by Shin De (シン・デ)
It had been years since, but it was still vivid in the way that cherished memories were, and simple in the way that only kids could remember.
Things had been far less complicated then. You could get away with a lot when you were seven. His mother had thought it cute, his father had been bemused. But what they thought hadn’t mattered as much as how his gift would be received. Sometimes when he remembered, Shin both wondered and grimaced at the impossibly possible thing it had been. When you were that young you just didn’t think about rejection or humiliation or any of the other crushing letdowns that could happen when you were a boy giving chocolates to another boy.
It could have gone painfully wrong. Even back then Hayato had already been something of a leader, loud and aggressively creative in a way that straddled the tenuous line between bossiness and bullying. He led small riots and engineered harmless pranks in class, but Shin knew that his friend wasn’t truly cruel; Hayato had always been mindful of his own serious, timid nature. It was why, when Shin had offered his chocolates during recess and even though it made him squirm uncomfortably, he had refused to be deterred by the curious attention he was drawing.
And his naïve faith had not been misplaced. Hayato had accepted the chocolates with the eager glee of a seven-year-old, and while he watched his friend warn the rest of the class off his prize, Shin had been profoundly content, because things were as they should be.
This was the memory that Shin coveted the most, of a time when he was still young enough to think that love was uncomplicated enough to remain the same.
It amused Shin that some of his friends scorned February 14 as a tacky cliché but couldn’t hide their nervous energy as the day drew near, and it was exasperating when any conversation they had inevitably ended in brooding speculation. But when Mizuno nudged him again, Shin sighed inwardly and finally gave up on his maths. Folding his book shut, he relented as the other boy gestured towards their other friends already lounging around the window.
“Third time this week,” Higawa was saying when Mizuno urged a reluctant Shin closer. They shifted to make room for him as he angled his head to look outside.
“Come on Aikawa, spill.” Yoshino lifted his head from where he was leaning over the windowsill. “Who’s she this time?”
Shin rolled his eyes. “Ichimura Yuya. Class 1-B. Has an older sister, mother’s a nurse, lives fifteen minutes from school. Plays volleyball. Goes to the movies a lot. Erm, likes jasmine tea.”
“Wow, that’s more than usual,” Mizuno said, impressed.
“She seems to like to talk,” Shin replied blandly.
Higawa snorted. “Which suits Fujiyama fine, I expect. He never did like the quiet types.” Shin smiled thinly at the murmurs of agreement.
“So? Is this one a keeper?” Yoshino shifted as he spoke, and they all followed the movement to look outside again, but Shin knew that the question had been for him.
He studied Ichimura carefully – it was the first time he’d actually seen her, though his friends had already watched her with Hayato twice before during recess in the courtyard below. He had missed her then, the first time to take the class assignments to Shirasagi-sensei and the second to browse for a text in the library. But there were only just so many excuses he could make.
She really was pretty – they always were – with long curls and big eyes in an upturned, laughing face that was just visible from the window, over the shoulder of the boy she was talking to. Hayato had his back to them, but his pose was relaxed as he idly tapped the book he was holding against one thigh. Ichimura said something and laughed again, and Shin didn’t need to see to be sure of Hayato’s answering, teasing expression.
Shin was aware that the other guys were still waiting on his reply, so he shrugged lightly and considered the question as fairly as he could. Hayato had appeared nothing more than casually amused when he’d talked about Ichimura on the way home the day before. But Mizuno had been right about Hayato preferring the more outgoing type, and Shin was certain that Ichikawa’s easy, unembarrassed accosting of a senpai had intrigued his friend.
“She stands a better chance than the others,” he admitted finally.
Mizuno huffed enviously. “The lucky bastard. I wish I could hate him.” Shin silently echoed the sentiment, lip quirked slightly. “And with Valentine’s coming up too,” his friend added glumly.
“What are you, seven?” Yoshino said with some disgust, and Shin twitched minutely.
“I’m a guy, I’m supposed to worry about things like that,” Mizuno retorted. “Why aren’t you worried? The most popular guy in school is in our year! No way will the girls pay attention to the rest of us!”
Higawa shrugged. “So? How does that make it any different from last year? Or all the other times before that?” Mizuno deflated as he no doubt recalled how Hayato’s haul of chocolates had exponentially grown since middle school, his hoard last year the largest yet. Shin swallowed a grin and tried to dredge up a sympathetic expression when Mizuno swung in his direction and latched onto his arms.
“You understand, right, Aikawa?” he said in mock desperation. “It’s not fair that Fujiyama always keeps all the girls!”
Shin smiled faintly. “The girls… have never really bothered me.”
“Gah!” Mizuno threw his hands up exasperatedly as their friends laughed at him. “You don’t have to stand up for him just ‘cos you’re childhood buddies! A man’s love life is his own business and no one else’s!”
Any reply that Shin could have made was preceded by the bell signalling the end of recess. He leaned against the wall by the window for a bit as the class slowly shuffled back into order, not bothering to hide his grin this time when Mizuno griped and shoved good-naturedly at Higawa and Yoshino on the way back to their tables. Shin straightened, about to follow in their wake, when he hesitated for a short moment before tilting his head to look out the window again.
The students milling in the courtyard were quick to disperse, hurrying to pack up lunch boxes and get rid of litter before they were caught being late to class. And maybe it was because the scant, general focus of attention was elsewhere that Ichimura dared to lift one hand to pat Hayato gently on the cheek before she drew away with a sunny smile.
There was nothing in Hayato’s stance to give away his reaction as Ichimura took her leave, but when his friend started to turn, Shin finally stepped away from the window and retreated back to his seat.
They were in different classes when they were eleven, and Shin had grimaced in annoyance when his teacher kept them in some ten minutes after the lunch bell. He had run after that, careful not to drop his lunch or the small, white box in his hands.
Hayato was already on the steps overlooking the sportsground, but Shin hesitated when he saw that his friend was talking to someone else. He didn’t recognise her, but the gaily wrapped box she held was unmistakable. She ducked her head in embarrassment, the gift hovering uncertainly in the space between them. But Hayato reached out to take it with an awkward grin and her answering smile was relieved before she hurried off.
Shin had watched a bit after that, strangely unwilling to hail his friend just yet. Hayato leaned back, expression a cross between surprise and bemusement as he lifted the box and turned it in his fingers. When his lips finally edged up in a self-conscious grin, Shin had stared down at the smaller, duller box he held in hands that shook slightly, knowing with sudden, devastating certainty that something was about to change.
It was the same thing all over again, Shin thought, watching Ichimura cajole at Hayato. Hayato had been by the shoe lockers as usual when Shin came down from class duty, but he had paused by the foot of the stairs when he saw Ichimura.
She really was very pretty. And Ichimura knew it too, her head tilted fearlessly, almost challengingly as she replied to something Hayato said. It was in the way she held herself, daring but not overly coy, direct and not simpering. Shin had seen enough girls toss their charms Hayato’s way to know that Ichimura was a new, welcome change.
And maybe this time the change would last. Shin hefted his bag somewhat wearily when Ichimura finally made her goodbyes and left. It had just been simple acknowledgement, what he’d told his classmates about Ichimura’s chances with Hayato. But seeing the lingering smile on Hayato’s expression as he slowly approached his friend, Shin thought that he had to start believing it himself as well.
“Sorry I’m late.” He bent his head in apology as he retrieved his shoes. “Needed to help Arisawa-sensei with some boxes.”
“No big deal. Ichimura just left.”
Shin nodded. “Yeah, I saw her.” He slipped into his shoes and raised one eyebrow as they left the school building. “Was it important?”
Hayato slid an amused, exasperated look his way. “Does it have to be?”
“No, I guess not,” Shin murmured, as Hayato waved distractedly at several other guys at the gate.
Something was in the air as they walked home, subtly different from the familiar, companionable banter it usually was. Shin made vague, absent-minded noises in the right places, but was otherwise disinclined to talk as he savoured Hayato’s animated movements and words. When they reached his road, he breathed a silent sigh of relief, and raised one hand in parting as he turned away. “I’ll see you in school tomorrow.” But a hand grasped his elbow, and Shin paused to look over his shoulder in some puzzlement at the slight frown on Hayato’s face.
“Of course,” Shin said easily. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Hayato’s expression grew more severe, and Shin resisted the urge to fidget. It was a stupid lie – stupid of him, to think that Hayato wouldn’t notice. Shin knew his childhood friend almost as well as he did himself; it was silly to think it wouldn’t be the same for Hayato.
But that was it, Shin thought dimly. More things changed than stayed the same, and Hayato… Hayato had grown up and ahead, leaving Shin back in a time he couldn’t let go of.
“Hey.” The grip on his elbow tightened just a little, and Shin shrugged, the movement shaking Hayato’s hand off.
“It’s nothing,” he replied, not so easily now, not when his throat felt so tight. He tilted his chin defensively, unconsciously mimicking Ichimura’s gesture. Hayato’s eyes were dark, and Shin didn’t want whatever sympathy or worry he saw in them.
“Just… something I need to work out on my own,” he said unwillingly, as a compromise. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” And, shoulders almost hunched under Hayato’s startled scowl, Shin turned around and walked away.
Somewhere inside, in a small, fearful place, Shin had known it might not be such a good idea. But he rode the stubborn anticipation out, though his hands curled at his sides when they were constantly waylaid throughout the day so that Hayato could accept the boxes and cards and small paper bags in different shades of red. Just their first year in middle school, and already Hayato’s easygoing personality and his first-rate skills in basketball had earned him an admirable reputation.
It was during a small lull in between periods, as the class trickled out towards the home economy room, that Shin finally asked Hayato to stay back for a bit.
Looking back, Shin would think that he should have abandoned everything right then, in that one moment. Hayato had hesitated, and for the most fleeting instant, Shin had glimpsed wary uneasiness, before his friend schooled his face into a carefully bland smile.
Shaken, it was a measure of his foolishness that he had still offered his own chocolates, pleading silently with his friend. But Hayato had refused to meet his eyes, and the white box hung in a gap suddenly so wide and empty.
And they had waited too long, when a couple of their classmates tumbled back in through the doors to retrieve forgotten books, jaws dropping and eyes wide as they confronted the tableau he and Hayato made, very obviously making the regrettably right assumptions.
It was the stricken expression on Hayato’s face that decided him. Shin would never know how he did it, but he managed a laugh that didn’t sound quite so strangled, and shook the box a little at Hayato, teasing that he should take it or poor Mako-chan would never forgive the both of them. Hayato took the chocolates without comment, and Shin ignored the bewilderment on the other boy’s face as he airily explained to his classmates about the childish crush his five-year-old cousin had on Hayato, and her insistence that Shin give him her chocolates or else.
Desperation and despair made him convincing as he smiled and responded to their good-natured jibes in a way that his withdrawn nature was unaccustomed to. He still wore the grin when the four of them finally hastened to home economy, and to the last school bell, when the girls continued to ply Hayato with chocolates. It had wavered slightly on the way home, when Hayato had apologised gruffly before they parted ways. Wavered, but firmed again when Shin told his friend it was okay.
It was the first and longest lie Shin would keep from Hayato, and the smile never really went away after that.
The day itself Shin would have liked to call uneventful, but his friends, Mizuno in particular, wouldn’t leave it alone. They crowded around his desk, blithely ignoring his pointed attempts to read as they speculated on the recipients of the many offerings the girls produced.
“Stop drooling,” Yoshino said disgustedly.
“Can’t help it. Wow, that looks good,” Mizuno sighed enviously, as another classmate wafted by, her chocolates carefully wrapped in silver paper with gilt ribbons.
“Miura gave you some this morning, didn’t she?”
“Aiko doesn’t count! She’s been giving me Valentine sweets since we were six!”
“So? She makes pretty good chocolates.”
“See?” Mizuno cried. “She gave you lot the same thing!” He swiped half-heartedly at Yoshino. “I hope it’s poison and you choke on it.”
“She’s going to hurt you for saying that,” Higawa grinned.
Mizuno snorted derisively. “Aiko feels the same way I do. It’s just tradition, it doesn’t mean anything when you’ve known each other since forever.”
Shin rolled his eyes, giving away nothing of the unpleasant feeling in his chest as he pushed his chair back to stand. “I think I’ll leave you to your whining. I need to get another book out of the library.” He waved carelessly over his shoulder at Mizuno’s laments of betrayal as he exited the classroom, inordinately relieved.
The hallways were crowded, more so than on a typical day. Shin avoided the clusters of hopeful guys and giggling girls, wondering ruefully if remaining in class would’ve been wiser. But it wasn’t so bad – somewhere else on school grounds the congregation of girls would be thickest around Hayato. And somewhere in the mass of faces and gifts, Ichimura would stand out, because Hayato knew her.
He didn’t see her until he was almost upon her, and Shin drew up too quickly at the tentative query, grimacing when he almost stumbled into her. “Sorry, didn’t see you there,” he said at her alarmed expression. “I was… thinking about something else.”
He didn’t know her, but like almost every other girl he had seen so far, she was holding a gift-wrapped box in her hands. Shin stifled a sigh; it happened unfailingly each year, girls too meek or terrified to approach Hayato directly begging a favour off him instead once they learnt he was a close friend.
“Aikawa-kun, this…” She lifted the box, and he nodded politely, resigned to his role as sidekick.
“…is for you.”
The words made no sense at first, his hand already half outstretched to accept it on Hayato’s behalf. He blinked when she leaned forward to follow the movement, a small, hopeful smile growing on her face as she made to put the box in his palm.
His reaction was instinctive; Shin almost flinched as he hastily withdrew his arm. She froze, and his tongue was suddenly thick and clumsy.
“I – I’m sorry. I can’t accept this.”
The disappointment in her expression was not terrible, but still deep enough to make him feel unaccountably guilty as he floundered for a suitable reason.
“…can I ask why? It doesn’t have to… to mean anything.” She didn’t quite meet his gaze this time as she fiddled nervously with the wrapping paper, and Shin was swept with sudden sympathy.
It was just like when he and Hayato had been thirteen, her words an echo of the silent things Shin hadn’t put voice to then. He could never remember the day without some melancholy, and he had wished many times after that, that Hayato had simply said the truth of things so that they could avoid the peculiar tie they shared now, a foundation built on the faith of children but fractured with the painful realisations of maturity.
But more than anything he had been afraid of losing that tie altogether, so he had stayed silent, and Hayato had been the same. And because the girl standing now in front of him had had the courage to ask what Shin had been unable to, he felt she deserved an honest answer.
“I… have someone I like.” She would never know how much it cost him to admit it, things he had determined to never say again, liberating but frightening in the truth of it.
“Again, I’m sorry,” he said with a twisted smile, back stiff as he bowed slightly and walked away from her crestfallen expression.
When they were fourteen, Shin decided to stop loving Hayato.
He stopped being naïve; he had figured out what it meant to be a boy giving chocolates to another boy.
Instead, he went to the inter-class basketball match that Hayato was playing in that day. The inevitable gaggle of girls had shown up much earlier, with glaring pink banners and incessant cheers for the school’s ace player. Not wanting to join them on the platforms above, Shin lingered by the doors to the school auditorium. But the students kept coming in, and he found himself pushed in further and further, almost to the benches.
Hayato had seen him then, despite Shin’s best efforts. He hadn’t quite known what to do, had shrugged self-consciously and made a face when Hayato smirked at him. Another wave of high-pitched shrieks reverberated throughout the auditorium, and Hayato had grimaced at it before he winked at Shin and walked onto the court. Shin saw the relaxed set to the other boy’s shoulders, the slight jaunt in his step, and knew that to an extent, Hayato clearly enjoyed the commotion he was causing.
It was the right decision; Hayato didn’t want the same things that Shin did, and Shin would respect that. He could do little else.
He could stop loving Hayato. He wasn’t stupid, it wouldn’t happen overnight. But it wouldn’t last, not when it could never be reciprocated. Things were changing, and he would finally accept that.
The year he turned fourteen, and the two years after, Shin stopped giving Hayato chocolates.
After he said it, the words refused to be go away again, mocking his failed resolution made so long ago. He was dulled to the rest of the day and its novelties, the dread in his stomach the only real thing he was aware of as the last bell finally sounded.
By the shoe lockers, Hayato held three very full paper bags, and Shin summoned a small smile. “Busy day?” he asked mildly, and was puzzled at the curt noise of acknowledgement the other boy made. Sneaking a peek at his friend as they left the building, Shin was disturbed by the disgruntled expression on Hayato’s face. While the girls could get pushy, Hayato had always been adept at mastering the situation, using his persuasive skills to their best advantage. Perhaps it had finally become too much to handle – Shin supposed it had to happen eventually.
Mindful of his friend’s peculiar mood, Shin said nothing as they walked home. They were passing the local park when Hayato stopped. “Let’s sit here for a bit,” he said brusquely, marching in with Shin trailing uncertainly in his wake.
Hayato plunked the bags down on the first bench they came to, and he scowled at them, hands on his hips. Shin starting to feel alarmed: Hayato was in a worse temper than he had originally assumed. On this day of days, it had to be something particularly nasty to put him in such a mood.
“Er, you alright?” Hayato tensed at the question, before swinging around to glare at Shin. Unsure, Shin held his hands out by his sides in some question, and was slightly unnerved when Hayato’s eyes narrowed, speculative and ominous.
“I talked to Shibara,” Hayato said suddenly.
“She’s in my class.” Hayato paused. “She wanted to give you chocolates today.”
The girl in the hallway. The dread rolled violently in his gut, almost made him nauseous, and Shin swallowed the feeling down weakly.
“You told her you liked someone else. She wanted to know whether I knew who it was.”
Shin’s lips twisted; the flat nuance to Hayato’s words wasn’t a question. His friend already knew.
Hayato was watching him carefully, and Shin closed his eyes, dropping heavily onto the bench beside Hayato’s chocolates. Bent over his knees, hands clasped in front of him, Shin willed the nausea, willed Hayato to go away. His breathing was too loud in his ears, almost too much like sobs, and he pressed his lips together, almost choking on them.
Shin opened his eyes; Hayato hadn’t moved. Suddenly he was resentful and bitterly, bitterly angry. Why couldn’t Hayato leave it alone this time, like he had done all those years ago?
“I’ll stop loving you.” Shin whispered the words to the ground, and knew that the other boy had heard him when he saw Hayato start. Somehow it made him want to laugh, hollow as it would be. “It – it’s just taking longer than I thought, but I will. And I won’t ever say it, so don’t worry about it, okay? Just… just pretend it doesn’t mean anything.” And it was too much like what Shibara had said that he curled further over his knees. He would take it onto himself again, like that time long ago, because he still didn’t want to hear Hayato’s true feelings.
“You gave me white boxes.” It was such a strange thing to say that it startled Shin into lifting his head. Hayato was staring at the paper bags, brow furrowed. “It was always white boxes.” He turned back to Shin, expression grave. Not liking how Hayato loomed over him, Shin made to rise.
But Hayato moved first, dropping to kneel in front of him, and Shin went completely still when the other boy grasped his hands.
“I remember your chocolates,” Hayato said, and Shin held his breath at the feel of Hayato’s thumbs brushing soothingly over his palms, the small silence following his friend’s words so strangely new and fragile.
“You stopped giving them to me when we turned fourteen.” Hayato looked up, much too close. Shin tried to lean back, but Hayato only gripped his hands tighter, lifting himself so that he was on eye level with Shin.
No other escape left to him, Shin turned away, his gaze again drawn to the bags packed with gifts. Somewhere in there was Ichimura’s chocolates, and he wondered vaguely if Hayato remembered which one it was. “You didn’t want them anymore,” he muttered, hating the pathetic timidity he heard in his own voice.
“I’m sorry.” Something inside him bled anew, and Shin could say nothing, only nodded tightly as he recognised the weight of years behind the words, a grave, knowing apology that did much to soothe the deep hurt of Hayato’s rejection from when they were thirteen.
This was alright, Shin thought wistfully, wretchedly. It was stupid for it to hurt for as long as it had. This was enough.
But Hayato still had not moved. “I’m sorry,” he said again, “but I want this now.” And before Shin could think, before he could comprehend it, Hayato was kissing him.
It was gentle and coaxing, not so much a solid press of lips as many, dusting ones, apology and invitation all at once. And blindly, Shin opened himself to both, unable and unwilling to do anything else but respond to something he had been sure was beyond him.
On that thought he drew back, suddenly fearful. If this was pity…
But Hayato must have seen the look on his face, letting his hands go only to embrace him. “I missed your chocolates,” Hayato breathed by his ear, urgent and rapid, desperate to convince Shin of his truth. “It was stupid, but you know how sometimes you don’t miss something until it’s gone. And when Shibara told me what you had said, and I thought if it wasn’t me – if you had someone else –” Hayato faltered, and Shin was amazed at the husky unhappiness in his friend’s voice. And yet…
“Are you sure?” he asked quietly. “Are you really sure? Because…” He swallowed again, unable to say the words.
But Hayato kissed him again, more insistent as he tried to make Shin believe and he closed his eyes, unsure how to respond. A hand stroked at his waist, so light he hardly felt it. But it started to tug at his shirt, and Shin didn’t know what Hayato was trying to do until he felt fingers on bare skin, skimming sensitively up and down his side and making him shudder.
“Hayato, what –” But he whimpered instead, when Hayato surged past the words, tongue touching tongue before tasting the rest of his mouth.
Both hands were under his shirt now, shifting on his sides as Hayato drew back to blow a kiss on the shell of Shin’s ear. “I want this,” he murmured, hands suddenly firm as he pulled Shin flush against him. Through fabric suddenly too tight, Shin could feel the hardness in his friend’s body, unyielding and thrumming with tension.
Hayato tilted his head, nibbling the base of his neck, and Shin bit down on his lip when the other boy licked at it long and slow. The hands slid further up his ribcage, thumbs curled and brushing his skin, almost close enough now to brush his –
Shin grabbed at Hayato’s wrists, shaking but adamant, and he gasped when Hayato nipped him in reprimand just under the ear.
“What are you doing?! We’re in the park!” He hissed, vehemence lost in the ragged breaths he was taking. It was too much suddenly, like the bullying that Hayato never quite did. Pity, Shin thought numbly, if Hayato thought he wanted this…
But as he squirmed for more room, Hayato refused to let him go, hands coming back down to his hips to pull him forward then, and Shin froze when through their clothes, heat met heat. Hayato kissed him again, thorough and demanding, but it was what he said that made Shin shudder with feeling.
“I do love you, you know.” Hayato’s voice was low and fierce. “I want to touch you, more than as just a friend.” And Shin could feel the truth of it in the way their bodies were pressed together, close and hot and with the exhilarating promise of something big and better.
No regrets, he thought, this is it, and he swallowed over the sudden dryness of his throat. “Not here,” he finally croaked out. “Let’s – let’s go home.”
Hayato’s startled, brilliant grin was everything he wanted. And just like that, the tightness in his chest unfurled into radiant warmth. His friend, best friend and lover, shifted to kiss his temple, loving and careful. “White Day this time, it’s my turn.”
Shin’s laugh was tremulous but real, and for the first time in a long time, he was profoundly content. “Okay.”