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cute

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once

“Matsumoto-kun is cute,” a fourteen-year old Aiba Masaki says completely out of nowhere.

It is 1997.

Jun – still very much caught up in the horrifically slow cycle of puberty – just stares ahead and tries to will away whatever’s creeping up his neck with the sheer (but ultimately useless) power of his mind. He knows he’s going red in the face and practically everywhere else on his body; it’s a very warm and uncomfortable experience. Like butterflies fluttering up his throat, trying desperately to find an exit via his mouth.

This had happened way too often lately to be considered normal. Whenever someone gave him even the smallest passing compliment, everything just went to hell. Two weeks ago, Sakurai offhandedly mentioned that his new haircut was “pretty adorable” and that he “looked just like a Daruma doll” – needless to say, Jun was forced to wear a scarf covering half of his face for the rest of a very stuffy twenty-nine degree spring day.

Why can’t he get the good end of this puberty crap? Where the hell is this supposed “growth spurt” he’s meant to be going through at this age? And that deeper voice everyone keeps warning him about? He’s sick of looking like a little dwarf, sick of the other guys telling him he looks exactly like a girl, and he’s especially tired of ironically acting like a girl because of those comments. It’s not fair.

And Aiba with his brief comment has only just made it ten times worse.

“Thanks,” he says meekly in response. His eyes refocus and suddenly Toma is everywhere in his vision and yapping excitedly. Their noses could be touching. He wouldn’t know – he’s gone cross-eyed because he’s terribly short-sighted.

“So cute!” Toma exclaims loudly, grinning and fluffing his hair, but thankfully seems not to have caught on to the situation. It’s just typical Toma being his usual pesky self. Aiba laughs softly next to Jun, a breathy sort of sound, like he’s embarrassed to let it out but shows that he agrees with what is being said. It is slightly disconcerting for Jun when Aiba then turns his head away and looks out the train window with a doleful profile and then hunches over in his corner slightly.

Jun tries to think nothing of it. He ignores Toma without problem, having enough sense to simply shove him back to the other side of the seats and hold both his legs out to prevent any more scuffles from happening. For some reason, being called “cute” by Toma never evokes the same reaction he feels from Sakurai or Aiba. Or with Ninomiya either for that matter. That would be plain disturbing.

While the train undergoes an interchange two stations before theirs, Jun wonders why that could be. Why it depends on the person saying those words to him in order to make his body physically react in that way.

His left hand, curled into a fist for some reason and lying between himself and Aiba on the seat, is suddenly pried open. Jun feels something forced into his palm. He turns the prickly thing between his fingers and peers down at it. A scrunched up ball of paper. He glances ahead at Toma, who is currently caught in a tragic-looking headlock from a giggly Ninomiya, and peeks down at the contents of the note. He can barely make out the pile of mess that he knows is Aiba’s writing.

I shouldn’t say—

 

twice

“—this to anyone, okay?”

It is 2005.

Jun fixes Aiba with a stricken expression that is usually intimidating to anyone he uses it on, but it really is not working this time. Least of all on Aiba, who can see through his tough demeanour at the best of times. Aiba hardly breathes a word in affirmation before he pretty successfully has Jun pinned to the sheets beneath him. He forces the long pale arms out until they’re spread-eagled and then stops his barrage of violent but affectionate (it’s hard to draw the line between the two with Aiba) assaults on Jun’s body.

“Seriously, Masaki,” Jun tells him lowly, breathing hard. He is absolutely petrified. Because it’s not every day you suddenly realize, shit, I’m kind of in love with one of my best friends. Except, he didn’t just realize it; it’s been mutually going on for a while now. And Jun is not usually one to act on such arbitrary impulses (especially when it heavily involved work and a colleague, no less), but this is a deep-seated one that has gone way too far out of his control to reel back in now. He’s pretty sure Aiba is in the same boat, or a similar boat, but then again, Aiba handles things very differently to Jun.

And that’s what scares him the most.

Aiba just smiles wanly and sweeps his fringe out of his eyes.

Jun flusters. “I need to tell you something.”

“Can I tell you something?” Aiba bluntly says instead. His expression is out of character. Careful and measured.

Jun had been under the apparently now false impression that they were just going to have an average evening together, perhaps spent entirely in bed and making the most of the time they had before they had to sleep and get the required eight hours before work, but he doesn’t even know what to expect now. It’s so unlike Aiba to be this solemn that his fingers start to tremble where they are wrapped around the thin, brown arms planted on either side of him. His toes curl for all the wrong reasons. He tries to sit up but it’s of no use.

Aiba is hovering over him, radiating heat and laughing. He lowers himself gently until his lips are just above Jun’s right ear. The closeness suddenly shocks Jun into a painfully breathless state, his heart falling into an ache.

“I really like you, Matsujun.”

 

once

—this to you…but you have something on your face.

The hand holding the paper instantly flies to his forehead, rubbing furiously. Jun lets loose a little juvenile curse and pats his bangs down. He is seriously going to murder Ikuta Toma if he finds another immature felt-pen drawing on his face. Last time that happened, he copped a long lecture off one of the staffers of the play for coming to work with stupid pictures and weird slang drawn all over his face – mame being Toma’s all-time personal favourite. Jun hadn’t known what to say in response except managing out an apology. How could you tell a respectable adult how difficult it was to work with someone who had such a temperamental personality like Toma’s without sounding like a total child? At the end of the day, Jun just wanted to be taken seriously, but as he and Toma were the youngest in the unit, they were phased out most of the time and therefore taken the least seriously. Toma never got the hint to grow up and mistreated Jun constantly; even taking naps between train rides and stops was impossible unless Jun wanted to become a human whiteboard. Which was never.

Jun vaguely thinks it may have something to do with Nino’s constant abuse of the boy whenever they were together.

“No. Here,” Aiba whispers to him loudly, pointing to his own face. He rubs the bit of skin under his lip with a concentrated smile.

Jun doesn’t react fast enough. His hand is barely halfway to his chin when Aiba’s thumb moves past it and swipes something from his bottom lip. Jun isn’t quite sure where exactly – he’s more focused on watching the finger leave his space. There is a little white smear on the tip. It all happens in foreign slow motion. He looks on as Aiba sucks the little trickle of milk. That’s when Jun recalls having a peach milk tea for lunch before the trip. He turns redder still, curling into himself and firmly tuning out Ninomiya’s sudden piqued interest.

As they’re jumping off the train, and Jun has re-located and carefully pocketed the humiliating note from Aiba (why couldn’t he have just said it instead? He was whispering loud enough), he asks Ninomiya why he didn’t point out the fact that he had something on his face earlier.

The apathetic boy shrugs and adjusts the white band around his head. “It didn’t really matter. You looked cute anyway.”

Jun groans and trudges through the station towards the van waiting out the front. He’s the last to get to it with Nino, and when they both jump in, it’s a tight squeeze. Jun is weirdly dismayed to find Aiba is sitting directly opposite him. And Aiba’s legs are insanely long. Because of this, Jun is knee-to-knee with him by default. They’re both wearing three-quarter pants, but Aiba’s hike longer up his legs and his skin keeps unfortunately rubbing up against Jun’s. His knees feel smooth and dry all at the same time.

Jun finds himself wishing for his period of adolescence to hurry the hell up and finish whatever pull it has over him, among other things. Like for the world to end, and for a strange beanie-muffler-scarf hybrid piece of clothing that could somehow cover his whole face but still allow him to breathe normally, and maybe a time machine where he could go back in time and reject the personal phone call asking him to join the agency over a year ago.

Nino kicks Aiba in the shin. “Hey, have you got any change? I forgot my water bottle, but there’s a drink machine at the rehearsal hall I can get one from.”

Aiba shakes his head wordlessly, jerking and swaying along with the three others when the van travelled over a speed bump. Nino starts to pepper Toma with a series of vicious tickles until the younger boy is elbow-deep in his bag and searching for any money at the bottom.

“I do,” Jun pipes up. He briefly sees the grim look Aiba gives him, but reaches deep into his pocket and pulls out a few hundred yen in coins. He drops them into the other boy’s waiting hand. Nino smiles appreciatively to him.

“Thanks, Jun-kun. And sorry about not telling you what was on your face before.”

Jun looks out the window after that. A couple of minutes go by and soon they get out of the vehicle one by one, Aiba being the last one straggling behind. He takes a few more seconds to hop out and trail the group into the building’s lobby.

When they’re heading up the stairs to their rehearsal room, Aiba warns Jun in an undertone that it’s never a smart move to give Nino money just like that. Because most of the time when he “needs” it, he already has some money on him, but due to being such a frugal nut, he’ll ask whoever’s closest to him if they have the change instead. Apparently there is a fine line between needing and wanting with Ninomiya Kazunari.

(This would prove to be a recurring problem in the years to come).

But for now, Jun shows a face like he doubts this. Aiba spots it and wants to prove his point. He launches forward and palms the back pocket of Nino’s faded jeans persistently. A jangly metallic sound comes out, unmistakably money, followed by a long hiss.

“Oi!” Nino spins around and barks at Aiba, ducking away and glaring. “Keep your hands to yourself.” His eyes flit seriously to the other boy. “Jun-kun, watch out for him. He gropes everyone around the agency, you know? Why is it just the boys, Aiba? Huh?”

But Jun isn’t paying attention to the grousing. Nino still has Jun’s change in his hand despite the obvious fact he already has some of it in his pocket. He watches the boy go to the vending machine and use the money in his hand to pay for it.

That is the first time Jun places his trust in Aiba. Afterwards, he decided to stick with the older boy wherever they happened to be heading together – rehearsals, recordings, dance lessons, lunches, on the trains heading home, ramen stands. Sho tended to join their little group from time to time when he wasn’t being snobby, and Takki, Maru, Subaru, Ryo and Imai too, because they’re all really good friends, but Jun tried his hardest to be subtle about finding time with Aiba alone. It wasn’t too hard. They even got to co-star in a movie together.

Aiba never seemed to mind, almost looking glad when it was just the two of them. Jun hoped it wasn’t his imagination.

 

twice

When he resurfaces from the sheets for oxygen, Jun just lays there completely still and has to blink a few times to regain some degree of brain function. The sex was great, as per usual, but his mind is more caught up in what Aiba said before they got down to it. Somewhere in him, he knew Aiba liked him. Of course he did. It was just a given along with what they got up to when they weren’t working. But for some unlikely reason, he has a hard time registering the overdue confession. Not that he doesn’t think it’s true

“You know what’s really funny?” Aiba giggles languidly into Jun’s thoughts, sitting up and drawing his legs close to his chest. “I was going to tell you I liked you ages ago. But every time I tried, it just never seemed right. Kind of like it was too long overdue.”

Something snaps in him. “So you thought it’d be a great time to tell me just before fucking me?” Jun scowls indignantly. “That was brilliant timing there. Really, really great timing.” He turns away and pulls the sheets over his body. “I kind of figured anyway.”

Aiba’s eyes widen. He laughs nervously and rocks back and forth. Clearly, he was not expecting the backlash.

“Think about it. I can’t tell you when we’re filming for a show…or eating lunch…and especially not when we’re in the green room at work, can I? At least give me points for being romantic?”

Any other time, Jun would have laughed at that, at the rising hope in Aiba’s voice, but now it’s just riling him up even more. There’s the nagging thought that Aiba had been keeping this to himself for god knows how long. Sometimes, even if you know it anyway, it’s nice to hear it once in a while too.

“If you react like this when I tell you I like you, then how are you going to be when I tell you one day that I lo—”

Jun cuts him off with a large, very pointed shove. He’s definitely not ready for that one yet.

Aiba recovers easily and makes a long breathy noise through his mouth that means he’s just come to a belated conclusion about something significant. “Hold on. You don’t believe me, do you, Matsujun?” he asks quietly, clicking his fingers absently.

Jun neither confirms nor denies the question. Aiba is at perfect liberty to ask and think whatever he likes; Jun just can't guarantee any answers in return. He bends over the edge of the bed and gruffly yanks his jeans towards him.

“Wait,” Aiba suddenly mutters. He repeats the word a number of times in desperation as he twists around and wrenches open one of his drawers. In spite of himself, Jun rotates himself around lazily to watch. Various objects start flying out during the harried search – extremely old phone cards that were probably a decade out of use, screwed-up receipts, a driving test manual from 2001, something that looks suspiciously like a pack of fireworks or gunpowder, an empty lighter, a guitar pick, a half-opened box of condoms—

Jun picks up a fallen polaroid of a much younger Nino (it’s incredibly hard to tell if that’s true) playing the shamisen. He wonders what it was doing in Aiba’s posession but drops it back onto the bed.

“Ah-ha! I found it! I knew I still had it. I just knew it!”

He scoots eagerly over to a bewildered Jun and pats him on the back. Jun resists the urge to scoot away. His anger is still simmering just below the surface, ready to return at the drop of a hat.

“Look at this. Remember this?” Aiba jabs his finger at the crinkled paper in his fingers determinedly. He urges Jun to turn his head and give it a look. Jun does. It’s the note. It’s utterly ridiculous, because it’s definitely over five years old and nobody should keep a stupid scrap of paper for that long, so Jun starts laughing uncontrollably.

“How did you even get that?” he bursts wonderingly, forgetting himself and snatching it away. His features scrunch up into a grimace as the visual memory seeps back into his head. “Ah. That stupid milk tea…”

“Peach-flavoured. I bought it for you, remember?” Aiba reminds him with a broad and hopeful grin. “When we got out of the van that day, I saw this lying on the seat where you were sitting and picked it up.”

“You should have just left it there, you idiot.”

“No, because then I wouldn’t have been able to show you something very important!” Aiba exclaims matter-of-factly. “It’s proof. It’s what’s on the back that I want to show you. It’s what I wrote before I…well, chickened out. Turn the paper over, Matsujun. Turn it! Turn it!”

Jun sighs and does as he’s told. It’s blank. He had a rotten feeling it would be.

Then Aiba’s voice is in his ear, somewhat rueful, telling him to look closer. His chin rests on Jun’s shoulder, a comfortable and mindful weight. Jun squints and tilts the paper on a particular angle under the light of the lamp. He has to tilt the paper until it’s practically two-dimensional, but he sees it there, plain as anything. The ridges of something that had been written and rubbed out with an eraser. He is able to make out the markings.

I shouldn’t say this, but I think I really like Matsumoto-kun~

It’s followed by another messily erased word – sorry. The simple line has him falling headfirst into the past, and he’s short and barely adolescent again, seated back in that train in the middle of 1997 where Aiba is black-haired, bone-skinny, less tanned, and stealing side-glances at him with ill-disguised smiles.

This is so ridiculous. Like Aiba had known all along that this point in time would come and kept the note for that sole purpose; to prove to Jun that his feelings were long-standing and always there.

“I always wondered why you’d written that I had something on my face instead of just telling me…”

“Yeah…so you see, I’ve actually liked you from the beginning all along…” Aiba is telling him modestly and oddly confirming Jun’s theory.

“But you waited this long to tell me? Are you kidding me?” Jun bemoans. Without looking up, he finds Aiba’s cheek with his hand and strokes it absentmindedly. He feels the skin sag gently under his fingers – Aiba is frowning. “Oh, all right, you get your romantic points for this one. I guess you did surprise me.”

Jun doesn’t even have time to move away for his own safety before Aiba lets out a bizarrely jubilant noise and leaps up to jump all over the bed. It’s not his bed, so Jun resigns himself to jolting along with the erratic movement. He can’t get the smile he has on his face off, no matter how hard he tries; he is powerless to it. He is somewhat glad that Aiba isn’t able to see the rare moment of weakness.

Once he’s out of breath, Aiba bounces back down to earth and rests at the head of the bed, tucking his arms behind his head and letting out a long, audibly content sigh. His knee nudges Jun in the hip, and they exchange a tiny smile – Aiba’s is dazed, Jun’s is a little more sincere than usual.

Aiba mumbles something about Jun’s “unfairly everlasting cuteness” before slowly nodding off.

Unfazed, Jun watches him for some time in silence, caught up in a strange and uncharacteristic bout of nostalgia. In some ways, Aiba is a bit like Nino – he, too, hasn’t really aged a day since their teenage years. His youthfulness is slightly more understated now though, and his cheeks are a little hollower and lacking the fat that Jun has aplenty in his own cheeks. There are just a few creases beneath his deep eyes now, and his skin is considerably more tanned and littered with more freckles than before. But he’s practically the same young boy he was all those years ago.

Jun quietly crouches down and grabs his jeans, not to put them back on and leave, but to fold the note into one of the pockets for safekeeping. If only he had known. He should have been more careful with it the first time around.