And, here's chapter one, which actually gets into the plot, and the central character: Ayanojou, naturally.


Chapter One

The letter arrived like any other letter might have, which was very sneaky of it. It was, of course, in a very small, white envelope, and the type on the front was so chic you could hardly read it. This wasn't the sort of letter Aburatsubo Ayanojou got every day. No, he got the same fare, letter-wise, as most did, the usual assortment of bills and advertisements and the occasional devastating reminder of a letter from his mother, who never failed to write him just when he was lingering on the verge of depression. And so he opened it, unready for what was on the inside, the invitation which would take him completely unawares.

It had been a very long time since he'd so much as turned his thoughts to the past, to the agonizingly incompetent years he'd spent in high school. All that time he was flooded with the hormones and the embarrassment and the crush which predominated most of his teenage life, tearing him up inside and eventually turning him into the perfect example of teen angst. In fact, he'd spent so much time denying those years before college 'set him free,' that for a moment he barely recognized the name at the bottom of the letter, until memory sucker-punched him in the stomach and he had to sit down for a minute to catch his breath.

The unfortunate truth of the matter was that Aburatsubo Ayanojou remembered high school like a particularly vivid nightmare, because that was exactly what it had been. He had been good-looking, a perfect student, surrounded by fawning younger girls who would have thrown themselves out of windows had he asked them to, and yet there hadn't been any joy in his world to fill up that inevitable emptiness all his happiness turned to. But wasn't that what unrequited high school love was all about? A thousand times, he'd told himself as much, until his chest constricted and he could no longer feel the beating of his heart. Of course, it didn't make the pain any less immediate or any less all-encompassing, because it was his unrequited high school love, which made it all the more serious and devastating.

The name came unbidden to his mind, the memory of a best friend long lost and chances never even realized rising like so many ghosts in the back of his mind: Takakura Takeo. Takeo-kun, Ayanojou thought to himself, pained, idly, was what he used to call the boy, who had then been just on the verge of actual manhood. His face, Ayanojou would never forget: upon it, such foolish expressions, but something so open about his features, so tenderly honest, that Ayanojou had fallen immediately in love with him. No, Takeo was not the sort of boy most iwould/i fall in love with, but Ayanojou had never done things in an even remotely orthodox fashion. From ever since grade school, he had been quite blatantly different from the other boys.

Ayanojou had tried to use beauty and even femininity to win Takeo's affections, had grown his red hair long and had spent hours looking at himself in the mirror, practicing how to move just so. He'd put creams on his face to keep his skin smooth and he'd washed his hair every morning to keep it silky-soft. Watching his mother, he'd learned how to pinch his cheeks so they'd pinken, how to curl his lashes with the back of his forefinger. Every night he'd brush his hair a hundred times but Takeo had never noticed any of this. No, Takeo only ever noticed the wide eyes and the frizzy hair and the incredibly clumsiness of Sawanoguchi Sae, and Ayanojou was only ever this big, flamboyant fool whose love couldn't possible be serious, because look how amusing he was. What really made Ayanojou ill was knowing nothing ever became of Sae and Takeo, though he mooned after her all through high school and ignored -- was desperate to ignore -- every single one of Ayanojou's advances.

And oh, how he loved that fool of a boy. No matter what idiocy he indulged in, no matter what mistakes he made, no matter what girl's breasts he fell flat on his face staring at, Takeo could do no wrong in Ayanojou's eyes. He ached for Takeo every minute of the day, dreamed of Takeo touching him every night, fantasized all through classes and tests and tennis games of Takeo just leaning in and kissing him.

They'd gone their separate ways for college and Ayanojou had gone so far as to cry for a while before going to sleep every night for an entire month. While he had tried to keep in touch, Takeo had only answered his letters sporadically and they had slowly stopped coming at all. Ayanojou, at last, shamed and miserable, just gave up, after nearly four long years of undeterred perseverance. It was, perhaps, the end of an era, the end of a certain amount of innocence he'd had. It was finally the grand excuse Ayanojou needed, the straw that broke his heart at last, so that he could close that particular chapter in his life.

He couldn't forget it, of course; it lingered ever with him. But at least he'd chosen to move on.

Ayanojou sighed and moved finally, shaking himself forcibly out of his thoughts -- ones that hadn't filled him so full in over a year, now. More. Shaking his head, Ayanojou ticked off the years and realized that he hadn't seen Takakura Takeo in more than three and a half years. It had been longer -- almost five years, now -- since he'd last seen Sae and Nanaka, and Akane, almost six. Time flew not only when you were having fun but also when you were busy, and Ayanojou had seen to it that he keep himself busy, just for that reason. A lot had changed over the years, luckily; he'd grown out of his awkward romantic phase, he was twenty-two years old, he was a hard-worker and ever an incredibly good-looking man. He'd cut his hair, kept it now just below his ears, because he didn't feel quite fully comfortable if there wasn't some hair brushing against his chin. His eyes had darkened a little and he'd taken up smoking, so there were tobacco stains on his fingers and he smelled less sweet than once he thought he had. But he liked it, feeling older and stronger and less vulnerable, though the letter had brought him suddenly and swiftly to his knees in a way nothing had since he'd decided to stop writing those horrible, shameless letters.

In the end, Ayanojou realized he couldn't sit there helpless all day - he had dinner to make, had work to do, had an appointment early the next morning. He reread the letter, more of an invitation than anything else, looked at the phone number at the bottom, and then lit a cigarette to calm his nerves. Then, he picked up the phone, and dialed quickly, before he could think to decide against it. Drumming his fingers against the side of his chair, he prepared himself by the second ring to deal with a secretary.

"Moshi moshi?" Aikawa's voice hadn't changed at all since Ayanojou had last heard it, at his high school graduation. He was surprised, though, that he remembered it so well, after so many years.

"Ah," Ayanojou began, heart feeling small and panicked, "Aikawa," because they had never been close, no one was close with Aikawa then, "it's...Aburatsubo Ayanojou, from Kitanohashi..." He trailed off after that, unsure of what else to say. Fortunately, Aikawa broke the silence immediately, laughter in her voice, which was ultimately refreshing, quickly comforting, and Ayanojou relaxed.

"Is it really? I didn't think you'd call! You're the first one who has, you know. It's been a long time, hasn't it? But you do sound the same... How have you been?" Ayanojou gave no pause. The response was automatic and formulaic.

"I've been fine." He toyed with the phone cord, had phones with cords just for that reason. "You've been famous, it seems, ne?" Watching himself in the hallway mirror, he saw his eyes crinkle up at the corners.

"I suppose I have been, at that." Aikawa sounded thoughtful. "I thought maybe, no one would be able to come," she said impulsively, though it wasn't rude simply because her voice didn't allow rudeness. "Can you?"

"I," Ayanojou murmured, wondering if Aikawa was purposefully putting him on the spot to reply in the affirmative, "you see, I've been very busy lately, so I'm not sure that I'll know. Able to. But I am quite flattered that you thought to invite me, and if I were any more certain about whether or not I'd be free during that time, I'd love to come." He was lying. He was free that entire weekend, as luck would have it. His voice was like honey, though, sweet and displaced and politely apologetic.

"Aa. Sou. I thought as much." A pause. "Demo, Aburatsubo - I'm sure it would just be you. None of the others have responded yet, and it did take me a longer time to find your address than theirs." Akane licked her lips in momentary silence. "So - then - if you can come, feel free to just show up! It's been a long time, new, Aburatsubo?"

"Aa," Ayanojou managed, doubt in his mind, now, "hai. I'll see what I can do."

"I hope to see you then."

"Mm," Ayanojou agreed. "Thank you again."

"Hai!" The click in the earpiece on Ayanojou's end told him Aikawa had hung up, but he stared at the phone in his hands for a little more than was necessary before he, too, set it down. For a moment, he hesitated completely torn between guilt and better sense. Then, he went to get his calendar, and wrote the information for Aikawa's party down neatly and calmly underneath the Saturday two weeks from then. It was crazy, he told himself, because what if...?

It didn't do to dwell on 'what if'.

But, he couldn't spend his life running from the past. Somehow, he knew you had to go home, in order to finally be able to live on your own.