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Not About You, Never About You

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At first, when Makoto had visited the cafe, the employees there had viewed him with something like fear and trepidation. To begin with, the only thing known about him was he's the owner's son. He came in and he brought his friends and he smiled and laughed amongst them all, but who was to say he wasn't spying, that he hadn't been sent for a reason, that he wasn't watching and watching and--

It hadn't taken long for this worry to die out amongst the staff. Perhaps Makoto was the son of their employer, but that didn't seem to mean an awful lot, not when it came down to it. There was that one fact known about him, but he was also a normal boy, a student of Seirei, a boy who liked to come to the local cafe with his friends. A boy who was friendly, helpful, kind and sincere. He had the kind of smile that could calm the heart of even the most tetchy member of staff, and they all appreciated it. And Makoto got on with everybody, but he got along with Hiro most and best; nobody was quite sure why, but it didn't really matter. Hiro found himself on the receiving end of light-hearted jealousy (especially from the female employees) on occasion but again, that didn't really mean anything. Makoto was just, essentially, somebody that they all liked. A likeable boy who made an effort to make himself liked. He succeeded on every level.

To this end, Hiro occasionally found himself confided in. Makoto wasn't without his problems, and it seemed a natural enough position - didn't adults often pour out their troubles alongside the drinks the bartender served? This was a little different, but still mostly the same. Makoto would come in with sad eyes or a clouded expression and take up the table closest to the counter and sit and sigh until somebody asked; if there were other waiters on-hand they would sometimes approach him, but most of the time they would go to Hiro.

"Your boy's in," they'd say.

"See if you can't get what's botherin' him out of him, Yoshizawa. He trusts you, doesn't he?"

Hiro supposed that that couldn't be denied, and so would go to Makoto's side. He would set mugs of tea and hot chocolate down and the others on-duty wouldn't mind if Hiro took his time dealing with the boy. (He was the son of their boss, after all.)

Over several months, the same situation seemed to be playing at Makoto's concern. There were various things - schoolwork, homework, rumours of his being accepted into the Student Council come the next academic year - but more than anything, Makoto worried about Ichii. After some time, the red-headed boy became as familiar a sight to the employees of the cafe as did Makoto himself and any one of them would have been able to tell that the two of them were close, but from Makoto's worries it seemed that--... it seemed that that in itself was the problem. They were close. They'd always been close. Makoto wished to be closer, but greatly feared any risk that had the potential to threaten their deep friendship. That was, after all, what Makoto felt was most important; in a way, Ichii was almost incidental to the process. The simple facts were that Makoto had these feelings and, at the most basic level, didn't know what to do about them. Powerful and overwhelming, he wanted to be by Ichii's side forever, wanted to always be his best friend, wanted to be everything to him, anything he wanted--... but how would Ichii respond to this? Would he accept? Deny? Reject? Makoto walked a fine line of priority; was this current silence to maintain the friendship worth the strength of his internal conflict? Was his internal conflict worth risking everything else for? Sometimes it felt so terrible that Makoto thought he couldn't stand it, but those urges came and went. And he would look to Hiro with eyes that sought an absolute, "... what should I do, Hiro-san?"

Hiro didn't mind listening but he never really thought himself the kind of person able to dispense advice, not when it came down to it. Makoto would look to him for all the answers and Hiro would falter and glance to the side, not knowing what to say. What if he told Makoto to do something, and it turned out to be the wrong choice? Nobody in that cafe wanted to see Makoto hurt, but none of them could read into the future, either; which option was best? Nobody knew. That responsibility lay, ultimately, on Makoto's shoulders. Do something or do nothing? That was what it always came down to, every choice. And Hiro felt he should have been able to give some kind of inspiration, some sort of motivation, you'll never know if you don't try--! or sometimes it's worth taking a risk--! or... or anything like that, but he would stand by Makoto polishing coffee-mugs considering these, unable to feel anything near to their sentiments. He wanted to help Makoto, but he didn't know if he was really able to do that; it was fine to remain ambiguous, but the basic fact of the matter was that Hiro just wasn't sure he had any positive missives to impart to his younger friend. Makoto was still so innocent, wasn't he? These feelings towards Ichii, weren't they the first like this he'd ever experienced? Then, it was inevitable that it was to be tumultuous, that the mind unused to this sort of emotional onslaught would allow itself to be tossed around so. Hiro couldn't help but feel it also inevitable that Makoto was going to be hurt and badly, but he never voiced that fear out loud.

Makoto's situation, ultimately, turned out for the best. Hiro would stand to the side as the others working behind the counter smiled at one another, commenting on how cute Ichii and Makoto were together (now that they were together. Together together). He would stand to the side and feel somewhat placated for all of the words he'd never said out loud. All of the insecurities he could have once seeded wouldn't have turned to anything like this, surely? Makoto seemed happy. Ichii with him. They two together. Hiro never watched for very long.

The first feeling Hiro had let overtake him, when Makoto had first made his announcement, had been a definite surge of relief. Relief for several reasons; the basic reaction of being glad that something had turned out well for a friend, and also that--... well, that, but--... just that it had turned out well, therefore Makoto wouldn't have to come to Hiro anymore for advice on the subject. The end result was that of several months effort, and each time Hiro didn't know how to react, how he should react or if he could react at all. Makoto wanted to know how to confess to his best friend. Hiro had no positive spin for that sort of situation.

He'd looked at Ichii and thought of he and Renji, back in the day. So long ago that was, when they were both students together. When it had been he and Renji and Megumi and Futoshi, the four of them in a group that was inseparable but for the inevitable red strings that threatened to cut them all. To the outside viewer, surely Megumi was the recipient of all male attention of their four-sided arrangement. Hiro himself had always been fond of Megumi in that not-quite sort of a way, loving her like a sister and a friend but not-- not like that. Renji had always been rather aloof when it came to such matters, back then. Futoshi, in contrast, had never made any effort to hide his feelings. However, being in the midst of it all, Hiro knew that the central point to their crossed relations was in fact Renji himself; Futoshi was something of the rogue correlation on that graph, but as far as he and Megumi went... ah, but again, that was something that nobody ever knew or suspected or knew to suspect. The boys would like Megumi and Megumi would like one of them in turn, surely? (Maybe not.)

They'd all been such firm friends. Hiro remembered, very vividly, swearing secretly to himself - or, if nothing else, hoping - that nothing would ever change between them. Somehow, they had to maintain that status quo; different qualities balanced precariously, and any one shift could send it all tumbling. Renji had to maintain his distance. Futoshi had to remain transparent in his pursuit of Megumi. Megumi needed to keep as quiet as she could while her preferences were so obvious. Hiro... Hiro vowed to keep his mouth shut. He had his own perceptions and feelings on the matter, but they were of no concern to any of the others. The fact that his sights were set towards Renji was nobody's business but his own.

Makoto had always looked to him asking for advice. Would always elaborate on his own situation if prompted or if not. Hiro would let himself cast his mind back to those days and those times and him (as he was back then) and us (as we were back then) and resent, silently, that Makoto had stirred up those old, needless contemplations. To Makoto, Ichii was the one and only, the beginning and the end, the everything. Hiro saw that and could understand that. Didn't particularly see it towards Ichii, but could see how one would be so impressed by a person, how these people could become so inadvertently important. Makoto said that there was no real point he could remember that his realisations had suddenly manifest, just that time had gone on and on and this had seemed the natural progression. Again, Hiro recognised this. Even in their group, there had been different qualities of that same sort of progression. His feelings towards Megumi had deepened in a way that he could easily identify how he saw her and, just as important, how he didn't see her. She seemed to notice this the same and to that point, even if Hiro had never told her the particulars towards his own reasons for suffering, it still felt that they were similar, somehow. They both got that. They both understood without having, specifically, to know.

And Megumi knew, back then, that Hiro 'liked' somebody. It had always been the open secret, and sometimes the issue would be raised. Maybe Megumi, maybe Renji, maybe even Futoshi. There's someone you like, huh? Is it someone we know? You think we can help you get with them? We'll do our best to help our Fufu-chan~! and all that kind of thing. Hiro would smile, weakly. Trying to deflect it, failing to. There was nothing to be done. Nothing they could do. Renji would smile and brandish his best determination and Hiro would only feel a sinking helplessness within him, there's nothing you can do. (Megumi would see his reluctance and wouldn't push the issue. The other two, not so much.)

Makoto spoke, sometimes, about how even Ichii (even Ichii! Like he would suddenly lack perception towards his supposed best friend) sometimes noticed his lower moods. How Ichii would ask and pry and enquire and that he appreciated the sentiment but never knew how to react to this - it was a subject, after all, that Ichii absolutely (and absolutely Ichii) couldn't get involved in or with. He couldn't solve it or help it and even spelling it out specifically had the potential to make it all a lot worse. And so Ichii would grow frustrated, wondering how he was supposed to help if Makoto never told him anything, and Makoto wondered how many ways there were to say that he just couldn't say without his problems becoming obvious by process of elimination. Different conversations revealed different elements of the problem and Makoto knew that if Ichii were to put those pieces together, he should be able to come to some conclusion whether Makoto really wanted him to or not. If he thought back to that conversation--... that discussion--... that one time--... and yet he didn't and never did and didn't seem to, and Makoto didn't know where he stood. Had Ichii worked it out and was keeping quiet about it? Did he really not know? There was no way to know or find out without being open about it and, again, that was the one thing Makoto felt he simply couldn't do. To do that would be to destroy everything (or at least, so he'd thought at the time).

Hiro knew that. Hiro knew that only too well. Hiro remembered those conversations that would go on for just a bit too long, those questions that shaved too close and those comments that probed too deep. He remembered all of that and wanted to be able to tell Makoto his experience like how he seemed to be asking, but knew that that, really, was the last thing Makoto wanted to hear about. On the brink of this precipice, Makoto didn't need to hear about the possibility of disaster. Didn't need to know the overwhelming and the overtaking and the everything and the way that, in the big and little things, life would centre around Renji all while Hiro desperately tried to hide it. Didn't need to know about how his mere appearance on a usual schoolday would cause worry and exhilaration, would cause that strange and inexplicable nervousness for somebody who by all rights you should have been completely used to. Didn't need to know about how every word and sentence could be analysed - what did this mean? What did that mean? Hey Renji, is it possible to go back all those years and tell me exactly what you meant by that one offhand comment? Hiro remembered standing paralysed by the threat of the unknown. If it stayed as it was then it would be fine. If the unknown became known, it would all end. It just would. It just would. Hiro never wanted that to happen.

It had been out of school that the situation had changed. Those years out of school, their group split up for university, memories left behind with only the promise of promises kept ensuring their continued survival through to the future. They'd meet up again, wouldn't they? They'd all go back. They'd all go back to as they were. They'd do what they had to do and then do what they wanted to do, which was this. (Would it stay that way, though? Could you really endure all of that without drastic change...?)

(As it was, they had all come back. Things changed, but they still returned. There was something to be said for foolhardy teenage promises, at least.)

It was out of school and out of university, even. Those years in which Hiro had almost grown used to his own particular brand of inability. Back at school, Renji's continued presence had been what had brought on the nerves. Out of it, his lack of presence in Hiro's life only intensified those chance meetings. Sometimes he'd go to where Renji was. Sometimes Renji came to him. They would make those plans and he'd think and dream for weeks beforehand of things that would never happen, things that could never come to pass, things that would never be and yet he just couldn't stop thinking about them--. And Renji would come and he would visit and the time spent together would be pleasant, but of course nothing like those fervent daydreams. Human beings of the outer world simply didn't follow that single strange brand of logic. Hiro would look to Renji and compare him to the Renji of his daydreams, and wonder which he liked most. Did the person sat in front of him really correspond to that? Really? He looked and he looked and he didn't know. He looked until their time was up and he'd see Renji off and sit in the silence afterward, letting his mind fall back to those familiar patterns.

He couldn't stop. He just couldn't stop. Proximity made it worse. Absence was just as bad. Thinking about it brought no conclusion. Trying to push it out only caused frustration and resentment. He tried to concern himself with other things, other people, but every thought process only ever went back to Renji. That cool upperclassman that had inexplicably become his friend and, even more inexplicably, completely seized him, body and soul. Hiro wasn't sure he liked it, either. (He recognised that frustration in Makoto, too.) Renji, unknowing, had such control over him. Actual control. Control... (and then those thoughts would devolve spectacularly. Of course.)

Without rhyme nor reason, Renji had become the focus and reference point for everything. Hiro wondered if it was worth breaking their promise to never see Renji again, on the offchance that breaking that link might break that hold, but knew he couldn't and didn't dare. And he'd see Megumi sometimes, too. She seemed to notice something wrong. She sympathised. She always did. She never asked but once again, she just understood. Enough questions to establish, and then no more.

"... Were you rejected?"

"I wish. It's not got that far, yet."

"You were the same in school, you know."

"I know."

"Who is it this time?"

"Can't say."

A small laugh. "Come on, Hiro. I don't even know anybody at your university--! Well, it doesn't matter if I know or if I don't..."

and then would the conversation continue, stepping neatly on each issue while sidestepping the elephant in the room of who. Hiro felt content to leave Megumi to her assumption. Yes, it was the same as to how things had been back in school. No, you wouldn't know anybody at university. No, those two things are not connected in the slightest. It's the same as it was in school. It's exactly the same, Megumi--!

To look back on all of those times, Hiro could pick out the occasional conversation or event but more than that, his thoughts faded to the general cloud that was that, as he supposed, obsession. Was there any other word for it? Renji had quite neatly become everything. Yes, he would suppose. That's what 'obsession' is. And Makoto would worry about this and seemingly this most of all; being obsessed with somebody wasn't good, was it? If you were obsessed, wasn't that a sign of 'too much'? Wouldn't that scare them? (Yes. Yes it would.) Would it frighten them to the point of hatred? (Maybe.) The label 'obsession' only ever applied to the overindulgence of the vice, after all.

every look and every expression

every word and gesture and turn of phrase and

Makoto's frustration came from the desire for change, Hiro knew that as much as he'd known it applicable to his own self all that time ago. He wanted change, because he couldn't stand it anymore. Because those feelings were becoming too much for him to shoulder by himself, because they needed to be shared, because they could only be shared and understood by the person designated to understand them--. He wanted change, because maybe change would be better than the long uncertain emptiness that was 'this'. He wanted change because change could be, simply, better. He wanted to do something just on the offchance that something could in fact be done about this. Admirable thought. Better than stagnating, Hiro thought. How many years did I go on for?

The end came one summer, the year of which was still etched firmly into Hiro's recollection. To that point it had barely been anything out of the ordinary - navigating that minefield of implication, throwing out careful comments and certain questions to act as feelers to try and gauge the possibilities of an impossible possible response--

"You're still lovesick though, Hiro. It's not like you. ...Or I mean, it is, because it's been gnawing at you so fucking long."

"I--... I didn't know you'd noticed."

"It's written all over you. You trying to advertise it, or what?"

"... Sorry for being so obvious."

"You were the same back then, too."

"Megumi said the same thing."

At the time (though not now), Renji smoked. (To the present day, Hiro still associated that certain choking scent with those suffocating feelings of the time period. He didn't like the smell and he didn't like the memories and yet together, they still formed some bastardised version of pleasant nostalgia. Nostalgia for feelings that had still felt fresh, for an emotional pain that hadn't yet had the chance to mellow and mature into simple, weary exhaustion.) At the time, he'd taken a deep drag from his latest, holding it for the duration of a long, intent stare pointed firmly in Hiro's direction (glancing up and down, taking him in completely) before looking away and blowing smoke to settle and dissipate in the warm, still air surrounding them. A long pause, then the most damning of words.

"It's me, isn't it?"

"I--... what!?"

"The one who's got you fucked up. It's because of me, isn't it?"

At the time, Hiro had been conflicted between wondering how on earth Renji had come to such a - correct - conclusion and wondering how it had taken him this long to voice his contribution to the ongoing puzzle. So many hints dropped here and there throughout the years, placed so almost like a game that Hiro didn't dare believe Renji would think to play.

And also, of course, the fact of this isn't how it's supposed to be. There had been a thousand daydreams and a thousand different runthroughs of this scene, all safe in the knowledge that the fictional landscape of one's private thoughts would never gain enough purchase to spill out to the world beyond. So many thoughts on this - maybe it would be an eventual erosion of will, of I always loved you and I always loved you too, something sincere and lasting and reaching and ridiculous, so far in the realms of fantasy it made Hiro smile and hate himself to think of them. Perhaps an event - a meeting with a different atmosphere, chance contact and dared intimacy and a kiss that said all that needed to be said--... or something, even though that kind of thing didn't really happen, did it? Hiro would punctuate his dreams with the certain kind of self-loathing that came from craving the fictional. Really craving it. Something had to happen eventually though, didn't it? And it did, and it was like none of those thoughts and instead everything like how Hiro had pictured the depressing inevitability. That one other particular thought had stuck in his mind at the time too, sharp and inescapable: Arrogant, aren't you? To think it would be you. I mean, it is, but you didn't have to go ahead and say it...

"... How did you guess?"

Another drag. "It is then, isn't it?"

Hiro would never shake the feeling that he'd been somehow tricked into answering. "... Yes."

and I never wanted you to know because this was never really anything to do with you to begin with

it's all just me

it was only ever me.

(Hiro saw Makoto's nervousness and raised it his own without ever saying a word. Would Ichii behave like that? Did Ichii have the potential to hurt Makoto that much? Hiro didn't want Makoto hurt but almost didn't want them to succeed, either. If that happened, then how dare they--! How dare such a situation have a positive outcome...! Where were they when Hiro had had his own experience...?)

"... Right. I--... I can't do anything about that."

Hiro never expected him to in the first place. "... I know."

"I mean, it's--... I don't want things to be uncomfortable, that's all. I just--... can't, Hiro. Sorry."

Scant apology was never going to make up for the twisting of uncertain nerves into certain rejection, but Hiro still nodded. "It's okay." (It wasn't.) "... It's Megumi, isn't it?"

"Huh?"

"You and her."

Hiro remembered the way Renji had laughed as he'd stubbed out his cigarette and how he'd been glad Megumi hadn't been present to hear it. "There's no 'me and her', believe me."

"I thought she--"

"She does."

"And you--"

"Didn't, no."

"Oh."

"I know."

The conversation hadn't gone much beyond that. There wasn't anything else to say.

Hiro kept his distance to Renji, in the time following. He went to visit Megumi. The matter was quite cordial until he happened to mention the situation surrounding his rejection. He wasn't normally the type to mention such things, but he told her he knew of her and Renji. About how she had, and he hadn't, and they weren't. His knowledge of this surprised and upset her, but she wasn't angry with him. She seemed angry with Renji more than anything else, and Hiro could understand that. He joined in under the premise of his ambiguous love interest. Their concerns were the same. Hiro didn't see how Renji could reject somebody like Megumi. Megumi didn't get how anybody could reject somebody like Hiro. They said that of each other and kept one glance held slightly too long, but that was as far as that ever went.

Hiro never told Megumi that Renji was the object of his affections. She didn't need to know they were some kind of rivals, especially not in the circumstance that neither of them had had the chance to 'win' to begin with. Could you even think of it like that? Rationally, Hiro knew that this wasn't a matter of 'winning' or 'losing', you couldn't treat it like a contest and it wasn't such a thing to be quantified as such in the first place, but he would still find himself looking towards Tomoya and thinking what is it that he has exactly, Renji, that I don't?... And this was a long an exhaustive list, for there were many things that Tomoya had that Hiro didn't, and many things Hiro had that Tomoya didn't in turn. It wasn't a race, it wasn't a contest, it was unfair to say that Tomoya had 'won' (although, in Hiro's mind, he had). He just... attracted Renji, somehow. Caused that same excitement Hiro himself and Megumi had felt from all those years ago. It had to be mutual, didn't it? Even if one side lay obsessed, that was still an imbalance. If Renji liked Tomoya as much as Tomoya liked Renji, then there was nothing to stop them. How could such a thing be measured? (It couldn't, but Hiro still found himself wondering, from time to time.)

After Makoto's confession had apparently succeeded, Hiro would find himself looking at the two of them in the cafe and thinking, without feeling able to stop himself, of Renji and Tomoya. He didn't like to admit it, but he still felt that sickening jealousy from time to time. I spent so long convincing myself I couldn't have what you have, so why do you get to have it--!? and other such nonsensical thoughts. But he would smile, to the two of them. Because they were young and in love and, it seemed, had not been hurt. Would they hurt each other? Maybe, perhaps, in the future sometime. Under some different circumstance. Perhaps anything, but first love had still been marked for the both of them with an indelible tick. No matter what followed, there would still be those shining memories of a time when everything had gone right. (Hiro hated himself for being so envious, but couldn't help it. Perhaps didn't try to. Perhaps couldn't help not trying.)

In the midst of those shining days, Makoto smiled at Hiro and thanked him for his help, for his advice. Hiro smiled in return but didn't feel it, couldn't understand it, felt nonetheless glad that Makoto had interpreted things that way. He'd managed to impart without bias, support without corrupting Makoto's delicate perception. Makoto was happy, now. Surely that was the most important thing?

And Renji would come into the cafe, sometimes. Sometimes even with Tomoya. They seemed happy, too. The group, as they had been, seemed restored to something like that status quo (or at least, a new one for the new situation). Futoshi still wanted Megumi still wanted Renji. Renji seemed settled with Tomoya, not that Futoshi was to know that. He was still struggling with the concept of anybody rejecting Megumi, and Renji had always been keen on keeping him out of those complex affairs. Hiro himself still felt... all that he felt, but it was fine. It wasn't, but it was. Somehow. He'd never known what to do about his feelings, only hoping that Renji would be able to aid him with them and knowing, deep down, that he wouldn't. And so they had remained, sometimes growing, sometimes fading, never dying off completely. And Renji would always come in for his coffee and stop off after work and talk and laugh with Hiro like nothing had ever happened, because their friendship was still as strong as it ever had been.

like nothing ever happened

Renji didn't need to know the complicated system of analysis and second-guessing Hiro had installed on their every conversation. He didn't need to know, either, the jealousy and the bitterness that still carried from that time. Didn't need to know that silence was the one thing Hiro still felt he couldn't forgive him for. Didn't need to know that there were things Hiro saw as being unforgiveable in the first place. Despite being based on the image of him, those feelings had never really involved him to begin with, had they? So perhaps it was correct that he should behave like that. Perhaps he was doing it for the sake of that fragile, fractured status quo. Perhaps the events of back then had never meant as much to him as they had to Hiro, and Hiro himself was quite willing to accept that as an answer. He'd pulled the confession from Hiro's lips, but never the magnitude. Never the explanations, the dissertations of reasons or litanies of desire. Just the simple fact, denied, that expressed nothing of its nature at all.

They hadn't mentioned it after the fact and they didn't mention it now. Hiro would, instead, bring Renji and Tomoya their drinks and smile as he was supposed to, then stay to listen if Renji wanted to talk.

"Aihara seems to have chosen well there, doesn't he?"

A smile. "I don't think it was Makoto's choice to make."

"Well... it's nice to see, isn't it?"

(but the look after that is directed towards Tomoya rather than Hiro, and so he takes the opportunity to wait on the next table, instead.)