A strand of black hair, gently salted with white, fell in front of Mrs. Aoki's dark grey eyes. She reached up and gently tucked it into the red bandana holding back the rest of her thick hair. Bending over, she picked up a large brown box. Mrs. Aoki let out a gasp of surprise as she almost tipped over, the box being much heavier than she had thought. To save herself, she let the box fall. It crashed to the ground, spilling the various knick-knacks and books that had been carelessly packed inside it. Mrs. Aoki frowned, her delicate brow crumpled in frustration. Why was she doing the heavy lifting, she wondered, when there was a healthy sixteen-year old boy in the house?
"Aguri, "she called, "why aren't you in here helping me?" She waited to hear her son's inevitably sarcastic response, but she got no reply. "Aguri," She tried again, this time more sternly, "you had better not be ignoring me!"
Mrs. Aoki walked out of the barren dining room and began to search the empty apartment for her son. The smell of fresh paint and new carpet surrounded her. Through an open window the sound of a child's laughing drifted, taking her back a decade, when those sounds came form her own children, playing in warmth of the noon sun. Wrapped in the warm memories of those happy days, she almost forgot herself, in time and place, adrift in the past.
Mrs. Aoki caught the sound of her daughter humming softly to herself. She came to the closed door of her daughters room, and began to open it, half expecting to see a precocious eight year-old looking up at her with wide grey eyes, a near mirror image of her own. Instead, a gorgeous blonde eighteen-year old, with a curvy figure, and an ample bust, looked up at her from the floor, with the eight-year old's dark grey eyes. A small shadow of regret passed over her, and then the past was left in its place.
"Have you seen your brother?" Mrs. Aoki asked.
"No", said the blonde girl, neatly organizing the stacks of books piled around her, "but, I heard the front door slam a while ago."
Mrs. Aoki threw up her hands in frustration; once again Aguri had wandered of right when she needed him. She just didn't know what to do with that boy anymore! "How long ago was that?" she asked.
The pretty blonde lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Umm, about fifteen minutes or so?"
Mrs. Aoki sighed, "Aiko, could you please go and find Aguri for me? I really wanted us to be unpacked by tonight, and if we aren't,then I will be stuck with all the work while the two of you are off at school…"
Aiko already had put her jacket on, and was headed for the front door. She turned and gave her mother a good natured smile. "I'll find him, I'm sure he's just reacquainting himself with the town." Aiko was trying her best to be reassuring; she knew that lately Aguri had become a concern to her Mother. Brat, she thought to herself, like things hadn't been hard enough; Aguri had to make a nuisance of him.
Aguri let the rays of sun fall on his face. The hair on his head, dyed a deep shiny black, just barley showing pale blonde roots, fell warmly on his face and neck. Under his feet, the swing he was standing on swayed gently in the late afternoon breeze. He gripped his fingers tighter around the swing's chain and focused his deep blue eyes on his exaggerated shadow.
Lifting his head, Aguri once again looked out at the park, bathed in golden light and shadow. The grass was as green and lush as it had been in his memories. The swings were more worn now, the once bright red paint was faded to a pale coral shade, the chains in his hand were rusty, and the blue plastic seats were cracked with age. Aguri looked across the grass in front of him to the playground seven feet or so away from the swing. From this distance it looked exactly as it had five years ago, when he had last seen it.
It took him a moment to realize that someone was standing at the top of the slide. Aguri focused his eyes on the solitary figure clothed in white. It was a boy, he realized, his own age, maybe, if he was small for his age. The longer Aguri looked, the clearer he could see the boy. His hair was jet black, and hung scraggily around his pleasant face. He was gripping the railing above the slide, and looking straight back at Aguri, his mouth slightly turned down at the corners.
Their eyes met, and Aguri was taken aback. The satiny black depths of the boy's gaze met the rich blue of Aguri's. It wasn't the color of the eyes that surprised him. Aguri was taken aback by the look in the eyes. For some reason, he felt like he was looking into a mirror, even though the eye color was wrong, the eyes looking back at him were just like his own. They shared the same sense of sorrow, and of being lost in a world too big for either one. The boys held one another's gaze. Aguri's mind was still, what strange a sensation, to see your exact emotions reflected in another's eyes.
"Aaaaaaauguuuuuuriiiiiiiiii? Aguri! I know you can hear me! "
Aguri turned his head in surprise, startled out of the strange experience that had captured his full attention. Behind him, the tall, blonde haired figure of his sister was heading his way. Aguri quickly turned his head back to the playground, but, to his dismay, the boy in white was gone, and in the distance, a white smudge could be seen, retreating against the quickly darkening sky.
Aiko was standing behind her brother now, her arms crossed, curling a strand of golden hair around her finger in annoyance. "I'm really getting sick of playing 'fetch Aguri'. Next time you decide to wander off, make sure I'm not home. You know, Mom is starting to get really upset, and…" Aiko trailed off, throwing up her hands in the same manner as her Mother. "You're not even listening, are you?"
Aguri turned around and looked down at his sister, looking wide eyed and innocent. Aiko's demeanor immediately softened, and she let her hands drop to her side, as in surrender to her affection for her younger brother. She reached up and gently tugged on Aguri's sleeve to get him to come down off the swing. Aiko sighed deeply and, dragging her brother by the sleeve, turned towards home.
Aguri resisted his sisters insistent tugging, looking towards the distant horizon, where the boy in white had disappeared into the red glow of the setting sun. "Aiko?" he said in a soft voice, "did you see a boy just now, when you walked up?"
"A boy?" said Aiko her hands on her hips, "You mean a mopey little idiot with a bad dye job?"
Aguri stood away from his sister, and looked at her gravely, his blue eyes still shining strangely. "I'm serious, he was standing at the top of the slide," he said, pointing, "He was dressed in white."
Aiko was startled by her brother's serious tone and expression. There was earnestness in his eyes. His mouth was drawn in a tight line. She shook her head, "no, I didn't see anyone but you. What's going on Aguri?"
Aguri shrugged and began to walk away, towards home. "Never mind", he said lightly, "common, I bet moms freaking out about unpacking."
Aiko stared after him for a moment, sensing something hanging in the air around him. Then, after jogging to catch up with him, she threw her arm around his skinny shoulder.
"Class, please take your seats. Now lets all give a big welcome to our new student." said Mr. Hara
Aguri bowed, "Nice to meet you", he said softly.
"Holy crap! It's Aguri!" A tall, attractive boy with an expressive face, and hair to his shoulders pulled back loosely into a ponytail, was standing and pointing at Aguri, his jaw slightly agape.
"Aguri? Shit! It is Aguri!" said another boy who was sitting right behind the first. This one had shaggy reddish hair, a long handsome face, and an athletic body.
"Mr. Maeda! Mr. Higa! Please take your seats immediately!" said Mr. Hara in a dangerous tone.
Aguri avoided looking directly at the two interrupting students. Meanwhile, the rest of the class watched eagerly with barely contained amusement. The boys both sat down, the first looking at Aguri strangely.
"Okay", said Mr. Hara,"if Mr. Maeda and Mr. Higa are quite done, then we can finish with our introduction. Are there any questions for Mr. Aoki?"
"I have one." said the first boy, "What the hell happened to your hair?"
Aguri frowned, but didn't look in his direction.
"Common Aguri, what's wrong? Can't even look your best friend in the eye? What did they do to you over in America? Turned you into a cold, whiny little…"
The second boy was shaking him by the shoulder, "knock it off Satsu!"
"Leave me alone Tokuma, he can handle it. Can't you Aguri?"
"One more word Mr. Maeda and I will see to it that you have detention for the rest of the school year!"
Satsuya crossed his arms and glared at Aguri, but said no more. The classroom grew eerily quite and uncomfortable. Aguri did not look at anyone but stared out of the window instead, his face expressionless.
"Mr. Aoki, please take a seat." , said Mr. Hara.
The only open chair happened to be next to Tokuma. Aguri walked slowly to his seat, his eyes still on the window behind Tokuma's head. Satsuya glowered sullenly at him as he sat down, pretending not to notice. Meanwhile, Tokuma looked from one to the other, and back again, dismay easily readable on his honest face.
The lunch bell finally rang, sharp and clear across the class room. The students instantly broke into loud chatter as they filed eagerly out. Aguri, who had not looked up from his note book since class had begun, slowly put his things into his book bag.
Suddenly, someone grabbed his arm and turned him around so that he found himself looking in surprise into Satsuya's eyes. "You and I need to have a talk", he said brusquely. His deep brown eyes were smoldering, his grip on Aguri's arm was firm. Suddenly, all the years between them fell away, and again things were as they had been.
As usual, Satsuya and Aguri were locked in an argument, both of the head strong boys hopelessly bickering. Satsuya dragged Aguri by the arm down the hallway, while Tokuma tagged along behind sighing. The same scene had played out many times before, Aguri being dragged by Satsuya as the two argued, with Tokuma hopelessly following in their wake.
Satsuya dragged Aguri all the way outside and to the far end of the grassy schoolyard. Aguri allowed himself to be pulled along, still in shock over the familiarity of the scene that was playing itself out. Tokuma jogged alongside the two boys, shaking his head and chewing his lip anxiously.
Satsuya pushed Aguri down, forcing him to sit under a large oak tree. Satsuya then began to pace in front of him, back and forth, pausing every once in a while and opening his mouth as if to speak and shutting it again like a trout caught out of water. Aguri and Tokuma's eyes followed his stride from left to right and back again.
Finally, Satsuya stopped and turned to Aguri, his fists clenched. He closed his eyes for a moment, as if to draw his thoughts together. "Aguri, why is it, that after we've waited five years for you to come back you can't even look us in the eye?" Satsuya crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes in a way that only Satsuya could, a look that could make the biggest ego feel small. "Suddenly it's like you're a completely different person. You're cold and distant, and I have no idea what you've done to your hair." Satsuya dropped his arms, the words he meant to say all leaving him; he had always been bad at expressing himself. He dropped his eyes as his frustration left him, and looking defeated he said "I've really missed you, you know."
Aguri was flooded with regret. He looked from the defeated face of Satsuya, his brown eyes lowered to the ground, to the sorrow written on the honest face of Tokuma sitting on the ground beside him, his arms wrapped around his knees. He had forgotten his friend's feelings; he had been so stuck in his own self pity for so long. When he had walked into that classroom and seen them sitting there, he had decided that it would be better to push them away from him. He wouldn't give them a chance to get close to him again. Then, when Satsuya had begun to drag him by his arm, it had ceased to matter. They didn't need to get close to him, because they already were his best friends, nothing had changed. Only his own selfishness had tried to convince him other wise.
Aguri stood slowly and came close to Satsuya. They were almost the same height when they stood this close together. Aguri put one hand on each of Satsuya's shoulders. Satsuya raised his face and looked into Aguri's steady blue gaze.
"Satsu" said Aguri firmly, "I am sorry, please understand that I didn't mean to hurt you."
Aguri turned to face Tokuma, "Either of you. I just…" Aguri trailed off, shaking his head, biting back the bitter words he almost spoke.
Tokuma stood and clenched one fist dramatically. "I forgive you Aguri!" he said forcefully.
Aguri smiled at sincere friend, "thanks Tokuma." He turned back to Satsuya who was looking at him strangely again, and for a moment Aguri was sure that Satsuya would give him back his own coldness.
Satsuya proceeded to put Aguri in a head lock, messing up his hair with the other hand. "Hey!" said Aguri, "what the hell?" Aguri broke away and punched Satsuya in the arm.
Satsuya rubbed the spot where Aguri punched him, "Jeez Aguri, there's no need to resort to violence."
"Wait a minute, you started it!" said Aguri coming close to Satsuya's face.
"Why don't you come a little closer and say that?"
"And what if I do? You over grown…"
Tokuma watched the two argue back and forth under the canopy of the great oak. He sat in the shade and smiled contentedly.
When the last bell rang at the end of that day Aiko was waiting for Aguri outside his classroom. An attractive girl with short brown hair was hanging on her arm and whispering something in her ear that was making Aiko turn red. Aguri sighed deeply. Aiko and her women! It was only the first day for Christ's sake!
Satsuya and Tokuma, who were close behind him, gave gasps of joy. "Aiko!" they yelled in unison, pushing past Aguri to get to her.
"My sweet Aiko" said Satsuya, taking her hand and kissing, "how I've missed you."
Tokuma shoved Satsuya out of the way and clasped Aiko's hand between his own, "Dearest Aiko, at last you've returned to your one true love!"
The brunette let go of Aiko's arm and turned on her heel in a huff. "Hisano? Where are you going?" Aiko asked the girl.
The brunette turned around and said in haughty voice, "If you decide to stop messing around, Aiko, let me know." With that she stormed off down the hallway.
Meanwhile, Satsuya and Tokuma had each taken one of Aiko's arms in their own. "You don't need her, precious Aiko, your man is here now." said Tokuma, stroking her arm.
Aguri backed away a few steps from the scene, seeing the dangerous look on his sister's eyes. Aiko grabbed both Tokuma and Satsuya by their earlobes and dragged them in front of her. "Satsuya Maeda! Tokuma Higa! What do you think you are doing?"
"P…Please have mercy Aiko", begged Satsuya.
We're s…sorry Aiko", said Tokuma clasping his hands together.
"Common Aiko", said Aguri, tugging on her sleeve, "give them a break just this once."
Aiko sighed and let them go, "Oh well, she was kind of a bore anyway." She put an hand on each of their shoulders and held them out at arms length. "My, my you two have grown." She leaned down conspiratorially and said, "Satsu-kun. Toku-chan. To think that I used have help you into your pjs when I baby sat."
The two boys turned red, remembering all the dirt from childhood that this girl had on them. Satsuya grabbed Tokuma's arm, "Well, we'll be going now. It was nice to see again Aiko. Are you coming Aguri?"
Aguri looked back and forth between his friends and his sister, mouth agape, but Satsuya gave him no choice and grabbed his arm with his free hand. Aguri gave Aiko a shrug as he was pulled down the hallway.
Satsuya finally dropped the boy's arms when they were safely out of view of Aiko. The hall was empty now; the rusty metal lockers were abandoned, standing silent in their orderly rows.
Tokuma and Satsuya began heading for the door leading to the west exit of the school building.
"Did you see how happy Aiko was to see me?" said Tokuma
"Are you crazy? She couldn't keep her eyes off me!" exclaimed Satsuya
"Now who's talking crazy?" said Tokuma smugly
"I'll show you who's crazy…"
Aguri walked behind them, his hands folded behind his head. It was so odd how events and turned. If someone had asked him this morning where he would be at the end the school day, he never would have said walking behind Tokuma and Satsuya. He shook his head; it almost felt like he had never left. Maybe if they hadn't left, maybe if they had stayed…
Out of the corner of his eye Aguri caught a flash of deep black set in a pale face looking out from the crack of an open classroom door. Aguri started in surprise, those same sad eyes that he had seen before were studying him intently. The boy stepped out from the doorway, facing Aguri, standing between him and the building's exit.
The boy was as small as Aguri had suspected, standing a head shorter than himself. He was as pale as well, his skin a milky white as though it had never seen sun. The dark black of his hair and eyes made a stark contrast to his skin, making the features stand out even in the dull fluorescent light of the hall. His face was round and small, the lips of his small mouth pressed tight together. He was thin and long limbed, delicately framed. His black eyes studied Aguri solemnly, that haunted look still there, it seemed a permanent fixture. Aguri kept his gaze steady on the strange pale figure, returning his sad steady stare with his own puzzled one.
"Aguri, are you coming or what? ", said Satsuya, coming up behind the boy. Aguri and the dark eyed boy jumped in unison. The boy turned and ran, pushing past Tokuma and Satsuya, dashing out the double doors behind them. Aguri blinked in startled confusion, out stretching a hand feebly as he watched the boy go.
Satsuya came behind Aguri and put his hands on his shoulders. "He's a weird one, that Senri Yamane."
Aguri spun around in surprise. "You know that boy?"
Satsuya nodded his head knowingly. "Senri Yamane, one year below us. Known to be a real weirdo, right Tokuma?"
Tokuma nodded, "That's right. You know why, of course, Satsu. "
"Yep. That's why." He crossed his arms, smiling smugly.
Aguri gave him a small shove, "Just tell me already!"
Satsuya shrugged, "He never says a word."
"That's right," agreed Tokuma, "completely silent, there's nothing physically wrong with him either, right Satsu?"
"That's right. Nobody knows the reason, he just never talks."
Aguri stared at the doorway through which the boy had disappeared. Completely silent? In his mind the boy's sad, dark gaze was still taking him in.