Déjà vu, Hiroki thought.
Only this time it was not Akihiko asleep in the clearing. In fact, Hiroki had never seen this person before. It was a boy several years younger than he was, dark-haired and looking thoroughly exhausted in the afternoon sun that surrounded him; his eyes were clenched shut and his slight frame heaved with the fitful sleep of someone who had everything to fear.
Fourteen-year-old Hiroki knew better than to wake him up but he did so anyway, stretching out a cautious hand and gently tapping the boy's shoulder. He jumped back, startled, when the eyes flew open immediately. They were a blameless shade of blue and thoroughly disoriented.
Then the second pair of ears perked up, then the tail twitched.
'What in hell—!'
He's a neko?
There was no mistaking those ears, which perfectly matched the black of the boy's hair. A neko—not even out of kittenhood, by the look of him—had somehow found its way onto the Usami estate…and into their base.
'This is my base', said Hiroki immediately, incensed at the thought of a trespasser just wandering by. He tried to smooth out the surprise that still cracked in his voice and added, more roughly, 'you can't be here without permission.'
The sleepy eyes just blinked. Hiroki, who had half-expected a replay of the exchange between himself and Akihiko, scowled. Doesn't he talk?
'I'm sorry', the neko mumbled. 'I didn't know this place belonged to anyone.' He raised his eyes to meet Hiroki's briefly before turning away. 'I'll just go, then.'
"How'd you find this place?"
"…I tried to pet a cat on the street, but it ran away. I ended up following it here. The sky drifts lazily in this leafy space…the combination of blues and greens and whites is dazzling."
'Wait.' The word was out of his mouth before he could stop it, and the catboy halted on his way out to look back with some curiosity. 'What were you doing here, anyway?'
Slender shoulders shrugged. 'I just found this place. I was looking for somewhere to sleep. I…'
A little smile. 'I actually just ran away from my owners.'
For real? Hiroki thought skeptically, eyeing the innocent face of the boy. He evidently doesn't know better than to go around telling people that. 'How old are you—never mind. Did you just say you ran away?' While there was no reason to disbelieve it—and the boy didn't look capable of lying anyway—Hiroki found it hard to imagine him being driven away from a home.
He ran away…
What did his owners do to him?
The dark head bobbed in agreement. 'Sorry', he said again. 'I'll leave.'
This is Akihiko's land not mine and I have no right to make decisions here—
'No, it's all right.' Again, his mouth had overtaken his mind. 'You stay here if you want.' I'll talk to Akihiko. Or whatever. He's got nowhere to go.
The neko's stiffened shoulders did not slump in relief at this offer; he stayed where he was, eyes listless and gauging. Hiroki had a sudden impression of a wounded animal. He's part animal anyway…if I'm not firm enough, he'll run. But if I get too close, he'll fight.
I wish Akihiko would hurry up and get here, if he's coming at all today. Stupid rabbit.
'Just stay here', he said tonelessly. 'If someone catches you wandering around outside, you'll be caught and returned to your owners. I'm assuming you don't want that.'
'Really?' asked the neko, with such sincere curiosity in his voice that Hiroki almost laughed.
'Yes, really.' He indicated the grass-covered clearing with an impatient hand. 'Sit, why don't you?' He really did feel like the captain of a base now, he thought wryly. And this kid's behaving like I'm going to kill him on home ground.
It took another sixty seconds, but eventually the boy was sitting a few feet away from Hiroki in a very similar posture. Hiroki was unable to decide if the neko was being impish or merely obedient, so he made no comment until his guest made to lean against the trunk of a solid-looking tree for support.
'Don't do that!' he said sharply, and the boy's back shot away from the tree as though it were electrified. He regarded Hiroki with wide eyes; Hiroki caught himself hastily and relaxed, offering an apologetic shrug. 'That tree—it's reserved for someone. They should be coming any moment.'
Akihiko was not going to show up.
That doesn't mean I can let a random neko have his place.
He thought of Akihiko's unfathomable eyes following the skate of his pen as he wrote, watched the neko's blue ones look away, and decided he could.
'Or—on second thought, just sit there if you'd like.'
Another one of those comfortably strained silences followed.
Then the catboy scooted back against the tree and rested his back against its sturdy length, allowing his eyelids to droop. Hiroki looked at him a moment and then looked down at his knees.
The evening breeze would soon be picking up, he thought; Akihiko's school must have gotten over long ago. …so he really isn't going to come.
It's the weekend, too.
I don't mind. He didn't mind. He never did mind when Akihiko disappeared without warning; they'd made no promises to meet everyday, and he knew Akihiko needed his space too. He's so much more like a cat than a rabbit. It was nothing else, he kept telling himself—the silver-haired usagi was a solitary person. He couldn't possibly have made other friends. Newer, better friends.
He told himself he was fine, and one of the lesser-loved voices in his head decided to speak up.
He particularly disliked this voice because it was so honest.
The breeze raised the long grass into the air, so the ground looked like gooseflesh and the dark-haired neko almost human when his hair flew in front of his cat ears. The tail whipped around his slender body as a meager blanket would, and Hiroki thought he looked just as pathetic as himself.
You're welcome to be my guest at my pathetic, deserted base.
Who the fuck are you and what are you doing here? Where's Akihiko?
Hiroki gave a start of surprise and realized, to his mortification, that he'd been thinking out loud. 'Nothing. I was just—just talking to myself.'
'Kusama Nowaki', said the neko suddenly.
The boy gave Hiroki a quizzical look. 'You just asked me who I am, didn't you?'
Cheeks coloring slightly, the older boy nodded. 'Well, I'm Kamijou. Kamijou Hiroki.'
'And I'm here because you let me be here', muttered Kusama Nowaki. 'And—I don't know the answer to the third question. Sorry.'
Wonder if anyone except Akihiko ever knows the answer to that one. 'I wasn't expecting you to answer', said Hiroki, his voice more sullen than he'd expected. 'I know you wouldn't know where…'
What am I doing?
He shook his head and inhaled slowly. 'I'm speaking nonsense. Sorry. Um—you—you said you ran away from your owners. Why?' he bit his tongue almost as soon as he'd spoken; in his hurry to change the subject, he'd grasped at anything he could find.
Nowaki looked neither amused nor unhappy. 'I just got tired', he said simply. His eyes sought some faraway point over Hiroki's shoulder. The older boy decided not to press the subject, but found himself speculating almost against his will as to what anyone could have done to such a defenseless little thing.
But he doesn't look fragile, does he?
No…while the neko was fresh-faced and guileless, there was nothing fragile about him. Hiroki scanned the lanky limbs wondered how tall he would be when he stood. Tough, somehow. Even if he doesn't know it yet.
Nowaki raised a hand and began to scratch, lazily, behind a furry ear. Cute.
Now I really am pathetic.
I can't stay here, he thought suddenly. Akihiko was not coming. If he stayed on too long, with nothing but a lost neko and his progressively darker thoughts to keep him company, he'd just be killing himself. I need out. This place is bad for my health when he isn't around.
So now I've lost the sanctity of my base to someone who isn't even interested in it?
Well, muttered the hated voice, you did lose your heart in much the same way.
He stood so abruptly that his joints cracked. 'I'm going', he said briefly to the startled boy. 'Stay here for as long as you want. I need to go home and get my homework done.' He picked his school bag up off the ground and shook it slightly for emphasis.
'You're—leaving?' Nowaki said. Hiroki added the question mark mentally, since the neko's voice had actually been anything but questioning, and nodded. 'Yeah', he added after a moment, turning away. 'See you.'
Damn it…does no one care if I'm around or not?
Cursing himself for it, Hiroki spun around at the sound of Nowaki saying something. The catboy looked overwhelmingly hesitant as he said softly, 'I don't have anything.'
It took some time for the older boy to process this. 'You don't have…anything? No food, you mean?'
Nowaki gave a small shrug. 'Well, that too.' He lowered his eyes and stared fixedly at his own feet. 'I just…no, I'm sorry. It's all right. I…'
He doesn't have…anything.
He has nothing.
So he really had run away from home. It hit Hiroki between the eyes.
He was kneeling next to the boy in one second flat. 'Hey, Nowaki…'
'Kamijou-san?' Nowaki asked, evidently puzzled at the sudden change in attitude. Hiroki noted the use of his surname with a dim sense of relief before pushing it away and leaning forward.
'I'll get you food', he mumbled, overcome with a sudden awkwardness. 'Just wait here for some time, my home's right across the street.'
Nowaki nodded, eyes still wide. 'Okay. Thank you.'
That's not enough.
There was another long, silent moment that was anything but comfortable; Hiroki struggled not to bury his face in his hands at the very thought of doing something that was so stupid, so—
'Here', he said gruffly. He raised a slender hand and ran the fingers through the neko's hair; it was not a ruffling motion, nor quite a pat, but he hoped it was comforting. He had not forgotten the desperate fear on Nowaki's face as he had slept. 'It's all right. I promise I'll be back.'
I can't believe I didn't bring him home.
It only struck him many years later that his parents would never have allowed it, but at the moment all he could think of was how stupid he had been not to take the neko with him in the first place.
Because by the time he returned to the base, Nowaki was gone.
And in his place, Usami Akihiko was leaning against his usual tree, looking like he hadn't moved for hours. I couldn't have been gone more than forty-five minutes.
'Akihiko…what the hell are you doing here?'
It was the first thing that he could think of—never mind his relief that his friend hadn't ditched him after all, he needed to know what happened to the neko he'd left behind—and while he visibly struggled to get his thoughts in order, Akihiko raised an eyebrow as his long rabbit ears twitched derisively. 'Someone's rather unhappy to see me.'
'That's not it', Hiroki growled immediately. 'Didn't you see anyone around here?'
'What are you talking about?' Akihiko yawned. 'There's never been anyone else here. I've been sitting in this place for half an hour anyway, I'd know if somebody had come. Why, were you expecting a friend?'
He had a fifteen-minute window of time, and he ran away.
Why did he run away?
And then, all at once, screw him.
He'd had it with people disappearing on him. I did tell him not to leave or he'd get caught. If he wanted to risk it anyway—but what was with agreeing to wait and then leaving?
Some sort of fucking joke?
'No, not really', he said quietly, answering both his own question and Akihiko's. Joke or not, he's gone. And…he fought the smile that was rising. Akihiko's here. 'I've got sandwiches, if you'd like.'
'Any carrots in them?' the rabbit asked idly, rumpling up his hair. Hiroki was irrepressibly reminded of how he'd run his own fingers through Nowaki's hair…while he still had no explanation for it, he'd only been trying to help. It was with a rather surprised pang that he recalled the neko's grateful, wide-eyed smile.
'No carrots', he said. 'Sorry.' They weren't meant for you.
He's gone, the damn neko's gone. Let it go.
But letting go of that memory proved every bit as difficult as convincing himself that he wasn't losing Akihiko.