A new boy in Ritsuka's class causes him to reflect on his relationship with those around him.
"Does it-" Ritsuka cut himself off as he felt his cheeks redden. It was always embarrassing asking Soubi about these things because Soubi was perverted and would take his question and make it dirty. Soubi always did stuff like that whenever he got the chance. But Ritsuka still needed to know, so he forced his mouth to say the words.
"Does it hurt when you lose your ears?"
Ritsuka immediately began to fiddle with this cell phone as he kicked his feet back and forth under the bench they were currently seated on. Anything to avoid the lecherous gaze he was sure he was being given. When Soubi didn't reply after a few moments, he risked a sidelong look in the man's direction.
There was no salacious grin or evil gleam in his fighter's eyes. Soubi was frozen, hand half way to his mouth to take a drag off the cigarette that burned, untouched, between his long fingers. His mouth was slightly agape, indicating the level of his shock.
"Why does Ritsuka-kun want to know this?" Soubi said distrustfully and then quickly brought the cigarette up to his lips as a cover.
Soubi was defensive? This puzzled Ritsuka greatly because Soubi had never gotten self-protective with him before. If there were something he didn't want to talk about or something he didn't want Ritsuka to know, he would always deflect or reroute the discussion by attempting to kiss or hug Ritsuka. And if those tactics didn't work, he would simply puff away on his cigarette and ignore the boy completely.
"Because I want to know," the boy shot back, defiant as ever.
"Why? Did something happen at school?" The older man's usual knowing smirk curved the corner of his mouth.
Ritsuka frowned. Soubi was right, of course.
A new boy had been placed in his class last week. Sensei stood him at the front of the room for the customary introductions and wrote his name on the blackboard in her precise script. His name was Mizuki. He was small and weak-looking, Ritsuka noted. That thought had amused him because he knew he was no giant by any stretch of the imagination. But Mizuki was small enough to make both him and Yayoi feel better about their diminutive statures.
Whispers had immediately spread around the room about how white the new boy's skin was and how the cream coloring of his cat ears and tail complimented his light-brown hair. Girls were so silly. Ritsuka could never understand why they got so worked up over these things.
But he couldn't help noticing just how frightened Mizuki looked as he carefully made his way up the long row of desks, clutching his books to his chest like they were a lifeline, to take the empty seat beside him. Ritsuka even gave a friendly smile when blue eyes, as wide as saucers, glanced his way. But Mizuki didn't return the gesture. No, the other boy quickly looked away and slumped down into the chair as though he were trying to make himself invisible.
Sensei called the class to attention, but the whispering didn't stop. Nearly all the girls were leaning over their desks, giggling and not trying to hide it in the least. Mizuki was cute in the way that bunnies and kittens were cute. He had big, expressive eyes and round face with high cheekbones. His hair was short in the back and brushed neatly forward through his ears. Ritsuka rolled his eyes. He had come to the conclusion long ago that girls liked all things that were cute. Soubi told him how cute he was all the time, though Ritsuka suspected it was just an excuse to hug him or rub his cat ears. He didn't want to be cute. Cute was immature and not very manly. But the bigger boys were also eyeing up the new kid the same way a pack of wild dogs stared down a rabbit. This worried him a little.
When it came time for Physical Education class later that day, Mizuki was excused from participating. Again, this created another flurry of whispering and gossip. Mizuki didn't look injured so, it was assumed that he must have some type of illness. Oh, what a strange boy he is. Does he think he's special because he doesn't have to join in? The voices guessed. Maybe he's sick or something. Did you notice? He doesn't flick his ears or his tail. Yeah, that's weird. It's not like anyone would actually go up and ask the boy. No, that was unheard of. And as much as he didn't want to get pulled into all the gossip mongering, Ritsuka had to agree with some of it. There was something off with the boy, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. If people though he was withdrawn and shy, Mizuki had him beat by a mile.
A few days later, he found out why.
Soubi had late classes at the university on Thursdays, so he walked home with Yuiko and Yayoi. They were a few blocks away from the school when they came across three of the more well-know bullies. They had poor little Mizuki cornered against a fence; his books were strewn all over. The tallest of the three boys, Tetsuo, had his hands fisted in the boy's sweater and was shaking him to punctuate whatever it was he was saying.
Ritsuka called out to the boys to try and get them to stop, but they just laughed. What's a pack of runts like you going to do? One of the other boys had taunted. It did nothing to faze them and Yuiko even got up in one's face and demanded that they let Mizuki go. The bullies seemed to find that especially hysterical and laughed at her with abandon. With the attention taken off of him momentarily, Mizuki managed to squirm free of Tetsuo's grip and made a run for it. Not about to let his prey escape, the bully grabbed for the one thing he could easily reach- Mizuki's tail.
They all stared in horror as the cream-colored tail that had been snagged, came off in Tetsuo's hand.
The bully screamed and flung the tail away from him as though it had just turned into a snake. Signaling to his other two friends, Tetsuo took off running like the devil himself was on his heels. Three sets of eyes then turned to Mizuki confused and unsure what to do.
Yayoi made the first move. Are you okay? The black and white-haired boy had asked as he slowly took a step towards the shivering child. Stay away from me! Mizuki screamed, eyes darting around like a frightened animal. Please, Mizuki-kun, we only want to help you. Yayoi soothed, but it had little effect. As soon as he took another step closer, Mizuki bolted down the street. The three were left standing there, dumbfounded. Should we go after him? He's hurt. Yuiko asked, seeking an answer from the other two.
Ritsuka ignored her worried glance and bent down to pick up Mizuki's tail. He was expecting what anyone would expect to see from a severed tail, but instead of blood and gore, he found something else. The base of the tail was frayed and there were bits of thread hanging off it. Ritsuka's cat ears went flat. The tail was a fake. And it had to be expensive to boot because it sure looked and felt real. But why was Mizuki wearing a fake tail? There were a few kids in the upper grades that had lost there ears and tails already, but no one his age had yet. Well, at least none that he had seen. But Mizuki looked so scared of people all the time. How would he let someone get close enough to...to do that? Unless....
Mizuki didn't come to school the next day. The three boys who had been harassing him were called down to the principal's office and reprimanded for their actions. Ritsuka, Yuiko, and Yayoi all agreed to keep quiet about Mizuki's fake tail. It was the least they could do to help out their classmate.
But Ritsuka still had unanswered questions and Soubi was the only adult he could ask. He thought about asking Katsuko-sensei, but she would probably give him a kid-friendly answer and he wanted the truth.
"I-I just want to know," Ritsuka stammered, hoping that he wouldn't have to specify.
Soubi gave him a gentle smile. "No, Ritsuka, if you are with someone who loves you, then they won't hurt you. Is my Ritsuka-kun thinking about losing his ears?"
"Soubi!" he cried out, annoyed at the long-haired man's constant attempts to embarrass him, but that answer confused Ritsuka even more. If Mizuki was with someone he loves, then why would he look so...damaged? "Did it hurt when you lost your ears, Soubi?"
The older man choked on the drag he had just taken and stared, taken aback by the boy next to him.
"When you lost your ears, did it hurt?" he repeated.
Ritsuka met Soubi's gaze, and for the briefest of seconds there was a haunted look in the older man's eyes. It was a look that spoke of pain, deep-seated and agonizing pain. In that millisecond, Ritsuka knew all he needed to.
"Why do you want to know that?" Soubi asked softly.
"It's nothing, I was just curious. Hey, why don't we go down to the lake? You can draw a picture of me and the ducks."
Ritsuka jumped off the bench and pulled on Soubi's hand to get him to stand. Soubi resisted for a moment, not sure how to handle the sudden change in Ritsuka's attitude, but this was his Ritsuka and he couldn't deny him anything. So, he rose to his feet and followed the boy down the path to the duck pond and didn't think twice about the odd behavior.
The next day at school, Mizuki was back in class. He looked twice as nervous as he had before, but none of the other students bothered to notice, nor did they have any clue about his secret. When lunchtime came, Ritsuka saw the boy sitting by himself at a table in the far corner of the cafeteria. With his tray in hand and determination in his heart, he walked over and introduced himself and sat down. When Yuiko and Yayoi came over, he introduced them as well. Mizuki stared at them all like they were crazy, but soon began to warm up to them little by little and that made Ritsuka smile. Mizuki had the same terrified look he saw in Soubi's eyes yesterday. Someone had hurt them both in ways he couldn't imagine. And while he couldn't change the past, and was so very unsure about his present, this felt right to Ritsuka. He once had no one to call his friends and he understood that kind loneliness after Seimei died, but now he had Yuiko, Yayoi, and Soubi. His world had felt so bleak before, but now it was enriched by the bonds he forged with other people. So, now he was extending that gift to Mizuki in the hope that the shy boy too, would prosper.
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