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fin de saison (the end of summer)

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Sho finds Aiba in the map section of the bookstore looking particularly lost but trying to make it seem like he knows what he’s doing. He’s staring curiously at a map of the city and has his finger poised over his neighborhood. The only thing is, the map is turned upside-down.

This is a regular look for Aiba, but Sho still knows something’s up. He sidles over to the shelf, tiptoeing, trying not to make any noise--

“Wow,” Sho says miserably as Aiba turns around. “It is not smart to put a stack of magazines there. It is not smart. Anyone could have tripped. Anyone.”

“No, Sho-chan,” Aiba says, “I think that’s just you.”

They bend down to pick up the scattered magazines. Sho starts to tell Aiba that his map is not the right way up, but then Aiba says, “Sho-chan, you can help me for sure! I’m looking for ponds.”

Sho takes the magazine Aiba is handing him. “Ponds? Oh, for your science project?”

“Yes!” Aiba says, perking up. “I asked Jun-chan to come and help me, but he said he has to help at the summer program today. I think he’s handing out lunches and basketballs. So do you want to come?”

For a minute, Sho thinks about backing out and saying that well, he’d love to, but he has to buy an English dictionary and go home and start his essay, since the summer’s almost over. His tongue is on the verge of forming sounds, but instead (against his better judgment) he nods.

“Sure,” Sho says. “Yeah, of course I’ll help you. I just need to buy an English dictionary first.”

Aiba beams.

 

 

A couple of streets away, Nino has his head stuck in the freezer.

He’s looking for the box of chocolate ice cream bars that his sister bought yesterday. Just this morning it was wedged between two bags of frozen croquettes, but now the only thing there is a plastic-wrapped fish, which he assumes is for tonight’s dinner. Growling slightly, he closes the door and drags himself, slug-like, back into the living room.

His sister is on the couch, eating watermelon and staring raptly at the television. Nino plops down next to her and shoves his bare feet in her lap.

“You,” she says, squirming away, “are taking up too much space. I understand that you’re going through adolescence and everything, but seriously, this is not cool, Kazu.”

Nino just wiggles his toes. Then he says, “Hey, where’s the ice cream?”

His sister picks up the remote and turns the volume up. On the screen is a handsome actor, talking about his new movie and cooking omurice at the same time. “Your friends ate them,” she replies, mouth full of watermelon. “When they came over yesterday.”

Nino stares at her. “Who came over yesterday?”

“Ah,” she says, thinking. “Those girls. The ones you hate.”

“They’re not my f--,” Nino starts, then sighs. “Where was I?”

“At Ohno-san’s,” she says, flicking her eyes towards her brother for a second, then returning her attention to the screen. “It was the usual time.”

“The usual time?”

As the actor on the television prods eggs with his chopsticks and talks about his tragic new character, Nino’s sister replies, mouth full of melon, “Noon.”

“Ah,” Nino says. “That usual time.”

“What, is there ano--,” begins his sister before she shakes her head. After seventeen years, she should know better than to ask her brother anything. “--Never mind.”

“Oh, you’re not usually awake during the other time, don’t let it worry you,” Nino smirks. “And there’s a reason for that.”

Two minutes later, Nino’s sister has him pinned to the couch.

“Make me forget that,” she hisses through clenched teeth. “Make me forget you just said that.”

“Hey,” Nino says, though his voice is muffled, “Hey, seriously, what have you been eating in college!?”

That too,” she says, twisting her brother’s arm even further. “Go make me some omurice. And cut me some more watermelon. I need to cleanse my mind.”

“Okay, sure, but are you sure you want to be eating any more than you already are?”

After his sister’s next remark--something catty about the way she’ll use a kitchen knife if her little brother ever mentions anything about his should-be-nonexistent sex life ever again--Nino heads, satisfied, towards the kitchen, hair completely mussed and with the pattern of the couch on his left cheek.

 

 

As he and Aiba head towards the park, Sho gets a call from Jun--or someone, at least, who is using Jun’s phone.

“Jun?” Sho says, stopping Aiba at a crosswalk (he can’t see much over the stack of maps in his arms). “Jun, is that you?”

“Maybe,” the could-be Jun says, voice completely shot. “I don’t know anymore. I don’t look like the Jun that once was, that’s for sure.”


“Ah! Is that Jun-chan?” Aiba exclaims, tilting to the left a little before Sho pulls him gently back to the right. “Tell him I said hello!”

“Heard it,” Jun says tiredly before Sho can relay the message. “Hi, Masaki. Listen, are you guys--ow--are you out right now?”

The little traffic man turns to a running green and Sho takes a hold of Aiba’s elbow. “Uh-huh,” he says, steering them both carefully across the road. “I found Aiba at the bookstore and we’re going to do some research for his science project.”

Jun coughs harshly for a few seconds and Sho starts a list in his head of cough medicines and honey-and-lemon drinks he could buy at the next convenience store they pass.

“But we can delay that and pick you up instead,” Sho offers, and Jun exhales loudly.

“Would you?” he says hoarsely. “If it’s not too much trouble?”

Aiba, again, is practically sparkling. “Are we picking up Jun-chan from school?” he says, poking his head out from behind the maps and smiling widely. “Does he need a shoulder or two to cry on?”

“I’m thinking it’s not too much trouble,” Sho says into the phone, hand still on Aiba’s arm as they take a detour over to the elementary school.

“I didn’t think it would be,” Jun says.

 

 

After making a heaping pile of omurice and slicing the rest of the watermelon, Nino rings Ohno’s doorbell at exactly one o’clock.

“My sister thinks we’re having sex,” is the first thing he says when Ohno appears at the door, sleepy-eyed and summer-tanned.

“You’re three hours late,” Ohno mumbles, running a hand through his hair. “My sister said so.”

“Hm,” Nino says, smiling a little. “Does your sister talk to mine, by any chance?”

Nino bends a little to unlace his shoes and notices Ohno’s eyes following his every movement, from the quickness of his fingers on his laces to his straightening out and standing up again.

“Sometimes, I think so,” Ohno replies, still absently staring.

Nino steps out of the foyer and into the house, and he can’t help but laugh a little when he hears Ohno’s answer. “I see,” he says, and leads the way.

The single window in Ohno’s room is open, bringing in sunlight that envelops the futon in the corner and the mess of paints and tools on the long table in the middle of the room. Across the futon are stacks of canvases--some used, some completely new and some whose edges are splattered with paint from other projects.

“You painted today, didn’t you,” Nino observes, crouching down to look at some new things he didn’t see there the day before.

“I thought I’d work on a few things,” Ohno answers. He’s quick to adapt to routines, and is already tugging at the hem of his shirt.

“Eager much?” Nino says brightly. “You’re right in front of the window, you know.”

“Nobody’s watching,” Ohno replies, “except you.”

Once his shirt is off he throws it on his futon and stands, arms outstretched, in front of Nino.

“Go,” he says, throwing his head back slightly.

“Not if you stand like that,” Nino says, but he counts anyway. He tallies the number of rainbow-colored paint blotches on Ohno’s arms, torso and face; marks it all in a hundred-yen notebook labeled Nino’s Science Project :) (written in hot pink marker, courtesy of little elves named Aiba and Jun).

While Nino counts he tries to watch Ohno’s face at the same time. His face is blank like those empty canvases in the corner of the room, just like it usually is. And while Nino could try and think of what’s actually lurking behind those puffy cheeks and sleepy eyes, he chooses instead to fill them in with his own wishes. He thinks Ohno is looking at the shadows that Nino’s hands cast on his skin, long splashes of black-brown streaked with pale yellow. He thinks Ohno is wondering what kind of constellation the spread-out pointillism on his skin could create, if they resemble Cygnus or Andromeda in any way, if their patterns match the empty seas of the moon and the forever-smears of galaxy-stars.

Nino watches Ohno’s belly flex and finds his fingertips twitching in response, as if they are in tune to some strange electric power hidden in Ohno’s skin. His hands hover over rainbow-colored spots, not quite touching them, just barely brushing tiny hairs--

“How many did you find?” Ohno asks suddenly.

“Twenty-six,” Nino says quickly, recovering from his little dream. “Not a big number.”

“‘Sokay,” Ohno says, shrugging. “At least we’ve got some.”

Nino stays quiet. He presses his index finger against one uneven circle--bright red, oil paint, probably from this morning. He keeps it there for a few seconds, and watches the skin color around the spot change from white to pink to tan all in one second.

“You can shower now,” he says suddenly, looking down at his notes. “We’re done for today.”

“Done?” Ohno says, blinking.

“Yes,” Nino replies, looking up and grinning. “Done not having sex.”

 

 

“Sempai?”

Jun stops mid-dart out of the gymnasium and curses inwardly at the person that is behind him, calling his name, causing him to delay his leave out of this godforsaken elementary school day camp. He turns around as slowly as possible, hoping that by the time he’s done, the person will be gone.

But instead the girl, a fellow student volunteer (though Jun would rather call himself a prisoner than a volunteer--but that would be unsightly of him, and also very rude, and Jun has an appearance to keep up) trots happily up to Jun and bows shyly. Her name, if Jun remembers correctly, is Kimura Maya, a second year and one of the best students at their school. She wears her hair in a different style every day; today it is in braids, one on each side of her head tied tightly with bright red ribbon.

“Are you leaving, sempai?” she says, smiling hopefully. “So soon?”

There is nothing wrong with Maya, Jun thinks, only that she picked possibly the worst time ever to try and get his attention. All Jun wants to do is curl up on his bed with a barrage of honey-and-lemon drinks. It’s just been that kind of day.

“I am, actually,” Jun replies, fixing his face into what he hopes is a regretful expression (though every time he does it around his friends Aiba always asks him if he has gas). “I have plans.” Urgent ones, Jun thinks, like sleeping.

“Oh! Are you, by any chance, taking the shopping road route?” Maya says, folding her hands behind her back and rocking on her heels. Even her pigtails look like sad puppies, and Jun kind of wants to pat her on the head, but he restrains himself.

“I’m waiting for someone,” Jun says, evading Maya’s question entirely. “They’re going to walk me home.”

Instantly Maya’s pigtails burst into tears (or at least they do in Jun’s head) and her eyes fall to the floor. She picks herself up though, very cleanly, and Jun can’t help wonder if she learned that technique in one of those magazines that Sho’s sister is always leaving round when he visits.

“Well,” she says brightly, “if you’re expecting company, I won’t intrude, then.” Suddenly she seems to panic. “Um, not that I was thinking of intruding…or was going to be an intruder, unless you thought of me like that, in which case I…”

Jun is so lost, and tries to interrupt her, but she begins to wave her hands around and Jun has to step back. When he does, he bumps into a paper bag.

Coordination,” Sho says slowly, putting a reassuring hand on Jun’s shoulder, “is vital to daily life.”

“Sho-kun,” Jun exhales. Save me.

Next to Sho, Aiba laughs. “Jun-chan,” he says, “your girlfriend is still talking to herself.”

Jun looks back at Maya, who is blushing feverishly and still has her hands in the air. If he didn’t feel like complete garbage he would go over to her and calm her down and say something dazzling that girls like, but he doesn’t have any energy right now.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” is all he says. “She’s just Kimura-san.”

“And she’s looking at us,” Aiba says (as Sho scoffs “Just!“ in the background), pointing his chin in her direction. Maya is standing there, still red but now more fish-like, with her mouth wide open.

Sighing, Jun motions Maya over to where he’s standing. She comes over in a restless rush, pigtails flying.

“Kimura-san,” Jun says--coughs--, “I’m going home with these two, so no need to worry.”

The blush returns to Maya’s face immediately. “I wasn’t worried,” she mumbles, but won’t look at Jun. “I just wanted to make sure you were…safe.”

Aiba laughs. “Oh, don’t worry, Kimura-san! We take care of him on a daily basis.”

Maya looks confused, and Jun doesn’t blame her. He bows out of the situation quickly--”Well, Kimura-san, I’ll see you on Monday, good-bye”--and drags his curious friends by the elbows out of the gymnasium into the furious summer heat.

 

 

Just as Nino is leaving Ohno’s house, he gets a text, and as he flips open his phone to see who it’s from he gets another one.

Next to him--Ohno always accompanies him to the door when he leaves, and sometimes he ends up leaving with him--Nino hears a slight buzzing sound, and watches Ohno’s leg twitch.

“You actually have your phone with you?“ Nino says, awed. “I’m pretty sure this is only the second time in the past, I don’t know, three years.”

Ohno starts to say something before his phone starts buzzing again. He tsks under his breath and fumbles slightly with the phone before flipping it open and pressing the speaker button.

“Hello?” he mumbles, and Nino snatches the phone from him.

“What do you want?” he says loudly. “Huh?”

“Hi!” Aiba says, voice muffled and scratchy. “Can you meet us? We’re outside the house!”

Ohno makes a sound that is almost laughter, but more of a cough. “Whose?”

“Yours,” Sho cuts in. There are more scratchy sounds, and then a scratchy sound that is forming words.

“Please hurry,” Jun tries to say. “I want to go home.”

Nino opens the door and sees the trio on the street. Jun, who looks like hell, is in the middle with Aiba’s arm around his shoulders, and Sho is on Jun’s other side, holding a stack of maps and still talking into the phone.

Aiba waves with his free hand. “Hello!” he yells, probably louder than necessary. “Come join us! We’re bringing Jun-chan home because he’s sick.”

“Actually, I’d rather walk home by myself now,” Jun says hoarsely.

Ohno laughs. “Poor Jun-chan,” he says, and walks a couple of steps out of his house before he turns completely to grab Nino’s fingers and pull him along the rest of the way.

 

 

The five of them cut through parks--four, which is two more than they should go through, even with the shortcut, to get from Ohno’s house to Jun’s. But Aiba wants to examine potential ponds for his snail-finding project, and says that he must expedition any chance he can.

So far they have passed only one pond, full of rotting junk and so small the five of them could lie across it and surpass its length entirely. It is, Aiba tells the rest of them, a good place for snails to congregate, because of the decay.

Jun slumps even farther downwards. “I am decaying,” he growls. “And I don’t like snails. Can we go?”

“Oh, but that’s not all,” Aiba says after they have walked away, “there’s tons of ponds by the elementary school, near the playgrounds. But I figured that the kids would want those snails for themselves, so I won’t go near them. I should look for more, though.” He perks up, suddenly, and turns to Nino. “Hey, how about--?”

“I told you, don’t come anywhere near my house,” Nino threatens. “I will shoot you with my sister’s fake nail dispenser.”

Aiba pouts. “But we don’t have that much time left before school starts again,” he says, and Sho can hear the whine in his voice, finally. “Come on, Nino…”

“That’s not my problem. You should have started at the beginning of summer vacation.”

Aiba pouts even more, which only intensifies the brightness around him. (Sho has often considered studying this paradox, before realizing that Aiba is a specimen best left to instinct, not reason.) “But I had to wait until prime snail season!” he objects. “Halfway into the summer! When things rot!”

Halfway? Halfway already, Sho thinks, and his heart sinks a little. On his fingers he counts the days left they have for summer vacation--one finger for three, so three, six, nine, twelve…he counts until he reaches twenty-one. Strange, how half of the summer has already passed, and yet he has written none of his essay. In fact he just bought an English dictionary today. Procrastination is unlike him, and he knows that there are other things on his mind, like friends and--friends (he will not blush over thoughts of Aiba, he will not)--but English is not his best subject. He only knows, after all, how to say ‘perfect body,’ thanks to a semi-drunken sleepover with Aiba and Nino that resulted in his first hangover.

And really, when he thinks about it, the only person who has done any kind of real summer homework is Jun, who faithfully shows up at his summer job every morning and probably shines with perfect neighborhood boy sparkle as he helps children with basketball and lunchboxes.

No, not probably--Sho knows it all: Jun gets A’s every day with practiced ease and a pretty smile, and all the girls give him bonus points from the bottoms of their hearts.

Even Nino does something, though Sho hesitates to call it a real summer project. True, a graph with properly labeled axes will get them all full credit, but Sho knows Nino, has known him since they smacked each other with volleyballs in middle school, and he understands what Nino wants. It’s not an A--he gets those easily, when he tries. It’s something else, from a different person entirely.

Sho watches Ohno watch Nino and wonders what Ohno has accomplished over the summer, what exactly his artist hands have painted. The assignment is simple enough--conduct a series of daily paintings or drawings about your summer vacation. That is easy enough for Ohno as it is for Nino to get an A, but again, there might be something more to it that even Ohno might not be aware of.

He watches Ohno’s gaze, all steady eyes and ready, tiny smiles; he watches the two of them talk, though truly it is Nino who uses his voice (the two of them converse like they live in a world where words are bland and unnecessary). But Sho thinks that Ohno speaks with his hands sometimes, and from the things his fingers touch and the way they move, it might just be a little more than obvious what exactly he wants from this summer--even if he doesn’t know it yet himself.

 

 

Somehow, in strange zigzag fashion, they make it to Jun’s house. It is a tiny place, but comfortable and spacious, thanks to that odd Matsumoto need for space and cleanliness. All of the family pictures are hung down a single hallway in thick, black frames, and the couches and the television in the main room are pushed against walls to create a huge, rug-covered abyss--good, Aiba has always said, for his very long legs.

“Lie down,” Sho whispers to Jun after he opens the door and almost collapses in the foyer. “Lie down and I’ll make you some tea.”

Jun nods, eyes closed, and walks in the direction of his room. Ohno follows him, and Nino and Aiba move behind Sho into the kitchen.

They watch Sho rummage around in cabinets looking for tea and lemons and anything remotely herb-like. (Aiba offers to help and quickly upsets one of Jun’s mother’s teapots, and so is banished from the kitchen for the eighteenth time in the past month).

After the tea is found and Aiba has left--to join the other two, Nino supposes, or lie down in that huge space that fits him so well--Sho turns to Nino and crosses his arms. He has that look on his face, the one that demands explanation, and usually Nino knows what he is talking about and confesses vaguely. But today he is not so sure.

“Yes, I ate it,” he tries. “The last pork bun, the other night. When you had your back turned.”

Sho sighs, eyebrows furrowing in the middle. Nino hopes it’s because he really is agitated that he didn’t get to eat the very last pork bun, but of course it doesn’t turn out that way.

“I’m never sharing food with you again,” Sho says flatly, and just as Nino is exhaling with relief Sho speaks up again.

“But no. This is about Ohno.”

Something quickly fizzles in Nino’s stomach, and he looks downwards. He was not expecting this, and really does not know where this conversation is going. For a few seconds he watches Sho put the kettle gently on the stove and then he puts his hands on his face, completely obscuring his eyes from the rest of the world.

“He’s started taking his shirt off before I ask him to,” he says, voice muffled underneath his palms. “He pulled me out of his house today because I wasn’t following him close enough. And our sisters think we’re having sex.”

“Ah, that familiar road to love,” Sho says, sighing dramatically. “First he gives you part of what you want, and then you become his bitch because you’re left wanting the rest of it. Before you know it, people are gossiping about what a slut you are…”

Nino picks up a lemon and chucks it, hard, in Sho’s direction. It hits a pan on the wall behind him instead.

After Sho has picked up the lemon and tossed it back to Nino with instructions to cut it into wedges, he returns to tea-making and arranging things on a tray--mug here, lemon-wedge plate there, sugar cubes (three) right next to that. It’s kind of cute, Nino thinks, how Sho cares so much, but at the same time it annoys him. Because Sho, at the first sign of a fever, will always pick the sick one up, throw him into bed and make him ginger-and-honey concoctions, but Ohno can stand in front of a medicine cabinet for days and not know which ointment does what.

“I know this isn’t any of my business,” Sho says, a little quieter, as he shakes tea leaves into a filter. “But you worry me.”

(Nino swallows. He has heard this phrase many times before and has stopped trying to pretend--on the inside, at least--that he doesn’t want Sho’s advice. Still, he tries to look like he doesn’t need this, that he can figure it all out on his own, and listens closely.)

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious why you made up this ridiculous project.” He pauses to stir the mixture inside of the mug. “But then again, you’ve been kind of obvious about this whole thing since we started high school.”

Much to Nino’s dismay he can feel his cheeks reddening, from baby-girl pink to tomato all in one second and he turns away, even though Sho is halfway across the kitchen and would have to turn completely to see him. He just likes to take all the precautions he can.

“Look, Sakurai,” he mumbles, “your high grade point average and bleeding heart tendencies do not require you to poke your big head into business that clearly does not want, or need, your big head in it.”

“Nino,” Sho says, and it is obvious he is trying not to laugh. “It’s not my fault, really. If I had the choice, I’d stay out of it. But I’m sorry to tell you that my so-called big head has been colliding with your humongous sign that says, ‘Ohno Satoshi, take me now!’”

Nino picks up the other half of the lemon, squeezes it as hard as he can, and this time drops it down the back of Sho’s shirt. While Sho dances around the kitchen whispering obscenities as loudly as he can, Nino arranges the nicely cut lemon wedges on the tiny plate, very satisfied.

“Okay, but seriously,” Sho says, breathing heavily (Nino, delighted, watched him fight with the lemon pulp on his back for at least ten minutes). “There are twenty-one days left in the summer. What does that mean to you?”

“I don’t know,” Nino says, and he is being as honest as he can. “I don’t.”

Sho’s gaze has always been something like a welcoming blessing or an arrow in the gut. Right now, it is the latter, and Nino can read the disappointment in Sho’s eyes better than he can read the blankness in Ohno’s (and better than he can decipher the reason behind his always comparing everything to that stupid boy).

“Fine,” Sho says, picking up the tray and nudging open the kitchen door with his foot. “You figure it out. Just remember--.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nino says, joining Sho at the door and elbowing him out with all the sharpness in his bones. “Always use protection, never let a stranger get me a drink, and--okay, Sho-chan!--twenty-one days left. I get it, I get it.”

But really it means nothing. Time, Nino knows, isn’t going to change anything.

 

 

Ohno has sat in silence many, many times before. He sometimes imagines that almost half of his life was spent this way--Ohno Satoshi, who has more friends and a better family than he could have ever imagined in the womb (because Ohno imagined, even as a fetus. He just knows it)--sitting, surrounded by a multitude of people, and not talking. Just hearing.

Everyone around him talks; they talk like they have nothing to say, but everything to say about that nothing. And this is all perfectly okay, Ohno thinks--people were made to speak, to express, he has always believed that--and he likes hearing their voices mesh together to form a tangled web of noise. From that, he picks out what he wants to hear, and responds to it. Contrary to what others might think, Ohno finds it easy.

So when Jun--poor, sick Jun, to have the flu in the middle of the summer!--opens the door to his room and flops down on his bed, Ohno is perfectly happy to sit on the floor and not say anything. It just seems right, after all, to be silent when someone is suffering.

That is, until Jun starts talking.

“I kind of wish I’d gotten another assignment this summer,” he says.

Ohno winces at the sound of Jun’s voice: it has warped into some growling, germ-powered monster.

“Why?” he asks. He absentmindedly tugs at Jun’s blanket, which hangs off the bed and in Ohno’s face. “You don’t like the kids?”

Jun tries to laugh, but just makes another inhuman sound. He takes a minute to clear his throat but even when he speaks afterward it doesn’t sound like anything has been cleared away.

“I guess they’re okay, in small amounts,” he says. “But I get them in huge, huge mobs. And all they want is like, a basketball. But if there are only ten basketballs, I mean, you have to make them pair up, but they don’t want to, because they’re six years old and have cooties.”

Ohno laughs. He can imagine it perfectly, the images alive, fresh, in his mind--gaggles of children surrounding Jun at his ankles, whining for sports equipment and hugs and band-aids to the knees. “They like you though,” he says. “They should.”

“Thanks,” Jun says hoarsely. “They do, I think. They’re just really annoying about it.”

The two of them are quiet for the next few minutes. Ohno begins to braid the fringe at the edge of Jun’s blanket, and soon all his concentration is focused on three strands of wool and weaving them together. It is quiet in the room, with the rest of the world muted, but Ohno can still hear--though it all sounds very far away right now--Jun’s breathing, ragged and uneven, and somewhere beyond, Aiba laughing.

“Sho-chan will come with tea,” Ohno says, letting his worry come through now, because Jun does not sound good at all. “Tea and lemons, with herbs. Things like that.” He pauses, and looks up to the bed where Jun is lying. “Are you okay, Jun-chan?”

“Yes,” Jun says. “Well, no. But it’s better than walking in the heat. I kind of want that tea now, though.”

Ohno undoes the strands he has braided and throws the forgotten corner of the blanket back on top of the bed. “The kids made you sick, huh,” he muses. “They’re sticky.”

“They are,” Jun agrees, propping himself up on a pillow. “They always have runny noses and won’t stop touching me. And they always complain when I’m not the one helping them, so I’m always around them.”

“Ah,” Ohno says, smiling. “That sounds like Nino.”

Jun laughs, and this time it almost sounds real; Ohno knows it hurts his throat but he’s glad that he got Jun to actually laugh about something. “Nino doesn’t always have a runny nose,” he says. “But I guess I can kind of see the other things. Especially with you.”

He pauses to grin slowly, in that certain Jun way, the one that says oh yes, believe me, because I know it all.

Ohno just nods his agreement and then quiets, looking away from Jun to the floor, to his hands (which never fail to distract him). He doesn’t want to talk about Nino--not because Jun would disapprove, because Jun is always talking to Ohno about everything and Ohno knows that he can do the same without worrying about whether or not he should--just that he doesn’t like to talk about Nino to anyone.

He feels, especially lately, that there is something in Nino that Ohno should not talk about, should only notice and try to understand. It began in the first weeks of the summer, when Nino would come over and say, “Strip,” and Ohno would and Nino would count.

(“Can’t you be any messier?” he said, on the fifth day. If it were anyone else, or if Ohno was another person, it would have been a complaint. “I thought painters were supposed to be messy people.”

“It’s all on my clothes,” Ohno had responded. “I don’t paint naked!”)

But as the weeks passed it seemed to Ohno that there was something else, something bigger, that came in with Nino and took over his mind completely when he sat down to go on with his experiment. This thing, whatever it is (Ohno can’t see it, but he can feel it on Nino’s fingertips when he touches his skin, can feel it like an intense throbbing), makes Nino frown when he’s in the room alone with Ohno. It makes his nose wrinkle and it makes him squirm, and while Ohno likes all of these things on Nino, he doesn’t know why they’re there.

So he has resolved to find out why.

He’s not sure how, yet--because how does one deal with a boy like Nino, who has more crazy quirks than Ohno can count on his fingers and toes?--but he figures that the only strategy he can use that will really work on Nino is one that involves bodily contact, because if the last three years of his life have taught Ohno anything, it’s that Ninomiya Kazunari is a boy who would rather find his comfort zone in someone else’s arms than in a conversation.

And this is just fine for Ohno, who touches without noticing most of the time--his fingers wander like the blind without guidance--but with Nino he’s going to have to start paying attention. He never used to, but he can’t afford to do that anymore. Not now, anyway, when there is something in Nino that he needs to pick out, carefully and gently, lest it break apart before he gets to know what it is.

He might even have evidence already and just not know. Sometimes Ohno hates that he figures things out after everyone else does, but right after decides that anything is better late than never.

But maybe not with Nino. He’ll have to figure that out for himself, but he doesn’t mind. Nino already shows up in his dreams--the ones he has when he’s asleep or awake. (Maybe he’s there more than he should be, but Ohno doesn’t tell anyone this).

“Are you okay, Satoshi?” Jun tugs at a spot of Ohno’s hair.

“Yes,” Ohno says. He knows exactly what Jun means. “It will be okay.”

 

 

Aiba goes hunting for snails at midnight.

He sets the alarm clock on his cell phone and then hides it under his pillow so that his brother won’t hear it go off (because if he does, he will surely tell, and there will be hell to pay from his mother for months and months). Everything else he does normally: he sets the table like he always has and eats dinner much too fast (his father congratulates him on such a healthy appetite and his mother always says that one day he will choke on her good food, so appreciate it while he still can) and watches television before his mother comes and tells him to go to sleep, it is almost midnight.

“Oh!” Aiba says, startled. He rushes to turn the television off. “Already?”

“Time flies when you’re doing nothing,” Aiba’s mother tells him as she watches him walk to his room. “Believe me, I know.”

When his phone goes off he slips out of bed as quietly as he can and tiptoes to the door, grabbing a sweatshirt along the way. The darkness of the hallway shocks him and only now does he realize that his whole house is overfilling with murky shadow. Only the tiny beams of appliances light his way to the front door.

Aiba freezes, clutching his sweatshirt to his chest. He is afraid, suddenly, that he will bump into one tiny thing and it will cause some chain reaction so that the entire house, at the end, will be in shambles. Surely he is clumsy enough to do something like that; he is Aiba Masaki, after all.

He takes a step forward. One, two, three--four more--not too much pressure on the floor, now--

Miraculously, he makes it to and out his front door without even making the floors whine. As soon as the door shuts behind him, he takes off running down the street, throwing his head back and laughing to himself along the way until he reaches the corner.

There, true to his promise, Sho is waiting for him.

“Sho!” Aiba says, louder than he should, perhaps, but he knows that all the houses here are just as dark and sleepy as his was. “I didn’t--you’re here!”

Sho looks at him and Aiba can see that he would rather be at home in bed, but he is here anyway and that fills Aiba’s chest with some kind of inexplicable joy. He runs over to Sho and throws his arms around him, giggling, because it is all he can do to express himself right now.

“Masaki,” Sho whispers. “We are in public.”

Aiba laughs. “It’s midnight, Sho-chan! We’re not even in the city. Nobody’s awake here past ten o’clock and you know it.” He takes Sho’s hand in his and pulls hard, because he cannot, cannot wait to go. “Come on! It’s snail time.”

There is a pond that Sho says his sister played at when she was little that is practically overflowing with slimy things, so why not go there? Aiba agrees, and lets Sho lead the way.

What would be nice, Aiba thinks as they walk on in silence, would be to find some snails tonight. Two ideally, and that seems easy, but three would be nice and four, that would be more than enough, that’s exactly what he wants--

(--and maybe he also wants a night with Sho--past midnight, when it is not only the shadows that are out, but the scent of cool summer and the endless number of stars--maybe that is what he actually wants. His chest is still filled with happiness, with Sho!s, with things he has only thought about at night, smiling--)

“There it is,” Sho says, pointing with his free hand. “See, it’s not even near a playground or a school. So you don’t have to worry about depriving the kids, or whatever you said.”

“Of course--why would I take away their fun? Ooh, Sho-chan, this looks kinda…” Aiba runs to the edge of the water and can already feel the mud seeping into his sneakers. All around him there is a raw, earthy smell, and all kinds of plant life at his feet, both living and dead. There is even a rotting log.

Snail territory, Aiba thinks. Perfect! He turns around and gives a thumbs-up to Sho, who waves back.

With his pocket flashlight (because Aiba Masaki never leaves the house without a pocket flashlight, for emergencies such as this one), Aiba collects two snails, both almost the size of his thumb-tip. They are the easiest to find--hanging out on the dead log, oozing along lazily--but the rest he has to dig for, which is no problem at all.

He has the fingers of his right hand submerged in inky water when Sho squats down next to him, knee-to-knee.

“Please help,” Aiba whispers. “They’re not easy to find when they’re underwater.”

Sho takes the flashlight from Aiba and moves the beam onto the water. “Better?”

It is more help than Aiba expected, and he happily pulls out tiny shells from the wet soil around the pond. He ends up with four out of ten shells that have things living inside of them, but this is, of course, a wonderful turnout. And Sho has even brought a jar for the snails, which just proves--well, Aiba doesn’t know what it proves. But he is grateful anyway.

“Step one is complete,” Aiba says, only a little sleepily as they walk back to his house. “Now I just have to race these guys, in different temperatures…make some graphs…you know, Sho-chan.”

He hears Sho chuckle, but the sound is far away (far, far away, like the lands in fairy tales, Aiba thinks, the ones that float on clouds). Amidst all the steadily growing fuzziness in his head he thinks oh this is so nice, I like being this way and he can feel his heart jumping sporadically in his hand, which Sho is holding tightly. He wishes his house were farther--in the next town, maybe, or another country--just so they could go on like this.

Sho says, “I know you’re asleep in your head, but wake up, because we’re here.”

Aiba says, too high on hand-holding and and finding six snails and years, so many of them, all full of seemingly endless chasing, “I’m not leaving until you kiss me.”

(His front door does not open until much, much later.)

Under his covers at three in the morning, finally, Aiba finds that no matter what he does he cannot be as comfortable as he was while walking home just an hour before. He fluffs his pillow and hugs one and sheds a blanket and gets another, but his hands are always too cold. So are his feet.

He lies awake for the next few hours, his tingling lips pressed together and his mind thinking I have six snails and a boyfriend who kisses me on the street in our neighborhood.

Eventually, he falls asleep.

 

 

Nino gets two texts that night (because in his world, if the sky is dark, then it is nighttime. None of that ‘early morning’ crap). The first is from Aiba at four-ish, detailing how he now has six snails for his project and also that Sho finally put the moves on him (but only because I am a devilish minx and asked him to is the last line, with a thumbs-up emoticon next to it).

The second is from Ohno.

He doesn’t open it. He sits on his bed, staring at Aiba’s text, looking at it but not really reading it--there is something holding him back from replying. What do you say to that, anyway? “Congratulations, my friend, on three years of successful seduction?” Except Aiba really hadn’t done anything. He’d just waited around, always hovering on the edge, leaning in for the ready, until Sho started to reply.

(And Nino remembers when he found out that Sho liked Aiba, they were fourteen and Sho had come over one day and said, “Nino, you’re going to want to throw up, but I have to tell you this.” And then Nino had to go upstairs and lie down, but he didn’t throw up, and they didn’t talk about it for a long time--months, maybe. Something close to a year. It had just taken that long for it to sink in.

With Aiba it was easier. They were fifteen, playing stupid what if games on the train ride home, Sho absent, still at cram school, and Nino had tested it--he asked, “Okay, if you were a girl and had to date one of us, who would it be?”

Aiba said Sho.

Not, “Oh, if I had to pick, Sho-chan,” or, “Nino, you are gross, but if I was a girl then Sho-chan would be good.”

Just Sho.

Then he clapped his hand over his mouth, turned the fiercest color of red Nino had ever seen, and started cursing himself under his breath. Sometimes, Nino thought then, it paid to have really obvious friends.)

How nice, Nino wonders now, does it feel for those two, to get what they have wanted out of each other without even really having to do anything? But when he thinks about them, about the kind of people they are, it makes sense. It is easy for Aiba to fall hard--Nino has seen the process, and he knew the girls before he knew Sho--and it is so very him to start wearing his gigantic, furiously beating heart on his sleeve. And Sho is just the calculating type, the one who waits quietly in the wings until he notices something (or in Aiba’s case, everything, and all at once). Then he reveals himself, layer by layer, little embarrassed smile by little embarrassed smile, and things just simply fall into place.

Must be real nice, he thinks, and he knows he is sulking and that just irritates him more. Must be real damn nice.

That would never happen with Ohno and him and Nino knows this, he knows it well and it’s almost laughable to even think to compare their situations. Which one of them would wait in the wings? Ohno would still be in the audience, sitting serenely, watching but not really paying attention. And Nino would never put any part of his heart where others could see it; if he does, it’s unintentionally, and anyway it’s not like Ohno would ever notice.

It crosses his mind sometimes that maybe he should be a little more obvious, that maybe he should quit with the smoke signals and try direct communication instead. But these are only passing thoughts, because Nino could never do that. He can show up at Ohno’s house at noon or four in the morning any time he wants to, and he can tell Ohno to take his shirt off and they can lie down together on the same bed and do homework but he can’t say anything outright.

He can’t say, “Satoshi, you’re going to throw up, but I have to tell you this,” and he would never ever say Satoshi to anyone who asks, “Hey Nino, if you were a girl, who would you date?”

Nino just doesn’t work that way. Maybe he should, because he is seventeen and head over heels for someone, and things so very rarely last forever--but he just can’t. Ohno has done a lot to him: he makes Nino dizzy, makes him sick sometimes, makes him feel like he could laugh for half the year straight and smile stupidly for the rest of it. But he can’t make Nino talk about how he feels.

Around dawn, he falls asleep just as the sky-colors begin to break through the blinds, barely brightening the things in his room and his exposed legs on the bedspread. He is too tired to think anymore, too tired to examine things that feel like they will never happen, too tired of holding back. Most of all, he is too tired of the way his heart is so conflicted: he is exhausted of it all, but at the same time he has never felt safer with anyone in his life.

He knows that someday he will have to pick a side. For now, he just shuts his eyes.

 

 

Ohno doesn’t text much. It’s kind of a household rule; his mother always taught him that face-to-face communication is what matters in life, and if he chooses to rely on simple letters and emoticons then he will die unhappy, without the true knowledge of human contact.

But sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes, like tonight.

He spends a couple of hours first fiddling with the colored pencils on the floor, trying to put them in some kind of order instead of actually drawing with them--there’s something missing and he can’t put a finger on what, but it’s keeping him from sketching tonight. Then he moves onto his oil paints, squeezed tightly, finger marks so clear on the tubes, and arranges them by size, color, and amount of paint left.

It’s not really being organized, and he knows this. It’s just giving him something to do while he tries to not think about texting Nino. He has only ever sent Nino a message maybe three times in the course of their friendship; two of those were accidents and one of them said something along the lines of do you hear it there’s a storm. And that night, if Ohno recalls correctly (though he does, he knows he does), Nino came over and they counted the seconds in between the thunder together.

After the oil paints he tells himself that there is no way he can go to sleep without doing this. He climbs into bed, pulls the covers up around him tightly, and then kicks them away seconds later.

He counts sheep. Behind his closed eyelids fat, fluffy animals jump over fences, but after the fifteenth one (and he isn’t even sleepy yet) the animals start growing fatter and fatter and soon can’t even get over the fence. At least ten sheep pile up in a big, puffy, baa-ing ball at the foot of Ohno’s imaginary fence--well, he thinks, that didn’t work out. He opens his eyes and sits up.

His eyes fall on his cell phone, sitting on his windowsill, not charging even though it should be. His battery will die in a couple of hours if he doesn’t plug it in, but when Ohno grabs it he doesn’t attach it to the power cord.

Instead his fingers flip it open. He squints at his background photo for a second--it’s a super close-up of Aiba’s face, taken by none other than the one in the picture--and then hits the button for a new text message.

N-i-n-o, his fingers type into the SEND TO field.

He leaves the subject blank. In all the years he’s owned a cell phone, Ohno doesn’t think he’s ever filled out a subject field.

And then, six simple words in the body of the message:

The lock to my window’s broken.

It really is, and he hasn’t told anyone about it except his mother (who hummed a little and told her son to deal with it) and now Nino. Out of everyone, Nino will be able to gather what the text means, even if Ohno isn’t sure himself of what exactly he wants Nino to do with his bedroom window broken--he doesn’t expect him to show up with toolbox in hand. But he does expect Nino to show up just as he is, probably wearing a threadbare t-shirt and sweatpants too big for him, tired as anything and willing to climb into a bed, any bed, Ohno’s bed.

 

 

There are five snails oozing on the table when Sho walks into Aiba’s room.

“Don’t tell me,” Sho says as soon as he sees Aiba’s face, which is brimming over with joy. Not only has Christmas come early, but it came in the form of five mollusks. “You named all of them.”

“But I saved one for you!”

“Because I’ve always wanted a snail,” Sho says, but he leans in to examine the slimy thing on the table that he’s apparently supposed to claim. “What, this one? The littlest one?”

Aiba nods. “I thought you’d like him.”

“What’d you name yours?”

“This one’s Matsutake,” Aiba says, and points to a snail that is undistinguishable from the other four, but Sho isn’t about to ask how in the world Aiba can tell which one is which. “And this one’s Shiitake, and this one’s Matsuzaka, and the biggest one’s Gyudon.”

“Oh,” Sho says after a beat. “You weren’t hungry or anything when you named them, were you?”

Aiba thinks about it, and Sho watches his mouth thin and curve into a wondering line.

“Maybe,” he finally says. “It was around lunchtime.”

“Are you hungry now?”

“Not really,” Aiba says, but stretches his arms out and grins. Sho feels like Aiba takes up almost half the room when he does that. “But later, let’s have yakiniku!”

“Sure,” Sho says, because he likes yakiniku and he likes Aiba and maybe sometimes it is that simple, to just go for something because the things you like are involved in it--at least, that’s what he’s learning from Aiba. “Want to invite anyone else?”

It had been a week since the night of the snails, but the two of them were getting used to hanging around each other all day and all night and it had just gotten easy to ignore the other three. Sometimes--but only sometimes--Sho felt badly about it, and would reach for his phone and find one of their numbers. His fingers would hover over the call button, but never pushed.

He can’t exactly say what it is, but right now being two is a lot better than being five.

“Yeah,” Aiba says as Sho hides his disappointment in an absentminded head-scratch. “Why not? I miss Jun-chan!”

“Me too,” Sho says, and he really does mean it. They are friends, and if Aiba wants it, he’s not going to say anything. “I’ll call him.”

“Or wait--,” Aiba begins, and Sho drops his phone as he feels a drop of long, warm limbs sinking into his lap and taking up space. “--Maybe not yet.”

“Not yet,” Sho repeats, and their noses bump together, awkward and very sixteen-years-old, as Aiba leans in for a wet kiss. “Really? You’d want this over yakiniku?”

Aiba makes a whimpering sound and Sho shuts up. This reminds him vaguely of the time his sister begged him to go to the pet store with her just because and he’d been so grumpy on the way, but then suddenly there were all these fuzzy puppies cuddling his legs and licking his fingers and asking to be taken home, and suddenly there was nothing better--


--Well, until now.

“I’m naming the snail Dog,” Sho mutters as Aiba eases him back onto sheets that smell like boy dipped in sunshine and cold wind. “Okay?”

“Whatever you want, Sho-chan,” Aiba says, breath catching on another soft sound that buzzes through Sho’s skin like a tiny bolt of lightning. He murmurs something else but the words get lost in Sho’s collarbone, where Aiba’s lips have strayed; his fingers are sauntering up underneath the hem of a t-shirt and skimming stomach and ribs with caution.

Sho closes his eyes. “Anyone could come in,” he says, trying to keep his voice steady while the rest of him goes haywire ten times over and back again. “Anyone.”

“‘Kay,” Aiba says, coming again for another kiss, and their bodies shift to puzzle-piece together.

Among it all, Sho thinks that part of him should be somewhere else writing an essay or at least racing snails, but then again, maybe he should just…forget about everything else. After all, he likes Aiba, and he likes kissing, and he likes this bed even if the springs tend to squeak.

Maybe it is that simple, sometimes.

 

 

(“The snails,” Sho gasps a little later, when he is thoroughly red in the face and damp all over. “Where are they?”

Aiba looks up through thrown-together bangs. He points, throwing an arm over Sho’s hipbone. “On the table, where we left them. Duh, Sho-chan.”

“Oh my God,” Sho says, and covers his face. “The snails saw everything! They saw us when we were--compromised.”

“Let’s put it in the experiment report!”)

 

 

Jun’s mother ends up kicking him out of the house within six days. He tries to tell her that he still has no appetite, and that he is fatigued, and has a headache--and truly he still does feel all of those things in some way. But his mother just shakes her head and points to the door, all the while mumbling about how Jun has used up so many throat lozenges and packets of tea.

(“And one of my teapots is cracked again,” she wonders aloud. “How could this have happened? Do you know, Jun?”

Jun honestly doesn’t know. But he has an idea.)

Finally, slightly dejected, he leaves the house. The door behind him shuts heavily and clicks loudly, as if assuring him that there is no way he could get back in even if he collapsed right then and there. So he picks a direction and walks toward it, toward a home that he knows is not his but might as well be, owing to the number of times he has been there to do absolutely nothing.

When he gets to the Ohno home the door practically opens for him, but it is only Ohno’s sister, leaving for the afternoon. She smiles and Jun and bows on her way out; Jun returns the favor, waving shyly. He doesn’t really know her and yet they have had this bowing-and-waving relationship for years now, ever since the first time he came to Ohno’s house their freshman year of high school.

It is three years later now and Jun could walk up the stairs and into Ohno’s room with his eyes shut tight. He does that, now, squinting against the overhead lights of the staircase, hands not even brushing the banister, and when he reaches Ohno’s room--the first to the right, with the door always ajar--he walks in without knocking.

But this is how it usually goes. Ohno doesn’t even turn around, and Jun knows it’s because everyone else knocks, with the exception of Nino and himself.

It could also be that Ohno is covered in a fair amount of paint and bits of plaster, and that he is surrounded by three canvases.

“You,” Jun says, “need to take a break.”

Ohno says nothing, just runs his fingertip across a patch of wet blue on the canvas in front of him. When Jun comes closer he can see that most of the canvas is painted, and in the same color--or a lot of colors that look like the same color, all blended together (well, Jun was never the artist anyway).

“Who’s that?” Jun sighs. It’s more of a statement than a question, because he already knows, but he figures that it can’t hurt to have Ohno say it anyway. “Who are you drawing naked?”

“He’s not naked,” Ohno says quietly, a finger still resting on what Jun now thinks is a clavicle, if the shadow and the neck-like thing sticking out of it is indication enough. “It’s just part of the summer project.”

“What do you think,” Jun starts, slowly, so he doesn’t all of a sudden burst into laughter, “our teacher would say if you turned in twenty-something paintings of one of his own male students half-naked?”

The fingertip stills, and Jun watches Ohno’s eyes widen. “Oh,” he says, finally, after a long period of silence.

It’s all he says, but it’s enough. Jun pats him on the shoulder and says, “Well, you did follow the directions…”

“Yes,” Ohno admits quickly. “I followed them just like they said on the sheet.”

He looks a little forlorn, and Jun doesn’t blame him.

“You can turn this in,” Jun says softly and crouches down next to Ohno. “I was just kidding.”

“It’s not weird, is it?”

When Ohno looks up his eyes are wide, asking; Jun can’t bring himself to do anything other than shake his head.

For a second, anyway.

“Maybe a little,” Jun confesses, and points. “But it’s art. You’re entitled to paint whatever you want to, even if it is Nino not wearing a shirt.”

“But pants,” Ohno says quickly. “I made sure to include those.”

“Good.” Jun grins and steals the paintbrush from between Ohno’s fingers. “Anyway, I came to get you. My mom kicked me out of the house and I don’t have any plans. I didn’t think you would, either.”

“You’re right,” Ohno says, and stands. He wobbles a little--Jun reaches out to catch him--but steadies himself soon enough and walks to the table on the other side of the room. All his art stuff is laid out, not in any organized fashion but Jun knows Ohno could still find all his paints and brushes without needing any kind of pattern to his ways. It’s like he can feel their presence no matter where they are.

They’re sort of like that, Jun thinks as he watches Ohno put away his painting things. Not only the two of them, but Nino and Sho and Aiba too, even if they’ve known each other for different periods of time: Nino and Sho have been together since kindergarten and Jun and Aiba have lived by each other since the third grade. Ohno is the odd one out, but it’s never seemed that way and Jun is grateful for that--it’s his friends that keep him going, keep him grounded and breathing without going too insane, and he can’t thank the Ohno parents enough for deciding to move to another part of Tokyo so that their soon could go to a better high school.

“Where do you want to go?” Ohno asks.

Jun blinks. “I didn’t think about that,” he says, and stands only to move to Ohno’s bed. He doesn’t just sit on the mattress, he sprawls out, arms thrown high over his head and legs taking up most of the bottom space. A growing boy, Jun thinks as he stretches. That’s what his mother says all of the time: Jun, you’re a growing boy. “Anywhere is fine, I guess. Wanna catch a movie or something?”

Ohno opens his closet, pulls something purple off a hanger and tosses it to Jun.

“That’s Aiba’s sweater,” he says. “Let’s go return it to him.”

Jun doesn’t even bother to sit up. He pulls the lump of fabric toward his face instead and shakes it out with one hand. It’s nothing special--just a hoodie--but it’s a thicker one meant for cold weather, and it hasn’t been cold in Tokyo for months.

“How long have you had this?” Jun asks. He tries not to sound too amused. “It’s been summer for awhile now.”

“January,” Ohno says. “The time we went exploring behind Nino’s house--with the snow? Yeah, from then.”

Jun remembers that day, the way it came on slow and warm despite the way it had somehow snowed a miraculous five inches the night before and Jun slipped on two patches of ice on his way to Nino’s house.

“I don’t think he even remembers you have it,” Jun says.

Ohno looks puzzled. “Why wouldn’t he?”

Because it’s Aiba, Jun wants to say, but knows what won’t answer Ohno’s question. “Forget it,” he says. “We’ll surprise him.”

Aiba likes surprises, likes the way that they come out of nowhere and bring on a feeling that lasts for hours in the pit of your stomach. Jun knows this because Aiba has told him so, word-for-word, in a voice that was hushed and awed like it was some big secret even though everyone else knew that Aiba was an excitable person and surprises were his thing.

Ohno and Jun walk the sweatshirt over to Aiba’s house and talk about him like he’s moved far away to someplace very foreign they’ve only seen on television, somewhere like Madagascar or Egypt. Aiba would love the pyramids, Ohno says, and his eyebrows furrow as he imagines Aiba walking into an ancient burial room and being enamored with tombs and hieroglyphics and sand, so much sand.

“He wouldn’t need this there,” Ohno says, and holds up the plastic bag they threw the sweater in.

“No,” Jun says. “But we’d probably make him take it anyway.” Jun knows Aiba’s tendency to get ill no matter what climate they’re in. To Aiba’s immune system, ‘tropical’ simply means ‘put allergies on full blast.’

“You would, Jun-kun.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Just that you look out for us,” Ohno says, and naturally dodges Jun’s attempted nudge. “But you’ve been doing it for Aiba the longest.”

Jun stares hard at the chalk pictures on the asphalt that the neighborhood kids have drawn. There are pastel flowers, cat families and what looks like a whale. If he squints hard enough, all the colors and lines run together to look like someone’s spilled a milkshake on the side of the road.

“You can tell,” Ohno says, filling in the silence. “Even if I didn’t know you two. People at school can tell you’ve been friends for a really, really long time.”

“I didn’t ask you anything,” Jun protests, but of course Ohno would be the only one to hear Jun’s unanswered question. “So what? It’s not a bad thing.”

Ohno smiles. “Nobody said it was a bad thing, Jun-kun.”

Jun knows that, but for some reason wants to hear it from other people nowadays--that his knowing Aiba inside-out and actually having his best interests at heart is not a bad thing. All Jun wants to see is a happy, healthy Aiba, and if that makes him sound like a mother hen or older than he is, he doesn’t really care.

That’s the way he grew up, and at least he knows how to take care of his friends. It’s always, always been like this--for every one of Ohno’s thoughtful words, for each of Nino’s doses of real laughter, for every time Sho sits one of them down to say look, I’m worried about you, and for each of Aiba’s lovely little slip-ups, there is a part of Jun that thinks, yes. These are my friends, and I’m happy.

Why wouldn’t he take care of that?

This is why looking after Aiba and Sho as--well, one unit--is going to be so strange and difficult. He knows about them already, mainly because Aiba called him in the middle of the night to tell him, and even though it’s no surprise that Aiba isn’t home when Ohno knocks on the door it’s still a little unnerving to hear his sister say, “Oh, he’s with Sakurai-san.”

Before, they could just meet up with them and call Nino, and the five of them would hang out for the rest of the day. But now it’s just Sho-and-Aiba, and Jun doesn’t feel right walking in on their time together.

“This is weird,” Jun says much later, when he and Ohno are sitting on a bench in the park unwrapping ice cream cones bought from the convenience store. It was only a three-minute walk from there to here, but the chocolate is already melted all over the cone and Jun picks it up with a napkin.

They still have Aiba’s sweater, sitting between them in its plastic bag of a home. It didn’t feel right, somehow, to give it to his sister, even though of course she would have just left it in his room.

Ohno is already somehow halfway through his ice cream. “Yeah,” he manages to agree between slurps. “Aiba-chan and Sho-kun, huh?”

“They wouldn’t stop hanging out with the rest of us though, right?” Jun is worried. He doesn’t want to be, but he is and he doesn’t feel like pretending that he’s okay with giving Sho the pseudo-job he’s had for the past six or seven years. “I mean--.”

“Eat your ice cream,” Ohno says, and proceeds to lick the last bit of chocolate and peanut from his fingertips. “It’s going to melt all over you.”

Jun does--or rather, he drinks his ice cream out of the soaked sugar cone that now has a chocolate-coated napkin plastered to it.

“I think I just ate tissue,” Jun says once he’s finished.

“It’s not the end of the world,” is Ohno’s reply.

He’s not talking about eating tissue.

“Not even kind of?”

Ohno shakes his head.

“I hope no one gets hurt,” Jun mumbles.

“Wishful thinking,” Ohno says, and shrugs.

 

 

Nino wakes up to a baby screaming in his ear. He’s about to slam his alarm clock to the floor with his fist until he remembers that he doesn’t have an alarm clock--either he’s dreaming a very vivid dream or there is, in fact, a real baby in his room.

He twitches awake when he feels tiny hands on his face, and shoots up in bed with his eyes still shut.

“What,” he mumbles, and hears laughter.

“Look at Kazu,” says his sister, still with giggles in her voice, and then Nino hears gurgling and high-pitched squeals. “It’s two in the afternoon and he’s still asleep!”

“There is nothing wrong with that,” Nino says, except he knows that there definitely is something wrong with waking up at this time when he was supposed to be at Ohno’s an hour ago for their--well, his--project. “Why the hell is there a baby in this house?”

“Hey, watch your language,” his sister says. “Children pick things up, you know.”

Nino hears more gurgling. “Yeah, that’s a real complicated sentence.”

“And don’t ignore the twin,” she says, and Nino’s eyes open and focus to see two babies in his sister’s arms. “Our neighbor’s over. You know, the one that was pregnant? She had twins.”

Nino nods. “Oh,” he says, voice cracking. “Okay. Cool. Can you leave now?”

Any other person would have felt the need to leave--or at least sensed that if they didn’t, Nino would just retreat back underneath his covers and go back to sleep.

But no such luck. Sisters, Nino has come to realize, don’t possess the same kind of common sense that everyone else seems to have. As he sits in his bed with the covers draped around his knees, he feels the mattress drop with the added weight of two babies.

“No,” Nino threatens, but his sister just looks at him.

“Your phone was on your bed when I came in,” she says. “Ohno-san says his window is broken.”

Nino is quiet.

“Don’t you think you should--?” his sister goes on.

“No,” he says. “Actually, I don’t.”

“You know,” she says, dropping her voice to a whisper as the babies crawl into Nino’s lap. He doesn’t protest--they’re warm and pudgy, if a little sticky. “He might be waiting for you.”

“Oh-chan is always waiting,” Nino says, and thinks the rest of his sentence--but he doesn’t know what he’s waiting for. “What does it matter to you, anyway? I thought you didn’t want to think about whatever we did.” Or don’t do. And never will, probably.

“I don’t,” she says. Nino offers his hands to the babies, who grab at his fingers like they are wiggly monsters. “It’s just that I came into your room last night to get your towel because mom was doing laundry.”

Nino snatches his fingers back. “You what?”

“Well you don’t have to make such a big deal out of it, geez--I wasn’t stealing from you. Anyway, I walked in and you were just--you said--.”

Somehow Nino knows where this is going and he wants to dig a six-foot hole in the floor of his room and nest there until the day he graduates from high school, or maybe later when everyone has forgotten there was once a boy named Ninomiya Kazunari.

“I mean, you just said his name, that’s all,” she finishes. “In your dreams.”

“In my sleep,” Nino corrects, because he doesn’t want his sister to think that he dreams about Ohno--even if he does. And oh, he does--normal ones, most of the time, just the two of them hanging out or doing homework--but sometimes Nino wakes up from his dreams sweaty and trembling and turned on.

“Like a reflex?”

“Like a reflex,” Nino agrees. He can’t lie about that.

“Can’t stop those,” she says.

One of the babies starts wailing in the next minute and his sister leaves Nino with the other twin, the girl, who looks up at him with saucer eyes the color of caramels. She is lying on her back in the middle of Nino’s bed where he was just asleep, and he tickles her belly.

“What do you do when you want someone to know something, huh?” he asks, and she smiles at him toothless and wide. “You just cry, don’t you, and people listen and come to the rescue. That’s convenient.”

She waves an arm at him, then a leg.

“I don’t know what that means,” Nino mumbles, and lies down on the bed again, making sure there’s enough room for the both of them.

“Are you talking to the baby?” His sister is back, and she tosses his phone onto the desk in the corner of the room. It skids along the surface and stops right at the edge.

“Shouldn’t you be getting up?” she says as she leans down to pick up the baby girl, who has a firm grip on Nino’s index finger.

“It’s too late now,” Nino says. “He’ll be having lunch, or something.”

His sister stops mid-stoop and looks at Nino through her bangs. Somehow this makes her look even more like the demon Nino is convinced she turns into every month.

“Just go,” she snaps. “God, you are so moody.”

So Nino rolls out of his bed and stuffs himself into pants he thinks he wore a couple of days ago and a shirt that, at the very least, smells clean. But he doesn’t take a left out of the doorway like he usually does to go to Ohno’s. He goes right, cuts across his neighbor’s yard, jumps the low fence into the park and lies down in the grass with his DS and headphones for the next four hours.

 

 

Aiba finds that racing snails is a lot harder than he thought it was going to be--snails just weren’t meant for competitive sports. For one thing, they don’t move fast enough for Aiba to keep his attention span focused, so that by the time they’ve moved four inches it’s been ten minutes and he’d stopped watching them five minutes ago.

And it’s hard for him to find places with different enough temperatures to set the snails free in. This is the hottest summer Tokyo has had in hundreds of years, so Aiba isn’t having a tough time finding somewhere swelteringly hot, but he can’t find any place cold enough, except maybe his fridge--but he doesn’t want to try that. If his mother found out…well, Aiba can’t think about that without wanting to run and hide underneath his covers.

Then he remembers: it gets cold at night. Not chilly, but cool.

Sho has taken to studying English at night--the dead silence in his house at 2 AM helps him concentrate, he says, and Aiba doesn’t argue even though he’s curious--so Aiba is left to take care of the snails after dark. But he doesn’t mind. He takes all of them, Matsuzaka and Gyudon and Matsutake, Shiitake and Dog out on a pan his mother never uses (at least, that’s what Aiba hopes).

And once they’re outside and Aiba has spread himself out on the concrete, he places each tiny mollusk on the ground and whispers things to each of them. He is, after all, their only cheerleader.

“Run, okay?” he encourages, and watches them barely move, his finger on a stop watch. He’s forgotten his pencil and notebook again but that’s okay--Aiba remembers numbers. It comes easy to him, and he likes that he doesn’t have to try in math class.

In fact, he misses it even if he doesn’t actually miss school. Math was second period at ten in the morning every day and Aiba’s seat was right next to the window in the second row, but he didn’t stare outside and daydream the entire time like the kid in front of him did (and in that case, why sit in the front row?). He listened, chin in hand, and raised his hand to answer all the difficult questions no one else knew the answer to.

And he never took notes in math class. He just watched the numbers on the board and did the problems in his head. And then he would look to his left, to Jun, and Jun would shake his head in the way Jun has been shaking his head for as long as they’ve been friends: there you go again, Aiba-chan.

There’s a slight nudge at his finger and when he looks down Aiba sees Shiitake edging slowly against the tip of his hand.

“Good job, Shii,” Aiba says, and makes a mental note that at least one of his snails works faster in the cooler temperature--Shiitake has always lagged behind in the daytime. “Keep it up.”

He watches the rest of the snails move along and takes his notes carefully. At the end of his experiment he wants to be able to write his report, give it to Sho to proofread and come out of the whole thing with a simple this is great, you’ll get an A. Aiba likes As, and he likes praise, and most of all he likes Sho.

At the heart of it all, though, he knows it’s not that easy to just throw the things you like together and expect everything to go the way it should. Even if he does like Sho, he also likes Jun, and the feelings are different but they’ve always been there for him and Aiba feels like that has to count for something. So when he sees Sho close up at the thought of inviting someone--especially Jun--to hang out with them, it makes him wonder why anyone would do this dating thing if everyone was just jealous of everyone else.

They always used to be together, the five of them, and this summer was just supposed to be a continuation of the school year. But things happened, things Aiba wished for on 11:11s and shooting stars over and over again, and now they’re not the same.

He doesn’t want to think about what might happen if they’re never the same again.

 

 

Ohno doesn’t have any visitors through his unlatched window for the next couple of days after he sends the text, but he’s not too concerned about it. Nino does things on his own time, to the ticking of his own clock, which Ohno is convinced only has two ways of telling time: later and much later.

So if Nino decides he’ll come much later, Ohno is fine with it. In the meantime, he works on his art project, which is now a sizable stack of canvases bearing the image of a certain male model that never agreed to have his picture painted seventeen different ways and counting. (And in the midst of the Nino series, there are some cool things he did with fishes wearing spacesuits and monkeys with big muscles. Ohno has to do something with his boredom, after all.)

Today Ohno is sitting at his work table tapping a pencil against the edge and staring at a mass of colors in front of him; he’s not sure what to do with all the pinks he’s just thrown onto the paper but he figures it would make a nice abstract painting of cotton candy. Or Nino’s skin, if he can just find enough brown in his dwindling supply to get the right tint--

--And if whoever is calling him right now would just quit. The ringing is coming from downstairs, presumably where the landline is because Ohno’s phone is always on vibrate.

“Hello?” he says once he’s gotten a hold of the receiver.

“Hello, Ohno-san?”

The voice is familiar and Ohno places it as his art teacher’s, who is fresh out of college and is too young and pretty to be wearing her hair in such a tight braid every day. At least, that’s what Ohno has gathered from Aiba’s side remarks.

“Yes,” he says. “Good afternoon.”

“I hope you’re doing well?”

“Yes,” Ohno says again. He feels like he’s being interviewed. “It’s been a good summer.”

Minus, he thinks, the funny things his friends have been doing--hunting for snails, hooking up, being aloof and strange. But he doesn’t think any of that is exactly conversation-worthy, especially with his art teacher.

“Good,” she approves. “Listen--I just called to ask if you’d mind coming in so I could see your progress. The department wants to look after all the students doing art projects.”

Ohno doubts this, mainly because he’s been doing art projects for every summer vacation since he started school here and the art department hasn’t called him once. But he goes along with it, mainly since Jun is already asleep on his floor and they can walk over to the school together.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ll come in today then.”

When he hangs up Ohno goes into the kitchen for a glass of water. He accidentally kicks Jun’s leg on his way in, but instead of waking up Jun just buries his face in the throw pillow he’s squeezing.

He’s been over a lot recently. The two of them don’t do much when they’re together, but Ohno figures that if Jun minded he would have said something in the past week. Mostly they lounge around Ohno’s house in the heat for hours, stretching out in the living room like cats in the sun. But then Jun gets antsy and they have to get up and go somewhere, anywhere.

For the first few days they tried to call Aiba or Sho to get in touch with one or the other or both of them, just to ask if they wanted to take a trip to Nino’s house or see what Ohno was up to or raid the newly-stocked fridge at any one of their five houses. But each time there was either no answer or an excuse--I’m busy, you caught me at a bad time, I’m with Sho-chan and he’s helping me with my experiment, sorry I’m babysitting and can’t.

So Jun stopped calling. Ohno wants to tell him that it doesn’t matter; they’ve been friends for so long that just because they don’t see each other for a week or two doesn’t mean anything much--but he knows that to Jun it does. To Jun, Aiba is lost to Sho and some new world that he just isn’t allowed to be a part of no matter how hard he tries.

Except maybe, Ohno wants to say, Jun just isn’t trying hard enough.

“Ohno?”

Jun is awake. Ohno fills up a second glass of water and pads back into the living room to find Jun sitting up on the floor, hair sticking up in fifty different angles and half of his face bright red with rug burn.

“What time is it?” His voice crackles. “I have to get to school.”

“Noon,” Ohno says, and gives him the other glass of water. Jun gulps it down in a second. “I’m coming in with you. The art teacher wants to see what I’ve been painting.”

Jun looks at Ohno over the rim of the glass. “You’re going to show her the naked collection?”

“She won’t know who he is,” Ohno says, though he’s not sure. “Nino’s never taken an art class here, has he?”

“He did once,” Jun says, and puts the glass down carefully on the table, making sure he’s using a coaster underneath. Ohno stares: he wasn’t even aware that his mother had put coasters on the living room table. “With me and Aiba, freshman year.”

“Introduction to Art,” Ohno says quickly before Jun lapses into that odd state of depression that isn’t so much quiet and pensive as it is sulky and heavy. “Where they make you do color wheels and sing the Roy G. Biv song, even though it’s a high school class.”

Jun nods. “Yeah,” he says, and smiles gratefully. “That’s the one.” 


It’s a little while before they set out to school--Ohno has to pack together the canvases he’s going to show, and Jun takes a quick shower--but the walk there takes no more than ten minutes, and before Ohno knows it he’s watching Jun get bombarded by small children and an underclassman named Kimura.

“Let’s go home together,” Jun says to Ohno, wincing as two kids try to scale their way up his body and onto his back. “Will you wait for me?”

“Sure,” Ohno says, though he doesn’t think he’ll be here more than an hour, and Jun usually works a four-hour shift at the camp. “I’ll come back to get you.”

He waves and high-fives one of the little boys, who has managed to squirm his way onto Jun’s shoulders. The other one is still somewhere near his knees.

“Be nice to him,” Ohno says.

“I’m king of the world!” the boy on top says. “I’m king of Jun-kun’s shoulders!”

“I’m king of his knees,” says the clingy one on the bottom. “I control his legs!”

“I’m king of myself,” Jun says. “Right, Ohno?”

Ohno laughs as he walks away.

 

 

Nino is drawing graphs under the covers of his bed when he gets a call. The caller ID says Sho in bold letters, and Nino picks up more out of curiosity than anything.

“You’re still alive?” he says flatly into the phone as he colors in a bar green, for all of the minty spots Nino found on Ohno’s body up until some days ago. “I thought Aiba-chan would have eaten you by now.”

“Very funny,” Sho says. “What are you doing? Aiba’s busy and I…”

“…And you’re turning to your other friends as last resorts. Gotcha.” He smirks at the miffed silence on the other end of the line. “I’m doing homework.”

“For once?” This time, Nino frowns. “I’m coming over.”

In fifteen minutes Sho is standing in Nino’s room shaking off his backpack and wiping the bridge of his nose with his shirt sleeve. It’s hot outside, he says, because of the heat wave coming in from the Yellow Sea or something like that. Nino doesn’t really listen.

“Hello?” Nino looks up to find Sho’s face right in front of his, nose-to-nose; he jumps back so fast his head collides with the windowsill. “What’s wrong with you?”

“You just made me crack my head open, that’s what’s wrong,” Nino says, and grabs a water bottle on his desk to hold against the blossoming bruise. “How am I supposed to color in my graphs now?”

Sho’s nose wrinkles as he looks at the spread on Nino’s bed: a ruler, a box of crayons and a notebook of drawing paper stolen from Ohno months ago.

“You can do all of this on the computer, you know,” he points out, and Nino rolls his eyes.

“My sister is always on that thing,” he says, “chatting with her boyfriend. Dumb, right? I don’t even get to chat with my own friends anymore in person since one of them is stupid, two of them are always making out and the other one is depressed out of his mind because of that.”

Sho stares, eyes narrowed. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Everything,” Nino says. “You don’t know?”

He turns back to his graph, now moving onto the purple bar which is significantly lower than the other colors like brown and white--Ohno used a lot of neutrals in his paintings this summer. As he colors he can hear Sho in the background taking things out of his bag, but slower than he normally would.

Finally, Sho sighs. It’s a desperate, huffy noise, and Nino turns to see Sho cross-legged on the floor, a mess of papers in his lap and his hands clenched over his knees.

“This is about Jun, isn’t it,” he says.

“It’s about you, jackass,” Nino says, and throws one of his pillows at Sho, who catches it right before it hits him smack in the middle of his chest. “And about how you’ve decided to keep Aiba as your concubine.”

Sho’s outburst is like a flood, like he’s been keeping it in for ages and just now finds that this is the right time to let it all out. “Nino, come on, can you blame me? You know how long I’ve wanted this,” he says, voice pitched higher than usual. “I just--it’s not personal against Jun, you know it’s not, Nino, you know.”

This is a part of Sho that only comes out during final exam time, and when that happens Nino knows when it’ll be over--once grades are out and Sho has straight A’s again, just like it’s meant to be. But this time a report card isn’t going to stop Sho from being hysterical over something new and strange that he’s wanted for such a long time.

“I know,” Nino says quietly. “I don’t think Jun takes it personally either.”

“Then why can’t he just wait until things go back to normal?”

Nino makes a face. “You and Aiba go on dates now. You think the five of us are going to go back to normal while you two are all googly when we’re all trying to eat pizza or something? Hell no.” Sho cracks a slight smile. “Just--look, Sho-chan, it’s really cool that you and Aiba have your thing, but you can’t take him away from Jun. Or any of us. But mostly Jun.”

Sho exhales loudly. “I’m not stealing him.”

“You think so?” Nino tosses his half-full water bottle at Sho. It lands on the floor with a thud, then rolls to the edge of Sho’s foot. “Look, I gave that to you, so technically you didn’t steal it. But you had my permission to take it, so I’m not mad.”

“What are you saying, that I should have asked Jun for permission?” Sho’s jaw is in such a tight line it looks like his whole face will snap apart at any moment. “He’s my friend, Nino, and he’s not Aiba’s caretaker.”

“Then go tell him you’re sorry.”

“Did you not hear anything I just said?”

“I heard it,” Nino says, and picks up the purple crayon again. “But you just said you guys were friends. Friends share. You’re not sharing. Easy, right?”

He turns his body back to face the wall and continues shading in the purple bar.

“Aiba’s not an object,” Sho says. “You can’t just split him in half and Jun takes one part, I take the other. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Then find some way it does work,” Nino says. “Now can you stop talking? I’m trying to concentrate on coloring in my graphs, thank you very much.”

But really he just wants Sho to stop talking to that he won’t bring up Ohno. Nino isn’t sure what goes on in Sho’s mind sometimes, but he’s learned over the years that despite how intelligent the overall design is, the feelings are prone to go haywire at any minute--like now. Even if he’s not saying anything, Sho is a little ball of fire and electricity sitting cross-legged on Nino’s floor. And if he felt like it, Sho would throw his own attacks at Nino, and they would inevitably be about Ohno.

He’s not ready to deal with those attacks. Sho would bring up how much time they have left again, and Nino wouldn’t have anything to defend himself with. He hasn’t actually seen Ohno since then, and it’s been a week. They only have seven days left to figure themselves out--all of them.

Sho stays for a couple more hours, but only works for one of them. When Nino looks up from coloring his graphs Sho is stretched out on the carpet, one arm flung over his eyes and the other stuck in the pages of an English dictionary.

“Stupid,” Nino mumbles, but throws a blanket over him anyway.

 

 

All of Ohno’s Nino-paintings have captions.

Not that he would tell his art teacher that. She likes what he’s done--he can tell by the way she’s humming, an off-key tune that goes up in pitch whenever she switches the painting, and he doesn’t want to ruin a good thing.

She hasn’t even gone through most of them before she looks up to give Ohno a wide, bright smile.

“These are very good,” she says, and brushes her braid over one shoulder. She looks even younger up close, and Ohno is a little embarrassed that she has to see the kind of things his mind thinks up, but not by much. “In fact, they are extremely good, Ohno-kun.”

Ohno nods, but he’s too busy putting mental numbers and captions on the paintings she’s already sifted through--one, Nino in that one dream I had; two, Nino at the beach when we went at the beginning of summer vacation; three, Nino playing his DS. All of these are followed by a portrait of Ohno’s sister and one of his other favorites, the drawing of a monkey in a spacesuit floating around Venus.

“You’re quite gifted,” the art teacher goes on, and Ohno blinks back into focus. She’s twirling the end of her braid around one of her fingers and chattering on about talent, so of course he’s not really listening. “Most of the students at the art department here don’t possess the kind of caliber that you do, Ohno-kun.”

She looks at him expectantly, her head tilted and her heart-shaped mouth in a pink smile.

His vocal cords kick in. “Thank you,” he says, and clears his throat.

Her smile only grows, and he watches as she reaches for a folder on the side of her desk. It’s an orange color, not like the folders at this high school, which are a standard green.

“So the rest of the art staff and I were talking about it,” she says, “and we’d really like you to consider this, Ohno-kun.”

He looks at her. This is going in an entirely different direction than he expected--in fact, he didn’t expect anything much but a quick look-over of his project and a suggestion or two. What is he supposed to consider?

And then there’s a brochure in front of him in the same shade of orange as the folder, and he understands.

“The International Junior Art School in the city is looking for students,” the art teacher says, and points to the scripted title on the cover of the brochure and then opens it for Ohno as if he is five. “They sent these to all of the public schools, and the department could only think of one person who would do well there.”

“That’s--,” Ohno mumbles. Crazy, he wants to finish, but can’t. He hopes the desperately confused look on his face says it all.

“You don’t have to transfer, of course,” she says quickly. “But like I said, you should definitely consider it. Your homeroom teacher recently told me that your class did career surveys last semester and you even wrote down that you’d like to pursue something in the art field, so we all thought this would be perfect for you.”

The only reason Ohno checked the ‘arts’ box on his career survey was because Nino’s chin had been digging into his shoulder, and he was distracted by the tickling and the puffs of breath right into his ear that he’d just picked the first one he saw. Honestly, if ‘entertainment’ had caught his eye before ‘arts,’ he’d probably be sitting in front of the music teacher right now.

“Think about it,” the art teacher whispers, and hands Ohno the brochure along with a sheet of directions to the school. “Go visit it and see if you like it.”

Something in Ohno is sinking low into his stomach. “Visit?” he repeats.

She nods. “Once you’re there, you can see how talented the students are, and if you decide to go you can begin putting together your portfolio.”

“Portfolio?”

“You’ll have to turn one in when you apply, but we’ve already recommended you and the board of the IJAS has already agreed to put you on scholarship if you can show that you’re worthy enough. Which you are, of course.”

Ohno feels a little sick. The thing in his stomach feels like a rock.

But she just continues to smile. “I know this is short notice, but we’ll give you until your first day back at school to decide whether or not you want to go through with this.”

All Ohno hears after that are just tangled strings of noise filtered through the blur in his head. Art school--scholarship--transfer? He can’t seem to pin down exactly what just happened here. As he sits there, still watching her heart-shaped lips move, he can only remember certain images from the last ten minutes: her fingers twirling round the end of her braid, the orange folder and brochure, the paintings of Nino still spread out on the desk that now seem to taunt him despite their familiarity.

If this were painting, there would be no caption--just a drawing of the rock still sunk in Ohno’s stomach, growing in size by the second.

 

 

“Who needs to go to the bathroom!”

Jun has learned, in only a few weeks, that you don’t ask questions at summer camp. He tried to do that at the beginning when he would ask the kids if they wanted basketballs or jump ropes or what they wanted for lunch. But then he discovered that the secret to getting kids to listen is to put an exclamation mark at the end of everything.

Excitement is a little difficult for him right now, what with everything else going on, but he tries his best. He’s in high school, after all, and graduating in two years. He might as well have these kids believe that being seventeen is all rainbows, butterflies and no worries at all.

“I don’t hear anyone,” Jun goes on, sing-song, cupping his hands around his mouth to carry his voice. “Who needs to go to the bathroom!”

This time a group of five-year-old girls skip over to him, and Jun takes their hands in his and walks them over to the bathroom.

“Jun-kun, Jun-kun,” one of the little girls says, smacking his knee with her palm every time she says his name in her squeaky voice. “How many friends do you have?”

“Yeah!” says one of the others, who has her arms wrapped around Jun’s other knee. “I have a lot, Jun-kun.”

“How many’s a lot?” Jun asks her while prying her arms from his leg. She lets go without a fight and starts counting on her fingers.

“One, two, three, five--!”

“You forgot four!” The third one has pigtails tied together with huge pink puffballs, and when she leans in they move with her. From the top, all Jun can see are four puffballs swinging around a head of hair. “Four comes before five!”

“No it doesn’t!”

“Yes, it does!”

Jun laughs when the girls crowd around his legs again, looking for answers. “It does,” he says. “Four comes before five.”

While they’re all in the bathroom Jun looks across the hall into the library. It’s been pretty empty since summer vacation started, with the occasional student coming back in to do research for a project, but so far Jun hasn’t seen anyone he knows. Kimura-san is always up here chatting with a different girl each day, and sometimes Jun has to pull her back downstairs by the arm (though he’s positive she doesn’t mind).

Today, though, there’s a rumpled head of brown hair bobbing along the science bookshelves. Jun’s not sure, but--

Crash.

“Excuse me, miss librarian? Miss librarian! I accidentally, um, knocked over some of the books here…”

“Aiba-san, you will be the cause of my early death.”

“Oh! I…I’m sorry…”

Jun can’t help but grin. It’s a reflex--an Aiba-reflex.

He’s about to step into the library when the girls rush out of the bathroom, a swirl of pigtails and paint-stained summer camp uniforms. Immediately they go back to their post: Jun’s legs.

“Did you wash your hands?”

They all nod, puffballs swinging, and then launch into high-pitched demands. “Jun-kun, what are you doing!” The kids don’t ask questions, either. “We have to go back to Maya-chan! It’s snack time! I want snacks!”

“Not yet,” Jun whispers, and holds up a finger to his mouth. “We’re gonna surprise someone.”

Puffball girl gasps. “It’s a secret!”

“A secret!” The rest of them cover their mouths with their hands and stifle the oncoming bubble of giggles, but it doesn’t do any good--their laughter only gets louder and squeaker by the second, and Jun just sighs and waves at Aiba, who is now looking at the door.

“Jun-chan, is that you!”

“Aiba,” Jun says wearily, “please ask me a question in a normal tone of voice.”

But Aiba bounds over, books in hand, and swings an arm around Jun’s shoulders like it’s been years since they’ve seen each other and not just a week. Jun feels books’ spines digging into his stomach, and they’re really damn heavy spines, but he hugs Aiba back anyway with the one arm that isn’t trying to keep three little girls from running loose in the school.

“You look different,” Aiba says. “You look tanner.”

“We’ve been outside a lot,” Jun says, and motions to the girls. “Soccer, playing in the dirt…you know, all that fun summer camp stuff.”

Aiba stares at the girls, who stare back at him. The sizes of their eyes match--wide and bright, like the full moon over a lake.

The kids? he mouths to Jun.

Jun rolls his eyes, but nods anyway.

“Hi,” Aiba says and shifts the weight of his books in his arms. “I’m Masaki.”

“Who are you?” one of the girls asks--asks. Of course, Jun thinks, of course Aiba would strike enough curiosity in a girl to calm her down enough so that she can ask a real question.

“Jun-kun’s friend?”

“Yeah,” Aiba says, and smiles. “I like him a lot. Do you guys like Jun-kun?”

And the giggles come back, this time punctuated with nods. “I’m gonna marry him,” Puffball Girl says confidently. She snakes her arms around Jun’s leg and buries her face in his thigh. “We’re gonna get married in Hawaii an’ have a big wedding an’ have a big cake, and--!”

“No, I’m gonna have a big wedding an’ a big cake with Jun-kun!”

“No, me!”

Jun groans. “Aiba, I hate you.”

“You wish,” Aiba says.

 

 

Nino is in the grass again, only this time he falls asleep after an hour.

When he wakes up, he’s pissed. He heard himself say it--Ohno--in his sleep. He heard himself. And mainly he’s mad that his sister was right about the whole thing and wasn’t making it up just to get a reaction out of him, but he also doesn’t like that he’s experiencing withdrawal from a certain Ohno Satoshi.

He didn’t even think that was possible, that humans could have withdrawal from each other as if they’re drugs or something and you smoke them on a daily basis. It wasn’t like if you spent a certain amount of time with a person, their blood cells became chemicals that fused into yours through simple (or not so simple, in their case) skin-to-skin contact. It wasn’t like since they’d fallen asleep on each other a couple of times, and knew each other’s arms so well they could probably map out each vein with their eyes closed, that they became a part of the other or anything like that…it wasn’t like…

…Well, okay. Maybe this withdrawal thing made some sense.

Still, just like Nino would never outright admit how he feels about Ohno--if in fact he feels anything for Ohno at all (denial, even with himself), he’s not going to tell anyone that he misses the kid either. One, it’s none of their business and two, Nino has no reason to miss Ohno. They’re friends, and sometimes friends don’t see each other for a long time. It’s not a big deal. He hasn’t seen Aiba since he and Sho started their thing, after all.

But of course he doesn’t miss Ohno and Aiba the same way. Not even close.

Nino wants Ohno to be here so that his hands have something to do again. It’s strange, waking up late in the day and not going to Ohno’s when it was all he wanted to do at the beginning of the summer, when all he wanted was to barge in, say “Strip” and run his fingertips along the contours of Ohno’s skin to count for paint spots and erratic heartbeats and random twitches. Sometimes, just for those moments, Nino wished his hands were bigger, more accommodating, less shaky.

He misses the way Ohno started to react, after a couple of weeks--how he would unexpectedly reach out for Nino and act like nothing was wrong. And nothing was wrong with the two of them. Nino just made it that way. After Aiba and Sho got together, he’d found everything so futile and not worth chasing after. What was the point, if Ohno didn’t even know what he was doing, if he was just playing with Nino’s earlobes and leaning in close, too close, for the hell of it?

Nino wasn’t going to play that game. So he ran away to hide in his bed, and he stopped going to Ohno’s. His project was unfinished, but he made do with the data he had. He would get an A anyway--the science teacher loved him.

It was never even about the grade. All of it, from the start, was about Nino trying to get into Ohno’s mind to tell him hey you, yeah you, look at me the way I’m looking at you.

Ohno never looked at Nino the way Nino looked at him.

Before Nino knows it, he’s running in the direction of Ohno’s house, sneakers hitting the concrete like thunder signaling an oncoming storm. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do once he gets there--yell and scream, maybe, or maybe not. He would probably just crawl into the bed, find Ohno underneath the blankets and sheets, and put his nose to the junction of Ohno’s ear and neck.

And they would lie there, just lie there.

If that doesn’t get the message across, then Nino doesn’t know what will.


Soon enough he’s got one leg over Ohno’s gate and is surveying the wall leading up to the window he’s supposed to climb in. Nino’s not the most athletic guy around, but Ohno’s house has a nice number of ledges for putting your feet on and holding onto, and if he just goes about it fast enough--

--Up, up, up. He’s over the gate and has a grip on the wall in less than two minutes.

The closer he gets to that second floor window, though, the more he can sense that something’s not right. Ohno has the curtains drawn, for one thing, even though they’re usually open to let the sun in (though it’s his mother who does that, not Ohno himself). And Nino can’t hear any noise coming from the window--no television, no music, nothing.

When he gets to the window he knocks gently on the screen (that’s one thing Nino can count on, at least; Ohno never actually closing his window) and then pushes. It gives way easily.

He hauls himself in, lands hard on the bed, and looks around.

The room is dark and quiet. No one is home.

Ohno-mama is probably out shopping, and the elusive Mr. Ohno undoubtedly at work, but Ohno--where is Ohno?

Nino groans and stuffs his face in Ohno’s pillow. After what he just did--after he trespassed--Ohno isn’t even in his room.

But he still finds that this is better than nothing, and maybe that’s a perverted thought but he doesn’t even care. Ohno’s bed is like it always has been, with a dip in the middle the size of his body (that Nino fits into so well) and a smell that reminds Nino of laundry and warm, slightly-sweaty skin on ninety-degree days.

If he stayed here, he would fall asleep. He would close his eyes and dream some more, and later on tonight he would feel a hand against his shoulder and a voice in his ear and fingers traveling, touching, all up and down his arm and neck and face.

But that probably wouldn’t happen anyway.

Before Nino leaves, he scribbles a note on one of the notebooks lying around and leaves it on the pillow--fix your damn window, anyone could come through here.

 

 

Snack time for the kids is lunch time for the volunteers, and Aiba tries to refuse when Kimura-san gives him an extra lunchbox bought from the convenience store.

“I don’t work here,” he tells her, hands held in front of his face. “You don’t have to give that to me.”

“But you’re here right now,” Maya says, and thrusts the box in his face. “Come on, Aiba-san, it’s an extra one. You should eat it or else it’ll just be wasted.”

Aiba shuts his eyes tight--if he sees those rice balls and pieces of fried chicken, he’ll actually take it from her. He hasn’t eaten all day.

“He hasn’t eaten all day,” Jun calls from the other side of the room, where he’s helping kids wash between their fingers to get rid of ‘the bad germy guys.’ “Just throw it at him, Kimura-san.”

“How do you know?” Aiba whines.

“Because you’re practically drooling,” Jun snaps back, and Aiba accepts the lunchbox with defeat.

Twenty minutes later, everything in the box is gone down to the rice grain.

“Told you so,” Jun says, and smirks. “How’d you like that free lunch?”

Aiba smiles behind his hand. “Delicious,” he says. “Thank you.”

Jun nods and takes another bite of rice. “It’s not a problem. We usually have extra, any--.”

“How are you?” Aiba blurts out all of a sudden. He can’t keep this in anymore, and the hot air balloon in his chest that has been filling with thoughts of Jun for the past week is finally at his throat and in his mouth. “What have you been up to? How is everyone else? I miss you a lot, Jun-kun.”

“I miss you too,” Jun says, and can’t help but laugh. “Even though it hasn’t even been that long.”

Aiba shakes his head. “It’s been forever.”

He really does feel that way. Somehow, spending all of his time with Sho and no one else has made him feel so separated from the rest of the world, and even from the first half of this summer. Even when he’s by himself he’s working on his project, and he knows that Jun is busy and can’t just call him up to hang out. With a week left of summer vacation, they’re all rushing to finish their projects or fill volunteer hours or just not drop altogether from exhaustion.

“How are you and Sho?”

Jun is looking for something with this question, Aiba knows, but he can’t quite tell what. So he tells the truth.

“Good,” he says. “I’m happy.”

Jun smiles, if a little sadly. “What about Sho?”

This is where Aiba hesitates. He wants to say the same thing, that Sho feels just as great about this relationship as Aiba does, despite all the bumps in the road.

“I don’t know,” Aiba says, and plops his chin in both hands. “I think so, but also think he’s having some trouble. Not with me,” he says quickly, “but himself.”

“Yeah,” Jun says quietly. “I think so too.”

They talk about other things for a little bit, like Aiba’s snails (“I don’t really know what to do with them after this is over,” he says, and brightens; “Do you want them, Jun-kun?”) and the beginning of the school year (“I don’t know what happened to the summer,” Jun says, and Aiba nods solemnly). But their friendship has never been based on evading the subject, so when Jun finishes the last bite of his lunch Aiba leans forward across the table.

“Jun,” he whispers.

Jun’s eyebrows shoot up. “Yes?”

“Everything’s going to be okay,” he says, louder this time. “I promise.”

“But you don’t know that.”

Aiba shakes his head. “I do.”

Actually, Jun is right: Aiba doesn’t know if everything’s going to be okay. He was doubtful at first whether or not all of them were going to get through this. But he’s known Sho and Jun for so, so long, and he believes in each of them, and he believes in their friendship, and he believes that things will run their course and come out fine in the end.

And sometimes, it is that simple.

 

 

Sakurai Sho
Class 2-A
Summer Assignment: English Essay
Title: MY SUMMER

I was not sure what to write for this essay when I received the prompt. It seemed difficult because I did not know how to put an entire summer into words, especially English words. But actually, a lot of things happened to me this summer, so I will try to remember everything and write it down.

First of all, I had a lot of fun with my friends.

First of all, I had a lot of fun with my friends, but only in the beginning of the summer. Then a lot of things went wrong, but they were not supposed to.

First of all, I had a lot of fun. In the beginning of the summer, my friends and I forgot about our summer projects and did a lot of other things. We went to the beach one day and had a barbecue another day.

Then, in the middle of the summer, we started to do our homework. One of my friends looked for snails for his science project. I helped him with that. Another one of my friends did an art project where he painted a different painting each day. And one of my friends was a volunteer at the school’s summer camp. Summer was still fun, even if we were working.

Then, things got hard. A lot of our friendships broke up were broken didn’t work anymore became strained. Some of us stopped talking. Even though good things happened in the beginning of the summer, they became bad things. I don’t know why this happened, but we did not talk for a long time. It was hard. We all used to have a very good relationship, but it stopped working. But then

Sho puts his pencil down. But then what, exactly?

He doesn’t know why he’s writing a personal narrative essay if he’s just going to make something up at the end about how everything got better all of a sudden, or why he’s writing in past tense when all of the ‘bad stuff’ is still going on. His English teacher will probably take off points for his being so vague--if he turned this in, he’d get it back with MORE CONCRETE EXAMPLES at the top in thick red marker--but there’s no way he can put down on paper that he was a big part of the reason why they all ‘stopped working.’

But then I admitted I was being stubborn jackass, and I said sorry, and everything turned out okay again.

Sho writes that sentence without thinking about it, but he doesn’t erase it. He can’t turn that in--it’s in Japanese, and the phrase ‘stubborn jackass’ is probably not appropriate--but the words fit there on the page like they were meant to be there all along and Sho just discovered them after chipping away at blank space with the tip of his pencil.

And it was good, because this is the way things are supposed to be.

Things are supposed to be the way they were at the beginning of the summer--

 

 

--When Aiba decided that, even though the forecast called for rain, they were going to go to the beach anyway and brave the weather and have a great time. So Sho’s mother made them all a huge lunchbox, which he had to lug onto the train and almost made them miss their connection because it had been so heavy with sandwiches and drinks and rice balls that he couldn’t get off the first train fast enough.

And Jun had set up the big umbrella, which was unnecessary because no one stayed under it for too long, and Nino put sunscreen on everyone’s face and made them look like Dragon Ball characters so that when they tanned (or burned, in Sho’s case), the parts with sunscreen on stayed white.

It didn’t rain for the first hour so they played volleyball, and every time it hit the surface of the ocean they voted Ohno to go get it. And it didn’t rain for the hour after that, so they had lunch on the sand and Aiba ate almost everything but Sho made him save some for later. And it didn’t rain for the hour after the first two, so Sho made sand-angels and Aiba put faces on them with bits of seashell he’d found.

And it didn’t rain for the rest of the day, so they stayed until nightfall, until the summer constellations dotted the sky.

On the train ride home, everyone smelling like sun and salt, Sho and Jun were the only ones who didn’t fall asleep in the first five minutes. The journey lasted an hour and they didn’t talk for most of it, but the silence was like a blanket over the two of them made of comfortable thoughts.

“Good day,” Jun had said, all smiles.

Sho had nodded. “Great day,” he’d said, and eventually he did fall asleep, partly on Jun’s shoulder.

He had gone home with a crick in his neck and a huge, empty basket and a smile that was meant to last the entire summer.

 

 

Ohno is in bed and doesn’t plan to leave for the next twenty-four hours unless something makes him get up. He should be painting for his project but he can’t bring himself to: Nino was here, judging by the overturned sheets and the note in his bed.

He doesn’t know why he’s thinking of the beginning of this summer and that moment in particular, but it probably has something to do with the decision he has to make.

If he’s being honest, the only reason Ohno would go to IJAS is for the scholarship. He doesn’t think too much about money, but he knows his parents pay a lot to send him to the high school he goes to now. If he could go somewhere else on a scholarship, he would probably be able to see his father more around the house and his mother wouldn’t have to ask her own parents for a little help every now and then.

But then again, there’s the fact that it’s an art school. And Ohno loves to paint, to draw and sculpt and simply make things--but if he went to IJAS, it would become work. He would get graded on everything and would have to learn how to work with colors and then he would get graded on that, too.

And then, of course, there are his friends.

There’s Jun with his summer-camp kids and his tendency to be snappish in the morning and the most thoughtful at night, when they’re all drunk and everything is soft and blurry. There’s Aiba with his snails that all have names and his smile, which, if laid out, could probably travel all the way to New York and back, even though there would be rocky parts along the way. There’s Sho with his English words and perfect essays and how he’s not sure what to do with his feelings, even though they’re there, and intensely so.

And there’s Nino, with his quirks and the three moles that dot his face and his introverted self, always staying inside and playing games and wanting to sit close and hold onto Ohno like a shield, and the way he doesn’t smile so much as turn the corners of his mouth up like a sly secret, and how sometimes when they’re all together and everyone else is asleep Ohno can hear him humming tunes that don’t exist anywhere but in his blood.

IJAS couldn’t give him any of that. Maybe he’s being selfish, but he is happy, and his parents have always wanted him to be that way. Maybe he’s only seventeen and isn’t making the right decision, but he’s seventeen and this is the only decision that makes sense to him.

He picks up the phone.

 

 

Jun finds Sho at the doorway to Aiba’s house.

“Hey,” Jun says. He slings the plastic bag with Aiba’s sweater over his shoulder. “Can’t get in?”

“I haven’t tried the door yet,” Sho says, but he doesn’t reach for the knob. Then again, Jun didn’t expect him to. “What’s that?”

“Aiba’s sweater.”

“From?”

“That time we went exploring in the snow,” Jun says, “last year.”

Sho shakes his head, but he’s grinning. “Behind Nino’s house.”

“Yeah,” Jun says. “And you fell in the snow bank.”

“Hey--I got frostbite!”

“If frostbite means you got a little red for a couple of hours,” Jun says, and rolls his eyes.

“And then the hot chocolate afterward,” Sho keeps on, cupping his hands around an imaginary mug. “With the marshmallows.”

“Maybe this winter,” Jun says, each word said carefully, weighted on his tongue, “we can do that again.” He shrugs. “If you want.”

Sho opens his mouth, then shuts it with a click. There’s not really anything he can say that isn’t already hanging in the air between them.

“Winter’s a long way off,” is what he ends up saying. “How about an end-of-summer beach trip instead?”

“Sho--,” Jun begins.

“Stop,” Sho says, and holds his hands up. It was going to come to this sooner or later, and he’s just glad they haven’t punched each other in the face yet and made this into an all-out brawl. He’s not sure if this means they’re mature or just tired of this whole thing. “I’m the stubborn jackass here.”

“I was going to say,” Jun continues, “that this is dumb.”

Sho exhales.

“Let’s just go on that beach trip and pretend it’s the beginning of the summer again,” he suggests.

“Then I guess I don’t need to give Aiba back his sweater?”

“He won’t miss it.”

This is true, Jun thinks, and anyway there is Sho for Aiba now when it gets cold. He’s not going to imagine that, but he knows it’s the truth, and if it makes them happy, then fine. As long as they’re all okay again. As long as they’re all talking and not being stubborn jackasses.

Jun and Sho leave together, knocking elbows down the road.

 

 

“Ohno-kun.”

The art teacher sounds like she’s trying to resist from breaking down into tears, even over the phone. Ohno doesn’t blame her--if he’d chosen to go, he would have been the first from the high school to go to IJAS on full scholarship. She would have gotten a pay raise, maybe, or just compliments for days in the break room. Maybe she would have let her hair go free. Aiba, at least, would be happy about that.

“You’re sure?”

It’s the third time she’s asked the question. Ohno wants to tell her that persistent questions will not change his mind, but he’ll be nice.

“I’m positive.”

She goes on, asking he if he realizes what he’s doing, if he’s considered all the options.

“It’s only been a day,” she says. The tremble in her voice carries perfectly over the phone line. “You don’t want to think about it?”

“I’ve thought it over,” Ohno says simply.

“Ohno-san,” the art teacher says after a beat. “Who are you making this decision for? Yourself or someone else?”

Ohno fiddles with the broken lock on his window.

“Myself,” he says. He’s sure.

 

 

After Ohno hangs up, he yawns hugely and crawls back into bed. A nap sounds great right now, and when he wakes up he can work on painting something for his project, or maybe just do a quick drawing. He feels like more monkeys today, but he’s not sure. Maybe he’ll dream about something bizarre and it’ll inspire him to do something else, something completely crazy.

But when he falls asleep this time, he doesn’t dream. He remembers.

It’s the beach trip all over again, except this time there’s an extra part to it that he hasn’t thought about in awhile, and for some reason is remembering it now.

Everything about the trip is the same up until the train ride home, when Nino and Ohno took the last two seats in a row and hid behind Aiba’s long limbs and deflated-but-still-huge inner tube, which he was clutching to his chest like a rubber teddy bear. He was snoring.

Ohno thought Nino was sleeping too, and then he felt it--a hand curling around his own, fingers seeking the inlets of his, searching for a fit.

Then a nose, cold with sea spray, nudging at the space between his ear and neck.

He wasn’t sure what to do. He’d thought it was an accident and pulled away.

“Nino?” he’d mouthed. “Are you awake?”

There had been no answer, just a muffled, sleepy noise, and Ohno squeezed the hand in his and tucked the moment somewhere in the back of his mind for safekeeping.

They never talked about it. Ohno wasn’t going to bring it up--maybe he had dreamt the whole thing, he wasn’t sure--and he was sure Nino wasn’t going to do it again.

But neither of them was going to say anything, so it went under the table like a wartime secret kept for years and years until it eventually grew dormant and gathered dust in Ohno’s mind. He simply thought that what had happened was a Nino-thing, a dream gone too far and too lucid, and he hadn’t thought it meant anything.

If he really thinks about it, though--if he adds up Nino’s little quirks, his choice of project, the way he stopped talking to Ohno after Aiba and Sho got together, his being in Ohno’s bed without him there, to what happened on the train--that one little piece of summertime had probably meant everything to Nino.

And Ohno had just let it go without a second thought.

But even if he’s late, he gets it now. Even if he messed up the first time, he’s so willing to make it right again that he feels that desire should cancel out everything else.

After all, anything is better late than never, and while Ohno doesn’t know if Nino believes in that, it doesn’t matter. He’ll make that belief happen. He knows exactly how to do it.

In his real dreams--awake and asleep--he’s already done it so many times.

 

 

Nino is writing a report--no, Nino is trying to write a report about the results of his summer project. It isn’t going well because his project never had any scientific merit in the first place, nor did it really have a point.

“I…am…ridiculous,” he scribbles onto the page, the lead chipping right off his pencil and leaving grey streaks through his sentence. “And this…is…also…ridiculous.”

He crumples up the paper and tosses it in the trash: draft number six. Not that he got past two words on any of those drafts. He just likes the smell of a new piece of paper (though not quite as much as Sho does).

Then, from the doorway, his sister. “Kazu?”

“Go away,” he says flatly. “I’m--studying.”

“By throwing paper balls into a trash can? Are you studying to be a part of the varsity basketball team?” She sounds like she has a stick up her ass. This is nothing out of the ordinary.

Nino crumples up a new sheet of paper and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Ow,” says someone.

Someone male.

Nino doesn’t turn around. He has four possible guesses and one very possible guess as to who exactly is in his room right now, and he’s not sure he wants to be right.

“You have a guest,” his sister says, a minute too late. “And I know it’s been awhile since you’ve seen each other. How rude of you.”

Yeah. It’s Ohno.

Nino finally turns around, but not to look at his so-called guest. “How rude of you,” he snaps at his sister. “Can you leave? We’re going to have sex.”

“Angry sex,” Ohno adds after a pause.

“With whips.”

“And chains.”

“Oh God.” She leaves the room in a hurry, hands thrown up in defeat, and slams the door behind her. “I knew it,” Nino hears her yell down the hallway, and his mother yells something back from the kitchen downstairs, but all of that becomes very distant in the next few seconds when Ohno moves to sit down on Nino’s bed.

He is an arm’s length away, closer if Nino got up and walked over, closest if he sat down next to him.

But he just can’t do that.

“It’s been awhile, huh?” Ohno says. “What have you been up to?”

“Homework,” Nino says, and gestures limply to the blank pages staring up at him. “How’s your art project?”

“Oh,” Ohno says, and shrugs. His eyes skitter downwards, and Nino frowns. “I’ve got a few paintings left.”

Nino nods. “Cool,” he says, and leans backward in his chair, fingers gripping the edge of his desk for support. “So--why are--?”

Why are you here, is the sentence on the edge of his tongue, but he never gets to finish it. One of his hands slips from the desk and there he goes, flying--but Ohno’s hand is there on the back of Nino’s chair, pushing him back to earth. It’s just a tiny shove and everything is righted again, but Ohno’s fingers slip at the last second and brush the back of Nino’s neck, the bump of spine to skull.

The touch is like a match tossed in gasoline. Nino’s head whips round. Ohno’s fingers are still held in mid-air.

“You were falling,” Ohno says, like he doesn’t see what the big deal is.

“Yeah. Good one. Maybe a knock to the head would’ve helped me with this project.” Nino tries not to sound bitter, but he doesn’t think he’s doing a good job of it. Or maybe Ohno won’t catch the bite in his voice--he obviously hasn’t caught onto a lot, and it doesn’t look like he’s changed much.

“Do you want me to leave?”

No. “If you want. I’m not keeping you here.”

“Nino.”

“What?”

“Listen.”

“I am.”

“I--,” Ohno begins, and rakes a hand through his hair. He’s not looking at Nino, which isn’t out of the ordinary except that he also looks distracted. His mouth is a little open and the hand in his hair is still there.

“The school thinks I should transfer,” he continues, voice dropped to a nearly-intelligible mumble. “To an art school in the city, on full scholarship.”

At first it doesn’t process. Nino thinks, that’d be great for Oh-chan, and then the rest of his mind catches up and it’s like a bee sting, sudden and sharp--transfer. Wait. Transfer?

Everything in him pounds. Head, heart, the tips of his fingers as his grasp on the back of the chair tightens into a lock with no slot for a key. He looks down, looks up, and then turns back to his desk.

He wonders, what am I supposed to say to that, and usually he’s good about keeping all that stuff inside but this time he says it. Fuck this, he thinks. Fuck it. This isn’t the time and place for unsaid words.

“What am I supposed to say to that?” he says, but more calmly that he’d thought it would come out. “Good-bye and good luck?”

Ohno shakes his head. “You don’t have to say anything.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not going.”

Nino opens his mouth. He doesn’t know what to say or what his body wants to do--scream, shout or just get up and leave. But this is his house, and he doesn’t want to open the door and leave this room, not when Ohno is here--finally here after years and years and an entire summer of wasted smoke signals.

He doesn’t know what this moment is going to give him, but he feels like he’s been waiting for whatever it is for a very long time.

“I’m not going,” Ohno says again. “It’s not what I want.”

“I thought you liked that sort of thing,” Nino says. His words feel removed from his mouth. Is this really happening? What is he saying? Ohno’s not transferring to art school and they’re talking about this like it’s a normal conversation. Maybe to two other people it would be, but to them--at least to Nino--it’s far from normal. They don’t talk about this. In fact, they don’t usually talk. “You don’t have to…I mean, why aren’t you going?”

Ohno tilts his head. “I think it would be better for me to stay here.”

“You must be stupid,” Nino says, but his voice shakes at the end, though barely.

Ohno looks up and smiles.

“Maybe for university,” he says.

“Yeah, maybe by then you’ll have knocked some sense into that head of yours.”

“Nino,” Ohno says. “I just--realized something.”

He’s not talking about university or art school.

“What’s that?” Nino asks, pounding everywhere still, now even in his ears and teeth.

Ohno reaches out. He’s an arm’s length away from Nino one second and then in the next they’re not even a finger’s width apart.

This feels like more matches tossed haphazardly into the gasoline and more drumming in Nino’s body. But pressed to Ohno, the beat feels different, somehow muted, and warmer, like real music.

“What are you doing?”

“What you did to me on the train,” Ohno murmurs. “I just remembered it tonight--.”

Just?Nino’s tone is sharp, hurt. “How the hell do you forget something like that?”

“I don’t--,” he begins, then thinks better of it. “That doesn’t matter. But…did you mean it?”

When Nino looks up, Ohno is looking back at him just like he always has--curiously, but sure.

“You’re dense,” he mumbles.

Ohno’s laugh is almost a whisper, a summer breeze, into the curve of Nino’s ear.

“But the answer is yes,” Nino says, voice low, low, almost inaudible.

Ohno still hears it. Mine too, he says, but not in the traditional way.

Later on Nino understands why he never wanted to actually tell Ohno anything--not because he was shy, but because there isn’t anything he has to say to Ohno that can’t be communicated otherwise.

The two of them always preferred it their way, anyhow.

 

 

“I promise,” Aiba says on the way to the train station, “that it isn’t going to rain this time.”

Nobody brings up the fact that it didn’t even rain the last time they went to the beach, though the weather forecast called for afternoon showers. Aiba looks too excited (stupidly excited, Nino had said out of the corner of his mouth) for anyone to tell him so, and it’s too hot outside for anyone to be snippy.

Or snippier than usual. Nino has an arm freely slung around Ohno’s neck, and he snorts loudly.

“Are you going to lug that thing on the train again?” he says, pointing at Aiba’s inner tube. “The last time you did that, you accidentally hit that grandma and she threatened to sue you.”

“But she didn’t,” Aiba says triumphantly.

“You don’t know that,” Jun cuts in. He’s wearing sunglasses that are trimmed in leopard print and are too big for his face, but he leaves them there. They’ll probably stay on his face until someone tugs them off and begs Jun never to wear them again. “But just try not to do it again.”

Aiba laughs, then nudges Sho--who has a stripe of sunscreen across the bridge of his nose--with the inner tube. Sho stumbles a little bit, and then pushes Aiba back. He narrowly avoids running into a stop sign post.

“Hey,” Nino shouts, “what did I tell you guys about being googly? I’m about to throw up, like that one time Jun-kun was sick.”

Jun pushes Nino into the next stop sign post, and Ohno has to stop at the next crosswalk because he’s laughing so hard he’s doubled over.

“We’re not even at the beach yet,” Sho says weakly. Once again, his mother packed an entire suitcase of food. You’re all growing up so fast, is what she said when she saw Sho’s face. You need to eat! And while he has no doubts that they’ll manage to eat every last crumb in the basket, he still has to carry it along on their way to the beach, and it’s more than just a little heavy. “We’re not even to the train station.”

“Almost,” Ohno says. “Need help?”

He takes the other half of the handle. This way it’s easier, but they waddle.

“Funny penguin we’ve got here,” Nino says.

“You guys,” Aiba says. His voice sounds like the weather--clear and light, with a touch of sun peeking out behind buildings and through trees; like nature is laughing in ringing, joyful notes.

 

 

It’s the end of summer, the last hurrah. On the train ride to the beach Sho closes his eyes and thinks of sea foam licking the tips of his toes, that packed feeling of being buried in the sand (because it’s always him) and chasing down volleyballs in the ocean.

Jun removes his sunglasses and tucks them into the v-neck of his t-shirt.

“This was a good idea,” he says. “In fact, it’s one of your better ones.”

Sho laughs. “Thanks, I think?”

“But really.” Jun looks down the row at the other three, who are caught in a heated debate over Aiba’s science project, which he finished inconclusively (“Snails are slow all the time,” he’s saying, “the temperature doesn’t matter!” Ohno looks incredulous. Nino is just sitting there, shaking his head). “It’s been a good summer.”

Sho looks out the opposite window. They’re close to the ocean--he catches split-second glimpses of blue-green every few houses they pass. In a few days they’ll be going back to school for a new year, but for now they have this, and each other.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “It’s been a really good summer.”

 

 

In conclusion, my summer was not perfect, but it was the best summer I have ever had. I will always remember what happened, even the bad things, and I know my friends will always remember it too. 

If they do not remember, I will tell them. 

I have a friend who believes in the saying “better late than never.” I did not used to agree with him, but now I do. Many things occurred during my summer vacation that were resolved last-minute, which fixed everything. 

I am certain that this friend, and my other friends, will be together to remember this summer in a couple years’ time. 

And many years after that, as well.