Kazuha had always been proud of his keen sense of hearing, to the point he often trusted his ears more than his eyes. Whenever he needed to let steam out and calm his nerves, he used to sit on the swing at the back of his garden and listen to the distant sounds. Children playing loudly in the park near the river, cars braking in the main street, dry leaves falling down in autumn - nothing could escape his attention.
Even so, he almost failed to believe it when he heard that sound as he walked down to the school gates. A soft meowing in the background, carried by the wind like a shy plea for help. Before his mind could fully process the situation, his feet were already moving on their own, leading him to its source.
The back side of the courtyard seemed empty, the gardening club rarely staying so far in the afternoon. He scanned the area in search of a sign, wondering if it wasn't just his imagination talking, his fantasy fueled by the many hours spent reading in the library. But then, hidden behind scented bushes, he found it.
A small cardboard box was placed under a seemingly plain tree, with a pink blanket and toys scattered inside. A white paw peeked out, with a pair of curious blue eyes to match. Kazuha had to compliment whoever had chosen that spot, since the kitty was completely invisible from afar, and nobody could find it without following the tracks of its faint callings, a task which honestly only Kazuha could hope to accomplish.
The cat meowed loudly. Kazuha had never owned any pet before, and was at a loss for ideas. There could be a million reasons for a cat to cry out, from hunger to cold to sickness, and he had the knowledge of a rock on the topic. He dropped his bag to the ground and rummaged with the items inside, pulling out the leftovers of his lunch. He carefully picked apart a tiny piece of ham and placed it near its face, moving as slowly as he could. The cat gave both his hand and the food a big sniff, then swallowed it whole.
Relieved he had hit the jackpot, Kazuha kept feeding it until it stopped meowing, purring in satisfaction. He smiled, happy to soothe its pain. But he couldn't help but wonder what it was doing there exactly - why would anyone go out of their way to build a safe shelter for an abandoned animal? If only he could take it home, he would do so without hesitating.
Kazuha dared to move his hand, trying to pet the cat. It trembled in fear and hid, burying its small face under the blanket. He gave up, not willing to pressure it further.
"I will be back", he promised. He wouldn't let it starve.
The sliding doors of the store closed behind his back as he glanced at the clock in the center of the street. He was ahead of his schedule for once, thrilled to finally have found a purpose to his dull mornings. His freshly started quest of feeding the cat was by far the most exciting activity he had stumbled upon this semester, and throughout all the trip to school his heart was drumming in his chest, frantic.
He sneaked past the crowd of drowsy students who swarmed towards the entrance, aiming for his newly found secret spot. He climbed over the small fence, dashing through the lined-up pots and the flowerbeds until he reached the familiar bush.
But this time, he wasn't alone. Kazuha instinctively recoiled, peeking at the scene through the leaves. A young man with the same uniform as him was crouching in front of the box, his eyes fondly staring at the cat as it ate dry food out of a pink bowl with relish. Despite rejecting Kazuha's caresses, the kitty seemed to be at utmost ease around the stranger, judging from the way it purred and tried to stick its head inside the sleeves of his jacket. He figured he must come regularly, otherwise it wouldn't be so conceding.
Purple irises glanced in his direction, and Kazuha jolted, surprised he had been spotted so easily. A hint of shock was painted on the boy's face, his eyes silently questioning his reasons for being there. He moved his leg in front of the box, wary, as if to shield the cat from a potential aggressor.
Kazuha noticed something about him, a lesson he'd learn by heart. The stranger wore his emotions on his sleeve, his thoughts clear like spring water from just a sparkle in his eyes. He could read him better than an open book, and everything in his expression was shouting a quiet accusation at him.
Kazuha slid out of his hiding spot, his hands lifted in the air in a gesture of peace.
"Hello, I, huh", he stammered, "I came to feed the cat". To prove his point, he tugged at the plastic bag dangling from his wrist, the metallic cans clanging inside it.
Tension promptly vanished from the boy's muscles, and his lips curved into a kind smile. "You came for Tama?", he asked, "Thank you, then. I've been feeding her for the past months".
Tama . So that was her name. For some reason, he thought it fit her, her small white body curling up in a ball while the boy petted her back, fingers sinking in the soft fur. Kazuha was a little envious of their bond. "Is she your cat?", he inquired.
The boy shook his head. The earphones hanging from his neck shone in the bright light of the day, a faint echo of music greeting Kazuha's sensitive ears. "Sadly, no", he said, "Due to my… particular situation at home, I can't bring her with me".
Kazuha thought he saw a shadow of sadness darkening his face. Curiosity bit at the back of his head, but they weren't acquainted well enough for him to pry, so he shoved his doubts into the depths of his mind.
"But I feed her every day", he added, "I even take her somewhere dry when it's raining. So, she basically is, yes".
Her lonely meow echoed through Kazuha's head, straight from his memories. So, that wasn't a generic call for help. She was looking for him . "I see", he said, "I found her yesterday and thought she had been abandoned. That's why I rushed to buy her food this morning".
The stranger grinned again. Kazuha's chest tightened, as he averted his gaze to hide the light flush on his cheeks. People didn't smile often around him, and something in that boy was honestly too cute to stare at. His heartbeat picked up a pace, social awkwardness catching up to him.
"That's very sweet of you", the boy said, "What's your name?".
Kazuha swallowed a lump of tension in his throat. How long had it been since the last time he had introduced himself to someone? He hoped he wouldn't mess it up. "I'm Kaedehara Kazuha", he muttered.
A hand entered his field of view, silently demanding to be shaken. Kazuha complied, suddenly struggling to remember the basics of human interaction. "I'm Tomo. Nice to meet you, Kazuha".
He had jumped straight to the name base, not even using honorifics to address him. Kazuha should probably have been offended by his impoliteness, yet he was surprisingly fine with it. It felt natural, less taxing, so he let it slide.
"Yesterday I was out of town", Tomo explained, "Family stuff, you know. So I couldn't come".
Kazuha couldn't fully understand. Family stuff was not part of his world - his parents were barely home for most of the year, reuniting with their son only in times of celebrations, and he couldn't say he exactly missed their presence. But it felt wrong to ask for more explanations from someone he had just met, especially if the topic risked delving into more sensitive matters - so, once again, he dropped any question he might have.
"It's okay", he said with a shy smile, "I got her".
Tomo jumped back on his feet. He was rather tall, towering over Kazuha by a good handful of centimeters. The baggy red jacket he wore and the bruises on his face made him look imposing, and Kazuha would have probably flinched at his sight if they hadn't been talking so casually until a moment before. He must be the reason people recommended not to judge a book by its cover.
"Thank you so much", Tomo said, "Say, what if we go grab a drink? It's on me, to repay you for your help with Tama".
It comes without saying that Kazuha did whatever was in his power to avoid social gatherings, especially if they involved strangers. His speech was rusty, his manners rigid, and his life quite boring. He didn't talk much and he knew others found it unsettling, preferring to let him go unnoticed in the background rather than dragging him into conversations and activities. Still, he couldn't deny that Tomo seemed… interesting. Perhaps, he would be the exception he was willing to make.
He ended up accepting.
Kazuha couldn't remember the last time he had been sitting on the terrace of a café, the crowd chatting loudly around him. His ears were far too delicate to bear all that noise, and the tiniest pinch of regret assaulted him as he took his first trembling steps towards the table.
Usually, he would run away. He had adapted to his status of a lone wolf, picking silence over idle babble without hesitation. If he truly craved a drink, he'd rather order takeaway, sipping tea or hot chocolate while he strolled down the boulevards. Being alone had no risks nor constant trials, and he had no reasons to give up that comfortable life.
But Tomo's presence was weirdly reassuring. Although he clearly enjoyed talking and struggled to keep quiet for too long, Kazuha didn't feel pressured to answer every question or to push beyond his limits, turning their conversations into an unexpectedly nice version of his archnemesis: small talk .
The waitress placed their orders on the table and left with a polite bow. Kazuha grabbed his glass and buried his face into it, shielding himself from the world. Tomo watched him with an amused grin on his lips, as he swirled the straw inside his iced coffee.
"Say, Kazuha", he asked out of the blue, "What's the milk to coffee ratio in your drink?".
Kazuha squinted, perceiving the littlest hint of mockery in his words. This guy sure was straightforward, already making fun of him although they had met that same day. "It's a latte", he pointed out, "It's meant to be milky".
"So", Tomo plucked the straw out of his coffee and pointed it at Kazuha's face, "You're aloof and you love milk. Are you sure you're not a cat?".
If glares could burn, Tomo would have turned into ashes already. Although he barely had any friends, it wasn't the first time Kazuha was addressed like that. The nickname rubbed him up the wrong way, left a lingering sensation of discomfort on his shoulders, like a ghostly burden. It was less bothersome when it was him saying it, yet it still didn't sound right.
They talked idly for a while, the piled-up tension slowly melting like snow under Tomo's warm voice. Kazuha remembered seeing him before. He was the top scorer of the soccer club, and he spotted him running across the field during his breaks from kendo practice. He was the loudest of his team, and his body was always covered in bandages due to his multiple falls on the hard ground. Even as they spoke, a big plaster covered the bridge of his nose, his skin reddened all around it.
He had stared at him once, when he scored the final goal at the inter-school tournament and earned the victory. He was bright as sunshine that day, and Kazuha had been envious of his bond with his teammates, all squirming around him to cheer on his performance. He rarely felt lonely, but sometimes the grip of sadness caught up to him, he wasn't as immune as he acted the part.
Kazuha stirred the leftovers of his latte with the straw. "Summer vacation begins soon", he said absent-mindedly.
"Yeah", Tomo said. He took the last sip of his drink and placed the empty glass on the table. "Got any plans?".
He didn't. He never had. Summer holidays were mostly a bother rather than a fun time. The heat was unbearable, and his skin burned easily. Going outside was unthinkable, so all Kazuha was limited to was sitting on the porch all afternoon, under the comfortable shadow of the trees in the garden, while doing his homework or reading a book. He used to hang out with friends back in middle school, but their ties had loosened when they moved to different institutes and met new people. His only close buddy had left the city entirely, so their only means of communication was a sterile chat window.
"The usual", he said, shrugging, "What about you? Will you go on holiday?".
Kazuha couldn't say why he expected Tomo to say that yes, he had great plans - a month full of fun and girls and bros and all the rest, as he saw in dramas on TVs. Maybe because he was popular among their peers, or because his aura was far too charming for people not to swarm at his feet and beg him for company. But surprisingly enough, Tomo shook his head. "I need to feed Tama", he said, "I can't just go away and leave her behind, can I?".
Although they were barely acquainted, and despite the big smile on his lips, Kazuha saw through him. It was a lame excuse, and an unconvincing one at that. But he didn't feel entitled to an explanation, so he let him be, nodding in silence.
They stood up at sunset, and Tomo paid for their drinks at the counter. As they walked outside the café, Kazuha felt strangely light. They headed towards the park, on the way to their homes. When they reached the place where they were supposed to part, Tomo took out his cellphone.
"Why don't you give me your number?", he asked, "If you have no plans either, we can hang out sometimes".
Kazuha flinched, his fingers squeezing the strap of his bag. The entries on his contact list could be counted on one hand - two of which were his parents, one was Gorou and the other two he couldn't even recall off the top of his head. He disliked texting and hissed at the idea of answering a phone call. He knew disappointment would soon slide into their bond if he accepted, and Tomo would give up on him at the first unanswered message.
Still, he had nothing better to do. "Sure", he said. Tomo handed him his phone, so he could type it in himself, trembling slightly. Something in the kindness of his eyes told him that he was safe, that he could trust that boy he had just met.
As he gave it back, their hands brushed together accidentally. And even after Tomo had left, childishly waving at him with his arm, Kazuha's skin burned where they had touched, like the leftover ashes of a firework.
His worry turned out to be in vain, because they didn't talk at all. Tomo sent him a text on that same evening, so that he could save his number as well, and that was about it.
It felt awkwardly intimate to save him as "Tomo" so casually. Even Gorou, who had been his friend since they were toddlers, was registered under his first and last name. He didn't use "mom" or "dad" either, preferring the more respectful "mother" and "father". Tomo was a forced exception, he figured. And he tried to ignore how weirdly glad the realization made him.
He instinctively checked his profile. He wore the uniform of his club in the picture, smiling brightly against a clear sky. Kazuha tried to imagine when and by whom it might have been taken. His friends during a match, perhaps? Or was it a stolen shot from his girlfriend?
The thought alone made him realize how little information he had about him, and how vast the ocean of Tomo knowledge was. He probably had dozens of friends, all equally loud and cheerful and handsome, who made him laugh wholeheartedly. Meanwhile, Kazuha was a frog standing on a lilypad in a small mountain pond, with little to no stories to tell. He had no bonds and boring hobbies.
Tomo's personal message was a single emoji, a smirking cat. Kazuha heard himself chuckle at it, its silliness contrasting with his popular outlook. He wanted to know more, to grasp at more of his secrets - because he felt that there was something special behind his mask, no matter how thick it was.
Kazuha had no reason to doubt Tomo's words. Back at the café, he had said he would be around to feed Tama, and thus unable to go on holiday. But an annoying voice at the back of his head insisted that it might have been a lie, that there was no way someone as cool as him would wind up alone on the most awaited holidays of the year.
So, he bought cat food again. And he was stupidly surprised when he found him there, at the secret spot behind the bush at the back of the schoolyard. Tama was purring loudly, as usual sneaking inside Tomo's sleeves, and demanding to be petted.
"You're here", Kazuha whispered when he was close enough to be heard.
Tomo looked up at him, his purple eyes lighting up in joy. "You came!", he exclaimed, "You never texted me, so I figured you had left for some nice place by the beach".
Why was he so happy to see him? That was a first for him. Kazuha crouched next to him, unzipping his bag and showing Tama the food he had picked for her. She meowed in joy, and bestowed him with the great honor of giving her a scratch on the head.
"Nothing of the sort", he said as he opened the lid of the can, "I simply don't like to talk much".
He said it, and it was surprisingly easy to speak his mind freely. Usually, he would have denied or made up excuses that prevented him from answering his phone. But with Tomo, he had the strange gut feeling that he should be honest, and that nothing bad would happen if he admitted his own feelings. It was almost a scary concept.
"I thought so", Tomo said, "That's why I didn't pressure you".
Kazuha poured the dry food in the pink plate, watching as Tama bounced down from Tomo's lap and elegantly hit the floor. She emptied it so fast that Kazuha wished he had brought more with him. Only after the cat had finished her lavish meal did he consider what Tomo had just said.
"Wait", he said, turning to face him with confusion in his eyes, "You thought so ?".
Tomo nodded. "Yeah", he explained, "It's not like I haven't seen you at school. And there's quite the rumor about you. They say you're a loner and that you dislike being around people".
Those words slipped under Kazuha's skin, stinging like mosquito bites. What he had heard was spot-on, yet it made his blood boil uncomfortably. "Then why did you ask for my number?", he asked.
"Because I knew we would meet again anyway", was Tomo's simple answer.
Among the range of possible reactions Kazuha might have, he wondered why on earth his cheeks chose to flush at that moment, heat rushing up to his face. "Excuse me?", he asked, "And how?".
Tomo chuckled, and Kazuha felt something twirl at the pit of his stomach. "I don't know", was his innocent answer, "I got that vibe, you know. Sometimes I just click with people, and I know we'll stick together for a long time".
Kazuha furrowed. He couldn't relate in the slightest. Why did it have to be him, though? The entire world was at his feet, and he had decided to include someone like him in his friendship circle? It sounded too unrealistic to be true. "And you got that from me ?", he asked.
"Maybe it's because you remind me of Tama".
Those words felt like a slap across Kazuha's face. His glance darted between Tomo's smug grin and the kitty, busy cleaning her fur with lazy laps of her tongue. "Excuse me?!", he yelped, outraged.
"No, no, listen to me". He gently picked up Tama, lifting her from the ground and holding her in front of his face, his eyes shining with the glee of discovery. "You both have white hair that's basically begging to be petted, you're both small, and you both let people approach you only when you deem it appropriate. Two birds of a feather".
Kazuha was too patient and polite to resort to violence. He had no fighting instinct, bowing down his head and fleeing from conflict rather than actively seeking trouble. But this time, damn, he wanted to punch his nose so bad. What he hated the most was how correct his reasoning was, the way it had no loopholes nor points he could deny.
He averted his gaze, suddenly self-conscious. "Isn't that a daring analysis considering we barely know each other?", he asked meekly.
"Am I wrong, though?". Tomo's confidence was endearing. Even if Kazuha had something to retort, he would keep it for himself to preserve that naive, happy smile.
He scoffed. "No, you're not".
They took the long way home that day, enjoying the remaining hours of sunlight. Halfway through the trip, Tomo took off his jacket and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt, giving in to the heat. Kazuha wished he could be as carefree as him, but he'd rather suffer than expose even an inch of skin. It wasn't out of shyness or shame - more like pure fear of burning to a crisp and being stuck with bright red skin for a week after that.
Tomo carried his soccer ball everywhere. He was juggling it with his feet as they strolled, showing off his skills. Kazuha stared in awe, at a loss for words, remembering how goofy he was instead. It would have been a dream to know the same tricks, to learn the same agile movements. He wasn't half bad at kendo, yet sometimes he regretted not giving a shot at other sports before blindly following his family's wishes.
"Say, Kazuha", Tomo asked, "What do you do in your free time?".
Ah yes, the moment of truth, the recurring scenario when the world found out how plain of a person he was. "I read", he said. That was it. No more, no less. His other interests were either too embarrassing or too occasional to be considered.
"You're in the kendo club, right?". Tomo missed his kick, and the ball bounced irregularly against the ground, ending up in his hands.
Kazuha took a worried sip out of his milk carton. "Yes", he said, "How do you know that?".
Tomo shrugged as if he had just been asked the most obvious thing in the world. "It's not like you go unnoticed", he said, "You're the tiniest boy in your team, and your hair is so white and glossy. It's impossible not to see you from afar".
Kazuha's cheeks flared up. What was it with Tomo and his compliments out of nowhere, sometimes? But he was staring at him during practice as well, so he couldn't exactly judge him for that. "Do you like football?", he asked on a whim.
Tomo's eyes widened in shock for a moment. Understandable, since Kazuha never asked a single thing, letting him lead their conversations and limiting himself to small input. But sometimes he bent the rules, and prying words fell out of his mouth. Was it a crime?
"Well, duh", Tomo said after regaining his composure. "But more than the sport, what I like is the rush of adrenaline. When I run across the field, when I kick the ball, when I make a good pass… It's thrilling. I feel alive".
Kazuha couldn't recall feeling anything close to that. Kendo had its tense moments too, and it was a respectable discipline made of honor and self-control. Not exactly thrilling for him, but he figured he merely had the wrong mindset for it. "I wish I could say the same", he admitted.
He hoped that his whisper would be low enough to fly over Tomo's head. The boy knew how to isolate himself from the rest of the world, his attention focused on the ball to the point he forgot Kazuha was even there. Not then, though. Not when they were having an actual conversation for once.
"You don't like kendo?", he inquired.
When was the last time Kazuha spoke openly about his feelings? Years before, perhaps. Or maybe it never happened at all. "It's not that I hate it", he said, "But I'm doing it because my family wants me to".
Tomo halts the ball with his arms once more, marking the end of his improvised practice session. "Wait, that's such a weird imposition. Why kendo?", he asked.
"The Kaedehara family has… quite the important past", Kazuha explained, "All women are skilled archers and all men are excellent kendōka. My father didn't force me to choose this path, but…".
He went quiet mid-sentence, memories from that day flooding his head. The argument about which school club he'd pick in high school had been the final crack shattering the bond with his parents. He didn't want to play any sport, preferring to join the literature club instead, or to not do anything at all. But traditions were so pointlessly important to them…
That was the last time he had put up a fight, the disappointment flashing across his mother's face enough to suppress his need to form a will of his own. The painful proof that, for how much he could squirm and try to swim against the current, he would always be weak in front of fights. If it made others happy and spared him the trouble of confrontation, then he was ready to sacrifice his desires, to give up his personality. For the sake of peace.
"He made you feel like you had to", Tomo said, "Yeah, I know that feeling".
If they could relate on something, then Kazuha wanted to ask, to know more. He didn't dare, though - if Tomo wanted to vent about his inner turmoil, then he would. Forcefully breaking through doors served no purpose, it was way better to wait for them to open naturally under his touch, to push the sensitive matters to a distant day when their bond would deepen. He had to swallow his curiosity.
Drenched in sweat, Tomo walked up to a stone bench. He pulled out a bottle of water from his bag, and after taking a long sip he poured the rest of the liquid all over his hair and neck. He shook his head, splashing droplets everywhere and looking just like a dog shaking his fur after a bath.
Kazuha grunted and instinctively stepped back, refusing to get wet. Soaked clothes were uncomfortable, they stuck to his skin like an unpleasant embrace.
"Sucks that half of this bench is exposed to the sun", Tomo said after freshening up his head, "Or else, I wouldn't mind sitting for a bit".
Kazuha's stare unwillingly dashed to the thick droplets of water flowing down his forehead, all the way down to his jawline and then dripping off his neck. An unfamiliar warmth spread in his chest, and he jumped on the sunny half of the bench to rip off his mind from that scary train of thought.
"It's alright", Kazuha said, "I prefer warm surfaces". The stone was scorching hot under his pants, its heat passing even through the fabric of his clothes. Enjoyable, and pleasant.
Tomo gave him a puzzled look. "You're gonna burn your ass", he stated.
Kazuha blinked, taken aback by the foul language. It was… so positively shocking to hear. Everyone in his family was cold and contrived, polite to an uncomfortable extent. He forgot that regular people swore quite frequently, and the casual way Tomo had slipped in that word put him so at ease all at once that he almost felt fear .
"I like to sit on warm things", he hurriedly explained, "They're comfortable. I get cold if I stay still in the shadow".
Tomo sat next to him, hoarding the fresher part of the bench. "Seriously, what are you?", he asked, amused, "Some sort of cat demon turned into a human?".
They were so closely pressed against each other, that their pants rubbed together, the fabric rustling in the sudden silence. Kazuha shrank in his spot, watching as Tomo comfortably rested his shoulders against the seatback.
A sudden gust of bravery rose in his throat. "And what if I am?", he dared to tease.
"Nothing", Tomo shrugged, "It would just be surprising if a supernatural entity chose someone like me to befriend".
Kazuha had a lot to say about that, about who was lucky and for what. "Someone like him" was the closest thing to his dream life he could find. But he kept the thought to himself.
They kept hanging out once every few days, to escape the boredom of their vacation. Summer holidays were close to their end, and Kazuha could officially say that Tomo had been the person he had spent the most time with in his entire life - which wasn't that impressive per se, actually, but it still meant something.
Tomo had a unique charm to him. He could talk Kazuha into anything, convince him to strip off his self-imposed boundaries and to bend his limits with unsettling ease. He couldn't understand why he let that strange boy have all that influence on him. Perhaps it was the strange, new feeling of having someone he could trust, or maybe he simply had a weak spot for him.
One day, Kazuha even agreed to something unthinkable: allowing Tomo to teach him how to play football. Although the idea seemed fun when he first accepted, regret slipped under his skin in the span of a few minutes, when he realized how many mistakes he made. He was goofy, and often missed the ball or tripped on his own feet. His cheeks were continuously burning in shame, embarrassment for his lack of skills assaulting him.
Tomo was patient. He smiled, and corrected his position, gave him tips as if he was training a rookie to his team and not just messing around with a friend. And whenever Kazuha felt his arms wrap around his figure to adjust his stance or to teach him specific moves, his entire body stiffened, an unfamiliar warmth enveloping his chest.
It might be the heat, he figured. So, when the time came around for a breather, he walked up to the closest vending machine, Tomo skipping happily at his back. The park was crowded, children playing everywhere as their families rested comfortably under the shadow of trees, or had picnics over the grass. Laughter echoed all around them, and Kazuha couldn't recall the last time he had felt so comfortable in public, closing his eyes to take in the sounds instead of seeking loneliness in the quiet of his garden.
He was enjoying that new, pleasant state of mind, when something ice-cold mercilessly attacked the back of his neck. He jumped at the sudden sensation, hissing. That was a potential reason for murder, he thought, and there could be only one culprit - Tomo , who was laughing his head off at his reaction.
"The way you hissed at me!", he said, wiping out a tear from the corner of his eye, "You're really a cat, Kazuha".
Kazuha glared at him, his body still shaking from the sudden assault. "You're such a…".
Whatever insult he had conceived, he never managed to blurt it out. Because he turned to stone, staring in awe as Tomo undid his ponytail, letting a waterfall of unruly sandy hair flow onto his shoulders and neck. Regrettably, the first thing his brain thought about was the soft fur of a puppy, golden and smooth. How was it even possible to hide such a fluffy mass with just a hair tie?
Tomo felt the weight of his gaze. Their eyes met, and Kazuha lacked the strength to look away, hypnotized by his looks. "Is…", Tomo muttered, "Is there something on my face?".
Kazuha's brain instantly considered spluttering one of those cheap pickup lines he read in some novels, answering 'Yes, it's beauty', but he would rather cut his leg off rather than letting such an awkward line slip past his lips. He gulped, and finally shifted his irises to the ground, staring at their shoes in hopes of hiding his sudden embarrassment. "I, uh, no", he stuttered, "I have a weird request, if you don't mind".
"Sure", Tomo said. He combed his hair with his finger, pushing his bangs away from his face.
Kazuha's legs were shaky and unsteady, the words he said next requiring an amount of courage he didn't know he possessed. "Can I… touch your hair?", he asked.
There were a million possible reactions to such a ridiculous question, and each scenario looked equally awful to Kazuha, from the disgusted expression to the mockery for being so childish. But instead, Tomo looked at him for the longest time, before laughing.
"That's it?", he asked, "Sure, no problem". He knelt to the floor until Kazuha's fingers were only a breath away from his hair.
As he rubbed his fingers through the sandy locks, feeling their softness, his heart was pounding hard in his chest. At that moment, Kazuha realized something. He realized that feeling his throat go dry whenever they were close, flushing at the faintest brush of clothes, struggling to breathe to the point of choking, and staring in a flustered trance while thinking of how handsome he was - all of this, didn't exactly fit under the definition of friendship .
That… could have been a problem.
Although Kazuha had read hundreds of books in his life, and romance was pretty much always part of the picture, he had never thought the day would come when it'd be his turn to fall for someone. In his fantasies about the future, he had a decent job from home and lived by himself in a small, tidy apartment. No partners were contemplated, nor friends visiting.
Realizing he was developing feelings for Tomo was a shock. He wondered how he could have been so blind as to not notice the warning signs as they came around. He, who took pride in his people-reading skills, miserably failed at deciphering his own emotions before it was too late.
And now, he was done for. There was no way to get the rowdy young man out of his mind, seeing his face wherever he went, his thoughts incessantly coming back to him. It was almost exhausting to spend his days like that, struggling to fight back the urge to meet him when they hadn't scheduled appointments, not even managing to focus on his homework, or poetry, or reading, or anything .
Eventually, summer vacation ended and they were forced to crawl back to school. For some reason, Kazuha thought the day of their return to class would be the demise of their friendship, that all his worries about romantic feelings and whatnot would fade - because Tomo was popular, Tomo had friends, Tomo was busy, while he was not.
It didn't happen. Punctual like clockwork, Tomo fled to the courtyard at lunch break and after school, sneaking behind the bushes to see Tama. He waited for Kazuha to arrive, and then they'd chat amiably until sunset, when they walked back to the usual crossroads. Nothing had changed.
Kazuha didn't know whether to be relieved or scared about this new development. Because it meant he still had a chance, and it was deliciously terrifying.
Kazuha's phone vibrated loudly in the middle of class. He shoved it under his desk, as the teacher glared at him - how could he, ever the top student, dare to interrupt his lesson? But even though he was forced to ignore it, his heartbeat paced up nonetheless, knowing there could only be one person to message him.
Kazuha dashed out of the room as soon as the bell rang and all ceremonies were done, checking the mysterious text while he ran to the courtyard. It was indeed Tomo, his smiling profile picture greeting him from the notification taskbar. It wasn't what he expected, though.
"I was forced to go with my parents" , his message read, " Can you please feed Tama?" . A thousand emojis of praying hands followed, along with Kazuha's worst enemy: the puppy-eyed face.
Kazuha was the epitome of a bad texter. He often read complaints online about those people who receive long walls of text and answer with a thumbs up, or an equally anticlimactic reply. He knew it was hateful, but he couldn't bring his fingers to type anything more, afraid his tone would be misunderstood, or that he might sound ridiculous. It was a useless worry, but one he couldn't suppress. So, he typed in "Ok" and closed the window, burying the phone back in the pocket of his uniform.
Tomo, on the other hand, chatted a lot. Even when faced with the cold and detached answers Kazuha struggled to send, he relentlessly talked on and on, pouring details of his life on him, sending him pictures and voice messages. Kazuha often thought he would get tired of his snappy attitude someday, and stop trying so hard. He never did.
That's probably why he felt something was off that afternoon. He visited Tama, filling up her plate. Both he and Tomo had picked up a habit of carrying a can of cat food in their bags at all times, so that they would be able to take care of her no matter the emergency or setback.
He spent a few hours there, playing with her and scratching her back, watching as she rolled on the floor or curled up in a ball of fluff, purring and meowing. She was finally growing attached to him too, and he would normally be filled with nothing but ecstasy at the realization.
Yet, his soul quivered. He was worried about Tomo, as irrational as it might be. His phone didn't ring once. When he opened his chat to check if he might have missed something, he noticed he didn't even read his last message. That was not like him at all. He tried his best to calm his nerves, to tell himself that he might simply be busy. He didn't know a thing about his parents after all, maybe they were the type of old-fashioned adults who hated phones and didn't want their kid to use them during meals.
His fingers trembled as he broke his silence. "Are you alright?", he typed in the chat. The double checkmark appeared. Nothing budged. That was the official death of his last ounce of sanity, as he quickly sank into a state of pure panic. Tomo usually answered in less than a second, sometimes even startling him with his speed.
An hour passed with no life signs. Kazuha checked on him frantically, hoping for a miracle. Suddenly, he remembered something, a detail from the past. Whenever he spoke about his parents, a veil of sadness darkened Tomo's face, though he quickly hid it with a tense smile. What if he was having problems?
Tama sniffed his fear and purred, rubbing her little body along his leg. That's what gave him the courage to open the contact list and, with his heart throbbing in his chest, compose his number. The phone rang, and rang, and rang. No answers.
Kazuha sat on the floor, beat. Part of him was relieved he had dodged an awkward conversation, but part of him was almost disappointed. For some reason, he thought Tomo would promptly react to his call. That he would be waiting for it expectantly, just like he did with his texts.
He didn't notice he was falling asleep, lulled by the gentle breeze and the trembling of Tama's throat. It was an empty, dreamless rest, which left him more exhausted than he was before.
When he came to his senses again, blinded by the sun for a moment, Tomo was at his side. Dark circles marked the skin under his eyes, and his skin lost part of his usual, beautiful glow.
Kazuha jumped back in surprise, ashamed he had been seen in such a situation. "Sorry, I…", he stuttered, "I was tired and I must have dozed off, I didn't hear you come…".
Tomo didn't say a word. He leaned forward in silence and held Kazuha tightly against his chest. The sudden warmth was a fatal blow to his heart, and he didn't know what god to thank for not making him faint on the spot. He forced himself to hug him back, gently wrapping his arms around his shoulders. He swore he felt something wet dripping at the base of his neck.
Whatever had happened to him, it must have been pretty bad. Tomo never cried. His smile, be it genuine or pretend, was a constant in his equation. "Do you want to talk about it?", Kazuha asked.
"No", Tomo said, "But please, let's stay like this a bit more".
Kazuha didn't leave. He caressed his back as he cried his heart out, politely, respectfully. Lovingly.
Kazuha never brought up the topic of that day again, resorting to his usual technique to suppress curiosity - the one about not forcing doors open, and all the rest, although sometimes he wished he could be more straightforward and simply ask to quench his thirst for knowledge.
To keep his mind off his growing feelings for Tomo, he ditched all romance novels he was reading, picking crime and horror instead, or diving deep into his poetry practice. What you can't see can't hurt you, or so he thought. Sadly, the plan wasn't going that smoothly, and the feeling of Tomo's warm embrace relentlessly haunted his afternoons.
His phone rang in the middle of his wrong fantasies, and Kazuha was more than glad to have an excuse to stop overthinking. It was a text from Gorou, reminding him of their monthly appointment for a phone call. With all the recent events, he had completely forgotten about that, and unfortunately ended up planning things with Tomo.
"I'm sorry", he typed in, "I'm afraid I'm busy tomorrow".
Gorou's answer came fast as lightning. "You? Busy?", he asked, and Kazuha could easily imagine the shocked look on his face, straight from his memories of childhood. "I mean that's great, but how?".
The previous time they had talked, Kazuha didn't mention Tomo. They were already spending time together and feeding Tama, but he didn't feel like it was a detail worth mentioning to his best friend, not attributing any special meaning to it. Things were different now, with his sudden realization and everything. "I made a new friend", he simply wrote, "His name is Tomo".
He still preferred to keep it vague, to avoid any questioning. Gorou was a great advice giver, but a bit too blunt and honest sometimes. In truth, Kazuha was grateful they couldn't meet in real life often, most of their relationship built through text messages scattered across the week - it saved him from a considerable load of embarrassment and piercing gazes.
"Wait", Gorou typed, "Tomo as in the captain of the football club in your school? I think I've heard of him before".
Kazuha blinked in shock, reading the text over and over in a frenzy. He had failed to estimate how big Tomo's popularity was. It made sense, though, considering his outgoing personality. But did every person he hung out with know about his softer side? About his secret tears in the downpour? It was hard not to feel at least a bit special.
"Yes", he wrote, "Him".
He wished the conversation would just die there. But of course, Gorou had something to add. His life wasn't complete without offering him some guidance, be it required or not. "Be careful", he said, "I know he must be charming, but there's a risk in hanging out with popular dudes… They don't understand shy people's minds".
"He's been good to me", Kazuha stated.
"He better be", he could read Gorou's ominous aura even through the screen, "Promise me you'll be wary of any red flags before they turn into sad decisions, okay? See you".
Kazuha appreciated his concern. He truly, genuinely did. Even so, there was nothing but warmth in his heart when he thought about Tomo. An unfamiliar feeling for him, something that he had taken for granted. It was slowly affecting his entire life, sweeter words flowing in his writing now, turning his poems from sterile nature portrayals to verses full of vibrant feelings.
He was afraid to admit it to himself, even, that he might like Tomo in a way he wasn't supposed (he wasn't allowed ) to. Love wasn't made for him. Relationships were taxing and fragile, and he knew he didn't possess enough social skills to maintain one. He would ruin their bond with his own hands if he dared to confess. He had to keep it to himself, swallowing his feelings until they'd eventually fade away.
Later that night, he couldn't stop thinking about it. And his mind tragically had only one place to go when he was distressed - towards Tomo. So, he did the unthinkable - he asked to meet him.
"Kazuha", Tomo's text was sprinkled with typos, and Kazuha felt guilty for a single second for waking him up, "It's like two in the night".
"Please", Kazuha typed with shaky fingers, "I need to get something out of my head".
And they did meet. At their special rendez-vous spot, in front of the fountain at the park with the half-sunny and half-shadowy bench, where it had all begun. Tomo was dressed too lightly for the chilly night, goosebumps covering his arms as he handed over to Kazuha a carton of milk.
He stuck the small straw inside and took a shy sip. When they sat on the bench, his heart couldn't stop drumming in his chest, loud and clear. After acknowledging its existence, his love felt more real, more concrete. He wondered for how long he'd manage to hide it from him.
"What's troubling you?", Tomo asked.
The motor of a car roared in the distance. Kazuha shook his head, suddenly reconsidering his choice. Why did he even call him, if he couldn't confess what was on his mind?
"Nothing", he said, "Please stay with me for a bit".
It was bright as day. The way his chest fluttered when Tomo moved closer, brushing their arms together, his blonde ponytail swaying in the air. The little gasp in his breath when the lights of passing vehicles reflected in his purple eyes, making them glimmer like stars. How he couldn't form a coherent string of thoughts and all words died on his tongue as he tried to talk to him.
He was in love. Completely lost, with no hope for salvation.
The rain crashed hard against the tree branches, sounding more like projectiles than droplets of water. Kazuha was waiting at Tama's feeding spot, covering the box with his umbrella as he waited for Tomo to arrive. His clothes were drenched, all his resources spent in prioritizing the cat's safety.
He was late. Which was scary, because despite his goofiness, his forgetful nature, and his absent-minded attitude, he had always been on time before. Without fail. But unless there was some sort of demon haunting the school in broad daylight, Kazuha had no real reason to worry about his condition, having seen him earlier at practice.
Tomo rushed there, out of breath. His glance quickly scanned the area - Kazuha's soaked uniform, his hair flopping down his forehead, his shoulders trembling in the wind. Apologies were written all over his face as he bowed down profusely, silently begging for pardon.
"My homeroom teacher refused to let me go", he justified himself, "I'm sorry, Kazuha".
Kazuha wanted to drop the topic and just get the hell out of there. But a part of him, a playful side that he barely knew belonged to him, craved to say more. He pouted, his lips numb from the cold. "If I get sick, it's on you", he muttered.
He realized his mistake when Tomo spoke. "Then, let me take responsibility for that", he said.
Before he could process what was happening, or even better stop the course of fate, he was already standing in front of the door to Tomo's apartment, a pool of water forming on the moquette beneath his feet. Why was he there? His legs refused to move and take him back, ignoring the voice screaming inside his mind.
Tomo led him inside, quite literally throwing a towel on top of his head and dropping a pile of clothes between his arms. He took him to the bathroom, where he dried his hair off with a blow dryer. Kazuha felt like a pampered child, or perhaps a cat - that scenario would fit Tomo's mental image better, he figured.
The house was truly unlike him. Tidy, aseptic barren. Kazuha had been prey to stereotypes and he believed he'd find a mess everywhere, with pants tossed over chairs and empty cans laying over the floor. Instead, every room was clean and smelled faintly of lavender.
"I'll make you some tea", Tomo offered, "Or would you prefer some hot milk, kitty ?".
The nickname made something in his stomach flinch, and he averted his gaze. "Tea will do just fine", he muttered, lacking the courage to glare at him.
Tomo ruffled up his hair, grinning happily. "Coming through! You can sit in my room while you wait for me".
There was something terribly awkward about sitting on the bed of the person he loved. Tomo's scent surrounded him, the faint aroma of his perfume lingering on the bedsheets, on the walls, wrapping him up like a warm blanket. The fact he was currently wearing one of his oversized hoodies didn't help his cause, either. His heart was on the brink of bursting.
Pictures of cats covered each free spot on the walls. Kazuha ran his fingers along the books lined up on the shelves, studying their titles. Cat breeds, cat stories, cat behaviors… Even the calendar was kitten-themed. He sensed a pattern. He chuckled under his breath, realizing how unbearably adorable that sweet spot of his was.
"Hey, are you rummaging through my stuff?".
Kazuha jumped upon hearing his voice, though he caught his amused tone. He grabbed the red mug in his hands and sighed in joy when he felt his fingers heating up. He took a long sip, the tea flowing down like liquid gold in his sore throat. He had to stop, his tongue burnt.
"Easy there, tiger", Tomo wiped a drop left on his cheek with his sleeve, "You'll burn your stomach".
Kazuha pouted again. "Why were you so late?", he asked, "You could have texted me".
"I'm really sorry, I wasn't thinking at all", Tomo said.
Kazuha wanted to ask, but… Actually, why not? What would happen if he was bold, for once? What if he stopped being afraid of the consequences, of being told to shut up, and just went for it?
He took a deep breath. "Is everything alright with your family?", he finally dared to inquire. It was impossible to miss the way his mood shifted whenever his parents were mentioned. He knew nothing about them, only the effect they had on him, and it was enough to raise his worry.
Tomo's eyes widened out of surprise. He probably failed to understand how Kazuha could read him so easily, unaware that his thoughts were written all over his forehead. He lowered his gaze, suddenly nostalgic. "Yes and no", he mumbled, "We barely meet. They're divorcing and, you know, things can get messy".
Kazuha did not know. Divorce in the Kaedehara family was the greatest dishonor one could imagine. People preferred to cheat on their spouses and to shove their dirty laundry under the carpet to keep up their stupid, perfect facade. But he could imagine, at least. It was obvious in the way Tomo's radiant glow faded whenever the topic was mentioned.
"It will be fine", Kazuha heard himself whisper, his fingers instinctively reaching for Tomo's thigh to give him a gentle rub.
"Yeah", Tomo said. He grabbed his hand, and Kazuha's heart darted to his fingers, his pulse throbbing where their skins met. "At least, I'm not alone".
Silence fell, heavy and thick. Kazuha was choking on his own breath, with too many things to say floating through his mind and no strength to voice them out loud. So, he said the first thing that came to his mind, walking the thin line between tease and nonchalance. "You sure like cats", he said.
He was playing a dangerous game, something he normally would never try. He was hinting at the items scattered in his room, sure, but that's not what he meant. In his sentence, he was the cat. That was the closest thing to a confession he'd ever be able to weave, probably.
Tomo seized the opportunity for a comeback. "Way more than you could think", was his enigmatic answer.
Under the weight of his intense stare, Kazuha smiled.
"You should have told me that your grades were dropping", Kazuha said with an exasperated voice, "We could have studied before".
Tomo lifted his gaze from the surface of the table where his face had been slammed for the previous hour. "Kazuha", he declared, "Studying is hella boring".
Kazuha unceremoniously smacked him with the book in his hands. "Of course it is", he snapped, "But if you put zero effort in it, it becomes boring and long".
Sometimes, dealing with him was no different than babysitting the neighbor's kids. Tomo concentrated all of his childish energy and poured them over Kazuha at once, seriously testing the limits of his nerves.
On the day of the downpour, Tomo had walked Kazuha to their spot in the park. And before waving his goodbye, he had mentioned he would be busy the following afternoon, asking him to feed Tama in his stead. Kazuha, encouraged by the same wave of braveness that had guided him to make a semi-confession earlier, had questioned his reasons. And that's how he had found out that Tomo was failing most of his subjects, his mind trailing off to either his family situation or the cat he had to feed.
Tomo brought his hands to cover his face, exhausted. "Just let me die here", he said dramatically.
"Not on my watch". And a promise is a debt - Kazuha wasn't playing around. He had decided to fix his grades, and he would , no matter how hard it would be.
He forced him to sit through hours and hours of studying, trying to fit all the notions of one entire year into his brain in one single sitting. His explanations were simple and straightforward, so much that even a primary schooler could follow. Tomo fell asleep during literature (much to Kazuha's disappointment, since it was his favorite subject and his hobby outside of school), snoring loudly without an ounce of shame. They broached grammar next, and he surprised Kazuha by turning out to be pretty good. And then, maths pushed his self-esteem down again. He was a lost cause.
But Kazuha didn't falter. Patiently, diligently, he guided him through it, he solved his doubts, he helped him when he was stuck on a quiz. The hardest task for him wasn't the explanation itself, but rather not staring. The boy was constantly half naked inside of his house, even though it was October and Kazuha was shivering in the cold. He forgot how to breathe whenever Tomo yawned or stretched his arms, the muscles on his neck twitching.
In the end, they required more study meetings, but they somehow crawled their way to the date of Tomo's exams. With some sort of barely decent preparation, yet still more than what Tomo could have hoped for without his help. Kazuha was satisfied in his skills and self-control for not blushing like a maiden at every given minute.
"Now I feel it", Tomo said on their last day, "I'm gonna ace the exams!".
Kazuha chuckled. "With your preparation, I wouldn't dare to say ace".
Tomo pointed his pen against the tip of Kazuha's nose. "I say I'm gonna", he declared, "Because I had the most special teacher in the world".
The fondness in his eyes was terrifying. It made the thought peek through his hazy mind that his feelings might be mutual. And it was like sinking in unknown dark waters.
Soon after the exams, Tomo vanished again. His parents demanded his presence out of town, and he was supposed to go with them while they managed the final agreements with the lawyer. The day before the fateful trip, he told Kazuha how much he hated the tension between them, and the heavy atmosphere surrounding them and strangling him. Jokingly, he asked Kazuha if he wanted to tag along, before laughing it off as a prank.
Only now, as he stood in the empty classroom with a broom in his hand, he wished he had taken him seriously. He was missing again, his texts left on read without the faintest hint of a reply. The previous time something similar had happened, Tomo had crawled back to him a crying mess. The memory of his tears flowing down his neck still lingered in his mind and made his stomach twist in an unpleasant grip.
Just when he thought his day couldn't become any worse, rain began to fall.
And, even worse, Tama was gone. His brain short-circuited as soon as he caught a glimpse of the empty box. He knelt next to it, rummaging through the toys and lifting the pink blanket, yet he found no trace of her.
He ran. His heart beating out of control and a thousand tragic scenarios assaulting his mind, he ran across the entire neighborhood at the top of his lungs. She couldn't get lost. She was a small kitten, all alone in the world, with only him and Tomo to take care of her. She would risk too much in the cold world, cars and inattentive pedestrians behind every corner, with no one to shelter her from danger.
He cried, tears mingling with the falling rain. But then, sitting on a familiar bench in the park, he spotted a familiar ponytail. Tomo was sitting there without an umbrella, his clothes and hair drenched. Wasn't he supposed to be out of town? Panic moving his legs for him, Kazuha sprinted to his side, sobbing loudly.
"Tomo, the cat… Tama is…", he whimpered. White fur peeked out of Tomo's sweater. A timid, warm meow rose from the empty space inside his clothes. Kazuha's knees gave in, and he sank to the floor, still terror-stricken. "Oh, she's safe. I'm so glad. I'm so glad…".
Tomo was oddly quiet. Not a finger to wipe his tears, not a hand to brush his hair, not a word to soothe his worry. Kazuha lifted his gaze and saw that he, too, was crying in silence. "Hey, what's wrong?", he asked.
Tomo smiled bitterly. "Family things", he shrugged, "It got too depressing, I had to escape".
Kazuha sat at his side, his fingers reaching out for Tama to pet her head, terribly happy to see her safe and sound. "How did you get back?", he said, "You were pretty far".
"I took a bus and then I walked", Tomo said meekly, "A lot. My feet hurt".
It was the first time Kazuha saw him so exhausted. On multiple occasions had he thought he looked tired and worn out, but this was an entirely new level. He knew that words of comfort meant nothing in front of serious issues such as a divorce, yet that's all he had to offer to him. That, and his unconditional love. Would that be appreciated, though? Would that be enough?
"I'm sorry", he said.
Tomo's composure shattered. His shoulders jerked in a sudden sob, and he wiped his tears hastily with the sleeve of his sweater. "I'm used to it, actually", he whined, "I just wish I wasn't so lonely. My parents are too busy to be around, and I have no siblings".
"Is that why you started taking care of Tama?", Kazuha instinctively asked, "To have someone who depends on you?".
He wished he could take his words back. He wished he wasn't born so blunt, his anxious and polite facade only a mask he had worn for years to conceal his sharp thoughts. Because the look in Tomo's eyes was the worst thing he had ever seen before - and it was his fault.
"Saw right through me", Tomo said, his voice cracking, "I'm pathetic, huh?".
Fake laughter echoed in the air. It stung like needles through Kazuha's skin. That wasn't an expression meant for him. The boy he knew was cheerful, bright, with a genuine smile on his face and sunlight sparkling in his eyes. Pretense didn't suit him at all. That was Kazuha's sad role on the stage of life, not his.
Kazuha didn't answer. He leaned in closer, closing the distance between them. A hint of confusion lit up Tomo's eyes, and Kazuha suffocated any questions by swiftly pressing their lips together. The contact was the warmest sensation he had ever felt, their mouths barely brushing together in a shy and tentative kiss. His first.
Tomo hesitated for a moment before kissing him back with enthusiasm, his arms wrapping him in a tight hug, chest against chest. As he took control and their lips pressed together with more confidence, Kazuha breathed in deeply, taking in his pleasant scent of caffeine. He wondered how many cups he had swallowed that day to keep his nerves firm, but he had no time to ask, no time to think - the only thing on his mind was the closeness of their lips (and of their hearts).
When they parted, Tomo's cheeks were flushing red. Kazuha doubted he looked any different, unbearable heat enveloping his face, his breath labored. There were many things to say and many doubts to voice. Tomo chose an easier way to show his feelings - he hugged him closer, until Kazuha felt nothing but his warmth.
A thick droplet of water streamed down Tomo's neck, falling at the center of his head. Kazuha flinched, suddenly realizing how drenched their clothes were, and how uncomfortably the fabric was sticking to his skin. He pulled away, annoyed. "You're soaked", he complained.
Tomo chuckled, now rid of any trace of sadness. "So are you", he said, "Got a problem with water? And you say you aren't a cat".
Kazuha glared at him, the red on his face spreading to the tip of his ears. He had brought that upon himself, after playing along with that nickname with his innuendo from last time. "Will you stop that?", he grumbled.
Tomo's arms found his waist again, and Kazuha was helplessly scooped up onto his lap, any way out of his hug blocked off. "Anyway, you kissed me first", he said, "You have no one to blame but yourself, kitty ".
Kazuha's protests were drowned in another kiss, quick and merciless.
Much to Kazuha's incredulity, they started dating. Kazuha's first crush had turned out to be his actual first boyfriend, and he failed to understand what he had done right to deserve this perfect treatment. But when Tomo hugged him, all doubts vanished into thin air.
They met rigorously outside of their homes. Kazuha's family was strict, plus he hadn't brought a friend there since his childhood, so they would likely pester Tomo with a million questions. The boy could handle it, but Kazuha would die out of sheer embarrassment, so he'd rather avoid that unpleasant scenario.
And although they had been there before, Tomo agreed, loving the freedom he had outside. His apartment was cold and the atmosphere heavy, especially when his mother had come back to live with him. He had been freed from some housework duties and was allowed to adopt Tama, at the cheap price of his comfort.
Not bound by any feeding times, they walked home from school together, stopping at the park to grab a drink. The beloved bench that had witnessed so many of their special moments was now too cold to be considered, snow piling over the seat as winter closed in.
Tomo's mother bought him a car as a silent encouragement to stay out of his house as much as he could. Instead of being openly sad about it, Tomo masked his feelings by making the most out of the gift, taking Kazuha on rides and trips, driving him back to the crossroads where they parted.
Kazuha didn't get why he liked him so much. Tomo talked a lot, and he listened quietly. Even after breaking down the walls of his nervousness, he wasn't the chatty type, and most of his life revolved around Tomo much like a satellite to its planet. He had nothing to tell, and everything to absorb from him.
Still, it worked. Tomo's smile was at its brightest when they were together. They held hands whenever people weren't around, they kissed under the rain, and Tomo placed warm pecks on his forehead before leaving him in the evenings. The entire school spread rumors about them, but Tomo didn't mind despite his popularity.
One day at lunch break, a girl offered Tomo a letter. Kazuha spied on them from the corner of the building, his heart throbbing in worry. As the boy turned her down, he felt sorry about it - but a tingling sense of pride built up in his chest, realizing he was special to someone. He had never been the first choice in anyone's life before now. Tomo could have any cute girl or boy in school at his feet, because he was as charming as the sun itself. Yet, he had chosen him, a tiny and shy moon who could only reflect his light.
Kazuha remained too shy to hold hands in public, as they strolled through the shopping streets in the frenzy of Christmas. Tomo often grabbed his wrist, guiding him across the crowd and making fun of his short height and his skill to vanish among the swarming sea of people.
Those were the happiest days he had ever lived. Every hour spent with Tomo filled his heart with affection and warmth, making his chest tremble pleasantly. He was in love with every detail of that boy, from his cheerful public personality to his secret emotional side, from the silly jokes that earned him annoyed glares to the feathery kisses he sneakily pressed on his cheeks when bystanders averted their gazes.
Tomo was very fond of movies. He didn't enjoy the films themselves, but rather the atmosphere of the theater, or so he said. Kazuha gladly tagged along, having little to no cinematic knowledge and merely seeking an excuse to sit next to him in the dark for a couple of hours. So, it soon turned into a weekly appointment, their wallets thanking the student discounts.
Their way to spice things up and dodge boredom was to always join the random showing. The ticket was cheaper, and in return they had no means to pick what movie to watch, blindly following that day's secret schedule. It was fun, in its simplicity.
Kazuha had the chance to witness the peak of Tomo's soft side on one of these dates. The random film of the day turned out to be a romcom, much to his embarrassment. Kazuha shrunk in his seat, flustered, and threw shy glances at Tomo's face whenever there was a sappy moment on screen, imagining them doing the same. At the moment the main characters shared their sighed kiss, he covered his face with his hands, peeking at his boyfriend through his fingers.
Tomo was crying, moved by the heartwarming confession. Kazuha bit his lower lip to prevent his laughter from echoing through the entire silent room, the sight too adorable to bear.
"Are you crying ?", he whispered to him.
"Don't make fun of me!". Some people turned around to shoosh them, and he apologized with a silent gesture before lowering his voice. "It's moving, okay? A love so perfect, written in the stars…".
Kazuha gulped a handful of popcorn, skeptical. "Too bad that such things do not exist in reality", he said. Real love was way more complicated, a ride against fate and the obstacles it threw along your way. Even if sometimes, some incidents were actually a good omen, like Tama.
"How cynical". Tomo poked his cheek with a finger, watching as Kazuha pouted. "Who knew there was such a stoic soul under that pretty face of yours?".
Before Kazuha had the chance to talk back, he kissed him on a whim, their lips sticky from their sugary drinks and salt stinging on his tongue.
"I'm full of surprises", he muttered. But in truth, he was the one always caught unprepared.
The bane of any introvert eventually came knocking at his door - the formal obligation to meet Tomo's friends. Kazuha had groaned out loud when he had been asked, desperately trying to find valid excuses to convince his boyfriend to go alone. Sure, it would have felt strange to skip their usual Saturday evening date, but it wasn't a rule set in stone. They were allowed some time by themselves or with others if they felt like it.
Tomo had been inflexible. "I don't wanna leave you alone", he had begged.
Kazuha failed to find polite words to tell him that no, in fact, he'd much rather stay by himself than be shoved into awkward small talk with some strangers. "'ll be fine", he had said, "Go, have fun, text me once you're home and safe".
But Tomo was such a dirty cheater. He had given him puppy eyes, the look he simply could not resist. He had hugged him tight, kissing his neck, scratching his head - he knew what Kazuha liked the most, that he was like a cat, easy to tame. So, in the end, Kazuha reluctantly surrendered.
And there he was, scattering his clothes everywhere in order to find the perfect outfit. If he wasn't good with conversation, he could at least look great for the occasion, making Tomo proud. He tested different combinations for hours, before sneaking inside his father's wardrobe to snatch an elegant jacket.
Despite the worry of accidentally overdressing for a friendly night, Tomo shared a similar look. He was squeezed inside a shirt, uncharacteristically buttoned up to his chin, and wore the most beautiful pants Kazuha had ever seen on him. Even his unruly hair had been thoroughly combed through, his ponytail for once tidy and silky. Although he preferred his usual casual, carefree Tomo, Kazuha couldn't avoid skipping a heartbeat at the sight.
Tomo drove all the way from their meeting spot to the bar, Kazuha's mind looping during the entire trip. He was terrified of making a fool of himself and giving a horrible first impression - not because he cared much about what others thought of him, but because they were close to Tomo, and he'd hate to hinder him.
As soon as they stepped inside the place, the waiter led them to the table, where the other guys were already sitting. Kazuha was positive he had never met them before, although the blonde boy dressed in red had a familiar look. The girl next to him was simply stunning, with long light hair tied up in a ponytail and shoulders wrapped in a sparkly lilac dress. If someone told Kazuha that they were models who jumped out of a fashion magazine, he wouldn't have trouble believing it.
"Finally here", the boy greeted them while they sat, "I was starting to worry you got lost on the way".
The girl glared at him, before giving him a sweet nudge with her elbow. "Don't be rude, Thoma", she said, "We're finally meeting Tomo's boyfriend".
From that tender movement, Kazuha understood the sort of relationship the two of them had. Did Tomo seriously drag him to a cliched double date? It was so adorable and embarrassing at the same time.
They ordered food and some drinks to go with it. Kazuha rarely ate in public places, and that was the first time he did with someone who wasn't just Tomo. Speaking of which, he offered to pay for his meal too, ignoring all of his many protests, claiming to have a "fat wallet" after being paid at his part-time job. Fearing he might be a burden to his finances, Kazuha resorted to a small snack, watching as his boyfriend feasted on fries instead.
The three of them made most of the conversation. Kazuha didn't mind listening, actually having the time of his life by hearing their stories and jokes. They were funny, and he wished he could have invited Gorou, to make things even more hilarious.
Apparently, their group had formed back in middle school. Ayaka and Thoma were a long-time couple, always at the center of gossip, and Tomo had instantly hit it off with them, their personalities a perfect match. They had kept in touch after splitting up, a small gap between their ages. Now, she attended a fashion design course, while Thoma planned to graduate in diplomatic relations. They were beautiful, smart, and cheerful - everything Kazuha could associate with the definition of "perfection". He wouldn't be surprised if they were also rich.
But although he tried his best to calm down, discomfort eventually caught up to him. His keen sense of hearing was an amazing feature overall, yet the downside to it was evident, capable of turning any pleasant night of chitchat into a painstaking bubble of noise.
Sensing his uneasiness, Tomo whispered in his ear. "Are you okay?", he asked with palpable concern in his voice.
Kazuha shook his head. "It's a little loud here", he admitted, "But I'll be fine".
Tomo had none of it. He wrapped his arm around his shoulders, pressing one of his ears against his side and covering the other one with his hand. Kazuha blushed and tugged at his sleeve, shy. "We're in public…", he said.
"I don't care", was Tomo's honest answer. His tendency to be touchy in the middle of crowds was usually annoying to Kazuha, yet in this specific case he thanked him for his stubbornness, as he let him shelter his head from the noise, muffling out the unpleasant sounds.
"So", Thoma teased, "How long have you been a thing, lovebirds?".
Tomo promptly picked up the question, proud. "Since early autumn", he said.
Ayaka's eyes widened in surprise. "So late?!", she said, "Kazuha, I'm sorry it took him so long to man up and confess. He's been talking about you non-stop since summer, I didn't think he'd be so slow on the uptake".
Kazuha had… many things to point out. First of all, there had technically been no confession at all, as he had simply kissed him by surprise to stop his self-deprecation. And secondly, it wasn't his fault. Kazuha barely gave off hints about his real feelings, keeping up his detached mask and not even speaking up his mind. It was no wonder that Tomo thought he wasn't in love with him at all.
Summer, huh… So, Tomo had a crush on him for longer than he imagined. He took mental notes to tease him about it later. For now, he merely enjoyed the show, as Tomo got flustered and blushed to the tip of his ears, screaming at Ayaka to " not expose him like that ".
The atmosphere at their table was cozy and familiar. Kazuha drank, both to crack a hole in his wall of shyness with the courage given by alcohol and to keep his mind off any possible unpleasant thought. He dared to step into their conversations, earning smiles and happy responses from both of them. And, before he realized what he was doing, he emptied a few glasses more than he could handle.
At the end of their meetup, the world was spinning around him. He collapsed on his knees when he tried to get up, to the point Tomo had to drag him forcibly out of the bar, carrying him on his shoulders like a lost child. In his haze, all he could feel was background happiness, and an unprecedented sensation of comfort. He missed the chance to say goodbye, slightly coming back to his senses only when they were already alone, walking to the car.
"You overdid it", Tomo scolded him. But Kazuha was too drunk to take him seriously. He ran his fingers through his ponytail, so close to his face in all its softness.
"Tomo", he slurred, "Your hair is so pretty". He saw Tomo's ears flush red, and he chuckled in content. Eliciting such embarrassed reactions from him was his biggest pride, as only he held the power to make him flustered to the point of tears.
They reached the car, its red body shining under the streetlights. Tomo rummaged through his pockets in search of the keys, then opened the passenger's door and shoved Kazuha onto the seat, securing him in place with the belt.
"Your car smells so good", Kazuha blurted out, unable to stop words from flowing out of his lips, "It has your scent. I love it".
Tomo closed the door and walked to the other side, joining him inside the car. He grabbed Kazuha's shoulders and pulled at him, trying to slap him back to reality. "Kazuha", he spelled, "What's your address? I'll drive you home".
"I can walk", Kazuha shamelessly lied. His hand reached out for the door handle, but his fingers slipped on its surface, dooming his attempt to failure.
Tomo sighed. "I'm not letting you go anywhere in this state", he said, "Just tell me where you live".
Kazuha tried. He tried hard. He had memorized his street name and number as a toddler, writing it down on every new notebook and filling countless forms with it. Still, his memory was a blur. He barely remembered how his house looked, everything spinning and twirling inside his head.
"I don't remember", he confessed in the end.
" Excuse me? ", Tomo exclaimed. Whatever he wanted to say remained a secret, because he understood how hard it was to reason with someone who's drunk out of his mind.
The more time passed, and the more Kazuha's words sounded like an unintelligible mess. His stomach was twisting too, and the thought of a car ride in his condition was scary. He regretted drinking so much. The bliss he felt was a good relief, though.
"Alright", Tomo decided after a moment of silence, "I'm taking you to my place then".
Tama greeted them with a loud meow, a distorted noise to Kazuha's dizzy head.
Tomo clumsily opened the front door of his house, only one hand at his disposal, while he juggled his boyfriend's weight on his back. Eventually, he lost his balance, and Kazuha fell miserably to the floor, his cheek slamming against the cold surface of the parquet.
"Fuck", Tomo muttered, kneeling to check on him, "Sorry, are you ok?".
Unable to form a coherent sentence, Kazuha gave him a thumbs up. He felt warm hands wrap around his waist, pulling him back up to a seating position, and then arms lifting him from the floor like a bride. His head instinctively snuggled at the base of Tomo's neck as he got carried to the couch, his heart beating faster than ever.
"I don't think I can drag you to the bed", Tomo said, "So you'll have to settle with the couch. I'll be in my room, so I don't bother you".
As soon as his brain managed to process his words, the realization hit Kazuha that he was planning to leave. His rational side prayed him not to be stupid, and to consider it was only for one night, that he would sleep like a log and barely notice his absence, and that there were a thousand reasons to not spend the night so close to Tomo.
But there's no room for logic when one's drunk, so Kazuha decided that it didn't matter at all. He grabbed his sleeve with shaky fingers, stopping him from getting up. "Stay", he managed to blurt out, "Please".
Tomo's cheeks flushed, and despite his clouded mind Kazuha didn't miss the way his eyes lit up with an unfamiliar sparkle - was it need , perhaps? But he wasn't as drunk and bold as him, so he tried his best to pour some sense into him. "Kazuha, I'll be literally in the next room", he said.
"Stay", Kazuha stubbornly repeated.
And Tomo stayed. He crawled at his side, shrinking in the small space left on the couch, and respectfully kept his distance. Kazuha walked all over his efforts, snuggling against his chest without a care in the world, only wanting to feel his body heat and the heart beating loudly against his ears.
Tomo's face was on fire. He didn't budge, though, instead wrapping an arm around his waist to keep him closer, firm and secure. Falling asleep was a matter of seconds for Kazuha's exhausted body. As he slipped into the realm of dreams, all he could say was Tomo's name, in an endless loop.
He woke up a couple of times during the night, the influx of alcohol slowly releasing its grip on his senses. He was still dizzy. Tomo had undressed in his sleep, his shirt hanging from the armrest of the couch. On a swift whim, Kazuha grabbed it and sneaked inside it, surprised by how big it was. Their size difference wasn't that obvious, with all the baggy jackets and sweaters Tomo used to wear in winter, confounding his shapes. But now, with the hem of fabric reaching his knees, he saw it clearly.
He slept more peacefully, completely embraced by Tomo's warmth and scent. An aftertaste of shame hit his taste buds, but he wisely ignored it and rolled with his mind's caprices, dropping the problem on the Kazuha of the following day.
The fog in his mind thinned out in the morning, when the sun was already up in the sky and its rays peeked through the half-closed shutters like knives straight into his exhausted eyes. Kazuha had never experienced a hangover before, but now he understood just why everyone seemed to hate it so much. All movements sent waves of pain through his body, and he wished he could simply sleep through the whole day.
The first thing he saw as he opened his weighty eyelids was Tomo's neck. Blurry memories from the night came back to him, with all the embarrassment they entailed - how could he be so shameless as to ask him to sleep with him on the couch, cuddled up in such a cramped space? He couldn't decide whether he was a genius or a complete idiot. The warmth was indeed pleasant, though, and Tomo's scent made any second thought fade.
He wrestled against his arm, trying to break free from his hug. Tomo was evidently a heavy sleeper, and no matter how much he struggled to push and pull at his arm, he didn't give any sign of waking up or noticing him at all. After a solid minute of tough fight, he slipped out of his grip, his bare feet touching the cold floor.
He stood up. The world still spun around him and his legs trembled at every step he took, but somehow he managed not to trip and collapse, making his way to the kitchen. What he hoped for in his heart was that Tomo's mother wouldn't return before night. He couldn't imagine her reaction upon walking in on him, legs naked (when did he even take off his pants?), his only item of clothing being her son's unbuttoned shirt, with the effects of a hangover printed on his face and his hands busy fiddling with her kitchenware.
Tomo came to his senses way later, yawning loudly. As soon as he heard his footsteps approaching, Kazuha walked up to him with a mug in both of his hands, smiling like an idiot. His chest flinched in pride at the sight of Tomo's flustered look, his cheeks burning as his gaze dashed between the clothes he was wearing, his exposed skin, and the overall intimacy of the scene.
Kazuha didn't know what sort of picture he wanted to convey. A housewife, perhaps, or a dutiful maid? But whatever, that was the least he could do to thank him for taking him home safely despite his pitiful state.
"Good morning, sunshine", he teased, handing him one of the cups, "It's, like, noon".
Tomo grabbed his coffee and then wrapped his arms around Kazuha, pulling him in a hug. Kazuha almost dropped his own drink to the floor, his heart throbbing at the contact. But fingers ran through his disheveled white hair, and he immediately forgot any complaint he was about to make.
"Don't tell me you're having milk for breakfast", Tomo commented in a whisper, "Why are you a literal cat?".
How to ruin the perfect moment. Kazuha gave him a nudge with his elbow, stealing Ayaka's special skill. "Stop calling me that!", he said.
Tomo's caresses shifted, and he ruffled up his hair, turning it into an even wilder mess. Kazuha protested vehemently, but he didn't stop until his head was a nest. "But I love cats", he said.
Kazuha pouted. "And I love you".
He choked on his breath upon realizing what he had just said. In many months of dating, kissing, holding hands, and sleeping together, he had never once whispered such an explicit confession. That sentence was far too solemn for his taste, it sounded like commitment and responsibility which he wasn't sure he could take. But now, driven by his instinct, he had blurted it out as if it was nothing. And his chest felt weirdly light, relief escaping his lips in the form of a sigh.
Tomo slammed the cup against the table, almost shattering it. "Finally you said it!", he screamed, lifting Kazuha by his waist, "I've been holding back so hard because I wanted you to say it first".
What an idiot. Why in the world would he be waiting for him to cross his boundaries? Tomo was so honest and carefree, he would have expected him to voice his love sooner, and he would probably have responded. Having the upper hand on this topic didn't suit him, much more at ease being pulled rather than pulling at the string.
But once again, all of his doubts were washed away with no more than a kiss, a gentle peck on the lips, a warm beacon in the cold air of the room. When they parted, Tomo whispered against his mouth, his breath tickling his skin. "I love you too, Kazuha", he declared.
Throughout the years, Kazuha had wasted a preposterous amount of time weighing up with utmost care the pros and cons of every thing around him. Relationships were taxing and, in his estimations, they always ended up having a million downsides. Yet, as his glance got lost inside of Tomo's purple eyes, staring at their shiny hue, he couldn't see any downside to love at all. Only warmth, confidence, and safety.
If it meant keeping Tomo by his side, maybe he could even tolerate being called a cat for the rest of his life. Maybe .