Manga in the sense that hopefully this story, while being read, can evoke some kind of subtle imagery, and not because of the names alone.

Mild M/M slash.

Rakuen (楽園)

There is certainty in a ring.
The non-ending, the non-beginning,
The ongoing.
The way it holds on to you
not because it's been fastened
or stretched or adhered.
It holds on
because it fits.

— David Levithan, The Realm of Possibility

The dry grass crackled under his feet, breaking the silence of the summer night as he made his way across the field. Behind him a balloon hovered, moonlit transparent red that revealed a smaller ball of white within — a replication of a distant memory, waiting to be revived.

Impeded by the handheld string attached to it, the balloon continued its bobbing journey across the air until he stopped at the archway, gazing at the dilapidation that lay beyond. He raised his head, and smiled faintly at the sign of welcome. It used to be bright and orange, he remembered, yet now the words on it were barely visible under all the grime and neglect from over the years.

It had once been the entrance to an amusement park, the portal to a realm of transient happiness, and for a while he wondered if everything could be the same again. With his eyes shut he took his first step into the defunct fairground, vaguely hearing the laughter of scampering children, tasting the sweetness of popcorn on his tongue, and — almost too distinctly — feeling the warmth of another hand in his.

– – –

On that day my name was Red, and I was to make everyone smile the way I did. In my oversized boots I went all over the grounds, handing out balloons to any child that wanted one.

By the carousel I saw you for the first time, dressed all in black, looking anything but happy. The little girl pulling you by the wrist said something about 'riding the horsies' with her, and your face turned darker. Your eyes, black and beady, turned to stare at the animals on the golden spinning platform, ever so intently. "No," you decided shortly. The girl looked ready to throw a royal tantrum.

But before she did I went over, and she was all smiles once more. "Why that face earlier?" I teased, handing her a heart-shaped balloon.

Pouting, she pointed at you. "Miyake doesn't want to ride the horsies with me," she complained, as I bent down to tie the string around her wrist. Your shoe started to tap impatiently, and I assumed you wanted some attention too.

"One ride won't hurt, you know," I said to you, picking the most unusual balloon from the whole bunch and giving it to you. Perhaps you did not like it, because all you gave me was a dirty look. I smiled to make you accept it, but you merely smacked the red balloon in my face.

"One sister is annoying enough, and now you," you snapped. "Stop being such a busybody and go bribe someone else with your stupid balloons!" You turned and stormed off, and the girl scampered after you, whining. I lost your back in the crowds.

I guessed I forgot to tell you how much better you would have looked had you smiled.

In the evening I found you at the reverse bungee, your head raising and bowing with the motion of the capsule. I stood beside you, and watched you sulk.

"So you think being tossed about in the air like that is fun?" I asked. You turned to face me, guarded. "Or maybe you don't recognise me without the red nose and all that face paint," I added easily.

"You're really annoying," you muttered.

"You really think so?" I deliberately fished out from my pocket the tokens which I had exchanged earlier, and counted them. "Fifteen," I mused aloud. "I wonder what to spend them on."

The silver coins reflected themselves in your eyes. "You need six per person for that bungee ride, you know," you said helpfully. Finally I had your attention, and I wanted it to last.

"What makes you think I plan to spend my pay for today on you? And where's your sister anyway?"

Surprisingly you didn't accuse me of being meddlesome again. "We went back earlier. And she isn't even tall enough for this ride anyway, so . . ." At that same moment there was a fresh round of screams as another couple was being catapulted into the air, and your eyes widened in thrill and envy.

"Then — then I sneaked out with my allowance for this week. Turned out I'm a dollar short of one bungee ride." It was then that I saw the smile I wanted to see on your face that afternoon, although this was for another reason altogether. "How about . . . how about I apologise for slapping the balloon earlier?" you asked blatantly.

I did not try to wipe the smirk off my own face. "You trust a stranger like me?" I inquired. You only shrugged in response.

"You don't seem much older or stronger than me, so I can't see how dangerous you can get. And anyway with all these people here you can't do very much right? And I'm awfully sorry," you added sweetly. I admitted defeat right then; I would have, even without an apology of any sort, but that I did not mention.

"You're as shameless as I'm nosy," I commented.

"I'll take that as a compliment. And a yes to the ride." And your face shone in the bright lights of the park as they lit up all at once, so brilliantly against the dusk. "Come on! The queue's getting long! And I'll return you the token tomorrow, I promise!"

– – –

He walked past the forgotten stalls, running his fingers along the metallic surfaces, dusty with time forwarded and ceased. Above him, the canvas flapped in the stale wind, torn and discoloured. In the park's heyday they were red and yellow, glowing stripes that revealed naked bulbs underneath that illuminated the snacks and toys for sale.

They used to frequent these booths, he recalled, throwing hoops and darts and comparing what their efforts reaped. Most of the toys ended up with Mizuki eventually, but none of them minded. It was money well-spent on luck, tactics, and tons of zealous yelling.

It was money well-spent on stolen time with him, Miyake.

Now he paused before the last kiosk in the row, a faint rectangular outline on the metal, marking where the cotton candy machine had once stood. What he would give to hear its whirl once more as the sugar spun, magically turning into pink floss around the centre. What he would give to taste that fluffy sweetness once more, to hear Miyake laugh at the pink mess around his lips.

It only left an acrid aftertaste in his mouth, a poignant reminder to a past once cherished.

The balloon slipped past the roof, and towards the moon once more.

Most of the wooden fencing around the carousel had fallen, and he sat down on the only section left standing. Behind him the metal panels of the platform groaned and creaked, and he imagined the wooden animals behind him, their grins frozen but chipped on their painted and varnished faces.

He imagined the familiar presence next to him, mimicking the toddlers' gleeful cheers as the carousel spun its way into the golden sunset. He imagined the familiar light-hearted laughter as he told Miyake some of the absurd things that happened to him during his daily shifts as Red. And he imagined the occasional tattletale in the form of Mizuki, relating her brother's attempts to chat up the pretty girl at the tokens booth.

That was two summers ago.

– – –

We went up the Ferris wheel for the first time, the night before school started. You refused to go for that 'childish thing', you said, but neither did you trust me with Mizuki, alone in a gondola that went way up high.

"Or maybe you're scared of heights," I suggested, but you were too busy taking in the glittering lights from down below as the wheel slowly rotated. I watched the secret smile creep up your chiselled face as you took in a deep breath.

"I never knew it looked this awesome from up here," you whispered, at the vertex of the giant wheel.

At that moment I wished Mizuki wasn't there with us. I wished I was seated right beside you, instead of being directly opposite. I wished I could drape an arm around you, and watch the same view as you did, of the faraway world beyond our tiny car.

I wished, and they remained as wishes.

Two revolutions later we came back to earth once more. Out of tokens and the will to spend any more, we decided to call it a night.

"But we'll still see each other in school, won't we?" you said, spiritedly.

"Not me," Mizuki blurted, then looked up at me. "You're so much nicer than my brother. I'll miss you." And she threw her tiny arms around my waist and hugged me. You merely clicked your tongue.

I looked at you expectantly, but you didn't seem to get the hint. "It wouldn't be fair if you didn't get a friendly hug too, would it?" I asked. You made a face, but did not reject when Mizuki playfully pushed you into my arms instead, bursting into giggles.

I wanted nothing more right then.

"This is stupid," you laughed, patting me hard on my back. "We're not at the airport, you know. And people might think we're lovers or something." I did not loosen my hold on you.

"Then let them," I whispered, very quietly.

In that short second that followed I wanted nothing else. I wanted nothing more than the warm reminder of you against me, of your heart close to mine, of the faint scent of your hair that made me think of the untouched woods behind the fairgrounds: fresh, yet somehow beyond reach.

In that short second I was right next to you, but equally lost from you.

"I mean, your parents are fine. They're cool. And they understand what I'm going through. Why can't my mother do the same for me?"

You were sitting at one end of my bed, griping and fuming, with that strange expression that left a permanent frown on your face. I sat down at the other end, wanting to wipe it off for you, but all I said was, "Still, you didn't have to run away."

"I don't care," you muttered, folding your arms. "She's going to scream at me when I get back anyway, so I might as well put it off and stay somewhere else tonight, since your parents don't mind." You aimed that frown at me. "You don't, do you?"

"Of course not."

You closed your eyes with a sigh, and I revelled silently in the way your lashes fringed them, dark and delicate. I shifted a little closer to them, a little closer to you. "I don't know what she's thinking. It's not like I went there to steal anything, right?" Then your eyes snapped open once more, staring ahead. "I just wanted to take a look! A different point of view. And I'm not so dumb as to let myself fall! But it's great that I managed to climb all the way to the top before they caught me! And it's like —"

Your arm swept out dramatically, and you craned your neck to demonstrate how vast the view from the top of the rollercoaster tracks had been. "Like a crow's nest on a pirate's ship," you breathed, "with nothing but everything stretching out far below you, hustling and bustling and nobody knows and —"

When your head turned I finally got to see your eyes clearly, but never did I expect I would get so close as to feel the brush of your lips so gently against mine. Neither did you, by the look of surprise on your face, and I could not say how terrified I was, to have taken one step too far, right into uncharted waters.

I could not say how equally relieved I was when you broke the tension with a smile. "Was that accidental?" you asked mildly. I wanted to explain, to come up with an excuse you would believe — but you went on, in the smallest voice I'd ever heard from you.

"You know that tokens girl? She's in my Science class this year. I asked her the other day. And she rejected me." I saw your smile dissolve into another, a quainter one. "You won't mind if I took you for her just now, will you? I can't seem to . . . let her go . . ."

I won't mind even if you take me for her again. I closed a purposeful hand around your arm. "I might think you're getting a little too desperate," I lied, in a prelude to what I thought was a magic moment, and what you thought was all an act.

Still, I leaned forward to kiss you, and you laughed softly against my lips. Yet you did not retreat. You did not reject me, the way your prospective girlfriend did to you. You merely tilted your head and carried on with our tryout, kissing me back as if out of love, not lovelessness.

And it was then that I realised — all I wanted was to be with you.

When I tightened my arms around you, you laughed again and whispered, "Maybe you need a girl of your own too."

I did not tell you how disappointed I was, when we both lay down quiet, minutes later. Perhaps to you, we were just reckless young people, experimenting with what was unaccepted, pretending that we were each, in fact, sharing a moment of intimacy with a girl we would fall in love with in the near future.

You were needy, and I was the substitute for whom you thought you loved. You said you wanted a girlfriend you could protect, but all I wanted was to protect you. You said you wanted a girlfriend you could fuss over, but all I wanted was to take care of you.

Yet you lay there, in my arms, fast asleep.

I did not have the heart to tear you from your sweet dream, to make you realise it was I that stayed beside you. Instead, I held you closer, caressed your face, and kissed you softly on your forehead. In your ear I whispered my love to you, but you did not respond. You did not deny.

You did not leave.

I wanted the night to last. I wanted to stay there with you. I wanted to share part of my memories, my life, with you. And I wanted so much to tell you all that — with you wide awake.

I wanted only so much.

– – –

It no longer stood in majesty and soft blinking colours, towering over the park and woods like a perpetual lighthouse. On the day the fairgrounds closed its doors to the public for the final time, the Ferris wheel — empty — had let out a long-drawn groan, as if lamenting its own demise.

And he had seen the silver gondolas, swinging gently in the wind, as the strangers shut down the rides, switched off the lights, and left everything else dying. The adults had sighed, the children had wept, and the others had simply shaken their heads, not understanding the need for closure.

He had been alone when it all happened.

Now the Ferris wheel lay fallen, broken bits of glass and metal on the weedy field. Slowly, careful not to damage anything else, he climbed his way towards the eye of the giant circle, swinging his legs over the steel bars, crouching under the dusty cables — until he reached his destination.

What used to outline that centre was a star made up of neon light tubes, with hundreds of bulbs extending from each of its points, stretching out each spoke until the last bulb touched the car at the circumference, in a magnificent sunburst of colours. He leaned against the forgotten star, staring at the shattered rows of crowns that outnumbered the intact bulbs, no longer lighting up the faces of awe and wonder of every temporary passenger the wheel used to carry towards the zenith.

Each ride lasted no more than ten minutes, and every single time they had to come back down, back to reality. Like the entire amusement park that thrived only during the fun-filled months of summer, everything that existed within was never made to last — not the thrills, not the joy, not the bliss, and never the love.

– – –

Turn the wheel, I prompted, handing you the silver coin.

"You're not going to waste your money on this thing, are you?" you laughed, as always, but still I made you take the token and slot it into the machine. You turned the tiny golden wheel, and there was a clatter as a prize dropped into the square hole behind the metal flap. I heard you laugh again.

"This is really silly," you said, holding the half-red, half-clear plastic egg in your hand. "Let's see what cheap toy you've —"

"No." I closed your hand tight around the capsule. "Open it later. On the Ferris wheel." It was to be my surprise for you, and I wanted to see your response in private, after hours of dismantling the machine and slotting the eggs and making sure you were the one that managed to get the only capsule that contained my surprise to you — a red and transparent present, just like the double-stuffed balloon I gave to you, on that fateful day.

Minutes later we sat in the gondola, the same one we rode with Mizuki last year, only that she was absent this time. I did not speak, but merely watched as you grumbled something about 'stupid mysterious things', and twisted the capsule open.

I watched as you picked at the thick paper tissue that filled up almost the whole egg. I watched as you found my surprise for you. I watched as you blinked, and held it up before our eyes, the links swinging and glinting as the Ferris wheel carried us closer to the sky.

"What is this supposed to be?" you asked.

Still I said nothing, and took the two interlocked hoops from you, twisting and turning and shifting them — till one slotted perfectly next to the other, and became the one silver ring that I wanted to give to you, all this time.

"This is us, Miyake," I said quietly. "This is all that we shared together. This is my love for you, and what I really hope we can be." I took your hand in mine and gently slipped the ring onto your finger, closing my hands around yours, burying my gift within, warm and tight. And I said, in a whisper, what I so dearly wanted you to agree to.

"Be with me."

I never saw the tears of emotion I had wanted to see shimmer in your eyes, for they were downcast, staring endlessly at the hidden ring, on your hand, clasped in mine. I never heard the affirmation I had wanted to hear from you, for you merely withdrew your hand sharply from mine, trying, trying so hard to remove my promise from you — and the moment you did I felt nothing more, for I shattered into pieces right before you.

But that you did not see.

"I . . ." you tried to refuse. "I wasn't . . . I think you're mistaken, I — I never thought of us being more than . . . more than just friends . . ."

"But we can be," I pleaded softly. "Miyake, why —"

"No!" The car swung violently as you shifted, to the far end of your seat, and distanced yourself from me. "We can't. We just can't."

And nothing more you said, as the ring lay forlorn where you sat before, untouched once more — my devotion, utterly rejected, trapped in the land where eternity and commitment never once existed, summer after summer.

I never wanted to face that verity.

When the ride ended you dashed out of the car, and I ran after you, holding in my hand the ring that was supposed to be yours, that you could have worn with pride. By the archway I grabbed you by the wrist and swivelled you around, but your head was low.

"We can be, Miyake," I insisted, in a whisper, holding back my desperation as best as I could, pressing the silver ring deep into your hand. "We — we can give each other a chance, a chance to be happy, to —"

"But don't you get it?" Your face, contorted in bitterness, in anguish, in impatience — and your eyes, dark and flashing — I no longer recognised. "We . . . we are the same! We cannot be together."

"It doesn't matter —"

"It does," you said, very quietly. "To me." You bowed your head once more, uncurling your hand to reveal the ring resting on your palm. Right then I feared — I feared you would hurl my promise into the woods, and let it disappear there forever. I feared my place in your heart would slip into oblivion, into that abyss of nothing where all our memories would tumble into, forsaken and forgotten. I feared I would no longer see your smile, no longer hear your voice, no longer feel the warmth of your skin so right against mine.

In that fear I gripped you tight by your shoulders, refusing to let you go, to tear my eyes off you. I wanted to make you turn around, by my mere proximity, and let you realise that we were indeed possible.

"Please," I whispered.

I waited for you to shake your head in denial, for you to reject me totally, for you to proclaim your hate for me — but all you did was close your hand around itself, in a false conclusion. "I have to think about it," you finally said.

And you pushed yourself away from me, turning and walking off from the entrance, then breaking into a run, further and further from the fairgrounds — where we used to laugh together, where we first met, where I first fell in love with you.

Where everything never again would be.

– – –

He closed his eyes and listened, to the blades of grass whispering among themselves; to the balloon behind him, stroking gently at his hair; to the vast wheel around him, and its tales of the past. His hand slipped into his back pocket, and retrieved a ring — the same one that he had placed inside a plastic capsule, that had made its way back to him again.

It had been less than a week since that confession before he found an envelope in his mailbox, with nothing but his name on the outside, and nothing but that same unwanted token of love on the inside. On closer inspection, however, he had discovered a faint line, written in pencil, on the inside of the envelope — one line that left him heartbroken, for months to come.

I cannot love you.

Soon after that the fairgrounds breathed its last, and for the whole of the next school year Miyake never once spoke to him again. The last time he saw Miyake was a couple of months ago, and he was walking out of his house, his arm around a pretty girl. And it wasn't the one from the tokens booth.

He did not blame Miyake for that; he did not want to. Perhaps he had chosen to profess his affection to him at the wrong time, and in the wrong place. Perhaps the ring had signified the commitment he dearly wanted in the relationship, and Miyake simply didn't want to change, to accommodate him and what he promised.

Still, he loved him.

He undid the string that was tied at one of his belt-loops, and the balloon swayed forward, glowing a surreal red as the silken moonlight seeped through it. The string went around the ring — once, twice, thrice, and then was knotted firmly once more. He closed his eyes, held the promise tight in his hands and kissed it softly, transferring what used to be a special memory into the ring itself, and everything else deep within.

Thank you. It was beautiful while it lasted.

And he let go. The balloon, in its newfound freedom, streamed its path up towards the heavens. He raised his head and gazed after it, as it grew smaller and smaller, flying further and further away from him, carrying the ring along with it — enclosing in it a love that had been, that almost never was, for what was given was never once returned. For now he would give that love, that memory, away to the sky of night, preserving everything between them — him, and his love of two summers past — together, in an eternal paradise garden.