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Shadows in Slow Motion

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i.

Nino never intended for his life to turn out this way. It just kind of happened. He loves having sex, and he loves making money; the progression was natural from there. And when people ask why he does it, he always tells the truth.

He wants men to buy him things.

Not everyone is comfortable with that explanation. They turn their noses up, or tell him it's wrong, or prod him for some deeper reason, something profound or romantic. To Nino, that's as romantic as it gets.

Today he's meeting with a new client, a strikingly handsome thirty-something named Jun -- just Jun, the way Nino is just Kazu when it comes to these meetings -- and he seems to have done his homework. "Sho-kun told me you like gifts," he says, voice low in the cafe where they agreed to meet. "I thought we could stop somewhere on the way so I can pick something out for you."

Nino can't resist an offer like that.

They take the train to a sex shop Nino's been to a few times before, one he likes because it has a wide selection and is close to one of his favorite love hotels. When they walk in, Jun asks, "What would you like?"

Nino replies, "What would you like to use on me today?"

It's a line he uses often because it reveals nothing about him, whereas what clients pick out says a lot about them right off the bat. Is this guy into pain, is he into domination, does he just want something vanilla -- does he like flashy things or does he favor practicality -- is he willing to shell out the extra money for something just a little nicer?

Jun turns away, wandering towards the back with Nino in tow. He goes immediately for the aisle filled with bondage paraphernalia. Interesting.

They look at rope and harnesses and shackles until Jun settles on a pair of cuffs. There's a dozen cheaper versions, plain metal ones and gimmicky fuzzy ones, but Jun picks padded leather. A good choice.

They turn towards the register, and Jun motions for Nino to go first. There, too, Nino observes. Will the client pay with shaky, nervous hands? Will he overcompensate with rudeness or bravado? Jun does neither. He pays for the cuffs like they're an everyday item off his grocery list, and then he hands them to Nino, right there at the counter where the cashier can see it happen.

Nino feels a familiar thrill as he takes the package from Jun, their fingertips brushing as it passes between their hands. It kick-starts the buzz Nino always seems to be chasing after -- the reason he does any of this in the first place. He slips the shopping bag into his satchel and feels the excitement humming under his skin the entire time they're walking to the love hotel.

~

Nino's been doing this for a long time.

He started out small, fresh out of college and needing an easy way to pay his rent. He would bullshit his way into fancy parties so he could work the room and weed out the married men and the cheapskates from the ones who needed a comfort or a thrill for the night and were willing to pay for it. Eventually he honed it into an art form, effortlessly sniping out the older men who sat at the bar by themselves and sipped from glasses of top-shelf booze, no wedding ring in sight. All he had to do was introduce himself and let them guide the conversation. If they wanted to lecture him about something like "making the right choices as a youngster," he excused himself pretty quickly. But if they sized him up... He got very good at noticing when men were checking him out, even when they thought they were being subtle.

He's come a long way from there. He gets work mostly through word of mouth now, friends of friends passing on whispers about how good their last fuck was. He can just imagine it: a bunch of horny salarymen circled around the water cooler, trading stories and numbers.

He's less specialized now, too, and has had his fair share of one-nighters and repeat customers who just want the sex and aren't interested in offering anything more. That's fine with Nino -- he makes more than enough to stay afloat -- and it also means he's seen it all, done everything under the sun. So at first, the only noteworthy thing about Jun is how young he is. But then again, if he heard about Nino from Sho, even that isn't too surprising.

He pays for the room and hands over Nino's fee as soon as they're inside. He's wearing street clothes, blandly stylish like he doesn't want to attract too much attention while he's out with his rent boy, and most of it stays on the whole time. He sits on the bed while Nino blows him, and then he cuffs Nino's wrists to the headboard and fucks him. With other clients Nino sometimes has to fake it, but not today. He comes with Jun's hand working his dick, moaning out his pleasure in a way that's only slightly exaggerated for Jun's benefit.

Over the years, Nino's been with guys who wanted to dress him up in costumes of latex or ruffles or fur, or wanted him to pretend not to like it, or wanted to put him over their knees so they could spank him and make him call them Daddy. Nino doesn't hate that stuff, but it doesn't do anything for him either. But Jun doesn't want any of that. He doesn't tell Nino to call him anything special, doesn't put up a fuss about wearing a condom, doesn't cry at the end.

When they're done, he asks if Nino liked the cuffs. Nino's still a little breathless, rubbing the faint marks out of his wrists as he lies there naked. "Loved 'em," he says. It's the truth.

Jun smiles, sweaty and glowing and distractingly attractive. "I'm glad."

Then he washes up and leaves, thanking Nino on his way out.

They don't kiss. They don't even talk all that much. It's nice, but it's nothing to write home about.

It's one of the only sessions of theirs that Nino will ever describe that way.

~

The next few days are pretty average, as far as Nino's days go. He wakes up and reviews his schedule, planning his video games around leaving the house to go get paid for sex. Life is good.

On Sunday, he sets time aside to put away the gifts he's received over the past week. The cuffs from Jun, a few other sex toys, a Burberry gift card in an envelope that also includes a handwritten note about what exactly the client thinks Nino would look good in. He moved into this apartment a few years after he got his feet off the ground, and he picked it specifically because it has an open balcony where he can smoke, a decently sized tub where he can wind down at the end of the night, and a massive walk-in closet where he can store every gift he's ever received from a client. It came with a rack for hanging clothes and a few built-in drawers, but over the years Nino has added countless rows of shelves, a modest wine rack, a leather-bound binder with plastic sleeves to hold gift cards, bank cards, business cards for all the hotels and restaurants he's been treated to...

When he was first shopping around for a new place all those years ago, he considered just choosing one that had an extra bedroom instead, but he finally decided that would be overkill. Now he's thinking he might need to move again soon.

On Monday, he calls Aiba to see if they can have lunch together. Nino's been so busy with clients lately that the two of them haven't had much time to catch up, but luckily Aiba has a few hours to spare that afternoon, so they meet at an upscale soba place that just opened in Aiba's neighborhood.

Upscale anything was never among their options when they were teenagers, but things are different now. Back when Nino was just starting, he'd pull the "oops, forgot my wallet" routine and Aiba would go along with it, always good-natured, playfully scolding Nino for being so forgetful even though he knew from the moment they sat down that that's how it would end. Now that Nino's raking in cash, though, he feels kind of bad about it, so he usually pays for their outings and suggests places he knows Aiba wouldn't go to on his own -- trying to repay him for countless lunches and dinners and coffees and video-game-marathon snack runs.

It's been years like this and Aiba still makes a joke out of it, every single time: "Waah, stingy Nino is paying for me! I feel so special!" And every single time, Nino whacks him over the head and tries to hide his smile behind his hand.

They're halfway through their meal, deep into a conversation about some superhero movie they watched a few weeks ago, when Nino's phone buzzes with a message from Jun. I want to see you again.

"Ooh, is that a client?" Aiba asks, mouth half-full of noodles. He's never grumpy about Nino looking at his phone when they're hanging out together because he knows Nino's work is the reason they can afford to hang out like this at all. Besides, whenever Nino starts swiping through his calendar or typing out responses, Aiba just uses the opportunity to grab his own phone and send some kissy-face emoji to his beloved Oh-chan.

"Yeah," Nino mumbles, already scanning his calendar. "A new guy."

"Is he cute?"

Aiba doesn't ask many questions about Nino's work -- though he loves to hear about it when Nino does want to talk -- but somehow, whenever Nino mentions a client for the first time, he always asks that, as if it's a potential boyfriend or something. Nino always rolls his eyes, because it's not like whether a client is attractive or not has anything to do with Nino's decision to see him... but yeah, Jun's pretty damn cute.

He taps out on his phone, Wednesday?

Almost as soon as he sets it on the table, there's a reply. Busy that night. Weekend?

Sunday's wide open.

He keeps his phone in his hand after pressing send, expecting another prompt reply, but nothing comes. He and Aiba pick up where they left off, and when they're done eating, they spend the rest of Aiba's free time walking around, cruising into comic shops and bakeries, their conversation circling back to the superhero movie over and over: "Okay, but another thing..."

It isn't until Nino is on his way home that he gets another message from Jun.

Sorry for the delay, had to move some things around. I'll take Sunday.

~

They meet in the evening, and this time Jun already has a gift in hand as he walks into the cafe. It's in an unmarked shopping bag, the paper threaded with thin, silvery strands. Inside, buried under a nest of tissue paper, is a business card for a high-end sex shop Nino's only ever been to with loyal customers, the guys he knows have the cash for it, and under that is a cock ring. Nino doesn't take it out of the bag, not here in the middle of a crowded, public space, but it looks nice, a little band of smooth leather accented with metal snaps. It'll make an excellent addition to the collection.

He looks up, smiling. "Jewelry on a second date?"

"I hope you like it," Jun says, just a touch bashful.

Nino gathers up the bag and his jacket as he stands from the table. "Let's go try it on."

After they get to the love hotel, Jun undresses Nino and puts the ring on him, his hands moving with graceful precision. He gets Nino on the bed, then gets him hard, gets him there, opening him up one finger at a time, completely unhurried in a way that has Nino thinking he'll be begging soon.

The minutes bleed together, stretching endlessly. All Nino can focus on is Jun's fingers inside him, the mesmerizing glint of Jun's eyes above him.

When Jun finally pushes into him, Nino is lying on his back with one leg over Jun's shoulder, all the pillows thrown to the floor. Jun works up a rhythm, slow and deliberate, makes Nino feel every inch. He leans down and the shift drives him deeper, eliciting a particularly high-pitched moan from Nino.

Where his hand is hooked behind Nino's knee, holding it in place, his grip tightens. "You like that?" he whispers.

Nino is too far gone for words. All he can do is clutch at Jun's arms, try to breathe. Jun keeps at it, holds the angle perfectly, concentration written on his face as if every thrust is calculated to make Nino feel like he's going to unravel.

When Jun finally snaps the ring off, Nino is ready to come in seconds. Jun gets a hand on his cock and drops even lower, slides in somehow even deeper, and picks up speed until Nino is crying out, moaning through an orgasm he feels all the way down to his toes. Jun finishes soon after, resting against Nino for a moment before he rolls to the side so he can deal with the condom.

Nino is still adrift in the post-orgasmic haze, but from the way Jun is panting beside him, he thinks he's not the only one who's reeling.

And Jun still has most of his damn clothes on.

~

The first time he sees Jun completely naked, they're showering together after a truly impressive hour-and-a-half-long fuckathon during which Nino managed to wrangle two glorious orgasms out of Jun, who usually only comes once during their sessions and whose voice, Nino now knows, gets progressively more breathy and whimpery the more sensitive his cock is. Jun invites him into the shower afterwards, and as soon as Nino pulls aside the curtain and sees him, naked and wet with soap suds trailing past his nipples, he moves in for orgasm number three.

The first time Jun goes down on him, Nino is honestly a little surprised by it. Clients don't usually offer, and he absolutely never asks. He suspects it's because Jun finished earlier than he anticipated; apparently the ball gag he'd brought as a gift that evening affected him more than he was counting on.

The first time they kiss, it's after they've already finished fucking. They're lying alongside each other, naked above the sheets, both still panting as they recover from the exertion. When Jun starts moving around, Nino assumes he's heading for the shower, but then Jun is leaning over him, watching him for a long, awkward moment before he finally asks shyly, "May I...?"

Nino is so charmed that he can't hold back a laugh. Jun frowns, but Nino gets a hand on his shoulder to keep him from pulling away. He smiles up at him and says, "Please do."

That first kiss is unimaginably soft, just a gentle brush of Jun's lips against his. Jun pulls back, seems to be searching Nino's eyes for something, and Nino lets him, allows himself to be open, transparent. There's nothing in this moment that he needs to hide. Then Jun leans down for more, comes back with tongue this time, and Nino gives a little moan, pulls him in deeper with a hand around the back of his neck.

They make out until Jun's phone reminds him it's time to leave. As he showers hurriedly, Nino stays in bed, feeling fucked-out and happy, his lips tingling pleasantly in the afterglow.

~

Jun keeps calling on him, week after week, usually in the evening and almost always on a weekend. Despite the steady pattern, something about their time together makes Nino feel like they're escalating in some way, this inevitable push towards something more, always more. Each gift is more expensive than the last, each hotel room nicer, bigger, pricier. That's not unusual for repeat clients, who often want sessions that are increasingly intense, acts that are increasingly outrageous, but with Jun, there are other things that shine through as well.

It's the way he dotes on Nino, like making a point to hold the door for him every single time or placing a hand on the small of his back as they're standing there choosing a room. It's his knack for noticing what gets Nino off and then repeating it, like when Nino's on his back with Jun holding his leg just so and the angle is perfect and it nearly makes Nino scream -- the way he's always giving as much as he's getting.

It's the way he pays attention, period.

One night he has two of Nino's fingers in his mouth, the velvety curl of his tongue under Nino's fingertips sending chills down Nino's spine. He pulls off, scrapes his teeth past Nino's knuckles just enough to make him feel it, and then out of the blue he says, "You have calluses."

Nino had his eyes closed, but he opens them now to look down. He's riding Jun's cock and everything about it feels incredible, and there's not a single intelligent thought in his head. All he can muster is a nod. Jun lets it go, moves his hands to grip Nino's hips so he can fuck up into him, and for the next few minutes nothing else matters.

But afterwards, before Jun gets up to shower, he traces his fingertips over Nino's and asks, "What are they from?"

Now that he's not feeling quite so sex-stupid, Nino is a little more composed. "Guitar," he says. "I played a lot when I was younger."

Something about that makes Jun frown, his eyebrows drawing low over his eyes. "Not anymore?"

"I've been meaning to get back into it, but work keeps me busy."

It's Nino's favorite kind of bullshit answer to give -- specific enough that the client feels like they're learning something about him, vague enough that he's revealing nothing of value -- but Jun makes a quiet considering noise like he's filing it away for future use.

It's because of things like this that Nino finds himself so helplessly enamored. It doesn't hurt that Jun is crazy handsome and the sex is great, but it's also his attention to detail, his superhuman focus, his shy sincerity. Nino has never not looked forward to a session, because he has no problem dropping clients he doesn't like, but it's been a long time since it wasn't just the session he was looking forward to.

It's Jun.

And something about that revelation is just a little bit scary.

~

Jun messages him one week to set up an appointment like normal, and then a few days later he sends, Can't take the train this time. Meet me there? along with an address. Nino looks it up and is pleasantly surprised to find that it's a hotel. Not a love hotel -- a real hotel, five stars on the first review site that pops up, the kind of place Nino hardly ever goes to with clients.

He sends back, Looking forward to it, and feels a little thrill as he presses send.

The night of their session, he makes sure to dress a little more nicely than usual. He always makes a point to look good, of course, but this time he reaches for a button-up instead of a V-neck, picks out a decent blazer to go with it, spends a few extra minutes in front of the mirror working on his hair. If Jun wants to go the extra mile, Nino can too.

When he gets to the hotel, he messages Jun to let him know he's arrived and receives a room number in return. He's alone on the elevator ride up, and as he stands there staring at the floor numbers changing, he realizes he's tapping his fingers impatiently against the railing. He's been so excited these past few days that he hadn't put much thought into any of it, but now he's starting to wonder: Why did Jun go the extra mile for this? Is tonight the night he'll sit Nino down and give him the "Now that we're comfortable with each other, I've always wanted to try this one crazy thing I can't approach a normal human about" confession that Nino's heard from so many other repeat clients?

Whatever Jun wants in return, Nino will give it to him with a smile on his face -- or not, if that's more appropriate. It's the not knowing that's making him feel a little antsy.

He gets out of the elevator, finds the room. He knocks on the door, and now that he's standing right in front of it, he can hear Jun's voice from inside, talking a mile a minute. When the door swings open, Jun has his phone in one hand, listening intently to the other end of the line with furrowed eyebrows, but at the sight of Nino, his eyes go big. He looks Nino up and down, the edges of his mouth curling up in the beginning of a lecherous smile. Nino smiles back, feeling quite proud of himself.

Jun ushers him inside and kicks the door closed behind them as he says into the phone, "I'm telling you, the deal will go through. Just get me in the room, I'll convince them." He catches Nino's eye to mouth sorry, but Nino waves him off. It gives him a chance to look around.

The room, it turns out, is incredible. The bed is massive, and the balcony doors are open to let in a cool breeze and show off a gorgeous view of the city. Everything is earth-toned, rich creams and deep reds all covered in leafy patterns. And now that he's had a chance to take it all in, he spots it: a package, tall and rectangular, leaning against the wall by the door. It looks like it goes up to Nino's waist, or maybe a bit higher, and it's wrapped in bright, silvery paper. Attached to it with a piece of tape, right up near the top, is an envelope with Kazu drawn neatly in hiragana.

Nino sits down on the bed to keep himself from walking over and opening it right this second, but he can't suppress an excited smile. What the hell kind of sex toy is waiting for him in there?

Jun finally hangs up and immediately tosses his phone onto the dresser. "Sorry about that."

Nino shrugs. "Don't worry about it." He leans back, his hands propped on the mattress behind him. He knows for a fact that this pose accentuates his collarbones. "Duty calls, I understand."

"They'd implode without me, I swear," Jun sighs, but he drops it after that, circling around the bed so he can climb onto it, behind Nino. It's only a few seconds before he feels Jun's fingers creeping up his arm to pull the collar of his shirt aside, Jun's mouth kissing a line from his jaw down to his shoulders. The collarbone trick works every time. "Do you like the room?" Jun asks, barely a whisper, so close that his lips brush against Nino's skin.

"It's gorgeous."

"Mm." Another kiss, right over his pulse point. "Like you."

Nino leans back, tilting his head to capture Jun's mouth with his, to taste Jun's smile with his tongue. "And what's that by the door?" he asks.

Jun kisses him again, then pulls back just enough to say, "Your payment for tonight." Another kiss. "And something else I thought you might enjoy." Another kiss. "But you can't open it until later."

So then it's not a sex toy after all. A little shiver runs down Nino's spine, exhilaration sparking through his veins. He rests his head against Jun's shoulder, his eyes closed. "I can't wait to see what it is."

"You're gonna have to," Jun whispers, right before his teeth nip at the corner of Nino's jaw. He trails his hand down Nino's chest, coming to rest between his legs, and he makes a pleased noise against Nino's skin when he finds that Nino is already starting to get hard. Nino moans at Jun's touch, pushes his hips up when Jun gives him a gentle squeeze.

He's still curious, but if it's for sex with Jun, he supposes he can live with the suspense.

~

The sex does a great job of holding his curiosity at bay, but once Jun gets in the shower, patience is a lot more difficult to come by. Still, Nino somehow manages to stay in bed until Jun finally comes out of the bathroom, completely dressed with his hair dry and styled. He must carry mousse around in his bag, Nino thinks, tickled despite his jittery excitement.

Jun stops by the bed to kiss Nino goodbye, and on his way out the door, he spares Nino a final glance over his shoulder as he says, "Enjoy your gift." As soon as he's gone, Nino jumps out of bed and rushes to the door so he can press his ear against it, listening for Jun's footsteps traveling down the hall, the faint ping of the elevator.

He goes for the card first, ripping it off the package and opening it as quickly as he can without tearing the paper. Inside is a greeting card; the front displays a painting of a musician caricaturized in square, exaggerated shapes, with notes of music flowing from his guitar in the form of colorful ribbons. It's printed on heavy, textured stock, no label or price on the back, and when he opens it, something flutters down to the floor.

Nino kneels, groping around his feet as he skims the handwritten note on the inside of the card. But as soon as his fingers close around the shape -- a small, plastic rectangle -- his eyes snap down to see what it is.

A business card for a bank, laminated, with information for an account handwritten neatly on the back in permanent marker. Everything is there: routing and access numbers, associated email address and phone number, a URL for online access... All he needs to do is log on and transfer whatever is there into his personal account.

He looks back to Jun's note, reading the words almost too quickly to comprehend them.

Kazu,

A more convenient way to pay for our sessions.
You can log in online. The password is 0830.
Payment for tonight is already there, plus some extra.
Maybe you can take a night off and start playing again.

Enjoy the room as long as you'd like.

Jun

For a moment Nino just stands there, letting the words process. Playing again? Then he throws the cards onto the bed and tears into the package, his heart beating so fast he can feel it in his throat. If it's what he thinks it is...

It is. It's exactly what he thought it was.

It's a guitar.

A fucking guitar.

The case is hardshell, black all over but for the metal latches. He sets it gingerly on the bed, almost too excited to get his fingers to work right. He finally unlatches it and opens it slowly, letting his eyes soak in every detail as it's revealed to him. The inside of the case is lined with dark, soft velvet, and nestled inside of it is the guitar. It's acoustic, painted pure black, with swirling patterns that are inlaid with silver engraved around the curves of the body and all up the neck, the whole thing coated in a glossy finish.

He reaches down to touch it, moving slow, and realizes that he's smiling so wide his cheeks are beginning to hurt. He can hardly believe it's real. He gives one of the strings a little pluck, and the sound reverberates through the room and bounces right back to him. It's real all right.

~

The first thing he does is tell Aiba about it.

Well, okay, the very first thing he does is jerk off in the shower, but after that he wraps himself up in a feather-soft robe and sits on the bed in front of the guitar, phone in hand. He snaps a picture of it and loads it into a LINE message that's going straight to Aiba. Holy shit, he adds as a caption. Look what a client bought for me.

While he waits for a response, he gingerly lifts the guitar from its case. It feels incredible in his hands, all soft curves and finished wood that's cool to the touch. The strap that he fits over his shoulder has that same swirly, silvery pattern.

He strums out a few chords before his phone chirps with Aiba's reply: a shocked emoji with approximately one million exclamation points.

Nino's grinning all over again. He opens up his camera and takes a panorama shot of the room, then sends that off too. And this.

Aiba's response: HE BOUGHT YOU AN APARTMENT????!!!!!?!?!?!?

It's a hotel room, dummy.

Does it have a pool? is Aiba's reply, along with a sticker of a bear running at top speed.

Nino laughs, puts his phone away, and spends the rest of the night sitting in bed, strumming his new guitar, thinking about how beautiful it's going to look in his closet -- the crown jewel of his collection.

ii.

He orders room service for breakfast the next morning and eats it in bed, where he now sits humming around a mouthful of waffle and strawberries as he taps out a message to Jun. Just had an amazing night of sleep. I'll have to write you a song about it.

By the time he's all packed up and ready to go, there's a reply waiting for him. Don't tease.

He sends back, Thank you. Seriously.

On the cab ride home, he keeps the guitar case over his lap, stroking it absentmindedly, smiling to himself the whole way. He replays the events of last night, and as he does, curious thoughts start to spread and take root.

Nino's been with some pretty damn wealthy clients before, but ever since he's started taking referrals, he's also been with guys who didn't have a lot, who had to save up just to afford a night with someone like him. He's also been with clients who start off cheap and gradually sink more and more into their sessions once they realize that Nino is worth every damn yen. He's learned to expect nothing from any given session except for his normal fee, and anything on top of that is a delightful bonus.

But he's also learned that the clients who have serious money are usually pretty eager to flaunt it, pulling out all the stops right off the bat. Jun, on the other hand, seems to be revealing his hand in bits and pieces. He certainly wasn't stingy that first time, but nothing about him screamed "rich as sin." Now he's shelling out for five-star hotel rooms and extravagant gifts, and Nino can't help but wonder.

Of course, it's none of his business, and he himself always makes a point of being as opaque as possible. No last names, no incriminating personal details, only what's needed to move the session forward. He and Jun have both stuck to that, but last night, whether he meant to or not, Jun slipped up in a big way. He revealed so much of himself: a glimpse into his work life, a hint at even more wealth than Nino had originally thought, the vulnerable admission that he cares about more than just Nino's body...

Yet somehow Nino feels like he knows less than he did before, and even the knowledge that it's none of his concern doesn't ease his curiosity.

~

The fancy hotels become a staple of their sessions. Sometimes they revisit ones they've been to before, and they often try out new ones, but they never return to the love hotels. Jun continues to deposit money into the account he shared with Nino, which is, as Nino suspected it would be, set up under a false name. Now he pays in advance, as soon as they confirm the session, and he usually leaves a little extra on top of Nino's normal fee.

One week, he books a session and then has to cancel the night before, messaging Nino to let him know something had come up at work. Keep the payment, he insists. My apologies for the inconvenience. So Nino takes the night off and takes Aiba and his boyfriend out to dinner.

"This guy must really like you," Aiba says, eyes huge as a boat full of sashimi arrives to their table. Nino's going all out tonight.

"Something like that," he says.

Ohno suddenly perks up, mouth already full around a chunk of hamachi. "Is he cute?"

~

The following week, Jun keeps his appointment, even books the same hotel like he wants to recreate what he missed the last time.

They're lying in bed, naked atop the sheets. The room is illuminated only by the city lights casting in between the open curtains, bathing everything in a faint orange glow that shimmers off the lacquered posts of the bedframe, the embroidered accents on the duvet.

Jun slicked up his fingers and worked them into Nino one by one, made him come just like that, but now it seems like it happened forever ago. Nino is already hard again, writhing impatiently as Jun explores his body like he's trying to memorize every inch of it. He leaves imprints of his teeth on Nino's ankle, then slowly works his way back up, skirting his tongue past Nino's knees, his waist, his nipples, all the way to his clavicle.

"Kazu." His voice is a warm, lush whisper against Nino's skin. "Kazu -- tell me what you want."

"Fuck me," Nino breathes. It's a line, but it's not insincere. He's been ready for Jun to fuck him since he walked through the door.

Jun is moving again, trailing kisses down Nino's chest. "No, not just that. Let me give you something special." He gets his teeth around one of Nino's nipples, tugs just enough to make Nino gasp. "Tell me."

Nino reaches to stroke a hand through Jun's hair. "Jun," he says, and Jun looks up at the sound of his name, his eyes big, waiting. "I just want you."

Another line, another dime-a-dozen sentiment that wouldn't be genuine if he were telling it to nearly anyone else.

But he's not telling it to anyone else.

And Jun reacts perfectly: he crawls up the length of Nino's body, leans down to capture Nino's mouth in a fierce kiss, finds that his hips fit like a puzzle piece between Nino's thighs as he reaches blindly for the condom on the nightstand.

Later, while Nino is still lounging naked on the bed, Jun stands in front of the mirror over the dresser and fusses with his hair. "I was serious before," he says. "I want to buy you something special. Something you'll like."

Nino moves onto his side, propping his chin on his hand for a better view of the way Jun's dress shirt hangs off his shoulders. "I've liked everything you've bought me."

"I mean it," Jun says. He catches Nino's eye in the mirror, offering a smile.

Nino racks his brain, but nothing is jumping out at him. Honestly, the whole thing feels a little off. He doesn't know why, but he can't shake the little tug of uneasiness in the back of his mind. He watches Jun for a few moments longer, then finally says, "I'll think about it. Ask me again next time."

That makes Jun happy for now. He walks over to the bed so he can grasp Nino's chin, so he can tilt his face up as he leans down, their mouths meeting in the middle. It feels more like the beginning of something than a goodbye. When Jun pulls away, Nino feels tingly all over.

"Enjoy the room," Jun says, straightening back up. Nino's eyes stay locked on him all the way to the door, until it swings shut behind him.

~

Nino does think about it later, lying in the plush comfort of the hotel bed, and later again, at home, strumming his guitar out on the balcony. He gets no closer to an answer for Jun's question, nor to figuring out what that odd, unsettling feeling is. Usually he would be ecstatic at a client's offer to buy him something, anything at all -- and if Jun's recent spending is anything to go by, the upper limit on this hypothetical gift must be pretty high. And Nino is happy about it, in a distant, in-the-background kind of way. If he thinks only about that part of it, the request, the fact that Jun wants to spend all this money on him just because he can... yeah, that part's pretty hot.

Trying to come up with an answer is the part he's feeling weird about.

"I just don't know what to tell him," he complains to Aiba over take-out at his place later that week. Talking about clients is always an at-home affair.

"Just tell him what you want," Aiba says, like it's the simplest thing in the world. "Obviously he wants to get something for you as a person, not you as a sex god or whatever."

"A sex god," Nino snorts. "Aiba-chan, you're not helping."

Aiba shrugs, reaching across the table for the pad thai. "Look, your whole thing is rich guys spending money on you, and now here's this rich guy you especially like who wants to spend a lot of money on you, and he's asking you with basically no limitations exactly how you want him to do it. If that doesn't make you jump for joy, I don't know how to help you."

Aiba's right, but only on the most superficial level.

"That's kind of the thing, though." Nino slumps against the table and tries to frame it in a way that Aiba can understand, so that maybe Aiba can help him understand. "Like, it would be better if he did just want to buy sex stuff. That's easy."

"But why does him wanting it to be personal make it harder?"

It finally clicks. That's exactly the problem: Jun wants to make it more personal, but what makes all of this work for Nino is that nothing is personal. Every move he makes is with the purpose of remaining opaque, revealing absolutely nothing about himself. Opening up to Jun now, even if it's just about some special interest or soft spot, feels like giving up too much.

With this in mind, he tells Aiba, "It's not like I can ask him to buy me a video game console or a lifetime subscription to Shonen Jump. That would be ridiculous." It's only a glimpse of the truth he's just unraveled, but it's all Aiba needs to know for now.

"But you asked him for a guitar, didn't you?"

"I didn't ask him for that," Nino sighs. "He just... I mentioned it in passing and he went out and bought it all on his own. And besides, that's different. Musicians are hot, Aiba-chan, jeez, it's not the same as telling him I sit around playing video games on my days off."

"But that's what he wants, Nino. This is his way of saying he'd like to know you better."

"Well maybe I don't want him to!"

Aiba levels him with A Look, the kind that says Do you even hear yourself right now? "Fine," he says, "then just ask him to buy you a car -- holy shit, Nino, you should totally ask him to buy you a car!"

Nino throws a napkin at Aiba's head. "Don't be stupid! You just want me to do that so you can ask me for a ride all the time!"

"I'm telling you, it would be great!"

Aiba just doesn't get it. That's the conclusion Nino arrives to as they spend the next hour talking in circles, with constant interludes dedicated to how Nino should definitely absolutely ask for a shiny sports car.

But Nino can't blame him. The more he thinks about it on his own, the more he starts to realize that he doesn't really get it either.

~

It should be simple. The logic is right there, laid out easily enough that a kid could see it.

On one hand -- the far easier explanation -- Nino wants to remain hidden. He works so hard to keep every piece of himself locked away, safe and out of sight, and undoing any of that would be too much of a risk. Asking Jun for something he truly wants is simply off the table.

On the other hand -- the explanation Nino is less thrilled about dissecting -- he doesn't know what to tell Jun because he doesn't care. In the past, men have always just bought him nice clothes or sex toys or vintage wine, and even if those aren't the kinds of things Nino would ever buy for himself, he's always loved it because it's not about the things. With a few exceptions, Nino doesn't even like things. It's about the act, the knowledge that some powerful man just went out and blew a bunch of money on him just because he could, just because Nino wanted him to. For Nino, that's the height of romance, the very peak of sexual thrill. The details are entirely inconsequential.

But even that is sometimes too much for him to think about head-on.

The even uglier truth, the shameful secret that he has never admitted to anyone, not even Aiba, is that his walk-in closet full of past gifts isn't just a trophy collection. That's what Aiba calls it, and in a way it is true, but that name doesn't capture the whole picture. It doesn't capture how Nino has a dresser shoved into a corner of his bedroom for his personal clothes so that the suits and ties and costumes he's been gifted can have their own special place. It doesn't capture how just thinking of the shelves lined with sex toys gets him hard in a way that has nothing to do with what they're for or the memory of how he's used them. It doesn't even come close to capturing how sometimes, when he's having a slow work week or when he's feeling antsy or bored, he'll walk in there and jerk off because nothing in his life has ever turned him on more than what's in that room. Nothing will ever affect him the way he is affected by a bunch of things, things that at this point must collectively be worth hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of yen, purely because of how they came to be his.

Nino has never felt ashamed of what he does, but he's a little ashamed of this, somewhere deep inside himself. He knows it's crazy, knows it says something about him that he doesn't care to analyze. And trying to explain it to Jun, even if he left out every detail about the physical collection -- simply admitting to this part of himself, no matter the extent -- would in itself be too much of a confession.

So the solution is obvious: lie. If he doesn't want to reveal anything about himself, and the things Jun buys him don't matter at all, then the logical answer is to just make something up. He could go with Aiba's idea and tell Jun to buy him a car, or a high-rise apartment, or a hundred-year supply of fine sake brewed from some ancient recipe, who the fuck cares.

But for some reason, he can't bring himself to do it.

He can't do it, and worse, he can't figure out why, and that's the part that drives him crazy. With any other client, this wouldn't be so hard, wouldn't even be an issue. But now...

It's as if Jun has gotten the upper hand somehow, like he's wrested some minute but invaluable amount of control from Nino, and Nino can't win it back because he doesn't even know when or how he lost it in the first place. When did his feelings for Jun get so muddled up? When did he stop being able to think about this clearly?

After a fretful night of sleep, filled with absurd nightmares in which he tells Jun to buy him increasingly ridiculous things like a life-sized sculpture of Frieza and "a sports car for my buddy Aiba-chan," Nino is tired of thinking about it. He hunches over his morning coffee and wishes he could just erase that night, sweep the whole thing under the rug.

And somehow, magically, as if he had wished it on a shooting star or the downy seeds of a dandelion, his wish comes true.

~

A week passes without any word from Jun. Nino allows himself a moment of selfish relief, and then he moves on to the rest of his day.

Jun doesn't make an appointment the next week, either.

Or the week after.

Or the week after that.

Nino isn't worried, mostly because he's aggressively not thinking about it. He fills his time with other clients, continues to fill the shelves in his closet with gifts he didn't have to ponder at all, still strums his guitar on the evenings when he needs to wind down and absolutely does not think about where it came from. He is pleased, as always, to have gotten what he wanted.

It's Aiba who finally brings it back to his attention one day.

Ohno's supposed to be at the dance studio until evening, so Nino is keeping Aiba company with beer and video games until he returns. They're in the middle of a Smash Bros match when Aiba says, "Hey, did you ever figure out what to tell that guy?"

"I don't know who you're talking about," Nino lies.

"You know, the one who wanted to buy you something special. You haven't been driving around a brand new car without telling me, have you?"

"Oh, that. It never came up."

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Aiba tilt his head like a confused puppy. When he doesn't elaborate, Aiba asks, "What do you mean? Why not?"

"He never got back in touch with me."

"What, that sucks! Who makes that kind of offer and then just bails?"

Nino shrugs. "Whatever, it's fine. He must have just gotten busy, or had a change of heart, or... whatever. It's not my business. I mean, literally, Aiba-chan, it is no longer relevant to my actual profession."

"It doesn't bother you?"

Nino is so distracted by trying to kick Aiba's in-game ass that he finds himself saying, "If anything, it's kind of a relief not having to think about it."

He regrets it as soon as the words leave his mouth, and doubly so when Aiba actually turns away from the screen to stare at him with that same Do you even hear yourself? look from before. Nino glances at him, then back at the TV, feeling his face pull into a frown entirely beyond his control.

"Seriously?" Aiba asks.

Nino snaps, "Just drop it," and Aiba does because he's a good friend. Still, Nino feels so scatterbrained that he loses the match and can't recover, and for the rest of the day he feels prickly, defensive. He tries to shake it off, but the same thought keeps circling back around to the forefront of his frazzled mind. What's so wrong with being relieved about it?

~

After a month of silence, the message finally comes on a balmy Tuesday morning, his phone buzzing noisily in his hand as he reviews his schedule for the day. He sees Jun's name pop up on his screen and nearly spits his coffee out.

Can we meet tonight? I know it's last minute. I'll pay double.

After all this time telling himself he's grateful to be done with it, Nino is downright horrified to catch himself thinking, I'd agree for half.

~

Jun plays coy with the details, insisting he pick Nino up at the cafe where they used to begin their sessions. That's the first clue that something odd is afoot.

The second clue is when Jun tells him in a message, Almost there. The driver thinks we're meeting for work. Nino wonders why Jun would care what the driver thinks, and then he realizes it must be someone Jun knows, not just a normal taxi.

There are many clues to come, but he stops keeping track after the third, which is that when Jun finally pulls up in a black luxury car so shiny that Nino can see his reflection in it, he's wearing a goddamn three-piece suit. It looks unfairly attractive on him, too: black all over to offset the stark white dress shirt, the pop of the purple tie, everything fitted to perfection. Fuck, Nino missed him.

He has about ten million questions, but he glances at the driver -- an actual chauffeur, with a little hat and everything -- and saves them all for later. He looks at Jun, who's steadfastly looking out the window, the very picture of forced nonchalance, and runs a dozen possible greetings through his head. He finally settles on "I feel a little under-dressed."

Jun looks over at him, unable to keep a grin off his face. "Don't worry about it. I just came from a party."

That makes Nino feel a little more at ease about this whole ball-gown-and-carriage thing, but it opens up other questions as well: What kind of party? Why did he come straight from there? Where the hell has he been this whole time?

Nino buckles in, trying to wrap his head around everything that's going on as they pull back onto the street. Finding a way to talk about these things in front of the driver would actually make it easier on him, would give him an excuse to keep things as superficial as possible, but when he's already feeling so off-kilter, saying nothing at all might be the better option.

So instead, he sits back and keeps his mouth shut. He tries to breathe out all the worry, all the confusion, all the uncertainty about where they're going, where they stand, all of it. He allows himself to do nothing but take in the simple joy of seeing Jun again, knowing they'll be alone soon. They ride without speaking a word, accompanied only by the hum of the traffic outside and the uneven beat the driver is tapping out on the steering wheel.

The hotel they finally arrive to is one they haven't been to before, but from the looks of it, it's on the high end of high-end, outrageously ritzy with lush greenery lining the walkway up to the lobby, sculptures reminiscent of Greek goddesses spilling water into glittery fountains. Nino gets a little buzz just looking at it. That feeling builds as they walk through the breathtaking lobby, and it makes him feel antsy and eager as they ride the elevator up to their floor surrounded by half a dozen chatty guests.

His patience pays off the instant the door to their room is closed. He barely has time to drop his bag into the chair beside the door before Jun shoves him up against it, already pawing at Nino's jacket, devouring his surprised "Oh--!" in a kiss that Nino is thrilled to reciprocate.

The jacket comes off, then his belt, both flung in different directions. Jun wrenches his zipper open and pulls out of the kiss to growl, "Condom."

Nino grabs for his bag, luckily still within reach, and fishes a condom out of the front pocket where he always keeps them. He wonders if Jun is going to fuck him against the door -- just the thought sends a little jolt running through him -- and if he'll need to take his pants off, but when he hands the condom over, Jun tears it open and starts rolling it onto him. Before Nino can ask, Jun's kissing him, curling his fingers tight in the hair at the back of Nino's neck, holding Nino's mouth on his like he wants to swallow down every helpless noise Nino makes as Jun jerks him off in fast, relentless strokes.

Jun makes him moan, makes him come, and then holds him up for the few blissful seconds that he feels boneless and limp, waves of tingly pleasure washing from his thighs down to his toes. Jun noses at his neck, kisses his jaw, and meanwhile Nino manages to pull himself together enough to slip the condom off and tie it without spilling anything.

"Good thinking," he says, still a little breathless.

Jun kisses him, smiling against his mouth. "Didn't want to make a mess."

Nino flings the condom towards the waste bin in the corner, then turns them around so Jun is against the door. He leans on his tiptoes to kiss Jun's mouth as his hands work on Jun's belt, and as he sinks to his knees, he whispers, "I can think of another way to accomplish that."

~

Afterwards, Nino picks up their belts and jackets to drape over the back of a chair as Jun takes out his wallet, his phone, his cufflinks, setting them all on the nightstand by the bed. They finally collapse onto the mattress and lie there next to each other, just breathing.

Jun huffs out, "I didn't plan on getting to that so soon."

Nino laughs and rolls over to face Jun, who's smiling, loose, somehow even more beautiful than Nino remembered. "That's okay," Nino says. "We have all night."

Jun's smile widens into a grin as he sits up. "Do you want some champagne?"

When Nino lifts his head off the pillow, he sees that there's a bucket over on the dresser, an opened bottle sticking out of it, two glass champagne flutes set beside it. Jun must have called ahead.

All the curiosity and the questions come rolling back, prompting Nino to choose his next words carefully. "Is tonight special?"

Jun completely evades the question, just gets on his feet and heads for the dresser, rolling his sleeves up as he goes. "Sorry for disappearing, by the way," he says. "Work's been crazy. We got caught up in this huge deal and then the other side kept wavering back and forth on the details. I spent the last week in Seoul just trying to hash it out."

As he's pouring the champagne, his phone lights up and vibrates, just once, still on the nightstand where he left it. Nino reflexively glances over, not even thinking about it, and although he doesn't mean to read the message -- he really, truly doesn't -- the characters on the screen are so recognizable that he registers their meaning before he can stop himself.

Happy Birthday, Jun-kun~!!

He looks away immediately, but he feels like he just stuck his fingers in an electrical socket. His mind flashes to the bank account Jun set up for them -- the PIN for the online access. 0830.

Today is August 30th.

Fuck.

Jun is walking back to the bed, two champagne flutes in hand. "I finally flew back in this morning. I knew I had to see you."

Nino takes the glass Jun offers, smiling back despite how fucking crazy this all suddenly seems.

The phone on the nightstand buzzes again. Nino forces himself to keep his eyes up as Jun glances down at it, then reaches to dismiss the message and flip the phone over, screen-side down. He looks back to Nino and tilts his glass forward, offering a toast. "To being back home."

Nino clinks his glass to Jun's. "Welcome back."

They get comfortable together on the bed, both of them leaning back against the headboard with their legs stretched out in front of them. Nino asks about Jun's trip to Seoul, but he's only half-listening. Inside, his mind is racing, trying to piece together everything he's just learned. Jun just spent a month locking down what must have been a monumentally important deal -- for whom? Some big-name company he works for, clearly, and apparently a multinational one. He just got back this morning... Holy shit, Nino thinks, starting to feel a little numb. The party he came here from. It must have been for him.

I knew I had to see you, he said. What, as a birthday present to himself? That's simultaneously so heartbreaking and so insane that Nino is having trouble wrapping his head around it. Why the hell is this mega-attractive, ultra-rich businessman -- someone who travels the continent for business, someone who is clearly cherished enough by the people around him that they'd throw him a party, send him well-wishing messages on his birthday -- spending it here with Nino?

Nino's heart is beating so hard he's afraid he might start shaking. He can't calm down, can't figure it out. All he can do is keep a smile on his face and hope, pray Jun doesn't notice.

As Nino is mentally flipping out, Jun is wrapping up his story about Seoul and all the sights he saw, all the dishes he ate. He conveniently left out any detail whatsoever about his actual work, which Nino appreciates after the landmine he just inadvertently stumbled over.

"It all sounds amazing," Nino says, leaning his head back against Jun's shoulder, just to give himself a few more seconds before he has to look Jun in the eye.

Jun's hand touches his shoulder, his thumb tracing over the curve of it. "Mm. Next time I'll have to take you with me."

Nino is so shell-shocked that the weight of that statement doesn't even register. All he's thinking is, I need to do something. I need to do something.

He sits up in a rush, snatching the empty glass from Jun's hands so he can set it on the nightstand along with his. He settles himself in Jun's lap, and thankfully Jun doesn't question it, just runs his hands up Nino's sides, leans into the kiss Nino offers. They've been seeing each other like this for long enough that Nino knows Jun's refractory period pretty well, knows he's close to ready for another round. He pulls back, holding Jun close by the collar of his shirt so they're still just a breath apart.

"What do you want tonight?" Another kiss, another few seconds to fill in the blanks in his plan. "It's special after all --" Shit. He mentally kicks himself, then steamrolls right past it: "A celebration for your successful return home."

Jun initiates the kiss this time, holding Nino close. When Nino pulls away to see Jun's face, Jun is looking up at him through his eyelashes, biting his lip like he's holding something back.

Nino kisses him again, grinds down against him, feels Jun's cock stirring. He whispers against Jun's lips, "Tell me."

After a long moment of silence, Jun pulls him closer, close enough that Nino can't see his eyes when he says, "Make me believe it."

Nino's heart clenches in his chest. If that's what Jun wants, that's what he'll do. He'll give it everything he's got.

~

He undresses Jun piece by piece, worships every inch of revealed skin: his lush mouth framed by beauty marks, the smooth incline of his throat down to the dip of his collarbones, the broad line of his shoulders, the swell of his biceps and the jut of his wrists, his toned stomach out to his narrow waist, his knobby knees and the points of his ankles. Nino pays special attention to his lean thighs, his eager cock, and when Jun reaches down to hurry him along, he slips off the bed to find Jun's necktie among the pile of discarded clothing.

"Be patient," he says as he loops the silk around Jun's wrists -- tight enough to hold, gentle enough not to hurt. "Let me take care of you."

He tethers it to the headboard as Jun arches underneath him.

He stands beside the bed and undresses, moving slow so Jun can watch him, so he can see the way Jun's cock drips just at the sight of him.

He strokes Jun's thighs with his hands while he teases with his mouth, and he uses his tongue to drive Jun crazy. He lets all of the worry and the frustration float up out of him so he can focus on nothing but making Jun feel good, making Jun want him -- making Jun believe that Nino wants him just as much -- allowing himself to believe that it's not a lie.

When Jun starts gasping his name, Nino knows he's ready. He makes quick work of the condom and the lube and sinks down all in one go, drawing a moan out of both of them. Bracing himself on Jun's chest, he starts off slow, slower than he knows Jun wants, but he doesn't want there to be room in Jun's head for a single thought. He keeps the rhythm until Jun is losing his mind with it, until his breathless voice cuts through the darkness.

"Kazu, I need to touch you -- please."

He unties Jun's wrists but doesn't let him go. Instead, he links his fingers through Jun's and holds them down against the mattress, keeping them connected as he lies his forehead down on Jun's chest, lets his mind go blissfully blank as Jun fucks up into him. All he knows is Jun inside of him, the electric space between them, the frantic drumbeat of Jun's heart where he feels it against his skin, all along their bodies, pulsing through the seam of their fingers locked together as Jun comes.

~

They lie spooned up against each other afterwards, listening to the muffled sounds of the city living at full speed outside their quiet, dark space. Nino drifts in the pleasant soreness of his body, the slowed-down buzzing in his mind.

Jun slings his arm over Nino's bare waist, above the sheets draped over their hips. He asks, "Have you decided what you want?"

It's been so long, and tonight has been such a mindfuck, that Nino almost doesn't remember what he's talking about. Then it comes back to him. I want to buy you something special. The confusion and indecision of the past month rush through his head all at once. Now, in the face of everything that's happened, there's one thing he knows for certain: he needs to know more about Jun.

He makes an impulsive decision, doesn't let himself think twice.

"Dinner. With you."

Behind him, Jun goes very still. Nino turns around, wanting to see his face. It's dark, but in the city glow seeping through the curtains, he can see the whites of Jun's eyes, wide and uncertain.

"That's what you want?"

Nino reaches to stroke his fingers along the curve of Jun's jawline. "Absolutely."

Jun just watches him for a moment, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. Finally he says, "I'll make a reservation for this weekend. Any preferences?"

"Whatever you want to treat me to," Nino says -- another impulse.

At that, Jun smiles, settling his arm a little more tightly around Nino's waist. Nino scoots closer, kisses him, and when they pull away, Jun presses his lips to the corner of his mouth, his chin, his jaw. He rolls them over so Nino's lying on his back, and he says against the still-damp skin of Nino's throat, "I look forward to it."

~

Jun showers and gets dressed, slipping the wrinkled tie into his pocket. He stops by the bed to kiss Nino goodbye, and on his way out the door, he looks over his shoulder to say, "Enjoy the room." It's the same as always.

But Nino doesn't stay. He showers quickly, gathers up his things, grabs the first cab home and fidgets the whole way there. He grabs the emergency pack of cigarettes from the pot of fake flowers on his balcony and chain-smokes over the railing, trying to puff all his anxiety out into the city air. Fuck, he keeps thinking, just that one curse, over and over like an ill-fated mantra: Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

He never intended to take it this far, but then he went and learned too much, acted too quickly without thinking of the consequences. Now he's in over his head and there's no turning back.

He just has to see it through.

iii.

Aiba must know something is going on when Nino shows up the next day with an apologetic offering of mabo tofu and a copy of Ultraman, but he doesn't ask about it, and Nino doesn't dare bring it up on his own. He needs to figure out what's going on for himself before he runs the risk of saying anything about it that he can't take back.

He's done enough of that recently.

Looking back, he has no idea what he was thinking that night beyond his desire to know more about Jun. Yes, he's managed to regain the upper hand -- now that he knows something Jun likely never intended for him to find out, and now that he's the one directing the path of their relationship -- but rather than feeling victorious, he feels nervous. Whenever he starts to think of their upcoming dinner, his heartbeat picks up like crazy and he can't find a way to calm himself down other than shoving it to the very back of his mind. Even playing the guitar like he usually does when he's stressed isn't working, because this time it just reminds him of the thing he's so worried about. So instead he focuses on work, all the clients he has who aren't Jun, and on Aiba, making sure he's forgiven for his childish outburst the other day.

He needs to be cautious, that much he knows for sure. As much as he hates to admit it, he's become way more invested in Jun than he ever meant to, more than he ever thought he was capable of. He doesn't know what it means, but he knows he can't change it back to what it was. At this point all he can do is stay afloat.

Jun seems to feel similarly wary. He messages a few days later just to confirm that they're still on for dinner, as if he has to make sure it wasn't just a line, that Nino wasn't just bullshitting him in the heat of the moment.

Saturday evening? he asks once Nino has assured him that dinner is still what he wants.

Sounds perfect, Nino replies.

An hour passes, and then: Reservation made for 7:30.

Nino programs it into his calendar, then checks the balance on the bank account -- out of habit, he tells himself -- and sees that, sure enough, Jun has paid him in advance, with extra on top of his usual bonus.

Buy yourself a suit, Jun sends a few minutes later. Let me know if it's not enough.

Despite his nerves, the message makes Nino smile. If Jun wants him to go all out, he's happy to oblige.

~

Jun picks him up at the cafe, alone this time, in a sleek sports car that Nino hears purring before it even rounds the corner. When he opens the passenger-side door, Jun is already grinning at Nino's obviously impressed expression, his eyes glittering as he lowers his movie-star sunglasses. What a show-off.

"Good job on the suit," he says as Nino climbs in. "You look great."

"Thanks," Nino says. The suit he picked out is navy, three-piece -- inspired by Jun -- with a yellow tie, a matching pocket square. He's pretty proud of himself. Jun gave him way more than enough, so he even picked up some nice wingtips, some dress socks more expensive than any piece of clothing he'd ever buy for himself. He also spritzed on some nice cologne, ran just enough gel through his hair to keep his bangs swept off his forehead. Jun wanted him to go all-out, after all, and he must have succeeded because Jun spends a full twenty seconds checking him out, unable to wipe the smile off his face.

"Nice car, by the way," Nino says, just because he knows Jun must be dying to hear it. Birthday gift? he wants to ask, but instead he says, "Rental?"

Jun's grin widens as he shifts into gear, ready to pull out. "Smartass."

For safety reasons, Nino rarely lets clients drive him around, and for a few moments he entertains the idea that he might have refused if Jun had asked beforehand, but he knows it's not true. Inevitably, it feels more like a date than a session, but with Jun that's not really unusual anymore.

Besides, it's an early start to his information-gathering mission. A quick glance into the backseat shows him a briefcase in Jun's usual style -- black leather, silver latches, plain enough to be professional but still stylish -- and in the front there's a toll card reader mounted on the side console, a case filled with CDs strapped to the driver's-side visor, upbeat jazz playing low on the stereo. The ashtray is firmly shut, but there's a little white-grey smudge on the corner, and an air freshener is slid through one of the air-conditioning vents. So Jun's a smoker.

It's a good start. But Nino knows he'll want more.

"I have an idea," he says.

Jun turns his face in Nino's direction, his eyes still on the road. "Hm?"

"I think we should use this opportunity to learn more about each other," Nino continues. "Why not make a game out of it?"

That grin is back on Jun's face. "I'm all ears."

"Ten questions, five for each of us."

"About?"

"Anything."

"And the rules?"

"Questions can be yes/no or open-ended. Anything is on the table. If you -- or I -- don't feel comfortable answering a question thoroughly or with specific details, that's fine, but the answer does have to actually address the question in some way." He knows it's a gamble, that he's opening himself up to Jun just as much as he's asking Jun to open up to him, but he has a feeling the trade will be worth it.

Jun is thinking about it, his fingers tapping quietly on the steering wheel. "All right," he finally says. "Do we get to pass?"

"Sure, but then the other person gets to ask a new question instead."

After another moment of thought, Jun says, "I'm game. Now I just have to think of some good questions."

Nino smiles as he sits back, settling in for the drive. He can't wait to hear what Jun comes up with.

~

The restaurant isn't one Nino recognizes, but it's clearly expensive as hell, the kind of place that boasts authentic, home-style cuisine but has valet parking and sommeliers, where one entree costs more than the entire bill at the places Nino takes Aiba to. It is also clearly Italian, with a huge flag draped over the host's kiosk and a sign on the wall that reads Benvenuti!

"Reservation for two," Jun tells the hostess. "Under 'Kazu.'"

Nino smirks. Cute.

They're taken to a square table with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, set rather idyllically in front of a window overlooking a side garden, where a string of lights illuminates tomato vines growing along the back fence. They're quickly descended upon with choices for wine, which Jun picks, and appetizers, which he leaves up to Nino. When the order has been placed and they're both looking through their menus, Jun says, "So, are you going to ask your first question?"

"You start," Nino says. He wants to hear what Jun will open with.

Over the edge of the menu, he can see the way Jun's lips are pursed, and he realizes he's never seen Jun's thinking face before now. It's pretty cute. "Okay, I've got one," he announces. "What's the strangest thing someone's ever asked you to do?"

Nino can't help but laugh. "Going straight for the good stuff, I see."

"I'm curious!"

"Well, that is what this is for! All right, let me think..."

In general, Nino tries not to place any value judgments on the kinds of things his clients ask of him. He has his closet back home, after all, so he doesn't really have a leg to stand on when it comes to sexual deviancy. Still, there will always be requests that are particularly memorable if nothing else.

There was the time a client asked to put a vibrating plug in him and then wanted to hold his hand while they walked around in public; the time a client asked Nino to tie him to a chair and then fuck his wife in front of him while they both taunted him about it; the time a client wanted him to dress in a maid uniform, complete with pantyhose and a wig styled in curly pigtails, and then jerked off as Nino scrubbed his floor... He cycles through the whole list, but he finally decides on:

"There was this guy I saw for a long time, months and months, and he would always ask for totally standard stuff, always in love hotels. Then one day he asked if we could meet at his apartment, and I trusted him by that point, so I agreed, and when I got there he pulled out all these things -- a headband with dog ears, a collar with a tag that said 'Koro,' a plug with a little fluffy tail on the end, a bone-shaped chew toy... He wanted me to crawl around on all fours and then piss on his carpet so he could punish me. And, of course, fuck me afterwards. With the chew toy in my mouth."

By the end of the story, Jun's eyebrows have shot halfway up his forehead. "Did you do it?"

"Of course," Nino scoffs. "But I made him pay triple."

"Ruthless!"

"Hey, that's just smart business practice. I told him from the get-go that pet stuff is extra. He knew what he was getting into."

Jun snorts and goes back to looking over his menu. When Nino does the same, he glances up and asks, "Aren't you going to ask yours?"

In response, Nino makes a show of looking as if he's pondering it deeply, but he's known what his first question would be since he first proposed this little game. He finally gives a little "Ah," as if the perfect question has just occurred to him, and asks, "Why did you choose this restaurant?"

"That's your question?"

"We agreed anything is fair game, didn't we?"

Jun rolls his eyes, but he's smiling. He looks around, taking in the decor, perhaps thinking of how to articulate his answer. "I like Italian," he starts. "I read nothing but excellent reviews about this place..." He trails off, but it sounds more like a pause than an end, as if he's considering whether or not to say the next part. "And," he says, slowly, "the pictures made it look a bit... romantic."

Nino grins, not bothering to hold back. So, this place is new to Jun. Was he worried someone might have recognized him if they'd gone somewhere familiar? He could have easily explained it away as work-related -- or maybe he's afraid someone he knows might recognize Nino. And he read about it somewhere instead of asking around, so after tonight no one will have any reason to suspect he's been here. He's careful, thorough; Nino admires that in a person.

And he does think it's a date, or at least wants it to feel like one. Good to know.

"All right," Jun says, "my turn. What do you do with all the gifts you get?"

Nino doesn't pause to think this time. "I keep them," he says, and it's an acceptable sliver of the truth. Jun doesn't need to know about the shrine-like nature of his collection or, for instance, that Nino will swipe a business card from this place on their way out, to be added to the binder he has at home.

Jun looks a bit skeptical. "All of them?"

"Every single one."

"What, do you have a storage unit somewhere?"

Nino laughs, shaking his head. "No, they all fit in my closet at home. You're right though, maybe I'll open a museum one day."

"Do you use them?" Jun asks, looking honestly curious rather than appalled, which is a surprising relief.

"Sometimes." That's a bit of a stretch, but Jun definitely doesn't need to know the minutiae of Nino's reverent visits to the closet.

Thankfully, the wine and appetizers show up before Jun has a chance to press for more details, and they spend the next few minutes being serious about the menu before finally ordering. Nino gets chicken parmesan that comes with steamed vegetables drenched in lemon and butter, and Jun orders some fancy-sounding pasta dish with a salad on the side. Nino is pleased to learn that although Jun is picky with his order, requesting that the pasta be cooked just so or that such and such not be included with the salad, he's appreciative of and courteous to the waitstaff -- always a good sign.

They sip their wine, pick at the cheeses and cured meats spread between them, and Jun finally says, "It's your turn."

Nino chews on a piece of prosciutto as he thinks. He's not sure Jun's ready to answer this one, but after the question Jun just sent his way, Nino's feeling ready to ask it. "What do you do for a living?"

"Pass," Jun says immediately.

Damn. That's a bit of an answer in itself, though, isn't it? He decides to throw Jun a softball. "Okay, then what about... are you a hitman?"

That makes Jun laugh, so sincere and surprised that he almost spills his wine. "No," he answers, still chuckling, "not even close. Not yakuza, either -- that's a freebie for you."

"Ah, that was my first guess, but I've seen you naked plenty of times. Not a single tattoo."

Jun is grinning as he leans back in his chair, taking another sip from his glass. "My turn again."

Nino says, before he has a chance to ask, "Are all of your questions going to be work-related?"

Jun regards him with a cool glare, the smile from a few seconds ago just barely visible now around the corners of his mouth. He pops an olive in his mouth as he considers, before finally asking, "What do you do for fun? I mean, other than seducing wealthy men, of course."

"See, still bringing it back to work." It's a playful jab, but it's also a diversion. Weeks ago, Nino was caught in this very predicament and he chose to run, but tonight running isn't an option, and so far he's learned only bits and pieces about the tiniest details of Jun's life. He needs to start upping the ante, needs to offer something real so Jun might return the favor. He takes a breath, takes a sip of wine, and throws caution to the wind. "Goof off, mostly," he says. "Read. Play guitar." That makes Jun smile again. "Play video games." At that, Jun's smile widens, the softness of it now reflected in his eyes. It's not teasing, the way it has been for most of their conversation, but something sweeter, like he's genuinely charmed. Nino lets him have that moment, and then he says, "Okay, my turn. What do you do for fun? Other than spend your hard-earned money on gorgeous men, of course."

There it is -- that playful tease back in Jun's eyes. "Gorgeous, huh?"

"So I've been told."

Jun's smile stays for a moment longer, and then it fades as he sighs, leaning back in his chair. He starts looking around the restaurant, down into his wine, then back into the distance... Is he intentionally avoiding Nino's gaze, or is he distracted -- thinking?

"Not a lot of fun these days," he finally says. "Work's been pretty hectic."

"Your mysterious, definitely-not-yakuza work."

At that Jun snorts, his eyes sliding back to Nino with a gleam of laughter in them. "That might make life more exciting, honestly. Mostly it's paperwork, conference calls, and that's when I'm not in the office. Other than that..." He lets his gaze drop back down to the table, where he's running his fingertips along the base of the wine glass, over and over. "Look for new restaurants to try. Spend my lunch break driving around the city. Watch mindless TV until I fall asleep." He shrugs, glancing back up to Nino. "Not very interesting."

Nino disagrees. Jun must not realize it -- would he have said it otherwise? -- but he's just told Nino much more than the simple actions his words conveyed.

Maybe Jun does start to realize it, because in the next moment he's leaning forward, elbows on the table. "Next question," he says. "Do you have any pets?"

That startles a laugh out of Nino. "You're gonna ask me that after the story I told you earlier?"

"Hey, it's a good thing to know about someone! I respect people who have good relationships with their pets. I can't even keep a goldfish alive. Plants are a different story though -- I have a very respectable bonsai at home."

"Well then regretfully, no, no pets." He adds, "Just my dumb best friend," and makes sure the teasing in his voice is clear. Jun gets it, smiling with his mouth and his eyes.

Their food arrives shortly after, so they put the game on pause for now. They eat mostly in silence but for comments on the food; Jun wants to sample Nino's but offers some of his in return, and he has a lot of opinions about the sauce on his plate, the texture of the pasta, the crispy edges of Nino's grilled veggies. Everything is absolutely delicious, and Nino makes a mental note to bring Aiba back here one day. Maybe on a special occasion though.

~

After Jun pays, they head out on foot in search of a gelato place that's supposedly to die for -- Jun's words. They find it a few blocks away, easy to miss where it sits between an ice cream shop and a bakery, all across the street from a little park with colorful flower beds and a single, winding path. They order their desserts to go, and although they must look ridiculous -- two grown men in expensive suits eating gelato out of paper cups as they wander through the park -- it's quiet, beautiful, with no one else around to overhear their conversation.

"It's nice out here," Jun says. "I've never been in this area before, but I'll have to come back."

"Mm." Nino takes another spoonful of his gelato, then reaches over to sample Jun's. Jun laughs but lets him, gets his own spoonful of Nino's. They keep walking.

It's Jun who finally unpauses the game. "I believe it was your turn to ask a question."

They've reached a cluster of trees with a wooden bench set just off the path, under the shade. The trees look like they must blossom spectacularly in the spring, but for now their green-covered branches provide cover from the moonlight; when Nino and Jun sit on the bench, it's as if they've stepped into some secret room, a private bubble separate from the rest of the world moving busily just outside the park. It feels safe, maybe even appropriate, to ask the question Nino's been saving up.

"Why do you come to me?"

Jun takes a while to answer, and Nino is patient, letting him sort it all out because he knows that if Jun gives him any answer at all, it will be worth the wait.

"It started as just something to do," he finally says. "Sho-kun and I used to..." He waves his hand around like he's unsure of exactly how to phrase it, but Nino gets the picture. "So we understood each other. He knew what it was like to have to sneak around. That's why he gave me your number -- it was his idea originally. I spent a long time debating, but I finally decided to try it, and at first it was just..." He trails off, mouth pursed like he's not sure what to say next. He's not looking at Nino at all, just gazing out at the city street, watching the people pass by, their faces illuminated by the bright storefronts. "Just a stress reliever," he continues. "I guess it still is, but it's not just that anymore. Seeing you makes me happy. Gives me something to look forward to every week." He glances over at Nino, smiling bashfully. "Stupid, I know."

"It's not stupid," Nino says, and for perhaps the first time tonight, he's being entirely truthful. There's nothing left out, nothing else that could be said. He doesn't think it's stupid at all. What must Jun think of him, he wonders, to worry about that even now? He wishes he could do or say something to put Jun at ease, would kiss him if they were somewhere truly private, but even here in their dark little bubble, just a touch would be too risky.

But Jun doesn't linger on it. He flashes a nervous smile and says, "My turn. Last question for the night."

Nino leans back against the bench, smiling in return. "Go for it."

"What do you get out of this?"

That takes the bravado right out of him. He takes a breath, lets it out slowly. What is there to say? How much can he reveal here, and how? In that moment, his heart is aching for Jun, and he doesn't want to lie to him, but he doesn't know if the truth would be worse. He's not even sure himself what the truth is anymore. For years it's been crystal-clear -- money, sex, an easy living -- but how can he say that now without sounding callous? How can he explain that somehow, somewhere along the way, what he gets out of their time together has become something more than that?

How can he put any of that into words for Jun when he can't even reason it out for himself?

"Pass."

It comes out of his mouth before he even means to say it, and he regrets it instantly, intensified by the stricken look on Jun's face.

Jun hides it quickly, looking away from Nino, saying nothing as his fingers tap out a nervous rhythm against his thigh. In the silence Nino starts to panic, feeling a bit like his necktie is wound too tightly around his throat. He wants to run, wants to shove all of this away and out of sight, but he knows he can't, knows that would make his shitty mistake ten times worse.

Jun clears his throat. "Okay. New question. If you weren't doing this... what would you do instead?"

He answers, "Be a musician, or a bored office worker with ambitious dreams of being a musician," but it sounds wooden even to his ears. It means nothing at all. His heart is pounding so wildly that he thinks Jun might be able to see it.

Jun nods, gives no other response. He's trying to hide the way he's hurting, but after all this time, Nino knows where to look: the barely-there crease between his eyebrows, the way the corners of his mouth turn down even when he smiles. He glances back at Nino and says, "Are you going to ask your last question?"

Nino looks up, into the trees. He hadn't planned on what his final question would be, since he wanted to see where the night would take them, but what can he ask now? He looks back to Jun, and he makes his decision right there. "Remind me again later." He stands, offering his hand.

Jun just stares at him, unmoving. "Ready to call it a night?" In the darkness of their little world, his eyes look huge, terrified.

"Not yet," Nino says. "Let's go somewhere private." He needs to make this right -- needs to show Jun everything he can't say in words. "Please."

Jun takes his hand.

~

The hotel Jun booked is one they've been to before, but the room is above and beyond their previous experience. There's a main area with a minibar, a huge overstuffed couch, an enormous flat-screen TV mounted on the wall, and an adjoining bedroom with a four-poster as big as any Nino's ever seen before. He can't even guess what Jun had planned, but now Jun isn't saying a word as he takes off his shoes, his jacket, loosens his tie. He leaves his things on the table in the main room, then walks into the sleeping area to sit on the edge of the bed. He looks lost, like he doesn't know where to go from here.

Nino moves to him, makes room for himself to stand between Jun's knees. He runs his hands up Jun's neck and tilts his face up for a kiss that Jun returns. He kisses Jun's mouth, the beauty mark above his lip, his forehead. "Thank you for dinner," he says.

Jun leans into him, moving his hands from the bed to Nino's thighs, up to his waist. "Did you enjoy it?"

"I loved all of it."

He kisses Jun again, and tries to channel into it everything that he's feeling, but he can tell that Jun is holding back. He pulls away, brushing his thumbs over the curve of Jun's jaw. "I'm sorry I couldn't answer your question," he says. Jun's expression flickers -- fearful and hopeful all at once. "There are some things I can't be open about. I need you to understand that. But I also need you to believe me now." He drops another kiss on Jun's mouth, one that Jun returns softly, then pulls back just enough to whisper against Jun's lips, "I enjoy our time together. I enjoy being with you. And I'm glad I can make you happy." Another kiss. "You do the same for me."

When he pulls away, Jun is staring up at him. There's something in his eyes that, for once, Nino can't decipher. "Kazu..."

He smooths his hands down Jun's shoulders, coming to rest over his biceps, his thumbs running up and down over the soft fabric. "My final question. Will you stay the night?"

Jun grips him tighter, pulls him into a kiss. It's all the answer Nino needs.

iv.

When Nino wakes up the next morning, Jun is spooned up against him, an arm around his waist, their legs all tangled together beneath the sheets. He's warm from Jun's body pressed against his and from the sunlight creeping in through the curtains they accidentally left open, slicing through the blinds to paint the bed in golden stripes.

It's serene, wonderful... but Nino really has to pee. He wriggles out as gently as he can from under Jun's arm so he can sneak off to the bathroom, and he washes his face and swishes some mouthwash around as long as he's in there. When he comes back out, Jun is lying on his stomach, yawning under his hand as he swipes through messages on his phone.

Nino worms back under the covers, and when he's all settled, he finds Jun watching him. He's got his chin propped on his hand and a big, dumb smile on his face, like watching Nino shuffle around bleary-eyed is a good way to spend anyone's time.

"Good morning," Nino croaks.

Jun laughs as he rolls over to grab something off the nightstand. He drops it onto Nino's blanket-covered chest -- a menu for room service -- and throws the blankets aside, gets his feet on the floor. "I'm starving," he announces on his way to the bathroom. "Pick for me, will you?"

They never left the bed last night, so Nino isn't surprised to hear the shower start up once the door is closed. He uses the phone on the desk to call room service and orders a few random things off the menu, making sure to ask for coffee, then rolls onto his stomach and falls back to sleep.

He wakes up, presumably not very much later, to the sound of the bathroom door opening and closing again. He doesn't open his eyes, but he hears Jun's soft footsteps padding across the floor, feels the mattress shift as Jun climbs onto the bed. There's nothing for a long moment after that, and then Jun's hand is on him, running up and down his back, over the blankets. He makes a pleased noise as he turns his head to see Jun, sitting there in nothing but a bathrobe. Usually he blow-dries and styles his hair before he leaves, but now it's still damp, falling cutely over his forehead.

Jun catches his eye and smiles, his hand drifting lower. He whispers, "Can I?"

Nino stretches lazily under his touch. "Be my guest."

He feels Jun's hand trail up, then slide slowly underneath the blanket until they're skin-on-skin, Jun's fingertips warm and soft where they stroke over the small of Nino's back. Jun spends a few moments appreciating the shallow dip of Nino's spine, and then he's moving lower, his hand coming to rest over the curve of Nino's ass. He shifts so that he's lying alongside Nino and uses his other hand to brush the hair off the back of Nino's neck, leaning down so he can lay his mouth over it at the same time that one of his fingers slips down the cleft of Nino's ass, pressing right up against him.

When he turns to grab the lube off the nightstand where they left it, Nino folds his arms beneath the pillow his head is resting on, settling in for the long haul. Jun comes back with slick fingers and works one into him, makes him shiver, then works in another, then another, until Nino can't stop himself from rutting against the bed, desperate to feel any friction whatsoever against his dick. He feels Jun lean over him again, and then Jun's teeth are laying into the skin at the back of his neck, just hard enough to draw a moan out of him.

Jun withdraws quickly, sitting up on his knees so he can shimmy out of his robe and give Nino's ass a gentle smack. Nino lifts up just enough for Jun to tuck a pillow under his hips, and then Jun is reaching again for the nightstand, swiping a condom this time. Jun fucks into him and it's outrageously good -- nice, slow, picture-perfect for a Sunday morning.

Nino still has his arms under his head, but he's just starting to think about reaching down to touch himself when suddenly they hear a knock.

He perks his head up from the pillow, but Jun keeps going, pressing a hand gently between his shoulder blades. "Shhh."

The knocking continues. It's coming from the front door, out in the main room. They can just barely hear a voice call from the other side, "Room service!"

Nino tries to keep quiet, but Jun is hitting him in exactly the right spot and it's impossible to hold back a whimper.

In the main room, the front door creaks open and a woman's voice calls out, "Matsumoto-san?"

Jun quickly reaches around to clamp a hand over Nino's mouth, still fucking him slowly, sliding even deeper somehow. Nino lets out a surprised squeak, but it's lost under the sound of Jun's voice as he yells over his shoulder, "I'm changing, leave it by the desk please!"

They hear the door close as she enters the room, the gentle clinking of silverware and porcelain as she arranges the food. Jun is still going, insistent but silent, putting that superhuman focus of his to good use, and it's taking every ounce of willpower for Nino to keep from screaming. Jun's hand over his mouth tightens by just a fraction, but it's enough to send a jolt of excitement down his spine. He can feel himself leaking precome where he's trying so hard not to hump the pillow under his hips.

Finally, they hear her voice: "Sorry for the intrusion! Please enjoy your breakfast!" Then the door opens, closes.

They stay quiet a few seconds longer, just to make sure.

She's gone.

In an instant Jun is up, dragging Nino's hips with both hands so he can speed up, and now that they're alone again, Nino is pushing back thrust for thrust. He gets a hand around his cock and starts working himself to the rhythm of Jun's hips, letting every filthy noise he's capable of spill out of his mouth. With his other hand he clutches the pillow under his head and holds on for dear life as he finally comes, Jun fucking him through it until he's completely boneless, still moaning into the pillow as Jun keeps going.

Jun finishes just a few seconds later. He stays there with his hands on Nino's hips, just catching his breath, and then pulls out, ties off the condom, collapses alongside Nino. Nino slumps against the mattress and doesn't even care that he's lying right on the wet spot. He's exhausted in the best possible way.

Jun looks over at him, breathless and beaming. "Hungry?"

~

Nino showers quickly while Jun gets dressed, and then they sit together in the main room, eating their breakfast, sipping their coffee. Nino relaxes mindlessly as Jun taps out messages on his phone, and it feels comfortable. Easy.

Jun's phone starts beeping shrilly right as he's finishing up his miso soup. "Shit," he says under his breath. He downs the rest of the broth in one gulp and stands, telling Nino, "Gotta go. I totally forgot I have a business call coming in from Taiwan in an hour." He grabs his jacket off the back of the chair, the only thing he's not already wearing.

Nino reaches for his wrist as he walks past, tugging him back. Jun goes along with it when Nino uses his tie to pull him down, until they're inches apart. "Thank you for everything," Nino says.

He can feel Jun smiling as they kiss.

Jun gives him one last peck on the corner of his mouth, then straightens up, smooths down his tie, and leaves with his usual "Enjoy the room."

Alone now, Nino gets up to make another cup of coffee from the pot on the desk. He feels sleepy in a good, fucked-out way, but there's also something that he can't get out of his head.

This whole time, all the months they've been seeing each other, Nino has always managed to avoid finding out Jun's family name. He always looked away when Jun pulled out his bank card, always waited by the elevators when Jun checked in at the hotels. It's just standard practice, something he does no matter who the client is; he has enough secrets of his own to keep, and although he may hoard other kinds of information, carrying around a mental list of wealthy businessmen he's slept with isn't a secret he particularly wants to deal with. As long as they can pay, he's happy.

But now that he does know, the curiosity is eating away at him. It's not as if Matsumoto is an uncommon name, and for all he knows it might be a lie, like the name on the bank account. But everything he's pieced together fits with the idea that's now swirling around his mind.

He sits there at the table with his coffee in one hand, cell phone in the other for a full five minutes, debating back and forth. He'll turn the screen on, pull up Google, then think better of it and turn it back off. He does this at least three times before he loses track. But now all the caffeine is making him feel jittery, the restlessness from dealing with the past twenty-four hours is telling him to do it, just do it, and finally, he can't resist anymore.

He turns the screen back on, types the characters in quickly before he can convince himself to stop: Matsumoto Jun. His thumb hovers over the search button, and then he types in August 30 just to solidify it.

The first thing that pops up is an article from a business magazine, published last winter, some fluff piece titled "Up-and-Coming Entrepreneurs Who Are Taking the Business World by Storm." Nino clicks it and waits impatiently for the page to load. It's just a collection of profiles, with a few paragraphs each for a list of the "ten hottest young businesspeople in Japan." Fucking A. He has to scroll down a bit before he sees it -- a picture of Jun, he'd know that face anywhere -- and after that, all he needs to do is read the first line: Matsumoto Jun, heir to Matsumoto Enterprises...

Dammit, Nino thinks. He was right on the mark.

He doesn't know that much about Matsumoto Enterprises, just that they're one of those big-name companies with fingers in so many pies that it's difficult for the average person to know what it is they actually do, just that they have massive influence and wealth. He keeps reading, unable to stop now that he's stumbled onto this. He learns that the company started small, just a lowly chicken farm out in the boonies way back when, until Jun's great-grandfather decided to make a name for himself as the economy flourished after the war. They got their first big break with a family restaurant and have spent the generations since then amassing their fortune, leapfrogging from food into all sorts of other industries, including a line of ridiculously luxurious hotels that they're currently trying to expand into a multinational chain. Apparently that's where Jun comes in.

Nino immediately brings up another search to find out which hotels they already own, which ones they're dealing with. He's not surprised to see that Jun's only ever taken him to one of them, the night they met for his birthday. He said the driver thought it was a work meeting -- was that part of the ruse?

Nino drops his phone onto the table and slumps in his chair, letting everything sink in. It's no wonder Jun is so secretive about what he does, no wonder he's always so careful. He must be getting marriage proposals flung at him left and right, and if he were ever caught with a rent boy like Nino...

He finds himself laughing, possibly a bit hysterically, as another thought flits through his mind. He grabs his phone and swipes back to that first article, just to double-check: Born August 30, 1983... God, he's even younger than Nino thought -- younger than Nino.

This changes nothing, but it feels as if everything Nino thought he knew has been turned on its head. And the more he thinks about it, the worse he starts to feel for digging all of it up in the first place. Jun clearly wasn't ready for him to know -- might never have been ready -- and now it's another secret he's unlocked, another secret he has to keep.

Nino has no idea what he's going to do.

He needs Aiba.

~

It takes a while to explain, mostly because Aiba keeps interrupting to say things like "I can't believe you didn't tell me this earlier!" and "The sex was great though, right?", but eventually Nino tells him everything: how Jun came back to him, how Nino accidentally found out it was his birthday, the dinner, the questions, Nino's stupid screw-up when Jun asked what he gets out of it. He ends with the revelation that Jun works for a hugely important company, "And no, Aiba-chan, don't even ask which one because I'm not going to tell you."

Aiba was definitely about to ask, but now he snaps his mouth shut and reaches for another piece of tonkatsu. There's food laid out all over the low table in Nino's living room, plus more than a few empty beer cans.

Nino pushes a piece of gyoza around on his plate, unable to bring himself to eat it. "I just... I feel like shit about the whole thing. He was happy that morning, but the night before... He's so lonely, Aiba-chan, and I'm over here fucking with his emotions..." He drops his chopsticks onto his plate, throwing his hands up with a frustrated sigh. "I feel like I'm going crazy."

"Slow down," Aiba says, still chewing on a piece of pork. "Let's take it one step at a time. Why do you feel bad?"

"Because, I -- I found out all these things about him, things he obviously didn't want me to know, and then when he asked me something big, I couldn't even answer it!"

"Why not?"

"Because!" Nino didn't mean to raise his voice, but once he realizes he did it, he takes in a breath to steady himself and starts over. "Because of course I can't. 'I do it for money and sex,' are you kidding? He'd go running."

"But he has to know that's at least part of it, right? I mean, it's kind of a given. Do you not want to say it because you feel sorry for him?"

"No!" Of this Nino is absolutely certain. He does ache for Jun, but it's not pity. He's felt sorry for clients before and this isn't that.

"Then why not just tell him?" Aiba asks, sounding both genuinely confused and sincerely concerned. "Why are you so afraid of just saying it?"

Nino scrubs his hands over his face, debating how to answer. Finally he groans, leaving his eyes covered by his hands, unable to bear the thought of looking Aiba in the face as he forces himself to be completely honest for once in his goddamn life. "I can't say it because I don't want to hurt him, and I don't know if it's even the whole truth anymore, and I don't know how to explain the rest of it without making myself vulnerable. I just don't know."

A long moment of silence stretches between them, during which Nino still doesn't uncover his face. Then, quietly, Aiba says, "I'm about to ask you something you're not gonna like."

"Do it," he sighs.

"Nino," Aiba begins, sounding very grave. "Do you love him?"

Nino slaps his hands down onto the table to glare at Aiba. "What, no! Stop watching those dumb movies, they're rotting your brain!"

"Are you sure? Because it sounds like you do."

Nino throws the nearest cushion at Aiba's head. "This is why I don't come to you for advice!"

~

Aiba tries, but the most important thing Nino figures out from talking to him is that his problem can't be solved by just throwing it at someone else. There's no answer hidden in a riddle they simply have to solve, no magical way to fix everything he's done wrong. The problem, he realizes, is that he has no clue what's going on inside his own head.

Honestly, he doesn't know if he loves Jun. He doesn't even really know what love feels like to him, not the way Aiba talks about it. Nino loves his mom, and he loves Aiba-chan -- he knows what that feels like -- but he's never wanted anyone to sweep him off his feet or get down on one knee to profess their devotion to him. To Nino, devotion is a matter of finance. To Nino, love looks like the inside of that walk-in closet, the shelves lined with confessions and valentines. His interest has always been in what pleasure could be given, what service provided, but that's not how he feels about Jun, not anymore. He feels drawn to Jun like he's never felt drawn to anyone else in his life. He wants to be with Jun, wants to lie with him, wants to make him smile, wants him to be happy even when Nino's not around.

It's not like he wants to marry Jun or anything. He doesn't even want to spend all his time with him.

But he does want to spend time with him, in a way that has nothing to do with payment. That's about as far as he can think before the rest stops making sense.

~

At the end of the night, when all the leftovers have been packed up for Aiba to take home to Ohno, when Nino has showered and dragged himself into bed, he tries once more to puzzle it out. The silence weighs on him, and he feels like he's going to tear his hair out, so he reaches for the guitar, something to keep his hands busy and drown out the noise in his head.

That's when it finally dawns on him. Not the answer to the riddle, but a piece of it -- something that's been literally within arm's reach this whole time.

The guitar never made it to the closet.

The day after Jun gave it to him, he went out and bought a stand for it, and it's been living beside his bed ever since, always there when he needs to wind down at the end of the day. It should have gone in the closet. Every material thing he's ever been gifted from a client has gone into the closet. The things don't matter, just the idea behind them -- that's what he's been telling himself this whole time, isn't it?

But there it is.

He immediately puts it back on the stand, feeling as if he's been burned by it. More than anything else, more than fucking up his answer to Jun's question, more than stumbling over Jun's biggest secret, more than the muddled-up ideas in his head, this is the thing that throws Nino completely for a loop.

He sits there dumbfounded for what feels like hours. He finally manages to stand up and turn the light off, but when he gets back into bed, all he can do is lie awake, unable to put his mind to rest. His thoughts keep circling back to the guitar -- to Jun's frown -- to that stupid fluff article -- back to the guitar.

He's been insisting to himself for months that if he could just learn more, could just think one step ahead, then he could stay on top, could maintain the upper hand. Now he sees, irrefutably, that he has always been blind to the effect Jun has on him -- that his feelings are completely beyond his grasp.

He has no idea what it means.

But it has to mean something.

~

Jun messages him that week to set up their next appointment as usual. Nino tries to go into it as if nothing has changed, but the truth is that something about that day has changed both of them. He feels it in himself, in the way he can no longer avoid the weight of his own confused emotions, and he feels it in Jun too. They continue to meet regularly, but now there are gaps between their sessions, a week or two here and there where Jun doesn't contact him. When Nino does see him, he looks tired, smaller somehow. He's slower to smile, quicker to leave at the end of the night.

At first Nino thinks it must be work eating at him, but he realizes quickly that Jun is different even when they're together. He's more reserved, more withdrawn, as if he's protecting himself. He doesn't kiss Nino anymore and is the first to pull away when Nino initiates; he doesn't lie with Nino afterwards, always in a rush to shower and leave. Nino feels like he's with the Jun he first met, like they've stepped back into those cheap love hotels, before they ever allowed themselves to get so caught up in each other.

He tries to bridge the gap, tries to put everything he has into showing Jun that he meant every word he said that night. I enjoy being with you. I'm glad I can make you happy. You do the same for me. But the more he reaches out, the more Jun pulls away. The sessions slow to once every few weeks; their interactions start to feel impersonal, an empty caricature of what they used to share.

Nino feels helpless, lost at sea. He wishes he could go back in time and fix everything he's done wrong. Where would he even start? Would he answer Jun's question differently that night? Would he be honest from the beginning?

Would he go through with that first session, if he knew it would lead them to this?

For Jun's sake, maybe not.

~

Jun messages him one afternoon asking to reschedule their session for that day. Nino has him in his calendar for 7pm, but Jun wants to know if they can meet earlier, as soon as possible, and offers to pick him up in his car. Nino is hesitant at first -- this all seems a little odd for Jun, especially recently -- but it's been two and a half weeks since the last time they saw each other, and he doesn't want to run the risk of today's session being canceled.

Sounds good, he sends.

When Jun shows up at the cafe, Nino's first impression is that he seems a little stressed. His mouth is pinched in a frown, his eyebrows drawn low over his sunglasses. But when Nino gets in the car, it all disappears. He smiles, and something about it looks more genuine than it has in a long time.

"Hey," he says, sitting back to watch as Nino buckles in.

Nino shoots a questioning glance in Jun's direction, feeling a little self-conscious, but Jun just smiles wider. He stops watching Nino so he can turn on the radio, fussing with the dial until he finds something harmlessly upbeat, just background music for him to tap his fingers to.

Nino can't help but stare at those tapping fingers, not quite able to believe them. The turnaround happened so quickly. Is Jun faking it for his sake?

"You're in a good mood," he says, trying to keep his tone light.

But Jun just brushes it off and flashes another smile before he turns to check the mirrors, getting ready to pull out into the street. "Just happy to see you." He turns the music up and starts driving.

At the hotel, Jun kisses him for what feels like the first time in ages. They move to the bed still in most of their clothes, and once they're there, they can't seem to pull away from each other long enough to do anything but make out on top of the sheets. There's no rush, no insistent push to finish so they can return to their other lives. It can't possibly be hours that they lie there, just kissing each other and letting the uneasiness melt away, but that's what it feels like to Nino.

The sun is just starting to set outside, and it makes the room feel warm and glowing, and a little magical, like time has slowed down just for them. He could happily float in this moment forever, unhurried and unconcerned, surrounded finally by all the things he's been missing: Jun's mouth on his, Jun's skin on his, Jun's scent all around him.

He's on his back, with Jun lying half on top of him. Jun pulls out of a long, sweet kiss and lowers his head, pressing his face into the crook of Nino's neck. Their hands are joined on the pillows above Nino's head -- Nino's left, Jun's right -- and Nino laces their fingers together, squeezes Jun's hand.

Jun leans up on his elbow to look Nino in the eyes. "I've been thinking," he says. His voice is quiet, his lips all red and puffy from kissing.

Nino finds himself smiling and doesn't even try to hold back. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. We should go somewhere for a while."

Nino tilts his head. "Dinner?"

But Jun just laughs. "No, I mean somewhere -- somewhere else. Away from here. Just you and me."

Everything about this moment -- the spellbinding glow of sunlight, Jun's giddy smile, the warmth seeping through him -- it all makes Nino feel loose, happy. He plays along. "Where would we go?"

"Seoul, Hawaii, Rome. Wherever you want."

"And what would we do there?"

"See the sights, eat the food -- explore --" He stops, eyes flashing wide as if something magnificent has just occurred to him. "Have you ever been to the Eiffel Tower?"

Are you kidding me? is what Nino wants to say, but instead he says, "Tell me about it."

Jun's smile widens. "I'll show you instead."

He rolls away to reach for his phone, and for just a moment, Nino closes his eyes and allows himself to imagine it: the two of them in Paris, walking hand-in-hand along the Seine, sharing bites of street food beneath the Arc de Triomphe. But when he opens his eyes, the spell breaks and reality sets back in. He glances over to find Jun lying on his stomach, swiping through his phone -- looking through his calendar.

Nino's heart clenches. "Jun..." He turns onto his side, reaching to still Jun's hands. "Jun. Stop."

Jun looks up at him as if he'd heard nothing. "What?"

"You know what." He doesn't want to say it, but he has to stop this in its tracks. "We can't. You know we can't."

The phone droops in Jun's hands, its screen going black. "Why not?"

"We can't just run off together. We have obligations here, both of us."

"Then what about next month, or the month after -- if we plan in advance --"

"Jun, stop." At Jun's wounded expression, Nino runs a hand through his hair, trying to offer comfort. He says, more gently, "Listen to me. I want more than this too. But it can't be that."

"But why?"

"Just think about it -- what if --" A thousand scenarios flash through his mind, a thousand ways that jumping into something like that could break them irreparably. How can he run away with Jun when he still doesn't even know if he loves him? It would be too much, too risky -- it could be something they might never come back from. "What if something goes wrong?" he asks. "What if it's too much?"

"How could it be too much? This isn't enough!" Jun grasps Nino's hand, squeezing it tight. "I just want... I just want you."

Where it's thumping in his chest, Nino's heart feels as if it's about to break. "You have me now," he whispers, stroking his thumb over Jun's brow. "That has to be enough."

For a long moment, Jun stares at him. He looks like he's searching for something, like the answer to whatever mystery he's trying to solve is somewhere in Nino's eyes. It makes Nino feel pinned in place, unable to look away even if he wanted to. Then Jun blinks, turns his face away. "Of course," he says. "You're right. I'm sorry." Something about his voice...

Nino pulls him back, and there it is: his eyes are shimmering, about to spill over.

"Hey, c'mere."

He moves closer, and Jun lets him set his phone aside, lets Nino kiss him, lets Nino undress him, until their conversation is not forgotten but pushed aside, relegated to a memory buried beneath the pleasure they allow each other to take.

Jun doesn't leave that night. They shower together, eat room-service dinner together, talk about nothing and make each other laugh for the first time in weeks. They fall asleep tangled beneath the blankets, skin on skin, Jun's arms warm as sunlight where they wrap around him. It feels like it's been forever since Nino has slept peacefully, but tonight he doesn't worry about indecision or uncertainty. He's already made up his mind.

In the shadowy stillness of that moment, he wants to come clean. He wants to tell Jun everything -- what he knows, why he couldn't answer Jun's question, how he's never felt this way for anyone in his life before Jun and how, even though he doesn't know what it means, he wants to see it through. He wants to know Jun, not just as a collection of secrets he's managed to piece together. He wants to know the real Jun, and he wants Jun to know him too. He wants more than what they have. He can admit that now.

But this isn't the time. Jun is already breathing softly behind him, his breath stirring the hair on the back of Nino's neck.

In the morning, they'll start fresh. Nino will fix all of his past mistakes, will lay bare his earnest desire to make up for them. He'll do whatever it takes to make Jun see.

For now, he lies in Jun's arms, lets his mind go quiet. He drifts to sleep, happily anticipating the day that awaits them.

~

When he wakes up in the morning, Jun is gone.

He doesn't come back.

~

A week passes, then two. Nino isn't worried.

Three weeks, and he starts to doubt.

Four, and doubt has shifted into dread. Aiba tells him to reach out, but that sounds crazy to him. Jun will contact him when he's ready, and for Nino to push it before that would be too much.

Six weeks, and he almost caves. He's sitting on his balcony, already halfway through his third cigarette of the day. He's watching the city sprawled before him, cars and people moving through the streets, living their own lives. Is Jun out there somewhere, sneaking out on his lunch break to drive aimlessly?

Nino stubs his cigarette out and pulls his phone from his back pocket to bring up Jun's messages. He types in Are you ok?, but when it comes time to press send, he can't bring himself to do it.

He wavers day after day, staring at the message thread that hovers at the top of his inbox, a small line of text displayed underneath it to remind him: Last draft saved 12/10 1:36pm. It's another week before he finally opens the thread again and sees his message, typed but never sent, waiting patiently for him to make up his mind. He presses send before he can convince himself not to.

Jun doesn't respond.

~

He shoves the guitar into a corner of the closet so he doesn't have to think about it anymore. He takes on new clients to fill the Saturday spot he's been keeping open "just in case," but he drops them just as quickly at the first hint of attachment. He can't stomach the thought of going down this path with anyone else. Sorting his schedule in the morning becomes a chore, something he can't face until he has two cups of coffee in him to make up for the sleep he's not getting. He still loves his job, that much hasn't changed, and it's certainly not as if the sex is less fulfilling, but the thought of opening up his messages and not seeing Jun's name among them weighs on him.

It's embarrassing and he absolutely never does it when other people are around, but every now and then he finds himself trawling through business articles on the recent dealings of Matsumoto Enterprises, because at this point it's his only way of knowing that Jun is even alive. Thinking about it like that makes him feel like an over-emotional teenager, so he tries not to read the articles fully, just checks that the date is recent and then skims through the paragraphs in search of something concrete with Jun's name attached.

But every time he does it, he feels a little bit like he's drowning. His heart drums up a raucous beat against his ribcage, and his throat tightens until he feels like he can't breathe. He has to go stand on the balcony and smoke two cigarettes just to calm himself down. Aiba catches him once, when they're out to dinner for Aiba's birthday; Nino isn't even sure what triggers it -- someone's cologne? a passing glimpse of a dark suit? -- but suddenly he feels trapped, claustrophobic. He excuses himself to the bathroom but Aiba comes to check on him before long and finds him panicking in one of the stalls, and he has to call Ohno in to help him breathe through it. C'mon, Nino-chan, you're okay. Four in, eight out. Count with me.

He's grateful to have friends who care about him this much, but at the same time he feels humiliated. He's always prided himself on being in control, doing everything he can to avoid this exact situation -- getting too involved, making it too personal -- and now he can't even control his own body. It's like he was driving down the freeway, obeying every traffic law in the book, when suddenly someone cut his steering line and his brakes, and now he's just flailing his arms in front of his face and hoping he doesn't crash headfirst into the median.

If he knew Jun was never coming back, that he didn't need Nino anymore, that would be enough. It's the not knowing that tears him apart and turns everything upside down. It's the voice that whispers in the back of his head, Maybe today will be the day. If Jun would just tell him, he could move on, could pack up his messy feelings and forget any of it ever happened in the first place.

Now, all he can think is: He couldn't even have let me know?

And then one day, he realizes how absurd that is.

Let him know? Jun doesn't owe him anything of the sort. Jun has given so much already, and Nino just took more, never satisfied with what he had.

That thought deflates him, puffs all the despair right out of him. In its place, anger churns and boils, scalding him from the inside out.

Jun owes him nothing. Not a notice, not an explanation, not even a goodbye. This whole time, Nino's one role has been to provide a service, and Jun held up his end of the bargain all along, went above and beyond several times over. But if somewhere along the way he started to blur the lines, started to want more than Nino ever agreed to give -- well, that's on him. Nino doesn't owe him a damn thing either. Not his worry, not his sympathy, not his frustration, his confusion, his sleepless nights spent struggling just to breathe.

If Jun wants their transaction to be done, then so be it.

He deletes Jun's number, clears the browser history on his phone and vows never to look up Jun's name again. He goes into the closet to find places for all the gifts he's been putting off sorting, and while he's in there he stares down the guitar and stubbornly jerks off to it just to prove to himself that he still can. It's just a thing, he tells himself. A thing that was given to him by a former client. Nothing less, even Nino can't fool himself into thinking it's less, but certainly nothing more. There is no "more" in his line of work.

They're all just things, organized in countless rows of other things from countless other clients. They don't matter. They carry no significance, no sentimental value. The memory of who they came from holds no control over Nino or his emotions, and he's exhausted right down to his bones from allowing himself to believe otherwise.

That won't happen again. He's finished believing.

It's done.

~

Cut the steering, cut the brakes -- Nino will jump out of the goddamn car before he lets himself crash and burn.

v.

It's three months, one week, four days when the message arrives in his inbox.

Can we talk?

Nino's head fills with possible responses, everything from Sorry, my schedule is packed to Oh, so now is a good time for you?, but he lets it sit. He can recognize now that impulsive decisions are what got him here in the first place. Jun can wait a few days, he reasons. It's only fair.

Inevitably, though, his mind continuously drifts back to it throughout the day. It drudges up more and more panic each time, filling his sleep that night with restless, nonsensical nightmares. It's been a few weeks since he's had to use the breathing exercise Ohno taught him, but he finds himself using it the next morning, standing in his kitchen while his coffee brews.

He reaches for his phone and inhales to the count of four. He opens Jun's message from yesterday.

He types in, About what? A moment of hesitation, and then he presses send. Exhales to the count of eight.

The reply comes in before he's finished his coffee, his phone pinging quietly where he left it by the pot.

Us.

Then, seconds later: Please.

Nino owes Jun nothing, he reminds himself later. He's out on the balcony, sipping his second cup of coffee between drags off a cigarette, his phone left behind in the kitchen. He doesn't want to look at it again until he makes a decision, but once he's out there, he decides quickly.

He owes Jun nothing. But he can allow him this.

~

Valentine's Day is around the corner, and then spring after that. The cherry trees will blossom soon, the cafe is already decked out with pink paper hearts strung up by red string, and business is picking up the way it always does as the threat of romance looms over everyone's head. Nino's buried in his phone, negotiating prices with a new client who wants him to show up with handmade chocolates and a schoolgirl uniform, when someone sits down at his table.

He braces himself with a deep breath, and he still isn't prepared for the sight of Jun in front of him. He looks the same, just as beautiful as Nino remembers, but also different somehow. There are circles under his eyes, and his hair is shorter, cut close around the sides. It's only been three months, yet he looks older as he sits there, hands folded together on the table, his fingers tapping out a nervous rhythm. Nino turns his phone's screen off, puts it away. He waits, more patient now than he's ever been.

The silence stretches between them, painfully awkward.

When Jun finally speaks, his voice is barely audible above the chatter of the cafe. "Can we go somewhere private?"

"Sure," Nino says, already standing. He wants this to be over quickly. "There's a love hotel a few blocks away." He pushes his chair in and gathers his things as Jun stands, empty-handed, car keys jingling in his coat pocket. As they walk out the door together, Nino says over his shoulder, "I'll pay. I don't want there to be any confusion about why we're here."

His only regret in saying it is not being able to see Jun's face.

~

They used to stand there for minutes on end, Jun's hand at the small of Nino's back, both of them laughing about the different options until they found something new and rushed to get there. Now, the whole experience feels alien. They stand with enough space between them to fit two other people and pick a room at random, then wander inside slowly, purposeless.

Nino feels tense where he stands against the wall, his arms crossed, watching Jun sit stiffly on a corner of the bed.

"I'm not sure where to start," Jun says. Even here, alone, he sounds quiet.

"Well," Nino says, "you should start somewhere. Soon, please. I'm tired of waiting for you."

Jun looks away, pain -- guilt? -- flashing through his eyes. "I'm sorry." The more he talks, the more Nino can hear the hoarseness in his voice. "I've been... confused."

"About how your phone works?"

Something in Jun's face changes as he looks back up at Nino. His eyebrows are drawn low, that telltale crease between them. "You're being unfair."

"What's unfair about it? I'm hearing you out, you're just not saying anything." Nino throws his arms to the side, unable to stand still any longer as the anger and the hurt boil up inside of him. "But hey, if you want to talk about things that are unfair, I have plenty to say. Let's start with you leaving me with no goodbye, no warning -- or maybe I should have taken the months before that as a warning, when you kept pushing me further and further away, like you had to protect yourself from me --"

He's startled into silence when Jun stands in a rush, jabbing a finger in Nino's direction. There's a meter of space between them, but Nino feels the gesture like it was a shove to his chest. "Don't talk to me about what's fair and unfair," Jun snaps. "You of all people! You -- you made me..."

"What about me, huh? What did I make you do?"

He's ready to keep going, but every last word flies right out of his head when Jun shouts, "You made me happy!"

Now that Jun has said it, he looks lost -- broken. Something inside of Nino softens at the sight of him, makes all the anger melt away. He takes a step forward, speaking quietly as he says, "I thought that's what you wanted."

"Not like that. Not the way you did it." Jun's eyes are wide and bright, the way Nino has seen them a thousand times before, but not like this. "That last night we spent together, it... it was the best sleep I've had in years. All the pain, all the confusion, it just disappeared, and when I woke up in the morning and saw you there... I told myself that I didn't want it to be the last time. And then I started thinking about everything that came before it. I remembered that to you, it was just a job. That you couldn't even try to pretend you got anything else out of it. Do you know how that feels, Kazu? What it's like to spend all of your time looking forward to being with the person who makes you happiest, only to remember that to them you're just a game?"

Nino's heart is beating wildly as frantic thoughts race through his mind. How could Jun be so off the mark? How could he have misunderstood Nino's feelings so utterly? "Jun, no," he tries, reaching for Jun, wincing when Jun only steps away from him. "It wasn't. It wasn't just a job."

"Then why didn't you answer?" Jun asks, his voice quieter now, losing steam. "Why did you say no?"

Those are two very different questions with very different answers. Nino grasps for the easier one, wanting only to make Jun understand. "You asked me to run away with you, Jun. Of course I said no. Do you think I can just leave everything behind at the drop of a hat? Do you think either of us can do that?"

He sees the struggle of emotions on Jun's face. There's anger and hurt, then desperation. Suddenly Jun is crossing the space between them, grasping at Nino's hands, dropping to his knees. "But you can, Kazu, you can, don't you see? I'll -- I'll do everything, I'll buy you an apartment, I'll give you anything you need --"

"You can't own me, Jun." He reaches out, slowly, and runs a hand through Jun's hair -- trying to offer comfort in any small way he can. "I don't do this because I want to be someone's pet. And if you think it hurts now, imagine coming home to me every day and knowing it's only because you're paying me to be there. Neither of us wants that."

In the dim light of this seedy, anonymous hotel room, Jun's eyes are shining. He lowers his face, presses his forehead to their joined hands, and in a voice almost too quiet for Nino to hear, he says, "But I love you."

Those are the words that finally break Nino's heart. Now that Jun has said it, he can't take it back, and the admission of it brings everything into sharp relief yet changes nothing. It doesn't undo the mistakes they've both made, every lapse in judgment that has led them to this point. All Nino can do now is pull his hands from Jun's to tilt his face back up -- all he can do is kneel and press his lips softly to Jun's mouth. "You don't even know me," he whispers. "Not really. Didn't that ever occur to you?"

The question sobers Jun. All at once, his expression hardens, shifting back into something not quite neutral but far less open. He stands, takes three steps back, towards the door. "You're right," he says, more hoarse now than before. He says again, "You're right." He blinks hard, clears his throat. "That's why I needed to see you today. I've spent all these months wondering, and I just... I just need you to tell me truth, okay? Just this once, and then I'll never contact you again. It doesn't matter what it is, I just -- I just need to know."

"I promise," Nino says. He wants so badly to reach for Jun, to pull him away from the door, but he feels pinned in place, feels his heartbeat speeding up.

Jun turns away, just for a moment, and then looks back to Nino, his gaze unwavering. "Was any of it ever real?"

Nino's first instinct is anger, then indignation at the thought that after everything they've been through, Jun could ever think to accuse him of that. But after the indignation comes defeat. In his heart he knows Jun's fear is justified, because the truth is that to Nino, it was a game all along. Even when he started to realize it was something more, he never stopped playing by his own rules. Even when he tried to be honest, he never showed his hand. In the face of all that, how could Jun trust him?

Ever since Jun reappeared after months of silence, all Nino has wanted to do is tell him, You hurt me. You took from me everything I thought I knew about myself. But the more accurate version is that it was Nino who allowed himself to be hurt by giving Jun nothing to work with, nothing to measure by. When every move Nino made was carefully engineered with the intention of remaining opaque, Jun had no way of knowing when he was being sincere, when he was in pain. Lost at sea, not knowing where they stood -- that's how Nino has felt this whole time, but now he realizes that's where he left Jun, too.

Jun has every right to doubt him now, and Nino knows the only way he can ease any of it is to stop, to shed his layers upon layers of disguises and half-truths, to end the game and finally let Jun see inside of him.

Against every instinct, every shred of self-defense screaming at him to run away, he steps forward instead. He reaches for Jun's hand, thankful beyond all belief when Jun takes it.

He doesn't answer Jun's question -- not yet. Instead he says, "There's something I need to show you."

~

In the car, he programs his address into Jun's phone and lets the GPS fill the awkward silence. He uses the time to ramp himself up, channeling all his nerves into energy, and there are lots of nerves. He lets his thoughts run to the rhythm of his breathing exercises, inhaling and exhaling as quietly as he can with his face turned towards the window, and luckily Jun either doesn't notice or chooses not to comment on it.

They don't speak as they walk through his building's lobby, or as they ride the elevator up to his floor. In the entryway Jun asks, "What are we doing here?", but Nino just points out the guest slippers and heads for the bedroom.

Jun follows him but hovers in the doorway, eying the bed warily. "Kazu, I don't..."

Nino holds up a hand to silence him. "Just shut up and hear me out." He guides Jun to the bed and makes him sit on the edge, and then he steps away to stand in front of the closet, leaning his weight against the door as he tries to explain. "That night, when you asked me what I get out of all this... I couldn't answer because I didn't know how. I used to know, and then you came along and got me all screwed up. That's why I couldn't answer, Jun, do you get it? I was confused too. I didn't know what was going on in my own head. Because of you."

Jun is holding very still, his face pale. He gives a little nod of understanding.

Nino forces himself to keep going. "Once I figured it out, I wanted to tell you everything, but then you disappeared. That fucked me up, by the way, thanks a lot, but the point is that you never gave me a chance to come clean, so you get to hear it now. All of it. Ready?"

Jun says, "Um."

Nino holds up one finger. "Secret number one. I know you're Matsumoto Jun of Matsumoto Enterprises."

It's like all of Jun's features change at once: his face goes red, his eyebrows furrow, his mouth closes into such a tight line that it looks like it might vanish altogether. "How --"

Nino holds up a second finger, cutting him off. "Secret number two. I know the day you came back from Seoul was your birthday."

This time Jun drops his head into his hands. "Oh my god."

"We're not done yet," Nino says.

Jun peeks out through his fingers. "What other horrifying secrets of mine could you have possibly uncovered?"

"Not yours. Next one's mine." He steps aside, motioning to the closed door. "I hope you're prepared, because secret number three must be seen to be believed."

Jun is already on his feet as Nino opens the door. He walks towards it cautiously, as if he's afraid it might be a trap, but as he gets close enough to see what's inside, he glances back at Nino with a startled expression.

Nino says nothing. He knows it's a lot to take in, so he stays quiet and lets Jun absorb it. He watches as Jun walks through the closet with huge eyes, his mouth open just a little. Nino suspects it's not the amount that shocks him so much as the way it's all laid out, clearly with purpose -- with reverence -- each shelf organized just so, the whole space devoted to nothing but the relics of Nino's escapades. The toys, the outfits, the binder filled with business cards and used-up gift certificates, and there, in the corner...

"That wasn't always there," Nino says, now leaning against the doorframe so he can watch Jun. Jun looks up at him, and he points towards the guitar. "It lived by my bed. But then you left, and..." He trails off, unsure of how to encapsulate the nerve-wracking mix of emotions that led to the guitar being moved into the closet, but he figures Jun can fill in the blanks.

The guitar seems to have inspired Jun, because now he's scanning the shelves as if he's looking for something. There, on the shelf filled with rope and harnesses and a dozen pairs of handcuffs: the leather cuffs Jun bought for their first session. Then he goes to the rack of clothes, shifting through the hangers until he finds the suit Nino wore to their dinner. Even the wingtips are there, underneath the rack, set neatly into a lineup of other dress shoes, a pair of heels here and there. Jun crouches to run his fingertips over a pair of sequin-covered pumps. He looks back up at Nino and asks, "Are you into all of this stuff?" He doesn't look repulsed or judging. Just curious.

Nino shrugs. "Some of it. Crossdressing, for instance, doesn't really do anything for me. But it's not about what I like."

"What do you mean?"

This part's easy; Nino's never thought about it more than he has since he met Jun. "I don't have to like something," he says, "to appreciate that someone wanted me to have it."

Jun seems to understand that, or at least accept it, because he stands up and steps back towards the door. They walk out into the bedroom together, Nino moving to stand beside the bed, Jun looking a little shell-shocked as he stands in front of the still-open door. He glances into it one more time, then back to Nino. "Is it some kind of... trophy collection?"

God, it's the same thing Aiba calls it. "It's complicated," Nino says. "But it's also simple. For a long time, this was my answer to your question. The entire answer. Happiness, comfort, love -- this was all of it. I cherished that room. I got off on it. And, in the interest of being completely honest with you, let me be clear: when I say I got off on it, I don't just mean that it brought me satisfaction. I mean that standing in that stupid closet literally gives me a hard-on because somehow my brain is wired to think that wealthy men spending their money on me is the most mind-numbingly sexy thing in the world. That's so fucked up and it scares me so much that I can't even think about it head-on, so I push it to the back of my mind and just keep chasing after it."

Jun takes a step towards him. "Kazu..."

But Nino keeps talking. He can't stop now. "The craziest part is that everything I just told you is still true. My job, this collection, it's all still important to me. But now you've thrown me completely for a loop. You made me realize that love and happiness can look like other things too. You forced me to admit to myself that you're important to me now. And Jun, you have to believe me when I say that I want to hold on to that. I want to see where you and I can go together. That's why I brought you here and showed you this, because -- because I knew I couldn't try to make it work until I fixed all the ways I already fucked up, and the only way to do that is to come clean. So here it is. I'm coming clean. And if you think any of that is unforgivable, if you just want to walk out of here and never speak to me again, I understand. I just... I just needed you to know."

As soon as the last words have left his mouth, Nino feels drained. He's never said any of that to anyone in his life -- he can barely even say it to himself on most days. He's done such a good job of ignoring it that talking about it now feels unreal, like he's standing somewhere outside of his own body, watching himself watch Jun, who hasn't moved an inch, his face caught in some unreadable expression that makes Nino feel even more like he's starting to go crazy.

If Jun is angry, that's fine. If Jun spits in his face and storms out, that's fine, Nino can deal with all of that. It's the not knowing that's making his heartbeat kick up and his throat tighten with the sudden urge to be sick -- it's always the not knowing --

It feels like forever, but finally Jun reacts, blinking into motion. He takes a single step towards Nino. "I don't think I really understand it," he says, slow, like he's choosing his words carefully. "Not... fully. Not yet. But I want to. If it's part of you, Kazu, then I want to know."

It takes a few seconds for the information to process through Nino's frazzled brain. He feels detached, numb but for the rapid beating of his heart and the queasy rolling of his stomach, and then Jun's words catch up to him all at once, washing over him inside and out. Suddenly he is thrust back into his own body and is wholly overwhelmed by what he's heard, by the revelation that Jun would ever accept this part of him.

He stumbles backwards and feels his knees hit the edge of the bed. "O--okay," he stutters, but it comes out wheezy and he realize that he's panting, nearly gasping.

Jun is watching him, his eyes wide and a little scared. "Are you...?"

Nino blinks, and something about it feels... strange. He touches his fingertips to the corner of his eye and feels that it's wet. His eyes snap back up to Jun, who looks as horrified as he feels, and before he can even think about it, he barks out, "Turn around!"

"But --"

"Turn around!"

Jun whips around, and Nino does too, clenching his eyes shut and feeling the red-hot buzzing in his head spill down his cheeks. He scrubs his hands over his face, trying to wipe away every last drop of evidence, but he can't breathe and he can't think. He leans over the bed, grips the sheet so hard his knuckles hurt, tries to count to four.

"Kazu." Jun sounds a touch desperate. "Kazu, there's a huge dildo staring at me, can I please look now?"

Nino doesn't answer, just rasps out, "I think I'm gonna throw up."

His vision is swimming, but then he feels Jun beside him, Jun's warm hands around his shoulders. He vaguely registers Jun saying something about fresh air, and then he's being led out of the room, through the hallway and out onto the balcony. As soon as the door is open he drops onto his hands and knees, foregoing the deck chairs. He feels cold air in his lungs and knows it must mean he's breathing.

Jun kneels beside him, a hand on his back. "Are you okay?"

Nino just keeps breathing. He closes his eyes, holds a hand up so Jun can follow along as he counts on his fingers. Four in, eight out. Four in, eight out.

He goes through it six, maybe seven times, until his heartbeat has finally slowed back down to normal. He shifts around to sit on his ass, his legs splayed out in front of him, and shoos Jun out onto the deck so he can slide the door to the living room closed and lean back against it. Jun sits next to him, leaning forward to see his face. "What just happened?"

"Secret number four," Nino says. He still feels a little lightheaded, a little nauseated. He tips his head back against the door and closes his eyes, reaching blindly into the fake flowerpot a few feet away until he finds his emergency cigarettes, a lighter already tucked inside the pack. He shows it to Jun with a mumble of "Secret number five" and pulls out a cigarette. He lights it, breathes in deep and lets the rush of nicotine drift down over him like a comforting blanket. "That never used to happen, by the way. I was pretty messed up while you were gone."

"You mentioned."

"Secret number six: being in control is -- or was, I dunno -- the most important thing in my life. I always had to know more than anyone else, had to be able to direct the flow of a conversation or a night or a relationship or whatever. So, when you left... and I had no idea what was going on or where you were, or where we stood, or if you would ever come back..." He takes another drag and taps the ash onto the floor. Fuck it, he'll sweep later. "I guess I just didn't know how to deal with it."

Wordlessly, Jun reaches for the pack of cigarettes. He takes one out and lights it off of Nino's, and then he leans back and takes a few drags. Together they watch the smoke drift into the cloudy sky above them.

"I'm sorry," Jun says.

Nino shrugs. "I messed you up too. Let's call it even. Besides, you're here now. That's the important part."

Where his left hand is resting on the floor between their thighs, he feels Jun reach for him. He takes Jun's hand and laces their fingers together, holds on tight.

They sit there smoking, letting the chilly air turn their noses and cheeks red, enjoying the simple pleasure of being in each other's company after so long apart. Nino has felt like this before, even before he realized how deep in he was. He cherishes it now and doesn't plan on letting it go any time soon.

"Are you ready for more secrets?" he asks.

Jun laughs, tired and sincere. "Do I have a choice?"

"Nope. Here's everything I've got." Nino takes a breath, takes a drag. He steadies himself with a breath, and then he lets it all out.

"My full name is Ninomiya Kazunari, but my friends call me Nino. No one calls me Kazu except my clients. And my mom. Now that I'm saying it out loud like that, yeah, I see how it might be a little weird, but that's just how I've always done it. I have a degree in business finance, but I've never used it because I've been having sex with men in exchange for money and gifts since the month I graduated. I didn't plan on doing it for the rest of my life, it just kind of happened that way. I like having sex, a lot, with just about anyone, but something about being paid for it, by wealthy men in particular... that really gets me off, in a way I don't understand at all on good days and am kind of ashamed of on bad days, but obviously I've done a pretty good job of indulging it. I've never been in love with anyone in my life, but my best friend Aiba-chan insists I'm in love with you, and he might be onto something, maybe, a little bit. Honestly I don't know anymore what love even is to me. I used to think it was the inside of that closet, but now I'm not so sure. Maybe that is what love means to me, but only part of it, and what you and I have is a different kind of love, or maybe it's something else entirely -- I haven't really sorted it out. But I know for sure that you're not just a client. I know I want more with you than just that. And I'm willing to give whatever I can in return... even if I don't know what that is yet. I guess we can find out together."

Through the long silence that follows, he keeps staring ahead, unable to bear looking at Jun's face. But he feels Jun's fingers still entwined with his, still holding on.

Then: "That was a lot."

Nino takes a breath, lets it out slowly. "Yeah."

"Well... I think I'll stick to Kazu, since it's what I'm used to, but Nino is pretty cute. And I meant what I said in there. I might not understand it entirely yet, but I do want to know more, and for what it's worth, I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of. And I don't know if I can explain love either, but I'm glad you're willing to let me help you figure it out. And... I look forward to seeing what we can learn about each other."

Nino finally looks at Jun, at his wide-open eyes, always so honest even when he tries to keep himself hidden. Nino can't help but smile, can't stop himself from leaning in to kiss him, cigarette breath and all.

I look forward to seeing what we can learn about each other. He couldn't have said it any better himself.

vi.

When Nino opens the front door on Friday night, Jun is leaning rakishly against the doorframe. The sleeves of his dress shirt are rolled up to his elbows, the knot of his tie is loosened, and he's holding his jacket over his shoulder along with a duffel bag. He's been working out more now that negotiations for the hotel expansion are wrapped up, and the result is that his chest and shoulders fill out that shirt even more handsomely than they did before. He's let his hair grow out a bit too, and now a few strands of it are curling over his forehead, just barely falling into his eyes.

The whole effect is quite devastating.

"Sorry," Nino says, "I don't buy things from door-to-door salesmen."

He's already swinging the door closed, but Jun stops it with his foot. He doesn't say a word, just lets himself in, steps out of his shoes, drops his bag and jacket on the floor and crowds Nino up against the wall to kiss him breathless.

"Dinner's on the table," Nino gasps. He has the top two buttons of Jun's shirt undone and is moving on to the third.

"Leave it," Jun says, punctuates it with another kiss. He gets his hands under Nino's ass and hoists him up until Nino's legs wrap around his waist, then carries him to the living room couch.

Yeah, Nino thinks. Dinner can wait.

~

Things Nino has learned about Jun over the weekends they've shared so far:

He's actually an excellent cook when there's no room service to order from.

Once the novelty of waking up next to Nino wears off, he's a monster to deal with in the morning before he's had his coffee.

He packs his little potted bonsai in the trunk every Friday morning so that he can bring it over with him for the weekend. It lives on Nino's kitchen counter, and he definitely talks to it when he thinks Nino can't hear. Its name is Ban.

He leaves hair in Nino's shower but always swears it wasn't him. ("It has to be yours, Jun, mine's not even that long!")

He spent the first few weekends acting hilariously formal around Nino's apartment, mumbling "Sorry for the intrusion" every time he walked in. Now that he's comfortable here, he struts around like he owns the place, rearranging the bathroom counter to make room for his stuff, cleaning out the fridge with no regard to what Nino swears is still edible, keeping the balcony tidy, keeping the sheets washed, taking over the kitchen so he can bring Nino breakfast in bed every now and again.

He sucks at Mario ("Because I never have time to play! You should have seen me when I was a kid!") and is a terribly sore loser.

He brings sleeping pills just in case but never needs them, nor does he need the TV to help clear his mind, though sometimes he likes to fall asleep on the couch with a flowery romance drama playing quietly, his legs thrown across Nino's lap.

~

Jun makes breakfast on Saturday, already smelling like coffee when he drags Nino out of bed with the promise of food and caffeine. "Wake up, Kazu~ I made omurice, your favorite."

"That's not my favorite," Nino grumbles.

"Yeah," Jun says, leading him out the door by his shoulders. "But I am."

Well, Nino can't argue with that.

At the table, Jun is browsing on his phone. "I wanna see what they have," he says, turning his phone around so Nino can see what he's looking at: reviews for the bakery they spotted down the street last weekend. "Maybe I'll pick up a nice loaf of bread for dinner."

Their days together are a mix of fucking, eating, and lazing about, a good balance that they've spent the past six months fine-tuning. So once the dishes from breakfast have been washed, they get dressed and take a walk, not daring to hold hands but delighting in bumping shoulders at every opportunity. "Oh sorry, didn't see you there," Jun says after nearly bowling Nino over as they're browsing the pastries at the bakery, a childish grin on his face.

"So clumsy," Nino tsks, and it just makes Jun laugh.

Jun buys his bread, they head back home, and Nino opens the balcony door to let some air in while Jun naps on the couch. He grabs his guitar from the stand beside the TV and sits out on the deck, trying to capture a melody that's been building in the back of his mind since last night. He strums it out in starts and stops, fills it in with some wordless vocalizations once he gets a feel for where the rhythm is taking him. He doesn't notice Jun moving around inside until he's walking out onto the deck, a fresh cup of coffee in one hand, newspaper in the other.

"You know," he says as he sits down, "I had the strangest dream."

Nino glances up at him, still strumming away. "Oh yeah? What was it about?"

"I was Mario and I had to rescue you, but instead of turtles and mushrooms, I was fighting those weird-looking strudels we saw this morning. And then when I finally got to you, you were all tied up and naked..."

"We should try to recreate it. Let's see if the bakery is still open."

Jun laughs, unfolding the paper over the table. "You always know just what to say."

~

Rule one: No more lies, half-truths, or omissions. Their priorities are honesty, transparency, openness in all things, with the understanding that "I'm not ready to talk about that" is an acceptable answer to any question.

Rule two: Nino still works like he always has, but Jun doesn't really want to hear about the details. That's fair, Nino thinks.

Rule three: Jun still needs to be cautious, still needs to choose carefully where they go out together and needs to have a story on hand in case he's recognized. It saddens Nino that Jun has to sneak around like that -- he wishes the very nature of their relationship weren't yet another addition to the long list of things stressing Jun out at any given moment -- but he understands why it's necessary. As long as Jun continues to be honest with him, he'll continue to be happy.

Rule four: Jun has Nino's weekends, but he isn't allowed to pay for their time together. No fee for their dates, no money in the account. Jun has gotten so used to doting on him that it takes a while before he stops "accidentally" leaving bills tucked into Nino's wallet, as if to make up for his intrusion on Nino's personal space, but Nino reminds him, over and over until it finally sticks. He doesn't want there to be any confusion between what he does for work and what he does with Jun. He doesn't want Jun to ever have to doubt again.

Rule five: Jun can still buy Nino gifts, of course, and he happily does so often, just because he wants to. Accessories for and maintenance of the guitar, clothes he thinks Nino would look good in, a new bed... a yearly subscription to Shonen Jump... None of these things live in the closet. They're special in a different way.

~

When Sunday morning rolls around, neither of them feels like moving after last night's recreation of Jun's rescuing-the-princess dream, so Jun thumbs through his phone until he finds a place that will deliver sandwiches to them. Nino loses janken, which means it's his job to get out of bed, make the coffee, and pay for the food when the delivery guy shows up.

Jun makes some grumpy noises about crumbs when Nino brings the sandwiches to bed, but he eats his there anyway, moaning happily about how perfect the sauce is.

He gets a work call around noon, so Nino moves into the living room and flips through channels on the TV until he finds some silly variety program. He's there for an hour before Jun joins him, and that's where they stay for the rest of the afternoon, until Jun finally springs into motion around six o'clock. "I totally forgot they're coming," he says, already halfway to the bedroom to fetch his duffel bag.

"So let them come," Nino calls, still watching the TV.

Jun shouts back, his voice approaching shrill, "Will you get in here and make yourself presentable, you sloth!"

Aiba and Ohno show up forty minutes later with a veritable feast of amazing-smelling food from Aiba's parents' restaurant. They spread everything out on the table in the living room and somehow manage to eat it all as they power through a Godzilla marathon.

Later, when the guys have gone home and Jun is cleaning up while Nino lounges on the couch and pats his full stomach, Jun calls from the kitchen, "Hey, I have a question for you."

"Hm?"

Jun pokes his head out of the doorway to say, "It's really serious." Something about the hint of a mischievous smile on his face leaves Nino skeptical.

"Uh-huh."

"How much would it cost for you to put on a Godzilla costume and call me Mothra while I fuck you?"

Nino throws a take-out container at him, and then makes him clean up the spilled noodles just for good measure. But when the clean-up is done and they're in the shower, he pins Jun against the wall and whispers in his ear, "For you, Mothra-san, I'd do it for free."

Jun shoves him face-first into the water spray, cackling the way he does when he's truly tickled. Nino never heard that laugh before they started sharing their weekends, but he hears it a lot these days, and it makes him smile every time -- even now as he's spluttering under the water.

After Jun stops trying to drown him, they go back to soaping up and rinsing off, but that only lasts so long before they inevitably start kissing. It's Jun's last night here, and Nino knows he won't get another chance like this until at least next Friday. So he decides now is as good a time as any to go for what he's been wanting ever since he opened the front door two nights ago.

When they first started this, it had been so long since Nino slept with anyone just to do it that there was a bit of a weird learning curve. After ten-plus years, it was just so ingrained in him to think of sex as a service he provided for someone else -- a service he thoroughly enjoyed providing, of course, but a service nonetheless. It took a while for him to untangle all of that from the things he actually wanted just for himself.

Jun finally had to sit him down one day and tell him, "Sometimes I feel like you're kind of... catering to me. It's nice and all, but I want to know what you like, too."

The first words out of Nino's mouth were "I like you, Jun," and then he realized what he was doing. "Shit, wait, I'm sorry. I meant -- no, that is what I meant, it's just --"

"It's all right," Jun said, reaching for Nino's hand and smiling like he was getting a real kick out of watching Nino stumble through his emotions. "I get it. You've been doing things a certain way for a long time. I just wanted to let you know that if there's anything you want, or anything you don't want, just tell me, okay?"

It took a long time for Nino to puzzle it all out. It started with little things, like reminding himself that he didn't have to exaggerate the sounds he made when Jun made him feel good. Once he got the hang of that, he started experimenting with asking for things too -- like the night he was on his back on the couch, and his legs were around Jun's waist, and it was great, but he thought of something that could make it just a little better.

"Do the thing," he gasped, clutching at Jun's arms. The fact that he was a little sex-stupid was testament to how good it already was.

"What thing?" Jun grunted.

"The leg thing -- do the leg thing --"

Jun stared at him for a few seconds, looking confused as he continued to thrust. Then he figured out what Nino meant, and he shifted them around so Nino's ankle was up by Jun's shoulder and Jun's hand was holding the back of Nino's knee, and the angle was so fucking perfect that when Nino finally got a hand around his dick, he came within just a few strokes.

Yeah. Asking for things turned out to be the right choice.

These days, it comes to him a lot more easily. As they're making out in the shower, all it takes is a little nudge, and then Jun is sinking to his knees, his eyes locked on Nino's the whole way down. He runs his palms up Nino's slippery thighs, gets his warm mouth on Nino's cock, and everything about it is exactly what Nino's been wanting. He works a hand into Jun's hair and then holds on tight when Jun lifts one of Nino's legs up to get his thigh over Jun's shoulder. Jun uses one hand to hold Nino's hips steady, and with the other he works one finger inside, then two, still working Nino over with his mouth like he's been waiting for this just as long as Nino has.

Nino tips his head back against the shower wall and lets his mind be blissfully empty -- no inclination to put on a show, no worry about holding back. He focuses only on Jun, the way Jun makes him feel, the way it feels to have Jun here with him.

He couldn't ask for anything more.

Of course, that feeling doesn't last forever. Jun makes him come and he returns the favor, and then they have to finish up in the shower so that Jun can gather all his things from around the apartment and fold his freshly laundered clothes into his bag. Nino busies himself with watering Ban, putting away the dishes, turning off the lights around the house. He goes out onto the balcony for a smoke, and Jun joins him halfway through, sneaking up from behind to wrap his arms around Nino's waist, his chin perched on Nino's shoulder.

Nino half-heartedly tries to shrug him off. "Your chin is so bony."

Jun isn't swayed. He holds on tighter, presses a sloppy smooch to the side of Nino's face. "I love you too."

Nino says nothing, just settles his free hand over one of Jun's and links their fingers together. He hasn't managed to say it yet, but he suspects Jun has caught on to the other ways he communicates it: the teasing jabs, the wordless songs he plays for Jun on his guitar, the way Jun stirs awake that night and catches Nino's fingers running through his hair.

"Go back to sleep, weirdo," Jun mumbles, half his face pressed into the pillow. Nino leans down to brush his lips against Jun's temple -- another not-so-secret code for what Nino hasn't yet dug up the courage to say in words.

I love you too.

~

Things Nino has learned about himself:

He's thrilled to spend his weekends with Jun but also cherishes his alone time.

Dealing with a grump in the morning bothers him less than he thought it would, whereas picking someone else's hair off his shower wall bothers him more.

Consistently sharing his bed with someone else bothers him way more than he thought it would, hence the king-sized gift from Jun.

Letting Jun into his life -- his entire life -- was terrifying at first, but Jun is constantly finding new ways to make it worth the initial dread. Every time Jun plays a video game with him even though he knows he'll lose, every time Jun watches Dragon Ball Z with him and they get into a heated debate over which character is cooler, every time Jun surprises him with home-cooked hamburgers for dinner, Nino is thankful for the choices he's made.

Despite his best efforts, he gets genuinely irritated whenever Jun jokingly suggests they open up the closet and find some good toys to use. ("It's my collection, Jun, those things are spe-- dammit, put that down, I don't care if you're the one who bought it for me!")

He knows it's impossible for him to make sure Jun is happy when he's away, but he feels proud and giddy and warm inside at the thought of making Jun happy every time he comes back.

And Jun makes him happy in return, tenfold. The first time they invited Aiba for lunch was perhaps the happiest he's ever been, even if Aiba did embarrass him by shouting "Holy crap, Nino, he is cute," and even if he did have to hide his uncontrollable smile behind his hand and thwack Aiba over the head for a million dirty jokes, and even if he did have to fuck the smug grin right off Jun's face later that night when he wouldn't shut up about it. ("Cute, huh? Just how cute did you tell him I was, Kazu? Like super cute, or ultra cute, or --")

Everything else, he's still figuring out. He knows there's more to unravel -- about himself, about Jun, about what love means for each of them individually, what it means for them together -- and though he's not thrilled about the idea of looking so deep inside himself, sorting through all the baggage he's long been ignoring, he happily anticipates having Jun along for the ride.

He doesn't expect every part of it to go smoothly, and many parts of it don't. But most of them do. That might be the most surprising thing of all.

~

On Monday Nino wakes up with Jun before the sun has even finished rising. They share a shivery cigarette on the balcony, and then Nino yawns his way through making breakfast while Jun showers and gets dressed. They eat together at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and going over their schedules for the day. Jun has an important conference call at noon, a meeting at two, a presentation at six that he expects will run late; Nino's seeing a new client in the afternoon and then hanging out with Aiba for dinner.

While Nino cleans up, Jun brushes his teeth, knots his tie, fusses with his hair in the mirror. Then he gathers up his things, duffel bag in one hand, Ban the bonsai in the other, ready for another day of work, another week away from Nino.

Perhaps the most important thing Nino has learned is that he can't predict, let alone manipulate, the unforeseeable future. In a year, will he and Jun still be together, or will they have decided that love -- their version of it -- wasn't all they thought it would be? In a few minutes, will he turn around and go back to bed, or will he pull out his guitar and try to refine that melody he's been working on? From his current vantage point, he can't see a way to answer either of those questions or any of the infinite questions in between. The best he can do is make the right choices in the present, be good to the people around him from day to day.

For now, Jun stands in his shoes in the entryway, Nino barefoot above him, the tips of his toes hanging over the edge as he leans down to kiss Jun goodbye. He slips in a little tongue just to put some pep in Jun's stride.

"Take care," he says, smiling against Jun's mouth, and Jun shifts the bonsai into his duffel-bag hand so he has an arm free to pull Nino into another kiss, unwilling to let go just yet.

Finally, reluctantly, they pull away. Jun's hand trails down Nino's arm to grasp at his fingers for just a few more seconds.

He steps back, slipping his hand out of Nino's to open the front door, the link severed but only for now.

"See you on Friday," Jun says.

Nino lets him go -- knows he'll be back -- sends him off with a smile.

"I'm looking forward to it."