This time they'd managed to meet at the station without any delays, and navigate to Kaoru's house without getting lost. There was a chill in the hallway, after they shrugged off coats and scarves – it was a grey day, clouds curdling the sky – but that didn't matter. It wouldn't last. Ryou was really happy to see him.
"Ryou…?" Kaoru turned towards him, still clutching the edge of a coat after hanging it up. He hesitated, as if he had something in mind but wasn't sure how to word it. "Um, would it…"
"What's the matter?"
Kaoru shook his head. "…Never mind." A flickering smile. "I'm just glad you're here… Would you like something to drink?"
Fair enough. "I'll have tea, I guess." He never drank tea at home, but always seemed to end up with it at other people's houses. It was the easiest thing to ask for, especially in winter.
"All right. There's a kotatsu in the other room, if you're cold…"
While Kaoru headed to the kitchen, Ryou went to settle down, switching on the heater beneath the table and arranging the comforter over his legs. He supposed Kaoru's mother must be out again; hopefully she wouldn't return at a bad moment this time. Anyway… This place was very different to his parents' house, which he liked. Simpler, no fancy ornaments or photographs, although there was a long tank against one wall, tropical fish circling pieces of bone-white artificial coral. It looked vaguely out of place, but held his attention for a while.
Kaoru seemed to be taking a long time in the kitchen.
"Need help in there?" Ryou called.
"I'm okay," Kaoru replied, sounding less than certain (and barely audible; he wasn't good at raising his voice). When he arrived with the tea though, it tasted fine. He asked if it was okay, and if this room was comfortable enough, fussing in the effort to be a decent host. He'd done the same thing last time. Ryou took it in the spirit it was intended, rather than telling him to cut it out.
"I wish my place had space for a kotatsu." Central heating was more common in Japan than it used to be, but Ryou's apartment didn't have it. The vital thing was that it had a fast internet connection.
"Well, you're welcome to use this one as much as you like…" Kaoru didn't sit opposite Ryou at the table, as might be expected. Instead he chose one of the other sides, so they looked at each other diagonally. Over a shorter distance.
"Thanks. All the wedding stuff with my cousin's finished, so I'll be able to get here more often."
"That's good… Did it go well?"
"I guess so." Ryou shrugged, then smiled. "Ours was more fun."
"Are marriages very important in your family?"
"No more than anyone else's. I'm not under much pressure." Never mind that he'd had a few senior relatives on his case, marking him as the next one who ought to get hitched (in a real, offline sense, to a girl). It was too soon to worry about that. He was seventeen, he had years to figure it out, and was stubborn enough to ignore anyone else's interference. "Hey, didn't you want a picture of us on your new phone?"
"Is it okay if I take one now…?"
Kaoru shifted over to Ryou's side of the kotatsu. Ryou leaned in to make sure they'd get a good, close-up shot – well, that was one reason he leaned in - and wrapped an arm around Kaoru's waist. He felt thinner than he appeared, through layers of warm, loose-fitting clothing. His head tilted to rest against Ryou's, and strands of his hair brushed Ryou's cheek, feather-light. The camera flash went off.
The picture was a good one, but Ryou said, "Let's take another." Although they didn't need another, this was a cosy position. No reason to hurry getting out of it.
"You think so…?" Kaoru conceded, raising the phone again. Ryou squeezed his waist a little tighter. The flash went off a second time. "Yes, that one's better…" he said, with an air of calm happiness, even from something so trivial. Ryou couldn't resist kissing him.
It was gentle, a little awkward, two people who hadn't quite learned to read each other's signals yet. A little awkwardness, balanced by heart-quickening newness. Kaoru's hands hovered uncertainly on Ryou's shoulders, like he couldn't figure out where best to put them. The flash went off a third time, and Ryou chuckled when they parted and checked the result: a blurry, accidental photo of his neck.
"What, you're not deleting that?"
"No, I'll keep it… I don't want to lose any picture of you, even a bad one." Kaoru was smiling; he knew how strange that sounded and didn't care at all. The phone was finally set down, beside a cup of tea he hadn't touched.
"Anyway, what were you trying to ask before?"
"Oh, that… Just…I wanted to ask if I could kiss you, actually."
It was kind of ridiculous that he thought he had to ask – but kind of cute, too. So of course Ryou kissed him again, curled his fingers in the fabric of Kaoru's shirt to pull him even closer.
"You can do that whenever, you know," Ryou said quietly, smiling. "I'm pretty okay with it." He got a vague sense of déjà vu, saying that: to a time when Endrance hadn't even dared touch Haseo's face, in case he got mad. He didn't want false assumptions like that to get in the way anymore.
"Yeah." This wasn't all he'd come here for, but honestly, a lot of other things – talking, getting to know each other – they could do anytime, online or over the phone. They did those practically every day. There weren't many things that could only happen in person, no wires attached, every sense engaged.
Then Kaoru pulled away. Not much, just enough to speak. "Ryou… You understand how I feel, don't you?" he asked softly, head bowed, as if he was suddenly too shy to make eye contact. Even his voice sounded better, in person. No matter how clear a phone line or webcam connection was, it was better to hear it this close, almost breathing in his words. "You should know I'll do anything you wish. Anything you ask me to…" One of his hands strayed down to rest on Ryou's hip. Again, it was a lightly hovering touch, like he wasn't sure it ought to be there. "I… I really want to make you happy…"
Ryou swallowed, captivated. "Same here. I mean, I want to make you happy too."
"Then…" A few more moments of hesitation. The hand on Ryou's hip pressed a little firmer. "Then shall we move this into the bedroom?"
"What?" He wondered if he'd misheard, or misinterpreted. "Seriously?" Oh, crap - it really was serious? Where had that come from? Despite himself, there was a halfway-interested flutter in his stomach. "Uh, no. We're fine here."
"…You don't want to…?"
"No! I mean. It's only the second time we've met, you know?" It wasn't like he'd never thought about it, but those weren't serious expectations yet, just…the other type of thoughts. Private thoughts. That was enough, for now.
"But if you want more, that's okay. You…don't have to do anything in return, if you-"
"Nobody's doing anything!" he snapped. He hadn't meant to, but didn't like having this thrown at him out of the blue – and there was something offabout it, anyway. One minute Kaoru couldn't even kiss without asking, and the next he wanted to jump into bed? Even for him, that was too weird.
Kaoru leaned back, almost flinching, still avoiding eye contact. "…I'm sorry, if I shouldn't have asked."
"Why did you?"
"I told you…" His voice was steady but very quiet, more so than usual, as if it hurt to push the words out. Arms crossed tight over his body.
"That wasn't an answer. Stop saying you'll do what I want, when you don't know what that is."
Silence, dragging on long enough for a heavy fog of awkwardness to build. The only noise was a bubbling filter in the aquarium. "…What is it you want from me, Ryou? I've asked before, and thought you gave me an answer, but…"
"I don't know." It was a curt, automatic reply. The real reply was kinder, warmer, but that was buried under irritation now. Things had been going so well, and they'd anticipated this meeting so much. Why did it suddenly have to get weird? "Just…quit being stupid, okay?" He paused. "And drink your tea if you're gonna drink it. We'll be late."
"I thought we'd go to a movie today. I haven't had a chance to see that one based on The World yet." And the cinemas would stop showing it soon, which meant they might get the whole screen to themselves. No large crowds to stress Kaoru out.
"A date?" Kaoru sounded more surprised than he had any right to.
"Yeah, a date! We're dating, so we're going out on dates. That's what I want." He shot Kaoru a scolding look. "I already found a place and checked the screening times."
"…I see." A smile, and the tension melted from Kaoru's posture. He seemed relieved, even – and that soothed Ryou's mood as well. He still wasn't entirely clear on what had happened, why Kaoru'd thrown himself forward like that, but it looked like saying no had been the wiser choice.
It wasn't like Ryou was shy or uptight, or uncertain in his sexuality. There was definitely a whole lot of stuff he was really interested in doing. He simply didn't feel they had to do it now, today. He wanted to enjoy the smaller things first: making out, holding hands, going places together. And deep down, he suspected that was what Kaoru wanted, too.
Maybe this romantic attitude was catching, just a little. Not in a bad way.
Endrance was in Breg Epona, in that small hidden square down flights of stairs, where the pavement gave way to fathomless blue skies. He'd never been afraid of heights; many other things, but never heights. That's where he was sitting, right at the edge, when Saku found him. She'd been avoiding him for…well, about a fortnight now.
He turned, surprised to see her, and at the meekness in her tone. But it was nice to know she was okay, hadn't vanished from the game altogether (he wasn't sure why it was nice, but apparently it was). "…Hello, Saku."
"Hi." She approached and sat down beside him, stocking-striped legs dangling out over the abyss of sky. "Master En…can I talk to you?"
He gave a murmur of assent.
"Sorry I haven't been around much. There was stuff I needed to think about, but it's okay now."
"You don't want to hear it." Silence for a while, after that. If Endrance wasn't meant to ask then he wasn't going to. Just as his attention started to wander, Saku sighed, and told him anyway. "It's not fair. The World's the only place I could ever fall in love, you know. The only place ever."
A few months ago – a few weeks, even – her distress wouldn't have made any impact on him. He'd have swept it aside like dust. But now it did, and he still couldn't decide why, except that she was somebody familiar, whom he had no ill wishes towards. A flicker of empathy, perhaps. "You treat me as if I'm perfect, but… There are problems I have to deal with, in the real world. But Haseo helps me so much…"
Granted, yesterday's visit hadn't gone perfectly, but that wasn't Ryou's fault. Kaoru was the one who'd been foolish and embarrassing, and…he'd prefer not to dwell on it. In the end, Ryou's behaviour reassured him. It hadn't wiped out all his fears in one fell swoop – he'd need some type of magic to achieve that, probably – but it was enough. Ryou had taken him on a simple, wonderful date, rather than taking anything else Kaoru wasn't sure he wanted to give yet.
"He's really nice to you? Honestly?" For the first time, Saku glanced up at him. Endrance nodded. "Well…he'd better keep being nice. Or I'll make him regret it forever!"
"Yes, Master En?"
"Would you like to go to an area?"
She sat up straighter, beaming at him. "Of course!"
It wasn't an act of charity. Endrance didn't talk any more than usual, but he was present, which seemed to suffice. He wondered what Saku meant by The World being the only place she could fall in love, but didn't pry. Whatever cause a person could have for saying something like that, it could only be painful.
Warping back to Breg Epona, they ran into Haseo; he must have logged in this very minute. Endrance felt a hint of nervous apprehension mixed with the usual wave of happiness. They'd exchanged a few texts earlier today, and he'd apologised again for his foolish advance. Haseo's last words on the subject had been 'it's fine, quit worrying', but…Endrance was still a little worried, regardless. He wasn't sure what sort of greeting to offer.
"Hey! Move out the way, stupid Haseo!" Saku snapped. Either her bout of acceptance hadn't lasted, or it didn't extend to actually treating Haseo with courtesy. Oh well, at least she'd broken the ice.
"Saku? And Endrance?"
"That's riiight! Since you weren't here, me and Master En went to play all by ourselves," she declared, in a tone of great satisfaction. Then she placed a finger beneath one eye, and stuck her tongue out.
"I see." Haseo folded his arms, exchanging a look with Endrance and then focusing back on Saku. He didn't seem cross or awkward; if anything, he looked to be in a good mood. Amused, perhaps. That was a relief. "Guess you're back to your old self again."
"Of course! I'll never give up the fight for Master En's heart!"
"I knew the peace was too good to last," Haseo said, but Endrance knew he didn't mean it.
"So, how long have you been part of The World?" asked the interviewer from Tenth Dimension, a regular-looking Harvest Cleric. Haseo wondered if she was a real player, or if she'd created a character just to meet him in his native environment (he wouldn't have agreed to an offline interview, but he didn't think they'd want that anyway; Haseo was the internet celebrity, not Ryou).
"I started last November, so almost a year now."
"A milestone! What's kept you playing all this time?"
"My friends. The World is where I've met all my most important friends and rivals." That was only a fragment of the truth, but it was a decent enough answer to give publicly.
"Really, so it wasn't the challenge of becoming a champion?"
"That stuff isn't what really matters."
It was good to consider things like this, he supposed. Looking back to how different he'd been a year ago, and over everything that reshaped him. Picturing everyone he had to thank, though 'thank' wasn't always the best word. Being able to do that without anger or regret overwhelming him. Knowing his fate had been tied to The World's for far longer than he'd realised, and feeling okay with that.
Not that the interviewer asked anything too deep. She seemed most interested in the secrets of his arena success, and obviously he wasn't going to spill those. He said some generic stuff about teamwork and dedication (and those weren't exactly lies, either).
"What do you think about the controversy surrounding online games? People claiming they're too addictive, or drive kids to behave violently?"
"That's a tough issue, but you can't put all the blame on games. Everyone should take responsibility for their own actions – and you know, games can have a good influence too. Some people, things aren't great in their real lives, and they can't get support anywhere except their online friends. It makes them better, not worse."
The interviewer nodded, then remarked lightly, "For someone nicknamed 'Terror of Death', you give surprisingly thoughtful answers."
"It's true you're a high school student though, isn't it?"
"Not sure where you heard that, but yeah." Haseo regarded the woman with a hint of wariness. He didn't want her grilling him for too many offline details.
"Well, I'm sure you know you've got a lot of female fans out there. For their benefit, do you have a girlfriend, or are you single?"
Now that was barely better than gossip. He pulled an unimpressed face. "Neither."
"You've heard of Endrance, right? We had a history in the arena, then did the wedding event. He's my boyfriend in real life." He didn't think he'd called Endrance that before, but it was right. It felt right. Far better than lying to classmates about dating some girl in another prefecture.
"Oh, I see." The interviewer gave an uncertain sort of laugh.
Haseo fixed her with a steady, challenging stare. "What, gonna edit that out?"
"I'm not judging anything, just looking for points of interest."
He folded his arms, and relaxed slightly. "All right. What's your next question?"
Even if Tenth Dimension didn't do something stupid like censor his mention of a boyfriend, he'd probably never give an interview after this. It was a one-off, for the novelty, because he didn't mind the fame he had, but didn't want to encourage it too much. It didn't matter whether or not he'd earned it; eventually the name 'Haseo' would fade into obscurity, and life would carry on just fine. He'd done what he needed to do.
Endrance seldom went to Lumina Cloth these days. Haseo had abandoned the Sage Palace crown, claiming he'd lost interest, and would rather spend his time in the game hanging out with friends. Which made sense. As for the real world, they had a lot more meetings behind them now, sometimes staying in and sometimes going out. Just to local, uncrowded places: the beach on a clear, quiet day, or to pick up a meal (though it was tricky finding somewhere that catered to both of their palates; Kaoru couldn't stomach most of Ryou's favourite dishes). More moments of affection behind them, more confidence between them, and understanding.
And this time, he would be venturing even further.
The offline world wasn't so awful as he'd once believed. He'd never be a social butterfly, but he wasn't afraid to step outside anymore, didn't see the future as something bleak and formless. He was learning how to get by. As Endrance, and as Kaoru too.
Unfamiliar pavements were wet, a memory of last night's snow (melted by the endless rush of humanity, rather than the pale winter sun). The crowds were wisely wrapped up, layered wool and waterproofs, gloves and scarves and the occasional white flu mask, the sort that had spooked him and made him cry, when he was a small child. He wasn't cold though, not really. Too much else to be distracted by, too many sparks of nervousness and elation to pause and notice the cold.
"The view from my apartment won't be great," Ryou said, "but if we go to a park or something, it should be clearer."
Anyone could tell that Tokyo – anywhere in Tokyo, even a park – wouldn't be the best place to watch a meteor shower. Too much light pollution, especially at this time of year (though some of the Christmas displays were beautiful enough to compensate, perhaps). For that purpose, Kaoru's hometown would have been a better choice, but there were other reasons to be here instead.
Smiling, he kept hold of Ryou's hand. He'd hold onto this forever.
I'll admit, it's a shock. I followed the progress of those two in the arenas and had a lot of respect for them, but now I don't know what to think.
Still, I can't deny your talent, Biwa.
No matter what gender their PCs or players are, I can't help but be caught in the romantic atmosphere. I'd like to get married there myself someday (though it would be to a girl).
My blue-haired beauty! Can it be? And that awful, clumsy Rogue whom he selflessly gave up his title to - I'll never forgive you for stealing him, Haseo!
Wow, this is a popular thread, huh? But I'm not surprised, since it's a cool picture and a cool subject too :)
I've seen those two in town together, and always get a relaxed vibe from them. They'd probably think it was odd if some stranger ran over to wish them luck, though!
Beautiful work as always, Biwa. It's funny to think that when the first pictures of Haseo appeared, we'd have been shocked to see such a calm expression on his face. But he's become popular with all kinds of players, not just PK victims and arena fans, hasn't he? It feels inspiring to know that even such a notorious person can open his heart and be accepted.
And Syake, you should go for it! I wish them both a lot of luck too =)
Author's Notes: At last, the final chapter! I'm sorry it's taken so long to complete this story, and hope it was a satisfying ending. Thank you to everybody who's reviewed and messaged me; I've appreciated all your kind and encouraging words.
I hope to write more Haseo/Endrance fics in the future, maybe revisiting the Victorious/Veritas universe, but also heading in new directions!