“Hello? May I speak to Ninomiya-kun, please?” Aiba played with cord of the telephone like it was a string on a bass just so his fingers had something to do; he was so excited, he couldn’t keep still.
“Hang on,” said the voice on the other end of the line; it was Nino’s sister.
Aiba shifted his weight from foot to foot as he waited for Nino to come to the phone, almost dancing as he felt the anticipation bubbling in his chest.
There was a crackle; the receiver was being picked up. “If you are Jun calling again to remind me to forward the mail,” Nino began, “I swear I’m gonna do it tomorrow—”
“Not Matsujun,” Aiba hurriedly cut in, “it’s me.”
“Aiba-shi!” Nino cheered. “Congratulations on the last day of school!”
Aiba grinned at Nino’s enthusiasm. “I have super good news…” Aiba trailed off meaningfully.
There was a pause.
“You got the job?” asked Nino, his tone deliberately even.
“YES I DID.”
“I’M MOVING TO YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD!”
“I know. Crap. Can’t Chiba raise their own aspiring electricians?”
Aiba cackled, hearing the grin in Nino’s jibe. “I’m going to be living on my own so you can come over and hang out anytime!”
“I have to study, you goon. Third year of high school, if you remember. It’s a crucial time.”
“Aw, don’t be such a Sho.”
“I’m going to tell him you said that!”
“He’ll take it as a compliment, you know.” Aiba rolled his eyes. “And, you can come study at my place. I’ll give you a spare key and everything. It’ll be just like Ikeda, minus the sucky goodbyes! The others will be so jealous.”
“God, just because we’re going to be neighbours doesn’t mean daily sleepovers. You’re going to be a working adult in two months, please try to live up to that.”
“Whatever.” Aiba laughed. “Welcome to Katsushika!”
“…That’s my line, you idiot.”
Nino didn’t like to assert his school-leaver status in his interactions with Jun; Jun had had to start high school all over again, after all, and it just seemed cruel to moan about the new syllabus or the prep for university applications during their phone calls. This meant that conversations with Jun were reduced to topics like health and girls and siblings and parents, and while those were all right, Nino felt like they weren't connecting the way they used to anymore.
It was a pity, since he and Jun had always been ‘Team Baby’ within the Kanto subset of their group, which actually included Aiba—but Aiba had been far out in the Chiba countryside then, and he was a year older, so it wasn’t like they got to hang out with him or have the exact same conversation topics.
Now that Aiba was living a three-minute walk away, however, Nino found himself relating more to Aiba than ever before; it was practically science, since the five of them were pretty much destined to be best friends despite being scattered between East and West—any permutation of the group’s members spelt fusion on a more discrete level.
Aiba had been through the rigours of academia and barely survived, choosing to escape university by joining the workforce. This meant he didn’t offer much empathy, but he definitely was the most sympathetic. Nino had been moaning to Aiba the whole of April about school, and Aiba, ever the optimist (and, Nino suspected, part-time saint) had always offered advice, comfort and a free meal.
“Too bad Jun has that acting workshop, huh,” said Aiba through a mouthful of crisps, reaching into the bag for another handful. “It’s Golden Week, you’d think he’d be free to hang out with us.”
“He’s super hard-working, you know that. And Gunma’s kinda far,” said Nino absently, poring over his chemistry homework at the low table that was in the middle of Aiba’s one-room apartment. The teachers at his school spared no mercy with the holiday assignments; but it was his choice to pursue the academic track, he now had to live with it. He knew he didn’t have the extra-curricular activities to boost his college application; all he had left to bolster his charm was his intelligence, and the portfolio he had to start working on soon.
“Aiba-chan,” said Nino, turning to look at Aiba thoughtfully, “I was thinking of making a five-minute movie so I have something to show for my college application—I need another pair of hands, someone to hold lights and stuff like that; could you help?”
“Sure,” said Aiba between munches, “as long as it’s on days I don’t have to work overtime.”
“Cool.” Nino cracked a smile. “I want to cast Jun in this thing.”
“Ooh, he’d love that.”
“Yeah. He’d stress out, but he’d love it.”
“What kind of film are you going to make?”
“Horror,” said Nino immediately.
Aiba made a face. “You don’t even like horror movies.”
“That’s why it’s gonna be less frustrating to make.”
“I don’t get it.”
“If I like the genre, I’m going to have this ideal end-product in my mind, and I’d waste too much time trying to attain it,” Nino explained, “whereas for horror, I can just go on an experimental rampage and play everything by ear.”
“Ah.” Aiba nodded as he sucked on his consommé-dusted fingers. “But I’m not gonna watch it when it’s done; horror movies scare the shit out of me.”
“Maybe you’ll be less scared after being involved in the process of making one.”
Aiba’s scepticism was apparent. “We’ll see.”
The clock by his bed read 2:15, and still Aiba couldn’t sleep. Damn Nino and his stupid idea of watching The Final Nightmare for ‘research’; now every time Aiba closed his eyes he saw the gleaming claws of Freddy Krueger.
Aiba wriggled to the edge of his mattress to peer down at Nino, who was sleeping over because Aiba was afraid to sleep alone. In the light of the streetlamp that filtered past the paltry weave of Aiba’s curtains, Nino seemed to be asleep, curled up with his face tucked under his wrist.
“Nino,” whispered Aiba, nudging Nino with his fingers. “Nino-chan.”
Nino grunted and turned his head, eyes still closed. “What.”
“I can’t sleep.”
Nino rolled onto his other side, facing Aiba. “And?”
Aiba considered this for a moment. “Come here and sleep with me.”
“No. I’m already sleeping at your place tonight; I’m not sleeping in your bed.”
“Nino…” whined Aiba. “It’s your fault I can’t sleep; you know I’m bad with these things, remember that time Oh-chan told us that puppet master story?”
“And I’ll tell you what I said back then: it’s just fiction.” Nino groaned. “Go to sleep.”
“I’ve tried. All the sheep I count turn into ugly killer men. Come on, Nino; I used to bunk in with my brother after a horror movie all the time, this isn’t any different.”
There was a beat of silence. “I don’t want to,” came Nino’s clipped reply.
Aiba made an irritated noise, clicking his tongue. “Fine. Just hold my hand until I fall asleep, then?” Aiba reached out to hook his fingers around Nino’s.
“What? That’s weirder,” Nino pulled his hand out of Aiba’s grip, “stop it.”
“Look,” Aiba’s frustration was building, “I have work tomorrow, and if I don’t get enough sleep I’ll make mistakes, and my senpai are really strict, so it’s really stressful not being able to sleep, okay?” A lump emerged in Aiba’s throat, catching him by surprise; this was affecting him more than he thought. He swallowed, hoping Nino hadn’t heard the sob in his voice.
Nino stayed quiet.
“Oh, whatever,” muttered Aiba, twisting himself so he faced the wall. If Nino wasn’t going to help him, so be it. He was going to tire out eventually; he just hoped it would be soon.
Then there was a slap on his rump, and a gruff utterance of ‘move’; Aiba happily scooted as Nino joined him on the bed, dumping his pillow unceremoniously beside Aiba’s before lying down in a manner that Aiba could only describe as begrudging.
Aiba rolled his head onto Nino’s pillow. “Thank you,” said Aiba, sincerely.
“Too close,” complained Nino, dragging his blanket over himself.
Aiba didn’t move away; instead, he nestled against Nino for comfort, draping an arm over Nino’s waist.
“Did you hug your brother to sleep back then?” asked Nino incredulously.
“Then why are you hugging me?!”
“‘Cause you’re not my brother.” Aiba yawned. This was working.
Nino squirmed, but Nino was pretty small and spent most of his time at school; Aiba was something like a head taller and spent most of his time on a construction site bending conduit.
“Stop moving, Nino. You’re into this skinship thing, aren’t you? I see you doing it with Oh-chan all the time.”
Nino went very still; somewhere in Aiba’s sleep-addled mind, he found the capacity to realise he’d struck a raw nerve.
“It’s late,” said Nino after a tense moment. “‘Night.”
And with that, Aiba forgot everything, and promptly dropped off to sleep.
The summer passed in a flurry: there was filming with Jun and Aiba, the annual visit to Ikeda, bemoaning the heat, promises of sending post and making phone calls, studying, more studying, and spending a lot of time at Aiba’s apartment.
Nino wasn’t sure how it had happened; after that night Aiba got spooked by the Freddy movie, Nino made it a point to check in on him every evening for a week, during which he was met with the request of a sleepover on most days (usually ones following a nightmare). Nino declined a couple of times—he was actually really busy—but he’d find himself eventually giving in, spending the night at Aiba’s after he completed the day’s revision goals. He kept to his space on the floor unless Aiba neighed for him to join him on the bed, and he usually did, complaining less each time.
And then it became a weekly thing.
Nino convinced himself it was cool, that it was what good friends did, that it was normal. He tried to ignore the guilt that nibbled at him every time he woke up in the morning, senses still sluggish from sleep, fighting both his hard-on and the urge to kiss Aiba awake.
So maybe it wasn’t cool. Aiba was his friend, not his… whatever. Besides, Nino told himself repeatedly, he liked girls, not boys. He totally liked girls. He had to, right? He wasn’t a weirdo. He felt like a boy, so he had to like girls.
Thoughts of kissing Aiba be damned.