The girl was smiling up at Ryuu as they stepped out of the theater together.
"Thank you soooo much!" she gushed.
"Aw, it was no problem," he assured her, grinning. "Anything for a pretty girl like you!"
"I'd have been so scared if it weren't for you," she said. "All my friends have been to see it, and I didn't want to go alone to something so scary..."
"Hey, there's nothing to worry about!" Ryuu assured her. "It was just a movie. But even if it wasn't, I'd totally protect you."
She giggled. "Let's get together again soon, okay? Next time, you can pick the movie."
"I'll call you," he assured her.
He watched her go skipping away, apparently at peace with the world and everything in it. As soon as she was out of sight around the corner, he allowed himself to slump against the wall of the theater and press his hand to his face.
"Oh, my God, I thought I was going to die," he groaned.
Normally, Ryuu liked movies. He liked taking pretty girls to movies. He liked it when they clung to him during tense or romantic moments. What he didn't like was scary movies. If you'd asked him, he would have said only that he preferred things that were sweet and romantic, and that monsters and ghosts tended to be too gruesome for his refined tastes, but the truth was, he just plain got scared. He'd just spent the last hour and a half in a dark theater, watching people get murdered in horrific ways, and forcing himself to appear outwardly calm so as not to embarrass himself in front of a girl.
Well, she was gone now, and if she ever tried to talk him into watching something like that again just to impress her friends, he was going to find another girl. There were, after all, always more girls.
Now he was free to freak out in privacy. Taking a deep breath, he began walking slowly away from the theater. It was the middle of the week, and the theater-going crowd was sparse. It wasn't long before Ryuu found himself walking alone. His footsteps echoed as he hurried down the sidewalk. A cold breeze blew down off the mountain, and he shivered.
"It's okay," he told himself. "Just keep walking. You're almost there..."
Something moved in the shadows of an alley. Ryuu shrieked and dove behind a mailbox, panting and trembling. A moment later, a lean gray cat with a mouse clamped in its jaws scampered out of the shadows and flitted away. Ryuu heaved a sigh.
"Get hold of yourself," he said. "It was just a stupid cat. Nothing is out here to get you. There's no such thing as ghosts, or monsters, or... well, actually there is such a thing as monsters, come to think of it."
The wind blew again. Clouds scuttled across the sky, casting shifting shadows all around the empty street. Ryuu's eyes shuttled back and forth constantly, searching for threats. Was that a claw reaching out for him? No, just the shadow of a tree branch. Was that the sound of shuffling footsteps? No, just a plastic bag being blown by the wind. That man, walking so slowly on the opposite side of the street - wasn't that a splash of blood at this throat? No, that was only a tired businessman wearing a red scarf. What about that roaring noise? Was that...?
That wasn't Ryuu's imagination. Something huge was coming at him very fast. Ryuu turned around, a scream already rising in his throat.
Then the bus swept past him to pull up at the stop a few yards away. Ryuu heaved a sigh.
I am way too keyed up.
He was only blocks away from home. The weather was clear and pleasantly cool. It was a peaceful night in a quiet town. He was a superhero.
He still got on the bus.
The house was dark by the time Ryuu arrived at home. That was nothing unusual - his grandmother was a firm believer in going to bed early and rising with the sun, and she trusted him enough not to wait up for him. He'd come home to a darkened house plenty of times before. All the same, he wished that for once, his grandmother had decided to wait up for him, or at least remembered to leave a light on inside. Unfortunately, his grandmother had a belief in saving electricity that would have made Io proud, and saw no reason to leave so much as a porch light on when there was a perfectly good street light only a few yards away.
It's like there's no one there, the voice of Ryuu's fears whispered. No one living, anyway...
Ryuu sternly told the voice to shut up. He picked his way up to the front door, fumbled in his pocket for the key, and let himself inside. The door creaked softly as he opened it, and the hallway in front of him stretched out into impenetrable darkness. A shiver crawled down Ryuu's spine.
Chill, he told himself firmly. You're home. It's safe.
Yes, but the people in the movie had been at home, too, and look what had happened to them. Ryuu hadn't wanted to look at what happened to them. He'd tried to keep his mind blank as he'd watched them die one by one, but their faces as they'd met their demise seemed to be burned into his brain all the same. Not to mention the noises some of them made...
A gust of wind caught the door and slammed it shut. Ryuu jumped as he found himself plunged into complete darkness, robbed even of the light of the street lamp outside.
"Only the wind," he told himself, pressing a hand over his racing heart.
He picked his way carefully down the hall and towards the stairs to his room. He'd made it halfway there when there was a tremendous crash from somewhere in the kitchen.
Okay, that wasn't the wind.
Abandoning all pretense at courage, Ryuu raced up the stairs, stumbling and tripping, taking the last few steps on his hands and knees, finally making a frantic dive for his door and slamming it behind him. For a few seconds, he simply sat there, back pressed against the door, pulse racing, breath coming in pants.
"I can't do this," he told the darkness of his room. "I'm going to have a heart attack and die."
Fortunately, help was close at hand. Moving by instinct, Ryuu fumbled his phone out of his bag and tapped the first name in his contact list. The phone rang once... twice... three times...
He's not home, Ryuu thought despairingly. He's gone to bed already. He's turned his phone off.
Five times... six times... and then a click.
"Ryuu?" said Io's voice. "What is it?"
Ryuu's voice came out as a wail. "I had to watch a scary movie and it's dark and the house is full of noises and I'm freaking out!"
"All right, all right," said Io. "If it's dark, why don't you turn the lights on?"
"Oh," said Ryuu. He stood up. He turned the lights on. Immediately, the creepy blue and black shadows in his room morphed into their more usual warm pink hues.
"Is that better?" Io asked.
"Yeah, it is."
"Good," said Io. "Now, what movie did you have to see, exactly?"
"On Blackwood Row," Ryuu answered. "It's the one where there's this woman, and she murders her abusive husband and then kills herself, and now their ghosts haunt the apartment complex and start forcing people to re-enact their fights."
"I see," said Io. "Now, tell me. Do you live on Blackwood Row?"
"Has anyone ever been murdered in your house?"
"No," Ryuu admitted.
"How about suicides? Any of those?"
"Not that I've ever heard of," said Ryuu.
"Good," said Io. "Have you ever seen a ghost in your house before? Is there, in fact, any reason why a ghost should want to be in your house?"
"I guess not."
"Of course not," said Io. "Now, given all that, is there any reason to suppose that if there has never been a ghost in your house that you're aware of, one would choose tonight of all nights to turn up?"
Ryuu laughed. "All right, all right, you win. There's no ghost in the house."
"That's what I suspected," said Io. "Now, would you feel better if I came over for a while?"
"Definitely," said Ryuu, with heartfelt gratitude.
"I'll be there soon, then," said Io. "I'll bring some things. See you in about twenty minutes, all right?"
Twenty minutes was still a lot longer than he wanted to wait, but it was the best offer he was going to get. All the same, Ryuu felt better after he'd said goodbye and hung up. Io would be here soon, and he'd make everything all right. Even if by chance there was a ghost, Io would just explain to it why it couldn't exist until it slunk away in defeat.
Ryuu went downstairs to unlock the front door. While he was there, he turned on the hall lights and was reassured to find no ghosts, no dead bodies, and no threatening messages written on the walls in blood. Encouraged, he risked a peek into the kitchen, where he'd heard the noise that had terrified him. There, strewn across the floor, was... a great many plastic containers. Ryuu had to laugh. His grandmother had a habit of stacking an assortment of resealable plastic boxes on top of the fridge, where they tended to fall down at the slightest provocation. Clearly the gust of wind and slamming door had been enough of a vibration to trigger this landslide.
"It would help if she stacked them in some kind of order," he said, and dragged a chair over to the fridge so he could start putting everything back up where it belonged.
He was just finishing with this soothing task when he heard the door open.
"It's me," called a reassuring voice. "I brought the things I promised."
"Io!" Ryuu called back. He scrambled down from the chair he'd been standing on and hurried out to the hallway to meet him. "I sure am glad to see you."
Io had indeed come prepared. He had brought with him his school bag, as well as a duffel bag full of mysterious bulges, from which Ryuu concluded that his best friend was prepared to stay the night if necessary. Ryuu felt a warm surge of gratitude.
"So what's in the bag?" he asked.
Io smiled. "Useful things." He rummaged around inside and came up with a handful of brightly colored foil packets. "What flavor hot chocolate do you like best? There's a chocolate cherry flavor in here somewhere..."
Ryuu sighed blissfully. "You are the best friend ever."
"I have my moments, don't I?" Io agreed.
While Ryuu carried Io's bags up to his room, Io took over the task of making instant hot chocolate. Within minutes, they were both curled up on Ryuu's sofa, sipping their drinks - Ryuu with his chocolate cherry flavor, Io with his salted caramel. He'd even rummaged up some marshmallows from somewhere.
"Did you seriously go out and buy hot chocolate for me?" Ryuu asked.
Io shrugged. "I buy it in bulk. You can get the variety packs very cheaply, and they last a long time. Much more efficient than buying it at a coffee shop."
Ryuu laughed. "Whew! For a minute there, I was worried."
"I don't have any excuse for these, though," said Io.
He rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stack of DVDs. Ryuu stared at them. They all had brightly colored lettering on them, and illustrations depicting a black and white cartoon cat.
"Tuxedo-chan?" he asked. "You seriously paid money for Tuxedo-chan DVDs? That's a kiddy show."
Io shrugged, blushing a little. "I liked it when I was little. They were in the discount bin. Anyway, they're useful now, aren't they? I can't imagine a better cure for being spooked than watching Tuxedo-chan."
"Hey, I'm not complaining," said Ryuu. "I liked Tuxedo-chan too, when I was small."
They watched Tuxedo-chan have an adventure going to the grocery store and attempting to climb into all the various boxes. Ryuu sighed contentedly and settled himself more comfortably against Io's side.
"You're something else, you know that?" he murmured. "Sometimes I don't think you're afraid of anything."
"Everyone's afraid of things," said Io. "Even me."
"Oh, yeah?" said Ryuu. "What are you afraid of?"
"Lots of things," said Io. "Making a bad investment and losing everything. Getting sick and not being able to take care of myself." He stared down into his hot chocolate. "I'm afraid of the day when one of those girls finally captures your heart, and it will be her you call on nights like this instead of me."
Ryuu sat up straighter to stare at him.
"No way," he said. "Never gonna happen."
"It might," said Io.
"Not to me," said Ryuu firmly. "I'm gonna be a carefree bachelor forever. Besides, girls are awesome and all, but there's no one else like you. I'm always going to need you."
Io raised his eyes to meet Ryuu's. "Are you sure?"
"Positive," said Ryuu. "Who else can I count on to bring over hot chocolate and cat videos in the middle of the night?"
Io smiled. "It isn't the middle of the night. It's not even ten o'clock yet."
"Time for another episode?" Ryuu asked hopefully.
"I think there's time," Io agreed. He rummaged in his bag. "Do you want to watch Tuxedo-chan bake a cake or ride a boat?"
"Cake!" Ryuu enthused.
Io smiled. "I should have known. All right, adventures in baking it is."
He dropped the new disc into the DVD tray and started the new episode. As he settled back into his seat, Ryuu slung an arm around his shoulders. Io settled contentedly against his side and half-closed his eyes. Ryuu hummed along with the theme song until Io swatted him. They both laughed.
And neither of them was afraid anymore.