Prince, Cold Hands, Warm Heart

Title: Cold Hands, Warm Heart [Jinguji/Genki]
Rating/Warnings: R for scariness, see below.
Summary: The third floor bathroom is supposed to be haunted, but all Jinguji finds in there is Genki.
AN: Halloween horror fic! Based intensely loosely on the Greek story of Philinnion, plus a handful of other Japanese school urban legends about bathrooms and Genki’s true facts bullying problem. It turned out a bit…weird this year.

REAL WARNING: Think Asian horror ghost movie like Ring or Shutter or White. Scary stuff happens to people you enjoy! Character death possible! I don’t want to spoil all the spoils, given the nature of it, but ghosts are involved and they are pissed.

It’s not gory or anything, though, not like crazy serial murder fic or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s plotty. So…good luck?

Cold Hands, Warm Heart

Nothing was weird at all about the afternoon Jinguji, Reia, and Shintarou were coming down the back second floor hallway in the late afternoon. Most of the other students were either gone or in their clubs, but Jinguji was cutting soccer practice and Shintarou had suddenly discovered his rebellious period, so they had coaxed Reia up onto the roof with them to hang around like hooligans, gossiping about nothing and smoking until the wind was too much, their fingertips too cold to even hold the cigarette they’d been passing back and forth.

“Let’s go to karaoke,” Jinguji suggested, in no hurry to go home.

“Bad influence,” Reia accused without any heat. “I’m going to the bathroom first, though.”

“We just passed a bathroom,” Jinguji pointed out, thumbing over his shoulder. He stopped, ready to wait, but Reia and Shintarou both looked over their shoulders from a few steps ahead as if he were crazy.

“Dude, that’s the haunted bathroom,” Shintarou said.

“What?” Jinguji snorted, then laughed when Shintarou only looked back seriously. “How are you the tallest and yet such a crybaby?”

“No, he’s right,” Reia said with a shrug. “If you go in there, there’s weird noises, like somebody hurt or crying, the faucet goes on and off, stuff like that.”

“I heard if you’re in the stall and somebody knocks on it, if you open the door you’ll get dragged straight to hell,” Shintarou added.

“You two cannot be serious,” Jinguji said.

“Do you get dragged to hell through the toilet pipe?” Reia asked contemplatively. Shintarou said he sure wasn’t planning on finding out, and Jinguji finally had to put a stop to this insanity.

That’s how he found himself inside the bathroom, calling over his shoulder that Reia and Shintarou were both ridiculous crybabies.

“There’s nothing in here at all!” he called through the door. “No weird noises! No toilet portal to hell! Not even anybody crying.” As soon as he stopped talking there in fact was a soft noise, making Jinguji frown. The second noise was clearer, a definitely sniffle. “Ugh, okay, there might be someone crying.” Jinguji got no response from outside. “Guys?”

He stuck his head back out of the door and found the hallway entirely empty.

“Assholes,” Jinguji grumbled. Since he was in here anyway, he figured he at least had to check on whoever was in the stall. The noise was clearly crying now, the sniffles louder as Jinguji reached the third stall. He knocked on it with his knuckles. “Hi? Are you okay in there?”

The noise stopped. Jinguji shifted his weight, not sure what to do.

“Hello?” he tried again. “I swear I’m not going to drag you to hell, I’m a regular person and not a ghost at all. Do you need help?” Just when Jinguji was thinking about turning around and leaving whoever it was alone, there was another loud sniffle. Jinguji sighed a little. “Come on, huh?” he said, trying to sound coaxing. “I won’t tell anybody you cried. You don’t really want to sit alone in this bathroom, do you? It’s kind of gross in here.”

A loud click sounded, the latch of the stall door, and then the door swung gently open. For a tense second, Jinguji was kind of afraid of what he would find in there, ghost or demon or toilet portal or what, but the only thing he saw was a disheveled teenager in a school uniform just like his own.

“Hey,” Jinguji said gently. The guy was shorter and more delicate-looking than Jinguji, skin pale except for a bruise across his cheek and dark hair hanging in his eyes. He didn’t say anything, only stared at the floor. “That’s some bruise there. You okay?”

The guy nodded, eyes still down.

“Whoever did that to you is gone now, if you were hiding in here,” Jinguji offered. “Want me to take you to the nurse or anything?”

“No.” His voice was barely above a whisper, thin like paper. Everything about him was like paper, pale and delicate and like he might blow away any second.

“Okay.” And then, because he didn’t know what else to say, he added, “I’m Jinguji Yuuta, from class 3F.”

“Genki.” Genki looked up just long enough to make brief eye contact, eyes surprisingly dark against his pale skin, then back down. “Iwahashi Genki.”

“Nice to meet you, Iwahashi-kun,” Jinguji said. “Come on, let’s get out of here, huh?” He reached for Genki’s wrist, but Genki jerked his hand back at the first touch. His skin had felt cold under Jinguji’s fingers even from that brief touch. “Sorry. Come on, it’s freezing in here.”

Jinguji half-thought Genki would just stay there, but when he turned and headed for the door, he heard the quiet shuffle of Genki’s indoor shoes behind him. Jinguji held the door open and Genki shuffled out behind him, looking left and right down the hallway.

“See? Gone. They must have gotten bored,” Jinguji shrugged. Genki looked just as paper-pale in the more natural light of the hallway as he had under the fluorescent bathroom lights, his bruise just as ugly. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the nurse? That looks it hurts.”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Genki said. He snuck another nervous glance at Jinguji before looking away again.

“You should put something on it anyway,” Jinguji said. He pulled his phone out of his pocket to message his so-called friends and tell them again that they were crybabies and also assholes. Reia mailed back that they were waiting for him at his shoe locker and still up for karaoke if Jinguji was up to it. Jinguji didn’t answer, wanting to make Reia feel guilty for the five minutes it would take him to walk down there and meet them. “I can walk you if you…”

Jinguji looked up from his phone to find himself alone in the hallway.

The whole way down to the shoe lockers, he kept glancing behind him, looking above and below on the stairwell, but he didn’t see Genki again.

“There you are,” Reia said with relief when Jinguji turned the corner to find them hanging around near his shoe locker. “We were starting to wonder if you really did get dragged to hell!”

“Calm down, you’re the ones who ditched me after thirty seconds,” Jinguji crabbed, yanking off his shoes and tossing his sneakers down to try and toe them on without sitting and undoing the laces.

“What?” Shintarou asked, making Jinguji look up with a frown. “Dude, we’ve been down here for twenty minutes, at least.”

*****

Jinguji wasn’t exactly looking for Genki over the next few days, but he was curious if he was okay. He thought about checking the other classrooms during lunch, but he realized Genki hadn’t even said what grade he was in. Instead all he did was casually scan the hallways as he walked down them, and if he never caught sight of Genki that wasn’t especially strange, since a kid who got beat up like that had a pretty good chance of being a kid who skipped school a lot.

It wasn’t until a week later that Jinguji saw Genki a second time. He was skipping soccer practice again, alone this time since the other two had been told off by their mothers the last time, and when he came out of the stairwell to the roof, Genki was standing on the very edge of it, his back to Jinguji. A section of the chain link fence had come loose and not been fixed yet, and Genki was standing on the wrong side of it, Jinguji realized when he took a few steps closer. About to call hello, Jinguji’s voice stuck in his throat, afraid that if he startled Genki, Genki might trip and slip right off the edge.

The trip across the roof only took five seconds, but it seemed a lot longer to Jinguji as he watched Genki’s pale fingers curl around the chain link diamonds, the wind ruffle Genki’s hair. When he was close enough that he could make a grab for Genki’s jacket if he scared him, Jinguji chanced a soft, “Hi, Iwahashi-kun.”

Genki turned his head just enough to eye Jinguji, bruise still dark across his cheek. Or another bruise, Jinguji supposed, since one from last week would be fading by now. After a second, he turned his face away again.

“Hey, are you okay?” Jinguji asked, the situation making him more uncomfortable by the second. Genki didn’t react, as if he hadn’t heard. “Can you come back in here so we can talk? You’re scaring me.”

When Genki still didn’t move, Jinguji reached through the gap in the barrier and grabbed Genki’s wrist. Genki’s skin was freezing under Jinguji’s fingers, but he didn’t let go; he pulled on Genki’s wrist, gently at first and them more firmly when that got no response, until Genki let Jinguji pull him away from the roof’s edge and back through the gap in the fencing.

For a minute they just stood there, Jinguji’s breathing quick and panicky, while Genki seemed curiously blank, watching Jinguji dispassionately.

“Were you going to…” Jinguji couldn’t bring himself to finish his question. It made his stomach roll when Genki gave a small shrug with one shoulder.

“It wouldn’t it matter,” he said. His voice blended in with the wind whistling over the roof, thin and indistinct.

“It does matter!” Jinguji snapped. Suddenly he realized he was shaking, his fingers almost numb with cold. “Let’s just go inside, okay? Come on.”

They sat on the top step of the stairwell, silently at first, until the silence got to Jinguji and he started talking. He talked about school, about Shintarou and Reia, about the math test he’d bombed last week and how his mom wouldn’t stop putting embarrassing notes in his lunch and how he was skipping soccer practice again.

“It’s not even that I don’t like soccer,” Jinguji sighed. “I love soccer. But practice goes forever and I don’t have time for anything else, and it isn’t even like we ever get past the first round, so what’s the point, you know? It’s so frustrating…”

“I like baseball,” Genki interrupted, speaking for the first time and startling Jinguji.

“Yeah?” Jinguji asked after a moment. “Are you on the team?”

Genki’s lips pressed together in a thin line as he stared down at the steps. “I was.”

“What position did you—” Jinguji cut off as his phone buzzed in his pocket. It had grown dark enough that both the light of the display and the name flashing on it made Jinguji wince. “Ugh, it’s my mom.” He thumbed the answer circle across, looking up towards the ceiling for strength. “Hi, mom.”

“Don’t you ‘hi, mom’ ME, young man!” Jinguji-san’s voice came across the speakers almost loud enough to echo in the stairwell. “I’m parked in front of the school gate, and if you aren’t down here in TWO MINUTES FLAT, explaining why I’m getting mails from your coach, you’ll wish your father and I had tried adoption!”

“Uuuuuugh,” Jinguji groaned quietly after his mother hung up on him. He snuck a glance at Genki, who looked mildly amused. “It’s not funny,” Jinguji grumbled as he stood up. He reached down to help Genki up, and even though Genki’s hand was still chilled when Jinguji gripped it, he was actually meeting Jinguji’s eyes. “Will…you be okay? You won’t go back out there, right?”

“Pitcher,” Genki said, as if that was the answer to Jinguji’s current question and not the one from two minutes ago. “I was the pitcher.”

“Listen, come and find me tomorrow, all right?” Jinguji asked as they started down the stairs. He felt like if he didn’t check on Genki, he’d worry about it all day. “It’s class 3F, remember? In the morning. Okay?”

“If that’s all right,” Genki said after a second and Jinguji told him of course it was.

Genki followed Jinguji down the stairs and outside, but stopped at the school gate. Jinguji paused, looking over his shoulder.

“Do you need a ride home?” Jinguji offered. “My mom would take you.”

Genki shook his head. “I’m fine.”

Once he’d climbed into the car, Jinguji half-listened to his mother lecturing him as he twisted around to look back over his shoulder. Genki was still standing at the school gate, face a pale smudge in the gathering darkness.

“Yuta!” his mother snapped. “Are you listening to me?”

“Yeah, Mom,” Jinguji said, turning around with a sigh.

*****

“I told you, right?” Reia said. “Didn’t I tell you?”

“Mm,” Jinguji said, poking at his lunch.

“Jin!” Reia snapped. Shintarou reached over and punched Jinguji in the shoulder.

“Ow!” Jinguji looked up finally. “What the hell?”

“You haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying,” Reia said, rolling his eyes. Jinguji grumbled an apology. “I said, I told you that bathroom was haunted, right? Abe-kun said the lights went out when he was in there and the stall door slammed, and he wouldn’t go in there again for a thousand yen.”

“Aran is a baby,” Jinguji said dismissively. “I told you there was nothing in there. Well, except for Iwahashi-kun, but he was hardly terrifying. He probably couldn’t even scare Morita-kun.”

“Everything scares Morita—YAH,” Shintarou’s chuckle cut off with a yelp, making Reia and Jinguji look at him curiously. “Ugh, sorry. Some idiot in the hallway had his face pressed against the glass, he looked like a freaking tengu or something.”

Jinguji turned to look over his shoulder, but the pale smudge of a face lurking around the edge of the window just filled him with relief. “It’s just Iwahashi-kun,” he said, getting up and abandoning his lunch.

“Hi!” Jinguji said, sticking his head out of the door and finding Genki lurking nervously in the hallway. “I’m glad you came. When you didn’t come this morning, I was worried that…well, I’m glad to see you.”

Genki’s face looked half disbelieving and half pleased, but he gave Jinguji a wan smile. “I’m still here.”

“Come in! I’m just eating lunch with Reia and Shin-chan, they won’t mind,” Jinguji offered. Genki all but shrank against the wall, glancing inside the bustling classroom with obvious misgivings. “Or…we could hang out somewhere quieter if you want.”

Jinguji retrieved his lunch, brushing off Reia and Shintarou’s questions, and they ended up sitting at the bottom of the stairwell this time, the roof a popular lunch spot and thus too well trafficked. Jinguji coaxed little pieces of information from Genki about himself, like that he was an only child and wanted to go to university, and offered to share his lunch, although Genki politely declined.

After that, Jinguji saw Genki more often, at least once most days. Sometimes Genki would be waiting by Jinguji’s classroom door at lunch or before soccer practice, and other times Genki would sneak up on him unnoticed, cat-quiet.

“Holy crap!” Jinguji gasped when he looked up from washing his hands and caught sight of Genki’s reflection just over his shoulder in the bathroom mirror. “You scared me! Thank goodness it’s just you, Reia will not shut up about this haunted bathroom thing.”

Genki looked amused. “Yesterday some second years shut a first year in that stall,” Genki thumbed over his shoulder, “and made him cry. Then they shoved a second one in here and told him if he heard the ghost crying, that meant it was going to drag him to hell with it. When he threw open the stall door, they both screamed SO loud…” Genki broke off with a dark chuckle.

“You shouldn’t laugh,” Jinguji chided. His gaze strayed to yet another bruise on Genki’s face; it seemed like ones appeared before the old ones ever faded fully, so clearly that was still going on. “You don’t think it’s so funny when they bully you, I bet.”

Genki’s smile disappeared, and Jinguji felt immediately bad for bringing it up.

“Hey,” Jinguji changed the subject. “I don’t have practice after school, so I’m going to the arcade with Reia, from my class. You should come. Do you want to?”

Genki’s eyes slid away, off to the side. “I can’t.”

“All right,” Jinguji said, not wanting to pressure Genki. “Next time, then.” Genki made a noncommittal noise as he trailed Jinguji out of the bathroom.

*****

“Shouldn’t you be in class?” Jinguji asked when he found Genki on the landing between the first and second floor, palm and nose pressed against the window glass. Genki turned to look over his shoulder, eyebrow raised, not looking in the least surprised that Jinguji had snuck up behind him. Somehow Jinguji hadn’t managed to make him jump even once.

“Shouldn’t you?” Genki asked. He turned back to the window; Jinguji came to stand next to him, looking out over the main entry way of the school, and the road out past the gates.

“Hey, I brought you something,” Jinguji said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a cell phone strap with the Tokyo Giants logo on it. “I went to the last game of the season last weekend with my Dad, and I picked up this for you.” Genki blinked, looking from Jinguji’s hand to his face without making any move to take it. Self-conscious, Jinguji added, “Since you like baseball…I guess it’s silly, sorry.”

“Can I give you something back?” Genki asked, expression serious.

“I…sure?” Jinguji felt weirdly nervous suddenly. He wasn’t unaware that he was thinking about Genki or hoping to find him more often than was normal for a strictly platonic school friend, but keeping that secret quietly on the inside was a lot different than Genki perhaps feeling the same way. “If you want. But you don’t have to.”

Genki reached up to the back of his neck and pulled out a chain Jinguji had never noticed before, hidden underneath the collar of his button-down uniform shirt. Genki pulled the chain over his head, long enough to do so without unhooking it; on the end dangled a silver ring. He held it out for Jinguji to take.

There was a pause where Jinguji struggled to pick between having a well-deserved freakout and not wanting to hurt Genki’s feelings.

“Are you sure?” he finally asked. “I just mean…it’s why you keep getting beat up, right? Because…isn’t it because they think you look gay?”

“It doesn’t matter why,” Genki shrugged with one shoulder. “I like Jinguji-kun, so it doesn’t matter.”

Nodding once, Jinguji reached out to take the necklace with one hand and to hand over the baseball strap with the other. He dropped the chain over his own head and examined the ring. It was plain, other than a simple wavy line etched around the outside of it.

“It isn’t exactly a fair exchange,” he said, feeling a bit guilty. Genki seemed entirely satisfied with it though, busy affixing the strap to his phone, a small smile curling the corner of his mouth. It was an older flip phone instead of a smartphone like Jinguji’s, so the strap hung properly from the corner.

“It’s perfect,” Genki answered, slipping his phone back into his pocket before Jinguji could tease him about his lack of up-to-date technology. “Hey. Can we go somewhere after school?”

“After…” Busy fiddling with the necklace to get it to slip under his own shirt collar and tie, it took Jinguji a second to understand what Genki was asking him. “Oh! Really? You want to?” It was a surprise, since Genki had only ever told him no every time he asked if Genki wanted to hang out.

Genki nodded. “Only…someplace that’s not crowded, please.”

“Karaoke,” Jinguji said authoritatively. “Karaoke for first dates, for sure. This…is a date, right?” he checked himself, cheeks already turning pink at the thought of how embarrassed he was going to be if Genki said no.

Genki nodded, eyes cutting to the side shyly, and Jinguji huffed a quiet sigh of relief.

Karaoke was perfect, the room small and dark and cozy, Genki sitting close enough on the couch for their rolled up shirt sleeves to brush, their jackets tossed beside them on the couch. Genki’s voice was nice, sweet if a little quiet, and his song choices were as adorably outdated as his phone. He blushed when Jinguji teased him about it, which meant his pale face almost turned a normal color.

After an hour, Genki’s hand slid into Jinguji’s, cold as usual but not at all unpleasantly so when Jinguji curled their fingers together. Jinguji grinned so widely that his voice cracked right in the middle of the chorus to “Yume Monogatari,” and Genki snorted into the microphone, making both of them crack up.

“Hey,” Jinguji said a while later, both of them slumped comfortably against the back of the couch, Genki’s cheek against Jinguji’s shoulder. Jinguji kept thinking about getting up and turning the air conditioner down, but then just sitting there because it seemed easier. “Let’s trade numbers. Since we’re…you know. And it’ll be easier for me to find you that way instead of hunting all over at school.”

For a few beats Genki didn’t answer, but then murmured an “Okay” against Jinguji’s shoulder and squeezed his hand tight.

*****

Genki wasn’t much of a texter as it turned out, but sometimes he sent Jingjuji pictures. He was never in the pictures himself, unlike the kissy or duck face selfies Jinguji tended to send. They were pictures of places in the school, the end of a hallway, the benches in front of the gym, the third landing of the stairwell. They were often poorly lit, tilted, or blurry.

Jinguji hadn’t figured out whether Genki thought he was being artistic or was just a terrible photographer. Either way, he thought it was pretty cute.

*****

“So the door locked behind him, locked!” Shintarou was saying a few days later at lunch, face alight with the excitement of telling a good, gossipy story. “Trapped him right in the supply closet, and the lights wouldn’t turn on!”

“Hm,” Jinguji said, encouraging Shintarou to go on while only half-listening.

“Somebody locked him in,” Reia waved Shintarou off.

“No way, the rest of the baseball team had left ages ago,” Shintarou corrected with relish. “Sou-kun stayed behind to wrap his glove and he was supposed to lock up after. He said he heard the lock click itself, plain as day. Would have been stuck in there all night!”

“Would have been?” Reia asked.

“Well, he was only in there like half hour before Kauan and the manager showed up to make out in there and stumbled over him. They accused him of being so stupid he locked himself in, but the lock’s on the outside…fuck, Jin-chan, will you stop smiling like that?” Shintarou interrupted, making Jinguji snap back to what he was saying. “I’m telling a perfectly good scary story, and you’re grinning like it’s a love letter from Horikita Maki! It’s creepy!”

“Horikita Maki?” Reia asked, snickering. “Seriously, are you thirty?”

“Shut up!” Shintarou snapped, shoving at Reia and nearly sending him off the edge of Shintarou’s desk where he was sitting. “Horikita Maki is GREAT.”

“I like her, too,” said Genki from just behind Shintarou’s shoulder, making Shintarou stifle a gasp and Reia actually fall off the desk. They’d been so intent on Shintarou’s story, neither of them had noticed Genki coming in the door or his approach. “Hi, Jinguji-kun.”

“Iwahashi-kun!” Jinguji’s grin got even wider. He patted the desk behind him, the one his elbow was resting on. “Wanna eat lunch with us? Shin-chan was just telling us the story about Sou-kun getting locked in the supply closet.”

“I know about that,” Genki said, skirting around where Reia was picking himself up off the floor to slide into the seat Jinguji’s had pointed out. “He sprained his wrist banging on the door, so he can’t pitch in the tournament now. It’s a shame.”

The way he said ‘It’s a shame’ sounded more like ‘isn’t that funny,’ and Reia and Shintarou exchanged a glance that Jinguji couldn’t read.

“Iwahashi-kun played baseball before,” Jinguji explained. Shintarou frowned, but before he could comment, Genki spoke up.

“You can call me Genki,” he said, and Jinguji mumbled an okay and hoped he wasn’t blushing obviously, because he hadn’t exactly told his best friends what was happening between Genki and himself yet. Jinguji changed the subject quickly.

When lunch was ending and Genki had slipped out of the room to go back to his own class, Reia turned to Jinguji, expression serious.

“That guy creeps me out,” he said.

“Genki?” Jinguji asked, raising an eyebrow. “Are you kidding? Why?”

“He did just pop out of nowhere,” Shintarou pointed out, rubbing the back of his neck as if it still felt like somebody was watching him. “Doesn’t he do that a lot?”

“He’s quiet.” Jinguji rolled his eyes. “You’d sneak around too if people were beating up you every other day.”

“He thought it was funny Sou-kun got hurt,” Reia added.

“He did not, he just…” Jinguij thought about Genki telling him the story of the two freshmen in the bathroom. “He’s a little awkward.”

“How’d he even know that story?” Shintarou wanted to know. “It just happened last night, and Sou-kun only told it to me an hour ago outside the nurse’s office! He came in late to school!”

“Geez, how am I supposed to know?” Jinguji demanded. “He was on the baseball team, like I told you! He’s probably still friends with some of them!”

“I went to a ton of Sou’s games last year, and I’ve never seen him play or—”

“You think he’s lying? What’s with you two?” Jinguji interrupted Shintarou, feeling unreasonably nettled about the whole thing. “You’re being dicks. What’s he ever done to you, huh?”

“He just…” Reia trailed off, looking to Shintarou for help.

“He creeps me out,” Shintarou repeated, “and I don’t think you should hang out with him.”

“Well, that’s tough shit,” Jinguji snapped, temper flaring all at once, “because I’ve been dating him since Tuesday. So back off, all right?!” Shintarou and Reia exchanged another look, but Jinguji could read this one perfectly. “Seriously, fuck both of you.”

Their math teacher came in and interrupted just then before they could finish the fight properly. Jinguji stewed angrily for the rest of the afternoon, refusing to speak to either Shintarou or Reia, or even to look over no matter how obviously Reia was trying to get his attention. Their Japanese literature told Reia off twice for not paying attention, which probably mortified him since he was a good student usually, but Jinguji just stared at his desk harder, thinking that it served him right.

When class finally ended, Jinguji stood up to try and slip away quickly, but Shintarou boxed him in easily, his larger frame making it impossible for Jinguji to escape through the space between the desks.

“Sorry, okay?” Shintarou said. “We’re not trying to fight, we’re just worried about you.”

“Yeah, okay. Sorry,” Jinguji answered, but he didn’t mean it and and he knew they didn’t either.

“They don’t like me, huh?” Genki asked later, on the roof. It still made Jinguji nervous to sit out here with Genki, but it was peaceful and the sun was out, and it was tolerable with Genki’s hand clutched firmly in his own. It felt almost okay when Jinguji thought that he could hold Genki right where he was.

“It’s not that exactly,” Jinguji hedged. “I don’t know. They’re good guys. They just don’t know you.”

“It’s okay,” Genki said, in the same voice as when he’d shrugged off the reason he was getting beaten up. It wasn’t exactly like he didn’t care, more like he was resigned to it and didn’t expect any better. Genki shifted just a bit closer, leaning his cheek on Jinguji’s shoulder. “It’s fine if just Jinguji-kun likes me.”

“Jin-chan,” Jinguji corrected absently. “That’s what R…what most people call me.” The wind ruffled their hair, and Jinguji shivered from the chill. Soon it would be winter, too cold to sit out here comfortably even in the sun. One of them was shivering, and Jinguji couldn’t even tell which one of them it was. “Let’s go in, it’s getting cold.”

“Just a bit longer,” Genki asked, snuggling closer. Jinguji let go of his hand to wrap an arm around his back instead, rubbing idly at the outside of Genki’s arm. By the time the sun was going down and they went inside, Jinguji’s fingers were so numb he could barely feel them.

*****

“What the heck is that?” Shintarou asked, looking over Jinguji’s shoulder at the latest picture that had arrived on Jinguji’s phone during class change.

“I think it’s half the water fountain and maybe some of the window,” Jinguji said fondly, amused as ever at Genki’s terrible photos.

Shintarou tilted his head this way and that. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, if you hold it way up and turned…” Jinguji made a noise of frustration as his phone automatically rotated the picture. Thumbing up the bottom menu and locking the rotation, Jinguji turned again. “Okay, see? Like if you were lying on the floor and were looking up…”

“Dude, why would you lie on the floor in front of the water fountain to take this picture?” Shintarou asked, staring at the floor under his own feet, nose scrunched.

“I don’t know,” Jinguji chuckled. He’d asked Genki about it, but Genki was weird and vague about the pictures, and Jinguji just assumed he was embarrassed about it. But he kept sending them anyway, so maybe he’d be ready to tell Jinguji about it eventually. “I guess that’s his art or something.”

When Jinguji looked up, Shintarou’s face said that he didn’t think ‘that’s just his art’ was even close to a good explanation, so Jinguji changed the subject, tucking his phone into his pocket. It buzzed a few seconds later with an incoming message, but Jinguji resisted the urge to check.

It was another picture, but this time there were people in it, although out of focus and in the top left corner, cutting off their faces. After a second, Jinguji recognized the sloppy way his own shirtsleeves were cuffed up near his elbow, and the way Shintarou tended to stand with his weight on one foot. If you stood just at the end of the hallway, as you were turning the corner, you’d have about the right angle to where the two of them had been standing, in front of the notice board.

Jinguji wondered why Genki hadn’t just said hi, if he was standing right there. He was two words into a text to ask about it when he thought of Shintarou’s unimpressed face, the way he and Reia went quiet whenever Jinguji forgot to censor himself and mentioned Genki. Sighing, Jinguji erased the message he was going to send and asked where Genki was instead.

“Right behind you,” Genki whispered in Jinguji’s ear, making him jump six centimeters in the air and curse, clutching at his heart. Genki burst out laughing, the sound echoing down the hallway.

*****

Winter for some reason felt bleak and endless that year. Jinguji felt stretched too thin, always too tired and too cold, stressed out about university exams and his grades and his applications, his mother and teachers all riding his case. It was a relief when he and the other third years retired from soccer and he had more free time, but it wasn’t like he spent it doing anything productive. More and more of it he spent with Genki, sitting at the top of the stairwell or near the windows, going out for karaoke or ramen or coffee. Genki was a notoriously picky eater, often just sharing whatever Jinguji was eating and barely touching even that, but Jinguji privately thought it was cute that Genki enjoyed holding a cup or a can of hot coffee in his hands even if he left nearly all of it once it had cooled.

Shintarou complained that Jinguji barely ever hung out with them anymore, and Reia more gently tried to suggest times to hang out, but the truth was that Jinguji was frustrated with both of them. They’d made up after the initial fight, but Jinguji found it tiring to have friends who clearly couldn’t hang out with him at the same time, juggling who he was seeing when and trying not to mention them to each other. Genki had amiably suggested that he not come by Jinguji’s classroom anymore, but that just made Jinguji more irritated.

“I’m not ashamed of you,” he protested. “You don’t have to hide! You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“It’s just easier,” Genki shrugged him off. “It’s fine.”

“Come home with me,” Jinguji said out of the blue, surprising even himself. Genki stared at him evenly, looking him over, and Jinguji looked away, cheeks heating. “You know, if you want. You’ve never seen my house. My dad works late most of the time and my mom’s visiting her sister for the weekend so it’s…just me.” Jinguji frowned at the ground. “It’s just me a lot. Sorry, I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

“Because you’re lonely,” Genki surmised. Jinguji nodded, feeling like it was obvious when Genki said it. He really wasn’t looking forward to going home to an empty house. “Then I should go home with you, right? So you won’t be alone.”

“Yeah,” Jinguji agreed, giving Genki a small smile when Genki hooked a finger in Jinguji’s necklace, hidden as always just under his collar, and tugged him close enough to press a kiss to his cheek.

As predicted, no one was home when Jinguji let Genki in. Jinguji led Genki up to his room, and Genki prowled around looking at his stuff as Jin unpacked the snacks and bentos they had picked up at the combini on the way. He was still looking around when Jinguji said he was just going to change and slipped out to the bathroom, feeling awkward about taking off his clothes in front of Genki.

“You really do like soccer, huh?” Genki asked when Jinguji came back, looking at the tacked up pictures of Jinguji’s team from summer training camp and their spring tournament. The local paper had printed a shot of Jinguji scoring a goal, which made Jinguji whine with embarrassment whenever his mother brought it up in front of people, but the article was proudly tacked up there with the rest of them.

“Yeah,” Jinguji paused unwrapping his bento, looking at his hands. “Maybe I’ll keep playing in university if there’s a neighborhood association. It’s too bad you couldn’t come to any of our games, huh? We should have met earlier.”

Genki didn’t answer, and when he looked up, Genki was still facing the wall, motionless. He barely looked like he was breathing.

“Genki?” Jinguji asked again. Frowning when he got no response, Jinguji sat his food down and crossed the room. “Genki? Something wrong?”

Genki started when Jinguji’s hand touched his shoulder. “Oh! Sorry. I was thinking.”

“I mean, I know I’m sexy in my uniform, but come on,” Jinguji teased, squeezing Genki’s shoulder. Genki snorted softly. Jinguji looked down at his hand on Genki’s uniform jacket and realized he’d actually never seen Genki in anything other than his uniform. “Hey, do you want to change? You can borrow a T-shirt and some sweatpants.”

“Oh, no, I…” Genki trailed off, eyes trailing down Jinguji’s T-shirt and track pants. “Well, if it’s all right…”

“Why wouldn’t it be all right?” Jinguji chuckled, turning to find some clothes. He expected Genki to go to the bathroom instead, but Genki just turned his back as he undid his tie and stripped off his jacket. When he unbuttoned his shirt, Jinguji caught a glimpse of another string of bruises down Genki’s pale back, and he forced himself to turn away, gritting his teeth.

He didn’t look back up from his food until Genki slid onto his bed to sit cross-legged beside him.

“You look mad,” Genki commented.

“You should tell somebody what they’re doing,” Jinguji said, voice sharper than he meant it to be. He’d tried to talk to Genki about this before, but had given up, not wanting to start a fight. “You should tell someone who they are! I can’t stand that they’re hurting you!”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Genki said, giving that same one-shoulder shrug. “It doesn’t matter. Aren’t you going to eat?”

“It does matter,” Jinguji grumbled, but Genki shoved a piece of karaage into his mouth to shut him up.

After eating, or after Jinguji mostly ate and coaxed Genki into eating about every fifth bite, they curled up in Jinguji’s bed to watch a movie on his laptop. Jinguji hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but eventually he woke up to find it completely dark, his neck scrunched painfully from his head being pressed awkwardly into Genki’s side. Genki’s usually pale face was lit almost blue from the light of the laptop.

“Sorry, I fell asleep,” Jinguji said, yawning. “Do you have to go? Do you have a curfew?”

Genki shook his head. “No one’s waiting for me. Can I stay over?”

“Yes,” Jinguji said with relief, glad he didn’t have to go out in the cold to walk Genki to the station. It was cold enough in here already. Jinguji was already halfway to wriggling under the blankets before his brain caught up to the fact that maybe his boyfriend to stay over the first time wasn’t exactly no big deal. “Is this…okay? Like I can put out a futon, or…here, you stay here, I’ll just…”

“Here’s fine,” Genki interrupted, finally looking away from the laptop screen to smile at Jinguji, as if his panic was cute. “I want to stay with you.”

“Good,” Jinguji said, relieved. He got up to sit his laptop safely on the desk and make sure its charger was firmly plugged in, since his battery had lost nearly all of its charge. He frowned at that for a second-was his stupid battery going already? Laptops were junk-before closing the lid and heading back to his bed. The floor was cold against his feet and he was happy to hop up into his bed and tuck them firmly under the blankets. “Can I have the wall? I like the wall side.”

“Yeah,” Genki agreed amiably. He waited until Jinguji was settled before sliding in against Jinguji’s side. He hugged Jinguji tightly, their heights compatible enough that Jinguji’s chin was resting comfortably against the top of Genki’s head.

Jinguji heaved a sigh of contentment. “This is really nice.”

“Hm,” Genki said. His hand was under Jinguji’s T-shirt suddenly, fingertips cool against the small of Jinguji’s back. “Other stuff could be nice too.”

Jinguji’s heart sped up and suddenly it didn’t feel cold in his room at all. “Well, okay.”

Jinguji woke up in the middle of the night, freezing cold, and muzzily thinking that he must have left his window open, fumbling for it blindly. His knuckles banged painfully against the cold glass, and Jinguji squinted in confusion at his window, tightly closed.

“Whatever,” he grumbled, rolling on to his side, back to the window. Genki blinked at him from the other pillow, clearly also awake. “Hey, you watching me sleep? Creep,” Jinguji teased. He reached over to slide an arm across Genki’s waist, the worn t-shirt Jinguji had leant him soft under Jinguji’s palm. “Mm, you’re freezing too. Stupid winter. C’mere.”

Jinguji gathered Genki in close, Genki fitting against him pleasantly even if his feet were icy against Jinguji’s ankles and his nose was a cold spot against Jinguji’s neck. They warmed up slowly, and Jinguji fell asleep with Genki slowly rubbing fingers over the bumps of his spine, one by one by one, soothing and repetitive.

In the morning Jinguji felt exhausted, his limbs like lead as he dragged himself to the shower and shivering until the water heated up the whole way. He wished harder than anything that he could just crawl back into bed and stay there until spring. After a second, he chuckled at himself, thinking maybe his battery was faulty, just like his laptop’s.

Back in his room, Genki was sitting up in Jinguji’s bed, the blankets nested around him, and he gave Jinguji a fake pout. “Do we have to get up? Can’t we stay here a little longer?”

“God, yes,” Jinguji said, completely fine with how terrible a decision it was to crawl back into bed, under the blankets, and cuddle Genki tightly against him.

Genki seemed to agree, arms sliding around Jinguji’s neck and murmuring, “Mm, warm,” in Jinguji’s ear.

*****

During what Jinguji could only assume was the coldest January in human history, Jinguji’s university entrance exams loomed large, taking up all of his time with cram school and practice tests and his mother’s harassment, until Jinguji thought not infrequently about slipping through the gap in the chain link fence on the roof himself.

“I don’t even care if I pass anymore, I just want it to be over,” Jinguji crabbed to Genki during lunch, happy to escape fro his stupid, loud classroom where everyone felt annoying. The dimness of the bottom of the stairwell during a gray, snowy day felt much more suited to Jinguji’s mood.

“Mm,” Genki said, staring at nothing out past his sneakers where his feet were stretched out in front of him. He was always quiet when Jinguji brought the topic up; Jinguji always figured that he was worried about his own exams, plus he knew Genki wasn’t happy about Jinguji missing school off and on.

“I’m sick of thinking about it.” Jinguji scrubbed at his eyes. “Hey, when are yours? You haven’t told me where you’re trying for.”

Genki turned his head and kissed Jinguji suddenly, and Jinguji gave in easily to the change in topic.

Reia and Shintarou weren’t much better for commiseration, Shintarou studying for the same test as Jinguji with about as much success and the added frustration that his mother would not shut up about how well his older brother had passed his exams, and Reia, who had always had the best grades of the three of them, trying for Keio.

“Shut up, you’ll be fine,” Shintarou said, flicking an eraser across the library table at Reia. It bounced off Reia’s forehead, but he didn’t even blink. “Goody two-shoes honors student class council representative.”

“Those aren’t insults,” Reia said tiredly, turning a page in his practice test book. “This is an insult: maybe gorillas would have a better chance of attending university if they didn’t spend all their time thinking with their banana.”

“Go fuck a textbook,” Shintarou sneered back, making Jinguji crack up and getting them kicked out of the library for noise and profanity.

Somehow Jinguji limped past the finish line, and a few weeks later he nearly cried with relief when his results came back as a pass. The next morning at school he was desperate to find Genki to tell him the news, but searched all the usual places with no luck, and Genki as usual wasn’t answering his text messages.

The very last place he checked was the roof, because who would be crazy enough to hang out there when it was below zero and the sky was heavy with snow clouds, so of course that’s exactly where Genki was, sitting on the ground with his back against the wall.

“There you are!” Jinguji exclaimed, coming to crouch in front of him. He had no idea how Genki could be sitting on the cold, wet ground. “Are you crazy, sitting out here? It’s freezing.”

Genki shrugged a shoulder.

“Hey, guess what?” Jinguji asked, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. “I passed! I passed my exams!”

“Oh,” Genki said, which was not exactly the reaction Jinguji was looking for. He was too excited to take much notice, though.

“It’s such a fucking relief to have it settled,” Jinguji carried on his one-sided conversation. “It’s crazy, right? How soon we’ll be graduating. I can barely imagine what it’ll be like to not come here every day.”

“Stop it,” Genki said quietly.

“What’s the matter? Are you worried about yours?” Jinguji finally noticed the tense set of Genki’s shoulders, and the way he was staring down, hair hanging in his eyes. “Did you…fail yours? It’ll be okay, I promise. I’m not going away or something, so we can still see each other all the ti—”

“I said STOP,” Genki shouted, making the hair on the back of Jinguji’s neck stand up, and then Genki gave Jinguji a vicious shove that sent him sprawling on the wet concrete, scraping his palms. Genki curled into a miserable ball, arms around his knees. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

Jinguji picked himself up and sat next to Genki, rubbing his back and trying to figure out what to say, but nothing seemed right. They sat there until Jinguji was intensely late to first period and half-frozen.

After that, he didn’t bring up graduation with Genki again. He kept thinking, eventually Genki would be ready to talk about it, but that moment never seemed to come.

*****

After the rooftop incident, Genki was moody for a few weeks, by turns distant and then clingy. Jinguji just tried to take it all in a stride and be supportive, since he often saw other couples in the hallways having equally dramatic scenes. Sometimes it was perplexed guys with distraught underclassman girlfriends, and other times it was frustrated girls trying to shake off boyfriends who thought they should drop everything to make some last-second memories.

“He wanted to do it in the library,” Jinguji accidentally eavesdropped on a pair of girls as he strolled by, and he had to muffle a laugh at the scandal dripping from the girl’s every word. “I was like, buddy if you won’t even spring for a love hotel, then good luck with your obligation chocolates this year!”

Jinguji barely made it around the corner before he had to lean against the wall, shaking with laughter. Maybe Genki was a handful, but it sure seemed preferable to whatever was going on there.

Genki seemed more or less back to normal by the time Valentine’s Day rolled around, and he was certainly pleased with Jinguji’s gift of a silver ring. He’d tried to find one that matched the ring he wore all the time, and if it wasn’t exactly the same, he thought he’d done well enough.

“You know, since you don’t eat chocolate,” Jinguji explained, cheeks hot as he handed it over. “Or anything. I thought about getting a chain for it, since that’s how you wore this one, but…do you want one?”

“This is fine,” Genki said, sliding the ring on. It fit fine, another thing Jinguji had been fretting about, and Jinguji breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Genki slid his hand into Jinguji’s, the metal of his ring cold between Jinguji’s fingers. “It’s perfect.”

Still, sometimes Genki was still a little too weird even for Jinguji.

“His face was like…” Genki mimed the wide-eyed panic for second, then laughed. “He curled up on the ground like a turtle. Like a stupid turtle.”

“Jesus, Genki!” Jinguji interrupted. It always made him feel uncomfortable when Genki laughed at other kids behind bullied. “How can you laugh at that? Why didn’t you do something?”

“Do something?” Genki’s eyes narrowed. “What could I do?”

“I don’t know, something!” Jinguji exclaimed. It was rare for him to lose his temper with Genki, but he’d done poorly on a science test that morning and been lectured by his homeroom teacher for falling asleep, so Jinguji’s patience was at an end. “Push them! Go for help! You were standing right there, if you saw his face. Why do you hang around and watch? Don’t you wish somebody would help you?” Jinguji reached to brush a bruise on Genki’s cheek, always a new one, but Genki pushed his hand away.

“Nobody ever helped me,” he snapped, eyes dark.

“So it makes you feel better to watch other guys get hurt too?” Jinguji demanded. Genki didn’t exactly look like the answer was no, and that made Jinguji feel even more unpleasant. “Never mind, don’t answer that. But instead of just watching like a creep and then laughing about it, maybe if you actually did something, things would change.”

“They won’t change,” Genki said, voice flat. “I couldn’t do anything anyway.”

“That’s because you never try,” Jinguji told him, and Genki was quiet after that.

*****

The next morning they had an unexpected self-study period before lunch, and by the time lunch happened, the story had spread all over school that a second year student had been found unconscious in the bathroom and had to be taken away in an ambulance. Reia gave them three guesses which bathroom it had happened in, and the first two didn’t count.

“What was he even doing in there?” Reia grumbled, voice low. The three of them were picking at their lunches around Reia’s desk, much more subdued than the last time Shintarou had gleefully shared some weird bathroom happenings. Jinguji’s relationship with them had repaired somewhat over the winter, and if it they seemed like they were tiptoeing around him in conversations sometimes, Jinguji had been way too tired to argue about anything with them.

“Roughing up Inoue-kun again,” Shintarou said tersely. He was checking his phone, messages dinging regularly from friends in other classes. Easy to approach and gregarious in the hallways, Shintarou had more friends among the lower classmen than either Reia or Jinguji. “Hashimocchan told me the other week that a couple second years were messing with him every time they caught him alone. He said they like that bathroom because nobody goes in there.”

“Assholes,” Reia grumbled. “Why do we even HAVE bathrooms here? Nothing good ever happens in one!”

“Maybe not to you,” Shintarou chuckled, making a kissy face. His amusement faded when a new message chimed on his phone. “Shit.”

“Hashimoto?” Reia and Jinguji leaned closer to see. “What’s he say? Does he know something?”

“Inoue was in the bathroom with him,” Shintarou reported, eyes darting back and forth as he read quickly. “Hashimoto’s in the nurse’s office with him now. He says that right in the middle of messing with him, the guy started choking and scratching at his neck, like he couldn’t breathe, and then he just dropped to the floor, out cold. Official story is that he had an asthma attack, but…”

“But what?” Jinguji asked.

“But Inoue said he had a bunch of marks around his neck, like bruises.” Shintarou grimaced.

“He said he was scratching at his neck,” Reia offered, sounding unsure. He reached up to his own neck, miming a tight grip. “Like that?”

“No.” Shintarou reached over to flip Reia’s wrist over, fingers across his windpipe, thumb in the back. “Like that. You wouldn’t grab yourself like that, right? But Inoue is sure there wasn’t anybody else in there with them.”

The three of them fell silent for a long minute. All of them jumped when Jinguji’s phone rattled against the desk suddenly.

“Sorry,” Jinguji said, flipping his phone over to find a message from Genki. Jinguji had texted earlier to ask if Genki was okay, but hadn’t gotten an answer. Thumbing his phone unlocked, a new picture popped up. Despite everything, Jinguji chuckled quietly at Genki’s usual terrible photography, and only after turning the phone at an odd angle did he recognize the back of Reia’s head, his own elbow, and Shintarou’s hand waving his phone around, his case a red blur. “He must be outside.”

Dropping his phone, Jinguji hopped up to throw open the classroom door, wondering why Genki never just came inside like a normal person. Out in the hallway, Jinguji frowned when he found nobody except Kishi from the class next door, strolling back from the water fountain.

“Hey, man, did you see Iwahashi-kun out here a minute ago?” Jinguji asked. “He was just here, did you see which way he went?”

“Nobody’s been out here,” Kishi answered, glancing over his shoulder.

“What? He was just here!” Jinguji protested.

Kishi shrugged, slipping his hands into his pocket. “Sorry, man, I swear, I’m the only one out here. Hey, did you hear? They can’t wake that asthma kid up. I just heard a couple teachers whispering about it outside the faculty room, he’s in a coma or something.”

“That’s terrible,” Jinguji said, but it was autopilot, preoccupied with where Genki had gone. He went back inside, sliding the door shut behind him, and found Reia and Shintarou both looking at his phone with unusually serious expressions. “He’s gone. Guess he didn’t want to…what are you two looking at me like that for?”

“Jin-chan, I don’t think Iwahashi-kun took this picture,” Reia said.

“What? Of course he did. That’s his number.” Jinguji rolled his eyes as Reia and Shintarou exchanged a glance. “Seriously, knock it off.”

“Look, just come here a second,” Reia said, motioning for Jinguji to sit back down. Jinguji obeyed, letting his face say how dumb he thought they were. “Okay, look, we’re here, Shin-chan across, and you on the left, right?”

“Duh,” Jinguji said.

“But from the doorway, you’d be on the right.” Reia chewed on his bottom lip. “Jin-chan, for this picture to put you on the left, it’d have to be taken from behind us. It’d have to be taken inside the classroom.”

Jinguji looked from the phone to the doorway and back again. “But…” Jinguji shook his head. “That’s crazy. I’m looking right at the door, I’d have seen him come in!”

“The rest of them are weird too,” Shintarou added. “Like the water fountain picture, even you said you’d have to be on the floor for it to look like that.”

“No,” Jinguji shook his head. “This is crazy. He’s just like…you know, a bad photographer.”

“Let’s go see,” Reia said, standing up. “Prove me wrong.”

“Hey, we’re supposed stay in here,” Shintarou protested.

“Fine, let’s go,” Jinguji agreed. “Kishi-kun said all the teachers are in the faculty room having a meeting, so no one will yell at us.”

Out in the hallway, even though Jinguji announced that it was entirely unnecessary, Reia had to be flat on his stomach on the floor, Shintarou looking down at him in mild horror, to take the same picture as Jinguji already had on his phone.

In the stairwell, Reia flicked through Jinguji’s pictures until he got to the one of the top landing. Some of the stair railings were blurry but evident in the foreground of the picture. It was one of Jinguji’s favorites, because the sunlight was slanting through the window on the third floor to make a pretty halo, and also because the top landing was one of his favorite places to sit with Genki. Jinguji had always assumed that Genki had taken it just standing much lower on the staircase, phone pointed through the gaps in the metal railing.

Halfway between the second floor landing and the bend in the staircase, the angle was almost right, but no matter how far Reia stuck his hand out between the slats of the rail, he couldn’t duplicate the shot.

“You try, then,” Reia said, handing his phone to Jinguji when Jinguji protested that Reia had short arms. Jinguji and Shintarou both tried with similar results. “See? You’d have to be much further over to make it work.”

Both Jinguji and Shintarou looked to the left, where the only thing that separated the two sides of the staircase was two meters of dead space and a long drop to the first floor.

“The roof next,” Reia said when neither of them answered. He seemed weirdly cheerful about this, as if they were on a creepy field trip.

“How long have you creeps been thinking about this?” Jinguji grumbled as they climbed the staircase.

“Longer than you, clearly,” Shintarou retorted. “Also you really need to go back to soccer conditioning, because we’ve climbed up not even two flights of stairs and it sounds like YOU’RE about to go into an asthma coma next.”

“Not cool, dude,” Jinguji huffed.

Out on the roof, it became immediately obvious that nobody could have taken that picture standing on the surface of the roof. Even with Reia sitting on Shintarou’s shoulders, the angle still wasn’t high enough to get the deep view down through the chain fence, the corner of the roof, and some of the courtyard below, stretching to the front gate. Even Jinguji didn’t have a flip answer for that, feeling more and more unsettled, shivering as the barely-spring wind whipped over the exposed roof, tugging at their hair and and hands. When Reia handed Jinguji back his phone, he could barely close his fingers around it and it slipped out of his hand, clattering to the ground.

“Show him the other one,” Shintarou said as Jinguji was straightening up.

“Shin-chan,” Reia murmured, but Shintarou crossed his arms stubbornly. Reia sighed.

“There’s one more,” Reia said. “It’s not a picture on your phone.”

Jinguji followed Reia and Shintarou back down the stairs, anxiety twisting into a tight knot in his stomach. What could possibly be weirder than a picture taken from a stair that didn’t exist, or from someplace higher than the roof? At every turn on the staircase, and then every corner they turned in the hallways, Jinguji wished desperately that Genki would appear and offer him an explanation, anything at all.

Reia stopped in front of the door to the faculty room, sliding it open just enough to see what was happening inside. “It’s okay, their meeting is over. Come on.”

Inside, some of the teachers were at their desks, but most where in a knot in the corner, whispering. Jinguji wondered if there’d been any more news since Kishi had overheard them talking, and if the hospital had told them anything else. No one paid them any mind, all busy with either their thoughts or what they were doing.

Reia led them along the wall, until they came to the are where framed photos of the school’s winning sports teams were mounted in neat rows. Jinguji glanced idly across soccer, baseball, and kendou teams, the oldest of the pictures so faded with age that nearly all of their colors were gone.

Reia was pointing at one closer to the end of the rows, where the photos were more recent. “Here.” It was a baseball team, apparently prefectural champions, and Reia was pointing to one of the students kneeling in the front row. It was Genki, of course, his face serious and familiar even under the shadow of his baseball cap.

“So what? He said he played baseball,” Jinguji said. “Did you think he was lying?”

“The date, Jin,” Reia said gently. He slid his finger down the glass, to where the plaque the center two players were holding quite clearly said “2006.”

“That’s not right,” Jinguji said, feeling like all of the air was leaking out of his lungs. “That’s…”

“I saw it a few weeks ago while the student council was choosing pictures for the festival display,” Reia explained. He dropped his hand and reached out to touch Jinguji’s wrist. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t know how to tell you. I thought you’d get mad.”

“I AM mad,” Jinguji hissed, yanking his hand away. That wasn’t quite the emotion roiling in his chest, but it felt good to take it out on Reia, whatever it was. “This is crazy! That’s ten years ago! I saw Genki yesterday! He must…I don’t know, have a brother or something.” He looked up, away from the awful picture, clenching his fists because all he wanted was to rip it off the wall and smash it on the floor. Shintarou and Reia were both watching him, sad and sympathetic, and it made Jinguji furious. “You can’t be suggesting that Genki’s…what, even?”

“You’ll have to ask him,” Reia said, crossing his arms in front of himself as though he were cold. “I hope for you sake he’ll tell you the truth.”

They left him alone, shutting the door quietly behind them, and leaving Jinguji glaring at the photograph as if he could erase its existence with the power of his mind.

Unable to cope with going back to his classroom, Jinguji went up to the third floor landing and sat on the top step. He knew if he waited long enough, Genki would show up eventually. Sure enough, when all of the other students had gone home and the gray winter daylight was starting to dim, Genki sat down on the step next to Jinguji as if he’d been standing on the landing the entire time.

“So you know,” Genki said quietly.

“No, I don’t know,” Jinguji said, frazzled from sitting and thinking about it in an endless, anxious loop for hours. “I don’t understand anything that’s happening! Reia said you…he showed me this picture of you…”

“Jin-chan, you already know,” Genki tried to interrupt, but Jinguji shook his head as if shaking off his words.

“The pictures you’ve been sending me,” Jinguji changed the subject, latching on to something more concrete. “How are you taking them? Why are they so weird?!”

“I don’t take them.” Genki scuffed his sneakers against the sharp corners of the steps, head ducked. “Sometimes I think about stuff. Then they just appear.” Jinguji opened his mouth but no words came out. Genki kept on talking, almost more to himself than to Jinguji. “Like this stairwell. I like it here. People come here to be alone, like couples or best friends. I think I used to have a best friend.” Genki’s voice grew fainter, indistinct. “It’s so hard to remember things.”

Jinguji was flipping through the pictures, and realized that some of them, the ones that Jinguji wasn’t in, told a kind of story. “They’re like memories, aren’t they? Of things that happened to you. Like you’d have to be on the floor to look up at the water fountain like that. Someone shoved you down, right?”

“They dropped me when they got bored,” Genki answered. “I could hide in the bathroom sometimes, but sometimes I wasn’t fast enough. Sometimes they trapped me in there.”

“So you came up here,” Jinguji continued, flicking to the next picture. “And then…” The next one was that bizarre shot of the roof they couldn’t duplicate. “You went outside? On the roof?”

“I heard them coming. I just wanted to hide, but there was a hole in the fence, and I thought…” Genki sounded distant, as if squinting to see something far away. “I didn’t matter though. It didn’t make it stop.”

“What are you…” Jinguji cut off as his phone buzzed with a new picture from Genki’s number. To Jinguji’s horror, the new picture was also of the courtyard, but flat along the ground, the school gate looming high overhead. Only someone pressed flat to the ground, or crushed, could get an angle like that.

A horrible clarity came over Jinguji as he looked at Genki as if seeing him for the first time. His pale skin, almost translucent, and the coldness of his hands whenever Jinguji touched him. The outdated phone. The bruise on his cheek wasn’t from a series of beatings, but always the same exact bruise, smudged across his cheekbone. Even the last of the winter sunlight coming through the window seemed almost to pass through him, and against the wall Genki didn’t have a shadow sitting beside Jinguji’s.

“See?” Genki asked sadly. “You already knew.”

“No!” Jinguji protested. “You can’t be…you can’t! I’ve kissed you! We’ve—”

“You thought you could touch me, so you could,” Genki shrugged. He reached for Jinguji’s hand and his fingers passed right through, turning Jinguji’s blood to ice for a second. On the second try, Genki’s fingers bumped into Jinguji’s, curling through them. “You should go. Away. You’re going to leave.”

“I…” Jinguji wanted to argue but all the words stuck in his throat, eyes still locked on Genki’s bruise.

“When it’s graduation, you’ll go away and I won’t see you anymore. But I’ll still be here.” Genki shrugged one shoulder. “This is where I belong.”

“You came to my HOUSE,” Jinguji blurted. “We went out, we…the ring,” he realized, looking down at the spot where the ring was hanging under his shirt. The metal always felt cool against his skin, but Jinguji hadn’t thought anything of it until now. “It’s because I had your ring with me, so you could follow me?” Genki nodded. “So I’ll just keep wearing it! I’ll…I’ll just…”

“I can’t. You shouldn’t.” Genki tried to shake off Jinguji’s hand, but Jinguji hung on. “I didn’t mean to, but you were so…nice. To me. The only one. But I shouldn’t have because now you’ll have to go, and it’ll be just the way it was before!”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Jinguji argued, gripping more tightly as Genki pulled back. “I’m right here! I can—”

“Stop!” Genki snapped, shoving Jinguji backwards hard enough that he nearly slid off the steps. When Jinguji looked back up from the forbidding slope of sharp edges stretching down and away from them, heart pounding, Genki was standing over him. His eyes were black, as if his pupils had swallowed the brown of his irises. “You aren’t like me and you can’t stay! You have to GO. Go AWAY, get OUT!”

His last shriek made Jinguji cringe, the pitch of it inhuman, and then Genki was gone, just gone as if he had never been there.

Heart still skipping every other beat, Jinguji grabbed for his phone with fumbling fingers and texted for Genki to come back, that he wasn’t going anywhere dammit, but the message bounced. The error said that it was undeliverable, the red exclamation mark hovering just under the last picture, the one of the courtyard.

“FUCK,” Jinguji yelled in frustration, his curse echoing off the walls, and then he threw his phone as hard as he could and listened to its clattering, jarring fall almost the entire way down the stairwell.

Some horrible part of him, hurt and cold and so, so tired, whispered that Jinguji could do the same thing as Genki. The roof was right there, after all, just behind him. Genki had said it didn’t hurt anymore, right? Then he could stay with Genki, couldn’t he? If they were the same.

“Shut up!” Jinguji shouted, voice cracking in the middle, and then he sat on the top step and cried for he had no idea how long, because he felt alone and small and stupid, and too much of a coward to even do something about it, so instead he was sitting in the dark yelling at himself.

“Jin-chan?” a soft voice asked, a hand shaking his shoulder, and when Jinguji peeled open his sticky eyes, it was Reia. Jinguji realized he must have fallen alseep, curled in a miserable ball right there on the landing. Reia and Shintarou were kneeling next to him, their flashlights sending strange, sharp shadows up and down the stairwell. “Oh, thank god. You weren’t moving. I thought you were—” Reia cut off, shaking his head.

“You weren’t answering your phone. We found this at the bottom of the stairwell.” Shintarou held up Jinguji’s phone, screen a spiderweb of cracks, case split open at the corner. “We were afraid he might have taken you away.”

“No, he left, he,” Jinguji couldn’t go on, throat closing up against the words. Shintarou grabbed jinguji by the forearms and hauled him up from the chilled floor, hugging him tightly. Shintarou was so warm, solid in a way that couldn’t be mistaken. Jinguji fisted his hands in Shintarou’s shirt and tried to just breathe.

“It’s all right,” Shintarou told him, rubbing hands up and down Jinguji’s back. “Let’s get you home.”

*****

For the last two weeks before graduation, Jinguji was little better than a ghost himself. He refused to get out of bed the morning after the stairwell, and the next, until on the third day his mother put her foot down and dragged him out of bed by the ear.

Even at school he shuffled from place to place, or simply sat or stood still if left alone, staring into the middle distance and not bothering to fake interest in anything anyone said to him. Reia spoke to him gently, coaxing, as if afraid Jinguji might shatter, while Shintarou tried unsuccessfully to joke Jinguji back closer to normal.

“Lots of people break up at graduation, right?” Shintarou asked, grin fake and bright. “Completely normal. Better a clean break, you don’t want him popping out at people in the bathrooms at your university.”

“Shin,” Reia said reprovingly

Jinguji snorted softly, turning to stare out the window. Reia and Shintarou bickering was a pleasantly familiar background noise, and Jinguji didn’t need to pay it any attention. He tried to think about walking through the gates for the last time, knowing he was never coming back, and Jinguji couldn’t imagine it.

He hadn’t gone looking for Genki, doubting that he could find him even if he tried. For the first few days he expected to see Genki’s face at his shoulder every time he looked up from the bathroom sink, or feel a light touch on his shoulder whenever he turned a corner, but there was nothing. Once or twice it felt like eyes were on him, but Jinguji was reasonably sure it was either wishful thinking or just his mind playing tricks on him. He spent an entire afternoon on the roof watching the baseball team below scrimmage over regulars’ spots, and the only touch he felt against his hair or fingers was from the wind whispering over the concrete. They’d fixed the hole in the fence, Jinguji noticed idly; he wasn’t surprised when two days later the hole was back.

The morning of graduation was cold but clear, all the stereotypical trappings present from the cherry blossom petals swirling on the wind to the tearful goodbye speeches in their homeroom. Jinguji felt detached from it, as if he was watching a school-setting drama on TV. The only thing that seemed real was the ring he kept twisting on its chain, the metal cool against his fingertips.

By the time they all stood up to bow to their homeroom teacher the final time, Jinguji had already decided what he was going to do.

He slipped to the back and stayed just inside the doorway as everyone else headed out of the classroom, knowing the bustle of the students in the echoing hallways and the confusion of being sorted alphabetically would keep Reia or Shintarou from noticing right away. Yanking off the first and third buttons of his uniform with a twist of his wrist, Jinguji put them on Reia and Shintarou’s desks and paused for one last second, looking at their trio of desks, then around the rest of the classroom.

“I hope you understand,” he said. The hallway was quiet by then, and Jinuji slipped out before anyone came back to find him. He headed the opposite way from everyone else, up the back staircase to the third floor, because there was only one place that Genki would be hiding.

Of course the bathroom seemed empty when Jinguji pushed the door open, but Jinguji knew better.

“I know you’re here,” he called, voice echoing off the tile as the door swung shut behind him. “Please come out.” The third stall door was closed; Jinguji put his palm flat against the steel, the chill of it making him shiver. “Genki, please, it’s me.”

Nothing happened, the quiet thick and heavy like a blanket, like snowfall, and Jinguji tried to remember the story about how you summoned Hanako, or whatever other toilet ghost. He knocked on the door gently with his knuckles, one two three.

The stall door swung open, with nothing inside. A loud sniffle echoed behind Jinguji. When he turned around, Genki was sitting on the floor, arms around his knees. He looked just like the first time Jinguji had seen him, uniform disheveled, bruise livid and ugly against the paper-white of his cheek.

Jinguji couldn’t help but smile. “Found you.”

In a blink Genki was standing in front of Jinguji without seeming to move, mouth twisted in a snarl, eyes that dangerous black. “I told you to go away! Get out!” He went to shove at Jinguji, Jinguji grunting at the strength behind it, but he grabbed Genki’s wrists and held on tight. It was just like Genki had said: if Jinguji believed he could hold on, then he could.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said calmly, voice somehow even despite the way his heart was hammering in his chest.

“Yes you ARE,” Genki howled, digging his fingers into Jinguji’s forearms, his nails improbably sharp, like claws. The skin stretched tight over the bones of his face, eyes sunken, teeth sharp as he snapped them. Like this Genki looked barely human, looked like what he was, a dead thing clinging to a place just so he wouldn’t blow away. His voice was the screech of a stuck faucet handle, the creak of branches in the wind. “Look at me! I’ll hurt you like I did to them! Until there’s even less of you left than there is of me!”

Icy cold spread out from Genki’s hands up Jinguji’s arms, stealing his breath, creeping towards his heart, but Jinguji wasn’t afraid. He couldn’t be afraid of Genki, in the end.

“I won’t go,” Jinguji told him, calming welling up inside him, more of it the more that Genki struggled and raged. “Listen to me, I won’t leave you. They don’t need me, out there. My parents and Shintarou and Reia, they love me, but they don’t need me. But you do, right?”

Genki went still, between one blink and the next he changed, no longer the horrible thing, just Genki instead, pale and sad and bruised. His face was plaintive as he looked up at Jinguji, and Jinguji had the feeling that if ghosts could cry, Genki certainly would be.

“I don’t understand,” Genki said, still pushing at Jinguji weakly, but it was like Jinguji had sapped away his energy for once, instead of the other way around. “You’re supposed to leave.”

“I don’t care.” Jinguji let go of one of Genki’s wrists to yank off his second button, the most important one. He pressed it into Genki’s palm and curled his hand shut around it, his own hand curled around Genki’s cold fist. “Accept my feelings already, because even if you don’t, I’m staying. So that you won’t be alone.”

Genki’s lower lip trembled, and then he collapsed against Jinguji’s chest, shaking as Jinguji hugged him tight. Finally Jinguji thought, resting his cheek against Genki’s hair and closing his eyes. He took a deep, slow breath, and then another, rocking Genki back and forth a little as his heartbeat eased up, slower and slower.

And then it stopped.

*****

“Jin-chan!” Reia hollered as he slammed open the door to the bathroom, Shintarou hot on his heels. “Jin-chan, are you here? Please be here!”

“We’re so stupid!” Shintarou growled, both of them furious at themselves for not noticing right away that Jinguji was missing, not until they called his name for his diploma and nobody came to the stage. “Jin!”

“He’s not here,” Reia said, looking around helplessly. “What should we do?”

“Give him back!” Shintarou yelled at no one, getting no answer except the echo of his own voice making fun of him.

Reia kicked something with his foot, making it skid over the tile. He bent to pick it up, holding it out for Shintarou to see.

It was a necklace, the long silver chain with two rings dangling at the bottom, both silver with a simple wave pattern etched around the outside.

“What does that mean?” Reia asked, voice hushed. Shintarou shook his head. Reia started to cry, and Shintarou pulled him into a hug, the only thing either one of them could do.

“You could at least have said goodbye, asshole,” Shintarou grumbled. The touch of a palm against his back, between his shoulders, was definitely too light to be anything except his imagination.

*****

“Dare you to go into the third floor bathroom,” Haba teased, shoving.

“No way,” Takahashi shoved back. “You do it. Inoue-senpai says it’s hauuuuuunted.”

“Haunted?” Igari asked, frowning. Takahashi nodded, grinning as he leaned in to share the juicy details with his scaredy-cat classmate.

“Sure, yeah,” Takahashi told him. “Hashimoto-senpai told me too. He said if you go in, there’s a kid in the third stall crying, and if you knock and ask him what’s wrong, the door swings open and—”

“Pfft, don’t be ridiculous,” Haba laughed, patting a wide-eyed Igari on the shoulder. “I was in there last week and believe me, nobody was crying in the third stall.”

“Oh yeah?” Takahashi asked. “What did you hear?”

“A lot of whispers and shuffling and…you know.” Haba wiggled his eyebrows. Takahashi laughed and Igari wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know about ghosts, but seems like some upperclassmen might be having an awfully good time in there…Igari-kun, what are you making that face for?”

“I just got a weird text message,” Igari reported, frowning at his phone. “It’s a picture from an unknown number…I think it’s the top of the staircase? You know, on the third floor?”

“Ehh, just delete it,” Haba advised. “Probably somebody just messing with you. Come on, we’ll be late to practice.”

Igari paused, looking over his shoulder, back towards the stairwell. A breeze ruffled his hair, and for just a second it felt like sometime was brushing a fingertip along his cheekbone. Stifling a yelp, Igari turned and dashed to catch up with Haba and Takahashi, keeping himself firmly tucked between the two of them until they made it to the club room to change.

Igari hoped high school baseball would be as fun as middle school.

Be the first to like.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

WordPress Themes