Asami Ryuichi never used to look forward to coming home, before.
There wasn’t much of a home to come to; he spent a lot of time in hotels, sleeping on planes, and the only allure of home had been his own bed, but it’s the same mattress and sheets set in any presidential suite in any number of five-star hotels he owns in every major city. He was happy enough not to be attached to things, places, people. None of the places he’s ever called home before had the look of lived-in messiness, that sense of permanence, the patina of life that Akihito had in a cheap 2LDK in the worst area of town — he just never had the knack for it. Akihito has a theory that cut too close, as the boy related to him in one drunken night when he’s not so wary of insulting him too far: if you don’t get attached to things, it doesn’t hurt so much when you lose them.
He may be right, but Akihito may have underestimated the depth of his attachment, having reasoned away all Asami has done for him with shoddy logic, and if Asami is afraid, then Akihito is terrified.
It’s a bit too late to be afraid of attachments when he’s whistling in the elevator going up to his penthouse, knowing Akihito is home, he thinks; probably a year too late. He’s been away — a little over two weeks on a trip across Europe, taking side detours for some personal meetings but otherwise dreadfully boring — and he’d been dreaming about Akihito on the plane, distracted in the limo as Kirishima recited his list of obligations for the next day, daydreamed about Akihito turning the corner in the hallway, peeking into the genkan, pink-cheeked and shy as if he hadn’t been waiting, that it would be an accident they’re home at the same time.
Maybe he’d have teriyaki sauce thickening in a saucepan and salmon broiling in the oven, like the last time Asami came back from a business trip, and he’d walk through the door to the sting of freshly grated ginger in his nose. After eating reheated food in a plane for weeks though, he would settle for defrosted wakame salad out of a package redolent with MSG; he’d even eat the ones that Akihito likes with pickled octopus — he’s lost all his patience.
What he doesn’t expect is an empty hallway, no one to greet him and take his luggage, no Akihito looking up with longing eyes, angling for a kiss he’s too shy and too mulish to take for himself. The sound of a clarinet’s coming through the living room speakers, drifting down the hallway instead of his Akihito; a trill of high notes with an accompaniment of muted trombones, an occasional, oddly timed thud.
That does not sound promising, but Asami says to the empty genkan anyway, “I’m home.”
Fine. Now he’s starting to feel a trifle disappointed.
The music’s looping like a broken record every eight bars or so as though there’s a conductor in the living room constantly yelling back to the top, and when Asami finally gets to the living room he finds the carpet neatly rolled up against the coffee table and Akihito learning the foxtrot badly, socked feet slipping on their wooden floors.
Well, at least he thinks it’s a Foxtrot.
If it’s a Foxtrot, it’s nothing fancy — just the basic zigzag of a slow-slow-quick-quick bronze step, Akihito looking adorably frustrated with a phone stuck nearly on his face, the glare of the screen scattering white and blue like moonglow on his skin, his eyes darting from his screen to his feet in seizure inducing flashes. His arm’s at a weird angle that may work, if his partner is less than a metre tall. It’s pretty obvious that his weight’s all on the outside of his feet, rolling from step to step like he’s doing a sideways sort of rhumba.
Asami supposes he was no better himself when he first tried it with a teacher in the cavernous ballroom of his father’s estate, nothing but the click of his shoes echoing back at him. Practice is, and always will be, as frantic as the underwater paddling of a swan, but Akihito is best compared to a swimming chicken at this rate; Asami watches as Akihito take a corner turn, bow-legged suddenly, the momentum fully on the wrong side so it’s no wonder that he stumbles and cusses a lot, attacking the screen with his thumb to send the music ‘back to the top.’
It would be just like Akihito to go off learning things on his own, shouldering his worries, so Asami’s not surprised that even though he has a lover who’s certified at the silver level for ballroom dancing — even the quickstep, which is evil at bronze — all part of a highly exclusive education, Akihito’s first instinct when facing down the task of learning to dance is to consult the internet. He can watch Akihito do nothing forever; even the faces he makes playing video games are fascinating, marvellously new, a novelty and a privilege to witness. Watching him attempt dancing is a treat even if it’s vexing that Akihito didn’t think to ask him for help first. So minutes go by with Akihito concentrating so hard he loses track of his surroundings, not getting any better, but not getting less entertaining either — until he trips over the table and flips himself onto the couch only to fall off again and he ends up staring at Asami chuckling into his fist, upside down.
“Oh my god you saw that,” Akihito says, craning his rapidly reddening neck, in that lovely way he flushes from the top down. “Well, shit. I’m never going to live this down, am I?”
“I’m home,” Asami says, heading for the newly vacated couch, loosening his tie as he goes — abandoning his rolling luggage.
Asami remembers how tired he is the moment the back of his knees hit the couch, as if telling Akihito he’s home delineates the space between work and home; that the hours away compresses at the sight of Akihito’s face in full rictus, and Asami falls sideways, throws an arm over his eyes at the light above them and just lets the fatigue piled up over the weeks catch up and drain out of him in one long sigh, kicking his feet up onto the armrest.
Beneath his forearm he can see Akihito blurily wincing as he pushes himself up on elbows, saying, “Welcome home,” and Asami feels himself smiling, a little twitch pulling at his lip — and thinks wryly about how easily he’s satisfied these days.
“So?” Asami asks, after waiting until he’s sure Akihito’s not going to volunteer intelligence with his usual babble, lull him to sleep with a comforting stream of consciousness chattering the way he likes to after weeks apart, letting his words flow unfiltered. “I can see that you are learning the foxtrot in a most ineffectual manner.”
The best way to get Akihito to talk about anything is to start with an insult, an opening salvo, so it surprises him a smidge when Akihito is not forthcoming, “Ah, right.”
“And?” he asks as Akihito undoes Asami’s buttons for him, helps him out of his vest and tie so Akihito can lean on the cushions to press his face against Asami’s chest. He wonders when this became routine, but that’s how routines form, he surmises: in drips and drops like stalactites, with neither of them noticing. “If you are going undercover as a ballroom dancer, you’ll be found out four bars into the first song with that level of skill.”
“No,” Akihito dismisses, rolling his eyes — finally catching the bait — so hard it must give him a headache. “I got invited to an awards gala, believe it or not.”
“I believe it,” Asami says. If every time he goes away Akihito gets invited to things he’s seriously going to have to leave some insurance, maybe a couple of Suoh-sized bodyguards will help with his newly acquired blood pressure problem. He sounds too sweet when he adds, feeling a muscle beneath his eye twitch, “What I don’t understand is the reasoning for a man to go to a dance when he obviously doesn’t know how.”
Asami has never thought of himself as easily affected before he met Akihito, but sometimes he thinks Akihito is too little affected, that Akihito is only aware of their relationship in the abstract, like inertia in a moving car; it has no immediate bearing on his life and he can safely ignore it as long it doesn’t come to an abrupt stop. Akihito would lean into him — all feline affection, practically purring — without thinking, idly tracing him out beneath his white shirt, and yet he’d do something insane like learning how to dance for someone else.
But he supposes that’s fine. Asami’s good at calculating risks, but the numbers never quite come out right with Akihito, all his plans end up going sideways and maybe this time, too, he’ll rely on serendipity and downplay the lengths he’ll go to move the earth for him.
Ever so casually he combs out Akihito’s bangs with the tips of his fingers and waits for him to settle, for the bite of his words to turn into something reassuring, and Akihito sighs, eyes drifting closed. “Long story short,” he says, turning his face into Asami’s chest, breathing in. “Momohara Ai bribed my editor with press passes.”
One day Akihito will realise that Momohara Ai has a hopeless crush on him — he mentioned in passing that she asked to stay with him once, during an interview, and he somehow still missed it. There has to be a limit to how dense a boy can be that he hasn’t yet reached — but in the meantime he’s apparently going to keep being as reckless with other people’s hearts as ever.
Asami knows hoping for Akihito to notice one’s affections is the height of futility, but it’s not his job to tell him; it’d only serve to make him feel guilty anyway.
To him, he’s only going to say, “Do tell,” and settle in to listen.
Becoming friends with the idol of the moment was never his intention, but after her information landed him tied to a winch at the end of a pier, nearly becoming fish food like in one of those mob movies in an incident big enough to be covered in his own paper (terrible habit, that) he makes a note to stop getting reported and maybe do more reporting himself — and then disappearing for months, Ai felt so responsible for the whole warehouse debacle and Akihito losing his job at the Weekly yet again that she called up the editor and talked at him on Akihito’s behalf until he melted away like an ice sculpture in Okinawa in July.
Akihito’s finding out that it’s not so bad having a regular spot covering conventions and Sunday morning live events; he spends most of his time at the Dome and Big Sight going from one crush of cosplayers to another, doesn’t get kidnapped or pointed at with guns that aren’t made of plastic and LEDs. Until he builds up enough experience to get hired on by something as big as Friday, he’ll probably never get a halfway dangerous assignment again, but even he can be tired of excitement — especially when his brand of excitement puts Asami in danger.
He’ll tell himself that as long as he’s holding a camera, he’s happy, that it’s fine and it’s only for now, a temporary state of affairs, but he’s afraid of becoming too comfortable, afraid that he’ll stop wanting to chase down a scoop, to chase that feeling of clicking the shutter at a crucial moment — a rush like nothing else.
What if he goes long enough without it that he’ll forget what it feels like, and stop wanting it?
And if it’d been so important — worth dying for — then why in all the months away had he never spent a moment missing it, regret falling so far into the rabbit hole that he’d ended up away so long? If it’d been about his principles and not a rush he’d been addicted to, that all he could think of in all those months was Asami, then why?
The only consolation he has now are regular hours, a regular paycheck, and a growing portfolio he can take anywhere, but Akihito can’t help feeling a little lost these days — like trying to find the meaning of an image in an overexposed photograph, the contrast that used to be sharp in black and white faded to a grainy greyness that gives him no answers.
With the change in his environment from backalleys to performing spaces and the hallways of tv studios, he keeps running into Ai: emcee, mascot, guest performer, so busy he’s surprised she always texts back within minutes. Today she’s playing damsel in distress, a role written specially for her for a Neo Featherman Live.
Akihito finds her after the show, as damsel in real distress this time: the lead actor playing Red has cornered her at one end of the hallway while Akihito’s taking cast photos in another. One minute she’s communicating via semaphore with her watery eyes at him, and the other she’s already clutching his arm, exclaiming, “I’m very flattered but I’m already going with Takaba-kun, you see. Izumi-san’s approved and I can’t imagine him changing his mind,” and being far, far stronger than she looks, definitely pinching and if Akihito doesn’t play along he’s pretty sure she’s going to find a soft spot and twist. She smiles up at him, all sweetness. “Right, Takaba-kun?”
“Yes of course Ai-chan,” Akihito says, manic with endorphins.
There’s bruises already forming on his arm when she lets go, and it’s after Red skulks away, trailing his aggressive colours and the smell of working in a fully concealing costume under full sun after him, muttering threats.
Ai’s dragged him to some gala or another before, always as hired help and never as her date for obvious ‘idols don’t date’ reasons, so Akihito’s thinking up excuses to laugh it off and go out through the performer’s door when she yanks him back in by the collar.
“I can’t lie about this one,” Ai stares at him, wide-eyed with panic, “he just told me he’s going to receive an award there that night.”
“You can just go with Izumi,” Akihito points out, “it’s not suspicious at all to go to these things with your manager.”
“It’s in a ballroom. With a big band,” she says with an exaggerated look of helpless fright, and Akihito has no idea if she’s putting it on because it’s the same one she had with a gun pointing in her face. “Izumi-san has two left feet.”
The only dancing Akihito knows is of the nightclub kind, swaying to the beat with no plan and no choreography, and even if he can’t claim rhythm blindness or having two left feet he can’t tell tap from lindy hop and he’s not about to agree to ballroom dancing on a whim.
Momohara Ai is flashing her patent Ai-chan puppy eyes at him, looking too big for her face.
Akihito admits, “I don’t know how to dance, either.”
“You can do anything, Takaba-kun,” Ai says, with the surety of little girls — which he knows she’s not, she’s twenty and plays a fifteen year old on TV. “With reflexes like yours you’ll pick it up in no time.”
Maybe for her, he thinks, Ai’s a literal professional and her idea of what is possible for an ordinary person to just pick up is like one of the TV painters sending out positive messages of “anyone can make art” over the screen, viable in theory and a soundstage and could only end in tears in the cold drab light of reality. Before he could tell her, no, I’m pretty sure I have two left feet too, she’s bundled off by Izumi and rolling away in a van for a radio show, so Akihito gets to spend the next three hours at the Big Sight taking pointless photos of booth babes for the back pages.
He gets the news while piggybacking wifi at a booth for some sort of pet spy camera that looks like a hamsterball — oh boy, don’t let Asami find out about those — to upload his photos: his editor’s rented him out to the Children’s Awards Benefit and Gala as Momohara Ai’s date for the sum total of two press passes, and Akihito spends so much time looking crestfallen at his phone screen that a booth bunny feels she needs to stuff candy into his hand and tell him everything is going to be okay like his hamster just died.
It’s an exclusive and the Weekly will be the only rag sheet — or any paper of dubious distinction — at the event. Akihito’s not sure if he should be flattered since his time’s never been worth this much before, or appalled that his editor is basically under Ai’s spell now.
“You either have the best or the worst luck,” Asami says to him after he hears the whole story, looking bemused. “Most men would jump at the chance to be a pop idol’s date, but you —”
“— Can’t dance. At all,” Akihito says.
“That too,” Asami says, and there’s a lilt there, something deep and honeyed held back in his chest, the edge of a laugh.
Uncalled for, Akihito thinks, and adds another three videos to his ever expanding playlist. “But it doesn’t look all that hard. I’m sure I can pick it up.”
“If you want to look like a beginner, sure,” Asami says, and Akihito looks up to find Asami with a little hook at the corner of his mouth, canine glinting. “Two things: you can’t learn ballroom dancing on your own and you’re going to be at a dance with a professional. Beginner steps are not going to cut it.”
When Asami gets an idea in his head he’s like a dog with a bone, so after fifteen minutes and failing to pick a fight so he can get out of this, Akihito sullenly places his right hand in Asami’s left, lets Asami press three fingers lightly to Akihito’s left shoulder blade, with just enough distance between them to feel insulating.
“How will I ever learn to lead if you’re only going to teach me the woman’s part?” Akihito complains.
Dancing with Asami is not at all like following the steps on his own; it’s tactile and organic and strangely intimate, like if he takes the moment before they kiss, when their eyes meet and his vision swims from their closeness, and stretch it out to fill minutes — that’s dancing. Akihito doesn’t think he’s ever spent this much time just being close to Asami before; it makes his head a little fizzy that he needs to pay attention to every touch like he’s learning braille, like he’s translating something he has no words for through the tips of his fingers.
The elegant arch of his brow remains flat and expressionless, but Asami’s eyes are always sharp, looking at something behind Akihito, his focus distant. “My father used to tell me that to lead, one must first learn to follow.”
“You have a father?” Akihito says, sounding astonished, doesn’t appreciate how that gets a chuckle out of Asami. In hindsight it did sound excessively stupid. “Um, I mean, duh — but this is the first time I heard you say —”
“He passed away more than ten years ago,” Asami doesn’t wait for him to finish, blatantly changes the subject to say, “I’m going to lead you into a turn so here, feel this,” and points his left arm into the turn first, lets Akihito feel the pressure on his back nudging gently. Asami’s a good lead, with dependable hands and steady steps and tilts them so Akihito rolls his weight on the balls of his feet; Akihito feels the turn naturally, like water flowing to follow the shape of a vase, the inevitable crest of a sine wave.
He glances down at Akihito to smile, approving, “Good. We just narrowly avoided the rolled up carpet.”
And you narrowly avoided talking about your family, Akihito thinks Asami dodges a conversation as easily as he dodges furniture on their living room floor, and if he isn’t having this much fun — he’s practically giddy, how odd that it’s not a chore when he’d easily call it that before — he’d find it annoying.
Within an hour Akihito has the rudimentary foxtrot steps down already, he’s learned from Asami the turn and the sway and the promenade, letting Asami lead him down the hallway and through the kitchen, Asami encroaching and Akihito retreating, stepping back and back and letting Asami pull him through double spins, where he feels lost, nearly bereft, freed from the confines of a hip-to-hip hold of the stance only to be dragged close again. Their hands would touch and clasp and Asami would leave that inch of space between them, and Akihito feels it like seeing the air shimmer in summer, like the air swims from their rising temperatures.
Cameras don’t lend themselves to studies like paintings, and Akihito thinks he’s learned Asami’s features in snapshots, in frantic moments, in befores and afters and a riffling of frames in between, that someone has stood here in his arms, as close as this, that they studied him the way Akihito is studying Asami now makes all the butterflies in his stomach turn to moths, and he feels words both ugly and awful pushing out of his lungs.
He can’t say that, it’s awful so he swallows it back and asks instead, “Where did you learn how to dance?”
“It was part of my education,” Asami says, reaching for Akihito’s other hand when he spins back in, wraps his arms around Akihito’s shoulders and whispers into the back of his ear, lips moving against his nape, that’s called a cuddle, and for a frozen moment Akihito forgets to breathe.
There’s a step he has to learn to untangle their arms, pulling apart like a cat’s cradle. Akihito still feels the trail of fingertips on his arms as Asami pulls him in for a dip so they can find the stance again, elegant and sweet and makes him wonder how anyone does this in public with someone they don’t know.
He manages to keep the bitterness out of his voice when he asks, “Who did you learn it with?”
“I had a body double,” Asami says, leads him to practice the same move again, and Akihito has an insane thought — he wonders if he can stay this way, stay so he can keep feeling Asami at his back, let the heat seep into his bones. “We both had to learn to dance. When we first started I was shorter — so I learned to follow.”
Akihito drinks in the snippets of information like tiny sips of wine, a thimbleful and just enough to make him want more. He hears himself asking, breathless from spinning, from the forced distance. “And then you got taller?”
“I did,” Asami admits, obligingly moving Akihito into a side sway, shifting their weight from side to side, and the heat dissipates out of his joints but it hangs between them like the magnetic force between two dipoles.
There’s so much about this Akihito loves and fears so badly; it’s so sweet he’s drowning in syrup, as though the air is moving slower around them, and it’s ridiculous why he feels shy, like he can’t quite glance up and meet Asami’s eyes — Akihito keeps staring at the hint of shadow of his stubble, the strong angular line of his jaw, the slight darkness under his eyes from not sleeping well away from home — afraid of falling in, as if there is one last veil between them, gossamer thin, and all he has to do to pull it away is look up. He loves: the uncomplicated joy of sliding backwards and watching the walls spin away from him in slow motion, Asami’s breath warm over his temple, the instructions in his lips moving against his skin. Asami’s finger sliding to the small of Akihito’s back, the certainty in his grip holding Akihito’s fingers as he pulls him up into a spin — all of it is wonderful.
His heart swells so far it’s like the ocean’s pouring in to fill him up at high tide, spilling over, gushing out — and it would hurt far too much if he’s the only one to feel this way, has to bite his lip to keep his feet on the ground.
They must be on the fifth turn around the apartment at least, and it’s as hot as June should be, a rare dry night in the middle of the rainy season. There are no stars in Tokyo, but when they spill out onto the balcony, Akihito clutching a beat tighter as the air cools around him, he notices the moon full and high and so clear it shines bright enough that he can make out Asami’s smile above him sharp like the curve of a sickle.
There are lines at the edges of Asami’s eyes, half closed, and in the quiet of the balcony where the music is only a suggestion echoing out through the living room, fading into the edges of the night, he can hear Asami humming — low and steadily holding the rhythm.
He’s happy, Akihito thinks, and it’s a surprise — something so dear and sweet he wants to hold it always, have it pulsing away beneath his fingers pressed softly at Asami’s back.
“I know a great teacher who can teach you to lead,” Asami’s saying, they’ve swayed to a stop somehow, leaning against the rail with the lights of Tokyo spread out below them in patches of neon and ink black. Then he’s looking away out into the night, flickering like he’s uncertain, hopeful, “I can teach you the other part — if you want.”
“I want,” Akihito says, and feels brave enough to lead by palming the back of Asami’s neck, pulling him down.
This time, when he follows the line of Asami’s jaw over his cheekbones to the line of his eyes, to find the shadow of him beneath the fringe of his eyelashes, Akihito doesn’t look away.
And finally, finally he’s closed that distance. In the whisper of skin and the touch of his lips, he’s saying I’ve missed you, it’s been sixteen days and five hours and I’ve missed you. Asami’s combing his hand through Akihito’s hair, possessing, soft, and Akihito thinks he can read it, like Asami’s been writing him books of poetry all along, he’s just now realising there are words there, in the way he’s touching his forehead to Akihito’s, his eyes half closed.
I missed you, too.