The wedding invitation, when it slides through Nino’s mail slot, is simple and to the point. The paper is in white and the calligraphy in gold and it tells Nino everything he needs to know in just the right number of cool, concise characters.
His phone rings. It’s Sho. “Did you get it?”
Nino nudges gloomily at the invitation with the tips of his fingers, but it doesn’t move. It clings to the surface of his kitchen counter, not so easily dismissed.
There’s a few beats of silence and Nino can hear someone – Haruna probably – a muffled voice in the distance of some other room on Sho’s end of the line. Sho makes a noise of affirmation in response to it.
To Nino he says, “Haruna wants to invite you to stop by tonight. As our guest, of course,” he adds quickly. “Free of charge.”
Nino feels himself perk up a bit. The offer is unprecedented and it gets the better of his resistance to Sho’s poorly masked pity. “This is a first. I thought we were barred from entry.”
Sho huffs out a laugh. “You were. But it’ll be good for you to get out. Just don’t tell Aiba-kun.”
“Too many hearts have been broken already today,” Nino agrees, sardonically.
On the kitchen counter, the invitation still won’t budge, but the envelope is nearby and mostly intact – Nino hadn’t been particularly zealous in getting to its contents after he saw the return address. He pushes it back over to cover the white and gold.
“What time are you picking me up?” he asks Sho.
Haruna’s club is hard to get to, intentionally difficult to find. Even Nino, who takes pride in his sense of direction, feels a little disoriented following Sho down covered walkways, up spiral staircases and through unlabeled doors.
“Is all this really necessary?” Nino asks Sho as they come to a stop so that a tall, menacing-looking bouncer in dark glasses can check Nino’s ID.
As the bouncer holds the card up to Nino’s face for comparison, Nino gives him his most charming smile. The bouncer is unmoved, but with a nod from Sho he OKs Nino anyway. The heavy velvet curtain blocking the entrance is pulled back so that they can pass.
“Haruna-san wanted it to be very exclusive,” Sho explains in answer to Nino’s question.
It’s not hard to interpret the meaning of that statement. “You mean she didn’t want weirdoes like Aiba-chan to be able to find it by themselves,” says Nino.
Sho presses his lips together firmly, but the smile he’s trying to suppress still manages to escape. “Exactly.”
They continue along a narrow, glittering hallway and the mirrored walls around them are even more bewildering than their previous path. Nino grabs for a handful of Sho’s jacket to keep him from getting too far ahead. Sho lets him latch on without complain, slowing his pace a little when the hall opens gradually out before them.
The club’s main room is large, but dimly lit to perfectly emulate intimacy. There are clusters of small tables staggered around the floor and the walls are lined with high-backed booths. The effect of the crystal chandeliers paired with the gold tiled floor is appropriately dazzling. In the center of the room is a bar made entirely of stained glass that refracts in rainbow colors around the room.
They are barely past the threshold, Nino still clutching at Sho’s jacket as he takes in the overwhelming ambiance, when a beautiful hostess in a shining dress approaches them.
She bows, low and graceful. “Sakurai-sama, we’ve been expecting you. Your usual table?”
“Yes, thank you, Miri-chan,” Sho says.
The hostess smiles and her smile is just as shimmery as her dress. Nino is impressed – it’s no wonder the bouncer was immune to him in comparison.
As they’re led towards the back of the club, he jostles Sho’s elbow. “Sho-chan, you didn’t tell me this place was so fancy.”
Sho is sufficiently smug with what he knows to be a Nino-brand of compliment. “I told you to wear a tie, didn’t I?” he boasts.
Nino pulls at his collar uncomfortably. He did wear a tie – a nice one too, the one his mother got him for his birthday – but somehow he still feels underdressed when Miri-chan shows them to a private table on the far side of the room, one that suggests nothing but VIP. Nino shouldn’t be surprised. This may be the only club in the greater Toyko region where Sho is considered to be a member of that category – clearly one of the perks of a romantic entanglement with the club owner.
Miri-chan clears her throat politely. “Sakurai-sama, Haruna-san asked if you would meet her in her office.”
“Of course.” Sho looks to Nino with a little too much trepidation for Nino’s taste. “Will you be all right by yourself?”
Nino waves him off dismissively. “I’m fine. Go see your lady-friend.”
“Nino!” Sho puts a hand up to fix his hair, but Nino has been friends with him long enough to know it’s just an excuse to cover his quickly reddening face. To Miri-chan he says, “Get Ninomiya-san whatever he wants.”
“And put it on Sakurai-sama’s tab,” Nino adds, sweetly.
Sho give a weary sigh, but as he walks away, Nino sees him nod in acquiescence. Nino salutes his retreating back victoriously.
“Would you like to look at a menu, sir?” Miri-chan asks once Sho is out of view, swallowed up by the glitz of the décor around him.
“Absolutely,” says Nino. After all, if he’s going to at least pretend to run up Sho’s bill, a menu is a good place to start.
Nino expects a drink menu and is only a little thrown off when the laminated book he’s handed contains pictures of hostesses instead of beverages. This is a hostess club after all, and although Nino has only been to a few in his life – and none quite like this one – he knows generally how they work.
“As you can see, we have a comprehensive selection of new half hostesses,” Miri-chan explains, while Nino begins slowly to flip through the pages. “We have many girls available to keep our guests company. We hope that there is something for everyone, no matter their preferences.”
When Sho had invited Nino to the club tonight, he had tagged along knowing full well what he was getting into. Tonight is the first time that both Sho and Haruna have deemed anyone worthy, or at least presentable enough, to be invited here. Even if Nino has only been chosen because they feel sorry for him, there is still some not entirely imagined pressure to be on his best behavior – if only for the sake of Aiba, who is sitting at home now, hoping desperately for his chance to be in Nino’s place.
It’s all a little odd though. An hour ago he’d been sitting at home, looking forward to an evening of indulgent self-pity. Now he’s ordering girls off a menu.
For the moment, he shakes it off. Miri-chan is waiting expectantly for his choice, but Nino hasn’t thought far ahead enough to have a particular preference in mind, or even to know if he has one. As he skims the pages of pretty face after pretty face, he suspects that he does not.
Overwhelmed with options, he glances up beseechingly at the hostess beside him. “You’re not available?” he asks, fishing for the easy way out.
Miri-chan’s smile is politely sympathetic. She shakes her head. “Ninomiya-sama – ”
He interrupts her. “Just Nino is fine.”
“Nino-sama.” She corrects herself easily, without skipping a beat – a true professional. “Might I make a suggestion?”
She motions for the menu and Nino pushes it into her hands willingly.
Miri-chan flips quickly through the rest of the book, stopping only when she gets to the very end. She places it back in front of Nino and points to the last picture on the last page.
“Sammi-chan is our newest member. She’s a very cute girl. Perhaps to Nino-sama’s taste?”
Nino peers down at the picture of a light haired girl with a round face and a lazy smile.
“Perfect,” he says without hesitation, snapping the book shut in relief. “Send her over.”
“Right away, Nino-sama,” Miri-chan replies. She bows once more before disappearing into the crowded club.
Nino leans back in his seat to wait. It’s a Saturday night and the club is crowded, with every seat filled. Haruna, Nino thinks, is a much savvier businesswoman than he had realized. He watches, bemused, while a table full of salarymen and their preferred ladies attempt to out-do each other in celebrity impressions. One of the girls is laughing so hard that she spills her drink all over the front of her dress and, as if on cue, every man at the table leaps forward at the same time to assist her.
Distracted by the goings-on, Nino doesn’t realize that someone has approached his table until she speaks.
“Ninomiya-sama. I’m Sammi. I was told you requested me.”
In person, Sammi is baby-faced, with tear drop eyes and a sweet pink bow of a mouth. Her hair is long and caramel tinted, set in loose, half-perfect curls that fall around her face and down past her shoulders. She’s dainty somehow, small in build and with a slight curve to her posture that makes her appear even smaller. She dips her head in greeting and the dark fan of her eyelashes over soft cheeks makes Nino suddenly, inexplicably giddy.
“Please treat me kindly,” she says and there’s a perfunctory slur to the words. She starts to take a seat, then stops herself halfway. “Ah, may I sit down?” she asks belatedly, the quirk of her mouth a little sheepish.
Nino nods dumbly. He can feel an excited sweat prickling his skin as Sammi settles into the chair beside him. Her slim fitting dress is as sparkling as Miri-chan’s and covered in a silvery fringe that moves as she does, each strand like an irresistible, gleaming fishing lure. Nino’s attention is drawn to her skirt, which as she sits, rides up enough to expose another few inches of girlish thigh. It takes a moment for him to tear his eyes way from this and when he does, Sammi is watching him with a comfortable sort of amusement.
“This is – high caliber stuff,” he stutters out.
It’s a rude thing to say. He knows it immediately, regrets it when Sammi's smile tightens into a polite line. Even so, she leaves her skirt where it is.
“Sorry,” he says quickly, wiping his unusually damp palms on his trousers. “I just meant – this is my first time at one of these places and I wasn’t expecting – ”
He cuts himself off. This is unlike him. Nino is rarely incoherent. In fact, his ability to be coherent with just about anyone is one of his fortes. And yet for some reason he can’t seem to concentrate on his train of thought. It's unnerving, but he can’t bring himself to worry over it, not when the slouched profile of the girl sitting next to him is as ridiculous as it is attractive.
It’s been a while since he’s thought that about a girl sitting beside him. At least that’s his excuse for why his mouth feels so dry, his tongue so heavy, over absolutely nothing at all.
They fall silent, Sammi making no attempt at small talk. She sits quietly, docile and heavy lidded in a way that is more sleepy than seductive. At first Nino isn't sure if it's because he's offended her. But the longer they sit there, the more comfortable it feels, easy instead of awkward and somehow intimate. Nino finds that he'd be content to sit like this with her all night, if she’d like. Eventually though, his curiosity gets the best of him.
“So,” he starts. He leans forward, just slightly, unable to control the urge he feels to be closer to her, to occupy her space. “You’re new here?”
Sammi doesn't appear to be bothered by Nino's movement or by his question. She nods her head in response, but doesn't speak. Nino presses on anyway, taking the smallest tilt of her head in his direction as encouragement enough.
“Do you like it so far?”
She wrinkles her nose unhappily. Then for the second time that evening she seems to catch herself doing something that she’s been told not to. A beat too late, she schools her expression blank. “Sure, I like it.”
It's so unconvincing that Nino can't stop himself from grinning. “That much, huh?”
Sammi’s smile is sincere now, revealing just a glint of her teeth, and it makes Nino's next breath come in on an unsteady flutter. He's listed so far forward that he puts an elbow on the table in front of him, a flimsy, afterthought of an excuse for his unconscious propulsion.
“Have you always wanted to be a hostess?” he asks, resting his chin in his hand.
Sammi hesitates, watching him thoughtfully. Her gaze has an idle lack of focus as she traces the lines of Nino face: his eyes, his nose, the curve of his mouth. Nino can’t help but feel self-conscious, embarrassment edging up through his insides and threatening to show on his face. But he stays still for her and lets himself be studied. It gives him a chance to study her too. When their eyes meet again, Sammi appears to have determined that it's okay to answer him truthfully.
“I don't want to be a hostess," she says. "I want to work in a combini.”
Nino’s laugh comes out as a sharp, puppy-ish bark. “A combini?” he repeats, equal parts startled and charmed.
She nods again, agreeably, hand coming up to brush her hair back and hesitating just behind her ear. “It seems fun.”
Nino wonders if she’s teasing him. He doesn’t think he’s ever met anyone who wanted to work in a combini. But her expression is too earnest to be faked, and so his next question is genuine. “Why don’t you work in one then? You could, couldn't you?"
Sammi looks a bit wistful at that. She’s playing with her ear now, a distracting movement that she must be unaware of. Her gaze has fallen from his face to his neck, moving down his body again as she answers him, “They wouldn’t let me. So Haruna-chan told me to come work here.”
Nino nods indulgently, despite the vagueness of her explanation. Question answered, the conversation trails off again and Nino, too entranced by Sammi’s fidgeting movements, doesn’t bother to try to think of another topic. But soon he finds that this is not a content silence like the last one. Sammi’s attention has drifted elsewhere this time and she’s looking past him now, looking through him, to the rest of the club.
Nino is struck by a familiar slick, sick feeling. It’s the same thing he’d felt this morning when the mail had arrived.
She’s lost interest in him.
Nino’s mood, which until now he’s managed to keep aloft, starts to plummet. This is silly. He shouldn’t have let Sho talk him into this. It was a moment of poor judgment on his part, spurred by the prospects of free drinks. This isn’t just free drinks though, or a chance to have something to brag to Aiba about when he gets home.
The urge to flee sets in along with a knee-jerk like reaction to follow it. “I should be going – ” he starts to say, pushing his chair back and wincing a little at the way it screeches across the tile floor.
The noise gets Sammi’s attention. She looks back to him quickly, a panicked expression on her face. “Ah, sorry!” she squeaks. “Please don’t tell Haruna-chan I spaced out again.”
“It’s fine, but I think I should go.“ Nino stands to make his point, but Sammi is talking again, fast and straining, her words tripping over each other in rapidly building alarm.
“I’m new,” she tells him, her eyebrows furrowing in endearing consternation, “and I don’t get very many customers. If another one – if you leave, Haruna-chan will be upset with me. Please stay.”
She looks so flustered that Nino can’t bring himself to refuse her. He sits back down without dispute. “It’s okay, really. I’m sorry I’m not a very good customer.”
Sammi shakes her head, contrite. “I’m not a very good hostess.”
“Then we’re a perfect match, I guess,” Nino says, unable to keep from laughing at how pathetic that sounds under these circumstances.
“You’ll stay?” she asks, still edgy but calmer now that he’s sitting again.
As she speaks, Nino can’t help but glance down at her mouth – pink and made pinker by the too-thick gloss of color on them. When she smiles at him with a soft stretch of her lips, he’s already forgotten why he was trying to leave in the first place.
“I’ll stay,” he reassures her.
She relaxes visibly at that, then leans in again to mirror Nino’s early pose with her chin in her hand. Nino feels himself relaxing too. There’s something oddly soothing about Sammi and once her attention is back on him, he can fully appreciate it. Maybe spending a little more time with her will be good for him. If nothing else, he could use a distraction tonight.
Sammi is watching him closely again, her smile warming up for him by the second. “Ninomiya-sama is cute," she announces abruptly, as if she's just decided.
Nino feels himself flush and swipes a hand over his face bashfully. “It’s just Nino, please.”
Sammi is grinning now, her eyes wide and playful, and Nino is struck by her all over again. His heartbeat becomes an uncontrolled pounding in his chest.
“Can I kiss you?” he blurts out.
It’s forward, to say the least, and Nino is a little shocked by the sound of the words as they spill out from his mouth. Sammi laughs at him, face contorting with a childlike delight. More than ever, Nino is enchanted.
“We don’t do that here,” she tells him, but she’s staring at his mouth, like maybe she’s thinking about it anyway. “Haruna-chan will be angry.”
“Just a drink then?” he tries again. He knows he sounds embarrassingly eager, but he doesn’t really care anymore. He can’t help himself, and besides, it’s too late to play it cool. “You can have a drink with me, right?”
Sammi reaches out, touches the tips of her fingers to Nino’s arm. Her nails are long and carefully, intricately painted. Nino’s pulse quickens under his skin.
“I like tequila,” she offers.
“Did you have fun?” Sho asks later as they wait outside for a taxi.
The closeness and volume of Sho’s voice comes as a shock to Nino before he realizes that his head is on Sho’s shoulder. Nino is drunk – more drunk than he’d intended to get and more than he’s been in quite some time. Tequila has never been his drink, but tonight it was certainly Sammi’s. Nino had been eager to keep up with her, to keep her attention for as long as possible by buying her shot after shot after shot. And so here he finds himself hours later, impressively inebriated.
Sho jostles him, checking for consciousness, and Nino groans as he feels himself sliding down the unforgiving slope of Sho’s shoulder.
“You and Sammi-san seemed to get along well,” Sho says, catching Nino with an arm around his waist.
Nino fumbles his cigarettes out of his coat pocket, but his fingers are too numb with alcohol to get one out of the box. Still he’s not quite drunk enough to be able to blame it for the hot dizzy feeling thudding behind his ribcage.
“I think I’m in love with her,” he decides, apparently out loud because Sho lets out one of his slightly maniacal laughs.
“Oh really? Does she know that?” he asks in amusement, at the same time taking pity on Nino and helping him to fish a cigarette out of the packet in his hand.
“I didn’t tell her, but I think she probably knows,” Nino answers.
He lifts his head up off Sho’s shoulder and parts his lips, a prompt for Sho to put the cigarette into Nino’s mouth for him.
Sho obliges. “I haven’t heard you say something like that in a few years,” he muses. He finds the lighter in Nino’s other pocket and flicks it alight, carefully pressing it to the tip of the cigarette. “This must be serious.”
Nino isn’t too drunk to miss the tinge of humorless to this joke. It has a sobering effect. He takes a few puffs on his cigarette and lets his next words out on a contemplative stream of white smoke. “I should be careful.”
“You should be careful,” Sho agrees.
In the street beside them, a taxi pulls up and pops open its door. Sho helps Nino stumble into it, tells the driver Nino’s address and shoves some money in his hand, knowing Nino has no interest in rejecting the free ride. When he looks back, Nino is already curled up on himself in the backseat, looking preemptively nauseous.
“Do you need me to come home with you?”
“No, Mom,” huffs Nino. “I’m a big boy now and I can take care of myself.”
“Drink some water,” Sho insists. He smiles fondly when Nino frowns at him. “And I’ll tell Haruna to expect you again tomorrow night.”
Nino wakes up closer to afternoon than morning, with a headache only half as bad as he expected. His first priority, after a blind scavenge for his glasses, is to stagger into the kitchen and turn on the coffee maker. As the coffee begins to percolate, he digs his phone out of last night’s jeans pocket. At some point it’s shut itself off and Nino taps his fingers restlessly against its plastic case as he waits for it to turn back on.
The invitation is on the counter where he left it. He gives it a sideways glance. Behind him, the coffee machine beeps out a friendly reminder and he goes to pour himself a cup.
When he gets back, his phone is on. There are no new messages. He opens up a blank mail, then stops for a moment to collect himself. He runs a hand through his chaotic bed-head and pushes the black frames of his glasses further up his nose.
The invitation glints beside him. He takes a sip of coffee.
He puts his mug down on top of the invitation. He starts to type.
Subject: What time does Haruna’s open tonight?
He leaves the rest of the message blank and presses send.
Nino works six nights a week playing piano at a local bar. Aiba is the one who got him the job. Within weeks of being hired as the new bartender, Aiba had already convinced the manager, in his enthusiastic Aiba way, that she could bring in twice as many customers if she hired a live musician to play during the evening hours. (And oh! By the way! Aiba knew just the guy!)
Nino is thankful for it though, although it means a lifetime of Aiba reminding him what a good friend he is and isn’t Nino lucky. The truth is, Nino doesn’t need reminding and he owes Aiba for a lot more than a job. Without Aiba, he’d probably still be lying in bed feeling sorry for himself. Maybe he wouldn’t have even made it to his bed to lie in it – the floor had seemed pretty comfortable at the time. But he did make it into his bed, and then out of it, because Aiba is a good friend and Nino is lucky.
Nino is a natural performer with an instinctive charisma, both assets that he uses to deflect from the fact that he’s far too talented to be playing piano here. He likes to play though, and he doesn't mind doing it for money. It makes it, in his mind, easy money – which is the kind of money Nino likes most of all. In some ways it’s the ideal job for him. It has short hours and good tips. He doesn’t even have to try much. It’s an effortless recital. So he stays and plays, even if at the end of the night he’s relieved to get back home, strip down to his boxers and eat cold, half-off bento from the combini down the block.
Tonight however, Nino is not up to his normal standard. At the piano, he’s distracted. He can't stop thinking about Sammi – her laugh and her lips and the feel of her fingertips against his skin. Already, not even a day later, he's wondering if the tips he’s made will be enough to afford him another evening of her strangely charming company.
It’s unnerving, the effect she’s had on him after just one meeting. He’s not sure what to make of it or if he should make anything of it at all. Either way, it’s causing his usually easy evening to stretch on agonizingly. So much so, that for once the arrival of Becky and Riisa on their nightly piano visit comes as a welcome interruption.
Becky thumps down a tray of empty glasses on the edge of the piano and her collection of plastic neon bracelets slide noisily up and down her arm.
“Nino is wild-eyed tonight,” she comments mischievously.
Riisa nods her head in agreement, her freshly dyed, bubblegum pink hair bobbing with her. She sticks her hands into the pockets of the giant sweater dress she’s wearing and Nino can tell by the big round ears sticking out from behind her apron that it’s the one with a picture of Mickey Mouse knit onto the front of it.
“Yeah, Nii-chan! Did you get a new Takeuchi Yuko DVD or what?” she asks him.
The glare Nino gives her in return is immediate and heartfelt, if not eerily fraternal. “She doesn’t have a new one out. And I told you, don’t call me Nii-chan! We don’t even look that much alike!”
Riisa sniggers, delighted as usual to be an annoyance – and Nino has to admit, at least to himself, that the devious look on her face is a bit familiar.
“So what’s up then?" Becky insists, her round eyes even larger that usual, encircled by a set of flower petal shaped eyelashes. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your high tension?”
Nino does his best to dismiss what is edging dangerously close to an interrogation. “Nothing,” he answers. “I’m not high tension.”
Unfortunately, his evasive tactic only heightens Becky’s glee.
“Max tension,” she says with a gracious smirk. “In fact – ”
She turns back to Riisa.
“Do you want to tell him?” she asks.
Riisa’s hair bobs again, enthusiastically. “Yes please!”
This is all getting to be annoyingly dramatic. Nino is just about to scold them for it when Riisa clears her throat to speak.
“Nii-chan, you’ve played the same song. Three times in a row. And now you’re playing it again.”
Horrified, Nino looks down at his hands as they move in easy betrayal across the keys beneath them. He clangs to a painful, discordant stop. Nearby, a few guests look up from their seats and Nino turns with an apology while the girls beside him cackle joyfully.
“Isn’t it a point of pride with you that don’t repeat yourself? Ever?” Becky asks.
“I don’t repeat. Only amateurs run out of songs. I’m a professional,” Riisa recites in an awful impression of Nino’s voice.
Becky’s arm full of bracelets joins in with her laughter as she claps her hands together. “The guests will start to complain soon if you aren’t careful!”
Nino hides his face in his hands, breathes in and out until he can rally enough integrity for a growl in Becky and Riisa’s direction, but when he looks up they’re already scampering off, an echo of sinister giggles left in their wake.
He turns back to the piano and rests his fingers on the keys. He takes another deep breath, reigning in the remains of his professionalism. He tries not to think about what to make of this, either. He tries not to think about anything at all.
Instead, he starts a new song.
“And he played it four times!” Riisa crows as Aiba listens to her with open-mouthed disbelief, the glass he’s polishing forgotten in his hand.
Becky tips forward on her barstool, eager for information. “It must be a girl, right Aiba-chan? I haven’t seen him this riled up before.”
“No, Nino doesn’t get like that with girls,” Aiba says with a shake of his head. “Not anymore.”
“But he used to!” Riisa yips.
Aiba hesitates, but agrees. “He used to.”
“A girlfriend maybe?” Becky wonders.
She leans back in her seat again, only to yelp in surprise when she bumps into Nino who is eavesdropping just behind her. Next to them, Riisa jumps, and across the bar, Aiba lets out a guilty laugh.
Nino pushes Becky back into her seat a little roughly and flops down on the empty stool beside her. “Is it so unbelievable that I could have a girlfriend?” he sulks.
No one answers.
“Oi!” Nino warns.
Aiba quickly pretends to be busy with his polishing. Becky and Riisa are less intimidated by him however.
“We’re just curious! We’ve never seen you this way,” Becky says, flapping her flower petal lashes innocently.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Leave me alone already,” Nino whines, although there’s no real conviction behind it. He’s tired, and he’s embarrassed to be so obvious, with no patience for anymore teasing. He points at Riisa. “Isn’t it past your bedtime anyway? What would Okaa-san say? You better get out of here or you’ll be in big trouble.”
Riisa rolls her eyes, even while she grins at the way he’s indulged her in her familial game. Becky is less amused. She gives an indigent huff and stands, pulling Riisa with her.
“You’re no fun at all, Nino,” she laments before the two of them stalk away.
As soon as they’re out of earshot, Aiba puts down the glass in his hand. Nino is not surprised to find that it’s no cleaner than it was a few minutes ago when Aiba had been so intent on it.
“Okay, now that they’re gone you can tell me,” Aiba says eagerly, leaning forward and blinking at Nino expectantly.
Nino puts his head down on the bar top and sighs. “It’s nothing. Why is everyone being so annoying?”
“Sho-chan told me you met someone at Haruna’s last night,” Aiba says and from this angle the waggle of his eyebrows ripples strangely across his face.
“If you knew that already why are you bugging me so much!?” Nino accuses.
Aiba tugs at Nino’s hair, a little too hard in his excitement, and Nino slaps his hand away sharply.
“Nino, tell me! I’m your best friend. You can tell me anything! Look, I knew and I didn’t even say anything to Becky and Riisa about it. Don’t you love me?”
Nino shakes his head and the action presses his cheek further into the surface of the bar. “I strongly dislike you.”
Aiba smooshes his hand affectionately down the side of Nino’s face. “Don’t say that. What if people don’t know you’re joking, huh?”
“Get off me!” Nino squawks.
Aiba drops his hand, but not the subject like Nino had hoped he would. “It’s a new half isn’t it? What’s her name?”
Nino lifts his head up, frowning as he rubs Aiba’s handprint from his face. “I’m not telling you because you’ll just go find her and embarrass me.”
“But I can’t! I don't even know how to get there,” Aiba reassures him, a bit sullen, but only briefly before he cheers himself up again. “Hey, will you tell me where it is now? Is it near the – ”
“It’s Sammi,” Nino interrupts him sharply, hands held up in defeat. “Her name is Sammi.”
Aiba’s face lights up. “Sammi-chan?”
“All right, be quiet now,” Nino pleads.
But Aiba is already off again, his smile too huge for his face – a sign that is widely known to be concerning. “I haven’t seen you like this in forever. Just like old times. It’s good! It’s the old Nino back.”
Nino doesn’t deny it this time, not with Aiba. It would be no use. “It’s not good. The old Nino was stupid. And it didn’t turn out well for him, did it?”
Aiba’s smile becomes softer, serious. “I heard about the wedding.”
“Please don’t say you’re sorry for me.”
“I wasn’t going to.” He pats the top of Nino’s head, gentle in his touch this time and Nino allows it.
“This time it’ll be okay, Nino,” he says with a confidence that would be more befitting if it was coming from small children or doting parents, neither of which Aiba can claim to be. It shouldn’t be so comforting, but it’s Aiba, so of course it is.
He continues. “The old Nino gave his heart completely when he felt it. He didn’t hold back so much.”
“And that’s why he was stupid,” Nino says with a scowl.
Aiba shakes his head. “It isn’t stupid.”
Nino gives a noisy exhale. “You’re too optimistic. It’s depressing.”
“And that’s why you love me so much.”
Nino rolls his eyes at that, but doesn’t argue. “It’s weird though, right? By the time I got home from the club last night, I’d forgotten all about everything else. It shouldn’t work like that.”
“You don’t remember how it works, huh? It’s just been you and your Takeuchi Yuko DVDs for so long~” Aiba sighs sympathetically, then ducks as Nino reaches out to swat at him.
When Nino’s hand is a safe distance away again, Aiba tilts his head to one side thoughtfully. “I was wrong. It’s not the old Nino. It’s the new, new Nino.”
“Idiot,” Nino says with affection.
Aiba grins. “Do you feel better now?”
“Mm,” Nino grunts.
Aiba picks up his discarded glass and starts to polish it again. “What would you do without me?” he muses.
Nino doesn’t know the answer to that question.
Nino’s morning routine has always been the same.
Every morning he sits at his kitchen counter, drinking too much black coffee and counting and recounting his tips from the night before. Since he met Sammi though, one thing is different. Now he daydreams while he does it – daydreams about the subtleties of Sammi’s smile, the way it will look when he sees it again that night.
After that first time at the club, there is a second. Nino is seated at the same table and this time Miri-chan doesn’t bother to offer him a menu. When Sammi arrives, she looks surprised to see him, her mouth quirked between a smile and a frown when she dips her head to him politely.
“You’re back,” she says curiously.
“Is it okay?” asks Nino, a bit unsure.
Sammi grins and sits down beside him without asking permission. “It’s okay,” she says. “Welcome back.”
A third time soon follows, and after that a fourth. On the fifth time, Sammi looks like she’s been expecting him to be her waiting customer. On the sixth time, she’s seems relieved to find that he is.
On the seventh time, during a now comfortable lull in conversation, Sammi puts a hand next to Nino’s across the table, so close that their pinkies almost touch, but don't.
“I think Nino is a lonely person,” she says to him, mouth barely moving around the words. “That’s why he comes to see me so much.”
Nino wants to protest. He has friends and family and Aiba-chan and Sho, and although most his time he spends alone, it’s because he likes it, because he wants to.
He doesn’t say any of this. He doesn’t say anything, because he knows that it’s true.
“Nino is a lonely person,” Sammi repeats slowly and moves her hand until it’s pressed to his. “Like me.”
The night after that is the first time they hold hands.
Just before the fifteenth time, after the bar closes, Aiba asks Nino if he’s asked her out yet.
“You know, on a date,” Aiba says.
Nino is caught off guard. The question is one he hasn’t considered. The answer is no. He shrugs into his jacket, remembering the night before – the fourteenth time – when Sammi had been waiting for him at their usual table when he got there.
“Have you?” Aiba asks again, clearly unable to control his curiosity.
“No,” he says to Aiba. “Not yet.”
On the sixteenth morning, Nino sits at his kitchen counter and counts his tips over and over and over again, his coffee gone cold and untouched beside him.
He’s been thinking about Aiba’s question and why he hasn’t asked Sammi out yet. More than that, he wonders what all of this is – how one night meant to take his mind of things has turned into such a compulsion.
It’s Sammi that he keeps coming back for. There’s something easy, something safe, about being with her. Nino can go to the club every night as a paying customer and Sammi will always be there waiting for him, will always be glad to see him. Maybe that’s really why he’s been coming back, with paycheck after paycheck that he’s unexpectedly all too willing to spend for a few more hours of her company. Inside the sanctuary of the club, there is no fear of rejection.
But that’s not it, not entirely. Nino likes Sammi. He likes being near her, likes spending his time with her. He thinks about her even when they are apart. But as he considers the situation, he has to admit to himself that there’s something more to it than that. Inside him, there’s a sloppy excess of feelings – feelings for her – that he wasn’t planning on, that he’s not ready to face yet.
In the club, he can ignore these feelings. But on a date, a real date, without the protective guise of a customer, there would be nowhere for him to hide from them. There would be nowhere for him to hide from himself.
The conclusion that Nino comes to is this: it’s time to stop. It’s been fun while it lasted and a distraction when he needed it most. But now he has to get back to real life, to switch the safety of the club for the safety of his apartment again. At least at home, there’s no one to make his heart beat so uncarefully.
On the sixteenth night, Nino stays home.
There is no sixteenth time.
“I stopped by Haruna’s last night,” Sho says in that forced casualness he sometimes tries to use. Sho has never been good at playing it cool, but he’s trying his best tonight, standing at the end of the piano with the pretense of keeping Nino company during the last hour of his set. “I saw Sammi. She asked about you.”
Nino, who had zoned out after Sho started talking about the current economic climate, snaps to attention. It’s been over a week now, and although it’s nice to have money in his wallet again, he’s starting to wonder if he made the right decision in ending his visits to Haruna’s club. At the time he’d thought it was for the best, but it hasn’t seemed to be working out like he planned. He’s thinking about Sammi more now instead of less, has grown even more attached to her in her absence. He’s not at the club, but still he’s wondering what she’s doing, what she’s thinking, who her customer is tonight and if they know that she likes tequila and bad American-style jokes.
He’s tried everything to get his mind off her, even working overtime to fill his empty evenings. It hasn’t helped, and worse than that, it’s also meant he’s been forced to endure night after night of Becky and Riisa’s merciless teasing (“If you play one more sappy love ballad,” Riisa had threatened just an hour earlier, “we’re letting Aiba-chan take over the piano!”).
“I told her you’d be back soon,” Sho continues. “And that maybe if she wanted to see you, she should stop by tonight.”
Nino feels an uneasy swell behind his ribcage. He fixes Sho with a critical look. “Did Aiba put you up to this?”
Sho gives the half-smile of someone who’s been found out. “We may have discussed it. But Sammi was the one who brought you up. Aiba and I had nothing to do with that.”
He pauses and Nino can feel the forced casualness building again, can tell that Sho’s trying to feel out the timing of what he’s about to ask next.
“By the way, did you RSVP yet?”
There’s no good timing for that. Nino looks away, looks down at the piano keys even though he doesn’t need to. “I wasn’t planning on it.”
Sho is too well-meaning for Nino to begrudge. Even so, he feels himself prickling as Sho starts on an inhale that sounds much like the beginning to a well-meaning speech. When Becky slides up beside them balancing a tray of drinks, Nino has never been so happy to see her in all of his life.
“Aw, still moping?” she croons to Nino and he frowns, not so happy after all.
“Well, this should cheer you up,” she says. She gives a sly smile and the tiny stuffed heart pinned into the impressively high pile of her hair jingles enticingly. “There’s a girl at the bar asking for you.”
She points across the room with her free hand and Nino and Sho follow her motion. Nino stops playing.
“That’s her, isn’t it?” whispers Becky. She doesn’t wait for confirmation – the look on Nino’s face is more than enough to give it away. “She’s hot! Why didn’t you say she was so hot?”
Nino ignores her and turns sharply to Sho, who puts his hands up in defense. “I didn’t know she’d really come, I swear!”
Nino isn’t sure if he wants to punch Sho or kiss him. “Take over,” he says.
Sho’s eyes widen. “What?”
“Take over the piano,” Nino orders. He stands up and pushes Sho down onto the bench.
“Wait, I can’t play!” Sho protests. He starts to stand, trying to escape, but Nino shoves him back into his seat.
“Yes, you can. What were all those lessons you forced me to give you for?”
“Nino!” Sho is starting to panic. And sweat.
“Just play a song. I’ll be right back.” Nino pats him on the shoulder encouragingly, confident that Sho will realize this is his punishment for meddling. “You’ll be fine. You had a great teacher, didn’t you?”
Sho looks like he’s trying desperately to think of another excuse so Nino turns back to Becky. He straightens the front of his jacket and runs a hand through his hair.
“Good?” he asks her.
Becky gives him a thumbs up and a cheeky grin. Behind them, there’s the timid sound of piano keys.
“Go get ‘em, champ!” she says.
Sammi is perched on a stool at the bar, one that is far too tall for her. Her legs, knees and feet turned in, are swinging well above the floor. Aiba is across from her standing behind the bar and the two of them are deep in conversation. Nino has been friends with Aiba for far too long to feel anything but dread at the sight of this. He picks up the pace as he moves towards them.
“So are they real?” Aiba is asking as Nino gets close enough to hear the conversation.
Sammi laughs. “Mostly,” she says. She lifts a hand to cup the side of her neck, a peculiar gesture of hers that always stops Nino in his tracks, that does so now even.
“Wow!” says Aiba, clearly impressed. “Can I feel th – ”
Nino steps forward quickly. “Sammi,” he says.
At the sound of her name, Sammi turns in a quick jolt, her hair whipping with her and into her slightly rosy cheeks while the two already empty shot glasses on the counter in front of her give a worrying shake.
“Hi Nino!” she says.
Meanwhile, Aiba looking at Nino with a remorseful sort of panic.
"Oh!” he yelps. “Oh, I gotta go! I, uh, have to, um – okay, bye Sammi, it was nice to talk to you!” he says, before hightailing it for the back of the bar. Nino lets him go. He knows he’ll have plenty of time later to make Aiba pay for his part in this, despite the fact that Nino’s already starting to feel appreciative of this interference.
Nino sits down on the stool beside Sammi, his own feet just as far away from the floor.
“I was listening to you play,” she tells him, absently brushing her hair back into place.
Nino waits to see if she’ll continue. She doesn’t. Silence settles easily between them, but Sammi doesn’t lose focus on him this time like on that first night. She gives him her full, flushed-faced attention, patient until he speaks.
“I didn’t know you would be here tonight,” he says finally.
Sammi smiles, a slow sweep of her lips. “Haruna-chan let me off early. I didn’t want to go home yet.”
She leans forward. “Nino-chan hasn’t been visiting me,” she says softly and it sounds disappointed, almost gloomy.
“I – ” Nino starts, but stops again when she gently knocks their feet together underneath the counter.
“You wanted to though, didn’t you?” she continues.
Although the words sound confident, her face has its familiar transparency and betrays her as unsure. Nino wants to be honest with her. He wants to tell her the truth about how he panicked, about how he was afraid. But at the moment, it all seems so ridiculous. They’re not in the club anymore and Sammi is still waiting for him, still looking at him just the same.
“Sorry to make you wait,” he says, repentant.
“It’s okay,” she says easily. “I didn’t wait long.”
There’s nowhere for Nino to hide here, no pretext of a paying customer for him to hide behind. His heart is beating fast and dangerous, his palms are sweaty and his mouth is dry – and he likes it. He likes the feeling of it now, sloppy and precarious though it may be. But still there’s something more to it than that.
Not for the first time, he speaks before he can stop himself. “Sammi, wanna go out with me?”
That surprises Sammi. She draws back from him, but too quickly, losing her balance and wobbling in her seat. Instinctively, her hand reaches out to steady her against Nino’s knee. At the same time Nino grabs a hold of her wrist to catch her.
There’s a long pause between them. Sammi glances down at Nino’s hand, and when she looks back up at him, her eyes are worried. Nino can feel her pulse beating softly where he's holding her wrist. He watches the way her shiny pink lip-gloss, that same kind, same color, that she’s always wearing, sticks her lips together when she presses them into a nervous curl.
Finally she nods. “Okay.”
Nino lets out an audible sigh. Sammi laughs again and it sounds just like Nino feels – a little frantic with both relief and anxiety.
“Good,” he says. “I’m glad.”
He doesn’t move his hand from her wrist. She doesn’t move her hand from his knee.
Behind them, someone clears their throat loudly. They both turn to see Riisa closing in on them with a leer like a prowling tiger – possibly the tiger whose print she’s wearing on the front of her shirt.
“Yes?” Nino asks. He doesn't try to hide his annoyance at being interrupted, or his extra annoyance at being interrupted by Riisa. Troublemaker that she is, Nino doesn’t trust the gleeful way she’s eyeing Sammi’s hand on his knee.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Riisa says, eyes sparkling with mischief as she looks back and forth between the two of them. “I’ve been asked to inform Nii-chan that Sho-san requires some help at the piano.”
Nino groans. He had forgotten all about Sho. Suddenly he can hear the nervous clatter of piano keys echoing behind him. From the sounds of it, Sho has learned his lesson.
“I should go back,” he says to Sammi and, with great effort, pulls his hand away from her.
“Don’t worry, Nino,” Riisa says as Nino stands up from his seat. “I’ll keep your special guest company for a while!”
Nino shakes his head. "You," he says, pushing her off towards the far end of the bar where Aiba is back to serving again, "have something important to do. You are going to bring Sho-chan a strong drink."
“You’re no fun, Nii-chan.” Riisa huffs in disappointment, mimicking Becky’s sentiments from a few nights before. But for once, she does what Nino tells her. Nino would feel appreciative if he wasn’t so sure she was only going to report back to Aiba and Becky what she’d seen.
Nino turns to Sammi, who is looking on with amusement. “A girl version of Nino,” she muses as she watches Riisa scamper off. “Cute.”
“No relation, I assure you,” Nino says.
He glances longingly at the now empty stool next to Sammi, torn between his duty to Sho and his increasing need to be as close to Sammi as possible for reasons he can only partially write-off as making up for lost time.
His sigh is self-indulgent this time. “I have to help Sho-chan before he has a nervous breakdown and turns to binge eating again,” he explains forlornly.
Sammi nods in understanding. She hops of her stool and smoothes out her skirt. It’s white and high-waisted tonight, with two rows of gold buttons down the front, short and nautically sweet.
She looks back up at him. “I’ll see you soon, Nino?” she asks.
“Soon,” Nino promises.
She starts to leave, but only gets a few steps away when Nino calls out to her again.
Her hand is raised to her hair again, fingers splayed out awkwardly away from her face as she touches the shell of her ear. Nino takes a compulsive step forward.
“It’s Kazunari,” he says. “You can call me Kazu, if you want.”
Sammi’s smile tilts into view gradually, her reaction making measured progress across her face as she processes his meaning.
“Kazu,” she says once, trying it out, and Nino takes another step despite himself.
“Bye, Kazu,” she says and, with that, she’s out the door.
Nino gets Sammi’s phone number from Sho who gets it from Haruna who gives it to him with, she insists, Sammi’s express permission for her to pass it along. It takes Nino three tries before Sammi answers her phone, and when she does, she agrees to meet him for coffee on Sunday afternoon – their first date.
It’s the first time he’s seen her in the daylight, seen her anything but her work clothes, but Nino recognizes her immediately – standing outside the café in jeans and an oversized jacket that she's buttoned up wrong. She has on no makeup except for her pink lip-gloss and her long hair, uncurled now, is half-falling out of a lopsided ponytail. She brushes it away from her face to smile at Nino in a way that makes him trip a little over his own feet.
They get coffee to-go and Sammi lets Nino take her back to his apartment.
It's been a while since Nino's had anyone come home with him, and certainly no one who inspects the place as thoroughly as Sammi. Although he offers her a seat when she enters, she isn’t interested. Instead she wanders around with that calm inquisitiveness of hers, inspecting each of his belongings in turn like a courteous patron at a museum exhibit.
Nino’s apartment is normally sized if not a bit modest, but it feels much smaller with the piano taking up most of the room. The old upright isn’t much to look at, with chipped keys and a sticking pedal. A chunk is missing out of one of the legs from when Aiba helped Nino lug it up here the first time. The music rack had snapped off on the second time, after Nino had it taken it back out of storage, but Sho was the only one who ever used that anyway.
It’s really nothing much to look at. It’s certainly no comparison to the one Nino plays at the bar – a second-hand Baby Grand that he polishes once a week and plays under twinkling lights with his best suit on. But this one is his, and it’s precious to him, well loved and well cared for. Here he can play it wearing nothing fancier than his loungewear, the keys on mute to keep from disturbing the neighbors. When it had been gone, he’d missed it. Now that he has it back, he often sneaks home leftover polish from the bar to lovingly rub into its faded wood finish.
Sammi works her way around the room, stopping just in front of Nino’s makeshift piano bench.
“Your piano,” she says thoughtfully, her fingers ghosting well above the off-white keys. “Will you play for me?”
A cold dread starts its steady creep inward from Nino’s fingers and toes. He shifts uncomfortably on the couch where he’s settled himself out of Sammi’s way. There should be no reason for him to refuse Sammi’s request. Nino plays confidently in front of people for a living. Sammi has heard him play already when she came to see him at the bar. Still, Nino is already squirming for an excuse. That night at the bar, Sammi hadn't said whether she’d liked his performance or not, and it makes Nino uneasy not knowing her opinion. Maybe it shouldn’t matter what she thinks – not so long ago it wouldn’t have mattered what anyone thought. But now things are different and, without knowing, Nino feels paralyzed.
"It's embarrassing," he says lamely.
Sammi’s looks puzzled, but she doesn’t press the subject further. She comes to sit beside him. The couch is old too, something second-hand that Nino has had for as long as he can remember, and so worn that when Sammi sits down, the cushions dip together enough that the two of them slide closer to each other. Sammi doesn’t seem to mind this, scoots even closer until they are thigh to thigh.
She’s different today, her worried expression from their last meeting now replaced with a curious intensity as she turns to face him. She contemplates him thoughtfully, the edges of her lips curling up in decisive pleasure when Nino catches her gaze.
“Kazu," she says.
She reaches up and puts her palm to the side of his face, brushes it down from forehead to chin. She’s petting him, Nino realizes, and he wants to complain that she shouldn’t, that he isn't a kitten, even as he pushes further into the touch. He doesn’t get a chance.
She kisses him.
It’s their first kiss. Nino kisses back immediately, his eyes wide open and staring at the up-close curve of Sammi’s lashes. It’s relatively chaste, just a warm press of their lips, but to Nino – who gets embarrassingly hot at the mere brush of Sammi’s fingertips – it’s more than enough. Sammi tastes like her pink lip-gloss. It’s the cheap kind, strawberry flavored with that same tackiness that Nino has fantasized about, that sticks their lips together. When they pull away, there’s an audible, strawberry-flavored smack.
“I like you,” Sammi says.
It comes out so easy, so casual, that Nino’s not sure if it’s meant to be a confession.
“I like you too,” he says and that is a confession.
Sammi gives him a lazy smile. Her previously loose ponytail has come out almost completely, now a messy tangle falling to her shoulder. Nino wants to reach out, wants to tug it free completely, but he doesn't dare – not yet.
Instead he moves towards her again in slow, jerky increments, forward and back, unsure if he’s allowed to initiate a second kiss. It’s only when her eyes flutter shut that he finally presses their lips together once more.
The second kiss is longer, slower, and Sammi is already sighing into it when Nino fumbles blindly for her hand to lace their fingers together.
“I like you too,” he repeats when they pull apart.
Sammi’s answer is to press their palms together and squeeze – and Nino can’t resist it. He wants to kiss her again, already, and then again.
So he does. He kisses her and lets it block out the uneasy flutter of his heart and the fact that this – none of this – is careful at all.
Haruna stops Nino as soon as he enters the club with a manicured hand to his chest.
“No boyfriends allowed,” she announces, the giant yellow bow tied to her high ponytail wobbling happily as she speaks.
“No what?” Nino asks as he takes in the rest of Haruna’s outfit – her puffy yellow princess dress with feathered trim and matching platform heels covered in gold crystal rhinestones. Her earrings – dangling stars in neon pink fur – are nearly as big as her face.
“Sammi-chan’s boyfriend is not allowed here,” Haruna says in the tone she saves for business occasions, sugar sweet but with a terrifying edge. “Boyfriends,” she says, her hand pressing more threateningly against his chest, “scare away my customers.”
Nino blinks. “I’m her boyfriend?”
Haruna gives a tinkling laugh. “Such a gentleman! Sammi-chan is a lucky girl, huh?”
She reaches up to pat him warmly on the cheek, her long nails clacking sharply against his skin.
“I’ll miss taking your money, Nino-san. Now run along and have a lovely evening,” she says, at the same time pushing Nino back towards the door. “Oh, and watch out for her roommate, Jun-kun. He’s very protective!”
The word didn’t used to make Nino so nervous, but now there’s something risky about it. He repeats it in his head a few times as he makes his way back down the hall to the exit. Boyfriend.
It would make sense if he and Sammi were dating now, but they haven’t talked about it. There hadn’t been much discussion after their confessions, just one of the most intense make-out sessions of Nino’s life – one that had left him with more pink lip-gloss on his lips than on hers (“It looks good on you,” Sammi had insisted, stopping his hand when he’d tried to wipe it off).
Nino hopes they’re dating. He wants to be Sammi’s boyfriend. But even if he’s been feeling more confident now – about Sammi, about himself – he can’t shake the worry he feels or the unpleasant memory of the last time someone called him that and how it turned out.
Maybe Aiba had been right. The old Nino had a tendency to move too fast, and the new Nino hadn’t moved at all. But the new, new Nino –
Caught up in his thoughts, Nino lets out a yelp of surprise when a hand reaches out of nowhere and grabs a hold of his arm.
There’s a door set into the hallway beside him, hidden in a panel of mirrored wall. Nino has never noticed it before. It’s open now and Sammi is standing just beyond the threshold. She presses a finger to her lips to keep him quiet before stepping backwards, pulling him with her and out of sight.
It’s early in the evening and Sammi is still getting ready. Her hair is half in curlers and one of her false eyelashes is coming loose. In the high heels she’s wearing tonight, she’s a few inches taller than Nino and it makes him want to kiss her. He presses closer until they’re nose to nose, but before their lips can touch she pulls back, shaking her head.
“Ah! You’ll smudge my makeup,” she scolds.
Nino whimpers in disappointment, grabbing her hands and lacing their fingers together in a half-hearted attempt to contain himself.
“Haruna-san kicked me out,” he tells her, childishly mournful. “She said no boyfriends allowed.”
Sammi swings their joined hands together. “Because you’re my boyfriend?”
She still close enough that Nino can feel her shy grin against the corner of his mouth, and with it, his lingering apprehension begins to fade.
“I guess I am. Which means – ” Nino pauses to watch the way Sammi’s eyes flutter open and closed, open and closed, as he speaks. “Which means you’re my girlfriend.”
Sammi laughs, a hot puff of air on Nino’s cheek. It’s absurd, he thinks, how much he likes her.
“What time does my girlfriend get off work?” he asks, testing the word again and finding it comes out even easier this time around.
“2am,” she says, mouths the words again his skin.
Nino swallows against a suddenly dry throat. “I’ll come back.”
She shakes her head and this time Nino can feel the precarious brush of her false eyelashes.
“You can’t. Customers might see.”
Nino frees one of his hands from hers. He reaches up to gently press the falling eyelashes back into place.
“Then I’ll meet you somewhere,” he insists.
Sammi thinks for a moment, and neither of them bothers to move away from each other. It feels strangely natural to be this close, to have a conversation here in their shared personal space.
“At the Lawson’s around the block,” she decides. “We can go home after and you can meet Matsujun. He always waits up for me.”
“Matsujun?” Nino asks.
At some point his free hand has settled onto the small of Sammi’s back. Now, without any real conscious decision, it slides boldly downward towards the curve of her ass.
Sammi’s eyes go wide. She squirms a little, but not uncomfortably. When she answers Nino’s question, her voice comes out as a breathy sort of squeak. “He’s my roommate.”
Nino doesn’t move his hand. “Your roommate?”
It sounds familiar.
“Jun-kun?” he asks, remembering Haruna’s warning.
Nino pulls back, just a little, so he can see her face. “Are you sure it’s all right?”
“He’ll be horrified,” she says delightedly.
“Well, I better be on my best behavior,” he decides, his words absurdly serious as his hand gives a shameless squeeze.
Sammi lets out another startled sound, this one more like a high hum. She clears her throat, then furrows her brow, mimicking graveness. “Yes, you better.”
Nino shuffles back towards the main hallway and Sammi moves with him by necessity, the two of them still mostly intertwined. When they get to the doorway, Sammi hesitates. She leans forward and for a hopeful beat Nino thinks she’s going to give in and kiss him.
She rubs their noses together.
“See you later, Kazu.”
Nino waves to Sammi as she slips back through the door. It closes behind her, settling seamlessly back into the wall until it’s just a mirror again, and Nino is left waving at a reflection of himself.
Boyfriend, he repeats. He drops his hand back to his side and watches his reflection do the same.
He gives himself his most charming smile.
If this is the new, new Nino, maybe he's not so bad after all.
The almost silent swish of automatic doors and temporary blindness onset by sterile, fluorescent lighting are a familiar welcome to Nino as he enters Lawson’s.
It doesn’t take long for him to find Sammi, standing by herself in front of the hot drinks. There’s music playing over the tinny store PA system and Sammi is singing along softly to herself, just loud enough that Nino can hear her as he gets close.
He stays back, listening. It’s an old pop song, something high and warbling, the kind of song that’s in every karaoke bar even if no one ever picks it. Although Sammi is singing quietly, barely moving her lips, she’s easily overpowering the recording. Her voice is clear and steady and there’s an effortlessness to it that is almost entrancing, a simple near-perfection that draws Nino in.
The song ends. Sammi looks up, a can of hot cocoa in hand. She smiles when she sees Nino lurking nearby.
“What’s wrong?” she asks him curiously and it’s only then that Nino shakes himself out of his daze, gives a bashful shrug.
“Nothing,” he says.
Sammi gets her hot cocoa and Nino gets black coffee. At the register, they play janken to see who has to pay. Nino loses and makes a show of aggravation, but for once in his life he doesn't really mind treating. He even lets Sammi sneak an onigiri into their pile of purchases.
They leave the store side by side, bumping shoulders as they go. It’s starting to get chilly out, enough for Sammi to turn up the fur collar of her coat as they step outside. Sammi doesn’t live far from the club and they decide to walk instead of waiting for the train, oblivious to the ominous gathering of the clouds above them.
They’re just turning onto Sammi’s street when the sky opens up, the rain unforgiving as it tumbles out in heavy droplets. Sammi is the first to start running. She reaches back to grab Nino’s hand, and he holds on tight, stumbling to keep up with her as thunder cracks over their heads.
By the time they get to the apartment, they’re both soaking wet. They stand inside the front door, catching their breath as they flood the genkan.
Sammi is still holding on to Nino’s hand when she reaches up to push the wet bangs out of her face and for a moment Nino’s fingertips brush against her skin. He feels her shiver against him, and suddenly he’s breathless all over again.
When he moves forward, Sammi moves forward too, tilting in for a kiss.
Behind them someone clears their throat – loudly – and both Sammi and Nino take a guilty jump away from each other.
When they turn towards the interruption, it’s easy enough for Nino to recognize Matsujun as the man standing in front of them, if only by his stiffly crossed arms and ominous glower.
“Matsujun! Hi!” Sammi is already beaming at him. She stumbles to slip out of her shoes and step up into the room to latch on to his arm. “This is Kazu. The one I told you about.”
Nino bows politely, unsure what else to do in the face of such disgruntlement. “Ninomiya Kazunari. Nice to meet you.”
Jun raises an eyebrow. “You’re soaked,” he says.
Sammi just laughs.
Jun looks on suspiciously as Nino takes off his shoes. He trails behind them like an unamused shadow all the way into the living room. By the time they make it to Sammi’s bedroom, Nino is too relieved for the safety of it to be self-conscious about the sudden intimacy. This is the first time he’s been invited in to anyone’s bedroom so straightforwardly. It’s kind of refreshing.
“Very neat,” he comments as he takes a seat on the edge of a perfectly made bed.
Sammi is trying to get her earrings off one-handed, and when she nods, they chime against her fingers. “Mm, Matsujun cleans it for me. He told me I’m hopeless and without him I’d live like a pig.” She recites the words as if she’s been told them a thousand times. “But I told him that towels are clean as long as you use them only when you’re body is already clean.”
While Nino tries to think his way through that, Sammi has already moved on.
“Cold,” she mutters to herself. She strips out of her wet coat and lets it fall into a wrinkled pile on the floor at her feet. She sneezes.
“Sammi, get in the bath now before you catch a cold and die!” Jun yells from the living room.
Sammi grins to herself. “He doesn't like when I have boys in my room,” she confides cheerfully, then dutifully trots off to her bath.
Nino stays behind, settled comfortably on the edge of Sammi’s bed in her now empty room. When Sammi had first visited his apartment, Nino had found her choice to so thoroughly investigate it odd. But now, faced with the situation in reverse, he finds himself with the urge to do the same.
There are a surprising number of intriguing possessions here. By the bed is a large stack of sketchbooks with a box of drawing pencils balanced neatly on top of it. An easel is leaning against the wall by the closet. Nino stands up and walks over for a closer look at the several blank canvases piled at its feet. Most of the room is taken up by a large whitewashed vanity, the surface of which is covered in make-up. Upon closer examination, he finds that the make-up consists almost entirely of tube after tube of lip-gloss in that one shade of bubblegum pink.
What really catches Nino’s attention though is the big, pink fishing pole in the far corner of the room. He’s just venturing over to it when Jun speaks up from the doorway.
“Sammi has some interesting hobbies.”
Jun looks as unfriendly as ever in stark juxtaposition with the hospitable cup of tea he’s holding. He sets it down with a fashionable coaster on the low table beside Sammi’s bed and gestures in Nino’s direction. Under his arm is a pile of neatly folded clothing, and as Nino moves back towards him, he drops them down on the edge of the bed.
“You can borrow these. Make sure to return them.”
“Thanks,” Nino says and tries out the smile he reserves for winning over mothers.
Jun’s poker face does not waiver. He moves across the room to Sammi’s crumpled coat and picks it up carefully. “Will you be staying the night?” he asks with curt politeness as he worries out the creases on the fabric in his hands.
Nino clears his throat uncomfortably, staring into his teacup. “I’m not sure.”
That seems to be answer enough for Jun, who replies with a bristling hmph, and leaves the room as abruptly as he entered.
Nino has just finished his tea when Sammi returns, dressed in a set of plaid pajamas – the type that Nino has only ever seen his grandfather wear.
“You can go in now if you want,” she offers.
Nino places his empty cup back on its provided coaster. “No, I’m okay.”
Sammi reaches out to tug at the collar of his shirt. “Matsujun gave you some clothes.”
Despite Jun’s graceless exit, Nino had changed into the offered clothing. They’re a little too big for him, and high-end enough to make him nervous about wearing them, but much better than sitting in wet clothes.
“He’s kind of scary,” Nino admits.
Sammi flops on to the bed beside him and rolls onto her stomach, kicking her knees up behind her as she rests her head on her folded arms. “Ah, it’s just because he has a strong face. But he’s really a big baby.”
Nino looks down at Sammi beside him. “I should get going,” he says, his tone unabashedly wistful.
She reaches out to grab his wrist. Her nails aren’t painted anymore. She must have taken off the polish while she was in the bath. Underneath the now transparent surface, her skin is pale white.
“Stay,” she says.
Out in the living room, Nino can hear a warning in the unsubtle slam of pots and pans from the kitchen. He wants to stay, only maybe he shouldn’t.
But then Sammi pulls at him again, a little more forcefully this time, and he doesn’t stop her. He follows her easily, tumbling into her kiss.
Nino is barely through his front door when his phone rings.
He switches the plastic combini bag he’s carrying from left hand to right, dropping his keys in the process as he scrambles to get his mobile out of his pocket before it goes to voicemail. He manages to pull it out with the tips of his fingers and he answers without looking at the caller ID.
“Hello?” he pants.
“Hello. This is Matsumoto Jun, Sammi’s roommate. I’m calling to see if you can meet with me to talk. There are a few things I’d like to discuss with you.”
Nino doesn’t bother asking how Jun got his number. “Uh, sure. I can meet you somewhere?”
“Your place of work is fine,” Jun says brusquely.
Nino pads into his living room, heading for the kitchen and dropping his bag on the counter there. “Yeah, okay. I work at – “
“I know where you work. I’ll meet you there in an hour.”
“Could we make it two – “ Nino starts, but Jun has already hung up.
When Nino arrives at the bar an hour later, Jun is waiting for him, seated at a table in the back of the room and drinking an Oolong tea. He looks up only when Nino slides into the seat across from him.
“You don’t have to say it,” Nino says before Jun can speak.
Jun pushes his tea to the side dismissively before he replies. “No, I don’t. Sammi can take care of herself. I can’t stop her from dating anyone and I wouldn’t try to. But I’ll say it anyway – if you hurt her, I will kill you.”
It’s about what Nino was expecting, but he’s still glad he thought to text his whereabouts to Aiba, who has the night off, incase he doesn’t make it home alive.
“Understood,” he says.
Jun isn’t finished yet. “Also she doesn’t need you to tell her that she’s okay – or that she’s not okay. This is who she is and she doesn’t need anyone’s permission. She doesn’t need anyone trying to change her into someone else.”
Nino briefly thinks of the invitation sitting at home on his kitchen counter. “I wouldn’t.”
Jun doesn’t seem convinced. He reaches into his bag and takes out a notebook, flipping it open to the first page. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you some questions.”
“If you want,” Nino agrees.
Jun places the tip of his pen against the blank paper in front of him. “Full name?”
Jun starts to write. “Date of birth?”
“Are you taking notes?” Nino asks curiously. He leans over the table, trying to make out Jun’s tiny, perfect script.
“In case I ever have to give a description to the police,” says Jun dryly. “Date of birth?”
Nino decides it’s best not to fight it. “17 June 1983,” he answers dutifully.
Jun keeps writing. “Close to mine. A Gemini.”
“The police need to know my astrological sign?” Nino asks with more than a little skepticism.
“No, that’s for me. Don’t interrupt. Number of serious romantic relationships?”
“One,” Nino says. He starts to tap his fingers against the table absentmindedly.
“Male or female?”
Nino blinks. “I’m straight, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“And is that going to change?” Jun snaps out.
“Uh, I don’t expect so. I’m dating a woman now, as you know.”
Jun looks to be a little annoyed by this answer, as if it wasn’t what he was hoping for – as if Nino’s gotten it right when he was supposed to get it wrong. He’s writing furiously now, pen pressed firmly against the paper in from of him. “And how serious was this past relationship?”
Nino’s tapping continues, a rhythm forming to it without him noticing. “We talked about marriage.”
“And the reason it ended?”
Nino stops his tapping. “Excuse me?”
Jun looks up from his notebook, unsympathetic. “I’m not forcing your to answer these.”
Nino draws his hand from the tabletop back into his lap. “Irreconcilable differences.”
Jun writes it down. “And have you ever had issues with fidelity?”
The pen stops. Jun looks up at Nino for the first time since the interview started and his expression is close to triumphant. “Really?” he says. He starts to close his notebook, but Nino hasn’t finished speaking.
“She did. She cheated on me.”
“I see,” says Jun.
Nino keeps talking. “She’s getting married now, to the other guy. She sent me an invitation to the wedding.”
He’s not sure why he’s elaborating when Jun isn’t asking. It’s the first time he’s said it all out loud to anyone. If he’s honest, maybe it’s a relief to hear himself say it.
Jun is clearly a bit uncomfortable at this turn in the conversation, but he bears it well. “Are you going?” he asks.
“I don’t know.” Nino lets out a frustrated little laugh. “Look, Jun-kun.”
“It’s Matsumoto,” Jun corrects him, but he’s opening his notebook again.
“Jun-kun,” Nino continues, respectfully. “I understand you’re being cautious. And I’m trying to be cautious too. The one who cheated on me, the one who’s marrying someone else – that was my fault. I wasn’t what she wanted and she lost interest in me.”
He pauses. Jun is still looking at him, mouth a neutral line, but for the briefest instant something like empathy flashes across his features.
Nino keeps talking. “It happens, I guess. I wasn’t good enough. She wanted me to be someone that I couldn’t be. And maybe I’m not someone that Sammi will want either. But I’d like a chance to find out.”
Jun is silent, the thick expanse of his eyebrows compact with focus as he studies Nino, studies him in that same way Sammi did the first time they met – like he can read Nino’s character, test his honesty and the contents of his heart by his face alone.
At last he says, “She’s giving you that chance.”
“Good.” Nino relaxes back into his seat, both relieved and giddy.
Jun nods, a little awkwardly. He averts his eyes as he closes his notebook and caps his pen, as if all the sudden he’s concerned that Nino will be able to read his character just as easily – a character that Nino suspects is more soft-hearted than Jun would like to let on.
“So, does this mean I passed?” Nino asks.
“The preliminary,” Jun answers as he packs up his things. “The fact that Haruna-san and Sakurai-san have given you a good personal reference is to your advantage. Sammi may have already made up her mind about you, but you’re still on probation with me.”
Nino smirks. “So I beat the Big Boss?”
Jun pauses his movement to stare at Nino doubtfully. “Pardon?”
“Level up?” Nino asks, with a cheeky grin. When still Jun doesn’t respond, he continues, “It’s a video game metaphor – “
Jun’s mouth convulses open despite itself, and although his smile seems genuine, it does give the uneasy impression of far too many rows of big, shiny teeth.
“Oh I understand the metaphor,” he says, the tone of his voice giving away his amusement. “But I wouldn’t get too ahead of yourself. Just be aware that I know eight ways to clean blood out of upholstery.”
You’re not what I want.
They weren’t her exact words, but they were implied – most bluntly when he found her in bed with someone else. Under those circumstances, it was hard for Nino to misunderstand.
He hasn’t thrown out the invitation and he’s not sure why. He reaches for it, but he can’t bring himself to touch it yet. He’s gotten used to it being there now, has gotten used to navigating around it. Somehow it would feel strange not to have to.
Tonight, his apartment stretches out empty and too quiet.
Sammi was right. He is a lonely person after all.
He leaves the invitation where it is. He goes out.
“All right, who is she?”
Nino’s chopsticks are halfway to his open mouth. His mother isn’t looking at him from her seat across the table and if Nino wasn’t so used to her he might have been caught of guard.
“So?” She turns a page of the magazine she’s been glancing through, one from the stack that Nino brought over for her as a peace offering to make up for the long stretch it’s been since last time he came home.
Nino takes another bite of rice. She’s on to him already. It might be record time. He pays dumb anyway. “Who is who?”
“You’re eating without coercion,” his mother says and he can see the smug edges of her grin escaping from between the magazine pages. “It means you have a girlfriend.”
“Mom,” Nino whines.
“This one isn’t making you get rid of your piano this time, is she?”
“We just met.” Nino starts to put his chopsticks down, but an accusing look from across the table is enough to keep them in his hands.
“And how many dates was it before the last one brought it up?” she asks. It’s a rhetorical question. They both know the answer is two.
Nino shrugs it off. “She wasn’t so bad. She just wanted me to be respectable.”
His mother sighs and puts down her magazine to pour him more tea. “Her first mistake was thinking she could make something of you,” she says, her mouth now a mischievous curl. “I could have told her that you’re a hopeless cause.”
Nino tries to frown at her, but it feels suspiciously like a smile when it stretches across his lips. “Thanks, Mom.”
She shakes her head woefully, turning back to her magazine. “Your sister is just the same. I don’t know what I did wrong. Now clean your plate or I’ll make you stay for seconds.”
“Do you mind that I play piano?”
They’re standing in the middle of Lawson’s, debating which flavor of Pocky to buy tonight, when Nino bursts out with the question. It has nothing to do with what they were talking about and he expects Sammi to be thrown off by it out, the way it comes of the blue. He’s gotten used to her pace now, the way it pauses in some moments and passes others by, the predictable unpredictability of her attention. She still surprises him sometimes – like now.
“Kazu wouldn’t be Kazu without his music,” she says, so simply that it takes a moment for Nino to register what she’s said.
He blinks at her dumbly from behind the frames of his glasses.
She pushes a box of chocolate Pocky into his hands to stop their nervous vibration, and there’s sincerity in the brush of her fingertips against his skin.
“I like you just the way you are,” she tells him.
As he trails along behind her towards the register, Nino wonders how she could have known what he was really asking.
When Nino shows up at Sammi’s apartment, Jun answers the door. He looks incredulously between the bouquet of flowers Nino is holding and the winning smile plastered on Nino’s face.
“I thought I told you not to get ahead of yourself,” Jun says blankly.
Nino is not so easily deterred.
“They’re for you,” he replies sweetly, handing over the flowers to a startled Jun. “Someone told me you liked tulips.”
Jun tries to scowl, but can’t quite manage it. He steps aside to let Nino in. “I don’t know where I’m suppose to put these.”
“I’m sure you have an appropriate vase somewhere.”
“Sammi,” Jun calls. “Your boyfriend is flirting with me again.” To Nino he says, a bit wonderingly, “Honestly, you’re as weird as she is.”
Sammi is standing in the kitchen, wearing a ripped t-shirt that says “Nancy” on it, and humming loudly to herself as she eats peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon. She grins when she sees Nino and puts down the jar to give him a few peanut-butter kisses, still holding the spoon behind his back.
“What were you humming?” he asks when they’ve pulled away.
She shrugs. “Nothing really. Just a song my mama likes.”
Across the apartment, the front door closes loudly.
Sammi reaches up to pet her fingers through Nino’s hair. No longer opposed to the treatment, Nino leans into the touch like an eager puppy.
“Matsujun likes you,” she tells him happily.
“I think we’ve come to an understanding,” he says.
Sammi laughs, dropping her hand to lace their fingers together as Nino presses her against the kitchen counter. “He trusts you if he left us alone.”
“I’m a trust worthy guy,” Nino agrees cheekily.
“He says you called me a princess,” says Sammi, her head tipped questioningly. She puts her spoon down on the counter and sneaks a hand up the back of his shirt.
“It was a gaming metaphor,” he reassures her.
“That’s what Matsujun said.” She pushes Nino’s shirt upwards until it’s bunched up under his armpits and stares thoughtfully at his now exposed chest.
“Am I taking this off now?” Nino asks in a tone as casual as he can manage under the circumstances.
“You are,” says Sammi.
Nino raises his arm obediently. “Are you staring at my nipples?”
“They’re cute,” she tells him.
She helps him get his shirt the rest of the way off.
“I was thinking,” she says to Nino’s nipples.
“You were thinking?” he prompts, amused, when she trails off.
She shakes her head, then rests her hand on his chest, right over his heart. She watches as it rises and falls with Nino’s breath.
When she kisses him again, there’s something different about it. It feels like a question this time, tentative in a way that it never was before. Between them, her hand slides down from his ribcage to his stomach, and it leaves no room for confusion about what she is asking. Nino doesn’t know how she could possibly imagine his answer to that question as anything but yes, but he does his best to make it clear to her anyway, kisses her back steady and sure until he’s certain she knows.
It takes them a while to get to where they’re going. It isn’t that it’s far to the bedroom, but it’s hard to navigate when they can’t stop kissing each other, when they can’t seem to untangle themselves even for a few steps. Nino is the first to trip over something, walking backwards into a neatly stacked pile of manga that must be Jun’s. He catches himself before he falls, but the books are not so lucky. They scattering unhappily across the floor. Sammi’s next kiss tastes suspiciously like laughter as she gracefully over-steps them, pushing Nino along with her across the final few feet to her room.
Sammi’s bed is unmade this time, messy with sheets and clothing that Nino feels rather than sees when he’s pushed backwards into them. There’s something slipper-shaped digging into his back and an odd jingling sound when he moves his head, but he doesn’t have time to wonder about it – not now when Sammi is hovering over him so enticingly.
He pulls at her insistently until she’s lying down beside him. He turns onto his side so that they’re face to face. Sammi is smiling now, languid and a little predatory, her eyes heavy lidded and dark. Although Nino’s shirt is long gone, she is still fully dressed. He can tell without looking that she’s not wearing a bra today and he takes a moment to run his hands along the small, soft curves of her breasts through the fabric of her shirt.
“Kazu,” she sighs.
She wriggles out of her shirt, tossing it over the side of the bed with a flushed grin. Nino is about to touch her again when she grabs his hand and holds it up between them to consider.
“These are cute too,” she muses, then gasps when his other cute hand continues its wandering.
He moves down to her ribs, her stomach, her hips. Sammi’s breath is coming in short, unsteady pants now and it’s making Nino think irrational thoughts, makes him want to do and say irrational things.
Still there’s a strange limbo they’re stuck in, caught in the gap between desperation and uncertainty. Finally, Nino is the one to break it. He can't bear the impatient way Sammi is kissing him anymore, like she needs him to make the first move.
“Can I?” he asks, hand hovering over the zipper of her shorts.
Sammi’s eyes are closed ,and when she speaks, it’s a hopeful whisper. “Can you?” she parrots.
Nino’s answer comes out as an enthusiastic yip. “Yes.”
Sammi’s laugh is timid, more distracted than amused. When Nino starts to move forward again, he can feel her shivering.
Her eyes pop open and she stops his hand. She reaches down the front of her shorts and goes charmingly cross-eyed as she adjusts herself.
“Okay,” she says when she’s finished.
Nino’s fingers are slick against the metal zipper as he pulls it down. Once he’s gotten it open, Sammi lifts her hips obligingly so he can slide her shorts all the way off.
“Oh,” he breathes, stilling at the bulge in Sammi’s underwear.
“Oh,” he says again and he feels that now familiar, excited sweat prickling along his skin.
Sammi doesn’t make a sound, stays perfectly motionless under Nino’s gaze. When he leans in to kiss her again, she kisses him back, but he can feel her nervous heartbeat fluttering up from the back of her throat. Her hand comes up to clench tight, a little painfully, in his hair.
“What should I – “ Nino starts when they’ve parted. His fingers give an eager twitch. He’s starting to feel dizzy, light-headed with anticipation.
“Anything,” Sammi says, and the words come out a little tight, a little desperate. “Anything is okay.”
Nino reaches out and touches her ear, gently, like he’s seen her do when she’s unsure. “But what do you want?”
Sammi looks bewildered at that. Nino’s pulled back enough now that he can see her eyes, pupils big and black. Her mouth droops in a tiny frown as she answers him.
“I don’t know,” she says honestly.
Nino mirrors her frown with one of his own. “Anything is okay,” he repeats to her, reassures her.
Finally, hesitantly, she pushes forward into Nino’s hand. He takes the hint. He kisses her on the cheek once, then again. He starts to touch her.
Sammi takes a shaky breath, exhales on a sigh, and Nino presses his lips to her shoulder comfortingly.
“You’re wet,” he tells her.
She freezes, body taught, and Nino freezes, too. Idiot, he thinks, he’s said something wrong. A sudden, sick panic whirs up inside his chest and he opens his mouth to apologize.
But before he can speak, Sammi flings her arms around him. She presses her face into the side of his neck and hugs him so tightly that it’s almost painful.
Nino wraps his arms around her waist. He holds on to her and doesn’t let go until she does. When she finally pulls back, her eyes are damp around the edges, and her smile is blindingly bright, so wide he can see every one of her teeth.
“Crybaby,” Nino teases, but the words barely make it out around the lump in his own throat.
Later, Sammi is still holding Nino’s hand.
“Sometimes people don’t like it so much, once all the pretty packaging is off,” she tells him. It’s said carelessly, like an afterthought, but so abruptly that it’s clear she’s been thinking it the whole time.
Nino shakes his head, a little too enthusiastically, and Sammi laughs. She smacks him lightly on the back of the head.
“You were worried,” he says to her, but it’s not really a question.
On the bed, he scoots closer to her as she shrugs.
“Matsujun was worried,” Sammi admits. “I thought – maybe it was okay.”
“You were worried when I asked you out the first time too,” Nino remembers.
Sammi’s brow furrows thoughtfully. “I was being careful,” she says. “But I didn’t have to be.”
“You didn’t have to be,” Nino agrees. He presses closer again, until there’s no space left between them. “Sammi – ”
He doesn’t know what he’s trying to say really, or how to say it, but he knows it’s important to say. The look on Sammi’s face right now tells him as much. She’s smiling at him, but the set of her mouth seems unnatural, and there’s a tense, unfocused sheen to her eyes, like she’s retreated into herself. It makes Nino feel a little lost, makes him feel like she’s left him behind.
He touches the side of her face to bring her back, and it takes just the slightest press of his fingertips against her cheek to snap her attention to him. Her smile relaxes sheepishly, and as it does, Nino realizes what he’s been trying to say.
“Sammi, I like you just the way you are.”
Sammi’s relief comes slowly, building to a palpable cresting wave, strong enough that it would be almost heartbreaking if wasn’t so dazzling to see. She slumps backwards against her pillow and lets out a long whoosh of a breath, one that it sounds like she’s been holding on to for far too long.
“You treated me like a girl,” she says, her voice just the tiniest bit wondering.
“You are a girl,” he says. He settles down beside her, propping himself up on an elbow.
Sammi’s mouth sets in a genial smirk. She pushes at his arm mischievously, knocking it out from under him so that he falls forward onto her pillow. “I know that, but I wasn’t sure if you did.”
“Oi!” Nino gives her butt a playful smack and Sammi giggles.
“I was being careful, too, you know,” he tells her once they’ve settled down again.
Sammi looks unsurprised by this confession. She presses her hand to the side of Nino’s face. She traces his eyes, his nose, his mouth. She taps her fingers against his skin in time to his heartbeat.
“You don’t think you’re good enough for me,” she tells him, then grins guiltily at Nino’s confusion. “Matsujun read me his notes.”
Nino moans in embarrassment and rolls away to press his face into the pillow, but Sammi follows him, wriggling up against his back. She tucks her chin into the curve of his neck and her hair falls in a tangled mess against his cheek.
“You don’t have to be so careful anymore,” she says. “Not with me.”
She sneaks her arm around his waist and he lets himself relax back against her. He doesn’t say anything, because he knows that it’s true.
He doesn’t say anything, because knows that she is right.
Nino only recognizes her number because Sho had insisted he have her down as his emergency contact (“You’re official then?” Nino had joked as Haruna typed her number into his phone with the tips of her giant acrylic nails, snapping a picture of herself and her oversized hair bow for her contact icon).
Haruna has never called him before and Nino half expects it to be a drunk dial from Sho with her phone. But when he answers, there’s no mistaking Haruna and her bow on the other end of the line.
“Sammi needs you to come pick her up,” Haruna says before Nino can get a word in.
“Now?” he asks.
It’s Nino’s night off and he’s at home in his sweatpants. He glances up at the clock in the corner of his television screen. It’s only 10pm. He hadn’t been expecting to hear from Sammi for a few more hours and he especially hadn’t been expecting to hear from Haruna in her place. He would be feeling a bit grumpy about the imposition of it all – except that it’s Sammi and getting a few more hours of her time is far from imposing.
“Now,” Haruna says and although her tone is as flowery as usual, there’s urgency to it that Nino doesn’t understand.
“I’ll be right over,” he assures her and goes in search of his pants.
When he gets to the club, Haruna is already waiting for him, not inside but at the back service entrance, which Miri-chan directs him to. As soon as Nino sees her – sees Sammi beside her, red-faced and swaying – the reason for such an unprecedented phone call becomes clear.
“Kazu~” Sammi croons merrily as Nino approaches. She’s barefoot and holding her discarded heels in one hand. The other hand pushes absently at the fallen shoulder strap of her dress.
Haruna gives Nino an apologetic look. “She’s had a little too much excitement tonight,” she explains, her grip on Sammi’s shoulders tightening visibly as Sammi starts to tumble forward.
Nino steps up to catch her. “Can you walk, Sammi?” he asks her and she shrugs, uninterested.
“Take a taxi. I’ll pay,” Haruna tells Nino. An implied It’s the least I can do remains unsaid between them.
Nino doesn’t argue and Haruna doesn’t seem to expect him to. She hands Nino a wad of cash, glancing down as she does so to smirk at Nino’s feet. Nino follows her gaze, only now remembering that in his rush he’d made it out the door in only his sandals. He wiggles his bright yellow toes, courtesy of Sammi’s diligent artistry from a few nights before.
“Your color, right?” Haruna compliments.
Nino nods in thanks, but she waves it off, before hurrying back inside with an apology of waiting customers.
Even with the taxi, Nino still has to help Sammi to the end of the street. There’s a group of male customers loitering there, loud and obviously drunk. At the sight of them, Sammi’s hold on Nino’s arm tightens and she ducks her head into his shoulder. When a taxi finally pulls up in front of them, she shoots forward into it before Nino even has a chance to help her.
“Your place?” Nino asks once they’re both inside, the door shut firmly behind them.
Sammi shakes her head. She’s latched herself on to his arm again, her hands opening and closing against his jacket. “Yours.”
Nino gives the driver his address. As the pull out into moving traffic, Sammi leans away from him to press her forehead against the cool surface of the window.
It’s not until they’re stopped at a traffic light, the taxi idling quietly in the dark street, that she speaks again. The driver has the radio turned up and Nino can barely hear her words over the moody crooning of an old enka song coming from the speakers.
“I don’t like it there,” she says.
The light changes and as they move forward the headlights from a line of passing cars illuminate Sammi’s face in flashing intervals. There’s a look there, in the tight set of her jaw and the dark wet sheen of her eyes, that makes Nino’s heart start to crackle and creak dangerously in his chest.
He leans in closer to her. Her shoes are still off and he reaches across the seat for where she’s let them drop. He puts a hand on her knee, urging her bare feet up into his lap. Sammi’s toes are painted blue, messy around the edges from where Nino had smudged them in his impatience, but she hasn’t bothered to fix them yet and Nino gives her ankle an affectionate squeeze for the sentiment of it.
“You should quit if you’re unhappy,” he tells her as he sets to work, slipping her shoes back on, toe to heel, and adjusting the dainty patent leather straps.
“I can’t,” she says. “I need the money.”
The last car passes and once again they’re left in half-lit shadows. Sammi’s face is turned towards him now, but all he can see is the outline of her. He reaches out and finds her hand where it’s curled anxiously into the bottom of her dress. He laces their fingers together.
They don’t speak for the rest of the ride home.
Sammi is singing again.
She’s in the shower, but Nino can hear her all the way from the kitchen where he’s waiting with Jun. Jun is sharing his coffee, begrudgingly after ten minutes of Nino’s desperate wheedling. Although he pretends to be put-upon, it’s obvious that he’s started enjoying having Nino around the house.
“There she goes again,” he sighs as Sammi’s voice lilts through from the bath.
He refills Nino’s coffee cup, but only because he’s had to make another pot anyway.
“She sings a lot?” Nino asks, already knowing the answer, but curious to hear what Jun has to say.
“Constantly.” Jun gives a fond grimace. “She always has. In middle school she was in the choir and she got the solo every time. It was so annoying.”
That last statement has a tinge of bitterness to it and Nino is about to ask if Jun was in the choir too, if perhaps he had been trying out for the solos himself. But before he can, Sammi hits a flawless high note behind them and Nino, formerly mid-sip, pours half a cup of coffee down the front of his shirt.
Jun makes a tsk of annoyance, reaching for a towel, but Nino is already off. He creeps towards the bathroom, barely noticing as the coffee seeps through his shirt and sticks to his skin.
He presses his ear to the bathroom door. The song Sammi is singing is one he recognizes. He plays it regularly at the bar and it’s a crowd favorite. The words are in English and Sammi slurs through them in a jumble of incorrect syllables, but it doesn’t matter, not with the way she sings.
As Nino listens, she finds another impossible note and holds it, floats it effortlessly along for one second, two seconds, three, four, five.
The water turns off and soon after Sammi, wrapped up in a towel, slides open the door to find Nino standing there.
“Why didn’t you tell me you could sing?” he asks immediately.
“You didn’t ask,” she says without a trace of irony, although he sees the corner of her mouth twitching in amusement. She looks down at the coffee stain on the front of Nino’s shirt.
Before Nino can explain himself, Jun interrupts them with a call from the other room. “Sammi, time for your hormone shot!”
Sammi tiptoes in the direction of Jun’s voice, still in only her towel, while Nino follows behind her and unsubtly enjoys the view. When they get to the living room, Jun is sitting at the table. Rolled out in front of him is a small matt with a neat row of carefully labeled plastic vials spread across it.
“Doctor Matsujun,” Sammi tells Nino, gesturing to the matt. “Do you wanna watch?”
Jun is busy preparing the syringe, and when he holds it up, the glint of the needle makes Nino take a sudden step backward.
“Squeamish?” Jun asks with that shark-toothed grin of his. Jun-kun, Nino thinks, is a total DoS.
Sammi pats Nino’s arm comforting. “Don’t worry, Matsujun used to be squeamish too.”
That makes Jun scowl. He flicks the syringe menacingly, which seems to be a signal for Sammi to step forward. She lifts her towel and bends over as she continues to speak.
“But he worked really hard to get over it so he could help me, right? – Ow!”
Her face squinches up uncomfortably as Jun jabs her with the needle, but almost instantly it smoothes calmly out again. She straightens, readjusting her towel as Jun disposes of the used syringe.
“See, now he’s a pro!” she says proudly, glancing at him over her shoulder.
Jun rolls his eyes indulgently. “Anything for you,” he teases and doesn’t bother dodging Sammi as she bats at him affectionately.
Sammi is in her usual perch on the edge of Nino’s piano bench. It’s become her favorite spot in Nino’s apartment, and although it’s Nino’s too, it’s nearly impossible for him to sit down without starting to play something – a fact that Sammi is all too pleased with. Nino is even starting to suspect that’s what makes it her favorite spot.
Tonight he sits down beside her, fingers ready with anticipation. He starts to play a song she knows, the same one he caught her singing in the shower.
It’s deliberate. The song has been stuck in his head for days now, but besides that Nino wants to hear Sammi sing it again.
He’s only a few bars in when her voice picks up beside him. It’s soft at first, like she hasn’t even realized she’s singing aloud yet. But by the time he gets to the chorus, she’s worked herself up to full, pitch-perfect volume, grinning widely on a laugh of a breath when Nino adds in a theatrical glissando that brings him sliding right into her space, close enough to give her a smacking kiss on the cheek.
The song stretches on twice as long as it should while they continue to play around, and by the time they finish, both of them are out of breath.
“You’re really good,” Nino says, stretching his fingers gingerly as Sammi flops onto his shoulder, panting a little.
She shrugs at the compliment.
Nino tries again and this time his intentions are a little less subtle. “You should come sing at the bar with me. The customers would pay to see you.”
Sammi laughs as if that’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard. “No, they wouldn’t!”
“They would!” Nino insists. “They definitely would.”
Sammi sits up again, shaking her head. She taps at the piano keys in front of her impatiently. “What else can you play?”
There’s a box under Sammi’s bed.
It’s a big box, unwieldy, with a lid jammed down on too much content. Sammi can barely keep it in her arms as she settles on the edge of her bed with it. She motions for Nino to sit beside her as she carefully lifts the lid.
On the very top of what appears to be a jumble of items, there is a photo. It’s a family portrait.
Sammi taps the photo. “Mama. Papa. Nee-chan.” She points to each of them in turn, then stops, hesitates before pressing her finger to the little boy standing at the very edge of the frame. “Satoshi,” she says and after another pause, “Cute, right?”
“Satoshi,” Nino repeats curiously.
He leans in to take a closer look at the boy and finds Sammi, knob-kneed and boyish, smiling shyly up at him from the photo with much more crooked teeth. She’s younger, smaller, but with the same cherub face and soft features. Her hair is shorter, just long enough to fan around her ears. The t-shirt she’s wearing is hidden under a pair of baggy overalls and her hands are shoved casually into the front pockets. Nino’s heart feels oddly tight inside his chest. He would have recognized her anywhere.
Beside him on the bed, an older Sammi shifts restlessly. Nino glances over at her, but her face is unreadable. He reaches out to take her hand.
“Cute,” he agrees and for once he isn’t embarrassed by how sentimental he’s become when he decides that the smile Sammi gives him in reply could never quite be captured in a photograph.
Sammi puts the photo back into the box and picks up an old school ID card crammed in just beside it. The name on it reads: Ohno Satoshi.
Nino reaches out to trail his fingers over the characters. “Ohno,” he says aloud.
Sammi nods awkwardly. “I don’t use it much anymore,” she admits.
It’s true that Nino’s never heard it before, but he likes it. It suits her somehow. “Oh-chan~” he teases.
She wrinkles her nose in distaste. “Gross!”
She turns back to the box and starts to dig through it again. “Ah ha!” she says, more to herself than to him. She pulls out a ratty, old shirt and holds it up so that Nino can read what it says.
“This is my favorite!” she chirps. She hands the box to Nino so she can pull the shirt on over her dress and jumps up to look at herself in the mirror.
While she’s striking poses for herself – slouching fashionably and pouting at her reflection – Nino finds himself glancing down at the box in his lap. Near the top, half under the family portrait, is another picture that catches his eye. He glances up at Sammi to find her watching him from across the room. When he tugs at the edge of the picture questioningly, she nods her permission.
He draws it out carefully. It’s another picture of Satoshi. In this one she’s much younger, not older than five or six. There’s a boy standing beside her.
Nino laughs. “Jun-kun was always worried,” he muses.
Little Jun has the same dark hair and thick eyebrows as Grown-up Jun, that same look of concern on his baby face that he still wears ever time Nino walks through the door.
Sammi comes to sit beside him on the bed. “Matsujun and I – we've been friends since we were really little.”
She pats Picture-Jun with the tip of her finger. “He always supported me. He even helped me pay for my treatment so far. That’s why I need the money. I want to pay him back.”
As she speaks, her finger slides from Jun to Satoshi, covering her face. “It was really hard when I decided to do something. My body wasn’t right. But it will be, someday, if I work hard.”
She smiles bravely to herself. “I can wait for the rest of it though. I don’t mind. But I want to pay back Matsujun. That’s the most important thing.”
Nino nods, remembering the way Jun had carefully packed up the syringes after Sammi’s shot, had disposed of the needle without batting an eye. Nino understands why it’s so important for Sammi to pay Jun back, important enough for her to stay at a job that makes her so unhappy. It’s not the money – not really. It’s that Sammi would do anything for Jun because Jun would, and does, do anything for her. Nino thinks of Aiba, thinks of Sho, and he gets it. Friendship like that is something that he can certainly appreciate.
“Sammi,” he says.
He puts his hand on top of hers on the photo and she startles, like she’s been so intent on the face beneath her fingers that she’d forgotten where she was.
He waits for her to get her bearings before he speaks.
“Come sing at the bar,” he says again. “You could make money there and you wouldn’t have to work at Haruna’s anymore.”
She shakes her head, just like the first time he suggested it, and this time she frowns. “No, I couldn't.”
“You’re good,” Nino assures her. “You know you’re good. I know you’re good. Just try it for one night. If you don’t make as much money as you do at Haruna’s, then I promise I’ll never mention it again.”
Sammi doesn’t look up, but Nino can still see the way her gaze is going in and out of focus as she his offer through.
“Promise?” she says.
Nino squeezes her hand. “Promise.”
She looks at the picture again. After a moment, she stands up and walks over to her vanity table where she sticks the picture into the edge between the mirror and its frame. She returns to her seat on the bed and starts to pack up the box, more haphazard than neat.
“Doesn’t it make you sad keeping it all?” Nino asks her, his curiosity getting the better of him as she places the lid back on.
“I don’t mind.” She shoves the box back under her bed. “Sometimes I miss him.”
She laughs to herself then, cheerfully.
“Sometimes I miss my beard.”
Sho picks up the invitation sitting on Nino’s counter. “Still haven’t RSVP-ed?”
“Oh,” Nino says. He’d forgotten all about it. “Yeah.”
He takes the white and gold card from Sho and turns it over in his hands a few times. He walks across the room and opens the lid to his trashcan. He’s about to drop it in, when Sho catches him by the elbow.
“Hey,” Sho says and Nino turns to find Sho beaming at him like a proud mother hen. “You can recycle that you know.”
Nino can see the piano from his bed. It’s not something he has really noticed before, but today it comes in use to him. He doesn’t have to get up to watch Sammi there as she concentrates herself on stringing together a slow progression of notes on the keys in front of her. She’s playing a children’s song, one that Nino can vaguely remember from his kindergarten class, and he hums along into his pillow.
After a while, Sammi stops. She looks over to Nino. He’s still only half dressed in the bottom half of Sammi’s plaid grandpa pajamas, which have somehow found their new home here in Nino’s apartment. Sammi meanwhile has stolen Nino’s sweatpants (“Same size~” she had teased the first time she’d worn them), and they look silly paired with her grandpa top.
She presses down deliberately on the key nearest to her and smiles at him as the note rings out through the room.
“Play for me?” she calls.
Nino frowns and shakes his head further into his pillow. “No.”
She presses down another key and pouts at him.
“I played last night,” Nino complains.
She stays insistent. “But play again!”
Nino sits up with a drawn-out groan. “Coffee first, then playing.”
Sammi submits to that. When Nino gets up, she follows him into the kitchen and goes about making herself a generally welcome nuisance – from sitting on the counter as they wait for the coffee to brew, to drinking half his cup when he finally gets it poured.
Eventually, Nino gives up and heads for the piano again, letting himself be pushed down enthusiastically into his seat.
“What do you want to hear?” he asks as Sammi settles in her spot next to him.
She’s still holding Nino’s now empty coffee mug and she puts it down carefully on the floor beside her. “Whatever you feel like,” she hums.
Nino’s fingers press lazily into the keys and he lets them continue on without any real course. There’s a melody to what he’s doing, like there always is, but this one is a little different. It’s not one that he knows or one that he’s played before.
Beside him, Sammi leans in and presses her lips to the side of his neck. He turns his head and she does it again, this time catching the underside of his jaw. She keeps going, smoothing her mouth along his skin. When she presses closer to him, he takes her cue, dropping is hands from the piano keys so that she can slide into his lap.
“Keep playing?” she asks sweetly, legs on either side of him now.
Nino snakes his arms around her waist until he can reach the keys. He starts to play again. He can’t see what he’s doing anymore, but he can see Sammi and that’s all he really needs.
She laughs delightedly. “Kazu,” she sighs.
She leans in again and her hair falls forward into Nino’s face, brushing against his cheeks as she kisses him softly, over and over again. Still he plays on steadily until Sammi reaches in between them to unbutton the front of her pajama top and his fingers falter tellingly. When the top falls open, Nino hits a dissonant chord.
He stops playing. Sammi stops too – stops kissing him, stops touching him, stops all together.
“Ah,” she chastises. “Keep playing.”
Nino doesn’t have to be told twice, his fingers urgent now across the keys. She rewards him with another kiss, deeper this time. All Nino can think of is that first night, when Sammi sat down beside him, in that clumsy way of hers, and told him he was cute. He can taste tequila and cigarettes and hear Sho’s maniacal laugh. “I think I’m in love with her,” he remembers saying and it was too soon, too rash, but it was true.
It is true.
“Sammi,” he says as they pull apart.
She’s rocking against him now, sure and steady, but he reaches out to still her with a hand on her waist. She looks up expectantly, and there’s an amused smile on her flushed face. He can’t help himself then, grabs her by the thighs and pushes her back onto the piano with a clang of notes.
He wants to tell her, he wants to say it – but he doesn’t blurt it out, not now, not this time. This time he thinks it through carefully, says it carefully, careful like he promised himself he would be from the very start.
“Sammi,” he says. “I love you.”
It starts in the tint of Sammi’s eyes, reaches out across her features, like a too hot, too strong burst of sentiment. She blinks a few times, owlish. She’s so close that Nino can watch her eyelashes as they tangle and untangle, together and apart, in time to her quickening heartbeat.
Finally, she says it, her fingers curling happily against his skin.
“I love you, too.”
Nino’s written a few songs before, even played a few in public. He sneaks them in between his regular repertoire late in the evening when most of the bar’s patrons are too drunk to notice.
Some of them are about love, some of them are about friendship. For Aiba’s birthday three years ago, Nino wrote a waltz in D minor just for him. But really, he’s not very serious about composing. He doesn’t give it much thought unless inspiration strikes.
After Sammi’s left, Nino finds himself scrambling for the composition paper he’d splurged on last summer. There are a few crumpled sheets of it underneath his couch and he smoothes them out haphazardly.
He settles back at the piano. He closes his eyes and tries to remember what he’d played earlier, tries to remember each note – and finds that he does, that he can, as long as he pictures Sammi’s face.
It’s not hard for Nino – with the usual enthusiastic help of Aiba – to convince their manager to give Sammi a chance. They are both special favorites of Matsuko. Nino is perhaps too much a favorite, enough so that even though he’s really quite fond of her, he knows to make his requests from the safety of her office doorway.
“Your girlfriend?” Matsuko asks, raising a skeptically painted eyebrow in Nino’s direction from behind her deluxe-sized desk.
“But Nino wouldn’t say she’s good unless she really was,” Aiba cuts in loyally, shining her his brightest smile.
“Hmm.” Matsuko looks back and forth between them, her blank face purposefully keeping them on edge. “And she’s one of Haruna’s girls?”
Nino nods in confirmation.
“That poor thing. No wonder she wants to find another job,” Matsuko sighs despite her obvious lack of sympathy. “Fine, let’s poach her. She can have one song.”
She points at Nino, then Aiba, smile curled with a wicked sort of glee. “But only one.”
Nino’s returned grin is one of immovable confidence. “That’s all she needs.”
“What’s this?” Sammi asks.
They’ve been practicing for hours now and Nino is taking a break, slumped over the piano while Sammi keeps herself amused else where. This time she’s gotten a hold of Nino’s glasses, wearing them primly around the room as she picks up whatever she can find to read. So far she’s read aloud to him from both TV Guide and TV Navi quite easily, although the newspaper had her faltering without shame through several of the more complicated kanji.
Nino looks up at Sammi’s question. In her hand is a very wrinkled piece of paper. She shakes it at him, eyes large and round behind his glasses frames. Nino blinks blearily at the paper. His stomach does an awkwardly nauseating flip-flop.
“Nothing,” he says, a little too quickly.
She’s standing close enough now for him to try to grab it from her, but Sammi’s stronger than him by half and she holds him back without difficulty.
“What is it?” she asks again, interest now doubled at Nino’s panicked reaction. She pushes Nino’s glasses up onto the top of her head, squinting down at his messy scrawl across the page. “A song?”
Nino face pulls into an unpleasant grimace. “It’s just something I made up the other night when you were here.”
Sammi’s brow furrows as she tries to remember. “The one you were playing when we –“
Nino nods, at the same time he feels heat rising in his face.
“Oh!” Sammi says, obviously a bit flustered. She recovers quickly however, mouth wavering towards a somehow coy leer. “It has words too?”
“It’s nothing, really,” Nino insists.
Sammi holds the sheet out to him. “Can I hear it?”
He opens his mouth to argue, but Sammi is wearing the most stubborn expression he’s ever seen on her. Her jaw is set forward and her lips are a stern pout, and Nino already knows he’s going to give in.
Obediently, he starts to play.
Sammi taps him on the shoulder. “Sing the words, too.”
“No,” Nino pleads, a little desperately.
Sammi’s pout returns. She taps him again. “I want to hear it.”
If he’s going to give in again – and he is – the least he can do is save them both some time. “Fine, fine.”
Nino’s voice isn’t as strong as Sammi’s, but the way he strains for her range gives it a fervor that is just as striking, just as strong. At first Sammi reads along on the page in front of him, but soon she is watching him closely. Nino, who hasn’t needed the paper in front of him from the start, closes his eyes against her gaze.
When he’s finished, Sammi shifts beside him. “Kazu wrote it for me, huh?”
She smiles smugly. “I like it. Teach it to me.”
“We have to practice for tomorrow,” Nino says meekly, but he knows it’s another losing battle.
“We already practiced,” she insists. “Now I want you to teach me the song you wrote for me.”
Sammi shows up at the bar an hour early, the calm center to the whirlwind of panicked Jun circling her. Jun appears to be everywhere at once – fussing with Sammi’s outfit, dabbing at her makeup. It isn’t until he ricochets off to demand a say in the performance lighting that Nino can get close to Sammi at all.
“Nervous?” he asks her.
She smiles weakly, looking both stunning and completely lost. “A little,” she admits.
She reaches up to touch her ear, then glances in Nino’s direction and cups a hand to her throat instead.
Nino tries changing the subject to ease her anxiety. He notices the bag Sammi is clutching. It’s small and shiny and tied with a yellow bow that looks suspiciously like one of Haruna’s hair accessories.
He gestures to it. “What’s that?”
“Oh.” She holds out the bag to him. “It’s for you. Matsujun said if it was going to be a duet, we had to match.”
Nino nods in thanks as he takes it. He unties the bow and, before continuing, impishly reties it around Sammi’s wrist. The gesture makes her giggle, just as he had hoped. His goal accomplished, he goes back to the bag and pulls out a tie.
“I painted on one of Matsujun’s ties for you, since you always like how I do my nails,” she explains shyly.
“It’s amazing!” Nino holds it up to admire the swirling pattern, precisely painted in three shades of blue. It’s a perfect match to the sequins the dress Sammi is wearing.
“Thank you,” he says sincerely, already tugging loose the knot of his own tie.
He’s about to lean in to kiss her, when he thinks better of it – Jun will strangle him if he has to reapply Sammi’s lipstick again and he’ll relish the opportunity to do it in coordination with Sammi’s outfit. For the sake of his life, Nino plays it safe. He takes Sammi’s hand and brings it to his lips, pressing a chaste kiss into her knuckles.
Before he’s even pulled away, there’s a chorus of wolf-whistles and a whooping shout from behind them. Nino winces, and turns to find Becky, Riisa and Aiba waving at him from the bar. Riisa and Becky are deep in a fit of their usual laughter, while Aiba has his hands clasped together in front of him and appears to be sighing dreamily. Nino sends a warmhearted glare in their direction.
Sammi isn’t so bothered by the attention. When Nino looks back at her, the corner of her mouth is turned up, just a little. She puts a hand on his shoulder, moving close enough that Nino can hear that she’s humming to herself again. Nino is so used to it by now that it takes him longer than it should to notice – she’s humming the song that he wrote for her.
He catches her elbow and she wiggles it playfully in his hold, attempting to break free. He doesn’t let go.
“Do you want to sing that instead?” he asks.
Sammi stops her wriggling. Her hand comes down from Nino’s shoulder and drops to her side with obvious relief. “I want to sing it instead,” she agrees.
“We didn’t practice it much,” he reminds her.
She smiles. Suddenly she doesn’t look so nervous anymore.
“That's okay. I know it.”
Nino’s morning routine has always been the same.
Every morning he sits at his kitchen counter, drinking too much black coffee and counting and recounting his tips from the night before.
This morning it’s no different, except that Sammi is sitting at the counter beside him, counting her tips, too. When she’s done with her slow fumble through the stack of bills, she pushes it towards Nino so that he can count it again.
Nino tries to take his time. He doesn’t want to make any mistakes. The bills slip through his fingers one by one and he lines them up along the table into neat piles. By the time he’s finished, Sammi’s eyelids have drooped closed beside him and the dark fan of her eyelashes over soft cheeks makes Nino suddenly, but unsurprisingly giddy. He knocks their knees together under the counter to get her attention and she flutters easily back into consciousness.
He puts the money back down in front of her. “Is this what you make at Haruna’s?” he asks. He already knows the answer, but he wants to hear her say it.
Sammi’s smile is sincere now, revealing just a glint of her teeth, and it makes Nino's next breath come in on the unsteady flutter that he’s grown accustomed to.
“More,” she says. “Way more.”