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by Solo & Jo

2007: December 31

"We're coming on after Tackey and Tsubasa," Kame said. Everything was loud, doors slamming shut and practiced melodies clashing, people laughing in deep voices.

He couldn't tell if they heard him, if the nods were for him or if Ueda was just focusing on some beat, if Koki was too wrapped up in joking with some junior, or where Nakamaru had even gone. Yokoyama passed through for the third time looking for his mic strap. Kame wished it were just the six of them and people were quiet and he felt less worried about a song he'd sung a hundred times before.

Everyone's big party.

Kame tugged his shoulder-wrap back in place, tried to get it to look like it did in fitting. It never looked the same way twice, and didn't look like anyone else's costume at all. They'd liked it that way ever since they got out of the generic Junior jumpsuits; only now he wished they didn't seem so out of order, all six of them.

He should just treat it as a regular concert. They'd made those work again.

"We're coming on after Tackey and Tsubasa," he said to Jin, who stood out the most, and who was watching him and waiting for something.

"Yeah, I heard you," Jin said, with a smile like those they didn't want the others to understand. It made Kame feel weird but not better, when he was always thinking it should.

"We walk down the main ramp and then past the middle, but we don't stick around for the commentary," he added.

"I've done these before," Jin pointed out. "And they gave me an earpiece and everything." He twiddled it in a way that knocked it against the side of his head. The red hair looked so different on him. Bright and noticeable, though nothing at all like their old blond jobs. Against Kame's pale blue sheets it seemed to glow.

"Good," Kame said. "That's good." He turned to his own hair, adjusting the strands that were thick and harsh with hairspray, and hoped Jin wasn't annoyed now.

"I was kidding, you know," Jin said, his voice low and soothing, like when he sang the soft notes. "Well, okay, they did give me an earpiece. So that's useful. What's going on?"

"Nothing. I'm just a bit nervous."

"What are you nervous for? It's just a Countdown. Everyone's going to be kind of random. I think Nagase is drunk."

"Sorry," Kame said. "I'll stop." He wrapped a strand around two fingers to get it to curl away from his eyes, and behind him in the mirror he could see Jin step aside.

Everyone's big party, as long as you didn't stop to think, as long as you were just grateful for how much better it was in comparison.

They had about ten minutes to go; in frantic show terms, that could be an eternity. Kame got up, to move, to fix his stupid outfit.

Jin was still watching, not even that far away. Just enough so Kame hadn't seen him in the mirror, so he wasn't prepared. Kame smiled and tried to look less nervous, the way it always worked on stage, where nobody could ever tell.

Jin stood still. No time abroad could teach him to hide it when he was uncomfortable. Kame gave him a nod, energetic and quick, and then he adjusted his outfit again, and then there was an AD, shooing them on so they wouldn't be late.

"Where the fuck is Nakamaru?" Koki asked, pushing his sunglasses up and down as if he was undecided how to wear them. At least someone else was doing the nagging and herding.

"I think I saw him with NEWS earlier," Jin said, nodding in the general direction. "They'll ditch him when they go out, I don't think they want to adopt him."

They walked down the corridor in their usual formation. Their old formation. Kame didn't look sideways.

Maybe it would all be normal by the time they got home. Jin could bask in the fun he'd had with his friends here and Kame's mood could pass, just like this Countdown, like every Countdown.

"Sorry, sorry," Nakamaru called out when he caught up with them. "Was discussing something with Koyama-kun."

"Hey, at last," Koki said behind Kame while the music swelled, Kinki doing their intro, the seconds rushing into each other. "Don't know if they'd miss you if we went out a man short, but better not find out."

Kame said nothing. Kame said absolutely nothing.


2005: December 31

The long bright coat flapped around Kame's ankles. Loud colours and long fringes on their sleeves, the stuff they'd worn to open their summer concerts. They'd felt great then, triumphant; riding a high after Kaizokuban and big arenas and Gokusen, the fans loving them.

Jin somehow managed to look like a star in the garish yellow and black; Kame just felt washed out.

But of course he wouldn't be wearing it for long. He'd tried to ignore the pointed looks from Koki and Ueda when he was putting on his red Shuuji gear before painstakingly fastening the KAT-TUN suit over it. The way Jin carefully didn't look.

KAT-TUN were stragglers in the changing room. Everyone else had been rushed out for interviews. They should have been pleased that they got to be here at all.

"What's the point?" Koki said, for the third or tenth time. Or maybe it was a variation Kame hadn't heard yet; hadn't picked up among the undirected gripes that somehow always managed to be in earshot. "Throwing us a bone to keep us quiet?"

"Yeah, because standing around on stage in stupid costumes is just what I've always wanted," Jin said moodily. "I joined Johnny's for the awesome standing around."

"Maybe it means we'll debut soon," Taguchi said, but even his smile looked forced.

"Johnny said to be patient," Kame said, to nobody in particular. He felt like he'd been saying it every day for the last three months.

"Johnny doesn't have to stand around for decoration," Jin said in that randomly pissy voice that was just... it didn't help. "You don't have to hang around with us, you get to run off as soon as we're down."

Kame said nothing. There was nothing to say. He concentrated on buttons.

"Sorry," Jin said grudgingly into the silence between them. "I mean, I know." He shrugged.

Yes, Jin knew. After Anego, Jin knew you did what Johnny wanted you to do or nothing at all. Watching Jin find it difficult to be fair anyway really didn't make Kame feel better.

It might have been fine if it weren't for the single. The debut single which worried everybody, worried him.

When he'd first heard about playing Shuuji, his main worry had been Yamapi. Looking back, that was almost funny.

No, they'd worked that out easily. Sometimes Kame thought Yamapi really liked him, like long ago when they'd all been friends together. But there was no way back to that, not with so much in the way. Not with Jin feeling like he did.

Like now. Jin was sounding off stupidly about the frills on the costume, the whine turned up to obnoxious, and all Kame saw was that he was miserable and demoralised and maybe desperately needed a hug.

But Kame was Shuuji and not the right person. And even if it weren't for that, he'd become careful not to touch, not to make Jin think he was misreading things again.

Kinki were starting up, meaning it was time to get into their positions, three on each side of the entrance stairway. He saw Jin straighten and try to find his coolness face, saw Nakamaru drag Taguchi over to their side. Nobody looked at him and he turned away, down the other end. Koki and Ueda would follow when they felt like it.


2006: December 31

It was time. Their cue, and now there was nobody in front of them, just Kame facing the Dome. No getting around that song, not tonight, because they were big and important and real, so better they got to do it right away, got to deal with it first.


Kame heard himself on the first big line, solid and clear through the giant speakers, like he could fill this space and pull them through, and he blinked up and away from the audience, pulling his voice up to high, and he hit the notes steady.

And then nothing.

Nobody picking him up, and there was supposed to be someone. They'd practiced this and why couldn't he hear Ueda, and he was stumbling and wrong when they finally made it to the bastardised chorus, and Kame could throw himself at the Dome like a proper frontman and be glad when the dancing started.

He didn't look at anybody. Didn't want to see if the steps were wrong too; it felt like clowning around but there were things you didn't forget, and they all knew how to dance in a big open space.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Their debut song, fucking opening the Countdown, and he wasn't supposed to jerk his body around and feel like a beginner.

They were still out of tune, but not too badly. Koki was fine, Koki was great, engaging with the camera, and Kame was grateful to him again.

Then it was over. A minute or so of their best-selling debut song. On the other end of the hall the lights flashed on Pi, and Kame was grateful to him too.

They got pulled back; at least they could get off this fucking platform. Not much room for them scheduled into the next stretch. Backdancing for Tackey, and they'd have to get to their carts.

Kame's knees felt weak when he'd made it down the stairs. He wanted a bottle of water, but it was too early; they hadn't even danced much. It would look pathetic.

"Well, we're not doing that one much these days," Ueda said with hardly more than grudging regret. He wasn't wrong. They'd do better on Kame's drama song; they normally did. As if they'd always been a group of five.

"Nice work," Kame said to Koki because... because that was what leaders did, and it was the truth, too.

Koki gave him a look that was thoughtful and knowing at the same time, and Kame started moving with whatever was playing out there because now he felt exposed.

"I feel almost out of practice," Koki said, quietly, or as quietly as he could with all the people milling around. "Haven't played an audience this big since the spring."

"Yeah," Kame said. He'd finally recognized the tune; some happy Arashi thing, fitting because other people were having fun here.

"It's good to get practice. Good to get out there." He nodded to himself. They had to sing the next one better. This wasn't even a KAT-TUN audience. Not that the last of those had been on his side, either.


2007: December 31

It was impossible to lose sight of Jin. The stark zebra sweater stood out like a beacon from Arashi's yellow, V6's pink, Tokio's black... No matter how they got mixed up, Kame could see Jin; could see him looking bored at standing around and perking up when he got things to do. See him not caring much about what anybody might think of it. Open like a book.

The songs were easy, the audience happy, and Kame knew how to work whichever bit of stage they happened to send him to. Good party guest. It was working.

Kame swirled around to be cheered at by some women waving V6 uchiwas, and he smiled knowingly and got them to cheer louder. Years of being a junior made him unembarrassed that he was dancing alone and randomly.

Jin was there, two stages over.

Currently bothering Nishikido. Bored again or just happy. Happy was the more comforting take.

There was more running, down the stairs behind the stage and Kanjani messing around with their mics. Countdowns moved fast. They were okay if you didn't have to worry about your songs. Kame nearly tripped over his feet on his rush back out, but he wasn't tripping over his notes and that was much better.

At least Jin was awake and generally lively. Even if he was staring into space now, absorbed in some beat not even Kame could hear at that distance.

It was that sweater. You barely turned around and it found you.

Jin had been out clubbing last night and they hadn't spent the night together. Just being practical. Sensible before a big event, because Kame still slept better alone, and Jin knew it, and if he'd said he'd gladly trade the sleep for closeness, Jin might have got that look. The wondering-about-Kame-weirdness look. It was just a Countdown.

Jin and Yamapi were involved in some cross-Dome sign language. At some point Yamapi rolled his eyes, and Jin looked very pleased with himself.

Kame was exempt from hassling; as always, as he had been for ages, but it didn't sting like before. All part of the understanding.

Koki dropped his sunglasses in their next group performance, and Taguchi was still making silly puns about it when they hurried down for their costume change. Red again for Kame, but good for more than one song, more than one debut single.

He wished he weren't worried. It was unprofessional. This year it was going to be him and Pi and Jin and Nishikido, and his stomach went weird and tight when he tried to guess what Jin made of it.

Jin looked long-limbed and young tearing off the zebra sweater, and Kame only paused for a moment, watched him pout at his reflection as his hair settled messily.

Then looked away so Jin could act sneaky using his hair spray, his powder and the wipes for sweaty hands as though they hadn't agreed beforehand that they'd only need the one bag.

Now Jin and the others were heading out, to join in Nagase's number. "See you... later," Jin said, with a private grin that made Kame's insides flip again. Why couldn't he stop being nervous about a stupid song?

On his own way up he nearly bumped into Yamapi, who laughed randomly while saving himself from death by stairs. "What did you put in his coffee?" he asked, nodding backwards up the stairs, meaning Jin.

"Nothing," Kame said quickly. "He's just doing his thing." And as Pi hopped down the stairs, he added, "Anyway, why me?" just because he knew Jin would want him to.

In the distance, he heard Jin's clear voice take over from Nagase, and the crowd start to scream.


2005: December 31

Koichi gave their intro and the music started, and then they were on. Lights blinking behind them, reflecting off the gleaming stage, and a horde of juniors just following him out on stage, dancing in his trail.

For a moment Kame forgot about KAT-TUN resenting him and Jin looking at him like a thief. He had a performance. He knew this one and could do it in his sleep.

They were still separate, starting with the chorus, and Kame focused on the lights, and the fans below who loved the song so much, and that made it easy to give it his best effort.

They had the showcase spot right after introductions, leading off the Best Hit Medley. That was pretty big.

Kame smiled and reached out to the fans and made them squeal. He could hear Yamapi matching him perfectly. Like all those times on TV, and if he stopped overthinking that he was playing best friends with Yamapi in front of a stadium crowd and everyone in Johnny's who knew better, it was all right, it could just be a great song. It had a good atmosphere.

They came together in the middle, and Kame noticed that Pi's hair looked weirdly puffy and that he was really enjoying himself. You could tell, with Pi, even if he wasn't as blunt about his face as Jin to outsiders. If you knew him well enough, if he let you, you could see, and Kame could. Sometimes it surprised him.

He pulled away and let Pi carry the song, danced with the juniors, focused on every step. It didn't matter that he'd much rather throw himself into a KAT-TUN song, because they didn't really believe him anyway and this hadn't been his choice. He could only make the best of it. They'd get more concerts. He could show them then.

Yamapi met his eyes when they did the thumb thing, and Kame felt strange and scripted. It was so easy with Pi if you could let it be, no wonder Jin liked him so much. And maybe Jin was easy with other people too.

They were winding up. The fans loved it, and they'd done it great and without a hitch, and Kame felt stupid to feel guilty about that as well.

Then they had to run and jump back into their group costumes. Kame heard someone laugh when he got Shuuji's sleeve fringes stuck in a buckle.

Next year. Next year it should be them, it had to be them. They had so many fans already and if only they finally got their moment... it would all be okay.

Venus now. That one was fun. And they were all doing it, NEWS and Kanjani too, and Kame took extra care to show he was serious.

Jin was goofing around to cover up for the fact that he didn't know the choreo, throwing silly grins at Nakamaru and not looking in Kame's direction once.

Next year. It would all be okay next year.


2006: December 31

They had another moment in the spotlight, ten seconds of singing along with Kinki; Tsuyoshi with his purple hat looking like a small mushroom next to Taguchi. Then they could finally get away from the Jin uchiwas which people seemed to wave in Kame's face wherever he turned, get into the dressing room for a minute's peace and a new outfit.

"Later," Ueda said with a wide grin as he and Nakamaru split off to the special room with the ceremonial wear, together with half of Arashi. He'd been irrepressible since Real Face was over... relieved maybe that it was going to be easy from there. Or just looking forward to wearing the traditional black and white and feeling all special.

It would be Jin next year if he came back. When he came back. He'd look good in it. Jin looked good in anything.

Maybe if Kame hadn't frozen up, that time in the spring, when Jin changed his mind and came to him... maybe if he'd ignored his doubts, and debuts and tours and paparazzi...

...maybe if he had said yes, Jin wouldn't have left, maybe everything would be better now.

Or maybe it would be worse. He didn't know.

He flinched when a sleeve almost hit him in the face, and Taguchi said, "whoops, sorry," and Kame moved faster, buttons and velcro and zippers, out of gold and silver into red and black. They were familiar moves, he didn't have to think for that. One thing he didn't have to think for.

"You doing anything later?" Koki asked, reaching up for his own wide purple hat.

Kame shook his head. "Sleep."

"Want to come out? Nakamaru and I are going to hit this little nightclub, get some real music to ring in the year. Just a couple of hours, couple of drinks, find a nice girl..."

Koki didn't know, of course. None of them did. No urgent need for Kame to tell, either, when none of the men he'd met were anything real.

He wished they could be more; he wished one of them could mean something. Sometimes he thought Matchy worried about him. But the one real date Kame had agreed to try right before Christmas felt fake even in memory.

For Koki he just laughed. "Thanks, but in my state that would have to be some desperate girl."

And it was time to go back on.

Ueda and Nakamaru both managed to sound optimistic for their little speeches, though Nakamaru's smile dropped when Kokubun called him Nakamura.

They did fine on their new hit single, and at least Kame didn't feel so much like an amateur.

But he was glad when it was over, when they got mixed up with Kanjani and there was fun all around him, and not so sharp a focus on how good they could sound when they were just five. No spare lines going around in this song, no easy fit for people late to the party. Maybe it served Jin right that he'd have to just put up with it if he--- when he came back.

Yamapi and Tegomass were sidling back to the stairway for their final costume change, the big sensation of the night. Kame caught Yamapi's eye and gave him a supportive V-sign, and Yamapi couldn't suppress a blinding grin.

Jin was gone. How could Pi be so happy?

But good for him -- and watching NEWS appear out of the dark, shining and bouncing and free, he wished KAT-TUN could have been like that, with their record-breaking sales and their debut at last.


2008: January 1

Jin and Nishikido were still waggling two fingers at each other and generally acting like kids when Yamapi skipped back down the stairs from his solo gig, Ueda trailing after him looking relieved that he'd never have to backdance for Yamapi's señorita again.

They were about to go on their cart. Kame bounced on his feet, uncertain if he should ignore the wriggling beside him, uncertain if he should at least smile and acknowledge that Jin was having fun, that that had worked well even if Jin hadn't known the choreography. That performance could have been so much worse.

"Yo!" Pi said. "You still trying to teach him?" Even with his chin up in confrontation, Pi looked friendly and warm, safe from being misunderstood. "A bit late for that."

"Akanishi's slow, he's going to the special class," Nishikido said, and got punched in the arm for it. Pi smiled at Kame; at Shuuji, maybe; and Kame smiled back and tried to look like he was part of it without interfering, just like out there. Out there it had worked all right.

"Seriously, man, how can you not know that dance?" Pi said to Jin while he quickly stripped off his leather jacket with the gold letters for their last costume change. "We've only done it on like a million TV programs. The senpai know it."

It had been fine. Right up to here it had been fine. Now Jin would get that look and it would follow Kame around for the rest of the evening, and he'd end up in the past while everyone else went to a party.

There was always something they didn't talk about.

"I danced it fine," Jin said loftily, and then Kame did look at him, just in time to catch the softness that would have given them away if anybody had known.

Nobody knew, about discreet dates and sleepovers. Nobody knew how they moved together in the dark or how Jin felt to him, how much he loved it no matter what they did. How Jin's voice choked on Kame's name before it dissolved into nothing but breaths.

But there'd always been something they didn't talk about; this year it was this, and it was a much better thing than all the ones before, and Kame wasn't sorry even if it had felt fast. Even if he still woke up some mornings wondering why it felt better but not better, why he was still afraid.

"I was adding additional elements," Jin persisted, full of conviction, though Nishikido was already making moves to run away as Arashi outside were winding up. "And, you know, the two fingers didn't make sense at all because technically there were four of us now, and if I understood your clever metaphor correctly, I was totally doing it justice and you three were all wrong."

Kame didn't know how Pi got away with it, with this stuff that was always fraught except suddenly it was not, and then it was again, right when Kame needed it least.

It was time now; NEWS in their uniform silver, looking like they belonged to each other and didn't mind if anybody saw.

"Hey, did you know that you are irritating?" Jin called after Pi's retreating back and then burst into giggles.

Then they climbed the cart, Taguchi bounding up the stairs because he was Taguchi and stairs were meant for bounding.

They were in 2006 next, doing Real Face.

"Upstairs or downstairs?" Ueda asked Jin.

Jin looked at Kame.

"I'm staying down," Kame said, not that it mattered, only he was trying to be normal and this wasn't something they couldn't talk about.

Jin nodded at Ueda. "Me too. Think it works better for the harmonies."

They were only doing the chorus. It worked better anyway.


2006: January 1

Of course they reprised the song. Of course they brought KAT-TUN in on it, and of course there was Kizuna. They hadn't debuted so Kame's were their only releases, all they could bring to the table. Kame was glad when Koki and Nakamaru put on their best enthusiastic performances, when Koki came close, acknowledged him.

It almost wasn't bad, until they got to Kizuna.

They'd been alone, after the end of the last staff party celebrating the last episode, huddled across a corner as if Kame's couch didn't sit three people. Talking giddy nonsense all night, and Jin had spun stories about Hayato and Ryuu and friendship and forever, and just that once Kame had gone with instinct.

He hadn't tried much. Just asked, without asking. He could still feel Jin's no sometimes in the way Jin got cautious.

And then he'd got a single with Pi.

Now he didn't even need to look at Jin, he heard it in his voice, could tell from body language he felt through three meters of air that Kizuna was words, just words, a show put on because they had to.

And then that was that. The rest was mercifully easy, right up to the final group shot, when they put him between Jin and Yamapi like everything was conspiring to drive it home, make it worse, and he tried not to look like he was trying to make himself small.

He and Yamapi were front and center of the entire group, and he reminded himself that this was something he wanted, he'd worked hard for this, he was happy.

He was successful and happy. And Johnny had promised.

Jin and Yamapi exchanged some words behind his back; he couldn't tell what over the din. He heard Taguchi laugh and Koki giggle, and Kinki right behind him say something to each other. Only he was too far out front, there was nobody with him there.

After the group dissolved, he almost fell over from a hearty shoulder slap. "Well done, kid," Matchy said, laughing, when he turned. Then he stopped laughing and pulled out his cell. "Let me buy you dinner sometime, tell you about racing. What's your email address?"

Kame blinked a couple of times, but there were proper things to say and do, and he said and did them, and felt a little lighter.

He lingered, then; exchanged a few words with Kinki, with Tackey, with a guy from the cleanup crew who was wearing a Giants t-shirt under his coveralls.

Stayed out of Nagase's way because Nagase had a way of asking the wrong questions even when he was sober.

But eventually he had to go get changed. He was just about to turn into the corridor to the dressing room when Yamapi and Nishikido rounded the corner, in regular clothes, ready to go home or go out, whatever they had planned. No sign of Jin.

Yamapi stopped for him. "Done?" Nishikido slowed reluctantly, muttering something as he checked his phone.

"Done," Kame said.

Yamapi gave him a small smile and then he frowned, pointing vaguely down the corridor. "He's acting weird."

No need to ask who 'he' was. Kame bit his lip.

"It's not just you," Pi said. "He's..." He shrugged.

"If we don't get there soon they'll give our booth to somebody else," Nishikido said impatiently, and Yamapi nodded and let himself be pulled away, and Kame slowly wandered down to the dressing room at last.

KAT-TUN were gone. Except... in the far corner Yokoyama, fully dressed with hat and mismatching gloves was holding Jin's sports bag and trying to get Jin to take it back.

"If you didn't like it, you just didn't understand it," Jin was saying. His back was to Kame. "You should read the lyrics." He took his bag but only used it to block Yokoyama's exit even more.

Kato looked up from zipping his jacket shut and gave Kame a nod. From Shibutani he got a grin and a few shadowboxing moves. Just a couple of days, then that would start. No rest.

Kame's own smile seemed to pull his face in weird directions when he sketched a left hook in reply, but Shibutani seemed happy.

"Now?" Yokoyama asked kind of miserably, and Jin launched into an elaborate opinion on improving one's language skills.

Kame tried to listen to Masuda and Tegoshi performing some strange harmonisation with their sweaters over their heads.

Yokoyama was casting longing glances at the door. "I don't think you know how to spell anyway," he accused Jin. "I've learned 'come' in school."

"It's a pun," Jin insisted. "If you had any sense, you'd know that. What it means is---"

There was a loud jangle of a Puffy song and Yokoyama fumbled his cell out of his jacket with a gloved hand.

"Yes. No. I wish! No. Yes," he said, and then he glared at Jin. "Ryo-chan says to stop ignoring your cell, and if you don't get out there with him and Yamapi now, you can pay for your own cab."

When Jin's hand dropped guiltily to his pocket, Yokoyama shoved past him and made for the door. Half-turned, Jin saw Kame and stood still.

"Free!" Yokoyama crowed. "Free, I'm free! Akanishi, get a dictionary! See you as Dream Boys, folks!"

Kame couldn't even remember moving aside for him but he was gone and it was silent, and Jin was still looking at him.

"I wasn't waiting," Jin said.

Tegoshi started up the weird wailing again.

Kame nodded, jerkily, and turned away at the same time Jin did.


2007: January 1

Things were dying down. There was lots of chatter coming from the end of the corridor where NEWS were clowning around. Good for them. Pi'd had a good night. He'd sung well, too.

KAT-TUN were packing up their stuff and not saying much. They'd done okay on the drama song.

Matchy had said hi, and Kame hoped he'd managed to sound upbeat. It was good when someone knew the full story; not so good when they could see you be pathetic at work.

Koki and Nakamaru were calling up random people from Koki's contacts list to talk them into clubbing, and Kame kept his head down, wishing he didn't feel so slow. He'd do better packing faster.

He ended up alone in the dressing room, Koki and Nakamaru off for their fun, Ueda gone in a hurry and who knew what had happened to Taguchi. He spent half a minute trying to fiddle stray shoelaces back into his boots.

"Shuuji-kun," came from the doorway; sing-songy and everything, but the way Pi was slouching said he was at least a bit self-conscious. "You the last one?"

"Yeah," Kame said. He felt it tight down his back when he stood, and he tried to look less like he hated Countdowns, or this Countdown, or whatever it was that made this night so bad.

Yamapi nodded. His face was shiny from taking off make-up, and he was in a regular t-shirt; the nice guy from next door, except those probably never wore hairbands with pink stripes in them.

"Congratulations, by the way," Kame said, biting his lip because it sounded listless. "I mean, really. I'm happy NEWS is back. I was going to stop by. And tell you."

Pi gave a vague acknowledgement shrug. "It's nice for us, yeah. We'll see."

"Congratulations. Really."

He was being weird again.

"Thanks." Pi was smiling. He turned into the room with his back still against the doorframe, his hands in his jeans pockets. Like inverted pole dancing, or something. "How are you doing?"

"I'm fine," Kame said. "Just going home. Some sleep. Guess I'll call my parents."

It went quiet. But Kame had said something, so it wasn't his fault.

He hated this feeling. Jin wasn't even here, and Kame still felt like the one understanding less, the one less in on some language that would be fun to speak, if only he could figure it out. "So... how are you doing?" he tried.

Pi made an apologetic face. "Sorry. I just wanted to... you know, see how you were doing. This should have been a bigger night for you guys. You didn't look so happy."

"Well, it didn't work so well. We didn't practice enough. But it's good to be debuted. Beats being a junior."

"Jin's going to chew my ear off about his parts," Pi said, rolling his eyes but it really wasn't funny.

"Well, he wasn't here," Kame said curtly, and then he froze because that was mean and harsh and he didn't want to think about not taking good care of Jin's lines.

"He says you two don't talk much."

Why was Pi even here? He didn't usually rub it in.

"Not a lot. You know, I'm busy. He's... Jin." He didn't even look up. Jin.

"Why don't you call him?"

"I don't think... well." Kame shrugged painfully and stuffed all his stinky sweaty clothes into his bag. When he looked up, Pi was still standing there, with his dorky hairband and that weirdly worrying frown.

"I don't think he'll want to hear from me." It sounded stupid out loud and overly dramatic, as if simple New Year wishes from Kame would send Jin into and existential crisis.

Pi was looking like he found it stupid too, and like he couldn't quite puzzle Kame out. Great. They could share their confusion, the two of them.

"That's a pretty weird thing to say," Pi said slowly.

"Anyway, he's probably asleep. Or dancing. Or whatever. Sorry, was just thinking out loud. I'll send him an e-mail or something. It's the New Year, right?" At least they weren't exchanging cards. The thought ripped him open.

"It's daytime there."

Of course. And of course Yamapi knew, because they kept in touch. Probably woke each other up at the weirdest times and then had a laugh about it.

"Is he coming back?"

It stopped them both. He didn't even want to hear it from Yamapi. Didn't need one more thing that Pi knew. But now he was staring and waiting and not knowing and that thoughtfulness was freaking him out.

"I don't think he wants to stay there forever..." Yamapi shrugged, everything about him cautious now.

"Yeah, okay, I get it. Sorry." Time to go. Time to leave here, let Yamapi get back to his party.

"I think he'd be really happy to hear from you," Yamapi said then. "You know, more than an e-mail."

He sounded sure of himself. Like he didn't just think, he knew.

Pi and Jin. Talking about him. Kame took a deep breath because his first response shouldn't be about that but it was all he could think of. And then he took another breath, because Jin was talking about him.

"I think I'm going to go home," he repeated, and Pi got that friendly polite look that was all about not getting into other people's business.

"Yeah, okay. Sleep well."

Kame nodded as firmly as he could, and Pi pushed himself off the doorframe. "Also, if you want to hang out with me sometime... you know, not for work..." But he stopped there, shrugging again and going uncomfortable.

Kame nodded again and let him go.


2008: January 1

"Could you have been any more predictable?" Nishikido said to Jin when they'd all piled back into the dressing room shared by all the You&J groups. "My pace, my pace... my ass."

"At least he promised to stick around," Koki heckled. "Even if it was an afterthought."

But Jin was focused half on struggling out of the traditional clothes all the Rat-year guys had been stuck in, and half on Nishikido. "Cause your 'will do my best' was so totally original?"

Nishikido shrugged. "It's traditional. People like it when you say that."



"How about drinks?" Yamapi said, bowed over his bag and treating the philosophical differences with the seriousness they deserved.

Behind them, Koyama was complaining that Tegoshi had tied his shoelaces to the leg of the bench.

"Drinks," Jin said profoundly. "Yeah." He was waving his arms trying to reach a knot behind his back with flailing fingers. "Why the fuck do they make these things so hard to get out of?" Kame, almost done losing his layers of polyester, hoped somebody would help him before he did himself an injury.

"Cause adult clothes aren't meant to be stripped off like some costume," said Ueda, vanishing in the shower. "It would be unseemly."

"It would help, though," said Nishikido. "They could put velcro in the trickier places..." But he'd already stripped down to his underwear. "You still owe me beer from when I destroyed you in Halo," he said in Jin's direction, gathering his shampoo, soap and conditioner together.

"Kazuya, help me undress," said Jin.

Kame stopped with his clothes in his hands. Just stopped, and waited for Jin to correct his mistake and quickly throw himself and his problem at the nearest Kanjani member. Yokoyama, probably.

"Kameeeeee," Jin whined over the din of eighteen people trying to find their towels. "I want to get out of this shit sometime tonight."

All right.

Kame had to admit the knot was vicious. It had them close for long enough that Jin could say quietly, "Are you coming for drinks with us?"

Tegoshi was ducking behind them for cover. Over Jin's shoulder, Kame saw Koyama aiming a pair of rolled-up socks.

Jin and Pi and Nishikido had gone for drinks two years ago. And a lot of times in between. Kame no longer made sure to be absent from the planning stages, but he still didn't usually ask to tag along, either.

"You want me to?"

They didn't hang out with others a lot, not privately. Jin got tense, and Kame always felt like he was still at work. And he didn't want to cramp Jin's style when he was with his friends.

Jin cast a quick look around and leaned into his touch when it turned out everybody was busy with their own affairs and Tegoshi was now using a giggling Masuda for a shield.

"Yeah, I want you to," he said, and then the knot came undone. He turned around and gave Kame a thoughtful little smile. "It would be weird without you."

They'd been together since the summer. It shouldn't feel new like this. It shouldn't make him all nervous and weak just because Jin looked at him like that.

"If you're sure," he said quickly, even though this wasn't the time and place for long discussion. He was kind of an idiot, and Jin was hardly proposing to make out with Kame in front of his gang.

Jin nodded once, and his smile deepened. "You bet." Then he started twisting out of his costume and Kame turned to get his things, which was more useful. At least he wouldn't make them wait.

He found Yamapi watching him. Half a room between them, people hopping around half-naked and Jin being Jin and taking up space with his undressing maneuvres. Kame felt on display anyway.

"So you're coming this time?" Yamapi asked. He was dressed already, pausing from pulling the belt through the loops on his jeans.

"Yeah. Thought I might." Kame nodded at Jin, at the invitation. Held his breath and didn't even know why.

Pi gave him a small nod, a smile that looked encouraging. He was never that hard to read, but Kame wasn't sure he was getting this right.

"Great," Pi said. "I'm glad. And I can refer him to you when he gets drunk and cuddly."


2007: January 1

He started fingering his phone in the taxi. He had glasses on and a shapeless sports jacket over jeans and his hair was a badly dried mess, and he didn't care. Maybe the driver thought he was some guy out working boring shifts for some boring reason.

He hadn't looked all that hot last spring, either, when Jin had gotten drunk and suddenly interested; he knew he'd looked starved and stressed and not at all like one of those girls Jin was always so vocally interested in. He still didn't know what Jin had even wanted. Clearly he hadn't been comfortable.

Maybe it had been about their debut. He'd thought that, that maybe it was just another thing about Shuuji and KAT-TUN, at least as much as one could think if one was a twenty-year-old virgin with Akanishi Jin trying to unbutton one's jeans.

Kame sat low in the corner, out of sight of the mirror. His head wasn't making sense anymore. But he was okay with looking boring. He hadn't looked cool when Jin became his friend either.

He thought of Yamapi being all nice and concerned and how strange that was, when they didn't even have Jin around, and he wondered if Pi missed Jin too or if they knew things would just work out all right the way they always knew stuff about each other, and then the car slowed to a halt and Kame's heart thumped once, thick and tight.

He had to let go of the phone to pay and then it took a cold and strange eternity until he was in his apartment.

He even thought of calling his mom first.

His fingers were cold and he thought of taking off his glasses, looking cooler. The lights were still off and that was probably stupid, but he did nothing about it, just sat down on the floor in front of the sofa and then he fucking dialled already.

He'd filed it all proper and normal when it had made the rounds, under Akanishi (America). The number beeped through forever.

And then it was busy.

He pressed the button quickly to end the call and then hid the phone behind his legs as if he could get caught.

He talked himself into a second attempt.

After that, it was less difficult to try a third time, and when the number was still busy on the fourth and fifth try it became almost normal to hit the redial button, and then it suddenly went through and Kame's heart beat in his throat again.

"Hello," Jin's voice, but all thick and stretched vowels, weird and distant.

"Hi," Kame said. It came out like a scratch in the air. "It's me. It's Kamenashi."

Music. There was some music in the background. And nothing and nothing and--- "Hi." And nothing. And then a crash and "shit" and then the music was gone. "Hi," Jin said. "Sorry. That was just, I had something playing. Sorry. Hi, Kazuya."

"Sorry for calling so suddenly," Kame said, though he wasn't, not yet. He pictured the pens or CD stacks or whatever chaotic thing Jin had just sent flying and it made his face feel weird, it made him smile. "I just wanted to say hi. And happy new year. I just got home. But the line was busy."

"Yeah, that was Pi," Jin said, and the image died, and now it was like always. "He would not shut up about his stupid costume and bragging about drinking with Ryo, like they're not going to roll around giggling like idiots..."

The line went quiet.

He didn't even know if Jin had any pens around, or what his room was like. And this was no good.

But he'd just called because of the New Year anyway.

"He was very good tonight," Kame said, because it wasn't fair not to say that about Pi now. "Good for him that NEWS is back."

"Are you at home?"

Three months wasn't long. He reminded himself of that. But they'd always been together, for something or other, and he wasn't prepared for how much he'd missed just hearing Jin's voice.


"Yeah, I'm at home. So are you going to a party? Later? It's early there, right?"

"Yeah, I... I haven't even been up that long," Jin confessed. "I'm meeting some friends later. People from here. There's a party. Bit smaller than the Dome, though.

Kame laughed.

"How was it?"

Kame leaned his head back. He was glad it was dark. There was a lump in his throat, and shadows falling through the windows, hiding everything in their grey on grey. "It sucked."

Jiin needed a moment. "What happened?"

Kame shrugged with muscles that felt too heavy. "Nothing dramatic. We fucked up on the first one and it was like they didn't know what to do with us."


"I didn't have much fun."

"That..." Jin, thoughtful. Kame could see him, vividly, teeth sunk into that corner of his bottom lip and his eyes dark, so dark. "That sucks."

"I like it better when you're there."

Jin took a breath; Kame didn't, because he was listening too much. "I..."

"No, don't," Kame said quickly. "I didn't mean it like that. I just... I just wanted to tell you. Pi said it would be okay if I called you."

"He what?"

"He said---"

"You don't have to ask Pi if you can call me, you moron, he's not, like, my manager. Or my mom. Or whatever. And why the fuck are you asking Pi if you can call me when I..." Jin stopped. Kame wondered what he was looking at, if he picked up one of those pens to play with because he was nervous.

"Okay," Kame said. He didn't have the heart to say that a phone worked in two directions. Probably wasn't the point anyway.

The silence said that maybe Jin knew already.

"Anyway," Jin said then, announcement style. "If anything, Pi works for me." His voice went softer. "He said you didn't seem so happy."

Kame kept silent; he couldn't deny that.

"You should stop doing that."


"Because it makes me mad."

Kame grinned with his eyes closed. "That's a good reason."

Jin laughed too; awkward and embarrassed, and Kame didn't feel so alone taking his shuddering breath. There were things he couldn't say; couldn't say again.

"I hope you have fun at your party tonight," he said instead. "Really."

"I'll do my best," Jin said, and there was a pause. "Happy new year."

"You too. Happy new year."


"Should we just talk again some time?" Kame blurted out. "You could call me. Or I can call you."

So there. So what. Jin already knew he wasn't cool at all, and maybe for once it was better to be clear, leave nobody wondering about things like why Kame would pick up a phone or why he was an idiot.

"Yeah, let's do that."

"Good." Kame swallowed. He didn't dare say anything longer.

"I miss you too," Jin said, really really quietly, like he wasn't sure he wanted Kame to hear it. And then, normally, "I missed you. And I was mad at you. And I want to tell you about my classes and stuff. I don't want to ask Pi how you're doing all the time."

Kame nodded slowly, folding himself a little tighter against the couch. They could do that. They could totally do that.


2008: January 1

It was a nightclub; of course it was. The lights were dodgy and the music loud and booming, and for a moment Kame wished he hadn't come along.

At least Jin had phoned the owner and got them a VIP suite and everything was ready for them, nothing more difficult here than sitting behind reasonably soundproof glass and picking a drink, and waiting to relax.

Kame would have chosen an edge seat but Jin shooed him on along the round red couch, and now he was between Jin and Yamapi and feeling too aware of his elbows.

He went with a cosmopolitan. Jin made the requisite retching gesture but didn't linger on it, just grinned at him.

"So what are your plans for 2008?" Nishikido asked Yamapi while Jin poured out tequilas from the bottle he'd got for the three of them.

"I will work hard," Pi deadpanned. "At my own pace. And not go to L.A." He took the shot glass and tossed it back. Then shook himself, but happily. "I needed that. I don't know how some of the senpai can go on stage drunk as farts. I have to be sober or I panic."

They all nodded.

"Would make it less boring, though," Jin said.

"That could be your New Year's resolution," Kame tried, ignoring Jin's arm pressing against his side as if there wasn't more space along the table. Jin was just comfortable. "Trying not to look too bored when you're---"

"---bored?" Jin looked amused. "But that's so hard."

"It's a New Year's resolution, you're supposed to challenge yourself," Yamapi backed Kame up.

Jin gave him a thoughtful look, and nodded.

"So what are you doing to do 'your pace', then?" Now Nishikido was ganging up on him too, and Kame regretted starting it. "Specifically, I mean?"

Jin stared at the shot glass in front of him; then he grabbed it and downed the contents just like Pi had done.

"I think I'm going to introduce my boyfriend to my best friends," he said. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "If he'll let me."

Kame flushed hot as if somebody had switched stage lights on and was shining them right on him.

But he wasn't in the spotlight. Jin was, and he was pretending to find his empty glass interesting.

"What?" Nishikido said. "You mean... you don't mean 'boyfriend', boyfriend?"

"We'd sure like to meet him," Yamapi said slowly.

Jin was smiling.

"It's a joke?" Nishikido tried.

Kame looked at Pi, to find that Pi was smiling, too. At him.

"Nope," Jin said, "we're pretty serious." He sounded kind of giddy. "Only he's a bit shy..."

Pi was tilting his head at Kame, and scrunching up his mouth in that quizzical way of his. But he said nothing, so it didn't have to mean anything Kame didn't want it to, didn't have to mean what Kame was suddenly pretty sure it meant.

He could ignore it. Leave Jin alone out there with this crazy jumping down a cliff.

"But you like girls," Nishikido was saying. "What about all the girls?"

It would be easier if it were just Pi. That was pretty funny.

"He likes me better," Kame said, and that killed the questions dead.

And Jin was looking at him at last, happy and shining like they'd just pulled off the song of their lives, and there was nothing Kame could do, nothing at all, except smile back.

It was Nishikido banging his head on the table which brought them back to the present.

Jin kicked him. "Problem?" The word only had a little hiccup.

Nishikido straightened up. "Problem, my ass. Just, what the fuck, you and him? You, the two of you?" He stopped, staring, and Kame just knew he'd hit on the thought of them doing it, was picturing it, and it could make you want to sink into the ground except Jin was there and leaning into him a little, all sprawly and easy, and that meant they didn't care.

Nishikido winced dramatically. "Ow, bad, bad idea, I need to wash my brain."

Jin giggled, then helpfully pushed his drink towards him, saying, "Wimp."

Nishikido tossed it back. "The boss is gonna have a fit," he said wisely. "Does he know? How long's this been going on anyway? Who else knows, what about your group? Have you told your tough guy rapper dude? Is Taguchi making bad puns about you? He totally should---"

There was a nudge, not a kick, against Kame's leg, and he found Pi looking at him and Nishikido's questions and Jin's giggles faded into the background.

Oh god. They'd just told someone. They really had. They'd told Jin's friends. And here was Pi.

Pi was grinning. "Shuuji-kun," he said quietly.

Sometimes Kame hated himself for how quickly he got nervous, when they'd just decided they could do this, that this was okay. "What's funny?" he asked, for lack of anything better.

"Not funny," Pi said. "Let a man feel smug and validated."

Kame blinked, feeling dumb. Pi. When sometimes Kame himself was still afraid it wasn't really real. "You knew?" Nobody was giving him a drink.

"I thought... maybe. I was wondering. Hoping, maybe." There was a nod towards Jin, who had started turning beermats into frisbee missiles; a fond smile. "He slips up sometimes. He's been slipping up for a long time."

A long time. Kame flushed again.

He'd ask Jin.

Jin was sitting on top of Nishikido on the large leather couch, and dictating terms.

"Okay, okay," Nishikido gasped, "as long as you don't come out to Yoko, because I don't want to pay up half a month's salary."

"So," Pi said, only for Kame to hear. "It's good?"

Kame nodded; felt it.

"It's good."

"I'm glad you came along," Pi said again, and then they both grinned.

There was squealing from the other end of the couch, Nishikido going for the collarbone, and Kame stopped hiding his silly face as he saved two glasses from falling off the table, easing down a bit in the thick sleazy upholstery. Settling, while Pi picked up the courtesy phone and ordered champagne.