It's not quite love at first sight, or, at least, it's not mutual. Sei meets Kai.
Sei is a good boy. He is conscientious and courteous in school, self-reliant and dependable at home. He does his homework without being asked, keeps his room tidy, and on nights when his mother has to work overtime (which are often), he prepares a simple dinner and cleans up afterwards. Such a kind and thoughtful child, the neighbors say.
So when his mother's work takes her to another country, it seems perfectly reasonable to let him stay in Japan rather than uproot him in the middle of a semester to live the same way in a strange place. He has been taking care of himself for the most part anyway. The neighbors don't notice her absence for a long time.
There are difficulties, to be sure, but none are new, and Sei gets by well enough. His teachers note his reliability and trust him with important tasks, like taking charge of the guestbook for the reception after the interschool debate. Sei considers it a point of pride to live up to their trust and carry out his assigned duties faultlessly.
For which reason he is sorely puzzled, really, by the absence of the guestbook from his bag. He is fairly certain he had put it safely away before leaving the old school building where the reception was held. He has not opened the bag except to take out his fare for the bus, and he knows that it didn't fall out then. Yet it is not there. Sei is aggrieved, and tries to recollect where he might have lost it.
Not on the bus or on the road, he is certain. On consideration, Sei seems to remember a sense of being watched while he was at the school. Another student had bumped into him, making him drop all his books. It might be a prank of some sort, or a genuine mistake. He had probably left the guestbook there without realising it.
(He's sure he didn't, though.)
Still, he doesn't see much of a choice apart from going to Morimoto-sensei and telling her he has lost the book. He had hoped he could go home early and make a nice dinner to celebrate the end of the semester. Sei takes the bus back, annoyed with himself and the world at large. The view along the route is not so pleasing the third time he passes it in the same day.
The wind whips his hair into his face and eyes as he alights from the bus, startling him momentarily. His stumble is slight and he recovers quickly, with no more ill effect than an increased heartrate. Sei spits hair and tries to brush it away from his face, wondering if his budget would support a haircut, or if he should try to cut it himself again.
Climbing the stairs to the classroom where he thinks he might have dropped the book, Sei is again struck by the feeling of eyes on him, but tells himself it is probably the lonely building and his imagination.
He looks about the empty classroom, and glimpses a flash of movement that he thinks is another boy in the class, but it is only the curious floor-length mirror he saw earlier. The book is nowhere to be seen, but, reluctant to give up so soon, Sei gets on his knees and looks under the desks again.
"It's on that desk behind you," says a boy's voice, bright and friendly. Sei jerks his head up and finds, to his surprise, the guestbook exactly where the boy had said it was. He scrambles to his feet and picks it up, flipping through it to check that it is the correct one and that nothing has been added.
"Thank you," he says absently, and when the boy asks, "May I come in?" he doesn't think before he answers, "Sure."
Then he drops the book as the room fills with light. He has just enough time to think, in a moment slow and thick as molasses - there is a boy coming out from the mirror - then the boy drops lightly on his feet before Sei and beams.
Sei finds that his mind is a blank. It is terrifying. He has no idea what to think or say. "You... you..."
"I'm Kai!" says the boy-from-mirror happily, grabbing Sei's nerveless hand. The boy-from-mirror leans in, staring at Sei with discomfiting interest. He is much closer than Sei is accustomed to, and Sei can feel warm breath on his lips, so the boy-from-mirror probably isn't a ghost, but Sei still wants to pull away. Sei's hand is clammy with shock and fear, and he finds it intensely embarrassing. "You're very pretty," the boy-from-mirror remarks, and frowns in confusion."I thought you were supposed to be a boy?"
Sei sobers immediately. In Sei's experience, this is usually a prelude to shoves, hair-pulling and sundry other unpleasantries. Sei decides it is fair to consider it a declaration of war. Sei yanks his hand free, pushes the boy-from-mirror over and runs away.
"Ouch! Hey, wait for me!" the boy-from-mirror shouts after him. Sei resolutely ignores him and skitters down the stairs as quickly as he dares. Faintly, he can hear the boy's voice rising in aggravation. "You're not cute at all!"
He doesn't look back though the boy shouts again for him to wait. Outside the school grounds, he chases down a bus and boards it with a feeling that is somewhere between giddy excitement and relief. Still, all the way home, he keeps looking nervously over his shoulder and back down the road as though he thinks the boy will find some way to follow him.
Which is silly. The boy surely did not come out from a mirror - Sei must have been tired and confused, misremembered like he had done with the guestbook. (He's left that behind again. But he's not going back.) And there's no way the boy can follow the bus.
He didn't even try to chase Sei. That's good. If Sei never sees that boy again...
Sei hugs his bag and tries to stop shaking, or at least stop fidgeting so much, because the middle-aged aunty with the basket of fish in the next seat is starting to look concerned, and if she comes any closer, Sei might throw up. He's concentrating so hard on not throwing up that he nearly misses his stop, and just manages to get off the bus a moment before the door closes, earning a sharp warning from the driver.
He experiences a slight sense of disorientation as his feet touch the ground, as if he has never been here before, but the feeling passes, and he's about to hurry back toward the safety of his apartment when he hears the voice again.
"Hey, wait up!"
He is cold; he can feel the blood draining from his face and the prickling of his skin in gooseflesh at the impossibilities piling up. Sei takes a quick breath and runs across the road. A car honks sedately as footsteps pound behind him, and he finds enough conscience to be glad that he lives in a small town where cars are few and unhurried.
"You idiot, wait!" the boy screams at him, but Sei keeps running, down the road and up the stairs. He is panting, chilled with sweat and fumbling with the keys at his door when the boy catches up, flushed with exertion or annoyance. "You left this behind," he says, waving the guestbook at Sei. "Why did you run away?"
Sei blinks as the key finally slides home, and takes the book from the boy with a trembling hand. "Thank you," he says numbly as the door opens with a click. He slides in and and slams the door behind him, leaning agains it. He can feel the thin wood shake as the boy pounds on the door.
"What, you're leaving me outside? Hey!" But after a while, the boy finally stops and shuffles away from his door sulkily.
The floor is cold. When Sei climbs to his feet, he is stiff and sore, and quite prepared to dismiss the events of the day as an extended and unpleasant fever-dream. It is late, and though he is not very hungry, he prepares a simple meal, because his mother will worry if he doesn't eat. But he chances to look out the window and sees the boy waiting forlornly below, as though lost. The boy catches sight of his startled movement and looks up hopefully at him.
There's this awful cliche about waiting in the rain, Sei remembers from a distant time when his mother stayed at home watching melodramas on television. Fortunately, it isn't raining now, but Sei doesn't trust the weather to hold.
Sei isn't hard-hearted. Whatever the boy is, it can't be nice to have been left out in the cold with nowhere to go. Sei decides to go down and ask him in - after all, he had brought the precious book to Sei in spite of having been pushed, ignored and abandoned. However, Sei finds himself rather less inclined to sympathy when he opens the door to find the boy already waiting there. The boy breezes in past Sei and seats himself before Sei's dinner with utmost confidence, and Sei closes the door quite hard.
"Thanks," the boy says, and begins eating happily. "This is so plain," he complains after a few mouthfuls. "Can't you cook?"
If the boy had indeed come out from the mirror, he probably had nowhere to stay and perhaps nothing to eat for who knew how long. Sei takes a few calming breaths and heats up a packet of instant curry for the boy, then takes out the last of the bread for himself.
The obvious pleasure with which the boy digs in alleviates Sei's feelings of resentment somewhat as he chews on the rather dry bread. Naturally, the boy has to dispel any goodwill he had managed to induce almost immediately.
"Let's try this again. I'm Kai," he says, taking Sei's hand in hands sticky with curry and pumping vigorously. "And you're not cute."
Sei is inexplicably hurt, though he doesn't particularly want to be thought of as cute. "I'm Sei," he allows, his voice cool, and decides even this much concession is a mistake, because Kai is excessively pleased and takes it as license to give Sei a sticky hug.
"I don't really want to put you out of your bed," Kai says later, without the slightest hint of embarrassment, from atop Sei's bed as Sei rolls out the spare futon. Sei, being nice, thoughtful and all that, does not tell him that the futon was supposed to be for him, before he'd cheerfully jumped onto Sei's bed with an alarming creak of old springs.
Instead, he says, "It's no bother, I'm used to sleeping on the floor," which he was, before his mother moved out, and he tries not to wince as Kai bounces some more and the entire bed frame shakes. He only hopes the old bed holds and doesn't fall down sometime during the night. Kai is also wearing Sei's favorite pajamas, which are warm and soft and almost new, because he'd gone for a bath first without getting clothes from Sei, and Sei had just taken them out, planning to wear them after his own bath.
The futon is a little dusty and smells of mothballs. Sei is not happy, and punches the old pillow, trying to give it some bulk. He closes his eyes, but doesn't feel sleepy at all.
/Where did you come from? /he starts to ask and bites his tongue, because it's quite enough to have a strange boy eating his food, wearing his clothes and sleeping in his bed without having to discover that the boy was an alien or some kind of monster or a traveler from a magical mirror-world in one night. "Why are you here?" he asks, and immediately regrets it, thinking of the many possible awful answers Kai might make.
A huff of warm, minty air on his cheek (Kai has usurped his toothbrush too), and Sei opens his eyes to find Kai's face too close again, leaning over Sei with wide, curious eyes as he hangs almost halfway off the bed. "I came to find you," he says, so softly Sei isn't sure he heard it correctly.
Sei shivers, and Kai takes his hand again, pressing something cool and metal into his palm. He pushes himself up on his elbows and looks at a silvery bracelet with a sort of strange yin-yang fish charm, studded with colored stones. Puzzled, he looks at Kai's serious face, and at the same instant, one of the stones lights up.
Afterwards, he comes back to himself with a sharp intake of breath like sudden waking from a dream. It might have been a dream, except that one of the stones on the charm is now gray and lifeless, and he can still feel the warmth of the sun on his skin, remember the vastness of the world opening beneath him as he floats up, lighter than air. Kai is watching him closely for his reaction; he wants to shout his excitement and wonder and thank Kai for his gift of such an amazing experience, but it is too much and the words will not come.
Instead, he reaches out and squeezes Kai's arm, trying to convey something of his gratitude and chaotic emotions in his touch and look, and Kai smiles a funny sort of smile that he's not sure he understands.
In the morning, the memories are distant and unreal, like they happened to someone else, and he feels a little awkward looking through the shelves for something that can pass for breakfast as Kai yawns and scratches himself. It is time to go grocery shopping again, Sei thinks and surrenders to the inevitable, taking out the instant cup noodles from the back of the shelf. He wonders how long Kai is planning to stay.
Like a tourist or possibly an alien who has studied the culture before coming, Kai finds instant noodles very exciting, though the idea of shopping for groceries is obviously more amusing in theory than in practice. That is to say, Kai is delighted at being able to choose what he wants to eat, but he doesn't want to help carry the shopping basket.
Kai keeps up a running commentary on the place, the people and the food as they walk through the aisles, not all positive, and other shoppers look at them with curiosity or amused tolerance. Sei is embarrassed, not so much for Kai because it is clear there is no malice in his words, and no one can dislike so much genki, but he's not sure what he will say if someone recognises him and asks about Kai. He came out from a mirror in a school. I don't think he is a ghost, but he might be an alien, or something like that. And he's living with me. "Do you have to buy so much?" Kai complains.
"It's not like you're paying for it, or carrying it," Sei mutters under his breath, shifting the weight of the basket to prop it against his other leg. "I bet you will eat it, though."
Kai is blithely oblivious. "Hey, can we have that?" He points at a brightly colored breakfast cereal with a promise of a toy surprise on the box. Sei takes it, and thinks that maybe he shouldn't, but they've already moved on to the next aisle.
Naturally, the worst happens. "Sei-chan! I haven't seen you in so long! Why didn't you come to see me?"burbles the kindly grandmother from the next block he'd once helped across the road, many years ago. She pinches his cheek painfully. " Have you been eating properly? Who's your friend?" as Kai interposes himself protectively between them. "Such a nice young man." She pats Kai's shoulder with great pleasure, and Sei thinks resentfully that he wouldn't mind running into her so much if she patted his shoulder instead.
"I'm Kai!" Kai says cheerily, assured that the old woman has no intention of pinching his cheek. "I like Sei very much! I'm living with him!" He matches action to words by throwing his arms around Sei, causing her and several other shoppers to pause and squint at them.
"He's my brother," Sei says hastily, trying not to squirm. He thinks, given Kai's record, he will have to get used to having Kai in his personal space. "He was living with relatives, but now he's come to stay with me."
She beams in understanding delight and pats Kai again. "Ah , that's nice. Twins? You must take care of Sei-chan, he's a good boy."
"Of course I will," Kai blinks and continues to cling. "Even if he's not cute. He pushed me, you know."
The grandmother looks properly reproving. "You mustn't bully your brother, Sei-chan."
"I- I won't," Sei promises and tries not to cringe."I need to go back and make lunch," he says, nervously backing away with Kai. "Nice to see you, grandmother. Bye!"
Kai takes the heavier bags without comment when the groceries are paid for. On the way home, Sei stops at the locksmith and has another set of keys made for Kai.