Spooky drinks dark roast coffee, black, and he drinks it slowly as if he actually enjoys the taste. Something about it is…
“You’re so cool,” Keiji mutters over the rim of his mug, hot chocolate with vanilla creamer. Maybe it’s a bit of an obnoxious thing to order, especially at a coffee shop like this one, the kind of place that has weird words like ‘americano’ and ‘ristretto’ written in white chalk on their menu board. When he went out with Hitomi or Lunch or anyone else he didn’t think much of it, but suddenly he feels terribly self-conscious.
Spooky is in the middle of lighting a cigarette and coughs. “What?” With tense shoulders, he glances away from Keiji, shifting his focus out the window, at snowdrifts piling up against the curb, taxis plowing through the slush in the road and staining it with dirt.
Keiji stares down into his mug, into whipped cream covered in chocolate sprinkles, melting into his drink like a sinking iceberg. “W-Well, I mean…” He can feel a knot in his stomach, anxiety swirling in his chest. Why did he say something like that? “It’s, you know.” He gestures vaguely with one hand. “Drinking black coffee is cool, if you ask me.”
The single syllable strikes a jolt of fear through Keiji’s chest. ‘Oh.’ Like Spooky thinks he’s being embarrassing, like he thinks it’s a weird thing to say but is too kind to say that. He knows Spooky would never think such a thing, but in the moment before Spooky speaks again, his anxiety crushes his logic.
“You know… it’s not like I drink it out of choice.” Spooky leans slightly forward over the tabletop between them, like he’s about to tell a secret. He smiles and says, “Just between us, I can’t afford anything else here.”
Keiji laughs, feels a warm flutter in his chest. He says something in response, but years later it wouldn’t be important, wouldn’t even be stored in his memories. In the future all he would remember would be Spooky’s smile, Spooky walking him to his train station, Spooky telling him to take care and giving him a long, thoughtful look before turning and leaving.
Years later, Keiji would remember it as the day he should’ve told Spooky he loved him.
“Ouch! Minegishi, you know where they keep the first aid kit around here?”
“Hmm?” Keiji is so focused on the terminal in front of him that he doesn’t listen to anything around him. Four months back he took some tech job at a temp agency without even bothering to read the application requirements, just desperate for something to occupy his mind with. It was a breeze at first, eating pretzel sticks at his desk, continuing to play Tetris hours after his lunch break. The public panic over Y2K put a brisk end to his easy job and signalled the beginning of a lot of overtime.
“Got myself on a boxcutter.” Some new girl at the office, Shimizu? Shimazu? She’s crouching on the floor in front of a cardboard box, a shipment of highlighters and paper clips and other boring office supplies. She lifts her hand for Keiji to see, blood seeping out of a wound in her palm. It drips down her her bony wrist, blooms red all over the sleeve of her khaki blazer.
Shimizu keeps talking, a cringe overtaking her pretty face. Another co-worker steps in, starts blotting at her hand with tissues that darken on contact. Keiji doesn’t realize he’s standing, doesn’t realize he’s moving until another co-worker asks him what’s wrong, their voice sounding blurry, like someone speaking underwater. He can feel his mouth form the words, “I don’t know,” but he doesn’t hear a thing. He’s only aware of dread, thick suffocating terror, like being smothered under a thousand quilts during a summer typhoon.
He stops only when he reaches a dead end, the balcony off the back of the building, the place where their boss shoos the smokers so he’s not tempted to break his streak of four months clean. Even outside he can’t escape the fear, sharp and hot in his chest. He tries to steady his breathing, but the air tastes like smoke and the salt of the Tokyo Bay.
It’s not the same but’s it’s enough. He holds his trembling hands in front of himself. He can see that they’re clean, but they feel heavy, sticky, like they’re coated in warm blood that he spilled, like they’re being pulled down by the weight of what they’ve done, of what he’s done. He clenches and unclenches his fists, but the flex of his muscles and tendons makes him feel nauseated.
He wants to cry but the tears don’t come. Some part of him thinks he’s cried so much that he’s run out forever. Another part thinks he won’t let himself cry because he knows he doesn’t deserve to.
“I loved him.”
The words spill from his mouth thoughtlessly. Keiji freezes as if his feet have gotten glued to the pavement, the smell of the salty Amami Bay so oppressive it’s almost too much to bear. He knows they need to keep moving. He feels deeply sick in these clothes, in his body, in this universe. He wants to scrub himself raw, erase every drop of blood from his body. Truthfully, he knows deep down that he will never, ever feel clean.
Nemissa pauses, her calm expression tinged with sadness. She opens her mouth, then closes it. There’s dried blood smeared over one of her eyebrows, a splash of it across her cheekbone.
“Why did it have to--” Keiji crouches down, desperately trying to wipe the tears and blood from his cheeks. His hands are filthy, so filthy and it feels like everything he touches is tainted, is consumed by something dark that he can’t name. “Why-- Why did he apologize when I’m the one… when I…”
He did not deserve it. He didn’t deserve any of Spooky’s kindness, his patience, his forgiveness. So why-- why why why why why--
“Listen. He… he knew it was the only way. You heard him.” Nemissa crouches in front of him, but doesn’t touch him.
“I loved him and I never told him,” Keiji chokes out. “I didn’t stand up for him when they called him a traitor. I couldn’t find a way to save him. I’m--” He covers his face with his hands. His breathing is rapid and shallow. He’s a coward, a coward, a coward--
“Stop.” Nemissa takes his face in her hands, a little too roughly. She forces him to look at her, her expression cold but something sympathetic in her eyes. “He told you he believes in you, you can’t let him down now. Help me stop this. Let’s finish this together, and then I’ll let you cry as much as you want, promise.”
Keiji nods, biting back a sob, biting back a desperate overwhelming urge to claw his own skin off. There are seagulls chattering overhead. Nemissa’s hands are holding him steady. Despite everything that’s happened, there is still a wild, frantic pounding in his chest. He does not want the world to keep spinning around him, but the world doesn’t stop for good people, and it definitely does not stop for boys with their first love’s blood stained on their skin. Keiji stands, and with Nemissa’s hand in his, he runs.
When Spooky dotes on him, he feels a range of emotions. A more independent side of him is a little miffed, feels like Spooky is treating him like a child. The heartsick side of him thrives on the attention, leans a little into every touch and carefully locks every kind word in his heart.
“Jeez, where’d all this blood come from?” Spooky asks, his cigarette nearly burned down to nothing after shifting all of his attention to Keiji. “You’re sure it doesn’t hurt?”
“It’s fine,” Keiji says with the airiest, most heartsick laugh he’s ever heard from himself. The cut above his eyebrow hurts like an absolute bitch, deep enough that Keiji knows he should probably get stitches. The rational thoughts fizzled out as soon as he decided to go to Spooky instead, as soon as Spooky’s gentle fingers brushed against his skin.
God, it’s so pathetic. He knows it’s embarrassing how hard he’s crushing on their leader, so obviously lovestruck that he’s certain Hitomi has noticed. She says things that make it clear she knows, like, “You really like him, huh?” Every time she says it Keiji can’t do anything but look away to hide the blush spreading across his cheeks all the way to his ears.
“Ah jeez,” Spooky says, his trembling hands dropping a roll of gauze that unravels as it rolls across the floor.
Spooky’s first aid kit probably hasn’t been restocked since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Keiji doesn’t come by for good medical attention anyway. As soon as he stopped by Spooky flew into a panic like an adorable mother hen, desperately trying to find band aids that hadn’t lost their stickiness and alcohol wipes that hadn’t dried out.
Spooky finally finds a wipe and a band-aid that are still viable and comes back to Keiji’s side, unwraps the wipe and then hesitates. “This’ll sting. Probably. Is that okay?”
“I trust you,” Keiji says without hesitation, beaming like a he doesn’t have a gash in his head.
Spooky makes a face like he thought about smiling, but forced it back. “You really shouldn’t,” he says, hesitating before lightly dabbing some blood off Keiji’s face. “I have no idea what I’m doing. You should go to the hospital.”
“Nah,” Keiji says, biting back a hiss when the little remaining alcohol gets into the cut and lights up his nerves in fresh pain. Spooky gently touches Keiji’s jaw, tilts his head slightly to the side to get a better angle to wipe off the blood. The feel of Spooky’s skin on his has the butterflies in his stomach exploding like new years fireworks, a welcome distraction from the pain.
“It looks pretty bad,” Spooky murmurs so close Keiji can feel his steady breathing. “It might scar if you--” He finally realizes that his cigarette has burned to nothing and snuffs it out in an ashtray across from where they’re seated. “I’m not trying to make you worry, but you might need stitches.”
“It doesn’t even hurt,” Keiji lies. “You worry too much, Leader.”
Spooky frowns but doesn’t argue. He tears the paper wrapping off the bandaid, and carefully places it next to Keiji’s eyebrow. It doesn’t quite cover the entire wound, but it hides most of it. He cups Keiji’s face in his hands and gives him a long look over. “I think that’s all I can do.”
Spooky’s hands on him and Spooky’s eyes on him sends shivers down Keiji’s spine. He leans a little forward without even realizing, and Spooky doesn’t lean back, doesn’t break eye contact.
“Thanks, Leader,” Keiji says, his excitement seeping out into his voice. “You’re the best.” He chews on his lower lip out of nervousness and eagerness and a thousand emotions he can’t name, and Spooky’s eyes flicker down to it for a moment before returning to his eyes.
Keiji’s heart is racing and his mind moves too quickly for him to keep up with. “Leader?” He wants to ask, ‘Can I kiss you?’ He wants to lace his fingers with Spooky’s, to rest his head on Spooky’s shoulder, to feel Spooky’s lips on his neck and his breath in his lungs and--
Spooky suddenly pulls his hands back before Keiji can finish speaking, like he’d laid his palms flat on a hot stove. “I-- I’m sorry,” he says quickly, fumbling with the words as his cheeks redden. “I was--” He stands, teeters a little like he gave himself a headrush, avoiding eye contact the entire time. “Sorry, did you need anything else? I didn’t even ask.”
Keiji’s mouth goes dry, a sinking feeling swallowing up the lingering butterflies in his stomach. He forces an even brighter smile to keep his face from falling. “Nah, I’m fine. Thanks for all your help.” He stands, staring unfocused at the floor, shoving his sweaty hands into his pockets. “I’ll, uh, let you get back to--” he can’t even remember what Spooky was doing before he started touching his face. “--Stuff.”
There’s a small pause before Spooky speaks again, an “okay” that almost sounds disappointed. “Well, take care, all right? If it bleeds again you need to go to the hospital, I mean it.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Keiji says as he walks toward the door, his attempt at a dismissive hand wave marred by how badly his hands are shaking. “I’ll be careful, I promise. See you.”
Keiji turns in the doorway, desperately trying to hold a cool, relaxed expression. “Yeah?” His heart pounds in his chest so hard he imagines aliens in space can hear it.
“Listen. I--” Spooky looks up from the floor and holds eye contact with Keiji for an agonizingly long moment. He finally reaches out for him, freezes, then awkwardly runs his hand through his hair as if that was his intention all along. “Actually, nevermind. Sorry.”
“Spooky?” All of Keiji, the optimistic part that thinks Spooky might love him, the selfish part that wishes he always had Spooky to himself just like this, every piece of him knows that whatever passed between them is gone, a dream that dissipated in the moments after waking. Still, he can’t fight off the desperate hope in his chest.
“It’s fine.” Spooky smiles, tense and empty and strangely sad. “See you later.”
“You ever been in love, Minegishi?”
Keiji would never admit it, but he can’t remember this guy’s name. He has intimidating eyebrows and sits across the office from him and keeps pestering him to hang out. Keiji can’t admit that he only follows along because he smells nice, smells familiar and safe, like cigarettes and coffee and Nanox laundry detergent.
“Nah.” It’s been raining for three days straight, with no signs of letting up. Out on the balcony, the rain is loud but steady, a sound Keiji can easily let his thoughts drift away into. He thinks for a moment that Whatshisname has no business knowing a thing about him, that he doesn’t even deserve the lie, but he releases his misplaced anger into the downpour.
“Good. Love’s a bitch.” Whatshisname hisses, lighting a second cigarette. Despite not knowing his name, Keiji has realized the more he smokes the more pissed off he is. “My buddy hooked me up with this girl from one of his classes. Real cute face. Has great, you know,” he gestures vaguely at his chest. “But suddenly she’s not returning my emails. I tried calling her even, get her answering machine every damn time.”
Keiji closes his eyes and tilts his head back against the glass door, focuses on the rain, focuses on how good Whatshisname smells, vaguely wonders what the hell he’s even doing here. He should get over it. He should be beyond this. He should not be standing here listening to a stranger say things that irritate him just because he smells familiar, just because he’s so desperate for things he can’t have that he’ll take this shitty knockoff of the real thing.
“That’s rough, buddy,” Keiji says with no emotion. He suddenly wants to call Six, wants to talk to someone with some life experience remotely relatable to his, but he knows guilt and dead siblings and dead… somethings, are not the most fun conversation topic.
(He catches himself sometimes thinking of Spooky as an ex, because ‘friend’ doesn’t feel like a strong enough word. He is constantly plagued by the lack of a title for dead people you were hopelessly in love with.)
“Tell me about it,” Whatshisname grumbles, forcing a hefty sigh through his lips. “The hell did I do wrong? Just bought her a bracelet last week and I can’t even get a call?”
“That’s probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone,” Keiji says a little too sarcastically. He’s instantly aware of how flippant he sounds. He knows he’s being rude, but he can’t hold back his frustration.
“Don’t be a dick. I’m serious.”
“Yeah, I know.” Keiji shoves his hands in his pockets, turns and swings open the door to their office. “Buy her food, buy her a dog, I don’t know. Go tell her you love her. Like I said, I’ve never been in this situation. I can’t help you.”
Hitomi goes silent for a moment, studying Keiji’s face before glancing off at the ceiling with furrowed brows. “What I remember? I remember some things, but it started getting fuzzy at one point. I can’t remember when exactly, but it just becomes a blur eventually.”
Keiji nods, drumming his hands on his thighs just to release his anxious energy. “Do you remember when we went to the Monolith?”
Hitomi shifts nervously, adjust the hem of her dress for the fourth time. “I’m not sure.”
Keiji nods again, balling his hands into fists and staring at the floor at the freshly vacuumed carpet in Hitomi’s room. It’s too clean, too sterile, all of her most precious belongings stuffed into suitcases and the others packed in boxes to be shipped later.
“I remember…” Hitomi speaks softly and slowly, like she’s taking time to process each word. “It smelled metallic, and there was smoke, and…” She rubs her temple. “Nemissa kept saying something to me, she was really fired up. And… and you were crying.”
Keiji opens his mouth but it feels too dry to speak, like it’s stuffed with cotton. He stares hard at his clenched fists until his vision blurs. “Do you remember anything else? Do you remember what he said?”
Hitomi keeps rubbing at her cheekbone, like she feels the ghost of something there. “What who said?”
Keiji takes a deep, unsteady breath. “Leader.”
“He was--” Hitomi cuts herself off, realization crashing over her features. “So… that was when--”
“Yeah.” Keiji doesn’t look up, doesn’t want Hitomi to see him like this. He trusts her with his life, knows she would never make him feel lesser, make him feel stupid. Still, his pride won’t let him show her how he feels. “He said something to you. Do you remember it?”
“He said something to me?” Hitomi’s voice cracks and she anxiously runs her hands through her hair, twisting it around her fingers. “I was there and he…” She looks up at Keiji and speaks with urgency. “What did he say?”
“I don’t remember,” Keiji chokes out, his voice so small and fragile it doesn’t even sound like his. He can still feel the weight of a sword in his hand, can feel blood on his skin and tears burning his eyes, the hoarseness of his own voice. He can see Spooky’s face, Nemissa’s face, can hear the shape of their voices but most of the words have faded into the vague sound of their voices. “I’m so sorry.”
He remembers Spooky telling him to take care of Hitomi and Nemissa, to help them and keep them safe. He remembers Spooky apologizing, words that will hang in the air around him for as long as he lives. The rest is nothing but noise.
“Oh.” Hitomi isn’t callous, but her disappointment is obvious. “I understand. I… I should’ve remembered.”
“No, no--” Keiji speaks up quickly. The last thing he wants is to upset Hitomi like this hours before her flight. An overseas flight with nothing to think of but your own regrets… Keiji started to wish he had this conversation earlier, but he’d been too anxious to bring it up before now. “There’s no way you could’ve remembered, I just wanted to make sure. This isn’t your fault.”
“It’s not yours either.”
Keiji’s breath catches and he looks up, but Hitomi is avoiding eye contact, staring at her hands folded in her lap. He knows better than to argue with her so he keeps his mouth shut, no matter how badly he wants to tell her she’s wrong, that if she was there she’d be blaming him too. He stares at his hands with a lump in his throat. They look disgusting.
“We should get going, shouldn’t we?” Hitomi stands, brushing a lock of hair behind her ear. “We can still talk on the train, and at the gate, and…” She trails off, reaching to brush another lock of hair, but they’re all already in place. “Keiji…”
Keiji stands from the pile of boxes he was sitting on, avoiding eye contact by pretending to smooth down the tape holding it closed. He wonders how long until the ache in his heart grows softer, until the burning pain in his chest simmers to nothing but ashes. The past few weeks have felt like years.
“You can’t blame yourself. Please don’t.”
Keiji nods. But he does blame himself, and he suspects he always will.
The dream is always the same. It comes as he barely begins to drift out of sleep, his thoughts in some place between reality and somewhere better.
“It’s okay,” Spooky always says, his hands gentle as they stroke Keiji’s hair. “Honestly, everything’s okay.” He’s warm when Keiji hugs him, smells like smoke and coffee and laundry detergent. In his hands, Keiji feels like he’s home.
Keiji cries, chokes out an embarrassing sob. He buries his face against Spooky’s neck, feels the steady rhythm of Spooky’s heart everywhere they press together. “I had a dream,” he says, his muffled voice barely a rasp. “I dreamed that you died, and it was my--”
“I’m here, aren’t I? It was just a dream, Keiji.” Spooky presses a soft kiss to the top of Keiji’s head, the rest of the world around them fuzzy and out of reach. At that moment, nothing else matters. He takes Keiji’s face in his hands and smiles at him, warm and gentle and effortlessly reassuring. “It’s okay, I’ll always be here.” He brushes a tear of Keiji’s cheek with his thumb. “I won’t leave you.”
The vision always fizzles out before Keiji is ready to let it go, always leaves him clawing desperately for someone out of his reach. As he wakes, the impossible realness of the dream begins to feel hollow in his chest, the words still ringing in his head begin to sound stilted, and the feeling of Spooky’s hands returns to being the distant, unreachable memory he always replays in his head.
Every time he wakes, he is alone. The warmth in his heart sinks into an unbearable coldness, his blankets feel like they are suffocating him, and the cold sweat he breaks into feels like blood, seeping from him and dripping down his empty hands. He is forcefully confronted with the reality that no matter what he does, Spooky is gone. The what-if situations always repeating in his head, in his dreams, can never be his reality, no matter how much he hopes or cries or tries to scrub himself clean.
All Keiji has left of Spooky is blood on his hands.