Halo
Chapter 2

    Rowen put down the letter and sighed heavily. The days had slipped by and, unbeknown the others, Rowen had secretly yearned in his heart for the blond’s presence. Months had passed, seasons came and went with Sage’s secret letters to Rowen and the others too, from time to time. They were always hand-written.

    They say you can tell a lot about people from the way they write. If so, then Rowen could tell Sage was determined, self-assured, quick-witted and cynical. Either that or his will to live had been dying, for his penmanship was becoming more and more haphazard.

    Rowen shook the envelope and a photograph fell out. He picked it up and gazed at it. There he was, in his kendo uniform. Off to the side a little with several people he didn’t recognize, but knew to be trainers of kendo and old masters. On the back was written:

    Rowen smiled and pressed the photo to his chest. No sense in being ungrateful; at least he could still see Sage’s face. Rowen looked at the photo again. Looked like he had gotten taller. He was letting his hair grow long, too. It was past his shoulders in the picture. He looked broader, less narrow and slender. All that kendo was paying off.

    Rowen stopped and pondered. Had it already been a year since he had last seen Sage? Of course. He left in July, and Rowen had three shoeboxes full of letters from him. Now July had passed once and it was September. Next month Rowen would be celebrating his twentieth birthday. Good God, what ever happened to time? It seemed so long ago and yet still it flew, the cruelest thing time could do for two separated people.

    There was a knock on the bedroom door and Rowen quickly shoved the letter and photo underneath his pillow. Kento poked his head inside the door.

    “Yo, dude. We’re gonna order pizza.”

    “Again?” Rowen moaned.

    “Yeah, again. You think four broke college kids go around sampling-” Kento twiddled his pinky finger comically. “-caviar and pate at dinner parties?” Rowen smiled and Kento shook his head. “Anyway, whatcha want on yours?”

    “Umm . . . black olives, spinach, pepperoni n’ mushrooms. No pineapples, an’ I mean it.”

    Kento looked sick. “No prob, man. It’s already sick enough without the pineapples.”

    “It’s not sick. Pineapples are sick. I like ‘em alone, but when ya combine ‘em with cheese and tomato sauce . . .” Rowen stuck his tongue out.

    Kento said, “Y’know, that was the only thing Sage used to order on his pizza.”

    Rowen felt his heart shiver coldly, unhappy being reminded of his companion’s absence. Kento noticed this sudden change in Rowen’s mood and said softly, “You okay, dude? Ya look . . . tired.”

    Rowen shook his head in denial, but knew that he probably looked wretched. He hadn’t slept well in months — a night didn’t go by that he didn’t wake up at least once. And the tossing and turning . . .

    “Nah, I’m fine.”

    “Okay, one Popeye’s delight, fungus, rubber tire pizza pie coming soon.”

    Kento departed and Rowen laughed lightly. At least he could always count on the royal Ronin jester to bring him small cheer. Rowen retrieved the photo and letter from under his pillow and reached under his bed, pulling out the small shoebox and carefully placing it in amongst the others.

    He shoved it back under the bed and flopped down on his back, staring at the ceiling dully. Thinking. Wondering. Considering.

    Waiting.

    Like he had been for a year and two months.

    Rowen sighed and clasped his hands behind his head, closing his eyes and relaying days that had long since passed, that they had passed together. Sunny days, days filled with laughter and happiness that had turned over in his mind so many times if they were paper they’d be soft as cloth. Days when nothing mattered but sticking together to pull through, everyone needing each other, leaning on each other, helping each other to their feet when they fell.

    Rowen opened his eyes, glistening and catching the light, creating an ethereal glow.

    He sat up, bed creaking loudly, and walked to the window. He raised the curtain and stared out the open window at the sun setting over the pristine forest, already alive with vibrant, fiery colors of autumn. The leaves were turning gold, and Rowen was reminded painfully of Sage’s blond hair.

    God, this is insane. Me, mopin’ ovah anotha guy like some weepy, bleedin’ heart. The next thing I’ll be doin’ is writing odes to loneliness . . .

    He stopped. Wait, why shouldn’t he? It was better than suffering in silence; at least through writing he could vent some of his grief and confusion that way. He turned away from the window and sat down at his desk, finding a chewed pencil with no eraser to write with and a few wrinkled sheets of notebook paper.

    He cleared his head and tried not to think too hard. He was always told that poetry is the music of the soul, the song of the heart. Aside from assignments, he had never written a poem for leisure. Taking a deep breath, he decided to change that now.

    Once the pencil met the paper, Rowen was gone. He wrote hurriedly, frantically, as if the more he wrote the lesser he would feel the pain. He was up to five whole stanzas and was about to wrap it up when Ryo knocked on his door.

    “Come in,” Rowen bid.

    Ryo cracked open the door and peeked in. “You’re always holed up back here lately. Whatcha doin’, sitting on a nest or something?”

    Rowen flipped the paper over and stood from his desk, stretching. “Nah, just like to be alone sometimes.” All the time . . .

    “Well, pizza’s here. Come n’ get it.”

    Rowen reluctantly followed Ryo downstairs to the kitchen, where three boxes were going between Cye and Kento who were bickering over whose was whose.

    “I’m telling you,” Cye snapped. “This one ‘as sausage. I don’t like sausage.”

    “But I ordered sausage. We’re splittin’ it.”

    “I’m not eating sausage.”

    “Then gimme that one and take this one.” Kento handed the other box to Cye.

    “Yeah, this one’s the supreme, no sausage,” Cye said happily, and Ryo sneaked in and stole a slice. “Ey now, mate, that’s my pie.”

    “S’my pie, too,” Ryo said with his mouth full, grinning.

    Rowen stepped up to the one unopened box and looked at the label, marked ‘special’.

    “This mine?” he asked.

    “Yup, every nasty topping,” Kento muttered.

    But when Rowen opened the box, he noticed a slice was missing. He looked about, confused.

    “Did one ‘a ya snitch a slice?”

    “Hell, no. I hate spinach.”

    “I hate mushrooms.”

    Rowen glanced back at the pizza and found, to his growing peevishness, that there were pineapples on it. He glared at Kento. “I thought ya told ‘em no pineapples!”

    “I did!” Kento exclaimed.

    “Well lookit this! Why did . . . one half ‘a this pizza’s a fruit salad! Ya know I hate pine-”

    “I happen to like them,” came a new, deeper voice from behind.

    Rowen turned, it seemed, with agonizing slowness when in reality he whipped around like lightning at the sound of that voice, the voice.

    Sage was leaning against the kitchen door, grinning slyly at Rowen’s shocked expression and holding a half-eaten slice of the purloined pizza portion. Rowen couldn’t believe his eyes.

    The blond winked and smiled. Everything about him shined. His golden hair, cascading upon his shoulders and as always, over one eye. The faded denim jacket he wore, the way his cheeks were faintly blushing and looking so alive-

    “Sage!” Rowen choked and he, reflexively and without thinking, rushed Sage and threw his arms about his neck. Sage looked over Rowen’s shoulder at the mildly stunned faces, and grinned helplessly.

    “Damn,” Ryo murmured. “Guess it was a good idea we didn’t tell him you were coming . . . I guess he really did miss you.”

    Rowen turned around to glare at Ryo evilly. “Ya mean ya knew he would be comin’?”

    Kento cut in, “Yeah. We thought we’d surprise you. Y’know, you two bein’ best buds n’ all . . .”

    Rowen smiled. “Th-thanks, guys.” He turned to Sage. “Why now? Ya look so much betta in person. Are ya on vacation or sumthin’? How long ya gonna-”

    “Take it easy, Ro!” Sage laughed and gently pried the ecstatic young man off of his person. “My grandfather said I could have a short respite for doing so well in the tournament. So I felt obligated to come here and see you all.” He winked at Rowen privately. “So how are you all getting along?”

    And that’s how the five friends, once again united, spent the evening. Laughing, talking over pizza, catching up on the old times. Rowen, though unable to show his affection for Sage out in the open and before the others, relished the company he made with them. And Sage was practically shining.

    And then, the question came, asked by Cye.

    “So, Sage,” he said with a smirk. “How many gehlfriends you got?” Sage blushed and looked at the table. “Don’t lie, mate. With that hair you’ve probably got ladies serenading at your window.”

    Sage laughed modestly, and Rowen’s heart skipped a beat in worry.

    “Aheh. To be truthful, I haven’t.” He looked around at the gawking faces. “What? Do any of you have girlfriends?”

    “I’m married to my work,” Kento sighed loudly. “Between school n’ training n’ studying . . . just ain’t got the time, bro.”

    “What about you, Cye? I know you’re smooth with the ladies.”

    Cye flushed shyly. “No, I ‘aven’t a gehl either. Just . . . no time.”

    Sage turned to Ryo. “You?”

    Ryo shook his head.

    “Man. What about you, Rowen? Any special girl in your life?”

    Special, yeah. Girl, no. “Err . . . not-not exactly.”

    “Great. Five bachelors,” Sage proclaimed.

    “Tch,” Kento scoffed. “Lookit us, buncha twenty year-old drifters still livin’ together. Any chick would probably think we’re gay.”

    Rowen’s heart froze and suddenly, Kento was the only one laughing at the joke. He took notice and looked around at the blanched faces. “What? Did I step on somebody’s grave or somethin’?”

    Ryo shook his head. “Nah, nah, Kento. I uh, I think those green peppers on my pizza gave me indigestion. If you’ll excuse me-” And Ryo left the table.

    “Well, I’d bettah staht doing the dishes,” came Cye’s statement.

    “I’ve got to go unpack my stuff,” Sage said.

    “I’ll help,” Rowen quickly volunteered.

    Soon the kitchen table was empty, leaving Kento sitting there dazed and confused.

    “Well, hell!” he exclaimed after a moment. “All we need’s a tumbleweed blowing across the empty gulch and we’re set.”

    Sage opened the door to Rowen’s room, for they had long ago agreed to share a room, even before they were amorously involved. Rowen followed behind with a duffel bag. Sage tossed his suitcase and jacket on his bed and looked around.

    “Gee, you sure you didn’t touch any of my stuff while I was away?”

    Rowen frowned, looking at the plain bed, the plain nightstand, the plain lamp. “What stuff?”

    “My point exactly.” Sage turned around and smiled at him, making a joke. It seemed as though Sage could smile easier now, like some great tribulation had passed while he was away. Rowen grinned and held out the duffel bag to him.

    Sage stared at the bag, then at Rowen. He grabbed it roughly from him and tossed it to the floor, darting forward and catching Rowen’s wrist, pulling him into his arms and hugging him so fiercely and so tightly Rowen let out a squeak as the air was squeezed from his lungs.

    Sage sighed heavily against his shoulder. “You don’t know how much I’ve missed you.”

    Rowen raised his arms and latched them around Sage’s shoulders. “Yes, I do.”

    Rowen clenched his hands, gathering up the fabric of Sage’s shirt into his fists, and breathed in deeply. He smelled so good. Even when they were fighting Talpa and he was all sweaty and dirty, he still smelled good. It was a Sage scent, something in his skin that attracted Rowen like a bee to a flower.

    How long they stood together, melded against each other, is unanswerable. When their embrace finally, unwillingly loosened and Sage pulled back, his cheeks were shining — evidence that tears had flowed from his eyes. He smiled helplessly and sniffed, reaching up and cupping Rowen’s cheeks in his hands and staring into his eyes, swimming in their deep blueness, their hopefulness . . . and he wanted never to resurface again, but to remain submerged within their depths.

    Rowen gazed at Sage like a child gazes at some miraculous, mysterious and unexplainable new wonder, something that his infinite knowledge had never granted him the pleasure of knowing. And like the child yearns for this affirmation of information, so did Rowen. Desperately. He wanted, he needed, he simply had to know.

    And suddenly he would do anything Sage told him to as long as he could firmly grasp whatever lay before him, that inexplicable and tempting wonder.

    “What is this?” Rowen whispered.

    “What is what?” came the reply.

    “This feelin’ . . . inside ‘a me. Is this love or is this lust?”

    Sage sighed heavily and ran his hand through Rowen’s hair. “It’s both and neither. Too pure to be lust, too wrong to be love.”

    Rowen was perplexed. “But-” he stammered. “-how can somethin’ so wrong feel so right?”

    “I don’t know.”

    They fell quiet for a while. Then Rowen said, “I wanna know.”

    Sage blinked, confused by this statement, and Rowen continued.

    “I wanna know what this is between us. Sage, right now I would do anythin’ you told me to. I would kill myself in the most slow and painful way if you saw fit. If you told me to jump off a bridge, I would. That scares me. I-I’ve neva felt like this before . . . so tell me. Would you do the same for me?”

    Sage’s mouth hung open silently in shock, eyes wide, unwilling to believe what he had just heard. Rowen looked deathly serious, but even more afraid than Sage ever remembered seeing him.

    “I, I . . .” Sage choked. “What are you asking?”

    “What’m I askin’? I’m askin’ if you love me, Sage.”

    Silence. Sage was rendered mute and he suddenly couldn’t remember anything prior to last July.

    “You’ve neva said ya loved me,” Rowen whispered. “To my face, in a letta. I wanna . . .” He closed his eyes and took a nervous breath. “I wanna know if that’s what I’m feeling toward you right now.”

    Sage turned his head and looked away, murmuring, “I don’t love you, Rowen.”

    One heartbeat.

    Two.

    Then Rowen’s heart froze in his chest and he felt the fragile flame of his soul flicker out with the passing breeze. His knees buckled and he thought he would faint. Blinking rapidly, there were tears in his eyes he tried desperately to keep from shedding.

    “ Wh . . . what . . . ?”

    Sage turned his head and saw Rowen’s broken expression, then smiled gently. “A word like love can’t being to describe how I feel.” He grasped Rowen’s hand. “I adore you.” And he kissed it.

    Rowen’s heart jumped back to life, a tumultuous, pounding force that throbbed through his body from core to skin. Then his head swam and he teetered back and forth. Sage steadied him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes.

    “I’d rather be here, with you, by your side, than any other place on earth, Rowen.”

    There was the sound of footsteps outside the door and the two young men quickly tore away from each other and tried not to look too guilty. Ryo stepped into the room, oblivious to the fact that they had been standing far too close together for comfort, and said, “Hey, fellas! Need any help unpacking, Sage? Jeez, you sure travel light.”

    Ryo plopped down comfortably in Rowen’s desk as Sage absently scratched his nose.

    “Well, eh . . . light is my style.”

    “Yeah, tell me about it!” Ryo laughed and leaned back, resting his elbow on the desk. However, he slipped on some papers — Rowen realized with horror they were the pages of the poem he had been writing earlier — and Ryo bent down to retrieve them. Rowen helplessly stood by.

    “Whoops! Sorry, there . . .” Ryo read a few of the words and grinned up at Rowen. “You write this, Ro? What is it, a poem to your girlfriend?”

    “Ryo-!” Rowen cried and sprang forward. He can’t find out, he wouldn’t let him find out!

    Ryo jumped out of the chair, taunting, “Rowen’s gotta girlfriend, Rowen’s gotta-”

    “Gimme that back!”

    “Gotta catch me first!” And Ryo bolted out of the room with Rowen hot on his tail. Sage, not wanting to hear it later for abandoning Rowen, trotted after them. They raced down the stairs, into the kitchen, around the kitchen table, into the dining room, and finally into the living room. Where Cye and Kento sat, playing a video game and Cye, as usual, losing badly.

    Ryo ran past the television, Rowen pausing and blocking the screen as he judged where would be the best place to jump his prey. Cye exclaimed, “Outta the way, mate! I cahn’t see!”

    “Yah!” Kento piped up in his mock-English accent. “About face an’ hoof it, yeh ste-upid git!”

    Rowen lunged at Ryo and missed, jarring Cye painfully in the ribs.

    “God blind me!” he yelped. “That’s me slats, you smegger!”

    “Sorry,” Rowen said quickly and made another pass at Ryo, who danced away and jumped up on the couch, holding the papers above his head and then enjoyed watching Rowen beg and plead and reach in vain for them.

    Sage, slightly winded from the mad dash through the house, appeared in the door just as Ryo proclaimed, “Ahem! A poem by Rowen Hashiba for your entertainment!”

    Cye and Kento glanced at each other and snickered wickedly. Rowen was desperate.

    “Ryo, please! Don’t read-”

    “Distance, dissonance,
between these ties so deep
with the perfection and divinity
I felt when I watched you sleep . . .”

    Ryo frowned and read seriously, realizing how good it was.

    “ Your presence brings my sanity
and takes it when you’re gone
I ache within this hollow cave
once called my heart, your home . . . this is really good, dude.”

    Sage felt his heart sink at the recollection of those familiar words. Ryo continued.

    “I guess it’s good I let you go
to become what you want to be
but every second you’re away
inside, it’s killing me.

    “If love is something glass
and marked by certain rules
then surely done, I broke it all
when I fell in love with you.”

    Kento nudged Rowen. “ Hey, man. I didn’t know you could be so mushy.” But Rowen was too numb to hear him.

    Ryo read the final verse, “Clocks can measure time
and years can measure age,
and until those things have ceased to be
I will always-” Ryo choked, and stared up at Rowen in shock. “I will always love you, Sage.”

    Sage closed his eyes and sighed in defeat. Cye and Kento’s faces were a picture of disbelief, painted in shades of red blush. Ryo looked as if he had just been smacked unexpectedly in the ass with a large stick, and he glared at Rowen accusingly.

    “Rowen, what . . . what the hell is this? Do you really ha-have the hots for Sage?”

    Why was the room churning? Rowen didn’t feel well. He was light as air, floating above it all, above the reality. This wasn’t happening. It was not happening to him . . .

    Sage stepped up to Rowen’s defense and said firmly, “It’s all my fault, Ryo. I did it to him-”

    “Did what!?” Ryo exclaimed. Kento and Cye were speechless. “Brainwash him or someth-”

    “I fell in love with him.”

    Words left Ryo, that is, all except for three: “Oh my God.”

    That was it. There went Satan, there went Babylon. There went Goliath, and all of them tumbling down to earth. Now it was Rowen’s turn, although it probably wouldn’t make it into the New Testament. Rowen let out a mix between a shudder and a sigh and Sage just barely managed to catch him before he fell onto the carpet, completely out cold. Sage kneeled by his fallen friend and gently slapped his cheek with the back of his hand.

    “Come on, now. It’s not the end of the world, Ro-” He shot daggers at Ryo. “-at least not your world.” Ryo gulped. Cye and Kento huddled over Rowen curiously, inspecting him like he would wake up a new person.

    “Is ‘e olright?” Cye inquired.

    “Yeah, he just fainted. Too much excitement for someone with low blood pressure.”

    “I didn’t mean to call you a git, Rowen,” Kento confessed. “Cye twisted my arm and made me.”

    Cye gave Kento a shove and Sage snapped, “Will you two cut it out? You’re crowding me. Give him room to breathe.”

    The two friends, thoroughly chastised, sat on the couch alongside Ryo and watched Sage slowly revive Rowen. The lad’s eyes fluttered open and he looked around oddly. He didn’t remember falling asleep on the floor. Where was he? Where was everybody? Was everyone gone? Had they left him because they knew? No, wait. Warmth. Someone was holding him. Someone’s arms. Someone was there with him. He wasn’t alone, after all.

    He looked up and saw Sage’s face above him.

    And that was all he saw.

    Sage saw that Rowen was awake and gave him a gentle, reassuring squeeze.

    “It was a beautiful poem, Rowen.”

    “They know. Don’t they?”

    Pause.

    “Yes, they do.”

    Rowen sighed, his only comfort being the body that held him and kept him safe and warm. So what if the others knew — they would learn to deal with it. It might take time, but they had an eternity to spend, all of them.

    Rowen closed his eyes and grinned. “Good.”

    Sage gathered Rowen into his arms and laid him in the recliner like one would an infant. Rowen, fatigued both mentally and physically, drifted off and slept peacefully for the first time in a year and two months. Sage turned to Ryo, Cye and Kento sitting on the sofa and crossed his arms.

    “If any of you are going to say anything, say it now and get it all out of your system.”

    Silence.

    “Alright, then. When I return to Sendai, Rowen’s coming with me. Does anyone have a problem with that?”

    They shook their heads.

    “Great. I’m glad we had this little discussion.”

    And in his sleep, Rowen smiled.