Remembering Monsters

Fluffy.  Japanese.  Schoolboys.  Damn, I hate myself.

Oh.  Er.  Um.  Bold, bad afrai.

Oh what the hell.

No longer quite so protected, then.  And now I’m really embarrassed.

If you can see this, please don’t hate me.  I was sitting around feeling sorry for myself when the phrase fluffy Japanese schoolboy Au floated into my head again and I was consumed with rage.  Then the cold medicine kicked in.  I think my last sane thought was something along the lines of “I’ll show you f*cking fluffy schoolboys”.

This is complete and utter shite, and contains such abominations as round-framed spectacles, a pretty (or at least girly) and thin protagonist, use of the –chan suffix and teenagers in what passes for love.

Shitë.  I admit it.  Please forgive me, and I’m sure I’ll be better soon.

Disclaimer:  What the hell do I know about the Japanese school system?

***

Hanabusa Akinari pushed his round-framed glasses further up his nose and frowned at the textbook.  He had to improve his grades if he wanted to get into the Tokyo School of Engineering, his teachers had been saying that for the last two years.  His parents would be so disappointed in him if he didn’t make it.  He wasn’t great at mathematics, and these days was finding it difficult to concentrate.  He always felt like he was being watched.  If he looked up, he knew he’d see Tanaka Chojiro staring at him.  The taller boy had a reputation for violence, and Akinari was uneasily coming to the conclusion that he was the next victim.  Chojiro appeared to be starting his campaign with demoralisation, but a beating was sure to follow one of these days.  Akinari nervously turned the page, his thin fingers running over the lines of the equations.  He wished one of the teachers would come into the library, or that Chojiro would tire of this and go find some other nerd to beat up on.  He checked his watch.  He’d have to leave now if he didn’t want to be late for his maths grind with his father’s friend Mr. Saito.  Quickly he shuffled his things together into his satchel and stood up.

“Leaving so soon?” a voice behind him drawled.

He froze, then headed for the door.

“Are you too good to speak to me?”  Chojiro asked.

Akinari looked back, saw in dismay that Chojiro had put down his comic book and was scowling in a threatening way.

“Er, no, no of course not.  I just have to go, it’s my maths grind this afternoon, you know how it is, if we don’t prepare day and night we won’t be ready for the entrance exams, and my parents’ hearts are set on me getting in, and -.”

“Ok, Ok, I didn’t ask for your life story,” Chojiro said in disgust.  “Run along, like a good little boy.”

He picked up his comic again, and Akinari fled in relief.

He was beaten up the next day.  He got himself home, wilting under the disapproving glares of other passengers on the train, who muttered about young hooligans and how he was driving his parents into an early grave.  By the time his parents came home he’d cleaned his uniform up, showered, and done his best to stick his glasses back together.  That hadn’t been very successful, and he told his mother he’d tripped and they’d fallen off.  She sighed and said he’d just have to wear his old pair until she had a chance to take them to the optician.  Great, he thought.  The old pair didn’t have the special thin lenses and made him look even dorkier.  He’d be even more irresistible a target.

For the next few days Chojiro smirked whenever their eyes met.  Akinari thought he should probably stop looking, but he couldn’t help himself.  He had to check each room for signs of Chojiro, and the swine always made a point of looking back and grinning.  What was worse was the knowledge that when Chojiro got tired of this, he’d be fair game for the other bullies in the school.  Chojiro always got first pick of victims, and then it was like open season.  He wondered if his parents could afford a private tutor.

By the end of the week, Chojiro appeared to have got bored, and was spending more time smiling suggestively at one of the quieter girls in the class.  Akinari had never seen anyone go quite so red.  Poor kid.  He wished he were brave enough to tell Chojiro to leave her alone, but the truth was he felt he was getting off lightly with just the one beating.  He tried telling her to ignore Chojiro one lunchtime, before the swine made his appearance, but she went bright red and ran away.

Shortly thereafter his weekend got off to a good start when a gang of the school’s less imaginative thugs jumped him.  He huddled on the ground; arms wrapped round his head.  Please don’t let these glasses be broken too, he thought as one of the boys kicked him.  There was a brief commotion, and the sound of running feet.  He was grabbed and hauled upright.

“I’m not done with you yet,” Chojiro said nastily.

Akinari thought he might cry.  Being rescued by Chojiro just because he wanted to beat him up some more was horrible.

“Why are you so mean?” he asked in a shaky, angry voice.

Chojiro had a quick look round, and then kneed him.

“Mean?  That’s not very nice seeing as I just saved your ass.”

Akinari wheezed and bent double.  Chojiro forced him up again.

“What the fuck is it about you?” he mused.  “I know you.”

“We . . . we’ve been in the same class for almost two years, you idiot,” Akinari said.  Let Chojiro beat him up properly and maybe he’d be left alone.

Chojiro slapped him.

“Nope, that’s not it,” he said casually, as if they were having a normal conversation.  “Maybe it’ll come to mind after I hit you again, what do you think?”

Akinari whimpered and cowered.  The expected blow didn’t come, and he opened his eyes to see Chojiro shaking his head in contempt.

“You’re pathetic,” Chojiro hissed.  “Just another nerd, wasting his life being a little goody-goody.  Run home to your books, you don’t want to flub the entrance exam.”

“If you spent a bit of time studying maybe you’d have a future too,” Akinari muttered when Chojiro was out of earshot.

To his horror, Chojiro turned and came back.

“What did you say?” he demanded.

“How on earth did you hear me?”  Akinari squeaked.

An odd look crossed Chojiro’s face.

“I don’t know.  All I know is you’re a fucking nerd and I think maybe I will hit you some more.”

He punched Akinari in the stomach and laughed to see him stagger.  Self-preservation suddenly deserted Akinari completely.  He astonished himself by sidestepping the next punch and landing a solid one on Chojiro’s jaw.

“You damned snake!” he yelled.

“You say that like it’s an insult,” Chojiro snapped.

Both of them stopped and stared at each other in confusion.  Akinari felt very, very strange.  Chojiro was looking puzzled.  He normally reacted to puzzles by breaking them, Akinari thought unhappily.  He was in for it now.  Chojiro didn’t move though, just looked at him intently, then shrugged and pulled a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket.  He offered one to Akinari.

“Go on, live dangerously,” he said.

Akinari took it nervously, accepted a light and took a drag.  He coughed and choked.  Yes, very enjoyable, no wonder it was so popular.  Chojiro sniggered and blew smoke in his face.

“You’ve never been cool in your life, have you?” he said.  “Sometimes I think you were middle aged right from creation.”

Akinari looked at him, eyes watering.  What an odd turn of phrase.  Chojiro seemed to think so too.

“I do know you,” Chojiro said.

He grabbed Akinari’s chin and peered into his face.

“Was your hair always this dark?”

“What other colour would it be?”  Akinari said.  “Did – did you ever wear novelty contact lenses?”

Chojiro narrowed his eyes in thought.

“I should be wearing sunglasses,” he said slowly.  “I always wear sunglasses.”

“I’ve never seen you wear them,” Akinari said.

Chojiro shrugged, and let go of him.

“I’ll see you in school,” he said, and walked off.

For once, it didn’t sound threatening.

* * *

The next week, Akinari was disconcerted to find he had company at lunch.  Chojiro plopped down beside him, and gave him a disarming grin.  Well, it might have been disarming if Akinari didn’t immediately fear for his life.  He quite lost his appetite, and glumly gave Chojiro the go-ahead to have his dessert.  It was worse in gym class, when he found he had a new gym partner.  Usually no one wanted to be his partner, and he got picked last for any team.  Most of the class grinned maliciously, and waited for the torments to begin.  They were pretty put out when nothing happened.  Over that week, Akinari found himself unable to concentrate on the simplest task, and lived in terror of reprimands from his teachers.

Even at the weekend he wasn’t free.  Walking back from the video store he found himself being followed.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“Hello,” Chojiro said in English.  “I want to practice my English.”

Akinari looked at him in desperation.

“Look.  You win.  I’m intimidated.  I’ll give you my pocket money, or you can beat me up, or whatever.  But please stop this – this whatever it is you’re doing.”

“No,” Chojiro said, and walked away.

At the start of the week, he was back by Akinari’s side.  Akinari felt himself being sucked away from the Nerd side of the Force, but couldn’t summon up the willpower to refuse an invitation to go have a smoke.  Chojiro might take him up on the offer of a beating, and he’d changed his mind about the desirability of that.  The other school bullies looked askance at them together, but said nothing.

“They won’t touch you now,” Chojiro said.  “I’ll break their fucking necks if they do.”

“What is it you want?”  Akinari asked miserably.  “Do you want me to do your homework?”

“Nah,” Chojiro said.  “Haven’t really decided, to tell the truth.  What sort of novelty contact lenses?”

“Snake eyes,” Akinari said automatically.

“You’re a weirdo,” Chojiro said calmly, offering him another cigarette.

* * *

Akinari’s grades began to pick up again.  For whatever reason, he was not being picked on, and was being kept safe from harassment by others.  And the entire price he had to pay was a smoke now and then.  It wasn’t a good habit, but he reasoned that it wasn’t every day, and as long as it didn’t distract him from his studies what was the harm?  Chojiro had a dry sense of humour, and could be surprisingly good company.  And, Akinari told himself, whatever Chojiro was up to, it had at least taken his mind off tormenting that poor girl.

After a few more weeks, he began to think of Chojiro as a sort-of-friend.  The sort of friend who reminded him of a dangerous animal, but which seemed to have adopted him.  Chojiro insulted him all the time, but now it was less of an intimidation tactic than the sorts of insults he saw other boys exchange with their friends.  He hadn’t yet had the nerve to be too rude back.  Still, it was new and nice to have someone ring him at home, or tell him how he was going to spend his leisure time and his pocket money.  He thought he might be getting addicted to comic books.  And maybe to cigarettes, which was more worrying.  He was doing his best not to smoke at home, but it was getting more difficult.

His parents had begun commenting that he seemed to have more confidence.  They had also begun commenting that his hair was getting a bit long, but he didn’t want to get it cut.  It was a harmless enough bit of teenage rebellion, he thought.  Besides, as Chojiro said, why look like a salaryman until you had to?  He absolutely wasn’t bleaching his hair, though, no matter what Chojiro said.  His dad would have a coronary if he did.  The phone was handed over with statements about it being “that Tanaka boy again”.  They liked to know who his friends were, and began to drop hints that maybe his friend should come over to eat.  Akinari thought of Chojiro in the same room as his parents and made excuses.  When he ran out of excuses he reluctantly invited Chojiro to dinner and listed several reams of instructions about polite behaviour.  Chojiro snorted with laughter and asked if he was really that much of a barbarian.  Akinari’s attempts to find an answer made him laugh more.  To his relief, Chojiro was on his best behaviour and was judged a very polite, respectful boy who was welcome in their house.

* * *

It was when they started hanging round almost full time that things began to get a bit bizarre.  He’d look up from the Playstation to see Chojiro watching him, that puzzled expression on his face.  Or he’d catch a glimpse of Chojiro out of the corner of his eye and think he looked wrong somehow.  The more time they spent together the worse it got.  He had to be careful what he said too, because if he didn’t think before he spoke he said things that made Chojiro go still and focused, like he was trying very hard to remember something important.  One day Chojiro turned up to school wearing sunglasses, and as he took them off Akinari was overcome with panic.  He sat there shaking through the first lesson and smoked half of Chojiro’s cigarettes during break before he was properly calm again.  Chojiro was making appearances in his dreams too, although he couldn’t recall much when he woke up.

After a month of him being jumpy around Chojiro, he gave Akinari a real scare.  He was busily beating him hands down on the Playstation at the time.

“You’re gay, aren’t you?” he asked casually, like he was asking the time.

Akinari’s racecar crashed spectacularly.

“I am not,” he said.

“Touchy, aren’t we?  I don’t care.  I’m not going to beat you up or anything.”

“I’m not gay.”

“You’re the gayest gay boy in all of Gaytonia, and you look kind of girly,” Chojiro said with an evil grin.

Akinari sniffed.  Chojiro was just trying to get on his case.  Well, it wasn’t going to work.  He crossed his arms and peered sternly over the top of his glasses.

“You’re very juvenile,” he said in the tone his mother had used when she found he’d eaten all the strawberries out of the breakfast cereal.

Chojiro’s grin got more evil.  Akinari felt like he was about to be run down.

“I am not – that way inclined,” he said.

Chojiro hooted with malicious laughter.

“That way inclined?  Could you be any more gay?  Ok, Ok, regale me with stories of your pursuit of girls, then.”

Akinari sighed theatrically, and wished he hadn’t.

“I have to study.  I don’t have time to chase girls.”

“You have time to hang out with me.  Do you even like any girls?  And Western divas don’t count.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Chojiro grinned and started the Playstation up again.  He won another race before opening his mouth.

“I think you like me.”

“Right now I hate you.”

“Oh, am I getting under your skin?”  Chojiro said in a mock-solicitous tone.  “Relax, I believe you.  You don’t have to be so incredibly defensive like you’ve some big secret you’re desperately trying to hide.”

Akinari refused to rise to the bait, and won the next race by dint of shoving Chojiro’s arm without warning.  That at least got Chojiro’s mind off the topic, and the rest of the afternoon was spent arguing about how it was pathetic to have to cheat at your own game that you’d had for months and should have mastered by now.  That night he dreamed of some incredibly important thing Chojiro was saying to him that he couldn’t quite hear.  Chojiro got more and more frantic as he tried to explain, but loud music or something kept cutting him off, and Akinari woke up with the vague idea he’d been dreaming about them being on a transport spaceship going to the end of the galaxy.

He tried not to watch Chojiro at school that week, but it was far worse than watching him.  He always knew when Chojiro entered the room, could feel him at the desk in the back row.  He made himself pay attention to girls and gave little bags of sweets to the ones in his history class.  They giggled and ran away.  Well, at least he’d made the gesture.  He didn’t avoid Chojiro, that would only show he was rattled.  And anyway, he was still too terrified to buy his own cigarettes and he was dying for a smoke.  Chojiro just grinned at him and talked about school and TV and sports.  Akinari began to breathe easy again.  He didn’t want to think about — that.  Not even if it would explain why he kept thinking about Chojiro and dreaming about him, and knowing exactly where he was in the room at all times.  School was bad enough as it was.

* * *

To prove to himself he wasn’t a coward, Akinari went to Chojiro’s home eventually.  He didn’t know what he’d been expecting really.  School gossip went on about Chojiro coming from a broken home and having all sorts of dubious influence in his life.  Akinari was mildly disappointed to find a perfectly normal suburban apartment.  He wandered round, looking at photos of Chojiro and his mother.  He was smiling like a lunatic in the older ones, and scowling fiercely in most of the more recent ones.

“What happened to you, you looked like such a nice little boy?”  Akinari said cheekily.

Chojiro raised an eyebrow, and passed over a can of Coke.

“Puberty, I guess.  Mum won’t be in for ages, she always works late.  Want to have a real drink?”

Akinari nodded.  It’s not like it’s every day, he told himself.  Chojiro poured a good dollop of whisky into a glass for each of them, and used his Coke as a mixer.  Akinari did likewise and grimaced at the taste.  Another acquired taste, yippee.  Chojiro laughed at him and told him to slow down, it wasn’t a good idea to drink so fast.  Akinari rather agreed and after a while decided all he was good for was watching kid’s cartoons.  They seemed a lot funnier than usual.  Before he left Chojiro made him drink a lot of coffee and gave him a packet of mints with strict instructions to eat at least half of them before speaking to his parents.

“I don’t want them thinking I’m a bad influence on you,” he said.

Akinari contented himself with giggling madly and hiding in his room when he got home, claiming to have a lot of homework.  He wondered what it would be like to have more than one drink.  Well, Chojiro would be bound to suggest it sooner or later.

* * *

“I wish I had a car,” Chojiro said idly, beating Akinari into the ground at yet another of the racing games.

“A big, black one?”  Akinari asked.

Chojiro gave him that look again.  Damn.

“Yeah,” he said slowly, “A big, black one.  That I could drive at 150kph to school.”

“You wouldn’t be driving like that in Tokyo,” Akinari said.  “You’d be crawling along with the rest of the drivers.”

“I’d drive that fast if I wanted.  I guess you’d be too scared to get a lift.”

“I wouldn’t, fast driving doesn’t scare me,” Akinari said, his pride stung.

“Yeah right, you’re always scared, you scream like a little girl and I’ve never hit anything,” Chojiro muttered.

There was an awkward moment.  Neither of them made eye contact.  Akinari felt unpleasantly weird, like he always did at these times.

“I dreamed I was driving through a Western city,” Chojiro said suddenly.

“Yeah, how’d you know it wasn’t Tokyo?”

“I guess it must have been the fact that the street signs were in English and the place was packed with gaijin,” Chojiro said.  “Are you going to shut up now?”

Akinari shut up.

“A really nice car – leather seats, walnut dashboard.  I felt – really happy.”

Chojiro didn’t look so happy now, Akinari thought.  He looked rather pale and nervous.

“And you were whimpering in the passenger seat and begging me not to kill anyone.  That was a bit of a laugh.”

“You’re mean even when you’re sleeping?  Now there’s an achievement to be proud of.”

“Will you shut up?  The dream’s not so important by itself.”

Akinari felt a twinge of panic.  It would be bad to talk about this, very bad, he could feel it.

“Yeah, well, it was just a dream.  Let’s go and get a snack, Ok?” he said quickly.

Chojiro leaned forward and grabbed his arms.

“Shut up, all right?  I dream about you all the time.  How fucking lame is that?”

He looked angry and scared and nauseous, Akinari saw.  He felt that way himself.

“Just a dream, Chojiro,” he said.  “I dream about you sometimes, too.  I mean I had this stupid dream about you and me and some idiotic bird we were transporting to the end of the universe.”

A wave of nausea rolled over him.  He hadn’t remembered about the bird till now.  It was important, but he didn’t know why.  A sharp image of Chojiro’s frantic face flashed into his mind.  He closed his eyes as his head thumped in pain.  Not Chojiro, some guy he must have seen on the TV.  He felt himself being shaken.

“Akinari.  Hey, Akinari, are you going to puke?”

“No,” he said finally.  “Too much sugar, that’s all.  Maybe we should move on to the chips.”

Chojiro was going to keep talking, he saw.  The nausea began to build up again.

“Listen,” Chojiro said, pale and shaking worse than before.  “The way I see it, I’m going mad, and you’re not helping.  That’s option A, and I’m not real keen on it.  Option B’s not so great either, but I think I prefer it.”

Before Akinari could react he pulled him close and kissed him.  Akinari’s eyes widened in shock.  Chojiro couldn’t possibly mean – he felt the nausea and headache recede.  Chojiro wasn’t looking sick either, although he still looked scared.  He held Akinari still and kissed him again, then sat back.

“Ok.  You can hit me now.  Or throw me out.  Whatever.”

Akinari felt nothing except deep relief that he wasn’t about to throw up and didn’t feel so inchoately panicked any more.  Now he felt panicked for a quite specific reason.  He’d never seen Chojiro look so worried, he thought.

“I’m not going to hit you,” he said carefully.  He felt all right.  “And, um, this would go a long way towards explaining – stuff.”

“What, like telepathy brought on by teenage hormones?”  Chojiro said, beginning to smile.

“You watch too many cartoons,” Akinari said.  “And what do you mean, Option B’s not so great?”

“You’re just such a nerd,” Chojiro said, pulling him forward again.

Akinari held on, and kissed him back.  It was very strange, and suddenly not strange at all.  He was making an old, old friend happy, he thought.  The bad weirdness came back, and then went away as he concentrated on just kissing Chojiro.  That felt much safer than thinking or talking about – stuff.  Maybe not all that safe, he thought fuzzily.  His parents would kill him.  He wrestled an arm free and looked at his watch.

“Chojiro!  My mother’ll be calling us for dinner any second now.  Stop it!”

“She hasn’t called us yet,” Chojiro said indistinctly.

Akinari pushed him off and laughed at his face.

“Don’t be naughty.”

“You are so gay,” Chojiro grinned.  “You don’t seem too pissed off, I have to say.”

Akinari shrugged.  It should have been weird, but it seemed positively commonplace besides the weirdness they sometimes felt.  He felt oddly safe, as if Chojiro wasn’t the scariest of the school bullies.  Chojiro pounced on him again, just as he heard his mother calling them.

“Chojiro, Chojiro,” he giggled.  “We can’t do this sort of thing now, we have to have dinner.”

Chojiro looked at him from a distance of about 5cm.

“Ok.  Come to my place for the weekend.  Ask your parents now.”

“Yeah, ‘cos your mother will be so approving.”

“My mother,” Chojiro said slowly, “has gone away on business.  She won’t be back all weekend.  You probably shouldn’t tell your parents that.”

Akinari clambered up off the floor, not looking at him.  Oh dear.  Chojiro always had been an impulsive fellow.  He felt a bit weird when he thought that, but not ill.  So.  Chojiro seemed to like him, and he seemed to like Chojiro back.  Ok, he could go with that.

“You’ve been planning this,” he said.

“Yeah.  I tried to say it before now but chickened out.  Will you come?”

Akinari went red, and told himself not to panic.

“Ok,” he said.

He felt panicked again after dinner, sitting on the train with his bag at his feet.  Every stop they passed he thought, I’ll get out at the next one.  Chojiro sprawled beside him, one hand stroking the back of his neck, daring the other passengers to make a comment.  Then there were no more stops he could pretend that he’d get out at, and Chojiro led him off to the apartment.

* * *

“Mr Hanabusa, if I could drag you away from your daydream for a moment, perhaps you could tell the class how you have translated sentence five?”

Akinari focused on his English teacher’s irritated face and got to his feet quickly.

“Er, The children sat down at the table in the kitchen and ate their supper without talking one to another?”

“Each other, Mr Hanabusa.  A little more thought about English grammar and a little less about girls, please.”

The other students giggled as he blushed.  He could feel Chojiro smiling behind him.  No, not a good idea to think about Chojiro smiling, not if he didn’t want Miss Oneida to get really sarcastic.  He was going to go completely crazy if the break didn’t come soon.  Finally the bell rang and the students poured out into the schoolyard.  Chojiro headed round the back of the building and produced the cigarettes.  Akinari took a deep, consoling drag on his and tried to stop grinning like a fool.

“You’ve been acting like a spazz all morning,” Chojiro said.  “You’re not exactly what I’d call subtle.”

“That’s more your department, isn’t it?”  Akinari said, feeling a not-too-bad echo of weirdness.

“I thought you wanted to, er, remain in the wardrobe,” Chojiro said in English.

“I don’t care,” Akinari said, smiling ear to ear.

“Steady on, Hanabusa.  Let’s not take out announcements in the papers just yet.”

Akinari checked no one was within earshot, and lowered his voice.

“I don’t think I can go to gym.”

“Lazy, aren’t you?”

“No!  It’s – I can’t get changed in public, Ok?  If you follow me?”

Chojiro sniggered.

“Oh, yeah.  Sorry,” he said in a non-repentant tone.  “So skip class.  We can go home early.”

“I can’t just skip a class,” Akinari said.  “I’ll have to pretend to be ill or something.”

“We can go home early,” Chojiro said again, “which won’t be the case if the nurse rings your dad to come collect his poor sick baby.  If you follow me?”

“Well, it is only gym,” Akinari said happily.

* * *

Three weeks later he still found it impossible to think about Chojiro without a stupid smile plastering itself over his face.  He was very strict about going to his maths grinds and piano lessons, and doing his homework every day.  He just did his homework over at Chojiro’s whenever possible.  He couldn’t afford having his grades slip and maybe having his parents decide he should stay in on weekdays.  He wished he could get Chojiro to do a bit more homework too.

“Don’t you want to go to university?” he asked, trying to ignore the fact that Chojiro was tugging his hair.

“Dunno.  I know where I do want to go right now, though.”

“I have to finish this chapter.  Aren’t you worried about the maths test?”

“Nope.  Why bother studying?  I always ace those things anyway.”

Akinari scowled.  That just wasn’t fair.  He had to work himself to the bone for every test.

“I have to study hard for them.  I’m jealous,” he said.

Chojiro laughed.

“Oh come on.  They’re tests for school kids, why should they pose a problem for us?”

“We’re school kids,” Akinari said carefully.  No more weirdness, he thought.  We’ve sorted out what that was.  Time to change the subject.

“What does your dad do?” he asked.

“He’s an architect.  I think,” Chojiro said, after a long silence.  “I haven’t seen him since I was a kid.”

“I’m sorry,” Akinari said.

“Yeah, well.  I don’t want to see him so don’t worry.  The swine threw his own wife and kid out.  I’m not exactly full of filial piety.  Anyway, why do you want to go to university?”

“My parents want me to.  I want to as well, so you needn’t look at me like that.  I want to be an engineer.  I think I’d be good at designing things.  Although all this study is wearing me out.  Maybe I should chuck it in and be a courier – d’you think I’d be good at that?”

Chojiro smiled at him.

“So your dream jobs are in designing stuff or being a glorified messenger boy?  You’re getting worse.  Put that book down, you can get back to it later.”

Mrs Tanaka came home a little earlier that evening, but by then they were both sitting at the table doing geography.  She hunted round for the TV remote.

“Did you see the news, boys?  They’ve caught that monster, the one who killed those children.  I’m so glad.”

She turned on the TV, but couldn’t find a news bulletin with the information.

“He hadn’t stopped at all.  He just moved outside the city, round about the time we moved to this apartment, Chojiro,” she said.

“My parents wouldn’t let me go anywhere by myself for months,” Akinari said.  “I got home half an hour late once, and my mum had already gone down to report me missing.  I had to go down to the station to apologise to the police officers.”

“Ah!  Shh!  Here it is,” she said.

They watched the images of the pleasant country house, police barricades all around it.  Bodies had been found buried in the yard, all fitting the usual profile, the newsreader surmised, but of course nothing definite could be said until the proper procedures had been carried out.

“Humans are evil shits,” Chojiro said angrily.

“Chojiro!  Language!”

He kept silent, but Akinari felt he had to agree.  He rang his parents after the news finished and told them exactly what time he’d be home so they wouldn’t worry.  The horrid things people did to each other, he thought.  And they had the cheek to turn round and blame Heaven and Hell for their excesses.  As if he or Chojiro would ever – he staggered as bright lights flashed behind his eyes.  Mrs Tanaka caught him and lowered him onto a chair.

“I think I have a migraine,” he said weakly.

“Chojiro, ring Mrs Hanabusa and tell her Akinari isn’t well.  I’ll take him home in a taxi when he feels a little better.”

Akinari wanted to protest, but felt he’d vomit if he said a single word.  Mrs Tanaka put him lying down on Chojiro’s bed, and left him in the dark.  Eventually Chojiro came in.

“So here we are again,” he said in a poor attempt at humour.  “Your dad’s coming to get you.  What set that off?”

“Don’t know,” Akinari whispered.  “I was just thinking, I didn’t mean anything bad by it,” he whimpered.

Chojiro was silent.  He was very glad he wasn’t being asked to explain.  A cool hand was placed on his forehead.

“Shh.  Don’t think, then.  Go to sleep, I’ll wake you when your dad gets here.”

* * *

Akinari’s parents kept him out of school for a couple of days, and he had to work hard to catch up.  It was the next Sunday before he could see Chojiro again.  They strolled in a park, slowly and easily as per Akinari’s mother’s instructions.

“I’m all right now,” Akinari grumbled.  “Really, I don’t see why she has to fuss so much.”

“You seem to be feeling more like your old self,” Chojiro said.

“I’m fine.”

They sat on a bench, watching the people go by.  Chojiro was quiet for a long time.

“Do you believe in reincarnation?” he asked suddenly.

“I guess so,” Akinari said.

“You guess so.  Some Buddhist you are.  Do you believe in karma?”

“After my result on the last history test?  Damn right I do.”

“I’m going to buy a car the moment we leave school.  What do you think I should get?  What do you see me driving?”

“A 1926 Bentley,” Akinari said before he could think of caution.

Chojiro gave him a serious look.

“Do you still dream about me?”

“Yes,” Akinari said uneasily.  “But, you know, now it’s mostly about, erm – .”

Chojiro grabbed his shoulders, swivelled him round so all he could see was grass and trees and pigeons, and the buildings beyond the park.

“Ok.  Humour me.  First thing that pops into your mind.  What am I wearing?”

“A black suit,” Akinari said promptly.

“Fair enough.  How about me?  How much taller am I than you?  Am I dark or pale?”

“We’re the same height, and you’re very pale.  And thin.”

Akinari felt his heart begin to speed up, and shuddered.  Chojiro put an arm round him comfortingly.

“It’s Ok.  I’m here.  What colour are my eyes?”

What a stupid question, Akinari thought.  Chojiro had brown eyes, like everyone he knew.  The right answer was brown; he felt it as strongly as he’d ever felt anything.  He was absolutely 100% certain that brown was the right answer.

“Yellow,” he whispered.  It was like he had to fight himself to say it.  His head began to hurt.

“Yellow?”  Chojiro said in surprise.  “Really?  Not some sort of light hazel?”

“Yellow,” Akinari said through gritted teeth.  “Like . . . like that girl’s coat over there.”

“That’s pretty damn yellow,” Chojiro said.  “Are you doing all right?”

“No,” Akinari said, and vomited over the end of the bench.

Chojiro pulled a couple of cans of Coke from his backpack.  Akinari sipped at his and began to feel a bit better.  He thought about homework, about TV, about going back to Chojiro’s apartment some time next week.  The headache lifted and he no longer felt sick.  Chojiro took a deep breath and started talking.

“In my dreams we’re in London,” he said.  “And I’m driving the Bentley.  You’re older, your hair and eyes are lighter, and you’re nowhere near as skinny.  You wear old-fashioned clothes, I can never get you to move with the times.  I know I look different too, but all I can see are my hands, and you’re right, I’m pale.”

He picked up one of Akinari’s hands.  He was sweating and sick looking.

“And you’d rather die than bite your nails,” he said, and threw up into the bin beside the bench.

He sat back, sweating.

“Fucking dreams.  This is weirding me out.  What’s happening?”

“I don’t know,” Akinari said.  “But it goes away if you think about other stuff.”

“Ok.  We could go back to your house and put on some of your Barbra albums.”

“Swine.  I told you I don’t listen to her.”

“I’ll get you some for your birthday.  Maybe some Judy Garland too.”

“You are such an evil swine.”

They laughed, rather weakly.  Chojiro didn’t look so sick any more.  He sat up straight and gave a shadow of his evil grin.

“Let’s try that again,” he said.

“Let’s not.”

“It hurts if I think about us having past lives,” Chojiro said.  “And if I think we’re paying for it now.  I think we did something wrong and we’re being punished.”

He swallowed convulsively, but didn’t throw up.

“Stop it,” Akinari said.  “Just stop it.  It’s not important.  Leave it be.”

Chojiro rinsed his mouth, spat the Coke onto the ground.

“Not important?  You’re kidding me, right?  Being around you makes me dream of things, and weird stuff floats to the top of my mind by itself, and don’t tell me you’re not the same.  I thought it was youthful libido telling me I fancied you.  But that was before the thought induced pain and vomiting kicked in.  Someone is messing us round in a major way.  I think the school is pushing subliminal messages on us.”

Akinari looked at him in deep hurt.

“Stop,” he said.  “That’s crazy.  It’s all just dreams based on the damn games and damn TV.  And we eat too much junk food.  That’s all.”

“Ok,” Chojiro said.  “You’re right.  Let’s go back to your place.”

They kept to safe topics for weeks.

* * *

They sat in Chojiro’s bedroom.  Akinari was looking open-mouthed at his maths exercise book.  Chojiro had just grabbed it and done his homework, line after line of neat numbers and letters, step after step leading to the inevitable conclusion.  It had taken him about three minutes.

“How did you do that?” he asked.

“Mathematics is the language of creation; look close enough and you will see the numbers dance,” Chojiro said airily.

“Huh?”

“Something I remember from ages ago.  Must have been the Maths teacher at my old school, the old fossil was probably around at Creation.”

He laughed, and threw the exercise book down on the bed.  They kissed.  Chojiro brushed the hair back out of Akinari’s face.

“You know that thing about the school and subliminal messages?” he said.

“Stop.  Just stop.”

“We need a way to get past them.  Which teachers do you think are involved?  It could be a government plot, or the teachers could have been replaced, what d’you think?”

“I think you’re an idiot.  Shut up about it.”

“I read this book once, about a guy who’d been brainwashed.  But his subconscious mind found a way to get past the conditioning, he – he – Akinari, that’s very distracting.”

Akinari pulled him down onto the bed and managed to distract him very successfully.  As his pulse slowed down again he squinted at Chojiro.

“Why are you holding a pen?”

“Dunno,” Chojiro said vaguely.  “Must have been lying on it.”

“Hey, you were doodling on my homework,” Akinari said, picking up the exercise book.

The equations were covered with lines of Western style writing.  Even without his glasses he could see it looked nothing like the way Chojiro wrote English.  He dropped it as if it were poisonous.

“Shit,” Chojiro said, picking it up.  “Shit.  It’s like that book.  He wrote himself messages with his off hand.  Shit.”

“Tear it up,” Akinari said in horror.  “Burn it.  This is too weird even for you.”

“Don’t be so stupid, don’t you want to know what the school’s up to?  Huh, doesn’t look like English, but I’ll give it a go.”

“Stop!  You’re wrong, it’s not the school!  If it was we’d be falling over right now!”  Akinari said, making a grab for the book.

But Chojiro had already started reading it out, and it was too late.

* * *

He opened his eyes to find Chojiro’s scared face looking down at him.

“Aki-chan, I thought you were dead,” Chojiro said, crying.

“No.  I’m all right,” he said, sitting up.  “Did I pass out?”

“You screamed a lot first.  Are you Ok now?  No headache?  No sick feeling?”

“I’m quite well, thank you.”

He ruffled Chojiro’s hair.

“Such a clever boy.  And you just can’t ever leave well enough alone, can you?”

Chojiro flung his arms round him in relief, and tried to kiss him.  He put a gentle hand up and stopped him.

“No, dear,” he said quietly.  “You can’t do that any more.”

Chojiro’s face fell and he sat back, looking miserable.

“What?  Don’t be silly, I didn’t mean to hurt you.  You know I didn’t mean it.  Please, don’t be angry with me.”

“I know,” he said.  “I’m not angry.  But I’m afraid it won’t do.  Come here, my dear.”

He put an arm round Chojiro and touched his face with feather-light fingertips.

“Poor child,” he said.  “I am sorry.”

He whispered in Chojiro’s ear, and then held him safely until the convulsions stopped.

While he was waiting for the body in his arms to start breathing again he tried the effect of looking round the room with and without the glasses.  He sighed, and left them on.

He also examined his close-bitten fingernails with extreme distaste.

The boy took a ragged breath and coughed hollowly.  He shoved himself roughly away and stood up.  His expression was older and harder.

“Bollocks,” he said.  “Isn’t this just wonderful?  So, are we possessing these two, or what?”

“Hello, Crowley.  It’s good to see you too.  I’m not sure.  Why on earth do you know a prayer for summoning angels?”

“Same reason you apparently know how to summon demons.  You never know when you might need it.”

Crowley snapped his fingers, and a pair of sunglasses appeared on his face.  He gestured, and was suddenly in his favourite form.

“I’m guessing we’re not possessing anyone,” he said, beginning to smile.  “So for fuck’s sake, Aziraphale, do something about yourself.  It’s not a look that suits you.”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” Aziraphale said testily, looking far more like himself, and taking off the glasses.  “I must just have got used to them.”

“That’s better.  You were far too girly before.”

They looked at each other for a long, silent moment.

“Not.  One.  Word,” Aziraphale said.

“No.  No, indeed,” Crowley agreed.

Aziraphale glanced at the calendar on the wall.

“It’s two years since . . .  Tadfield.  Did your people give you any warning of this?”

“Absolutely not.  Presumably neither did yours?  I have to say that as far as punishments go it’s not exactly the traditional lake of napalm.  I don’t think we were meant to meet,” Crowley said.  “But then my moth — the Tanaka woman got a chance at a bigger flat.  Every time I’ve looked at you for the last two years I’ve thought ‘I know him from somewhere.’  I recognised you, even though you didn’t look right.”

“Thank goodness for your eyesight, my dear.  What do you think they’re going to do to us now?”

Crowley shrugged.

“I think – Ok, I hope – this might just be a warning.  We’re not harmed; we haven’t lost our powers.  This is a slap on the wrist.  They were probably expecting it to last a human lifetime.  I think they’re afraid of the Ineffable Plan, and didn’t want to be too over the top when it came to our part therein.”

He sighed, and looked rather depressed.

“Of course, that’s just off the top of my head, and the lake of napalm could be the next item on the agenda.  We won’t know until we make ourselves available for duty.  On the plus side, I haven’t felt watched at all.  I think the headaches and so on were an automatic response they set up.  We were just left to our own devices.”

“Hmm.  If we’ve just been dropped in here, in our own bodies – where are the boys whose lives we’ve taken over?”

Crowley grimaced.

“Bet I know,” he said, gesturing at the TV.

It turned on and flicked rapidly through the channels until he found a news programme.  The newsreader finished the international news, and went back to the big story.  The majority of the serial killer’s victims had been identified, but some remains still had not been.  The police were hampered by not having missing persons reports on teenage boys for the right time frame.

“There you go,” Crowley said in revulsion.  “Mrs Tanaka said the sick fuck moved out of the city about the same time as she got this flat.  Chojiro Tanaka must have been one of his last city victims.”

“Akinari came home late, and his mother was frantic with worry,” Aziraphale said quietly.  “That’s one of the first things I can remember from here.  Bastards.”

“At least they caught him,” Crowley said.

“That’s not who I meant.  Don’t they realise that these people have feelings?”

“Shit.  They’re bastards all right.  Let’s go.”

“Wait.  Akinari’s parents, Chojiro’s mother.  They think their sons are alive.”

Crowley shook his head in annoyance.

“Well, that’s tragic, but what do you want to do about it?”

“No one actually knows differently.  The boys could just come back, no one would be the wiser.”

“Are you mad?”  Crowley said in as quiet a shriek as he could.  “You want to raise those kids from the dead?  Aren’t you supposed to think they’ve gone to a better place?  And how are we supposed to get their bodies anyway?”

Aziraphale gave him a cold look until he subsided.

“These people have cared for us for two years.  We are in their debt, far more than we are to either of our people.  No human will be aware of what has happened.  We can just get the bodies from the morgue, and construct simulacra to leave behind.  We are going to do this, Crowley,” he said, his voice beginning to shake with anger.  “Your people seem to have thought being a child was punishment enough for you, but mine — my people are petty and vindictive.  For two years I’ve had to read the simplest things over and over again to try and make them stick.  They made me mediocre at every single subject; they made me find books a chore.  They even made me bite my nails.  If I thought it was a better place I wouldn’t stay down here.”

Crowley wiped the grin off his face at the sight of Aziraphale’s expression.

“Ok.  We’re looking at getting in a lot more trouble, though.  You do know that, right?”

“Us?”  Aziraphale said viciously.  “We’re schoolchildren as far as they know, until we tell them otherwise, just like you said.  It’ll be a big mess, but someone else can clean it up for once.  I’d like to see how creative they get with the paperwork on this.”

He gave Crowley a very sweet smile.

“But frankly, I don’t really fucking care.”

* * *

Mrs Tanaka was very annoyed that night to come in and find a note from Chojiro telling her that he’d gone to the cinema with Akinari and he’d be really late in.  That boy was getting to be more and more of a handful.  It wasn’t that she didn’t want to believe him, but a parent couldn’t be too complacent these days, so she rang Mrs Hanabusa to check.  Oh yes, Mrs Hanabusa told her, Akinari had rung them with the same story and had hung up before they could say no.  They commiserated with each other on the difficulties of raising sons.  They agreed the boys should be grounded for a week.  She stayed up until Chojiro came in, scared and shamefaced at 1am.  She found she couldn’t stay angry at him when he threw himself into her arms and cried like he hadn’t seen her for an age, and was very moved when Mr Hanabusa rang her to say Akinari had also come in and was sorry to have caused them all such bother.  She could hear the boy weeping in the background.  Ah well, she said.  They’re young; they’ll grow out of it.

* * *

It was 5.30pm, and the evening traffic was at its heaviest when Crowley shot into Piccadilly Circus at 90mph.  He made sure nothing was in his way, of course, because he didn’t want the Bentley’s paintwork to be scratched, but he also made sure that every single person saw him.  A policeman fainted.  Crowley laughed and laughed and laughed.

* * *

In his flat above the shop, Aziraphale sighed with pleasure as he finished the last page.  He put the book carefully on the floor to the left side of the battered armchair, and drank the last drops of his cocoa.  Then he took the next book from the swaying to-be-read pile on the right side of the armchair and opened it reverentially.

* * *

Above and Below, bureaucrats cursed, and began creating hopefully impenetrable paper trails.

* * * * * * *