The start of the situation could be blamed on a number of factors including the New Year’s money burning a hole in their pockets and the previous month’s bad weather, because there they were the first week of January in Okina’s largest sporting goods store, squeezed into a tight corner in the shoe section during the annual Bargain Blowout.
It was no small thanks to Souji that Kou was excited about basketball again, so even if he hadn’t completely worn through his last pair of basketball sneakers he seemed eager to join Daisuke for a shoe outing.
In fact if anything Daisuke seemed more enthusiastic about having Kou try on new shoes than finding his much needed sneakers and cleats (“Dude, I always get the same brand and size, so I don’t need to look.”)
He must have tried on five pairs by now, Daisuke on his knees diligently unlacing and re-lacing them for him. Not to mention slipping them on and off with his big and all too warm hands, that was a bit distracting.
“I heard these make you feel like you’re practically on air,” the soccer player gushed, tying the knot of the right left shoe firmly. “The changed the angle of the cushioning by the heel and added extra arch support – uh not that you need it ‘cause you got the nicest arches I’ve ever seen –“
Kou cocked an eyebrow and brought his socked left foot up to his friend’s face. “The nicest arches?”
“Well yeah, dude. I mean they’re just perfectly there, like they were molded that way or something.”
To prove the point Daisuke traced one of the arches in question with his index finger.
He wasn’t ticklish, but damn if the light touch wasn’t making Kou squirm. “So you noticed that today or what?”
“I knew before!” was the heated reply.
“So you’ve been checking out my arches? Anything else?” It shouldn’t have surprised Kou too much, after all they were both athletes, but the idea of Daisuke noticing his body was strange and maybe even a little thrilling.
“Hey man, I’m not a creep or anything. It’s just really obvious, like how you arch your back. Easy to see how flexible you are.”
“And anyone can tell that you’re an athlete by the curve of your calves.” After all no one had calves that rounded and firm without doing significantly more than the daily walk to school and participating in phys ed class.
“Anyone huh? Got something to add about my thighs?”
“Well you’re not working them like a soccer player,” Daisuke began, basketball players didn’t work their hamstrings nearly as much and maybe he and Kou could start some new stretches together, “but they’re more than decent.”
“So what you dream about the curve of my neck, too?” Kou’s voice started out mocking before it morphed into a breathy inquiry.
Daisuke felt his throat go dry and his tongue get thick and clumsy. He’d never really thought about Kou’s neck before, but now that he did it commanded his attention; the sensuous line of it and how a few damp hairs curled invitingly at the nape.
“Problem, man?” the teasing lilt was back. Which meant Kou had to be aware of his inappropriate reaction.
“Seriously?” mischievously Kou pointed his toes towards Daisuke’s problem when the soccer player grabbed the offending foot and resolutely pulled it towards the awaiting shoe. The lacing that followed was swift and vehement.
“If you walk around in these you’ll notice they don’t slip as much as your old ones.” Little by little Daisuke started to regain his composure.
Kou frowned a bit, reluctant to turn back to ordinary conversation and stifle this new mounting tension. Or maybe it wasn’t so new, not really. It was like something bubbling to the surface after quietly building up to a slow boil.
And then a thought hit him.
“Daisuke, did you research basketball sneakers for me?”
“It wasn’t like library research or anything, dude. I just asked on some forums ‘cause I noticed your playing style changed and maybe a different shoe could help…don’t look at me like that!”
The look, two parts shock and one part desire mixed thoroughly with gratitude, persisted.
“I told you it wasn’t a big deal,” Daisuke felt the blush creeping across his face. “I only really noticed when we had that practice game.”
“Which you organized,” the other boy pointed out.
“N-not that much, it was mostly Souji’s doing. I just helped out a little.”
Kou leaned forward over his knees so that his forehead nearly touched Daisuke’s, “That’s not the way Souji tells it.”
“Aww man, I told him not to talk about it,” the blush had now spread to the tips of his ears.
“Why are you embarrassed about it?” Kou asked frankly.
“Because…” It was a good question, why was he embarrassed about it? Cheering up a friend by organizing a game wasn’t that big of deal, was it? So why did he feel like it signified something big and important? “I’m not, okay? You’re blowing it up into something it’s not, man.”
For thirty seconds Daisuke felt a sick pit in his stomach as Kou’s expression started to shutter into what he privately called Ichijo Prince Mode. Though almost as soon as it appeared, Prince Mode seemed to fade away and instead an even more inscrutable expression flickered there before Kou settled on a wistful smile.
“We still hittin’ that movie after we get our shoes?” was how Kou broke the silence.
In the end it was another sports movie, but afterwards Daisuke couldn’t tell even tell you the name of the underdog-turned-champion team and could only hazily recall that sport was baseball. Mostly because Kou kept whispering to him, lips nearly grazing his ear for half the movie. The other of the time he was brushing Daisuke’s hands whenever he reached for a sip of soda or a handful of popcorn. The jolts it sent through his body could hardly be named unpleasant, but Daisuke was far too wound-up from their time at the shoe store to handle so much stimulation in one day.
Then there was the train ride home. Exactly forty-two minutes on the sub-semi-express from Okina station to Yasoinaba. Kou dozed off at one point, head lolling until he at last pillowed it on his friend’s shoulder for precisely eleven minutes and thirty-six seconds. Each warm breath made Daisuke shift his legs uncomfortably, but he couldn’t bring himself to shake Kou off.
If time seemed agonizingly slow on the train it blurred quickly from the walk back towards the Ichijo residence. They chatted about school things until Kou’s house came into sight, when Daisuke abruptly said,
“So I was thinking you could join us on Thursdays. Tuesdays and Saturdays, too, if you don’t have tea ceremony or calligraphy lessons.”
The statement caught Kou off-guard. “For soccer practice?”
“I know soccer’s not your thing and all, but it can’t be good for you to stop stretches and exercise for the winter.” He was rambling, just as stupid and blindly as his classmates accused him of, wasn’t he? “It’s totally not your fault that they won’t let you guys use the gym in the winter just because you don’t have enough members.”
“So slow down a sec, what’re you saying?”
“Jeez and you call me slow. I’m saying you can join us for the warm-ups and stretches on practice days,” Daisuke gave a sheepish smile. “I mean if you want to that is.”
“You want me to come to soccer practice?” He still couldn’t quite believe his ears.
“Well, uh Souji could come, too. I guess. But the whole team probably couldn’t and people are already used to us hanging out a lot.”
“Uh-huh.” Kou had never quite thought about how others saw them and it intrigued him.
“And I don’t think they can protest too much ‘cause you are a fellow athlete in need and all. That and I already cleared it with Coach. So, uh, whaddya say?”
For some reason Daisuke’s clumsy invitation was affecting him more than any love confession or flirtatious overture he’d received in the last two years combined. It was a little scary and somehow everything he wanted.
“I say,” he began with a long exhale, “ ‘Thursdays sound good.’ Good night, Daisuke.”
“Wha-? Really? Uh awesome, man! Thursdays it is! G’night.”
Kou thought it just might be the start of a great year after all.
“Now this is a real treat,” Kou declared happily over his bowl of ramen. “Way better than a mountain of chocolates.”
“Mmmmhm!” Daisuke slurped his noodles in agreement. And it was probably a sight more filling than the fancy food Kou usually got back at the Ichijo Ice Palace, not that he’d say that aloud.
“So Mister Captain of the Soccer Team you got quite a haul yesterday. Any lucky lady getting something in return from you next month?”
“You should talk Lord Kou, didn’t you get more than Souji?” Okay maybe that was a bit of a low blow because Kou flinched for a half-second and Daisuke suddenly felt he was nearly too stupid to function.
“Yeah maybe by one or two boxes,” Kou fidgeted with his chopsticks idly. “And only because of the Ichijo name, not because of me. I guess that’s how high school is.”
“Dude if they gave you chocolate ‘cause they knew you, you’d have a mountain more than anyone else,” Daisuke said half in a rush before shutting himself up with another mouthful of soup. He snuck a sideways glance at his friend. Okay, good so far, no Ichijo Prince Mode.
The corner of Kou’s mouth twitched a bit, but in embarrassment or amusement he couldn’t say. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“What question?” Now this was getting embarrassing. Examining Kou’s face had led to looking at his ear and down the curve of his neck. Ever since Kou called attention to the nape of his neck last month, Daisuke hadn’t been able to look at it in the same way.
“Whether there’s a girl you’re giving White Day chocolates to.”
“Oh that,” for a few seconds Daisuke thought that Kou had asked another question while he had been nape-gazing. “No. They’re uh pretty nice girls and all, but I don’t feel that way ‘bout any of them.”
“Not even one? I mean those were a lot of boxes,” he chuckled. “I didn’t think you were that popular with the ladies at Yasogami.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, dude? That they got bad taste or something?” Daisuke lightly kicked his foot against Kou’s in friendly rebuke.
Kou kicked back, “Or maybe they got better taste than I thought, ever think of that?”
“Very funny, man.” Daisuke refilled their cups with the pitcher of tea on the table. He felt his knees bump against his friends and nearly shuddered from the unexpected contact.
“Why don’t we just say that we don’t understand the taste of the girls at our school and leave it at that,” said Kou shrugging. “I mean even Hanamura got chocolates and a few months ago half of them wouldn’t have given him the time of day.”
“Yeah, girls are weird. No argument there, bro.” A trickle of sweat ran down Daisuke’s back, his hands started to get a bit clammy. It certainly didn’t help that the restaurant was pretty warm, and the soup and tea plenty hot.
“Satonaka’s pretty cool,” Kou went on, “but that’s because she doesn’t act like the other girls.”
“Satonaka, huh?” He tried to keep his tone light in contrast to the sick lead weight he felt in his stomach. “Gonna give her White Day chocolates, yeah?”
“I didn’t get any chocolates from Satonaka this year,” said Kou flatly. “Besides she’s pretty tight with Souji’s crowd and Amagi and her are joined at the hip. I don’t think Amagi would approve of my interest, if you know what I mean.”
There was just enough bitterness in Kou’s voice to make Daisuke feel a stab of irrational anger towards Satonaka. Though it was probably pretty bad that he also felt a sick kind of relief. Time for a topic change and fast, no use letting Kou go down this road again.
“Yeah well her loss, right?” Daisuke grinned before bringing the soup bowl to his lips to drink. “You coming to practice again tomorrow?”
“Huh? Yeah man, I haven’t missed one yet,” replied Kou with a puzzled look as he set his soup spoon down. “Why do you ask?”
Okay so maybe that wasn’t exactly the smoothest transition in the history of subject changes. “Well I just wanted to make sure. It sucks not to have my stretching buddy because we got an odd number of guys. You can’t do the deeper stretches without a partner.”
“I’ll say. I haven’t been this sore in a while,” Kou remarked. “My thighs are always aching the next day.”
“Really?” he asked in a half-strangled tone. Kou talking about his body shouldn’t be a big deal—
“Yeah, it’s not bad though. I kind of like feeling the burn, makes me realize how much stronger they’re getting. “
But it was a total turn-on in the worst way possible. Here he’d thought that his attraction to Kou would be fleeting. “Is that so?”
“Usually the next morning in bed I wake up and the second I shift my legs I can feel it,” Kou began blithely. “It starts with a twinge then there’s this flash of heat before it becomes a full-on throbbing ache.”
Daisuke choked on his tea and sputtered.
“You all right, man?” Instantly Kou was all concern. “Are you gonna be okay?”
“Yeah,” Daisuke managed to whisper. He was totally going to be okay if he didn’t die of inappropriate attraction first. That would be just perfect on the evening news: Local Teen Dies from Innuendo Related Complications, details at eleven.
“Was it something I said?” His friend was the picture of innocence though a hint of that earlier sultriness seemed to linger under the surface.
“Of course not,” mumbled Daisuke blushing. “My tea just went down the wrong way.”
Kou nodded sagely, “It happens to everyone sometime.”
“I guess so, it’s just kind of embarrassing,” Daisuke started slowly when it occurred to him that two could play this game. “I mean you start out thinking you can handle it like it’s nothing and then the warm liquid surprises you—“
Pupils dilated, check.
“And it tickles your throat, so you cough a bit even though you’re tryin’ to swallow at the same time—“
Quickened breathing, check.
“Before you know it you’re gaggin’ on it and you got no idea how it ended up that way.”
Blushing from neck to ears, double check.
“But whatever, happens to us all,” Daisuke concluded with a purposefully casual tone. “No biggie. Am I right, dude?”
“Ah,” Kou was momentarily at a loss for words “Right. Yeah. That. Excuse me, I gotta hit the men’s room.”
“No prob. You want me to order another plate of dumplings?” came Daisuke’s solicitous inquiry. “Because they’re half off since we both got the big bowl special.”
“I’m good, man.” If an Ichijo, even an adopted one, could stumble it would look a little like the hurried and clumsy maneuver Kou executed trying to get out of his chair. “Be right back.”
Daisuke leaned back in his chair and shook his head. This can of worms just got bigger and he had no idea where it was going. He might be flirting with disaster but on the other hand, he certainly wasn’t alone in whatever this unnamed thing that was boiling between them was. And that was a comfort.
Maybe it was time to figure out what this was.
So there it was out in the open. He’d finally said it, announced his intentions to go abroad and leave Inaba. Daisuke was probably right when he pointed out that he was doing it for himself and not the Ichijo clan. Souji took the whole thing with his usual easy acceptance and the kind of grace Kou wished the Ichijos could have instilled in him. Though Souji had probably been born that way.
Daisuke on the other hand. He wasn’t sure to be happy or disappointed by his reaction. There wasn’t a tantrum and to be fair Daisuke wasn’t a tantrum throwing kind of guy. Kou was touched by his admittedly sappy friendship speech, but he was probably a bad person for wishing Daisuke to have reacted more, more what’s the word?
Not negatively, he’d been positively freaked out about pissing off his friend forever.
Deep down maybe he was hoping Daisuke would beg him to stay and try to coax him into going the same university in Japan and being roommates at a dorm and afterwards…
Now this was getting ridiculous. He should be delighted that Daisuke was thoughtful and supportive and all sorts of other great things a best friend should be. The operative word of course being “should.” And he wasn’t. Damn it all he ought to have just ridden the train with Souji tomorrow and told him. Souji being the standup guy that he was would’ve told him how to break it to Daisuke. Or something like that.
It was like he cast out a line and no bite was forthcoming. Should he talk about it more or wait until Daisuke inquired further? Too bad there wasn’t a book at Yomenaido for this kind of thing or a lesson he could take. Only two hours since he broke the news and he was regretting it. Sitting on the river back and staring at the Samegawa wasn’t helping matters, but it wasn’t making them any worse either.
“Yo!” Kou jerked at the sound of an unexpected voice. “Man, I’m lucky you’re pretty predictable,” Daisuke said sitting down beside him. He must have been pretty lost in thought not to hear him approaching.
“I thought you were going home after lunch at Aiya’s,” Kou began slowly, his stomach sinking. Daisuke had probably decided he was angry after all. Funny though he didn’t look angry. “Did you forget something?”
“Yeah kinda,” Daisuke ran a hand through his hair in a half-nervous gesture. “Listen, I talked to Souji and he said I shoulda been honest with you after your big news.”
“Oh?” he tried to keep his tone light. Kou glanced at his friend beside him. If he was very lucky their friendship wouldn’t end.
“I don’t want you to study abroad unless I’m coming with you.” All traces of nervousness were gone now, Daisuke sounded firm and resolved. To further punctuate the statement he took Kou’s hand into his own. “But I probably don’t got the grades for it, huh? ”
Light-headed Kou could only ask, “What are you sayin’?” He was trying not to think about how big and warm and real Daisuke’s hand was holding his because if he did he’d get too hopeful.
“I’m gonna tell you my post-graduation dream. I wanna go to the same college as you and be roommates and drive each other crazy about who forgot to do the laundry,” he grinned at Kou broadly. “Probably me.”
“Roommates?” he felt dizzier than he did all the way back in January when Daisuke had asked him to come to soccer practice.
“Yeah dude, roommates. And if you don’t mind me sayin’ it, of the permanent kind,” Daisuke’s tone softened a bit. “You don’t have to say ‘yes’ or anything. I mean I know it’s dumb and—“
“Shut up,” Kou interrupted squeezing Daisuke’s hand. “I like your dream better.”
The words were barely out of his mouth before Daisuke leaned over and kissed him quickly.
No maybes about it, it was going to be a great year after all.