The kitchen was eerily familiar, as was the table at which he sat. This was a place he hadn't seen in years. A place he thought he had escaped when he was running from himself. An empty plate sat before him, scattered remnants of oil and rice clung to the plain white dish. What was he doing here?

"Still trying to kill the chicken inside you, Kuon?"

He quickly searched for the source of the voice and his eyes rested on a familiar face. It smiled knowingly at him, and he suddenly had difficulty breathing.


The man standing across from him pointed at him, his fingers taking the crude shape of a gun, and winked.

"Got it in one, kid, " Rick grinned. "Then again, this is your dream so it really shouldn't be all that surprising."

Of course he was dreaming. Why else would his dead best friend be having a casual conversation with him in his parents' kitchen? Then again, this was not the usual dream he had in which the man would feature. Typically, they were darker and more gruesome; sometimes an over exaggerated reenactment of his death and sometimes he would be running terrified from his vengeful, reanimated corpse as it sought retribution. All in all, this one was decidedly more pleasant than the norm.

"You're usually not here likeā€¦ this," he couldn't think of a better way to explain the torturous dreams he often had.

"Maybe you've finally realized that none of this was your fault," Rick shrugged, taking a seat across from him. "Maybe you're finally ready to forgive yourself."

"I doubt it," he disagreed readily, the old argument rolling easily off his tongue.

"Poor little Kuon; always suffering in silence," his friend mocked. "Did you really learn nothing from me? What did I always tell you about survival?"

"You told me to fight for it."

"True, but I never said you had to fight alone," Rick pointed out. "You were always the one to run off on your own and pick fights, but that was never what I suggested you do."

"What was I supposed to do?" he asked heatedly. "Some battles need to be fought alone."

"You only fought alone because you never made meaningful connections with anyone but me."

"Yea, and look where that got me," he groused.

Rick let the comment slide, "Didn't you ever wonder why you kept moving from one girl to the other so quickly? Did you ever consider that you might want what Tina and I had? What your parents still have?"

"Sure I did, but I figured I had time because I was still young."

"Maybe, but you were growing up much faster than anyone intended you to, I think. I suppose I can take the blame for part of that," the other man scratched at his chin thoughtfully before shaking his head. "Anyway, you're missing the point I'm trying to make."

"Which is?"

"You've started this whole new life for yourself and, honestly, I'm impressed at how well you're doing for yourself, really," Rick suddenly looked concerned. "But you're well on your way to repeating the same mistakes."

"I can't get close to anyone," he countered. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost anyone else."

"That's why you have to connect with a lot of people," the older man said as if it were plainly obvious. "They're the ones that help you through the loss. The ones that pick you up and fight alongside you. Hell, you've already done it and you don't even realize. That one girl you've kept closest to you, she'll never leave your side."

"I don't have anyone like that," he denied flatly.

"Don't lie to me, Kuon. It's rude," his best friend scolded. "She's proven, several times over, that she wants to stick by you and be your strength. And I know damn well you want her to. Why are you denying yourself this?"

"She deserves better than someone like me," he mumbled morosely.

"Kid, I will crawl out of my grave just to smack you upside the head, I swear," the man growled, incensed.

He winced at Rick's anger, but said nothing in his defense.

"What she doesn't deserve is this terrible attitude you have. She's already seen you at your weakest and she hasn't run away yet. Not everyone gets this lucky and finds someone like that," Rick's eyes narrowed at him as he spoke. "So, I suggest you take your head out of your ass and you hold on tight to that one and never let her go."

"Do you really think I'm ready to forgive myself?" He only realized the absurdity of asking a figment of his imagination in his own dream after the fact.

His friend gave him a kind, sad smile.

"Kuon, I don't think we'd even be having this conversation if you weren't."

Ren woke up with a start, his bedsheets clenched tightly in his fisted hands. The sudden rush of adrenaline had him breathing hard as he fumbled around his bedside table with shaking hands for his phone. He checked the time; it was just after two in the morning. Before he could put the phone back down and try falling asleep again, his hands acted without his permission and began to dial a familiar number.

:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

He still vividly remembered the day they buried him.

The looks from everyone around him during the funeral was almost worse than having witnessed his death firsthand, but what hurt the most was Tina blatantly refusing to look him in the eye. It felt like they all blamed him for his friend's untimely passing. They were right, of course. The weight of their stares and the hushed whispers they shared between each other made him retreat further into himself as he struggled to carry the burden.

It was the first funeral he ever attended and he had no idea what to do. His hands shifted every few minutes, as if they were unsure as to where they should be placed. He watched the other attendees, who all had either a handkerchief or a tissue balled tightly in their fists with tears streaming down their cheeks. The black square of cloth his mother kindly tucked into the pocket of his jacket still remained there, dry and unused.

He ached from looking between the sorrowful faces and the casket they sat around. It was so still, like the body that lay within it. He wished he had the strength to take one last look at him before they closed it. He wished he could cry. Instead, the tears stubbornly stayed inside him, causing his chest to hurt and the backs of his eyes to burn.

When he asked his father later why he was unable to do so, he was given a sad smile and a hand pressed itself into his shoulder. He was told that everyone processes grief differently. Some people don't end up crying until much later, once the pain of the loss has finally had a chance to fully manifest. On the other hand, some people don't cry at all. It doesn't make them any less affected by the death of someone they cared about. It was just how they chose to cope.

All in all, he was told not to think too hard about it. He was free to grieve however he wanted, for as long as he needed, without feeling like he wasn't doing enough. Still, he felt as if he was disrespecting Rick's memory by not shedding a single tear. His father squeezed his shoulder and said that if it was supposed to happen, it would happen.

:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

She arrived much faster than he anticipated. He didn't want to think of how she managed to get there at such a late hour of the night. He cursed himself for not considering that she shouldn't have been out in the city on her own. She risked it just to be there for him because he called. Those thoughts were quickly banished from his mind, for as soon as the door closed behind her- before she could even properly remove her shoes- he pulled her towards him. He was finally ready to move on. Ready to properly mourn the loss of his best friend. Without any pretext, he wrapped his arms tightly around her and buried his face against her shoulder.

And cried.

It took Kyoko a few moments to fully process what exactly was going on. Having only woken up less than an hour before because of Ren's call, her brain was still a little fuzzy. But, she'd heard it in his voice over the phone; it was the same voice he had when she found him standing forlornly in front of the elevator that night she came back from the convenience store as Setsu. In that instant, she knew something was very wrong and she made her way to him as quickly as possible.

Now, she struggled under the weight of his body that was slumped against hers, trying to hold him up as he sobbed. She gently rubbed his back while he took shuddering breaths between the sorrowful wails that poured from his lips. His tears had long since soaked through the thin shirt she threw on in her haste to leave and they were starting to trickle a cold trail down her back. The sound of his muffled cries on her shoulder jackhammered at her heart.

At some point, she managed to move them both further into the apartment and they sat on the sofa. Ren had quieted somewhat, his sobs sounding more like ragged exhales than mournful cries. Kyoko wondered how much longer she'd be able to keep it together without breaking down herself. She didn't even know what had him in such a state, but seeing him in so much pain was starting to wear on even her well-built defenses.

The memories of a similar scene came back to her in that moment and she pressed her head against his, squeezing her eyes tight. He'd been there for her before when she was like this. How hard must it have been for him to hold her while she cried like her entire world was falling apart? She had a greater appreciation for what he did for her that night. Now, it was her chance to return the favor.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled into her shoulder.

"Why?" she asked softly.

"I didn't mean to make you come all the way here when it's so late," he sounded so broken, it was killing her.

"I came because I wanted to," she assured him, still rubbing his back. "Because you sounded like you needed me."

"I can take you home if you-"

"You are in no shape to be driving," she chided him gently. "I will stay right here."

He hiccuped and she fought back a smile, scolding herself for her selfish indulgence in how endearing she found him when his guard was completely down like this.

"You're not even going to ask me why?"

"No, you can tell me in your own time what this is all about. For now, I just want to know that you'll be alright," she kept her voice low.

She felt him nod against her.

"I want to tell you," he said finally. "I want to tell you all of it."

"You can do it in your own time," she soothed. "Don't force yourself because I'm here."

"No," he said firmly, pulling away from her. "You deserve to know. This involves you as well."

"I'm sure you'll tell me when you're ready," she protested again.

"I'm ready now," he said resolutely.

His voice was filled with a conviction that hadn't been there when he was previously falling apart in her arms. She hesitated at his piercing stare. Whatever he wanted to share was, clearly, very important. It seemed like he needed to get this off his chest. But, she got the feeling that everything would change between them once he did.

"I suppose I'm ready to hear it, then," she resigned.

An eerie calm washed over his tearstained face as he took several breaths and just stared at her. Kyoko began to wonder if he'd reconsidered saying anything when he took her hand in his, giving her a brave smile.

And he told her everything.

I actually don't like writing a whole lot of angst because I've always felt I'm not that good at it. However, this one just kinda came into existence without my permission. As such, I'm a little on the fence as to how much I like it, but I'm sharing it anyway. If you're here for the funnier, more heartwarming stories, stay tuned! There will be plenty of those to come, I promise!