"He should be fine," the school nurse tells his parents.
They sit across from her, on either side of him: his mother to his right and his father to his left. The walls surrounding them display many bright, colorful posters encouraging exercise, healthy eating and regular doctor's visits. Misaki stares at the floor.
"I'm sorry," Father says with a somewhat strained smile, "But could you explain what happened again?"
"Shouta-kun had what appeared to be a minor anxiety attack," says the nurse.
"He had a nervous breakdown?" Mother asks without even attempting a smile. She sounds politely incredulous.
The nurse shakes her head. "Anxiety attacks aren't always symptomatic of a nervous breakdown. The one your son had was very minor – he simply hyperventilated. It only lasted a few minutes, and he seemed to recover quickly. I had him fill out a questionnaire." And here she removes a sheet of paper from her clipboard and passes it to his mother. "He does not appear to have a severe panic disorder."
"But he still has some disorder?" Mother presses, after quickly scanning down the questions, the scales of numbers. His father leans over him now, craning his neck to also get a better look at the paper.
The nurse's easygoing smile falters just a bit. "Most likely, yes. He displayed the beginnings of a panic disorder – although it's too early to say for sure. He does not have a severe form of one, however. This should not interfere with his life. He should be fine."
After that, the nurse assures his mother he will not need to be medicated, but that he would need to have an eye kept on him at home and at school. His homeroom teacher already knows what happened –which Misaki is well aware of. She saw it, after all, along with the rest of the class.
His parents thank her and leave with him. His father claps a hand on his shoulder and smiles at him comfortingly as they walk back to the car. Later that evening, though, he overhears his mother ask, "What could a ten-year-old possibly have to be anxious about?" from outside the study.
His father sighs. "I don't understand it, either. But let's not make a big deal of it...that'll only make him more anxious, right? Let's just let him know we're there for him. That he's not alone in this."
All is silent for a moment, but his mother eventually mutters, "Of course."
Misaki moves out of the doorway and tiptoes back to his room.
He lasts maybe ten minutes, tops, after the gym teacher blows the whistle.
"Are you alright?" he asks, getting down on one knee by Misaki, where he sits wheezing on the track course, desperately trying to catch his breath.
He doesn't answer, hoping that'll somehow make him go away – him and the crowd of classmates he can feel encircling him, staring and whispering, but can't see because he refuses to look up. Instead he stares down at his knees.
The gym teacher stays there, of course. He puts a hand on Misaki's shoulder. "Misaki?"
"I'm fine," he gets out, trying to pick himself up off the ground. His heart isn't beating as hard as it was a minute ago, but he still feels lightheaded, and he stumbles in his attempt to stand. The gym teacher has to help him. His cheeks burn.
"Why don't you take it easy for a while? Take a drink and sit down for a bit."
Averting his gaze from his classmates' eyes, Misaki walks over to the bleachers. Instead of plunking down on them, however, he snatches up his water bottle and goes around behind the nearby storage shed. He slumps against the back door, out of sight from everyone else. He unclasps his water, gulps some down, wipes the sweat out of his eyes with the sleeve of his gym uniform jacket, and breathes.
He waits there alone for a little while. Eventually, though, he hears a group of boys approaching. He doesn't pay them any mind until—
"Did you see Misaki?" one asks from the other side of the shed.
"That guy who collapsed after two laps?" asks another voice.
"Yeah, him. That was just sad to watch."
"I mean, how wussy can you get?"
"Well, it's not that surprising. He looks like a girl. Makes sense that he runs like one, too."
"Maybe," the boy's voice lowers to a conspiratorial whisper. "He secretly is one."
They all laugh after that – loud, high-pitched noise, since none of them have hit puberty yet.
"His family name already works. He can be Misaki-chan." And then they all laugh some more, and repeat the new name to themselves, trying it on for size.
Gym ends fairly soon after that. Misaki waits until he's sure all the boys in front of the shed are well on their way inside, their talk and laughter fading into the distance, before he leaves. Eyes downcast and red to his ears, Misaki hurries back to the changing room, running the last few steps through the double doors.
People ask him if he's alright – relatives, family friends, neighbors, school faculty. They offer him condolences, say his parents were great people, conjure up some fond memory of them. And then they ask him, "Are you feeling alright?"
Misaki doesn't tell them no. He doesn't tell them he felt numb at first, when his next-door neighbor told him the news – that he didn't even believe her. He doesn't tell them he had an anxiety attack, the longest and most painful yet, when it finally did sink in. He doesn't tell them he's afraid to start living with his grandfather from now on, since he doesn't see him very often and he's never known how to talk to him when he does.
He guesses that if he did say any of that, or even all of it, they'd be sympathetic. Barring the hyperventilation, his reaction is perfectly normal, probably, for a kid in his younger teens who's just lost his parents. But he doesn't want sympathy.
The funeral is awful. He's on display as much as his parents are, in their caskets, surrounded by flowers. Everyone stares at him, pitying him, wondering how awful he's feeling. He can't crack in front of all those eyes, so he stares straight ahead, squaring his shoulders and letting the priest's chant go in one ear and out the other. The incense makes his stomach churn and his eyes water, though, so people probably think he's on the verge of tears anyway. He's having trouble breathing again.
"Are you alright, Shouta-kun?" the woman next to him asks, a friend of his mother's. She places a hand on his shoulder.
"I'm fine," says Misaki.
Misaki has never liked the way he looks in the mirror.
Part of it is just that he's self-conscious by nature; his parents and teachers have been saying it for years, even before his chest first constricted painfully and sent him falling to the floor, gasping for air. He's always been a little shy and insecure. There's that, and then there's also the fact he's been informed, with increasing regularity over the years, that he looks like a girl. It's pretty reasonable that he'd develop an aversion to mirrors.
But now that's changed. Nowadays, Misaki pulls on his school uniform shirt in front of the mirror in his room, does up the buttons and neatly fixes his tie. And then comes the final piece.
Slowly, catching his own reflection's eye, he reaches behind himself and fastens the necklace. He fumbles some with the chain, but gets faster at latching it with practice. Then he lets it fall around his neck, over the collar of his shirt: the blue glass flower on a silver chain.
Every time, he feels Kawabata-san's warm hand on his shoulder, and hears his voice, deep and affectionate: "When you wear it, you can remember that you're not alone".
After that, Misaki will stare into the mirror for a minute, and he'll almost be able to see Kawabata-san standing behind him, smiling. He'll finger the flower sometimes, trace over the cool glass. And he'll remember Kawabata-san's words.
And he'll probably blush, and feel his heart beating faster – especially when that memory calls to mind other, different memories. Particularly the one where Kawabata-san first told him he wasn't alone, holding him close after he'd tilted Misaki's chin up, and leaned in, and—
At that point Misaki ducks his head down, glancing away from the flustered looking boy opposite him. He tucks the necklace under his shirt, out of sight, and then continues on with his morning routine.
At school he forgets he's wearing it, but occasionally, he'll suddenly remember, in the way you suddenly realize you're blinking every now and then. He'll notice the cool feel of metal on his skin, or the gentle thumping the flower makes, bouncing up and down as he rushes back to his classroom from lunch.
And then at times, he's forcibly reminded.
One Monday, he's gathering his books together last period after the bell dismisses everyone for the day. He accidentally knocks several over onto the floor – which is embarrassingly normal for him, although this time his unzipped pencil case topples over the edge of his desk with them and spills out everywhere. Cursing under his breath, he bends down to pick his things off the floor.
Several of his classmates pass him by, gingerly stepping over him and snickering at his clumsiness. One girl kneels down next to him. "I'll help you," she says.
"That's alright," Misaki protests, blushing, but she continues gathering his pencils and pens from under his desk and puts them back in the case. As they both get off the floor, she points to his neck.
"What's that?" she asks.
He looks down at himself in alarm. Sure enough, his necklace came untucked from his shirt, and is now plainly visible, hanging out over his tie. He shoves it under his collar right away, but he's too late.
"Are you wearing a girl's necklace?" Her voice is very loud. The few remaining heads in the room all turn in their direction.
He says nothing, hurriedly gathering his books in his arms and sticking his pencil case back in his satchel.
"What? Let me see." One boy strides over, eyes raking over Misaki.
"It was a girly flower necklace! But he put it back under his shirt" he hears her say as he all-but runs from the room. He jogs part of the way home, but eventually has to stop because he's too tired, weighed down by his satchel. Breathing heavily, he slows into a walk.
He can feel the necklace got turned around while he was running; the flower rests against his back. He'll fix it when he gets home.
"There, all done!" says Kawabata-san, stepping back from the greenhouse wall.
It took them half an hour – maybe a little more – to wrap the entire outside of the greenhouse in heavy plastic. It's freezing outside, but Kawabata-san wipes sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. Misaki tries to catch his breath himself.
"We really should have done this a couple of months ago. Winter will be over before too long." Misaki knows he's right. He hasn't been taking as good care of his grandfather's plants as he should be, lately. Only a week ago he'd found a few of the panels leaking, which hadn't been fun to deal with. Truthfully, he just hasn't felt up to the task. He hasn't felt like doing much of anything lately, ever since that day—
"Are you alright?" Kawabata-san asks him after a moment of silence, save for Misaki's usual labored breathing. Every breath of theirs is visible in the February air, faint grey puffs of smoke that quickly dissipate.
"Fine," he mumbles.
"We should get inside. How about I make us some tea?" Misaki looks away from him and makes a noncommittal noise, which Kawabata-san takes as approval. He casts one last glance at the greenhouse, admiring their handiwork, before he turns around and steers Misaki away with one hand on his shoulder. It's not like how other people have placed a hand on his shoulder before – concerned neighbors, teachers and nurses. It's not like his parents did it (or like an older brother would do it, if he really had one). Two of Kawabata-san's fingers stroke him lightly, on his upper back, over his school uniform shirt. He keeps doing that while he has his hand there. Kawabata-san's touches linger.
As he slides the back door open, he says, "I'm afraid I can't stick around for too long. I've got a date with Fukui at 7:00."
Misaki says nothing.
"But I'd love to check on the plants with you again next week. Maybe we can meet up a little earlier, and do lunch afterwards."
"I like catching up with you. You're like a little brother to me, after all, just as I told her."
Silence. The fingers on his shoulder stutter, just a little bit.
"You're very precious to me."
So many times, Misaki has fantasized about hearing those words from him. But the context is all wrong. They weren't supposed to make him want to run down the hall to his grandfather's old room, for one thing, and shut the door behind him so he can't be seen. And then curl up on his futon, and pull the covers over his head, and cry.
He can't do that. Instead he says, "Thank-you" and sits down at the table.
He is always running, but never at the right time.
"Are you alright? What happened?" is what they asked when they found him, huddled in a corner of the stairwell with his lips bruised and his shirt unbuttoned. He concentrated on breathing evenly before he could answer them.
"Why didn't you run away?" is what Kawabata-san asks him first off, when Misaki is delivered to him later that evening and the news has already been broken to him. Not just him – it'll probably be all over the university by tomorrow. One more reason for everyone to take notice of his feminine looks. One more reason for them to call him Misaki-chan.
Misaki sighs under his breath. "I couldn't move much…at all. He was really strong."
"Couldn't you have at least called out for help? It was a stairwell – someone would've heard right away."
He doesn't respond to that. He looks down at his lap, past his rumpled shirt. His tea sits untouched in front of him. It must be getting cold.
Kawabata-san waits for a reply that never comes, then sighs. Misaki can tell he's forcing a smile without looking at him.
"Well, that man will be severely reprimanded. He'll never bother you again – so there's no need to worry. After all, it's pretty unusual for that to happen to a man."
He knows. He knows that already. He doesn't need to hear it again.
They are both silent for another long, strained moment. When Kawabata-san finally speaks up, his voice sounds different – shaky, no longer controlled. "For God's sake, Shouta, at least fix your shirt."
But Kawabata-san takes it upon himself to do it – getting down on the mat and crawling over to him. His hands reach down the front of Misaki's jacket and smooth out the folds of his shirt, tucking it back inside his pants. Misaki shivers. He reaches up, and as he takes the first button between his fingers, he brushes Misaki's skin.
Misaki finally looks at him. Their eyes meet. Kawabata-san looks – almost wild. He's controlling his expression, controlling himself really obviously, but he's not doing a good enough job. He looks anxious, somehow, and – scared. Of what?
All Misaki can think about as he looks at him is that winter day, back when he was still in high school. When Kawabata-san asked him, "Aren't you going to tell me you'll be lonely if I don't come?" When he teased his mouth open, and pressed their bodies together, and slid a hand up his shirt—
They both let out a breath at the same time. For once, it's Kawabata-san who breaks the eye contact, bowing his head as he finishes buttoning up Misaki. He looks about to say something – maybe "There, all done" – but doesn't. Maybe the words die in his throat. Maybe he realizes it's safer not to.
"Hey, Misaki, could you pass me a slip?"
He blinks, eyelashes fluttering against the microscope lens. "What?"
"A cover slip," Arikawa says. "Could you give me one?"
Misaki pulls away and looks up ahead, to the many boxes balancing precariously on top of each-other in the laboratory cabinet. The top one, he thinks, has the cover slips. He stands on tiptoe, reaching for it—
Of course they all come crashing down.
He curses as he gets on his knees to pick them up. The topmost box did, in fact, contain the cover slips. It was also open, and now the contents are spilled out all over the floor.
"Here," Misaki says irritably, gesturing at the pile as Arikawa gets down beside him. He's trying not to blush, but failing. "Take your pick."
"I didn't need that many to choose from," Arikawa replies. He helps pick them carefully off the floor and puts them back in the box. He's barely suppressing a smile.
"You could've just got one yourself." Misaki picks up the five - no, six – boxes that fell in his arms, and sets them down on the counter for now.
"I thought reaching over you would've made you all jumpy," Arikawa says, and he's no longer just smiling now, but grinning. "Like last time."
"Ugh." Misaki kneels back down on the ground to help him pick up the remaining cover slips. Their hands brush a few times; each time, Arikawa looks at him and flashes him a smile, and each time, Misaki's blush deepens. His heart picks up speed, too. He hates liking (or loving, whatever) someone. It's not that it's always men he falls for – although that certainly doesn't help, the knowledge that this is wrong, and that no-one can ever know. He just doesn't like the feeling of it, of being in love. It feels like an anxiety attack waiting to happen. It feels like an illness.
"Is everything alright?" Tsujimura-sensei asks when he walks back into the lab, after they've just finished cleaning up.
"We're fine," Arikawa calls cheerfully over his shoulder. "We just had a little accident."
Tsujimura-sensei looks to Misaki right away with a fond, knowing expression on his face. Misaki looks away, seething, and peers back into the microscope. His life has never had dignity.
It's 9:30 PM when he picks himself off the floor and finally leaves the lab.
After locking up and turning off the lights, he heads for the train station. He's grateful for the crowd and the noise, for once – and to have something to do, a task to occupy his thoughts with. Eventually, though, Misaki gets to remembering his run-in with Arikawa at this same station. It's kind of funny, how he crashed into him because he was running from Kawabata-san, at the time. He managed to lose him that day, but Misaki can't truly escape him. Not really.
He spends the train ride clutching the metal bar overhead and wishing he was different. He wishes the obvious thing he's been wishing for a good few years now: that he doesn't like men, or, better yet, that he wasn't born a man himself. That he could look at the women passing him by at the train station (particularly the ones walking hand-in-hand with their boyfriends, so happy and in love) without thinking he'd fit much better in their shoes than his own.
But mostly, he wishes he was stronger. He wishes he could run a couple of laps with kneeling over, and fight off upperclassmen who think they can pull one over on Misaki-chan, the boy who looks so much like a girl. He wishes he wasn't constantly on the verge of collapse, on the verge of panicking and folding in on himself on the floor at school, face in hands, wanting desperately to be somebody, anybody else.
He gets off at Tougane and walks to his grandfather's house in the dark. By the time he's unlocking the door, he's accepted that there's no way Arikawa will ever want to see him again.
Misaki doesn't know why Arikawa wanted to work with him in the first place, when he has friends and a girlfriend and all the papers and reading assignments being a law major entails. Morbid curiosity, he thought at first. Wanting to know what Misaki-chan is like, to play a joke on him. When it became clear Arikawa was kind – honest and earnest and kind to a fault – Misaki assumed he must pity him.
Pity can only go so far. Misaki knows this, from the way he's seen neighbors drop by to visit day after day, and then with less and less frequency until they never show up any more, after his parents' and his grandfather's death. This is too much. Arikawa won't want to be around him any longer, after what Kawabata-san said – and what he said he doesn't know, exactly, but can certainly imagine.
"He likes men who are kind to him", maybe. "You'll be next."
Misaki takes a deep, calming breath, and forces himself not to think about that any more. He goes to take a shower.
By the time he's out, he's wondering, "But what if he doesn't?"
What if Arikawa does want to see him again? What if he's so kind that he can look past…the way Misaki is? Or, what if he doesn't even know, after all? What if he was too oblivious to pick up on the kind of relationship he and Kawabata-san had?
What if he just doesn't care?
It seems impossible. It seems absurd. And yet –
He had to know the kind of reputation Misaki has around school, before he decided to join him in the lab. Never, not once, has he brought it up. And never has he seemed uncomfortable around him.
Misaki slowly dries his hair with a towel in the bathroom, staring at his reflection in the mirror, into his own eyes. So many times, he's found the person looking back at him frustrating, disappointing, pitiful. He tosses the towel into the bath when he's done and pads out of the room, down the hall, past his own dusty bedroom and into his grandfather's.
(And one day, Arikawa took him by the hand and led him out of the university. Across the bridge, over a tall, grassy hill, far away, Arikawa had fallen asleep in afternoon sun. When Misaki knelt over him, staring at his sleeping form covered in flowers, and spoke his name, Arikawa had taken a hold of his wrist, and—)
Misaki turns out all the lights and climbs into the futon, pulling the covers up over his face.
(—held him close, and softly kissed him.)
What if he doesn't care?
There's only one way to find out.
He ends up telling him everything – or a lot of things, anyway. His past with Kawabata-san, his insecurities, the fact he's in love with him; everything comes out. "I can't take this again," he snaps, tears spilling over. "If only I was a girl." And just like that, he's revealed everything to him, in the middle of the train station.
Arikawa's response is to kiss him, and hold him, and tell him he broke up with his girlfriend.
Misaki blinks his watery eyes open wide. He stares out over Arikawa's shoulder, at the stairs leading down to lit screens giving times and directions. Trains swiftly arriving and leaving as quickly as they came. People (like the two women who just saw them and said, "Do you think they're drunk?" as they walked away) waiting for the ride that will take them home from work. There's a big clock ticking at the center of the station that chimes loudly every half-hour. Misaki wouldn't be able to hear it over his heart right now if he had to.
"You could have anyone," he tells him, feeling weak – as though his knees could give out at any minute; as though his voice might give out, too; as though he can barely breathe. It's a familiar feeling.
But this time it's different, somehow. There's an undercurrent to the weakness, the tiredness, the breathlessness. A different, warm feeling buried underneath it all, hidden away, but threatening to overtake him any minute now.
"Eh, you think so, really?" Arikawa laughs against his skin, a huff of breath into his ear. "But I'd rather be with Misaki."
Misaki is hopeful.
Neither of them speak for a long moment after that. Someone walks past them again, a businessman. Misaki doesn't notice him until he's all the way down the stairs. He lets his eyes fall shut again.
"Will you give me your answer, Misaki?"
"Are you alright?" Arikawa asks as he collapses on top of him, bowing his head over his sweat-slicked shoulder.
Misaki tries to nod underneath him, but it's awkward. He shifts a little uncomfortably. The air around them feels muggy, and his breath comes hard and fast – but so does Arikawa's. They're both trembling this time, shaken and flushed. Breathless.
"You're not hurt?"
He is. He knows that. But he doesn't feel it. Well, he feels it – his entire body feels like it's been wrung out and hung out to dry. He's sticky, and sweating, and out of breath once again. But it's not from anxiety. He has no reason to run right now. Instead he wants to stay right where he is, in Arikawa's embrace, listen to his heart hammering in his chest against Misaki's skin, because of him.
He buries his head against Arikawa's neck and breathes. "I'm fine," he says, and for the first time, he means it.