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Five years earlier…

Nobuta’s hair is long. She’s probably due for a haircut, but it’s the style these days. Nobuta’s always on top of the styles now that she’s in university and can wear whatever she wants. Her part-time job at the upscale clothing shop helps support her habit, since she could never afford it any other way.

Her bangs may be in her eyes, but her smile is bright when Shuuji approaches her at the fountain. It’s their usual meeting spot when he visits, which admittedly isn’t that often anymore. It’s a long train ride from Okinawa and Shuuji works full-time at a bookstore. Nobuta hasn’t offered to come see him this entire time, despite the pull of the beaches, but Shuuji knows it’s because of her studies. Nobuta is serious about graduating and moving up the corporate ladder at her current job. She’d never been as adamant against salaried life as Shuuji and Akira had.

Speaking of… “How is Akira?” Nobuta asks, and Shuuji smiles fondly as he remembers how roughly she used to say their old friend’s name.

“Busy,” Shuuji answers. “He moved to America last month to be with some musician named Jin.”

If it were anyone but Akira, that news might have been shocking, but Nobuta just hums in understanding. “A dime on the street, indeed. How about Kouji-kun? Your parents?”

“They’re good,” Shuuji replies smoothly. “That brat is taller than me and popular in high school, Mom’s still traveling for work, and Dad just got promoted to upper management. They’re really happy.”

“And you?” Nobuta closes the textbook she’d been highlighting before Shuuji arrived and places it into her bag. “Are you happy?”

“I am,” Shuuji answers without hesitation. “Working at a bookstore isn’t a typical career choice, but it gives me money to spend.”

“You’ve never been one for typical careers,” Nobuta teases him. “Not everyone is career-driven, anyway. If you do what makes you happy in your free time, it doesn’t matter what you do to pay for it.”

Shuuji thinks about that as they walk aimlessly around his old hometown and reminisce about their high school days. It’s all they really do now, since they don’t have anything in common anymore. Mariko’s long since gotten married and moved away, and most of the guys Shuuji used to hang out with are either in university or working now. Nobuta has a new group of friends who are just like her, bright and a little reserved, and the one time Shuuji met them had been sufficiently awkward.

Their old high school is empty for summer holidays, the halls so much smaller than Shuuji remembers them. He thinks about all the good times they had together, all the dumb things Akira did and how Nobuta finally came out of her shell with their support. She has no problem smiling now, Shuuji notices, and even now he still feels a little responsible at how happy she is.

“Shuuji,” she says quietly as they sit on their old desks in the last classroom they’d shared. “Isn’t it all memories?”

Shuuji turns to stare at her, amazed at how they’re on the same wavelength without even speaking. “I was just thinking that.”

Her smile wavers. “It’s weird, you know? Every time we get together, we only talk about the past. Maybe we should let it be?”

“What are you saying?” Shuuji asks quietly, though he already knows.

“Do you ever come back to visit for anyone else?” Nobuta asks. “It’s like a broken record on repeat each time. Even your hair stays the same.”

Shuuji swallows. “You don’t want me to come visit anymore?”

“Shuuji, I met someone.” Nobuta plays with her necklace as she looks at him resolutely in the eye, and Shuuji notices there’s a heart on it. “He’s ambitious, curious about the world, and for whatever reason he really likes me a lot.”

“That’s great,” Shuuji says, smiling despite his shock. It’s not that he’d never thought Nobuta would get a boyfriend; he just didn’t think he’d be replaced with one. “When can I meet him?”

“You won’t be meeting him,” Nobuta answers with a sympathetic frown. “He’s old-fashioned and doesn’t like that I have male friends. We’re not even really friends anymore anyway, are we? I will always be grateful to you for how you helped me, but we’re just two people who made a lot of memories together in high school.”

Shuuji blinks and feels like he should step back from the force of that proverbial slap to the face. “Yeah. I guess we are.”

*

“Niichan!” a sharp hiss wakes him up from a deep sleep. “Niichan, wake up.”

Shuuji lets out a string of unintelligible syllables, hoping they sound as annoyed as he feels as he gives in to Kouji’s persistence. “What,” he finally gets out.

“I need a condom,” Kouji says, and Shuuji cringes. “Sorry! I wouldn’t have to ask you if you kept the bathroom stocked.”

“I haven’t even been—” Shuuji stops short and glares through his half-opened eyes at his younger brother who is almost 10 cm taller than him, hovering over him looking panicked like the house was on fire. “Have you been stealing my condoms, Kouji?”

“It’s not like you’re using them anyway!” Kouji splutters indignantly. “They would expire before you ever brought a girl home.”

“Go buy your own,” Shuuji grumbles, rolling over onto the opposite side. “Serves you right.”

“Do you want to be an uncle?” Kouji asks. “She’s cute enough. I could totally marry her, and then we can all live here with you. Won’t that be fun?”

“Brats like you shouldn’t even be having sex,” Shuuji says, then sighs. “There’s one in my wallet, but you better buy some tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Niichan!” is the only response he gets, followed by some rustling noises, and Shuuji’s asleep before Kouji even closes the door behind him. Good thing, too, because they share a wall.

This is what he gets for living with his brother, he muses the next morning when Kouji’s girl of the week does the walk of shame out of their apartment while Shuuji just makes pancakes and pretends not to notice. Unfortunately the bookstore doesn’t pay him enough to live alone, and Kouji’s just starting his third year of university on a full scholarship that gives him extra money. Considering his active social life, staying with Dad wasn’t an option.

Kouji towers over him at the stove, bugging him about what’s in the pancakes until Shuuji finally chases him away with the spatula, muttering about him cleaning something if he’s in that good of a mood.

“It would do you good to get laid, too, Niichan,” Kouji tells him seriously as he reaches into the fridge and pulls out a jug of orange juice. He takes a long swig right out of the container, but it’s almost empty anyway so Shuuji picks his battles. “Don’t hot bookworm chicks come into your work all the time?”

“I’m not going to hook up with my customers,” Shuuji says. “Leave it alone.”

“Okay~” Kouji sing-songs, grabbing the first plate of pancakes Shuuji stacks. “Ooh, blueberry!”

Eating shuts him up for a while, but only until the last purple-stained mouthful is swallowed.

“Is it that you like guys?” Kouji asks, and Shuuji chokes on his bite. “It’s okay if you do, I mean, I won’t judge you. My English tutor is half gay, so maybe I could have him—”

I am not gay,” Shuuji cuts him off, brandishing his fork for emphasis. “I’m five years older than you, Kouji. Sex isn’t as careless to me as it is to you.”

Kouji makes an unimpressed face at that. “I hope I’m not as boring as you are at twenty-five.”

“Don’t you have class?” Shuuji asks pointedly, and Kouji rolls his eyes as he takes his dishes to the sink and rinses them.

Kouji grabs his bag and pauses at the door. “I just worry about you.”

Shuuji lets his fork fall to his place as the door closes behind his younger brother. “I worry about me, too,” he says to the empty apartment.

*

Shu~u~ji-kun!

How are you? California is fun! Everyone is a star here. I got a job selling surfboards at the beach. Isn’t that crazy? I don’t even speak English well, but nobody cares. Jin says it’s because I only wear swim trunks. I think he’s biased. ♥

I included his demo CD as a present. I hope you like it. I don’t understand much of it, but the beat is fun. Maybe Kouji-kun will like it if you don’t. Say hi to that brat for me. And tell him to stop growing—he’s not allowed to be taller than me at sixteen.

You should come visit. I know you don’t have a lot of money but that’s okay. We’ll make it happen somehow. I think California would be good for you. It’s only an ocean away.

I miss you,
AKIRA

Shuuji folds the yellowing paper neatly and returns it to his drawer. On top of the mountain of regrets he has about his life is not responding to this letter. He’d tried, many times, but he never knew what to say, and then so much time had passed that it didn’t seem okay anymore. There’s never a statute of limitations when it comes to Kusano Akira, but Shuuji still feels like he missed his chance.

Nobuta had already broken off ties with him, so it made sense that Akira should, too. Shuuji was more upset about that than he let on, though he couldn’t quite figure out why. Thinking about it logically, it made sense. They had both grown up and moved in different directions. Finding common ground was a hassle and dwelling on the past was tedious. Yet he found himself thinking about her, even five years after they last spoke, and wonders how she is.

This being the Internet age and all, Shuuji could probably do a quick search on Facebook and find out everything she’s been up to, but he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t even have a Facebook, or a Twitter, or any other social media device that will connect him to superficial versions of people he used to know. Both Kouji and their father have Facebook accounts, but all Shuuji hears about is how the old man sucks at Candy Crush.

Shuuji mans his post in the bookstore and feels like Delphine minus the questionable gender. There aren’t any rules about who can come in, but Shuuji quickly puts a stop to anything that appears to be bullying and offers a safe haven to the ones seeking refuge. It’s the least he can do as an adult figure.

Business is slow in the weeks leading up to summer break. Shuuji feels like he’s read every book in this store by now, but of course he hasn’t. He really only likes historical nonfiction anyway, and there are only so many ways to describe a finite number of wars. Mainly he just stares out the open door and watches people walk by, all different kinds of people in different stages of their lives heading toward their respective destinations whom Shuuji makes up stories for as his days go on.

Then something happens. Not physically, at least not where Shuuji can see it, but something snaps inside him. His mind and body that have just gone through the motions of living for the past five years wants a change. Predictable Kiritani Shuuji has this sudden streak of spontaneity that he doesn’t recognize until every fibre of his being is twitching to be somewhere else, anywhere else but here.

He wants to go to California.

*

“Thanks for helping me set this up,” Shuuji says gratefully to the taller man with the strange fringe. “I don’t think I could have done it with my limited English.”

Kouji’s English tutor, whom he’d introduced as Okamoto Keito, just smiles and waves him off. “My pleasure. Thanks for letting us come with you!”

“VIVA CALIFORNIA!” Kouji screams from the hallway, dragging two giant suitcases and a hiking backpack into the main room. “I am so ready for all of those bikinis, you have no idea.”

“There are bikinis here, moron,” Keito tells him, tsking at Kouji’s luggage. “You pack like a homo.”

Kouji narrows his eyes and says that Keito would know what homos pack like while Shuuji just shakes his head. His own suitcase is nearly empty; he plans on buying more adequate clothing when he gets there. “Try not to create any international babies while we’re there, please?”

Kouji answers by displaying a rather long roll of condoms and a grin. “Bought them myself!”

A snort sounds from Keito. “If buying them yourself means giving me money to buy them, then yes, you bought them yourself.”

Shuuji decides that he likes this guy and reaffirms his decision to invite his younger brother and his English-fluent friend to California with him. Going alone would just be too weird, and having the other two there would give him someone to hang out with if he doesn’t end up finding Akira. He doesn’t have much to go off of, just a return address from five years ago, but Akira’s the kind of needle that shines in the haystack bright enough to blind you. In a world full of uncertainty, Shuuji’s confident that even Los Angeles isn’t big enough to keep Kusano Akira hidden away.

The flight is long and Shuuji watches three ridiculous romantic comedies before he settles back for a nap. Kouji’s already passed out next to him, drooling on Keito’s shoulder while Keito makes a grossed-out face and reads a book that’s in all English. They’re on summer holidays from university, which Shuuji had thought would be a problem at work, but his boss had practically kicked him out of the store upon hearing that he actually wanted to take a vacation. While Shuuji’s had sick days every now and then, he’s never taken time off for fun. He had no reason to.

Akira had been right—California is fun. That’s the only word Shuuji can think of to describe it as he steps out of the airport and finds himself surrounded by palm trees, crisp ocean air, and all kinds of people. It’s the same ocean as Okinawa, but worlds different. He lets Keito handle all the navigation even though he doesn’t exactly know where they’re going (he’d studied in England, not America), but they end up at the little hostel successfully enough.

“What kind of hotel is this?” Kouji whines, and Shuuji elbows him because the owners are actually Japanese and can understand them.

“It’s the cheapest place in the city,” Keito tells him defensively. “Your brother didn’t exactly give me a lot of money to work with, and my dad had already paid for my plane ticket.”

Shuuji had learned that Keito’s father used to be famous back in the 80s, now sitting on a small fortune that he uses to put his only son through college. Apparently he’s rather stingy with it, wanting Keito to learn for himself how to earn money and live off of a budget.

The small hostel has double rooms with two single beds, a pull-out mattress to make a third bed, a dresser, a miniature refrigerator, and a TV. There are communal bathrooms, a main room for congregating, and a kitchen for proper cooking. The little old Japanese couple who own the place are happy to talk to Shuuji in their native language, telling him all about the city and where he should sightsee. All Shuuji is really interested in is the beach, which he learns is a half-hour bus ride from where they are and quickly changes into swim attire.

“I’m really tired,” Keito says apologetically, looking longingly at one of the beds. “I didn’t sleep much on the plane. Do you think you two can get along without me today?”

“Have more faith in my English, please,” Kouji tells him as he trips into his own swimwear, which Shuuji thinks serves him right for being so damn tall. “You’ve only been tutoring me for two years. We’ll meet back here at sunset.”

Keito yawns. “Fabulous.”

The public transit system isn’t that much different from Japan, though Shuuji and Kouji are both in awe at the loud, boisterous riders surrounding them. Apparently it’s summer holidays in Los Angeles, too, or maybe it’s just like this all the time. At any rate, they reach the Santa Monica Beach and follow the thick crowd to the pier, where Shuuji just stands and stares at the sparkling ocean that looks so much different than back home.

“Want to meet back here around seven?” Kouji asks, already leering at the many different colored women in bikinis. “That should give us enough time to get back before sunset, not that Keito will be waiting for us or anything. He’ll sleep all day if you let him.”

“Yeah, sure,” and just like that Shuuji’s left alone, looking out into the ocean. There’s plenty of time, so he feels no rush. There’s a lot of beach to cover and what looks like several surfboard huts to check, assuming Akira would actually keep the same job for five years. Shuuji may have better luck asking anyone who can understand him if they’ve seen Akira, since one usually doesn’t forget a presence such as that one.

Six hours later, though, all he has to show for his day is water in his ear and a sunburn. He’d met some interesting people, but none of them recognized the name Akira or the old picture Shuuji provided. He’d even wandered away from the beach to try to do some shopping, but everything was crazy expensive. Figuring he’d get the souvenir purchases out of the way, he picked out some seashell turtles for his dad and boss on the pier, only to run into Kouji looking at the same thing.

“From both of us?” Kouji asks hopefully, and Shuuji just rolls his eyes as he nods. “Wow, you’re really red. You’re going to have awful tan lines.”

“Let’s just go,” Shuuji mutters, paying for the items and dragging Kouji back to the bus stop. “Did you have fun today? And I don’t need the details.”

“I did,” Kouji answers, but his dirty smile says more than Shuuji ever wanted to know. “I’m starving. That funnel cake was hours ago.”

Shuuji wrinkles his nose at the thought of a funnel cake, but his stomach is rumbling as well. The small sandwich he’d gotten from a beach vendor hadn’t been very filling. “We can eat after we meet back up with Keito-kun. I don’t trust your English at a proper restaurant.”

Kouji just grins. “He’s cool, isn’t he? I’d never tell him to his face, but I’m really glad we became friends.”

“You sound like a girl with a crush,” Shuuji teases, and Kouji nearly shoves him into the side of the bus. “Are you sure there isn’t something you want to tell me, Kouji?”

“I could tell you all about my adventures under the pier, if you’d like,” Kouji shoots back as they choose their seats. “Turns out American girls don’t mind sharing.”

Shuuji rubs both of his temples while Kouji laughs. “I’ll pass on story time, thanks.”

The bus starts to move and Kouji’s laughter dies. “I take it you didn’t find Akira-kun?”

“Nope.” Shuuji sighs. “It’s only been one day. I’ll try the return address on the envelope tomorrow, though I doubt he’s still there.”

Kouji lays his head on Shuuji’s shoulder, slumping enough to make up for their height difference. “You’ll find him. Shuuji and Akira have a bond that withstands all time and distance.”

“That sounds like something he would say,” Shuuji comments, and smiles.

*

Dinner in Little Tokyo is strangely nostalgic despite being less than 48 hours since they left actual Japan. Apparently there’s a festival later this week, so everything is busier than usual, but the curry is just as good as home even if Kouji whines about eating Japanese food while in America.

Keito doesn’t seem to care either way, just stuffing his face while surfing the Internet on his phone. He’s checking out places they can go and having a rough time since he’s only twenty and Kouji’s only nineteen. Kouji will be twenty in a couple weeks, but the drinking age here is twenty-one and Keito’s finding that a lot of clubs won’t even let them in.

They end up going shopping (at much more affordable stores, Shuuji notes), but that only kills a couple hours since it’s the middle of the week and already late. The buses don’t run all night, either, so they couldn’t venture back out into the city. Keito especially is frustrated, having slept all day, but Kouji suggests that they walk around and see if they can find something to do. Shuuji leaves them to it, figuring they’re old enough to be out at night by themselves, and flops down onto the bed that doesn’t have the roll-out under it, a combination of the jet lag and sun and walking around luring him right to sleep.

Two sets of soft snoring greet his ears upon waking, leaving him relieved that his brother and his friend made it back safely as Shuuji drags himself out of bed and goes about starting his day. The communal bathroom is empty and he takes a long shower, hissing at just about every contact to his face and neck from what he learns is a rather angry sunburn. There isn’t any communal food, but the old lady tells him about a Japanese bakery a few doors down and being the nice older brother he is, Shuuji gets Kouji and Keito some breakfast as well.

Just in case, he asks the bakery owners if they’ve ever met Akira, but once again he’s let down. Akira’s probably moved by now, Shuuji tells himself. Maybe it didn’t work out with that musician and Akira relocated. He seems to adapt easily to new environments, anyway. And his English has to be much better now after being immersed for so long.

Once the younger men are awake and functional, the three of them head to Santa Monica again, though this time Shuuji lathers on plenty of sunscreen and heads a few blocks away from the beach. The return address on Akira’s envelope from five years ago isn’t even a residence anymore, though the landlord remembers him and Jin vividly.

“Jin was so talented,” the Korean man muses in his own broken English. “I can’t believe he went and threw his career away by knocking up an actress.”

Shuuji freezes. Apparently Jin’s new wife wasn’t famous at all, only a few throwaway roles in independent films as an Asian in the background, and now they live in a matchbook of an apartment with their toddler daughter while Jin plays gigs at local bars and his wife runs a neighborhood daycare. Shuuji is entirely positive that Akira’s no longer in the picture, but musters up enough English to ask the landlord if he can have Jin’s new address anyway. The only reason he’s successful is probably because it’s on the flyer for the daycare.

The first thing Shuuji notices about Akanishi Satsuki is that she’s gorgeous, definitely born to be an actress or even a model. She doesn’t look like she’s had a child at all, though the circles around her eyes definitely say she’s been chasing after one. Or six, judging by the little faces gathered around an art table in the apartment’s main room.

“Kusano Akira?” Satsuki repeats. “Never heard of him. I’ve only known Jin for a few years, though.”

Shuuji blinks and figures it’s inappropriate to ask if she knew her husband used to mess around with guys. “Is your husband around?”

“Somewhere.” Satsuki shrugs. “Your guess is as good as mine. He usually stays away while the other kids are here. Loves our own well enough, but so many at once give him a headache.”

One of the children screeches and Shuuji fully understands that sentiment. “Do you mind telling me the bars he usually plays at?”

Satsuki has no problem offering up this information, along with where they are, and Shuuji writes it all down. “Why are you looking for this guy, anyway?”

“Just an old friend,” Shuuji replies, and Satsuki nods. “I lost touch with him and kind of took an impromptu vacation.”

“I see.” Satsuki gestures toward one of the names on Shuuji’s paper, the closest one to their home. “Usually he hangs out at this one. He and the owner are friends from his old rock-band days.”

Shuuji smiles so fast that it hurts his sunburned face. “Thank you!”

“Good luck,” she calls after him, leaning in the doorway. “If you’re searching all over L.A. for this guy, he must be important to you.”

That truth follows him to the bar, where there’s an equally as gorgeous man with curly hair and a guitar case sipping what looks like lemonade. Shuuji’s not usually inclined towards men, but he couldn’t deny that this one was definitely attractive. “Akanishi Jin?”

“That’s my name,” Jin answers in English, then switches to Japanese when he looks up and sees Shuuji. “Kiritani.”

Shuuji blinks. “You know who I am?”

“Of course I do,” Jin replies, a grin breaking out on his face as he stands up and makes his way across the bar. “Akira only talked about you all the damn time and showed me all of your weird high school pictures. How come you never wrote back?”

“Akira,” Shuuji says, his heartbeat quickening. “Where is he?”

Jin’s face falls. “I don’t know. He took off when I got married. That was a year and a half ago.”

Suddenly Shuuji’s veins are filled with rage. “Did you hurt him?”

“Probably,” Jin answers solemnly. “But you know Akira. He bounces back fast. I bet he found someone new right away.”

“Any idea where he might be?” Shuuji tries, but Jin shakes his head.

“I tried to look for him, too, even online.” Jin sighs. “When I took him on tour with me, he fell in love with all of the little country towns in the midwest. I always figured he went back there after he left.”

Shuuji’s still letting those words sink in when a man about his height with rather thick lips and pigtails strolls out from the back. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know anyone else was out here!” he exclaims in heavily accented English. “Dammit, Jin, call me when there’s a customer!”

“I’m not a customer,” Shuuji rushes to say, then realizes how rude that sounds. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind an iced tea, but I came here to see Akanishi-san.”

“This is Ueda Tatsuya,” Jin introduces. “His English sucks, but he mixes a mean drink and sometimes even grills meat decently.”

“My French is better, and fuck you,” Ueda replies, flashing Shuuji a smile as he pours him a glass. “On the house, because you’re keeping him out of my hair.”

Shuuji lifts the glass in thanks, taking a long sip as he looks around the bar. “You have live shows here?”

“Just whenever Jin wants to perform,” Ueda replies. “Otherwise we have karaoke.”

“They do it out in the open here,” Jin explains to Shuuji’s undoubtedly confused expression. “It’s actually really fun, once you get over the whole singing-in-front-of-strangers thing.”

“Hasn’t really been a problem for you, has it?” Ueda chides. “I can’t decide whether my regulars come here to watch you actually play guitar or just get drunk and sing Justin Bieber songs.”

“Either way, I’m singing!” Jin exclaims with a hearty laugh, and Ueda shakes his head.

“Ueda-san,” Shuuji asks suddenly, getting an idea. “Do you allow minors as long as they don’t drink?”

“As long as they don’t drink,” Ueda answers pointedly. “Don’t need any kids getting me shut down. You got an underage girlfriend or something?”

“My brother,” Shuuji tells him. “And his friend. They’re here with me and there’s not really much for them to do being nineteen and twenty.”

“If you’ll take responsibility for them, they can come,” Ueda says sternly.

“Will you be here later?” Shuuji asks Jin. “I’d really like to hear more about Akira.”

“I can be,” Jin replies. “I’ll just go home now so that my old lady can’t say I stayed out all day. See you later, Tatchan.”

Ueda lifts a hand in parting, then fixes eyes on Shuuji. “You want something to eat?”

Shuuji looks at the time and tries not to think about what his brother is doing right now, with or without Keito. “Yeah, I do.”

*

Even though it’s just a little hole in the wall bar and not an extravagant L.A. nightclub, Shuuji is Kouji and Keito’s favorite person for the entire night and neither one of them lets him pay for a thing. Naturally, this means Shuuji gets nice and drunk, spilling to Jin what had happened with Nobuta and how he wanted to find Akira again to cling onto the last piece of his youth or whatever sounds good after four shots.

Jin’s not that sober either, hanging on every word like Shuuji were some kind of ancient philosopher, and they spend hours trading crazy Akira stories while Kouji croons into the karaoke microphone and earns the attention of the few female patrons. Keito’s already tucked away in a booth with a much older Latina woman, though she seems more interested in feeding him her tongue than feeding him drinks, so Shuuji doesn’t pay him much attention.

The rest of the night is a blur, and Shuuji wakes up with a pounding headache on the floor of what he remembers to be Jin and Satsuki’s tiny apartment. He has a note taped to his head, which upon a lot of squinting says that Kouji and Keito will meet him back at the hostel and not to worry. Shuuji’s just glad they’re not here, because it’s already crowded with Jin snoring loudly on his back next to him and Satsuki and their daughter curled up on Jin’s other side.

Shuuji wonders what Akira would think if he knew that Shuuji had spent the night with his ex-boyfriend and his new wife. Nothing happened, of course, at least nothing that he can remember or feel other than a huge hangover, but it’s still an amusing thought nonetheless. He actually chuckles out loud, which has Satsuki stirring and blinking sleepy eyes at him.

“Are you hungry?” she asks, glancing toward the peacefully sleeping child in her arms. “I can make you something—”

“I’m fine, thank you,” Shuuji says, sitting up and running his fingers through his wild morning hair. “After your hospitality, I would insist on cooking for you.”

Satsuki smiles up at him. “I’m certainly not going to stop you.”

Their refrigerator offers him enough ingredients for pancakes, chocolate chip this time, ones that have Jin declaring Shuuji his new best friend. Shuuji laments for a few seconds about how he’s 6400 miles away from home and will probably never see Jin again after he leaves, but for now it’s a nice thought. Shuuji hasn’t had a best friend in a long time.

It’s still early when Shuuji returns to the hostel, where all of the beds are empty and there’s no sign of Kouji or Keito having been back. He wonders what they got up to all night in a foreign city, then figures he doesn’t want to know and catches another few hours of sleep before the door opens and the distinct smell of McDonald’s French fries rouses him and his stomach.

“Is it too much of a drag if your older brother follows you around today?” Shuuji asks Kouji defeatedly, and Kouji smiles and tells him of course not as he presents a wrapped quarter pounder with cheese as real American food.

*

Hanging out with university kids isn’t really as bad as Shuuji had expected, though it helps that Kouji and Keito are usually the only university-aged ones in the group. Contrary to Shuuji’s assumptions, they’re not courting women all the time, taking breaks to pretend like they know how to surf or play games in the arcade. They spend an entire day in Hollywood, though most of it is the commute there and back, and Shuuji understands what Akira had meant by stars being everywhere. Even a dime on the street wouldn’t have shone in comparison.

There’s a lot to do in the daylight, it seems, but by the fifth day of their trip Shuuji feels like he’s done it all, electing to stick around Little Tokyo and check out some of the shops they’d neglected before. The festival starts tomorrow, Shuuji notes, already planning to attend despite the familiarity. After a few days in the culture mix of California, he could use some familiarity. Maybe they could even let him participate somehow. He’s sure Japanese enough.

“Shuuji,” a voice calls from behind him, one he’ll never forget, and Shuuji turns his neck so fast that he almost gets whiplash. It’s unbelievable but there she is, in full kimono and wooden shoes, hair pulled back with authentic combs and makeup accenting her face like a true geisha.

“Nobuta.”

There are people rushing by, setting up booths and making other preparations, but all Shuuji sees is her standing the short distance away from him, in California of all places, looking like she stepped right out of history.

“What are you doing here?” they both ask at the same time, and Shuuji’s laughing before he knows it, quickly joined by her.

“Come on, let’s get out of the way,” she says, grabbing his arm and dragging him into one of the booths. The boxes are mostly packed, but Shuuji can still see that they’re all kimonos and other traditional Japanese wear. “Do you like them?”

“They’re beautiful,” Shuuji says, running his fingers along one of the folded garments. Pure silk.

“Thank you,” Nobuta answers. “I made them.”

“You made…?” Shuuji trails off as he looks at the kimono much differently now. “Seriously?”

Nobuta laughs. “You don’t think I’m capable of it?”

“Of course that’s not what I think,” Shuuji says quickly. “You were just so into modern fashion…”

Nobuta shrugs, which looks out of place in her attire. “Marrying into an old-fashioned family gave me an appreciation for the clothes, if nothing else.”

She sounds a little bitter and Shuuji’s eyes instantly look down to her left hand, where there is no ring.

“We’re divorced,” Nobuta answers his unspoken question. “No children, thank god. Turns out I liked playing the housewife role much more than actually being the housewife.”

Shuuji blinks. “What do you mean by that?”

Nobuta walks up to the portable mirror, staring at her own face in awe like she doesn’t recognize it. “The idea of it is fun, you know? Like playing house as a little kid. But actually living it is…kind of demeaning.”

“I can’t see you as anyone’s housewife, even dressed like that,” Shuuji tells her honestly, and a smile cracks her painted face. “You look great, by the way.”

“Thank you,” she replies. “You look…red.”

Shuuji cringes a little. “Yeah. I wasn’t very smart the first day we were here.”

“Sit,” Nobuta orders, pointing to a folded out chair, and Shuuji instantly sits. “Shirt off.”

Something about her tone has Shuuji complying more quickly that he would have normally, though exposing his sunburned skin to the hot air has him wincing. She retrieves a bottle from her purse and walks behind him, popping the cap and rubbing the contents onto her hands before spreading it gently onto his peeling shoulders. He expects it to hurt, but it actually feels good, a soothing chill that has him leaning his head back with a sigh.

“Feel better?”

“Yeah.” Shuuji opens his eyes and looks at her upside-down. “Thank you.”

She replies by smearing the substance onto his face, which has him closing his eyes again when she gets to the really burned area underneath them. “I’m sorry,” she says quietly.

“For what?” Shuuji asks. “It doesn’t hurt.”

“Not for this.” She pauses and Shuuji opens his eyes again to find her looking down at him fondly. “For pushing you away back then. I’ve always regretted it.”

“It’s okay,” Shuuji tells her, and it is. He would forgive her anything as long as she keeps touching him like this.

“I don’t know how many times I thought about going to Okinawa, especially after I went back to Japan.” She laughs. “What are the chances we meet here of all places?”

“Very slim, I’m sure.” He tries not to whine as she pulls her hands away, wiping them on a cloth before returning the bottle to her purse. “Do you live here now?”

“Sort of,” she answers. “I’m based in Tokyo, but I started out as a small shop here and always come back for the festival.”

“Tokyo?” Shuuji asks, astounded. “Do you work for a traditional clothing manufacturer or something?”

Nobuta hides a smile. “Shuuji, I am the manufacturer. These are my creations. Nobuta Fashion is an actual corporation. We’re traded on the stock exchange and everything. I have older executives who handle all of the business stuff for me, but the idea and designs are all mine.”

Shuuji gapes at her, both impressed and very, very proud. “You did it.”

“I did.” She grins. “Toma’s parents helped me go corporate, but I’ve bought them all out. I still provide most of their wardrobes, so I guess there are no hard feelings.”

“That’s really great,” Shuuji tells her. “I’m happy to hear it.”

“How long are you in town for?” Nobuta asks excitedly. “The festival is only through Sunday, so maybe we can meet up afterwards?”

Shuuj’s face falls. “We’re leaving Sunday.”

“Oh.” Nobuta frowns. “I guess we just have today then. What hotel are you staying at?”

“Little Tokyo Hotel,” Shuuji tells her. “It’s right across the street.”

“I’m right here at the Miyako,” Nobuta says. “Room 213. I should be done here around seven or so. Meet me then?”

“Absolutely,” Shuuji says, and Nobuta grins. “By the way, have you heard from Akira?”

“Kusano Akira?” she asks, and Shuuji nods. “You mean you haven’t seen him yet?”

“I didn’t exactly keep in touch after he moved away.” Shuuji hangs his head. “That’s my regret.”

“No, I mean, you haven’t seen him here yet?” Nobuta clarifies, and Shuuji’s head snaps up. “He’s part of the festival! This year he’s a member of the taiko team. He likes to do something different every year, you know, spice it up.”

“You two are together again?” Shuuji exclaims, then shakes his head. “No, that’s not what I mean. Unless that’s how it is…?”

Nobuta laughs so hard that she almost falls over. “God, no, Akira is as gay as the day is long. We’ve leaned on each other for a long time, though. I came out here after the divorce to open my shop and ran into none other than Akira eating the huge donburi rice bowl at Wakasaya. He worked for me for a while until business picked up and I went back to Tokyo, but then his boyfriend got married and he moved back as well.”

“He’s in Tokyo now?!” Shuuji shakes his head incredulously. “And here I am running all over Los Angeles looking for him.”

“Well, you found him,” Nobuta says. “Just follow the beat of the drums.”

Shuuji hears them in the distance and wants to run out of the little hut, but he can’t quite bring himself to leave Nobuta yet. “Room 213, right?”

“Yes,” she confirms, then steps towards him. “And in case I never see you again…”

She grabs him by the face and presses their lips together, so fast that Shuuji doesn’t have time to react before she pulls away. He just stares at her instead, his lips tingling as she leans up to thumb off whatever lipstick had gotten onto them.

“Don’t look so shocked,” she tells him with a completely different kind of smile. “I’m not the timid girl you knew in high school anymore.”

“Clearly,” he replies absently, feeling like his head is stuffed full of cotton as he turns and walks out of the hut. It’s hypnotic how he follows the sounds of the drums now, though he walks right past them and towards the street before he remembers he’d had a reason to stop there.

“Shu~u~ji-kun!” that voice penetrates through the cotton, and Shuuji’s eyes focus on a much older, much buffer Akira with bleached blond hair and no shirt who points at him with a drumstick. “I found you!”

“I found you first,” Shuuji says, grinning so hard that it hurts almost as much as Akira glomping him in the middle of Little Tokyo.

*

Everything is different, yet nothing has really changed. Akira talks for two straight hours about absolutely nothing, looking happier than ever just to have Shuuji back in his company, and Shuuji tries not to feel too guilty about waiting so long. When Akira finally lets him speak, he opts not to mention that he’d met Jin and his new family, instead focusing on Kouji and his job at the bookstore.

“Kouji-kun is here?!” Akira asks. “Let’s go find him! I want to see if he’s taller than me yet.”

“I’m not sure where he is,” Shuuji says honestly. “We split up today. And he probably is taller than you.”

Akira pouts for a second, then his smile returns. “You found Nobuta and me, right? We can find your brother and his friend.”

“I missed your logic,” Shuuji tells him as Akira yanks on a shirt and drags him onto the closest bus. “I have to be back by seven, though!”

A few transfers later lands them back on Hollywood Blvd., but they keep going west. Shuuji notices a lot of rainbows and same-sex couples holding hands as they walk down the street, recognizing what he has read as the gay district.

“Akira, I don’t think they’ll be here,” Shuuji says slowly as they get off the bus in front of a gym.

Akira just shrugs. “It felt right. Whether they’re here or not, I’ll show you around! I spent a lot of time here when I first moved in with Jin.”

That doesn’t surprise Shuuji at all, since West Hollywood seems to be as bright and fun as Akira is, and Shuuji allows himself to be pulled from one place to the next on Akira’s grand tour of his old stomping grounds. They stop at a cafe for something to eat and Akira hits on the waiter, earning a phone number on their receipt that Akira waves around before they’re even outside.

“Ooh, the park,” Akira squeals, yanking Shuuji across the street before dropping his arm to spin around. Twenty-five years old and still a child, Shuuji thinks fondly, then freezes as he catches sight of two people on a bench in the distance. “Shuuji? Shuuji-kun, what do you see?”

Shuuji doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, doing a little of both as he takes in the sight of his little brother in full make-out mode in broad daylight in the middle of a park. Only instead of a female companion in his arms, a very male one with weird fringe is the one devouring him.

“I found Kouji,” Shuuji says flatly.

Akira’s eyes widen as he follows Shuuji’s line of sight. “He really did get tall!”

When Shuuji returns to the hostel room, minus Akira who had elected to stay in West Hollywood and call the cute waiter, he leaves a note saying he won’t be back until morning. Clearly his brother and his friend could use the privacy.

*

“Welcome home,” Nobuta greets him at the door, still in kimono but with less makeup and her hair down.

Shuuji blinks as he takes in the view. “I’m home,” he plays along, melting under her smile. It’s a lot different now than when they were teenagers, even five years ago. Nobuta knows what she’s doing with that smile now as she lures Shuuji into her hotel room just by stepping backwards.

It’s an executive suite with the biggest bed Shuuji’s ever seen and a little table with two chairs. The table already has tea steaming on it, which had to have been brought by room service since there’s no kitchen area. He’s not really that fussed about how it got there, just observing his surroundings before returning his full attention to the girl—no, woman who’s looking at him like she has her mind already made up about what she wants to do to him.

“I bet you’ve had a long day,” Nobuta purrs at him, her voice going straight down to where he hasn’t felt much of anything in a long time. “I laid out a yukata for you in the bathroom if you’d like to take a shower, dear.”

She emphasizes the term of endearment that he’s only heard his mother call his father and Shuuji gets exactly what she’s playing at here. “I will, thank you,” he says in his sternest voice, watching her inhale sharply at the tone.

The shower is quick, just long enough to serve the purpose, and Shuuji leaves his hair wet as he puts on the yukata and prepares himself for the evening ahead. He’s not a teenager anymore, either. He sees it in his own face, the defined angles and fuller cheeks that’s a more sculpted version of the boy he used to be, his hair curling a little as he nods to his reflection and steps out into the room.

Nobuta is seated at the table, calmly sipping her tea, though she stands up when Shuuji approaches. “Do you feel better, dear?

“Much,” Shuuji answers, taking his seat next to her. She pours him tea and glances up at her, watching how precariously she moves. All at once he understands why she liked acting this way for her ex-husband but didn’t want to play the role all the time; she’s far too independent to be under a man’s control. But right now, as she’s serving him with her full attention on his reaction, she’s completely into it.

He is, too. He’s always been attracted to strong women who take the lead, especially in the bedroom, but switching it up like this has his nerves singeing like a slow burning fire. He wonders if he should break character to ask her what’s okay, like if she wants him to grab her roughly or something, then figures he’ll just act like the typical dominant husband and see what happens. He trusts Nobuta to tell him if she wants him to stop.

It’s strange that he likes this so much, since he spent most of his high school years pretending to be somebody else, but it feels different since she knows the real him. He wouldn’t want just any woman to be with him like this—it has to be Nobuta. Nobuta, who basically owns her own multinational corporation and left a man for trying to own her; Nobuta who had changed his life so long ago and was an integral part of his history.

“This tea is delicious,” he tells her, and she blushes at the praise like she’d made it herself. “And you look beautiful.”

“Thank you,” she replies, her entire body turned toward him, legs crossed. She’s done drinking, just watching him, chin perched on her folded hands while her soft eyes are locked on his lips. He licks them habitually, and her eyes darken. “Are you hungry?”

“Not for anything room service can bring me,” Shuuji answers, feeling a lot less suave than he sounds as he places his teacup onto the saucer and reaches for one of Nobuta’s hands. It’s so soft. “I’ve missed you.”

He meant to specify ‘today’ to keep with the theme, but it ends there and he means it with every beat of his heart. He doesn’t know what would have happened had he stayed in the picture with either Nobuta or Akira, whether he would have ended up in L.A. any other way or just supported from his boring bookstore clerk life in Okinawa, but maybe this would have happened earlier. Maybe it would still be happening.

“I’ve missed you, too,” Nobuta tells him, eyes big and innocent, and Shuuji doesn’t know what’s real anymore. He tugs on Nobuta’s hand and she leans toward him, their lips pressing together just as lightly as before, but this time neither one pulls away. Shuuji’s fingers find her hair, straight and product free, and he tilts her head to deepen their kiss.

Even her kiss is submissive, making him even hotter as she just responds to him without giving it back. It has him reaching for her, wanting to feel her closer to him, and she gives a little squeal of surprise as he scoops her right up and moves her over to his lap. Now she’s higher than him, but he’s still the one in charge as he kisses her deeply and allows his hands to roam the smooth silk of her blue kimono.

They find the bow of her obi and gently untie it, letting it fall around her waist. He should probably lay her down onto the bed and take it off properly, but he likes having her weight on him too much, and besides she’s not protesting at all. As someone who makes kimono for a living, Nobuta would be the first to chastise him for not treating it properly if he were doing so.

All she does is make a faint noise into his mouth as his hand travels up her chest, finding where the fabric opens and dipping inside to touch her through the inner layer. Her belly concaves at the first brush of his fingers and he’s already reaching up to cup a breast before it even occurs to him that he might be moving too fast. She does nothing to stop him, though; in fact she places her hand lightly on his arm and presses it closer to her, as if to not only give permission but tell him to get a move on.

He squeezes her breast tighter, using his thumb to flick her nipple through the fabric, feeling it harden. She mewls into his kiss and he keeps doing it, noticing how she squirms in his lap, and he only makes it a few more seconds before lifting her to the bed and spreading her out onto her back. Reluctantly, he pulls away from her mouth and keeps his eyes on her flushed face and plump lips as he gently unwraps the kimono from of her body and carefully folds it up. She looks impressed that he knows what he’s doing, but says nothing as her nipples grow even harder from the crisp air conditioned room.

All she’s wearing are matching blue panties and Shuuji feels incredibly clothed despite just wearing a yukata. Nobuta’s not about to undress him, though, so he reaches down to untie the sash as he lowers his body to hers and returns to her mouth.

She’s much more vocal now that he’s pressed between her legs, already a little hard and growing even harder with each slow grind. He can feel how warm she is even through the fabric, and all it does it make him want to get closer. His mouth falls from hers and latches onto her neck, tasting her sweet skin and smelling a hint of perfume. “Nobut—Nobuko.”

“Shuuji-san,” she whispers, quiet and compliant, and he feels nails rake through his wet hair. “Please.”

She shouldn’t have to ask for it, Shuuji mentally berates himself. He leans up to gently pull down her panties, groaning when she spreads her legs for him. He can’t stop one hand from dropping between them, finding her wet and wanting as her body welcomes in one finger and she moans outright into the room. He kisses his way down to her breasts, lavishing each one with his tongue while working her open, a second finger quickly joining the first as she rocks back against them.

“Shuuji-san,” she says again, an undeniable plea for more, and Shuuji moves his fingers harder. Nobuta arches her back and tightens around him, clawing at the sheets as she cries out, and Shuuji gapes at the realization that she just came like that.

He lowers himself further down her body, noting how she sucks in her air when she feels him breathe against her sensitive area. He loops an arm around her thigh and doesn’t waste any time licking her, going right for the little bump that twitches against his tongue as a clear indication that he’s doing it right, and her muscles squeeze his fingers again. He can hear her gasp and moan, feel her thighs shaking on either side of his head, and he can tell she’s going to come again a split-second before she screams out his name.

She’s the one who pulls him up, by his hair, though it’s not as painful as it would be if she grabbed his sunburned shoulders instead. His cock rubs against her thigh and he groans again, feeling the wetness he leaves behind. He’s fingering her easily now, her body pushing back just as hard as he gives it to her, and he’s reaching into his discarded pants for the condom in his wallet without actively thinking about it.

Upon hearing the crinkle of the foil, Nobuta nods and pulls him down for another kiss, this one fully dominated by her. Their little game is over, he supposes, or maybe he’s supposed to regain his control. Either way, his response is automatic, pinning her to the bed as he takes over the kiss and rolls on the condom, then kneels between her legs to align himself.

That was the right thing to do, because she’s thrashing beneath him, moaning into his mouth and wrapping her legs around his waist, everything in her body language begging him to give it to her now. He doesn’t make her wait, entering her as gently as he can manage, the tightness of her body pulling a deep groan from his lungs as he pushes all the way in. Her muscles squeeze him so wonderfully and he only makes it a few seconds before his need to move wins over, his hips snapping on their own and his continued noises dying on her tongue.

It’s a thousand times better than any sex he’s ever had before, arousal surging through his entire body with each thrust. He holds onto her tightly, their mouths and chests pressed together as well as where they unite, but he still doesn’t feel close enough. This whole little domestic scene makes it even hotter, fooling Shuuji into thinking they’re really a couple, that Nobuta is really his to take and fuck into the mattress at his leisure, even if he would never in a million years consider a woman his property like that. Except if she wanted him to.

Nobuta’s fingers dig into his shoulders by accident, but his yelp of pain is mixed with pleasure and she hisses an apology before twisting her fingers in his hair, which is just as enjoyable. He moves inside her faster, falling from her mouth as his breaths get the better of him. His lips drop to her ear instead, sucking on the lobe before mouthing the skin behind it, which she seems to really like judging by the way she tightens around him.

“I wanna feel you come,” he whispers into her ear, the words alone making her shiver beneath him, followed by a continuous tremble. “Are you close? Come for me, Nobuko.”

Shuuji,” Nobuta cries out, her body arching as her inner muscles clamp down on him, restricting his movement for a second until he builds up the force to push through it. “Oh, Shuuji.”

Shuuji just groans, breaking out into a fresh layer of sweat as he holds onto her as tightly as she can, fucking her through her orgasm that doesn’t seem to end. He’s never felt so exhilarated during sex, unconcerned about anything but feeling as much as he can before it becomes too much to hold back.

Then he feels Nobuta’s breath on his ear, arms cradling his head like he’s doing something that requires comfort instead of pounding her as hard as he can. “You feel so good, dear,” she whispers, and he comes so suddenly that his thoughts are incoherent for a few seconds.

When he can think again, he realizes his full weight is on top of Nobuta and he rushes to move, but her gentle touch stops him. Her fingers on his face pull him back into her mouth, kissing her slowly and more equally as their heartbeats calm down.

Nobuta’s the first to pull away, sighing happily with such a large smile that Shuuji feels himself blushing from the flattery. “I always wondered, you know,” she says breathlessly.

“Hmm?” Shuuji asks, mustering up the energy to at least pull out of her.

“What you were like in bed.” She grins at his surprised reaction. “Clearly I should have found out back when I was in university and you were coming to visit me so much. Could have saved myself a lot of wasted time.”

“What are you saying?” Shuuji asks, half of him freaking out while the other half jumps for joy.

“Relax, Casanova,” she teases, gently pushing him away enough to stretch out beneath him. “All I’m saying is that I want to do that again. Preferably in Japan where we can be completely authentic.”

“I can definitely agree to that,” Shuuji says, then bites his lip as he rolls onto his side. “Do you think I could sleep here tonight?”

Nobuta snorts. “After that, you can sleep here until you go home.”

“Oh.” Shuuji feels his face heat up again as he snaps off the condom and throws it away. He rolls back towards Nobuta and finds her curled up against his side, fitting perfectly under his arm despite both of them being so small. “It’s just that I am pretty sure my brother and his friend are having a thing.”

“A thing?” Nobuta repeats, looking amused. “Like the things that Akira has with guys?”

“Yes, those things.” Shuuji frowns at how she doesn’t even bother to hide her laughter. “I can say it, I just don’t want to think about my baby brother doing that. It’s bad enough he steals my condoms.”

“At least they can’t get pregnant,” Nobuta says brightly, and Shuuji supposes he’s thankful for small favors.

The night is long from over, the pair of them taking advantage of the giant jacuzzi bath that initiates round two, where Nobuta thanks him for his cooperation the first time around by letting him lie back and enjoy the ride. It’s late when they finally succumb to slumber, more out of Nobuta’s obligation to the festival the next day than exhaustion, and Shuuji thinks few things are more perfect than Nobuta in his arms as he falls asleep.

*

Eight o’clock is way too early for Shuuji to leave the comfort of Nobuta’s giant bed, though he’d been welcome to stay while she got herself all dolled up for the festival. He’d barely resisted the urge, knowing damn well he’d have that kimono right off of her the minute she put it on and neither one of them would ever get anywhere.

He dawdles as long as he can, taking his time picking out breakfast at the Japanese bakery and even sitting outside with his coffee. It’s a nice day as far as Los Angeles goes, early enough to still be a little cool. The festival staff is already in full swing, kimonos and other traditional wear flocking the street, and Shuuji entertains himself by watching them until he becomes very aware of yesterday’s clothes clinging to him and reluctantly trudges back up to the room.

He squints as he opens the door, but he hadn’t really needed to. In fact, the sight of his brother’s long limbs wrapped around Keito on the tiny single bed is actually cute, and Shuuji smiles at both Kiritani brothers finding someone unexpected on this vacation. He can’t imagine Kouji or Keito will settle down so easily, being the incurable ladies’ men they apparently are, but who knows? Shuuji’s the last person to assume any kind of predictability from anyone considering the last 24 hours of his life.

“Wake up, brat,” Shuuji mutters, kicking the bed. “I got breakfast and we’re going to a festival. Nobuta gave us yukata to wear.”

Still asleep, Keito mumbles that he doesn’t want to go to school today, clinging more tightly to Kouji whose eyes pop open. He looks at Shuuji for approximately three seconds before shoving Keito right off of the bed, desperately clutching at the sheets that threaten to go with him. Keito lands on the rollout bed, thankfully wearing boxers, and whines as he looks up at Kouji with hurt eyes.

“Relax, I already know,” Shuuji tells his brother, who blinks nervously at him. “Akira took me to West Hollywood yesterday. I saw you two kissing in the park. It’s okay.”

Kouji pulls the blankets all the way over his head, and Shuuji’s reminded of when they were kids and Kouji wouldn’t tell him what was wrong until he was under the safety of his blanket fort. “Really?”

“Really,” Shuuji says, leaning down to squeeze the Kouji-shaped lump around the shoulders before tossing the bakery bag on the bed. “Now eat.”

“See, I told you it would be fine,” Keito grumbles as he crawls back up onto the bed and pokes Kouji in the face through the blanket, then turns to squint up at Shuuji. “Is he always like this?”

“Yup.” Shuuji grins. “Good luck with that.”

Keito keeps poking Kouji until the latter yanks off the blanket and busies himself with his breakfast. Shuuji leaves them be and takes a shower, changing into the yukata and looking forward to the festival. It’s probably much different from the ones back in Japan, but it should be fun enough. And Nobuta will be there, and Akira.

The three of them together again, in Los Angeles of all places, at a Japanese festival, and it’s perfect. Akira lets Shuuji play the taiko and Keito even joins the team for a song he apparently already knows. Shuuji catches Kouji watching him with something like stars in his eyes and makes an note to tease him about it when they get home, though he’s sure he’s not much better when he sees Nobuta manning her kimono booth.

“Having fun?” she taunts him, knowing damn well why he’s looking at her like that. “Dear.”

“I know you probably don’t want to be tied down,” Shuuji says, the words coming straight from his brain with no buffer. “But I’d really like to date you whenever we have the chance to visit each other.”

She eyes him contemplatively. “Shuuji, do you think I’m the kind of woman who just sleeps with whomever she pleases?”

“Of course not,” he backpedals, scratching his head to stall. “I just don’t want you to feel like you have to give anything up for me.”

“You’re sweet.” She steps forward and presses a light kiss to his lips. “I’d love to be your girl. I’m not chained to Tokyo, you know. And while I didn’t previously have any business in Okinawa, I do now.”

Shuuji smiles and takes her in his arms. “I’ll find an ambition for something, I promise.”

“It’s okay if you don’t,” she tells him. “I like Shuuji as he is. I always have.”

He stares at her as those words sink in, then grabs her face and kisses her deeply in front of everyone. She humors him for a few seconds, then pushes him away and wipes his lips with her thumb again. “Stop, dear, or you’ll give the obaachans a heart attack.”

“Shu~u~ji-kun!” comes that eternally memorable voice, and Akira appears out of nowhere flinging an arm around each of them. Without a shirt. “I have to show you something precious.”

‘Something precious’ to Akira could be anything from a cat to a handful of weeds, but it turns out it’s just Shuuji’s brother sitting on a ledge with Keito, drinking boba tea and holding hands. Shuuji smiles at their absolute shamelessness and punches Akira playfully in the side. “I’m going to have to look at this all the time when I get back home—I certainly don’t need to see it now.”

“Is that Kouji-kun?” Nobuta asks, eyes widening. “He got so tall!”

“He’s taller than me,” Akira says with a pout.

Shuuji guides them in the other direction. “Come on, let’s leave the kids alone. Are the kimono flying off the shelves, or can the pretty entrepreneur enjoy the festival for a little while?”

“I suppose I could take a break,” Nobuta tells him, turning to lock her cash box and ask her booth neighbor to please watch her things.

Akira was right—California certainly is fun, but only because these two were here with him. Anywhere with Akira and Nobuta would be fun.

*

“Niichan. Niichan.”

Shuuji’s eyes fly open when someone starts shaking him. “Kouji? Is everything okay? Is the apartment on fire?”

“No, everything is fine,” Kouji whispers. “I need a condom.”

“Are you fucking serious,” Shuuji grumbles. “Keito is a dude. Nobody’s getting pregnant here. Go without.”

“He won’t let me,” Kouji whines. “Please.”

“I have one in my purse,” speaks up a soft feminine voice from the other side of the bed. “It’s over on the dresser.”

“Thanks, Nobuko-san!” Kouji exclaims, instantly running across the room.

“Fucking brat,” Shuuji mutters as Kouji leaves. “Now I’m awake.”

Nobuta scoots closer to him. “We could give them some competition, Shuuji dear.”

In response, he rolls her over and claims her mouth, forgetting all about his little brother’s sex life as he focuses on his own. She swallows his groans but doesn’t do much else, giving him full control over her body that he gladly takes.

It’s strange how things happen, Shuuji thinks much later as he holds Nobuta in his arms. At one time he’d thought he lost her, only to recover her on his impromptu trip to find Akira. They’ve both come a long way since high school, yet it’s now at twenty-five that they’re experiencing feelings that are perhaps long overdue.

And for once, Shuuji can’t wait to see what the future brings.