Grocery shopping made Otoji feel nostalgic. He had generally done most of the shopping when he'd lived together with his brother; Seiichi's working hours had been too crazy, and Otoji liked cooking anyway, so he figured he might as well choose the ingredients himself. He had learnt by trial and error, and ended up knowing how to make okay soup and damn good curry and passable katsudon. Everything else was a bust. It was fine, though. It wasn't as if he could afford fancy condiments. Mostly he and Joe made do with cheap take-out. But Friendship Day had been a success, money-wise, and Otoji was sick of slimy noodles.
He still had to count coins to figure out if he could afford some smokes.
"And a pack of Mild Seven. Thanks."
He was about to leave with his flimsy plastic bag when the shopkeeper called him back. Otoji's stomach lurched. The guy didn't want to see his ID, did he? He didn't want to dig out Seiichi's passport for something that stupid.
The man didn't ask him for anything. Instead, he took a paper bag from under the counter and handed it to Otoji like he couldn't wait to get rid of it, pressing his lips firmly together so his ratty moustache and beard touched. "For Joe."
Otoji paused. This was close to the harbour, and there were lots of Navy guys around. He always did his shopping here. Surely, if the owner was in Tooru's pocket, he could've arranged a trap long ago. Something more subtle than a... than a bomb in a bag. A simple messy death wouldn't satisfy, not anymore. Tooru had to keep cranking it up and cranking it up, until he couldn't get any higher.
It was a sickening feeling to know that for a fact, to find something in common with him. Otoji shoved it out of his mind, took the bag with a nodded thanks and chanced a peek inside. The sides of his mouth drew back in a grin at the sight of beer bottles and a bag of snacks. So much for bombs. There was a note, too, but he left it for Joe. Probably from an army pal of his. An ex-client, maybe. The thought didn't bother him.
Lazy reggae beats echoed down to the street. Joe had opened the glass door and was sitting on the balcony, in Otoji's sax-playing spot, dangling his leg. A cigarette was hanging off the corner of his mouth, and empty strawberry milk cartons were thrown all over. He nodded hi through the smoke, his eyes brightening. "Oto!"
Otoji left the groceries on the tiny kitchen counter, kicked off his shoes and joined him in the orange evening sun. Soon it would start getting dark, and the lights of Yokosuka would make little stars for them to see by. Otoji let out a soft, satisfied sigh. The flat might have been a cramped shithole, but they had a great view over the bay. A nice cool breeze came in from the sea, raw with brine.
"Hey," he said, and tucked a kiss behind Joe's ear, reaching out to steal his cigarette. He didn't smoke as much as Joe did, but he liked it as a full stop to a satisfied conclusion: a long day at work, good sex, big decisions. Today he would settle for two out of three.
"Oi!" Joe's lazily slumped form suddenly became animated, and he made a half-hearted attempt at getting the cigarette back, but then noticed the paper bag.
Otoji nudged it towards him. "It was left in the shop for you. Who's it from?"
Joe didn't answer him right away, rummaging through the contents. He took out a bag of some kind of American sweets, grinned at it, and then flipped the little note over. "Huh. Naomi. I guess she heard... huh." For a second, Joe's smile wavered, and he scratched at his head, throwing the note back into the paper bag. "Wonder what she's up to."
Naomi. It was a name Otoji knew. A moment of thinking brought up a memory of dyed blonde hair, long legs and an easy laugh. "Your ex, right?"
"We fucked," Joe agreed, and scrambled up onto his feet. "What didja get? Cup noodles?"
"I thought I'd make curry."
An affectionate kick. "Get to making it, then. I'm starving."
"Jeez. Okay, okay."
Otoji rolled his eyes. The bossing around could be fun sometimes, but he had been on his feet all day. At least Joe didn't try to help with the cooking - with a bit of effort, he could ruin even cup noodles. He stuck to sexual harassment, which was more than fine. As far as Otoji was concerned, the day got infinitely better when he had Joe's hand down his jeans and teeth nibbling at his ear. Joe's breath was hot when he chuckled into the nape of Otoji's neck.
"Guess who's getting his sweet ass fucked tonight," he sing-songed. He managed to do it off-key. Not a musical bone in his skinny body.
Otoji loved every single one of his bony angles, even those that poked him in the side at night and woke him up.
Joe laughed, and gave him a squeeze through his briefs. "Trick question. It's both of us. But you might get it first."
Eventually Otoji had to shoo him away, and he sauntered back to the balcony to start the reggae record over. He and his endless Bob Marley.
Otoji left the curry to simmer for a bit, and joined Joe, who had found his smokes again. That was when they remembered the beer.
"Oh, sweet!" Joe lifted a bottle out of the bag to show Otoji the label. "Sarushima Beer, fucking A. Y'know, I've never actually had it before. I don't even know why. I guess I thought it needed the right moment, shit like that."
"Will this do, then?"
"Fuck yeah. Cheers."
They clinked the bottles together. They were heavier than Coronas, and the beer had more substance somehow. Not that Otoji knew that much about beers. It was good, though.
Up close Otoji could sense the curious lack of shimmery energy about Joe. Even asleep, Joe was restless, his toes and fingers and lips twitching. Otoji knew that better than anyone, having spent many long, love-stupid moments watching him. But Joe was as relaxed now as Otoji had ever seen him, chuckling and giving up his cigarette without protest. He smelled odd, too, something both earthy and sweet mixing with the usual weirdness of cigarettes and strawberry milk.
Otoji caught the cigarette between his lips, and stretched out his legs before taking a drag. His mouth filled with a sweet, clingy taste, and he coughed, eyes watering.
"What the...? What is this?"
Joe laughed, of course, drowsy and self-satisfied, and took the cigarette back. It looked hand-rolled, now that Otoji really paid attention to it. "You gotta hold it in, dumbass. Let it trickle out. Slowly."
After Joe took a long, deep suck, there was barely one more drag left for Otoji. He did as Joe said and held the sickly sweetness in, felt the smoke tickle and burn and coat his mouth.
"Yeah," Joe said, tendrils of smoke drifting out of his nose, smiling like a cat. "That's it. You always were good with smokes."
Otoji made a face and flicked the cigarette butt off towards the roofs. He felt like a bubble was forming around his brain, making his skull light. A wave of nausea came and went. "What was that? Tasted kind of weird."
"A little something from Naomi. Probably got it from one of her Navy boyfriends. Hard as shit to get your hands on it here."
Wait a tic. Alarms were starting to sound inside Otoji's skull. "What?"
Joe gave his hair a tousle. "Grass, you idiot. Mickey had a joint every now and then, don't know where he got 'em, but he wouldn't bring them out of the base. Guess it's true that it makes you paranoid, huh?"
Grass? Marijuana? Did that mean he was stoned now? Otoji tried to judge if he felt stoned. He didn't know how to tell. Joe was a bit chatty, maybe.
"You mean drugs? We're smoking drugs?!"
Joe lay down on his back and threw his feet up, propping them up against the balcony railing. "Chill the fuck out. Nothing to it. Anyway, it's gone now."
Well, that was true. Otoji relaxed a little, figuring he might as well check out this being stoned thing now that he was already there. He joined Joe on the cool balcony floor, and became aware of familiar words sailing on the reggae waves.
"Hey. Hey, this song."
Joe's hair was auburn in the twilight. His tee-shirt had ridden up, exposing a sliver of pale skin. "Yeah?"
"I know this. It's a blues song. My brother... he could play it. Damn. What was it?"
"Fuck your jazz and blues shit. This is sweet seventies reggae, baby." Joe threw his leg over Otoji's, and rubbed his bare foot with his toes.
A strong shiver went through Otoji, right down the spine. "No, I know this..."
I've got one more silver dollar, and I ain't gonna let 'em catch me, no, ain't gonna let 'em catch--
"The Midnight Rider!" Otoji nudged at Joe, and he took it as a tickle, spluttering out a laugh. "That's it! Bet I could still play the refrain at least."
Joe recovered from his chuckles, and rolled over, straddling Otoji with one sinuous motion. His hips dragged over Otoji's, making nerve endings sit up and say hello.
"Reggae," he insisted, and his shirt was halfway off him by now. Otoji's hand crawling underneath it certainly helped matters.
"Blues," Otoji said with conviction, Joe's weight on him pouring heat down his veins, and added a full stop by kissing him soundly.
For a while, there was nothing between them but wet lips, eager tongues and clothing, and even that was pushed aside. For their standards, it was a slow and leisurely snog, neither of them seeming to be in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. Otoji liked it, the slowly built heat of it. If it was because they were stoned, then Mickey should definitely keep bringing Joe those joints.
The sudden reminder made him gasp and break the kiss; Mickey was gone, probably in Hawaii by now.
He couldn't read the look on Joe's face. "Let's listen to it again," he said, out of breath, and Otoji nodded.
The beat was undoubtedly reggae, Otoji couldn't deny that. He wished he had his sax within reach. He might try to test his memory. He tested his English instead, and found the lyrics pretty easy to parse through.
"I've heard some of the Navy boys talk about Liberty dollars," Joe said, on his back again, staring up at the stars that weren't there yet. "You think that's the same as silver dollars? Seems to fit, yeah? Land of the free and all that."
Otoji shrugged, taking a sip of his beer. "If you believe that money equals freedom, maybe."
"Sure it does."
Joe said it with such sincerity that Otoji looked at him. "You think we could bribe Tooru to leave us alone?"
"No, but..." Joe flipped over onto his stomach, and raked his hand into his hair. "That's because it's not just him, y'know? He's got his hands in the pockets of the whole organisation. We'd have to bribe Yakuza, not him. And no one has the money for that. So whatever."
This was interesting. Otoji rarely saw Joe being this honest without turning defensive. He handed him his bottle. "If it was just him, though?"
Joe took a long drink, and his curls fell down to shadow his eyes. He was silent for another sip before replying. "I... I don't know. Maybe. I mean, why do people like money, anyway? So they can buy bits of freedom. Makes sense. Why would Tooru be that different?"
It wasn't hard to guess where Joe had learnt his attitude from. Otoji was still struggling to form a complete picture of Joe's mother in his mind; she shimmered like some kind of a vision, never solidifying into something real. Sometimes she seemed like a cruel goddess, above such mortal concerns as taking care of her son. Sometimes she seemed larger than life in other ways, a woman who was too beautiful, too magical for this screwed up city.
"His price would be ridiculously high, though."
"I wish I'd had Liberty dollars when I was starting out," Joe said, his voice low, and Otoji didn't know who he was talking to. "Symbolic, or some shit like that. One coin, one step closer to..." He stopped abruptly, and rubbed at his dry eyes. They were darkened by already dispersing feeling when he glanced at Otoji. "Hey, how's your curry?"
Otoji was jolted away from his thoughts, and went to fetch their food. They ate from their only bowls with their only spoons, leaning on opposite sides of the balcony, bare feet meeting in the middle. The bayside bar signs glittered in the summer night.
"This is so fucking good," Joe said, and scarfed down another helping, washing it down with the good Sarushima beer.
"You know what I'd buy if I had all the money in the world?" Otoji hoped the easy feeling brought on by the food would last.
Joe cocked an eyebrow, finishing his bottle.
Otoji couldn't quite keep from grinning. "All the jazz and blues records in the wor--"
"Oh, you fucker!" Joe pounced onto him, and they laughed into each other's mouths, and neither of them knew whether they were trying to wrestle or just hold on to each other.
The food and the beer and the grass won in the end. It made them sluggish, and they ended up lying on top of each other, catching breaths between soft, earnest kisses.
"I feel pretty free right now," Otoji ventured, running his hand through Joe's hair. You had to drop genuine confessions of feelings carefully into conversation, otherwise Joe scoffed at them.
"Mm." Joe kissed him one more time, got up and stretched his arms. "But that's no good. I don't want pretty free. It's all or nothing. I'm done with small measures. Done!"
With one hop, he had climbed onto the railing, and was swinging his leg over it. Otoji scrambled up, concern piercing through the comfortable haze. "Joe--"
Joe didn't show any sign that he had heard him. With his both feet on the other side of the railing, he stood up, bare soles digging into the flimsy metal. One little push, and he would fall. He tensed for the jump, an expectant smile on his lips, eyes on the horizon.
Otoji threw himself forward, and wrapped his arms around Joe through the railing bars, feeling the force of gravity already grasping at him. "What the hell -- you almost -- Why did you do that?!"
The metal bars were cold, but they were both hot and alive, blood rushing, hearts galloping. Otoji felt Joe's chest heave with his breaths, and then with his hoarse laughter.
"'Cause I knew you'd catch me."
"It's your fucking luck that I did!" Otoji didn't know if he was angry. He was very something, though, breathless with it. Standing on the precipice, on the edge; there was nothing like it.
Joe threw his head back, and Otoji saw his eyes shine with laughter. Laughter in the face of gravity, of death.
"Yeah, it is," he agreed, and kissed him through the bars, tasting like curry and beer and freedom.