Eiji sets down two cups of tea on the table. The china making soft clanks from the contact.
"Thank you." Ibe says with a wide smile, sipping the tea carefully.
Eiji drags a chair back so he can sit across from his friend. Ibe-san had come for a three day visit out of the blue. Surprising Eiji with a sudden call to be picked up at the airport. He had never given a reason for the trip and Eiji had not asked for an explanation. He picked up Ibe and they had spent three days doing the tourist thing, visiting old friends, visiting places. Both pretending the past never happened.
"Do you have everything packed?" Eiji raises his cup to his lips. The smell of the tea pleasantly filling his nostrils, but it's still too hot to drink.
The older man glances at the large suitcase tucked by the door. "Yes. We should have left already. I don't like rushing through security."
Eiji puts his cup down. "But you asked for tea? You said you wanted to talk for a minute."
"Yes…" Ibe hesitates. Eiji keeps holding the cup, but doesn't raise it to his lips. "I wanted to talk to you about something. There's a reason I came to see you."
Ibe grabs his carry-on bag by his side and pulls out a folded manilla envelope, placing it on the table.
"I don't need money." Eiji says automatically, feeling a tiny bit of heartache at the thought his friend believes he can't support himself. "I'm making due with my freelancing, maybe someday I'll have an exhibit of my own—"
"This isn't money." Ibe pushes the envelope forward.
Eiji grabs it after a second of hesitation, carefully tearing the seal and extracting the contents. A letter. "This is a formal job offer from the magazine… Ibe-san, did you ask them to do this?"
"No. Of course, not." Ibe shakes his head. "The position opened suddenly. I showed the lead editor some of your portfolio. Told them about you… He was so impressed he made the offer right then and I decided to bring it to you personally."
Eiji stares at the letter for a second longer before placing it face down on the table and pushing it back. "I'm sorry, Ibe-san. With all due respect I just applied for permanent residency. This is my home now."
"It's not. Japan is your home. Your family is there."
"My family respects my decision." Eiji's voice loses some of it's pleasantry, fingers lingering on the teacup once more. He still doesn't drink.
"How much did you really tell them about New York? How dangerous it was? You never told them the full story did you? You don't belong here, Eiji. Come back to Japan with me." Ibe pulls something else from his bag, a small printed paper with Eiji's name on it.
"You purchased a ticket for me…" Eiji's voice shakes for the first time. "Ibe-san I can't pay you back for this."
"You don't have to. The company paid for your fare. They are excited to have you."
Ibe smiles confidently even as the silence grows. Even as Eiji no longer looks at him.
"Why would you do this?" Eiji feels the threat of tears behind his eyelids. His words low and hollow. "Please stop."
Ibe doesn't immediately respond. Just the sound of a deep breath and tap of fingers on the table. "You need to go back to Japan." He says callously.
"I need to be where I want to be." Eiji raises the cup of the now cold tea.
Ibe's eyes become somber. Any traces of amiability leave his face. "I wish I had never taken you with me to New York." His voice trails like a forgotten dream. A ghost of regret that lingers in the air.
Eiji sets the cup on the table with a hard thud as liquid spills. There is a small sound from the younger man. A shaking intake of breath. "Take that back."
Ibe stares. "If I hadn't taken you, your life would be so different right now. Your world would be lighter. It could be happy. I stay awake at night regretting that one second I decided to bring you."
"Please…" Eiji squeezes the china.
"Come back to Japan. Your home. Your family wants you there. I want you there."
"I can't." Eiji isn't looking at Ibe anymore, his eyes hidden behind his growing locks.
"Just pack a few things and get on the plane with me."
Eiji stands up suddenly, he pushes the papers to the floor, scattering them as his hand slams on the table. Every inch of him trembles. For a wild moment he imagines himself grabbing that ticket. Getting on that plane. Leaving this place far behind and never looking back.
The thought of it brings tears to his eyes. "Don't you understand?" His voice shudders and breaks. "He isn't there. There's nothing of him there. No places he's been. No things he has touched. I have no memories of him there… Nothing!"
Ibe rises from his seat, something like misery crosses his features. His words heavy with truth. "He isn't here either. He's dead."
"Don't you think I know that?" Eiji raises his voice, he can't control anything anymore. "I wasn't with him. I left and he died. I got a call in the middle of the night to tell me he was gone. How many more moments I have to spend asking myself why didn't I stay?" He can barely see anymore. The mixture of tears and agony that overwhelms when he dares to remember. "This is the only place where I don't feel I will be swallowed by madness. Because he was here… he was here!"
Ibe moves carefully, closer. Hands steady on Eiji's shoulders even as the younger man shakes. "Ei-chan… you are not well. I thought you were over it."
Eiji moves back like he's been bitten. Breaks the contact. Puts some distance. He feels it. That small gap feels like miles. Larger than the ocean that separates them now. He and Ibe are no longer in the same world. And what's worst. Ibe is right.
His life would be so different…
Different if he had never boarded that plane.
Different if he had never twisted his ankle.
Different if he had never chosen to fly.
He would have never met Ash.
Eiji feels the tears trickle down his cheeks. Unable to stop them.
Life had too many maybes…
Maybe he would have a carefree life in Japan if he'd never left.
Maybe he would have worn gold around his neck if he hadn't twisted his ankle.
Maybe he would feel empty if he had chosen to remain on the ground.
He would have never known love if he hadn't met Ash.
"I will never be over it." Eiji's voice trails like a ghost.
"There are good therapists in Japan–" Ibe reaches out, Eiji shakes away from his reach.
"What would you know about losing someone you loved?" Eiji cuts him off. The tears have stopped.
Ibe is visibly taken aback. "That's not fair, Ei-chan."
Eiji grabs his untouched tea and tosses it on the sink. "I'm not a child Ibe-San. This is my home. Where I chose to live."
"You can't live for someone that will never come back."
"He died to protect me. How else am I supposed to live this life he protected if not for him?"
"You can't live for someone that's dead!"
Eiji pauses by the hallway. "I'll call a cab to take you to the airport. Please have a good trip, Ibe-san."
Eiji leaves without looking back. Ignores Ibe's calls.
He locks himself in his room and waits against the door until the noise stops. Waits until he hears the front door open and shut. He wipes his face with his shirt and heads to the walk-in closet. Grabbing a solid metal safe box from the back and holding it close to his chest.
He places it gently on the bed. Stares at the lock for endless seconds.
The key is hidden in the far right dresser drawer. In a small silver box tucked beneath shirts that are too small for him.
His fingers trail on the top of the box, hesitating on the lid. He knows what's in here. The images he hid in the dark…
He's not ready yet, not yet. Not today.
But maybe someday he will. Someday he'll open the box. Someday he'll look.
But not today.