In his peripheral vision, where the world blurred into colours and associations, Tatsuya watched Jin. His friend nodded and smiled but otherwise stood back, keeping to himself. Occasionally, Jin would turn his head from the woman throwing the dart to the man standing just behind her. In front of the NTV producers, he wouldn't do anything more. A year ago, Tatsuya would never have thought it possible, but somewhere in Los Angeles amid the palm trees and the guns, Jin had learned when to keep his mouth shut.
When they'd been told their guest for this afternoon's taping was Miki Maya, they'd all seen Kame's eyes light up just a fraction. Only Tatsuya had caught the reacting flare in Jin's.
And when Kame lost the game, the loser's dare was the usual ridiculous confession played out after 11pm, when all the children were either in bed or at their books. Meant to embarrass. But years of subterfuge had forged the actor in Kame; Tatsuya had seen him pitch to any audience and so had Jin. No one could quite tell anymore where the act stopped and Kazuya began.
If it was a performance, it was a good one. The strut and spin, the fingers brushing against her cheek. The flimsiest pick-up line imaginable carried the joke. They all laughed because they were supposed to and Kame collapsed in the embarrassed heap expected of him.
When the director yelled, "Cut!", Tatsuya didn't miss Jin's laughter dying first.
"You don't think it was too soon, do you?" Junno asked him backstage, as they swapped costume suits for more casual garb. The dressing rooms were tiny at the NTV studios, they could only fit two people per room. More like reclaimed cupboards, Tatsuya thought to himself, peeling the white shirt off his shoulders, and with about as much concern for their comfort.
"I don't know, Junno, I'm not his nurse." He let the white shirt fall in a crumpled pile on the floor and fell back into his chair, boneless as a rag doll.
"But you are worried about him."
On the other side of the room, Junno sat on the counter, the expression on his face all concern. He held a pack of ice against the back of his knee, where Koki had kicked him. One day, one of them – probably Jin – was going to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, push a little too far, make another joke at his expense, and Junno was going to explode. They forgot he was six feet of gymnastically trained muscle. If he lost it, they would not be talking of rooms but floors' worth of damage. Tatsuya was determined it would never come to that.
"How's it holding up?" Tatsuya gestured to the old knee injury.
"Twinging a bit. It'll be okay." That said, Junno shifted the pack over his knee cap. "How about you?"
Since when had it mattered how he was? Tatsuya closed his eyes. "Wake me up in ten years, then ask."
He heard a chuckle and a rustling, then a suspiciously damp sweat towel landed over his face. Moments later, the door behind them opened.
"Hey, guys . . ."
Tatsuya rolled his eyes under the towel before removing it. Kame's nickname suited him well: like a turtle, he hesitantly peeked around the door, ready to dive back into his shell at the slightest indecent provocation. For all the things he and Jin had once done only a wall away from everyone else, Kame remained inexplicably coy.
"We've got about ten, fifteen minutes before they want us on set," Kame muttered. As a rule, their assistant manager would knock on their doors at five minutes to time. Kame cast his eyes down for an instant before fixing them on Tatsuya's back. In the mirrors, Tatsuya watched him, as he watched everyone. He didn't like what he saw.
The first thing that struck Tatsuya when he opened the door was the stench. The second was a desperate craving for the cigarettes he hadn't touched in two years.
"You said you'd quit," he spoke into the grey trails of smoke. Jin didn't look up from where he stood in front of the mirrors, just exhaled and crushed the half-smoked butt into the ash tray before him.
"You know in America they'll arrest you for smoking inside," Jin said, ostensibly checking his hair. He was halfway through getting changed, casual from the waist down in ripped jeans and a flannel shirt around his hips, the white dress shirt unbuttoned and hanging from his shoulders.
"No, they won't." Tatsuya closed the door and leaned back against it.
"I wasn't game enough to try. Seriously, even in my apartment I'd go out on the balcony." Unconsciously, Jin reached to pull another cigarette from the packet, then stopped himself. "Here, no one cares." For a few moments, he tapped the pack of Marlboros back and forth across the dressing room counter. Then he turned. "Is it time?"
"Yes. For you." There were only three steps separating them. Jin's bag was on the chair, Tatsuya grabbed it by the sides and upended it over the counter.
"—the fuck are you doing?!" Jin tried to pull him away. The weakness of his grip told Tatsuya all he needed to know.
"What am I doing? I'm looking after you, since you refuse to do it yourself." From the pile of clothes, shoes, sweat towels, broken phone charms and old receipts, Tatsuya fished out an inconspicuous green case. He spent more time looking out for Jin now than he ever had in his brief stint as 'Leader'. (Kame had never let him forget that particular piece of misplaced magnanimity.) "Is it all in here?"
One flick of his head was the only response Jin gave.
"At least you remembered to bring it this time." Tatsuya expected some loud form of protest or at the very least a 'fuck you' – Jin was prickly about his intelligence – but the man beside him said nothing. Just kept staring at his hands pressed against the counter. The miniature light bulbs cast a slightly yellow tinge over his face. Tatsuya opened the green case, found the lancet, rubbing alcohol swabs and a small round meter.
"Jin?" Jin glanced at him. He was blinking a little more than usual. "Which hand?"
With a sigh, visible if not audible, Jin offered his left hand palm up. It was shaking.
"It still hasn't got any better?" Tatsuya asked, trying to keep Jin's mind on forming sentences rather than mental scenarios.
"No," said through gritted teeth. This had to be done quickly.
"I forget, who are we chatting up next?" Carefully, he swabbed Jin's middle finger then uncapped the lancet.
"The hell are you asking me for? I don't know what day it is." The weakest attempt at a smile. Jin's circus act had frayed at the edges in the time he'd been away; in these moments, Tatsuya could almost see the threads unravelling.
"What day is it today?" he asked in accented English.
"Monday," Jin answered without hesitation, then hissed briefly as the needle pricked his finger. In times gone, he'd have turned the pain into a performance, accused his bandmates of enacting their sadistic fantasies on his poor hands, milked it for as many smiles and as much sympathy as he could get. Now . . . Tatsuya saw him bite the inside of his cheek. After the year they'd had it shouldn't have surprised him, but he was still getting used to this new Jin.
As gently as he could, Tatsuya squeezed Jin's finger, until there was a ruby bead sitting over the wound.
"And what's the date today?" Again in English.
"May– ow! . . . May 14th?" From the mess on the counter, Jin grabbed his phone to check. Tatsuya picked up the round meter and checked its test strip. "Yeah, May 14th."
"How's the weather today?" He touched the bead of blood to the test strip.
"Oh fucked if I know, I haven't been outside since the arse crack of dawn!" The mixed Japanese and English invective rolled off Tatsuya like water. He'd faced worse things in his life than an anxious Akanishi Jin.
Unable to stop his hands shaking, Jin grabbed another cigarette.
"You'll set off the fire alarms if you're not careful," was all Tatsuya said. It was all he usually needed to say but this time Jin paid no attention whatsoever. His eyes were on the mirror, most probably watching his thoughts play out on a psychological screen. The smoke distorted Tatsuya's view of his face.
"Jin, what happened?"
Jin inhaled another lungful of smoke but said nothing more. Tatsuya wondered why he bothered.
No, he knew why. It didn't make one whit of difference, the changes the last eight months had wrought on Akanishi Jin: a softness around the jaw where he'd gained a little weight, the dark pillows under his eyes, his eyes that no longer blazed quite so openly. He was still the most striking person Tatsuya had ever seen. There would never be anything calm or mundane in Jin's life. The side of himself that craved solitude and space could understand Kame's reasons for leaving this scorching sun to its fiery magnificent demise. Most of him still believed Kame was an idiot. If Jin had ever looked at him with those molten brown eyes, blistering with heat . . . no, Tatsuya would never have given him up. But that was an easy thing to say; it was not a choice he would ever be asked to make.
In his hand, the glucose meter beeped twice. In the mirror, he saw Jin's eyes close. This tiny machine now controlled his friend's life.
"What's it say?"
"You haven't had lunch yet?" Tatsuya spoke softly.
"No. Fuck." Expelling the smoke from his lungs, Jin sagged forward, his forehead pressed against the mirror. Tatsuya watched his free hand clenching and unclenching the flannel shirt tied around his hips.
"Up and down like a fucking balloon . . ."
Tatsuya busied himself with the notebook tucked under a packet of sterilised syrettes. Double-checking each reading, he recorded the numbers. It was no wonder that Jin had been so tense lately, his blood sugar levels were all over the place. Understandable with the tour schedule – they were working around 15 to 18 hours a day – but heaven forbid anyone in upper management get wind of this. Johnny had made crystal clear the consequences if Jin's health failed him again.
"Jin?" So many questions poured into one word.
A sigh. "Pass me the kit would you?"
Once upon a few years back, this had been the part that terrified Jin the most. There'd been a strained note in his laughter as he'd taken the green zippered case into the bathroom. Now?
He stripped the plastic from the disposable syrette mechanically, nothing beyond a look of vague resignation on his face. This had turned from a performance to a dance: Tatsuya watched him prep the needle and draw the insulin. Not a single wasted movement. A routine he'd practised too many times.
"Hold this for me?" he asked, holding out the upright syrette. There were no betraying tremors in his voice. Tatsuya took it and said nothing. The chink of a belt buckle loosening and Jin yanked open one of the thigh-high rips in his jeans.
"Thanks." Jin didn't even flinch as the needle went in. Pain didn't scare him anymore, not half as much as the numbers on a small battery-powered meter.
Tatsuya almost smiled.
"They said I have diabetes."
Locked in a bathroom stall, secret cigarette between his fingers, Kame remembered the second time his life had quaked and folded in on itself.
"You have . . . diabetes?"
Jin stared into his coffee cup. He'd wanted to come to Starbucks because it was packed with foreigners speaking English; fourteen-year-old Kazuya thought Jimmy Mackey had been feeding him wonderstories again. His best friend believed pretty much anything told to him with a straight face.
"Are you sure?"
"The doctors all said so. Mum dragged me to three of them and they all said the same thing." Kazuya had barely had time to pull on his shoes before Jin had dragged him out the change room door. He'd thought it was just another one of Jin's new fascinations, something else he had to show someone or the world would implode. This time maybe it would. A weird feeling started to rumble in Kazuya's gut.
"Have you told anyone?" He tried to make it sound casual.
"Just Pi." Good thing Jin found his espresso so interesting, Kazuya was gritting his teeth. Always that damned Yamashita.
". . . what are you gonna do?"
"I don't know!" Jin moaned and dropped his dyed-blond head on the table. At least he'd moved his coffee out of the way. "If I tell then Johnny's probably gonna put me on ice, and if I don't tell and they find out, they'll fire me!"
"You don't know that for sure." It was a weak comeback, Kazuya didn't believe it himself, but anything was better than Jin being upset. He hated seeing people upset, Jin more than anyone else.
"Yes I do. I'm not Pi or Toma, if I disappeared tomorrow none of the suits would give a rat's. They probably wouldn't even notice!"
"They'd wonder why it suddenly got so quiet."
"Fuck you," Jin whined it, but Kazuya heard the muffled snort against the table and the tiny little smile in his voice. This was better. The Akanishi he knew could always find something to smile about.
"Idiot. They'd probably fire you for being stupid before they kicked you out for getting sick."
"I'll pour this down your shirt, Kamenashi."
"You could try."
Jin didn't bother answering, just thumped him in the stomach. It was a shame Jin only had a passing interest in baseball: with blind aim like that, he could have been a deadly fielder. For a split second, Kazuya thought about suggesting a game of catch – it always made him feel better – but he already knew what Jin's answer would be. Catch was for children and dogs in his best friend's opinion.
"Seriously Kazu, I don't know what I'm going to do." Jin propped his chin on his forearms and stared out the glazed window.
"How much will it change things?" Kazuya didn't really want to admit all he knew about diabetes was a) it was a kind of serious disease that b) old people sometimes got.
"I have to go back to the doctor tomorrow, they're gonna work out a diet for me and show me how to check my blood sugar and all that. I'm gonna have to stick myself with insulin about a hundred times a day. It's gonna suck." Jin sighed. In the weak afternoon sunlight, Kazuya watched as the crowds walking past the window reflected over Jin's face. His friend was pouting like a child, but behind the act Kazuya knew he was trying to hide just how scared he was. Kazuya knew better than anyone how medical bills could stack up, and Jin had failed the last two semesters of school. If he lost his job here . . . well, there were a thousand combinis where he could man the till, and in a few years the spirit Kazuya admired so much would be crushed like a steel can underfoot. He didn't even want to consider it.
"Can you imagine the look on Takeshima-sensei's face when I tell him 'sorry, I can't do another dozen back flips with everyone else, I have to go shoot up in the bathroom'?"
"Now you're just exaggerating. You've got an illness, same as half the sempai have sore knees and bad backs. My knee still hurts right before a storm."
"So you put up with the pain and ice it afterwards. If I'm too busy and miss a meal or screw up a blood test Kazu, I might end up in hospital." Jin could never keep his feelings under wraps for long, they always bubbled to the surface like the uncooked side of a pancake. Kazuya remembered what it felt like, having one failure of the body snatch away his reason for living. His knee had stolen baseball from him, damned if he was going to let some stupid sugar disease steal away Jin's laughter.
"So we just make sure you never miss a meal or screw up your blood tests, right?" Kazuya asked, an odd sense of purpose filling his lungs and making his words stronger.
Jin glanced at his reflection in the window, an empty half-smile on his face. "Kazu, you're talking about me. I'm going to bugger it up sometime and we both know it."
"So I'll help you." Turning in his chair, Kazuya looked his surprised friend full in the face. He'd made the decision on a whim but nothing would sway his determination now.
"Why?" Jin gaped at him like a baked head of tuna. Was it really that hard to believe?
"Because you're my best friend." Kazuya laid his hand over Jin's balled fist, now slowly relaxing. In the winter cold, his friend's hand was scalding hot. Like a sunrise.
That's what Jin had been to him all those years ago. The morning star, someone who blazed with heat and life, someone who didn't mind little Kazuya crawling close to warm his hands and gaze in wonder at the flames. If he'd known then as a naïve fourteen-year-old how hot that fire would burn, and how bitter its ashes would taste in his mouth, would he still have made that same promise?
Kame took another pull of his cigarette and tried half-heartedly to blow a smoke ring. He'd always been a sucker for a sad face.