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Burned Out Flames (Should Never Reignite) @cynamonowo
gathering seeds

cw: alcohol, child abuse, suicidal thoughts, smoking, vomiting

For some reason, he expects the clear liquid, almost overflowing from the thimble-sized glass, to taste sweet, yet, after following example and knocking it back all at once, Yusuke finds out exactly how wrong he was with his presumptions. It feels like he swallowed a mouthful of fire. He chokes, then reaches for a half-full bottle of water and chugs on it greedily.
"My word," he manages in the end, and the group of his classmates observing him burst out laughing.
"That your first time drinking, Kitagawa?" Naeno teases, sipping on her neon green cocktail. "I mean, of course it was." She stretches out on the sofa, the notes on their group project strewn around her. They were supposed to work on this assignment, yet when Naeno invited them in and said her parents wouldn't be home for the night, then pulled out a few bottles of alcohol (she said she got her older brother to buy them) it all ended up like… like this. Yusuke looks down on the coffee table, acutely aware of how everyone is sizing him up.
"Of course it was, fucking hell," Mitsugi speaks up, his harsh intonation already hindered by slurring. "How the fuck would this weirdo even find a way—"
"Don't call me a—"
"Or," Chihiro cuts in, "he hasn't had the opportunity because of his teacher." When Yusuke, quite surprised, gazes at her, she smiles and refills his glass. "So don't be jerks, y'all, and have a party. Drink up!"
So they do.
So he does.
After the fourth shot, everything is becoming blurry, blacking out at the edges. Yusuke barely registers how, after everyone else has moved… somewhere else, Chihiro gently tugs at his sleeve until he's lying on the couch, his head on the armrest and her fingers in his hair.
It's… nice. Everything feels warm and soft, and his thoughts get lost before they stumble upon his usual anxieties. Even his body, frail and weak and so frequently in pain, doesn't bother him. The world fades to a buzz of a dying fly. Warm. Soft. As if in a bubble.
"This is," he murmurs to himself, briefly wondering at how his voice ebbs and flows, then realizes he's forgotten what he wanted to say. Laughs.
"Dude, you're such a lightweight," he hears some state, albeit not unkindly. When he peers at them through his lashes, he sees Chihiro, holding a phone and a pair of headphones. She helps him put them on, then, before the music — just as soft as everything else — envelopes him, adds, "I believe you're gonna like it."
He does. And he likes being drunk.

When he returns home the next day, feeling like a roadkill, Madarame takes one look at him, then—

Hot pain on his cheek. Tatami mats under his knees. Yusuke drops his head, holding back tears. He longs for that softness; he wishes he could drink again, despite the glaring pain in his temples, on his face, in his stomach, everywhere, everywhere—

The next allowance he gets, he spends it in one of the small convenience stores in the outskirts. The cashier scans a bottle of rice wine without looking up at him, and Yusuke tucks it away under a loose floorboard where he hides — used to hide — snacks. He puts the plank back in its place and, sitting on his bed, checks his pockets for loose change. Frowns and calculates how to survive without any funds for food.

Madarame is quick to notice that a few bills have gone missing from his wallet, which earns Yusuke a black eye.

He doesn't buy anything to eat, however, getting another bottle instead. It helps numb the glaring pain of his empty stomach.

"Hey, Kitagawa." Chihiro sits by him on the bench and gives him a concerned look. "You feeling okay?"

Yusuke frowns, partially from surprise, partially from headache. "Why are you asking me that? We have finished our project, so there is no need for you to worry about my health."

"Can't I simply be nice?" Chihiro huffs out, throwing one of her braids over her shoulder. "But, seriously. You look terrible."

"How crude." Yusuke turns his eyes away from her, instead staring at the bones of his wrist — that have gotten even more protruding during the last few months since that fateful party. "But I assure you that I feel as well as always."

She doesn't seem convinced. "Fine. But if you need someone to talk to, I'm here, you know."

That's… quite unexpected. "Oh?" Yusuke gazes at her. "Why?"

"Dunno. You seem lonely." She gets up and, before she walks back to her friends, pats his knee. "And not that bad."

When she's gone, Yusuke realizes that she had left a sandwich on the bench. On the plastic wrapping, there's a note saying 'ur welc' in round hiragana and a cutesy smiley face.

It's the first thing he eats in two days.

A week later, he passes out in class, and Chihiro starts giving him food on every lunch break from then on.

And the days pass.

There are a few rules Yusuke must set up, regarding this new… activity of his. Only drink when Madarame isn't home for the night. Only one bottle per week. Only one thousand yens he can swipe from him at once. Only drink to feel buzzed, pleasantly disconnected from the world, not on the verge of blacking out, like the first time.

This is nice, having an aspect of his life that belongs to him and him only. One that Madarame doesn't know about. He took everything from Yusuke — no, was offered everything — but that one secret. So Yusuke treasures the sweet yet burning taste, treasures lying on his bed while playing mindless games, sketching without the heavy knowledge of what is going to happen to his art weighing on him. Sometimes he's crying for a little while, until the pressure in his chest eases up. It's soft. It's nice. But, first and foremost, it's his.

Yusuke's life belongs to Madarame — but now not only Yusuke's death belongs to Yusuke. And maybe thinking about this in such a way is sad, yet he's too tired to experience sorrow properly.

With his finals approaching, Yusuke spends every second focused on art, trying to produce enough paintings to both appease Madarame and have enough left to submit to the gallery of works made by Kosei's seniors.

Thankfully, Madarame tends to spend every weekend outside of his shack, saying he must attend to issues Yusuke needs not be concerned about. His absence, plus some extra money from a few commissions Yusuke took from Chihiro, means that all the time there are at least two bottles stowed away under the floorboard.

During the winter break, Yusuke has found out it's more economical to drink beverages with higher percentage of alcohol, so he switches to whisky. Its taste is not as pleasant as nihonshu's, but that matters little to him.

One April evening, after he already took a few long gulps, Yusuke sprawls out on the wooden floor, staring thoughtfully at his hands outstretched above his body. He rotates his wrists, taking in the jutted out veins and bones, and smiles sourly to himself. Those fingers are not his. This blood, heavy with alcohol, is not his. Those callouses, bruises and a cut on the top of his palm — a reminder of that day when Madarame pushed him onto a nail sticking out of the wall, for allegedly stealing from him once more — none of this is his.

When you think of yourself like this, it's so easy to stop caring. Yusuke laughs; even to his own ears, it sounds rattling and unsure, and he's not surprised when the breathy chuckles turn to choked back sobs.

No matter how hard he drinks, he will not be able to run away from the off chance of breaking down. And that pain is his. Pain, sorrow, helplessness, hopelessness, rage — ah, but that one has been slowly dwindling down, replaced by utter despair, one like a black hole in his mind, a canvas painted black in his chest—

It's his. And he cannot shed it off as long as he stays alive.

Blinking off tears, Yusuke looks again at the bare, pale expanse of skin on his forearms.

"I could," he mumbles to himself. "I could just end it. I could. I would. I— I will."

Somehow that admission causes him to smile.

He is the only one who owns his death.

And the days pass.

The finals end, and Yusuke finds himself with a great deal of free time on his hands. He tries to broach this topic one morning, when he's having breakfast with Madarame — if the miserable pile of plain rice smaller than a child's fist, topped off with a few drops of cheap soy sauce could be called a meal.

"University?" Putting his chopsticks down, Madarame gives Yusuke a disbelieving smile. "Haven't I already taught you all you ought to know?"

"Y-yes, you have," Yusuke confirms weakly, "however, I think it would be good for me to acquaint myself with other artists…"

He has prepared himself for hearing such thing, yet that doesn't lessen the sting of disappointment. He had hoped that maybe, maybe… Dorms, a scholarship, then a contract abroad, escaping at last. How foolish of him it was of him to start wishing.

Madarame chuckles fondly, even reaching out to pat Yusuke's hand (who barely keeps himself from flinching away). "You've got a point, ha! Yet you must understand—" the smile falls off his face so quickly that it must've been fake to begin with "—that our finances do remain tight. Too tight to, unfortunately, allow you to pursue higher education. However…"

"However?" Yusuke prompts, slightly excited despite himself.

"I suppose I could raise your allowance and give you the permission to go out whenever you wish to, so you could mingle with us the artistic folk." He peers at him, calculating. "You do turn nineteen in a few months, after all, so you should be able to spend time with other people than this old, cranky man." He takes Yusuke's empty plate and stacks it on the top of his own, which probably mean the conversation is over.

Yet, just before he leaves Yusuke to the dishes, he stops in the doorway and says, all joviality gone from his voice, "But do remember to stay careful. I don't think you want to either hurt yourself or my reputation. Or, perhaps, both. Don't you?"

Yusuke bites his lip when he realizes what Madarame truly means.

"Of course not, Sensei," he says.

It's easy to find a proper rhythm of the days, Yusuke finds out. The mornings he spends on working on the sketches or unfinished paintings from the day before; by afternoon he eats his first — and only — meal of the day before leaving to observe masses of people making their ways through Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku. If Madarame doesn't return for the night, Yusuke either drinks in his room and paints, or goes to a bar and sketches. Meets people who tell him strange things and sometimes agree to model for him. Some even buy a quick drawing from him, paying with either a few coins or another drink.

(Some nights he doesn't remember. The first time it happened, it scared him to no ends, but by the fifth, sixth, he doesn't have the energy to care. Sometimes, he wakes up sore, filthy, and with a few thousand yen in his pockets. He knows it should terrify him — he's still a minor, for god's sake — but he doesn't feel anything on that matter.)

He doesn't even realize when he starts beginning some — and then most — of his days with a sip, just to warm him up, to get his thoughts to move quicker, his strokes to be surer.

And to keep the dark thoughts at bay.

At least he produces enough paintings that Madarame raises his allowance again.

"Now I regret being too afraid to let you taste life for so long," he says over the post-exhibit sushi, and Yusuke smiles back.

"You don't look like shit."

Tearing his eyes away from his plate of curry, Yusuke frowns at Chihiro. "Thank you?"

"You look worse than that," she continues, undeterred. "Really awful." She drinks a bit of her coffee, slowly and with purpose, as if sampling wine. "I'm sure that there are corpses that would beat you in a beauty contest."

"Hm!" Yusuke scoffs, then forces down a piece of meat. It makes him nauseous despite its exceptional taste — truth be told, he somewhat expected that. He glances at the barista, a handsome boy about his age, then pushes his plate away. He doesn't feel particularly hungry.

"Dude, I'm getting really worried about you," Chihiro murmurs. "You're thin, pale, clearly not getting enough sleep, plus I've seen you smoking before you came inside. This isn't like you." She reaches out to place her small, warm hand on top of Yusuke's. When he meets her eyes, he sees sorrow in them — and anger sparks bright inside of him, causing him to shake her palm off and scowl harder.

"Need I remind you I am not a child?" he hisses out. "If you think I desire your pity—"

"Geez, it's not like that!" she snaps back, but Yusuke doesn't let her continue.

"What do you want from me?" he asks, his voice harsh enough that the barista stares at their booth. Yet Yusuke couldn't care less about the ruckus he's making.

"It's not like that," Chihiro repeats. "I just want to be your friend."

The words come out with barely a thought. "My deepest apologies for disappointing you, but I don't need your friendship."

It's a bit interesting, how Chihiro's expression goes through shock, to sorrow, to anger, and settles on indifference. "Okay then," she says, gets up, places a few bills on the table and exits the place with brisk steps. Yusuke sighs, then follows her example. When he's outside, Chihiro is already gone.

He doesn't ever go back to that café.

From where he's lying on the floor, the angle permits him to see all three easels he's set up in his room. Taking a lazy drag of his cigarette, Yusuke moves his eyes from the one on the left — a portrait of that barista from Yongen — then to the one in the middle — an unfinished landscape — and then to the one on the right — swirling dark smudges — and then starts anew. And again. And again. Sips whisky. Another puff. Again.

He's home alone, Madarame having departed yesterday to take care of some affairs and saying he's going to be back next week. He even left Yusuke ten thousand yen, allegedly for food — but barely an hour passed before the money was spent on half a kilogram of rice on sale, a carton of cigarettes, and a few bottles of alcohol. Should last him a week, Yusuke thought to himself as he came back home, opened the window in his room and pulled out a cheap ashtray he got in a dollar store.

In the evening, he went out to his favorite bar, sold a few drawings and got an idea for another painting. A pretty eventful outing, in the end. Yusuke smiles to himself before getting up and going to the kitchen. He isn't particularly hungry, partially thanks to picking up smoking, but he forces himself to nibble on some rice, then goes to the bathroom to wash up.

When he sees himself in the mirror, pale and hollow-cheeked and with dark circles under his eyes, overgrown hair falling around his face like wet weeds, and when he takes off his shirt to see how his ribs stick out, almost threatening to pierce through translucent skin, he promptly throws up everything he has consumed throughout the last two days.

After he's done heaving his guts out, Yusuke can only think, oh, such a waste of money. Then tears start streaming down his cheeks.

Yusuke cries so hard his sobs turn into screams.

And the days pass.

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