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a multitude of firsts

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Rain dampened Koushuu’s shoulders when he walked out of Moro’s building. He kept his pace carefully measured, taking a shortcut towards the dorms where he cut through a thicket of trees with his soles slipping in the mud. He pushed aside soft, pliant branches with his hands and heard a car door close to his left.

He stopped for a moment, and turned to the sound. The officer that he saw in front of Moro’s office stood underneath an umbrella, watching him a few paces away. The boy from earlier was in his arms like a small bundle. Koushuu tensed.

“Where are you heading?” the officer called out.

Koushuu didn’t answer him, quickly walking past his car to reach the stone path leading to the dorms. The man did not call out for him again.

He slipped off his shoes once he arrived, trailing rain on the floor. When he shut the door to his room, he started pulling clothing out of his closet. Once he stacked a sufficient amount on his bed, he began to unbutton his damp suit with shaky hands, listening for the creak of the floorboards or murmurs of voices.

His hands froze when he saw himself in the mirror. He didn’t look like himself—his eyes were dark, his hair plastered on his forehead in clumps. And Kyo was right—the suit did fit him well. He dropped his hands, deciding he’d leave in the suit. He wasn’t himself right now, after all.

He turned back to his closet and tugged a coat off a hanger, wrapping it around himself and pulling the hood over his head to cover his face. He dug through the corner of his closet to find money hidden in an envelope from his monthly allowance and tucked the bills into his breast pocket. He pushed aside some of his books on the floor and found one with something sticking out of the pages.

The book bore no illustration or title on the front, but there was a feathery fern stamped in red in the corner of the first page. He shuffled through the pages until it fell open to a page with a photograph bookmarked in the middle. It was of himself, barely two or three, with a shy smile on his face, eyes averted from the camera. His small hands clutched a sunflower. He took the photograph out and left it at the top of his bed. There was no reason to bring his past with him.

He bundled the book with a sweater then added it into his bag. Once he was done, he examined his dorm to see if there was anything else he needed and his gaze rested on the photograph on his bed. Shadows blurred his young face. He could not see the sunflower from here. He turned away, flicking off the light, and walked out.

*

The rain slowed to a drizzle, barely clouding Koushuu’s path when he reached the garden in the corner of the campus. This place wasn’t touched by many students for how inconveniently far it was from other spots of the campus. There were many other places to laze around in, and each garden, though unique to Koushuu, was not necessarily unique to anyone else. Koushuu and Taku didn’t mind the distance. They ate lunches or read books in the tall grass, and found sanctuary whenever they wanted to be away from their classmates.

They also found a secret here.

Behind a cluster of bushes was a small hole in the campus wall. The first time Taku and Koushuu found it, they immediately crawled inside, but once they breached the exit, they were left with searing headaches and ran for Kyo in tears. He tended to them afterward, giving them a honeyed drink that coated their throats and rolled them into bed where they napped for the rest of the day. Koushuu didn’t remember what happened when he looked outside that time. All he remembered was his knees sinking into the soft dirt as he crawled and Taku quietly cackling behind him in excitement from their discovery.

Koushuu walked through the grass, crouching down to push aside the bushes. The hole was still there. The tunnel was just as he remembered, dim light inviting him to the other side, walls slick with moss and dew.

“Koushuu?”

Koushuu retreated his hand, covering the hole, then faced Taku.

“What are you doing here?” Koushuu asked.

“I wanted to be alone. I didn’t wanna be around anyone moping about their papers anymore,” Taku answered, placing his bag down on a bench beside him. “How about you? What are you—where the heck is your umbrella?”

“I’m—” Koushuu rose from where he kneeled in front of the bushes, opening his mouth then closing it, unable to find the right words to say.

Maybe running away was a mistake on his part. He could stay here and try to find the good in what he was doing. Constantly repeat it to himself day after day until he believed it. He could stay here and be with Taku who knew nothing of what was to come. But the Moors had plans for Koushuu and they knew what he could do with his anchorings. If he left, it would hinder them, even if for a moment.

But was he only saving himself? Was he, at the end of it all, only protecting himself from facing his sins?

Taku rummaged through his bag, walking up to Koushuu so that they both stood underneath his umbrella. “You look a little sick… do you want some tea or something? Hey, I’ve got this,” He pulled a dark bottle out, squinting at it. “Asada gave me this. I have no idea what it is.”

“Taku,” Koushuu tried again. The rain got stronger. “I’m—”

Taku cracked the bottle open and gulped the dark liquid down. He made a face. “Nope, this is gross. It’s just dirt water.” He wiped his mouth and his face fell when he looked at Koushuu. “Koushuu… are you okay?”

His voice softened at the end. Taku was always more sensitive at the end of the semester, all his emotional capacities reserved and depleted from finals. Despite this, he was always genuine with Koushuu no matter the circumstances. He was much more deliberate in understanding Koushuu. It made Koushuu trust Taku with anything.

“I think—” Koushuu cleared his throat. “We—”

“You’re leaving,” Taku said. His stare dropped to Koushuu’s jacket. Rainwater fell on his shoulder when he leaned aside to study Koushuu’s bag. “You’re going somewhere.”

“Yes, but—” Koushuu clenched his fists.

Koushuu did not want to influence Taku to the point that he would be in danger, whatever danger that may be. If he were to tell Taku about the Moors and of their harmful expectations of Koushuu and the others, Taku could be like the child in the room. Taku, with a hushed and broken, Please. Would Koushuu be the one facing him when he said it? Would Kyo? He had combated these questions ever since his second exam and the answer was simple. But there was an answer that flickered with hope, with the comfort of being Taku’s friend—if he were to say something, he could finally share this secret that gnawed at him.

He decided: “Taku, we have to leave.”

Taku looked confused. “To where?”

“I don’t know,” Koushuu said, shaking his head. He met Taku’s eyes. They were searching for an answer and Koushuu didn’t have much to give. “I don’t know, but we can figure that out later. We’re not safe here.”

He started to explain what had happened as succinctly as possible. He stumbled on his words, hoping he did not sound as frantic as he felt. Taku’s expression shifted, but his confusion was apparent.

“Then you should go,” Taku said.

“What?” Koushuu’s mouth parted. “No, you’re coming with me.”

Taku shook his head. “If we both go, then no one would be able to cover for you. You can go first, then I’ll look out for you. I’ll find you later.”

“No,” Koushuu forced out. Taku wouldn’t be able to find him. There wasn’t anything Koushuu could do once he ran away. In sending for Taku, he’d be revealing himself and Taku’s knowledge of his escape. “We have to go together. Taku—”

He reached for Taku’s arm and Taku pulled away. He was chewing on his lip and his eyes were honest, open, like they knew exactly what Koushuu needed.

“You need to go,” Taku said. “I’ve noticed what’s been happening to you—you’re not eating as much. Your eyes are always cloudy and weird. And you’re slouching. You need to leave.”

Koushuu reached for Taku again. Taku stepped away then pushed Koushuu lightly towards the wall.

“Taku—”

“I’ll be right behind you,” Taku said, forcing a smile. “I’ll find you.”

“I don’t know how I could—” Koushuu swallowed. He couldn’t tell him later where he was for fear that he’d be found by Kyo or Moro. “Or what—”

Taku shrugged. “I’ll figure it out.” He stepped forward, nudging Koushuu. “Just go, Koushuu.”

He kept his voice light but there was a quiet strain to it. They both knew that Koushuu may not come back.

Koushuu crouched back down. He turned his head up to look at Taku. Rain dropped on his face, blurring his vision and all he heard Taku say quietly was, “Go.”

Koushuu didn’t look back when he began his crawl, blinking rapidly towards the sliver of light at the end, smelling the clean earth. The dirt was cold and soft underneath his palms and the jagged edges of the tunnel scraped his back. His hands were numb and caked with grime by the time he reached the end of the tunnel. He stood up and took a deep breath then gasped, gripping his head, his knees falling into a puddle.

The headache that hit him was unbearable, splitting his skull into a million different parts. It felt like the crown of his head was grounded papery-thin so that each touch of pressure from his hands sent his head spiraling. He curled over, forehead hitting the pavement as he groaned, fingertips digging into his scalp.

Despite the pain, he stumbled up, understanding he could not stay here any longer. Staggering, he began to run down the pathway, head throbbing with his effort to stay upright. He cried out at a stab of pain at the back of his head and still, he ran.

A place of light at the end of the path, of warmth and brightness, beckoned him.

His anger for everything he had discovered withered within him. Instead, sadness uncoiled. His life was a lie. His childhood, one that he believed in and loved, was fostered only so he could hurt people. If this was what life was supposed to be about, he didn’t want it. He didn’t want to hurt anyone anymore.

Koushuu ran for his past self, for his childhood. Then he ran for Taku. His eyes stung but he wiped them with the back of his hands. Wind propelled him forward, onward, until he reached the light.

*

“Do you need a towel?” the station attendant asked. “Or an umbrella? We,” she looked behind her shoulder to a corner Koushuu couldn’t see, “sometimes have some to loan, if you wanted one.”

Having brought half of the rainstorm in from his suit alone, Koushuu assumed she did not need an answer because she procured a towel from beneath her desk without another word.

“I’m afraid I can’t fix your suit,” she continued with a short, awkward laugh. She bobbed her head around so much while she talked that the waves in her hair bounced. “Um… but I can offer you a train ticket.”

Koushuu rubbed the towel over his head and said, “I have money.”

“Well, yes,” the attendant said, nodding. She bit her lip. “I mean, certainly, I can sell you a ticket. That was the intention. Do you know where you would be going?”

The towel dropped from his head when he looked up at the map over the attendant window. It was aged, peeling up from the edges, with a dizzying amount of whorls and lines with cities and places he’d only heard of but never been to before. How much of this country, he wondered, had been affected by the Moors? He felt sick again, heart hammering in his chest.

“Visiting family?” the attendant asked, clearing her throat. She eyed his bag. “Or maybe, a day trip?”

“No, none of that,” Koushuu replied. He picked up the towel from the floor and placed it on the counter. He pulled out his money then felt his face grow warm as he tried to pull apart the wet bills. “What can this get me?”

The attendant stared at the money fanned out, then at him. She smiled, a little sheepish. “I think it’s best if you kept most of that for your day trip…”

“Where would you suggest?”

“Well, I’m not a tour guide by any means so if I recommend you something, I can’t guarantee the quality of the choice but—”

“Please,” Koushuu said. “I’m open to recommendations.”

She looked up at him, biting her lip again.

“Anything,” Koushuu continued. He just needed to get far away from here.

“Well…” She tilted her head, closing her eyes in thought. “Since we live in the mountains and we don’t get to see skyscrapers often, how about Tokyo?”

*

Koushuu shivered in his suit, chill clinging to his skin. His head was numb from his headache, a dull throbbing at his temples now while the train rolled to a lull into its stops.

Koushuu rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his palms and looked around at the other passengers. When he didn’t find anyone familiar, he breathed out quietly, but relief only lasted between each stop before he searched the train again. The thought that his run from the school was futile nagged at him, but as he traveled further away, paving distance from the Moors in this small train car, exhaustion began to wash over him.

His eyes drooped, head lolling from one side to another. He snapped his head up, blinking rapidly when a passenger hefted a bag in their arms and threw it right above Koushuu’s head. Without apology, they shoved themselves forward into the next empty seat. Koushuu watched them, concealing his disapproval, then looked out of the window. The city lights were sparse for some time, but now they flooded the car in smudges of light. Through every stop, people piled into the train, squeezing themselves in until they blotted out each window.

Koushuu was unused to this: the cramming of bodies in a small space, their breaths in his ear or on his neck, the glances, followed by the looking away. It was much more difficult for him to even notice someone he knew. He would be seen and he wouldn’t even notice.

Uncomfortable, he chose to leave at the next stop, gently pushing aside others, muttering apology after apology before stumbling onto the platform. A howl of wind passed him as he stood there, eyes wide at the vastness of skyscrapers above him. Someone behind him clicked their tongue and pushed him aside, sending him careening forward.

He straightened up, frustration clear on his face, but the person was gone now, engulfed in the crowd around him. He straightened up and adjusted his bag and followed the current of people in suits and uniforms. He heard a bird chirp down the stairway and tracked the sound, gripping onto the railing, taking careful steps in order not to trip as people rushed past him.

If there were a lot of people inside the station, there were much more outside of it. He glimpsed overhead at the massive sign of the train station.

This was Shinjuku. He knew nothing of the place. But he knew that it was a centerpiece to Tokyo and this city, Koushuu found, was crowded. More suffocating than he expected.

It was not raining, but the air smelled clean from the recent storm and the road was shiny as he navigated the crowds. There was light everywhere, neon pops of it wherever he turned his head. When he walked down one street, he heard clanging, ear-splitting noises, passing shops of people lined up in front of colorful, flashing machines. Faces were slack or pressed up against the machines, some with cigarettes dangling off the corner of their mouths. Koushuu felt another headache coming on when he smelled the tobacco. He couldn’t breathe freely here.

He took a left onto a bigger street filled with stores enticing him with cheerful music and messy advertisements. He passed a place where something fell with a loud shatter. Koushuu turned to it, caught a flash of someone in a kimono and a whiff of jasmine. Koushuu’s stomach twisted, and his eyes were unfocused as his breath stuttered in his chest. Moro.

His throat felt like it was crammed with buds of flowers. He took a breath, failed, then ran, trying to get away from that scent, to get away from the headache that was now at his temples, to get away from the possibility that he would be dragged back to a place he never wanted to see again.

He squeezed past crowds without looking back. His lungs burned, his heart ached, and he finally found an alleyway that muffled the sounds of the city. He pressed his back against the wall, listening to the sound of laughter from a rowdy group walking past. He coughed, pressing his palms into his knees then wiped his sweaty face with the back of his hand.

There was a soft yowl and he jerked up, holding his hands up and darting his head around. The yowl came again, louder and insistent, and he found a cat staring at him from the top of a dumpster.

Foolishly, he asked, “What?”

His voice was hoarse from use. He needed water and possibly—definitely—food. Perhaps the headaches would ease if he had a bite to eat and a bit of water. He pulled out his savings and thumbed through the bills to count and paused, looking down at the mouth of the alleyway. He didn’t know where he could eat. Before stopping here, all he smelled was alcohol. He wrinkled his nose with a frown, then the cat meowed again.

“What?” he repeated, staring hard at the cat. “If you don’t need anything from me, then you can leave.”

The cat jumped off the dumpster and up a fire escape, disappearing into the shadows.

Koushuu counted his cash again then tucked it back into his pocket. He could go back out into the streets, search for a quiet and private place to eat where the Moors would not find him. He wasn’t sure how well he could hide from them or how long it would take until they found him. He and his other classmates could be found anywhere as children. He didn’t expect to be immune from discovery now.

But suddenly, his quiet panic gave room for fatigue settling into his body, dragging him down and sweeping him off his feet. He slid down the wall, eyes heavy as he blinked. He tucked his face between his knees and began to breathe slowly to ease his heart.

*

“Hey! Where did the cat go?”

Koushuu raised his head, blinking into the sunlight. The walls around Koushuu were a deep red brick, glimmering with the morning, reflecting into Koushuu’s eyes. He squinted, blocking his eyes with a hand and saw a young man bending over him.

He was around Koushuu's age, with thick hair that fell over a handsome face. He wore a strong gaze. Within that gaze, he had eyes the color of gold.

Koushuu winced at the stiffness in his neck and the starchy feel of his dirty suit and responded, “What?”

His voice cracked. He touched his throat with a hand.

“The cat,” the man said, louder. He had a slight frown on his face when he pinched his eyebrows together. “She’s usually around here. I feed her before I go to work.” His voice dropped dramatically. “Please don’t tell me you sold the cat.”

“What?” Koushuu frowned. He stood up with another wince. His body was numb from sleeping in such a strange position. “I wouldn't take a cat to—”

“If you didn't, then where is she?” the man demanded. "She's a rare breed! People would spend a lot for her!"

Koushuu glared at the man, offended that he would be the suspect of a crime so ridiculous. He was good-looking despite his audacity, but any feature was spoiled when he pinned Koushuu like a murderer of someone he loved.

“She was here yesterday.” Koushuu pointed at the dumpster behind the man. “She was there then she left and climbed up the fire escape.”

“To go where?”

“I didn’t ask for her itinerary,” Koushuu snapped, but it was not sharpened or harsh. He was too tired and—

His stomach growled loudly.

“Oh,” the man said, nodding. “All right, if you sold her, you'd use the money for some food.”

“I told you already that I wouldn’t—” Koushuu cut himself off, unwilling to even reason with this man. “I’m sure this cat of yours will come back. You seem to know her schedule. And it’s rude for you to assume I would be the one who would do any harm.”

“You can’t blame me!” the man exclaimed, affronted. “I don’t know what weird stuff goes on in these alleyways! What does a salaryman do when they’re dealing with overtime?”

“A salary what?”

“A salaryman.” The man pointed at Koushuu’s chest. “You, the salaryman.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“What—!” The man stepped back then frowned deeply, evaluating him with his arms crossed and his lips pursed. “Hmmm.. Is it because you’re hungry? No food means no brain fuel most of the time.”

“No,” Koushuu growled at the exact same time his stomach did.

The man pointed at him and grinned. “So it is because you’re hungry.”

Koushuu fell silent and closed his eyes. He attempted to calm himself, tipping his head up, and the sun warmed his skin.

Even though he felt tired and was rightfully annoyed, the sunlight energized him somehow. He had felt the sun many times before, but out here, it felt different. He was outside in a world of chaos with all the commotion of an unfamiliar place—with the rumbling of cars and a crowd moving like a wave with frantic steps.

And then there was this man in front of him who wasn’t a classmate or a friend or a Moor. Someone new and irritating and different. It was a lot to take in.

“Oh, there you are!” The man said out of joy. “I thought you were hurt. Awww, look how pretty you are today.”

Koushuu dropped his gaze back to the man. He was too busy to suspect Koushuu any longer, occupied with pressing his face into the white fur of a cat cradled in his arms.

“Are you going to apologize?” Koushuu asked.

“Apologize for what?” the man mumbled into the cat’s fur. He pulled his head back and patted his varsity jacket down, revealing a small can from one of his pockets. He turned back to the cat. “Special food for a special—!”

Koushuu bristled. “For suspecting me."

“She’s not my cat,” the man said, peeling the can open. “If she was then why would she be out here instead of with me at—”

“That’s not the point.”

“Well, no,” the man said, placing the cat down on the ground. While the cat ate, he squatted down and scratched behind her ears, considering Koushuu’s words. “I don’t think there’s a need to apologize… you could’ve just been more clear when I asked about it.”

Koushuu clenched his fists to his sides. Who was this guy? “I was being—”

“Okay, okay,” the man said, standing up. “How about some food then since you’re so grumpy? It could be my apology, too.”

Before Koushuu could answer, the man bent down to pat the cat one more time with a coo then walked away, swinging his arms with duty. Once he reached the opening of the alleyway, he pulled out his phone from his jeans and looked back at Koushuu.

“Are you coming for the food?” he called out.

Koushuu glared at him, directed the glare at the cat, then walked towards the man who said, “Give me a second.” He pressed his phone to his ear. “Furuya, can you open up the store?”

After a pause, he rolled his eyes then yelled, “You ask me to open for you all the time! I won’t even be long! Just two hours tops!” Another pause before he sighed, dramatically, hanging his head. “Fine, I’ll do stock for the next week. All right? Hey—”

He stared at the phone in disbelief, then at Koushuu, surprised. “He hung up on me.”

Koushuu wanted to let him know that it served him right, but he was one step closer to food. Even better that it would be free so he could save his money to find a place to stay. After getting his fill, he would press onward and continue on his path to. To live? He was unsure.

“Well, whatever,” the man said, pocketing his phone. He whirled around. “Oh! Right. I’m Sawamura. Sawamura Eijun. And you, sir salaryman?”

“Okumura Koushuu.”

It was strange when it came out of his mouth. Besides the clothing he had and the few items he packed in his bag, he did not bear anything else. He didn’t even know if this name was his or if it was something given to him by Kyo with the blessing of a future Koushuu did not even ask for.

It should frighten him to know that he couldn't own name, but Koushuu believed he could rebuild himself in whatever way he could. Sawamura asking for his name was the first step to claiming it as his own.

“All right, Okumura,” Sawamura said, walking out of the alleyway and falling into step with the morning crowd. “Let’s get some food. But maybe not here. You’ve decided to crash in the seediest place of Shinjuku where there’s only alcohol. Which might not even be very nice to your stomach.”

Shinjuku looked different when cleared from the rush of the night. The disorder was gone, replaced with sparse crowds of people wearing suits, worn down with their heads ducked, bearing a history of unknown antics from the night before. With the wash of rain came something fresh even as Koushuu passed shuttered shops that would have reeked of alcohol and smoke.

“How much did you drink last night?” Sawamura asked, turning a corner.

“Drink?” Koushuu repeated, rounding a pole smattered with posters of phone numbers and food.

“Well, that’s why you passed out in the alleyway, right? And almost sold Alfredo?”

“Sold what? Passed out?” Koushuu was getting increasingly irritated over Sawamura’s inaction to explain anything he said. “What are you talking about?”

“With a suit like that, I imagine you had a wild night,” Sawamura said, raising his eyebrows, looking at him like Koushuu was the one not making sense. He sniffed. “I mean, that’s definitely not a good suit to wear later. Your boss is gonna be so mad.”

“I still don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Koushuu replied. “But if you want me to be clear with you like you requested before, then I’d expect you to do the same.”

Sawamura smacked him in the back, laughing. “Wow! You really do need some food in you, huh! Do you always look like this?”

“Like what?”

“Like you’re upset with the world.”

Koushuu opened his mouth to reply but Sawamura tugged him into a store that blasted cold air into his face.

“Take your pick,” Sawamura said, then he looked back at Koushuu. “Maybe we should’ve gotten you new clothes before we came in here… Don’t look anyone in the eye. You’re already scary enough. Like a really tiny wolf, though, so maybe it’s not so bad.”

“Where are we?” Koushuu couldn’t help but ask.

Sawamura gave him a look, tilting his head. “It’s a Lawson.”

“Yes, but—”

The convenience store inside Koushuu’s campus looked nothing like this one. He knew their store as a mess of drinks stuffed into shelves, fresh onigiri and daifuku piled into a glass case, all snapped up into the hands of students dulled from exams. There was only one person who tended the store—an old man named Suzuki who was a rabid fisherman on his days off so his skin was nutty and withered from the sun and sea.

This store—this Lawson—looked like it was from the future. The shelves were clean and organized. The drinks were lined up by flavor and color, and there was another fridge on the counter that wasn't cool when Koushuu stood by it, but warm. There was an open fridge filled with bentos and sandwiches. The person in the front who greeted them smiled pleasantly in a crisp uniform with a color that stung Koushuu’s eyes. Koushuu couldn’t believe it.

“Are you still drunk?” Sawamura asked. “How much did they make you drink? Did you get a promotion?”

Koushuu didn’t reply, distracted from counting the different flavors of onigiri while pleasant music played above him. After the song ended, he picked up the pickled plum and the salmon, then weighed his options.

“Would—” he looked up, then stopped. Sawamura was gone.

“Maybe some milk,” he heard Sawamura say somewhere close by. Koushuu stalked off towards his voice, passing an obscene amount of magazines and newspapers. His eye caught the headline of the disappearance of a missing child taken up by aliens. Koushuu reached for it, fingertips brushing the glossy cover.

“Hey,” Sawamura said from beside him. “You know you can’t eat magazines. Have this.”

Before Koushuu could protest, Sawamura dropped a collection of packages into his arms, burying his onigiri. Sawamura tutted at him when one of the packages slid out of his grasp, bending down to pick it up, then he placed it gingerly on top of bread that reminded Koushuu of melons.

“Since you disappeared on me,” Sawamura continued, lurching forward to catch another package that tumbled down while Koushuu scrutinized a foil packet with a frightening yellow animal with red cheeks and large beady eyes, “I chose several things. All for quick energy! Come on, we gotta go before Furuya makes me stock up for two weeks.”

He disappeared again down another aisle and Koushuu carefully walked with his gatherings to the front of the store. Sawamura, humming, dipped his hand into his back pocket then froze when Koushuu arrived and lowered his arms slowly to deposit everything on the counter.

“Do you…” Sawamura began, looking at Koushuu sheepishly. He scratched his head as the attendant began to scan their packages with a short beep. “I may have forgotten—” Beep. Beep. “My wallet at home.”

Koushuu looked at the attendant who only smiled back and said, “It’s two thousand and seventy-two yen.”

“I thought this was your responsibility?” Koushuu asked, pulling out his money and counting his bills.

Sawamura narrowed his eyes. “I’m not taking criticism from a man who has a dirty, gross suit and almost sold Alfredo to the black market.”

Koushuu paid, then they left, and Sawamura turned to him. “All right, what if I gave you a shirt out of the goodness of my heart so you won’t get fired today?”

Koushuu was preoccupied again, studying another package of food. The clear bag had a crow with jewelry on it. Sawamura leaned down to catch his eyes. “Hey.”

Koushuu dropped the package back into the bag. “Is that how you’re paying me back?”

“No,” Sawamura answered, scoffing. He straightened up. “You think I wouldn’t pay you back? I have honor. The shirt is extra.”

Koushuu only had a few pieces of clothing to tide him over and he was uncertain where he could eat all this food without stopping anyone in their tracks. The extra shirt would not hurt.

He agreed and Sawamura led him through a quieter place of the district. Sawamura waved brightly at people as they went, greeting them and asking about their families. Sawamura seemed like a man who would combust if he did not speak. He hadn’t breathed in between his words while chatting with everyone they passed, and Koushuu briefly wondered if Sawamura even talked in his sleep.

“We’ve arrived,” Sawamura said, standing in front of an unremarkable apartment complex. It was two stories tall, pocked with rust around the peeling walls.

Sawamura glanced at Koushuu then frowned. “I’m not accepting any criticisms for my home.”

“I’m not saying anything,” Koushuu said back.

Well,” Sawamura said, walking up wobbly stairs that disturbed Koushuu, “this is my home. And I am inviting you into it so you can’t complain!” He fished into his pocket and laughed triumphantly. “At least I didn’t forget my keys.”

He wiggled the key into the doorknob then pulled the door open with a loud creak. “Please tap your shoes outside before going in.”

Koushuu cleared dirt from the bottom of his shoes while Sawamura took his shoes off and stepped into the genkan. His apartment was quite small, not enough to fit more than one person. From his place at the door, Koushuu already saw how much of his home was filled with books, towering over the couch and around the television pushed up against the wall. Sawamura disappeared into a room on his right when Koushuu shut the door behind him.

Sawamura yelled out, “Are you okay with color? All you’re wearing is black… Wait, don’t answer that. All I have is blue. Oho! Just like your eyes.”

Sawamura returned with a shirt and money clutched in his hands. He pointed down the hall from where he just came from.

“Money for the food.” He held up the bills pinched between his fingers. “Bathroom is the first door to your left. If you need help, say the word.” He took Koushuu’s bag and dropped it on the small table in front of the couch then pushed him towards the hallway.

When Koushuu entered the bathroom, he bumped into the sharp edge of a sink when he turned to close the door. He inhaled sharply, rubbing his hip. When he unbuttoned his shirt, his elbow hit the medicine cabinet and accidentally opened it up, rattling the contents inside. He raised his head to push it closed then paused at his reflection.

There were deep shadows beneath his eyes and his hair laid flat on his head. His ivory shirt was wrinkled and looked gray in the poor, dim lighting. The small, embroidered burgundy initials on the hem of his suit jacket was the only pristine thing left.

He tugged at his sleeves to pull it off and knocked over bottles Sawamura had lined up on his sink. He sighed and bent down to set them back in place and hit his head on a porcelain corner. He gritted his teeth, doubling over on the bathroom floor.

He hoped the shower would be more forgiving, but he knocked his head into the shower head twice and toppled shampoo bottles merely by rinsing his hair. On the fourth time a bottle fell, Sawamura knocked on the door.

“What are you doing in there, Okumura?” he questioned. “I hope you don’t die, but I’ll try my best to revive you.”

“Your bathroom is extremely hazardous,” Koushuu replied, turning the shower off with a flick of his wrist. He dried off and quickly buttoned on Sawamura’s shirt. It didn’t have any particular scent—just the smell of fresh laundry. It draped awkwardly over his shoulders, sleeves falling past his wrists and engulfing part of his hand.

When he walked out, Sawamura said, “I welcome you into my home and you immediately criticize my space? How rude!” He took another breath but paused, reaching up to pluck at the fabric near Koushuu’s shoulder. “A little big in the shoulders…”

“Well, you’re big in the shoulders,” Koushuu grumbled, brushing his hand aside.

Koushuu didn’t appreciate it, but he had to turn his gaze up slightly just to look Sawamura in the eyes. He was a little taller, broader, and bigger. None of his clothes would fit Koushuu correctly. It was a miracle Sawamura could even fit in his bathroom.

Sawamura sucked in his teeth, poking Koushuu in the side to push him towards the living room. “Eat before you insult me some more or pass out in my home. Or both. Furuya’s already texting me that I’m late.”

Sawamura had laid out all of their purchases onto his small table, with the odd creatures on one end and less suspicious packages on the other. Koushuu settled in the middle. Sawamura bumped his foot into his leg while he passed him to pick up his tote bag that lay crumpled on the floor.

“Oops, sorry, Okumura! In a hurry! Anyway—please lock the door once you’re done and double check if it’s locked by shaking the doorknob!” Sawamura said, padding around Koushuu towards the books stacked up on the side of the table. He picked a few and stuffed them into his bag. “If you decide to get a drink, do not drink the yogurt or the strawberry milk. You are free to drink water.”

He muttered to himself as he rounded back and jogged over to the kitchen to pull something out of a cabinet. “Later! Don’t try harming Alfredo again! Hopefully your boss isn’t upset that you’ve been super late!”

Koushuu watched him go as the door swung shut then he stared down at the pile of food in front of him. He didn’t even know where to start. How did people eat food that had been packaged for an indeterminate amount of time? Food was always served fresh where he was from. Nothing came in strange plastic packaging.

He played it safe first by eating the onigiri, savoring the tartness of the plum on his tongue, the richness of the flakes of salmon, and the crinkle of the seaweed between his teeth. Once satisfied, he searched for the bread that looked like the hard, textured shell of a melon. He sniffed at it after pulling it out of its plastic wrapping, scrunching his nose at the smell. He broke it apart, frowning at the odd green color that reminded Koushuu of newly sprouted leaves. He then took a bite.

Koushuu expected to taste the juice of a melon. He tasted a ghost of that flavor, but enjoyed the crunch of the shell crumbling in his mouth to a sugary-sweet melt. He took another bite. Then another, and another.

After his fourth piece of bread—he had deemed the crispy, messy one filled with cheese and tomatoes as another favorite—he surveyed Sawamura’s apartment again.

Sawamura managed to make the clutter in his home look organized, even if it was too messy for Koushuu’s preference. Every single piece of Sawamura’s space was filled with something—photos, piles of receipts, pens, more books. The wall of books he spotted from the genkan looked ready to topple over with the slightest breeze or shake. The television wedged in the corner right next to it would be destroyed in a mountain of books. The kitchen, which was directly beside Koushuu, looked more like a cave, dark without any windows since the only light in Sawamura’s living area came from the balcony doors beside the television. His balcony was even more crowded, littered with small, budding plants of every kind.

Koushuu's school was the opposite, demanding its students the requirement of certain upkeep at all times. Rooms had to be inspected every week. Dishes were stacked neatly once used in the dining hall. Classrooms were arranged by skill and name. There was order everywhere you looked.

This was the first time Koushuu was in someone’s home. He wouldn’t call his school a home. It was merely a place where he was raised. The thought did not sting as much as it should, but he felt a belonging further in, embedded within the people he grew up with instead. His home was never a place.

Now, he had no place to stay, no job, and nothing else to his name. He was beginning to realize how foolish this plan may have been. He needed to build a new home and he needed a plan to live.

Koushuu sifted through the food in front of him and picked up a bag of chips, discovering Sawamura’s house keys underneath. Koushuu blinked at them, then held them in his hands, gripping them hard enough that the cold metal bit into his skin.

He knew that the keys were flimsy leverage to ask for Sawamura’s help, but Koushuu had no other options. Rather, he had no option. It was this. It was only this.

He searched around, attempting to find some form of contact information that would help him find Sawamura. On the edge of the small fridge, underneath a large magnet of a cheetah was a business card. Koushuu peeled off the magnet. It was a card for a bookstore with Sawamura’s name on the bottom left, indicating him as the owner. There was a symbol beside the address: three rings and in the center, a starburst.

He grabbed a jacket hanging off the couch then pocketed the business card, walking out of the door with Sawamura’s keys in hand.