"I'm busy. Why don't you clean up?"
"You never let me help you."
"You didn't let me help you."
"That's what I thought."
Their isolation had not been their own choosing. He was supposed to be alone – she was supposed to have stayed. At least, she should've stayed away from him. Months after the fact, he admitted he enjoyed her company. Not due to any particular charm or quirk of her abrasive personality, but she eased the loneliness.
Barely sixteen, the two had grown up fast. Their maturation had become exponential quickly – or perhaps they had been stunted. Nearly three full days in the game, then everything else that had passed, blurred in his mind. He couldn't even remember why he thought being alone was a good idea.
Hirono had left – she was on her own. Contact with any of the others was extremely dangerous – but in another month they'd reunite, meeting at a predetermined site and time. Shinji held the slip of paper with the date close to his heart. He did not let Takako see it. She was already desperate to see Sugi again – she fretted about him even in her sleep.
Shogo had taken Noriko with him – to a safe place. He offered Kayoko a ride, too, but she staunchly refused, despite her fragility, and swore to stay by Hiroki's side. After all, he had saved her. It took all of Hiroki's begging and promises to get her to stay behind with Noriko.
Shuuya was with Yukie – another one who refused safety. Takako had been slated to join Hiroki, but due to… unforeseen circumstances, she remained with Shinji, who, like Hirono, had thought solitude would be safest.
So had he - And now he was trapped in a small apartment with Takako.
"Stretch it, Taka," Shogo breathed out cigarette smoke into Shinji's face. He held Takako's hand while Hiroki held her leg in place. Her muscles had been badly torn by the arrow Niida had shot through her upper leg, and the healing process would be slow and grueling. Shogo's prediction had been cruel, but straightforward.
"She may not be able to run again. Even walking will be hard."
Shinji knew she had cried at the news, if only by the pained expression on Sugi's face after they had privately spoken. It caused a pang in his heart to see it – he knew that the pain Sugimura carried was his own, as well as Takako's, multiplying in the shadows of his soul, blackened by guilt.
When Shogo had abruptly announced that they had options, everyone reacted badly.
"Please, Taka, I need you to be safe, you can hardly walk—"
"My ass, Sugi! When I told you to start sticking up for yourself, I didn't mean bossing me around!" she answered vehemently.
"I couldn't protect you against Niida, I need to know you're safe, like Kayoko—"
"But I'm not like her, Hiroki!" she spat venomously. "I know you don't think she's cut out for this, and I know none of us will ever be, but I'm not going to sit passively and live the rest of my life in hiding. Shinji and Shogo have plans, and I'm going to help them. Kayoko isn't even going with Noriko. And Niida isn't important anymore. This is."
He gave in of course. Their friendship was stronger than perhaps any of them understood, and ran deeply. They escaped the country and managed to settle Noriko, leaving her with promises of love from Shuuya and Yukie, and even gruff ones from Shogo.
"It's about time you confessed to her," was all Takako had said. Shogo reiterated the same sentiment. Yukie, who had originally planned to stay with Noriko, suddenly and decisively stood her ground
"What are you doing?" Hirono asked, mildly impressed.
Yukie's delicate face was curled up in an expression that indicated what it cost her to leave. "I'm coming. Takako was right… staying is the worst possible idea."
"You're not cut out for this, sweetheart," Shogo had answered. "The best possible idea for you would be to stay where it's relatively safe. If anything, to protect Nori. Kayoko too, if she decides to stay. Which I'd say is a good recommendation for her."
Shuuya had agreed. "Yukie, it's not going to be safe where we're going. You shouldn't do this."
Of course, Hiroki had said the same to Kayoko. But sweet words had little effect on Yukie.
"Because of the Program, five of my friends died. They killed each other, while we were in the next room. If I had stepped out five minutes earlier, I'd be dead too." Her nose lifted even while her eyes shone with tears she refused to shed before Hirono and Takako. "I'm not sweet, schoolgirl Yukie anymore. If I were, I'd be dead. You saved my life and I'm staying with you guys."
Hirono snorted. "Nobody's tried to get me to stick back. I'll take that as a compliment to my toughness before I'm offended that nobody gives a fuck."
Shinji, defusing the situation, had winked at her, their matching hairstyles making them look like family. "Same here, doll."
And so it was decided.
Hirono, Yukie, and Sugi had managed to stay relatively unscathed. Shuuya's arm was close to paralyzed, and Shogo and Shinji had their own injuries to deal with. Noriko had her wounds from before the game, and Hirono had a bullet buried in her shoulder, but other than that, those guys were safe. Kayoko, miraculously, was almost completely unharmed, which was only a testament to Sugimura's dedication.
"Can you cook?"
"What should we eat? I can go shopping."
"No, don't… I will. You'll strain yourself."
"Whatever you want, come on."
"We should just make it simple."
Nothing was ever simple. The two of them were like oil and water. Or perhaps, like gasoline and a lit wick. They didn't just mix badly, they were outright explosive.
"It's so quiet here at night, I hate it."
"Better here than the Program."
"Stop bringing it up."
"You never did tell me what happened to your leg."
"I think I prefer the quiet."
"That's what I thought."
Oftentimes, they simply sat. This was not activism – this was survival. They sat in front of English books, pouring over the unfamiliar words and characters, teaching themselves the language. They often tried to hold their conversations in English, as practice, but their sentences were broken, uncommunicative. After collars that monitored their speech, speaking freely was a privilege both of them hated to give up. instead, they sat together and read, silently.
Tears sprung out Takako's eyes and she cupped her hands to her face, trying to hide them. Shinji leaned against her, pushing up her leg as she flexed.
"Come on, Kawada said we had to do this for fifteen minutes every day. We've barely begun."
She did not swear at him because she would've cried outright, and crying in front of Shinji Mimura was not particularly high on her to-do list. Instead, she bit her lip so hard it bled down her chin, and he looked at her like she was an idiot.
"Looks like I have to do the shopping after all," he said, and she scowled.
The way she crunched on chips drove him insane. One of her favorite foods was Doritos, and he hated the deliberate way she put each chip in her mouth. He hated her slow, thoughtful chewing, and he hated the way she could finish an entire bag in one sitting like it wasn't valuable money.
They had limited funds – only what Shinji had been able to take from his stash. Noriko was staying with someone Shogo knew – not in America, someplace far away, safer yet. Maybe Canada, maybe somewhere in the European Republic. Anywhere but home.
"I'll find someone – I don't know who, and I'll meet up with you after I get Noriko and Kayoko settled. Don't try to find me. I'll find you. Everything else proceeds as planned."
Takako was always hoping for the telltale knock on the door. She hardly knew this man-boy, but she trusted him. Perhaps with her life. Who else could she trust? Hiroki? He was gone, for now.
Shinji? Albeit begrudgingly, he had stayed with her.
"Why are you staring at me?"
"You're always working on that damn computer. I'm bored."
"You're always bored. I'm doing something important."
"Let me help you."
"You didn't let me help you."
"Stop fucking saying that. You can't carry a conversation for shit. You know what? I'll just stop talking. We should just make it simple."
Though during the day they hated each other, at night, they gripped hands and waited for the sun to reawaken. After sleep had been such a danger, it remained elusive and skittish. So the two waited, sharing pillows and blankets and nightmares.
Their first intimacy was when Takako cut his hair. It was perhaps a week after their escape, and she swiftly ran a blade through his spiked locks, leaving him shorn like a lamb. He felt naked, after, as if she had taken off his shirt. It was not the kind of naked he was used to, either – he did not feel masculine and powerful, nor sexual and in control. He felt small, as if she had taken a layer of skin off of him and left him in the sun, to shrink like a wool sweater. He was glad it was her with the razorblade tangled through thin fingers. Her eyes never held pity.
His most noticeable scar was the one across his abdomen. It was enormous, encompassing the entirety of his torso. The fact that he was alive was nothing short of miraculous. Takako's most noticeable scar was across her cheek, deep and red and raised. Her limp was also heavy – her muscles may never be the same, especially without any real medical attention.
Perhaps that was wrong, and their most noticeable scars are the ones left across their psyche, an enormous cleavage in their reality, raw and ragged.
Their little apartment was shitty. The rug had cigarette burns and was the washed out gray that any color has the potential to fade into after a long, glorious run with children and accidents and fluids and time. It smelled of dog hair and the downstairs neighbor's marijuana, because the windows don't open and it was cold and neither of them ever bother to cook anything to flavor the air with something besides sorrow and silence.
They were lucky to get it.
"You need another haircut."
"Do you have a razor?"
"No. Too dangerous. I would've slit your throat a long time ago."
"If you're just going to make smartass comments, why do you even bother?"
For once, she hesitated. Her eyes were hard – but not narrowed by their usual disdain. Something else lurked within them. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"That's what I thought."
Takako's fist hit the wall, hard, crunching her knuckles roughly. She felt the skin split open but she couldn't care less. The setting sun glowed against the school building, and she let out a hiss, before rearing back and punching again, as hard as she could.
Never in her life had she been this angry, and completely without any outlet. Violence wasn't really in her nature, but neither was bottling up how she felt - ever. When the coach had gently tried to explain to her the bullshit reason why Takako couldn't run in the next race, she ignored coy, placating phrases like "too good" and "giving other students a chance" and only heard rejection.
Everyone else had long ago left, whispering about Robo-bitch's inability to even change at the same time as them, and she was furious. Not about the snarky comments from the girls on her team – middle school had long ago taught her that she was not, and never would be well liked – but about her race.
There was absolutely nothing Takako Chigusa loved more than racing, winning, and showing off, in that order. She was good – amazing, in fact, and she knew it. She knew her coach knew it. So the coach's refusal to let her in the race enraged her.
Turning around, she began walking towards the girl's locker room, cutting through the gym. Basketball practice was just ending, and she strode quickly along the sidelines to hide the blood dripping from her still-clenched fist. However, she didn't realize was leaving a trail.
"Whoa! Are you okay, Chigusa?" the cheerful, grating voice of Nanahara carried across the gym. Most others didn't turn around, but Kuninobu and Mimura turned towards her, disinterested in her… until they saw the red stain covering her fist.
Mentally, she swore. The last thing she needed was the overbearing concern of Shuuya Nanahara. What she needed was a punching bag. Normally, he would do, but Sugi had asked her to make an effort with their classmates. And she was still far too heated to feel any pain in her hand.
"I'm fine," she threw back curtly, sauntering away, trying to keep her anger in check, when Kuninobu appeared behind her, worriedly.
"That looks bad. Do you need to go to the infirmary?" his eyes widened. Takako didn't pay any attention to his shocked gaze.
"The infirmary is closed, it's almost five. I'm fine. Thanks for your concern." She tried to force civility out of her tone – these were Sugi's friends, and he'd often implored her to be more patient with them.
The other two appeared as quickly and as irritatingly as their friend, and she was losing her patience. "I'm fine—" she began, ready to unbridle her temper on the three, when Mimura grabbed her hand.
His quick action spurred out some of the pain and she reared back, ready to slap him silly for grabbing her, but the concern written on all their faces did nothing to ease her mood. She looked down at her hand, and the bright red blood that covered her entire fist did not worry her, but she was relieved she always took off her bracelets before practice.
"You'll probably need stitches," Shinji Mimura's voice was the last thing she needed to hear laced with gentleness. Anger flowed through her at their thoughtfulness – she wanted a fight, not comfort. Shuuya Nanahara was considered the nicest boy in their class. Yoshitoki Kuninobu was his dopey, sweetheart of a best friend. But Shinji Mimura was a misogynistic womanizer whose competitive streak rivaled her own.
Normally, she would've just brushed them off. She had absolutely nothing against any of them, particularly not Shinji. As Hiroki's friends, she regarded them with complete neutrality. However, the nearly overpowering need for an argument, for yelling, for anything, overtook her.
"Don't tell me what I need, Mimura. I said I'm fine and I'm going to be fucking fine!" she snarled, nearly spitting the words at him. "And let go of me!"
"If you can pull your hand out of my grip then I'll let you go," he answered dryly, completely unaffected by her obvious fury.
Most boys were cowed by her. Most girls were wary of her. Goddamn Mimura was neither of those things right now, and as she tried to yank her fingers from his grasp she nearly hissed with the burning pain that shot up her arm. Blood dripped even more heavily, and she cursed.
"You need to head to an emergency room," Shuuya pointed out anxiously. "I could walk…" he faltered at the venom in her glare, but Kuninobu finished for him.
"We're taking you to the hospital, this is serious! What even happened?"
"It looks like you punched a wall," Mimura's grip was still strong, and he sounded amused. Rearing back, furious at his accurate guess, Takako ripped her hand from his grip and slapped him, leaving a smudged, bloody imprint on his cheek, before turning on her heel and stalking inside the girl's bathroom.
The warm water burned her knuckles, and as the messy red cleared away, she noticed that she had actually sliced her fingers up pretty badly.
Her knuckles had a series of cuts, one of them deep, in crisscrossing patterns. She also sported a few scrapes just below, and the way the throbbing was beginning to slowly ache its way up and down her arm. Sighing, she changed, slowly, and left the school, admitting to herself that the boys had been right – she'd stop at the clinic before she headed home.
It was dark already, and the stars were hidden by layers of smog and clouds. Takako slung her bag more comfortably over her shoulder and began walking, thinking murderous thoughts about her captain, and the slugs on her damn team.
"Don't you live in the opposite direction?" a smug voice up ahead interrupted her brooding.
"How the hell would you know that?" she demanded, striding past him, bangles ringing.
"Stop! No, really, c'mon, lemme walk you to the emergency room… Sugimura would have my head if I let you go alone, especially at night." He shot her a sheepish grin.
"I don't need pity from a 'lady-killer' meathead, but thanks for your concern."
He didn't take her bait. "It's just me – Shu and Yoshi went home. Seriously," he shot her a grin that was supposed to be winning, she supposed, but after two years of junior high with him, she knew all of his little tricks. "I just wanna make su—"
"Drop the act, Mimura. I don't care what your motives are, just leave me the hell alone. I am not in the mood to deal with you right now. Try again tomorrow."
"Is that a challenge?" he teased, easily keeping stride with her.
Stopping, she glared up at him. "What's your problem?"
"Excuse me?" she demanded incredulously.
"The way Sugi talks about you, you'd think you're God's gift. But to anyone else, you're Robo-bitch. Got any other friends?"
Few names flashed through her head. Kahoru, Kayoko… and that was it. She scowled, flushing at his rudeness.
"Just leave me alone."
The words were not defeated – Takako Chigusa could not have sounded pathetic if she tried. But they were less hostile. Hiroki wanted her to be friendly?
She'd try it for him, even if she was dealing with goddamned Shinji Mimura.
When Takako, nearly blind from pain and unconscious from blood loss, stumbled away from Niida's body and into Shinji's disaster area, he thought it might be a godsend.
Kazuo had died – the explosion had annihilated him, the way it should've decimated the goddamn school. Shinji figured he was lucky they didn't just activate his collar and get it over with. He was going to die, no doubt about it, with his organs duct-taped inside his body like an ancient teddy-bear. So when he closed his eyes to fall asleep a final time and hazily saw a half-dead Chigusa kneel down in front of him, he thought it might be a dream. A fantasy leftover from days past.
But if it had been a fantasy, she'd have been in the tiny skirt he once saw her wearing at a restaurant with Sugimura, and there wouldn't be blood smeared across her swollen face.
"Damn," he croaked, still figuring it was an illusion and that he was in his final moments. "What the fuck happened to you?"
"Don't worry about it, Mimura." Her voice, if it had been stronger, probably would've been more dismissive. Her words lacked her usual venom. "You got me stitched up before, remember? It's my turn."
She did not ever tell him where the bruises on her face came from or why her skirt was threadbare and torn, but he guessed.
"Are you crying?"
"No. Fuck off, I'm not in the mood."
"You can tell me if anything's wrong. Seriously, just talk to me. I know I'm not –"
"Is it about Sugimura? Or Niida."
"Seriously, fuck off. Why would I want to ask for comfort from the biggest fucking Casanova in Shiroiwa about Niida—"
"Hey, don't worry about it. Maybe we can even be friends."
"Stop being a smartass. We're not friends. We're going to keep this as simple as possible."
Shinji, for all his bravado during the day, often cried at night.
Takako did not mention it – ever. She clearly saw the large line and knew to never even toe it. But at night, when they gripped hands and slept on the musty rug with nothing but a thin sheet for a blanket, she ran her thumb over his gently, over and over and over, until he fell asleep, facing her as she laid on her back, thinking.
She wondered if Hiroki was okay. If he was doing half as badly as she and Shinji, then he must be miserable indeed.