Morgana groaned beside Akira on the bed. "Who's that? Don't they know normal people are sleeping?"
Akira smacked at his mattress a couple times before connecting with his phone. He brought it close to his face before thumbing on the screen—an amateur mistake. He squinted through his momentary blindness before the familiar avatar formed in front of his eyes.
>> Hey man, sorry to bother you so late.
Akira blinked. He could hear Ryuji's voice speaking the words, just as clear as if he was there.
>> I was wonderin' if we could hang out tomorrow? I got somethin' I need help with. No big deal, just not something I can do by myself.
"Ugh, Ryuji? Figures." Morgana dropped his head and resituated himself next to Akira. "You gonna see him?"
Akira tapped at the screen, sleepy lack of dexterity forcing him into a lot of backspacing.
>> Sure thing , he answered easily. See you tomorrow.
He sent the message, and before he was able to set the phone down a new one appeared.
>> Thanks man, you're a lifesaver!
Akira smiled, dropping the phone next to his face.
Ryuji wasn’t nervous. He’d thought about it the entire train ride over. He wasn’t nervous, but he was something else that didn’t quite add up to excitement. Hanging out with Akira was always a great time, and Akira and favors went together—like winter and hot pot, or Obon and takoyaki—but today’s favor felt a little different. It made Ryuji nervous. No, wait, it didn’t make him nervous. He’d decided it didn’t make him nervous.
It made him fidget . That was all. He was fidgeting.
The bell on Leblanc’s door rang pleasantly when Ryuji wrenched the door open. He stepped through, gingerly releasing the handle. He hadn’t meant to pull so hard.
Sojiro inclined his head. “Hey,” he said, and Ryuji shuffled where he stood. He was the only one of Akira’s friends who didn’t like coffee, and he couldn’t help feeling it gave him a disadvantage with Sojiro.
“Morning!” he greeted brightly.
A brow went up. “Afternoon, I think.”
There were steps on the stairs, light and fast, and Ryuji’s muscles loosened in relief. Akira would save him from Sojiro’s intimidating stare. He bore it himself often enough, and never seemed phased by it—which had to be a life skill almost on par with summoning multiple personas. The steps got closer, and Akira rounded the corner with a light hop, Morgana in tow. Ryuji’s heart lifted.
“Hey man!” he called. A grin stretched over his face.
“Hey,” Akira said, casual as always—but he looked pleased. Not quite smiling, but pleased. Smiles from Akira outside the metaverse were rare, and Ryuji noticed all the ways he didn’t smile: the lift of his eyes, the duck of his head, the swing of an elbow while his hands were still in his pockets. He had a lot of not-smile smiles, and Ryuji didn’t mind having to look a little harder.
“What did you need help with?” Akira asked, approaching.
Ryuji glanced at Sojiro, who folded his arms.
“Can’t be schoolwork,” Sojiro said. “It’s summer.”
“Can’t be schoolwork,” Morgana said. “It’s Ryuji.”
Ryuji swallowed down an angry and what’s that supposed to mean? He settled for a hard glare in Morgana’s direction instead. After a moment he realized they were all still waiting for his answer, and he raked a hand through his hair.
“Uh,” he said. “My mom…”
“Is she okay?” Akira asked, brows lifting in concern.
“Oh! Yeah, yeah, she’s fine. Well, no, she’s been busy, and I don’t want to bug her. She… does my roots. I’m looking patchy, right?” He bent forward, showing them his scalp. When he straightened he looked at Akira, and that not-nervousness surged through him again. It was a strange favor to ask. “So… could you?”
“Of course,” Akira said, the not-smile deepening. Meanwhile Sojiro shifted, cocking his head.
“Your mother helps you look like a troublemaker?”
“Not a troublemaker!” Ryuji objected, though he didn’t know why. He scratched his cheek. His mother had never questioned his decision. In fact, she seemed to enjoy the ritual of it: the quiet evenings with the smell of bleach in the house, asking Ryuji about school and friends and teachers, talking about her own day. It was their thing together—but his mother had fallen asleep on the couch every night for the past week, exhausted after work each day, and he didn’t want to be another burden. Or more of a burden. He sighed. “She says it suits me.”
“It does,” Akira said. Sojiro laughed softly, nodding.
“Good luck, you two. Don’t burn yourselves.”
“Do you have a towel I could use?” Akira asked him.
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Sojiro flicked his hand toward the bathroom door. “Linen closet. Use whichever you want.”
Akira nodded his thanks.
Ryuji stuffed his hands in his pockets and shuffled around outside the bathroom.
“Why the weird face?” Morgana asked from the floor.
Ryuji ducked his head at him. “ Haah? ” he whisper-demanded from the cat.
“Weirder than usual,” Morgana outlined. “Your brow is all tight.” Morgana scrunched his features up real hard.
Ryuji stomped threateningly at him and the cat leapt away, snickering. Ryuji sighed. The fidgeting made him look nervous.
“Huh? What do you—no, calm down, I’m listening.”
Ryuji leaned backward a bit to cast an intrigued glance in Sojiro’s direction. He was on the phone, usually lax posture a little more hunched and anxious.
“Okay. No, don’t worry about it, I—”
Akira emerged with a towel and Ryuji responded by wrenching his attention back in his direction. Akira looked down at Ryuji’s pants.
“Is that bleach in your pocket, or…”
Ryuji wiggled his fingers about and then ripped a pack of powdered bleach from his shorts. “I’m really happy to see ya,” he answered through a grin.
The corners of Akira’s eyes crinkled. Ryuji was so busy looking at them he almost missed the actual upward curve of Akira’s lips. They shared a quiet chuckle.
Akira and Ryuji both looked toward Sojiro. He was untying his apron and flopping it over the counter.
“I have to go out for a bit, so you have the place to yourselves.” He heaved a sigh and then muttered, “Not like I had much business anyway.” He brought his eyes back upward. “Just don’t get too out of hand, ya hear?”
“Yes sir!” Ryuji responded loudly. Akira gave his signature nod.
“Alright then. See ya later.” And with that he was out the door, steps just slightly hastier than his usual.
Ryuji swung back to face Akira. “What was that about?”
Akira shrugged as he moved toward the kitchen sink. “Sojiro is strange sometimes.”
“Ah—” Ryuji’s shoulders slumped. “I guess we all got our things, huh?”
Akira didn’t say anything, but Ryuji felt his agreement.
“Oh—” Ryuji went to fishing something from his other pocket, and came up with a small bottle. “I also have this. Developer? Or somethin’. I don’t know; it’s just what my mom always uses.” He glanced around the small kitchenette. “Boss have any shot glasses?”
Akira set down the bowl he’d been retrieving and rounded the corner to peek under the bar. “Short or tall?”
“ Uuhh… regular?”
Akira ducked his head—a not-smile facing the other direction—and plucked a shot glass from under the bar. Ryuji watched him with that sort of spaced-out, hazy focus. The kind where you just couldn’t help but stare because your eyes were somehow stuck on whatever was in front of you.
Akira reached forward to hand Ryuji the shot glass with a small noise that wasn’t a word. Something like an affirmative hum… but not a grunt, it was much more gentle than a grunt.
“Thanks,” Ryuji said, taking the glass from him. After seeing it in the delicate hold of Akira’s long fingers, Ryuji holding it felt so ham-fisted and brutish. He shook himself. Maybe Morgana was right. If his face looked half as weird as he felt, it would still look pretty damned weird.
“Alright so we got the bleach, which we put in here…” Ryuji ripped the bleach open and dumped it in the bowl. Akira was standing behind him, watching over his shoulder. “Then…” he filled the shot glass with the developer stuff his mom always used, dumped it in, then repeated the process. “Two shots of this crap…”
“ UGH! ” Morgana cawed from the floor. “That smells awful .”
“Oh, sorry,” Ryuji apologized. “It’s pretty strong.”
“I’m getting out of here,” Morgana told them. He skittered toward the door, face all winced-up like he was in pain. “I’ll be back later, Akira.” And with that he was gone, leaving the bell tinkling in his wake.
Akira turned his eyes back to Ryuji, and when he exhaled Ryuji felt it on his neck. He jumped.
Akira raised his eyebrows.
“S-So then there’s this brush thing,” Ryuji snatched it from his pocket and held it close to Akira’s face. “Think you can use it?”
Akira’s eyes narrowed on the utensil held mere centimeters from his nose. His gaze flickered to Ryuji. “Anything else you’re hiding in there?”
Ryuji thought of a lot of very bad jokes. There were too many at once; he couldn’t think fast enough.
“No,” he answered, smacking Akira on the forehead with the dye brush. “This is my whole arsenal.”
Akira smiled. He smiled kinda big. What a dumb response to getting smacked in the face with a dye brush. Ryuji turned around and violently mixed the ingredients.
“Okay well, that’s pretty much all I got.” Ryuji spun and held the bowl near Akira’s face. Akira scrunched his nose at the smell. “You’re up, Leader.”
Akira leaned away from the bowl. “Don’t I need gloves?”
“Oh shit ,” Ryuji answered, lowering the bowl. “You definitely need gloves.”
Akira wordlessly stepped around him and began rifling beneath the sink.
“Ya think Boss has some?”
Ryuji had gotten used to being answered with silence. When Akira stood he was dangling disposable latex gloves in front of him.
“Thank God,” Ryuji breathed. “That was stupid of me to forget, sorry man.”
“No problem,” Akira answered. He picked up the forgotten towel and hung it over Ryuji’s shoulder before taking the bowl from him. “Let’s go upstairs.”
Ryuji meant to say something affirmative like “alright!” or “yeah sure!” but instead he made a coughing sound that wasn’t helpful at all. He turned quickly on his heel, moving past Akira and taking the creaky stairs two at a time.
Akira’s room was bright with the afternoon sun. It poured through the windows and over the wooden floors, turning the entire place golden. Dust shifted in the beams of sunlight, and it made Ryuji feel like he was disturbing something. “Pardon the intrusion,” he said, tipping his head to the side so that he was speaking vaguely in Akira’s direction.
He kicked off his shoes, stepping from them at the top of the stairs and flinging them out of Akira’s way. He immediately went to the other side of the place, grabbing at the lone chair by Akira’s bed and dragging it toward the center of the room.
“What do you even use this for?” Ryuji asked, shrugging the towel off his shoulder.
“Hm? Training, I guess.”
Ryuji sent him a dubious look. “What?”
Akira tugged at the fringe between his eyes. “I do pull ups from that ceiling beam. Sometimes.”
“Oh, cool,” Ryuji said, glancing upward. He smacked his bicep, “I should work my upper body more. I focus a lot on my legs.” Akira was standing there awkwardly with a bowl of pasty bleach in his hands. “Ah, sorry.” Ryuji flopped down hard on the seat and swung his legs. “I’m ready.”
Akira’s eyes shifted, like his lashes were squeezing tighter around his iris, and Ryuji felt the smile in it. He dropped his feet and looped the towel around his shoulders as Akira approached.
“And you just get at the dark stuff,” Ryuji informed him. “If you re-bleach the rest of my hair it will break and shit.”
“Got it,” Akira said from behind him. There were shuffling sounds, and Ryuji heard Akira set the bowl down on the table beside them. Then his ungloved thumb was running up the nape of Ryuji’s neck and into his hair. His eyes grew wide.
He could tell by the shadow cast on the floor that Akira was bent over, inspecting his scalp. He slid his hands up further, parting random sections of hair and combing through it with his fingers. Ryuji suppressed a shiver.
“Uh,” he tried again, intelligently, “whatcha doin’, buddy?”
“Just trying to figure out how to get it all,” Akira spoke right behind his head. “It’s kind of scary.”
There was a pause. Then Ryuji burst into roaring laughter, slapping his knee. “ Scary? ” he repeated. “Dyeing hair?” Akira’s fingers had stalled in his mess of brown and blonde. “This coming from the dude that fights monsters in his free time?” Tears were clinging to the edges of Ryuji’s eyes, so he wiped at them. “You stare danger in the face every day, Leader.”
Akira ruffled Ryuji’s hair and dropped his hand. “I just don’t want to mess up your head!” There was a hint of amusement in his attempt at being disgruntled.
“It’s okay,” Ryuji consoled him, still chuckling through the words. “If you mess up, it’s totally fixable. Just don’t get it on your nice clothes, alright?”
Akira’s hand going back into Ryuji’s hair felt like resignation, or acceptance. Either was fine. He was charting Ryuji’s head again, though.
“There’s no perfect pattern or anything to it, man.” Ryuji assured him. “You just gotta do your best.”
Akira exhaled. He stepped to the side and picked up the gloves. “Alright,” he said. He faced Ryuji as he pulled on his glove slowly, with a dramatic and intentional snap at the end. He smirked, Joker-smug, and Ryuji swallowed hard. For some reason.
“Feels like you’re about to operate,” he said, trying for a laugh.
“Operation Ryuji’s Hair.” Akira moved to stand behind Ryuji, putting on the other glove without ceremony. He picked up his tools and took a breath that made the hairs on the back of Ryuji’s neck stand up, then announced: “Mission start.”
“Good luck to both of us.”
Akira hummed agreement. Ryuji set his hands in his lap, winding his fingers together. The not-nervousness was morphing into real nervousness, but not because he thought Akira would do a bad job. He just couldn’t think of anything to say. Usually when he was with Akira he went on and on, Captain Motormouth, but his mind was completely blank. It was caught on the feeling of Akira’s hands in his hair—made nervous by it.
Just say something , he thought as the silence lengthened. Anything. Fishing .
He racked his brain for a way to mention fishing that didn’t sound like a desperate plea for conversation—and became aware that it wasn’t totally silent in the room. Not all the way, at least, because Akira was humming something. The mission music from a game they’d played together, in fact.
Ryuji’s heart swelled. He laughed softly, but didn’t mention anything. Like this he could relax, drinking in the feeling of the cold brush near his scalp and the occasional press of Akira’s fingers. His shoulders loosened, though the shivers from Akira’s touches on his scalp didn’t cease. Akira wasn’t feeling awkward, so why should he? This was just… nice.
Nice and something else. He felt lucky, maybe, that someone as special as Akira was always so ready to spend time with him. For a long time it had seemed like no one but his mother cared what he did. The world had decided he was no good, like he’d already done everything wrong and the rest of his life was just going to be a continued downward spiral. Akira didn’t make him feel like that.
Ryuji couldn’t really put words to it, but being with Akira felt a lot like being with a better part of himself.
Akira dragged the pointy end of the dye brush through Ryuji’s hair to part it and he suppressed another shiver. This was how Ryuji wanted to spend his days. Chillin’, going out, doing nothing—it didn’t matter as long as Akira was there to make the time pass pleasantly.
Was this what having a best friend felt like? And if so, then what was the real difference between a best friend and a…
Ryuji felt his skin start glowing hot. It was the sun coming through the window, probably, maybe, at least in part. It was hot these days. Really… sweaty and hot.
It’s not just the heat , he thought after a long moment, too honest to pretend with himself for long. Something bordering on panic was rising in him—but a kind of panic that kept him still, held him captive. His body felt large and clumsy. In battle it would get him in trouble; he’d misstep, fail to land hits, fail to dodge. Right now all he had to do was sit, and it still felt like too much.
It was Akira, not the heat. And the panic wasn’t… he didn’t think it was panic. Not quite. He took a shivery breath. He wanted to know more about Akira, understand him better. Maybe it would help him understand himself.
“Na, Jo—Akira.” He moved his eyes to get a glimpse of Akira in his peripherals, but was careful not to move his head.
The cold brush against Ryuji’s hair didn’t cease, but Akira interrupted his hum to respond: “Hm?”
“Do you have someone you like?”
“Like?” Akira repeated the word like it was foreign vocabulary that he was learning for the first time.
Ryuji let go of an exhausted sigh. “You know man, like for a girlfriend, or…” Ryuji swallowed, almost physically shook himself. “Romance, dude.”
There might have been a faint chuckle in Akira’s voice. “Is this the kind of stuff you talk about with your mom when she does this?”
Ryuji kicked his feet. “No. Yeah. I mean, she asks about me and stuff like that.”
“Oh? What did you tell her last time?”
“I told her about you.”
Akira’s hands stalled. It took Ryuji a minute; he didn’t even consider the words that left his mouth until he realized Akira’s hand had stopped moving for the first time in ten minutes. “Ah!” he yelled.
“I mean,” he began to sputter, face flashing hot— so hot —he probably looked like he was going to bite it from heat stroke. “I told her I had a new friend, yeah? And that, you were like totally cool and stuff, and you weren’t judgmental, and it made me really happy and comfortable to be around you.” He swallowed. “Stuff like that.”
Akira’s hands went back to parting Ryuji’s hair. “I see.”
Ryuji dragged his hand over his face. He’d rushed to get his words straight and still wound up being weird about it. What was with him today.
Ah well. With Akira honesty was usually best and easiest anyway. He sighed.
“It’s true, ya know?”
“That I’m totally cool?”
Ryuji reached around and slapped him. “No! That like… I can be myself around you. I’ve never had that before, ya know?” Ryuji threaded his fingers back together in his lap, twiddling his thumbs. “It means a lot to me.”
It seemed like there was a long silence, just bleachy goop being applied to Ryuji’s hair, but eventually Akira spoke. “Me too,” he said.
Ryuji smiled reflexively. “Ah, but I bet you had all kinds of friends at home. Not a loser like me.”
“Is that how you see it?”
The way Akira spoke gave Ryuji pause. He went still, thinking about those words in that order, over and over again. “Well… yeah,” he finally answered. “You’re a nice guy, and all handsome and shit—I bet tons of people cared about you.”
Akira’s hands never faltered in their application of the bleach. “Apparently not enough,” he said.
Something in the pit of Ryuji’s stomach went cold. Akira had never talked about other friends… was never talking to or texting anyone outside the people he’d met in Tokyo, never brought up his parents…
I am an idiot.
“Well, ah,” Ryuji chuckled nervously.
Akira dipped down in front of Ryuji’s face. “Maybe it’s because I’m too ‘handsome and shit’.” He smirked.
Ryuji tipped his head back and laughed. Of course he wouldn’t let it get to him. That was why he was who he was; that was why he was their leader.
Akira rounded the chair and squatted down, peering through the front of Ryuji’s hair. “You’re done,” he informed him. “Now we just wait. How long?”
“‘Bout forty minutes,” Ryuji said.
Akira nodded. “Wanna game?”
Akira stood and moved to grab another chair, and Ryuji was glad for it. He’d been stuck staring at how Akira’s cheeks pushed against the bottoms of his glasses when he smiled; he wouldn’t have been able to tear his eyes away on his own.
Akira got the game started, not looking at Ryuji. “Handsome and shit,” he muttered to himself, seeming to read Ryuji’s thoughts, then laughed—also to himself. Ryuji flushed, not sure whether he was making fun of him.
“You gonna write that in your diary or something?” Ryuji asked, starting to rub his neck—then remembering the bleach. He lowered his hand to the controller.
“Yes,” Akira said, “surrounded by little pink hearts.”
They laughed together, Ryuji out loud and Akira on the inside; Ryuji could see his eyes narrowed with mirth.
The menu music drew their attention back to the screen. It was a blessing, this gaming interlude, and Ryuji lost himself in the do-or-die of competing against Kurusu Akira in a game, where he never went easy on anyone. They were evenly matched until Ryuji got too into it, and then Ryuji always started losing. It didn’t seem fair.
Today, he lost a little more than usual. He kept thinking of hearts in Akira’s diary and the fact that Akira hadn’t answered his question about romance. It was hard to imagine Akira in love. He was so calm about everything. What kind of person would even catch his interest? They’d have to be mega hot. Mega smart. Mega… everything.
Ryuji felt almost indignant about it, even though he had no right to. It wasn’t his business.
Still, Akira could at least talk to him about it. Couldn’t he? They were friends. He didn’t have to keep it all to himself.
“Are you even trying to win right now?” Akira asked.
“The bleach,” Ryuji said, shaking himself. “You did it wrong. My brain… my brain is melting…” He tried to make a comeback. It kind of worked; he got a few moves on Akira. The pace of the game picked back up.
Ryuji wouldn’t think about diaries, because apparently they were his Achilles heel. No more diaries. No thoughts of Akira. Just smashing Akira’s character in the face until he was victorious.
He breathed out, long and slow, and let the game take over his mind.
“Time,” Akira said eventually.
“The bleach. It has to come out.” Akira took a buzzing phone from his pocket, turning off the timer. Ryuji hadn’t even noticed him setting it.
“Okay. We gotta… do you even have a proper bath here?”
“Leblanc’s sink?” Akira suggested, avoiding yet another question. Ryuji looked at him. No proper bath? He and his mom didn’t live in luxury, but maybe they had it good after all. Damn .
“There’s a bathhouse across the street,” Akira said, seeing Ryuji’s expression.
Ryuji said nothing, but only because he sensed Akira didn’t want to be pitied. He felt… bad. It was so easy to forget about Akira’s situation, even while they were in the attic together. Falsely accused of assault, on probation, living in an attic above a cafe… Ryuji schooled his face through force of will. When Akira stood and beckoned him down the stairs, he followed.
Don’t look sad, dude, Ryuji commanded himself—but he couldn’t stop thinking about how unfair it was that Akira had to live here in the first place. And his friends outside of Tokyo didn’t even keep in touch with him—what was wrong with them? Ryuji wanted to punch a wall. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right, and they were assholes who’d never known what they had. He wanted to punch them too, for considering themselves friends then disappearing when the probation thing happened. They might not be crappy adults yet, but they’d grow to become them eventually; Ryuji was sure of it.
On the last tread of the stairs he realized he was tromping down the steps more or less like an elephant. He reeled himself in, coughing politely.
“Good thing we have the place to ourselves,” he said, his voice over-bright. “Look a bit weird to the customers, me washin’ my hair in the sink…”
Akira made a listening noise, but he was already turning the corner to the kitchen and seemed preoccupied. Ryuji sidled up next to him, looking past his shoulder.
“What?” he asked.
“Dishes in the sink,” Akira said. “If we do them first, your hair might fall out.”
“Dude, I am not ready to give bald a try.”
“Bathroom sink?” Akira suggested.
Ryuji had been in there, and it was not a large room. “Uh…”
“I’ll help,” Akira said. “You just stay upright and keep your head under the water.”
It seemed at least kind of doable, so Ryuji nodded.
There was an awkward shuffling of bodies as they tried to fit themselves into the tiny space. Ryuji looked down at the sink like it was his nemesis. That strange clumsy anxiousness was making his stomach gurgle and flushing his skin over-hot. Akira cleared his throat, and Ryuji realized he was standing there, staring down at the drain like a weirdo. He did a double-take in Akira’s direction and Akira motioned to the sink gently, gentlemanly , and Ryuji began to bend over.
He huffed a breath against the plastic basin, hands tentatively fluttering around the edge of the bowl. The water turned on, and Ryuji couldn’t help but jump when the first cold splash hit him. He thought he heard Akira huff a small laugh; Ryuji sent a glare in his direction on reflex. Then the water warmed, and Ryuji closed his eyes. This was always kinda weird, the top of his head being soaked while his face was kept partially dry. The water arced over his scalp and behind his ears, escaping into small streams that slid over his cheeks and off his nose.
Then fingers pushed into Ryuji’s hair, and every ounce of energy in Ryuji’s body spiked into a single lightning bolt.
He went deathly still, even as his heart flailed around like a fish on a line. Akira continued his motions, rubbing into Ryuji’s hair and coercing the water to coat the whole of his head. This wasn’t a part of the usual for Ryuji; the usual included his mom applying the bleach and Ryuji scrubbing it out of his head forty minutes later with the edge of the tub cutting into his abdomen. But Akira was rubbing his fingers in slow circles, and it was difficult not to let go of a low, appreciative sound.
Akira’s hands trailed up, pressing his thumbs against the base of Ryuji’s neck before pushing along his spine. Goosebumps followed the motion in a wide sweep across Ryuji’s skin. He almost shuddered. His skin went tight and apprehensive, sensitive to every whisper of sensation.
What is happening? Ryuji let out a strangled exhale. He felt like he was melting into Akira’s touch, into his hands, and he really, really didn’t want him to stop.
Akira dragged his thumbs upward and into the tangle of Ryuji’s hair, from the base of his skull all the way to his crown. Ryuji’s legs gave a small—hopefully unnoticable—quake.
He felt totally bent to Akira’s will, wrapped around his fingers. He felt like an over-sensitive nerve laid bare and open for Akira’s hands. He was all vibrating sensation and rippling pleasure that felt… way too deep. It hummed from his very core, from his bones, from this nonexistent pit in his stomach…
It was weird. But it was okay; it was okay because it was Akira, and he could just enjoy this around him, probably. Even if it did make Ryuji’s skin itch like he wanted to press his face to something—someone—
He wanted to drag his hands wordlessly up Akira’s arms and hum his happiness to him. Maybe… would Akira like it too? If it was for Akira, then… Akira…
Ryuji’s eyes flew open. Holy shit , he totally had a thing for Akira!
“I’m a moron, ” he said to himself, within the confines of his sink. Of course he was crushing hard on this dude; he’d thought about him basically nonstop since the day they’d met—about his stupid curly hair, that stupid charismatic aura, that stupid. smirking. face.
Seriously? Ryuji whined to himself internally. He’s way too cool for you, you idiot.
But he was also massaging Ryuji’s scalp, entirely unprompted and unnecessarily. God… Ryuji squeezed his eyes shut. I’m not supposed to feel this riled up over a head massage, am I?
What was done was done; Ryuji couldn’t help that he wanted to kiss his best friend, and he couldn’t help that his best friend was washing his hair. Nothing he could do about it. Not a thing.
Except for… savor the moment, he guessed.
Ryuji tried to relax his shoulders and hold on to his last dregs of sanity. Akira was combing his fingers over his scalp, getting at the front bit now. The rake of his nails across the sensitive flesh was… wow , and Ryuji shifted his legs slightly. Man those are nice fingers…
Akira pushed the hair away from Ryuji’s face, and for just a moment Ryuji felt held in his hands. Tenderly, gingerly. He sighed loud and extensively into the sink.
“Almost done,” Akira assured him.
Akira gave a few more strokes through Ryuji’s hair, passing over all of it to make sure it was properly rinsed. Then he turned off the water and touched the towel to Ryuji’s shoulders.
“There you go.”
Ryuji took a steadying breath before standing, grabbing at the towel. He rubbed it over his head, then peered at himself in the mirror, inspecting his hair. It looked right, the color even. As always, Akira had done a good job.
Ryuji turned to face him, patting his hair and gesturing at himself with a showman’s aspect. It was a little much, but he felt a little much, and he had to cover his weirdness somehow. “There,” he said airily. “Am I beautiful again?”
Akira’s eyes scanned his hair, his cheekbones, his mouth. An eternal moment passed, and then—“Yes.”
Just that. He said it without even a hint of humor, and Ryuji nearly choked. Thankfully it was covered by Akira leaning in to inspect Ryuji’s hair himself, forcing him to bend again. There it was: Akira’s touch on his scalp, as impossible to bear as before, lancing through him like lightning, making him uncomfortably aware of every inch of himself. He was going to die on the spot.
My hair will be perfect for the funeral.
“You alright?” Akira asked, taking half a step back to survey Ryuji’s face. “Your face is all red.”
“What? Oh, yeah, well, upside down and all that.” Ryuji was trying not to panic and stutter, but now he was facing Akira and their faces were this close , their bodies even closer—so close their hips bumped when Ryuji shifted. It went straight through Ryuji, the awareness of that touch, but he forced it down. “And I was just, uh—” he knew, on some level, that he should stop talking—but Akira was tipping his head at him, fringe softly falling over his face, lips curved in a smile unlike any Ryuji had seen on him “—was thinking how good that felt. You having your fingers in my hair.”
“I mean, and it’d be cool if you did it again,” Ryuji kept rambling, for some reason. His face was blistering hot now; he was probably going to pass out from his own stupidity. What a feat; Ann and Morgana would never let him hear the end of it. “I mean, maybe not the hair dyeing thing—you don’t have to… I think my mom likes doing it, but I wouldn’t mind you putting your hands in my hair anytime, or for any reason, or, uh—”
“Anytime?” Jok—Akira interrupted, eyebrow quirking up.
“ Hhh? ” That was a good one. Solid response.
“For any reason?” Akira continued, taking the tiniest half step forward and crushing what distance there was between them. He lifted his hand, and his fingertips brushed over the curve of Ryuji’s cheekbone. Then they slipped past his hairline and into his hair, dragging sparks along with them. Ryuji let out a very big, very shaken exhale. Akira’s fingers threaded further into the damp tangle, lighting up Ryuji’s nerves like Christmas and New Years.
He had no thoughts; he was staring at Akira with lips parted around brain-dead static. He couldn’t speak, and he was so, so glad, because that kept him from ruining the moment Akira leaned down to fit his lips to the part of his mouth.
It wasn’t like Ryuji could say what it would feel like to have actual fireworks explode in the confines of his skin. It wasn’t like he’d experienced it—but he was pretty sure this was the closest a human could get. Energy sprang through his limbs in a way that was almost paralyzing. He wanted to touch and move and punch and do a million things all at once, but he also wanted to stay devoutly still, determined to memorize the exact way Akira’s mouth felt against his.
And what was with Akira’s mouth, anyway? It was so soft, so plush and warm and… God , Ryuji wanted to consume it. He heard a strange noise, something needy, like a keen or whine, float between them, only to realize that it had come from him.
Akira pulled away from him, leaving only a few centimeters between. When their lips detached there was a small noise, and Ryuji felt a spark jolt under his skin. Akira blinked at him. “Like that?” he asked softly—but his eyes weren’t soft. They were smoldering, like hot smoke shifting out of a still-burning campfire.
“Yes,” Ryuji nodded in a rush, taking two fistfuls of Akira’s shirt before jerking him forward. “Just like that.”
Akira’s heart was hammering in his chest, slamming wildly inside his ribcage. His veins were shine-bright with endorphins as clammy hands fisted in his shirt, pulling him forward.
Ryuji had been odd today, obvious in his bright-eyed confusion. It was clear some switch had flipped inside of him, and Akira had known almost from the moment he walked into Leblanc that they would kiss today. Or rather, Akira had decided they would.
Deciding was half the battle, and none of the fun. The fun was getting to touch Ryuji, teasing him, hearing his cheerful questions and answers and letting his easy friendship wash over him.
The fun was here, now, in this too-small bathroom, with Ryuji pulling him in like he was the air he breathed. In fact, Ryuji’s mouth was open wide, seeming to drink him in, teeth hard and unforgiving and none too gentle, somehow involved in the mess. Ryuji’s tongue pushed at him. Akira took a short, sharp breath, the clumsiness of Ryuji’s kiss reaching down into him, a hard demand that told him to forget about everything else. Its sincerity and the crush of Ryuji’s body against his could almost outmatch the physical unpleasantness of the guy he liked going at his face like it was food.
He brought his hand up, setting two fingers to Ryuji’s lips. Ryuji blinked at the new distance between them, eyes hazy, and Akira exhaled a laugh.
“A little less?” he suggested, voice low.
Awareness flickered in Ryuji’s eyes. “Shit, dude, I…” He seemed to steel himself, not finishing the statement, and leaned forward again. Akira’s hand dropped. Ryuji took Akira’s face in his palms, fingers trailing along his jaw, and that was perfect. Ryuji could be gentle sometimes, but it always seemed to take great effort—which made it that much better to be the thing Ryuji was holding softly, cradling in his callused hands. Akira shivered, waiting for their mouths to connect.
Waiting. And waiting. And…
Finally he felt Ryuji’s lips against his, soft as breathing. The hungry passion from a moment ago was held at bay as if a screen had fallen over it. There was no pressure—only a soft slide of Ryuji’s lips against his. No teeth, no tongue. Ryuji fitted his mouth over Akira’s with frustrating slowness and didn’t move, taking the pace down from a thousand to one without giving Akira a chance to object.
His body was on fire. This wasn’t enough; everything inside him called for more contact, harder. He’d take that open-mouthed mess of a kiss back if it was the only alternative, but—no.
Ryuji didn’t have to be the one calling all the shots.
Akira breathed out. “ More ,” he said, and this time he was the one pulling Ryuji in, setting his hands to his hips, opening his mouth against his. There was a strangled noise from Ryuji, but Akira swallowed it. This time when their tongues met Ryuji didn’t go crazy, though from the tremble of his body it seemed he might want to. His hands dropped from Akira’s face; he was breathing rough, and he relinquished control as if he’d been waiting to all along—as if something inside of Ryuji couldn’t help giving in to that ridiculous nickname: Leader .
If that was what he wanted…
Akira let the last of his reserve drop, cupping a palm to the back of Ryuji’s head as he stepped forward to push them into the bathroom wall. Ryuji exhaled softly as they made contact with the wall, lungs taking the brunt of it, but he didn’t complain. His hands were on Akira’s shirt, bunching and sliding and clinging. He didn’t seem to mind being pinned; the way he gave in so easily—Ryuji, the boy who’d fight anyone—made Akira feel out of control, hungry and hopeless with want.
Don’t scare him , he told himself with what remained of his mind. He wasn’t entirely sure Ryuji had known he liked guys before today. It probably wouldn’t do to pin him to a wall and rock into him, even if that was exactly what he wanted to do. This had to be good enough for Ryuji to forget his reservations—good enough to put to rest any doubts he might have.
He’d said he liked Akira’s hands in his hair; Akira would oblige him with that first. He slid his fingers into Ryuji’s damp hair, leaning into him. Ryuji quivered against him, his body wracked with shiver after shiver at the touch of Akira’s fingertips. He was so sensitive—surprisingly sensitive for such a rough-and-tumble guy, as if gentle touches opened up a different, unknown part of him. Akira wanted to peel back all the pieces, sink into the warm heart of him. He could live there.
You’re being ridiculous , he thought to himself—but Ryuji’s mouth was moving under his, taking him in and pushing back, finally achieving the balance that had been impossible earlier, and Akira couldn’t help wanting to never leave, never stop.
He was bodily pushing one of his best friends into a bathroom wall, though, and that didn’t seem like good manners. After a long time—a long, long time, where his better and worse natures duked it out—he stepped back, breathing hard. Ryuji looked as if he might slide down the wall; Akira helped keep him standing.
After a moment Ryuji’s lust-hazy eyes closed. “What the hell,” he murmured. It seemed rhetorical, so Akira said nothing. He felt suspended in time, hanging onto Ryuji’s next words.
“Why do you have to be good at everything ?” Ryuji asked—and Akira had to clap a hand over his mouth as he started to laugh. Ryuji’s eyes narrowed. “Oh no you don’t,” he said, pulling the hand away, and Akira stood laughing silently under Ryuji’s intent stare, feeling his eyes go dewy with amusement, unsure what Ryuji was seeing in him just now. He felt out of control. What did Ryuji see?
An idiot, probably. He saw a love-struck idiot. Well, that was allowed.
Good at everything , Akira thought. Being with Ryuji was too much for his ego. First he was all handsome and shit, and now he was good at everything. It occurred to him that the compliments had been distinctly one-sided, though, and now that he’d realized he had to change it.
Ryuji was still holding his wrist, so he lifted the other hand instead, raising it to Ryuji’s face. He traced his sharp brows, his cheekbones, the curve of his lower lip.
“I think you’re handsome and shit,” he said softly. He could feel himself smiling a disconcerting smile, but he couldn’t help it. He was allowed to say this now. “Really handsome and shit. You know.”
He could spend hours thinking about the slant of Ryuji’s shoulders, the bold lines of his face, the wild tilt of his grin. He ought to tell Ryuji being with him made him want to lose control, opened a part of him to light and air. But he thought handsome and shit might be as much as he could say for now.
He didn’t want to embarrass him.
“Ha,” Ryuji said, turning his head away. “I guess... uh...”
It was obvious Ryuji had to force himself to manage it, but eventually he met Akira’s eyes. “I guess if you kiss me like that, it’s gotta be true.”
Akira laughed again, and since Ryuji seemed to like him not hiding it he didn’t cover it up. He was fairly sure he looked psychotic when he laughed or smiled while he felt like this, but there was something freeing in letting someone see despite that. Like he could show any part of himself and Ryuji wouldn’t run screaming.
“I didn’t mean to kiss you for the first time in a bathroom,” Akira said, looking around.
“Didn’t mean t—it’s not like ya fell on me or somethin’!”
Akira swallowed amusement. “I suppose not.”
“And—hey, what do you mean you didn’t mean to do it here? Did you mean to somewhere else?”
It was hard to look shamefaced; Akira hardly tried. “Will you hate me if I say yes?”
“Dude. What the hell? I was goin’ crazy! I thought, what the hell is up with me?!” Ryuji glared. “You’re sayin’ you were…” He didn’t finish. He didn’t seem properly angry, anyway, just stunned.
Akira moved his captive hand, turning it around so he was holding Ryuji’s wrist instead. He set a kiss to Ryuji’s palm, causing a red bloom to rise up Ryuji’s chest to his face.
“I wasn’t scheming,” Akira said. “I just wanted to. That’s all.”
“How long have you wanted to?” The innocent lift of Ryuji’s brow—as if he couldn’t quite believe it—made Akira’s heart swell. He wasn’t sure how other people could be so blind to Ryuji’s charms. Ryuji might be as subtle as a punch in the face, but there were layers to him. And physically…
Don’t think about that now , Akira thought. The last thing he needed was to be more aroused. He was barely holding himself back as it was, now that they’d talked a little.
“A while,” he said. How long had the attraction been there? Maybe all along, just a little. He’d been charmed by the loud-mouthed boy with dragging suspenders—charmed by the sense that this boy literally couldn’t tell a lie to save his life.
Like standing in sunlight .
He was glad his powers had awoken when they did. He smiled at Ryuji now, grateful, and Ryuji let out a long breath.
“What the hell,” Ryuji said again, shaking his head slightly. At Akira’s silence, he cocked his head—and a hint of smugness crept into his expression. “Well. What’s this mean then, Leader ?”
Akira shivered. He liked that. He especially liked the sense that Ryuji was teasing him with it. If Ryuji learned to utilize his charm instead of swinging it around indiscriminately like a bat, he’d be a force to be reckoned with.
Right now it was just his bold goodness that flattened Akira. What else would flatten him in the future?
“What do you want it to mean?” Akira asked.
“I don’t know. Are we goin’ out and shit? Like…” Ryuji coughed. “Y’know.” He scratched his head, forced the words out. “ Boyfriends , I guess?”
Akira let the silence drag on, enjoying the memory of Ryuji saying boyfriends . Ryuji’s face was suffused with embarrassment, and he was tapping a hand against Akira’s chest absently, as if to drum up an answer.
“Yes,” Akira breathed. Ryuji was asking him; he was allowed to answer yes, wasn’t he? Ryuji’s hand flattened out against his shirt, a hot brand, and Akira had to cut the tension. “As long as you don’t mind I’m flat-chested.”
Ryuji exhaled a laugh. “Don’t worry about it. You’ve got redeeming features.”
“Yes,” Akira said, glowing. “I’m good at everything .”
“Shut up!” Ryuji said, but he was laughing, and Akira laughed with him.
“Yeah, okay,” Ryuji said finally. “Yeah.”
They stood in silence, not looking at each other, their bodies close. Akira was intensely aware of their breathing—the weight of the air between them. If only he’d waited to kiss Ryuji somewhere else.
No , he thought then. Anywhere was fine. Anywhere would do.
There was a tinkle of Leblanc’s bell, and Akira sighed. Customer ignoring the Closed sign, or one of their friends? He wasn’t ready to see anyone; he wanted to drink Ryuji in some more.
Another time , he promised himself.
“Where are you guys?” Morgana yelled.
“In here!” Akira called.
“Dude!” Ryuji hissed. “He’ll come in!”
“He’s a cat, doors take him a while. But anyway, so what?” Akira stepped away and pulled open the door. “Hey Morgana.”
Morgana looked at the two of them. “What were you doing in here?” he asked. The towel Ryuji had dried his hair with was on the floor, and Ryuji looked distinctly caught out.
“Ryuji clogged the toilet,” Akira said—and watched Ryuji’s eyes go wide.
“Hey!” he said, elbowing him, and Akira shook with laughter. He pressed his lips together and strolled past Morgana.
“It’s all fixed now,” he said. “And Ryuji’s hair is done. What do you want to do?”
He looked around. Morgana stood thinking, and Ryuji stood touching his face, trailing fingers against his lips. Luckily Morgana’s back was to Ryuji, or he might have gotten wise to the situation immediately. Tender as this new thing between him and Ryuji was, Akira wasn’t ready for Morgana’s guaranteed criticism—unless Morgana would be relieved Akira wasn’t gunning for Ann. Maybe he’d have to frame it that way when he told him.
“Would you like a drink, Ryuji?” he asked.
“Yeah!” Ryuji squeaked out. Akira forced down a smile and nodded, heading to the kitchen. They both followed him there, and he focused on looking normal as he made drinks and brought out snacks—even though he kept thinking I have a boyfriend and fighting down a grin.
“Do anything fun?” he asked Morgana when he was done. He stayed behind the counter, looking at the two of them. Ryuji was acting highly suspicious—but Morgana was pretty blind when it came to Ryuji, and it came in handy now.
“Not really,” Morgana said. “But at least it didn’t smell bad.” He looked at Ryuji’s hair. “Seems you did a good job. Too bad, Joker!”
“Hey,” Ryuji said, seemingly out of rote. There was no life in it, and his face was pink.
“I’m good at all sorts of things,” Akira said, wanting to get a reaction out of Ryuji. Ryuji jumped and visibly swallowed a laugh, coughing slightly. Morgana harrumphed.
“Well, yeah!” Morgana said. “But you don’t have to brag about it too much.”
“I’ll try to limit myself. It’ll be hard.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Morgana said. “Oi, Ryuji! Quit zoning out. Pass the powdered donuts.”
Ryuji glared. “No way! You just lick the outsides and leave the rest. It’s disgusting!”
“It’s not disgusting! And anyway, why should it matter what I do with my donut? I don’t ask you to eat it after.”
Akira leaned forward, watching them.
“If you’re gonna eat like a cat, eat cat stuff.”
“I don’t tell you how to eat.”
“You told me to eat more quietly just a week ago,” Ryuji complained. He looked to Akira for corroboration.
Akira smiled, saying nothing. I have a boyfriend , he thought, and watched Ryuji argue.
>> Had fun toda--
>> yo thanks for dying my ha
>> The kissing was great, eh?
Long backspace, accompanied by an even longer sigh.
Ryuji pressed his phone to his forehead, then smacked himself with it. Get yourself together!
Ryuji wasn’t positive on the protocol for texting your boyfriend. Or girlfriend. He had no prior knowledge on any of the subjects. But it was just Akira, right? So he could just text him like before… right?
“Thanks… again…” Ryuji spoke slowly as he typed out the words. “For dyeing my hair… today.” He pressed his thumb hard against the phone screen. “Send.” He stared at the screen for a while, mind going blank and foggy. He was wrapped up in thoughts and sensations from today. There had been… a lot.
Ryuji’s phone buzzed.
>> anytime, the text read. Punctuating the response was an emoticon with lips puckered up for a kiss. Ryuji felt his face flush scarlet.
“That little…” His breath died on any future insults. He was smiling down at his phone like an idiot.
Ryuji let his head fall back heavily onto his pillow. He held the phone above his face, staring at the bright red and black of the screen. He wanted to ask Akira to do something tomorrow, and while logic said he should be able to ask like he’d always asked, Ryuji was getting caught on all sorts of ideas. They could hang out just like before, except… he didn’t want it to be like before. He wanted to do… date stuff. Boyfriend stuff.
Ryuji brought the phone back down to his face, smooshing it to his forehead. He took a steadying breath and began a new message.
>> Hey you wanna do somethin’ tomorrow? Like a movie?
He waited. Akira could have been typing his response at light speed and it still would have felt like a millennium. Ryuji flicked his thumb up and down the screen, making the texts jive to the rhythm of his panic.
>> Sure. Akira responded, not at light speed, but very quickly nonetheless.
>> Here or the theater? was his follow up.
Ryuji froze. A movie in Akira’s room? In that dark attic? Alone?
Ryuji stared at his ceiling. They’d be able sit together… close and together. Could Ryuji put an arm around him? Would that be weird? Ryuji imagined it. His heart immediately started jack-hammering in his chest, and he pressed his hand to it in an effort to calm it down.
“ Geez ,” he chided himself in the dark of his bedroom. He wondered if he was gonna make it through this.
But the image was… nice. His arm wound around Akira’s slim waist—maybe he’d lean into Akira, or Akira would lean into him. Ryuji felt like his blood was humming. Was it normal to want to hold another human being this bad? He wanted to squeeze the ever loving shit out of that smirky jerk—he wouldn’t ... but he wanted to. He wanted to try and press all the ridiculous and heart-spiking feelings he was having into Akira himself.
“This is bad, isn’t it,” he spoke out loud. He brought his phone back to his face and responded.
>> Your place sounds good.
Texting was a wonderful thing. Much more difficult to stutter while texting.
>> Roger that. I’ll be sure to have snacks and everything.
Ryuji shook his head. All I need is you, dude.
>> Thanks! he responded simply. He set the phone aside and let out a long-held breath.
Ryuji clamored out of bed, pausing in the doorway of his bedroom. “Welcome back,” he said, squinting through the darkness.
His mom raised her head as she tugged off her shoe. “Oh, Ryuji, you’re still awake.” She smiled.
“Well, yeah...” he trailed off, standing up straighter. She looked tired, but her face still had that glowing happiness to it, like it was seated directly beneath her skin.
She flicked on the hall lights, and after they blinked through the flash of light she stepped up to him, gently pushing at a tuft of his hair. “Oh, Ryuji, I’m sorry. You had to bleach it without me.”
“Ah, no big deal!” he said. “Well I mean, you were real busy and all that. I figured next time you get a day off we could chill together? Do somethin’ fun, like a movie or whatever.”
Her smile moved into her eyes, pushing at the corners. “That’d be nice.” She moved toward the kitchen and Ryuji followed her. “I miss chatting though; we’ll have to make up for it next time your roots need touched up. Who did it today?”
Ryuji leaned against the doorway, scuffing his foot against the floor. He couldn’t help but grin. “You know that new friend I told you about?”
“Mm, the one with the glasses… Akira-kun?”
“Yeah. He did it.”
“My,” she said, turning around to give Ryuji a more thorough look. “He did a great job.” Her face was shining bright again, the way she always appeared in his mind when he thought of his mom. “I’m glad he’s there for you.”
Ryuji shoved his hands in his pockets and thought about today—about shared laughs, shared smiles, shared… other things. “Yeah,” he said, scratching at his cheek as he smiled at the floor. “Me too.”