Disclaimer: Diabolo was created by Kei Kusunoki and Kaoru Ohashi
A/N: It's a little weird, since they can only be about seven years old, but considering how close they are after ten years of separation, this must have been a very important time. Besides, I remember being that age.
Since we know so little about this time, it could be OOC, could be not. I'm taking liberties with the storyline.
There is no Mio here.
Chapter 1: In the Schoolyard
It hurt when his knees hit the pavement. It hurt when a fist punched his face. It hurt when a foot kicked his ribs. It hurt. All of it. But it was a pain that was familiar, one he could understand. And it was the only thing he could feel when all the rest of him had gone numb.
He was a nothing, a nobody. He didn't even get the luxury of a full name. His parents were gone long ago and he was left without even the comfort of "how" or "why". It was deemed pointless for him to know a past he would never own. He knew where he was from and where he was going and it was all the same place. A long straight highway that stretched out into forever, to some nameless, unimportant darkness. Quiet and without meaning or purpose and he understood that.
So the beatings he received were not as bad as one would think. He accepted them; they were the one thing that told him he was alive. As twisted as it may seem, he treasured them.
Until that day.
That day changed everything.
He had fallen once more into that blissful place where there was pain and there wasn't, real and unreal but all recognizable; when everything suddenly stopped. At first he didn't know what to do. It always stopped at some point, but never like this. He'd long ago learned the routine, the duration, the predetermined schedule and the bell had not yet been rung. This new change made him more afraid of opening his eyes than of being dealt another blow. But then he heard the sound of running away, sensed the vibrations of pounding feet ripple through the ground.
Followed by nothing.
Tentatively, he blinked his eyes and the blurriness of dirt and grass came slowly into view. Dust had been kicked up and still floated ominously in the air like a reminder; a small amount of which got sucked accidentally into his lungs, making him cough. He sputtered to clear it out, a pair of shoes he only just noticed shifted. Then there was a face, a new face, a face he had never seen before, forcing its way into his vision.
"Are you O.K.?" asked a small high voice anxiously.
Rai looked up and saw a boy with wild blond hair and light brown eyes staring at him with concern. "Those guys are just a bunch of jerks." the cute little thing said.
The brunette blinked again, momentarily shocked at what had happened. This other boy whom he had never met must have come over and fought the others off and now inexplicably seemed interested in Rai's well-being.
Nothing like this had ever happened before, not even in his well-worn imagination.
"I'm fine," He answered, a trifle confused. Why would this boy do such a thing? For him? "It doesn't matter. I'm no one important anyway. I don't even have any parents."
He just didn't get it.
"What difference does that make?" The blond looked honestly puzzled, and a little bit angry. "Doesn't mean they should pick on you. Those guys just suck."
Rai didn't understand. The numbness in his heart began to wring and writhe, confused as something new and unfamiliar fought to break through. Still half-dazed, he sat staring blankly at the ground that rested at the other boy's feet. He saw that the boy had on nice sneakers, recently stained with the dirt and grass of the schoolyard, but otherwise a fresh clean white. He could tell they were expensive by their design. They were nothing like the cast-off bargain shoes Rai owned.
"Hey, I'm Ren!" The boy shouted cheerily out of nowhere, without a care in the world. "What's your name?"
Rai lifted his deep green eyes once more to the bright wide smile, the sun shining behind this child-mirage like a golden glow. The blond looked like the personification of kindness. Like an angel.
"Rai." The rescued boy replied, lumbering to his feet and leaning over to brush the dirt from his pants as best he could. His mind still spun, unable to take in all that had happened; it was just too much for his young mind to grasp all at once.
"Let's be friends!' Ren chirped suddenly, oblivious to Rai's confusion.
Rai said nothing and simply stood up straighter. As he mechanically shook the tiny proffered hand, Rai glanced over himself and saw that his efforts had done little to rid his clothes of the dirt they'd collected. He sighed. This would probably just bring him more trouble. Again. Ren watched him curiously, that same smile still on his face, completely unfazed by Rai's less than exuberant, as in nonexistent, reply.
"Wow, you're tall! Hey, how old are you? Are we the same age?" Ren chimed again, his delight not dented in the least. He looked up admiringly at the height of his newly appointed friend. The emerald-eyed boy only blinked at him some more, still not really grasping the situation.
Ren laughed, the sound like music drifting into the air.
"C'mon, let's play!" he cried happily, grabbed Rai by the wrist and began dragging him over to the playground. The taller boy allowed himself to be pulled along, having no real reason to protest, even though it was altogether baffling.
Having reached his destination, the blond hopped excitedly onto one side of a seesaw and grasped his little hands around the metal bar. Swinging his legs, he smiled expectantly at Rai, who only stared a bit dumbfounded at the other side. Though Rai had been in the playground many times, he had never really tried out any of the things it had to offer. No slide, no jungle gym, no sandbox, no swing.
No seesaw for him.
Ren continued to grin happily for a few moments more and then a look of shocked realization came over his gentle features.
"You've never played on a seesaw before, have you?" he asked, truly incredulous.
Embarrassed, a new and uncomfortable feeling for Rai, the brunette ducked his head and shook it. His face felt warm, like he had a fever, but he didn't think he was sick. It was odd and a little disconcerting when his first-ever blush crept over his cheeks.
He stood silently by the seesaw, clenching his fists tightly at his sides and letting his too-long, uncombed hair fall over and hide his face. He squeezed his eyes shut, suddenly and irrationally afraid that now this boy would walk away and leave him; just as everyone else always did, making him wait alone and in pain like every other time until someone finally came for him. Only he knew this pain would hurt more acutely than any other. Already his chest shrunk and twisted, the ache so unknown and sharp that he couldn't breathe.
Only Ren did not leave him. Instead, the boy clambered down and walked over to Rai, gently took his hand and guided him the lowered side of the seesaw. It wasn't until Ren pushed Rai's shoulders down, making him flop clumsily, that Rai even realized he was not about to be abandoned. His green eyes opened slowly and he looked down at his lap. He didn't even remember moving. Then he felt hands, small and warm and soft, clasp over his own and place them on the metal bar in front of him. Still held like this, Ren leaned in and whispered very quietly into Rai's ear.
"You just stay like this and I'll get onto the other side."
Ren's breath tickled Rai's face sweetly, smelling of fruit and candy, and Rai felt his new blush spread downward, making goose pimples and heat rise on the back of his neck. Then Ren's touch was gone and all Rai felt was stupid and confused. To be handled so tenderly was a new experience and his body simply didn't know how to react. It was always punches or kicks or slaps, or more often than not nothing at all; just a simple raking over of disapproving eyes.
And those things did not make you nervous and flushed. They simply hurt.
He raised his head to watch Ren, who had still somehow not forsaken him, as the blond walked over to the raised side of the wooden plank. Ren was a lot shorter than Rai realized and the brunette watched with growing amusement as the boy jumped and hopped and reached, trying to grasp the high end of the seesaw only to fail. The small blond pouted with a crease of concentration on his brow and his hands planted firmly on his hips. Ren sized the plank up and down with a scrutinizing stare, while Rai's grip on the metal bar became tighter and tighter until his knuckles turned white.
He knew this was it, it had to be. The time had come for him to b e alone again.
But Ren was bound and determined to make this work and not a thing, least of all the stupidity of not being able to get on the seesaw, was going to stop him. His pout seemed to sink deeper until suddenly his eyes popped open and he smiled once more, a brightness that could fill the whole schoolyard, spilling out over Rai's little loneliness. The blond boy moved to the center of the seesaw and with an effort, and a few grunts and huffs, managed to swing his short little leg over the wooden plank. Then, with his pink tongue sticking out the side of his mouth in concentration, he inched his way upward until he reached the far end. And finally, with some strangely acrobatic maneuvers he settled himself properly, latched his hands on the bar and smiled triumphantly at Rai.
Rai had watched him all this time as the boy wriggled and fought and at last succeeded. Now he raised his dark eyebrows at the smaller boy in silent question.
Ren just giggled and was suddenly taken by a sneeze. He wiped his face across the sleeve of his shirt and then waved across the vast seesaw distance.
"Now you have to push on the ground with your legs!" The blond shouted encouragingly.
Rai nodded and did as he was told, the action sending him upward and making Ren just barely touch the ground. Size was working against them, but Ren did his best, reaching his toes downward and forcing his weight to follow so that when he kicked back, there was better force behind it.
Rai felt himself falling down, but instinctively mimicked what Ren had done and soon he was flying upward again. It was new for him which sent this pleasant little thrill rushing through his heart. It wasn't so much the seesaw, that was simple enough and not all that exciting. It was the fact that he wasn't alone. Or rather that he was with someone whose goal wasn't to hurt or humiliate or harass him. The tiny hint of a smile crept over his face as he allowed himself to feel.
Ren, innocent and free from troubles as he was, had no idea how important this simple natural act had been to Rai or how much it affected him. Ren just enjoyed the game and the company.
"See, this is what's great about this!" Ren yelled over to Rai, his eyes sparkling. "You need two people!"
The dark-haired boy nodded in answer and whispered a quiet "yeah" which was surely not heard by Ren, though it didn't seem to bother either of them. Rai just watched Ren as the blond reached his toes down and pushed himself up, biting his lip with the effort but grinning just the same. And every other moment, Rai was in the sky, free and flying, but still connected to his new friend by this common playground game.
It was a word he'd never expected to use. He liked the way it sounded, rolling it over in his mind. And then he was going up again, up to the clouds and the sky and farther still to space, if he so wanted to believe.
And he smiled, his eyes squeezed shut, a little laugh escaping his open mouth.
It was the first time in his life Rai had ever been happy.
The afternoon passed pleasantly until the two boys, exhausted but content, sat under the shade of a nearby tree, having run and jumped and swung and run some more at Ren's insistence until their energy had all been spent. Ren did not know why, but looking at the other boy made him a little sad and a little lonely all at the same time. But when Rai smiled and released one of those soft breathy laughs, Ren felt his own happiness swell tenfold, as if filled with that precious, rarely heard gift from Rai.
And that was a feeling he liked.
So he had kept Rai playing and smiling and cheerful, just to get that feeling. Not that this was a thing Rai would ever know or understand.
But it ended all too soon for both. After all, young boys, even with all their energy, tire out quickly and once the two had had enough, they had no choice but to throw themselves onto the ground at the mercy of the waning day.
Rai had never felt so alive nor so utterly worn out before. His heart thumped in his chest and he had to admit, for having his first initial taste of friendship, and more specifically of Ren, he knew he would not be able to give it up. He stole a secretive glance to the blond and saw the sun casting its glow behind him, making his hair that much more golden. Then Ren yawned widely and cutely, his mouth going at an odd angle with his lower lip in one direction and his upper in the other, and stretched his back out, reaching his arms behind his head. His blue striped shirt snuck up, exposing his slightly extended, round little tan belly. Rai's eyes were drawn there, clean and smooth and clear and he reflexively hugged his arms around his own sickly white belly. The hollow one with the purple and yellow bruise that covered a corner and crept over his ribs.
Unaware of Rai's discomfort, Ren flopped himself backward into the dirt, causing some of the dust to come flying up. His shirt stayed bunched up, still exposing his stomach which now went concave from his stretched position. Rai stared at the boy, so naturally content, and found himself blushing.
He let the interchangeable words settle and mesh and swirl his head even as he continued to stare at Ren's face. The boy's eyes were closed, his lips curled up in a grin, his still baby cheeks puffed and pink from exertion. Then his light brown eyes opened and looked at Rai. His expression softened and he just stared a moment. Then suddenly, Ren reached out and yanked on Rai's arm, making the brunette tumble down to lay on his back next to Ren.
Startled, and not a little nervous, Rai had a hard time trying to get comfortable, squirming this way and that on the unyielding ground.
Ren just laughed at him.
Ignoring this, Rai looked upward and saw that the sky was darkening; it was getting late and with a cold heaviness settling in the pit of his stomach, he knew this soon would end. Subconsciously, he gripped the grass beneath his hands between his small child fingers, as though he could literally hold onto this time.
Ren eyed him curiously, frowned for a second and then without preamble, rolled and scooted himself over so that he lay on his side, cuddled up to Rai. The brunette tensed as Ren rested his hand on the other boy's chest, his hand curled into a small fist. Rai felt Ren sneeze and sniffle and yawn again, blinking a few times to fight the sleepiness. Then Ren raised himself back up to a sitting position to stare down at Rai.
Edging himself up onto his elbows to look at the boy, Rai instantly felt uneasy with those golden brown eyes staring at him, though he didn't know why.
Ren titled his head to the side. "You really don't talk much, do you?" Rai turned red and turned his head away. Ren laughed and went on. "You're weird! But you know what?" Ren leaned into Rai conspiratorially. "I like you."
Once more, Rai felt the warm sweet breath tickle his ear and out of instinct, he tensed his jaw and shoulders, his wide eyes darting everywhere but towards Ren. The blond giggled again, his breath dancing over Rai's neck and pulled away. This time, Rai did look at him, flushed and awkward, in startling contrast to Ren's completely relaxed manner.
So innocent was Ren's smile, so sweet were his eyes, that Rai really thought he really was exactly what an angel would look like. He even fancied, for the briefest of moments, that he saw long, white, feathery wings stretching back behind the Ren, fading into the deep cobalt blue of the sky. Rai rubbed his eye with the curved knuckles of his hand and when he opened them again, that little trick of light and imagination was gone.
But the impression steadfastly remained.
Rai could feel the warmth of Ren's leg as it nestled up to him, could sense the softness of Ren's cheek as it brushed against his, the warm tingle of air when Ren whispered into his ear. And for some reason he didn't understand, it made him anxious and dizzy, filling his previous emptiness with something comfortable yet exciting.
"Re-en!" A woman's singsong call interrupted his reverie and Rai's arms almost slipped out from under him.
Ren's head perked up at the sound of his name. "That's my mom!"
And just like that, Rai's joy fractured all around him and tumbled down like so many shards of shattered glass. His happiness jumped up and ran over to the waiting arms of a kind looking woman who wore an inviting smile upon her face. And Rai couldn't help but feel like the puppy bought on a whim at Christmas, forgotten with the rest of the day and finally packed up and sent away to wait and hope and pray for another new home.
One that wouldn't just leave him.
But he had no such delusions, despite his deepest desires, and he watched forlornly, though not regrettably at Ren as the boy hugged his mother and chattered on wildly. Rai couldn't make out the words they spoke. But then, he didn't want to hear, to know as he was forgotten. So he simply didn't listen.
The sun cast a harsh red and gold glow over the playground as it dipped slowly beneath the horizon. His world felt cold and hazy and unpleasant, and oh so agonizingly familiar. It was a harder day to swallow than most, but it wasn't really a different one. He told himself this quietly to quell the growing ache.
Then the brunette stood and headed for his discarded backpack, the bag lost in the unexpected joy of the day and Rai prepared himself for the inevitable wait.
"Rai! Hey Rai!" Ren's voice soared through the empty air of the schoolyard like an unearthly beacon. Rai stopped, stunned, unbelieving. His eyes squeezed shut, he prayed to whatever would listen to make this not a dream.
Ren, oblivious as ever in that childlike way of his, only went forward. The small pounding of Ren's little feet sent waves through the dirt to Rai, making his toes curl as if he could grab onto it. He waited there in the dusk of day for reality to hit him, brutal and sharp as it always did.
But what touched him instead was a tiny hand, warm and gentle that held his shoulder and turned him around. Every last nerve of Rai was tense, his eyes still held shut, his shoulders pulled upward.
Rai cautiously cracked one eye open. Before him stood Ren, not an illusion but the boy himself, an adorable pout on his face and concerned glint to his eye. "Why're your eyes closed, huh?"
Rai opened his green eyes completely and looked straight at Ren. Rai shook his head, dismissing the question and feeling a little dizzy from the promise of answered prayers.
Then two hands wrapped around the brunette's wrist and tugged. "C'mon, c'mon, Rai!" The blond shouted eagerly with a huge grin on his face, the events of the previous minutes already forgotten. "I wantcha to meet somebody!"
And again, that tiny pink tongue stuck out the side of Ren's mouth as he strained, trying to pull the larger boy after him. Rai smiled. Maybe, just maybe, he shouldn't have doubted Ren. But trust was a hard thing to give when it has always been abused before. Looking at the anxious features of Ren's face, Rai decided to grant mercy on his small friend and took a step forward. A slightly sudden step that Ren wasn't expecting and almost made him fall. With a little careful footwork though, Ren managed to keep his balance and beamed proudly.
Rai's smile softened.
And in the next moment, he found that their hands were linked and he was being dragged off somehow in the momentum of Ren's enthusiasm.
Without realizing it, Rai was face to face with the woman of minutes before, her smile no less genuine and her eyes sparkling. They were of a different color than Ren's, but the open friendliness in them was exactly the same.
"See, see!" Yipped Ren, nearly bouncing out of his skin. "This is him, Mom! Rai, my new friend!"
"Glad to meet you, Rai," The woman said in that sweet singsong voice.
Ren took both Rai's hands in his own gently, almost reverently, and moved him towards the woman as if he were presenting a gift.
"Rai," he said, just as happily as before. "This is my mom."
Unable to break his ingrained habits, Rai ducked his head and replied with a barely audible "Hi."
The brunette felt a small squeeze on his hands and felt the now familiar pink heat rise up his neck. "He's a little quiet," Ren said, rather matter-of-factly. "But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with him!"
The last was said defiantly as f Ren expected his mother to say something and he had to be on the offensive to protect his new friend. But the woman only laughed softly. "Of course it doesn't, Ren. Silly boy."
Rai could feel the smile on Ren's face through his fingers. And suddenly, those hands were swinging and Ren, in that unobtrusive, natural way, made Rai look at him. "Maybe someday you could stay at my house. My mom's a really great cook. You could come for dinner!" Ren's excitement grew with every word that came from his mouth. "Can he Mom?"
Her long delicate finger threaded their way through her son's hair as she looked down on him. "I'm sure we could work something out."
Now Ren really did begin jumping up and down and screaming happily. Rai felt the blush turn hotter, redder, and dutifully kept his eyes glued to the ground at his feet. Ren's mood was infectious, but like all infections, it could become dangerous and until he was sure that this was all real and true and lasting, he didn't want to let it set in.
Even so, he dared himself to hope.
"Now, now, Ren, " the blond's mother chided gently. "That's enough. We have to be going home now. It was very nice to meet you, Rai." She gave the boy another smile and nodded .
Rai twisted a finger with his hand and smiled. "It was nice to meet you too, ma'am."
Then the woman took a sniffling Ren and led him away, off into the encroaching darkness, far away from the cold and lonely schoolyard. Ren continued to look back and wave, shouting, "I'll see you tomorrow, Rai!" over and over again like a promise.
The brunette watched with the new grin on his face as the light seemed to follow the happy family and disappear into the night.
'How lucky', Rai thought to himself, gazing at he empty space. A loving mother, a warm home, a safe embrace. They were all the things he wanted too, but would never have.
The reality hit him hard and fast, snuffing out the glimmer of joy that had entered his life.
'How unfair life is.'
He'd never much liked his life, but it only just occurred to him now, just how lop-sided it was that by pure chance one child would have everything and the other left with nothing.
"What are you doing out here in the dark like an idiot! Get over here!"
Rai winced at the familiar harsh bark of the orphanage's caretaker. Clutching his overstuffed backpack in his little arms, he looked up warily at the man, thin and pale and pinch-faced and nothing at all like the woman Ren called "Mom". He shuffled sheepishly over to him and he immediately cuffed him hard on the head. "Do you realize I had to come out here this late just to get you? I had to pay Soichiro extra to watch the others. Useless little brat!" He berated Rai as though the boy was to blame for his forgetfulness.
But Rai made no protest, he never did, and when long fingernails bit into the soft flesh of his arm, he didn't make a sound. Even when dragged behind the man like a piece of luggage, mumbling angrily the whole way back to the orphanage, Rai still did not say a word.
Rai even stayed silent,continuing to clasp his bag, after he'd been tossed through brittle, unwelcoming doors and into an overcrowded room with an annoyed, "Waste of money!"
The door slammed loudly behind him and the other children, sitting about lazily on their dirty beds in their secondhand clothes, looked at him each in turn with angry, hate-filled glares as he walked by. As always, Rai paid them no mind and simply settled himself onto his own pathetic cot, tucked into a corner and hid himself under the sheets, not even bothering to change his clothes. The strange glowing darkness that filled the tented blanket made him think and wonder and hope.
Ren said "tomorrow."
Rai wanted it so much to be true.
But only one thing was for certain; the ice that had long ago encased his tiny child's heart had begun to melt.
But whether that was for good or for ill had yet to be determined.