Thirty-two Steps

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Despite all the situations he's skillfully been able to get himself out of, at fifteen years of age, Kida Masaomi continues to be an immense coward.

He's pretty good at pretending, yes, and sometimes he pretends so much and so well that he believes his own made-up cover; that he's seen a bit of everything in the world, that he's knowledgable, that he knows his way around, that he can do anything and that the world is as good as his, just like all those hearts he claims to conquer. It's not that he's liar. He has been fooled too, that's all. But there is the catch: eventually comes the time to act, to demonstrate who he is, and that's when the world gives him a tap on the shoulder and reminds him that he's not even half of what he believes himself to be. Oops. And then his legs freeze and his feet keep to the ground, his smile drops and his heartbeat flutters as if trying to go ahead on its own, but his body does not move.

That's more or less what's happening to him now.

All things considered, it's quite the strange situation: he's stopped cold right at the foot of the stairs of Raira Academy, those that connect the roof exit to the third floor hallway. To his right are said stairs; up, at 32 steps of distance, is the door that leads to the roof. To his left, at 12 steps of distance or so, turning the corner behind which he is hidden, are the most inconveniently located lockers of the entire place. To his left is Sonohara Anri, calmly grabbing some books to take home for the weekend, while to his right (and up) is Ryuugamine Mikado, banging on the roof door because he has left him locked up there.

Things are more or less the same with Mikado, at least as far as that involuntary falsehood of his goes. Sometimes it honestly surprises him that the poor boy doesn't notice the lie, as he lets himself be pulled along by Masaomi's effusivity and follows him, a timid shadow, as though his friend has the slightest idea of what he's doing. As long as it heps Mikado in the long run, as long as it pushes him to heighten his spirits, Masaomi is okay with that. Though, in all honesty, there are times when he's sure that Mikado knows that his friend, who appears to be such a natural leader, only pretends to be such a hotshot, just to fire him up. Maybe he even sees that the boy in the white hoodie simply loves looking good in front of others, specially him, but since neither of them says anything, things work out indefinitely as they do. Maybe he's just comfortable with that.

The one thing that is for certain is that Mikado believes Masaomi to be a bit of a mental case, but that's alright. Masaomi thinks so, too.

Mikado, on the other hand, is very, very lucid. He's timid but honest, doubting but inherently brave, closed-off but kind, naive but smart. Between giving his opinion and remaining quiet, more often than not he'll choose to remain quiet while Masaomi gives his opinion. He's easily flustered, sometimes too easily, sometimes just enough to entertain Masaomi. He's his best friend, maybe too cute to be only that, and that's a problem for the blonde.

Every year it becomes a greater issue. Maybe he should talk to him about it already, ask him to be less cute or something of the sort. It should work. He almost did that today.

The matter is that today is, or was, an important day for the cute best friend. Today he intended to confess his endearment towards Sonohara Anri, the girl with the inconveniently placed locked. Of course that, acting as the fantastic friend he is, Masaomi listened in on the entire conversation they had at lunchtime.

"I-I h-have to... I mean—there's something I'd like to tell you, S-Sonohara-san!" That was how the glorious, long-awaited act of bravery began. No amount of years would seem to take away Mikado's stutter. And while Masaomi himself would have hugged him immediately for being so clumsily adorable, Anri seemed nothing close to impressed; she barely tilted her head to the side in a curious gesture, prompting the timid boy to finish. "But I can't say it right now... so, if it's okay, if we could meet up for a bit on the rooftop after class-"

"Ah, uhm... I'm not sure I..." Naturally, Anri was aware of everything there was to be aware of. Despite being a bit of a coward in that aspect as well, Mikado wasn't terribly hard to read. It was likely that Anri had immediately realized that this was the day she had often attempted to prepare an answer for, yet even today she remained unsure of her own feelings, too far from thinking up a reply. She was that sort of person: a little out of place in the real world, a little absent, pretty shy and pretty cute as well (another problem, though not as great).

And it was likely that Mikado himself had foreseen this, because his expression became a little more serious at that moment, a little more determined. "I... will wait anyway, Sonohara-san."

And there, saved from the rest of their mutual awkwardness (what a pair!) by the school bell, they bid their see-yous and went their separate ways to their afternoon classes. Everything was settled. As they walked away, each had a deep red blush on their cheeks.

They made a nice couple, really. Both so fearful and hesitating that they often needed a small push, which Masaomi provided discreetly or not so discreetly, but a nice couple, either way.

It was a shame that Anri never showed up at the roof that day.

As close as they are, there are many things that Mikado just isn't gonna dare to express in words. There are many things he simply has to keep to himself, just like there are many more that he doesn't need to say, because no one reads him quite like Masaomi: his anxiety and disappointment as he awaited in vain is one of them. In the same way that Mikado didn't say how miserable he felt, Masaomi chose to omit the fact that he'd seen Anri wandering up and down the third floor hallway, stopping by the stairs and walking on, returning, repeating... no, he didn't say it. And he also didn't say how painful it is to endure years and years of love that won't reach, love that becomes heavy and somehow even more powerful as the loved person goes off to pine for someone else. No, he didn't say how much and how deeply he adores him.

He just sat by his best friend to chat and wait for what wouldn't come. Because that's how things go, because there are things no one can help, feeling that never reach, words that no one ever says, feeling everyone's doomed to keep inside; because that's just how life is and Masaomi is familiar enough with both that and the tragical charm of it all.

The entire incident reminds him a bit of something that happened a year and a half ago, maybe more, maybe less. Since Masaomi left his hometown to move to Tokyo, he kept contact via internet with that boy whom he's loved for so damn long already. To make up fo their absences they would tell each other of everything that happened in their lives, and it was along that line that Mikado once confided in his best friend about a letter he'd received, a nerve-wrecking note from a girl, some sort of "secret admirer" stereotype that wanted Mikado to be her first boyfriend. Masaomi could hardly believe that such things still happened in real life. And that poor friend of his, overthinking everything in the matter (as always), asked him all there was to ask from what was the correct way to declare it an official relationship to how badly a first kiss can go.

Masaomi remembers that day as one of the most anguishing he ever lived.

He also remembers, quietly cynical, how hard it was to stop himself from celebrating when logged on the next day, declaring in defeat that the letter had only been a bad joke. Of course he felt bad, of course he always shared his best friend's sadness, but his best friend continued to be so cute he wouldn't have been able to stand it, were he not so far away. And that's how he reached Tokyo with that first kiss still not given, and more timid than ever.

He'd worried about that again. It was a pointless worry, an abstract hope, but Masaomi disguised it as a concern related to Anri and, lying there, on the roof with Mikado, searching for shapes in the cloudscape, he was able to ask if he still hadn't had his first kiss. The answer inevitably made him smile.

"N-No..." And then, as if that reminded him that he'd been waiting an entire hour on an useless love, he added: "Maybe it's time to go home..."

"Mikado."

As soon as he gazed up, the gray-eyed boy found himself under Masaomi's shadow. Even leaning over him like that, against the light, it was impossible not to notice his smile, so bright and so wide that for a moment he forgot how unhappy he was. "Ah?"

Masaomi remembers that moment as one of the most perfect of his life.

In retrospective, the truth is that Mikado did nothing to respond to the sudden kiss. He was frozen still. And despite having his eyes closed as he pressed his lips softly against the other's, barely a tentative touch, Masaomi could feel the fixed stare and the heat that rushed to Mikado's cheeks. Yet it was better than he would've expected, softer, more satisfying; for a moment the weight was off his chest and he forgot, if only momentarily, that this wasn't his to take at all and that this happiness wasn't something he should get a taste of.

All in all, Kida Masaomi is somewhat slow in understanding things, often too distracted, but in no way a dumb guy. He's just likely to commit the ocassional idiocy, some of them intentional, some of them by mistake. He's never sure of which category to place this one on, but his next words were surely the biggest idiocy of his entire life: "Now you're ready. I'll go get Anri."

It seemed to be a hopeless gamble, but just as he knew that Mikado had stopped expecting the girl to show up a while ago, he knew Anri had to be wandering the academy still, walking and walking as she pondered her tardy decision. And he was right.

And it was right then, in the most opportune moment possible, after jamming the roof door closed before Mikado could change his mind (his, or Masaomi's), after rushing down the stairs two steps at a time, that cowardice stops him. Just as he did on a gang fight night long ago, midway to something important, he allows the old fear and ever-hidden cowardice to catch up.

And there he is, at the foot of the stairs, suddenly hit by the realization that he's been in love far too long for this. That he can't, after all, he can't spend the rest of his days just watching and thinking about how good Mikado looks when he's in love, when he blushes and stumbles and thinks about someone else. That is exactly where he stays, between one thing and the other, between the stairs and the lockers. All things considered, it's a predicament not devoid of the charm he so likes.

On one side (the left, he thinks), he wants Mikado to be happy, since he's been his best friend for so long; on the other (the right, then) he wants Mikado to stop stumbling around and be happy with him, because his best friend really is far too cute.

At a distance of twelve steps or less, around the corner, he has the possibility of going right up to Anri, pulling her out of her doubt and sending her on her way to fall in love with Mikado as she should've done from the start. At a distance of thirty-two steps, going up the stairs, what he has is the chance to stop holding back that crazy impulse he's got, the maddening urge to run over to his best friend and shout out just how long he's loved him, to hold him with desperate strenght, to fill him with all the kisses he's contained too many times now. Twelve steps against thirty-two.

Masaomi breathes in deeply, smiles, and takes the first step.

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Thanks for reading! This is not a new story, but the english version of the one I wrote in spanish, 32 Pasos. It's been a while since I wrote properly, so... I hope my writing ain't too rusty!