won't forgive you."

* *

"Can I hear you voice?" Sho had asked him before he left, as always kindly regarding his own comfort above all else.

* *

"I understand now. Sho, I love you. It was that simple. It took hurting you and driving you to near oblivion for me to acknowledge it.

Sho, I am here. I will never leave your side again.

For you, I will believe, so don't leave me alone. For me, will you wake up?"

* *

Sho remained in his coma.

Ever since his arrival, Satoshi refused to leave Sho's side except for the basic necessities. He spent every moment in the seat next to Sho's bed in the hospital room. There was nothing else Satoshi could do in his waking moments, but speak to him. He revealed his innermost thoughts and feelings - from his fears to his realization.

He tucked the slingshot he had received from the elderly woman with his good-luck charm, but it disappeared one day as suddenly as she had come and gone.

He didn't miss it.

To mark the beginning of fall, Satoshi dreamed of the young boy he had met on the day he set out from his foster home. Although it had been a precious memory, the boy's features had been unclear. Yet, in his dream Satoshi saw him vividly. He looked to be a younger version of Sho.

Upon laying eyes on him, Satoshi held his breath. Nostalgia and longing consumed him.

Around them, the people passed by in a blur to get on and off the train. However, both Satoshi and the child was locked in place following the memory. This time, Satoshi crouched to gently pat the child's head with great affection. The boy took his hand and tied a red thread securely around his ring finger.

The young boy who looked so much like Sho smiled brightly at him and it was the exact smile that Satoshi had learned to love.

"Mister," the young Sho said, "I will make you happy."

Back then, Satoshi had walked away from the child without a word. In his dreams, he could correct his past mistakes.

He smiled at the young Sho and whispered, "Thank you for choosing me. Do you know when I am most happiest?"

The young Sho grinned cheekily at him.

Satoshi stirred from his beautiful dream. He blinked away the sleepiness while mourning the end of such a wistfully happy dream. He squeezed Sho's hand in his grasp which he had been holding in his sleep. A twitch of fingers startled him and he opened his hand to check. It hadn't been his imagination. Sho's fingers twitched again. Quickly, his eyes traveled to Sho's face

As he watched with his heart in his mouth, Sho's eyes fluttered open slowly.

Just like in his dream, Sho met his eyes and a small smile turned up the corners of his lips.

Grateful tears fell down Satoshi's face and he returned the smile.
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