DISCLAIMER: 1 Litre of Tears do not belong to me. Pity.
WARNINGS: SPOILERS for the entire drama. You've been warned.
A/N: Apparently, when faced with consecutive mock and final exams for which I'm too stressed to study, I end up writing new fanfics. Go figure.
OK, this entire fic is experimental. I tried a new style of writing where I portrayed Aya's emotional reaction to her disease and her relationship with Asou Haruto. The fic mostly deals with that. I also included a couple of scenes that weren't in the drama (especially one I really hoped to see, but didn't; bummer) to explore Aya and Haruto's characters a bit more. It's basically just the romance between those two, but on a more emotional level.
Eh, due to the style in which I wrote this, this doesn't include much dialogue. I did throw some in there, though ... ::checks the fic. sweatdrop:: Eehhh ... trust me, dialogue is in there somewhere. Anyway, ENJOY! xD
The first time she lost herself was the day the basketball slipped through her fingers.
It had begun when the coach had pulled her off the court when she had made one "mistake" too many during practice that day. She could still remember the slow feeling of dread that had crept up her spine as she had walked off, the eyes of her teammates locked on her; Mari being the most worried of all. Afterwards, she had stayed back and practised dribbling, bouncing the ball from hand to hand while mentally forcing herself to keep it within her control. But it had slipped ... her fingers had missed it by a long shot. She had watched, frozen, as the ball bounced away from her, every thud it made on the court's wooden floor seeming like an echo of her quickened heartbeat....
Doki doki doki doki doki....
The ball had always been within her control. Even in Junior High, once it was in her possession, that was where it stayed. She had never missed it before ... not until she had come to learn of her condition.
Is it always going to this way from now on?
That was when the harsh, brutal reality of her situation – which even Dr Mizuno's words had apparently not driven home – had entirely sunk in. She had known for days that slowly, she would lose her speech, the strength of her legs and eventually control over her entire body, but up until then, the full brunt of it had never really hit her. But when it did, the sheer terror and helplessness that befell her had crushed down on her heart, overwhelming her.
Aya had done the only thing she could: she had run. The moment she had changed back into her uniform, she had run as fast as she could, hoping to not only leave behind the school and the basketball court on which she would never again be able to perform as well as she used to, but also the cruel and vindictive disease that was already separating her mind from her body.
It had never felt so good, running. Or maybe, she just had not fully appreciated what a joyous miracle it was to be able to run. Her legs moved effortlessly and her feet hit the ground harder and harder as she pushed herself to the limit, running faster than she ever had before. The wind felt wonderful on her face, the scenery blurred in her peripheral vision and the strain on the muscles of her legs was painful; but it made her feel good. It made her feel alive.
For how long would she be able to move like this? How much time did she have before her body stopped feeling like her own? It had already begun, but how long before she succumbed entirely to the disease?
It was dangerous, she knew, to run so recklessly. She could almost hear her mother's voice inside her head, anxiously telling her to stop because she might fall down any second and acquire a severe injury. But for once, Aya did not obey; she did not want to stop. There was no telling for how long she would have the freedom of her own body and she wanted to keep on running until she could no longer.
And so she had run until her legs felt like they would give out. That time, God had been kind. She had not fallen down even once, but she had known that that would not be the case in the future. Perhaps realising that was what had made her so determined to milk every situation for what it was worth. Her life was being stolen away, so she would hold onto Life however way she could for as long as possible.
It was with that thought that Aya had finally turned around and slowly made her way home, her mind full and her eyes blind to the world around her. Had she bothered to look around, she might have noticed the figure that was Asou Haruto on the other side of the road.
He was unmoving, hands clenched on the handlebars of his bicycle as he simply stood and watched Ikeuchi Aya walk away ... Because, even back then, the only thing he had been able to do was watch her from afar.
The first impression Haruto had had of Ikeuchi Aya was not a good one. She had been the clumsy girl running late to the Higashikou entrance exams that had knocked down all the bicycles in the parking lot he had been in thanks to her "clumsiness" – oh yes, he had found her quite annoying back then. Especially when the result of his oh-so-nicely offering her a bike ride to the school had resulted in him being forced to sit the very exams he had been avoiding.
But, looking back on those days, he occasionally wondered if things had been different, if she had never had that disease ... would he still feel the same way about her that he now did?
It shamed him sometimes, but he could not deny that his view of her had only begun to change when he had found out about her terrible medical condition. He had researched the spinocerebellar degeneration disease out of curiosity and he had initially pitied her. But then he had watched her fight a losing battle for her life with a spirit, bravery and inner strength that only a few people possessed. Even through her suffering and tears, she always managed to keep a smile on her face and he had admired and respected her for it. Eventually, spending increasing amounts of time with her and learning her sweet yet strong personality, he had come to support and deeply care for her. Love her even, though he had never told her so in as many words.
Would all that have happened if she had not been sick? If she had been a normal girl in the first place, would he still have looked beyond his first bland impression of her and love her?
It was a painful question to ask. He wanted her to have a full life if possible, but at the same time, he did not want one where he did not know Aya or supported her as he did now.
Such were the thoughts that intermittently plagued him late into the nights.
Despite her determination to live on, it had become hard for her to smile. She doubted that she would ever be able to smile like she used to. She was losing so many things – things she had taken for granted, once upon a time.
Independence. That was the one loss she mourned the most and for which she utterly loathed the disease. Aya had always been an independent person. She stood up for herself and she worked hard on her own for what she wanted. Be it housework or schoolwork or even her own personal business, there had never been a need to depend on someone else to get things done for her – until then.
She hated it. The last thing she wanted was to be a burden on the people around her. It would have been easier to accept her condition and deal with it if it affected only herself, but she had watched how her family and friends were dragged into the void she was being pulled into. It saddened her even more to know that there was nothing she could do accept apologise over and over again.
But then her mother had finally sat her down with the rest of the family and made it clear where she stood. She was still a part of the family, still Aya – and they would support her no matter what.
And with that, she had learned to smile again. She had realised what a wonderful and beautiful family God had given her and she was all the more grateful for it. Her resolve had strengthened and she had tried harder than before to live her life as best as she could. Even if it was her rehabilitation exercises or something as simple as taking a slow walk with her family, she gave it everything she got because when the day to leave this world came, she wanted to leave with no regrets. No matter how short her life was, she wanted to die knowing that she had done everything that was in her capability to do.
Learning and sharing each other's pains and joy, she and her siblings and parents had grown together. Every moment with them, Aya had learnt to cherish. Same with school and friends; she had stayed on at Higashikou and participated in the basketball games and everything else however way she could; she had gotten as much out of her high school life as was possible – and she was eternally grateful to her friends and classmates for everything they had done for her. She had only given up those experiences when, ultimately, she had had no choice but to let go. But the memories of them were precious and deeply-rooted.
That was what she had learnt to smile for. Herself, because her fight with her disease had shown her what a wonderful and lovely thing it was to simply be alive. Then, for her amazing family, to whose loving embraces she would always return. And also for her friends who, even through their own pains, had supported her more than she could have asked for.
Through all that, Aya had slowly come to realise that she had found one more reason to smile. And, at times, that one made her smile more than any other.
Thinking his name alone was enough to curve her lips up from ear to ear. And, more often than not, it was enough to bring a shy blush to her cheeks.
Even after leaving Higashikou and transferring to the disability school, he had been her reason to smile.
Once she got used to it, being in the disability school had been pleasant. Her sensei was incredibly friendly, her family visited frequently and Aya did what she wanted at her own pace. She could still live her life and it was enjoyable to a degree.
And of course, there was Asou Haruto. There was a part of her that had wished she could still see him regularly back in high school, but having him visit or even call her was wonderful enough. He was the only one of her friends that had continued to do so, but Aya found that as long as it was Haruto, she did not mind at all.
She had missed him, though. When he was not visiting, she wished to be able to see him again soon. And when he did not call, she would keep her mobile close, hoping that it would ring. Hearing his voice alone made her days just that much brighter.
Thinking back on how her relationship with Haruto had evolved, Aya felt both amused and awed. At first, he had seemed a very strange person to her. Extremely arrogant and downright rude at times, he was not someone she had ever pictured spending her days with. But in the end, he was the one person that had ever made her feel normal again. He had always been by her side, had listened to her and had stood up for her when no one else had. Haruto's support had become something of a lifeline. It kept her grounded and strong, knowing that she could always count on him to lend her a helping hand should she ask for one. And whenever she was with him, she could forget that inevitable death loomed on her immediate horizon.
Sometimes, she would wonder why it was so easy to forget her increasingly handicapped state when he was with her. He took her mind off things, that she knew, but as she had laid in bed one night, thinking about all the times she had been in his company, Aya slowly comprehended why he made her feel that way. It had been there right in front of her all the time, but so subtle and inconspicuous that she had not noticed. A tiny smile curved her lips as she remembered:
Haruto had never taken her hand when they walked together. He never put his arm around her to help her into the wheelchair and if she wanted to get up, he would stand back and let her. Had it been any other person, they might have done the opposite, but not Haruto. He was the one that bossed her around good-naturedly, like how he used to let (and indirectly ask) her to help him around the biology lab by making her do little things for him. He had never treated her like she was a sick person, but he had simply just been there, ready to catch her if she needed him. Whatever he did, he had never made her feel like she was anything but normal.
Knowing these little things about him and his inner gentle personality that he had opened up to her, her attachment to her former classmate had continuously increased. She loved and was grateful that he was willing to support her; and during her time at the disability school and even afterwards, she had felt that whenever he called or visited, it was equivalent to the sun bursting free of the clouds.
Her questionably close relationship with Haruto had not gone unnoticed. There had been Asumi-san, the optimistic girl with the cute smile that had been all too happy to play the part of gossip-loving roommate. From the day that Aya had agreed to go to the aquarium with Haruto, Asumi had enthusiastically prodded her about her "boyfriend".
Of course, Aya had immediately corrected the misconception of Haruto being anything more than her friend. But by the time she had finished telling her roommate of her former classmate and what being with him felt like, she knew that Asumi was not convinced. Because, though Aya had not realised, her sparkling eyes and joyous smile had revealed a lot more to the other girl than Aya would have wanted.
With a knowing grin, Asumi had said in her halting speech, 'This Asou-kun ... he makes you ... incredibly ... happy ... doesn't he?'
'Eh? Asumi-san, no! What're you...?' Aya had begun to protest at the implication, but there was absolutely no denying the blatant truth. Blushing, she had lowered her eyes and, with a shy smile, whispered,
'Yes ... yes, he does.'
The day Haruto had given her that bashful lopsided smile of his and tentatively told her, 'I like you, maybe. Probably,' was one of the happiest days of her short life. It had been like magic, the sheer joy that had raced along every fibre of her being and filling her with warmth and content. She had wanted to reply in kind, but all she had managed was a 'thank you'.
Aya had then watched him decide his career and make his way into medical school. She had seen how his future had opened up to an endless range of infinite possibilities. He had been busy, but he still made time for her and came to visit no matter how much work or studying he had to do. It had made her happy to know that he was still there for her.
But then she had looked into her own future and she had seen nothing but a dead-end. It had always been like that, but witnessing the bright prospect that was awaiting Haruto had driven the truth straight home. For herself, there was no hope for further studies and the odds of getting a career were minimal. All she could do was record her feelings and thoughts in her diary, trying to live as much as she could but still face the truth that with every passing day, she was losing more and more of herself.
She could never get married, either. She could not have children and a family of her own. That possibility had died the moment her cerebellum cells had begun to degenerate.
Many a night, she lay awake, thinking of everything she was doing and everything she was missing. What she could do, she did them all. But the things she wanted the most, she could never have them. The most she could do was only go halfway: she could study more, but only through reading books. She could get a "job", but only one she could manage in a wheelchair. She could fall in love, but only to get a kiss, not marriage...
The direction her thoughts had taken startled her, but Aya could not backtrack. Nor could she wipe away the sudden desire they had planted itself in her mind and heart. It took root and began to manifest, growing bigger and more pressing until it was impossible to hold it in. The next time Haruto visited her in the hospital, she hesitantly told him of her worries.
'I do what I can and I give up only when I have no choice. But I have to give up the very things that I want to experience the most,' she finished, blinking back the tears that threatened to spill over.
Haruto had listened mutely to her words. When she was done, he said quietly, 'You want a career ...'
'I want to help people, like how they help me.'
'And get married and have a family.'
She nodded, avoiding his eyes.
He was silent for a long while. 'I don't really know how to solve that, Ikeuchi,' he finally said, looking directly at her. 'But you've lived your life to the fullest till now. I've seen you reach out to things people might have said were impossible, but you held onto what you got, even if you didn't get the whole thing.'
Aya met his eyes, surprised and mildly discomfited at what sounded like an honest compliment from him.
Haruto gave her a little half-smile. 'Keep on reaching out to what you can get, like how you've been doing all this time.'
Her mouth went dry at his words, but she met his gaze squarely. 'What I can get ...' she murmured. 'You mean ... I might not be able to get married and have children, but...'
He raised his eyebrows when she paused and looked questioningly at her.
'But I should take what I can get.'
'Mm.' He nodded.
Embarrassment filled her from head to toe as she continued to look at him, but the desire in her mind and heart burned stronger, encouraging her. Taking a deep breath, she said, her voice just above a whisper, 'Asou-kun ... you ... like me, ne?'
Haruto looked surprised at the question, but he nodded again nevertheless.
'Will you let me take ... what I can get ...? Her voice was so low that he had to lean towards her, resting his elbows on the side of her bed. Looking down into his face that was just a few inches away from her own, she felt the blood rush to her cheeks again.
'Yes,' he answered, looking both confused and curious at her seemingly strange words.
'You ... won't get mad?'
'No, I won't, but Ikeuchi –' he began, utterly puzzled, but by then, Aya had gathered every last bit of courage she possessed; squeezing her eyes shut, she quickly lowered her face to his.
Her direction was off and her lips landed on his jawbone, barely managing to graze the corner of his mouth. She went red with mortification at her mistake and hastily began to pull away from Haruto, who had turned to stone under her touch. But next moment, he turned his head and captured her lips with his, pressing their mouths together in a chaste but tender kiss. His lips were warm and soft on hers. Pleasant shivers ran down her spine.
He held it for several seconds before finally breaking away. Still leaning on his elbows, he looked carefully at her, expressionless.
Both exhilarated and nervous, she leaned back into her pillow. 'You promised you wouldn't get mad,' she mumbled awkwardly, breaking the silence.
'I'm not.' He had smiled at her then, his piercing eyes kind and gentle. Meeting his gaze, she had found herself smiling back.
'Thank you, ne, Asou-kun.'
He could never be hers.
She had always known that. Over the years, she had watched Haruto change from the cold, conceited boy he had been to the open, compassionate young man he had become. Even as she had slowly lost control of her movements, he had never wavered from her side. He was a solid, comforting presence by her shoulder. But ultimately, he could never belong to her. From the very beginning, they had been parted.
Aya had accepted that a long time ago. It was the reason why she had tried to prevent her heart from running its own course; because she had feared (rightly so) that if she did, her feelings for him would go down a dangerous path from which there could be no return.
It had all been in vain. She would always feel her worries vanish whenever he called, her weak body seemed to surge with energy every time he walked into the room, and her heart fluttered strangely when he would give her that small, tilted smile that she had come to adore. It never escaped her mind that he was always there; he gave her comfort, encouragement and hope. And after he had told her that he liked her, maybe in that oddly cute way that only Asou Haruto could have, she could no longer deny herself the truth:
She had lost control of her heart. In the end, it had been just downright impossible not to fall for him and Aya had fallen, completely. Whether that was good or bad, she could not decide, but deep down, she was glad to experience such a beautiful thing.
She never told him, though. Some part of her wanted to, but she kept her feelings firmly bottled up and never expressed them. However, there were times when it seemed to her that he knew. She could not have said how or why; maybe it was in the way he listened and talked to her, or how sometimes he would just sit and look at her, saying nothing. Whatever it was, she felt that he did know and she was happy for it.
But such happiness could only last for so long. It had not taken much time before she had seen just how hopeless it was to be with him. Diseased and confined to a wheelchair, she could not hold his hand and walk along the street. She could not go on a real date with him, even when he did take her out. Seeing the wonders and opportunities that awaited him in life unlike her own situation, she had begun to envy him. Being with Haruto only led her to wanting an impossible dream that could never come true and that weakness had grown until she feared that she would lose the courage to keep on living.
It had been the cruellest choice she had had to make and the hardest thing to give up, but made her choice she had. Though every word she put down had felt like a wound she was cutting into her own heart, she had written him her good-bye "love letter". And it had been with forced fake happiness that she had watched him accept it with one of his shy smiles, trying to ignore the ache in her heart when she realised that that would be the last time she would ever see that smile of his. Even more terrible it had been to know how much she would hurt him, but it had been for the best.
I can't see you anymore.
She had cried later on, trying to push away the thoughts that maybe by then, somewhere far away he was crying as well. And her mother had cried with her when she told her what she had done.
'Why, Aya?' Shioka had asked despairingly. 'Why did you give up something so important to you?'
She had been more affected by it than Aya realised because, as she later explained to her husband when they were alone, 'Asou-kun ... he was good for her. I've never seen Aya so happy or content than when she was with him. She – she just lights up whenever she sees him ... I was very happy that she had found someone. I never thought she would give him up...' She sniffled and wiped at her eyes.
Her husband said nothing for several moments, but stared at the ground, troubled. She knew that he had grown fond of Aya's special friend over the years. At length, he sighed and said, 'Yes, he was good for her ... But it was her decision, Shioka. She had her reasons.'
There was no arguing with that because, when Shioka had asked her daughter about it again, Aya had told her exactly why she had chosen to let go of Asou-kun. She miserably relayed how painful it had been to be with him, but she also went on to say,
'I ... I don't want to tie Asou-kun down. He's finally found what he wants to do in life and I'm very happy for him. He has a bright future ahead of him ... and he deserves everything he can get.' Her lips began to tremble and her eyes prickled, but she continued haltingly, 'Asou-kun will become a great doctor. He will help a lot of people. Then one day, he ... he will meet a girl and – and get married and settle down. He ... he will have many children and a family. His life will be amazing and complete, and he deserves all that. But ... with me, I ... I...'
'Aya!' her mother cried when her daughter buried her head in her hands.
Her body heaved with sobs and the tears spilled over her cheeks, tracing salty tracks of agony down her face. She veered away when Shioka tried to take her in her arms; helpless, she watched as her daughter cried out her grief as if her heart was being shattered into a million pieces.
'Aya,' she tried again, but Aya finally looked up, her eyes hollow and shining with unshed tears, and she gasped through her sobs,
'Asou-kun deserves so much better, Okaasan. I want him to have it all. But I ... I will never be able to give him any of those things!'
Maybe it was selfishness or just the pain of parting, but for a long time afterwards, she had somewhat hoped that he would still come to see her, maybe just once. But he had not. He had respected her wishes and avoided her room, and she tried to move on, reminding herself over and over that it was the right thing.
The months passed and she had begun to accept his absence from her life, keeping the memory of him in a special corner of her heart. She set back and watched her body wither away until she could no longer walk and writing in her diary became a labour that exhausted all of her energy. But she kept at it, determined to keep doing what she still could, no matter how trivial it was.
She had grown used to the painful idea of never seeing Asou Haruto again when suddenly, that particular night, he had walked into her room without knocking and greeted her with his usual, 'It's been a while,' as if it had been a few days since they had last met as opposed to over a year. It had been a relief that the curtains had been drawn around her bed; she did not think that she could have borne to look at his face again.
But that night, Asou Haruto had given her reason to smile once more, just like he always had. From the other side of the curtain, he had gently read aloud the postcard that had come for her, the one from the girl that thanked Aya for giving her the courage to live through the same disease thanks to her published diaries, which contained her indomitable thoughts to keep on living. It had been a joy like no other to know that, through something as small as her written words, she had helped at least one soul to come to terms with life. It was one of the things she had wanted most in the world: to help others. And Haruto was the one who had crept in and confirmed that her dream had come true.
Like so many other times in the past, he had been there to share her joy and tears that night. He had pushed aside the curtains and their eyes had met again after so long. But being so close to him then had not been painful again. Instead, she had been genuinely ecstatic that he was there to take part in such a pivotal moment of her life. He had stayed and let her cry her tears of joy in silence, doing nothing but simply offering his company like he used to. Aya did not push him away again; she had learned then that she was strong enough, and she wanted him to be there for what remained of her life and make her smile again, if he wanted to.
And he had. Like always, he had started coming to her when he could and, just like always, her heart expanded with happiness and a smile would light up her face whenever she saw him. Her love for him, she realised, had never lessened over the months of his absence; he was still her reason to smile. And if his regular visits and behaviour were anything to go by, his feelings of I like you, maybe had also remained.
Finally, on a cold winter's day when she was bed-ridden and unable to speak anymore, she had fully let him into her heart. She let him read the last diary she had written by then. He had read it aloud with happiness reflecting from his face, her words sounding deep and magical on his tongue. He marvelled at her thoughts and sentiments and he did not hide his tears when he came across the deepest desire she had scrawled down:
Okaasan, would I be able to get married?
But he had still smiled for her. Even when she was in a state where she could no longer utter even his name, he had still commended and encouraged her. In return, she had given him the only thing she knew and believed in: hope.
Live on. Live on forever.
In a small way, it had been her way of telling him how she felt. And she had known from the way he had looked at her that he had truly understood. With that, all her burdens had been lifted and she had known that should death come, she would be able to leave with no more regrets. She had lived her life to the maximum within the period God had granted her and she could be by His side, knowing that she had completed her life.
And indeed, that was how it had happened. When her time finally came, she left the world behind with a smile and no regrets, to a place far away, where tears did not exist. And there she would stay forever and wait; for her parents, her siblings and, always, for Asou Haruto.
The sky was overcast and a chilly wind blew against his face as he slowly made his way up the grassy slope towards the lone tombstone. Pulling his dark coat closer around him, he adjusted the bouquet of red chrysanthemums in his hand to shield the petals from the wind. At last, he reached the tomb and he stood rigidly, eyes locked on the name carved into the dark stone.
Haruto had been here only once; he had come to Aya's funeral to pay his last respects, but afterwards, he had not found the courage within himself to return. The memory and pain of her loss had been too raw still. But at the hospital, after the talk with her younger sister Ako, and telling Aya's story for the first time to his patient, Mizuki-chan, the sheer need to come here had overwhelmed him. He had given in and, at last, come to visit her for the first time in months.
As he kneeled down and carefully placed the flowers in front of the tombstone, he thought of the painting her mother had given him earlier. He recalled the smile Aya had been wearing in it and, even with his eyes open, he could picture her in front of him, her eyes sparkling with good humour and her lips pulled up from ear to ear. That was how he always remembered her: the spirited, optimistic, smiling girl that had turned his whole world around. And he knew without having to ask that that was probably how she would want him to remember her.
Straightening, he took a step back and read the name on the stone again. Ikeuchi Aya. Here lay the only woman in the world who had ever managed to touch his life and heart so profoundly as to leave a permanent mark on his soul. She had opened his eyes to many truths of the world, pulled him out of his shell, helped him realise what he wanted to do, and through it all, had shown him how to love. With her sweetness and selflessness, she had made him a better person and even now, it was for her that he was trying so hard.
For her, he would come out of his shell again. He would strive to do the best that he could do in his field to help others that was facing what she had, and he would give everything in his power to reach his goals.
For her, he would live on.
A single raindrop landed on his cheek then. Blinking, he looked up and at once, the skies opened up. The rain fell down in torrents, splattering onto the ground to form rivulets, and within seconds, he was soaked. He could feel the chill creeping in, but he threw his head back and chuckled, enjoying the feel of the water that splashed on his face and drenched into his hair.
Whenever he was with Aya, it had nearly always rained.
Was it a sign that she was with him right now? He chuckled again at the absurdity, but the notion brought him some happiness, nevertheless.
Shielding his eyes with his hand, he raked the grey heavens with his eyes. She was up there somewhere now, far away, in a place where she was content and happy. The thought brought a smile to his face; one day, he would join her there.
'Ne, Ikeuchi, you will wait for me, won't you?'
The rain, if possible, began to fall even harder. His smile widened.
He had his answer.
Okaasan - Mother.
A/N: I cried a litre of tears while watching One Litre of Tears. It was simply impossible not to write something for that heartbreaking, beautiful drama. This is my take on it and I hope I did it justice :)
Reviews and constructive criticism will be much appreciated! Please do share your thoughts.