A Love Etched on Black
The first time Takano Masamune saw him, that person didn't seem real at all.
The guy had piercings in one of his brows. Dark eye liner whatever time of the day. A vicious tattoo on that skinny arm. A cheap cigarette always locked in those dry, chappy lips. That brunette didn't look real at all. He was more like a novel's side-character that just fades out. No one would even remember him once reaching the end of a chapter. And he never made any effort to getting along with anyone.
This surreal character whom Takano never shared a word with was his neighbor. The doorplate said Onodera Ritsu.
Eight months later...
Takano Masamune had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning. He decided that he would just wait for the sunrise to come and forget sleeping. If he slept and woke up after an hour, it would be a lot harder. He had tried it before and felt a lot worse. His sluggishness had lasted that entire day and it was something he didn't want to happen again.
That was why when he noticed himself slumped on his desk, sparkly particles dancing before his eyes as the sun rays hit it, he gaped.
"What the fuck..."
Hazel eyes stared hard at the signatured watch on his wrist. The seemingly unharmful way of its second-hand ticking around made him blank for a moment. And then like a bolt of lighting passed right through him, he finally remembered. He had a meeting first thing in the morning. Meeting was at nine. He wished his wrist watch was malfunctioning. It said 8:32.
"I merely closed my eyes...how did I end up sleeping almost four hours straight?!"
If anyone from Marukawa, the publishing company he works at sees him like this, they would probably shoo it as a mere hallucination. Takano always looked in control. It was as if he holds everything together perfectly. In their heads, this tyrant of a chief-editor would never be rushing around his flat fixing himself and gathering his meeting materials while cursing all over the place.
Well, this happened to Takano sometimes. He was just a human after all. But to many he wasn't a human. To them, Takano was a man that belonged to the group of special type of people.
Slamming the door shut, Takano turned to the elevator at the end of his floor. That miraculous invention that saves a couple of precious minutes when one's in a hurry was like playing an annoying joke to him. It was already closing, at the verge of leaving him when he already had not so much time to waste.
The doors were already half-way close. And by the distance from where he was to the lift, he'd never make it in time. Cursing the Tuesday morning, Takano sighed and glanced at the gloomy stairs a few feet away from him.
To Takano's surprise however, the doors did not completely slide close. Instead, it opened wider and wider, until he realized that whoever was inside was kind enough to stop the lift and allow him to get in.
Without a second thought, the raven rushed in fixing his hair with his free hand while extending a breathless 'thank you' to the stranger. These were the occasions that Takano could appreciate his neighbors a little.
That feeble voice which sounded like it came from a far distance made the man glance beside him. He never got to look at the good samaritan earlier after all.
Takano had looked longer than he intended. He knew this shade of hair color. He was familiar with this height which was slightly shorter than his. And most of all, he was familiar with that expressionless face, the only saving feature was the drawing emerald eyes. But today it was quite different. Or it had little by little changed in that eight months but Takano was too uninterested to finally notice.
He was very surprised. Takano could well remember a delinquent-looking guy who moved into the flat next to his. Today, that neighbor with an Onodera Ritsu for a name looked dapper. He wore a simple peach-colored cardigan and black trousers. No piercings. No cheap cigarettes. No ugly chains around his waist.
Takano then darted his gaze back at the front. Their vague images visible from the stainless doors before them. The ride was a quiet one. There was no connection. There was not even a spark that could start a friendship. The man had intended to ignoring the whole event and get on to his work as usual. He motioned to step out the moment their lift reached the lobby.
It was just one small unexpected thing that made Takano look back.
"Aren't you stepping out?" Takano asked.
The brunette still inside the elevator who was staring into space blinked at him.
"It's not really my business," Takano continued. "But we're already in the lobby you know."
Perhaps, one of the thousand reasons why Takano Masamune was successful, was because he was lucky. He was half an hour late. He had prepared a number of plausible reasons for him being late at this important meeting. However, while in the middle of driving his car at a lightning speed, he received a call.
Bluetooth on, Takano answered the call.
Three of the important persons who would be joining the meeting were stuck in a traffic jam. It seemed like the meeting had been moved to three in the afternoon instead. And out of nowhere, Takano let out a laugh.
Truly, this man was armored with luck. His image as the cold, perfect bachelor intact.
Takano stifled a yawn as he glanced down from the window, his hand with a steaming brewed coffee. The Winter season had finally ended and the sleepy, sluggish air of changing into the warmer months of Spring was in the air. The trees down the road looked like a sorry row of Sakura trees as they were still not in bloom. Compared to the others that were already flaunting their hypnotizing charms, the trees near Marukawa lacked impact.
"Takano, coffee for lunch?" one of the women in General Affairs asked. She always came to the editing floor for the fun of it, being a frustrated mangaka she was. "You'll ruin that beach bod of yours."
The man by the window threw a glance at the woman. Her name was Kaga Karen. His senpai during their college days. And out of all the Marukawa people, she was the only one who could yell or slap Takano's back without fear. There was even a rumor back then that the two were probably going out. But it died eventually. The two, surprisingly was just really a Senpai-Kohai, close friends.
"Nah, I'm waiting for a call," Takano replied briefly.
"Ne...is Sayaka-sensei's manuscript already here?" she queried, looking over the mayhem of a work table the Emerald team got. "Can I see it?"
"Aww...Takano you're such an old man. What's the harm?"
The woman kept on pestering not only Takano but the rest of the Emerald team who were eating their own lunches while still working. There was no 'lunch' time again for this team it seemed. Kaga Karen only stopped when another girl with her same uniform came looking for her.
"Kaga-san, I saw your boyfriend at the entrance so I made him wait in the lounge."
Kaga flipped her dark shoulder-length hair and grinned. "Oh...I forgot, I invited him for lunch together. Anyway, he's not my boyfriend alright?"
"Eh...but you always go home together."
"He's more like my younger brother!" Kaga countered before turning to Takano. "Hey you dude we're not done yet. You'll let me see that manuscript."
At the instant that the women from General Affairs stepped out of the editing floor, the phone on Takano's table started ringing. Putting his coffee down, Takano answered the call stifling again a yawn.
"Takano-san...I am already at the lounge. I've brought my materials too so we can fix anything that needed fixing."
"Alright, I'll be there in a few."
The lounge was almost full. Because it was lunch time and because it was the only place where most of the employees can smoke, there was barely an empty table to use. Takano looked from the entrance straight to the very corners of the lounge. He was looking for his red-haired, somehow air-headed mangaka that Kaga Karen was worshipping.
Instead of finding the mangaka that he was handling, he saw another unexpected thing. His senior Kaga Karen was animatedly talking with his neighbor Onodera Ritsu. From a far, without no ill intentions, Takano observed them. That Onodera had not an inch of an expression back in the elevator earlier. But the one he was seeing that moment was someone with a slight smile on his face. He would giggle once in a while and would even pout a little.
"That's a surprise. Who knew that guy could be Kaga's acquaintance..."
Deciding to find his real reason for being there, Takano then ignored what he saw earlier and resorted to doing his work. And that work took longer than he thought that by the time he finished checking, the lounge had become almost empty.
"Hey yoh!" Kaga called as she slammed a hand on the table. Takano had just finished putting the manuscripts back in the folder and he was glad his mangaka already went home. "You've got a meeting right? Why're you still here?"
Standing up, with a somewhat lazy look in his eyes, Takano started walking away. Kaga started following behind.
"Wow...being a handsome chief-editor sure has its quirks," she mumbled. "You got this special talent of turning things upside down for your benefit...I almost forgot."
Takano pressed the elevator button corresponding to his floor and looked up. Like the lounge, the lobby and the area to the elevator had quieted down already.
"The guy you're talking to earlier..." Takano started. "Is he some distant relative or something?"
Kaga followed suit when Takano entered the empty elevator. "Ah...Onodera-kun? No he's not a relative. He's in my close inner circle of friends though."
The man tapped the folder against his other hand. "That volunteering thing you're doing? He's a volunteer too?"
Kaga Karen, aside from almost being a rebellious office drone had often involved herself with things not most people would. She joined tree planting. She joined river clean-ups. And she had even tried marathons for the sake of doing something else. But this time, she somehow had settled with this volunteering work and looked more content.
"Eh...why'd you ask? It's strange for you to be interested with a stranger."
Takano glanced shortly at the woman before sighing. "That's not it. He lives in the same mansion as mine that's all."
The woman was quiet for a while. As if she was thinking of something. And then, to Takano's surprise the woman started laughing.
"Oh my God...we got such a small world!" she exclaimed. She exclaimed while energetically tapping Takano on the shoulder. But she mellowed down eventually, and a soft smile started playing on her lips. "That's quite a relief."
Takano raised a brow. Relief? Relief of what? Sometimes he really couldn't ride this woman's train of thoughts.
"Ne...Takano, you have your car with you right? Let's go on a date later?"
It was a little tense inside Takano Masamune's car. Their speed was low, the window to Takano's side open. The man was irritably dragging on his cigarette, wishing he was at anywhere but there.
The sun was still high in the sky. The rush of people going home in all directions was starting to thicken. Tourists, students, workers, they would stop by once in a while to comment on the blooming Cherry trees which was making the traffic a lot of a head ache.
But this wasn't the cause of Takano's headache. It was because of something else.
"Takano...come on," Kaga mumbled, fanning her hand to shoo the cigarette smoke that went her way. "What's the harm?"
"What's the harm?" the man repeated as he pressed on the break to stop for the red light. "Why do I have to join that volunteering work of yours? I've got not a soft spot for works like that alright? So quit it."
Kaga bit her lip before exasperatedly sighing. "You're the only one who knows about me getting married. We'd settle to Okawa City in Saga in a month and well...our team still has a few number of people. I can't afford to go without a replacement. You know how far Saga is from here, I can't go back and forth."
Takano coldly laughed. "Then recruit someone else. Recruit that woman in your office. Or recruit that Onodera something. Leave me out of it."
The woman shook her head. "Mina's no good. She's biased. Onodera-kun's already a member, he's no good either."
Blowing a puff of smoke at Kaga's face intentionally, Takano narrowed his eyes. "What's in it for me?"
"None," Kaga answered right away. "Just a sense of fulfillment you don't get from anything else."
Takano pulled over an almost empty parking lot. The building a few feet away from them looked old. The paint was crumbling off. The stains of rust was visible to the walls which was obviously from the rustic tin roof. The only thing saving it from being mistaken for a haunted building was the scenery surrounding it.
Rows and rows of glowy cherry trees were there, lining and scattering petals everywhere. Their lingering in the air for a few seconds before reaching the ground was an uplifting, healing sight to see. Specially when one don't see this frequently.
"Pretty right?" Kaga asked as she straightened her skirt down. She noticed Takano watching a few petals in the air and it somehow warmed her. She had known this man for long to know that even when Takano could be such an asshole sometimes, the man still has a little soft spot somewhere. At least she wanted to believe that.
She then looked at the building and started walking hurriedly. "Hey let's go."
"I just came to look. I didn't say I will join."
Kaga didn't respond and just continued on walking. She had said that same lines a year before. She knew that Takano would change his mind soon.
With a deep frown, Takano followed, his hands in his jeans. He looked up the darkening sky. He looked at the rundown building. And he looked again at the trees. He didn't hate the place to be honest. He just didn't like getting involved personally to matters he didn't care about. He wasn't the caring type to begin with.
"And here," Kaga called, turning back at Takano. She was holding a small notebook and she was forcing it to the man. "This little charming one is the one I am assigned to. It's like a 'buddy system' here you see."
Takano clicked his tongue and irritably took the notebook that was poking at his ribs.
"I said I am just looking."
"Then look at it. Stupid."
The man scowled as he followed Kaga. They were walking at what seemed like the front garden. It looked well-taken cared of disregarding the building itself.
Completely tired from it all, Takano mindlessly flipped into the notebook. It seemed like a record book or a diary of some sort. The only difference was there was only a date and a few lines of words which didn't look very enthusiastic.
"June 29- Change of address."
"October 2 - I saw two doves playing in the pond. They looked cute."
"Huh?" Takano raised a brow and flipped a few more to the most recent ones.
"December 17 - Someone gave me an early Christmas present. It was nice."
"What the hell is this?"
"December 31- I spewed the pasta I ate. I didn't clean it up right away."
"January 23," Takano read. "It's blank. Could this kid be any lazier?"
Takano shook his head. Just thinking about being surrounded by problematic kids irritated him. He's got his own problems to busy himself with the problems of others.
The raven sighed and glanced at the last entry. He was about to read it but when Takano heard the glass doors being pushed open by Kaga Karen, he halted and lifted his gaze up. And then he completely stood still. He didn't set foot in and just stayed standing with his eyes at the very first thing he saw inside the building.
The grip he had on the notebook tightened. This was not an ordinary volunteering group. It wasn't an orphanage and it certainly wasn't a home for the aged.
A white banner was hanging behind the receptionists. It had huge bold letters which etched at Takano's head like an ugly sight.
"Fight HIV Patient Discrimination. Extend a hand. Touch and Heal a Soul."
Kaga watched Takano's reaction and didn't say a thing. She decided to go on on her own, leaving the guy at the entrance. Since the very beginning, the woman had no intention of forcing the raven. From here on out, it would be entirely up to Takano Masamune.
Takano looked at the notebook and read the last entry he didn't finish earlier. This time, no one told him to go in. No one pushed him inside. He went on his own and just went with no direction to the surprisingly huge and spacious labyrinth-like hallways.
After a series of lefts and rights and turns, Takano stopped near a door. He saw the familiar red shawl that Kaga was wearing from the slightly opened door. He also saw another familiar face in there who happened to be his nextdoor neighbor. Takano wasn't surprised though. He heard that the brunette's a member of this group too.
But the next thing he heard just left him blank.
"Hey...you left your notebook earlier, good thing I noticed it," Kaga's voice sounded caring and calm. "By the way, I came here with my replacement. If that person agrees, he's going to be your buddy."
The raven simply stood, remembering the last entry in the notebook. And then Takano walked away and left the building. He thought that he shouldn't really have come.
"March 4 - This morning...I had the best elevator ride."
God knows what he was doing. For the last month, he'd been juggling work nonstop, not taking a break at all. He had even sacrificed a few minutes of his smoking time to finish everything at work. He wanted to finish them all up before going to a blasted training and seminar that he registered himself into.
One day he was going home as usual. The moment he saw their mansion up the hill, he suddenly turned back and walked to the opposite direction. The most surprising thing of it all? Kaga Karen had not bothered him about it since then. Yet there he was, taking a nightly training and seminar about all there is to know about HIV and HIV patients.
The easiest part perhaps was, it didn't require too much technical knowledge. Secondary volunteers like him, unlike doctors and nurses and psychologists, were simply to give a sense of belonging to this special people. Someone to have a chat about random things. Someone to give encouragements and extend a rope that the world hasn't completely closed up on them.
"Takano-san," a calm woman in her fifties started. "Thank you for signing up. I've already checked on your training certificate and documents. You can pick the ID and start with the introduction to the member that Kaga Karen-san recommended to you."
The raven stared at the extended paper to him. He had finished everything needed. But really, what was he doing?
"Why'd you decide volunteering in a support group?" she asked with a smile. "Most people are wary of people with HIV after all. Specially when the patient is a male. It's..." she pursed her lips first searching for the right words. "People just look down on them you know?"
Takano Masamune still remained quiet.
"You see, it's hard to build connection with them. They're ashamed of their condition and no good with socializing. It's nice if they could reach out to a single person...and then from there slowly build their horizons wider."
Nodding a little, Takano took the paper off the counter. He had heard that endless times in the seminar that to be honest, he was getting tired of it.
In haste of leaving the Lily Building, Takano turned his back, only to be stopped with a grinning Kaga Karen.
"Congratulations and welcome to the Lily Support Team, Ta-ka-no-kun."
Frowning, the man shoved the woman to the side and hurriedly walked. He didn't want to see Kaga at all. It was her fault in the first place why he started getting strange ideas in his head.
"Aww...don't be so cold! Oi!" Kaga yelled, running after the man even when she was wearing high-heeled shoes. "Wait up!"
As soon as they were away from the people in the building. As soon as the quiet of the front garden gave them a sense of space from the rest of the world, Takano looked back at the woman.
"Why'd you pulled me in this?"
"Huh? Isn't that too late for that?" Kaga replied softly. "Besides, I left the decision entirely to you...and also..."
Irrate, Takano still waited for the answer.
"Also...I just kinda thought that if Onodera-kun's buddy is just someone who lives next door, he'd be...happier."
"Huh?" Takano couldn't understand what this woman was saying at all.
"I am even surprised that even though it turned out that you two are neighbors, the two of you didn't end up being friends or something."
Takano drew a deep breath and watched the darkening sky again. By this time, he could have been somewhere far more enjoyable. What the hell did he do this for, really.
"Are you angry?"
The raven didn't say anything. Kaga then stood facing Takano with somehow angry glint in her eyes.
"Dispose the copy of Onodera-kun's profile that I gave you and return the notebook," Kaga almost hissed. She knew she had no right to be angry. But she felt sad and frustrated at the same time she didn't know what to do with it. "I exposed something that I shouldn't have because I was too confident. Please, he doesn't know that you know so just don't say anything."
"I told him I lost the notebook because I thought giving it to you would somehow reach you or something. You might have finished this seminar, but if you don't really want to be a volunteer, then don't," she said sternly. "Actually you don't have to. I'm sorry for showing you a side of this community that you'd rather not have known."
"Those frigging medications can be left to the specialists. If only my fiance's work is not based in Saga I won't leave him alone. People here, specially Onodera-kun does not need a 'volunteer' who meets them at a fixed time. They need a 'friend'."
"Bread...tea...coffee beans..." Takano scanned his short list and glanced at the section were icecreams were being sold. He didn't crave for one. More like his eyes just wandered and fixed itself towards the area on their own. "Onodera...?"
That was in the first week of May. Takano had decided to drop by the supermarket to buy some groceries. It'd been a while since he last saw that nextdoor neighbor. It seemed like after Kaga Karen's move to Saga, this guy went out less frequently. He would be lying if he said he wasn't the least bit bothered by it.
Takano walked a little closer to the aisle where the brunette was standing. He could clearly see what's in the man's basket. Nothing but preserved items were there.
It wasn't because of what Kaga Karen had said that early night. It was because Takano was Takano. Even with the month of him attending night seminars, in the end, he chose to withdraw from the Lily Support Group. He had withdrawn without even showing himself to the staff who was even ecstatic to meet another male secondary volunteer. Most of them were women after all so having a man would spice their group a little bit. But Takano just really knew he wasn't made up for these kinds of things.
However, things he learned, he could not forget easily even if he wanted to. In those seminars, he had learned that HIV patients didn't die because of HIV itself. It was because HIV destroys a person's immune system. Once the immune system had been weakened, that's when complications start sprouting one after another, causing fatality.
"Tsk..." Takano ruffled the back of his head irritably.
Those things in the brunette's basket would not help an inch to strengthening immune system at all. Onodera would know it better than anyone else since he was the patient himself. Was he doing it on purpose? Was he destroying himself on purpose? After all the changes he went through?
"They're very susceptible to mood swings. One day, they could be all positive about keeping a healthy lifestyle. The next day just because of something, they'd be reverting back to their old selves, pessimistic and depressed, " a guest psychologist had once said in one of the seminars. Takano hated remembering it like he was watching a recorded video. "The more they needed persons to remind them that what they're doing is not right."
"Knowing too much is really a pain..." Takano gritted before finally standing just a foot away from Onodera Ritsu. "Yoh. Nextdoor neighbor."
Ritsu looked beside him, the surprise and the shock could not be any more obvious.
"Oh...you know my name," Takano pretended to look into the icecream flavors. "Didn't know you shop here as well. It's far from our mansion after all. You like icecream?"
"Not particularly..." The brunette placed the one pint of ice cream back into its fridge and just stared at them. And then as if he finally came into a decision, he hurriedly turned away. "...ja..."
"Oi. I came here by car," Takano called. "Let's go home together."
Their first car ride together, Takano felt like he was just driving alone. There was not even the slightest holding back with Onodera's actions that he wanted to get out as soon as he can. He even went out the car the minute Takano had parked in the underground parking lot.
"T-thank you for the the ride."
Just watching the brunette by his car window, Takano dared call him again. At least, Onodera paused and hesitantly looked back.
"You look better now...compared to when you first moved in here."
Takano said it on purpose. He meant it to have double meaning. About the brunette's appearance. About the brunette's health.
Onodera's way of staring at Takano made the latter a little uncomfortable. He sure needed someone else to tell Onodera that he had some uncontrollable blushing right this moment.
Hazel eyes watched the brunette then turn, half-walked, half-ran the distance from the car to the elevator. Takano was ready going out himself when what Onodera did stopped him from doing anything.
Ritsu raised his hand at the level of his face and waived once from the elevator. He did so with a tight-lipped smile. A smile that for some reason left the raven staring at the elevator door even though it already had closed up a long time ago.
"Onodera Ritsu. Age 25. Male. HIV positive. Been disowned at the age of nineteen. Currently jobless. Relies on the returns of the few stocks he had bought," Takano read to himself. He had read it countless times. That copy of Onodera's profile that Kaga Karen told him to dispose. He just couldn't bring himself to do it. "He lived promiscuously, having short-term relationships with fellow males. He had been careful though. He used protection and always made sure to have regular check-ups..."
The raven lied on his back, the folder he raised just above his face.
"It was just an accident from a friend's birthday party that he'd drank too much. Had sexual intercourse with a fellow drank. He felt ill and sluggish weeks after that and just dismissed it as stress from work. He used to be a novel editor at Kadogara Shouten in where the work demand was tremendous. However, after a few months, just after he had moved into a new residence in June last year, he found out that what most active homosexuals fear, had reached him.."
Sighing, Takano slowly dropped the folder on his bed. His eyes fixed at the ceiling. June was the first time he saw Ritsu. The guy looked like a total loose kind of guy and he wouldn't deny the fact that he wanted to distance himself as much as possible.
Takano at least was grateful now that he had attended those seminars. There was a stigma after all that just by even going near an HIV positive patient, they could also get infected. Unlike those with no knowledge, he knew he wouldn't get sick just by a mere conversation or by just a mere touch.
Takano may not be made to look after a bunch of people as a volunteer and be friendly with them. But he could reach out to one next door. He decided with a little interest, an interest the same as a kid seeing a new specie, that he would.
It started from Takano sharing an excess of the meal he had cooked. Meals that in reality he really made with a balanced diet for Ritsu as his real intention. A few days later, he successfully convinced the brunette to join him in his morning walks. Morning walks that didn't really exist previously given the kind of a time consuming job he had. Surprisingly, once he decided to do it, his schedule seemed to become less too tight.
A month later, Onodera Ritsu was comfortable enough to knock at Takano's door and eat dinner together.
"It seems like Summer came a month earlier this year, don't you think?" Takano commented as he placed vegetable salad on the low table before the television. "It's gotten so hot."
Onodera Ritsu who just took a sip of water from his tumbler had his attention at the music show going on the television.
"I didn't notice," the brunette replied. "I am inside the house most of the day."
Once the plates had been set, Ritsu happily started eating. Takano did not start though until seeing that Ritsu was halfway finished with the food. The vegetables were fresh so they were crunchy. Their tastes also distinc despite being mixed together with the olive oil. As Takano was chewing, incidentally, a piece had went directly to his throat, making him cough uncontrollably.
"T-Takano-san?" Ritsu worriedly called, not knowing what to do.
Still coughing, Takano grabbed the tumbler on the table, opened it and gulped down the entire contents. Ritsu stared with disbelief and fear in his eyes.
"Ah, sorry I drunk everything," Takano mumbled, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'll pour you tea instead."
Ritsu grabbed the tumbler and looked away. His fingers fidgety. His eyes restless.
"N-next time..." Onodera started softly. "Next time...please don't use mindlessly the things I've placed in my mouth without washing them first..."
The raven watched the other with a little perplexed expression. Indirect kiss came into mind but Takano was not immature to be so much bothered by it. Ritsu's behavior was clear. The man was afraid that he'd contaminate Takano.
"Ha? What's the big deal?" Takano nonchalantly mumbled, continuing with his food like what happened earlier didn't happen. "We're both males anyway. Worried about an indirect kiss or something?"
Takano nodded to Ritsu's food. "Just kidding."
A lot quieter this time, Ritsu just watched the television, poking with his salad once in a while. The TV showed some foreign music awards night. The language was in English and Takano wondered if Ritsu could understand them at all.
After a few minutes, the show cut into a commercial. A commercial about HIV awareness.
Ritsu started fumbling around for the remote. And then without a word just turned the TV off. Takano curiously darted his gaze from the sudden blank TV towards the sudden pale brunette across him.
"Err...why'd you turn the TV off?" Takano queried. "The music show isn't over yet right?"
"Huh? You were watching eagerly just now."
"I don't want to watch TV anymore."
Takano furrowed his brows. "You're...weird."
"It's disgusting..." Ritsu whispered after a while.
"Hah? What is?"
"We're eating...and they're showing HIV commercials..."
Takano grew quiet. Somehow he understood suddenly what this was about.
"What are you talking about, it's just a commercial raising awareness."
Green eyes, wide with anxiety suddenly came focused at Takano only. "Aren't you disgusted?"
"Why would I?"
For no reason in particular, the brunette stood and turned his back. His frail shoulders shaking, his hands in a ball of fists.
"Most people with HIV are men. More over, gay men. That doesn't disgust you? They got HIV because they were sleeping with fellow men. It's contagious. You don't find it strange? It's disgusting!"
For what seemed like a minute of impregnable silence, Takano just watched Ritsu's back. He was deep in thought. He was a little flustered. It never actually crossed his mind from the very start. More like instead of disgust, he felt nothing at all. He had no repulsion with sexuality and knew his own boundaries. He went out with both males and females previously after all.
"It's strange," Takano calmly responded. "I am strangely not disgusted with it at all."
"W-what if I tell you..." Ritsu groped for words. "What if I tell you..."
Takano stood with a sigh. He walked towards Ritsu and forced the latter into looking him in the eyes.
"Onodera...listen to me," Takano demanded, pinning the green anxious eyes with his. "I was supposed to be one of the newest volunteers of Lily Support group a month ago. I was supposed to be your new 'buddy' or whatever they call it. I'm sorry. I knew from the very start."
"Kaga Karen is my senior in college. She...invited me to join but well...I wasn't made up for volunteering works and I withdrew before I even got introduced."
Out of the things that day, him not disgusted by HIV, him not bothered that he'd been in close contact with an HIV patient, him not bothered by homosexuality or lesbianism or whatever the society came up with to label those out of the ordinary, one thing did bother Takano. It was when the green eyes questioningly staring at him started reddening.
"Now I understand..." Ritsu mumbled. "This is an extension of the support group?"
"You just approached me because of that right?" the brunette continued sounding like he was being strangled. "I'm ashamed of myself..."
"Did you even listen to what I just said?!"
"I didn't want you to know of all people. I didn't want you to start approaching me because of pity. And then I'd learn you knew all along? I'm so stupid not to notice why you...who never said a word to me in the first eight months I've been here, started even paying attention to me!"
Takano didn't say anything in response to that. He merely walked away, took his bag and took something from it. Adding more to Ritsu's hurt, Takano then extending a notebook Ritsu was very familiar with. With that Domo design at the front, it was his daily record that Kaga Karen had told him she lost.
"I'm returning this to you."
Ritsu slowly took the notebook with trembling fingers.
"So you're not disgusted by me at all?" the brunette asked softly Takano hardly heard him. Ritsu started flipping into the pad and stopped at the last page. Takano was by this time the one really surprised by what Ritsu did the next.
"March 4," Ritsu read aloud. "I had the best elevator ride ever."
Green teary eyes then looked straight at Takano. "That day, I came from the drug store to buy my medications. I was about to step out of the elevator and saw you locking your door."
Takano stared a little confused.
"Because I was so surprised to see you at that time, the doors started sliding close again so I pressed on stop. Then you came in and said 'thank you' to me for the very first time..."
"Instead of getting out to our floor, I stayed inside, pretending that I was headed down the lobby too. Stupidly I went back up once you're gone," Ritsu smiled. "Why do you think I did that?"
"Won't it still disgust you that someone with HIV like me, likes you?"
The raven had unconsciously raised a hand, resting it against his neck while for the first time averting his eyes towards the wall to his left. In his twenty eight years of living in control, this one thing got him totally speechless. For the first time he didn't know what to act.
The suffocating silence came back and Ritsu began walking his way towards the door.
Takano watched the brunette who just out of nowhere confessed to him. He didn't have time to think but he knew he certainly didn't want to cut connections after all this time.
"Onodera," Takano started softly. "I told you we'd add another kilometer to our walk. Don't be late for tomorrow."
Ritsu's eyes widened. His hand pausing briefly just before he could even touch the knob. The brunette slightly opened his mouth to say something. But in the end, he swallowed his words down and left.
The next morning that came, it was unexpectedly hazy. Takano Masamune stood at the usual park where they've started meeting for their early morning walks. Time and time and time and again, Takano would glance at his wrist watch. Ritsu was late. Very much late.
The man's hazel eyes darted from his watch to the already brightening sky. In reality, he didn't expect Ritsu to show up after all the things that had been spilled out in the open last night. He started frowning and feeling restless.
The thought of just suddenly cutting communication and reverting back to how they've been at first was troubling him. So much so that it made him pace back and forth. Maybe he should drag the brunette with him after all.
Decided, Takano moved away from the tree in the park he was resting his weight on. He was about ready leaving when he heard foot steps from behind him.
The first time Takano saw that person in a way different from how he used to, that person still didn't seem real at all.
The brunette was in his black jersey. Holding one tumbler in one hand, one towel with the other, his head was a little bowed. His form in the morning sunlight was surreal. It was as if those sparkly particles in the air decided to make a cloud of thin veil over him.
Ritsu stopped a few foot away from Takano. His face a little swollen.
"I'm sorry I'm late..."
"Uh...yeah..." Takano felt stupid.
"And also..." Ritsu lifted his gaze, a small grateful smile visible on his lips. "Thank you...for before...and for accepting me the way I am."
Takano forced a smile. He hadn't realized the meaning of embarassment until today. He cleared his throat and walked ahead from Ritsu.
A few meters of their walk, Takano looked behind him and waited for Ritsu who still had that faint flush on his cheeks. Side by side, they walked into the morning light.
From the corners of his eyes, Takano glanced at the somehow humming Ritsu beside him. It made the raven sigh. He wouldn't call it trouble. But he knew he was already caught up in something deep.
Second week of August, the Summer harsh and inescapable. Takano Masamune was a little tired from work, his car in the maintenance so he had no choice but to commute. After the tiring train ride which was mainly because he had to squeeze himself with a bunch of other workers, Takano could finally breathe in and out as he walked towards the hill where his place was.
His coat was over his left shoulder, a few of his shirt buttons he had undone to cool himself down a bit. A few little kids came running towards his direction. Their giddy laughter sounded nostalgic with their shadows in the midst of the orangy tint the setting sun was giving.
"Ah...where he could he at this moment?" Takano suddenly thought, remembering that Ritsu had a support group meeting earlier. "..."
Takano narrowed his eyes and felt for the cigarette in his pocket. Inserting the end to his lips, he let it that way without burning it. He and Ritsu had been a lot closer since that night when Ritsu confessed. Though their relationship was a bit vague, Ritsu didn't seem to mind.
Every morning and evening, they eat together. They also did their morning walks as Ritsu's mild exercise. The brunette seemed to be doing well and could be well perceived as someone very healthy. His illness was at bay, he was having his daily medications, he was eating properly and moving and breaking a sweat.
Sometimes though, when Takano would notice Ritsu watching TV or just gazing out the window, he wondered what he really wanted them to become. He himself had poured so much attention to the brunette more than he ever had given his previous partners.
Say he wanted to become more than friends with Ritsu? He knew he cared about the young man too late to deny that he was starting to have deeper emotional attachment. But what would be next? Could he really maintain a relationship wherein one of its bonds, kinship, was out of the question?
"Tsk...thinking things needlessly..." Takano grumbled as he took his phone out of his pocket. He searched for a certain number and pressed call. It kept on ringing for a long while before someone finally picked it up.
"Where are you right now?" the raven asked with his gaze at the sky. "I'm thinking of having sukiyaki. Want to tag along at the market?"
When the other line didn't say a thing, Takano stopped on his tracks. Even with the no-reply, he could hear faint sniffing.
"Oi? What's wrong?"
"Ah...nothing really..." Ritsu finally answered. "Sukiyaki sounds great...but uhm...I decided to go to the city library so I will be a bit late."
Takano concentrated in the bare mix of sounds he could aside from Ritsu's shaky voice. There seem to be laughter. It sounded like young voices. It was accompanied by what sounded like a swing. Throwing of balls and childish pranks.
"That voice does not sound so 'nothing' to me," Takano replied sternly as he started walking to the children's park nearest to their mansion. "Ne, Ritsu...since we're on it anyway, let's do this. Tell me something right now that you can't say to me personally."
The voice in the other lined laughed a little. Takano increased his pace, almost running. The raven hated Summer afternoons the most. Not because of the heat. It was mainly because of its setting sun. Everything was drenched in a depressing shade of reddish orange.
"Something I can't say personally...it's like a challenge huh?"
Takano ran a hand over his hair. "Dummy...not a challenge. More like let's exchange secrets."
"Hmmm...something I can't say directly..."
"Eh..." Ritsu grew quiet. His breathing was only what Takano could hear. But Takano just waited. He waited for a response while he walked the few remaining steps to the park.
"Hmmm...I guess...I regret living the life I've lived previously."
The raven stood before the low gate, noticing Ritsu's back as the man was just sitting alone on a kiddie bench.
"Because...because...now that I've really fallen in love...there are things that I can't do and worry about doing."
Standing from where he was, Takano could see Ritsu wiping his face with his hand. It stabbed him. He didn't really seem to like Ritsu crying.
"I worry when we talk. I worry when you hold my hand sometimes. I worry when we share bottled drinks. The thought of infecting you...no matter how careful I am...scares me so much..."
Ritsu gave an embarrassed chuckle. "I dreamed of you know...ah...how to say it...it's still hard to say in the phone..."
"Just say it."
"I've dreamed of how it would be like...if we got physically closer...but then...I wouldn't want to as well because I don't want to risk you. You're already kind enough to allow me as a friend. I'd share everything with you but this..."
By the seconds that were passing as Takano just stood watching Ritsu's back, the man could feel his throat tightening.
"I really regret being me..not only was I a homosexual...but things I did led me to having HIV...I really regret it..."
Takano looked down on his feet, sucked his breath and decided to come closer.
"Say...where are you again?"
Takano had already dropped the call. When Ritsu looked into his phone, he almost dropped it at the instant hands started hugging him from behind. It made Ritsu stare at the empty swings the kids had just left.
Resting his chin on Ritsu's shoulder, Takano turned slightly to the brunette's ear. "L-i-a-r..."
"T-Takano-san?" Ritsu tried to get away, to try looking behind him. But Takano was persistent into staying that way for longer.
The brunette stiffened at the mention of his name.
"Never say again you regret being yourself. Promise me."
"Don't say it again."
Ritsu's hand holding his phone moved lower and lower until he had no strenght but to just stay in the arms around him.
"If I wasn't so promiscuous..." Ritsu whispered. "If I only treasured myself more..."
Ritsu started crying. His painful sobs made Takano's eyes redden even more.
"It was all due to your past that we met. That past led me to you."
Despite him sniffing terribly, Ritsu laughed.
"I would seriously think you're saying you like me back with those words Takano-san."
The strength in the raven's hold slightly became more intense.
"Idiot. I am."
Though they've started officially 'going out', nothing really changed. It was the same Takano and the same Ritsu like they've been from the beginning. The only difference was probably, the same bed they occupy at night.
Takano and Ritsu was already settling in for the night. Despite the demands of Takano's work, he was still able to go to bed on time with Ritsu. That want of making Ritsu sleep right, live right, live healtily was so strong he couldn't think of anything else.
In the dim, with the slight sound of the airconditioner, Takano and Ritsu both stared at the ceiling. This night marked their first month as a couple.
"Right...I almost forgot," Takano started shuffling a little on his spot on the bed. "It's the first month anyway so here."
"Here what?" Ritsu mumbled, having a hard time seeing in the dim.
The raven sat, turned on the bed side lamp, creating a weak illuminating contrasting yellow all over the room. Takano grabbed Ritsu's hand and unceremoniously put a ring into the latter's ring finger.
"Pfft..." Ritsu grinned. "I think I saw this kind of thing in the TV or something."
"Shut up," Takano hissed as he laid back on his back. "We got matching ones. My name's in yours. Your name's in mine."
The brunette buried his face against the pillow and just giggled on his own. It made Takano annoyed that he threw a pillow at Ritsu's head.
"Cheesiness is okay once in a while," Takano hissed. "Take it off if you don't want to."
Ritsu with eyes teary from giggling too much wiggled his way closer to his neighbor, companion, bestfriend and lover. "Eh...I am actually happy. I'm never taking this off."
Takano glanced at the head resting against his arm. What was that sudden rush of warmness all over his chest? The love he felt with the others never felt this crushing. He started wondering if the previous ones were even love at all. It was making him a little constricted in the chest and he just wanted to make these nights stay this way forever.
Couples. They share everything. But even if Takano or Ritsu had wanted to share or connect themselves physically, it was a decision they'd agreed they'd never do. Takano never complained when Ritsu said he'd never have sex with the man. It wasn't because Takano was afraid of getting infected himself. More than that fear for himself, he feared of the next thing that might happen if he really gets sick. Who in the world then would take care of Ritsu?
More than physical bonds, it was interesting to see that because of the physical restriction, the emotional bond instead had become tighter.
Overwhelmed by the tight feeling in his chest, Takano slightly leaned closer to Ritsu, kissing him on the cheek.
They would sleep hand in hand, wishing that both of them were having the same dreams where they weren't restricted from anything.
Five years. In a blink of an eye it passed. It wasn't all that easy but Takano had considered every second of the day a miracle. When he saw Ritsu sleeping on his side, that was a miracle. When he saw Ritsu eating the food he made, it was a miracle. It was because from the very beginning, Ritsu's time, no matter how Takano had set aside would be a lot shorter than his.
He knew that. He prepared himself for that.
But when it happened, that day he feared, that 'being prepared' wasn't enough.
Five years of being a couple, and at the middle of Summer, Onodera Ritsu's condition started to decline. When Ritsu and Takano was riding in the festivities of the Tanabata Festival, the former suddenly just collapsed in front of Takano. The fork the brunette was holding to start eating his cake fell with a clatter. That clatter sounded louder than the rest of the thunderstorms that Takano had heard in his entire life.
"Oh yeah...Feel better now," Ritsu whispered, pale and lifeless. "Sorry...let's eat that cake once I get out...okay?"
The least Takano could do was smile assuringly. He held Ritsu's hand, letting the afternoon pass in that white room.
"His left kidney's not working anymore, the other's already very weak," the doctor had said. "He's also got pneumonia..."
Takano had forgotten most of what the doctor had said. Medical jargon that made him puke. Business-like comforting from the hospital staff. All of it didn't matter. It was just that, Ritsu's immune system could no longer hold it. And one by one complications started coming to him. It was exactly what the seminars had said.
Once Ritsu had fallen asleep, Takano went out and drew fresh air from the open area at the back of the hospital. He started sending out messages to the few people he knew was connected to Ritsu. To the brunette's family. To the few friends he met. And to Kaga Karen.
The man couldn't almost see what he was typing. The screen of his phone had started getting wet though it wasn't even raining. Not a drizzle or drop from the sky.
"Sorry for messaging you out of the blue. I am Onodera Ritsu's partner, Takano Masamune..." the raven gritted his teeth as he typed. "Please visit Ritsu in this hospital...he's condition started worsening at a rate that the doctors are saying he's got one to two months left. Please...see him."
He had prepared himself for this. Takano did. But what he had prepared for was at least a slow decline of the brunette's health. But what happened was in a snap, all the complications that Ritsu was able to keep at bay with his medications and also Takano's efforts just decided to force their way in.
Five years, they said was already long. But Takano wished for a longer time than that. Suddenly told to 'prepare youself' by the doctor sounded foolish.
"Hey...you're back," Ritsu turned to the door that just opened. It was nine in the evening. The dark somehow seem to get a hold of Ritsu's body as well although the bright lights were all on in the room.
"Why're you still awake? It's already late."
"It's just nine. What's late?" Ritsu pouted then slowly revealed a knowing smile. "You've been crying?"
The raven released all his weight on the steel chair near Ritsu's bed and sighed. His head bowed, his shoulders stiff. In the stiffness came a series of trembling. Looking at it made Ritsu close his eyes. A tear falling at the corner of his eyes.
"I know," Ritsu mumbled still with his smile. "I've heard everything."
"One to two months? That's...plenty generous of God don't you think so?"
"Shut up..." Takano hissed. "If he was really generous...he wouldn't take you away from me."
Ritsu looked towards the window. "But see...I think I wouldn't last three years the time I learned I'm sick. He's generous...to have made me live this long with you..."
The raven weakly turned to Ritsu, resting his head on the man's shoulder. "Aren't you afraid? I am scared as hell..."
The brunette's brows met in a painful frown. His pale lips quivering. "I'm not scared...just sad. You always took cake of me...you never gave me the chance to take care of you...I at least dreamed of you know...both of us with walking sticks," Ritsu laughed. "It's a silly dream."
"Bastard..." Takano whispered, the spot where he had rested his head had been stained wet. "Imagining me as a grandpa is not allowed."
"What else can we do? I'll remain forever young..." Ritsu joked. "Even if you're old I'd see you from the sky or somewhere and would still recognize you."
"Quit it," Takano hissed. "You silly moron."
When Takano Masamune submitted a temporary leave of absence to Marukawa, no one questioned him why. They knew. Takano had expressly announced that his male partner seriously ill. He even had the chance to tell them how this person, avoided by most people changed him in more ways than one.
The man devoted all his time to Ritsu; eating with him, reading to him, watching TV with him, or just chatting about random things. The number of guests was huge at the first week of the second month. Ritsu's family didn't come and only sent a bunch of flowers and a very long mail only Ritsu knew about.
The number of people from the support group Ritsu was a member of was steady but because they're busy or sick themselves, they declined considerably. Even Kaga Karen who was very concerned to Ritsu wasn't able to come, being promoted to her new job and was sent to an international branch. That being the case, at the end of it all, the only ones left were Takano and Ritsu watching the sunrise or watching the sunset at the roof top by themselves.
It was almost like nothing changed. If Takano set aside the deteriorating body of his neighbor, lover and soul mate, it would seem like everything's the usual. Ritsu's his all alone.
"The sun is out longer when it's Summer ne?" Ritsu mumbled, standing close to Takano at the roof top. "The sun's bigger..."
Takano Masamune gripped the frail shoulder tightly with his hand and nodded. The idiot beside him, although was already having a hard time walking, he refused wheelchairs. So Takano made sure to take almost all of Ritsu's weight when walking. He just let the brunette the liberty to feel like he was still really walking with his two feet.
"Masamune, let's go back to the room?"
The raven nodded. He'd been quiet. For no reason in particular, Takano just listened to whatever the brunette said.
Using the elevator, both just stared at the beeping numbers above their heads. From the ninth floor to the third floor where Ritsu's room was located.
"Hey, move away," Ritsu sternly ordered. "I want to stand on my own."
Takano quietly looked at Ritsu briefly. And slowly, carefully, stepped away, leaving Ritsu standing on his own.
"Hehe..." Ritsu swang his arms like a child, enjoying the space. "Isn't this like our first elevator ride?"
Takano smiled inspite of a painful look in his eyes as he faced the door in tears. "Yeah."
They heard the signal of them reaching the third floor. The elevator door slid open revealing a blinding whiteness. It was Takano who stepped out first. And then slowly, like how he did some six years back, turned back towards the elevator.
"Hey...aren't you stepping out?"
"It's not really my business but it's already the third floor you know."
Ritsu smiled. A smile so pretty nothing can compare. The brunette walked staggeringly and reached a hand out. A different scene from the one six years ago. Takano took hold of the hand in his and gripped it tightly.
The moment Ritsu was completely out of the elevator, he almost fell on the floor. Takano caught him by the arm, and then in the middle of the crowd who had stopped to watch what was going on, hugged Ritsu.
"I love you," Takano whispered. "I love you..."
Ritsu lifted a hand and wiped a tear off Takano's face. With a smile, with a silent 'suki', the chapter of Ritsu's life had been ended.
The first time Takano saw that person, he didn't seem real at all.
The last time he saw that person, he still felt unreal.
Onodera Ritsu was just like a storm to Takano. The brunette's existence started building up slowly from a distance, quietly and surely. And then unwelcomingly forced his way in, leaving all his traces around.
He got closer and closer and created a havoc of emotions to the raven. He wrecked and had shaken the man. And then, just like a real typhoon, he evaporated in the air and was gone. But of all the typhoons that passed in Takano's life, it was this one that he wished would never leave. But it did.
That guy's existence felt like a passing one, meant to not stay for long. The only real thing that Takano was holding was those little times of them holding hands. Those little hesitant kisses. And those tight and crushing hugs and all of his memories.
Takano looked at the Lily Building before him and to the three new faces he made as friends. These three faces were all young people that needed verbal and emotional support from volunteers.
And then Takano looked at his hand.
Truthfully, his love's name was now written on black. It gave the impression that it was shining when the sun hits the black marble. His love's ashes in a black funerary urn. But more importantly was the one in his ring finger. A thin black band of a precious metal where Ritsu's name was etched inside. He'd probably never remove it off him ever again.
It was something that he'd wear until it's his time too to go back to the start.
chapter end notes:
thank you very very much for the time reading. please share your thoughts.
i liked writing this because it's something i rarely see in bl mangas or bl novels. i think this is a side of our bl world that's not mentioned too much. i kind of want to explore on those not much written. XD also, my knowledge about the topic is very basic and i didn't want to put much medical jargon. so that's about it. thanks again!
ps. 1 when i was younger even until now, i just ride the elevator up all the way down and back up for no reason. that sudden dizzying feeling's fun. it's like something's leaving my body. XDXD
ps. 2 update schedule is on my profile. XD