Cold Roads and Open Flames

oOo

The streets folded around them, swallowing them whole with empty lanes and pristine alleyways. And, as much as it bewildered him to admit it, he was already warmer.

"You never do take that hat off, do you?" It was bitingly cold now, so Hiroki pinked just a little at the boy's inquiring gaze. "I mean—not just now. You're always wearing it no matter what the weather. I was just a little curious, so—don't look at me like that!" he added irately, bristling. "It's no crime to be curious."

"I never said it was", said the alley cat with an opaque grin. "It's a good question, but... well, if you think back, you'll notice we actually meet only when it's cold. That's why I come to you, after all."

"Is that why you do this then, because I'm cold?" Hiroki mused. "That..." That would have been fucking demeaning coming from anyone else—what good am I with concern, after all? But with you, I just...

"That's nice of you. I appreciate it."

The boy quirked an eyebrow in what appeared to be amusement and surprise. "Not too proud for my concern, Hiro-san?"

Hiroki looked at him sharply before realizing that his choice of words had been little more than coincidence. I wasn't even thinking aloud, so unless he was standing right outside Shiratori's door... The unbidden image that came to his mind of the alley cat's ears pressed against the woodwork while Hiroki wilted with mortification and anger within was surreal enough to tickle; he relaxed outwardly, the slump of his shoulders not inconsiderable, and offered the boy a shrug. "You're alright."

To his vague surprise, his companion seemed to relax somewhat too. "Well, if you say so", he mumbled, a forgotten hand absent-mindedly rumpling up the hair at the back of his head. "But you know, if I ever overstep any of your boundaries, all you'd have to do is tell me and I'd back off."

Ah...

Sometimes I forget how young you are.

Fighting visible discomfiture at the sudden ripple of affection that had begun to quiver in his chest, he coughed and said, "I will. But how far are we from your—your base, is that what you called it? Was it somewhere around here?" His... base? Hiroki looked around the street they were walking through, trying to remember if he'd come this way when leaving the alley cat's settlement of choice over a year ago, too caught up in his embarrassment to notice what his subconscious was actually seeking to remind him of.

"We're almost there", said the boy serenely. "It's a bit further up this road. I suppose it's just as well that you don't remember the exact way..."

"Why?" Hiroki looked sideways to find the mild face as unreadable as ever. "It's not like I would turn up uninvited." It's not like I would "turn up" at all... That's not how this works, is it? You're the one who shows up out of the blue when I'm least expecting it, but need it the most... I'm not meant to do the seeking out. It's entirely up to you.

You really are a cat. But then again, I doubt I would have it any other way...

What happened to being too proud for concern?

The boy tilted his head to the side, as though lost in thought, and Hiroki was briefly but vividly reminded of another person who was given to the same habit; how long had it been since he'd last met Satou?

"Oh, no real reason. I'm just not used to people knowing where I live, and in any case, I don't really live there so much as go there to sleep every once in a while." A flare of impishness streaked across his face. "They don't call me the alley cat for nothing. I keep to myself an awful lot, you know."

I do know. Then why do you bother with me?

"And here we are."

The alleyway was just as dim and cold as any other, but it was not dingy. There were no dumpsters or even garbage cans to be seen; the only thing that stood out amongst the poorly lit walls was a curiously deliberate-looking arrangement of cardboard boxes, a tarpaulin sheet of some indiscernible color draped over the whole thing to form what could pass for a makeshift tent. Well, did I really expect any better?

Just for a moment, Hiroki thought back to the tepid but not inhospitable warmth of his own apartment, with its spacious kitchen and towers of precious books and hot water at his disposal whenever he might need it.

How do you keep clean? How do you eat, for that matter? What do you fill your days with, alley cat?

"It's warmer than you think", said the boy gently, cutting into Hiroki's thoughts with a look that said he had a good idea of what the older man was wondering. "You needn't worry yourself about any of that. Come, let's get inside."

"Getting inside" turned out to be little more than stepping through another sheet of some waterproof material that had been hung in front of the tent like a curtain. Like a shower curtain, he thought. In fact, it might very well be someone's discarded shower curtain for all I know. The interior looked to be no more than five feet across in the half-light. The boy had dropped to his knees on entering the tent, with Hiroki following suit, and now he could see why; if they tried to stand, they would have to bend a considerable way to keep from upsetting the tent entirely.

He's so tall, too...

How do you eat? How have you managed to grow?

Who are you?

"Here you go." He was unprepared for the sudden warmth that assailed him in the near complete darkness as he was enveloped in some kind of awkward almost-hug; when the boy's arms left him, he realized that he had been covered with a blanket. A raggedy but soft pillow was wedged into the space between his back and the wall. "Is that better, Hiro-san?"

"Yes", Hiroki said dazedly, feeling rather stupid and unexpectedly sleepy in his new comfort. He'd almost forgotten about the reason he had come here in the first place. I was "better" quite some time ago. I felt better the instant I saw you. "But aren't you going to be cold?"

His only reply for some time was a quiet laugh; then Hiroki heard a click, and a soft yellow light sputtered to life, casting his companion's face into relief as he stowed away the matchbox he was holding. Oh... a kerosene lamp? "Like I said... It's warmer than you think."

"You live in a cardboard house", Hiroki murmured with slight reproach, not really inclined to protest when the boy shuffled a little closer until they were sitting shoulder to shoulder. He's warm too, and this tent is tiny. "You should know better than to keep an open flame around here. What if everything burns down?"

He felt a slight shrug against his arm. "It's not really an open flame, since most of it is surrounded by glass. And in any case, I've been doing this for a long time now. I've learned to be careful."

Somehow, I don't have a problem believing that.

"How much would a 'long time' be, alley cat?" he asked after a second's silence.

There was a grim edge to the boy's voice as he replied, "Six years next summer."

"How old are you?"

"Fifteen, Hiro-san."

His chest hurt.

"I'm sorry you've had to live like this", he didn't say. Instead, he closed his eyes and whispered, "You keep saying that 'they' call you an alley cat. Who's they?" He had not forgotten what the boy had said during their first meeting—"I'm part of this place... I know all the people who have the potential to harm others, and they wouldn't harm me."

"'They', huh. I figured you'd ask about that at some point. ...It's just a broad term for all the people I have occasion to talk to or work with; nothing remarkable."

"Work?" Well, I wouldn't be surprised if you had a job of some sort or the other... "Are you employed?"

The boy's face twisted only for a half second, brief enough to leave Hiroki wondering if his eyes had deceived him, but it was a twist of the purest revulsion. "Oh, yes. I work for quite a few people."

"Define a 'few'", Hiroki said vehemently. Something in the alley cat's words boded ill.

Another shrug. "One man on a regular basis. Five others off and on."

Ah. "Well, that's... as long as it's just one person on a regular basis, I suppose you manage alright." You did say you're careful. "But if you earn from six jobs, why are you—?" No, wait, stop—god dammit, I'm too sleepy to watch what I'm saying.

"Why am I still living in an alley under cardboard boxes and a tarp?" Red-faced and biting his tongue already, Hiroki gave a tiny nod. His apology was cut short by a raised hand. "It's okay, that's a valid question too. I'm here by choice. I suppose I could get a 'real' house if I tried, but... it's too much effort. And in any case, I never said I earned much in terms of actual money."

His expression was more grimace than smile; the bared teeth reminded Hiroki of a jungle predator of some sort. One of the big ones. Shaking his rather foggy head in an attempt to get his thoughts back on track, he mumbled, "Well, I imagine you've been doing well enough for yourself one way or the other."

You say you're a cat but I see a lion.

He felt an arm land around his shoulders and a warm, dry hand in his hair. "You're tired, Hiro-san."

Am I going to sleep here tonight, then? Maybe it was his drowsiness talking, but the thought was not unwelcome in the slightest. Tomorrow's the weekend... I have nowhere to go, and the exams are a long way off...

I don't think I've ever reacted so calmly to anyone's arm around me, he noted with dim surprise. Not even Akihiko's.

I'd almost forgotten about Akihiko. I'd forgotten about everything.

"Yeah", he said, letting his eyelids droop shut again. It was an effort not to lean into that touch. Hell, it was an effort to keep talking now. "I'll give you that, I'm bushed."

Everything but you.

"Night, alley cat."

The hand currently in his hair turned his groggy, acquiescent head to the boy's side as he slipped away into darkness. If he felt something press against his forehead—something suspiciously similar to a kiss—he would later dismiss it as a dream.

oOo

He's ten and Akihiko is sitting before him, scrawling busily away in his notebook, apparently oblivious to the brown eyes that are trying their hardest to bore into his impenetrable mind.

Hiroki lasts three minutes before bursting out, "How'd you even find this place?"

The other boy looks so wan, so out of place in this tunnel of dancing colors... a pure white icicle under the summer sun. His long, silver ears flop loosely on either side of his upturned face as he says, "I tried to pet a cat on the street, but it ran away. I ended up following it here."

There's a slight pause and a near imperceptible shift of some sort in the violet eyes.

"The sun drifts lazily in this leafy space", Akihiko says, and his voice has taken on a faraway quality that gives Hiroki that distinct impression that the usagi is not entirely present. "The combination of blues and whites and greens is dazzling."

Hiroki tries to say something in response, but his new friend is gone. He's now fourteen and the colors around him are much warmer in the evening light, and he has a new yet familiar ache in his chest that he knows he's developed over the last few years due to his own blind stupidity.

Someone is sitting before him this time too, only... it's not Akihiko. Hiroki hears himself say, "This is my base. You can't be here without my permission."

He hears himself call out, "No, it's alright! You stay here if you want."

He hears the angry tremble in his own voice as he says, "I'm leaving." Then, much softer, "It's alright. I promise I'll be back."

Hiroki cannot see the face of the person he's talking to, but a startling shade of blue weaves in and out of his dreams as they begin to lose coherence.

oOo

He opened his eyes to darkness; he was tucked in a thin but warm blanket and there was definitely a sheet of some sort beneath him, but this was not his bed. This isn't a bed at all...

Where am I...

As his pupils adjusted and the pitch black around him gave way to touches of gray, he stirred softly to find a wall behind him. Oh, that's right... He was now curled up on the floor of the tent, no ache to be found in his limbs despite the meager cushioning from the concrete. The pillow beneath his head smelled faintly of detergent—something that he was too disoriented to wonder at—and something that he had begun to identify with...

The alley cat...

Where is he?

As though on cue, one of the shadows beside him moved a little. "Is something wrong, Hiro-san?"

"You're still awake?" Hiroki whispered hoarsely, his voice thick with sleep, before realizing that there was no way the two of them would be able to lie down in the tent at the same time. "I can get up if you—"

"No, no, it's perfectly okay", the boy whispered back. "I don't sleep much anyway, so I don't need to lie down or anything." He seemed to lean forward in the watery shadows as a hand patted Hiroki's shoulder. Hiroki told himself that the only reason it did not irritate him was because he was so tired; it did, however, do much to restore his drowsiness. God damn...

Something about the silhouette looked different to his bleary eyes—was his head somewhat bigger than usual?

Oh, he's... he's taken the hat off at last...

But surely the bizarre shape of the boy's head could not be put down to unruly hair alone...? As Hiroki's vision closed off to solid black despite his best efforts, he heard ten-year-old Akihiko's voice in his head again, saying, "I tried to pet a cat on the street, but it ran away."

A cat...

Alley cat.

A warm hand and an audible smile. "Sweet dreams, Hiro-san."

oOo

Wow, my chapters are getting longer. u_u; Oh well, considering the amount of time I take to update these days I guess it's only fair.

[Whispers: reviews make me more anxious than anything else these days, but I wouldn't mind the occasional feedback y'know~]