"Don't you have work to do, Hakaze?" Chiaki asks nervously.
He looks around the room, pleasantly surprised to see the interior of the room clean, if not barren. With the impression that there were others waiting to berate and add insult to injury (whether in the literal or the figurative sense), all he could manage to do was grip the front of his uniform pants with a wary look in his eyes. It's not that he didn't trust Kaoru, it was more of being unsure of where he stood amidst all the strangers that he encountered. They had been classmates for a year now, nearing two, but to Kaoru, he was no more than a speck of dust. Should he really be faulted for assuming that none of his peers took him seriously? Old bruises covered by new cuts and scratches only sting, all feeling congealing and pricking at the worst of his self-esteem.
"I, well, I don't want to keep you. Especially, since, um, you seem to be a busy person!" He babbles, wishing that he had bitten his tongue off in the process.
Kaoru's expression isn't any less withering as the last person that bothered to glance at him.
"Why do you think I even bothered with a lost cause like you if it wasn't related to my own benefit?"
Having received the brunt of sharp kicks and even sharper words, the sting of a backhanded remark should have been water under the bridge. A simple pinch rather than a lashing to his ego. Chiaki swallows, feeling the effects of adrenaline wearing down — even if he knew fighting back was futile, his heart continued to beat wildly in his chest: live, live, live. Kaoru spares him another glance. Curious. But, before he could dissect the second of worry that flashes through his classmate's eyes, he's urged to sit on the leather couch by one of the corners of the room.
"Stay." If he knew any better, the words that had rolled past Kaoru's tongue curled softly rather than the usual condescending quip he was always quick to give. "Just stay put."
Chiaki obeys, sitting as still as he could possibly muster.
Kaoru turns away, but not before laughing. "When I said to stay put, I didn't mean 'don't breathe', y'know?"
"Right," Chiaki replies, a second too quick, far too nervous for his own good.
He tries to relax. Logic tells him that his classmate has no reason to further any of the damages he had already suffered for the week, but there was no denying that Kaoru's opinion of him was far from flying colors. Emotion causes a rush of relief to run through him — right, it would be worrying for him to return home with visible bruises on his face, and he could only do so much on his own If he had resorted to visiting Sagami-sensei, wouldn't that just be an admission of defeat? His appearance would only cause unwarranted and undeserved concern. In the long run, swallowing his fear and grinning until his cheeks hurt would only mean that he was unaffected. And, heroes weren’t supposed to be impervious to petty fights.
(At least on the surface level, that is.)
His train of thought halts when a box is set down on the table next to him, then the loud screech of a chair being dragged makes him flinch in place. Oh, so he could still move his limbs. That was a relief – he had nearly forgotten. Kaoru sits in front of him, a respectable distance away from him, but close enough for their breaths to mingle. It's far closer than he's used to, he fixes his gaze down to the ground.
"Gonna stop staring at your shoes or do I have to make you?"
That threat was definitely empty, slim fingers free from any intent to strangle or catch him when he's at his most relaxed. He must be a terrible person for always assuming the worst from everyone that had approached him with outstretched hands — sure, it was normal to question if an action were to have an angle of benefit, but even he knew that suspicion without any good reason was plain unhealthy and no way for a person to live. Chiaki's hands twitch. Since when had he been so cowardly? How could he become a hero with that kind of mindset? Every person that had hurt him was another person's son or best friend, yet here he was. Blisters in his ego cause his sense of well, everything, to grow frayed in pessimism.
The finger that tilts his chin up is far from brusque yet gentle enough for him to tense.
Kaoru doesn't frown at him, instead, pulling his hand away to unzip the bag on the table. Inside of it is a row of gauze, disinfectant, cotton wads, and more standard wares that any first aid kit was expected to have. No words needed to be said, but at the same time, it would have been impossible for him to form them with the way his tongue was tied into knots. As if he were commanded to, Chiaki tilts his head, exposing the bruise to the dim light of the break room. He earns a frown for that, followed by a soft click of the tongue. Chiaki looks away, being at the receiving end of an intense glare was always nerve-wracking — it was funny. He wanted to be an idol, but to be off-put by the glint of intention was a habit he would have to unlearn the hard way.
"Think nothing of it," Kaoru mutters in place of an apology, as he presses a wet cotton wad to his bruised cheek. Gentle scrubbing aside, he hadn't even noticed that he had been nicked. Must've been the edge of someone's ring. Spacing out was near-inevitable with how his schedule was filled to the brim with classes, training, and rehearsal. All by his own volition, of course. Sometimes, it felt as if he was among the only ones who took being an idol seriously.
“A little,” Chiaki admits, fingernails digging into the palm of his hand. It wasn’t so bad, no. It was the searing heat of attention that kept his adrenaline running through his veins. He’s never been allowed to stay within Kaoru’s bubble for more than it was necessary. Turning to stone may have been impossible, but he was already within the realms of it. “But, it’s nothing I’m not already used to.”
Kaoru clicks his tongue.
“Seriously, who did this to you?”
There was certainly more where that came from, that was sure. It's not as if Chiaki was keeping vital information from Kaoru (he was), but the blond never bothered to ask anything of him. Whether it was from goodwill or just from not caring enough to pry — he couldn't help but feel thankful. Perhaps, this was just a way for his classmate to repay him for all the times he had copied an extra set of notes. Yes, it definitely was. Who knew that his classmate was kinder than he looked? Impressions always mattered to him in the way most things do, but he tries not to dwell on the tug of doubt that threatens to poison his mind.
Kaoru presses the cotton wad deeper into his skin, disinfectant spreading in even motions. It takes a few seconds for his cut to be covered by a bandaid, and it takes even less for Kaoru to tilt his head to face the other side. Fingers grip his chin firmly, stopping him from squirming his way out of the chair. Restless as he was, he knew that he had to behave. It was already difficult to receive an acknowledgment from his classmate - what more for an unlikely impossibility like his good graces? Right. He just had to become furniture - he just had to ignore the searing heat of Kaoru's eyes on him, scanning for any other injury.
Futile as it was to lie to someone as intelligent as Kaoru, it doesn’t stop Chiaki from trying. Except, that wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Practiced words would come out perfectly. In reality, the syllables get stuck in his throat before they could be rolled around on his tongue. Instead, he settles for a single laugh: a broken sound that cracks at the edges. There was no way he could stand a chance, not when he always felt weak in the knees at a simple glance from him.
Kaoru looks unconvinced, “I don’t care to hear it, then.”
Thank you. Chiaki thinks, knowing that he owes the blond a verbal response instead. What worth does his gratitude have, anyway? Well, he’d have to thank his classmate somehow – it would be unbecoming of him if he were to take advantage of this act of kindness!
“It’s not as bad as it looks.” Chiaki blurts out, drawing back from Kaoru. His wrist remains in Kaoru’s grasp, smooth fingers pressing against his artery. Could he feel it hammering under his touch? What was he thinking now? Kaoru's skin is soft against his. “It’s just,” He stutters, stumbling over his words clumsily. “Some of these are from rehearsals! They’re weeks old and I don’t really feel it anymore. There’s nothing to be worried about it.”
His insistence only furthers the rare trace of concern marring Kaoru’s frown. Chiaki tries not to think about it. One too many looks of pity could only go so far. He didn’t think that even someone who had been among the few that were visibly annoyed by him would eventually look at him like he was… hopeless? Pitiful? Chiaki didn’t know, and he didn’t want to continue that train of thought. At least, not now. He knows he’s a terrible liar — that everyone at school knew that RYUSEITAI barely convened for practices, if at all. That he couldn’t control his expressions even if his life depended on it; that he was a failure of a hero who could barely keep a smile on his face. What a hopeless situation. He would have to become stronger from now on. This would be the last time he'd show weakness in the face of another.
It had to be.
Kaoru doesn’t offer any words of consolation – not even an empty I’m sorry. What he does receive instead of a semblance of a pity parade is a cooling pad slapped on his face. Chiaki can barely contain the wince that wracks his whole body as he stiffens in place.
“Good.” Kaoru huffs, “So, you can still feel pain, huh.” He mutters, before pulling it away.
“Of course, I can,” Chiaki grumbles. “I’m alive, aren’t I?”
Kaoru rolls his eyes as if Chiaki had missed the point entirely. He doesn’t elaborate (Chiaki isn’t sure if he even wants to know at this point) nor does Kaoru make any motion indicating that he plans to. He raises a white flag preemptively, taking the pad and slipping his hand under his shirt to press against a week-old bruise on his side. He looks away, eyes glaring into the peeling wallpaper at the corner of the ceiling if only to stave the desire to look into Kaoru’s eyes. Now was not the time for this.
No one in RYUSEITAI was a bad person; the people that had cornered him had their reasons for painting his body bruised and bloodied. He had been pushier than usual this time, even raising his voice at seniors that he was supposed to respect. Anyone would have been taken aback, he deserved it for being a thorn in their side. But, he wouldn’t just take their unit’s downfall lying down. Everyone may have abandoned them, but not him. Never him.
“Listen,” Kaoru taps the table next to him with a single, filed fingernail. “I know you have more injuries, but,” He scrunches up his nose in disgust. “You’re a guy and I frankly don’t want to have you half-naked in my breakroom.” As if this was a matter of life or death, he continues to list off a few more of his qualms – Chiaki stops listening by the fourth point. He tries to, he really does, but Kaoru had a penchant for being pedantic over the strangest things. How was the gender he was born of any importance?
“And, another thing,” Chiaki snaps back, gray eyes glaring into his with a wave of cold anger that he had never seen before. “If you know a guy’s going to take a swing at you, then the least you can do is run instead of taking it like a dog.”
Well, that certainly stung.
“I know that,” Chiaki mutters, lowering his eyelashes. “I know that. But, what else can I do? If I retaliate, it becomes my fault. If I tell anyone, then it just means that I let it get to me. It’s nothing, it really is. Punches only hurt in the short run. I rather they do that instead of running RYUSEITAI through the mud!” He spits out, pent-up emotions spilling out messily in one fell swoop. To his credit, the tears that wish to fall treacherously remain in his eyes stubbornly. He wouldn’t cry in front of Kaoru. Chiaki already was weak, he didn’t want to look the part any longer.
“Not that you would understand.” is the final nail in the coffin, spitefully muttered as an afterthought.
Kaoru says nothing, letting near-forgotten feelings stew in the air into a nauseating mix of guilt and anger. There’s little he can do now that the deed had already been done; what was most frustrating was the utter helplessness that came from the admission that, ah, there’s nothing I can do now, can I? Chiaki won’t cry, but the stinging that comes from forcing it down leaves his heart wrenching pitifully in his chest. Chiaki wouldn't cry if only to save himself the humiliation. The silence that washes over him allows Chiaki a moment for self-reflection, both of them unwilling to break the delicate balance that comes from saying nothing at all. As gentle as someone like Kaoru can muster, the wrappings around his fingers are changed — all the small nicks and scratches dutifully disinfected and covered by new bandages.
Kaoru takes care not to let his fingernails scratch at healing wounds, deft fingers wrapping bandages around his calloused digits. He winces, feeling the pad of Kaoru's finger tracing a long scar on his thumb.
He doesn’t recall there being so many.
It’s then that Chiaki realizes just how tired he is, fatigue wearing him down until his shoulders slump. No, no. He couldn’t fall asleep here. Chiaki had to get home. Once he did, he would have to read through his notes and study for tomorrow’s lessons. But, before that, he had to make sure that he had finished all his chores for the day. Just the thought of going to school the next day was enough for him to grow weary, head aching with a migraine. Maybe, a few minutes wouldn’t hurt, after all—
"Wha–" Chiaki's voice gets stuck in his throat, the wind knocked out of him as his glasses are plucked off his nose. All trace of drowsiness leaves him in an instant. Instinctively, he reaches out for it, hand darting from his lap. Having experienced this kind of targeted harassment, he knows to ready his other hand to reach above Kaoru's head. And, the brunet was just a second from proceeding as planned before, suddenly—
Kaoru wears them, scrunching his nose.
"God, you're pretty blind, Morisawa." Kaoru pushes up the glasses despite his initial complaint. Chiaki nearly curses then and there, frustration flaring up before disappearing altogether with the realization that, oh, he remembers my name? He really called me by my name? “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Two.” Chiaki huffs, “I’m not that blind!”
“Sure,” Kaoru rolls his eyes, “As if you don’t squint when you’re in class.”
“I do not–” Chiaki pauses, before lowering his hands in shock. “Wait, how do you know that?”
“That I squint in class?”
“Did I say anything like that?” Kaoru asks, turning to his side to arrange his first aid kit - bespectacled and all.
Now, Chiaki was more than miffed to have lost his eyeglasses, but he felt that he could see clearly. More often than not, the seat next to his — Kaoru’s seat — was empty. Even if his classmate had bothered to attend class, he was either (a) on his phone, or (b) sleeping. From someone he used to compete with in scores (although, onesided) at the start of his first year to someone that he only saw when he was dangerously close to being held back – Chiaki couldn’t say for sure what Kaoru was to him. That admission was proof that he had been on Kaoru's radar; that Kaoru was aware of him. That alone was enough for his heart to flutter in his chest.
“No, I suppose not,” Chiaki replies, feeling all his apprehension ebb away. If Kaoru didn’t want to talk about it, then he wouldn’t pursue it any further. It was only fair. After all, he wasn’t forced to open up about weeks of receiving the ire of his unit mates on a near daily basis. Another moment of silence pervades the room, but this time, it’s not quite as awkward or tense. He wishes he wasn’t so socially inept for once. All he had to do was say thank you — it shouldn’t have been so difficult.
Every so often, Chiaki feels his mind rattling with the force of moving into an involuntary overdrive. What were the implications of him having received the aid of an unrelated party? If Kaoru had patched him back to health, that meant he was on his side. So, whatever harm came his way could eventually ricochet and affect Kaoru. No, no, wait. That didn’t make sense. Because his unit was fond of the livehouse, they wouldn’t dare mess with the one that reigned in the establishment. Unless they would catch wind that he had made a temporary home out of the breakroom. But, they couldn’t possibly know that, right? Except, wait—
“List down the names of the seniors who did this to you.”
Chiaki splutters, distress clear on his face as he jumps in his seat. Kaoru’s eyes track his every movement, eyebrows furrowed. He can’t handle the attention, he couldn’t possibly fathom that the Kaoru of his reality actually bothered to talk to him. No, not that he had imagined otherwise, that had just been wishful thinking. Definitely.
“Well? Surely, they didn’t hit you in the head that hard?” Kaoru rolls his eyes, passing him a notepad from his breast pocket.
“No, no, no,” Chiaki pushes it away from him with his free hand. “I can’t, Hakaze. I couldn’t possibly–”
Suddenly, the door swings open.
“Ah? Got the wrong room?” Chiaki’s heart drops to his stomach. “Nah. Doesn’t seem like it, right, Hakaze-kun?” The intruder’s voice is more of a surprise to Chiaki than it is to Kaoru who seems mildly perturbed at the disturbance. He dares to peek at the man standing by the door, only to immediately regret it. Out of all people did it have to be—
“Sakuma-san, the least you can do is knock.” Kaoru sighs, twisting in his seat to glare daggers at the stranger.
Rei stands tall and brooding, a dark shadow gliding into the room with the click of a shut door. He laughs, short and haughty. “Roger that.” He drawls, a mock salute coming easily to him. Chiaki doesn’t know what to say – what can he possibly say to a living legend like Rei Sakuma that doesn’t sound hopelessly pathetic. “Cute glasses, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Kaoru replies drily, before pushing the frames up and turning back to face Chiaki. When they make eye contact, he rolls his eyes and juts his head in Rei's general direction.
“Got a bad bruise, eh?” Rei beats him to the chase, finger pointing to his own cheek. He crosses the room easily, carrying himself with the grace of someone who was intimately familiar with grand stages. As if a spotlight is shown on him, he slips his guitar into the case, slinging it over his shoulder before pausing to take another look at him. Chiaki shrinks away. “Damn, didn’t know Hakaze-kun ran a clinic on the side, but you have nothin’ to worry about.” He winks, cackling to himself. “You’re in good hands.”
Kaoru groans, running his free hand down his face – huh? Why was he still holding unto his wrist? Chiaki looks down to stare at his captured hand, feeling his face heat up.
“Seeya around, Morisawa-kun.” Rei’s grin is all teeth, wave idle and languid like a cat. “The next time ya see the guys who did that all to you, I want ya to land a big ole punch for me! Right on their nose. Gotta make sure to break ‘em, ya hear me?”
“I’ll try!” Chiaki’s reply comes rushed, but it’s far more confident than he’s used to. It gets a laugh out of Rei, and a withering look from Kaoru. As soon as the sound of footsteps fades into the distance, Chiaki feels all the tension leave his body with a single relieved sigh. He slips the cooling pad from his side, before shaking his wrist out of Kaoru’s hold. With the notepad forgotten between them, all Chiaki can do is hand it to his classmate. He takes it wordlessly.
“He’s a prick, isn’t he?” Kaoru smiles wanly, pocketing the notepad.
“He doesn’t seem to be,” Chiaki shakes his head. “Kanata speaks highly of him.”
Kaoru shrugs, before returning to his supplies. He slips the used bottles back into the right compartments, dutifully stacking unused bandages before placing them into their old spots. Chiaki shifts in place, not quite knowing what to do with himself. He stands before bowing deeply, “Thank you, Hakaze. I don’t know what I can offer you in exchange, but know that I will never forget this moment in my whole life!”
“Must you phrase it like that?” Oddly enough, Kaoru still has his glasses on his face. Even stranger is the light dusting of pink that scatters his cheeks. Huh? Well, that gets him to blush too. And—did he mention that Kaoru looked good in glasses? Oh, he was in for it. He needed them back now. "Ugh, and don't bow. Don't be weird."
Chiaki straightens up.
“Phrase it like what?” Chiaki tilts his head to the side, stretching his hand out.
“Like,” Kaoru makes a vague motion in the air before stopping himself. “Ugh, nevermind. I don’t want to waste my time.” He gets up too, making the difference between them obvious. Even if Chiaki had grown a few centimeters over the summer, the blond still trumped over him in the height department. Before he can dwell on it, Kaoru slips his glasses off, handing them back to him. That should be his signal to leave. Chiaki fixes the straps of his bag, before turning towards the door.
“And, where do you think you’re going?”
“To the exit?” Chiaki blinks, wearing his glasses.
“Are you stupid? Do you know how many of your unitmates are here tonight?” Kaoru says, exasperation dripping from his voice. He closes the drawer with a loud slam, before placing his hands on his hips. “That’s like walking into a viper’s nest. I’m not letting you undo all my hard work, Morisawa-kun.”
The sudden honorific is enough for him to raise his eyebrows in disbelief — that was certainly friendlier than any of the previous wrong names or just a cold Morisawa. Still, he doesn’t quite believe his ears, so he decides not to question it. Kaoru’s foot taps an impatient beat on the ground, leather shoe squeaking and echoing in the empty space of his head.
“But,” Chiaki feels his palm sweat, not quite used to the Kaoru that stares directly at him rather than through him. “But, where else will I–”
Kaoru groans, “That’s why I’m going to escort you.”
“You don’t have to!” Chiaki squeaks, turning red. They would look out of place. Not only does Kaoru have the skill to part the crowds of the Underground Livehouse, but he certainly has the authority to. He was right; there was a possibility of his seniors being there, and he really did not want to drag anyone into his own business. Much less someone like Kaoru who had extended a hand towards him, despite his previous attitude towards him.
“Not through the entrance, idiot.”
Chiaki’s face burns.
“One of the exits near the back is close to the train station,” Kaoru explains, grabbing his phone from the table and walking past Chiaki. He tilts his chin towards the brunet, a silent motion that gets Chiaki to follow him. Passing through unfamiliar hallways, all Chiaki can do is will his heart to stop hammering. He swallows the lump in his throat — it was far more nervewracking to walk beside Kaoru than to approach his unitmates in the livehouse.
After a sharp left, both of them find themselves at the exit. Chiaki opens the exit for the both of them, cold wind hitting his face the moment he steps out. Whether or not, the past hour had been a transient dream or a rare moment of peace, all he was sure of was that he would never experience that ever again. So, he would keep the memory of today locked away in the deepest corners of his heart.
“Offer’s still open, by the way.”
Chiaki looks up. Kaoru leans back against the door, artificial light reflecting against the corners of his face. It’s hard to tear his eyes off of him.
“If you still want to give me a list of the people who did this to you,” Kaoru continues, eyes narrowing as his gaze traces the wrapped bandages on his wrist to the healing bruise on his cheek. “By all means, do so.”
“You’ll lose your customers,” Chiaki trails off nervously, hands clutching at the straps of his bag. “And, that’ll be bad for your business.”
“Sure, in the short run, maybe,” Kaoru replies, fishing for something in his pockets. Before long, an unlit cigarette is between his lips. He lights it, the smell of ash lingering in the air. “But if they’re prone to this kind of behavior, they’d just scare away all my other patrons. I’d rather just ban them before they have the chance to ruin the livehouse. Our acts can only go so far.”
Of course. Chiaki thinks. He was foolish to be hopeful that Kaoru had decided to do that for him. After all, they were just classmates and barely acquaintances. Come next week, these fleeting feelings would vanish and disappear, only for him to remember in the quiet moments of early morning. For Kaoru, this might have been a rare show of charity to be forgotten. But, Chiaki was weaker; he would cling unto this until his memories would blur at the edges.
“Can I come back?”
“Here?” Kaoru raises his eyebrows, rolling his cigarette between his fingers thoughtfully. “Well, I don’t really care what you personally do, Morisawa-kun.” He shrugs, taking a long hit from his cigarette. “Just don’t drive away my other customers in the process if you decide to drop by and don’t even think about coming by injured.”
(When was the last time he could smile so freely?)
“I’ll make sure to remember that, Hakaze!” Chiaki grins, eyes squinting into gleeful crescents. Sure, he still had to explain his injuries to his parents, and his backlog of homework and supplementary readings was a near mountain on his desk, but the tips of his wrapped fingers felt lighter.
Kaoru blinks, cigarette nearly slipping from the gaps of his fingers.
“Yeah,” Kaoru says, the corners of his lips quirking for a second. Much to his disappointment, before Chiaki can fully register and catalogue the expression, it drops entirely. “Get going already. I’m not in the mood to house any morons who miss the last train.” Chiaki gasps, glancing down at his watch. Oh, he would barely make curfew if he caught the train. Except, he would have to run. Kaoru laughs, shooing him away with the wave of his hand – one that he’s happy to reciprocate before rushing out of the alleyway with a hurried thanks a lot for tonight!
Briefly, he wonders if the hint of a smile on Kaoru’s lips had been a trick of the light or if it had really been there.