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Punchline

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Punchline
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Ito Keita stood on his apartment balcony, watching the cars wind past. Their headlights shined with a water-like deceptiveness, sometimes blinking out for a moment to return to full glittering force, like the sun striking pebbles on the bottom of a creek. In these dark hours neither fully morning or night, the world appeared to him magnified; the intensity of his focus seemed to slow the passage of time.

He wasn't sure why he couldn't sleep. He'd tossed and turned, but after a while the futon had started to feel more oppressive than comforting. Out here the pressure lessened; he could feel a breeze. He let his mind wander from one topic to the next: work, what to have for breakfast, how everyone was doing - Naruse-san, Shinomiya-san and Iwai-san, and Kazuki.

Especially Kazuki.

He checked his phone even though he knew nothing would be there, squinting as the bright blue of the screen hit his eyes.

No new messages.

All this was natural, he knew. Friendships in adulthood were different than those as those as a student - no, as a child. Of course, then the platinum paper had come and they'd been reunited for a time. Even when Keita learned part of the truth - and Endo Kazuki became Suzubushi Kazuki - he didn't learn it all. There was always something painful that trembled in the other boy's eyes when he thought Keita wasn't watching him.

He had waited, thinking that surely with time he would know what made Kazuki seem impossibly older, always one step removed. He knew that they would never be on a completely level playing field. That was a given when you compared to the son of an office worker to the son of - well, one of the most influential families in the country.

But he thought surely, after sitting side by side in classes for three years, he would one day get to know at least part of the older boy's secret. Instead, they seemed to grow apart incrementally year by year. Kazuki spent more and more evenings at work, his dorm room next door resonating with cold silence. When he hung out with Keita after classes, Kazuki seemed to invite as many of their friends along as he could.

Keita frowned, trying to remember the exact moment Kazuki had disengaged.

"Keita?"

The voice was scratchy. Keita turned, the wind gusting over his cheek as he laid eyes on its owner.

Shunsuke stood in his favorite oversized nightshirt, rubbing at his eyes with the curve of his palm. Keita's heart felt a thrum of love as he took him in: red hair impossibly tussled, the slim lines of his exposed calves, the way the night shirt brushed the tops of his knobbly knees. There were scars there from all of Shunsuke's falls during his stunts; Keita had traced them over and over with his eyes and his lips.

"What are you doing out there? It's late, come back to bed."

Keita gave him a small smile. "Sure, okay. Just give me a few more minutes..."

Shunsuke grunted. Keita could see his eyes were barely open. "Mm, okay. But you should be quick about it. Ya have work in... in just a few... hours." With a yawn and a stretch, Shunsuke crossed the few steps from inside out onto the balcony. He looped his wiry arms around Keita's neck, presumably to hold himself steady while he pressed their foreheads together.

"Ya've been doing this a lot lately. Sleep's important for teachers, too," Shunsuke murmured. He leaned in for a kiss, the pressure of his arms sending warm anticipation up Keita's spine.

Suddenly, a memory surfaced: of sitting with everyone at lunch, the end of his first year. He had been sitting on one side of the table, Shunsuke on his left, Shinomiya-san and Iwai-san to his right. On the other side had been Saionji-san and Shichijo-san - and most importantly Kazuki, right in front of him, picking at the A-set of the day with his chopsticks, trying to pretend like he hadn't skipped morning classes and eaten at a catered board meeting.

They had all been talking normally, laughing and getting along. And then Shunsuke had slipped an arm around Keita's neck - under the pretext of telling a joke - Shunsuke's free hand fidgeting with the edge of Keita's pants pocket under the table, as if he wanted to slip his hand inside but didn't dare. They had barely started dating then, and Keita still burned up at every unexpected touch. He blushed and looked down at his food, trying to remember to laugh in time with everyone else when Shunsuke delivered the punchline to his joke.

When he glanced up - involuntarily, it must have been - he caught Kazuki's expression.

He'd looked gutted. For one long moment, Keita had stared into Kazuki's wounded eyes, and then Kazuki's face had shuttered. When Shunsuke delivered his punchline to the group, Keita laughed late.

Kazuki didn't laugh at all.

The force of the revelation was hitting him now, making him draw in his breath. The weight of Shunsuke's arms lessened and Keita came to, finding another pair of eyes searching his own.

"Keita, you okay?"

He struggled to appear normal, to pick up his sinking stomach. "I - I'm fine. You have your competition tomorrow, right? You go on ahead, I'll be right there."

To his relief, Shunsuke didn't seem to notice. Instead, his lover gave him a quick peck on the cheek and drifted back into the apartment. He took a deep breath. In another moment, it was as if Shunsuke had never come out there at all.

Keita was alone.


 

An ocean away, Kazuki leaned into the plush embrace of the company car's backseat. Instead of relaxing to some music or admiring the scenery through the protective shield of perfectly tinted windows, he was studying his cellphone.

Keita, how are you? It's been a while.

He read the message again and again, one thumb poised over the send button.

"Sir? We're here," said the driver. His concentration broke as he realized the car was no longer moving. In that moment, Suzubushi Kazuki took all of his longing - and his love - and put it in a little box somewhere very far down.

"Right," he said.

He deleted the text. His driver was holding the door open, the golden American sunlight streaming in.

"Thank you," he said, and the driver bowed.

The driver did not remark on why his employer's eyes were ringed with red, and that was why he was paid so very well.