by Shinju Yuri (真珠百合)
illustrated by amei
Naoki leaned back in his chair and stretched. A glance at the clock showed that it was already almost midnight. It hardly seemed possible, but he wanted to get the results written up quickly. He should go to bed. The research conference started tomorrow at seven, and if he went to bed now he’d barely have five hours of sleep. He sighed and pushed his hair away from his face. He was getting too old and tired for all-nighters, but he had a feeling that he was on the track of something useful, but he couldn’t pin it down. It was an itchy, unsettled sort of feeling. He reached over and took a sip of his cold coffee and made a face. He should get a mug warmer or something, but he didn’t like the way coffee tasted when it had been on one of them for a long time.
He looked at the computer. The last of the simulations wouldn’t be done for two hours, so he might as well catch a nap. He pushed the chair away from the table and walked slowly through his empty apartment. It was quiet and very clean, painted white with old posters of flowers and landscapes hung here and there. He picked up the newspaper that was on his breakfast bar and put it in the recycling bin. He’d finished the crossword and the sudoku puzzle he’d started before work while he was waiting for the computer to finish rendering at suppertime. The lights dimmed as he walked out of his kitchen and back through the living and office area, picking up a sheaf of paper to flip through for his report, and into his bedroom. He toed off his slippers neatly beside the bed and lay down.
In his dream Ken was awake and lying in their bedroom. It must have been one of his good days because he had his tablet on his lap and was sitting up, working on something. Naoki slipped onto the bed and kissed his temple. The skin above Ken’s skull seemed infinitely frail and precious. “Hi,” he said. Ken leaned against him, winced, and shifted a little. Naoki slid his arm around Ken’s shoulders. Ken hadn’t been eating again, Naoki realized. The medicines weren’t working like they should have. Naoki closed his eyes hard and promised himself he’d call the doctor in the morning. The medicines were working less and less now, in a slow downhill slope. At Ken’s last appointment the doctor had said ‘palliative measures’ and Ken had gone very quiet. It wasn’t fair, Naoki thought helplessly. It wasn’t fair. Ken was still so young. He was still so young. They should have had a long time together.
“I think I’ve got it,” said Ken. “Look, the comet will pass Saturn in two weeks.”
“Hmm?” said Naoki, not really paying attention. He felt warm and heavy, sleepy. He looked down at Ken’s tablet and saw a complex and beautiful diagram drawn on it, half a star chart, half a molecular diagram.
A molecular diagram, he thought.
“It’ll be here on this side of Saturn,” said Ken.
Naoki woke up. He stared at the ceiling and then said, “Fuck!”, rolled over and grabbed a sheet of his report and a pencil. He drew quickly as he could, trying to remember the exact positions of the parts of the diagram and the way they had interacted, scribbled some notes on the side, and stared at it.
It had to work, he thought. It had to.
The last day was normal because Ken wanted it like that. Naoki waited for him outside his house until Ken burst out with a piece of toast in his teeth and his tennis bag slung carelessly over one shoulder. His red hair was rumpled and his uniform jacket was half-buttoned. Naoki’s hair was always combed and his jacket was always neatly buttoned, but there was something attractive about Ken’s disorder that Naoki could never explain or attempt to copy.
“You should eat like a normal person,” said Naoki, who got up half an hour earlier than necessary to make himself a proper breakfast with actual protein and fiber.
“‘m never hungry in the morning,” said Ken, through a mouthful of toast. “The meds make me nauseated.”
Personally Naoki thought Ken would feel better if he ate right, but there was no use starting a fight about it. Not today. Anyway, Ken had probably already argued with his mother about it.
They started down the street, not talking. Naoki kicked a stone on the sidewalk. Ken waited until it landed, and kicked it again.
Naoki lit a cigarette and leaned back against the wall. The head of the department was examining his report, and there was nothing to do but wait. Even if they accepted it, it would be months, year,s before it could be used clinically. He thought of it and his heart sank a little. Saturn was coming closer and closer.
“It’s a hell of an idea,” said his boss, coming up from behind the wall. “They seem pretty excited. How’d you think of it?”
“I had a dream,” said Naoki. He looked out over the city lights. The new metro line, whizzing softly over downtown, was five years old now. They had just been talking about building it when Ken went to sleep, and it had taken eleven years after that for it to be completed.
His boss snorted. “Some sort of intuitive leap? I thought you hated those.” He came closer and leaned against the wall next to Naoki. “Got a light?” He lit his own cigarette and they were quiet, watching the lights of the tram cycle as it hushed past. “You have a friend with McClain’s syndrome, don’t you?”
Naoki shrugged. “They sent him to bed,” he said. “Our last year of high school. It’s been a while.”
“Hell of a long time to spend in a freezer,” observed his boss. He blew out a long line of smoke, blue-gray in the gathering dusk. “Were you close?”
“We were going to be astronomers,” said Naoki. He pushed himself away from the wall and tossed his cigarette into the collection bin. “I’ll be in the cafeteria if they ever stop talking.”
In the cafeteria he bought himself a tube of coffee from one of the machines, popped the heating tab and went to a quiet table to wait while it finished warming. He took a deep breath. Everything would be all right. It had to be. Everything seemed preternaturally clean and vivid; the colors and sounds and scents of the cafeteria made of very distinct and separate parts. He took a drink of his coffee. It was unpleasantly bitter and the plastic tubing tasted slick against his mouth.
People walked past him, talking. He listened to parts of their conversation with an increasing conviction that he was in a dream. Soon, he thought, I’m going to wake up and it’s going to be, I don’t know, high school again and Ken will be standing over me with his bag slung over one shoulder, and we’ll go home. He took another drink of coffee. That, at least, tasted real. We’ll go home and eat chips and watch those horrible old sentai shows he liked and we’ll do our homework. And then we’ll go out to the windmill field and watch the stars.
His PDA buzzed softly. He unhooked it from his belt and flipped it open in one smooth motion, still staring at the cafeteria around him. “Yes?”
“They’re done,” said his boss. “And — Shiroshima? Congratulations.”
Naoki let out a long, long breath.
Ken left him a note on his desk — threw it, rather, so it bounced off Naoki’s head and landed on the desk. When Naoki uncrumpled it he read ‘Wait for me’, so he caught Ken’s eye and nodded. Anyway he had homework to do, and he might as well do it at school without distractions as well as at home or Ken’s house with the TV blaring.
He finished his math homework and put his books away. It had been a long day, and he was tired. He folded his arms on the desk and put his head on them. He’d rest for a moment while he waited for Ken, he thought. Just for a moment.
The next thing he knew it was dusk, and Ken was standing beside his desk. He blinked up sleepily and surprised a look in Ken’s eyes that he had never seen; infinitely tender and sad. He sat up.
“How was practice?” he said.
“Okay,” said Ken. “A little awkward, though.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I bet it was.” He didn’t ask Ken how he was feeling, but he looked at him quickly. He didn’t seem to be in much pain, at least; the new medicine was working for now. The medicines worked for a while, but then Ken’s body got used to them and they gradually got less effective. If they were effective, sometimes they had side effects and Ken was grumpy or tired or just dull-eyed and quiet.
Naoki couldn’t remember when Ken had first been diagnosed with McClain’s syndrome. It seemed like he had always known that Ken was sick and getting sicker, but so gradually that it was only if you looked over the years, like a video on fast forward, that you could tell the difference. It was only in the past year that Ken’s tests had come back with results that worried the doctors.
He thought sometimes that he would like to be the one to find a cure for it, to make it so Ken would be able to have a normal life instead of the one that the medical journals described.
Naoki called Ken’s parents with the news of the new therapy and discussed it with them. Ken’s family had never been particularly close, although always fond of each other: they were willing to let Naoki handle the details. It would be at least two years before the therapy was ready to be used, but the legal process of approving its use on Ken must be started as soon as possible. There was so much to do and so very little time. Naoki went through each step as patiently as if he was working on DNA sequences, or searching empty sky for new stars. So much time and paperwork for approval to use the therapy on Ken. As much again on transferring legal guardianship to Naoki; Ken would be legally seventeen when he woke up, and neither of his parents were willing to uproot themselves or Ken for a single year. More paperwork to arrange for Ken to enter school when his therapy was completed, and forms to fill out to request leave while Ken was still recovering at home after his release from the centre. It was more work than preparing to care for someone during a critical illness, he thought.
There was some sort of new technology — Naoki was fuzzy on the details — where they fed information to sleepers by something that reminded Naoki of the books on CD of his very early childhood. It was supposed to combat, at least a little, the culture shock of waking by giving them an overview of current events and life. For instance, the hypnotic tape they were playing at Ken told him that his parents had finally divorced and moved away, but they loved him and missed him, that Naoki was his legal guardian, that Game-Station3 games were a vintage collectible. Ken had to listen to the tapes at least a month while they raised the temperature in agonizingly slow increments and brought his vital functions back online. The tapes played while the first deepest waves of brain activity started again, when Ken’s heart gave its first uncertain beat. They droned on while Ken grew warmer and warmer, when Ken took the tiniest of shuddering breaths in the oxygen-rich fluid surrounding him, for the first time in years. There was a nerve-wracking month when all progress stopped and they began the delicate work of the gene therapy to re-engineer the damage that the McClain’s disease had caused. Naoki waited to hear if it had been successful with a strange dull feeling in his mind. It didn’t seem to matter, even if the therapy failed. They couldn’t send Ken back to sleep. No matter what happened, Ken must awake.
The gene therapist entered the room where Naoki waited, with images of Ken’s parents beamed in on screens. Naoki looked up at her.
“Well?” said Ken’s father.
“It’s working beautifully,” said the gene therapist.
Ken’s mother cried with joy from a thousand miles away. Naoki stared at the floor. He didn’t know what he felt. He was just numb. It was working, he thought. It was working. He looked up at the calendar as the gene therapist was joined by the specialist in charge of Ken and they began to explain when Ken would wake up entirely.
Saturn was getting closer, he thought.
When Ken came to Naoki’s house, Naoki realized something was wrong. He didn’t say anything in front of his parents, but led Ken to his room and sat down. Ken paced around Naoki’s neatly organized room like a caged thing, looking at the star maps on the walls, and setting the little model of the planet Saturn spinning with the touch of one finger.
“It’s getting worse,” said Ken.
Naoki nodded. It took more and more effort for Ken to keep up with his schedule, and he was too stubborn to slow down. Sometimes his face would take on a funny gray tinge from suppressed pain. “What did they say?”
Ken came to the bed and sat down beside Naoki. Suddenly he curled himself in a fetal ball, his head buried on his knees. “My stupid body’s attacking itself,” he said, his voice brittle. “They think – they think I’ll be disabled within a year.”
Below the room, Naoki’s mother was making dinner; the radio was playing some stupid song about being young and in love and happy. Outside a bird was singing, and the smell of flowering lilacs drifted faintly in the air. “Oh,” said Naoki.
Ken tried to laugh, but it twisted into a bitter sound, almost a sob. “I guess it’s really bad. They’re talking about cold sleep.”
I guess you really are a fucking princess, thought Naoki, but he didn’t say it. “When?”
“Pretty soon,” said Ken. “April or May.”
Naoki hesitated for a moment and then he leaned over and wrapped both arms around Ken’s shoulders, huddling over him as if he could protect him. As if anything could protect him.
Naoki was allowed in to watch the day they took Ken out of the capsule, less as Ken’s legal guardian and more as a compliment to his work on finding the gene therapy. He stood in a glassed-in room above the capsule storage and watched as techs in white suits detached a shining silver thing from the mass of them lining the walls. It looked like an egg. They placed it carefully on a lift and led it out into the other room he could see from the one he was in. It looked like a surgery theatre. As he watched, the capsule was lifted tenderly onto a table and lines were attached to it from the table and floor. The white-suited people talked to each other, and one of them went to a monitor and began pressing buttons. They gathered around the capsule, and there was obviously some sort of countdown.
The silver egg broke open in eight evenly spaced sections. They folded open like the wings of a bird, and Naoki saw that there was a white membrane inside it. He took a step closer to the glass, and saw, inside the membrane, a dim shape. His heart seemed to twist. He couldn’t breathe.
The techs clustered around it. The membrane, which had been full and round, began to deflate. Naoki realized one of the lines was a waste hose, and that clear, crimson fluid was flowing into it and away. The membrane sank more, becoming a caul around Ken.
Naoki’s hand curled slowly against the glass.
Before the red fluid drained away completely, the head tech took a scalpel and made one swift cut, starting at the top and ending near Ken’s midsection. Ken’s face surfaced, and for a second Naoki thought that he would choke on the air. Ken’s face twisted in distress, but the techs put a mask over his mouth and nose quickly. It seemed to have some sort of vacuum in it that took out the fluid from his mouth and lungs and nose.
Ken’s body shuddered visibly, and stilled. The techs gathered around him and lifted him out of the empty egg, out of the red fluid, and onto a gurney.
Naoki walked slowly back to his room. He looked around at all his posters, all his books, at the little model of Saturn on his desk. The next second, something snapped inside of him and he screamed at nothing in particular, like someone was attacking him. He clawed at the posters and ripped them off the walls and knocked the books off the shelves onto the floor. His throat was tight and raw but he couldn’t cry. He couldn’t cry. He grabbed the model of Saturn and threw it with all of his strength against the floor. It shattered into fragments of glass and plastic and wire. He stamped on it as hard as he could. “Fuck!” he said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
His mother came running. “What’s wrong?” she said, and gasped. “Naoki! All your posters! And your –”
“I hate them,” he said. He knew he shouldn’t say things like this ,but he couldn’t seem to stop his own mouth. His head hurt. His chest hurt. His eyes burned like something was inside them. “They’re stupid and childish and I hate them, I hate them! I don’t want them!”
“Naoki,” she said, reaching out to him.
Naoki turned away from her, angrily pulling his sleeve over his eyes. “They’re going to put Ken in cold sleep,” he said, his voice choked. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair. God, why am I so horrible? I want him here!” His mother reached out again and pulled his head onto her shoulder.
After they took him out of the capsule, it was two months before anybody was allowed to see Ken except for the doctors and therapists. It was the longest two months Naoki had ever lived through, longer than the fifteen years before it. He didn’t dare go to the centre, for fear that he would break down in the lobby and beg to see Ken, if only for a moment.
To make things worse, on the television station that everybody else in the lab liked a drama was playing about a man who worked to find a cure for his childhood sweetheart in cold sleep. Naoki was forced to watch as they broke apart and back together again. He got so he left the room when the drama was on, so he didn’t have to watch the girl weep as she accused the man of selfishness or the man got angry because she was so young. He didn’t like how the show made fun of the girl for being out of touch with the world that had moved past her, or the man for still needing her so badly. It was all very desperate and emotional.
“It’s got a happy ending,” said his boss, coming up to him in the smoking area after Naoki had slipped out.
“I don’t think anything does,” said Naoki. “Not really.”
“That’s terrible,” said his boss. “Do you really think that? That nobody can have a happy ending?”
“No, that’s not what I mean,” said Naoki. “I don’t think there’s any really sad endings, either.” He looked up to find the bright, distant light of Saturn in the sky. “They’re all just the end of the story. And then a new story goes on.”
“That’s deep, Shiroshima,” said his boss. Naoki looked over to see him smiling at him. Naoki ducked his head.
On the day that they decided Ken was well enough for visitors, Naoki dressed in a black silk dress shirt and black slacks. He wanted Ken to — well, to not scream and hide, at least.
He stood in the visitor’s lounge by the window, looking out, until the door opened. He turned around. Ken wore a pair of jeans and a shirt that was five years out of style. Naoki realized, with a slight shock, that it must have been brought by Ken’s mother the last time she visited. It seemed like every moment brought another reminder of how much time had passed. Ken’s eyes were still a little dazed and sleepy, although he had been conscious for two days, and the week before had spent merely deeply asleep. Naoki stood awkwardly by the chair. He was suddenly, horribly aware of the changes in himself, and the lack of change in Ken. It was like seeing a memory take human flesh. He tried not to stare, but it was hard. He wanted to look at Ken for hours, to touch his face and hands and assure himself it was not a dream.
“Hi,” said Ken uncertainly. “They told me Naoki was –” he stopped and stared at Naoki. Surprise dawned on his face.
“Welcome back,” said Naoki.
“Naoki?” said Ken. His voice was rough from disuse. The doctors had warned Naoki about that, too: They could exercise a patient’s limbs and electrically stimulate their vocal cords, but they were always weak and hoarse-voiced at first. Partly it was because they had not been used for so long, and partly it was the fluid that was pumped into the sleeping chambers. “Is that really you?” He took a step forward.
“It’s been a long time,” said Naoki. Now that he stood face to face with Ken, it was painfully clear how much time had passed. Ken was still an adolescent, nearly grown but with thin muscles and knobby bones. Naoki was taller than Ken, and his hair had very faint slivers of gray beginning to streak through it.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” said Ken finally. “I mean, I’m still me, but –” he stopped. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I didn’t realize how long it’s been. Not really.”
Neither of them could find anything to say to cover the awkward silence. Finally, Naoki said, “How do you feel now?”
“I’ve felt better,” said Ken. His face was tired. “The physical therapist is really good, but I’m still a little stiff.” He opened and closed his hand a few times absently. “What do you do now?” he said suddenly. “Are you an astronomer?” He laughed, a little hysterically. “Did you find a comet?”
“I’m a molecular biologist,” said Naoki. This was worse than what he had been warned about. He felt like he was standing and staring at Ken from the edge of a canyon. He couldn’t cross it. All they could do was stand and look at each other without understanding. It was worse than the TV show. It was worse than anything Naoki had ever thought of.
“What?” said Ken. He looked lost and somehow betrayed.
“I gave up on astronomy,” said Naoki shortly.
On the afternoon before Ken fell asleep, when they left the school, they didn’t turn toward home. Naoki walked a little slowly for Ken’s sake but didn’t offer to carry his bags. They walked and walked, through the little twisty streets of the residential sector, stopping to look at nothing in particular, like a red bicycle leaning against a dark grey wall, or at a chalk drawing on the sidewalk. They went to a small stand and bought something to eat. It was like they were soaking each other up.
“Oh hey,” said Ken suddenly, rummaging in his bag. “This is for you.” He held out a battered astronomy book, that Naoki recognized from Ken’s room. He’d had it since the day they had been taken to the planetarium and they had decided, in a burst of childish enthusiasm, to become astronomers.
Naoki swallowed. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” said Ken. “I had to pack up my stuff, you know.” His face twisted a little. “Since I don’t know when I need it next. So I’m giving things to people to remember me by.”
After a while they went up toward the hill in the back of the residential sector. You could see the stars pretty well from the top, if you looked up between the windmills. It was their own special spot. Ken lowered himself carefully down, hiding a wince, and Naoki sat down beside him.
“You should name a star after me,” said Ken suddenly. “And when I wake up I’ll name one after you.”
“Sure,” said Naoki. He fell backward and stared up at the starry sky. There was a long, comfortable silence, while the stars moved slowly in the sky and the lights of the city below shifted in a complex and beautiful dance. “Don’t you think we should get home soon?”
“I’ll be sleeping enough after tomorrow,” said Ken. “Let’s stay up as long as we can.”
“Okay,” said Naoki. He pointed. “Look, there’s Saturn.”
“It’s really bright tonight,” said Ken.
Naoki didn’t want to fall asleep. He wanted to stay awake forever. His eyes grew heavy. The next thing he knew there was something dry and warm on his mouth. He opened his eyes slowly. Ken was kissing him lightly, almost like a question. He lifted his hand and slid it into the short silky hair at the base of Ken’s neck. Ken leaned over him, one hand braced against the ground beside Naoki, the other sliding up to entwine with Naoki’s free hand. The grass was very cool against Naoki’s back.
Ken didn’t say I’m afraid but Naoki heard it anyway. He pushed himself up and wrapped his arms around Ken, hard, holding him closely, staying beside him for the rest of the night.
He wasn’t allowed to go in with Ken when they went to the room where he would fall asleep. Only family was allowed, so he stood outside in the waiting room painted in soothing earth tones, with plants and generic pictures of sunsets and landscapes, and watched as Ken walked away.
When he got home his mother was quiet, watching him. She didn’t ask if he was all right. She touched his shoulder silently. Naoki’s hands clenched on the spine of the old astronomy book. He went slowly up to his room and sat down. He looked at the book dully for a moment and then threw it, hard on the floor.
A piece of paper floated out. For a second Naoki just stared at it and then he bent over and picked it up.
I think comets are amazing.
They just keep on going on and on, no matter how dark it is around them, or how lonely they are, traveling on and on until they make it back to the sun.
I wish we could be astronomers together.
Naoki covered his face with his hands.
It was horrible and awkward every time Naoki went to see Ken, but Naoki refused to stop. He felt that if he gave up on this, if he let Ken become a stranger, he would lose everything he had worked for. Every day after work, he went to the center and sat with Ken for at least half an hour. Sometimes Ken talked to him about the changes in the last sixteen years and sometimes they were just quiet together. At times Naoki caught Ken looking at him with a puzzled, uneasy look.
“Tell me about your work,” said Ken suddenly. “I don’t know anything about it and I want – I want to know about it.”
Naoki blinked. “It’s a bit boring really,” he said, thinking about the quiet of the lab and the slow, careful work. “It’s like putting puzzles together all day, except all the edge pieces look like middle pieces and you don’t know how many different puzzles are in the pile.”
“You always liked puzzles,” said Ken.
“Yes,” said Naoki, “I suppose I have.”
One day when Naoki came in, Ken looked up and his eyes, instead of becoming briefly puzzled, lit up. “Naoki,” he said.
Naoki tried to smile at him, but he had never been good at expressing his emotions. Ken had always had enough for both of them. “The doctor said you can go home – to my apartment today.”
“Okay,” said Ken. His mouth looked white around the edges, the way it did when he was scared and too proud to admit it.
No amount of subconscious therapy could really prepare a patient for going out into the world, the therapists had told him. Ken must simply adapt — or die, thought Naoki. Survival of the fittest at the most basic. When Ken first stepped out of the center’s doors his face went white, and then his mouth tightened stubbornly. “It’s different,” he said, his voice steady.
Naoki almost laughed. He was afraid if he did he would just keep on and on, until Ken had to run back into the center and get help. “It’s been a while,” he said. He hesitated for a moment and then held out the hand closest to Ken, not out high, but low enough that Ken could pretend not to see it. For a moment it seemed like Ken really hadn’t, or was ignoring him, but then Ken’s thin hand curled desperately into his own.
Naoki was thinking about Saturn. A little after Ken had moved to their neighborhood, Naoki’s mother had taken them to a planetarium exhibit. Back then he was crazy about stars, and so was Ken.
There was a theater in the planetarium. It had a screen that was a huge dome above their heads, so big that you had to half-lean back in your seat to see everything. Naoki and Ken sat next to each other and Naoki’s mother sat next to Naoki. He remembered distinctly feeling the heat and warmth of Ken’s shoulder against his as the film swept and wheeled through the infinities of space. A woman’s voice talked softly about how stars were made, and the planets that made up the solar system.
Saturn’s rings unfolded on the screen, beautiful and concentric.
“Twenty-nine years from now, Saturn will be close to Earth again.” Soft music, with an underbeat of urgent drums, filled the planetarium. “Where will you be?”
Ken gripped his arm. Naoki looked at him. Ken’s eyes were huge with excitement. “Let’s find out,” he whispered.
“What?” Naoki whispered back.
“Where we are when Saturn comes back,” said Ken, bouncing a little in his seat. “Okay?”
Naoki looked at him.
“Together,” insisted Ken, and Naoki nodded so Ken would be quiet before they got in trouble with Naoki’s mom. It would be nice, he thought, to see where they were when Saturn returned again. He hoped they would be together.
It had been a month since Ken was released. Ken’s face was pale all the time. “It’s just so different,” he said, one night at supper. “I mean, but then it’s not and it’s a little … um.” He poked at his rice. “I shouldn’t complain.”
Because things could be worse, Naoki translated. Ken had always been like that. Not exactly an optimist, but not pessimistic, either. Ken always had the ability to accept things as they were and work to make them better. Naoki thought how tired and overwhelmed Ken looked. His chest twisted.
“I know a place that hasn’t changed,” said Naoki, getting up.
The new tram line was faster, although it went through the business sector. Ken watched the new people and buildings quietly. Sometimes he would slant a look at Naoki, as if he was uncertain of something, and then look down again quickly.
“I’m not surprised Mom and Dad got divorced,” said Ken, as if he were thinking out loud. “How long did they last after — after I went to sleep?”
“Two or three years,” said Naoki. “I guess they tried to stay together in case you woke quickly.”
Ken snorted and looked across the aisle. On the opposite side of them were two teenagers, leaning against each other. One of them reached up and took the earbud from the other’s ear, putting it in his own ear and curling closer to the other. Naoki felt suddenly and bitterly jealous of them both. He looked at Ken from the corner of his eye, but Ken’s face was closed off, as if he was thinking about something he didn’t want to talk about yet.
They got off the tram one station before the end, and began walking up a hill. For a moment Ken looked lost, and then he looked surprised and pleased. “The windmills are still here?” he said.
“Yeah,” said Naoki.
The field of windmills had been set up by a minor genius in future planning. They had tied up the property and development rights so thoroughly that despite the press of the city around it, the field had not been taken over. Now it was a major part of the city’s power grid, and similar wind plants had sprung up over the city and surrounding suburbs.
Besides the power they generated, they served as community parks and open spaces. The real genius of their design was that even the plants near the center of the city seemed quiet and calm. The air was cold and very clear. The city’s lights sparkled distantly around them, and slow, quiet flakes of snow fell down. It was an early mid-December dusk.
Naoki lit a cigarette as Ken crouched down on the ground. “That’s bad for you,” said Ken automatically.
Naoki gave him a look.
“I’m just saying,” said Ken. He was silent for so long that Naoki finally finished his cigarette and crushed the butt out. “Hey,” said Ken. “You never told me what you research.”
Naoki shrugged. “This and that. I worked for a genetics lab for a while.”
“What sort of gene?” said Ken.
Naoki hesitated. It wasn’t like Ken couldn’t look it up, though: His name was on the paper about gene therapy and McClain’s syndrome. “McClain’s syndrome,” he said. Ken sucked in his breath as if he’d been hit. Naoki didn’t look at him.
There was another long silence. Naoki thought about lighting up again, and then he thought about pulling Ken up from the ground and taking him home before they died of hypothermia. He’d heard hypothermia was a relatively nice way to die, but he didn’t want to find out about it personally. “You ready?” he said.
“Yeah,” said Ken. He got up and shoved his hands into his pockets and began walking down the path to the tram station.
The ride home was silent. Ken did nothing but stare out the window at the dark city, and Naoki didn’t try to speak. When they got back to the apartment Ken put his coat away and moved to one of the windows in the living area. Naoki hung his coat up and went into the kitchen to make coffee. He returned with two cups, and handed one to Ken, who took it with a murmur of thanks.
“Why didn’t you go into astronomy?” said Ken abruptly, putting his coffee on the windowsill.
“I didn’t want to,” said Naoki.
“You didn’t want to?” said Ken. “What do you mean, you didn’t want to? What happened to the –” he stopped suddenly and came to Naoki. He wrapped his hand around Naoki’s neck and pulled his head down, kissing him hard.
Naoki stood rigid in surprise.
It was such a bad idea that Naoki couldn’t express it. It was exponentially bad. It was astronomically bad. It was the worst idea in the history of ever, which was not something he had even thought since he was about seventeen and Ken had still been awake.
Ken kissed him again, a little awkwardly but firmly. He put his hands on Naoki’s shoulders and pushed him back. Naoki fell back, his hands reaching up and sliding up Ken’s chest slowly. It felt like a dream. Ken gave a quick gasp, almost a sob, against his mouth, and kissed him again, his arms wrapping around Naoki’s neck. Naoki’s hands combed through Ken’s silky hair. Ken crowded closer to him, so they were pressed together from shoulder to hip. Naoki shuddered. “Hey,” he said, trying to pull away. Ken wouldn’t let him. He half-crawled onto Naoki’s hips, bracing himself over Naoki and kissing him hard. Naoki had never been able to win against Ken, anyway.
He kissed Ken back, opening his mouth against Ken’s so their tongues met and entangled. He moved his hands up and down Ken’s back desperately, feeling the strong line of his spine and the flexing muscles beneath his skin. Ken moaned, rubbing against Naoki’s groin. Naoki let out a long, hissing breath as the heat of Ken’s cock ground into his. This was. This was such a bad idea. He had to stop them. He had to —
Ken was fumbling at his pants, trying to unfasten them with shaking hands. His hand slid into Naoki’s pants. Ken’s face was flushed, his eyes half-lidded. Naoki wanted to stare at him for hours, for days, just look at him and memorize every detail of his face.
Why the hell didn’t we do this when we were seventeen? Naoki wondered, and curled his fingers against the line of Ken’s head, kissing him hard. He pushed Ken until they fell over and Ken was under him, all long limbs and skinny muscle. Ken bucked up against him and Naoki made a strange sound in the back of his throat, raw and unfamiliar.
Ken’s hands scraped down his back and under his shirt, spreading out like wings over Naoki’s bare back. He ground up against Naoki’s groin until Naoki moaned and wedged his hand between them, fumbling with fabric and fasteners. His head fell onto Ken’s shoulder and Ken kissed the side of it again and again, open-mouthed fumbling kisses. Their hands curled tightly around each other in the space between their bodies.
“Oh,” said Ken, “Oh, oh.” He shuddered deeply. “Naoki. Naoki.”
Naoki closed his eyes and concentrated on the way Ken’s body shuddered and the smell of his skin. He took a deep, gasping breath, almost a sob, and came with Ken’s arms around him.
There was quiet for a long time, while Naoki clung tightly to Ken. He felt raw and exposed, as if Ken had forced him out of a protective covering. He was almost afraid.
When Ken moved away, he let him go. Ken sat up and looked at him, his face half-angry and half confused. Ken reached out and put his hand on Naoki’s face, touching his lips and nose and eyelids, as if Ken were blind or Naoki’s face was something new and precious.
“I have to go out,” said Ken suddenly. “I have to think.”
Naoki flung his arm over his eyes. He listened as Ken fumbled on his clothes and went out the door. When the door slid shut he took his arm from over his eyes and sat up slowly. The apartment seemed very empty and large, even with the small signs of Ken’s presence that remained. He looked at one of Ken’s schoolbooks and his tablet on the desk. Naoki wrapped his arms around his knees and put his face down on his knees.
After a while he got up and began to tidy the apartment a little. He stacked Ken’s books neatly, but left his tablet where it was, playing a screensaver of the rings of Saturn spinning slowly. Naoki knew he couldn’t go after Ken. All he could do was wait. It seemed that for all of his life he had done nothing but wait, like a comet in an elliptical orbit waiting to come close to the light and warmth of the sun.
His PDA buzzed. He flipped it open and saw a message from Ken.
– Are you mad?
– About what? Where the hell are you? It’s fucking snowing!
– Somewhere. I don’t know. It’s a bus shelter, I guess. I have my coat. Are you mad?
– Of course I’m mad, you moron, you’re out in the snow at ten pm!
– Not about that. Me leaving.
– A little. Maybe. I’ve been more ticked at you.
– Do you think it was worth it?
– What do you mean, was it worth it?
– Waking me up. All this. Wouldn’t it have been better if I had never woken up?
– I can’t answer that for you.
– What the hell is that supposed to mean?
– You were supposed to be the smart one, you figure it out.
– Where you this much of an asshole the entire time I was asleep? because you’re really an asshole.
– And you’re a fucking brat.
– Seriously do you think it’s worth it? I mean for you. All the work you put in to do this. To wake me up. Was it worth it?
– That’s up to you, isn’t it?
– Just give me a straight answer, Naoki.
– I can’t. It’s not fair to you. I’m too selfish. You know why I did all that? To see you again. Just to see you again. And I don’t want you to think you owe me anything for it. So I won’t say “it was all for you” or “as long as you’re happy”. It was all for me. It was my selfish need. You need to decide if it was worth it.
– I need to know. Was it worth it for you?
– Yes. Yes. Yes.
When Ken came through the apartment door Naoki was waiting for him. He buried his face in Ken’s hair and shook for a long time.
“Stupid,” said Ken, stroking his hair. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Naoki woke up. The sky outside was clear and black, with the particular clear light that only appeared on a snow-covered night. A star was shining low and bright in the sky. Naoki stared at it for a moment without recognizing it. It seemed to him that there was something friendly about it, as absurd as it was. He had the feeling that they were sharing some sort of secret.
What star was it?
Beside him Ken shifted, but did not wake. Naoki drew him closer.
Oh, he thought. Hello, Saturn, hello, hello.